Search

misreportedandmisremembered

Bringing context and perspective to the chaos

Silent but Deadly

The modern environmental movement owes much of it’s mainstream awareness in the Western world to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an environmental science book that primarily focused upon ascribing the visible loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation to the use of artificial pesticides in agriculture. The book accused chemical companies of spreading misinformation concerning the use of certain compounds, and is attributed as a pivotal turning point in the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the categorization of the chemical compound DDT, once sprayed on crops, as a pesticide not safe for regular consumption.

The movement also brought onto the mainstream conscience a new concept – that our impacts upon the environmental were tangible, attributable and could be traced back to externalities from human activity. This conceptual leap facilitated the adoption into the mainstream the idea that carbon emissions from industrial activity were harming the environment, even if individual people had difficulty ascribing the impacts of this change into their daily lives. But describing a pollutant – defined as a substance introduced by human activity that has a detrimental impact on the surrounding environment – often conjures the images of sea turtles eating plastic bags, landfills of scrap metal and used electronics, and noxious smokestacks belching black smoke over the stockyards in 1900’s Chicago.

It is this variant of pollution – physical – that actually poses a greater risk than many anticipate. Simply understood as the introduction of discarded materials into the environment, the scope is enormous. Studies have shown that in plastic alone, 4-12 million tonnes are dumped into the ocean every year, with concentrations currently found as high as 580,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre of ocean. Exact figures are notoriously hard to come by when calculating dumping, as it is a practice conducted by individuals, groups, industries, organizations and governments in every single coastal nation on Earth. But the average annual wastage of 8 million pounds tonnes (over 17.6 trillion pounds) has the “triple threat” impact of interfering with the feeding patterns of animals, increasing the likelihood of entanglement and drowning for marine life, and leaching toxins into the environmental as degradation occurs over thousands of years.

Let’s start with plastic: Plastic production has doubled every 11 years since mass production began in the 1950s, with corresponding increases in the concentrations found in the marine environment. Since the 1970s, trends have traced that over half of all seabird species are in decline, with a 2015 study in the National Academy of Sciences estimating that over 90% of all seabirds are now contaminated with plastic, with figures estimating that the number will increase to 99% by 2050. Most startlingly for humans, the areas with the highest concentrations were not the expected regions, such as the infamous Great Pacific garbage patch currently making up as much as 8% of the entire Pacific Ocean, but rather in Southern coastal regions where ecological diversity of species is the highest. These findings show that areas once thought as pristine have an elevated risk, and with one in six humans depending primarily upon fish as the protein source in their diets, the trophic repercussions of excess plastics could see the degradation of 16% of the global food supply faster than expected.

Plastic is far from the only problem: mass consumption of electronics, along with an average replacement rate of 3-5 years, has seen disposal of electronics and manufactured goods skyrocket. Once disposed of, electronic goods can be recycled – the United States of America claims to recycle 15% of all electronic goods disposed of nationally. But with recycling programs for used electronics only introduced 70 years after commercial popularization of the goods themselves and the EPA estimating that over 2.17 million tonnes of electronics were disposed of without being recycled in 2015, that is a far cry from being the norm. Additionally, a 2015 UN report found that over 90% of global electronic waste (approximately 41 million tonnes) is illegally dumped annually by developed nations into developing nations, costing $52M USD and bypassing the recycling market entirely.

The danger here is twofold: electronics do not degrade in natural environments, creating vast landfills of e-waste, and complex machinery leaches chemicals into the environment, including volatile compounds and heavy metals. Lead, cadmium and mercury have been found in excess quantities harmful to human health in e-waste dumps. And unlike developed nations, where worker safety regulations exist to protect employees from contact with harmful substances, e-waste dumps are manned by recyclers, often children, who burn plastics to access valuable copper and rare earth minerals contained in circuitry and hardware. A similar problem exists with the disposal of scrap metal and used appliances. High levels of zinc, cadmium, mercury and copper were found in yards mined by children, working gloveless and inhaling the fumes from stacks of burning garbage.

Nations have taken steps towards regulating and penalizing the dumping of physical pollution, which has served to change some behaviour. Recycling rates for electronics are increasing year-over-year for both consumers and industry-members. Technologies focused on improving recycling methods improve annually, and the global recycling industry for electronics alone is now valued at $410B USD. But the indication as to whether to panic can be best informed by Canadian scientists in 2015 claiming that marine plastics are “the new DDT”, posing the same level of systemic risk that the chemical compound once did. One can only hope that such warnings inspire the same level of action that Carson drew with her plea for a better world.

 

Advertisements

Inflated Importance

The year is 2045 and life bears little resemblance to today. The modern economy collapsed following the destruction of the American empire in the depression of the 2030s following the third great war in 2026. Pockets of humanity have begun to rebuild from the ashes as feudal societies emerge in the craters of ancient cities. You are a high-ranking official put in charge of overseeing the economic growth of your new community. You immediately identify a problem that may potentially hamper growth – your town utilizes a barter system, trading goods for services directly.

