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Here’s a story for the dwindling number (I hope) of climate change skeptics who still look forward to business-as-usual, or more-of-the-same as a blueprint for the rest of the 21st century. A HuffPost report in November reveals that, way back in 1956, the coal industry accepted the reality of global warming and did not feel threatened by it (the problem lay one generation in the future!). The same is true for the oil industry, according to a spate of lawsuits brought against it by various groups and several US States. In December 2019, Exxon won a major climate change lawsuit brought against it by the state of New York, but there are many more on the way.
The remarkable thing here is that the science of impending climate change was uncontested as long as the threat to the profits of fossil fuel corporations lay decades in the future. Here is the paradox at the heart of the debate about climate change. In the early days of global climate modelling, in the 1970s, the models were relatively unrefined and scientists themselves did not stake strong positions based on the results of their own models. Additionally, the majority of scientists subscribed to the myth that science has to be neutral in order to serve as an impartial referee that floated above the discussion, distributing facts where necessary. In reality, the discussions on the ground were becoming messy. The science began to be disputed as the soon as the deadline for meaningful action neared. Powerful polluters, mining companies, oil corporations, muddied the waters (both literally and intellectually) with arguments that played on statistical uncertainty to kick the decision a few decades down the road.
Meanwhile scientists sat back and redoubled their efforts, striving for ever greater accuracy in their models. They reasoned, logically, that once their results achieved greater accuracy, people would come round to their point of view. But that is not the way the world works. It has little place for logic and reason. So they toiled on, with ever more dense reports of double- and triple-checked facts and innumerable citations. Meanwhile the world went on guzzling gas and emitting CO2, methane, and worse. This is the point when the world drowns in despair or A MESSIAH APPEARS. Lo and behold! We have our unlikely messiah. Hundreds of thousands of school children, young people. Their face is that of Greta Thunberg whose single-minded focus has made her the global symbol of the movement.
If we look at simple facts, solutions to the problem are much more doable than we think. Elon Musk is mocked for saying that 10,000 sq. miles of the Nevada desert covered in solar panels could produce all the energy requirements of the United States. He’s right of course, but this is only intended as an example of scale. It wouldn’t be safe or desirable to have the entire nation’s energy needs produced at a single source. The following is a better example. An engineer acquaintance, Klaus Turek, calculates that in the case of a temperate country like Austria, just 0.391% of its surface covered with solar panels is sufficient to meet its electricity requirements. That works out to about 328 sq. km. for the whole country. The area covered by buildings is 2.4%, however (2,013 sq km approximately). Therefore, just 16% of the currently available roof space would be sufficient to cover all of Austria’s current electricity needs, with plenty left over for expansion.
Fake news is alive and flourishing in all parts of the world, including in India, where WhatsApp and Facebook (among others) are helping to spread misinformation (inaccuracies) and disinformation (intentional inaccuracies) about events around the world. The above headline about Gandhi’s death apparently appeared in a school textbook in Gujarat, and probably represents ongoing attempts by rightwing Hindu zealots to rewrite history to the party’s liking.
Biology teaches us that life forms flourish when they exist in robust interplay. An increase in biodiversity in an ecosystem results in increased productivity in the system, increased resilience against natural disasters and increased stability overall. In our tech-driven century, the opposite is happening in the financial and business world. Commerce and economic activity are being increasingly dominated by a handful of powerful corporations: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Walmart, Tencent, Alibaba, and so on. The pattern is replicated within countries as well. In every case, in every country, Ambani, Adani, Li Ka-shing, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Ma… whatever their names, each and every one will use every means at their disposal to protect their wealth; economic biodiversity and planetary health be damned. It is truly easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…
It is time for us, planetary citizens and voters, to stiffen the spines of our politicians so that they can take steps to curtail the planet-destroying power of the Putins and Murdochs of this world. It won’t be easy, but the survival of the planet is at stake. Unlikely beacons of hope at this juncture are the protests of thousands of school children around the world led by a Swedish sixteen year-old girl with Asperger’s. Theirs is an example for every one of us to follow, in every way we possibly can. The next few years will decide whether we can salvage our planetary heritage for coming generations.
I’m currently reading a book by Kate Raworth called “Doughnut Economics.” In it, the author pleads for a rethink of the traditional growth model of an ever-expanding economy to one of equitable development, keeping planetary boundaries in mind, and ensuring redistribution of resources so that the most disadvantaged in society are also looked after.
