Old People vs Greta Thunberg

A lot of people will have seen similar “viral” content on social media attacking the hypocrisy of Greta Thunberg and young people in general.

I’m sorry if you are one of the people who shared these memes, this isn’t meant to be criticism of you. I just don’t think it makes sense from an economic perspective, largely because it is based on a false view of consumption.

My dad’s generation had far fewer material possessions than my generation, and my daughters generation have a lot more than mine.

There a lot of nostalgia memes on Facebook that play on that. I am sure we have all seen posts that contrast pasty faced modern kids on their iphones, with post war kids playing in the streets or 70s kids on Raleigh Grifters.

Despite having fewer material possessions my dad’s generation used a lot more raw materials that my generation did. My daughters generation have more “stuff” than I have, but they consume far less raw materials than my dad’s generation or mine.

The changes in resource consumption are pretty huge. Resource usage in the UK has fallen by roughly a third during this century alone:

Young people might have more stuff, but the resources that are used to create that stuff is a lot smaller, and a lot more is recycled

Roughly my generation consume half the raw materials my dad’s generation did, and my children will consume roughly half what I did.  

Which makes the meme above a load of nonsense. Sorry.

The usage of raw materials correlates directly with carbon emissions, but increased consumption of consumer goods doesn’t correlate directly with usage of raw materials.

There are a number of factors driving this:

Firstly and mostly significantly is the switch from fuels like coal. I grew up with a coal fire, and my dad grew up with an economy that ran on coal. When my Dad was a kid they had no iPhones but they did use 5 tonnes of coal per person per year. The ongoing shift to renewables has had a massive impact. This is coal consumption over time:

From my Dads childhood to my children’s childhood coal consumption declined by 99%. June 2019 the UK went two weeks without using coal for electricity generation for the first time since 1882. The same is true in manufacturing industry, where there has been a 75% reduction in coal use and a 94% reduction in fuel oil use since 1990. 

Since 2017 nuclear + renewables have generated more electricity than fossil fuels in the UK. Greenhouse gases are down a third since 1990 as a result.

Secondly we are much more of a service economy – the things we make are labour intensive, not raw material intensive – banking uses less resources than steel making, for example. Increasingly what we want are individuated or craft products, with less raw material input and more human interaction. We want experiences and uniqueness, not high volume mass production, we want craft gin and beer.

Thirdly the things we buy are smaller and use fewer resources. The iphone has replaced the landline, and the camera, and the walkman, and the pocket radio, and loads of other things. The way we produce things is more efficient – cars production consumes less steel, for example

The final change might be less obvious but we build less. Construction is highly intensive in raw materials. My Dad’s generation lived through an era of mass construction projects – not just the rebuilding of Britain after the war but mass housing construction (Durham more than doubled in size when Newton Hall, Belmont and Chevely Park were built), and the creation of the motorway network. His generation lived through the golden age of big slab concrete. We build less, and what we do build is a lot smaller, which is why property prices have gone up.

We are the lowest consumers of raw materials in the EU (33% below average), and we are the most efficient (75% above average) in turning raw materials into wealth (GDP):

The wealth created per KG of raw materials has increased by roughly 40% over the same period – we have a higher standard of living depiste consuming fewer resources.

This meme isn’t the only criticism Thunberg has received – Stephen Mnuchin – Donald Trumps spoilt and petulant Treasury Secretary advised her:

“After she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us.”

There is a fundamental economic point that Mchuchin, Trump and the people who made the viral tweet don’t get. the relationship between usage of raw materials and growing the economy. is getting weaker and weaker.

This mistake is understandable from a President who inherited a construction and property development empire, and a Treasury Secretary who can’t tell the difference between economics and business studies.

In the 1980s the global economy created 70 cents of economic value from each kilogram of raw materials. By 2008 it was $1.05. In developed economies it had risen even faster, over $1.70/kg.

Today the UK produces €3.70/kg, the best in the EU, and one of the best in the world. We are getting better and better and creating more wealth from less and less resources. Before we get too excited this reflects that the UK economy is dominated by sectors like banking and education which generate lots of money with not much raw materials. Anything that threatens our position in these fields is bad for us, economically and environmentally

This process is called de-coupling – breaking the link between resource consumption and wealth creation. Across the developed world there is been a significant process of de-coupling, but not a complete one. The greater the degree of de-coupling – through recycling or technological change the less the impact of wealth creation on the environment.

This is crucially important because while most people in theory would be prepared to accept a small reduction in consumption to save the planet and reduce inequality, in practice even moderate changes in relative wealth and consumption are easily exploited by reactionary and populist politicians some of whom are close to vested fossil fuel interest groups.

As you may have guessed my sympathies are with Greta and not with the meme. I think she is a powerful and effective campaigner.

I am not however as apocalyptic in my views. If we can make renewable energy, new technology and recycling more widely distributed, particularly in the developing world we can do a lot to further reduce resource consumption without damaging economic growth. I certainly don’t agree with the idea that capitalism and technology are automatically worse for the environment than a “green new deal” or “green industrial revolution”. The way that some of the left have co-opted environmentalism into a generic anti-capitalist worldview has damaged both the left and the environmental movement, particularly in the way that the left has absorbed the ideas of Jorian Jenks, environmental campaigner and virulent anti-semite.

Memes about milk bottles, Donald Trump’s daftness, all demonstrate that people don’t understand how raw materials and packaging end up as consumer products. I’m not surprised, because I didn’t get it until I started a company that makes things.

There are more things we can do, particularly as households.. As manufacturing industry and power generation have reduced their carbon footprint households have become the largest source of greenhouse gasses now are household, not industry. Some of the changes in the meme would help – reducing packaging waste for example, but they won’t change the world. I am deeply suspicious of supermarkets selling loose fruit in brown paper bags, with a supply chain whose product traceability requirements demand that the produce still comes into store plastic wrapped. All we are doing is shifting the packaging waste from BtoC to BtoB.

The shift to electric vehicles from fossil fuels is the single biggest thing to reduce household carbon footprint, much bigger than changing to brown paper bags for fruit and veg. I couldn’t help but laugh at the part of the meme where the older generation criticised the younger generation for expecting rides in their parents 4X4. The older generations 4x4s.

And Greta?

She will be influential in shaping the debate on climate change long after memes about her have faded.





2 thoughts on “Old People vs Greta Thunberg

  1. Thanks for this Jon. Very thought provoking and informative. Why do we not get such insightful commentaries in the MSM?

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