You, an intrepid sort, take it upon yourself to find a more efficient system of exchange, and invent a monetary system around units of currency called dulers (unfortunately, literacy rates aren’t what they used to be. For the sake of efficiency, we’ll call it a dollar.) As with the birth of any new currency, you must first create the value this dollar represents. Lacking both the metal gold itself and a use for shiny nonsense, you choose instead to utilize a fiat system, meaning currency is backed by governing decree. This allows for the store of value to exist because, in times of scarcity, dollar value is not tied to a finite good (commodity money), but represents a claim on its own value (representative money).

At first, your experiment is a great success – the simplified medium of exchange no longer requires individuals to cede tracts of land for services rendered. But a problem emerges when the village experiences a shortage of cows, and the price of beef rises to unbearable heights. All of a sudden, the value of a cow skyrockets while the value of money fails to rise accordingly. You scramble to adjust, raising interest rates to make money more expensive to borrow, and therein more valuable, but it is too late: your precious duler has lost all semblance of sensibility, and you must watch as villagers push wheelbarrows of paper currency to stores in an effort to buy a quarter pound of grazing grass fed German Angus.

Inflation, the rate at which the value of goods and services rises and the purchasing power of a single unit of currency falls, is inherently difficult to understand and even tougher to manage. Inflation is marked by an inflation rate, measured via thorough examination of goods included in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), an index that measures the market price level of a basket of consumers goods and services purchased by households. This index excludes volatile goods, such as food and energy prices, to ensure that data is not skewed. The relationship goes that as goods and services become more expensive, the relative value of a dollar falls. It is the responsibility of the Central Bank to ensure that dollar inflation, or deflation (where the value of goods decreases relative to the value of the dollar) is managed to prevent a positive feedback loop that sees wheelbarrows full of currency being needed to purchase pieces of short horned cattle.

Central banks manage a variety of tasks, all of which centre around creating long-term, stable growth and creating wealth for the highest possible number of people. The key word is stable – maintaining a consistent inflation rate means focusing on the supply of money itself. Preventing large volumes of capital from entering or exiting the financial system at any one time is the simplest measure of doing this – history is abound with examples of empires going bankrupt from acquiring too much wealth at any one time, flooding the market with value and reducing the value of the dollar as a unit of currency (what is the use of one dollar when you are surrounded by piles of gold?). Examples also exist of the opposite – the recent demonetization of 86% of distributed rupees in India saw consumer spending nosedive and inflation hit it’s lowest rate in two years (an economy with 7% growth targets can scarcely afford lack of inflationary stability).

This swift entrance and exit was a bigger problem when currencies were backed by precious metals. But given that fluctuations in money supply still impact value, and money is created via government decree, policymakers can use these fiscal policy tools to fluctuate value when desired. Pulling the value of money in one direction versus another has its benefits: inflation, manifesting in the form of increased investment or economic growth, can be an indicator of a strong economy, is a prompt to adjust wages and pricing, furthering economic growth for all parties and avoiding stagnation. It is also incredibly useful for borrowers, ensuring that the value of cash rises with interest rates, meaning they can ideally be repaid without direct loss. Deflation, the decrease in the value of goods relative to a dollar, can be advantageous for consumers in the short-term, but is indicative of a lack of spending or investment overall, meaning that there is no wealth being created, and that a salary paid to an individual will be actually be worth less in the long run than it was when they started (given that the price of goods fluctuates in the short run, this is not a good thing for individuals or economies).

A typical target rate for inflation for Central Banks the world over is 2%. Inflation or deflation at extremes see the word Hyper added to each. Hyperdeflation can see the value of goods being driven so low that each unit of money becomes incredibly expensive to acquire, fuelling such periods as the Great Depression and the Asian Tiger Crisis in the late 1990s. Hyperinflation, where the value of goods skyrockets corresponding to the value of a dollar, has resulted in scenarios such as late 2000s Zimbabwe, where in 2008 a single US dollar could be converted to the local currency for the measly sum of $2.6T ZWD. Comical images and economic collapse aside, the country fully switched over to utilizing the American dollar in 2015.

Inflation has such wide-ranging impacts, we often fail to recognize that it is the fundamental reason why our economy can exist: Investment into equity, such as housing, or debt, such as bond purchases, would be non-sensical were it not for the tendency of money to increase in value over time. Hyperinflation sinks entire nations, and hyperdeflation can cause depression that sinks entire regions. The very nature of economics and money having value itself is tied to this concept – without it, stagnant currency would have long ago been done away with, as it would have failed to suit the needs of today’s economy and present value would be all there was to financial calculations. All you would have is cash without the cows.

 

Mind the Gap

Introductory-level economics is based on the principle that perfect competition is theoretically possible – this means that all buyers and suppliers are equally well-informed, that all firms holds equal degrees of market power, and that entry and exit of the market can occur at any time without barriers. In the real world, this concept is laughable – any competitive industry consists of firms of varying sizes (the exceptions being oligopolies or monopolies) with varying degrees of market power. There are also external actors looking to ease or impose pressure, primarily by reducing the monetary burden placed upon suppliers or consumers to make specific products more appealing to purchase or produce. These are known as subsidies, often offered by the state, that provide direct support to incentivize certain behaviours.

