Inequality and Education - Rewriting No Child Left Behind

The importance of a strong education, a solid foundation of knowledge, cannot be overstated. In a speech to the Senate, U.S. Senator Michael F. Bennet went on to speak about the unequivacol responsibility we have as a nation, at every level of government, to acknowledge the freedom from ignorance. We must find ways to better educate our children - through cross-sectoral, bi-partisan efforts - or whatever method necessary to bridge the inequality gap and generate a more successful, more capable, more knowledgeable people. The U.S. Senate is looking at an opportunity to debate and reform our current outlook on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is long over due. 

In reference to the inequality gap, he proclaims, “… in a way that is profoundly at war with our founding ideals, poverty breeds deeper poverty; lack of educational achievement breeds deeper academic failure; and broken families are the surest predictor of more broken families in the next generation and the generation beyond that."

Senator Bennet approaches the subject from the perspective of a parent, in an attempt to hypothesize a real stake in the outcome of our nations children. He emphasizes how important it is for Washington not to micromanage schools and perpetuate a system that drives compliance rather than creativity, but rather support local initiatives that tackle issues in the context that works best for the community and their students. He emphasizes the importance of good teachers and better, the administrators that support them.

I love one of his conclusive statements, in which he says, “In the end, we have a duty as a Nation to ensure that education liberates our children, rather than reinforces the circumstances into which they were born.

He’s couldn’t be more right, and I surely hope that our leadership does the right thing in updating their outlook on education reform, moving to rework No Child Left Behind in a way that improves equity and accountability, provokes innovation, and ultimately allows for greater opportunities and freedom. 

Read the transcript of his speech here or watch the video below.

Global Learning XPRIZE: Bringing Basic Literacy to Children Globally

XPRIZE, a nonprofit that holds global competitions for people and organizations to build products that advance humankind, announced a new competition focused on basic education.

Similar to the Orteig Prize from the 1920s, offering $25,000 to the first aviator to reach Paris from New York on a non-stop flight, or vice-versa, the XPRIZE takes on a similar belief in competition to fuel advancements in technologies. Creating a competition around an issue drives public interest and investments in new technology.

Their initial competition was an air race of sorts, the Ansari XPRIZE, which was intended for research and development in technology for space exploration. The prize was for the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft multiple times within a certain period of time. It was awarded in 2004, and we can see many ventures into space exploration from private entities today as a result of that competition. 

At the Social Good Summit, Peter Diamandis announced their newest competition to empower children to take control of their own learning. The $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE is a competition that challenges teams from around the world to develop open source scalable software solution that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic. There are an estimated 250 million children worldwide who lack basic literacy, which inhibits their ability to lift themselves from poverty. 

Many kids simply don't have access to schools or teachers. The traditional model of education simply isn't making the impact we need, so XPRIZE created this competition to develop a new way of learning so that education is accessible in the far corners of the earth, for every child. 

XPRIZE is holding a crowdfunding campaign to raise $500,000 by November 6, 2014. The funds that are raised will be used to test the software developments in more areas to have better quality feedback, to create an powerful collaborative environment so teams are successful as possible, to building and growing a global community, and finally towards building and supporting a bedrock of open-education technology. 

Diamandis nailed it before walking off the stage today, saying, "The technology exist. The drive and passion exist. Let's just go make it happen!" 

European Commission 2030 Proposal – Target Stringency for EU ETS and ESD

On 22 January 2014 the European Commission proposed a new binding reduction target for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, calling for a 40% reduction from 1990 levels to be met through domestic measures aloneThe annual reduction in the cap would be increased from 1.74% now to 2.2% after 2020, and there is also a call for emissions outside of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to be cut by 30% below the 2005 level, which is to be shared across the Member States.

There are some critics to the European Commission’s proposals, though many do want to implement some of the proposals and believe that they are a step in the right direction in order to achieve long-term emissions reductions. Specifically, Carbon Market Watch claims that the 40% target proposed is not ambitious enough in order to meet targets of 80-95% reductions by 2050. They also point out that the use of international offsets needs to be reevaluated and EU-wide quality restrictions must be applied in order to protect European competitiveness.[iv] In their report they explain, “Despite the domestic nature of the EU’s 2030 GHG target, international offsets may be used by Member States that want to increase their own GHG targets beyond the EU-wide GHG targets. Between 2013 and 2020 more than two thirds of all issued offsets will come from large-scale business- as-usual energy projects that do not represent real emissions reductions because the projects would have gone ahead anyway. Instead of investing in clean energy projects in Europe, businesses are spending money on purchasing offsets from projects in developing countries that would have been built anyway. This is hardly a way to protect European competitiveness.”

On 21 March 2014, the European Council convened for their Spring Meeting and reviewed the Commission’s proposal to conclude that the new framework should be based on the following principles:

  • further improve coherence between greenhouse gas emissions reduction, energy efficiency and the use of renewables and deliver the objectives for 2030 in a cost-effective manner, with a reformed Emissions Trading System playing a central role in this regard;
  • develop a supportive EU framework for advancing renewable energies and ensure international competitiveness;
  • ensure security of energy supply for households and businesses at affordable and competitive prices;
  • provide flexibility for the Member States as to how they deliver their commitments in order to reflect national circumstances and respect their freedom to determine their energy mix.

