Defeating the porpoises, an ongoing series

At the intersection of global climate issues and all things monetary, well, it can be difficult to decide which word to italicize anymore:

The U.S.-based crypto exchange Kraken has announced that, despite the layoffs and hiring freezes among its competitors in the ongoing “crypto winter”, they intend to keep hiring aggressively. They also took the opportunity to announce that they “believe bear markets are fantastic at weeding out the applicants chasing hype from the true believers in our mission”, and that they had “taken this opportunity to align our internal culture around a set of shared values”. They also make it clear that anyone who disagree with the changes can GTFO: “In commitment to these values, we also expanded our permanent benefits program to make moving on a bit easier for anyone who feels it’s time for the next chapter in their career.”

That’s from Molly White’s terrific and wonderfully-named website and she’s is no danger of running out of content anytime soon. Because lots of everyones out there think all the other everyones are the suckers, or they’re not sure who is. But whatever, the sucker rule still applies.

And at the same time, it’s more than that. When the last necessary thing was another distraction from the burning and belching, from the fanning, the rising and the storming, everyones are out here convincing themselves to believe in yet another free ride. Yes, it would be great if blockchain ‘tech’ guaranteed that you could trust this invisible money (cf. the italics dilemma). But that’s not how people work. What people do is find the sucker, and adjust for scale, malheureusement.

Image via porpoisesdotorg, natch.

Shop ’til you stop

Insightful NYRB review of two new books about life in a slower economy. It’s NOT that things will necessarily be so much worse when we are spending less, driving less, burning less – they won’t be worse. It’s just the transition to consuming less itself we consider to be so painful as to be unthinkable. We’re such babies:

Generations of economists, meanwhile, have insisted on the goodness of economic growth and warned that any significant drop in consumption would vaporize jobs, leaving millions if not billions of people without a means of supporting themselves or their families. (Margaret Thatcher’s well-known phrase “There is no alternative,” sometimes shortened to TINA, refers to the assumed necessity of perpetual growth.) The resulting dilemma, as MacKinnon puts it, is that “we must stop shopping, and yet we can’t stop shopping.”

Rather than dismiss this conundrum, MacKinnon seeks to complicate it. Whose jobs would be lost, and for how long? How could societies and their economies adapt, and what could they gain in the process? How would other species react to quieter, less polluted habitats? To begin to answer these questions, he proposes a thought experiment to economists, entrepreneurs, and others: Say that on a single day not long from now, consumer spending falls 25 percent. What next? Predictions in hand, MacKinnon seeks real-world equivalents, finding disparate places and times where conditions similar to those of his thought experiment have already come to pass.

This approach, which might be called speculative journalism, was memorably employed by Alan Weisman in his 2008 book The World Without Us, which MacKinnon credits in his acknowledgments. To conjure a planet precipitously vacated by humans, Weisman interviewed architects, engineers, ecologists, and others qualified to forecast the fates of abandoned cities, farms, and forests. He then visited deliberately unpeopled places, such as the Korean Demilitarized Zone and the United Nations–controlled buffer zone between the Turkish and Greek sides of the island of Cyprus. In a kind of reverse archaeology, both Weisman and MacKinnon assemble shards of past and present into plausible futures. The most obvious difference between their thought experiments is that MacKinnon’s became all too concrete: when he was midway through his research, pandemic shutdowns upended the world economy, and the effects of his imagined fall in spending were inflicted on real people in real time.

The Day the World Stops Shopping is neither an economic treatise nor a detailed policy proposal, though it draws on both as sources. It is an enjoyably idiosyncratic tour led by a perceptive, empathetic guide. It assumes that any significant, lasting reduction in consumption will result from accidents and innovations, brought about not by individual households but by loosely coordinated communities, nations, and regions. In this sense, it is both more realistic and more persuasive than any technical argument, for it makes it possible to imagine not only one alternative to endless growth but many.

Lots of important points here, brought us by people who are smarter.

