The Fairytale of eternal economic growth

“Fairytales of eternal economic growth.” is how Greta Thunberg depicted the mindset at the United Nations in 2019.

This echoes a famous quote by the cherished natural historian David Attenborough:
“Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is either a madman or an economist.”

Doubtless you’ve heard many variations of this apparent truism.
It’s catchy, and for good reason. It seems to capture the core problem in a pithy phrase.

It’s a perfect summary of an incorrect world view, leading to all sorts of problems. But it’s the world view of these two lovely people that is incorrect. To understand why, we need to become a little bit economically literate. Bear with me!

Economic growth does mean we create more stuff to consume. This is the issue as Greta and David understand it, and so far they’re right. But if we create stuff at outrageous expense we’re not achieving economic growth. That’s where this pithy phrase breaks down completely.

If you pay someone $200 to build you a chair, that you then sell for $100, you are $100 worse off. The economy shrank, not grew. That’s what economic growth means. Creating more value than you put in. The world economy is a lot more complex than this example, but it still works the same way.

Economic Growth means doing more, with less.

Greta and David are not entirely wrong. But their world view is incorrect. Infinite economic growth can indeed take place in a finite world. In fact you could say that it must take place. That if we do not create infinite economic growth, we will run out of resources.

This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with working for a better environment, or any other public good. These are laudable goals. But it does mean that we need to work for these things economically. We can’t save one acre of the Amazon at the expense of two acres. This is obvious.

Less obvious but equally true is that we can’t save one acre of the Amazon at a greater monetary expense than it’s worth. Because the end result would be the same; we’d run out of resources and lose the Amazon as well. So necessarily environmentalism must also create economic growth, otherwise it’s unsustainable.

The faulty truism Greta and David are selling is a self fulfilling prophesy. Resources are only finite if they succeed in slowing down economic growth.

The Game Changers & Fake News

Yesterday I watched an episode of “The Game Changers” on Netflix, after a friend of mine recommended it to me. I was shocked by what I saw.

The show is a “documentary” about athletes discovering that plant based diets are better than meat based diets. But that’s not the shocking part.

The show was so full of scientism (thank you Taleb) and false information that it got me angry. Then when I thought about it, I realised that this is linked to why I don’t watch the news anymore.

It’s not that shows like “The Game Changers” and Fox News are fake news that are publishing lies, even though they are. The problem stems from the fact that most of what we consume today as information sources is really entertainment. Heavily dramatised, and simplified past the point falsehood.

Without getting into the weeds of nutrition, The Game Changers claimed such absurdities that there’s no difference between plant and animal protein (true to a degree, but different plants have different levels of the essential amino acids) but also that animal protein gives you cancer. Which would be quite a big difference.

(It also showed a trained athlete going from a max of 10 minutes doing a workout to over 60 minutes just from switching to a plant based diet. That would make these plants much more powerful than steroids. Is this a documentary or the home shopping network?)

Almost everything we watch, read, or listen to today is a dramatisation of some information. Even the news is trying to find the edge to make you sit up and pay attention. That’s no different from marketing. The news tries to work from fact, but since dramatisation requires simplification, it makes no real difference if you are watching CNN, the WHO briefing, or listening to some celebrity’s podcast.

It’s all fake news. We must view it critically, which means never believing it at face value.

(Please don’t watch The Game Changers, it is total crap, no athletes know that little about nutrition.)

The top down planning problem

I recently came across a fantastic, but sadly unattributed, quote in an article about design:

A design system is like public transportation: it’s a good idea, for other people

— unattributed designer

I think this is a great turn of phrase. Top down planning is always a good idea, for other people. I haven’t met any individuals, or heads of departments, yet that want to be top down planned. They want to be bottom up contributing.

Participation medals for moral panic

I’ve always wondered about why some words are deemed to be more dangerous than other. I’m not referring to offensive language here, that’s an entirely different conversation. But words that are simply shunned for their perceived power. Words like “problem”.

A problem is a complication in your way. Something to be solved, worked around or on. In engineering and design a problem is not a negative word, it’s what you’re there to straighten out. Not exactly the focus of your work, but an important part.

