|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
G20 leaders agreed, in their meeting in London at the beginning of April, to pump $1.2 trillion into the global economy in a complex agreement which included various measures to tighten financial controls. The International Monetary Fund was also given more resources. Some of this is to be welcomed – control of tax havens, for example, can only be something which will lead to greater public good on a global scale, more money in public coffers and less in the hands of rich individuals and corporations. Greater control of the financial sector is long overdue and the laxity here is a substantial cause of the current economic mess. However the overall world economic systems, which got us in the current mess, are being toyed with but not substantially altered.
And there was little or nothing agreed on green measures so that any ‘green shoots of recovery’ appearing will not be green but hungry for the usual resources and fossil fuels. There is nothing either here in the G20 deal for the poor world. In other words, the deal is pretty much to re-establish ‘business as usual’. Nor have respective British or Irish budgets shown that more locally, in the North or the Republic, future development will be different to international norms.
We are living on borrowed time in a number of senses. We don’t have much time to make substantial changes and we are taking the wealth and nature of the world, which belongs to all generations yet to come, and squandering it on ourselves. The current economic crisis should be the opportunity to ask certain fundamental questions, and act on the answers:
- How can we remove our contribution to global warming? How can we become ‘carbon neutral’, not as some gimmick but in reality?
- How can we become a society which is only using our share of the earth’s resources?
- How can these urgent changes be part of a transformation to a more just society?
- How can these changes also be part of a move to an equitable world?
- How can we avoid cycles of ‘boom’ and ‘bust’ in future so that development is sustainable?
Some people will say that these questions are themselves idealistic and unrealistic. But realism at the moment is leading us down what may prove to be a cul de sac of massive environmental change risking catastrophe and misery for countless millions of people, and irreparable damage to the ecology, flora and fauna of our world. The ‘realism’ of G20 is not going to solve the greatest crisis we face. It is not going to remove the massive violence which will ensue from tens or hundreds of millions of climate refugees and the resource wars which will follow climate change.
We have said it before and doubtless we will say it many times again; a green society and world must be more equal. We can create a world where there is greater equity and sharing and, resultantly, less violence; all it requires is political will and much imagination and hard work. A green world cannot have the economic injustice which currently pertains – it is simply impossible. The current economic system gives people ‘growth’ (roughly the same size share, or sometimes a smaller share, of a larger cake) as its bread and circuses.
How long the global economy will take to recover from the current recession is obviously hard to predict. The Republic, because of the depth of the recession – largely due to government policies – will be one of the last to get the lift. The long term answers to question 3 above must include a commitment to human dignity through full employment, necessitating a change in the concept of what a ‘job’ is, and a substantial change in our concept of the economy. Surely the purpose of the economy is to produce sufficient wealth to meet human need while respecting the dignity of the individual and the integrity of the world around us (through avoiding contributing to global warming and the profligate waste of resources).
We are still, unfortunately, on the wrong road. The correct road to take is not too far away but it does require a willingness to stop, consider where we are, and how we get there. There are maps to help us but finding the right ones, and discarding the misleading and glossy productions which led us astray to begin with, requires imagination and political will on the part of us all.
Larry Speight brings us his monthly column
The UK Chancellor’s recent budget is a disaster for the environment. Alistair Darling is oblivious to the fact that the economy is wholly dependent on the health of our ecology. As Andy Atkins, director of Friends of the Earth said, “The government has squandered a historic opportunity to kick-start a green industrial revolution and slash UK carbon emissions.” The £1.4 billion allocated to the green economy is pitiful when compared to the £38 billion spent on defence and the billions spent on propping up the banks.
The point lost on the Chancellor is that there will be no modern society to defend without a healthy biosphere. As Jared Diamond shows in his book Collapse (2005), past civilizations disintegrated because they over-exploited the ecology on which they were based. The biosphere is as fragile as a spider’s web and if torn asunder won’t have the capacity to support the community of life forms that have evolved over millions of years, including humankind.
Fortunately, our civilization has a survival advantage over those that have become a footnote in our history books. We have a wealth of scientific knowledge that serves to inform us of environmental problems as well as provide solutions to them. The questions to ponder are: Why do those in government continually ignore these scientific findings? Why has the government not used the occasion of the budget to put in place the architecture of a green economy, which would create useful jobs and help ensure a future for the generations that will follow us? Why is the government’s attitude towards the environment “a lush shade of green when it’s in the realm of rhetoric and the distant future – but the colour of concrete and tarmac when it comes to the now.” (Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, 22 April)
I suggest it’s because the government is psychologically incapable of accepting that our way of life is unsustainable, and that eco-collapse will be the likely outcome if, among other things, we don’t quickly change to a carbon-neutral economy. I would also suggest that as a society we have an aversion to acknowledging aspects of reality we find unpleasant, thus we have internalized an infinite amount of frivolous status symbols but not the fact that extinction is forever.
If we fully realized our place in the Earth community -- that our lifestyle is likely to cause the extinction of millions of species and the collapse of ecosystems -- we might be inspired to overcome our complacency and undertake the truly monumental project of working to create a compassionate, equitable and environmentally sustainable civilization. We don’t lack the science and technology to do this rather we lack the ability to think beyond the narrow circumference of our consumer culture and what it means to live a useful life.
The challenge for us at this unique moment in history is to save the biosphere from ourselves. This means a transition to a balanced form of living. This can only be done by moving beyond the boundaries of consumerism, which, it should be noted, has achieved a counter-evolutionary feat by creating a culture of acute helplessness in terms of our lack of self-sufficiency skills.
