Economic Growth is Good…or is it?

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“Only by maintaining Hong Kong’s stability can we sustain our economic prosperity. Only by sustaining Hong Kong’s prosperity can we improve people’s livelihood.” CY Leung July 1, 2014

This quote encapsulates the argument of the pro-China business groups in Hong Kong.  Their argument is two-fold: (1) that transitioning to a legitimate form of democratically elected government will cause instability and thus reduce economic growth, and (2) that economic growth is necessary to improve peoples lives. While we disagree with both, it is the second assertion that is relevant to the environment. It forms the justification for our most environmentally damaging behaviour.

This is the myth that we are setting out to debunk with some thought experiments. Thought experiments are favoured by scientist and philosophers, while complex models that are to a shocking extent unsubstantiated by empirical evidence are favoured by economists. (Disclosure: your author studied both economics and philosophy at the University of Toronto).

Look at the picture above. What do you see? Local residents sitting under a tree on a hot day? Wrong! That is a potential source of economic growth. Arborist’ could be employed to cut down the tree, drivers to transport it and factory workers to turn it into furniture or paper. It would then be transported back to a store to be sold by a clerk. At every stage of this “value creation” process, people are employed and income is earned resulting in economic growth. We could go even further, the people that had been enjoying the shade of the tree would now need to find another way of staying cool. They would need to occupy air-conditioned buildings. Coal would need to be mined and transported, and power plants operated closer to their maximum capacity. Again creating economic growth albeit without improving peoples lives (except for Li Ka Shing’s). We have not only eliminated a source of enjoyment for people, but made their lives worse off through increased air pollution.

Lets look at a more common good. Bottled water. We know that the most efficient way to transport water is through pipes and that Hong Kong’s water quality is world class. But drinking tap water has one huge drawback. It generates almost no economic activity. On the other hand, bottle water from the tap (which coincidentally is the source for most bottled water) and viola! We have economic growth. People are employed to extract oil, to manufacture plastic bottles, to run bottling factories, to drive trucks to transport it and to stand behind counters to sell it. Every step again generates employment and economic growth. However, we can see that most of the jobs created are low skill and low paying. Not a great way to make a livelihood. So who benefits from this form of economic growth? The investors and brand owners of course. Who might that be? What a coincidence, Li Ka Shing again. And who bears the environmental cost of our ever expanding landfills when these bottles are thrown away? Not the residents of the Peak.

Based on our thought experiments we can conclude that economic growth often does not improve peoples lives (or livelihood), especially when the costs and benefits are inequitably distributed. And that the pursuit of it can result in perverse incentives, and outcomes that can be profoundly damaging to environment and humans. Stay tuned for our next article, when we’ll examine one of the pillars of the Hong Kong economy. Real estate. And you can guess who our protagonist will be.

Summer Greens for Hong Kong

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GGHK Editors Note: Eating local, seasonal vegetables has numerous benefits for both our health and the environment. We benefit from fresher vegetables that are more nutritious and contain fewer pesticides. Cultivated in the right season, plants grow more vigorously making them less susceptible to pests and diseases. By eating seasonally, we can help conventional farmers reduce their use of harmful chemical pesticides. Our usual leafy greens: lettuce, spinach, pak choi, choi sum and kai lan are cool season crops that don’t grow well in the summer.   

The article below was contributed by Joshua Keil, a registered dietitian, with a special interest in food security, and community health. Joshua has experience working with groups and individuals to achieve their nutrition goals in a wide range of conditions including chronic illness, weight loss, and general healthy eating.

Ceylon Spinach, Amaranth (aka Chinese Spinach), Sweet Potato Leaf, and Morning Glory (aka Kangkong) are all dark leafy green vegetables that can be grown in the hot Hong Kong summer. Like many leafy greens, they are very nutritious and should be included regularly in your diet.

All are great sources of Vitamin A, which helps maintain healthy skin, hair, and tissue, improve dim light vision, and new cell growth.

Magnesium is another mineral these plants contain in abundance. It is important in maintaining healthy bones & teeth, maintaining nerve function, and recently has been found to play an important role in blood sugar regulation.

