Lock-out - Agriculture & Climate Change #3: Innovation


Innovation is one of our greatest tools for adaptation in agriculture. However, innovation lock-out can stifle the development of potentially game-changing technologies (termed ‘disruptive innovations’ by Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997), which are likely to be uncompetitive in the mass market when they are first released. Established technology systems ‘can act to lock out the development of … more sustainable technologies, which have high unit costs and are yet to benefit from scale economies, learning effects, adaptive expectations and network effects’ (Foxon, 2002). These technologies need either significant investment to reach maturity, or ideally, a place in a niche market where they can adapt to consumer needs, and become competitive with mass market high emissions or low adaptive capacity products. Many of the best adaptive innovations, when they had a niche market that helped them to escape the lock-out effects of existing technologies, completely replaced the technologies that prevailed when they were first developed. For example, the first steamships couldn’t compete with sailing ships at sea, but developed in the inland waters market - where sailing ships were less effective - until they could compete in the seas and replace sailing ships almost entirely (Christensen).

Disruptive innovations need testing and developing before they can be trusted with farmers’ livelihoods. In some cases, niche markets are available to help develop sustainable practices or technologies, such as organic markets which allow farmers to command a higher price for products produced using more expensive agroecology practices, which are currently too expensive to compete in mainstream agricultural markets. However, if no niche markets are available it will be difficult for them to flourish without significant government, or other institutional, support. Farmers are uncertain about whether they can make the technology work; and they are uncertain about how good it really is - and so are their bank managers and insurance agents. Everyone would rather stick to the technology they know. While some large-scale industrialised farm owners and corporations may have enough of a financial buffer to gamble on new low emissions or adaptive capacity enhancing technologies, smaller scale systems will usually find the risk, and the cost of the new technology, prohibitive. People in developing countries are likely to suffer from climate change ‘more, and earlier, than in (mainly mid- to high-latitude) developed countries, due to a combination of adverse agro-climatic, socio-economic and technological conditions’ (Parry et al., 2007). Therefore, particularly in these regions, adaptive actions will be essential for agriculture to remain productive. However, adaptive actions themselves will contribute to the path dependence of agricultural systems so that a decision to increase resilience in one dimension is likely to increase vulnerabilities in another. Indeed, Chhetri et al. suggest that yield reductions are likely unavoidable ‘because the inherent variability of the climate system will result in adaptation choices that will be suboptimal for some years’.

This variability under global warming may mean that farm viability will depend on the capacity of farmers to organise their farm systems with an increased emphasis on flexibility. In recent history, highly flexible local knowledge based farming practices have been replaced (usually with aid organisation or government facilitation) with more ‘productive’, but less flexible industrialised methods, which have damaged the long-term adaptive capacity of the system. When Balanese community water temple irrigation and cyclical planting systems were replaced with the technology packets of the green revolution, the communities became locked into the high external input systems reliant on technology packs, which reduced self sufficiency and flexible water management (an example from Thriving Beyond Sustainability) - and once that has happened it is hard to go back.

That said, there is a question around the ability of traditional systems to cope with the challenges expected from climate change. Are traditional methods likely to be able to respond to such changes? Ultimately, development approaches must recognise the value of local and indigenous flexible systems while accounting for the unpredictability that will come hand in hand with climate change. They must consider the trade-offs between productivity and flexibility when planning for adaptation. As Metz et al. argue, there should be less emphasis on the search for ideal and general instruments, and more attention to local and fragmented processes for marginal changes, which, added up over time, could lead to more sustainable development paths and lower emissions.

Strong governance and supportive institutions will be crucial for climate change adaptation and mitigation. Switching away from locked in agricultural systems which inhibit adaptation or mitigation may incur cultural and financial costs, or increase risk. Financial and institutional support will be needed from the private sector and from governments to reduce the costs and risks of switching. Innovation and appropriate local solutions must also be made possible. Developing countries, where climate change vulnerability tend to be highest, tend to have weaker institutions and governance than developed countries - indeed Acemoglu and Robinson argue in Why Nations Fail that very often their ‘extractive political institutions’ are the very reason they are ‘developing’ rather than ‘developed’ countries at all. In order to deal with the multi-faceted problem of climate change, development policies must adapt to facilitate the development of mitigative and adaptive strategies in agriculture. Governance must be strengthened to help societies overcome lock-in; it must support innovation, technology adoption and local and appropriate approaches to local climate change challenges, and weigh up trade-offs between productivity and flexibility when planning for adaptation.

