To save our children we need to know why we do what we do
The state of the planet
Atmospheric scientists are in agreement that we are responsible for changing the climate, which already shows its severity in many ways and places. There are a host of problems we are inflicting on nature and therefore, on ourselves. An expected extra two billion people with fewer resources on a hotter planet will jeopardize our children’s lives before the middle of this century. However, generally but particularly for all mammals, the wellbeing of offspring is paramount for each species. But today, for the first time humans have a new situation where people are placing their life style above their children’s future. People have managed that because we are pounded with information aimed to mislead or hide the gravity of the situation, which is now more obvious in its severity and may be unstoppable next decade. The capitalist Media has used the educated, particularly psychologists, in public relation companies to divert people’s attention on to trivia, and so crucial scientific information cannot make its mark on the public.
There are numbers of dedicated people including scientists who have tried to change society to a sustainable economy by challenging the oligarchs and their agents in government elections and public forums. This means that liberal minded concerned people are participating in competitive activities against overwhelmingly powerful foes — the corporates and oligarchs’ agents who are masquerading as peoples’ representatives. The reality is that those agents have an overwhelming competitive advantage over the masses and we call that democracy. It is unlikely that such unfair contests can ever become fair.
Capitalist Democracies’ thoughtless self-destruction
Capitalism has given the top 1% of the population what they want, which is the opportunity to be the wealthiest and most powerful of the richest people ever seen. For those few, in societies containing many educated people, an appearance of improving living standards must be maintained if those educated ones are to accept the extravagances of the few. But unless the unsustainable fossil fuels are magically sustained, societies will collapse; oil is the only source of energy that can be both on tap anywhere and available at any time. Unconventional oil poses extreme danger to the environment, and also takes much more energy to extract and process, all of which will change the chemistry of the biosphere to an even worse detrimental state. If we wait for the oil to run out to force a change, it will be too late and too hot for our survival. Furthermore, our dependence on those fuels is gradually locking us in on their use the longer we exploit them, because the infrastructures to use
them are only suitable with cheap oil. If we stay on course, the depletion of the oil will curtail most activities as we have come to know them — mining, food production and distribution, much of the water from aquifers, and our reliance on trade and travel. This will be catastrophic in a climate of extremes and a more populated world.
The present competitive exploitative system is also driven by a financial system of debt created money that can only be sustained with the increasing consumption of energy and resources. The financial flaws are easy to rectify, but it is not possible to maintain a conventional oil supply let alone a growing one, regardless of financial strength.
Civilised societies have concerns for life, providing it does not reduce their competitive advantage over their opponents. That attitude is an outcome of the illusion that wealth is paramount (that ideology is an integral part of the Media’s propaganda). Unfortunately, social reformists and environmentalists are competing against that attitude without directly confronting the long term dire effects that include the wealthy. Instead the reformists are focused entirely on poor people especially from the third world who will die because of billionaires’ greed. It has no effect on the greedy, who are the only ones that can change their own attitude, with help. Those well-meaning people see the billionaires as enemies and ignore the fact that billionaires are for the most part oblivious of the dangers they also face. However, everyone’s first concern is survival and in the best possible condition. Once those ultra-rich people understand the tragic situation they would face with business as usual we can save them and ourselves. After all, the capitalist system demands certain attributes, and greed is the quintessence of competition; so those greedy billionaires are fulfilling capitalism’s needs like everyone in their own way.
Scientists have found after wide and intensive investigations that a one degree average rise in temperature will raise the sea by up to 2.3 metres, which indicates that much more than 80% of fossil fuels must stay in the ground. According to Dr James Hansen, if we burn all of the available coal our planet will go the way of Venus, with a surface temperatures of molten lead.
Although scientists, in a wide range of disciplines, have published many papers on the unsustainability of the global economy since the late 1960s, that information has been ignored by plutocrats and the media, as it contradicts the needed growth that a competitive system requires. However we cannot adapt to impossible conditions, and must change the system to survive, but how?
