What kind of world would you want if you didn’t know whether you will be born to a rich or poor family?
This is a question few of us ask today, especially if you are a wealthy or a high earner, from the right side of the tracks.
The latest book by Harvard Professor of Philosophy Michael Sandal is a timely warning that a well-meant focus on meritocracy has gone wrong. Inequality has deepened, opening wide rifts in society. People in despair, failed by traditional politicians from both right and left, have flown to the extremes. Dark clouds of dictators and demagogues are threatening democracy.
People in despair, failed by traditional politicians from both right and left, have flown to the extremes.
Adverse impacts of meritocracy have been exacerbated by other trends over the past 40 years. Globalisation and automation have reduced the number of higher-paying manufacturing jobs traditionally filled by blue-collar workers. The power of multinationals and high-earners has increased due to well-funded lobby groups and laws allowing unlimited spending on political contributions in the USA. The financialisation of the economy has seen obscene income and wealth flowing to a few traders in financial products that add little or no value to the economy. Reducing levels of taxation for high earners, investment incomes and capital gains have increased income and wealth gaps. Lower tax revenues and demonising the poor have reduced social benefits and services like health and education. The reduced power of unions has slowed growth or decreased the real wages of workers.
Meritocracy, Globalisation, Automation, Financialisation, Tax changes, Reduction of welfare benefits, Lobby Groups have widened rifts in our society.
The current wave of meritocracy started with Reagan and Thatcher. They believed that markets will deliver both economic growth and the fruits of the economy to all willing to work. Those who failed did so due to lack of effort and deserved to be poor. The problem deepened with Clinton and Blair, who tried to soften the impact on low-income earners rather than challenge the premise of a market-driven meritocracy. Both Liberal and conservative politicians have focused on meritocracy and education as the primary vehicle for advancement to achieve a good life in society
The economic and social policies adopted by Anglo-American democracies veered sharply away from those of Scandinavia and mainland Europe to an economy and country of winners and losers.
Achieving pure meritocracy, equality of opportunity is a fallacy. A wealthy family has many advantages; their children start miles ahead in the race of life. Better schools, private tutors, more parent support and access to resources far greater than a child from a low-income family. However, those reaching the top in our economy strongly believe that they did so due to hard work and merit, thus deserve outsize rewards. While those espousing meritocracy envisioned a society with higher social mobility and lower inequality, the actual results have been directly the opposite. More students come from families in the top 1% at Princeton and Yale than the bottom 60%. Two-thirds of admissions for Ivy league universities have come from families with earnings in the top 20%.
Pure meritocracy is a fallacy, children born in a wealthy family start the race of life miles ahead of the rest.
Parents of both rich and poor tell their kids that they will reach their goals if they work hard. The reality is different with sluggish economies, struggling families, poorly funded schools and the high college cost. Income mobility is low, leaving many stuck in these jobs, which are poorly paid and insecure. Profit maximisation rarely takes into account the social cost of laid-off labour.
The relentless focus on merit has impacted those on high incomes as well. Anxiety, depression and alcoholism have taken a toll.
While politicians from both right and left wings have repeatedly spoken about education as the primary vehicle for advancement, opportunities for a better education have decreased for those on lower incomes. Lower tax revenues reduced funding, lowered the quality of education, and made it more expensive by levying higher fees.
Whilst retraining has been promoted as the way forward for those displaced due to globalisation and offshoring, funding provided for this has been minimal. Economies of rural areas and small towns have been decimated. Deaths of despair have soared, along with social ills like drugs and alcoholism.
The rapid escalation of rewards flowing to winners of our society has sharply increased inequality between the elites and those on the bottom rungs, diminished the middle class. Manufacturing jobs that paid a reasonable wage have been replaced with low paid service and retail work. Earnings of blue-collar workers have declined or stayed stagnant while those for top ranks have surged ahead.
Low-income earners are looked down upon as losers by the elites and, at times, by themselves. The dignity of work and respect for them diminished. The value placed on middle-class jobs like teachers, nurses and police have reduced along with their salaries. College degrees are increasingly tied to income and prestige.
Higher wages and tax advantages are hardening into wealth passed onto the next generation. Establishing a hereditary aristocracy.
We need to reverse the trends of the past four decades, raise taxes, provide better essential services and pay better wages for those at the bottom. The lessons of history are clear; we ignore them at our peril.
New Zealand’s unemployment was less than 1% for 30 years from 1946 to 1976. Now the government, the Reserve Bank and traditional economists settle for 4% unemployment, as ‘full employment’.
This version of ‘full employment’ means 8% youth unemployment and 16% Maori / Pacific youth unemployment. Problems such as family poverty (including children missing meals), mental health, suicide, poor health and reduced self-esteem which accompany the lack of a job are barely acknowledged or debated there as to whether they are too high a price to pay.
Martin Taylor of progressive economic thinktank Digital Strategies who has been working on a jobs guarantee argues this could cost as little as NZ $1.6Bn, approximately 0.5% of GDP. And, this is more than outweighed by the benefits such as dignity of work, improved mental and physical health, improved social and environmental outcomes, boost infrastructure and care work.
Full article by Catriona MacLennan published on Radio New Zealand website, 29th April 2020.
The wealthiest 1% owns three times the wealth as the bottom 50%
“A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much, while so many have so little.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders
The wealthiest one per cent of our population today owns three times the wealth of the bottom 50%. A European New Zealander owns five times the wealth of a Maori and ten times the wealth of a Pacifica family.. Egalitarian New Zealand is no more. We wrote the obituary way back in the 1980s. Some of us own three or four houses, while many own none. Cost of renting a home could be as high as 40 or 50% of income. The median price of owning a house in Auckland is nine times of annual salary when below three years’ pay is considered affordable. The younger generation is locked out of homeownership, many consigned to be life long renters.
New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people depended mainly on agriculture, fishing and hunting. First waves of settlers arrived from England around the time the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, looking for a better life than crowded, class-ridden Britain. They set up colonies in Wellington, Christchurch and many other places.
Early economic activity was mainly agriculture and gold mining. Sheep farming started in the 1850s provided a boost to the economy, wool was in high demand for the textile mills in England. In the 1880s discovery of refrigeration started export industries for meat and dairy. Pre 1914 exports were mainly these commodities and imports consisted of manufactured goods. New Zealand became a wealthy country, however, reliant on commodity prices.
The economy grew during World War 1, disruption in Europe boosting demand for agricultural exports. However, post-world war depression was traumatic for the country. The economy started to recover in the 1930s due to stabilisation of commodity prices, devaluation of the currency and boost in exports to Britain with the signing of the Ottawa Agreement, which favoured Commonwealth countries.
New Zealand also imposed heavy import controls to contain a balance of payment crisis, and this insulated economy continued until 1984. Post World War boom in the 1950s was not favourable for New Zealand as Western European countries, and Japan began subsidising their farmers and restricting agricultural imports. Our protected economy provided full employment; however, import restrictions increased costs and reduced competitiveness.
The entry of the UK into the European Common Market was a body blow to the economy and oil price shocks further rocked New Zealand. A succession of failed policies, including a failed Think Big program led to an economic crash.
The Welfare State- The Safety Net
Steve Maharey, then Minister of Social Development and Employment made a speech in Sep 2000 about our welfare state.
The original vision of social security was to grant not only freedom from poverty but also dignity and a sense of citizenship.
The depression of the 1930s heralded the modern welfare state. Labour party which came into power in 1935 introduced a five-day, 40-hour week and a minimum wage; pensions were increased. The Social Security Act of 1938, which followed is the cornerstone of today’s social security system. The Act introduced a range of new benefits, including provisions for sickness, unemployment, orphans and emergency coverage. This placed social security on a more systematic footing and established a framework that survives to the present day.
Targeted, as opposed to the universal provision of social assistance, has long been our dominant model of social security. It operates within a framework of benefits and pensions funded from general taxation. That is, based on the principle that social security benefits bore no relationship to the amount an individual had paid in tax or the length of time in employment.
New post-war provisions such as universal family benefit to support the education and maintenance of children in 1945 were widely welcomed but added significantly to the cost of social support. During the prosperous 1950s, 60s and early 70s, this did not present significant problems. Unemployment was almost non-existent, and the concept of state-funded benefits to those in financial need was widely accepted by both major parties.
The Royal Commission of 1969 called on the government to renew and enlarge its commitment. The family benefit was doubled, and other benefit levels slightly increased. One of the most pressing concerns addressed by the Commission was the plight of sole mothers leading to the introduction of the Domestic Purposes Benefit for single parents in 1973. Social Security spending increased further in 1977 with the introduction of the National Superannuation scheme, replacing the means-tested system.
The State Advances Corporation lent 95% of the house value at an interest rate of 3% locked for 40 years, governments of both major parties believed homeownership was necessary for a healthy society. There was adequate social housing. Rent was income-based, and a maximum of a quarter of their wages.
