“Don’t allow the doubts of today limit our tomorrow” — FDR
On October 24, 1929, a day marked in history as Black Thursday, the US stock market started to collapse and lost 11 percent of its value at the opening bell. On Friday and Saturday, the rally continued, over the weekend the event was covered by newspapers all over America & the world. On October 28, “Black Monday”, more investors facing margin calls decided to sell low with the market sliding by 13%. On October 29, 1929, 16 million shares traded as panic reached its peak. Dow lost another 12%. Aside from some recovering and adjusting, the market embarked on a long steady slide from April 1930 to July 1932, losing 89% of all stock market value, closing at 41.22, its lowest level in the 20th century.
The crash followed instantaneously in the global markets reverberating across the global economies. The stock price decline caused several bankruptcies, contraction of credit, business closures (28,285 business failures at a daily rate of 133 in 1931 in the US), mass worker firing, bank failures, which led to more decline of the money supply from the capital markets and decrement in consumption across sectors. The crash marked the beginning of the 12 years Great Depression (Great Contraction), the decade of high unemployment, poverty, low profits, deflation, plunging farm incomes, and a general loss of confidence in the economic future.
Writing these words in 2019, 10 years before the 100th anniversary of Black Thursday, Oct 29, 1929; in many ways, feels prophetic. Just like today, the roaring twenties, the decade before the great depression, was marked by a period of great economic prosperity, cultural growth, technological advancement. The automotive, film, radio & chemical industry took off during the 1920s. Steel production, construction business, retail turnover, increased at record rates, leading to high investor activity, higher speculation, heavy borrowing, excessive optimism a market that will continue to rise forever.
People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! — Greta Thunberg
The excessive optimism and dependency of an economic system that will continue to grow forever, plagues the 2019 socio-economic-political decision making. More often than not, decisions or indecisions behind ecological damage of the present-era find their roots in the fairytale of eternal economic growth. One is left to wonder, if the global political and capital decision-makers for a moment stopped considering massive economic growth and accounted for maybe a slight contraction, would the decisions be different. If the world for a moment stopped obsessing over the rise in startup valuations, stock portfolios, national GDP growth rate, stock exchange chart direction and focused on ecological growth, environmental sustainability as a shift of decision-making priority, what would the outcome be?
The global climate change conversation is peaking with over 7.6 million people globally walking the streets demanding action to address climate change between September 20–27, 2019. Yet truth is that when it comes to global decision making, environmental factors take a good third or fourth seat on the priority table preceded by a variety of financial factors. I jokingly say that Indian capital markets will finance a cool new mobile app to order water at home before it will fund a serious water table restoration effort. Now, the funny thing about economic growth accounting is that it changes drastically depending on the period of the particular investment. Though water table restoration wins the ecological priority battle and even a long 20-year economic growth factor, when it comes to the typical 5 to 7-year investment window it looses to the water delivery app.
The great depression of 1929 to 1939 didn’t happen in an ecological silo. The decade after the roaring twenties was followed by the dirty thirties. Large parts of over agriculture American and Canadian prairies faced prolonged periods of droughts and the strong gush of winds displacing unanchored soil to billows of dust that blew away in huge clouds reaching as far as the US East Coast Cities. In the previous decade, along with economic speculation, rapid mechanizations had left to extensive deep plowing of the virgin topsoils displacing native, deep-rooted grasses that normally trapped soil. Large swaths of Native grasslands had converted to wheat-growing dollars churning farmlands. Dust bowls led to the largest migration in American history with about 3.5 million people uprooted in the dirty thirties. Decades later, in the 1970s, environmental historian Donald Worster returned to plains to notice “Capital-intensive agribusiness had transformed the scene; deep wells into the aquifer, intensive irrigation, the use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers, and giant harvesters were creating immense crops year after year whether it rained or not. Technology had provided the perfect answer to old troubles, much of the bad days would not return”
Until they would. July 2019 was the hottest month on record for the planet. Europe faced extreme heatwaves in June & July. In the Netherlands, the week of July 22 witnessed 15% more deaths than the previous week with 300 fatalities of people aged 80-year plus. Cumulative, Netherlands attributed 400 deaths to heatwaves in July.
