Amusing Themselves to Death in Davos

[…] the commercial always addresses itself to the psychological needs of the viewer. Thus it is not merely therapy. It is instant therapy. Indeed, it puts forward a psychological theory of unique axioms: The commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast, and that they are solvable fast through the interventions of technology, techniques and chemistry.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Next week, the rich and powerful will again gather to do business at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Such fairs are known since the Middle Ages and have always be accompanied by spectacle, acrobats, artists, and prostitutes. On this level, very little seems to have changed.

To refer to the attendees of the WEF as the “global elite” is clearly unwarranted, since wealth and power are no personal traits. Every idiot born as the heir to the throne is powerful and it does not take brains to inherit a fortune. There is no evidence for the WEF participants being intellectually or ethically superior to the rest of us.

I don’t know many people at the WEF, but I am sure that most of them are nice and would have been perfectly harmless in a normal environment. However, with power and wealth comes responsibility and I would therefore like to offer them some reading advice.

The first book they need to read is The Affluent Society, written by the eminent economist J. K. Galbraith in 1958. His main message is that the capitalist system, which was invented to raise the capital required for industrialization, does not make sense in a society where all material needs have been met. Why increase industrial production, when we already have everything we need? In the affluent society, the manufacturer creates the demand for a product through marketing. It is therefore not surprising, that two of most powerful companies in the world today – Google and Facebook – are advertising companies. Such a situation was clearly not envisioned by Adam Smith. In short, capitalism became obsolete more than 60 years ago.

The second book is Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, which deals with the effects modern media has had on our ability to reason and discuss. As the book was written in 1984, his analysis is limited to television, but the invention of the internet and social media has only exacerbated the trend. Anyone brought up on visual media has the feeling that any topic can be treated in less than 60 seconds in an entertaining manner. If the news does not amuse me, I switch to a different channel. Nobody would have listened to Winston Churchill’s speeches, had there been a quiz show running on a different channel. “We will fight on the beaches, but only if we get the chance to win a trip to Las Vegas”.

Finally, you might consider reading The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter. He starts from that fact that all complex societies have failed sooner or later. The reason was always the diminishing return on investments in complexity. At one point, the costs of maintaining a complex infrastructure exceeds the income generated by it, which leads to a collapse. Incidentally, Swiss ski resorts are perfect examples of this phenomenon. Despite the fact that global warming will destroy winter tourism, the ski resorts invest increasing amounts of money in equipment for artificial snow. Eventually, the revenue will be insufficient to maintain the expensive infrastructure and there will be no resources left to dismantle it. Thus, ruins are formed.

Which brings us to Davos. The diagram below shows the average temperature in Switzerland for almost 160 years. The WEF was founded in 1971 and has been running for 50 years. If it continues for another 50 years, there will be no snow left in Davos. This is not a political statement, but a simple fact.

The interesting question is whether the WEF has the intellectual flexibility and the courage to face the truth about what is happening to our planet and what needs to be done about it. I am skeptical, since – as Einstein pointed out – it is difficult to solve problems using the same kind of thinking that lead to their creation.

In fact, I believe that the people gathering at the WEF are almost uniquely unqualified to solve the problems facing humanity today. Most of them are marketing experts (including the politicians), who have made a career out of catering to people’s desires for pleasure and fun rather than to their needs. The people who actually understand how the real physical world works, i.e. the climate scientist, the renewable energy expert, the biologist, or even the historian or political scientist, are not welcome. If they do get invited, they are paraded like exotic zoo animals in discussion forums designed not to accomplish anything. In today’s world, the inmates are running the asylum and the arsonists are responsible for fire safety.

The plot below shows the correlation between global energy demand, global carbon emissions, and global GDP during the last 50 years. Unfortunately, economists are not very careful with error estimates, which made it impossible for me to add error bars. Nonetheless, it seems clear that these three quantities are essentially the same.

