OK in the short term ?

“… and that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore Conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit climate change is real, they will loose the central ideological battle of our time – whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.”

Naomi Klein

When I was young I used to think of 2020 as being the future, that was when everything would be different, we would have lots of cool technologies, we would have colonies on the moon, I used to think of all sorts of possibilities.

Now 2020 is just a year away and most of the things I dreamt of have not come to pass, except that we have the Internet and powerful computers.  Things are different but not in ways I envisaged, and most things are the same.

My children don’t see 2020 as being the future in that sense they see the future as being more like 2100.

But I wonder what will 2100 be like, will our children see us as having looked after the planet and handed it on in a better state than we received it in ?

I doubt it.

How often can we truly say we are thinking about the well-being of future generations ?

How often do we consider the impact of our decisions as they ripple down the decades and centuries ahead ?

I think the problem is that ‘Now‘ demands attention much more forcefully than the future, we are living in comfort at the moment and most of the demands of the future would require us to give up some of that immediate comfort to do something about a problem which we see as still being a long way away.

The timeframe over which we think of things is getting smaller and smaller so the perceived urgency of future problems is diminished by comparison.

It is easy to concentrate on the ‘now’, because it commands so much more attention than the future.  It is getting more and more difficult to look beyond our immediate problems.  Today’s news, the latest fashions, the newest technologies.  Politicians are only concerned with what happens up to the next election, anything beyond that is irrelevant to them as it might not be their problem anyway.  Businesses concentrate on ‘maximising shareholder value’ to maximise their share price in the short term, for them the timeframe they worry about is the next quarter.  On the Internet the timeframe of interest is minutes, and on the financial markets it’s about sixty milliseconds.

No wonder that in the Twitter fuelled politics of 2019 most people in society are not concentrating on the big problems which threaten the continued existence of the human race, like Climate Change.  They are not seen as immediate threats, that’s something for the future.

Some politicians even choose to deny the evidence on climate change and continue with business as usual and there are many reasons why they would do this.

In my opinion this ‘short termism’ is probably the biggest threat humanity has ever faced.  But what if we could be altruistic enough to care about people we will probably never live to see ?

The ability to have complex abstract thoughts about non existent scenarios is what sets us apart from most animals.  To imagine scenarios which do not exist and may never exist and to be able to plan how to bring these scenarios about or to avoid bringing them about is a vital adaptation which has led to the phenomenal success of humans as a species.

We can imagine what we want to do tomorrow or next week or next year, where we would like go on holiday, what job we would like, and we can imagine alternative versions of these scenarios, and we can evaluate each of them in terms of their likelihood and desirability.

We have the innate ability to imagine the consequences of our actions in the long term, but sadly not always the will or the motivation to escape our immediate desires.

Despite our mental faculty to look and plan ahead, we have a weakness in our thinking called ‘present bias’, which favours short-term payoffs over long-term rewards.

For example, people are more likely to accept an offer of £100 today, rather than a guarantee of £120 in a week or to smoke cigarettes despite a shortened life or to spend on pleasures and not save for a rainy day.

If we are so likely to neglect the our own future wellbeing, it’s even harder to muster empathy for future generations.

There is nowhere this is more apparent than in the world of politics and economics.

Politics and economics are inextricably linked especially in the politics of free market capitalism.

There is a fallacy at the heart of economics and that is that there must always be growth.  Free market capitalism has tied us to having economies which must grow in order to survive.

I think it was David Attenborough who once said that “to believe in never ending growth you must either be insane or be an economist“.

So why are capitalist economies so obsessed with growth ?

GDP stands for Gross Domestic Product, it is a figure which represents the total cost of goods and services traded in an economy in a year.  It was invented in the 1930s, but it very soon became the overriding goal of policymaking, so much so that even today, in the richest of countries, governments think that the solution to all their economic problems lies in more growth.

In 1960 this thinking was codified in a book by W.W. Rostow called “The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto.”

In his book Rostow tells us that all economies need to pass through five stages of growth: first, traditional society, where a nation’s output is limited by its technology, its institutions and mindset; but then the preconditions for take-off, where we get the beginnings of a banking industry, the mechanisation of work and the belief that growth is necessary for something beyond itself; then we get take-off, where compound interest is built into the economy’s institutions and growth becomes the normal condition; fourth is the drive to maturity where you can have any industry you want, no matter your natural resource base; and the fifth and final stage, the age of high-mass consumption where people can buy all the consumer goods they want.

Well, you can hear the implicit airplane metaphor in his story, but this plane is like no other, because it can never be allowed to land.  Rostow left us flying into the sunset of mass consumerism, and he knew it.  As he wrote, “And then the question beyond, where history offers us only fragments.  What to do when the increase in real income itself loses its charm?”  He asked that question, but he never answered it.

