Please leave this field empty
Institute for Policy Studies
RSS Feeds RSS Feeds

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.



Blog Roll

Baltimore Nonviolence Center
Barbara's Blog, by Barbara Ehrenreich
Blog This Rock
Busboys and Poets Blog
CODEPINK's Pink Tank
Democracy Now!
Demos blog: Ideas|Action
Dollars and Sense blog
Economic Policy Institute
Editor's Cut: The Nation Blog
Energy Bulletin
FOE International blog
Kevin Drum (Mother Jones)
The New America Media blogs
OSI Blog
Political Animal/Washington Monthly
Southern Poverty Law Center
Think Progress
YES! Magazine
US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation

IPS Blog

Entries tagged "sustainability"

Page 1 • 2 Next
Corporate Capture in Warsaw: The 'New Normal' in the Disaster Zone

November 18, 2013 ·

Robbie Watt in front of COP19's plenary session boxes, sponsored by the corporation ArcelorMittal

We are half way through the 19th summit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in cold, grey Poland. Far away in the Philippines thousands of people have lost their lives to Typhoon Haiyan and hundreds of thousands struggle to find food, water, and shelter.

This typhoon makes climate chaos dramatically visible as current reality—not just future possibility. The pictures and stories of the devastation are a reminder that as the planet warms, mega-storms like Haiyan are expected to become more frequent and more fierce. A typhoon hit the Philippines at the time of the COP last year too, as if devastating storms are becoming a ‘new normal’ at the climate negotiations.

The immediate and future impacts of climate change make the case for an urgent response – yet in Warsaw delegates seem to be responding with words instead of action.

As has been the case since the signing of the climate convention in 1992, a priority of international negotiations is for rich countries to agree and then act to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Commitments are not really on the table here, but are supposed to be agreed by 2015, when the summit meets in Paris. Unfortunately governments are not showing much ambition, and are even outlining plans to do less than they had previously agreed to. Australia, Japan and Canada have been set a bad example to this effect, while the United States’ position as a laggard has hardly changed.

There are plenty of technical questions under discussion here in various work programmes and subsidiary bodies, keeping the delegates busy. But without any ambition on pollution cuts we are left with the clear impression of running around going nowhere, like a hamster racing round on the exercise wheel in its cage. With the meeting rooms arranged in a ring inside the circular national stadium, delegates are literally running around in circles at this negotiation.

Officials in Warsaw are already resigned to the idea that we must wait until 2015 before reaching a new global climate deal, and many countries—particularly developed ones—have accepted the notion that we’ll wait another five years after that before any of these plans are implemented. If that happens, the next 8 years will be filled with another ‘normal’ at these negotiations – all talk and no walk.

Only an emotional speech by Philippine head of delegation Naderev Sano about the lives and livelihoods lost in his home country and his pledge to fast until “a meaningful outcome was in sight” seemed capable of rousing the attention of both delegates and international media. 

‘Green’ Corporate Sponsorship

Meanwhile, another ‘new normal’ is emerging at the climate summit. The negotiations in Poland have attracted an unprecedented number of corporate sponsors and lobbyists from big business and dirty industry, such as General Motors and the French energy conglomerate Alstom.

ArcelorMittal—one of Europe's most polluting firms, with a track record of lobbying to make millions out of Europe's failing experiments with carbon markets—constructed the temporary steel boxes in the national stadium (where the talks are taking place) to house plenary sessions, giving the impression that climate negotiations are literally being imprisoned under corporate control.

An entire floor in the stadium has been dedicated to private companies peddling ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis in the form of false-hope technologies such as pumping pollution underground and burning trash. Negotiators can relax in Emirates Air beanbag chairs, strategically placed all around the stadium. And many delegates carry complimentary goody-bags, a gift from the 11 official for-profit partners representing the aviation, auto, fossil fuel, and heavy industrial sectors.

The Polish government defends corporate sponsorship, claiming that the businesses involved provide ‘green’ products and services. In making this claim, the Poles are ignoring the compelling evidence of these firms’ environmental destruction and are legitimizing their dangerous presence at the negotiations, as outlined in the COP19 Guide to Corporate Lobbying.  

Of course the private sector has to be part of solving the climate crisis—but first, they have to get out of the business of polluting for profit. We find the corporate capture of the climate conference problematic in three major ways.

First, the 11 corporate partners are enjoying privileged access in return for their support while civil society observer organizations—the groups that represent the public interest—have experienced unexpected restrictions in their ability to participate in the UNFCCC.

