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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Running out of time or simply not running at all?

October 15, 2018

Last week, the UN had a message. We must take unprecedented action if we want to avert a catastrophe because of rising temperatures. The tone is pessimistic, and we all should be, too. We have had warning after warning and let’s face it, we have not done much to really address the challenge. It kind of reminds me that episode from The West Wing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RzF-Wg2g-k (the interesting bit starts at time point 1:00). It is not that concerns about modern technology and so-called progress are new. We knew long before there even were COP conferences, the Kyoto agreement or Al Gore’s Inconvenient truth. Sixty years ago, In 1958, the American (ironic isn’t it, considering the current US views on climate change) movie The Unchained Goddess was already warning about what was coming (see it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1ph_7C1Jq4 – duration 55 minutes). Sixty years ago, I was not born yet. All that time, we have chosen to not think about it and mortgage the future (possible bankrupt it) for the sake of short-term fun and I guess trying to be cool in some way.

The thing with procrastination is that the longer we wait to take action (and we already have procrastinated more than long enough), the steeper the hill on which we will have to fight the battle. The longer we wait, the more expensive it will be, but I suppose we all think it is someone else who will pay. I consider highly likely that the consequence of that will be a triple bottom line crisis: environmental, social/human and financial (The 1929 Great Depression will look like a holiday camp in comparison). That is my prediction. I am thrifty and cautious on predictions but history tells me that I tend to have a talent for predictions.

There has been and there is no shortage of conferences. You know those places where the self-proclaimed elite meet in obscenely luxurious surroundings enjoying a good time with plenty of good food and drinks. I wrote in an article a few years ago that the “deciders” (who never really decide anything that involves their accountability and commitment) should carry out their negotiations in a locked room without food, water and energy and be released only when they have done their work. I still think it is a good idea, although I have absolutely no expectations that it will ever happen. Well, except when Mother Nature is going to take charge of that.

The question now is: are we going to take unprecedented action? The answer is easy: NO. The obvious clue is that the news lived for about 3 days on the media websites and was not even the main headline. It gives a feeling of humankind is on the brink of extinction, but there are more important news. Perhaps. Clearly, not many people really care. Now that the economic crisis of 10 years ago seems to be a thing of the past (psst: beware it is coming back) and gas prices have been back to lower levels than a decade ago (psst again: they are rising again), car manufacturers have focused their production on the gas guzzlers again. Bigger cars that satisfy the fragile egos of males with insecurity issues in the downtown area is what sells. Well it sells because smaller, more efficient cars do not generate enough margin in comparison, and therefore are not going to be produced. Have you noticed how cars never get mentioned as a problem for climate change? No! Cars are fine and the more they consume, the better it seems to be, not to mention the decisions from the USA to pretty much eliminate anything that tried to alleviate the problem. Apparently, the real problem is agriculture and especially the cows. Those damn cows have been sneakily waiting their hour to take their revenge and finally free eradicate humankind by farting. OK, I will drop the cheap sarcasm. It is true that agriculture contributes to the problem, but I resent agriculture being singled out this simplistically. I will get back about this in a next article.

