26 June 2010
Last week a shock wave rippled through 2010 Transition Network conference. A last minute change to the programme, an intense 90 minute lecture titled Making Sense of the Financial Crisis in the Era of Peak Oil brought an inconvenient truth to light: we are facing a reality crunch, in which a global financial collapse is the defining event.
The intellectual rationale behind economic expansion has shaped our society for decades. Milton Friedman's Chicago School of Economics underpinned the pattern of corporate rule throughout the world since the 70s. In the aggressive defence of free markets the rich have become immensely rich, the poor more numerous, and public services everywhere have been dismantled in favour of the private sector. It's a pattern this week's Budget is set to uphold.
But even though we are a civilisation obsessed by money, the financial system itself is rarely discussed. Though banker and credit crunch have became household terms, it's not until you look at the relation between credit and real wealth that you realise you are looking at a chimera and at some point it's going to disappear into desert sand.
With the exploitation of fossil fuels the financial bubble has expanded like never before in history. 1600 trillion dollars of virtual money in 30 years. For every slice of real wealth pie that exists there are one hundred claims. Because credit expansion is built on illusion the spell eventually breaks and deflation sets in. Credit disappears, house prices go down, prices for essentials go up. People start hoarding and without the lubricant of money trade halts. What do we need to do now? Nicole Foss (who writes as 'Stoneleigh' in the financial blog, The Automatic Earth) advised a packed lecture hall: look at your structural dependency, deal with debt, and make relationships you can trust.
In a workshop the next day 300 Transitioners looked at the future. We explored in images and words what would happen in one year's time, then five, then ten. What did it mean that we had so much debt? Everywhere you saw a split between breakdown and breakthrough, fall and transcendence; in amongst the dark scribblings emerged butterflies and the phoenix.
What we experienced after the shock was a different pattern emerging within ourselves. We were shifting from individualism towards community. We realised that if everything was falling apart we needed to be coherent. In a time of strife we needed to be harmonious. The culture of the credit bubble – with its exclusive dwellings and high-maintenance lifestyle, the Shangri-La of every shopping mall in the kingdom – was ceding to one where people had very little except the wealth they had inside - a wealth they were prepared to share.
It's a pattern that is emerging everywhere. Countries that have weathered the free market zeal that brings corporations and the IMF into play forces them to hand over real wealth – their natural resources – and reduce their vibrant people into a voiceless underclass, are turning their fortunes round. It's a pattern of neighbourhood engagement, workers' co-operatives and localised networks that foster the diversity and inventiveness that make all eco-systems resilient. Instead of being shut-off and in competition the people are getting together and working out how to rebuild their lives.
Meanwhile it becomes clear in Britain that we have a government that for all its talk of Big Society is not here for the majority, but to protect the priviledged. There will be no bail out for ordinary people, so we will have help ourselves. And the first step is to realise we are not on our own: there are billions of us in the same boat. This lifeboat called Earth.
12 June 2010
By Rupert Read
How ought we to think of our relationship to - our responsibility for - future people? Is this question (a question pressing all the harder in the wake of the recent failure to adequately safeguard those future people, at Copenhagen) essentially a question of justice? The rallying cry at Copenhagen was, "What we do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!" But what if it's not enough to call for justice?
Let me explain…
Future generations – future people - are collectively our children. We give birth to them. They are even more powerless than the newest new-born baby. They cannot entreat, nor even scream, let alone return our gaze. They are dependent upon us for every aspect of their life-chances. For we cause them of course to come into being; but moreover, and ever-increasingly, we cause their conditions to be what they are, too.
What is fair is decided in a negotiation, or in a court. In the course of the negotiation or case, one deploys principles to make one's case. These principles, ideally, secure a reasonable agreement. But, there is no fairness, no genuine equity, between two utter unequals. Treating one's baby merely 'fairly' is abominable. Dividing food,warmth or shelter 'fairly', in such a circumstance; doing this ought to be a matter of profound shame. Such 'fairness' is an invitation to bad faith; because there is no actual 'contract' here, no agreement, no negotiation; just whatever you decide 'is' fair.
So: fairness is not what is most to the point, here. We need to rely on something stronger.
Well, one must love one's newborn child. It must be second-nature to treat it as generously as one can. Or, to treat it as not separate from oneself at all.
