Why right-wing politicians need to be kind

When I think of right wing politicians, I don’t think of kind people. From Norman Tebbit (on yer bike) to Mrs Thatcher (there’s no such thing as society) to the populist modern types such as Trump and Orban, these appear to be unkind people.

They might be kind in their own circles – right wing people don’t lack empathy, just generally their circle of empathy or circle of compassion tends to be narrow. But they are not kind in the political arena or in the matter of policy. The closest they get to caring is the philosophy of “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind” or “tough love” or “on yer bike” – meaning: “We care, but it’s up to you to sort your life out; if we are kind towards you, we risk being indulgent, and if we are indulgent you will be spoiled and become dependent on the state’s largesse, resulting in economic calamity.”

Some politicians are not only unkind, but they deliberately stoke up unkindness. Such is Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister who deliberately creates a mood of xenophobia in Hungary; or Trump with his anti-muslim line.

From the point of view of fiscal conservatism this does not make sense.

It is well established that excessive inequality in a society harm the society and can harm the economy. At extremes, history shows that inequality can lead to societal breakdown, rebellion and revolution which is bad for members of the elite. You can defer this outcome by making the people drunk, stupid or unhealthy or otherwise unfit to rebel, but this also risks harming the economy and thereby destroying the wealth of the elite.

At the same time it is clear that increasing inequality is a natural result of our capitalist system. If you are a bit quicker, more aggressive, wily, canny or just lucky, you will wriggle to the top of the pile and accumulate wealth at a great rate than those who are less so. Inequality will inevitably grow exponentially. “Trickle-down” doesn’t work. This is partly because the weak will always be in the thrall of the cunning – even with increased wealth the weak make themselves poor again by bingeing their wealth on bad food and bad telly; and partly because even if the weak get richer, it is not their absolute wealth which counts in the matter of inequality but their relative wealth. While they made an extra £500 a month, the guys at the top made an extra £50,000 a month.

It follows that one of the greatest political questions is how to redistribute wealth so as to avoid catastrophic or harmful inequality. Over history politicians, economists and religious leaders have tried out various ways of redistributing wealth. Usually wealth redistribution leaves at least one side unhappy: people don’t like inflation, taxes or forced sequestration of assets. In fact, this is a pillar of right-wing politics: forcible redistribution of wealth by the government is seen as a bad thing by right-wing people.

Today our use of the term right-wing is rather mixed up and politicians called right-wing often are not traditionally right wing. For example, Orban’s politicis are not so right-wing but rather a mixture of socialist (government control of the economy) and nationalist (whipping up patriotism). Nonetheless, fiscally he is right-wing: Hungary aims to be one of the lowest tax regimes in Europe. And Trump’s promise is for lower taxes, too.

This is the strange thing: if redistribution is needed to avoid bad things happening to society, but you reject forcible redistribution, if implies you would favour voluntary redistribution.

Voluntary redistribution can happen in two ways. One way is for everyone to become similarly clever and entrepreneurial so that no one enterprise can ever generate a supernormal return on its investment. In this way everyone would be able to compete equally in the market and so no-one would be particularly wealthier than anyone else. To achieve this would require a stupendous amount of time and money being committed to education; an order of magnitude greater than any educational programme before: since people’s abilities vary in different areas, to decrease intellectual and physical competitive advantage to the point that economic inequality is significantly reduced, would be a substantial challenge.

The second form of voluntary redistribution is giving. Unlike paying taxes, giving can be an enjoyable thing. (It does not need to be, mind you, because you might give out of a sense of duty or sense of doing what is right.) Still, when people give, they often discover that they enjoy it. They like the sense of helping someone get on better in life, of making a difference, of solving a problem and of reducing suffering.

Religion is a context for voluntary giving. In the olden days when religions were stronger, the church played an important role in wealth redistribution. It still does, but not as much as needed to avoid undesirable levels of inequality.

Therefore a fiscally right-wing politician, seeking to reduce taxes and loathe to regulate, needs to look for ways to encourage voluntary redistribution: policy should be looking for ways to make up the shortfall in charitable giving, volunteering and the collection plate.

