Profitable transition

What does it mean if companies declare that they are committed to the energy transition including committing resources towards it, and massive investments, only to make a U-turn when oil & gas turns out to be way more profitable? It tells you that it had always been about the money it makes rather than the transition. Never mind that the fossil fuels continue to drive up carbon emissions and hurting the climate. In fact, maybe climate change would drive up demand for energy – especially in terms of heating or cooling, or requiring more activities in the economy to deal with and mitigate the impacts.

Can the work of accelerating the energy transition be left to the markets? Can profits really motivate companies to support the transition and reduce carbon emissions? Does the market demand understand, appreciate and would be willing to drive and pay for the transition? I don’t think so. Absent regulation, it is unlikely for the markets to drive the emergence of the solution. It is as if we want seat belt manufacturers to drive the messaging around safety and benefits of having seat belts rather than legislate it as a requirement in cars. Or just waiting around for cars to adopt them as the standard feature in a car.

We probably don’t have enough time for all that to make an impact on mitigating climate change. Regulations will be required. To put a price for carbon on the market, to push technologies and options in the market that will reduce emissions. We must also evolve and steer the regulation as our understanding of the technologies and impact on environment advances. We don’t have to get everything right on the first try but we do need to be trying.

Fear and inspiration

Do you think that Singapore is governed mainly by fear of sticks and people drawn by carrots? That we have a pragmatic society that is often about dollars and cents? And people are following rules because they are induced by incentives and pushed away by disincentives?

If you look at videos of Lee Kuan Yew’s speeches in the past they were fiery but also inspirational. He does not try to push actions or responsibility on people without giving them a destination that is worth their while. We tend to forget this in public communications.

We tend to tell people that they can’t do this or that because if everyone does it, there will be chaos. Instead, they should be saying that when we disallow people from doing this or that, it makes for a more orderly system or design. And it allows everyone to enjoy the environment better.

Instilling inspiration can be more rewarding than trying to great fear. But we are all too anxious for success, too impatient to do that. We prefer to think the energy to wield a whip is less than providing a carrot. That may not always be true.

Sniffing industrialism

Professional services are inherently somewhat personal kind of service that depends a lot on the team delivering the service – not just because of the expertise required and involved but also the extent the team actually understands and care about the problem that clients have.

When one enters a professional service environment, it becomes easy to sniff out industrialism when you note that the bosses are just acting as managers, thinking about how they can increase more sales, upsell customers and mainly care about the metrics involved for sales but not delivery. And then when it comes to delivery, the culture is about doing the minimum, leveraging irrelevant previous work, failing to live up to promises.

We have all seen the big consultancies deliver such stuff. Perhaps especially the big four. Mariana Mazzucato talks about it in the Big Con. Workers need to sniff out industrialism in this sector and learn to opt out of it – by leaving or changing the way they serve. Clients need to sniff that out by walking away. The reason why such industrialism perpetuates is because clients sign up for them – they put procurement departments, try to boil everything down to basic metrics and uni-dimensional issues, and negotiate lower prices, driving vendors to cut back on service.

We’ve had decades of doing more, extracting more productivity out of our assets, workers and even vendors. Like the big fossil, you might think you’re winning, until you realise you’ve just driven the world to its end.

Big Fossil has a chance

I don’t want to call them big oil or big coal, or big gas anymore. They are big on fossil, fossil fuels. And they have a chance to make the future a better place; one that we all want to be part of. They have the opportunity; enormous opportunity to create the products and services that people need and want which will be good for them, and good for everybody else, not just good for the big fossil companies.

But to take advantage of this opportunity, they need to recognise people are not demanding for fossil fuels. They are demanding for energy, for access to energy, for cheaper energy. But that form of energy is fossil fuel, big fossil might retort. It is not. Fossil fuel is not cheap. It is not cheap because we all are paying in the form of greater natural disasters, in facing once-in-a-hundred-year floods almost every decade, in having to pay even more for heating during winters and cooling during summers. Fossil fuel is not what the world is demanding for.

Big fossil can ignore the NGOs, they can ignore the activist investors or the climate activists, and even government. Heck, they could buy out those sitting on the fence. They could even subsidize all manner of appliance, infrastructure, systems that entrench fossil fuels further. But they cannot ignore climate change; they cannot ignore the fact that we are not destroying earth with carbon emissions. We are destroying ourselves. And for what? Profits? What good are profits if that’s just creating a future no one wants to be part of?

