Why ‘degrowth’ redefines riches

August 20th marked a watershed for all humanity: by that date we had used all the natural resources that our earth could replenish in 2013. Since August 21st we’ve been ‘borrowing’ from 2014 — essentially taking from our children and future generations. Not only will we not pay, but next year we’ll carry on consuming ever more of our natural resources faster than the earth can replenish, making this sad ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ fall ever earlier in the year.

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We Are What We Eat: How To Break Our Bovine Habits?

When travelling it’s good to pay attention to local lifestyles, because what people eat and buy reflect a very intimate aspect of our societies. More and more, however, I’ve seen the same chicken soup, the same toothpaste, and the same soda in (more or less) the same plastic packaging in supermarkets wherever I go, be it Albania, Dubai or Ethiopia. Meanwhile I’ve seen kids scoffing the same Big Macs as far afield as Russia and Turkey.

What's Russian for Big Mac?

It’s no secret that a dozen corporations have managed to become worldwide consumer ‘standards’, so that millions of people now eat pretty much the same ‘thing’ in any big city. On the one hand we’re locked into synthetic seeds from Monsanto, and on the other the ‘always low prices’ from Wal-Mart.

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First Impressions: Press Review February 2013

Welcome to our internal press review, featuring the latest publications by UNU-MERIT and its School of Governance: from working papers to policy reports to entire books. Expect more from ‘First Impressions’ at the end of every month.

February 2013 brings five new working papers, on issues ranging from IQ performance to innovation capacity to fixing the global climate. Geographically, the focus spreads from the Netherlands to Brazil and across 24 developing countries.

Pakistanis affected by their country's widespread, torrential floods receive wheat flour and other provisions from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Alipur, in the Muzaffargarh district of Punjab Province. Continue reading

Cold Turkey for Cars in Mexico?

“Poor Mexico. So far from God, so close to the United States,” declared Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in the late nineteenth century. His words passed into history, summing up the interdependent relationship of these two powerful countries.

Today, as well as losing massive territories from California to Texas, modern Mexico is still overshadowed by its northern neighbour. For decades nearly all major Mexican cities have followed the failed US model of urban development: sprawling car-dependent cities with urban centres fractured by highways and overpasses. Besides destroying quality of life and human interaction in historic districts, this model is incredibly devastating precisely because it is self-perpetuating: more cars call for more highways; more insecurity in the centre causes more people to flee to the outskirts.

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The Mythical City of Curitiba: Still a Model of Sustainability?

Curitiba, the capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná, remains in the minds of many as the great Latin American triumph in urban sustainability. Although these types of city brands are hard to attain, they can easily be lost.

There are many reasons why Curitiba Flickr / Mathieu Struckbecame recognized as the world’s most sustainable regional capital. Firstly, the urban revolution in the city started around the mid 1960s with a plan that sought to encourage urban growth corridors along mass transit routes. The plan emerged under the military dictatorship, and was effectively rolled out – and respected – until the late 1990s.

The continuity in public policy implementation owes much to the fact that the same political group remained in power for so long; a group that shared the ideas of the legendary planner/politician Jaime Lerner. Thus, Curitiba achieved the still remarkable 54m² of green space per capita, collected 100% of door-to-door recyclable waste, and introduced the famous bendy buses that years later inspired the Bogotá Transmilenio.

Nowadays though, any foreign visitor to the city must wonder Flickr / M.Struckwhether the famous sustainability postcard remains the reality for Curitiba. The first impression when walking its streets is the outrageous number of cars, which have gone clearly exceeded the capacity of the roads. Today, Curitiba has the highest number of cars per capita in Brazil: one for every 1.4 inhabitants! The few bicycles roaming the streets have no choice but to use the restricted network of bike paths, originally designed to only connect the parks.

The famous tube stations and bendy buses are now overwhelmed by the sheer number of people moving en masse from the 13 surrounding municipalities to the city Flickr / Mathieu Struckcentre. Obviously, thefts are as frequent as in the subways of Paris or New York, and the lack of comfort – which has become the norm in URBS-administered public transport – succeeds in alienating car drivers.

Although the density and good maintenance of green areas are truly unparalleled in Latin America, challenges are increasing. Experts at the Catholic University of Paraná tell me that about 60,000 people in inner Curitiba lack access to the sewerage system (partly due to political infighting between various layers of government). Meanwhile experts from the city’s famous urban planning agency (the IPPUC) anonymously tell me that a decade ago local politicians dropped long-term urban planning, in favour of profit making from short-term elections. Meanwhile, rapid population growth in the metropolitan area of Curitiba only guarantees more chaos in the future.

