Adherence to neoliberalism is a risk to life and limb

Adherence to neoliberalism is a risk to life and limb

In the early 1990s, I lived in southern Africa. Specifically, the newly prosperous country of Botswana. What an experience. 

I should say a privilege because that is what it felt like to spend seven years in such a magnificent country. Read any of the 22 Alexander McCall-Smith novels about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and you will get the idea of what it was like—slow, relaxed and, well, African.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective, Mma Ramotswe, didn’t mention as she tootled along the dirt roads in her tiny Nissan, that road travel in Botswana was risky. Even today, Botswana is well above the global average for road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants.

Back in the 1990s, this was not surprising. 

Locals were driving for the first time. Most were first-generation vehicle owners at the wheel of brand new Toyota 4.2L landcruiser wagons, many with a fondness for sorghum beer and the art of binge drinking. Then there were the donkeys, cows, and goats spread randomly on the highways plus the perils of keeping traction along the corrugations of the dirt roads. You have to drive faster than seems reasonable or the beer shakes itself.

I was cautious in the car, but those donkeys refused to step aside for anyone so I decided that my second-hand hi-lux needed insurance against the chance of damage. My colleague at the University was from Belgium, and he had a very different take on the risk to his vehicles. He saved thousands on insurance premiums not paid, but neither of us had an accident or nefariousness over vehicles in 10 years. 

So much for risk management. It is just luck, good or bad, and there is nothing to do. Only a fool pays the premiums.

Skip forward to 2015 and 8,000 km northward to continental Europe.

In Paris, 196 Parties entered into a legally international treaty on climate change designed to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels”. This temperature goal is about a climate neutral world by mid-century and is like the insurance policy I took out to travel African roads. It makes perfect sense.

Science has established that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the climate. Anything above 2 degrees Celcius will put the entire global food system at risk from drought, flood and more intense weather events.

196 parties represent most of the jurisdictions and most of the people in the world. Many of those people are concerned the agreement is not enough and that more action is needed. They have missed school to protest.

This lengthy preamble introduces a decision by the Australian government in a budget statement a few weeks out from a general election in 2022 to cut climate spending if returned to power at the election

The 2022-23 budget papers show funding will fall from $2bn next financial year to $1.9bn, $1.5bn and $1.3bn in three years. The fall represents a 35% annual cut over four years.

There are many rants about the Australian government and its politicians not reading the room or being out of touch or going to Hawaii when monster bushfires are impacting your constituents. Still, this one is so whacky that it cannot be a bungle. They must have done it on purpose.

So why did they?

I have been listening to an excellent podcast by Nate Hagens called The Great Simplification and unreservedly recommend it. In conversations with several of his academic colleagues and senior political leaders, Hagens asks about why humanity has been incredibly successful and at the point of simplification—a euphemism for collapse.

The bottom line is that humans have leveraged the energy in fossil fuels for a free ride to prosperity and vast numbers. 

The planet now has close to 8 billion people who use energy, equivalent to another 500 billion people if humans were doing all the work done by oil, coal and gas. In other words, our bodies and our societies are the product of fossil fuel use. And this is before we get to the use of oil for making stuff.

We are good at resources, technology, and making the most of opportunities. We have forgotten the flip side of opportunity because modern economies have little choice but to run with the fossil fuel story. We are stuck in the paradigm of ubiquitous, cheap energy, polluting the planet and changing the climate. 

Our risk is growing as fast as our debt.

Only none of this can be real. It fails to fit the neoliberal paradigm, which has wormed its way into most heads, that growth is the only way. It gave us wealth and can keep on giving so long as we stick with it.

The Great Simplification explains why this is nonsense. Limitless growth is impossible on a finite planet, no matter how clever the technology or lucky it was to have an old energy battery under the ground.

Alright, so why did the Australian government decide to cut climate spending? The simplistic answer is that they cannot give up their religious adherence to growth. Only the reality is the lack of a credible alternative paradigm to maintain wealth creation at the rate generated from the gift of fossil energy. Renewables will be cleaner, but they are far less efficient than oil because they cost money to make, maintain and replace. Plus, energy replacement is only part of the story. Where are the alternative materials for all the stuff we make from oil?

Adherence has another benefit. 

The neoliberal paradigm blinds us all to the risk, so we decide, like my friend in Botswana, not to pay the premium and take our chances with the donkeys.

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