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For BlackRock, The Climate Crisis Is A Win-Win-Win

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/04/2022 - 8:31pm in

For BlackRock, The Climate Crisis Is A Win-Win-Win

In his 2020 letter to CEOs, Larry Fink, the chairman and CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, proclaimed that “climate risk is investment risk.” A more accurate read, however, is that for companies like BlackRock, climate risk is proving to be a valuable investment opportunity.

Today, banks, investors, and asset managers have positioned themselves to make money no matter how — or whether — countries finally take meaningful steps to stop climate change. In fact, for some of the world’s largest, most powerful, and most globally integrated companies, the climate crisis is a win-win-win situation.

If governments take little or no action, these companies will win simply by continuing to do what they already do. Companies will invest in green industries and technologies, and they’ll sell “environmental, social, and governance,” or ESG, investment products to those who want to feel better about how their money makes money. But these firms will also continue to invest in oil, gas, and coal, and offer investment services that embrace dirty industries.

If the world does take action, firms like BlackRock will win by having portrayed themselves as responsible actors whose advice and consent is needed for climate action. These companies will be able to influence which solutions governments and international organizations implement — and which will remain off the table. They’ll be able to capitalize on trillions of dollars in public investments in green industries and technologies, while governments and taxpayers shoulder much of the up-front risk.

No matter what governments do or don’t do, financial services companies will win by making bold and highly public pronouncements about their concern for the planet. These pledges will paint them as sustainable, well-intentioned problem solvers. They’ll help ensure that these companies have their views and proposed solutions given favorable consideration in climate negotiations. And they’ll distract politicians, regulators, and commentators from the companies’ unwillingness to use their enormous financial might to force genuine change.

In the short term, at least, these financial giants can’t lose. But the rest of us can. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is brutally direct: If the global community waits any longer to take meaningful action on climate change, we “will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.” Hiding these firms’ enthusiasm for fossil fuels beneath soothing promises of green investments serves only to distract from the urgency of meaningful action and thus makes an already formidable challenge even more difficult.

“We Offer Our Clients Choice On How To Invest”

Last July, representatives of the Group of Twenty (G20), a forum made up of nineteen nations and the European Union (EU), gathered in Venice for the organization’s 2021 International Conference on Climate Change. The G20 includes many of the world’s richest and most powerful countries, including the United States, China, India, and Japan. Its member countries represent more than 80 percent of global GDP and produce a similar proportion of greenhouse gas emissions.

It wasn’t surprising to find BlackRock’s Larry Fink in attendance alongside finance ministers, central bankers, and other government officials. At the time, his company was responsible for $9.5 trillion worth of investments. If its assets under management were one nation’s GDP, BlackRock would boast the third-largest economy in the world.

But it wasn’t just BlackRock’s financial clout that secured Fink’s place on stage. In recent years, the firm has successfully cultivated a different source of power: its growing reputation for leadership on social and environmental issues.

This approach was on full display in Venice, where Fink was invited to speak on a panel about “climate change and the financial system.” Among the speakers seated alongside Fink were two of Europe’s most powerful financial regulators: Christine Lagarde, the president of the European Central Bank, and Paolo Gentiloni, the European Commissioner for the economy.

Before the panelists said a word, the event had already positioned Fink as a peer of two officials who regulate his company and oversee his industry. It had given him an attentive audience of people whose decisions directly affect BlackRock’s business. It had portrayed him as an advocate for tackling climate change. And it had revealed the extent to which regulators and government officials seek BlackRock’s advice. (BlackRock did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment for this story.)

Fink spoke first. He used the opportunity to argue, as he has on numerous occasions, that the global focus on holding publicly traded companies accountable for their environmental commitments “is creating a massive incentive for public companies to divest dirty assets.”

As Yannic Rack wrote recently for Wired, in order to appear green, many utilities have “sold some of their most polluting power plants,” and “big oil companies have… been getting rid of oil and gas fields to reach emissions targets.” There’s still a huge market for these assets because fossil fuels remain extraordinarily lucrative — and this was true even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped drive oil prices to their highest levels since 2008.

But even as Fink extolled the importance of solving climate change, his company wasn’t wavering in its commitment to oil, gas, and coal. At the time, BlackRock had $259 billion invested in fossil fuels around the world. According to a recent report by more than 25 NGOs, BlackRock remains the single largest institutional investor in coal, with nearly $109 billion invested in the industry.

In January of this year, in response to efforts by Texas policymakers and industry leaders to punish companies that divest from fossil fuels, BlackRock’s head of external affairs wrote a letter emphasizing the firm’s ongoing interest in oil and gas, noting that BlackRock is “perhaps the world’s largest investor in fossil fuel companies,” and promising to “continue to invest in and support fossil fuel companies.”

“We offer our clients choice on how to invest,” the letter said. If an investor wants to put their money in the most extractive and carbon-intensive companies imaginable, BlackRock will provide it. But if an investor wants a fund that claims to be free of fossil fuels, BlackRock will happily provide that, too.

Even absent government action on climate change, demand for such “sustainable” investments is growing rapidly. As Fink noted in his 2022 CEO letter, which was published two weeks after BlackRock reiterated its determination to continue supporting the fossil fuel industry, “the tectonic shift towards sustainable investing is still accelerating.”

For BlackRock, this tectonic shift is already a cash cow. In just the first nine months of 2021, according to the company, investors poured $64 billion into the company’s “sustainable investment strategies.” Over that same nine-month period, BlackRock launched 60 “new sustainable ETFs [exchange-traded funds] and index mutual funds.” Today, according to the Financial Times, BlackRock manages nearly 60 percent of all global assets invested in ESG-themed ETFs.

As a result, BlackRock now oversees more than half a trillion dollars of investments that it markets as “sustainable.”

“Since ESG products generally carry higher fees than non-ESG products, this represents a highly profitable and fast-growing business line,” Tariq Fancy, BlackRock’s former chief investment officer for sustainable investing, has written.

Yet despite the green branding, “I have not seen [BlackRock offer] any truly fossil [fuel]-free products or real sustainable options,” said Andrew Behar, CEO of the shareholder advocacy group As You Sow, which has spent years pushing BlackRock to make good on its climate pledges.

BlackRock is “supporting the extractive economy while talking about how they are supporting the regenerative economy,” Behar said. “These are two different paths, and by saying one thing and doing another, they damage their credibility.”

BlackRock, however, seems determined to travel down both paths as long as possible. Green investments are already profitable. If governments fail to take more meaningful action, oil, gas, and coal investments will remain profitable as well.

“We Focus On Sustainability… Because We Are Capitalists”

What happens if the doomsayers are wrong and governments do move forward with ambitious plans to tackle climate change? BlackRock wins then, too.

In fact, it’s this scenario in which the firm’s rhetorical investments in climate change — the speeches and panel appearances, the public letters to CEOs, the pledges of sustainability and net zero and decarbonization — would really start to pay off. As Fink’s appearance at the G20 showed, BlackRock has earned so much elite credibility from its high-profile pronouncements that, combined with its ever-growing financial and political power, the firm seems almost guaranteed to have its views and ideas given serious consideration.

At the G20, for instance, Fink urged governments to address the “demand side” of the green economy by making environmentally friendly products, services, and technologies more affordable and easier to access. To reduce the “green premium,” particularly in emerging markets, “we need to mobilize public and private capital,” Fink said.

“We need to rethink the way international financial institutions can support low-carbon investments at scale,” he added, and “mitigate the risks of investing in the emerging world” — meaning governments should assume some of the initial risks on behalf of private investors.

The institutions Fink was referring to were the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and what he was proposing were not small tweaks. Unlike, say, the person seated directly to his left, Christine Lagarde, who also happens to have run the IMF for nearly a decade, Fink does not hold public office. He is not elected or supervised by anyone except BlackRock’s board of directors. Yet his proposals would, as the New York Times put it, “fundamentally change the function of the World Bank and the IMF, as well as reshape the role of governments in combating climate change.”

Fink concluded his remarks on an optimistic note — or, at least, an optimistic note for investors. “By BlackRock’s own research,” he said, “the [green] transition… represents an investment opportunity for long-term investors of as much as $50 trillion.” That’s a pretty attractive pot of money for the world’s biggest long-term investor.

In offering these ideas — shifting scrutiny away from publicly traded companies, channeling public capital to private firms, having governments bear up-front risks — Fink might have good intentions. My conversations with people who have worked with him suggest that he genuinely cares about climate change. Whether his proposals would be good for society and the planet is a matter worthy of public discussion.

