Humans struggle with allocating losses

Canada seems to have a weird atmosphere of being in a recession, but without that term being used and without the definition (in terms of GDP growth or contraction) being met.

This starts to make more sense when you see that the GDP growth is largely the result of population growth and growth in the labour supply – not increased output per worker. GDP per capita was $58,304 in Q1 of 2020 and $58,111 in Q4 of 2023. Meanwhile, according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, inflation has averaged 4% per year over the span, so C$100 in 2024 buys what C$85.48 would have bought in 2020. The average Canadian is getting poorer, even with all the stimulus that was given out over the pandemic and with all the new debt which has been accumulated. I personally think governments have been pulling out all stops to keep asset prices (especially stocks and houses) high since the 2008 financial crisis, with very little consideration of what those measures are doing to the non-affluent and those in future generations.

This is worrisome both in the immediate context and as a broader signifier. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow stresses how people experience gains differently from losses, and find a loss of any size more aversive than they find a gain of that size pleasurable. He comments on the social and political implications:

If you are set to look for it, the asymmetric intensity of the motives to avoid losses and to achieve gains show up almost everywhere. It is an ever-present feature of negotiations, especially of negotiations of an existing contract, the typical situation in labor negotiations and in international discussions of trade or arms limitations. The existing terms define reference points, and a proposed change in any aspect of the agreement is inevitably viewed as a concession that one side makes to the other. Loss aversion creates an asymmetry that makes agreements difficult to reach. The concessions you make to me are my gains, but they are your losses; they cause you more pain than they give me pleasure. Inevitably, you will place a higher value on them than I do. The same is true, of course, of the very painful concessions you demand from me, which you do not appear to value sufficiently! Negotiations over a shrinking pie are especially difficult, because they require an allocation of losses. People tend to be much more easygoing when they bargain over an expanded pie. (p. 304)

Globally, this pattern is alarming too. Humanity is choosing to persist in activities which we know will cause catastrophic climate change, loss of wealth, and unprecedented damage to the natural world which sustains us. We are also massively failing to invest enough in non-fossil energy sources to retain our current standard of life. This is setting us up for brutal inter- and intra-national fights over allocating losses.

Related:

Shrugging our way through the breakdown of a stable world

Lately, in observing our politics and dealing with our society, I feel like a time traveller who has been sent back to before the forthcoming collapse. There is no success to be had in warning people though. They sense and feel that the collapse is coming, and that they are unwilling to make the changes that might avoid it. It’s not that people don’t believe the warning; they do. Apocalypse has become the leitmotif of our culture. People are just too corrupted by self-interest and too pessimistic about the ability of our society to solve problems to believe that anything can be done.

May Boeve ‘stepping back’ at 350.org

A few years after Bill McKibben, May Boeve is also ‘stepping back’ from the climate change activist group 350.org.

The first three items on her list of accomplishments are all things I saw firsthand. The global divestment movement was a focus of my activist efforts from 2012–16 and then for my PhD research. Keystone XL resistance is a big part of what drew my interest to 350.org after 2011. In some ways, the 2014 People’s Climate March was the high point for Toronto350.org.

I can’t say I am optimistic about the present state of climate organizing. Activists are distracted by all sorts of issues and have little focus on actually abolishing and replacing fossil fuels, or on building a large and influential political coalition. Meanwhile, in mainstream politics, the way things are going is characterized by incomprehension about what is happening and ineffectual efforts to recapture what people feel entitled to, without comprehending that the world that made those things possible no longer exists. Humanity has never been in greater danger.

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Peter Russell tributes

In January, my friend and mentor Peter Russell died. His son Alex invited me to give remarks at his funeral reception: Remarks at the funeral of Peter Russell

Yesterday, I spoke at Innis College’s memorial event: Remarks about Peter Russell at Innis College

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Our leaders are killing our kids

Oceans of ink have been spilled arguing that social media and smartphones are the reason young people around the world are not doing well.

While there may well be truth to that, to me the whole discussion seems like an evasion of the real issue: we are living in a world where our leaders are killing our kids, because they are unwilling to act on climate change even though it could bring about the end of our civilization. We live in a world where the people in charge are willing to condemn everyone who follows them to torment and destruction, all because they are unwilling to give up the conveniences of fossil fuels. The ‘leaders’ who are doing this are committing history’s most egregious crime against future generations and the natural world, yet our media and society keep treating them as the best of their kind: deserving of praise, wealth, and fancy state funerals when they reach the end.