Reforms 1984 – Rogernomics and Mother of All Budgets
“For people who don’t want the government in their lives … this [Rogernomics] has been a bonanza. For people who are disabled, limited, resourceless, uneducated, it has been a tragedy.”
David Lange, New Zealand Prime Minister (1984–89), 1996
The Labour Party came into power in 1984, in a crisis situation; with a political agenda of deregulation.
‘Towns full of weeping women’ an article in Stuff, April 2017 by Philip Matthews talked about the reforms. Roger Douglas, Finance Minister, chief architect of the reform program argued “Speed was enormously important to the change, are government departments necessary? Are they doing the job? Can they be trimmed? Be ruthless with the answers.” It was ideology and trend of the time that drove the reforms rather than pragmatism. Reaganomics and Thatcherite neoliberal economics promoted heavily by a few prominent economists like Milton Friedman as the right cure.
The purpose of the 1987 State-Owned Enterprises Act was a radical transformation “To strip government trading departments of their social objectives. Turn them into profit-making businesses,” as an online history of the State Services Commission puts it.
It was a blitzkrieg.
The government is pouring money “straight down the drain” by subsidising State Coal Mines, Douglas claimed in an interview to the Waikato Times that every mine employee cost the country $122,000 a year.
John Patterson was one of the victims of the restructuring when the department of Lands and Survey vanished into history. He finished on March 31, 1987, and started with the Social Impact Unit on April 1. The unit’s role was to monitor the effects of restructuring on communities and individuals and to identify needs.
He would knock on doors across Southland. First stop: the mining communities of Ohai and Nightcaps. State Coal Mines had turned into Coal Corp overnight “They started by closing two mines and sacking the men who worked there.” The last union meeting was finishing, and the miners were signing on to the unemployment benefit. All the men were there, but where were the women? The district nurse told Patterson that they were at home crying.
Where were the women? The district nurse told Patterson that they were at home crying.
Unemployment was not high nationally, but in smaller towns like Tuatapere, it was around 80 per cent. In South Auckland, it was between 40% and 50%. Revolution was permanent. Tens of thousands were laid off.
Patterson became “the expert on unemployment” across the south. “Restructuring department after department kept going month after month and lives were shattered, for a while,” he says. “In one way or another, they started getting their lives back, and life went on. What got me, looking back on it, was the way people rallied around each other.”
Deregulation in 1984 led to a rush to invest in the stock market, what appeared to be a way to get a decent return. The stock market crash in 1987, came just six months after the initial wave of redundancies, many people invested and lost, their redundancy money, their superannuation.
Many people invested in the stock market and lost, their redundancy money, their superannuation.
While there was a cruelty in laying off so many people at once, assistance was offered. The Social Impact Unit was one example. Paterson has positive memories of the Community Employment Group created by the Department of Labour. It funded community organisations and took the kinds of risks that seem, 30 years later, to have been relatively daring.
Ruth Richardson, who became the Finance Minister of the National government which came into power in 1990, was even more ruthless.
Mother of all Budgets is still f*cking us today
Laura O’Connell Rapira wrote on Spinoff on September 2019 in an article titled “How Ruth Richardson’s Mother of all Budgets is still f*cking us today”. Ruth believed jobs would miraculously appear for people if she cut their income support. She ruthlessly slashed the unemployment, families and the sickness benefits. Benefits were reduced by 20% and stayed at those rates until 2016. Unchanged through periods of a booming economy and governments of both major parties.
It’s a strange ideology that believes in cutting support to sick people, solo parents and working-class families. It makes no sense when a government makes thousands unemployed and cuts their benefits at the same time and reduces taxes for the wealthiest 20%. Top tax rates were cut from 66% to 33%. GST of 10% introduced affected those on lower-income disproportionately and applied on almost everything, including food and medicine.
A strange ideology…. that cuts support to sick people, solo parents and working-class…. and reduces taxes for the wealthiest 20%.
The average income on welfare benefits dropped from 72% of median annual wage to 58%, in just three years of Ruth Richardson from 1990 to 1993, the damage done was lasting.
Bernard Hickey, in his article on ‘Interest’, contends that there was a clearcut worsening of wealth, health outcomes for people born after 1984, which he calls the ‘Baby Bust’ generation.
Those born in the 60s and 70s took advantage of the housing boom, starting in the 1990s. Many owned their houses, making it easy for them to purchase additional houses to rent, using the equity in their homes as collateral. They received tax rebates for any rental losses while reaping benefits from the increases in house values. House values rose further with an influx of migrants from Hongkong and opening the property market for overseas buyers. House values increased from 3 times median annual wage to 6 times nationally, 9 times in Auckland.
Baby Busters were effectively locked out of the housing market.
Economic Reforms Australia 1980s and 1990s – The Hawke Keating effect
Paul Kelly, a political journalist and author who later became the editor in chief at the prominent newspaper ‘Australian’, made an address at a journalist conference in 2000 about the Australian economic reforms of the 1980s and 90s.
The 1980s saw the globalisation of the Australian economy. The 1990s saw the contest between globalists and anti-globalists. A series of events saw an economic liberalisation and triggered a transformation of the Australian economy. Keys to our success in the 1990s is due to decision-makers retaining best policies from the 1980s and discarding the worst. A new framework to underwrite a more neo-liberal and open economy was not constructed in the 1990s.
Keys to our success ….. due to decision-makers retaining best policies from the 1980s and discarding the worst.
First, there was a pervasive sense of national stagnation and decline symbolised by the economic recession of the 1980s. Second, there was a new Labour government, which believed a new approach was essential. The Hawke-Keating government was both free from political dogma and old fashioned economic orthodoxy which undermined and destroyed previous governments.
Third, there was a set of new ideas waiting for the new government to seize upon, with broad support from government agencies such as the Treasury and the Reserve Bank, the Parliament, and Media. Freer trade, smaller government, deregulation of markets, lower tax rates within a fairer system, a more flexible labour market, low inflation, an attack on rent-seekers and a more market-oriented economy.
Fourth the government had a social contract with the trade union movement. The Accord represented a choice by the unions to give priority to economic growth rather than seek to increase wages by industrial might. Fifth, the government’s reformism would be based on gradualism and a search for consensus. The changes were negotiated more than imposed. The Hawke- Keating government shunned a “big bang” approach.
Reformism would be based on gradualism and a search for consensus…changes were negotiated more than imposed.
Sixth for the Hawke government social and economic equity was vital in the transition to economic liberalism. Equity was an essential part of the economic agenda, and aim in its own right. The tax-transfer system was highly effective in nullifying most of the income inequity arising from the market-oriented financial system. The two neighbouring countries, New Zealand and Australia’s, approach to the economic reforms differed significantly. (Inequality in Australia has grown since then with mainly conservative governments in power.)
Child poverty in New Zealand has doubled since the 1980s. Food can be short; children go to school hungry unable to focus on learning. Schools in our decile one schools often lack in facilities, limited with access to technology, low in participation in sports and other activities due to lack of funding for gear. Houses can be cold and draughty, causing health problems. Our poor tend to live far from urban centres, work in less secure jobs, often working part-time and pay a high cost for transport. We rank 24th out of 33 countries in the developed world for inequality.
We rank 24th out of 33 countries in the developed world for inequality.
We have a real problem with poverty and inequality in the developed world today. People in many countries feel the prevailing system has not served them well, that the mainstream parties on both sides of the spectrum, right and left, have failed them. That politicians looked after the rich and powerful, at the expense of the poor and weak.
Populous movements woo the people as the alternative who can deliver a more equitable system. Populists already lead countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Turkey, India. Populous movements are increasing their popularity in countries like France and Italy, even Germany. Many have no intention of helping the poor, more interested in looking after themselves and their cronies. They seek undemocratic means of staying in power than rely on the ballot box. They resort to classic ploys like attacking immigrants to distract the attention of the populace.
The Nordic Model
Chuck Collins posted an article on the website Institute for Policy Studies in July 2016, ‘We should take a lesson from Nordic countries’. Reviewing the book ‘Viking Economics’ by George Lakey.
The Nordic countries – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland – typically have considerably less income and wealth inequality, thanks to both robust social safety nets and progressive taxation. They also top indexes of industrialised countries measuring the quality of life indicators such as longevity, health, work-life balance, and vacations.
Norwegians a century ago didn’t like the results of a wealth gap: the hunger and poverty, crime, elderly friends left in isolation, young people without hope of a good job. Norwegians also didn’t like the attitudes that went with inequality; an inclination toward arrogance among higher-income people and the feeling among lower-income people that they were losers defeated by the system.
The decades-long transition was brought about in several of the Nordic countries through strong popular movements of workers and social reformers that campaigned and won political power. When out of power, they pressured governments through mass protests, including nonviolent direct action when the system was unresponsive.
The Nordic model is a “universal services state” that focuses on poverty alleviation, a robust social safety net, and full employment. But, with a commitment to work as a central part of their anti-poverty strategy for those able.
