Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Book Review – Super Charge Me: Net Zero Faster by Eric Lonergan and Corinne Sawers

If you have a spare evening, buy this book and join the conversation between two wonderful dinner guests, Eric Lonergan and and Corinne Sawers. That said, I’m not sure that you’d get a word in edgeways, even if you wanted to. I suggest just listening and learning.

In the first instance, the format spooked me. It genuinely is written as a dialogue. The two conversationalists flesh out their arguments – they do not challenge one another, rather they develop one another’s points – or invite further development: “go on…” says Sawers, to avoid a cliff hanger. Unless one is paying absolute attention, it is not clear who is speaking, such is the mutual expertise revealed in the exchanges. The book can be read in one sitting.

This is not, be rest assured, one of those “I’ve read this so that you do not have to” reviews. I have been known to write these. Readers are invited into a conversation that needs full engagement (my copy has plenty of page markers for future reference, top left). In addition, if we are in luck, the shelf life of this book will be short. If we, our governments, and the global community more widely, make the transition, the book will have served its purpose and become a cherished museum exhibit.

I’ve reviewed some other books – Alice Bell’s wonderful, Our Biggest Experiment, for example – that reveal how we got to where we are. What we could have done; how we could have avoided the precipice that humanity has now perched itself upon. Those perspectives inevitably lead to despair and inaction. Lonergan and Sawers are future-oriented. There is little dwelling on the past. They discuss a bright future: one that is fair and safe. Readers do not even have to have that much knowledge about climate change because a couple of to-the-point sentences – to paraphrase Douglas Adams – “avoid all that mucking about in hyperspace” and gets readers up to speed. There is no time to waste. It is just better to start using the language of Super Charge Me straight away: appropriately-named EPICs (extreme positive incentives for change) and Mini Musks (those intractable problems – aviation and cement, for example).

What are EPICs? They are extreme because moderate does not change behaviour. They are positive because the behaviour change cuts carbon emissions. They incentivise (never think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives, says Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s long-standing business partner, p172). It is all about change. In particular, change that reduces carbon emissions.

But what are they in reality? I have been led astray, it seems. It has been known for me to advocate carbon taxes. My dirty vehicle is taxed – the vehicle licensing cost is high for that reason and it costs more for my on-street parking than for cleaner vehicles. But I still have it. The incentive to ditch is not sufficiently extreme. I’ve learnt recently, that keeping it is potentially better for the environment than buying a new electric vehicle, thanks to a recent BBC show, Sliced Bread. But this is the wrong thinking. I should not be replacing it, I should be using a substitute. I do not because there is no incentive provided by the relative price of that substitute. For example, to visit my family tomorrow using the train would cost me £153. Even with the high price of fuel, my dirty vehicle could do it for half that cost, and I could take two people and unlimited luggage (it is a van) with me. The substitute, if I read the authors right, needs the EPIC treatment by Government. It is their job to fix the relative price and provide the incentive to switch. More generally, it may need investment in infrastructure to do it (more trains/capacity), a change in work practices allowing slower and shared commutes or fewer and, ultimately, a change in the norms of behaviour – actually it is a bit passé to drive a dirty white van rather than take the train. What, no photovoltaics on your roof?! Etc.

These are obviously EPICs for individuals, but there are EPICs for states. EPICs are responsible for the collapse in the cost of solar/photovoltaics and wind power. My new favourites that are going straight into my curriculum are captured in the Green Bretton Woods and Green Trading Agreements. The institutions of the Bretton Woods post-war agreement include the IMF and the World Bank. In the context of the transition, Lonergan cheekily says that “I am not sure that the World Bank is up to the task” (p144), but credits the designers of the post-war economic system with bestowing upon the IMF a “magic power” that was apparently leveraged in the banking crisis of 2008 and more recently in the global response to Covid-19. This power is manifested in a “special drawing right” (SDR). Readers can discover the magic for themselves, but I would entirely concur with Lonergan that the designers of the Bretton Woods institutions covered all bases insightfully and provided utility well into the future.

Thanks also to the conversation, I now also know about Export Credit Agencies (they’d somehow passed me by). These agencies mitigate credit risk for banks lending to low-income countries. The authors argue that they can be repurposed towards carbon-reducing investments. They have served the fossil-fuel industry well in the past and can serve transition economies well, too, into the future.

The book also provides an strong argument for countering the “stranded assets” challenge. Stranded assets are long-lived assets that, if economies transition to net zero with haste, will lose their value and become redundant before their time. Shareholders will lose money. It is true, they will, but it is not really an argument against stranding them if it makes the difference between a liveable and non-liveable planet. Rather, the losers will be an energy elite who have made lots of money from the carbon economy in the past. Being an elite, they are so few in number and the impact overall is small. There is about $4 trillion locked up in fossil-related assets. A lot to us, but small in relation to overall assets in the global economy.

Be prepared to be (re)educated about how money is created, interest rates, why China is cleaner than it may seem, how to stop free-riding, leveraging state borrowing capability, why inflation is good (within reason), contingent carbon tax, sovereign wealth funds, border taxes and why activism is not futile. And trees.

An evening well spent. And no one noticed the food was vegan.

Book review: Alice Bell’s “Our Biggest Experiment”

Cover Alice Bell' Our Biggest Experiment

The experiment in question is, of course, climate change. It is an experiment because humanity is largely conducting the experiment on itself and seeing what happens. Humanity knows how to stop it, but it seems either too curious about the result of the experiment, or too addicted to the drugs to stop it.

My reading and viewing in recent years has covered most of the themes discussed in this book. Andreas Malm’s book, Fossil Capital, deals with coal (Bell cites the book in recognition of his clinical account). Iain Stewart’s 3-Part TV documentaries, Earth: The Planet Wars and Planet Oil, do climate change and oil pretty well and David Wallace-Wells comprehensively spells out the future scenarios for humanity in his book, The Uninhabitable Earth. Bell adds considerably to my knowledge about gas and, in particular, the quest for light in the night. I am now also armed with a knowledge about meteorology, its origins and purpose (obsessive and competitive individuals and trade).

Climate change as Biography

There is an extensive cast of characters. It is through these that the story is so compellingly told. For example, Joseph Priestly grappled with the question of what is heat. Phlogiston was the “substance” that made fuels (and all else) burn; for example, whale oil, marsh gas, coal were pure pholgiston. Phologiston was eventually dismissed as a serious scientific idea after experiments created water from so-called flammable air (hydrogen) and dephlogisticated air (oxygen). An explosion was expected as the hydrogen should have burned well in the oxygen!

Daniel Fahrenheit who, in 1724, etablished the eponymous scale for measuring temperature based on the temperature of an armpit and a bucket of ice/water (pp56/57). He also popularised mercury as the liquid of choice for thermometers. Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall, a couple of outsiders of science’s aristocracy, who studied the formation and melting of glaciers in the Alps in the 1850s. Tyndall’s work on trapped heat arising from the properties of different gases, however, overlooked the work of Eunice Foote – the first person, in 1856, to observe the heating potential of carbon dioxide (p68), though, as was common in those times, women’s science discoveries were overlooked. Consequently, Foote’s male peers (e.g. Tyndall) were credited and cited.

The cast of characters is wonderfully extensive, and I recommend Bell’s book for its attention to such detail. She tells us who knew whom. Who made the seredipitous discoveries. Who took what money. And so on.

The things we remember in our lifetimes (says a late middle-ager)

James Hansen

Former UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was the Left’s nemesis. For a brief time she was an advocate for green house gas emission reductions. It is what Bell calls Thatcher’s “climate moment”. But it was more than that. As a description, that is more in line with Stewart’s explanation in which Thatcher was eventually nobbled by her party and guided away from a progressive approach to climate transition. As a chemist herself she was affected, like many others, by James Hanson’s 1988 US Senate testimony, Thatcher addressed the Royal Society in which she posited the idea that the Earth was being stressed by population (growth), agricultural practices and the burning of fossil fuels. She described it as potentially “a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself” (p312). A year later she was at the UN calling for an international convention on climate change! However, Bell, probably correctly, rejects the idea that it was the scientist in her that was the motivation for her speeches. Rather it was the Hayak economist in her. Her solution was, of course, more market, more capitalism and less state. She may also have sought to de-leftify climate change!

The oil industry

The oil industry is, in many respects the history of empire. BP has its origins in Iran/Persia and had its interests expropriated or nationalised (depending on whether you are British or Iranian). Iain Stewart tells the story of the coup d’etat executed by the British and the Americans to see off the architect of the nationalisation, Iran’s PM, Mohammad Mosaddegh (left), in a campaign of disinformation and public disorder. The nationalisation was executed because the British were not prepared to renegotiate oil concessions in the country and to share the wealth that it generated, as the Americans had done in Saudi Arabia.

