Marx or markets? Rubbish!

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Marx caused the death of millions…???

5 May was the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth.  It inspired a lot of tributes, and quite a few trashings as well.  The trashing that particularly caught my eye was a short piece in our local Dominion Post entitled “Day marks a lesson learnt 200 years on”.  It contained extracts from an opinion piece in USA Today, which had a much more forthright headline, “Don’t celebrate Karl Marx.  His Communism has a death count in the millions.”

Estimates of the number of deaths caused by the Russian and USSR “communist” states since the 1917 revolution vary widely, but there is no doubt that deaths from persecution, famine, and war were indeed in the millions.  And other “communist” regimes, most notably in China, have also been responsible for millions of deaths.

But there are numerous problems with attributing all these deaths to Karl Marx.  The most important one for the purposes of this blog is that the regimes which committed the atrocities were never “his communism”.  They were all authoritarian, centralist regimes, arising more from Lenin’s elitist concept of a strong party directing the (incompetent) peasants than Marx’s transitional “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

“His” communism was never a fully developed philosophy, let alone a blueprint.   Indeed, the opinion piece itself can do no worse than accuse him of “never recognizing the inherent danger of Leviathan (=a strong State)” and “never attempting to reveal how the State would wither away” as he wrote his “humanitarian piffle”.

He idealised big government…??

The writer’s main target is not the “death to millions” of the headline, but what he sees as “big government”.  He equates communist regimes with big (and therefore repressive) government.  And Marx’s “humanitarian piffle” is a result of his “criminal naivety, to expect happy results from any system that bestowed boundless power on rulers”.   The writer concludes, “On Marx’s birthday, never forget that a philosophy that begins by idealizing government will end by idealizing subjugation”.

That last sentence shows, in a nutshell, what is wrong with neo-liberal thinking.  Their creed can be summed up as “individual freedom based on private property rights, with government activities confined to protection of those rights”.  In other words, the sole function of government is to protect those who have (and can get) from those those who haven’t (or can’t get).  It is a creed based on the selfishness of the already and would-be wealthy.  And it is best expressed through “the power of the markets” (as opposed to government).

This is pretty much the exact opposite of Marxism, and the main reason that Marx has been demonised for so long by capitalists.  A central tenet of Marx’s communism is the abolition of “private” property.

In this context, “private” property broadly comprises land, capital, and factories (the means of production), as distinguished from “personal” property, comprising homes, consumer goods and personal possessions (the things produced).  The “abolition of private property” puts the means of production into common ownership, rather than private hands.  Consequently, under Marx’s communism, the wealth created by production is also commonly owned.  Under capitalism, private and personal property are indistinguishable, all property should be private, and hence wealth will be held by those who hold property.

The next question is then one of governance – if private property is put back into common ownership, how will that common ownership by expressed?  Will a strong central government arise, which dictates the objectives and operations of all the means of production (as under Stalinism, and aspects of Chinese Communism)?  Or will regional and local areas have greater power over their production, through cooperatives  and mutual agreements (as sporadically in some South American and other countries)?

If Marx’s communism idealises anything, it idealises governance – the conscious arrangement of human affairs for mutual benefit (another central tenet of Marx’s communism is “from each according to their means, to each according to their needs”) – at the expense of markets – the creation and idealisation of transaction-based relationships that inevitably benefit those with greater amounts of personal property.

Marx’s communism does not idealise big government, but does assume the need for some centralisation of planning to replace the anarchy of unfettered capitalist production.  Obviously, the more detailed this planning function becomes, the more centralised and rigid the system – as notably in the USSR under and after Stalin.  And if power is increasingly centralised through planning and other functions, yes, the far end of this ideal is control by the few with political power at the expense of the many.

The far end of  unrestrained centralisation of any type of government is political control by the few at the expense of the many – dictatorship or, more likely, feudalism in effect.  But the far end of  unrestrained capitalism is financial control by the few (big corporations and their owners) at the expense of the many – also feudalism, in effect.

Roger Waters sang “give any one species too much rope and they’ll fuck it up“.  The same is true of political or production systems – allow them to develop in any one direction in an unrestrained way and they will first become parodies of themselves (as in the USA today, where the political system is currently almost completely controlled by the capitalists), and finally disintegrate (as in the USSR, which over-centralised).

The real issue is power, not institutional form

I’m with the writer on one narrow aspect of what he says – a very small part, and probably not in terms he could accept.  “Boundless power” is a fundamental problem of human society, under any system.

The central issue is not “government versus markets”, but “how is power to be distributed, and how are people to be given (and kept to) the levels of power suitable to their potential contributions?”.

As long as we have specialisation, as long as we need to organise ourselves in complex social and economic structures to live our lives, power will have to be granted to people to manage those organisations.  As long as people have large stores of personal wealth, they will have access to resources that give them power over others.

And as long as people have power, they will misuse it, either because they are themselves corrupt, or because they have been corrupted by it.

I am deeply and proudly a democrat – a believer in the distribution of political, financial, organisational and coercive power as widely and evenly as possible.  My book “A New Place to Stand” has six chapters in it directly about power, the two of which most relevant to this blog are “Power” and “Real Democracy“.

And, at heart, the ideology of communism is far more democratic than that of capitalism.

Communism is about common ownership and mutual endeavour by the many.  We haven’t seen much “true communism” yet in modern history, except in isolated and beleaguered instances.  But if you want to know what true communism could look like, read a bit about Rosa Luxemburg – who I think is possibly the best thinker yet about communism-as-it-might-be.  And the expanded role now being taken by cities and local groups in organising from the bottom up to save our foothold on the planet looks increasingly like Luxemburg’s communism.

Capitalism is about private ownership and wealth for the few, and the eventual consequences of capitalism are expressed in the quote from Marx at the top of this blog.

Marx’s work and analysis were mostly focussed on capitalism, not communism, and his analysis of the evils caused by ownership of capital are in even starker relief today than they were when he wrote, with wealth concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, based on exploitation of the poor and the planet.

This was his great contribution.  His expression of communism-as-an-ideology was primarily about the destruction of capitalism, and he did not develop his vision of a future society fully, as the USA Today writer seems to implicitly understand.

In particular, he did not deal with the evils of centralisation of power beyond a generalised view of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” – a view that the many should have the power, rather than the few.  Which is essentially democratic.  But, in avowedly “communist” countries, it became “dictatorship ostensibly on behalf of the proletariat” as power centralised.  And Marx might be blameable for “naivety” in not foreseeing this.

But if so, so must the prophets of capitalism be blameable for their naivety in not foreseeing (or even, now, acknowledging), the consequences of their system.  The USA Today writer blamed Marx and “his” communism for millions of deaths.  As far I can tell, the number of deaths caused by these regimes pales in comparison with the deaths from famine, war, persecution and neglect caused – and continuing to be caused – by capitalist regimes (see discussion of this question here).