Second, many of the ‘solutions’ corporate partners offer are not ‘green’ and will not stop the release of greenhouse gases. Instead, these proposals serve to protect corporate interests while creating new opportunities for profit.

Third, climate change is a problem that can only be properly addressed through collective action. However, it’s becoming ‘normal’ to frame climate change as a business opportunity, where companies can make money from flawed carbon markets and the ‘Green Corporate Fund’.

COP19 is being branded as the first full-out corporate COP. This sets a dangerous precedent and should not become a 'new normal.' The apparent normality of disasters and lack of action associated with climate politics is already bad enough. 

Is a Higher GDP What We Want?

April 8, 2011 ·

When we take the sustainability of our economic activities into account and compare gross domestic product (GDP) to new economic indicators, the result may come as a surprise. An increasing GDP may demonstrate growth in gross transactions, but it may not indicate that the majority of us are better-off.

Politicians should take an interest in the impact on people’s quality of life when they are drafting and debating new policies. But unfortunately, they are limited in their understanding of social well-being when they use indicators like GDP to identify their focus and success. Using GDP fails to address the worsening of the current environmental and social problems, such as air pollution, unemployment, the vanishing middle class, and decreasing life satisfaction.

By definition, GDP is the market value of all final goods and services that are produced within an economy during a given period of time. It is the most widely-used measurement of economic growth, and is what policymakers currently focus on. Economic and finance textbooks typically explain that boosting the level of GDP is a primary goal of any kind of economic policy. However, many prominent economists are beginning to question that notion by asking if a higher GDP is really what we want for our nation, and if it is actually doing any good for the general public. In specific, they have started wondering if the ingredients within the GDP calculation are sufficient to represent how well we are doing.

“[GDP]measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”-- Robert F. Kennedy

We cannot really say that our society does better due to an increase in consumption that makes GDP go up. Environmental and social costs are not reflected from higher consumption, and GDP is inadequate if we truly want to examine the performance of our economy and society.

A sustainable society which allows its citizens to share its prosperity needs the right tools to guide it by measuring how far it is from achieving its goal. GDP is not a proper indicator of human well-being, and it should not be used for policy making. A flaw is built into the GDP calculation: it includes the monetary profits but excludes the social and ecological costs. For instance, GDP increases when sales of cigarettes go up. The figure climbs not only from the profits that are generated from the sales, but also because of the increases in health care expenses such as more frequent sickness or cancer due to smoking. Would it make sense for a government to support and advertise the sale of cigarettes so this dangerous activity can boost that country’s GDP? This shows how a population participating in unhealthy activities, which make them sick, results in a higher GDP. In contrast, a happy and sound society that refuses to participate in such risky practice could not demonstrate their increase in health through an increase in the health care sector’s GDP.

There is an urgent need for a new measurement of economic and social well-being that works as a supplement to GDP. Fortunately, there are some alternative indicators being developed. According to Lew Daly, senior fellow at Demos, “the goal is to change how we measure economic performance and social progress, in order to refocus public policy on critical social needs and on the resources we must preserve -- and create -- to ensure a more sustainable prosperity.” For instance, the STAR Community Index, the Canadian Index of Well-Being, and the Maryland Genuine Progress Indicator can be combined with GDP to do this better than GDP alone. They expand on economic activity by incorporating unpaid work with it.

GDP fails to recognize the non-monetary costs and the values of volunteer work. It overlooks the issue of inequality and the difference between good and bad economic activities. Therefore, it should be made clear to our politicians that raising GDP is not progress. We should start using the right tools to measure the right things.

Organics and the Science of Farming

February 17, 2011 ·


Danilo working in his organic rice field.
Danilo made the switch to organic farming
for its economic benefits as well as to
avoid health problems caused by
chemical pesticides.

Photo by John Cavanagh.

This article was originally published on the YES! Magazine website.

One of the biggest myths about organic farmers is that they are “unscientific” and “backward.” After time in the southern Philippines with Danilo and Carlito, we learn something quite different.

Danilo is slight in build, with a deep tan and a shy but engaging smile. We stand at the edge of his hectare of neat, nearly mature, green rice stalks, our gaze drawn to Mt. Apo, the Philippines’ largest peak, rising majestically in the southwest. “It is all ‘zero-chem,’ that is to say organic,” Danilo tells us proudly.

It was the simple economics of organic farming that won Danilo over. He calculates that his costs have fallen from about $400 each planting-to-harvest cycle to roughly $160, and that his yields have dipped only a bit. Bottom line: he is making a lot more money each harvest. Every organic farming family we talked to reported lower costs and, as a result, liberation from the debts that haunted their lives. Health is also a key factor: Danilo describes the spells of dizziness that he used to suffer when spraying chemical pesticides before his switch to organic rice.

