It’s developed country, not emerging economy, attitudes that are the problem on sustainability

One of the best sets of data available on attitudes to sustainability around the world is the ‘Greendex’ produced by the polling company Globescan for National Geographic magazine. Its most recent version, published in 2012 (highlights; full pdf), paints a fascinating – and often surprising – picture.

For me, the key headline finding from the survey is all about the gap in perceptions between people in emerging economies and those in developed countries. Despite the fact that emerging economy citizens have much lower per capita consumption levels, the survey found that:

  • Emerging economy citizens are substantially more concerned about environmental problems than developed country citizens. The six countries in which most people agree with the statement “I am very concerned about environmental problems” are Mexico, China, Brazil, South Korea (which is a developed country, of course), Argentina, and India. The bottom six (with the least concerned last) are Japan, the US, Germany, Britain, Australia, and (weirdly) Sweden. When prompted about global issues, environmental challenges like climate change, air and water pollution, fresh water shortages, and species and habitat loss all score consistently highly as concerns in emerging economies. In developed countries, on the other hand, consumers are less concerned about the environment and more focused on the economy and the cost of energy and fuel.
  • People in emerging economies are much more likely than people in developed countries to say that they feel guilty about their environmental impacts – despite the fact that their per capita environmental impacts are much lower. The countries in which most people agree that they feel guilty about their impacts are India, Mexico, China, Brazil, and Argentina; the lowest scoring are Britain, France, America, Australia, Germany, and (last and least) Japan.  Yet when these findings are plotted on the same graph as countries’ actual Greendex score – a measure of the sustainability or unsustainability of their consumption patterns – it emerges that those countries that feel least guilty are in fact those with the highest environmental impacts.

Greendex vs guilt

  • Emerging economy citizens are far more likely than those in the rich world to agree with the statement that “as a society we will need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations”. The countries that most endorse this view are Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and China; the US, Australia, Germany, and Japan are least convinced. And even though developed countries are least convinced of the need to consume less, they are also the most sceptical of the view that “people in all countries should have the same standard of living as people in the most wealthy countries”, with Germany, Canada, America, South Korea, and Japan all in the bottom five. (Interestingly, though, Britain and Spain score significantly higher than most other developed countries on both fronts.)

A similar story emerges on the specific issue of climate change. Of the 17 countries covered in the Greendex survey, the six in which most concern is expressed about climate change are Mexico, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, India, and China, with over 70% of people in each country saying that they are either concerned or very concerned about the issue. Britain, America, and Australia, on the other hand, rank  lowest, in every case with less than 45% of people in these two categories.

People in emerging economies are also much more likely to agree that “global warming will worsen my way of life within my own lifetime” than those in developed countries, and to support the statement that “most scientists are convinced that human activity causes climate change and global warming”.

I ♥ Vaclav Smil

Vaclav Smil is Bill Gates’ favourite author, and he’s interviewed in this month’s Wired. The whole thing’s a treat, but I especially liked this passage:

Innovation is making products more energy-efficient — but then we consume so many more products that there’s been no absolute dematerialization of anything. We still consume more steel, more aluminum, more glass, and so on. As long as we’re on this endless material cycle, this merry-go-round, well, technical innovation cannot keep pace.

Yikes. So all we’ve got left is reducing consumption. But who’s going to do that?

My wife and I did. We downscaled our house. It took me two years to find a subdivision where they’d let me build a custom house smaller than 2,000 square feet. And I’ll test you: What is the simplest way to make your house super-efficient?

Insulation!

Right. I have 50 percent more insulation in my walls. It adds very little to the cost. And you insulate your basement from the outside—I have about 20 inches of Styrofoam on the outside of that concrete wall. We were the first people building on our cul-de-sac, so I saw all the other houses after us—much bigger, 3,500 square feet. None of them were built properly. I pay in a year for electricity what they pay in January. You can have a super-efficient house; you can have a super-efficient car, a little Honda Civic, 40 miles per gallon.

Your other big subject is food. You’re a pretty grim thinker, but this is your most optimistic area. You actually think we can feed a planet of 10 billion people—if we eat less meat and waste less food.

We pour all this energy into growing corn and soybeans, and then we put all that into rearing animals while feeding them antibiotics. And then we throw away 40 percent of the food we produce.

