In the town where I live, it has become customary to hide the fact that shops are standing empty, rather than preventing them becoming vacant in the first place. The covering up is done by putting large stickers on the face of vacant shops and thus camouflaging them as historic buildings.
This is so typical of how many of our current economic and social problems are being handled: covering them with a pretty sticker instead of fixing the underlying problem. Because a pretty sticker does at least improve the view and costs a lot less than restructuring the town centre. Take for instance CO2-emissions, which we know to be the main cause of climate change. Everywhere we are hearing solemn promises to reduce these emissions. By the Netherlands, by Europe and last week even by China.
But when it comes to the crunch, we refuse to redesign our system and opt for the easy way out. So ‘net’ zero emissions by 2050 or 2060 principally means gambling on a huge increase in the production and use of renewable energy and/or nuclear power, gambling on capturing and storing CO2 emissions and gambling on technological developments that will enhance energy efficiency. In other words, no fundamental changes, no discussion about the underlying system, but at the most a modification of the existing system, while what we actually badly need is an overhaul of our production and consumption patterns. Just put a sticker on it, so that the billowing black smoke is hidden from view.
Or consider our current monetary policy. Both the financial crisis of 2008/2009 and the current corona crisis were met by an unprecedented monetary experiment: by means of low interest rates and asset purchases, central banks are ensuring that the risks on the financial markets are completely hidden from view. At this point in time the effect is that the coronavirus does impact people and companies but leaves financial assets largely unaffected. Just cover it with a large sticker, with thanks from all the owners of equities and other financial assets. In the long run this is of course unsustainable. At some point we will have to start thinking about debt restructuring if we are to avoid this issue from hanging around the economy's neck like a millstone.
Another fine example is the circular economy. Every treatise on this subject starts with the big problems caused by material use - from pollution to exhaustion - and the solution that is presented consists of a different type of economy that must be based on optimum use of products and materials. A thorough analysis of the problem is then soon followed by half-hearted ‘solutions': ideas about more efficient use of commodities, about recycling, about ‘products as a service’. But nothing at all about the big steps that would really change the economic system: a discussion of the ownership of commodities, for instance, or about the responsibility of producers for products after sale.
Or, quite bizarrely according to some, ideas about producing and consuming less, or about whether and how we could manage with less growth. Or, even more extreme, how we could even let economies shrink.
Admittedly, we are seeing all sorts of changes, and some are for the better. But they are mainly about improving efficiency and reducing waste. So, we cover it with a big sticker and the core of our wasteful system that is only focused on growth remains intact.
It is often said that we should also appreciate small steps. I certainly do that. But we need to get away from steps that are ultimately intended to avoid fundamental changes, due to reluctance, ignorance or impotence.
We must stop sticking stickers and rip them off ruthlessly. And then thoroughly tackle the underlying problems. That is also what I would like to do when I walk around the centre of my hometown: demolish vacant buildings, analyse the function of the town centre and redesign it.
From now on, we should only put stickers on the bumpers of our (electric) cars.
Read Hans' previous column: X-shaped recovery