Why we are not solving the climate challenge

November 30, 2018

The latest report on climate change published last week was not cheerful. Instead of making progress towards the goals, it appears that we are off course and actually deviating further away. None of the G20 countries will achieve their goals. The world has had plenty of notice and time to act, but clearly success is further away than before, but probably less so than next year and the years after. Why is it so difficult to do the right thing, then? Well, there are a number of reasons for this and this does not bode well. Here they are, in no particular order.

Reason #1: We are not scared, yet

Whenever a devastating climatic event hits us, it is not really perceived as a threat for those who have not been affected. Like any dramatic piece of news, people read about it, think how terrible it is for a few moments and then move on and forget. It is a bit like car accidents. Everyone thinks that it won’t happen to them. Even if you are a good driver, you never know when a bad one will cross your path, and it is the exact same thing with climate. The consequences do not stay within the borders of the countries that produce emissions. It takes only one bad neighbour to spoil it for everybody. The consequences go all over to the neighbours just as well. In my book We Will Reap What We Sow, I addressed the denial and procrastination by making a comparison with Pharaoh in the movie The Ten Commandments by saying that the leaders of the world may pay attention when their first born will be killed in such a natural disaster and just like in the movie, they might grieve for some time and then decide to taunt fate again. I believe that is exactly where we are heading.

Next to that, as long as insurances are willing to cover the damage, a false illusion of protection will still exist. Be assured that if insurers decided to not cover climate change related damages, the debate would change rather quickly. Last summer, there was a wildfire rather close to my place. It was the second year on a row that the region had been hit by forest fires. I can tell you that this time, considering the location and the direction and strength of the wind, I was seriously worried. We were lucky and the fires were eventually contained. We had to breathe very smoky air for weeks and our air quality was worse than Beijing or Delhi, though. In my opinion, we should be a bit more scared by what is going on than we currently are.

It is difficult to scare people by talking about just a couple of degrees in 80 years from now. Presented in those terms, it sounds benign. That, too, is part of the procrastination problem. We need to hear where there is going to be devastation, how big it will be and how much it will cost. If the problem is big and serious, it must sound that way.

Reason #2: We have no real vision for a different, better world

It is nice to look at alternative energies and all sorts of innovations, but they will not happen unless the numbers (meaning the $$$) work out well. That is the problem. Technically, everything is possible. We could replace fossil fuels rather quickly but the economics as stated today do not stimulate change. To change the economics, it would be nice to start by stopping subsidizing the disaster, but we do not do that. The problem with climate a change and economics is that there is a simple reality: it will cost money and we all will have to pay a share. The worst part about this is that the longer we wait to invest in our future, the more expensive it will get.

But beyond the boring money concerns, what we need is a vision of our future world. How will it look like? How will people be able to have a decent standard of living (oops, money matters again)? What are the jobs of the future and which ones will disappear? Will it be a safe or dangerous world? There are many questions to answer if we want to create good will for change. There is no such thing as fear of change as such. Fear of change is actually the fear of loss. What I might lose is the primary concern. To alleviate this concern, clear and reliable vision is a prerequisite, and we do not have any at this moment. There is too much focus on problems and not enough on solutions. Without a vision that speaks to people, there is no reason why they should get excited about change.

Reason #3: There is no plan

Since there is no clear and strong vision, there cannot be a plan. When it comes to climate change, all we hear is an abstract-sounding target of limiting temperature increase to 2 degrees maximum, even though it sounds specific. What does that mean concretely for our daily lives, starting today? Who is supposed to do what and by when? All the climate agreements have been non-binding, which means that, in terms of determination, they compare with the average person’s New Year’s resolutions. It is obvious why the agreements are non-binding. If they were, there is not one single country who would commit. Countries have goals. It almost sounds like a plan, except that the goals are not really specific. Indeed, which sectors of society, business, governments and non-governmental organizations are supposed to do what? Does any industry have goals to achieve? Not really. Look at the car industry. Since the economy runs better, they have decided to stop the production of small cars and focus on larger cars, mostly SUVs and trucks, which consume more fuel  than the smaller sedans. Why? Just because the profit margin on larger vehicles is higher. At least, during the Great Recession of 2008 and the following years, when gas prices were much higher and the economy was hurting, sales of small economical cars were out performing the big gas guzzlers. Maybe economic hardship is what is needed to fix the problem. We just never really learn, it seems. Let’s face it, we have no plan and everybody does what is in his/her best interest, or just suits them best, on the short term.