Meat eaters don’t like me because I call for moderation, and vegetarians don’t like me because I say there’s nothing wrong with eating meat. It’s part of our evolutionary heritage! Meat has helped to make us what we are. Meat helps to make our big brains. The problem is with eating 200 pounds of meat per capita per year. Eating hamburgers every day. And steak.

You know, you take some chicken breast, cut it up into little cubes, and make a Chinese stew—three people can eat one chicken breast. When you cut meat into little pieces, as they do in India, China, and Malaysia, all you need to eat is maybe like 40 pounds a year.

So the answers are not technological but political: better economic policies, better education, better trade policies.

Right. Today, as you know, everything is “innovation.” We have problems, and people are looking for fairy-tale solutions—innovation like manna from heaven falling on the Israelites and saving them from the desert. It’s like, “Let’s not reform the education system, the tax system. Let’s not improve our dysfunctional government. Just wait for this innovation manna from a little group of people in Silicon Valley, preferably of Indian origin.”

You people at WIRED—you’re the guilty ones! You support these people, you write about them, you elevate them onto the cover! You really messed it up. I tell you, you pushed this on the American public, right? And people believe it now.

What a dude.

After Afghanistan

In the latest of our #progressivedilemmas we consider what Labour’s approach to failing states should be.

2014 is the last year of British military involvement in Afghanistan and the end of a long phase of ‘nation-building’ efforts since 9/11. While David Cameron has unconvincingly declared ‘mission accomplished’, in reality the next Labour government will wrestle with an agonising set of dilemmas about the UK’s future involvement in stabilising failed and failing states. Iraq and Afghanistan cast a long shadow.

The new politics of time

Real terms median wages have been stagnating in developed countries since the mid-1970s, when – as David Schweickart notes in this terrific paper (h/t Casper Ter Kuile) – growth in wages first became uncoupled from growth in productivity. So what caused this shift, which is right at the heart of the issue of the ‘squeezed middle’?

Partly, of course, it’s about the effects of trade, as globalisation meant that developed country workers found themselves competing with workers in the developing world. But, argues economist David Autor, the more significant factor has actually been technology, and the automation of routine work. The effect, he continues, has been what he calls the ‘polarisation’ of the job market, with job opportunities declining in both white and blue collar ‘middle-skill’ occupations.

This week’s Economist has a cover story on technology and jobs, observing that what we’ve seen so far is just the beginning (emphasis added):

From driverless cars to clever household gadgets (see article), innovations that already exist could destroy swathes of jobs that have hitherto been untouched. The public sector is one obvious target: it has proved singularly resistant to tech-driven reinvention. But the step change in what computers can do will have a powerful effect on middle-class jobs in the private sector too.

Until now the jobs most vulnerable to machines were those that involved routine, repetitive tasks. But thanks to the exponential rise in processing power and the ubiquity of digitised information (“big data”), computers are increasingly able to perform complicated tasks more cheaply and effectively than people. Clever industrial robots can quickly “learn” a set of human actions. Services may be even more vulnerable. Computers can already detect intruders in a closed-circuit camera picture more reliably than a human can. By comparing reams of financial or biometric data, they can often diagnose fraud or illness more accurately than any number of accountants or doctors. One recent study by academics at Oxford University suggests that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated in the next two decades.

So what should we do about this? The Economist leader concludes by arguing that the approach favoured by the left (and now George Osborne too) – big hikes in the minimum wage – is dead wrong, in that it will just accelerate the shift from humans to computers. Instead, they argue, “better to top up low wages with public money so that anyone who works has a reasonable income, through a bold expansion of the tax credits that countries such as America and Britain use”.

That’s a fair point, but it doesn’t really engage with the larger issue, of who harvests the benefits of the extraordinary productivity gains we’ll see over the next 20 years. Last week, I quoted Keynes speculating on the world in 2030, and imagining an economy in which

…we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it to-day, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs … What work there still remains to be done will be as widely shared as possible – three hour shifts, or a fifteen-hour week …

Might the avalanche of technology coming our way bring that vision within reach? One interesting ‘weak signal’ in the background is the new interest – from both left and right, as the NYT’s Annie Lowrey observed in November last year – in the idea of an unconditional basic income paid to all, as of right (not as a means-tested benefit that depends on being in work or in poverty, therefore).

