Thursday, 25 October 2018

Keynote at UN on blockchains - transcript

Blockchain Technology and Transformation in the Face of a Climate Emergency

Professor Jem Bendell

The text of the opening Keynote Speech at the UN Blockchains for Sustainable Development Session at the World Investment Forum 2018, UNCTAD, Geneva, October 24th 2018. Delivered in the Human Rights room to 700 attendees, in the European UN HQ. 

What a difference a few years makes. In 2012 I was in Davos, for the World Economic Forum. In the conference corridors, wide eyed and talking excitedly about the need for us to create new digital currencies and use blockchains.

I remember being looked at like a lunatic. Even by the tech entrepreneurs! And here we are, 6 years later at the United Nations. I might still seem a bit of a lunatic but at least I’ve got a bigger crowd. And a smarter one at that.

In those intervening years, billions in investment has been secured, indicating the potential some see in blockchains and distributed ledgers.


Mainstream media has also got in the on the act. One week they tell us blockchain will save the world. And the next that it will destroy the world. Never, in the history of humanity have people got so animated about something as exciting as a type of database.

OK, so blockchains are a bit more than a type of database. But I emphasise the simplicity of the technology here because I believe it’s not actually the technology that will deliver net positive outcomes for humanity. 

It never is. That’s why this session is useful. So we can discuss intentions and contexts. It is why I’m pleased my University is involved in co-organising the session, and grateful to the Blockchain Charity Foundation for supporting our work and being here today. It is impressive that UNCTAD have taken the initiative to provide member states and others the opportunity to learn more about the pros and cons of new technologies. 

So let me first cover some basics so that we are all on the same page. A blockchain is a record of data that is comprised of blocks which are added over time from a distributed network of participating computers. It means the data can’t be changed, hacked or lost. Blockchain was invented in 2008 to serve as the transaction ledger of the digital currency called bitcoin. Blockchains support much more than digital currencies now, as they offer immutable records that can be public and enable interoperability. This is interesting many governments that struggle with legacy IT systems that can’t talk to each other. Another function of blockchains that is driving interest is called a smart contract. That is a contract between two parties where a payment can be made automatically when a shipment arrives, or where dividends are paid automatically when profits reach a certain level. The technology moves fast and although we use the term blockchain here today, there are promising post-blockchain systems like holochain, which appear more nimble. But the general promise of all these distributed ledgers is greater data transparency, coordination, and automation.

Today, we will hear a range of examples of how distributed ledgers are being deployed for useful outcomes. One example we will hear of is in Kenya where blockchains are combining with grassroots initiatives to provide some of the poorest in society with new currencies to trade with each other. Another example I like is a cryptocurrency called Stellar that enables payments via chains of credit or, simply, promises, between account holders.

Many useful services have been built on top of these new rails, including non-cash remittances used by microfinance organisations across Africa. As this field is moving so fast, it is great that we will be hearing the latest from our panellists, as well as at the side event by UNRISD this afternoon.

Despite some positive examples, the use of these technologies for everyday applications is still rare. Some say that blockchain-based cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are dangerous to our financial system, our security and the environment. How we can address those concerns is something to discuss. As is the matter of how these technologies could be used to address critical dilemmas facing humanity today.

When exploring these questions it’s helpful to keep an open mind. With any kind of technological advance, we may look at it with a mix of intrigue, wonder, confusion or concern. But let’s not be na├»ve optimists or blind sceptics about technology. And let’s not be bystanders. Because technology is neither inherently good or bad for humanity. Instead, it needs responsible management to maximise its intended benefits and minimise its unintended drawbacks. That perspective means we can look at blockchain and crypto currencies and seek to guide their development for positive public outcomes. To do that well will require wider stakeholder participation in shaping the direction and governance of this technology. 