Finally, folate is found in large quantities in all of these vegetables. It can help maintain normal digestion, and is crucial in red blood cell production. Folate deficiency can lead to fatigue and anemia.

We should note that spinach and amaranth (both belong to the same plant family) have popularly been labeled as good sources of iron and calcium (thanks Popeye). However the presence of oxalates, especially in amaranth, make absorbing these two minerals very difficult. You should not rely on these vegetables for these two important minerals, but these plants are still packed with nutrients and should be eaten often.

Nourishing the body through food, is a proven way to improve skin health, and overall wellbeing. Skin care, and other cosmetic products, promise results, but there is very little scientific research to back up those claims. Dark leafy greens, and other fruits and vegetables, provide a wide range of nutrients that keep our bodies healthy from the skin inwards.

Another advantage of consuming these vegetables during the summer months is that they are good replacements for more common Chinese greens, such as Pak Choi and Choi Sum, that are imported from mainland China, where pesticide use is out of control. According to a 2013 Greenpeace report, Mainland China uses more pesticides than any other country in the world, and produce analyzed from several grocery stores contained up to 10 different chemicals on a single item. Being able to purchase local, preferably organic, produce can help us avoid these toxic chemicals.

Since these four vegetables can all be grown locally in summer, it is much less likely they will contain the cocktail of pesticides that can be found on some mainland produce. Even better, seek out farmers that grow food organically, meaning that they don’t use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Continue reading

Water for Free~ Android app is now available for download!

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GREEN RATING Deep Green. Bring your own bottle.

Water for Free is a mobile app (iPhone and Android) and website that shows the locations of public water fountains and dispensers throughout Hong Kong. It is an effort to reduce the vast amounts single-use beverage containers entering our landfills and oceans everyday.

According to the 2011 Waste Statistics issued by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), Hong Kong produces 100 tons of PET plastic waste daily. And the 2012 Waste Statistics shows a 32% increase.  Everyday we dump 132 tones of PET plastic waste into the landfill.  PET plastic is used primarily for single-use beverage bottles. Each bottle weighs about 50 grams and less than 4% is recycled. This means that we throw away more than two million PET bottles per day. Instead of responsibly addressing the waste issue caused by their products, beverage companies spend huge amounts on advertising designed to convince us to buy ever more of their products. The fact that their products are filling up our landfills and killing wildlife – birds, fish and sea turtles eat broken pieces of plastic mistaking it for food – is not their problem. It is ours. So we are asking for your help, please use a reusable beverage bottles.

A Delicious Irony

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Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil. In a recent Mingpao article titled “Farming can make money”, the purveyors of hydroponically grown produce tout many of its impressive benefits. Chief among them was food safety. 

They rightly point out that much of China’s land is contaminated and its fresh water is polluted. This jeopardises our food safety since most of our food comes from China. They go on to suggest that hydroponic produce, grown in clean water without any soil, is a solution to our food safety problems. What they fail to note is that hydroponic production would in fact exacerbate the food safety problem. To understand why, we need to look at the source of the minerals used in a hydroponic system.

17 elements have been identified as essential for plant growth, 3 of which come from the air and water. The remainder come from the soil or fertilisers. In a hydroponic system, these nutrients are extracted from the earth and chemically processed to feed plants. The materials used to produce the nutrient solutions are either mined or synthesised via energy intensive industrial processesCommon chemicals used in hydroponic systems include:

Calcium nitrates, Potassium nitrates, Magnesium nitrates, Ammonium nitrates, Monopotassium phosphates, Monoammonium phosphates; Potassium sulphates, Magnesium sulphates, Ammonium sulphates, Potassium chlorideMagnesium sulphate heptahydrate; Manganese sulfate monohydrate; Zinc sulfate dihydrate; Boric acid; Sodium molybdate; Copper sulfate pentahydrate and Iron EDTA

Mining is one of if not the single most environmentally devastating activities carried out by mankind. According to the Australian government, these impacts include heavy metal contamination and leaching; the spilling and leaking of chemical agents from the minesite into nearby water bodies and erosion of cleared land surfaces. Thus, the production of minerals for hydroponic systems causes the pollution that it kindly offers to protect us from.

