Wealthy — a climate vision

A few years ago, I grew alarmed (and continue to be alarmed) about the increasing risks we face due to climate change disruption. In response, I called for short stories describing how we might (not) adapt to climate disruption. I released 60+ of these CliFi stories in two volumes of Life Plus 2 Meters (free to download).

This year, I asked my environmental economics students to write their own CliFi visions. They did a great job, and I asked if they wanted their stories “published.” Here’s the first, from Jacinta.


Wealthy

It’s only 4 am; I dread midday… Summer is unforgiving. I feel the sweat catch as it pools along the strap of my mask – I’ve let it dangle round my neck; risky, I know. But I’m in the depths of the forest. The air might not be clean but it’s the closest I’ll get. Each day I reckon; it’s worth the risk. To feel the unconstrained movement of my face. The gentle breeze that caresses my cheek. The touch of my calloused fingers against my weathering lips… Ah yes, the lower half of my face is becoming increasingly lifeless. A fleeting feeling of anxiety sweeps through my body, but I don’t latch on to it. Even the concerns of my mind can’t take away from this moment; here in my mansion of peace.

I’m acutely aware of the time. 30 more minutes before the Early Walkers swarm this place; I’m not the only genius to find daily refuge amongst the trees. Though they make it redundant, in their masses this place becomes as suffocating as the outside. I need to relish every second I have. Here my breath is free, and with it; me.

Navigating the crowd, I grudgingly fasten my mask back on my face. It’s always a bitter-sweet moment. I know I’m fortunate; my mask is light yet robust, with strong filters and is one of the best on the market. I could never have afforded it. I won it in a card game against a Roldie. I cheated, but he doesn’t need to know that. 145 years old and none the wiser. Unsurprising, since he sees nothing beyond himself.

Past me might have felt guilty, but there’s no room in my new world for feelings like that. Plus, a Roldie doesn’t need it. He could easily afford another. Not to mention, he lives basically mask free; shielded in his fortress, with air so filtered I’m surprised there’s any oxygen left.

A feeling of fury flows through me, as I contemplate the unjustness of it all.

I exhale and let it pass; holding on to it gains me nothing. The Roldies might live in luxury, medicated to absurd ages, but I’ve never meet one that was filled with happiness. They are so obsessed with staying alive, they forgot what it means to live. Maybe that’s why they come and play cards, to experience the occasional thrill of not having control.

I let them win regularly enough to not grow suspicious. Sure, even if they do (my morning flashes in my mind’s eye) it would make little difference, since I’m on my way out soon. Maybe I’ll make it to 40, surpass the average age. Who knows? All I do know; my death doesn’t scare me. Death has always been too present to shy away from. From the famines and droughts, to diseases and WWIII. To find peace and happiness in this world I long ago realised; even life isn’t something I can afford to feel attached to.

Stuff to read

  1. The man controlling Russian media (for Putin)
  2. If you’re interested in “fair” water pricing, then read this paper [pdf] on Nairobi’s system: “we find that high-income residential and nonresidential customers receive a disproportionate share of subsidies and that subsidy targeting is poor even among households with a private metered connection.”
  3. “Why should migrants respect borders when we didn’t respect theirs?” Good question.
  4. GMO crops in Spain/Portugal increased profits, and lowered herbicide, insecticide and diesel use. Adopt!
  5. Google and Amazon allow you to opt out of spying — a little.
  6. George Orwell’s 1984 is ever more relevant: “The crucial issue was not that Trump might abolish democracy but that Americans had put him in a position to try. Unfreedom today is voluntary. It comes from the bottom up.”
  7. A fantastic hitjob on Uber, a company that’s taken $70 billion from gullible investors who bought the “Uber Technologies, Inc. operates as a technology platform for people and things mobility” lie.
  8. American rivers are too full (climate disruption!) for barges to move. Chaos in the Midwest. Will they vote for “Mr Coal Trump” again? (Don’t let USACE near this problem — they caused it with all the channeling, etc.)
  9. The mathematics of digital compression
  10. A Dutch researcher wins the “Borlaug food prize” for suppling better seeds to millions of small farmers.

H/T to DL

A local ecosystem in Pakistan

In response to my post last week, Danial Khan (from Zarobi village, near Swabi city, KPK province, Pakistan) sent the following write up “to discuss what’s going on in my village and the water issues our rural community is about to face. It’s worse than I thought. I was born and raised in small rural community. Throughout my childhood there weren’t serious water issues, but things are now changing so rapidly…” Danial is working on his master’s degree in environmental economics.