Shell/Royal Dutch, too, is founded on Dutch imperialism. In 1890, the Dutch king pledged support for Royal Dutch to drill in the Dutch East Indies (Sumatra). Royal Dutch Shell as a company was the effective takeover of Shell, the British shipping concern of Marcus Samuel (there is a Rothchild Bank story here, too). Though originally it had literally been a shell merchant company. Shell as in crustaceans! The company is the pioneer of the oil tanker and critically, achieved safety approval for its ships to bring oil safely from Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal, mainly, at that time, for lighting. This act outflanked Standard Oil; the rapacious vehicle of J.D. Rockefeller’s wealth generation. Moreover, the automobile had not yet entered to arena and given additional/new value to oil, as electricity was overtaking oil as the main source of artificial light in cities and homes.

Talking of Standard Oil, as is common knowledge, in 1911 the company was ordered by the US Supreme Court to be broken up. Three companies emerged – Standard Oil New Jersey; Standard Oil New York, and Standard Oil California. The latter became Chevron, the New York company, Mobil, and the New Jersey beast became Exxon. Arguably, the breakup was hydra-like with three monsters being created as a result. Exxon and Mobil are now back together, interestingly. Chevron has an unenviable record on climate change (though in 2021 found itself the attention of activist shareholders similar to Exxon).

Exxon has invested considerable sums in climate change scepticism and/or critical science (effectively challenging the the premise of the developing evidence base for planetary warming. The company employed many of the tactics of the tobacco industry before it disputing the causal relationship between smoking and cancer – fighting science with science to spread doubt. This involved employing reputable scientists and the heavyweight PR firm, Hill and Knowlton. The ultimate of regressions.

Wallace Broekner

In 1977, Exxon got serious and employed Edward David Jr, a veteran of Bell Labs, to head up their research labs (pp302/3). David was receptive to building a specialist scientific team around carbon dioxide research. The company fitted out a supertanker to do ocean research and brought in Wallace Broekner (left, the man behind the term, global warming, and a reputable climate scientist/oceanographer) and University of Columbia scientist (Doherty Earth Observatory), Taro Takahashi. Bell rightly notes that these scientists did not sell their souls to the Devil as it might seem at first look; rather they may have felt that they could lead Exxon’s transition from oil to renewables. It was not to be.

In the case of climate scepticism there was, notes Bell, a generation of scientists with cold war DNA. Their seeming hatred of the Left arising from marginalisation of military science on campuses around the USA and a residual loathing of Rachel Carson whose book, Silent Spring, saw off DDT whilst simultaneously challenging military strategy (as it was used as a “defoliant” in the Vietnam War). Bell identifies three “angry old men” (p319): Bill Nierenberg (former director of Scipps Institute of Oceanography and veteran of the Manhatten Project), Frederick Seitz (former President of the National Academy of Sciences) and Robert Jastrow (founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies). Together they founded the George C Marshall Institute that initially concerned itself with Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative but graduated to climate scepticism as witnessed in the pages of their book, Global Warming: What does the Science Tell Us?

In addition, the company Exxon’s scientists also oversaw the first IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report in 1990.

The Road to Now

There is also room for Al Gore (right) in Bell’s account of this period. Gore had had two stints as Vice President of the USA and had more than a look in to make president in the election year of 2000 (controversially defeated by George W Bush and who went on to take the USA out of the Kyoto Agreement, much as Trump did with the Paris Agreement 18 years later). Gore had drawn on the work of the so-called Granddaddy of climate science and oceanography, Roger Revelle. His PhD studies undertaken in the early 1930s examined the extent to which the oceans absorbed carbon dioxide and concluded that it was much less than previously thought and calculated (about 50 per cent and not the 98 per cent accepted wisdom). Revelle was hugely networked, including with the US Navy. He was, in the 1950s, employing a new technique of carbon dating, initially in connection with measuring radioactivity, but equally useful in studying tree rings that revealed isotopes that were closely associated with the burning of fossil fuels. This knowledge was re-applied to oceans by Revelle who had observed a phenomenon called buffering whereby the oceans expel carbon dioxide to avoid acidification. So initial calculations needed to be revisited to capture the significant expulsion and further concentration of carbon dioxide in the air rather than being absorbed by the oceans (p226).

Then there’s Captain Planet (p311), the brainchild of Ted Turner, CNN’s founder. For the 1989 series, he signed up stars such as Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, Jeff Goldblum and Sting to voice the multi-national characters who appeared in the “Planeteers”. I’ve seen better animation, but it reminds me of shows like “The Tomorrow People” of my youth, featuring a band of kids/young people with special powers, such as telepathy, to help others deal with the agonies of life as well as those regular issues involving extra-terrestrial life (presumably to make the series more interesting). Crucially, the Tomorrow People were unable to take human life. Most of us wanted to be a Tomorrow Person (well I did), but a Planeteer, two decades later, makes a lot of sense. The best I can do is write a blog and teach students climate awareness.

Still from the Restless Sphere (Sir James Wordie (r), Sir David Brunt (l) and Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, centre)

Revelle was a major recipient of IGY (International Geophysical Year – starting June 1957) funding. Imagine this: a funding stream solely dedicated to studying the planet for its own sake and fostering international scientific collaboration (one wonders whether EU funding such as Horizon 2020 is not modelled on the ICY). On 30 June 1957, the BBC actually broadcast a documentary about the ICY called, interestingly, The Restless Sphere.

Alice Bell can be heard talking about her book on the Bunker Daily Podcast (4 July 2021). But this book goes on the reading list for my students because of one particular comment in the conclusion. History matters. It helps us to understand not only where we came from, but what factors got us to where we are today. Bell does this with aplomb. It is important for my students to realise that

[m]ost of us are pretty clueless about how we built this world in the first place, and so struggle to work out where to start rebuilding it. This cluelessness is far from just a problem for energy. It is a price we pay for modernity; there’s so much stuff to know we have to live our lives in a lot of ignorance.

p343

Pics:

Mohammad Mosaddegh – circa 1952/53 By iichs.ir – http://www.iichs.ir/Upload/Image/2017/04/Orginal/e45d0dae_cf8b_45b0_8d37_7af37789d5ff.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66301280

Standard Oil logo pic: Pat Hawks

Wallace Broekner: https://climatestate.com/2017/04/18/rivers-of-the-sea-global-ocean-survey-studies-geosecs-1975/

Planeteers: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10837084 (The Planeteers: Kwame (Africa, power – earth). Wheeler (Brooklyn, New York City, United States: power – fire). Linka (Soviet Union: power – wind). Gi (Asia. power – water). Ma-Ti (Brazil. power – heart)

Book Review: The Box by Marc Levinson

I come from a port city. When I was growing up in the 1970s, the Dockers seemed to be a protected species. They seemed well-off (a relative concept) and always at home. They were on strike often. The history of dock workers and their fight against exploitation through casual labour has been told, but I was not aware of it as a child. I inherited the prejudices against feckless dock workers. Levinson, however, confirms that in England, pay gains by dockers in the 1950s were “robust”. So much so that they earned 30 per cent more than the average male by the 1960s. This is precisely the period of my growing up.

The history of life on the “waterfront” is revisited by Levinson as he chronicles the economic and social history of the shipping container. There’s a paradox. One function of the shipping container mirrored that of the steam engine in capital’s fight with labour. It handed power to plutocrats and oligarchs who owned the specialised ports whilst simultaneously, making the work of dock workers – or those who were left – much safer (docking at its height was more dangerous than construction).

Without the shipping container, globalised supply chains would not have been possible. Prior to containerisation, the Waterfront was a huge cost to exporters and importers. Loading and unloading required a lot of men; and it was skilled, too. A badly loaded ship could capsize. Containerisation brought shipping costs down, considerably. So much so, that it became almost costless – a fraction of the overall costs of production. It enabled a true Ricardian revolution of comparative advantage. Of course, the externalities don’t feature. The use of dirty and carbon-laden fuels in ships is on no ledger.