Agriculture is like most industries. It has evolved from mixed systems in which its by-products where reused and recycled on the farms. As one of my teacher at the Agricultural University used to say: animal production has moved from making high-value protein and fat from cheap food scraps to making cheap fat and protein from high-value feed ingredients. The loops have been open and food production moved from a circular system into a linear one in which by-products are considered useless and thrown away and replaced at the input area by their “replacement” produced with much resources and energy. The good news in this is since we knew how to have a circular food and agriculture, we can revert to it. The only problem is… $$$. The industrialization of agriculture led to much more affordable foods, just like most other industries that enjoy the so-called consumption society, which is actually a transaction society. Sellers do not really care if you even actually use their products. They just want you to buy again and again. This economic system is purely production-driven and linear: large volumes from large capacity units to keep costs low. The problem is this picture is that never ever are the collateral long-term costs taken in the cost break down. These negative externalities, as they are called, are never factored in the accounting and of course never addressed at the quarterly financial reports. There is no true circular economy without factoring externalities in the costs. Here is a note for the young readers, if you have been reading this far without falling asleep with my drivel: you, my poor friends, are the ones who are going to foot the bill of externalities that your parents and grandparents are leaving behind. They are the lucky ones because they have lived in obscene abundance on credit and you are the ones who will pay the interest. Unfortunately for you, Mother Nature (from whose bank the interest will come) does not do bailouts. She does not do politics or BS either. She does not print currency. Mother Nature is a ruthless accountant that believes not in liberalism or socialism or whatever dogma humans have invented to give a meaning to their lives. Mother Nature only lives by immutable laws of physics. Mother Nature is kind, though because she sends us message after message to warn us. We, on the other end, we act like squatters who do not even look in the mailbox to go through the unpaid bill reminders or threats of eviction notices. I hate to bring it to the young ones, but your life is going to be quite different than what you parents and grandparents have enjoyed. I am not a spring chicken anymore, but not really old (at least, that what I like to tell myself), and I am sure that I am going to face a very different world in the coming decades. For me, too, the good times are going to fade out. At least I will have had some. I suppose I could complain that it is not fair to me because I live quite a simple and frugal life and my environmental footprint is low. It won’t matter because life is not fair, and that is a fact of life. If everyone were like me, Wall Street would crash in less time than it takes to type “Wall Street”. I spend very little. I drive about 5,000 km per year and walk or bike every time I can. I repair instead of replacing every time I can, although it is not easy. Yep, I know how to repair socks, believe it or not, and I do it when it is needed. I cook all my meals and as you can see on my good food page, I eat quite well. I have a garden that produces a large chunk of my produce yearly needs. I can and preserve the summer surpluses. I make my own bread, and I also make my own wines. I have a little vineyard out of which I am going to make 6 different types this year. I have a small car because I need one, since I live in a rural area, but it unlike my neighbors who seem to need big engines, my little mules runs a gentle 5 liters/100 km (or if you prefer 47 miles per gallon). Speaking of fossil fuel, I am also the only one in the neighborhood who uses a broom instead of a gas-engine blower and uses a push mower instead of a gas-engine lawn mower, and the funny thing is that I do the job faster than my neighbors and much more quietly, which is a bonus. Another bonus is that it keeps me fit. I have a six-pack while my neighbors have beer kegs.

My point, I suppose, is that a good life is not about lots of stuff and/or being so afraid of missing out on something that you need to be addicted to consumption. Actually, the issue is not so much about consumption as it is about excesses, and the always more, as I have mentioned in previous articles (do a search in the window on top of this page), while we should strive to always enough. When you have enough, you are good every time. If you never have enough, perhaps it is time to reflect about why that is so.

Excessive consumption is only the visible part of the problem. The other –hidden- part is waste. And how wasteful are human beings. The amounts of resources, water, energy and food that are wasted are staggering. Earlier, I was mentioning my little car and my neighbors’ thirsty vehicles. On a same trip, at the same speed, I am sure that they consume between 2 and 3 times as much gas as I do. The extra gas consumption does not add anything to the outcome of the trip. Though, the result is that I use fewer resources, emit fewer gases than they do per mile, and most importantly of all: I spend between half and a third of the dollars at the pump. I have more money left for other things. Frugal pays off, big dividends.

A large part of the waste is truly a behavioral problem. Technology may help, but if behavior and attitude towards waste do not change at the same time, do not expect technology to save us. It won’t. Only WE can save ourselves, technology won’t, other people won’t. It comes down to the quote from Ghandi “Be the change you want to see in the world”. We want technology for a simple reason: we do not want to change because we are lazy and lack self-discipline.

Food waste has become a mainstream topic. I addressed it in my two books but it was before the UN addressed it. Sad that such a large organization with their resources could not figure that out before an independent guy like me working from his home office. I even had estimated the cost right. Can you imagine? Anyway and even with the higher profile the issue has received, they are a few waste issues that I never read about.

Obesity is presented as a health issue. It is, but it is also a major waste issue as well. Over consumption of calories that end up being stored in body fat are wasted calories. They serve no purpose, since the overweight people never really benefit from them, or when they die, the fat is buried under ground or cremated. Totally wasted calories that never fulfilled their purpose. In a world where, like in developed countries, people consume twice their nutritional needs in calories, fats and protein, feeding 9 or 10 billion people is not feeding 9 or 10 billion people; it is feeding 18 to 20 billion!

Other waste topic, I never read about (but I suspect I will in a few months from now) is also about fat: the fat in the meat that consumers cut off and throw away. The sad thing about fat in meat is that it requires much more energy for an animal to grow fat in its tissue than it requires to grow muscle. For the biochemists among you, the difference is fat requires two times as many ATP (Adenosine Tri Phosphates) to fix the same amount of fat than it does for muscle. ATP is the fuel used in mitochondria, the microscopic power plants inside our cells. Roughly, throwing fat away cost twice as much as throwing lean meat.

