Category Archives: EARTH WATCH

Class struggle à la droite

Populism is boosted by economic crises, but its roots are cultural.
By Claus Leggewie – Populism is a method. It works by mobilizing an imaginary homogeneous entity called ‘the people’ against an equally ill-defined and generally despised ‘elite’, thus radically simplifying the political and social field. Such simplifications have served to orchestrate conflicts since the 19th century and in particular during economic and cultural crises—on the left, in terms of a class struggle against the powers that be; on the right, in terms of a confrontation with an ‘other’, be it foreigners or minorities.

Sometimes these two tendencies have gone hand in hand—for instance, when migrant workers have been portrayed as wage-squeezing competitors. In fact, though, a populism that purports to be about solidarity with the ‘common people’ always promotes social disunity.

As a catchphrase in political debates, populism may be useful; a productive analytical concept it however certainly is not. The ‘people’ our modern-day, nationalist populists champion are no longer defined socioeconomically (as in the ‘proletariat’). Rather, the populists employ ethnic constructs (such as Biodeutsche or français de souche), which suggest a homogeneous community with a shared ancestry, a long history and a solid identity.

It is to these ‘people’—not the actual, pluralist demos—that populists ascribe an authority which exceeds that of institutions: ‘The people stand above the law,’ as a slogan of the Austrian ‘Freedom Party’ goes.

In this view, there is no legitimate ‘representation’ through democratic processes. Instead, ‘the people’ form movements which back charismatic leaders and legitimize them retroactively by means of plebiscites. Right-wing movements may be diverse, but what they all have in common is a worldview that is utterly authoritarian (and usually patriarchal and homophobic too).

One’s own nation, ethnically defined, takes center-stage—think ‘America first!’ or La France d’abord! more>

Updates from McKinsey

Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts
By Jonathan Woetzel, Dickon Pinner, Hamid Samandari, Hauke Engel, Mekala Krishnan, Brodie Boland, and Carter Powis – After more than 10,000 years of relative stability—the full span of human civilization—the Earth’s climate is changing. As average temperatures rise, climate science finds that acute hazards such as heat waves and floods grow in frequency and severity, and chronic hazards, such as drought and rising sea levels, intensify.

In this report, we focus on understanding the nature and extent of physical risk from a changing climate over the next one to three decades, exploring physical risk as it is the basis of both transition and liability risks.

We estimate inherent physical risk, absent adaptation and mitigation, to dimension the magnitude of the challenge and highlight the case for action. Climate science makes extensive use of scenarios ranging from lower (Representative Concentration Pathway 2.6) to higher (RCP 8.5) CO2 concentrations. We have chosen to focus on RCP 8.5, because the higher-emission scenario it portrays enables us to assess physical risk in the absence of further decarbonization.

In this report, we link climate models with economic projections to examine nine cases that illustrate exposure to climate change extremes and proximity to physical thresholds. A separate geospatial assessment examines six indicators to assess potential socioeconomic impact in 105 countries. We also provide decision makers with a new framework and methodology to estimate risks in their own specific context.

We find that physical risk from a changing climate is already present and growing. Seven characteristics stand out. Physical climate risk is:

Increasing: In each of our nine cases, the level of physical climate risk increases by 2030 and further by 2050. Across our cases, we find increases in socioeconomic impact of between roughly two and 20 times by 2050 versus today’s levels. We also find physical climate risks are increasing across our global country analysis even as some countries find some benefits (such as expected increase in agricultural yields in countries such as Canada).

Spatial: Climate hazards manifest locally. The direct impacts of physical climate risk thus need to be understood in the context of a geographically defined area. There are variations between countries and within countries. more>

From the Revolution of 2020 to the Evolution of 2050

By Basil A. Coronakis – European societies are already on the move and 2020 will shape the direction that they go in. Within 30 years, in one way or another, the new world’s political condition will be settled.