Levinson details the machinations of port employers, unions and shipping companies. It is a story of men with egos – union leaders in New York and New Jersey on the east coast, and their counterparts on the west coast (LA and San Francisco). It is a tale of rejecting mechanisation and fraught negotiations (and strikes) over how many men not only each ship needed to be unloaded, but how many men per hatch. There’s a huge cast of sometimes unsavoury characters to keep track of. It is a story of demarcation – labourers vs crane drivers – and the difference between negotiating to get the best compensation for members’ job losses and negotiating to keep all men in work (on the west coast, the union negotiated a compensation scheme that enabled many men to retire, which was a most welcome opportunity after a life of hard dock labour). It’s a story of competitive politics resulting in public investment in NY Harbor’s piers and creaking and congested supporting infrastructure by politicians trying to maintain their own privilege but failing to see that the future was different and the investment was misplaced. Because all the while, the shipping companies – two in particular – were developing their own docking facilities on virgin land for the logistics of international containerisation.

There was a huge problem, however, preventing the diffusion of containerisation globally. There were no standards. There were firms that had invested in their own standards such as Sea-Land in New York, owned by one of America’s most iconic of entrepreneurs, Malcolm McLean, who constantly outflanked competitors, legislators and dock workers. McLean’s success was one of ad hoc decisions. “Find me someone who can design and build me a crane in 3 months” sums up this approach. By contrast, a west coast shipping company, Matson Navigation Company, a transportation and sugar conglomerate, took a very scientific approach under its President, John E. Cushing. Cushing brought in a university professor to consider holistically the business of containers – from the containers themselves, their loading, fitting, hauling, lifting, to the ships that would carry them and the trucks that would haul them. To use Levinson’s words “Matson moved deliberately. Pan Atlantic [Sea-Land’s original name], under McLean’s control, was a scrappy upstart building a brand new business, and it risked little by acting quickly.” (p80).

Standards

An upstart though McClean may have been, he did patent his design for a fitting device that locked containers into place in ships, on trucks or next to one another. If agreeing on a standard size of containers was not painful enough involving a cast of technocrats from organisations such as the ISO, The American Standards Association, The National Defense Transportational Association, The United States Maritime Administration (Marad), the fittings debate was fraught. These standards-setting bodies locked horns with the transportation firms and manufacturers of trailers such as Fruehauf – still a familiar name – Strick Trailers and the National Castings Company. The outcome was a classic fudge because an international standard had to reconcile global differences, whilst enabling firms that had already invested in containers not to lose too much money in converting their existing operations. McLean released his patent. It was then hastily modified over two days in Utrecht where the drawings for the final fittings were made in preparation to be presented to the ISO committee meeting in The Hague on 24 September 1965. That was not quite the end of the story. The new standard had never been tested, so when used on ships or trains they failed. Another group of engineers were needed to add strength to the design. In June 1967, the new design was approved much to the chagrin of existing transportation firms that had invested heavily in the old standard. Lesson – don’t approve standards in haste.

There’s more on standards, but not for this review. I had not realised just how much regulation the freight industry was subject to in the USA at this time. Freight bosses had to be as adept at navigating these restrictions as they did the roads and waterways. There were regulators trying to enforce “fairness”, operators trying to work with and around them, and politicians intervening. The rail companies were hidebound by both regulation and non-standardised gauges. But there were innovations, some of which still run today. A number of these companies rejected containers and provided unique services. The Trailer Train, for example, was an innovation in putting truck trailers on trains. It was run by the Pennsylvania Railroad between Chicago and St Louis starting in 1954. It also innovated in inviting all other rail operators to join creating economies of scale and a standardised operation including revenue collection and sharing. As is ever for these operators, they had legacy stock – boxcars, in particular – that would be redundant if containers were adopted.

Containers on rail passing through Crewe, UK
Containers on rails

In Europe, rail operators were keen to facilitate containerisation. In the UK, British Rail sought to develop freight out of Felixstowe; German and French national rail operators out of Bremerhaven. Rotterdam and Antwerp, were also developing their container operations. Seemingly containers bound for the United States were full of whisky!

And then something I had not really thought about, but troubles me as I write. Malcolm McLean’s success – like many of his ilk – was built on amorality. Business is business. What is legal is to be pursued. In the early years of the container revolution, the Vietnam war was ramping up. With 60 thousand soldiers in the country, the supply lines were vitally important. Vietnam had very poor infrastructure and only a single deep port, Saigon. Military logistics were struggling. McLean said he could he help. McLean transformed the fortunes of a second deep port, Cam Ranh Bay. Before McLean arrived, US military logistics had towed a DeLong pier – a whole 300ft pier – from North Carolina through the Panama Canal and across the pacific to be sunk into the bay. It was then re-inforced to support McClean’s monster cranes, suitable for lifting containers full of armaments and, separately, refrigerated foods.

The operation was hugely profitable for McLean, made more profitable when McLean opted to return to the USA via two Japanese ports, Tokyo/Yokohama and Osaka/Kobe to fill empty containers with consumer electronics. This was, apparently, a typical McLean venture – off the cuff. He is alleged to have simply said, “does anyone known anyone at Mitsui”? Two weeks later, a delegation from Mitsui was inspecting the Sea-Land docks in Newark, New Jersey. Profit and business notwithstanding, Levinson is bold enough to state that without McLean a sustained war effort by the US in Vietnam would have been unlikely. Knowing what we know now, that would perhaps have been a good thing? McLean actually enabled and prolonged the war.

McLean was also behind the development of one of England’s foremost container ports, Felixstowe. Similar to Sea- Land’s development of the container facility in Newark, NJ, Felixstowe was not encumbered by union agreements. it was a small and private wharf dealing with grain and palm oil. In 1966, Sea-Land reinforced the wharf and built a container crane at the fraction of the cost of the Tilbury (London) docks. By 1969 it was the 9th biggest container port (by volume) in the world. Leading the way in Europe was Rotterdam with its deep water, co-operative labour unions and necessary post-war reconstruction.

Supply chains – just-in-time delivery

The shipping container was a driver of globalised supply chains. For as long as shipping costs were high, cheap labour and other resources could not realistically be harnessed. As shipping containers got bigger and ports enabled “inter-modality” and computerised loading and unloading, the unit costs of each container went down, driving trade, economic growth and consumption. The containers became mobile warehouses rendering inventory stock outdated. And one-time empty containers being returned found themselves full of commodities such as soya and even grain. We are also at liberty to think about all of the waste – often public – associated with building container ports. Many were developed without tenants – and never got any. Others did, but tenants migrated to other ports with better facilities or access. These were all paid for by taxpayers. Our consumer products could have been even cheaper had ports and regions not speculatively competed with one another.

Climate

The most famous container ship, the Ever Given for getting stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021

Whenever I read books and non-fiction in particular – I am on the look out for environmental factors; acts that become normalised and pushed back nature. Sea-Land’s enormous container operation in Newark, NJ, is a case in point. I have subsequently viewed the area courtesy of Google. It even has a massive Amazon warehouse on it. The development was described in a very matter-of-fact way. The marshland that it colonised was “waste”. Though we know now that it was probably rich in wildlife that was displaced by the development. However, maybe there is a slip of the pen on page 263 in reference to Oakland, CA:

“…a timely $10 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, intended to generate jobs in the depressed city, supplied construction funds. A new terminal was rushed into construction, without a tenant, before new environmental regulations took effect.”

I say “slip of the pen” because I cannot gauge whether Levinson thinks that beating the regulation was a good move or not. Certainly if the development was assumed to have violated forthcoming environmental regulations, then it was not good. And those behind it, knew it. That is a story of environmental destruction, the world over through time. Those who do it, know what they are doing. They know what the impacts are, and they still do it.

The only silver-lining I could find was – cutting a long story short – McLean invested also in land. One piece of land was bought to turn into an intensive pig farm. When the shipping going got tough, the land had to be sold, it is now a park. No pigs.

Levinson’s book is one of these master works. it needed to be written. And it was done well. It is a social history told through the development of a familiar artefact. We are all part of its story and we of it’s. A metal box.

Pictures:

Ever Given By Robert Schwemmer for NOAA’s National Ocean Service – Flickr: Container Ship, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19073448

Book Review: What Would Nature Do? by Ruth DeFries

This book essentially says, if humanity had paid more attention to how nature deals with the uncertainties of life on Earth, then we might have avoided some of its calamities – for want of a better word. Of course, there are two so-called calamities afflicting humanity at the moment; namely, a global pandemic and climate change.

One can often tell the whether the author truly has something to say in the final chapter. Can the content be summarised and rendered coherent? Does it hang together? In this case, I am not entirely sure. In fact, the author herself admits it:

In a fit of writer’s block for this final chapter, I ventured downtown to the New York Public Library to see for myself the tiny Hunt-Lenox globe with medieval-style etchings of dragons and strange sea creatures…etched pictures of dragons and monsters signalled seas and lands not yet seen by European eyes, although other peoples had lived in those lands for eons.