The quality of life for workers is much higher, and the work-life balance is considerably healthier than in the United States. The average number of hours worked in a year is more than three hundred hours less than in the USA (and New Zealand). Social mobility is increasing in the Nordic countries and declining in the US. The Nordic model focuses on economic security, efficiency, and productivity and believes they are connected.
Their success undermines the view that the ideal capitalist economy is one where markets are unrestrained. Lakey contests the misconception that high taxes and regulation in the Nordic countries stifle business and entrepreneurship. Productivity is considerably higher, even with a shorter workweek. The rate of start-up companies in Norway and Denmark is substantially higher than in the US. Researchers found Nordic entrepreneurs greater risk-takers because they don’t need to worry about the education debt, retirement, unemployment and medical care.
Nordic businesses compete in the global economy, but they are discouraged, through laws and social contracts, from cutting wages as part of their competitive strategy.
Nordic businesses are discouraged..from cutting wages as part of their competitive strategy.
Their understanding of who the job creators are is not limited to the entrepreneurial class and investors. Although Nordics value the vision, risk and innovation contributed by entrepreneurs, they think the workers do a large share of the egg-laying. Which is why they invest so heavily in human capital and get higher productivity than many countries. Their track record with cooperatives, state-owned and municipal-owned enterprises gives them a positive perception of other sources of egg-laying.
Residents in Nordic countries don’t complain about their higher taxes because they clearly benefit from the expenditures. “For their high taxes the Norwegians have gotten overall affluence, stability, opportunity, a high level of services that make life easier and more secure,” writes Lakey.
From renewable energy policy and valuing racial differences to restorative criminal justice and responding to radical Islam, Nordic countries have valuable lessons for the rest of the world.
In most Nordic countries, the transition from youth to adulthood follows a different path than our focus on college and high-paying jobs. First, there is a deep culture of lifelong learning, folk schools, debt-free vocational training, and support for work transitions and parents. Working-class jobs are valued and well-compensated in the Nordic countries. In contrast, Lakey observes that a “Cruelty visited upon young people in high inequality countries is to induce star-struck dreams. But refuse to fund pathways to achieving satisfying life choices, including high-wage working-class jobs.”
“Cruelty visited upon young people..is to induce star-struck dreams..But refuse to fund them”
“Movements need organisers, communicators, advocates, funders, nurturers, researchers, trainers, musicians and artists, nonviolent warriors, and ‘foot soldiers’ as well as visionary designers,” he writes. “All those were present in the Nordic movements that challenged a thousand years of poverty and oppression, took the offensive, and built democracy.”
The Nordic model can serve as both an inspiring model and a reminder of the many ingredients required for social transformation.
Dutch historian Rutger Bregman called for ‘Taxes, taxes, taxes’ at the World Economic Forum (he was not invited again). He called for a top tax rate of 70%. The question was asked, which prosperous country has a tax rate of 70% – the answer that came back, the United States until the 1980s (New Zealand had a top tax rate of 66%). ‘End this, Winners take all economy’ said Anand Giridharadas, a reformed Mckinsey consultant in his best selling book.
The present Labour government has taken a few steps to address inequality. More state housing. Healthier, better insulated rental housing. A winter heating allowance for beneficiaries and superannuitants. Fees free for year one of tertiary education. Lifting minimum hourly wage and indexing to median salary.
Perhaps the largest problem we face today is our polarised political system. The right-leaning National Party, when it is in power, increases inequality by pandering to those on higher incomes and businesses. The left-leaning Labour Party is hesitant to undertake significant reforms, as these will be politicised by the National Party.
The largest problem we face today is our polarised political system
Inequality.org.nz a website run by Max Rashbrooke, who has written an excellent book ‘ Inequality – A New Zealand Crisis’ argues for action on three major fronts.
A fairer tax system
Higher taxes are essential for improving benefits for the poor and the middle class. High tax countries like Sweden, Denmark, Finland, none of them resource-rich, all have GDP per capita at least 24% higher than New Zealand. Our GDP per capita, in real terms, has been stagnant, despite repeated tax reductions for the wealthy and corporations.
Max calls for a higher top tax rate, wealth taxes, capital gains tax and a financial transaction tax. We need to close loopholes in our tax legislation and crackdown on tax evasion. IRD reported that more than half of ultra-rich, with over $50Mn in assets, declared incomes of less than $70,000 per annum. Just a 1% return would be $500,000! The wealthy invest in many asset classes and earn more than 5%, in the long run. (This is the reason that Bill Gates gives away billions of dollars a year, and still has a wealth of over $100 Bn).
Raising taxes is politically unappealing. We can also reduce taxes that impact those on a low income. Reduce GST rate or exempt essentials like food. Introduce a tax credit for those on the lowest income tax slab.
Higher wages for those on low income
A living wage. Invest in providing jobs that pay higher wages. A limit on high incomes. We can improve education in low decile areas by increasing funding and widen the free lunch program. Widen free tertiary education, perhaps starting with polytechnics. Make the apprentice support program permanent.
Raise welfare benefits
Raise welfare benefits to the same level as NZ Super. More state housing and income-related rents.We also need affordable housing for the middle class and essential workers like the nurses, teachers, police. We need Kiwibuild, not more housing for landlords.Improve health services and accessibility for those on low incomes.Many of these services require an upfront investment but generate an economic return over the long term.
Not everything requires money. Let’s stop the payday lenders with their cash trucks, charging over 500% interest, a limit of double the loan amount doesn’t go far enough. (Australia caps the maximum rate at 4% per month). Let’s reduce the pokie machines taking poor people’s money, paying out a few cents on the dollar. Let’s make our criminal justice system focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. Eliminate the Bail Bond Act, which breeds more criminals. Let’s get our social workers to show more compassion. A sugar tax, prominent signage, taking sugary products off school cafeteria, cost nothing and have been shown to have a real impact on obesity and related health issues like diabetes and heart disease. Rezoning land has no cost, except for infrastructure.
Let’s stop the payday lenders with their cash trucks, charging over 500% interest,
There is a lot to do, some of these are expensive, upset armchair experts with a distaste for welfare support. Is there an alternative? Not unless you want to risk radical change, a populous leader or worse.
Change happens slowly in politics, which is not a bad thing. Gradual changes in the right direction, building consensus, is a much better option than changing right and left. What we can’t do is stand still or follow the same policies which led to this place we are now. Keep a system that works for the rich and powerful, and not for the poor, the middle class, the younger generation, the Maori and Pacific communities.
Now is the right time to rebalance the system, lift citizens left behind by globalisation. We need politicians from left and right together working for the good of the country, rather than sniping for political gains. Reducing inequality is not only the right path for the economy, but it is also the right path morally.
It is whatour national anthem calls for ‘Let our cause be just and right’.
The science, the risks, limiting the damage and adapting to a hotter planet earth
“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children”
Native American Proverb
Adapting to Climate Change
Climate adaptation is actions we can take to reduce harm and lower risks from climate change on communities and nature. We have been adapting to local weather conditions for centuries. The Dutch built an elaborate system of dykes to safeguard low lying areas. The Japanese adapted their skyscrapers and homes to minimise damage from earthquakes. We have improved insulation and heating for our homes and offices to cope with cold winters.
However, Climate Change elevates many risks and brings new risks we have not experienced before.
Bangladesh, a country crisscrossed by 144 rivers, is one of the countries most vulnerable to tropical storms and flooding. Two-thirds of its land lies less than 5m above sea level. With three of the world’s mightiest river systems and its situation in the world’s largest delta, riverbank erosion is taking away precious land every year from this small nation with a growing population.
Seventy per cent of Bangladeshis, live in rural areas and account for 75 per cent of the poor. Most rely on agriculture for their livelihood. Each year they are disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change.
People strive to avoid the effects of flooding by building elevated houses and roads. Virtually villages raised above flood level with “Floating schools”. Many use tube wells, wells with a top that is raised high enough that contaminated floodwater cannot enter them. Many cities have flood shelters, large raised platforms where people can find refuge from on-rushing floods.
Nearly all 147 million Bangladeshis are forced to adapt to intense rainfall and water-borne disease exposed conditions. Increases of salinity, a lack of food distributors, and the effects of seeing slum dwellers survive on floodwater.
The need to rebuild better led Bangladesh to enact a Climate Fiscal Framework in 2014, the first country in the world to develop a multi-year, multi-sector approach to funding climate resilience. The plan includes estimates for the long-term costs of combating the effects and tracks climate-related expenditures across 20 government ministries, including agriculture, housing and energy. This plan was followed in 2018 by an eight-decade climate adaptation plan for the delta region, home to 30 million people. The first decade of Delta Plan 2100 focuses on strengthening infrastructure, such as building higher embankments to resist storm surges.
