The weather report

Even the weather man doesn’t know what to expect anymore. Some weather forecasts are predicting temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius for the coming week, but nobody knows for sure anymore what’s coming. It could happen…or it could just as easily not happen at all. The amount of times that the weather keeps even the weather men guessing keeps increasing, so how should we know?

Perhaps the high temperatures will knock some sense into our politicians, and get them to take real action for once. Because the one advantage of the weather is that everyone has something to say about it, while climate change continues to be a rather abstract subject for most. So connecting the two seems to make sense. But that doesn’t mean we can compare the parched roses in your backyard with the climate disasters that are taking place right now in other parts of the world. We can’t compare it to floods in Bangladesh and Japan, or the devastating drought in Ecuador, the desertification in all continents and the rising sea levels at the Pacific islands.

Climate agreement objectives for CO2 reduction cost too much and are not efficient enough. We have to move toward a society that uses and removes CO2, rather than one that gradually emits less of it. We cannot hesitate to target air travel and transport either, some of the biggest polluters, or sea transport, another big sinner. And slap a substantial tax on intensive livestock farming and meat sales. Now that would be progress.

Of course, nothing wrong with enjoying the nice weather and a beautiful summer. No reason to migrate South for the holidays, where a permanent heatwave and droughts are predictable for even the biggest amateur.

The well-oiled machine that is Shell

Shell is a great example of an extremely clever, well-organized company with an incredible PR department. Before you start calling me a neo-liberal; I am not necessarily against government intervention. In fact, I wish there was a government strong enough to dissolve Shell or at least put it under administration.

In the 1980s, along with Derk Sauer, I already unveiled how Shell and Esso profited from several shady constructions they set up that allowed them to sell natural gas to themselves at far below market value. That disclosure cost them billions at the time. We showed how Shell and 6 other multinational sister companies faked an-oil crisis, and I made a film in which I showed how Shell stopped key innovations in the solar panels industry in the 80’s. In the years that followed, the scandals just kept piling up (Brent Spar, Nigeria). Shell was looking for and found the right way to deal with this kind of negative publicity. The scoops barely made a dent in Shell’s image, thanks to its fantastic PR machine.

Whenever Shell has to pay for the mistakes it made, it usually finds a way to earn that money back some other way. Be it via higher prices or margins, the profits do not suffer. Scarcity of resources? No problem. The lower the supply, the higher the price and the profit. Taxes? Not for Shell. They have made profitable tax exemption deals in several countries. On conferences and meetings about sustainability, Shell talks and talks about how the company will create renewable energy in the future. But that future seems to be starting only after all the oil and gas have run out.

A perfect business model, right?

On Monday, I wrote about how not politics but the global economic system will determine our future. When it comes to the change that is necessary in order to secure our future for the generations to come, it is logical to look at those places in society that do really work on securing that change. It is wrong (and old-fashioned left) to judge all businesses by one standard, while so much is happening there in the area of preservation, circular production and innovative change. Look at the B Corporations, a club of companies that are writing a new moral code. Look at the many inspiring entrepreneurs who believe that a clean, caring and secure future trumps profit. Then even the most dark conspiracy thinker can’t help but smile a little.

The division of the world

The world seems tobe dividing itself ever further. This past weekend, over 100,000 Britons marched against Brexit in London. And Erdogan may have won the elections in Turkey, but his party is no longer the biggest in the Turkish Parliament, and even the Kurds made it over the electoral threshold. Meanwhile in the US, mid-term elections in New Jersey and Virginia seem to herald the end of the Trump-era already. There is no longer a political left or right, it seems to me that the world is dividing itself in nationalistic populists on the one hand, and modern cititzens of the world on the other. People who think they can protect their bank accounts and their safety by electing demagogues such as Erdogan, Trump and Farage, and people that recognize that the only solution for a better world is to slowly let borders fade away and give world politics a chance.

Of course, the main advantage that the demagogues have is that journalism is fighting a losing battle against the widespread fake news. Take the Brexit; advocates like Farage claimed until a day after the referendum that leaving the EU would earn Great Britain 350 million pound a week, while careful calculations done by the Financial Times in January showed that it has actually cost 469 million pound per week. Erdogan gained immensely from the coup against him, for which he blamed the seemingly harmless elderly and exiled Gülen. More and more people now believe he actually planned the coup himself. And Trump, the uncrowned king of fake news, taking real news facts and proclaiming them to be fake news, while sending fake news into the world himself. It is these methods that earned him the electoral victory over Clinton.

