Saturday, 4 April 2009

The crisis of inactivity

"The meaning of the industrial revolution was that nature was turned into a resource that was considered endlessly abundant. The deterioration of the environment of our planet is an outward mirror of an inner condition. Like inside, like outside." Source: the 11th Hour

The problem we are having with our ecological impact is not just one of carbon output. The problem is one of failure of carbon reduction initiatives. If we wanted we could reduce our carbon emissions. The problem is in finding the will. It seems to me that will lacks in politicians, it lacks in individuals, it lacks in industry, it lacks in society as a whole.

Is the problem to do with our economic system? Does capitalism engender unstoppable levels of pollution? Another way to phrase the problem is: can society as a whole change fast enough to dodge levels of global warming that would bring civilization to an end? James Lovelock is pessimistic on the subject judging that mankind isn't intelligent enough to avoid its own unmaking. Most environmentalists would rather live in a state of denial than admit to that, including myself.

Capitalism has huge benefits for mankind. It enables it to secure the basics and fulfill its secondary needs but in the process it is self-destructive judging by what the science tells us about the state of the Planet. As a species we have an inbuilt compulsory need for security. We need the security that we can secure adequate supplies of food and shelter to survive and past that stage, we need to be occupied. Capitalism is the solution to these needs. At an individual level, we are sometimes so caught up in trying to make a living that we have no time to consider the environmental impact of our lives and no time to do anything about it either.

If we look at politicians, they are no different to us. One area of economics that helps us understand their motivations is game theory. Politicians have to operate in a constrained environment of incentives and punishment. Politicians are no different to you or me, they will do what they can to remain in office. In doing so, taking measures that risk allienating them public support in the short term are undesirable outcomes. That's why there is no tax on plane travel or any restriction of any kind on travel routes or number of plane journeys, despite the fact that plane pollution is one of the most important causes of global warming and one of the easiest to address. The market fixes the problem through supply and demand. The only restriction existing on plane travel is that of available runways in the UK. Since the market only regulates itself through supply, demand and price, it is not capable of looking after its long term interest: its ability to continue as an entity indefinitely. Rather, it is preoccupied with the short-term issue of keeping the whole complex system functioning. As the financial crisis demonstrates: to insure its long-term survival, the market needs a regulatory framework that defines the boundaries in which it can operate. That is the Yin and Yang of the market if you like.

The Yin and Yang of the Planet is imbalanced: ecological systems are collapsing and not enough is being done to address their collapse, namely a reduction in the carbon emissions that are aggravating the warming. They say that hindsight is a beautiful thing. In hindsight, we could have regulated the derivatives market and avoided the worst of a crisis that has so far required us to borrow trillions to see ourselves out of it. In the end the market got its way: it wanted freedom to operate as it saw fit, it got it and in the process it created a Yin and Yang imblance: the abscence of regulation. Regulation could have avoided the issuing of so much junk debt and the insurance of that junk debt to a level of eight times the actual amount of the junk debt! It didn't and that created the crisis. In hindsight, people might have preferred regulation at the cost of not being able to live as well as they desired. Now the price they have to pay is insecurity. Insecurity is a better price to pay than life itself. At least if you don't have a job, you still have a life. So long as you scramble to find food and shelter, you'll live.

The next crisis, the environmental crisis, is far worst: what it will deprive us of this time is our lives. James Lovelock made an educated guess that the world's population would decrease from 9 billion in 2050 to 1 billion in 2100. The same happened on Easter Island seven centuries ago. Population peaked at 7000 and then shrinked 90% once the inhabitants had deforested the Island to erect the world famous Moai Statues. With no trees left, the inhabitants were no longer able to build boats so they killed each other to avoid starving to death. A genius wasn't required to see that to insure their own survival, the inhabitants needed to insure the survival of the forest but the inhabitants were to preoccupied in fulfilling their short-term need of securing protection from the Gods to distinguish the tree from the forest. This lack of foresight cost them their civilization. When the island was rediscovered by a Western explorer in the 16th century, only a few hundred starved, bony survivors remained. To this day, the abundant tropical forest that once rellished the island has not returned.