Both “systems” have wreaked havoc on the poor and the planet, in the one case through centralisation of political power, and in the other through centralisation of financial power.  Both need to be jettisoned in favour of real democracy, based on truly sophisticated understanding and management of the problem of power.

And, just as the far end of unfettered capitalism should not be blamed on Adam Smith, the far end of over-centralised “communism” should not be blamed on Karl Marx.

He should be celebrated as one of the greatest thinkers in modern history about politics and economics – and about capitalism in particular.

Come on friends, raise a glass with me to Karl Marx, born 200 years ago and one of the great prophets of our time.  Prost!

 

 

 

Of community and consumption

 

A lot more hygge, please…

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This blog was sparked by an article by Shamubeel Equab in Sunday’s Star Times, aptly titled in the print edition “A little more hygge, please”.  Eaqub is always worth reading – he is that rare beast, an economist who can think clearly.

He notes that New Zealand scores very highly on the UN’s “World Happiness Report”.  (He also leaves Australia out of his list of the top ten, presumably out of respect for a country currently in national mourning along with its senior cricketers.)

He goes on to say that, to maintain this state, while it is important to keep investing in key social services, we also need to think about how we can develop our own, New Zealand, “hygge”.  “Hygge” rhymes with “cougar”, more or less.  It is a Danish word for high quality social interaction – even “cosiness”.  Eaqub says that hygge “can overcome a tendency for individualism to make people isolated, lonely or divided”.

If you want to read more about this, and about the other reasons Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries regularly rank very highly in well-being and happiness measures, you might enjoy “The Almost Nearly Perfect People”, a funny, often disrespectful, but finally supportive, description of some of their attitudes and behaviours.

It is my contention that increasing individualism, or decreasing hygge if you like, is our greatest cultural scourge, not only in New Zealand, but across much of the affluent world.  And it is intimately linked with our great environmental and economic scourge, over-consumption.

Over the last three decades we have been relentlessly sold two key neoliberal myths, that life is a competitive race for individual domination, and that maximising individual ownership and consumption is the route to happiness.  Our television screens are flooded with win/lose programmes – talent, quiz and “reality” shows where we are encouraged to cheer on our favourites, and to scorn the weaknesses of the others.  We have been made addicts to individual consumables – alcohol, sugar, fuel for private cars, smart phones and more – by corporations preying on our weaknesses in pursuit of  their own profit.  I call the effect of all this the “comfort trap”, and you can read more about it here.

Facebook, which claimed to be helping us build community has been shown to be an acquisitive, intrusive, lying, thief of our information.  Its “communitarianism” is shallow and incomplete – while it clearly helps people to communicate and form communities in some sense, it also encourages narrow and self-serving behaviour by allowing us to pick and choose how we present ourselves far more easily than if we actually spend time with others.  Its main aim is to get us to commune with it.

And don’t get me started on smartphones as an “aid to community”.  Of course, they give us instant communication and great access to information.  But you all see the daily reality of their use in the affluent world – the individuals focussing on their phones and not the world around them, the groups sitting together making love to their phones instead of conversation with their friends – and studies are beginning to show that they are actually addictive.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is still a massive amount of positive community interaction and activity – it is what holds society together – and some of it is through information technology.  But it is being eroded, and in the United States (already the most individualistic country in the world), its erosion is showing more clearly than elsewhere.  What was community (us working things out together) is becoming tribalism (us against them) and alienation (the world against me).

And the balance doesn’t have to shift a long way before it has irreversible effects – we don’t need to all become extreme individualists for society to change dramatically for the worse.  Military “decimation” gives a graphic example of this – most people think it means “near-complete destruction”.  It actually means “loss of one tenth of your forces”, which is considered the tipping point for loss of a battle or war.  You don’t need to completely destroy a thing to change it substantially – just move it past a tipping point.

There are plenty of signs that we are getting closer to tipping points into a much less desirable society, one which is increasingly divided and aggressive.

We each and every one have to make a conscious effort to become, or remain, highly community focussed.  We have to wear the badge of “communitarian” proudly.  And, as a basis for this, we should invest in a lot more hygge.

The photo above is of a Maori “hangi” – food prepared in a covered pit of heated stones, and then shared, usually among large numbers of people at social events.  Eaqub suggest that hygge is “a bit like the Kiwi traditions of gathering round the barbecue or getting together at the beach.”  The hangi is the ultimate New Zealand barbecue (and by the way, [a] I have never eaten hangi food that wasn’t melt-in-mouth delicious [b] Maori  remain far more community conscious than Pakeha).

This doesn’t mean we should stop or avoid confronting and challenging the obvious wrongs in our society – the risks of “too much hygge” are that we retreat entirely into the comfortable world of barbecues (or, for the suited, wine and cheese), and/or go tribal against those outside our immediate circle.

But hygge creates social cohesion and comfort, which leads to a sense of personal safety and certainty, which can increase community engagement and give us space to engage as citizens rather than individualistic consumers.  Lots more of it, please.

…and less consumption.

More barbecues (or wine and cheese), yes.  But less of pretty much all other consumables.

It was a crucial moment for me when I realised that the world’s current problem with sustainability was the consumption of the affluent societies, the 1.5 billion living largely in Europe, North America and Australasia.  If all 7 billion of us lived at the affluent world’s standards, it would take three Earths to sustain us.  The poorer 5.5 billion consume far less, well within the Earth’s capacity.

So population is a problem ONLY in the sense that the Earth could only sustain about 2.5 billion living at our current affluent standards.  Yet our current model and narrative is economic growth for the poor, towards our standards, while maintaining our own growth.

There are only two possible solutions to this problem – eliminate 4.5 billion (and the poor might have something to say about which 4.5 billion should be eliminated – eat the rich first, perhaps?), or accept a lower level of consumption in the affluent world.  My estimate is that a standard of living roughly equivalent to 1960s New Zealand is sustainable for 7-9 billion people.  If we achieved that, population growth would slow to nothing or even negative very rapidly (virtually all population growth comes from the bottom billion).  So it’s not beyond us to support our entire population at a reasonable level of material comfort.

Not possible, you say.  I won’t give up my hard-earned 2010s standard of living.  I myself have struggled for a long time with the reductions I believe I should make in my personal consumption, and have made only limited progress.

The peculiar thing is that we would probably be happier if we did, particularly if we also invested in a bit of hygge.  Research clearly shows that increases in happiness tail off – and can even go negative – after reaching a certain not particularly high standard of living.  And, according to the World Happiness Report, the people of South America show a very significant “happiness bump”, out of proportion to their material standard of living, because of their emphasis on community.

But most of us are captive to the myth that “greater consumption brings greater happiness”.  It doesn’t, but it’s very hard for us to see this.  And for a sustainable future, we actually need to reduce consumption.

Of course, the changes need to be not only in personal, but also in public, consumption.  Throwaway goods, movement of food unnecessary distances, development of vanity infrastructure, spending on war and “defence” of the state – all these and more need to be addressed.

