If I’ve said once that those among us who tout renewable energy should pay more attention to the 2nd law of Thermodynamics, I must have said it a hundred times. But I hardly ever get the impression that people understand why. And it seems so obvious. A quote I often use from Herman Daly and Ken Townsend, when I talk about energy, really says it all:
“Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment – that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatium as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.”
Using energy produces waste. Using more energy produces more waste. It doesn’t matter -much- what kind of energy is used, or what kind of waste is produced. The energy WE use produces waste, in a medium of which WE cannot survive. The only way to escape this is to use less energy. And because we have used such an enormous amount of energy the past 100 years, we must use a whole lot less in the next 100.
We use about 100 times more energy per person, and a whole lot more in the west, than our own labor can produce. We use the equivalent of what 500 billion people can produce without the aid of fossil fuel-powered machines. We won’t solve this problem with wind turbines or solar panels. There really is one way only: cut down on energy use.
Because it’s exceedingly rare to see this discussed, even among physicists, who should know better since they know thermodynamics, it’s good to hear it from someone else. An article in Forbes today discusses a May 3 article in German magazine Der Spiegel on the problems with the Energiewende, the country’s drastic turn towards renewables.
The Forbes article is written by Michael Shellenberger, President of Environmental Progress and Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment.” (sigh..) Let’s take a walk through it:
Over the last decade, journalists have held up Germany’s renewables energy transition, the Energiewende, as an environmental model for the world. “Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset,” thanks to the Energiewende, wrote a New York Times reporter in 2014. With Germany as inspiration, the United Nations and World Bank poured billions into renewables like wind, solar, and hydro in developing nations like Kenya.
Oh well, perhaps we shouldn’t expect journalists and politicians to understand the world they live in. They’re mostly into feel-good items, that’s a job requirement.
But then, last year, Germany was forced to acknowledge that it had to delay its phase-out of coal, and would not meet its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction commitments. It announced plans to bulldoze an ancient church and forest in order to get at the coal underneath it. After renewables investors and advocates, including Al Gore and Greenpeace, criticized Germany, journalists came to the country’s defense.
“Germany has fallen short of its emission targets in part because its targets were so ambitious,” one of them argued last summer. “If the rest of the world made just half Germany’s effort, the future for our planet would look less bleak,” she wrote. “So Germany, don’t give up. And also: Thank you.” But Germany didn’t just fall short of its climate targets. Its emissions have flat-lined since 2009.
The stage is set: everybody’s favorite renewables producer has fallen flat on its face. And don’t forget, Angela Merkel, the Mutti behind the Energiewende, is a physicist by training. Thermodynamics must have been a class she missed.
Now comes a major article in the country’s largest newsweekly magazine, Der Spiegel, titled, “A Botched Job in Germany” (“Murks in Germany”). The magazine’s cover shows broken wind turbines and incomplete electrical transmission towers against a dark silhouette of Berlin. “The Energiewende — the biggest political project since reunification — threatens to fail,” write Der Spiegel’s Frank Dohmen, Alexander Jung, Stefan Schultz, Gerald Traufetter in their a 5,700-word investigative story (the article can be read in English here).
Germany has already spent $180 billion on its switch to renewables, only to find it doesn’t work. And much much more will be needed. But for what exactly?
Over the past five years alone, the Energiewende has cost Germany €32 billion ($36 billion) annually, and opposition to renewables is growing in the German countryside. “The politicians fear citizen resistance” Der Spiegel reports. “There is hardly a wind energy project that is not fought.” In response, politicians sometimes order “electrical lines be buried underground but that is many times more expensive and takes years longer.”
As a result, the deployment of renewables and related transmission lines is slowing rapidly. Less than half as many wind turbines (743) were installed in 2018 as were installed in 2017, and just 30 kilometers of new transmission were added in 2017. Solar and wind advocates say cheaper solar panels and wind turbines will make the future growth in renewables cheaper than past growth but there are reasons to believe the opposite will be the case. Der Spiegel cites a recent estimate that it would cost Germany “€3.4 trillion ($3.8 trillion),” or seven times more than it spent from 2000 to 2025, to increase solar and wind three to five-hold by 2050.
A total expenditure of some $150 billion per year, every year from 2025 to 2050. On a rapidly failing project. Note: the numbers are “flexible”: just above, it says “Over the past five years alone, the Energiewende has cost Germany €32 billion ($36 billion)” , and seven times that is much more than $150 billion annually. Later in the article, the author says “Germans, who will have spent $580 billion on renewables by 2025 ..” General rule of thumb: it will cost much more than any estimate will tell you.
Between 2000 and 2018, Germany grew renewables from 7% to 39% of its electricity. And as much of Germany’s renewable electricity comes from biomass, which scientists view as polluting and environmentally degrading, as from solar.
Of the 7,700 new kilometers of transmission lines needed, only 8% has been built, while large-scale electricity storage remains inefficient and expensive. “A large part of the energy used is lost,” the reporters note of a much-hyped hydrogen gas project, “and the efficiency is below 40%… No viable business model can be developed from this.”
Meanwhile, the 20-year subsidies granted to wind, solar, and biogas since 2000 will start coming to an end next year. “The wind power boom is over,” Der Spiegel concludes.
Think Mutti Merkel has read this?
.The earliest and most sophisticated 20th Century case for renewables came from a German who is widely considered the most influential philosopher of the 20th Century, Martin Heidegger. In his 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger condemned the view of nature as a mere resource for human consumption. The use of “modern technology,” he wrote, “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such..
But then starting around the year 2000, renewables started to gain a high-tech luster. Governments and private investors poured $2 trillion into solar and wind and related infrastructure, creating the impression that renewables were profitable aside from subsidies. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk proclaimed that a rich, high-energy civilization could be powered by cheap solar panels and electric cars.
Journalists reported breathlessly on the cost declines in batteries, imagining a tipping point at which conventional electricity utilities would be “disrupted.” But no amount of marketing could change the poor physics of resource-intensive and land-intensive renewables. Solar farms take 450 times more land than nuclear plants, and wind farms take 700 times more land than natural gas wells, to produce the same amount of energy.
Note: these issues only arise when you talk about large-scale projects, but then those are the only ones even considered.
Efforts to export the Energiewende to developing nations may prove even more devastating. The new wind farm in Kenya, inspired and financed by Germany and other well-meaning Western nations, is located on a major flight path of migratory birds. Scientists say it will kill hundreds of endangered eagles. “It’s one of the three worst sites for a wind farm that I’ve seen in Africa in terms of its potential to kill threatened birds,” a biologist explained.
We are incapable of seeing an ecosystem as a whole and functioning entity, because we have never learned to look at things that way. So we see a landscape as containing an X-amount of animals and plant life, and can’t figure out why we must be careful with its balance. Landscapes to us look, first, empty, unless there’s -lots of- human activity.