If we and all the leaders in all sectors of society had a plan, there would be clear instructions about what is required from us. Nobody is giving instructions to people like me about how I should and could reduce my environmental footprint. There is a lot of PR and marketing, though, but the underlying message from businesses is really the same as before: buy as much goods as you can from me. It is all about volume, while the solution is to replace volume to shift from always more to always enough.

The most important part of the plan would be the transition plan. Setting targets without defining all the concrete practical steps and how to measure progress is rather pointless. How do we get from situation A to situation B? How long does it take and how do we ensure progress? Let me know if you know because I do not see anything of the kind.

Reason #4: There is no collective coordination

Besides the goals, a good plan would indicate clearly what the respective responsibilities are of all organizations and individuals. It would be clear what the contribution of each entity needs to be. This is essential for a plan and in particular for the transition plan. Since we are all in this together, success is about team work. Everybody must be motivated, must believe it is the right thing to do and participate. How many of you have received clear goals and a mandate to participate?

Yes, we can fix the problem. We did fix the hole in the ozone layer, didn’t we? We also fixed acid rains, didn’t we? How did we do that? Simply by defining very clear and specific goals and allocating them clearly. The team knew what to do, who had to do what… and they did it. Regarding climate change, we are just 25 years late. Countries reject the blame on each other instead of finding good agreements on how to fairly solve the problems and help each other out of trouble.

Reason #5: We prefer to blame than to fix

As I mentioned earlier, emissions from one country travel all around the Earth. Eventually, we all own and share all emissions, not just the ones we create. We are collectively responsible and the problem can be solved only collectively. That is tricky in a world where individualism spreads everywhere. The result is that we focus much more on who is to blame than on fixing the problem. We have limited time to fix the problem, but once it is fixed, we will have ample time to figure out who was to blame if we think it is a useful way to spend time.

Let’s face it, everyone who indulges in the consumption society is to blame, but of course, as Jean Paul Sartre wrote “Hell is the others”. Unfortunately, we have created a society in which we all feel so entitled to pretty much everything; we have lost the sense of what the value of things really is. Our entire economic system is about more for me here and now. Of course, changing this philosophy will not be easy because to fix the problem is going about to give up something and that is tough. Of course, we can choose not to act and Mother Nature is going to fix it for us. I suspect that then all the consumption aficionados will turn to their mother (nature) and say angrily that is it not fair and that they hate her. That is always how it goes when mommy decide to clean the little one’s messy bedroom. So who will fix it:  we or Mother Nature? The choice is ours.

Reason #6: Short term prevails

This is a basic human nature trait. The short-term always comes first, before the long-term. It is certainly interesting to try to bring a message of responsibility about future generations but the human animal is not wired that way. Only very few people are truly altruistic and have the willingness to give up their own interest. The only way to get people to have a balanced approach between the short term and the long term is by creating a trade off that is worth it. Here, the key word is trade. If we want people to give some of their short-term comfort for future generations, we must give them something in return. Give and take is a very basic human characteristic, too. So what can we trade off? Let’s not be naive, what will work is always something of a material nature, in particular money. As time runs out, there is not much time for cute negotiations. We are going to have to bribe the current generations to do something for the future ones. It is just that simple. Of course, somebody is going to have to pay for it. My guess is that it will be all of us, present and future. There is no real alternative to that, and it is time we all realize this it is what it is going to be.