At the same time, sea extent in the Arctic was 19.8% below the 1981–2010 average — the smallest sea ice levels since satellite records began in 1979. On another melt Thursday, August 1, 2019, Greeland lost 12.5 billion tons of ice lost to the ocean in an extraordinary melt event that started earlier in the week. About 60 percent of the expansive ice cover saw detectable surface melting. With a complete Greenland ice sheet melt away, global sea levels would rise by about 23 feet drowning hundreds of cities, millions of people, and billions worth of economy. In one of the first actions from the threat of rising sea levels, Indonesia announced to move its capital from Jakarta to a higher elevation earmarked site at Kalimantan.
Forest fires raged in Alaska, Amazon, Congo, Siberia, Indonesia. Over 2.6 million hectares were burnt in Siberia in July 2019. Between May & August 2019, 50000 fire outbreaks burnt more than 3 million hectares of wet Amazonian Rainforest. Africa, home to more than 70% of recorded annual fires on the planet burnt great parts of sparsely wooded savannas and small farmlands in Congo, Angola, and other central African nations. The European Space Agency estimates 25–35% of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions come from biomass burning i.e. global forest & farm fires. Not much dissimilar from the 1930s dustbowls, skies turned grey in multiple megalopoleis across the world from Rio De Janerio to Jakarta.
All of this 2019 mishap has been caused by a mere 409.96 ppm of atmospheric CO2, just a 30% rise from the start of CO2 monitoring at Mauna Loa Observatory in March 1958. On Monday, ep 23 2019, WMO official announced that the global average temperature is set to rise to at least 1.2 to 1.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels over the next five years i.e. by 2024, dangerously close to the 1.5 degrees cap signed by 195 countries in the Paris Agreement just the other year in 2015.
The future is here, the crisis underway, yet our life, decisions, investments, are business as usual. To have a 66% probability of avoiding global warming beyond 1.5 C, the global carbon quota is 113 billion tonnes, which would run out in 10 years at the current rate of emissions, putting about a billion+ people at direct risk of heat, water, land submerging, drought, forest fire, or related environmental crisis. Beyond 2 C warming would take us to a point of no return, that would pose serious dangers to the sheer habitability of our planet and would destroy any notions of life as we know it today. All of this in the next 10–20 years of our lifetime.
Yet, we are still “debating” & “discussing” sustainable development. Yet, many highly educated people with conscience work for the polluting Big Oil, Big Agri, Big Plastic companies. Many global investors allocate capital to projects that draw fossil fuel out of the ground and then burn the carbon up in the air. Many superstars and supermodels pose and advertise for rampant consumerism to sell plastic and carbon to enhance image, look beautiful, appear wealthy, and so on. Yet, the global decision making at every level from politicians to investors to the employee to consumer puts financial considerations before ecological implications. As if the probabilities of humanity surviving long enough to reap those financial benefits are very high.
“Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own mind”
Sixteen-year-old Greta called it out, us, the entire system, the decision-makers, global economies, and political leaders “you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before.” At 29, I’d say “we are not interested in solutions because we are not able to imagine the solutions, imagine a full restructuring of socio-economic systems, a complete transformation of daily lifestyle and everyday behavior”.
And this is not happening for the first time in human history. Abrahan Lincoln and other leaders who stood against slavery, which at that time had existed as a status quo from as early as 1526 when the Portuguese completed the first transatlantic slave voyage to December 18, 1865, upon adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment (Amendment XIII) to the United States Constitution abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. For 300+ years, slavery existed as a status quo in human history, it was legal and acceptable for an owner to shoot his/her shoot a black slave without facing any repercussions in the court of law. I wonder if the challenge of change, of imagining a new world, and of transforming the world order faced by Abraham Lincoln and team & today’s Greta Thunberg and Co. are much different.
