The Cooperative Society Newsletter September 2019, Issue 18
by E.G. Nadeau
Far too often, people use the same words, but mean very different things. This can be confusing, even dangerous, especially in the world of politics. With the lead-up to the 2020 presidential and congressional elections in the United States, it is particularly timely to take a close look at some of the major “isms” being bandied about by politicians, journalists, and pundits.
What does “populism” mean? The word can apply to “a range of political stances that emphasize the idea of ‘the people’ and often juxtapose this group against ‘the elite’.” But, right off the bat, use of the P-word runs into big trouble. You can have right-wing populists, left-wing populists, and demagogues like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela who claim to be populist, but have questionable popular support.
So, ultimately, the word populism has become meaningless. To use it spreads confusion and disinformation rather than political understanding.
How about “socialism”? Socialism is another word that has become a lightning rod for mystification as we approach the 2020 elections. Although running as a Democrat for president, Bernie Sanders refers to himself as a socialist. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, both members of Democratic Socialists of America, were elected as Democrats to the House of Representatives in 2018.
So, what is socialism? The classic definition with origins dating back to Karl Marx and others in the mid-1800s is, “Economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”
But, these three self-proclaimed “socialists” sound much more like Northern European-style social democrats, who favor mixed economies that combine elements of both regulated private enterprise and a public sector that limits economic inequality and attempts to provide a minimal quality of life for all citizens.
To further complicate the meaning of socialism, President Trump and other Republicans accuse progressive Democrats of being out to destroy the US economy by nationalizing corporations and turning the US into an economic backwater like Cuba or Venezuela.
We would all be better served by dropping the word “socialism” from the rhetoric of the 2020 campaigns and focusing on the specific positions that candidates take related to healthcare, climate change, gun control, and other issues.
What does “capitalism” mean? A typical dictionary definition of capitalism is: “An economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.”
The problem with a definition like this is that it doesn’t reflect the reality of the contemporary world economy, in which government regulation, taxation and incentives, and international trade agreements (and trade wars) play major roles in shaping the market in which corporations operate.
Virtually every country in the world – including such outliers as North Korea and Cuba – has a mixed economy, which combines private enterprise and public involvement in the market.
For example, Forbes’ Global 2000, the world’s largest publicly traded corporations, includes the four largest Chinese banks in its Top Ten list. These banks are predominantly government-owned, but also have limited investor-ownership. The phrase “state capitalism” is often used to characterize the Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese, and other national economies in which the government has a major, direct involvement in the market.
The purpose of corporations is also being redefined by some of the largest publicly traded companies in the world. CNBC recently reported that the Business Roundtable, comprised of almost 200 CEOs of major U.S. corporations, stated that the foremost function of their companies should not be to “serve their shareholders and maximize profits.” Instead it should be “investing in employees, delivering value to customers, dealing ethically with suppliers, and supporting outside communities.”
Conclusion Thus, as with populism and socialism, capitalism is not a useful term to describe a national economy, or a political ideology. The reality is that in different countries and in the international arena, there is a wide range of ways in which private enterprises, public enterprise, mixed enterprises, and various forms of public intervention interact to shape economic activity. The word “capitalism” is useless in capturing this diversity.
Thus, as we consider candidates for public office and the track records of those who already are in office, it’s not the “isms” we should be looking at, but the specific actions they have taken or propose to take to improve our social, economic, political, and environmental well-being. For more on what The Cooperative Society Project perceives as major components of a better society, please click www.thecooperativesociety.org
The Cooperative Society Newsletter July 2019, Issue 17
by E.G. Nadeau
A friend and I visited China as tourists in April of this year. Our itinerary included the south-central part of the country, Hong Kong, Tibet, Beijing, and a hike on the Great Wall.
China is impressively modern in many ways – shiny new airports, attractive hotels and restaurants, a well-constructed road system, electric mopeds that have mostly replaced bikes in larger cities, and, at least in tourist sectors, well-kept-up streets, buildings, parks, and gardens.
A darker side of China But in Lhasa, the administrative capital of “the Autonomous Region of Tibet,” we saw another, darker side of the Celestial Empire that was the opposite of autonomous – a strong police and military presence, including occasional snipers positioned on rooftops; and many Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in the country, imported to dilute the percentage of Tibetans in their own region.
There continues to be controversy over the historical relationship between China and Tibet, the number of Tibetans who have died in the aftermath of China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950 (500,000 seems to be about right), the number of Han Chinese living in Tibet, the extent to which Tibetan Buddhists are allowed to practice their religion, and many other issues.
Although the large majority of Buddhist monasteries was destroyed in the 1950s and 1960s, those that we visited in Lhasa were beautiful and well-maintained. Buddhists appeared to be able to practice their religion freely. At the same time, however, we had the sense that the traditional culture of Tibet was gradually, but inexorably, being subsumed into a monolithic Chinese society.
Tibet is just one example of the Chinese government’s drive to homogenize the diverse cultures and beliefs of its citizens, crush dissent, and snuff out expressions of democratic values. The brutal crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the current suppression of the religious and cultural identity of 11 million Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China, the ongoing attempts to restrict civil rights in Hong Kong, and the ever-present threat to the autonomy of Taiwan are all manifestations of authoritarian rule by China’s political leaders.
In many ways, Tiananmen Square marked a decisive turning point in recent Chinese history. As one author commented: “When China’s moment of reckoning came, Communist Party leaders chose bullets, not ballots. And they made a long-shot, long-term Faustian deal to guarantee economic development in exchange for continued party control that has lasted ever since.”
Another example of oppression The current plight of the Uighurs represents a doubling down on the repressive side of this “Faustian deal.” There are up to two million Uighur adults in detention centers. Many of their kids are required to attend state-run schools intended to mold them into compliant Chinese citizens while stripping away their religious beliefs, language, and culture. On top of this indoctrination, the Uighur homeland, the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (note again the irony of this province’s name), may be the most concentrated police state in the world, with sophisticated electronic surveillance, facial recognition profiling, apps inserted into phones to track potential dissidents, and, believe it or not, the required boarding of Han Chinese in many Uighur households.
But there is nothing immutable about the current paranoia of China’s leadership toward diversity and dissent.
There have been major shifts in China’s politics and economics since the beginning of Communist rule in 1949 – some disastrous, such as the Great Leap Forward in which an estimated 45 million people died (mostly of starvation) between 1959 and 1962, and the Cultural Revolution in which up to 2 million more people died between 1966 and 1976 – mostly as a result of violence by the Red Guard. On the positive side, Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong’s immediate successor as Chairman of the Communist Party, shifted away from a tightly controlled, state-run economy to a mix of state and private enterprises, beginning in 1976. This change brought rapid economic growth, which has mostly continued to the present day.
A democratic foothold Most people are unaware that there is a democratic side to Communist China. In 1987, the national government instituted a reform in which village leaders were to be elected by residents and others affiliated with each village. With a few interruptions along the way, this local-level democracy is still in effect. Thus, electoral democracy already has a foothold in almost all of China’s 900,000+ villages.
