180° South, Economics, Alaska, Marshall Islands, and my new Motorcycle

Last Friday I finally met my new motorcycle when I stopped by the European Motorcycles of Western Oregon (EMCWOR) to start its paper work process.  Beautiful and shiny under a bright and sunny March day, there it was waiting for me. The next morning I woke up early and had to wait until it was time to take it home with me.  I turned my computer on and clicked on Netflix and the film 180° South was presented as a first choice for me.  I had seen this film some time ago, I remember the beautiful images, the music, and the story.  I watched it once again.

220px-180_SouthI’ve been to the Argentinean Patagonia before, but I was only 12 years old at that time, traveling with my parents and one of my sisters.  I remember vast open spaces, snow capped mountains, the desert, the wind, and the cold of the south hemisphere’s July. And I’ve heard many times about Patagonia, the Pampa and its Gaucho people through the music and poetry of Atahualpa Yupanqui one of its most prominent artists, but who was also a strong advocate for the land and its people.  I am officially a gaucho by birth, born on the geographical northern edge of the pampas. For that, and for its open spaces and its legendary beauty, Patagonia is a special place in my imagination and I want to go back there on a motorcycle some day.

180° South takes you to beautiful Patagonia, but on the Chilean side. The film follows and parallels the personal accounts of two groups of friends who traveled to the Patagonia region to surf and climb mountains and they end up on a larger adventure, a self-discovery adventure, and then it was much more than that. History was and is being written based on their actions. The 1968 group went from California to Chile by car.  The other group traveled to Chile in 2010 via sail boat and plane.

Surfing, mountain climbing, and sailing are activities that have a very close connection with nature with a very small foot print on the environment. Motorcycling allows us to connect with nature as well, in the sense that when you ride you are directly exposed to nature, you can travel to places where cars are likely to struggle (as far as motorized travel is involved). However our motorcycles are part of the internal combustion engines brigade.  Even if our motorcycles sip fuel when compared to cars, they burn fossil fuel.  Still I think when we are wearing our adventure rider hats, or should I say helmets, we are mostly okay to participate in conversations about environment. Maybe more than the Prius people should be.

WR250R at the Steens Mountain, Oregon, on September 2010.

WR250R at the Steens Mountain, Oregon, on September 2010.

In the 180° South film the protagonists discuss environmental issues and the relationship of humans with nature. The 1968 group, Yvon Chouinard and Douglas Tompkins, going beyond surfing and mountain climbing, going further than contemplation and self discovery, they have taken action, and the result of their work is enormous. Douglas and Kristine Tompkins’ work is the size of establishing a large national park called Parque Nacional Patagonico (or Patagonian National Park) in Chile, in one area that is amazingly beautiful. Yvon founded Patagonia (clothing), and brought up the concept of being responsible for our environment. By the way, Douglas is the founder of The North Face (clothing and equipment for the outdoors).

I’m thankful for their cause and their actions and appreciate their non-radical and non-militant way of going about this. Actions speak volumes, words vanish in space.

The 180° South film is sub-titled “conquerors of the useless,” more as a playful commentary, a critique to the perspective that there is no value on travel, I would like to believe. Carrying for our environment, keeping an open mind for what a different geography and its people can teach us, and letting adversity be part of the travel experience is something they talk about.  There is nothing useless on that for me. Good lessons and similar approach for how we experience motorcycle travel, adventure riding.

Image from the Patagonian National Park site.

Image from the Patagonian National Park site.

What brings me to this conversation is that I just bought a brand new and sophisticated motorcycle and got to see the 180° South film right in the day I pick it up.  It makes you think and maybe question your priorities, at least it does for me. This motorcycle is something I didn’t need. It is just something that I wanted.  As an example, I could have  bought a Kawasaki KLR 650 motorcycle instead.  It is cheap, low tech, it is a less resource intensive motorcycle.  But it is good enough for an adventure ride, it is simple and it does the job.

IMG_1976Instead, I bought something fancy and unnecessary, a type of decision many of us do.

Do I need the fraction of weight that is saved on my motorcycle by having the carbon pieces my new bike came with? No.

