Whenever I consider alternative perspectives to the status quo, for example those espoused by E.F.Shumacher (whom I read when I was 16), I can’t help but visualise the sentiments expressed being sold to the majority of the world’s population, which of course is what’s required. Be those prospective recipients of ‘the message’ residents on a tower block estate in Liverpool, or a slum in the scrambling chaos of India, or rednecks in endlessly consumerist America, or aspiring young executives in Nairobi. Or even disease ridden children in Sudanese refugee camps. And then I wonder just how one would apply such ideals. Youfs in Liverpool just want lager and football, and money to pay for them. Slum dwellers in India want a house, and land and status in a country that just doesn’t have enough room. American Republicans have enormous power and also have an ideal that they too cling to tenaciously, however simplistic and naive it may be. And people all across the world, from Sudan to Bolivia via the South Pacific islands need electricity, and medicine, and a framework that allows them rights of tenure and the means to acquire the goods to build themselves a house and pay for everything from education to windows. This is the way the world is. The experiment that was the twentieth century and the resulting economic and social paradigms that grew from it has, unfortunately in its entirety rather than selectively, been accepted as the way to do things. And another unfortunate truth is that, as things stand, the kind of large scale commercial operations that now exist may represent the only sufficiently large scale approach that can provide sufficient economies of scale to provide all these things.
It seems to me that there are a few key variables in the human context that have primary influence over our ability to manage things.
One is population growth. If, theoretically, the population of the world was suddenly frozen where it is, then we’d have time to rearrange things to bring those that don’t have enough, and those that have too much, more into align with each other and with available resources. But as things are, each unit of progress is swallowed up by another unit of population growth, and the physical constraints of resource availability ever more stressed, are ignored.
Secondly, there’s the question of wealth creation and distribution, and what we consider to be wealth. The twentieth century experiment has produced a system where the entities that are supposed to allow us to organise to generate wealth have a twisted idea of what wealth is, and at the same time, they are designed to function in a system that requires them to only generate that form of wealth, and then only for a select few, namely their shareholders. The scale issue mentioned two paragraphs above suggests that we need large organisations. That’s not the problem. It’s who owns them, how they’re run and for what purpose that needs to be considered. There are many forms of wealth and cash is only one of them. Whilst cash works if treated as a means to achieve contentment for all, it doesn’t work if its seen merely as an end in itself and ‘success’ is deemed to be the acquisition of more money than one needs. It’s possible to be a lonely and depressed millionaire in New York as it is a depressed homeless person on the streets of Mumbai.
Finally, there’s the problem of establishing a sustainable common view of what humanity should aspire to. If we assume (and I’m really not sure) that democracy is an ideal, or is anyway the least undesirable of all of the alternatives, then this is a fundamental requirement for moving forwards in the right direction. But in countries where democracy does indeed exist, the majority of the populations are largely ignorant of what the true issues are. Be it climate change (clueless about the science) to economics (dunno… just want to get this mortgage off my back, or worse, get a bigger one to outshine the neighbours). What is the practical way then to initiate a kind of massive paradigm shift (apologies for the cliche) in people’s perspectives such that they shift their priorities? How do you do it? How? Unless the majority of people, in democracies or not, from the Liverpool footie hooligan to the Mumbai slumb dweller via the New York corporate CEO, change their understanding and their aspirations, and the focus of their concerns, requisite change that might make a real difference and divert us from what appears at the moment to be a disastrous route, is surely unattainable. And just how do you persuade religious fundamentalists that they need to change? Be they nutcases in the US, or even greater nutcases in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
I actually have a more positive perspective than this rant may suggest, although I fight shy of trying to explain to myself why. A key tenet of the book I’m supposed to be writing (if I ever finish it) is the concept of temework. Not a spelling mistake but an acronym that stands for technology, education, moderation and equity, brought together into a strategic, societal framework that emphasises policies designed to encourage each of these aspects. We need technology. We need really clever technology that’s designed to suit our real requirements. An example of a real requirement is clean energy. 3D television is not a real requirement. A solution to providing clean energy lies with some really clever, bleeding edge stuff that costs a hell of a lot of money to research and develop… so we need institutions that have the cash and are incentivised to spend it in this way – think about that. Certainly for me, as a cynic of corporate organisations, it’s food for thought.
For example, it’s possible to burn coal, which is by far and away the most plentiful resource (ok.. what about wind and waves etc.. but think realistically about scale and cost and implementation) in such a way that hydrogen is generated, which can power fuel cells, the only by products from which are water and CO2, which can now, thanks to some phenomenal and very expensive scientific work, be combined with silica to make house bricks. Wow. Clean energy and cheap building materials, from the worlds most easily accessible energy resource. The kind of intermediate solution on the road to ubiquitous renewables that might actually be useful in a world of 9 billion people, most of whom are homeless and energy starved, in a world threatened by CO2 emissions. And remember that this coal resource is being used anyway. Now. That’s the reality. The Chinese are building masses of power stations based on this fuel. And neither you, nor me, nor anyone else is going to stop them. We haven’t got time to discuss niceties. Climate change is happening. We have to work with the realities. And technical innovations like this CO2/fuel cell stuff might allow that. But it wouldn’t be happening if as a society, we just turned away from the institutions that we have instead of working with them and modifying them. And they need modifying. Both corporates and Governments, to reflect different and more pressing realities. Why on earth are our oil companies subsidised with tax payer’s money? Because our Governmental priorities are all wrong. Why is the development of clean energy technology driven only by the corporate profit motive and not as a desirable thing to happen in society? Because in that simplistic, 20th century model, money is the only way we have of reflecting value or defining aspiration.
