Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Is the way out of recession through a new economic perspective?

In a recent article on Yale Environment 360 author Richard Conniff suggests that Congress adopt a set of criteria that would assess how "green" proposed projects actually are. Arguably the reason we are in this recession is partially because our government has not been accountable for how its spending taxpayer money to begin with. Conniff specifically points out that our current transportation formula is based on the 1980's package established under Reagan. A formulation that calls for 80/20 highway/transit allocation of spending. The way out of oil-addiction should not be be based on a spending plan that's almost three decades old.

The only issue that I have with this idea, is that it assumes that our proper economic system is capable of determining the proper valuation of what is "green" and what is not. The idea that we need a way to adapt our economic system to properly account for the environmental functions is not a new one. While I was in college I took a course on Ecological Economics. The concept challenges the way we value resources by taking into perspective the environmental costs that go in to their production. The contrast with the classical economic system we use today is that resources are valued based on the premise that we have enough for sustained growth; where ecological economics values resources based on sustainable growth via the three pillars of sustainable growth.

My argument is this, while creating some kind of "green" score would be a good approach to making sure that we spend our money in a more environmentally friendly way, why not take it to the next level. Why not abandon the classical model of economics and adopt one that looks at the real natural costs of what it takes to run our society? If we are truly trying to end our addiction on oil we need to also end our addiction to an economic system that skews the way we value environmental functions. If we are going to attempt to curb the reach of global warming we need to big changes. Scores are good but only if they can reflect the true value of what impact those programs will have on our natural capital.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cancer and Climate Change?

Cancer is a word now common to our vocabulary just like global warming. But what is their connection? Cancer is devastating disease that has increasingly impacted too many individuals and families. Global warming is a global phenomenon that will affect us all without treatment. Conceptually, they are the same, something foreign that has potentially devastating effects to the necessary functions of our life support systems.

It is often argued that global warming is a farce because we do not feel the effects. This is for two reasons: The first reason we don't always feel its effects is because it is not an attack on our systems, instead it is us attacking. Second, we are talking about long-term effects that will effectively disable or seriously disrupt some of the planet's most important atmospheric, biological, and hydrological functions; gradual changes not apparent in our everyday lives. This is not unlike cancer it eventually starts out as a minor disruption in our body that eventually if left untreated devastates our biological functions.

How we solve our climate change problem will be very similar to battle to overcome cancer. Survivors of the disease may be some of our best allies in this war because they are familiar with the sacrifices it takes. Cancer survivors understand that the immediacy with which they pursued treatment greatly affected their ability to over come the disease. It was the help and support that they received from everyone around them. I was the help of experts and science.

Unfortunately, this is not always enough. But that is not our diagnosis. The science and experts are telling us that we can beat this if we take action. The problem is that we must shift from being the comfortable aggressor to the recovering patients. So where can we look for strength?

Survivors. We have a new moral and ethical obligation on our hands one that requires a complete restructuring of the way we live. So let's let those who have overcome such a terrible disease be beacon as we attempt to navigate to a new future. As survivors know; the ability to overcome first requires the ability to change.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Santa's suit is red but his idea is 'green"

This holiday season brings a lot to think about. With the tough times we are all trying to cut back. My family has decided to forgo the presents and enjoy the company. I know we are not the only ones going this route. I can't help but wonder if this will become the new Christmas tradition? For me as a struggling student, this means more than just a weight off my pocketbook, it makes the holidays a more welcome time.

Don't get me wrong, as a child Christmas and my Birthday were two of the most exciting days of my life. As I grow older, however, it just seems to add more stress. The first stress of it all is shopping, I never know what to get, nor do I ever know what I want. Part of this may be because my stress level is already at it max trying to deal with law school exams. The other stress is because of what I've seen Christmas become throughout my life.