(p151)

The dragons, of course, represent all of the things that humanity has not yet discovered. But in getting to where humanity sits currently, the global commons have been well-and-truly “over-grazed” and pathogens serially mis-managed, despite the lessons of history, let alone nature. I’ll return to the calamity shortly, but DeFreis does discuss what humans have learned, though probably inadvertently.

Ancient trees had arteries and veins in their leaves that if severed by a pest – or just something that ate them – the effect on the overall plant would be significant in a detrimental way. The ancient tree is the Gingko, which eventually evolved a toxin to put off insects. But other plants and trees evolved alternative approaches such as “loopy veins”. In the event of part of the leaf succumbing to insect lunch, the sugars created in the leaves could still be delivered to the rest of the tree because they could be re-routed. The most obvious human-created analogy of this is the internet’s packet system whereby the data generated by this blog are put into small packages and sent on their way, often taking different routes and then reconstituted in the reader’s computer and browser. However, much of the human world is hub-and-spoke; i.e. centralised. When things go wrong, bottlenecks occur and all things – commodities, manufacturing components, finished products, foodstuffs – get jammed. In the case of food, hunger ensues.

DeFreis (right) writes extensively about pathogens and viruses in the human and animal world. In the human world, in the absence of politicians, viruses have been dealt with and eradicated by science on the one hand, and (disease) management on the other. Management here is track-and-trace as well as equitable global distribution of vaccines and other technologies. As with Covid-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe. However, we can learn from ants, bees and termites. Ants, famous for living cheek-by-jowl, secrete disinfectant into their nests collected from wood resin. Termites spread their own faeces in their nest benefitting from antimicrobial properties (that seems counter-intuitive). Bees can kill pathogens by flapping their wings! And so on. Ultimately, though, highly social creatures can isolate their kin should they succumb to disease. Primarily, this is to protect the queen and not for the benefit of the sick individuals.

Moving on from viruses and disease, DeFreis talks about the commons – the atmosphere, the seas, water and land. I had not previously been aware of Garrett Hardin, a man who believed that the solution to the commons was to de-commonise them, enclose them and “protect” them from over-exploitation. DeFreis counters his work with a celebration of the studies of Elinor Ostrom who demonstrated that human beings can adequately manage and protect the commons. They do not need permission by a central authority. However, one size does not fit all; what works in one place, does not in others. This is, of course, part of the problem. People have to be given the space and time to work things out, set quotas and agree sanctions for those who either free-ride or break the rules.

Talking about breaking the rules, I had equally not previously been aware of the Biosphere experiment in Oracle, Arizona, back in 1991. Three men and three women entered a CELSS – closed ecosystem life support system – and stayed there for two years testing whether it was possible to replicate the Earth’s life support systems (with a view to building one on the Moon or a planet). It was funded by a Texan billionaire, Edward P Bass, the Elon Musk or his time, perhaps. It took 11 years to build. Nothing that was not already in the CELSS when they entered would be added. It was not plain sailing – crops were blighted by pests and the air became thin as the plants generated carbon dioxide and oxygen mysteriously disappeared.

And so back to what nature would do. Nature is parsimonious. The limiting factor is always energy. All energy is derived from the sun. First in plants, then animals and humans. Most animals conserve as much energy as they can. Certainly through a winter, food can be in short supply. However, nature also builds in redundancy. Those loopy leaves use more energy to build, but when under attack, they are a life saver. Some humans have adopted this principle in their products. Most aeroplanes have redundancy – if one part fails, another kicks in. Apollo 11 would not have made it to the moon had it not been for Margaret Hamilton’s redundant computer code! But our economy is parsimonious – global supply chains do not react well to disruption, something that is increasingly occurring.

Pumpjacks, Kern River Oil Field, California

Our economy is different in another way, too. It is extractive. Its whole rationale is perpetual growth. Its metrics – productivity, GDP – are just wrong. They perpetuate the extraction and ignore wellbeing. Moreover, instead of generating energy sustainably – from the sun as plants do – we draw on stored reserves of energy in fossil fuels. Growth is only possible by doing that. Nature does not do that. Nature is not capitalist. It does manage its commons – or it did until homo sapiens disrupted the equilibrium. DeFreis does not engage with this. The reality of an economic system that destroys not only itself by undermining the life-support systems of the planet is glossed over. There is no system change needed, only a closer attention to what nature would do.

I can see why this is not tackled. Authors who do end up being criticised like Andreas Malm was on publication of his book, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. It is not pretty. But neither is climate change.

Pictures:

Ruth DeFreis: By One Earth Future – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiU0AlDsiPgPeace in the 21st Century: Ruth DeFries, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96380874

Pumpjacks in Kern ROF, California: By Antandrus at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16373401

Book review: Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency by Andreas Malm

Gripping title, even more gripping content. It is made up of four elements: this is the climate emergency, this is Corona, this is how they are related to one another (be rest assured, they are) and this is what we do about it. The latter section is effectively a call to resistance. The word “sabotage” is used, and there are plenty of references to Marx, Soviets and Rosa Luxemberg.

Book cover

Let me take one step back. Malm is, in my opinion, one of the 21st Century’s great thinkers in the fields of climate, capitalism and now pandemics. Let me just qualify that – one of with the caveat that he is white, male and prosperous. If any readers can direct me to thinkers in his area that do not have this profile, please let me know. I genuinely want to understand these dynamics better. However, Malm’s earlier book, Fossil Capital, is transformative as a text on capitalist ideology – in the league of EP Thompson’s, Making of the English Working Class and, more esoterically, Nick von Tunzelman’s Technology and Industrial Progress: The Foundations of Economic Growth (both texts widely discussed by Malm). Where Fossil Capital was uncompromising in its extended narrative and detail, Corona is short, 175 pages (though with extensive end notes), and with pace that is difficult to keep up with. But we must, such is the real emergency here.

Readers of this blog are well aware of the arguments surrounding climate change, these are rehearsed in the early part of the text. Malm refers extensively – and rightly – to his earlier work. Humanity’s – by which he means capital’s – pursuit of growth enabled by the extraordinary store of energy captured in fossil fuels, is at the root of the current emergency. Growth has led to wealth, both absolute and relative, even in the poorest and most unequal societies and countries where capitalism is practised. Capitalism is inherently extractive and that means destruction of habitats. Now we can look at habitats – forests, for example – as exploitable resources, or we can look at them as places where there is essential biodiversity – counterintuitively, higher biodiversity correlates with lower transmission of pathogens (p41) – and the place where animals carrying pathogens live out of harms way . It is in this destruction and the stress it imposes on other creatures, according to Malm, that the pathogen makes the leap – zoonotic spillover – from animal to human.

We know that Covid-19 – or Sars-CoV-2 as it is now known – was likely to have been transmitted from bats (though probably through an intermediary animal). Prior to reading Malm, I did not really know anything about bats other than the fact they are flying mammals and they use some form of echo system to navigate at night. I certainly did not know that they very peculiar physiology – they being the only flying mammals – makes them supremely good hosts of viruses. In fact, Malm paints the picture of them as flying virus hotels (my image, not his). The bats have a unique immunity to the viruses and so close contact between humans and bats in, say, for example, a wild animal market in a densely-populated city, can have devastating consequences.

Malm reserves a special place for aviation in linking climate change and the pandemic. We should already be familiar with the arguments about aviation’s contribution to global emissions – not the highest but a significant contributor. The warming leads animals and birds to migrate further north, taking their pathogens with them. Fauna not used to mixing, goes Malm’s argument, do so and the pathogens take the opportunity to jump – so-called zoonotic spillover. Furthermore “[M]ost of the tens of thousands of novel pathogen exchanges anticipated along these routes will take place between one species of wild animal and another, but it will be a moving laboratory of genetic recombination, in which parasites may learn to make longer jumps: And their hosts will bump into, or skirt past humans. Viral sharing events are likely to be most common in places with fairly dense human populations, such as the Ethiopian highlands , Indonesia and – crossroads again – eastern China.” (p87)

The extent to which this is fact or hypothesis, I’m not sure. Malm’s extensive endnotes are detailed and derived from valid academic and informed sources. The causality of zoonotic transmission from animals to humans is not yet clear. Writing in the Conversation and reproduced in the Guardian, Dominic Dwyer who was on the recent World Health Organisation mission/investigation to Wuhan can only confirm that the likelihood of the virus being manufactured in a lab is very small indeed. The probability that the source is bats is very high, but the transmission route remains unclear. The Wuhan “wet market” is a viable option, but there remains no evidence that the transmission to took place there, despite the presence of bats, civits, pangolins, bamboo rats and ferret badgers, all viable carriers of corona viruses.

