pollution

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The Little-Known Tool Protecting California Towns from Polluters

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/05/2022 - 6:00pm in

Ana Carlos likes to ride her horse down the semi-rural streets of Bloomington, California, where she bought a beautiful home on two acres for her family. “Everybody has fruit trees here, everybody has horses and goats,” she says. But five years ago, the school teacher and mother of three got a letter asking if she and her husband were willing to sell their home. 

When she looked into the reason for the offer, she discovered that a developer had big plans. “They want to put over one million square feet of industrial zoning right in the middle of our community, bordering on three schools. The new warehouses will bring more than 7,000 daily vehicle trips to our town, including Diesel trucks.” Shortly thereafter, she found out that her small Inland Empire town was in the top one percent of a list no community wants to be on top of: Bloomington scores 99 on the CalEnviroScreen (CES), meaning the air pollution is worse than in 99 percent of the state. “We simply cannot take any more,” Carlos says. “If their plan goes through, it ends our community. I will no longer be able to play with my kids outside if the air gets even worse. Our lifestyle is over.”

The CalEnviroScreen map allows users to see how environmentally burdened their community is compared to others in California. Credit: California OEHHA

John Faust, who built the CalEnviroScreen, has a unique perspective on California. On his computer, he pulls up a map of the state. On the left and right, along the Pacific Ocean and mountains, are various shades of green. Between these is a cluster of orange and red patches: the state’s industrial and agricultural areas, with their dusty sunbaked plains, warehouses and refineries.

A toxicologist by training, Faust helped develop the CalEnviroScreen over the last two decades and now manages it for the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He is also chief of the Community and Environmental Epidemiology Research branch of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). But these bureaucratic titles threaten to obscure the groundbreaking impact of his research: The 25 percent of census tracts with the worst CES scores must receive at least 35 percent of the investments funded by California’s cap-and-trade program. This enormous pot of money – some $20 billion – comes from polluters who must reduce or offset their emissions by paying into the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. It is used to finance a wide array of environmentally beneficial investments for the most polluted communities across California — everything from agricultural worker van pools to electric school buses to community air grants. In addition, CES data is increasingly being used in lawsuits — some of them propelled by the state’s attorney general — to block projects that would add even more pollution to communities already burdened with it.

The pragmatic use of this tool becomes apparent when Faust zooms in on one of the darkest red spots, an area southwest of Fresno. “98 ozone, 88 particulate matters,” he reads, which means that this district has more ozone and particulates in the air than 98 and 88 percent of the state, respectively. This finding correlates with the health and socioeconomic data the screen also displays: “Asthma 88, unemployment 98, and nearly 70 percent of the residents are Hispanic,” Faust reads. This, too, corresponds to the results in most of the state: The worse the air quality, the higher the rates of asthma, heart-related emergencies and underweight babies — and more often than not, the most polluted areas affect Black and brown people disproportionately. As Ana Carlos says, “What makes it really unfair is that these developers just see the cheap land and think it will be easy for them because we are primarily a community of color.”

A separate map shows communities designated as “disadvantaged.” Credit: California OEHHA

The CES, which launched in 2013, is being used as a powerful corrective to such historic injustices. “As the state of California was developing its cap-and-trade program and polluters are paying into a fund as they’re emitting carbon emissions, we wanted to make sure that we can prioritize communities that are most heavily impacted by those polluting facilities,” says Sona Mohnot, the Climate Equity Associate Director at the Greenlining Institute, an economic justice public policy organization based in Oakland. “We know that environmental pollution is one of the many injustices that resulted from not just redlining, but a lot of other discriminatory land use policies and discriminatory environmental policies.”

Take the San Joaquin Valley, which has the worst air quality in all of the U.S. When the district issued yet another free pass in 2019 to exempt its four petroleum refineries from complying with state air quality requirements, a broad coalition of community members and activists sued. They found a powerful ally: California Attorney General Rob Bonta joined the lawsuit and they won, in part by leveraging CES data, which factors in not only the individual impact of each refinery, but the cumulative impact of all the polluters in the region. As a result, the refineries now have to comply with the state air quality regulations.

