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New year quiz 2017

Relaaaax, Jiminey, nobody cares

We were going to start by asking which of these expressions became popular in 2016: post-alive for dead; post-faithful for cheating; or post-truth for lies. But we’ve decided to make it easy and concentrate on celebrity gossip, reality tv, and sports. [Post-post-truth disclaimer: it’s on economics, politics and the other stuff we published on the blog over the past year.]

PISA quiz: How much do you know about what we know about science education?

pisa-2015Knowledge is already one of the main drivers of today’s economic system. In the future those nations, regions, and even local areas that succeed best will be those capable of capturing the benefits of scientific and technical innovations and transforming them into marketable goods and services in the face of global competition.  But an understanding of science and technology is necessary not only for those whose livelihood depends on it directly, but also for any citizen who wishes to make informed choices about issues ranging from stem cell research to global warming to genetically modified organisms to teaching the theory of evolution in schools. And new issues are bound to emerge in the years to come. The education system is vital to this, training the scientists, engineers and technicians who constitute the “human capital” of an increasingly fast changing, knowledge-intensive economy, and teaching students how to think about science.

Science literacy is the focus of the latest PISA round, based on data collected in 2015 from around 540,000 students in 74 countries and economies. PISA defines science literacy as “the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen. A scientifically literate person is willing to engage in reasoned discourse about science and technology, which requires the competencies to explain phenomena scientifically, evaluate and design scientific enquiry, and interpret data and evidence scientifically”.

How much has changed since the last science-focused round in 2006 and how much do you know about what we know about science in schools? Take the quiz and find out. You can find some of the answers on the interactive infographic below.

 

 

Space and innovation: the next frontier

Claire Jolly, Head of the OECD Space Forum is the co-author of today’s post

Space-based technologies are now as much a part of everyday life as electricity or running water. Satnavs are among the most obvious examples, but a range of other activities from paying with a smart card to playing Pokémon Go use satellite networks to transmit data or get a positioning signal. Even a, literally, down-to-earth business like farming is adopting space technology, as John Boelts, Vice President of the Yuma County Farm Bureau, in Arizona explains: “By using GPS on the tractors, the entire process from leveling the field to planting the seed to irrigating the crop has been much more efficient than in the past”.

There are also many indirect, sometimes surprising, uses spinoffs from space programmes. The scanning technologies developed to find a safe landing spot on the Moon were adapted and contributed to give us ultrasound, MRI and CAT scanners, while the impedance cardiography-based devices designed for astronauts evolved into some of the cardiac monitors used today in hospitals and in wearable devices.

However, despite the numerous innovations generated by space programmes, the need for systems to be reliable and durable sector means that the space sector has been risk averse in some respects. The basic technology for sending payloads into space using liquid propellant rockets was first proposed by Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903, and Robert H. Goddard successfully launched a liquid-fuelled rocket in 1926.

These two pioneers were Russian and American and their two countries still dominate the world’s spending on space. According to Space and Innovation, a new OECD publication, US and Russian government budgets dedicated to space were over 0.2% of GDP, well ahead of the next biggest spenders France, at 0.1% and Japan at 0.06%. Governments are still the major funders of space programmes, particularly for public good-related activities such as environmental monitoring, weather forecasting, and major scientific missions. National agencies, research centres, universities and publically-funded laboratories still perform fundamental research, applied research, and experimental development in the space sector, but in some countries their mission is evolving to include co-ordinating and enabling broad knowledge diffusion as well as developing start-ups.

space-budgets_2

Industry in OECD economies also play an important role, while new entrants, several from the Internet economy, are bringing innovative ways of developing space business. The most famous of these is Elon Musk’s SpaceX project, but there are many smaller scale examples of new entrants, including students using crowdfunding for satellite projects. The University of Alberta’s Ex-Alta-1 satellite for instance is part of the QB50 consortium mission that will study space weather along with 49 other cube satellites. CubeSats are tiny satellites weighing no more than 1.33 kg in a 10cm cube.   Cubesats show up in a new set of indicators developed by the OECD to measure innovation based on patent applications and bibliometric analysis of science and technology publications. Other sources of innovation include nanosatellites, electric satellite propulsion, reusable technologies for launchers, and satellite navigation applications.

space-literature

The increasing importance in scientific publications of satellite navigation systems and the many location-based and timing services derived from them can also be traced to recent patenting activities by businesses, demonstrating that much innovation occurs today in downstream space activities. National security and science objectives do however remain the main drivers of innovation, with human space exploration important too.

