Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
Yet another powerful essay from George Monbiot.
I wonder at times why the most obvious things about us humans can be so easily overlooked. I have in mind that we humans are a product of a natural world, that we cannot survive without nature; however we examine our lives.
Take, for example, this picture of a city spread, in this case Chicago, where one might expect the natural world to be practically out of sight, reduced to a single point, metaphorically speaking. Yet nature is still hanging on, albeit courtesy of some local gardeners, I don’t doubt.
All of which is my introduction to yet another powerful essay from George Monbiot, republished here with his very kind permission.
Civilisation is Boring
December 9, 2014
We are pre-tuned to the natural world; wired to respond to nature.
By George Monbiot, published on BBC Earth, 8th December 2014
This is the first of BBC Earth’s longform essays about our relationship with the natural world.
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” the pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote. “An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”(1)
I remembered that when I read the news that the world has lost 52% of its vertebrate wildlife over the past 40 years(2). It’s a figure from which I’m still reeling. To love the natural world is to suffer a series of griefs, each compounding the last. It is to be overtaken by disbelief that we could treat it in this fashion. And, in the darkest moments, it is to succumb to helplessness, to the conviction that we will keep eroding our world of wonders until almost nothing of it remains. There is hope – real hope – as I will explain later, but at times like this it seems remote.
These wounds are inflicted not only on the world’s wildlife but also on ourselves. Civilisation is but a flimsy dust sheet that we have thrown over a psyche rich in emotion and instinct, shaped by the living planet. The hominims from whom we evolved inhabited a fascinating, terrifying world, in which survival depended on constant observation and interpretation. They contended not only with lions and leopards, but with sabretooths and false sabretooths, giant hyaenas and bear dogs (monstrous creatures with a huge bite radius).
As the work of Professor Blaire van Valkenburgh at UCLA suggests, predators in the pre-human past lived at much greater densities than they do today(3). The wear and breakage of their teeth show that competition was so intense that they were forced to consume the entire carcasses of the animals they killed, bones and all, rather than just the prime cuts, as top carnivores tend to do today. In other words, the animals with which we evolved were not just bigger than today’s predators; they were also hungrier.
Navigating this world required astonishing skills. Our ancestors, in the boom-and-bust savannahs, had to travel great distances to find food, through a landscape shimmering with surprise and hazard. Their survival depended upon reacting to the barest signals: the flicker of a tail in the grass, the scent of honey, a change in humidity, tracks in the dust. We still possess these capacities. We carry with us a ghost psyche, adapted to a world we no longer inhabit, which contains – though it remains locked down for much of the time – a boundless capacity for fear and wonder, curiousity and enchantment. We are pre-tuned to the natural world; wired to respond to nature.
In computer games and fantasy novels, we still grapple the monsters of the mind. In the film of Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers, the orcs rode on giant hyaenas(4). In the first Hunger Games film, bear dogs were released into the forest to prey on the contestants(5). I don’t believe these re-creations were accidental: the directors appear to have known enough of our evolutionary history to revive the ancestral terror these animals provoke. The heroic tales that have survived – tales of Ulysses, Sinbad, Sigurd, Beowulf, Cú Chulainn, St George, Arjuna, Lạc Long Quân and Glooskap – are those that resonate with the genetic memories lodged in our minds. I suspect that their essential form has remained unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years; that the encounters with monsters recorded in writing were a consolidation of stories we have been telling since we acquired the capacity to use the past tense.
You can see how such tales might have originated in a remarkable sequence in the BBC’s Human Planet series(6). Three men in southern Kenya, described by the programme as Dorobo people (though this is not a designation many ethnographers accept) stalk to within about 50 metres of a lion kill. Fifteen lions, blood dripping from their jaws, are eating the carcass of a wildebeest. The men suddenly stand and walk towards the pride. Rattled by their astonishing confidence, the lions flee. They watch from the bushes, puzzled and indecisive, as the three men walk up to the carcass, hack off one of the hind legs, then saunter away. That night, the adventurers roast the meat in their cave. “We really robbed those lions”, one of them boasts. “How many do you think there were?”, another asks. “Fifteen, but there might have been more.”
This, surely, is how sagas begin. Those men, led by a veteran of such ruses, are heroes of the old stamp. They outwitted a party of monsters, using guile and audacity, much as Ulysses did. A few hours later, they tell the first version of a story that might echo down the generations, every time with new flourishes and embellishments. Now imagine that, thousand of years hence, lions are long extinct, and the descendants of the Dorobo have only the haziest notion of what they were. They have become monsters even bigger and more dangerous than they were in life, and the feat becomes even more outrageous and unlikely. The saga remains true to its core, but the details have changed. We are those people, still telling the old stories, of encounters with the beasts that shaped us.
The world lives within us, we live within the world. By damaging the living planet we have diminished our existence.
We have been able to do this partly as a result of our ability to compartmentalise. This is another remarkable capacity we have developed, which perhaps reflects the demands of survival in the ever more complex human world we have created. By carving up the world in our minds we have learnt to shut ourselves out of it.
One of the tasks that parents set themselves is to train their children in linearity. Very young children don’t do linearity. Their inner life is discursive, contingent, impulsive. They don’t want to walk in a straight line down the pavement, but to wander off in the direction of whatever attracts their attention. They don’t begin a task with a view to its conclusion. They throw themselves into it, engage for as long as it’s exciting, then suddenly divert to something else.
This is how all animals except adult humans behave. Optimal foraging, the term biologists use to describe the way animals lock onto the best food supply, involves pursuing a task only for as long as it remains rewarding. Our own hunting and gathering would have followed a similar pattern, though it was complicated by our ability to plan and coordinate and to speculate about imagined outcomes. Broadly speaking, ours was a rambling and responsive existence, in which, by comparison to the way we live today, we had little capacity or inclination to impose our will on the world, to lay out a course of action and to follow it without deviation or distraction.
Only with the development of farming did we have to discipline ourselves to think linearly: following a plan from one point to another across weeks or months. Before long we were ploughing in straight lines, making hedges and ditches and tracks in straight lines, building houses and then towns in straight lines. Now almost every aspect of our lives is lived within grids, either concrete or abstract. Linearity, control and management dominate our lives. We fetishise progress: a continuous movement in the same direction. We impose our lines on the messy, contradictory and meandering realities of the human world, because otherwise we would be completely lost in it. We make compartments simple enough, amid the labyrinths we have created, to navigate and understand.
Thus we box ourselves out of the natural world. We become resistant to the experiences that nature has to offer; its spontaneity and serendipity, its unscripted delights, its capacity to shake us out of the frustrations and humiliations which are an inevitable product of the controlled and ordered world we have sought to create. We bully the living world into the grids we impose on ourselves. Even the areas we claim to have set aside for nature are often subjected to rigid management plans, in which the type and the height of the vegetation is precisely ordained and, through grazing or cutting or burning, nature is kept in a state of arrested development to favour an arbitrary assemblage of life over other possible outcomes. Nothing is allowed to change, to enter or leave. We preserve these places as if they were jars of pickles.
The language we use to describe them is also rigid and compartmentalised. In the UK we protect “sites of special scientific interest”, as if the wildlife they contain is of interest only to scientists. The few parts of the seabed which are not ripped up by industrial trawling are described as “reference areas”, as if their only value is as a baseline with which to compare destruction elsewhere. And is there a more alienating term than “reserve”? When we talk about reserve in people, we mean that they seem cold and remote. It reminds me of the old Native American joke: “we used to like the white man, but now we have our reservations.” Even “the environment” is an austere and technical term, which creates no pictures in the mind.