Good thing there is no longer a left or right, good thing that in the world of politics, it no longer makes any real difference if the populists or the globalists are in power. Whatever does or does not happen in the world is determined by the economy. Even though money has always ruled the world, this is just becoming clearer and clearer now that the division in the electorate is leaving politicians more and more powerless. So where does the power lie? Not necessarily in business, the era in which global behemoth companies and entrepreneurial families ruled the world has also come and gone. The global economic system is so strong that, by and large, it determines our future as a natural instrument.

It determines whether or not Great Britain can really leave Europe, in the same way it decides when Turkey may join it. And it will decide what our future will look like. Just like large companies in the US and Europe will continue to make their businesses more sustainable, prevent London from a hard Brexit and will eventually free Turkey from its dictator.

 

 

 

An end to fossil fuels and pesticides

Good news. While the vast majority of farmers still work with pesticides and other chemicals, it seems that many of them would prefer to work in a more environmentally friendly way. During a recent research, most farmers questioned said that using less intensive agriculture and livestock farming and fewer pesticides was high on their wish list. They see first hand how these practices deplete their soil and poison their ground, but the vast amount of debt they are often in makes it hard for them to actually make a change and turn to organic farming. The risks this would entail make it a daunting prospect for most. So perhaps the government can lend them a hand? After all, politicians talk about reforms all the time.  Is now the time they will finally step up? Several countries in the EU are taking action on climate change. The European Parliament passed a series of resolutions designed to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement.

By 2030, the biggest polluting sectors of agriculture, transport and waste collection should have decreased their emissions by 30% compared to 2005, but several countries are adapting laws that go further than that. Agreements that would eventually ban the use of nuclear energy, coal, oil or gas. Politicians with a vision; now there’s a reason to celebrate.

A skeptic might point out that fossil fuels will be depleted by that time anyway, and that passing such laws is therefore no more than a necessity. That same skeptic could also say that farmers know that their depleted land will yield less and less anyway. And that consumers no longer want their poisoned products. But that is what is happening in the world economy. The law of supply and demand. Only when fossil fuels are gone or become too expensive, it becomes viable to replace them with clean sources such as wind, solar and geothermal energy. Only when the chemical weapons on land (pesticides and fertilizer) are no longer effective, we will rely again on the power of nature.

Is that bad? No, the key question is whether we still have the time. Rather than burning it, you can do other things with oil that are more durable, so it is stupid to use it all up. And to continue emitting CO2  for years to come is also absurd in a world where we are already covering glaciers with blankets to slow down their melting (Rhone glacier in Switzerland). Just as absurd as continuing to poison ourselves and our children with vegetables and meat that is riddled with antibiotics. It is time for radical changes, not only in agriculture and politics, but also in our own lives.

Taking the right turn

Yesterday, I stood in front of a classroom full of young people and talked to them about a festival that my organisation Dif will organise in Rotterdam in 2020. I asked the around 50 students in attendance: “Who has heard of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030?” One of them raised a shy finger, a bit scared in case I would question him about it.

The SDG’s 2030 (I call them Global Goals) are the goals that the UN has drawn up for a more sustainable world. The manifesto was signed by 195 world leaders in 2015 as the successor of the Millennium Goals. 17 main goals and 168 sub-goals that describe the world as it should be in 2030: A world without hunger and with peace. Without discrimination of race or faith and for equality. A world with a roof over everyone’s head, three meals a day and accessible and affordable health care. A world with a circular economy in which we no longer burn everything, but re-use it all. In which nobody falls below the poverty line anymore.

You cannot blame those kids in class for not knowing about the SDG’s, because not a dime was spent on advertising campaigns to the public after the ink of the signatures dried up. The ministry of Foreign Affairs put a few people to work on promoting the Goals, but they might soon have to pack up their boxes due to budget cuts.

So, is knowing how to save the world really that unimportant?

Certainly not. The T-junction we are hurtling towards comes ever closer. We can choose to go the right or the wrong way, but straight ahead is no longer an option. The resources that are running out, the climate that is changing and the billions of people who also want a piece of the prosperity make sure of that.

I firmly believe in turning the right way. And the Global Goals are a perfect roadmap for that. Mankind is resilient, smart and essentially benign, even when we are trapped in a corner, as we soon will be. Of the triangle formed by the government, citizens and businesses, the latter category is working the hardest. A PWC survey among 470 companies shows that 62% is working on incorporating one or more of these global goals in their company policy. 37% of these even see this as a priority. So much is happening in the business world when it comes to the Goals.

Too bad that in such an important mission, the government is lagging behind.

 

City of refugees

Anyone who is under the impression that the recent remarks from the Spanish government are just talk, is wrong.

