Eugene Linden
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Latest Musing

Imagining a Post Pandemic World

How might a post-pandemic world look and feel? Let’s imagine a creative team at a New York City advertising agency pitching a campaign in 2050 for a new perfume (more than most products, perfumes are sold by attaching to the dreams and aspirations of their times).  The Big Apple, ...

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Deep Past
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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PLEASE TREAD ON ME (Updated)


A few weeks back, President Bush signed a budget measure that would effectively cut environmental protection spending by the EPA over the next year by about six percent. Score another win for the corporate Browns in their long-standing rivalry with the Greens in this latest game in the World Environmental Football League. Recurrent lopsided scores should not be a surprise in this league since the Browns are pros playing for money, while the Greens are amateurs playing for effete liberal ideas like the viability of the planet. The league itself has unusual rules and traditions. The Greens play touch, while the Browns play tackle. Moreover, leaving nothing to chance, the Browns buy the ref. Strangest of all; the Greens would not have it any other way. I was prompted to look into the rules of this bizarre set-up a few years ago. I attended a meeting of an international environmental group and listened as a highly motivated group of greens discussed plans to fund a pilot project on ecotourism in Quintana Roo, Mexico. The idea was to point the way towards nature-friendly projects in this beautiful but vulnerable stretch of Caribbean coast. I should have been swept up by their idealism, but I wanted to tear my hair. Fourteen years earlier, I had visited this very area and heard highly motivated greens discuss similar plans to raise money to fund pilot projects in ecotourism. In the interim, highly motivated developers have built real hotels, destroying mangroves, killing reefs, and fouling once-clear sinotes in the process. There are no pilot hotels. This was but one episode of a pas de deux of destruction now playing in the U.S. and around the world (the WEF is the world’s one true global league). While greens concoct pilot projects and scrupulously honor "process," developers develop, loggers log, and poachers poach. When a builder in Quintana Roo or a timber interest in the Tongass covets a piece of real estate, he does whatever necessary to get the necessary approvals, produces an environmental impact study that suggests that sewage is good for coral reefs, or cutting is good for forests, and then builds. When environmentalists find some natural treasure, they hold conferences, fund surveys and censuses, seek consensus with locals, and say things like, “after doing x,y and z we can begin to…” Greens are always beginning to do something or other. A green-run airline would have pilots perpetually training for flights that were forever delayed. When they need it, exploiters have an ace in the hole: corruption. Pay offs and muscle, ubiquitous in decisions affecting natural areas in the developing world, and more subtly used in the U.S., utterly trump the law-abiding, bureaucratic approach of greens. Mario Villanueva, the governor of Quintana Roo, accused of taking mordida to approve hotels, eventually went on the lam, but the damage was already done. When, during the ’97 Asian financial crisis, greens asked Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to support making new loans to Indonesia contingent on environmental reform, he replied that the time to talk about environment was when the country was back on the path to prosperity. Wrong: it was when Indonesia was richest that its corrupt politicians and generals were the most destructive. Since Rubin’s remarks, Indonesia has become the most critical environmental catastrophe on earth as free-lance loggers, squatters, and poachers take advantage of the country's instability to invade the nation's protected areas and remaining forests. On some islands, even the legal amounts of timber allocated for cutting vastly exceed the remaining stands of trees, parks included. The mismatch between the Browns and the Greens offers one reason that decades of mounting environmental awareness have produced so little in the way of facts on the ground. The decline of earth's ecosystems has only accelerated despite a geometric growth in the number of environmental groups around the world. Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of this danse macabre is that even its victims accept it as the way it should be. As one environmentalist told me, "of course we have to do an assessment; how else can we make the case for what to save and where to put boundaries." He's right. But, doesn't it seem strange that even as we watch forests disappear, fisheries die, and creatures go extinct, we continue to agree that the burden of proof lies with those who would protect nature rather than those would exploit her? Greens do their studies before entering an area, while if a company is building a pipeline in Kamchatka or a road in the Amazon, they make their plans first and let others worry about environmental impact. The practical reality is that once a development project is announced, with all its promise of jobs and profits, it is very difficult to halt. Still, what seems like common sense today may go down in history as collective madness as the bills start coming due for the destruction of earth's life support systems. Greens need to toss their playbook, and find a legitimate way to level the playing field. The huge reservoir of environmental awareness in the rich consuming nations offers enviros a powerful weapon to bring to bear on corporations, financial institutions, and international lending agencies that control the flow of money to the developing world -- a point made by activists at every international globalization forum. This is a useful step. And please, no more pilot projects!

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Short Take

Relaxing COVID-19 Restrictions will Kill, not Save, the Economy


 

[This is a more developed version of the previous Short Take}

Those who want to relax mandates on self-isolation and social distancing to save the economy have got it exactly backwards. Reopen society too soon, and we risk destroying the economy as well as public order and our shaky democratic institutions. The reason comes down to two words: supply lines.

 Supply lines for necessities such as food are already under stress. Those going to grocery stories encounter random instances of empty shelves and vegetable bins. Smithfield Farms shut down a South Dakota plant that supplies roughly 4% of the pork in the nation after over 500 of its workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Other giant meat processors such as Tyson have also shut down plants for similar reasons. Farmers in the West are having trouble finding workers to harvest the crops now reaching maturity in the fields. And even if they manage to get the crops picked, farmers are out of luck if the truckers fail to show up, or the flow of packaging for their products get interrupted. 

Right now, these disruptions are episodic, but that should be concerning because we haven’t even seen the end of the first wave. What we have seen is that vital front-line workers such as nurses, doctors, EMT’s, and other first responders have had trouble finding protective equipment and maintaining morale. Some have staged walkouts over the dangerous conditions, and these are workers with a sense of mission.

By contrast, for most of the hourly-paid workers who keep supplies made, distributed, and sold, their work is a job that pays the bills. It would be appropriate if society recognized that they played a vital role, but mostly these workers encounter demanding bosses, monotony, and surly customers. If sick, they are not going to work – nor would we want them too. And they are not likely to risk their lives if going to work exposes them to contagion.

Disruption of one link, e.g. the trucker that delivers food the last mile, could halt a supply chain. COVID-19 is a threat to every link. Should a second wave hit before there is a readily available, cheap and effective treatment, it’s a very high probability that many supply lines will be disrupted and filling the gaps could easily overwhelm the nation’s businesses. 

Even today, on the evening news, we see images of vast caravans of cars lined up to get supplies from food banks. Imagine two weeks of empty shelves in the stores that feed our cities. How likely is it that civil order could be maintained in that situation? Will people suffer in silence if they realize that they can’t buy food for their kids because our leaders reopened the economy before a treatment was available because they wanted to prop up the stock market (which is how it will be portrayed)? If we want to look analogues for what life is like once supply chains break down, they’re readily available today in cities like Mogadishu, Kinshasa, and Port au Prince. 

 Thus far, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic seems to be a mélange of Boss Tweed, Don Corleone and Inspector Clouseau. For the next act, the administration has a choice: Churchill, who bolstered British morale during the London Blitz, or Pol Pot, who sacrificed millions of his countrymen for a bad idea. Let’s hope those around Trump can convince him that the cure for the disease is the cure for the economy.
 



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