Endless to-do list? Here’s how not to waste your life

Most approaches to time management make things worse. Start by acknowledging your limits

Oliver Burkeman 

© Lucas Varela


Seneca, the ancient Roman philosopher, got to the core of our troubles with time in a famous letter known by the title On the Shortness of Life. 

We complain about how little time we have, he observed — we feel hounded by its onward march and terrified to contemplate the day when our portion of it will end — and yet we fritter it away, day after day, on things we don’t truly value.

Seneca chided his contemporaries for living “as if you drew from a full and abundant supply of time, though all the while that day . . . is perhaps your last”. 

The average life may not be as short today as it was in Seneca’s time. 

(Although it’s not exactly long either: if you live to be 80, you’ll have had roughly 4,000 weeks.) 

And yet time feels as tormenting as it ever did.

And most approaches to time management, not to mention most of our allegedly time-saving technologies, make things worse. 

Rather than helping us make the best of our little allotment of time, they pitch us into a futile struggle to deny the truth of our limitations and to avoid the discomfort involved in staring our finitude in the face.

Take the familiar predicament of the overlong to-do list. 

Productivity gurus offer an array of techniques for becoming more efficient (or “optimised”) so as to process more emails and dispatch more tasks. 

The implied promise is that one day, finally, you’ll feel “on top of things” and “in control” of your life. 

Yet because the incoming supply of demands on your time is effectively infinite, that day never quite arrives, no matter how close it might sometimes seem. 

It’s like getting better at climbing up an infinitely tall ladder. 

No matter how fast you go, you’ll never reach the top.

In fact, it’s worse than that: becoming more efficient and productive leads to more busyness. 

A few years ago, drowning in emails, I resolved to up my game and implemented the system known as Inbox Zero — constantly working toward having an empty inbox. 

But it turns out that when you get really good at processing your emails, all that happens is that you just get more emails. 

(Not least because each reply you send is likely to trigger a reply to that reply and so on forever until the heat death of the universe.)

Most approaches to time management make things worse, pitching us into a futile struggle to deny the truth of our limitations © Lucas Varela


Likewise, should you acquire a reputation at the office for powering more speedily through your work than any of your colleagues, what on earth do you think is going to happen? 

Obviously, you’ll just find yourself being given more to do.

Nor is this culturally reinforced effort to outrun our limitations confined to the worlds of professional and domestic obligations. 

As the German social theorist Hartmut Rosa explains, it applies just as much to “bucket lists”, at least for those of us with the good fortune to be able to spend some of our time improving our minds, visiting exotic locales or pursuing hedonistic pleasures.

The range of such experiences that the world has to offer is, to all intents and purposes, unlimited. 

And so any attempt to feel as though you’ve really sucked the marrow out of the world is doomed to end in disappointment: there’ll always be far more you dreamt of doing than you ever managed to do.

A truly practical approach to making the best use of time demands that we stop trying to deny the undeniable, acknowledging not merely that we might not get around to everything but that we definitely never will. 

That we’re guaranteed to have to abandon certain ambitions, disappoint certain people and drop certain balls in order to make time for doing a few things that count.

In the words of the creativity coach Jessica Abel, borrowing an insight from the world of personal finance, that means “paying yourself first” when it comes to time. 

What she means is doing at least a little of what you care about now, as opposed to banking on finding time for it in the future, once the decks are clear and life’s duties are out of the way. 

Life’s duties will never be out of the way. 

And so if you really mean it when you say you’d like to write a novel or spend more of your time with your ageing parents or fighting climate change, at some point you’re just going to have to start doing it.

You should be doing at least a little of what you care about now, as opposed to banking on finding time for it in the future, once the decks are clear and life’s duties are out of the way © Lucas Varela


There’s another, subtler sense in which our efforts to “use time well” frequently seem to end up making things worse: the more you focus on how you’re using time, the more each day seems to feel like something you have to get through, en route to some calming, better, more fulfilling point in the future, which never actually arrives.

The problem is one of instrumentalisation. 

To use time, by definition, is to treat it instrumentally, as a means to an end. 

