• Making Different Choices: WWF's 2012 Living Planet Report and Bhutan's Path to Success

    The people who live in the tiny Himalayan state of Bhutan have chosen a different path - a path that the WWF's Living Planet Report suggests we all take.

    Above: Satellite image of Holbox Island and the Yalahau Lagoon on the northeast corner of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

    In the past decade, the people and government of Bhutan have been making efforts to modernize. Their efforts have been a mixed bag of successes (information via Wi-Fi, satellite, cell phones, is now widely available) and problems (rural areas remain isolated and lack transportation).  Among Bhutan's development problems are growing concerns about urban air pollution, alcohol and drug abuse, and the loss of traditional cultures.

    To address the problems of modernity, the Bhutanese government has committed to a new strategy of measuring success - called Gross National Happiness (GNH).

    Rather than measure success in terms of Gross Domestic Product, the people of Bhutan are working toward a different target. They are working for a success that is measured in four tenets of Gross National Happiness that addresses the quality of life rather than quantity of goods. These four measures of success are: 1) sustainable and equitable development, 2) preservation of cultural values, 3) environmental conservation, and 4) fair and equitable governance.

    The WWF's Living Planet Report, released last week, is the world's leading, science-based analysis on the health of our only planet and the impact of human activity (click here for the complete report).

    The report's key finding?

    Humanity's demands exceed our planet's capacity to sustain us.

    We are currently using the renewable resources of 1.5 Earths to meet our yearly demands for energy, food, shelter, and the things we do and buy (click here for an excellent post on the WWF's report from Rebecca Davis).

    Yet we aren't living as if this is the case! Are you?

    The WWF report goes to great lengths to stress that this path of consumption is not inevitable, and lists some fifteen broad areas in which we can change the trajectory of our consumption of the planet's resources.  Among then, the report calls for countries to follow Bhutan's path and measure success beyond GDP.

    Discussion starters:

    1.     What will it take for people in the United States and other developed nations to include social and environmental indices in national indicators to measure and reward success?

    2.     Do you see the political will in your state to implement economic policies with targets and indicators to monitor the impact of economic governance on natural capital and human well-being?

  • Power and Protest at NATO Summit in Chicago 2012

    As I watch the video of world leaders inside the NATO summit in Chicago and of the people protesting outside the summit, I am struck with their starkly mixed messages and contrasting images.

    Those inside the summit meeting are the holders of long structured, legitimate, and established power (state power - hard power) and those outside are largely unstructured and unfocused and yet angry and yet they too hold at least some power.

    Inside the meeting of the 63-year-old military alliance, President Obama met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and stressed that more work must be done before NATO troops pull out of Afghanistan.

    "There will be great challenges ahead. The loss of life continues in Afghanistan. There will be hard days," said Obama. "But we are confident we are on the right track and this NATO summit reflects is that the world is behind the strategy we've laid out. Now it's our task to implement it effectively and I believe we can do so in part because of the tremendous strength and resilience of the Afghan people."

    Outside the meeting, thousands of people marched through the streets, some threw bottles and other objects at Chicago police who made some forty-five arrests. Several people were injured in clashes with police.  Almost directly opposite to the structured and focused meetings world leaders inside, the protesters were airing a broad range of grievances about wars, health care, labor, jobs, climate change - a very wide range of other complaints.

    Essentially, our society has two groups meeting in Chicago - on the one hand those who hold structured and legitimate power and on the other an unstructured group who perhaps represents a larger unstructured global unrest.

    NATO is holding its 25th formal meeting. This is the first time the summit has been held in a U.S. city other than Washington.  Much of the NATO summit promises to revolve around many problems in Afghanistan.

    Above: President Obama shakes hands with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a meeting before the NATO summit in Chicago. With Obama, Karzai thanked Americans for the help their "taxpayer money" has provided in Afghanistan. (photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP).

    Discussion starters:

    1.     Do you think that the protesters are an indicator of some larger societal unrest and or disenfranchisement?

    2.     What could (or should) world leaders do to include the thoughts and opinions of those protestors who are both angry and unstructured?


  • US Gun Ownership, an Arms Trade Treaty, Domestic Law, and Local Politics

    A resolution before the U.N. General Assembly calls for preparatory meetings for a conference to negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty later this year.

    Tip O'Neill - a famous Speaker of the U.S. House - once said, "All politics is local."  To O'Neill, ''all politics is local'' was at the very heart of the way he understood power, politics, and policy.

