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Shop your way to fossil freedom

Sixteen-year old Greta Thunberg is asking good questions like “why are we doing nothing about climate change?” She tells it like it is as we stand unmoving – no group wanting to give anything away. Unions rightly take the stance that workers should not pay with lowered standards. Some want to play with small tax adjustments to see the poor OK.

The New Green Deal says “never mind the economics of it – we’ll just invest in the planet we want.” That is good, but you need to make sure people have the money to pay for those new high speed rail services and electric buses.

So. No easy solution? Perhaps there is.

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We are a long way off from the true art of the deal

Stephen Hinton 2016, photo Maj-Lis Koivisto

Everyone knows, don’t they, that we we Brits need a good deal from Brexit – one that is good for us and does not give the EU an advantage over us? A bad deal will mean everyone in the UK gets a drop in standard and the EU will rise, doesn’t it? Well, not everyone thinks that. Wise leaders and experienced negotiators think differently. If Brits and indeed Europeans are to come out of this situation in a good way we need to give our trust to these wisest leaders and sharpest negotiators. And we need to think differently. Radically.

Being in or out of EU is about being part of a framework of agreements on trade, migration, food standards etc. It is about a deal. This assumes that if we get a bad deal, the EU will get a better deal. Because there is a finite cake and we must fight to get our share. Or if we are outside the EU we will get better deals and the EU will be worse off with less of the cake.

Let me lay this out for you as someone who has followed, if not been involved in, deals for a very long time. The first thing is that a bad deal for one does not necessarily – and most often not – mean it is a good deal for the other.

You see, we humans are more like a family. A really good deal – the best – is one that is good for both. Both sides have different situations and the good deal makes the best of both sides. In trading nations, one nation’s excess – that which they easily produce – can be traded for another nation’s excess where the other nation has difficulty in producing that thing. Win-win, or fair play if you like. Together we make the cake larger and share it fairly.

A bad deal for one will only reduce that partner’s capacity – less support for you post-deal – and probably get them feeling bad and wanting revenge. So the next deal after you got a “good deal” will probably see your trading partners dig their heels in looking for ways to screw you back. A good deal is a long game – good for family long term. A short deal where one gets screwed over is bad for the family as a whole. Good deals require good negotiators but above that they require good leadership.

Good leadership is seeing when a deal needs to be struck and doing everything to get parties to the table. Good leadership is having a vision of the long game and holding the values of family whilst looking after their own people. Whatever happens you need to know that the leaders you chose have YOUR back. Leadership is seeing when a good deal can be improved, or a bad deal can be remedied. Good leadership understands the balance between deals being made now and the momentum that creates, and the long game of nothing is forever.

Deals take time and effort to set up. The long game is highly effective, helping both sides thrive, increasing prosperity for both and therefore more opportunities to work together.
Bad deals leave one side disadvantaged and this brings down the whole family. Bad deals – like austerity – impact the whole family.

Good negotiators set deals up so they work. Good leaders make sure that the deal making is supported. Bad leaders let bad deals go on for too long. Good leaders see when new deals are needed and start the process. Good leaders carry with them a sense of mutualism and fairness whilst having a high degree of care for the ones they represent. Good leaders attract other good leaders.

The attitude of dominating one partner – rather than looking to mutual advantage – has been creeping into society and even the way institutions are run. You could say it is being normalised. This is utterly reprehensible behaviour.. We see examples of poor leadership all the time. Here’s one: a nation offers young men the chance to join the army – the chance of a career, identity, money, job security, doing something important and necessary maybe outweighing the risk of losing your life. But the same nation sees a large percentage of soldiers in the ranks of homeless rough sleepers. Bad deal. Waste of talent, waste of resources, and sending a “don’t care” signal that characterizes poor leadership and permeates all of society. One ex-soldier on the street is one too many yet we are forced to live in a society that lets it happen and we have to helplessly accept we have poor leaders.

A word of caution on deal making. There are times when the other side have poor leaders and even poorer negotiators. The other side resorts to all kinds of dirty tactics and seeks only to dominate the other part. What to do? Well, you need to recognise how dangerous they are to deal with. They often would rather go for a short öerm gain and one that gave them power than a decent deal for both.

Suppose you were planning a football tournament and had to play a really dirty team – how would you strategize? I know nothing about football but I can imagine you would study the other side and learn their tactics. Get the best referees you could, identify the dirtiest players and work to isolate them, train the team do deal with dirty tactics and to stay out of harm’s way as far as possible.

The standard approach is to just not even try to do a deal with unjust players. If you have to, create defences that protect you and your organisation as far as possible before doing the deal and restrict the deal to the absolute minimum. BUT still try to do the minimum deal. A small bridge between peoples is better than no bridge at all.

