Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Elusive Environmental Villain

There is a common idea that the developed nations are the world's environmental villains. This is a myth. True, we create most of the carbon dioxide, consume most of the energy, and use most of the raw materials. Yet when we scratch beneath the obvious, things are not that simple. Despite appearances, life in the developing world is no more sustainable than life in the first world. Where we consume fossil fuels and raw materials, the developing world consumes wilderness. Where we create CO2 and plastic water bottles, the developing world creates poverty and disease. There are no good guys and bad guys. Both paths are unsustainable, and it is only us, with our wealth and technology, that can lead the way to a better balance.

Few would argue that the western way of life can continue indefinitely. We are changing the very climate of our planet with our CO2 emissions and we are using up our resources at a tremendous rate. Clearly we must do better. But by many measures, the developed world has the right idea. Our populations are stable, we have decent environmental standards, and people live long and healthy lives. We have bought these things by using up the earth's tremendous natural wealth, and unfortunately the bank is now getting empty. The earth does not have limitless resources. The atmosphere cannot suck up endless carbon.

As a result of our excesses, many argue that we should go back to a simpler way of life. The average citizen of India produces 5% of the CO2 of the average American. Wouldn't it be great if we could all live a little bit more simply and watch our problems go away? Unfortunately, this simple way of life is another myth we have constructed. Nobody, not even a subsistence farmer, wants to be subsistence farmer. That's why so many poor people leave the countryside every year to live in horrendous conditions in urban slums: the countryside is worse. People want health, freedom, a comfortable house, and an education. And why not? The fact that many of us who have these things choose to waste our tremendous good fortune on television and inane celebrity gossip does nothing to make the life of the poor any more noble. Our culture may be shallow and depraved, but it beats being a child prostitute in Bangkok or a corn farmer in Guatemala. Poverty is horrible. We must not forget that.

We must also be careful not to equate simplicity with sustainability. The rapidly increasing population in poor countries puts tremendous pressure on natural areas. When nearly everyone is a farmer, doubling the population involves cutting down a lot of forest. And when most of the farming is slash-and-burn agriculture which destroys the land after only a few years, the problem is compounded. Poor farmers may not emit much CO2, but the land they burn is the lungs of our planet and the source of much of our biodiversity.

Subsistence agriculture is only sustainable with a stable population. But poverty itself drives population growth, so subsistence cultures almost by definition have rapidly growing populations. I argued recently that access to free birth control should be a basic right. But while better birth control will clearly have an impact on population, most poor people will still choose to have large families. When you have nothing but a plot of land (no old-age security, no decent medical care, no education) then children become your most obvious asset. The more children you have the better your chances of being fed and cared for in your old age. It's the world's oldest pyramid scheme, and like all pyramid schemes it must collapse. The collapse comes when there is no land for the children. After 10,000 years, that time has arrived.

Contrary to popular belief, it is we, in the rich world, who are closest to living sustainably. Our populations are generally stable. We live in large urban centers that allow us tremendous economies of scale on transportation and infrastructure. We treat our sewage, keep our garbage out of rivers, and try to protect our environment. Billions of dollars are being spent researching clean technologies and better ways of doing things. There is a tremendous public awareness of environmental issues and a will to pay for them. My annual water bill is greater than the yearly income of 2 billion people. It is wealth that enables me to treat my sewage.

We in the rich world already live more sustainably than we did 50 years ago, and we have the tools to do better still. Take crops for example. The green revolution has allowed us to improve crop yields tremendously. Since the 1940s corn production in the United States has quadrupled while the land used for corn farming has fallen. By using first-world farming techniques we can easily feed most of the world's population while substantially reducing the amount of cultivated land. Or look at energy; while our CO2 emissions are clearly much too high, we have all the technologies that we need to reduce them. Solar panels are getting better and cheaper every day, wind farms are popping up everywhere, and people are figuring out clever new ways to hide carbon in the ground.

We must not forget however, the damage we did on our path to wealth. We also cut our forests, mined our mountains, and polluted our water supplies. We cannot afford to repeat these errors on a global scale. We also cannot afford to leave billions in unsustainable poverty. Our road to wealth was long and dirty but now there are shortcuts. We must help poor countries leapfrog directly to cleaner, more sustainable technologies. We all share this planet, and when the last tree falls in Borneo we will all be poorer for it.