- Thanks to lrargerich for the photo

Path Dependence & Lock-in - Agriculture & Climate Change #2: Culture


Cultural lock-in results from established worldviews, cultural identities, or simply ‘the way things have always been done’ making alternative approaches either undesirable or incomprehensible - or simply unknown. Following on from the previous post, another example of cultural lock-in in agriculture can be seen in the perceptions of developing countries (where less industrialised agriculture currently prevails) that industrialised agriculture is the way to economic development.

Much of industrialised agriculture’s GHG intensity and low adaptive capacity can be considered locked in, although ‘ecologically based methods for agricultural production, predominantly used on small-scale farms, are far less energy-consumptive and release fewer GHGs’ (Lin et al.). As Metz et al. (p.176) say, ‘In developing countries, where a major part of the infrastructure necessary to meet development needs is still to be built, the spectrum of future options is considerably wider than in industrialized countries’. While this is true, the proliferation of industrialised agriculture in economically developed countries is the only large-scale demonstration of farming practices that have been shown to contribute significantly to economic growth. Therefore, developing countries are likely to experience a strong societal and cultural lock-in pulling them down the same path (indeed, a perception that  developed countries were trying to make developing countries pay for their emissions by forcing them down ‘alternative development paths’ was a key barrier to the 1992 Earth Summit negotiations). So, Gregory Unruh argues that industrializing countries are unlikely to leapfrog carbon intensive energy development. This makes it very important to plan and invest in future development projects with the consequences of path dependence in mind: small decisions now set societies on a certain path, and the further down that path they get, the harder it will be to turn off again.Scientific research on adaptive or mitigative systems and technologies can also suffer from cultural lock-in. Vanloqueren and Baret’s 2009 paper argues that science and technology choices are influenced by the orientation of science policies and scientists’ cultural and cognitive routines. In their example on page981, ‘genetic engineering, a technological paradigm that is well suited to scientific reductionism, is more successful … than agroecological engineering, a paradigm that questions mainstream approaches within agricultural research’ - despite agroecology’s established importance for sustainable agriculture and climate change.

- thanks to See-ming Lee for the photo

Path Dependence & Lock-in - Agriculture & Climate Change #1: Investment


Path dependence explains how, although a technology or regime may be flexible and adaptive when it first develops, fixed pathways become established over time because future capital returns are positively correlated with present investments. Systems, technologies and societies whose capital or institutional investments, or cultural identities, have evolved along certain paths find that there are high costs involved in switching away from them - and can be considered ‘locked in’. Not only does lock-in make it difficult for (particularly industrialised) agriculture to mitigate climate change, it also constrains agricultural adaptation to climate change. This is particularly important in developing countries which are generally most vulnerable to climate change, and therefore most in need of effective adaptation. It is not only a central issue for food production, but for economic development in general, since agriculture is one of the main drivers of economic growth, particularly in developing countries (see Our Planet, UNEP 2006).

This is the first of a series of three blog posts considering three manifestations of lock-in which restrict climate change adaptation in agricultural systems, ‘investment lock-in’, ‘cultural lock-in’, and (a sort of inverse lock in) ‘ innovation lock-out’.

Investment lock-in occurs when certain political and/or financial interests are associated with an investment in a certain system or approach, which inhibit future system changes - often because those changes will likely result in unacceptably low levels of political or financial return in the near term. This could either be due to the removal or reduction of the productivity of the old system, the upfront cost associated with the change, the time lag in the productivity of the new system meeting that of the old system, or a combination of the three. For example, the investment of industrialised agricultural systems in machinery which relies on fossil fuel energy sources makes them unlikely to switch to adaptive or mitigative technologies, such as machinery which can run on biodiesel. Overall, it acts to inhibit switches to new systems - even those in which, once investments had been made, would yield higher returns than the existing system: the existing technology ‘need not be the superior technology’ (Cowan and Gunby, 1996, p.521).

Clearly, this lock-in to certain agricultural systems and infrastructures presents major challenges for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Industrial agriculture (which is infrastructure and investment heavy) ‘contributes significantly to global warming, representing a large majority of total agriculture-related GHG emissions’ (Lin et al. 2011, p.1), and any investment in equipment or infrastructure narrows the range of future adaptation options. Organisations with significant investment in industrial agricultural equipment may lobby politicians to sustain high carbon systems to see continued return on their investment. This difficulty led Fiona Harvey, writing for the Guardian (2011), to observe, ‘Anything built from now on that produces carbon will do so for decades, and this “lock-in” effect will be the single factor most likely to produce irreversible climate change’.