The lesson that sends to young people is that the system does not value them in any way, and is happy to sacrifice their most vital interests for the sake of further enriching those who benefit from the fossil fuel status quo – which is not just billionaire fatcats, but billions of consumers in rich societies who take it for granted that big trucks and airplanes are the way to get around and who insist on political leaders who pretend to care about climate change, while being privately committed to keep supporting the fossil fuel industry.

Even the RCMP – an institution that sees itself as an ally (p. 41) of the fossil fuel industry – is warning about how our societal disregard for the interests of the young is fueling instability:

There is a notion of the social contract in which each generation is obligated to consider the interests of those who will come after. This covenant has been totally broken, with the almost inescapable consequence that intergenerational conflict will become more and more severe as the damage we have done to the Earth keeps destroying our ability to provide the well-off with what they feel entitled to.

Related:

What if we never respond adaptively to climate change?

A central assumption of many climate change activists and advocates for climate stability is that once people experience how destructive and painful climate change will be, they will become more willing to take actions to limit its severity – chiefly by foregoing fossil fuel production and use.

The Economist reports on how this assumption may not be justified, in discussing the threat of sea level rise to The Netherlands:

The longer-term issue, of course, is climate change. The North Sea has risen about 19cm since 1900, and the rate has increased from about 1.7mm per year to about 2.7mm since the 1990s. This makes it ever harder for riverwater to flow into the sea. With a quarter of their country lying below sea level, one might think that Dutch voters would be exceptionally worried by global warming and choose parties that strive to end carbon emissions. Yet in a general election last November they gave first place to a hard-right candidate, Geert Wilders, who wants to put global climate accords “through the shredder”. Mr Wilders’s party got 23.5% of the vote; a combined Green-Labour list got just 16%.

All across Europe this winter, as the effects of climate change grow starker, the parties that want to do something about it are getting hammered. In Germany, where the floodwaters hit first, the Green party’s popularity has plunged. Portugal’s Algarve is parched by drought, but with elections due on March 10th polls show the green-friendly left running well behind the centre- and far right. Southern Spain has declared a drought emergency, yet the pro-green Socialist-led government is teetering. Snowless ski resorts in Italy have done nothing for the fortunes of environmentalist parties; Italy’s Green party is polling at around 4%. In winter the Swiss Alps appear on heat-anomaly maps of Europe as a streak of red, 3°c above historical averages. But the hard-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the biggest in parliament, won even more seats in an election last autumn, while the Greens shrank.

I feel like the norm in human civilizations is that we are incredibly badly governed. People are easy to fool and deeply divided into tribes, and that provides ample opportunities for political leaders to claim credit and avoid blame.

If politics as usual is the self-serving and incompetent ruling in their own interests while putting together enough of a story to sustain public support, politics when the world is coming to an end promises to be even more dysfunctional and incapable of resolving problems.

Reform bankruptcy to keep fossil fuels in the ground

One of the many challenges on the road to fossil fuel abolition is the US-style of bankruptcy, where any valuable assets of a bankrupt corporation or individual are sold to help compensate their creditors.

With fossil fuels, this risks setting up a perverse circumstance where coal, oil, and gas which we should not burn keeps getting shuffled to new owners whose only reason for buying it is to burn it:

Financing more digging at existing mines—the second link in the supply chain—is no problem either. Last year coal production hit a record 8bn tonnes. It is not quite business as usual. Since 2018 many mining “majors” (large, diversified groups listed on public markets) have sold some or all of their coal assets. Yet rather than being decommissioned, disposed assets have been picked up by private miners, emerging-market rivals and private-equity firms. New owners have no qualms about making full use of mines. In 2021 Anglo American, a London-based major, spun off its South African mines into a new firm that instantly pledged to crank up output.

If humanity is to have a safe and prosperous future, fossil fuels need to be abolished before we produce catastrophic climate change. This is a social objective far more important than refunding the creditors of bankrupt firms.

