Hive innovation – self-sufficiency with a new twist?

In Britain, the once common idea of self-sufficiency vanished from public view several decades ago. The notion that ‘where things are made doesn’t matter’ has been wedded to ‘it doesn’t matter who owns the manufacturing’. All that matters is price, or so we were told. Primark, Tesco and Amazon rule. Where things come from is irrelevant. Supply fulfils demand. Always.

And then came the 2020’s Covid-19 pandemic. In these unprecedented circumstances, the inherent virtues of self-sufficiency have become all too clear once more. We have all learnt the hard way that supply chains are only as good as their weakest link. Currently, with many of those links broken, the government, the NHS and every family and individual are scrabbling around to match demand with supply. The demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), from ventilators through to face masks, as well as food and household products, such as yeast and baking flour, has outstripped supply.

What fascinates me is that the solutions we are coming up with are at one and the same time both global and local. The difference to what we’ve done over the past several decades is the emphasis on the local. Whereas Britain has always been keen to join in with international research programmes (in vaccines and antivirals), which I am glad it’s still doing, local initiatives have always (until now) received short shrift. The reason for this is financial. The City has hunted out the highest returns, wherever they might be in the world; venture capital has always encouraged the sale of startups to the highest bidder on flotation, wherever that owner is based. Suddenly this model appears under question. Locality matters once more.

As we’ve become aware that British invention does not equal British access, nor does German invention equal German access. Local research projects suddenly seem more important – and who owns what is now known to be critical. There are even reports of bidding for control of PPE supply taking place on the runways of China’s airports (1). Invention is not enough in itself. Who will have access to the Covid-19 vaccine if and when it’s produced is the big question. How much profit its sale makes once it is produced, is less important. At least, for now.

Getting hold of ventilators in that critical moment before Boris Johnson ended up hospitalised with the disease, required scouring the globe for every and any source of supply, writing begging emails to suppliers, making phone calls to heads of state, and pleading. It worked. We got sufficient supply… by the skin of our teeth.

This wasn’t going to be good enough in the longer term, and the government knew it. They put in place a call for UK manufacturers to supply ventilators – backtracking on the notion that all our needs could be met by outsourced manufacture. Suddenly we needed manufacturing capability on UK soil. This required innovation of the famous British “make do and mend” variety. Within days they received 13 separate proposals (2) and a new business model was born, one of collaboration between companies, where no one company owns the final product. All do. As a result, instead of individual corporate self-sufficiency and off-shoring, we now have hive innovation, a form collective self-sufficiency that we are all benefiting from.

Fast tracked ventilators

Two of the 13 ventures stand out in this regard: Project Pitlane, and The Ventilator Challenge UK (VCUK) consortium. Both are highly unusual in the degree of cooperation entailed; both have proved highly successful.

Project Pitlane is a consortium of seven Formula One teams, including Aston Martin, Mercedes-AMG, Renault and Red Bull. Normally rivals, they have come together to working jointly to help the NHS. Their project has produced the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device. The CPAP device provides a much gentler approach than a ventilator to help Covid-19 patients with lung infections to breathe more easily.

Project Pitlane has developed the device in cooperation with University College London (UCL) and clinicians at UCL Hospital. By reverse engineering an already existing device, they have been able to ensure rapid approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). This has enabled the manufactured product to be placed in hospitals within two weeks of the prototype being developed (3). An order for up to 10,000 devices has now been placed by the NHS, with 1,000 a day being built at the Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains technology centre in Brixworth.

The Ventilator Challenge UK consortium has resulted in the unlikely collaboration of companies from a range of diverse industries. As with Project Pitlane, several of the companies in the VCUK consortium are usually major competitors, including Airbus, Rolls-Royce, GKN and BAE Systems, as well as Ford and McLaren. Others in the consortium include Meggitt, Renishaw, Thales, Siemens and Ultra Electronics. Including suppliers, nearly 60 companies are involved in this cooperative venture.

While re-purposing production capacity is something that has long been talked of, this is a practical demonstration of how quickly it can be achieved once people put their minds to doing so. As well as providing factory floor production space and logistical know-how, the companies have worked together to redeploy some of their most skilled engineers on the ventilator effort.

VCUK now has two machines under production. Their first product is the Smiths’ machine, which started production on March 29th. This machine, the result of Project Penguin, involved scaling up production of a model already made in small numbers by the medical equipment firm Smiths Medical at its factory in Luton. The consortium has since received approval from the MHRA for a second design, the Penlon Prima ESO2 ventilator. This is product of Project Oyster, and involved making tweaks to a second existing design produced by the small Oxfordshire firm Penlon.

The VCUK production lines are in Broughton, Dagenham and Woking. Production of the Penlon ventilator will be in Oxfordshire. The government has ordered a total of 15,000 of the two machines and the consortium targets to raise production to 1,500 units a week (4).

The consortium has been facilitated by Catapult, the innovation centre set up by the government quango, Innovate, UK (5). Catapult’s expertise is in taking academic research in manufacturing and applying this to developing and scaling up production of new technologies and processes.

A model for the future of our planet?

This hive innovation approach, sometimes called a product development partnership, has been used successfully in several other areas, including the development of new malaria medicines, bringing academic research, industry and donors to work together under the same umbrella (6). The huge advantage of hive innovation is that the synergy it produces marries fresh perspectives with production capabilities. This same hive approach has now proved effective in tackling some of the problems thrown up by this pandemic, enabling businesses, academia and government to work together in innovative and creative ways.

The results demonstrate that when we are really serious about something that is going to affect our lives, we can find ways to achieve results quickly – remarkably so. Given that the usual development times (time to market) for medical devices is three to seven years (7), it is nothing short of a miracle that ways have been found to design, license, source, and manufacture new models of medical equipment in a matter of just a few weeks.