Investment lock-in can be seen in the use nitrogen fertilisers to increase soil productivity. These add directly to GHG nitrogen emissions and also contribute to soil degradation, which reduces the flexibility and adaptive capacity of cropping systems and releases stored carbon. Many industrialised agricultural methods are now locked into the use of nitrogen fertilisers: the soils are too poor to survive without them and restoring the natural nutrient content of the soils and moving towards conservation agriculture would be a long and expensive process.Non-capital investments can also contribute to lock-in to high emissions systems. Land that has been flooded for rice production (which contributes significantly to emissions of the greenhouse gas methane) for example in South East Asia, may be very difficult and expensive to drain to accommodate less greenhouse gas intensive crops even if that were commercially viable. Add to this the fact that consumers in the region are used to buying rice, that it makes up a large part of their diet and culture, and strong path dependence and lock-in effects can be seen at work. This consumer preference lock-in is an example of a cultural, rather than investment-driven, form of lock-in - the subject of the second blog post in this series.

Thanks to Kalexanderson for the photo.

Local Solutions and Market Mechanisms

I was at the Southbank Centre a few weeks ago for a panel on Africa and the Technology Revolution where Jon Gosier (founder of Appfrica) spoke about work he did in the healthcare sector to share patient records through SMS – a project that was being built from the ground up again and again in different local areas across Africa by different teams. Appfrica’s mission is to ‘augment local innovations’ opening up multinational-local and local-local opportunities for collaboration and resource-sharing that reduce inefficiencies like this and allow similar local projects to work with and learn from one another. Ken Banks (founder of FrontlineSMS - a communication platform which specific applications are build on top of) was speaking on the same panel and supported the idea that the solution should come from the people who’ve lived with the problem.

External ‘experts’ should partner with the people innovating on the ground, often local entrepreneurs and local businesses, to augment and extend local solutions. Large national and international organisations have access to resources, and have buffers to help cope with failure, that small-scale local enterprises often simply can’t access - so there’s real opportunity for collaboration.

So how can we bring innovation and appropriate solutions to the fore? Many (including Tim Harford, Clayton Christensen and William Easterley) advocate markets as an excellent mechanism to encourage and reward experimentation. Ken Banks said that mobile technology innovations in Africa are driven by private companies, that the fact that the solutions are making money is what drives them forward. M-PESA is clearly a flagship example – Ken mentioned that next year a whopping 50% of Kenyan GDP will go through M-PESA. 

Internet innovation is an excellent example of markets at work: because coding is so cheap, experimentation and failure is prolific, and it’s from this environment that game changers like Spotify, Cragislist and of course Google and Facebook have been able to emerge. That said, there are problems with unregulated markets as a mechanism for innovation. They reward the economies of scale, creating monopolies and stifling game-changing startups before they even get off the ground and can create social exclusion. Markets need to be effectively regulated to function as forums for innovation.

Also, as Harford says, ‘The market is good at backing long shots, but only if they’re cheap — it can’t fund expensive, long-term research prospects’. So what’s his solution?

‘One approach is for governments to fund large prizes for successful innovations. Prizes have inspired breakthroughs from the creation of canned food to private space flight … Another approach is simpler: funders such as the National Institutes of Health should set aside a larger chunk of their budgets for highly speculative projects, emulating the approach of a private foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which explicitly encourages projects with a chance of failure. Risk-loving HHMI projects do produce more failures. But they also produce more “blockbuster” research papers.’

Appropriate, game-changing innovation has to come from the ground up and has to be centred on real, specific, local needs – and it has to be speculative, within a system that can cope with failure. However, we shouldn’t forget the resources and resilience that established organisations and systems can bring to speculative projects.

At the same time, sustaining innovations do come from established systems and companies working within national and international frameworks/rules. This may not be where we see great leaps forward, but any sweeping statements against aid/beaurocracy/corporates must be made carefully. As Simon Maxwell, Director of ODI puts it when considering Easterley’s time-limited benefits proposal to solve principal-agent problems, ‘to walk away from incremental improvements of this kind is like saying that rifles should not have safety catches, because if enough people shoot themselves, the survivors will learn to be more careful’.

