Causes for cautious hope in a sea of gloom
As I watch the wide range of economic, environmental, social, technological, and political issues that cross my screen and engage me in daily conversations, it is tempting to increasingly agree to the pessimism. Post-pandemic disruptions, declining biodiversity, rising carbon dioxide levels, corporate executives largely ignorant of how sustainability can be built into business planning, net-zero greenwashing, increasing white nationalism, increasing voter suppression and dysfunctional policies at all levels of government are some of the reasons for this metaphorically slit the wrists.
Roman Krznaric’s book “The Good Ancestor” is an important antidote to distract our thinking from apathy and fear. He argues convincingly that in addition to large, self-inflicted wounds, the “ability of mankind to think and plan over long periods of time is anchored in our brains and has made monumental achievements possible”. For the future, he says, there are emerging innovations and resilient lifelines that can push the boundaries of politics and short-term thinking to make better decisions in the decades to come.
The present moment offers an exceptional opportunity for public engagement for a different agenda for the future.
Several transformative developments are underway, gaining focus and momentum. Here are four:
1. The world population peaks earlier and later
Driven by factors such as urbanization, better educated women with access to contraception, and the increasing stress and fear of raising children, the world population is expected to peak at 9.7 billion people by mid-century, decades earlier than pre-pandemic predictions of 11 Billions of people by 2100, according to the United Nations.
The bottom line is that this is more good news than bad, but this development will prove very disruptive as fewer young people will fund retirees’ pensions. There will be a critical skills shortage in key occupations, fewer consumers will drive future growth, and social interactions and culture will be experienced very differently.
On the positive side, the demands on nature in terms of water resources, energy, plant and meat production, forests and soils, and critical materials can be reduced. With careful planning, British conservationist David Attenborough said the population decline could provide an opportunity to “rewild” nature by removing key stress points for critical ecosystems and species that could allow biodiversity to regenerate over time.
2. Innovation advances
A large number of innovations with global impact come into play just in time. These include cheaper solar and wind power, which can replace fossil fuels for power generation and transportation; digital technologies that enable “smart” systems to track, track and manage energy efficiency in buildings; Reducing food waste; Protecting critical fish stocks from overfishing; and new generations of materials that are not derived from hydrocarbons.
Historically, the private sector has invested in research and development to create world-changing innovations. This model has been dramatically turned on its head as C-suites in the past few decades – fueled by short-term shareholder value, share buybacks, cost reductions for research and employees, and a ruthless bonus culture (giving out lavish bonuses even when companies fail to achieve their goals). – emphasized financial metrics more than the actual production of innovative goods and services.
Fortunately, national governments’ extensive spending on basic research – which spawned the Internet, GPS, touchscreens, the components of Google’s algorithms, and the miniaturization of components for iPhones over the past few decades – has brought a new crop of technology to our use. These include genetic research to develop drugs to fight pandemics; commercial applications of solar and wind technologies; and rapid advances in battery efficiency.
A number of hydrogen-based fuel applications are emerging on the horizon (the Biden infrastructure plan includes a number of financial incentives for building a hydrogen economy); non-fossil energy sources for plastics production; natural and laboratory-based decarbonized food products; and improved storage options from renewable energy technologies. Accelerated climate change will keep federal research and development pegs open.
3. Economists rethink core assumptions
Economists started out as social scientists with an inferiority complex and later renamed themselves scientific professionals using quantitative tools with unusual loopholes. These loopholes, representative of ideologies rather than data, asserted the existence of a “rational economist” who accepted no interference (monopoly distortions, imperfect information) in making an economically rational decision; believed in gross domestic product without taking negative external effects or positive values from government activities into account; proclaimed (against much conflicting legal and historical evidence) that shareholder value is the company’s raison d’etre; and merged price measurement at the point of sale with the value concept, while the value inputs from workers, raw materials and other means of production were reduced.
These developments set the stage for an even bolder and bolder group: financial analysts and asset managers who ran the concept of shareholder value at an Olympic pace and turned it in the direction that it meant largely value only to shareholders. Armed with metrics to mitigate investing risk (short term), they convinced stock markets, CEOs, securities regulators, and investors that laying off workers, globalizing supply chains, and defining value in the tightest financial framework justified the creation of the golden calf for business management – But above all for budding multimillionaires, managers hungry for bonuses and asset managers who eat up administration fees.
Amid the rubble of growing social inequality, successive financial crises, and the rise of populist politics, an increasingly louder debate has arisen over whether such a financialization of the economy is a value creator or a value extractor. Nobel Prize winners Elinor Ostrom, Marianna Mazzucato, Kate Raworth, Rebecca Henderson, Timothy Wu, and former Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein are part of a growing chorus of economists and business analysts who are laying the foundation for an updated theory of values. Their proposals include: greater collaboration between the public and private sectors in funding and commercializing innovation; Use of discount rates that do not devalue the future; Implementation of a more vigorous antitrust policy; and inclusion of human and natural capital in accounting methods for calculating value.
In Mazzucato’s words, this means a correction “of the way in which risks are socialized in the innovation economy while rewards are privatized”. The rebels did not capture the citadel, but strong economic and social winds are driving them forward.
4. Science is on the comeback path
After several decades of intense guerrilla warfare against the scientific method, expert peer review, and the authority of the professionally trained to make expert judgments on what ails us, the Visigoths have suffered some significant defeats. These include public acceptance of medical practitioners’ advice on vaccination, masking, and social distancing; broad support for a wide range of measures against global climate change; and a growing commitment to accelerate the use of science to shed light on racism resulting from disproportionate pollution among minorities and low-income groups.
The momentum towards these and other outcomes is measured by expanding research and staffing budgets at key agencies – the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and others – and rebuilding public health infrastructure at the state and local levels and adopt public guidelines that encourage the use of evidence-based decisions.
What also needs to move forward is the commitment of scientists to better engage the public. Publications in peer-reviewed journals and interactions between academic professionals remain critical components of the gold standard. Equally important, academics become a constant source of credible information on the social media platforms where so many citizens get their information and in schools and communities where next-generation leaders are only just beginning to understand critical issues develop.
None of these hopeful developments will avert the accelerating climate crisis in the short term, as this crisis manifests the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are already stored in the atmosphere, oceans and terrestrial ecosystems and that will require several generations to reverse. However, the present moment offers an exceptional opportunity for public engagement for a different agenda for the future.
In Krznaric’s words, now is a good time to “expand the timeframe in which society thinks about the future of the planet”. [and] opened the mental space to reflect on the long-term paths of humanity itself. “