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?

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?

A new narrative on climate change

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
September 3, 2021

The recent IPCC report marks the definitive rhetorical shift from preventing climate change to limiting climate change. While it was widely known that climate change was taking place already, the common narrative was nevertheless that sufficient climate action could still limit global warming to acceptable levels. The new narrative instead tells us that climate change will be disastrous, no matter what we do, but that we still can, and should, prevent matters from getting even worse.

Looking back, we have to acknowledge that the mere threat of climate change was not sufficient to persuade us to take necessary measures. Looking ahead, we can only hope that being confronted with visible and undeniable climate change in the coming years, in the form of droughts, floods and wildfires, will finally result in the institutional and behavioral change that is needed to limit further harm. Most of all, such experiences could lead to concrete and direct action, instead of the long-term goals that have defined climate agreements thus far.

Burning questions:

  • Given the new narrative, can we avoid a sense of climate fatalism that would shift our focus towards (local) forms of climate adaption?
  • How can a so-called “just transition” prevent climate mitigation measures from hurting the poor the most?

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?

Hegemonic shift makes the European Super League inevitable

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
May 12, 2021

The European Super League was supposed to result in multiple blockbuster matches every week. Yet, the plan was met with lots of anger by European football (soccer) fans and officials. Within two days, most of the founders withdrew their support.

European fans felt that more than a century of football history and culture was about to be swept aside in favor of mere commercial interests. However, as part of the ongoing hegemonic shift of global (economic) power from the West to the East, non-European viewers will come to dominate global football viewership. Hence, their preferences are bound to determine the future of European club football. While European viewers may still be interested in their local team and national leagues, international (e.g. Asian and American) viewers seem to only be interested in games between the biggest clubs and the very best players. As such, it is hard to imagine how European football will be able to withstand these tectonic forces in the future.

Burning questions:

  • Regardless of the commercial rationale behind these plans, could a well-designed pan-European football league perhaps contribute to a sense of European unity?

Are we sharing enough data?

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
October 22, 2020

The world is rapidly digitalizing, and the deployment of data offers many opportunities for economic development, achieving sustainability and a better quality of life. There are, however, considerable concerns about the misuse of (personal) data and undesirable outcomes of unbridled use of data. These concerns are legitimate, but we’re also running the risk of becoming too defensive when it comes to data, missing out on big opportunities and, more importantly, our selective opposition to data sharing may have undesirable effects.

Our observations

  • The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has, according to an evaluation by the European Commission, worked well when it comes to “empowering” consumers and giving them more insight into and control over the use of their personal data. At the same time, this regulation is expressly targeted at minimizing risks, and with that could lead to an all too defensive attitude on the part of governments and citizens that could, for instance, stand in the way of innovation.
  • The so-called privacy paradox plays a large role in this. We consider privacy to be highly important but time and again show willingness to exchange data for access to information or services. This applies most when the reward we receive is immediate and beneficial to us as individuals. It’s therefore likely that a more defensive attitude towards data sharing will lead to lower willingness to share data for collective purposes (e.g. relating to public health).
  • The recently launched Dutch coronavirus app was long-awaited, partly because of a painstaking approach to the privacy risks. The chosen solution, as developed by Apple and Google, minimizes the storing of privacy-sensitive data, but also limits the possibilities for researchers and policymakers to ascertain matters such as where contaminations took place (when location data is lacking). Ironically, some governments therefore actually asked for less protection of privacy than the tech parties were willing to offer.
  • When only or mostly contextual data is used, the risk of bias increases, along with the risk of undesirable consequences such as discrimination and the reinforcement of socio-economic inequality. This happens, for example, when predictive policing leads to higher deployment of police services in neighborhoods with above average crime rates, which then almost unavoidably leads to higher rates of reported crime. Another example is that theft insurance costs more in neighborhoods or cities with a bad (statistical) reputation, even when the individual takes all the necessary precautions to secure their belongings.

Connecting the dots

Like the great technologies of our past, digital technology enables us to increase our wealth and, more importantly, actually improve our well-being. On the one hand, technology can have direct financial benefits, such as cheaper services or more efficient use of energy and resources. On the other hand, and perhaps more crucially, technology enables us to improve our quality of life by facilitating matters such as better healthcare or a cleaner living environment. Opportunities are arising in our own daily lives as citizens and consumers, as well as in the public space, where we can organize matters more intelligently, better, more honestly and in a cleaner way. Data is the most vital resource in this, as data and the knowledge and insights it yields can help us to make existing processes more efficient or otherwise smarter and better. Along with all these promising prospects the datafied society offers, the other side of the coin is that there are great concerns over the use of (personal) data and the possible violation of our right to privacy and, worse, our civil rights. The societal and political knee-jerk reaction to this is to limit data sharing as much as possible in hopes of eliminating as many risks as possible. It’s questionable, however, whether this is the right and most productive approach.