If we want to lower carbon dioxide emissions by at least 7.6% annually in order to stay below 1.5°C of warming, we also need to reduce energy demand and GDP. It is simply impossible to lower global emissions quickly using new technology, as any investment in renewable energy or energy efficiency has a certain payback time. It takes at least two years for a solar panel to generate the energy needed to produce it. In other words, investments in renewable energy will initially lead to more emissions and not less. This is not an argument against renewable energy, but one cannot ignore basic laws of physics and common logic. Some more unquestionable facts can be found in the public lecture I gave at the ETH in Zurich: You Can’t Have Your Planet And Eat It.

When Galileo was sentenced by the Inquisition in 1633, it was because he threatened the church’s monopoly on The Truth. Likewise, the financial sector and the fossil fuel industry feel threatened by the facts of global warming. To quote Bertrand Russell: “The Inquisition was successful in putting an end to science in Italy, which did not revive there for centuries.” The participants of the WEF seem determined to put an end to humanity. This is very annoying, as the very same people could actually stop climate change.

Let’s Solve the Climate Crisis in 2020

In order to stop climate change, we need to call on less than 300 companies to compensate their carbon emissions. Somehow, this does not seem impossible.

By Henrik Nordborg
Zurich, 2019-12-29

The American historian Barbara W. Tuchmann begins her book The March of Folly with the following observation:

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?

Tuchman, Barbara W., The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.

She goes on to describe a number of examples of governments acting stupidly, even though they had all the information required for rational decisions. The book, which was published in 1984, only covers events up to the Vietnam war. Looking at the world today, we could easily add many more examples governmental madness. The question is only whether there will be anyone left to read them.

It is now obvious that humanity has failed to react to the threat of climate change and that we still do not have the faintest idea how to solve the problem. Both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement have failed to produce any tangible results and we are rapidly running out of time. The most recent reports by climate scientists indicate that we are close to reaching important tipping points, which would make climate change irreversible. On the other hand, greenhouse gas emissions are higher than ever before and are still increasing. Humanity is accelerating towards the precipice.

Given that we have less than ten years of carbon budget left at current emission rates, one could argue that we have already passed the political point of no return. Staying below 1.5°C of warming would require cutting global CO2 emissions by at least 7.6% annually, starting right now. There is zero probability of this happening as a result of international climate talks. In other words, humanity has about as much chance of surviving the 21st century as the proverbial snowball in hell.

It does not have to be like this. Most carbon emissions (carbon dioxide and methane) result from the activities of a small number of fossil fuel producers. Requiring them to compensate all the emissions resulting from the fuel they use and sell will introduce a global price on carbon emissions, incentivizing people to use less fossil fuel and to invest in alternatives. Do we want to force a couple of hundred companies to pay up, or do we accept the end of life as we know it? We only have a few years left to decide.

Global Climate Compensation

The simple truth is that we need to stop using fossil fuel as quickly as possible. In a market-based economy, this is most easily achieved by introducing a high and increasing price on carbon emissions globally. The only problem is that poor people cannot afford higher energy prices, which is why carbon prizing must be coupled to a financial redistribution scheme to be socially acceptable. One way to achieve all this is the following scheme for Global Carbon Compensation:

  1. All producers of fossil fuel pay a fee proportional to their production to a global fund.
  2. The money from the fund is distributed among the world’s nations on a per capita basis.
  3. The carbon price increases with time and with the carbon concentration in the atmosphere.

For simplicity, we can consider a price of 100 USD per ton of carbon dioxide to start with. With current emissions of approximately 37 Gt CO2 per year, the fund will receive 3.7 trillion USD annually. This is a lot of money but still less than the 5.2 trillion USD of annual subsidies given to the fossil fuel sector according the IMF. Every nation will receive a sum corresponding to approximately USD 480 per capita. This is a significant amount of money for many developing countries in the world. Thus, countries with a small carbon footprint will benefit and those with a high footprint will suffer.

A carbon price of 100 USD/t is not enough to decarbonize the world economy, but it will have significant impact. Here are some examples of price increases based on carbon emissions:

  1. Electricity from coal-fired power plants: 8 cents/kWh
  2. Gasoline: 24 cents/liter or 92 cents/gallon
  3. Barrel of oil: 40 USD
  4. Flying from London to New York and back: 180 USD economy, 340 USD business class.