Of course we do this every day: you don’t boil the kettle out of a love of boiling kettles or put your socks in the washing machine out of a love for operating washing machines. 

You do these things because you want a cup of coffee or prefer to wear clean socks.

Yet it turns out to be perilously easy to over-invest in this instrumental relationship to time, focusing exclusively on where you’re headed at the expense of focusing on where you are. 

The result is that you find yourself living mentally in the future, locating the “real” value of your life at some time that you haven’t yet reached and maybe never will.

In his book Back to Sanity, the psychologist Steve Taylor recalls watching tourists at the British Museum who weren’t really looking at the Rosetta Stone, the artefact on display in front of them, so much as preparing to look at it later by recording images and video of it on their phones. 

They were so intently focused on using their time for a future benefit — for the ability to revisit or share the experience later — that they barely experienced the exhibition at all.

Of course, grumbling about the younger generation’s smartphone habits is a favourite pastime of middle-aged curmudgeons like Taylor and me. 

But his deeper point is that we’re all frequently guilty of something similar. 

We treat everything we’re doing — life itself, in other words — as valuable only insofar as it lays the groundwork for something else.

For all the anxiety and uncertainty of this moment in history, we could think of it as an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider how we’re using our finite time © Lucas Varela


Taylor’s anecdote also demonstrates one of the sneakier problems of the instrumental approach to time, which is that it doesn’t only apply to those areas of life in which we’re concerned with accomplishing things, most obviously our careers. 

We start to experience pressure to use our leisure time productively too. 

Enjoying leisure for its own sake — which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure — comes to feel as though it’s somehow not enough. 

It begins to feel as though you’re failing at life, in some indistinct way, if you’re not treating your time off primarily as an investment in the future.

Sometimes this pressure takes the form of the explicit argument that you ought to think of your leisure hours as an opportunity to become a better worker. (“Relax! You’ll Be More Productive”, reads the headline of one hugely popular New York Times article.) 

But a more surreptitious form of the same attitude has infected your friend who always seems to be training for a 10k, yet is apparently incapable of just going for a run: she has convinced herself that running is a meaningful thing to do only insofar as it might lead to some future accomplishment. 

And it infected me too during the years I spent attending meditation classes and retreats with the barely conscious goal that I might one day reach a condition of permanent calm.

The regrettable consequence of justifying leisure only in terms of its usefulness for other things is that it begins to feel like a chore. 

In other words, like work, in the worst sense of that word. 

Furthermore, it has left us with a very strange notion of what it means to spend your time off “well” and, conversely, what counts as wasting it.

According to this view of time, anything that doesn’t create some form of value for the future is, by definition, mere idleness. 

Rest is permissible but only for the purposes of recuperation for work or, perhaps, for some other form of self-improvement. 

It becomes difficult to enjoy a moment of rest for rest’s sake alone.

It follows from all this, then, that spending at least some of your leisure time “wastefully”, focused solely on the pleasure of the experience, is the only way not to waste it — to be truly at leisure, rather than covertly engaged in future-focused self-improvement. 

In order to fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth. 

Take up a hobby, with no particular expectation of improving at it (and certainly not of turning it into a marketable “side hustle”). Go for an aimless walk. Stare out of the window.

Seen this way, a little idleness isn’t merely forgivable; it’s practically an obligation. 

“If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir, “then production and wealth are only hollow myths; they have meaning only if they are capable of being retrieved in individual and living joy.”

For all the anxiety and uncertainty of this moment in history, we could think of it as an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider how we’re using our finite time. 

The coronavirus pandemic has made it far harder to ignore the shortness and fragility of life, thanks to the omnipresence of death and bereavement.

But lockdown also jolted many of us into a fresh understanding of what truly matters — both because it deprived us of experiences we didn’t realise we would miss so acutely (in my case, singing in an amateur choir) and because of all the things we didn’t miss (such as commuting, or remaining at one’s desk until 6.30pm solely to appear hardworking). 

If there was ever a time to turn such epiphanies into a lasting change, this is it.