As can be seen from the proposal in January, 20% reduction targets in 2020 would increase to 40% by 2030, and this is supposed to place the EU on track to meet the 80% reduction by 2050

The Council doesn’t specifically mention anything in regard to applying stringent targets for the EU ETS and ESD, but they do seem to comply with the ideas and proposals set forward by the Commission in stating that there should be further coherence between targets and ETS reform should play a central role in achieving their objectives. An agreement was made to make a final decision regarding the framework by October 2014 at the latest.

One of the major concerns for many is the ineffectiveness of carbon markets and the EU ETS due to the extreme surplus of emission allowances and international credits that has grown since 2009. At the start of Phase III of the EU ETS in 2013, the surplus stood at almost two billion allowances, and the European Commission’s anticipation is that although the surplus will discontinue to grow, there will not be much of a decline in allowances. Having so many allowances in the market risks damaging the orderly function of the carbon market, and furthermore presents ample risks for the ETS in it’s capability to meet demanding emission reduction targets in future phases..

Because of the over supply, current carbon prices are far from the prices ETS projections are based on. Therefore, the situation might be a call to transition focus on the Effort Sharing Decision (EDS) as well as the ETS. In the Energy Roadmap 2050 that was composed in 2011, it can be seen that they project the “contribution to the emission reductions [to be] driven by the ETS sectors which decrease emissions by 48% between 2005 and 2050; on the contrary the non-ETS sectors reduce by 21% compared to 2005.” Today we can see that the non-ETS sector target has been adjusted in January’s proposal, but clearly prevailing policy is not adequate and the proposals of late have been a testament to that.

Making a new legally binding reduction target that is to be met solely through domestic measures is telling, because there’s potential that the European Commission has learned from the past and understands the importance of making a compulsory, more aspiring objective outside of the ETS in order to hedge risk of it’s failure.** 

**The door is still open for international credits but subject to an international agreement and further tightening the caps.

Image source: Flickr with modification

CSR in SMEs - Intrinsically Driven?

In my other blog concerning social enterprise, I mention my belief that businesses are developed by their founders to initially fill a void and serve the people in one way or another. In the case of Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniac wanted to bring the power of computers to the everyday person. In the case of Unilever, William Lever sold soap to save lives. In the case of Warby Parker, the four founders sought to create boutique-quality eyewear at a revolutionary price and ultimately strive to give everyone the right to see.

When companies are small, and as is the case for many SMEs in that they are often managed by their owners, the founder vision is typically at the heart of everyday decision making. SMEs typically have a more intimate connection with the community in which they operate because of the innate ties they have with their employees, partners, and suppliers who many times are based in the same community. This intimate connection fosters a more socially responsible enterprise in itself, without much conscious effort in doing so, simply due to the fact that so many personal connections are present and they are already so involved.

One question that was brought up in class was who should SMEs be responsible to?

Well like every functional business, SMEs are ultimately responsible to their stakeholders. The case could be made that SMEs have less impact than large companies, and while yes this is theoretically true, collectively SMEs have considerably more impact than bigger players. The case also could be made that SMEs would carry a heavier financial burden in practicing socially responsible measures, but time and time again SMEs have shown that socially responsible practice creates a considerable competitive advantage in todays marketplace. Well thought out measures and strong strategic implementation can carry heavy weight the success of an SME, as the key to success can arguably be sustainability.

So in trying to see what drives SMEs to take on more socially responsible practices, a number of things make the list: stipulations from larger corporations for their supply chain, customer and societal expectations, and then the aforementioned founder influence and competitive advantage derived from CSR all can be seen as drivers.

The impact SMEs might have may not be of gargantuan size as their larger counterparts, but they are indeed capable of doing some good. Just like any business, conscious efforts in achieving sustainable excellence pay for themselves in hedging risk and driving business opportunities. For these reasons alone, CSR should be at the helm of SME business operations. If not enough, the proximity of SMEs to many of their stakeholders should almost intrinsically drive their responsibility, and oftentimes does.

Implications and Criticisms of ‘Greening’ Measures seen in CAP 2014-2020

Part of the EU Strategy looking to 2020 is intent on combatting climate and resource challenges that the EU will face, among otherthings. EU 2020 puts forward three mutually reinforcing priorities:

  • Smart growth: developing an economy based on knowledge and innovation.
  • Sustainable growth: promoting a more resource efficient, greener and more competitive economy.
  • Inclusive growth: fostering a high-employment economy delivering social and territorial cohesion.

Among many of the reforms that have been introduced in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a new emphasis will be placed in ‘greening’ the mechanisms within CAP beginning in 2014. The policy makers are trying to strengthen the environmental sustainability of agriculture and enhance the efforts of farmers in achieving said goal. In order to do so, one of the main reforms to the CAP looking to 2020 is the ‘greening’ of direct payments to farmers, among other instruments such as enhanced cross-compliance for climate change, a redesigned rural development policy, and an increase in the scope of the Farm Advisory System.

Michael Hamell, Head of Unit for Agriculture and Soil, European Commission Directorate General for Environment (source:  Flickr )

Michael Hamell, Head of Unit for Agriculture and Soil, European Commission Directorate General for Environment (source: Flickr)

Under the new agreement, the EU’s 28 governments must make 30% of the direct payments contingent upon meeting certain environmental criteria, although member states have leeway to decide when to apply sanctions, a change from the Commission’s proposal that called for EU-wide performance standards. The environmental criteria include:

  • maintaining permanent grassland; and
  • crop diversification (a farmer must cultivate at least 2 crops when his arable land exceeds 10 hectares and at least 3 crops when his arable land exceeds 30 hectares. The main crop may cover at most 75% of arable land, and the two main crops at most 95% of the arable area);
  • maintaining an “ecological focus area” (EFA) of at least 5% of the arable area of the holding for farms with an area larger than 15 hectares (excluding permanent grassland) – i.e. field margins, hedges, trees, fallow land, landscape features, biotopes, buffer strips, afforested area. This figure will rise to 7% after a Commission report in 2017 and a legislative proposal.

