Climate Change: The Antidote To Democracy’s Mid-life Crisis

Last month, the New York Times published a mammoth article on the early history of US climate politics. ‘In the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989,’ argues the piece’s author, Nathaniel Rich, ‘we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis… During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable.’

This sentence prompted Naomi Klein to pen a fierce rejoinder. ‘On the contrary,’ Klein writes, ‘one could scarcely imagine a more inopportune moment in human evolution for our species to come face to face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism were steadily eroding the habitability of the planet. Why? Because the late ’80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendency for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating “free markets” in every aspect of life.’

Where Rich sees a missed window of opportunity – a brief historical interlude in which the basic science was settled and the fossil fuel lobby hadn’t yet begun to deliberately muddy the waters by funding climate denialists – Klein sees ‘an epic case of historical bad timing.’

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Climate scientist James Hansen giving evidence at a US Senate hearing in 1988.

I admire Rich’s reporting, but Klein’s analysis is, to my mind, the more compelling. Climate change is, above all, a political problem that demands political solutions. It requires bold intervention on the part of elected officials to put the long-term interests of society ahead of the short-term interests of the market. Neoliberalism – which, crudely, is the belief that markets know best, governments are congenitally incompetent and “there is no such thing as society” – is therefore fundamentally incapable of delivering effective climate action.

It is testament to the strength and endurance of neoliberalism’s grip on western democracy that so many observers can no longer tell the difference between the two. Imagining a politics where markets are subservient to the will of democratic governments – something which the generations that grew up in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century would have regarded as normal – has become nigh on impossible.

Most democratic governments of the last three decades have lacked the self-confidence to even have a will that is distinguishable from a meek desire to keep the economic gods happy. Out of desperation, a growing number of liberal-minded Westerners have begun to fawn over China’s autocratic regime, impressed by the mere fact that it appears to have the will and power to influence the course of the country’s economic development.

But it’s a mistake to see these contemporary failings of democratic politics as intrinsic to the system. Western democracy is in a bad way right now but its best days may yet be ahead of it. And the climate crisis may, counter-intuitively, be just what’s needed to breathe new life into it.

***

In his recent book, How Democracy Ends, David Runciman argues that Donald Trump’s election is a sign that ‘western democracy is going through a mid-life crisis.’ Our current predicament is more akin to the 1890s than the 1930s, he writes, comparing the populist rage that swept Donald Trump into the White House in 2016 with the similar spirit that almost saw William Jennings Bryan elected President in 1896.

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William Jennings Bryan: he’d have been on Twitter if it had existed.

Bryan’s campaign ‘bore all the hallmarks of future populist assaults on the White House.’ He attacked the political establishment of his own party (Bryan ran as a Democrat). He bypassed the mainstream media, instead publishing his own pamphlets, ‘which often played fast and loose with the truth.’ He derided experts and blamed foreigners for the plight of ordinary Americans.

But there’s one crucial difference between the 1890s and today: ‘early twentieth-century democracy was young.’ It had untapped potential and could assuage populist anger by offering new forms of democratic fulfilment. The franchise was expanded, social safety nets constructed, monopolistic enterprises broken up. In this way, political, social and economic democracy were all massively extended between the 1890s and the 1960s.

(Total war was, alas, also a critical ingredient for this democratic growth spurt. As Runciman writes, ‘no matter what politicians like Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George were able to achieve before 1914 – and in each case, it was substantial – it was nothing compared with what they were able to do in the era of total war. Fighting wars that needed the full commitment of the entire population required a fuller commitment to democracy to justify the effort.’)

Today, on the other hand, there is less room for democracy to grow. What few gains there are left to make from the perspective of political and social democracy look trivial compared with votes for women, state pensions, a National Health Service and the Civil Rights Movement. Consequently, progressive politics has become defensive and nostalgic.

Runciman thinks it unlikely that this mid-life crisis will prove fatal, but nor is he optimistic about the chances of a democratic revival. Rather, he foresees a future in which democracy staggers on from crisis to crisis, surviving but not exactly flourishing.

But this pessimistic view assumes that there is no new frontier for democracy to settle. I disagree. Democracy needs a project – a raison d’ȇtre that’s more inspiring than being the least worst form of government yet discovered. Reversing global warming, it seems to me, fits the bill perfectly.

Climate change represents at least as big and worthy a challenge for democratic governments to tackle as did the injustice of a world where there was no safety net for the weak, the poor, the old and the sick. It is a cause big enough to give western democracy a new lease of life. And, importantly for democracy’s self-esteem, the state has a positive and indispensable role to play.

***

Next week, I’m off to San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. Initiated by California Governor Jerry Brown, the Summit is a grand gesture – a rebuke to President Trump for promising to withdraw America from the Paris Agreement.

My hope is that it is more than just an opportunity for politicians to grandstand and CEOs to claim credit for commitments already made. My hope is that it is the birth of a new kind of democratic politics. A politics that puts climate change front and centre, rather than treating it as something we can afford to think about only when everything else is on track. A politics that channels the vision and ambition of the Roosevelts, of William Beveridge and Nye Bevan, of the suffragists and the Civil Rights Movement.

In spite of recent setbacks to sane climate policy in several countries, I believe the timing is good. In the afterglow of this summer’s heatwave, climate denialism is in full-blown retreat. 73% of Americans now accept that global warming is real – and 60% believe it is at least partially caused by human activity. As the burden of death and disruption caused by extreme weather inevitably grows in the years to come, the democratic will to act will only get stronger.

The manifesto for this new democratic movement will contain few, if any, new ideas. Rather, it will organise a familiar set of policies into a coherent programme:

  1. A flat-rate, no-exceptions tax on emissions – possibly linked to a dividend for all citizens, or with revenues used to fund other climate protection measures.
  2. Investment in renewables and low-emission transport infrastructure, which will also create jobs.
  3. Enhanced protections for natural carbon sinks in public hands, and incentives for private landowners to increase the quantity of carbon stored by the trees, plants and soils on their land.
  4. Funding for research into carbon capture and use, energy storage and next generation renewables.
  5. Higher mandatory energy efficiency standards for all new buildings, saving households and businesses money on their energy bills.
  6. Scrappage schemes for petrol and diesel vehicles and money for homeowners and landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of existing properties.
  7. Investment in climate adaptation and resilience to ensure those most exposed to the impacts of extreme weather – from hurricanes to forest fires – are as well protected as possible.
  8. Public awareness campaigns to promote dietary changes that both reduce emissions and improve health.
  9. Lowering the voting age to 16, as a way of giving greater democratic voice to those who will be most personally affected by the long-term consequences of global warming.