The surprising truth of the matter is that confronting finitude needn’t be a recipe for despair or, alternatively, for living the rest of your life in a white-knuckled panic as you self-consciously attempt to “seize the day”, squeezing the most from every moment. 

On the contrary, it’s a liberation. 

You get to give up on the futile attempt to do everything, please everyone, achieve a perfect work-life balance. (That was always illusory to begin with.) 

Then you get to dedicate your time and attention to getting stuck in to what counts.

The problem, you might say, was never actually our limited time to begin with, but instead our constant attempts to “solve” the quandary of time, to pack in more things than are achievable in order to evade the discomfort of the tough choices that in fact are part of the package. 

Or as the late American Zen Buddhist teacher Charlotte Joko Beck liked to put it, speaking about the human condition in general, “what makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.”


Oliver Burkeman is a journalist and author. His book “Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It” (Bodley Head) is out now.

Lex in depth — remittance fintechs herald a payments revolution

Investors and governments can benefit from new start-ups shaking up old oligopolies

Jonathan Guthrie in London



For the past few years, Pedro Coelho has been periodically sending £400-£500 at a time home to Portugal. 

“My grandparents needed surgery so I got together with family to fund it,” he says of one payment. 

The entrepreneur, who lives in London, is among 170m expatriate workers around the world. 

Their cash pulses through the veins of the financial system, reinforcing family ties and nurturing weaker economies.

When he first started sending remittances, Coelho, 25, initially used banks. 

“There was no alternative,” he says. 

“They charged a steep fee and a big exchange rate.” 

He now uses a money transfer service operated by Revolut. 

The upstart digital bank, valued at $33bn in a recent funding round, allows customers one free transfer per month. 

Coelho pays a subscription for some other services.

Fintech start-ups are finally getting traction in their mission to disrupt banking. 

Remittances — defined as smaller cross-border payments between individuals — have been an excellent entry point to financial services for many of them. 

The steep charges of banks and traditional money agents have encouraged tech-conscious customers to shop around. 

Convoluted legacy systems are ripe for disruption by app-based services.

Specialised businesses are mounting a broader land grab in payments. 

The industry transfers an estimated $18tn across borders every year. 

The landscape is highly fragmented, littered with legacy businesses and their systems. That creates an opportunity for well-financed acquirers to snap up rivals. 

By serving bigger client bases with better technology, they can reduce costs while maintaining profitability.

“It is all about scale”, says Ron Kalifa, a UK government adviser on fintech and chair of Network International, a payments group focused on the Middle East. 

The urge to consolidate triggered more than $54bn in cross-border takeovers in 2020 and 2021, according to Dealogic.

The upstart digital bank Revolut allows customers one free transfer a month


Investment capital is flooding into an industry once dismissed as “plumbing” by bankers. 

“In the past, people would drift away from you at a party if you said you worked in remittances,” says Michael Kent, founder and executive chair of Azimo, a payments business specialising in developing countries. 

“These days you tell them you’re in fintech and they get excited.”

The remittance revolution is challenging traditional money agents such as Western Union and MoneyGram, once seen as operating rock-solid franchises. 

There is a threat to banks as well. 

Digitally based rivals aim to unbundle the services they bring together, of which money transfers are just one example.

At either end of complex webs of financial relationships are expatriate earners such as Coelho. 

Families back home can look forward to bigger remittances from expatriate earners like him because technology and competition are reducing costs. 

This is before the much-ballyhooed — and for the moment entirely theoretical — possibility that blockchain-based digital currencies will create a frictionless, fully automated world payments system.


The trick for investors will be distinguishing between businesses building valuable territories and those staking claims to worthless badlands.

Kalifa’s comment on scale applies here, just as it would in ecommerce, social networks and streaming. 

The more customer demand and data you can aggregate, the more impregnable your position will become. But there is peril for would-be consolidators too. 

In every business land grab, some contenders always overpay for acquisitions that bring few benefits and brake rather than accelerate their progress. 

Here it is vendors, including founders of fintech start-ups, that stand to gain the most.

Wise vs world

Like any comic book hero, a would-be consumer champion needs a good back-story. 