As the Economist pointed out in a response to her piece, a universal payment along these lines wouldn’t do much to reduce inequality of income (never mind wealth). But it would go a long way towards giving everyone, rather than just capital, a share of the winnings from technology, and the beginnings of a strategy for dealing with a world in which there’s less work to be done.

Peacemaking’s silly season

I have an especially dour article over at World Politics Review about the state of crisis diplomacy today, which kicks off like this:

Since the conflict in South Sudan escalated in December, well-meaning governments and United Nations officials have repeatedly argued that only a political solution can end the fighting. “There is no military solution,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power told CNN on Christmas Eve. But the South Sudanese government does not seem entirely convinced. Over the past week it has ratcheted up its offensives against rebel-held areas, recapturing the economically important town of Bentiu. Bor, another major center in rebel hands, has also been under attack. The government is still in peace talks with rebel envoys, but it is evidently intent on negotiating from the strongest possible military position.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has been bolstered by air support and ground troops from Uganda, as well as political signals of support from his old enemies in Sudan. If Kiir needs further encouragement, he needs only to think of other governments that have been told to find a “political solution” to internal conflicts. From Sri Lanka to Darfur and Syria, leaders who have ignored this advice have managed to fight on in the face of international revulsion. Western powers and the U.N. appear willing—or obliged—to put aside bargaining with these leaders, tragically affirming the continued political value of brute force.

You can read the rest of my argument here.  But perhaps I am just being a curmudgeon, because it seems that peacemakers everywhere are having a whale of a time.  The Russian and U.S. delegations meeting to discuss Syria have been up to high jinks:

For some watchers of international diplomacy, the somber road to Syrian peace was overrun Monday by potatoes and furry pink hats.

A swapping of delegation gifts between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov served as a distraction from predictions of elusive success in Syria.  The usually stern-faced Lavrov came to the meeting armed with at least two ushankas, a traditional Russian fur hat with earflaps that tie to the top of the hat. Both hats went to women on Kerry’s press staff — including a bubblegum-pink one for State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

The more bizarre bout of diplomacy came over a pair of Idaho potatoes.  After pictures of Kerry handing Lavrov the tubers during talks Monday morning surfaced on the Web, reporters pressed both leaders for an explanation hours later.  Kerry quickly sought to disavow any deep diplomatic meaning from the spuds, explaining that he was in Idaho over the holidays when he and Lavrov spoke by phone. The Russian, it seemed, associated Idaho with potatoes.  “He told me he’s not going to make vodka. He’s going to eat them,” Kerry said of Lavrov, who was next to him at an otherwise grim news conference on militant threats to humanitarian aid for Syria.

How could anyone feel grim after such hilarities?  Still, some people just can’t take a joke, like the South Sudanese negotiators who are miffed about holding talks… in a nightclub.

A shift in the venue for talks aimed at brokering a ceasefire in South Sudan has left some delegates bemused.  The government and rebel teams have moved to the dance floor of a top nightclub in an Addis Ababa hotel.

The Gaslight club was selected after the room in the Sheraton hotel the teams had been using was booked by a Japanese delegation.  Sources close to the talks said some delegates were unhappy with the poor lighting and excess noise.

Maybe, just maybe, these things could be handled without spuds and disco balls?

John Maynard Keynes on the post-2015 agenda

In the same spirit of hopeful ideas for a new year as Ben’s excellent post on inequality, herewith some musing of JM Keynes’s about “economic possibilities for our grandchildren“, penned amid the economic Armageddon of 1930.

Keynes took as his timeframe a 100 year period from when he was writing – in other words, what the world might look like 2030. As it happens, this is exactly the same question that governments and others are now looking at in the post-2015 development agenda – so it seems like an apposite moment for a reprise from a man who’s lately been vindicated on a number of other fronts…

I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it to-day, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs … What work there still remains to be done will be as widely shared as possible – three hour shifts, or a fifteen-hour week …

We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard …

I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue-that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin …

I look forward, therefore, in days not so very remote, to the greatest change which has ever occurred in the material environment of life for human beings in the aggregate. But, of course, it will all happen gradually, not as a catastrophe. Indeed, it has already begun. The course of affairs will simply be that there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed.

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