What’s undeniable, however, is that his proposals would be good for BlackRock. When executives from BlackRock — or any company — meet with government officials or engage in forums like the G20, they have “a clear goal of what [they] are trying to get out of it,” Fancy, the former BlackRock sustainable investing executive, told me. “In any conversation like that, they’re out there to push their interest. That’s what they’re optimized to do.”

Or as Fink put it in his 2022 CEO letter, “We focus on sustainability not because we’re environmentalists, but because we are capitalists and fiduciaries to our clients.”

BlackRock’s participation in climate negotiations will always come with this caveat. When the firm’s executives sit down at that metaphorical (or literal) negotiating table, they don’t do so as concerned citizens — or at least not exclusively as concerned citizens. They are representatives of BlackRock, an asset manager and a publicly traded company with legal and financial obligations to its clients and its own shareholders. When Fink flies to Venice to speak at the G20, or when he attends the UN Climate Change Conference, he can’t set aside these responsibilities.

That doesn’t mean BlackRock and its competitors should never be at the table. It’s almost impossible to imagine a realistic scenario for solving climate change that doesn’t involve good-faith engagement from private businesses and investors.

But it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the only ideas that governments are willing to consider are the ones that companies like BlackRock advocate for and approve of. As Anand Giridharadas warns in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, “When elites assume leadership of social change, they are able to reshape what social change is — above all, to present it as something that should never threaten winners.”

While BlackRock might support policies that benefit the company and benefit society, it will not support policies that are good for society but bad for BlackRock. “They’re only ever going to advocate for stuff that’s good for them,” Fancy told me. “And if it happens to overlap with stuff [that’s] good for the world, then they’ll talk about that twice as much.”

Sustainable Window Dressing

Recall that at the G20, Fink pushed for regulatory scrutiny to concentrate on privately held and state-run companies to which public firms are increasingly offloading dirty assets. “As private and state-owned companies produce a greater and greater share of oil and gas, there will be less scrutiny [and] less disclosure around global emissions,” he said.

This assessment, while accurate, requires some context. More scrutiny of private firms might also mean less scrutiny — and less regulation — of publicly traded ones like BlackRock. In an example of saying the quiet part out loud, Fink predicted last February that because market forces are already driving public companies to disclose and reduce their carbon emissions, “we are not going to need… governmental change or regulatory change.”

Shifting the focus to private and state-run companies provides another benefit: It helps avoid uncomfortable questions about why fossil fuels remain such good investments. For instance, BlackRock remains a dues-paying member of organizations like the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which have lobbied aggressively to defeat the very sort of climate legislation that might drive up the costs of carbon emissions and make those dirty assets more costly and, in turn, less profitable.

Moreover, BlackRock continues to move its own money into private and state-owned energy companies like Centric Infrastructure Group, a natural gas and internet provider in Texas that received a $280 million investment from the firm in 2021, and the Whitewater Whistler Pipeline, a Texas pipeline project that benefited from a $42 million loan from BlackRock the year before.

Last December, BlackRock led a coalition of investors that reached a deal with Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil and gas behemoth, to invest more than $15 billion in new natural gas infrastructure. BlackRock has invested more than $34 billion “in companies that are still developing new coal assets,” according to a recent report.

Investing in privately held oil, gas, and coal assets is not the same thing as offloading them, but as Fink has said many times, no matter how fossil fuel extraction is funded, the impact on the planet is the same. To use Fink’s own words, “That does not change the net zero world. That’s window dressing, that’s greenwashing.”

In fact, behind closed doors, BlackRock has assured some fossil fuel interests that window dressing is all it is. As Josephine Moulds reported recently in The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, following BlackRock’s outreach to Texas oil and gas leaders in January, the state’s top oil and gas regulator sent the firm an email. “It was nice to hear that BlackRock didn’t mean — or no longer believes — many of the disagreeable things the company and its CEO Mr. Fink have said about the oil and gas industry,” he wrote.

Yet among other elite audiences that BlackRock courts — such as green-minded investors, regulators, and the business media — sustainable window dressing is proving just as valuable as sustainable action.

Since January 2018, when Fink’s annual CEO letter took the business media by storm by proclaiming that companies need to serve all of their stakeholders, not just shareholders, BlackRock’s assets under management have grown from $6 trillion to more than $10 trillion. According to the firm’s own promotional materials, BlackRock has been included in the Dow Jones index of the “most sustainable companies in North America”; graded one of America’s “100 Most Sustainable Companies” by Barron’s; and awarded the number-five slot on Fortune Magazine’s 2020 “Change the World” list, which features companies that “tackle society’s unmet needs.”

These recognitions reflect the third plank of the “win-win-win”: Simply talking about climate change, whether in a public letter or on a panel or as part of a published report, generates plaudits and positive media coverage. In turn, plaudits and positive coverage distract regulators and reporters from the company’s continued monetization of fossil fuels, drive more “sustainable” business to BlackRock, and help the firm secure access to the high-level policymakers shaping the world’s response to climate change. Public celebration of the firm’s sustainable promises and investment products then earns the firm more plaudits, more positive media coverage, and more access to politicians and officials.

This cycle of climate-driven profitability is all the more tragic because BlackRock, by virtue of the size of its portfolio and the scope of its political influence, has a rare and remarkable opportunity to drive real action on climate change.

Larry Fink “has the power to actually shift the world in a significant way,” As You Sow’s Behar told me, “and chooses not to.”

A Question Of Power

Before introducing Fink and his fellow panelists at the G20, Ignazio Visco, the head of the Bank of Italy, made a profound comment, though he did so almost in passing. “Clearly,” Visco observed, “it is national governments that have the required democratic legitimacy to apply the most suitable tools” to the climate crisis.

Corporations have no such democratic mandate, but they have another powerful tool to shape the world’s response to the crisis: profit motive. “I believe the decarbonizing of the global economy is going to create the greatest investment opportunity of our lifetime,” Fink wrote in his 2022 CEO letter. “Every company and every industry will be transformed by the transition to a net zero world. The question is, will you lead, or will you be led?”

BlackRock intends to lead, of course, because leading is where the power is. And the question of climate change, as Kate Aronoff shows in Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back, is fundamentally a question of power.

“The main barrier to climate action isn’t a technological one: The core tools needed to deal with this problem already exist,” Aronoff writes. “The problem has been power, and that the people proposing the most workable, reasonable solutions don’t have enough of it.”

Adam M. Lowenstein (@amlowenstein) writes “Reframe Your Inbox,” an email newsletter of essays and interviews about corporate power, capitalism, and politics. He previously worked as a speechwriter in the U.S. Senate and an analyst at one of the Big Four accounting and consulting firms. He is working on his second book.

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The International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation is failing society with its proposals on accounting for climate change

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/04/2022 - 4:21pm in

I noted that the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation had issued, through its International Sustainability Standards Board, two new standards on accounting for environmental change on Friday.

I admit that I have still not read all of these in every detail as yet, but one training as an academic that comes in very useful is to find the key arguments in a piece of work very quickly.

In this case, the first standard relates to what it describes as 'The General requirements for the disclosure of sustainability-related financial information'. This suggests that a review of three things that they have to say really matters.

The first is what is sustainability-related financial information. This they define as follows:

Sustainability-related financial information is broader than information reported in the financial statements and could include information about:

(a) an entity’s governance of sustainability-related risks and opportunities, and its strategy for addressing them;

(b) decisions made by the entity that could result in future inflows and outflows that have not yet met the criteria for recognition in the related financial statements;

(c) the entity’s reputation, performance and prospects as a consequence of the actions it has undertaken, such as its relationships with people, the planet and the economy, and its impacts and dependencies on them;

(d) the entity’s development of knowledge-based assets.

An alternative more succinct definition also provided is:

Information that gives insight into sustainability-related risks and opportunities that affect enterprise value, providing a sufficient basis for users of general purpose financial reporting to assess the resources and relationships on which an entity’s business model and strategy for sustaining and developing that model depend.

The second issue of significance is who the users of this data are meant to be, as it will be defined for their benefit. These primary users are stated to be:

Existing and potential investors, lenders and other creditors.

You have to read in the words 'of the reporting entity' for this statement to make sense.

The third issue to consider is where it is suggested that this disclosure is to be made. The following is said:

Subject to any regulation or other requirements that apply to an entity, there are various possible locations in its general-purpose financial reporting in which to disclose sustainability-related financial information. Sustainability-related financial disclosures could be included in an entity’s management commentary when management commentary forms part of an entity’s general purpose financial reporting. Management commentary complements an entity’s financial statements. It provides insights into the factors that have affected the entity’s financial performance and financial position and the factors that could affect the entity’s ability to create value and generate cash flows. Management commentary can be known by or incorporated in reports with various names, including management’s discussion and analysis, operating and financial review, integrated report and strategic report.