Whatever the particular circumstances surrounding the particular case of Covid-19, Malm’s argument is a wider one, the more humans encroach on territories of wild animals, destroy their habit and force migrations north and into the human world, the greater is the likelihood of zoonotic transmission. Deadly though Covid-19 is, the next one could be a lot worse, and it will come sooner rather than later.

Back to aviation. Aviation is a contributor to a warming planet – becoming like Venus, as he puts it. It was also a transmission bridge or mechanism for spreading the human Covid-19 around the world in a remarkably short space of time. This book is full of linkages of this kind, one almost makes a list as he reveals like participating in a treasure hunt.

What is to be done?

I remember as a student this translation of Lenin’s question relating to the October Revolution. Malm draws on Lenin, Trotsky, Marx, Rosa Luxemberg; though interestingly, not Gramsci. He does this because he believes that “the time for gradualism is over” (p121). It is time for the state to reassert itself (he having flirted with anarchism as a younger man). But more than that, for us to take control of the state. That by my reading is revolution, not a reassertion, at least in the first instance.

Drawing on Lenin again, Malm reminds us of Lenin’s other major text from 1917, The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It. The catastrophe was different, but of the same magnitude for the people of Russia. The people were engaged in combatting the catastrophe and the state took control of the means of production, food supplies and land, essentially declaring war on need. By contrast, of course, humanity (capitalists, more precisely) has declared war on the planet. Those of us who want either to survive, or pass something liveable on to those who come after us, need to declare war on capital.

Capitalism has to go because it cannot be a solution to the warming planet. First he suggests that if we leave it to capitalists to solve, carbon capture will have to be marketised – turned into a product that has commercial value. This is not possible because of the scale of carbon capture needed and the price that can be levied on, and for, carbon. The state has to have carbon capture as a function, not as a market opportunity. Indeed, as Jason Hickel reminds us, carbon capture is factored into the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. Carbon neutrality is contingent on carbon capture! Second, left to the capitalists, geoengineering will be imposed upon us. This means sulphate aerosol injection – what he calls a pseudo-solution – that will pay handsomely for suppliers, but have unanticipated – and predictably negative – consequences for the planet’s inhabitants. It is a shield from the heat needing regular topping up, as it were.

A state following a doctrine of Economic Leninism then, is one that [takes] “control of trade flows, chased down wildlife traffickers, nationalised fossil fuel companies, organised direct air capture, planned the economy to cut nearly 10 per cent of emissions per year and did all other necessary things…” (p166).

And so back to the link between Covid-19 and climate change. The link is real, even if direct causality is difficult to establish. Plundering of the earth in pursuit of growth and human gratification must end. States have reasserted themselves in tackling Covid-19, albeit imperfectly. To do it “perfectly”, the state needs to be much more robust and undertake a paradigm shift either leading its people or, even better, the people leading it. Finally, “[m]ore precisely, zoonotic spillover of this earth-shattering magnitude should make it clear that defending wild nature against parasitic capital is now human self-defence. But the conscious organisation of such defence is solely up to humans” (p173).

I have nothing more to add.

Book review: Yanis Varoufakis, Another Now

I did not start reading this book (below left) as a piece of science fiction, I actually thought it was a straight political and economic manifesto by a radical thinker. Bless him (not in a God sense), he has tried another route into our consciousness.

Another Now cover

His construct is the following – three different people, all disaffected by the present, meet or are introduced to one another with the express – and contrived – purpose of “trialogueing” the ideas that are obviously keeping Varoufakis awake at night. One of his characters, Costa, is an IT expert liberated from daily work by having anticipated 2008 and bet against it (or for it, whichever way one thinks). Costa was working on an alternate reality that one could choose to enter but only in the Hotel California sense (“you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”). Having created his new reality in a game called Freedom, he finds that holed up in it is another being, Kosti (also from Crete), who shares Costa’s DNA and past. Kosti inhabits a world know as the Other Now, in contrast to that which Costa inhabits; namely, Our Now.

Kosti engages with Costa until he becomes bored, at which point Costa visits once again his two other protagonists, an ageing Marxist academic who gave up on politics to create tapestries (Iris) and a libertarian banker (Eva) who became disillusioned about finance after the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank in 2008. This is the date, conveniently, that the fork in the realities occurred. So, these three characters interrogate the alternate future and its mechanisms.

So what is the alternate system that so successfully functions in Other Now that Our Now should aspire to? And how? I am loath to be a spoiler, but the object of the book is to achieve a mobilisation and create a coalition for change. Unless blogs like this share the ideas, then it really is just a limited work of science fiction. So here goes.

  1. elimination of retail and investment banks
  2. universal basic income (UBI)
  3. employee ownership of firms and the elimination of hierarchies
  4. socialisation of land

1 and 2: The elimination of retail banks is linked to the form and function of the UBI. The UBI in this alternate world has three components in a Personal Capital (PerCap) account. First, Accumulation made up of basic pay and democratically-allocated work bonuses; Second, Legacy – which is paid on birth, but not redeemable until adulthood and a plan for using it! Third, Dividend, which is the UBI element funded by a tax on corporations at 5 per cent of gross revenues. The payments are stored in an electronic wallet and transfers are made independent of retail banks. Borrowing is replaced by a peer-to-peer lending scheme rather than by banks as we currently know them. That does not quite amount to the elimination of the need for retail banks, but comes close. Investment banks disappeared because they no longer trade their complex derivatives and create fictitious money. They are reduced merely to lenders and have no advantage over peer lending.

3: Each employee is given one share of equal value to all other shares in the company on Day 1, or when they join. The stock market has been dispensed with by the radical activists who brought about the change (see below). Firms become democratic with no senior bosses telling others what to do. And the surpluses created by firms are allocated by peer assessment on a points system. Those who are particularly creative and/or productive are recognised by their peers and given credit points that equate with a portion of the excess. These points can also be used by future employers to assess the suitability of a candidate.

4: Landlords received inflated unearned income. The socialisation of land in Other Now resulted in a new commons being created through Ground Trusts/Commons (gComms). By law all freehold land passed to the gComms. Leases were awarded to landlords and democratic businesses were also privileged. Two zones – one for commercial housing, the other for commercial businesses, enable communities to extract maximum rents in these areas to pay for social housing.

Getting there

The mechanisms for getting there are radical. In the Other Now, movements such as Occupy Wall Street were not defeated as they were in Our Now. They were transformed into a guerrilla groups that organised successful payments strikes (delaying instalment payments on bank loans and utilities such as water and electricity) that brought down the banks and caused the nationalisation of the utilities. Guerrilla groups targeted firms with poor employee relations and environmental records sufficient to get pension funds to divest. Another guerrilla group set about big tech – succeeding in bringing down Facebook and gaining property rights over data for users of social networks. Those companies that avoided attack by these guerrilla groups did so only by investing in green technologies, leaving stock markets and transferring full voting shares to their employees.

International organisations such as the IMF were completely reformed. Instead of being an organisation that gave loans to defaulting nations in exchange for the privatisation of public assets, the International Monetary Project (IMP) has a remit to stabilise the world economy and invest in countries or regions without indebting them. The resources for this come from levies on exports and capital transfers.

Yanis Varoufakis

Core to the success of the system and the security against exploitation and a return to some oligarchical system is transparency. The very systems that were turned on citizens to monitor and punish were instead directed at the powerful. An appropriately-named piece of software, the Panopticon Code, developed by a guerrilla group of coders, infected every computing device on the planet. Suddenly everyone could see everything about one another and particularly those “clinging to power”. As a reader, one can see that Varoufakis is perhaps not so keen on this as an absolute (everyone’s secrets are exposed with the negative impacts that would entail), but the longer-term impact on the Other Now was a democratisation of society on a global scale. Corporations were held in check by their internal democracy and Citizens’ Juries (with the power to dissolve bad companies). These, of course, required a high-level of engagement by the population to enact and maintain. A socialworthiness index (as a replacement for credit ratings and the agencies that generate them) helped to divert resources towards the good things in life that were not captured by GDP (a real bugbear of mine).

On immigration, states in the Other Now recognised the contribution of immigrants to host economies and also supported the communities in which they lived including providing sufficient school places, healthcare services and housing (the latter helped by the socialisation of land and management by gComms).