This is where kindness comes in. If people are kind and compassionate, they are more likely to give voluntarily. Therefore if makes sense for fiscally right wing politicians to encourage people to be kind and compassionate. Their kindness takes away all sorts of burdens that socialists might expect the state to bear: caring for the elderly and the sick, giving shelter to the poor and homeless; extend that kindness to helping young people learn life skills, giving those with tough lives confidence and wherewithal to overcome their troubles; to clearing litter, to planting trees and saving habitats, to eating less meat… A kind society would be transformational, with greater equality and a far smaller burden on the state. Thus a fiscally right-wing government would be able to lower taxes.

So right-wing politicians have got it all wrong. The only way to keep society from unravelling and to conserve your position, while maintaining fiscal probity, is to be kind. If they are kind, if the influential economic elite is kind, that will encourage the rest of society to be kind: since the rest of society always mimics the behaviour of the influential economic elite.

There are also plenty of left-wing politicians do well in the unkindness stakes: you wouldn’t have wanted Stalin running the old-people’s home where your mum is. But left-wing politicians don’t need to be kind because they believe in a big state and the state can do what it wants, nice or not. Right-wing politicians need kindness in order to achieve low taxes.

Kindness is the least painful form of resource redistribution so it should be number one on the list of right-wing people who want to keep society from unravelling.

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Mughals, Tzu Chi and the dead front gardens of North Oxford

A short trip to Oxford prompted some thoughts for the Bustard…

The Bodleian Library is holding a small exhibition about the hunting practices of the Mughals, a medieval Asian people who once ruled across India. The exhibition displayed exquisitely decorated illustrations of hunting birds and Mughal hunters causing misery to all manner of wildlife.

According to the exhibition, “Hunting as a means of demonstrating royal control over birds and beasts was an important source of political legitimation. A true sovereign had to demonstrate his moral and spiritual superiority over wild beasts – a characteristic that if necessary could be transferred to the political field.”

Hunting served many purposes in their society: recreation, confirmation of social status, alternative military exercise, strengthening diplomatic ties, political reward and punishment, and even the prediction of the outcome of campaigns. It was a means of creating myths and claims to legitimacy.

Fast forward four or five hundred years and little has changed in India. An article featured in today’s Quartz shows us how Indians are rapidly, ruthlessly and unthinkingly destroying the nature around them, not least the elite through their techno-optimist steel and concrete urban ideal. http://qz.com/829138/in-its-pursuit-of-smart-cities-india-is-becoming-a-drier-hotter-and-angrier-country/. The political ideal persists that in its path to power and status, man must, and is entitled to, expunge nature.

“Oh,” you might think. “But we are a little more advanced here in Oxford.”

Think again. Consider the multi-million pound homes of North Oxford favoured by its own elite. If you walk the comfortable residential streets off Banbury Road and Woodstock Road you will notice a curious thing: almost all the front gardens are gravelled over or covered with tarmac. Here are some examples. Not very good photos, but just have a wander in that area and you will see dozens and dozens of such gardens.

The front gardens of North Oxford are spacious forecourts for the nurture and celebration of one thing: THE AUTOMOBILE. You need a big wide sweep of creamy gravel so your cars have plenty of space to park on and be on display to all passers-by. Luxurious swathes of gravel mean there is no need for carefully tessellated parking here. More gravel, less greenery. Just like Mughal aristocrats, you must eliminate nature around you to flaunt your social status.

Occasionally a scruffy maverick has retained some greenery; there is always a wiser, bolder minority.

If we want to turn back the terrible war waged by mankind on the rest of nature, it is essential for the elite to set a good example. Tragically, the people as a whole usually mimic the values and behaviour of the elite. So if the elite of Oxford promote front gardens of death, the people will follow them.

What’s to be done? I attended a public lecture by the great Buddhist scholar, Richard Gombrich. He talked about a religion or movement in Taiwan called Tzu Chi. This started out 50 years ago when a group of house wives with some spare time began to knit socks to raise money to help the poor receive hospital treatment. Now, 50 years later Tzu Chi is an international religious organisation with a million activists and ten million donors, who support disaster relief, health, education and environmental projects. This is all deeply rooted in Buddhism and centres on the idea of people as private individuals taking action to reduce the suffering of other sentient beings.

It seems that the elite of North Oxford are sentient beings subject to acute suffering: they suffer from a need to have many cars so they can drive everywhere instead of walking, getting on the bike or jumping on one of the many buses which runs nearby, or even calling a cab. They suffer from an irrepressible social urge to conform with their neighbours by applying the pervasive template of a dead front garden. They suffer from the scourge of convenience, where it is easier and preferable to maintain a carpet of gravel rather than nurture beautiful and living and wild things in front of their houses. They might even suffer from an inability to park tightly, thus releasing space for nature. Immense as their brains are, they are weighed down heavily by suffering.