So how are the EU as a negotiating partner – do we want to deal with them, and are they fair, and are they doing their best to get a good deal for both sides? From where I stand I’d say “no”. They used strong arm tactics against Greece, shutting down their banks. They have unelected leaders and tend to stay on a path that favours liberalism and shuts out other approaches. I might be wrong, but if I were a UK leader I’d ask for a year’s postponement at least and get my best – absolutely best – people onto it. I’d need intelligence, military, diplomatic corps, business, university, union, human rights just to name a few. With such a dangerous partner you need to be fully prepared. And you need to be prepared to walk away.

Seeking out partners whose leaders have the moral fibre you are looking for is what you need to concentrate on. It may have once been a false front for greedy businessmen, but the commonwealth as a concept is sound. Trading for our common wealth. We should pursue it if we can find countries that match our moral standpoint.

In a way, in this family of humans, we are all leaders because we elect leaders. So it is incumbent upon everyone to make an effort to identify and bring to positions of responsibility good leaders. The greater the responsibility the greater moral fibre is needed.
Then it is incumbent on every leader to find good negotiators and give them the opportunity to forge these good deals.

In Britain, where sides are being taken, it is important to build bridges between the sides. If you are an avid Brexiter you should show leadership and seek out avid remainers. Seek to understand their view, seek common ground, seek to already now be looking at how to manage the aftermath of whatever result turns out. For example, whatever the deal, a sovereign nation has to find ways to forge a good deal for everyone whether in or out. There is always the possibility that a good deal with EU would be anyway a bad deal for ordinary working people if not done in a good way. And visa versa.

We as a nation understand fair play and we like it. We invented football and grew up intuitively understanding fair play because we got to explore it day out day in in our playgrounds and playing fields. With fair play, the cost of playing is lower and the results are better for both sides. Having strong morals is actually the most effective way of dealing with people. And efficient.

So do what good leaders do. Find good leaders, promote them, support them. Remove the bad ones. Take the long view in the short view. Focus on making sure people are alright and that anyone who gets the bad end of any deal gets it put right. We can do this – humans have been demonstrating good leadership and deals since time began – it is who we are – let’s get to it!

Opinion: The problems in Sweden are the problems in the world

Stephen Hinton 2016, photo Maj-Lis Koivisto

With the coalition of the left’s 144 seats in parliament and the right-wing block’s 143, and with the ultra-right wing Sweden Democrats left out of the block, many might be wondering whatever happened to the cozy social democratic, progressive Sweden held up as a model of a modern welfare state. Read More…

We need peace not growth. Just do a search and replace.

We did the following thought experiment: we replaced the word growth  or economic growth with peace in excerpts from statutes and statements from some main global organisations. Take a look. Is it in improvement? Maybe you agree with us that Peace is the thing we need to focus on!

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OPINION: Business as usual destroys more capital than it creates.

Stephen Hinton, photo Maj-Lis Koivisto

Business schools purvey the amassed experience of successful entrepreneurs from the last few hundred years. The problem with that is this experience is based on the availability of increasingly vast quantities of energy and cheap raw materials, along with licence to basically release waste straight out into the environment. This two century’s worth of “business” experience treats nature as an unlimited resource store and waste dump. An out-of-date mindset. We have moved on. There is a need for a new way of doing business: a system that takes into account the limitations of the planet and needs to maintain human well-being. That system is called circular economy. Read More…

Opinion: rethink “technology” to save the planet

Photo: Maj-Lis Koivisto

What we call “technology” is actually a narrow  description of a practice including mechanics, electronics and computer science. This confusion is hampering human development, especially when the expectation is on not developing financial and social technology but demanding mechanical solutions when simple agreements could suffice. Modern technology is failing, we are not addressing the challenges in front of us. Our very use of language in this case is holding us back and preventing us from thinking clearly.

What is sustainable technology? Can technology development drive sustainability? I argue that more clarity around what we mean by technology and sustainability would be helpful  – let me attempt to break it down.

What we actually mean by technology – test yourself

To illustrate what I mean, let us first conduct a thought experiment. We go to the University round the corner, the leading institute of technology, and ask the brightest students to produce the most sustainable way of keeping people out of property they can think of.

Now many would imagine, and I am sure they would be right, that these students would diligently pursue their task. Perhaps they would look into the definition of sustainable and maybe come across the work of the Natural Step, talking about the system conditions, and their connection with cradle to cradle. Sustainable would mean that minerals, technical nutrients, once extracted would cycle continuously around in society. Once part of a finished product, then reclaimed and put into raw material to wait for the next manufacture. Never would these minerals return into the biosphere. Nor would they return to the Earth as that would mean a waste of the energy required to extract them in the first place. Following system conditions and cradle to cradle they would maybe design the lock of materials that could be recycled easily to more locks or other products. They would design it so it meant the minimum of emergy or embedded energy (from fossil fuels) in it; this would reduce its footprint.