CNN reported on Cyclone Amphan which began forming over the Indian Ocean in May this year. This year’s hurricane season was forecast to be one for the record books due to unusually warm water temperatures; a consequence of the climate emergency. The country faced the mammoth task of relocating 2.4 Million in its path. COVID 19 posed the additional challenge which required physical distancing. In a matter of days, 10,000 more shelters were prepared, on top of the 4,000 already in place. It’s 55,000 first responders were mobilised. Well rehearsed evacuation drills sprung into action.
Cyclones are becoming fiercer and more frequent. Cyclone Amphan was the costliest on record in the north Indian Ocean, leaving destruction estimated at $13bn (£10.4m). In Bangladesh, it washed out 415km of roads, 200 bridges, tens of thousands of homes and vast tracts of farmland and fisheries. More than 150km of embankments meant to contain storm surges were damaged. More than 200 people died. This cyclone has been catastrophic, but planning makes countries better prepared when calamity strikes. It is not enough to deal with the immediate effects of a natural disaster; communities need to better prepare for the next storm.
After Cyclone Amphan, we will need to rebuild schools, hospitals and houses stronger. With increased resilience, so they can resist cyclones, and storm surges in coastal areas. Double up as shelters when the next disaster hits.
Bangladesh is unlikely to be the only country struggling with health, economic and climate emergencies this year. So international collaboration is vital: we can learn from successes around the world and support each other. It’s by pulling together that we will emerge more robust and resilient.
Bangladesh experience provides a snapshot of adaptation measures required by the most vulnerable nations and challenges posed by extreme weather events, the sheer scale of problems and investment required.
Climate adaptation requires work on many fronts.
Sea level rises require strengthening coastal flood defences. These can range from mangroves and shrubs to seawalls to more sophisticated installations such as those developed by the Dutch. Restrict developments in flood-prone areas. Electrical grid planning such as underground cabling rather than overhead. Strengthened building codes and zoning changes to minimise harm from bushfires and floods. Relocate buildings and infrastructure at risk.
Disaster risk management. Early warning systems and shelters. Bush fire protection measures like back burning during winter. Strengthen fire protection with helicopters, workforce etc. Enhance awareness of risks and protection systems.
Water Management. Reforestation, reducing discharge and pollution of rivers, developing crops and livestock that need less water, desalination plants, water-saving technologies, enhanced irrigation techniques
Land-use changes – Increase forested areas, use better crop management techniques, reduce water usage and harmful chemicals, preserve wetlands. Food Security and Agriculture – changeover to or develop resilient crop varieties, more efficient farming practices etc. Reduce wastage from farms to our tables. Adapt wines/grapes to a warmer climate. Change crop seasons, adapting our crops, trialling new plant varieties which might thrive in warmer weather. Research likely changes in fisheries and quotas. Possibly, relocating some farms and forestry more towards colder southern areas.
Tourism – Promote local, drive time and short-haul tourism.
Assist low income, and vulnerable populations like the elderly adapt to a changing climate. Heat pumps etc. to cool residences in warmer areas, better insulation. Review protection for those working outdoor in hotter areas- agriculture, forestry and construction in the summertime. Assist those on low incomes, from effects like higher food prices. Climate Refugees – Assist vulnerable countries to adapt.
Finance and Insurance – Provide finance (green bonds, etc.) and incentives (encouraging EVs, solar panels, energy-saving equipment) for climate mitigation and adaptation. Consider public reinsurance for climate-related disasters. Taxation to promote climate adaptation such as higher levies for fossil fuel-powered vehicles, carbon taxes, emission levies. Better social support for those displaced by industrial changes.
Review government and other institutional structures required for Climate Adaptation.
Maximise potential benefits from climate change – More temperate climates will benefit from longer summers and shorter winters. Higher temperatures help in many locations from more crop and fish varieties.
We human beings are fond of saying we have adapted to changes life has thrown at us, but sometimes we have just muddled through.
Climate Change – The road ahead and the roadblocks
New Zealand is one country that appears to be taking Climate Change seriously. It has a centre-left government and Greens are a coalition partner. It passed legislation to go Zero Carbon by 2050 with bipartisan support.
The government dropped a commitment to move to electric on its vehicle fleet by 2025. A coalition party blocked legislation to provide a rebate of $3,000 for purchase of electric vehicles. Its policy on fossil fuels only bans offshore drilling.
Fighting Climate Change and the Pandemic will require innovation, science and the world working together
The COVID 19 began in Wuhan, China December 2019. A deadly, highly contagious disease had spread to Hongkong, the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Sweden, Singapore by the end of January 2020. On 31st January, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared an International Health Epidemic and issued guidance to countries. By August there are 22Mn cases and nearly 800,000 casualties. Public health systems in many countries were overwhelmed. We saw body bags piling up in the streets of New York. Health professionals forced to work without protective equipment, dying.
The global response to a deadly, highly visible crisis was disjointed and uneven. Many political leaders ignored health experts, scientists and WHO guidance.
While almost all countries signed up to the Paris Climate Accord to limit Global warming to 2 degrees by 2050, the USA has now signalled that it will leave pull out from the accord. Many of the populist leaders recently elected, do not place much emphasis on climate action or work actively to undermine these efforts. IPCC meeting of 2019 to agree on the detail required to meet the Paris Accord target failed to reach a consensus. The international community have been meeting and talking about Climate Change since 1988, with little coordinated action to show for it.
The pace of climate change has not slowed as yet; in fact, CO2 emissions increased a massive 60% since 1980. Mainly due to middle-income countries like China, India emitting more GHGs, as they industrialise and grow their economies.
The main hurdles to Climate Action appear to be political and vested interests like fossil fuel industries. Economically it makes sense now to change over to renewables; their costs have now reduced below fossil fuel-generated energy. It is ignorance and sceptics. It is inertia and priorities.
The best thing we can do is make our voices heard in the corridors of power. March on the streets, use social media and mass communication. Vote for parties calling and working for change, support activist groups like XR and Fridays for schools.
Make our voices heard in the seats of commerce, as consumers and shareholders. Make our personal choices climate-friendly.
It is a time for coordinated global action. We have been here before with smoking and lung cancer, with the ozone layer and CFCs. We have got through slowly. Will we act in time to prevent significant disruption and destruction? Or will we muddle through?
It is up to us to make the best efforts, for the planet, for our children and ourselves.
How can you help?
Activism! – Help to keep up pressure on politicians and climate-unfriendly businesses. What you can do personally helps, but what the government or companies can do, matters a lot more. Protesting or supporting protests is one of the best things we can do.
Clothing and shopping – Shop smart, buy less and use longer. Consider buying pre-loved clothing. Buy environment-friendly and durable clothing where possible.
Food – Eat less beef and lamb, more fish, vegetables/fruit and chicken. Start Meatless Mondays or Vegan Wednesdays. Buy local produce.
Holidays -Take more local or short-haul holidays.
Home – Use power-saving ideas at home – LED bulbs, air-drying clothes, using energy-efficient equipment.
The 3 Rs – Reuse, Recycle, Repair.
Transport -Make your next car an EV. Use more public transportation, cycles, e-bikes.
Waste – Waste less and use composting. Composting can reduce your food waste by as much as 75% and save on your fertiliser cost.
Work – Encourage and support your employer’s efforts on climate action.
How can your business help?
Include Climate Change as a key criterion in your business decisions and practices, especially in areas like procurement
Implement a Climate team to generate ideas the business can implement, encourage staff participation and engagement
Work with suppliers and other stakeholders to minimise climate impact
Work with industry bodies and green organisations to implement best practices
Indirect benefits from Climate mitigation and adaptation
Lower air pollution-related deaths – WHO estimates air pollution causes 4.2 million premature deaths annually. A changeover to renewables and EVs will save lives and healthcare costs related to treating these diseases.
Jobs generation – There will be jobs generated by construction activity as well as operation of renewables, forestry. Most of these jobs will be in consuming countries and provinces, giving a boost to provincial regeneration.
Reduction of road deaths and congestion – As more people use public transport
Reduction of fuel importation expense – Most countries will see a cost reduction. In contrast, fossil fuel exporting countries will face a reduction in their income.
Green New Deal – Proposes to tackle also current economic and social problems such as provincial regeneration, unemployment, inequality, with Climate Action, along the lines of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s. Employment and economic impacts can be significant.
Circular Economy – Reduce waste by recycling, using more durable goods, efficient use of resources.
Climate Change in figures
Paris Climate Accord – Hold temperature increase from 1880 to well below 2 degrees by 2050. The target from COP 2018 is 1.5 degrees by 2030.
Temperature increase by 2050 at the current pace of emissions 3.5 degrees.
Global emissions – CO2 76%, Methane- 16% Nitres Oxide- 6%, Other- 2%
Increase in annual CO2 emissions since 1980 – 60%, mainly due to growing industrialisation of countries like China and India.
The science, the risks, limiting the damage and adapting to a hotter planet earth
“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children” –
Native American Proverb
Over 100 fires were burning in Australia, covering an area as large as Great Britain. The Australian bushfire season in 2019 started in July; middle of winter in the southern hemisphere. Blazes tore through bushland, wooded areas, and national parks. Fires destroyed homes in the outer suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney. Thick plumes of smoke blanketed the urban centres for weeks. Many blazes burned for months, beyond limits of human endeavours to put them out.