Bhargava and Luce on practical radicals

We wrote this book for a specific audience: the segment of the Left who might embrace the label practical radical. These are organizers who hold big visions for transforming society and are willing to do what it takes to win in the real world. Legendary organizer Bayard Rustin, a consummate practical radical, criticized two other dominant ways of approaching social change: “My quarrel with the ‘no-win’ tendency in the civil rights movement (and the reason I have so designated it) parallels my quarrel with the moderates outside the movement. As the latter lack the vision or will for fundamental change, the former lack a realistic strategy for achieving it. For such a strategy they substitute militancy But militancy is a matter of posture and volume and not of effect.” Practical radicals are not content to be on the right side without a plan to make their vision a reality. And they are not satisfied with working on small issues without an analysis of what’s wrong with society and a vision for how it could be better.

Bhargava, Deepak and Luce, Stephanie. Practical Radicals: Seven Strategies to Change the World. The New Press, 2023. p. ix-x (bold and italics in original)

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Halfway through life

Tomorrow I am turning forty, which feels like the best guess for the halfway point of my life.

In the last couple of years — and especially recent months — I have been feeling incredibly isolated and rejected, as though I have no or hardly any active social relationships.

Perhaps we over-estimate the importance of birthdays around when they are happening. I had been struggling lately to recall what happened on many of mine, so I went back to my paper calendar records for a sense of history:

  • In 2007, I had been in Ottawa for about three months after finishing my M.Phil and moving there for work. For my 24th birthday I had a dinner at the Ceylonta restaurant. I don’t specifically remember who was there, though some digging in electronic archives would probably produce invitation emails and/or a photo or two of the event.
  • In 2008, it was drinks at The Manx pub.
  • In 2009, I visited my family in Vermont and they gave me a birthday dinner before a hike in the snow.
  • In 2010, I travelled back to Ottawa after a Toronto visit.
  • For my 28th (“champagne”) birthday, I got my GRE scores and celebrated getting older with my cousins and some friends.
  • In 2012, I had started at Massey College and was kindly invited for dinner in the residence of John Fraser, head of the college.
  • 2013 was dinner at Big Sushi with a friend, where we sketched out a plot outline for a Massey College film noir which was never made but fun to think about.
  • In 2014, the day began with cold pizza, an environmental decision-making class and a workshop on choosing a supervisory committee. That night, I had a party at my friend Tristan’s co-op house.
  • For my 32nd birthday, I did a 3D printing course at the Toronto Reference Library and had dinner at Banjara with a friend.
  • In 2016, it was lunch at Massey and dinner with the same friend, before a call with my brother Sasha.
  • For 2017, it was dinner at Pomegranate with a different friend.
  • I taught tutorials before a butter chicken lunch with another friend in 2018, followed by a dinner with an aunt and uncle, cousins, and my girlfriend.
  • 2019 was a U of T Climate Strike and divestment teach-in, followed by dinner with a different friend.
  • For 2020, I attended the annual lecture of Toronto’s Sherlockian society and held a Zoom call with friends.
  • The plan for 2021 was a winter walk on the Toronto Islands, though only one brave soul undertook the six hour walk through slush with me. Then I had dinner with friends at home and some family video calls.
  • Last year, I visited Seeker’s Books; attended the book launch for John Fraser’s account of the death of the queen; had a dinner of chili, de-alcoholized champage, blueberry pie, and vanilla ice cream at home with my girlfriend; and spoke on the phone with family and with Andrea and Mehrzad in Ottawa.

As with weddings, I think fictitious depictions of birthdays, and especially ‘landmark’ birthdays like 40, has given me some false expectations about how grand, popular, and enjoyable such events are meant to be. I think that feeling of not measuring up is now enmeshed with my deep and long-running feelings of anxiety and isolation over the last few years. It feels like the pandemic provoked everyone to draw back into smaller social circles, remain less in social contact, and generally be harder to recruit into any group activity. My sense of isolation and worry is no doubt heightened by my long, difficult, and not-yet-successful post-PhD job search.

Somehow I feel like my climate journey has ended up with me in basically the most isolated possible position. The world is full of people who just want to keep the fossil fuel party going. If you question that, you can find community among activists, but you will never fully belong if you don’t accept the analysis and prescriptions of their anti-capitalist and intersectional account of the crisis. For people seized with the need for drastic action on where we get our energy — but also skeptical about using climate change to justify a utopian project of global political and economic transformation — it is easy to end up with a sense of being a minority of one with little social connection to anyone. You get all the social and psychological penalties of being a committed critic of the status quo, but not the solidarity and community that comes from adopting a pan-progressive interpretation of the crisis and strategy.