But change starts at home – if we can make the necessary changes to our own consumption, it makes it easier for us to call for them elsewhere.  And a week ago, a speaker at an information session before protesting the NZ Oil Barons (“PEPANZ”) conference, Ihaia Puketapu, gave me the two words I needed to make better progress on this problem.

With my friend Juanita McKenzie, I am about to form “Consumers’ Anonymous”, a group dedicated to helping each other recover from our addiction to unnecessary consumption.  We have little idea yet where this will take us, but both believe it is a smart and probably very enjoyable way to address our issues with personal consumption.

And we will make sure we do it over barbecues (or wine and cheese).  I will keep you posted on progress in future blogs.

More community, less consumption – the only formula for a sustainable future in the affluent world.

 

 

Breaking the poverty trap

It’s expensive to be poor…

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This blog was inspired by a recent piece in the Dominion Post featuring work by Sam Orchard and other artists.  They had collected stories, initially among themselves, and then from 200+ welfare beneficiaries, about their experiences.  They added artwork, then presented them at Christmas as a report to Members of Parliament, along with recommendations for improvement.  The three illustrations in this blog are from their report, and you can read more on their Facebook and Twitter pages.

The DomPost article focussed on one aspect of the report, the “high cost of poverty”.  This blog expands on that aspect, finishing with some of the solutions that are in plain sight.

There are still some in New Zealand who believe that people who are not in full-time paid work, and receive some sort of assistance from the State, are “bludgers” – people who live an easy life at the expense of others.  Of course there will always be some who game the system – who manage to make a comfortable lifestyle from State support plus income from other sources.

But the vast majority of people who receive State support are desperately struggling financially – as are many in low paid or occasional work near or just above benefits thresholds.

And one cause of their struggles is that it is expensive to be poor.  Some of the reasons highlighted in the article are:

  • Housing costs go up much faster than benefit levels;
  • Rental insurance, and moving between rental accommodations, add costs;
  • Poor quality housing leads to health issues and costs;
  • Short term borrowing is very expensive, and penalty fees are also frequent, eg for late payments;
  • Discounts available to the cash rich, such as bulk-buying of food and prompt payment of power bills, are not available to the cash poor;
  • Any additional income is likely to be subject to very high marginal tax (or benefit reduction) rates, meaning a lot of work is needed to bring in very little supplementary income;
  • Transport costs can be higher, from living in more remote, less desirable areas.

An underlying lesson is that the wealthier you are, the better access you have to cheaper goods and services.  Cheaper money, bulk discounts, power to negotiate lower prices – these are real benefits not available to the poor.

The “poverty trap” is usually described as being about the difficulty of increasing income: “a situation in which an increase in someone’s income is offset by a consequent loss of state benefits, leaving them no better off.”  .  But the trap is more than that, as illustrated above – it is also a situation in which the poor have less access to goods and services, because it is expensive to be poor…

…and there are few safety nets

Income and expenses are only one side of the story.  The other is wealth.  Or, to be precise, lack of wealth.  Having little in savings or other financial resources, the poor are far more at risk when unexpected costs arise.  If they can find emergency funds, these are usually expensive, and simply compound the long term lack of financial resources.  They lack financial resilience.

The Treasury made much of the fact that, during the Global Financial Crisis, the top two income deciles in New Zealand lost a greater proportion of their wealth than the lower deciles.  What this meant was that they lost their holiday homes, or their yachts, or part of the value of their share portfolios.

The poor lost little because they had little to lose – unless they had been lucky enough to gain some equity in a home.  In this case, many of them lost everything.  In the United States, over 3 million families lost their homes to foreclosure as a result of the Crisis.  New Zealand was less affected, but mortgagee home sales more than trebled in its aftermath.

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As illustrated above, in our affluent world, poverty means having to wear 15 year-old underwear, not just missing out on the daily latte.  It means struggling with the State bureaucracy to access resources for emergencies, not having to forgo your annual overseas holiday.  It means poorer physical and mental health, often reducing or even excluding you from normal social engagement, not having to take time off work to recover from a sports injury.

Wealth creates wealth.  If you have savings, they grow.  If you are in work, and contributing to KiwiSaver, the government will supplement your savings.

And great wealth creates even greater wealth, as Thomas Piketty vividly illustrates in “Capital in the 21st Century” .  He shows how wealth accumulates in higher proportions for the already wealthy.  According to Oxfam’s latest (2018) report, 82% of new wealth created in 2017 went to the top 1% while nothing went to the bottom 50%.   This new wealth would have been “enough to end extreme poverty seven times over”.

If you’re poor, you have no financial safety nets.  You have no capacity to invest and generate wealth.  You must break out in other ways.

And our economy is designed precisely to make this hard for you.  Lower skilled (and increasingly, middle-skilled) paid work is becoming a privilege, not a right, as more and more work is automated.  Wages continue to reduce relative to productivity, as work is offshored to lower cost countries.  Social safety nets continue to erode, as taxes and the public sector downsize.

The true “poverty trap” is the fact that our system is designed to funnel income and wealth up to the already wealthy, not down to the relatively poor.

But there are solutions in plain sight

As hinted above, major structural issues need to be addressed if we are to break the poverty trap.  But there are plenty of short term workarounds too – all in play at some levels in some communities.  And both the short term and the long term solutions are in plain sight.

Community-led coping

One of the myths of our current system is that the poor can’t be trusted to look after themselves.  We wise ones in the government must design solutions and contract others to deliver them.  The reality is that the best solutions are driven by those in the communities experiencing the issues.  They are well equipped to develop solutions, as they understand the complex underlying issues, and can address them in ways which fit the situation.  Time and again, cut and paste central solutions fail.

Locally and lately, I have seen from the edges amazing work being done by local communities in such areas as P-addiction, debt-reduction, and food self-sufficiency.  And there are hundreds of similar projects being undertaken in similar communities round New Zealand, all on shoe-strings.

What the centre can do best is provide support in forms that fit the needs of the communities – this might include financial and communications support, and access to specific skills on demand, for example.  Our Ministry of Social Development is just starting a nation-wide initiative called “The Generator”, which appears to understand this to some extent, but also appears to have some elements of the “we know best” curse about it.  Hopefully it will build into a proper support system for true community-led coping, and even for informing the centre on how to be more effective.

Income equalisation

Or, more accurately, income re-equalisation.  Forty years ago, New Zealand had one of the most equal income systems in the world.  There was little unemployment, blue collar and white collar workers all earned a living wage at least, and the income steps up the ladder of seniority were relatively small.  There were anomalies (for example, male-dominated professions earned more than female-dominated), but overall there was a high degree of income equality.

The changes of the last forty years have brought higher unemployment, rapid reductions in real wages at lower levels, and higher and higher salary levels at the top.  In New Zealand, average real wages fell by 40% compared to productivity increases over thirty years from the mid-1980s, and similar patterns were seen across the OECD.  Meanwhile, top-earners’ incomes increased, and top tax rates fell.  Lower income earners started to struggle, while the income gap to higher income earners widened.