It’s not that we have banished our vestigial psychological equipment from our minds, or lost our instinct for engagement with wildlife. The tremendous popularity of nature programmes testifies to its persistence. I remember sitting in a café listening to a group of bus drivers talking, with great excitement and knowledge, about the spiders they had seen on television the night before, and thinking that, for all our technological sophistication, for all the clever means by which we shield ourselves from our emotions, we remain the people we have always been.
But we have suppressed these traits, and see the world through our fingers, shutting out anything that might spoil the view. We eat meat without even remembering that it has come from an animal, let alone picturing the conditions of its rearing and slaughter. We make no connection in our compartmentalised minds between the beef on our plates and the destruction of rainforests to grow the soya that fed the cattle; between the miles we drive and the oil wells drilled in rare and precious places, and the spills that then pollute them.
In our minds we have sanitised the world. WH Auden’s poem Et in Arcadia Ego describes how “Her jungle growths / Are abated, Her exorbitant monsters abashed, / Her soil mumbled,” while “the autobahn / Thwarts the landscape / In godless Roman arrogance”(7). But the old gods, the old fears, the old knowledge, have not departed. We simply choose not to see. “The farmer’s children / Tiptoe past the shed / Where the gelding knife is kept.”
Civilisation is boring. It has many virtues, but it leaves large parts of our minds unstimulated. It uses just a fraction of our mental and physical capacities. To know what comes next has been perhaps the dominant aim of materially-complex societies. Yet, having achieved it, or almost achieved it, we have been rewarded with a new collection of unmet needs. Many of us, I believe, need something that our planned and ordered lives don’t offer.
I found that something once in Cardigan Bay, on the west coast of Wales. I had stupidly launched my kayak into a ten-foot swell to fish a couple of miles from the shore. As I returned to land, I saw that the tide had risen, and ugly, jumbled breakers were smashing on the seawall. From where I sat, two hundred metres from the shore, I could see that the waves were stained brown by the shingle they flung up. I could hear them cracking and soughing against the wall. It was terrifying.
Behind me I heard a monstrous hiss: a freak wave was about to break over my head. I ducked and braced the paddle against the water. But nothing happened. Then a hooked grey fin, scarred and pitted, rose and skimmed just under the shaft of my paddle. I knew what it was, but the shock of it enhanced my rising fear. I glanced around, almost believing that I was under attack.
Then, from the stern, I heard a different sound: a crash and a rush of water. A gigantic bull dolphin soared into the air and almost over my head. As he flew past, he fixed his eye on mine. I stared at the sea into which he had disappeared, willing him to emerge again, filled with a wild exaltation, and a yearning of the kind that used to afflict me when I woke from that perennial pre-adolescent dream of floating down the stairs, my feet a few inches above the carpet. I realised at that moment that I had been suffering from a drought of sensation which I had come to accept as a condition of middle age, like the loss of the upper reaches of hearing.
I found that missing element again in the Białowieża Forest in eastern Poland. I was walking down a sandy path between oak and lime trees that rose for perhaps one hundred feet without branching. Around them the forest floor frothed with ramsons, celandines, spring peas and May lilies. I had seen boar with their piglets, red squirrels, hazel grouse, a huge bird that might have been an eagle owl, a black woodpecker. As I walked, every nerve seemed stretched, tuned like a string to the forest I was exploring. I rounded a curve in the path and found myself face to face with an animal that looked more like a Christian depiction of the Devil than any other creature I have seen.
I was close enough to see the mucus in her tear ducts. She had small, hooked black horns, heavy brows and eyes so dark that I could not distinguish the irises from the pupils. She wore a neat brown beard and an oddly human fringe between her horns. Her back rose to a crest then tapered away to a narrow rump, from which a black tail, slim as a whip, now twitched. She flared her nostrils and raised her chin. I fancied I could smell her sweet, beery breath. We watched each other for several minutes. I stayed so still that I could feel the blood pounding in my neck. Eventually the bison tossed her head, danced a couple of steps then turned, trotted back down the path then cantered away through the trees.
Experiences like these are the benchmarks of my life, moments in which dormant emotions were rekindled, in which my world was re-enchanted. But such unexpected encounters have been far too rare. Most of the lands in which I walk and the seas in which I swim or paddle my kayak are devoid of almost all large wildlife. I see deer, the occasional fox or badger, seals, but little else. It does not have to be like this. We can recharge the world with wonder, reverse much of the terrible harm we have done to it.
Over the past centuries, farming has expanded onto ever less suitable land. Even places of extremely low fertility have been cultivated or grazed, and the result has been a great disproportion between damage and productivity: the production of a tiny amount of food destroys the vegetation, the wild animals, the soil and the watersheds of entire mountain ranges. In the face of global trade, farming in such areas is becoming ever less viable: it cannot compete with production in fertile parts of the world. This has caused a loss of cultural diversity, which is another source of sadness.
But at the same time it means that the devastated land could be restored. In Europe, according to one forecast, 30 million hectares – an area the size of Poland – will be vacated by farmers by 2030(8). In the United States, two thirds of those parts of the land which were once forested, then cleared, have become forested again(9), as farming and logging have retreated, especially from the eastern half of the country. Rewilding, the mass restoration of ecosystems, which involves pulling down the redundant fences, blocking the drainage ditches, planting trees where necessary, re-establishing missing wildlife and then leaving the land to find its own way, could reverse much of the damage done to these areas. Already, animals like lynx, wolves, bears and moose, on both continents, are moving back into their former ranges.
There are also possibilities of restoring large parts of the sea. Public disgust at a fishing industry that has trashed almost every square metre of seabed on the continental shelves is now generating worldwide demands for marine parks. These are places in which commercial extraction is forbidden and the wildlife of the seas can recover. Even fishing companies can be persuaded to support them, when they discover that the fish migrating out of these places greatly boost their overall catches, a phenomenon known as the spillover effect. Such underwater parks are quickly recolonised by sessile life forms. Fish and crustacea proliferate, breeding freely and growing to great sizes once more. Dolphins, sharks and whales move in.
In these places we can leave our linearity and confinement behind, surrender to the unplanned and emergent world of nature, be surprised once more by joy, as surprise encounters with great beasts (almost all of which, despite our fears, are harmless to us) become possible again. We can rediscover those buried emotions that otherwise remain unexercised. Why should we not have such places on our doorsteps, to escape into when we feel the need?
Rewilding offers something else, even rarer than lynx and wolves and dolphins and whales. Hope. It offers the possibility that our silent spring could be followed by a raucous summer. In seeking to persuade people to honour and protect the living planet, an ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair. We could, perhaps, begin to heal some of the great wounds we have inflicted on the world and on ourselves.
George Monbiot is the author of Feral: rewilding the land, sea and human life. There’s an archive of his articles at http://www.monbiot.com
1. Aldo Leopold, 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press.
I’m sure that you will agree with me that this is a wonderful essay from Mr. Monbiot, an essay that speaks to us in ways that we all intuitively know makes huge sense.
There is hope for us!
George Monbiot perfectly spells it out.
Regular readers of this place will know that it is a rare couple of weeks without a republication of a George Monbiot essay. His voice seems so often to be a ray of common-sense shining into a dark cave of present-day madness. None more obvious than this essay that was published last Monday under the title of There Is An Alternative.