Covid-19 has shown us that achieving significant innovation is as much about shaping new relationships and collective responses to the challenges we face as it is about sharpening our focus and garnering resources.

Just imagine what we could achieve if we took the same approach and applied it to the challenges of the climate crisis. Yes, the climate challenges are even greater than Covid-19 – but that, surely, is the point – we need to treat the fate of our planet with an even greater sense of urgency than we give to the threat of SARS-CoV-2.

Our experience of this disease continues to be a very painful one. Hopefully, one of its benefits can be to give us new clarity, not only about what is really important in life, but also about the important role hive innovation and collective self-sufficiency can play in tackling the challenges facing the future of our planet.

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  • (6) One of the earliest product development partnerships is MMV:
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Acting now might just save our trees

When we talk of species extinction we tend to think of this as something that happens a long way away from us, maybe in another continent, in the jungles of the Amazon or Asia. We also tend to think of species extinction as being the result of human encroachment – the combination of felling, burning, agriculture and urbanisation. While this picture is largely correct as far as it goes in many parts of the world, something just as frightening is happening much closer to home.

Our trees are dying. Not a few of them, somewhere else, but many of them, here, throughout our country. Many of our tree species are facing a wave of diseases that will have almost unimaginable consequences for our countryside. The list of tree diseases in Britain is now very, very long. The government website Gov.UK lists some two dozen, all of them serious (1). The most frightening thing of all is that many of these diseases are new – new to Europe not just to the UK.

The sad loss of the majestic English Elm

Some of us are old enough to remember the second wave of Dutch Elm disease. The first hit during the 1920s and burnt itself out. The second started in the 1970s and by the early 1980s, Elm trees had almost totally disappeared from the landscape. Some twenty million elms had been killed during a single decade. Now they are but a memory with only a few isolated examples remaining.

Anyone younger than forty is probably too young to remember how elms had once been a prominent feature of our landscape, their stately forms punctuated the hedgerows and fields, the galleons of the green. Appearing taller than other English deciduous trees, mainly due to the fact that they put their energy into vertical growth and spread their branches less widely than trees such as the oak or the ash, they reached a height of 30 metres.

The English elm often stood solitary or in small groves and was once the home of choice to rooks (2). Rookeries were found wherever elms stood in a cluster, as they once did on the edge of almost every English village. Then they were as English as cricket on the green. No more. The elms have gone and so too, to a large extent, have the rooks. While they have found other trees in which to build their nests, the colossal rookeries of yesteryear are very much a thing of the past. Elms survive today largely as a hedgerow shrub.

When I was young, a fairly large rookery was housed in a small cluster of elms that stood within earshot of my bedroom. Every morning I was greeted with the raucous squabbling of these delightfully cantankerous corvids. As sunset approached, this performance was repeated, slowly subsiding into a round of gentle cawing as they settled down for the night. Despite their quarrelsome manner, I always found there to be something cheerful and amusing in how the rooks conducted themselves. And while the elms are sadly no more, rooks have remained one of my favourite bird species. The sight of these large bare-billed black birds feeding in a fallow field during winter seems to me to be a scene that could stretch back into eternity.

The once glorious English Elm, now but a memory

The slow death of the Common Ash

Many of us have heard of Ash dieback caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, more properly known as Chalara ash dieback. The disease attacks one of our most common and loved native trees, Fraxinus excelsior, a tree which can otherwise reach 35 metres in height and 400 years in age. There are thought to be some 90-150 million mature ash trees in Britain, and as many as 2.2 billion trees in total, when saplings are included (3).

The disease is of Asian origin and was first reported in Europe in Poland in 1992, where it quickly had devastating consequences. The first symptoms are the weakening, drooping and discolouration of leaves and shoots, followed by premature leaf fall. Stricken trees subsequently develop black lesions in their trunks and bark. Once present, Chalara ash dieback stunts growth and weakens the heart of the tree, making it vulnerable to attack by other tree diseases. This almost invariably results in death, sooner or later (4).

Unfortunately, the disease spreads easily, the spores of the fungus travelling on the soles of shoes or car tyres. The spores can be carried as much as 10 miles or more on the wind. As a result of its ease of transmission, Chalara ash dieback has spread rapidly throughout Europe. It was first identified in England in 2012. However, scientists now believe it had reached the UK as early as 2006, but had gone unreported.

It is expected that the disease will kill somewhere between 95% and 99% of all UK ash trees (5). There is no cure. Because the tree is so widespread, from southern England all the way up to Scotland, this disease will change the appearance of the British landscape even more than the loss of the elm. While few trees will survive in the long term, some have proved resistant to the fungus. This has given rise to some hope and the formation of the Living Ash Project (6)(7).

Why we have a tsunami of tree diseases

Ash dieback is just one unexpected and unfortunate outcome of the absence of proper plant quarantine facilities in the UK. As we have seen with human disease, there is little or no attempt to enforce controls at our borders. This is even more the case when it comes to controlling plant imports. Trade is all in our globalised world.