An entity might disclose information required by an IFRS Sustainability Disclosure Standard in the same location as information disclosed to meet other requirements, such as information required by regulators. The entity shall ensure that the sustainability-related financial disclosures are clearly identifiable and not obscured by that additional information.

So, what do we learn as a result of this consideration of just three key issues?

First of all, sustainability-related financial information is not what might be called accounting data. That conclusion is confirmed by the evidence from the third review, which suggests that wherever this financial information might be supplied it is not in the income statement or balance sheet of any reporting entity covered by this new accounting standard.  At best, this is data designed for inclusion in the front end of the accounts, where most information is closer to a public relations press release than it is to useful data of verifiable use to the person interested in the activities of a reporting entity. At worst, it need not even be in the accounts at all, but can be included in another statement that the reporting entity might produce.

Why is that? The second issue answers that point. This data, it turns out, is not general-purpose accounting information (although the IFRS standards relate to the production of what they call general-purpose financial statements). It is instead highly specific data  intended to assist one very limited appraisal to be undertaken by a tiny proportion of the users of accounts, of who there are at least seven groups in all:

  1. Shareholders
  2. Other suppliers of capital
  3. Trading partners
  4. Employees
  5. Regulators
  6. Tax authorities
  7. Civil society in all its forms

Just the first, and maybe the second of these groups are considered by this standard: the rest are left without any useful information at all, which is because, as the very first sentence of the proposed standard says:

These proposals respond to calls from primary users (investors, lenders and other creditors) of general purpose financial reporting for more consistent, complete, comparable and verifiable sustainability-related financial information to help them assess an entity’s enterprise value.

I added the emphasis. I do so deliberately. It is firstly because of the poverty of this ambition, which has nothing to do with climate change or sustainability or the impact of a business on society,  and secondly is because nothing that I can see so far in the proposal made comes remotely close to achieving this stated aim. After all, how can you indicate the impact of an event on the scale of climate change and not require that the accounting consequences of it be reflected in the actual financial reporting (i.e. the income statement and balance sheet) of the entity it impacts?

And how, come to that, can anyone without a measure of that impact on the balance sheet have any chance of appraising the impact of the demand for sustainability in a way that might let them meaningfully allocate their capital?

How even can they tell if the reporting entity might survive the process of transition demanded of them?

I do, of course, address all these issues in my alternative draft standard that happened to be published on the same day last week as the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation chose to publish their own draft standard. I would suggest only one of them met their own stated, and decidedly limited, goal, and that is mine. I would also suggest that whilst doing so my own version went a lot further in seeking to provide information to meet the needs of all users of accounts.

The International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation is failing society with its proposals. And that is not good enough.

Steven Donziger: A corporate criminal prosecution, orchestrated by Chevron

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/04/2022 - 2:57am in

On October 1, 2021, human rights lawyer, Steven Donziger, was given a 6 month sentence — punishment for winning a $9 billion judgment against Chevron for poisoning the Amazon. On the day of his sentencing, I spoke extensively with Donziger about his extraordinary case. When he began his sentence at the federal prison in Danbury, CT, we began posting clips from this interview each week to keep his plight in the public eye. As Donziger approaches the end ... READ MORE

No One Will Win in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 02/04/2022 - 9:57pm in

Gail Tverberg argues that the war in Ukraine does not get Russia or other energy producers out of their scarity bind.

The accounting profession confirms that it is in denial on climate change

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 01/04/2022 - 8:02pm in

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Environment

My timing in issuing my new draft Financial Reporting Standard on Accounting for Environmental Change was exquisite, and quite by chance. Yesterday the International Financial Reporting Standard  managed International Sustainability Standards Board  issued its own first two exposure drafts:

I have not had a chance to read them all as yet, but want I have read is deeply disappointing. The tone might be appraised from this in IFRS S2:

Climate change affects all economic sectors. However, the degree and type of exposure and the current and anticipated effects of climate-related risks and opportunities on the assessment of enterprise value are likely to vary by sector, industry, geography and entity. In assessing an entity’s financial and operating results and future cash flows, users of general purpose financial reporting want insight into the governance, risk management and strategic context in which such results are derived. Users also want to understand an entity’s targets for managing climate-related risks and opportunities and the metrics the entity uses to measure progress towards meeting the targets.

I am staggered that in this they see opportunities.

But worse, the standard only suggests that a user of the financial statements of a company (who are only defined as potential or actual suppliers of capital to it, with everyone else's needs being met in an unspecified other way) need data on the environment in which conventional financial reporting is taking place, which information on the entity's approach to managing climate change apparently provides. There is no hint that the associated costs need be reflected in the accounts on a systematic basis not already available in existing accounting standards.

What the International Financial Reporting Standard clearly intends is that financial reporting focussed on profit maximising behaviour should not be interrupted by climate change.

Nor should the responsibility of business to the world that they abuse in making that profit be recognised.

The fight would seem to be on.

I will be responding, of course.

California’s Floodplains Are Coming Back, and So Are Their Salmon

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 01/04/2022 - 7:00pm in

Until just a couple of centuries ago, inland California was a lush tapestry of wetlands and floodplains that nourished a thriving ecosystem of fish. But as the state — and its vast agriculture industry — has grown, its waterways have been modified drastically. Rivers have been drained, fields dried out, levees and dams constructed. These engineering feats, coupled with extreme drought, have decimated natural habitats. Today, a shocking 83 percent of native fish species in the state are in decline.

Chinook salmon is one of these. “Winter runs used to have returns in the hundreds of thousands. Now a good year would be 10,000 fish,” says Andrew L. Rypel, a professor of fish ecology at UC Davis where he co-directs the Center for Watershed Sciences. Today, two of California’s three recognized Chinook salmon runs are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. “We have had years that have just been in the hundreds. It’s a species on the precipice of extinction.”

Now, Rypel and his colleagues are helping the Chinook rebound by working with California rice farmers to recreate the natural floodplains in which the fish used to thrive.

salmon rice“One of the critical parameters that salmon managers are interested in is out-migration survival. Do they make it to the ocean? And how many?” Credit: Center for Watershed Sciences

 The so-called “salmon-rice project” began a decade ago, when a motley group of scientists, rice farmers and conservationists joined together to answer a simple question: if they were to flood rice fields with water from the Sacramento River — effectively mimicking the region’s original ecological rhythms — would juvenile salmon take to the fields and grow? 

First, they conducted some basic experiments to see whether salmon even lived in floodplains. Turns out, they did. The Nigiri Project – which began in the early 2000s, is still ongoing and involves some of the same people working on Rypel’s project — set out to determine whether salmon can survive on rice fields. In Asian countries, freshwater fish are often raised on flooded rice paddies, but it wasn’t known if salmon in particular were suited to that environment.

“The answer was that they not only survive, they grow extremely well,” Rypel says. “The fish were feeding on lush zooplankton that develop off the decomposed rice straws.” Rice straw is a rich source of carbon, and Rypel says that the density of zooplankton (normally microscopic) that develops in these winter-flooded rice plains is so high that you can actually see them with the naked eye, swimming around. 

“It turns out that this kind of food is like an awesome steak for the growing salmon,” he says. UC Davis scientists found that these juvenile salmon survived at high rates in the flooded rice fields — 50 to 80 percent over the course of a month. “That’s excellent for baby fish,” Rypel says. They also grew two to five times faster than they grow in the Sacramento River.

With these data points in hand, Rypel and his colleagues teamed up with the California Rice Commission and California Trout in 2018 and began studying the viability of raising juvenile salmon in small experimental fields. The work was funded, in part, by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a wing of the United States Department of Agriculture that pays farmers and ranchers to do conservation work. 

The researchers found that juvenile salmon grew two to five times faster on the rice fields than they grow in the Sacramento River. Credit: Center for Watershed Sciences

In 2021 the California Rice Commission and the UC Davis scientists got an additional $550,000 grant from NRCS to continue and expand upon their work. (The California Rice Commission and its partners are matching this grant.) Though this is the first year scientists are trying this out on production-scale rice farms, preliminary data is encouraging. For instance, in years like the past one, when the rice fields around the Sacramento River don’t flood naturally, farmers flood their fields with water from the adjacent canals and then scientists stock them with hatchery fish. They then track the fishes’ growth, survival and movements. Data so far indicates that these fish survive at a rate four to five times higher than lab-raised fish. 