Australian firefighters with assistance from the USA, Canada, New Zealand and the Australian defence forces struggled nine months to contain the blazes. Over 34 people died, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed or damaged. An estimated billion animals burnt to death. Horrific images dominated our television screens.
The gigantic scale of the fires caught Australian leaders by surprise. Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologised for holidaying in Hawaii in the midst of it. Budget requests for fire fighting equipment ignored in the previous year. Most experts opined that Climate Change was a significant factor in the massive scale of the fires. The political leaders were still reluctant to admit this.
A slow-burning but an existential global crisis, Climate Change is struggling to attract attention, support and funding required to tackle the problem. Many countries ignore scientists and science. Most countries are responding far slower than necessary to prevent serious damage to lives and livelihood, farms and forests, the seven seas and five continents. Three decades since the announcement of the likely scale of climate change, progress is painfully slow and uneven.
Like the old fable aboutthe crab in the boiling pot, enjoying the feeling of warmth realises it’s plight far too late.
My first brush with climate change was when the coral reefs died. The beach resort fifty km from Colombo was one of my favourite places on the planet. The water was shallow and teeming with fish. Calm as a pond; the coral reef acted as a water break. You snorkelled, taking in the beauty of the fish in a rainbow of colours and the stunning corals.
Then a heatwave. The corals died (corals are a living organism), what nature had grown for decades or centuries, the corals that coastguards fought hard to save from vandals and tourists, dead in a few days. It happened around the world, even the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the largest reef in the world was damaged. I didn’t realise this was due to climate change, putting this down to a freak act of nature until years later. It’s only grown worse since then. Coral bleaching has damaged the Great Barrier Reef three times in the last five years.
I didn’t quite know how an increase of 2 degrees could cause havoc, most of us would hardly notice the change? I could understand that many people would be sceptical. On the other hand, could 97% of climate scientists get this wrong? We watched the movie by Al Gore,’ An Inconvenient Truth’, which made quite an impact, bringing home the reality of Climate Change to an enthralled audience of children and non-scientists.
I watched as Climate Change moved from a fringe movement to a mainstream issue. The hotel chain I was working for set targets for energy efficiency, saving electricity and water, reducing waste, recycling plastics and cans. We made good progress and saved money. Hotels on the luxury end had to be cautious about how we went about it; not seen as penny-pinching, when we were charging $200 per night. However, we could give our customers the option to make a choice themselves. Would they mind if their towels were not changed every day? Not change their bedsheets every day?
I was curious, to know more, what causes climate change. The science behind it. How has it impacted the planet earth so far? What are the likely future impacts on the world? How can we minimise changes to the climate and how can we best adapt to a warmer planet. Try to create some awareness, convince a few more people to do their bit. Convey in a few words, the urgency of the situation, in marketing jargon – awareness, conviction, action.
Our agrarian societies started to change in the late 18th century. The invention of the steam engine in the 1760s by James Watt sparked the Industrial Revolution, beginning in Great Britain. Machines now mass-produced goods previously crafted painstakingly by hand. We migrated from rural farmland to cities to work in factories. Ironworks, flour mills, cotton and paper mills, distilleries, waterworks and ships used coal-powered steam engines. The demand for coal, one of the dirtiest fuels skyrocketed. Petroleum use began in the 1850s. Natural gas started large scale production post World War2.
The road and canal networks expanded in the early 1800s, steam-powered boats and ships became commonplace. Trains started plying by 1830. The early 1900s saw the transportation industry upended again with the advent of the motorcar and flying. The industrial revolution continued with more industries starting up and spreading across the world. Industrialisation is associated with prosperity, a pathway to economic growth.
Worldwide population growth is closely associated with the industrial revolution. The Industrial Revolution changed the way humans work. The standard of living increased in ways never before seen. Improvements in diets, advances in public health, medicine etc. led to population growth. The global population estimated at 1Billion at the start of the 19th century reached 2 billion in 1927. It grew exponentially during the 20th century, reaching 7.4Bn today.
The Climate Science
How does Global warming happen? Solar radiation hits the earth and gets reflected skywards. These rays get trapped when they hit the layer of greenhouse gases (GHGs), consisting mainly of Carbon Dioxide (CO2, 76%), Methane (16%) and Nitrous Oxide (6%). The GHG layer acts like a thermal blanket enveloping the planet, trapping the radiation and warming the earth. Industries burn fossil fuels emitting CO2. Farm animals belch out Methane and fertilisers emit Nitrous Oxide. Forests and trees suck some CO2 out of the atmosphere.
More CO2 is emitted as countries around the world industrialise and grow their economies. Farm animal population grows to feed a growing, more prosperous society and modern farming practices use fertiliser to boost crop yields. More area is converting to farmland, diminishing forest cover. The GHG layer gets denser, emissions grow, and we take out less, warming the planet.
It’s like leaving your car out in the sun. Sun’s rays beam into the car, heating the interior. The glass windows trap and block the heat from escaping. It gets uncomfortably hot inside.
Global Warming – Are we all in this together?
Why do we need a global effort? The Greenhouse Gas Layer is the same density all around the planet. It grows evenly, whether its China, USA or New Zealand spouting the fumes, making this a global issue, unlike pollution which mostly stays local. When Australian bushfires burn, the smoke and haze mainly stay over their skies, but the CO2 emitted floats all around the world.
The warming, however, will not be distributed evenly everywhere, 2 degrees in California, may mean 4 degrees in Antarctica. The warming effect is more, closer to the poles and at higher altitudes. Impacts will differ according to the risks for the geographic areas. Rising sea levels will affect small island nations and warming will affect Australia and countries in sub-Saharan Africa more than colder climates. Bushfires will impact Australia, California and the Amazon forests far more heavily. Some regions will even benefit from Climate Change; Siberia already has longer crop seasons and sea lanes open more days in a year than before.
We won’t know precisely how Climate Change will affect us. Models can only predict a range of outcomes, and much depends on – our efforts to minimise the impact – perhaps the most crucial variable of them all. What is certain is that the change will be significant, and we will have our work cut out.
Climate Mitigation – Reducing emissions
CO2 Emissions – 76% of Greenhouse Gases
There are three broad pillars of climate action necessary to reduce CO2.
Decarbonising the electricity system
The most important of these is decarbonising the electricity system, stop burning fossil fuels to power our energy needs and changeover to renewables.
BP is one of the few oil majors which has publicly committed itself to changeover to renewables. Below are some excerpts from an article on the website ‘Follow the Money’ by Havan Vatanen headlined ‘BP knew the truth about Climate Crisis 30 years ago’.
A documentary made by BP in 1990 called ‘What makes the weather’ articulates the potentially disastrous consequences of human-made climate change. (Excerpt – https://www.ftm.nl/artikelen/bp-video-climate-change-1990-engels) . The narrator explains: ‘Our whole energy-intensive way of life and its dependence on carbon-based fuels is now a cause for concern. When coal, oil, or gas burn, they release carbon dioxide and other reactive gases. Since the industrial revolution, their use has increased hundredfold. In the last forty years, the mass burning of the tropical forests has freed even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It has taken time to realise what damage this extra carbon dioxide can do’.
In May 1997, then BP CEO John Brown in a speech to the Stanford University became the first head of an oil major to accept the emerging consensus on Climate Change publicly. Browne called it‘unwise and potentially dangerous’ to ignore the possibility of catastrophic climate change. He also said that ‘if we are all to take responsibility for the future of our planet, then it falls to us to begin to take precautionary action now’. In 2000, BP launched a $200 million campaign to rebrand its name to‘Beyond Petroleum’.
However, BPs actions didn’t quite follow the script.
BP was a member of a lobby group which influenced George W Bush to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. It was a member of a lobby group who blocked legislation to reduce GHGs in 16 states and promoted numerous anti-environment laws. In 2017, BP lobbied Trump administration to open up the Alaskan Arctic for oil and gas drilling.
Between 2011 and 2013, they sold all their wind and solar assets.
Since 2010 BP has spent only 2.3% of its budget on non-carbon energy. In 2020, BP put out a statement that they will increase investment in low carbon energy from $500 million per year in 2019, just 4% of it’s Capital Budget, to $5 Billion per year by 2030. It will reach net zero by 2050. It is targeting to increase its renewable capacity from 2.5 GWh per year to 50 GWh, a 20 fold increase.
Will they? Move from 4% of their capital spending to 40%, on renewables by 2030. Even if they keep to their plan, they will be spending 60% of their annual capital spend developing fossil fuels.
Norway is a country that prides itself as a leader in renewables. It is generating 98% of its electricity from renewables, mainly hydropower. 30% of its cars are electric.
Norway is also one of the largest oil-exporting countries.