In contrast, organic farming relies on biological (instead of chemical) processes to accomplish the same thing. The primary nutrients are derived from composted animal manures or recycled food processing waste such as bone, peanut and soya meal. Plants with the help of microorganisms (bacteria, fungus) living in the soil extract most of the secondary elements they require for growth directly from the soil. Organic farming mimics nature to create a virtuous cycle in which nutrients are recycled to produce more food. 

Hydroponics creates another type of “virtuous” cycle – a purely profit driven one. The more we contribute to damaging the environment by buying hydroponic produce, the more we are compelled to buy hydroponic produce to protect ourselves from the damage. A great business model indeed.  

Bring Your Own Cup

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PRODUCT RATING There are many reusable take-out coffee cups on the market, but the keepcup looks good and works well. It’s easy to use and very easy to clean. It feels good in your hand and against your lips (I hate the feel of those cheap disposable plastic lids against my lips). It is not waterproof, so don’t toss it in your bag when full. It’s not insulated like a thermos. It is a well designed, superior replacement for the plague of single-use cups.

GREEN RATING Deep Green. Over the course of a year, using a reusable cup instead of a disposable one, reduces landfill waste by at least 99%, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions and water use by up to 90% (water is used to make paper). Every minute, 1 million disposable cups are discarded to landfills globally. Most paper coffee cups are lined with plastic, so are NOT recyclable.

PRICE HKD 149 for 340 ml size

AVAILABLE AT ZixagHKMall and LOG-ON

Many coffee shops, especially the chains, now serve their coffee in disposable cups regardless of whether you sit-in or take-out. When I attended HKU as an exchange student in 1998, there was a cafe/bistro that served its food and drinks in ceramic and glass ware (and was staffed by disabled people). It has now been replaced by a Starbucks that primarily uses disposable ware. Without waste disposal charges, it is cheaper for them to give us a disposable cup than to pay for a dish washer. As responsible consumers, we need to request a ceramic cup when sitting-in or bring our own cup when taking-out.

Most disposable cups are lined with polyethylene, which makes them NON-recyclable. EPD recycling guidelines specifically direct us NOT to recycle paper cups. This means they end up in the landfill after the 15 minutes it takes most of us to drink a cup of coffee. Annually 500 billion disposable cups are manufactured around the world; that’s about 75 disposable cups for every single person on the planet.

Using a reusable cup is not only the right thing to do for the planet, but also provides us with a superior experience. The keepcup feels solid in your hand and the lid/spout seals nicely against your lips when drinking. You can rotate the tab to close the spout and throw it in your bag when finished drinking. While it’s not completely waterproof, it is significantly more spill-proof than a disposable cup. The cup disassembles for easy cleaning. The nicely rounded edges make it easy to wash.

The keepcup has ml/oz markers on the inside so the barista can correctly measure the right amount of coffee. Some environmentally irresponsible outlets such as fuel espresso in IFC still insist on first pouring their coffee into a disposable cup before pouring it into your reusable cup, thereby completely defeating the purpose of bringing your own cup. Fortunately, there are so many great coffee shops in Hong Kong, we as consumers can chose to frequent the more environmentally responsible ones.

No matter which cup you choose, we encourage you to try bringing your own cup the next time you buy a beverage to go. Your guilt-free coffee will taste so much better.

Year End Carbon Review

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Another year has come and gone. This makes it a good time to review our personal impact on the environment. While we may all proclaim our love of nature and all the beautiful creatures, nice sentiments are not nearly enough. That time has passed, climate change is upon us. We need to be driven by facts, data and most importantly personal accountability. If we want real change, we need to, as Michael Jackson says look at the “man in the mirror”.

