Band-aids won’t save the polar bears: smarter climate adaptation needed

It used to be all ice fields around here
It used to be all ice fields around here

Today’s post is by Naazia Ebrahim of the OECD Environment Directorate

The polar bear, floating mournfully away on an ice floe as his habitat melts around him, is perhaps one of the most well-travelled symbols of the impacts of climate change. The bear is removed just enough from the vast majority of the world’s population to be a perfect object of fixation: unusual, unique, but still cute enough to capture the attention of children, and adults, everywhere. (The blobfish may beg to differ.)

On current trends, the polar bear is going to require some help if it is to survive. Unfortunately, due to the bears’ remote location and specific feeding habits, any intervention will be drastic: one suggestion has been to use helicopters to air-drop food, to the tune of $32,000 a day for the “most accessible” bears. To survive is its right as a fellow member of the ecological community – but as adaptation goes, this is clearly not ideal. Not only is it extremely expensive, but it could also cause a large amount of carbon emissions and environmental disturbance. Sadly, it may be the only option in this case.

Nevertheless, it does provide a valuable lesson: “band-aid” solutions are very often expensive, inefficient, and wasteful. Given sufficient time and money, we could continue along our current path and engineer workarounds to some of the expected impacts of climate change when the time comes. But why take the risk? Not all impacts can be predicted or adapted to in any meaningful manner, and addressing others would require expensive solutions that fail to help the most vulnerable and may be environmentally damaging. Significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are essential, but they need to be combined with smart preparations for the future.

The OECD argues that a better way to approach adaptation is to plan smartly for long-term trends. Starting early enough, keeping an eye on possible future impacts, and thinking systematically about the interactions of these impacts with society’s structures are all key to avoiding long-term lock-in – or in other words, a path that leaves society’s institutions unable to adapt to unexpected changes.

There are numerous examples of this “smart adaptation” in practice. Denmark, for example, is creating waterways in Copenhagen to accommodate “cloudburst” flash downpours; Australia has committed AUD 3.1 billion to restoring the Murray-Darling Basin, including by buying back irrigation entitlements; and Colombia is promoting climate-smart agriculture through a combination of efficient irrigation schemes, specialised crop varieties, and improved farming techniques. These adaptation initiatives are not only cost-effective but also create co-benefits, which are another pillar of our smart adaptation principles: bonus economic, social, and environmental improvements on top of the intent of the project. Copenhagen’s waterways reduce drainage needs while also providing opportunities for recreation. Colombia’s agricultural initiatives are expected to increase food security while also raising on-farm incomes, reducing poverty, and creating greater ecosystem resilience.

Human ingenuity is capable of creating many things: ski slopes in the desert, artificial islands, flights to the moon (or to feed polar bears). But why waste resources when, by planning ahead from now, we can reduce costs, create co-benefits, avoid exaggerating the environmental impacts of adaptation, and leave ourselves some breathing room to boot? And who knows, maybe along the way we’ll find a better way of getting food to those polar bears.

Useful links

OECD work on climate change adaptation

Seeing paradigm change

Greening household behaviourToday’s post by James Greyson, Head of BlindSpot Think Tank is in response to Naazia Ebrahim’s recent article on greening household behaviour. We asked James to expand on his argument that “System change policy would design waste out of economics”.

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.” – Roald Dahl

This line from a story by the imaginative genius Roald Dahl was published after his death in 1990. Today these words still sound like handy advice for those of us watching the world and looking for places where change can shift paradigms. Dahl hints at a key insight for solving intractable global problems, that our way of looking determines whether we find what we’re looking for. Since we’ve collectively not found it, why not look for help in an unlikely place such as a children’s story?

Our world and its problems should have been watched for long enough. Inequality, debt, financial instability, corruption, conflict, ecosystem damage, waste and poverty have been seen through history.  These big problems have been watched by problem-solving professionals since at least the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference. Despite all efforts since then the risks that the conference declaration warned about, such as “massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend”, just grow and grow. After all this time there are still no solutions in place to avoid that unpredictable moment of irreversibility when any global problem overtakes any hope of recovery. Even now, this moment could be avoidable so we should be seeking new possibilities.

Roald Dahl hints at the necessary imaginative leap. If millions of professionals can work for decades on global problems without actually solving them then we might be missing something. Dahl’s advice to look in unusual places can be read as an invitation to not only look where we expect to find solutions. Solutions on the scale and speed that are needed will probably not be found where everyone has been looking already, but within our collective blindspots. Looking for what we’re missing, especially when we’re missing something big, is itself missing from global problem-solving work. Are blindspots too embarrassing for professionals and organisations supposed to have all the answers? Or are we just a bit stuck doing what we’re doing?

