We live in an era of fast changes. Ten years ago, YouTube was unthinkable, social media did not exist (Facebook was founded in 2004), we got our movies on tapes at video stores, cell phones did not have cameras, and so on.

If you are reasonable, you have to expect ever greater changes in the next ten years. Maybe you think you are open-minded and can think clearly about the future. Then close your eyes and imagine a world…

  • … where the PC and Windows are all but a memory…
  • … where driving a car yourself is considered reckless…
  • … where paper books are like vinyl records…
  • … where the last TV station closed down years ago…
  • … where the notion of putting kids in a classroom to learn at fixed hours is considered barbaric…
  • … where working more than 10 hours a week for money is considered strange…
  • … where corporations have been declared obsolete…

Can you imagine a world where these things are true? I bet you cannot.

Scifi novels become obsolete very fast because scifi writers have failures of imagination. For example, most novels written before 1990 missed the Web. (It is very annoying to read a novel about year 2150 where the Web has not been invented yet.) If scifi writers fail to imagine our future, regular workers are bound to think that whatever they do now will still be needed in 10 or 20 years. And their reaction is entirely predictable: point out the obvious limitations of whatever new technology could threaten their livelihood.

  • When blogs first took hold, journalisms almost unanimously ridiculed them. Many journalists never could adapt, and many more lost their great working conditions. You can still sell good pictures to your local newspapers, but who is going to pay $5000 when any kid can snap a picture on his cell phone and broadcast it on Twitter within seconds? Of course, the quality is not the same. Of course, average bloggers can’t replace true journalists.
  • Teachers are quick to point out the limitations of cheap online learning. I sometimes like to brag that I took a class with the greatest geometer of the 20th century. Taking an online course with him would not have been the same. Watching him tear apart a student who asked about applications was frightening. You just can’t simulate this on YouTube.

Arguing with people who refuse to see their own doom can be fun, but tiring. They often simply cannot see it. Thankfully, Simon Law pointed out an effective way to fight this cognitive bias. To know whether you will endure, look in the past, not in the future. Ask who you replaced before denying that someone could replace you.

  • Newspapers replaced news ballads. That is right: whenever some important event needed to be disseminated, people wrote a song about it. Far more artistic and entertaining than the average news report on CNN. It took real talent to write compelling ballads. I am sure that when the first newspapers came along, whoever wrote news ballads was unimpressed.
  • Almost all teachers today work in an industrial setting, with students organized in classes, with standard testing. If you go back to the pre-Gutenberg era, teachers were scholars paid by the students for actual tutoring. Socrate would have been horrified by how philosophy is taught today. Certainly, he would not have approved of the way we sit the students in a classroom and give a grade to each student for each topic.

Maybe the greatest challenge we face as a species is that we need to get a lot better at imagining the future. Some people have wondered, for example, why I have been so critical of our response to global warming. But look at how people too often react: the Earth is warming, so let us create new taxes.

How original! Can you imagine the admiral James T. Kirk: “Spock, what shall we do, the Earth is warming!”… Spock: “Surely, we should try carbon taxes. Let us not do anything crazy involving computers or any technology beyond tax collection… that would be illogical…”

Given any problem today, if you suggest that we out-innovate it with technology, you are perceived as a dangerous man who think that we are bound by history to push forward toward an undiscovered country. Crazy talk!

People are concerned that technology is allowing the very best to get richer than was ever possible before. So, everyone, from politicians to union leader, is stuck on the idea that we must, somehow, create more jobs. Maybe we need to grant more university degrees. Maybe we need more PhDs. Maybe we need more government workers. Maybe we need more subsidies. Because, you know, 40-hour jobs is what we had so it must be what we will have. But nobody, it seems, can conceive a world where most of us work far less for money than we do now. Nobody can imagine a world where millions of people post design and publish cool videos of their dog to pass time while we keep on finding clever ways to rise our standard of living. Somehow, that’s unthinkable. We must find a way to keep people busy at a desk 40 hours a week. No matter what the cost.

I am seriously thinking about writing a scifi novel about people unable to imagine the future.

Kirk: “What shall we do, these transporters will make the the shuttle pilots nearly obsolete…” Bones: “Do not worry, we are preparing a medical advisory against this new dangerous technology.” Lady in the back: “Sirs? Can you please shut down your tricorders, they are forbidden on Star Ships along with any other portable electronics…”

Further reading: Technology is Eating Your Job.