The proposal aims to bring a basic level of environmental management to large swaths of farmland across Europe. Recently the EU Comissioner for Agriculture, Dacian Ciolos, said that he was happy with the adjustment of payments, in that, “The payments are now more closely linked with good agricultural practice and I expect that these measures will be improved upon even further in the future… Greening is not just about keeping consumers happy but also improving the competitiveness of farmers. For example, biodiversity helps reduce pest burdens on crops, which in turn will benefit farmers.”

But one must question the true effectiveness of such policy implementation. Policy agreements differ from initial proposals, and many critics say that broad exemptions were made along the way in policy literature that discount the effectiveness of the greening measures initially proposed by the commission. The softening of policy measures includes an exemption for farms under 15 hectares from new requirements to create EFAs, land that is to be set aside to promote biodiversity and help absorb farm runoff. Opponents say this rule would exempt one-third of all farmland and 89% of farmers from the rules. There is also an exemption for farms under 10 hectares from new crop diversification rules that are aimed at improving soil quality, which is roughly one-third of EU farms. At last, another exemption was put in place that exempts farmers from complying with some EU environmental and water pollution laws, which really was a blow to opponents as they failed to bring agriculture up to par with other industries. In the end, Trees Robijns, agricultural policy officer at BirdLife Europe, said, “This is a major blow to those who championed a more sustainable, forward-thinking policy – one which would deliver for people and the environment as well as protecting the long-term interests of farming.”

What’s interesting here is the battle between two committees within EU Parliament, the environmental and agricultural committees. In debating issues that were dear to both, the agriculture ministers seemed to get away with more policy reform in their favor, or rather lack of policy reform. Environmentalists feel that the policies have been ‘watered down’ extensively and do not effectively meet the standards necessary in combatting environmental degradation by the agricultural sector. Nonetheless, one must look at the aims of individual committees within Parliament and their interpretation of EU 2020 goals, on one hand making European agriculture as competitive as possible in a global market, and on the other the will to protect the environment and contest the potential harmful effects of climate change on agriculture. Only time will tell if the measures taken in the reform will make a significant difference in sustainable growth of Europe toward 2020.

License to Operate: Do Good by Doing Well

I believe that a company is founded in order to serve a cause, fix a need, and make a contribution all the while churning a profit. A company is created in order to improve the welfare of humanity, be it the owners and their families, employees, or society in a broad context. The end game of an enterprise isn’t necessarily only to make a profit, but profit does make all of the ends and aims possible. A profitable enterprise can be an engine for technological growth, innovation, social improvement, employment, and more. I like how Peter Drucker outlines this concept by saying, “Profit for a company is like oxygen for a person. If you don’t have enough of it, you’re out of the game. But if you think your life is about breathing, you’re really missing something.” Clearly, there’s much more to business than inflating the bottom line.

So where do social enterprises come into play? How can larger companies with a more ‘traditional’ business model learn from the new guys on the block that are out to solve society’s major problems through enterprise?

It all starts with a world-class product or service. The big international players have things like Coca-Cola, or extravagant shoes, or fancy watches, or luxury cars. The movers and shakers in the world of ‘social enterprise’ find significant areas of need and manufacture solutions. They are effectively creating a world-class product because it’s exactly what fixes somebody’s inconvenience/discomfort/pain. But a social mission alone will not do the trick, and a company of any size cannot simply rely on a few words written on their website. There is a necessity to generate a significant customer base in order to have significant impact, which means selling something good. It would be a mistake to look at a social mission as something that changes the way a business functions – but that mission does make a business all the more legitimate.

In classes on the subject we talk about the transition of large companies into more socially aware entities. Corporate Social Responsibility branches have been developed within companies, and some are even taking steps in integrating this social awareness across all functions of business. Maybe the social enterprises have helped to pave a way for business model adaptation, and large ‘traditional’ companies see merit in the notion that ‘you do good by doing well.’ In my opinion, companies are slowly moving full circle into what their founders had traditionally created them for – aiming to create jobs, develop employees, provide a return to shareholders, and better serve the communities and environment in which they function.

The landscape of earth is ever changing, and the landscape of business fluctuates too. With communication capabilities and technologies where they are today, the landscape of business is most definitely different than it was 20 years ago. We need the social innovators to continue to innovate; we need to continue to set high goals for companies to meet societal needs; and we must strive to close the gap between social enterprise and ‘traditional’ business so that one day the license to operate depends on more than just NI and ROI, but RTS (return to society) too.

Psychology of Food Insecurity and its Discontents

Farmer in Bihar, India 

Farmer in Bihar, India 

The global food crisis of 2008 gave food importers a significant scare, and very few felt the shock more keenly than the water-scarce, oil-rich countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council. As these states rely on many of countries for their food sources, a year like 2008 in which food prices spiked can be a cause for terror. Because of the scarcity of arable land and high water stress levels, their high dependence on imports (60-90%) makes them price takers in the market.

As a response to their vulnerability to food prices, Gulf countries took action in creating bodies to improve food security, and measures were implemented such as increased domestic production and storage as well as the controversial land leases abroad. But are land leases really the right option?