It’s a huge honour to be able to share this with you, dear readers.
There Is An Alternative
December 8, 2014
The great political question of our age is what to do about corporate power. It’s time we answered it.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 8th December 2014
Does this sometimes feel like a country under enemy occupation? Do you wonder why the demands of so much of the electorate seldom translate into policy? Why the Labour Party, like other former parties of the left, seems incapable of offering effective opposition to market fundamentalism, let alone proposing coherent alternatives? Do you wonder why those who want a kind and decent and just world, in which both human beings and other living creatures are protected, so often appear to find themselves confronting the entire political establishment?
If so, you have already encountered corporate power. It is the corrupting influence that prevents parties from connecting with the public, distorts spending and tax decisions and limits the scope of democracy. It helps to explain the otherwise inexplicable: the creeping privatisation of health and education, hated by almost all voters; the private finance initiative, which has left public services with unpayable debts(1,2); the replacement of the civil service with companies distinguished only by their incompetence(3); the failure to re-regulate the banks and to collect tax; the war on the natural world; the scrapping of the safeguards that protect us from exploitation; above all the severe limitation of political choice in a nation crying out for alternatives.
There are many ways in which it operates, but perhaps the most obvious is through our unreformed political funding system, which permits big business and multimillionaires effectively to buy political parties. Once a party is obliged to them, it needs little reminder of where its interests lie. Fear and favour rule.
And if they fail? Well, there are other means. Before the last election, a radical firebrand said this about the lobbying industry(4): “It is the next big scandal waiting to happen … an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money. … secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics.” That, of course, was David Cameron, and he’s since ensured that the scandal continues. His lobbying act restricts the activities of charities and trade unions, but imposes no meaningful restraint on corporations(5).
Ministers and civil servants know that if they keep faith with corporations while in office they will be assured of lucrative directorships in retirement. Dave Hartnett, who, as head of the government’s tax collection agency HMRC, oversaw some highly controversial deals with companies like Vodafone and Goldman Sachs(6,7), apparently excusing them from much of the tax they seemed to owe, now works for Deloitte, which advises companies like Vodafone on their tax affairs(8). As head of HMRC he met one Deloitte partner 48 times(9).
Corporations have also been empowered by the globalisation of decision-making. As powers but not representation shift to the global level, multinational business and its lobbyists fill the political gap. When everything has been globalised except our consent, we are vulnerable to decisions made outside the democratic sphere.
The key political question of our age, by which you can judge the intent of all political parties, is what to do about corporate power. This is the question, perennially neglected within both politics and the media, that this week’s series of articles will attempt to address. I think there are some obvious first steps.
A sound political funding system would be based on membership fees. Each party would be able to charge the same fixed fee for annual membership (perhaps £30 or £50). It would receive matching funding from the state as a multiple of its membership receipts. No other sources of income would be permitted. As well as getting the dirty money out of politics, this would force political parties to reconnect with the people, to raise their membership. It will cost less than the money wasted on corporate welfare every day.
All lobbying should be transparent. Any meeting between those who are paid to influence opinion (this could include political commentators like myself) and ministers, advisers or civil servants in government should be recorded, and the transcript made publicly available. The corporate lobby groups that pose as thinktanks should be obliged to reveal who funds them before appearing on the broadcast media(10,11), and if the identity of one of their funders is relevant to the issue they are discussing, it should be mentioned on air.
Any company supplying public services would be subject to freedom of information laws (there would be an exception for matters deemed commercially confidential by the information commissioner). Gagging contracts would be made illegal, in the private as well as the public sector (with the same exemption for commercial confidentiality). Ministers and top officials should be forbidden from taking jobs in the sectors they were charged with regulating.
But we should also think of digging deeper. Is it not time we reviewed the remarkable gift we have granted to companies in the form of limited liability? It socialises the risks which would otherwise be carried by a company’s owners and directors, exempting them from the costs of the debts they incur or the disasters they cause, and encouraging them to engage in the kind of reckless behaviour that caused the financial crisis. Should the wealthy authors of the crisis, like Fred Goodwin or Matt Ridley, not have incurred a financial penalty of their own?
We should look at how we might democratise the undemocratic institutions of global governance, as I outlined in my book The Age of Consent(12). This could involve the dismantling of the World Bank and the IMF, which are governed without a semblance of democracy, and cause more crises than they solve, and their replacement with a body rather like the international clearing union designed by John Maynard Keynes in the 1940s, whose purpose was to prevent excessive trade surpluses and deficits from forming, and therefore international debt from accumulating.
Instead of treaties brokered in opaque meetings between diplomats and transnational capital (of the kind now working towards a Transatlantic Trade and Investment partnership), which threaten democracy, the sovereignty of parliaments and the principle of equality before the law, we should demand a set of global fair trade rules, to which multinational companies would be subject, losing their licence to trade if they break them. Above all perhaps, we need a directly elected world parliament, whose purpose would be to hold other global bodies to account. In other words, instead of only responding to an agenda set by corporations, we must propose an agenda of our own.
This is not only about politicians, it is also about us. Corporate power has shut down our imagination, persuading us that there is no alternative to market fundamentalism, and that “market” is a reasonable description of a state-endorsed corporate oligarchy. We have been persuaded that we have power only as consumers, that citizenship is an anachronism, that changing the world is either impossible or best effected by buying a different brand of biscuits.
Corporate power now lives within us. Confronting it means shaking off the manacles it has imposed on our minds.
The pun is deliberate!
Just at the moment there seems to be an incredible explosion of awareness about the need to change. Won’t say anymore other than from the day of the Winter Solstice, less that two weeks away, I will be publishing a number of posts about this new awareness and the implications, the positive implications, for the coming years.
To set the tone, I am republishing an article that appeared on the website of the organisation Nature Needs Half. I am grateful for their permission to so do.
Nature Needs Half in the Earth Island Journal
Originally published in the Earth Island Journal by William H. Funk
Conservation group promoting an ambitious new proposal for wilderness protection
During the last half century conservationists around the world have won some impressive victories to protect wild places. Here in the US, the Wilderness Act preserves some 110 million acres of public land. Private holdings by groups like The Nature Conservancy safeguard tens of millions of additional acres. The idea of protecting ecosystems from industrial development has spread around the world. There’s the Mavuradonha Wilderness in Zimbabwe, the El Carmen ecosystem in northern Mexico, Kissama National Park in Angola, and the Tasmanian Wilderness in Australia, to name just a few stunning parks and preserves; UNESCO’s world heritage list includes 197 sites of special beauty and/or biodiversity.
But conservation biologists now recognize that these sanctuaries are limited in what they can accomplish precisely because they are special — which is to say, rare. Parks and preserves are all too often islands of biological integrity in a sea of human development. To really protect natural systems, healthy biomes need to be the rule, not the exception.
To achieve that vision, The WILD Foundation, a multinational NGO based in Boulder, Colorado, is pushing a bold concept called “Nature Needs Half.” In a world in which even the wealthiest governments routinely abdicate their responsibilities toward future generations and the environment, Nature Needs Half has set out an unbelievable challenge: to formally, legally set aside one half of Earth’s land and water as interconnected natural areas.