In the traditional testosterone model (my own term) of economic growth, the rich prosper while the rest of the population benefit from the trickle-down effect of an expanding economy. Trickle down is a euphemism for the rich pissing down on the rest, thus validating the term piss-poor long after the expression came into use. I have examined the disastrous effects of testosterone based decision-making in two earlier blog posts: in 2015 (Golden Skirts vs. Testosterone in the Financial World), and in 2018 (Leadership Hope for a Warming World). Another reflective piece, published on this website in 2018, is related to the topic of the current post (Three Score Years and Ten: Planetary Health and your Lifetime).
It’s clear now to all but the most self-absorbed amongst us that we’re already consuming much more than the planet can sustainably provide. If Mother Nature and the earth’s resources were assumed to be a bank account, then we’re no longer living off the interest alone but are drawing down its capital. Since 1971, the Global Footprint Network has calculated Earth Overshoot Day for each year. In the website’s own words:
The Global Footprint Network calculates the number of days of the year that Earth’s bio-capacity suffices to provide for humanity’s ecological footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global consumption of Nature’s capital. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s bio-capacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s ecological footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year:
(Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day. (EOD)
In 2018, Earth Overshoot Day was calculated to have happened on 1 August. In 2004, the overshoot fell on 1 September! By this calculation, the last time mankind was truly sustainable was in 1969 or 1970 when overshoot day fell in a subsequent year!
Since this planetary over-consumption was first computed in 1971, we have been steadily increasing our ecological debt, and the interest we’re paying on that mounting debt is measured in food shortages, soil erosion, rising temperatures, increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration, biodiversity loss and much, much more. The problem is huge and solutions seem daunting and unreachable to us as individuals. Before we sink into despair, Kate Raworth tells us that there’s plenty we can do as societies to reverse this state of affairs and restore the planet to health. Doughnut Economics, the term she has coined, outlines the solutions that society needs. In the diagram above, the light green space denotes the resources mankind can safely take from the earth while restoring it to health. The dark green lines are the planetary boundaries that have to be respected if we wish to do this. The blue segments are the labels of the various sectors that have to be addressed. The book outlines broad prescriptions to deal with the problems of each of these sectors. In reading through this and other books written in a similar vein, we see that the answer to climate change lies in social change, not in new technologies. Technology alone is useless without the human will to adopt them and to adapt.
So here is the answer to the initial despairing question. What can we do as individuals? There’s plenty one can do. The EOD website lists hundreds of steps individuals can take to mitigate planetary health. Therein lies our power as individuals. Out of many, one.
Doughnut Economics: Kate Raworth, Random House Business 2018, 384 pp.,
Hans Christian Andersen said it best more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Children have the capacity to speak truth to power when sages are silenced for daring to state the obvious in a climate of denial. Scientific studies have shown, with ever-increasing certainly, for more than four decades now, that human action is changing the planet in alarming ways. What was at first a trickle of change has turned into a flood. Despite years of unseasonal floods, droughts, ice melts, desertification and habitat loss, it is only now, when children take to the streets in protest, that there is any real hope of progress.
And this childrens’ movement has an unlikely heroine; sixteen year-old Greta Thunberg, who didn’t mince words while addressing self-important bodies like the UN COP24 conference or to EU leaders. “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us the future was something to look forward to. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences, but their voices are not heard. Is my microphone on? Can you hear me?” Her words shamed members of the UK Parliament who took the unprecedented step of declaring the climate crisis an emergency.
At the COP24 conference in Poland, she told the assembled delegates: “You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is to pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.”
Greta Thunberg’s words and actions are a reminder of the eternal truth of a tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. In his tale, the Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone pretends to see and admire the marvellous garments that are supposedly visible to everyone but the foolish. Until one child cries out, “But the Emperor has no clothes!” At that moment everyone sees the truth and repeats the child’s words. In our real-life parable, Greta Thunberg is the unnamed child in Andersen’s story, and the Emperor stands for the corporations and big businesses that stand to lose their profits if climate change is accepted as an issue that is vital to humanity’s future.
I had the flu last week. It probably wasn’t a flu, actually. Just a cold and a fever that kept me in bed for three days. What a bore, you say. No. It wasn’t at all. Because the illness opened up a window of time where I could indulge myself and read what I wanted to. I was on a train journey when the fever and chills began, so I wrapped myself up in my warmest clothes and began to read Madeline Miller’s wonderful book.