Introduction

The following project will look at some of the issues about bore wells and the environmental and geological impact that these have on local towns and villages.

What is a bore well?

An example of a bore well

A deep, narrow well for water that is drilled into the ground and has a pipe fitted as a casing in the upper part of the borehole. This is typically equipped with a pump to draw water to the surface. Water belonging to a bore well used to be considered purer and cleaner but this was found to no longer be the case if built on areas that they are not supposed to be built on.

Difference between a bore well and a well

A borehole is usually drilled by machinery and is relatively small in diameter. In contrast, a well is usually sunk by hand and is relatively larger in diameter.

Environment and geological disadvantages

Throughout my research, I have come across the following:

  • There are too many bore wells being constructed throughout our village. It seems to be commonplace in most households.
  • Since they are costly as compared to normal wells, a house that is not as affluent or are earning under certain thresholds are unable to afford one.
  • There are too many bore wells built for public and personal use, and as a result, the water level of normal wells have decreased excessively which is major problem faced by those who are unable to afford a bore well. This decrease in water levels has left many people without water.
  • Construction of bore wells leads to a lot of noise pollution which can lead to a lot of disruption to locals.
  • Bore wells are being built in unsuitable places therefore causing the water wastage. For example, many of the bore wells are built on the edge of dirty open sewer lines and the people using the water get diseases because the water is contaminated.
  • The sewer lines contain all kinds of diseases because not only the drain water comes to it but also the wastes from toilets from many homes goes directly to the sewer lines, which goes unnoticed.
  • Contaminated water can cause many types of diseases, including cholera, Guinea worm disease, typhoid, and dysentery. Water-related diseases cause 3.4 million deaths each year.
  • Since the availability of water is scarce in summer many people head towards the bore wells built near sewer line in their neighborhood to get water to drink.

Political Stance

  • Political parties are building bore wells just to put their names on it and make themselves look good and give the impression that they’ve done something for the sake of poor people, and more importantly for votes without any regard for consequences
  • Bore wells are commonly placed in the center of sewer lines, which shows that they don’t care about the people who are going to drink from the public bore wells.
  • It is difficult to make sense of the thoughts locals have with regard to these issues and contamination as the majority of people living here are uneducated and not affluent.

Below are examples of bore well that I came across during my research:

Although the wall reads “save water safe future,” I find it becomes increasingly hard to imagine a future with water quality such as the one shown above. As seen here, the main sewer line of the village is so close to this bore well, also causing water pollution for the passing by people:

Note from DZ: The water is flowing from the well towards the sewer, but the sewer can pollute the well by percolating into the groundwater below.

Solutions

  • Bore wells should be built on clean ground away from sewer lines.
  • People should not make garbage dumps near drinking water.
  • The number of bore wells should be reduced significantly, and government should take action against vote grabbers who are building these bore wells in inadequate places.
  • People with no access to the bore wells in the village should have no problems when the water level decreases naturally or the number of wells increase.
  • Most importantly it’s upon us to raise awareness against such harmful activities that go unchecked and the common problems that exist.

Stuff to read

  1. Looking for inspiration regarding specialization? Listen to this
  2. So what happens after we reach “peak mobile”?
  3. If you want to geek out on the complexity of the energy transition (from fossil fuels), then check out this energy model. It focuses on the EU, but there’s a LOT of data and complexity to explore!
  4. What’s Really Driving the Cryptocurrency Phenomenon? Related: Nothing Can Stop The Bitcoin Protocol and the trust among developers of a trustless protocol
  5. The supporters of populists have a lot in common with the Germans who chose Hitler.
  6. Indoor pollution is a real problem (even in Amsterdam) — and it’s worse in theatres!
  7. How many times will your town flood before you call it quits? This Maryland town had three “1 in a 1,000 year” storms in 3 years.
  8. This [pdf] is the best analysis of the connection between drought, climate change and the war in Syria
  9. Whoops! One cotton bag has 7,000x the impact of one plastic bag!
  10. An excellent podcast on affordable housing policies (fails)

How’s your local ecosystem?

Ten years ago, I wrote that we should talk about “local warming” rather than “global warming” if we’re going to make the topic relevant for people.

This post touches on the same subject: Doing something for your local ecosystem for pride, rather than doing something because “it’s the right thing to do.”

  • Don’t “eat organic” to save bees you’ll never see, do it because you’re caring for a fruit tree in the neighborhood.
  • Don’t drive a “clean car” to prevent climate disruption, but to save the lungs of your poorer neighbors living next to the road.
  • Don’t avoid having children “for the Earth” but because you’re going to adopt an orphan or help with local education and cooperation.

