Ending poverty needn’t cost the Earth

For the most part both newspapers and the blogosphere spend their time arguing small, specific questions, as is good and proper. But now and then you read a headline that seems to ask one of The Big Questions. Rarely, though, does the piece that follows offer a convincing answer. A notable exception appears on the Guardian website (and possibly also in the paper, I don’t know) today, where George Monbiot asks: Is protecting the environment incompatible with social justice?

This is, obviously, an important question. Indeed, it’s really the essential question facing mankind in the 21st century: can we, against the odds, finish the job of raising all of humanity to a decent standard of living while simultaneously slashing carbon emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change?

The answer is often assumed to be ‘no’. Monbiot refers to right-wingers who suddenly become champions of the world’s poor when it gives them an excuse to criticise green policies. (Exhibit A.) But greens, too, often express ambivalence about development. The stereotypical traditionalist green view, with its love of home-grown food, reuse of manufactured items and a general rejection of materialism, essentially amounts to a call for rich countries to return to a pre-development lifestyle. Conversations about climate change talk (quite understandably) about China and India’s rapid economic growth as an ecological catastrophe in the making – never mind the fact that it’s lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

There’s a real problem here – in terms of China and India’s rising carbon emissions, in terms of overpopulation, and so on. But as Monbiot – quoting from a new Oxfam discussion paper – goes on to explain, meeting the basic needs of the world’s poor actually carries with it a very small environmental cost:

providing enough food for the 13% of the world’s people who suffer from hunger means raising world supplies by just 1%.

Providing electricity to the 19% of people who currently have none would raise global carbon emissions by just 1%.

Bringing everyone above the global absolute poverty line ($1.25 a day) would need just 0.2% of global income.

Of course, it’s not quite this simple. Raising up the extremely poor is not the same process as increasing the size of the world’s middle class, but it also can’t be totally separated from that process. Bitterly poor subsistence farmers in Africa, given access to decent roads and education and healthcare, will gradually rise into the middle class and consume more. Given electricity, they’ll gradually drive the need for more power stations. So there’s not not a problem here.

But as Monbiot goes on to argue, to potential consumption of the world’s poor is nothing in comparison to the actual consumption of the world’s rich. (That’s us.)

it is not the needs of the poor that threaten the biosphere, but the demands of the rich. Raworth points out that half the world’s carbon emissions are produced by just 11% of its people, while, with grim symmetry, 50% of the world’s people produce just 11% of its emissions. Animal feed used in the EU alone, which accounts for just 7% of the world’s people, uses up 33% of the planet’s sustainable nitrogen budget. “Excessive resource use by the world’s richest 10% of consumers,” [Oxfam] notes, “crowds out much-needed resource use by billions of other people.”

No-one knows by what proportion the carbon emissions of the world’s poorer few billion people will increase this century, and therefore, by exactly what proportion the richer billion will need to decrease to meet global emissions reduction targets.

But we in the global North are already vastly over-consuming; we have to make steep reductions, whatever happens. To focus on the environmental risks of raising up the poor is not only morally abhorrent, but it’s to run around trying to swat a fly when there’s an angry bear in the room.

But let’s flip that round and put it another, more optimistic way: we can end extreme poverty, worldwide, without significantly increasing the likelihood of (or extent of) catastrophic climate change. The best-case scenario for 2100 – a world that’s no more than 2°C hotter than now, with atmospheric carbon stabilised, global population stabilised, and extreme poverty a thing of the past – is possible. So there, something cheerful to think about when you’re chewing over your locally-sourced, organic Valentine’s Day dinner.

“Compared to what’s needed, a failure; compared to what’s possible, decent”

It gets a bit tedious writing about climate policy, since every single development warrants some variant of the same verdict: compared to what’s needed, a failure; compared to what’s possible, decent. And so it is with Durban.

Grist’s David Roberts hits the nail on the head, but still goes on to offer a great evaluation of the agreement reached at the UN climate conference in Durban last week. To summarise the summary:

  • the policies agreed so far still leave us set for 3.5 degrees C climate change by 2100, far more than the 2C figure labelled (problematically) ‘safe’;
  • the agreement on working towards a successor to Kyoto is vague and fuzzy, but still more of an agreement than was predicted after the collapse of talks in Copenhagen last year;
  • Useful  breakthroughs were made on more technical issues like deforestation.

