Social capital as adaptation capital

Daniel Hall says social capital can help make up for damaged natural capital.

Current climate change policy is aimed primarily at mitigation, to reduce the greenhouse gases causing it. Environmentalists use a sustainability argument that we should not further deplete earth’s ability to assimilate carbon capacity to the point of damaging future generations. Yet efforts have not been significant enough to come even close to sustainability in this sense.

Economics Nobel Laureate Robert Solow gives a broader definition of “sustainability” in his article, “Sustainability: An Economist’s Perspective” [pdf]. He argued that sustainability does not necessarily involve protecting a particular resource or natural way of life and that sustainability can mean not leaving future generations with a lower capacity to meet their general needs. This opens a role for adaptation in addressing climate change. People often think of the greenhouse gas problem as a pollution problem, but it can also be thought of as an extraction of the atmospheric and oceanic carbon-absorbing services of the earth. We are depleting this ‘natural capital’ to extract profits (“rents”) via market goods today. Solow said that sustainability can also be applied to the depletion of a nonrenewable resource if we properly invest the resource rents in activities conducive to economic growth and finding substitute resources.

Responsible policy involves accepting that we have already caused significant climate change and start using the rents from our depleted natural capital (the assimilative capacity) to invest in adaptation capital. We will need physical capital to rebuild and repurpose our infrastructure in adaptation to climate change. We will need human capital to solve challenges we will fail to anticipate. Finally, we will need social capital to collectively meet the challenges climate change will bring us.

Social capital is a measure of trust, cooperation, and participation in community and society. What if climate change makes where you live undesirable? If you had to relocate, who could help you move? Who would give you a place to stay outside your family when they have to move too? Who will bring you food and other necessities when the supply chains running to your house are temporarily broken? Will we engage in conflict over our reduced resources, or will we cooperate in the management of their scarcity? With rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and rising frequency and severity of disasters, our public and private sector support systems will be overwhelmed. We will need social capital to address these problems in a quick and decentralized manner.

Unfortunately, there is already insufficient investment in social capital today. People are joining organizations less and volunteering with groups less (Putnam 1995). When a large disaster like Hurricane Katrina or more recently Hurricane Matthew hits and captures media attention, we manage to pool our resources and find a way to help those most damaged. With extreme climate change these disasters will happen so frequently that we will become desensitized, then disaffected, then overwhelmed, and finally too busy saving ourselves to help others. We cannot wait to build social capital when cooperation becomes more challenging after climate change happens.

How can we reinvest in social capital? First, communities must commit to do so, and if viewing social capital as a form of adaptation capital serves as a catalyst, great. Businesses need to encourage employees to join organizations and participate in community activities. Government can provide incentives for donating time and talent as they do for charitable donations. Volunteer associations and non-profits must modernize and equip their organizations to anticipate and handle the future needs. Everyone can get to know their neighbor and help each other address problems.

Adaptation will require cooperation, and by building our cooperative capacities today, perhaps we can get closer to sustainability after severe climate change.


Daniel Hall is an Assistant Professor of Economics at High Point University in North Carolina. He serves HPU and community at large as the advisor to the Civitan Club on campus, a group known for the good works and civic duties. The Civitan Club has won many awards for service and Dr. Hall was awarded Outstanding Faculty Advisor by his students. Dr. Hall also incorporates Civitan into his research and into his teaching of a service learning course in microeconomics. He was honored as Service Learning Professor of the Year for the 2013-2014 academic year.

Two meters of migration

Binayak Das follows the trail of migrants to drier land.

Aminul stares at the vast land, no water, no rivers, and no boats. This is unlike his home of water and water. He has just landed in a resettlement colony stretching across arid land. He is a migrant, pushed away from his home on the southern fringes of Bangladesh by the encroaching sea. Aminul is not alone, thousands of people have turned climate migrants over the last five years. He is in Kazakhstan, a land he has never heard of.

He is in Kazakhstan because the 9th largest country in the world opened its borders to allow climate migrants to join its 20 million citizens. Some of Bangladesh’s 130 million citizens saw the need to leave their disappearing land for a safer and less-crowded space. Bangladesh’s population density of 1,120 people per km2 is far greater than Kazakhstan’s 6 people per km2. Kazakhstan welcomed those who could support its growing agricultural and energy sectors.

Aminul’s journey was quick. His degree and knowledge of the gas industry made it easy to get a visa and job.

Others were not so lucky.

Shahid, a fisherman from the Chittagong region, was also suffering climate change pangs. He didn’t have education, so he had to fight his way to higher elevations. Aminul flew to Kazakhstan in a day. Shahid turned to the trafficking networks set up 20 years earlier (during the Syrian war), trudging via boat, foot, and bus for two years to Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan’s new residents escaped the first threat of climate change.