Just as there have been major changes in China over the past 70 years, it would be imprudent to dismiss the potential for future significant reforms, including ones toward less repression and greater democracy, in the next couple of decades.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter June 2019, Issue 16
by E.G. Nadeau
The United Nations “World Population Prospects 2019” is hot off the press. But it is lukewarm in terms of some key methodological and strategic issues – in particular, long-term trends of overestimating population growth and underestimating people’s willingness to change their reproductive health practices.
The report projects that the world’s population will rise from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 10.9 billion by 2100. It states that: “Global population trends are driven largely by trends in fertility – especially in the average number of live births per woman over a lifetime – which has fallen markedly.”
The UN issues periodic population reports. The last one was in 2017. As Rick Gladstone pointed out in The Globe Is Going Gray Fast, U.N. Says in New Forecast (NYT, June 17, 2019): The 2017 report projected a world population in 2100 of 11.2 billion. That’s 300 million more people than the 2019 report projects.
Why the difference? As the UN itself observed: Birth rates have “fallen markedly.”
Unfortunately, the UN’s population projections have a long history of being on the high side. For example, its 1958 projection for the world’s population in 2000 was overestimated by more than 200 million people.
A key reason for these population projection problems is a bias toward underestimating the decline in birth rates.
Which brings us to the second major problem with the UN report: Although it cites the relationship between population change and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it downplays the critical roles that reproductive health education, access to birth control, and improved economic well-being play in long-term decreases in birth rates.
For example, in a 2018 report, The UN Population Fund estimated that there were more than 200 million women in developing countries who “want to prevent or delay pregnancy but do not have access to contraceptives.”
Thus, the UN population report is methodologically flawed in its projection of birthrates, and strategically flawed in its failure to take into account the ability of women, couples, communities, countries, and international bodies like the UN to “bend the population curve” downward.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter May 2019, Issue 15
by E.G. Nadeau
This paper provides a brief overview of recent and prospective changes in access to electricity in developing countries. These changes can contribute to the goal of worldwide electrification by 2030. One of these changes is the increasing development of community solar cooperatives that provide electricity through mini-grids, and installations on individual homes and other buildings. These co-ops are the primary focus of this paper.
There are almost a billion people who have no access to electricity, living primarily in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. That’s one-seventh of the world’s population. There are hundreds of millions more whose energy is unreliable, dirty, unhealthy, inadequate, unsustainable, and/or expensive – for example, kerosene, diesel, wood, and candles.
Almost every country in the world has made a commitment through the United Nations Paris Agreement to significantly cut back by 2030 on their use of energy sources that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Note that the Trump administration is planning to withdraw the United States from the agreement in January 2020.)
These same countries have made commitments through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals program to dramatically improve the quality of life around the world by 2030, in part by ensuring “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”
There are many ways in which universal access to electricity will improve the quality of people’s lives – for example, creating job opportunities, reducing the workload of women by saving, on average, an hour a day that is currently spent searching for firewood, and preventing almost 2 million premature deaths per year from household air pollution. There would also be a net reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions because of lower use of biomass fuel for cooking, and the virtual elimination of kerosene and other dirty fuels as sources of heat and light.
How can the ambitious goal of “electricity for all” be realized? The broad answer is to dramatically increase the use of decentralized, renewable energy to meet the world’s unmet and under-met needs for electricity. Since most people without electricity do not have access to transmission lines, the most feasible approach to providing them with electricity is through community solar mini-grids and single building installations, many of which could be organized as cooperatives.
Recent and projected progress in electrification According to the World Energy Outlook reports of 2017 and 2018, there has been a pattern since 2000 of accelerating access to electricity for unserved and underserved populations. As alluded to above, almost 1 billion people were still without electricity in 2017, but that’s a marked improvement over the 1.7 billion without access in 2000. Unfortunately, during this time period the “vast majority (97%) of new electricity connections” was through primarily fossil-fuel-based grid extensions. Less than 1% of new electricity access was provided via decentralized, renewable energy systems.
On the bright side, the 2017 report goes on to say that between 2018 and 2030, fossil fuels will largely be replaced by renewable energy – especially solar energy – as the primary source for electricity. “The rapidly declining costs of solar PV [photovoltaics], battery technologies, and energy-efficient appliances (especially light-emitting diode [LED] lighting) are making decentralized renewable energy systems more affordable. This is particularly the case for rural and dispersed communities not served by a main grid and where it may take years for one to arrive. Decentralized systems can also be attractive in areas with grid access but an unreliable power supply.”
Despite the dramatic progress during the first part of the 21st-century, future “trends on energy access . . . fall short of global goals. The New Policies Scenario sees some gains in terms of access, with India to the fore. However, more than 700 million people, predominantly in rural settlements in Sub-Saharan Africa, are projected to remain without electricity in 2040, and only slow progress is [being] made in reducing reliance on the traditional use of solid biomass as a cooking fuel.”
Growth of solar and other renewable sources of electrification Back on the bright side, there are a number of exciting renewable-energy options that are becoming increasingly available to rapidly expand the electrification of the world. For example, large solar arrays are being developed across northern Africa that could eventually replace much of the remaining fossil-fuel energy of Europe. One analyst estimates that putting solar panels on 2% of the Sahara Desert could meet all of the world’s electricity needs. Building underwater transmission cables from the Northern Africa to Europe is quite feasible. The same is not true for transmission to the Americas. There are other examples of desert-based, large-scale solar projects in Saudi Arabia, China, the Navajo reservation in the United States, and elsewhere. Together, these systems are likely to provide a huge addition to affordable, renewable energy by 2030.
Wind turbines are cheaper than solar panels in many situations and will continue to be a critical part of any future mix of renewable-energy sources.
Because of the intermittent generation of electricity by solar and wind installations, they must be supplemented by other sources of energy, energy storage, and/or long-distance transmission. Lithium-ion batteries and other means of storage are an important and increasingly cost-effective way to expand the use of renewable energy at every level, from individual buildings to large power plants.
Community solar energy Many of the close-to-a-billion people who don’t have access to electricity live in fairly remote areas that are not easily connected to major power grids. As a result, large-scale renewable options don’t apply to them and are not likely to in the near future because of the high cost of transmission lines.
In these off-the-grid locations, households and businesses, and clusters of electrical consumers at the village level, can be most economically and efficiently served by electricity generated locally.
In projecting future expansion of access to electricity, the 2017 World Energy Outlook report lays out an “energy-for-all” scenario that is based on the goal of universal electrification by 2030.
Figuring in population growth, this scenario would mean expanding electrical coverage to more than 1 billion additional people at an approximate cost of almost $800 billion. The report concludes that over 50% of this electricity would be powered by solar energy, and less than 25% by fossil fuels. Furthermore, more than 60% of new electrical energy would be generated by mini-grid and off-grid systems. (“Off-grid” systems are defined as powering individual homes and other buildings.)