Do I need the lighter, forged wheels that came on my motorcycle? No.

But I bought it and it has all of that, and you know what? I can’t wait to start riding this beautiful beast.

A point I’m making here is that I’m not oblivious to what goes on in our world. And also that I’m aware that my actions affect the environment, as small as its effect may be.  I want to assume most of us knowingly live in some form of contradiction between what we perceive as good for us individually today and what we know are likely results from the aggregate of all our individual decisions and activities: it is not necessarily going to be good for humanity tomorrow.

IMG_1091To make sure you don’t think I’ve gone environmental (not that there is anything wrong with that), you should know that when I think about the themes discussed in 180° South it doesn’t stop me from dreaming about riding in Patagonia or anywhere else. It actually feeds those thoughts and dreams. On the other hand, and while it doesn’t make me go out and sell my motorcycles, it certainly makes me think of climate change and our utilization of resources.

Economics

I’m an economist by training. I remember my first class in introduction to economics, it was ECON 101.  The professor presented a definition of economics and we the students had an opportunity on that first class to discuss it in the context of the management of scarce resources.  How unsettling it was for me to officially learn something I already knew much before that time.

Here on earth, no matter how ingenious we can been about the use of resources, we are dealing with limited resources. More than that, it is unsettling that we design and actualize our economic policies based on a very unsophisticated growth model, while knowing such growth, especially in the way we apply it today, is in fact unsustainable in the long run. We all know this road we humans are traveling on will eventually end. But we hope it will end far in the future. Some of us simply choose to ignore it, or we are on various degrees of denial, or perhaps just plain ignorance, which would actually be a  blissful thing if that is the case.

I’ve been out of the “Economics” field for a long time so I thought it would be a good idea to take a quick look and learn how the economics discipline is dealing with the issue of scarcity these days when global warming conversations have become more frequent then at the time I was in graduate school.  From my short web research I was surprised to see that the American Economic Association does not include “scarce resources” in their current definition:

Economics is the study of how people choose to use resources. –American Economic Association, 2013

Scanning their website I came along older definitions on their home page:

Economics is the study of people in the ordinary business of life. — Alfred Marshall, Principles of economics; an introductory volume (London: Macmillan, 1890)

And here one that includes the notion of scarcity:

Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means which have alternative uses. — Lionel Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (London: MacMillan, 1932)

And one more

Economics is the study of how societies use scarce resources to produce valuable commodities and distribute them among different people. — Paul A. Samuelson, Economics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1948)

Interesting to note that older definitions do include the word “scarce”.  The key issue here is one of time and scale: what we do today to the environment is not realized today or tomorrow. And what we do individually is insignificant, we can not perceive its effects, but when all of us do it together, it is a major deal.

That is we only live in the present. One thing is to manage a business operation to survive the next quarter’s bottom line, or participate on government’s discussions of fiscal appropriations based on one year’s projection. The longest term I’ve seen such discussion is to examine projections based on five year scenarios. It is difficult to think about projections based on 20, 50 or 100 years because chances are we may not be there to collect the efforts’ fruits or repair the damages caused by these efforts. That is not part of our daily lives, when we have other priorities, such as to pay bills on a monthly bases, or make sure our business is viable for the next couple of years.

The environment is an orphan today, because we can’t clearly see in it the impacts of our activities of today, and some of us can not see the impacts that are already happening from activities performed many years ago. So eventually our next generations will become  orphans of ours and of previous generations.  That will happen when our environment changes and our species survival becomes tenuous.

When I was in Economics school I learned that our actions’ impact on the environment, and the returning environment’s impact on our operations are viewed as an “externality” (a consequence of an economic activity that is experienced by unrelated third parties – Read more at http://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/externality.asp#ixzz2NKYVCiTQ). Because it is viewed as an externality by its own definition, it is not included in our quarterly or yearly accounting bottom lines. Scarcity will never be included in our operations unless we know we will experience it the next quarter or next year. Which is not the case, as impacts of our actions today take a long time to become visible as an impact to our environment.  Going back to my thinking on why the Economics field no longer includes scarcity on its definition, another thought I have is that perhaps they now include environmental impact in macro- and perhaps even micro-economic models. Hence no more need to mention “scarcity” of resources, or externalities.

