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A Path to the a Circular Economy

Posted By Administration, Thursday, March 1, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

This is Maggie Greyson’s first post for the Emerging Fellows program, and she starts with a strong piece about the circular economy. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Thembi Mtshali, a young Zulu girl, was born into poverty in rural South Africa. Her grandmother showed her how to make a doll from clay, and when she was done playing with it, to return it to the land. This circle of life image transcends time as a powerful instruction to future generations – take what you need and restore it to the earth for others to use.

Iranian architect Nader Khalili designed emergency shelters out of sandbags. These disaster-resistant structures are formed by coiling sandbags into giant beehives and stabilizing them with barbed wire. Although they can be a permanent housing solution, they can go back to the earth, too.

The Canadian province of Ontario included a regulation in the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act 2016 which requires tire producers or automotive dealers to recover unusable tires so that Ontarians don’t burn them or send them to landfills. This mandate was created as part of the provincial-wide system to fight climate change. In January 2018, proponents of this act called for a 90% recovery of all components and higher value recycling outcomes such as turning the end-of-life tire into rubberized asphalt roads. With some concerted effort, the stakeholders in the system will create jobs, reduce waste, and achieve the target.

In each example, the cycle of creation and destruction has a lower environmental impact than many alternatives. A children’s doll can be returned to the earth and leave no trace. The sustainable construction uses mostly local resources and can house millions in temporary structures. Ontario can become a global leader in higher value recycling for a circular economy.

Native American ecologist Chief Seattle said, “Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints,” in 1854. Around the 1990’s global standards began to emerge encouraging people to rethink production and elevate the practice of sustainable fishing, forestry, architecture and so on. Michael Braungart and William McDonough’s wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things in 2002. They created a framework to evaluate production activities at all phases from raw material extraction, production, and distribution, use and refuse. They suggest that all the things that we design should come from the earth without impact, and return it safely when it is no longer needed as compost, or provide the path to reuse the raw materials.

We see attempts at a cradle-to-cradle design, or C2C, a trend in clothing manufacturing, buildings, and sewage. Although today this framework is 16 years old, it’s in its infancy. Critics point out that a production cycle will always be impacted by energy use, transportation and speed to market, which may always prevent a product from obtaining a perfect Life Cycle Assessment score. There could be a more conscious effort to consider how humans use Earth’s resources today and leave positive options for future generations. While we make an effort conserve en masse, we need to be reminded of the scientific Law of Conservation of Mass. This law describes a system of energy and matter that does not increase or decrease over time. A perfect circular economy would do the same where we extract the maximum value of each component at the end of each service life.

If we are to live within our planetary boundaries we need to nurture a well thought out system in which we decrease man-made junk and increase our natural healing agents. How might our production methods differ if we design technology using the right kind of matter and energy for the needs of the 12 billion humans who could be living on planet Earth by 2050?



© Maggie Greyson 2018

Tags:  ecology  economics  environment 

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Travelling along the scale of scarcity and abundance (and back?)

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Polina Silakova is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is her second article written for the program. In it, she explores a few options for enforcing environmentally sustainable behavior in times of scarcity and abundance.

It was a hot, late spring day from my childhood in Moscow of the early 1990s. My grandmother and I simmering in a long, slowly moving, queue in front of a grocery store. For a couple of months, the stalls have been nearly empty, with just very, very limited food available. In the pre-internet age, it made our “trips of hope” to the nearby stores a daily routine. That day we were lucky: they had cheese, hence such a hustle.

Towards lunchtime the queue started moving faster, testing my excitement. When it was our turn, I noticed with surprise that the door was defended by a bulky store assistant in a uniform, acting like a gate-keeper. The gate-keeper, who happened to be equipped with a pen, left some sort of autograph on my grandma’s hand, amplifying my confusion. Then we left. On the way home, my grandmother explained that the store was closing for a lunch break and the autograph was, in fact, our number in the queue, so that we could re-join it an hour later.

What happened after that has vanished from my recollection of that day. Although various forms of queues are still a common practice, the experience of being quite literally numbered in a queue to satisfy a most basic need left a more profound imprint in my memory than whether we actually had cheese on the table that day.

