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Graphs, Capitalism, And Ecological Collapse

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10 min read from miscellaneous on 2020-09-19

Graphs are pretty neat. Being able to express things visually makes it much easier for us humans to understand, I mean have you seen those TikToks where they compare one million grains of rice to one billion? Really puts it into perspective, imagine if that was money…

I think the inventor of statical graphs William Playfair probably says it best in his book "Lineal Arithmetic; applied to shew the progress of the commerce and revenue of England during the present century, which is represented … by thirty-three copperplate charts, etc":(1)

(1) And that's the shortened title.

The advantage proposed by those charts, is not that of giving a more accurate statement than by figures, but it is to give a more simple and permanent idea of the gradual progress and comparative amounts, at different periods, by presenting to the eye a figure, the proportions of which correspond with the amount of the sums intended to be expressed.

As the eye is the best judge of proportion, being able to estimate it with more quickness and accuracy than any of our other organs, it follows that wherever relative quantities are in question, a gradual increase or decrease of any revenue, receipt or expenditure of money, or other value, is to be stated, this mode of representing it is peculiarly applicable; it gives a simple, accurate, and permanent idea, by giving form and shape to a number of separate ideas, which are otherwise abstract and unconnected. In a numerical table there are as many distinct ideas given, and to be remembered, as there are sums, the order and progression of those sums, therefore, are also to be recollected by another effort of memory, while this mode unites proportion, progression, and quantity all under one simple impression of vision, and consequently one act of memory.

Just a quick side note before we move on. The Wikipedia page on Playfair I linked to it says that he "reported on the French Revolution and organized a clandestine counterfeiting operation in 1793 to collapse the French currency" and "had a variety of careers […] a millwright, engineer, draftsman, accountant, inventor, silversmith, merchant, investment broker, economist, statistician, pamphleteer, translator, publicist, land speculator, convict, banker, ardent royalist, editor, blackmailer and journalist".

This is the coolest dude ever. Like holy shit, not only did he live out my dream of destroying the French, but one of his careers was as a "convict". I believe this was because he was "imprisoned for debt" at the end of the 1790s, which is like the second coolest reason to go to gaol! The first being tax evasion of course.

Anyway, I've had a go-to graph to show people when they ask me what my favourite is (because this is definitely a thing people ask me) for a few years now. It's a graph by the Economic Policy Institute showing "The Productivity–Pay Gap". I've shown it here in it's full glory.

A graph showing how the gap between productivity and a typical worker's compensation has increased.

What an amazing graph. Such beauty and grace. It's hard to find a graph that says this much.

In all seriousness, if there was an argument for a graph to have the title of "most important graph of this century", I would be arguing for this. It is just about one of the best arguments against capitalism you can make. If you see anyone say trickle down economics is a good idea, just show them this graph.

Another runner for the title would be Andy Lee Robinson's "Arctic Death Spiral". It's visually striking and clearly shows the loss of sea ice in all seasons. It even provides a tidy disappearing point for when months start hitting zero.

Article death spiral

It's a very pretty graph, but it would be much better if it didn't mean the end of human civilisation.

You know, this reminds me of a cool headline I read last week: "World fails to meet a single target to stop destruction of nature"[1]. The article includes lines like:

The UN said the natural world was deteriorating and failure to act could undermine the goals of the Paris agreement on the climate crisis and the sustainable development goals.

And:

From tackling pollution to protecting coral reefs, the international community did not fully achieve any of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets agreed in Japan in 2010 to slow the loss of the natural world. It is the second consecutive decade that governments have failed to meet targets.

The Guardian is reporting on the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 from the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). According to them it's a "periodic report that summarizes the latest data on the status and trends of biodiversity and draws conclusions relevant to the further implementation of the Convention."

It's actually an interesting report which shows the real effects of climate change instead of what most people think, which is Earth just getting a bit hot. And funnily enough it also includes a bunch of fun graphs we can look at!

I would like to go through all 20 Aichi biodiversity targets, but not every section has a graph ;( The very first section "Target 1: Awareness of biodiversity increased" doesn't have a one and "Target 2: Biodiversity values integrated" only has a small, boring bar graph.

The first fun(2) graph comes from "Target 3: Incentives reformed" which is about eliminating, phasing out or reforming subsidies and other incentives potentially harmful to biodiversity, and in developing positive incentives for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use.

(2) Fun if you like climate change.

graph

The graph shows how little progress has been made over the past decade. Relatively few countries have taken steps even to identify incentives that harm biodiversity, and harmful subsidies far outweigh positive incentives.