The tale told and retold by Kristo Kaarmann is of self-help that turned into Wise, the money transfer business he co-founded.

Kaarmann, an Estonian, was working in London for Deloitte. 

Taavet Hinrikus, a UK-based friend, was toiling in Estonia as a financial consultant. 

“I was sending money to Estonia and he was sending money to the UK. 

We were both losing thousands in hidden foreign exchange mark-ups,” Kaarmann says. 

“So we set out to do transfers without banks. 

Every month we looked up the exchange rate. I topped up Taavet’s UK bank account and he topped up my Estonian account by the equivalent amount.”


Kristo Kaarmann, right, the co-founder of Wise, pictured with the company’s chief financial officer, Matt Briers © WISE/Hermione Hodgson


The beauty of the arrangement was that no money needed to cross borders. 

The contrast was with correspondent banking, the traditional, friction-laden route for retail payments to cross borders. 

Here, a remittance sent by a customer of a purely domestic bank may pass through three other institutions before it reaches a recipient overseas: a process described as “nonsensical” for customers by Leon Isaacs, a payments consultant.

For incumbents, it is a decent earner. 

Each bank in the chain may be able to take a fee and a foreign exchange mark-up.

Wise claims its money transfers are up to eight times cheaper than UK high-street banks. 

A transfer of £1,000 costs just £3.75. 

Wise also aims to be faster, with four out of five payments arriving in a day or less. 

Remittances via the correspondent banking network can take two to five days, with each link in the chain settling on consecutive days.



Kaarmann and Hinrikus originally hoped their “netting” — reciprocal payments in matched countries — would be the bedrock of their business. 

In practice, it constituted only around 15 per cent of $74bn in transfers via Wise last year, because flows between two countries are typically lopsided. 

Chief technology officer Harsh Sinha says the efficiencies that make Wise price competitive come largely from bulk dealing in currencies and connecting domestic payments systems in each country where it operates.

For investors, Wise’s equity capitalisation is more eye-catching than its financial plumbing. 

The business recently joined the UK stock market via a direct listing that valued it at £9.3bn ($12.6bn). 

That means the start-up is worth around one-third more than Western Union. 

The latter, thanks to its 170-year history and agents in 200 countries, is the world’s best-known remittance specialist.

The remittance revolution is challenging traditional money agents such as Western Union © Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg


New York-listed Western Union has an enterprise value twice estimated revenues for next year and eight times earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation. 

The equivalents for Wise are 18 times sales and 75 times ebitda.

Some people would demur at the comparison. 

These are quite different businesses. 

But that is the point. 

Wise has characteristics investors prize.

It is fast-growing, purely digital and appeals to young, early adopters in white-collar occupations. 

Western Union is pushing into online payments in a bid to modernise. 

But its other distinguishing features deter most investors. 

Only one quarter of transactions were initiated electronically last year. 

The vast bulk of transfers for a loyal but typically lower-waged customer base of migrant workers were completed in cash.

It is easy for payment start-ups to attract capital, harder to outpace competition from their own kind. 

For Wise, Revolut is a case in point — Coelho is among customers who have switched from the former to the latter.

Lex views Wise as an investment that will either fly or flop, disrupting a staid industry or never transcending its niche status. 

“It’s not quite a case of Amazon versus Barnes & Noble,” says Kent, pondering the contrast between Western Union and groups like Wise, “but some of the same factors are at play.”



Remittances for development

For the World Bank, tech disruption of global payments is something to celebrate. 

The development institution is sometimes accused of pushing for economic efficiency at the expense of individual welfare. 

The two mesh harmoniously in falling remittance prices.

Figures compiled by the bank show the global average charge has dropped from around 9 per cent in 2011 to 6.4 per cent today for a cross-border transfer of $200. 

That is still high compared with the cheap or free services offered by start-ups such as Wise and Revolut in the developed world.

Charges below 5 per cent in five years, a target adopted by the G8 in 2009, has been achieved when measured as an average weighted for the value of transactions. 