Today, in many countries consumer experience is opposite to that of post-Soviet Russia: the abundance of products make brands hunt for consumers. They spend billions of dollars on media budgets, packaging, new product development and the purchase of our data, trying to make us healthier, smarter, better people and simplifying the journey from our need to their product.

The trends of recent years indicate that additional variables have already started impacting consumer decision-making. Brands have to adapt their strategies to stay competitive. Consumers increasingly see their purchases as a statement about their identity, portraying an image they want to be known for. This raises expectations from the brands to improve transparency, become greener and more efficient if they want to recruit more consumers to their team. Companies like Method, Lush and Everlane are already actively exploring the new area of purposeful marketing, while the agency enso.co is publishing a World Value Index which ranks brands not in terms of their business success but based on what they do for the world. Will this be enough to create a positive impact at scale? Or will other factors remain the prevalent drivers of our purchases until something else will radically change our perception of our responsibility as consumers?

While enso.co is rating brands, the Chinese government (although not necessarily driven by sustainability agenda) is rating its citizens. China is undertaking a massive project of implementing a social credit system. Once rolled-out in 2020, it will rank each and every citizen based on the individual’s economic and social behaviour, as well as the scores of others in the person’s network. Things like purchases in last week’s shopping, frequent contacts circle or behaviour such as not showing up to a restaurant without cancelling your reservation – all this will count towards your personal score if you are a Chinese citizen in two years’ time.

This reward and punishment system opens a big controversy. It is hard to say whether it will actually do more good or harm to society. No matter whether we would want to live in a world like this or not, let’s imagine that the mix of the two rating ideas from above is in place: a social credit system which rates us in regard to what we do for sustainability of the world. Each time we purchase a product from a particular place or brand, or buy a coffee in a plastic cup, our public image gets shaped and our personal rating is adjusted up and down on the scale.

And what if, in a utopian future, when the scarcity of natural resources is fast approaching, and unsustainable behaviour is stigmatised in the society, our personal sustainability rating is used to allow or prohibit access to resources we need? What if this number, not written with ink on your hand, but publicly available in all databases mentioning your name, will again become our position in the line for limited resources? Will we then change our behaviour? And, most importantly, how can we change it now, so that we do not end up in such a world?


© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  politics 

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Are we too myopic and self-serving to invest in the future?

Posted By Administration, Friday, February 16, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Daniel Bonin is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his second article for the program. He infrastructure projects as an example of the way myopic thinking sabotages how we as humans invest in our own future.

Myopic and self-serving decision making seems omnipresent. Think about people who display NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitudes. Or infrastructure companies and politicians who plan with wrong assumptions and within short cycles. It can constitute a blight upon future infrastructure projects. This attitude is fostered by the way we think, the way we judge, and the way we decide. The way we view the blueprint of the greater socio-economic system we interact with. It is built into the very characteristics of infrastructures.

People tend to act myopic and self-serving in contexts where decisions are (a) made seldom, are (b) costly in terms of money and cognitive load, (c) receive delayed feedback on the impact and their own contribution to the outcome and (d) would be required to forecast future emotional states to come to an educated judgment. It has to be said that making decisions about infrastructures is a perfect breeding ground for myopic and self-serving decisions.

Infrastructure planners and politicians often assume lay people to be just as knowledgeable and rational as they are. Experts often fail to acknowledge the emotions that are at play when lay people consider planned infrastructures as risky and expect adverse consequences in their backyard. The result is a manifestation of self-serving and myopic thinking, famously known as not in my backyard attitude.

Political and business cycles also foster myopic and self-serving decisions. Politicians have an incentive to postpone uncomfortable infrastructure decisions to secure votes by redistributing economic funds to other social issues or ban projects that are subject to protests of their electorates. Also for businesses, short-term bonuses and serving terms are undermining long-term orientation, thereby facilitating a real diabolic mentality, namely corruption in planning, building and running infrastructures. This severe issue of corruption is encouraged when short-term and self-serving thinking becomes a normal way to behave in organizations and institutions.