Why this makes sense

In order to burn one ton of carbon, we need to add 2.67 tons of oxygen to produce 3.67 tons of carbon dioxide. Without this oxygen and the right to emit the resulting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, carbon-based fuels would be worthless. In other words, the business models of the fossil fuel companies depend on their right to destroy the atmosphere. There is no reason for why they should not pay for this right. In other words, the carbon footprint of a fossil fuel company consists of the direct emissions and all the carbon sold.

Fortunately, there are fewer than 300 significant fossil fuel companies in the world and we know exactly how much carbon they produce. We do not question their right to do business or to be profitable, but they must pay for their use of the atmosphere, which belongs to all of us. Obviously, they will react by increasing the price of fuel, thereby passing on the higher costs to their customers. The effect will be similar to that of a global carbon tax, but with fossil fuel producers and not the governments raising prices. This is an important distinction. The price of fossil fuel depends on many factors, such as the production cost, the carbon prize, and the profits of the producers. Today, fossil fuel companies are highly profitable, and their profits are paid for by consumers everywhere. Anyone arguing that access to cheap fossil fuel is important to society, needs to explain why the profit-making of the oil companies is tolerated. They can’t have it both ways. If these companies are required to pay climate compensation, the cost would be split between their shareholders and their customers.

Just as it is very efficient to implement the carbon prize directly at the source, it makes sense to use national governments to distribute the money from the fund. This has the additional benefit of not violating national sovereignty. Every government will receive a large sum of money, which it can use as it sees fit. Since fossil fuel prices will increase significantly, it will be wise to use the money for investments in renewable energy and to protect the weakest in society from the effects of rising living costs. In developing countries, it will be possible to do a lot more than that. After all, giving everyone in the Global South a universal basic income of 40 USD per month would change a lot of things.

Global Climate Compensation will transfer large sums of money from countries with a high per capita carbon footprint to countries using less resources. This is both necessary – in order to avoid an unprecedented refugee crisis and human suffering – and fair. After all, the industrialized nations do not have to pay for their historic emissions and the damage they have caused in the past. Furthermore, contributing to the fund is voluntary, as nobody is obliged to use fossil fuel. A significant increase in the price of fossil fuel will automatically lead to a reduction in demand, meaning that the figure of 3.7 trillion USD given above is probably far too high. Energy efficient countries will benefit from the GCC, regardless of their wealth and average income. The scheme therefore does not punish rich and developed countries but inefficient ones. The fund could be managed by the United Nations, which would give a badly needed boost to international collaboration without the need to establish yet another organization, but this is not necessary. The general rule is to simply pay out the money to countries based on the size of their population and not to interfere in national politics. However, a country behaving badly could be black-listed and lose its right to receive payments from the fund.

It also makes sense to couple the emission price to the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere in order to prevent a massive sell-off of fossil fuel. As soon as it becomes clear that the price of carbon will increase, fossil fuel producers will have strong incentive to sell as much as possible as quickly as possible. With a cleverly implemented carbon prize, this sell-off would simply make the prize increase even faster.

Is it possible to decarbonize the economy without sacrificing economic growth? Global Carbon Compensation is the only way to find out. If the proponents of technological solutions are right, the introduction of global carbon prizing will simply lead to a rapid decarbonization of the economy. If not, carbon emissions will sink anyway, but mainly through reduced consumption and sufficiency.

It is very difficult to find an argument against GCC which is not based on simple greed or selfishness. The principle that carbon emissions should cost the same everywhere makes a lot of sense. Likewise, it is easy to accept the idea that all humans have the same right to the oxygen in the atmosphere. Implementing this plan through fossil fuel companies and national government means that less than 500 parties need to be involved in working out the details. Furthermore, it the plan does not even need political approval, as there is no law preventing private companies from making donations to a fund run by the UN even today.

