Thursday, June 29, 2006

Gates, Buffett and the Trouble with Random Acts of Kindness

There is Plan A, which is business as usual – humans struggling to multiply, live longer in better health world wide, some more equitably treated than others, some wildly privileged, some just plain killed because they are in the way of someone else’s idea of prospering. Plan A is failing disastrously as indicated by global heating, accelerating species extinctions and an end to cheap energy, already not so cheap and soon to disappear entirely when oil production peaks world wide and begins sliding away while demand continues to climb – until very likely the whole thing comes unraveled – and there is no serious investment in basic energy alternatives in sight.

Plan A is failing disastrously, with its philanthropy leading the way, because it is ignoring nature’s prosperity for one species’ only. The apparent goals of the Gates Foundation, may change this substantially or may miss crucial deadlines ticking away for biosphere survival. The basic issue being we just can’t be so focused on ourselves only and hope to have much of the world left in another couple decades. Investment in more prosperity for humans exclusive of everything else, including poor people and rich alike, is likely to be the coup dé gras for the biosphere. Massive philanthropy, meaning love of people, might just do in most of the whole living planet. We need massive philecoly, love of the ecological systems, that we are linked to in every way. We need to understand our economy is based on nature’s and that we need to invest in our foundation, not just in our immediate human problems.

Lester Brown, founder of the World Watch Institute and more recently Earth Policy Institute has proposed a Plan B, methodically laying out, largely on the basis of UN figures, how much money it would take to achieve various goals in human health, longevity, education, birth control, water and soil conservation, recycling and so on. It’s not perfect – and neglects thinking through the costs of replacing the city built for cars, with the city built for people, the city that is destroying the global environment with the city that can restore it. But his Plan B is a start.

Similarly, Al Gore offers, in his book, EARTH IN THE BALANCE, 1992, a “Global Marshall Plan” to create policies around the world to further a sustainable human presence on the Earth. In his recent slide show/movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” he has effectively raised a dire warning of the catastrophe we can expect if we continue down the Plan A path. His recommendations there are far short of what he proposed in Earth in the Balance, but raising the alarm is much needed and he offered a start, if one that is very tepid: from buy minimum packaging and recycle better to lower your thermostat in winter and inflate your tires to a higher pressure.

Enter the new megafoundations of which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, now reinforced with incoming money of around $31 billion form Warren Buffett, is by far the largest. Probably few people don’t have an opinion about that. Here’s mine: Their contributions are just too random. There’s no system in today’s philanthropy. Random acts of kindness won’t work. Of course the approach is far from completely random, helping whatever appears to need help. But without the context of a Plan B, I don’t see how it could work. And without a Plan B embracing rebuilding the civilization itself in its largest structure – the human habitat of cities, towns and villages – I don’t see how a Plan B can work either. Generous though it might sound to the sympathetic, it makes no sense to persist in the kind of giving that promotes the kind of growth in material prosperity that made the money to be given away in the fist place. Many economists still believe in infinite growth on a finite planet. They are thoroughly blinkered by the economic growth dogma, that to shrink in any form is to step on the slippery slide to oblivion – and worse than that – achieve failure in the game of amassing wealth. We see an stunning exuberance in development in China, India, Dubai and other countries as people build wildly and mostly in the same massively consuming way seen as material prosperity, with little awareness of the coming condition of rapidly declining energy availability as energy demand and prices start really escalating. Those on the material prosperity bandwagon don’t pay much attention to what’s happening to the planet’s climate and collapsing biosphere. Maybe it will go away…

What we need to do is shrink our consumption of the world’s resources and biosphere’s gifts and share prosperity with the other creatures of this planet and with each other too. We need to shrink our total numbers, our sprawled out cities, our total consumption – and switch to life ways and technologies like solar and wind that can render a human presence on this planet successful, non-suicidal. The days of random acts of kindness in social investment are over – or we are “over.” That the Gates foundation is putting money into family planning and giving more people information and means to slow and maybe reverse population growth, and that is a very good sign.