The indicators quoted by Space and Innovation suggest that the space sector may be on the verge of a fifth cycle of development, following  previous cycles that started with the space race and Sputnik in 1958 and go through to the present cycle, number 4, starting in 2003 and lasting until around 2018. Cycle 4 sees ubiquitous use of space applications in various fields thanks to digitalisation and a new generation of space systems (small satellites) prompted by integration of breakthroughs in micro-electronics, computers and material sciences; and globalisation of space activities (large and very small national space programmes coexist, development of global value chains).

The next cycle, projected to last about 15 years, will be characterised by growing uses of satellite infrastructure outputs (signals, data) to meet societal challenges such as helping bridge the digital divide by supplying Internet access to remote areas without the need to build expensive infrastructures, or contributing to mitigate climate change with global satellite monitoring. In parallel, innovative mass-market products could be on the horizon, plus a more extensive mapping of our solar system and beyond thanks to new telescopes and robotic missions. Cycle 5 is also expected to see new generations of smart satellites and orbital space stations, while a number of commercial space activities could be coming of age, including new human-rated space launchers and in-orbit servicing.

If the promises of Cycle 5 are to be fulfilled, policymakers will have to play a role. They can do this in three broad areas. First, look at the specifics of the space sector and see if national policy instruments that support space innovation are effective, paying particular attention to knowledge diffusion networks. Second participate in and encourage downstream activities, for example through policies that enable start-ups and innovative firms to find or retain niches where they can make the most of their capabilities. Third, space agencies should systematically examine and track the spin-offs and technology transfers to other sectors that are derived from space investments.

The closing session of a symposium on “Space and innovation” being organised today by the OECD Space Forum will discuss whether space is becoming a daily commodity. It is, but as Stephen Hawking says, it is far more than that: “Raise your sights. Be courageous and kind. Remember to look up at the stars and not at your feet.”

Useful links

The Space Economy at a Glance with summaries available in 24 languages.

Sing for our time too, or what Homer can teach us about complexity

NAECLast week’s Workshop on Complexity and Policy organised by the OECD New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC) team along with the European Commission and the Institute for new Economic Thinking (INET) included a discussion about how you build a narrative around complexity. As one participant pointed out, “complexity economics” isn’t the most thrilling of titles, except (maybe) to complexity economists. But “narrative” was one of the keywords of the discussions, along with “navigating” complexity. If you add to this Lex Hoogduin’s plea for modesty in his article on Insights and during the debate, I think we could learn something from an expert on narrative, navigation, and modesty: Homer.

The Iliad and Odyssey start with similar requests to the Muse to tell the tale of the hero, but with one striking exception. In the Iliad, she is asked to tell of the anger of Achilles, and the epic that follows is a more or less chronological account of ten days at the end of the Trojan War. In The Odyssey on the other hand, the poet suggests that the goddess start the tale wherever she thinks is best. One reason could be that, in our terms, The Iliad is a linear account, where one event causes and leads to the next, while The Odyssey is complex, jumping all over the place in space and time, with events far apart influencing each other, often in unintended ways.

Where you start a complex narrative determines what you describe and to some extent how you describe it. If, for example, you start your explanation of the financial crisis with the collapse of Lehmann Brothers, you will tell the story one way. If you start a few years earlier with market deregulation, the story will be different. Go back to the end of unlimited liability of stakeholders and yet another plot and set of characters become possible.  Wherever you started, you would tell the true story, but not the only story. So in telling a complex story, you have to first decide what you want the audience to remember, and then decide what combination of the limitless elements available would best allow them to understand the issues and agree with a course of action.

