The Importance of Consistency

March 29, 2011

There was a boy who ate too much sugar. His mother, who wanted him to stop, walked to ask Gandhi, “Would you please tell my son to stop eating sugar?” Gandhi replied, “Bring your boy back in two weeks. The mother left, then brought the boy back two weeks later. Gandhi looked the boy in the eye and said, “Stop eating sugar.” The boy nodded, and promised to stop. His mother was confused. “Why did you want me to bring him back in two weeks?  Couldn’t you have said the same thing to him then?” “No,” Gandhi replied, “Because Two Weeks Ago, I ate Sugar too”

I went to a sustainable conference at McGill this March 15, looking forward to hear Mr. Gerald Butts, CEO and President of the Canadian World Wildlife Foundation. The talk was all I was expecting and more; Mr. Butts mentioned how we created our own problems for the last 300 years, so we can also solve them. I learnt that Canada has the seventh worst carbon emissions per capita, and that 80% of us live in cities.

I learnt all about how WWF is working with several corporations that are dead serious about Corporate Social Responsibility, including the likes of Coca Cola, which is recognizing that Coke should not be sold in schools and at the same time is an alternative to unsafe tap water in many countries.

More important, I met a wonderful bunch of students and McGill employees that take sustainability at heart and that are looking to increase the sustainability culture at McGill University. As direct result of my participation of this conference, I am now part of the committee that is organizing the First Sustainability Fair this fall.

Sadly, consistency is still an issue. We parents are told not to say to our kids what to do, but to lead with our example. At McGill University, we were all talking about sustainability at noon, in a sunny day, with all the windows curtains down and twenty five light bulbs turned on


Risky Talk

February 4, 2011

Forgive me my nonsense, as I also forgive the nonsense of those that think they talk sense.
~Robert Frost

I have always admired strong role models. For me, a strong role model is someone who is a firm believer in his or her cause, but at the same time is fair and balanced. I love when I can argue against someone who is passionate about her position but is not blinded by it and can see both the weak points on her arguments and the strong ones in her counterpart.

It was my surprise to find a talk that Naomi Klein gave at TED in Dec 8th, 2010, called “Addicted to Risk”. As a strong model, Klein surprised me by given a very unbalanced talk, full of weasel words, and worse yet, with a lot of arguments that I find just biased.

I continue to find well intentioned people who speak with canned phrases and lack judgement or ideas. People that label themselves and then cannot get out of their own label. People that consider themselves liberal but they are closed to any judgement on what the “liberal umbrella” covers. That is why I ask you, dear reader, to watch the video with a critical eye, before coming back to me accusing me to be a conservative in the closet:

I am not sure what the message of the talk is. Is not that risk is bad, because she recommends taking risk at the end, so, what is it? That greed is bad? That the climate is changing? That we are depleting our resources? That growth is bad?

The main problem I have with this talk is that is not balanced. Naomi Klein is a role model, and as one, she should give us balanced points of view. Instead, she attacks the usual low hanging fruit: BP is bad, capitalism is bad, DDT is bad, Oil is bad.

DDT is bad, we know that, but in the 60s it saves hundreds of lives in the third world by allowing a “green” revolution. We will be 7 billion people, and we cannot feed in organic crops only. DDT prevented millions would die of Malaria, especially in India (R. Kunzig, 2011).

British Petroleum has been a model of sustainability and is not “reckless” exploiting the forces of nature. They committed a tragic mistake, but just aiming at them is just too simplistic. The language used in the talk is biased: 75% of oil did not “miraculously” disappear, it was eaten by bacteria. The word “miraculously” is used in the sense of “they are making us believe that all happened by magic” and I find it patronising to the listeners.

Climate Change is introduced with the questions like: “What is the latest possible moment [to change]?” “How much hotter can we let it get?” I ask, who is asking these questions? There is not a dark room full of people trying to control the world, at least not in the sense presented. She affirms that bankers get 100 times the salary of a brain surgeon, and they go home trying to justify it. That is another exaggeration that throws the conference out of balance.

She is right about the tar sands being a natural disaster, and we need to find a sustainable way indeed, but what is the solution she proposes? The main problem I see in this talk is that she, by blaming the big companies playing, leaves us with the false sense that we cannot do anything, maybe change our bulbs and walk to the store. But these companies are satisfying OUR needs. It is our reckless consumption that is destroying the planet.

Nature is not infinite, but perpetual growth is a human attribute, and is not bad. People need growth, what we do not need is more things.

We have hit a wall in natural resources; all the companies are trying to switch to renewable sources: Even BP is changing from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum”. Blaming the big companies won’t help achieving a more sustainable word until we reduce our demands on the planet, not only recycling, but actually reducing our consumption and the demand for newer goods.

Is Democracy Always Good?

February 10, 2010

Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
~Sir Winston Churchill

When George Bush was trying to export democracy to the Middle East before the attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon, I thought it had to be a mistake, since trying to export a form of government has usually the same results that trying to impose your language to a foreign nation. Karl Marx hypothesed in Das Kapital, that Democracy is archived in an evolutionary fashion, and it is only when a nation is ripe for self government, when Democracy can plants its roots.

Analysing the problem with Democracy in places that it was imposed by foreign policy, we discover that it has not always yield to any results. A lot of countries in Africa are now democratic, but they are dirty poor. In Latin America, the new democracies, with exception of Chile and Brazil, have not achieved the desired economic welfare that it was expected.

Returning to the Dutch Disease problem that I mentioned in a previous post, some countries in the bottom billion are resource rich, democratic nations, and they remain trapped in poverty. These phenomena need to be explained by dissecting Democracy in its two main components: Free elections and internal restrains.

