Some thoughts on ecology, evolution and economics

The Future

futureMy last blog post was about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.  The scientists shared that award with an individual who won an Oscar  in the same year.  That has to be some kind of record, inspiring peace and artistic acclaim in one effort. This same individual,  Al Gore, can also chalk up a vice presidency and a half decent run for the US presidency on his resume. This post is about the book he wrote in 2013 entitled The Future.

The book, which is meticulously researched and referenced, seeks to answer the question, “What are the key drivers of global change?”. His answer focuses on rapid changes in how we deal with six commodities: money, information, votes, population, genes and greenhouse gases. The author very helpfully uses outlines or “mind maps” as illustrations at the beginning of each chapter to show the branching pattern of headings and sub-headings. Of the six key drivers , Gore clearly spends most of his time on genes and greenhouse gases, with more than half of the 98 subject headings elaborating on change in these areas.  He does, however, drill down in other areas.  The subject headings with the the most sub-headings according to the chapter outlines are the limits to growth (16), disintermediation – the elimination of middle men through the internet(13) and the infrastructure of the internet (10).  He also allows himself more pages per subject heading in the two middle chapters on Power in the Balance (votes) and Outgrowth (population).  He is, in the end, a US politician and he is most concerned about democracy, capitalism and the place of America in the world.

Democracy Hacked

The exchange of ideas sparked by print media, coffee shops and public squares in the early days of 18th century democracy has been challenged recently by media conglomerates and the investment of great sums of money to control television advertising.  The centralized and shallow aspects of television give a new meaning to demagoguery, the political appeal to emotions and prejudices. The rise of FOX News is an example of how the sensational trumps the sedate discussion of facts.  It is, at the same time,  a triumph of democracy over elitism.   Gore holds out hope for the current revolution in news media, where the internet facilitates multiway conversations.  The potential for demagogues is, of course, no less on the internet, where herd behaviour can easily overcome individuality.  Nonetheless, Gore sees the maintenance of the internet as a public utility and the rise of public/private funding models for journalism as the hallmarks of healthy deomocracies in the future.

Outside In

With 70% of global business leaders believing  that capitalism is in trouble, Gore advocates what he calls Sustainable Capitalism.  This would feature a discounting of the short-term value of commodities so that their longer term consequences could be factored into our shopping and investment choices.  Achieving this would unite the disciplines of economics and ecology and bring “externalities” like the environment and income inequality into the mechanics of generating sustainable wealth. The level of accounting and auditing required to bring reliable long-term information to bear on short-term decision making is unprecedented.  It would require a high degree of trust in a new way of doing things.  Gore argues that the place to start is with a carbon tax. He makes the point that the legacy to our grandchildren should be more than just cash.

Pax Americana

Gore is surprisingly sanguine about the trend of China to overtake the US in economic and military dominance in the world. Having surpassed the US this year (when adjusted for purchasing power) as the world’s largest economy, it is a matter of time before China invests more in military spending .  Currently, the US invests 4.6 % of GDP in their military while China spends 2.6%.  Gore is counting on the convergence of interests of the middle class around the world to mediate a new era of global politics.  He does not see one dominated by Chinese interests so much as one where human rights are strengthened by an informed citizenry with access to and influence on the Global Mind – the internet.

Do’s and Don’t’s

Gore concludes with a series of thoughtfully considered pieces of advice:

  • Do invest in the stabilization of population growth through the empowerment and education of the women of developing countries
  • Do redesign pension and health care programs so that they can be supported in societies with a greater proportion of elderly
  • Do design our growing cities for energy efficiency
  • Do develop criteria for the genetic modification of humans, livestock and crops
  • Do regulate the use of synthetic lifeforms, nanomaterials and surveillance drones
  • Don’t sell deadly weapons to groups around the world
  • Don’t use antibiotics as a livestock growth stimulant
  • Don’t drill for Arctic oil
  • Don’t  allow high-speed , high-frequency trading to dominate stock markets
  • Don’t rely on geo-engineering proposals to block out the sun as an escape hatch for global warming

It is clear that the future will be different. I, for one, am glad to be forewarned by Al Gore’s reflections on where it may lead us.

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