Tzu Chi offers them hope. A local Tzu Chi group could be established by enlightened folk of Oxford. It will visit the many neighbours identified as dead-garden sufferers, bringing spades and garden forks. It will bring saplings of rare varieties of apple; bags of wild flower seed; sacks of wholesome compost. It will bring woodlice and beetles and worms and cocoons of dwindling moths. While the elite are out on their metal steeds, hunting in Waitrose or John Lewis or for country pubs in the Cotswolds, the good people of the Tzu Chi group will weave burgeoning, wild places on the forecourts of North Oxford.

Arriving home to find their villas enveloped in luxuriant wilderness, the burghers of Oxford will be filled with a great awe of nature and thus inspired to adopt new symbols of status: ox-eye daisy, meadowsweet, pepper saxifrage and snakes head fritillary.

This might seem superficial and dreamy. Far from it: at times when the political forces are all weighed against the natural world, one of the best things we can do is to take action as individuals and make space for nature around our own homes.

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The Man of the Sugar Mountain – an allegorical tale

I saw an article about Mark Zuckerberg’s thoughtful goal to rid the world of disease by the end of the century. http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-37435425 So I wrote a fairy tale …

The Man of the Sugar Mountain

Once upon a time when all the Gods of Nature had been executed in public places by due process of the law, by hanging from recycled plastic trees or crushing under bulldozers, and the blood shone on the paving slabs, there was nowhere outdoors left for the children to play: the soils which once dirtied their knees had been washed into the sea and the trees where they had hidden and clambered and scraped their shins were burned down and their roots concreted over. The birds which had once accompanied the play with their chirruping had been inadvertently poisoned by technologists earnest with other purpose.

A malaise spread through the land which alarmed the technologists; the children became fatter and fatter and jittery, and to dispel the spirits of boredom they cut their arms with blades and watched the blood trickling out and dabbed their fingers into it and invented red emojis on their bedsheets. Licensed technologists fed the children with chemicals to soothe them but the children remained sad and their plump faces were pale.

Then one day a man arrived pulling behind him a cart full of Magical Musical Machines and gave one to all of the children in the kingdom. The Magical Musical Machines were a marvellous thing! Children only had to think of a melody or a song and the instrument would begin to play it, and the children were enchanted – they became entirely absorbed in their instruments. They forgot about all their worries – once a tune came to the end, the children would press the magic button on the Magical Musical Machine and another tune would play. Again and again, an infinity of ditties would burst from the machines like clouds of butterflies, all jewelled and colourful and shimmering; the children were delighted to distraction and abandoned everything else to the pleasures of music: their mums and dads feted the man who brought so much happiness to their children.

Through sales of the Magical Musical Machines, the man became almost as rich as the King. Because of his sheer brilliance he was soon elected as the wisest man of the King’s Council and would be asked to pronounce publicly on the highest matters of state: from the keeping of horses to the curing of colds, the growing of vegetables and the building of arched bridges; his expertise spread to the schooling of dunces, appropriate forms of execution for the denial of economic growth, the reframing of relativity, the circumference of teapots, the cloning of yes-men and the establishment of human colonies in the surprisingly temperate, fine fissures which ran between self-abasement and self-flagellation. Any man wise enough to bring a smile to the faces of sad children was surely equipped to judge upon all other things under the sun.

And the parents came to him and clamoured in adulation: “Tell us, wise man, what is your name? Who are you that your musical machine can calm our children and soothe them in their misery?”

The wise man, still with the smooth face of a youth, said to them: “You can call me the man of the Sugar Mountain.”

Astounded, the parents asked why.

To which he replied: “One day I will show you why. But until then, rejoice in the music of the Magical Musical Machines. Each year I will bring you new ones and each year your children shall become happier and happier, and, as their doting parents, you will, too.” How they all cheered at these words!

And yet after a period of bliss, once all the tunes in the world had been invented and played on the Magical Musical Machines and all the children had heard all the tunes, they fell bored again and descended into an even deeper malaise than ever before. As they were no longer entertained by the magical music, and they had forgotten how to play catch-as-catch-can and hop-scotch and ring-a-ring-of-roses and had never learnt the feathers of a jay or the tail of a fox or the scent of mowed grass, they would lie in their beds all day long and mutter weakly and beg their doctors for the coloured pills which soothed them.

