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According to economic historian Angus Maddison, in the year 1820, the Chinese economy was the world’s largest, accounting for approximately 33% of global GDP. At the same time, India’s was half that, with 16%, and a youthful United States around 1.8%. Europe ranked second in this GDP league table with 26.6%. (Here’s a link to the 200-page OECD report. If you’re interested, see p.46)
It was around this time that British opium traders began to export Indian-grown opium to China, an act, ostensibly in support of the principles of global free trade, that impoverished both India and China. The import of opium was illegal under Chinese law, but the fading Qing dynasty was unable to stop the smuggling, principally through Canton, or Guangdong as it is known today. In this period began what the Chinese now call “the century of humiliation” where they could not compete with superior western naval power and suffered internal fragmentation. In subsequent decades, China ceded territories to Germany, to Britain, to France and to Japan. One of the few happy results of these forced occupations is that China’s best beer, Tsingtao, comes from the Jiaozhou Bay area that was ceded to Germany. Tsingtao beer was listed as the world’s top-selling beer in 2017.
By 1952, the picture had changed dramatically. Europe’s share of world GDP was 29.3%, the US 27.5%. China’s GDP had dropped to 5.2% and India’s to 4%. Today, nearly 200 years after the first opium war, it looks as though China is resuming its old dominance, with close to 20% of world GDP; this time as a united country that willingly trades with other countries around the world. So, contrary to what is often written in the media, maybe China’s expanding global influence is not really so threatening. From the Chinese perspective, they are merely returning to their rightful place in the international world order. Rightful place this may be, but the accompanying geopolitical shifts are worrisome to many countries, especially Asian ones. India now wears a necklace of potentially hostile naval bases in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, and in Pakistan, all built and financed by China. Until Duterte came to power, the Philippine leadership worried about Chinese occupation of the Spratly islands that are claimed by six countries: Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei. China has now pre-empted the discussion by building a military base there.
The increasingly authoritarian rule of supreme leader Xi Jinping does not bode well for China. Neither does the crackdown on Uighur ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, or independence movements in Taiwan and Tibet. Meanwhile, climate change looms over the entire world, so amidst rising prosperity in the region, there are tough geopolitical questions to be dealt with in every corner of it. So here’s a toast to some schoolgirl or boy who, unknown to the world today, will come to power and find answers to some of these questions in the decades ahead.
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.
The Climate Action Tracker posts regular progress reports on how well various countries are doing to adhere to the Paris Agreements. It tracks emissions from 32 selected countries and the list of the good, the bad, and the ugly is quite surprising even to this seasoned watcher.
Only two countries are on track to fulfil the Paris goal, of limiting emissions to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees C; Gambia and Morocco.
The second best choice made in Paris was, if not 1.5 degrees, then at the least 2 degrees C. Just 5 of 32 countries meet this target. Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, India and Philippines. All of the remaining 25 countries fall into the category of emitters that will lead to a world of 3 degrees warming or more. See the original list here.
Of course this predicator of doom and gloom relies only on official government policies. The reality on the ground may be a bit different in many of the countries on the list. For example, despite their governments, a few cities, power companies and private individuals already find it cheaper to produce unsubsidised renewable energy, a trend that will speed up, just a cell phone sales did in developing country markets worldwide.
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Wake up, Donald et al.! According to the Guardian of 6 January 2017,
China now owned:
- Five of the world’s six largest solar-module manufacturing firms
- The largest wind-turbine manufacturer
- The world’s largest lithium ion manufacturer
- The world’s largest electricity utility
“At the moment China is leaving everyone behind and has a real first-mover and scale advantage, which will be exacerbated if countries such as the US, UK and Australia continue to apply the brakes to clean energy,” he said.
“The US is already slipping well behind China in the race to secure a larger share of the booming clean energy market. With the incoming administration talking up coal and gas, prospective domestic policy changes don’t bode well,” Buckley said.
“We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. [. . .] None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.” Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth, 1986.
Truth is a shape-shifting commodity and there are multiple truths about everything, depending on one’s point of view. As the old saying goes, where you stand on an issue usually depends on where you sit. That’s one reason why democracy’s so dangerous. People who sit still in one space usually see only a single truth regardless of the facts that are thrown at them.
In 1967 a high school history class in California started an experiment to study the rise of Nazism. The teacher, Ron Jones, organized the experiment because his students could not conceive how intelligent, well-educated people in Germany could have blindly followed a demagogue like Hitler. The process was simple. The teacher imposed minor authoritarian controls that were agreed upon with the students. Sitting postures were regulated and drills regularly carried out where they would have to be sitting correctly within five seconds. The rules were progressively tightened. The teacher had to be formally addressed as Mr. Jones every time they spoke to him. On the second day, more formalities were introduced, and a motto had to be repeatedly chanted by pairs of students. On the third day a salute was developed. It involved bringing the right hand to cup the right shoulder. Students were ordered to use this salute with one another whenever they met, even outside class. Outsiders were no longer allowed to enter the classroom, unless they were introduced by a member and agreed to salute with the “wave” salute. By the fourth day, bullying began. The symptoms became so worrying that Jones decided to break it off on the fifth day, Friday. By this time, the students had become so self-identified with the masquerade that they were emotionally devastated when Ron Jones made the announcement to end the experiment. See the link here for a description of the experiment in Ron Jones’ own words, written in 1972.