Below are five examples that include community solar components, followed by a discussion of how community solar co-ops could be expanded and made more efficient so that hundreds of millions more people around the world could benefit from renewable, reliable, and locally-controlled electricity.
Liberia The recently formed Totota Co-op in rural Liberia began operating a solar mini-grid in 2018. Under a contract from the US Agency For International Development, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and Bandera Electric Co-op, one of NRECA’s member cooperatives, assisted the village to organize the co-op and install solar panels, a battery-storage unit, and other equipment. NRECA is also working with 12 Liberian coastal villages to expand the community solar model to them.
Rural India When Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India in 2014, 300 million households were without electricity. At the end of 2018, every village in India was reported to have electricity, but there were still 30 million households without it. President Modi promised to electrify all of these remaining households by April 2019 through a combination of hooking them up to the national grid and through mini-grid and off-grid installations. There are mixed reports on whether or not that goal has been attained. There are also concerns about the reliability of the national electricity grid, which has a tendency from time to time to leave subscribers in the dark.
Despite these reliability problems and differing assessments of how many households are now electrified, the almost-full electrification of India is a major accomplishment. It is also worth noting that many communities have formed Village Electric Committees to oversee the operation of their solar facilities. According to one observer, “most Indian solar microgrids are democratic, with power controlled by village committees.”
The Caribbean Twenty-seven island countries and other territories, along with private-sector partners formed the Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator in 2017 to create more self-sufficient and sustainable development, including an increased emphasis on renewable energy. “The central objective of the Accelerator is to help transform the region’s economy through fast-tracking sound public and private investment opportunities which support climate action and economic growth, through sustainable development.”
Islands, big and small, face special challenges in meeting their electrical service needs. Most don’t have local sources of energy, although some use wood, other kinds of biomass, hydroelectric, and geothermal energy. Importing fuel, such as diesel, is expensive and polluting. Many islands are also vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes which play havoc with transmission lines and other components of the electrical system. Consider the damage that Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico in 2017, including the estimated loss of about 3,000 lives, and from which the island is still recovering.
Solar mini-grids and single-building solar installations, for example in hospitals, provide protection against catastrophic damage and loss of life in the event of national weather and other emergencies in island communities. Mini-grids can be designed as part of island-wide grid systems that can operate autonomously when the main grid goes down.
The Sahel Region of Africa Along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert is a huge savanna region called the Sahel. At over 1 million square miles, it is one-third the size of the Sahara. “The Desert to Power Program . . . seeks to make use of this massive swathe of territory to develop 10,000 megawatts (MW) worth of solar energy to provide electricity to 250 million people – including . . . 90 million people off-grid.”
Kenya Kenya has a much higher distribution of electricity than most Sub-Saharan African countries. Approximately 75% of Kenyans have access to electricity from grid and off-grid sources, according to the World Bank.  The Kenyan government wants to increase that to 100% by 2022. The Kenya National Electrification Strategy (KNES) references mini-grids, independent solar power plants, and off-grid technology as options to utilize. About 49 million people live in Kenya, and most of them are in rural areas. 
One of the options being pursued is a private sector partnership between Azuri, Unilever, and local community residents. In this program, households and businesses purchase solar kits via a rent-to-buy system. Purchasers make monthly payments for 18 months, and then they own the kits outright. The kits come in various sizes, from a single light set-up, to one that can power multiple lights and other appliances, including a television. Another feature of the distribution system is that local community residents are trained to sell, install, and maintain the kits. Thus, there is a direct, local employment impact, as well as the indirect economic, social, health, and educational benefits resulting from increased access to energy.
This Azuri/Unilever model has excellent potential to be adapted for the development of community solar projects in other developing countries.
An example of a solar home lighting system available in Kenya.
Advantages of, and challenges to, community solar co-ops Listed below are the advantages of, and challenges to, community solar co-ops as means to rapidly expand electrical services in developing countries.
They are relatively inexpensive to install and operate.
They can be rapidly ramped up
As mini-grids and clusters of single building installations, they can operate independent of large-scale transmission grids
Panels and other components are easy to transport, install, and maintain.
Consumer costs can be based on usage.
Decisions are made by locally elected boards.
They generate jobs and new business activity.
They improve the quality of everyday life and health.
There is a shortage of champions for solar community cooperatives in the international community.
Even though they can operate self-sufficiently once formed, there are difficulties in accessing start-up capital for them.
There is often a lack of local expertise for sourcing materials, setting up local systems, and providing ongoing monitoring and support services.
However, none of these challenges are insurmountable.
Despite the success of community solar co-ops in some developing countries, there is not nearly enough support for expanding this approach to help meet the goal of universal access to electricity by 2030. Three of the co-op entities in the best position to promote and assist community solar co-op projects are the International Co-operative Alliance, the US-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and the World Organization of Credit Unions (WOCCU). The former two organizations are clearly supportive of the approach, but neither appears to be taking a strong leadership role in promoting it. WOCCU could also be an important advocate for community solar co-ops by encouraging and assisting credit unions, savings and credit cooperative organizations, and other financial cooperatives around the world to provide financing for these co-ops.
Other potential champions and sources of financing include the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, and various bilateral development programs such as the United States Agency for International Development, the Swedish International Development Agency, the UK’s Department for International Development, the Canadian International Development Program, and major foundations, and business partners. Despite the fact that many of these organizations are already providing assistance to electrification in developing countries, none are actively championing the expansion of the community co-op model.
As both India and Kenya are demonstrating, national initiatives to provide universal electrification within countries appear to be a very effective strategy for expanded coverage. This is clearly a way to mobilize action for universal electrification, including the development of community solar co-ops. And, yet, there are not enough of these national models. The proliferation of these models would benefit greatly from support by the international organizations mentioned above.
For a historical perspective, it is useful to look at the rural electric cooperative movement in the United States. In addition to the strong demand for electricity by rural residents, the second biggest factor setting the stage for the rapid growth of these co-ops in the 1930s and 1940s was the provision of low-interest loans by the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) established by the Roosevelt administration in the mid-1930s. Today, about 1,000 rural electric co-ops provide electricity to 40 million people in rural and suburban communities throughout the United States. Similar loan programs, both national and international, could be established during the next decade to accelerate electrification in developing countries.
Conclusions There are two key conclusions of this paper. Community solar cooperatives are already in place in some developing countries and could be expanded rapidly to provide electricity in many more. However, unless the expansion of these co-ops becomes a much higher priority of the international cooperative community and of international development organizations, the huge potential for these local, democratically run, renewable energy providers will not be realized.
These two sets of goals are world-changers! If they are successfully carried out, we are talking about a world without extreme poverty or hunger, universal access to decent healthcare, education and jobs for all 8 billion of us, solving the most critical problem of our age – the catastrophe of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and achieving a number of other fundamental social, economic, and environmental goals.