And what to say about food recalls? Food that is unfit for consumption gets destroyed and all the resources used along the entire value chain to produce have been wasted. It represents a lot more than just the tonnage of food that must go to destruction. I suspect the reason why we never connect the dots between the links of entire value chain is just because the different links of the chain are active within their own area. In a linear system, collateral waste and externalities are always someone else’s problem. In a circular system, it is everyone’s problem. It creates very different dynamics in terms of co-responsibility and solidarity and also willingness to act.

I hate waste, and in particular food waste. I am very rigorous in how I manage the foods I have at home. Unfortunately, it happens sometimes that something goes bad. It is rare, but it happens and it ticks me off beyond belief. Ask my wife about that! When that happens, I always cut out just what is not edible at all but no more than that. I will pinch little crumbs of bread out where the mold is and I eat the rest. Sometimes it does not taste great, but if I screwed up, it is only fair that I get some punishment for it. It never made me sick. All in all, I do not think that I waste even a pound of food a year, so I guess I am doing fine. Further, any organics, such as potato peels or even egg shells all end up in the compost that I use in my veggie garden. In town, we have a yard waste collection schedule from the municipality, but I hardly ever use it. I recycle all I can.

My conviction to meet the “unprecedented” efforts to curb the effect of climate change is to live a good but simple life. There is nothing that frustrates me more than those who oppose action on environment and jobs. They are not mutually exclusive. Actually they can work together, but the rules and laws need to change and integrate the externalities. Unfortunately, I do not see government leaders or business leaders even trying to get this done. After all, it is easier to pass it onto the next generation.

Trying to keep up with the Joneses or impress one’s little social circle with stuff is not my thing. Actually, moderation helps appreciate things better. Much better. Instead of wasting money on always more stuff, I prefer to buy quality stuff that lasts and to buy only when I need something. If I don’t need it, why should it clutter my home while not fulfilling any function? That is pretty stupid if you ask me. A long time ago, I posted on this blog an article titled “We will change or eating habits, one way or another”. You can be sure that sustainability, especially with a world population growing, is about “we will become frugal, one way or another”. Sustainability and excess do not match well. Be assured that Moderation is a key word if we want a prosperous future, and prosperity really is about inner harmony and happiness. Prosperity is not about more stuff; that is for empty people. The other key word for the future –and that is in stark contrast with our current philosophy of economy and of life is: Humility. How do we move from a world where so many of us use social media as their own narcissistic issue of People magazine in which they take center stage as self-proclaimed I-am-the center-of-the world-look at me? I venture for some time on Twitter and I left. I did not even try Facebook as soon as I got the form asking for personal information on my screen, and I think it was the smart thing to do.

So, will we make it? I believe the answer is the same as the one I gave to a journalist who was asking me if I thought we could feed the world in 2050: “Yes we can but it will take a terrifying crisis before we do what it takes”. I ended up Future Harvest with “we can but will we?” and We Will Reap What We Sow takes it from there. The cover has two halves: a prosperous farm field and a devastated barren land. I see many more signs that we are heading towards the latter, not the former. Maybe there is hope, though. Today, the Great Pumpkin said that he did not think climate change was a hoax after all.

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


What more demand for meat means for the future

October 21, 2012

Here is an excerpt from We Will Reap What We Sow, the book I published in May 2012. The recent difficult climatic conditions for agriculture and their impact of agricultural markets have made the issue quite relevant. Here it is then:

As the economy in emerging countries is improving, their population becomes wealthier. Just as it happened in Western countries during the 20th century, the increase in wealth translates into dietary changes. The consumption of animal protein, especially the consumption of meat, increases.

To realize what the consequences of a higher consumption of meat might be, it is interesting to make calculations for China. When 1.5 billion people eat on average one more kg of chicken meat per person, world production needs to increase by about 750 million chickens. That represents about 2% of the world’s production. Similarly, when each Chinese consumes on average one more kg of pork, the world must produce 15 million more pigs. That number represents 1.5% of the world pig production. For beef, an increase of consumption of one kg per capita per year means the need for a production of 2.4% higher than today.