The idea of a simple, environmentally sustainable way of life that so many people cling to is a fantasy. It doesn't exist. It never did. Only we, in the rich world, have the solutions to our planet's problems and the wealth to pay for those solutions. The question is, do we have the will? Do we have the will to tax carbon to the point where we will get a 90% reduction in emissions, even if it means energy prices triple? Do we have the will to enforce such tough recycling laws even if it means that we pay much more for all our disposable stuff? Do we have the will to help poor countries get richer even if it means opening up our markets to their products? Will we give them the technologies and assistance that they need to jump directly to cleaner technologies? Are we willing to feed some of the world's poorest people so that they don't have to cut a plot of land out of the jungle? These are the choices our generation will be remembered for. They are ours to make.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Elephant in the Room

When I was walking down the street in Guatemala city I was hit by a flash of insight. It came in the form of Juan, a street vendor who was trying to sell me some tourist trinkets. I wasn't interested in buying anything, but since there were no other likely buyers around and I spoke Spanish he stopped to chat with me. One of the first questions that I was asked was how many children I had.

I had none. Juan had six.

I have had this conversation many times in my travels and inevitably I would be asked why I didn't have any children. After all, I am married and in my late 30s. In most of the developing world I should be at about half a dozen kids by now. Yet this time, the conversation took a different turn.

"How is it that you stop from having children?" asked Juan.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You are married. How do you prevent children? Do you use condoms?"

I'm sure Juan wasn't the most educated person around. But he certainly wasn't the least. He spoke good Spanish and ran a small business selling souveniers to tourists. He was a typical Guatemalan. And he had no idea how to stop having children. So little of an idea that he was able to overcome huge societal taboos to talk to a total stranger about sex.

I proceeded to teach Juan about birth control. I told him that condoms work OK, but that the pill is much better. I told him that the most effective method would be to get a vasectomy. "It hurts a bit for two days and then you'll never have to worry about children again. You have a completely normal sex life afterwards. I've had it done and I'm very glad."

And then it struck me. None of these methods would work for Juan. He couldn't afford birth control pills or condoms. He certainly couldn't afford vasectomy surgery. And his church was probably telling him that birth control was a sin. In reality, there was nothing that somebody like Juan could do to stop having children.

There are 6.6 billion people on the planet. We all know it's too many. If there were only 500 million all of our environmental problems would vanish. The earth could sustain us by regrowing forests faster than we cut them down, and absorbing carbon faster than we release it. We could farm only the most fertile lands and people would have lots of land to live on. There would be tons of space for wilderness. Parents with smaller families would have more money to invest in the education and feeding of each child.

Yet nearly fifty years after the invention of the pill, the UN reports that 201 million women have no access to any form of birth control. In Mali 58% of women of child bearing age can't name even a single method of birth control. In Sub-Saharan Africa only 14% of married women use a modern method of birth control. (details here) The planet is dying from overpopulation and nobody is talking about population control. How could this be?

The biggest reason for this deplorable state of affairs is religion. I make no bones about being no fan of religion in general, but in few ways has religion done more harm than with it's bronze age attitudes towards family planning. The Catholic church is against birth control completely. In many developing countries it wields enough influence to keep sex education out of public education, and birth control out of public health. The Catholic church also puts strong pressure on followers to have as many children as possible. Each child is a gift from God after all. Part of His grand plan. Too bad that God isn't much interested in feeding, or clothing, or educating all these little gifts. How many young mothers have died in childbirth because the Pope doesn't want them to stop have children? How many children starve because their families can't feed an extra mouth?

Of course it isn't just the Catholics that are at fault. Many religions get completely hung up on the idea of sex before marriage. There is this absurd idea among the faithful that teaching birth control will encourage unwed couples to have more sex. If we don't teach people about sex, goes the logic, they won't have sex. It's idiotic nonsense which flies in the face of thousands of years of human history and numerous studies. It is also the official policy of the US government. The Bush administration has created a global gag order on sex education. Charities that teach anything other than abstinence-only, even if it is only a small part of their program, and even if it is from entirely seperate funding sources, risk having their entire US government funding cut. Congress insists that one third of global AIDS education focus on abstinence-only programs which discourage use of condoms. Yet for all its faults the US is an incredibly generous donor. Most organizations would rather shut down their family planning work than do without such a large source of funds.