As we talk, “farmer scientist” Carlito pulls up on his motorcycle, dressed in a white racing jersey and dark glasses. Carlito works for a local citizens group called the Davao Provinces Rural Development Institute (DPRDI) that is helping farmers shift from chemical to organic rice and providing continued support after they do so. Carlito is not a formally trained agricultural scientist; he is largely self-taught and he scoffs at the chemically oriented mindset of the agricultural schools.

Bibing (left) and other women
making one of the natural
"concoctions" that have 
replaced chemical fertilizers
and pesticides in organic
agriculture. All the ingredients
can be grown at the farm
or purchased at the local

Photo by Robin Broad.

Danilo is concerned that some of his rice leaves have turned red recently, so he contacted Carlito. They fall into a deep discussion about whether to ignore the red leaves for now or spray them with what they are calling a “concoction.” Carlito is a humble yet animated person, with an easy, joking manner. A farmer himself, he knows that decisions about rice are life and death for farmers, and he treats Danilo with deep respect. In the end, they decide to make the final choice the next day when Carlito will stop by again.

We ask more about what’s in the “concoction” they’re thinking of spraying. Carlito invites us to his barrio where his wife Bibing and her neighbors agree to show us how to make the various natural “concoctions” that have replaced chemical fertilizers and pesticides in organic agriculture. We are, of course, game. At their home, Bibing and three friends feed us lunch. Then, they light a fire under a large pot filled with water, and tell us how they began to make these mixtures. “In 1997, the DPRDI taught us how to make eight different concoctions,” one tells us. “Some are made with fermented fruits, some with vegetables, some with fish bones or egg shells, or with seaweed. Some help prepare the soil; some discourage certain viruses or pests.”

Another woman adds: “All the ingredients are grown here or available at the local market. Each member of our group focused on one of the concoctions, and we sold quite a bit in the first few years.” Bibing laughs with pride as she describes their short-lived financial success: “Then, many farmers learned to make them on their own, and our sales went down.”

As the water starts to boil, Bibing stirs in carefully measured amounts of molasses and then seaweed. The fire is hot and, with sweat rolling off their faces, the women take turns stirring. As Carlito cuts bananas to ferment for another concoction, he explains that the recipes came originally from the innovations of Korean organic farmers. After the designated 45 minutes of cooking and stirring, the seaweed concoction is finished and ready for fermentation in an air-tight container.

The next afternoon, we travel back at Danilo’s rice field to see whether he has chosen to spray. He tells us that he and Carlito have decided that the red stalks are not dangerous at this point in the rice growing cycle. Instead, his nephew is now spraying an aged batch of the seaweed concoction cooked by Bibing’s group to make the rice stalks firmer as they grow heavier. 

“The timing of spraying is as important as what to spray,” Danilo explains. At around 5 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. each day, “the vegetation is moist with dew and comes alive with insects.” As we edge into his rice field, Danilo serves as our teacher of the animal life on and around his ripe stalks. In Hollywood, spiders periodically star in horror movies. In Danilo’s rice field, they are friends that eat the larvae of the “bad” stem borers. We discover a batch of bright red snail eggs, but Danilo is not concerned. They are a pest at planting time, he explains, because they eat the young rice shoots; now, close to harvest, they are helping by eating the weeds.

As we jot down the names and descriptions of various bugs and watch Danilo’s nephew spray, it’s clear that organic farming has evolved far beyond simple composting of biomass. It requires a mix of science, math, common sense, and hard work. Unlike chemical farming, with organic farming each day is new adventure of weeding, monitoring insects, making concoctions, and weighing options. To Danilo, this is empowering rather than overwhelming.

Many outsiders believe that the farmers who embrace chemical agriculture are the ones embracing science and progress. But in different farms around the world, we are discovering that the true pioneers of a healthier, debt-free, and more “scientific” food future are organic farmers such as Danilo. 

John and Robin

John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development atAmerican University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability. Over the decades, this husband and wife team has worked in a number of countries, including the Philippines, where Robin first lived in 1977-78.

Food for a Rooted Future

January 19, 2011 ·

John with Delia

John preparing local string-beans with

Photo by Robin Broad

Our search for rootedness has brought us back to the Philippines, back to communities in the south where Robin spent a year over three decades ago.

