Better Plays for Better Lives: The Tempest

Parting is such sweet sorrow
Parting is such sweet sorrow

Today we publish the last article of a summer series in which Kimberley Botwright of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate looks at OECD work through a Shakespearean lens.

Twelve years before the start of The Tempest, Prospero the Duke of Milan, was usurped by his brother Antonio, with the help of Alonso, King of Naples. Prospero was exiled to an island, with his three-year old daughter Miranda, where he reigns over the spirit Ariel and native resident Caliban, using his magic powers and books. The play opens with a storm conjured by Prospero; designed to shipwreck Antonio and Alonso on his island. After conjuring the storm, Prospero reminds his daughter; “I have done nothing but in care of thee, / Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter.” Over the years, the play has taken on post-colonial readings; but it’s also a story about a father trying to secure a better future for his daughter.

Securing a better life for our children, family, society and friends is something some of us might also worry about. The OECD certainly does, judging by its slogan – Better policies for better lives. But what do we mean by better? It’s probably got a lot to do with wellbeing, but how do we measure that? Surely that touches on something too difficult to define, or as Miranda says; “’Tis far off / And rather like a dream than an assurance.”

Fortunately, as part of the OECD Better Life Initiative, (you’ve probably heard about this one), the OECD How’s Life? Measuring Well-Being report presents the first international set of comparable well-being indicators. Better still, the OECD offers an interactive tool called Your Better Life Index where you can rank the 11 different dimensions of wellbeing discussed in the report according  your own personal priorities, allowing you to contribute your voice to the wellbeing debate, not only in English, but also in Spanish, French and Russian.

What would Prospero’s index be? Well, he’d probably give housing a 3/5; exiled on his island he is merely “Prospero, master of a full poor cell,” and laments the loss of his dukedom. But the reason Antonio was able to usurp him was because of his keen interest in studying, “Me, poor man, my library / Was dukedom large enough,” and indeed much of the play revolves around Prospero’s magical “art.” He also stresses his efforts to tutor his daughter, so education would probably rank pretty high, around 5/5.

Given that Prospero almost lost his life before being exiled, uncovers a drunken plot by his slave Caliban, prevents the murder of the faithful servant Gonzalo, and is wary of Miranda being assaulted by either Caliban or Ferdinand, safety would also receive 5/5. Income would be important, around a 4/5, because the spirits of his imagination seek to bless his daughter’s marriage with “honours and riches.”

His control over the spirit Ariel, as well as the elements around the island, “I have bedimm’d / The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,” suggests that the environment serves a useful short-term purpose, but he probably doesn’t value it as much in the long-run, so it would be given a 3/5. Jobs would get also get a 3/5, seeing as he’s keen on making all those in his power work (Caliban, Ariel and Ferdinand), but he’s not so much in tune with job security or earnings distribution.

Lower down on his list of priorities would be life-satisfaction, 2/5; he cannot express the same joy as the young lovers, “so glad of this as they I cannot be.” As he spends most of his time orchestrating the plot of the play in order to seek justice for his exile, his work-life balance would be 0/5. Being a recluse megalomaniac, civic engagement would also receive a zero ratings, whilst community would be low – although he seems to get some enjoyment from his small island subjects, so it would receive 1/5. He never really mentions health and is eager for peace in death by the end of the play, “Every third thought shall be my grave”, and so it would also get 0/5.

An interesting part of the BLI Index allows you to compare your priorities with individuals like you in age, gender and nationality. Compared to his fellow Italian males aged 55-64, Prospero’s priorities are close to the average in housing, jobs, education, environment and income, but way off in health, civic engagement and work-life balance. Given his arrangement of priorities, he’d be best off moving to the United States or Switzerland.

Overall, the OECD Better Life Initiative joins an international trend to look “Beyond GDP” as an indicator of wellbeing, into all those dimensions that put life behind the figures. Just as Miranda says to her newfound friend Ferdinand, “Be of comfort: / My father’s of a better nature, sir, / Than he appears by speech,” so we also have much to learn when we use new indicators to examine wellbeing from fresh perspectives.