***

Given the global nature of the climate challenge, international agreements like the Paris deal, or the less-feted but probably more important 2016 Kigali deal to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, do of course have an important role to play. But there’s a case for saying that the climate movement has become overly fixated on international diplomacy.

One lesson eco-warriors could do to learn from Cold Warriors is that the most effective way to influence change beyond your borders is by example, not by exhortation. For sure, the nuclear non-proliferation treaties negotiated between the 1960s and 1980s were worth having. But the most important factor behind the triumph of democratic capitalism over Soviet Communism was that the former led to demonstrably better outcomes for the countries that adopted it.

We should apply the same logic to climate change. Local and national political leaders should focus on showing the world that a zero-emissions economy is superior to a high-emissions economy by building one.

***

The emergence of global warming as a political issue just as (in Naomi Klein’s words) ‘the global neoliberal revolution went supernova’ was indeed a case of historical bad timing.

Thirty years on, the timing is better. Not because a politics more favourable to climate action has yet emerged, but because neoliberalism, which was full of zeal and confidence in the Thatcher-Reagan era, now looks worn out. 2008 was a body blow; 2016 was the year the heirs to Thatcher and Reagan lost control.

Now there is a void waiting to be filled – room, once again, for democracy to grow. A window of opportunity is opening, not closing. We can’t afford to miss it.

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Decarbonisation Is Not Enough

People in Canada are dying because it’s too hot. Roads in the UK are melting. It hit almost 32°C in Glasgow recently. And spare a thought for those humans who live in perennially warmer climes. In Quriyat, Oman, the lowest recorded temperature during one 24-hour period in June was 42.6°C.

So forgive me if I sound a little alarmist. Average global temperatures have already risen by more than 1°C since pre-industrial times. Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have risen by almost 50% – from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 410ppm, the highest they’ve been in 800,000 years. The rate at which Antarctic ice is melting has tripled in the last decade.

The Mercator Research Institute in Berlin has a countdown clock showing how long, at our current rate of emissions, until we’ve (literally) burned through our carbon budget. At the time of writing, it shows that there are just two months left until we’ve exceeded the amount of CO2 we can emit to have a middling chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. That’s the threshold that the governments of the world set as their aspiration in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

In short, unless the overwhelming majority of climate scientists turn out to be wildly wrong about how sensitive the climate is to increased levels of so-called “greenhouse gases” like CO2, we’re on track for a disastrous 3-6°C of warming by the end of the century.

So what should we do?

The obvious place to start is to stop emitting the stuff that warms the planet. The trouble is that this turns out to be fiendishly hard – probably impossible – to do over the kind of timescales we’re talking about to keep global warming below 2°C.

In the 30 years since climate scientist James Hansen testified to Congress about global warming – a pivotal moment in terms of bringing the issue into the political mainstream (and not just in the US) – the percentage of global energy demand met by fossil fuels has held steady at roughly 80%. Global energy demand has meanwhile gone up – and with it CO2 emissions – by more than 50%.

That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to cut emissions – by switching to renewables (and nuclear), changing our diets (eating less meat), walking, cycling and using public transport more, and so on. Far from it. But it does mean we need other strategies to go alongside our so far fruitless quest for lower emissions.

This is the basic premise of Oliver Morton’s 2015 book The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, which is by far the best exploration of those alternative strategies that I’ve come across.

Very crudely, the strategies he explores fall into two categories: first, removing carbon from the atmosphere, whether via biological or chemical processes; second, allowing less of the sun’s heat to reach the earth’s surface by creating some sort of stratospheric veil or increasing the propensity of clouds to shield us from the sun’s rays.

Let’s start with carbon removal since, as Morton acknowledges, it ‘is both ideologically more acceptable and politically more plausible than messing around with incoming sunshine. Moving carbon to safe stores feels more restorative than transformative, and sits well with common-sense notions of what to do when you have made a mess: clean it up.’

The most efficient method for removing carbon from the atmosphere that exists today is photosynthesis. Plants were in the business of CO2 capture and conversion long before humans came along and disrupted the natural carbon cycle and we certainly need their help now.

So yes, we can and should plant more trees and adapt farming practices to revive soil health, because healthy soil stores more carbon. And we should give photosynthesis a helping hand where we can: one of the great promises of genetic modification is that we might be able to make photosynthesis even more efficient, thereby reducing atmospheric CO2 and improving agricultural yields. We should temper our hubris on this front though, given that evolution has a 3.4 billion-year head start.

But there are limits to how much we can do with photosynthesis alone. While Morton supports adapting soil management, agronomy and forestry practices to increase carbon removal and storage, he ultimately concludes that ‘such actions do not store carbon on the scale needed to put a serious dent in the fossil-fuel-driven trajectory of atmospheric carbon dioxide, because the reservoirs into which they put the carbon are quite constrained. There is only so much woodland you can plant, only so much soil you can enrich, only so much farming you can do better. The biosphere is not that big.’

What about chemical processes for removing carbon from the atmosphere? These have garnered considerable attention recently as the first machines that capture CO2 directly from ambient air (as opposed to from an industrial chimney) have come online.

The semi-miraculous nature of direct air capture (DAC) is part of its appeal. Unlike traditional carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which has been around for decades but has not been widely deployed, DAC ‘suffers neither from being too mundane to thrill nor from being too simple to solve; it has Promethean world-changing promise, and finding a way to do it cheaply looks really hard.’

A computer generated image of a direct-air-capture plant. Source: Carbon Engineering

Progress is being made on the cost front. Recent evidence from the Canadian company Carbon Engineering suggests that they’ve found a way to do DAC at a cost of less than $100 a tonne. If true (their claim was published in a reputable scientific journal and subject to academic review, so we should take it seriously), this is a major improvement on previous costings of DAC, which have consistently been in the $300-600 a tonne range. But $100 a tonne is still not exactly cheap: at that level, the contexts in which DAC will prove commercially viable will remain fairly limited. ‘Measure them in tens of thousands of tonnes a year, not in billions,’ suggests Morton.

And much as we might wish to believe that the cost-reduction curve for DAC will follow an exponential trajectory, the laws of thermodynamics suggest otherwise. Extracting nitrogen directly from the atmosphere – as humans do all over the world to make fertiliser – is relatively easy because four out of five molecules in the air we breathe is nitrogen. Even after centuries of industrial CO2 emissions, it makes up just 0.04% of the atmosphere – that’s one molecule in every 2,500. A process where you have to filter out 2,499 molecules for every one you capture is inherently inefficient.

In this respect at least, capturing CO2 directly from the chimneys of fossil fuel power stations (CCS) should be more promising, since the concentration of CO2 is significantly higher and the process therefore more efficient. But CCS has so far conspicuously failed to take off, partly due to political resistance – the technology has largely been developed by fossil fuel companies as a way of prolonging their own life expectancy, with much of the captured CO2 being used for ‘enhanced oil recovery’; unsurprisingly, it hasn’t been wildly popular with environmentalists – and partly due to economics.

