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Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die: Global crises and political failure.
Longtime Webdiary reader, musician, book vendor and philospher Rob Scott has kindly given for this blog to be republished here.
My partner is anxious and concerned. As part of a PHD programme she has been exposed to a concentrated dose of environmental doom and gloom. All of it warranted, no doubt, and much of it common currency amongst anybody concerned with the prospect of environmental breakdown and impending catastrophes, like Global Warming.Now she would like to know what can be done about these problems. Gabriele is German. She is rightly proud of the progressive way that environmental issues have been approached in Germany, especially under the influence of the Greens.
She was surprised to find out that the Green Party in Australia is much less a specifically Socialist or left Wing Party than that of Germany. This is due to some historical peculiarities of the West German left and I will examine that at a later date.Gabriele is also frustrated by the political games being played with the issue of reducing Carbon emissions in Australia. The extent to which the Liberal opposition has deliberately gone on a campaign against a Carbon Tax has frustrated her immensely, and made her ask if the political system, adversarial and always focused upon the next election, is capable of dealing with the real issues confronting Australia and the world.
Although I am generally inclined to blame the global capitalist system and its bureaucratic pseudo-Communist partners in crime for the whole mess, in this instance I will try to directly address Gabriele's concerns.As the title of this piece presumes, we are all in this boat together but nobody wants to be thrown over the side to help save the rest. We are in complex territory, beyond the experience of any single human being. The politics of avoiding environmental catastrophe are going to be crucial.
Thanks to a clever Biology teacher, with a penchant for exposing his students to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the population politics of Paul Ehrlich,I Have lived with many of these issues for much of my life. I have also tried to be an activist, where I thought it might help.
Sometimes I have sat back and waited, rather than been as active as I might have been.The big wheels of society and the economic and social systems which sustain us take a long time to turn. Over the last 40 years the wheel has turned in favour of a vast expansion of the reach and effects of global capitalism.
Radical social change, which seemed to be within our grasp in the 60's and 70's, has slipped away. The prospect that anti-war movements and environmental activism might bring the collapse of capitalism closer has diminished and that leaves us holding the bag of an outdated system, and facing the catastrophic consequences of allowing that system to prevail.We are in the belly of the whale, awaiting the slow digestion and fouling of the world's environment, whilst feeding the behemoth of global capital, with our air and our forests and our water, and with the future of our offspring.
That said, what do we do? I am afraid that the big picture has to look after itself. Capitalism has such a hold on the world, has so successfully spread its virus, that it is difficult to imagine its imminent supplanting by a socialist or similar model. Reviving Rosa Luxemburg's notion that, if we fail to replace the capitalist system, the choice is between Socialism or Barbarism is intellectually attractive, but unlikely to solve our immediate dilemmas.It is true, as Gabriele often tells me, that these are many elements amongst the existing structures who see the train wreck coming and are trying to adapt their processes and goals towards a sustainable future. Other elements such as Coal miners and financial interests, committed to a system based on expanding the wealth extracted from the environment, and maximising returns and continual growth, have probably got different ideas.
There is no single capitalist system to which one might appeal to stop the activities that threaten the survival of our species. There are many divergent interests, which sort out their differences via the Market. It has been argued for many years under the banner of Thatcherite neo-Liberalism that the Market will sort out competing interests and ensure positive outcomes. I don't subscribe to this notion at all.I am trying to see a way forward that takes into account both the negatives, the urgency of the situation and the inability of the political, economic and social systems we have to deal with such issues.
The answer has to come from what humans have done before. Even though the systems in which we live are incredibly complex, they are merely outgrowths of what has come before. The simple systems which sustained people in monetary poverty but in reasonable harmony with nature and the seasons and with what was sustainable and what was not have only been suborned and abandoned on a global scale in the last 100 years or so. The global trend is for more and more of the population to live in cities. There is obviously no prospect of returning at one fell stroke to some kind of rural idyll. There must however be at least one or two simple lessons from the past that show the way forward, with the least catastrophic consequences.
Implicit in Gabriele's frustration is the question of whether or not an authoritarian government might be able to impose the changes we need upon the society and avoid the policy weakness and sheer opportunism of 'Democracy'. This is a question which will inevitably be raised as deteriorating environmental conditions and related catastrophes become more urgent issues in the public mind.To pose the question as a choice between the undesirable and the ineffectual is to dangerously narrow our options. I don't have the answers, but I do have at least one alternative pathway to explore. It came to me whilst watching a TV programme, from around 2007, on Australia's publicly funded multicultural TV station SBS.
Two brothers were examining all the options for the emergence of an electric or alternative fuel car. They showed everything from backyard operations to the Tesla car and in between. One participant in the movie made a comment to the effect that each year, bit by bit, people would begin to create the future. There would be no 'Big Bang', the future would be built, brick by brick, car by car, until eventually the combustion engine would be a thing of the past.My natural inclination is to dismiss such optimism, but in this instance I believe it taps into something which has been brewing since the time of the recent Global Financial Crisis. The GFC made a large number of people look at the system, the bargains they had made with it, to pursue careers, get superannuation, live the good life, and they saw the flaws exposed graphically. As the house of cards that is global finance tumbled, it took with it a lot of the faith that people have in the system. As it continues on, thriving on chaos, if it can't thrive on irrational exuberance, the globalised capitalist system has left many trailing in its wake, ready to swim to another shore if they can find one.
Humans are strange creatures. My favourite author Kurt Vonnegut, was at pains to point out how random, ineffectual, deluded and often downright rotten we can be. Yet, deluded as we are, each day we begin at the beginning. Every day is an opportunity to change how we live, how we work with others and which parts of the system we want to buy and which ones we wish to exchange for something better.Since the GFC people are acting for their own good. They are often doing it with others however. As the most dire of human situations, the hopeless existences of Concentration camp and Gulag inmates has shown, those who band together and co-operate have a much greater chance of survival.
Community Gardens are springing up across my city. People are talking again about community. Gabriele and I envisage that the lawns and backyards of suburbia will soon be defacto market gardens as people reject the systems that provide their food, or respond to the breakdown of impossibly complex systems by recreating simple systems. The movement towards Organic food is a prime example of the shift in consciousness which is currently occurring. The city dwellers are voting Green and voting with their feet and their bicycles and their use of public transport.The old Socialist movements, prior to the deluge created by World War 1 and the Bolshevik revolution, were founded on a number of pillars. One of them was the role of the producers, as workers another was their role as consumers. Co-operatives were a fundamental component of the British Labour Party and remain part of it today. Although dismissed as a form of participation in capitalism, Utopian Socialism, easily sucked into the system, this role of organised producer and consumer may emerge again as the people show the way to the future.
Scared politicians and would be despots will not be the ones to stand up in the boat and set sail to the future. I have the funny suspicion it will be you, and hopefully me too.The future is what we make it. Nobody else will do it for you.