So here we are, flying into the sunset of mass consumerism over half a century on, with economies that have come to demand infinite unending growth, because we’re financially, socially and politically dependent upon it.

We’re financially dependent on growth, because today’s financial system is designed to pursue the highest rate of monetary return, putting publicly traded companies under constant pressure to deliver growing sales, growing market share and growing profits, and because banks create money as debt bearing interest, which must be repaid with more money.  Therefore those companies which incur extra cost because they take care of the environment will be out competed by those who don’t.

We are socially addicted to growth, because thanks to a century of consumer propaganda we have become convinced that we transform ourselves every time we buy something new.  The real purpose of advertising is to make you dissatisfied with the things you presently have in order to persuade you to go out and buy something new to replace it.

And we are politically dependent on growth because politicians want to raise tax revenue without raising taxes and a growing GDP seems a sure way to do that.  They don’t want to inflict any tax rises to pay for long term threats because they are always looking towards the next election.

This is why politics is so shackled to the short term view, they are always looking towards the next election.  It goes something like this; “If it is a threat which is beyond the next election then it might be someone else’s problem if we don’t get re-elected so why worry about it, paying for it now just lessens the chances of our re-election and if the other lot get elected then this problem becomes something we can use against them“.

Future political threats are evaluated with something called ‘Discounting’.

Discounting is standard practice in politics all over the world.

Imagine a politician who is facing a difficult decision, there is a future problem which is known and well documented and they are trying to decide whether or not to spend large sums of money to mitigate the problem.  In the future this will have looked like money well spent perhaps saving many lives and billions of pounds.  It will certainly be of benefit to the grandchildren of the politician.  On the other hand spending all that money now will cause immediate problems for the taxpayers who will see little or no immediate benefit to themselves.

So the politician turns to an economist for a cost benefit analysis and they feed the numbers into the economists spreadsheet.  The economist points out that something called a ‘discount rate’ can be applied to these far future benefits.

A social discount rate is a technique that economists and politicians use in their cost-benefit analyses to decide whether to make investments with a long-term impact.  It weighs the benefits for future people against costs borne in the present-day, and proposes that the calculated value of benefit to society in the future is worth less to society in the present depending on how far into the future these benefits occur.  For example, if you’re deciding whether to spend a lot of money to boost the economy in the future, it’ll tell you that a 10% boost in economic growth in 2 years is worth a lot more in the present than a 10% boost 20 years from now.

The underlying assumption (fallacy) of economics is that economies must continuously grow and therefore it is assumed that future generations will be richer and more able to bear the costs of future problems.  But there is another reason why discount rates are used, on average individuals are not very willing to give up comfort and/or income today for a putative benefit at some time in the future for people who don’t even exist yet.  The society as a whole reflects the views of it’s individual members so politicians, and the societies they govern, have a limit to how much cost they are collectively willing to bear for the benefit of future generations.

So the politician turns to the economist and the economist runs the numbers in their spreadsheet and they realise that dealing with the problems now might not show enough payback for decades or possibly even centuries, so the proposals fail their cost-benefit analysis. The politician will leave it to their successors to deal with the problem.

Most people would accept that there is a need to bear some costs to avoid future climate catastrophe, but how much?  If we continue to postpone action the cost of dealing with the problem continues to rise and this makes it even more likely to be postponed next time the decision comes up.  If we leave it until urgent action is required then it will be too late and we will not be able to deal with the problem.

Ask yourself what portion of your own income today would you be willing to give up for the benefit of future generations?  When economists and politicians are debating this question, they are essentially arguing over how big a discount rate to apply.

If you apply discount rates over long time periods then the importance of the benefits felt by future generations in these calculations eventually dwindles towards zero.

But there is another way of looking at the problem of discounting future harms.  If we turn to philosophy we can see that discounting the needs of our descendants is akin to burying a shard of broken glass in a forest.  If a child steps on the glass and cuts themselves today or tomorrow, then a discount rate suggests this injury is much worse than a child hurting themselves on the glass a century from now.  But ethically, there is no difference between the two.  The child stepping on the glass in one hundred years time feels just as much pain and suffers just as much harm.

So we must ask ourselves is it ethically defensible to do nothing about climate change ?

So, ask yourself what portion of your own income today would you be willing to give up for the benefit of future generations ?  Make yourself heard, write to the politician who represents you and make them aware that something needs to be done now.

Our world is dying of consumption.  Consume less and recycle more.  Fix things that are broken rather than replacing them.

Have less children.

Join a green movement.

Ignore adverts!

If one person does this it won’t make much difference.  If everyone does this it will make a difference.

The time to act is now!

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