Circe, by Madeline Miller. When I started the book, I knew of Circe only as an appendage to Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, an also-ran who played a small supporting role in the life of a classic hero. She was the one who bewitched his men and turned them into swine. In passing, Circe is spoken of as a daughter of Helios the sun god and an ocean nymph. In this book, the heroes (Jason and Odysseus among them) are shown to be flawed human beings with all too human frailties that undermine the lives of those closest to them. The parallels to the 21st century fall of several iconic heroic figures are very close and inescapable. The author brings Circe to magnificent life; a courageous woman who battles her fate and in the end, defies her father to escape the eternity of exile on the island of Aiaia to which Helios has condemned her. Rather than simple mythology, this is a beautiful coming-of-age story (over a period of several centuries, admittedly); a story for our time about a long suppressed and battered woman who finds her voice. The miles flew by and the train journey soon ended. By the time I finished the book I was home, the discomfort of the train journey behind me, and crawled tiredly into bed. After several cups of tea I fell asleep, and when I awoke it was bedtime. I was wide awake, with a runny nose, a bit of a cough, and no chance of going back to sleep. So I started another book.
Die Trapp Familie: die wahre Geschichte hinter dem Welterfolg by Gerhard Jelinek, Birgit Mosser. Many Austrians find it annoying when tourists gush about The Sound of Music and think that it represents a true picture of the country. They see the movie and the musical as a candy floss image of the truth. So this painstakingly researched history by two reporters sets the record straight. For me the real hero in the story is Captain von Trapp, a highly decorated U boat captain. More impressive than his wartime exploits are his apparent human qualities. According to his own writings, he genuinely agonized about enemy loss of life when attacking enemy shipping (but followed duty and did it anyway). He was a devoted father, had a harmonious marriage to his first wife, the mother of his first five children. It didn’t hurt that she was a wealthy English heiress who came from a prominent industrial family based in Trieste. An Irish cousin of his first wife who spoke no German lived in their household for several years. So his children grew up speaking English as well as German. This stood them in good stead in their burgeoning international career. Apparently it is true that the good captain used a ship’s bosun pipe with individual calls to summon his children, but only because they lived in a rambling house with extensive grounds. He was by no means a martinet and when Julie Andrews, pardon, Maria Kutschera, arrives as a childrens’ governess, the family was already very musically capable. They sang in a choir with Captain von Trapp playing first violin and two of the older children on instruments. Anyway, just as in the movie he does really marry the governess, and it is her driving ambition that makes them internationally famous. From this point on, the Julie Andrews myth seems to be closer to the truth. Good reading for the first night and second day of the fever.
Becoming by Michelle Obama. I was feeling much better as I started reading, but soon realized I wasn’t going to get completely well until I’d finished this book uninterrupted. It was a long and easy read. The narrative flowed unpretentious, self-aware and honest. After finishing the book, two impressions were very clear. This woman would be a great politician if she wanted to be one. Second was the certainty that she would never, ever go into politics. And so I delved into the life and times of this fascinating couple. Interestingly, only the last 30% of the book is dedicated to the White House years, presumably because so much of it is in the public record. It is very clear that the focus of her life, apart from the causes she has been associated with, is her family. The immediate family and the extended family. In any case, it was a refreshing and compelling read and I emerged from the book completely well enough to go back to the normal routine of time spent outdoors and other work.
This is a short story with a punch line in Italian that goes to show that some jokes or puns are untranslatable. But I’m going to try anyway, in an attempt to cross cultural barriers, as we all urgently need to do these days. So here goes!
Never Say No to a Witch (a short short story)
Two failed crooks decide to rob a bank. They’ve both attempted bank robberies alone in the past, but their efforts have failed. Miserably. One has tried legal and accounting methods to embezzle money, and was forced into hiding when the embezzlement was discovered. The other attempted armed robbery and was forced to flee when the carabinieri turned up within seconds. The police car happened to have been stopped right outside the bank in a traffic jam when the emergency call came through. So these two hapless wannabes decide to join forces and pull off a major bank robbery using brain as well as brawn.
The smart(er) crook uses deceit and inside knowledge to determine the precise hour and date for the robbery. The second one gathers untraceable weapons from the black market to use in case force is needed. They slip into the bank just before closing hours on the appointed date. They force the terrorised customers and bank staff to the floor and storm the vault. At the open door to the vault sits an elegant black-clad lady behind a desk with a bottle of yellow liquor and two empty glasses on it.
“Move over,” snarls one, brandishing his weapon.
The woman calmly fills two glasses with the yellow liquid and proffers them.
“Have a glass of Strega,” she smiles.
“I said move over,” he snarls again. His finger tightens on the trigger.
In the split second before he fires, she flings the liquor in their faces and Poof! There is a blinding flash of light and the two men disappear! The elegant lady smiles and refills a glass.
“Mai dire no ad una Strega,” she whispers as she takes a sip. Never say not to a witch. (Translator’s note: Strega is an Italian liqueur. The word also means witch in Italian).