Kazakhstan didn’t open its gates willingly. With the onslaught of climate change submerging low-lying countries and small islands, people tried to escape by any possible means. Voices across the globe screamed for measures to avoid catastrophe. Europe, China, India and the US worried that their densely populated countries would be overwhelmed. Other countries with conflict, economic and political migrants said they could take no more.

Under pressure from all sides, the UN launched negotiations 10 years ago to cope with climate crisis migrants. Many proposals were put forward, but most were denied by “already burdened” countries. There was a risk that migrants without options would turn borders into bloodbaths.

And then came a shocking proposal from a tiny Pacific island: “land rich” countries such as Russia, Canada, Australia, and Kazakhstan could open their borders.

The first reactions from these countries was a big NO, but global and local protests made politicians reconsider. Trade-offs started to emerge as businesses and governments looked at migrants as a boon to their ailing economies and falling fertilities. Soon, they were joined by other countries seeking to combine labour and capital.

Within five years, people were moving ahead of climate change. Now Aminul and Sahidul stand, staring at a vast land without water, rivers and  boats, looking to a different future.

And then they understood the second threat of climate change.


Binayak Das started this piece in a Dhaka hotel room, finished it in Amsterdam airport, and sent it from Malang. All these places will experience life plus two meters before others. He has about 16 years experience working on water, environment, climate change and sustainable development. Binayak is a Panos journalist fellow and author of numerous books, papers and articles. His wide travels and field visits to remotest regions gives him insight into development challenges and solutions in police and practice. He is currently associated with the Water Integrity Network in Berlin.

A family farm in the future

Kai Olson-Sawyer channels a farmer’s experience in adaptation.

NB: Bill Mattson, a Minnesota farm owner-operator, sent this letter to his children when he passed along the family farm.

September 6, 2052

Dear Liz, Dean and Mary,

As I near retirement in my 74th year (not soon enough for you worrying about Dad’s old bones), I wanted to offer a brief history of Mattson Acres Farm. Although you always laugh at me when I do it, I dusted off my trusty keyboard to give you a sense of the changes that have befallen our farm over the last 40 years. While I know that Dean is wavering on farming and Mary is off to other things, I want you all, not just Liz, to understand this land’s past because it’s also our family’s past. You also know how much I love keeping records for posterity’s sake (and to tell a good story).

It starts in 2011 when your mom and I were able to save the money to buy that parcel of Nordinger’s land and make it our own after leasing it for years. Besides marrying your mom and witnessing your births, that was the proudest day of my life. Mom always said that Good Thunder was a good luck place to farm.

The first 451 acres was about split between corn and soybean. We were fairly profitable with the high commodity prices in the years before and after acquiring that land. Although prices softened later in the teens, the Big Dry really hurt.

I’m sure you all remember how stressful that time was with record-low rain and unbearable heat from 2021-2025. Those wilted fields left us just eking out an existence with terrible yields that put us in the red. Mom was wise to keep pushing us towards more crop insurance. We also decided to adjust our crop mix, which was our first step down that road.

We were hoping for rain, and eventually it arrived. Once that rain began to fall in February 2026, it never seemed to stop. At first the Big Wet was a boon and made up for the moisture loss and increased crop yields. That year was decent, but the problems were soon rising with the Cobb River. Never will I forget when the Cobb and Maple Rivers met on our land. In all, we saw a record 70 inches of rain in 2027. Over half of our crops were lost to flood and much of the rest succumbed to root rot and fungus.

sunk_tractor_usdaThe amount of water we saw on our land was staggering and something I never could have imagined. The nub of it is that we’re lucky our farm survived. With insurance, your mom’s job at the library and a little luck, we made it.

Water is always a problem, but we knew we had to act in a big way. After all those years of loading up our soil with fertilizers, baked in by the Big Dry, the torrential runoff from our fields picked up that pollution and put it right back into the rivers and groundwater. Good thing I’ve always been adamant about regularly testing our well water because in 2028 and 2029 the nitrate levels were sky high. If we weren’t aware of those toxins and fortunate to afford that reverse osmosis filtration, who knows how badly we could’ve been sickened.

Between our fouled water and the erratic weather, we knew we had to act on what Charlie at extension services called “drought and deluge.” Even though the weather is always changing, it was evident that we couldn’t count on the past for any indication of the extreme weather or precipitation that could strike. Climate change was tearing us up and we decided we were going to fight back (and hard).

