Commentary

How Culture Shapes Human Evolution

ST. ANDREWS – Is there an evolutionary explanation for humanity’s greatest successes – technology, science, and the arts – with roots that can be traced back to animal behavior? I first asked this question 30 years ago, and have been working to answer it ever since.


Plenty of animals use tools, emit signals, imitate one another, and possess memories of past events. Some even develop learned traditions that entail consuming particular foods or singing a particular kind of song – acts that, to some extent, resemble human culture.

But human mental ability stands far apart. We live in complex societies organized around linguistically coded rules, morals, and social institutions, with a massive reliance on technology. We have devised machines that fly, microchips, and vaccines. We have written stories, songs, and sonnets. We have danced in Swan Lake.

Developmental psychologists have established that when it comes to dealing with the physical world (for example, spatial memory and tool use), human toddlers’ cognitive skills are already comparable to those of adult chimpanzees and orangutans. In terms of social cognition (such as imitating others or understanding intentions), toddlers’ minds are far more sophisticated.

The same gap is observed in both communication and cooperation. Vaunted claims that apes produce language do not stand up to scrutiny: animals can learn the meanings of signs and string together simple word combinations, but they cannot master syntax. And experiments show that apes cooperate far less readily than humans.

Thanks to advances in comparative cognition, scientists are now confident that other animals do not possess hidden reasoning powers and cognitive complexity, and that the gap between human and animal intelligence is genuine. So how could something as extraordinary and unique as the human mind evolve?

A major interdisciplinary effort has recently solved this longstanding evolutionary puzzle. The answer is surprising. It turns out that our species’ most extraordinary characteristics – our intelligence, language, cooperation, and technology – did not evolve as adaptive responses to external conditions. Rather, humans are creatures of their own making, with minds that were built not just for culture, but by culture. In other words, culture transformed the evolutionary process.

Key insights came from studies on animal behavior, which showed that, although social learning (copying) is widespread in nature, animals are highly selectiveabout what and whom they copy. Copying confers an evolutionary advantage only when it is accurate and efficient. Natural selection should therefore favor structures and capabilities in the brain that enhance the accuracy and efficiency of social learning.

Consistent with this prediction, research reveals strong associations between behavioral complexity and brain size. Big-brained primates invent new behaviors, copy the innovations of others, and use tools more than small-brained primates do. Selection for high intelligence almost certainly derives from multiple sources, but recent studies imply that selection for the intelligence to cope with complex social environments in monkeys and apes was followed by more restricted selection for cultural intelligence in the great apes, capuchins, and macaques.

Why, then, haven’t gorillas invented Facebook, or capuchins built spacecraft? To achieve such high levels of cognitive functioning requires not just cultural intelligence, but also cumulative culture, in which modifications accumulate over time. That demands transmission of information with a degreeof accuracyof which only humans are capable. Indeed, small increases in the accuracy of social transmission lead to big increases in the diversity and longevity of culture, as well as to fads, fashions, and conformity.

Our ancestors were able to achieve such high-fidelity information transmission not just because of language, but also because of teaching – a practice that is rare in nature, but universal among humans (once the subtle forms it takes are recognized). Mathematical analyses reveal that,while it is generally difficult for teaching to evolve, cumulative culture promotes teaching. This implies that teaching and cumulative culture co-evolved, producing a species that taught relatives across a broad range of circumstances.

It is in this context that language appeared. Evidence suggests that language originally evolved to reduce the costs, increase the accuracy, and expand the domains of teaching. That explanation accounts for many properties of language, including its uniqueness, power of generalization, and the fact that it is learned.

All of the elements that have underpinned the development of human cognitive abilities –encephalization (the evolutionary increase in the size of the brain), tool use, teaching, and language – have one key characteristic in common: the conditions that favored their evolution were created by cultural activities, through selective feedback. As theoretical, anthropological, and genetic studies all attest, a co-evolutionary dynamic – in which socially transmitted skills guided the natural selection that shaped human anatomy and cognition – has underpinned our evolution for at least 2.5 million years.

Our potent capacity for imitation, teaching, and language also encouraged unprecedented levels of cooperation among individuals, creating conditions that not only promoted longstanding cooperative mechanisms such as reciprocity and mutualism, but also generated new mechanisms. In the process, gene-culture co-evolution created a psychology – a motivation to teach, speak, imitate, emulate, and connect – that is entirely different from that of other animals.

Evolutionary analysis has shed light on the rise of the arts, too. Recent studies of the development of dance, for example, explain how humans move in time to music, synchronize their actions with others, and learn long sequences of movements.

Human culture sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Grasping its scientific basis enriches our understanding of our history – and why we became the species we are. Kevin Laland is Professor of Behavioral and Evolutionary Biology at the University of St Andrews, and the author of Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind.