Alaska and Marshall Islands

200px-Collapse_bookIn the 180° South film the main protagonist and narrator, Jeff Johnson, sailed to Chile in 2010 to meet with members of the 1968 crew, the people who started the National Park in Patagonia. Encountering problems with the boat they made a pit stop in Easter Island to work on it. While there Jeff remembered a conversation he had with one of the guys of the 1968 group (Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, the high-end outdoor clothing) who had mentioned to him about Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  I’ve read that book some time ago. Jared Diamond uses the collapse of the Rapa Nui’s (Easter Island’s) society as an example of the mistakes societies have made in the past by over-utilizing resources. By not thinking about sustainability, one can’t quite imagine what was the complex conundrum that resided in their decision process when they cut the last tree in the Island. It is possibly not unlike what we see and do today in our globalized village.  Some of us are in denial with what is going on around us as we march into the horizon in oblivion.  And in many instances, we have already cut that symbolic last tree.

The Rapa Nui story reminds of two places I’ve been to and which show us how far we have been already on the path of self destruction: one is the region around Kotzebue, north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska; the other is the Marshall Islands, a group of atolls in the south Pacific. And both of these places remind me of the fragility of the world where we live. Especially when just today a new study about earth’s temperature was released, showing the current earth warming trend.  It indicated that the last 100 years show an unprecedented rate of change (in this case speed of the increase in temperature) when compared to the last 11,000 years of analyzed data on earth’s temperature.

I’ve been to Alaska on work related trips, but I want to go back there on a motorcycle and ride it all the way to Dead Horse, at the end of the Dalton Highway and back. The tundra calls me as much as Patagonia does. As mentioned earlier, I like vast open spaces, there is something interesting about the solitude they represent, they trigger in me a good dose of respect to what is so much bigger than we are.

And at the same time, we are learning how fragile it all is. We start to see some changes, such as in areas close to Kotzebue in Alaska, more specifically I’m talking about the island and village of Shishmaref. I have not been to Shishmaref, but I was in Kotzebue, the central village of that area, and when there I had a chance to buy a mask carved in whale bone by an artist from Shishmaref. It shows sadness and it touches me with that.

Mask carved in whale bone by artist from village of Shishmaref, Alaska

Mask carved in whale bone by artist from village of Shishmaref, Alaska

Kotzebue is on a gravel spit in the Kotzebue sound, just north of the Arctic Circle. Very close, in Alaska’s scale of distances, to Shishmaref. Shishmaref is an Island which has

Shishmaref road before...

Shishmaref: front road before…

already been affected by global warming according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The people from Kotzebue may not be too far behind if waters continue to rise and the protecting ice continues to melt and the ocean erodes their village away.

The people from Shishmaraf may possibly enter in the history books as the first ones to ask for financial help and assistance for re-location because of potential damage

... and after

… and after storm passes by

from global warming.

You and I may think that they should have not established their village in such an unstable and precarious location in the first place. And we would be right. But that is not what is relevant here.  What matters is that the fragility of their location and the impact they are facing serves as an indicator of things to come for others like us who are in locations where it will take longer to observe more direct consequences of the changes taking place now. Those people are our proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Local from Kotzebue and the late June melting ice. Kotzebue, Alaska, June 2007

Local from Kotzebue and the late June melting ice. Kotzebue, Alaska, June 2007

Another group that I visited and who are in a fragile situation are the people who live in Atolls, mostly they are in the south pacific. I was at the Republic of the Marshall Islands in November of 2012 and was amazed to witness just a few months ago what I had heard from other people’s accounts in the past: how many people live in a place that is so far away from continental land and are only on narrow strips of land and only a few feet above sea level, 6ft above sea level on average, in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean.

Majuro Atoll: Lagoon on the left, open ocean on the right. Majuro, November 2012.

Majuro Atoll: Lagoon on the left, open ocean on the right. Majuro, November 2012.