Of course we can't just blame religion. A second problem is our obsession with growth. Economic growth is good. We all know that. We live in a society where a business that has profitably employed ten people for twenty years is considered a failure because it hasn't grown. Everything is expected to get bigger.

The easiest economic growth comes from having an increasingly large supply of consumers. If every year there are more people, then every year we need to build more houses, and produce more cars, and build more roads. Unfortunately we also have to cut down more forests and pump more carbon into the atmosphere. Until there are no more forests. Then they will starve.

Most governments are terrified of falling populations. The governments of many developed countries have programs in place specifically to encourage parents to have more children. In Russia and Signapore there are financial incentives. And I have been called selfish for chosing not to add to the problem. I should be the one getting financial incentives. Nobody is going to have to cut down an acre of Brazilian rainforest to grow beef for my little ones. Nobody is going to have to breath the carbon that my children produce. Nobody will swim in their excrement. China, with its one child policy, has probably done more to save the planet than any other single government.

Luckily for us, when people have the choice they generally choose to have smaller families. Despite the mindless policies of the Pope the overwhelming majority of Catholics defy his orders and use contraceptives. Without immigration, populations would already be falling in most of the industrialized world. Financial incentives to have children don't work well for educated populations.

It costs about $500,000 to raise a child in the industrialized world. Think of what that money could do for children in the developing world. It could buy 10,000 Nepalese girls out bonded servitude. How many vacinations could it buy? How many meals?

The world doesn't need more children. We need universal, free, access to contraceptives. There should be visiting vasectomy clinics in rural villages right next to the visiting dentists and doctors. We need to leave behind our inhibitions about sex and teach young children everywhere where babies come from and how to plan them. Our planet is full, and we don't have another one.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Enlace Quiche: Hope Through Education

It's still dark at 4 AM when 16-year-old Oswaldo gets up to do his chores. He and his brothers and sisters all help their parents to run their small landholding.

In the 'developed' world, it may be a challenge training a child to make their bed in the morning: in 'undeveloped' countries, it's more than chores; children need to work so that the family can continue to have food shelter and clothing. Children born in poverty grow up working in the fields, or sometimes they live in cities and spend the day trying to sell stickers or newspapers to make a few extra pennies for their families. In rural Guatemala the average boy spends less than 6 years in school. The average girl spends less than two. They will be farmers or labourers all their lives.

Oswaldo's life will be different because of the work of one remarkable organization. Every day at 7AM Oswaldo gets on a bus and goes into the nearby town of Santa Cruz del Quiche to take classes in a computer lab at Enlace Quiche.

"If this school didn't exist, I would probably be working in agriculture," says Oswaldo in Spanish. "Most of the people that I grew up with are working now. I'm pretty much the only one who is still going to school."

Enlace Quiche was started by Andy Lieberman, who moved to Guatemala in the early 1990s to get a break from the high tech industry in San Francisco. He fell in love, married a Guatemalan social worker, and had a couple of children. In 2000 he was approached to coordinate the Enlace Quiche Project using USAID/AED funding. Through 2003 , Enlace worked with local partners and the Ministry of Education to create the first Technology Centers with computers and multimedia equipment to support the training of bilingual teachers and the production of lecture and textbook material in the K'iche' and Ixil Mayan languages. After direct funding from USAID ended Enlace Quiche continued forward as an NGO. Their website says that their mission is "to teach with computers and not about computers, contributing to the development of Quiche, of Guatemala, and of indigenous peoples in the whole world."

"One thing that is really different about our organization is that it is almost entirely run by Guatemalans," says Andy. "In many other organizations the entire executive is made up of foreigners. In Enlace Quiche I am the only person on the board of directors that isn't a native Guatemalan. This allows us to be more responsive to the local culture and needs; it also means that the organization can keep going without me."

Enlace Quiche has courses in typing, small business management, computer use , K'iche' and English. The courses are all aimed at the needs of the local indigenous people. M ost of the course materials have been developed in-house to make them more applicable to native Quiche speakers. Enlace Quiche is even creating Quiche web pages, and there is a new effort to provide a comprehensive online directory of local businesses and community organizations. The award winning course material is available for free download from the Enlace Quiche website at http://www.enlacequiche.org/.

Enlace staff working on course materials.