Despite these problems, the city remains beautiful. It exhibits the characteristic incoherent order of many Latin American cities, featuring eclectic façades filled with long blocks of workshops, training agencies for models, and traditional bakeries, alongside banks with modern marble floors. Often, pavements are overrun by the roots of the araucária tree (fully protected against any logging), while the streets are covered with yellow and pink flowers that fall from the ubiquitous ipê trees. Unfortunately, this pedestrian space is also infested by parked cars, and drivers that leave their buildings as if they never imagined that a pedestrian would cross their path; a characteristic lack of civic culture that is commonplace in this continent.

While feasting on a feijoada – a local dish of stewed beans, beef and pork – I could not help but notice that a large number of candidates for the local October elections have taken the bicycle as banner campaigns. So the trusty bike rejoins the political scene amid talk of the rising price of gasoline and copious congestion. Could this be a way to revive the prestige of this wonderful city?

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 13 August 2012. Images: Flickr / Mathieu Struck / Carlos Cadena Gaitán. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.

‘Subway-free’ Buenos Aires

The cosmopolitan capital of Argentina is one of the largest cities in the world. Every day its transport system needs to cope with over 13 million people living and moving around its metropolitan area.

Even having one of the largest metros in Latin America, for years, it has failed to provide enough capacity to move all the citizens who depend on it.The subway opened in 1913, in what was the first underground system in our continent.

Today it is a vital artery for a chaotic Buenos Aires, which has traditionally glorified the private car. Besides congested second level freeways, the city also boasts a couple of unusual urban roads: the widest (‘9 de Julio’) and the longest (Rivadavia) in the world.

It is not sufficient to navigate through the traffic jams, which are so characteristic of most great cities of the world, to really understand the mobility challenge there. For the authentic ‘porteño’ commuter experience, you need to take the subway during rush hour.

As the lines of the subway system are connected with several other commuter rail lines and bus stations, carriages soon fill up during the first few stops. One must pray for a miracle to find a space starting from the third or fourth train station. The crowding is acute and the lack of lack of personal space oppressive.

However, the system works well enough. The locals, though blinded by their uncomfortable journeys, still reach their destinations. Now, imagine this great city without the metro – would it continue to function?

Since political fights have no limits in creating disruptions, the great fear of many came about during the first two weeks of August: the subway went on strike and closed down completely for 10 days! The urban mobility system collapsed (obviously).

Fortunately, since the last subway strike, a new mode of transport has been strengthened in Buenos Aires. In recent years they have built around 80 kilometres of protected bike paths (i.e. permanent structures with high kerbs to protect cyclists from traffic). These are part of an initial plan to build 100 interconnected kilometres, mainly aiming at universities and public buildings.

With the strike, many ordinary citizens decided it was the perfect excuse to dust off their bikes, or to rent one of the thousand public bicycles, with which the city complements its network of bike paths. Some local newspapers reported a doubling in demand for these public bikes during the strike; a pleasant surprise.

When the strike finally ended, having plunged the Buenos Aires streets into unprecedented chaos, no politician was left unscathed. According to a survey carried out by Opinión Autenticada, 40.3% of locals held the national government responsible for the subway strike, while 28.2% blamed the city government.

The political fight during the conflict, sustained between President Kirchner and Buenos Aires Mayor Macri (former president of Boca Juniors football club), left no one unscathed. By contrast, it only reminds us of the importance of shielding urban transport systems from the strategic interests of politicians. After all, it is only us – ordinary citizens – who lose out in these kinds of crisis.

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 27 August 2012. Images: Flickr / Michele Molinari / Eric Illuminaut. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.

The Blue Economy: The Only Sustainable Option?

It’s no secret that our Earth is moving towards an environmental catastrophe. Many of us try to effect change locally in our own communities, but more powerful forces are at work. Forces that put economic gain before the health of our planet.

Let’s not lie to ourselves: this Aggressive consumerismbeautiful planet of ours is run by the forces of the market economy. Any business student can blurt out the mantra: you have to compete in the global market, produce at the lowest marginal cost, sell at the maximum possible price, focus on core competences, seek economies of scale, and destroy competitors.

The Chicago School of Economics convinced us that the government should not interfere in this perfect dance of the market. Later, marketing geniuses invented the concepts of Corporate Social Responsibility and the triple bottom line in full cost accounting; all to sell the idea that even a company which destroys moorland and forest reserves can also be good, so long as they give a little to charity.

What’s the end result of these decades of ‘economic growth’? Millions of people leaving their rural communities and moving to city slums, mass unemployment (from Colombia to Morocco), an inequity that hits us daily at every traffic light, a cult of consumerism that has created unprecedented debt, and record-breaking destruction of our natural resources. Are there still people who think this system is working?

