Hope in children

I spoke at the Economist’s Sustainability Summit last week. I have written up my notes and added some more details into a more coherent post. This is a bit wide-ranging – even rambling, but I have a bunch of observations I want to make or remake.

Is rapid transformational change possible? Yes, but it is not explainable by economics

I woke up in the night thinking of the desert blooms in California. Where for years there is nothing but sun and sand, and then after rare rain the landscape is magically transformed by blooms and becomes a hive of life.

Can such a rapid and fundamental transformation happen in human affairs? Such is needed if we want to sustain life on the planet.

The answer is yes. But it is nothing to do with the economy or with economics, unless you redefine economics accordingly [see earlier blogs on belief economics].

Until 18th December last year, Manchester United’s performance was dismal and dreary. Our team of stars, who had cost something like half a billion pounds to assemble, played like lead soldiers: dull, unimaginative, going through the motions with no desire. We were led by a morose and arrogant Portuguese man (apologies to Jose Mourinho here – I am only being personal for the sake of the planet).

Then Mourinho was sacked and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over. This cheerful, modest and open fellow instantly transformed the team. The players became ballerinas, agile, creative, beautiful, passionate, full of desire and drive.

And yet no economist or economic theory would explain this. I dare say Solskjaer’s salary is lower than Jose’s was. Nor did Solskjaer learn to be nice at university. No, it was surely learnt in the first few years of his life.

The second transformation, even more relevant: in August last year a single Swedish teenager went on strike from school to protest against adult inaction on climate change. Last Friday one and a half million school children followed her worldwide.

Again, nothing to do with economics. She was not funded by an EU grant. It’s not the Coca Cola School Strike.

But there is a connection to economics. Belief, drive, passion, values, commitment – these are all about the human mind and the human mind is the source of our utility function which shapes the demand curve.

Policy in terms of supply and demand curves

In economics you have a supply curve and a demand curve, and where the two lines cross gives us the price and volume at which trade in goods and services is transacted. Today almost all environmental policy is about changing the supply curve – making “bad” things more expensive through taxes, and making “good” things cheaper through subsidy.

We have been trying to tackle climate change with such policies for some time, but emissions are stubborn. Meat and dairy eating (15% of greenhouse gas emissions and over 90% of Brazilian deforestation) and transport are politically immune to carbon pricing. Home insulation is too difficult. If you manufacture ammonia, cement or steel, you have to emit CO2 whether it is priced or not: alternative carbon-free technologies are not imminent. Even if you run a power plant, it can be easier to pay the cost of carbon emissions than work out what to do about them.

The trouble is, our current instincts are for faster, easier, more convenient, more filling. So policies are about paying people to go against their instincts, while at the same time marketing and advertising is all about whipping up their basic instincts. This is like having the foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time. It is not economically efficient, despite the claim that “pricing carbon”, for example, is the most economically efficient approach to cutting emissions.

What if, as well as shifting the supply curve, we also looked at shifting the demand curve by shaping the preferences of people. By shifting the supply curve and the demand curve at the same time, you move the quantity and price point even quicker than just moving the supply curve alone. I am suggesting we change people’s preferences so that they actually want to tread more lightly on the planet.

Economists and politicians shy from this area for good reason: in the past very bad people have tried to change preferences through brainwashing. Some bad people still do. But at the same time we know that it can be effective – hence the billions spent on advertising and, in a clunky awkward way, our education system.

Relevant earlier posts: Changing demand for emission reductions, Policies to change demand for emissionsTen policies to increase demand for low carbon living; Ten policies to reduce demand for emissions

Priming children to love and care for the natural world

The most important time for shaping preferences is the first ten years of a child’s life. This time, particularly between the ages of five and ten, is when the capacity for empathy develops. This is when a person is “primed” and fundamental values are crystallised which accompany the person throughout adulthood. If, during that period, a young person has repeated exposure to the natural world, and experiences awe of its beauty and ineffable mystery, then their soul will be shaped accordingly. In later life they will be more likely to care for the natural world and to vote for green policies.

We need to invest in primary education and spend money on getting children out into nature and understanding the natural world. There are many great practitioners of this – not least forest schools or the Field Studies Council in the UK – but it needs to be scaled up and intensified. Funding could be found by reducing support for universities – while universities are good at making people cleverer, they are not good at making people gooder. And now our civilisation needs good not clever. We are clever enough, by half. Note that Greta Thunberg has not been to university yet. Nor Solskjaer.