The structural requirements are to set a minimum living wage for ALL adult citizens (such as a “Universal Basic Income” – UBI), to radically restrengthen the bargaining powers of workers, and to re-introduce more progressive tax regimes for higher earners, to make it them rather than the poor who profit only minimally from salary increases.

A true Universal Basic Income would ensure that all had enough income to survive, and eliminate the stigma and complexity of the “beneficiaries” system.  Just as Universal Superannuation has to all intents eliminated aged poverty in New Zealand, a UBI would go a long way to eliminating all poverty.  It is now being trialled in various parts of the world, and at least talked about in New Zealand by the current Government.

Stronger unions and workers’ rights would see wage workers again taking a higher proportion of productivity gains.  Longer term, replacing the current corporate models with cooperative systems of production would accelerate this re-equalisation of income.

(As an aside, the way paid work is currently allocated, organised and rewarded is insane, and needs radical redesign – more on this in a future blog.)

Wealth redistribution

Wealth is created by community endeavour.  The current myth, that it is created by the individual genius of those who have accumulated it, flies in the face of two obvious facts.  First, each contributor is standing on the shoulders of those before and around them, and makes only an incremental contribution; and second, most personal wealth has been not created but stolen from the common pool through gaming the system (for example through rent-seeking or financial gaming) or through inheritance.

Wealth belongs to the community as a whole, not to the small and decreasing number of people who currently hold it.  According to the Oxfam report, just 42 people now have as much wealth as the bottom 50% combined (3.6 billion people).  Wealth needs to be redistributed.

To do this, tax systems which have been gutted in the affluent world over the last thirty years need to be radically restrengthened.  More progressive income taxes, taxes on wealth and on income through capital gains, and substantial inheritance taxes – all are obvious and equitable ways to redistribute wealth through the common pool.

Most moves being made internationally at the moment are to ensure that the wealthy (and particularly corporations) pay their fair share of taxes due on the current basis, by eliminating tax havens and other tax avoidance schemes.  This, if successful, will certainly return more wealth to the common pool.  But it will not reverse the erosion of public wealth and income which has happened over the last thirty years.

(As another aside, the speculative nature of the housing market has severely eroded the fundamental human right of adequate housing in favour of gambling for capital gains, and also needs radical redesign – more on this in a future blog.)

Are these solutions all just fantasies?

No, they are a matter of mass pressure and political courage.  We are now being regularly reminded that the current power structures have fragilities that can be exploited.  Corporations live in fear of consumer boycotts, politicians live in fear of mass resistance – and powerful men are finally living in fear of being called out for abuses of power in relation to exploitation of women.  There is no reason that any or all of the above solutions shouldn’t be forced through, and in fairly short spaces of time.  We just need the courage to join together and act.

The current capitalist system is well past its use-by date – the abuses of people and the environment it has fostered now far outweigh any benefits of commoditisation or efficiency that it has provided.  It has become, inevitably, a system primarily focussed on passing wealth upwards.  This has driven increased numbers of people in the affluent world into poverty, causing them harm, and also damaging their potential to contribute.

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The main cause of poverty in the current system is wealth (or more precisely, its distribution).  And the poverty trap can easily be broken by our acknowledging this simple fact, joining together, and acting on it.

 

4 more No Trumps – the grand slam

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Last week I looked at the Trump administration’s recent activities in relation to 3 areas which I had devoted chapters to in my book – the need to work with rather than against nature, to develop a thrift-based economy, and to make decisions based on better ways of thinking.  I easily found examples dated from the beginning of 2018 of how the administration was working against all of these deep needs.

This week’s blog covers the subjects of the other 4 chapters on what needs to be done.  Three are about power – political power, financial power, and coercive power.  And the last is about a fundamental basis for a flourishing society – the need to celebrate and support diversity.

4 More No Trumps

4th No Trump: “Real democracy:  The current façade of democracy practised in the Western world needs to be replaced by real democracy, which is based on informed consent, safeguarding of minority rights, and putting power as close to the community it affects as possible.”

Just as Trump is a parody of a President, the United States is now, at the national level at least, a parody of a democracy.  In the Senate, two seats per State has handed power to the smaller rural, conservative States which are being depopulated as urban expansion continues; the gerrymandering of congressional seats by both parties, but most effectively by the Republicans, has resulted in locked-in ownership of seats by individual parties; the Electoral College which decides the Presidency broadly reflects these distortions; voter suppression laws still flourish in a number of States; and the Citizens United decision to allow corporations to spend at will on elections has shifted the time-honoured activity of purchasing legislators’ votes to a whole new level, of purchasing elections.  The country is now run at the national level by millionaires and billionaires, who largely defend the interests of their own class.

Trump’s election was based partly on the systemic distortions identified above, and partly on his populist appeals to racism, sexism, and the political exclusion and economic pressure felt by the lower middle-classes.

But Trump’s populist plan to “drain the (Washington) swamp” has been actioned only by appealing to people to vote Republican, not Democrat, and by calling the Democrats “treasonous” for not applauding him vigorously enough in his January State of the Union speech.   He continues to pander to racism and sexism (see the 7th No Trump), and continues to claim to be helping ease class economic pressure, despite his actions enriching the already wealthy at the expense of rest (see the 5th No Trump).

Lying has long been a political privilege (Ambrose Bierce gave a political definition of “black” as “white” back in the late 1800’s).  But the Trump administration has raised this to new levels.  The President lies repeatedly with impunity (for example in his State of the Union address, on immigration).  Others are following his lead, and the accusation of “fake news” by the very purveyors of it such as Fox News diminishes both media and political credibility.

There are some signs of democratic revival and hope.  For example, recent judicial decisions have reversed gerrymanders in Pennsylvania and North Carolina REF.  The Electoral Fraud Commission Trump set up to prove that his “true” majority was rubbed out by voter fraud (which gave Hillary Clinton a ‘fraudulent” popular vote majority of 2.9 million, or 2.1% of the votes cast), has been disbanded in disarray.  The Commission found no cases of voter fraud.  And there is a grassroots democratic backlash underway, as noted in Good News below.

But political power is still firmly in the hands of the wealthy, and the integrity of the voting system itself is suspect.  Mainstream media have been covering the question of Russian interference in the 2016 election (which was just yesterday accepted for the first time by Trump), and a new study suggests there is a lot to do to make American voting systems more secure.  Definitely, 4 No Trumps.

Phew, I needed to get all that of my chest.  The next 3 No Trumps are just about as damaging, but I’ll be a lot briefer about them.  Partly because they are, on the whole, more visible in mainstream media as well.

5th No Trump “Restitution and redistribution:  The four great thefts committed by the affluent world over the last 500 years (the theft of resources through plunder, of land through empire and “enclosure”, of people through slavery, and of a healthy future through earlier industrialisation and hyperconsumption) need to be reversed.  And financial power needs to be redistributed through (for example) more effective tax regimes.”