As those of you who follow the activities of The Cooperative Society Project know, these goals are in close alignment to ours. So, let’s take a look at progress to date.
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) In 2000, when Kofi Annan was the Secretary-General, the UN’s 191 member countries voted unanimously to achieve 8 social, economic, and environmental goals over the next fifteen years to improve the quality of life around the world, using 1990 as the starting point for calculating improvements.
“Extreme poverty has declined significantly over the last two decades. In 1990, nearly half of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day. That proportion dropped to [projected] 14% in 2015.”
“The primary school net enrollment rate in the developing regions has reached 91% in 2015, up from 83% in 2000.”
“Despite population growth in the developing regions, the number of deaths of children under five has declined from 12.7 million in 1990 to almost 6 million in 2015 globally.”
“Since 1990, the maternal mortality ratio has declined by 45% worldwide.”
The report also provides information on environmental and economic change. Despite increased access to clean drinking water, improved sanitation, and other environmental improvements, the primary environmental issue – carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere – worsened substantially during this time. According to the report, there were a number of improvements in economic conditions in developing countries from 1990 to 2015, including increased development assistance, an increase in duty-free exports, reduced debt, and access to International telecommunications.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Based in significant part on the effectiveness of the MDG program, United Nations members, under Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s leadership, unanimously approved another 15-year initiative (2016-2030) to improve the quality of life around the world. This time, UN members voted to address 17 goals, a big increase over the 2000-2015 program.
The 2018 SDG Report provides information on trends related to the eight MDG goals, as well as data on the nine new SDG goals. Following are a few findings contained in the report.
Estimates of extreme poverty continued to decline. Revised data indicate that “11% of the world population, or 783 million people, lived below the extreme poverty threshold in 2013.”
On the negative side of the ledger, “The proportion of undernourished people worldwide increased from 10.6% in 2015 to 11.0% in 2016. This translates to 815 million people worldwide in 2016, up from 777 million in 2015.”
Market-distorting agricultural subsidies continued to decline.
Access to primary education increased. However, the report expressed concerns about inadequate teacher training and children’s lack of proficiency in reading and mathematics.
The report also observed that, “While some forms of discrimination against women and girls are diminishing, gender inequality continues to hold women back and deprives them of basic rights and opportunities.”
Access to clean drinking water and sanitation were both improving, but progress was below the rate required to meet the 2030 program goals.
On the energy front, “Those lacking access to electricity have fallen below 1 billion, a doubling in coverage between 2000 and 2016.” But the goal of “ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all” by 2030 will be very difficult to achieve.
As the report states, “The five-year average global temperature from 2013 to 2017 was . . . the highest on record. The world continues to experience rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions, and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases.” Thus, the program’s and the Paris Agreement’s goals for drastically reducing carbon emissions by 2030 will take an unprecedented amount of cooperation among countries, communities, and corporations to achieve.
Earning inequalities were still pervasive: “Men earned 12.5% more than women in 40 out of 45 countries with data. Youth were three times more likely to be unemployed than adults in 2017.”
Since the SDG program did not go into effect until 2016, it is too early to do an evaluation of its effectiveness. But there are a number of early-stage comments that can be made about the program.
It is very ambitious There are more than twice as many SDG goals as MDG goals. There are pluses and minuses to this expansion. On the plus side, the impacts of the SDG program can be more far-reaching. On the problematic side, there is the danger of being less successful because of an attempt to over-reach — possibly accomplishing less by trying to do too much.
It provides continuity with the MDG program This is a plus, because longer-term trends can be tracked and addressed.
It incorporates the goals of the Paris Agreement and other environmental goals This interconnection is very important because “climate action,” “life below water,” and “life on land” are inextricably connected with the social and economic goals of the program.
It has a tendency to downplay some problems It appears to emphasize positive results and focus less on negative ones. The biggest example of this is related to climate change. Much research, including that done by the United Nations, stresses that we are in a crisis mode during the next decade or so. If our actions are not accelerated dramatically, we are highly likely to exceed a 2°C increase in the temperature of the earth’s surface relative to what it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Such an increase would lead to catastrophic weather changes and related disasters. However, the report does not present the warnings from this research. (In fairness to the UN, much of the research emphasizing the extreme urgency of the climate crisis was published after the 2018 report.)
Inadequate communication of the goals and accomplishments of the program This is the biggest criticism that we have after doing a review of the information that the United Nations provides about the SDG program on the Internet. Following are a few examples of SDG communication problems:
Right off the bat, when one looks up “SDGs,” using Google search, one encounters two separate United Nations websites presenting information on the program. These sites are run by different divisions of the UN: The Development Program and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Since theUN is coordinating a worldwide, cooperative initiative to achieve the SDG goals, it would make sense to have the UN’s internal divisions present a united front to the world in its presentation of the SDGs.
Neither of the homepages for these two websites provides a clear introduction to the SDG program, nor do any of the primary topics referenced at the top of the websites.
That is not to say that there isn’t plenty of useful information. Altogether, there are hundreds of sites that one can click to from the main websites, but without clear roadmaps, the reader doesn’t know how to make choices among this avalanche of information.
The SDG program has put out very informative annual reports in 2016, 2017, and 2018. But one wouldn’t know this by combing through all of the major topics on both of these websites. There is excellent information in these reports related to progress and lack of progress on the 17 goals. (See, for example, the section above summarizing some key findings from the 2018 report.) The trick is finding the reports.
Our major takeaway from this critique of information provided by the UN on the web is:
Communication and education related to the SDG program would benefit enormously by having an easily accessible webpage providing a level 101 “Introduction to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal Program.” This primer should be understandable by someone with a middle school education and should provide clear links to additional information that the reader may want to access in order to learn more about the program – in particular, more detailed information on its predecessor program, the MDG goals and the current 17 SDG goals, and links to the annual reports.
Despite these criticisms of the SDG program’s communications problems, we were pleased with the substantive progress that the program has made since its inception in January 2016. Read the reports, especially the one for 2018, and judge for yourself.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter January 2019, Issue 13 by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
We’ve written two books about the societal transformation that we believe is taking place. Our hypotheses are based on our research of seven broad sets of variables such as economic power, the environment, quality of life, and more. If this is of interest to you – and it quite possibly is because you’re here at our website – we invite you to download a free PDF of our book, The Cooperative Society: The Next Stage of Human History, Second Edition, or find information on buying the book here. Thank you.
What is a Green New Deal? There has been a lot of buzz recently about launching a Green New Deal in the United States, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (often referred to as AOC), the new congresswoman from New York, playing a lead role in championing this initiative.
However, questions abound. What is a Green New Deal? Can this catchy title be turned into a pragmatic set of new policies? Can there be a global counterpart to this progressive American idea?
What a Green New Deal is depends on whom you ask. In a comprehensive article that appeared in early January in Vox magazine, David Roberts defined it this way:
“It refers, in the loosest sense, to a massive program of investments in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, meant to transform not just the energy sector, but the entire economy. It is meant both to decarbonize the economy and to make it fairer and more just.”