The Sustainable Development Goals offer one framework on public need. And we will hear of a range of efforts on different SDGs from our panellists. But I’d like to invite us to consider something bolder, more urgent. Although climate change is included in the SDGs, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change invites a reprioritisation. It implies that climate change is now a planetary emergency posing an existential threat to humanity. The artist who made this ceiling said he was inspired by a mirage in the Sahel where trees, donkeys and people all appeared to be melting up into the sky. We could take that a dramatic metaphor, in this human rights room, of the human face of climate change. So as our climate spirals away from one friendly to our civilisation, we need to face up to why we have been so incapable of changing our ways, collectively, at scale.

Despite decades of deliberation and initiative, carbon emissions continue to rise. One reason we have not stopped that is because action has always been an add on, not a starting point for our systems of economic organisation. So although it is typical for conversations like ours today to focus on how to improve the current global system, I want to ask us to consider something far bolder. That is the need to transform our economic system – and fast.

So here is the critique – and it’s not a shy one. Currently, stock markets incentivise the maximisation of company growth and profitability. That can encourage firms to manipulate people to consume more, while externalising costs onto society and the environment. But a deeper driver of humanity hitting natural limits is our monetary system, which is based on privately-issued debt. Nearly all electronic deposits are created by banks as interest-bearing loans. For the system to function normally, more of our Earth’s resources must be consumed to generate yields to service those debts. Otherwise, when existing loans are paid off, our money supply would dry up.  

This system was OK for a time, and OK in some places. But not now. The climate chaos we face is nature’s answer to our hubris that we could expand forever.

A systemic redesign of our banking and corporate systems is long overdue. Until now, people in senior roles have preferred less awkward explanations of our problems. But now that complacency has become a grave threat to life on Earth. We now know that many self-reinforcing feedbacks have begun to further warm the planet, threatening to take the future out of our hands. So if we don’t wake up from our delusions of what is pragmatic and appropriate, then shame on us.

What to do now then? It means there must be a gateway question for any new technology: how is it going to help us build resilience and reduce harm?

When I look at blockchain technologies and crypto currencies, I therefore look at what opportunities there might be to transcend our self-harming monetary and corporate systems. No less a question is sufficient given our planetary emergency.

So here are some questions that might arise from that starting point. Could we see forms of company financing through digital token sales which don’t necessitate share-price competition and the perpetual growth of corporations? Could we see forms of money that are tied to natural ecosystem maintenance, or issued fairly to people for work of real value? Could blockchains be designed to be as energy efficient as possible? Could they be designed not to enrich speculators or create new monopolies? Could they be designed to enable upgrades driven by the beneficiaries, rather than commercial interests? Could blockchain projects take an integral approach, where the code itself and the internal governance are aligned with sustainable outcomes? In technical terms, the answer is absolutely yes. But sadly these approaches have been marginalised if they do not promise a quick buck.

I will give you one example. Today, in 200 communities around the world, people are swapping goods and services with their neighbours without using any money, using software from the Credit Commons Collective. Because of a handful of volunteers, these communities don’t need to pay a company for an app, don’t see adverts, don’t have their data harvested, and they own their installation of the software. These people, around 30,000 of them, are using very basic software because no one is funding its upgrade. Because there’s no profit in it. So if we want transformative change, we will need a shift in ambition from our philanthropists and aid agencies to one of transformation.

Currently social impact projects using blockchain may be useful but are often based on sub-optimal technologies. As we face an existential climate crisis, it is simply not good enough to base environmental initiatives on systems with code that is toxic for our climate. That is once again a reminder that we need collective leadership to shape blockchain and crypto currencies for significant and scalable public benefit.

So as we discuss the potential of these technologies, let’s remember that any technology is really our knowledge and system for creating things. That depends as much on our intention as it does on any code or gadget. So as we look at the difficult times ahead, our intention for creating things needs, more often, to arise out of our love for humanity and creation. The technology we seek is not some new distributed database. The technology we seek is love.