It begins with the day after we all come together to give thanks for all the blessings we have had in our lives during the past year. We celebrate and then flock to the stores all for preparation for what is supposed to be one of the most sacred times of year (both Christian and Jewish). Along the way we do almost anything (even kill) to complete our consumerist ritual. Then on Christmas day we tear them all open in a flurry of emotion. For me this was always the best and the worst part. We all like to get something as well as see the joy in the faces of those we give to (best part). The worst part was after it was all over, whats left a giant pile of trash.

The real conflict is this, how can I rationalize trying to become a more eco-conscious citizen when I participate in a holiday that generates so much waste. Its not that my family had so much trash, it is that a majority of families are all generating so much waste. A single day can make me cancel out half of a years attempts at living more sustainably. I'm not trying to be a Scrooge, it is just that a little reflection might help us all realize how ridiculous and out of proportion our consumerism has gotten.

Lest we forget that the whole notion of Santa is that he and his elves make all the presents they give. It would seem that we have taken the spirit from what even Santa wants Christmas to be about. This year I'm looking forward to the tradition of getting back to what the Holidays are all about, that is, making memories and spending time with those I love. I may not come bearing presents, but without a doubt I will bring more of the gifts that really matter: happiness, joy, laughter, and plenty of hugs for the ones I love; wouldn't you know they are all free.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Winds of Change: are they finally blowing?

Recession, Global Warming, and Bailouts are the talk of the world right now and we stand waiting to see what will happen. What does the moment mean? We Gen-Y's have a unique perspective that should not be wasted. We have the ability right now to determine what the history books will say. I know that sounds cliche, but it shouldn't be taken lightly. History presents every generation with one or more defining moments. What happens right now will be ours.

Some thing(s) will be asked of our generation, things that will not be easy to hear, see, or do; but make no mistake we will be called to answer. I argue that it is time to stop being so complacent about the issues that are confronting our world right now. Patiently waiting for markets to correct themselves, the planet to re-balance, corporations to accept responsibility, or the government to bail us all out is not going to solve our problems. We need to stop re-evaluating how we live and start changing the way we live. We must roust the same kind of national spirit that most of our grandparents did in their successful attempt to combat and overthrow Nazism.

Gen-Y is not going to be able to live the way past generations have. We need to do more with less and adopt a new approach to what it means to be a human in this world. We essentially will be responsible for regulation of all Earth's regulatory systems. This means that we cant be lazy or hasty in our decision. The mechanisms are in place: Today, the United Nations called for "A New Green Deal" asking that we to "re-commit ourselves to the urgency of our cause." Thomas Friedman has explained why and how a green revolution is a must. The President Elect has appointed a team ready to tackle the issues. It seems the winds of change have have begun to blow.

It is now upon us to forge ahead and get behind our leaders, after all we elected them to lead. Get away from the old classification of what it means to be an environmentalist. In today's changing world everyone should be, we all have an impact, and because of that impact we all have a responsibility to account for it. The wisdom once imparted on a generation before ours is now alive again and more important then ever.
"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." ~JFK

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bailout Plan: How the Big Three should really be restructuring.

Look, I'm all for helping out the Big Three auto companies. A bankruptcy would not be good for an industry that has been an American focal point for so long. However, I don't think that the top executives (and their kin) are in the right mindset when thinking about where to take their companies. Foreign automakers will continue to have a hold on the market regardless of any "innovation based plans" that the Big Three seek to implement.

The Big Three are already years behind, that is after all, why they need a bailout. However, by the time they bring their infrastructure up to date, they will only find themselves in the wake of the leaps and bounds that the foreign autos have gained waiting for them to catch up. The amount of time on top of that it will take to recapture American's desire for their products is also futile. I'm not trying to sound anti-American, but the reality of the world we now live in is that competition drives a global market. The failure of our own American car companies to realize and keep up with that has made more efficient foreign alternatives a better buy. Driving a car today is not about being American like it was for other generations; instead it is about getting smarter about what we drive in a world facing shrinking oil supplies and global warming.