And it would be designed to need the minimum of energy over its lifetime. Of course, it would be interesting to consider the economic potential of this the new technology although this was not given in the assignment. It could be that this new technology has some advantages over existing locks – for example they have minimum materials in them and do not need a key – or they are cheaper or they are stronger. If the new design has an economical advantages maybe the students could set up a start-up to market and sell their new invention.

Let us, then, imagine the description of their invention. Perhaps you have one of your own.

This device is mounted on doors. It is highly sustainable as it is made of recyclable materials has a low footprint from manufacture, low maintenance costs, and does not emit toxins to the environment. It prevents people passing the door, and only lets through people who the owner of the building wants to enter.

But I digress: the purpose of this exercise is to explore sustainable technology. I hope you have written down YOUR idea. Let’s try a new tack. What do we want a lock for – is it to keep some people out and let others in? Maybe a sort of compromise between having the strength of a wall but the convenience of having a door to open. Privacy, as well, and a feeling of security. If someone wants to get into a locked door they can always break it down. But that creates a sound. There is something about the lock that is hard enough to stop people but easy enough to let people in that should come in. And then a lock can always be picked as we see in police shows on TV.
I was thinking that the lock is a recent invention. Aboriginal tribes do not have them, so how do they achieve security and privacy etc? I suppose a lot of it is about trust. Maybe they put up a symbol for who can enter and who cannot – or they just agree among themselves? So why not consider, instead of a mechanical device, replacing it with a whole load of trust, social signals, communication and agreements?

This device consists of only a few atoms, uses no energy in manufacture or use, its purpose is to ensure that only people who the owner wants enters a certain designated, defined space. It is highly flexible and can be applied to large spaces and small one.

You might want to look back at your own description of your invention at this point.

Now, is this that we are replacing the physical locks with technology? This depends how you define technology. If you define it as inventions to solve a problem, then social inventions like agreements are technology too.

Agreements are technology

But don’t you find this line of inquiry uncomfortable? Is there is something inherently wrong with calling innovations that do not require physical things technology?

Not really – many definitions of technology encompass applying what you have and what you know to what you want to do. You want to keep people out of a certain area? You go and talk to them and create an agreement.
So the first point I would like to bring out is that when discussing sustainable technology

the sensible approach is to regard technology as a capability and body of knowledge that can be applied practically.

This means all kinds of application in engineering, but also social and financial innovations should be termed “technology”.

Somewhere along the line we bought into the mindset that the best approach to solving a need was to create a mechanical-based solution.   This is so ingrained that at our University of technology you will probably find that they are studying engineering – and mathematics and computer science. The social side – designing agreements – is almost completely left out.

The second point is that we cannot expect “technology” to solve a problem if we apply conditions that are too narrow. This is not an easy point to get. By conditions that are too narrow we can mean things like requiring the invention of technology to drive sustainable development when we at the same time require that it function within a certain financial system, be a mechanical device and make money. You are rather widening the requirements and narrowing the opportunities.

One conclusion you can draw from this is that when someone says “technology will drive sustainable development” they are probably, without considering it, thinking that it is possible to solve the problem and keep most of the causes of the problem in the requirement.

I believe that we confuse thinking about sustainability by coming from the point of view where we have a high financial capital – that is to say we take for granted there is money to purchase mechanical solutions. On the other hand, we assume there is a low social or trust capital. If we had a high trust capital we would need fewer mechanical solutions. Yet – and I do it too – we reach for a high finance low trust solution to start with.

Reflection on  the lock exercise highlights that a high trust – low mechanical physical solution removes the need for work. If work is reduced, economic activity is reduced and the basis of our prosperity is removed given we keep the financial system that requires monetarism.

The third point touches on the second. If you want the economy to drive the introduction of sustainability, then if perfectly good ideas have to be thrown away because they are not viable in the economic context, then it is the economic technology that is at fault, not the technology itself.
Technology is not restricted to mechanical devices. Technology is not restricted to computer software. If you want to restrict the concept of technology to machines then you need to develop a new term for the application of knowledge.

Fourthly, this example uncovers another concept that is confused. – that of work. Work in purely physics terms – put simply – is to move something. For a book resting on a table no work is done, but if the table rises then work is done to change the position of the book.

You could say that WORK is to bring a change in an object.

This can even be applied to the work of changing the state of information. Some experts have said that information is a change in uncertainty. If you have more information after a change of data then you are less uncertain.