By Kevin Laland

Taking Eurozone Growth Seriously

LONDON – I have been out of the world of international finance and economic forecasting for more than four years, but much of what I learned during my 30 years working full-time in the field still influences how I view the world. One lesson was to measure an entity’s economic and financial performance by how it compares both to the entity’s underlying potential and the market’s valuation of its performance. Applying this approach to the major economies gives rise to some surprising observations – and possibilities.


For starters, contrary to popular belief, world growth hasn’t been especially disappointing so far this decade. From 2010 to 2016, global output rose at an average annual rate of 3.4%, according to the International Monetary Fund. That may belower than the 2000-2010 average, but it is higher than the growth rate in the 1980s and 1990s – decades that are not typically viewed as economically disappointing.

A breakdown of particular countries’ performance offers further insights. Despite significant political trauma, the United States and the United Kingdom have performed as expected. China, India, and Japan have also grown close to their potential. In a rare occurrence, no major economy has dramatically outperformed its potential.

Three economies have, however, genuinely disappointed: Brazil, Russia, and the eurozone. Could that mean that many observers, including me, overestimated these economies’ potential? Or does it reflect extenuating circumstances? If it is the latter, one must ask whether, contrary to prevailing expectations, new developments or shifts in any or all three of these economies might surprise us on the upside for the rest of the decade.

When it comes to the eurozone, embracing the idea that economic growth may be about to take off might be enough, at least until recently, to earn one a referral to a mental-health specialist. But, in my old life, I would be encouraging my analysts to spend more time considering just that possibility, because, on the off-chance that this crackpot notion were true, there would be some serious money to be made in today’s generously valued markets.

And, in fact, the prospect of a growth pickup in the eurozone might be only partly insane. Cyclically, the eurozone is currently doing well both by its own standards and relative to others. In the first quarter of this year, the eurozone grew more strongly than the US or the UK, and most of the eurozone’s larger countries have been showing stronger relative growth for some time.

Nonetheless, the eurozone’s long-term structural outlook remains uninspiring. The prospects for the two key drivers of long-term growth – the size and growth of the working-age population and productivity – look grim for the eurozone’s largest countries, even Germany, the one economy that most acknowledge is, from a cyclical perspective, doing just fine.

But – to indulge further that outlandish notion of an impending eurozone growth surge – what if something changes significantly to strengthen those growth drivers? With refugees – many of them young – continuing to pour into Europe from troubled parts of the Middle East and Africa, that may not be an altogether fanciful prospect.

Of course, tapping the potential of refugees requires assimilating them to European societies and economies – a challenge that has many Europeans justifiably worried. But, if that need were met, it would certainly mitigate Europe’s mounting demographic challenge, especially in Germany and Italy.

There is also the possibility that new developments will bring about a more constructive policy approach. Most eurozone members’ fiscal positions have undergone considerable, though often unnoticed, improvement in recent years – so much so that the eurozone-wide fiscal deficit is now less than 3% of GDP, much better than the US or the UK. Moreover, soaring tax receipts in some parts of the eurozone – notably Germany – are feeding almost embarrassingly large fiscal surpluses. Could now be the moment to push for an ambitious Franco-German-led stimulus effort?

If France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, manages to obtain sufficient backing in the National Assembly in the June election, perhaps he could do something about reducing France’s structural government spending, while pursuing tax cuts and improved labor-market flexibility. Labor-market reform, in particular, could be crucial, not just for France itself, but also to convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel, if she is returned to power this September, to move toward greater fiscal integration, including the creation of a eurozone finance minister, which Macron advocates.

Much of this is probably a long shot, but nowhere near as long as it was just a few months ago. And, given market valuations, it is much more interesting to explore such possibilities than it is to focus on many of the other issues that analysts obsess about.

Carrying the scenario further, one could even dream up an optimistic outlook for the UK’s trade balance, with a highly competitive exchange rate significantly improving demand in its major market, the eurozone. That could more than compensate for the challenges that arise from the end of single-market access. With this, the fantasy may have jumped the shark. But you never know.

Jim O’Neill, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management and a former UK Treasury Minister, is Honorary Professor of Economics at Manchester University and former Chairman of the British government's Review on Antimicrobial Resistance.

The Right to Agricultural Technology

STANFORD – In the 1960s, when biologist Paul Ehrlich was predicting mass starvation due to rapid population growth, plant breeder Norman Borlaug was developing the new crops and approaches to agriculture that would become mainstays of the Green Revolution. Those advances, along with other innovations in agricultural technology, are credited with preventing more than a billion deaths from starvation and improving the nutrition of the billions more people alive today. Yet some seem eager to roll back these gains.


Beyond saving lives, the Green Revolution saved the environment from massive despoliation. According to a Stanford University study, since 1961, modern agricultural technology has reduced greenhouse-gas emissions significantly, even as it has led to increases in net crop yields. It has also spared the equivalent of three Amazon rainforests – or double the area of the 48 contiguous US states – from having to be cleared of trees and plowed up for farmland. Genetically engineered crops, for their part, have reduced the use of environmentally damaging pesticides by 581 million kilograms (1.28 billion pounds), or 18.5%, cumulatively since 1996.