Any change of this size, shape, and magnitude has enough people to stand against it. Among many pro-slavery arguments, like the pro-carbon arguments for today were “some people are natural slaves”, “oil is a natural fuel of economy”. “the economic prosperity of the antebellum era”, “the economic prosperity of the post-industrial revolution era”. With the sheer willpower, diplomacy, and strategy, Abe Lincoln paved a path of the emancipated new world before his death by shooting in April 1865.
67 years later, when FDR took office amidst the great depression, after Herbert Hoover’s inconsequential 4-year term, unemployment, financial disaster, dismal productivity, lost economic confidence was the new normal. Not only did he pull the United States out of the centuries’ gravest financial crisis, lead the new deal, kickstarted an economy, situated major regulatory reforms related to finance, communications, and labor, led the US to a victory in the World War, he established a whole new world and its structure in which we live today.
“The best way to predict future is to create it” — Abraham Lincoln
If you start to think about the climate crisis one by one and decode it from top to bottom, one can really build a series of simple implementable non-fancy basic-brain solutions. Change the global economic systems by making oil, gas, and coal abhorrently expensive and making renewable energy systems incredibly cheaper. A transaction of tax dollars from one industry to another as a subsidy. A more fundamental change in the global consumeristic behavior by redefining the understanding of happiness, purpose, human existence, and most important of all “coolness”. Consumption and materialism of all kinds from infinite money, big cars, big houses, designer clothes, and designer watches are simply driven by a human desire to be cool and desirable to their peers. In the middle centuries, warriors strong men who fought in wars and came out alive and signaled a capability to keep a woman and her family alive through the harshness of life was “cool” and hence more people wanted to become dirt-broke-warriors than very rich and round traders. In the last century, with the industrial revolution and advancement of mechanization, the risk of survival dropped down exponentially. The need for warriors started to evade quickly. Whatever wars did happen were fought behind big engineering machines, and soon machines became cool, mechanics became hot, and the accumulation of more machines more things to comfort human life became the new norm of aspiration. But to think about it, this hasn’t been the constant world order, this wasn’t the situation forever, and hence it can be quickly changed.
As a thought experiment, what if the biggest models and global movie stars, stopped endorsing consumeristic brands? Just like the statement made by divestment from coal and oil stocks from large global pension funds and money managers; what if there was a divestment by social capital, human capital, intellectual capital. What if Kendell Jenner and Gigi Hadid boycotted from fast fashion and promoted wearing few same clothes day-after-day, month-after-month. What if Selena Gomez made a 3-month commitment to wear exactly 6 pairs of clothes and 2 pairs of shoes and live a no-make-up life. What if Shahrukh Khan declined to endorse Pepsi, Coca Cola, and other plastic producers.
Coming to a much local, simpler, and possible level. What if engineers, managers, lawyers divested from un-environmental jobs. What if one fine day, 100s of employees of Coca Cola got up and left their jobs. What if the very public figure, smart educated and influential CEOs of big oils with millions in savings and security decided to live a life of not-too-much richness and publicly vocally quit their jobs.
Most of the people who would read the last paragraph will laugh at me and joke at this proposition, but history has proven time and again that individual statements backed by strong actions work. On July 13, 1905, this same idea of boycotting British Goods was floated in the Bengali Weekly named Sanjibani by a Krishna Kumar Mitra. Few statements gave birth to an idea of the Swadeshi Movement, which later catalyzed into and amplified a larger Indian Independence movement. Swadeshi movement gave a one-two bunch to the British colonial status-quo by shifting the economic dynamics of consumption. An economic system, any economic power is dictated by a delicate balance of supply & demand. While supply depends on many technical aspects of production, technology, optimization, and capital allocation; the fundamentals of demand are based on human whims of a term known as “preference”.