The WWF carbon calculator is great way to find out how much carbon pollution we emitted over the past year and track our annual progress (Mobile app for iOS and Android). This app has been localised specifically for Hong Kong residents for greater accuracy. Here is my personal record. Although I’m far from proud of it, it is only by acknowledging and taking ownership of the issue that I can begin to fix it (and reap the benefits of deeper personal development, but more on that another time). 

According to the calculator, my total carbon emissions for 2011 was 8.25 tons (all figures rounded to 0.05).  Of this amount, 2.35 tons was due to air travel which consisted of one business trip to Beijing and one 2-week leisure trip to Taiwan.

In 2012, my carbon emissions declined from 8.25 to 5.9 tons. This was as a result of eliminating air travel. The Hong Kong average is 6.5 tons per person. This average, however, does not include travel. The average would be significantly higher if it were included.

In the last year, my emissions ballooned to 10.95 tons. A trip to New York, to visit family and friends, by itself generated 6.3 tons. This one trip overwhelmed all the efforts made during the last year to reduce my emissions to 4.7 tons. From this record, we can see that the only way I can make meaningful change to my personal carbon emissions is to reduce air travel.

In our modern world, many of us see air travel as almost a necessity. We take leisure trips to get away from the stress of our daily lives. When we review these trips from end to end though, we can see that the benefits are significantly lower than perceived. Lets take a hypothetical 5-day trip to a beach resort in Bali for meditation, massage, yoga and of course the great food.

To take our relaxing trip to Bali, we first need to research, plan and book the trip. This probably takes half a day if not more. Packing our luggage and changing currency, another half day. Getting to airport, checking in, going through customs and immigration takes at a minimum 3 to 4 hours. The flight itself is almost 5 hours. So by the time we arrive in the resort another day is gone. Now we spend the next 3 full days relaxing at the resort. Finally, on our last day, we pack and rush to the airport to make our return journey. To enjoy 3-days of leisure, we have spent  no less than of 3-days doing things that few would consider enjoyable and in most cases are a downright hassle.

We often make new year resolutions to reduce our weight, exercise more, or save more money. This year, lets make a resolution to end the talk and do our part to save the planet.

Just Right

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PRICE HKD $25 for 600ml size

PRODUCT RATING Just Right. Low price. Lightweight. Textured side panel (with the Rubbermaid logo) makes it non-slip. The side is slightly flattened and indented to fit ergonomically in your hand. The large screw-on cap and simple design makes it very easy to clean. The flip-top provides fast, easy access and is just the right size allowing you to drink quickly without spills. The lowest price, least aesthetic, most functional water bottle we have tried.

GREEN RATING We give all re-usable water bottles a Deep Green rating not only because they are an invaluable tool in reducing waste (100 tons of PET bottle waste enter Hong Kong landfills each and every day), but also because they reduce carbon emissions resulting from the production, transportation and refrigeration of bottled drinks.

AVAILABLE in some WingOn department stores and Vanguard supermarkets.

This is a followup to our previous article The Right Water Bottle for You where we reviewed plastic, aluminium and stainless steel bottles. This bottle solves many of the issues we found with those designs.

Unlike the stainless steel bottles, it is lightweight, a very important attribute for something you’re carrying around with you all day.

All the bottles we previously reviewed are round and smooth making them slippery to hold especially when wet. The stainless steel and aluminium bottles look great when new, but dent easily when dropped. While getting ready to leave the house one day, my old stainless steel bottle slipped out of my hand. Full of water, it left a dent in the wooden floor (hope my landlord is not reading this!).

We found with all the previous designs, you had to chose between a large mouth that makes it easy to clean the inside (and add ice cubes) but also more difficult to drink from when moving or those with a small mouth that is hard to clean but allows greater control when drinking. This bottle solves this by incorporating a smaller flip-top into the larger screw cap. The flip-top is leak proof and fast and easy to open and close. While the large mouth screw cap makes it a cinch to clean the inside. Overall, the simplicity of the design, in contrast to many of the newer bottles on the market these days, makes it very easy to clean.

The semi-transparent plastic with both ml and oz markings on the side make it easy to tell how much water you have left. It also seems quite resistant to odours and tastes.