The search for solutions in likely places is not just habit, it’s also a complex system behaviour. This is how paradigms self-reinforce, by hiding the possibility of diametrically different paradigms. Anything too radically different gets filtered out. The space for technical and policy solutions is shaped by the current paradigm rather than by the need to replace the current paradigm. For example, the opportunity of economics that prevents waste, rather than causing it, is overlooked within a system that looks at waste management primarily as a question of rubbish disposal. Incineration for example is considered by the OECD as a component of waste minimisation, rather than a way to convert solid waste into atmospheric wastes. This perpetuates the linear waste-making economy.

Roald Dahl offered a pointer on how to search where solutions seem unlikely. Watching the whole world around us might mean looking at whole system behaviour. We can follow the trail from tangible problems, such as climate impacts or designed-to-fail products, to the systemic problems, such as economies set up to keep losing resources as wastes in ecosystems. We can identify new paradigms for the system, such as circular economy, where used resources end up again as new resources. Then we can make policy to quickly switch the paradigm world-wide, for example by insuring the waste-risk of products. Then the new paradigm can self-organise everything else, phasing out waste from products and lifestyles everywhere.

Watching the whole world is the alternative to the default ways of coping with complexity and change – reductionism and denial. Denial gives licence not to see any problems that require change. Reductionism gives licence to consider any selected subsystems of the world and as much change as seems feasible (which is never enough). Watching the whole world gives licence to look across patterns of global complexity and make sure the necessary changes are feasible. Reductionism allows the problems to grow, ironically making more reductionism seem like the only way to make progress. The whole system viewpoint offers the opportunity to discuss, define and implement ‘the greatest secrets’ of policy solutions for system change.

How would system change policy work in practice? We could rely less on change within systems, such as all the initiatives that try to agree and enforce percentage improvements in problem symptoms like emissions or ecosystem loss. We could take more care to define system paradigms: what are the unintended design features that allow the problems to persist? The most common proposal for a system change, to measure progress beyond GDP, may turn out to be a blindspot since prevailing paradigms seek growth in ways that also undermine growth. The OECD have shown for example that inequality hurts growth. New paradigms that phase out society’s dependence on causing global problems would be growth bonanzas. So politicians wedded to growth should be shown system change policies as a way to get growth, rather than be told to give up on it.

Dahl’s advice to watch with glittering eyes reminds us that civilisation need not continue to undermine itself. As professionals we need not continue to struggle with fragments of global problems only to see things worsen overall. The complexity and interconnectedness of the world’s systems can be harnessed to solve problems they’ve previously caused. We can be curious and excited about finding hidden opportunities for systemic change that not only minimise damage but also reverse historical damage. By embracing Roald Dahl’s imaginative legacy we can edit out the big risks to our future and add amazing new chapters to our shared story.

What do you think? How best to organise system change policy to reverse persistent global problems? Add your comments below or let me know via Twitter @blindspotting.

Useful links

TEDxBradford – James Greyson – Let’s unshrink thinking and reverse reverse-progress…

OECD work on consumption, innovation and the environment

OECD Environment Directorate on iSSUU, including Policy Highlights on water, food, transport, waste and energy

Mainstreaming Green Growth: Venice, the ideal place to wade through the issues

Save our socks!
Save our socks!

Today’s post is by Ryan Parmenter, Policy Analyst in the OECD Environment Directorate’s Green Growth and Global Relations Division

Ever plodded through flood waters to get to a conference? In late January, the Green Growth Knowledge Platform (GGKP) held their 3rd annual conference in Venice, Italy at the impressive Ca’ Foscari University. More than 200 experts from universities, governments and agencies converged to discuss the role that fiscal policies can play in greening growth. With the streets filling rapidly with water, nature (influenced by a changing climate) provided extra motivation to act immediately on this issue as participants flocked to indoor heaters and radiators to dry out their drenched shoes and socks.

Using an innovative format, we discussed the findings of over 50 peer-reviewed papers. This ensured that the conference subject was covered from a variety of angles. I personally attended sessions that ranged from considering how to use carbon taxation revenues to address pension deficits, to evaluating an Italian car scrapping programme.

I was struck by one theme that cut across nearly all of the discussions: the ongoing problem of mainstreaming green growth. Mainstreaming needs to involve people from the organisations and ministries that make decisions on a wide range of policies and programmes. To be truly effective at addressing the complexity and scale required for greening growth, engagement is required with more than just those who work strictly on environmental matters.