Meat consumption in China has already passed the milestone of 50 kg per capita per year, and projections indicate that it should reach 80 kg per capita per year in 2030. Clearly, consumption will increase by much more than just one kg.

An increase of 10 kg of chicken meat per capita per year in China means that the world’s chicken production would have to increase by 20% to meet the new demand! This represents almost the entire US chicken production volume, and more than Brazilian production. In the case of pork, an increase of consumption of 10 kg per capita means that the world’s pig production would have to increase by 15%. That is five times the current pig production of Iowa, USA. That is 60% of the EU production. For beef, the world’s production would have to increase by 24% to meet an increase of 10 kg per capita per year! This number also represents about 125% of the current total US beef production.

Different animal productions have different feed conversion ratios (FCR). The FCR is the quantity of feed needed to produce 1 kg of meat. For chicken meat, the FCR is of 1.8. For pig meat, the FCR is about 3. For beef, depending on the proportion of grass in the cattle’s diet, the amount of grain used to produce 1 kg of beef varies. With an average FCR of 3 for the various types of meat productions, an increase of meat consumption of 30 kg in China would result in the need to produce three times 30 kg times 1.5 billion. Depending on the consumption of which type of meat will grow the fastest, the need for feed, excluding grass, would vary between 100 and 150 million tons.

The world’s second largest population, the Indian population, is still largely vegetarian. Although India is among the countries with the lowest meat consumption, with less than 4 kg per capita per year, Indians are gradually changing their eating habits. Meat consumption is increasing in India, too, but not in proportions as dramatic as in China. Nonetheless, with a growing population, any incremental meat consumption will have physical consequences. Some simple math can show the magnitude of the higher demand for meat.

Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s population will increase by 2.2 billion, from 6.8 billion to nine billion. If everything stays equal, the consumption would increase by about a third (2.2/6.8). According to the FAO, the average consumption of meat per capita in the world in 2010 was of about 47 kg. The population growth alone would represent a meat consumption increase of 2.2 billion times 47, or 103 million tons. This number represents about a third of the 2010 meat consumption.

In the example of China mentioned earlier, the predicted increase of 30 kg per person represented an increase in meat consumption of 45 million tons.

Even if the world average meat consumption per capita remained stable between 2010 and 2050, the need for additional meat production would be of 2.3 (103/45) times the numbers in the China example. This represents an additional need for animal feed, excluding grass, of between 230 and 345 million tons compared with 2010.

The situation becomes even more interesting when the average consumption per capita increases. For every 10 kg increase of individual consumption, the need for additional meat production increases by nine billion times 10 kg, or 90 million tons of meat. For each 10 kg increase of average meat consumption, an additional volume of 600 to 900 million tons of animal feed is necessary. The following table presents the effect of the population increase to nine billion people and its meat consumption on production volumes.

Average individual meat consumption increase from 2010 (kg/capita/year)

0

10

20

30

40

50

Average individual meat consumption(kg/capita/year)

47

57

67

77

87

97

Total meat consumption(million tons)

423

513

603

693

783

873

Total meat consumption increase from 2010 (million tons)

103

193

283

373

463

553

Percentage of increase from 2010

32%

61%

89%

117%

145%

173%

An average meat consumption of 97 kg per capita per year would be about the current average of developed countries. If the average meat consumption per capita per year in the world were to meet such a number, meat production would have to almost triple from 2010 volumes.

Most of the gloomy scenarios about the challenge of feeding the world are based on the assumption that the diet model would have to be the Western diet, and in particular the American diet. This is far from certain. Actually, it probably will not be the case. As the world’s population increases, one of the sensitive issues, especially in the overfed world, will be what to eat and how much of it. Higher food prices will also force people to indulge less. It is important to understand the difference between nutritional needs and consumer desires. Today, the world produces enough calories and protein to meet the actual nutritional needs of nine billion people. If the nine billion people expected for 2050 all want to have a Western diet, the amount of calories needed would be equivalent to the nutritional calorie needs of 17.5 billion people.

It would be normal to expect feed conversion efficiency to improve in the future. Nonetheless, the production for animal feed would then increase with 3,000 to 4,500 million tons above the volumes necessary in 2010. Since a third of grain production goes to animal feed, a tripling of meat production means that grain production would have to double, just because of the desire for more meat.

Clearly, the challenge of feeding the world will depend increasingly on meeting the demand for meat. The challenge for producers of agricultural commodities will be to keep up with the demand for animal feed. As demand for meat increases, there is no doubt that more and more questions will arise about how much meat the world can afford to eat. The world food situation will depend on how much meat people want to eat, not on calorie count.