Another topic to keep in mind is the psychological implications food security can bring about, and the implications of such thought? In 2008 and 2011, some researchers found correlations between the food price spikes and the conflicts around the Middle East and North Africa. When food prices hit a certain level (and other grievance factors are commingled into the equation), people tend to turn to violence because their desperation hits a level at which they have nothing else to lose.

Clearly, easily accessible (or affordable) food is a worry for many people. It’s life or death. Food is a basic need for human beings, and linked to food is the need for land. Land provides the foundation for many things in life: as a place to build shelter, grow and harvest food, plus many other provisions and natural resources that propel being. Thus, seeing countries from the Gulf invest in arable land isn’t too confusing or hard to understand because land sustains life. It seems to be pretty logical (even though there are many proponents of this strategy because of the negative implications that can be linked to it). But what will this really do in securing food for them in case of a crisis? How effective will it be to own land in somebody else’s backyard?

Farmer in Bangladesh

Farmer in Bangladesh

In many cases of foreign land investment, the countries that are invested in are food-insecure themselves. It is not clear that the investor countries would be able to access the food that they theoretically own in a crisis, as it can be hard to believe a country starving for food would allow much of it to escape its borders, regardless of who owns it. A hungry individual (or group of people) probably isn’t going to let a necessity to life just walk away from their own backyard.

Another dimension worth noting is the power politics that could come into play when food insecurities arise, as this is another psychological implication to account for. When a basic human need becomes commoditized, the countries of the world will begin to flex their muscles and things will likely get really ugly. Just look at a case from the past: as access to affordable oil was potentially jeopardized by the politics between OPEC members (Kuwait and Iraq), the United States intervened in order to protect its interest (as well as the EU and Japan’s) in the commodity, and the result was the Persian Gulf War. This may not even be the best example, but I have a feeling it would pale in comparison to the political and social ramifications in the case of a food crisis – because we need food to live. Hunger leads to desperation, which can lead to violence, as mentioned before, as almost any means to survive seems justifiable while in such a state.

This creates an urgency to become more resilient and independent of international trade for food. The Gulf States seem to have this idea as well, because more investments in domestic production capabilities through technologies like hydroponics and desalinization can be seen in recent years.

Hopefully the scare of a food crisis will be subdued through intense preparation or adaptation. The most powerful weapon we know of is the human brain, as it tends to be the driver for much of the evil (as well as the good) seen in the world. Maintaining a healthy psychological state amongst the world’s inhabitants in regard to food safety is key to keeping peace and perpetuating human development.


Gulf States Strive for Sufficiency, Financial Times “The Future of the Food Industry,” Nov 2013

Photo Sources: Farmer Weeding Maiz Field in Bihar, India (Picture 1) Farmer in Bangladesh (Picture 2)

It Was the Best of Times. It Was the Worst of Times.

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness.”

That line from Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities helps to explain the human experience. It can relate to much of our history, but it reigns significantly true in regard to the relationships between humans and our planet. As far as I know, this is the only rock we really have a shot at life on that is anywhere close by – certainly no Virgin Galactic or SpaceX mission away. Yet we seem to treat this place as if it’s a house we’ve been invited to for an epic house party, wreck the thing, then walk away from the mess we helped create as if nothing ever happened and live happily ever after in our shiny, sparkling house down the road. But this isn’t possible (unless there have been some serious advances in the field of science and I don’t know about the discovery of earth 2.0 right next door).

Ever since we human beings took the role as earth’s dominating species, we’ve changed quite a few things, for better or for worse. Think of all the crazy advancements we’ve brought into the world. There’s something really marvelous about humanity (which is easy to forget when you’re inside of it all the time). There is something special about people – just take a look at the scale at which our brains have allowed us to create. Things the size of Tonka Toys to the Great Pyramids of Egypt; from fax machines to iPhones; we’ve created cultures, scientific theories, arts, languages, and Mozart’sClarinet Concerto. Witnessing the scale of humanity’s achievement in our creation and the interaction of that with the natural world and how it helps us to understand the natural world is awe inspiring, joyful, and reason to emanate wonder and pride. 

At the same time, humanity has done some things that I cannot fathom. As far as changing the landscape of earth, literally, we have been rather impactful. We dig large holes, build tall things, disrupt natural water flows, and knock down tall trees to clear large amounts of land. Maybe these are some of the reasons we’ve been able to generate so much of what we have now – but it’s not really sustainable. As it stands, the consumption of earth’s natural resources is at an all time high and scientist project it would take something like two-and-a-half earths to sustain. Yet nobody really seems to care.

Let me rewrite the script using some other terms. If there were to be an asteroid the size of… I don’t know, the moon or something…  headed straight towards earth and scientist were able to calculate that it will make impact in one-hundred years, the countries of the world would probably band together to figure out a way to stop this big rock from ‘rocking’ our world. Something like half of the greatest minds in the world would be in charge of finding ways to divert the asteroid, and the other half would be at work trying to come up with Plan B – come up with the best ways to prepare, adapt, and recover after such an impact just in case Plan A fails (Because I’m pretty optimistic in regard to human ingenuity, I think we’d figure out a solid solution for Plan A). 

