Thursday, May 28, 2009

Meatless Monday: Retooling the American Diet

Policy Innovations contributor Mikaela Bradbury reports on global food habits:

The issue of animal rights and eating meat has resurfaced in mainstream politics and intellectual thought, as it touches upon global crises from climate change to food safety. Whether to eat other animals is now a practical issue of efficiency and self-interest, as well as an abstract moral dilemma.

The hunger and efficiency argument goes as follows: If it takes several kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef, why aren't we eating the grain directly, and is it ethical to feed cows when human beings are starving around the world?

The self-interest argument applies on a personal and a planetary level, through the recognized health benefits of a vegetable-rich diet and the threat of climate change. Livestock rearing contributes an estimated 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, more than the transportation sector. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock industry is also a prime driver of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.

Yet beyond the waves of public abstinence and outrage associated with cases of food contamination or animal disease outbreak, vegetarianism is still a long way from achieving the social status of hybrid cars as a response to global warming. In fact, meat consumption is expected to double by 2050. Although cars and meat share a similar story as twin culprits of climate change, the livestock sector sees no need to retool with the same urgency as the automobile industry, in anticipation of drastic market shifts and new government regulations.

Eating local is an emergent trend that combines food and transport, but its overall effect may be negligible, as food transport constitutes only 5 percent of total food-related emissions. "You can have a much bigger impact by shifting just one day a week from meat and dairy to anything else than going local every day of the year," argues Chris Weber, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Last September, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made the same suggestion, urging people to eat a meat-free diet once per week. "In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity," he said.

This is the spirit behind "Meatless Monday," an idea that the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has recycled from Herbert Hoover's WWI Food Administration. "It is a small change with large effects," said Brian Waniewski, director of the Healthy Monday campaign, in an interview with Policy Innovations.

Why Monday? According to some studies, changes that occur on Mondays are more likely to impact the rest of the week, explained Waniewski. People who are tied to the 5-day work week have internalized Monday as a "reset day," a time to purge the indulgences of the past and plan constructively for the future.

The notion of Meatless Monday hearkens back to previous eras of hardship when Americans were called upon to ration in support of the troops. Sid Lerner, chairman of the Healthy Monday campaign, reinvigorated the idea as a public health initiative in 2005, when the dangers of trans fats were gripping the media. Since then, Meatless Monday has repositioned itself as an effective response to environmental, economic, and health issues.

The movement will have to avoid sounding moralistic as it expands internationally. Particularly in developing countries, where hunger is the worst and meat consumption is expected to grow the most, Meatless Monday must be seen as a beneficial solution, not an unjust sacrifice. Although some of these countries may strive to leapfrog over the failures of modernization—such as obesity and high cholesterol—the Western diet is still strongly perceived as a sign of wealth and prosperity.

Photo courtesy of Curtis Hightower (CC).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

THE $12 TRILLION TRAP: The Economic Crisis, the Obama Administration's Response and Its Global Impact

Policy Innovations adviser Joseph Stiglitz will speak tonight at a fund-raiser for pediatric care in Sierra Leone:

Welbodi Partnership invites you to an evening with Dr. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate and Columbia University Professor of Economics, discussing "THE $12 TRILLION TRAP: The Economic Crisis, the Obama Administration's Response and Its Global Impact." The event will be moderated by Bloomberg News Editor-at-Large Mr. Robert Friedman, with an exhibition of photographs by Czech photographer David Lacina.

Time: May 26th 2009, 7-9PM
Location: Fourth Universalist Society of New York
160 Central Park West at 76th Street
Please RSVP at or by phone at (917) 945-7879

A minimum donation of $25 is requested. Exhibition photographs will be available for sale at $100. All cash donations and half of sale proceeds will go towards supporting the Welbodi Partnership, a charity dedicated to improving the provision of pediatric care in Sierra Leone. The event is made possible through the kind support of Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, the Fourth Universalist Society of New York, Mrs. Anya Stiglitz, Mr. Robert Friedman, and Mr. David Lacina.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Recessionistas Invade the Ad World

I had lunch today with an old friend who now teaches at a New York City university. He said that it is good being a professor because he doesn't have to worry about knowing what's cool anymore. As a student he had found that teachers who tried to be hip were, actually, a bit pathetic. I showed him my G1 Google phone asking him whether being uncool and geeky was cooler than the hip iPhone. He said geeky cool was so 1990s. Now, the coolest is the downtrodden "recessionistas." In fact, those with jobs risked being seen as outsiders in this pleather economy. Lo and behold, this aesthetic has reached Madison Avenue with GM's new advertising. GM is no longer about big, powerful SUVs but is the underdog fighting with the people.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Middle Path Policymaking in the US and China

A couple of years ago in anticipation of a Democratic White House and a new approach toward trade policy, I advocated a revised definition of "fair trade:"
Adam Smith showed that economic freedom allows people to maximize their potential to the benefit of all society. But total freedom, as Thomas Hobbes argued, leads to a short and nasty life. The Aristotelian notion of moderation might help reconcile this paradox: Trade should be neither too free nor too regulated.