39 Comments

  1. Can’t we combine the best of past and future? I think we’re all agreed that news ballads on YouTube would be a fantastic replacement for journalism!

    Comment by Chris Nahr — 2/4/2013 @ 1:11

  2. Daniel — I hope you find a chance to sit down with “Limits to Growth, the 30 year update” by Meadows. It’s exactly the kind of book more people need to read to think more clearly about the future. (I also expect you’ll disagree with the book, at least at first, but that’s exactly why you should read it.)

    Comment by Jeff Bowen — 2/4/2013 @ 1:29

  3. Actually, small monetary punishments (taxes, fines) are the most effective way a government has to influence common policy in a society. Or at least that was the conclusion of a historical effectiveness study by the Dutch.

    Comment by Henk Poley — 2/4/2013 @ 2:15

  4. “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

    Comment by ahmet — 2/4/2013 @ 2:55

  5. Most of the examples you give are positive or neutral. But there could be negative changes as well. Who would have predicted 15 years ago that you’d have to subject yourself to a humiliating ritual to board an airplane?

    Maybe we’ll look back fondly on the times when you could blog without a license. It is technically difficult to censor the web, but I could imagine having to comply with some burdensome though ineffective legislation for blogging just as for flying.

    Comment by John — 2/4/2013 @ 5:24

  6. Thanks, i really needed to hear that!

    Comment by Marco Floriano — 2/4/2013 @ 6:05

  7. I love science fiction and I read a lot of it. I believe that science fiction is, in a fundamental way, never about the future; it is always a way of seeing the present. We can try, but we can never truly escape the present. However, the harder science fiction tries to escape the present, the more light it sheds on the present. This belief might seem strange, but if you read the classics of science fiction, you will see what I mean. The classics are not obsolete; they give you great insights into the time in which they were written.

    Comment by Peter Turney — 2/4/2013 @ 9:16

  8. “Then close your eyes and imagine a world…
    1 where the PC and Windows are all but a memory…
    2 where driving a car yourself is considered reckless…
    3 where paper books are like vinyl records…
    4 where the last TV station closed down years ago…
    5 where the notion of putting kids in a classroom to learn at fixed hours is considered barbaric…
    6 where working more than 10 hours a week for money is considered strange…
    7 where corporations have been declared obsolete…

    Can you imagine a world where these things are true? I bet you cannot.”

    1. I don’t understand that. You mean that pc/windows won’t work to speed up(for example: better cpu) and only making ‘more’ memory, like hard disk?
    2. Nowadays there is lot of ‘pc’ in the cars. So it’s quite easy to imagine it for young people.
    While person is interested in robots he/she see it even more.
    3. Well, considering current prices of books & e-books it wont change that fast. Let say that e-book cost 85% or normal book. I think some of people want ‘physical’ form(paper). So if person must pay ‘almost’ the same price for something that he/she cannot hold in hand I think he will choice book.
    Book can have decorative meaning(bookshelves looks nice). Virtual bookshelves such as http://www.goodreads.com is not so ‘fun’.
    4. I don’t watch tv. Only movies on the internet. So it’s easy to imagine this.
    5. It’s quite easy to imagine. I took some courses on the internet. Some of them were good and some of them not so good but it is nice to take courses from range variety of subject and people. It wont be possible without internet. This ‘field’ of education has to be improved but it is in good way.
    6. More work = more money. Considering that there is more people on the world there would be less work to do per one person. Unless you think about some of fancy way such as: eating 3 pills per day I don’t think there is way of working at most 10 hours and having time to ‘send movie of your dog’.
    7. There can be one corporation that govern everything.

    So, to sum up:
    Some of them are easy to imagine but other are not that much imaginable – 6th is the hardest. Would you mind to describe what you can imagine about that topic?

    Comment by Darek Nędza — 2/4/2013 @ 10:22

  9. Everything but the last two are obvious. And the last two have been promised (and predicted) for decades, but will not materialize because of greed and human nature – which is not subject to technological advancement.

    Even the classroom one is much harder to shift than any technological advancement. We are more likely to put computers in clasrooms (maintaining the existing teaching methods) than we are to dispense with them altogether.