The drawbacks are two-fold. One, you can only put warm, not hot, water in it. Two, its not very cool looking. It would also have been handy to have a ring in the cap for hanging. All in all, it is just right for a purely utilitarian person like me, who values functionality, quality and value for your money above aesthetics.

We have used it for less than six months so cannot comment on its durability. But based on our experience with other Rubbermaid products, we are quite confident in recommending this bottle.

Thirsty? Download our Water For Free iPhone mobile app (Android coming soon) to find a water fountain near you!

Permaculture

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SUSTAINABILITY FACTS ABOUT HONG KONG

  • Our reservoirs have a capacity of 120-150 cubic meters of water per person per year.  The UN considers regions with less than 500 cubic meters per person to be water stressed.
  • Our electricity comes primarily from unsustainable coal, natural gas and nuclear power. Converting to renewable energy is a process that will take many decades, requiring more time than we have if we hope to avoid catastrophic climate change.
  • Our landfills will be full by 2017. 40% of the garbage going to our landfill is food waste.
  • Over 95% of our food is imported, the majority coming from the mainland. 70% of mainland surface water is polluted. The area of land contaminated by heavy metals has been classified a state secret.

On the one hand we may feel overwhelmed by these facts, and the state of gridlock in Hong Kong’s political system may cause us to just throw up our hands. On the other hand, can we rely on bureaucratic governments, quarterly profit-driven corporations or ineffective NGO’s to solve these issues? Instead, can citizens band together to work on local, small scale solutions that may bring about the seeds of change?

Permaculture courses create a forum for specialists and non-specialists alike to discuss, design and most importantly build small scale solutions to ecological problems. Unlike traditional education, it is active, field-based and hands on. Working together in teams guided by an instructor, participants learn about ecology and design solutions that are modelled on natural systems and based on the following core principles:

  • Care of the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  • Care of the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Return of Surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness.

The government’s solution to our water deficit is to import water from the mainland. As economic growth on the mainland drives ever increasing demand for water, we will face greater competition for this water. The permaculture solution is to instead apply the ancient technique of rainwater harvesting. During the rainy season, water is collected and stored in tanks to be used when water is scarce. This gravity-fed system not only reduces the need for imported water but also reduces electricity consumption (4% of total electricity consumption globally is used to pump and treat water).

To address our energy and climate change issues, environmentalists promote converting to renewable energy. However, due to factors such as the high water vapour content and pollution in the air, the efficiency of solar panels in Hong Kong is quite low. With limited land, wind farms would need to be located in the ocean, an extremely expensive proposition.

Permaculture instead advocates energy conservation by designing and retrofitting buildings with passive cooling. Continue reading

Technology is the Answer…or is it?

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In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.

The London Times, 1894

Most of us by now are aware of the challenges we will face in coming decades – climate change, water shortages and mass extinction of species to name a few. Many believe that technology will solve all these problems. That we can continue to consume as usual because human ingenuity will, as it always has, find technological solutions to our most pressing problems. Lets review the four most important technological innovations of the last century to find out if our faith is warranted.

THE GREEN REVOLUTION

Thomas Malthus predicted that overpopulation would result in widespread poverty, famine and war. Population did grow from 1 billion in the 1800’s to 7 billion today. However, food production also grew rapidly as a result of a set of technological innovations, known as the green revolution. The hunger and poverty that Malthus predicted never came to pass (at least for those lucky enough to be born in the developed world). The key elements of the green revolution were hybrid seeds, chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. They are the foundation that makes the modern world possible by freeing up people from having to grow their own food. They are also the source of some of the most serious environmental problems today.

The petrochemical fertilisers are causing vast dead zones in our oceans and rivers. Chemical pesticides are contaminating our soil and water, and causing the loss of biodiversity. Hybrid and GM crop varieties produce increased yields, but require much greater inputs of water and fertiliser. The irrigation required to grow high yield varieties is resulting in the alarming depletion of ground water. According to Lester Brown, our current farming practices based on the green revolution, are now a threat to world food security.  The solution has now become the problem.

