Why Tyrannosaurus burgers were ok, but Big Macs aren’t.

Anthropocene ethics is a bit different from normal ethics. The rules change with population size [1]. We need to learn to accept this and live by it, now that we are in an ecological emergency.

If you are a caveman living 60,000 years ago and you need to catch a flight to a very swampy New York for the annual conference on dinosaur security, it wouldn’t be an ethical problem from the point of view of climate change. Yes, the ride would be bumpy – the stone seats uncomfortable, and the worm and locust paté so-so – but there only seven of you on the flight, and there’s only one scheduled flight from London to New York every three months. So we can overlook the emissions there.

If you are making the same flight in the 1970s, as a distinguished professor of anthropology, where there are only a few billion people on the planet, then … well only a very few insightful thinkers know about climate change … and yes there is an oil crisis and air pollution … but the impact is miniscule. Only the rich world has aeroplanes and the flying population is still relatively modest – about one tenth of today’s.

But now if you fly to New York it is very different. Yours is one of five billion passenger flights each spewing out from a few hundred kg to a few tonnes of CO2, each contributing to runaway climate change, whose effects are now well known.

So the same act in one age is ok ethically because it doesn’t cause any harm. But in another age it is a crime except in the very generous, avuncular legal system we enjoy.

The same goes with food. Your Tyrannosaurus burger was actually doing us all a favour back then – no-one liked the aggressive and egoistical Tyrannosaurus Rex, so when we did manage to bring one down with a plucky ,well-aimed slingshot, it was burgers all round and double chips for the lad with the sling. No-one was too worried about the impact of that burger on emissions, deforestation in Gondwana, the dead zone in the Tethis Sea, or plastic packaging clogging up the Panthalassic Ocean. Now, as we all know, or should know, meat eating is implicated in a myriad of ills. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth). Now, it is very bad news to eat meat.

That is hard for us to grasp. It riles us. How come if it was ok to eat meat when we were little, it is now no longer ok to eat meat?

We are used to ethical rules being stable, permanent. If something is wrong, then it is wrong, full stop. Like the ten commandments. We also like our ethical rules to be unconditional – if such and such is wrong, it is always wrong. But with environmental ethics, right and wrong change as a function of the population. The more crowded the planet is, the wronger it becomes to eat meat and fly.

Why is that so, when the impact of the individual act is just the same? It is something to do with the “if everyone did” test. When contemplating an act in the Anthropocene age (i.e. the age of billions of humans trampling over all other living things), there is an extra test to apply to see if an act is ethical or not. We have to ask: “What if everyone did this?”

This requires recognising that we are not just individuals (hard to do in an age of individualism). We have to acknowledge that we are also nodes in a vast network of individuals like a swarm of bees. Each thing we do influences others, so that the act of eating the meat burger is no longer just a personal rite. It is a signal to all the others that the act is ok. Giving that signal increases the probability that “everyone else” will do the act. Since by committing the act, we increase the likelihood of others committing the same act, it is incumbent on us invoke the “if everyone did test” to see if that act is ok.

Obviously in times of large population, the outcome of the “if everyone did” test is different from in times of small population. Hence under Anthropocene ethics, when using the “if everyone did” test, we have to be much more careful than we used to be.


[1] Not just population. Technology, too. And other things. But this is a short blog post not an essay.

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Take write-offs on the chin; replace investment with legacy

This is a thought I have had great difficulty articulating, but with 120 months to cut emissions by 45%, I thought I would have a go … [1]

There is a sense in much writing and thought about climate policy that investing in mitigating climate change has to be profitable. That is why it is called “investing”. All the focus on mitigating climate change is centred around “investment”. By using the word “investment” we imply that the person who spends the money will make a return for themselves.

We argue that it has to be treated as a for-profit investment in order to attract people to spend money on it. Laws are sometimes changed to to make things become profitable which otherwise were not – through taxes, subsidies and trading schemes.

This assumes that there is always, somewhere, a profitable solution to the equation. What if there isn’t?