Other Now is a modern app-based world. There’s an app for PerCap and its funds. There’s an app for social media data trading – after all users of social media services were given property rights over their data. They now trade data with social media firms and receive payment for them. This had tragic implications – which are for readers of the book to discover (p169). Using an app and receiving the payment in the PerCap app! The proliferation of apps is an indicator of a vibrant digital sector, freed from the constraints of the former Techno-feudalism endured by Our Now citizens.

Why Other Now is not better than Our Now

Other Now is no Utopia. Varoufakis uses Iris to detail its residual failures that the elimination of capitalism did not banish. And in 2022, Other Now does have its own financial crisis caused by imperfections in the regulatory framework around gComms and PerCap. Again, I will not spoil it because this is the part where Varoufakis loses himself in his story telling. There is nothing original in what happens next – I am pretty sure that any seasoned SciFi fan would work this out before Varoufakis had written it, after all, he’s an academic economist. But we are asked, through his characters, whether we would elect to transfer to Other Now or stay in Our Now. This is an existential question. The identity of the characters prepared to transfer and which not, and their reasons for the choice, again, are not a surprise.

I bought the book without reading the cover. Fortunately. Readers know that fiction – and particularly science fiction -are not my thing. Varoufakis demonstrates that they are not his either, but he has a fair shot at it – and certainly his main points about the nature of change – and critically the process of change – are well made. Probably better in this format than a straight monograph, of which there are many. I come away with some ideas of my own. But also with a dilemma. Not only should I go to Another Now if I had the chance; but seeing as though I don’t have that option, should I try to create Another Now? Now. The answer…I am not into tapestry.

Picture: Twitter

Book Review: Banking on it by Anne Boden

Banking on it book cover

Anne Boden, a 50-something female banker with a long career at RBS decides to leave. She gets headhunted to work at the failed Allied Irish Bank (one of the major casualties of the financial crisis in 2008). Whilst she is terribly excited about the innovations in technology deployment at the bank, as chief operating officer, actually, her day job was making people redundant. She left after 18 months.

Boden comes across as someone who doesn’t sit still for long. She mused over her future and decided to set up her own retail bank. Only this one would not have any legacy systems, branches, and crucially, it would not have an IT department. It would be an IT department. The bank would be, as the book cover suggests, an industry disruptor – a business that would strip down products to the basics. No frills. And what it did do, it would do better than any other retail bank. It would interface with customers through a mobile phone app. The core product would be the notoriously unprofitable current account; rendered profitable by a low cost base and intelligent rates for borrowing and saving.

There is much to recommend in this book. We know the ending – Starling Bank was launched and is on the cusp of profitability. It is award winning – though I am never really sure what that means. And as we might expect, the journey to this point has been fraught, involved near bankrupting herself, two unexplained burglaries and a big fall out with the core team about strategy. As a 50-something bloke, the idea of a 50-something becoming a successful entrepreneur is inspiring. I am myself embarking on ventures that perhaps should have been done a number of years ago. But there you go. What this story tells us that there is never a wrong time, but don’t expect to have a life if you try. And if one is going to set up a bank, expect to have to do a deal with the Devil (more of this later).

Here are a few things of note for budding entrepreneurs:

  • Silicon Valley’s investors may not be receptive to non-Silicon Valley start-ups;
  • contingency fees from consultancies and lawyers may not be honoured by investors;
  • even if one thinks that the idea is original, it is not. Someone else is working on it simultaneously and they may be competing for finance with you;
  • scalability will be important – can the business be expanded/grow without adding costs? (p33);
  • build a network full of goodwill (being 50-something can help, providing one has not hacked people down on the way up in a previous life) – (p63)
  • if the business is a disruptor, the incumbents will not sit back and watch (p66); but in mature industries – like banking – they might not know how to respond (p251-2);
  • watch out for a coup attempt – those brought in to develop the business may see themselves as better able to build the business and launch. The leader of the coup will require the rest of the team to choose between you and them (pp125-6);
  • the media will pounce on stories about a coup/disagreements. PR needs management;
  • failure is normal for entrepreneurs. Investors value experience. In Silicon Valley, recording failure is part of the culture. The place where this is done is medium.com (p138);
  • it is possible to lose a whole team, be close to ruin, but start again and learn from the mistakes – primarily, getting the right people. The signs are there if one cares to look;
  • it is staggering how much can be done just using email;
  • so-called Real Options are revealed sooner than expected, but must be embraced. Setting up the businesses is only the start;
  • the team that launched the product is not necessarily the team to see it in to the future;
  • potential stakeholders/investors are watching – keep an eye on the email. Unfamiliar names may not be all bad.

Talking of bad. The bank got approval from the UK banking regulator to trade. I’m not quite sure how this works, but it does involve a lot of meetings, paperwork, disappointment and finance. It may not matter where the finance comes from. In Starling Bank’s case, Boden got an email from a mysterious investor, Harald McPike. Austrian, apparently. The eventual deal was done in the Bahamas on board a 92 metre yacht. £48m was pledged in exchange for 2/3 of the equity. So, essentially, Starling Bank is owned by a secretive financier based in the Bahamas.

That led me to a wider question about motives. Boden sees her core customers as younger types who live largely from their mobile phones. I get that. But why did the bank need to ape existing ownership models; namely venture capital based in the Bahamas? In these post-financial-crisis days, surely more of the same, albeit on a mobile, is falling short of truly disrupting? Why not a co-operative or other mutual model? Democratise banking and roll back the bank-as-an-end-in-itself principle.

There is absolutely no sense that Boden (left) might have had any reservations about the source of her capital, and that the profits would be offshored. It is not only McPike, she also sounded out Jared Kushner’s brother, Josh, in New York and John Thain famous seemingly for spending $141k on rugs for his office whilst he was at Merrill Lynch.

And what about ethical standards? The only mention of ethics was in a discussion as to whether it was ok to buy a competitor’s domain name (p197)! The website does have an ethics statement which explicitly excludes certain business customers such as arms traders. There is a commitment to planting trees, some reference to energy and supply chains. Nothing, though, that says, “this is the bank for me”.

Pic: Anne Boden, Charlottelorimer 

Book Review – Jason Hickel, Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World

Book cover

“Degrowth the economy” has a ring of “defund the police” about it. It sounds bad, counter-intuitive and a threat to security. Surely, if we degrow, we become poorer and less able to provide services that society needs?

These are obvious questions, the answer probably starts with the issue of notions of rich and poor. As much of my most recent reading has highlighted, for as long as wealth is measured in terms of money and its exchange value; i.e. the amount of stuff we can buy with it, the poorer we become as a species. But that is largely what GDP is, a measure of value in terms of the quantified and expressed in units, usually a currency, that are convertible and comparable with other currencies.

Hickel’s final chapter is thought provoking. He’s an anthropologist, not an economist; it is that multi-disciplinarity that is so helpful in debates about economies and climate change. Hickel takes us into the disappearing world of indigenous peoples living in the forests of South America and Asia. These people live in very close proximity to nature, are reliant on it and are deeply conscious that over-exploitation will lead to shortages. Take too many fish and they will not reproduce in sustainable numbers. Sustainable here means the same for the fish as those who rely on them for food.

These indigenous people do this by viewing the natural world not as “other”; in our “developed-world terms, as objects to be exploited. Rather, the natural world is full of subjects that, for some indigenous peoples, have souls. Having a soul (note that is not humans granting other living things a soul, rather other things having immanent souls). Hickel (below right) is not just talking about higher mammals; this stretches to plants (way more sophisticated than we give them credit for) and (even the) micro-organisms that digest our food and manufacture the nutrients that make us work.

Of course, if we have a view of the world where other living things have souls – though that does not make them the same as us – then it necessitates a less exploitative relationship with “other”. As we have seen so often in the developed human world, if we ascribe other living things object status rather than subject status, they become eminently exploitable. And in any way that the exploiter sees fit. We do this to the indigenous people (Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil seeks to exterminate indigenous Amazonian people to exploit their lands); but our favourite economic system – capitalism – was based on subject-object distinctions. Colonialisation is a case in point. Indigenous people find themselves objects even if they themselves had seen the colonialists as subjects (albeit with weapons). 

If anyone thinks that it is not possible to ascribe subject status to things that are not human, one does not have to go much further than the US Supreme Court that interpreted the Constitution to include corporations as having the same liberties as individuals – at the time, of course, white males with property. That said, that decision was much to the chagrin of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who could see the dangers (Mintzberg, 2015).

And so to capitalism. Capitalism is a system dependent on unsustainable exploitation of resources. Our measure of GDP does this for us. It is the measure that tells us that we are in growth, recession or depression; but perversely, we can increase it by wrecking a ship full of oil because GDP measures the “clean-up” operation but not the damage done by the oil on the landscape, the wildlife and the eco-system more generally. 