What a difference 2246 miles makes

The no-byline approach of The Economist has the effect of presenting all the various viewpoints put forward by its writers as the voice of a single, all-wise hive mind. On occasion, though, the splits become more obvious, as with this week’s two pieces on the likely victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian elections. A leader, likely written in London, argues:

Are the sceptics who said that Arabs could not handle democracy—and would inevitably elect nasty people who would never surrender power—being proved horribly right?

The answer is no. Until the Brothers actually take power, it is hard to say with certainty where the dominant mainstream of political Islam stands. But most of the signs are that it is a long way from both its intolerant caricature and the tenets promoted by some of the Brothers’ predecessors a generation ago. Indeed, the most striking feature of the Arab spring remains the complete failure of violently radical Islam. Al-Qaeda, the murderous perversion of Islam responsible for felling the Twin Towers and for countless other atrocities against Muslims as well as Christians and Jews, has entirely failed to make its presence felt. As peaceful political Islam advances, al-Qaeda and its violent jihadi friends have retreated to the remotest patches of Yemen, Somalia and the Sahara desert.

The piece acknowledges the risk that the Brotherhood could team up with the Salafists, the conservative Islamist – but not jihadist – party that seems set to come second.

That would be small comfort for liberal Egyptians if the Brotherhood teamed up with the Salafists and then claimed a democratic right to expunge secularists from government—and from most of Egypt’s institutions. But that does not seem likely. The Brothers have repeatedly insisted that they will uphold the rights of women and religious minorities and respect the verdict of the polls, even if it goes against them. They say they will not enforce the veil or immediately ban alcohol. As in Tunisia and Morocco, they will seek to rule in coalition with secularists. As in Turkey, they want the generals who used to rule and persecute them to go back to their barracks. They will be keener to support the Palestinians than Hosni Mubarak was, but do not want to tear up the peace treaty with Israel.

Cheering stuff. But now look at this piece, from the same edition, but filed from Jerusalem, assessing the Israeli reaction to the Egyptian result.

Even if Egypt’s Islamists refrain from scrapping the peace treaty, Israel fears they will seek to amend the clauses that provide for Sinai’s demilitarisation. They might even put the treaty to a referendum. The Salafists, though declaring themselves non-violent at present, could yet—Israelis fear—turn jihadist…

If the Islamists end up ruling Egypt, might they seek to engage with Israel? Precedent is not encouraging. When Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006 and then asserted sole control over Gaza the following year, Israel opted for boycott and siege unless Hamas recognised Israel, among other things. After President Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February, Israeli diplomats in Cairo suggested making overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood, only to be told from on high to desist.

See how evidence of Israeli resistance to Hamas and the Brotherhood – the former is described in the same article, oversimplistically, as the latter’s ‘Palestinian branch’ – is presented as evidence of the Brotherhood’s resistance towards peace with Israel? The Economist’s Jerusalem correspondent may have gone a little native. My suspicion is that the perspective of the first, more optimistic piece is closer to the truth. If not, Israel can take heart in the knowledge that Egypt’s generals seem not much closer to allowing proper civilian government anyway.

Labour’s Euro problem

Dan Hodges in his new home at the Telegraph:

[Cameron's] brilliant failure in Brussels also represents a bitter blow to Ed Miliband and the Labour party. Over the past few months Miliband, Douglas Alexander and Ed Balls have rightly been manoeuvring themselves into a position of greater Euroscepticism, from which they hoped to exploit growing Tory divisions on Europe. But they moved too late.

Cameron has again outflanked Labour, who are now left in a European no man’s land. Despite Ed Milband’s condemnation of the Prime Minister’s handling of the negotiations, he has already confirmed he wouldn’t have signed the treaty either. Cameron has the clarity of prefect isolation. Miliband’s efforts to place himself pragmatically equidistant between Britain and the continent have left him stranded in the middle of the English channel.

Hodges is a famous Ed-hater, but on this I think he’s probably right. How can you criticise Cameron for his hardnosed determination to ‘protect’ the City from new EU regulations, when Ed Balls recently slammed Cameron for failing to ‘protect’ Britain from having to make increased contributions to the IMF to cover the Euro crisis?

Given that the splits within the Coalition are more than damaging enough for Cameron, Labour should probably aim to move the conversation away from the Eurozone and back towards the miserable economic picture here as quickly as possible. There’s frankly no gain for Labour in discussing what is (in the public’s view at least) primarily a story of excessive debt, when they’re starting to make some progress arguing that the UK economic story is primarily one of excessive debt reduction.