Another lesson we can learn from Homer is that in a non-complex telling, there can be a “God’s-eye view” of the narrative, as when Achilles contemplates the shield made for him by the god Hephaestus. In The Odyssey, the narrator doesn’t have this knowledge, and is in fact part of the story himself, influencing its outcome. Eric Beinhocker of INET, who co-organised the NAEC Complexity workshop, relates this to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, arguing that it may be impossible for an agent embodied within the system to access information an agent outside the system with a God’s-eye view would have.

Once you have decided what you want to say and selected what you are going to use to say it, there remains the question of how to say it. Policy experts, like experts in other fields, often defend their poor communication by explaining that the subject is complicated and shouldn’t be dumbed down. Here’s an extract from Einstein’s critique of Newtonian cosmology in Relativity: The Special and General Theory: “If we ponder over the question as to how the universe, considered as a whole, is to be regarded, the first answer that suggests itself to us is surely this: As regards space (and time) the universe is infinite. There are stars everywhere, so that the density of matter, although very variable in detail, is nevertheless on the average everywhere the same. In other words: However far we might travel through space, we should find everywhere an attenuated swarm of fixed stars of approximately the same kind and density.”

Practically any adult or young person who can read can understand Einstein’s point, however complicated the subject. Here by way of contrast is the OECD explaining a fundamental concept in economics: “…the relative cost differences that define comparative advantage, and are the source of trade, disappear once one reaches equilibrium with free trade. That is, the two countries in the trading equilibrium in Figure 1.2 are both operating at points on their PPFs where the slope is equal to the common world relative price. Thus comparative advantage cannot be observed, in a free trade equilibrium, from relative marginal costs.” Can you tell from this if we’re for or against free trade?

It’s striking that in so many domains, the greatest experts are the greatest advocates for simplicity. David Hilbert set the agenda for 20th century mathematics at the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris in a paper on 23 unsolved problems. Hilbert supported the view that: “A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street”. Maths genius Alan Turing was even more provocative, claiming that “No mathematical method can be useful for any problem if it involves much calculation.”  (Turing wrote a paper on computability without using any equations, basing his explanation on puzzles sold in toyshops.)

We can learn a final lesson from Homer in the character of his heroes. Achilles is arrogant, immature, impulsive, self-centred (“the best of the Achaeans”, making you wonder what the rest of them were like). He’s strong and is good at killing people but ends up dead. Ulysses is clever and is good at persuading people. He is modest and he listens to advice. He worries about others. And he navigates his way back to Ithaca and Penelope. In a complex world, today or as described by Homer, you will achieve more through strategy and resourcefulness than by brute force. The poet doesn’t just ask the goddess to “start from where you will”, he asks her to “sing for our time too”.

Useful links

You can see the webcast of the Workshop at these links: 29/09 morning; 29/09 afternoon; 30/09 morning

The new terrorism

paris-attacks-nov-2015
Paris, November 2015

Fifteen years after 9/11, the world is now facing the threat of systemic terrorism. Apparently mindless, random attacks are in fact part of a strategy developed over a number of years, whose origins can be traced back to three major turning points, one ideological, one political, one military, that occurred at the end of the 1970s.

Traditionally, terrorism was the work of relatively small groups with clearly identifiable political or ideological goals, ranging from national liberation to animal rights. It was used as a bargaining counter to attain a clearly defined objective such as the freeing of prisoners or the withdrawal of the army from an occupied zone, or for vengeance. Of course, there were campaigns designed simply to destabilise the political climate, but these were the minority. The terrorism of Al-Qaeda represented a radical break from this, in that its aim was sustained opposition to the entire “Western” economic, cultural, and belief system, with no negotiable end to their campaigns, and whole populations seen as legitimate targets. Attacks, and the possibility of attacks, are supposed to change enemy policy by means other than the traditional method of battlefield superiority. One of their aims is to convince public opinion that the price for supporting a particular policy is too high, as well attracting support from potential sympathisers following retaliation for the initial attack.