Almost all of the discussions I attended noted some element of concern about whether the right people were in the room. There were repeated calls from panellists, moderators and participants regarding the need to address the social implications of greening growth as well as increased engagement with central banks and finance ministries. On a broader level, it was noted that success requires a collective effort and international co-operation in order to address the green growth concerns that so easily expand across borders.

Related to mainstreaming, there were two stand out moments:

In a parallel session on Climate Change and the Green Economy Transition, Erika Jorgensen from the World Bank pointed out that Environment Ministries do not by themselves have the authority or funding required to effectively address green growth. She extended the point to say that any national priority cannot be handled by a single government ministry. This was a direct and succinct assessment of the mainstreaming problem and the reality facing green growth issues.

In another moment, during a high-level panel discussion on Complementary Structural Policies for Effective Fiscal Reform, Simon Upton (OECD Director of Environment) requested a show of hands to determine if anyone in the room represented social ministries (e.g., health or labour). Although no official count was provided, it was evident that only one or two of the 200 people in attendance raised their hands. This was a very effective illustration of the often narrow attention that green growth issues can receive.

Based on the prevalence of this challenge at the conference, it would seem that the very well-worn problem of “silos” is still relevant for green growth and requires attention. To its credit, the OECD continues to do its part related to mainstreaming. In total, 13 OECD experts participated in the event representing the Economics Department (ECO), the Centre for Tax Policy and Administration (CTP), the Trade and Agricultural Directorate (TAD) and the Environment Directorate (ENV). In addition, the OECD presented its forthcoming study with the International Energy Agency, International Transport Forum and Nuclear Energy Agency on “Aligning Policies for the Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy”. This project looks to identify the frictions and unintended consequences of policies in areas such as investment, finance, energy, taxation and innovation that may be working against climate policy. In other words, such a project is trying to involve ministers and parts of governments not typically involved in climate policy discussions. This is just one of the ways in which the OECD is trying to develop a broader, systems approach to inform green growth policy assessment and development.

So, apart from mainstreaming (and a fair amount of “urban-streaming” in the streets and overflowing canals outside), nature’s wicked sense of timing meant this green growth conference had a real a sense of urgency. With the city of Venice flooding during the second day our soggy socks were very effective in reminding us about the real world changes that are occurring and the need for continued action from all ministries, academia and other key players to work on going green.

Useful links

OECD work on green growth

Measuring government impact in a social media world

Click to see full size

Today’s post is by Arthur Mickoleit & Ryan Androsoff, Digital government policy analysts in the OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development.
A French version provided by the Government of Canada Communications Community Office is available at the end of the article.

There is hardly a government around the world that has not yet felt the impact of social media on how it communicates and engages with citizens. And while the most prominent early adopters in the public sector have tended to be politicians (think of US President Barack Obama’s impressive use of social media during his 2008 campaign), government offices are also increasingly jumping on the bandwagon. Yes, we are talking about those – mostly bricks-and-mortar – institutions that often toil away from the public gaze, managing the public administration in our countries. As the world changes, they too are increasingly engaging in a very public way through social media.

Research from our recent OECD working paper “Social Media Use by Governments” shows that as of November 2014, out of 34 OECD countries, 28 have a Twitter account for the office representing the top executive institution (head of state, head of government, or government as a whole), and 21 have a Facebook account.

Though executive government institutions may not leap to mind when the average citizen thinks about who to follow on social media, we’ve seen that in some countries these accounts have gained significant interest. Using data collected by Twiplomacy we were able to calculate how the number of their Twitter followers compares to their countries’ domestic population (in order to control for country size).

Using this metric, we see that some of the “usual suspects” we hear about when it comes to government use of social media are among the most popular (i.e. @WhiteHouse and @Number10Gov). However we also spot other very social media savvy governments, e.g. in Latin American countries such as Ecuador, Chile, and Costa Rica (we wrote about Chile’s social media use back in 2013).

Click on the image to see the top 30 central government Twitter accounts.

While the data in the graph above covers only the central government Twitter accounts with the largest per capita following, you can download the full dataset here. It should be noted that this data is from June of 2014, and many of these accounts have continued to build followings at a rapid pace. For example the @PMOIndia account has almost tripled its number of followers since June 2014, which now at 4.8 Million makes it the 2nd largest central government Twitter account in absolute numbers (though still low on the per capita measure given India’s very large population).