    Ironically, we have governemts here in Canada in the last 10 years that have increased the workweek, and there was widespread outcry from business at the addition of one new holiday (family day in Ontario).

    In short, devices will continue to amaze, surprise and advance. Behaviour will remain firmly rooted in our collective past.

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 2/4/2013 @ 11:12

  10. “where driving a car yourself is considered reckless”
    “where paper books are like vinyl records”
    I find these obvious.

    “where the last TV station closed down years ago”
    I thought about it. If it’s about the way a TV studio broadcasts it’s content, then yes – I foresee future TV stations as Internet Video Streaming services. If it’s about studios streaming media for consumers, then I am not overly confident that it will change, because the audience’s preference. I can’t be hoping that people will somehow change their habits and give up the comfort of being fed with information while vegetating.

    “where the notion of putting kids in a classroom to learn at fixed hours is considered barbaric”
    I would like to be able to discern something better. Although we tend to use technology, our dependence from other humans diminishes only gradually. Being kids we still need parents, we still need other people’s guidance. The world is a very confusing place when you’re young and unacquainted with it, and we need other human tutors to guide us through, at least for a while. This human interaction (not including the entire learning and self-development process) is what I consider to be the bare-bone of non-automatable or tech-nonreplaceable human activity, at least in our current understanding of “human”. Now considering the fact that human work is not a resource to be wasted, putting for that purpose more children under the guidance of the same qualified person, in the same limited amount of time is only practical. If I didn’t correctly got the nuance of the term “barbaric” or what you meant by it, my apology.
    There is, on a second line, another argument put in words by Paul Graham (search for “Powerful Thoughts From Paul Graham” by Ross Hudgens, the 10th enumerated thought), about the school being an institution that takes responsibility for kids for a few hours of daytime setting their parents free. This might be considered somehow “barbaric”, but isn’t something that I see changed in the near future. After all, school kids are minors that require care and as pleasant parenting might be, from time to time we might also need our time for something else.

    “where working more than 10 hours a week for money is considered strange”
    People don’t work as much as they do because they have to, but because they can. I don’t see people trying to get more free time for the sake of getting more non-working time, I see instead people pushing themselves trying to accomplish more. If you manage to limit your involvement in something, you get yourself a free resource on your hands and be tempted to invest it in something else. I believe that it’s possible for us adjust our definition of “work”, like including reading or other maintenance activities related to work itself in the “working hours” term, but I consider my time a too valuable resource to waste. If I can work more than two hours per day and I enjoy it, why not?

    Comment by Userul lui Pește — 2/4/2013 @ 12:37

  11. @Amann

    We are more likely to put computers in clasrooms (maintaining the existing teaching methods) than we are to dispense with them altogether.

    It is easier to imagine, yes. Obviously, if we staunchly refuse to imagine a different future, we may be stuck with whatever we have now. That is what I am denouncing.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 2/4/2013 @ 13:01

  12. I get that you are denouncing the status quo. I am actually in full agreement that it needs to change. I just believe as a futurist that we have far less chance of changing a sociological phenomona than a technical one.

    Therefore, my prediction is that we will have rows of bored kids in classrooms listening (not) to teacher for decades to come – with or without a screen per desk, and we will still work 40 hour weeks augmented with 10 or more additional hours of unpaid work which we do in order to keep our jobs that have failed to keep pace with costs of living (including house prices).

    It is not a lack of imagination by futurists that holds us back. It is a lack of motivation by people with a vested interest in the status quo, and the lack of a fulcrum for people interested in moving the future into the present.

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 2/4/2013 @ 13:13

  13. Perhaps people should look elsewhere to expand their imaginations. One possibility is the book “Real Utopia” by Chris Spannos. Disclosure: I wrote an essay in this book –

    http://www.akpress.org/realutopiaakpress.html

    Comment by Mitchell Szczepanczyk — 2/4/2013 @ 13:51

  14. +Michael Szczepanczyk
    Pity it is not available as an e-book.

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 2/4/2013 @ 15:06

  15. @Dominic Amann

    We work fewer hours for pay with every year that passes. Just look at the OECD numbers: http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DatasetCode=ANHRS Maybe you are working more and more, but we aren’t. Not as a people.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 2/4/2013 @ 15:10

  16. You chart says that the average worker has reduced his annual work week by 70 hours – and there are several issues that can be made with this statistic.