This is, of course, a hugely ambitious endeavor, opposing as it does the assumption that Earth’s resources are here to be exploited solely by humans. We live in what some have called the “Anthropocene,” the Age of Man, a world in which every aspect of physical being, from the oceanic depths to the troposphere, has been radically altered by humankind. Rivers are being dammed, forests leveled, oceans emptied and wildlife eradicated. It’s not a pretty picture, but as an empiric truth it’s difficult to refute. Consider a few facts:
The long-term acidification of the oceans by our ongoing buildup of industrial carbon dioxide is killing off coral reefs around the world, resulting in the loss of a critical barrier to storm surge and further endangering coastal areas at heightened risk from rising seas and stronger and more frequent storms.
Hydropower is increasingly being developed in South America, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, preventing the migration of anadromous fishes and destroying the elaborate flood-regime ecosystems of biomes like the Amazon.
The accelerating rate of animal and plants extinctions under the twin hammers of climate change and habitat loss is being compared to Earth’s five other extinction events that followed catastrophic geophysical change such as meteor impact or sudden tectonic shifts. In the case of the sixth great extinction, however, the root cause is purely biotic: us. Either from directly causing species decline through poaching, habitat conversion and the introduction of competitive exotic species, or by indirectly altering ecosystems through our industrial assault on the planet’s atmosphere, one in eight birds, one in four mammals, one in five invertebrates, one in three amphibians, and half of the world’s turtles are facing the eternal night of extinction.
Given those facts, the Nature Needs Half goal is startling in the grandiosity of its vision and the ambitious range of its projects. It is also, in a word, fair. “Half the world for humanity, half for the rest of life, to make a planet both self-sustaining and pleasant,” is how eminent naturalist E.O. Wilson explains the idea in his book The Future of Life. Other endorsers include marine explorer Sylvia Earle and the Zoological Society of London. And while the scope and scale of Nature Needs Half is unprecedented, conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund recognize that connecting biodiverse “hotspots” must guide preservation efforts.
The stated goal of Nature Needs Half is “to ensure that enough wild areas of land and water are protected and interconnected (usually at least about half of any given ecoregion) to maintain nature’s life-supporting systems and the diversity of life on Earth, to ensure human health and prosperity, and to secure a bountiful, beautiful legacy of resilient, wild nature.” Underlying this objective is the assumption that humanity, despite its often destructively “unnatural” behavior, is inescapably a part of life on Earth, and that efforts to preserve and protect untrammeled wilderness areas are ultimately means of assuring that the ecosystem services people depend upon are available to us in the distant future. We’re all in this together, and the sooner H. sapiens gets that through its pointy little head, the better off we’ll all be.
How is “protected” defined? The International Union for the Conservation of Nature defines it quite flexibly: “A protected area is a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” Thus any number of means may be put into play to preserve land, from conservation easements in Virginia to armed ranger patrols in Namibia; what matters is the end result, namely the retention of naturally functioning ecosystems over time.
During the past two decades scientists have determined that the planet’s ecoregions need at least 50 percent ecological integrity, and in some cases more, to ensure the survival of their biological productivity over the long term. (In plain language, “ecological integrity” means that an area’s biodiversity and basic processes are mostly intact.) The goals of Nature Needs Half simply echo the empirical scientific reality: to function over time the world’s biomes need at least half of their structural integrity preserved from human alteration. We are currently falling short of that. A recent report from Yale’s Environmental Performance Index states that just17 percent of Earth’s terrestrial areas and inland waters, and less than 10 percent of marine areas, are currently protected (though for many parks and refuges in poorer countries this protection is often illusory), while about 43 percent remains relatively open and undeveloped, with low human populations and generally undamaged ecosystems.
Nature Needs Half is pursuing its aim in two simultaneous directions: the protection of at least half of the planet’s mostly intact contiguous wilderness areas — concentrating on Eurasian boreal forests, the Amazon basin and Antarctica — and the identification and protection of those fragments or hotspots of abundant biodiversity that have become isolated islands in a sea of human activity.
The aims of Nature Needs Half are precisely the kind of bold approach, rooted in cutting-edge science, which our increasingly desperate times call for. In an Anthropocene of radical climate change and accelerating species extinctions, nothing less than a grand vision of what might yet be achieved will bring about the preservation of our remaining unspoiled landscapes. As the most farsighted wilderness preservation program on Earth, Nature Needs Half promises to be the kind of revolutionary undertaking that, if its aims are fully or even mostly achieved, will be looked back on centuries from now as perhaps the most important attainment in modern human history.
William H. Funk
William H. Funk is a freelance writer, documentary filmmaker and environmental lawyer living in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. His work explores the confluences of the natural world, history, culture, law and politics, and as an attorney he has had broad experience with land preservation and endangered species. He may be contacted at email@example.com or williamhfunk.weebly.com
Rather puts my next book chapter, Community, into perspective; that chapter being published in thirty minutes time.
The second essay this week from George Monbiot
Part of me feels that I am being sucked in to too much ‘doom and gloom’ with the republication of this recent essay from George Monbiot. I guess it’s a fine balance between spreading the word about the reality of life, in this case in the United Kingdom, or living in sweet innocence of the current state of affairs of ‘man’. But I found George Monbiot’s essay so shocking, in terms of the terrible inequality in British life, that it really did deserve the widest promulgation.
All I can offer in mitigation is that in thirty minutes time, I publish the next chapter of my book: How humans view dogs However, because this chapter is nothing more than setting the scene for the main chapters in Part Five, thirty minutes later comes leading chapter, specifically on Love, under the overall theme of Part Five: What we need to learn.
Your feedback, as always, would be wonderful.
Breaking the Silence
December 2, 2014
It’s time to bring the Highland Spring south, and, like Scotland, introduce democracy to this quasi-feudal nation.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 3rd December 2014
Bring out the violins. The land reform programme announced by the Scottish government is the end of civilised life on earth, if you believe the corporate press. In a country where 432 people own half the private rural land(1), all change is Stalinism. The Telegraph has published a string of dire warnings, insisting, for example, that deer stalking and grouse shooting could come to an end if business rates are introduced for sporting estates(2). Moved to tears yet?
Yes, sporting estates – where the richest people in Britain, or oil sheikhs and oligarchs from elsewhere, shoot grouse and stags – are exempt from business rates: a present from John Major’s government in 1994(3). David Cameron has been just as generous with our money: as he cuts essential services for the poor, he has almost doubled the public subsidy for English grouse moors(4), and frozen the price of shotgun licences(5), at a public cost of £17m a year.
But this is small change. Let’s talk about the real money. The Westminster government claims to champion an entrepreneurial society, of wealth creators and hard-working families, but the real rewards and incentives are for rent. The power and majesty of the state protects the patrimonial class. A looped and windowed democratic cloak barely covers the corrupt old body of the nation. Here peaceful protestors can still be arrested under the 1361 Justices of the Peace Act. Here, the Royal Mines Act 1424 gives the Crown the right to all the gold and silver in Scotland(6). Here the Remembrancer of the City of London sits behind the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons(7), to protect the entitlements of a Corporation that pre-dates the Norman conquest. This is an essentially feudal nation.
It’s no coincidence that the two most regressive forms of taxation in the UK – council tax banding and the payment of farm subsidies – both favour major owners of property. The capping of council tax bands ensures that the owners of £100 million flats in London pay less than the owners of £200,000 houses in Blackburn(8,9). Farm subsidies, which remain limitless as a result of the Westminster government’s lobbying(10), ensure that every household in Britain hands £245 a year to the richest people in the land(11). The single farm payment system – under which landowners are paid by the hectare – is a reinstatement of a mediaeval levy called feudal aid(12): a tax the vassals had to pay to their lords.