But what is the impact governments can or should expect from social media? Is it all just vanity and peer pressure? Surely not.

Take the Spanish national police force (e.g. on Twitter, Facebook & YouTube), a great example of using social media to build long-term engagement, trust and a better public service. The thing so many governments yearn for, in this case the Spanish police seem to have managed well.

Or take the Danish “tax daddy” on Twitter – @Skattefar. It started out as the national tax administration’s quest to make it easier for everyone to submit correct tax filings; it is now one of the best examples around of a tax agency gone social.

Government administrations can use social media for internal purposes too. The Government of Canada used public platforms like Twitter and internal platforms like GCpedia and GCconnex to conduct a major employee engagement exercise (Blueprint 2020) to develop a vision for the future of the Canadian federal public service.

And when it comes to raising efficiency in the public sector, read this account of a Dutch research facility’s Director who decided to stop email. Not reduce it, but stop it altogether and replace it with social media.

There are so many other examples that could be cited. But the major question is how can we even begin to appraise the impact of these different initiatives? Because as we’ve known since the 19th century, “if you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it” (quote usually attributed to Lord Kelvin). Some aspects of impact measurement for social media can be borrowed from the private sector with regards to presence, popularity, penetration, and perception. But it’s around purpose that impact measurement agendas will split between the private sector and government. Virtually all companies will want to calculate the return on social media investments based on whether it helps them improve their financial returns. That’s different in the public sector where purpose is rarely defined in commercial terms.

A good impact assessment for social media in the public sector therefore needs to be built around its unique purpose-orientation. This is much more difficult to measure and it will involve a mix of quantitative data (e.g. reach of target audience) and qualitative data (e.g. case studies describing tangible impact). Social Media Use by Governments proposes a framework to start looking at social media measurement in gradual steps – from measuring presence, to popularity, to penetration, to perception, and finally, to purpose-orientation. The aim of this framework is to help governments develop truly relevant metrics and start treating social media activity by governments with the same public management rigour that is applied to other government activities. You can see a table summarising the framework by clicking on the thumbnail below.

Social media indicators

This is far from an exact science, but we are beginning the work collaborating with member and partner governments to develop a toolkit that will help decision-makers implement the OECD Recommendation on Digital Government Strategies, including on the issue of social media metrics.

What do you think? How can we best measure the impact of social media usage by government? We’d love to hear about your experiences and ideas! Post your comments below or let us know via Twitter using the #eleaders hashtag or connecting with us at @arturelis and @RyanAndrosoff.

Useful links

OECD work on public sector innovation and e-government

Mesurer l’impact du gouvernement dans un monde de médias sociaux (observations de l’OCDE)

Ce texte est initialement paru dans le blogue « OECD Insights: Debate the issues » le 18 février 2015. Arthur Mickoleit et Ryan Androsoff, analystes de la politique numérique gouvernementale au sein de la Direction de la gouvernance publique et du développement territorial de l’OCDE, ont rédigé l’article.

Il n’existe guère de gouvernement dans le monde qui n’a pas encore ressenti les effets des médias sociaux sur la manière dont il communique et interagit avec ses citoyens. Et même si les utilisateurs précoces les plus influents dans le secteur public ont tendance à être des politiciens (pensez à la façon impressionnante dont le président des États-Unis Barack Obama a utilisé les médias sociaux durant sa campagne de 2008), les bureaux gouvernementaux sont de plus en plus nombreux à suivre ce mouvement. Oui, nous parlons de ces institutions – ayant pour la plupart un pied-à-terre – qui gèrent l’administration publique dans nos pays, souvent à l’abri des regards du public. Dans ce monde en évolution, ces institutions interagissent de plus en plus avec le public dans les médias sociaux, et ce, avec beaucoup de visibilité.

La recherche en lien avec notre récent document de travail de l’OCDE, Social Media Use by Governments, a révélé qu’en novembre 2014, 28 pays de l’OCDE sur 34 avaient un compte Twitter pour le bureau représentant le principal organe exécutif du pays (chef d’État, chef du gouvernement ou gouvernement dans son ensemble), tandis que 21 avaient un compte Facebook.

Même si les institutions gouvernementales exécutives ne viennent pas nécessairement à l’esprit du citoyen moyen au moment où il réfléchit à quels comptes de médias sociaux suivre, nous avons constaté que dans certains pays, ces comptes ont suscité beaucoup d’intérêt. Au moyen des données compilées par Twiplomacy, nous avons calculé le ratio entre le nombre d’abonnés Twitter de ces institutions et la population de leur pays (afin de tenir compte de ce facteur).