I’m writing these ideas as examples because I’m more interested in what you do (in your own way) to improve the ecosystem that supports your quality of life and your community. I’m also asking you because I believe that people can find many imaginative ways to contribute to the public good.

My one-handed conclusion is that we don’t need to wait for a major power to fix a global problem; we can make a difference ourselves, locally.

Stuff to read

  1. The collapse of civilization (probably due to climate change) will affect different classes in different ways
  2. The brutal indifference of colonial murder
  3. An interesting discussion of doctors, aging and genetic ethics
  4. The young are impulsive and emotional, which is why they might rescue us.
  5. Ukraine’s new president might be a comedian, but he’s got the right ideas for his people.
  6. Fairbnb is about to launch. I’ve given advice to them on how to help (rather than harm) communities.
  7. Soldiers know the difference between a plan and a strategy. Do their superiors?
  8. Is your neighborhood livable? We have 6/6 within walking distance of our flat.
  9. A nicely balanced article on climate-change-induced conflict
  10. Helping whistleblowers uncover financial crimes

Keynes on productivity and leisure

A few weeks ago, I wrote on our (collective) problem of people turning productivity gains into additional consumption rather than additional leisure. This is a collective problem because more consumption is bad for sustainability but also because everyone loses if there’s more (zero-sum) competition for position goods such as houses in good neighborhoods or places in good schools. 

In that post — which I sometimes summarize as “hipsters can save the world” — I mentioned Keynes’s 1930 essay “Economic possibilities for our grandchildren” [pdf] which I had not read. Now I have, and I have a few thoughts to share.

  1. Keynes is very aware of the long term benefits of productivity.
  2. He attributes most of the gains from the industrial revolution to technical improvements and capital accumulation. Under technical improvements, he includes coal, steam and petrol, but he does not pay much attention to their nature as “non-renewable” resources. This oversight is expected in 1930, just as is the problem of missing the long-run impacts of burning fossil fuels.
  3. By “capital accumulation,” Keynes refers to the treasure and revenues from colonialism and other ventures abroad. He appeals to the “miracle of compound interest” in explaining British wealth, while completely ignoring the fact that most of this wealth was from theft rather than forming or growing capital.
  4. Keynes refers to the “economic problem” of finding enough food, clothing and shelter for everyone, and that progress has put the solution to this problem within sight. His assumption that people will enjoy more leisure when the “economic problem” is solved turned out to be  wrong, as most people (even the poor) used the gains from productivity to compete for positional goods rather than settle for an acceptable level of economic goods such as food and shelter. He also ignores the ongoing problem of colonial/social systems that exploit the poor for the benefits of the rich.
  5. Keynes assumes that our prosperity will accelerate as population stabilizes (in 1930, it was just over 2 billion), as there will be no need for more children. He was obviously wrong there. (Keynes was gay bisexual and perhaps underestimated the desire of “breeders” to have children.)
  6. He guesses that output per person will be 4-8x higher in 2030 than in 1930. The jump from 1929 to 2016 was about 4x.
  7. Keynes labels consumption of positional goods as “non-economic” consumption, and then dismisses such demand as a distraction from our achievement (food and shelter) and better uses of our time (leisure), on these terms:

    The love of money as a possession — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life — will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

  8. They were not discarded, as Keynes was over-optimistic:

    I look forward, therefore, in days not so very remote, to the greatest change which has ever occurred in the material environment of life for human beings in the aggregate. But, of course, it will all happen gradually, not as a catastrophe. Indeed, it has already begun. The course of affairs will simply be that there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed. The critical difference will be realised when this condition has become so general that the nature of one’s duty to one’s neighbour is changed. For it will remain reasonable to be economically purposive for others after it has ceased to be reasonable for oneself.

  9. Alas, instead we get this reality (from The Atlantic this week):

    Helping consumers figure out what to buy amid an endless sea of choice online has become a cottage industry unto itself. Many brands and retailers now wield marketing buzzwords such as curation, differentiation, and discovery as they attempt to sell an assortment of stuff targeted to their ideal customer. Companies find such shoppers through the data gold mine of digital advertising, which can catalog people by gender, income level, personal interests, and more. Since Americans have lost the ability to sort through the sheer volume of the consumer choices available to them, a ghost now has to be in the retail machine, whether it’s an algorithm, an influencer, or some snazzy ad tech to help a product follow you around the internet.

