Nov 272021

Where were we?

Oh yes:

rising inequality;
and of course the pending implosion of basically all systems, due to climate change.

Is there any point in writing? Is there any point of signing petitions which governments don’t even bother to read, of joining protest marches that attract little notice unless they are brutally castigated by riot police. Is there any point of even discussing these issues?

Over the past decade, Greta Thunberg, Thomas Piketty, and Yuval Noah Harari have all been saying – each in his or her way – Stop the runaway train! They are no doubt still saying it and many, many others with them. Yet, all we hear from the powers-that-be is, as Greta Thunberg points out: bla-bla-bla.

Many of the passengers on the runaway train are bent over their mobile phones or tablets, some are chatting quietly, some are gazing out the window, a few are reading a book or a printout of a report or academic paper. In one of the wagons where a group of 6 are singing Christmas carols, a man has managed to fall asleep in a corner. Night has fallen outside, and the train careens on.

But not all is lost. Tireless efforts by millions of dedicated scientists all over the world have yielded results. Most of the deleterious processes undermining climate as we know it have been identified. By the same token researches have found out how these processes can be halted, even stopped. Yes, it can be done!

There is only one overwhelming obstacle: “the matter of money”.

Not that there isn’t enough “money”. Far from it. Somebody said the other day, “it only takes 2 % of all countries’ national product” – that’s not much, really, not when so much is at stake.

What is so utterly unresolved, however, is “whose money?”,_1847.JPG

Alas, there is much callousness about! Take for instance the British authorities’ reluctance to provide relief to its own citizens during the great famine in 1845-52. (One million died, and more than 2 million fled.) Was there an element of ethnic cleansing involved (after all, the victims were Irish, Catholic and poor) or was this disaster only a matter of “who pays?” At any rate, Great Britain was the richest nation on earth, and the authorities knew exactly what was happening.

Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries, when neither the nobility nor the clergy paid any tax, was a different matter. The Spanish crown, nobility and Church desperately needed funds to pay for endless wars and unimaginable profligacy (“noblesse oblige”). For a while, the Crown had access to silver and gold, robbed from Latin America, but over time, Spanish decadence was basically paid for by the peasants, who had the nasty habit of dying of starvation and exhaustion. There was no industry, few if any bustling towns with wealthy, tax-paying burgers, and hardly any agriculture to speak of. Spain was an extremely backward country.

Why? Because of what we would nowadays refer to as an “attitude problem” or, more precisely, because of ideology. Finally, in the 18th century, “the enlightenment” started seeping in, eroding cracks in the pernicious ideology that enveloped Spanish society, and Spain slowly started picking itself up out of the gutter.

Mind you, there was plenty of resistance to the progressive reforms advocated by adherents of “enlightenment”. Neither the clergy, nor the nobility wanted to relinquish privileges and – this is key – the destitute peasants weren’t impressed either; the reforms sounded outlandish and would not immediately benefit them. Spain remained a backward country until after the death of its last dictator, Franco.

Ideological sea-changes tend to be painful. There will be unpleasant discussions between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and students. Besides, not all so-called “progressive” ideas are good ideas even if rioters are willing to die for them.

In many countries, we see a traditional “right wing”, a traditional “left wing” and a so-called “centre”. And then we have what the press call “extreme right” and “extreme left”, both of which are condescendingly referred to as “populist”. The majority of voters want to be “moderate”, so they tend to prefer “centre”. In recent years, however, growing income and wealth inequality and anxiety about the future (immigration, crime, and climate change) has driven growing segments of many populations to vote for fascist leaders, to lose faith in Democracy, and to demand “tough action”.

Whether a government is headed by traditional parties, fascists or “populists”, most countries are in the throws of ideological, economic and political petrification. There is an unwillingness to acknowledge that a free market has not and will not solve the issues of immigration pressure, crime and climate change. The free market has indeed exacerbated the problem of growing income and wealth inequality, i.e. the divide between rich and poor countries (hence the growing flow of desperate migrants) and between the haves and have-nots in each country (hence crime and civil disorder).

Moreover, no country that I know of has started adapting to a very simple little fact:

Continued economic growth is simply not sustainable. There is absolutely no doubt about this, like it or not. I repeat: Continued economic growth is not and never will be sustainable.