In the coming months, they’ll continue to track these hatchery salmon with tiny acoustic transmitters as they make their way out to sea. “One of the critical parameters that salmon managers are interested in is out-migration survival,” Rypel says. “That is: do they make it to the ocean? And how many?” The plan is to track 600 of the salmon to see if they make it to the Golden Gate Bridge and conduct a side-by-side comparison with lab-reared fish of out-migration survival.

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Rypel says it boils down to two words: Big and early. “Being a baby salmon kind of sucks!” he laughs. “It’s really hard. Most of the fish die. You are dodging predators, you have to migrate a super-long distance. You need fat reserves.” Giving the salmon a head start while they’re still very young can have huge knock-on effects. “We think that by rearing them on these rice fields, we can get fish very big, very quick. If the fish can become smolts [juvenile salmon] earlier in the winter, they can ride the flows better and have better survivorship.”

Raising fish in rice paddies is nothing new. Rice farmers from China, Thailand, India and Northern Vietnam have been doing it for centuries – according to some evidence, for as long as 2,000 years. 

According to Rypel, the unusual collaboration between farmers and ecologists is “a good example of how farms can work together with conservation scientists to make a difference.” Credit: Center for Watershed Science

But the project in California is actually more directly inspired by a series of bird conservation efforts dating back to the late 1980s and early ’90s. At the time, Pacific flyway birds — ducks, snow geese, egrets and all the other migratory birds that over-summer up in Alaska or Canada, and over-winter in the Central Valley — were in decline. For decades, rice farmers in the area regularly burned their leftover rice straw after the fall harvest. “People who lived in the area at that time will remember when the skies were black with smoke,” Rypel says. The air quality was poor, and carbon was being released into the atmosphere, as well.

Residents frustrated by poor air quality campaigned to stop this practice, and in 1991 a state law banned it. “Some smart people got together at that time and figured out that if you re-flooded the rice fields, you could naturally decompose the rice straw,” Rypel says. “At the same time, you could potentially provide habitat for the migratory birds that were on the Pacific flyway.” The NRCS began a program where they paid rice farmers to flood their fields instead of burn them, which was a win for the locals, a win for the birds and a win for the farmers, as it gave them a new revenue stream.

“I’m not a bird ecologist, but I work with a lot of bird scientists who have worked on this, and it’s probably one of the big conservation success stories in our country’s history,” Rypel says.

It was that program’s success that got fish ecologists scratching their heads. “Hey, if you can do this for birds, why can’t you do that for fish?” Rypel recounts. “We’ve got 83 percent of species declining in California. We know salmon use the floodplains. Is there a way to do this with fish?” 

The answer appears to be a resounding yes. There are roughly 500,000 acres of rice under cultivation in the Sacramento Valley. “That’s a lot of habitat that’s potentially on the table there,” notes Rypel. He and his colleagues at UC Davis hope to replicate the model on more farms in years to come. “It’s a good example of how farms can work together with conservation scientists to make a difference.”

The post California’s Floodplains Are Coming Back, and So Are Their Salmon appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Getting proper accounting for environmental change is going to be a long slow burn, which is not what the planet can afford

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 01/04/2022 - 6:09pm in

Tags 

Environment

My new draft Financial Reporting Standard on Accounting for Environmental Change got into AccountingWEB yesterday:

I fear this one is going to be a long, slow burn, which is not what the planet can afford.

Migrants Fleeing Hurricanes and Drought Face New Climate Disasters in ICE Detention

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 01/04/2022 - 1:45am in

When Hurricane Laura slammed into Louisiana in the summer of 2020, it was the strongest storm in the state since U.S. record-keeping began. For 42-year-old Angel Argueta Anariba, it was the beginning of a period of misery: the first of three major storms to hit Central Louisiana’s Catahoula Correctional Center, where he was detained.

More than 20 years earlier, another climate catastrophe had upended Argueta Anariba’s life. In November 1998, he had fled Honduras in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. Now he found himself confronting new climate nightmares in Louisiana, with no possibility of escape.

The privately run facility where Argueta Anariba was held was one of several new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in Louisiana. The implications of caging thousands of people in a state that’s notorious for extreme weather crystallized with the intensifying wind.

In the days that followed the storm’s landfall, detainees throughout the state would endure appalling conditions caused in no small part by ICE’s lack of preparedness for climate disasters. An Intercept investigation found that more than half of ICE’s detention facilities, including Catahoula, are already facing significant climate risks.

“Climate change has already exacerbated extreme weather conditions, and we are seeing a direct impact on incarcerated people warehoused in immigration detention facilities across the country,” said Karla Ostolaza, managing director of the immigration practice at the Bronx Defenders, a public defense group that is representing Argueta Anariba. “We are very concerned that more extreme weather events caused by climate change will lead to further exploitation and disregard for detained immigrants at ICE facilities.”

On August 26, with Hurricane Laura lashing the Catahoula facility, the lights went out and the water stopped running, according to a court affidavit by Argueta Anariba. The services were down for five days. Several inches of water pooled on the ground. With the air conditioning down, the dorm felt like it was over 100 degrees. In the first days, facility employees brought in a few gallons to drink, twice a day, for more than 50 people.

Angel Argueta Anariba describes his experience in immigration detention when Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana’s Catahoula Correctional Center in August 2020.

“The toilets would not flush during this time, and some people were forced to defecate on the trays that they gave us for meals and then throw those in the trash,” Argueta Anariba said, adding that with staff avoiding the dorms, garbage piled up. The stench made Argueta Anariba feel sick and aggravated his asthma. “The smell was excruciating.”

People held by ICE in other parts of the state were experiencing similar problems, with protests arising among the detained.

2020 would soon set the record for the number of hurricanes that crashed into the continental U.S. Within weeks of Laura, wind and rain from another storm hit the Catahoula facility.

Evacuees from other facilities were bused to the detention center. Tensions were high in the overcrowded prison; Argueta Anariba said a pepper spray-like substance was frequently used as a means of crowd control. “I could not breathe and vomited several times,” he said. “My face felt like it was burning.”

When a third storm hit, electricity went out again, but with the heat less severe, the situation was more tolerable.

“In the three hurricanes that passed,” said Argueta Anariba, who is undocumented, “I lived the worst part of my life.”

Detainees inside Krome Detention Center in Miami, Fla., Nov. 6, 2020.

Detainees inside Krome Detention Center in Miami on Nov. 6, 2020.

Photo: José A. Iglesias/Miami Herald via AP

The Next Disaster

The past decade has given rise to the notion of the “climate migrant,” a term that describes people like Argueta Anariba who are forced to leave their nation because of a climate-related disaster. The climate crisis means that migration to the U.S. is likely to increase in the years ahead. Around 680,000 climate migrants are expected to cross the U.S.-Mexico border between now and 2050, according to an analysis by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine.

“I traveled with many people who came from Honduras, escaping from the destruction that was the country,” Argueta Anariba told The Intercept in Spanish. “They’re still in this country, continuing forward, working to get ahead.”

For some climate migrants, the journey ends when they are ensnared in the U.S. immigration enforcement system. Many will find themselves in detention centers that are, an Intercept investigation found, especially vulnerable to climate risks.

To determine how the climate crisis impacts incarcerated people, The Intercept mapped more than 6,500 jails, prisons, and detention centers against heat, wildfire, and flood risk. ICE detainees were held in some 128 facilities as of 2020, according to research by the Carceral Ecologies team at UCLA. Catahoula Correctional Center is one of 72 immigration detention centers The Intercept identified as facing significant climate-related risks — risks that are poised to get more severe as the climate crisis deepens. (ICE did not provide answers to The Intercept’s questions for this article.)

The U.S. refugee system generally does not recognize climate disaster as a reason to grant asylum. In cases of environmental catastrophes, the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency, has the power to designate a country for temporary protected status, a program that allows some of its citizens to temporarily live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

The designation, though, is rarely applied. The program, for instance, was not opened up to those fleeing Honduras when hurricanes Eta and Iota devastated the country in 2020. When TPS is applied, onerous conditions can thwart those seeking its protections. After Hurricane Mitch, Hondurans were afforded TPS status, but Argueta Anariba didn’t qualify in part because of a criminal conviction, his lawyer said.

If restrictive U.S. immigration policies go unchanged, more climate migrants will end up in detention facilities. Without either new investments in infrastructure or a rethinking of U.S. immigration policies, detained migrants will be facing worsening climate risks — this time without the chance to flee.

Prisons at Risk

No states have more ICE detention centers than sweltering, storm-prone Texas and Louisiana. All 10 immigration detention facilities in Louisiana and 19 in Texas are in counties that have historically experienced more than 100 days annually with a heat index over 90 degrees. Those temperatures are hot enough to cause health problems in places where medical care is lacking and air conditioning often breaks down, if it exists at all.