ANTIBIOTICS

Before the invention of antibiotics, everyday ailments commonly resulted in unimaginable pain or even death. All the surgeries conducted today are made possible only by antibiotics. However, most of us are unaware of the fact that over 60% of all antibiotics produced are not consumed by humans.  Instead, they are being fed to livestock not to prevent disease but to enhance growth, so we can buy cheap meat. As a consequence of this widespread use, drug resistant bacteria are proliferating.

A recent Australian report says there is ‘a genuine threat of humanity returning to an era where mortality due to common infections is rife’. According to Australia’s top scientist, the overuse of antibiotics is threatening to return us to a world where deaths result from minor ailments such as sore throats and cut knees. England’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, warned in a March report that untreatable infections posed a “catastrophic threat” to the population.

ENGINE

In the 1900’s, there was a horse-manure crisis. In New York, a population of 100,000 horses was producing 2.5 millions pounds of manure a day. The streets were covered with manure and air was thick with flies. The technological solution came in the form of cars and buses powered by fossil fuel. The manure crisis was averted. Continue reading

Cost Benefit Analysis of Golf

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Golf has been in the news recently because it has been proposed that the government take back the land that the Hong Kong Golf Club (The Club) sits on to develop housing. It is argued that it would be preferable to eliminate the golf course rather than relocate villages and destroy farmland. In order to ascertain the validity of this assertion, we should examine the costs versus the benefits of golf.

BENEFITS

The benefits of golf have been clearly articulated by the local golfing community as they seek to justify the taxpayers continued subsidy of their exclusive, members only Club:

BUSINESS

In a recent SCMP article, a representative of The Club justified its existence on the basis that Hong Kong is an international business centre and golf plays a big role in business (lots of business gets done on a golf course). As a professional starting out in my career, I remember how golf was a constant topic of conversation around the office. Many of my bosses were avid golfers and corporate events were often golf trips followed by BBQ dinners. So yes, I do believe there is a connection between golf and business. It might be a stretch however to call it an important one. There has been no research that links golf to economic development (as there is with education, infrastructure and the rule of law). If there were, Scotland and Thailand would be business superpowers today.

OLYMPICS

William Chung Pui-lam, president of the Hong Kong Golf Association, said growth of the game – recently made an Olympic sport – would suffer if the Hong Kong Golf Club’s three-course, 170-hectare facility at Fanling were lost to housing. Bobsledding is an Olympic sport, and its development is also suffering due to lack of venues in Hong Kong. Perhaps we should also dedicate public resources to its development?

THE RICH LIKE GOLF

Another housing adviser, Lau Ping-cheung, said the land use of golf courses should be reviewed together with all other private recreational clubs. “But we need to discuss and understand the possible social impact, because Hong Kong is an open city with lots of rich people and foreigners who might be interested in golf.” Rich people also like private jets, perhaps we should subsidize runways for private jets as well?

THE PRESENCE OF DOMINIQUE BOULET

Golf commentator Dominique Boulet, a former Hong Kong representative and a member of the club for almost 30 years, said: “If we lost the Hong Kong Golf Club, I’m not sure I would live here any more.” I never realized how much I would miss Mr. Boulet until he threatened to leave. In fact, I had never heard of him before he made this statement to the SCMP.

COSTS

PESTICIDE USE

NY States Attorney General’s office published a report entitled Toxic Fairways. The report, which was particularly concerned with the potential for groundwater contamination, concluded that these [NY] golf courses applied about 50,000 pounds of pesticides in one year, or four to seven times the average amount of pesticides used in agriculture, on a pound per acre basis. Pesticide and fertilizer runoff contaminates ground water, poisoning both humans and wildlife.

It is quite ironic, the number of golf charity events held to raise money for cancer research when there is  evidence of major excesses of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain, colorectal and prostate cancers in golf course maintenance workers and superintendents exposed to high concentrations of carcinogenic herbicides and fungicides. The cost of cancer treatment for golf course workers will undoubtedly be borne by the taxpayer funded public healthcare system.

WATER USE Continue reading

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