So, as we hear the contributions in this session, I recommend asking how specific initiatives are empowering people and responding to our planetary emergency. If that is the basis of our conversations here today, then this is a useful gathering indeed. So please don’t hold back. Thankyou.



Professor Bendell teaches an intensive residential course on blockchain and society, in London, April 1st to 4th. Explore here
More information on Bendell's recommendations for Integral Blockchains is outlined here
More information on the near term threat of collapse from climate chaos is available here
The video will be available via www.b4sd.net

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Leadership Beyond Denial of Our Climate Tragedy


Transcript of a talk given at the Poetics of Leadership conference, University of Cumbria, Ambleside Campus, 7th September 2018, by Professor Jem Bendell, co-chair of the conference. Based on the conference paper “From Denial to Deep Adaptation: Seeking Leadership Amidst Climate Tragedy.”


"The topic that we will explore in this session is in the ether of our conference. Which may reflect how the topic is increasingly in the minds of some people in recent years, particularly in the environmental movement. It doesn’t feel right to me given the serious nature of the topic to just present a summary of my paper. We can’t avoid the emotional impact of this topic. And shouldn’t try to. Although my attempt to develop a “deep adaptation” concept was partly to take some of the sting out of things by inviting reflection within a framework, perhaps a life-raft for despair, I don’t see there is any way to just jump into this as a technical or philosophical discussion. 
Because it is such an important topic, connected to the most important questions of existence, and an emotional journey for me, I want to be more precise than I am usually. Therefore, I will abandon a habit of a few years, and actually read my talk.

What I want to do in this session is to invite you to consider simply: “What If?” 


“What if it is too late to avert a catastrophe in our own societies within our lifetimes, due to the impacts of climate change, particularly on agriculture. What might that mean for my life and work?”

Only if we consider that it could be too late could we explore implications for life and work - and deepen our dialogue on adaptation. I am no expert in that field. Instead, my role here is to invite more people to engage in that dialogue. Most people don’t engage, as they raise many arguments against the view that we now face a probable or inevitable collapse in our societies within ten years. So, to encourage more of us to move into that “what if” space to consider this and let it generate new insights, I will summarise some of my own story in arriving at this point of view. 

I was an environmentalist since the early nineteen nineties. After University my first job was with the World Wide Fund for Nature – that’s the large WWF charity with the famous Panda logo. I’ve known about climate change for decades. News of extreme weather used to be stories I would share as a call for action. But they started to come so thick and fast, that I began to wonder. Images like the one here have been appearing on our devices with increasing frequency (animated gif of temperature anomalies). I had assumed the authority on climate was the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to them, an ice-free Arctic was a possibility by 2100. That sounds far enough away to calm the nerves. But real-time measurements are documenting such rapid loss of ice that some of the world’s top climate scientists are saying it could be ice free in the next few years. So, I couldn’t take for granted the official position of the IPCC anymore. For the first time in 23 years, I decided to look at the science myself. It was the start of a major shift in my worldview, self-image and priorities.

Sea-level rise is a good indicator of what’s happening, as a lot has to happen to change it. In 2001, the IPCC estimated a global sea level rise of 2 millimetres (mm) per year. By 2007, satellite data was revealing a sea level rise of 3.3 mm per year. Yet that year the IPCC offered 1.94mm a year as the lowest mark of its estimate for sea-level rise. Yes, you’re right: that’s lower than what was already happening. It’s as if the river had already flooded your living room but the forecaster on the radio says she is not sure if the river will burst its banks. Analysts have since revealed how the IPCC got it so badly wrong. When scientists could not agree on how much the melting polar ice sheets would be adding to sea-level rise, they left out the data altogether (1). Yeah, that’s so poor, it’s almost funny.