Strolling along the beach in Barcelona, I came across a remarkable text, engraved in a marble column. It stated that the Mediterranean, once a meeting place for cultures and civilisation, is now a mass grave for thousands of people on the run. It also said that Barcelona will never stop offering them a legal and safe passage. ‘We are and will be a refuge city.’

It made my eyes well up. Yesterday, I felt completely different when I saw more degrading scenes of refugees in danger of drowning, being saved by aid organisations, only to then be rejected by the new ‘fresh’ regime in Italy. I have to say; the Italians have done a lot over the past few years. A humanity that went much further than just erecting a monument to welcome refugees. But the shortest and relatively safest route to the formerly idyllic island of Lampedusa now seems to be permanently closed.

And when I opened this morning’s newspaper, I felt even worse. The discussion merely seems to be about the best way to accommodate refugees to ensure we get rid of them again as quickly as possible. The Netherlands doesn’t house more than a few tens of thousands refugees out of the 65 million affected by war or hunger. We put them in camps, but if they run out of legal options, the government doesn’t even offer them the basics anymore (Fortunately, many municipalities couldn’t care less). The research agency of the Ministry of Justice just published a report about these doubly displaced refugees. In it, they conclude that the refugees would leave the country sooner if we provide them the bare minimum of food and accommodation. Migrants without residence permits can’t be chased away by kicking them out on the street or giving them a bare minimum of night shelter; no, chasing them away with a piece of bread and strict supervision by camp attendants will be much more effective. I can imagine that it would be, the average amount of human interaction in one of these camps isn’t anything to write home about. (Not withstanding the great work that many volunteers are doing there).

As you might have gotten from this, I am in favour of a study on the willingness of Dutch residents to take action like the Spanish did, in a smart and orderly fashion. In fact, I am sure that there are enough decent people here that want to extend a warm welcome to more refugees.

 

 

Plastic brains

The following actually happened to a friend of mine, it did not happen to me. He’s no small guy, but he also doesn’t look like a street fighter, more the quiet intellectual type. He was sitting in his car, waiting at a traffic light, when the window of the car in front of him opened. Plastic bottles and other shit came flying out of the window. His adrenaline levels spiked, and just then, more litter was thrown out the window on the other side, so he jumped out of his car. He snatches the garbage off the street, pulls open the car door and throws the mess back inside. What happens next took him off guard.

Three broad-shouldered and short-necked guys with barrel heads step out of the car, and they don’t look like the sharpest tools in the shed. The three of them walk over to the car, chests out, gorilla-style. When my friend tries to explain that you can’t just dump your waste on the street, one of them yells out: “It’s not your street.” My friend is speechless, not so much because of the threat of violence, but more due to the stupidity of the remark. After some pushing and shoving, it ends up alright, mostly because the people in the area start to get involved as well, and another heavy-built and even more broad-shouldered guy takes his side.

This past week was World Oceans Day. Everyone heard the disturbing stories about the plastic soup, areas the size of France, where millions of square kilometers of plastic are driven together by the ocean currents. Last week there was much ado about a whale that died with 80 plastic bags in his stomach.

Those kind of stories still generate more attention than the good news that there are more and more inventions that can clean up the plastic soup or, better yet, prevent it. Everyone knows about the young Dutch guy who created a mechanical boom that collects plastic while floating in the oceans. But there are more and better solutions. For example, the three Dutch researchers who developed The Great Bubble Barrier; a large tube placed under water at the mouth of a river, which releases a wall of rising bubbles. The plastic that is on its way to the ocean gets pushed to the shores, where it can be collected. In an experiment in a Dutch river, about 80 % of the plastic waste was trapped this way.

In any case, it’s solving the problem closer to the source than in the middle of the ocean. Even closer to the source is mankind itself, throwing plastic bottles or bags out of car windows or, I fear, people like me, who leave it up to others to intervene.

 

Millennials rebuilding the mess babyboomers created

I went to take a look at the Dutch Technology Week yesterday, hosted at the technical university in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. I was expecting a huge variety of inventions spread across the vast lawns and squares of the university campus. Instead, everyone was just going about their business and was surprised that we didn’t just come to the press event.

We had to go on quite the search to find the hidden gems, but thanks to helpful receptionists, teachers and students, we found a group of young people working on the car of the future; her name is Lina. The body of this car is made out of a new and tough material, manufactured out of flax and sugar beets. It’s a rock-solid and 100% plant-based material. An inexhaustible resource, where as now we are drawing resources from the increasingly exhausted earth.