I dreamt up this story some time ago and the makers of Strega are quite welcome to use it in one of their ads if they wish. But the story is also meant as a parable and a warning to the European Union. If the bank in the above story represents the citizens of the united nations of Europe, one of the two robbers stands for the nationalist factions in the various countries that led to Brexit, the Italian rebellion, the rise of the AfD, and the move away from democratic norms. The second crook, the one who uses his legal background to determine the best time and method of entry represents the bureaucracy of Brussels and of the European parliament. Everyone is entitled to an honest wage, but there are too many EU bureaucrats with tax-free salaries who are completely out of touch with the citizens they represent. When they prescribe austerity measures for countries that fail to meet certain economic criteria, they should practice austerity on themselves as well, so that they share in the pain they inflict on the collective. This principle is just as true within individual countries of course.
Politicians seem to have forgotten that the word “minister” implies that one is a servant whose duty is to minister to the well-being of the public.It is reasonable for ministers and prime ministers to enjoy rank and honor as a reward for self-sacrifice and public service. But they are not royalty. They are not infallible. They are not entitled to rob the bank. As someone who is ardently pro-EU, I see there is great need for democratic reform within the EU. I also see the Brexiteers, the AfD, the xenophobes, and the far-right of every country are like the second robber, the unintelligent one, looking to force as a way to getting the reform that they want. But they are using failed methods. Nationalism, xenophobia and fascism have been tried before, and have only led to repeated wars and mass destruction on the continent. Europe needs the EU more than ever. The world needs the EU more than ever.
Several years ago, an Italian acquaintance said to me, “The growth of the Roman Empire was driven by testosterone, you know.” He was a polyglot polymath; a materials scientist by profession, and a keen historian who sometimes spouted Greek and Latin quotations to illustrate the points he made. Julius Caesar, as a promising young general in his thirties, felt like an under-achiever and a failure. He is known to have lamented that Alexander had conquered most of the known world by the age of thirty, while he himself was only a Quaestor (a local magistrate) in Rome. Caesar was forty years old when he formed the first Triumvirate with Crassus and Pompey. He then went on to defeat the Gallic tribes of modern day France over the next eight years, killing more than a million Gauls and Germans in the process (according to Plutarch) and enslaving a million more. Presumably, by the mores of his time, these deaths were considered necessary to establish rule of law, discipline unruly Roman citizens with firm leadership and ensure stable government.
After the Second World War, with American leadership and the newly instituted United Nations organizations in 1945, it was widely believed that conquest and rule by force of arms was a thing of the past. Post-1945 the world entered an era of global peace and the longest absence of major wars mankind has ever known. If today’s world outlook seems bleak, blame it on the internet and social media, which are able to convey local impacts of minor skirmishes into our homes with larger-than-life images. Brutal killings appear immediately on the screens we carry in our pockets, or on laptops and smart tablets in homes and offices. When the Cold War ended, American philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of history. In a nutshell his thesis was: with the spread of globalization and its accompanying prosperity, liberalism would spread around the world. Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man” was published in the heady post-Cold War days of 1992. Today Fukuyama confesses: Twenty five years ago I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward. And I think they clearly can.” (Washington Post article here)
On the other hand, Harvard psychologist and popular science author Steven Pinker argues that humanity is currently experiencing decreasing levels of violence (TED talk, 20 minutes) However he argues that liberal values are under threat from authoritarian populism, religious fundamentalism and radicalism of the left and right. There is no doubt in my mind that liberal democracies will do better than dictatorships and autocracies in tackling the gravest problem facing humanity today, global climate change. And it is mainly in democracies that the #MeToo movement is taking shape. People involved in the movement are asking questions and demanding action from their governments. Have we reached a tipping point? Can this watershed moment go beyond words to drive meaningful action? My answer to these questions is an emphatic yes. The fact that the movement has unexpectedly taken root in Asia is an enormous portent of things to come.
African press reports indicate that in many countries on the continent, women are afraid to talk about sexual harassment, especially in many of its conflict zones. According to this Zimbabwe newsletter, four of the five riskiest cities for sexual assault and rape are in Africa. There also appears to be a direct correlation between sexual harassment and geopolitics. The greater the gender equality that exists in a country, the less likelihood of autocratic leaders. Strongmen (and wannabe strongmen) look on the exercise of power as a kind of pissing contest, with the Trumps and Erdogans of this world trying to outdo the Putins, Kim Jong-Uns and Dutertes. More women leaders coming to power in countries around the world as a result of the #MeToo movement would be the best news for global climate. Women are less likely to indulge in geopolitical pissing contests. On the one hand women are generally more inclined to collaborate and cooperate and and on the other, their plumbing discourages such childish displays, leaving them with more time to get on with the urgent tasks of governing.