There are a few positive developments with respect to our weaknesses to be mentioned: more immersive ways to experience the impact of one’s myopic decisions in the present on one’s future-self have shown to reduce our hunger for instant gratification. This might help to overcome the characteristics of decisions about infrastructures that make the evaluation of them so tricky. For instance, virtual realities can overcome a lack of imagination when it comes to forecast the impact and risk of infrastructure on daily life and thereby alleviate unjustified concerns. In a similar vein, social and frugal innovation increase the acceptance of infrastructures and help to establish their future orientation. Joint involvement of state, local communities and businesses can create win-win-situations for people as it should not be forgotten that infrastructure projects can revitalize regions.

That being said, several trends lead to the conclusion that myopic and self-serving attitudes will continue to undermine future-oriented thinking about infrastructures. Growing social inequalities make it more difficult to put oneself in the shoes of someone else, thereby heightening self-serving behavior. The gap between experts and lay people is also likely to be exacerbated by the shift towards a knowledge economy and a growing role of automation and artificial intelligence, both of which are pushed into the world by experts. The possible downturn of the nation-state and rise of city mayors and grass root movements reduces the degree of coordination and likelihood of top-down interventions that overrule not in my backyard or neighborhood attitudes. It remains questionable if a bottom up push could really lead to more long-term thinking. Much will still depend on the location of infrastructures compared to one’s backyard or neighborhood. At the same time, growing individualism increasingly influence even traditionally collectivist societies. Demographic change and tight state budgets cause older people to seek solutions for their most pressing short-term issues. Younger generations feel ignored and fear being marginalized. A sound and future oriented society would put more emphasis on the voice and needs of younger generations. And it is this very generation and their successors that will live with the infrastructures of tomorrow in 2050.

All in all, myopic and self-serving thinking is deeply entrenched in our nature and likely here to stay. This is driven by a variety of strong factors and trends: the way humans behave together with the nature of infrastructure decision making, along with distorted incentive schemes and cycles in politics and business. These foster our short-term and selfish thinking about social inequalities, aging societies, marginalized younger people and growing individualization.

Are we too myopic and self-serving to invest in the future? Yes. Will we continue to be so in the future? Likely.


© Daniel Bonin 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  politics 

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What is Peak Boomer and when will it hit?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, February 15, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Laura Dinneen is one of our Emerging Fellows. She and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. Her first article discusses the Baby Boomer generation in the context of an aging society.

It’s the summer of 1946 and the Second World War has been over for a little more than nine months. American GIs have returned victorious to the United States, which is experiencing great economic growth and an ever-increasing sense of optimism amongst the many newlyweds and first home buyers living the American Dream. Fighting against the sounds of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Eddy Howard on the airwaves, are the wails of new-born babies screaming throughout the nation. These were the first sounds of the earliest Baby Boomers, rippling across the globe from the United States to the UK, Australia, France, the Nordics, Hungary, Ireland; and then later Canada, Japan, and Germany.

More babies were born in 1946 than in any year in United States’ records – 3.4 million, 20% more than the 2.9 million babies born just one year before. 1947 saw more births still, at 3.8 million and a birth rate of 26.6 live births per 1,000 population. This was the beginning of what’s commonly known as the Baby Boom and a generational cohort of those born after the Second World War between 1946 and 1964 – the Baby Boomers. Much has been written about the Boomers, including a wealth of research and opinion attempting to assign particular character traits and a cultural identity to the cohort. It is clear is that this generation is significant in its influence, and marked by a strong shared experience. If they weren’t involved in changing the world through the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, Beatlemaina, fall of the Berlin Wall, and putting humans on the moon, they witnessed it changing together.

Fast forward to today where many Boomers are hitting retirement age, with the youngest aged 54 and the oldest 72 years old, and what we have is a global ageing society. Demographers have graphically described the Baby Boom generation as the pig in the python: the bulge in the population pyramids of many developed countries. That bulge is passing through the metaphorical python into retirement years and causing age distribution changes that have never been seen before. This change in age distribution is what demographers call the ageing society; a global rise in the percentage of people classified as ‘aged’ as a share of the total population.