As a result, Chalara ash dieback is one of more than half a dozen new deadly tree diseases, all of which have arrived on these shores in recent years. I list the main notifiable diseases by the date when they were first identified in Britain:

  • 1993 Phytophthora of alder: Lethal to the alder tree; it came here from Germany and France; 20% of all trees are already infected.
  • 2000 Horse chestnut bleeding: This is a type of canker caused by two different pathogens – one from the US, the other from the Himalayas. Lethal.
  • 2002 Ramorum disease: Arrived from Asia and affects 150 species. Larch are particularly susceptible, resulting in browning of the needles and needle drop, followed by sudden larch death. Stands of larch across Britain and Europe are now permanently brown all year around. They are being felled and have little or no value as wood.
  • 2007 Phytophthora of juniper: Arrived from Argentina. Causes dieback and eventual tree death.
  • 2009 Massaria disease: Arrived from Europe. Affects the plane tree, including the London plane, leading to branch loss, weakening them and making them unsafe. Councils are forced to resort to felling to protect the public.
  • 2010 Phytophthora lateralis: From North America. Kills the evergreen Lawson cypress.
  • 2011 Neonectria canker of Abies: From Europe. This disease causes crown dieback and weakens the wood. Affects 13 species of fir as well, it appears, as some spruce and the western hemlock.
  • 2011 Sweet chestnut blight: Say goodbye to the sweet chestnut tree. This arrived from the US via Europe. It is estimated that it has already killed 3.5 billion trees in the US during the twentieth century.

By now, if you’re like me, you are no doubt feeling distressed that we could ever have permitted this slow moving disaster to gradually overwhelm our woodlands. Sadly, there might be worse to come.

An ancient olive grove in Italy destroyed by an outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa

The big new killers on the block

Containing plant diseases should be a whole lot easier than containing human ones. Plants don’t run, nor do they walk (8). If we wish to, we can prevent things going from bad to worse by adopting proper plant quarantine procedures as the Australians have done for decades (9). Our trees needn’t die in such vast numbers (though, sadly, it might already be too late to save the ash).

There is urgent need to act. The tree diseases on our doorstep are the most frightening yet. And probably the most serious of all is that of Xyella fastidiosa. The photograph above is of an Italian olive grove devastated by this disease.

According to Forest Research, “Xylella is a plant disease which can affect several species of broadleaf trees widely grown in the UK, such as oak, elm and plane, as well as a wide range of other commercially grown plants. Among them are grape, citrus, coffee, olive, almond and blueberry species, and many herbaceous plant species.”(10) I am not looking forward to doing without coffee, wine, or citrus fruit; and this list is just the tip of the iceberg. While it includes some of Xyella’s commercially more valuable victims, it misses off most of the garden plants that will disappear if it arrives on these shores. Currently, some 560 plant species are known to be vulnerable to Xyella!

The disease reached Europe from America, being first detected in Italy in 2013. It has since made its way slowly northwards, spreading to Spain and France which are struggling to contain it. Germany, on the other hand, was successful in eliminating an outbreak in 2018.

The bacterial disease blocks the movement of water and nutrients (through the xylem) in the host plant, thereby causing severe damage and frequently killing the plant. It affects different species with varying degrees of lethality. The disease has already led to the destruction of tens of thousands of olive trees. I find this particularly sad. Olive trees are known to live for well over 2,000 years and are some of the oldest living organisms on the planet (11).

However scary a prospect for our gardens and countryside, Xyella is not the end of the story. Further horrors that have yet to reach our shores await our trees. Some are already knocking at our door:

  • Conifer root rot: This has already destroyed 25% of Norway spruce trees throughout Scandinavia.
  • Pitch canker of pine: It arrived in Europe from North America. The disease affects spruce trees as well as pine. It reduces timber growth and causes widespread tree death. It is present in Portugal and Spain and is considered eradicated from France and Italy.
  • Plane tree wilt: This is widespread in Europe. It kills slowly, taking up to 7 years to finish off its host.
  • Oak tree wilt: The name is misleading. The fungal disease can kill oak trees in just a few years. If it ever came here, it could do immense damage to our two native species of oaks, which are already are already under severe stress from threats such as acute oak decline, chronic oak dieback, and oak processionally moth.

This post focuses on the new tree diseases brought to Britain and Europe from other countries. Take pitch canker of pine. This disease is prevalent in southeastern USA, as well as coastal Monterey and California. It is thought that it might have originated in Mexico, however, and is also found in Chile and Haiti. From the Americas, as well as Europe, it has also spread to South Africa and several countries in Asia, including Japan, Korea and possibly Iraq. In addition to the felling of the great jungles of South America and Asia, the unrestricted trade of recent decades has had some unexpected and terrible consequences for the world’s trees.

Is our number one carbon sink sunk?

People everywhere are calling for the planting of millions (or trillions) of more trees to act as carbon sinks. More trees mean less free-floating CO2 and this slows the warming of atmosphere. Trees do a great job of this. Roughly speaking, a 40 year-old tree has absorbed about one ton of CO2. A 2001 study lists the following species of trees as being especially good at storing and absorbing CO2: the common horse-chestnut, black walnut, American sweetgum, Ponderosa pine, red pine, white pine, London plane, Hispaniolan pine, Douglas fir, scarlet oak, red oak, Virginia live oak, and bald cypress (12). Do you notice something? That’s right, there’s a very worrying overlap with the list of species we’ve just been talking about. This is not good news.

Australia treats the spread of tree diseases as an issue of Biosecurity. Their government website states, “Imported live plant material can introduce foreign plant pests and diseases that could be harmful to Australia’s environment, agriculture and economy. To protect against this risk, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment sets conditions for the import of all live plant material to Australia.” That they mean business is flagged right at the top of the website, where this message is highlighted: “Notice to import industry: changes to import requirements to protect against Xylella. The Australian Government is strengthening the import requirements for a number of plant species to safeguard Australia against the bacterial plant pathogen Xylella (Xylella fastidiosa)”(13).

Australia is clearly prepared to go to great lengths to prevent the spread of Xyella and other deadly tree diseases. The question is, why aren’t we?