My one-handed conclusion is that Keynes was right in predicting how prosperous we’d become but wrong in assuming that humans would use prosperity for personal development and neighborly relations. Instead, we’ve seen ongoing (and unsustainable) competition for status via conspicuous consumption 🙁

Stuff to read

  1. Used stuff is not “dumped” on poor people, but bought by them
  2. Remote sensing will help us find/measure air pollution from power plants
  3. History’s “message” often depends on the identity of the narrator
  4. When I walked into the Bronx I was an atheist. It was something I was sure about. After years of traveling America, I wasn’t so sure.”
  5. Why books (and lectures) don’t work. Thought provoking…
  6. Beautiful water photos
  7. Time to call it Climate Change Crisis
  8. One statistical “success” lead to a thousand useless publications
  9. A really good analysis of the Muller Report (and Trump’s chaos)
  10. Spying is getting very complicated (and these tools will be used on us)

H/T to PB

Review: The Divide

Jason Hickel’s book (subtitled “Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets” in the US and “A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions” in the UK) delves into questions that matter to me, in my post-colonial woke state. In some case, I agreed with Hickel (meaning he’s not wrong); in others, I disagreed (meaning he’s wrong). 

First, where he’s not wrong (i.e., “I agree with him but maybe we’re both wrong”): The colonial period — and a current reality of post-colonial theft by corrupt locals and global elites — was and is terrible for many people now living in “developing” countries. Hickel is right to point out that these countries have been attacked, undermined and stripped of wealth, choice and opportunity. He is right to trace the flow of stolen money from “poor” countries to private bank accounts in “rich” countries (the UK and US being top destinations). He is right to explain how various development agencies are more interested in “hitting KPIs” than actual development.

When he’s wrong, it’s the basic stuff. The World Bank isn’t conspiring to rob the poor; they’re just ideological and incompetent, slaves to the “raving scribblings of some forgotten economist”. The WTO is not trying to (or capable) of exploitative trade regimes. It’s enamored of GDP statistics, fine-tuned rules, and a lack of imagination. These organizations (the IMF, UN, et al.) are the bastard children of quarreling “great powers” who try to dominate but mostly fcuk things up. Should Hickel complain of their harms? Yes, indeed. Does he attribute causality (and thus solutions) correctly? No, I think not. That doesn’t mean trust the World Bank. It means that countries — and citizens — need home-grown solutions. That doesn’t mean trust politicians. They often cause the problems they blame on others (Donald Trump is a gift: a political disaster of random oversized id.)

I had these mixed feelings about the book while I was reading, but I ended up liking the book for its passionate — and often carefully considered — critique of the world’s current order. I agree with Hickel in the main (historic and present exploitation often buried under “sorry we killed you, but we meant well!” propaganda), and most of my remaining criticisms center on his optimistic solutions and ideological critiques.

From here, I’ll add notes in order of topics’ appearance.