Conflicts are fought worldwide in a complex arena across the whole spectrum of political, social, economic, and military networks, and involve a mix of national, international, transnational, and subnational actors, motivated not only by politics or ideology, but also profit. This grey area, combining aspects of traditional warfare with organised crime, is a major aspect of 21st century terrorism. But the major way in which terrorism has evolved beyond the Al-Qaida model is the strategy of Daesh to create a state by conquering and holding territory, using traditional military confrontation in some cases, and isolated attacks far from its main bases in others. The roots of this strategy can be found in the combination of the three events mentioned in the introduction.

In November 1977, Egypt’s President Sadat travelled to Jerusalem to prove his willingness to sign a peace deal with Israel. This marked the end of pan-Arabism as a viable ideology. Sadat also broke with the USSR and encouraged the rise of the Muslim brotherhood to counter the influence of the left, especially in the universities. Shortly afterwards, the Shah of Iran was overthrown by a popular uprising that the Islamists came to dominate, eventually creating an Islamic State. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, but were defeated by a Western-backed coalition that the Taliban came to dominate.

Pan-Arabism was promoted by Nasser, and the intellectual origins of today’s Islamist terrorism can be traced back to the writings of one of his opponents, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual jailed by the regime, although his books were not banned. For Qutb, the world is living in a state of ignorance and idolatry, Jahiliyyah, a term normally reserved for pre-Islam Arabia. This includes even those who claim to be Muslims, but who are in fact apostates and thus legitimate targets: “this is not Islam and they are not Muslims”. The evil is due to the fact that men have denied God one of his attributes, Hakemeyya, divine sovereignty. Muslim scholars are scandalised by the claim that man can deprive God of anything, but Qutb’s position is echoed by Daesh’s sinister black flag, where the “Mohammed-Messenger-Allah” you would expect is replaced by “Allah-Messenger-Mohammed”, if read in the usual top-to-bottom order.

Daesh are also influenced by Qutb’s idea that divine sovereignty will be restored by a self-proclaimed elite, and that the declaration of faith is not enough to define someone as Muslim, and must be completed by jihad. The practical manual for bringing about this new, truly Islamic state, was written by Daesh in the mid-2000s. The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through Which the Umma Will Pass sets out the thinking behind the terrorist campaigns we’re seeing just now. The idea is to create such chaos, by whatever means necessary, that the jihadi are seen as the only group capable of restoring and maintaining order, similar to the initial support for the Taliban regime from Afghanis exhausted by the corruption and incompetence of the warlords.

Terrorism is one part of this strategy and Daesh have learned at least one lesson from the totalitarian regimes in Europe before and after the Second World War, namely that terror succeeds best when it is accepted on its own terms by its enemies. It’s not possible to physically terrorise everybody, but if everybody thinks they could be the next random victim, that is just as efficient.

Another major strand of Daesh’s approach is finance. The recommendations of The Management of Savagery for winning people over emphasize: “Uniting the hearts of the world’s people by means of money”. The financial power of Daesh is another significant difference with previous terrorist organisations, with some estimates putting its annual turnover at around USD 2 billion. It obtains its income through extortion, theft, and the black market – the same means described in a 2010 Rand Corporation report into Al-Qaida’s finances for the US Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Black market sales of oil probably remain Daesh’s main source of income, but as this dries up due to the success of the military forces opposing them, they will turn to other means. (Al Shabab in Somalia for instance controlled the sugar trade). Whatever it is, corruption will still be the “enabling technology” that enables the terrorists to operate. Two of the 9/11 hijackers allegedly obtained fraudulent driver’s licences from a branch of Virginia’s Division of Motor Vehicles which they used as identity cards to board the aircraft. The same branch had also sold licenses to illegal immigrants in exchange for bribes. “Nigerian troops were denied weapons to fight Boko Haram and thousands of lives were lost because of rampant fraud in the procurement process”, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared when a corrupt multi-billion dollar deal for weapons and equipment was revealed in the press in November 2015. The deal has not materialised, leaving troops without proper equipment to fight terrorist groups.