Re-Tooling Demand

This Financial Times article (subscription req’d) pulls back the curtain on rain forest destruction in Brazil to let us see what – and who – it’s all for:

At the recent UN climate summit in Glasgow, more than 100 national leaders committed to halt deforestation by 2030, and 30 financial institutions, including Storebrand, promised to eliminate the harmful practice from their portfolios by 2025. However, the signatories, including Brazil, Russia and Indonesia, did not indicate how it would be implemented or tracked, and environmental campaigners remain sceptical.

ADM and Bunge are among the world’s largest traders moving Brazilian soyabeans around the world. The increase in production of the commodity, largely used for livestock feed, has been a leading cause of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest as well as the destruction of Cerrado savannah.

The scale of soyabean production on deforested land and differing standards about what qualifies as acceptable activity makes tackling its presence in supply chains challenging for companies.

Both Bunge and ADM strengthened their deforestation policies last year in response to calls from shareholders. Storebrand, together with US fund manager Green Century, tabled a proposal at Bunge’s annual meeting asking it to tighten its policies, which was backed by 98 per cent of shareholders. Bunge has said it is committed to not having soyabeans from illegally deforested land.

As much as even the big fund managers and many governments get on board with divestment and ESG priorities in managing portfolios, this really points up the issue: the companies – and countries – who burn and mine for profit just aren’t going to give it up as long as it’s profitable. The whole ‘fiduciary responsibility to shareholders’ is baked into our ethos, as long as there is money to be made, dividends to be paid, stock to buy back, whatever.

For allies in COP26 and elsewhere, the approach has to include the goal to dismantle, and then re-assemble, the demand side. It’s worth being realistic about this – otherwise, we remain [eternally? That’s optimistic – ed.] captive to supply-side economic logic. As the ADM example highlights, the companies will never lead anywhere besides mining, digging, clearing, and burning.

Image via FT.com © Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket/Getty Images

Tales from the crypt(o)

NBA commentator Jeff Van Gundy’s well-placed, near-extemporaneous “back at the crypt” comment notwithstanding, ubiquitous references to crypto currency range from annoying to cloying. Everything about digital money is either scammy or… that seems to be mostly it. Scammy neatly encompasses the over-hyped, Ponzi-schemed, last-one-in nature of the the collection of binary data that necessarily requires us to put all the usual finance-related terms in quotes: “ownership” “collateral” “token” “transaction.” You could go on.

And besides the obvious downsides of NFT’s – from terrific money-laundering possibilities to the proliferation of really bad art – we’d be remiss in not noting crypto’s climate impacts:

Crypto’s overall climate impact remains massive, with certain currencies swallowing up entire nations’ worth of processing power from individual computing units and data centers—much of whose power comes from fossil fuels. The most common form of cryptocurrency mining, proof of work, requires a massive amount of processing power. Alternative mining methods have a mixed track record so far, with some ostensibly “sustainable” mining systems still requiring significant amounts of dirty or clean power. And transacting any tokens across the blockchain, whether an NFT or a Litecoin, sucks up the collective energy feeding into the transaction, no matter the product at hand. One estimate claims that a single NFT trade across the much-used Ethereum blockchain uses enough energy that could power an entire house for several days. And this is all so the buyer can have bragging rights about “owning” an image.

Celebrities who are selling NFTs and also claim to care about the environment: What are you doing? Whatever it is, there sure are a lot of you. Here’s a list—surely incomplete—of luminaries who brand themselves as climate-conscious yet have also been hawking NFTs in some form or the other, ensuring this bizarre digital culture product will linger in the public discourse while possibly ruining the art world, the planet, and our collective sanity.

Not even-close-to-exhaustive list of scam-adjacent proponents at the link. Yes, engaging in yet another form of workaround for doing not the things we need to do about global warming: what are we doing? The climate question at the center of everything, that we’ve been needing to ask for decades, that we still need to answer.

Image: the crypt in question

Ruffling the kleptocracy

In other news – just started a subscription to the FT and wow, there ARE other stories out there. Boring, significant. Anyway, the U.S. is about to ban anonymous shell companies:

The Biden administration’s focus on corruption and money laundering may so far have attracted less notice than its other big policy decisions. But it is the most meaningful manifestation of the US president’s argument that making the economy work for ordinary Americans is intimately connected to US national security and foreign policy interests.

There are many reasons to cheer this turn in policy. First, it is an all-too-rare example of relative bipartisanship in a deeply polarised country. Days before the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the Corporate Transparency Act was passed by overwhelming majorities of the US Congress as part of the annual defence spending authorisation bill. This law will, when implemented, in effect ban anonymous shell companies in the US — a favoured conduit for the world’s corrupt to launder dirty money, as Yellen referred to in her remarks.

Second, the administration means it seriously. The Treasury has issued an implementation rule for the shell company ban. Too often, in the US or elsewhere, good laws on paper have been dead letters in practice, because of loopholes or a failure to put enough resources and political support behind enforcement. This time looks different.

So weird, and not to get/stay meta all the time, but this story even hits the mythical ‘bipartisan’ note somehow, and yet still never rises to the level of the local news. Sure, it was drowned out by a coup attempt, but as the article points out, corrupted government institutions are the very things that abet anti-democratic movements. So, striking back at corruption also strikes a blow in support of liberal democracy. Sounds so quaint, but that’s where we are.

Image: Nicobar spindle shell, typically not itself a threat to democracy.

Abundance of scarcity

That’s where we are now, or one of the places, so sayeth Matt Levine:

Basically it is easy, using blockchain technology, to create scarce claims. You could I suppose use this technology to create scarce claims to scarce resources: You could put, like, housing deeds or shares of corporate ownership or cargo-container manifests on the blockchain. This would — people have argued for years — have benefits in terms of efficiency and legibility and tradability. It would create value by improving the processes by which real-world assets are transferred and allocated. Classic financial-services stuff. Nobody talks that much about this anymore.

Instead, people like to use blockchain technology to create scarce claims to abundant, or infinite, resources. There is absolutely no shortage of JPEGs, they are infinitely reproducible more or less for free, but that means — or meant — that you couldn’t become a millionaire by having good taste in JPEGs. But now people can create a unique non-fungible token representing ownership of a JPEG and use it as a status symbol or a speculative asset. Nobody will pay you for a number in your computer’s memory, but people will pay you for a scarce number in your computer’s memory.

Stop shaking your head – it’ll hurt your neck. Or just wait.

Theoretical normal person: If you could do a thing that wasn’t just bad for but ruinous to your country’s political system – but it was very good for your profits, would you do it?
Our actual media: Do what?

Such is our national media paralyzed on the question of how to cover Biden, how to normalize authoritarian white nationalism and get Trump back. Ratings are down and they’re in a bad way, which means they’ll gladly put us [all] in a worse one to keep the eyeballs rolling in and the clicks coming.

It’s really something.

Renewable satire

In a coming-of-age development (and maybe only into adolescence… but still) There’s now a satirical renewable energy ‘news’ site. Sustainably called The Sunion:

In a synthetic discovery broadly compared to the work of Galloway and Leach, NREL investigators tracing energy and capital flows between renewable energy systems, those systems’ project finance assumptions via primary-contracted-offtakers, the primary clients of those offtakers, and, in turn, the primary consumers of those offtakers, have discovered a previously uncharacterized, enclosed, and self-sustaining sunlight-to electricity-to-money-to bros-to-data-to-grift/crypto-to-porn-to-bros-to money-to light-to-electricity ecosystem that is nearly self sustaining without external reference or input and which may soon overtake photosynthesis and geotechnical processes in terms of overall magnitude of energy transfer in Earth’s biosphere.

Sure, why not? I guess it had to happen. Plenty to poke holes in about the way(s) we’re going about all of this, especially all the financialization through-the-looking-glass you’re actually at-an-Arby’s-drivethrough of it all. Bring it.

Theories about ESG investing

This is some serious inside baseball. But it IS October:

If your basic theory of ESG investing is “we will avoid bad-ESG stocks in order to drive up the cost of capital of bad-ESG things,” it seems to be working:

Years of awful returns and pressure from clients to exit from the oil-and-gas business have left fewer and smaller firms able to take advantage of rising prices and help boost production. The unwillingness of some banks to make energy loans has compounded the challenges to boosting energy supplies.