The theory of economics is that markets, within a free market system, will self-regulate as supply adjusts to changes in demand and vice versa. The provision of subsidies is one of the more minor ways of distorting this “balance” (a more extreme version being currency manipulation or any other action taken in a planned economy), as the reality of free-market systems is that they are riddled with power structures that reduce the buying power of consumers, especially in larger global markets. Often, subsidies and support on the supply side are directed towards essential but non-competitive sectors (agriculture) or industries in their infancy (clean technology). By artificially lowering the cost of production and adoption, governments have the ability to encourage or reduce the cost of certain behaviours, which often include essential services like providing education, lowering the cost of health insurance, or providing rebates on installing solar panels.

But here a snag arises – subsidies are funded through taxpayer dollars, meaning that the effectiveness of programs must be judged against the potential ROI of investment into a venture with a lower opportunity cost. This is part of the fundamental divide between fiscal hawks and doves – ensuring the finite resource of taxpayer funding is not wasted in areas where greater utility could be generated elsewhere (a true conservative often believes the greatest utility of a dollar is to be had in the hands in the consumer). The line between direct and indirect subsidies is often that the government can either provide support directly and recoup a percentage of their investment, or can provide funding indirectly and see no fiscal return, hoping that this method is indirectly funded by increases in support-related GDP or employment growth in targeted sectors. So, government subsidies play an essential role in ironing out the gaps left by the free market – right?

To simplify a technical explanation, a subsidy to a firm acts as revenue, which mimics increased demand for a product. It allows the producer to reduce their costs of production per unit and sell on the market at a reduced price, passing savings onto consumers. Governments often claim to operate with a mandate of only providing support to industries with a societal benefit – but the vague nature of this definition makes it easily exploitable for political opportunists. Deciding where subsidies are allocated can be the result of careful policy-decisions or “pork barrel spending”, an American term coined to describe government spending in a specific congressional representative’s district. Subsidies can be provided either to sectors – oil & gas, telecoms, utilities and the financial sector received 56% of total US government support from 2008 to 2010 – or to individual companies, which include struggling companies such as Alphabet/Google and Walt Disney, with the former receiving over $630M USD since the year 2010.

But the aid provided to organization does trickle down to employees and consumers – the USDA offers rebates on insurance for farms to make it more affordable, supporting domestic industries that may otherwise get outcompeted on the world stage. And until recently, the same theory was used to lower premiums for out-of-pocket costs for health insurance on low or middle income households in the United States. These examples of how providing support to industries impacts employment and lowers costs for consumers illustrate just how complex these discussions can be – even Alphabet/Google, beneficiary of potentially unneeded support, has used it to grow into the world’s 2nd most valuable firm, become a cutting-edge innovator and employ over 72,000 people.

Theoretically, in the case of successful organizations or industries, subsidies can be removed once they are established enough to no longer require support to be successful. But once a subsidy exists, removing it is a tricky process. In theory, industries are supported until they are capable of being competitive in a free-market. But the transitional effect of removing subsidies can see the costs of certain goods actually increased above market value, since firms would have remained profitable without the need to implement the same efficiencies as competitors. Additionally, continued support of an industry can result in lower mobility amongst the labour force, as workers become dependent on subsidies in highly specialized industries and can lack the education needed to find another job when those subsidies are removed. This can create a whole new set of policy problems, where the marginal benefit experienced by many is offset by the severe cost to a smaller few. Saudi Arabia’s recent struggles also illustrate how easy reversing this progress can be – the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef eliminated a layer of government support before reinstating it only months later once he realized it was not politically favourable to attempt to break down the deep state.

So the provision of government subsidies, a monetary tool used to level an unequal playing field, is subject to political whim, is difficult to eliminate without regressive ripple effects, and can result in taxpayers directly funding discounted land taxes for conglomerates. But that does not mean mistakes cannot be rectified – ensuring support can justify a societally favourable return (often generated in non-monetary terms) and can be readily eliminated when the time is right is key. Take Nigeria: a dip in oil prices saw the government remove the national fuel subsidy and increase the price of oil by almost 60% overnight. While previous such attempts has resulted in protests, results this time were more measured, with the majority of Nigerians accepted that higher costs were necessary to relieve the fuel shortages that had arisen. The lesson? Waiting until wasteful subsidies cripple the economy appears to be the only way to remove them without pissing everyone off.

Moving South for the Winter

Gardening is one of the few hobbies in which sitting back and patiently watching plants grow constitutes as an activity. Effective gardeners know that the best gardens require the most planning – focusing on a specific design means early plantings, seasonal alignment of florals and a rich tapestry of species to truly see an anthropogenic ecosystem flourish. But in chaotic conditions, where digging rodents and dry weather wreaks havoc on predictability, growth can be more difficult to manage. But effective planning can help flora mitigate or adapt to even some of the harshest conditions.

As with flowers, so to with businesses – the fostering of a friendly business climate is one of the core tenants of economic liberalization, and policy planning must involve the balancing and execution of multiple regulatory actions to create a climate that removes hurdles from starting businesses, encourages investment and promotes infrastructure growth to support new ventures. But, as with gardens, a difficulty emerges in fostering a business-friendly economic climate in developing nations due to higher than average levels of systemic corruption and poverty, laughably-poor infrastructure and a lack of governmental stability. The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Rankings outline 10 criteria by which economic climates can be benchmarked against or measured from, with only Malaysia placing in the top 30 rankings internationally to represent developing economies (it landed in 23rd place, bolstered by existing protection to minority investors and strong energy infrastructure transmission capacity).