There is, however, a new economic model breaking ground in our globalized world: the Blue Economy. Apart from proposing a radical break with the green movement, it provides a completely different perspective on the struggle for sustainability.The great green paradox declares that what is good for us and the environment is very expensive, while what is bad for us and our environment is cheap (think about sodas vs. natural juices).

Under the Blue Economy model, the idea is not to try to reduce or solve pollution after the ecological damage has been done. On the contrary, it aims to redefine the concept of waste via a self-sufficient and dynamic approach. It also aims to prevent the use of materials which can only be used once, including oil.

We’ve already seen many successes from the Blue Economy. From using coffee grounds to grow mushrooms at home (remember that in our morning cup of coffee we use only 0.2% of the actual product); to using hot water, which is normally wasted in beer production, for fish farming; to large crops of algae fed with carbon dioxide, already being generated in megafactories. Experts say this algae could become the ‘super-food’ of the future, thanks to its high content of spirulina (a nutritious high-protein food supplement).

The Blue Economy is based on the power of entrepreneurship and local creativity. It seeks to break the rules we have given the system of global competition, to convert industries considered non-competitive by the standards of the market economy into viable models which preserve our world. This involves the creation of new systems made from existing
resources in our local communities. By changing our concept of waste and resource use as complementary processes, it aims to generate multiple revenue streams which can ensure a low price for what is good, and to deliver what is vital, as free.

I had the opportunity to meet the leader of this movement during a recent trip to Hungary. Although born in Belgium and living in South Africa, this entrepreneurial genius is close to Colombia through some family ties and his work at the world famous Gaviotas Experimental Centre. Find out more about Gunter Pauli and his foundation, sponsored by the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) in Tokyo, at www.zeri.org

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 16 July 2012. Image: Flickr / Burtonwood & Holmes. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.

Rio+20: An Ecological or Political Crisis?

Ten days ago the most important environmental summit of recent times ended in Rio de Janeiro. This great event was named in honour of the first Earth Summit, also held in that city in 1992.

Twenty years have gone by since the ideas of ‘shared responsibility’ for all countries and ‘sustainable development’ of our planet were firmly put on the table. So many of us expected this meeting to – finally – offer a global framework with specific and detailed agreements to address the rapid environmental destruction of our planet.

However, not only did our leaders fail to agree on clear strategies to address the profound dangers of our unsustainable lifestyle, but it became even clearer that the obstacles to this goal have become greater than ever. The final declaration is little more than 283 paragraphs of formalities: diagnoses are made on past diagnoses; shared concerns about the global environmental crisis are repeated again and again; the urgent need for action is expressed in various ways.

Furthermore, the new text now uses ‘sustained growth’ to refer to what in 1992 was called sustainability. This begs an obvious question: how far can we take sustained growth in a world that depends on non-renewable natural resources? Doesn’t that contradict the basic definition of sustainability?

The work of some delegations deserves to be mentioned. The US was the only one capable of imposing specific desires: it was able to veto (as is now the custom) specific references to patterns of overconsumption and waste, which, unfortunately, are becoming desired lifestyles to people in developing societies. Moreover, they managed to do this without President Obama; who like Britain’s Cameron and Germany’s Merkel, failed to show up at the summit.

Colombia’s participation was equally interesting. While the Colombian delegation was dedicated to promoting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), President Santos made several references to large mining initiatives – the cornerstone of his government’s development agenda.

After a lengthy process which began in early 2011, and which sent the team of deputy minister Londoño around the world several times, paragraphs 245 to 251 of the declaration refer to the SDGs; however, no single idea is developed in detail. Only a promise was made to address them in detail at a later occasion.

Fortunately, the Summit left us one priceless gift: the 10 minutes during which the President of Uruguay, José Mujica, lectured the honourable representatives of 193 countries (see video above). It will be remembered as a speech, or as he calls it “a moment of teeth grinding”, that masterfully sums up the problem, the guilty ones, and the solution(s).

President Mujica, who is also famous for donating 90 per cent of his salary to charity (dear reader: please compare this to your own political representatives), offers us a profound insight into ethics and life. His bombshell, coming 4 minutes 10 seconds into the speech, sums up our global sustainability catastrophe which will no doubt remain the case for the next 20 years: “The great crisis is not an ecological crisis, but rather a political one”.

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 2 July 2012. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.


Sustainable Cities Need Citizen Action

Just how sustainable your city is begins at your own doorstep. As a citizen, you play your role directly through your own lifestyle, but you also need to hold you representatives to account.

It was clear Flickr Large Minorityduring the first quarter of the year that bicycles were not a priority for the city administration in Medellín, Colombia. There were no hints from city officials responsible for the 4-year city development plan, that the bike would even be considered as part of an integrated transport system for the metropolitan region.