Making people gooder sooner

Not just gooder, but gooder sooner. It is fascinating that it takes people to their sixties to become kind. Billionaires who have spent their lives digging up the planet, then get to sixty or seventy and start being kind and giving all their wealth away.  Or it takes them forty years to “get it”. I am thinking, for example, of Larry Fink of Blackrock. This year he wrote to his investors that money is not everything and businesses should pursue good purpose. But it took him 40 years or more to figure this out. Or Warren Buffet – giving away billions as an octogenarian. Bill Gates – thirty years a ruthless software monopolist, now all over the energy and climate change. I am not criticising these chaps, just interested that compassion becomes a priority so late in life. I wonder: what if these amazingly driven and talented people had been imbued with a love of the natural world as young people and had dedicated all that talent and drive to preserving forest, restoring wetlands and promoting regenerative farming. What if we became kind at 20 instead 60?

By instilling in children a love of the natural world, we will be able to redefine the sociological drivers of the economy: success, status and wealth: Success becomes measured in the number of trees you have planted or wetlands you have preserved; the tonnes of soil carbon that you have settled. Status is reflected in a modest and simple lifestyle. Wealth is embodied in holdings of regenerative farms.

It is done quickly and cheaply. A handful of close-to-nature experiences in youth can have a lasting effect. It takes less time to raise a child accordingly than to build a nuclear power station. (The Bustard’s third rule – Kids v nukes).

Priming children to love nature is the ultimate shaping of the demand-side. Experts should cost it out and calculate the value of its various benefits to society and nature. Since it happens within the existing education system, there are existing structures for its funding and implementation.

Priming is a long-term process and not rapidly transformational like the Greta effect. But there is something more wholesome about it that deploying the manipulative technology of social media campaigns.

I was asked what other things can be done to shape the demand curve. Rather than look at specific interventions in different areas of greenery, I suggest two systemic things: a decision-making technique and a kind of thinking.

relevant posts from the Bustard: Policy goal, love natureNotes on dark green capitalism

The WMKP decision tool

Standard decision-making tools such as discounted cashflow, capital asset pricing, return on investment, and so forth usually give the wrong answer. That is, if you want to justify a green decision. An alternative tool is the WMKP model. WMKP stands for “Would My Kids be Proud?” The aim of this tool is to break down the compartmentalisation, which many adopt, between the home persona and the work persona. Many people take decisions at work which are contrary to the interests of their children. So by asking whether your children (or grandchildren) would be proud of something, you are forced to reflect on whether the decision contributes to their long-term well-being and that of their contemporaries. This could be taught at business school.

Joined-up thinking

To get ahead you have to focus narrowly, to specialise. Engineers and scientists are adept at this, as are businessmen. A corollary of this is that they often forget to investigate the impact of their work, even though it is known that solving one problem can cause another problem. The men who invented and sold neonicotinoids did not bother too much about their impact on bees. The men who sold plastic packaging did not reflect on the question of its proper disposal in countries without proper waste management facilities.

If people were taught throughout school and college to think broadly, considering the implications and ramifications of things, both real and moral, and to see the world more holistically and not in little unconnected, isolated blocks, their demand for harmful things might be dampened by reflection on the harm caused. It would be most valuable to invest careful and high quality teaching into this, at cognitive levels appropriate to the students.

Relevant earlier posts: The energy dream is not enoughThe man of the sugar mountain (allegorical tale)

Remove free limited liability to force joined-up thinking among investors

A radical way of forcing investors to thinking through the consequences of their acts would be to stop automatically granting investors limited liability. If they had to purchase such limited liability from insurers, they would be forced to weigh up the potential risks of their venture with the cost of purchasing that.  Fear of class action law-suits which could destroy not only their company but all their wealth, might make them think twice about launching products which cause cancer or destroy the fabric of life.

Relevant earlier posts: Limited liability as a socialist phenomenon

Letter in the FT: Time to recalibrate limited liability





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Agriculture’s Max 8 moment

On Thursday I spoke at the Economist Sustainability Summit in London. The event was sponsored by Bayer, owners of Monsanto. Several speakers pointed out the galling irony that a sustainability summit is sponsored by a company which is the antithesis of sustainability, and, in the eyes of many, an embodiment of wickedness.

On Saturday at the organic market here in Budapest, Imre, who sells almond milk, said how deer in Hungary are dying of thirst. The farms have become such immense mono-cultures that the deer become disorientated and cannot find their way out of the fields. Tractors are getting bigger and bigger and need bigger and bigger fields. It is not just the chemical companies – tractor companies must also take the rap for creating an incentive to enlarge fields, remove trees and hedgerows, and to compact the soil to the point that it cannot sustain life.