    - this is a nationally collected statistic, meaning that it may be skewed based on the reportage of a few (mostly union) workplaces.

    - That it may reflect overall on an aging workforce that is collectively becoming entitled to more holidays and so does not reflect, for example, what an entry level worker works (which probably accounts for the entire reduction you speak of).

    - That this is the total, and does not directly account for the weekly hours but rather incorporates sick leave, vacations and other leave.

    - There are growing numbers of people working few (very few) hours – often either not by choice, or by age (semi-retired).

    - There are insufficient data points to really get a long term trend (to simply extrapolate that data, we would indeed be working 10 hours a week within 15 years. However, if we took similar data from the 1960s, we would have been working 10 hours by 1990).

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 2/4/2013 @ 15:55

  17. @Dominic Amann

    All true, but if we had longer term data, I am confident that it would show the same consistent trend: we work fewer hours on average. It is a robust trend over decades and over all countries.

    Obviously, it says nothing about the future nor about your personal case.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 2/4/2013 @ 20:02

  18. The world changes faster than people expect, but the changes often come from things some people have already been doing for a long time. For example, people had been using social media for decades when it became mainstream 5-10 years ago. Usenet was social media. BBSes were social media. IRC was (and is) social media. When I started using Facebook, it immediately felt familiar, as I had grown up using similar services.

    Regarding your predictions:

    1. My desktop system consists of a display, a keyboard and a mouse. The PC is still there, integrated into the display, but it has become an uninteresting part of the system. In my pocket, I have a touchscreen with another integrated PC. My laptop still looks pretty much the same as my first laptop 15 years ago, but otherwise the interfaces have become more interesting than the computers themselves.

    3. In Finland, an extensive bookshelf was long considered an essential part of an educated household. Yet already in the late 90s, young people started abandoning this habit, hiding their books in closets instead of displaying them prominently.

    4. Due to bandwidth issues, TV stations will continue having an advantage in broadcasting major live events such as Formula 1, Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup for the next 10 to 15 years. Last year, YouTube could barely broadcast the Baumgartner jump in low quality to 8 million simultaneous viewers, and the audiences of these events can be a hundred times larger. Yet apart from live coverage, TV stations may start dying off sooner than expected.

    5. The main reason for fixed class hours in primary education is to keep the kids off the street while their parents are at work. (Finland actually increased the number of funded PhD positions for similar reasons during the deep recession of early 90s.) If non-standard working hours become more common, primary education will accommodate.

    6. It seems that the gap between highly productive people and less productive people is getting wider and wider. A large part of the decreasing trend in the average working hours is due to the difficulties the less productive people have in finding full-time jobs. Simultaneously, especially in the US, moderately productive people have to work harder and harder to maintain their social status and the middle class standard of living. On the other hand, especially in Europe, the statistics underestimate the true decrease in working hours, as people are saving their free time into retirement. After all, lifespans have been increasing much faster than the retirement age for decades.

    Comment by Jouni — 2/4/2013 @ 20:10

  19. I just remember reading the same things you are saying about working hours in the 70s, and here I am in the 20-teens, still working the hours that my dad worked, and seeing house prices (as a percentage of income) dramatically higher.

    Only union, tenured or guild member workers get to work any less, and only by a small margin.

    The vast proportion of work-week reduction comes simply from the growing number of part time jobs. You will note that your OECD stats only address the “primary” occupation of people. Many of these have 2 or more jobs to make ends meet.

    Your notion of shorter work week runs counter to the plateaux we are seeing in real productivity. Growth may not be a truly sustainable phenomena. If it is true, that growth will not continue at its past pace, and productivity stagnates, then we will not see any further reductions in work week. We may see increases, as governments and corporations see it as the only way to increase productivity.

