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Corrected rights of life

Gerhard Weissmann

Modern economic beliefs remain as primitive as those of Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, which were formed along the mechanistic lines of the Newtonian mechanics of the eighteenth century. Options to improve our national situation today are limited by three factors, which are (a) the numbers of people that have to be accommodated, (b) the reserves of mineral and natural resources (clean air, water, raw-materials) that remain available to the national economy, and (c) most importantly, a lack of wisdom of governments to manage the conflicting demands for private wealth on the one hand and the equitable distribution of life support factors on the other.

Current economic beliefs have not served our planet at all well. We don’t even understand how our generation “developed” this planet into its present mess. The First World is largely living at the cost of impoverishment in the Third World. It demands to be supplied – at zero cost of the material and at low digging up costs – with resources which are mined out of national regions like Australia, South America and Canada. In their pursuit of economic ideologies, our governments disrupt our lives and our society, and in the process arable areas are destroyed. Yet more economic growth is held out as

a panacea, while the cost of correcting the existing environmental damage further erodes national wealth through their substantial inflationary pressures.

These are the consequence of having to meet such items as the cost of pest eradication, the provision of potable water, soil rehabilitation and the loss of land to salt and deserts. All around us we observe that the forests and fish stocks are collapsing, the atmosphere is being loaded with indigestible and toxic chemicals, and human population controls are non-existent. It will only take the failure of a basic food crop like potatoes or rice to cause a major collapse of civil order. All that in spite of – or because of – computer modelling, because the down-side of economics is never factored into the models.

As a guide for better management we could use a better interpretation of the “Laws of nature”, like Murphy’s Law (which is related to the Second Law of Thermodynamics). That Law says “if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong”, or if anything can degrade, it will go that way. If that is the real outcome of development, to degrade the quality of resources and the natural environment through economic activity, then the grand total of that activity, the annual Gross National Product, is a true measure of the speed with which humans are able to destroy their habitat and that of other species around them in their drive for human wealth creation.

We must therefore ask our government not “How can we become more efficient?” but rather whether there is a way in which we may have an input into the decision making processes without having more of this so-called development forced upon us? Why are we made to compete with each other, to accept unnecessary disruption of our lives, for such harebrained ideas as “balancing the Budget”? Australia is arguably the richest country in the world with assets of about a A$1 million per capita, as revealed by the World Bank in September 1995. Are we incapable of keeping exploitative development in check simply because our government will not permit any change in direction?

If we want Australians not to deliberately destroy this continent to serve the rest of the world’s economic community, and to provide for the future of our own nation, we will have to re-discover that there is no development without devastation in places where the supplies are extracted and where waste can be deposited. Those in power, in science and in government, certainly have forgotten about that side of development. We might have to re-write the basic law of development in a form closer to reality.

It is not possible to have development and life unless there is a continuous and steady supply of high quality useable energy from the sun. And the laws of physics state that material and energy on the earth can be converted from one kind into another if and only if in the process total entropy is increased. It is the increase in entropy that drives the conversion.

It is a necessary condition for economic activity that material and energy will be used up. This can be simply interpreted as “we are living in an entropy increasing field” (Weissmann, 1988-96).

That means that even our “solutions” require more inputs than they yield.

Economic activity, including human labour, consists of nothing other than converting high quality minerals, fuels, arable soils, water, air, into low quality waste, hence making the remaining reserves scarcer, driving up prices, causing inflation, destroying living space and existing old established social structures. Economic growth, therefore, means not more development but more destruction! Would it therefore not be more intelligent to limit such exploits to an absolutely unavoidable minimum? Whatever humanity does will reduce the quality of materials and energy available to it on this planet. Unless there is a deliberate “intelligent” change towards longer term durability, there will be no alternative.

People are now indoctrinated into a desire for ever more growth. The irrationality of this belief emerges from the fact that human population numbers began to escalate at the onset of the industrial and agrarian age – the recent “age of development”. Social quality began to decline as people abandoned the intelligent pursuit of biological balance with their environment and put their faith in the power of money.

