Diagram 1

We are currently behaving like this is the world we live in – because if you are a finance person it is. The Dasgupta Report on the Economics of Biodiversity does nothing substantive to challenge this, despite a foreword from David Attenborough admitting “We are totally dependent upon the natural world”, other than putting a bigger number on the Sustainability portion (Natural Capital). John Kay mentioned in his talk, as part of the Dr Patrick Poon Presidential Speaker series on Finance in the Public Interest for the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, the habit of actuaries in particular of often “attaching meaningless numbers to data”. There would seem to be great potential for doing precisely this in putting a number on Natural Capital.

But it is worse than that. As the September 2020 InfluenceMap report on sustainability finance policy engagement makes clear, most financial institutions (bottom-right quadrant, in blue, below) have shown caution and, despite having made some high-level supportive comments, have tended not to engage in a detailed or intensive manner. A small number of financial institutions (top-right quadrant, blue) have been actively engaged in promoting sustainable finance policy. A few financial institutions (centre-left of the diagram, blue) appear to be more cautious about sustainable finance policy.

This chart plots the results of InfluenceMap’s analysis for the financial institutions and industry associations included in the analysis. Engagement Intensity refers to how actively the entity is engaging, while Organization Score measures the degree of support/opposition to policy.

Diagram 2

In the meantime, the IFRS Foundation is proposing to set up a Sustainability Standards Board with its own reporting standards. This is what Richard Murphy (who got me thinking about this in Venn diagram terms originally) is rightly complaining about as it would lead to this:

His sustainability cost accounting idea offers a plausible alternative approach in my view. As the introduction says: 

…accounting has to change because we need a clear, audited, enforced and unambiguous indicator of the process of change that business must go through to support continued human life on this planet. Sustainable cost accounting can do that by indicating who can, and cannot, use capital to best effect in this changed environment. That is precisely why it is needed, however uncomfortable the consequences might be.

What is actually needed therefore is clearly an approach rooted in this:

Diagram 3

This is the long term position most working in sustainability would, I believe, like to see. However there are differences of opinion in how to get there.

Kate Raworth argues that you may need to talk within Diagram 1 to start with in order to engage the finance professionals, which of course includes the central bankers and treasury official who might limit the speed at which we could move to Diagram 3. Others disagree, saying once you start talking to finance professionals in their own language, you are condemned to a solution in Diagram 1.

What seem clear to me is that, if our arguments are between Diagram 1 and Diagram 3, perhaps we can dispense with Diagram 2.

Source: Wikimedia Commons: Shattered right-hand side mirror on a 5-series BMW in Durham, North Carolina by Ildar Sagdejev. Cropped by Nick Foster

It starts in 2025 with a description of a horrific heatwave in India which will stay with me for a very long time. As well it should as, in the book, it kills 20 million people. In response, India send thousands of aircraft up to 60,000 feet to spray aerosol particulates of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, in defiance of the international conventions banning such activities, to deflect some of the solar radiation with the aim of reducing the probability of future heatwaves for a period. By how much or for how long or with what other consequences is unknown.

As we build up to COP26 in Glasgow in November this year, in the book we start with the results of COP29 in Bogota, where the organisation which would come to be known as The Ministry for the Future (and the title of the book by Kim Stanley Robinson) was set up “to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens, whose rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are as valid as our own. This new Subsidiary Body is furthermore charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection.”

The Indian crisis happens a few months later. The new head of this body, Mary Murphy, is briefly held captive by, Frank, one of the survivors of the heatwave in her own flat in Zurich (the book also feels like a love letter to Zurich) and challenged to do more:

It’s not enough. Your efforts aren’t slowing the damage fast enough. They aren’t creating fixes fast enough. You can see that, because everyone can see it. Things don’t change, we’re still on track for a mass extinction event, we’re in the extinctions already. That’s what I mean by not enough. So why don’t you do something more?

This has a profound impact on Mary, who keeps in touch with Frank and his troubled suffering life throughout the book. It also leans her towards effectively endorsing the involvement of her No 2 in “black” operations to ensure certain people are “scared away from burning carbon”.

Indeed the book is suffused with eco-terrorism. Technological progress has partly displaced the state monopoly of violence, with drone technology in particular meaning that no aircraft or ship or surface navy is safe from a well-enough organised group by the end of the book. People stop flying when aircraft start being shot down regularly, and those that still do fly use carbon-negative airships, where solar panels generate more power than the ships use. Davos attendees get taken hostage and given a compulsory seminar at one point. Tax havens become obsolete when all money becomes digital and tracked.

Mary’s interactions with central bankers are probably the closest this book ever comes to comedy. In the first, she tries to argue for a “carbon coin”, a digital currency which would be paid out to organisations and people who could prove they had removed carbon from the environment. This would be the incentive to work alongside the carbon taxes. The contemptuous response from the Federal Reserve and others at first is “not our purview”, however by the end they are on board with this and many of the other ideas developed along the way.

There are so many ideas in this book, far too many to cover them all here: some of them familiar to me from economics (carbon quantitative easing, Jevons’ Paradox, Modern Monetary Theory, Gini Coefficient – these each get a short chapter among many other ideas and interspersed with riddles) and others not so. The Indian techno fix is the first of many: some successful, like sucking out the meltwater under glaciers to slow them sliding into the ocean and others not so, like the billionaire wanting to refreeze the oceans. Russia dyes parts of the Arctic yellow to reflect more sunlight back. Huge areas of land are rewilded.

What strikes me most is that the arguments we tend to have here and now about which course to take (Freud’s phrase is quoted here in the book – “the narcissism of small differences”) seem largely moot in this one imagined near-future: all of them are tried there – it’s not techno-fixes or de-carbonisation of transport and heating, it’s both. It’s not carbon QE or re-wilding, it’s both. If something doesn’t work, it’s abandoned. By far the most important determinant of which of the IPCC future scenarios we end up on seems to be how quickly we start. Economists come in for particular ridicule there – whatever course of action is planned, they can find one group who thinks it will have one effect, one who think it will have the opposite effect and one which thinks it will make no difference at all. The difference is that the economists are no longer guiding policy there, but facilitating and post hoc rationalising it.

There is a wartime feel to the book throughout, with people doing what they feel needs to be done in desperate circumstances. The choices are all different levels of bad, but bad is almost incalculably better than worst. And the overall impression is of a world changing rapidly, with one of its herd animals belatedly getting into better balance with the others. Even at 560 odd pages the impressions are inevitably just that – one chapter is just a list of different organisations working on aspects of the climate emergency in different countries, described as about 1% of the total number active. It is like the shards of a smashed wing mirror picking out details from the vanishing world behind. I have never wanted to apply the word polymesmeric (which I first saw on the cover of Catch 22 by Joseph Heller) to a book as much as I have to this one.

The hoped-for outcome of all of this? In one conversation this is described as a “success made of failures” or a “cobbling-together from less-than-satisfactory parts”, which I think sums it up nicely.

And I definitely want to visit Zurich one day. Probably by airship.