Can we electrify our way out of climate change – or do the rich also need to consume less?

As the Artic sea ice rapidly melts and the communities across the world suffer dire consequences, we are experiencing the tragedies from emitting greenhouse gases from human activities into the atmosphere. Climate scientists warn humans are running out of time to bring down CO2 in the atmosphere to stay below even 2 degrees celsius, as the planet’s ecosystems become unstable and the earth becomes increasingly uninhabitable. Arguably, we already have the policies and the technology required to combat climate change. Climate scientists at COP 21 in Paris 2015 laid out roadmaps for how to transition to clean energy in time, and these clean energy roadmaps show how more jobs are created, consumers save money, and together save life on earth as we know it.

Public discussions about how to convince people and governments to stop using fossil fuel energy take two paths. One is to emphasize that people’s lifestyles don’t have to change, as long as they electrify cars and homes–putting their faith in technological progress. The other is to emphasize climate justice and point out that many middle-income and affluent families need to consume less and share their prosperity. Lifestyle changes include living in smaller homes closer to work, flying less, eating mostly plant-based diets, and not buying so much stuff that ends up in the landfill. More broadly, re-envisioning economic growth and creating a circular economy that replaces wasteful private consumption with essential public services can improve the well-being of people today and in the future.

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COVID-19: Dying for Sustainability?

The current pandemic might temporarily slow down environmentally destructive economic growth. However, claiming that we are dying for sustainability is dangerous. The global sustainability crisis is not just driven by uneconomic growth but also increasing global inequality and social stratification.


Suggesting that COVID-19 is a pathway to sustainability is tempting. Transnational oil corporations have halted production. Oil prices have tumbled. Plans for new oil explorations have been halted. Shale gas companies are folding up. Air travel has plummeted. So has road travel. Consequently, emission levels have dropped. Skies have cleared. Rare and remote species of animals appear to be back in sight. As recently demonstrated elsewhere, some of this optimism is based on questionable information. Others can be questioned for comparing long-term socio-ecological change with short-term outcomes of a pandemic.

Still, humanity seems to have rediscovered its sacrosanct relationship with nature. The ramifications are wide-ranging. Some employers now recognise that work can be done from home. With so many virtual conferences now taking place, it appears that international travel is not so much needed. Maybe not so many people are needed either. Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, welcomes the death of so many old people who are no longer productive. Perhaps the reduction in unsustainable population growth could also be welcome. A world that is small and serene has come.

Is this a plausible pathway to start the journey described in The Limits to Growthfirst published in 1972? The update of that work suggests that whatever the pathway, we must have limits to growth. That is evidently the argument made by political economists such as Ezra Mishan who coined the name ‘growthmania’ in The Costs of Economic Growth, published about a decade before The Limits to Growth.

Growthmania has become even more problematic in recent times.From this perspective, only a pandemic, a major rapture like COVID-19, can disrupt the path of unsustainable growth. Humanity appears to be dying for sustainability.

Over the years, however, the critique of the degrowth movement, suggests that the story is not as simple. The current socioecological crises are far more complexUneconomic growth, as Herman Daly calls it, is only one of them.

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Privatization and the Pandemic


By Jacob Assa and Cecilia Calderon

Unlike other epidemics or pandemics – such as tuberculosis, SARS, MERS or HIV/AIDS – COVID-19 has hit hardest at the world’s wealthiest countries. As of early June 2020, the 37 industrialized countries of the OECD accounted for 59% of all cases and 78% of deaths, even though they constitute less than 18% of the total population affected.

Looking at the pandemic’s effects in another way – using cases and deaths per million population – paints an even starker picture. OECD countries have a prevalence ratio of 2,890 cases per million and a mortality rate of 225 per million, compared with 869 cases and 51 deaths per million in the rest of the world. Furthermore, the case fatality ratio (CFR) – the ratio of deaths to cases – is also higher in the OECD (7.8%) than in the rest of the world (5.9%).