As Morton writes, ‘if companies thought they could make money from storing carbon underground they would probably find a way to do so in the face of opposition, just as in many territories they have found ways to frack.’ CCS at scale, he concludes, will not thrive without a stable price on carbon of at least $50 a tonne. And that price would need to be paid ‘as readily for the billionth tonne as for the first.’

There is one final issue that afflicts both biological and chemical carbon removal options: the counterbalancing effect of the ocean. ‘If you push carbon dioxide into the atmosphere the seas suck some of it up; if you pump carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere the seas give some up, reducing the effectiveness of your pumping. This means that to get a net reduction of a billion tonnes of carbon in the atmosphere, you need to pull out well over a billion tonnes.’

So what of the other forms of geoengineering Morton considers – those that involve altering not the carbon cycle but the way the sun’s radiation effects surface temperatures? In essence, the ideas presented all boil down to one thing: reflecting back more of the sun’s rays into space.

One option is to create a veil of aerosols in the stratosphere, artificially replicating, on a longer-term basis, the short-term cooling effect that has historically followed major volcanic eruptions. This is the result of the vast quantities of sulphur dioxide that volcanoes spew into the stratosphere. Morton (and others who favour this form of solar geoengineering) envisage sulphur dioxide being delivered to the stratosphere by fleets of very high-flying aircraft – successors, in a way, to the spy planes of the early Cold War.

The Lockheed U-2: spy plane or prototype stratospheric veil-maker?

A little nearer the ground, tampering with the brightness of clouds could also offer a cooling effect. Unlike the stratospheric veil option, which is by necessity a global intervention, cloud brightening could be done at a more local level, to protect precious coral reefs perhaps, or to lower sea-surface temperatures in order to forestall hurricanes.

There’s a potential danger in such a patchwork approach: the global climate is a fiercely complex interconnected system and small changes in one place can have big knock-on impacts half a world away. But, so long as cloud brightening remained truly local and informed by suitably rigorous modelling to assess possible side-effects, Morton concludes that it may well be a risk worth taking in many instances.

In discussions about climate solutions, geoengineering of this sort, if considered at all, is generally seen as a last resort. It’s sidelined both for its unnaturalness – most of us instinctively recoil from the thought of humans wielding the power to (partially) block out the sun – and because of the fear that it creates a form of moral hazard – if we know that we can, ultimately, save ourselves with a giant space parasol, why bother with the hard work of cutting emissions?

Morton addresses both these objections in some detail (read the book if you want to know how) and then makes an intriguing counter-suggestion: rather than a back-up option to be rushed out when we’re facing climate catastrophe, solar geoengineering, he argues, should be used now to give us a few decades’ breathing space in which to cut our emissions to zero and re-balance the carbon cycle.

What’s more, in a richly imagined set of scenarios in the book’s final chapter, Morton makes such a possibility seem remarkably plausible. He envisages, in the near future, a small group of nations taking it upon themselves to create and maintain a stratospheric veil. All sorts of things could go wrong with such a scheme, but the key to its plausibility lies in the relative immediacy of cause and effect when it comes to solar geoengineering as compared with changing the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere.

What makes climate change such a difficult problem to solve, ironically, is its slowness. Whether global emissions go up or down today will have a major bearing on what happens several decades from now, but neither the costs of inaction, nor the benefits of action, are felt in the present. Add to this the fact that what matters is the sum of all human activity – cutting emissions in one country whilst they continue to soar in another country is of limited use – and it’s no wonder climate change (when seen purely as a carbon issue) feels so intractable.

With solar geoengineering, on the other hand, ‘you don’t have to coordinate the actions of many different players in advance. You don’t have to wait for another generation to see the effects. There are clear responsibilities and prompt effects, and that would seem to make the problem inherently more tractable.’

This does not mean that solar geoengineering is a silver bullet. Morton explicitly rejects the notion that geoengineering is a solution for climate change, adding that ‘I think that it is a mistake to treat climate change as a problem to be solved. Something as complex as the relationship of industrial civilisation to the earthsystem that it shapes and is shaped by isn’t the sort of thing that is simply solved, once and for all, and it’s a snare to think that it is.’

There are no either/ors left, then, when it comes to addressing global warming. Cutting emissions, removing carbon from the atmosphere and ‘messing around with incoming sunshine’ are all necessary paths to pursue. Ideas that have long been the preserve of science-fiction writers and a small clique of scientists are now too important to leave to those groups alone.

It’s all-hands-on-deck time here on Spaceship Earth.

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Three Things Techno-Religionists Get Wrong

Are humans any less religious today than they were 300 years ago?

It depends, of course, what you mean by religious. But it’s worth bearing in mind that 300 years is, in evolutionary terms, the blink of an eye. Our brains have not changed in that time and therefore we can be sure of at least one thing: our capacity for religious belief has not altered. So what are we non-believers doing with that spare capacity, now that it’s not busy maintaining our faith in the supernatural?

One possibility is that we’ve simply directed our religious habits of mind towards a different focus: technology. This, I will argue, is a problem because it leads us to misunderstand the impact technology has on our lives in three important ways.

Myth 1: The god-like autonomy of machines

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One important aspect of religious belief is the ascription of autonomy and power to forces perceived to be outside human control. In this respect, our contemporary view of technology is religious in the extreme.

Karl Marx spotted this 150 years ago. In Das Kapital, he wrote that ‘[in] the misty realm of religion … the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own… So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.’ Marx called this tendency fetishism and it’s not hard to spot examples of the fetishisation of technology today — especially when it comes to discussions about Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Hollywood has been fetishising AI for decades — think HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Skynet in the Terminator films. Elon Musk has likened AI to ‘summoning the demon.’ Kevin Kelly — one of the foremost prophets of the new techno-religion — has laid out the fundamental tenets of the faith in his books What Technology Wants and The Inevitable: Understanding The 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.

Fetishism is rife amongst both techno-utopians and techno-pessimists: whether you think AI is going to deliver us safe to the shores of abundance or into the jaws of joblessness, you’re guilty of it.

There are good reasons to be wary of fetishism: as Oliver Morton of The Economist writes in Megatech: Technology in 2050‘technology can never be relied on to solve problems in the absence of social action; one of the dangers of fetishising technology as an actor in its own right is that it obscures this point.’

But this doesn’t mean we should ignore the role of technology in modern society altogether — merely that we should strip it of its divine characteristics. AI will have — in fact, is already having — a profound impact on our economy and society, but the relationship goes both ways. We’re obsessed with the question of what AI will do to capitalism; we should also ask what capitalism is doing to AI.