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 3/4/2013 @ 8:05

  20. Interesting post. I would like to suggest two books on the matter:

    http://www.amazon.com/Race-Against-Machine-Accelerating-ebook/dp/B005WTR4ZI/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?tag=daniellemires-20

    http://www.amazon.com/Robots-Will-Steal-Thats-ebook/dp/B009R93JR6/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1364996548&sr=1-1-spell&keywords=frederico+pistono&tag=daniellemires-20

    Comment by Antonio Alberti — 3/4/2013 @ 8:44

  21. @Dominic Amann

    We constructed the Web, collectively… something that nobody could imagine in the 1980s… Yes, yes, there were networks back then, but we could not imagine that we would have what we have now. Many scifi authors imagined a future without the Web… and those that did imagine something like the Web, imagined it as something very advanced that we would not see before a very long time.

    The fact that you can’t imagine a reduction of the number of working hours does not mean that it won’t happen or that it can’t happen. I say it is a failure of imagination. (I don’t blame you though.)

    There is strong evidence that it has been happening … of course, the decrease is tiny if you just consider active workers… but you do realize that someone born in 1970 will have had twice as much leisure time than someone born in 1870? (Just think that many people get 10 years of retirement time that people did not get in the past…)

    Our inability to imagine a different future is a cognitive bias, not a good thing.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 3/4/2013 @ 9:37

  22. I can certainly IMAGINE a shorter work week. I have been imagining one for 40 years. It hasn’t happened for me or for anyone I know who is in full time work. That leads me to question why – not as a failure of imagination, but as a failure of assumptions in the model we are using to predict.

    Your assumption that imagination is the cause of failure is not born out by the facts. We failed to imagine how small and powerful technology would be – but it happened anyway. We predicted a 10 hour work week before now, but that has failed to materialize. That would suggest to me that imagination is not the limiting or even guiding factor here.

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 3/4/2013 @ 11:12

  23. @Dominic Amann

    About working hours… Most research-bound professors, for example, work well over 45 hours a week. (Actually, 45 hours a week is the average for all professors, including those who don’t do research.) Whenever I tell another professor (one that is active in research) that I don’t work week-ends, I get a long pause… people can’t imagine not working week-ends. At least in computer science.

    I chose, many years ago, to work few hours. At the time, I did not have tenure. I have written a series of blog posts about it. Where do you think I find the time for this blog?

    And I found a way to make it work. I work much less than 40 hours a week. Never more than 35 hours… (I reported this elsewhere on my blog.) If you ask around about my output, people will tell you something in the range of good to very good. I’m obviously not a star… I couldn’t be… but I managed to combine a good to very good output with far fewer hours than my colleagues…

    And, no, pulling it off was not easy. It was a quest…

    Obviously, my own personal case does not extend at large… But I reject the idea that we won’t achieve it.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 3/4/2013 @ 14:12

  24. I too can have a shorter work week – down to 40 hours + 3.5 hours lunch (dickensian company). I could get better by switching company.

    As you say, that will not help anyone else out there.

    The official, government mandated work week has not shortened since the 60s in much of the civilized world.

    I don’t reject the idea that we won’t achieve it. I acknowledge that we won’t achieve it without some as yet unanticipated upheaval occuring. Either we start consuming a whole lot less, or we increase our productivity significantly. Expecting some other path to shorten work hours is to ignore economics.

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 3/4/2013 @ 14:38

  25. I agree with your broader thesis – most people are bad at imagining the future. However, your point about taxes implies that technology will magically happen without it being incentivized in some way.

    New technologies are developed and have impact in two circumstances – either they appear to generate profit, or they require negligible resources to create and utilize.

    So if we want to encourage new energy tech, either we can make it free to develop new energy technologies…or we make it more expensive to use old tech. Subsidies/grants do the former, taxes do the latter.

    Incentives drive action – including the actions which will determine what technology is developed, and what our future will be like.

    Perhaps Spock really would have said: “Surely, we should try carbon taxes. This would encourage investment in methods for solving our problem using crazy things like computers and other technology … this *is* clearly the logical solution…”

    Comment by Mostly Agree — 4/4/2013 @ 0:36

  26. This guy obviously didn’t read Vernor Vinge. Or Ray Kurzweil.

    Comment by Lucas — 6/4/2013 @ 17:33

  27. I think your comment:

    “..the notion of putting kids in a classroom to learn at fixed hours is considered barbaric..”

    I like this, it is striking. I humbly think educator like yourself should promote this further.

