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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries tagged "environment"

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A Quick Look at the Ecological State of the Union

February 12, 2013 ·

Hurricane Sandy Climate Change Obama Executive ActionsIn the last year, climate change has come home to the United States in a visceral way. During his State of the Union address, Obama should lay out bold plans for the transition to an ecologically sane economy that reduces inequality.

Images of waves crashing into the Statue of Liberty, wildfires engulfing homes in Colorado, and flood water shutting down the Louisiana interstate have rocked the American psyche over the past twelve months.

For me, 2012 meant living through record-breaking heat waves that buckled metro tracks and derailed commuter trains in my adopted home of Washington, DC. Sadly it also meant saying good-bye to the beach on the Jersey shore where my brother and I played as kids.

Since Obama committed the United States to responding to climate change in his inaugural address, saying that a “the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” American families in the Southeast were hit by severe tornados and in the Northeast by crippling snowstorms.

Of course, dealing with climate change in our country is about more than bad weather. We’ve heard about how battered infrastructure and closed businesses strain on national and local coffers. We hear less about how climate change exacerbates inequality — disproportionately impacting the lives and livelihoods of people living in poverty and low-income communities.

A shot at a better life for everyone has to entail a shift away from an “all of the above” energy plan that includes sources that poison people, pollute the environment, and lock us into decades of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The expansion of fossil fuels and the increasingly extreme ways of getting at it — through fracking, deepwater drilling and blasting the tops off mountains — has got to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Obama said that “the path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult” — no less because the fossil fuel industry and the members of Congress to whom they contribute continue to undermine legislative action on climate. But the transition to shared prosperity and a vibrant clean economy can be made easier with sustained leadership from the president and his administration.

Here are a few actions Obama can take without Congress that he can highlight in tonight’s State of the Union address to show he’s serious about the fight against global warming:

  • Say no to the Keystone XL pipeline. Without waiting for Congress the State Department can deny TransCanada’s request for permission to build a pipeline across the United States carrying toxic tar sand oil to polluting refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Regulate power plants. Since the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are pollutants in 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to put controls on carbon emissions. This means the EPA has tools to regulate new and existing power plants and industrial sources that are spewing methane, nitrous oxide and soot into the air.
  • Curb natural gas exports. The Department of Energy can reject licenses for oil and gas industry to expand their export of liquid natural gas to countries with which we don’t already have free trade agreements. And Obama could direct the U.S. Trade Representative to withdraw from negotiations on the TransPacific Partnership, which would fling the doors wide open to LNG export to countries in Asia.
  • Negotiate a global climate deal in good faith. Obama should instruct the climate team at the State Department to return to the negotiating table ready to compromise in order to reach international consensus for a strong and equitable 2015 climate treaty.

Obama doesn’t have to wait for Congress to act — and we don’t have to wait for Obama, either.

People have already started. They’re putting their bodies in the path of Keystone’s southern leg to halt construction. They’re closing down dirty power plants in the cities where they live and work, and meeting with neighbors to create plans to make their communities climate resilient. And thousands of people from around the country will gather in Washington, DC this weekend to call on Obama to push forward on climate in his second term.

Tonight, as Obama addresses the nation he’ll be laying the groundwork for his climate legacy.  His comments will also shape how the growing majority of Americans who care about global warming perceive him — as a climate champion or an agent of politics as usual.

Reality TV's "Stories of Stuff"

September 8, 2011 ·

Watch out Annie Leonard and the “The Story of Stuff!” Reality TV is on the stuff beat.

If you’ve missed reality shows like Pawn Stars, Storage Wars, and American Pickers, then you’ve missed a fascinating front in the expanding “new economy.”

These reality shows are an unwitting window in to the new green economy, showing just how cool and profitable it is to reuse and repurpose old stuff. Environmentalists know that reusing creates a “closed loop” in the production process, saving all the upstream inputs and keeping things out of landfills and incinerators. (For the full explanation, watch Annie Leonard’s excellent original Story of Stuff.) 

The Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas teaches lessons on repurposing through the hit show "Pawn Stars." CC photo by Pocheco.No one on these reality shows offers platitudes to saving the earth or utters an ecological thought. But the shows offer important lessons about both the dark side of accumulation and the ingenuity of those who are repurposing stuff and earning a living while doing it. 

Unfortunately, we must start our reality TV tour with the hoarders. Hoarding: Buried Alive and Hoarders dramatize the folks who compulsively fill their homes with stuff until health and human services professionals are called in. Stuff crams these homes from floor to ceiling. These shows baldly expose a convergence of dysfunctions: addiction, debt, overconsumption, and isolation. They’re truly gut-wrenching, and the only appropriate response seems to be a quick prayer and a click of the remote. It is impossible to watch without feeling like a horrible voyeur.

But moving on from the hoarders we meet the “pickers.” On Americans Pickers, two men drive around the country in a big van and knock on doors where they see houses overflowing with stuff. They wheel and deal and ultimately cart off a few choice items from these homes, leaving the homeowner a bit richer but still, usually, drowning in stuff.

The most riveting show is Storage Wars. Here, three men plus a husband-and-wife team bid on items in “foreclosed” storage units after glimpsing the contents for only a few minutes. Why only a few minutes, you might ask? One can only assume that storage warriors prefer a bit of drama and mystery built into their business model. (NPR’s This American Life also did a story on this phenomenon a few years ago.) 

What goes largely unlamented on Storage Wars are the people losing the storage units. Who are they, and why did they stop paying the rent on the unit? Why were they storing this stuff in the first place, instead of keeping it in their homes? The  “signs of the times” are invisible but present: was it a lost job, a foreclosed home? Was it a case of over-consumption, and the stuff just wouldn’t fit?

The tragedies of the old debt-based consumption economy stare us in the face as each unit’s yawning door is pulled open. But even as we lament this, the storage warriors zip into the opening like zealous entrepreneurs. They’re full of new life for old stuff.

These programs are just the tip of the iceberg wh>en it comes to stuff-based reality TV. There’s also Pawn Stars (the most popular show, featuring the colorful owners and customers of Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas), Hardcore Pawn (about Detroit's biggest pawn shop) and Picker Sisters (Lifetime’s answer to the male American Pickers, it’s about two women who travel the country looking for things to repurpose for their funky home décor shop).

What can we make of the fact that livelihoods based on reusing and repurposing have risen to such prominence in American pop culture that they merit multiple reality TV shows?

For one thing, it’s encouraging that so many people who appear not to give a fig for the environment are on the cutting edge of reusing, recycling and repurposing. The transition to a new economy won’t get far if we can’t make our livelihoods in it. The good news is that there’s money to be made by keeping stuff out of landfills – and even money to be made by featuring this on TV!

We could also speculate that a robust secondary market means that we’re all a little less obsessed with the shiny and the new. Or, perhaps this is a  temporary blip – and most folks are secretly dying to get back into the mall.

Oh America, you have woven a truly rich story of stuff. And now as we try to back out of over-consumptive madness into something more sustainable and healthy, we need everyone on board. Advocates for the new economy have something to learn from all the pickers, storage warriors, and pawn stars leading the way, and making a buck while doing it.

Don't Get Fooled Again: Writing Our Own Economic Future

April 25, 2011 ·

On April 1, I sat down with a group of my neighbors — members of a newly formed Common Security Club in our Boston neighborhood — to watch Inside Job, the Academy Award-winning documentary about the 2008 economic meltdown. We were going for an April Fools Day theme: “Don’t get fooled again” by the bankers and executives who caused the crash.

For a lot of us, the theme hit home: “I have a feeling they are going to fool us again,” one person said. “We have the same CEOs, the same regulators. Are we just going to go around and around, from crash to a mild recovery to the next crash?”

It’s a level of vulnerability many of us just can’t feel comfortable with. In community centers, living rooms, and churches around the country, more than forty other groups gathered to view and discuss the documentary that day, seeking to better understand why the economic crisis happened—and how to make their communities more resilient in the future.

Inside Job exposes devastating greed and incompetence at the highest levels of government and the private sector. With a relentless barrage of facts, it shows how the “smartest people in the room” created theconditions for a huge economic collapse that they had no idea how to stop—but never paid a price for the destruction they caused in the lives of millions of Americans.