Cette mesure nous permet de constater que certains des « suspects habituels » dont nous entendons parler lorsque le sujet de l’utilisation que font les gouvernements des médias sociaux est abordé se classent parmi les plus populaires (par exemple, @WhiteHouse et @Number10Gov). Cependant, ce classement comprend aussi des gouvernements très habiles avec les médias sociaux, par exemple, des pays d’Amérique latine comme l’Équateur, le Chili et le Costa Rica (nous avons écrit sur le sujet de l’utilisation des médias sociaux par le Chili en 2013).

Cliquez ici pour voir quels sont les 30 comptes gouvernementaux centraux les plus populaires sur Twitter.

Même si les données illustrées dans le graphique ci-dessus portent seulement sur les comptes gouvernementaux centraux sur Twitter qui comptent le plus grand nombre d’abonnés par habitant, vous pouvez télécharger l’ensemble complet de données ici. Notez bien que ces données datent de juin 2014 et que le nombre d’abonnés de plusieurs de ces comptes a continué à croître rapidement. Par exemple, le nombre d’abonnés du compte @PMOIndia a presque triplé depuis juin 2014 et se chiffre maintenant à 4,8 millions, ce qui le classe au deuxième rang des comptes gouvernementaux centraux comptant le plus d’abonnés en chiffres absolus (bien que son nombre d’abonnés par habitant soit encore faible étant donné l’immensité de la population de l’Inde).

Mais à quel impact les gouvernements peuvent-ils ou doivent-ils s’attendre lorsqu’ils utilisent les médias sociaux? Leur utilisation est-elle uniquement motivée par la vanité ou la pression des pairs? Certainement pas.

Les comptes de médias sociaux de la police nationale espagnole (Twitter, Facebook et YouTube) représentent un bon exemple d’utilisation des médias sociaux pour mobiliser la population à long terme, établir avec elle une relation de confiance et bâtir une meilleure fonction publique. Le vœu de tant de gouvernements s’est exaucé pour la police espagnole, qui semble en l’occurrence avoir bien joué ses cartes.

Citons également, au Danemark, l’exemple du compte Twitter du « père des impôts », @Skattefar, qui a été créé par l’autorité fiscale de ce pays dans le dessein d’aider tout le monde à soumettre des déclarations d’impôts exactes. Il s’agit maintenant de l’un des meilleurs exemples au monde de l’utilisation des médias sociaux par une autorité fiscale.

Les administrations gouvernementales peuvent également utiliser les médias sociaux à l’interne. Le gouvernement du Canada a utilisé des plateformes publiques comme Twitter de même que des plateformes internes comme GCpédia et GCconnex pour mener un important exercice de mobilisation des employés (Objectif 2020) en vue de définir une vision pour l’avenir de la fonction publique fédérale canadienne.

Les médias sociaux peuvent aussi être utilisés pour accroître l’efficience dans le secteur public. À ce sujet, vous pouvez lire l’exemple du directeur d’un établissement de recherche danois qui a décidé d’éliminer les courriels. Pas de les réduire, mais de les éliminer complètement et de les remplacer par les médias sociaux.

Tant d’autres exemples pourraient être cités. Mais la principale question est la suivante : comment pouvons-nous même commencer à évaluer les répercussions de ces différentes initiatives? Parce que comme nous le savons depuis le XIXe siècle, ce qui ne peut être mesuré ne peut être amélioré (un adage généralement attribué à Lord Kelvin). Certains aspects de l’évaluation de l’impact des médias sociaux peuvent être empruntés au secteur privé, à savoir la présence, la popularité, la pénétration et la perception. Mais l’objectif du secteur privé et des gouvernements n’est pas le même quand vient le temps d’évaluer l’impact des médias sociaux. Pratiquement toutes les entreprises voudront calculer le retour sur l’argent investi dans les médias sociaux afin de déterminer si ces outils les aident à améliorer leurs résultats financiers, ce qui n’est pas le cas dans le secteur public où l’objectif est rarement défini en termes commerciaux.

Dans le secteur public, une bonne évaluation de l’impact des médias sociaux doit alors être conçue en fonction de l’objectif visé, ce qui est beaucoup plus difficile à mesurer. Il faudra utiliser une combinaison de données quantitatives (comme l’atteinte du public cible) et de données qualitatives (comme des études de cas décrivant les répercussions tangibles). Social Media Use by Governments propose un cadre pour évaluer les médias sociaux en procédant de façon graduelle – soit en mesurant la présence, la popularité, la pénétration, la perception et enfin, l’objectif visé. Ce cadre a pour but d’aider les gouvernements à définir des mesures réellement pertinentes et à commencer à gérer les activités des gouvernements sur les médias sociaux avec la même rigueur que leurs autres activités. Vous pouvez voir un tableau résumant le cadre ici.