Engineered by agricultural scientists, the death of farmland wildlife, the sterilisation of our soils and the extermination of pollinators are Agriculture’s 737 Max 8. When innovation for its own sake and the sake of competitiveness is killing us all.

I wonder where the mindless mantra of innovation and competitiveness comes from. It is the one thing that politicians of left and right spout night and day: innovation and competitiveness. Isn’t it better to co-operate? And cheaper to learn from the past rather than try and invent new things for the sake of shiny, lethal novelty?

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Bird-friendly farming

Bird-friendly farming is a way of farming which, as well as profitably producing food for humans, preserves habitat for birds and other wildlife; protects and nurtures invertebrates; and regenerates the soil. This is done by avoiding agrichemicals, by avoiding compaction of the soil (low-till or no-till), through careful crop selection, leaving plenty of space uncultivated, and, where possible, benefitting from the services of other species to protect the crops.

The death of wildlife is now mainstream knowledge: in 2017, insectageddon hit the news when a German study emerged showing that flying insects had fallen in number by more than 75% over the last 27 years (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/20/insectageddon-farming-catastrophe-climate-breakdown-insect-populations). This year the French have learned that birdlife has fallen by a third to two thirds because of farming (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/21/catastrophe-as-frances-bird-population-collapses-due-to-pesticides). In the UK they have lost 50% of their wildlife (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/26/wildlife-modern-farming-insects-birds).

I read of a concerned scientist trying to understand how this has happened. Surely a case of an Oxford PHD being less useful than common sense: if over a period of several decades, and several times a year, you cake over 50% of your landmass in chemicals which are designed to kill off life, and they you repeatedly compact the soil with heavy machinery, don’t be surprised if life gets poisoned and crushed to death. You wonder what they teach scientists and engineers at university. It is certainly not to think broadly about the ramifications of their work. Too much mechanics and not enough philosophy.

With this our soils are being destroyed. Even fertiliser, for all the good it does, when misused, which is often, creates imbalance in carbon and nitrogen in the soil and leads to the evaporation and leaching away of all the good.

Why does this happen?

Farmers are under pressure to squeeze the last penny from the land, ignoring the long-term consequences which they don’t consider they will live to endure. They are under pressure from supermarkets which are competing with each other. Supermarkets are competing for shoppers who are trying to save money on food. Shoppers are deluded by politicians’ meme that “cheap food” is a good thing.

It might have been a good thing after the second world war to produce cheap food for people, but the second world war was more than seventy years ago. Cheap food is now a pernicious meme which, at the age of seventy, now needs to be killed off quickly.

Even though a simple average shrouds much complexity, it is worth noting that the average UK household spends 9% of its income on food, Germans 11% and French 14%. Assume conservatively that organic food is on average 30% more expensive, we are talking about exterminating our wildlife for around 3%-5% of the household budget. This also means that there is hope: once Facebook and other forms of social mediocrity have been shut down, there could be a sufficient release of human enterprise and energy to make that extra 5% easily affordable.

Here are some things that could be done about the extermination of wildlife, but might not be:

  1. The food industry could introduce a voluntary labelling scheme for conventionally produced food as being harmful to wildlife, pollinators, insects, birds etc. This would involve the de-branding and elimination of illustrated packaging (as applied to the cigarette industry) for factory- and intensively farmed foods which pollute our soils and constitute a danger to society far graver than smoke-induced lung cancer.
  2. The farming industry could voluntarily make it a requirement of a farmer’s land-stewardship licence that she or he clearly understands the various impacts of conventional, organic, and low- or zero-tillage farming on soils and wildlife.
  3. Supermarkets could agree to phase out conventionally produced food over a ten year period on a straight-line basis (i.e. 1/10th reduction each year). They would subsidise this in recognition of their insidious if unwitting role in wildlife extermination over the last few decades.
  4. Customers could become enlightened by way of social influences, schooling and watching Netflix (note impact of Blue Planet 2), and then willingly seek out bird-friendly farming labelled foods in the shops and local markets, paying any premium in the knowledge that they and their descendants will be happier and healthier as a result.
  5. Global chemical crop control companies could enter into voluntary liquidation and their chemical engineers could voluntarily go on a retreat to Gruinard Island in Scotland. This form of corporate hara-kiri is necessary for the officers and shareholders of these companies to restore the social honour of their families.
  6. Meanwhile, the skills of bird-friendly farming, which can be done productively and profitably, need to be imparted quickly and effectively to farmers around the world. To this end, a global network of bird-friendly farming centres of excellence needs to be endowed and established quickly; probably funded anonymously by the aforementioned corporations, for whom this would constitute a desirable legacy.