Surprisingly, many environmentalists are more likely to condemn these developments than they are to embrace them, promoting instead a return to inefficient, low-yield approaches. Included in the so-called agroecology that they advocate is primitive “peasant agriculture,” which, by lowering the yields and resilience of crops, undermines food security and leads to higher rates of starvation and malnutrition.

Promoting that lunacy, the United Nations Human Rights Council recently published a report by Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food HilalElver that called for a global agroecology regime, including a new global treaty to regulate and reduce the use of pesticides and genetic engineering, which it labeled human-rights violations.

The UNHRC – a body that includes such stalwart defenders of human rights as China, Cuba, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela – usually satisfies itself by bashing Israel. But in 2000, at the Cuban government’s urging, it created the post of special rapporteur on the right to food. Befitting the UNHRC’s absurd composition, the first person to fill the position, the Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler, was the co-founder and a recipient of the Muammar al-Qaddafi International Human Rights Prize.

For her part, Elver has, according to UN Watch, cited works that claim the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were orchestrated by the United States government to justify its war on Muslims. Elver’s position on food reflects the same paranoid mindset. She opposes “industrial food production” and trade liberalization, and frequently collaborates with Greenpeace and other radical environmentalists.

Much of Elver’s new UNHRC report parrots the delusional musings of organic-industry-funded nongovernmental organizations. It blames agricultural innovations like pesticides for “destabilizing the ecosystem” and claims that they are unnecessary to increase crop yields.

This all might be dismissed as simply more misguided UN activism. But it is just one element of a broader and more consequential effort by global NGOs, together with allies in the European Union, to advance an agroecology model, in which critical farm inputs, including pesticides and genetically engineered crop plants, are prohibited. That agenda is now being promoted through a vast network of UN agencies and programs, as well as international treaties and agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, and the International Agency on Research on Cancer.

The potential damage of this effort is difficult to overstate. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (which hasn’t yet completely succumbed to radical activists) estimates that, without pesticides, farmers would lose up to 80% of their harvests to insects, disease, and weeds. (Consider, for example, the impact of the fall armyworm, which, in the last 18 months alone, has devastated maize crops across much of Sub-Saharan Africa.) Developing countries are particularly vulnerable to radical regulatory regimes, because foreign aid is often contingent on compliance with them, though they can also reshape agriculture in the developed world, not least in the EU.

Millions of smallholder farmers in the developing world need crop protection. When they lack access to herbicides, for example, they must weed their plots by hand. This is literally backbreaking labor: to weed a one-hectare plot, farmers – usually women and children – have to walk ten kilometers (6.2 miles) in a stooped position. Over time, this produces painful and permanent spinal injuries. Indeed, that is why the state of California outlawed hand-weeding by agricultural workers in 2004, though an exception was made for organic farms, precisely because they refuse to use herbicides.

Depriving developing countries of more efficient and sustainable approaches to agriculture relegates them to poverty and denies them food security. That is the real human-rights violation.

Henry I. Miller is Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the US Food and Drug Administration.

By Henry I. Miller

The Macron Miracle

PARIS – Before the just-concluded French presidential election, the United States’ National Public Radio (NPR) requested that I give an interview about the outcome. But there was a catch: the interview would take place only if the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen won. It seems that good news, like Le Pen’s defeat, is barely news at all nowadays.


But the truth is that the victory of the pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron is a very big deal. Last year, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and the US elected Donald Trump its president, the rise of right-wing populism went from seemingly impossible to seemingly irresistible. And, in many ways, France was primed for a right-wing populist to win power: beyond having been hit hard by the eurozone crises of the past decade, it has lately faced a wave of terrorist attacks.

But French voters – including many whose preferred candidate or party didn’t make it to the second round – recognized the perils of letting Le Pen reach the Élysée Palace, and delivered Macron a robust victory. It was a show of maturity and political intelligence, and a lesson to the UK and the US. (Perhaps that is the part NPR didn’t want to face.)

It helped that, in the second presidential debate, Le Pen destroyed the façade that she had worked so hard to construct. Her push to “de-demonize” the National Front – in 2015, she even kicked her father, Jean-Marie, out of the party he founded – was all an act. She is, and always will be, her father’s daughter.

But the French election played out as it did, to paraphrase the essayist Michel de Montaigne, not just because Le Pen was Le Pen, but also because Macron was Macron. At another time in history, Macron’s youth and independence would have been a major liability. But, in the current environment of mistrust toward the political establishment, Macron offered France the prospect of a kind of renewal.

