Why the West needs a new social movement for progress.
By Pepijn Vloemans
Once you notice one, you see them everywhere: calls to charge the ‘real’ price of products. From eating meat to flying to using fossil fuels: everything that damages the environment must become more expensive. There’s even an organisation dedicated to making things cost more. If we were to charge the real price, or so goes the idea, the problem would solve itself automatically.
This notion is problematic. The issue here is not the analysis – it’s true that the harmful effects of fossil fuels, flying and meat are not priced in. The problem is the conclusion: that prices should be raised.
Making stuff more expensive or even banning certain things may be a good way to enforce positive change on companies, but it’s simply unimaginative as a motto to convince a broader public.
Living in a rich country brings a moral duty to accelerate the search for better, cleaner technology
Over 200 years ago, people used animal oil, including from whales, for lighting. At that time, the harmful effects of dangerous and cruel whaling were not priced in. The solution was not to increase whale oil prices, but to scale up better, cleaner, cheaper, less cruel alternatives – initially gas from coal, then the incandescent lamp, and now the ultra-efficient LED lamp.
Here’s a representation of the effect on the cost of lighting:
Please don’t get me wrong. I understand the calls to make things more expensive. The pricing mechanism has a role in speeding up the phasing out of technology that is already in decline. It can work very well motivating companies to find new solutions. I’m not against higher prices in principle. But it has to be done in the right order, and should never be the focus of a social movement.
The question we need to ask is how to accelerate ways to create wealth that happens to be sustainable as well.
Using animal fats for lighting was extremely inefficient and cruel compared to modern LEDs. We may think, oh, whale hunting was something we did ages ago. But if we are honest, we have to conclude that many of today’s production methods – such as raising livestock for our food and clothes, and burning fossil fuels for electricity and transport – are closer to using animal fat than to the extreme efficiency of LED lighting. We’re still miles away from what is possible.
I believe that living in a rich country brings a moral duty to accelerate the search for better, cleaner technology.
Consuming less is local, inventing new technology is universal
Related to the call for making things more expensive is the call for degrowth. According to this argument, economic growth comes at the expense of the climate, nature and people. Therefore, downsizing the economy is the solution. Again, the analysis is correct – indeed, the current technology we use to create wealth is hopelessly outdated. But again, the conclusion – contraction of the economy – is incorrect.
Yes, we need to wipe polluting and cruel industries off the face of the earth. But to achieve that, the technologies creating wealth without abusing animals and degrading the Earth will need to become bigger and better.
Let’s be specific. To increase the prosperity of a growing world population while reducing the use of land, fossil fuels and livestock, we will need decades of serious development in everything from precision fermentation and cultured meat when it comes to producing food, to biochemistry for manufacturing materials, to advanced nuclear power, solar, wind and batteries for making clean energy.
Consuming less is local, inventing new technology is universal.
The story of lower prices is simply more appealing to a much larger population than the story of higher prices
Instead of advocating for raising prices, governments should set the explicit goal of lowering prices. The cost of education, shelter, food and transport must fall, while ensuring that our environmental impact decreases. The only way to achieve this is to develop new technology. The spectacular fall in the price of renewable energy shows how it can be done.
This approach has two advantages:
Psychological: the story of lower prices (and, oh, yeah, by the way, things will also become more sustainable) is simply more appealing to a much larger population than the story of higher prices.
Strategic: a small, rich country like the Netherlands (where I happen to live) can be a lever for progress. By stimulating a breakthrough here in, for example, brewing food from cells instead of slaughtering animals, we can advance the field of cellular agriculture globally.
If we don’t tell this story of progress, the myriad sectional interests of the status quo will win the battle, resulting in stagnation. Stagnation is to the economy what entropy is to the universe: it takes continuous energy, planning and effort to overcome it.
Stagnation comes in many guises. Affluent people will want to establish a rentier economy with low taxes on wealth. Bureaucracies will want to avoid risk by making ever more rules. Homeowners will go out of their way to block housing development in their area, denying others access to the nicer and more productive places to live.
And vested interests – think energy companies, carmakers, agribusinesses – will use lobbying to try to frustrate regulations for the common good as long as possible.
If we don’t tell a new story of progress, the interests of the status quo will win the battle, resulting in stagnation
In the Netherlands, the government will be spending tens of billions of euros to solve the nitrogen crisis caused by the livestock industry and offset soaring energy prices. Further billions are spent on subsidising homeowners, farmers and industry. The Dutch government has become a compensation machine for special interests. This is typical of any nation facing stagnation.
If we keep spending most public money on the demand side of the economy, we will fuel inflation and maintain the status quo. What we need are targeted policies to stimulate the supply side. In other words: we need to force innovation to happen and break vested interests.
What then is the programme of progress? It’s an agenda of abundance.
What's that? Well, to start with:
We require policies to bring down the price of housing. Massively building beautiful homes – e.g. government-owned – in cities where people want to work should be a priority. The voice of youth, the homeless, the non-homeowners – basically everyone but the homeowner class – should focus on dramatically adding housing in places where the jobs are, avoiding the need for a car to commute.
Assuming we can build enough housing, controlled immigration should be back on the agenda. We need immigration to offset our ageing population and declining birth rate. I want to live in a country that grows (and stays) young and rich. The other option is to slowly become poor and irrelevant. (So far, Canada seems to be the only country to understand this.)
To make all the necessary investments and break our current rentier economy, we should increase taxes on wealth and reduce taxes on labour. Such an intervention will restore the social contract underlying liberalism.
Science has become a bureaucratic juggernaut, focused on incremental discoveries. Here, too, we need to think of ways to break the stagnation, for instance by adopting a parallel way of doing science whereby young scientists are allowed to follow their own curiosity (see also the brand new ARIA in the UK) and experiment more, such as by abandoning peer review and simplifying bureaucracy.
Universities can launch student competitions for radical innovations that the market ignores, such as building tunnels quickly and cheaply, or electric aviation. Why are we still running competitions for solar cars when all the big carmakers are already spending billions on electric driving?
While our current industry is largely petrochemical and polluting, the future will be built with biology: organic, clean and local. Instead of supporting today’s polluting industries, we need to accelerate the advent of biotech. Cells, not smokestacks, are the nanofactories of the future. We can reprogramme them to make everything for us – from clothes to chemicals, from building materials to food, from medicines to compostable packaging materials.
We have to stop eating animals. The cow is simply incompatible with the 21st century. With cultured meat and precision fermentation, we can solve this and reclaim a huge portion of land area from agriculture, returning it to nature.
We need new, inspiring journalistic platforms with a focus on progress, rationality and effective altruism. Current journalism focuses too much on negative news and problems. News has a great role in putting issues on the agenda – but in its current form is not particularly inspiring. There are plenty of individuals, companies and organisations worth portraying.
Let’s end the stagnation and build a clean, abundant future.
Let’s Make Things Cheaper.
Pepijn Vloemans is a writer, based in Amsterdam. He’s co-founder of the Ten Percent Club, an organisation of effective altruists, and curates a newsletter ‘on progress and other undervalued ideas’. This article came with the help of Marieke de Visscher, Brendan Haddan and Renée Frissen.