Heidegger, like much of the conservation movement, would have hated what the Energiewende has become: an excuse for the destruction of natural landscapes and local communities. Opposition to renewables comes from the country peoples that Heidegger idolized as more authentic and “grounded” than urbane cosmopolitan elites who fetishize their solar roofs and Teslas as signs of virtue.
Germans, who will have spent $580 billion on renewables by 2025, express great pride in the Energiewende. “It’s our gift to the world,” a renewables advocate told The Times. Tragically, many Germans appear to have believed that the billions they spent on renewables would redeem them. “Germans would then at last feel that they have gone from being world-destroyers in the 20th century to world-saviors in the 21st,” noted a reporter.
Germany to save the world. Yeah, they would love that. Better find another project for that, though. Germany has an enormous car industry, and electric cars, as this article should by now have shown, won’t save the environment. They can’t. Only not driving a car can.
Shellenberger then finishes with a nice, almost philosophical conclusion, which is also his headline:
Many Germans will, like Der Spiegel, claim the renewables transition was merely “botched,” but it wasn’t. The transition to renewables was doomed because modern industrial people, no matter how Romantic they are, do not want to return to pre-modern life. The reason renewables can’t power modern civilization is because they were never meant to. One interesting question is why anybody ever thought they could.
The reason why anyone ever thought renewables could power modern civilization is the same that Angela Merkel thought that: we all learn from failing education systems and have a very poor understanding of even the most basic principles of physics, including by physicists. We want to feel good more than we want reality.
Schools, universities, media and politics are all geared towards believing in growth and progress, in unlimited quantities. Because we all want to believe that there will be energy in unlimited quantities, it’s in our genes.
But look at it this way: in Nate Hagens’ presentation Earth vs. The Amoeba, which I posted a few days ago, there’s a slide that says fossil fuels provide us with a labor subsidy of the equivalent of some 500 billion people, 100 people (energy slaves) for each of us in the global workforce, and many more in the west. Is there anyone amongst you who thinks wind and solar could ever do the same, even in the most ideal conditions imaginable?
If not, it would seem to be time to reconsider a few things. First of all: stop advocating renewables, start advocating the use of less energy. I’m not saying it will be much use, I have this deep-seated fear that we, as a species, won’t be able to stop until nature itself stops us. What you don’t use, someone else can and will. But renewables are now dead. So there. Thanks for making that clear, Mutti, even if you didn’t mean to.
The Bank of Japan will be able to begin winding down its extraordinary monetary stimulus within the next five years, the head of the central bank said. “Sometime within the next five years, we will reach [our] 2% inflation target,” Governor Haruhiko Kuroda told CNBC’s Sara Eisen over the weekend. Once that level is reached, we will start “discussing how to gradually normalize the monetary condition.” Kuroda began his second five-year term this year. He has implemented a massive stimulus policy by cutting the central bank’s benchmark interest rate to negative, keeping the 10-year Japanese government bond yield near 0% in an effort to control the yield curve and stepping up the Bank of Japan’s asset purchases.
However, inflation remains low. Japan reported its consumer price index, excluding fresh food and energy, rose 0.5% in the 12 months through March. “In order to reach [our] 2% inflation target, I think the Bank of Japan must continue very strong accommodative monetary policy for some time,” Kuroda added in his interview with CNBC. Japan’s efforts to boost the sluggish national economy come amid steady growth around the world. The IMF predicts the global economy will increase 3.9% this year and next. Kuroda agreed with the positive outlook. “The world economy will continue to grow at a relatively high pace,” he said. For this year and next, “we don’t see any sign of a turning point.” But protectionism, unexpected rapid tightening of monetary policy in some countries, and geopolitical tensions in North Korea and the Middle East pose potential risks, Kuroda said.
The European Central Bank, after suffering a political backlash, is considering shelving planned rules that would have forced banks to set aside more money against their stock of unpaid loans. The guidelines, which were expected by March, had been presented as a main plank of the ECB’s plan to bring down a 759 billion euro ($930 billion) pile of soured credit weighing on euro zone banks, particularly in Greece, Portugal and Italy. The ECB was now considering whether further policies on legacy non-performing loans (NPLs) were necessary “depending on the progress made by individual banks”, an ECB spokeswoman said.
No decision had been made yet and the next steps were still being evaluated, she said. Central Bank sources told Reuters that if the rules were scrapped, supervisors would look to continue putting pressure on problem banks using existing powers. An alternative would be to hold off until the results of pan-European stress tests are published in November but this would be close to the end of Daniele Nouy’s mandate as the head of the ECB’s Single Supervisory Mechanism at the end of the year. A clean-up of banks’ balance sheets from toxic assets inherited from the financial crisis is a precondition for getting countries like Germany to agree on a common euro zone insurance on bank deposits.
And Andreas Dombret, the outgoing Bundesbank director in charge of banking supervision, said in an interview published on Monday that the ECB’s credibility was at stake. “One cannot say that NPLs are one of the biggest risk for the European banking sector and a top priority and then fail to act,” he told Boersen-Zeitung. “It’s about the credibility of the SSM,” he said, calling for a “timely proposal”.
In the wee hours this AM, the yield on the 10-year treasury note hit 2.993%. That’s close enough for gubermint work to say that the big 3.00% inflection point has now been tripped. And it means, in turn, that the end days of the Bubble Finance era have well and truly commenced. In a word, honest bond yields will knock the stuffings out of the mainstream fairy tale that passes for economic and financial reality. And in a 2-3% inflation world, by honest bond yields we mean 3% + on the front-end and 4-5% on the back-end of the yield curve. Needless to say, that means big trouble for the myth of MAGA. As we demonstrated in part 2, since the Donald’s inauguration there has been no acceleration in the main street economy—just the rigor mortis spasms of a stock market that has been endlessly juiced with cheap debt.
But the Trump boomlet in the stock averages has now hit its sell-by date. That’s because today’s egregiously inflated equity prices are in large part a product of debt-fueled corporate financial engineering—stock buybacks, unearned dividends and massive M&A dealing. Thus, since the pre-crisis peak in Q3 2007 nonfinancial corporate sector value added is up by 34%, but corporate debt securities outstanding have risen by 85%; and the overwhelming share of that massive debt increase was used to fund financial engineering, not productive assets and future earnings growth. In a world of honest interest rates, of course, this explosion of non-productive debt would have chewed into earnings good and hard because the borrowed cash went to Wall Street, not into the wherewithal of earnings growth.
In fact, during the past 10 years, net value added generated by US nonfinancial corporations rose by just $2 trillion (from $6.1 trillion to $8.1 trillion per annum), whereas corporate debt rose by nearly $3 trillion (from $3.3 trillion to $6.1 trillion). So it should have been a losing battle—with interest expense rising far faster than operating profits. But owing to the Fed’s misguided theory that it can make the main street economy bigger and stronger by falsifying interest rates and other financial asset prices, the C-suite financial engineers got a free hall pass. That is, they pleasured Wall Street by pumping massive amounts of borrowed cash back into the casino, but got no black mark on their P&Ls.