The ten factors by which nations are measured include themes of dealing with governments (ease of starting a business, dealing with construction permits, registering permits and paying taxes), attractiveness for investment (trading across borders and access to credit lines) and legal protections from chicanery (protection for minority investors, ability to enforce contracts and regular capacity to resolve insolvency). Issues of access to electricity and basic services are also measured, as an ability to tap into existing infrastructure greatly reduces needed capital investments for new ventures. As expected, 20 of the top 30 most attractive climates could be found in the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries. The first countries from both Africa and South America to appear respectively were Rwanda in 56th place and Mexico in 47th place respectively.

These two continental regions, often viewed as hubs for resource extraction and neo-mercantilist foreign investment, have an odd double standard that makes them more difficult to evaluate – the rankings index is based not off of polled data from firms, but from evaluations of governmental policies. And strict rules in weak states, which are found more prevalently in the Global South, mean the way business operates in theory and practice can differ drastically. Well-connected firms and organizations in countries with low rankings have seen speed in getting permits and real tax rates similar to firms in more attractive economic bastions (In one state, policies outline a 177 day process for construction permits that local firms say can take as little as 30 days) – leading to the question, to what degree does corruption factor into the unattractiveness of economic climates in the developing world?

Nations with higher rankings within the index are consistently found to have lower rates of graft and bribery than those who placed lower – partially a result of stable and functional bureaucratic infrastructure. Transparency International’s annually published Corruption Perceptions Index provides a similar benchmark to the Ease of Doing Business Rankings, save it examines endemic corruption in a given country’s public sector. In the 2016 index, African and South American countries did not fair well, though the issue of corruption was much discussed in the public sphere. Corruption scandals have plagued governments in the Sub-Saharan African region, with democratic elections seeing graft pushed to the forefront of campaigns in the DRC, Ghana and South Africa. Administrative anti-corruption efforts in Nigeria and Kenya have had little progress, with voters universally expressing frustration and dissatisfaction at the lack of progress made. A common practice of politicians in the region is to run on a platform of “anti-corruption” – laudable, but ultimately meaningless if change never materializes.

South America saw corruption bear a similar volume of headlines through the year, with an average state score of 44/100 (anything less than 50 signifies no effective action is being taken to address graft). The Panama Papers, Brazil’s Lava Jato scandal, and a widespread leadership crisis, either in lack of capacity to tackle systemic issues or in repeated visible attempts to amass personal power beyond their legislative mandate, made news consistently throughout the region, with voters crying out for judicial action against lawmakers. But untangling systemic corruption takes time, and while much has been made of efforts, unravelling complex webs has proven to be an act of much posturing and little progress. A universal suggestion in both regions is the increased strengthening of institutions that hold governments accountable and provide a more equitable playing field for citizens.

Therein lies the answer: increased corruption with a system creates an uneven playing field, where entrenched and well-connected incumbents see their performance continuously rise, and competition from smaller firms is oppressed. Regions with poor business climates see competition as a more fluid concept, with larger firms being offered 30 day permits and less-well connected newcomers being forced to play by established rules, or worse, face extended periods as penalties for avoiding bribery and obeying the law.

Hope exists – placing corruption under the spotlight does ensure the issue is discussed, and government promises to address it can have significance. President Temer’s support of an independent investigation in Brazil has lent credence to it’s findings, and two SSA countries held democratic elections that were ruled as exemplary by third party observers (disappointingly, out of 53 nations, this constitutes progress). But lawmakers must crack down on corruption to eliminate internal barriers to growth and policy implementation that too often see developing nations get in their own way when attempting to attract foreign investment. You can’t expect to grow flowers out of a garden that you keep stomping on – and it takes time and patience in waiting for a garden to bloom.

 

The Freedom to Smile

Landlocked within the awesome beauty of the Himalayas, the Kingdom of Bhutan has seen the title of the Last Great Kingdom bestowed upon it due to it’s natural beauty and long standing independence. Despite their ruler bearing the formal title of Druk Gyalpo, or the Dragon King, Bhutan’s primary noteworthy attribute is the pioneering of an alternative philosophy to GDP known as Gross National Happiness, or GNH, which was monarchically mentioned in the early 1970s and constitutionally enshrined in 2008. The initiative has since been symbolically adopted by both Thailand and Dubai through the creation of government departments focused upon spreading happiness throughout their respective nations.

The idea of measuring happiness as an alternative to economic growth has never truly gained mainstream clout in the developed world, having long preferred measures of economic prosperity and individual freedom to measurements of an emotional state. Chinese New Year celebrations regularly feature songs wishing happiness and prosperity and the “American Dream”, a state of financial stability in which one can support a family and own property, has been widely adopted by consumers for years as a method of garnering personal satisfaction. Ultimately, the happiness derived from financial success can be afforded to the increased number of opportunities presented to an individual once they have enough surplus capital to consider spending on non-essentials. Therein, a rich individual’s true wealth lies in greater freedom, perceived or otherwise, over their fellow citizens or peers.