Reason #7: Lame leadership

I wish I did not have to say that, but it is truly part of the problem. Our leaders are not really leading when it comes to climate change. As I mentioned earlier, they have not presented a vision of where our world is going and how our lives, private and professional, will be in the coming decades. They have no detailed specific plan to transition to the future and they do not have the gut to enforce change. They mostly give lip service. I understand that. When you have to face elections every so many years, you do not want to upset the voters. You do not want to put their jobs at risk and you do not want to cause a recession or worse. That, too, is very human. But the job of governing is not about trying to please all the time. Just as there is a difference between being friends and being parents, there is a difference between being a head of state and being a demagogue. In exceptional times, tough decisions come with the territory. As a leader, if you cannot take the heat, get out of the kitchen! Being a leader is first of all to take good care of your followers so that they can make it to the destination. Communication is a crucial part of leadership, especially when it comes to change. A leader must explain what must change, how it must change and what it will take to succeed. There is never enough communication about change. It is the only way of making it sink in the people’s minds. They have to get acquainted with the idea and they also must be part of the conversation to develop a sense of ownership of where things are going. About the climate change issue, the communication has been insufficient by far. This lack of communication is largely responsible for the lack of trust in politicians and why the people think their leadership is disconnected with the reality of their daily lives and concerns. Leaders must reassure people. Instead, they too often worry them.

Reason #8: There are powerful opponents

Not everybody is pleased with the potential change that the climate change challenges are calling for. This is the main reason why they work hard to discredit the scientists who report about their findings. As I said earlier, fear of change is really about fear of loss and the climate change deniers are no different than the average man about that, even when they happen to be millionaires or higher. What are they afraid to lose? Well, it is always about the same: money. Either because they would have to accept higher costs of operation or possibly seeing their business die or simply lose their jobs and livelihoods. I can understand such a fear when the person in question could lose his/her job and not find employment easily and land into financial hardship. I find it much more difficult to understand that from billionaires who have nothing to worry about in terms of financial security. Actually, I would expect from true captain of industries that they see opportunities in new business activities and venture into them for both their benefit and society’s. Perhaps, it depends if they are billionaires by hard work or just by birth.

Reason #9: We are addicted to materialism

The so-called consumption society has been acting like a drug dealer in a way. Most people are so hooked on buying stuff that they can’t stop. The banks have contributed greatly to the problem but lending money too easily so that people who cannot afford stuff can go to the mall and buy just like the rest. The flip side of this addiction is that withdrawal is not easy. Everything is about tempting the client. It is not just businesses that lure consumers but peer pressure joins into pushing people into buying more stuff. Perhaps, it is easy for me to say this because I must have some sort of a temptation resistance gene. Marketing leaves me completely cold and I buy something only if I need it, not because someone wants to sell it to me. My wife calls me a minimalist. I am not sure what that means but maybe I am. All I know is that I live happily and I do not have any creditor breathing in my neck. Along with this personality trait of mine, I also have no problem making sacrifices if needed. I can wait to buy something. In a way, my motto could be “if you don’t need it don’t buy it/if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it”.

About climate change, sacrifice will be part of the game one way or another. I believe that it will be quite useful to realize that life cannot be about instant gratification all the time and that happiness can be found through many other ways than through buying “stuff”. Of course, such an approach is going to conflict with our dominant economic model.

Reason #10: The economy and financial system is all about growth

All our economy revolves around always more. In a finite world, it is just a matter of time before such a model comes to an end. In biology, there is a distinction between growth and development. And it is a very important distinction.  I believe that when it comes to economy and finance, the distinction between the two terms has blurred out and it might very well be the root of a misunderstanding that might prove very costly in the future. I am all for development, but I have mixed feelings about growth. As an example, I would mention an animated graph that has been circulating recently on social media about the variation of GDP per country between 1961 and 2017. It is a cute animation, but I do not find it all that interesting because the GDP depends for a part of the size of the population. A graph showing the GDP per capita would have been a better indication of the wealth of the inhabitants of the different countries, although an average does not say much about distribution. I also would have preferred to see a graph showing the distribution of that wealth with the people of the countries, as this would be a good indication of whether the countries takes good care of their people or not. I also would have liked to see the graph with the ratio debt/GDP and deficit/GDP. I suspect those graphs would have told very interesting stories. For a country, the GDP is just the same as what the sales revenue is for a business. It is not a particularly good indicator of the profit or of cash-flow.