We need incremental improvements (dead cert small wins) and big leaps forward (high risk, high reward experiments). This means that we need systems which facilitate them both, and do not allow one to stifle the other. Today, within established organisations and systems, there is a real tendency for the latter to be sacrificed in favour of the former, leading to missed opportunities for appropriate and disruptive innovations.

Thanks to ricajimarie for the image.

Innovation and Experimentation

Game changing success is occasional and difficult to predict. Clayton Christensen, in The Innovator’s Dilemma, argues that while leadership in ‘sustaining innovations’ brings incremental improvements, leadership in ‘disruptive innovations‘ creates huge value and changes the rules of the game. Rafael Behr writes for the Guardian,

‘Disruptive innovations bubble up in the marketplace by a process of trial and error. The more players there are, the higher the likelihood of something brilliant appearing. But, by extension, a reliable measure of how efficient a system is at generating success is the volume of failures it can safely expose’.

Adapt by Tim Harford focuses on this idea that big innovations and large leaps forward emerge only from risk-taking and experimentation: its premise is that human development/progress behaves like evolution - variation and selection are key. The book’s core principles are inspired by Peter Palchinsky

  • ‘to try new things, in the expectation that some will fail;
  • to make failure survivable, because it will be common; 
  • and to make sure you know when you have failed’.

Harford pulls examples from many sectors, from global finance, to development, to militarism. He uses Playpumps as an example to illustrate problems with top-down thinking in development. Playpumps are roundabouts which pump water up from underground. The premise is that if children are playing on the roundabout, you can harness that energy by pumping water at the same time:

Obviously, this ‘water as a bonus’ idea only works if the children are playing on the roundabout anyway (which, most of the time in rural African villages, they’re not). In all other cases, you’re much better off with a basic hand pump which is many times more efficient – illustrated nicely by this video comparing the time taken to fill a bucket with a play pump (3m 07s) with the time taken to fill it using a hand pump (0m 28s):

It’s important not to come in as an outsider and dictate the way things ought to be done without reference to the local situation. Appropriate and groundbreaking innovations come from people with an understanding of the nuances of the situation being faced. Value is created when people have the skills to succeed and the resources that enable them to experiment (and fail plenty of times).

There’s a whole body of thought and literature around this idea. William Easterly is a loud voice against central planning in foreign aid in the international development sector, arguing that from colonialism to aid-giving, the West has favoured ‘Planners’ over ‘Searchers’, where:

‘Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand. Planners apply global blueprints; Searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the Top lack knowledge of the Bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the Bottom. Planners never hear whether the Planned got what they needed; Searchers find out if the customer is satisfied’.

Easterly argues that poverty ‘is only ended by “searchers”, both economic and political, who explore solutions by trial and error, have a way to get feedback on the ones that work, and then expand the ones that work’.

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

I recently listened to Michael Sandel (the author) reading ‘What Money Can’t Buy’. The best bits are the first six minutes and the last four minutes. The middle is pretty much example after example, most of which I found repetitive. I’m going to share the points I found interesting. You can actually read about a third of the interesting stuff in this excerpt from the end of the book.

The book begins, ‘there are some things money can’t buy - but these days, not many.’ It’s amazing to realise just what you can buy: the services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy ($6,250 - less than a third of going rate in USA) and the right to immigrate to the USA ($500,000). Sandel argues that over the last three decades ‘markets and market values have come to govern our lives as never before’ and that there are two key problems with this

Problem One - Equality

‘Commercialism erodes commonality.’

‘The more money can buy, the more affluence (or the lack of it) matters’ and ‘the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another.’ In times of rising inequality, marketisation of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. Sandel points out that it’s when people of different backgrounds and social positions ‘bump up against one another in everyday life’ that we learn to negotiate, and how we come to care for the common good. Perhaps that’s not the only time we learn those things, but exposure to different views certainly challenges our perceptions and makes us think and generally makes us (in my view) into more rounded and tolerant human beings.

Problem Two - Corruption

Sandel argues that introducing market choices into domains where other values ought to prevail has a degrading and corrosive effect: “markets don’t only allocate goods, they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged … When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities.” That’s why it’s not ok to sell your vote, or buy your way out of jury duty. It’s also why Catholics can’t buy the Eucharist.

In many instances, using markets to value goods can destroy their other, intrinsic, values. While markets maximize social utility and are the ultimate expansion of individual freedom (all other things - e.g. income - being equal), ‘We are steadily moving toward a culture in which our ideals are being pushed aside in favor of the view that we ought to always be maximizing efficiency’. Sandel says that sometimes, ‘market values crowd out nonmarket norms.’ This sort of crowding can be seen in the (somewhat overused) example of a nursery that introduced fines for late parents, resulting in increased late pickups. Here, the norms changed so that the parents came to view the lateness less as a social obligation (with the associated guilt of making the teacher stay late) and more as a price they were willing to pay.