Of course, the implications of the French election extend far beyond the country’s borders. Begin with the UK, where Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a snap general election next month was intended to strengthen her hand in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Now she is confronted with the prospect of a reconstituted Franco-German axis – one that would be more balanced, and therefore more stable, than before. Winston Churchill’s political heirs certainly could not root for a candidate who waxes nostalgic about Vichy France. But they are not wrong to worry that the victory of the election’s most pro-European candidate will isolate them further.

In fact, Macron’s victory – which he celebrated to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the European anthem – is likely to invigorate more moderate, pro-European forces across Europe (with the possible exceptions of Hungary and Poland). Macron has proved that optimism, supported by a clear and firm pedagogy, can win an election, even in a Europe that has seemed bound by pessimism and fear. His approach will certainly be reflected in the coming year’s general elections in Germany and Italy.

Beyond transforming the image of France (and right-wing populism) in Europe, Macron’s victory is transforming Europe’s image in the world. Contrary to the claims of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the “old continent” is not in the process of decay; it is still capable of renewal.

This might be disappointing for Russia. But, for China, Macron’s victory is a positive development. The Chinese do not, after all, like uncertainty, especially when it roils markets. And that is probably what a Le Pen victory would have done.

As for the US, responses to Macron’s victory are probably mixed. For the majority of Americans who did not vote for Trump, it probably inspires a combination of relief and satisfaction. After all, to some extent, Le Pen’s defeat amounts to a rebuke of Trump himself. But there is probably also some envy mixed in: if only the Democrats had a Macron as their candidate, instead of Hillary Clinton, Trump would not be president.

Americans who voted for Trump, for their part, may not be sure what to think. From an ideological standpoint, Macron’s victory is disappointing. But from a geopolitical viewpoint, it’s not such bad news. Indeed, by reinforcing the European pillar of NATO, it will benefit the entire Western world. As for Trump – much more a narcissist than an ideologue, who never actually met with Le Pen, even as many in his administration feted her – Macron’s victory can be spun in any number of positive ways.

For Macron, the work is just beginning. To deliver the change he has promised and remain a symbol of the world’s progressive hopes, his movement, La République En Marche!, will need to secure a majority in next month’s legislative elections. One hopes that French voters will again show self-awareness and wisdom, and deliver him the support he needs in the National Assembly. What is at stake is not the future of a politician or his party, but the destiny of the French Republic – and the future of Europe.

Dominique Moisi is Senior Counselor at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.

By Dominique Moisi

Energy, Economics, and the Environment

LONDON – To secure a low-carbon future and begin to address the challenge of climate change, the world needs more investment in renewable energy. So how do we get there? No system of power production is perfect, and even “green” power projects, given their geographic footprint, must be managed carefully to mitigate “energy sprawl” and the associated effects on landscapes, rivers, and oceans.


Hydropower offers one of the clearest examples of how the location of renewable energy infrastructure can have unintended consequences. Dam-generated electricity is currently the planet’s largest source of renewable energy, delivering about twice as much power as all other renewables combined. Even with massive expansion in solar and wind power projects, most forecasts assume that meeting global climate mitigation goals will require at least a 50% increase in hydropower capacity by 2040.

Despite hydropower’s promise, however, there are significant economic and ecological consequences to consider whenever dams are installed. Barriers that restrict the flow of water are particularly disruptive to inland fisheries, for example. More than six million tons of fish are harvested annually from river basins with projected hydropower development. Without proper planning, these projects could jeopardize a key source of food and income generation for more than 100 million people.

Consequences like these are not always apparent when countries plan dams in isolation. In many parts of Asia, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa, hydropower is an important source of energy and economic development. But free-flowing rivers are also essential to the health of communities, local economies, and ecosystems. By some estimates, if the world completes all of the dam projects currently underway or planned without mitigation measures, the resulting infrastructure would disrupt 300,000 kilometers (186,411 miles) of free-flowing rivers – a length equivalent to seven trips around the planet.

There is a better way. By taking a system-scale approach – looking at dams in the context of an entire river basin, rather than on a project-by-project basis – we can better anticipate and balance the environmental, social, and economic effects of any single project, while at the same time ensuring that a community’s energy needs are met. The Nature Conservancy has pioneered such a planning approach – what we call “Hydropower by Design” – to help countries realize the full value within their river basins.

Even one dam changes the physical attributes of a river basin. Multiplied through an entire watershed, the impact is magnified. Hydropower projects planned in isolation not only often cause more environmental damage than necessary; they often fail to achieve their maximum strategic potential and may even constrain future economic opportunities.

As a result, even dams that meet their power-generation goals may fail to maximize the long-term value of other water-management services such as flood control, navigation, and water storage. Our research shows that these services add an estimated $770 billion annually to the global economy. Failure to design dams to their fullest potential, therefore, carries a significant cost.

In the past, some developers have been resistant to this sort of strategic planning, believing that it would cause delays and be expensive to implement. But, as the Conservancy’s latest report – The Power of Rivers: A Business Case – demonstrates, accounting for environmental, social, and economic risks up front can minimize delays and budget overruns while reducing the possibility of lawsuits. More important, for developers and investors, employing a holistic or system-wide approach leverages economies of scale in dam construction.

