Monday, 28 December 2009

The American Ponzi Scheme

The Economist double Christmas edition was full of interesting articles to read over the holiday ranging from an analysis of modern politeness to climate change and forests. Looking backwards, the Economist provides an excellent commentary on the developments that have brought society to where it is. Inevitably a conventional economic view prevails. A focus on economic methods and economic outcomes has been a successful recipe - if rising GDP is the measure of success. Some of us have started to see that a globalized world of ever rising GDP and ever rising consumption is a Ponzi scheme that must eventually collapse. Conventional economics is weak on the tools and concepts to break out of the problems that the word will encounter in the coming decades.

The Economist wrote about America under the title ‘A Ponzi scheme that works’. In the article, The Economist explained that ‘immigrations keeps America young, strong and growing’. It quoted the view of an American think-tank (the New America Foundation) that the US population could grow to 1 billion by 2100. For a country that is already over consuming resources at a rate that is 100% greater than its ecological capacity, this seems impossible. Now, America could reduce consumption to the average European level to live within the capacity of the resources within its own borders. A population of 1 billion will need to walk on the planet with very small ecological boots. The Economist has chosen its words well – Ponzi schemes always appear to be sound until they collapse and the underlying logic is exposed as a scam.

I am not accusing the US of knowingly running a scam, but the US needs to learn that it is in the midst of a Ponzi scheme of huge proportions. It would be better to spear it now, than to await the reckoning that must follow later this century. I admire America, and many Americans, but the American way is not the direction for the world to follow.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Copenhagen Hard Truths

I did not expect very much from the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. In making my assessment of the future path of civilization I factored in the assumption that there would be a weak deal in Copenhagen. I did not expect that it would quite as weak as the toothless declaration ‘noted’ in the concluding session of the conference. This was political face saving at its most extreme. An observer ignoring the political spin could only conclude that nothing of substance had been achieved.

It is very sad to see that humanity remains very firmly on the path to destruction. This is the logical outcome I describe in the opening pages of my book Victim of Success; Civilization at Risk. I am not in the depths of despair – yet– because I am certain that we have the capability to change direction. The problem is a lack of political will and a lack of popular support for tough measures.

I hope that we acknowledge the outcome from Copenhagen for what it is – failure. From abject failure only a fool would stand up and try to repeat the same process. An intelligent reaction to such total failure is to pause, reassess the situation, rethink the approach and then push for a solution based on different parameters. My book, Green Outcomes in a Real World, to be published in 2010 builds on the ideas in my book Adapt and Thrive presenting new thinking, new methods, new ideas and a new approach. This is what we need; not more of the same.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Salute the Engineers

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is due to fly on Tuesday. If it lives up to expectations, it will use 20% less fuel than other comparable aircraft. The design has pushed the boundaries of commercial aircraft design using lightweight materials such as carbon fibre.

On a much smaller scale, the McManners family has taken possession of a prototype E-Mini at a ceremony at the BMW car plant in Oxford. My fellow drivers (E-Pioneers as we are called) will be testing a fleet of 40 cars on the roads of Southern England over the next six months. These are not electric milk floats with racing stripes down the side. These perform like a good car should, handle as you would expect from BMW and are quality cars. The E-Mini has the feel of the 21st century about it.

Both the Boeing 787 and the BMW E-Mini are bold moves that have required engineers to work outside their comfort zone. The business leaders in these traditionally conservative industries should be praised for pushing ahead. A car built today could be on the road for well over a decade; an aircraft could still be flying 30 years or more from now. A weakness in the design could be a time bomb waiting to sink the company. It takes courage to bet the future on novel design. This is the sort of courage the world needs more of.

Meanwhile, the Copenhagen climate conference has reached the half-way stage. The tiny Pacific ocean archipelago of Tuvalu has been speaking up, calling for a binding agreement that will limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius, much more ambitious than the big nations are contemplating. We have another week to wait before we know the nature of the deal our leaders will hatch. I suspect that Tuvalu will be ignored. It will be politically easier to resettle the 11,000 islanders than find a way to reduce carbon emissions enough to save their homes from being swamped by rising sea levels.

The 787 Dreamliner and the E-Mini are small first steps in the transformation of society. If we think that Tuvalu should be rescued, we will have to give our engineers the brief to start taking giant leaps. I believe it can be done. Where there is a will, there is an engineer who can deliver.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Admire my Carbon Boots

I write this on the eve of the Copenhagen climate conference. Carbon footprints are all the rage. Many people now understand the case for low-energy light-bulbs and choose to buy less thirsty cars. People want to be seen to be reducing the size of their carbon footprint. For big business in Europe it has become a requirement. Carbon footprints are now important for facilities managers and are coming onto the radar screens of financial directors and chief executives. For many, this is in response to the carbon reduction legislation, changes in car tax and the threat of higher energy costs in the future.

There are also businesses and individual people that want to go further. They want to reduce their carbon emissions because they believe that it is the right thing to do. It is becoming ‘cool’ to show off smaller carbon boots, even if they are a more expensive.

For some other people, the fashion remains to arrive in the largest, butchest SUV on the market. These cost more than other cars of course, but that may be part of the attraction, to display the ability to pay. To these people, big carbon boots are still the fashion accessory of choice.

It is not just the rich who like to show off. In a street on the less affluent side of my town there is a competition running. One house has Christmas lights that include Father Christmas and his reindeers in full neon glory. There are lights around every part of the house where a cable could be strung. The owner must be very proud of his (or her) creation and not too worried by the numbers ticking rapidly on the electricity meter. This house is not the ‘winner’. Further along the street another house has surpassed even this, with a similar Christmas light display but also the ground of the front yard is covered in a carpet of lights.

The fashion needs to shift to smaller carbon boots so that those who currently take pride in big clodhopping carbon boots are made to feel old fashioned and out-of-date. This fashion shift could be far more powerful than legislation. Over time, smoking has made the transition from ‘cool’ to ‘offensive’. Big carbon footprints will also go out of fashion in a similar way. Big SUVs and conspicuous energy consumption will be seen as naff. This shift in society will come whether there is an agreement at Copenhagen or not.