The very same is true of future people. The analogy is so direct, it is barely worth calling an analogy: future generations are our children. The case is stronger still: if it is true that we must love our new-borns, then it's even more obvious that we must love our descendants, the future ones. Because they are still more profoundly our dependents (our children) than our own dependents (our children) are, for they are nothing without our love and care. Without that care, they will in many cases not even get the chance to exist…
There is no real chance of our descendants inheriting a planet habitable for civilisation, unless we love them. It is not enough to seek to be fair/just. We are going to have to open our hearts to the people of the future as we open our hearts to a new-born. We are going to actually have to care about them enough, for instance, to be genuinely willing to sacrifice the fripperies that decorate our dwellings, our lives, etc., and which are being produced at the cost of the future. It would be truly terrible not to do this, as (on a business-as-usual model) seems likely.
It may be very demanding, to demand love. It may leave us with little hope that we can do enough. But it's better to try to do something that would be enough than not even to try.
Let us give our all for our descendants, our collective children. For us not to be myopic, they need to be real to us. In short: let us love them.
That's the answer to the question which forms my title. It's not enough to try to do right by future generations merely by trying to do them justice, or merely to be 'fair' to them. We should give up, and admit that we do not love and do not really care, and consign them to their terrible fate – or we should love them.
I recommend the latter course.
5 June 2010
I am revisiting Greece next week, where I always feel immensely comfortable as a fellow European. Greek 'philoxenia' (friendship to foreigners) won my affections long ago, so I shall closely observe how the world crisis of unregulated finance markets is unfolding in Greece.
The EU/IMF (International Monetary Fund)'s 'rescue package' for Greece seems set to deepen recession. The IMF is demanding severe cuts in public services and 50% cuts in pensions. Taxes will rise, as will prices - even for education and medicine. It will be easier to sack people, so low Greek wages will worsen further. A mass exodus of young talent is expected. (There has already been an exodus of the tax-evaded profits and savings of the wealthy, much of it to London).
So what should Greeks do? Nobody wants disgusting fire-bomb deaths or self defeating violence. Should ordinary Greeks pay for a crisis created by banks and rotten politicians? Can the token strikes and protests become a coordinated resistance linked to specific demands - such as regulation and control of financial capital - or will the Greek working class and civil society back off if the left fails to describe such alternatives?
Greeks famously once declared 'Ohi!' (No!) to Mussolini's demands for submission. If they resist the IMF similarly, should we offer solidarity? What if strikes are met with government hostility and - heaven forbid - troops? Or do we watch passively and hope the crisis stops at Greece or Spain and doesn't reach our shores?
Today's Greece may be tomorrow's Ireland, Portugal, Spain or Britain if financiers take advantage of vulnerability. The pound may not escape the speculators currently targeting the Euro. Speculators are not restrained by national borders - that is partly the cause of this crisis. So is it possible for ordinary British citizens to protect their interests while disengaging from concern about what's happening to others?
Prime Minister David Cameron recently rejected a Euro-zone appeal for UK funds to help stabilise the crisis of Greece and the Euro-zone. Perhaps he believes that 22 miles of the so-called English Channel can resist a run on the pound. A united European response, he said, was contrary to the interests of British people. But which British people? His fellow millionaire, former members of Eton and the Bullingdon Club? Or the elderly, the low paid and the unemployed on the estates of North Norwich and Great Yarmouth? Will he share out austerity according to capacity to endure? A 5% cut in cabinet salaries hardly equals the loss of a council worker's job, youth employment training or a pensioner's health visitor.
As the crisis or 'recovery programme' unfolds, the wealthy of Greece, Britain and elsewhere can cushion potential discomfort with their property and savings, investment incomes, financial mobility and accountants. They will not feel increased student fees and council tax, VAT at 20% or more and longer hospital queues. Closure of community centres won't impact on the lives of the well off, British or Greek.
I shall watch England's progress in the football World Cup in bars in Greece next week and cheer for England. I may even wave a flag while urging on Wayne Rooney. But I have no illusions that waving the same flag as David Cameron, cheering the same football team or sharing his nationality means my interests are the same as his or his class.
Britishness won't protect Britain’s economy and currency if speculators target them. So like it or not we are all Greeks now: their fate is ours. Pretty soon we may all be Irish, Portuguese and Spanish. And we may realise we are united not by flags and football teams or a spurious version of 'national interest' but by the interests and humanity of people in the same boat as us - wherever they live. And we may wish we had supported their resistance earlier.