If this is the government of enterprise, not rent, ask yourself why capital gains tax (at 28%) is lower than the top rate of income tax. Ask yourself why principal residences, though their value may rise by millions, are altogether exempt(13). Ask yourself why rural landowners are typically excused capital gains tax, inheritance tax and the first five years of income tax(14). The enterprise society? It’s a con, designed to create an illusion of social mobility.
The Scottish programme for government(15) is the first serious attempt to address the nature of landholding in Britain since David Lloyd George’s budget of 1909. Some of its aims hardly sound radical until you understand the context. For example it will seek to discover who owns the land. Big deal. Yes, in fact, it is. At the moment the owners of only 26% of the land in Scotland have been identified(16).
Walk into any mairie in France or ayuntamiento in Spain and you will be shown the cadastral registers on request, on which all the land and its owners are named. When The Land magazine tried to do the same in Britain(17), it found that there was a full cadastral map available at the local library, which could be photocopied for 70p. But it was made in 1840. Even with expert help, it took the magazine several weeks of fighting official obstruction and obfuscation and cost nearly £1000(18) to find out who owns the 1.4 km2 around its offices in Dorset. It discovered that the old registers had been closed and removed from public view, at the behest of a landed class that wishes to remain as exempt from public scrutiny as it is from taxes. (The landowners are rather more forthcoming when applying for subsidies from the rural payments agency, which possesses a full, though unobtainable, register of their agricultural holdings). What sort of nation is this, in which you cannot discover who owns the ground beneath your feet?
The Scottish government will consider breaking up large land holdings when they impede the prospects of local people(19). It will provide further help to communities to buy the land that surrounds them. Compare its promise of “a fairer, wider and more equitable distribution of land” to the Westminster government’s vision of “greater competitiveness, including by consolidation”(20): which means a continued increase in the size of land holdings. The number of holdings in England is now falling by 2% a year(21), which is possibly the fastest concentration of ownership since the acts of enclosure.
Consider Scotland’s determination to open up the question of property taxes, which might lead to the only system that is fair and comprehensive: land value taxation(22). Compare it to the fleabite of a mansion tax proposed by Ed Miliband, which, though it recoups only a tiny percentage of the unearned income of the richest owners, has so outraged the proprietorial class that some of them (yes Griff Rhys Jones, I’m thinking of you(23)) have threatened to leave the country. Good riddance.
The Scottish government might address the speculative chaos which mangles the countryside while failing to build the houses people need. It might challenge a system in which terrible homes are built at great expense, partly because the price of land has risen from 2% of the cost of a house in the 1930s to 70% today(24). It might take land into public ownership to ensure that new developments are built by and for those who will live there, rather than for the benefit of volume housebuilders. It might prevent mountains from being burnt and overgrazed(25) by a landowning class that cares only about the numbers of deer and grouse it can bag and the bragging rights this earns in London clubs. As Scotland, where feudalism was not legally abolished until 2000(26), becomes a progressive, modern nation, it leaves England stuck in the pre-democratic past.
Scotland is rudely interrupting the constructed silences that stifle political thought in the United Kingdom. This is why the oligarchs who own the media hate everything that is happening there: their interests are being exposed in a way that is currently impossible south of the border.
For centuries, Britain has been a welfare state for patrimonial capital. It’s time we broke it open, and broke the culture of deference that keeps us in our place. Let’s bring the Highland Spring south, and start discussing some dangerous subjects.
4. Defra has tried to pass this off as payments for “moorland farmers”, but all owners of grazed or managed moorlands, of which grouse moors are a major component, are eligible. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cap-boost-for-moorland
6. The Land Reform Review Group, 2014. The Land of Scotland and the Common Good.
9. This assumes that a house in Blackburn valued at £69,000 in 1991 would cost around £200,000 today. http://www.blackburn.gov.uk/Pages/Council-tax-charges.aspx
11. Defra, 31st August 2011, by email.
21. Compare the figures, Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2013: http://bit.ly/1vLQSi4
to the figures in the 2011 version: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/agriculture-in-the-united-kingdom-2011
24. The Land Reform Review Group, 2014. The Land of Scotland and the Common Good. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/About/Review/land-reform/events/FinalReport23May2014
Another powerful essay from George Monbiot.
Despite this now being December and NaNoWriMo is behind me, all 53,376 words of it, the next few weeks are still going to be demanding.
I have three more chapters to write plus adding a guest preface and an overhaul of Part One of the book. In other words, December is still a busy book month, albeit without the word-count pressures of NaNoWriMo.
All a long-winded way of me saying that I will present articles seen elsewhere if I think they are of interest to all of you readers.
Which brings me to another powerful essay from George Monbiot that he published a few days ago and is republished here with George’s very kind permission.
A Vision for Nature
November 27, 2014
As governments tear down the rules that defend our wildlife from extinction, here’s a positive attempt to stop the wreckage.
By George Monbiot. posted on the Guardian’s website, 21st November 2014
One of the fears of those who seek to defend the natural world is that people won’t act until it is too late. Only when disasters strike will we understand how much damage we have done, and what the consequences might be.
I have some bad news: it’s worse than that. For his fascinating and transformative book, Don’t Even Think About It: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, George Marshall visited Bastrop in Texas, which had suffered from a record drought followed by a record wildfire, and Sea Bright in New Jersey, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. These disasters are likely to have been caused or exacerbated by climate change. He interviewed plenty of people in both places, and in neither case – Republican Texas or Democratic New Jersey – could he find anyone who could recall a conversation about climate change as a potential cause of the catastrophe they had suffered. It simply had not arisen.
The editor of the Bastrop Advertiser told him “Sure, if climate change had a direct impact on us, we would definitely bring it in, but we are more centred around Bastrop County.” The mayor of Sea Bright told him “We just want to go home, and we will deal with all that lofty stuff some other day.” Marshall found that when people are dealing with the damage and rebuilding their lives they are even less inclined than they might otherwise be to talk about the underlying issues.
In his lectures, he makes another important point that – in retrospect – also seems obvious: people often react to crises in perverse and destructive ways. For example, immigrants, Jews, old women and other scapegoats have been blamed for scores of disasters they did not create. And sometimes people respond with behaviour that makes the disaster even worse: think, for instance, of the swing to UKIP, a party run by a former City broker and funded by a gruesome collection of tycoons and financiers, in response to an economic crisis caused by the banks.
I have seen many examples of this reactive denial at work, and I wonder now whether we are encountering another one.
The world’s wild creatures are in crisis. In the past 40 years the world has lost over 50% of its vertebrate wildlife. Hardly anywhere is spared this catastrophe. In the UK, for example, 60% of the 3,000 species whose fate has been studied have declined over the past 50 years. Our living wonders, which have persisted for millions of years, are disappearing in the course of decades.
You might expect governments and officials, faced with a bonfire of this magnitude, to rush to the scene with water and douse it. Instead they have rushed to the scene with cans of petrol.
Critical to the protection of the natural world are regulations: laws which restrain certain activities for the greater public good. Legal restrictions on destruction and pollution are often the only things that stand between species and their extinction.
Industrial interests often hate these laws, as they restrict their profits. The corporate media denigrates and demonises the very concept of regulation. Much of the effort of those who fund political parties is to remove the regulations that protect us and the living planet. Politicians and officials who seek to defend regulation will be taken down, through campaigns of unrelenting viciousness in the media. Everywhere the message has been received.