Well that’s something like the situation we live in. It just doesn’t seem as pressing because there isn’t a definitive date as to when our natural resources will finally run dry. Scientist make projections, but these seem to be discredited year after year because twenty years ago, some scientist said we’d be out of resources in twenty years, yet we’re still here chugging right along. Nobody really knows when the tap will stop pumping, but one day it will. Advancements in technology help prolong use of many resources, but by definition, something that is non-renewable isn’t going to replicate itself to be used over and over again. When it’s gone, it’s gone for good. Think of our fossil fuels like a big barrel of water with a tap, and we cannot refill the barrel and the tap continuously drips. Eventually the barrel runs out of water to the dismay of all. For ever. Welcome to the world of non-renewable fossil fuels.

That’s only one of the issues. That’s only focusing on what we extract from the earth. What about what we generate? And what about how we treat one another? Let’s talk about anthropogenic climate change. There are plenty of skeptics to this (trust me I know, I grew up in a place where they run rampant). But when some 2000+ peer-reviewed journals say it’s so with less that 3% of opposition, I have to believe it’s so. I’m at least smart enough to know I don’t understand the science behind it all, so I’ll take what over 97% of experts in the field say is true as truth. Just to clarify what this anthropogenic climate change stuff means – humans are changing the natural systems of earth in such a way that permanent changes in climate are almost inevitable. It’s science. We’ve got to stop emitting greenhouse gasses at a rate that changes the systems in which we thrive. Every one of us is guilty, and every small adjustment does indeed make a difference. Don’t succumb to the psychology of feeling insignificant. 

Next up is violence. Or prejudice. Or war. Or whatever you want to call it. Instead of me spouting off on the subject, I’m going to relay some dialogue between two men who are relatively well known by the names of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Long ago, in 1931, Einstein wrote to Freud for his input on a subject that was of pressing concern to him: hate. He writes, “Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness?” To which Freud responds lengthily:

Conflicts of interest between man and man are resolved, in principle, by the recourse to violence. It is the same in the animal kingdom, from which man cannot claim exclusion; nevertheless, men are also prone to conflicts of opinion, touching, on occasion, the loftiest peaks of abstract thought, which seem to call for settlement by quite another method. 
We assume that human instincts are of two kinds: those that conserve and unify, which we call “erotic”, or else “sexual”; and, secondly, the instincts to destroy and kill, which we assimilate as the aggressive or destructive instincts. These are, as you perceive, the well-known opposites, Love and Hate, transformed into theoretical entities.
The cultural development of mankind (some, I know, prefer to call it civilization) has been in progress since immemorial antiquity. To this processus we owe all that is best in our composition, but also much that makes for human suffering. Its origins and causes are obscure, its issue is uncertain, but some of its characteristics are easy to perceive. It well may lead to the extinction of mankind, for it impairs the sexual function in more than one respect.

Freud’s conclusion resounds with discomfort in light of today’s conflict-torn world: 

How long have we to wait before the rest of men turn pacifist? Impossible to say, and yet perhaps our hope that these two factors — man’s cultural disposition and a well-founded dread of the form that future wars will take — may serve to put an end to war in the near future, is not chimerical. But by what ways or byways this will come about, we cannot guess. Meanwhile we may rest on the assurance that whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war.

Long story short, human beings have come into the picture and changed quite a few things. From climate change to oil spills to dead zones to war to slavery to garbage patches to mass extinctions and executions – we just impact a menagerie of things. We are constantly disturbing biodiversity, often reducing different ecosystems’ resiliency, which is the same resiliency we depend on for many of the natural resources we use (a vicious circle eh?). One day the system will collapse, and similar to an asteroid colliding with the earth – BOOM! – human life is severely altered or diminished. 

But it doesn’t have to continue this way. Just as I was speaking to the resilience of ecosystems earlier, human beings are a resilient, if not the most resilient, bunch. When we have problems, we seek and find solutions. We create until we have a way. This truth can be seen throughout history. We just have to have extreme focus, intention, and incentive. I believe we have enough incentive, now it’s just a matter of making the issue mainstream (similar to an asteroid coming to hit us).

Going back to Einstein for a little more wisdom, in contribution to a symposium on Europe and the Coming War in 1932, he made a moving reflection:

As long as all international conflicts are not subject to arbitration and the enforcement of decisions arrived at by arbitration is not guaranteed, and as long as war production is not prohibited we may be sure that war will follow upon war. Unless our civilization achieves the moral strength to overcome this evil, it is bound to share the fate of former civilizations: decline and decay.

If you substitute ‘war’ in this passage with any of the other monstrosities humans have created, it still propels a pretty strong call to action. People of the world can come together and do good work; civil society, governments, and businesses across borders can work together for the greater good of all – every one of earth’s citizens. It’s just a matter of getting past the differences, having good intentions, and believing that it’s possible to save our fellow human – even if they aren’t alive yet. We are here on earth to enjoy ourselves - to experience awe and wonder. We have such immense amounts of virtue, of luxury, of blessings, of interesting people and relationships - that’s worth saving, and it’s worth adjusting our mindsets for.

One day, and one day soon, let us knock off all the malarkey and work to dodge the asteroid headed right for us - in unison.

Linking Poverty and the Environment

Woman working in a potato field

When referring to natural resource management, the area in which I find most interest is the linkage to socio-economic factors, specifically the role mismanagement plays in perpetuating poverty. Issues about the environment, economics, and politics are all interrelated through the way humans interact with their surroundings and each other. Almost half of the world – over three billion people – live on less that $2.50 per day. Even further, 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day, and three out of four of them live in rural areas. At the center of the rural poor’s livelihoods is agriculture, which plays a significant role in environmental matters and quality. Poor people, with restricted access to resources and lower integration into the cash economy, are less able to substitute human and physical capital and therefore have less purchasing power. Thus, dependency on ecosystem services is even stronger.