Let’s pause today and make an assessment of where things stand in this country as Winter finally coils into Spring. As you might expect, a nation overrun with lawyers has litigated itself into a cul-de-sac of charges, arrests, suits, countersuits, and allegations that will rack up billable hours until the Rockies tumble. The best outcome may be that half the lawyers in this land will put the other half in jail, and then, finally, there will be space for the rest of us to re-connect with reality.
What does that reality consist of? Troublingly, an economy that can’t go on as we would like it to: a machine that spews out ever more stuff for ever more people. We really have reached limits for an industrial economy based on cheap, potent energy supplies. The energy, oil especially, isn’t cheap anymore. The fantasy that we can easily replace it with wind turbines, solar panels, and as-yet-unseen science projects is going to leave a lot of people not just disappointed but bereft, floundering, and probably dead, unless we make some pretty severe readjustments in daily life.
We’ve been papering this problem over by borrowing so much money from the future to cover costs today that eventually it will lose its meaning as money — that is, faith that it is worth anything. That’s what happens when money is just a representation of debt that can’t be paid back. This habit of heedless borrowing has enabled the country to pretend that it is functioning effectively. Lately, this game of pretend has sent the financial corps into a rapture of jubilation. The market speed bumps of February are behind us and the road ahead looks like the highway to Vegas at dawn on a summer’s day.
Tesla is the perfect metaphor for where the US economy is at: a company stuffed with debt plus government subsidies, unable to deliver the wished-for miracle product — affordable electric cars — whirling around the drain into bankruptcy. Tesla has been feeding one of the chief fantasies of the day: that we can banish climate problems caused by excessive CO2, while giving a new lease on life to the (actually) futureless suburban living arrangement that we foolishly invested so much of our earlier capital building. In other words, pounding sand down a rat hole.
On a bright spring day in Amsterdam, car buffs stepped inside a blacked-out warehouse to nibble on lamb skewers and sip rhubarb cocktails courtesy of Lynk & Co., which was showing off its new hybrid SUV. What seemed like just another launch of a new vehicle was actually something more: the coming-out party for China’s globally ambitious auto industry. For the first time, a Chinese-branded car will be made in Western Europe for sale there, with the ultimate goal of landing in U.S. showrooms.
That’s the master plan of billionaire Li Shufu, who has catapulted from founding Geely Group as a refrigerator maker in the 1980s to owning Volvo Cars, British sports carmaker Lotus, London Black Cabs and the largest stake in Daimler —the inventor of the automobile. Li is spearheading China’s aspirations to wedge itself among the big three of the global car industry—the U.S., Germany and Japan—so they become the Big Four. “I want the whole world to hear the cacophony generated by Geely and other made-in-China cars,” Li told Bloomberg News. “Geely’s dream is to become a globalized company. To do that, we must get out of the country.”
[..] Chinese companies have announced at least $31 billion in overseas deals during the past five years, buying stakes in carmakers and parts producers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The most prolific buyer is Li, who spent almost $13 billion on stakes in Daimler and truckmaker Volvo. Tencent Holdings Ltd., Asia’s biggest internet company, paid about $1.8 billion for 5% of Tesla. As software and electronics become just as critical to a car as the engine, China is ensuring it doesn’t lag behind in that market, either. Baidu, owner of the nation’s biggest search engine, announced a $1.5 billion Apollo Fund to invest in 100 autonomous-driving projects during the next three years.
“We have secured a chance to compete in the U.S. market of self-driving cars through those partnerships,” Li Zhengyu, a vice president overseeing Baidu’s intelligent-driving unit, told Bloomberg News. “Everyone has a good chance to win if it has good development plans.”
The 2017 budget has officially registered a record primary surplus of 4.2% of GDP, against a target for 1.75%, but this came at a particularly heavy price for the economy, which grew just 1.4% against a budget target for 2.7%. It is obvious that securing primary surpluses of more than twice the target, depriving the economy of precious resources, is directly associated with the stagnation of growth compared to original projections. It is no coincidence that consumption edged up just 0.1% last year, which analysts have attributed to taxpayers’ exhaustion due to overtaxation. The surplus was mainly a result of drastic cuts to the Public Investments Program (by about 800 million euros) and social benefits, due to the delay in the application of the Social Solidarity Income.
The government was quick to express its satisfaction upon the release of the fiscal results by the Hellenic Statistical Authority on Monday, although it was just two years ago that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras accused the previous administration of setting excessive targets for the primary surpluses of 2016, 2017 and 2018 at 4.5% of GDP. Eventually he reached that target with his own government, although the creditors had lowered the bar, to 1.75% for 2017 and 3.5% this year. The Finance Ministry spoke yesterday of proof of “the credibility of the fiscal management,” adding that “those data show that not only is the target of 3.5% feasible for this and the coming years, but there will also be some fiscal space for targeted tax easing and social expenditure in the post-program period.”
That reference concerns the so-called “countermeasures” the government has planned in case it exceeds the 3.5% target in the 2019 and 2020 primary surpluses, but for now they are at the discretion of the IMF, which will decide next month whether they can be introduced. Obviously Athens hopes the 2017 figures will positively affect the Fund’s view. There was also a positive response from Brussels on Monday, with European Commissioner for Economic Affairs Pierre Moscovici and Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas stating that the efforts and sacrifices of the Greek people are now paying dividend.
Concerns have peaked over tensions on the Aegean islands following clashes between residents of Lesvos and migrants in Mytilene port which led to several injuries. Riot police were forced to intervene early Monday morning after dozens of local residents started protesting the presence of migrants in the main square of Mytilene. The migrants, who had been camping in the square since last Tuesday demanding to be allowed to leave the island, were put onto buses and taken back to overcrowded state facilities. According to local reports, the protesters threw flares, firecrackers and stones at the migrants, who formed a circle around women and children to protect them.
Some protesters chanted “Burn them alive,” according to reports which suggested that members of far-right groups were involved. Police detained 122 people – all but two of whom were Afghan migrants – while 28 people were transferred to the hospital for first-aid treatment, 22 of whom were migrants. Political parties issued statements blaming the attack on far-right groups. The mayor of Lesvos, Spyros Galinos, did not rule out the presence of extremists on the island but pointed to broader frustration among locals. “Society is reacting as a whole,” said Galinos, who had appealed to the government last week to reduce overcrowding on the islands.
[..] meanwhile, the new head of the Greek Asylum Service, Markos Karavias, signed an agreement effectively restricting migrants arriving on the Aegean islands from traveling on to the mainland. A Council of State ruling last week overturned previous asylum service restrictions on migrants leaving the islands. The government’s proposed changes to asylum laws – aimed at speeding up the slow pace at which applications are processed – are to be discussed in Parliament on Tuesday.