“This is a low-income, Hispanic community where a lot of the people are foreign laborers who are not going to say anything,” resident Jose Mireles, who lives down the road from a Kern Oil & Refining Co. facility that processes 25,000 barrels of crude oil daily, told the Los Angeles Times. “Sometimes you are inside your house, the doors are closed, the windows are closed, and you can still smell it.”

The CES has been used successfully in several other cases, including to block a cement factory in Vallejo and to upgrade facilities in the highly disadvantaged community of Stockton. “These are really good examples of how we can use data to address the multiple injustices communities are facing,” says Mohnot. “We have to make sure that the state walks the walk. How can we put our money where our mouth is, and ensure that 100 percent of those funds actually go into the most historically disinvested communities?”

In other lawsuits, CES data has led to compromise, in which the development it challenged wasn’t halted outright, but instead had to be built more responsibly. One example can be found in Fontana (which borders Ana Carlos’s Bloomington neighborhood), where residents are conflicted about the approval of another 200,000 square feet mega-warehouse next to a high school. In April, the courts decided that the Fontana warehouse can be built, but the rulings mandated ecological features such as solar panels, zero-emission trucks and a large donation the city can use for mitigating measures such as air filters. 

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While the CES has helped environmental advocates rack up victories, critics point out that legislation that directly forces polluters to curb emissions would be more effective, because lawsuits aren’t always successful. For instance, a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration and developers relied on CES data as it challenged the expansion of a former Air Force Base in San Bernardino that Amazon plans to use as a 650,000-square-foot cargo hub. More than 500 additional trucks and two dozen cargo flights are projected to pollute the area daily once the hub is fully up and running. Already, thousands of trucks buzz through the neighborhood most days, often forming long queues in front of the warehouses, spewing Diesel fumes while waiting to unload their freight. Again partnering with lawyers from the Earthjustice Institute, Bonta’s office used the high asthma and bronchitis rates in the nearby communities as proof that the residents should not bear any more pollution, but his challenge was rejected.

The project sparked contentious debate. Ninety-five percent of the residents near the new Amazon hub live below the poverty line, and some argued they would rather breathe bad air than sacrifice the jobs. Mohnot believes this to be “a false choice. No one should have to pick between their safety and being able to provide for their families.” More than one billion square feet of warehouse space now covers the Inland Empire, much of it built on former farm and ranch land, and offering mostly low-paid temp jobs, according to the Robert Redford Conservancy. “None of my neighbors want these jobs; you can’t build a career on it,” Ana Carlos says. “We spoke to hundreds of community members and out of hundreds, only one said, maybe it’s good for the jobs.” 

This speaks to the other aim of the CES, which activists are using as a tool not just to support lawsuits and force companies to reduce emissions, but to bring investment to communities overburdened by environmental hardship. Mohnot says her colleagues at the Greenlining Institute are working with entrepreneurs and startup companies to use the CES to pilot clean energy innovations in these communities and work with local manufacturers to increase economic opportunities there. “We want to work toward a policy solution where we can create an oil and gas transition fund, so that folks who are dismissed from those jobs are able to access funding and training opportunities into similar work but in renewable energy. We want fewer gas and oil industries but also make sure folks aren’t jobless at the end of the day.” However, this is not happening yet.

But the CES findings have already provided the basis for innovative strategies. For instance, the Greenlining Institute co-sponsored bill AB 2722 that created the Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program, which relies on the CES to prioritize the most vulnerable communities. “If you’re a small or under-resourced community and you want environmental services, whether it’s recycling, urban tree canopy, access to better transportation, bike lanes, whatever, you may have to apply for six different grants to get those holistic benefits,” says Mohnot. “This can be very cost intensive and lead to fatigue, so we wanted to streamline that process. Now that community can apply for a slew of greenhouse gas reducing services through one grant program, and it’s meant to be at a neighborhood scale.”

Keeping CES data current is a challenge. “Some data is continuously updated, and some only available annually or every couple of years,” John Faust acknowledges. In other words, the CES won’t tell you the current air quality in your hometown this very minute. “We’re looking at big picture trends,” is how Faust puts it. Most of the effects of the pandemic and the recent wildfires haven’t been included in the latest version of the CES. Also, not all data is readily available. For instance, the CES factors in the agricultural use of pesticides but not the non-agricultural use because this information is hard to gather. Moreover, Mohnot believes that California needs a similar tool that measures climate risk, not just pollution and poverty. 