Ce domaine n’est pas une science exacte, mais nous entreprenons un travail de collaboration avec les gouvernements membres et partenaires afin de mettre au point une trousse d’outils qui aidera les décideurs à mettre en œuvre la recommandation de l’OCDE sur les stratégies numériques gouvernementales, y compris en ce qui concerne la question de l’évaluation des médias sociaux.

Liens utiles

Travail de l’OCDE sur l’innovation dans le secteur public et l’administration électronique

Qu’en pensez-vous? Comment pouvons-nous le mieux évaluer l’impact de l’utilisation des médias sociaux par les gouvernements? Nous aimerions beaucoup connaître vos expériences et vos idées! Publiez vos commentaires ci-dessous ou sur Twitter avec le mot-clic #eleaders ou en communiquant avec nous à @arturelis et à @RyanAndrosoff.

Two cheers for Piketty: Or, why both he and the OECD and nearly everyone else are wrong on growth. Part 2

Post-growth projectToday’s post is by Rupert Read, Reader in Philosophy in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Languages at the University of East Anglia, and the Chair of Green House and parliamentary candidate for Cambridge for the UK Green Party. Part 1 of the article is here.

Piketty has shied away from grasping the uncomfortable implication of his own data: that growthist capitalism is an engine for inequality both in the present and over much longer timescales. For growthist capitalism – and there is no other kind – systematically leads to inequality. It leads to inequality-in-the-future in part because the exponential return on debt, so as not to lead to excessive human exploitation, has instead relied on exploitation of the planet as an alternative property-right-claim to reduce the cumulative impact of the impossibility of paying returns to money: but this exploitation results in brutally depleting the future. And it leads to inequality-in-the-present in part because we still insist on paying returns to money anyway, and in most of the world are no closer to implementing a debt-jubilee or even a debt-audit than we were in 2007.

The resulting inequality, when the economy is growing faster, may be less than it otherwise would be only so long as one takes the “otherwise” in question to be comparing only with a failing (low-growth) period of capitalism. Not if one takes it instead to be comparing to a deliberately low/no-growth alternative political economy. A sharing post-growth society that we simply must now start to envision and create.

For there is, as we have seen, a strong case against growthism on the grounds of its devastation of our posterity, on the grounds of its complicity with the inegalitarian destructiveness that is capitalism (an inegalitarianism due in significant part to the requirement of compound growth of financial property rights: a requirement that a deliberately post-growth society would deliberately bring to an end, through monetary reform), and on the grounds of rhetorical excusing of inequality.

We can add to that that there is a strong precautionary case against growthism: The fantasy of infinite material expansion is just reckless, and ultimately insane, on a finite planet. And we can add further that there is a strong case against growthism, at least in countries like the UK, on the grounds too of well-being: Having more and more stuff and more and more consumer-choice is no longer making us happier, but rather the reverse.

Post-growth-ism is what my colleagues and I at Green House lay out, in our new book The post-growth project: how the end of economic growth could bring a fairer and happier society, you can link to via the image above. The title sums up, I think, how we seek to offer an ‘antidote’ to Piketty.

So: I give Piketty two cheers; one for his tremendous achievement in laying out in its full statistical inglory the dynamics of modern inequality of wealth, and another for his policy proposal on how to start to fix this. But that’s all: to earn three cheers, he would have had to have faced the limits to growth and seen how this offers an opportunity for a much more radical break with (literally) business-as-usual than he has as yet found his way to. Piketty favours free trade and opposes protectionism: that’s very conventional mainstream economics. Whereas protecting the local, globally, can be a radical and a green goal. We don’t have to choose between a global wealth-tax and a return to countries and regions protecting themselves against the unfettered depradations of capital. We could have both.

But we are going to have in to look beyond the complacent and bankrupt assumption, common to Piketty, Stern, the OECD, the recent massive Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, and in fact still virtually everybody, that it is wise or even possible to continue seeking economic growth as the answer to our problems. The hegemonic nostalgia for high-growth needs to be overcome.