Once I realised that the IPCC couldn’t be taken as climate gospel, I looked more closely at some key issues. The Arctic looms large. It acts as the planet’s refrigerator, by reflecting sunlight back into space and by absorbing energy when the ice melts from solid to liquid. Some of the most eminent polar scientists predict the sea ice will disappear in the next few years. I suppose that is one way of interpreting “by 2100”. Once the Arctic Ice has gone, the additional global warming would amount to as much as half of all warming caused by our pollutants. That blows the global 2 degree target out the window. The implications are immense for our agriculture, water and ecosystems. Even just one warmer summer in the northern hemisphere in 2018 reduced yields of wheat and staples like potatoes by about a quarter in the UK. Unlike other years, the unusual weather was across the northern hemisphere. Globally we only have grain reserves for about 4 months, so a few consecutive summers like 2018 and the predicted return of El Nino droughts in Asia could cause food shortages on a global scale. (2)

Untethered from the IPCC, I discovered worse. I learned about the increasing concentrations of methane gas in our atmosphere, released from the melting permafrost. Methane is 80 times more powerful at trapping the sun’s energy than carbon dioxide. The huge amounts of methane stored in the relatively shallow waters off Siberia are now at risk of release as the water warms. Any release would mean a jump of global temperatures not seen since the Permian mass extinction 250 million years ago, which wiped out 95 percent of life on Earth. I think you know what that means. Even for Elon Musk.

Is it happening? Worried, I looked at the latest methane readings from satellite and land measurements. Mid-altitude measurements showed methane levels increasing about 1.8 percent over the previous year, with surface measurements about half of that. Both figures were consistent with a non-linear increase - potentially exponential. The difference between concentrations at ground level and mid altitudes is consistent with this added methane coming from our oceans, which could be from methane hydrates.

Then I discovered that scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science were reporting data on actual sea levels that was consistent with sea-rise being non-linear. That is a proxy for non-linear changes in our climate. It means that escalating feedback loops are now warming the planet further. It was harrowing research, and I summarise it in the Occasional Paper that we issued in July.  

As I considered whether to issue that paper immediately, rather than look for a new journal and wait a year for publication, I saw all the bad news on my screens. It was 30 degrees Celsius inside the Arctic circle during July 2018, which is 10 degrees warmer than it should be. The dark future was flooding in on the present. I couldn’t delay being more public about this situation and beginning to change my priorities.

I have worked in a profession where people said it’s not helpful to worry people. But without much evidence for that claim. I have worked in a profession that celebrated all the good things being done, such as reduction of carbon footprints and the development of renewable energies. All that is good and should be continue. But these steps forward are like walking up a landslide. They won’t change the temperature increases that are locked-in and the damage that will be caused. I had to conclude we face the kind of disruptive climate change that will trigger social collapse. By that I mean an uneven ending of normal modes of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity, meaning, and hope. It is not clear when such a collapse will occur. Yet all of us want to know “how long we’ve got.” So, on the basis of the impact on agriculture, I am guessing (yes, only guessing) that within 10 years a social collapse, in some form, will have occurred nearly everywhere on the planet. 

As a profession and way of life, academia invites us to believe we must be experts in order to engage in dialogue. We want to be understood and accepted as experts. I realise this is restricting us from exploring what is happening in the world around us. I am not claiming to be an expert in climate science, or in the implications for agriculture, or on the way collapse might occur. I am not claiming to be an expert on how we respond to this realisation personally, professionally or politically. Part of my reason for publishing the result of my study and the call for “deep adaptation” may have been a need to grieve in public. Or perhaps it was to push myself away from more years of denial. I don’t know, as this is a new situation for me to be in. It seems to be new to others too, and that is why I have started blogging on my unvarnished and non-researched reflections on my journey after accepting imminent collapse.  

Some of you will, quite rightly, be questioning the credibility of what I have just said. You may want to corroborate with other info. I recommend you do. For that, I recommend the full Deep Adaptation paper and then look into the sources I cite.