To elaborate, Roberts’ definition would combine a variety of initiatives to reduce global warming, decrease poverty, create jobs, and effectively implement a green paradigm for the American economy. This new economic model would prioritize human and environmental needs, reduce the economic influence of large corporations, and reduce economic inequality.
Some question the overarching and complicated nature of such a transformation in American energy and economic policy. Some see it as a threat to fossil-fuel-based corporations, and to an entire society that has been dependent on fossil fuels almost since capitalism began. Others worry about the difficulty of implementing such a wide array of changes at the same time. By taking on too much at once, they fear that we may end up with nothing or very little. Effective climate action could get lost in the shuffle.
The same kinds of comments can be made about an international version of a Green New Deal. Some observers laud such a possibility, while others worry about losing a worldwide consensus (we’ve already lost the Trump administration) on the urgent need for climate reform by the addition of too much additional baggage.
When was it first proposed? The “New Deal” part of the phrase originated with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, whose administration used this catchphrase to encompass an array of programs intended to pull the United States out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was not one massive reform, but a series of separate programs and regulations that together constituted major changes in the federal government’s role in creating jobs and increasing economic and social security.
The New York Times columnist and author, Thomas Friedman, is credited with first using the phrase “Green New Deal” in 2007. In early January 2019, Friedman wrote another op-ed, “The Green New Deal Rises Again,” in which he expressed support for the renewed sense of urgency in addressing climate-change problems.
Presidential candidate Barack Obama included the phrase Green New Deal in his platform in 2008.  And in 2009, the United Nations produced a report entitled “Global Green New Deal.” But then, domestic and international concerns shifted to addressing problems created by the Great Recession, and the momentum for a comprehensive approach to climate change temporarily hit the skids.
The phrase Green New Deal reemerged during the 2018 midterm election campaigns of several progressive, Democratic candidates for Congress. This time around, the concept has received a lot of attention – both positive and negative – in the press and among politicians and environmental and social activists. It is too soon to tell whether or not the momentum toward implementing some version of a Green New Deal – at the national and international levels – will stick this time or fade into the background again.
A survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in mid-December shows “overwhelming support for the Green New Deal, with 81% of registered voters saying they either ‘strongly support’ (40%) or ‘somewhat support’ (41%) this plan.”
What might a pragmatic version of this idea look like in the United States? The young progressives in Congress who are championing a Green New Deal for the United States (and for the world) are already being “put in their place” by their congressional elders. For example, AOC and her fellow insurgent colleagues have already lost the fight to have a special committee established to focus on preparing the way for the implementation of Green New Deal legislation.
But that doesn’t mean they have lost the war. They and other advocates are already gearing up for the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. They plan to keep pushing their message for the urgent need to link climate change and positive economic change in order to simultaneously reduce the risk of catastrophic global warming and create an economy that provides well-paying jobs and economic security.
I have one piece of advice for these Green New Deal advocates: Just as the Roosevelt administration did so successfully with the New Deal, think in terms of a set of reforms rather than one massive program. These reforms could include increased federal and state incentives for conversion to solar, wind, and other renewable sources of energy, for electric vehicles, and for energy-efficient buildings. They also could include job training and job creation for a green economy; increased taxes on the wealthy and/or taxes on carbon-dioxide emissions; and economic benefits for the poor tied to climate change, renewable energy, and energy efficiency.
As a global initiative? The reemergent Global Green New Deal has not yet been articulated in any detail, although it is considered by proponents to be an extension of the reform program being articulated for the United States.
What would the global version entail? The United Nations has already established a Green Climate Fund, the primary purpose of which is to assist poorer countries to implement carbon-reducing initiatives, and to adapt to the problems created by global warming – for example, protection against rising sea levels and agricultural practices that are more resilient to droughts and floods.
A key problem is, however, that there is not nearly enough money in this Fund to address the magnitude of the problems. It is not clear at this time how the size of the Fund could be rapidly and massively expanded.
There are also other bilateral, multilateral, and private-sector aid and economic assistance programs to accelerate climate reforms in developing countries. But, again, they do not match the urgency of the problem.
From my own research and my review of the literature, I am aware of a number of initiatives that could provide tens of millions of jobs in developing countries in the fight against global warming. They include forest-based carbon sequestration; installation of solar-panel microgrids; the rapid deployment of low-cost, electric vehicles; accelerated increases in the energy efficiency of buildings; and financial assistance in weaning countries off of dependency on fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable energy.
Conclusion The most recent studies are projecting that we have a little over 10 years to radically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions before the world will be subjected to major increases in climate-related disasters. The proponents of domestic and international Green New Deals recognize the sense of urgency with which we need to mobilize our resources to counter this worldwide threat.
My primary caution is to follow the same type of multi-pronged strategy of the original “New Deal.” Let’s not try to do everything at once in one massive package. We can simultaneously benefit the planet and the economic circumstances of the people who inhabit it by introducing a broad set of reforms that vary by community and by country, rather than by striving for a holy grail, mega-reform that is likely to get snarled in its own complexity.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter November 2018, Issue 12 by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
As I thought about what to write in this November article, two topics came to mind: critical thinking and the climate crisis.
Choosing a topic
The focus on critical thinking results from my fear that the ability, or at least the tendency, to “objectively analyze and evaluate an issue in order to form a judgment” is becoming an increasingly rare commodity in the divisive, politically charged discourse in the United States, and also in a number of other countries that are experiencing polarization and acrimony around issues such as abuse of power, immigration, gender, ethnicity, religion, race, climate change, and others.
My alarm about the climate crisis increased because of the report just released in October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), entitled “Global Warming of 1.5° Celsius” [2.7°F]. The reference in the report title is to the goal of keeping the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature less than 1.5°C above what the temperature was at the beginning of the industrial era. The report presents a dire warning of damage that would be done to the world if we exceed that temperature level by 2040 – which we are on track to do.
Then it dawned on me that these two topics are inextricably linked if we are going to avoid a climate crisis in the next 20 years or so. That is, if we as a species don’t think critically and act constructively during this time, we will be acquiescing to a predictable and avoidable worldwide series of climate-related disasters that will last into the 22nd century and, possibly, beyond.
So, these two interlinked topics are the subject of this article.
Back to basics When I was a freshman at Harvard in 1966, I took a course called “Expository Writing.” All freshmen were required to take this seminar, which was taught in small groups by graduate students and junior faculty. An expository essay explains or analyzes something based on factual analysis and/or logic. The course consisted of students preparing a dozen or so brief essays which were then critiqued by the instructor.
I don’t remember the topic of my first essay, but I do remember the result. The instructor’s criticisms were about as long as the paper itself, and I got a D for my efforts. Why? Because I had no idea of how to think critically. My approach to a short essay was to propound a series of opinions and assertions without backing them up with real facts or careful analysis.
