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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