My nine-year-old son looks at me anxiously. “Mum, you definitely, definitely have my sponsor money plus an extra pound, which I need for the fundraising games. We have to bring it in today.” I search through my wallet for a quid each for him and his brother. I’ve got no cash on me. “We have to,” he repeats, his voice going wobbly. I stick an IOU in his piggy bank and the day is saved. Yet again. And yet again I feel infuriated and indignant at being put in this position. Then I feel even more cross that I now feel mean. Cake sale, plant sale, ticket for a pamper evening, music quiz, another cake sale, school disco (with associated plastic tat and penny sweets on sale), pay to see Santa, raffle for the chocolate hamper (that you’ve already sent in the goddamn chocolate for), dress up for World Book Day (that’s a quid), go pink for breast cancer research (that’s two quid) and why not run a sponsored mile for Sport Relief while you’re at it.
Then … ping! Oh joy, a text from school – another (another?!) cake sale. How much sugar is going down in that playground? The texts keep flooding in. Ransack your wardrobe for Bag 2 School; send in dosh so your child can buy you a Mother’s Day present; scrabble through your (now denuded) wardrobe for next week’s clothes swap and pretty please, the PTA would appreciate donations of booze for this year’s summer fete. If enough of you don’t stump up by Friday, you’ll be harangued daily until you do. Welcome to summer term, peak time for school fundraising – and what feels like a constant assault. Let’s put aside my irritation at being “chugged” via leaflets in book-bags and my mobile phone, in principle it’s a good thing for kids to think about the needs of people other than themselves, so I’ll swallow official charity fundraisers on that basis, even if those charities might not be my personal choice.
What is outrageous, though, is the assumption in some schools that parents can easily afford to donate on a virtually weekly basis, and the idea that we should expect to be paying on top of our taxes for our children’s state education. Schools, suffering the terrible results of the government’s austerity policies, have cut to the chase and are now pumping parents for regular direct debits to cover essentials. But is asking parents to pay doing pupils’ education any good?
Food bank use has soared at a higher rate than ever in the past year as welfare benefits fail to cover basic living costs, the UK’s national food bank provider has warned. Figures from the Trussel Trust show that in the year to March 2018, 1,332,952 three-day emergency food supplies were delivered to people in crisis across the UK – a 13% increase on last year. This marks a considerably higher increase than the previous financial year, when it rose by 6%. Low income is the biggest single – and fastest growing – reason for referral to food banks, accounting for 28% of referrals compared to 26% in the previous year. Analysis of trends over time demonstrates it has significantly increased since April 2016.
Being in debt also accounted for an increasing percentage of referrals – at 9% of referrals up from 8% in the past year. The cost of housing and utility bills are increasingly driving food bank referrals for this reason, with the proportion of referrals due to housing debt and utility bill debt increasing significantly since April 2016. The other main primary referral reasons in the past year were benefit delays (24%) and benefit changes (18%). “Reduction in benefit value” have the fastest growth rate of all referrals made due to a benefit change, while those due to “moving to a different benefit” have also grown significantly.
Europe’s first national government-backed experiment in giving citizens free cash will end next year after Finland decided not to extend its widely publicised basic income trial and to explore alternative welfare schemes instead. Since January 2017, a random sample of 2,000 unemployed people aged 25 to 58 have been paid a monthly €560 (£475) , with no requirement to seek or accept employment. Any recipients who took a job continued to receive the same amount. The government has turned down a request for extra funding from Kela, the Finnish social security agency, to expand the two-year pilot to a group of employees this year, and said payments to current participants will end next January.
It has also introduced legislation making some benefits for unemployed people contingent on taking training or working at least 18 hours in three months. “The government is making changes taking the system away from basic income,” Kela’s Miska Simanainen told the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. The scheme – aimed primarily at seeing whether a guaranteed income might incentivise people to take up paid work by smoothing out gaps in the welfare system – is strictly speaking not a universal basic income (UBI) trial, because the payments are made to a restricted group and are not enough to live on.
But it was hoped it would shed light on policy issues such as whether an unconditional payment might reduce anxiety among recipients and allow the government to simplify a complex social security system that is struggling to cope with a fast-moving and insecure labour market. Olli Kangas, an expert involved in the trial, told the Finnish public broadcaster YLE: “Two years is too short a period to be able to draw extensive conclusions from such a big experiment. We should have had extra time and more money to achieve reliable results.”
Electric cars have been around for longer than internal combustion engines. When they first appeared in the 1800s, they competed with steam-powered cars and horses. What Tesla has done is put them on the map. That was a huge feat. Now every global automaker has electric cars. They all, including Teslas, still have the same problem they had in the 1800s: the battery. But those problems – costs, weight or range, and time it takes to charge – are getting smaller as the technology advances. And the competition from the giants, once batteries are ready for prime-time, will be huge, and global. So in March, Tesla sold 4,050 new vehicles in the US, according to Autodata. All automakers combined sold 1.56 million new vehicles in the US.
This gave Tesla a record high market share of an invisibly small 0.26%. Volume-wise, it’s in the same ballpark as Porsche. GM sold 256,007 new vehicles in March, for a market share of 16.5%. In other words, GM sold 63 times as many new vehicles as Tesla did. For percent-lovers, that’s 6,221% more. Even if Tesla quadruples its sales in the US, it still will not amount to a significant market share. Then there is Tesla’s financial performance. It lost money in every one of its 10 years of existence. Here are the “profits” – um, net losses – Tesla racked up, in total $2.9 billion:
We constantly hear the old saw that stock prices reflect future earnings and/or cash flows, and that looking back ten years has no meaning for the future. Alas, after 10 years of producing losses, Tesla shows no signs of making money in the future. It might instead continue burning through investor cash by the billions. Based on the logic that stock prices reflect future earnings, its shares should be at about zero. This chart compares Tesla’s net losses (red bars) and GM’s net income (green bars), in millions of dollars. Over those eight years going back to 2010, Tesla lost $2.7 billion; GM earned $47.1 billion:
[..] In comparison with GM, Tesla is ludicrously overvalued. But it’s not “inexplicable.” It’s perfectly explicable by the wondrously Fed-engineered stock market that has long ago abandoned any pretext of valuing companies on a rational basis. And it’s explicable by the hype – the “research” – issued by Wall Street investment banks that hope to get fat fees from Tesla’s next offerings of shares or convertible debt. The amounts are huge, going back ten years: Last month, Tesla raised another $1.2 billion, after having raised $1.5 billion in May 2016. There will be more. Tesla is burning a lot of cash. Investment banks get rich on these deals. The bonuses are huge. So it’s OK to hype Tesla’s stock and sell it to their clients. Everybody wins in this scenario – except for a few despised short sellers who’re hung up on their silly notion of reality.