So the parents went back to the wise man and said: “Our children have been overcome by malaise again. They are listless and irritable. They won’t eat properly, even if we bring them take-aways and foods which have been lovingly hand-made in big factories and wrapped tenderly in soft plastics. Some have ballooned as fat as the elephants which once roamed Africa. Others are as thin as the twigs on the plastic trees and their fragile spines snap in our gentlest caress. And your beautiful music no longer enchants them; they have become bored even by that.”

So the wise man said to them: “Don’t be afraid, mums and dads. I can make your children well again. In fact I promise that I will make everyone well again. And after that no-one will ever be ill for time immeasurable. The world will be rid of disease, mental illness, discomfort, and even fleeting moments of insufficiency. No-one will ever be sad again. Everyone will live healthily and happily ever after.”

“What will you do?” asked the mums and dads, enraptured by the wise man.

“The children must all follow me to the Sugar Mountain. It is a mountain made entirely of magical sugar, and the children can feast on the earth of the Sugar Mountain all day long. The magical sugar will make them deliciously happy and will at once cure them of any illness.

The King and all his other wise men, and the technologists and industrialists, the bankers and financiers and the lawyers all clapped and cheered deliriously at the rousing words of the man of the Sugar Mountain whose stock bubbled up even further and his share price fizzed and frothed like the finest champagne in steaming hot baths of which the economists masturbated viciously. The wise man abandoned the old cart which he had pulled when he first arrived years ago, and the King himself commissioned the construction of a huge chariot from recycled plastic bags, with chandeliers fashioned from chards of old light bulbs, and all bedecked with a fluttering of bunting made from the wings of Monarch butterflies plucked on a half moon and sewn together by gangs of trained marmosets, which were tied at the neck by lassoes of organic hemp. The King allowed the chariot to be pulled by a troop of Performing Pangolins and dwarf Vietnamese acrobats danced and wheeled and gallivanted around excitedly, aroused at the scent of pangolin flesh and their proximity thereto.

Come the great day and the Man of the Sugar Mountain stood aloft his chariot and thousands of children thronged behind him. The Vietnamese acrobats produced trumpets and blasted an anthem to the glory of the man of the Sugar Mountain and all the children screamed excitedly and pressed the buttons of their Magical Musical Machines frantically, until an immense cacophony arose; a cacophony of such intensity that it took on physical form, a dancing rain of notes and rhythms which crashed down on the tumult and umbrellas rose like a spread of flowering cacti in the desert and many dashed for cover and there was an enormous muddy stampede with children shrieking with fear and joy, and parents, many too weighty for flight, were trodden under foot and many drowned in the mire. And the man from the Sugar Mountain cracked his sharp whip and roared “We’re off” and the Performing Pangolins reared and the chariot lurched forward and the mud sprayed from its wheels and the children raced ahead joyfully.

Every child in the land followed that raucous parade towards the Sugar Mountain: thrilled at the tale of eating sugar and candy and chocolate and pink things all day long and with no bed time, too! As the column of children passed from village to village, it grew and grew and the dance of the Man of the Sugar Mountain grew more and more colourful and fanciful; his steps and skips more elaborate; his promises stretched as wide as the valleys through which the thousands of children passed; and their own happy skips aligned into a single step whose beat reverberated from hill to hill.

Meanwhile after many weeks and miles of wandering, the Performing Pangolins which pulled the chariot had grown bloated on the exotic perfumed chocolates that the Vietnamese dwarfs fed them, and then one night when all slept the little men slit their throats and vanished into the dark with their prey. When the children awoke, they found the man of the Sugar Mountain all alone huffing and puffing at the chariot, one moment he tried to pull it, the next he would jump round the back and push it, but move it would not. And even as they beheld the shape of the Sugar Mountain astride a distant horizon, the man of the Sugar Mountain cursed in anger at the cruel deception of his acrobats, so all the children rushed to comfort him and, cutting the locks from all the girls’ heads until they were shorn like monks, they plaited a rope of such strength that they could tie it to the chariot and all take their place in the line and heave! heave! heave! the chariot began to inch forward, and heave! heave! heave! and it inched forward again and soon there was a rope a mile long and a hundred thousand children tugged at it and the wheels of the chariot spun like saucers and the Man of the Sugar Mountain scrabbled on board and blew his trumpet and the children all raced joyously towards the Mountain, but as close as they got, the mountain always stood on the horizon, and day by day the children became more and more weary even as the man of the Sugar Mountain cursed them and whipped them and exhorted them and promised that it was only another day’s journey away.