How to make it happen

How realistic is this plan for Global Carbon Compensation? Obviously, the usual suspects like the fossil fuel industry and the governments of oil-producing nations will be vehemently opposed to it. The real question is therefore how many of us are prepared to oppose them.

The idea behind GCC is to give the fossil fuel producers a fair chance to show that they are willing to be part of solving the climate crisis. If they agree, they can start contributing to the fund immediately. If not, they have officially declared themselves enemies of humanity and lost all rights to exist. We will go after the companies, their owners, and their employees in every way possible, including government sanctions, legal actions, and activism. A company producing fossil fuel but refusing to pay GCC will be considered the moral equivalent of drug cartel but will find it a bit more difficult to hide. Owning shares in or working for a fossil fuel company not participating in GCC will be considered a crime against humanity. Governments and major corporations will only buy fossil fuel from corporations participating in GCC.

The time has come to get serious about solving the climate crisis. It will involve an unprecedented level of international collaboration and the transfer of financial resources from rich countries to poorer ones. Global Climate Compensation accomplishes this with a minimum amount of bureaucracy and government intervention and the plan could be implemented immediately. It will not solve all problems, but it is our best chance addressing climate change.

Are we going to allow a small number of fossil fuel producers to kill our children? If not, we’d better start acting now. So let’s demand Global Climate Compensation as soon as possible. There are less then 300 fossil fuel companies and millions of us, so it should not be too difficult.

Ist die Zukunft mehrheitsfähig?

Warum werden gerade diejenigen Wünsche, die sich auf Irrtümern gründen, in uns übermächtig? Nichts haben sie mir später mehr übelgenommen als meine Weigerung, mich ihrem fatalen Wunschentzücken hinzugeben.

Christa Wolf, Kassandra
Théâtre Aventicum

Ein kürzlich erschienenes Editorial in der Washington Post gibt zu denken. Bezugnehmend auf einen Bericht des World Resources Institute wird die Frage gestellt, ob es in 30 Jahren möglich sein wird, die Menschheit zu ernähren, ohne den Planeten zu verheizen. Heute wird weltweit genug Essen produziert, aber der ökologische Preis dafür ist sehr hoch und die Treibhausgasemissionen der Landwirtschaft reichen aus, um das Klima des Planeten zu destabilisieren. Dazu kommen andere Probleme, wie Bodenerosion und die Zerstörung von Biodiversität. Auf die Frage, ob es möglich sein wird, die Lebensmittelproduktion bei reduziertem ökologischem Fussabdruck signifikant zu steigern, haben wir schlicht keine Antwort.

Was ist mit einer Gesellschaft los, die eine massive Nahrungsversorgungskrise in weniger als 30 Jahren vorhersagen kann, aber nicht fähig ist, darauf zu reagieren? Wieso stellen wir nicht Ressourcen zur Verfügung, um dieses Problem zu lösen? Junge Menschen sind gesetzlich verpflichtet, Geld in Pensionskassen anzulegen, um vielleicht in 40 Jahren eine Rente zu bekommen. Das Geld wird teilweise in absurde Bauprojekte oder Ölförderung investiert, damit irgendwie eine fiktive Rendite erwirtschaftet werden kann. Es scheint aber niemanden zu interessieren, ob es in 30 Jahren etwas zu essen gibt. Das ist doch absurd!

Ein grosses Problem der heutigen Welt ist, dass sich die Mächtigen gar nicht für die Zukunft interessieren. Da sie mehrheitlich männlich, alt, weiss, und reich sind, haben sie andere Prioritäten. Wirtschaftlich macht es für diese Leute keinen Sinn, auf Konsum und Ressourcenverbrauch zu verzichten, damit die nächste Generation auch etwas zu essen haben wird. Die Jugend und Menschen aus dem globalen Süden haben leider politisch und wirtschaftlich wenig zu sagen. Somit erstaunt es nicht, dass die heutige Klima- und Umweltpolitik mit Palliativpflege grosse Ähnlichkeiten aufweist. Es geht nur darum, die letzten Tage der Menschheit möglichst komfortabel zu gestalten. Auf lange Sicht sind wir eh alle tot.