ICE’s detention standards include only vague references to maintaining comfortable temperatures and offering climate-appropriate clothing, and advocates say there’s minimal enforcement. Even in the much-cooler Northeast, extreme heat is already creating dangerous conditions. “ICE frequently exposes people in their custody to extreme heat conditions without air conditioning in the summer and freezing temperatures without adequate heat in the winter — leading to increased health risks among the people we represent,” said Ostolaza, of the Bronx Defenders.

It’s going to get worse, according to county-by-county heat projections from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Historically, no ICE detention centers were in counties where heat spiked above 105 degrees for more than a month annually — a level of heat the National Weather Service designates as dangerous. By 2100, the county where Catahoula is located is likely to see nearly two months annually over 105 degrees. Across the nation, every ICE detention facility will see longer periods of high heat.

Graphic

Graphic: The Intercept

When it comes to wildfires, it’s smoke as much as flames that causes problems for detained people. In addition to well-documented fires threatening the West and its detention centers, over one-third of the ICE facilities facing severe or extreme wildfire risks are located in the South, according to data from the U.S. Forest Service. Wildfires burned not far from a detention center in Texas in early March, and a holding facility in Florida, on the edge of the Everglades, has repeatedly been evacuated due to fires.

Shoddy infrastructure is already failing to keep up with snowballing climate-related problems. Catahoula has low flood risk, according to data from the First Street Foundation, and the water coming in during Hurricane Laura likely had more to do with structural problems than with flood vulnerability. ICE detention centers’ climate control systems are known for breaking down; summer after summer, public defenders have demanded that ICE address air-conditioning failures in a detention center in northern New Jersey.

For many immigrant advocates, the climate emergency lends new urgency for systemic changes that go beyond fixing buildings. “If we can foresee that these facilities are going to need infrastructure reworking, it’s a good sign that we need to end detention centers as a whole,” said Dagoberto Bailón, a coordinator for Trans Queer Pueblo, an Arizona-based organization that works with LGBTQ+ migrants.

In the cases of some risk-prone facilities, ICE is looking to scale up detention. In Georgia, the Folkston ICE Processing Center faces severe wildfire risk yet is in line for an expansion that would make it one of the largest ICE detention facilities in the nation, increasing its number of beds from 780 to 3,018.

Organizers have, however, scored victories. In New Jersey, the Hudson County Correctional Facility faces extreme flood risk and flooded during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. As of this past November, under pressure, the facility no longer houses ICE detainees.

ICE and the Climate Crisis

ICE, for its part, is already preparing for the future. The Department of Homeland Security is evaluating detention facilities for climate risk and gearing up for the new migrant influx.

“Catastrophic events, such as floods, wildfires, and extreme drought, may prompt mass migration which has the capacity to overrun DHS facilities and infrastructure supporting the Nation’s immigration system,” the agency wrote in its Climate Action Plan, released in October 2021. “Climate change is likely to increase population movements from Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean and impact neighboring countries.”

DHS lists increased migration among its top five climate vulnerabilities, but its climate action plan is light on details about what the agency will do about it. Department officials are working on creating a plan to predict and plan for future waves of mass migration, according to the climate report, hinting at more arrests and detention. “Increases in human migration may require more resources and operational capacity at the U.S. border to facilitate the application of immigration law, including the law governing claims for humanitarian protection,” DHS wrote.

And DHS is aware that many of its facilities could be at climate risk: “This risk could require relocating or even abandoning current infrastructure in certain circumstances,” the report says, calling for incorporating climate resiliency when expanding the detention infrastructure.

Until now, a main factor that ICE had used to choose where to locate detention centers was local communities’ demands for prisons to bolster their economies. In the case of Louisiana, criminal justice reforms led to fewer people being held in jails and prisons, creating economic gaps that were filled by new ICE contracts.

To Trans Queer Pueblo’s Bailón, it’s all part of a pattern that needs to be broken. “The U.S. is really good at solving problems by trying to put people away,” he said. “Investing in people looks like investing in other countries, investing in migration and having the means to have a smooth migration process, rather than having these detention centers where abuses happen.”

No Asylum

As a kid in Honduras, Argueta Anariba would spend four hours a day at school and eight hours planting and harvesting crops. He loved his classes, especially math, but he also appreciated learning at his father’s side in the fields. He knew from an early age that a bad harvest meant going to bed hungry. Today, climate-driven drought has pushed many Honduran farmers over the edge. In Argueta Anariba’s case, it was a storm.

Hurricane Mitch roared through Argueta Anariba’s community when he was 20. “We lost everything: property and land, jobs, crops,” he remembered. By then, he had two little children. “The government didn’t have capacity to help all the people that were affected. Due to the situation, I traveled to the United States to try to support my family.”

Angel Argueta Anariba talks about the devastation in his hometown in Honduras in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

After passing through Guatemala and Mexico, Argueta Anariba made his way to Washington, D.C., where he joined a tight-knit community of Hondurans from his region.

His problems with ICE began after he demanded payment for one of his jobs. Argueta Anariba’s employer responded by threatening him, he said. In the weeks that followed, the conflict escalated until, according to Argueta Anariba, one of his former boss’s friends — who had gang ties — pulled a knife. Argueta Anariba stabbed him in self-defense, he says, and spent the next seven years in prison before being put in ICE custody.

An immigration judge ruled that Argueta Anariba cannot be released while he waits for the government to decide his asylum claim. By now, he has been in ICE detention — which is not supposed to be punitive — for seven years, a period equal to his prison term.

Last winter, he endured yet another climate change-related disaster, when a sudden cold snap struck Louisiana, leaving him shivering in a detention center with inadequate heat.

Despite it all, going to Honduras isn’t an option. Although a climate disaster drove Argueta Anariba to migrate, his asylum plea isn’t about a storm. While he was in prison, masked men broke into his mother’s home and beat her, demanding to know when Argueta Anariba would return to Honduras. Unable to rely on protection from a Honduran government with a reputation for corruption, Argueta Anariba is convinced that he will be murdered by associates of his Washington attacker if he returns.

In the coming weeks, Argueta Anariba may get the chance to leave confinement for the first time in more than 14 years. At a new bond hearing, a judge will reconsider whether Argueta Anariba should be released until his immigration case is decided.

More than anything, Argueta Anariba wants to be there for his kids again, the youngest of whom are U.S. citizens. “To be my own boss is my dream, and also I wish to help the community, to serve on some public projects. I would like to be part of pro-migrant organizations,” he said. “Maybe it’s for that reason that I’ve had to suffer and overcome some obstacles, if in the future I have the chance to get out and to show the public that we deserve one more opportunity.”

The post Migrants Fleeing Hurricanes and Drought Face New Climate Disasters in ICE Detention appeared first on The Intercept.

Game On or Game Over for the Environment?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 01/04/2022 - 1:14am in
by Mai Nguyen

In January 2022, Microsoft announced that the company planned to buy the videogame company Activision Blizzard for almost $70 billion, giving it control of franchises like Call of Duty, Candy Crush, and World of Warcraft. This signaled to the world the potential of gaming for the tech industry’s pursuit of speedier growth despite technology being an already high-demand industry.

Activision Blizzard sign at gaming convention.

Microsoft bought Activision Blizzard, usurping many profitable franchises, most notably Call of Duty. (CC BY-SA 3.0, Dinosaur918)

I understand the appeal of video games; I own a couple of consoles, and I keep up with the latest gaming news. While many dismiss them as a waste of time, video games are a medium that enable us to tell incredible stories in a way that movies or books can’t quite replicate. They provide a level of interactivity and customizability that allows the player to immerse themselves in a grand story. I’ve fought to protect my family from Japanese crime society in Yakuza and lived my fantasy life as the homeowner of a castle in The Sims. And just like any other hobby, fans can find communities centered around their favorite games.

But while video games flaunt a unique (and at times addicting) charm, with every growing industry is a dark side of depleting resources.

Growth of the Industry

Video games have come a long way since their simple beginnings, starting with a simple tic-tac-toe game in 1952 before ballooning to a billion-dollar industry. Later, the 70s and 80s brought the release of several milestone game consoles like the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). In 1989, Sega released the Genesis to compete against the NES, triggering the first “console war” and the release of scores of popular games for both consoles.

At the end of 2021, Newzoo reported 2.95 billion gamers worldwide and predicted 3 billion by 2023. The market for video games has only grown in the past few years, thanks partially to the pandemic. As time at home increased, so did new hobbies. From 2019 to 2020, the number of U.S. console gamers increased by 6.3 percent and console sales surged 155 percent worldwide by March 2020.