First, this is causing us to miss out on great opportunities, for individuals and society as a whole. This can never be a valid argument for releasing all possible data to solve any problem that needs fixing. We have to be more fastidious about this issue and ask ourselves to what purposes we’re willing to allow the use of our data. At the moment, there seems to be an imbalance, in that we are willing to offer up our data to various (relatively anonymous) tech companies without asking any questions or setting conditions. Though this yields clear “rewards”, these rewards are often not related to the data we release or generate. In fact, we often don’t even know what they (can) do with our data, outside of personalizing the ads we see. We’re much more cautious with parties closer to us (such as the government or health insurers) and with applications in which the purpose of using our data is clear, visible and more concrete (such as the coronavirus app). In other words, the clearer and more concrete the value of our data is, the more reluctant we are to release it. That might make sense, because it’s easier for use to imagine our data being misused (e.g. resulting in higher health insurance premiums), but it should also be clear how this, most valuable, data could work to our own or collective advantage.

Second, we’re running the risk that, in the absence of reliable and/or individual data, inaccurate, incomplete or contextual data will be used, potentially resulting in disadvantageous decisions. That is, the role of data will certainly expand because of the promise it holds and the ubiquitous tendency to ascribe importance to anything that’s measurable. Conversely, we also have the tendency to reduce “problems” to what is easily scaled and solved by means of (digital) technology (which Evgeni Morozov calls solutionism). This implies that it’s clearly in our best interest to make sure that data about ourselves is in fact complete and accurate. If it’s not, we will be subject to judgment and treatment based on non-specific data that’s publicly accessible (e.g. features of the neighborhood we live in).

As mentioned, the promise of the datafied society is now at odds with concerns over the use of personal data. The only possible way to reconcile these two will be to develop systems that enable citizens to explicitly release data to parties that will use it for something of value, without relinquishing all control of their data. It’s also imperative that it becomes much clearer what these parties use the data for exactly and how this benefits the citizen or society as a whole. Many initiatives have already attempted to develop this kind of system and fix the internet, but there hasn’t been any real breakthrough as of yet. Hopefully, our (selectively) defensive attitude towards data sharing will eventually make way for a more wholehearted embrace of these systems that enable us to get the best out of our data.

Implications

  • There is a growing need for data management systems with which citizens can govern the use of their personal data and the data they produce through their everyday practices. Governing should not necessarily imply a strong focus on privacy or not-sharing of data. Individuals and society as a whole have a lot to gain from sharing data with others and allowing third parties to cooperate on the basis of such (possibly anonymized or aggregated data)

  • Developing and managing such a system is not necessarily a task for private companies or governments; there are good reasons not to trust either of them to the full. Both may be involved to maintain a balance between interests, but solutions fully owned by users (e.g. using a decentralized infrastructure) may also emerge.

Human death as a boost for the use of ecological materials

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
October 7, 2020

This autumn, the first human was buried in a coffin made of mycelium, the root network of mushrooms and nature’s biggest recycler. It ensures a highly efficient transformation of remains into nutrients for the soil. The product ties in with a larger trend of using alternative materials that, contrary to stone, steel, wood, polymers or glass, are more compatible with the ecological processes of nature and/or are produced in an environmentally friendly way. The product has met with worldwide interest and could boost the reception of this controversial material. In some cases, it could even stimulate new uses and rituals.

Our observations

  • We’ve written before that global problems such as climate change, the depletion of natural resources and waste call for sustainable, circular and adaptive solutions. Studies on organisms such as bacteria and fungi show that nature has a very efficient way to produce its basic elements such as lipids, protein and complex chemicals with minimal waste. Progress in areas such as biotechnology, bioinformatics and synthetic biology is making it increasingly easy to use these insights for our own production methods.
  • In the West, the interest in the workings and possibilities of fungi is relatively new. According to biologist Merlin Sheldrake, there are two reasons for this. First, technologies for scientists to fully research the world of fungi have only recently become available. Second, historically, there has been a deeply-rooted prejudice against fungi, which mainly invoke fear and disgust in us. For example, fungi were only recognized as a separate kingdom of life in the ‘60s. Before that, scientists studying fungi were classed as botanists, rather than as mycologists (fungus scientists).
  • Fungi now appear to play a more important role in the carbon cycle than was previously assumed. Studies show that when plants cooperate with certain types of fungus, they can store up to 70% more carbon in the ground, which contains more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined.
  • Scientists are using mycelium more and more often to make all kinds of products, from packaging to plant-based meat, and even frames to grow new organs in. It also has great potential in construction, as an alternative building material that is both practical and benefits the climate. At last year’s Dutch Design Week, a building made of mycelium was displayed.
  • The ecological footprint of conventional funerals and cremations is substantial. In the U.S., cremations account for about 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. In India, emissions are much higher, and millions of trees are cut down each year to cremate the dead. The use of wood for coffins in the U.S. accounts for about 4 million hectares of forest per year, not to mention all the steel, plastic and toxic materials used to produce the coffins that end up in the ground. Moreover, a coffin delays the decomposition process, causing the body to produce toxins that also seep into the ground.

