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The sour aftertaste of the Glasgow COP26

Written by Vivian Elion
December 10, 2021

At the COP26 conference, 196 countries finally came together to discuss the “last chance to get runaway climate change under control”. Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom called these major international problems common-pool resource issues. Most of our economic growth and welfare gains, in the global North, stems from the exploitation of common resources such as fossil fuels and fish stocks. By now, we have reached the limits of those resources and it is time for change. Yet, the question is: who is most responsible for the problem and should take the lead in fixing it?

Ostrom argued wealthy nations should not try to command climate action from afar and in a top-down way, but include the local ecosystems, culture and decentral institutional environments of the people who depend on these ecosystems for their livelihood. However, this was not the guiding principle during the Glasgow conference, where developing countries such as India and China were urged to meet the same 2050 targets as developed economies (even if those countries have not been able to keep their promise of 12 years ago). Instead of asking who depleted the earth’s resources in the first place, it treats climate change as an equally distributed problem; everyone must take action with the same speed and resource availability. However, this approach does not take into consideration the fact that some countries were always last in line to access common resources and, as a result, are much further behind in terms of socio-economic development. India’s reluctance to end its use of coal, tells us a lot about our own role in supporting India and other developing nations. Instead of viewing climate change as solely an ecological problem, we have to accept it is also a distributive conflict and, hence, that we have a duty to support and guide those countries in their efforts.

Burning questions:

  • How do we deal with countries of low socio-economic status in the climate action plans?
  • What is the fiduciary aduty of Western countries in dealing with the distributive conflict of climate change?

The developing intrinsic value of nature

Written by Pim Korsten
December 10, 2021

A review of scientific literature recently concluded that there is strong evidence that invertebrates, such as octopuses, are capable of having sentient experiences and conscious impressions. The review defines sentience as having “the capacity to have feelings, such as feelings of pain, pleasure, hunger, thirst, warmth, joy, comfort and excitement.” Indeed, several countries have banned various ways of treating animals that cause them harm or unpleasant sensations. This goes to show that the concept of consciousness and welfare is expanding beyond the purely human scale and range of experience, adding to a post-humanist philosophical discourse.

People increasingly believe in the intrinsic value of animals and nature. Besides animal welfare, this will have ramifications for our broader socio-technical systems. In the process of modernization, we developed a largely instrumental view of nature as well as humans, leading to the exploitation of human labor as well as nature as a resource used for man’s activities. These new findings and the resulting ideas mean that nature and animals can no longer be used as instrumental input into our systems of production and consumption. Ethical alternatives are bound to add costs in an economic sense, but, in a cultural sense, will also lead to a richer living world.

Burning questions:

  • How do we determine the intrinsic value of non-human entities (e.g. animals or even robots)?
  • What is the role of media (e.g. the popular series My Octopus Teacher, Fantastic Fungi) and other institutions in this shifting view?
  • What other exponents of this shifting view will we be seeing (e.g. liability for AI/computers, legal value for other natural phenomena)?

Feel-good philanthropy

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
November 15, 2021

Philanthropy, private initiatives of the wealthy that support causes for the public good, has been a subject of criticism for years. The main points so far have been the following. First, the influence exerted on public affairs by those with large amounts of money is undemocratic, often depending on the personal whims of super-rich individuals. Furthermore, philanthropy can result in tax benefits, leading to constructions that are ultimately primarily intended to allocate money smartly, instead of helping good causes. What is more, some claim that the wealthy get rich at the expense of others and then take undeserved credit as patrons.

Recently, yet another issue was added to this list, resulting from a movement called “effective altruism” that was founded two decades ago by Australian ethicist Peter Singer, professor at Princeton University. In his work he reviews donations based on their effectiveness and by comparing them to other donations. This has given rise to organizations such as GiveWell or The Life You Can Save, which make it possible to evaluate how to donate most effectively. More and more private initiatives can therefore be criticized for indulging in so-called feel-good philanthropy, donating to causes without being able to explain why this particular cause is chosen over others and lacking proof that the money is even well-spent, leaving only one reason to donate: feeling good.

Burning questions:

  • Will effective altruism affect public opinion and direct funding to grand societal challenges such as famine, climate change or poverty, at the expense of “second-class problems” such as stray dogs or cultural poverty?
  • Will philanthropists still be motivated to give away large amounts of money if they can no longer select their preferred causes freely?