Growth is also the magic word for stock markets, and in particular of the share price. Since the entire financial system is locked in stocks directly and indirectly, any stock market crash will affect everyone, because even people who do not own stocks depend on the markets (just think of how deep in stocks some pension plans are).

This is why the climate is tricky to handle because if company stocks from environmentally damaging companies or industries crash, the entire system can potentially implode. The best way to prevent this would be to have a plan, and in particular a transition plan ready so that company could transition smoothly and thus avert a market crash, but we haven’t got that. As we all know, there is a lot of short-term activity on stock markets and there, too, short-term prevails over long-term. Speaking of short term, CEOs have to present their results quarterly to financial analysts. Compare that with elections only every 4 or 5 years!

Reason #11: We are increasingly disconnected from Nature

This is a consequence of how our societies and economies have evolved since the first Industrial Revolution. Today’s most obvious consequences are mass production and mass consumption, which relocated human populations from rural and agricultural areas into urban centers and the trend, continues. There are a couple of generations who have never really been in much contact with Nature. Surveys for city people about where they think food comes from are always revealing. In particular, with animal products, it is amazing to see how many people do not make a connection between eggs and hens or between milk and cows, or even between a live animal and its meat. I strongly believe that when we lose the connection with nature, we also lose a sense of where we come from and what we are about. If we do not understand how Nature works, it is difficult to respect it and when we do not understand our biological nature, we also lose respect for life. Unfortunately, we look at ourselves less and less as biological entities and more and more as legal entities. This trend worries me.

In a way, the so-called primitive societies (which I am less and less sure that they were that primitive at all) had a strong respect and fear for the forces of Nature. The term Mother Nature that I have used above is reminiscent from this respect and fear. We would not mess with it because we understood that we could be punished. Once the connection with Nature fades, the punishment part fades too. Then, we are just too happy to take and not give back and this is a serious mistake. Sustainability and circular economy are all about giving back so that the cycle can continue. This part we tend to have forgotten and this is why we shifted away from always enough to always more and that we will have to revert to the original concept because always more is not sustainable but always enough is. Here is your challenge!

Reason #12: We put too much faith in technology

Understand me well, I am all for technology and innovation. That said, technology is only as good as how we use it. I have mentioned in earlier articles how important this subtle distinction is. I am convinced that as of today we already have all the technology we need to mitigate climate change and have happy lives. So, why don’t we solve the problem? Once again the magic word is: money. For many of these technological solutions, the economics do not favour them, but favour the current destructive system. A part of the problem is in the allocation of where subsidies go. We encourage non-sustainable systems to survive while we do not reward enough sustainable solutions. Another important aspect of whether technology can help us overcome the challenges lies in our behaviour and that is independent of technology. Technology can only help us if we want to help ourselves first. Keeping our same bad habits of wasting and overconsumption and hoping that some new technology is going to clean the mess for us without us having to make any effort of any sort is completely delusional, not to say completely immature. There cannot be any solution if we do not change ourselves. I could paraphrase both Einstein’s quote saying that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result and Ghandi’s saying that we must be the change we want to see.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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Making reliable predictions

November 16, 2018

One of the questions that I get the most is “what do you see in your crystal ball?

People love predictions and they like the idea that some among us might have some sort of a gift to see in the future.  For millennia, people have looked –or asked “psychics”- to look in the stars, in tea leaves, in cards, chicken insides or whatever esoteric medium to know the future. Why is there so much fascination about knowing the future? The answer is simple: people want to reduce uncertainty and want predictability.