If we keep it simple and define the ‘aged’ population as those aged 65 and over, we can start understanding how Boomers are impacting today’s ageing society. The percentage of over 65s is rising globally, from a fairly stable base of just 5% in the fifties and sixties through to 8.3% in 2015 and a projected 17% by 2055. Those are global figures. The state of the ageing population is far more drastic in key Boomer countries like the UK, Canada, USA, France, and Italy where over 65s made up 22.4% of the population in 2015 and are projected to swell to 34.1% by 2055.

The rate of this age distribution change has been rapidly increasing since 2010 when the oldest Boomers started hitting the age of 65. As Boomers continue to flood the over 65 age group, they are accelerating the rate at which the population is ageing. As the youngest Boomers enter this age group in 2029, grow older and eventually as the entire cohort begins to literally die out, this acceleration of our ageing society will begin to diminish. This is Peak Boomer.

Based on the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division’s projections, we will hit Peak Boomer in 2035, at which point the rapid growth of the aged population slows down. If this estimate is on point, it brings significant consequences for how we react and adapt to the ageing population. Is it possible for an aged society to be able to thrive, or even survive?



© Laura Dinneen, 2018

Tags:  aging  economics  society 

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What would a Post-Automation Bangladesh look like?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, February 8, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Daniel Riveong is one of our Emerging Fellows. He and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. His first article discusses the potential opportunities and risks that Bangladesh may face in a post-automation world.

The global textile industry is a lifeline for many of its 60 million workers throughout the world, especially in developing countries such as Bangladesh, and others like Vietnam and Cambodia. The optimistic capitalists among us see these factories as part of the age-old story of economic progress. They are the ladder of development. From Manchester during the Industrial Revolution to South Korea in the 1960s, their start in low-skilled textile manufacturing has been the gateway to greater economic development and prosperity. But will Bangladesh have a chance to climb up the same economic ladder?

Industry 4.0, which brings together AI and robotics, threaten to wipe away this very economic ladder. Already, the effects are being felt. According to the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, “automation is mainly responsible for the shedding of workers” of over 800,000 garment-related jobs since 2013. Such job losses may only continue as China pursues greater automation, as evidenced by Guangdong province’s allotment of $150 billion USD to automate its manufacturing base.

The immediate risk is Bangladesh’s 3.8 million fabric workers (mostly women) and 80% of its annual exports. At stake is Bangladesh’s future: how else can it easy bring millions of jobs to its low-skilled workers? How else may it pursue more sophisticated industrialization and climb the economic ladder? What is the future of post-automation Bangladesh?

The competition of automation is not the only threat that Global South countries like Bangladesh face. There are secondary effects of automation, such decentralization, and shifts in consumer behaviors like the slow fashion movement. These trends will impact its economic options and ability to develop:

Decentralization. Automation will enable greater decentralization and flexibility in global manufacturing. Addida’s first factory in Germany in over 20 years, called the Speedfactory, creates customized on-demand shoes using computerized knitting and high-tech additive manufacturing. It signals potential job losses for textile hubs like Bangladesh due to “insourcing” to advanced economic countries.


Slow Fashion. How people view fashion has begun to change. Trends such as fair trade, eco fashion and most recently “slow fashion” have become more prevalent. Slow fashion advocates buying less, buying quality over quantity, and eschewing fast fashion by brands such as Zara. For export-focused industries, declining consumption – while beneficial for the environment – hampers economic productivity.
Sajeeb Wazed Joy, ICT Affairs Adviser to Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, has called for the country to meet the threat of automation by growing the ICT industry. While ICT-related skillsets are a sine qua non for the future, ICT alone is not a panacea to counter the impact that automation, decentralization, and slow fashion brings. Automation makes it difficult to produce jobs at scale, as witnessed in India, and can eliminate ICT-related jobs too. Decentralization challenges the need for specialized export-based hubs. Slow fashion is part of a larger trend of shifting away consumerism, lowering the demand for physical goods.