A few years ago, Jeff Hammerbacher, an early Facebook employee who became disenchanted with the world of big tech, lamented the fact that ‘the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.’ Given the way economic power is distributed today, we risk the same being true of the best artificial minds of our generation.

Myth 2: The otherness of the future

Another common feature of religions is their fascination with what lies beyond the knowable horizon. We want to know what comes after death. For all that they may be grounded in ancient scriptures, all the major faith traditions keep the eyes of their true believers firmly fixed on the future and the rewards that they can hope to attain if they live a holy life.

Here, again, there are parallels with the way many people view technology. The singularity (the moment when a machine can outperform humans on any intellectual task) is to techno-religionists what the Day of Judgement is to Christians.

Whether or not you believe, with Ray Kurzweil, that the singularity is near, this mode of thought has infected most of the debate around technology and its impacts. We ask, incessantly, what will happen, rarely stopping to look at what is happening. The discontinuities ahead are so great, we are told, that the past is no guide to the future.

This, again, is a problematic view because it blinds us to the fact that our economy is not so much on the brink of an AI-powered seismic shift: rather, we’re a good 25–30 years into the revolution. As Pedro Domingos writes in The Master Algorithm:

‘[Machine learning’s] first big hit was in finance, predicting stock ups and downs, starting in the late 1980s. The next wave was mining corporate databases, which by the mid-1990s were starting to grow quite large, and in areas like direct marketing, customer relationship management, credit scoring, and fraud detection. Then came the web and e-commerce, where automated personalisation became de rigueur. When the dot-com bust temporarily curtailed that, the use of learning for web search and ad placement took off. For better or worse, the 9/11 attacks put machine learning in the front line of the war on terror. Web 2.0 brought in a swath of new applications, from mining social networks to figuring out what bloggers are saying about your products… Today, there seems to be hardly an area of human endeavour untouched by machine learning.’

So what has been the economic impact of this revolution in its first 30 years? The Economist’s Adrian Wooldridge, writing in Megatech, sums it up in a single sentence: ‘almost all the productivity gains of the past 30 years have been gobbled up by the richest 1%.’

Now, we should, of course, avoid the fetishisation trap. Technology did not make this massively unequal distribution of the gains of growth inevitable. A different set of political choices about how to regulate the economy could have led to a very different outcome. But technology has certainly been a key enabler of rampant inequality — not least because automation has already largely destroyed the link between job creation and wealth creation that underpinned the decades of shared prosperity that followed World War Two.

Consider the following numbers, from an Economist special report published in 2016:

‘In 1990 the top three carmakers in Detroit between them had nominal revenues of $250 billion, a market capitalisation of $36 billion and 1.2m employees. In 2014 the top three companies in Silicon Valley had revenues of $247 billion and a market capitalisation of over $1 trillion but just 137,000 employees.’

In other words, today’s big tech firms are generating equivalent revenues and a market capitalisation almost thirty times higher than the automotive giants of a quarter century ago, with just a tenth of the workforce. No wonder Silicon Valley bigwigs are starting to worry about becoming the new bankers: loathed for their role in creating a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the top 1% and everyone else.

CEOs earning several hundred times more than their average employees — in 2015, the ratio for S&P 500 companies was a whopping 340 — has provoked justified anger. But this isn’t the real story. As Nicholas Bloom noted in a Harvard Business Review cover story last year, it’s inequality between firms — not inequality within firms — that is responsible for most of the increase in income inequality in the US over the last 30 years. Similarly, Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane has shown that the top 5% of firms in the UK have seen strong productivity growth in recent years, whilst the productivity of the other 95% has flatlined.

In short, the big winners of the past 30 years have been a handful of big tech firms in the US and China: Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu. There is every reason to believe that, as AI in particular becomes even more pervasive in the next 30 years, the economic power of these companies will become even more firmly entrenched.

After all, they have amassed in unprecedented quantities the two things most crucial for success in the AI era: money and data. As Mariana Mazzucato notes in her new book, The Value of Everything, ‘just five US companies (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and IBM) own most of the world’s data, with China’s Baidu being the only foreign company coming close.’ IDC, a research firm, predicts that by 2020 the market for machine learning will reach $40 billion and that 60% of AI applications will run on the platforms of just 4 companies: Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft.

Myth 3: Abundance

Which brings us to the third and final myth promulgated by the techno-religionists: that we are headed towards a future characterised by abundance. The land of milk and honey is to be our reward for holding strong in our faith in the machines.

But the important question, as should be clear by now, is: how will that abundance — assuming it materialises — be distributed? Here, the story is somewhat mixed.

Lest you’re thinking by this point that I’m a pessimist through and through, let me start by saying this: when it comes to energy, I think there are good reasons to believe we are headed towards a world in which clean energy is abundant and distributed. And that is a real cause for celebration.

In other areas, I am less optimistic. Data is already one of the key sources of value in our economy — and its importance is set to grow in the years ahead. It will undoubtedly be abundant, but unless we find the political will to democratise its ownership, most of us won’t reap the benefits of this abundance.

As Calum Chace argues in his book, The Economic Singularity:

‘Scarcity hasn’t disappeared: it has changed, and become more dangerous. The new scarcity is the privileged access to an accelerating flow of powerful new enhancement technologies. The danger is that the elite which enjoys this privileged access will rapidly become a separate species — a dominant species… The new scarce resource — the privileged access to the cascade of new technologies — is even more valuable than any scarce resource that we value today.’

Chace also makes the point that technological progress is at least as likely to undermine future growth as it is to unleash a new golden age of prosperity. This may seem counter-intuitive given that we know technological advances are the key factor in productivity growth, which in turn is critical for economic growth. But productivity is only half the story: without growing demand, productivity gains simply fuel a negative feedback loop of rising inequality, falling demand and stagnating growth.

Already, growing inequality has led to lower aggregate demand and therefore slower growth across the Western world. The relationship between inequality and demand is really very simple. As Joseph Stiglitz writes in The Price of Inequality, ‘moving money from the bottom to the top lowers consumption because higher-income individuals consume a smaller proportion of their income than do lower-income individuals.’

The full effect of rising inequality on growth has been masked by a series of asset bubbles (tech in the 1990s; the US housing market in the 2000s), central banks’ quantitative easing schemes since the 2008 crash, and a decades-long build-up of both private and public sector debt, which today stands at $164 trillion — or 225% of global GDP — according to the International Monetary Fund.

So we’ve backed ourselves into a corner: will AI help us get out of it?