Any other suggestions as to how to bring about fundamental change in farming around the world would be gratefully received by some skylarks, frogs, snails and worms, among others.

(Before anyone says authoritatively “You can’t feed the world with organic food”, consider that by working hard on cutting down on food waste and meat eating, we would free-up land to make good any net fall in yield from farming wholesomely; and not all land needs to be farmed organically to save the world’s wildlife. But a lot does.)

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Calculating the cost of changing demand for emission reductions

The price of something is, in economics, established as a point where the demand curve meets the supply curve. So, too is the quantity of that thing that is traded.

Most climate policy has been, to date, about changing the shape of the supply curve for carbon dioxide emissions so that the price of carbon dioxide emissions rises and the quantity falls. Emission trading schemes, policies to tax fossil fuels, to prescribe emission limits to technologies, policies to subsidise clean technology – all are ways of making good things cheaper and bad things more expensive; that is, they try and shift the supply curve.

The demand curve reflects how much we are all prepared to pay for things. This is the aggregation of everyone’s utility function: the value to individuals of things. The demand curve changes with population size and shifts in tastes, aspirations and customs.

Policy-makers are generally uncomfortable with measures which try and change the shape of the demand curve – it is seen as an unacceptable intrusion or social engineering to try and meddle with someone’s tastes or aspirations. Of course, we do this all the time – what is advertising if not that – but still, there is political discomfort with the idea.

Notwithstanding political discomfort, it would be useful to have an idea of the cost of changing the shape of the demand curve. Perhaps the cost of moving the demand curve is actually lower than moving the supply curve. Perhaps if you move both at the same time, you get an even bigger effect?

So scientists, engineers and economists, who today are very focussed on the technology and economics of supply-curve changing policies, should also turn their attention to the technology and economics of demand-changing policies. Perhaps there are unexploited, undiscovered ways of tweaking people’s utility functions which turn out cheaper per ton of CO2 thereby reduced, than marginal improvements in renewable technology or the strugglesome attempts to constrain industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

We will have to examine distasteful things – how did bad people persuade large numbers of people to do bad things – and more positive things – how did good people persuade large numbers of people to do good things – in order to understand the technology of cultural change as well as we understand the transformation of sunlight into electricity. But academics at least should not shirk from examining the distasteful, even if politically incorrect, if the prize is an effective and painless way of preserving liveable life on the planet.

The marginal abatement cost curves which show to policymakers the costs of different ways of cutting emissions are generally flawed since they only include supply-side measures. Demand-side measures are harder, more difficult to measure and predict. But that does not mean they are more expensive. If our aim is to cut emissions cheaply, then more work is needed to understand them and calculate their costs.

This is a non-humorous revision of an earlier blog posts: http://www.thebustard.com/?p=1448 and http://www.thebustard.com/?p=1616 . Related posts are here: http://www.thebustard.com/?p=837  http://www.thebustard.com/?p=1525   http://www.thebustard.com/?p=1190  http://www.thebustard.com/?p=1210

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Everything we eat is from a place which was once wilderness

The Guardian has recently reported on destruction of forest in the Ivory Coast for growing chocolate: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/13/chocolate-industry-drives-rainforest-disaster-in-ivory-coast

It is horrifying and but we should not be surprised, self-righteous or indignant: everything we eat is from a place which was once wilderness.

Each time we eat a banana, an avocado, some chocolate, have a cup of tea or coffee, we are consuming something from a place which was once forest in a hot country. And every time we eat a potato, a carrot, a slice of bread, we are eating something from a place which was once forest in a less hot country. If not forest, then swamp or savannah.

Each time we eat a little bit more, we are contributing to the destruction of wilderness – since surely the responsibility must be shared on a per capita basis; blaming the marginal arrival would imply an intolerable burden of guilt for the young.

I imagined a slave who is beaten every day. His back is a map of the world. Most of it is now formed of hardened scars, and tough leathery skin. There are weals where recent punishments are starting to heal – long purple sores marking the trajectory of the whip. And then simple bleeding, raw gashes from yesterday’s beating.

Such is the surface of the world: the scars are our conventional farms, with tough, drying soil. The bleeding wounds are where we are now turning wilderness into farmland.

Through caring, wildlife- and bird-friendly farming can we give ourselves food and at the same time go some way to restoring the land. But first, we just need to eat and drink less.


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