What is coming, in overcoming growthism, is not just radical: it is nothing short of revolutionary. Both in terms of a transformation of economics and of a transformation of actually-existing political economies. For a post-growth society will be one in which it is no longer possible to promise trickle-down economics. In a post-growth economy, the 99% will demand that the wealth be shared much more equally: both now, and with future generations.

Useful links

Some portions of this article appeared previously in my Green economics versus growth economics, available here

OECD work on green growth and sustainable development

OECD New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC)

OECD work on income inequality and poverty

Does income inequality hurt economic growth? From the OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

Two cheers for Piketty: Or, why both he and the OECD and nearly everyone else are wrong on growth. Part 1

Post-growth projectToday’s post is the first of two articles by Rupert Read, Reader in Philosophy in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Languages at the University of East Anglia, Chair of Green House and parliamentary candidate for Cambridge for the UK Green Party. Part 2 will appear tomorrow

Piketty’s alleged-updating of Marx, Capital in the 21st century, is taking the intellectual world by storm. I’m delighted that such an improbable happening can occur in our rather-impoverished public sphere, and pleased to cheer him on.

Piketty’s proposal for a global wealth tax to counteract the literally-insane levels of inequality now generated in our world is most welcome.

Piketty’s prior analysis of the importance of wealth-inequality (and not just income-inequality, on which Wilkinson and Pickett focussed in their epochal work The Spirit Level) is of course equally welcome.

That’s two thumbs-up. But sadly, I can’t give Piketty anything like a full-throated ‘three cheers’.

Piketty argues that if growth in a capitalist economy is higher then, other things being equal, wealth will be more evenly distributed. (I am extremely doubtful as to whether he has proved this; causation is of course not proven by mere correlation. The data are equally compatible with the claim that there has been a lucky partial correlation between high economic growth and periods of democratic regulation, reform and governance of the economy, and that it is the latter that have been more responsible for the relative evenness of wealth-distribution at times of higher economic growth.)

However, his claim in any case only applies to present-day people. Piketty fails almost completely to think about future people. If economic growth will lead to future generations suffering, then it is not egalitarian – provided that we take seriously that future generations matter, that they ought to be included as among our equals. Now, economists will counter that all people from now to the end of time are in their equations as if they live in a discounted present: but that it is the point. Rashly – madly – assuming that growth will continue forever, and additionally assuming that humans are selfish and don’t really care about their offspring, standard economists standardly discount the future: the further into the future one looks, the less the people living there matter, so far as economists are concerned. This is unacceptable.

I suggest that, at a time when it is ever clearer that humanity is running up against the limits to growth (the climate crisis being only the most large-scale of these phenomena), it is delusional and in fact disgraceful to seek to make an ‘egalitarian’ argument in favour of growthism. Growthism is causing the undermining of the living conditions of all our children and grandchildren: for it is above all economic growth that is to blame for our collective breaching of planetary limits. This alone is enough to completely undermine Piketty’s case for economic growth. For if we can’t take care of our descendants, what good are we? The first virtue of any decent society is to not destroy the conditions of possibility for its children, the conditions of possibility for their flourishing.

But there’s more. Piketty makes the assumption that our economy must remain fundamentally capitalist (and in this fundamental respect it is more than presumptuous of him to seek to don the mantle of Marx). But given the looming contradiction between capitalism and the planet, he ought not to have done so. Stopping doing so would mean that the truth, if such it is, that growth is necessary in a capitalist economy to help allegedly equalise the distribution of wealth no longer carries much weight: for we have to start to think beyond a capitalist economy.

A post-growth ‘steady-state’ economy by definition would not be one in which the growth imperative of capitalism was allowed to let rip: in such a post-growth economy/society, humankind would continue to develop culturally, but would no longer seek to expand the amount of economic activity and would seek to reduce to one-planet levels the amount of material throughput (i.e. of resource-use and pollution).

A post-growth society will be forced to face the question which growthist ideology – with its promise of an ever-growing pie – allows one endlessly to evade: how shall we share what together we have? So Piketty’s claim that a ‘stalling’ of growth is bad for the majority may well be exactly wrong. Not just because the capture of all growth by the elite is happening right now. But also because once one considers the future, and once one considers that we need in any case to be thinking beyond capitalist political economy, and once one considers especially the way in which growth functions as a rhetorical device to shield from view the necessity for sharing out the wealth more fairly, then it is simply no longer convincing.

I would submit in fact that a ‘stalling’ of growth – or, better, a facing up to living in a post-growth society – and a willingness to see that we simply can’t keep growing the pie now that the ingredients are running out, will finally be what force the majority to take back some of the wealth currently being hoarded by the rich.