I was in the Majuro Atoll, the capital of the Marshall Islands, where its narrow coral ring is interrupted by water and it is shaped like the letter U. From the top of one leg of the U to the end of the other leg, where the road ends, there are 36 miles of uninterrupted road. I drove all that distance, from one end, Rita, to the other, Point Laura. When looking from the airplane, you can see the strip of land going in that mix of water and sky, like a bridge to nowhere.

Majuro Atoll. Notice airport on the left. November, 2012

Majuro Atoll. Notice airport on the left. November, 2012

This nation is formed by a group of 24 Atolls, all of them (except for two islands) formed by coral reef rings that were formed around sinking volcanoes.

Borrowed from the Cyberspace

Schematics borrowed from the Cyberspace

It is a beautiful and unique place which is already experiencing the effects of the sea level rise.

Majuro Atoll. November, 2012

Majuro Atoll. November, 2012

People from the Marshall Islands told me of atolls where the sandy beach areas have already disappeared and the surf is now hitting the exposed roots of trees. On the picture below, it shows the end of of the left leg of that imaginary U that shapes Majuro Atoll (Point Laura). This is the widest portion of the entire atoll. I drove to that very end, where you see the tip of island (the low part, the vertex of the “V” shaped Point Laura on the picture), where you can see some sand, as if it has been pushed to the left by the water. That used to be a beach until some time last year. Although it shows still the color of sand, it is all under water now.  The water now hits the roots of trees, and some of these trees have already fallen.

Laura Point, Majuro. November 2012

Laura Point, Majuro. November 2012

It is just a question of time until some of these atolls will become uninhabitable.

Island in Majuro Atoll. November 2012

Island in Majuro Atoll. November 2012

It is just another canary in our coal mine.

Bus stop, donation from Japan. Majuro, November 2012

Bus stop, donation from Japan. Majuro, November 2012

In this debate about climate change I don’t think anyone really knows for sure whether the current warming we are experiencing is the result of human activity or whether it is part of the solar system’s cycles or something else. Independent of what is the real cause of the problem, we may be able to say two things: 1) Be it a short term, temporary and freak event of the last 100 years or a longer term thing, be it caused by human activities or not, what we know is that the climate is changing as observed by temperature rises; 2) Irrespective of having an impact on global warming or not, human activity and our current economic growth models are in fact unsustainable.

These are two problems, and some people claim it is one and the same. If they are not related, chances are we cannot tame problem 1. And problem 2 will only be resolved via a paradigm shift or some great technological leap. And if we solve problem 2, we may be able to solve problem 1, but only if they are related. Confusing? Of course.  And some people claim none of this is happening, of course.  There is a very small chance that they are right. Very small.

Federated States of Micronesia. November 2012

Federated States of Micronesia. November 2012

When discussing about all of this with friends at a bar, where all the great ideas are generated and revolutions are born, I tend to agree with the suggestion that living simply is a way to trigger important positive changes to our lives and to the world. In my own perspective, I agree, and I’m on board. As long as I can keep my motorcycles, that is. And since we are talking about exceptions, I want also to keep my computer, the smart phone, and my cameras of course, and the motorcycle GPS, notwithstanding that I want to keep flying across the globe to visit far-a-way places. Yes, everyone has always something they are not willing to let go. Living simply is one heck of a difficult thing to do. Aren’t psychotherapists called shrinks? We need environtherapists or something, then. People that will help us citizens of the world shrink our consumerist appetite.

Interesting stop sign. Kotzebue, Alaska. June 2007.

Interesting stop sign. Kotzebue, Alaska. June 2007.

Back on topic, do we all know how it was that everything started? This trend of lack of sustainability is nothing new. It started when we humans as in Homo sapiens sapiens, developed agriculture, perhaps the most important technological advancement, the mother of all technological advancements, and which occurred somewhere about 10,000 years ago, give or take, depending of whose paper you read. But if we had to do it all over again, I bet we would do it again that very same way. Who wouldn’t want to rest for a while and let domesticated nature, plants and animals, provide us with the food instead of having to wander all over gathering and hunting for it for 24 hours a day? That is, after all, human nature, we are ingenious animals, and that has been our species’ specialization, the result of our own evolution. Of course, we could have done it in some more sustainable ways, like some of our brothers still do today.