Blood matted the backs of the children who tugged and tugged at the hair-rope, where the wise man’s whip had slashed their shirts; more fell into the mud and the children behind them trod them in … until so few children remained upright that even in unison they could no longer pull the chariot and the whole procession ground to a halt. And now the man of the Sugar Mountain danced naked on the roof of his chariot and sang songs in ancient tongues no-one could understand. A cloud passed over the Sugar Mountain, but as it continued on its way the Mountain had disappeared from the horizon, whatever direction they looked.

“Where’s the mountain gone?” cried the remaining children in alarm. “Where’s it gone, man of the Sugar Mountain? Where’s the mountain?” they cried, many now in tears and moaning. For that one cloud had now swollen into many, dark billowings which rushed across the sky and slammed it shut, and the air was chill and hot at the same time, and the children shivered and sweated as in fever. But now the man of the Sugar Mountain could only jibber in ones and zeroes – which even the Lingua-bot couldn’t manage, burping out incoherent snatches of Biblical Aramaic and Proto-Aztec – and jumped all legs and arms flailing from the chariot, and kicking through the crowd, escaped into the hills; you could see his tiny body, shrinking into the vast desert, zig-zagging left and right past tree stumps and broken skeletons, leaping across the beds of parched streams, wafts of dust following him.

Left alone, the children. Acknowledging, for a brief, painful moment, that they would not live happily ever after, they turned, hungry but determined, and set off back the way they came, singing fragments of an ancient song one remembered and where words were missing they gradually filled in the gaps with their own invention.

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GDP Growth, climate change and the end of the peripheral science

Economics has long been known in academic circles as “the peripheral science”. It became increasingly side-lined as people realised how little it added to the world’s well-being. This is another extract from the Chronicles of Nat Eb, the memoirs of the former prime minister of England during the low carbon dictatorship of the 2030s and 2040s.

Nat Eb, recently resigned from being prime-minister of the Midland Counties of Former England, sat on the terrace of the Forgotten Password, overlooking the rewilded M54. Time was, it would have been impossible to hear yourself think just a hundred yards from what used to be known as a motorway. But now from the woodway came only the chirping of song birds preparing for spring, as a couple of i-cars eased gently along the conduit, brushing fronds of wild clematis and carefully nudging lazy bumblebees out of danger.

There was a good crowd in Telford’s favourite pub. Some MPs waved to Eb, who acknowledged them with his pint glass. No better greeting than a lift of Shropshire Gold. Eb’s son was with him, just turned 15, and finally able to share in Shropshire’s finest beverage in a public house.

‘So Dad,’ began Eb the Younger, a bright spark who was in his first year of an apprenticeship in carpentry and insulation at Uni West. ‘How come no-one studies economics these days? Stumpy Regenkurt said the other day that everyone studied economics when you were young.’

His father smiled. “One of our greatest victories, that was. We used to have a thing called GDP Growth. No-one really knows where the word comes from. The general view is that it’s from a kind of Chinese proverb. Something like Gee Dee Pee. Like – Gee, as in gee-gee or horse, Dee I think as in the River Dee, and Pee as in piss. I think it came from the heavy Chinese influence in our economy back in those days, before the fall of the Great Wall. You see you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. However, you can make it pee. The mere sight of flowing water stimulates the urinary tract in a horse. It was a metaphor for a subconscious unthinking reflex of politicians, economists and economic journalists. Remember that pink newspaper I once told you about? And Growth. It’s another word for a tumour or a kind of cancer. So GDP Growth was a kind of cancerous mental behaviour which not very bright politicians would adopt when they didn’t have the time or patience to think more deeply about the world.’

‘Sounds totally bonkers,’ grinned Fred Eb.

Osborne the hunchback barman came out onto the sunny terrace, squinting in the bright light, hobbling unhappily, wanting to be back in the comforting shade of the saloon. ‘Another one for the young gentleman?’ Nat EB nodded, showing Osborne his own empty glass. He raised two fingers. ‘Make it two.’

‘It was bonkers. And we were the ones that put an end to it.’

‘They were looking for some simple panacea. A simple number which would tell them how they were doing. And for some reason they latched on to this figure of GDP Growth. But it only really told us how much business we were doing; very little useful information. It ballooned in importance and politicians and nations were judged by the size of their GDP Growth. Probably so many men with little fundamental self-confidence: size was everything.