However, in late May 2012, during the final debate for the development plan in the city council, an engaged group of citizens managed – against all odds – to ensure the final text included pro-bicycle policies.

Yet beyond the shameful stance towards pedestrians and cyclists from the city Departments of Transport and Public Works, what really troubled me was the general reticence of fellow citizens.

No city in the world should allow people to continuously criticize public decisions – unless these criticisms are accompanied by organized citizen-led proposals; a crucial phenomenon in kickstarting democracy. This apathy is a clear sign of what political scientist Federico Hoyos calls ‘appeased democracy’.

It’s easy to curse the poor sustainability of our cities, yet very difficult to contribute with evidence-based proposals to create better societies, and even harder to lead by example.

Have you gone to the trouble of visiting your local councillor’s office, to share your views on mobility or pollution problems? Have you read the development plan of your city or region, and banded together with friends to communicate en masse with the pertinent officials? Of course many will say ‘they are not going to listen’. But that’s the oldest and laziest excuse in the book.

With a strategy of citizen mobilization (in person and via social networks) we managed to revive bicycles in Medellín for this 4-year term. Just to clarify, we’re not talking about a full-scale cycling revolution Bogotá-style, but it does set a crucial precedent for citizen participation in public decision-making.

Moreover, in promoting better conditions for cyclists and pedestrians, it’s clear that we not only have a long road ahead, but that clearing this requires active civic participation.

Thanks to support from the teams of councillors Bernardo Alejandro Guerra, Yefferson Miranda and Miguel Quintero, a paragraph was included in the final version of the development plan which outlines specific strategies for the promotion of bicycles as a sustainble mode of urban transport.

These strategies include the construction of appropriate parking, the development of pro-biking campaigns, the extension of the EnCicla pilot programme (public bicycle sharing), and the building of more bike paths in conjunction with the Metropolitan Area and the Metro.

We also received an official statement from the Department of Public Works, commiting itself to the construction of missing sections in the city’s existing bicycle route (around 1.7 km).

Citizens: it’s up to you to keep an eye on these projects and to push – with concrete arguments – for better policies on sustainability, now!

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 4 June 2012. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson. Image: Flickr / Large Minority

How much of a Consumerist are you?

Some people still believe that, to be happy, we need to accumulate things. Shopping malls have become the destination of choice for human entertainment, in turn making our regions economically dependent on department stores.

Have you ever wondered where so Coltan from DRCmuch of what we buy, mostly needlessly, comes from and goes? The system of production and consumption on our planet begins with extraction. You get the necessary natural resources (minerals, water, wood, etc.) from all over the world taken to manufacturing centres. There they are combined with synthetic products, and energy is invested to produce anything from clothing to appliances. So far, so clear.

Yet there are two basic problems with this system. First, there are not enough natural resources in the world to meet the current demand of Western consumption. The USA, with only 5 per cent of the global population, uses about 30 per cent of the world’s resources. Clearly, if other countries follow these rates of consumption – and there are several that threaten to do so including India and China – our resources will run out much sooner than we think.

Second, the world’s largest corporations have amassed so much power that they’re increasingly difficult to regulate. According to the consultancy Global Trends, of the world’s 150 largest economies only 41 per cent are countries; the rest are corporations.

There are various drawbacks to this situation, from the terrible working conditions for employees in developing countries, to the destruction of valuable  natural resources without compensation. All this to produce shoes, watches and tablets as quickly and cheaply as possible to satisfy the  demand of global consumers.

Although consumption trends are high in many countries (Germany leads in  Europe, while the growth in some Persian Gulf countries is astounding), the USA has topped the list since the times of Victor Lebow. This analyst theorized that for the large US economy to maintain its robustness, it would need to make consumption a permanent part of the US lifestyle.

It is seriously difficult to understand prices in US malls. How  can a buyer know how much was earned by the Chinese boy who assembled the product by hand? If he was offered social security and health benefits? How much did the fuel cost to bring it from China to Rotterdam to Florida? If it is an electronic device, where did the Coltan come from? And how much was paid to farmers who extracted it? If this mineral – vital for cell phones and games consoles – came from D.R. Congo, did it come stained with blood?

We do not have sufficient space to address the last link in this consumer system: the inevitably gigantic quantities of waste generated. But the message is clear, responsible citizenship requires us, at the very least, to ask ourselves again and again if we really need that new item that we are about to buy.

Although modern advertising may suggest the opposite, and those who call us  ‘ecocentric’ are everywhere, it is worth pursuing sustainable lifestyles. Ultimately, parks and fellow humans are worth more than shopping malls and corporations. Because our quality of life doesn’t depend on our level of consumption!

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 9 April 2012. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson. Image: Flickr / Enoughproject