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  • (8) The one exception, of course, is that of the Triffids, in John Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, The Day of the Triffids (1951). Once plants started walking, humans were in deep trouble.
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  • (11) Let me be clear, there are many other contenders for this title, including the humble yew tree, an example of which, growing in a churchyard in Wales, is thought to be somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 years old.
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Advantage Federal?

There has been a lot of speculation in the press about why Germany (and to some extent Switzerland) have seen proportionately fewer deaths than other countries during the first wave of the Covid-19 virus (1). While there are undoubtedly many reasons for why this is the case, and we will not understand the full picture until this pandemic is over, many have concluded that it is the sheer extent of the testing in these countries that has been effective in constraining the scale of the outbreak there (2).

One aspect that has gone largely unnoticed, however, is the positive impact of the federal system on shaping both countries’ capabilities.

It is inherent in the nature of federal systems that healthcare facilities are decentralised. Whereas the UK has created major regional centres of specialisation – such as the Liverpool Heart & Chest Hospital, serving everywhere from the Isle of Man and Anglesey in Wales to Liverpool and the northwest of England – in Germany and Switzerland every state (or canton) is expected to be largely self-sufficient. This means that, in contrast to Britain, which started out with just a single, centralised testing unit, Germany was able to immediately replicate testing in numerous centres throughout the country.

In the view of Christian Drosten, the director of the institute of virology at Berlin’s Charité hospital, whose team of researchers developed the first COVID-19 test used in the public domain, this goes to the heart of the matter. He told NPR, the German public radio broadcaster, that Germany’s low fatality rate was the result of his country’s ability to test early and often. 

“We have a culture here in Germany that is actually not supporting a centralized diagnostic system,” said Drosten, “so Germany does not have a public health laboratory that would restrict other labs from doing the tests. So we had an open market from the beginning.”(3)

Germany’s 16 federal states make their own decisions on coronavirus testing because each of them is responsible for their own healthcare system. The same is true in Switzerland, another country with a federal system, which has achieved one of the highest testing rates in the world (4).

But it is not just testing, of course. Another aspect that also came in for scrutiny in the UK at the beginning of this crisis is the number of intensive care beds per a million people. Germany had 292 compared to the UK’s 66 (5). Why the difference? The same answer holds true: in Germany, all 16 states needed to replicate ICU facilities, whereas in the Britain they were heavily centralised. Even if Germany wanted to, the states wouldn’t have allowed it to reduce the number of intensive care beds down to the level seen in Britain.

There is another harsh truth that has little to do with decentralisation: the NHS has been underfunded for a considerable time. Years of austerity have ensured that the UK has inadequate facilities in place to deal with the annual winter flu outbreaks, let alone a virulent pandemic such as Covid-19. In an interview with The Financial Times, Severin Schwan, CEO of Roche, a Swiss based pharmaceutical giant, said that the UK government lagged behind other countries in dealing with the coronavirus crisis because it had not invested enough in healthcare and testing. Speaking from lockdown in Switzerland, Mr Schwan said to the FT, “I am not saying [the decision not to invest] is right or wrong, . . . But don’t wonder [when] a crisis like this comes and you don’t have the infrastructure that you are in a more difficult situation.” In other words, don’t be surprised, Mr Johnson, when the austerity chickens all come home to roost.

So, is there something that other countries can learn from the experience of Germany and Switzerland? Probably. And, to give credit to the UK government, it seems that these lessons have already been learnt to some extent. Since the start of the outbreak the British government has acted quickly to correct the inherent problem of over-centralisation and underinvestment, rapidly equipping seven Nightingale Hospitals, one in each region of England. Others have been added in the other countries of the Union.

Similarly, they have addressed the problems due to over-centralisation of testing. Starting with just a single centre, the UK has now increased the number of testing centres to three, supplementing this by university facilities and numerous drive-through centres. Dozens of mobile units are soon to add to this flexibility. Is this the beginning of a new federalised approach? Could decentralisation and increased investment be the legacy of Covid-19? Let us hope so.

If federal systems are so great, what on earth has happened in the USA? There is an obvious answer; there is another factor at play: a Presidential system headed by President Trump. This has had a major influence on the outcomes there. A moment’s thought, however, shows the federal advantage even in America. New York and California have been able to act as they see fit to deal with the crisis. Though Trump has attempted to interfere on occasion, he has not been able to stop the governors of these states acting in the best interests of their citizens. In short, the death toll might have been a whole lot worse without federal independence of action. This is an independence that has been widely recognised and praised in the US (6).

A note of caution: I don’t want to give the impression that federalism is universally seen as better than a centralised system in every single aspect. The Germans and the Swiss both complain on a regular basis about how slow their decision-making is. Because little can be imposed top-down by the central government, often consensus is arrived at through a long, slow and painful process. “It takes too long to make decisions,” is a complaint heard regularly. On occasion, the citizens of both countries even overcome deep prejudices and look over the fence at more centralised systems, such as that of neighbouring France, with something akin to envy.

At present, however, much of the envy faces in the other direction. And this is despite France having what is widely recognised to be one of the best healthcare systems in the world. To the surprise of many of their citizens, the federal systems of Switzerland and Germany have shown just how fleet of foot they can be during an emergency. Advantage Federal.

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The Dutch manifesto

With a number of countries already contemplating easing the lockdown (see my post of April 22), The Netherlands is first off the block in considering degrowth when thinking about what our society should look like once the Covid-19 has eased.

Degrowth is a political and environment movement that advocates moving away from our obsession with GDP, downscaling production and consumption to focus on our real needs as a society. This changed focus would reorient our activity as human beings, giving greater importance to relationships and community, our families, art, and general wellbeing. Business and commerce would become just one part of life, not its sole goal. The objective of degrowth is to produce a future that is both environmentally sustainable and generally much more satisfying for people than today’s rat race. Restored World is aligned with this movement.