The European Commission has now ordered a “review” of the two main pillars of the protection of our wildlife: the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive. It’s likely to be the kind of review conducted by a large tracked vehicle with a steel ball on the end of a chain. The problem, the Commission says, is that these directives could impede the “fitness” of business in Europe.
But do they? Not even Edmund Stoiber, the conservative former president of Bavaria who was appointed by the Commission to wage war on regulation, thinks so. He discovered that European environmental laws account for less than 1% of the costs of regulation to business: the lowest cost of any of the regulations he investigated. “However, businesses perceive the burden to be much higher in this area.” So if these crucial directives are vitiated or scrapped, it will not be because they impede business, but because they are wrongly perceived to impose much greater costs than they do.
The UK chancellor, George Osborne, claimed in 2011 that wildlife regulations were placing ridiculous costs on business. But a review by the environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, concluded the claim was unfounded.
In the United Kingdom, whose leading politicians, like those of Australia and Canada, appear to be little more than channels for corporate power, we are facing a full-spectrum assault on the laws protecting our living treasures.
The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, now passing through the House of Commons, would oblige future governments to keep deregulating on behalf of business, regardless of the cost to the rest of society. The government’s Red Tape Challenge at first insisted that no new regulation could be introduced unless an existing one is scrapped. Now two must be scrapped in exchange for any new one.
Cameron’s government has set up what it calls a “Star Chamber”, composed of corporate executives and officials from the business department, before which other government departments must appear. They must justify, in front of the sector they regulate, any of the rules these business people don’t like. If they are deemed insufficiently convincing, the rules are junked.
Usually, governments go to some lengths to disguise their intent, and to invent benign names for destructive policies. Not in this case. A Star Chamber perfectly captures the spirt of this enterprise. Here’s how a website about the history of the Tudors describes the original version (my emphasis):
“The power of the court of Star Chamber grew considerably under the Stuarts, and by the time of Charles I it had become a byword for misuse and abuse of power by the king and his circle. … Court sessions were held in secret, with no right of appeal, and punishment was swift and severe to any enemy of the crown. Charles I used the Court of Star Chamber as a sort of Parliamentary substitute during the years 1628-40, when he refused to call Parliament. Finally, in 1641 the Long Parliament abolished the hated Star Chamber, though its name survives still to designate arbitrary, secretive proceedings in opposition to personal rights and liberty.”
Yes, that is exactly what we’re looking at. I suspect the government gave its kangaroo court this name to signal its intent to its corporate funders: we are prepared to be perfectly unreasonable on your behalf, trampling justice, democracy and rational policy-making to give you what you want. We are putting you in charge. So please keep funding us, and please, dear owners of the corporate press, don’t destroy our chances of winning the next election by backing UKIP instead.
Then there’s the Deregulation Bill, which has now almost run its parliamentary course. Among the many ways in which it tilts the balance even further against defending the natural world is Clause 83, which states this:
“A person exercising a regulatory function to which this section applies must, in the exercise of the function, have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth.”
So bodies such as the Environment Agency or Natural England must promote economic growth, even if it directly threatens the natural wonders they are charged with protecting. For example, companies could save money by tipping pollutants into a river, rather than processing them or disposing of them safely. That means more funds for investment, which could translate into more economic growth. So what should an agency do if it is supposed to prevent pollution and promote economic growth?
Not that the government needs to bother, for it has already stuffed the committees that oversee these bodies.
Look, for example, at the board of Natural England. Its chairman, Andrew Sells, is a housebuilder and major donor to the Conservative Party, who was treasurer of the thinktank Policy Exchange, which inveighs against regulation at every opportunity. Its deputy chairman, David Hill, is also chairman of a private company called the Environment Bank, whose purpose is ”to broker biodiversity offsetting agreements for both developers and landowners.” Biodiversity offsetting is a new means of making the destruction of precious natural places seem acceptable.
The government has recently appointed to this small board not one but two Cumbrian sheep farmers – Will Cockbain and Julia Aglionby – who, my encounters with them suggest, both appear to be fanatically devoted to keeping the uplands sheepwrecked and bare. There’s also a place for the chief executive of a group that I see as a greenwashing facility for the shooting industry, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. And one for a former vice-president of Citibank. The board members with current or former interests in industries that often damage the natural world outnumber those who have devoted their lives to conservation and ecology.
So what do we do about this? You cannot fight assaults of this kind without producing a positive vision of your own.
This is what the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have done with the publication of their Nature and Wellbeing Green Paper. It’s a proposal for a new act of parliament modelled on the Climate Change Act 2008. It obliges future governments to protect and restore the living world. It proposes targets for the recovery of species and places, a government agency (the Office for Environmental Responsibility) whose role is to ensure that all departments help to defend wildlife, and Local Ecological Networks, which devolve power to communities to protect the places they love most.
I have problems with some aspects of this proposal, not least its enthusiastic embrace of the Natural Capital Agenda, which seeks to persuade us to value nature by putting a price on it. This strategy is, I believe, astonishingly naïve. To be effective, you must open up political space, not help to close it down by accepting the premises, the values and the framing of your opponents. But I can see what drove them to do it. If the government accepts only policies or regulations that contribute to economic growth, it’s tempting to try to prove that the financial value of wildlife and habits is greater than the financial value to be gained by destroying them, foolish and self-defeating as this exercise may be.
But I’ll put this aside, because their proposal is the most comprehensive attempt yet to douse the bonfire of destruction on which the government is toasting our wildlife like marshmallows. The Climate Change Act and its lasting commitments are just about the only measures that oblige this government to restrict greenhouse gases. It remains a yardstick against which the efforts of all governments can be judged. Should we not also have similar, sustained protection for wildlife and habitats? Only lasting safeguards, not subject to the whims and fads of passing governments, can defend them against extinction.
The Nature and Wellbeing Act is a good example of positive environmentalism, setting the agenda, rather than merely responding to the policies we don’t like. We must do both, but while those who love wildlife have often been effective opponents, we have tended to be less effective proponents.
It will be a struggle, as the times have changed radically. In 2008 the Climate Change Act was supported by the three main political parties. So far the Nature and Wellbeing Act has received the support of the Liberal Democrats (so after the election both their MPs will promote it in parliament) and the Green Party. The Conservatives, despite the green paper’s desperate attempts to speak their language, are unreachable. And where on earth is Labour? So far it has shown no interest at all.
If you care about what is happening to the living world, if you care about the assault on the enthralling and bewitching outcome of millions of years of evolution for the sake of immediate and ephemeral corporate profits, join the campaign and lobby your MPs. The Nature and Wellbeing Act will succeed only through a movement as big as the one that brought the Climate Change Act into existence. Please join it.
Sometimes, I wonder if such essays, as powerful and well-written as they are, are not just too terrible a commentary on how things are just now. My justification for republishing them is simply from the point of view that the more the awareness of good ordinary people is enhanced as to these present times, the better the odds that there will be a sufficient social and political reaction to bring this madness to a halt.
A grim reminder of these mad times.
I am conscious that in thirty minutes, my latest draft chapter of the book of the same name as this blog is published. Published under the heading of Faith in goodness.