Governments revel at levels of 3 per cent growth and we are amazed and envious when countries achieve 8 per cent and more. We must process what that means. At a rate of 3 per cent per year, an economy will effectively double in 30 years. That is double the resource extraction, too. As we now know, this is unsustainable. We need, argues, Hickel, to degrow.

Capitalism extracts from us more and more work. We once thought that technology would enable us to spend less time working. But it has not proved to be the case. The machines, like the one I am using now, makes it possible for me to do things that my predecessors would have given to others to do. In my work at a university, I am an imperfect IT technician as well as a lecturer. I do administration, too, all facilitated by technology and all displacing work from – and for – others who are not rewarded with more leisure time, but rather with unemployment and poverty. The excess goes to owners and executives.

Hickel reports that if we have more time, we use it not to consume more, but to spend time with family and friends. We also volunteer more. We are healthier. And we emit less greenhouse gas. Actually, we take more short flights when we work long hours as we seek, through the logic of capitalism, to “make the most” of the free time that we have. That has become synonymous with consumption. And what’s more “…nearly a third of all labour we’ve rendered, all the resources we’ve extracted, all the CO2 we’ve emitted over the past half century has been done to make rich people richer.” (p29) That stays with me as a thought.

This is what degrowth means that:

  • we work less but are more productive in the process; remove the scarcity of jobs that leads to people working longer and for lower wages. There is actually no scarcity of work in modern economies; 
  • we should advertise less and reduce the creation of wants over needs;
  • built-in obsolescence in products is ended – everything is repairable;
  • we share more (shift from ownership to usership). Equally, expand the commons – land, in particular. 
  • ecologically damaging industries are scaled back (e.g. red meat production);
  • we invest in meaningful jobs and guarantee them (in line with Stephanie Kelton’s thinking
  • we reduce inequality – more equal societies consume less and are less wasteful. The people are happier;
  • debt is cancelled for poor countries (so-called Jubilee). In order to pay the debt, countries exploit natural resources unsustainably;
  • we end debt-based currency – banks create currency from every loan they make. Compound interest is also ended;
  • we broaden democracy and participation, end lobbying/political advertising. Elite control of news media is ended. Industrial democracy becomes the norm in firms. Monopolies are broken up;
  • the power structures in key global institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are flattened.

Degrowth book coverLike all of the books I review, there is much more to them than the contents of this blog post. Hickel has a style that is satisfying. As an academic, he eschews too much anecdote and comprehensively gives citations and endnotes. This contrasts with Rutger Bergmann who is equally erudite, but less academically rigorous. However, it is annoying that Hickel’s book does not have an index, but that is labour-intensive, I know. My next task is to backtrack a little on degrowth with D’Alisa et al (left). 

Hickel photo – Goldsmiths College

Mintzberg, H (2015), Rebalancing Society.

Book review: Stephanie Kelton, the Deficit Myth

Without my reliable book seller, I would probably not have read this book. It arrived one day through my Covid-barrier letterbox. Once I had started reading, it completely changed my way of thinking and boosted my mood amidst the gloom that is modern politics and economics. Kelton demonstrates that, contrary to the British Prime Minister’s assertion, there actually is a magic money tree. I am going to resort to bullet points here. Here’s what Kelton tells us:

  • we do not pay tax to pay for services, we pay tax to “provision” the economy
  • governments do not tax and spend, they spend and tax
  • governments’ budgets do not work like household budgets
  • countries that have currency sovereignty (i.e. “issue” their own currency), cannot run out of money
  • the role of fiscal policy is to manage inflation, not the deficit.
  • austerity is both unnecessary and damaging economically and socially
  • deficits are a sign of a healthy economy – economies that are balanced are not innovative
  • a negative balance of payments does not mean that foreign powers have power over countries whose currencies they keep
  • currency “holders” convert their cash into interest-bearing bonds
  • countries with currency sovereignty can, and should, have full employment
  • the resources are there for countries with currency sovereignty to transform to carbon-zero economies.

That is almost enough for one book. There are plenty of reviews of this book for my readers can draw on, for example, Despan, 2020. As ever, there is no substitute for reading the book oneself. But let me take just a few of these bullet points and metabolise them.

Take Covid-19, the British Government has found £30bn to fund the furlough/job retention scheme to enable employers to retain staff when revenues are hard to generate. The Government found money to build emergency hospitals; purchase PPE (albeit inefficiently); and even pay us to eat out. The government has not disclosed how these initiatives will be paid for. The Conservative Government has spent millions of pounds on Brexit, most notoriously a £13.8m contract to a ferry firm without ferries. Oh, and those expensive nuclear weapons. Essentially, the Treasury is paying by creating money. Though by contrast, it would seem that Government spending on welfare payments to poorer people, on education, social care, etc., have to be justified and balanced by tax revenue.

Tax, more generally, is not as it seems. Kelton makes the argument that the reason that we pay tax is not to fund spending, but rather for provisioning. Governments need people to be economically active, to make things, to provide services, for progress. Tax, therefore, is the incentive for people to be economically active by ensuring that people have to give their labour and time in exchange for currency (money). There is a secondary purpose to tax, that of wealth redistribution. The obscene wealth concentration in the hands of a few known-individuals – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel – does not serve society at all. The rich who get more money tend to save it rather than spend it. Give poor people money and they will spend it in the real economy. Take a $1bn off Jeff Bezos in tax and he is left with $109bn. Would he really notice? Plus, how much has Bezos increased his wealth during the pandemic which has necessitated large-scale public spending commitments? What can civil society do with $1bn? Rather a lot, I think.

People will argue – particularly in the USA – that rich people are serious philanthropists. Bill Gates’ foundation gives billions to the fight against malaria. Warren Buffet has endorsed Gates and will donate his fortune to Gates’ foundation upon his death. There are two problems – at least – with that argument. Many billionaires have become so rich by exploiting workers, communities and natural resources. Suddenly to give excess money “away” to causes that they decide are worthy seems wrong. They distribute excess money (they do not become St Francis of Asissi). They live well and maintain their political influence. And who is to say the causes selected by philanthropists are worthy and the most efficacious? Where is the transparency, the democracy, the accountability?

Back to Kelton’s main arguments, government deficits are, by definition,  surpluses or credits to others. I buy something (debit) and give money to someone else (credit) in return for something that I actually want. But unlike governments, my debit does have to be covered either by savings or borrowing. Governments only get into trouble when they borrow in currencies that are not their own. Cases such as Argentina are often floated as examples of how deficits are bad. Notwithstanding the fact that Argentina’s 2001 inflation-led crisis caused a default on foreign debt, it did reconfigure its economy to one that focused on domestic growth and full employment. Its government moved away from US dollars both in cash terms and also uncoupling interest rates to a foreign currency.

Inflation, unemployment and climate change

Inflation is a problem for economies. In my lifetime I have seen high inflation; though nothing compared to the hyper-inflation suffered by Germany in the 1930s which still scars the landscape and leads to economic conservativism within the country and forces austerity on countries such as Greece that share the currency (the Euro). Inflation is usually controlled by notionally-independent central banks. They increase interest rates to dampen down demand. 2 per cent inflation seems to be a common target in modern economies. Overshoot and the central bank will raise interest rates. That will also impact on the unemployment rate – but modern economy managers trade off inflation and employment. Higher unemployment is a price worth paying for keeping down inflation, unless you are, of course, someone being made unemployed. This trade-off can be seen at work in a recent article by Gordon Brown, UK PM during the financial crisis of 2008. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, he writes: “Now I am the first to say that the Bank needs a more demanding constitution, one that imposes a dual mandate: to take unemployment as seriously as inflation. This should be matched by an operational target stating that interest rates will not rise or stimulus end until unemployment falls to pre-crisis levels.” (Guardian, 15 September 2020).

Kelton argues convincingly that countries with sovereign currencies can run their economies with a “good jobs guarantee”. Monetary policy has it that there is a natural level of unemployment – NAIRU. The Economist Martin Goodfried puts a figure on it: 7 per cent! In the USA, that might be as many as 12 million Americans “naturally” without work and a whole lot more who are under-employed. To keep that number of people unemployed is not some law of economics (there are no laws of real economics), it is purely a political decision predicated on a non-existent law of rising wages caused by too much employment and hence bargaining power of labour leading to inflation. When wages rise, interest rates should increase to prevent inflation from occurring.