The proposals of 170 Dutch academics are wide-ranging and address fundamental issues of our collective future, building on some of the green shoots we have seen the early signs of in the UK and elsewhere in Europe – the need for greater self-sufficiency, a basic income for all, sustainable agriculture, less travel, and the cancellation of debt.

Fortunately for me, as I speak not a word of Dutch, Jason Hickel, an inspirational academic in his own right, has provided a summary of their inspiring objectives in translation (1). I quote at length:

“This is remarkable: 170 Dutch academics put together a 5-point manifesto for economic change after the C19 crisis, building on #degrowth principles. It has gone viral in Dutch media. In this thread I’ll summarize the points in English.” (2)

1) Shift from an economy focused on aggregate GDP growth to differentiate among sectors that can grow and need investment (critical public sectors, and clean energy, education, health) and sectors that need to radically degrow (oil, gas, mining, advertising, etc).

2) Build an economic framework focused on redistribution, which establishes a universal basic income (see my post of April 22), a universal social policy system, a strong progressive taxation of income, profits and wealth, reduced working hours and job sharing, and recognizes care work.

3) Transform farming towards regenerative agriculture based on biodiversity conservation, sustainable and mostly local and vegetarian food production, as well as fair agricultural employment conditions and wages.

4) Reduce consumption and travel, with a drastic shift from luxury and wasteful consumption and travel to basic, necessary, sustainable and satisfying consumption and travel.

5) Debt cancellation, especially for workers and small business owners and for countries in the global south (both from richer countries and international financial institutions).

The Dutch aren’t alone in thinking we need a very different way of life if we are to address the Climate Emergency. This necessarily entails a completely different way of thinking about our purpose. I have found the thinking of Tim Jackson useful in this area. His book, Prosperity Without Growth is described by Yanis Varoufakis as “essential reading” (3). He argues that the Problem with Growth, in driving and determining all our actions, is the gorilla in the room (see my post of April 20). We ignore it at our peril.

  • (1) Dr. Jason Hickel is an economic anthropologist, author, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.  He is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London.  He serves on the Labour Party task force on international development, the Statistical Advisory Panel for the Human Development Report 2020, the advisory board of the Green New Deal for Europe, and on the Lancet Commission on Reparations and Redistributive Justice. His most recent book, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, was published by Penguin Random House in 2017.
  • (2) For those of you who read Dutch (I know there are some who subscribe to this blog):
  • (3) Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow, second edition, Routledge, 2017.

There’s a better way out of this . . .

Now is the time for governments to take up an idea that has been around for some time – let’s give everyone a Universal Basic Income. Not a small paltry income, but one large enough to cover all their bills and all their needs. Every individual would receive this sum. It would be universal, unconditional and automatic.

But why? Because everyone benefits. It eliminates poverty in a single stroke and this improves health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that increased equality benefits everyone in society (1). And because it is so simple to administer, being a single payment, the elimination of bureaucracy reduces administration costs substantially, which goes part way to paying for it.

Why now? It has to be admitted that no one really knows what the consequences would be of such a scheme. It is undoubtedly expensive, which is the main argument against it. But then so is paying unemployment benefits and the salaries of all those on furlough because of Covid-19.

We need to test it and see

The universal payment would be made for exactly the same reasons as the current payments but would include everyone. Currently, the governments benefits are missing out at least five million single-person limited companies, while the current level of unemployment benefit (“Jobseeker’s Allowance”) of a paltry £72 a week (for a single person over 25) is totally insufficient for anyone to live off.

Some argue that a Universal Basic Income could increase inequality by giving money to those who already have it. It need not. There is a simple answer. Take it back through taxation, or at whatever fraction you so choose, from those who already have a high income or high wealth. This is easy. HMRC does it all the time.

Others worry that it would disincentivize work. It might, but so does very low pay. We won’t know the tradeoff until we try it. Yet others say this wouldn’t suffice for some with special needs, for example, the severely disabled who need carers. Okay – make this an exception and put the resources into meeting such exceptional needs – by paying carers to do the caring. Clever people could surely work out solutions. The key, though, is to keep things simple.

There are plenty of theories about the advantages of Universal Basic Income – but not enough experience. A few places have trialled it, in countries such as Finland and Canada. This is why the present moment is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the biggest possible trial. Let’s see whether the theorists are right or not.

There’s no safe way to ease the lockdown

This is the right time for many reasons. One that makes it most essential is the question of how we are going to keep the economy functioning during the pandemic. Currently, governments appear to be betting on getting everyone back to work sooner rather than later. This bet rides on the back of developing a vaccine in 12 to 18 months. There are huge costs to this strategy.

To make this happen, governments are going to let the infection rate rise again, albeit temporarily, before once more locking down when the mortality rate rises. This approach appears to be based on “flattening the curve” repeatedly, on a longer term basis – that is, keeping the number of deaths at any one time within “manageable limits”. This will need to be done time and time again – possibly over many years.The hope is that over time this will lead eventually to some level of herd immunity (this is how diseases eventually “burn themselves out” anyway, and is not just the woolly thinking of the British government). Governments intend to reach the point by ensuring our hospitals can cope with the numbers of those infected and seriously ill. Note that this doesn’t a) eliminate the disease any time soon, nor b) stop people dying in large numbers. It merely spreads the number of deaths due to Covid-19 over a much longer period.

This is not a bet I’d like to make. Governments are making this bet because they see no other way to keep their economies running while managing the consequences of the disease. They rightly do not wish to contemplate complete economic meltdown. However . . .