If anything defined the postwar economy between 1946 and 1999, it was the exodus of the middle class from cities to suburbs and the glorification of what Jim Kunstler calls Happy Motoring: freeways, cars and trucks, ten lanes of private vehicles, the vast majority of which are transporting one person. The build-out of suburbia drove growth for decades: millions of new suburban homes, miles of new freeways, sprawling shopping malls, and tens of millions of new autos, trucks, and SUVs, transforming one-car households into three vehicle households. Then there was all the furnishings for those expansive new homes, and the credit necessary to fund the homes, vehicles, furnishings, etc. Now the Millennial generation is turning its back on both of these bedrock engines of growth.
As various metrics reveal, the Millennials are fine with taking Uber to work, buying their shoes from Zappos (return them if they don’t fit, no problem), and making whatever tradeoffs are necessary to live in urban cores. Simply put, the natural progression of this generation is away from suburban malls, suburban home ownership and the car-centric commuter lifestyle that goes with suburban homeownership. Saddled with insanely high student debt loads imposed by the rapaciously predatory higher education cartel, Millennials avoid additional debt like the plague. Millennials have relatively high savings rates. As for a lifetime of penury to service debt–hey, they already have that, thanks to their “I borrowed $100,000 and all I got was this worthless college degree” student loans.
Consider the secondary effects of these trend changes. If Millennials are earning less and already carrying heavy debt loads, who is going to buy the Baby Boom’s millions of pricey suburban McMansions? The answer might be “no one.” If vehicle sales decline, all the secondary auto-related sales decline, too. Auto insurance, for example. Furnishing a small expensive urban flat requires a lot less furnishings than a 3,000 square foot suburban house. What happens to sales of big dining sets and backyard furniture? As retail malls die, property taxes, sales taxes and payroll taxes decline, too. Many cheerlead the notion of repurposed commercial space, but uses such as community college classes pay a lot less per square foot than retail did, and generate little in the way of sales and payroll taxes. Financial losses will also mount. Valuations and property taxes will decline, and commercial real estate loans based on nose-bleed valuations and high retail lease rates will go south, triggering significant financial-sector losses.
One of the great mysteries and biggest concerns in the economy right now is the slowing growth in bank lending. Economists are searching for answers but none are entirely satisfying. Total loans and leases extended by commercial banks in the U.S. this year were up just 3.8% from a year earlier as of March 29, according to the latest Federal Reserve data. That compares with 6.4% growth in all of last year, and a 7.6% pace as of late October. The slowdown is more surprising given the rise in business and consumer confidence since the election. And it is worrisome because the lack of business investment is considered an important reason why economic growth has remained weak. Loans to businesses have slowed most sharply, with the latest data showing commercial and industrial loans up just 2.8% from a year earlier, compared with 8.9% growth in late October.
Economists at Goldman Sachs estimate the slowdown in commercial and industrial lending alone equates to a $100 billion shortfall in loans. Investors may start to get more clarity on what is causing the slowdown when banks start reporting first-quarter earnings on Thursday. One explanation is that many companies have been tapping corporate bond markets to lock in low rates, and in some cases to pay down more expensive bank debt. In the first quarter of this year, corporate bond issuance rose by 18% from a year earlier, according to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. But one reason for the increase is that the first quarter of 2016 was dismal because of market turmoil. The rise isn’t enough to explain the entire shortfall in lending.
The 50 biggest US companies stashed another $200bn of profits in offshore tax havens in 2015 alone, taking the total to approximately $1.6 trillion, according to new analysis. Donald Trump’s plans to slash taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals and impose a border tax will harm average consumers further, Oxfam said in a report published on Tuesday. The 50 largest companies disclosed use of 1,751 subsidiaries in countries classed as tax havens by the OECD and the US National Bureau of Economic Research, an increase of 143 on a year earlier, the charity found. The true number may be far higher as only “significant” subsidiaries have to be disclosed. Big multinationals such as Google, Amazon and Apple have come under fire for routing sales through countries such as Bermuda, Ireland and Luxembourg, which offer them low tax rates.
While this is legal, critics say it does not reflect where the firms actually do business. The top rate of US corporate tax is 35% – one of the highest rates in the world, incentivising many companies to hold billions offshore. Mr Trump has pledged to reduce this to 15% and a one-off rate of 10% for money currently held abroad. That will hand a $328bn tax break to the 50 biggest companies, with Apple, Pfizer and Microsoft the biggest gainers, accounting for 40% of the total, Oxfam estimated. While some have welcomed the move as a sensible way to bring profits of US companies back to the country, Oxfam warns that it risks accelerating a race to the bottom that will harm consumers in America as well as the world’s poor as global tax rates plummet.
President Donald Trump declined to give top adviser Steve Bannon a vote of confidence during a New York Post interview published Tuesday, in which he also said the U.S. was not headed toward a ground war in Syria. There have been reports of discord among Trump’s top White House advisers, and rumors that controversial chief strategist Bannon may be on the way out. Last week, Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were reportedly told to iron out their differences. When asked Monday by Post columnist Michael Goodwin if he still had confidence in Bannon, Trump didn’t exactly give a ringing endorsement: “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve.”
“I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary.” “Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out or I will,” Trump said. In the same interview, Trump told Goodwin that, despite last week’s airstrike, U.S. policy toward Syria has not changed. “We’re not going into Syria,” Trump said. “Our policy is the same — it hasn’t changed. We’re not going into Syria.” Trump also acknowledged a growing rift with Russia — “We’re not exactly on the same wavelength with Russia, to put it mildly” — again called the nuclear deal with Iran “the single worst deal ever,” and said of the worsening nuclear situation with North Korea: “I knew I was left a mess, but it’s worse than I thought.”
Waging endless wars abroad (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Syria) isn’t making America—or the rest of the world—any safer, it’s certainly not making America great again, and it’s undeniably digging the U.S. deeper into debt. In fact, it’s a wonder the economy hasn’t collapsed yet. Indeed, even if we were to put an end to all of the government’s military meddling and bring all of the troops home today, it would take decades to pay down the price of these wars and get the government’s creditors off our backs. Even then, government spending would have to be slashed dramatically and taxes raised.
You do the math.
• The government is $19 trillion in debt.
• The Pentagon’s annual budget consumes almost 100% of individual income tax revenue.
• The government has spent $4.8 trillion on wars abroad since 9/11, with $7.9 trillion in interest. As the Atlantic points out, we’re fighting terrorism with a credit card.
• The government lost more than $160 billion to waste and fraud by the military and defense contractors.
• Taxpayers are being forced to pay $1.4 million per hour to provide U.S. weapons to countries that can’t afford them.
• The U.S. government spends more on wars (and military occupations) abroad every year than all 50 states combined spend on health, education, welfare, and safety.
• Now President Trump wants to increase military spending by $54 billion.
• Add in the cost of waging war in Syria, and the burden on taxpayers soars to more than $11.5 million a day. Ironically, while presidential candidate Trump was vehemently opposed to the U.S. use of force in Syria, and warned that fighting Syria would signal the start of World War III against a united Syria, Russia and Iran, he wasted no time launching air strikes against Syria.
Clearly, war has become a huge money-making venture, and the U.S. government, with its vast military empire, is one of its best buyers and sellers. Yet what most Americans—brainwashed into believing that patriotism means supporting the war machine—fail to recognize is that these ongoing wars have little to do with keeping the country safe and everything to do with enriching the military industrial complex at taxpayer expense. The rationale may keep changing for why American military forces are in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and now Syria. However, the one that remains constant is that those who run the government—including the current president—are feeding the appetite of the military industrial complex and fattening the bank accounts of its investors.
Case in point: President Trump plans to “beef up” military spending while slashing funding for the environment, civil rights protections, the arts, minority-owned businesses, public broadcasting, Amtrak, rural airports and interstates. In other words, in order to fund this burgeoning military empire that polices the globe, the U.S. government is prepared to bankrupt the nation, jeopardize our servicemen and women, increase the chances of terrorism and blowback domestically, and push the nation that much closer to eventual collapse. Obviously, our national priorities are in desperate need of an overhauling.
Raworth begins by redrawing the economy. She embeds it in the Earth’s systems and in society, showing how it depends on the flow of materials and energy, and reminding us that we are more than just workers, consumers and owners of capital. This recognition of inconvenient realities then leads to her breakthrough: a graphic representation of the world we want to create. Like all the best ideas, her doughnut model seems so simple and obvious that you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. But achieving this clarity and concision requires years of thought: a great decluttering of the myths and misrepresentations in which we have been schooled. The diagram consists of two rings. The inner ring of the doughnut represents a sufficiency of the resources we need to lead a good life: food, clean water, housing, sanitation, energy, education, healthcare, democracy.
Anyone living within that ring, in the hole in the middle of the doughnut, is in a state of deprivation. The outer ring of the doughnut consists of the Earth’s environmental limits, beyond which we inflict dangerous levels of climate change, ozone depletion, water pollution, loss of species and other assaults on the living world. The area between the two rings – the doughnut itself – is the “ecologically safe and socially just space” in which humanity should strive to live. The purpose of economics should be to help us enter that space and stay there. As well as describing a better world, this model allows us to see, in immediate and comprehensible terms, the state in which we now find ourselves. At the moment we transgress both lines. Billions of people still live in the hole in the middle. We have breached the outer boundary in several places.
An economics that helps us to live within the doughnut would seek to reduce inequalities in wealth and income. Wealth arising from the gifts of nature would be widely shared. Money, markets, taxation and public investment would be designed to conserve and regenerate resources rather than squander them. State-owned banks would invest in projects that transform our relationship with the living world, such as zero-carbon public transport and community energy schemes. New metrics would measure genuine prosperity, rather than the speed with which we degrade our long-term prospects.
Such proposals are familiar; but without a new framework of thought, piecemeal solutions are unlikely to succeed. By rethinking economics from first principles, Raworth allows us to integrate our specific propositions into a coherent programme, and then to measure the extent to which it is realised. I see her as the John Maynard Keynes of the 21st century: by reframing the economy, she allows us to change our view of who we are, where we stand, and what we want to be. Now we need to turn her ideas into policy. Read her book, then demand that those who wield power start working towards its objectives: human prosperity within a thriving living world.
I’ll bet pundits and pollsters will forever ponder how Donald Trump got elected. For me, it’s straightforward: The American people—or at least enough of them to propel Mr. Trump into office—wanted to infuse practical business experience into the government. To borrow a phrase from my friend, the economist Larry Lindsey, voters rejected the political ruling class in favor of real-world experience. Which brings me to the Federal Reserve. In 2012 Jim Grant, the longtime financial journalist, delivered a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “In the not quite 100 years since the founding of your institution,” he said, “America has exchanged central banking for a kind of central planning and the gold standard for what I will call the Ph.D. standard.” Central banking, in other words, is now dominated by academics. And while I don’t blame them for it, academics by their nature come to decision-making with a distinctly—you guessed it—academic perspective.
The shift described by Mr. Grant has had consequences. For one thing, simplicity based on age-old practice has been replaced by complexity based on econometric theory. Big Data has played an increasingly prominent role in how the Fed operates, even as the Fed’s role in the economy has deepened and widened. Rather than enlisting business leaders and bankers to fulfill the Fed’s increasingly complex mission, the nation’s political and monetary authorities turned primarily to the world’s most brilliant economists, who can be thought of more and more as monetary scientists. “Central bankers have invited politicians to abdicate leadership authority to an inbred society of PhD academics who are infected to their core with groupthink, or as I prefer to think of it: ‘groupstink,’” argues former Dallas Fed analyst Danielle DiMartino Booth in a new book.
Ten of the 17 current Fed governors and regional bank presidents have doctorates in economics. Few have much experience in the private economy. Most have spent the bulk of their careers at the classroom lectern or in Washington. This is a sea change. In past decades, Fed members and governors frequently had experience in banking, industry and agriculture. Do the results indicate that our pursuit of intellectual horsepower has produced a stronger economy? Today’s labor-force participation rate is lower than at any time since the late 1970s; an oven from Sears that cost $160 in 1975 would cost more than $400 today; and despite unprecedented intervention in the economy, America has experienced its worst recovery since the Great Depression.Given the cumulative genius of the leaders of the Federal Reserve System, and the highly sophisticated quantitative tools and policies the Fed has developed under their direction, why aren’t we doing better?
The golden domes of one of Vladimir Putin’s foreign projects, the recently built Russian Holy Trinity cathedral in the heart of Paris, rise up not far from the Elysée palace, the seat of the French presidency. Dubbed “Putin’s cathedral” or “Saint-Vladimir”, it stands out as a symbol of the many connections the French elite has long nurtured with Russia, and which the Kremlin is actively seeking to capitalise on in the run-up to the French presidential election. France is an important target for Russia’s soft power and networks of influence. The country is a key pillar of the European Union, an important Nato member and home to Europe’s largest far-right party, the Front National, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is expected to reach the 7 May run-off in the presidential vote and has benefited from Russian financing.
Le Pen took the extraordinary step of travelling to Moscow to meet Putin in March, just a month before the French vote, to boost her international profile and showcase her closeness to the Russian president’s worldview – including his virulent hostility towards the EU and his vision of a “civilisational” clash with radical Islam. Yet she is far from being the only presidential candidate to favour warmer relations with Russia, nor to reflect a certain French fascination with the Kremlin strongman. [..] Russian meddling in elections has become a hot political topic in the US, and there has been much speculation about Russia’s attempts to favour Brexit as well as anti-EU parties in the Netherlands and Germany. But France is now widely seen as the key country where Russia has a strategic interest in encouraging illiberal forces and seeking to drive wedges between western democracies.