Mainstream economics has it that unemployment benefit is sufficient to provide for the needs of people without work. Critically for the neo-liberal economists, the rate needs to be set sufficiently low so as to provide the incentive for the unemployed to take any paid work rather than be idle. The gig economy is, arguably, the result of this mentality; that is insecure and sporadic work. However, this argument is pretty phoney – most people are motivated by a sense of purpose, much of which comes from engaging in meaningful work. But the rich – for example, those who earn six-figure sums – do not work harder the more they receive in salary and bonuses. They merely accumulate believing themselves to be worth the money they are paid. Moreover, they bias the policy of their firms in order to maximise the benefits they receive. For example, if remuneration is linked to share price, CEOs may engage in share buy-backs rather than invest in innovation and new products.

Kelton identifies seven deficits that do matter. These are: employment, infrastructure, education, climate, democracy, health and savings. Let me take a couple of those deficits, starting with employment. Kelton argues that progressive governments would use the state apparatus to employ all unemployed labour on a wage that sustains individuals and families until full employment returns in the natural economic and business cycles. A good job guarantee (the good is important here) can maintain aggregate demand even in a downturn because everyone who wants to work can do so. This potentially makes the downturn of shorter duration. All citizens would be covered (not everyone is eligible for unemployment benefits either because they have not paid-in to the insurance system, or they have exhausted their “entitlement”) and purposeful work is at the heart of such a programme. Moreover, skills are retained and/or enhanced. Kelton argues further that these public works should be based in communities and the work itself should focus on developing communities – whether it be public service, caring (for elderly and children alike) or business development/entrepreneurship. It is also clear that such a job-guarantee programme could be beneficial as societies pursue environmental sustainability. It is also feasible for people to change their own direction from accumulation to sharing and “de-growth”.

That leads to the second deficit that matters, climate change. Kelton rehearses many of the arguments made by key writers in this field such as Mike Berners-Lee, David Wallace-Wells, Tim Lang, Bruno Latour, etc. If governments persist with a neo-liberal, deficit-avoidance economic mindset, then climate change will impact human society at the upper, catastrophic-end of the climate-modelled scenarios. There is no financial block on investment in green technologies. It is political. Sovereign currency issuers such as the USA and the UK can generate the financial resources needed to eliminate carbon as the source of all energy and limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.

In conclusion, Kelton is a credible critic of existing monetary policy. She demonstrates how we can as a society have the things we need. Society has never been provided for by taxation. It has always been spend and tax, not tax and spend. Tax does not provide the resources for public spending, it is primarily a tool of redistribution. Some rich people are not keen on that, for some reason.

Updated, 15 September 2020 to incorporate quote by Gordon Brown

My last Samsung

A few years’ ago, I watched a documentary about corruption at Olympus (the Japanese camera/optics firm). I was rather disturbed by it. To the western viewer, there was unacceptable fraud being perpetrated by Japanese executives. The British-company president at the time, Michael Woodford, found that dealing with it was not straightforward and could be dangerous. What he could not understand with his capitalist mindset was that losses were not only about honour in Japanese society, but also about social welfare – the interests of generations of employees (Olympus people) were intertwined with the fortunes of the company. The Japanese executives did what they could to avoid the collapse of the company for that reason – something that is difficult for a western mindset to embrace.

So in reading Geoffrey Cain’s book (left) about South Korea’s Samsung corporation, packed full of examples of fraudulent business activities, should I try to understand the cultural imperatives and conclude the book was a good read? Which it is, though the style as a thriller is annoying, but that is just me again. Samsung is a family business traded on foreign stock markets. It is the cornerstone of the South Korean economy, run as a business empire with a patriarch who can be convicted numerous times for services to the ruling family and somehow evade the full force of the criminal justice system. The book concludes just at the point where the current patriarch, Lee Jae-yong (Jay Lee), was facing a re-trial on bribery charges after a successful appeal by prosecutors to the Supreme Court.

The charges are intimately linked to Lee Jae-yong’s attempts to retain control over the company and not pay much inheritance tax in the process. Although Samsung is traded on stock markets,

car

1999 Samsung SQ5, later called SM5

investors do not buy a stake in the parent; there is a lot of cross-shareholding that does two things. It blurs the precise nature of who owns what whilst ensuring a controlling role for family members. It is a conglomerate, but at the same time not. Family members control the affiliate businesses including a theme park, a hospital, shipbuilding, fashion and chipsets. It made motor cars in my lifetime (right) The cross-shareholding allows the family to retain control with relatively small shareholding. The structure is frequently adjusted in the interests of the Lee family.

In 2015 one of these adjustments involved two affiliates merging to the considerable detriment of the financial interests of the existing shareholders of one of those affiliates, C&T such that it was being valued at less-than zero. As Cain notes: “Samsung argued that this was an attempt to consolidate business units…Jay Lee owned a 23 percent stake in Cheil Industries, the company acquiring Samsung C&T [Construction and Trading], which in turn owned a 4 percent stake in Samsung Electronics, the crown jewel. The merger would simplify and solidify Jay Lee’s control of Samsung Electronics through this shareholding web, starting with Cheil at the top” (p245). To make matters worse, the family managed to convince one of the largest institutional investors, The National Pension Service (NPS), to support the merger despite it not being in the interests of its own stakeholders; namely, South Korean pensioners and those hoping to retire on a pension. In the end, a combination of the devaluing of the NPS’s shareholding and the stock market’s response, it lost $500m – a straight transfer from the people to an industrial elite!

Even a US hedge fund, Elliott Management, led by Paul Elliott Singer, failed to stop it. Singer himself was described by Bloomberg as “The World’s Most Feared Investor”. Samsung engaged in some pretty unsavoury propaganda to discredit him. Singer is Jewish and Samsung went full-on antisemitism even going to the point of setting up a website called “Vulture Man” with a slide show depicting a vulture, thought to be a caricature of Singer, “whose sadistic practices consisted of plotting and preying on the poor and disenfranchised around the world” (p250).

Samsung’s origins are uncomfortable from a 21st Century context. Its founder, BC Lee, was educated in Japan and was enamoured to say the least by Japanese Zaibatsu, powerful family-dominated industrial and financial business empires, which fell victim to post-war reconstruction. Lee’s first business operation was in supplying vegetables to Japanese soldiers in Manchuria. That story itself has unsavoury implications, though from a business perspective, perfectly reasonable. A man familiar with Japanese cuisine supplies vegetables to customers in Manchuria. The fact that they were an occupying force is neither here nor there.

After WWII, the South was invaded by the North; 3 years’ of war saw most of Lee’s assets taken or looted. Lee then entered sugar refining and wool spinning, banking, insurance and chemicals. Samsung was intimately involved in the economic transformation of the country arising from the military coup in 1961 led by General Park Chung-hee after some horsetrading over the scope of Samsung business interests. Actually, the state wanted the banks.

selfieThe transformation into an electronics firm started to take shape with the acquisition of a semi-conductor firm in 1974. Always a supplier, Samsung powered the first iPhone. In fact without very close collaboration between the two firms the iPhone would not have made it to the market and that infamous 2007 presentation by Steve Jobs at the Macworld convention would not have happened. That event is itself a tale of trade-off and compromise.

Samsung seems to have been obsessed with beating competitors. First, Sony in terms of design and LCD screens/televisions. More famously, beating Apple, particularly in the American market for which Samsung employed a crack team of marketers led by Todd Pendleton. Their White Glove project culminated in one of the most famous non-selfies when Ellen deGeneres tried to make a selfie  with Meryl Streep using a Galaxy mobile at the Oscars ceremony in 2014. It ended up being the most-retweeted Tweet (right) featuring other stars such as Julia Roberts, Channing Tatum, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o, Jared Leto. And Kevin Spacey.

It is at this point in the book that I realise how meaningless life is.

The politics are much more interesting than the marketing; and much more unsavoury. Further words are expended on the PR disaster of the Galaxy Note 7 and the company’s insufficient recall policy and unwillingness to come clean about the cause, or indeed the danger. Readers will not be surprised to learn that there turns out to be considerable institutional causes over-and-above the design flaws. And then there is the premature release of the folding-screen phone that was so delicate that it broke by looking at it. Cain concludes, however, that we, the consumers, are just seduced by good products in nice cases. We will overlook the behaviour of the manufacturer in pursuit of consumption. My Samsung  S8+ is now into its fourth year. That is a testament to the product (and a bit to my care and attention to it). My next mobile will not be a Samsung.

25 October 2020 – death of Lee Kun-hee announced: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/oct/25/lee-kun-hee-samsung-electronics-chairman-dies-aged-78

Pics: Samsung SQ5: raul • CC BY-SA 3.0