Auch in gut funktionierenden Demokratien ist die Situation nicht besser. Wir müssen uns wohl mit dem Gedanken abfinden, dass die Zukunft nicht mehrheitsfähig ist. Für eine transformative Veränderung der Gesellschaft, die für das Aufhalten der Klimakatastrophe erforderlich wäre, lassen sich im Moment keine politischen Mehrheiten finden. Die zentrale Frage ist, ob die Menschen wirklich bereit sind, ihre Kinder auf dem Altar des Materialismus zu opfern. Oder sind sie vielleicht einfach ungenügend informiert? (vgl. “The hope lies in the fact that people don’t know what is going on”, Interview mit Greta Thunberg.)

Hören wir doch endlich auf, über technische Lösungen und Details zu reden. Es spielt keine Rolle, ob wir die CO2-Emissionen mit einer Steuer oder über Zertifikatshandel senken. Das zentrale Problem ist doch, dass wir diese Emissionen gar nicht senken wollen, weil wir bei wachsender Bevölkerung immer mehr Energie pro Kopf brauchen. Wer jährlich aus Langeweile tausende von Kilometern fliegen möchte, braucht mehr Energie als wenn er zuhause bliebe. Mit einem zweieinhalb Tonnen schweren SUV herumzufahren macht absolut keinen Sinn, egal ob dieser mit Strom oder Benzin angetrieben wird. Wer eine grosse Wohnfläche hat, braucht mehr Ressourcen und Energie als jemand mit wenig Platzbedarf. Wer täglich Fleisch isst, hat einen hohen ökologischen Fussabdruck. Man kann nicht mehr essen und weniger scheissen. Mehr gibt es dazu nicht zu sagen.

Die Klimakrise ist im Kern eine ethisch-moralische Krise, weshalb auch viele Menschen so emotional auf angebliche Weltverbesser*innen reagieren. Wir sehen Greta Thunberg und verstehen sofort, dass sie recht hat und uns moralisch weit überlegen ist. Ihre Botschaft «Du musst dein Leben ändern» kommt aber schlecht an. Wir wollen gar nicht akzeptieren, dass wir eine Wahl haben. Wenn wir einen lebenswerten Planeten erhalten wollen, müssen wir auch bereit sein, die dafür erforderlichen Massnahmen zu beschliessen und umzusetzen. Es ist dabei egal, ob sie wirtschaftlich Sinn machen oder nicht. Der Homo Oeconomicus wird den Planeten nicht retten, der Homo Sapiens vielleicht schon.

Es stellt sich somit die Sinnfrage. Werde ich am Ende meines Lebens die Gewissheit ertragen können, dass mein Lebensstil die Zukunft meiner Kinder zerstört hat und dass ich nichts unternommen habe, um dies zu verhindern? Werde ich nicht glücklicher, wenn ich zusammen mit jungen Menschen für die Zukunft kämpfe? Für mich war die Entscheidung einfach. Als Egoist und Feigling zu sterben, macht wirklich keinen Spass.

PS: Ein interessanter Beitrag zu Bescheidenheit und Lebenszufriedenheit ist heute im SRF Kontext erschienen.

Eating Your Planet: The Movie

It was a great pleasure to give a lecture on the climate crises at the ETH last Wednesday. The timing could not have been better (or worse), as the European parliament declared a “climate and environmental emergency” the same day. Thanks to Thomas Schmid and the IEEE for organizing the event. Thanks also to everyone who attended the lecture and especially to those who gave me feedback. I promise to respond to the e-mails as soon as possible.
The presentation, a video recording, and a lot of information and sources can be found here:

Public lecture in Zurich

I am looking forward to my next lecture at the ETH in Zürich, organized by the Swiss Chapter of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT). It will be similar to the lecture I gave at Hilti a couple of weeks ago, with some recent updates.

Where: ETH Zurich
When: 2019-11-27 18:30 – 20:00
Admission free.
Registration and further details:

Here is the flyer as PDF: SSIT-flyer.pdf. Please feel free to distribute.