But does freedom, both from financial worry and autocratic rule, truly result in individuals evaluating their lives as “better”? The question of personal satisfaction with wealth is perhaps better directed at a professional – but when comparing data between the UN Human Development Index and happiness levels within individual nations, trends emerge. But the simple act of collecting this information is fraught with misdirection, given the subjective nature of happiness as an emotional state. Variables include an individual’s capacity to adapt to conditions, the relative economic status of an individual’s particular peer group and the issue of experience vs memory – an individual’s feelings regarding the likelihood of being a victim of criminal activity are typically much higher than crime figures report is likely, thereby impacting a sense of personal safety and happiness therein.

A report released by the UNDP Human Development Office in 2015 sought to answer this exact question, while attempting to find empirical links between levels of development and life satisfaction. In short, it did – overall levels of development across the globe were generally found to go hand in hand with evaluations of quality of life (QOL). Individual links that were found to yield the strongest correlation between QOL and development included higher rates of job satisfaction, stable governance structures and lower levels of inequality.

A difficulty in interpreting the results of the report emerges in the subjective nature of belief versus results. Take the example of freedom of choice – the freedom to choose is of fundamental importance, being a primary measure of a democratic state and one of the strongest factors linking development levels of nations to the happiness of individuals. But a sense of freedom of choice, such as the Yes referendum on the executive powers of President Erdogan on the Turkish people in April of 2017, can often lead to a group objectively lessening their freedom while maintaining a subjective sense of empowerment. The capacity of an individual to convert their freedom into wellbeing can be subverted, thereby creating a situation where subjective wellbeing can come at the detriment of wellbeing for all – a conceptually difficult but incredibly perilous situation when occurring on the national or international stage.

Bhutan, the last great Himalayan Kingdom, leads South Asian nations in ease of doing business, economic freedom and peace while continuing to measure overall success by human happiness – but to the national government, the state of happiness has been dissected into a series of quantifiable metrics including overall health, quality of education and living standards, similar to measuring levels of development across the globe. While Bhutan remains regarded as a least developed country by the UN, it is certainly nice to know that they appear to be on the right track.

References

Hall, J. & Helliwell, J. F.. Happiness and human development. UNDP Human Development Report Office. Retrieved from: http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/happiness_and_hd.pdf

 

The Cost of Fear

Few words strike more fear into the hearts of communities across the globe than the phrase “terror attack”. Mass harm caused by individuals suffering from mental illness or brainwashed by extreme ideologies paints a dark image of destruction and chaos. Terrorism is terrifyingly effective – the political and cultural fallout from communities that experience this devastation can be shattering. Attacks on children can destroy families, attacks on landmarks can cripple countries, and the indiscriminate violence often sees the lives of innocent civilians as the primary targets. While the term itself originated in the late 18th century in a turbulent France, it’s use is well documented in eras both before and after the French Revolution.

It is worth noting that being a terrorist is simply defined as doing harm to others to fulfill a political, ideological or religious objective. Qualifying as a terrorist does not require an affiliation with an extremist organization or a set nationality. Lone wolf terrorism has re-emerged in recent years as a more popular form, with individuals often claiming affiliation to specific organizations or ideologies, but little to no evidence being found to tie them directly.

Depending where you live, the risks of terrorism affecting your daily life, either by disrupting the flow of resources, destroying infrastructure or directly harming a loved one, vary drastically based on geographic proximity to active combatants. In the last decade, the highest number of terror attacks and fatalities from attacks have been seen in the Middle East region, with Iraq topping the list and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen all following within the top seven. Countries like Nigeria have seen devastation enacted both in the form of direct attacks on communities and the capturing of oil fields in the Northern regions, ensuring that lives are lost and the national economy is crippled as a result of military action.

But the impacts of terrorism are now felt well beyond the borders of one nation. IS has been accused of waging ‘cultural war’ with the launch of propaganda and recruitment campaigns that know no boundaries. Russia and China’s daring misinformation campaigns have blurred the lines between subjective opinion and historical fact regarding both the Ukraine and the Nine Dash line. As citizens of all nationalities leave their respective nations to fight for extremists, homegrown terrorists attack cultural and educational institutions and entire nations are destabilized while being consumed by warring factions, the question remains: how do we stop them?

The answer is twofold: Commitment to combatting terrorism must result in swift and surgical action to cut malignant ideologies from the Earth. Cancerous extremism, allowed to prosper, only breeds further terror. But addressing the root causes of not why individuals commit terrible crimes, rather the systemic problems that drove them to identify with extremism, is a key to preventing the growth of the next generation of terrorists.

Regarding military action, the battle is increasingly fought beyond the frontier. Coordination by organizations with potential recruits is conducted virtually, often via established social media and messaging platforms. Intelligence services require controlled (overseen by a judicial framework) access to this data in order to make the strategic, on-the-ground decisions that have a direct cost of human life. Committing ground and air forces is essential in the fight, but the purchase of equipment should be matched with investment into cyber security to better track potential extremists and infiltrate online communities. A renewed focus on investment into intelligence infrastructure, while politically problematic, is required to deal with the current generation of extremists who are armed with access and reach, previously unknown weapons in the fanatic’s arsenal.