California’s strategy of prioritizing communities hardest-hit by environmental injustices is now about to become national policy: Last week, the administration announced it is launching a new Office of Environmental Justice to address climate change and pollution in low-income and minority communities. The new office will identify places that “bear the brunt of the harm caused by environmental crime, pollution and climate change,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland, and focus enforcement efforts on mitigating those effects. 

In addition, earlier this year, the federal EPA entered into a partnership with California to share tools and resources. Other states are taking note, as well. New York just launched an environmental justice unit that is looking into building a New York version of the CES. And in February of this year, the Biden Administration released a beta version of the “Justice 40” program, which stipulates that at least 40 percent of the benefits from the government’s investments in climate-related programs, including infrastructure and clean energy, will go to underserved communities. The administration modeled its tool for assessing these needs, the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST), on California’s CES.

Meanwhile, Ana Carlos hopes that the supervising board of her small town, Bloomington, “will vote in the interest of their constituents who voted them in — that they will make the decision that is best for our health, our families, our homes, our community.” But when she asked about the prospect, she was told that the board has never voted down a major business development.

However, this school teacher has learned that she is not alone. “We have learned how to organize a community. If the developers think they can just push us out of the way, they are wrong.”

The post The Little-Known Tool Protecting California Towns from Polluters appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

The Voldemort Index

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 31/03/2022 - 12:16am in

A few days ago, I received the attached essay, sent to me in error by a Dr. Tom Riddle. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the elite worldview.

(Cover image: Elodie Tihange, altered)

There is no good and evil.
There is only power and those too weak to seek it.

Lord Voldemort

For centuries, philosophers have sought to understand concepts such as ‘equity’, ‘fairness’, and ‘justice’. The result has been widespread confusion. Fortunately, Lord Voldemort has rescued us from this moral daze by uncovering the truth. There is only one ethic — the pursuit of power. This is the ‘Voldemort principle’.

Although it seems hard to believe (for the modern reader), the rulers of old spoke openly of following the Voldemort principle. For instance, the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser bragged of imposing a ‘heavy yoke of empire’ onto his enemies. Sadly, in the centuries that followed, tyrants grew more timid. During the Middle Ages, the masses began to demand ‘rights’ and sought to ‘limit’ the power of elites. Rulers responded by concealing talk of power inside a code called ‘Latin’. It’s a trick that the privileged have used ever since.

Today, elites prefer to speak in a code called ‘economics’.1 Although it has the appearance of English, ‘economics’ redefines key words to aid the accumulation of power. Specifically, the word ‘power’ is coded into the word ‘free’. Thus, when economists speak of a ‘free market’, they mean a place where the rich get what they want.2

Regrettably, after articulating this utopia, economists tend to get lost within it. They forget that the real world can be quite different from the one they envision. The purpose of this essay is to explore the real world — to see how close it comes to the Voldemort principle.

The key question is this: to what degree do the rich get their way? To answer this question, I construct a metric that I call the ‘Voldemort index’. The index measures the degree to which income buys access to resources.

When we apply this index to the real world, the results are alarming. Far from getting their way, it seems that the rich are increasingly left wanting. Although the evidence that follows is disturbing, it should not be ignored. For it is only by understanding the world that we can once again rule it.

The Voldemort index

As I alluded to above, the purpose of ‘economics’ is to ensure that the rich get what they want. Here’s how it works.

We begin with some distribution of income that is highly unequal. Next, we declare (with a straight face) that this distribution arises from a ‘natural law’. Finally, we proclaim that any attempt to fetter the power of the rich constitutes a ‘distortion’.3 If all goes well, resources will chase dollars, not people. In other words, if Alice earns 100 times more than Bob, she will receive 100 times more of whatever she desires (be it cars, food, or insulin).

That’s the ideal, anyway. In the real world, things like the ‘rule of law’ can impede the rich, depriving them of their wants and whims. Since few ‘scientists’ are interested in this elite hardship, we must take matters into our own hands. To that end, I have developed a tool for measuring the privation of the wealthy. In honor of the esteemed philosopher, I call it the ‘Voldemort index’.

