Looking down the wrong end of the telescope.

Trying to make sense of the utter nonsense of the Rio+G20 summit.

I share the deep frustration that must be felt by millions around the globe at the outcome of the Rio summit meeting, if outcome is the appropriate word!  Martin Lack summarised his anger in a post last Friday and I’m going to publish an extract from his writings because they so perfectly reflect not only his anger but, I suspect, the anger of millions of others.

Adam Vaughan’s blog from Rio for the Guardian newspaper is not for the faint-hearted.  At 2:07 pm today, [Friday 22 June 2012 12.23 EDT, Ed] he quoted David Nussbaum (WWF-UK) as follows:

“It would have been naïve to pin too many hopes on a single conference, but undeniably we expected more from the outcome document. Entitled ‘The Future We Want’, the text doesn’t live up to the aspirations of the title – it’s more a case of ‘The Future We’ll Get If We Rely On Politicians’. Full of weak phrases, and re-confirmations of previous aspirations which they haven’t realised, the text fails to commit governments to actions, targets, timeframes and finance to which we can hold them accountable….What we have is an agreement within the bounds of what they thought politically possible; what we needed was an agreement to address what is scientifically necessary. This is no way to manage our planet!”

Neither would I recommend George Monbiot’s column today – Rio+20 draft text is 283 paragraphs of fluff; unless you are feeling brave:

“World leaders have spent 20 years bracing themselves to express ‘deep concern’ about the world’s environmental crises, but not to do anything about them…Several of the more outrageous deletions proposed by the United States – such as any mention of rights or equity or of common but differentiated responsibilities – have been rebuffed. In other respects the Obama government’s purge has succeeded, striking out such concepts as “unsustainable consumption and production patterns” and the proposed decoupling of economic growth from the use of natural resources.”

I would like to be able to dismiss this as facile criticism from the liberal left. However, in reality, to do so would be to second-guess the scientists who have been telling us for decades that we need action not words. Our children and grandchildren will not forgive us for failing to act.

BUT a conversation I had with Lew L. here in Payson last Friday afternoon helped crystalise some thoughts that I would like to share with you.

Representative democracy a la British House of Commons

The first is about democracy, or more accurately representative democracy.  Lew pointed out that some US Towns still employ direct democratic processes where all the people who attend a Town meeting vote in person for or against the motion.  The challenge for a representative democratic process is that those elected representatives are vulnerable to a wide range of influences and between elections may be taking decisions that the people would neither support nor approve of.

The idea of direct democracy goes back a very long time, as Wikipedia reveals,

The earliest known direct democracy is said to be the Athenian Democracy in the 5th century BC,

So it could be argued that the fundamental flaw in the Rio+G20 meeting was not the lack of any real progress by our ‘leaders’, but in our expectations, as in the expectations of ‘you and me’, all across the world.  The money and power that must be intertwined in such games of international politics doesn’t bear thinking about.  It was Lord Acton, the British historian, who said: ‘Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely‘.

So rather than expecting our representatives and leaders to do what we what them to do and being bitterly disappointed, time and time again, there is another equally valid way of bringing about change – create the change you desire by changing yourself.

As my friend Jon Lavin expressed in a very recent email,

People like something solid to relate to in such changing and unpredictable times and a dogs view is brilliant because dogs just are because they are in the present. All that matters is the ‘now’. Most of our problems can be traced back to our lack of ability to be in the ‘now’. Driven by regrets about the past, and a fear of what the future holds, we carry on hoping that all our problems can be solved by amassing material possessions.

Oh, well. The best way to save the world is to work on our selves.

So that leads on to my second thought, the urgency in tackling what is happening to the Earth’s climate.  In Martin’s second angry post over at Lack of Environment, he writes,

Here in the UK, the weather is literally unbelievable. 100mm of rain falling in one day. At the end of June. It’s ridiculous. Just one problem: It is exactly what the climate models predicted.

Global average temperatures are rising. Since the 1980s, every decade has been warmer than the last. 1998 was a very warm year, but global warming has not stopped; it has morphed into Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (ACD). Some even suggest we should call it Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating (HIRGO) but I prefer ACD, because that is what we are experiencing: It will be decades before it becomes obvious that HIRGO is happening and, if we wait for it to be obvious, there will be no way to stop it.

We need to accept that ACD is a reality; it is an inevitable consequence of a warming atmosphere; one with more moisture in it more of the time and – as I said – it is exactly what the climate models have being tell us would happen for decades. That being the case, how is it that our politicians – seemingly led by members of a supposedly left-of-centre Democratic Party administration in the USA – can have such monumental tunnel vision as to offer up the planet itself as a sacrifice upon the altar of the god of Growth?

But do you see the fundamental error?  The idea that our leaders have to create change: “.. how is it that our politicians …. can have such monumental tunnel vision as to offer up the planet itself as a sacrifice upon the altar of the god of Growth?