My environmentalism has also inhibited social ties because of my avoidance of long-distance travel. I never went back to the UK after finishing my M.Phil, and so never retained active long-term relationships with the people who I met there. Likewise, my connections with people in Vancouver have thinned out and fallen away one by one over years and years of trying to stay in touch exclusively through telecommunications. I get a complex and weird mixture of feelings when I think about how avoiding travel has had such costs, especially since my example has not influenced anyone, and in the face of my conviction that focusing on individual emissions is the wrong approach to solving a crisis that can only be addressed at the societal level. It is a difficult irony to recognize that if I had not been avoiding travel for the sake of GHG pollution, I would probably be in a better position in terms of career and networks to make a meaningful contribution to limiting the harm that climate change will do.

For at least a year or two now, I have been hoping that we would soon turn a corner and start reverting to something more like social life before the pandemic. These hopes have been consistently disappointed. I feel like everyone is being ground down and eroded by all the worries and fears in the world, and one result of that damage has been losing the will, energy, or inclination to maintain and develop the social ties which often do the most to make life bearable. (And Joyous!) (And an Insane Unmissable Inexplicable One-off Gift – personally I plan to live for glory and to ride this bronco to the last buck)

One of the painful paradoxes of all this is knowing that expressing these feelings of pain and isolation tends to lead to even less social contact. It’s a simple enough matter of psychology that people seek out situations filled with positive emotions and pursue ways of repeating them. Contrarily, experiences characterized by painful and difficult emotions — however justified — conjure a desire to get away and avoid such situations in the future. It’s a bit like how people who already have good jobs are appealing to employers in a way those currently without work aren’t, or how being perceived as successful and desirable in romance and relationships makes you more appealing to prospective partners, while a perception that someone is undesirable to others often tees us up to consider them undesirable ourselves.

I don’t mean to mis- or over-state things, or to suggest that I am not grateful and have not had an extraordinarily fortunate life. I have always been lucky and have received a huge amount of care and kindness in my life to this point. Awareness of those thoughts never leaves me, as despondent as I may get at times about my current situation and as fearful as I have become about the future of the world.

Not travelling has led to a lot of sad, solitary holidays: especially Christmas eve nights spent alone. While the sadness of those occassions was acute, it was also tempered with a broader awareness that I did have the sort of friends who I could call up and get an answer from, and was a part of communities of shared effort. The short-term alone now stacked atop long-term alone makes it harder to keep that sense of perspective. Two of my most important relationships are also going through trials which I will not describe, but which have added profoundly to the sense of being alone in the world or at least widely socially rejected. Being done with school now also adds to the fear, since I know that school is generally the best context for finding adult friendships.

Thinking about forty as the likely halfway point of my life has made the lead-up to this birthday a time of considerable reflection about my life up to this point, coupled with imagination about what the future will involve. I don’t have a neat closer for this post. In part, that reflects my awareness of all the contradictions clashing in my mind — between feeling aware and grateful for a very fortunate life, but also feeling fairly desperate about the present and future — between being devoted to the movement for environmental protection, but feeling that my work and thinking has estranged me from people more than it has connected me to them, including in terms of being able to work together effectively on solutions — between awareness of the psychological importance of hope, but also the dangers of self-deception and complacency when we assume things will work out well in spite of the evidence and trends to the contrary.

Life is an unearned gift, but it is also hard and indeed cruel. Indeed, my philosophy in the last few years has developed to see that cruelty as central: you never get as much of anything good as you hope or expect, and every nice experience which you can pleasantly imagine being repeated many times in the future is liable to be unilaterally cut off without warning. The implication I take from that is to focus on gratitude for what has happened and on doing the very best I can at everything I do. I work hard to avoid the feeling that, for whatever I am doing, the present effort is just the first in a long string of future repeats. No repeats are guaranteed, so I try to do my very best at everything I do. In addition to making life feel vital, important, and meaningful, this approach actually reduces stress and planning anxiety since it lets me skip the question of how fully to commit myself to things. When the model is that you do your best at everything you attempt, from a hike to a piece of scholarly writing to a friendly interaction with someone else, at least then when the good things in life come to an unexpected end you don’t feel the regret that if only you had known how brief and fragile those situations and relationships were going to prove, you would have tried harder and made the most of things.