Biodiversity allows for a wide range of species to live and work together helping maintain the environment without costly human intervention. Strong biodiversity creates resiliency, and we benefit from resilient environments as their resources help sustain our well-being.

In a report written by Sara J Scherr concerning the relationship between poverty and natural resource degradation, she explains, “environmental concerns associated with agriculture relate mainly to the sustainability of the resource base for agricultural production (e.g. soil quality), protection of biodiversity and habitats, and environmental services of resources influenced by agricultural land use (e.g. carbon sequestration).” Degradation is a pivotal concern in these rural areas as it threatens productivity of the land, biodiversity, as well as water quality. These people also depend immensely on the services the ecosystem provides outside of food and water, such as regulation services (floods, drought, degradation, disease, etc.), and support services (soil formation and nutrient cycling).

Years ago, there was a model introduced that specifically linked poverty and the environment in a so-called ‘downward-spiral.’ Supposedly, as far is this model is concerned, poor people place an increased amount of pressure on the natural resource base due to the increased populations, limited access to land, and lack of necessary capital for investments in natural resource management. The increased pressure on natural resources then perpetuates into decreases in consumption and increased vulnerabilities to poor health and food security.

This may or may not always be the case, but the real worry is that mismanagement ultimately affects poor people most as they are the most vulnerable – this is clear. When someone’s livelihood depends on the arability of land and usefulness of other natural resources surrounding them, one would think years of cultivation and tending to the land would create a sense of understanding for how the ecosystems function and how to protect them.

In her report, Sara Scherr outlines some of the key factors linking poverty and environment, with those being: (1) biophysical conditions, (2) use of resource-conserving technology, (3) and institutions supports the interest of the poor. She claims that, “researchers have demonstrated that poor farmers adopt resource-conserving practices nearly always because these also contribute to increased productivity or output stability and are economically viable in the farmers’ context of risk and resource constraints.” Like what was mentioned earlier, when livelihoods are on the line, people tend to make practical decisions.

They key is in helping these communities to build up their resiliency, and thus better preparing them to recover from any sort of stress or shock to the system. It must be done in a sustainable manner though so that the resource base isn’t damaged all the while the people are able to maintain or enhance their capabilities. We must keep in mind that people are in the middle.

In the same report, three basic strategies for addressing poverty and environmental issues are outlined:

1. To increase poor people’s access to natural resources essential to their livelihoods.
2. To work with the poor to increase the productivity of their natural resources so they can take advantage of existing or emerging economic opportunities (by co- investing in on-farm natural resources of the poor, promoting agricultural technologies with environmental benefits and promoting low-risk perennial production in poor and marginal areas).
3. To involve the poor in promoting good environmental management under conditions when economic incentives for doing so are not in place (by compensating the poor for conserving or managing resources important to others and by employing the poor to improve public natural resources).
Generally, the first will be driven more by an anti-poverty and social justice agenda, the second by food supply and economic development objectives and the last by natural resource protection concerns, although all three approaches contribute to the ‘critical triangle’.

As it stands, there are increasing pressures to find solutions to the problems the world may endear in the coming decades. As populations continue to grow and more people move into consumer classes, pressures on natural resources will inevitably be present unless there is a radical change in consumption patterns. At the heart of those affected will be poor rural farmers dependent on agriculture. As people in the ‘sustainable development’ field, we must recognize that there is a striking interconnectedness between human beings and the environment. Therefore, more action must be taken to make sure environmental and anti-poverty objectives are in line with each other, which will enhance poor people’s access to natural resource assets, provide security to livelihoods, better natural resource management mechanisms, and protect the biodiversity of the earths varying habitats.



Sara J. Scherr, “A downward spiral? Research evidence on the relationship between poverty and natural resource degradation”

Global Issues – Poverty and the Environment

Photo Credit: Flickr

Google’s Purchase of Nest: Possible Implication on Future of Electricity

Tony Fadell, Founder & CEO, Nest Labs

Tony Fadell, Founder & CEO, Nest Labs

On Monday Google announced that it would be acquiring Nest Labs for an astonishing $3.2 billion dollars. Two former Apple engineers, Tony Faddell and Matt Rodgers, founded the four-year-old company that is now mostly known for their smart thermostat and combination smoke and carbon monoxide detector.

My initial thought was, “Good grab Google! That’s going to be a good one for the portfolio.” Then I began to ponder what exactly this means for Google moving forward. Nest is a company that functions in the home-automation sector, developing hardware in what is now often called the Internet of Things.  Their thermostat transformed a seemingly unattractive device that went unchanged for years, and it did so by saving households energy and money.

The entire smart home movement that seems to be growing at an attractive pace focuses around this idea of the Internet of Things, which connects devices to one another and communicates with users to learn routines and patterns with the intention of increasing efficiencies. This idea of increasing efficiency is an interesting one for me, because as households become more aware of their energy consumption I believe they will likely adopt more efficient habits – either automatically through these devices or consciously because of the data available through the devices. There isn’t much better of a way to curtail energy consumption, and thus production, than through making systems more efficient, and that’s exactly what Nest aims to do in the household.

Google is clearly looking to be a player in home automation in some capacity. They must see some value in such resource-saving technology like Nest to throw $3.2 billion dollars at the company, right?