How much meat should we eat?…

The rest of the text for this topic and much more is in the book.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Rio+20, Riots+30?

July 13, 2012

The Rio+20 conference is over. Announced with much publicity, accompanied with many tactically timed media articles and other conferences about sustainability, it has been the occasion for many to demonstrate their apparent concern about the future of the planet. A couple of weeks after the conference, the excitement has faded away, and the tweets that were so abundant on the subject have become rare. This is rather symptomatic of the current behavior of short attention span. Much has been written about Rio+20 and the dominant conclusion is that it has not achieved much, as expected.

For obvious reasons, I followed the part about agriculture and food security with special attention. Since I did not expect anything, I was not disappointed. To me, this conference has left me with the impression that the world leaders are resigned. The text was written before they would meet and it was far from bold. I read it and I could only shake my head. To me it looked like a very politically correct list of commitments that would fit nicely in typical New Year’s resolutions. The principles and statements mentioned in the text are noble but who can seriously think that effective action will follow? Just like world peace, everybody will agree on the principle of a sustainable livable planet where hunger does not exist. The reality is different. Human nature is not that noble and our many flaws hinder us to achieve such goals. In We Will Reap What We Sow, I wrote among others a chapter dedicated to the human weaknesses and how they affect our ability to deliver what we all secretly want. In the book, I also discuss how we can overcome these weaknesses and work toward a successful change. The theme of Rio+20 was “The future we want”. It was not clear to me who we might be, and whether it should be about wanting. Is what we want the same as what we need? The theme should have been “The future we need”. That would have been more precise and more relevant.

I also followed the webcasts dedicated to food and agriculture of the conference, and they disappointed me. I would have loved to see people clearly expressing their frustration about the resistance our world faces to go in the right direction. I would have expected strong calls on the leaders for effective action. I would have expected to see clear action points with clear and non-negotiable deadlines. I would have expected clarity about who should be responsible to do what. I did not get these. Instead, I saw some well-rehearsed PowerPoint presentations carried out by speakers who were rather satisfied with the work of their countries or organizations and who sounded like they found that at least their contribution was excellent and so would it be in the future. I am always suspicious when I hear people justifying themselves while nobody is asking for justifications. I believe that the overwhelming majority of people who work in agriculture to produce more and better food in a better manner do a good job. Most people go to work with the desire to do something good. Such presentations did not add much to the objectives of producing more food in a sustainable manner.

What would I have liked to see happening at the Rio+20 conference, you might ask? Very simple: I would have liked to see people arguing quite vividly and even getting angry, even leaving the negotiation room and slamming the door. This would have been the sign that the right questions had been asked. Considering the complexity of growing more food and at the same time maintain the potential of agriculture to keep producing for generations to come, difficult issues and really annoying questions are inevitable. I really would have liked to see the likes of a Nikita Khrushchev who in the UN took off his shoe to bang it on his desk in the 60s. Although his behavior was somehow out of line and by today’s political correctness standards totally unthinkable, it would be good to have leaders engaging in robust arguments. After all, if the survival of humanity is indeed at stake, this would be a cheap price to pay. Instead of that, the leaders came only to pay lip service, show up on the group picture and went back home knowing that the conference did not address the issues as it should have. At least everybody felt good about a text that was not threatening for anyone, that did not ask for any significant sacrifice and thus life can go on. As soon as they left the building, they returned to business as usual. All the principles listed in the text are correct as such. The only problem is that it is written as if the UN expects world leaders to become altruistic, long-term oriented and good-hearted. It is a bit naive. They are politicians! Yes, in a perfect world, there is no doubt that the world would feed itself sustainably, just as it would not cause climatic change and there would be no poor and hungry people, either. In a perfect world, there would be no need for the UN or the FAO.