There are no signs at all of any concept of restitution in the Trump administration, only the opposite (we’ve been too generous to all you s**thole countries, and we will [try to] make America great again by continuing to put up walls).

And the redistribution is all the other way, from poorer to richer.  The tax changes passed at the end of 2017 gave only minor (and short term) relief to the lower paid – Speaker Paul Ryan highlighted a secretary’s “pleasant surprise” that she was getting another $1.50 a week ($78 pa)”, not mentioning that he himself benefits by $19,000 pa, and the Koch brothers by a staggering $1.4 billion.

And of course, to fund these handouts (estimated to increase the Federal deficit by $1.5 trillion), services are being slashed in the 2018-19 budget.  A report just released on the draft budget shows how it “harms nearly every community across the country”.  5 No Trumps.

6th No Trump: “Deweaponisation:  The availability of lethal weapons needs to be minimised, and arms manufacturers put out of business.”

“Arms control” is not just just about limiting the number of countries that can wreak havoc with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, but also about reducing the availability of weapons that can be used to harm or kill individuals and small groups with impunity.  A civilised society has no use for this sort of coercive power.

Trump has started a military build up and of course recently tweeted that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong-Un’s.  His idea of diplomacy is bullying and threats, and this is being echoed in his administration (for example by his Ambassador to the UN).

The US already spends more on military matters than the rest of the world combined, and is a major exporter of firearms to other countries, where they are used for both state and individual violence, as recently reported by the Center for American Progress.

The US itself is so desentitized to the matter of individual violence that “small” shootings in schools (only a few victims) get little or no coverage outside their local communities – by 24 January, there had been 11 of these in 2018.  The large ones, such as the more recent Parklands Florida killing of 17, do get coverage, but Our Glorious Leader’s only substantive response was to blame the victims, by tweet:

“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior.  Neighbours and classmates knew he was a big problem.  Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

As it happens, they did report, again and again.  Watch as the focus shifts to the potential negligence of the FBI and local authorities, once again directing attention away from the insanity of America’s free availability of personal weapons and diseased pro-gun culture, towards the idea that all that is needed is better regulation and better self-defence.  6 No Trumps.

7th No Trump: “Celebrating diversity: We need to learn to make a habit out of celebrating diversity, because it is a key foundation for flourishing societies.”

Trump denying, excusing, and even celebrating, misogynist behaviour.  Not being held accountable for numerous accusations of sexual assault.  Being fairly described as being the “first white president”, because most of his activities can be traced back to dismantling Obama’s legacy.  Starting numerous attacks on American communities of colour, and of course intolerant and racist immigration policies.  Being clearly responsible  for increases in hate crimes.

Enough said.  Possibly the most destructive No Trump of all.  And it completes the Grand Slam.

The good news

The good news is that resistance is growing in the United States, not just on the diversity front, but across the whole range of harms that this man, his appointees, and the Republican Party are doing.  The resistance is nicely summarised in a post by the Centre for American Progress.

Because he and his administration are doing such awful, even evil, things, across such a wide range of fronts, Trump may in fact trigger genuine resistance to the underlying trends and threats which beset the US and the rest of the affluent world.  Not just getting rid of Trump, but helping to change the individualistic, consumerist, extractivist patterns which are threatening our whole human civilisation.

If you want to read any of my 7 chapters on the changes needed to set up a civilised and sustainable society, go here.

And that’s 7 No Trumps – back in about a fortnight….

7 No Trumps – aberration or grand slam?

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Aberration?

I have swung between being worried, terrified, and laugh-out-loud amused by the spectacle of Donald Trump as President of the United States.  I suspect many others have had a similar range of reactions.

My biggest worry when he was elected was that he would take people’s eyes off the issues that really mattered.  And he has certainly done a great job as “Distractor-in-Chief”, with his rants and personal attacks via social media, and the ongoing circus of “You’re fired” at the White House.  Mainstream media have primarily focussed on his distractions, rather than the substantive changes made since his election.

The general tenor of reaction is that he is a misfit, someone who doesn’t belong as President.  And the natural consequence of this is to think that, the sooner he goes, the sooner things can return to (a much better) normal.

But Trump is not an aberration.  Things will not “go back to normal” once he goes, even if he goes early, being rejected by the institutions of the US Government (through impeachment for example), or through his own eventual discovery that he will never be loved by most of the people whose respect and love he craves.

Or Grand Slam?

Trump simply represents the far end of the world of laissez-faire, rent-seeking capitalism that has exploded on us over the last 30-40 years.  He has added no measureable value to the world, while seeking his own profit, either financial or reputational (or financial profit through reputation – read Naomi Klein’s “No Is Not Enough” on Trump as brand).

His election is a natural result of a culture which celebrates personality and the acquisition or appearance of wealth.  I will explore his election some more in my next blog.  For now, it is enough to say that his populist appeal to white racists and sexists is being followed through by continuing to pander to their prejudices, while his appeal to those struggling economically is being followed through by continuing to strip them of support systems and benefits (ie he is promoting corporate welfare at the expense of personal welfare).

Both Republicans and large business initially appeared horrified at the prospect of Trump as President.  They have since come to realise that he is at worst a Pawn, and at best a champion (a Queen perhaps? – perish the thought) in their neo-liberal game of wealth- and power- acquisition.

The rest of this blog, and the next, explore some of what has actually been happening beneath the cloak of the “Distractor-in-Chief”.  Some of this is being reported in mainstream media in New Zealand, but a lot of it isn’t.

“7 No Trumps”

For those not in the know, when playing bridge, a bid of “7” is a bid to win all the tricks in the hand.  This is known as a “grand slam”, and 7 No Trumps is the highest possible grand slam bid.

Coincidentally, in “A New Place to Stand”, I identified 7 areas where we in the affluent world needed to radically rethink our actions and processes if we as a species are to survive and thrive on the beautiful planet we are currently degrading.

So, in the rest of this blog and the next, I look at Trump’s actions, and events surrounding him, in relation to these 7 areas since 1 January this year.  My main source is a progressive American thinktank, “ThinkProgress”.

This is what came out for the first 3 (I will report on the other 4 in my next blog).

3 No Trumps

1 No Trump: “Working with nature:  Our immediate challenge is survival as a species, and we need to reduce the affluent world’s footprint on the planet now.  The first step toward this is relearning to work with Nature, rather than against it.”

On 2 January, Think Progress reported late 2017 removal of fracking safeguards, weakening offshore drilling rules, and renewed mining leases, while Trump once again cast doubt on climate change.  Then, radical expansion of offshore drilling was proposed, under these weakened rules.  Later, Trump celebrated the removal of the ‘Clean Water Rule”, opening streams and wetlands to pollution.  The Environmental Protection Authority (now run by an anti-environmentalist appointed by Trump) announced its priorities for 2018, which, on a careful read, included “silencing accepted science, tearing down vital health protections, and rolling back regulations that keep our air and water clean and safe”.  At the end of the month, Trump announced he had ended the “war on clean coal”, through his actions to protect the coal industry.