The electric grid as we know it is indeed changing as governments attempt to add more environmentally friendly sources into the network. Increasing renewable energy in the grid creates more variance in generation, which effectively means electricity output depends on sunlight, wind, etc., which are not constant. When renewables are introduced, it essentially creates a need for another source of electricity to back it up, which is most often achieved through the use of dirty fossil fuels.

It’s important to note that there are implications on utilities – specifically electric power – industries. There have been projections that decentralized energy will become more popular in the future as smart grids begin to develop, which easily links to this notion of smart homes, offices, and facilities. Bettering efficiency on the demand side of energy systems is pivotal in advancing smart-grid ecosystems. Nest can already be seen as an actor in this through their energy-saving plans and instant rebates linked to their utility company partnerships around the United States. Stagnant utility companies that lack innovation may have some unforeseen challenges ahead as decentralized energy gains momentum, especially with deep-pocketed technology giants like Google sniffing around.

This then begs the question, what is Google’s intention?

One professor of mine, when asked about the trend of decentralized energy, mentioned that telecommunications companies could be some of the movers and shakers in the field because of their connectivity and capability to provide services. For example, Google could potentially broker demand response services or analyze consumption usage data in order to offer suggestions on improving efficiency.

Was my professor right? Will telecommunications play a key role in developing smart-grid ecosystems and advancing decentralized energy? I don’t know how far to read into this acquisition by Google, but there’s potential to connect a few dots.

It would be interesting to know what Nest has on the drawing board, but I guess we must wait to see how this venture unfolds.

Photo Source: Flickr

Education: A Human Right Riddled With Inequality

Remember those days when you were woken up early and told to put on the clothes that mom laid out for you, then to make sure you came to the kitchen to have a bowl of cereal or a banana because a ‘hardy breakfast is a healthy breakfast’ or whatever it is they used to say to make you eat the thing they placed in front of you? We took part in some routine of this nature before we hopped on our bus, rode our bike, or had our parents drive us to school – oh the dreaded school – where you were stripped of your video games and television sets and whatever else you may have had that occupied your time in a non-productive manner. But was it really that bad?

School is the place where we went to learn to read and do math, where we finally strung together ’Spot the dog ran’, where we contemplated scientific theories, and where we enhanced social aptitude and made friends. As we progressed through school we changed little by little, and eventually our awareness grew as well as our abilities to make decisions for ourselves. We began to grow up and mature intellectually, and with this we began to find a role in our community. School is a place that fosters growth, and that in itself is an invaluable trait that school has to offer. Now think about a life without that school or that center for education, and imagine where you would stand today?

If we ask ourselves this question and try to envisage where we fall, it becomes a little bit easier to understand the power of an education. What exactly does an education from a primary level through secondary or even higher levels grant you? To answer that directly would be misguiding, but I can comfortably say that I have an idea of what a lack of education provides you – and that is a lack of awareness, knowledge, and thus power.

This realization isn’t necessary of a PhD in Education, as can be seen in a recent global poll of everyday people on development priorities. “A good education” is the top priority across the world according to over one million men and women of all ages from over 190 countries. Education is powerful, and it is easy to link to progress and development, as the poll indicates.

According to the Secretary-General of the UN, education is the major driving-force for human development. It opens doors to the job market, combats inequality, improves maternal health, reduces child mortality, fosters solidarity, and promotes environmental stewardship. Education empowers people with the knowledge, skills and values they need to build a better world.


With that in mind, we should then ask ourselves why many places in the world marginalize roughly 50% of their population – that being the female population. Gender discrimination is a glaring issue across many areas dealing with human rights, but it is blatant in regard to education. In the Global Monitoring Reports from Education For All (EFA) in 2012, it was reported that there are some 34 million adolescent females out of school globally. The difference in the gender gap between primary school and secondary school becomes even worse when you look further into the report’s data. A decent reflection of this can be seen if looking at literacy rates across the adult population with 775 million illiterate adults across the globe, and over 500 million of those are women (EFA 2012). Many disparities can be seen on the EFA’s World Inequality Database for Education (WIDE), which highlights the influence of certain circumstances that play an important role in shaping people’s opportunities for education and life.

Females face some obstacles that influence this disparity, such as complications related to child labor, early marriage, early pregnancy, and expectations related to domestic labor. This list does’t include other obstacles that affect many children, boys and girls alike, such as conflict-ridden areas, strenuous walking distances and the lack of sanitary facilities at school (Education First Initiative – UN 2012).

This knowledge is devastating in its own right, but the devastation is exacerbated when taking into account the costs of not educating the women and girls. Research has shown that initiatives and investments in decreasing the gender gap in education have profound effects on communities well beyond the classroom (Global Campaign for Education). Referring back to what the Secretary-General of the UN said, these investments not only generate more knowledge capital and increase job opportunities, but they strengthen families and lift them from poverty, saves children’s lives, improve communal health, and increase the strength of the female voice which empowers them to have an impact in making communal decisions(Global Campaign for Education).

But the real question is what picture does this data really paint and how are we to interpret it? Is it right for us to look at these numbers and simply see blatant discrepancy in gender, thus, in order to boost the enrollment figures and decrease parity, we go and build more schools, find new teachers, and provide school supplies and uniforms? Or does the real issue lie elsewhere – such as cultural perceptions of the female gender role, teacher attitudes and bias, or patriarchy? If so, how do we promote change in these perceptions? Is the answer more education?

I don’t have an answer to the questions, but I know the issue is more complex than simple parity and enrollment figures. I am not saying that it is bad to build schools and recruit/train teachers, but I believe we must look further. If the issues we attempt to address are complex and not easily measurable, progress is difficult to see; therefore it cannot be as easily used to justify supporting initiatives that move beyond getting children to go to school. It is the other commitments though that are most likely to address the underlying basis for inequality – for example, challenging stereotypes and improving curricula.