Right now the top executives need to think about a different direction: public transit. Yep, the very sector that GM so gleefully helped dismantle. In his new book, "Hot Flat and Crowded" Thomas Freidman points out that in the next 30 years it is predicted that more than 5 billion people will move to cities with populations of 500,000 or more. This means that crowding, parking, and transit are all going to be major issues for these cities with lacking infrastructures. Since there isn't going to be great stress from more people, let alone cars, the Big Three are in the best position right now to capitalize on solutions in public transit. Who better if not the largest companies handling the way we commute for the past century?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Recyclables: losing grip in a failing economy.

An article published in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, highlighted the problems confronting the recyclables market. It reports that more and more companies are electing to ship materials to landfills due to the plunging costs. This illustrates more collateral damage from the economic crisis. It also however provides an opportunity for us to re-evaluate the way we think about our wastes.

I myself, like others, would like to think that I am a conscious citizen and recycle as often as possible. The trouble is that my conscience is satisfied with just throwing it in the bin. As with my trash toss it and forget about it. I guess this is not a very eco-conscious way of thinking about waste. This in turn sparked my thoughts about two experiences I have had.

First, I am reminded of a rather distasteful field trip that I took while I was in undergrad at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The trip was for our Ecosystems class, the one we all dreaded, to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, lovingly known as Whistle-D. While we were there we learned about water treatment and waste disposal, all in an effort to get us thinking about what happens after the flush. After I learned about the process I really paid attention to how I disposed of things, but the effect wore off and soon I was back to not caring.

Second, I was reminded of a trip to a recycling facility in San Jose, Costa Rica. After learning about conservation efforts in Costa Rica we were taken to a "facility" to see what I thought was one of many counter effects. The facility was basically a garage stuffed with recyclables where a family of Ticos (native Costa Ricans) would spend their days sorting through the endless mess. In my eyes it was hard to believe that this was what recycling meant there. After processing the materials they would send it off to the large waste company for processing. It was basically ineffective when viewed against the overall trash problem the nation faced.

When I put these two experience together I find that both our recycling habits and ways of thinking are about the same: Our concern for recycling stops with the bin in the garage, and our methods of recycling are no more than American-sized models of those in Costa Rica. If we are to come out of this recession a stronger nation, the recyclables industry is something that needs to be reshaped.

Congress needs to find a way to inject more capital in to the recyclables industry. This is something with a huge return on investment (ROI). It may not be in the form of cash but it would take a huge strain off of our natural resources. This would over time lower the cost of both natural and renewed resources. With a restructuring of the recyclables industry we can avoid seeing headlines like those in the Sunday NY Times. While we have Congress's attention we might as well have them do an across the board analysis of all or our production industries, because we know that the "Big Three" are not the only ones slacking.

I know this is a tough subject, as consumers we are put in a corner because we need to survive and that means buying food and all the packaging associated. We are not voiceless, we speak every time we buy and it only takes a few minutes of thought to figure out a more innovative way of changing. In fact, one man went a whole year with zero waste in NYC. If he can have zero waste we all can at least cut back in some ways. Let's be honest, its time for some serious evaluation.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Conservation: The overlooked importance of our National Parks

Just before I went to Costa Rica, two years ago, I read an article in the October 2006 National Geographic Magazine about our National Parks entitled "Places We Must Save".  The article was highlighted the importance of our parks to our national heritage.  On the cover was the image of wind-scarred desert plateaus of Glenn Canyon with three smokestacks in the background–it is haunting.  I was deeply motivated by this article, quite suitably  since I was on my way to see some of the most magnificent environments on the planet.  After a few weeks in Costa Rica my Tropical Ecology professor gave me an assignment and handed me that exact National Geographic Magazine that I had read just weeks before my arrival. It seemed like fate.  My assignment was to report on the article for the class and explain its importance: I'll give you a recap. 