Next: how about the infrastructure that is producing most of the damage that could instead be an engine or repair and restoration, that is, how about the ecocity?

Someone of conscience has to do this: refine and implement a genuine Plan B that shrinks for prosperity. Someone with money has to support it, which sounds paradoxical, but it’s truly needed. More money supporting an arrangement that consumes less resources and restores nature is another definition of wealth, not poverty. To have fewer people desperately trying to enrich themselves and more of them to have more time to appreciate life is healthy, not a sign of poverty. There are baselines of nourishment and shelter, but beyond that so much that humanity does is damaging, useless or distracting from our real condition on the planet today, that we should face up to it and think about redesigning our civilization for functioning in harmony with nature as if it were a survival strategy. It is. But it is another kind of wealth, which could be a world of more thriving of a different sort. Something of a very different infrastructure for our world civilization needs to be built and that means mainly that it will have to be recycled out of the disaster we have already built. Specifically, the massively consuming city of cars/sprawl/paving and cheap energy (now disappearing forever) has to be transformed to one designed for people and informed intimately by nature: the ecocity as foundation for a Plan B. Climate system collapse linked to growing extinctions and the coming oil depletion crisis is telling us the time is nearing when the children of the rich as well as the poor are going to inherit a lonely, poverty-stricken world of chaos and violence. Better think again about taxing ourselves –and shifting much or most of philanthropy over to philecoly ASAP.

New Orleans is an interesting – and terrible – case in point. A Plan B there would mean the end of the 20th century random investment in… whatever! That whatever was inexpensive sprawl based on cars like anywhere else. Advertise it, scrape some cheap land and they shall build and the people shall rush in! As in the rest of the country, sprawl conquered New Orleans in the mid 20th century, too. A compassionate, ecologically aware plan would now be to reconstruct only portions of New Orleans, this time on safe mounds of Earth raised high over the floods – they have a perfect example right there with the University of New Orleans on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. UNO was only minimally damaged by Katrina. It was
constructed on elevated artificial fill.

A pedestrian city (many of our campuses are essentially pedestrian towns) connected by bicycles and streetcars, already popular there, could be defensible from storms if raised on a limited number of constructed islands. The wetlands, bayous and the delta’s rich biota could be restored in those locations, which would help mitigate future storm surge while providing more sea food production for the city. New construction could pay attention to the French Quarter where compact development has meant that each house protects the one it abuts so that none of them are seriously damaged by hurricane winds. A small amount of land compared to sprawled car-dependent development would then mean that relatively small amounts of fill could be used to raise the new construction. The only trouble is, rich people are waiting to take advantage of this and poor are on the cusp of getting shafted again as usual. Nobody trusts the people who hold the potential powers of redesign and rebuilding something better. The specter of the bulldozer reshaping the landscape and scraping away the past is strong in people’s minds and the city has not moved to reshape the city in any significant way as of 10 months after the disaster hit. Sympathy for the horrors and injustices the people went through is bringing in hundreds of volunteers to help displaced people come back into the same vulnerable environment because that’s what the victims want. But random acts of kindness are way short of what’s needed to solve the rebuilding problem there. The residents trying to return to the same failed infrastructure are “winning” some support now with an ultimate loss waiting in the future.

The sympathy card is winning there for the moment, which means there is no plan for changing the land use pattern or raising some of the re-inhabited area above floods harm. To “help” the people of New Orleans, no plan has been formulated other than letting them build back – if they can afford it or secure the help from someone – in harms way. Trust the government to maintain the 350 miles of levee, as they didn’t so recently? Trust in better rescue operations in the future, as would be unlikely? All this simply means now is the time to stop – then start thinking about something that makes sense.

