Why problems caused by money may not always be best solved by money
Climate, Money and Boiling Frogs
Are we all frogs being slowly heated on a warming planet?
The Boiling Frog metaphor is so powerful, it has its own Wikipedia page.
It’s so widely used, it’s one of those scientific facts that’s become common knowledge. Primary school kids know it. Pub bores know it. Once we learn about the Boiling Frog, we can’t wait for our opportunity to impress someone else with the same zinger.
Place a frog in a pan of hot water, we’ll tell them sagely, and it will leap out. Yet place a frog in a pan of cold water and turn up the heat, and the frog will stay in it rather than try to escape. It’s the human condition.
To grasp the concept of the Boiling Frog is to see a metaphorical application:
- Feminists use it to warn against the slippery slope of normalising domestic abuse
- Libertarians use it to sound the alarm at the Wokerati’s insidious erosion of civil liberties
- Climate activists use it to describe humanity’s oblivious, slow-motion self-destruction
Al Gore cited the Boiling Frog in his 2006 An Inconvenient Truth, and it’s not hard to find other climate activists using the same image, sometimes as a warning, sometimes in despair.
The Boiling Frog is so apposite for Global Heating, it’s barely metaphorical. We’re literally heating our atmosphere to the point we can no longer live. Billionaire fantasist rocket men apart, we have no means of escaping it.
There may be another reason the Boiling Frog has become such a powerful metaphor – human hubris.
Just as it’s the human condition to accustom ourselves to gradually changing circumstances, we also like to believe we’re smarter than average.
It’s not just Flat Earthers and conspiracy theorists who believe they’re uniquely endowed with clear vision and the rest of the world is populated by dumb animals/idiots/ignoramuses.
The Boiling Frog metaphor casts the teller as the wise, dispassionate observer of human folly, tutting and shaking our heads at the frog’s narrow perspective as we look down at the pan.
We never think of ourselves as the frog.
But, of course, that’s the very nature of being a dumb animal/idiot/ignoramus.
The Hope Bit, Already
Discussions of human-induced climate change tends to follow the same trajectory – a long downward slope of despair, with a mandatory Hope Bit at the end.
The Hope Bit is a coda, a tiny tick at the bottom of a sweeping, bold downward diagonal, a little upward mark left by a calligrapher’s brush as it leaves the paper.
For a change, here’s an early Hope Bit.
Irresistible though the metaphor has been for philosophers and conspiracy theorists, biologists have always known it’s not actually true.
Of course frogs try to escape when it gets too hot. In fact, different species of frogs have slightly different ‘critical thermal maxima’, and jump out at different temperatures.
Which means the question isn’t whether we’re all doomed to boil ourselves to death.
It’s at what point do we realise it’s time to take action? We can’t jump out of the pot, as we only have one planet.
So we’ll have to reach out a webbed limb and turn the gas off.
Money v Carbon
Leaving the boiling frogs on the hob, let’s look at our actual pot.
What all humans, enlightened and ignorant, have in common, is that we inhabit the same planet.
What do astronauts, or billionaires, in orbit, looking down at our spherical blue jewel see that we can’t? What are we all sitting in, as the temperature is gradually turned up?
Two things, one invisible, the other visible.
- The base unit of all life on Earth, present in every molecule of life on Earth, from the thin green smear covering the crust to the bottom of its deep blue oceans
- An abstraction invented 5,000 years ago by a 300,000-year-old species
We speak, of course, of Money and Carbon.
Seen like this, it seems absurd to choose which we should take more seriously. Incredibly, we’re not even asking ourselves the question.
Humans have created our pan, our hob and gas. We’re not drowning in money, but money is providing the gas that’s heating the pan.
Money so dominates our lives, society, governments and perceptions, we’re no longer even aware of it.
It’s not as if we don’t understand the alternative. The first 295,000 years of our existence have left their mark on our everyday personal relationships, the ones that reflect the dynamics of small tribal groups. Amongst our family, friends, close circles,communities, we value things like:
- Mutual aid
Yet we’re so habituated to Money, we don’t think these values apply to ‘the real world’. There, squidgy values like the list above are replaced by metrics like:
- Share prices
- Net Worth
- Return On Investment
- Rich Lists
- Government policy
These are measured, weighed, evaluated and meted out in ‘fiat’ currencies, like dollars, euros, renminbi, yen and pounds.
The clue’s in the name. The Oxford English dictionary defines it as ‘an arbitrary order, a decree’. In other words, an abstraction, an invention, a confection, a made-up thing.
Language, homo sapiens’ greatest invention, also betrays our worst delusions.