Towards the end of the play the spirit Ariel reminds Prospero of what it means to be human. Having witnessed the punishment inflicted on Antonio and Alonso, Ariel assures Prospero his heart would be moved if he saw their suffering, “Mine would, sir, were I human.” Prospero, stunned that a spirit has more feeling than him, also sees life from a new perspective. With his daughter happily married to Prince Ferdinand, he turns from revenge to reconciliation, offering his hand in friendship to Alonso, “First noble friend / Let me embrace thine age, whose honour cannot be measured or confined.”

Today, we’re having a good go at measuring the un-measurable; “O brave new world!” So for now, we’ll leave Prospero and Shakespeare, as they bid us farewell –

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.

Useful links

Here’s Prospero’s BLI. Create your own at this link

Prospero BLI

Better Plays for Better Lives: Hamlet

I've seen corruption boil and bubble
I’ve seen corruption boil and bubble

Today we publish the next article of a summer series in which Kimberley Botwright of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate looks at OECD work through a Shakespearean lens.

When the ghost of the old King of Denmark appears at the beginning of Hamlet, Horatio, once doubtful of ghosts, decides, “This bodes some strange eruption to our state.” In a second (private) appearance to young Prince Hamlet, the ghost King reveals an unvoiced injustice; he was murdered by his brother, (Hamlet’s uncle), who has now married the Queen and claimed the royal title.

As the play unfolds we realise that adultery, fratricide, fathers spying on sons, friends spying on friends, bribery, trickery, and murder are the hallmarks of this society. The only major character that does not display some corrupt tendency is Ophelia, Hamlet’s one-time beloved girlfriend. A pure soul in an impure world, society necessarily destroys her; she goes mad and commits suicide. The church is still prepared to bury her though, (despite suicide traditionally preventing burial on hallowed ground), because she’s from a rich family.

Fortunately, today we don’t need to the appearance of ghosts to make us aware of “some foul play.” The OECD’s CleanGovBiz initiative, launched in 2011, is designed to help governments, business and civil society build integrity and combat corruption. This is done through knowledge sharing events as well as a multi-pronged Toolkit, which brings together relevant work on 18 policy areas from across different OECD departments. Users are provided with priority checklists, implementation guidance, good practice examples, as well as access to tools elaborated by international and civil society organisations.

The tricky part about corruption is that it is not always obvious or easy to detect. Hamlet is all too aware of the difference between outward appearance and inward reality; “That one may smile and smile and be a villain.” Polonius, Ophelia’s father, notes, “’Tis too much proved – that with devotion’s visage / And pious action we do sugar o’er / The devil himself.” Sharp detection is needed to identify all sorts of double-dealing. The OECD offers tools such as a Money Laundering Awareness Handbook.

It is inferred early on in the play that upon Hamlet’s decisions “depends the safety and health of this whole state.” Tools to set healthy governance standards as well as secure effective prevention are critical. Examples include OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, lobbying principles or Public Sector Integrity Reviews, the latter helping to identify and review areas in government vulnerable to misconduct fraud and corruption.

Follow-up tools are needed to ensure robust prosecution and recovery; when Hamlet’s uncle meditates on his devious actions he wonders whether he can repent but keep his stolen assets (the Queen and the title); “May one be pardoned and retain th’offence? / In the corrupt currents of this world / Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice, / And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself / Buys out the law.” Asset recovery is an important part of the corruption limitation, as is criminalising bribery.

Hamlet’s uncle eventually bribes the Prince’s friends to assist in an assassination plot; but Hamlet suspects their treachery long-before, describing Rosencrantz as a sponge, “that soaks up the king’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities.” Current estimates show that over $1 trillion in bribes are paid annually. The OECD’s Anti-Bribery Convention has established legally binding standards to criminalise the bribery of foreign public officials in business transactions.