This has fallen to 4.54 per cent. A 2030 target of 3 per cent or below is “within reach”, according to Mayada Elzoghbi, managing director of the Center for Financial Inclusion, a charity based in Washington DC.

Correspondent banks, however, are dragging the anchor. 

On average, they charge almost 11 per cent for a $200 switch. 

Money transfer operators such as Western Union are around 50 per cent cheaper. 

Mobile phone-based services typically cost two-thirds less than the banks.

Stranded migrant labourers wait to board a special train in Kolkata after lockdown restrictions eased, in Chennai in July last year. Lower costs benefit poor countries by increasing the sums recipients there can invest in healthcare and education © Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images


Lower costs benefit poor countries by increasing the sums recipients there can invest in healthcare and education. Remittances are a lifeline for the developing world. 

They were worth $548bn in 2019, slightly more than the entirety of foreign direct investment. 

Development spending, most of it from governments in wealthy countries, was a relatively puny $166bn. 

Remittances are equivalent to more than a third of gross domestic product in Somalia, Lebanon and Tonga.

The projected 1.54 per cent drop in the weighted average cost of transfers is equivalent to $9bn in extra yearly income for developing nations.

The World Bank predicted remittances would fall sharply in the pandemic, as transport routes seized up and migrant workers were short of work. 

Instead, payments fell only 1.6 per cent. Avril Sharp, a caseworker at Kalayaan, a UK charity that helps lower-paid female migrant workers, says: “Their focus is always on remitting money home. 

They will sacrifice their own welfare to do so.”

While acknowledging the dedication of migrants, Elzoghbi also points to structural factors. 

Lockdowns pushed cash on to formal, regulated platforms when much of it would normally cross borders in the pockets and luggage of travellers. 

Governments loosened anti-money laundering controls, making it easier for workers to register digital accounts.



That has played out against a broader trend of tighter restrictions on flows from the developed world. 

A clampdown on dirty money — including drugs trade proceeds and terror funding — was needed. 

An unintended consequence was to encourage “de-risking” by multinational banks such as HSBC. 

The lender paid more than $1.9bn to US authorities in 2012 for permitting money laundering. 

Pulling out of small, chaotic and marginally profitable territories makes sense as a business strategy. 

But it can increase the cost and lower the availability of remittances crucial to the welfare of some inhabitants.

Technology can at least reduce financial exclusion in poor but relatively populous countries where mobile phone penetration is high. 

The classic example is M-Pesa, the app-based mobile money service pioneered by Kenya-based telecoms operator Safaricom which has attracted 46m active users in seven countries.

“Mobile transfer services have significantly lowered the cost of money to the unbanked, and it has done so at scale,” says Mahesh Uttamchandani, practice manager for financial inclusion at the World Bank. “And there is further disruption on the way.”

Tiny increments, vast totals

The same applies to the broader global payments industry, of which remittances are just a subset. Cross border payments amount to $18tn annually, around $2tn of which falls into the “personal” bucket, according to estimates from Edgar, Dunn & Co, a consultancy.

The World Bank’s Uttamchandani sees similarities between global payments and the airlines industry when the first low-cost carriers emerged: “Back then, scrappy new operators picked off valuable airline routes. Many fintechs are picking off valuable payment corridors without offering a full global service.”

The implication is that banks and traditional money agents will always struggle to compete, constrained by broad customer service promises supported by large physical distribution networks.

Payments is a business where banks — with the exception of a few large players — will increasingly depend on specialist service providers and network companies to move customers’ money around. Lenders will remain at the heart of the system, taking deposits and making advances on credit. Most of the new entrants do not want to shoulder the regulatory capital costs that come with this. But the reach of the banks will be reduced.

That thesis has triggered a race among payment businesses to bulk up in capital-light payments.


Worldpay is the most striking — and for banks, discomforting — example of a missed opportunity in payments. 

Cash-strapped Royal Bank of Scotland sold the processing business to private equity at an enterprise value of some £2bn in 2010. 

After £1.5bn of investment and six bolt-on acquisitions, Advent and Bain floated Worldpay at a valuation of £6bn in 2015.

Two years later, US rival Vantiv, bought Worldpay for a couple of billion more. 