Our carbon use is the single biggest element of our footprint on the planet, and the one which needs to be slashed to avoid runaway global warming.  But Trump and the Republicans are doing their best to accelerate the use of fossil fuels, so that oil corporations and their owners can profit as the planet burns.  And, to them, general environmental protection just gets in the way of developers.  Definitely, 1 No Trump.

2 No Trumps: “A new economics of thrift:  The second step is to replace our consumption-based economy with a thrift-based one, where sharing, saving, sustainability, restoration and regeneration are practised and rewarded, rather than ownership, spending, extraction, consumption, and waste.”

Trump’s lifestyle – and indeed his very existence – are a fundamental affront to this need.

A report revealed that most of Trump’s real estate sales since election have been to anonymous shell companies (used by bad people to stash ill-gotten gains).  As ThinkProgress put it, “If we lived in a functioning democracy, this would be a major scandal”.  Companies who are to benefit from their massive tax windfalls from the recently passed budget started to reveal how they would spend their new income – a tiny fraction on staff salaries and bonuses, and the rest on enriching stockholders. A draft of Trump’s infrastructure plan shows it is designed to roll back safeguards, including environmental laws, and basically ease the way for corporate developers.  And the month ended with the Senate considering repealing major portions of the Dodd-Frank Act – in effect, re-deregulating most of the banks which gave us the Global Financial Crisis.

This is a significant expansion of corporate welfare, underpinned by planning to “free” the banks to do as they wish in creating money-as-debt to enrich the already wealthy and impoverish the rest.  It is based on, and supports, a “growth at any cost” agenda.  2 No Trumps.

3 No Trumps: “Better ways of thinking:  We need to educate ourselves in “systems thinking”, and practise the “precautionary principle”, to avoid the worst excesses of our tendency to do what we can, rather than what we should.”

One way of framing these two better ways of thinking is to say that they equip us to deal with the long term.  Systems thinking by working through the reality of actions, impacts and consequences, and the precautionary principle by keeping us from acting too rashly.

Again, Trump is a walking affront to these needs.  Short-termism and local profiteering (in political terms, the “growth imperative”) have dominated political behaviours in the affluent world for decades now.  Trump is a simply one of many with political power who exhibit these behaviours.

The main things reported in the media in relation to these better ways of thinking tend to be how not to do them.  For example, grandiose innovation ideas (how to save the planet by seeding or painting clouds, or with lots of mirrors), or just plain bad thinking.

Trump’s innovative ideas include the Mexican wall, and keeping immigrants out.  And he continually exhibits plain bad thinking.  But in this period there were only a couple of  examples worth highlighting.

Trump, in his usual and inimitable style, took credit for the lack of deaths due to airline travel in the US in 2017 – “I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation…”.   Nothing has actually changed with respect to air safety since Trump was elected, and there have been no air deaths in the US since February 2009.

And later in the month he finally mentioned the “deep state” (a favourite of conspiracy theorists, including he himself) in one of his tweets.  For those of you who don’t see many of these, I can’t think of a better way to end this blog, and the third “No Trump”, with the full, exact, tweet:

“Crooked Hillary Clinton’s top aid, Huma Abedin, has been accused of disregarding basic security protocols. She put Classified Passwords into the hands of foreign agents. Remember sailors pictures on submarine? Jail! Deep State Justice Dept must finally act? Also on Comey & others”

Trump is an avatar of bad ways of thinking, promoting stupid and dangerous innovations, and shooting his mouth off in incoherent tweets, all based on his own paranoia and prejudices.  The aim is to destabilise, to define and humiliate “enemies”, to pit “us” against “them”, in pursuit of his own brand and wealth.

More fun in next week’s 4 No Trumps!

 

Hope is not a four-letter word

Ursula Le Guin – purveyor of hope

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(photograph from The New Yorker)

This week I read the sad news that Ursula Le Guin had died.  She is possibly my favourite author.  Her books, both children’s and adult, confront ugly social or personal situations brought about by the misuse of power, and they all convey hope that these can be overcome.  And they are beautifully written.

I have a much-read and tattered paperback copy of “The Dispossessed”, bought not long after it was originally published in 1974.  There are quotes from it throughout “A New Place to Stand”, because it has been my personal beacon of hope for many years.

The book describes an isolated anarchist society under threat from within.  It follows the life of Shevek, a physicist, who leaves to seek ideas and possibilities in a wealthier capitalist society that to other eyes “comes as close as any to Paradise”.  But he returns to the struggle in his own society with the realisation that they (both his society AND the struggle) offer far more to the human spirit, that the wealthier society is nothing more than pretty wrapping paper round ugly realities of inequality and oppression.

So here I am, sitting in “Paradise” (it’s another beautiful day here, by the way).  Knowing that, while it has many attractive attributes, it is poisoned, and it is poisonous.  And wondering how I can convey the idea that there is hope we can change the poisonous extractivist, individualist, and consumerist behaviours and trends in our society, and consequently stop poisoning our living environment.

Alan AtKisson – believer in prophecies

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Alan AtKisson is a man who can convey hope far better than I can.  This is a man who usually sings much more optimistic songs than “Dead Planet Blues” as an introduction to workshops he runs on how to avoid killing our planet.

His first book, “Believing Cassandra” , puts forward the proposition that if you believe in the prophecies of doom and act on them, you can prevent them.  Cassandra’s curse was that no-one would listen to her prophecies, and so they came true.

Here are some of his words of hope, “In a mere few centuries, with far fewer people, using very primitive technology, we have managed to create a huge, sprawling mess of a World, displacing much of Nature in the process. This tragic yet undeniably enormous accomplishment supplies the proof that we have the capacity to create – with similar speed, and at a similarly large scale – a bountiful and more sustainable World.”

After outlining the scale of the problems, the book focusses on how to become sustainable, and how to act as change agents towards a more sustainable society and planet.  “There are millions of people who are ready, with support and encouragement, to become Innovators, Change Agents and Transformers for sustainability, in every walk of life. People like us. Moreover, a boundless number of innovations already exist that promote sustainability…”

His next book, “The Sustainability Transformation”, goes into more detail about effective approaches and roles for making change. And it points out that, “What may look like a sudden shift – the Berlin Wall comes down – is in fact the climax of a long and gradual process, one that has largely happened at the periphery and far removed from the centres of power.”

There is momentum out there for change – there are many people working on it.  But it is not very visible in the mainstream.  Our hope is that this “long and gradual process” will indeed take deep root, and shift our mainstream direction in time to both avoid total catastrophe, and also effectively manage the challenges that are already inevitable, such as the impacts of a warmer atmosphere and higher sea levels.