Stimulating sustainable consumer practices

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
November 15, 2021

Most Dutch people are worried about climate change and demand political action, but many lack the trust in our political leadership to tackle this problem. At the same time, people are rarely willing to make radical changes in their own behavior or make large investments (e.g. reducing food waste, switching to electric driving), with lack of knowledge and oversight being the main reasons for our failure to develop sustainable lifestyles. These findings, as well as the general decline of trust we wrote about recently, give little cause for optimism about the fight against climate change.

Yet, we can also use these findings to identify some necessary steps to be taken. For one, they imply that communicating ideas and practical tools for leading a sustainable life are paramount to increase awareness and stimulate greener consumer practices. These will have to speak to younger generations especially, as they are overwhelmingly more in favor of radical climate action than older generations. Lastly, it shows that there is an important role to be played by governments in showing actual leadership, for instance through investments in green and sustainable infrastructure (e.g. investing in clean public transport or smart grids), which would also boost public trust.

Burning questions:

  • Is there a paradox in citizens having little trust in governments while still demanding large-scale investments and action?
  • Can large-scale investments in green infrastructure be financed with rising inflation and probably rising interest rates?
  • Which infrastructure projects have the highest multipliers and spill-over effects in terms of sustainable consumer practices?

Will the metaverse be a “pornoverse”?

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
October 28, 2021

Over the past few years, we have written extensively about the potential of the metaverse as a place where meaningful social activities take place. For many tech players and commentators, it is the next big thing and something they long for one way or another. Yet, one topic remains underexposed amid all the buzz around the metaverse: porn.

Porn is worth studying as it has always been closely linked with technological innovation and the porn sector has often been an early adopter (some even argue it has been an important driver of innovation). Especially the analogy with the early days of the internet is worth keeping in mind when imagining the metaverse. Comparable to the internet in the 90s, the metaverse is often idealized as an interactive medium, where users participate in collective practices such as visiting a virtual exposition or festival. However, instead of this radically creative and democratic “information superhighway”, most of the internet has become a giant passive streaming and swiping entertainment universe, with porn accounting for a significant portion of daily internet traffic and Google searches. Does the metaverse await the same fate? Interface improvements such as haptic suits and virtual glasses will only amplify the attractiveness of porn in these immersive worlds. And Gen Z, sometimes labeled the “puriteen” generation, is developing a complex relationship with intimacy in our digital society. If these underlying economic and cultural trends do not change, we should not be surprised if the (early phase of the) metaverse turns out as a virtual Red Light District.

Burning questions:

  • We worry about bitcoin consuming too much electricity, but what about all the streaming of video and pornographic content?
  • How is the proliferation of digital media and virtual practices shaping the sexual relationships of younger generations?

The greening of green financial products

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
October 28, 2021

Greenwashing is of growing concern in the realm of sustainable investments. About half of all funds promising to be climate friendly, do not align with the Paris agreement. Most of these funds are based on relatively weak data and poorly defined environmental, societal and governance (ESG) factors. This, for instance, allows many traditional energy companies or tobacco firms to be included in ESG funds of for example BlackRock and UBS. It is no wonder that many call for clear standards and more stringent enforcement of regulation. In response, the EU is working on well-defined concepts and developing standards for benchmarking and reporting on the societal impact of a fund and/or company..

Yet, there is also a risk that strict regulation steers sustainable investments towards products with relatively easy-to-quantify outcomes. This will likely result in a strong focus on companies and incremental solutions that bring about a measurable, yet fundamentally limited, improvement over the status quo. More radical and transformative solutions, which are eventually necessary to develop a fully sustainable economy, may be left behind because they lack clearly defined metrics or because the companies supplying them are less equipped to produce the kind of data regulators and customers are looking for.

Burning questions:

  • To what extent does strict regulation indeed reproduce the path dependency of the current economic system?
  • Can initiatives that boost more fundamental transitions be regulated? If so, how?
  • Sustainability is a multi-dimensional challenge and few companies will (or can) perform well on all dimensions. Can investment regulations ever do justice to the complexity of such assessments?

What to think of the Corona Pass?

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
October 18, 2021

Several European countries have introduced a health pass with which people can prove they are vaccinated, tested negative or have recovered from Covid. While the majority of people regard this as a necessary and temporary means to re-open society, others believe this is an example of wicked biopolitics and a clear violation of our basic rights.

What is really going here? Checks on age, criminal record or creditworthiness are commonplace in specific contexts to gain access to places, services, or goods. The corona pass is much more controversial, because it stretches the boundaries of governmental intervention towards our bodies; our body has to meet certain conditions (i.e. tested, cured or vaccinated) to gain access to (semi-)public spaces.