- Money talks
- Money makes the world go round
- Time is money
None of these things are actually true. So why do we treat self-evident falsehoods as truisms?
Because we’re all wearing Money goggles.
Money Goggle Gaslighting
Seeing money as the solution to all our problems is a form of capitalist gaslighting.
The ‘everything looks like a nail to a man with a hammer’ adage bears more scrutiny than the pseudo-scientific one about Boiling Frogs. Our perceptions very much frame our actions.
View the world through money goggles, and they filter out all the non-financial wavelengths. All problems appear as Money Problems. All solutions appear as Money Solutions.
Money is so ubiquitous, valuing things via the proxy of money is so ‘natural’, that we barely question it. Other people’s status, our own self-worth, a tree, a whale, all have to be translated into fiat currencies, printed on a price tag, before we know how much they’re worth.
As David Graeber pointed out in his 2011 Debt: The First 5000 Years, money isn’t ‘natural’ at all. We survived the first 98.3% of our existence without it.
Earth is based on carbon, money is a recent human construct. Keep prioritising Money over Carbon, treating ‘green’ issues and ‘impact’ solutions as discretionary bolt-ons, and our problems will only grow.
Business As Usual
Reality, regrettably, is steadily defeating climate denialism.
Every new flood, fire and drought is making the goal of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels more urgent and obvious, and the excuses for inaction more transparent.
Big Oil and the institutions it’s captured aren’t giving up, of course. The Three-Headed Beasts of Government, Business and Media still roam the earth. There’s still plenty of money to be made by transferring the remaining carbon in the ground to the atmosphere.
Still, there’s hope for the nimble mammals dodging between their lumbering dinosaur legs. The well-funded efforts of Big Oil and its proxies to suppress climate action, and sabotage the efforts of those seeking to reverse Global Heating is becoming harder, as climate change becomes a current reality, rather than a ‘controversial’ future possibility.
When Greece simultaneously burns and drowns, pretending business as usual is working just fine gets harder.
But can Business As Usual solve the problem it’s created?
The notion of leveraging market forces, and money, to solve the problem created by the pursuit of profit and elevation of shareholder value over all else is beguiling. The economic theory behind carbon trading is economically elegant, with a physician-heal-thyself appeal.
But in real life, doctors make really bad patients, because their profession tends to make them see themselves as different from the rest of us. Why should the world of finance be different?
Asking Finance to solve the problems it’s helped create is like asking a martial artist to ju-jitsu himself onto the mat, or a boxer to punch himself into submission.
[No apologies about the male pronouns, in case you were wondering. Not many women have contributed to our self-asphyxiation over the past 200 years since we started digging up coal. Nor the previous 5,000 since agriculture disbanded our hunter-gather groups and concentrated us into cities, civilisations. Or run the capital markets offering Finance that replaced the kind of markets that could actually feed us.]
So why should we be surprised that Business As Usual has comprehensively failed to solve the huge problem it inadvertently created? If you’re in any doubt about this failure:
- We’ve written elsewhere in detail about why three decades of market-based solutions and voluntary offsets have so comprehensively failed to address climate change
- If you prefer academic evidence, there’s Dr. Joseph Romm’s ‘Are carbon offsets unscalable, unjust, and unfixable – and a threat to the Paris Climate Agreement? (spoiler alert – like most headlines ending in a question mark, the answer is ‘Yes’).
- If 50-page academic papers aren’t your thing, there’s Heidi Blake’s wonderfully readable ‘The Great Cash-for-Carbon Hustle’ exposeé in the New Yorker
Even for those with the thickest Money Goggles, the remaining true believers that unregulated capitalism can save itself, must be a struggle to explain why, more than three decades after the first carbon trading scheme, emissions are still rising.
Money Gogglist true believers, who believe the current system can be redeemed by a little tinkering, rather than being completely replaced by something radically different, are running out of collaborators.
Delegates getting ready for COP28 in Dubai are considering how to re-draft Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, the bit that covers the ‘mechanism’ of compelling corporations to rapidly, measurably and significantly fully reduce carbon.
When the sultan put in charge of running a UN climate conference, who sees no need to even temporarily step down from running the UAE’s state oil company, can’t keep a straight face when defending current offsetting schemes, you know that ship is sinking.
Money Scorpions and Frogs
It’s not Money’s fault.
Like the scorpion that promises not to stings the frog if it carries it across the river, but then breaks its promise and condemns them both to death, it’s simply ‘in its nature’. Money is the Scorpion, Human Civilization the Frog.
[What is it with frogs and climate metaphors? We haven’t even broached the frog in the well yet.]
Finance thrives by finding points of weakness and arbitraging them. It requires asymmetric access to information. It depends on monetising proprietary intellectual property. Regulations are there to be gamed – the more complex the regulations, the greater the opportunity for profit.