Although it could be convenient at times to be able to predict the future with certainty, it is not possible. At best, it is a matter of foreseeing what is the most likely to happen. Even the most accurate predictions are really an exercise in probabilities. Predictions are difficult and the rate of error is not negligible. In my opinion, the trickiest kind of prediction is about figuring out numbers, such as future prices. Numbers have a pervert side to them. Numbers give a false sense of security. They seem to give certainty while in most cases they are not as useful as they seem, because the story behind the numbers is more important than the numbers themselves. Just look at stock market analysts. They all give their views on where stock prices are headed and then a couple of things happen. First, they do not all agree on the future stock prices. Since they do not all agree on the numbers, it is obvious that some of them will be wrong. Clearly, predicting is not an exact science. Otherwise, they would all come up with the same price targets. Actually, it is not a science at all, although there is quite a bit of science in the process to arrive to such predictions. The second observation is that very few of those analysts make accurate predictions. In the Netherlands and as a joke, every year a gorilla was pulling its top five stocks from the Amsterdam Stock Exchange listed companies for the coming year, and its pick would be compared with those of professional analysts. It was not rare that the gorilla had picked more of the top performing stocks than the analysts. Some other research (I unfortunately cannot remember from which source) had shown that predictions of economists were accurate only 47% of the time. In other words by flipping a coin, you would be more accurate than the economist’s average by 3 percentage points. That said, even these numbers come down to statistics. It is about averages of predictions, regardless of individual differences. It is the same with predictions as it is with anything else. Some people are good at it and deliver high rates of accuracy and some others (the large majority in my opinion) don’t.

With that in mind, here are my views on how to make reliable predictions.

Considering how uncertain predictions are, there is no point to make predictions solely for the sake of making predictions. Serious reliable predictions are about helping others see what changes are coming, what the challenges are and what the solutions will be. Making predictions just to satisfy one’s ego are vanity and just like everything else that is about pride, demise will come. The cornerstone for a reliable prediction is that it needs to come true. In this area too, over-promising and under-delivering will not serve anyone, and certainly not the one making the predictions. It is much better to stick on what makes sense and not try to overdo it. There is no need to be cute. It is better to predict slightly less but with a higher rate of accuracy than more and be just an average predictor at best. There is no need to believe you will be the next Nostradamus, and even Nostradamus did not predict all that much after all.

It is also quite useful to be clear and specific right from the start with the audience about which future you are talking about (What future do you want)

To make useful predictions, it is also necessary to free your mind and to keep it as open as possible. Since there is no reason for the future to be exactly like the past or the present, unusual situations or uncharted territory are very real possibilities. Reliable predictions are the logical conclusions of a thorough research and thought process. It has to be independent and critical. It is not because others say that this or that will happen that it will be so (remember what I said about how inaccurate most predictions are?). To make solid predictions, one has to be critical of any other opinions, screen them with a good dose of critical thinking as well as a good dose of common sense. In the realm of predictions, to assume can indeed end up making an ass of u and me. Like any other analysis, double checking information and sources is an absolute prerequisite for quality work. In this world overloaded with information and opinions, many of which are complete non-sense, it is better not to believe that it is true just because it is on internet. To be a reliable predictor of the future and to possibly become a reference as a futurist, you must create your own original material. Copy and paste is not foresight, it is only copying and pasting the work of those who created the original material. When you copy and paste, you are not a futurist. At best, you are a reporter. It is interesting to see how many futurists are actually people with a journalism background and how little original material they actually produce. Just like I do not preclude that what celebrities say is necessarily true, do not believe anything I write just because I present myself as The Food Futurist. Double check and review critically what I publish. Then you can decide if I am a reliable source or not. The social media world is full of so-called influencers. Yeah, right. Personally, I do not want to be influenced. I want to be convinced instead. Once again, use critical thinking and common sense.

It might sound a bit corny, but I believe that knowing and understanding history is essential for reliable predictions. Even though we live in an era of strong sense of self and individualism, humans are actually amazingly predictable. We are much less original that we like to think. In many ways we are all pre-programmed to see and understand things the way we do. It is part of how we are raised. It is part of culture. Taking distance from the “program” is not easy. The “program”, together with our cerebral cortex that seems to constantly try to make us rationalize the irrational and the emotional, makes it about impossible to be fully objective and eliminate totally our biases, big and small. The result is that humans act in ways that make history repeat itself. An example of how this can be used is what is called technical analysis in stock market analysis. The core of technical analysis is that people tend to act and react in similar ways over and over again. When you see how automated financial trading has become thanks to algorithms that are based for a large part on this predictability of human behavior, it is easy to understand how this can be used in all sorts of foresight exercise. On top of that, be also aware that financial traders’ jobs are being eliminated and replaced by programmers by financial companies and you have a great example of how predictability of humans is pivotal for predictions of the future.