Conflicts of interest in professional services

One of the interesting arguments coming out of Mariana Mazzucato’s The Big Con is that because consulting firms are reliant on a continued stream of business from their clients, there is a conflict of interest as they would not be interested to help clients build the capability to solve problems by themselves.

I’m concerned about this argument because that argument can be made in many other situation such as a lawyer not wanting to help client get out of legal trouble or doctor not desiring his patients to recover, etc. It opens a whole can of worms and at the end of the day, boils down to a matter of professional ethics and the standards we need to uphold within the industry and sector.

I’ve an episode in Mondo Gondo about the financial advisory industry’s conflict of interest. Interestingly, Christopher Tan from Providend revisited this topic again recently. This matter of commission-induced conflict of interest underlies his motivation in founding of his firm. Yet he still struggles with the inherent tension across:

  • the need to make money,
  • the need to motivate and retain his good employees as well as
  • to uphold the interest of his client base.

There may be inherently some industries that are better off for the customers if they were not subject to complete free market type conditions.

Perhaps consulting firms should all continue to stay in the form of partnerships and not allowed to get too big. Likewise, financial advisory might be better off as an industry of freelancing individuals. They can be subject to strict industry and professional body standards rather than be firms operating with huge overheads.

Going in circles

Our spray bottles for cleaning the kitchen counter, pump bottles that come with our body foam, as well as that shampoo bottle are all going to outlast our use of the fluids stored within them. They can be reused – and in reusing them for the same applications, we are reducing their usage. Good for the overall economy in terms of saving resources, for our pockets and also the environment. Except that it is in the interest of the fossil fuel companies to churn out more plastics, for the consumer goods company to create more new packaging and mark up the price of these products, for logistics companies to handle a consistent set of quality, new containers rather than re-used, non-standardized ones.

We’ve created incentives, built our economies around sheer wastage and environmental destruction. Can new business models be created, alongside the harnessing of forces to drive change in consumer culture and consumption practices? Grist reports on some interesting examples recently.

Indeed, we already have vending machines and public water fountains. Why not make soda fountains where people pay for soda that goes into their water bottles? Scoop Wholefoods already tries to retail all kinds of products by having customers bring containers into store where they are filled up.

Laundry detergent, hand soap and all can definitely be sold in bulk dispensed from big containers into the containers brought by the consumers. During the Covid pandemic, Singapore had deployed vending machines and various physical outposts around community centers where Singaporeans could bring their containers to refill and get alcohol-free hand sanitisers. Why not make that the norm?

It will be difficult for the market capitalism as we have evolved it to stomach and put up with all these changes. People want to carry on with proliferation of brands and ‘choices’ – they want to make different containers and so many different kinds of detergent, soaps and handwash that makes it hard to retail all of these in bulk.

Would you rather have more options of soap and less possibilities of a future we would want to be part of? Or less option of soaps so we can choose better futures to exist in?

Analogy of Syd Suyadi

Is the syllabus a document that draws up a schedule of what students should learn, what teachers must teach, or one that dictates what examiners can test?

It is all, my friend, Syd Suyadi, who hopes to be an educator says, quite very some time ago. This friend of mine was once a hopeful person, extremely optimistic about his future, the future of the future generations and that of mankind. His optimism counts on 2 particular factors: 1) He believes his involvement in education in future would allow him to effect change that eliminates flaws that are currently still with the system; 2) He believes that the products of education have served the society well and would continue to serve even better with his fine-tuning of the system. He soon became disappointed and no longer motivated, though not to the state of disillusionment. It was a sad sight to see young people getting depressed this way, though it was a noble and good kind of depression.

But why? Why did he become this way? It was because of 2 particular developments in his perception of the world and naive notion of change. Firstly, he started having doubts about his ability to effect change in future and in fact, he begin suspecting that the education system doesn’t even have the capacity to accept that sort of change he was expecting to effect. These doubts, again, arise because of 2 developments in the education scene in Singapore. Firstly, we had a change in education policy that involved a concoction of lots of different programmes that are in highly experimental status – all of which proved rather disappointing from the view of the students. Second, the education system was becoming extremely elitist from my friend’s view – one of a premier institution in the country. The two developments proved that my friend’s chance of survival in the system is not very large and also that changes in the system is sometimes, rather harmful.