    O'Neill understood that the people of his district were a permanent and indispensable component of power. He needed them.  The link between the local town hall gathering and politics and policy in Washington and even internationally for O'Neill was real and critical to his success.

    Perhaps this is the link a candidate for US Senate, Mr. Craig James, had on his mind earlier this week (May 16, 2012) in Tyler, Texas.  According to Politifact.com, Mr. James drew a standing ovation from the local crowd when he said: "the United States, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are negotiating with the United Nations about doing a treaty that will ban the use of firearms.  I want you to know that the Second Amendment is about to be busted and if we don't stand up and stop this and scream and make sure that Washington, D.C. hears us, then we're in trouble with the Second Amendment."

    Above: Mr. Craig James, a candidate for US Senate, speaks to a local audience. 

    While it is obvious that a complete ban on firearms for citizens of the United States is simply not possible under our Constitution, James continued, "This is insane. Don't let them fool you any other way. We don't want to wake up one morning and realize that we have to send our firearms (away)" (click here for the complete story).

    While it seems that Mr. James well understands the Tyler audience's gun desires and Tip O'Neill's motto, he has either chosen to ignore or does not understand the position of the Obama administration and more importantly the relationship between the US Constitution and international agreements (click here for the US State Department press release). I want to focus on the later misunderstanding.

    The United Nations Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons will be meeting again in late August and early September (click here for more). 

    Concerned by the misuse of weaponry around the world, NGOs have mobilized governments to call for the global regulation of international conventional arms trade (please note that this is not about domestic arms trade).  Within the United Nations, countries have begun to negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty.

    The aim is to have the treaty concluded later this year that sets standards to ensure that weapons are only transferred internationally for appropriate uses. The global trade in conventional weapons - from warships and battle tanks to fighter jets and automatic weapons - remains unregulated and is a serious global problem (click here for more on arms trade).

    So, even though the treaty is about international arms trade - not domestic trade and weapons regulations - would it be possible for a treaty to effectively strip guns from owners in Tyler, Texas?

    States take one of two approaches to the application of international law domestically. States view the interaction between international law (treaties) and domestic law in one of two ways: monism or dualism. A few states (The Netherlands for example) have adopted the monist system, meaning that international law does not need to be translated into national law in order to be the law of the land.

    Most states (and the United States is in this set) have adopted the dualist approach. For dualist nations (for the United States) an international law is not directly applicable domestically. For an international treaty (like the Arms Trade Treaty) to be law in the United States it must not only have the President's signature but it must specifically be given approval by two-thirds of the United States Senate before it is considered ratified and in effect the law of the land.

    But further, under the dualist approach, even a treaty that has received US Senate and president approval must still be Constitutional.  In order for an Arms Trade Treaty to be legal, it must not violate the US Constitution.

    Since the US Supreme Court has held in District of Columbia et al. v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm, even a treaty signed by the president and passed by two-thirds of the US Senate would still be unconstitutional.

    Discussion starters:

    1.     In what way would it possible for an Arm's Trade Treaty to regulate private gun ownership in Tyler, Texas?

    2.     In what ways do you think Mr. James's statements to the local audience might hurt the central focus and efforts of the United Nations Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons? 

  • Spain Snubs Great Britain’s Diamond Jubilee: Claims Sovereignty over the Rock of Gibraltar

    While all of Great Britain will be celebrating 60 years of Queen Elizabeth's reign with the Diamond Jubilee celebrations next month, Spain's Queen Sofia has pointedly snubbed Britain and the royal family by canceling her appearance in protest. While Queen Sofia had already accepted invitation to the celebration, Spain's government has told her not to attend because it would be "inappropriate in the current circumstances."

    What "current circumstances" would strain relations between the UK and Spain you may ask? Well these "current circumstances" relate to the 300 year old Treaty of Utrecht and an upcoming royal visit to Gibraltar by Britain's Prince Edward..

    Above: Queen Elizabeth is the Head of State of the UK and 15 other Commonwealth realms.  

    Above: Queen Sofia of Spain (photo by: Jairo Castilla, Reuters).

    In an extended weekend (June 2, 3, 4 and 5) of events the UK will celebrate the Queen's reign.  The Queen came to the throne on February 6, 1952.  She celebrated her Silver Jubilee (25 years) in 1977 and her Golden Jubilee (50 years) in 2002 (click here for more). The only other British monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee was Queen Victoria in 1897.