Looking at a range of AI techniques and their applications across 19 different industries, McKinsey estimates that they have the potential to create between $3.5 trillion and $5.8 trillion in value annually. Add in analytics techniques that do not rely on AI and they predict the overall economic impact could be as much as $9.5 trillion to $15.4 trillion a year.

The argument that AI will create trillions of dollars of value is the orthodoxy in Silicon Valley. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella may worry out loud about how the surplus created by breakthroughs in AI will be distributed, but he seems pretty certain that a surplus there will be.

But this view ignores the impact AI will have — indeed, already is having — on the demand side. Here’s what Chace has to say on the subject:

‘If machine intelligence renders more and more people unemployable, then other things being equal, the purchasing power exercised by those people will dry up. Their productive output will not be lost — it will just be provided by machines instead of humans. As demand falls but supply remains stable, prices will fall. At first, the falling prices may not be too much of a problem for firms and their owners, as the machines will be more efficient than the humans they replaced… But as more and more people become unemployed, the consequent fall in demand will overtake the price reductions enabled by greater efficiency. Economic contraction is pretty much inevitable.’

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the de rigueur solution to this problem of rising inequality and falling demand. But the announcement in April that the Finnish Government would not be extending its flagship UBI trial on grounds of cost has dealt the idea a heavy blow.

In short, the sunlit uplands of abundance look rather a long way away — and whether we ever make it there actually has relatively little to do with technology. Unless we solve the social and political challenge of how to create a more distributive economy, all the AI in the world will do us about as much good as an umbrella in a war zone.

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The Growth Trap

In James Graham’s 2017 play Ink, Rupert Murdoch comes across as surprisingly likeable. The play tells the story of Murdoch’s takeover of The Sun newspaper in 1969 – at the time, a failing broadsheet – and its first year under new ownership. Sure, Murdoch is a bit boorish – a friendless outsider with an almighty chip on his shoulder – but he’s hardly a villain.

Ink

Bertie Carvel as Murdoch and Richard Coyle as Lamb in Ink.

Instead it’s the man he hires to edit his new paper, Larry Lamb, who’s responsible for the really bad stuff: undermining journalistic standards, pandering to people’s basest instincts, coarsening public discourse. It’s Larry that takes the decision to exploit the tragic kidnapping – and, ultimately, murder – of Muriel McKay, the wife of Murdoch’s deputy, to sell papers. And it’s Larry who makes the decision to blur the line between journalism and pornography by putting a picture of a topless girl on page 3.

Why does he do it all? Answer: early on in the play, Murdoch says to Lamb, half-jokingly, that he wants his Sun to beat the Daily Mirror’s circulation within one year. At the time, the Mirror was Britain’s most popular newspaper, with 5 million readers; The Sun had about 800,000. Lamb takes Murdoch’s words to heart, fixating on this single measure of success to the exclusion of all else. There is no code he lives by, no purpose that motivates him, apart from this single-minded quest to grow The Sun’s readership and beat the competition.

We are still living with the consequences of this growth obsession almost half a century on. Murdoch and Lamb were opening Pandora’s Box. The vitriol and vulgarity of the Trump era is the result.

The point of the story isn’t that Murdoch and Lamb are evil. Fine, neither of them is in the running to win a nice guy award. But nor is Murdoch the master villain that certain elements of the Left would have us believe he is. We didn’t get where we are today by design. The undermining of civil society (in both senses) was an unintended side-effect of the pursuit of growth at all costs.

The Murdoch-Lamb story is, alas, far from unique. Another version of the same drama played out in Silicon Valley in the mid-2000s. This time the protagonists were Peter Thiel (playing the part of Rupert Murdoch) and Mark Zuckerberg (Larry Lamb). As Noam Cohen writes in his excellent book, The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, ‘Thiel’s consistent message to Zuckerberg was to grow and grow fast.’

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The Facebook founder listened and the result was ‘a profound shift in the purpose of his social network.’ Out went the idea of a service centred on a particular location, an online network that would enhance the life of a real, offline community; in came the vision of a global behemoth that exploited our psychological needs and wants to keep us hooked.

A few years later and Zuckerberg was the one planting the insidious seed. “Wouldn’t it be fun to build a billion-dollar business in six months?” he said to Andrew Bosworth, the engineer brought in to build up Facebook’s advertising business after its IPO in 2012. With a mandate like that, there isn’t much time for worrying about ethics or unintended consequences. Hardly a surprise, then, that four years later Facebook was selling adverts to Russian operatives seeking to undermine the legitimacy and stability of America’s democracy.

‘Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell,’ wrote the environmentalist author Edward Abbey in 1977. That’s not to say that growth, per se, is a bad thing. But, as we’ve seen with the stories of The Sun and Facebook, when growth is the overriding goal, the consequences for society can be ugly.

The same is true for whole economies. As the Dutch author Rutger Bregman points out in his bestselling book Utopia for Realists, when we make GDP growth the overriding goal of policy, the implications are beyond perverse:

‘If you were the GDP, your ideal citizen would be a compulsive gambler with cancer who’s going through a drawn-out divorce that he copes with by popping fistfuls of Prozac and going berserk on Black Friday. Environmental pollution even does double duty: One company makes a mint by cutting corners while another is paid to clean up the mess. By contrast, a centuries-old tree doesn’t count until you chop it down and sell it as lumber.’

Then there’s the question of ecological limits. There is, to date, no evidence to suggest we can decouple environmental impacts from economic growth anywhere near fast enough to avoid climate catastrophe under a business-as-usual scenario of 2-3% global GDP growth year-on-year. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Nor does it mean that we should aim to shrink the global economy instead. But it does mean that continued economic growth is, at best, irrelevant to our species’ ability to survive and thrive over the long term.

In her recent book, Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth advocates being agnostic about growth and instead focusing on creating an economy that is ‘distributive and regenerative by design.’ This seems like an eminently sensible re-framing of our economic challenge. But how do we get there? Unless the whole world miraculously agrees to stop pursuing growth, won’t we still end up with people like Murdoch, Thiel and Zuckerberg creating enterprises that undermine social and environmental sustainability, even as the rest of us practice our growth agnosticism?

Abbey was right: the growth for growth’s sake ideology is cancerous. And the truth is we haven’t yet discovered a cure. The pertinent question, therefore, is one of strategy: are we better off working within the growth paradigm and seeking to make individuals and companies pay a fair price for the social and environmental “externalities” they create, as a way of incentivising the right kinds of growth? Or is there a realistic path to the kind of social and political revolution we would need in order to overturn the growth paradigm?

My answer, though a cop out, is that both are valid courses to pursue. As Thomas Kuhn, the American physicist and philosopher who coined the term, well knew, paradigm shifts often take many decades to happen. Knowing this, we have no choice but to work both within and against the current paradigm. Within it, because we can’t afford to wait; against it, because revolutions don’t happen on their own.

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Fiction picks of 2017

I’ve done these end-of-year lists for a few years now so usual rules apply. A book doesn’t have to have been published in the last year to qualify, it just has to have been read by me in that time. The order in which books are listed is simply the order in which I read them – it’s not an order of preference.

I’ve already reviewed most of the decent non-fiction I’ve read over the course of the year – either on this blog or over at Project Breakthrough – so I’ve stuck to fiction here.

Finally, please do feel free to reciprocate with your own recommendations in the comments section below. I’m always keen to hear about good books I haven’t yet read.


  1. The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver (2016).

The Mandibles

A bleak, all-too-plausible dystopian novel set in a near-future USA that is plunged into full-blown depression by a further financial crisis. Towards the start of the book, in the year 2029, the US Government defaults on its debts and devalues the dollar, wiping out Americans’ savings and tipping the previously well-to-do Mandible family into a downward spiral towards pennilessness. What follows is a wonderful mix of intimate family drama and macroscopic socio-political commentary.

2. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005).

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I hadn’t read any Ishiguro until this summer, but on the strength of this book alone, I’d say he’s a deserving winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Never Let Me Go is a beautiful, nostalgic and deeply humane novel. If you haven’t already, just read it. I promise you won’t regret it.

 

3. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (2016).

Hot Milk

A strangely mesmerising short novel about a 25-year-old Anglo-Greek girl, Sofia, who is, in effect, a full-time carer to her difficult, paraplegic mother. Taken to Southern Spain by the quest to cure her mother’s unexplained disability, Sofia finds herself on an unwitting journey of self-discovery. Levy’s prose is razor sharp and elegant, her characters are engagingly mysterious and the story races along like a well-paced thriller.

4. A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré (2017).

A legacy of spies

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am something of a Le Carré obsessive. And so, the news that not only did he have a new novel coming out, but that he would be returning in it to some of his most-loved Cold War era characters – George Smiley et al – for the first time since The Secret Pilgrim (which was published in 1991), had me gibbering with excitement for months before the book actually came out. And I’m pleased to report that, at 86, the master has not lost his touch. Katy and I went to see him speak at the Royal Festival Hall in September: for 70 minutes he had 2,500 people absolutely transfixed as he wove together vivid reminiscences from his own time as a spook in the late 1950s/early 1960s with readings from his novels.

A Legacy of Spies is a prequel to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the 1963 bestseller that made Le Carré’s name. Although there’s a contemporary strand to the narrative, the action mostly takes place in that earlier period – a first for Le Carré, who has always, until now, written about the world of today, rather than the world of yesterday. Even so, there’s a political edge to it. When at last Peter Guillam tracks down the great spymaster George Smiley at the end of the book, Smiley offers this reflection on what it was all for:

‘For world peace, whatever that is? Yes, yes, of course. There will be no war, but in the struggle for peace not a stone will be left standing, as our Russian friends used to say.’ He fell quiet, only to rally more vigorously: ‘Or was it all in the great name of capitalism? God forbid. Christendom? God forbid again.’

A sip of wine, a smile of puzzlement, directed not at me, but at himself.

‘So was it all for England, then?’ he resumed. ‘There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.’

So there you have it: George Smiley is a remoaner.

5. Munich by Robert Harris (2017).

Munich

Harris is to historical fiction what Le Carré is to espionage thrillers: both have taken genres that some literati would traditionally have sniffed at and elevated them to the level of great literature. Following on from his brilliant 2013 historical novel An Officer and a Spy, which told the story of the Dreyfus Affair, Harris turns his attention to the much-maligned figure of Neville Chamberlain and the infamous 1938 Munich peace conference. Harris offers a sympathetic account of Chamberlain’s actions: having lived through one World War, he was determined to do all he could to avoid a second, even if it cost him his reputation. Plus he was strategically hamstrung by Britain’s total military unpreparedness in the summer of 1938.

The story is told from the perspective of one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries, Hugh Legat, and a young German diplomat, Paul Hartmann, who is part of a small, covert gang of plotters seeking to overthrow Hitler. The two happen also to be old friends. Legat and Hartmann are both fictional, but almost everyone else in the book really was at the Munich Peace Conference. This deft interweaving of fact and fiction is a joy to read and, as usual with Harris, the whole thing is brilliantly paced.

6. Archangel by Robert Harris (1998).

Archangel

I know, not terribly imaginative to have two books by the same author on my list, but what the heck. Archangel is a flawlessly executed thriller set in then-contemporary post-Soviet Russia. The protagonist, a slightly past-it British historian, Fluke Kelso, gets a tip-off about a set of secret papers that belonged to Stalin. This puts him on a hair-raising journey through a Russia still teeming with loyal Stalinists.

7. City of Secrets by Stewart O’Nan (2016).

city of secrets

Another exquisitely crafted thriller, this time set in post-war Jerusalem. The protagonist, Brand, is a Latvian Jew whose entire family has been killed in the Holocaust. He’s an illegal immigrant in what was then still British Mandate Palestine, who gets inducted into the Zionist underground. Initially he joins a Haganah cell – in Zionist underground terms, Haganah was at the moderate end of the spectrum. But when Haganah joins forces with the more militant Irgun and Stern Gang, Brand finds himself embroiled in a series of minor terrorist operations – blowing up train tracks, power stations and the like. He falls in love with Eva, another member of his cell, and they enjoy a melancholy affair. Once again, fact and fiction are deftly interwoven: the climax of the novel is the bombing of the King David Hotel in July 1946 by Irgun terrorists, which really did happen.

8. Dunbar by Edward St Aubyn (2017).

dunbar

A re-telling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with a Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul – Henry Dunbar – as the main character, who is elbowed aside by his conniving daughters, Abby and Megan. St Aubyn, who is best known for his series of semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels, which feature both child abuse (Patrick is raped by his villainous father as a boy) and drug abuse (he then becomes a heroin addict in his early twenties), can conjure pure evil and out-of-control madness on the page like no other writer I’ve ever come across. That makes him the perfect person to do a modern re-write of Lear. What’s more, his prose is stunningly good – refined, witty and full of arresting metaphors. An example:

‘Dunbar was the man who placed the wafer on their outstretched tongues, transubstantiating the corrosive passivity of fear and envy into the dynamic single-mindedness of hatred.’

That’s a good line, but it pales in comparison to the brilliance of this next sentence, which I think may be my favourite line in any book I’ve read this year. It’s an explanation of how one of St Aubyn’s peripheral characters (the deceased husband of Dunbar’s daughter, Megan) acquired the nickname ‘Evil Fuck’:

‘It was hard to point to any deal or innovation that justified the title he grew to cherish: his exploitation of barely legal tax loopholes, his creation of catastrophic debt, using ever more intricate and deceptive financial instruments, his preparedness to rip apart old and successful companies, on which whole communities and tens of thousands of families depended, in order to make a few investors even more disruptively rich, were in themselves no more surprising on Wall Street than finding bread in a bakery, but the scale of his operations, the extent of his duplicity, and the intensity of his sarcasm and triumphalism meant that, like a runner who still has the reserves to sprint at the end of a marathon, he broke away from the bobbing mass of evil fucks in his generation and crossed the finishing line ahead of the competition.’

Banker bashing doesn’t get any classier than that. Hats off to Mr St Aubyn.

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A Catalan journey

This is an edited extract from my (unpublished) travelogue about the trip Katy and I took through Europe in the spring of 2016.

The train from Valencia to Barcelona passes through seaside resort after seaside resort: big, ugly tower blocks of apartments overlooking the Mediterranean, or, in the case of the less fortunate, overlooking other tower blocks and the rail track.

As we trundle past, the late April sun bounces off thousands of white and grey shutters: firmly bolted, untouched through the long winter. The no frills, foursquare architecture is unmistakably sixties: these apartments were thrown up in a rush to capitalise on the tourism boom that Spain enjoyed in that decade. Between 1959 and 1973, the number of visitors who came to Spain each year rose from 3 million to 34 million.

By the mid-sixties, Spain had far surpassed France and Italy in terms of total tourist numbers. Strange to think that Europeans of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations were quite so sanguine about holidaying in a country that was run by a fascist dictator. (The transition to democracy only came when Franco died in 1975.)

We are on our way to meet someone I would never have met were it not for another of twentieth century Europe’s evil dictators. Danijela grew up in Istria, the part of Croatia that borders Italy. Like so many of her compatriots, she fled home during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and came as a refugee to London, where she took on any job she could get, including (poor woman) looking after me and my two younger brothers.

Today, Danijela is a successful interior designer who lives in Barcelona with her partner Boban, a Serb who works all over the continent as an editor of TV documentaries, and their two children, Dane (a boy of twelve) and Vajka (a girl of eight), who frankly have no national identity: they are simply Europeans.

Danijela meets us at the train station and almost as soon as we’ve got in the car, the embarrassing stories start. Danijela has an infectious joie de vivre that bubbles over, sweeping up all around her. Except my younger self, apparently: I was a very serious child, who refused to be swept along. In the face of her laughing and joking, I (aged nine) would stand arms folded and give her a stern, disapproving look. “Stop being so silly, Danijela,” I would say. “In England, people think it’s vulgar to show so much emotion.” I’m sure I thought I was being helpful.

Back at her top-floor apartment, Danijela cooks us a delicious meal of grilled razor clams and king prawns in a light, garlicky sauce: an old Istrian speciality. It’ss delicious and seemingly so simple to prepare – though I’m sure there’s more to it than meets the eye – that we vow to get the recipe and try it at home.

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I’m a little less serious now: me and Danijela, Barcelona, April 2016. All photos courtesy of Katy Thomson via Flickr

As dinner recedes into the past and a bottle of whisky is produced, eventually, inevitably, we get onto politics. I comment that we’ve seen an awful lot of Catalan flags in the last couple of days. This observation is met by a weary shrug. “Yes, it’s very sad. You see, for us it’s very simple. All nationalism is evil.”

The reason it’s simple for Boban and Danijela is because of where they come from and what they’ve lived through. For them, nationalism is the monster that tore their countries and families apart in the 1990s. It killed their friends and it bombed their cities. It turned them into refugees, utterly dependent on the willingness of others to see them not as members of this or that national group but as fellow human beings with much to offer.

That was the kind of society they found in London when they arrived twenty years ago; it’s the kind of society they’ve enjoyed being part of in Barcelona for the last eight years. But now, with Brexit and the Catalan independence movement, they’re concerned that the tide is turning against the idea of an open, tolerant, inclusive society in the very places that have been, for them, a safe haven from nationalism.

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The dreaming spires of the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s 135-year-old unfinished masterpiece. When asked why the very tops of the spires had to be so ornate, Gaudi supposedly answered, “the angels will see them.”

On 27 October 2015 something happened in Barcelona that could be momentous not just for the future of Catalonia and Spain, but for all of Europe. On that day, the elected representatives of the Catalan people passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months.

This declaration did not come out of nowhere: separatism has been on the rise in Catalonia for at least a decade, triggered in part by a spectacularly miscalculated decision on the part of the Spanish government in Madrid to mount a legal challenge against a Statute of Autonomy passed by the Catalan government in 2006.

The legal challenge was at least partially successful: key parts of the Statute were deemed non-constitutional when the Spanish high court delivered its verdict in June 2010. But politically, using the courts to undermine a Statute that had already been approved not only by the Catalan parliament and the Catalan people (in a referendum which, they were promised, was legally binding), but also by the Spanish congress of deputies and senate in Madrid, was idiotic.

The 2006 Statute was not even about independence; at that stage, the Catalan government was merely asking for a few more powers to be devolved to it. It was only as a result of Madrid’s rough, underhand treatment and its decision to ignore the democratically expressed will of the Catalan people that independence started to get a serious hearing.

Of course, peel back the layers and there’s a deeper history to Catalan separatism than this. Once again, The Franco regime was committed to suppressing Catalan nationalism, the Catalan language and the development of autonomous political institutions in the region by any means necessary. 3,500 Catalans were murdered by Franco’s army in 1938; many others fled across the border to France.

By the 1970s and Spain’s democratic turn, there were forty years of pent-up frustration at Madrid ready to bubble over at any moment. However different the methods of suppression may be today, when legislators and judges in Madrid appear to ride roughshod over the will of the Catalan people, the response in Barcelona, however hyperbolic, is predictable: “it’s the same as it was in Franco’s time.”

The parallels with Scotland are obvious but there’s one important difference that means Catalan separatists may succeed where the Scottish Nationalists have, so far, failed. Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions and, while there would be plenty of messy aspects to a divorce from Spain – to do with what share of Spain’s sovereign debt Catalonia ought to inherit, for example, or on what terms (if at all) Catalonia is allowed to stay part of the EU – there can be little doubt that the region would be economically viable as an independent country. Unlike Scotland, Catalonia contributes more to the Spanish exchequer than it gets back.

The reason all this matters at a European level is because Catalonia could set off a chain reaction. Across the continent, there are many other regions that are itching to kick the nation-states they belong to in the balls and make a break for freedom. Scotland, Flanders, Bavaria, Northern Italy, the Basque Country – the list of places where Catalonian independence could inspire a dangerous surge in separatist feeling goes on.