The Voldemort index, V, measures the degree to which the command of resources scales with income:

\displaystyle \text{command of resources} \sim (\text{income} )^V

In general, the higher the value of V, the less the rich are deprived. A value of V = 1 is optimal, indicating that the rich get what they want in exact proportion to their income. Conversely, the value V = 0 is the worst-case scenario. It corresponds to a world in which resources are ‘rationed’ equally, irrespective of one’s income. This ‘rationing’ is the ultimate form of elite privation.

In what follows, I apply the Voldemort index to the international distribution of various commodities, including vaccines, lifespan, energy and pollution. The facts (which are rather depressing) speak for themselves.

That said, I know that some readers will greet this research with skepticism, as they are accustomed to ‘making their own facts’. If you are among the (many) powerful people who struggle with quantitative measurement (of the real world), perhaps the following decree will help you interpret the data:

Voldemort’s Decree

When V = 1, Voldemort is glad,
the rich hoard resources
with grip ironclad.

When V = 0, Voldemort is sad,
resources flow to the many,
in a world gone mad.

With the Voldemort index in hand, let’s look at some recent history.

COVID de-exploited

For the past two years, the world has been locked in a global pandemic. Such moments of crisis are rare opportunities. With the laity distracted, resources can be returned to their rightful owners — the rich and powerful.

Throughout the pandemic, many elites have acted admirably, using the crisis to enrich themselves. On that front, CEOs get most of the attention. But the award for profiteering surely goes to Big Pharma.

Even during normal times, the pharmaceutical business involves an ingenious form of parasitism. Unable to survive on their own, pharmaceutical firms act like parasites, or what I will call ‘pharmasites’. Pharmasite attach themselves to a public-sector host where they feast on a steady stream of basic research. Once the public funds have been sucked dry, the pharmasite lays its egg: a privatized final product. From this egg hatches drugs that only the rich can afford, leading to vast profits for the pharmasite owners.4

During the pandemic, the pharmasite business faced immense pressure to alter its parasitic playbook by releasing COVID vaccines in the ‘public domain’. But to its credit, Big Pharma stuck to its ideals and profited from the crisis. It seized research that had been in the publicly-funded pipeline for decades, and surrounded it by a steep paywall.

Unfortunately, not everyone acted so honorably. Early in the pandemic, researchers at the University of Oxford developed a COVID vaccine and signaled that they would make it ‘public’.5 Thankfully, disaster was averted when Bill Gates convinced Oxford to give its technology to AstraZeneca for proper profiteering.

By avoiding the public domain, the vaccine roll out proceeded in the usual manner. Big Pharma earned big profits, and vaccines chased dollars, not people. Figure 1 gives you a sense for how this vaccine distribution played out. I’ve plotted here the international COVID vaccination rate as a function of income per capita (observed on April 1, 2021). Clearly, earning more income bought you more vaccines.

Figure 1: COVID vaccines chasing dollars. This figure shows how the COVID vaccination rate (on April 1, 2021) relates to income per capita. Each point represents a country. The slope of the best-fit line indicates the Voldemort index, which is 1.2. [Sources]

We can use the data in Figure 1 to measure the Voldemort index for COVID vaccines. The Voldemort index corresponds to the slope of the best-fit line (on the log-log scale). Here, the slope is 1.2. This value tells us that doubling your per capita income buys you, on average, about 2.3 times the number of COVID vaccines ( 2^{1.2} \approx 2.3 ). Or at least it did on April 1, 2021.

Unfortunately, when we widen the Voldemort lens, the picture becomes less rosy. Figure 2 tells the story. Here I have plotted the Voldemort index for COVID vaccines, measured throughout all of 2021. We can see now that the snapshot in April represented a brief moment of respite during which the rich got their way. From May 2021 onward, however, wealthy countries became increasingly deprived, as indicated by the rapid decline in the Voldemort index.

Figure 2: The Voldemort index for international COVID vaccinations. The Voldemort index measures the degree to which vaccination rates scale with income per capita (across countries). When the index is 1, doubling your income buys you twice the number of vaccines. When the index is 0, income has no affect on the vaccination rate. [Sources]

After the high point of the early vaccine roll out, something went wrong. Here are some likely culprits.

First, it’s well known that vaccine property rights are incomplete. Yes, Big Pharma can paywall its ‘own’ vaccines (which have been parasitized from the public sector). But it cannot privatize the basic knowledge on which the vaccines depend. Absent this much-needed stick, anyone can use the same basic knowledge to make a competing vaccine. That is no way to run a monopoly.