What can happen if the economic model derails and collapses if it does not make the right choices to become sustainable? That is not very difficult to figure out. A number of events from the last few years can give us some clues. The riots that took place when the price of food increased sharply in 2008, affecting the lives of many people in developing countries, show that food will play a crucial role for the stability of many regions. It will not take much for such riots to happen again. Because of the economic crisis, a number of heads of states in democratic countries have been defeated during recent elections. The people clearly asked for a different leadership. In Arab countries, a similar demand has been met through social unrest, riots and near civil wars, and the process is still ongoing. The people asked for a different leadership. The intensity of the economic crisis has actually been reduced substantially by the massive printing of money and the large amounts of debts that many countries have had to issue to keep their economies from stopping abruptly. If money printing has softened the short-term impact of the financial meltdown, it also will lengthen its duration quite significantly. Considering the amount of debt and the demographics of Western countries, it will take generations before the debt can be paid back entirely, if that ever even happens. To restore a sound ratio of debt on GDP, most of these countries would actually need a new baby boom to ensure a growth that matches the challenges. Of course, another approach could be to allow immigration numbers to increase strongly, but that does not seem to be on any of these countries’ plans. Moreover, a growth based on the same economic model of consumption society does not appear sustainable and before the right numbers would be met, one can wonder if our species would have survived.

I often tell that the difference between the effects of the financial, the social and the environmental parts of the economy manifest at different speed. Anyone can follow share prices live on the stock market, anyone can follow his/her bank account on a second-by-second if desiring to do so. Social consequences can take months or longer to manifest, and environmental effects can take decades to manifest. The financial crisis has been the result of postponing actions to ensure that the money world could be sustainable. It is still far from being there and the financial crisis is not over, but at least there was the possibility to print money and to emit debt. That entertains the illusion. When it comes to environmental sustainability, our leaders are also postponing actions to ensure that our physical world be sustainable. The main difference is that there is no printing of Nature possible. Printing of wheat, rice, beans or other essential food items is not an option. If we lose the ability to produce enough, there will be fights for food. That is inevitable.

An unsustainable economic model, and in particular an unsustainable agriculture, will result in shortages, not just local but everywhere and anywhere to some extent. It will result in large numbers of people left with few options to survive. Some cultures might deal with it in more orderly manner than others might, but overall, the result will be social unrest that could have the potential to turn into riots and probably even into regional conflicts. A quick look at the world map gives an idea of where it can happen and the potential risks. The Rio+20 conference should have presented prospective scenarios of what will happen if we do not act properly and timely, and it should have asked the leaders on solutions. Leaving a conference handling such a sensitive and complex problem without a genuine brainstorming and a solid and courageous action plan made by the leaders for the world in order to preserve peace and stability comes short of leadership.

Considering the pace of economic, social and environmental change, this was the least that should have been done. Are we going to wait another 20 years for the following conference? Will it be as lame as this one? Will the result of Rio+20 be Riots+30, or +40? I tend to think so more and more. I am increasingly convinced that only a really scary crisis affecting the rich will shake the lethargy. I think that political change will come from the street before it comes from leaders who have apparently already given up. In the food and agriculture sectors, I also expect salvation to come from the ones who are the most involved in production: the farmers, the food producers and the food distributors, simply because their livelihoods will depend directly on an agriculture that is sustainable. Politicians will only follow later, when they and their constituents become food insecure.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The Sustainability Dilemma

June 20, 2012

Although almost everyone seems to agree that our world needs to be sustainable (what is the alternative anyway?), making it happen seems much more challenging. The good intentions have difficulties to turn into action. The reason is simple. To make human activities sustainable, we will need to accept some serious trade-offs. That is where it hurts. There is the dilemma. Are we willing to change and sacrifice on the superfluous today to have a bright future, or do we want to keep instant gratification as the way of life and risk to lose it all later? Even though the answer to this question is obvious, it is only human to choose the short term. The issue in the background is one of change, not so much one of a choice about sustainability. To understand why this is so, one needs to realize that fear of change is not about change. It is about the fear of loss. This fear is even stronger when there is little certainty about what will come next.

Making the move towards sustainability presents many short-term challenges. There is a lot of money at stake, but this is not just about the financial aspects of the economy. There is a social cost, too. Changing the economic model into a sustainable one means that many jobs will be threatened. In these times of economic hardships, the fear of unemployment and of the social unrest that would result from it is reason for many politicians to be reluctant to take drastic action. They also think about their jobs. Sustainability is about the long term. It is about later and somewhere else. On the contrary, personal consequences of the change are here and now. There is no need to look any further to understand why there is resistance and inertia. In the debate about sustainability, shortcomings appear in several areas.