It seems entirely at odds with the theme of today’s post, the reposting of a recent essay from George Monbiot. But in a sense the two posts are compatible. Because what George Monbiot writes about, so elegantly in my opinion, is a window into the lives of those in power, politics, and in money. Whereas, down at street level, so to speak, down where ordinary people lead ordinary lives, one finds a huge gap between the ambitions of the ‘top table’ and decent, everyday folk who are basically good people.
So with that in mind, on to George Monbiot’s essay of the 18th November, published in this place with his kind permission.
The Insatiable God
The blind pursuit of economic growth stokes a cycle of financial crisis, and wrecks our world.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 19th November 2014
Another crash is coming. We all know it, now even David Cameron acknowledges it (1). The only questions are what the immediate catalyst will be, and when it begins.
You can take your pick. The Financial Times reports today that China now resembles the US in 2007 (2). Domestic bank loans have risen 40% since 2008, while “the ability to repay that debt has deteriorated dramatically”. Property prices are falling and the companies that run China’s shadow banking system provide “virtually no disclosure” of their liabilities. Just two days ago, the G20 leaders announced that growth in China “is robust and is becoming more sustainable” (3). You can judge the value of their assurances for yourself.
Housing bubbles in several countries, including Britain, could pop at any time. A report in September revealed that total world debt (public and private) has reached 212% of GDP (4). In 2008, when it helped to cause the last crash, it stood at 174%. The Telegraph notes that this threatens to cause “renewed financial crisis … and eventual mass default.” (5) Shadow banking has gone beserk, stocks appear to be wildly overvalued, the Eurozone is bust again. Which will blow first?
Or perhaps it’s inaccurate to describe this as another crash. Perhaps it’s a continuation of the last one, the latest phase in a permanent cycle of crisis, exacerbated by the measures (credit bubbles, deregulation, the curtailment of state spending) which were supposed to deliver uninterrupted growth. The system the world’s governments have sought to stabilise is inherently unstable, built on debt, fuelled by speculation, run by sharks.
If it goes down soon, as Cameron fears, in a world of empty coffers and hobbled public services, it will precipitate an ideological crisis graver than the blow to Keynesianism in 1970s. The problem that then arises – and which explains the longevity of the discredited ideology that caused the last crash – is that there is no alternative policy, accepted by mainstream political parties, with which to replace it. They will keep making the same mistakes while expecting a different outcome.
To try to stabilise this system, governments behave like soldiers billeted in an ancient manor, who burn the furniture, the panelling, the paintings and the stairs to keep themselves warm for a night. They are breaking up the post-war settlement, our public health services and social safety nets, above all the living world, to produce ephemeral spurts of growth. Magnificent habitats, the benign and fragile climate in which we have prospered, species that have lived on earth for millions of years, all are being stacked onto the fire, their protection characterised as an impediment to growth.
David Cameron boasted on Monday that he will revive the economy by “scrapping red tape” (6). This “red tape” consists in many cases of the safeguards defending both people and places from predatory corporations. Today, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill is passing through the House of Commons (7), spinelessly supported, as ever, by Labour. The bill seeks to pull down our protective rules to “reduce costs for business”, even if that means increasing costs for everyone else, while threatening our health and happiness. But why? As the government boasted last week, the UK already has “the least restrictive product market regulation and the most supportive regulatory and institutional environment for business across the G20.” (8) And it still doesn’t work. So let’s burn what remains.
This bonfire of regulation is accompanied by a reckless abandonment of democratic principles, not least of equality before the law. In the House of Commons on Monday, Cameron spoke for the first time about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (9). If this treaty between the EU and the US goes ahead, it will grant corporations a separate legal system to which no one else has access, through which they can sue governments passing laws that might affect their profits. Cameron insisted that “it does not in any way have to affect our national health service” (10). (Note those words “have to”.) Pressed to explain this, he cited the former EU trade commissioner, who claimed that “public services are always exempted” (11).
But I have read the EU’s negotiating mandate(12), and it contains no such exemption, just plenty of waffle and ambiguity on this issue. When the Scottish government asked Cameron’s officials for an “unequivocal assurance” that the NHS would not be exposed to such litigation, they refused to provide it(13). This treaty could rip our public services to shreds for the sake of a short and (studies suggest (14,15)) insignificant fizzle of economic growth.
Is it not time to think again? To stop sacrificing our working lives, our prospects, our surroundings to an insatiable god (16)? To consider a different economic model, which does not demand endless pain while generating repeated crises?
Amazingly, this consideration begins on Thursday. For the first time in 170 years, parliament will debate one aspect of the problem: the creation of money (17). Few people know that 97% of our money supply is created not by the government (or the central bank), but by commercial banks in the form of the loans they issue (18). At no point was a democratic decision made to allow banks to do this. So why do we let it happen? This, as Martin Wolf has explained in the Financial Times (19), “is the source of much of the instability of our economies”. The parliamentary debate won’t stop the practice, but it represents the opening of a long-neglected question.
This, though, is just the beginning. Is it not also time for a government commission on post-growth economics? Drawing on the work of thinkers like Herman Daly, Tim Jackson, Peter Victor, Kate Raworth, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill, it would investigate the possibility of moving towards a steady state economy: one that seeks distribution rather than blind expansion; that does not demand infinite growth on a finite planet. It would ask the question that never gets asked: why?
Why are we wrecking the natural world and public services to generate growth when that growth is not delivering contentment, security or even, for most of us, greater prosperity? Why have we enthroned growth, regardless of its utility, above all over outcomes? Why, despite failures so great and so frequent, have we not changed the model? When the next crash comes, these questions will be inescapable.
3. G20, November 2014. Brisbane Action Plan. http://bit.ly/1xk6mLR
4. Luigi Buttiglione et al, September 2014. Deleveraging? What Deleveraging? Geneva Reports on the World Economy 16. http://www.voxeu.org/content/deleveraging-what-deleveraging-16th-geneva-report-world-economy
8. G20, November 2014. Comprehensive Growth Strategy – United Kingdom. http://bit.ly/1yPuIv7
I read this out aloud to Jeannie last night, as I do with every post that is published, and found this chapter really didn’t flow. I’m making the mistake of including too many words of direct quotations, many of which are not easy to follow.
So just wanted to let you know that if this strikes you the same way, you are not alone! ;-)
It is, of course, just the first draft, but nonetheless …. wanted you to read this first.
Greed, inequality and poverty
Just three words: greed; inequality; poverty.
Just three words that metaphorically come to me like a closed, round, wooden lid hiding a very deep, dark well. That lifting this particular lid, the metaphorical one, exposes an almost endless drop into the vastness of where our society appears to have fallen.
That this dark well, to stay with the metaphor, is lined with example after example of greed, inequality and poverty is a given.
One might conclude that examining any of those examples is pointless, not in terms of the reality of our world, but in terms of influencing the views of a reader. If you are a reader who is uncertain about the current levels of greed, inequality and poverty then it’s unlikely that a few examples, or a few hundred examples, are going to change minds. (One might argue that you wouldn’t be reading this book in the first place!)
Thus when I was digging around, looking for insight into how and why we, as in society, are in such times, I was looking for core evidence. Very quickly, it struck me that the chapter title really should simply have been: Inequality. Because inequality, by implication, is the result of greed and results in poverty.
In November, 2014, at the time I was drafting this book, a new report was issued by the Center of Economic Policy Research (CEPR) on the latest (American) Survey of Consumer Finances. It painted a picture very familiar to many: the rich becoming richer while those with less wealth are falling further and further behind.
