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?

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 future of the anti-establishment, conservative right

Written by Pim Korsten
September 20, 2021

Last week, many high-profile supporters of Trump voiced their support for incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro at the world’s biggest conservative, anti-establishment right political event. Bolsonaro is preparing for re-election next year, but his ratings and support have been falling to all-time lows. In other countries, the far right seems to have been losing ground as well recently, such as in France and the UK, or stalling, as in Germany. With many important elections in major economies next year, like Germany, France, U.S. (mid-term elections), Brazil, India, Sweden, Australia, next year could become a crucial year for the far right.

Reasons for this might be the mishandling of far-right governments of the coronavirus crisis, as in Brazil, Russia and the U.S. A second reason could be the resurgence of the Big Left and Big Government in the wake of the pandemic, fueled by calls of the general public for more government intervention (e.g. on inequality) and government spending. Lastly, there could be a general shift in consensus on what the core issue is; from identity politics and culture wars to fighting climate change and creating more resilient societies in a sustainable sense.

Burning questions:

  • Unlike in Western European countries, support for the far right is rising in Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal. Could we see a resurgence of the far right in these countries that were unaffected by the recent far-right wave that started in 2015?
  • Can far-right parties build momentum in the run-up to next year’s elections, as they have often done by proving polls wrong (e.g. remember Trump’s election odds?)
  • In what sense has the far-right agenda been taken over by “mainstream parties”, e.g. has the center become more right-wing and has identity politics become more for the middle parties?

China’s CBDC-as-a-standard?

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
September 20, 2021

An August 2021 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) shows that China is far ahead of other countries in the development of a “central bank digital currency” (CBDC). Whereas most countries are still researching the possibility of a CBDC, China has been running different types of pilots since 2019. In effect, a CBDC, by eliminating the role of intermediary entities in the financial system, allows for more efficient financial transactions. Based on such efficiency, it is expected that China’s CBDC will boost the share of the yuan in the global financial system. Yet, turning the yuan into the global reserve currency is not China’s primary goal here.

Instead, China primarily seeks to protect its companies against American sanctions by building a financial infrastructure that parallels the US dollar system. The report highlights several reasons as to why China’s CBDC is likely to become a standard. China’s pilots are far ahead of other countries and its government is willing to boost adoption aggressively (e.g. discounts for consumers, incentives for trade). Also, China has already set standards for a new global financial infrastructure through “m-CBDC” (a cross-border payment project between China, Hong Kong, Thailand and the UAE), the Blockchain Service Network, and the inter-bank payment system of CIPS. Finally, China already has large international payment platforms which are accessible through government intervention (UnionPay, Alipay, WeChat Pay).

Burning questions:

  • What are the consequences of a Chinese parallel (to the U.S. dollar) financial system for trade and capital flows?
  • To what extent will the CBDC be able to boost the dominance of Chinese firms in other regions (e.g. Southeast Asia)?

What would a sufficiently sustainable ordinary life look like?

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
September 3, 2021

For many consumer practices it is difficult to imagine how we can make them sustainable. In some cases, such as flying, there’s simply no sustainable mode available, while in other cases the potential solutions require us to change our behavior radically (e.g. shopping without packaging material). Yet a clear and enticing perspective on what our new lives should look like when we do not live as if there are multiple worlds is lacking. Concepts such as minimalism or zero waste give some practical tips to reduce consumerism, but lack guidance regarding how we should organize our society when we would actually stop consuming non-essential products and services, and the profound impact this would have on financing our care system, infrastructure etc.

What is more, we lack perspective regarding how our society as a whole could give (new) substance to such a life. So called cli-fi (climate fiction) mostly paints an apocalyptic picture of a world tormented by one climate disaster after another, abandoning a successful response altogether. Finally, tech companies that are working on solutions frequently offer nothing more than pictures of high-tech worlds with many plants, remaining silent about the problems that technology cannot solve. Add to this the continuation of the encouragement of consumerism and we are left in the dark about how to build a new way of living that is both compelling and realistic.

Burning questions:

  • In the past, some have tried to organize society in a way in which consumerism had no place, for example communism (society) or the Franciscans (monks that aimed to live in accordance with the life of Christ). Those models did not last, will we be able to imagine one that will?
  • What new expectations, values and life purposes could form the new building blocks of a worldview that will support different consumer practices in a fulfilling manner, and will we be able to adopt them in time?
  • Are there other, and more just, means of changing our behavior, than steep taxes on polluting products?

Climate litigation and civil society

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
September 3, 2021

Over the past years, there has been a “rights turn” in climate litigation. Previously, most cases focused primarily on the violation of specific laws, when the court has to decide, for example, if a company is responsible for environmental damage in a specific region. Currently, a growing percentage of climate litigation employs right claims in lawsuits, with the Urgenda case as both a landmark case and turning point in climate litigation. Climate litigation has become climate change litigation. Governments worldwide are now being sued over global warming and their insufficient action to protect citizens.

In the wake of the IPCC report, climate litigation bears some clear advantages over traditional consensus-based legislation in democracies for citizens to speed up climate action. In addition, even if climate cases have an unfavorable outcome, there may be positive indirect effects such as lower stock prices of grey companies and growing public awareness. This “strategic” litigation is on the rise and could be a core feature of planetary citizenship in the next decade, favored over mass demonstration (e.g. “the case of the century” was signed by 2.3 million French citizens). However, because climate litigation cases entail human rights, defensive counter-cases are also a growing phenomenon, as this report shows. This “anti climate litigation” is a logical consequence of the polarized debate and could undermine climate action. If climate laws harm some people more than others, such as farmers or construction workers, then climate litigation could lead to an arms race of cases and put heavy pressure on the already struggling Western parliaments. Sidelining the parliamentary democracy is never without risks.

Burning questions:

  • What are the positive indirect effects of climate litigation?
  • How can parliamentary democracies prevent their being flooded with climate litigation cases in the future?
  • Is it time to grant basic rights to glaciers and other natural phenomena that are under existential threat?