The OECD published work on the economic consequences of terrorism as long ago as 2002,  and since then has examined regional, sectoral and broader aspects of the issues, for example terrorism and conflict over resources in West Africa, the implications for the transport industry, and how to help fragile states. In an analysis published earlier this year, Terrorism, corruption and the criminal exploitation of natural resources, the OECD argues that since terrorism is a multidimensional challenge, tackling it efficiently requires integrating social, economic, and political factors into the security analysis and response. Speaking personally, I would add that since the aims of Daesh include destroying democracy and dividing society along religious grounds, we should not do this for them in the name of the “war against terror”.

Useful links

Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Action on Terrorist Finance

A Development Co-operation Lens on Terrorism Prevention

International E-Platform on Terrorism Risk Insurance

Africa’s urbanisation and structural transformation

AEO 2016We don’t know the name, or the place and exact date of birth, of the baby who changed world history. My guess is that she was born somewhere in Africa in 2007. Not that she cared as she lay there all wrinkled and raging at the disagreeable turn her life had just taken, but it was thanks to her that for the first time ever, the world had more urban dwellers than country folk.

Africa itself won’t pass that landmark until sometime in the 2030s, but when you look at the numbers rather than the percentages, you can see why this year’s African Economic Outlook from the OECD Development Centre, African Development Bank, and UNDP is focusing on “Sustainable Cities and Structural Transformation”. In 1990, Africa was the world’s region with the smallest number of urban dwellers: 197 million. Now it has more than twice that at 472 million, and the urban population is expected to almost double again between 2015 and 2035. By 2020, Africa is forecast to have the second highest number of urban dwellers in the world (560 million) after Asia (2348 million).

Most of us, including many of the people who live in them, probably have a negative impression of African cities. Lagos-based Bayo Olupohunda warns that “intractable traffic gridlock, breakdown of law and order due to social exclusion, amenities crises are the signs of population apocalypse…”. Likewise, The Guardian is running a series on cities just now, and the headlines of its articles about African metropolises like Kinshasa and Nairobi talk about chaos and pollution.

It’s worth noting, though, that African urbanisation isn’t mainly due to the megacities we always hear about. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, urban agglomerations with fewer than 300,000 inhabitants accounted for 58% of Africa’s urban growth, compared with 29% for those with populations over a million. Nor is it due to rural-urban migration: migration accounts for less than a third of urban population growth in 22 African countries. It accounts for over 50% in only 7 countries (Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Lesotho, Namibia, Rwanda, Seychelles and South Africa, whereas it contributed to half of Asia’s urban population growth. The Outlook groups African countries into five types according to their stages in three processes: urbanisation, fertility transition, and structural transformation.

Whatever their individual characteristics, the Outlook, exposes a daunting series of problems facing Africa’s urban areas. In many African countries, a large portion of the urban labour force remains trapped in low-productivity informal services activities, and access to public goods is unequal. Moreover, despite Africa’s slow industrialisation, the costs of environmental degradation are large and increasing, adding to the economic and social challenges of urbanisation.

The speed of the economic transformation could be a problem as well. Some economists are concerned that African countries – and developing countries generally – are moving into the service sector too early in their development trajectory and that this “premature deindustrialisation” may damage future growth prospects by depriving economies of the benefits of industrialisation for sustained growth and economic convergence. For example, if people are moving out of farming into hotel and restaurant work or street trading, especially informal jobs, the sectors they move into are likely to see productivity growth slowed by this influx of cheap labour.