Mahatma Gandhi said we become the change we want to see. This sound advice is lost on Mr. Darling for he will not initiate the changes that are needed to heal the Earth, enabling it to sustain humankind into a possible future of hundreds of thousands of years.
by Tony Weekes
Larry Speight has done us a service by reminding us of the need to understand the economy (Nonviolent News 166, February 2009). The present dominant paradigm – generally called neo-classical economics – lies, I believe, at the root of most of the problems which cause us more immediate concern: climate change, resource depletion, poverty, both global and local, …
Its basic assumptions and presumptions can be found within the pages of any first year undergraduate text. Our wants are insatiable, constrained only by our incomes; our ‘standard of living’ depends on continued economic growth; ‘competition’ is always a ‘good thing’… and so on. There’s lots more! These components are presented in terms that (somehow) ‘stand to reason’ and are therefore not open to debate. Additional prestige comes to those who can handle the implications in mathematical form, a skill which removes the analysis even more from reality.
The persistence of this paradigm is truly remarkable; it renews itself from generation to generation. Its pernicious consequences become apparent when students move into careers in management, finance or the public service. The simplistic and partly understood notions they were taught many years earlier are then brought into service, with the consequences which are now all too obvious.
But not all economists are at fault. The last few years has seen a growing confidence among the dissenters. The elements of a new paradigm are in place: it recognises the only source of energy we have is that which comes from the sun; it recognises and values (not in a monetary sense) the services we receive from natural systems, services which are both essential and without substitutes. Within these constraints, the purpose of the economy is to deliver human and planetary well-being – hard to define and harder to measure, but there lies the challenge. ‘Money’ will be the servant, not the master.
What’s stopping us? Ignorance - in the purely descriptive sense of that word – is one factor. Those who advise on policy seem curiously unaware of – or perhaps simply frightened by – the unorthodox, in spite of the huge evidence of the failure of the conventional. But I believe that there are two other requirements, both very difficult to achieve: a citizenry whose members are much better informed about these alternatives and their possible consequences, and wise leadership and action, something which can only come from a ‘responsive public sector’. I might have said ‘government’ here, but the governments of these islands (and elsewhere) seem to have given up the task we charged them with.
In the summer of 2008, the New Economics Foundation (website www.neweconomics.org) published a set of proposals under the title of ‘A New Green Deal’. This is the kind of thinking – and action - which is needed. Unfortunately – like the word ‘sustainability’ – the term in the title has been stolen and misused. But it may not be too late!
Conventional thinking will say that we ‘cannot afford’ the proposals in the New Green Deal. There is already a huge government debt to which Larry Speight draws our attention. Can we afford to repay even more?. But there is something odd about this: by law, the national currency can only be created by the government. Why, then, does the government have to ‘borrow’? From whom – the banks it has only recently rescued? There is a notion that requiring the public sector to cover its deficit by borrowing imposes a necessary financial discipline. There is some truth in this, but it depends on the objective. I believe that it would be appropriate for a government to create the money (credit, really) – interest free - to finance measures which would effectively harvest solar energy (or foster energy efficiency). By contrast, to create money so that taxes could be lowered to buy popularity would be wrong. In economic policy making, an ethical position is needed against which measures can be judged in relation to the intended outcome.
Monetary reform is an essential part of economic reform, but it is aspect which many people find difficult, often raising the spectre of hyperinflation. There are some good explanations on the internet of the need for monetary reform and the ways in can be achieved; James Robertson’s website (www.jamesrobertson.com) is one to suggest. Another is the website of the South African New Economics Network (‘SANE’) www.sane.org.za; see the publications pages, particularly the paper “the future of money”. Margaret Legum’s work on this site is also worth reading.
I offer the following to think about. Wherever we live, there is work to be done: people to be fed, kept warm, cared for, and entertained; the environment and the public infrastructure to be improved. The tasks are diverse and call for a range of skills. There are people with these skills and willing to do the work. There are the natural resources, certainly in Ireland, to meet these needs. Why, then, are we seeing large scale and growing unemployment and business failures? Because of ‘the credit crunch’! But how will this enforced idleness solve the credit crunch (or, for that matter, ‘the hole in the public finances’)? Credit – like the economic system itself – is a social construct. It’s time we grew up and – as I said earlier – made money the servant, not the master.
We are living through extraordinary times. Our politicians and their advisers stumble around, appearing to make it up as they go along (which is probably what they are doing!). They get away with it because economics is felt to be hugely complicated, requiring intellectual capabilities beyond what most of us can hope to achieve. In consequence, the experts and their disciples are trusted. It is an understandable temptation, but – if we are to grasp the problems which confront the planet and work for constructive change, we need to make some effort to be better informed. Economics is not Newtonian physics. It can, and has in the past, been changed.
I have written a modest contribution towards meeting the requirement that we need to be better informed. It was written with the support of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and draws on the heritage of this society. But, by pointing to sources of evidence and endeavouring to widen the debate, I hope it will fulfil wider needs. For me, this paper is work in progress. Anyone interested in seeing it – or sharing in a wider exploration of realistic economic reform – is invited to contact me by e-mail: email@example.com.
Not everyone will agree with my diagnosis of the problems and the possible remedies. That does not matter. We are dealing here with what Schumacher called “divergent” problems; they are not solvable by rational means alone. The important thing is to develop a healthy scepticism, seek to be better informed, be prepared to debate and defend one’s views - and know when to change them!