To be reliable in predictions, the first person to be convinced is the one making the predictions. What would be the point of telling others about a certain vision of the future if you don’t believe in it yourself? This where a subtle detail is quite useful to spot: is the vision written in the future tense or in the conditional? Of course, sometimes it is good to give your audience a choice between scenarios. Then, the conditional is useful, but only if it is clear that the different scenarios are all highly likely. If the use of the conditional is mostly to cover your backside just in case the prediction might not come true, then it is necessary to grow more courage in foresight. The use of the future tense is quite powerful. It really makes the prediction much stronger and more credible. I also want to say a word of caution about the use of the future tense when it is misplaced, and I see it many times. The future tense alone does not necessarily refer to the future. One expression that ticks me off every time I hear it is “the future is already here”. If the future is already here, it is not the future anymore but it is the present, so present it as such. It can actually help people to know what is already currently available instead of being under the impression that it still is in the future and therefore not available yet. In my opinion telling the present in the future tense is a disservice.

Certain personality traits are quite useful to make reliable predictions. In particular, a sense of anticipation is a prerequisite in foresight. It is simple logic. If you do not have a sense of anticipation, how on Earth could you claim to have foresight? It would be like the joke about the mind reader who needs to ask who is knocking at the door. Martial arts have a reputation for developing a so-called sixth sense. I have no idea if this is true or not but perhaps my many years of martial arts have been helpful in my activities as a futurist. Perhaps I had it all along. Fact is that I always have had some a sense of how things can evolve and what to expect. I cannot explain it and I have never tried, either. I have not played much chess in my life, but I could envision quite well the moves ahead. It is there and it is quite useful to me. It has helped me make really good predictions and I have very rarely been wrong with my predictions, also probably because I make predictions following the principles that I mentioned above. Another useful personality trait is the ability to see the bigger picture and to connect the dots. I seem to see things earlier than most people. Sometimes if frustrates me but so be it. That is an ability that I have had all my life and it helps me a great deal in this work, and has with the previous ones as well. I am not wired for tunnel vision or silo thinking. I am naturally curious and I like to see how all things come together, where they come from and where they are going. My brain is always active. In this regard, making predictions is a natural process for me. I am always surprised to see how difficult it seems for organizations to escape their own area and see what is beyond their operations. It must be me, though. When I was in the corporate world, I was already different from most of my colleagues, apparently. I could change positions, business sectors and even locations without any difficulty to adapt and function in my new environment. I seem to have been a curious case, as all the testing and human resources could not stick any of their labels on me. I believe I was an impossible creature in the sense that I could not exist. I should have been either analytical or intuitive, I should have been either social or alone, I should have been either an individualist or a team player, I should have been either a doer or a thinker, and I should have been either technical or into soft skills, etc… In all the areas of personality mapping, they did not know where to place me because I could be both of the opposites every time and could shift within both opposites when needed. Regardless of all the headaches I may have caused HR people, this flexibility -or maybe fluidity- is quite useful to me. It helps me navigate smoothly through all the dimensions that are underlying the task of foreseeing the future. If it means that I have many personalities, then so be it because I can say that we are all happy in my head (OK this is just a joke, I do not really have multiple personalities).

Next to my personality traits, I must say that my life experience, and in particular my professional experience is a major asset for The Food Futurist work. I have filled so many different functions, been in so many different places and countries and dealt with so many different people and I have been involved in so many different types of businesses that I am very privileged to have an amazingly broad understanding of the many areas and dimensions of food and agriculture. Having experienced so many situations also helps me spot what makes sense or not and what their potential and limitations are. All those reasons explain why my predictions have been accurate and proved useful for others.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.