Why can’t we all be rich?
Ignoring reality out of political expedience
For some reason, I decided to watch Donald Trump Jr. delivering a speech to the Republican National Convention in 2020 on Youtube. Two questions came to mind: which planet does he live on and what has he been smoking? My expectations were very low, but it is still amazing to watch somebody give a speech so completely detached from reality without being laughed at. He wants to live in a world where everyone has a “great job, a beautiful home, and a perfect family.” One wonders where we will find the space to build everyone a Trump-sized mansion and who will mow the lawn and do the cleaning.
Unfortunately, we are all guilty of a certain amount of denial and wishful thinking. Ralph Hertwig and Christoph Engel refer to this as deliberate ignorance. To avoid cognitive dissonance, we carefully choose what we want to know. Arguably, the situation has gotten worse with the internet and social media, which do not only provide a buffet of information, facts, alternate facts, and fake news, but also constantly adapts this menu to our preferences using sophisticated algorithms. As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in this brilliant article in The Atlantic, rather than becoming more intelligent, humanity might have entered a phase of unprecedented stupidity.
How do we know what is true? Answering this question is not easy, as was pointed out by Josh Fox in The Truth Has Changed.
I am reminded of this every time I attend an event about the climate crisis and what to do about it. Whereas there is universal agreement that anthropogenic climate change with disastrous repercussions (aka climate destruction) is a reality, there is considerably less agreement about the solutions. There is progress: many people now accept that sustainable growth is impossible. To save humanity, with have to abolish the growth paradigm and look for a better way to live. However, I believe that most people, even proponents of degrowth, are in denial over the consequences of this realization.
The problem is that there are many reasons for our desire to grow, such as:
We have a capitalist system that requires growth to generate capital income
The population is still growing, demanding more resources.
We want to improve our well-being and live more comfortably. In many countries, this is still related to owning more stuff.
Arguably, humans have a natural desire to compete. Most people are driven by a desire to be better off than their neighbors.
Advancement of technology. Our industrial society has been very good at producing many technologies that turned out to be very useful in killing other people.
This is not a comprehensive list, but it does show the complexity of the problem. If sustainable growth were possible, we could ignore it and continue with business as usual. If not, we need to address all the points above and probably some others. Many people try to deny this fact.
Unfortunately, the last point on the list might be the most difficult one. What is the point of building a green utopia if you are going to be overrun by a belligerent army the next day? We are stuck in a vicious circle: wars require oil, and access to oil requires wars. And the climate crisis and resource scarcity will further destabilize the global world order.
Any solution to the climate crisis will require addressing this issue too. We need to find a global solution that reduces the strategic importance of fossil fuels, encourages international collaboration, and makes it impossible for countries, corporations, and individuals to cheat.
In his remarkable book The Affluent Society (published in 1958?), J. K. Galbraith talks about the conventional wisdom. Our perception of the world is not only based on facts but also on a set of generally accepted beliefs that we hold out of convenience. In the famous story of H.C. Andersen, the conventional wisdom was the Emperor was dressed in beautiful clothes. Only the uninitiated were prepared to admit the obvious.
“The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.” The majority of people do not change their views because of rational arguments. They change because they have to. Global Climate Compensation would invalidate any business model heavily dependent on fossil fuels. I do not believe people have a problem with higher fossil fuel prices, as long as the burden is shared equally. What they do not accept is a world where some people get rich by destroying the environment whereas other people have to work to earn a living.
I honestly believe that Global Carbon Compensation would address most of the points in the list above. The Paris agreement does not address a single one of them. I am looking forward to your comments.