Moderation, the "golden mean," and the middle path have recently come to characterize the current administrations of the two largest economies (using PPP) and largest emitters of CO2--the so called G2, China and the United States. Based on our conversations in China during our last two trips in the past year, two themes keep coming up: One is that although China's fate is tied to that of the United States, many Chinese feel fairly confident that their economy will pull through the financial crisis with no major political instability. In fact, some Chinese have sounded downright triumphant about their country's more influential status and its potential economic robustness.

Another theme that we have heard is that China will be drawing on many traditions to formulate its future policy platforms. One of those traditions includes Confucianism and the golden mean. Both of these themes come together in this fascinating op-ed in the China Daily, "Chinese model and the doctrine of mean," by Zheng Yongnian. Here is an excerpt:
But what exactly is the Chinese model? I think the Chinese model is a composite or mixed economic system. Its features include a mixture of ownerships, a combination of foreign and domestic demands, and the balance between the State and the market. The mixed economic model embodies a Chinese philosophy - the doctrine of mean. Guided by that philosophy, China has avoided extremes in the past 30 years. Neither neo-liberalism nor the traditional planned-economy socialism has dominated its economic practices.

China is the very incarnation of mixed-ownership economy. In the age of reform and opening up, China has allowed various types of ownership, including private ownership, foreign capital and joint ventures. But it has shunned hasty and complete privatization, and instead chosen a step-by-step trial-and-error approach. While reforming the sclerotic State-owned enterprises (SOEs), it encouraged the emergence and development of other types of ownership and gradually granted legal protection to all.

It is curious that the author is attempting to describe a "Chinese model" for economic growth—something that many Chinese and China watchers are reluctant to do for many reasons. One reason being that the historical factors that led to China's current position are so complex they cannot be emulated; another is that China's growth strategy, in all reality, has been ad hoc, not a coherent model.

In the US case, Obama has also been following the middle path of policymaking--an approach that carries its own risks. While the Bush Administration was almost simplistically clear about its policy goals, the Obama Administration is much more nuanced, measured, and therefore challenging to grasp. Some of this analysis has appeared in Slate this week.

In Jacob Weisberg's attempt to create a general theory about Barack Obama, he first notes Obama's equation of the middle ground as inherently a more moral ground:
He sees the middle ground as high ground. Candidates who talk about bringing people together, being uniters not dividers, or changing the tone in Washington are usually blowing happy smoke. At this point, however, Obama's focus on reconciliation is clearly more than shtick. We saw this impulse at work when he made pre-emptive concessions on his stimulus package in an unsuccessful effort to win Republican support. We saw it in another way when he personally brokered a compromise between the French and Chinese presidents at the G20 summit in London. Every few days, it seems, Obama, tries for a "new beginning"—with Iran, Cuba, the Muslim world, even Paul Krugman. Engaging with opponents animates him more than hanging with friends.

Similarly, and as several other observers have done, Slate author John Dickerson compares Obama to the Star Trek character Mr. Spock:
Obama is often compared to Spock because he never gets too hot or too cool and speaks in the careful way of a logician. But the president and the fictional character seem to have the same kind of empathy, too. Conservatives have interpreted Obama's call for empathy as some kind of soft-headed, group-hug approach to law, where how a judge feels about a case or a plaintiff is more important than anything else. Actually, as Dahlia and others have pointed out, all that Obama appears to be asking is that jurists have the capacity to embrace different perspectives and as much as possible stand in the shoes of those who will be affected by their rulings. The point is not to be overcome by fellow-feeling but to gain perspective.

All of this moderation in policymaking is a refreshing rejection of ideology- and faith-based policies of the past. It certainly bodes well for peace among great powers. But what, I wonder, will happen when bold action is required, for example in Copenhagen this winter? May I quote the singer Seal: "But were never gonna survive, unless...We get a little crazy." Will President Obama channel or find his Captain Kirk? Doing something radical for climate change will give the United States moral ground to push other countries to reduce emissions.

Photo by oceandesetoiles.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Green Mapping for Eco-Justice in Harlem

We mentioned in March that Carnegie Council had been involved with helping put together a video about the Green Mapping in Harlem. Columbia University's Earth Institute and Dorst MediaWorks have just released this wonderful documentary about Harlem's community response to ensure a new bus depot was outfitted with proper air filtration systems. It is a story about environmental justice taking place through community organization facilitated by technology--the maps. One of the theories behind this movement has been the need for religious communities to spread the moral logic for environmental protection. Check out the video here:

Monday, May 4, 2009

Earth Institute Searches for Science-Religion Common Ground

I am participating in Columbia University Earth Institute's Fetzer Institute symposium "Common Ground: Science and Religion in Dialogue for a Sustainable Future."