The potential options for 2050 are numerous, from too extreme to everything in-between. The point is that whichever option is good, as well as whichever is bad, is a question that cannot be given a reply by either science or faith, but only philosophically.

However, since the “kings” of our society, and not the “philosophers”, will decide for the next big social step to take (or not),

Under the circumstances, we stand before two extreme scenarios and cannot say which of the two is the good and which is the bad, as we are all part of the problem. As a result, none of us can have an objective view. Therefore, will consider scenario A and scenario B without qualifying any.

Scenario A, which is likely to be the most probable as our “kings” are far for “adequately philosophizing”, and which although may have huge collateral damage and a generalized social upside-downs, in terms of long-term survival of humankind is not necessarily the worse.

Scenario A ends with an anarchy dominated chaotic social explosion that, when settled, will bring a new social order where the last will be first and the first the last. Of course, this will be the way of the “Parable of the Workers” from Matthew 20-16 in the New Testament but based on nature’s law of selection according to which the strong survives and the week disappear.

Scenario B is rather unlikely as it provides, after a smooth transition, that we will be living in the ideal city by 2050 – the contemporary version of Plato’s Utopia.

The so-called “in the between” will be simply a prolongation of the status quo, which ultimately will lead to scenario A, though with increased collateral damage. more>

Low unemployment isn’t worth much if the jobs barely pay

By Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman – Each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its Employment Situation report (better known as the “jobs report”) to outline latest state of the nation’s economy. And with it, of late, have been plenty of positive headlines—with unemployment hovering around 3.5%, a decade of job growth, and recent upticks in wages, the report’s numbers have mostly been good news.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Are these jobs any good? How much do they pay? Do workers make enough to live on?

Here, the story is less rosy.

In a recent analysis, we found that 53 million workers ages 18 to 64—or 44% of all workers—earn barely enough to live on. Their median earnings are $10.22 per hour, and about $18,000 per year. These low-wage workers are concentrated in a relatively small number of occupations, including retail sales, cooks, food and beverage servers, janitors and housekeepers, personal care and service workers (such as child care workers and patient care assistants), and various administrative positions. more>

Updates from McKinsey

Four ways governments can get the most out of their infrastructure projects
Best practices can help governments invest in infrastructure that expands the economy and better serves the public.
By Aaron Bielenberg, James Williams, and Jonathan Woetzel – Infrastructure—for example, transportation, power, water, and telecom systems—underpins economic activity and catalyzes growth and development. The world spends more than $2.5 trillion a year on infrastructure, but $3.7 trillion a year will be needed through 2035 just to keep pace with projected GDP growth.

National, state, and local governments are devoting increased amounts of capital to meet these needs, and for good reason. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that infrastructure has a socioeconomic rate of return around 20 percent. In other words, $1 of infrastructure investment can raise GDP by 20 cents in the long run.

Gains from infrastructure are fully realized, however, only when projects generate tangible public benefits. Unfortunately, many governments find it difficult to select the right projects—those with the most benefit. Furthermore, infrastructure can provide social and economic advantages only when the capital and operating costs can be financed sustainably, either by the revenues a project generates or by the government sponsor. Too many projects become an economic burden and drain on finances when a government borrows money for an undertaking and neither its revenues nor its direct and indirect economic benefits adequately cover the cost.

Our framework includes four key best practices to help modernize decision making for infrastructure and to improve its social and economic impact. Each step is enabled by and contributes to a consistent, fact-based process for identifying and executing infrastructure projects. The first step—ensuring that projects yield measurable benefits—lays the foundation for all the rest.

  1. Develop projects with tangible, quantifiable benefits
  2. Improve the coordination of infrastructure investments to account for network effects
  3. Engage and align community stakeholders to promote inclusive economic and social benefits
  4. Unlock long-term capital

Consistent, transparent assessments are required to determine if infrastructure satisfies the elements of our framework—whether a project offers robust public benefits, is compatible with other projects and appropriately aligned with the community’s objectives, and uses the best long-term financing available. Thus, governments may have to invest in capabilities to evaluate the benefits of projects and commit themselves to transparent evaluations that include the necessary checks and balances.