Our central problem
Whether an individual is a plutocrat or a domestic servant, we all coexist within a competitive society living the best way we can, according to what we are allowed to get away with. Competition works in opposite ways for the two opposite levels of society. For the top level the contest is to maximise wealth and power and for the bottom level the contest is to maximise the production of goods and services at the lowest cost. Where wealth is the ultimate pursuit,
it is accumulative, and this has produced the gross wealth and power disparity so evident under capitalism. Therefore the wealthy and powerful have a strong interest in maintaining a system that increases competition. Nevertheless, competition can only be maintained by increasing the use of fossil fuels.
The operation of capitalist democratic societies is motivated and controlled by competition, which has come to replace social needs as the primary motivator. The paramount concern for individuals is how they can fare within a competitive world. The result being that the decisions we make as a society tend to be primarily determined by the competitive opportunities we face. This means that people are fulfilling the needs of competition, rather than social needs. Furthermore, as competitive pressures intensify in society, qualities like cooperation, honesty and caring will diminish.
Even worse than the above, and with a general feeling that business may be maintained as usual, many people are more afraid of unemployment and their immediate higher living costs than they are of the dire future their children will face. One reason why pessimism prevails in regard to changing our system is that there are many who still view humanity as a genetically flawed species, and conclude that humans are only capable of creating flawed social and economic systems. However one should consider carefully the 180,000 years of modern human existence when evaluating human behaviour. Beliefs about the general frailty and inadequacy of human beings often involve cherry- picking from available information about the behaviour of a few powerful individuals in idiosyncratic circumstances. It shifts the blame that should be attributed to a dysfunctional and unfair social system on to people.
A related issue is that many people have been persuaded to believe the planet and everything residing in it exists just for human exploitation. The most debilitating problems have been caused by the effects and influence of the media-entertainers-advertisers. They engulf all of us with ‘information’ whose primary objective is to improve the operation of global capitalism, a system which can only function at present by using fossil fuels. To support the current system, entertainment media provide competitive quiz shows, professional sports (the more violent the better), dramas centred on crime and violence, and other trivial circuses. Some of these diversions are even invading schools. Unfortunately many well-intended people are going down the pathway of campaigning to bring ‘sustainability’ to capitalism by advocating participation in a competitive system that, by its nature, increases consumption and increases social inequity. This is a futile course of action, because it creates uncertainty as well as harsh exploitative behaviour towards people and nature.
What we should do
Some of the wealth and power enjoyed by the top stratum of society could be used to effect change in the direction of a sustainable and fair society as a whole, providing those possessing that wealth perceive such change to be in their interest and their own survival. Plutocrats give consideration to their self-interest, which is why they are plutocrats; it is the way to capitalist success. They are what they are, not because of a strong belief in capitalism, but because it is in their self-interest.
However if they see their demise in “business as usual”, they might change direction to one in which their children would stand a chance of survival. That requires us to advocate reforms which would change the direction of the economy to one promoting survival, and also would be acceptable – even grudgingly – to some of the wealthy few.
We have little time left to effect change for our survival, because living systems soon will be incapable of maintaining the necessary chemical balance within the earth’s biosphere for a liveable planet. Humanity cannot survive such an eventuality (which may be irreversible soon) unless a sufficient number of plutocrats can be convinced that their behaviour is driving humanity towards extinction. The only way to survive this century is to live within nature’s limits, and the sooner that happens the more likely it will be that our children will survive. It will be easier to avoid that annihilation by informing all billionaires of their likely fate than by attempting to outdo their destructive propaganda.
What we need to know
We are still concerned with striving for different systems, leaders, policies and goals; we think that we need a plan and a system for the future, but this has been one of our diversions. What we need to know is what sort of creatures we are, what sort of life makes us happy, and what sort of life the rest of nature can accept and sustain so that we can have the best life support system. Whatever we do has to conform to those criteria, if our children are to survive. How we do it will vary according to local circumstances in conjunction with other people’s needs, as they must likewise act according to our needs.