A first area is the lack of strong vision from the leaders about which alternative to offer to the current consumption society. Actually, consumption society is not an accurate description. The purpose is not so much about consumption as it is about buying stuff, use them or not, throw them away and buy new stuff instead. Clearly, with more people having more disposable income, this is going to hit a wall. As more people want to have a piece of the shrinking pie, and as finite resources deplete gradually, excessive consumption and waste are not going to last for much longer. It is simple math and it is common sense. Supply and demand will readjust markets by sending prices up. High prices will make consumption slow down, and so will the world economy. Regardless of which one between market forces or the environment will cause the current system to collapse, the economic model will change. The time has come to bring a clear vision for an alternative system. The alternative must ensure that the economy is prosperous, that people have work that pays well enough for them to cover their needs and to ensure that human societies can have a future for generations to come. Until this day, nobody has come with a vision and a road map that make the change acceptable here and now. This is why all international conferences lead to little action. As long as this is the case, the only thing that will force a change in attitude is a major crisis in which the wealthy are at risk of losing what they have. As long as crises touch only the poor and the powerless, nothing really changes, unfortunately.

A second area of weakness is the lack of collaborative action. Every group of stakeholders look at its interest first, while the proper approach would have to be altruistic and empathic. This is another case of the here and now vs. the elsewhere and later. If we want to succeed, it is necessary to transcend differences and borders. We need to find ways of going beyond simple accountability, and impose co-responsibility. This is much easier said than done.

A third area to address is the numbers. In the end, it is about money and jobs. Actions to make the world sustainable must also work financially. If change is not sustainable financially, change will not happen. If businesses go bankrupt and if people are at risk of losing their livelihoods, they will not go for the change. The new economic model needs to consider this. The transition towards a better world needs to consider it, too. The externalities need to be internalized in some way, but the new model must be robust as well, otherwise all efforts would be for nothing.

A fourth area is about definitions. What is sustainability? How can we monitor and measure all human activities to know which ones are within sustainable limits and which ones have no future? How and where to draw the line, and how to enforce it? In the case of agriculture, every particular activity has its own specific impact. Depending on the nature of the environment, the nature of the impact and the range of sustainability vary, too. Monitoring must be tailor-made to each particular situation.

A fifth area is the consumer’s behavior. It is impossible to address sustainability without addressing consumption habits, and in particular excessive consumption and waste. As long as consumers will not eliminate the use of products that have an unsustainable effect on the environment, very little will improve. Putting the emphasis on production only is not enough. Production methods certainly can improve, but a substantial share of the damage is the result of consumers wanting more of what is not so good. Consumers are the largest group of influence. They are the people. What and how they consume is democracy in action. Businesses and governments follow their lead to quite some extent. When the majority chooses for a different economic model, things will change fast, but for now, the majority is still choosing for the old model.

Whether our world will move towards sustainability or choose a more hazardous way depends on us all. It depends on how we want to solve the dilemma that we face. The choice is not easy, but it is essential. There are many questions still unanswered, simply because they have not been asked. These important questions are mostly of a practical nature. They are more about how to make the system work not only environmentally and socially, but also financially. If businesses tend to focus mostly on financial aspects, environmental and social movement tend to neglect it too much. Like everything else in life and nature, it is about balance.

In my latest book, We Will Reap What We Sow, I address in much more details many of these questions and discuss the value of possible alternatives in relation with our future ability to feed a growing population.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Q&A on We Will Reap What We Sow on twitter

June 12, 2012

I will be available to answer any questions about my new book We Will Reap What We Sow on twitter. I believe this could be a good way to interact in a concise manner with readers.

The participants will have to include the hashtag #WWRWWS on their tweets to be noticed.

This will take place over three days, with two sessions of one hour each day.

The dates and times are June 13 – 14 – 15 2012 at:

  • 2.00 pm EST = 7.00 pm in England = 8.00 pm in Western Europe
  • 7.00 pm EST = noon in Sydney, Australia = 7.30 am in Mumbai

It is also possible to ask questions outside of these times, but I will answer them only when I am available again.


When externalities cannot be externalized anymore

March 29, 2012

Externalities are costs, or benefits, that are not included in the price charged for a product. If a cost is not included in the price, it represents a negative externality. If a benefit is not included, the externality is positive. The concept of externality is particularly important to determine whether an activity is sustainable. For instance, if an industrial activity pollutes and causes harm, there will be consequences, and costs. As it takes many years for environmental problems to become obvious, the cost of repairing the damage caused by pollution is not included in the cost of the goods produced by the industrial activity in question. However, there will be a day when it there will be no alternative but to clean the damage. That cost is the externality.