Turkish prosecutors are laying the groundwork for large-scale trials of hundreds of people accused of participating in a coup attempt last July, an undertaking that is already transforming society and will be a reckoning of sorts for a nation that has endured much upheaval in recent years. Authorities say the trials will shed light on alleged links between the accused and Fethullah Gülen, an exiled US-based preacher with a vast grassroots network. The onset of the trials has refocused attention on the large-scale purges of Turkey’s government, media and academia after the coup attempt, in which tens of thousands of people – many with no known links to the Gülenists – were dismissed or jailed. Meanwhile, Turkey is preparing for a referendum on Sunday on greater presidential powers, which could prove the most significant political development in the history of the republic.
“What happened on 15 July [the day of the attempted coup] and what is now happening for months is completely transformative for Turkey,” said a journalist who worked for a Gülen-affiliated media outlet and requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. “One big part of society has been subjected to extreme demonisation in a process that cost them their jobs, reputation, freedom or ultimately their lives. Another part of the society has been filled with anger and radically politicised. “Nothing can be the same as before 15 July any longer – ever,” he added. Turkish courts have already begun several parallel trials over the coup attempt. Last month prosecutors demanded life sentences for 47 people accused of attempting to assassinate the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the night of the putsch, and the largest trial yet opened on 28 February in a specially built courtroom outside Ankara filled with more than 300 suspects accused of murder and attempting to overthrow the government.
About 270 suspects, including Gülen, went on trial in absentia in Izmir in January, and an indictment issued in late February alleges that Gülenists infiltrated the state and charges 31 members of the military with attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. The state intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Service (MIT), has sent prosecutors in Ankara a list of 122,000 individuals who allegedly used a secure messaging app, ByLock, which security officials say was widely used by the Gülen network for communications.
Migration Deputy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas announced on Monday that refugees will be getting cash instead of free meals and will be staying in rented apartments in order to decongest migrant camps. In a joint press conference with the participation of Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Greece Philippe Leclerc, President of Union of Municipalities of Thesssaly Giorgos Kotsos and Larissa Mayor Apostolos Kaloyiannis, Mouzalas explained the project of decongestion of migrant camps and relocation of refugees in urban centers and smaller municipalities. Mouzalas said that refugees will be getting cash in hand for their meals instead of rations and will be staying in apartments under the UNHCR program, so that they will be getting primary care. The program applies for 10,000 asylum seekers in 2017 and another 10,000 in 2018.
The deputy minister clarified that the apartments will be rented by owners under free market conditions and the municipalities will assist the implementation of the program. This way, he said, local communities will benefit financially. The program will apply provided that the EU-Turkey agreement for refugee returns will continue to apply. This way, Mouzalas continued, the 40 camps across Greece that host 40,000 asylum seekers will be reduced to 17-20 with a maximum of 500 people each for 2017. In 2018, another 10,000 asylum seekers will be relocated under the program. The project will start with 500 refugees leaving the Koutsohera camp and moving to Larissa, a municipality that expressed interest in the program. As the program progresses, the camps in Thessaly (Koutsohera, Volos and Trikala) will eventually close and refugees will relocate in municipalities.
“The UN will help in the expansion of the hospitality program for refugees in apartments to improve their living conditions,” Leclerc said. The program has already been implemented in Athens, Thessaloniki and Livadia. The president of the Union of Municipalities of Thesssaly underlined that the program gives municipalities the opportunity to inject money to local communities through the leasing of the apartments and the cash the refugees would spend on food. The Larissa Mayor said that “The municipality of Larissa will work in this direction. Previously there was pressure to accommodate migrants in apartments, but it was too early. Today we are not afraid to do it.”
The future for humanity and many other life forms is grim. The crisis gathers force. Melting ice caps, rising seas, vanishing topsoil, felled rainforests, dwindling animal and plant species, a human population forever growing and gobbling and using everything up. What’s to be done? Paul Kingsnorth thinks nothing very much. We have to suck it up. He writes in a typical sentence: “This is bigger than anything there has ever been for as long as humans have existed, and we have done it, and now we are going to have to live through it, if we can.” Hope finds very little room in this enjoyable, sometimes annoying and mystical collection of essays. Kingsnorth despises the word’s false promise; it comforts us with a lie, when the truth is that we have created an “all-consuming global industrial system” which is “effectively unstoppable; it will run on until it runs out”.
To imagine otherwise – to believe that our actions can make the future less dire, even ever so slightly – means that we probably belong to the group of “highly politicised people, whose values and self-image are predicated on being activists”. According to Kingsnorth, such people find it hard to be honest with themselves. He was once one of them. “We might tell ourselves that The People are ignorant of The Facts and that if we enlighten them they will Act. We might believe that the right treaty has yet to be signed, or the right technology yet to be found, or that the problem is not too much growth and science and progress but too little of it. Or we might choose to believe that a Movement is needed to expose the lies being told to The People by the Bad Men in Power who are preventing The People from doing the rising up they will all want to do when they learn The Truth.”
He says this is where “the greens are today”. Environmentalism has become “a consolation prize for a gaggle of washed-up Trots”. As a characterisation of the green movement, this outbreak of adolescent satire seems unfair. To suggest that its followers become activists only because their “values and self-image” depend on it implies that there is no terror in their hearts, no love of the natural world, nothing real other than their need for a hobby.
Gordon Parks A scene at the Fulton Fish Market, New York Jun 1943
In his 1944 play Huis Clos (loosely yet officially translated as No Exit, or Closed Door), French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” Or: Hell is (the) other people. Which can be very true. And Sartre makes his point in a masterful way. He describes a group of people locked up together with no escape, and for eternity, who have a bitter go at each other. Something we all recognize. People can be a nuisance, and even drive one as far as suicide.
But then, the opposite is just as true. In more ways than one. Not only is hell the absence of other people (though I know there are monks who choose full separation), but heaven is the other people too. Or, as normal mortals would say: ‘(Wo)men, can’t live with them, can’t live without them’. Or something along those lines.
It’s who we are. We are social animals. Lions, not tigers. We’re tribal. We cannot give our lives meaning of and by ourselves, we need the other people to give it meaning. Though you may have gotten a different notion in your lifetime, the meaning of your life cannot be measured by something as fleeting as the size of your bank account. It cannot even by measured at all by ‘you’ yourself. Our lives derive their meaning from other people’s lives.
Over the Christmas season, many versions of Dickens’ Scrooge passed by our screens again. He’s a good example to use. In the beginning of the story, Scrooge is wealthy but his life has no meaning. That is Dickens’ core message. His life means nothing. It isn’t until he starts caring about others, and in the process giving – some of – his wealth away, that his life becomes meaningful. This is not a value judgment, and it isn’t for any religious or even philosophical reasons, it’s simple biology.