And yet, despite all the readily available negative evidence, the Outlook argues that urbanisation could boost structural transformation – moving economic resources from low to higher productivity activities, essentially from traditional agriculture to manufacturing or services. In part, this view is based on economic history. Cities everywhere have traditionally provided “a large and diversified pool of labour, a more dynamic local market, more cost-effective access to suppliers and specialised services, lower transaction costs, more diversified contact networks and greater knowledge-sharing opportunities, and an environment that encourages innovation”.

They are also ideal for cashing in on one of the trends defining the new economy. Often this is referred to as the “sharing economy”, but as Diane Coyle argued at an OECD seminar earlier this year, “matching” is a better term to describe what platforms like Uber or AirBnB do – they match the demand for something to those supplying it. Cities help firms match their requirements for labour, materials, and premises better than towns or rural area. Larger markets bring more choices and opportunities. Cities also afford firms access to a wider range of shared services and infrastructure because of the scale of activity. Firms gain from the superior flow of information in cities, which promotes more learning and innovation, and results in higher value-added products and processes.

Bayo Olupohunda recognises this, arguing that if well-managed, Lagos could be efficient, “enabling economies of scale and network effects. Furthermore, the proximity and diversity of people as seen in Lagos can spark innovation and create employment, as exchanging of ideas breeds new ideas”. He also recognises that these benefits don’t come automatically though, and that “the availability and quality of infrastructure are at the core of many of the challenges faced by a rapidly urbanized Lagos.”

The Outlook makes the same diagnosis for African cities in general, citing three policy-related issues: public and private actors have not sufficiently upgraded the urban infrastructure; steadily high fertility rates in urban areas have contributed to overcrowding through fast urban growth; and dysfunctional real estate markets have led to the explosion of informal housing. To tackle the problems, governments and the private sector will have to invest twice as much by 2050 as they have since the years of independence, but policies to restrain urbanisation have tended to be more popular than policies to use urbanisation to boost structural transformation.

This may be changing. The Draft Africa Common Position on Habitat III, the Third UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development taking place in October, states that Sustainable Development Goal 11 to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, “needs to be considered together with goals 8, 9 and 10 on matters relating to promoting economic growth as well as full and productive employment; building infrastructure, industrialization and innovation, as well as reducing inequality within and between countries”.

Useful links

A 21st Century Vision for Urbanisation Dr Joan Clos, Executive Director, UN-Habitat on OECD Development Matters blog

OECD Development Centre work on Africa and the Middle East

What does mainstreaming biodiversity mean?

IDB-2016-logo-En Before there was the Insights blog, there were the Insights books. One of the first, on sustainable development, mentioned “a magical place, seemingly untouched for thousands of years”, on the Poland-Belarus border. Well, this “last remaining fragment of a primeval forest”, Białowieża National Park, is about to be touched, by loggers. The decision has sparked an impassioned debate, in Poland and far beyond. Forests seem to be anchored deep in the psyches of many peoples. There is even a theory that the story of the Garden of Eden refers to deforestation in the Middle East 10,000 years ago, and three millennia later, The Epic of Gilgamesh would describe how the gods curse Sumeria because the hero cut down the sacred forests.

The OECD is as Jungian as the next intergovernmental organisation, but on International Day for Biological Diversity we’re angsty about the loss of forests and other forms of life for material as well as subjective reasons. Biodiversity worldwide is in decline as the pursuit of economic growth and development leads to the conversion, and in many cases over-exploitation, of natural resources for inputs to production and consumption.

The theme of Biodiversity Day this year is “Mainstreaming biodiversity; sustaining people and their livelihoods”. According to World Bank figures, “natural capital accounts for an estimated 30% of total wealth in low income countries compared to only 2% in OECD countries”. Developing countries could learn a few (negative) lessons from what happened to the developed countries on their way to OECD status. The European Potato Famine of the 19th century killed in more or less direct proportion to the lack of diversity in the poor’s diet, with a million victims in Ireland where a third of the population relied almost exclusively on potatoes for food. The Dust Bowl that devastated the North American prairies in the 1930s was in large part due to farmers destroying the grass that held the topsoil in place.