The financial and development benefits of such planning enable the process to pay for itself. Our projections show that projects sited using a Hydropower by Design approach can meet their energy objectives, achieve a higher average rate of return, and reduce adverse effects on environmental resources. With nearly $2 trillion of investment in hydropower anticipated between now and 2040, the benefits of smarter planning represent significant value.

System-scale hydropower planning does not require builders to embrace an entirely new process. Instead, governments and developers can integrate principles and tools into existing planning and regulatory processes. Similar principles are being applied to wind, solar, and other energy sources with large geographic footprints.

Completing the transition to a low-carbon future is perhaps the preeminent challenge of our time, and we won’t succeed without expanding renewable-energy production. In the case of hydropower, if we plan carefully using a more holistic approach, we can meet global goals for clean energy while protecting some 100,000 kilometers of river that would otherwise be disrupted. But if we don’t step back and see the whole picture, we will simply be trading one problem for another.GiulioBoccaletti is Chief Strategy Officer and Global Managing Director for Water at The Nature Conservancy.

By GiulioBoccaletti

The Plant-Based Solution to Hunger

BERLIN – The way we eat in the industrialized world is unhealthy, unjust, and unsustainable. Far too much of the meat we consume is produced under questionable ecological, ethical, and social conditions. And now our industrial model for meat production is being exported to the global south – especially India and China – where meat consumption is rising among these countries’ emerging middle classes.


Worldwide, 300 million tons of meat are produced each year, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the annual amount will increase to 455 million tons by 2050 if demand continues to grow at the current rate. Such large amounts of meat can be produced only on an industrial scale, and at high social, political, and ecological costs.

Meat production is a tremendously inefficient use of agricultural land, because considerably more plant-based food is needed to feed livestock than we would need to feed ourselves directly through a plant-based diet. For example, producing one kilogram of chicken meat, pork, or beef requires 1.6, three, and eight kilograms of animal feed, respectively. This pits farmers and animal-feed producers against one another in a fierce competition over land.

Meanwhile, the production of soy – the world’s most important animal-feed grain – rose from 130 million tons in 1996 to 270 million tons in 2015, with 80% of output going to meat production, especially in China (70 million tons) and Europe (31 million tons). This expansion of soy agriculture, as a result of the growing demand for meat, is driving up land values. Consequently, in the global south, common land is being privatized, rainforests are being destroyed to make room for agricultural cultivation, and international agribusinesses are expropriating the land that one-third of the world’s people still rely on for their livelihoods.

Animal-feed production, and the intensive cultivation of agricultural land that it requires, is not only destroying ecosystems and reducing biodiversity; it is also fueling climate change. Worldwide, our industrial agriculture system produces an estimated 14% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions; including emissions indirectly linked to deforestation, and those associated with fertilizer production, increases that share to 24%. Moreover, the extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides – 99% of the world’s soy is genetically modified, and is routinely treated with pesticides – is also contaminating ground-water sources, destroying biodiversity, and eroding the soil.

We can no longer ignore the external costs of this system. If we are serious about addressing climate change and securing every human being’s right to proper nutrition and food security, we must challenge the presumption that an industrial agricultural model, let alone meat, is necessary to feed the world.

In fact, that presumption has little merit. The UN Environment Programme estimates that, by 2050, an area between the size of Brazil and India will have to be repurposed into cropland if current food-consumption trends continue. But if the 9.6 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by then were to have a plant-based diet, industrial meat production could be abandoned and all of them could be fed without the need for any additional agricultural land.

For many people, the competition for land is a fight for survival. Land access, which is more unevenly distributed than incomes, is a deciding factor in whether someone suffers from malnutrition: 20% of households that experience hunger do not own land, and 50% of people who experience hunger are small-scale farmers.

The industrial agriculture system’s production chains must be replaced with local, decentralized, and sustainable production chains. It is incumbent upon governments to prioritize people’s right to food and nutrition above private economic interests. People should not lose their livelihoods and food security for the benefit of agribusiness profits.

To move toward an ecologically sustainable and socially equitable agricultural model, we can leverage existing political frameworks, such as the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. As it stands now, large-scale industrial meat producers are profiting extensively from EU subsidies; but these subsidies could be redirected as investments in decentralized meat and grain production chains that adhere to a more sustainable model.

Doing so requires recognizing that realistic alternatives to industrial agriculture do exist. For example, “agroecology” – a system based on traditional and indigenous knowledge that is passed down through the generations – is easily adaptable to all geographic circumstances. In fact, in 2006 Jules Pretty of the University of Essex found that this mode of production can increase harvest yields by 79%.

But, to implement this shift, governments must ensure that all people have guaranteed access to land and potable water, and they need to create political frameworks to promote ecologically and socially just agricultural models – which, by definition, excludes industrial agriculture.