Norway’s first major oilfield came online in 1969. In 1972 the state-owned oil company Statoil was formed, and the government introduced the principle that at least 50% of oil licenses should be state-owned. Norwegian government benefits directly from oil, unlike countries like the UK. Norwegian state still holds 67% of it’s renamed oil and gas giant Equinor.
Norway has an economic surplus every year since it started oil production. Norway’s oil wealth is held by its sovereign wealth fund, the largest in the world with a value of trillion dollars. In 2019 the fund decided to divest its investments from oil exploration companies.
Norway derives 25% of its tax revenue from oil and gas. The giant new oilfield Johan Sverdrup oilfield started production in 2019 and is forecasting to produce oil until 2060 at least.
68% of Saudi Arabia’s revenue in 2019 was from oil and gas. 52% of Russia’s revenue came from oil and gas. Global fossil revenue in 2018 was $3.7 trillion. Renewable energy currently supplies only 25% of worldwide energy production.
Large industries do die or transform substantially when lower-cost alternatives come on stream. Telecommunications is one such trillion dollar industry which was upended by the advent of the internet. Coal revenue has declined by over 95% since peaking in the early 20th century.
Still, the scale of the challenge to transform the energy industry is daunting.
Electricity generation from wind and solar now costs less than fossil fuel energy. Costs are likely to decrease further as we scale up renewables, and the technology keeps improving. What keeps us from moving faster is the 3 I’s – ideology, inertia and ignorance. The short term and adversarial politics. The parties and voting blocks of climate deniers. The lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry. It’s also the trillions of dollars needed to fund renewable infrastructure.
Storage of renewable power is still an issue currently (except for hydropower). Solar generation stops at dusk. The wind could stop blowing anytime (although less likely with the offshore wind). Hydropower can dwindle in a drought. We may require fossil fuel power as a backup in the short term until economical storage options come online. Pumped hydro is a currently available renewable option for short term storage and grid balancing.
We should meet growing energy needs with renewables; however, we continue to expand fossil fuel generation. Adani coalfield in Australia, Keystone pipeline in the USA and Canada, giant new Johan Sverdrup oilfield in Norway are all examples.
The other major area which will make an impact is sucking the carbon out of the atmosphere, by planting trees and growing our forested areas. We face an uphill battle to increase or even maintain forestation in many parts of the world, as we have seen recently with the Amazon forests.
Fuel switching is still at an early stage; we are still manufacturing mainly petrol-powered vehicles and have a massive inventory of them. The market share of electric and hybrid cars is still tiny, 2% of the light vehicle market, and heavy vehicles near zero. Another trillion dollar market to transform. Electrification of rail shows more progress.
Most of our industries use fossil fuels and will take some time to replace, due to the long lifespans of plant and machinery.
We see good progress on energy efficiency as this provides a direct cost-saving and high return on investment in many cases. Energy-efficient cars, buildings, equipment, all have boosted energy efficiency and will continue to improve.
Reducing Methane and Nitrous Oxide – 24% of Greenhouse Gases
These two gases are mainly farm-based. Beef and Lamb, Dairy farming is high in Methane emissions. Chicken is less Methane intensive. With ocean-based fisheries, we only have CO2 emissions from fishing vessels powered by fossil fuels. With farmed seafood, the emissions are low and primarily depend on the feed used. Fruits and Vegetables are the most climate-friendly food.
There are many options currently available to reduce Methane and Nitrous Oxide emissions from improving farm and production efficiencies to using low emission feed for animals and reducing Nitrogen-based fertiliser. There also several options currently being explored and in the pipeline. The website – https://www.agmatters.nz/ is an excellent source on farm-based emissions. Changing our food choices; less red meat, more fish, fruit and vegetables can reduce emissions significantly.
Have we been doing enough to slow down Climate Change? No, the vast majority of countries have done little so far.
Whatever we do, climate effects are likely to hit us in the short and medium-term. Some problems are already visible or highly probable to affect many parts of the world.
Glaciers are already shrinking in the Arctic and some parts of Antarctica. The resulting sea levels will rise and cause coastal flooding in low lying areas. Small island nations will be profoundly affected, and some islands could disappear or made uninhabitable.
Extreme weather events like heatwaves, droughts, floods, hurricanes will increase and be more severe. Bushfires will be more frequent and affect larger areas.
Lower rainfall and impact on freshwater sources like some of our rivers will impact crop yields and animal husbandry. The hydroelectric generation will reduce as rivers dry up in the summer. Warmer, drier weather will impact forestry. Conflicts over water rights, sometimes violent especially in subtropical countries. Ski seasons will shorten.
Fisheries will thrive in colder regions and suffer in tropical seas. The cooling cost will rise in summer, offset by lower heating cost in winter.
Increase in biosecurity risks. Coral reefs will die, some species of animals will struggle to adapt, some will go extinct.
Heat-related health impacts. Especially on the elderly, outdoor workers and low-income people.
Developing countries and vulnerable people who have fewer resources to adapt will be more severely affected. We will see climate refugees from island nations and some drought-stricken countries.
Sources – Climate Pledge Collective, Climate Action – Solutions for a Changing Planet -SDG, Follow the Money, IPCC Reports 2014, The Guardian,
My paternal grandfather lived in a rambling old house. Families tended to be large those days, 7 to 8 person households were typical. Our home, set in a large garden, dotted with coconut trees and plenty of space for outdoor activities like cricket and football was idyllic.
My father had a few tales that he used to tell us often. One of these was about his education, how he passed the entrance exam for secondary school at a young age. He was keen to continue his education, but jealous brothers persuaded his grandfather not to support it. He started work as a clerk in a government department. Public sector wage scales were low in those days. A tiff with grandfather left him out of any property inheritance.
Maternal great grandfather was a successful businessman, owned a string of retail shops and an extensive property portfolio. Grandfather was a lawyer and a politician, in the days that politicians were honest. They regarded their work as a service to the community, financed their political campaigns primarily out of their own money.
He was also a gambler, another expensive pastime. The main form of gambling was British horse racing. Every suburb in Colombo had a few betting shops, and we had one down our street. Mainstream newspapers carried results from previous day’s races. My grandfather gambled away a fortune. My grandmother owned the properties; however, it was not difficult to get her to sign on the dotted lines to sell them. After all, he was a lawyer. When grandma realised what was happening, only the house they were living in was left.
There we were, my mother with little money and father with a lower middle -class income in a developing country, a large family to support. He tried to study and be a professional accountant, which would have increased his salary. He talked about getting up pre-dawn, drinking coffee and soaking his feet in a cold water bath to avoid falling asleep. Marriage, children and a full- time job proved too much of an obstacle in the end.
We were living pay-check to pay-check, sufficient money to put food on the table, not much left for anything else. Most companies paid a ‘bonus’, an extra month’s pay, on special occasions like Christmas or the local New Year. That paid for any ‘extras’, like clothing and text-books for school.
Often though, the money ran out before we could buy shoes, one of the more expensive pieces of attire. The adage ‘you can tell a gentleman by his shoes’ was apt back then. Shoes became tight and scuffed, bit into my toes, scraping the skin before we could afford to replace them. Toes retreated inwards and upwards; a cycle repeated many times. My toes had become permanently deformed. We could only buy shoes with a high front end, to avoid painful toes and torn skin.
Poverty was a lack of cash. My parents spent very little on alcohol, perhaps on a special occasion or when we had visitors. There were no takeaways or restaurant dining or vacations. The only thing you could call exorbitant was the sky-high interest on payday loans, sometimes the only option to put food on the table.
My toes are still deformed.
Scars of child poverty are often lifelong. Poverty itself is often permanent, sometimes intergenerational. Effect of poverty-related issues like poor health and lack of education are often lifelong. Work opportunities are usually at the low end of the wage scale, jobs precarious and work, hard physical.
Eradicating child poverty is necessary and beneficial to society. If you want to have lower healthcare cost, a more productive workforce, a happier community, we need to spend more money upfront, early in a child’s life.
Global Financial Crisis, 2008. Wall Street was in meltdown. The crisis sparked by reckless lending by American banks had spread way beyond the USA. They were giving loans to the rich, the poor, the poor and elderly, without any risk review. Banks granting the loans knew they shouldn’t be giving out these loans, they wouldn’t get their money back. ‘No doc loans’ and ‘liar’s loans’ issued by major banks and some smaller banks. Stuff which appeared like a scene out of a fantasy story playing out in real life. Banks for whom risk management should be the first precept in the bible ignored all rules, laws, principles and ethics.
Financial deregulation had led to ‘exotic products’, bad loans bundled up with the good and sold as triple-A-rated. You could mix good apples with rotten, sell them at the price of good apples, making a profit. Pack them in brown paper bags; people bought the apples without being able to check their condition. They, in turn, would sell these to someone else, who sold to someone else, who sold to someone else etc. all making a profit. It does look and feel like a fantasy story.
Banks in other countries would join the charade; they didn’t want to miss out on lucrative profits. Then it came down a house of cards.
