To be realistic we must be heretics

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The idea that we should move to an economy where we share resources and don’t simply consume them thoughtlessly is utter heresy. It can hardly even be talked about.

by Derek Wall
Morning Star, June 5, 2011

The recent figures on CO2 emissions are sobering. Despite the fact that the world has suffered a terrible recession, emissions are still rising.

In essence all the efforts to tackle climate change have simply slowed the rise a little rather than reversing it.

The problem is that the solutions to climate change put forward at international conferences like Copenhagen and Cancun dare not deal with the real root cause of climate change – our current economic system.

Simply put, our economic system is based on the accumulation of money. There is a constant race to throw money into the system and to get more money out at the other end.

That’s what modern life is about.

From Fifa to the current conflict in Libya, the desire to accumulate cash sets the objectives for society.  If something makes cash it is holy in the eyes of the economists, the media and virtually all political parties.

So climate change is tackled internationally by “market-based” methods. These fail time and time again, but more effective action would require a change in our priorities.

Our economic system is based on resource extraction. Minerals, metals and fossil fuels are taken out of the ground, made into goods and then thrown away.

The faster the cycle the more profit is made.

If you think about it for more than a minute or two, there is something rather mad about this methodology. The cost to the natural environment is immense. Right across the planet fragile ecosystems are under enormous threat.

The human cost is also huge. The value of good is based ultimately on the labour power involved, so globally neoliberal governments are competing to come up with new ways of making human beings work long and harder to produce more.

We know there is a race to the bottom with governments deregulating to make their territories more attractive for multinationals to set up.

Cutting corporation tax, slashing benefits, closing old people’s homes to save cash, weakening trade union rights, all are stepping stones for modern policy-makers the world over.

The physical process of removing resources from the earth also does immense damage to human beings. There are many examples, yet few of them are reported by the media.

Last year Brazilian environmental activist Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva predicted that he would be killed by loggers and others who wanted to clear swathes of the Amazonian rainforest. A couple of weeks ago he was killed, joining a long list of those murdered for defending the environment.

In Colombia, peasants and indigenous people regularly have their land stolen by right-wing paramilitaries. The land is used to produce palm oil which goes into cosmetics and to make biofuels.

The European Union has decreed that all EU states must increase their use of biofuels and the main source is Colombia. Biofuels are used by the EU to greenwash their unsustainable policies.

In Peru, there are huge protests as I write, with Aymara people mobilising to stop a mining corporation polluting their land. In 2008, over 100 indigenous people were murdered by the Peruvian police after protesting over the rainforest in their country being privatised and sold to oil and gas companies.

As we have seen in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia, those governments that argue that resources should be used to help society are labelled as dangerous extremists by the world’s media.

The idea that we should move to an economy where we share resources and don’t simply consume them thoughtlessly is utter heresy. It can hardly even be talked about.

However there is no overwhelming practical reason why we could not have an economy that provides prosperity for all while reducing waste and moving beyond simple extraction.

Instead of using biofuels for cars, would it not be better to find more efficient ways of moving from A to B? Good public transport such as buses and rail use a fraction of the fuel per person than cars.

Why travel as much? Why not roll out broadband and have more of us working from home instead of commuting?

Cycling and walking are not just low-carbon but healthy. The idea that we all need a piece of heavy metal to get us from A to B is a religion among most politicians and commentators.

When car manufacturing became an endangered species during the recession, governments across the world poured in cash to conserve Ford and other manufacturers. With the expertise of workers, car companies could be transformed to produce goods which are more beneficial to society, from buses to wind turbines, in a green industrial plan. Manufacturing could be made green and an ecological industrial revolution is vital.

Why not make goods so they last longer? That would reduce resource use and make us more prosperous in a real sense.

Why not make goods easy to repair?

Why not expand libraries not just for books but all manner of goods that we need some but not all of the time?

Thus we could conserve resources and rainforests and stop abusing the human rights of those who get in the way of giant mining projects and big oil.

In short, there are ways of raising material prosperity without destroying the earth. However, these tend to reduce the potential for economic accumulation and profit.

The irrationality of an economic system that fails if we consume less must be replaced by an economy based on what is rational for human beings and the rest of nature.

Without focusing on the realities of the economic system, much environmental action is simply ineffective or worse.

There is a huge emphasis on personal lifestyle change.

For example, I have read many horrific reports about the abuse of local people in Paraguay for soya. Land has long been stolen and the pesticides used kill people. Those who object have been repressed and often murdered.

We might draw the conclusion that we should drink less soya milk or just go for organic. While I agree that it is important to look at our consumption, on a more fundamental level to change lifestyle is wrong.

It is more compensatory rather than emancipatory. It “compensates” us for our guilt at how the world works, but it does not in any real sense move us to a different world.

To make a difference means using political change to move to a sane economy that does not function on waste and exploitation.

In Paraguay, the left has won recent elections. Political change is going to make lives better for people there more effectively than decisions about what we put in our tea.

Green consumerism rests on a false notion of consumer sovereignty. But consumer sovereignty is a myth – the current economic system does not respond to our demands but seeks to shape them.

It’s about power, political institutions need to be changed.

Look at the way that global neoliberal institutions like the WTO, IMF and the World Bank promote development which is so damaging to people and planet.

It’s possible to build an economy that works.

But an economy that works has to be based on democratic control and our present economy system centralizes power into the hands of a tiny minority. They use their power and influence to prevent change.

Shifting the economy is not going to be easy but it is necessary.

The idea of democracy in a liberal sense was once seen as mob rule. And the notion of economy democracy with equality and ecology is now seen as heresy.

In a world of climate change, rising food prices, resource wars, extreme inequality and financial catastrophe, I would argue that to be realistic one must subvert the system and change the rules of the game.

Derek Wall is the author of The Rise of the Green Left.