After the film, my neighbors and I talked about how difficult it is to be hopeful when the same exact people who caused the crash are still running the economy. We’re also concerned that the story we tell ourselves about the economy hasn’t fundamentally changed. So many of us expect things to go back to the way they were: an economy based on cheap oil and unbridled consumption.

But many others know that’s not an option. At my club the following Sunday, we talked about whether or not we want a “recovery.” People were clear that we want more jobs, fewer foreclosures, and less debt. But: “I don’t think we can go backwards to get what we want,” said one participant, the pastor of the church. “We need to take stock of our reality now, and figure out how to make it better.”

We have been told that the experts know best, and that even though they crashed the economy, they’re still the experts. We’re told that we should be patient, not question things we don’t understand, and by all means, keep shopping. “These kinds of messages work to keep us paralyzed and isolated, and keep us from seeing other possibilities,” says Linda Schmoldt, a Common Security Circle facilitator in Portland, Oregon. “We must envision a new economy and society based on real wealth, and create a new story about what is possible.”

Still, though my club knew things needed to change, it was hard to imagine a large-scale vision of something different.

But it was easy to imagine how we could begin to change things in our own neighborhood: “What if we had a garden here at the church?” asked the pastor. “It would be something else for people to do, besides watch TV and shop. I’d need help, but we could do it. We could involve the teenagers at the community center and share all the food.” Others chimed in: “Let’s use Freecycle to find old things instead of buying new ones.” “Let’s set up a website to list recipe ideas and grocery saving tips and things we can share.”

What’s your vision for the new economy? What are you doing to turn it into a reality? There’s so much to do: you can help organize a Common Security Club for your community; get involved in a Transition Initiative; build local resilience alongside your neighbors; take steps to increase your independence from Wall Street’s phantom wealth traps by buying and investing locally.

One way to get the conversation started is with your own Inside Job screening — the movie is now available for online screening. The experts got it wrong; we can kiss their old story goodbye and start writing our own.

We Can Live Without Gold

April 14, 2011 ·

Last night I attended a moving ceremony at the Smithsonian museum where the Goldman Environmental Awards were presented to six brave activists for a better world. 

One of the recipients was farmer-turned-activist Francisco Pineda, who is a leader of a coalition of Salvadoran groups fighting gold mining, which was poisoning their fresh water sources. IPS gave its prestigious Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award to this group in 2009, and we have worked with them in an international coalition to halt the destructive gold mining.  As Francisco put it in his acceptance speech: “We can live without gold, but we cannot live without water.”

Francisco Pineda at the 2011 Goldman Prizes
Francisco Pineda accepts his award at the 2011 Goldman Prizes. Photo via Goldman Prizes FB page.

Francisco and his colleagues have managed to convince their government to stop new mining permits, but two of the big the mining companies have been suing the Salvadoran government under the Central American Free Trade Agreement. As Francisco says of the CAFTA law suit: “It is like saying to a friend: ‘I'm going to steal everything from you. But if you don't let me steal everything, I'm going to sue you.’”

I am traveling to El Salvador next week with my wife, Robin Broad, to write a piece for The Nation on this struggle, from the communities on the front lines to the global legal battles. And IPS is continuing to work with Francisco and his colleagues in a campaign to convince the mining firm, Pacific Rim, to drop its case against El Salvador as part of a larger IPS effort to end corporate protections in trade and investment agreements.

As we left the Smithsonian, Francisco still wore the huge smile he’d had all evening. “I got to meet your president today.  He told me he understood Spanish, but couldn’t speak it. I thanked him for coming to our country and for giving us assistance but I told him we needed him to come out against mining, to come out against the CAFTA lawsuit.”         

We must constantly remind ourselves and our president that global rules are made by people, and we can change them to reflect the interests of people and the environment. Today, an ally from El Salvador made that case.

What Do the Elections Mean for the Environment?

November 4, 2010 ·

The Real News Network interviewed IPS's environmental expert Daphne Wysham on what's in store for the environment over the next two years.

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