Some of the more affluent countries were able to bail out the banks. Greece was less affluent. The structure and politics of the EU are not conducive to helping these countries in an economic crisis.
The government of Greece collapsed. Fresh elections saw the left-wing Syriza party, campaigning on an anti-austerity platform win 10% of the votes. The newly elected government collapsed within a few months. Yet another election; Syriza won 36% of the vote, enough to form the next government. The dramatic swing to the left reflected the deep dissatisfaction of the Greek people. Yanis Varoufakis found himself as the Finance Minister of the new Syriza led government.
Post -World War11 Greece was led twice by the armed forces, following coups overthrowing democratic governments. Yanis’s father was a political activist who was imprisoned by a military-junta, tortured to make a false confession, which he resisted. This experience left a deep impression on his young son.
Yanis was an obscure economics professor in an American university; shoulder tapped by Syriza party to be their economic advisor and later appointed Finance Minister.
To say that the Greek government was in an economic crisis at that time was an understatement. They were nearly bankrupt and fighting for survival. Negotiations held with a ‘troika’ of three parties- European Union (represented by their finance ministers – Eurogroup), European Central Bank and the IMF. A tough negotiation, made worse by troika’s prejudice towards a left-wing government.
The new government, with a strong mandate from the Greek people, expected flexibility and a realistic approach from the troika. What they found was an inflexible foe, who wanted even tighter conditions than they had conceded to the previous government. The Eurogroup led by the Dutch Finance Minister Jerome Djesselbohm proved to be the harshest party in this negotiation. They embarked on a course of ‘maximum pressure’, which nearly brought the Greek economy and the banks to a complete shutdown. The inflexible position effectively shut off the possibility of a deal. While many people in this story came off poorly, Jerome was probably the most disliked.
Long hours of negotiations came to an impasse and conditions the troika were demanding were extremely unpalatable and unrealistic.
Syriza was extremely unhappy with the ‘deal’ that was offered but agreed to hold a referendum so that the Greek people could have the final say. Syriza would campaign against the deal and outline what rejecting the agreement would involve- leaving the EU and a hard road ahead. The Greek people would retain their pride and independence, instead of bowing to the troika. The Greek people voted to reject the deal.
Then came an entirely unexpected twist in the saga. The Greek Prime Minister and leader of the Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras blinked. He rejected the will of the people and opted to accept the deal offered by the troika.
Yanis resigned as he could not agree to reject the people’s will, the primacy of the people. Nearly a third of Syriza MPs refused to back Tsipras, triggering the 5th election in 6 years. Syriza won the election, which Tsipras considered as a mandate to reject the referendum vote and accept conditions laid down by the EU.
A few passages from the book are so memorable that they stick in my mind till now. Christine Lagarde head of IMF at the time admitted privately to Yanis that the deal was not viable. Still, they had too much politically invested, and it was too late to back down. As ‘adults in the room’ they had to go ahead with the deal, hence the title of the book.
Greece would be in ‘debtors prison’ for a very long time. The troika was pushing for a fire sale of Greek government assets, at a time where the market was at it’s lowest ebb. At one point they were insisting that even the Parthenon be on the block! Suicides by Greek pensioners, whose pensions were cut by 30% or more. Remarks by Larry Sommers to Yanis, ‘You need to be an insider to get a deal. If you are an insider, you cannot criticize other insiders’, effectively saying criticism of those in power meant shutting off the possibility of a deal.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble ‘we cannot negotiate a deal just because there is a new government’. A government of an EU nation elected with a mandate from their people to renegotiate terms of an agreement had no right to do so. Yanis expected negotiations with the EU to be tough and challenging; but most disheartening was the lack of support from his party. Especially the Prime Minister, Deputy PM and people he considered close friends.
Lack of support from American President Barack Obama, whose words turned out to be empty. The only American politician to support him was Bernie Sanders, an obscure senator from Vermont at the time. Writing to Christine Lagarde that American funding of EU shouldn’t inflict more pain on the Greek people, threatening to block funding.
The book is a blistering criticism of EU, IMF and ECB, prominent figures in those establishments and their approach towards economically less affluent countries like Greece and Spain in a crisis. The Greek economy shrank by 30%; a result worse than the US economy at the height of the Great Depression. The unemployment rate reached 26% (youth unemployment rate of 50%) and is still around 15%, ten years on from the crisis. Economic targets proved to be unrealistic, debt repayments which were supposed to end by 2040, look unlikely. A recent proposal by the IMF aims to end repayments by 2080! Greece is in ‘Debtors Prison’, and it appears for a very long time.
EU approach to economic crisis now caused by COVID19 appears just as ineffectual. Funding released is far less than required, with some commentators casting doubts whether EU itself will survive.
Diabetes, along with closely linked heart disease, is responsible for thedeaths of more New Zealanders each year than any other condition.
My mother died of diabetes complications. She struggled with this disease for years. She took insulin orally at first, as her condition worsened she had to go to the hospital for injections. She was hospitalised many times and finally became another casualty of diabetes. She took her medicine faithfully, lifestyle changes- probably not.
John’s story is probably typical for a diabetic and highlights challenges faced in tackling the disease. “The word is relentless because that’s how it feels. My first response to being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2009 was one of frustration and resentment. I didn’t want to be diabetic. I was frustrated that it meant changing my lifestyle, which at the time, I hadn’t prepared to do. I did nothing.
My wife and I were with my daughter up in Ripon one day in 2017, and I remember waking up Friday morning and being very, very breathless. They rushed an ambulance to me. Looking into the eyes of my wife and daughter and thinking ‘I’m not ready to die’. Self-inflicted and I’ve done this to them; a result of my non-engagement.
I vowed then if I got through it, then I would start to make some changes to the way I lived. I would take this seriously”.
6% of our total population have diabetes (another 2% have diabetes without being aware of it). Incidence of diabetes has nearly doubled over the last 12 years, population increase, aging of the population and rising obesity, being the contributing factors. People of Māori, Pacific and South-Asian ethnicity, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged; bear a disproportionate burden of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The prevalence rate for Maori/Pacific is three times that of European. The mortality rate for Maori/Pacific is even higher, nearly five times that of European/Other. Prevalence of diabetes among people aged 65 and over is 15 to 20% of the population. The aging population and rising obesity mean that the number of diabetics is likely to increase further.
The age at which we get diabetes is also getting younger. Those who get diabetes below the age of 40 have a much higher rate of developing other complications like heart disease and early mortality. Incidence of diabetes for the age group 30-39, while still low, has doubled over the last 12 years.
New Zealand has a diabetes problem, fuelled in part by high rates of obesity. It is the largest and fastest-growing health issue we face in New Zealand. Our pacific island neighbours have some of the highest incidences of diabetes in the world. While the Ministry of Health doesn’t have an estimate of the budget spent on Diabetes, NHS in the UK estimates they spend a whopping 10% of their total budget on diabetes.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease where your body cannot control its blood sugar levels properly due to a lack of insulin. Or your cells have become resistant to insulin. There are two types of diabetes. About 10% of people with diabetes have Diabetes1, which is more likely to be hereditary and not preventable. The vast majority have Diabetes 2, which is closely linked to obesity. There is no cure for diabetes, but it can be prevented and controlled.
What is pre-diabetic?
Pre-diabetics have a high sugar level, but below the threshold considered diabetic. 16% of the population aged 45 and younger is pre-diabetic. An estimated 40% of Maori, Pacific and Indian population aged 35-39 in Auckland are pre-diabetic.
For most of us, diabetes can be prevented by eating healthy and exercising. It can also be detected at the pre-diabetic stage with a simple blood test, with a good chance of preventing from progressing to full-blown diabetes.
Living with diabetes
In theory, this is an easily solvable problem, Screen and blood test everyone at high risk. Prevent or control with medication and lifestyle changes. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, numbers are on the rise in almost every part of the world. One of the most challenging issues is changing lifelong habits of diet and sedentary lifestyle.
Diabetes Initiatives – New Zealand
‘Living well with diabetes 2015-2015’ project launched by the Ministry of Health is the main initiative to reduce diabetes. This plan targeted a 20 to 30 per cent reduction in the rate of new cases by 2020 as well as targets for reducing deaths, life expectancy and reducing complications. The broad action areas targeted by the plan are sound, and it aims to reduce diabetes using a mixture of awareness, information, screening and intervention. There is a lack of detail on which parts of the plan are complete, and the ministry has no status update (it is currently gathering this data from the DHBs). The program has not achieved ambitious goals set; however, the increase in the prevalence of diabetes appears to have slowed down.
There are broad-based initiatives which will reduce diabetes. ‘Healthy families NZ’ promotes the diet and an active lifestyle. Health star rating a voluntary code for food labelling.
Diabetes New Zealand is a non-profit aiming to provide information and support, also an advocacy group for people with diabetes and those at high risk.