Connecting the dots

Mycelium feeds through hyphae, fungal threads, on the organic remains of trees, plants and dead animals. It can also neutralize the toxins that are released in the decomposition process. It’s the fundamental link in the process of turning (organic) waste into nutrients for nature. The advantages regarding the sustainability of a mycelium coffin as opposed to a traditional stone or wood coffin, are considerable. It stimulates the decomposition of the body as well as the conversion into nutrients for the environment, and the process can be complete after only one year. By comparison, a wood coffin in fact delays the decomposition process (on average, it takes ten years), causing the body to produce toxins which eventually end up in the ground.
Furthermore, no glue, lacquer, paint, metal or plastic is used in the production of a mycelium coffin, also sparing the soil some toxic pollutants. In addition, a chipboard or wooden coffin on average needs a year to decompose and a mycelium coffin is absorbed into the soil after 30 to 45 days. Finally, mycelium can be produced very sustainably and locally, using organic waste and without carbon being released. In that sense, this product ties in perfectly with the trend of environmentally conscious products such as meat substitutes, sustainable materials in fashion such as bamboo or hennep and energy-saving systems. The mycelium coffin was thus developed from a practical perspective on the ecological footprint of our final resting place.

There are, however, long-standing traditions surrounding the process after we die. Jews, for instance, bury their loved ones in a raw pinewood coffin, Muslims bury the dead on their right side, wrapped in a white cloth and without a coffin, Hindus often opt for cremation as it is the fastest way to return to “the source”. Additionally, in many cultures, it’s customary to give the deceased various objects and to create some type of permanent memorial. In secular funerals, many of these customs have remained. With this alternative option for burial, dominant values around sustainability gain prominence in this domain, and it brings its own, new uses and rituals. For example, it’s possible to give the deceased seeds so that the body can provide nutrients for the new life that will issue from the seeds. The use of a tombstone or other permanent memorials does not appear to be consistent with this new form of burial, which is meant to correspond to the biological processes of nature as well as possible.

The idea of life after death thus maintains a place in our secular worldview, albeit in a very singular way. With this, we’re breaking with old values of, for example, Christianity or certain Chinese practices and rituals in this context. In these practices and rituals, it’s of the utmost importance that the soul of the deceased is treated a certain way after their death, in view of the afterlife. At first sight, this new type of burial doesn’t appear to be consistent with these principles, and it seems to mostly be in concordance with the secular values of sustainability.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, globally, the religious population is growing. And yet, the alternative of the mycelium coffin has been met with worldwide interest, including in non-Western countries such as Thailand and India. It’s not the first time religious people have shown the willingness to make concessions to sustainability when it comes to burial rites. Certain communities in India, for instance, have accepted a non-traditional but sustainable manner of cremation that requires only a fourth of the wood required in traditional cremations. Generally, modern values have often been known to affect religious customs.

Implications

  • In the U.S., among other countries, cremation is now more often elected than burial, mainly out of the desire to be environmentally friendly. If the mycelium coffin turns out to be a significantly better alternative to traditional burial than cremation in that respect, people might revert back to burials. However, traditional burial grounds don’t have sufficient room to accommodate a large increase in burials. But because this form of burial purports to benefit the soil, regulations on which locations may be used as burial grounds might be adjusted. Governments’ desire to plant more trees could, for example, play a role in this. In this way, new values could emerge with respect to the final resting place of our loved ones.

  • The mycelium coffin is the first applications of living mycelium that could be relevant to everyone. After all, every person dies sooner or later, and this is one of the first scalable, sustainable and affordable alternatives to traditional burial or cremation. This product could therefore have an important impact on our acquaintance with and subsequent acceptance of mycelium as a usable material in our living environment.

The outdoor economy

Written by Sjoerd Bakker, september 25 2020

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we’re moving many activities out of doors. This goes for food and drink, of course, but is also exemplified by the vogue for outdoor sports, the revival of the drive-in cinema and the growing popularity of cycling and walking. For now, this is a temporary effect of the pandemic, but part of the rediscovered “outdoor economy” will remain in the coming years. This is partly because some will feel lasting fear of the coronavirus and other viruses that dwell indoors, but also because we’re learning to revalue the fresh outside air and are unlikely to relapse into our old indoor practices.

The outdoor economy is strongly dependent on (extreme) weather conditions and this is part of the reason why accurate weather forecasts are rising in value for consumers, governments and business. In the long term, this movement may also give shape to new (and at the same time traditional) architecture, in which the sharp distinction between inside and outside will dissolve and the public space will once again be organized with a (weather-proof) life outdoors in mind.