Twisted logic

Louise Armistead in the Telegraph:

It ain’t Cameron you should be praising or blaming, but Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy. The truth is, Cameron hasn’t stood-up for Britain or quit the eurozone debate: Britain has been kicked out.

Cameron loudly declared he would put a stop to the threat to the City – even if it meant torpedoing Mer-kozy’s vital Brussels summit. But the German and French leaders didn’t need to wait that long: they leapt at the chance last Wednesday.

Their open letter to Herman Van Rompuy setting out their lofty aims for the summit: beef up the European Stability Mechanism; use the IMF for extra liquidity and fiscal unification. But there, bold as brass, was a commitment to a “creation of a financial transaction tax.”

Merkel and Sarkozy wrote that they wanted the measures to be “enshrined in the European Treaties” but quickly added that they’d be just as happy to go ahead with agreement from the 17.

That letter was the writing on the wall for Cameron: he either had to agree to an FTT (unthinkable) or use Britain’s veto.

This, in a nutshell, has been the eurosceptic response to Cameron’s use of the veto on Thursday: that France and Germany’s ‘outlandish demands’ left ‘us’ ‘no choice.’

What drivel.

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Britannia contra mundum or, the myth of ‘outer Europe’

In the words of Bagehot of the Economist: ‘What a Mess.’ Last night’s dramatic events in Brussels – not a sentence one gets to write every day – have left Britain more isolated in the EU than at least any time since the bad old days of wrangling over the Maastricht treaty.

Much is unclear about the exact reasoning that led Cameron to his position. To recap, Cameron went to Brussels saying that he would only support the plan to amend the Lisbon treaty to allow for deeper fiscal union between the Eurozone countries if the EU agreed to protect the City of London against any new financial services regulations. (Feel free to read that sentence several times, perhaps aloud, until you feel you understand it.) If they didn’t agree, he’d veto any alteration to the Lisbon treaty. They didn’t, and he did, meaning closer ties between Eurozone countries will have to be negotiated separately by those countries.

Now, Cameron’s position must surely have always been a pose. France made it abundantly clear it wouldn’t agree to any exemption for London, meaning the scene was set for a showdown before the ministers sat down to dinner last night. In practice, Cameron chose a diplomatically acceptable basis on which to prevent the Lisbon route to Eurozone fiscal union.

Which begs the question: what did he expect to happen instead?

What was supposed to happen instead, of course, was ‘two-speed Europe.’ As recently as last week, the assumption was that the Eurozone countries would arrange their own treaty, deepening fiscal union between them, without any changes to the relationship between EU countries generally. This was considered pretty much acceptable to many Eurosceptics. After all, an ‘outer core’ of the ten non-Euro EU countries could become an organised force for moderation and liberal economics in the EU. With France and Germany happily ensconced in the dream of ever-closer union in the Euro Club of 17, this outer Europe could probably even negotiate the loosening of EU ties, moving the larger club of 27 back towards its common-market origins.

As the Spectator’s leader yesterday argued:

British Europhiles have long scorned the concept of a ‘two-speed Europe’, but that is, by default, what is likely to emerge from the mess. We will have a first tier bound by fiscal as well as monetary union, smaller than the current eurozone, and a second tier which will be increasingly divorced from the Franco-German power axis. Ideally, the second tier should impose minimal regulations, and resemble the free trade area we signed up to in 1975.

David Cameron is losing an opportunity to assert himself as leader of a wider European alliance. It could be an appealing place: promoting the free movement of goods, people and capital, but with each country retaining sovereignty and the power to set its taxes, prepare its budgets and retain a veto over rules which will be harmful to its national interest.

The Prime Minister is in a position of great strength, if he would only realise it… there are already ten EU nations outside the eurozone who will play no part in any fiscal union. It is a constituency begging for direction — if only David Cameron would seize his opportunity.

(Credit to Bagehot for drawing my attention to this.)

And it was easy to see how this could happen. It had the broad support of Nicolas Sarkozy, who kick-started the current frenzy of activity by speaking openly about a  two-speed Europe last week. (While not a Eurosceptic by any means, Sarkozy has always been suspicious of the newer EU members, and likes the idea of a system which leaves them and Britain somewhat marginalised.) And the idea of Britain and the new EU entrants forming a second, looser grouping within the EU seemed feasible: remember in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the ‘new Europe’ proved more Atlanticist than expected and sided with Britain and the US?