As Jon Lavin revealed in his email to me, the agency of change is within each of us. It is not a “thing.” There’s a huge amount of information revealed by a simple Google search on change, the change process, change management process, etc., etc., so I’m not going to add to the noise by quoting the experts.  It’s as simple as Jon wrote:

“The best way to save the world is to work on our selves.”

OK, moving on to my second thought, and for this I want to play a little mind-game.

That is what would be the impact if 50% of the combined populations of North America and Europe decided to save the power of one 60-watt lamp, or equivalent, for 36 hours a year, i.e. turning off one 60-watt lamp for less than one hour a day for a year!

Let’s take this a step at a time.

The combined population of the USA, Canada and Europe is 1,090,487,000 people, i.e. a little over 1 billion.

Thus half that population is 545,243,500 persons.

Saving 60 watts for 36 hours a year is 60 X 36 = 2,160 watts.

Thus 545,243,500 people times 2,160 watts = 1,177,725,960,000 watts.  Which is 1.178 trillion watts. (rounded up)

 I say again: 1.178 trillion watts.

How can one get any notion of what that means?  The best I could find from a web search was this:

The U.S. electric power industry’s total installed generating capacity was 1,119,673 megawatts (MW) as of December 31, 2009—a 1.0-percent increase from 2008.

Ergo, in 2009 the USA had the capability of generating 1,119,673 megawatts.  A megawatt is one million watts so 1,119,673 megawatts is 1,119,673,000,000 watts, or 1.119 trillion watts.

Wow! switching off a 60-watt lamp for less than an hour a day would save 1.178 trillion watts, more than the combined generating capacity of the entire USA in 2009 of 1.119 trillion watts.

I suspect that the current USA generating capacity isn’t that much different and, of course, one can’t run away with the idea that all of that is generated by fossil fuels.

But if I have done my mathematics correctly (and do please check my sums), the simple expediency of turning off one 60-watt lamp for 36 hours a year, if done by just half the populations of North America and Europe, would be the equivalent of saving 105% of the total US generating capacity!

So think about the change you want in your life, and  the lives of your children and grandchildren, and get on with it.  Turn out that light!

“The best way to save the world is to work on our selves.”

And I can do no better in terms of reflecting on the power of our minds, than courtesy of this fabulous video which Christine of 350orbust had last Saturday:

Remembering Fred Rogers.

Final thought!  If one thinks of the way that we trust the Internet for so much these days, and the huge number of people that are now ‘wired’, it doesn’t seem to be beyond the wit of man to come up with a reliable, secure method of direct voting electronically.  Wonder why that hasn’t caught on?

22 thoughts on “Looking down the wrong end of the telescope.

  1. Thanks Paul. You know what they say, “Don’t go to bed angry” – and I sure slept well after writing those blog posts…! 🙂

    However, I am still none the wiser as to how the Center for American Progress and/or Think Progress website could post an article painting the USA as a force for good – without which the Rio+20 Declaration would have been even weaker…. 😮


    1. Dear Per, Would you not agree that common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) was a classic piece of meaningless political rhetoric, which the UNFCCC process produced long before Copenhagen or even Kyoto, about which parties have been arguing for 20 years? Everybody has used it as an excuse to do nothing: To the USA, CBDR means that either everyone should be subject to binding targets or else no-one (the latter being the USA’s least-worse option). Whereas to those most at risk and least able to cope (i.e. less developed countries [LDC] or those in the Alliance of Small Island States [AOSIS]), CBDR means that the G8/G20 accept moral responsibility for climate change and provide free technology transfer and financial assistance to help everyone else survive it. However, we humans need to stop arguing about whose fault this mess is; and get on with fixing it…

      There is only one problem with that idea that I can see: As a consequence of the money fetishism that took hold in the 1980’s – and the general refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of Limits to Growth arguments – we now find ourselves confronted by perfect storm: A global debt crisis and a global environmental crisis; with one making the other impossible for any politician to solve (or even acknowledge) without committing electoral suicide (or causing mass hysteria).


      1. It certainly does have the look and feel of a ‘perfect storm’. Part of me is glad I’m the age I am (67) because I fear for the life ahead for such young persons as my 18-month old grandson. But, then again, it would be fascinating to be around in 50 years time and look back on this era, and ponder how so few predicted how mankind eventually adapted to the challenges! Really seems like the age of the unknown!

        Afterthought added 3 1/2 hours later! That is that part of the answer to this ‘age of the unknown’ was contained in my own writings!!! Start with changing our selves!


      2. Of course any intention not really meant is by definition sort of meaningless:)

        We have a global debt crisis because regulators, by means of differing capital requirements, gave bankers extraordinary incentives to lend or invest in what was perceived as absolutely not risky, as if bankers needed incentives for that, and as should have been expected that doomed the banks to dangerously obese exposures to what was ex ante perceived as not risky but that , ex post, and anorexic exposures to what was officially perceived as risky, like lending to small businesses and entrepreneurs.

        Capital requirements for banks, which are based on perceived risks of default, like credit ratings, create huge distortions, without serving any purpose. If we really want to distort, why at least not do it with a purpose, why not base the capital requirements for banks on environmental sustainability and job creation for youth ratings?