Despite uncertainty, we worked with extension to come up with a solid plan. At the time we bought our final thousand acres I’d been playing with different crop mixes. I made a commitment then to see it through. Corn, yellow pea, alfalfa, soy, lentil—I tried it all and more to varying success. Continuous tinkering with the mix and rotation of the crops became so integrated into the health and well-being of our crop yields, our soil’s water and nutrient retention, and the farm’s economic viability, that it’s of the utmost importance for the farm’s resilience. Not only does this fine-tuning concern our cash crops, but it turns out that finding the right mix for our cover crops is just as essential. The diversity of crops that we produce has enabled our farm to withstand the higher temperatures, pests and the whipsaw dry and wet times we experience. Our farm has worked with Mother Nature to adapt to whatever is thrown our way.

The other major undertaking on our farm was taking the land out of production through buffers and the conservation easement in the early 2030s. It was a hard choice and a burden even with USDA grants, but preserving those 300 acres for wetlands helped clean up nitrate pollution from our water and our neighbors’ water downstream. We had the foresight to head off the federal 2041 Green Waters Act and get a handle on our pollution numbers before we had to report them, and as you know, we’ve always beat the nutrient diet standards. It was heartening when the Garcia’s joined our easement, which really started a trend around here. (We’re trendsetters!) Opening that land to duck hunting with assistance from the Waterfowl Association has been a real economic win.

All I can say is that we’ve worked hard to sustain this farm now and into the future. To keep the farm going under constantly changing conditions, we need to watch, learn, act, repeat: It never ends. That’s all we can do to deliver the best possible outcomes. I hope you keep farming to the end of the century.

Love always,
Dad


beach4_twt Kai Olson-Sawyer [email twitter] is a writer and senior research and policy analyst for GRACE Communications Foundation.

Jakarta’s sinking, filthy future

Roanne van Voorst looks deeper into Jakarta’s “revitalization”.

According to the politicians working in Jakarta, Indonesia’s megacity capital, this city is turning into `the place to be’. By 2018, they promise that a city known for its slums, floods and garbage will be `100% slum free, flood free and garbage free’. It will thus be clean, modern and attractive for both inhabitants and visitors, who might especially enjoy the green running tracks that will have been developed alongside formarly clogged rivers, and the seaside residential neighbourhoods in the North, where one can shop and live in style. Ideally, Jakarta’s great transformation will be complete by 2018 (when the Asia Games take place in the city), but there may be some work left to do.

As unrealistic as these announcements may seem to people who have visited Jakarta, they should by no means be considered hollow phrases. The current generation of politicians in Jakarta don’t just talk; they are actually getting things done. Everybody who has recently visited the city will have noticed that politicians, advisors and developers are making  enormous efforts to change Jakarta’s negative image. Slums have been torn down; roads have been constructed; Dutch water experts are building a 32 km-long wall to protect the Northern coast from a rising sea;  programmes have been initiated to dredge garbage from canals; parks have been created; and run-down colonial houses are being demolished and replaced by Grande Plazas.

So the problem is not that nothing happens in Jakarta. The problem is that what is happening is of no use because none of these programs address the root causes of Jakarta’s challenges. The sad fact is that Jakarta’s future is more likely to include more, larger floods, deeper poverty for slum residents, and tides of feces flowing past seaside villas. The impacts of climate changes — more rainfall and rising sea levels — might make you think of Jakarta as `the city you definitely want to avoid’ in the future.

Let me give some context to that rather gloomy vision. Jakarta’s already serious flooding problems are caused by multiple factors, of which urban mismanagament is perhaps most important. For decades, politicians have prioritized commercial developments over public services. The lack of an effective garbage collection system means that most households dump their rubbish in the rivers. Affordable housing shortages have led the city’s poor to build their houses in the river’s flood plains. Only half of households receive piped water, so everyone else pumps groundwater. The resulting land subsidence means the city is sinking by 3 to 20 cm per year — a problematic trend even before considering the additional danger of sea  levels that are rising by 6 mm per year in Jakarta Bay. Finally, remember that falling groundwater and land elevations are damaging the city’s drainage, drinking water and sewerage systems.

The current trend towards short-term, superficial solutions might seem to be improving the city’s livability, but they are merely sweeping real problems under the carpet. These problems can be solved, but solutions demand long-term political commitments to providing piped water, sewerage, and social housing.

Building a wall to protect from sea level rise will not help if the land continues to subside. Dredging canals will not protect the city from  flooding if people continue to live where the river needs to flood and dump their garbage in canals. New villas will not provide safe and glamorous lifestyles if rising rivers dump faeces and garbage on their lawns.


marijn-smuldersRoanne van Voorst is a postdoctoral researcher at the International Institute of Social Sciences, Erasmus University, The Hague, the Netherlands. In 2014 she obtained her PhD (with distinction) at the Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research on responses of slum dwellers in Jakarta, Indonesia to the risks of recurrent floods and evictions. She has also done research on the social effects of climate changes in Greenland. Currently Roanne is involved in the research project ”When disaster meets conflict. Disaster response of humanitarian aid and local state and non-state institutions in different conflict scenarios”.