Second, it seems we cannot count on fellow monopolists to defend the sanctity of intellectual property. Even the IP stalwart Bill Gates has lost his way. In a recent statement, the Gates Foundation caved to public pressure and advocated for open-access vaccines. Of all people, Gates should understand the virtue of parasitizing public research. Yet it seems that no elite is safe from the meme of ‘people over profits’.

Lastly, there is a real threat that vaccine researchers will bypass the pharmasite business, depriving it of a lucrative food source. For instance, scientists Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi recently created a ‘patent-free’ COVID vaccine called CORBEVAX. With no licensing fee, CORBEVAX can be manufactured cheaply by anyone. Should other researchers follow this example, pharmasite profits may run dry.

Although it sounds like an exaggeration, we could soon face a world in which COVID vaccines are rationed ‘equitably’ amongst the world’s population.

Containing the knowledge virus

Although Big Pharma cultivates an air of invincibility, the reality is that its pharmasite model has a critical vulnerability: scientific knowledge. Despite valiant efforts, the pharmaceutical business has been unable to enclose the web of knowledge on which it preys. And so it is constantly on the defensive, muzzling upstart scientists who think that publicly-funded research should be ‘kept public’.

One such upstart was the virologist Jonas Salk who, in the 1950s, developed the first effective polio vaccine. When asked who owned the patent, Salk replied:

Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?6

I call this attitude the ‘Salk stance’. It’s a perpetual threat to Big Pharma’s profits, and to the inequitable distribution of medicine.

If you do not believe me, have a look at Figure 3. Here I have plotted the Voldemort index for three common vaccines. Unlike most COVID jabs, these vaccines have been around for decades, and their core technology is largely in the public domain. They can be made cheaply by anyone. Unsurprisingly, the Voldemort index for all three vaccines has collapsed towards zero.

Figure 3: The Voldemort index for three common vaccines. The Voldemort index measures the degree to which vaccination rates scale with income per capita across countries. When the index is 1, doubling your income buys you twice the vaccines. When the Voldemort index is 0, income has no affect on the vaccination rate. [Sources]

Although the picture in Figure 3 looks grim, Big Pharma has been able to survive by avoiding this type of ‘proven medicine’ in favor of more lucrative new drugs. Still, without the power to privatize basic science, one wonders how long the game can continue.

Buying time

Leaving behind our colleagues in the pharmaceutical racket, let’s turn to more general concerns. Everyone knows that ‘time is money’. For elites, however, money is also time. It’s an essential tool for extending your life.

Before we get to the real-world ability to buy time, let’s start with the ideal. In his film In Time, director Andrew Niccol imagines a world in which the human body is immortal, yet has been programmed to die unless fed a constant supply of ‘time’. With lifetime literally commodified, the poor struggle to survive the day, while the rich bask in effective immortality.7

In Niccol’s utopia, the Voldemort index for human lifespan would be 1. (If you doubled your income, you would double your lifetime.) In the real world, the lifespan returns to wealth are far more meagre, and grow worse each year.

Figure 4 shows the trend. Here I have plotted the Voldemort index for life expectancy across countries. As you can see, the Voldemort index is collapsing towards 0. We are fast approaching a world in which life expectancy is rationed ‘equally’, regardless of income.

Figure 4: The Voldemort index for human lifespan. The Voldemort index measures the degree to which life expectancy scales with income per capita across countries. When the index is 1, doubling your (per capita) income buys you a life that is twice as long. When the Voldemort index is 0, money becomes useless for hoarding life. [Sources]

Who is to blame for depriving the global elite of their life-extending power? A quick look at history shows that the main culprit is government.8

Despite our best efforts, governments continue to spend money on projects such as ‘basic sanitation’, ‘public health’, and ‘education’. The effect of these projects is to extend everyone’s life. (The job of bankrolling expensive, elite-only cures is left to the world’s billionaires.) Because of government spending, elites are being deprived of their right to outlive the poor. It is a tragedy of the commons.

Controlling the master resource

Speaking of tragedy, let’s look at another disaster in the making. But first, some theory.