Focusing on eradication of current groups is important, but addressing the root causes behind why an individual identifies with any group seeking to actively incite violence as a means to an end is arguably equally important. Groups urge lone wolves to carry out attacks when they themselves are too weak, or lack a presence, in a set area. Attacks by individuals claiming affiliation to organizations are not necessarily evidence of a foothold being secured, but confusingly can be indications of the exact opposite. Strengthening the relationships between law enforcement, community members and individuals who feel isolated is fundamental in the struggle to preventing the spread of extremist ideology. This can take the form of building support within communities by actively conducting equity and outreach efforts to marginalized or minority groups (past success stories include outreach campaigns by law enforcement officers to Muslim communities). Fostering a culture of greater resilience amongst communities is equally crucial. The fact remains that the public’s fear of terrorism, specifically conducted by jihadist extremists, remains high despite the extremely low statistical probability of this happening and harming any one person. Highlighting that positive relationships between ethnic communities are necessary for public safety is the first step in moving towards a world that reduces attacks instead of displacing them.

There are also economic factors that push individuals, specifically young men, into extremists ideologies as well. Young men across the globe who have historically enjoyed positions of privilege now face a downward spiral of economic uncertainty. The sons of shop owners, manufacturers and bureaucrats see a world where their wives are their economic equals and where once-solid career prospects no longer offer stability. The underlying resentment that has slowly bubbled has manifested as frustration at a world that emasculates them at every turn (often by not providing employment opportunities, not providing prospects for marriage, delaying an ability to be financially or residentially independent from their families). As the Western world claimed to have ushered in an era of success for all, the individual remains, feeling left behind, angry and ignored – therefore vulnerable and susceptible to being swayed by arguments of fighting “righteously for a cause greater than themselves”.

But the difficulty remains that no terrorist attack happens in a vacuum. Completed to further a religious or political aim, terrorists have a knack for selecting targets with a degree of emotional significance, be they mainstays of a city skyline or murdered children whose faces are then seared into our memories. Attacks yield emotional responses – often disproportional in an objective cost-benefit analysis of damage wrought. And because they hit us at home, at the very core of our lives by attacking symbols of the principles we hold most dear, we view a vow to eradicate entire ideologies as proportional, despite the unrealistic claim that an idea or a frustration can be bombed out of existence.

Any terrorist attack hitting the Western world strikes two core areas: the safety of citizens and the liberal values that underpin our societies. Holding onto those values, of free speech, tolerance and respect for all, is fundamental in combatting terrorism, as is ensuring that a world is created where the risk of falling victim to the siren song of fanaticism is lessened. A better, safer world is within reach – we must ensure that we do not destroy the one we have in our quest to reach it.

The Power of a Buck

In theory, the creation of currency facilitated exchange between two individuals and provided a tangible store of value for any person wanting a transaction, but offering a service instead of a direct good. As the worlds of early societies shrank, groups and cultures with differentiated economies began to seek formal relationships, a new problem arose – what was one unit of currency A worth when held up against one unit of currency B? Foreign exchange rates play a much more prominent role in currency denominations today than when gold used to be exchanged for grain. But prominence has come hand in hand with complexity. Not the least of which is that now the currencies underpinning financial products themselves offer direct indications of the health of both the product being sold and the nations whose in whose currency these products are underpinned.

In this, it becomes apparent that certain currencies have greater value per unit than others – the primary example being the American dollar, the global standard for trade. The US dollar has risen to prominence because, amongst other reasons, it is the primary currency used in commodities markets, such as gold and petroleum, and the growth of the American economy since the Second World War has ensured that the dollar poses a secure base for transactions given it’s historical stability and widespread usage. These factors have contributed to the American dollar becoming the unofficial global reserve currency and the official currency adopted in developing nations across the globe.

Here, an ironic turn emerges – the stability of the dollar, and therein dollar-denominated debts, is both a blessing and a curse. A ‘strong’ dollar (a comparative measure indicating when the US dollar has risen to historically high levels relative to other currencies) has numerous ripple effects within surrounding economies. A risk emerges when examining companies with reserves or debt denominated in foreign currencies – a strong dollar acts as a trend amplifier that is strongly felt within capital reserves, causing markets to flee to the dollar when faced with the prospects of a bearish market. This stampede and ensuing dollar binge only exacerbates the existing problem and sees greater amplification of markets fleeing towards ‘stability’ (debt often denominated in either American dollars or Japanese Yen, another notoriously stable currency).

A strong dollar is typically met with raises in interest rates from the Federal Reserve, therein increasing the cost of borrowing the dollar and (hopefully) acting as a stabilizing force within the market to reduce the dollar binge. But an ascendant greenback also stunts inflation, thereby making foreign goods cheaper for any individual or entity holding the dollar. This means that while markets adjust to interest rate hikes, consumer behaviour and buying patterns can continue to act as a short-term counter-measure to the efforts of central bankers. An additional impact is being felt on foreign shores – sharp falls in currencies force central banks to either raise interest rates in an effort to prevent depreciation and avoid the worst of ongoing deflation. Alternatively, a strong dollar can force economies to lower interest rates to historic lows in an effort to attract investment and spur domestic spending when individual currencies become ‘weaker’ and the decrease in the real value of savings hits the portfolios of consumers. This puts the Federal Reserve in an awkward position – raising interest rates risks undercutting global economic growth, thereby seeing downturns in economies currently struggling who lack the traditional fiscal and monetary mechanisms to mitigate adverse impacts. But keeping interest rates low fails to address the issues currently simmering that threaten to cripple growth across the globe.