Genuinely helping the people wanting to return would be a plan that recognizes nature as well as people have been violated in the 20th century sprawl of New Orleans and that now it is time to compensate the victims generously. A larger Plan B should take this as a general world policy, the better to prevent the next disaster. Nature would be compensated by getting
back some of its land taken for wildly profligate automobile-based development. The climate system would be protected by moving away from the auto/sprawl development pattern that is the foundation of most of the global heating problem that puts hurricanes on steroids. People would be compensated so that they could move into compact new districts of apartments and condominiums covering a small fraction of the land lost in the storm and served by energy conserving bicycle and streetcar transportation. They’d get to walk around neighborhoods with enough going on that they wouldn’t need to waste thousands of dollars on cars just to get around any more. These new neighborhoods or larger than neighborhood districts would be adjoining the present highest areas of town or on raised islands connected by streetcar and bicycle to the central city and French Quarter. If developers are waxing a bit greedy, tax them more and improve the city and its environs with their investment, but let them build and make some money on it. They – and all of us – need not only direction on what they can build and where, but a Plan B to provide us with a new level playing field world-wide.

A basic condition that is very relevant to this discussion looms over all of us at this point in history, and that is that it ain’t gonna be easy. Al Gore, trying to be politically realistic and not to frightening people overmuch, proposes very mild solutions, to say the least, after alerting us to a biological/climatological Armageddon headed our way. The piecemeal
approaches to improvement of what we have now that seem easy – buy an energy efficient car (which promotes sprawl and procrastination on ecological city re-design), recycle a little better, vaccinate another million people, provide schools that don’t educate about Plan B and so on, is not enough. Only Plan B is enough and it will not be easy. Population is so important, the Gates Foundation use of only 1% of its funding on the subject doesn’t act like it yet is part of a serious Plan B. To address problems as large as aired in the Gore film, it will take discipline, open-mindedness, hard work, some sacrifices and real change, not the least of which, change in the minds of the politicians, investors and philanthropists. Could we expect it to be easy to solve a problem as enormous as climate change, to cross the chasm in baby steps? It will also take massive investment, and not in random works to advance human prosperity as nature sinks to its knees supplying us in, hopefully, more equitable distribution.

The best place to start, at foundation of Plan B, is with a physical project. Then we can work our way up to the religiously and culturally tangled quagmire of dealing with population after we see some progress in other areas, namely the rich paying more of their fair share and reshaping cities for planet’s health, not just soon to be short lived prosperity. That essential physical project would be the transformation of the gluttonously energy- and land-, time- and resources-consuming car-based city into a city capable of shrinking for the general prosperity of Planet Earth and all its inhabitants. The pedestrian “eco-city” can be designed and built as a physical framework for getting far more in terms of cultural and personal life done with far less. We can roll back the city of cars to a much smaller footprint, breaking up megalopolises into necklaces of smaller cities, towns and villages that are connected by rail and bicycle and, internally, by streetcars, elevators, bicycles and feet. We can restore to nature and agriculture millions of urban acres in the United States by simply shifting steadily away from separate houses and toward car-free apartments and condominiums near jobs, shops, food and transit. To do that very well we can adopt ecological building features and “green” guidelines such as those delineated by the LEED certification process (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). We can expand community and close-in gardens and agriculture where recently land has been paved over for super-charged, gasoline-addicted scattered development. It takes planning, but it can be done and people will gain a richer culture, easier economy, healthier climate and rescued biosphere. People will gain a future in times when it is otherwise seriously in question.

That’s beginning to be a Plan B, reshaping cities to run perfectly well on one tenth as much energy and one fifth as much land as they do now. First find out how living systems can be saved on the planet, and if we don’t move rapidly and resolutely away from the car city we will never be able to do that. Then proceed with all due compassion and support for our fellow human beings as part of, not apart from, the rest of life on Earth. It’s time for philanthropy to follow philecoly, and both to follow some kind of real program for major change.

1 comment:

V.Shevchenco. said...

Blog is great idea. Thank you.

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