  • In 1949, Truman defined “development” as the path towards “fixing” countries of the Global South (GS) damaged by decades or centuries of colonialism by the Global North (GN). This idea implies GS should pursue GN policies and goals. The invention of “underdeveloped” gave space for the existence of a permanent underclass that would be served by charity and photojournalists, but not actual reform.
  • Hickel is right that development aid is a drop in the bucket compared to bad policies and right to question the bona fides of aid organizations that fail to lobby for structural change. (He notes, correctly, that they would go out of business if they reached their professed targets.) He’s also right that absolute poverty (headcount) matters, and that it should be counted via “lack” rather than an arbitrary (and miserly) $1/day “budget”. So, yeah, there are 4.3 billion poor people, which shows how unequal and fucked up the world is. 
  • Hickel says “something is fundamentally wrong with our economic system” (p 13), but I think it’s the political system (in which I include colonial institutions). Perhaps we mean the same thing, as I’ll admit that bad politics can lead to an unfair economic system, but does he mean the same, or does he trust in the (aggregate) honesty of politicians? I don’t.
  • Hickel says that newly independent counties were doing well with their post-colonial policies until their old masters used the World Bank, trade, etc. to derail them. I think progress was more uneven, and their need for advice thus great. I think that GN tried to impose colonial policies but also that GS made some big mistakes. I agree that GS people suffered but GN suffered as well from bad policies (as they are with respect to mismanaged social welfare).
  • I now think humans are lucky to survive their stupidity and greed. A few years ago I thought stupidity and greed rarer. I changed my mind based on the fact that our mistakes are aggregating into larger fuckups, as more dumb spills into more lives.
  • GS “pay” $billions per year to GN via corruption, theft and exploitation. That’s one reason they stay poor. Hickel claims that “unfair trade” strips much more, via underpaid wages. I don’t agree with that one (wages reflect productivity more than bargaining power in global trade), I do agree that the GS is heavily (self-)exploited via pollution, weapons sales, resource exploitation, etc. 
  • Statistical assumptions explain why either 300 million or 900 million Indians are “poor.” but which figure is right? Speaking of explanations, Hickel is sometimes too quick to dismiss the wealth-creating potential of markets, e.g., ignoring China’s entrepreneurs.
  • Inequality is so bad that average global income would need to be $1.3 million/person to raise wages for the poorest above $5/day (holding inequality constant). There’s a crying need for redistribution but — surprise — no political support from the beneficiaries of this scandal.
  • Today, we define “great powers” as those who have invaded, conquored and exploited others (UK, FR, ES, PT, BE, US, RU), not made their diverse subjects wealthy (Ottoman, Mogul, Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires). In this definition, we allow the victors to write exploitation into “inevitable history” rather than question that definition of “empirical success.” 
  • Most colonial wealth was from theft, not productivity. That’s not success. (It’s the same with wealth of the industrial revolution, as the resulting cost from climate disruption might ruin our current prosperity.)
  • Hickel uses massive statistics to impress readers on the magnitude of theft and destruction. I’d put those statistics in terms of, say, the average GN citizen back in the day, or today. The waste was terrible, but it’s ahrd to see in the 000000000000s!
  • Hickel quotes Polanyi, who opposed the commodification of land and labor as impoverishing the poor who lived on the commons. (Hickel calls this the birth of capitalism, but capitalism is millennia older.) I disagree with this IF the poor have free will, but not if their commons is stolen and they are forced into wage labor. That’s not a reason to hate markets for land or labor, but a good reason to hate (political) theft and exploitation.
  • It’s hard to overstate the horrors and evil of colonialism, but the income gap between rich and poor growing from 3:1 to 35:1 makes vampires jealous.
  • Hickel says GS counties made a lot of post-colonial progress, but then he cites the Peróns of Argentina with approval, so I’m less impressed. I agree though, that GS countries should hide from GN exporters while they grow their industries (under intra-GS competition, in my opinion). 
  • Hickel and I have different definitions of “neoliberal” (he says they like to subsidize business; Hayek and Friedman are rolling in their graves), but we agree that GN countries supported terrible GS leaders.
  • Hickel thinks various debt crises are aimed at exploiting the GS, when they are basically organized theft by elites. I agree with him that indebted countries (e.g., Greece in 2009) should just go bankrupt. I disagree with him that they would have an “easy time” thereafter in the markets. 
  • Hickel mixes a few too many conspiracy theories into his text. He’s got a good survey of anti-capitalism without an appropriate skepticism of their claims. His command of macroeconomics, use of data, and understanding of Adam Smith and free trade is sometimes way off. Thus, he assumes victims where there are suicides and threats in good ideas. He sees GS countries as powerless but also purposeful when the opposite is true, as we can see by the “wages of corruption.”
  • Hickel loses credibility with excessive claims on the damage of land grabs and climate change. That undermines his effectiveness only because he continues to miss other driving factors (political greed at many levels). 
  • Hickel ends his book with ideas for helping the poor via structural adjustment. He begins with global debt forgiveness and then moves to global democracy, just wages and recapturing the commons. I agree with these (in theory) but see little hope empirically in a world that is as exploitative as the one he described. OTOH, I am happy to agree that we should dump GDP for GPI, lower consumption, pursue UBI, etc.  At the end of this chapter of fantasies, I had no more wishes left in my magic wand — except perhaps that the rich would agree to Hickel’s changes. Here’s the first step.

My one-handed conclusion is that you should read this book, first, for its description and criticism of the way the world’s poorer people have been made and kept poor. Second, you should read it for a list of good ideas for a better future. Third, don’t read it for its explanation of economics, markets or corruption. People are far more creative — and calculating.


Addendum (23 May): The brutal indifference of colonial murder

Stuff to read

  1. Minimum wages help low paid workers overcome “unequal market power” in setting wages, but they can — in “loose” labor markets — still make it harder to get hired.
  2. More evidence of sexism in the economics profession (as well as the clueless behavior of manspaining graduate student trolls)
  3. How your diet drives climate change — and what to do about it
  4. Are subscription services encouraging over-consumption?
  5. A pretty accurate vies of the “downside” of Amsterdam 😉
  6. Environmental justice needs more attention (and action!)
  7. Watch this TED talk on working as a team instead of competing to beat each other.
  8. Listen to this interview on trusting the poor (rather than treating them as babies) as a means of helping them improve their lives.
  9. I support replacing student debt by taking an equity stake in their future.

H/T to PB