In retrospect, Expository Writing was the most valuable course I took as an undergraduate. It taught me to reason, to do research, to analyze, and to present the results in a clear, succinct manner to the reader.
I refer to this personal experience in order to call attention to, what I consider to be, a crisis of ignorance today in the United States, as well as in many other countries. When we don’t think about the causes of, and realistic solutions to, the problems of our day, we leave ourselves open to all kinds of bad results: rule by demagogues, ethnic and racial hatred, cold and hot wars, needless suffering, and a failure to address – and even an exacerbation of – real problems such as global warming, and quality-of-life issues such as hundreds of millions of people lacking access to an adequate diet and healthcare, and living in extreme poverty.
An example of critical thinking Let’s focus on the recent climate-change report to illustrate the importance of critical thinking and constructive action, both by our leaders and by the rest of us.
Ascertain the facts.
There is an overwhelming consensus by the scientific community around the world that the surface temperature of the planet has been warming since the beginning of the industrial era, and that the rate of warming has been increasing in the early 21st century. The warmest four years since the late 1800s, when scientists first reliably collected data on the earth’s surface temperature, were 2014-2017.
The links between human actions – especially the burning of fossil fuels – and climate change have been well researched by scientists for decades. The increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere not only have warmed the Earth’s surface to levels that have not been seen for over 100,000 years, but have also resulted in a range of other negative impacts, such as life-threatening heat waves, droughts, major rain events, flooding, more intense hurricanes, the extinction of animal and plant species, rising sea levels and temperatures, and many other problems.
Determine what can be done to slow, and then reverse the rate of global warming. We know what we need to do. We are just not doing enough of it, nor as quickly as we need to. We need to wean ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels, especially coal, and rapidly convert to sustainable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric. We also need to sequester carbon and other greenhouse gases to reduce their release into the atmosphere. Managing our forests better, reducing deforestation, and increasing afforestation are the best natural means to sequester carbon.
Implement a plan for reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The Paris Agreement is intended to secure commitments from all of the countries in the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It has been signed by 195 countries (although Donald Trump has announced that the United States will withdraw from the agreement in 2020). Aside from the irresponsible actions of the US President and his administration, the biggest problem with planning under the Paris Agreement is that the projected, cumulative impact of national goals related to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not sufficient to keep the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature below 1.5°C by 2040. So, the plans are in place, but in their current form they won’t prevent the climate from reaching a negative tipping point in the next 20 years or so.
Review and revise the plans and implementation practices periodically. The Paris Agreement includes periodic evaluations of its effectiveness, compliance by plan participants, improvements in remediation approaches, and movement toward the goal of no more than 1.5°C by 2040. The first major evaluation is scheduled for 2023, followed by a review and revision in 2028, and, theoretically, every five years thereafter. So, there are opportunities for countries to strengthen their plans during the next decade and beyond, but, according to the IPCC Report, major revisions need to start right away – not in 2023 – if the 2040 crisis is to be avoided.
Given the severity of the climate crisis, the five-year review process isn’t good enough. Instead, each country’s performance should be evaluated and updated every year.
Conclusion Heading off a climate crisis before 2040 is achievable. We understand the causes and effects of global warming. We understand the basic changes that need to be made in our sources and uses of energy. We have developed many of the renewable-energy, energy-efficiency and carbon-sequestration technologies required to make the changes. We even have a worldwide plan to implement these changes. The major missing ingredient is the urgent commitment to action by national, regional, and local governments; by businesses; and by all of us as citizens and consumers.
My son, Luc, and I just published the second edition of The Cooperative Society: The Next Stage of Human History. Our 148-page full-color book is available for purchase through bookstores and Amazon, or download a free PDF of [Download not found]
The Cooperative Society Newsletter September 2018, Issue 11 by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
A little over a billion people have no access to electricity. That’s 1/7th of the world’s population. There are hundreds of millions more whose energy is unreliable, dirty, unhealthy, inadequate, unsustainable, and/or expensive – for example, kerosene, diesel, wood, and candles.
At the same time, almost every country in the world has made a commitment through the United Nations Paris Agreement to significantly cut back by 2030 on their use of energy sources that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Note that the Trump administration is planning to withdraw the United States from the agreement in January 2020.)
On top of all that, these same countries have made commitments through the UN’s Sustainable Development Program to dramatically improve the quality of life around the world by 2030. One of the Program’s goals is to, “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”
There are many ways in which universal access to electricity will improve the quality of people’s lives; for example, creating job opportunities, reducing the workload of women by saving on average an hour a day that is currently spent searching for firewood, and preventing almost 2-million premature deaths per year from household air pollution. There would also be a net reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions because of lower use of biomass fuel for cooking, and the virtual elimination of kerosene and other dirty fuels as sources of heat and light.
How can these divergent problems and goals be reconciled?
The broad answer is to dramatically increase the use of renewable energy to meet the world’s unmet and under-met needs for electricity. This article provides a brief overview of recent changes in electrical access and outlines a path toward universal electrification by 2030 with a focus on community-based solar energy.
Recent and projected progress in electrification There has been a pattern since 2000 of accelerating access to electricity for unserved and underserved populations. Data from the World Energy Outlook 2017 Special Report indicate that in 2000, there were about 1.7 billion people without access to electricity. This number dropped to 1.1 billion in 2016. The “vast majority (97%) of new electricity connections” has been provided through primarily fossil-fuel-based grid extensions. Less than 1% of new electricity access has been via decentralized systems.
The report goes on to say that between now and 2030, fossil fuels will largely be replaced by renewable energy – especially solar energy – as the primary source for new electricity connections. “The rapidly declining costs of solar PV [photovoltaics], battery technologies, and energy-efficient appliances (especially light-emitting diode [LED] lighting) are making decentralized renewable energy systems more affordable. This is particularly the case for rural and dispersed communities not served by a main grid and where it may take years for one to arrive. Decentralized systems can also be attractive in areas with grid access but an unreliable power supply.”
Growth of solar and other renewable sources of electrification There are a number of exciting, renewable-energy options that are beginning to electrify the world. For example, large solar arrays are being developed across northern Africa that could eventually replace much of the fossil-fuel energy of Europe. One analyst estimates that putting solar panels on 2% of the Sahara Desert could meet all of the world’s electricity needs.
Building underwater transmission cables from the Sahara to Europe is quite feasible. The same is not true for transmission to the Americas. There are other examples of desert-based large-scale solar projects in Saudi Arabia, China, the Navajo reservation in the United States, and elsewhere. Together, these systems are likely to provide a huge addition to affordable, renewable energy by 2030.
And, we can’t forget about wind. Wind turbines are still cheaper than solar panels in many situations and will continue to be a critical part of any future mix of renewable-energy sources.
Both solar and wind must be supplemented by other sources of energy and energy storage systems. Lithium ion batteries and other means of storage are an important and increasingly cost-effective way to expand the use of renewable energy at every level, from individual buildings to large power plants.
