Ring the Alarm

On our jaunt home from Bali early last month, Oliver and I remarked on the unusually smoggy weather on display during a layover in Kuala Lumpur; from the terminal shuttle window, a thick fog muddled the view of everything in sight—palm trees blurry and whatever was in the distance was left to our imaginations. Only later did we realize that the pervasive haze was actually the result of forests and peatlands being torched in neighboring Indonesia.

Freshly planted palm oil seedlings on recently burned land.
Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

These annual fires occur in part for the purpose of clearing land for agriculture use and palm oil plantations. Some experts have also cited the routine of setting fires simply out of habit (for the purpose of burning household garbage, food waste, etc.) or “just for fun” as additional contributors to the flames. Many of these fires are burning peatlands, which is especially concerning due to the immense stores of carbon and methane that peat accumulates over time, and the higher CO2 emission intensity of peat (106 g CO2/MJ) compared to other sources, such as coal (94.6 g CO2/MJ).

Adding to the complexity of this calamity is the confusion over land and resource ownership, which is spurring conflict between individuals and farms, and continuing to make enforcement and accountability of proper land management difficult. With ineffective national government regulation, these fires—already causing more than “500,000 cases of haze-related respiratory illness in Southeast Asia and the deaths of at least 19 Indonesians”—continue to have direct consequences not only for the Indonesian people and their neighbors, but also for our planet.

Writing for The Guardian, journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot details the magnitude of damages from these man-made fires still raging in Indonesia today:

“It is hard to convey the scale of this inferno, but here’s a comparison that might help: it is currently producing more carbon dioxide than the US economy. And in three weeks the fires have released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany….Orangutans, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, the Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger, these are among the threatened species being driven from much of their range by the flames. But there are thousands, perhaps millions, more.”

Daily Emissions from Indonesian Fires

Without action on the part of the Indonesian national government, this problem is likely to re-emerge as a destructive force on a yearly basis. Business as Usual isn’t going to cut it if we’re to truly make an impact on reducing CO2 emissions in order to curb the rate of climate change and its ever-reaching effects.

Here’s what you can do:

1. Consume responsibly

Our consumer choices have consequences. Support companies that value sustainable business practices in the communities they influence. Palm oil is present in an array of everyday products ranging from shampoo and detergent to chocolate and bread, and can be found in “about half of all packaged products sold in the supermarket.” Inform yourself about which companies are reforming their supply chains (you can feel less guilty about indulging in Krispy Kreme) and refrain from buying products made by those that aren’t–PepsiCo, Kraft, and Unilever are among the laggards.

2. Bring attention to the issue

The World Climate Summit will bring government and multinational corporate leaders across the globe to Paris this December and the more attention we bring to these forest fires, the more likely it is that this issue will be on the table of discussion. Share this post (shameless self-promotion) or any of the other informative sources found here on social media. Research the issue on your own and write about it yourself. Read The Snack Food 20 Report Card and write to the companies that aren’t taking sufficient action. Collectively, we can put pressure on the Indonesian government to restrict deforestation—spread the word.

Or, spread the photos.

Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

3. Financial support

Donate to organizations that are devoted to conservation efforts and advocate for smarter policies related to climate change. Remember, your donation to many organizations, including the two below, is tax-deductible.

Rainforest Action Network – They are committed to protecting the world’s rain forests and its incredible species. Join as a member with a one-time donation or dedicate yourself to contributing monthly.

World Wildlife Fund The WWF has a new project partnering with the Frankfurt Zoological Society and The Orangutan Project focusing on protecting Sumatra’s rain forest and its wildlife.

Recommended further reading:

Global Forest Watch Profile on Indonesia – A collection of data on the economic value of, employment reliance on, and changes overtime (depletion and gain) to the forests of Indonesia.

Project Potico – The WRI’s fact sheet on the palm oil industry in Indonesia and its push towards sustainable planting practices for companies by using already degraded land rather than clearing forests.

Project Potico Info.Click for full view.

3 Ways Obama Could Help – Different organizations and governments are working to put pressure on Indonesian President Joko Widodo to push for forestry reforms (and stick to enforcing them even after the fires burn out). Scientists from the World Resources Institute, alongside the WRI-Indonesia director, offer possibilities for the U.S. to support improved land management practices in Indonesia.