Had Cameron wielded his veto and subsequently the 17 Euro countries had agreed to negotiate deeper fiscal union on their own, he could have come home looking, if not triumphant, at least satisfied. Let the Eurozone do what it likes, he could have said: the EU as an institution goes this far and no further. He was arguing this point last night, by all accounts, at one point quibbling over whether a Euro club established under a separate treaty could use the facilities of the EU’s institutions.

But something happened that was never supposed to happen. The other non-Euro countries didn’t play ball.

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Why email hasn’t died

Atos CEO Thierry Breton has given an interview to the BBC’s website about his much-ballyhooed intention to do away with internal email. It contains some unsurprising stuff about his rationale – most internal email being unnecessary, essentially – but I would have liked to hear more about the tools he plans to use to replace email for day-to-day communication.

Why has email become such a tyranny? Because it’s too damn flexible. It’s delivered instantly, so you can use it for real-time communication, which makes a high volume of emails likely. But it’s also persistent – an email stays in your inbox till you reply – meaning unread emails become another form of task to sift through. The combination of the two creates a large flow of emails that you find yourself having to block out time to read.

(An example: a friend of mine was complaining at the weekend that an editor he freelances for doesn’t reply to say ‘thanks’ when he sends in a completed piece. I explained that, personally, I hate ‘thanks’ emails; it’s just another email I have to read that serves no purpose. And I only receive 5-15 emails a day, not counting newsletters; imagine if I were a typical Atos employee, receiving 100 or more.)

Email is also too flexible because it’s both one-to-one and one-to-many. When I’ve worked in organisations where I was receiving 50 or more emails a day, the majority of them were usually widely-circulated newsletters with information I barely needed to see. And unlike with a corporate newsletter, there’s usually no way to click ‘unsubscribe’ on a mailing list set up internally.

So what’s the answer? For Atos, it seems to be to replace email with a bevy of competing technologies: “a cloud computing environment, social networks, instant messaging, micro blogging, document sharing [and] knowledge community,” as Breton explains. That sounds rather vague to me. He repeatedly talks about how young graduates he employs have long eschewed email for Facebook; that’s true. But Facebook’s messaging system, though it has some strengths – like the way it displays messages as chats if you’re online – wouldn’t be well suited to a corporate environment. There’s no way to add a subject to a message, for example.

And of course, Google Wave was supposed to replace email, but was too complex and confusing to use.

Actually, though, it’s not too hard to picture what an effective post-email communications setup would look like.

  1. Simple instant messaging, with the capacity for group chats, can take care of most basic requests for information etc.
  2. A system for assigning and sending tasks, with a manageable ‘inbox’. Requests for information that can’t be instantly answered – the kind of email we all ‘mark as unread’ and leave for days – could be sent as a task.
  3. RSS and Twitter-like tools for the dissemination of newsletter-like information. Ideally, a system would have the capacity to both automatically subscribe users to some information (an all-hands feed, department feeds, etc) and allow them to manually follow others (the feeds of other departments they’re collaborating with, for example.) Users could have Twitter-like personal feeds to share simple information and could also add information to group feeds.

Spot the issue? All of these services already exist, and have for some time. There are too many instant messaging solutions to count; email services like Outlook already allow the assigning of tasks, and newer systems like Basecamp elevate the approach to a fine art. And SharePoint and StatusNet can pretty much take care of the rest.

The tools have been in place for several years to enable companies to carry out all the different kinds of communication email is used for, in more efficient ways. The problem is cultural resistance. In a sense, therefore, Breton’s impending no-email regime is a sign of failure: the failure of organisations to successfully wean employees off email and onto these superior tools without forcing them.

There are exceptions: small tech companies, in particular, seem to be run entirely by instant messaging these days (typically these companies use Google Apps for email, and use the built-in Talk service for IM). The blog company Automattic, makers of WordPress, say they use a special Twitter-like blog format called P2 for most internal communication.

For the most part, though, companies haven’t moved away from email, and it’s simply because they haven’t tried hard enough to push employees onto other ways of working. Breton’s outright ban may be disruptive, but it might be what’s necessary to make the shift.

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