Yet, the challenge of automation is a profound opportunity. By taking away the “default” path of development – industrialization – the Global South has both the urgency and need to re-examine the most basic questions to reimagine our future:

  • What is the economy for? How might we increase living standards without growing GDP?
  • How might we provide jobs – or ways to improve people’s lives – at scale?
  • How might we economically empower women? What readily-available jobs exist for women outside of textiles?
  • And last, but not least: How can we better help the 800,000 displaced garment workers today?
  • How will we help prepare the next 3,000,000 workers, when they become displaced?

 

The post-automation economy is already here and will impact the Global South the hardest. The Global South is both the most populous and vulnerable region, yet it is here that the future of capitalism and post-automation economics will be most urgent to explore and define. This is the world’s moment to redefine progress and economics in human-centric terms appropriate for each society.


© Daniel Riveong 2018

Tags:  automation  economics  technology 

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Get Real

Posted By Administration, Friday, February 2, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his second article written for the program. In it, he explores the real economy and asks a few questions along the way.

Our current economic system and all the social and political systems tied to it require perpetual growth. Growth not only underpins the financial economy but the real economy as well, which requires new goods and services (or more demand for the same) to expand. The end of growth would mean the collapse of financial markets and stagnation in the real economy. It would also lead to social and political upheaval due to financial inequality. The socio-political perspective that underlies our obsession with growth is the presumption that lower and middle-class citizens will accept massive inequality as long as their lives (and wages) get incrementally better, year after year. We would all love to have that private yacht, but are content as long as our annual salary increase allows us to take that Alaskan cruise. And this incremental improvement does not come from increased economic equality or financial redistribution; it is a result of growth.

Another long standing economic assumption is that, as jobs are automated, new forms of work will emerge. While some estimates follow a historically consistent trend of 10% job displacement in the foreseeable future, other estimates predict an acceleration of displacement, up to 50%. If job displacement does enter the 50% range, the creation of as-yet-unknown jobs, at such significantly high numbers in a relatively short period of time, seems unlikely. Even minor displacement can have a significant disruptive effect on political and social cohesion. But there is another option for continual growth in the real economy: instead of creating new jobs, simply commoditize things that people are currently doing for free.

Paul Mason alludes to this in his book “Post-Capitalism” when he suggests that in order to make this a scalable economic area of growth, “would require the mass commercialization of ordinary human life.” Late capitalism appears to be stealing a few plays from the feminist economics playbook. While media attention has largely been focused on pay equity between genders, some of the foundational work in feminist economics has focused on care work and intra-household bargaining. It is not much of a stretch to interpret Mason’s “ordinary human life” as the traditional perspective of unpaid “women’s work”.

If one is looking for a macro-trend in the real economy, one need look no further than the colonization of social interaction by the economy. This is evident in the more ubiquitous forms of social media but is also increasingly prevalent in more innocuous forms. Consider the cuddle party, a social media coordinated interaction where strangers come together out of a desire to cuddle (and watch a movie). Organizations such as “Nurse Next Door” look after the elderly, Christmas dinner can be ordered online, and Chore apps convince kids to (continue) to do work around the house “for free”. The company “Do My Stuff” has succinctly defined the overall trend with their slogan “Outsource your life”.

Anyone considering a new business could start with the question “What are people doing today for free, that I can get them to pay for tomorrow?” Of course, the question now must be asked, if every tiny component of our existence becomes commoditized and outsourced, are we even real anymore?



© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  capitalism  economics  work 

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Can We Live In a World of City-States?

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

David Roselle is one of our Emerging Fellows. He and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. His first article an important question about the increasing importance of city-states.

In 2015, the UN proposed the Urban Development Goals – a list of seventeen ideas for global collaboration that strive towards planetary health by 2030. The UDGs include eradicating poverty and hunger, promoting gender equality, and developing affordable, clean energy, as representing our most pressing challenges in the 21st century. To achieve the UDGs, the UN must rely on governments and the private sector to execute them. While these goals are aspirational, we must ask: are our current government institutions designed appropriately to deliver legitimate solutions to these complex problems?