Individuals cannot count on politicians to deal effectively and decisively with global warming before it's too late. Politicians are elected in a democracy to fulfill the needs of individuals and the short-term need of individuals is prosperity. Individuals, like the market, are not capable of looking after their long-term interest: survival of the species. For an individual to gather the motivation to look after their long-term interest, a crisis is needed. Not until they find their homes flooded or their food supply dwindling will individuals take decisive action to protect themselves. Unfortunately, in the case of the global warming crisis, the crisis once it is set is unstoppable and causes total annihilation of the ecosystems and the species that depend upon it. The perversity of the environmental crisis is that it will not manifest itself in life threatening ways until it is already too late and it cannot be avoided.

Why should we expect politicians to deal with the environmental crisis if the reward they get for it is a media storm, discreditation alongside getting voted out of office?

Judging by the most recent scientific reports, it's already too late anyway. But we may still have a shot, albeit a very uncertain one since no one can really tell you how we can take back the carbon we've put in the atmosphere and avoid the methane burried at the bottom of the ocean from coming out. But I trust in human ingeniosity, I just hope we'll find something. In the meanwhile, we need to find ways to reduce our carbon emissions.

Coming back to capitalism, I'm a big believer that adequately manipulated, it can indeed offer a solution to our problem: the environmental crisis. The solution is the week-end.

Thanks to the wealth we are able during week days, we have as a nation, an untapped potential of 51 billion hours, worth at minimum wage, 304 billion a year. Desperate times call for desperate measures. What to do with this free time?

The most important life saving infrastructure that needs to be built is a means to absorb the excess carbon that has built up in the atmosphere over the past 50 years. That carbon needs to be sucked in and stored. Storage reserves exist but what we need is pipeline infrastructure leading to geological areas where the carbon can be stored along with a worldwide network of chimney infrastructure to suck in the carbon. This solution was presented in New Scientist in February 09 but it was among the least economical. In carbon capture and storage, we cannot take into account economical factors. You can't dump stuff in the atmosphere or in the oceans without being able to retrieve it and without knowing its long term effect. It's just too dangerous. I've read of particles that could be sent out in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight that could self-destruct but I'm sceptical about this. How can these particles be controlled? What if they have any secondary or unexpected effects? To me the common sense solution would be to put the carbon back where we found it and for that, we have a huge untapped man hour reserve that could well solve our problems without costing us our lifestyles.

So how do you get people to work on their week-ends? And more importantly, how do you get them to learn the skills required to do the necessary work? How do you mobilize an entire society?

The answer is in our past. In the past, military drafting was compulsory. A cultural, social and economical change of the magnitude of using up people's week-ends for production would require a military-style level of organization. Some people would have to work a seven day week continuing with their normal jobs whilst others would be taken away from their job to work full-time in the carbon sucking manufacturing sector. In the past, peasents use to work a 6 day week, Sunday was God's day and you stopped work that day to honour God. Sunday was never really a day for rest. The idea of resting at weekends to recharge your batteries is nice but would you stop to rest at weekends if your life was endangered?

Now that most of society is without faith, working Sunday isn't such a problem anymore. Even if society was with faith, it would be an honour to work on Sunday to protect God's gift to mankind: the Planet.

Initially, the measure could work by getting people to volunteer to either work weekends in their firms or to work on carbon sucking manufacturing full-time. It could also work on a rota system where people would spend a year in this system, a year out then another year in. I think it would work best targeting the service and public sector industry in the sectors that are deemed the least stressful such as administration, IT, banking, retail etc... where the need for rest is least required.

The untapped potential is there. It's up to us to seize it and do something to address the crisis of inactivity.

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