Nintendo sold more than 14.3 million units of its Nintendo Switch console during the pandemic, likely due to the release of the relaxing life-simulator game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Similarly, PlayStation experienced an 83 percent boom in game sales in the first quarter of 2020, 74 percent of which were digital downloads.

The Internet has played a large part in video game success, and not just because of online play. The Internet made it possible to play video games as a profession, not just a hobby. YouTube videos, especially “Let’s Play” videos, made it possible for viewers to experience games they were unsure about buying, often with comedic commentary. YouTuber PewDiePie spent 2013 to 2015 as the most subscribed YouTuber thanks to his Let’s Play content and continues today with 111 million subscribers.

esports

Gaming: once merely a hobby, now a global “esport” phenomenon. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Maxime FORT)

Twitch also played a significant role in shaping the gaming industry by allowing viewers to interact with their favorite gamers in real time, from voting on how the streamer will play a game to sending direct messages. YouTube, too, has a streaming feature. Polygon reports that YouTube streamers put in 54.9 million hours of content in 2020, versus 55.4 million hours in 2019. Don’t let the slight decline in total content fool you, though. Viewership nearly doubled to 6.19 billion hours in 2020 from 3.15 billion in 2019.

Esports, or competitive video games, is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, with a total audience of 335 million in 2017 rising to 645 million in 2022. The growth of esports and their viewership means more energy and resource consumption required for gaming equipment. Hardware companies encourage customers to invest in the most powerful parts in the market, from processors to entire PCs, a strategy many believe drove the industry to a $1.5 billion value in 2017. And while esports are still a relatively small source of revenue for the gaming industry, BITKRAFT predicts that figure will grow with the introduction of new competitive games.

Today, the gaming industry has at least a $175 billion value (BITKRAFT suspects it’s even bigger), but it could more than double by 2028 as the industry takes advantage of the increasingly widening platform offered by mobile gaming.

A Look inside the Game Case

While the gaming industry has internal issues like the lax attitude towards toxic workplace culture, beefing up the industry spells out something even more ominous for the environment.

Like cell phones, with the hype of each new-generation console, there lies a danger of gamers trashing old consoles for the new model. As of 2022, Nintendo sold 103.5 million Switches. PlayStation sold 116.9 million PS4s, and PS5 consoles braved shortages and hit 17.3 million sales. Of course, these shiny new models come at an ecological cost. To conduct electricity, consoles depend on mined materials including copper, nickel, gold, and zinc. The circuit board and other parts are tucked into a plastic case, which is formed from crude oil and natural gas.

There is more room for customizability with PC gaming. Gamers can buy prebuilt computers with their desired specs, or they can build one themselves. In both cases, however, gamers tend to go for the parts with the most powerful specs. These components require huge amounts of power, with some GPUs using over 300 watts in a ten-minute test run. Such excessive energy consumption is also exacerbated by incredibly tight release dates between new parts. The GPU giant Nvidia consistently releases components collections several times a year.

Nintendo has launched initiatives for recycling hardware and complying with e-waste regulations, but recycling should never be our first resort to solve the waste problem. While e-waste recycling seems like the obvious step to making the industry sustainable, the current state of e-waste recycling has a host of problems. In the formal recycling process, waste is mechanically separated and shredded for further sorting by hand. To avoid the costs of adhering to safety and pollution-control regulations in the USA, companies often export the waste to developing countries for informal recycling. At these workshops, workers recover valuable metals by burning away the plastic devices, leading to hazardous conditions and increased emissions.

Photo of a dumping site for e-waste, which includes video game consoles, PCs, and other hardware.

Old consoles and PCs get dumped for the newest tech, resulting in considerable e-waste. (CC BY 2.0, Curtis Palmer)

However, nowadays, next-gen gaming is taking on a sleeker look with digital downloads and cloud gaming. But while gaming is moving away from physical game discs, experts say that digital services won’t be the cure-all to gaming-related emissions. Gaming represents 34 terawatt-hours of energy and 24 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year, equivalent to 85 million refrigerators. Cloud-based game subscriptions like Google Stadia or PlayStation Now, which allow players to stream from an online library of games to their device, are highly demanding of servers. These subscription services allow users to stream games from huge data centers, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, are extremely energy-intensive, and take up almost as much space as ten football fields, all while producing tremendous amounts of heat.

The increased use of centralized technology will pressure game companies to consistently stay up-to-date on the latest equipment, which could contribute even more to the e-waste problem. One study found that cloud-based gaming requires significantly more energy per hour than similarly powerful local gaming equipment.

Video Games for Good

On the bright side, many of the thousands of video games in existence have environmental messages. You can fight as Cloud Strife against the evil Shinra Electric Power Company in Final Fantasy VII, or run renewable energy projects in Sims 4’s Eco Lifestyle pack. You can even explore Central Park through the eyes of a bee and defend your hive from humans in Bee Simulator. Games like these help spread environmental awareness and push the world towards sustainability in a way that no advertisement campaign can; at least, the UN believes so.

Mirai is the protagonist of E-Line Media’s educational underwater diving adventure game Beyond Blue, inspired by the BBC nature docuseries Blue Planet II. The player guides Mirai, leader of a deep-sea research team, as they investigate whales and sea turtles and uncover the secrets of the deep. Alan Gershenfeld, co-founder of E-Line Media, told DW, “The more gamers care about the ocean, the more they want to explore the ocean, avocational or as a career. I believe, that’s the key towards ocean preservation.”

In Eco, players must collaborate to use natural resources to build a civilization and develop the technology to destroy a planet-threatening asteroid. The game gives the players the option to build governments and economies, and each of the players’ decisions has the potential to benefit or harm the environment. Eco is currently still in development and is available for early access, but it already has thousands of positive reviews lauding the game’s teamwork mechanics under its belt.

Knowing minds like this exist in the game industry makes me optimistic, especially considering the growing number of gamers worldwide. And with the industry becoming more mainstream, it’s important that these gamers come to terms with the industry’s flaws and strive to become a force for good.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Even if game companies were to wholly commit to environmental protection, the fact remains that gamers never want to buy the least-powerful equipment. These game systems are incredible, and the games look and feel as fun as they do thanks to the massive amounts of resources required to make them. Perpetual growth of any industry can never be sustainable. However, we can also tell that video games aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

To tackle this issue, we can find gaming’s steady-state potential by focusing on increasing our hardware’s lifespan instead of buying more than we need. While next-gen system release dates largely line up with the end of the predecessor’s lifespan, backwards compatibility between consoles is a rare sight; you can’t play your PS3 games on your new PS4. Providing ways to play older games and extending the life of consoles seem like good first steps.

Digital stores like My Nintendo Store and PlayStation Store offer libraries of classic games, not to mention the new games in development for older consoles. However, whether it’s buying a console or building a PC, it’s tempting to give in to upgrade trends and buy the latest, most powerful innovation in gaming technology. But you don’t necessarily need the very best specs and up-to-date tech to have a quality gaming experience. You’ll survive without a 4K-capable graphics card and butter-smooth frame rates; it’ll be easier on your wallet as well.

But scaling back on new gaming purchases is just one part of the solution. We can also take notes from games like Beyond Blue and Eco by actively using the medium to spread the word about sustainability and steady-state economics. CASSE developed Limits to Growth, a playground game that introduces kids to fairness and sustainability in the context of steady-state economics. To the play the game, players go through rounds within their individual houses, represented by a hula hoop, and one planet represented by a rope. In each round, players have the option to “upgrade” their house by adding another hula hoop. Once the planet is filled up with hula hoops, some students might “die.” This is a fun and easy way to teach children about the foundations of steady-state economics, but developing a limits to growth video game could bring it to the next level.

What if CASSE Joined the Game?

The multiplayer open-world survival genre with sandbox elements is the perfect playground for bringing the message to life. Imagine starting in a virtual world much like our Earth, except it’s completely untouched by human civilization. The virtual Limits to Growth game (perhaps Stable Planet has a catchier ring) begins with choosing the biome—aquatic, grassland, forest, desert, or tundra—where the game will take place. While exploring, players can observe and learn about the biodiversity of their chosen environment. Players may catch lion cubs play-fighting in a savanna, gawk at Galápagos penguins gliding through cool waters, or admire the crystal-blue sky occupied by a V-formation of geese. Players are simply dropped into the colorful, virtual world with nothing but a few basic tools (like a hatchet, bow and arrows, and fishing rod) in their inventories, and they must find food and build shelter to survive.