Throughout history, people have convinced themselves that they have a ‘right’ to use the resources that ‘surround’ them. Thus, hunter gatherers claimed the ‘right’ to harvest ‘regional wildlife’. And farmers claimed the ‘right’ to exploit ‘nearby lands’. For elites, these ‘rights’ pose a problem. If the locals consume a resource, then the distant elite cannot. I call this problem the ‘tyranny of proximity’. If the wealthy are to flourish, this tyranny must be solved.

As with other Promethean events like the mastery of fire or the invention of the wheel, we will never know who first solved the proximity problem. All we can say is that elites everywhere have hit upon the same solution: plunder. The logic is simple: if you confiscate distant resources first, the locals cannot consume them.

Of course, the most important resource to take is energy. That’s because energy is the ‘master resource’ — the panacea that makes all other exploitation possible. So when it comes to energy, you can never have too much.

Back to the tyranny of proximity. Pick any history book and you will find innumerable tales of elite enrichment through armed plunder. Curiously, where you will not find such stories is in modern textbooks on economics. Thankfully, that’s not because the power to loot has waned. It’s because economists speak about pillage using a code. They call it ‘exchange’.

Let’s illustrate the ruse.

Suppose you are the ruler of a large army, which you use to conquer a distant land. After the takeover, you install a puppet regime which controls most of the resources. In return for a modest fee (and some arms shipments), the local elites send you the resources you want. Notice how the end result is the same as if you simply took the resources directly: the booty flows to you not the locals. So why bother with the market rigmarole?

The answer is that it’s good PR.

By laundering the resources through a monetary transaction, you get to call it an ‘exchange’. And once you have an ‘exchange’, economists come to your aid. Economists wipe from the books your army, your conquest, your puppet regime, your arms shipments, and your backdoor dealings. On paper, all that remains is a ‘reciprocal exchange’. You gave money and got resources in return. Fair is fair.

Because it makes good PR, market plunder has become more popular than the more brazen pillage of old. Thankfully, the results are largely the same: energy resources flow to those who need them the most … the global elite.

We can see this fact by calculating the Voldemort index of energy consumption — the degree to which greater income per capita buys access to more energy. Figure 5 shows the trend over the last 50 years. Throughout this period, the Voldemort index has remained roughly constant, averaging 0.65. Of course, we could hope for the index to be higher. Still, the world is closer to the Voldemort principle (V = 1) than to the ‘rationing ethos’ (V = 0).

Figure 5: The Voldemort index of energy use per capita. The Voldemort index measures the degree to which increasing per capita income buys access to more energy (across countries). When the index is 1, doubling your income buys you twice the amount of energy. When the index is 0, income has no effect on per capita energy consumption. [Sources]

If you look closely at Figure 5, you can see that the line has a slight downward tilt: the Voldemort index of energy consumption is slowly decreasing with time. While disconcerting, the decline is so shallow that it poses no imminent threat to the world order. Still, there are reasons to worry.

Current global inequality depends heavily on ‘petrostates’. These are despotic regimes which send their fossil-fuel riches to the world’s elite (and crucially, not to the local population). In return for this energy shipment, global elites pay a modest fee to the petro oligarchs, and of course, keep them well supplied with armaments. The system works because petrostates are easy to run. All it takes is a ‘hole in the ground surrounded by guns’.

In quantitative terms, the petrostate system works because fossil fuels have a high energy-to-gun ratio: they return copious energy for every gun invested. For example, if you place a few well-armed soldiers around an oil pumpjack, you can extract enough energy to power a small city. This, my friends, is the recipe for a successful petrostate. Lots of energy from a few guns.

The problem with this recipe is that fossil fuels won’t last forever. When they are gone, we will be forced to use energy sources that are more difficult to confiscate. For instance, suppose that when our Saudi colleagues drain their last petro-hole, they turn to solar energy. In a bid to maintain their massive energy exports, the Saudi’s pave the dessert with solar panels.

This idea sounds great … until you think about the number of guns needed to defend the solar farm. The installation would cover thousands of square kilometers. And every single one of them must be guarded by guns, lest the locals keep some of the energy for themselves. So we can be sure that compared to the current oil regime, this ‘solar Saudi Arabia’ would have a dismal energy-to-gun ratio.