We spend time with the family of a rice farmer, Delia, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Delia, her husband Romulo, two daughters, one son, and three grandchildren live in a simple but roomy house on the edge of their rice field. Behind the house is a tilapia-filled fish pond with papaya trees growing on one side. A few pigs are housed by the fish pond, and fifteen chickens have free range of the property. Vitamin-rich greens grow at the far edge of the pond, and two towering jackfruit trees provide shade as well as ingredients for delicious meals. Theirs is an example of what we call a “rooted” life; among other things, they eat mainly what they grow and raise.

So, too, is much of their other consumption locally-based—including our bedding. After dinner on the first night of our visit, surrounded by village kids, we walk five minutes up the road to the house of neighbor Ging-Ging. She is just finishing weaving two rattan mats for us on a wooden loom in her back yard. We chat as she weaves, and she explains the economics of her inputs and her time, convincing us that she still makes money on the one dollar that we pay for each.


  Ging-Ging weaving our

  Photo by John Cavanagh

Our host Delia is very active in the community, serving on several local committees, and—this is why we are here—is an enthusiastic backer of organic farming. After attending a workshop by a local non-governmental organization a couple of years back, Delia switched one of their three hectares from so-called “high-yielding” seeds dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to organic rice. She was an instant convert: “It is safer and the profit is bigger as expenses fell. With our two ‘chemical hectares,’ the rice traders who give us the loans are getting rich.”

Rice is central to Philippine culture, politics, the economy, and to most rural communities. It is also the biggest employer in the Philippines; over a third of the population still works in agriculture, and rice is still the largest crop. And, as we discover in several rice communities like Delia’s across the country, there are exciting shifts in the orthodoxy over what rice is planted and how it is grown.

After sleeping well on our new mats, we rise early with Delia’s family. It is the 15th of the month, which means that each family in the community must send one member to help cut weeds along the irrigation canal; those who fail to show are fined two dollars. This is one of several community tasks where all families here participate for the greater good, in this case keeping the canals free of weeds that would slow the water flow. The farmers move quickly, offering us their bolo knives so that we can join in.

At the edge of the irrigation canal, Delia proudly shows us her hectare of “zero-chem” rice and we discuss the traditional seeds she has planted. Part of the high expenses of chemical agriculture is that farmers must buy new hybrid seeds each planting season, a costly proposition. The traditional seeds that Delia and other organic farmers here are using are saved from the previous harvest or “in-bred” locally to work best in this particular area. Delia complains that the government’s agricultural extension agents sometimes give out free hybrid seeds, and that they mainly give seminars on chemical agriculture rather than providing support for “zero-chem” farming.

Delia and other organic farmers we meet are aware of the larger argument against traditional and inbred seeds and against organic agriculture overall: that it is “backward,” unscientific and can never compete with the high yielding seeds of chemical agriculture. Thus, it is often argued by proponents of chemical agriculture, it cannot feed the world. Africa is starving, the supporters of chemical farming say, and China is buying up farm land in other countries to feed its own people. Hence, higher yields are essential to feed a hungry world—or so goes the argument. 

The older farmers we meet say that yes, when the new rice varieties were first introduced in the 1960s and 1970s “green revolution,” the expensive seeds and chemical fertilizers and pesticides often produced increases in yields. But they also tell us of falling productivity over the years as soils became compacted and depleted of the nutrients that get replenished with organic farming. And, farmers were often forced to take on more debts to pay for the inputs or else, though economic desperation, to cut back on the pesticides and fertilizers, cutting yields further. Some even had to sell their cherished land.

As we see for ourselves, Delia and her zero-chem neighbors are anything but backward; they are impressive scientists in their own right, constantly experimenting with different seeds and different amounts of water. Instead of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, they cook their own non-chemical “concoctions” to handle everything from rats to stem-boring insects to plant viruses (more on this in a later blog).

After using the zero-chem techniques for a couple of seasons, several tell us their yields are just below what they were with chemical farming. Others say their yields have stayed the same or actually gone up.

The successful initiatives of farmers like Delia to take back control of their lives and gain food security are significant for this community and for the Philippines. But they are more than that. What we find here—people rejecting a half-century of conventional “wisdom” in favor of more rooted alternatives—is happening in many parts of the United States and other countries as well.


John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development atAmerican University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability.

The Age of Vulnerability

January 10, 2011 ·

Philippine Laborers

Laborers going home from a Philippine
plantation where pineapple is grown
for export.