The challenge of feeding every human being should not be viewed in opposition to – or as somehow ruling out – questions of social justice and the future of the planet. Poverty, malnutrition, and hunger are a result of politics, not scarcity.

By Barbara Unmüßig

Short Cut: Philippe Aghion

Emmanuel Macron may be sure of becoming the next President of France, but he is still a long way from being able to implement his plan to transform France from a statist, rigid, and sputtering economy into a Scandinavian-style powerhouse, in which populists return to the margins of political life.


What stands in his way is France’s National Assembly, which is to be elected in June. If a coalition of parties opposed to his En Marche !movement were to win and appoint a prime minister, Macron would face a period of what we French call cohabitation. Macron would find himself in virtually a titular role, with a hostile prime minister holding most executive powers.

To avoid this prospect, Macron’s En Marche !will have to come, literally from nothing, to dominate the parliament. To make sure he gets a comfortable majority in parliament to implement his program, Macron will have to get MPs from other parties, from the center right and center left to join a coalition with En Marche.

Such a coalition would be centered around a limited number of key reforms: labor market reforms, tax reform, education reform, which all participants see as priorities to modernize the French economy. One thus talks about “unemajorité de projet.”

François Bayrou from the centrist Mouvementdémocrate is already supporting Macron. Others from the center right, such as Jean-Louis Borloo or from the center left are also waiting in the wings, as is Manuel Valls, the former socialist Prime Minister. And from the center-right party Les Républicains, Christian Estrosi, President of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur,BenoistApparu, and other personalities close to Alain Juppé, have expressed interest in joining Macron’s reform process after the parliamentary elections.

If Macron plays his cards well, shows resolve, but also listens and resists the temptation to behave like a new Napoleon, he will successfully replace the old left-right divide in French politics with a reformist/conservative split. In doing so to push his bold reform agenda, Macron will make history and become a beacon of hope for progressives everywhere. Philippe Aghion is Professor of Economics at Harvard University, College de France, and the London School of Economics.

Stop Insuring Climate Disaster

RIPTON, VERMONT – Last month, the United Kingdom enjoyed its first full day without the need for coal power since the Industrial Revolution began. That’s remarkable news – and a sign of the future to come as the country that began humanity’s centuries-long romance with burning black rocks is now moving on.


Just as the fax gave way to email and whale oil gave way to kerosene, so is coal giving way to cleaner forms of energy. And that handover will happen faster – perhaps fast enough to let us at least slow down the pace of climate change – if the massive and mighty insurance industry would play its part.

By underwriting the development of our industrial society and the coal that has powered it, the insurance industry was one of the Industrial Revolution’s crucial but often overlooked enablers.
“This has only been made possible by the insurers,” said Henry Ford, looking at the New York skyline: “With no insurance, there would be no skyscrapers. No investor would finance buildings that one cigarette butt could burn to the ground.”

Through their ability to spread risk across broad portfolios, insurers have enabled high-risk activities for centuries. And that is also true of activities that contribute to the highest risk in human history: global warming.

While insurance industry representatives declare their intent and passion to rein in climate change and ensure a livable planet, in the back rooms their agents are still busy working their financial magic to underwrite new coal-fired power stations, oil rigs, tar sands projects, gas pipelines, and other polluting projects. Many of these projects would not be viable without the services provided by insurance companies around the world.

Insurers are also among the world’s largest asset owners. With an estimated $31.1 trillion of funds under management at the end of 2014, insurance companies represent almost a third of all institutional assets in the global economy.

Exactly how much money these companies have sunk into fossil-fuel projects is unknown. But one thing is clear: to prevent the planet’s temperature from rising by less than 2º Celsius relative to its preindustrial level, and thereby avoid runaway global warming, we need to leave the majority of our coal, oil, and gas assets undeveloped.

Ironically, while insurers’ deep understanding of climate science made them among the first actors in the business community to acknowledge climate change publicly and call for action, the industry remains a major enabler of fossil-fuel projects. Insurers have created and sustained a perverse loop, whereby they facilitate projects that cause global warming while providing insurance against these projects’ adverse climate impact.

Thanks largely to its early awareness of the need to address climate change, the insurance industry’s Faustian bargain has so far avoided scrutiny from pressure groups. But this is about to change.

Late last month, the French insurance giant AXA announced that it will no longer provide underwriting services to companies that generate more than 50% of their turnover from coal. That change builds on AXA’s earlier decision to divest from such companies.

This is a key step toward making coal uninsurable. The facts couldn’t be clearer: fossil fuels are driving not only devastating climate change, but also so many other threats that, quite frankly, to insure new coal power and mines flies in the face of reasonable financial risk management. As one of the biggest killers on the planet, causing millions of deaths each year through air pollution, sea-level rise, and the increase in extreme weather, coal combustion should be unbankable.