    Spain has long claimed sovereignty over the Rock of Gibraltar (which lies just off the coast of Spain), but the territory has been under British rule for the past 300 years.  Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht but has long argued that it should be returned to Spanish sovereignty. The Treaties of Utrecht ended to the War of Spanish Succession (click here for more).

    Relations between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar have deteriorated since Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took power in December 2011. Perhaps not attending the Jubilee celebrations is not about Gibraltar at all?

    In a blunt statement, the royal palace in Madrid said, "The government has considered that, under the current circumstances, in would be inappropriate for Queen Sofia to attend Queen Elizabeth's Jubilee" (click here for more).

    Discussion starters:

    1.  Do you think that the conflict is over the royal visits to Gibraltar or is perhaps more about domestic Spanish politics?

    2.  Is the "head-of-state" role one that should be used in shaping foreign policy or is foreign policy better handled by the executive and legislative branches? 


  • Africa’s Population Surge: A Global Concern

    Sub-Saharan Africa, which now accounts for 12 percent of the world's population, will account for more than a third by 2100.

    "Odds are, writes Jeffrey Kluger (Apr 2000 Time.com) you'll never meet any of the estimated 247 human beings who were born in the past minute. in a population of 6 billion, 247 is a demographic hiccup. in the minute before last, however, there were another 247. in the minutes to come there will be another, then another, then another. By next year at this time, all those minutes will have produced nearly 130 million newcomers to the great human mosh pit. That kind of crowd is awfully hard to miss."

    As the population of our planet increases our increasing interdependent global village must face the challenges of the stresses of population growth in a borderless world.

    While the birthrate has fallen for mothers in Mexico (click here for more), the rates in sub-Saharan Africa have seen only a slight decline in average fertility rates, to about 5.5 in 2011 from 6.8 in 1975. As the Mexican immigration numbers dwindle the concern for undocumented African in the United States grows - there are and estimated 400,000 undocumented Africans in the United States today.

    In a quarter-century, at the rate Nigeria is growing, 300 million people - a population about as big as that of the present-day United States - will live in a country roughly the size of Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada (click here for more).

    Discussion starters:

    1.     Are controls on family size a violation of human rights?

    2.     Do you expect undocumented immigration from Africa to be a foreign policy concern?

  • Damming the Amazon: Indigenous People and the Rain Forest Are Threatened

    "We are alone in this fight. We are fighting to stop construction, but it is happening - no matter what." These are the words from a spokesman for the Kayapo - a Brazilian tribe who inhabit a vast area of the Amazon across the Central Brazilian Plateau.

    Look around you - right now - just look up from your screen for a minute (blink) then take in all of the items around you that are using power. How many can you count - 3, 5, maybe even 20?

    This about everything we run - from traffic lights, to iPads, to the lights in operating rooms of hospitals - on some form of energy. All of that energy for all of the millions and millions of things we "need" has to be generated somewhere.

    The people of Brazil are no different from you - and me. They also want to chat on Facebook, have lights, hot water, and watch the game on television while drinking a cold one from the fridge.

    It turns out that the people of Brazil have a natural "green" resource - rivers. If hydroelectric dams are built then they can create power needed for the people of Sao Paulo to make their morning coffee and text on their iPhones.

    Above: Sao Paula at night.

    To help provide all of this power, the Brazilian government has approved a proposal for the world's third largest hydroelectric dam spanning the Xingu River (a southern tributary of the Amazon). While this dam would provide cheap energy for many Brazilians, it would also affect an estimated 10,000 indigenous peoples as well as the many small farmers and rural settlers in the area. The Kayapo are facing the prospect losing their homes and their entire way of life so that others may have the energy the rivers can produce.

    Powerful political and economic interests are pushing the dam project ahead.

    Click here for an excellent New York Times video of this dam and the Kayapo people.

    Discussion starters:

    1.     Social and environmental costs will fall to the forest peoples and will likely disrupt the local and regional ecologies upon which these people depend.  Perhaps it is simply time for the Kayapo people to forgo their traditional ways and modernize?

    2.     Does the vast and growing need for the power from the hydroelectric dam simply outweigh the desires of the Kayapo people and or the environmental cost of the lost rain forest?



  • "We have so much, they have nothing...not even water!" A Challenge to Live Below the Line!

    "We have so much, they have nothing...not even water!"

    Last night at the dinner table my sixteen year old daughter was ranting about the gross injustice between her life (the lives of her peers) and the 1.4 billion people who regularly work just to survive on less than $1.50 a day.  She said, "just the food we give our pets alone cost more a month than many people live on each month!"

