15 Dec 2011

Notes from the Nexus

Here are a few notes from the Bonn Rio+20 conference on water-energy-food nexus:

Bad news: we will continue to do what we are already doing, i.e., more conferences:
  • 1972: Stockholm "on environment"
  • 1992: Rio was "environment & development" in the North but "development & environment" in the South. Huh.
  • 2002: Johannesburg on "sustainable development"
  • 2012: Rio "sustainable development (+ 20)"
One speaker claimed "if you cannot solve the problem, enlarge the problem." Presumably that's why we added food to the water and energy nexus (others have already added "climate"). I'm not sure that's a great idea in terms of solving problems. I'd prefer Hayek's view that appropriate pricing in each activity will lead to efficient interactions between activities. (None of these activities NEED government involvement -- they are ALL related to resources!)

Along the same lines, there was a discussion on whether it makes sense to merge separate ministries of food and water (say) into one super ministry. On the one hand, that makes it easier to manage interdependencies; on the other, it risks subsuming one topic (food!) to another (water!), without anyone noticing. Given my experience of bureaucracies, dropping a ball between cracks of merged ministries seems more dangerous than worrying about coordinating efforts (assuming that's even necessary -- see above).*

The background document [PDF] was weak in its discussion of the biggest problem in "managing the nexus" -- government bureaucrats who are too incompetent or corrupt to do so. In my paper on international aid (Save the poor, shoot some bankers), I spent a LOT of time discussing incentives to perform. This conference -- attended by MANY of the usual suspects -- took strong intrinsic incentives to perform for granted -- contradicting facts on the ground.** People are either ignoring or glossing over the magnitude of this BIG problem.

They started the conference with draft policy recommendations, and I didn't see the main speakers (or organizers) go far off that script. There was some anger among delegates on the silly practice of following scripts instead of engaging in serious debate over hard choices. I shared that anger (but spent most of my time talking to people in the atrium). Even sillier were time schedules that allowed people 10 minutes to present something but no time for questions or discussion!

While I was there, I had many discussions on zero-value carbon and the water data hub. Both ideas were well-received, even as the people I spoke to said they had no time/money to deviate from their organizations' missions. This is a BIG problem if you are trying to address issues of global magnitude. It's also a problem that most businesses do NOT have. They have an incentive to change -- and do change -- their path when actions are going to produce better results.

Bottom Line: It was interesting to see world leaders continue to promise that they can "manage" its biggest problems -- while failing to show any sign that they know what they are doing. Why are many terrorists engineers? Because they think they can make the world a perfect place! I worry about the same with these kumbaya bureaucrats.
* That reminds me to remind you that most government ministries of water, agriculture and energy are not only a waste of time and money -- they actively ruin citizens' lives in service to the industries that have captured them. This is a BIG problem. Read this and this.

** I was pleased to hear the head of the Indonesian association of farmers and fishermen say that "corruption is a problem" in Indonesia (in response to my question).

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