Monday, November 26, 2012

China Orders "Social Risk Evaluations"

The New York Times recently reported that China’s State Council, arguablyChina’s most powerful government entity, ordered all major industrial projectsprepare social risk evaluations. The decision was prompted by popular protests associated with negative environmental impacts by large-scale industrial and infrastructure projects. It seems under the immense public pressure, the Chinese government is finally doing something about actually enforcing their sustainable development goals.

The State Council did not make clear how this is enforced or what is included in these “social risk evaluations,” however, it is suggested that government transparency and public accountability will be part of that process.  

While I congratulate China on taking a right step forced to reconcile environmental problems with human rights issues in a profit driven context (inadvertently stumbling on the sustainable development requirements), I worry that China’s efforts miss the mark by focusing on avoiding potential instability problems, as resulted from their environmental and social degradations, as opposed to focusing on more productive and preventive measure of engaging with the people, thus actualizing real solutions that can balance economic growth with environmental and social safeguards.  

Think of it this way. China now has an unhealthy obsession with GDP growth, production, and economic development; all of which are at the cost of social and environmental integrity. It’s much like an obese patient facing heart disease, high blood pressure, and other related illnesses due to overconsumption by the body. When the patent went to the doctor, the State Council in China’s case, the remedy is to simply patch and stop bleeding. Where the arterial is blocked, there is no real incentive to fix the cause of these symptoms. Rather, China’s new “social risk evaluations” sounds more like a warning: do not proceed if you think this will cause eventual death.

What about the path to recovery?  

China is not getting to the issue of what caused the illness—that its people are unaware of eating too much can result in health consequences. So the prescription of “social risk evaluations” are just mere window dressing to the deeper rooted problems of increasing market demand and decreasing individual consideration of the whole. Everyone is out to get rich and the policies still favors cadres who can generate the most production for riches sake.

There is a silver lining in this new initiative, however; companies doing business with China can now leverage this State Council order to engage the local population in China and actualize real solutions to benefit the people, the land, and ultimately the company’s bottom line. So where the physician prescribed to China a “Surgeon General’s warning,” those companies with the expertise in sustainable development and concerns for the people and their backing in their own well-being, can act as real doctors in this developing landscape of compliance. Really making China sustainable never sounded so real and so grassroots. Just as Chinese medicine have traditionally been forward looking and sought to cure the root of problems, innovative companies can be forward looking in the totality of their presence in the world’s fastest growing market place and help cure the root of our common sustainability problems.      

Friday, November 16, 2012

Not all Those Who Wander are Lost--by Lauren Kong

I think that at times, we all wander a little. Wander from our path, from others and ourselves, and from the present moments we are given.

I’ve been wandering.

I’ve been wondering about my wandering.

I can’t tell whether it is good, bad, or in between.

I know that I am lucky to be able to wander at this moment; most people do not get the chance to wander off, to find what they want in and out of life. To seek for what they are searching. I do. And I am lucky for it.
I’m lucky that I have a partner who is extremely supportive in my wandering and also equally supportive in my wondering.  He is encouraging of both and wants the two to never end, for both of us.

I think that is why I can’t tell if my wandering is good, bad, or in between.  To be given the opportunity to devote my time to whatever wonders I can imagine has led to my wandering.

I have wandered into a time in my life where opportunity is knocking, yet for some reason, I can’t get to the door fast enough; whether that is because I’m too slow or that I’m scared to see what is knocking behind, I too wonder.

But, regardless, in due time I will get to that door and on the other side there will be a new type of wandering full of wonder.

I must first take that leap of faith; a leap of faith in myself.

I leave you with a video that came across today. I admire the folks in this video for taking such a large leap; for reminding me all that is gold does not glitter and not all those who wander are lost.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cost-Benefit Analysis and Chinese Political Patronage

Seth Jaffe (of Foley Hoag LLP) recently echoed a sentiment advocating for sensible economic measures to address global climate change. Mr. Jaffe questioned if anyone is paying attention to Cass Sustein, professor at Harvard Law School and a former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, calling for cost-benefit analysis when it comes to environmental issues. Some Democrats, according to Mr. Jaffe, question the motive of economic analysis and reject its callousness towards the moral issue behind environmental concerns.

I can understand their concerns for applying abstract numbers to situations affecting real people’s lives. Just how much we can put a price on one’s life or the health of our planet is uncertain, and I’d be the last to say we can make our decisions based on how much it’s going to cost. But I also acknowledge the reality of consequential concerns for the whole of our species, I therefore must concede to action now, in the best interest for all and with the most economic incentives to encourage real change. I am simply trying to be a pragmatic, no malevolent intent here as suggested by the far left.

As to how to balance conflicting concerns for moral issues and economic reality, I refrain from pontification. I do, however, wish to offer an observation.