We need to find other ways of doing business. There are lots of ideas out there, alternative economic models, elephants we fail to bring into the runaway train. They are tied up outside the train stations, in the freezing cold. There is no doubt in my mind that something will have to give, sooner or later. We are at a sea change. In comparison, the advent of the Pill and the Personal Computer will have been small change. So bring in the elephants!

Dec 012020

In a phone conversation with a talkative friend the other day, my counterpart’s initial volubility subsided, so that in the end, I was the only one still talking. Afterwards, wondering why his cheeriness had morphed into discouragement, I reached the conclusion that it was my fault.

Over the decades, I have been considered a lefty, and he has been the slightly patronising advocate of what he believes is “the middle ground”. Had I asked him, or for that matter almost anybody else, what is “the middle ground”, he would have given the glib reply “neither right nor left” and I might insolently have retorted, “neither right nor wrong?”

Yes, over the decades, he has patiently countered my impatient allegations about systemic racism, perpetuated social inequality, injustice etc., etc. with kindly smiles, and “sensible” arguments. More often than not, I for my part tended to have forgotten the statistical details informing my views and chaffed at the bit of my own ignorance, unable to prove my point.

The other day, though, the tables had turned. I didn’t remember the details about the tipping point, but I did have a pretty clear understanding of the concept “exponential”.

Likewise, I didn’t remember the details of Piketty’s statistics about rising wealth and income inequality, but since I follow international news pretty closely, the word “exponential” lurked at the corners of my mouth.

As another acquaintance predicted a few days ago: “Before long, we won’t be picking them up out of the Mediterranean, we’ll be shooting them.” He was referring to the not so distant future when most of the African continent will be uninhabitable and when Europe … no, I won’t go into that just now.

I won’t, because that was what I did during the said phone conversation with my friend the other day. I did not have Piketty’s figures at hand, but I certainly was able to outline approximately where Europe is heading, and it’s not somewhere nice. That is unless…. But before I could finish my lecture, my friend had wilted like a plane falling out of the sky. I had halted the trajectory of an optimistic man full of confidence in himself, his country and the future of humankind. I had brought him down. Now that was certainly not my intention.

Mind you, he knew that what I had said about the future of Europe, “unless…”, was correct. So why was he not willing to discuss the terms of the “unless” clause?

As for the tipping point, no reasonably sane, informed person can possibly doubt its reality, yet we just sit around doing exactly what we have been doing since we were born, with regard to the tipping point, that is: NOTHING.

Well, strictly speaking, that is not correct. Somebody is doing something, but that somebody is not me. It probably isn’t you either. I am very very sorry to say that it is not a government in any country, nor any powerful multinational company or mainstream media outlet. Extinction Rebellion is courageous, passionate and truly called for, but – alas – not my style; I’m no better than the rest of us law-abiding, spineless citizens, the gutless “we” I keep referring to.

We have been tranquillised and rendered non-combatant by a lullaby of promises about “climate neutrality by 2050”. Read that again: 2050. Thirty years hence, the planet will be unrecognisable.

Why? Why do we allow doctors to medicate us with tranquillisers and false hopes?

My theory is that we are sincerely frightened. And now that we are social distancing or in quarantine, we’re also not happy. If your day has been miserable, what do you do? Well, I don’t know about you, but most of us put on a brave face and tell ourselves and each other that tomorrow will be better. Yes, tomorrow must always be better, otherwise, we would not endure being alive. If baseless optimism hadn’t been part of our genetic makeup from the start, our species would not have survived locust swarms, bubonic plagues, famines, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Apartheid, etc., and even Trump.

I put to you that optimism is not a crime. Stupidity, however, is. I assume that mankind will survive the next thirty years, in some form or another. I hope that having learnt from the mistakes we are making now, future civilisations’ penal codes will deem stupidity on the part of “whomsoever has been endowed with normal intelligence and adequate social/economic conditions” a criminal offence.

Today is 1 December. According to the calendar, winter has come to the Northern hemisphere. But according to the trees, spring has come and the buds are opening. Maybe by Christmas the lilacs will bloom and the birds will be singing. Maybe in January, we can go swimming in the sea again. That would be so nice.