Next would be "Target 5: Habitat loss halved or reduced". Obviously, a good way to stop CO2 gain would be to stop cutting down trees and planting more, so how did we do?

graph

Not good. Overall, the world seems to have increased deforestation since 2015.

This is a nice graph though. It shows forest expansion on the top and deforestation on the bottom with a black line on each bar to show the difference. So it's really easy to tell which is greater and by how much.

Recently I've started to care a lot about fish for some reason, so "Target 6: Sustainable management of aquatic living resources" is of particular importance to me.

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Again, doesn't look like much progress has been made.

But you know what's cool? Coral reefs, like a certain Australian icon! These are looked at in "Target 10: Ecosystems vulnerable to climate change".

graph

Oh no.

That's not cool at all!

Higher sea temperatures have led to an increase in mass coral bleaching, compounded by the impact of ocean acidification. More than sixty per cent of the world’s coral reefs face immediate direct threats, with overfishing and destructive fishing being the most pervasive immediate drivers. Corals have shown the steepest declines in status of all taxonomic groups assessed in the Red List Index.

This is actually the target with the least amount of countries making steps towards, with only 5% of reporting parties on track to meet the target.

Now let's look at "Target 12: Reducing risk of extinction".

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"Target 12: Reducing risk of extinction"? More like "Target 12: Increasing risk of extinction"! HAHAH! What a funny joke. Make sure you subscribe to this blog (ignore the fact that I took that feature out) if you want more comedy like this in the future!

The other targets don't have a fun graph or are about social issues like increasing awareness, that we have actually been improving very slightly (the best we got is a "partially achieved (high confidence)" on "Target 17: Biodiversity strategies and action plans") which is good, but that goes against my narrative so I'm going to stop here.

But back to the original article, I want to look at how it ends with this statement from Basile van Havre, a co-chair of the negotiations.

I think it was a very laudable objective to set aspirational targets in the last decades. They’re hard to reach and clearly you hear that people want to have realistic targets.

REALISTIC TARGETS?! HOW WERE THESE NOT REALISTIC?! THEN WHAT WOULD EVEN BE REALISTIC?! WE BARELY MADE ANY PROGRESS AND EVEN WENT BACKWARDS ON A FEW OF THEM?! WHAT THE FUCK?!

Oh no wait, I just remembered that capitalism is a thing. That makes sense, of course it's not realistic.

Here's a fun headline I read yesterday: "Qantas seven-hour flight to nowhere sells out in 10 minutes"[2].

[…] a sightseeing flight to nowhere offered by Qantas sold out within 10 minutes, according to the airline, with passengers eager to take to the skies at at time when Australia has grounded almost all international flights paying premium prices.

The seven-hour scenic flight will perform a giant loop taking in Queensland and the Gold Coast, New South Wales and the country's remote outback heartlands.

So cool, just as bushfire season is going to start. Now we can get front row seats to seeing our country burn down, while also helping it to burn! Talk about two birds with one stone.

You're not sick of graphs yet are you? Oh good, because I've got a few more.

Another article from The Guardian explains how your flight emits as much CO2 as many people do in a year. And includes a graph which shows that aviation emissions could triple in the next three decades.

graph

And Alan Joyce called this "the fastest selling flight in Qantas history". I'm actually fucking appalled. Why would people buy this? Are they stupid? Actually, we've seen how "Fossil Fuel Combustion Is Driving Indoor CO2 Toward Levels Harmful to Human Cognition"[3] so I wouldn't be surprised.

Look here, that paper also includes graphs! Here it is showing carbon dioxide past, present, and future. Atmospheric concentration (ppm) of CO2 derived from Antarctic ice cores (Lüthi et al., 2008), measured directly at Mauna Loa Observatory, and future concentrations associated with Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 4.5 and 8.5 (van Vuuren et al., 2011).

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Woah! Isn't that the best thing you've seen this month! Thank you Alan Joyce and the selfish fucks who spent a minimum of AUD$787 (haha, real funny, my jokes are way better) to make the world worse. Where would we be without you? Actually achieving the Aichi targets? Yeah right! That's not realistic, get a grip.

Why does this always happen? This was just supposed to be a fun blog post about my favourite graphs! How did it turn into another rant about capitalism and climate change?


[1]: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/15/every-global-target-to-stem-destruction-of-nature-by-2020-missed-un-report-aoe

[2]: https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/flights-to-nowhere-qantas/index.html

[3]: Karnauskas, Kristopher B et al. “Fossil Fuel Combustion Is Driving Indoor CO2 Toward Levels Harmful to Human Cognition.” GeoHealth vol. 4,5 e2019GH000237. 16 May. 2020, doi:10.1029/2019GH000237