AXA’s decision is a rational one based on indisputable facts and a realistic view of the future. Insurance, after all, is based on the idea that the future somewhat resembles the past, making it predictable. But if we keep heating the planet, that assumption disappears. Already, insurers of coastal property are throwing up their hands at the difficulty of figuring out how high the sea will rise and how hard the storms to come will blow.

On moral and economic grounds, the time has come for others to follow AXA’s lead and recognize that fossil fuels are uninsurable. For these companies – and for the rest of us – the best insurance is to keep fossil fuels where they belong: in the ground. Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org.

By Bill McKibben

Women in the Green Economy

LAGOS/STOCKHOLM – In Ghana, a group of enterprising women and young peopleis building bicycles out of an unlikely material: bamboo. Ten farmers growthe bamboo, and 25builders craft it into environmentallyfriendly bikes that can be used on Ghana’s bumpy roads or exported overseas.Bernice Dapaah, the founder and CEO of Ghana Bamboo Bikes, plans to build two new factories soon, adding 50 more workers in communities with high unemployment.


Ghana Bamboo Bikes is just one example of the major role women can play in driving the transition toward sustainable economic growth and development.But such examples increasingly need to go together if we are to ensure a prosperous future on a healthy planet. The world needs more women climate leaders,whether around the tables where policy is made or at the helm of businesses, steering them toward sustainability.

When more women work, economies grow. According to the World Economic Forum,greater gender equality, which implies greater use of human capital,correlates positively with per capita GDP, competitiveness, andhuman development. Squandering that capital has the opposite effect: the United Nations Development Programmereports that gender inequality costsSub-Saharan Africa, to name one example,$95 billion (or 6% of GDP)per year, on average.

Yet women around the world still face a massive gender gap in employment and wages. The proportion of women participating in the global labor force has hovered around 50% since 1990, compared to more than 75% for men. And, in most countries, the women who work earn, on average, only 60-75 cents for every dollar that men earn.

To support economic growth and development, we need to tap the potential of all workers, giving women opportunities not just to earn, but also to lead. Women need to be empowered, and their role in the economy transformed. What better moment to achieve this than now, when the world is pursuing another economic transformation, toward a green economy?

In fact, transforming women’s role in the economy could be even more urgent in the context of climate change. Traditional divisions of responsibility mean that men and women are often affected differently by climate change, particularly in developing countries.

Because men are more likely to perform wage labor or farm cash crops, a climate-driven event like drought may cost them their wages and force them to move to cities to find employment. Women, who are often responsible for growing local subsistence crops and taking care of their families, do not have that option.

Instead, women must find alternativemeans of securing food locally and of generating income to support their families, such as selling small assets or even withdrawing their children from school to help. The challenges women face are exacerbated in regions where women already spend hours each day fetching drinking water, and changing rainfall patterns could force women to travel even farther for it.

Against this background, it is crucial to empower women to seize the opportunity presented by the transition to a sustainable economy. Changes in four key areas could prove particularly valuable.

First,women need greater access to the financial system.In Sub-Saharan Africa, men are 30% more likelythan women to have a bank account. To close this gap, we need to design loans and savings vehicles with more flexible requirements that work for women. This includes, for example, the expansion of microcredit – an approach that has already enabled women in many countries to become entrepreneurs.

Achieving this requires convincing still-skeptical creditors that women are dependable – and, indeed, valuable – clients, including byciting data on microcredit, which prove that women repay loans as reliably as men, if not more so. Once women gain access to the financial system, they can create and invest in small businesses, while feeling more secure about dipping into savings when confronted with emergencies.

Second, women need equal rights to land. Ownership of land – whether co-ownership, for a married woman, or sole ownership, for a single female head of household –not only improves economic security and productivity, but also boostsaccess to traditional finance. With a formal claim to the land they are farming, women are also more likely to invest in the fertility of the soil, contributingto more productive and sustainable land-use patterns.

Third, women need policies that support their active participation in the emerging green economy, includingbetter education, skills training, and protections against workplace discrimination. Because the clean-energy industry is so new, itcould help draw women into non-traditional higher-paid jobs like engineering.

Finally, women need to be empowered politically. If half the population doesn’t have a say in political decisions, the legitimacy of policymaking suffers. Women can play an important role as governments implement incentives and regulations that support the transition to a sustainable and inclusive economy.

Even without such support, women are already seizing the opportunity presented by this transition.Solar Sister is a social business that has created jobs for 2,500 women selling affordable solar lighting in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda. Lumos, another solar solution, empowers women entrepreneurs in Nigeria.

But women still don’t comprise a large enough share of the workers in the clean-tech industry, and those who do work in that industry are generally low on the job ladder.Changing that – enabling all citizens to meet their economic potential – will require active efforts to promote women’s social and political inclusion.

Closing the gender gap is the right thing to do for women and the planet. It is also smart economics.Let’s not miss this opportunity.