Religious leaders like Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, get it. The ebola nurses and doctors get it. But that’s not nearly enough. We should all realize who we really are, and why. We all resemble Scrooge much more than we’re willing to admit. Problem is, we have no education system left to tell us about it. Our schools and colleges instead tell us to compete: our education focuses on the ‘Hell Is The Others’ side of our brains. The ‘Heaven Is The Others’ side is out of fashion.
And the education system is not the only problem. We also have a very big problem in that our present economic system doesn’t reflect, or fit in with, our natural-born psychology, our inbuilt mental set-up. Our economic system reflects, and appeals to, the part of our brain that tells us to outdo others, not cooperate with them.
Of course this is a complex issue, if only because our brains just happen to be made up of different parts. Still, if we are ever to enable the newest part of it, that which makes us human, and sets us apart from our non-human ancestors, from the simplest amoeba to far more advanced primates, to take control, if we are ever to achieve that, we will first have to recognize things for what they are. And then act on that.
Endless and forever competition from our earliest childhood days all the way to our graves clearly doesn’t seem the way to go. Look around you. It makes us destructive beings. It makes us unkind to each other, and distant from one another. Those are the very things that tear apart the social fabric our very biology says we need. If we don’t make a strong conscious effort to allow our ‘human brain’ to control our ‘animal brain’, we have no chance, we will be lost. Today, what we do is use our human intelligence to amplify the destructive properties of our animal brain.
This is evident in what we are doing to our living environment. We are at present no better than the yeast in the wine vat, who multiply at fast as they can until all the sugar is gone and then die off in the blink of an eye. Only, for us, the earth itself is both our wine vat and our sugar, and unlike the yeast we can do grave danger to our entire environment. We’re not just killing ourselves, we’re murdering just about everything around us.
A wonderful image of how this works, one that should make us think, was painted last week in the LA Times by James K. Boyce, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
[..] .. it is too late to prevent climate change, no matter how fast we ultimately act to limit it. [We] now confront an issue that many had hoped to avoid: adaptation. Adapting to climate change will carry a high price tag. [..] Because adaptation won’t come cheap, we must decide which investments are worth the cost.
A thought experiment illustrates the choices we face. Imagine that without major new investments in adaptation, climate change will cause world incomes to fall in the next two decades by 25% across the board, with everyone’s income going down, from the poorest farmworker in Bangladesh to the wealthiest real estate baron in Manhattan. Adaptation can cushion some but not all of these losses. What should be our priority: reduce losses for the farmworker or the baron?
For the farmworker, and a billion others in the world who live on about $1 a day, this 25% income loss will be a disaster, perhaps the difference between life and death. Yet in dollars, the loss is just 25 cents a day. For the land baron and other “one-percenters” in the U.S. with average incomes of about $2,000 a day, the 25% income loss would be a matter of regret, not survival. He’ll find a way to get by on $1,500 a day. In human terms, the baron’s loss pales compared with that of the farmworker. But in dollar terms, it’s 2,000 times larger.
Conventional economic models would prescribe spending more to protect the barons than the farmworkers of the world. The rationale was set forth with brutal clarity in a memorandum leaked in 1992 that was signed by Lawrence Summers, then chief economist of the World Bank. The memo asked whether the bank should encourage more migration of dirty industries to developing countries and concluded that “the economic logic of dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.” Climate change is just a new kind of toxic waste.
The “economic logic” of the Summers memo – later said to have been penned tongue-in-cheek to provoke debate, which it certainly did – rests on a doctrine of “efficiency” that counts all dollars equally. Whether it goes to a starving child or a millionaire, a dollar is a dollar. [..] A different way to set adaptation priorities is to count each person equally, not each dollar. This approach rests on the ethical principle that a healthy environment is a human right, not a commodity to be distributed on the basis of purchasing power, or a privilege to be distributed on the basis of political power.
This equity principle is widely embraced around the world, from the affirmation in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that people have an inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” to the guarantee in the South African Constitution that everyone has the right “to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being.” It puts safeguarding the lives of the poor ahead of safeguarding the property of the rich.
In the years ahead, climate change will confront the world with hard choices: whether to protect as many dollars as possible, or to protect as many people as we can.
It’s obvious. The choice is, as I wrote above, between human terms or dollar terms. In which dollar terms stands for choosing the primitive parts of our brain. Most likely, given the way we have organized our societies, our education systems and our economic systems, the rich part of the world will spend hundreds of billions protecting their sea-side villas, while entire poorer nations, and the people living in them, threaten to disappear.
In our own countries as well, that choice will be made, favoring well-to-do over poor. After all, what are the economic reasons for water-proofing a slum? Where 10,000 people can each afford to maybe contribute $100 to the work, while a ‘baron’ can easily afford $10 million to secure his summer home a few miles away?
In today’s world, it’s not even a question. But then in today’s world, money rules the political system, which should in an ideal world be holding a society together, not tearing it apart. Which it very much does. Our political systems separate the rich from the poor, like they’re not of the same species, like there’s nothing that ties them together.
It probably doesn’t even sound as a actual choice to you. You most likely think that these things go as they do, that ‘they’ have all the power anyway and there’s nothing you can do. But that doesn’t seem very human, does it, and certainly not very American, to just give up without a fight. And it’s starting to look as if you don’t stand up now for your self, your progeny and all other people, you needn’t bother anymore.
Then again, perhaps it’s not all that hard. We have a spectacularly failed economic system anyway, and we’re in dire need of a new one. So why not catch two birds with one stone (sorry, Tweetie, just an expression) and redo both our education systems and our economic systems, and make sure our adaptation to climate change gets organized on a one man one vote, instead of a one dollar one vote basis? It’s a place to start. Try and recognize which part of you, yourself, is a dumb predator and which part is a ‘social being human’. And pick the latter for all of your future decisions.
And teach yourself, and your kids, that Scrooge is you, we are all Scrooge, that’s what Dickens meant to say, and that the meaning of your life, too, derives its meaning from other people’s lives, not from itself. Once you got that down, you’re halfway there.
We tend towards thinking our ‘elected’ political leaders should, and will, take care of issues such as these, and in a fair way too. But in fact they’re the very last ones who will do so. Because they owe their positions to the very educational and economic systems that have ‘designed’ the way things are running out of hand.
We need to move, our societies, and the entire earth, need us to move to a ‘people’, as opposed to a ‘dollar’, point of view.
The separation between rich and poor doesn’t of course only come to the fore in climate change adaptation issues. We’re living today inside these narratives of an economic recovery, at the same time that poverty even in western societies rises fast. The rich are doing well, and that’s what we see reflected in ‘official’ economic numbers. But it’s all just pure predation.
What you can do is perhaps to vote for another party, but in many countries that’s not an option, the status quo has far too firm a handle on the entire political system. So you’re going to have to come up with something else, and if need be, take to the streets. Or the internet.
And as you do, think about Scrooge, and about to what extent his fictional, intentionally over the top caricaturized, persona reflects the real life you. As I said, once you got that down, you’re halfway there.