As Carbon Accounting 1.0 has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, with ever-more complex rules, interpreted by dozens of competing commercial standards, in multiple jurisdictions, it’s created boom industries in carbon auditing, greenwashing and kicking the can down the road. But it’s done nothing to stop climate change, let alone reverse it.
Without replacing Carbon Accounting 1.0 with something that works, it’s a matter of time before Money and Human Civilisation join Scorpion and Frog on the river bed.
If three decades of financial tinkering has resulted in more CO2, it’s delusional to gamble our future on marginally better tinkering.
Money has had its chance to fix a huge problem caused by money, it’s time to introduce a non-financial player.
Business As Unusual
To reduce carbon, you must first measure it.
Currently, to calculate their carbon footprints, countries, councils, multinationals, SMEs and individuals choose from dozens of competing carbon auditing standards, many backed by venture capital, competing for a share of a hot market. They all have one or more ICOP features:
- Inaccurate: markets incentivize lowest numbers at lowest cost, AKA greenwash
- Costly: they’re businesses
- Opaque: disadvantages competitors
- Proprietary: IP is their value proposition
For decades, ICOP auditors have used financial tools to fix a problem created by money. Yet global emissions still rise. Why risk combatting an existential threat by tinkering with a demonstrably unfit system?
See Through Carbon is radically different because it’s AFOT:
- Accurate: applying best available practice/resources
- Free: costs users nothing
- Open-Source: incorporates improvements as they emerge
- Transparent: best defence against corruption
See Through Carbon, with no bank account, created by a global network of expert volunteers on zero budget, challenges the status quo, asking:
‘If you can’t buy integrity, why should you be able to sell it?’.
Unlike its ICOP ‘competitors’, STC doesn’t depend on conventional financial tools, incentives or structures. By operating outside finance, STC facilitates the efficacy of regulated market economics, as we face humanity’s greatest challenge.
When business as usual has failed, it’s time to try business as unusual.
The Innsbruck Goggle Experiments
If this is all getting a bit heavy and you fancy a giggle, try this 1950 black-and-white footage of two earnest emigré Russian professors self-experimenting with their upside-down goggles on the Innsbruck University campus.
The Innsbruck Goggle Experiments is a YouTube classic, combining po-faced professors with inadvertent Buster Keaton visual gaggery. For ten minutes, you can watch (mute, with German subtitles) Professors Ivo Kohler and Theodor Erismann conduct their experiment using their ‘Inversion Goggles’.
It’s a hoot. Solemn, bearded Prof Erismann solicitously holds the elbow of his younger colleague, the be-goggled Prof Kohnler, as the latter bumps into chairs, stumbles down stairs, and grabs thin air when proffered phantom balloons by young children.
They were demonstrating an insight into human brain wiring observed by George Stratton in California in 1931. Physicists and opticians had long realised that the images cast on our retinas are actually ‘upside down’. On the way to our brains, we somehow invert them to appear ‘the right way up’.
Stratton, Kohler and Erismann reverse-engineered this process by inventing ‘inversion goggles’ that put the world to rights (or wrongs), by projecting ‘upside-down’ images on their retinas.
Hilarity ensues, but the experiment demonstration a remarkable biological fact. In a remarkably short period, our brains can ‘re-wire’ themselves to see images the ‘right’ way up. The footage ends with Kohler, after wearing his Inversion Goggles for a few days, triumphantly riding his bicycle down a crowded Innsbruck street.
Do keep watching till the end. There’s a terrific final twist when, immediately after Kohler removes the inversion goggles at the end of the experiment, he tries to shake hand with his colleague Erismann…
We should take the Innsbruck Goggle experiments seriously. They may represent humanity’s best hope of mitigating the worst impacts of human-induced climate change. Designed to demonstrate the plasticity of the human brain, the experiments also proved the power of perception.
Erismann and Kohler’s Inversion Goggles proved humans can rapidly adapt when we literally re-frame what we see.
Can we do it figuratively, by re-framing our Carbon problem?
After 5,000 years of wearing Money Goggles, let’s cast them aside to see the world as it really is. We’re a Carbon-based life-form, adapted to a Carbon-based ecosystem, that’s trying to fix a Carbon problem with Money.
Why not try a solution, like See Through Carbon, that’s completely focused on carbon reduction. See Through Carbon’s immunity from Money contamination is guaranteed by the fact that it has no bank account. There’s no Money to follow.
First boiling frogs’ critical thermal maxima’, now upside-down goggles.
Two Hope bits in a single article about climate change. You don’t get many of those these days.