Fortunately, the transition to 100% renewable energy seems a distant problem. Still, we should consider a future in which locals use their energy, leaving nothing for the global elite to confiscate.

The polluter preys

Keeping energy in mind, let’s discuss the related issue of pollution. In an ideal world, the global economy would be circular: from the poor, the rich would take energy; and to the poor, the rich would send pollution. Among waste-management experts, this cycle is called the ‘polluter preys principle’.

The theory behind the polluter preys principle is well known to economists, but is usually stated obliquely. To decode the message, know that when economists say ‘free’, they mean ‘power’. Hence the term ‘free market’ is code for (among other things) the power to offload pollution onto the lowest bidder.

That’s the code fed to the laity. Amongst themselves, economists speak more openly. Thus, when World Bank chief economist Larry Summers sent a memo to his colleagues, he didn’t bother to code the polluter preys principle. Instead, he quipped:

I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

While we should commend Summers for his clarity, in hindsight, he probably should have coded his message. Shortly after it was sent, the memo was leaked to the media, causing widespread outrage. Fortunately, Summers was firmly entrenched among the global elite, so his career was unharmed. (The lesson: being powerful always pays off.)

Sent during the early 1990s, the Summers memo reflects a sensible concern for localized pollutants — things like nuclear waste that are harmful to elite health, and should be offloaded to the lowest bidder. Today, however, ‘concern’ has switched to a different form of pollution: carbon emissions.

I use scare quotes here because among elites, the ‘concern’ is largely a ruse. That’s because unlike toxic waste, carbon emissions have no obvious health impact on the rich. Sure, the Earth’s climate may be irreparably altered.9 But elites are confident that they can buy their way out of any harm.

Indeed, the biggest threat to elite lifestyles isn’t climate change … it’s cutting carbon emissions. For instance, if Bill Gates was forced to lower his carbon footprint (rather than fraudulently ‘offset’ it), he would be deprived of his 350-flight-per-year lifestyle. While the laity have adapted to such hardship, elites are accustomed to learjet living. And so they rightly balk at lowering their emissions.

On that front, it is with carbon emissions that we find the purest application of the Voldemort principle. To a striking degree, higher per capita income buys a greater ability to belch carbon. Figure 6 runs the numbers. Here I have plotted the Voldemort index for international carbon emissions — the degree to which carbon emissions scale with per capita income across countries.

Figure 6: The Voldemort index for international carbon emissions. The Voldemort index measures the rate at which per capita carbon emissions scale with income per capita (across countries). When the index is 1, doubling your income buys you twice the emissions. When the Voldemort index is 0, greater income is useless for buying the right to pollute. [Sources]

Interestingly, prior to the 1980s, the Voldemort index for carbon emissions actually exceeded 1. In other words, doubling your per capita income bought you more than twice the carbon pollution. This carbon super-scaling likely has a simple explanation. While the rich were burning carbon-intensive fossil fuels, the poor were incinerating their carbon-neutral forests.

By the 1990s, however, the forests were mostly gone, and so the poor joined the fossil-fuel game. While this could have spelled disaster for global inequality, the high energy-to-gun ratio of fossil fuels allowed global elites to confiscate the lion’s share of carbon. And so the Voldemort index for carbon emissions remained close to 1.

While we should celebrate this victory of the polluter preys principle, I worry about the future. It seems likely that the current circular economy cannot survive a transition to renewable energy. Not only is renewable energy difficult to confiscate (from the poor), it creates no pollution to return to them. In short, renewable energy is inadequate for the game of world domination.

Musk ex machina

Although it pains me to admit, the evidence all points in the wrong direction. Everywhere we look, the Voldemort index is decreasing. Without drastic action, what awaits us is a future in which wealth and power become useless for hoarding the Earth’s bounty.

The root of the problem is a failure of property rights. At present, corporate enclosure is simply too porous to contain the spread of knowledge, and the ‘equality’ that comes with it.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Great minds like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and (especially) Elon Musk have recognized that the future of the global elite lies in the fortress of space. There amidst the stars, the rich will find a haven — a place where they can live in comfort while exploiting the Earthbound. To put this dream in place, all we need is a ‘Musk ex machina’. Let us pray that it arrives soon.

