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Not Just a Late Monsoon

The monsoon rains are finally arriving in central and northern India, but they are two weeks late. It started raining in Mumbai on Monday, and it should be raining in Delhi by Friday, but it will have come too late for many people, especially farmers. For some parts of the country, it has been 200 days without rain.

Late May and early June are always brutal in northern India, as the heat builds up and
the humidity rises. This year, with the monsoon so delayed, it has been particularly bad, with the temperature hitting 48°C in Delhi last week – the hottest June day on record – and 50°C in Rajasthan. And countrywide rainfall for this year is down 37%.

The heat and drought don’t just cause discomfort. After a few years of late or poor monsoons the level of the groundwater drops and wells run dry. This year hundreds, perhaps thousands of villages have been temporarily abandoned as the residents moved to towns where there was still water, and in the state of Maharashtra alone 6,000 tanker-trucks were delivering water to other hard-hit villages.

The Indian government has just created a new Ministry of Water Power to tackle water conservation and management (better late than never), but it can’t solve the problem. Food production is falling, people are dying, and unfortunately it’s only going to get worse.

It’s impossible to say how many people have died because of this year’s late monsoon, because India generally only counts people who make it to hospital before they die (and not always even then.) But the single state of Bihar reported 184 deaths by the middle of last week.

A more plausible measure of mortality comes from Europe, where they compare overall mortality in normal times with mortality during a heatwave, and (quite reasonably) assume that the difference is mostly due to the heat deaths. In the record 2003 heatwave in Europe, when temperatures were slightly lower that they have been in northern India this month, an estimated 35,000-70,000 people died.

So how many premature deaths from heat were there really in India this month? Probably tens of thousands. And how much food production will be lost this year? Again, you cannot calculate it directly, but I can give you an informed guess.

About a dozen years ago I was interviewing Dr Jyoti Parikh, the director of IRADe, a well-known think-tank in New Delhi. Out of the blue, she mentioned that her organisation had got the World Bank contract to forecast how much agricultural production India would lose when average global temperature reached +2°C above the pre-industrial average.

The contract was confidential at the time, but the World Bank’s chief economist had given these contracts to private think-tanks in every major country, probably on the assumption that official predictions were being kept secret in most countries so as not to frighten the children. Or should I say the citizens?

In the end, the predictions commissioned by the World Bank also remained unpublished. Indeed, they are secret even down to the present (because, after all, it is governments that pay for the World Bank.) But Dr Parikh told me the prediction for India. At +2°C, India would lose 25% of its food production. We are now at about +1.3° worldwide, so shall we say 10% of food production lost now in a bad year?

Weather does fluctuate from year to year, of course, but worldwide the last four years have been the four warmest since 1880, when global records become available. Since 2004, India has experienced 11 of its 15 warmest recorded years. The frequency and duration of heat waves in India has increased and is predicted to continue increasing. Global heating isn’t coming. It’s here.

It’s not just India, of course. The British Meteorological Office says there is a 10% chance that the average global temperature will exceed +1.5°C at least once in the next five years. (That’s the Paris climate change agreement’s ‘never-exceed’ target.) At the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to take a major miracle to avoid hitting +2°C within fifteen years.

At that level significant numbers of people will be dying of the heat every year, and much bigger numbers will be starving as food production fails, especially in the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world. But don’t feel left out if you live in the more temperate parts of the planet.

The wildfires have already started again in Canada and California, with predictions that they may be even worse than last year. And Europe is getting ready for a heat wave, starting around Friday, that will bring temperatures above 40° to much of the continent. Nobody gets off free.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“The heat…villages”; and “Weather…here”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

World Election Week

They don’t hold world elections, but this is the week when around a third of the planet’s voters get the election results for their country or region. In no case are the results a cause for jubilation.

The headline vote, of course, has to be India’s election, a six-week process in which the country’s 900 million voters went to the polls one region at a time, but all the results were held back until this Thursday. The outcome was a landslide win and a second five-year term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s ‘Trump before Trump’.

India is a far more complicated country than the United States: 22 official languages, more than 2,000 ethnic groups, myriad divisions of caste and religion. But Modi powers through all that with a simple nationalist message, delivered mainly in the single most widely spoken language, Hindi, and focused on the promotion of the majority religion, Hinduism.

Like Trump, he is vociferously anti-Muslim. (200 million Indian citizens are Muslims.) Like Trump, he governs an ostensibly secular republic on which he is trying to impose a specific religious identity (although unlike Trump, his religiosity is genuine). Like Trump, he talks up foreign wars and threats all the time, although so far he has managed to evade a major war.

In other words, he is the very model of a modern populist, and the model works. It worked in the Philippines, too, where mid-term election results, declared this week, gave President Rodrigo Duterte an absolute majority in Congress and the ability to change the constitution at will.

Duterte’s first constitutional change will be to bring back the death penalty, but his death squads are already inflicting unofficial death penalties on hundreds of alleged drug-users each month. Then he will abolish term limits, so that he can stay in power indefinitely, and lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12. All of this is making him wildly popular with Filipino voters.