Further “development” does not lead to “new global civilisation” but, since the carrying capacity of the earth seems to have been reached, heralds the onset of the collapse of ecosystems and impoverishment of the entire human species, hence the collapse of existing civilisations as is occurring in North Africa, Syria, Palestine and other nations.

If my proposition of the “New Law of Development” were to become accepted, then it might become clearer that the ultimate ethical behaviour for humankind would be to leave things alone, not to make tracks on the moon, not to demand further exploitation and so-called “development”, not to expect that everything exists only for the purpose of conversion into wealth for a few. It may drive home to people that the way we live and chase growth contributes substantially to the degradation of the earth and all who live upon it.

If we were really concerned about accepting responsibility for that decay, we would limit our numbers as fast as possible. We would abandon our current economic mindset. And we would lock up the bankers and money managers.

In the interest of better “house-keeping”, it would be wise to observe our surroundings and, if there are substantial signs of deterioration, to demand from our governments that such devastation be taken as evidence that we are putting our future in jeopardy. The economic mindset of governments is in large measure responsible for perpetuating the deterioration. The upside of any economic shrinkage is that it will slow the decay. And the state of the local environment will be an indicator of the true health of the nation.

So it is up to us, each one of us, to compel our governments to abandon their obsession with increasing economic activity, to throw out their forecasting computers, to refuse locking us into a Cyber-Age lest our continent and this planet become uninhabitable for us. This would not only be wise but essential if we wish to avoid the collapse of our nations and civilisation.

If we believe that economic rationalism is indeed destroying – rather than enhancing – our lives, then we will have to look for the means to change our governments’ minds. We could use persuasion by declaring the pursuit of economic ideologies to be unethical, like smoking in public. However, since many governments seem to be uninterested in ethics, the problem would shift to getting governments adopt more ethical behaviour in spite of their beliefs.

First, there are rarely held events called elections, where manipulated masses choose from a short list of individuals who are mental captives of power. A more equitable system of candidatures and elections would need to be devised.

Next, the infrequency of elections and the broad raft of policy proposals that are offered on those occasions gives rise to the claim for so-called “mandates” to do certain things when no such mandate was intended. “Citizen Initiated Referendum” would be one way to offer the opportunity for direct input to urgent, selected, single topics at any time, not only at elections.

Lastly there is the legal process for people with a grievance to take a government to court for abrogating its duty of care for the people. To do that, however, transgression of some rule has to be proven. The Westminster System has no written rules, hence no direction about how a government is to govern. Since governments seem to be in doubt about whose welfare ought to be their concern, it arguably becomes necessary to write such a rule into the Constitution. Thus, I would like to propose that the following sentence be added to the Australian Constitution:

“It is the responsibility of any government (federal, state or local) to make the long and short term well-being of its electorate and hence its living space the first consideration before any others”.

Thus Budget considerations, security, trade, and law and order would all become secondary to the well-being of the nation and its living-space. That means, for instance, that permitting wood chipping of old growth forests or exporting natural gas (which put the future of a living-space and hence the nation’s status at risk) would be an indictable offence for a government and its ministers. The growth of the population also would be strictly controlled.

Although less circumspect members of governments would vehemently oppose such perceived “infringements” of their powers, a government that operated in the interest of maximising the real welfare of its electors would be more secure than one which ignores justified, reasoned demands.

Naturally, many powerful corporations would also oppose such moves. However it is simply unethical for citizens to allow those in receipt of the supposed benefits of the free market, privatization and competition policies to destroy the nation’s fabric and living-space. It may just be an attempt to stem the flow of the inevitable, but not even to have tried – to give in without a whimper – seems intolerable.

As the earth has reached the limit of its carrying capacity, conventional economic mindsets and further “economic growth” will ever faster erode our environmental support. It seems that a few powerful individuals deliberately employ economic processes to achieve two things: on the one hand to suppress the clamour of the masses by locking them into a “work ethic” mindset, and on the other hand to provide monetary wealth for a few to survive the gradual collapse of governments and the resulting onslaught of economic refugees. A re-think of economics is therefore now urgent!

Many well informed observers believe the earth has now passed beyond this limit. If this is so, then much effort will need to be devoted to devising ways in which the damage that has been done already may be reversed.

Gerhard Weissmann is an ERA member who lives in SA

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