Disciplines of marketing, communications, and PR have built a multi-billion dollar industry to control, dictate, influence, or affect human preference. But if you observe, preference in any matter is affected by a bunch of weird, different, fashionable, famous, “looked-upon” people. In the past 100 years with the rise of television and cinema, which serves as a visual and much stronger influencer to other mediums like books (thoughts on a piece of papers) or lectures; the influencing power has moved with people who command a high value or volume of the screen time. In the last decade, with the democratization of content show-casing platforms like Youtube, Instagram, and other mobile apps, and the decreased cost and increased availability of content production capabilities i.e. cheaper cameras, the influencing power has started to shift from television & cinema to youtube & Instagram.
Yet the fundamental fact remains the same, it is excessively easy and simple and doable to change the global preferences of people from pollution consumeristic materialism to more cooler less-materialistic, more simplistic, minimalistic, anti-consumer. It is just a matter of transforming our ideas, our models, our actors, influencers, and advertiser. Will it take a Shahrukh khan to post about home-cooked meals, no plastic juice or coke, carrying his water bottle and staying thirsty for hours instead of buying a Bisleri bottle, and wearing 5 pairs of clothes for 6 months and driving a cheap non-fancy electric car. Maybe that is what it would take. Or maybe Alia, Ranbir, Deepika, Priyanka, Sachin, Federal, and thousands of other celebrities, influencers, micro & nano-influencers can join the movement and make a difference. But it is definitely possible and easy to fundamentally transform the present-day status-quo of emitting plastic with morning coffee, the fruit juice, the plastic-wrapped breakfast-lunch & dinner ordered by the lazy quick-meal food-ordering app obsessed generation, the hundreds of bottles of shampoos, face wash, hand & face cream. It will be increasingly possible if we realized and advertised that eventually all of this plastic finds its way back to us in forms of cancers, diseases, and various disorders.
By 2040, the oceans will have more plastic than fishes, and even today in 2019, humans consume one credit card worth of plastic a week. From plastic nanoparticles released in hot water by the cool Yogi, healthy, life elongating teas to the plastic leached from the containers by the healthy fruit juices. The consumer preferences can and will change to getting up from the lazy chair, walking to the shop, standing in a line, buying the tea or juice in a glass or metal dish, staying in the place and finishing it, and giving it to the dishwasher for further cleaning. Lest the billion $ disciplines of marketing, communications, and PR pay more attention to shaping the world to truly sustainable reuse and reduce friendly system rather than smart greenwashing campaigns.
The world of today was in great part shaped by one man, his vision, his strategic grit, and his perseverance almost a century before us. FDR took the United States presidential office at the lowest economic point in recent history. Not only did he pull the US out of the gravest financial crisis, but he also redesigned a world that was more fair, controlled, and had a new set of sociological standards. Many of the things that seem totally status-quo, commonsensical, and have existed forever were indeed incredibly difficult to push through the house and congress in another recent era. Roosevelt created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to underwrite savings deposits. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to regulate the trading of securities, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate telecommunications, a social insurance program establishing Social Security for the elderly, poor, and the sick, Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to outlaw child labor, establish a minimum wage, and require overtime pay. These legislations and creations of these agencies reflected through the entire world in the coming decades and set the standard for establishing socio-economic systems in most modern nations. Almost in every major economy in the world, you will find a version of FDIC, SEC, FCC, and FLSA dictating the rules of the economic game. A combination of these factors pulled the US out of the Great Depression, kickstarting a phase of technological & economical growth that allowed the US to join and lead Allied powers to a victory in World War II and command a new global order in the decades to come. Come to think of it, maybe a society with a state-imposed maximum on the t-shirt ownership and soaps allocation would have created less plastic than our presently capitalist world, but had a certain set of events, legislation, changes led and caused by FDR not happened, our world today would have been very different.
This brings to my last and final point, that is it fundamentally possible, simple, historically well proven with ample good case studies and examples from movements, activism, politics, businesses, and marketing systems to change the world. All we need to do is put our precious brains and our immense will to work, and actively expand on the part where we are trying to “do our bit for the environment”