This week, another naughty Big Energy company has had its wrist gently slapped for viscously ripping off customers. EDF is fighting its own battles. At some point, an elected government and its self-styled consumer champions, the regulators, will stand up for the people and break these malicious and inefficient oligopolies up.
Before Big Energy it was Big Supermarkets with horse burgers. Before them it was Big Banks. Ben Goldacre highlighted the behaviour of Big Pharma. We frequently comment on the reckless behaviour of Big Oil and Big Tobacco. The Guardian reports that, sadly but predictably, US Big Tech (Facebook, Apple and Google) has been creeping into political lobbying, following anti-trust activities against Microsoft.
The biggest companies skew markets as much, if not more than, the public sector. They drive down employee and consumer rights, bully or bankrupt governments, intimidate or overwhelm regulators and wreck the environment.
While they often fund vital research and development, they are equally as guilty of stifling disruptive innovation through aggressive patenting and lobbying for self-interest. They demand ever-lighter regulation and even more support through lower taxes, subsidies, benefit funding for low wages and regular bailouts from governments. Their goal appears to be to privatise profit, nationalise loss, and the recreation of an unfettered free market utopia of the 19th century, without any of the concomitant risks.
In the unregulated utopia of the 19th century, we had slavery, child labour among those as young as nine, hundred-hour working weeks, no consumer protection, poisonous smog, unequal pay for women, countless deaths and injuries at work, the environment used as a dumping ground, criminally low pay and widespread discrimination. Businesses were also allowed to fail.
Some parts of the UK and the world still suffer some or all of these degradations, as we have successfully exported our economic policies, dirtier manufacturing and corporate bad behaviour overseas.
To deal with the inevitable social, economic and environmental fallout of unregulated or unfettered capitalism, forward-thinking governments of all political parties introduced controls.
These included the Factory Acts (1802-1962), Slave Trade Act (1807), Slavery Abolition Act (1833), Sales of Goods Act (1893 and 1979), Consumer Credit Act (1974), Clean Air Acts (1953 and 1993), Equal Pay Act (1970), Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), Environmental Protection Act (1990), Disability Discrimination Act (1995), National Minimum Wage Act (1998), and Equality Act (2010). All of which were vigorously resisted by business and their friends in the media.
Over time and against powerful opposition, we painstakingly established social, employee, consumer and environmental protections. Some will rightly argue it was often too little and usually too slow.
However, these protections are fragile and now increasingly threatened by the biddable nature of today’s politicians and their raucous cheerleaders in the press; both of whom are funded by the corporate shilling.
Politicians extolling the virtues of ‘free’ markets, while defending and being underwritten by the oligopolistic players who distort them, is intellectually dishonest. For an oligopoly to exist, there needs to be a few large firms that can protect their dominance through significant barriers to entry. A compliant government and weak regulator helps. The revolving door between ministers, regulators and private operators remains unhealthy and anti-competitive.
This oligopolistic behaviour sounds a lot like domestic energy (top five have 75%), supermarkets (top five have 84%), banks (top five have 85% of current accounts), mobile providers (top five have 100%), and global pharmaceuticals, oil and tobacco players, not to mention certain media empires. The top two – News International (The Sun, The Times and Sunday sisters) has 34% of daily newspaper sales and Daily Mail Group has 22% – have over half of national newspapers read each morning.
While there is little we can easily do to global corporations, we could clean up our own backyard and give some teeth to the Competition Commission.
What could we practically do? Limiting the market shares, and therefore size, of monopoly utilities (water, energy) to fewer than 15% would create a more competitive environment. It would still mean seven players could control a market. Seven per cent might be a better goal to create 15 players. Only those companies that have independently-audited, excellent customer service and sustainable practices would be allowed to go beyond that level, and then only for as long as they maintain the satisfaction. To grow you would have to be great.
This would make it easier for greater competition in utilities, but if enacted more widely could similarly improve retail, financial services and could dramatically improve competition, innovation and better customer outcomes.
This is not the bleeding heart appeal of a closet statist magazine. We just would not want to live in a country without the essential regulations of the 19th and 20th centuries. This is a call-to-arms for genuinely competitive, genuinely sustainable capitalism, rather than the oligopolistic and irresponsible corporate kleptocracy we have created.
2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage
Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.
Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.
Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each
The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.
Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey
Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.
Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.
Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.
That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.
Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.
Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.
Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.
The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.
Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity
Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.
Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.
It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.
Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight
The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.
The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.
2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded
People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.
Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.
Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.
Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.
Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.
How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018
Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.
Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:
1. Energy – produce it, save it
If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.
It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.
While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.
Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!
2. Don’t be just another tourist
Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.
3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly
We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.
To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.
It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.
4. Know thy recycling
People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.
People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.
5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool
Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.
All in all
The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.
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