Hamlet didn’t have a CleanGovBiz Toolkit and as the play progresses he becomes increasingly pessimistic about society’s integrity, telling Polonius, “Ay, sir: to be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of two thousand.” When Rosencrantz jokes that “the world’s grown honest”, Hamlet replies, “Then doomsday is near.” Despairing of the rot in human nature he asks Ophelia, “Are you honest?” and then cries, “Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” Never mind that he had formerly promised her, “Doubt truth to be a liar / But never doubt I love.” Even Hamlet is inconsistent in the morally corrupt world that encircles him: he murders four people.

Just before the final disastrous scene where the remaining characters all kill each other, Hamlet converses with a gravedigger and asks him how long it takes a body to rot. The reply sums up society, “I’faith, if he be not rotten before he die – as we have many pocky corpses now-a-days…” Corruption corrodes society; leading to suspicion, deception, violence, and death, or “carnal, bloody and unnatural acts.”

If Hamlet’s end doesn’t convince you, modern estimates suggest that corruption causes a 5% to 10% waste of US Medicare and Medicaid annual budgets; a 10% average increase in the cost of doing business; and 20% to 40% of official development assistance to be stolen. Child mortality rates in countries with high levels of corruption are about one third higher than in countries with low corruption, whilst student dropout rates are five times as high.

Corruption also leads to the breakdown of that flighty yet vital thing we call trust in society. As the OECD tells us, we fight corruption because it “corrodes public trust, undermines the rule of law and ultimately delegitimises the state.” The cost of mistrust is high. The OECD Secretary General has stated in his 2013 Strategic Orientations, “Without strong, smart and trusted institutions our efforts to implement and deliver better policies for better lives will be undermined.” No wonder OECD Forum 2013 was all about Jobs Equality and Trust, where a different Prince reminded us; “If you think about it, 100 does not always equal 100. There is a considerable difference between a group of 100 people full of self-confidence, with trust in each other and good basic skills, and a group of 100 people with low self-esteem, a lack of trust and poor basic skills.” Can we (re)build trust?

When integrity crumbles, trust disappears, society spirals downward and “The rest is silence.”

Useful links

OECD work on bribery and corruption

OECD Forum: Rebuilding Trust

Better Plays for Better Lives: Love’s Labour’s Lost

O this learning, what a thing it is!
O this learning, what a thing it is!

Today we publish the next article of a summer series in which Kimberley Botwright of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate looks at OECD work through a Shakespearean lens.

Last week, we spoke about the importance of skills and education for tackling youth unemployment. Love’s Labour’s Lost offers some useful pointers in this area too. The play begins with Ferdinand, the King of Navarre, encouraging his three companions to join his “little academe:”

“You three, Berowne, Dumaine and Longaville,
Have sworn for three years’ term to live with me,
My fellow-scholars, and to keep those statutes
That are recorded in this schedule here.”

Naturally, one of the companions, Berowne, protests. He wants to know what the point of all this fastidious studying is: “What is the end of study, let me know?” Doubtless, you may have felt the same way at some point in your educational career. So you’ll be pleased to know that the OECD Skills Strategy emphasises that all that effort wasn’t wasted and skills are the “global currency” of the 21st century.

But it is important to develop the right skills, least we cry out like the tiresome schoolmaster of the play, Holofernes, “O thou monster ignorance, how deformed does thou look!” He is speaking about a character named Dull, who “hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book. He hath not eat paper, as it were. He hath not drunk ink.”

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) can help us test the standard of reading, mathematical and scientific skills taught in schools around world by measuring the competencies of 15-year-olds. And when some 25% of firms in OECD countries are concerned about the availability of adequately trained workers, it is also important to establish an education system that gathers intelligence on the demand for future skills, so that what is taught is relevant.

Holofernes actually turns out to be the dullest person in the play, with his outdated expressions rendering him incomprehensible (and amusing). As Berowne says “So study ever more is overshot. / While it doth study to have what it would, / It doth forget to do the thing it should.”