‘It was full of flaws. It couldn’t distinguish between good and bad, so bad things increased GDP. Then there were lots of good things people did, acts of kindness like baking a cake for a friend, which would not be included in GDP, even if they were good things. Sitting around at home, doing nothing, just resting or meditating, although a very important thing to do, didn’t affect the GDP count. So we were all forced to work more and more just for the sake of pushing up this daft number. Oh these are just some of the problems with it.’

‘But how odd that they mixed up bad things and good things into one number,’ said Fred Eb. ‘Couldn’t they tell the difference?’

‘In short, no. Or if they could, they didn’t have the courage to say so. There was perhaps a conspiracy of silence, as they say. The real problem was that all sorts of serious people took it seriously: politicians, economists, bankers and financiers, economic journalists. Rather silly people, but awfully influential. That was the way things worked then. Of course, the Truth Laws put an end to that. Once they saw those press barons strung up in Trafalgar Square for falsity and misguiding the general public, the press started showing the Truth a lot more respect.’

‘Cor blimey,’ said Fred.

Nat EB looked at him askance. ‘Where are you getting these old-fashioned phrases from?’

‘They’re what we say at college. It’s cool.’

‘ “Cool”? Crimsons, it’s a long time since I heard that word!” chuckled the former prime minister, thinking of his own days at school and university, when “cool” was the ultimate aspiration.

Fred look alarmed: ‘Dad, for goodness sake, don’t say ‘Crimsons’. No-one says that any more. You know what it means these days?’

‘No?’

‘Well, just don’t say it, right? Anyway…’

Meanwhile the dutiful Osborne returned with two fresh pints of Shropshire Gold. Osborne himself had once been a growthist, then had been shamed and ostracised, and now many years later returned to work in the Forgotten Password. ‘Did I happen to hear you mention GDP Growth, Mr Prime Minister?’ he bleated pathetically. ‘Oh those were the days…’

Nat Eb looked up at him. ‘Osborne,’ he said sternly. ‘How long have you been on the wagon for?’

Osborne raised his eyebrows as if better to look into the past. ‘A good fifteen years since I last advocated any form of unqualified economic growth.’

‘Good man,’ said Eb. ‘And let it stay like that.’ He turned to his son.

‘You see we didn’t have a problem with GDP Growth as long as it was Good Growth. This was the principle error of growthists like Osborne,’ he said as the waiter made his way back inside with the empty glasses. ‘They couldn’t distinguish between good and bad. Extraordinary really. You wonder where the first ten years of their life went. Must have been completely wasted.’

‘So how did you and Stumpy change all that, Dad?’ asked Eb Junior.

‘It wasn’t just me and Stumpy. It was the combined effort of thousands of people, thousands of good thinking people who finally found courage and voice to speak their mind. And, by executing the evil press barons, we put an end to the Business of Falsehood. That helped a bit, I suppose. And putting P.O.T.[1] on the primary school curriculum.

‘But what really ended GDP Growth was the marginalisation of economists. Just as with fossil fuels, we realised that GDP Growth was not necessary. In fact there was quite a parallel between fossil fuels and GDP Growth. Funny really.’

Eb’s son was confused. He wasn’t sure if the two pints of Gold had clogged his faculties or Nat Eb was talking nonsense. What on earth could climate change and GDP growth have had in common?

‘You see for a long time the establishment insisted that burning fossil fuels was necessary; it was the only way of doing things. Without that we would starve, we would all die, we would run out of antibiotics, we would all end up unemployed. Yes, it sounds quaint, I know, but that was how they thought. And in the same way people thought if we got rid of GDP growth, we would all starve, we would all die, we wouldn’t be able to afford hospitals and we wouldn’t have any jobs.

‘What happened, in fact, was that fossil fuels became marginalised. New forms of energy generation were developed – rather rapidly as a matter of fact. New ways of making things so we used much less energy. By gum, if you look back, how we squandered energy in those days! And of course we do all sorts of things these days which don’t use so much energy. The way we live! We don’t spend time rushing around the world to see tourist sights. We don’t drive cars to work and to the shops. We don’t build huge motorways and constructs of cement and steel. We build beautiful forests and restored wilderness. Our richest men and women are not narrow-minded egoistical technologists as in the olden days, but great creators of natural space, who inspire all according to their means, to plant trees and bushes and wild flowers and create eternal legacies for themselves. Thus burners of fossil fuels have been marginalised.