So that’s technology. There’s also GM crops, and alternatives to antibiotics (would we be objecting to those if they wee just being invented?), and nuclear power, and the meat debate, and the vulnerability of mega cities, and desalinisation, and a whole load of technologies that could have the kind of short term beneficial impacts that we need. But that would take too long to talk about. All take loads of wonga though, and very complicated organisations to make them happen.
What about education? Again, the problem seems to be one of trying to shift established paradigms. We in the west, and elsewhere now, raise our children to aspire to make money. In a sense we have no choice, because by virtue of the fact that we ourselves (in the main) are spending most of our lives focused on that objective, our children of course acquire the same habit. And its all exacerbated by the trash media that promotes such aspirations as being proper. There’s actually nothing wrong with seeking to be comfortable, but no one is ever taught about the costs. No one is ever taught about the context that enables us to be acquisitive, and what it actually means. How many American children realise that whilst the US comprises some 5% of the world’s population, it uses some 25% of its energy and creates about 26% of its waste? All that energy is sucked in from other parts of the world, where people can’t afford it. And the ignorance of those American children who, were they to know the facts would probably act to create a better world, is down to an educational system that just doesn’t tell them. The whole system rattles on as though it were still 1895 and the internal combustion engine was emerging as a catalyst of a whole new dawn of humanity, that led to that great 20th century experiment. It’s daft. The world has changed, as have priorities. But just how the hell do you change a global school education system? It’s hard enough faffing about with primary school syllabi in the UK. And then there’s religious fundamentalism, and celebrity culture, and home influences related in turn to poverty and ignorance etc etc. And don’t get me started on stubborn adult ignorance.
Then there’s moderation. Oh dear. Big one this. Has fingers in every pie. Everything from the education system to social hierarchies, to workplace ‘success’, to pension systems all point towards more and more acquisition and stuff. The whole idea is so entrenched in just about every aspect of every society on earth. And who’s to tell those in developing countries that they shouldn’t aspire to more than a mud hut and one meal a day if they’re lucky? But as such realisation manifests, the great machine kicks into gear and all of a sudden, a level of wealth that approximates to a global average kicks in as the minimal desirable objective. Of course, we all know that that average is hugely distorted by unequal distribution of resource use, but (back to education) how do you convince millions and millions of people that that’s the case? And that the rich should become less materially well off so the poor can become materially better off? And then there’s meat eating, and water use, and power use, and land use etc etc.
Finally there’s equity. Touched on already (all these issues are interlinked and interdependent). The debate about inequity isn’t based upon the idea of equitable distribution. It’s based upon the idea of everyone having the same degree of material wealth as the wealthiest. That’s what economic growth is about. That’s what ‘developing ‘ countries are developing for. To be the same as the US or Europe. But it’s not possible. Or rather it is, but only if some really smart tech is embraced really quickly, and then there’ll be a different sort of price to pay from the environmental decimation that we’re witnessing now. Rather a sort of environmental modification. Where wild spaces are no more but exist only due to benevolence, and most are utilised Be that with bloody great wave or wind farms, or factory farmed GM agriculture, or organic farmholding forced on people who’d rather not have their material aspirations capped by government. Consider the practical ideal of Contraction and Convergence, as espoused by Aubrey Meyer. Yeah, yeah. Well done Aubrey. Completely agree with you. Now go and tell the Chinese and the Yanks.
Which ever way it plays out, a crowded planet, with too few resources, lots of ignorance, too much religious bigotry and prejudice and an economic system that’s not only too inflexible but is based upon the wrong objectives, is not a context where higher ideals can be applied. One might believe in them, but there’s a danger that doing so is only to satisfy some selfish need to feel good about oneself. OK, OK. Better than doing nothing.
We have no choice but to hope that a greater wisdom will come to prevail. But the truth is that it isn’t going to happen quickly enough, and the sheer scale of the global change that’s required is too big. Unless we all stop arguing, look at what we have, become far more realistic about what’s required and what’s possible, and very rapidly implement global changes that must include the adoption of technologies like nuclear power, and hydrogen power, and solar and the rest, and GM crops in the right (non commercial) way, and land redistribution, and the changing of the whole prerogative and raison d’etre of all out of our economic, religious (fat chance) and commercial institutions, implemented according to national and local circumstances and needs, to reflect the actual global priorities that we now face. Not to mention changing the personal aspirations and value sets of millions of people. That requires a complete reassessment of what is meant by democracy – less big govt and more devolution. National institutions that exist to serve a national need, such as health, pharmaceutical research, energy research, education. Economies that are structured to reflect real, local needs, including changing the way people belong to organisations. People are not ‘human resources’ . People ARE the organisation. The organisation exists to serve our needs. Not the other way round. Look at the Mondgragon Corporation for an example of a different and better way of organising corporates, with broader and more realistic objectives and priorities. Local organisation to allow differentiation and freedom from enslavement to an outdated economic dogma, and the profit driven corporate institutions that represent it.
I doubt it’s going to happen. But I live in hope. Only just though. And I switch between stressed out ‘aware person’ and ‘oh fuck it’ resigned person.