Ron Jones’ Third Wave experiment was followed by the week-long Standford Prison Experiment in 1971. The results of this experiment were, if anything, even more horrendous and you can read a Wikipedia description here. As in the school experiment, with very few exceptions, all students complied to create coercive prison conditions with increasing enthusiasm. Their ingrained sense of ethics seemed to decrease in inverse proportion to their enthusiasm, i.e. the more enthusiastic they became about the experiment, the less they seemed to care about the ethicality of their actions. They quickly lost their moral compass.
Reading news reports about Donald Trump’s increasingly outrageous statements and the support that he still seems to have among the electorate, it seems to this observer that the US has embarked on a dangerous trajectory that eerily resembles the shenanigans of the Third Wave. The original Third Wave experiment ended in the classroom. This one could end with a man with no moral compass in command of the world’s largest military. This has repercussions far beyond the US electorate.
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Unlikely bedfellows. Stephen Hawking and the Union Bank of Switzerland. But the world is a strange place, and might benefit from this unexpected partnership. On the website “Unlimited” thinkers ask questions about some of the most pressing issues facing the world today. As Hawking says in his introductory video entitled “What is the most important question you have ever asked yourself?” in launching the website, he uses the redolent phrase “cathedral thinking” to denote the modern equivalent of the grand buildings constructed as part of humanity’s attempt to bridge heaven and earth. Just like children, we have to learn to share…
I highly recommend watching Hawking’s four-minute introductory video before deciding for yourself whether the other links, essays and presentations are worth watching. The essay on the changing concepts of personal wealth and experience were especially relevant to me, because it describes a transition I have been personally making for the last two decades, especially in the last five years, when I’m absolutely convinced that young people today need a wealth of ‘learning experiences’ much more than ‘things.’
Of course, as a website sponsored by the UBS, it is perhaps unsurprising that most of the initial questions are about the nature of wealth, but the questions and the answers are philosophic enough to interest a wide range of readers.
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Salar de Uyuni in Southwest Bolivia contains an estimated 43 % of the world’s easily recoverable lithium. Together with neighbors Chile and Argentina, the three countries contain 70% of the planet’s reserves. As most people are aware by now, the renewables revolution is gathering momentum, and the world needs lithium, lots of it. The people who follow these trends estimate that Tesla’s Gigafactory alone, when it comes into production, will double world demand for lithium, whose prices have shot up just in the last two months of 2015 (from US$ 6500 to 13,000 a ton in November/December). American, Japanese, Chinese and South Korean companies are already mining around 170,000 tons of lithium worldwide. The Argentinian salares, or salt flats, comprise thousands of square miles in the provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta. The Salinas Grandes in the latter province is estimated to be the third largest in the world. But the grand-daddy of them all is the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia that stretches over 10,000 sq.km. To paraphrase Exupéry, Salar de Uyuni is made up of salt, salt salt, and more salt, to a depth of one meter or more. In addition to common salt (sodium chloride), the salars contain other useful chlorides; potassium, magnesium and lithium chloride. The estimated 9 millions tons of lithium contained in this salar, conveniently concentrated by natural evaporation, should be enough to power a global energy revolution or two, but at what cost? Bolivia has suspended mining operations after the local residents opposed it, and Chile is granting no new concessions. These are understandable steps, in the light of what economists call ‘the resource curse.‘ In a nutshell, the resource curse or the resource paradox is that often countries with non-renewable natural resources (like minerals and oil) tend to have lower economic growth and less democracy than countries with fewer natural assets.
Understanding the resource curse does not help the international battery industry or alleviate the world’s need for non-polluting sources of energy, however. The increasing price of lithium is driving research into methods of obtaining it from the most abundant source on the planet, the oceans. Industrial ecologist Robert Ayres confidently predicted to me more than a decade ago that we would get all the lithium we need from the ocean. “There’s billions of tons there,” he said. True, there is an estimated 230 billion tons of lithium in seawater, but at a concentration of 0.14 to 0.25 parts per million, I did not believe it possible to extract it in meaningful quantities at reasonable cost. Changed my tune this week.
Many companies worldwide have been experimenting with various reverse osmosis technologies (the same technology that’s most often used to desalinate seawater) to produce brine concentrates dense enough to make lithium extraction economical. Now there are reports of several companies in a dozen countries that envisage producing lithium from brine concentrates at prices ranging from $1,500 to 5,000 per ton. Here’s an article about one of them.
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