In other fields, like politics, a words power comes from the perceived effect it might have. So Problems get renamed into Challanges, and recently I saw the next logical step; Opportunities.

The problem with this second way of working with language is that we’re shooting the messenger. We’re reframing and retooling language instead of working on the problem.

Instead of doing PR about a crash we’re pretending new words can achieve less crashes.

Language has power, and choosing the right words is important. We should continue to do so. But not to absurd extremes.

Fear of problems will not diminish because we change the vocabulary every five minutes. Showing that problems can be worked on and overcome might diminish that fear.

The truth about our shortening attention spans

Attention spans are rapidly shortening. Social media, texting and the always-online lifestyle is destroying our ability to focus for more than seconds at a time!

You’ve probably heard this a hundred times, maybe experienced it yourself on occasion? The strange thing is, it isn’t true.

How do I know? While we’re reading about shortening attention spans the same sources also report new trends like binge watching shows on Netflix, long form articles, and the popularity of book long podcast episodes the likes of Hardcore History. These two ideas contradict each. Both can’t be true.

The truth is that media consumption is changing radically. We are so inundated with content that we simply have no tolerance for things we don’t like. At the same time we will put in every effort to indulge in the things we love.

If your content needs to be trivially short to catch your audience attention, chances are your content just isn’t that great. On the other hand, it might just be suited for very short consumption?

The real reason diversity makes better companies

Here in Sweden it’s common, maybe even mandatory, to say that diverse companies are more innovative and even more profitable. But why are they?

Normally when something as good as this is being discussed, people are so afraid of looking like idiots they avoid discussing the reasons. Or better yet, just shout loudly about how good it is. I don’t think this is good for society. Not only are we shaming smart people into silence, but we’re also spreading ignorance by not discussing why good ideas are good.

Therefore here is the reason, as I’ve understood it, that diverse companies are better than no- diverse companies.

To make sure we’re on the same page I need to explain how a company works: Companies are the sum of the people working at them. A company culture is just the accepted behaviour of individuals at the company. The profits of a company is the margin between the value the people at the company delivers, and the effort they have to put in.

This is why a company can do more than individuals. Cooperation leverages the employees efforts and smarts.

This is really – really – hard to do well, and the larger the group, the harder it is. The reason for that is that every individual has biases and points of ignorance, putting them all together you might start leveraging stupidity instead of smarts.

This is where diversity comes in

One really simple way to make sure you’re not leveraging stupidity is to make sure you have a wide range of ideas floating around at the company. Having different points of view does not stop a company from having a culture. It does demand more communication between employees though.

The easiest way to make sure you have many points of view is to put people from many different backgrounds in the process.

Diversity limits the risk of taking stupid actions, and it can push people to communicate more instead of leaving things unsaid.

So the next time you hear diversity is great, now you at least know one concrete reason why.

The arrogance of a media empire

While there was a tremendous amount of prestige and fulfillment that came with working there, there was also quite a bit of arrogance. We viewed Time magazine as this vehicle that basically taught the American public what was important and what you needed to know over the course of the previous week’s news events in a way that is impossible to conceive of now, when the news cycle is five minutes instead of five days.

— The Last Days of Time Inc

The entire article is definitely worth a read. I find it incredibly analogous to tech startups at the peak of bubbles. All arrogant “bro-culture” playing around. If this really is what journalism looks like from behind the scenes, it’s not pretty. I’m glad I don’t consume much “news” anymore.

Twitter reinvents the web comment

If you’ve read my posts before you’ve probably heard me complain about Twitter before, and I’ve thought about it some more: 

I loved Twitter when it was in its infancy, the distributed social asynchronous communication let me learn from and get into contact with people who shared my interests from all over the world. It was empowering.

But Twitter is changing. It’s no longer designed as a platform for discussion, but as one for publication.

This new Twitter feels way-to familiar. It looks like Twitter have reinvented the web comment. Same format, same bad tone, same bad social grace. Good job Twitter.

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The only real difference between a blog, twitter, and a news site is interface. That’s how powerful design is in informing behaviour.