Isabella Lövin is Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden.NgoziOkonjo-Iweala, former Finance Minister of Nigeria and Managing Director of the World Bank, is currently Board Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and a member of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

By Isabella Lövin and NgoziOkonjo-Iweala

Mending Bangladesh’s Garment Industry

KUALA LUMPUR – Four years ago, the deadly collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh pulled back the curtain on the employment practices of the global apparel industry. We had hoped that the tragedy, which killed more than 1,100 workers – the deadliest accident in the industry’s history – would have brought meaningful change to a business long left to its own devices. Unfortunately, our research suggests the opposite has happened.


Media reports highlight the industry’s ongoing transgressions in Bangladesh, in particular the persistent reliance on child labor. In 2014, the British current-affairs program Exposure found evidence of children as young as 13 working in factories (often under harsh conditions) producing clothes for retailers in the United Kingdom. Another undercover report by CBS News interviewed a 12-year-old girl who obtained a factory job using a certificate that falsified her age. And journalists from The Australian Women’s Weekly found girls as young as ten stitching clothes for top Australian brands.

While the media reports are troubling, they do not provide the entire picture. How many minors and adolescent girls are employed overall in factory jobs? More important, should they be barred from such jobs entirely?

Access to factories is restricted, and most employees will not disclose their actual age in the workplace. Indeed, journalists often mask their identity to document abuses. We took a different approach to assess the prevalence of underage workers in the garment industry, and to determine the sector’s value to Bangladeshi society.

As part of a recent nationwide census, we collected data from thousands of mothers and girls in Bangladesh’s three industrial districts with the highest concentration of ready-made garment factories (particularly those operating outside the Export Processing Zones): Ashulia, Gazipur, and Narayanganj. The majority of the country’s female garment workers are concentrated in these areas. For comparison, we also carried out interviews in 58 urban areas where garment factories are not located.

During our research, we identified 3,367 women and girls in the survey areas who reported being employed in the apparel industry. Of them, 3% were between the ages of ten and 13, and 11% were 14-17 years old. Of the 861 girls below the age of 18 who were engaged in any kind of work, 28% said they worked in the garment industry.

Based on this evidence, it would appear that Bangladesh’s garment factories are using child labor (particularly that of young girls) more pervasively than even the most sensational media reports suggest. But for us, the real question is whether this practice should be eradicated or reformed.

Global brands relying on cheap labor have promised eradication. In 1992, about 10% of the garment sector’s workforce was below the age of 14. The following year, after the introduction of the Child Labor Deterrence Act in the United States – the so-called Harkin Bill, which barred US imports of products made with child labor – some 50,000 underage workers were removed from the factory floor. Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has pledged to phase out child labor and put children back in school – female school enrollment is typically lower in areas of high garment-industry employment than in other areas – upholding a 2010 law prohibiting employment of children under 14.

Clearly, our data suggest that the industry’s promises have yet to be fulfilled (though the government of Bangladesh claims that there currently is “no child labor” in garment processing units).

But that may not be entirely bad for underage female workers in Bangladesh. Thanks to pressure on garment manufacturers in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, the industry’s minimum wage was increased 77%, to $68 a month. This has made it more attractive for young girls to take up paid employment in the sector, which, paradoxically, does have some social benefit.

The majority of young girls who are working in Bangladesh are from poor families. Even in garment manufacturing areas, relatively better-off families rarely send their daughters to work in factories. Although recent initiatives have lowered the cost of schooling for girls (through cash stipends and the elimination of school fees), many young women still drop out of secondary school, even without the opportunity to engage in paid work. That often leaves girls with one option: marriage. And in a country where minimum marriage-age laws are rarely implemented, earning a paycheck is the best way to avoid a premature wedding day.

In such a situation, when many young girls must choose between factory work and marrying young, banning factory employment for girls under 18 would do more harm than good. To help young girls avoid this choice, and to reduce the presence of minors and young girls in factories, requires greater emphasis on poverty reduction in rural areas.

Bangladesh’s garment industry is expected to quadruple in size over the next two decades, attracting millions more female workers, young and old, to the production floor. According to our estimates, one of every ten of these new employees will be between 10-17 years of age.

Consumers around the world reject clothing stitched by child labor, which is commendable. Children under 18 should be in school and learning important life skills, not working long hours under difficult conditions. But the lessons from the 2013 tragedy at Rana Plaza are more complicated than much of the international media make them out to be. The garment industry does need to reform; but, for the time being, if women and girls are not to suffer needlessly again, promising to eradicate child labor may not be the right answer.

M Niaz Asadullah is Professor of Development Economics at the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur, Research Fellow at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, and Visiting Fellow at the Center on Skills, Knowledge, and Organization Performance (SKOPE) at the University of Oxford. Zaki Wahhaj is a senior lecturer at the University of Kent.

By M Niaz Asadullah and Zaki Wahhaj

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