The purpose of the proposed question is to investigate the efficacy of our existing geopolitical institutions for the 21st century. Are they structured to handle the world’s most challenging issues? Could a model dating back to antiquity – the city-state – plausibly be a more innovative governing structure for the future to respond to such lofty goals? While we need to avoid apologetics for the city-state government model, the city-state model could be used as a way to consider a new geopolitical landscape within an alternative future. It is a provocative future which could evolve beyond the competition of superpowers for global dominance, allowing new values to emerge.

This question is timely. Ostensibly, we are amidst a major era of transformation in which everything is being challenged — from our currencies to our cars, to the sanctity of our democracies. Yet, the government institutions themselves appear to be overlooked.

While there are valid reasons for concern, there are tools to make a difference. Design, for example, is one cognitive tool of many that has the potential to change organizations fundamentally. What if governments integrated human-centered design methods into the DNA of their institutions? What new opportunities would that afford society? In order to attempt such an overhaul, we first need to be able to name the social invention we are seeking to transform: the nation-state.

The nation-state is a relatively recent political construction that began after the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-17th century. The nation-state bounded people together through customs, language, and religion, forming a powerful bond of allegiance to the state and land. This model was then exported to the world through colonialism and reinforced through colonial powers.

Today, the world looks much different. Nations are diverse, multilingual, and secular. The same customs that bonded citizens together before hold less meaning. Consequently, this sparks tension between ethnic groups as some struggle to cope with the change — illustrated through the wave of nationalism sweeping the West. This change brings into question what it means to be a citizen of a country. Within the course of a century, the world gained six billion people with two billion more expected in thirty years. The UDGs serve as a focal point to handle intensified pressure from exponential population growth. Can the nation-state adapt to these technological and social challenges or will a new model need to be innovated? It is a challenging question, but the urgency and importance of these questions are such that we cannot afford to ignore them.



© David Roselle 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  society 

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Society, the economy, and the planet

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Polina Silakova is one of our Emerging Fellows. She and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. Her first article discusses the intersection of societal norms, economic conditions, and the environment.

In the lead-up to the festive season, streets are dressed up in chic decorations, stores experiment with creative stands with sweets and gifts, and wherever we are, we can hardly escape from commercials, kindly offering to help us choose presents for our nearest and dearest. The hustle in the media and in the shops became an inseparable part of this special time and we can hardly imagine it to be otherwise. End of the year’s shopping boom is good for us and good for businesses, right?

At the same time, a different announcement nearly got lost in this busy media clutter. A world meteorological organisation reported 2016 results which show the record increase in global carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere (403.3 ppm for those who like figures) – a rate not seen for millions of years. The increase is largely attributed to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels. Those fuels keep our homes warm (or cool), make (most of) our cars move, enable the production of all the things that we need (and the ones that we don’t really need), and help me write this post by powering my laptop with electricity.

Until now the price of most of these goods and services did not include full environmental costs and we only start considering this now, possibly too late and too slow. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change is the first attempt to address the issue at a big scale. With Syria recently having signed up the accord, all the countries in the world agreed to act collaboratively to limit the negative impact of human activities. The United States has become the only one leaving, as announced by Donald Trump earlier in 2017. Trump’s reasoning is that the terms of the agreement are bad for America’s economy (which is, by the way, the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon). In other words, if the United States commits to the accord, they will not be able to produce as much stuff as they do now, as profitably as currently.

The reason for Trump’s decision is in the short-term thinking and capitalistic values behind it. But he is not alone in prioritising the more tangible short-term outcomes over the more blurred future on the horizon. Generally, as recent research by the University of California suggests, human brains are “not wired for the future”. However, as with everything, there are exceptions and in another part of the world, we find a different story.

While Trump is trying to protect the production of new goods, Sweden introduced a 50% reduction in tax on repairing goods. This is the government’s attempt to rationalise new economic behaviour for people to revive their possessions, instead of buying new stuff; to create the new norms, as opposed to what developed countries are accustomed to. The initiative aims to cut carbon emissions from production, reduce waste and more generally, promote sustainable consumption. In other words, Sweden gives its citizens an additional, financial reason to take care of the planet. Sustainable values of responsible citizens are supported both by making this behaviour normal in society and by providing monetary rewards. And Swedes don’t seem to expect any negative economic outcomes from the new law.