The potential for women to assist in the development in their communities is limitless. Just think of some of the great women in history, such as Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst, Eva Peron, and Rosa Parks. There are so many more women that are lesser known for their leadership and humanitarian efforts I’m sure, but these women made significant differences and changed the world. To continue to marginalize those who could be great artists, philosophers, engineers, scientist, politicians, or leaders is incongruous.

When I travel around the world, I think in terms of the kids I see running around the slums of Botswana or South Africa or Brazil or Peru and I think about how we make sure they have the best possible opportunity to do well in life. I want to introduce this notion – let’s share in the stories of being woken up, eating our obscure breakfast and heading off to school. Let’s share the stories of progressing from year to year and our childhood memories from primary and secondary school. Let’s relive our significant life moments and revelations in this conversation with one another. Most importantly, I don’t want to share these stories with just a few people – I want every person to have a story to tell in relation to education. So finally, let’s share the task of challenging stereotypes, combating inequality and bettering education for every child.

Houston, Texas - A Case for Alternative Transportation

Houston, Texas is a vibrant and bustling city, with a great economic backbone in the form of its energy sector that perpetuates growth for the city. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Houston’s metro area has grown 26% since 2000, with a lot of the growth stemming from migration in part of people looking for work. The migration to Houston is great for creating a cultural diversity second to none in the United States, but a growing population of workers also assists in perpetuating a problem Houston already has – the constant use of cars for transport, along with the pollution and congestion it creates in the city.

In the latest reports, it can be seen that Houston has a working population of 954,400 (the fourth largest in the United States) of which 74% drive alone as their means of transportation to work. Only 5% of people use the available public transportation and another 2% choose to walk.

Throughout history, Houston has made strategic decisions in connecting to the outside world for business purposes. In the 19th century, there were efforts to make Houston a railroad hub, and in the early 20th century Houston gained access to sea trade via the Gulf of Mexico by dredging a ship canal, which provided huge economic advantages. Recently, Houston added to the transportation mix by adding two airports. Through time, many decisions in regard to transportation around Houston were based solely on achieving economic growth. Transportation was viewed more as a tool to facilitate moving goods around, so there has never been been much consideration and planning for moving its people.

Many factors contribute to the complicated transport issues that mostly facilitate the car as being the number one form of transport. Houston’s distinct character and urban sprawl make other forms of transport unattractive or more burdensome to use, thus creating a cycle of an expanding car culture and no planning for alternative modes of human mobility.

In 2003, the city’s politicians finally decided to take a look at the mobility issues in Houston and took a step to facilitate change by introducing a new light rail system called METRORail.  This system was intended to provide another option for transportation that also improves future environmental and economic sustainability of the city. A report from the Mayor’s Task Force on the Metropolitan Transport Authority describes how the new light rail system fits into the city’s transportation scheme:

The light rail system METRO is building is an urban system, serving trips inside and immediately outside Loop 610. It is intended to put major destinations inside the urban core within walking distance of stations. The light rail system is also intended to serve as a high-capacity spine for the bus system, replacing bus lines with higher speed, more reliable, higher capacity service. Once light rail lines are completed, bus service will be restructured to feed into the light rail lines.

The first leg of the light rail system opened in 2004, which was a 7.5-mile track connecting the Downtown area to the Medical Center (two of the main job centers in the city). This initial leg has been a great success for the city, with the second highest amount of ridership per track-mile in the United States. There are currently five additional extensions either under construction or in the blueprint stage. Here is an animation that portrays how transit, auto, and pedestrian traffic would work in and around the different METRORail station areas as well as the the fit of each proposed design in differing site environments.

The main complaints that can be seen with the light rail extensions are their lack of accessibility to the many job/activity centers around the city as well as the suburbs that surround the city. Just a few of the dispersed centers around the city include: Downtown, Uptown/Galleria, Greenway, Greenspoint, Westchase, the Medical Center, The Energy Corridor, the Ship Channel, and NASA. People argue that the light rail network will not help solve any of the congestion issues, but rather only waste a few billion dollars on an inefficient system. The opposition’s proposal includes setting up a rapid bus transit system, similar to what could be found in Bogotá, Columbia, utilizing high-speed high occupancy vehicle lanes that connect all of the suburbs with the activity centers. Busses of different sizes would regularly collect people from their local suburban transit centers and deliver them to the differing activity centers without much change to infrastructure that is already in place. In this system, busses could even circulate within the activity center so that individuals wouldn’t have to walk far and endure the elements of weather.

This alternative to rail can be seen as formidable, but it’s important to look at and weigh the benefits a rail network may have over a bus network in the long-term. In the end, whatever system is adopted and implemented needs to be effective in increasing commuter transit ridership, reducing the congestion of the highways, decreasing the amount of transport pollution, connecting all neighborhoods to job/activity centers, and promoting a more sustainable alternative to the current dependency on cars. The policies that are adopted from here forward should aim to further boost productivity and attractiveness to young, talented people so that Houston continues to thrive, and that means promoting a dense, transit-oriented urban scheme that further facilitates diverse, interesting lifestyles that young active people will be seeking.


Transportation Issues In Houston – Rice University Blog

Houston Strategies Blog – A Better Vision For Metro

Houston Chronicle Blog – Why We Should All Love The Light Rail System