Yours in confidence,

Dr. Tom Riddle

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Notes from Dr. Riddle:

Sources

As is proper for an illustrious academic, I have not sullied my hands with ‘data’. The evidence reported here was gathered and analyzed by a duly exploited graduate student. Any errors should be blamed on said student. All credit for novel findings should be given to me.

Data for COVID vaccination rates comes from Our World in Data. All other data is from the World Bank, as summarized in the table below. I regret that these datasets are open access. Paywalled data was unavailable.

Series
Description

NY.GDP.PCAP.CD
GDP per capita (current US$)

SH.IMM.MEAS
Measles vaccination rate

SH.IMM.HEPB
Hepatitis B vaccination rate

SH.IMM.IDPT
Diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus vaccine

SP.DYN.LE00.IN
Life expectancy at birth

EG.USE.PCAP.KG.OE
Energy use per capita

EN.ATM.CO2E.PC
CO2 emissions per capita

Notes

  1. It seems that once trained in the economics code, some economists become renegades and reveal the ruse to the masses. The heretic Steve Keen is a good example. A decade ago, Keen wrote a popular book in which he revealed to the laity the many flaws in economics ideology. Despite rebukes from eminent economists, Keen’s blasphemy has spread widely.

    More recently, a book called Capital as Power has gained attention. At first glance, the book simply documents how modern rulers use property rights to accumulate power. The problem is that the code of economics requires that this power stay hidden. If the laity understand how property rights actually work, the free-market ruse will be ruined.↩

  2. In his popular textbook Economics of the Public Sector, Joseph Stiglitz lucidly translates the Voldemort principle into economics code:

    Because of the price system, markets result in an efficient allocation of resources. Prices ration private goods. Those consumers who are willing and able to pay the requisite price obtain the good.

    Decoded message: markets are ‘efficient’ at giving the rich what they want.↩

  3. For a master lesson in how to find ‘distortions’ everywhere, see Gregory Mankiw’s textbook Principles of Economics.↩
  4. In a recent paper Gordon Douglas (Chairman of Novadigm Therapeutics) and Vijay Samant (CEO of Vical Incorporated) outline the requirements for a thriving pharmaceutical racket:

    A vigorous large-company vaccine industry is dependent upon several factors:

    1. A rich research environment sponsored largely by the NIH and mostly carried out in academia, as the source for new creative ideas.
    2. Strong patent laws and protection of intellectual property.
    3. Freedom to price products at fair levels related to value of product to society.

    Here is the plainspoken translation:

    A monopolistic vaccine industry requires:

    1. A steady stream of free knowledge to exploit.
    2. A steep paywall.
    3. The power to set prices.

    ↩

  5. One need only read the language of Oxford’s COVID memorandum to recognize its cynicism:

    The default approach of the University and OUI regarding [vaccine IP] will be to offer non-exclusive, royalty-free licences to support free of charge, at-cost or cost + limited margin supply as appropriate, and only for the duration of the pandemic, as defined by the WHO.

    ↩

  6. To answer Salk’s question, we can and should patent the sun. Such bold sabotage represents a monumental source of untapped profit.↩
  7. Imaginary technology aside, Niccol’s film tells us why commodifying lifespan would be difficult. It comes down to a weakness of property rights. In an ideal world, the poor would welcome their impending death, as decreed by the market. Niccol warns us, however, that such obedience is unlikely. Rather than accept their shortened lives, the poor will try to steal time. And so to secure the right to immortality, the rich must build a police state.

    Here, then, is the problem. As much as we might love a military junta, we must admit that such regimes are unstable. Hence, at the end of Niccol’s film, the ‘time regime’ comes crashing down. The film’s lesson is clear: the more cherished the commodity, the more difficult it is to enforce an unequal distribution.↩

  8. Democratic governments are a constant threat to elite interests. To mitigate this threat, economists have tried to convince the laity that governments ‘distort the free market’. The goal is to persuade the masses to abandon the democratic ethos (one person, one vote) in favor of the Voldemort principle (one dollar, one vote). Although research suggests that economics propaganda is effective when administered in a large dose, a significant portion of the population remains uninoculated. And so ‘responsive’ government continues to spread.↩
  9. A warning to the elite readers: do not read the climate change literature. By engaging with the ‘science’, you may become convinced that for the sake of the Earth, you should burn less fossil fuel, and so exit the game of power.↩

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A window cleaner

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