    In 2005, Nelson Mandela gave a speech in London's Trafalgar Square for the campaign to end poverty (click here for the full text). Like my daughter, Mandela said, "massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils."

    After dinner, my daughter and I sat down to look at IGOs and NGOs that are working to end poverty. One such group is the Global Poverty Project. The Global Poverty Project (an education and campaigning organization whose mission is to increase the number and effectiveness of people taking action against extreme poverty click here for more) has a challenge for you and your classmates.

    The challenge?

    Spend 5 days feeding yourself with only $1.50 a day - the U.S. equivalent of the extreme poverty line (click here for details on how to make the challenge work).  Regular readers of this blog will recall that the factory workers in Chittagong, Bangladesh work for about $1.50 a day (click here for more). Of course, the Bangladeshi factory worker must also cover everything (not just food) with that $48 a month - that income must also cover healthcare, housing, transportation, food, and education.

    "It's not that bad," some might say - "$1.50 goes a lot further in developing countries". Sadly this just is not true. The $1.50 figure represents the amount someone living in extreme poverty in the U.S. would have to live on.

    Could you do it for five days?

    This challenge will give you a glimpse into the lives of 1.4 billion people who have no choice but to live below the line every day.

    Live Below the Line is currently (May 7th to 11th) running in the U.S., UK, and Australia simultaneously, with more than 20,000 people spending 5 days living below the line.

    Discussion starters:

    1.     Do you agree with this statement from Nelson Mandela? "Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings."

    2.     Is freedom from want a basic human right?


  • Pew Report: Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero—and Perhaps Less

    A new report by the Pew Hispanic Center finds that the huge wave of immigration from Mexico not only seems to have come to an end but is also reversing itself. Illegal immigrants (many entire families) are self-deporting back to Mexico (Photo: Reuters).

    The study shows the wave of Mexican immigrants into the United States between 2005 and 2010 was offset by an equal number of Mexican migrants returning home (click here for the complete report).

    The report cited several reasons for the trend, including the weakened US job and housing construction markets, a rise in deportations, as well as growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings.

    Watch Pew Report: Mexican Migration Into U.S. Has Slowed on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

    The longer-term trend of Mexican immigration to the US seems likely to continue to decrease, as there has been sharp decline in Mexico's birth rates.  As of 2009, a typical Mexican woman was projected to have an average 2.4 children in her lifetime, compared with 7.3 for her 1960 counterpart.

    Discussion starters:

    1.     Will the reverse migration will change politics between the United States and Mexico and or within the US?

    2.     Do you think that the border wall between the US and Mexico will turn out to be unnecessary?


  • Clinton in Dhaka: Urges Respect for Human Rights and Encourages Greater US & Bangladeshi Cooperation

    The 160 million citizens of the impoverished South Asian state of Bangladesh are facing the worst period of political and economic tensions in years. Five people were killed in clashes between police and protesters during recent labor strikes and tensions have been growing over the disappearance of an opposition leader.

    Above: A shipbreaking yard near Chittagong, Bangladesh (photograph: Claudio Cambon/Alamy - click here for a photo essay).

    The Chittagong export development zone (EDZ) in Bangladesh has 137 MNC factories that export $1.6 billion worth of goods each year.  Many of the world's biggest MNCs have set-up factories in the EDZ - from Nike and Reebok to Philip Morris to Wrangler and Walmart - practically everything from pharmaceuticals to baseball caps is manufactured in Bangladesh these days (click here for the complete story).

    US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Bangladesh this weekend (May 5, 2012). While she had hoped to highlight the US and Bangladesh economic partnership it was the issue of a recent killing of a labor-rights activist that drew her attention.

    The Bangladesh government claims to have the cheapest labor in the world. While China's minimum wage is $250 a month, and Indonesia's $135 and Pakistan's $80, MNCs only pay workers an average of only $48 a month in Chittagong - that is about $1.50 a day.

    Are these factories the world's new sweatshops? While the workers in these factories toil long hours for extremely low pay others along the coast are working in extremely harsh and unsafe conditions. As the recent protest indicate, the pay rates - which are said to be set by government and not by the MNCs - are terrible.

    The retired and rusty old supertanker Lara 1 reached the beach at Chittagong Bangladesh two weeks ago. The iron ship sits in the mud in the Rising Steel ship breaking yard, waiting to be dismantled by an hundreds of young men who will risk their lives in this dangerous steel work for $1.50 a day (click here for the complete story).