    Comment by Mehmet Suzen — 8/4/2013 @ 4:08

  28. Another neo-con canard – that cash incentives encourage innovation.

    Innovation may be capitalized upon – after the fact. However, pretty much all the innovations of this and any other era have occurred in circumstances where you would be very hard pressed to see any direct financial advantage for the inventor – sometimes even long after the invention has been capitalized upon. If one were seeking financial advantage, it would generally speaking always be more efficient to spend ones energies wating for a likely invention by someone (else) and buying that idea for as little as one can and profiting from it by leverage one’s capital advantage.

    I have not seen any genuine study of t5he true catalysts – or mechanisms for the “process of” invention. There may be such studies, but if there are, it would appear that they are ignored in favour of the “common sense” notion that money drives creativity. It would seem (to my untutored eye) that recognition is a bigger motivator for human achievement than money.

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 8/4/2013 @ 8:20

  29. @Lucas

    Just rewatch Star Trek episodes, say Star Trek DS9 (made during the nineties). It is supposedly set in the 24th century, but they lack many of the things we take for granted today. E.g., when an engineer spots a problem, he can’t just film it and send it over, he has to call another engineer to ask him to come over. Their information retrieval technology is slightly ahead of us in some ways, but backward in others. If you watch older Star Trek episodes (designed in the 1980s), it is just terrible: they have nothing close to an iPhone or the web!

    It is true that web was present in older work, say Ender’s game… but it was presented as something highly sophisticated (e.g., posting anonymously on it was a feat)… Scifi authors in general failed to imagine the web… that is, a worldwide network that even the poorest people can have access to.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/4/2013 @ 9:11

  30. +Daniel Lemire – regarding the fact that no-one imagined the web “the way we use it today” – as in mostly anonymous, with largest use case being cats and breasts – I agree. However, I believe it proves my point, that is to say – we can (with some success) foresee the technical advancements (massive networking, small powerful computers), but we always stumble over the people component. This is what is hard – predicting people. Asimov was on to something when he invented psychohistory.

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 8/4/2013 @ 10:03

  31. @Dominic, I’d also love to see hard evidence about invention – however, my assumptions are not based off of any “neocon world view.”

    I just happen to spend a lot of time with people who do research, make things, and build companies. I agree that the best of these people are /not/ driven by money as you say. However – they often need outside money to succeed with their bigger, more impactful projects. And they only get that money if there is a financial reward for their backers.

    It’s a lot harder to get funding when building a business around energy efficient devices when energy costs are cheap…not to mention the funding for an insanely large project like the design and production of an electric car!

    I can guarantee you that Elon Musk would sell far more cars (and could have gotten investment at better rates) if energy prices in the US where closer to those of Europe. There *are* studies of supply and demand cost curves!

    Comment by Mostly Agree — 8/4/2013 @ 12:57

  32. @Mostly Agree

    Isn’t Elon Musk’s car company American?

    By your logic, shouldn’t we see more innovation regarding electric cars in Europe?

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/4/2013 @ 13:37

  33. +Daniel About Elon Musk – it is two-part. Firstly Elon is primarily an investor and front man – he employs great technical people who probably do most of the scientific heavy lifting.

    Secondly, although Europe has higher fuel prices, it is also less inclined to move innovation to the next level – European investors seem to be more risk averse than their American counterparts. I see numerous examples of great European innovation, but far fewer extremely succesful companies grow out of that. The dawn of the PC era – Cambridge (Sinclair) computing springs to mind – although an offshhot of that is the ARM CPU – it does not make one corporation very rich.

    Once again, the determining factor would seem to be human nature rather than some measurable reward or predictable advance in technology.

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 8/4/2013 @ 14:19

  34. @Dominic Amann

    Right, but shouldn’t we assess policies based on results?

    If high taxes lead to lots of industrial innovation, then surely, Europe ought to be very innovative.

    In the case of gas, there is a very simple reason why high taxes can’t work. If you are sitting on a reserve of oil, the question for you is not whether you will exploit it, but rather when. If taxes start rising, this gives you an incentive to exploit it sooner rather than later… that is, you should ramp up production now… thus lowering prices and increasing consumption… the opposite of what we’d like to have.

    Basically, I just don’t see high taxes as a simple (or particularly clever) way to solve our climate problems.