Berowne also complains that the King is too old to pursue further learning, “So you, to study now is too late.” The double-irony of this line is that there is much the companions still need to learn, and not all of it is to be found in books – “learning that occurs outside the formal learning system” as the OECD’s Education Directorate says.

Understanding the level and distribution of skills in adult populations is the key to our modern economies, because as well as economic growth, skills affect social trust, political engagement, and health. The OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) will publish data and analysis on adult learning in October 2013. The study will also highlight international patterns on adult learning, which can then be used to remove barriers to investing in further skills-development.

This is important when, depending on the country, between a third and two-thirds of the adult population lack the minimum core skills necessary to engage in further learning and function in modern economies. With rising long-term unemployment among migrants, particularly in the EU, policy measures such as language and professional training, as well as a focus on youth migrants, can make a real difference.

Once skills are developed, ensuring skills supply to the labour market is the next step. By Act II of the play, the Princess of France and her three ladies arrive in Navarre on a diplomatic mission. Instead of offering the appropriate welcome to his court, the King bids the Princess to camp in a field. We warned you that there was a lot he still needed to learn, although he may simply have forgotten courtly manners he learned as a boy but never practised. Unused skills atrophy over time, making it more difficult for people who have been out of the workforce to get back in.

Participation rates can be improved by providing affordable childcare services, as well as reforming tax systems that make work economically unattractive. Employers, trade unions, and government should work together to design more flexible working conditions, in order to make the most of a talent pool that includes people with care obligations or individuals with disabilities. A recent OECD paper notes that women’s average earnings from self-employment are up to 60% lower than men’s, citing obstacles such as cultural norms, stereotypes, time shortages and the composition of their professional network.

Finally, ensuring good skills use is also necessary, by supporting employers to make better use of employees’ skills, helping the young gain a foothold in the labour market and fostering entrepreneurship. As the Princess notes, “We are wise girls.” but the King and his companions, for all their love-sonnets and wit, fail to impress her and her ladies. Berowne comments, “Here stand I lady, dart thy skill at me” and concedes, “O, never will I trust to speeches penned, / Nor to the motion of a school boy’s tongue.”

This is ultimately a play that interrogates definitions of learning. The men eventually learn the importance of soft-skills. The Princess initially flatters the King; “I am too sudden-bold: / To teach a teacher ill beseemeth me,” but by the end, it is the King who begs the Princess, “Teach us, sweet madam, for our rude transgression some fair excuse.”

Interrogating what skills we want for today, for tomorrow, and how we are going to go about teaching and harnessing those skills also requires definition and redefinition, particularly in a fast-moving world; “Education is increasingly expected to develop new ways of thinking, involving creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making; new ways of working, including communication and collaboration; new tools for working, including the capacity to recognise and exploit the potential of new technologies; and, the capacity to live in a complex world as active and responsible citizens.”

Alternatively, we could eat paper and drink ink.

Useful links

OECD work on skills

OECD educationtoday blog

OECD Insights Human Capital by Brian Keeley

 

Better Plays for Better Lives: Romeo and Juliet

So wise so young, they say, do never live long
So wise so young, they say, do never live long

Today we publish the next article of a summer series in which Kimberley Botwright of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate looks at OECD work through a Shakespearean lens.

Before there was punk, there was Shakespeare, and his Romeo. Communication between generations has never been fluid. At the start of the play, Romeo is a brooding, isolated teenager, and his parents are at a loss about what to do with him; “Could we but learn from whence his sorrows grow / We would as willingly give cure as know.” Worse, Romeo is part of a brawling, bawdy gang-orientated youth culture. The overall context of the play appears to be one of society in crisis, parents can no longer control their children, whilst the presiding Prince of Verona has trouble maintaining law and order; “On pain of torture, from those bloody hands / Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground.”

