ANDY FLEMING details how we need to completely replace our current economic paradigm if we are to have a future on the Earth.
It’s so easy to be negative about the current global economic system. And of course there is every reason. Most readers will be aware that the economies of virtually all major developed nations including China are well, stuffed.
When it comes to a solution however, yesterday’s Labour Party European Election broadcast brought home our dilemma. In its theatre and comedy it was excellent, vividly portraying the economic abyss we have descended into as a nation. Character assassinations of Cameron and Clegg flowed freely, highlighting their promotion of the philosophies of greed, inequity, deceit, self-advancement and privilege.
There was of course no reference to Labour’s immense culpability in our economic plight. Neither was there one positive economic policy proposal of how the people’s party was going to fix things. Apart, that is, from the usual rhetoric of economically castrating the bankers, with whom until late 2008 they were so intimate.
They offered no practical policies because here’s the thing; there aren’t any. That’s because the whole current global economic paradigm based on greed, central banks, drugs, money laundering, the military industrial complex and war is quite simply not fit for the new millennium. Tinkering around at the edges with an economic system originating in the sixteenth century simply won’t work, and here’s my rational for saying this, based surprisingly not in politics but in science.
Cast your mind back to your high school biology lessons. Do you remember Petrie dishes? Those shallow glass containers into which a food substrate was poured, such as agar jelly. A small sample of bacteria was introduced onto the surface of the agar, the lid was replaced and within a few days the organisms had reproduced exponentially covering the entire surface of the jelly.
The spectacular success in the growth of the bacteria was tragically short-lived. A few more days and they would not only be seen to have exhausted their raw materials (i.e. food substrate), they would also have poisoned themselves with their own toxic waste products.
Now at this point you may be wondering what all of this has to do with economics, and you may also think that I have a darned cheek in relating human economic affairs to a humble bacterium, even though we originally evolved from such a microscopic life form.
The point is, the reproduction of the bacteria in the sealed and closed ecosystem of the Petrie dish provides a superb analogy of how our current economic system has developed and of its relationship with the Earth, its resources and biosphere. This again is a closed system, only on a planetary scale. You’ve heard of the Greenhouse Effect, well welcome to the Petrie Dish Effect!
Examining our place in space and time using this scientific analogy we are left with the disturbing prospect that unless we adopt a new economic model, our exponential population and economic growth will outstrip our planet’s capacity to provide carriage for the human population.
Just like the bacteria in the Petrie dish, we shall surely exhaust our resources and poison ourselves with our own waste products. And of course, it’s already happening. Environmental degradation for which we are responsible is now so bad that in many major cities the population wears breathing masks, and important commodities such as oil and gas are becoming more scarce and expensive. Witness the controversial drilling in the Arctic Ocean and shale gas fracking.
Now I’m not an economist or for that matter an environmentalist. I’m not a politician either, but as a sceptic I notice how the word “economic growth” is proffered as the solution to all of our economic ills from virtually every political charlatan walking the planet.
And that’s at the heart of the ultimate human economic and environmental dilemma. Our current economic paradigm in any of its guises, left or right wing, Keynesian or monetarist, requires exponential and infinite population and economic growth on a finite planet to function at all in the long term (and even then it provides little happiness or fulfilment for the overwhelming majority of the world’s population).
It’s a paradox that strikes at the heart of conventional economic wisdom and one whose solution, I believe, is critical to the very survival of human beings on this planet. Because, following the Petrie dish analogy to its logical ironic conclusion, the bacteria by their very success in reproducing also destroy themselves. An ultimate environmental booby-trap, and one that’ll happen to us if we continue to conduct business ‘as usual’.
The Petrie Dish Effect is only an analogy, an approximation, and like all such tools it’s imperfect. Clearly, humans do have a few aces up their sleeves that bacteria don’t! We don’t need to be a slave to evolution and wipe ourselves out due to false wants, greed, a broken economic mind-set, and what would be a mass extinction nuclear conflict over natural resources. We have intelligence to effect change, we have ingenuity to devise solutions and we have empathy, care and compassion for each other and the other creatures with whom we share our tiny planetary home, the Earth. Do we have the will as a species to use them? I hope so.
Many of my political conversations inevitably develop into an argument about so-called ‘human nature’. I‘m accused of being an idealist in propounding ideas such as equity, compassion, empathy and sustainability. My views, it is said don’t take into account the other, negative forms of ‘human nature’ such as greed, aggression, lies, deceit and self-advancement. And yes, I agree human society and economics has to be a trade-off between the needs of the individual, the needs of society and the capacity of the environment to repair itself and support us.
But I don’t believe for one minute that ‘human nature’ is set in stone as an inalienable or God-given unchangeable attribute. I may fully sign-up to Darwinian Evolution, but never to social Darwinism. A society of intelligent beings without morals and where only the strong survive, where the weak and disabled are marginalised and where co-operation is usurped by back-stabbing competition and mistrust, is surely the road to hell.
We need to initialise change locally at our own personal level and use our innate intelligence to take a look at our own lives, treating those we know and the environment more kindly. We can as individuals reach out, engage and touch people, espousing ‘people power’, registering our hatred of greed, corruption, bullying, militarisation, sexism, racism, xenophobia and aggression at all levels. We can reject the push-button society.
We can decide to make and label greed, selfishness and other negative human traits as anti-social as other sociopathic tendencies. Most of all we can trade and develop our lives and societies sustainably so that there is a healthy world with resources worth leaving for our children. It’s not rocket science, it’s just prioritising worthy human attributes.
It is essential that every decent individual (and that’s the overwhelming majority) on this planet ends their sleep-walking and realises that these changes, incorporating as they must new economic and political institutions, aren’t just desirable, they are imperative for our very survival. We are at the cusp of a new brighter future and have arrived at simultaneous and pivotal economic, political and environmental turning points.
‘Saving the planet’ or ‘saving the Earth’ are often used as environmental wake-up calls. But the Earth has been here for at least 4.5 billion years and will be here for about the same period in the future. If we take up the challenges and change that I’ve identified, we will be part of that future.