    The United States is set to provide about $1 billion in aid for Bangladesh over the next five years.  On Sunday, Clinton held talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and called for an end to the recent violent strikes saying they "exact a heavy toll, especially on Bangladesh's poorest and most vulnerable citizens." 

    Clinton signed a joint statement that stressed the two countries' 'shared values' and "respect for human rights and the rule of law."

    Discussion starters:

    1.     What effect - if any - do you think the MNCs (that are using the cheap labor in Bangladesh) have on official government relations between the two states?

    2.     The Bangladeshi protesters are saying that the wealth created has made no improvement in the lives of ordinary workers. Are harsh and unsafe working conditions violations of basic human rights?

  • Professor Sachs on Nuclear Power: "Wishful thinking and corporate lobbies are much more powerful than the arithmetic of climate scientists."

    "We won't meet the carbon targets if nuclear is taken off the table," said professor Jeffery Sachs today (May 3, 2012) at the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank in Manila (click here for the complete story).

    On Saturday, Japan (the world's third-largest economy) will shut down the last of its 54 nuclear reactors and be without a single operating nuclear power plant for the first time for almost 50 years (click here for more).

    The decision to shut down all of the country's nuclear plants marks a dramatic shift in Japanese energy policy. Environmental campaigners see this energy policy shift as "a turning point for Japan, and a huge opportunity for it to move towards the sustainable energy future," Greenpeace said in a energy revolution report (click here for the full report).

    "With an abundance of renewable energy resources and top-class technology, Japan can easily become a renewable energy leader, while simultaneously ending its reliance on risky and expensive nuclear technology," says the Greenpeace report.

    Above: US economist Jeffrey Sachs at the Asian Development Bank meeting in Manila, the Philippines (photo by Dennis M. Sabangan).

    Professor Sachs, on the other hand, says that combating climate change will require an expansion of nuclear power. Sach's says that renewable energy is not making up enough of the world's energy mix and new technologies such as carbon capture and storage is not progressing fast enough.

    A Japanese environment ministry panel has recently asserted that Japan can still reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030 from 1990 levels without nuclear, through energy saving and the quicker adoption of renewables, which it hopes will account for between 25% and 35% of total power generation by 2030. Sach's says, "We are nowhere close to that - as wishful thinking and corporate lobbies are much more powerful than the arithmetic of climate scientists."

    Sachs argues that the world has no choice because the threat of climate change had grown so grave. "Emissions per unit of energy need to fall by a factor of six. That means electrifying everything that can be electrified and then making electricity largely carbon-free. It requires renewable energy, nuclear and carbon capture and storage - these are all very big challenges. We need to understand the scale of the challenge."

    Discussion starters:

    1.     The Japanese government has projected a 5% power shortage for Tokyo and a 16% power shortfall in western Japan. Do you expect that a power shortage will pressure the restart of the nuclear reactors?

    2.     Japanese office workers are said to be making efforts to to reduce energy use by swapping suits and ties for short-sleeved shirts and turning down air conditioners. While these efforts will be easy as long as Japan enjoys mild spring temperatures, do you think they will last with in the hot months to come? 


  • President Obama Consistently Presses China on Human Rights: Remains Quiet on Chen Case

    President Obama was asked about the Chen (click here for more) case at a press conference yesterday. While he refused to be drawn on details of the discussions, he did say, "We think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system."

    He added: "We want China to be strong and we want it to be prosperous, and we're very pleased with all the areas of cooperation that we've been able to engage in. But we also believe that that relationship will be that much stronger and China will be that much more prosperous and strong as you see improvements on human rights issues."

    Above: Barack Obama, during a visit from Japanese PM Yoshihiko Noda, refused to be drawn on detail of the Chen Guangcheng case (photograph: Alex Wong / Getty Images).

    Chinese and US officials seem eager to avoid strained relations over the Chen case and, most immediately, to interfere with the annual talks scheduled to begin in Beijing later this week.

    US officials quietly say that they are looking at options for Chen, ranging from asylum in the United States to extracting a guarantee from the Chinese government that neither he nor his family will be harmed.

    Chen's friends say he does not want to leave China and would settle for a guarantee of protection and an investigation into his maltreatment by local government officials over the past six years. Mr. Chen's desire to remain in China could result in a prolonged stalemate that could derail cooperation on other global security issues.

    Discussion starters:

    1.     Do you expect that Secretary of State Clinton will be deterred from pressing China on the Chen issue because of economic interdependence?

    2.     Does that fact that this is an election year in the United States add to the importance of standing firm on human rights?