However, those simple principles can only be attained if we aim to save everyone. Because everyone, stupid or clever, careful or careless, weak or strong, wealthy or poor, are in some way important to us, as is nearly all of nature. Meeting those basic needs will enable a common interest and change our attitudes, which are the legacy of increasing competition over the centuries, and the cause of the social harshness and deceitfulness we are now experiencing. Those social attributes will change to kindness, sharing, and an affinity with all people and living things. We would then only wish to produce what will give us happiness and fulfilment within nature’s ability to thrive.
Human adaptability that has enabled people to withstand in “peacetime” the loneliness of living in cities, where millions of strangers live in a synthetic environment. Sadly and deplorably, the toll has been significant over those thousands of years of civilisation, the worst casualties being wars to dominate and rob people. The deleterious effect on the physical and mental health of most people just to satisfy the acquisition of enormous wealth and status of very few people was justified by creating imaginary visions that the majority could somehow be associated with that wealth and status. Although oil has given us new horizons of “progress”, its use is also life’s greatest danger and our attachment to it is our greatest challenge to overcome for our survival.
What we need to change for our survival
We will have to live with – and as a part of – nature. We should not be using and running down nature by wastefully using millions of years of stored energy from the sun within only a few centuries, in order that the few can acquire and maintain their extravagances. Cheap fossil fuels have undercut labour, owing to taxes and charges associated with labour and subsidies linked to fossil fuels. Under those cost structures there must be perpetual growth, without which in the current circumstances we would have intolerable unemployment.
Even a (possibly reluctant) consent by the wealthy few to the following short list of minor changes within the wealthier nations would set us on the road to survival and a better life for all.
- Gradually shifting the distribution of taxes and charges from labour to unearned income (e.g. land use, financial investments, real estate, and speculative activity). Also imposing taxes on non-renewable resources such as the use of land, seas, fossil fuels, and renewables beyond their capacity – like fishing. Also imposing charges on chemical and atmospheric pollution, particularly carbon emissions, to pay for its real cost.
- Ensuring that people’s well-being becomes the responsibility of the community, not of employers. Their responsibility is to provide safe and interesting work conditions, producing the requirements of society efficiently with the least pollution.
- Legislating to enable governments, and perhaps also communities, to take on the role of creating all of the money required by the general public and businesses according to their needs. The primary role of commercial financial institutions would be to on-lend that money to borrowers. That demarcation of roles would better serve the interest of allowing people to satisfy needs according to availability.
- Mechanisms must be devised for ensuring that the purchase costs of goods and services increasingly reflect their total cost for the world communities of today as well as that of future people. The prices of goods and services required for adequate life support could start very low (or even zero) for small quantities, and gradually increase per unit consumed. This is the opposite of the present method, which aims to maximise consumption, leading to over-consumption and waste.
- The necessary changes to taxes and charges would be gradual and sensitively introduced. For example, eventually no charges or taxes would be imposed on the task of employing people or on the income derived from human labour, which would reduce the cost of labour by about half or less. It would do that with improved human well-being and individual security.
This would ensure lower costs for the supply of government services like education, health, local transport, and infrastructure maintenance. Furthermore small businesses would benefit as their main cost at present is labour. It would revitalise smaller shops, bring small manufacturers closer to their clients, and bring about more interaction with people rather than electronic machines. The new cost structure aimed at reducing consumption would also reduce the drive for ever more money and private property, which must have an impact on crime levels. And most importantly, it will enhance personal relations.
The challenging journey outlined above is necessary for survival. It cannot be done too suddenly or without care, tempting though its speedy imposition might be. These few measures may be applied flexibly, and can hasten the day when we work to improve life instead of exploiting people and nature.
* Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).
** Dr James Hansen is Adjunct Professor of Earth Sciences at Columbia University.
Lionel Anet is an ERA member living in NSW