The news is rather better in Indonesia, where election results announced on Tuesday gave incumbent President Joko Widodo 55% of the vote and a second term in office. But while he has been an honest and effective leader, there is a darker side to the story.

Growing Islamist extremism forced ‘Jokowi’ to prove his religious credentials by choosing an elderly Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his vice-presidential running mate this time. And when Widodo’s election victory was announced his main opponent, former general Prabowo Subianto, claimed that he had cheated, denounced the result, and unleashed protesters in the streets of Jakarta. Six died in the first day.

And how about the Europeans? 400 million citizens of the European Union are eligible to vote between Thursday and Sunday in elections to the European Parliament, and it looks like ultra-nationalist populist parties will win the most votes in three out of the four biggest EU countries: the Lega in Italy, the National Rally (formerly National Front) in France, and the Brexit Party in the United Kingdom.

Other racist, anti-immigrant nationalist parties will also do well, including Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, Fidesz and Jobbik in Hungary, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, VOX in Spain, Golden Dawn in Greece, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Alternative for Germany (AfD). If this is what democracy gets you, are you sure it’s a good idea?

Yes, it is. Democracy is not a tool for delivering good political decisions. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Living in a democracy doesn’t automatically free people from all the old divisions of ethnicity and religion and class and caste. It sometimes mutes those conflicts, but it’s not a magic cure. Democracy is about equal rights, and that’s all.

Democracy has spread all around the world in the past two centuries because it acknowledges and embodies the basic human value of equality. All human beings lived in tiny hunter-gatherer societies that were obsessively egalitarian for several hundred thousand years before the rise of civilisation, and that is who we still really are.

Equality disappeared with mass civilisation, because we couldn’t crack the problem of large numbers. Some self-nominated god-king or emperor had to make the decisions for a million people, because there was no way they could get together and do it for themselves in the old way.

But then, a couple of hundred years ago, we got technologies that enabled the millions to re-connect: printing and mass literacy. As soon as we got that, the demand for equality re-emerged, and it proved irresistible. You just had to invent some system for measuring the opinions of those millions (let’s call it elections), and lo! You have a democracy.

You don’t have paradise. Human beings are still made of the same old crooked timber, and their collective decisions can be ignorant and sometimes calamitous. Equal rights do not equate to universal love and brotherhood, but democracy does restore our ancient heritage of equality, and that does imply mutual tolerance.

The process of civilising ‘civilisation’ will not be completed in this century, but we have come a long way already.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“India…Hinduism”; and “In other…voters”)

Vegetarians, Carnivores and Technology

“Right now, growing cells as meat instead of animals is a very expensive process,” said Yaakov Nahmias, founder and chief scientist of Israel-based startup Future Meat Technologies. But it will get cheaper, and it probably will be needed.

Global population is heading for 10 billion by 2050. (Current world population: 7.7 billion.) Average global incomes will triple in the same period, enabling more people to eat meat-rich diets.

“We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before,” says Professor Tim Lang of the University of London, one of the 37 scientific co-authors from sixteen different countries who wrote the a report by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health that launches in Jakarta on Friday. But we’ve heard it all before.

It takes seven kilos of grain to grow one kilo of beef. 70% of the world’s fresh water is used to irrigate crops. We have appropriated three-quarters of the world’s fertile land for food production, and we’ll need the rest by 2050. The world’s stocks of seafood will have collapsed by 2050. It’s all true, but we’re sick of being nagged.

And still they bang on. The EAT-Lancet Commission even has a diet that will save the planet. Cut your beef consumption by 90% (i.e. one steak a month). Eat more beans and pulses (three times more) and more nuts and seeds (four times more). Going vegetarian or vegan will help even more. That’s all true too – but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Or at least, it’s not going to happen by everybody turning vegan, vegetarian, or just ‘flexitarian’. No doubt there will in due course be high taxes on meat and fish, and official propaganda campaigns to persuade people to change their eating habits, and some people will change.

Some people already have: the Vegan Society in Britain claims that the number of vegans in the country has quadrupled in the last four years. But not enough people will switch to a plant-based diet soon enough, or maybe ever. We need to bring the rest of the population along, and few things are more persistent than cultural dietary preferences. Like eating meat.

India is home to almost one-third for the world’s vegetarians, but the local variations are immense and deeply entrenched: 75% of people are vegetarians in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, but fewer than 2% are in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

The most enthusiastic meat-eaters are in the richer countries, and as other countries join their club (like China), they start eating more meat too. So clearly there would be a huge market for real meat that didn’t come from cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens, but tastes right, feels right in the mouth, and doesn’t trash the environment.

We’re not talking about the famous $325,000 hamburger patty made from beef cells immersed in a growth medium that was triumphantly cooked on television six years ago.

We’re talking about a proper steak with muscle and fat cells and the right shape, taste and texture – but not one produced by the familiar process that uses huge amounts of fertile land, releases large amounts of greenhouse gases, and involves slaughtering live animals. That is Yaakov Nahmias’s goal, and he’s pretty close now.