In the past two decades, the idea of the "park" has been in conflict with human development. The reason is because parks evict people from making a living on an ever shrinking planet. The benefits of which are often enjoyed by the affluent, consequences suffered by those trying to survive. This methodology will and should not prevail because it pits us against the parks–inverting the purpose.  Right now our country is not concerned with reversing this effect (and arguably should not be given the economy). However, parks are important and George Schaller captures why:
"It is essential that each country keep part of its natural heritage untouched . . . so people can see the splendor of their past, before the land was degraded. . . . [T]hese untouched places are genetic reservoirs . . . invaluable to the human species. . . . If we destroy the parks, they're gone forever, and we may be losing something invaluable to us."
Today there are over 400 parks in our national system. In 2012 we will celebrate their centennial. Our parks are undergoing some of there greatest challenges right now and it is not just threats from Global Warming. John G. Mitchell elaborates on these threats in his last essay. The park service is short on funds, overburdened by "loving" tourists, and losing most of its top professionals.  

I would wager that you and most other Americans are unaware of these threats, because the parks still provide us with the stunning views and majestic beauty we all expect. Therein lies the problem: We as Americans have become too comfortable with the idea our national parks are tourist destinations first, not the vital sanctuaries described by Mr. Schaller. Our national ideal coupled with the increasing pressures of air pollution, invasive species, encroachment on habitat stemmed by Global Warming our parks, perhaps warrant more of our national attention than just tourism. 
So, what did I garner from my stay in Costa Rica as it pertains to our parks? The United States is the focus of the world, particularly right now as we face our growing economic crisis. The world is watching now as we deal with our economic crisis, and has been watching how we manage our national park systems. Tourism is huge for much of the world's national parks.  In Costa Rica, tourism (largely fueled by U.S. dollars) sustains the economy creating a direct conflict with conservation efforts.  We have opened our forests up to recreation like snowmobiles and ATV's. Costa Rica has followed suit with every type of jungle tour imaginable. Look zip-lines are awesome, but they require forest clearing  and the massive flow of people forces any wildlife in the area away disrupting the ecological balance. 

Over five years ago, Mitchell points out, a panel appointed by the Secretary of the Interior noted that the best way to win public support for parks was through accommodating them–spelling trouble for protection of our resources. By opening up the parks to ATV's, snowmobiles, and paving roads to account for visitor traffic, the parks have slacked on their protection. While the President and Congress have their own mountain of messes to work out, is it time for us the citizenry to demand that the mission of the park system be restored to its original purpose–conservation. 

Sometimes there is a sacredness in leaving things untouched.  The beauty of delicacy is not something reserved for the small scale of a newly opened rose, but may be observed on a much grander scale. The calmness and stability that we get from knowing that our nation's most beautiful places will be there for generations is what drove our forefathers in protecting our parks. It is time for us to abandon our greed and lust for the "hands-on" experience of nature and again embrace the deeper appreciation of American parks.  Because, as David Quammen said, "Our national parks are as good, only as good, as the intensity with which we treasure them." 

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Preparing Our Grads:The foundation for avoiding another recession?

I had lunch today with a friend who is one semester out from completing his undergraduate degree. We talked about his "senioritis" (a lack of motivation caused by too much school) and his uncertainty about post-graduate life. I completely identify with his feelings because it was only two years ago that I was in the same boat. He said he feels like even after completing his degree that he has no skill set. At first, I thought that was ridiculous and he just wasn't thinking hard enough, but then I remembered how I felt at that point in my life.

I had just applied to 7 or so law schools for the exact same reason. I thought to myself, if i wanted to have a comfortable life I needed to actually know what I was doinw. My B.A. in Environmental Studies was really just a degree in treehugging. How would I support myself and my future family talking about saving the planet, there is already too many people doing that as it is. Graduate school seemed like the only option for me to develop my own skill set and put myself on some course to professionalism.

Increasingly, however I find that so many of my friends around me are thinking the same thing. What did college really do for me? Currently, I have a brother asking what he is going to do, look for a job in an already tight post-grad market or go on to more school. I have other friends who are working in the family business becuase they can't find work. Or changing jobs because the first track was unsatisfying. How is this happening?

So I think... When was it that I finally started thinking about what I was going to do with my life. It was when I started law school, not when I graduated from undergrad. I had no idea what a Career Services office was until then, nor was I concerned with the concept of networking. This just seems like a waste, letting all of these prepared, intelligent, capable people come out of college with no preparation to find a career. Then two years after graduation, they end up hating what they are doing and have no plan to right thier course.