Governments should assess their institutional capabilities against the framework’s elements, such as mapping current processes to develop infrastructure projects from concept to operation.

Can the government complete a structured quantification of public benefits?

Is there a way to assess the portfolio as a whole in light of the debt-management strategy? more>

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Another year of living dangerously

Twenty twenty will be another year of living dangerously if short-term policies continue to be pursued at the expense of long-term vision.
By Isabel Ortiz – The year 2019 ended with widespread demonstrations, rising inequality and a crisis of representation in many countries. The world is sleepwalking toward recession and a new crisis, while depleting the environment. Governments, and ultimately people, can reverse these alarming trends in 2020.

Sixty-one countries will have presidential or parliamentary elections in 2020. Many citizens are tired of conventional orthodox policies; they want change, and they will choose new parties as a way to achieve this.

This is an important opportunity to redress the current situation, but many of the new emerging leaders are far-right demagogues who blame today’s problems on social-welfare policies, migrants and the poor, while aiming to remove all remaining constraints on capital. As in the United Kingdom, many whom neoliberalism has harmed will vote for these politicians, making the world a more unequal and riskier place.

A lot will be decided in the United States, still the world’s hegemonic power. How US citizens (many without much knowledge of global affairs) vote in the 2020 presidential election will have profound consequences for the rest of the planet’s citizens.

The US president, Donald Trump, has already had a big impact on the world, eroding multilateral institutions, trade agreements and global initiatives as part of his ‘America First’ agenda. Despite the populist rhetoric, Americans in the main have benefited little. more>

The Battle for India’s Founding Ideals

By Madhav Khosla – These events come after much of India has been engulfed in protests over a new citizenship law that treats Muslims differently to those from other religions. These protests, which have seen tens of thousands march across the nation, began in universities. The government’s reaction was swift and brutal. It encompassed both prohibitory measures, such as Internet shutdowns and the prevention of public assembly, as well as reactive measures, which included detention and violence. In Uttar Pradesh, a state which is home to more Indians than any other, the tales of police brutality would send a shiver down any spine.

Sunday’s attack underscores two crucial changes taking place in the world’s largest democracy. The first is to the country’s formal legal architecture. India’s founders, as I have suggested in a new book, India’s Founding Moment, imagined citizenship to be unmediated by community affiliation. For them, to belong to the modern world was to belong to representative framework where each person was treated on free and equal terms.

Measures like the new citizenship law challenge and undermine this founding vision. The law enables “any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan” to become an Indian citizen, thereby explicitly excluding Muslims.

India’s Constitution guarantees the right to equal treatment. This right applies to all persons and not only to citizens. To pass muster, a law has to make an intelligible distinction between those that it includes and those that it excludes. Moreover, this distinction has to bear a rational connection to the law’s objective.

In this case, the stated objective is addressing the religious persecution of the enumerated classes. But the law does not capture this objective as it is both over- and under-inclusive. It does not provide protection to groups such as the Ahmadiyya Muslims from Pakistan and it assumes that all those who enter India from the specified classes are persecuted. This presumption is revealed by the fact that the law has no provisions relating to religious persecution at all, thus eliminating any link between the distinctions drawn and the declared aim.

As India is thrown deeper and deeper into a cycle of extra-constitutional violence, we should fear that the state and citizens will struggle to manage the situation. In such scenarios, the disorder and horror often follows a logic of its own.

If India continues to unravel in this fashion, there will be unspeakable acts on either side, untold truths that are hidden in every quarter. Even the most terrifying moves will be justified, even the clearest forms of evidence will be challenged.