In light of the coronavirus crisis and our longing for ‘freedom’, this (temporary) biopolitical tool may be understandable and acceptable. Yet, the crucial question, from our perspective, is whether we are on a slippery slope towards more, and more casual, uses of such tools. Digital technology would certainly allow for these (automated) checks and the question really seems to be whether a next crisis, health- or otherwise, would warrant such ‘solutions’. Indeed, as a society we could very well conclude that these kinds of tools are once again a necessary evil to fight those crises as well.

Burning questions:

  • What constitutes a slippery slope when it comes to uses of technology and how could we make sure this remains a singular event rather than the start of a pattern?
  • If we were to limit individual freedom in a similar fashion in the future, is it primarily because of technological change and the possibilities this offers, or rather because of broader societal and cultural changes?

AUKUS and the return of geopolitics

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
October 18, 2021

In his seminal 1990 paper From Geopolitics to Geo-Economics, Edward Luttwak described a global shift triggered by the end of the Cold War: international relations would no longer be dictated by instruments of military power, but by instruments of economic power. We have written before about several of such geo-economic phenomena, such as technical standards, German power and the G7 tax deal.

However, in recent years, geopolitics seems to be making a comeback. Examples include Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 as well as territorial disputes in East Asia. Most recently, AUKUS, the military agreement between the U.S., UK and Australia, has shown that the U.S., still the undisputed global hegemon, is returning to geopolitical instruments of power. Indeed, a shift back from geo-economics to geopolitics fits the return of hegemonic conflict, a process that will take decades. In the coming years, the return of geopolitics will be felt increasingly in sensitive areas like East Asia, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

Burning questions:

  • How will geopolitics and geo-economics co-exist in the coming years?
  • What are some extreme scenarios in the intensifying conflicts of geo-economics, in particular in the conflict between the U.S. and China?

How a decline in trust can be a driver for new political leadership

Written by Vivian Elion
October 18, 2021

The latest Edelman Trust barometer shows that global trust in governments has declined, from 61% in May 2020 to 56% in January 2021. These findings suggest that the trust bubble that was built up during the coronavirus crisis has burst. A similar dynamic is visible in the Netherlands: research institute Ipsos found that six out of ten respondents have no trust in the government, up from four out of ten last year. The reasons for this decline in trust include health policy, the housing market and the struggle to form a new government.

Especially the last issue weighs heavily. Six out of ten respondents have lost faith in the demissionary cabinet, even though it looks like this exact cabinet will continue as Rutte IV in the coming four years. An NRC article rightfully points out: how can we expect the same people who caused the problem in the first place, to fix issues like the social benefits scandal in the future? Results of the Ipsos report hint at a possible answer to this question. Pieter Omtzigt, the former CDA politician who fought for justice for and transparency towards the victims, received the highest appreciation score from the respondents. It might be time for Rutte IV to step away from its pragmatic, utilitarian style of leadership and develop more of an ideals-based government with an explicit mission to take on challenges such as the lack of governmental transparency and societal inequality.

Burning questions:

  • Why did voters re-elect the same parties if trust in exactly these parties has decreased?
  • Who are the main agents of change in an ecosystem of declining trust: politics, civil society, business or citizens?
  • Will polarization and a decline in trust drive further radicalization of both the far left and right? If so, how?

The traffic light turns green for German digitalization

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
September 30, 2021

Following Sunday’s elections, the greens and liberals are seen as kingmakers for the coming German government. Together they can decide whether to support a traffic light coalition with the Social Democrats, or a ‘Jamaica’ coalition with the Christian Democrats. While these two parties have many differences between them, e.g. on public spending, tax cuts and climate change, they do seem to agree on the need for Germany to catch up in terms of digitalization.

Germany is lagging behind the rest of Europe in terms of broadband connections, the use of digital services and digitalization of its industry and government. Fixing this situation, through public investments and more favorable regulations, should a be top priority for the new government. The greens and liberals could use such a plan to divert some attention away from issues that are politically more sensitive.

As citizens are still weary of information technology in general and e-government especially, cultural change should also be part of the ambition. From that perspective, it would be promising for the digital future of Germany if the deeply conservative CDU is left out of the coalition.

Burning questions:

  • How would a traffic light coalition go about public investments in the digital infrastructure, given the FDP’s fiscal conservatism?
  • Can and will sustainability be part of Germany’s digital agenda in terms of energy use of data centers, or the use of data and intelligence for sustainable solutions?
  • How can the government overcome Germany’s distrust in information technology?