Every activity that pollutes without cleaning the contaminants is a negative externality. Everything that damages physically the environment and undermines the sustainability of food production is a negative externality. Every activity that depletes essential resources for the production of food is a negative externality. In this highly industrialized world, the consequences of economic and human activities, slowly add up. Nature’s resilience makes it possible for damage to remain unnoticed for quite some time. However, the ability of Nature to repair the damage shrinks, as the damage is continuous and exceeds Nature’s ability to cope with the problem. As the population increases, the level of human and economic activities intensifies further. There will come a time when Nature simply cannot handle the damage and repair it in a timely manner anymore. The buffer will be full. When this happens, the effect of negative externalities will manifest immediately, and it will include the cumulated damage over decades as well. It will feel like not paying the bills for a long time and then having all belongings repossessed. Humanity will feel stripped and highly vulnerable. The advisory services company KPMG published a report in 2012 stating that if companies had to pay for the environmental cost of their production, it would cost them an average 41% of their corporate earnings. These costs are currently not included in the pricing. That is how high negative externalities can be. Looking at it from the other way, companies would still deliver 59% of their current earnings. Repairing the damage and still generate profits shows that sustainability is financially achievable. On average, the profits would only be lower, but the impact would vary substantially between companies. Businesses that create high negative externalities will show much bigger drops in profits, than business that do the right thing. The only ones who would have to get over some disappointment would be Wall Street investors and all those who chase capital gains on company shares. The world could live with that. Investors should put their money only in companies that actually have a future.

All the fossil fuels that humans burn are gone forever. It is not renewable. All the water that farmers use for food production and exported away from the production region is gone forever. Exporters in arid regions will have no choice than disappear, produce only for the local markets, or if that is economically sensible, import water from surplus regions. All the minerals that are used as fertilizers and that are exported from the fields in the form of leaching or in the form of agricultural commodities are gone forever. New supplies produced either with non-renewable energy sources or from mines that are slowly depleting must replace the loss. Organic matter that is lost from soils must be replaced, or it will be gone forever. Soil that is lost through erosion and climate is gone forever, unless new soil is brought back on the land or very long-lasting repair techniques are applied. Every gene that is lost is lost forever and might be missing dearly. Every species that goes extinct is gone forever, as well as its role in the ecosystem. Every molecule of greenhouse gas that goes into the atmosphere is gone out of human control forever. It might bring a heavy cost in the future.

Since everything that becomes rarer also becomes more expensive, the externalities are going to weigh on the economics of food and agriculture, as well as in any other activity. There will be an oil price for which the current machines will be too expensive to operate, and for perishables to be too costly to truck with fossil fuels over long distances. The economics of water will change the purpose of farming in arid regions. It will alter the agricultural policies and force farmers to innovate new irrigation techniques. The economics of minerals and organic matter will change the location of animal farms and manure containment systems. No minerals will be lost. Manure will become a competitive fertilizer, as chemical fertilizers will become much more expensive to produce. The logistics of manure will change and the location of animal farms will change to allow an optimal cost efficiency of raw material for feed and access to fertilizing elements and organic matter. Farms will not have to be mixed, but the agricultural landscape will restore an integration of crop farms with animal farms.  Agriculture will be sustainable only if completes all the cycles. In the past decades, the cycles of minerals, of organic matter and of water have been open. Food has been produced in one place, and then moved over long distances and the waste and surpluses have accumulated somewhere else, while the original production areas were slowly depleting. New systems and new organization will work on closing the cycles again to bring back what agriculture needs to function. The economics of energy will change the chemical industry and its products. Everything will aim at using as little primary resources as possible and maximize the efficiency of inputs by both bringing entirely new products and application techniques. It will be true for energy, water, fertilizers, chemicals, medicines. The new focus will be about using just what is needed when it is needed and only in the dose that is needed, and no more than that. It will be all about precision agriculture, precision animal husbandry, precision packing, precision manufacturing, precision processing and precision logistics.

When externalities manifest immediately, there will not be the time discrepancy between financial results and environmental results. There will be no excuse anymore to say that there is no evidence of consequences. There will be no possibility of creating the confusion, either. When pushed to the limits of its resilience, Nature will bring the financial and the environmental at the same timeline. It will be stressful. Doing the right thing environmentally, or in other words, producing sustainably, will be the best, and only, short-term strategy for financial sustainability.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd