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.
The ‘let’s see if this sorts itself out’ attitude from some western countries – albeit, right now fewer by the day – mirrors the general tendency of the same countries to do very little about climate change. All the while:
Rising seas have long been a threat to coastal cities. New research suggests that cities—particularly in Asia—are sinking as well, compounding the risks of frequent and severe flooding.
In Karachi, land is sinking five times as fast as the sea level is rising, according to the study published this month in Geophysical Research Letters. Manila and Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second-largest city, are sinking at 10 times the rate of the rising waters.
In China’s Tianjin, a coastal city about 150 kilometers southeast of Beijing, the ground is giving way at 20 times that speed.
In those four cities alone, the phenomenon could affect roughly 59 million residents.
The study, which used satellite data to analyze 99 cities around the world from 2015 to 2020, points to groundwater extraction related to rapid urbanization and population growth, oil and gas production, and construction.
My head, it shakes. Because no matter how seriously and soberly one might approach the financial dilemma of bringing promising technologies to maturity by broad investments, there are always hand-scrawled love notes, or pictures of pictures, or the newest version of L.H.O.O.Q., not to mention instant toothbrush delivery schemes to entice the ridiculously wealthy or even the passingly prosperous. It’s a problem:
Tony Fadell, who spent most of his career trying to turn emerging technologies into mainstream products as an executive at Apple and founder of Nest, said that even as the world faces the risks of climate change, money is flooding into less urgent developments in cryptocurrency, the so-called metaverse and the digital art collections sold as NFTs. Last year, venture capitalists invested $11.9 billion in renewable energy globally, compared with $30.1 billion in cryptocurrency and blockchain, according to PitchBook.
Of the $106 billion invested by venture capitalists in European startups last year, just 4% went into energy investments, according to PitchBook.
“We need to get real,” said Fadell, who now lives in Paris and has proposed ideas on energy policy to the French government. “Too many people are investing in the things that are not going to fix our existential problems. They are just investing in fast money.”
Even so-called ESG funds and investor movements run the risk of becoming fads, passing, allowing a regression toward the mean, also know as same old, same old. Governments have to do more to leverage current investments and attract new. But there also has to be some boring seriousness to guide the reckless speculation, as contradictory as that sounds. Otherwise, we’re still speculating alright, on something.
Image: Not a new version. Duchamp would be kicking himself
Other cars, lane lines, hopefully*. Traffic lights, parking lots. Some trees, a pedestrian*. A cyclist**.
A sidewalk – don’t stop looking at your phone.
Without a shift in perspective, it’s readily seen how none of this changes until people get out from behind the windshield. And no one will make you – that’s not how this works, at least not here, not yet. The costs could sway your decision-making, you could think about doing something differently. Not because you have to, but because you’re curious. You don’t live out in the country, but you also can’t quite walk to the store, much less to work. Still, you want to check out the view, have a look at the street from up close, from the other side of the windshield.
The prospect of seeing other drivers, reifying our fellow road-users, in recent parlance, into something other than the abstractions that we experience, which allow us to disconnect what we are doing from the consequences of doing it. That abstraction is what has to go. And if it’s only that, maybe we won’t feel like we’re losing so much.
See how fun this is? Fiddling with ways to trick ourselves into doing what’s best. So very child-like, this dependence on unsupportable habits to maintain, to remain in, abstract suspension, protected from the outside and other people, things that don’t actually mean us harm. “But I need to get from here to there,” though I don’t want to re-consider here or there. Just want to stay wrapped in this steel cocoon.
Conveyance. Economic drivers. These notes for later betray an urgency beneath the wheels, outside the windows.
So… one man’s colossal miscalculation is another man’s a planet’s sped-up timeline for addressing climate change? I’m not trying not to see it that way, and energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins doesn’t need to convince me. But the winds are at somebody’s back:
Lovins, an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, has been one of the world’s leading advocates and innovators of energy conservation for 50 years. He wrote his first paper on climate change while at Oxford in 1968, and in 1976 he offered Jimmy Carter’s government a blueprint for how to triple energy efficiency and get off oil and coal within 40 years. In the years since there is barely a major industry or government that he and his Rocky Mountain Institute have not advised.
But for much of that time efficiency was seen as a bit of an ugly sister, rather dull compared with a massive transition to renewables and other new technologies. Now, he hopes, its time may have come. Lovins is arguing for the mass insulation of buildings alongside a vast acceleration of renewables. “We should crank [them] up with wartime urgency. There should be far more emphasis on efficiency,” he says.
He sees Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine as an outrage, but possibly also a step towards solving the climate crisis and a way to save trillions of dollars. “He has managed to bring about all the outcomes that he most feared, but he may inadvertently have put the energy transition and climate solutions into a higher gear. Whether or not we end up in a recession because of the disruption, [Putin’s war] may prove to be a great thing for climate economics.”
As he explains, solar and wind are among the cheapest bulk power sources, and Putin’s authoritarian misadventure has put energy externalities in the center of the frame.
Again, it’s the boringest, not-technology solutions that have the greatest effect. And there’s a lot to reckon with in what he says about nuclear:
The most energy-inefficient design of all, he says, may be nuclear power, which is heavily subsidised, costly and pushed by a politically powerful lobby. Using it to address shortages of electricity or to counter climate change, he argues, is like offering starving people rice and caviar when it’s far cheaper and easier to give just rice.