Another American payments group, Fidelity National Information Services, snapped up the combined business at a $43bn valuation in 2019.

The expanded FIS, spanning payment processing for merchants, banks and capital markets, is now valued at $92bn on the New York Stock Exchange. 

It handles 80bn transactions worth $10tn annually, generating ebitda of around $4bn.

Its vital statistics — equivalent to 5 cents of earnings per transaction — shows that taking a small turn on every deal adds up to a lot when you have plenty of deals.

A Safaricom Plc M-Pesa mobile money service logo at a retail kiosk in Nairobi, Kenya. M-Pesa has garnered 46m active users in seven countries © Patrick Meinhardt/Bloomberg


Rival US payments business Square has a higher profile thanks to tech billionaire founder Jack Dorsey. 

It recently struck a deal to acquire Australia-based buy-now-pay-later specialist Afterpay for $29bn in stock. 

It is still dwarfed by non-bank incumbents in payments. 

These are led by Visa, which runs the world’s largest cards-based network, and is capitalised at more than $500bn. Online payments specialist PayPal is another, with a market worth of $350bn.

Incomers are poorly placed to challenge these giants. 

But there is plenty of territory they can still wrest from banks, as changes in the remittances sector illustrates. 

“Ultimately you will have big payments groups controlling whole regions,” says Kent.

Elzoghbi at the Center for Financial Inclusion sees “big risks of monopolistic behaviour down the line”. 

But in online payments, the network effects — where customers become increasingly captive — may be weaker than in other areas of tech. 

When switching is easy and charges are transparent, competition may simply compress prices, as it has in mobile telephony.

That moment has already arrived in parts of the remittance industry. 

Tamara Ristic, 28, a City of London solicitor, used to pay £15 every time she sent money home to Cyprus via banks to repay a loan covering study costs. 

“I never understood why it cost so much,” she says. 

Now she uses the free service offered by Revolut, a business that for the moment is running at a loss. 

Such thrifty and unlucrative customer habits may prove hard for payments companies to break as they build up their disruptive networks.

The Bad Economics of Fossil Fuel Defenders

By Paul Krugman

           Credit...Jose A. Bernat Bacete, via Getty Images





Global warming is fake news. 

Anyway, it isn’t man-made. 

And doing anything about it would destroy the economy.

Opponents of action against climate change have always relied on multiple lines of defense: If one argument for doing nothing becomes unsustainable, they just retreat to another.

That’s what we’re seeing now, as conservatives argue against the Biden administration’s push for climate-friendly public investment. 

As it happens, this push is taking place against a background of unprecedented heat waves, huge forest fires, severe drought in some places and catastrophic flooding in others — phenomena that scientists have long warned would become more common as the planet gets hotter.

Given these events, as The Times recently reported, Republicans have toned down their climate denial — in some cases pretending that they never denied the science in the first place. 

Thus Senator James Inhofe, author of 2012’s “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future,” is now claiming that he never called climate change a hoax.

If past experience is any guide, this new willingness to accept the reality of global warming won’t last; the next time America has a cold snap, the usual suspects will go right back to denying climate change and attacking scientists. 

For now, however, they’re focused on the immense economic damage that, they claim, will result if we try to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

So let me offer four reasons not to believe a word they say on this subject.

First, the U.S. economy has consistently done better under Democratic presidents than under Republican presidents — a pattern so strong that even progressive economists admit that it’s puzzling. 

Whatever the cause of this partisan disparity, a party devoted to the zombie doctrine that tax cuts solve all problems has no standing to lecture us on what’s good for the economy.

Second, there is a remarkable inconsistency between conservatives’ expressed faith in the power of private initiative and their assertion that climate policies will paralyze the economy. 

Businesses, the right likes to tell us, are engines of innovation and adaptation, rising to meet any challenge. 

Yet somehow the same people who laud private-sector creativity insist that businesses will shrivel up and die if confronted with new regulations or emission fees.

In fact, a number of studies have shown that government projections of the effects of new environmental or safety regulations consistently overestimate their costs, precisely because businesses respond to new rules and incentives by innovating, finding ways to reduce compliance costs. 