Although emerging unrest continues to feature in our modern world, unlike Romeo’s father Old Montague, we can have a good guess at what ails today’s youth. OECD labour data indicate a 16.3% average OECD unemployment rate among 15-24 year olds in 2012, rising to 55.3% for Greece and 53.2% for Spain. Both these last figures have continued to climb into 2013. By way of comparison, in 2012 average unemployment rates (15-64 year olds) were 8.2% for OECD countries, 24.5% for Greece and 25.2% for Spain. Then there’s the NEET group (Not in Education Employment or Training); in 2012 12.9% of OECD 15-24 year olds fitted into this category. These individuals run the highest risk of long-term exclusion from the labour market. Youth in OECD key partner countries also suffered into 2012, with a 51.5% youth unemployment rate in South Africa and 14.8% in Russia.

Ok, ok, you say, but why all the fuss about youth unemployment? They’re young and fit, they’ll bounce back! After all, “Care keeps his watch in every old man’s eye” in contrast to the “unbruisèd youth with unstuffed brain.” Maybe not however, as the OECD Employment Outlook 2013 warns; “Youth need to be actively supported to avoid long-term “scarring” effects as a result of prolonged unemployment and low-income spells early in their careers.” This significantly affects society as whole, as individual scarring generates collective long-term, structural unemployment problems due to a loss of human capital and vital skills.

Furthermore, at OECD Forum 2013 Ian Hickie, Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Sydney, explained why scarring is particularly detrimental for young people. Rapid changes take place in the brain between the ages of 15-25, and participation has positive effects on these changes, while exclusion has negative ones. OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría reminds us that exclusion from the job market often leads to exclusion elsewhere; “Youth unemployment often means material hardship, dire future prospects and delaying vital steps into adulthood, such as leaving home, building relationships or starting a family.” Romeo himself does not fit into his friend Mercutio’s description of “lovers’ brains” that “dream of love”, but instead speaks with dread of a bleak future; “For my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars.”

What “cure” then for this crisis or is it to be governed by the “stars”?  The OECD Action Plan for Youth is designed to leverage OECD work on education, skills and youth-related employment policies, in order contribute to national and international youth unemployment reduction efforts. It calls for a two-pronged approach; tackle the current crisis, but also address structural problems, in order to ensure better outcomes for youth in the future.

Elements to aid the first objective include boosting job creation, addressing demand-side barriers to the employment of low-skilled youth, and encouraging employers to continue or expand quality apprenticeships. Examples of policy action would be stronger incentives for employers to hire new workers, with lower social security contributions where appropriate. Elements for the second objective include strengthening the role and status of Vocational Education and Training (VET), as well as matching education with employers’ demand for skills; “The co-existence of young unemployed or under-employed graduates, with employers who say they cannot find the people with the skills they need, suggests that there is scope to better link education systems with the world of work.”

On education policy design and investment, OECD Special Advisor on Education Policy Andreas Schleicher notes, “Our education today, is our economy tomorrow, so we are going to pay a price.” Romeo is “The only son” of the House of Montague. Likewise, Juliet is the only offspring of the House of Capulet, as Old Capulet makes clear: “Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she: / She’s the hopeful lady of my earth.” Their passing away points towards something stronger than death: the end of hope, the onset of sterility and the destruction of all of tomorrow’s promise (“No future”, as the punks said). By the end of the play, the better part of Verona’s youth lie dead – Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, Juliet and her Romeo. The Prince bitterly declares, “All are punish’d”; for without the youth, society will pay a very high price indeed. But the death of the young in Verona also finally paves way for reconciliation in society. The play embodies the concept of creative destruction, an old order dying and a new one emerging, often with violent side effects; “The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb / What is her burying grave, that is her womb.”

Fortunately for us today, “High youth unemployment is not inevitable, even during an economic crisis; it is the product of the interaction between economic context and particular policies. What matters more are the choices countries make in how to allocate…spending and the policies they design to improve the efficiency and relevance of the education they provide.”

There are choices to be made because ultimately, “we cannot afford this waste.”