This has a neat parallel with the idea of doing work from an economic sense: if you done something that has created a change in an economic relationship (for example written something) then economic work is a change in what is owed to you. After the work is done you are owed more than when you started.

This brings us to another way to look at technology. If technology is an invention to solve a problem then work is the application of an invention to solve a problem. But not only inventions are used to solve a problem, but real resources this could be energy like muscle power and fossil fuel but biological resource like wood and mineral resources like iron.

We even have a term for these resources: capital. Human capital, financial capital, natural capital. Technology is part of social and human capital. An increase in inventions is an increase in capital.

This is where sustainability comes in: Sustainable implies the capability to continue. Applying technology to solve a problem in a sustainable way implies that capital is not depleted.

So sustainable technology is the invention of how to apply resources to solve problems in a way that retains capital. Work is the application of that technology to solve the challenge. If a solution depletes natural capital but increases financial capital then it can hardly be seen as being sustainable.

The trouble is, no accounting technology has been developed to measure the capital depletion of natural systems and minerals whilst comparing with financial capital. This is a serious flaw in modern-day accounting, and addressed in other articles on this site.

One attempt to remedy this has been proposed by the economist Anders Höglund, with his proposal for floating emission charges connected to phase out goals with the revenue diverted back into the economy via a citizens’ refund. Basically, the principle is that all depletion of natural capital is not allowed. A certain period of time is given to market actors to cease depletion. If the rate of reduction is in line with targets, nothing happens, but if it is less, the emission charge is raised. And it is raised until the rate of change is reached. This is a kind of price discovery mechanism: the price of pollution – natural capital depletion- is the cost of not polluting.

I suggest that the lock exercise shows us something more: that when we discuss technology we omit to define the problem technology shall solve on a broader basis. If the technology we have today should be judged in broader terms we could argue that it is doing a poor job: one sixth of the world are undernourished, access to clean water is limited to more than a billion people, poverty is widespread and so is war.

We have to leave mechanical thinking

If we are to progress with creating the sustainable society all forms of technology, especially financial but even social, need to be developed rapidly. Maybe it is as simple as applying the ancient technology of kindness. Maybe we need more technology of equality. This is not the time to stand still in old thinking hung up on mechanical devices. We need to move forward. We need more trust and more zero-atom technology!

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OPINION: upgrade the monetary system and pay people to do the right thing

Stephen Hinton 2016, photo Maj-Lis Koivisto


Money and markets are powerful tools in developing our world, most would agree. However,  the negative effects, some might say unintended results of their application are painfully apparent. These include environmental degradation, unequal distribution and crowded, unhealthy cities. To achieve a sustainable future, and the Sustainable Development Goals in particular, all options for changing the economic system should be on the table.   Should we abandon industrial capitalism and our present monetary system altogether? Should we introduce a form of sustainable five-year planning regime? Read More…

We are not running out of energy; capitalism is.

Stephen Hinton 2016, photo Maj-Lis Koivisto

Most of the energy used in the world economy comes from non-renewable sources. Analysts fear that the expanding extraction of energy will not keep up with the expanding economy and …well… the the economy will deflate like a balloon and everyone will be worse off. Worst for the poor who have very little already. Or they fear that the climate will collapse because we are pouring too much carbon dioxide into it just to stay alive. Either way, the economy is so dependent on energy, they say, that we will go into a period of recessions and undermine peace is many ways. Not strictly true in my opinion  that there is too little energy: there is enough energy to keep everyone fed and housed within planetary boundaries. It’s just that there is not enough to keep capitalism going. And it is the failings of capitalism that we need to address if we are to make this peace project real, not energy supplies. Read More…

OPINION: Accounting needs to adapt to the circular economy

Photo: Maj-Lis Koivisto

We often hear about how hard it is to change the course of large ships, and as an analogy our current economic system seems to be hard to turn away from its course of counter-sustainability. However, large tankers DO make it into port. I would like to offer the idea that our economy can change course too. As with large ships, we need to understand and master the controls. Very few talk about accounting and sustainability. That is a shame, as several built-in features (and some easy to build in) could offer a way to turn the economy around. It’s not rocket science and it would be a big leap forward!
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Opinion. Trump wins: time to get on with green growth

Stephen Hinton 2016

Photo: Maj-Lis Koivisto

Promising to “make America great again”,  a composed and rather humble Donald Trump held his US presidential victory speech this morning. His stated strategy is to rebuild infrastructure, and to harness the skills and talents of everyone. That includes the many people who voted for him who feel they have been left out up to now. He particularly talked of veterans and made it clear that Americans includes the wide range of ethnic and cultural diversity of all its citizens.

Doubling growth was also something he talked about.

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