And industry projections of the adverse effects of regulation are far worse, typically overstating the costs to a ludicrous degree.

Third, history strongly refutes the notion that there’s any necessary link between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions.

Consider the case of Britain, where modern economic growth began. 

British emissions of carbon dioxide have been falling for half a century, despite a growing economy. On a per-capita basis, Britain’s CO₂ emissions are back down to what they were in the ’50s — the 1850s, when real G.D.P. per person was only about one-ninth what it is today.

Finally, Republican insistence that we must remain dependent on fossil fuels is especially strange given huge technological progress in renewable energy — progress so remarkable that the Trump administration tried to force power companies to keep using coal, which is no longer competitive on cost. 

Improved technology means that climate action looks far easier now than it did in, say, 2008, when John McCain called for a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, a position that would be disqualifying for anyone seeking the Republican presidential nomination today.

Of course, these facts won’t change Republican minds. 

It’s painfully obvious that politicians opposing climate action aren’t arguing in good faith; they’ve effectively decided to block any and all measures to ward off disaster and will use whatever excuses they can find to justify their position.

Why has the G.O.P. become the party of pollution? 

I used to think that it was mainly about money; in the 2020 election cycle Republicans received 84 percent of political contributions from the oil and gas industry and 96 percent of contributions from coal mining.

And money is surely part of the story. 

But I now think there’s more to it than that. 

Like pandemic policy, where the G.O.P. has effectively allied itself with the coronavirus, climate policy has become a front in the culture war; there’s a sense on the right that real men disdain renewable energy and love burning fossil fuels. 

Look at the dishonest attempts to blame wind farms for Texas blackouts actually caused by freezing pipelines.

In any case, what you need to know is that claims that taking on climate change would be an economic disaster are as much at odds with the evidence as claims that the climate isn’t changing.

A Dangerous New Variant of Populism

Although populist governments have been further discredited by poor performances in the face of COVID-19, a new strain of the same politics is already taking shape. Anti-vaxxers and other conspiracy theorists are finding common cause with voters who are worried about the implications of climate policies.

Michael Burleigh


LONDON – Most of the “geopolitical” threats, real or confected, that capture headlines in the West nowadays are exogenous – emanating from China, Russia, Iran, and so forth. 

But others lie within the world’s democracies. 

Among these are the US Republican Party’s embrace of Trumpian authoritarianism, which is eroding the country’s democracy, and the possibility that new unanticipated variants of populism will take hold around the world.

One new variant of populism might involve hostility toward both costly green policies and vaccination against COVID-19. 

And it would be driven by a combination of genuine concerns about pocketbook issues and the kinds of conspiratorial lunacy that thrive on the internet.

Anti-green populism is particularly likely to flourish in the more fossil fuel-dependent economies of Central and Eastern Europe, in response to the European Union’s new strategy for reducing greenhouse gases by 55% by 2030. 

Indeed, the so-called Fit for 55 plan would seem to call for the wholesale remodeling of these economies.

Consider Poland, which generates 70% of its energy from coal and receives additional supplies through a gas pipeline from Russia. 

Coal is especially abundant in southern Poland, where it is used to fuel giant power stations that provide industry with cheap electricity.

If it is to meet EU emissions targets, Poland is going to have to decarbonize more extensively and rapidly than anyone else. 

The government recently set an ambitious goal of reducing the proportion of coal in the country’s energy mix from 70% to 11% by 2040. 

But that will have massive implications for mining, which employs some 100,000 heavily unionized and politically influential workers.

Moreover, with little wind or sunshine in winter, Poland is ill suited for renewable-energy deployment. Instead, it has set its sights on “solutions” like nuclear power and the “Baltic Pipe” gas pipeline – subsidized by the European Commission to the tune of €215 million ($251 million) – to import gas from Norway via Denmark.

But neither of these options has gone down well in Germany. 

If Poland’s efforts to align with EU policy put it at loggerheads with key neighbors and trade partners, it will be damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. 

The conditions are set for a thriving anti-green populism.