The Wall Street Journal’s review of this book tends to agree with Sandel:

‘Men will die for God or country, kinship or land. No one ever picked up a rifle and got shot for optimal social utility. ‘Economists cannot account for this basic fact of humanity. Yet they have assumed a role in society that for the past 4,000 years has been held by philosophers and theologians. They have made our lives freer and more efficient. And we are the poorer for it.’

That said, mercenaries have endangered themselves for money for millennia.

His Suggested Next Steps

Sandel suggests a starting point for change: ‘We disagree about the norms appropriate to many of the domains that markets have invaded - family life, friendship, sex, procreation, health, education …’ (a long list here), ‘But that’s my point. Once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong, and where they don’t. And we can’t answer this question without deliberating about the meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them’.

Importantly, ‘Shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided. It simply means that markets will decide them for us.’

‘Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.

An Interesting Question

Sandel includes in his discussion things that have been given a price in order to help conserve and protect them:

  • ‘the right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $150,000’ - this gives ranchers an incentive to raise and protect the endangered species, and has had positive impacts on Black Rhino population sizes (before this, Rhino populations were being rapidly deleted by poachers who could sell the Rhinos on the black market despite the efforts of conservation charities)
  • ‘the right to emit a metric tonne of carbon into the atmosphere: £13’ on the EU Emission Trading Scheme - which gives countries a fixed quota for emissions, which they can trade - hopefully resulting in carbon savings in areas where savings are relatively cheap

He argues that in both of the above cases, the overriding importance of preserving the intrinsic value of the goods means we should remove markets in them, even if the presence of markets has positive social/environmental impacts. Carbon trading is morally unacceptable to Sandel, regardless of its impact on emissions, because it does damage ‘to two norms: it entrenches an instrumental attitude toward nature; and it undermines the spirit of shared sacrifice that may be necessary to create a global environmental ethic.’

The point I want to make here is that Sandel’s proposal for change is not a radical overhaul of the way our societies and values work. His prescription is merely to debate the issues, and to remove market mechanisms in situations like these. 

Perhaps we do need a system that properly recognises non-monetary value. But while we don’t have one, our capitalist society is littered with economic incentives that say, don’t worry about the consequences of using these resources / degrading the environment: you don’t have to pay for them, and this makes money now. Advocacy and social pressure don’t hold much sway with corporations/poachers focused on profits now compared to the strong economic incentives on the other side. The real potential of these tools tends to lie in that longer term, higher level, societal or legislative change.

So, Sandel’s prescription to remove markets from situations like this without changing the way that system works leaves us with something worse - almost no incentive to protect these resources compared to the economic incentive to degrade them. 

If these resources/ideas are so precious that we should not assign market values to them, are they not also so precious that we should conserve and protect them in the best way that we can? And without a mass-overhaul of society, if markets are no good, what is the alternative?

- Thanks to stlyouth for the Eucharist image, and to RayMorris1 for the Rhino image

What GNP Doesn’t Do (& What’s Being Done About It?)

‘It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. The Gross National Product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’ - Robert Kennedy, 1968

So how do we put a number on this beauty, strength, wit, courage, wisdom, learning, compassion and devotion? How do we incorporate social and environmental considerations alongside the economics of GNP-type metrics to measure sustainable development? What’s important, what’s relevant, what’s even measurable, and who decides?

Lots of work has been done over the last few decades to try and answer these questions. Some global outputs worth taking a look at are the UNDP’s Human Development Index and the indicators associated with the UN’s Millennium Development GoalsHowever, there’s still not a measure of sustainable development that is universally accepted, influential in policy, and backed by compelling theory, rigorous data collection, and analysis. There are plenty of reasons for this, but very often, the discussion comes back to the idea of ultimate well-being that Kennedy articulates.

Donella Meadows’ report, Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development, suggests Herman Daly’s ‘Daly Triangle’, (below; there’s no real need for this to be a triangle, it’s just how Daly first drew it) as a framework for organising indicators to begin answering these questions. At the top of the triangle is the ‘ultimate end’, which is this subjective idea of well-being. In Meadows’ words, ‘we are discussing something immaterial, not material, though it requires the whole material triangle underneath to support it’; in Daly’s, ‘our perception of the ultimate is always cloudy, but necessary nonetheless, for without a perception of the ultimate it would be impossible to order intermediate events and to speak of priorities’.