In a world where public institutions and social harmony have given way, we will live under a state that claims monopoly over the exercise of force but no longer quite enjoys it. The state will deploy and exploit its power in every possible way, but, as in the case of colonial rule, the idea of legitimate authority will cease to have meaning. more>

Why the idea that the world is in terminal decline is so dangerous

By Jeremy Adelman – From all sides, the message is coming in: the world as we know it is on the verge of something really bad. From the Right, we hear that ‘West’ and ‘Judeo-Christian Civilization’ are in the pincers of foreign infidels and native, hooded extremists. Left-wing declinism buzzes about coups, surveillance regimes, and the inevitable – if elusive – collapse of capitalism.

In fact, the idea of decline is one thing the extremes of Left and Right agree upon. Rome’s decline looms large as the precedent. So, world historians have played their part as doomsayers.

It is almost part of the modern condition to expect the party to be over sooner rather than later. What varies is how the end will come. Will it be a Biblical cataclysm, a great leveler? Or will it be more gradual, like Malthusian hunger or a moralist slump?

Our declinist age is noteworthy in one important way. It’s not just the Westerns who are in trouble; thanks to globalization, it’s the Resterners too. In fact, we are all, as a species, in this mess; our world supply chains and climate change have ensured that we are poised before a sixth mass extinction together. We should worry less about our lifestyle and more about life itself.

One dissenting voice in the 1970s was Albert O Hirschman’s. He worried about the lure of doomsaying. Dire predictions, he warned, can blind big-picture observers to countervailing forces, positive stories and glimmers of solutions. There is a reason why: declinists confuse the growing pains of change with signs of the end of entire systems. Declinism misses the possibility that behind the downsizing old ways there might be new ones poking through. more>

Updates from Georgia Tech

Tiny Magnetic Particles Enable New Material to Bend, Twist, and Grab
By Josh Brown – A team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and The Ohio State University has developed a soft polymer material, called magnetic shape memory polymer, that uses magnetic fields to transform into a variety of shapes. The material could enable a range of new applications from antennas that change frequencies on the fly to gripper arms for delicate or heavy objects.

The material is a mixture of three different ingredients, all with unique characteristics: two types of magnetic particles, one for inductive heat and one with strong magnetic attraction, and shape-memory polymers to help lock various shape changes into place.

“This is the first material that combines the strengths of all of these individual components into a single system capable of rapid and reprogrammable shape changes that are lockable and reversible,” said Jerry Qi, a professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech. more>

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The Greatest Balancing Act

Nature and the global economy
By David Attenborough and Christine Lagarde – In nature, everything is connected. This is equally true of a healthy environment and a healthy economy. We cannot hope to sustain life without taking care of nature. And we need healthy economies to lift people out of poverty and achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

In our current model these goals sometimes seem to collide, and our economic pursuits encroach too closely on nature. But nature—a stable climate, reliable freshwater, forests, and other natural resources—is what makes industry possible. It is not one or the other. We cannot have long-term human development without a steady climate and a healthy natural world.

The bottom line is that when we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves. The impact of our growing economic footprint threatens our own future directly. By some estimates, more than 50 percent of the world’s population is now urbanized, increasing the likelihood of people losing touch with nature.

With the projected rise in ocean levels and increase in the average temperature of the planet, large swaths of land, even whole countries, will become uninhabitable, triggering mass climate-induced migration. Never has it been more important to understand how the natural world works and what we must do to preserve it.

A necessary first step is to recognize that waste is the enemy. Wasting food, energy, or materials flies in the face of sustainability. Producing plastics fated to end up as litter is a waste, especially when these plastics pollute our oceans. If we could live by the simple injunction to “do no harm,” both individually and as businesses and economies, we could all make a difference. Overconsumption and unsustainable production have put the planet in peril.

Since the natural and economic worlds are linked, similar principles apply to both.

In the financial world, for example, we would not eat into capital to the point of depletion because that would bring about financial ruin. Yet in the natural world, we have done this repeatedly with fish stocks and forests, among many other resources—in some cases to the point of decimation. We must treat the natural world as we would the economic world—protecting natural capital so that it can continue to provide benefits well into the future. more>