Community-based solar energy Many of the billion-plus people who don’t have access to electricity live in fairly remote areas that are not easily connected to major power grids. As a result, large-scale renewable options don’t apply to them and are not likely to in the near future because of the high cost of transmission lines.
Households and businesses, and clusters of electrical consumers at the village level, can be most economically and efficiently served by electricity generated right at the community level.
In projecting future expansion of access to electricity, the World Energy Outlook Report lays out an “energy-for-all” scenario, which is based on the goal of universal electrification by 2030.
Figuring in population growth, this would mean expanding electrical coverage to 1.3 billion additional people at an approximate cost of almost $800 billion. The report concludes that over 50% of this electricity would be powered by solar energy, and less than 25% by fossil fuels. Furthermore, more than 60% of new electrical energy will be generated by mini-grid and off-grid systems. (For the most part, “off-grid” systems power individual homes and other buildings.)
Below are four examples that include community-based solar components, followed by a discussion of how community solar could be expanded and made more efficient so that many millions more people around the world could benefit from renewable, reliable, and locally controlled electricity.
Liberia The newly formed Totota Co-op in rural Liberia has just begun operating a community solar co-op. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and Bandera Electric Co-op, one of NRECA’s member cooperatives in the United States, assisted the village to organize the co-op and install solar panels, a battery-storage unit, and other equipment. NRECA is working with 12 Liberian coastal villages to expand the community solar model to them.
Rural India When Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India in 2014, 300 million households were without electricity. Every village in India now has electricity, but there are still 30 million households without it. President Modi promises to electrify all of these remaining households by April 2019 through a combination of hooking them up to the national grid and through mini-grid and off-grid installations. Many communities have formed Village Electric Committees to oversee the operation of their solar facilities. According to one observer, “most Indian solar microgrids are democratic, with power controlled by village committees.”
The Caribbean Islands, big and small, face special challenges in meeting their electrical service needs. Most don’t have local sources of energy, although some use wood, other kinds of biomass, hydroelectric, and geothermal energy. Importing fuel, such as diesel, is expensive and polluting. Many islands are also vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes that play havoc with transmission lines and other components of the electrical system. Consider the damage that Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico last year, including the estimated loss of about 3,000 lives, and from which the island is still recovering.
Forty island countries and other territories in the Caribbean formed the $1-billion Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator in August 2018 to create more self-sufficient and resilient energy systems.
The Sahel Region of Africa Along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert is a huge savanna region called the Sahel. At over 1,000,000 mi.², it is one-third the size of the Sahara.
“The Desert to Power Program . . . seeks to make use of this massive swathe of territory to develop 10,000 megawatts (MW) worth of solar energy to provide electricity to 250 million people — including for 90 million off-grid.”
Here are some strengths of the community-based solar model:
Can have its own microgrid, independent of a large-scale transmission grid
Easy to transport, install, and maintain
Costs can be based on usage
Decision-making can be through cooperative or other locally elected boards
Can generate jobs and new business activity
Can improve the quality of everyday life and health
And here are some of the challenges to expanding the model so that it reaches as many communities as possible:
Expertise to source materials and set up local systems
Ongoing monitoring and support
There are a number of international and national programs, both public and private, that are expanding their involvement in the creation of community solar programs. There is still a long way to go to provide renewable energy to the billion-plus people who have little or no access to it now. However, based on the analysis of the World Energy Outlook Report, “energy for all” by 2030 is an achievable goal.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter July 2018, Issue 10 By E.G. Nadeau
Civil wars, cyber wars, trade wars, inhumane treatment of migrants, right-wing nationalism. The earth is heating up—and it’s not just the climate.
Many of us are deeply concerned—but there’s a good chance of a much better future ahead. That’s the perspective of the 2018 edition of the book The Cooperative Society: The Next Stage of Human History by E.G. Nadeau and Luc Nadeau.
The authors have revisited and updated the seven indicators they measured in the 2016 edition of their book. If you’re worried about the world going to hell in a handbasket, The Cooperative Society may put you in a better frame of mind.
Even though a lot is out of whack right now, we humans may be making progress on our way toward better things to come:
We have enough food to feed our species.
We are living longer and have better healthcare than ever before.
Fewer people are living in extreme poverty.
About half of us live in democracies.
The level of conflict around the world, although it may seem severe, is near its lowest level in 5,000 years.
We have the tools to stabilize our climate if we commit to using them with urgency during the next several decades.
Learn more and take action
The second edition of the book describes what a cooperative society might look like. The book evaluates a number of ways in which we are moving closer to such a society—and other ways in which we are not. The final section focuses on actions we can take as individuals, communities, and countries. If we act decisively on a worldwide scale, we can become a more cooperative society during the next couple of decades.
Praise for the 2016 edition of The Cooperative Society
“The Cooperative Society . . . does an outstanding job of explaining the context for change and, just as importantly, the urgent need for such a change.” –Charles Gould, past Director-General, International Co-operative Alliance
“The Cooperative Society is a refreshing and hopeful analysis
of major trends in human behavior.” –Judy Ziewacz, former President and CEO, National Cooperative Business Association/CLUSA
Do you want a clearer understanding of the status of our world today and how we can make it better? Then resist the temptation for gloom, read the book, and join us in making the world a place where everyone can thrive.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter May 2018, Issue 9 By E.G. Nadeau
Three books by well-known authors hit the shelves in early 2018. Taken together, they make a convincing case that the world is becoming a better place for human beings. In the face of daily bombardments in the media and from dystopian politicians and pundits about how bad things are, it is refreshing to read about some of the many upbeat trends that are occurring in our world today.
There are significant areas of overlap among the three books. All rely on scientific data that show an improving quality of life for most people around the world – in many cases, trends that have been underway for a century or more. Each critiques pessimism and ignorance about what’s really going on in the world. All three provide valuable insights into ways in which human society is improving. But they tend to downplay some of the ways in which things are getting worse or more threatening. This is especially true regarding climate change.
A brief overview of the books and their authors
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress The author, Steven Pinker, is a psychology professor at Harvard. His best-known previous book is The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), which makes the case for a long historical trend of reduced violence in the world. Enlightenment Now extends the argument of Better Angels to include a wide range of other ways in which the quality of our lives is improving.
Pinker’s book wins my prize for the most systematic presentation of the ways in which the human condition is getting better. Pinker devotes chapters to life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, environment, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness. He relies heavily on both historical graphs and narrative to make his points.
It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear The author, Gregg Easterbrook, has 10 previous books to his credit, including the New York Times bestseller The Progress Paradox (2003), the subtitle of which is: Life gets better while people feel worse. It’s Better Than It Looks is in many ways a sequel to The Progress Paradox. According to Easterbrook, life is still getting better, but many of us continue to feel bad about the present and pessimistic about the future.