Mockup Xbox game cover for the hypothetical game "Stable Planet" inspired by CASSE's position on economic growth.

Mockup game cover for Stable Planet. Do you have what it takes to create a sustainable civilization?

Like in Eco, players live together in a civilization server and make decisions that impact the world around them, from hunting a single deer to clearing out a forest for a village. While collaboration is encouraged, individual players may choose (or not) to build and upgrade their own homes at the expense of natural resources like timber and fisheries. Certain upgrades require more advanced tools, which call for even more raw materials.

Players can eventually vote to build communal structures, such as a power plant for electricity or ports for trade with visiting non-player characters (NPCs) representing different civilizations. Of course, these major upgrades require substantial resources; the gamer sees these resources decline in quantity and quality. Open-world games like Minecraft encourage players to grind away at virtually infinite resources like wood and stone, but Stable Planet would make it clear that resources, including occupiable space, are finite or not quickly renewable.

In the game, with each collective and individual decision, consequences to GDP and the environment follow. The server’s GDP appears as a scoreboard overlaying each player’s screen. The number starts at zero and stays a cool green color until players’ economic activities proliferate. This is a major mechanic in the game, as it may—and eventually should—serve as a driving force for players’ decisions.

One group of players may decide to chase a high GDP and expand production far beyond sustainable, survivable levels. In this case, GDP continuously grows on the scoreboard, with digits increasing on a spinning meter (similar to the CASSE website). If players’ choices lead to furious growth, the scoreboard’s visuals would intensify, the number pulsing red with sparks flying off the board. Some players may interpret this as a good thing. After all, a booming economy is a healthy economy, right?

The state of the environment, however, reflects that high GDP in a different light. To expand iron trading, for example, players may build a huge plant to make mining easier, but a host of environmental consequences ensue; emissions visibly cloud the air and players’ health bars gradually deteriorate, lands lose arability, and wildlife species recede into extinction. While players may simply choose to move their settlement someplace else on the map, the “open” world is not infinite; this process can only be repeated so many times before they run out of space. With nowhere else to go, players die one by one from starvation or illness.

On the other hand, smart players may decide to manage GDP differently. They have the option of building a civilization based on what’s needed to survive. Instead of perpetual building, they can spend more time playing with friends and family, or joining other players in “town hall” meetings. GDP growth will slow, with the scoreboard once again emanating a cool green glow.

One civilization may enjoy an abundance of high-tech toys and a sky-high GDP—with all the problems that come with it—but yours can enjoy the bounty of nature and other pleasures of a good life. Like many open-world games, Stable Planet has no definite end, and instead encourages players to explore different ways to interact with their environment and other players, for better or for worse.

Mai Nguyen, editorial intern for Spring 2022 at CASSE.Mai Nguyen is the Spring 2022 editorial intern at CASSE, and a junior at George Washington University.

The post Game On or Game Over for the Environment? appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

Wayward Growths: Permaculture, low tech and the ‘Freedom Movement’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 31/03/2022 - 9:42pm in

People in the permaculture movement disagree about the politics of the pandemic. But until the last few months, this disagreement wasn’t a huge drama. No one was arguing that we should take one side or another to show our commitment to permaculture.

This changed when David Holmgren, one of the founders of the movement, wrote a blogpost on his permaculture site in late 2021. Boiled down, it attacked the lockdowns, promoted the idea that the vaccines on offer aren’t safe, suggested there were various cheap cures for COVID-19, and opposed vaccine mandates as authoritarian overreach. Binding all this together were some overarching themes: the virus was not as serious as it had been painted; it mainly affected the old, the infirm and the obese; and the way forward was for the human species to develop natural immunity, rather than forcing people to undergo mass vaccination. Resistance to such state tyranny would usher in a generalised refusal to participate in the economy, and people would vote with their feet to live an alternative rural lifestyle, thereby kick-starting system change. A high-tech response like the new vaccines would be impossible in a low-energy future, so we might as well start looking for low-tech solutions now.

It would take weeks of research to consider all of Holmgren’s points, but some are clearly wrong. For example, he argues that treatment options are being successfully tried in countries such as Mexico and India, which probably refers to an Egyptian study of Ivermectin published in a peer-reviewed journal. Ivermectin treatment took off in hospitals in India and Latin America after publication of this study, but it turned out to be fraudulent: they had faked the data. Every day, mainstream news sources painstakingly unpick the latest anti-vax medical theory. Try a subscription to The Age, The Guardian or The New York Times and follow the links to scientific journal articles. More interesting, though, were Holmgren’s vision of social change, his response to the role of the state and his speculations on science in a post-capitalist permaculture utopia.

There was a very divided response to Holmgren’s post among members of the permaculture community. Russ Grayson, Rowe Morrow, Rick Coleman, Penelope Swales, Linda Woodrow, Keri Hopeward, Robyn Francis, Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar—close to a roll call of influential permaculture activists in Australia—critiqued or disagreed with Holmgren’s post. Some, like Morrow, voiced a common view in the movement: that the inequity of distribution of vaccines globally is structural racism and expresses the economic interests of rich-country governments and global pharmaceutical companies. But there were also a small number of influential permaculture activists who came out to support Holmgren’s position.

Then, in November, David Holmgren and others attended two anti-government rallies opposing mandates and the impending Pandemic Bill, carrying a highly visible permaculture banner. 

Arena Quarterly #9

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What are the implications for permaculture?

Permaculture, like most social movements, is organised independently through a variety of groups and activists, connected through their common commitment to a set of key ideas, networking to produce various joint actions. There is no top-down centralised authority structure. In that understanding, such a range of opinion is not really a problem for the movement. Indeed Holmgren made it clear that he was not aiming to set out a definitive movement position, and hoped that the different factions would continue to work together on common projects.

But a different way to look at permaculture as a social movement is to focus on the way the movement is organised through common commitment to the ideas set out in three canonical texts, the first by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison together, the next by Bill alone and the third by David. These give a complexity and depth to permaculture. In my conversations with permaculture activists at the grassroots, permaculture people define their commitment through these texts and cite them in numerous ways when explaining their practice. To that extent permaculture is informed by a ‘charismatic foundationalism’. This new situation, then, confronts people in the movement with an awkward conundrum: how to continue to define yourself in terms of permaculture when you regard the views of one of the movement’s founders as ill-founded, unscientific, even unethical. Not only do you disagree with the stated position, but permaculture is now associated in the public mind with the anti-vax movement and demonstrations organised by the far Right.

An interesting response is that of Heather Jo Flores, a prominent US permaculture activist. She argues in a piece for Medium that David’s post defines him as racist and ableist. She claims his work was never mentioned when she undertook her permaculture training. She refuses to consider him as a founder of the movement.  My own view is that there is always a tension between charismatic foundationalism and the networked, multi-centred flat organisational structure of any movement. In permaculture, this was first manifested when Bill Mollison decided that a whole cohort of established permaculture teachers had strayed from the ideas presented in his Designers’ Manual. They had embraced unscientific viewpoints he referred to as ‘woo woos’, such as ley lines, dowsing and ecofeminist spirituality. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to exclude these teachers from awarding permaculture design certificates to their students.

As I see it, permaculture needs to move away from charismatic foundationalism and define itself in terms of a set of shared ideas. In this interpretation, the three canonical texts are certainly the inspiration of the movement. Members of the movement interpret these texts differently, however, and you don’t have to accept every word in them as defining permaculture. Likewise, it is not necessary to agree with every opinion of a permaculture founder. Their interpretation of what it means to be permaculture is not authoritative within the movement.

All the same, there are two threats to the movement in this present situation. One is that a lot of people may drop their permaculture identity, becoming ‘degrowth’ or ‘agroecology’. This is already a tendency in the movement and the current conflict will only exacerbate this. The second is that we will find it much harder to recruit new people to permaculture.

A very large majority of people who now identify with permaculture come out of a background in some part of the political Left. They like permaculture for its grass-roots strategy for system change. This pathway has been compromised: now there are huge numbers of posts from young people condemning permaculture for its links to far-right rallies. Supporters of Holmgren’s position can wax lyrical on the need for permaculture to be taken up across the political divide, but in my view that’s unlikely. Apart from anything else, 93 per cent of Australians over sixteen have had at least one COVID jab. These ordinary Australians are unlikely to join a movement that is now associated with anti-vaxxers.