Useful links

Some portions of this article appeared previously in my Green economics versus growth economics, available here

OECD work on green growth and sustainable development

OECD work on income inequality and poverty

Does income inequality hurt economic growth? From the OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

IFF only they’d spent it on the poor

DRC miner
Lifting his bosses and rulers out of poverty

Over the past fifty years or so, Africa has received about a trillion dollars in Official Development Assistance (ODA) from OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donors. If you look at the excellent data sets we’ve produced on ODA over the years, you can work out what percentage or actual sum of that went to different purposes (education sector, health sector…) and who gave it and got it. If that’s too time consuming, here’s a simpler one I’ve prepared for you. Over the same period, Africa gave around a trillion dollars, mainly to developed countries, and almost 100% to the financial sector in the form of illicit financial flows (IFF).

I took the numbers from a report just published by the African Union and UN Economic Commission for Africa called Track it! Stop it! Get it! IFF (pdf). The Commission defines IFF as “Money that is illegally earned, transferred or utilized. These funds typically originate from three sources: commercial tax evasion, trade misinvoicing and abusive transfer pricing; criminal activities, including the drug trade, human trafficking, illegal arms dealing, and smuggling of contraband; and bribery and theft by corrupt government officials.” Nigeria is the worst offender, at $217 billion over 1970-2008, with Egypt coming second at $105 billion over the same period.

Most of the means used to get this money are probably familiar to you, although some of the terminology may not be, “unequal contracts” for instance. The report illustrates this term using iron ore mining in Guinea. As the world economy started to recover from the Great Recession, a commodities boom pushed up the prices of raw materials, and competition among mining companies to buy concessions was fierce. Guinea’s iron ore deposits are estimated to be worth $140 billion over the next 20 years, and multinationals from various countries were bidding to exploit them. In 2008, the government sold a concession for this ore for an astonishingly low $165 million. The lucky buyer promptly resold half the concession to another company for $2.5 billion. A new government terminated the contract and sold the concessions for $20 billion, so they may be right to suspect corruption in the original deal.

That commodities boom is one reason behind optimistic opinions about Africa. In a report called “The New Africa” (pdf) published at the end of last year, the Financial Times said that: “Africa is enjoying an era of economic promise that has survived war and famine, dictatorship and corruption”. The African Economic Outlook 2014 from the OECD, African Development Bank and UN announces “steadily progressing economic and social conditions that bode well for the immediate future.”

But the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day in Africa rose from 290 million in 1990 to 414 million in 2010 according to the UN’s 2013 report (pdf) on progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). And as the IFF report points out, poverty isn’t just a question of money, it’s “multidimensional”, meaning that access to health care, education, potable water and housing are unsatisfactory too, or what the OECD calls “inequalities in incomes, health outcomes, education and well-being” in its Initiative on Inclusive Growth.

The $50 billion a year siphoned off through IFF could for example cover the extra $30 to $50 billion the African Development Bank estimates the continent needs to invest in infrastructure each year. That’s looking at the broad picture. Here’s what it means to the people that money was stolen from. If you follow the blog regularly, you may remember that at the end of last year I wrote about a panel discussion on Ebola I chaired here at the OECD.

One of the articles I read to prepare the meeting was an account by Peter Piot of his journey back to the town of Bumba 40 years after identifying Ebola, then an unknown virus. Bumba was in Zaire then and now it’s the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Reading Piot’s account, you get the impression that apart from the country’s name, not much else has changed. Bumba’s population has grown to 150,000 but there still isn’t a single paved road, no running water and no electricity network. There are hardly any patients in the hospital because the government hasn’t sent any drugs for over two years and most sick people can’t afford to pay for treatment. The hospital pharmacist buys drugs at the local market and resells them to help pay for the hospital. Patients who can’t pay cash leave their bicycle or some other valuable in the pharmacy as security.

As its title suggests, an OECD report on Illicit Financial Flows from Developing Countries: Measuring OECD Responses (pdf) looks at what some of the countries receiving the money have done. OECD countries returned $147 million in 2010-2012 and froze almost $1.4 billion of stolen assets. The African Union-UN report calculates how long it would take countries to reach MDG 4 (“Reduce by two thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate”) with and without IFF. If the DRC had the tens of millions it loses to IFF each year to spend on services, it could reach Goal 4 by 2054, which is not great, but is 90 years sooner than if illicit flows continue at current rates.

Useful links

OECD work on economic and financial crime

OECD work on tax and development