The Sunday Star Times – giving mainstream visibility

Less than three years ago, when I started writing “A New Place to Stand”, the negative impacts of affluent society behaviour were much less visible in New Zealand mainstream media.  Climate change scepticism got as much if not more space than climate change knowledge; economic growth under a capitalist model was so central an assumption that it was largely invisible; and no connections were made between “news-worthy” environmental, social and economic events and their causes, often rooted in the early impacts of climate change, or overuse and abuse of our land and water.

While there hasn’t exactly been a sea-change, there is now more space given to these deep issues.  Human-caused climate change is more accepted, and there are more stories both about the difficulties already being created by such issues as water use and waste, and also about initiatives being taken to deal with them.

Last Sunday’s New Zealand “Sunday Star Times” was notable for the number of stories directly linked to the deep issues.

On the negative side, ” Our rubbish Asia’s problem” was a two page cover story in the Business section.  It highlighted New Zealand’s growing problem with recycling plastic, most of which is sent to Asia for processing.  China’s recent ban on many plastics is making this more difficult, and New Zealand’s new government is now looking at how to incentivise companies to do more processing onshore.

“Action looms on e-waste” noted that Australia and New Zealand together producing the highest volumes of e-waste in the world, and among the lowest documented rates for recycling.  New Zealand is also one of the few “developed” countries not to have any laws to manage e-waste.  But the new government is apparently onto it, looking at options for upping our game on it.  Let’s hope.

Neither article canvassed the question of prevention – using less or no plastic, cradle to grave management of manufactured goods.  These are the truly sustainable ways forward.  But at least they highlighted the fact that we have problems.

A Brief noted that bleaching has already begun on the Great Barrier Reef, much earlier in the season than usual, after the 2016-17 seasons had already killed about half the reef’s coral.  Just a paragraph on that.  The hope came later in the week from an announcement that the Australian Government would put major funding into trying to arrest the bleaching[i].

Moving to the more positive side, and on a lighter note, “Royals go green…” (page B11) discussed Royal Warrants in the UK.  Companies which receive these Warrants are, and can advertise themselves as, official suppliers to the Queen and the Royal family.  Until they get a bit naughty – the official bra-supplier published a memoir “Storm in a D-Cup”, and her company promptly had its Warrant withdrawn.

Warrants are being given to greener companies than previously, undoubtedly through the influence of Prince Charles.  Out with the chemical giant Bayer, in with Chase Organics, and so on.  Jolly good show.

Another jolly good chap is featured in “Pope brings green crusade to the Amazon” (page B11).  Pope Francis continues his battle against the despoilation of the planet, the exploitation of indigenous peoples, the rapacious behaviours of profit-seeking corporations, and and the refusal of world leaders to act fast enough on all of this.  This man is one of our true world leaders, and brings hope wherever he goes.  For the record, I am not a Catholic.

From a very different background, Laurence Fink, the chairman of BlackRock (apparently the world’s largest money manager, with $US6.2 trillion in investments), has announced he will double the size of BlackRock’s team that tries to get companies to show more social purpose.  “Do good for society, CEOs” notes that Fink’s annual letter to 1,000 CEOs flagged issues such as the role companies play in their communities, preparation of the workforce for a more automated future, the growing gap between the capital-rich and the rest of society, and the need for the private sector to engage more vigorously with climate change.  As a commentator pointed out, the impact will depend on how much “muscle” BlackRock actually puts behind these demands.

And finally, a couple of stories about city living.  “Future proof our cities” looks at the prospects for New Zealand becoming a leader in creating sustainable cities.  The article only skims the surface, and does not acknowledge the great work already being done in some of the world’s major cities, for example by the “C40” group.  But while nation states fumble with the issues, cities are taking action to try and create some sort of sustainable future, as they are having to cope with frontline issues such as transport and supply, overcrowding, and the impacts of extreme weather events.

Perhaps most extraordinary of all is the cover story for the “Escape” section.  “Bare feet & busking” looks at the revival of Medellin, until recently a home for major drug traffickers and “one of the most dangerous cities on Earth”.  This revival was enabled mainly by setting up an outstanding public transport system which linked the disparate parts of the city.  As AtKisson says, humans have an amazing capacity for rapid recovery and innovation.

Small pebbles in the pond, maybe, but I hope that the number of articles, and the range of topics covered, give you some hope, as they do me, that there are real things happening, and being noticed in the mainstream.  These may coalesce and change our overall direction in time to avoid the worst effects of runaway climate change, despoilation of the land by industrial agriculture, overfishing of the oceans, and increasing social inequality causing increasing social instability.

Hope is not a four-letter word – I hope.

Footnotes

[i] “Australia digs deep to save Barrier Reef”, Dominion Post 24 January 2018

Enjoy it while we can?

 

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Image from stuff.co.nz, 15 January 2018

Eastbourne

It’s a beautiful Monday here in Eastbourne.  By 9am it was already hot and a little muggy, under mostly clear skies and the faintest of cloud haze across the harbour.  Yesterday the beaches were crowded, and many people were also finding the cool where they could – under trees at the edge of otherwise deserted parking lots, by and in the pools of the Hutt River, and inside with air conditioning.

We ate breakfast on the balcony on the cool side of the house, as the sun was already strong.  We don’t remember eating outside very often last summer, as it was rarely warm or calm enough.  This year, we’re mostly on the shaded side of the house escaping the heat, and seeking a breeze if it’s there.

Calm.  Not really a Wellington particular.  “The windy city” is a well-deserved title.  Our spring and summer weather usually includes strong winds from November through January, easing for our “high summer” in February and March.  This year, from mid-November to mid-December we had a spectacular period of fine and warm weather, including “almost” 30 days without rain[i], and very little wind.  Better than our usual Februarys.  And this weather pattern seems to be back again.

The world

In other news, California has been burning through a series of major wildfires while the US East Coast is experiencing unusually cold temperatures and strong winter storms, while Australia is hit by heatwaves setting new records.  The Sunday Star Times recorded these last 2, vastly different, events right next to each other in major articles[ii] without seeming to recognise either the linkages or the irony of the juxtaposition.

That’s the easily accessible information from mainstream New Zealand media.  If I dug a little further, I have no doubt I would find abnormal weather conditions in many places on the planet.  But I’m not going to dig further, because the purpose of this blog is to take events from current mainstream news, and use them to expand on the themes and ideas already expressed on this website and by other commentators.  I’ll be doing this at about fortnightly intervals.

Global warming and its impacts

You may have guessed where I’m going with this?

What we are now getting is increasingly extreme local climate and weather conditions.  Yesterday New Zealand’s southern-most city, Invercargill, reported its highest temperature ever, probably to be beaten today.

Last year New Zealand experienced major droughts in various places both early and late in the year, punctuated by extreme weather events and high rainfall in the middle of the year[iii].  Worldwide, the news-worthy extreme conditions include major hurricanes, droughts, wildfires and heat and cold events. In 2017, the US spent a record $US306 billion on weather disasters, including “three strong hurricanes, wildfires, hail, flooding, tornadoes and drought”[iv].