The far Right and permaculture

Permaculture people involved in these rallies see their participation through the lens of their own good intentions. As Holmgren’s posts and videos from the Artist as Family website indicate, they see these ‘freedom rallies’ as expressing a grassroots resistance to authoritarian government, drawing participants from across the political spectrum. They see authoritarian overreach during the pandemic as the system—the ‘deep state’—learning how to set up a centralised command economy. In their view, resistance to protect our democratic freedoms is vital. From this point of view, the permaculture movement has an opportunity to tap into this spirit of resistance to promote permaculture solutions.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the far Right has played a major part in organising these rallies, not just in Australia but globally. So, rather than looking at these issues from the perspective of the permaculture participants, let’s consider how these events are likely seen by that grouping, taking a look at their key objectives.

The far Right dreams of a white ethno-state: Jews are hated by almost all versions of the far Right; in the United States, Black Americans are hated; in Australia, Muslims are the enemy. The presence of Aboriginal flags at Australian pandemic rallies may express Indigenous identity for some participants. But it is also a convenient prop masking the racism that organisers want to background for current purposes. The conspiracy theory that Indigenous people in the Northern Territory are being forced at gunpoint to be vaccinated has gone global and is being spread by the far Right. It also sees feminists, gays, lesbians and trans people as anathema—as undermining the proper role of men, making men victims. The ideal family is the heterosexual couple with the man ‘protecting’ his woman. They also hate ‘communists’, ‘cultural Marxists’ and ‘anarchists’. The far Right is convinced that even the US Democrats are communists. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to work out that a lot of permaculture people fit into one category or another of the groups the far Right love to hate.

The far Right does not have an ethical problem with spruiking the elimination of these groups. Those who have engineered mass attacks on Muslims are heroes, as are those who have murdered social-democrat politicians, Black Lives Matter demonstrators and medical workers giving vaccinations. The nooses appearing at pandemic rallies are meant in full earnest. It is no accident that people at far-right militia training camps pose for photos while giving Nazi salutes. The far Right have stepped up their anti-authoritarian rhetoric and downplayed their racism in response to the pandemic. We should be very sceptical when they appear as the champions of freedom.

It is beyond obvious that the views of the far Right are at odds with a permaculture ethic. Members of the far Right could not ‘become’ permaculture without giving up their far-right identity and viewpoints. They could perhaps take up aspects of permaculture as sustainable agriculture, but working against this is their concern about issues they see as a lot more pressing: elite conspiracy, the replacement of white people, men as victims. In any case, the far Right opposes climate-change policies as excessive state interference in our freedom. Holmgren is also concerned about this and sees the pandemic response as a dry run for a command-economy response to climate change.

Crumbing

The far Right knows that most people regard their views as abhorrent or nutty. ‘Breadcrumbing’ is the term for the tactic they use to get round this distaste, performed online or through public political actions. After the folk tale ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the stratagem seeks to draw new followers by getting them to follow a trail, crumb by crumb, like Hansel and Gretel through the forest. In online crumbing the first post you read on social media may seem innocent enough. For example, you might read about how vaccine mandates are chucking a nurse out of her job. Clicking on a link, you discover another site that says we no longer have democracy and that votes are rigged. Following another, you find claims that this is the work of an evil conspiracy. The next tells you Jewish billionaires are working hand in glove with Muslims to destroy ‘our’ civilisation.

Breadcrumbing is also the far Right’s strategy at rallies. Come along to a diverse rally of ‘ordinary’ folk, participate in a festive rejection of vaccine mandates, demonstrate against restrictions on our freedom. But far-right groups will also be handing out pamphlets for far-right parties. Rhetoric and stage props will threaten to kill mainstream politicians. The rally will wend its way to the Shrine of Remembrance, where we can remember our brave ancestors fighting to defend our freedom. Some participants may take this with a grain of salt, but organisers hope that some will take the far-right path, or at least conclude that the far Right are not as bad as they are painted.

Crumbing is also why the far Right has been so vocal on this issue. I don’t think they are especially bothered by vaccines or mandates. But it makes sense for them to tap into the anger created by this issue. They use these elements to recruit people who are angry for a host of reasons. The insecurity of the job market, ridiculous housing prices: many young men especially experience these economic difficulties as their failure to achieve the status of breadwinner, a status their fathers could take for granted. The far Right offers them another path to manhood: join a band of warriors defending the community! The pandemic provides a perfect opportunity to feed this myth. Be courageous: star in your own action movie. Crumbing assembles support through focusing on whatever issue is likely to galvanise certain cohorts.

Accelerationism

Far-right thinkers believe that representative democracy’s link to capitalism cannot last. Parts of the environmental movement share some of this view. In permaculture itself, the need for energy descent is a key belief: the capitalist economy depends on growth and cannot survive a linked-up set of environmental catastrophes that together make a growth economy impossible. Ergo, we are headed for collapse. How much the far Right shares this environmentalist analysis isn’t clear, but it’s not very likely.

What they do believe is that, as collapse is imminent, they should accelerate it. ‘Accelerationism’ is a set of tactics that aims to bring on this crisis of current civilisation—to make it impossible to maintain order within the framework of representative democracy. Mass rallies and violent attacks give the impression that things are getting out of hand. The invasion of the US Capitol after Trump’s defeat was a triumph of accelerationist tactics, a theatrical performance of democratic apocalypse, served on a bed of conspiracy about a failed election. In the far-right response to Black Lives Matter rallies, scenes of far-right activists carrying assault rifles were photo opportunities for social-media content. The imagery of citizens taking matters into their own hands has been an inspiration to the Australian far Right, even if their theatrics are pared down by comparison.

The scenario intended by far-right thinkers is that through these accelerationist tactics ordinary people will come to realise that normality can only be guaranteed by strong forces that will crack down hard on the groups and tendencies it hates. Participants with different viewpoints, including those from the permaculture movement, shouldn’t be deceived: in large rallies attended by diverse groupings, the far Right takes the lead, with nationalist flags and other symbols of far-right allegiance. In all the images we see, the implication is that the ordinary folk following behind are equally disenchanted with the political process and are supporters of a far-right agenda.

If permaculture people attend these rallies, displaying a permaculture banner, this serves several functions. It suggests that the far Right has the support of diverse sections of the population. In the far Right’s warrior narrative, permaculture becomes part of ‘the community’ that the far Right has a mission to protect. Because permaculture is perceived as benign, generally harmless and peace-loving, its presence at freedom rallies speaks against the impression that the far Right is violent and dangerous. By attracting people to these rallies through the message of earnest goodwill that permaculture implies, the crowd swells. And all of this means enhanced opportunities for breadcrumbing participants and those watching the spectacle on media. Finally, by participating in demonstrations aimed at destabilising the political system through symbols and actions that self-consciously promote chaos, permaculture assists the far Right in its accelerationism.

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I am far from sure about what to conclude from all this. For those like me who are reasonably optimistic about the vaccines and not too concerned by lockdowns, we don’t have to take Holmgren’s view as authoritative in the movement. We can go on identifying as permaculture if we want to. But what if permaculture has been damaged beyond repair? I can understand why some might want to abandon ship and try some other allegiance. Perhaps I am exaggerating the dangers. Perhaps, even, it does no good to discuss this fracture. The far Right thrives on dividing the Left and taking up our time with side issues. A lot of people in permaculture are just keeping quiet. Maybe that makes sense.

For those who are anti-vax there is another set of choices and possibilities. They believe that the possible dangers to permaculture are a small price to pay to defend freedom against an encroaching command economy. Holmgren asks rhetorically whether he is concerned that his participation in these rallies may damage permaculture. ‘You’ve got to be kidding’, he replies. Permaculture participation is an opportunity. These are discontented people looking for the solutions permaculture can provide. Members of the far Right may be attracted to permaculture and abandon their racist and patriarchal identities.

This pandemic conundrum provides an example of how permaculture works as a social movement. Groups and individuals who participate in social movements don’t take orders from a guru or central committee. There’s no way to declare that any one viewpoint expresses the will of the movement overall. And this can lead to fragmentation if the various parts start to disagree strongly. Permaculture is a microcosm of the differences across the Left at large; for one, its members have quite diverse views on the kind of social order that should follow capitalist industrialism.

At the least, this pandemic fracture reminds us of key questions about our longer term hopes and goals, and the tactics by which we might achieve them. Do we support representative democracy? Will system change dismantle the state? Is high-tech science feasible in a degrowth future? What is the ultimate fate of money and markets? But also, might certain tactics alienate supporters, undermine our arguments and serve the interests of groups with a very different agenda from ours?


Everything Is Thinkable, So What Is To Be Done?

Samuel Alexander, Brendan Gleeson

This is not a time of species affirmation; it is the hour of gravest peril. It is also a reopening of human possibility.

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