Those left are moving to increase production, but they are relatively small players who won’t be able to make a significant impact on output. Investors are steering capital away from fossil fuels and toward companies that rank high in environmental, social and governance, or ESG, measures.

“Oil-and-gas has seen the worst returns of any sector over the past five years; the returns are volatile and investors feel ESG pressures,” says Wil VanLoh, who runs Quantum Energy Partners, which manages $18 billion, making it one of the few remaining big energy private-equity funds. “There’s been a huge retreat in available capital.”

That’s from Matt Levine’s Bloomberg daily newsletter, talking game about the game. But the idea that ESG investing is maturing, as he says, is an interesting one. If companies and the courts are no longer going to just line up on the side of fiduciary responsibilities as a way to protect shareholders – and hence, the companies that may continue to pollute and spew for profit – that’s at least a change.

Image: Abraham Lincoln: Baseball Theme Currier & Ives Cartoon, 1860.

Boring work of staggering effectiveness

Right along the lines of super unexciting infrastructure fixes to crucial bridges, railways, pipes and water mains is the capping of methane-spewing oil wells, of which we have a leaky and abundant surplus:

Curtis Shuck calls the well a “super emitter,” one of many in a wheat field not far from the Canadian border, a part of Montana known as the “golden triangle” for its bountiful crops. Aside from the scattered rusty pipes and junked oil tanks, the field is splendid and vast, its horizon interrupted intermittently by power lines and grain bins. On these plains, Shuck says, you can watch your dog run away for a week.

He is a former oil and gas executive who nowadays leads a small nonprofit — the result of a personal epiphany — and is tackling global warming one well at a time. That is the approach of his Well Done Foundation, plugging this and then other orphaned sites and trapping the methane underground. The effort started in Montana in 2019 but will expand to other states before the fall.

“When we’re done, it will be like this well was never here,” Shuck said, standing upwind as cement was pumped hundreds of feet down, through a series of pipes stuck in the 7½-inch-wide hole like a straw in a juice box.

30K to cap a well. Well done, Well Done. Plant trees, install solar farms, wind farms, stop dumping sewage, limit runoff, cut back on steaks (sorry! but do), refurbish the train lines, live close to work. Listen to ‘Trane while you walk. Live a little.

What’s it going to take? All of it, every last all of it. Everything.

Image: Abandoned oil storage tanks left behind in Montana. (Adrián Sanchez-Gonzalez for The Washington Post)

Fixing it

Notwithstanding the [late] reckoning with our very own special coup, the one we think we dodged and the very one over which Our Media is fascinated by exactly all the wrong details; the battle between Chicago and lake Michigan; and the new Gilded Age space flights for plutocrat tourists, the economy seems to have magically withstood a pandemic (Narrator: It’s not magic):

Initial unemployment claims came in at 360,000 for the week ending July 10, below the previous week’s revised read of 386,000. That reading matched the consensus forecast among economists, according to Bloomberg.

The decline in the seasonally adjusted number resumes the overall downward trend of the volatile data series after an unexpected rise in initial claims last week. The Labor Department noted that this marks a new pandemic-era low.

While the number of Americans newly filing for unemployment benefits tends to bounce around from week to week, it’s been on a general downward trend after spiking to record-shattering numbers amid the early days of the pandemic last spring. The return to that downward trend matches other data suggesting a steadily recovering labor market.

360K is still a very many lot of people, and yet you ask: after years of making sure our billionaires had enough nest eggs to color-coordinate their space suits, how was it possible to get through a year of very limited economic activity and still be able browse and sniff at the want ads and generally avoid most of the fascist tendencies on offer? Give. People. Money.

CARES and PPP run themselves out by design, which is helping people stay afloat. This is why we’re longing for vacations instead of standing in breadlines. And the infrastructure bill will bring more of this – not gifts and not luxuries – but investments in people and how we live, with recommendations for new arrangements for different needs that WE have made absolutely necessary (see Chicago example above and read the history). Move the monuments. Buy the trains. Pay the carpenters, or become one. As legend has it, the profession has a storied past.