The difference between the responses of these two countries to the wicked problems we face is in how much weight does the future have in the decisions we take today? The Brundtland Report in 1987 gave rise to the most influential definition of sustainable development. It states: “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The difference between the Swedish and the American response is exactly in defining the needs of the present and in understanding the impact of today on the generations of the future.

While the governments of different countries may choose different actions in regard to these two components of sustainability, we are curious about whether we will see a more American or a more Swedish response from consumers in the future? We are not inviting you to re-gift your last year’s present or to carry a Christmas tree home on a bicycle. The problem is much more complex than that and the solution involves all three parties: government, businesses and consumers.

What role will we choose to play? What is the relationship between our values, societal norms, economic conditions and our buying behaviour? When will we start including full environmental costs in the price of the goods and services and when will we be ready to pay for it? Will it direct our choices between alternative goods? Or not?



© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  society 

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When Money Grows Wings and Flies Away

Posted By Administration, Sunday, December 3, 2017
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows. He and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. His first article discusses the futures of money and the economy.

On March 19, 2014, in a Canadian courtroom, 66-year-old Arlan Galbraith was convicted of fraud of over $5000 and sentenced to a little over seven years in jail. While all agree that he lost millions of dollars of other people’s money ($42 million to be precise, and contractual obligations to pay another $356 million), many, including some of his victims, are still unsure of whether he willfully defrauded them.

In 2001, Arlan founded Pigeon King Industries. The concept was simple. Pigeon King would sell you a set of breeding pigeons for a certain cost and agree to buy back all offspring at a fixed rate over the next 10 years. Over time the story of what, exactly, the business model would be, shifted. First, the pigeons would be sold to the supposedly lucrative pigeon racing industry, then the story changed to a plan to sell squab meat. In actuality, the offspring were sold to other farmers as breeding pairs, and the excess pigeons were housed at Pigeon Kings’ expense. Ostensibly the plan involved a period of building a “network of breeders” before taking over the world. Eventually, farmers and government got leery. Pigeon inventory started to rise as Pigeon King continued to honor contractual agreements, buying up offspring, despite a dwindling number of buyers. Barns were retrofitted to house the excess inventory. Funds were spent to feed and vaccinate the exploding population. Finally, farmers willing to sign on dried up. Without new buyers, Pigeon King couldn’t pay their existing breeders and the whole thing fell apart.

Sound familiar? Kind of like a Ponzi scheme except, instead of money, the currency was pigeons?

How real will the real economy be in the future? This series of blogs sets out to explore how fiction turns into reality, reality turns into fiction, and how this will shape the future of the real economy. Reality and fiction are often at war with each other. Perhaps we inherently move between periods in which reality is dominant and periods where fiction/myth dominate. And in our most recent fictional turn away from the real, we now have the destructive tools and technologies (and some very good reasons to escape from reality) that allow us to bore deeper and deeper into the mystical archetypal hearts of our own dreams and collective desires. And with this deepening of unreality, we take our systems and structures with us: families, politics and, yes, the economy.

What is the financial market if not a future bet on a compelling story? Between the virtual and financial economies, how will the real economy be influenced? Will it become a “puppet” economy for its two bigger and stronger cousins? Or, with scarcity and limits to growth, will it come roaring back as the dominant economic sphere? Since we abandoned the gold standard, have we drifted into a hyper-real economy from which there is no escape? If late-capitalism requires constant new areas of growth to survive, does the turn to a fictional economy create limitless new areas of expansion?

As for our poor unwanted pigeons, after health and city officials warned of a potential release of the birds, and with the specter of a mass migration to Toronto, where they would blacken the skies and overwhelm parks, much like their now extinct Carrier cousins, the birds were slaughtered en masse. Drowned. Gassed. Burned. Hundreds of millions of fictional dollars. Up in smoke.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?


© Adam Cowart 2017

Tags:  economics 

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