What the USA has being trying to export is a system of free elections. In such model, political parties compete for the electoral favour of the citizens. Every number of years, a political campaign would start, the political parties will compete against each other, and the people will go and vote.

This is a deadly system for some countries. In many of the resource rich countries, the party in power will deplete the national treasury to get re elected. They will have more resources (money, control of radio and TV, utilization of public works as a mean to gain voters) than competition. Politicians are not worry about governing but about getting re-elected. Even in a mature democracy like the United States, the first term is used as a mean to get a second term.

The second element in Democracy is the system of check and balances. This means a real opposition, a working government model, and an active civil society. These elements cannot just be exported, they need to be conceived and develop within the host society. That is the failure of the model of exporting democracy; you can export an effective electoral system, but without the check and balances that Democracy needs, the system will quickly move down to a bunch of corrupt officials buying the population vote.

There is something that the developed world can do to help democracies thrive, we will see this in coming posts.

Two Decades

November 11, 2009

Who is the strongest
Who is the best
Who holds the aces
The East
Or the West
This is the crap our children are learning
But oh, oh, oh, the tide is turning
~Roger Waters

Twenty years ago I was in Monterrey watching the evening news, they were talking about some nonsense, when a cable came from Berlin.

People were gathering around Brandenburger Tor.

The soldier were pointing their weapons at them.

The people were yelling Wir wollen raus! Wir bleiben hier! (We want out, we are staying here).

At 22:30, Berlin Time, The Wall was open.

People not longer have right to a free ride, to free food, to employment security.

But they have the right to pursue happiness.

And that is worth dying for.

The Dutch Disease

September 25, 2009

Riches get their value from the mind of the possessor; they are blessings to those who know how to use them, and curses to those who do not.

I am going to analise two important phenomenas that affect a country development: The Dutch Disease and The Democracy Effect in Economy. I will start with the former and analyse the later in my next post.

Dutch disease is named after the effect that the discovery of natural gas had in Holland in the 1960s. It is also called the Resource Trap but it can originate not only in natural resources discovery, but in any development in that results in a large inflow of foreign currency, including a sharp surge in natural resource prices, foreign assistance, and foreign direct investment.

Imagine first a country like Japan in the 1950s, with not natural resources. Japanese people want to buy imports, but they can only do so with hard currency, so they need to produce exports to get it. Exports (tradable goods) would sell in hard currency and sell it to importers who will use it to buy imports and sell them in Japan. Exports in such cases are manufactured products and some services (and some natural resources in a limited fashion), so the country start producing in order to import goods that lacks, making the national industry important and competitive. The local non-tradable good and services (like restaurants) get some of the money since people increase their standard of living, elevating the price of these non-tradable goods and services, and attracting some labour

Imagine then a country that discovers oil or gas or diamonds. This natural resource is sold in the international markets, creating a surge in the inflow of hard currency to the country. Since the price of tradeable goods is set internationally, the laws of supply and demand make rise the exchange rate of the country in question, hence making the rest of the exports in the country less competitive. Additionally, the extra revenue make non-tradeable goods and service more expensive in the country since there is more money to be spent and demand for new items.

Example, in the 1970s, Nigeria exported peanuts and cacao, then the oil revenues started to build up, and the Nigerian currency gain value, making their peanuts and cacao too expensive. Both industries collapsed. When prices eventually went down, the growth and standard of living of Nigerians was halved.

So the ill effect comes when the resource runs out or when the price goes down. The manufacturing industry has been badly damaged and cannot compete in international markets. All the foreign investment went towards the natural resource, and nothing to the traditional manufacturing sector. The country then stops development and spiral down.

Foreign Aid has the same effect that a natural resource discovery: It brings unearned hard currency to a country, making his own currency more expensive and killing its exports.

Hence, a sudden surge in the foreign currency inflows to a country make this country uncompetitive in the global markets, killing his tradable sector, making his non-tradable sector more expensive, and slowing the growth in the long run.

Now with pictures: In a normal economy without lots of natural resources, the manufacture sector is big (blue), some people and employ in services (green), and very few are in the natural resources sector (red) and, with hope, very few are unemployed (grey)

Country without resources

Country without resources

Then oil is discovered and a boom starts. The booming sector attracts all the labour force and foreign investment, while the traditional sector lags behind and gets reduced. The non-tradeable sector grows a little since there is a new demand for its goods and products, and draws some of the capital and labour, making these goods and services more expensive and in further detriment of the traditional sector. The excesive exports of the natural resource make the currency so expensive that further damages the traditional tradeable industry.

The economy in a natural resource boom

The economy in a natural resource boom

After some years or decades, the natural resources either ran out or the international prices plumbed. The former boom sectors shrinks, laying out people, the demand for non-tradable good and services shrinks too, laying out people, and the traditional manufactures are now too small to accommmodate the excess of labour. No further investment is done, and unemployment rises.

Dutch Disease effects

Dutch Disease effects


September 3, 2009

Believe, when you are most unhappy, that there is something for you to do in the world. So long as you can sweeten another’s pain, life is not in vain.
~Hellen Keller

I ask my readers to sign an Amnesty International petition to help Honduras back in its democracy.

Beatings and mass arrests are being used by the de facto government of Honduras as a way of punishing people for voicing their opposition to the military-backed coup d’etat in June. Scores of interviews by an Amnesty International delegation on the ground told the same story of beatings and mass arrests by the police, of media workers and human rights defenders being targeted and female protesters suffering gender based violence.

You can sign the petition to Hillary R. Clinton following this link:

Thanks to all participants.

Bill Day

August 28, 2009

It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities
~Josiah Charles Stamp

I discovered one of the best children rights advocates in the world. He is a cartoonist called Bill Day.

This is his cartoon from today. And there are still termagants who think their body is only theirs.