Why does this matter? The number of currencies that move in line with the greenback encompass 60% of the world’s total GDP. The volume of dollar denominated bonds held in developing markets amounts to over $3T and each time the dollar rises, so does the cost of servicing those debts. A strengthening dollar could see a spiral emerge of capital outflows, now going towards paying debts instead of domestic investment, and the resulting fall in asset prices could lead to an economic downturn similar to that experienced by Brazil during the last 5 years. Presidential promises to lower corporate tax rates expressly aimed at American companies in order to facilitate the repatriation of earnings onto American soil would see rocket fuel added to the rise of the greenback, and protectionist measures would directly impact American consumers as the cost of imported goods increased and export growth continued to decline.

Despite all the talk of trade deficits throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, the reality remains that the United States can entirely afford to operate at a continuous trade deficit due to the high demand for debt instruments denominated in American currency that generates capital inflows capable to subsidizing a deficit. But that does not mean a deep structural issue does not exist – The strength of the American dollar poses a threat to all, from domestic consumers and foreign governments. As the worlds buffers for mitigating financial downturns shrink, the likelihood of the next recession being felt more severely by consumers increases – and whichever one of currency A or B you use, you can take that to the bank.

A Subjectively Better World

The inequality fostered in modern markets is well documented and has been denoted and analyzed ad nauseam by experts and students alike. Despite the existing flaws, the general principle has been that capitalism, adopted across the world to create global trade routes and financial systems, provides a greater overall benefit for more than engaging in protectionist tendencies that look inward to solve problems. Look no further than Brexit, which in it’s current form is estimated to cost £66bn annually and slash the GDP of the UK by 9.5% over the next 15 years. But voters clearly indicated a willingness to sacrifice national economic growth for increased sovereignty in policy and trade decisions, and to opt for economic measures that prioritize UK organizations over international competitors for funds (a row over deciding to fund the NHS over paying to access the EU market in the Brexit campaign was a primary example of this nationalist focus).

Voters have, throughout the world, categorically demonstrated a desire to act against the grander self-interest of nations – but not necessarily of themselves. Physical and financial insecurity have combined with an increasing sense of marginalization and resulted in two outcomes: a loss of faith in experts who deal in amalgamations and predictive modelling (and thereby are seen as not understanding the plight of the single family), and a desire to sacrifice growth and future prosperity to live in a more equitable state. An essay penned in Foreign Policy Magazine by Anand Menon and Camilla MacDonald recently outlined that in the case of Brexit, equity referred to the prioritization of co-nationals and tackling wealth inequality in Britain, as well as reducing household debt levels and stabilizing regional housing markets. Border security was also of chief concern, with the physical safety of individuals and families in urban areas seen as an existential-level threat.

This focus upon the strength of community and identity are values shared by another movement – the modern environmental movement. Although distinctions can be clearly drawn about individual policy decisions, both movements are guided by the notion that a better world is not a more prosperous one for the masses, but rather a more equitable one for the individual. Both movements illustrate that low unemployment figures and raucously raising interest rates provides little respite or impact for individuals facing growing health care and housing costs. Both movements speak of having had “enough” – one to a perceived or existing repression, the other to the consumption of a finite resource base – and demand collective action from the masses to instigate change.

Leaders of the environmental movement often call for “the end of growth” – a principle that the current system (of infinite growth using finite resources) exists to enrich the elites of today at the cost of the masses, that this cost directly impacts the future livelihood and security of individuals, and that communities must use their voice to protect their best interests in a system that benefits from their silence. But how heavily do the ideas underpinning the theory that growth is at it’s end align with those underpinning modern populism?

There are three foundational ideas behind why growth is unsustainable in the current climate: depletion of finite resources, environmental degradation and increasing levels of debt. In each of these three, parallels can be drawn – the notion of depleting a finite volume of resources is similar to that of sovereignty. Both rely upon messaging that current levels of growth and migration are unsustainable and, if continued, will directly result in negative impacts. Both paint grim scenes of carnage, with droughts and crime abound. And both foster a deep anti-elitist sentiment – one directed at large corporations emphasizing profitability over the health of citizens, the other at governments for letting in potentially dangerous individuals in favour of cheap labour.

The idea of a degrading environment is similar to the concept of the real cost of economic progress. Every politician or business leader touting innovation and growth is viewed as the enemy, given that they typically do not outline the tangible cost of prosperity: disruption and degradation. The costs are the jobs of individuals who no longer possess the skills deemed valuable by the market, the natural environments whose value cannot be directly calculated and are thus paved over. Often touted as the primary objective, growth too often sees externalities and hardship fall not upon spreadsheets, but on families and homes. As for increasing levels of debt, no direct parallel is needed. Crushing household and national debt is a tangible impact felt by everyone, whether it be money borrowed to make car payments or natural systems destroyed whose absence will be noted – but not within the next fiscal year.