Future Meat Technologies produces its ‘cell-based meat’ in bioreactors, growing it on lattices that give it shape and texture, but we’re not talking about giant vats in a lab. He plans to give small units to existing farmers, who might still be rearing some beef cattle too for the luxury end of the market.

“With these two plays–a more efficient bioreactor and a distributed manufacturing model–we can essentially drop the cost down to about $5 a kilogram [$2.27 a pound],” said Nahmias. Meat giant Tyson Foods recently put $2.2 million of seed money into his company, and a dozen other start-ups are chasing the same goal: Memphis Meat, JUST, Finless Foods,
Meatable – a total of 30 labs around the world.

How big a threat is this ‘cell-based meat’ to the traditional cattle industry? Big enough that the US Cattlemen’s Association has petitioned the government to restrict the words ‘meat’ and ‘beef’ to products “derived directly from animals raised and slaughtered.” A tricky definition, since it would mean that wild deer are not made of meat, but the ranchers are clearly running scared.

Coming up behind cell-based meat there’s the even newer concept of ‘Solar Foods’: a Finnish company called just that is using electricity from solar panels to electrolyse water and produce hydrogen. The hydrogen is fed to bacteria, and the product is an edible food that is half carbohydrates, half fats and protein.

It is just as good as soya as an animal food, and it uses no land at all. No greenhouse gas emissions either, and the first factory producing it opens in two years’ time. Technology alone can’t save us, but it can certainly shift the odds in our favour.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 14. (“India…Bengal”; and “How…scared”)
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Populism: It’s the Automation, Stupid

Five of the world’s largest democracies now have populist governments, claimed The Guardian last week, and proceeded to name four: The United States, India, Brazil and the Philippines. Which is the fifth? At various points it name-checks Turkey, Italy and the United Kingdom, but it never becomes clear which. (And by the way, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is not a populist. He’s just a nationalist.)

It’s embarrassing when a respected global newspaper launches a major investigative series and can’t really nail the subject down. Neither can the people it interviews: Hillary Clinton, for example, admits the she was “absolutely dumbfounded” by how Donald Trump ate her lunch every day during the 2016 presidential campaign. She still doesn’t get it.

“We got caught in a kind of transition period so what I had seen work in the past…was no longer as appealing or digestible to the people or the press. I was trying to be in a position where I could answer all the hard questions, but…I never got them. I was waiting for them; I never got them. Yet I was running against a guy who did not even pretend to care about policy.”

Yes, Trump is a classic populist, but why did he beat her two years ago when he wouldn’t even have got the nomination ten years ago? She doesn’t seem to have a clue about that, and neither do other recent leaders of centre-left parties interviewed by The Guardian like Britain’s Tony Blair and Italy’s Matteo Renzi. So let us try to enlighten them.

Populism is not an ideology. It’s just a political technique, equally available to right-wingers, left-wingers, and those (like Trump) with no coherent ideology at all.

In this era, populism seems to partner best with right-wing nationalist ideologies like those of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Brexiteers in England, but even now there are populist left-wing parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

How does this tool work? It claims to be on the side of ‘ordinary people’ and against a ‘corrupt elite’ that exploits and despises them. It’s light on policy and heavy on emotion, particularly the emotions of fear and hatred. It usually scapegoats minorities and/or foreigners, and it only works really well when people are angry about something.

We know that a politically significant number of people are angry now, because populism is working very well indeed, but people like Donald Trump can’t take the credit.

In politics, as in ecology, every niche is always filled. There are always dictator-in-waiting, would-be martyrs, and everything in between, but they only get a chance to shine if the political situation creates an opening for their particular kind of politics. So what is creating that opening now?

The anger is about the fact that the jobs are disappearing, and what’s killing them is automation. The assembly-line jobs went first, because they are so easy to automate. That’s what turned the old industrial heartland of the United States into the ‘Rust Belt’. What’s going fast now are the retail jobs, killed by Amazon and its rivals: computers again.

The next big chunk to go will probably be the driving jobs, just as soon as self-driving vehicles are approved for public use. And so on, one or two sectors at a time, until by 2033 (according to the famous 2013 prediction by Oxford economist Carl Benedikt Frey) 47% of US jobs will be lost to automation. And of course it won’t stop there.

Why don’t clever politicians like Hillary Clinton get that? Perhaps because they half-believe the fantasy statistics on employment put out by governments, like the official 3.7% unemployment rate in the United States. A more plausible figure is American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt’s finding in 2016 that 17.5% of American men of prime working age were not working.

That’s three-quarters of the way to peak US unemployment in the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it goes unnoticed because today’s unemployed are not starving and they are not rioting. You can thank the welfare states that were built in every developed country after the Second World War for that, but they are still very angry people – and they do vote. A lot of them vote for populists.

Populism thrives when a lot of people are angry or desperate or both. Donald Trump and people like him are not the problem. They are symptoms (and beneficiaries) of the problem – yet they dare not name it, because they have no idea what to do about automation.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“We know…now”)