Addendum (8 June 2017): “Understanding the allure of big infrastructure: Jakarta’s Great Garuda Sea Wall Project

Which endures — passports or humans?

David Zetland thinks passports will become more important. The interesting question is if they will make you more important.

The first passports were issues centuries ago, but it wasn’t until after World War I that travelers needed them to cross borders, prove their identity, and protect their rights as citizens, both domestically and abroad.

Passports allowed their holders to “pass through the port [gate]” of new diplomatic and bureaucratic walls. People without passports could not pass from their original country to another country. (Illegal crossings could only go so far before they were prevented.)

Passports are valuable precisely because they separate humans into two groups: those who may pass, and those who may not.

In many cases, people do not worry about this difference because they do not care to leave their countries of origin, but there are numerous examples of people taking dramatic risks or paying exorbitant sums when they want to leave their countries but lack the “proper paperwork.”

Humans in the not-too-distant past did not need passports to leave poor prospects for hope.

Migrants face costs of all kinds. They leave behind their families, friends, and place in the world. They are willing to bear those costs because they think the benefits of their new “home” to be worthwhile.

pportThe cost of moving has increased as passport (and visa) requirements have tightened over the past century. During World War I, refugees could flee violence for safer places. During the 1920s and later, they were trapped behind bureaucratic walls that could not be breeched without the right papers.

The entire plot of the 1942 movie, Casablanca, depends on the heroes getting the right visa, but the movie’s happy ending was denied to the millions of refugees and political prisoners (most famously, the Jews) who died (or were murdered) through government action or neglect. The situation is not much different today for the people who want to flee cruel and deadly places (North Korea, Eritrea, Syria, etc.) but lack “papers.”

Some people might think that the suffering of would-be migrants is a price worth paying to protect their own homes from being overrun and pockets emptied to help refugees, but those people (usually members of the “lucky sperm club” born with the right papers) miss the obvious middle option of allowing migration without the gold-plated protections they expect themselves. Most migrants are less interested in handouts than in safety and the opportunity to work and contribute to their adoptive communities.

Passports will become more valuable in a climate-changed world as disruptions (failed crops, miserable weather, sinking cities, violence, etc.) increase the value of moving. Refugees — human and animal — will seek to cross borders as their domestic prospects deteriorate. Some of these refugees will have more money (those fleeing record temperatures in the Persian Gulf or abandoning beachfront houses on tropical islands), but most refugees will be the poor who cannot feed or protect themselves.

The increased importance of passports will mean that those with “good passports” will be very interested in ensuring their identity is protected. People with “bad passports,” on the other hand, will be willing to pay more to get forged passports (or obtain real passports via fraud). Those forces will complement each other in driving governments to increase the security of their passports.

A few months ago, I was extremely upset when I opened the washing machine to find my passport. We were leaving to South America in a week, and there was no time to get a replacement, so I took a chance. Luckily, the damage was too small to affect the passport’s function, but I really thought a lot about how vulnerable I was without that document to “protect my rights.” No border guard, soldier or police officer is interested in my charm, blog or business card. The only thing that stood between me and deportation was a 32-page booklet.

Passport controls and identity are going to get very sophisticated, very quickly if even half the predictions of climate change come to pass (let alone the chaos that leaders create on their own!). To me, that implies that we are going to replace passports with technology that’s harder to forge or lose, such as implanted RFC chips, tattoos (yes, I’m saying it), DNA-registration, and other technologies that can pass through the wash without losing their validity.

Is this inevitable? Not exactly. Passports were put into widespread use over 100 years ago at the behest of governments that wanted to control who went where. The balance of costs and benefits has kept that system in place, but that balance could tip entirely over if enough pressure is applied. The arrival of numerous “undocumented aliens” in the US and EU (and China’s breaking documentation system) suggests that controls are fragile, just as the rise of digital currencies (and continuing attraction of gold) has shown people’s mistrust of government motives.

In the future, we may all need to scan ourselves to the authorities on a daily basis, to prove that we have the right to be where we are — or we may just need to find ways to live among a variety of people.

Will we value humans or paperwork? If your answer depends on what passport you’re holding right now, then I suggest you imagine how you’d answer that passport was gone.


dz_smDavid Zetland is an assistant professor at Leiden University College, where he teaches various classes on economics. He received his PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics from UC Davis in 2008. He blogs on water, economics and politics at aguanomics.com, has two books (The End of Abundance: economic solutions to water scarcity and Living with Water Scarcity), gives many talks to public, professional and academic audiences, and writes for popular and academic outlets. David lives in Amsterdam.