What can explain this phenomenon, the world’s richest countries impacted more than middle-income and poor countries?  One explanation is that COVID-19 spreads faster in countries that are more integrated to the globalized economy, as the OECD members certainly are. A recent study found that globalized countries have indeed experienced more cases per population, but less mortality.Read More »

The Promise – and Pitfalls – of State-led Development in Resource-rich Countries: Resource Nationalism in Latin America and Beyond

miningThe eclipse of neoliberalism in 2000s coincided with the so-called commodity ‘super cycle’ that lasted between 2002 and 2012. In search of a new model, resource-rich states began to articulate resource nationalism as a development strategy. While ownership and control of minerals and hydrocarbons are intricately tied to claims of state sovereignty and exercise of political authority in development policy, resource nationalism can also be understood in terms of a power struggle between host states and global hegemons in their quest to secure resources for their own industrial needs. Hence, contemporary natural resource governance is reflective of the wider ideological return of the state despite two decades of reforms promoting market liberalization and privatization. Resource nationalism is a vital expression of the renewal of state agency amidst high external constraints imposed upon resource-rich countries.

Resource Nationalism as a State-led Development Strategy

It is not a coincidence that resource nationalism returned in mainstream political debates at the same time as emerging powers designed new industrial policies aimed at recalibrating state-market relations in favour of the former. With extraordinary high prices and rising demands for natural resources from China, domestic political configurations in resource economies appear to move towards reforms aimed at (1) capturing and maximising windfall profits amidst a boom, (2) extending the role of state in commodity production through a renewed role for state-owned enterprises, and (3) renegotiating the terms of contracts with multinational mining capital.

These policies are emblematic of a wider trend: the growing importance of state stewardship for industrial transformation in an era of cross-border production networks governed by global lead firms. Despite the rhetoric on economic globalization, the role of the state remains prevalent as observed in the number of state-owned enterprises, the significant expenditure on industrial policy, and the array of government-business partnerships in East Asia and beyond. State interventions are reconfigured not simply to reinforce the residual statist tendencies, but to actively construct new comparative advantages and build strong ties with economic elites who can compete in a globalized international economy. Perhaps, more importantly, political elites are forging new social contracts with ordinary citizens to enhance the legitimacy of the state, whether in terms of actively supporting social welfare programmes (as in the case of many conditional cash transfers in Latin America), or by creating new avenues to engage with marginalised groups (for example, through participatory institutions and FPIC process).

Amidst the resource bonanza, development plans were set in motion centred around the exploitation of natural resources. For example, Brazil launched a programme focussed on heavy investments in the capital goods sector, notably in oil, gas and ship-building industries.

Several Latin American countries also introduced new royalty fees and export taxes aimed at capitalising on high prices. Table 1 details the increasing role of natural resource rents in state revenues over the past twenty years.

Table 1: Public Revenues from non-renewable natural resources in percentages of GDP

Screenshot 2020-03-24 at 09.33.07

Alongside attempts at adding value in mining and hydrocarbons, Latin American governments faced redistributive pressures from their political base. ‘Compensatory states’ justified their resource extraction strategy as a necessary step for further income distribution and revitalization of manufacturing. While political citizenship in post-neoliberal Latin America is increasingly defined by redistributive politics, it also emphasised recognition and identity politics as a central feature of a contentious state-society relationship.

The Limits of the Resource Bonanza

It is now a widely held view that the Left-of-Centre governments successfully reduced poverty and extreme poverty (see Table 2), and although slow, inequality has begun to taper off (Figure 1). However, the data also confirm the fragility of the social achievements of Latin American governments – as the bonanza ended, so did the gains from poverty reduction. This points to several important shortcomings of resource-based strategies.

Figure 1 Gini Inequality Index in Latin America, 2002-2018

Screenshot 2020-03-24 at 09.29.28Source: CEPAL 2019

Most conspicuously, poverty gains may have created a trade off in making vital investments in the productive economy. Finite domestic revenues have been subject to immense political competition for rent-seeking, and without a coherent industrial strategy, an export-led growth model based on commodities are likely to be fragile and is vulnerable from price swings.

This, then, leads to a gloomy conclusion. Resource-rich states, without the institutional capacity to design a productivist strategy to diversify their export base and to set out an ambitious multi-year development plan to upgrade their industrial sectors, are likely to suffer from the vicissitudes of international commodity markets. At worst, those without political consensus over governance – Venezuela under Maduro being the emblematic case – are likely to waste the opportunities for development through their strategic mining sectors. The broader lesson, I suspect, is that institutional preconditions and pro-industrial policy coalitions are central to the success of developing countries advancing new strategies in an increasingly globalized international economy. Crucially, whenever crisis and uncertainty appear, the state as a stabilizing force becomes more prescient than ever.