Some people who I have discussed this topic with did not try and double check but appeared to diminish the impact of the message on themselves. I have written about some of the ways such denial works, and how it may be institutionalised in the sustainability sector, in my paper for this conference. In a more accessible format, I have listed 12 typical patterns of denial on my blog at jembendell.com

That happens because we think, consciously or not, that we can’t bear it. Our protection instincts kick in to stop us from crying or losing our way. But many of us are probably feeling a bit anxious about the situation I have described. So, before I say anymore, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that anxiety. If you feel like it, I’d like to invite you to notice where it sits in your body, take a deep breath, and let it out, knowing that we are not in danger ourselves right now. I wonder whether we could find a way to welcome that anxiety for how it can invite us to change our beliefs and behaviours.

Some of us will want to grieve. I did. And I still do. Grief about this situation and what is coming will now be a companion to the rest of my life. But grief isn’t a feeling that exists alone. We grieve because we love life, including our own, those of others and the whole of life itself. Love is the basis of our grief. In recognising that basis for our grief, we can move beyond despair or numbness. We can start again, to explore what we might be and do now. Only after acceptance can new forms of meaning, new forms of hope, new kinds of vision be allowed to emerge. For most people that process of moving into and through despair towards a renewed basis for being and acting is not a quick one. And certainly not immediate. But we have just a few minutes more together in this session. So, I invite you to open the door. To begin to reflect on “what if?”

Some of you will have been through this process for some time, maybe even years. If you have, then I ask you to refrain from aspiring to have lots of answers. We may want to have a plan and reassure ourselves and others. But we can’t really prefabricate for collapse. I will therefore ask you now to turn to one person only and share with each other what you FEEL in response to this question. Just stick with feelings to start with. Let’s do this not as conversation but hearing our neighbour speak without interruption. I know this is a big ask but I’m going to ring a bell after one minute and ask you to then switch speaker. The person with the longest hair in your pair can start.

“What if it is too late to avert a catastrophe in our own societies within our lifetimes, due to the impacts of climate change, particularly on agriculture?” How would you FEEL?

Now switch.

Thankyou. Now check in with yourself. Aside from what you shared and heard, what else do you feel?

Thankyou. Now, please turn to another person, and share what you THINK in response to the same question, with an additional part: “What if it is too late to avert a catastrophe in our own societies within our lifetimes, due to the impacts of climate change, particularly on agriculture? What might that mean for my life and work?”

Now switch.

Thankyou. To conclude, please formulate a key question you now have that you want to answer because of this talk. If you want to, take a moment to write it down. I’ll give you a minute.

In my paper I provide more background on what has led me to this situation where I’m inviting conversations like the ones you have just had. I don’t have many answers, as this is new territory for me, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, even before considering the implications for strategies and policies. Instead, I invite you to keep having these conversations, and see what emerges. I realise this is quite tough for many of us and it has been for me. On my website I discuss the range of responses I have experienced or witnessed, as well as information on emotional support on this topic.

Thankyou for your attention and taking the time for reflection.


References

The paper draws on the studies analysed in the conference paper, available here. Other references include:

1) https://www.sciencealert.com/international-climate-change-reports-tend-toward-caution-and-are-dangerously-misleading-says-new-report

2) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/03/falling-yields-of-key-uk-crops-could-raise-food-prices-and-leave-farmers-struggling
In the News
Professor Bendell's work on Deep Adaptation has received mainstream media coverage in New York Magazine and Bloomberg.
Next talks on Deep Adaptation by Prof Jem Bendell
30th October 2018, Kendal, Cumbria. Natural England. 12pm midday, Natural England offices. Private event.
17th December 2018, Carlisle, Cumbria. COWC and IFLAS. 7pm at Gateway Building, Fusehill Street. Public event, info here.
19th December 2018, Bristol, Avon. Labour Party and Momentum. 7pm. Public event, info here
Connect
If you could work professionally on this topic then consider the Deep Adaptation LinkedIn Group