If biodiversity is so important, and neglecting or damaging it so harmful, why don’t countries “mainstream” it?  For a start, although preserving as many species as possible goes back as far as Noah’s Ark (based on Gilgamesh), biodiversity as a scientific concept is recent, dating from a 1985 US National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences forum on biological diversity, while the term “biological diversity” itself first appeared in Raymond F. Dasmann’s 1968 book A Different Kind of Country.

Even so, most of us probably have a pretty good idea of what biodiversity means. But what about “mainstreaming”? Outside the OECD and like-minded institutions, it now has a faintly negative connotation – mainstream media, mainstream tastes for instance. There are various definitions, but they all give the idea that it involves integrating biodiversity into growth and development processes and in sector policies in a systematic way (notably in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, among others).

This is going to be extremely difficult in practice, whatever the rhetoric. One of the main reasons biodiversity isn’t adequately mainstreamed is that it has to compete with other (often more visible) national priorities for growth and development, so there is insufficient political recognition of biodiversity and the underlying ecosystem services it provides. Hopefully, the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will help to change this and raise the profile of biodiversity to a higher political level. Two of the 17 SDGs focus on biodiversity (terrestrial and marine).

The way in which the political will for change comes about reminds me of one of the grim conclusions of another Insights book, on fisheries. Fishing is a good illustration of how the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources poses a problem of political economy. The impetus for change is often a major catastrophe, such as the collapse of the industry when the fish stocks suddenly disappear. However, doing what is sustainable may mean a sudden, visible, loss for a small group of people who can organise to block change, while the benefit is much more long-term, less visible and less important on an individual basis, so there is less political pressure to implement what would be the best, long-term solution overall. An OECD contribution raised a similar point at a Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) event in Montreal earlier this month, citing “Long timeframes for mainstreaming results to occur” as one of the challenges that also arises in the context of mainstreaming biodiversity in development co-operation.

Another lesson from fisheries is that biological systems do not behave in a linear fashion. You may think a slow decline in fish numbers gives you time to find a solution, or that stocks may recover as they did sometimes in the past, but when an ecosystem reaches a tipping point, change can then become sudden and catastrophic. And usually, that tipping point is only identifiable afterwards, it can’t be forecast.

That’s why the CBD, the organisers of today’s campaign, are so worried about the interactions of a number of complex systems. Take what they say about fishing, to stick to that example. Overfishing, pollution and unsustainable coastal development are contributing to irreversible damage to habitats, ecological functions and biodiversity, going on to say that “Climate change and ocean acidification are compounding such impacts at a time when the rising global population requires more fish as food, and as coastal areas are becoming home to a growing percentage of the world’s population”.

With respected bodies like the Paleontological Research Institute at Cornell University estimating that because of human actions, current extinction rates are up to 100 times greater than they would have been otherwise, it’s getting urgent not just to act efficiently. Clunky administrative procedures in international and national programmes are a problem, as is the fact that typical projects have a 4 or 5-year cycle rather than the 10-15 years needed to make a difference. As well as that, monitoring and evaluation of mainstreaming efforts have to be more robust than at present to allow you to know what works and what doesn’t.

The SDGs’ targets for life below water and life on land are ambitious but achievable, and they’re certainly far more attractive than the alternative presented in Gilgamesh, where the Annunaki, the seven judges of hell, raise their torches, lighting the land with their livid flame. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Useful links

The CBD, like the UN climate change convention, has a Conference of the Parties, COP. CBD’s COP 13 in Cancun, Mexico in December this year, will also be focusing on mainstreaming biodiversity as its overarching theme.

OECD work on mainstreaming biodiversity and development

Summary Record of the OECD workshop on Biodiversity and Development: Mainstreaming and Managing for Results, 18 February, 2015

Excerpts from the mainstreaming sections in ‘biodiversity’ chapters of the OECD Environmental Performance Reviews.

Biodiversity and development co-operation OECD Development Co-operation Working Papers

Economics and policies for biodiversity: OECD’s response