Improving everyone’s wellbeing could be one way to buy time

I agree with President Macron that we all need to think again. Planning for further deaths is unacceptable.

The alternative is for countries to buy time by staying in lockdown until a solution is found – a solution we haven’t thought of yet. However, people will not stay locked down when their livelihood is at risk. To the government’s credit, it has already understood this – and has introduced the concept of furlough, which guarantee’s 80% of employee’s salaries when they are not at work.

No one has yet thought of this as the long-term solution. To my mind, it might have to be. Universal Basic Income would make this possible, improving wellbeing and giving us time to find a way out of this problem.

As an aside, while it’s more likely that we can develop effective antivirals to help treat patients, these are cures not prevention. Cures will help disease management, but not eliminate the impact of the virus. They will at least make the jobs of our healthcare workers more rewarding, less distressing and more sustainable than at present. It must be truly awful to feel so helpless watching people die when they are trained to save lives.

The truth is that a solution could be a long time coming. Vaccines usually take many years to develop. Even if it proves possible to reduce the development time from the usual 10 years or more, which there is every sign that it might, it will nonetheless be an enormous stretch to condense the testing protocol in the human population sufficiently to meet the current aspirations now being reported in the media, of having a vaccine ready within 12 to 18 months. And even if this aspiration does prove attainable, it is still 12-18 months in the future. Not now.

Until then, easing the lockdown and going back to work, shopping, going to an event, inevitably means further spread of Covid-19 among the 97-98% of us not yet infected.

Let’s not be part of a much more dangerous experiment

Letting people go back to the work and then picking up the pieces after a second wave, and third wave, and a fourth ad infinitum is not a solution. . . It’s not only a callous and immoral leading to many more deaths but is unnecessarily expensive and ineffectual. We cannot allow this to happen – it’s completely unacceptable.

Nor can we let all commerce die – that would be completely unsustainable. This is why Universal Basic Income could prove so important. Yes, it’s untried, but if it will at least give us a way to ensure that the economy keeps ticking over until we find a solution, one which doesn’t lead it to more deaths. People would have security and money to spend, and this would create demand for goods and services.

True, it doesn’t solve every problem. Many businesses dependent on high footfall will not survive. For these services, the future looks bleak, unless some manage to convert to home delivery or find some ways to provide for physical distancing. The hard truth is that the economy is likely to change beyond all recognition, whatever we do. This is the stark reality of where we find ourselves. Hence, the propensity of governments to make wild bets.

Universal Basic Income will enable us to stay locked down for the many, many months it’s going to take to come to terms with the consequences of this virus. It will keep businesses going which otherwise would collapse. From where I stand, it now not only looks a more kindly approach but appears a much more effective one to managing this continued and ongoing catastrophe.

(1) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Bloomsbury, 2011.


There’s a gorilla in the hallway

Have you heard of the gorilla that everyone fails to see? If not, watch the video from the link at the end of this post (1) and you’ll see what I mean.

We humans are renowned for our plethora of cognitive biases (2). Our brain, in sorting out the world and simplifying it, is doing us all a favour. If we were to absorb all the information coming at us day and night, we would be unable to respond. We would be sitting ducks, lunch for any predator that happened to be passing, unable to reach decisions, always suffering from acute information overload. So we simplify, greatly. Not to say, on occasion, grossly. We don’t expect to see Gorillas, so we don’t. (Do watch that video again, if you are not yet convinced.)

This is why the tabloids love to give us simplistic answers: they do so because we love things simple. We don’t wish to know that the world is a thousand shades of grey, with no absolutes, no clearcut answers, far too many variables for most of us to make sense of.

We are not computers – at least not in the conventional sense. We don’t take all the data in and then analyse it – not even the most logical of us. Our gut responses act far faster than the mind can process. We react before we think. We flee before we analyse. The thinking catches up, later, maybe.

To put this another way. The world is a lot, lot more mysterious that we give it credit for. We are so good at filtering out, dismissing the inconvenient, shrugging off the things that don’t fit, that we often miss the gorilla in the hallway.

The majority of humans for the majority of human history have been aware of the mystery at the heart of life. Cave paintings, Stonehenge, world religions all testify to this. Yet, since the Enlightenment, we in the West have decided to package up this mystery as inconvenient and have chosen not to address it. We do this numerous ways, by giving primacy to the rational and the empirical, by saying that such things are unprovable, and by claiming the mysteries at life’s heart have little or nothing to do with what really matters in life. It’s as if we just decided the occasional gorilla in our midst is just too inconvenient to consider.

Yet our search for meaning continues.(3) We, of all the world’s creatures, are the only ones who need meaning and keep searching for it, whatever the circumstances. This is the gorilla in the hallway. We can’t move on without recognising it is there.

Maybe if we start listening to life’s mysteries, reincorporating them into our view of reality, we might be able to start undoing the damage we have done to this planet and all life on it. By this, I don’t mean that we should give up science, chuck out rationality and start again. I mean we should have a broader world view, incorporate the mysterious, and listen to what nature is saying to us in a different way. This requires not just measuring how much CO2, SO2 and NO2 we are releasing into the atmosphere (though that too) but how we sense nature is responding to us. Both complement each other, one does not negate the other.

Some will be uneasy with this, as if I am letting in gobbledygook by the front door (no, that is not the name of the gorilla!). Yet, many of us feel more at peace when in a natural environment than we do otherwise. Many say they find walking in the countryside to be deeply relaxing, even healing. The Japanese have turned this into a meditative technique and natural therapy called Shinrin-yoku that they believe brings physical and psychological benefits (4).