In the first part of his book, Easterbrook writes a series of essays on why the world is doing well despite all the doom and gloom in the media. He follows with a second series of essays focusing on the failure of “declinism” as a worldview and asserts that humans are up to the challenge of addressing the problems of climate change, inequality, and whatever other adversities may come our way in the future. Easterbrook doesn’t use visuals but instead provides detailed endnotes to support his analyses.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A general shortcoming is that all three have a tendency to sugarcoat or downplay some major contemporary problems – in particular, climate change, concentration of economic power, and inequality.[/perfectpullquote]
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things are Better Than You Think The author, Hans Rosling, who died in February 2017 while Factfulness was being written, was a Swedish medical doctor and co-founder of the Swedish chapter of Doctors Without Borders. He is probably best known for his brilliant TED talks on international health and related matters. (Check out some examples on YouTube.) The book was jointly written by Rosling, his son Ola, and his daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Ronnlund, who together also founded the Gapminder Foundation. (In keeping with the first-person singular style of the book, I will refer to the author as Rosling and skip the et al.)
Rosling relies on a combination of charts, graphs, and narrative. For Rosling and his co-authors, the primary aim of the book is to “fight devastating ignorance” and promote “a fact-based worldview [from which] we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.” The book teaches us how to be clear-eyed critical thinkers and to not fall into a variety of traps that prevent us from seeing the world as it is. Examples illustrate some of the distorted views we hold. For example, survey data indicate that most of us think extreme poverty, child mortality, and maternal mortality around the world are increasing. The data show just the opposite. He makes the point that we have to learn to see more clearly and accurately measure what’s happening in order to implement effective solutions.
The books have some pitfalls
A general shortcoming is that all three have a tendency to sugarcoat or downplay some major contemporary problems – in particular, climate change, concentration of economic power, and inequality.
There is always a danger when an author bases his or her book on a particular worldview such as “things are getting better all the time” that the book will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, emphasizing the good things that are happening and downplaying some of the bad things. All three of these authors can justifiably be accused of this kind of bias even though they argue that their findings are “science-based.” But there is still plenty of good, evidence-based analyses in all three books.
I am most forgiving of Rosling when it comes to this criticism. Although he cherry-picks positive examples, his primary purpose is to illustrate how to think and act critically, not to weigh the good and the bad in the world today.
Easterbrook and Pinker, in their own ways, are guiltier of this shortcoming.
Easterbrook is a journalist who has clearly done a lot of research on the state of the world, but his writing is channeled into making the case that: “Optimism is the best argument for reform – and the bow that propels the arrow of history.” Thus, his chapters on climate change and inequality essentially amount to: We’ll figure these issues out. We humans always find a way to solve our problems.
Where I noticed Pinker’s most egregious departure from “factfulness” is in his chapter on the environment. For whatever reason, Pinker is enamored of nuclear energy and feels the need to push it as a better alternative to reducing carbon emissions than solar and wind energy. He makes this case despite the fact that the latter two energy sources are already cheaper than nuclear power. These renewable energy sources don’t require the long lead time and high costs of developing and decommissioning nuclear plants. They also don’t face the danger of catastrophic meltdowns and ongoing safety concerns. Besides, on a purely pragmatic level, only one nuclear plant has been built in the last 20 years in the United States. Germany has decided to phase out all of its nuclear power plants by 2022 in reaction to the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Japan itself initially shuttered all of its nuclear power plants after the 2011 crisis. It is gradually bringing some of them back online, but nuclear energy will never regain the prominence it had in Japan prior to 2011. Despite these setbacks, nuclear power is likely to play an important but decreasing role in meeting the world’s energy needs over the next few decades.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Another characteristic of all three authors is that they take a piecemeal rather than a comprehensive approach to evaluating and recommending improvements in human conditions.[/perfectpullquote]
In his attempt to debunk solar and wind energy, Pinker makes the following outrageous statement: “To satisfy the world’s needs with renewables by 2050 will require tiling windmills and solar panels over an entire area the size of the United States (including Alaska), plus Mexico, Central America and the inhabited portion of Canada.” Several references that I checked, including the 2017 United Nations Emission Gap Report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and an article in Forbes magazine painted a very different picture of the potential for wind and solar to provide most if not all of the world’s electricity needs without blanketing it in panels and wind towers. One source wrote that a combined area of 43,000 mi.² of solar panels could meet all of the world’s electrical energy needs. That’s about the size of Virginia or Tennessee or a little over 1% of the Sahara Desert.
Although a bit of a digression, Pinker also brings up the old bugaboo about what happens “…when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow.” The obvious answer is the storage of energy in batteries and by other means. Storage technology has taken off by leaps and bounds in the last few years, including utility-scale projects in Australia, the United States and elsewhere. It’s ironic that Pinker downplays economies of scales and exponential growth when it comes to renewable energy, even though he presents more than a dozen tables in his book that illustrate the fallacy of assuming linear patterns of change over time.
Another characteristic of all three authors is that they take a piecemeal rather than a comprehensive approach to evaluating and recommending improvements in human conditions.
There is a danger in viewing societal change as nothing more than a scorecard tallying up the ways in which life is getting better rather than understanding it as an interactive process in which the various components build on (or tear down) one another.
A dramatic example is the relationship between climate change and the range of other variables that affect our world. One could argue that the harnessing of fossil fuel was one of the most important engines of economic growth over the past 200 years. But now, dependence on fossil-fuel energy is the biggest threat to our quality of life and that of the planet going forward. We need to change our energy paradigm in order to avoid catastrophe.
One could make a similar argument regarding capitalism. The insatiable quest for profit and the concentration of economic decision-making in the hands of a small number of corporations and government leaders may be just as unsustainable as a fossil-fuel-powered energy system.
Looking toward the future
None of the authors take a big-picture approach to economic and political change. Yet if we’re going to continue to improve the quality of life, there’s a high likelihood that we’ll need to change our international economic and political system to do so. It has evolved dramatically over time. The market economy of mercantilism in 16th-century Europe was far different from the internationally regulated, technology-driven market economy of the early 21st century. So, why shouldn’t we expect continued dramatic change in the international economy of the future? In what ways should it evolve in order to better sustain human beings and the planet on which we live?
My son Luc and I are writing the second edition of The Cooperative Society: The Next Stage of Human History to be published in August. Our main goals in the book are to evaluate whether or not we as a species are moving toward a fundamentally different kind of society based on cooperation, democracy, the equitable distribution of resources, and a sustainable relationship with the environment. We realistically assess where human society is getting better and where it is not, and we make recommendations about ways in which we can make a transition toward such a society.
Our book—and those by Pinker, Easterbrook and Rosling—have in common the use of science-based measurement to gauge human progress. However, we differ in three important ways. Our research shows that some things are getting better (such as the quality-of-life improvements cited by the three authors), but others are not (climate change, and economic and political inequality). We take a comprehensive view of the interplay among a variety of factors in determining our future in addition to presenting an item-by-item scorecard. And, most importantly, we stress that humans are not just objects of history but can play active roles in making our society better.