While we were holding our breath watching which state turned red and which blue in the recent election, one fifth of the world’s population was very much fixed on its own once in a decade election. China’s recent transition was full of intrigue of patronage, mystery of murder, and a healthy dose of standard propaganda. Drama aside, I alert you to the lasting remarks made by the out-going leader Hu Jintao calling for greater emphasis on consumption and enhancing their leverage and influence on the economy. (The Economist, Communist Party congress, Treading water, Nov. 10, 2012).

If you follow Chinese politics, you will know that “out-going” leader means a certain prestige amongst Chinese politicians (such as when Deng Xiao Peng decided to leave office, yet he wielded a controlling stock in the governance and influence of China). According to some analysts, Hu had been trading his seat on powerful committees in exchangefor military appointees for his supporters, which suggests that Hu is positioning himself for the years to come. I think counting on Hu’s influence and China’s focus on consumption and influencing the economy, then, is a sure bet.

This leads me to the observation I wish to make: China in terms of its consumers are becoming very sustainable minded; China recently enacted some very aggressive clean production and sustainability laws and will eventually come around to enforce them with some consistency. This tells me the market place in the next few decades will be shaped by a more sustainable demand. Most of the world has caught on with this sort of development and are aiming at China as its next target buyer. The United States can’t afford to ignore China as an emerging market and we can’t afford to isolate “green” market development from our long-term global economic and strategic planning.

So I think Mr. Sunstein is right in that economic benefits of reducing GHG would greatly outweigh the costs, but I think focusing on GHG alone and considering only incidental effects of environmental problems here in the U.S. misses the mark about the gravity of China and the rest of the world as a massive emerging market in terms of sustainability. The focus should be on the variety of issues: water conservation, clean energy production, waste management, food security and health standards, development community ecosystems and enhancing bio-diversity, etc., the list is long (I would also add natural disaster preparedness to that list of consideration as well). The incentive is to develop the technology and expertise here at home and then sell it to China and other nations at a later time when demand rose and market stabilizes.

I agree that we ought to look at cost-benefit analysis seriously and give due consideration to the decisions we will make that will impact our ecosystem. But I also think part of the problem on the far right is that they have not given a holistic overhaul to their cost-benefit factors. I would like to see more discussions on the future of the market and addressing our sustainability problem from all aspects—not just token-ed as a GHG problem.

I leave you with one more thought from Mr. Seth Jaffe:

“Republicans used to support cost-benefit analysis. Indeed, Sunstein opens the op-ed with a discussion of the Reagan administration’s support of the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals. However, for the past ten years or so, Republicans have abandoned cost-benefit analysis for something much simpler – cost analysis. Today, if regulations cost too much – whatever that means – then they are “job-killers” and thus bad, even if the benefits exceed costs, sometimes by several multiples.

Maybe four years at MIT brainwashed me into blind acceptance of quantitative analysis, but this stuff doesn’t seem that hard to me. It is profoundly depressing that a significant number of environmentalists look only to the benefits of environmental regulation, while a similar percentage of conservatives now only look at its costs.

Somehow, we’ve got to get the twain to meet.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

“Taking imagination seriously”

Janet Echelman “1.26″
The days are calm here in Indiana; bipolar weather shifts from warm and rainy to an alluringly sunny but cold week-span with a few snow flakes dazzled in-between—nothing to write home about. Else-where, not so much. I hope my friends on the east coast are faring well; for those in Sandy’s path, our thoughts are with you.

With more and more Frankenstorms achieving celebrity status, and more and more earthquakes on the horizon, the talk about climate change scares me; all of the recent political talks frustrate me. Just a few short days after a landslide election, I feel no significant enlightenment as to how we are to deal with these impending problems. But there is nothing more I can do aside from casting my vote for the most sensible politician in the race. At times I wished we had more options and we had better creative solutions to our pending problems. Times like these I find myself looking for imagination in whatever little hope that is left in the world.

My first refuge is China. It is a power-house both in terms of consumption and will-power. It can either take us to the brink of destruction or help reshape a global cooperation in adapting to climate changes. In the wake of its recent power transition, from afar, I have little to offer in terms of predictions. China’s governance still seems to keep to its usual things and the sense of change is still only on the margins. But on a more intrinsic level, where the people govern their daily lives, I have to hope more and more are finding their lives so entwined with politics that they must speak of this and make better of the situation. I have to believe in the Chinese people because they are my people; their capacity is my hope. Their progress is mine.

Ms. Xujun Eberlein recently wrote about a Chinese grassroots movement for change. On the Chongqing's Pedestrian Boulevard, where even water cannot seep through (水泄不通), Ms. Xujun finds vocal dissidents whose buoyant attitude claims if "[y]ou think asking for democracy is excessive . . . [then] your thoughts are so backward!" (Inside-Out China, Politics on Chongqing’s Streets).

According to Ms. Xujun,

“spontaneous gatherings . . . have appeared in several areas of Chongqing. On Yangjiaping's Pedestrian Boulevard . . . there are some regular speakers making intelligent remarks on current affairs and have attracted quite some audience. Again, most of the men are retired, and aging seems to instill a more urgent need in them to see a change in their country while there's still time.” 
Jiangbei Pedestrian Boulevard where mostly men gather to discuss affairs, October 13, 2012; photo from Inside-Out China, Xujun Eberlein

My second refuge is TED. I find that here, in the U.S., the same aging generation of baby boomers feel a more urgent need to see a change in the world while there’s still time. I often find solace in their wisdom; and mostly I find inspiration in their creative approach to things. As I drag myself through these years in law school, I often find my own creativity dulled and sheathed; I come to TED in search, at times, for the same capacity of my own hope.

Somewhere in between the civil discourse on Chongqing’s streets and Janet Echelman’s fishnets in city-scapes, there is the possibility that we can make it through a day like tomorrow.

Janet Echelman’s 230-foot-long aerial sculpture “1.26” suspends from the roof of the 7-story Denver Art Museum above downtown street traffic to commemorate the inaugural Biennial of the Americas. 

She drew inspiration from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s announcement that the February 2010 Chile earthquake shortened the length of the earth’s day by 1.26 microseconds by slightly redistributing the earth’s mass. Exploring further, Echelman drew on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) simulation of the earthquake’s ensuing tsunami, using the 3-dimensional form of the tsunami’s amplitude rippling across the Pacific as the basis for her sculptural form. 

“1.26” pioneers a tensile support matrix of Spectra® fiber, a material 15 times stronger than steel by weight. Because this monumental sculpture is made entirely of soft materials, it is animated by the wind. Its fluidly moving form contrasts with the rigid surfaces of the surrounding urban architecture. At night, colored lighting transforms the work into a floating, luminous form while darkness conceals the support cables.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Pendulum Swings

First, today is Election Day so don’t forget to vote.

It’s important, short term, and instantly gratifying in that we will know by the end of the night who has won the rights to f-up this country for the next four years. While we pretend to care about the future of this nation, Election Day serves up a strange reminder that by tomorrow, we will be back to our mundane lives and counting on our politicians to carry out our hopes.

I don’t envy the man who gets the job of flying around in Air Force One for the next four years, he will have to work pretty hard and public disapproval will revolt his hair to gray in no time.

Now, to the lesser exciting world of our long term survivability.

Sure we have had a rough couple of years since Obama came to office with “yes we can.” But you can’t blame that on the man. I would also argue that the “yes we can” sentiment is not entirely lost on those who ARE trying to do something. Advocates advocated, activists acted; industries seem to have responded in good faith.

According to Todd Cort, from, “companies today are increasingly aware of sustainability issues and opportunities and actively integrate sustainability into core business strategies and decision-making.”

But, Mr. Cort points out, while companies are “more responsive to the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines and other reporting frameworks in an effort to drive comparability” in their sustainability efforts, “they are beginning to lose sight of the why” sustainability matters.

“In 2000, sustainability came dangerously close to "greenwashing." Reporting standards, investors and other stakeholders since have persuaded reporting companies to disclose management approaches, but the pendulum has now swung too far. In 2012, sustainability reporting has become an almost obligatory box-ticking exercise demanded by stakeholders.”

Cort goes on to say a few prudent things about our obligations to look at the big picture; after all, if everyone is building gears for the clock, who will put the clock together?

If the industry is complying with the request from the public to report “key performance indicators, whether they've hit five-year goals, [or] how many women they've hired in the last year,” yet the industry is not really looking at how those performance indicators will fit the global indicator of actual progress, then these check-boxes of performance indicators will have been a waste of time.

I think Mr. Cort is right to call for a closer look at the process inefficiencies in our sustainability efforts:

“After all, reporting affords companies the opportunity to collect data and see the impacts they are having on the planet. They get a chance to streamline their processes as the report brings together initiatives and programs from various business units. They get to set targets, learn through case studies, and find opportunities and risks by just going through the process of putting together this (now) massive report.”

But I would add that the problem industries experience is no different than the one we experience in politics: the attitude of “yes we can” is put on the pedestal for the few who are tokened to make those changes. Industries, and institutions, will hire a “sustainability officer” and then require them to comply with reporting requirements; same thing as giving Obama the job of the presidency and then say: here are the congressional roadblocks—the end objective becomes one and the same, while Obama navigates through the none-sense in politics, the sustainability officer traverses the mountains of corporate ignorance, imprudence, and neglect. At the end of the day, no one wins and the machines march on. Mr. Cort is right to point to the learning opportunity that is inherent in making changes to adapt; I would argue we lack this fundamental appreciation for the becoming of better tomorrow (see my rant on this topic "the human ecology and the process of becoming"). We are so focused on the now that we failed to see what we can become. 

This is politics boys and girls and to an large extent our society in general.

The irony is that we want change, but deep down inside we yearn for stability; while we would like to believe there is a better tomorrow, we'd rather measure our miseries by today's standard. "Yes we can" (do something) is reduced to a melancholy of simply "because we can."