Decades from now, historians may look back on this moment in European history as a time when the political calm and integration we’ve enjoyed since 1945 was on the brink of collapse. Those same historians may write books about Barcelona – the place where a European revolution started.

If so, it will be a revolution into which, not for the first time, we sleepwalked. Certainly there was nothing in the atmosphere of the city during my brief sojourn that suggested a place on the brink of anything more significant than a trip to the beach. As I said, all I noticed was some flags.

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Barcelona from above: the view across the city from Park Güell.

As it happens, I’m not sure I agree with Danijela and Boban: I’m not convinced that all nationalism is inherently evil, though I can understand why someone who’s experienced what they have would come to that conclusion. For sure, nationalist movements provide political cover for a small minority of nasty, bigoted people to come out of the shadows. But that doesn’t make it intrinsically wrong to want Catalonia to be independent, any more than it’s intrinsically wrong to want Britain to leave the EU.

I don’t know what the right answer is for the people of Catalonia – thankfully it’s not up to me. All I know is that what happens in Barcelona over the next few weeks and months will send ripples all over Europe, dislodging old certainties and causing structures we’ve grown up thinking of as permanent to come tumbling down.

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Changing minds: morality, irrationality and sustainability

Lately I’ve been struggling to come to terms with the perversity of my own behaviour.

I know that humans are not, for the most part, rational beings. From books like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, I’m familiar with the notion that there are two systems at work in our brains: one is intuitive, quick to judge and prone to all kinds of unconscious biases; the other specialises in rationality, logic and critical thinking.

The former is responsible for the vast majority of human decision-making, and, even when the rational part of our brain kicks into gear, often it’s simply in order to come up with justifications for the conclusions our intuition has already jumped to.

I know all this and yet I spend much of my time trying to persuade people to do what I consider to be the right thing by constructing rational arguments based on carefully accumulated evidence.

The instinctive part of my brain decided a long time ago that integrating people and planet alongside profit is the right thing for companies to do. I don’t know precisely what triggered this conclusion, but I know it had more to do with my own moral and ethical biases than a careful weighing of all the evidence.

Since I made up my mind, I’ve collected a vast array of arguments to reinforce my position – and then regurgitated these in the hope of persuading others. Here’s a selection of some of the most common:

  • Whether or not you care about the environment, maximising resource and energy efficiency makes sense because it reduces costs;
  • Being recognised as a sustainability leader enhances a company’s ability to attract and retain talent;
  • Employees who believe they are contributing towards something of social and environmental value are more productive than those that don’t;
  • The relationship between companies, society and the environment is an interdependent one, so a failure to look after the wider system will cost you in the long run;
  • Addressing unmet social needs is a market opportunity – just look at the estimates for cost savings and additional revenue associated with implementing the Sustainable Development Goals;
  • The speed of technological progress and the consequent reduction in the cost of things like solar power and electric cars means that they can and will out-compete fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine.

I find all of these arguments convincing, but I know they’re not what convinced me of the importance of sustainability in the first place.

Kahneman writes about the fact that, when it comes to attitudes and beliefs, the conscious, rational part of our brain ‘is more of an apologist for the emotions of [the intuitive part] than a critic of those emotions – an endorser rather than an enforcer. Its search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with existing beliefs.’

I recognise this process at work in myself. In the age of social media echo chambers, it doesn’t even require much effort to seek out the arguments that reinforce my existing beliefs: my news feed is filled with them daily.

So why do I go on making arguments about efficiency, reputation, risk and opportunity as though that’s the way to change other people’s minds and behaviours?

The perversity of this approach suddenly hit me during a workshop I participated in a few weeks ago. At one point, we were asked to do a role-play exercise, where we had two minutes to convince a sceptical P&L manager in a consumer goods company that sustainability should matter to her. It crossed my mind to try talking about values and ethics, but I chickened out and defaulted to reeling off the arguments in the bullet point list above. So did everyone else.

None of us sounded very convincing, because none of us came close to accessing the visceral, emotional, ethical aspect that dominates human decision-making.

Since then, I’ve been asking myself a different question: what would a more effective strategy for changing minds and behaviours look like?

For a start, I/we need to pay much more attention to moral intuition and the way it shapes our perception of – and response to – the world around us. Thanks to my colleague John Elkington, I recently came across the work of George Lakoff, who argues that the polar divide in US politics is underpinned by two contrasting moral worldviews.

Conservatives typically have a ‘strict father’ moral worldview whereas liberals have a ‘nurturant parent’ one. This discrepancy is part of the reason why two people presented with the same facts can draw different conclusions. (That American conservatives and liberals very rarely actually do see the same facts only exacerbates the issue.)

Jonathan Haidt adds some extra nuance to this picture. He argues that human morality can be broken down into six main areas of concern – suffering, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Liberal morality, he argues, is basically constituted of just the first three areas, whereas conservative morality is based on all six.

But what does all this have to do with sustainability and climate change? One answer is that climate change, particularly in the US, has become a very partisan issue, so it’s helpful to understand the moral foundations of this political divide.

The sustainability narrative doesn’t resonate with conservatives in the same way that it does for liberals, because its advocates don’t know how to press the right buttons. Sustainability, as currently espoused, doesn’t fit well with the ‘strict father’ worldview; it doesn’t pay enough attention to values of loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Since I’ve been primed to look for them, I’ve started spotting fragments of a sustainability narrative that does touch on these values. Mac Macartney writes about the need to recapture ‘a felt sense of sacredness… [and] a sense of duty to the delicate, interconnected web of life.’ When Paul Hawken says that “reversing global warming is about coming home,” he too is appealing to loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Al Gore’s new film, An Inconvenient Sequel, presents the fight to stop global warming in stark terms: right versus wrong; good versus evil. There is a danger that this language will alienate some. Nevertheless, I think Gore is right to invoke morality.

He positions modern-day environmentalism as the heir to the anti-apartheid, civil rights and women’s suffrage movements – three transformative social movements whose ultimate success was down to a superior moral argument.

At the end of the film, Gore quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ He couldn’t have picked a better model, because few leaders in history have so powerfully evoked the entire panoply of moral values.

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That the civil rights movement was about liberty, fairness and the alleviation of suffering was clear from the start, but it was King’s patriotic and religious framing that enabled him to break through to millions of people who were not convinced on these grounds alone.

We need to do something similar for sustainability. We must learn how to tell our story in a way that taps into the full range of humanity’s moral intuitions. Only then will the desire to secure the future of human civilisation become mainstream. Only then will we see behaviour change on a mass scale. And only then will our attempts to apply logic and accumulate evidence truly move the needle.

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