Post Script

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun for sorrow will not show his head
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Useful links

Give youth a chance by Monika Kosinska, Secretary-General European Public Health Alliance, at OECD Forum 2013

OECD educationtoday blog

Better Plays for Better Lives: The Merchant of Venice

Giddy Fortune’s furious fickle wheel
Giddy Fortune’s furious fickle wheel

Today we publish the second of a summer series in which Kimberley Botwright of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate looks at OECD work through a Shakespearean lens.

Sixteenth century Venice was a global centre of merchant capitalism, and The Merchant of Venice offers an excellent examination of  human behaviour and its effects on financial markets. The point of this article is not to dwell on the appalling anti-Semitism of the period, but rather on the story of the hapless eponymous character and his reckless friend.

With the majority of his wealth at sea, Antonio uses credit to leverage capital to lend to his friend Bassanio (“Try what my credit can in Venice do”). Bassanio requires funding to seduce the wealthy heiress Portia. On Bassanio’s behalf, Antonio borrows 3,000 ducats for a three-month period from Shylock, who offers a 0% interest rate but takes the promise of one pound (around half a kilo) of Antonio’s flesh as collateral.

By Act 3, the audience discovers that Antonio’s ships have sunk, leading to a catastrophic devaluation of his net worth. To redeem his losses, he must pay the gruesome corporeal price under the terms of a notarized contract:

“Hath all his ventures failed? What, not one hit?  From Tripolis, from Mexico and England, / From Lisbon, Barbary and India? And not one vessel scape the dreadful touch of merchant-marring rocks?”

Antonio is significantly over-leveraged and he overconfidently manages risk, based on an uncritical acceptance of the present.  If only he’d read the OECD’s Future Global Shocks: Improving Risk Governance! He would have learned that disruptive events, such as a cargo ship sinking, can destabilise critical supply systems and have far-reaching economic effects.

He might also have learnt something about financial crises: “Arguably, financial crises both occur more frequently and produce more severe monetary damage than other types of risks described. There is a concern that the tools for risk analysis have not worked as well.” It goes on to emphasise that financial crises involve human, non-malicious choices and their re-occurrence should encourage us to search for new approaches to economic challenges and models “that use data on how agents actually behave.”

Bassanio provides an illustration of the erratic behaviour of individuals in financial markets. His justification for borrowing money from Antonio is based on the logic that if one shoots and loses an arrow, one should promptly shoot another in the same direction, in order to find out where the first went – not the most rational of approaches, seeing as it is very likely your second arrow will go the same way as the first. In short, Bassanio throws good money after bad.

Since the financial crisis, traditional economic models have become increasingly criticised for being blind to herd behaviour, network effects or information asymmetries and irrational action. Agent-based models (ABM) provide an alternative modelling approach. They focus on possible interactions between agents according to certain behaviour rules, running millions of simulations to approximate the millions of potential interactions between actors, gaining a better insight into possible outcomes of the complex system. In complex systems such as debt markets or financial institutions, shocks can be caused by external pressures (ships sinking) or internal (erratic individuals).  It is therefore important to understand these systems at both the macro and micro-level.

Another important human aspect of financial systems is trust and expectations. Towards the end of the play, Antonio is dragged to court, with Shylock demanding his pound of flesh. While the presiding Duke of Venice initially proposes that Shylock might assume certain losses and forgive part of Antonio’s debt, “Forgive a moiety of the principal, / Glancing an eye of pity on his losses”, this raises deep concerns:

“It must not be; there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
‘Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.”

A major fall-out of the financial crisis was the possible creation of “moral hazard”, the expectation, or guarantee, that public authorities will bail out uninsured and unsecured creditors of systemically important bank debt. When such guarantees are perceived, behaviour incentives may be distorted.

As two OECD papers on implicit guarantees and banking in a challenging environment make clear, solutions for our modern day financial dilemmas lie in internationally coordinated responses. For example, the first paper suggests that an effective cross-border EU bank failure resolution network would lower the value (and danger) of implicit sovereign guarantees. The second notes that as banks deleverage and assets become renationalised, a European Banking Union would sever the link between weak sovereigns and weak banks.