Photo by John Cavanagh

If you are wondering what the Wall Street crash did for U.S. credibility abroad, listen to this. In the middle of the pain and suffering of the global economic and food crises of 2009, a group of South Asian economists and policy makers met in India and mocked the United States: “You guys messed up, and you’re taking the world economy down with you. Thank God we were smart enough to ignore your advice, so our financial sector was never deregulated, and we still grow most of our own food. We keep government grain stocks to cushion price spikes, and we’re even better than China because we rely more on internal demand than exports so we’re not taking as much of a hit,” as one participant summed up the sentiment of the meeting.

Is anyone in the United States (and other, poorer nations of the world) listening? We certainly are intrigued. So, after 30 years of working on and off in the Philippines, we return to gauge the debate, among members of the nations' new government and among ordinary Filipinos. How is the government and how are Filipinos, we asked, responding to what we call the “triple crises of vulnerability”: the global economic crisis, the food crisis, and the spreading environmental crises of water, forests, fisheries, and climate?

Some broader context is helpful here: For these past 30 years, the United States (along with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization) has preached the merits of “free trade”—gearing economic activity to global corporations and markets in order to take advantage of the so-called “efficiencies” of trade and investment with other countries. From the United States to the Philippines to Mexico, governments set incentives and rules so that firms shifted from local to global markets and, in the case of the Philippines, roughly 11 million people ended up working overseas.

Over these decades in most countries, banking was deregulated so that new high-risk financial instruments reaped big gains for investors, but small businesses that once formed the backbone of most economies had trouble getting loans. Firms produced goods in global factories that exploited natural resources and workers from poorer countries like the Philippines where governments offered lax labor and environmental standards. Over this period in the Philippines, the big foreign-exchange earners became overseas workers, call centers for Western firms, electronic exports, and tourism.

In this era of what financier George Soros calls “market fundamentalism,” the rich soared to unimaginable heights (the number of billionaires in the world jumped from 111 in 1987 to 1,011 in 2010) while workers, the environment, and fairness suffered. We now know that this strategy made poorer countries extremely vulnerable to external shocks from the economies of other nations, over which they have no control.

Robin Broad and John Cavanagh

The authors debate their latest book
at World Bank Headquarters.

Photo by World Bank Staff

Indeed, economic crisis struck in late 2008, emanating from the Wall Street casino as a giant bubble in U.S. housing prices burst. Then banks and other financial markets crashed. The crisis quickly spread to Europe and to those poorer countries most tied into Western markets. Turkey and Mexico, for example, found export markets and remittances from overseas workers drying up. Many countries in Asia fared somewhat better, since they traded more with China and India—which partially insulated their economies from such shocks. About half of the Philippines’ global trade and other economic ties, for instance, are still with the United States and Europe; it thus remains vulnerable to a global economic crisis that has defied conventional predictions of recovery.

For most countries, economic crisis has been accompanied by a food crisis, as prices of rice, wheat, corn and other basics soared in 2008, fueled by both unusual weather and opportunistic speculators. This led to widespread protests and unrest in countries like the Philippines, which still imports up to 10 percent of its rice, the country's most important source of calories (it is the most import-dependent of the rice-consuming nations).

Meanwhile, the spread of global assembly lines and trade, heavily dependent on fossil fuels, deepened the climate crisis. The Philippines sits on key lists of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, as the majority of rice and other foodstuff are grown on land that is barely above sea level.

In the middle of such global suffering and continuing vulnerability, what better time to rethink the overall economic and agricultural path? We asked this of a group of Philippine Congress members, led by Rep. Erin Tanada and Rep. Walden Bello. Coming from various political parties, most harbored hopes that global markets would simply pick up again and the Philippines could continue to live off the largess of other countries. But every Congressperson with whom we met in these hallowed halls has been spooked by the food crisis, and we found a refreshing openness to new ideas.

The good news, as we told these members of Congress, is that alternative economic models more rooted in small businesses and small farms are spreading around the world. In the United States, the local farm movement has expanded rapidly; for the first time in decades, the number of U.S. farmers has stopped shrinking. From local farmers markets to the spread of worker-owned cooperatives, creative people are building communities based on rooted economic activity, less inequality, more ecological health, and involving people more directly in the decisions that affect their lives.

We found this also in the Philippine countryside, where we spent time with dozens of farmers. We discovered a growing number who had shifted from so-called “high-yielding” varieties of rice heavily dependent on imported and toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides to local seeds grown organically and kept healthy by a variety of homemade “concoctions” to control pests and weeds (more on this in our next blog).

Back to the India conference of 2009. The participant ended his report: The global economic crisis “is a blow, but we’ll still grow at 6 percent and we’ll catch you [in the U.S.] even sooner in the global economy than we would have otherwise. Hope you learn something from this.”

John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development atAmerican University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability.

Page 1 • 2 Next