Some places (eg Wellington on a good day – like today) may get some benefits from these, at least in terms of nicer weather some of the time, or even better growing conditions for certain crops.  But no-one can afford to get too comfortable – “Enjoy it while you can”.

These are the natural early impacts of runaway global warming.  2017 will be one of the warmest years in recorded history, after three consecutive record-breaking years.  Average temperatures are now 1 degree above the pre-industrial average.  They WILL rise at least another 0.5 degrees over the next 10-20 years, and ON CURRENT SETTINGS will rise by another 3 degrees at least within 70-80 years.

To compound this, the authoritative predictions by the International Panel on Climate Change on which these figures are based may be far too conservative.  The authoritative science lags actual events – as it should!  And every one of the Panel’s 5-yearly reports has increased the severity of its predictions.

The effects will range from catastrophic to even more catastrophic.  You ain’t seen nothing yet when it comes to extreme weather events – Mother Nature is only just getting started.  Their severity will increase exponentially as temperatures rise only gradually.  If you’ve been through a really extreme event, imagine if twice as severe…imagine it five times as severe…  And the heating will desertify larger and larger tracts of land while bringing more torrential and destructive rainfall patterns elsewhere.  The effects on individuals, societies and economies will be massive and destabilising.

The warming is uncontestably caused by human activity, in particular fossil-fuel use.  The scientific consensus on this is overwhelming, although a thriving industry of climate-change denial still persists, funded mostly by the fossil-fuel industry.  However, more people than ever accept that human-caused climate change exists, and discussion of it is noticeably more present in the mainstream media, even since when I started doing detailed research for myself three years ago.

US President Donald Trump may even have done us a service.  As climate-change-denier in-chief, I am sure he has convinced many people that it does in fact exist, because he is so fundamentally mistaken and unpleasant in so many of his beliefs that he must be wrong.  He is moving rapidly on increasing opportunities and benefits for fossil-fuel extraction, but he is also simultaneously galvanising increased opposition.

For more on global warming, read Chapter 9 of “A New Place to Stand”.

So what do we need to do?

My son Ian tells me that I often use an undifferentiated “we” in my book, making it unclear who I am referring to.  He’s absolutely right.  Mostly, the “we” I refer to is my fellow fence-sitters, the people I am encouraging to take further action, but I’m inconsistent.

So, for the avoidance of doubt, in this section of this blog, “we” means “members of the world’s affluent societies – the comparatively well off 1.5 billion”.

Global warming is a humanity wide issue, affecting all 7 billion of us.  But the solutions are in the hands of those who continue to consume most of the Earth’s resources, in economies based on massive use of fossil fuels.  We can either continue on our merry way, consuming like crazy (and, incidentally, displacing many of the costs and effects of our consumption onto the other 5.5 billion – in the short term at least).

Or we can take up our responsibilities as citizens of this beautiful planet, and do something serious about moderating both our own consumption patterns, and the overall consumption patterns of the affluent nations.

Specifically with respect to global warming and fossil fuel use, we cannot rely on mainstream political and business activity to do it for us.  While businesses are increasingly making noises about “sustainability”, their pursuit of profit and corporate psychology will always handicap them in acting for the overall social good[v].  And governments in our affluent nations – even the self-styled “leftist” governments – remain firmly committed to the neoliberal agenda of growth through profit seeking[vi].

Don’t get me wrong – they are making a lot more noise now about climate change.  But the actions proposed are marginal at best, and still firmly within the paradigm of consumption and growth that got us here in the first place.  Best estimates of the commitments made at the 2016 Paris Conference on Climate Change were that they had no chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees, despite the lofty rhetoric about trying for 1.5 degrees.  And most proposals are for ameliorating the effects of warming, not slowing it down.

A lot of “local” solutions are of the same sort.  Here in Eastbourne (which will eventually be made untenable by rising sea levels), solutions currently being proposed such as sea walls and tunnels are either stop-gap measures or unaffordable and inefficient.  A recent article suggested that we would need to get solar power (for when the electricity grid goes down), strengthen our houses (for when the wind and rain velocity gets up), and better health and safety measures (to avoid heat stroke)[vii].

Yes, 1.5 to 2 degrees of global warming is pretty much inevitable, and we need to do some ameliorative work.  But not at the expense of focussing on long term survival.

Strike that.  Not “long term” survival but “survival beyond the next generation”.  That’s how to see it.  We as individuals may die before the worst of climate change hits us, but our children, or their children, will still be alive to suffer the worst effects.  And perhaps die well before their natural times.

We have to stop runaway climate change – it is simply too destructive to be contemplated.  And we can’t rely on the powers-that-be to do it.  Unless we force them to.

That’s our mission, if we choose to accept it.  Not just to act as greener citizens locally, but to join with others to create massive political pressure for a sea-change in the behaviour of the affluent countries:

  • to pull the rug out from under the use of fossil fuels for transport and agriculture in particular, through disinvestment, legal challenge, protest action – whatever works; and
  • to strengthen the debate about our consumption-based society, the dangers it creates for our long-term future, and how we need to seek alternatives.

This will have to include both targeted and mass actions.  Mass action is unfashionable these days, but never doubt its ability to put pressure on businesses and governments.  They don’t poll continuously for nothing.  Public attitudes and pressure are, if not their main driver, at least their main moderator.

And finally, some good news.  There are a LOT of people doing a lot of work in exactly these areas.  Much of it isn’t very visible in the mainstream, and sometimes it shows how difficult some of this is going to be – witness the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, which created a wonderful movement, but were finally unsuccessful their immediate aim of stopping the pipeline.  Thanks again, Mr Trump.

But organisations like Greenpeace and 350.org are doing sterling work, and need our help, as supporters and members.

For more on activist organisations, refer to the section on activism within the social sphere in Chapter 38 of “A New Place to Stand”.

And while you’re getting into the activist frame, enjoy the lovely weather that at least some of us are getting – while you can.

Oh well, first blog over.  I hadn’t intended it to hit on such a big and central issue on Day One.  But that’s where the news took me.  Future blogs will probably be more specifically focussed, and not just on climate change, which I regard as simply the canary in the coal mine – “It’s not just about climate change”.  Farewell for now.

Footnotes

[i] “Wellington welcomes arrival of rain”, Dominion Post, 13 December 2017

[ii] Page B10, Sunday Star Times, 7 January 2018

[iii] “New Zealand Climate Summary 2017”, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, 9 January 2018

[iv] US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, quoted in Dominion Post, 10 January 2018, page B3

[v] See for example “Capitalism’s First Strike Weapon – the Psychopathic Corporation”, chapter 18 of “A New Place to Stand”

[vi] See for example “The State of the Governance Sphere”, chapter 18 of “A New Place to Stand”

[vii] See “Climate Change’s Impact on New Zealand – Home Truths”, Dominion Post, 13 January 2018, page A5