A Few Recommended Readings:

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1. The Global Goals for Sustainable Development – This weekend world leaders from across the globe will convene in NYC to commit to 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development aiming to end extreme poverty, fight inequality, and tackle climate change. A variety of organizations, nonprofits and NGOs are working alongside the UN to inform the world population of these targets. As stated by Project Everyone: “The more famous these global goals are, and the more widely they are understood by everyone, the more politicians will take them seriously, finance them properly, refer to them frequently and make them work.” Educate yourself on what the global goals are and what you can do personally to assist in accomplishing these necessary and ambitious goals by 2030.

2. The Rise of the Nudge – Governments are investing in research teams that use behavioral economics and psychology to create ‘nudges’ to meet certain policy goals. As highlighted in this WSJ article, this science based approach can be used to fight poverty and test ways to help the poor find economic security. Unfortunately, this isn’t always how these data-driven teams are being utilized. A recent article from Aid Thoughts found that a Behavioral Insights Team has been tasked in the UK to figure out how to get illegal migrants to return to their native land voluntarily. Perhaps the team can test the effectiveness of Hungary’s wall?

3. This Cartoon Succinctly Explains the Background to the Syrian Conflict – Some background to help people understand how and why the situation in Syria developed as it has. Heed the warning and be prepared: Syria won’t be (and isn’t) the only country to suffer under the stresses wrought by climate change and political instability. Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 9.10.50 PM

Poverty = Hunger?

Generally, when people discuss poverty, hunger enters the conversation–it’s natural to think that if people are poor they are likely struggling to adequately meet their nutritional needs. However, through research and experiments, what scientists and economists have found is that most people, even the extremely poor, can afford to purchase enough calories to live and be productive. If this is the case, why are there still people who aren’t getting enough to eat? The answer, of course, is complex and multifaceted.

In their text Poor Economics, Abhijit Banergee and Esther Duflo examine how foreign aid policy has failed due to deep misunderstandings about poverty, and call for more careful planning and greater reliance on scientific evidence to steer policy decisions aimed at eradicating poverty. A portion of Poor Economics focuses on dis/proving the nutrition-based poverty trap, the idea that “there exists a critical level of nutrition, above or below which dynamic forces push people either further down into poverty and hunger or further up into better-paying jobs and higher-calorie diets.” They turned to places like India, where in 2004 only 2% of people surveyed stated they did not have enough to eat (that’s down from 17% in 1983), the Philippines, China and Morocco to research, among other objectives, the effects of food subsidies and determine how much of a person’s income is spent on food. Their research turned up some startling results.

“…if calories are the main driver of poverty, then we should expect people to spend every extra cent on the cheapest calories. What we see instead is people opting to consume tastier, more expensive food when they get the chance.” –Poor Economics

In the Philippines, a person can consume 2,400 calories a day for 21 cents PPP, but they would be limited to consuming mainly bananas and eggs. Despite this available access to calories, the poor tend not to purchase the quality food that would benefit them calorically and food aid programs generally emphasize quantity over quality.

While in Morocco, Esther and her research partners found that in some of the very poor villages they visited, people had cell phones, televisions, and even DVD players, but survived off of a very modest diet (leaving some unable to work due to insufficient calories). Any extra income people had tended not to go towards obtaining better quality, calorie rich food; instead, extra income was saved for small luxuries or, if food was acquired, better tasting food, not food that was actually better for a person to improve their work capacity. Though it may be obvious that the benefits of a nutritious diet are significant, for some, the need to momentarily escape the doldrums of poverty through entertainment outweighs the need for a nutrition upgrade.

Of the research shared in Poor Economics, what I found most fascinating was an experiment conducted in China seeking to analyze the impact of food subsidies on food purchasing decisions. This experiment was conducted by two economists, Robert Jensen and Nolan Miller, who were in search of an ever-elusive Giffen good–a good that people consume more of as the price increases, thus violating the Law of Demand.

Jensen and Miller found that rice (and wheat, though I’ll only address the former for the sake of brevity) in China fit the parameters for a Giffen good and decided to test their hypothesis by providing a random selection of families in the southern province of Hunan a six-month subsidy for rice. They collected data on family purchases during the subsidy period and afterward. In the end, the results found that when rice was subsidized, families actually bought less of it and instead used the extra income to purchase more expensive foods, mainly purchasing more meat and shrimp. These families were actually consuming less calories when their food was subsidized. When the subsidy period was over and the price of rice increased, families purchased more rice and thus violated the Law of Demand, proving rice to indeed be in this instance a Giffen good.

The important point this particular example illustrates is that food subsidies and food aid policy don’t always have the intended or expected outcome and can, in fact, result in the populations most in need making decisions that are counterproductive. Current food aid policy requires some rethinking. Not only is there a ton of money, and food, being wasted in the way food aid is currently being handled, but it’s also not as effective as other means of helping those in poverty. Esther Duflo cites two different programs with promising results–in Colombia school lunches are being sprinkled with micronutrient packets and deworming programs at schools in Kenya are not only improving the health condition of children, but also helping to improve their future income by keeping children in school for longer.