But knowing what to do and doing it are two different things, as the quick-witted heiress Portia reminds us; “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do…”

Further reading:

OECD work on financial markets

OECD Journal: Financial Market Trends

Economic models used by the OECD

Better Plays for Better Lives: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Better plays for better lives
And with thy daring folly burn the world

Today we publish the first of a summer series in which Kimberley Botwright of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate looks at OECD work through a Shakespearean lens.

Given the current heat in Paris, we thought it appropriate to begin with the archetypal summer play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Much of the action takes place in a wood, close to Athens. The play unfolds in a comic series of events, for the most part caused by the fairies that rule over the wood. Yes, you read that correctly: fairies. Oberon and Titania, greatest of the fairies, have had a violent disagreement. Titania has custody over an adopted child, “a lovely boy”, and Oberon is jealous. Oberon’s acts of revenge lead to some unfortunate side effects for Hermia and Lysander, young lovers who have eloped to the woods.

But it is not just the human story that is affected by the fairy war. Encountering her jealous husband, Titania describes the cosmic effects of their disagreement:

“But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, has sucked up from the sea
Contagious fogs, which falling in the land
Hath every petty river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents”

In short, their dispute has led to catastrophic flooding, with “continents” here meaning “container”. Titania goes on to describe a 16th century version of climate change, “The seasons alter”, suggesting that “The spring, the summer, / The childing autumn, angry winter, change” and the planet has become confused, “the mazèd world/ By their increase now knows not which is which.” She makes it clear that the ecological disruption is their responsibility.

“And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension:
We are their parents and original.”

Climate change probably did not have the same pressing international status in the 16th century as it does today. Rather, Shakespeare’s play uses the fantasy of the woodland to imagine alternative and frightening cosmic powers, the equivalent of today’s action-packed fantasy films. 400 years later however, his fairies’ alternative seems worryingly “real”.

The 2012 OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: Consequences of Inaction warns that by 2050, under a worst-case scenario, we could see a 10% biodiversity loss; 2.3 billion more people living in water-stressed areas; and a 50% increase in GHG emissions, primarily caused by a 70% growth in CO2 emissions from energy use. By the end of the century, this would put us on track for a 3°C to 6°C average global temperature increase from pre-industrial levels.

That’s three times over the agreed-upon 2°C limit. A 6°C degree global temperature increase really would be catastrophic, and here the OECD’s language begins to sound as worried as Titania: “A temperature increase of more than 2°C would alter precipitation patterns; increase glacier and permafrost melt; drive sea-level rise; worsen the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods and hurricanes; and become the greatest driver of biodiversity loss.”

Fortunately, the international community has decided to take action! No, wait, that’s not quite it. The Environmental Outlook states that the mitigation action pledges at Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010) “are not enough to be on a least-cost pathway to meet the 2°C goal.” 80% of the projected emissions from the power sector in 2020 are inevitable, as they will come from existing power plants or plants being built today.

By now, perhaps you are feeling as helpless as the lovely boy. Titania and Oberon overlook the actual desires and needs of the child, who does not utter a single line throughout the play. Symbolic of future life, he is marginalised by the present argument. But maybe there is hope for today’s boys and girls. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has set a “Sustainable Energy for All” objective by 2030. This will require a dramatic increase in annual investment in sustainable energy infrastructure. The OECD is working on a Policy guidance for investment in clean energy infrastructure, wherein you will learn that, “Clean energy technologies have displayed exceptionally favourable learning curves over the last decade.” Let’s just hope the humans show equal learning aptitude.

Post-Script

If you tend to be more like the play’s Duke Theseus and do not believe in climate change or its effects per se, “I never may believe these antic fables, nor these fairy toys”, then we solemnly bow out:

“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended
That you have but slumbered here
Whilst these visions did appear.”

Useful links

OECD work on climate change