Gas Pump, Kotzebue, Alaska. June 2007.

Gas Pump, Kotzebue, Alaska. June 2007.

In that same vein, the same reason that brought us here may be the solution to all these problems: technological innovation. Yes, let’s think about it, wouldn’t it be a relief if we could find an easy way out via technological advancements, and without departing much from how we live our lives today we would make things right, at least in resolving problem 2 discussed above? That would be relief for us who knowingly live in the contradiction, even if such solution could be a fallacy in the long run.

What I like about 180° South is that they talk about all these issues but never bring up legislation as a way to control people’s actions, like some people promote today.  Those that promote legislation believe enforcement of strict rules to human activity will resolve the problems. To me that approach has shown failure many times over.  It goes the same way alcohol prohibition went, or drug control is going. In my view legislation and its enforcement cannot really control human behavior; they only create mistrust, polarization, even wars (as in “war on drugs”) and the professionalization of crime.

Instead, in the film they talk about the need for a paradigm shift. I see it as people evolving to exercise choice in a direction that is different than where we are going today, or how we’ve been doing for the last 10,000 years. I guess we have not really evolved since that time when we “conquered” nature via agriculture. We are due a next step in that evolution process, a conscious one this time.

Spirit Mask by Kotzebue artist (fossil ivory). Represents the fragile balance between human needs and what nature provides and Alaska Natives respect for nature.

Spirit Mask by Kotzebue artist (fossilized ivory, ballene, and crow feathers). Spirit Mask represents the fragile balance between human needs and what nature provides. It is about Alaska Natives’ respect for nature.

Although I wish every economist should swear to account for resource scarcity in their professional work, like medical doctors swear to practice medicine ethically and honestly in their Hippocratic Oath, I would like to think the definition of economics proposed by the AEA does not include the word “scarce” because they are assuming we will eventually know what is really a better choice on results utilization. And because of that, the concept of “scarcity” will be redundant or unnecessary.  If we evolve to that next step, it will be the paradigm shift mentioned on 180° South.

While that tipping moment doesn’t arrive, the time when we will all be happily living simply, or in which technology will save us from unsustainable practices (or some combination of both), we need to make the best of what we have, and protect our mother earth as much as we can. We need a great dose of common sense to make something good out of this.  This conversation brings me closer to my parents who live well, have had plenty of resources in their lives, but have always threaded lightly. It is just the way they are. They apply common sense and live simply, and are happy. I really admire them for that and I can’t wait for the next time I will visit them. Like my mother always says, happiness is always found in the most simple of things. I need to learn more from them and apply more common sense in my life.

Although I haven’t practiced economics professionally, it has always been an area of interest to me. But it is interesting how the film 180° South showed up on my screen exactly the day I was getting ownership of my new motorcycle and how it has taken me on this wide circle of thoughts. I’m obviously concerned about what happens to our environment, but selfishly I can’t wait for warmer and drier days when I will indulge in my motorcycle passion, riding this beautiful bike, and pretending the road is endless, like it says in this adhesive in its rear view mirror.  I will save it somewhere after I remove it from the bike.

Don't we all want it to be that way?

Don’t we all want it to be that way?

I look forward to days when I will evolve some more and will be acquiring more common sense and will learn to live more simply. While that time doesn’t arrive, and I don’t become a KLR rider (as in cheap but efficient, granola style motorcycling), I’m hoping for lots of rides with my new motorcycle…  But with lots of appreciation to our mother earth, as always.

We live in a beautiful part of this world and I plan to ride in this area, and hopefully beyond and as much as possible and document its beauty for all to see. I promise to tread as lightly as possible. I promise to think more on living as simply as possible. And to always carry with me the images of the people I met and who live in fragile areas of Alaska and the Marshall Islands and other geographic areas in more eminent danger from consequences of the warming. And I promise simple posts soon with pictures of my new motorcycle.

I’m lucky to live in a community where I can safely commute to work by bicycle for most of the year and I can walk to stores for my most basic grocery needs. And I can go to nice restaurants who only buy food from local producers and who produce them organically. I guess we are going somewhere already.

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