I’ll leave you with this:

“If we don’t know whether aid is doing any good, we are not any better than the medieval doctors and their leeches.” -Esther Duflo

The Big Mac Index

Things I’ve learned: A Big Mac is only $1.36 in Russia right now!

Back in 2012, I spent a month traveling throughout Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and once I made it to Moscow, the only place I could afford to get my caffeine fix was at the golden arches of McDonald’s. At the time, a McD’s coffee cost about $3 or 90 ruble. Today that same cup of coffee would only be about a $1.25.

Created back in 1986 by the folks at The Economist, The Big Mac Index has become a common economic means  for determining if currencies are at their proper level. Relying on the economic theory of purchasing power parity (PPP), The Big Mac Index assumes that the same basket of goods and services purchased in two different countries should end up costing an equal amount of money–that is to say that over time the exchange rates would equalize the price. Below is a world map depicting  current world currency valuations. To play with the interactive graph of the Big Mac Index as well as currency valuation charts over time, visit The Economist.

Things I’ve Learned:

Roughly 1 in 7 people on the planet live in extreme poverty.

Proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day, 1990 and 2010 (Percentage)
Source: The Millennium Development Goals Report 2014.

Bar Chart

Though it’s a staggering, sad figure to consider that 1.2 billion individuals live in extreme poverty in our world today, it’s worth noting that overall the number of individuals living in extreme poverty continues to decrease (and the same can be said for the child mortality rate and HIV incidence rate).

Last year, Bill Gates made the prediction that “by 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.” There are many in the world, most notably the 24-hour media machine, that weigh in on dooms-day models of our future, painting a grim picture of our current state of affairs: great despair, terror, and violence experienced around the globe. There’s the myth* that people are starving around the world as a direct result of overpopulation; “the fact is, incomes and other measures of human welfare are rising almost everywhere, including in Africa.” Media can distort our understanding of the world through its reporting and our own constant consumption of it. It’s vital to, however challenging, remain objective. Thought it may not seem like it, we are living in a more peaceful, better educated, greater developed, healthier and wealthier world than all those that came before us. Remain optimistic and ever-vigilant in working towards equality all, I suppose that’s fundamentally what I’m getting at.

I’ll leave you with this:

“By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient. You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated, but in fact, Melinda and I are struck by how many people think the world is getting worse. The belief that the world can’t solve extreme poverty and disease isn’t just mistaken. It is harmful.”

-Bill Gates

*There are starving people around the globe, no doubt, but those facing extreme hunger are not suffering due to there being too many people on our planet consuming a too small supply of food. That is a common and convenient myth for those in the developed world. The fact is that people are starving due to income inequality, effects of climate change and lack of infrastructure especially in poor countries, and waste (just to name a few). Our supply of food is abundant, in fact,  in America, 30% of the food grown is wasted. We can, most certainly, do better.

Greetings and welcome to Paper Beats Rock

What’s in a name?

Shakespeare’s questioning title remains a value held today; what something actually is matters far more than its label. However, with that said, it’s worth explaining the logic behind this blog’s title.

As is typical for many, the game rock-paper-scissors was a staple of my childhood–an efficient and effective means of decision making and a thoroughly entertaining competitive game of prediction. What has delighted me throughout my personal history of living and working outside of the U.S. is the universality of this simple game. Despite common barriers of communication, everywhere I have visited rock-paper-scissors is well understood. As an educator,  this method of conflict resolution has been especially useful in the classroom: “you both want to write with the single red marker? Rock-paper-scissor for who gets to.” Simple. Efficient. Universal.

What paper beats rock reminds me is that despite our myriad of differences, be it income inequality, gender, race, language, education, etc., people are all simply that, people. We’re all here on this strange planet together and, somehow, we must find a way to make it work. I believe through focusing on the pillars of sustainable development–social inclusion, shared economic well-being , responsible care of our environment, and fair governance –we can, indeed, do better than simply make it work, we can thrive.

Paper Beats Rock is, at its core, a blog intent on sharing observations from my life working and traveling around the world while maintaining a focus on progress–sustainable development– and interesting things I’ve learned (TIL) along the way that have enriched my understanding of our world and may benefit you as well.

Greetings and welcome to Paper Beats Rock.

Stay gold,

Chelsea Marie Hicks