Imagine you have a hundred prisoners and one guard with a machine gun. Let’s say the prisoners are not chained up. If all the prisoners charged the guard, then the guard would eventually be overcome. It would be down to the physics of guns and masses of bodies piling on to the guard. He might take out ten, 20 people. Probably no more.

Imagine there is an old cathedral which desperately needs maintaining. A wealthy guy says quietly: “I will put up a couple of hundred million to maintain this cathedral. I get nothing from it, but it would be unreasonable to privatise the building just to finance its maintenance. So I know I will get no financial return. And it is in poor taste to change its name to the Bouillon Soup Incorporated Cathedral. Well, at least if the cathedral is maintained now, the chances of it burning down in a fire are much lower.”

The solution to the problem being contemplated by a prisoner or the Soup Magnate implies a high probability of loss of life or fortune. Yet, for the group, the solution is desirable. Any delay means the prisoners are already lined up against the wall and reinforcements have arrived; the Cathedral goes up in flames.

By framing the climate problem as one must have a profitable solution to those who pay for the solution, we are delaying and we are on a search where there is no guarantee of success.

There is another way of looking at it: we have to talk about write-offs in the interest of life on the planet. And we have to talk about building cathedrals.

There is a pile of equipment we have which we cling to but it is ecologically intolerable: factory farms, meat factories, fertiliser plants, cement plants, steel mills, coal-fired power stations, etc. etc. Virtually all current the owners and financiers of those plants knew or should have known about climate change when they took ownership. They are grown ups. They made their bet, or made their bed. Those assets need to be written off now, and the owners need to take the hit. The banks which have financed them need to take the hit, too.

That view needs to become socially accepted and we don’t need to have sympathy for the owners. Take the hit, it only hurts once.

Once those people have mentally taken the hit, they become more compliant in measures to shut down those assets and replace them with something cleaner.

Do we need what they produce? Yes but we should be able to get by if we are only talking about ten years. For ten years we can muddle by without new cement or steel, and quite a lot of other things.

Building cathedrals: you might say that the return was glory and the cementing of political power; that the funding was stolen from the peasants or the Jews anyway. I am saying: If it makes no return, or it cuts our wealth by 10% or 20%, does that really matter? We have to throw financial caution to the wind for ten years. There is enough accumulated human capital in our civilisation, that if we blow 10% of it on a very rapid transition to a low-carbon so be it.

Let’s blow 10%-20% of our wealth on a legacy which makes no financial return but which preserves life on the planet. Reframe investment as legacy, and the return becomes quiet, personal satisfaction, a knowledge that you are putting things right. The threshold for decision making suddenly becomes lower.

I put a chunk of my own wealth in creating a small native-species forest. It probably preserves its value in a conventional sense but makes no return. Imagine loads of people did that. It is a challenge for anyone with a surplus above what is enough to live off. Hospitals, schools, memorial parks, snooker clubs and cathedrals can all wait. Splurge on nature for ten years.


Another implication of this argument is also the nonsense of competitiveness. There is a mindset that associates tackling climate change with investment and technology and innovation and … competitiveness. I don’t care two hoots about competitiveness when there are 120 months to stop run away climate change. Just get on with it. It’s less than three political cycles. Does being top of the greasy pole really matter that much? At this stage, competitiveness is a mantra of the blinkered who are stuck in a mindset which emergency has made irrelevant.


At the core of this is the question of individual against group. Our values today tend towards the individualistic – everyone has the right to fulfilment in whatever field they want. I am not sure that right pertains any more in the age of climate collapse. I would rephrase it as everyone has the right to fulfilment in whatever field they want as long as it is restoring the natural world or reducing emissions. Sorry for the extreme revision to the theory of human rights, but we are in a critical 120 months which has not happened since the dinosaurs got hit by that meteor 65,633,982 years and 57 days ago. If we continue to mess up then you can fulfil yourself writing video games or searching for prime numbers or designing silent Velcro or organising pink elephant festivals … but it’s like one of the prisoners saying I am not going to rush the guard because I am busy designing a five dimensional swimming school for migrating lemmings. WTF.