All the students we talked to value their traditional culture and language. The boys, who are all dressed in modern clothes, all agree that traditional dress is important for the women. The women aren't as sure about that, but they do all agree that they want to maintain their language. Spanish is important: it is the language of business. But speaking K'iche' allows them to maintain a connection with their Mayan roots.

Like most modern NGOs, Enlace Quiche requires that users pay a portion of costs. The fee structure addresses some of the effects of Guatemala's rapidly growing yet poorly funded education system. Due to the dramatic quality variance in primary school teachers, students often have not developed the discipline of good learning skills. It isn't uncommon for them to miss classes, show up late, or talk on their cell phones in class. "It is important to charge a fee so that the students will value what they are getting", explains Andy. When Lara and I walked into a class, the students were all intently focused on their assignments and teacher. If we had been really quiet, I'm sure they wouldn't have noticed us until class was over.

The classes cost around $20.00 a month, though scholarships reduce the cost for many students by up to 75%. It might not seem like much, but in an area where people earn a few dollars a day and have ten children, $5.00 is a lot to spend on one child. Most of the students also have to pay bus fare every day to get to classes. As a result, many students do extra work to pay for their education. Oswaldo, for example, goes to the town square every evening after classes and sells belts to earn tuition money.

Selling belts to earn tuition money.

The students we talked to clearly value what they are getting. We asked three girls from one of the classes to describe their experiences. They are 16,18, and 19, but could be five years younger. "Many of our friends are married already," they explain. "If we didn't have this school to go to we probably would be too." Indigenous women often marry at 13 or 14 and start having children shortly after. The girls are astonished to hear that in the developed world most people marry in their mid twenties and many in their thirties.

To spread their idea further, Enlace Quiche has just started a youth club. Students who join the club can bring friends into the computer lab and library. Oswaldo says he would really like his brothers and sisters to come, and he plans to bring them through the club. Maybe they'll be the next generation of students.

Oliver Wendel Holmes said "The mind once expanded by a new idea never returns to its original size."

Just as Enlace Quiche is expanding minds it touches, it is also expanding its vision for social impact. Enlace Quiche says on their website, "We have great dreams!" Andy L ie berman is now focusing a large part of his energy on turning the original center in Santa Cruz del Quiche into a blueprint for self-supporting technology centers in other communities. As an example of 'social entrepreneurship,' this type of proposed sustainable model uses "the enormous synergies and benefits that arise when business principles are unified with social ventures". As a social entrepreneur, Andy hopes to change the world. His plan will not only help people: it will support itself, attract investors, and eventually it will take on a life of its own.

All of the kids we talked to have bigger plans for their lives now. Salvador hopes to be a teacher. Maria wants to work in an office. Most will be the first generation of their families to have jobs outside of subsistence agriculture. They will be teachers, office workers, and computer operators. They will marry later in life, have fewer children, and earn enough money to see that their children get educated as well. For them the cycle of poverty has been broken.

You can donate to Enlace Quiche through GlobalGiving by clicking here.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Crossing into the United States

We crossed back into the United States last week after four months in Guatemala and Mexico. Unlike most people the cross the border, we had all the necessary passports and paperwork. Everywhere we travelled on our trip we had run into people that had crossed into the US illegally, sometimes as many as 15 times. For some it was a weeklong treck through the desert. Other people said it was a 30 minute hike to a shuttle bus. I guess it depends on your contacts.

With proper paperwork the experience was a horrible. Many travellers that I have talked to agree that the United States is the most unpleasant and unwelcoming border that they have ever been too. Lara has a British passport, which means she needs to get fingerprinted and retina scanned. This involved walking over to a crowded office and waiting for about 90 minutes until a grumpy man gave her a form to fill out. In filling out the form she accidentally wrote her birth date on the wrong line, so she crossed it out and wrote in the correct place. When she got back to the man he circled the correction with a big red pen and said "You made an error. I need you to fill out this form again, correctly!".

"In my country the customs officials are clever enough to figure out corrections", was my reply. Fortunately it was my inside voice speaking.

As Lara was filling out her form a second time a group of Japanese tourists who had come in realized that they hadn't taken a number. The customs agent decided to help them out of order rather then make them wait like everybody else. Unfortunately, they lacked a common language and for the next half hour we waited with our completed forms for the agent to finish abusing the Japanese tourists.

After a little more then two hours Lara finally got fingerprinted and retina scanned and allowed into the United States.

Now we know why so many people swim across the Rio Grande!