Meadows’ three most basic aggregate measures of sustainable development are then: the sufficiency with which ultimate ends are realised; the efficiency with which ultimate means are translated into ultimate ends; and the sustainability of use of ultimate means. She manages to discuss the sustainability of ultimate means in quite some detail, but as you’d expect, she has a lot more difficulty with ultimate ends: ‘how to measure the most qualitative, personal, culture-bound, subjective, and important part of the pyramid? We’re not sure.’ However, she argues that if the system is oriented around indicators that don’t reflect well-being, it will tend to produce whatever they do measure instead - so ‘discussing the top of the pyramid is the most important task on the road to sustainable development’.

‘Indicators of ultimate ends may not be numerical or precise, but they are findable and usable’, according to Meadows. She suggests Manfred Max-Neef’s nine ‘basic human needs’ (subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, idleness, creation, identity and freedom) as a possible starting point for finding these indicators. The government of Bhutan have actually had a go at creating a well-being indicator. Their Gross National Happiness Index aggregates thirty three indicators, spanning health, psychological wellbeing, time use, education, cultural diversity, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and living standards. Last month, they convened a high level meeting at the UN HQ, ‘Happiness and Well-being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm’, where the UN Secretary-General stressed that the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in June will need to provide an outcome that reflects that sustainable development is intricately linked to happiness and well-being. 

Rio+20 will have a tough task on its hands. Developing true sets of indicators of development is fraught with difficulty: diversity and compatibility of possible metrics, confusion of terminology, availability of data, methodology of measurement, and so on. But ultimately, the largest difficulty of all is that the idea of ultimate wellbeing is non-material, intangible and subjective. How do you put a value on that?

- thanks to entrelec for this photo

For a Few to be Immortal, Many Must Die


On Saturday, I watched In Time, and on Sunday, I read about radical green political theory (ecologism). 

The premise of In Time is that everyone stops aging at 25, with only one year of life left - but their remaining time can be traded with other people for goods and services (so becoming the currency of the society). The whole idea is that, as two of the wealthy characters say, ‘for a few to be immortal, many must die’: there are elite, super-rich districts of people with enough live forever (in the sense that they hold assets and sit atop a system that gives them ever more time), and ghettos where residents are living an hour at a time.

It’s interesting to look at the premise of the film with ecologism in mind. Ecologism says that capitalism can’t be the solution to the global environmental and development crises and that the dominant development paradigm is failing. Radical green political theory is based on the idea of limits to growth and theorists argue that it is impossible for the world to sustain the levels of consumption to which ‘advanced industrial countries’ have become accustomed. 

Sandy Irvine and Alec Ponton observed in 1988 that Americans ‘have used more minerals and fossil fuels during the past half-century than all the other peoples of the world throughout human history’. The thinking goes that since the populations of affluent nations are living well beyond the capabilities of their own national resource base, their standards of living are made possible only by tapping the resources of other nations. In those other nations, many people’s standards of living & resource consumption (affluence usually equals a higher standard of living) do not approach Western standards, and the current Western way of life is only possible as long as those nations’ resource consumption remains significantly lower to balance the equation. William Rees, in 1996, said: 

If just the present world population of 5.8 billion people were to live at current North American ecological standards (say 4.5 ha/person), a reasonable first approximation of the total productive land requirement would be 26 billion ha (assuming present technology). However, there are only just over 13 billion ha of land on Earth, of which only 8.8 billion are ecologically productive cropland, pasture, or forest (1.5 ha/person). In short, we would need an additional two planet Earths to accommodate the increased ecological load of people alive today. If the population were to stabilize at between 10 and 11 billion sometime in the next century, five additional Earths would be needed, all else being equal - and this just to maintain the present rate of ecological decline.

Here’s a video of Rees sharing some of the wider context for the quote above if you’re interested:

While many environmentalists and economists argue that technological solutions are the way out of this dilemma, ecologists maintain that technological improvements in one area will soon be negated by consequential costs in another (from increased capacity for innovation that will drive demand). To use Rees’s example (from the video below), more fuel efficient cars might save a consumer $1,000, but if they then spend that on a flight to Paris, there’s no environmental win.