      3. Paul, these days, in conferences, when I am asked who I represent, I gladly answer, “my 10 month old granddaughter” at least until she is old enough to object coherently!


      4. Per, if I understand you correctly, you are talking about what I now understand economists refer to as the fractional reserve banking system? The system that our governments allowed to pursue the delusion that money could be created ex nihilo but, sooner or later, one of the people sitting in the circle (i.e. on the knees of the person behind them) was just bound to fall over: It was a project that was doomed to fail; a bit like the fabled Tower of Babel (but let’s not go back to talking about EMU again…) 🙂

        I have learnt so much from so many of the contributors to this wonderful blog; and am grateful to you all.


      5. Martin, no I am really not talking about fractional banking which could be something reasonable within some limits or crazy if unlimited. Here I am talking about capital requirements for banks which discriminate based on perceived risks… and let me illustrate it with and example:

        If a German bank wanted to give a loan to a German “risky” small business it needed to hold 8 percent in capital, which meant that it could leverage its equity (100/8) 12.5 to 1 when lending to German “risky” small businesses.

        But if a German bank lent to the officially safe Greece, then it was only required to hold 1.6 percent in capital, which meant it could leverage its equity (100/1.6) 62.5 times to 1 when lending to “safe” Greece.

        Since a bank naturally tries to maximize its return on capital, then what do you think the German bank did?

        Correct! It lent too much to Greece and too little to the German Businesses.

        When a society decides that keeping what it has got is more important than going forward and growing, then the society bike stalls and falls. Wimpy bank regulators, with no one really authorizing them, decided on behalf of the world, to give the banks incentives to behave more risk adverse than what they usually are and, as a consequence, the world is falling… you see, even the safest of the safe havens can become dangerously overpopulated.


      6. Thanks Per. I am afraid it is all smoke and mirrors to me. What scares me most of all is that – whether we like it or not – we are all completely dependent on this money fetishism because we will all need a pension when we retire.


  2. Representative democracy, clearly, does not work. Ancient Athens used a form of direct democracy (the ecclesia, the popular assembly, had 43,000 members). Even the Populus of republican Rome kept, for many centuries, a very tight leash on elected officials (Consul were elected for a year, but the powers rotated between the two Consuls on a monthly basis).
    Right now we elect kings with more powers than kings of passed ages ever had.

    In a first reform, one should adopt a Swiss like system. (Federal Council, one year rotating presidency.)


    1. Thanks Patrice, I was rather hoping you would offer a thought to this post! I’m going to do some research on the Swiss Federal process ahead of an article that I have in mind, but if you have any links for me in that regard, would be pleased to receive them. Paul


      1. No Paul, I am too busy busy buzzzzy. I am instead to sit back, and wait for your thorough research to unfold! Then I will see if there is something I can add… My knowledge of Swiss democracy is mainly on the ground. (Switzerland has been milking the badness of the system, on the outside, but inside, just the opposite; for example, Swiss banks are supposed to have 20% reserves, for example… Although they have been very corrupt OUTSIDE of Schweiz… All TBTF banks are very corrupt, of course… Same fundamental problem as representative democracy: way too much power in too few hands!)

        I have had very little time to study anything in the last few days, not even to visit LfD! and today does not promise to be any better (although I have a near finished essay on minds and nature). I wish I had more servants!… In the grand old tradition of the Ivory Tower…


    2. Hi Patrice, I think you may have missed a comment from me on your own blog but, with regard to this comment here, would you not be more inclined to say that the people with all the power are not elected at all? I am thinking of the market traders and ratings agencies that hold our governments to ransom…


      1. Yes Martin, I did not even have time to monitor my own blog, and I had connection problems, and will have more today. Your interventions are always very appreciated, even when I disagree… Sometimes, instead of just sitting in the Ivory Tower, and have to do some maintenance on it… OK, got to go sit in a traffic jam here… And i own no smart phone (yet). Not that it would be smart to drive and …


  3. All what Per said was very interesting, I wish he would intervene more on my blog! He does believe the regulators were just dumb, I believe many of them, a crticial mass, were paid to be dumb. Maybe just paid by keeping their jobs and progressing in their career, but stll, paid.
    Watch all the EC commisioneers (some German), who subsequently made a stint at Goldman Sachs. Something Chris Snuggs should pay more attention to…


      1. Some were dumb, some were very smart. People such as Stiglitz, whom you criticize harshly, is no fool, but highly successful in roughly all ways. If he has to say dumb things to get ahead, he, like thousands of our beloved leaders, think it’s very smart to be dumb, and, considering THEIR priorities, one must admit they are.

        By insisting those who profit from the system are just idiots, one resembles hens who would be accusing foxes to be idiots, because they make a mess…


      2. @Patricia Ayme “By insisting those who profit from the system are just idiots…”

        That I have never done! In this case the idiot was the farmer who trusted the fox presence advisors so entirely to be able to inform the hens when a fox was around or not, that he went to bed.


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