Science shows us that our brains respond very positively to greens and blues(5)(6). We can feel “at one with nature”; likewise, the expanse of the sea, or the sky at night, or a mountain-top view can give us a sense of the infinite. This is not an appeal for pantheism, far from it, but merely an illustration of how we sense more than we immediately understand. Cutting ourselves off from this experience is to deny the very core of us.

So, I guess this all boils down to a rather simple thought: when listening to nature, when seeing it more clearly, we might also begin to see ourselves more clearly. This is a matter of listening in a much deeper way than we are used to. It requires admitting that occasionally, just occasionally, the unexpected intrudes, blocking our way forward. We are now at such an impasse.

Putting the world to right can’t be solely a matter of recycling, cutting carbon emissions, and changing lightbulbs. It also needs to be a way of recreating harmony where we have wrought disorder and disaster. That harmony will be manifest in the peace we make with nature and in the peace we make with each other and ourselves.

None of this will be possible without letting the mysterious and the unknown back into our lives. Let’s give that gorilla a hug.

  • (1) Selective attention:
  • (2) For a long list of cognitive biases, see Wikipedia:
  • (3) Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946. An account of his life in a Nazi concentration camp, the finding of a purpose for his life, and how he turned this into a psychotherapeutic method.
  • (4) Website on Shinrin-yoku:
  • (5) Technical paper on cognition:
  • (6) New Scientist on healing properties of green light:

La nouvelle liberté égalité fraternité

Leaders are defined in times of crisis it is said. During this pandemic, leaders have been in desperately short supply.

One notable exception is President Emmanuel Macron.

Until now, I have been no great fan. Nor have the French. His popularity rating dropped to around 30%, due largely to his handling of the gilet jaunes protests in Paris. His response to the Covid-19 pandemic has ensured that his popularity is now recovering, rapidly.

One interview has turned me around too. It was conducted by the Financial Times on Friday 17th April. What follows are extracts (1). My intention is to illustrate why I think he has become a European leader worth listening to.

Macron starts in his interview from the same place where this blog and website start from: “We all face the profound need to invent something new, because that is all we can do,” he says. “I don’t know if we are at the beginning or the middle of this crisis — no one knows,” he says. “There is lots of uncertainty and that should make us very humble.”

“I think it’s a profound anthropological shock,” he says of the crisis. “We have stopped half the planet to save lives, there are no precedents for that in our history.” This is where many would stop. But what Macron said next made me sit up and take notice:

“But it will change the nature of globalisation, with which we have lived for the past 40 years . . . We had the impression there were no more borders. It was all about faster and faster circulation and accumulation,” he says. “There were real successes. It got rid of totalitarians, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago and with ups and downs it brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But particularly in recent years it increased inequalities in developed countries. And it was clear that this kind of globalisation was reaching the end of its cycle, it was undermining democracy.” Recognition from a European leader of what many of its citizens have long been saying.

Macron then went on to talk of the future of the European Union. What he says is of interest, in that it is clear that he now sees it in different light. “We are at a moment of truth, which is to decide whether the European Union is a political project or just a market project. I think it’s a political project . . . We need financial transfers and solidarity, if only so that Europe holds on,” he says. In other words, the richer countries need to support the poorer ones during this crisis, which, until now, they have been failing to do.

Critical for me, however, is when Macron turns to the broader lessons that we can draw from the pandemic: the Climate Crisis will kill, here, just as the pandemic has.

People have come to understand, Macron says, “that no one hesitates to make very profound, brutal choices when it’s a matter of saving lives. It’s the same for climate risk,” he says. “Great pandemics of respiratory distress syndromes like those we are living through now used to seem very far away, because they always stopped in Asia. Well, climate risk seems very far away because it affects Africa and the Pacific. But when it reaches you, it’s wake-up time.”

Wow! What a declaration of intent. One that is spot on too. Thank goodness someone in leadership finally seems to have understood what it will take to save the planet, and us.

That he has, is underlined in the final part of his interview. Macron likened the fear of suffocation that comes with Covid-19 to the effects of air pollution. “When we get out of this crisis people will no longer accept breathing dirty air,” he says. “People will say . . . ‘I do not agree with the choices of societies where I’ll breathe such air, where my baby will have bronchitis because of it. And remember you stopped everything for this Covid thing but now you want to make me breathe bad air!’”

Macron would get my vote, if I had one. I hope the French see it the same way.

(1) Sadly, you have to be a subscriber to read the full written interview or watch its video recording.


Hidden in plain sight

The vulnerability of NHS workers to becoming infected by the Covid-19 patients with whom they are working is well understood. Sadly, many have died of the disease as a result of their contact (1). The courage NHS staff show in turning up for work each day and caring for their patients has led to great appreciation from the public, notably in the public demonstrations on several Thursday evenings when people clap or bang pots and pans in appreciation from their doorsteps and balconies. Similar demonstrations of appreciation are held across Europe, this form of demonstration having started in Italy, in solidarity with their overwhelmed healthcare workers.

What has not been so widely appreciated, however, is that other “essential workers” are equally or even more vulnerable. Bus drivers and train staff come into contact with many hundreds and even thousands of people every day, even after lockdown. They are extremely vulnerable.

While London Transport has placed perspex screens in many buses in an attempt to protect its drivers, this is clearly not doing its job. Other workers have zero protection. To date, 21 transport workers have died in London alone (2). I have not been able to find figures for the country as a whole but suspect that it will be a multiple of this number.

By some accounts warehouse workers and supermarket staff are just as vulnerable as transport workers. Once one person is infected in a warehouse, the infection quickly spreads. Amazon has so far failed to meet even basic standards of human decency in how it treats its staff, refusing to grant them sick leave when required, let alone ensuring adequate standards of social distancing (3).