The energy and emission-free house that other students on the campus built was a bit easier to find. It is a model to renovate ‘old’ buildings and transform them into habitations suitable for this day and age. It can be habited in any climate, and is particularly suited for people trying to live with less impact on the earth.

My generation (yes, unfortunately I am a baby boomer) tends to be rather pessimistic about the youth of today. They accuse them of being too superficial and too little engaged. When it comes to complaining, many of us babyboomers haven’t learned much from the griping our parents did about those hippy scumbags There is little respect for young people who get their fragmented daily dose of news from their mobile phone. That form their opinion by reading social media to read or by following bloggers and vloggers rather than listen to the editors-in-chief or commentators we respect so much.

But such a trip across the campus of a major university made my day even sunnier than it already was. The energy you see in those twenty-somethings, who consider issues such as solar energy, electric cars, renewable raw materials and a circular economy as an everyday issue. For those who are working on a better, cleaner and happier society, it is the most normal thing in the world. They talk about business and science initiatives that do know how to set the course toward a brighter future with fire in their eyes. They believe that the government will catch up eventually in the best-case scenario.

Okay, so they are not protesting in the streets anymore, don’t chain themselves to fences or organise sit-ins. They are just busy finding alternatives for the society we managed to screw up so much.

 

The warmest month

Who cares about climate change if it brings us this kind of sunny weather? Earth just had its warmest May on record, and keeping record is something we started doing about 300 years ago. Nobody in Europe seems to be too concerned, not even here in the Netherlands, even though most of the country is below sea level. Yesterday, I saw bulldozers on the beach, trying to repair the dunes whose task it is to keep the water out of the country. The flood barriers have already been closed at high water levels, so they still function as well. And we have long forgotten the shocking animations which showed entire countries flooding in Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Weather reports are more and more resembling crystal ball readings and we’re starting to get used to the tropical downpours replacing our traditional drizzle as well.

So is climate change all that bad? The Dutch are known for their water managing abilities, so can’t we handle those few extra inches of water? Yes, we probably can, but where is the wisdom in that?

Yesterday, I saw a photo shoot by the Indian photographer Arko Datto, showing the results of four years of climate change in the Ganges delta in Bangladesh. 300 million people there are faced with the consequences of massive floods each year, covering nearly two-thirds of the country. Beautiful pictures, absolutely. And interesting how resourceful people get during the rainy season (that starts again this month) in the search for shelter on the few remaining pieces of dry land.

The Dutch are involved in the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100.  Consultants have drawn up a plan to counter the floods and salinisation of the delta. Although everything is moving at a snail’s pace and the billions that the World Bank has pledged to contribute have yet to be deposited, surely such a Dutch finger-in-the-dike solution will work.

Better yet, perhaps, is to tackle the problem at its root.

 

Workers of the world

Western Europe has a new and urgent problem. The strawberries and asparagus will soon be rotting in the greenhouses and fields, thanks to the upcoming populism and xenophobia. According to a report on the Dutch news channel BNR, Germany ran into a major problem because Polish labourers don’t want to work in the agricultural sector anymore because of bad wages. In “Brexit Old England”, British people will soon have to work the fields again to preserve their strawberries. In the Netherlands, we found yet another strange way to chase these people away from work. All Polish people I know are working their butt off. At construction sites, they start at 7 A.M. and work until 6 P.M. Drinking coffee is something they view as a waste of time, and they prefer to have their lunch on the go. A six-day workweek of about 65 hours is what they prefer. They work for three months and then go back to Poland, where they work hard again to build their own homes with the money they earned in the West.

Compared to the British, who invented an entire Brexit for it, the Dutch found a smarter way to chase the Polish labourers away. In addition to the populistic agitation, the Dutch use the collective labour agreement to keep them away. The Polish are no longer allowed to work more than 38 hours at minimum wage under this collective labor agreement. It will protect these poor Polish guys and will boost job availability for the locals, although few people here are willing to pick strawberries or asparagus.

But what should those Poles do with all that free time? Watching Polish TV in their tiny, smelly rooms packed to the gills with other Poles? Many Dutch look down on the Polish a bit, most cafés and shops are less than welcoming to them.

We all live in one world. But in this part of it, people prefer not to do dirty or heavy work. Why don’t we embrace the Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians? Why do we leave Syrians (also mostly hard-working people) unemployed in a refugee centre for a few years to learn silly facts about the Netherlands in their citizenship courses?

In fact, we do not deserve strawberries on our plates or asparagus in our soup if we continue to be so unfriendly to those that come to help us. If scarcity arises, I suggest we stop selling strawberries and asparagus to all populists.