This isn't just something unique to recent grads. My friend works for the alumni office and said that the recent calls he has been making are to recent grads (10yrs out or less) and 3 out of 5 of the alums he is talking to are unemployed. I know the economy is bad, times are tight and getting tighter, but how much of this is really because we haven't prepared people to transition? I think a majority of our problems can be tied to this.

It is time that our universities beef up their career services, there are thousands of students who are ready to help transition this country in to a new era. They have ideas, they are technologically savvy, and ready to be heard. So let's help them transition into the workforce. Networking and career planning need to be required curriculum for Junior and Senior students so they don't fall victim to the thinking and reality that so many of my friends have. In today's world it is easy to get your voice out, thats why I started this blog.

Im not saying that eveyone should start a blog to solve their career strife, but its an option. In my first year of law school, before I transferred to UW-Madison, I was in a class called "Pathway to Success." This was a genius idea of two of the deans at Thomas M. Cooley Law School to get young lawyers thinking about their careers and life. In the program we worked on our resumes, discussed our personalities, and were able to ask questions about what it meant to be a lawyer. And now, 1/2 a degree away from being a lawyer, I'm wondering why it took this long in my education before any of this was offered to me? Everyone in the class I'm sure thought the same, at least the amount of questions seemed to reflect that.

A democracy depends on a well armed citizenry (not guns, but intelligence) and so far our country is sleeping at the wheel. We are letting to many young minds become discontented with their lives before they even have a chance to make them.

So, lets arm them. If your a professional be a mentor, it will be a great experience from both sides. If you are a Career Counselor, evaluate your institutions program and ask what you are doing to help students prepare for life after college, don't wait for them to walk through the door. If you are a parent, help your children understand that a career is more than just a job that pays the bills it is an extension of the self.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A New Path

About a year ago I developed a "Mission Statement" for my life as a part of one of my law school classes. Here is what I came up with:
"My mission is to ensure that current and future generations have clean and safe natural resources by creating and upholding laws that protect against exploitation, pollution, and wasteful use of wild areas and natural resources."

Why? The concept is simple, while I don't know where my life will take me, my "mission" will be a constant reminder of what will be my legacy or lasting contribution to the world. At first, I thought that this was a bit of a "grade school" type idea. However, after giving it some thought I was over my myself and realized that this is a really good idea. Especially now with all that's changing in our world. Will my mission statement change? Probably, but the beauty of the idea is not that you adhere steadfastly to your mission. It is that you identify with yourself on a deeper level and choose your direction based on what is most important to you. Something that seems so lost in all of America right now.

As a young law student, I feel that this is one of the best things you can do for yourself, your career, and even your country. It is simple: if you love what you do that means that you are putting yourself in to your career day in day out. If you don't know what or who you are how can you put it in to what you do? You can't. That is why everyone should create their mission statement.

Today, our country is entering into a time of great uncertainty, heck we are smack in the middle of it. We have a new President Elect, who we all hope can fashion some kind of a remedy for where we have gotten ourselves as a nation. We have a changing environment that demands we change our ways or face consequences none of us enjoy thinking about. Add that to our daily squabble and its enough to drive you to the psych ward. Really, as citizens we just can't absorb all of this change and quickly integrate it into our lives. We are creatures of habit.

I suggest that a little reflection is exactly what every American needs to be doing right now. Whether you think about where we are as a country or where you are as an individual a mission statement should be on your to-do list. The reason we are where we are right now in history is because we failed to encourage every American to have a "mission statement" and decide for themselves what it is that they want to do in this life for our world.

Whether your mission is a grand complex one or a smaller simpler one, it should important to you. The more people that stop and think about their "missions" the better we can protect ourselves from later replicating the pattern of thought and action that got us where we are today. So sit and think about what is that makes you who you are and figure out how you can articulate that and produce it in the world around you.