From an ecologist’s perspective, then, perhaps the In Time quote that titles this post could be rephrased,

For a few to live affluent, resource-intensive lifestyles, many must have their resource base and living conditions constrained.

Divided We Stand: What Inequality Means

Lots of development literature assumes that increasing inequality of wealth and income is intrinsically a bad thing (even where the wealth and wellbeing of the poor is increasing). I’ve been reading article after article recently that builds on this assumption, and though it feels intuitive, I had never seen any data or research proving the point. I wanted to find some research to back this up, and asked for some help from the students and tutor on my Master’s course. I was pointed towards a TED video (thanks, Sharon) and an OECD report (thanks, Val), both with some very interesting insights.

Want the American Dream? Move to Denmark.

Richard Wilkinson’s TED Talk, ‘How economic inequality harms societies,’ presents some compelling data (from the UN) illustrating a strong correlation between social and health metrics (including life expectancy, maths and literacy levels, social mobility and homicides) and the equity of income within rich, developed market democracies. Interestingly, when you look at the GDP/capita of the country, there is no correlation at all: it’s the income inequality withinsocieties that is significant, not inequality between them. 

The same story is corroborated using UNICEF data to study a child wellbeing index, and looking at the data across the fifty US States. It’s not a long video, and well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.

While the presentation of data is fascinating, and shows a strong correlation, the ‘how/why’ is very much skimmed over at the end, which is a shame. Correlation doesn’t imply causation, and unfortunately there’s nothing here that proves causation between the two variables (though there’s a rough psychosocial interpretation where it’s suggested – without data – that chronic stress from social sources triggered by inequality is the driver for poor social-health metrics in unequal societies). I would be very interested to see a study that can make the jump to causation empirically. 

Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising

This OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report presents a thorough analysis of data showing that income inequality is on the rise in most OECD countries (mostly high income economies with a high Human Development Index) - though there’s not much post-‘08 data. It also dedicates many pages to what drives growing earnings and income disparities. It presents several reasons for the ‘surge in the share of top incomes’ seen in the 1990s and 2000s: a more global market for talent, changes in pay norms, and a growing use of performance-related pay which particularly benefitted top executives and finance professionals. These changes were driven in part by the fact that top rates of personal income tax fell from around 60-70% in major OECD countries to an average 40% by the late 2000s (this is the tax paid on the last – and next – dollar earned and so is what drives incentives), meaning that payment (rather than non-monetary reward structures) as a reward to employees made more sense than it had done previously – because the employee could suddenly see more of that money, and (hopefully) respond to the incentive.

The OECD outlines some of the economic, social and political challenges of rising income inequality. It can: 

  • stifle upward social mobility, ‘making it harder for talented and hard-working people to get the rewards they deserve,’ and impacting economic performance as a whole
  • foster social resentment and political instability
  • ‘fuel populist, protectionist, and anti-globalisation sentiments … people will no longer support open trade and free markets if they feel that they are losing out while a small group of winners is getting richer and richer’

A suggestion for reducing income inequality, while maintaining the incentives for employees to perform (and stopping the top talent leaving your economy for one with lower taxes) is to introduce tax reforms ‘that increase average tax rates without raising marginal rates (e.g. by scaling back tax reliefs)’. This ‘could enable greater redistribution without undue blunting of incentives’. However, they maintain that on its own, this would not be financially sustainable or effective: ‘Any policy strategy to reduce the growing divide between the rich and poor should rest on three main pillars: more intensive human capital investment; inclusive employment promotion (of jobs that offer career prospects); and well-designed tax/transfer redistribution policies.’

Privatisation: Social Divisions and Fear in UK Cities

On Tuesday night, I went to a talk given by Anna Minton, author of Ground Control, about the impact of private city developments on citizenship, trust, and social divisions. She shared some of the book’s key themes (I haven’t read it): why fear is up when crime is down; that trust and personal & collective responsibility are being eroded; and that local communities are being threatened by private development projects. Essentially she’s saying that for the last thirty years, urban space in the UK has been managed the wrong way, based on an unstable economic model. As a book review in the Observer put it,

‘They sold our streets and nobody noticed’


Anna said that the first edition of her book was ‘conceived in a boom, and written in a bust’; private development based on borrowing had been the model in the boom years, and she was optimistic that a new model would emerge in the bust. Her second edition, however, with a new chapter on the Olympic developments, was written in response to the fact that it didn’t. The book’s press release says:

Britain’s streets have been transformed by the construction of new property – but it’s owned by private corporations, designed for profit and watched over by CCTV.  Have these gleaming business districts, mega malls, gated developments – even the Olympic Park – led to ‘regeneration’, or have they intensified social divisions and made us more fearful of each other? … It reveals the untested – and unwanted – urban planning that is changing not only our cities, but the nature of public space, of citizenship and of trust.