Yesterday, Earth Institute Director Jeff Sachs opened up the conference with the observation that human activity is having a greater impact on the Earth's environment than ever before, becoming a factor shaping the Earth's natural cycles and systems. Sachs calls this new age the Anthropocene; here is Sachs talking about this idea on BBC in 2007:

I called my lecture today 'The Anthropocene'—a term that is spectacularly vivid, a term invented by one of the great scientists of our age, Paul Crutzen, to signify the fact that human beings for the first time have taken hold not only of the economy and of population dynamics, but of the planet's physical systems, Anthropocene meaning human created era of Earth's history. The geologists call our time the holocene—the period of the last thirteen thousand years or so since the last Ice Age—but Crutzen wisely and perhaps shockingly noted that the last two hundred years are really a unique era, not only in human history but in the Earth's physical history as well. The Anthropocene is the period when human activity has overtaken vast parts of the natural cycles on the planet, and has done so in ways that disrupt those cycles and fundamentally threaten us in the years ahead.

Sachs therefore calls for a new ethic of sustainability (one of the missions of this symposium through curriculum development) in a world of strangers. Historical ethical systems had been created to suit smaller human communities in which people generally knew one another. How do we develop a global ethical system in which human activity has global impact but it is difficult to hold all these strangers to account?

James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies then gave the keynote address. Hansen explained why he decided to start speaking publicly after for many years bunting speaking invitations to his colleagues such as Michael Oppenheimer. On the main conference screen, Hansen showed photographs of his grandchildren and said that he felt a responsibility to do whatever he could to address the climate change crisis for the benefit of future generations. He mentioned that despite the remark Larry King made to him that "nobody cares about 50 years from now," perhaps from a media perspective, Hansen sees inter-generational justice as fundamental to many moral systems. The past eight years of the Bush Administration trying to stamp out the climate change truth has delivered a bleak message to future generations: "You are on your own, baby," Hansen said.

As for solutions, Hansen was critical of cap and trade schemes, saying they often leave too many loopholes, and that the clean development mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol has allowed some countries to increase their carbon emissions, by planting trees elsewhere for example. Instead, Hansen prefers a carbon price through a tax that would be significant enough to change behavior and amass a public fund for investment.

The panel I moderated was titled "Creating a vision for Sustainable Business," featuring Kevin Knobloch of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith, and George Pohle of Suasoria and formerly at IBM. I opened up the panel by linking Jeff Sachs's remarks about the need for an ethic in a world of strangers to a book I am now reading, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, by Kwame Appiah.

In his book, Appiah makes the case that what we believe (based on observation) and what we desire are linked and closely related. Moreover, the facts we believe to be true can change while beliefs can be difficult to disprove. Appiah famously uses the case of witchcraft in Ghana. He asks, isn't it true that people get sick without a clear explanation and isn't it true that some people wish ill on others? What fact can you point to that disproves that witchcraft doesn't exists? And what fact can you point to the universal truths exist? Appiah tries to bridge moral relativism and positivism; his "challenge" is cosmopolitanism, which says:

1. we have obligations to others
2. we should take seriously the specific lives and beliefs of others

Appiah's cosmopolitanism is about keeping a sincere conversation going. As my Unitarian church, while I was growing up, implored, "peace through understanding." Perhaps the "uni" in Unitarian should refer to "one world" instead of a single God.

Carrying on a sincere conversation is a good ongoing process, but can't we agree on some fundamental ethical foundations as well? My study of religions, as a religious studies minor in college for example, taught me that most of the major religions do actually make the case for the Golden Rule or its flip side a variation of "do no harm." Isn't truly good business sustainable business and truly sustainable business good business? I said I hoped this conference would not only advance a conversation but also help find common ground for an ethic of sustainability.

One of the most interesting discussions among the panelists was sparked by a comment about spiritual experiences. Harper has developed an adult education program that asks people to describe spiritual experiences they have had in the natural world. Many people have had profound experiences in the natural world but nobody talks about it (one of the participants later in the evening guessed it might be because Judeo-Christian societies have a fear of Paganism or reverence toward nature). The panelists agreed that introducing nature's power to inspire should be a part of child development as well as curricula development. Some suggested that this spiritual engagement, as well as green jobs, conservation, energy efficiency, smart regulations, and green investment, might comprise an ethical business venture in the post-crisis economy.

Those are my initial thoughts. Time to get back to the second day of the symposium.