David Rosnick of the CEPR, and one of the report co-authors, made this important observation:
The decline in the position of typical households is even worse than the Consumer Finances survey indicates. In 1989, many workers had pensions. Far fewer do now. The value of pensions isn’t included in these surveys due to the difficulty of determining what they are worth on a current basis. But they clearly are significant assets that relatively few working age people have now.
Sharmini Peries, of The Real News Network, in an interview with David Rosnick, asked:
PERIES: David, just quickly explain to us what is the Consumer Finance Survey. I know it’s an important survey for economists, but why is it important to ordinary people? Why is it important to us?
ROSNICK: So, every three years, the Federal Reserve interviews a number of households to get an idea of what their finances are like, do they have a lot of wealth, how much are their house’s worth, how much they owe on their mortgages, how much they have in the bank account, how much stocks do wealthy people own. This gives us an idea of their situations, whether they’re going to be prepared for retirement. And we can see things like the effect of the housing and stock bubbles on people’s wealth, whether they’ve been preparing for eventual downfalls, how they’ve reacted to various economic circumstances, how they’re looking to the long term. So it’s a very useful survey in terms of finding out how households are prepared and what the distribution of wealth is like.
PERIES: So your report is an analysis of the report. And what are your key findings?
ROSNICK: So, largely over the last 24 years there’s been a considerable increase in wealth on average, but it’s been very maldistributed. Households in the bottom half of the distribution have actually seen their wealth fall, but the people at the very top have actually done very well. And so that means that a lot of people who are nearing retirement at this point in time are actually not well prepared at all for retirement and are going to be very dependent on Social Security in order to make it through their retirement years.
PERIES: So, David, address the gap. You said there’s a great gap between those that are very wealthy and those that are not. Has this gap widened over this period?
ROSNICK: It absolutely has. As, say, the top 5 percent in wealth, the average wealth for people in the top 5 percent is about 66 percent higher in 2013, the last survey that was completed, compared to 1989. By comparison, for the bottom 20 percent, their wealth has actually fallen 420 percent. They basically had very little to start with, and now they have less than little.
PERIES: So the poorer is getting poorer and the richer is getting extremely richer.
ROSNICK: Very much so.
To my way of thinking, if in the period 1989 through to 2013 “the average wealth for (American) people in the top 5 percent is about 66 percent higher” and “for the bottom 20 percent, their wealth has actually fallen 420 percent” it’s very difficult not to see the hands of greed at work and a consequential devastating increase in inequality.
In other words, the previous few paragraphs seemed to present, and present clearly, the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, comparatively speaking, and that it was now time for society to understand the trends, to reflect on where this is taking us, if left unchallenged, and to push back as hard as we can both politically and socially.
I wrote that shortly before another item appeared in my email ‘in-box’ in the middle of November (2014), a further report about inequality that, frankly, emotionally speaking, just smacked me in the face. It seemed a critical addition to the picture I was endeavouring to present.
Namely, on the 13th October, 2014, the US edition of The Guardian newspaper published a story entitled: US wealth inequality – top 0.1% worth as much as the bottom 90%. The sub-heading enlarged the headline: Not since the Great Depression has wealth inequality in the US been so acute, new in-depth study finds.
The study referred to was a paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, based on research conducted by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. The paper’s bland title belied the reality of the research findings: Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913.
As the Guardian reported:
Wealth inequality in the US is at near record levels according to a new study by academics. Over the past three decades, the share of household wealth owned by the top 0.1% has increased from 7% to 22%. For the bottom 90% of families, a combination of rising debt, the collapse of the value of their assets during the financial crisis, and stagnant real wages have led to the erosion of wealth. The share of wealth owned by the top 0.1% is almost the same as the bottom 90%.
The picture actually improved in the aftermath of the 1930s Great Depression, with wealth inequality falling through to the late 1970s. It then started to rise again, with the share of total household wealth owned by the top 0.1% rising to 22% in 2012 from 7% in the late 1970s. The top 0.1% includes 160,000 families with total net assets of more than $20m (£13m) in 2012.
In contrast, the share of total US wealth owned by the bottom 90% of families fell from a peak of 36% in the mid-1980s, to 23% in 2012 – just one percentage point above the top 0.1%.
The report was not exclusively about the USA. As the closing paragraphs in The Guardian’s article illustrated:
Among the nine G20 countries with sufficient data, the richest 1% of people (by income) have increased their income share significantly since 1980, according to Oxfam. In Australia, for example, the top 1% earned 4.8% of the country’s income in 1980. That had risen to more than 9% by 2010.
Oxfam says that in the time that Australia has held the G20 presidency (between 2013 and 2014) the total wealth in the G20 increased by $17tn but the richest 1% of people in the G20 captured $6.2tn of this wealth – 36% of the total increase.
I find it incredibly difficult to have any rational response to those figures. I am just aware that there is a flurry of mixed emotions inside me and, perhaps, that’s how I should leave it. Nonetheless, there’s one thing that I can’t keep to myself and that this isn’t the first time that such inequality has arisen, the period leading up the the Great Depression of the 1930s comes immediately to mind, and I doubt very much that it will be the last.
Unless the growing catalogue of unsustainable aspects of this 21st century, a few of which have been the focus of this Part Three, brings about, perhaps in many different ways, a force for change that is unstoppable.
But before that is explored in Part Four, there is the one final element of the greed, inequality and poverty theme of this chapter that must be aired; the issue of poverty.
Contrary to my anticipation, the figures for poverty trends can be read in many ways and don’t give a clear-cut uniform picture. Nevertheless, it does’t take a genius to work out that the future, especially for young people, could be alarming.
Today, the poor people are the young. Today, the young are heading into a future that has many frightening aspects.
Take the present population numbers, the mind-boggling scale of the use of energy in these times, not to mention the levels of debt across so many countries (on the 14th November, 2014, the Federal Debt of the USA was about $18,006,100,032,000), possible unsustainable global climate change trends, and is it any wonder that those born in the period 1928 to 1945 (I was born in 1944), the generation that has been called the Silent Generation, must be wondering what the future holds for their children and grandchildren and what they or anyone can do today and tomorrow, to prevent these future generations sinking into oblivion.
I came across a quotation from Simon Caulkin, the award winning management writer: “It’s all the product of human conduct!”
Yes, Simon is right. Only human conduct will find that sustainable, balanced relationship with each other and, critically, with the planet upon which all our futures depend. Yet, something nags at me; a half-conscious doubt that starts with the word ‘but!’ Not that it doesn’t all come down to human conduct; not a moment’s hesitation on that one. But there’s still that half-conscious doubt. A doubt that starts to take shape on the back of that wonderful quotation from Einstein: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Then from that half-conscious place in one’s head comes another word. The word: Faith. Faith in us, as in faith in humanity. Faith that not only can we change our relationship with ourselves, with our communities and, above all, with our planet, but that we will. Faith that we, as in mankind, will embrace the many beautiful qualities of the animal that is so special to so many millions of us: our dogs. Not just embrace but pin our future on the premise that adopting the qualities of love, trust, honesty, openness and more, qualities that we see daily in our closest animal companions, is our potential salvation.
Thus comes the end of this set of depressing aspects of our 21st century. Time to move on in this story of learning from dogs and envelope ‘Of change in thoughts and deeds’; the title of the next section of this book. For we truly need a change to a better future.
1923 words Copyright © 2014 Paul Handover