‘Similarly, GDP Growthists simply became extinct like all other species that fail to adapt to change. We realised that our health was important, so we examined statistics relating to health and the prevention of illness. We realised that spending time together as a family was important. And so forth. Whatever was important, we attended to, or, rather, encouraged people to attend to. And if we needed numbers, we used the numbers that pertained to the matter in hand.

‘We worked on health and eating and exercise and families and peacefulness and kindness and restoration of the natural world, and gardening and cooking, and so on and so forth. We didn’t have time to worry about GDP Growth. The economy – whatever that means – looked after itself as people rediscovered what is important in life and therefore thrived with a deeply rooted sense of purpose.

‘Gosh, Dad, that sounds great. But surely lots of people were dead against it?’

‘Oh yes they were. Remember I told you about climate change deniers. People who, despite whatever evidence you could throw in their face, would deny that there is climate change or deny that man’s actions were responsible. Well, similarly, there were deniers in economics. These were people who, despite all the evidence put their way that GDP Growth was bonkers, still denied the damage to society caused by their obsession of GDP Growth. You could throw all the stinking flaws in GDP in their face and they’d wipe it off and ignore you, and deny that GDP Growth was a harmful mantra.

‘And were they the same people, Dad?’

‘Who?’

‘The climate deniers and the people who denied that GDP Growth was a cranky thing?’

Eb thought for a moment over his dwindling pint.

‘Often, although there was another category of people who believed in climate change but believed that unqualified GDP Growth was needed to address climate change. How can you advocate bad in order to achieve good?’ asked Eb wistfully. ‘But in their defence, they were schooled long before the First Ten Years Act was introduced and all the other changes in education.’

Nat Eb looked up. ‘Osborne – refills please!’ The sun was reaching the horizon to the west, flushing the cloudscape in gaudy pinks and oranges. ‘It should be a good day for a spot of gardening tomorrow… Could do with some rain, though,’ he said.

 

Notes

[1] P.O.T. or Pursuit of Truth is one of the most popular and important subjects on the school curriculum.

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Writing memos won’t help the bees: cultural change might

In 2014 President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum setting up a task force to create a strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators.  The strategy was launched a year later in May 2015. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/Pollinator%20Health%20Strategy%202015.pdf

As part of this effort the White House instructed embassies abroad to do their bit and make pollinator friendly gardens.

In contrast to the benevolent intent of President Obama, I recently heard that in the US ambassador’s garden in Budapest, a 100 year old tree was cut down in order to remove a colony of bees which had settled there. Such was the US of A’s Hungarian representative’s blind fear of these little pollinators that they would have a tree cut down to remove them.

I was struck by the similarity of another situation encountered in a recent discussion with a friend who is a director of an energy company in post-communist Central Europe. Following privatisation some twenty years ago, after the fall of the Wall, the company has tried to introduce a culture of helpfulness, customer-friendliness and efficiency, cutting back on officiousness and red-tape. Sadly, despite the best intentions of enlightened management, egregious inefficiencies still prevail, employees with attitudes continue to insult customers like it is appropriate behaviour, and information channels remain constipated.

In both situations the people at the top know what should be done, but the operatives still don’t get it.

There’s a funny thing going on here. Sometimes we think that leaders of organisations “don’t get it” because they are so wrapped up in their ways, blinded by power, too far from the coal-face to be effective. If only they could leave it to the people on the ground, who really know what it going on. Then things would get sorted.

These two cases show something different. The people at the top do know the right thing to do, and they try their best to get the people in the ranks to do it. But the underlings in the ranks are ignorant or badly socialised or conflicted or don’t get it or have their minds clogged up with Ego paste and so forth.

We are not talking about trying to get people to acquire very specific skills or attitudes. We are talking about pretty general things: how to treat the living world with respect; how to treat other people you deal with civilly.

I suspect that neither of these can be easily taught and certainly cannot be arranged through the sending of a presidential memo. These are the products of cultural attitudes which are imbued by people in the formative years of their life.

Again and again we must seek the solution for our problems not in the school or the workplace but in the first few years of people’s lives : the first five to ten years of nurturing by their parents. Society needs to spend immensely more attention to getting those first few years right. If it did, we wouldn’t need to worry so much about schooling and higher education and all the other stuff on which billions are fruitlessly spent.

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