Table 2: Poverty and Extreme Poverty in 18 Latin American Countries, 2002-2019 (in percentages)

Screenshot 2020-03-24 at 09.34.27

Jewellord (Jojo) Nem Singh is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science, Leiden University working on the political economy of development and democracy in Latin America and East Asia. He tweets at @jnemsingh.

Laissez-Faire, Laissez Mourir


The spread of the coronavirus epidemic around the world in the past few weeks has exposed not only differences in the lack of preparedness of various public health systems, but also differences in reactions to the crisis. Some governments imposed an early lockdown in their attempt to ‘flatten the curve’ while others have taken a more gradual approach, proceeding from travel restrictions through limits on non-essential businesses to shelter-in-place regimes. 

As the epicenter of the pandemic shifts from Asia to Europe and the U.S, however, some reactions stand out among the rest in their utter disregard for human life. Federal and state officials in the U.S. have first downplayed the threat two months before it arrived in the country, as well as refused offers for help from the World Health Organization. Now, as the curve in the U.S. is about to get steeper (see the surgeon general’s warning), top levels of government are considering scaling back the moderate measures that have been taken so far, with a view to return to normal activity within a few weeks. While blaming China for not controlling the virus early enough, some officials are contemplating consciously allowing their own citizens to experience a much worse spread of infection and death than China has seen. 

One clear example of this misguided and dangerous ideology can be seen in the pressure put on the U.S. government by corporate lobbyists not to activate the Defense Production Act – which enables the executive branch to order corporations to manufacture the direly-needed medical supplies for testing and treating the virus. Large swaths of the political elite, instead, are relying on the private sector’s voluntary offers to produce such goods. Worse, these same politicians are aching to get the economy back to normal, so as to boost the stock market and their own ratings at the same time. The  lieutenant-governor of Texas even went as far as suggesting that older citizens – the group most prone to dying from the virus – would gladly ‘sacrifice’ themselves in the interest of getting the economy moving again.Read More »

Does one size fit all when it comes to financial inclusion? Scrutinising the effects of class, race, gender, and age

524195139_1c8a3ec97c_b.jpgIn recent decades, market-based solutions such as financial inclusion have become more popular in developed countries to reduce inequalities and boost wealth and incomes of the poor. There is no better example of this than the recent thrust of low-income families, women, ethnic minorities, and the young into the subprime mortgage lending expansion in the USA since the early 2000s. Higher access to formal loans for these households was argued to enable them to climb the magical ladder of homeownership and achieve their American Dream. But as we know, the picture didn’t turn out to be quite so rosy.

10 years since the Great Recession, many families are not seeing recovery as the impact of the crisis was substantially harsher for the subprime borrowers (Young 2010; Henry, Reese, and Torres 2013). Financial inclusion in the subprime period turned out to be predatory. In this post, I explore how things went wrong when policy makers failed to account for the institutional conditions in the US economy, which led to dramatically different experiences of financial inclusion across social classes, gender, race, and generations.Read More »

Financial Education in Malaysia: A Driver of Nation-Building or Inequality?

Moonrise_over_kuala_lumpur.jpgA decade has passed since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) which seems an apt time to begin talking about the event that has pushed the concept of financial education to the core of global policymaking debates. Despite its growing popularity today, financial education has existed in the premise of global policymaking for the past few decades. The benefits of financial education seem endless; poor national financial literacy levels have been blamed for adverse socioeconomic effects such as high national household debt and/or a general irrational exuberance in financial consumption behaviour (see e.g. here). Along the same lines, low national financial literacy rates have been seen as indicative of overall financial instability, the types that have been argued and blamed as causal mechanisms of the GFC. Thus, financial education is held as an empowering dogma, its dissemination seen as providing citizens with the knowledge that would empower them to access financial services in a sustainable and meaningful manner. Read More »

If India gave minimum support incomes to the rich before, it can do the same for the poor. Rahul Gandhi can do it.

rahulghandi.jpgIndia’s opposition leader has recently floated minimum income support. The 1.5% GDP equivalent it requires can be financed through a 3% tax on the richest 3000. It is not just an idealized safety net for the poor – it has been done before, for the super elites. If it works, it can be a model for adoption in other emerging democracies. Read More »