New York Magazine takes us on a tour of what lays beyond, after the capitalism runs out. That may sound hippie and/or conspiratorial, but facts is facts and the entire game has changed:
Making matters even weirder, contemporary capitalism’s dominant shareholders have no direct interest in the success or failure of the firms they own. All returns on their holdings get passed down the investment chain to their clients — households, governments, and corporations. Asset managers make their money off of their clients’ fees, not their firms’ returns. This diagram may make the hydraulics of the system more legible:
Of course, an asset manager that delivered consistently poor returns would attract few clients. And asset managers’ fees are calculated as a percentage of the current value of their clients’ assets. Nevertheless, add a fee-based business model to asset managers’ universal portfolios, and their interest in the performance of any individual firm they own becomes extraordinarily attenuated — even when they are the single largest shareholder of that firm (which is very often the case)!
This is not how capitalism is supposed to work in theory. And it isn’t how corporate governance has ever before worked in practice. To the political economist Benjamin Braun, the contemporary structure of corporate ownership is so novel and consequential as to mark a new era in economic history, the age of “asset-manager capitalism.”
Braun’s papers on this subject are fascinating, and nerds will want to read them in full. Mere dorks, however, may be content to consider the following four ways the rise of asset managers challenges conventional wisdom about how capitalism functions — and how it might be changed.
Cool graphic and the rest at the link. Removing market competition from the equation renders many of the other legacy levers moot. Even the ESG stratagem takes on a different tenor – what does promoting efficiency even mean when the owners of the means of production no longer prevail – when/if we default (curious wording) to a dirigiste model. They, ESG pressure campaigns may become more effective. Because frankly, christian soldiers, that’s what they’re talking about.
Who ever knew it, but seizing yachts is very popular! And despite the reporting that will tell you that they are impossible to re-sell, as if that makes the seizures moot, taking the oligarchs’ prized possessions scratches a weird itch in the afflicted that actually bothers the comfortable if you know what I mean and I think you do. These are ridiculous manifestations of not only conspicuous consumption, but also conspicuous waste. It also beggars belief that no useful purposes can be devised for these vessels.
Anyway, to the broader situation of Russia, and trying to strangle their economy without strangling the world economy – unless we de-fossilize our energy sources, the former will always be the latter:
This is a coherent platform for left-of-center parties across the globe: a law-and-order crackdown on international kleptocracy, and mass electrification and renewable energy to weaken the repressive and despotic petrostates. It is not a quick fix (though confiscatory wealth taxes ought to work quickly enough), and it is perhaps not as viscerally satisfying to our bloodthirsty pundit class as more fighters and missiles. But in the medium term the “solution” to the “problem” of Russian aggression is not trying to surgically crash their economy while protecting ours (an impossible tightrope to walk so long as high-income nations fail to quit fossil fuels). It may be impossible now to use Apple Pay to ride the Moscow Metro—it may even be impossible, temporarily, for particular Russian-born billionaires to anonymously purchase London pieds-à-terre—but it is still very easy to take the money you made selling natural gas to Berlin and ask a lawyer in New York to explain how to hide it it in South Dakota. The only sensible Russia policy is to make it unprofitable to be the sort of state it is. This approach would also have the side benefit of improving the sorts of states all of us reside in, and perhaps even of saving human civilization. Defeating Russia, by necessity, requires defeating fossil capital.
Or if not to a war zone, in close proximity to one. This seems far less a question at this point than an eventuality, but… will the last vestiges of fossil fuel domination burn furiously right up to the borders of energy transformation? The physical proximity of Russia and Norway hide the light years in distance they are from one another in ways that should make us wonder about the elasticity of time:
a new study by the Clean Cities Campaign, a coalition of non-governmental organizations, which analyzed 36 European cities on factors such as road safety for pedestrians, access to climate friendly transportation and air quality. The research found that Oslo is making the most progress on wiping out mobility emissions, followed by Amsterdam and Helsinki. Naples and Krakow had the lowest scores due, in part, to congestion. The financial hubs Paris and London ranked fifth and 12th, respectively.
Meanwhile, bombs, missiles, troops, and chaos for civilians in Ukraine. We may think this is about a crazy person’s LOOK AT ME obsession and not a ‘war’ for resources, but without the latter, there is no source for the former. His delusions are being fueled by the old standbys, in addition to resentment and authoritarianism.
Lots of talk/pixels about ‘getting back to normal,’ the ‘new normal,’ and returning to a time when things/life were somehow better because they were usual. Primarily related to the pandemic, it’s also an opportunity to unpack a sympathetic but highly questionable sentiment. So this interesting tweet, highlighted by Bloomberg, serves as a good remedy for that nostalgia for normal:
Sometimes I think about how Deepwater Horizon was a huge environmental disaster that killed 11 people and cost BP more than $65 billion — but if that oil had been captured, sold, and used, it would be worse for the environment, killed more people, and BP would have made money. pic.twitter.com/oZFevTy96r
Happy talk about way-back-when presents recklessness on many fronts – political, racial, economic – but it is also woebegone in terms of environmental devastation and the slow thoughtlessness that has brought us to exactly here. No one* wants to go back to Jim Crow and no one should want to go back to the normal, daily burning rates of our fossil-fueled civilization. As the article demonstrates, and this is a note to hit over and over again, the [high] costs of slowing down and reversing the effects of climate change are actually a bargain. Slice it however you want – we’ve already gotten far closer to the tipping point of better and cleaner far faster than imagined. Looking away and ignoring now requires more effort. That normal is depressing – and it should be. Our calculations of the impacts of the burning have become far less abstracted, to the point of easily transposing the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster onto methane well leakage and carbon emissions just by looking at the numbers.
Unfortunately, our numbness to the staggering total of COVID deaths resembles our shruggy attitude to climate-related externalities. We get used to them, consider that state ‘normal,’ and long for the days.
But we shouldn’t, and we can’t go back, the comforting but perilous blindness of ‘normal’ notwithstanding. Instead of normal, how about a different better? As our friend says, Don’t Be Afraid.
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.