Yet this populist threat is hardly limited to Central and Eastern Europe. 

Opposition to climate action could just as easily spread to Europe’s more established democracies if costly items like air source heat pumps and smart meters are rendered technologically redundant, or if vehicles with internal combustion engines are forced off the road by government fiat.

In fact, France was briefly the epicenter of an anti-green backlash in Europe, with the rambunctious giletsjaunes (yellow vest) protests that began in 2018. 

Angry citizens who rely on cars to get around their country districts eventually forced President Emmanuel Macron to rescind a new tax on diesel fuel. 

They had a point, considering that the infrastructure for more expensive electric vehicles simply does not exist in France (or anywhere else).

More recently, a significant share of this cohort seems to have joined with militant anti-vaxxers (many of them on the far right) who have adopted various libertarian poses propagated on the internet. 

This confluence of grievance may have traction, especially as more conventional populist movements have begun to take a battering, notably in Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, and elsewhere. 

People have grown weary of authoritarianism, corruption, and divisiveness during the pandemic – a crisis that was grossly mishandled by populist governments, in particular. 

The likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán are the elite, not some anti-systemic opposition to it.

Opposition to vaccination is as old as inoculation itself. 

The English city of Leicester used to be a hotbed of it. In 1885, 100,000 people there attended an anti-vaccination rally, complete with a child’s coffin and an effigy of Edward Jenner, the pioneer of smallpox vaccination. 

Such movements were often based on a fusion of fundamentalist Christianity (which opposed interference in God’s work) and suspicion of powers being arrogated by the modern state, which made vaccination mandatory for infants or children entering school.

The only unique contribution of our current age is the role of social media in amplifying the views of crank medics and scientists, as happened after The Lancet published (and then retracted) Andrew Wakefield’s false claims that there is a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.

Nowadays, any online search of vaccines immediately reveals a disproportionate number of anti-vaccination sites, as well as pernicious guff claiming that the barring of unvaccinated youth from nightclubs is akin to Jews being sent to Auschwitz. 

Versions of that analogy have long appeared in the British Daily Telegraph, courtesy of its dogmatically libertarian commentators, who have made common cause with the likes of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), Italy’s homegrown fascist movement. 

Any enemy of the EU is their best friend by default. 

Although the overwhelming majority of Italians support the government’s green pass initiative, the Fratelli’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, loudly does not.

In the homeland of Louis Pasteur, such militants are particularly exercised by the government’s vaccine-passport rules, which exclude the unvaccinated from concerts, cinemas, museums, swimming pools, theaters, and restaurants where 50 people or more are gathered. 

More trouble may ensue if nurses (only 50-58% of whom are vaccinated) are prevented from working until they receive two doses; or if railway workers raise objections about having to enforce vaccine-passport rules on local and commuter trains. 

No job should involve the risk of being headbutted or punched in the face.

It was perhaps inevitable that the parasitic populist right would latch onto these issues. 

Although Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally party has typically hedged her bets, her former right-hand man, Florian Philipott, was very vocal at the biggest of the many anti-vaccine rallies in July. 

These are growing in size by the month, with 200,000 attending the first one in August. 

This “movement” flourishes among the semi-educated in small towns and in cities like Marseille, where obdurate pastis guzzlers and religious immigrant communities also contribute to its ranks.

However, it is worth stressing that 62% of the silent majority in France supports vaccine passports, and 70% want all hospital and care-home workers to be fully vaccinated. 

That is probably why Macron has stuck to his guns: he hopes that rationality will prevail and that any increase in economic activity will benefit his campaign in 2022. 

Let’s hope he is right.

Still, one can see the outlines of an emerging political fusion between irrationality and pocketbook issues. 

As anti-vaxxers and anti-greens join forces, any number of stray populist demagogues might seek to lead such a movement. 

That underscores the importance of UN initiatives such as Team Halo, which has brought together scientists to publicize the importance of vaccines, especially on social media platforms.


Michael Burleigh, a senior fellow at LSE Ideas, is the author, most recently, of Populism: Before and After the Pandemic (Hurst 2021).