They Sold Our Streets …

Anna explained how the private Canary Wharf development in the 80s and 90s was the first of its kind, and became a template for ‘regeneration’ projects across the country - projects positioned as ‘regenerating’ city areas but in fact, she argued, segregating urban spaces, forming disconnected enclaves and creating spaces for the affluent. Again from the Observer: ‘Wealth did not “trickle down” the social ladded, as conservative economic theory suggested it ought … as social policy [the Docklands Model] is a catastrophe. It leads to the enclosure of wealth behind gates, surveilled by cameras and guarded by private bouncers. It entrenches a blinkered view of public space as a retail playground, and of the poor as trespassers within it’.

The Privately owned and managed model is based on creating ‘clean’ and ‘safe’ environments - apparently not as great as it sounds. ‘Clean’, Anna argued, often means big drives on sanitation which can end up ‘cleaning out all of the people’ and creating a soulless, sterile feeling. I think that’s pretty subjective, but the ‘safe’ part was interesting. ‘Safe’ in private developments often means controlled environments with:

  • Conditional access
  • CCTV
  • Uniformed security guards
  • Rules & regulations (e.g. no cycling, skateboarding, hoodies, protests, homeless)
  • Scary security ‘gadgets’ e.g. The Mosquito and Drones for domestic surveillance (to be introduced in London as part of the 2012 Olympics security plan)

Again, we’re looking at social exclusivity, as well as a worrying trend for democracy: ‘No Protests’ rules across private urban developments significantly reduce the spaces available for protests of any sort (the Occupy London protest ended up outside St Paul’s instead of the London Stock Exchange because it was one of the few public spaces available).

The ‘Crime Paradox’ was also raised: crime is down since ‘95 (a contentious point, but she promises, “I really did my homework”) but fear of crime is up. This is attributed to increased and overt security measures, which are not only scary in themselves but which also undermine ‘natural surveillence’ and remove personal and collective responsibility - eroding our trust in our communities and the people around us. 

Anna says that this huge increase in security in urban spaces is not a result of a public call, but a result of private ownership. However, while I agree that it’s getting scary, I’m not convinced that the security features and gadgets wouldn’t be appearing if these spaces were under Local Authority rather than private control. Safety will be a concern whether or not a private company is in management - the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Katz v. United States that individuals have no “expectation of privacy” in public areas, and in the UK we have CCTV cameras in most public urban places whether or not they’re under private control.

… And Nobody Noticed

Anna described a property led economic model where the public good had been written out of planning legislation and replaced with economic growth. She cited the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 which made it easier to force the sale of homes on land marked for ‘regeneration’ to build new (and more expensive) housing, shops, or other developments. This facilitates huge privately owned urban spaces with rules and social codes defined by private companies - which, again from the Observer, ‘represents the subordination of all social concerns to the aesthetic preferences of the wealthy consumer’.

In the US, where this removal of the ‘public good’ from policy began, the issue has been much more contentious and widely debated (e.g. Kelo v. City of New London) than in the UK, where it’s happened quietly with minimal uprisings. Following massive US protests, the policy has now been revoked in many US states, while it persists in the UK. 

A specific example given was this year’s Olympic Park. The Olympic bid was based on the private sector ability to ‘raise finance’ (i.e. borrow money), but when the markets crashed the private sector couldn’t raise the money - so £5.7B was added to the public budget, bringing it up to £9.3B. At the centre of promises made to the London Citizen’s Community Group to persuade them to back the bid was the promise of Affordable Housing as part of the Olympic Development. The threshold for what will be considered to be ‘affordable housing’ has since been increased to a price that is 80% of the house’s market value, putting the Olympic Development houses out of reach of the people living in the Olympic Boroughs.

Anna argued that this development model was ‘democratically, economically unviable’ and ‘not the architecture of austerity but of boom and bust’. She emphasised the importance of a balanced local economy, which benefits poor local communities as well as ‘regenerating’ areas for the wealthy.

It’s interesting to note the parallels to sustainable development in a global market.

- Thanks to wheelzwheeler for the Occupy London image

Business, social change, technology, and sustainable development - and the bits in between.
@catrjones on twitter.

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