International Diabetes Federation has done a comprehensive analysis of over 70 trial programs carried out all over the world to come up with some of the success factors in tackling diabetes. Many of their recommendations have come from studies done in Australia,
Some of these ideas are
Diabetes screening- Using an online risk assessment tool.
Blood testing for those identified as high risk.
Comprehensive lifestyle intervention programs, through group counselling sessions, telephone or webchat. Currently, all states in Australia run these programs.
Medication where appropriate
Public Health initiatives- A sugar tax, promotion of healthy diets in schools and kindergartens, prominent food labelling and regulation of food/soft drink marketing.
Is there value in screening the whole population say over the age of 45? Probably, this is not something current practised. Is it worthwhile running public awareness campaigns, similar to drink driving or dangerous driving? Possibly.
Getting people identified as diabetic, pre-diabetic or high risk to get tested and make the diet and lifestyle changes required has been challenging. Changing a lifestyle and diet, bedded in over many decades, is not easy. Psychological support is very much an essential part of treatment and long-term care.
Keeping safe- what can you do?
Healthy diet and exercise would be a perfect place to start.
Should we accept poverty rates double that of the 1980s? A quarter of children in poverty?
Moving houses, always moving – stressful. Having to move in the middle of the night – unable to pay rent, scary. – From a young persons’ group, Paeroa
Cold – got hardly any clothes, looking for some. Wonder if there’s any money in here [clothing bin]. No money, no clothes! Desperate. – Anonymous, Paeroa
Not getting proper opportunities like going on school trips, hard to take part in things like sports and other activities. – From a young persons’ group, Dunedin
It’s a tough night’s sleep. It’s normal. It’s better than listening to my parents fighting and drinking all the time… I’m hungry, I’m cold, and I don’t want to go home. It’s no use going back to no food in the cupboards. I’m alright here! – Mere, Paeroa [wrapped in a mat and sleeping under a bridge]
Teachers were causing shame to students in front of their peers because they have no stationery, uniform etc. Schools should deal with parents and not punish the kids for not having shoes, books, etc. – From a young persons’ group, Whanganui
Poverty rates in New Zealand (after housing costs) are double that of 1982. Almost a quarter of children live in poverty (in households earning less than 50% of median income). In the words of Dr Liang – “If we had a rock star economy, we forgot to invite a lot of people to the party”.
Economic reforms in the late 1980s have been particularly harsh on the poor. We changed from a society where one could leave our doors open for the neighbours to pop in and borrow sugar, to a community where we install alarm systems to stave off burglars. Gang memberships have soared in poverty-ridden parts of the country.
“History is written by the rich, and so the poor get blamed for everything.” — Jeffrey D. Sachs, economist
Many of us have little or no connection with the poor and attribute poverty to lack of will or effort. We judge them from our armchairs without any evidence as spongers, living on our tax dollars, spending their money on drinking and gambling. The reality of poverty is very different; budgeting services will tell you that a vast majority of those on low incomes are conscientious about their spending. Poverty is a lack of cash, a lack of opportunity, not a lack of will.
Deprivations from a very young age leave lasting scars. If you start a race fifty metres behind the rest and face more obstacles along the way, only a few fastest and fittest will catch up with the rest of the pack?
We are an affluent country in the developed world, is poverty a lack of resources or how we are using them?
Economics of poverty
As well as a terrible human cost, there is an economic cost for poverty. An investment to lift people out of poverty is one that will be paid back in full, with interest.
Higher healthcare cost from diabetes, asthma and other poverty-related diseases. Higher labour cost due to low productivity, higher spend for a prison population at an estimated $100K per person, and higher social housing cost can be reduced significantly.
There are also issues which can be solved without spending a dime, where the government refuses to act because there is a political cost. A sugar tax and restrictions on the sale of food and drinks with high sugar content to curb diabetes and obesity. Limits and restrictions on the promotion of payday loans, curbs on gambling and pokie machines. Should we in the 21st century accept cash trucks driving around poor neighbourhoods enticing vulnerable people with easy cash and charging over 500% interest?
Reducing poverty and helping them to become more productive members of society is a saving, not a cost, money well spent. Economists estimate the cost of poverty at 3 to 4% of GDP, which in the case of New Zealand is $6 to 8bn every single year.
What causes poverty and how does it affect the poor
‘I believe that every American should have stable, dignified housing; health care; education – that the very basic needs to sustain modern life should be guaranteed in a moral society’- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
The causes of poverty are closely related, an interwoven web feeding each other, compounding and causing lifelong, even intergenerational impacts. A lack of cash impacts on everything – food, housing, health and education. Poor houses cause health problems. Hunger and obesity adversely impact education and health. A lack of a good education means a lack of cash, later in life.
Part of any successful strategy to reduce child poverty must involve increasing the level of assistance to families on benefits. – Michael Fletcher, Senior Research Fellow, University of Victoria, Wellington
Increases in Families Package will have a significant impact and expected to lift 64,000 children out of poverty by 2021. Taxes are certainly part of the answer. Introduction of GST in the late 1980s and subsequent increases have impacted harshly on the poor; decreases in Income Tax and the abolition of wealth taxes have mainly helped the well off.
The single largest cause of poverty in New Zealand today is housing, there are 70,000 more children in poverty after housing cost (compared to before housing cost). A sell-off of public housing and rising rents due to long neglect of housing issues, especially by the National governments has led to a severe deterioration of housing affordability, for the young and the poor. We have started increasing social housing, on the flip side, the signature affordable housing program hasn’t got off the ground, which has meant rising rents. Over 30% of our housing is too cold in the winter. Crowded houses often meant there is no quiet space for studying, no internet or a computer.
The number of social housing units built by the current labour government, mandatory insulation standards for rental housing, winter energy subsidy are all steps in the right direction. We need more social housing units, many more.
The poor children are poor in health as well, the hospitalisation rate for children in the lowest income segment is double that of the wealthiest 20%. The cost to the health system is high; just the cost of diabetes estimate is 5 to 10% of the total health budget. Impacts of poor health can be lifelong. The cold and draughty homes and high cost of heating lead to poor health, high rates of respiratory illnesses and asthma/wheezing. The new insulation standards and winter energy allowance will make a difference.
Obesity and closely related diabetes and heart diseases are the single largest cause of death in New Zealand. Child mortality rates of all New Zealanders decreased significantly in recent years due to medical advances. However, the poorest are still dying at three times the rates of the wealthiest. Our child death rate is much higher than in Australia, twice as high as Ireland and Finland.
“Poverty is a very complicated issue, but feeding a child isn’t.” — Jeff Bridges, actor
An excerpt below from Dr Liang’s article.
In 2010, different research suggested the problem had increased. In a survey of Dunedin and Wellington families, 47% of low-income families reported they often ran out of food due to a lack of money. This group could also afford fewer vegetables per week, highlighting that many families may need to choose between quantity and quality when it comes to food.
Yes, we’re back to the issue of “poor lifestyle”. It is a sad irony of our globalised world that the cheapest items in our supermarkets are the most processed items from the furthest away. These are often high in processed fats and carbohydrates, resulting in higher cholesterol intake and increased risk for obesity. And yet, we still judge people at the checkout counter for the “choices” they make.
Education is perhaps the success story of the recent past; we have significantly narrowed the rich-poor gap.
Poverty by Ethnicity
Nearly one in four Maori children (23%) live in households with material hardship, the rates are even higher for Pacific (28%). Material hardship for Maori and Pacific is approximately two and a half times that of European. These inequities transfer in later life to unemployment, earnings, health issues and higher imprisonment rates.
New Zealand’s poverty rate has been improving but still below the OECD average, and worse than Australia while Nordic countries do much better.
The previous National government refused to even agree on how to measure poverty, let alone set a target. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made reduced child poverty a central plank of her economic program and set 3 and 10-year poverty reduction targets. Child poverty rate (children in households earning less than 50% of median income) has declined by 2% points for the year 2019, lifted 18,000 out of poverty. Children in material hardship, however, has gone up marginally. We begin 2020 with 151,000 children in households with material hardship and 235,000 children in poverty
Lifting children out of poverty
The two things that can make the most impacts on improving poverty in New Zealand are increasing the benefit and building more social housing. Budget 2020 promises 8,000 more houses, more money for winter heating and free school lunches, but not a great deal of extra cash, considering the massive $ 50bn in additional spending. Perhaps more could have been done. At least we are moving in the right direction. Let’s hope this government is serious in its efforts to reach the targets set for reductions in child poverty; succeeding governments will not move the needle backwards.
Poverty rate compared to 1982 – double
Number of children in poverty – 235,000 (21%)
Number of children in material hardship – 151,000 (13%)
Increase in hospitalisation for under 15s since 1991 – 56%
Hospitalisations for the poorest 20% of population vs the wealthiest – 2 times
Respiratory hospitalisations- poorest 20% vs the wealthiest – 3 times, asthma – 2 times
Infant deaths compared to Finland and Ireland – 2 times