    They are very convenient however for people would rather have high taxes in any case.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/4/2013 @ 14:38

  35. +Daniel

    Again, you are starting from assumptions about human nature. Recent research has shown (using a reward based variation of the prisoners’ dilemna) that different cultures react and behave differently to the same set of stimuli/rewards. We imagine that everybody is “just like us under the skin”, but that is not so.

    Just because some people respond in a predictable (to you) way to incentives or disincentives, does not mean that all people of all cultures actually work that way.

    I am not quite understanding your last comment. Do you mean when /prices/ (not taxes) start rising? Increasing taxes (in Europe) have been proven to reduce demand – which is the effect they wanted to see. That is why people drive much more economical cars than they used to, and much more economical than the US. In fact, the cars in Europe are so economical that it is very hard to compete with hybrid or electric technology since the initial cost is so high, and the margin of improvement is much smaller than it is here. It is hard to make a car more efficient than 60-70 MPG, which is readily obtainable in the UK in a practical gasoline or disel car.

    One of the reasons Tesla does better here is because he (wisely) chose to build luxury cars, where a larger part of the margin is luxury, and the cost of the drive train can be buried in a much larger pile of money. Then there are more rich (and vain) people (here) who will buy his car. The environment statement is an added status symbol here (like every A list actor has a Prius).

    In other words, it is again much more about human nature than strict cost/benefit analysis.

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 8/4/2013 @ 14:57

  36. @Dominic

    Increasing taxes (in Europe) have been proven to reduce demand – which is the effect they wanted to see.

    You are Saudi Arabia and you have some oil reserves. Europe increases its taxes. What do you do?

    Do you think for a minute that Saudi Arabia is going to decide that some of its oil reserve will, from now on, remain unexploited because of European taxes?

    As far as global warming is concerned, only one thing does matter: how much of the oil is left in the ground. Even if Europe decided to stop importing oil, and it is importing oil from Russia as fast as Russia can pump it right now… it would still not matter… someone else would buy the now cheaper oil… and it would immediately send a signal to all the oil producers that they have to hurry and sell their oil as fast as possible.

    Energy efficiency… that’s nice… but if you have more efficient cars, what happens? It curbs demand at first… but what does that do? It lower prices! Lower prices mean more demand!

    Did Europe really lower its oil consumption since 1990? Oh! Sure! The demand has fallen around 2008, but we know why that is!

    My larger point is that if all you have to fix big problems are larger taxes, you are in trouble.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/4/2013 @ 15:37

  37. In an overall measure, Western Europe uses less fossil fuel energy per person than people in the US and Canada. I am not sure exactly what the numbers are when normalized against climate etc, but I am pretty sure that they use less fossil fuel per person than here. The taxes cause a marked differential behaviour. That behaviour is directly observable in both car buying choices and driving behaviour.

    It is also observable in other buying choices, as well as the reduction of fuel use in many other areas (using less pesticides and herbicides – fossil fuel derived).

    In what way do you find that these higher taxes are not working (in those countries that apply them)? It is the observation of most people that these practices do in fact work. Are you supposing some kind of conspiracy making up results? I have been to the UK (I was born there) and seen first hand the small cars and frugal driving habits, as well as the great care with home heating and lighting efficiency.

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 8/4/2013 @ 16:03

  38. @Dominic Amann

    Obviously, given two continents, one with high taxes on oil, and one with low taxes on oil, the one with high taxes will tend to consume less.

    When you curb European demand, you reduce the price of oil which then entices other continents to consume more of it.

    You still have to show that the relatively modest per capita UK consumption is making Saudi Arabia renounce to some of their accessible oil reserves.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/4/2013 @ 16:40

  39. +Daniel – I am not trying to show a reduced /world/ consumption of oil. That cannot happen unless the world also agrees to a carbon cap-and-trade system. I am showing that taxes are an effective way of modifying consumer behavious (within limits).

    I suspect we are passing a tipping point in green energy anyway. Grid costs (and aging infrastructure costs) are making alternative energy so attractive even in the US that big generation companies are offering micro-generation capacity to households on a “zero-down” plan. The fact that many jurisdictions offer tax incentives to the initial capital outlay is another effective incentive that reduces carbon footprint.

    Comment by Dominic Amann — 8/4/2013 @ 16:45

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