Secondly, Syd’s ambitions are continually undermined by his own inability to meet his own expectations in his academic career. That is not to discount his ability in possibly benefiting the system but for him, people’s perception of his abilities is tied strongly to his academic and portfolio achievements. Worst, he came to hate the type of people he first seek to nurture. Elites, he calls them, crowds out opportunities. He criticizes the system’s poor measures of ability and frequent blunders in identifying talents (including their high myopia that resulted in not identifying Syd Suyadi himself).

Shame on the Great Equalizer – for you eventually destroy those who trust you the most!

Logical Premises

Dunjie, a one of the more prolific thinkers of weird ideas that I have as a friend asked me;

Is it possible to create a filter that traps the small things while letting the big things pass through? Or a hole that is a size that allows big particles to pass through without the small ones doing the same?

What he has just asked, is not at all a Physics inquiry or stuff dealing with scientific possibility but one that questions logical premises. I explained that it is not possible unless you redefine big and small. For all I know, ‘small’ is a size that can be considered the sub-set of ‘big’ so unless the definition goes the other way round, whatever proposed can never be possible. We all know that if you have a hole big enough for something big to enter, anything smaller than this big thing will be able to pass through so it is valid to say that logically, the ‘small’ is within the premise of the ‘big’. While it is nice to think you can circumvent many humanly impossible task with science, it is never possible to undermine logic.

The same, therefore, applies to formulation of arguments. The definition in the line of arguments must all be consistent or you will get statements like “Nobody is Perfect. I am Nobody. Therefore, I am Perfect”. Or that, “Nothing is better than A1. F9 is better than Nothing. So F9 is better than A1.” In both cases, the ‘Nobody’ and ‘Nothing’ bears different definitions or meanings in the first and the second statements so they cannot be equated or used as the link for the concluding statements. Logic have to be obeyed and we should identify the premise to provide ourselves the context where we can draw upon the most appropriate answer.

Cycles of Absurdity

I would proclaim that I have been an existentialist. But in fact, I may not be – not in the Sarte way, not in the Camus way or the Nietzsche way. So maybe I am just an existentialist in the Vib kind of way. Essentially, I make use of their arguments, their notions of reality and tools to argue my advice and ideas on life. But the recent studies on climate change and global warming started changing my ideas about cycles and the meaningless-ness of life itself and other natural processes. This discourse would concentrate on tackling Camus’ ideas of Absurdism more than other things and would eventually present something that would sound deterministic. I hope I don’t sound that I have betrayed existentialism because I still feel strongly about one’s ability to change his circumstances and the need to define oneself – but I also believe this ability is part of the entire general direction everything is heading towards anyway.

Scientist studying climate change always looked at the past for patterns of our weather conditions and attempt to use them to predict the future. And all these relies on this fundamental assumption that whatever happens at present and in the future, is governed by exactly the same laws and affected by the same variables as in the past – something that has to be reconsidered given our magnitude of rapid changes. This infectious intuition that things goes in cycles arise not only in Geography (Climate, Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Weathering) but also other social sciences such as Economics (Trade Cycles), Sociology (Societies) and more importantly, Philosophy dealing with existence and sentience. In the aspect of philosophy, Absurdist ideas draws upon most of its conclusions of the meaningless-ness of life from illustration of how everything runs in cycles.

My concern here is that cycles that we speak of, are not full circles and we are never on the same path as the past. It is all a spiral that tends to somewhere. We may well be on a contracted spring, with cycles in that we are going round and round so we find things familiar but we are effectively progressing up the spring. That’s to say that all that we have been through is not wasted. Things proceeds with meaning, or at least a macro purpose such that everything that may seem meaningless would converge to something meaningful. Thus, all the climate changes, plunging into Ice Ages can well be processes that drives the entire climate system into maturity, into more stable weather systems. The same applies for Absurdism – every cycle brings us closer to the end. And to answer to Beckett, I think Vladimir and Estragon will meet Godot one day because the time dimension still exists, which is to say that the similar stuff that goes on signifies there’s some end.

Trade cycles as well. There are ups and downs but I guess we can safely assume that economists have been clever enough to identify that we are heading towards upward spiraling purchasing power and ability to satisfy our needs. In this intellectual discourse then, we would still say Economics have been heading in the right direction of analysis at least. All the other disciplines are simply too pessimistic.

We do go through cycles, but it’s a spiral to maturity.