Likewise, delivery drivers are exposed to regular contact with many hundreds of people a day. What do you do if you need the pay in order to survive, pay which is based on the number of deliveries completed on time, and upon which we are all increasingly reliant as a society, and yet every delivery represents an unknown level of risk? I don’t we have the answer as a society and I don’t think they do as individuals.

One thing I am happy to see, is that these once overlooked people, who include many who are on zero-hours contracts, short-time work, and other forms of insecure work, are now being viewed as “essential workers”. Now that we know them to be essential, and sometimes brave, maybe we can all help ensure they are at least paid a living wage.

Many, if not most of these workers, are currently among the large numbers of working poor, where limited income ensures their poverty, however hard they work (4). I hope we can now ensure they receive a wage that reflects the overall prosperity of our society, not just the small change that trickles down from the rich and the powerful.

Whenever such things are mentioned, the retort comes back, “this will mean higher taxes!” Indeed, it might also mean higher fares and higher delivery charges – but this is what a fairer and more just society looks like: richer people contributing more. If we want real change, we will all have to do with less and pay more for what we consume.

Covid-19 is teaching us all lessons. What is true for ensuring social justice is likely to be just as true for dealing with the climate crisis.

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)
  • (4) The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on in-work Poverty:


Signs of new beginnings

This spring is a very different one to the last. Not only can you hear the birds sing, but since they no longer have to stretch their voices above the sound of the planes and the road traffic, they can also hear each other better than before. The birds seem happier. I expect a chick baby boom.

And the skies are blue. The poor air quality and smogs that beset almost every major city have disappeared as a result of the reduction in traffic and business activity. Satellite images of NO2 pollution, comparing the situation before and after lockdown, show that the veil of nitrogen dioxide has largely vanished across Europe (1). Even more dramatic are the changes that have been seen in Asia (2). In China, C02 levels dropped by more than 20% during the six weeks from mid-February. In Delhi the contrast is like the difference between night and day. For the first time in decades, there is day after day of bright blue sky in India’s capital. The same is no doubt true elsewhere.

But it is not just nature that shows renewal. Money trees are sprouting across the world. After years of austerity following the financial crisis of 2007-08, suddenly governments have found the money to embark on almost unlimited spending.

New priorities require drastic action. I have watched with wonder as the British government, in particular, has show great creativity in finding ways to support its citizens and its businesses in these unprecedented times. Many things once deemed unthinkable, or beyond the pale, are now found to be possible. Desperation, pragmatism, realism, all mean that there is most definitely new thinking afoot. This deserves appreciation.

This new thinking intrudes into the world of commerce. Private hospitals have been co-opted into the NHS, railway franchise agreements have been suspended, the Bank of England has extended its credit facility to the Government, providing it with an unlimited overdraft facility. In short, the distance between the Treasury and the Bank has been reduced to zero. In effect, the Bank of England is under Treasury control . . . once again. And none of this has been called Marxism or Corbynism. Amazing!

Things are also changing in unexpected ways. Driven by the desperate nature of the present situation, manufacturing and construction have suddenly unleashed new creativity. Nightingale hospitals are springing up like mushrooms, in record time – rather than the ten years it normally takes just to get to the planning stage. Businesses all around the country have suddenly a new-found entrepreneurial flair and – horror of horrors! – are working in cooperation with each other, with scientists and technologists, and with the government to produce everything from PPE to ventilators. This is new.

The present crisis is showing us that, once the shackles of neoliberal dogmatism are thrown off, there are other, maybe better ways of doing things. Innovation isn’t something that has to take years “to come down the pipeline” but can be conjured almost on demand. This is not to say that it is easy, or cheap, merely that it is possible.

The present situation illustrates that once we take a crisis seriously, it not only focuses the mind but also the resources, organisation and finance to drive innovation. We can do it if we wish to.

And this underlines the point that we have not yet devoted the same focus and attention to the climate crisis and species extinction. We could, if we wished to.

  • (1)
  • (2)
  • (3)

At a fork in the road

We are a critical juncture for humanity. The climate crisis and species extinction are the number one existential challenge. To date, we have singularly failed to deal with what this means for us as a species, collectively, nationally, globally.

Now this very real threat has been almost sidelined by the overwhelming impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has swept away everything we thought solid, indisputable and true. Its impact has undermined many of our institutions, ways of life, and our assumptions about how things are done that we, like much of the world, have held dear for the past forty years or more.

Business as usual

It is most unlikely that we can simply “go back to the way things were before the outbreak” even if we wish to do so. Governments have extended their powers in unprecedented ways, democracy has been put on hold, debt is increasing at a previously unimaginable rate, a myriad businesses have already vanished for good, and the global system of trade and exchange is undermined. There will be no return tomorrow morning to “business as usual” – too much has already been broken.

And this is only just the beginning . . .

The sad truth is that many, many more people will die before this pandemic is over. It may be several years before we find a cure or a means of fully containing the virus. Years! This stretches the imagination.

While the media is talking of a vaccine being produced in a year to eighteen months using new technologies (1), we know it can take as much as ten years or more to develop a vaccine that can fully immunise us against viral infections (2). In other words, we will somehow have to keep going for a long, long time while simultaneously trying to contain the spread of Covid-19. And people will continue to die all around the world. This a horrifying prospect.

Already, trust is now at its most fragile. The dimensions of this tragedy mean the goodwill is sorely tested between individuals, communities, institutions and countries. Yet, if we are to survive in this strange world, let alone thrive, we will all need to find new and better ways to cooperate with each other and to share our resources and innovations. This is the challenge . . .

  • (1)
  • (2)