Occasionally, politicians manage to embody both sides – left-leaning populists in the vein of American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Dutch politician Jesse Klaver often speak to rising inequality and a need to create a “better” world. And in there, a possibility exists that rising populism may actually signify a shift in modern societies towards more thoughtful growth and consumption wherein individuals are prioritized. If growth can be designed to be more inclusive overall, it stands to reason that less of it would be required to foster the same net results. Then maybe, at long last, someone can finally give some money to the NHS.

 

Storming about the Climate

Nowhere is the divide between members of the scientific community and general public more apparent than in an individual’s interpretation of the difference between climate and weather – the lack of distinction between compiled data and anecdotal evidence has been known to anger many a scientist, and dramatic calls of apocalyptic consequence breed despair and snorts of derision amongst the general public. Governments across the globe recognize, seeing the direct consequences and risks  of sea-level rise to seaside populations centres and degrading air quality in urban areas, that action is required.

Yet it is difficult to effectively claim the societal response to a changing climate has been appropriate – politicization surrounding exactly which party is responsible for warming has clouded a debate surrounding action in the general community, highlighting the divide between leaders and the people they lead. The majority of blame for inaction tends to be dealt to “skeptics” – individuals who claim to believe that climate science has been unable to reach a definitive conclusion regarding the extent anthropogenic GHG emissions have lead to rises in global temperature. This is the reality of progress – the purpose of scientific inquiry is to create testable hypothesis that inform us of the realities of the physical world in which we inhabit. It is a human endeavour, meaning mistakes are common. Nevertheless, the role of discovery in our society is to inform decision-making and progress – not to provide evidence in an effort to disprove personal beliefs.

An equal danger exists in climate catastrophizing. Public figures have long positioned climate change as an omnipresent existential threat capable of creating a non-habitable world within a single generation in a well-meaning effort to spur action. But it has, in large part, has had the opposite effect – climate researchers and activists commonly suffer from PTSD and depression-like symptoms. Industry members bicker whether solutions like natural gas, which has lowered carbon emissions in the United States more than all renewable energy investments combined, should even be considered given their non-carbon neutrality. Individuals feel overwhelmed by the scale and scope of issues presented, and are therefore numbed into inaction – after all, what can one person do against an entire planet?

With skeptics touting falsehoods and catastrophists accepting nothing less than 100% mitigation, the most commonly sourced reports paint a more realistic picture. The Assessment Report, a gold standard created by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and released in 2014, estimates approximately 3-4 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, with a corresponding seal-level rise of 0.6 metres.

The difficulty in effectively predicting the true impacts of climate change are that, beyond the understanding that increased levels of GHGs will result in greater heat being trapped in our atmosphere, scientists can only estimate. The rate of gas accumulation in the atmosphere, the corresponding warming that volume of gases will cause, the effect of that warming upon natural and man-made systems – each of these answers can only be estimated. These factors are predicted using Relative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), projection pathways which provide four separate estimates of increases in atmospheric radiative forcing over the next century (radiative forcing refers to the amount of sunlight absorbed by the atmosphere versus reflected into space; GHGs molecules reflect high volumes of heat onto the earth, thus increasing radiative forcing and make the world warmer).

Each pathway predicts a different level of human action taken to reduce total pollutants emitted over the next 100 years, with the most and least optimistic paths seeing a divide of impacts by a factor of almost 6. The most extreme of these factors, pointing to no action taken to reduce emissions, still sees only an 0.8 metre increase in sea level rise over the next century (slightly higher than predicted), with a corresponding 12 degree increase in temperature – but by 2300.

Further, economists can now produce Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), which attempt to convert the direct and indirect impacts of climate change into tangible costs. Such models can point to the conclusion that a 3-4 degree increase in global temperature will cost approximately 1-4% of global GDP in 2100, approximated at $20T USD in shared burden across the world (a cost, worth noting, that exceeds the entire GDP of the United States in 2016). Equally of note – this same model fails to see economic growth decrease by more than 0.05% over the next century in any single year, which is unlikely, as climate change impacts will occur gradually throughout the century and economic fluctuations are inevitable.

No economic model can effectively integrate non-tangible value, like community ties to land or the moral obligation of our species to preserve the planet – but nevertheless, the results of environmental and economic models point to the unveiling of real but manageable costs over the next century. Viewing the costs of climate change in grander context, applying appropriate time-scales to forecasting and segmenting models based on assumptions allow for the affirmation of the facts that climate change both exists and can be adapted to.

Humanity has an incredible capacity to overcome the challenges of our natural world – we have cured disease, fed the planet and created monuments to the greatest achievements of our species. There is no reason to believe we cannot adapt to a warmer world. But it does involve a transition in the way we view climate change – instead of mitigating future impacts, greater incentive should be given to adapting our current systems to inevitable transformations. The impacts of carbon already built up in Earth’s atmosphere will not be fully felt for the next 50 years, meaning irreversible damage has already been done. It is our responsibility to now ensure that we create a world well suited to our new reality.

Claims of positive feedback loops, resulting in cascading climate effects, remain unverifiable over the timeframes in which they are estimated. But in this apocalyptic vision of the future, investment into improved water management systems, more resilient and accessible energy infrastructure and public health practices will pay higher dividends still, as will spending on effective physical and digital infrastructure systems, and innovations not yet dreamed up by generations to come.

So have kids, because hey – someone is going to need to save the rest of us.

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