[1] I assume that this thing about having to cut emissions by 45% by 2030 to avoid catastrophic climate change is a kind of fiction. I assume that we can’t avoid catastrophic climate change, but we can make things a bit better. Having a short-term target is a really useful motivator for people, so let’s have that target even if it is a bit of a self-deception.


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120 months – what I would like political leaders to do

We have ten years…

For a moment stop worrying about what is politically feasible and write down what needs to be done. Where there is a way there is a will.

This is approximately what is needed.

1. People: An essential precondition is to instil love and care of the natural world in our young people so they grow up to be responsible citizens. School resources need to be reallocated to regular nature exposure for kids and proper outdoor nature learning.

The people who stand to lose from the transition and who will resist it need to be taken care of. Huge programme of care, retraining, community support and trauma management etc.

2. Food: We have to stop trashing of forests, peatlands, wetlands, biodiversity, soils, etc. So all factory farming has to be banned from 2025. All subsidies for meat and dairy production to be stopped immediately. All subsidies for conventional agriculture to stop by 2025. All agriculture to convert to organic regenerative by 2030. Subsidies to train farmers in conversion and capital support during transition funded by levy on fossil fuel sales. (Note: fall in meat eating means we will be able to feed ourselves using organic regenerative approaches, as reduction in meat eating easily frees up enough land to compensate for lower crop yields).

All commercial fishing to be suspended from 2025 for 20 years. Programme to buy back fishing boats. Programme to retrain fisherman as ocean clean-up stewards. All plastic entering into the sea to stop from 2025. Offshore amnesty wealth tax to fund full ocean clean-up.

3. Homes. All new homes and buildings to be passive standard from 2025. All existing homes and buildings to be converted to low-energy heating and high insulation by 2035. Massive funding scheme to support this and statutory time off for people to manage works.

4. Capturing carbon. Tax or allowance auction reserve price of €100 / tonne CO2 for finance native reforestation of Brazil, Indonesia etc, and roll-out of direct air capture and storage. (Note cessation of industrial meat production means a lot of land will free up in Brazil, reducing the cost of reforestation).

5. Transport and shipping. All transport to be electric from 2030 or 200% offset using natural sequestration credits. Scheme for retraining of petrol industry workers and support of their communities funded by levy on fossil fuel sales.

6. Energy. All coal mines to be progressively shut down through to 2030. Scheme for retraining of miners, support of mining communities funded by levy on fossil fuel sales. Expansion and acceleration of existing solar and wind renewable energy schemes (with great care to ensure natural world is protected from further harm from renewables schemes).

Turning it into practice

Once these big goals are set in stone, then brainy bankers and consultants and engineers are put to work to devise all the schemes to make it happen. It will be the challenge of their lives – for some the first opportunity to do something which really counts.

Too simplistic?

This sounds really simplistic.

What we mean by simplistic is that decisions will have to be taken which seem unfair to specific individuals. Meaning that someone will be hurt. Yes, people will be hurt. But not much. Some fortunes will be pruned back. Some egos bruised. Some political power will be short-circuited. But no-one is going to get seriously ill from this. Jobs will be lost but many gained, and the whole programme is designed to help people who lose jobs quickly get back into meaningful work.

This is just a plan for ten years to get emissions and biodiversity loss under control. After that we have a little bit more time to refine the measures to make them a bit fairer, more relevant for countries at different economic levels, and so forth. But we are talking about a ten year emergency, so don’t expect something which is nice to everyone.

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The Bustard’s fourth rule

Medieval brainbox William of Ockam (Surrey, England) said:

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. 

That is:

More things should not be used than are necessary.

When applied to philosophy or science: the simpler the explanation the better.

Applied to living on a crowded planet where mankind is breaching nature’s limits, the rule becomes:

Use the simplest technology possible consistent with your lasting well-being.

This is the Bustard’s fourth rule. Application of this rule to low-carbon living would surely put a pin in the balloon of unbridled techno-optimism.

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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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