I used to walk to high school. It took half an hour at teenager pace and required a courageous traverse across a playing field populated by thugs from a nearby comprehensive.
Just a little background for those unfamiliar with the class system that forms the skeleton of British culture. Rich kids go to the posh grammar schools and end up at university while the working classes send their kids to the state comprehensive schools. Not out of choice but necessity. Natural tribalism is readily expressed in the youth as a consequence of this unfair inequality.
My parents leveraged their status as local pastors to get me into the posh school meaning I had to run the gauntlet of the disaffected looking for an easy mark.
My recollection of these encounters was me using my smarts and gift of the gab as a defence against the bullying tactics. My chat, for the most part, worked. Apparently being able to speak their language knocks the bully off guard. Sure any loose change I might have carried was often part of the exchange but my attempt to identify with my would-be oppressors certainly had an effect.
Looking back I am grateful to those anonymous hoodlums. It was the start of my learning to fit into almost any crowd and so avoid the worst of being seen as different. This made life easier whilst I built self-confidence and learned to find my voice.
In a series of excellent articles, Robert Reich reflects on the global bullying phenomenon. He calls out Putin, Trump, right-wing nationalists, bigoted TV pundits, politicians, misogynists, and billionaires who use their money to manipulate. He connects these individuals and tropes as abusers of power and concludes that abuse encourages other abuses so standing up against all forms of bullying and brutality – is essential to preserving a civil society.
He is right.
There was no freedom of movement across that playing field on my way home from school, no matter the life lessons I learned. I like to think that I stood up to them in my own way, hoodwinking them out of giving me a beating. It was a puny attempt that would not have stopped them from picking on the next hapless kid from my school.
But in the bigger far more critical situation of the modern global bully, every little will help.
Today as an Australian citizen who cast his vote with fingers crossed that it would be enough to keep the local labour party member in parliament and that nationally the Liberal-National coalition bullies would get a hiding, I am feeling like I just talked my way out of an uncomfortable encounter.
The electorate came to its senses.
It rejected the conservative coalition who, for a decade, was deaf, dumb, and blind to climate, women, and the disadvantaged whilst waving coal at us, holidaying during a firestorm, and dodging responsibility as all bullies do.
We now have a Labour government but not because we like them—they lost votes too—because they have spent the decade complicit with the hoodlums. They are in power because smart people, especially women, voted for independents. The people stuck it to the bullies and the two major parties have fewer lower house seats than ever before.
The commentary tells us this is seismic and creates the opportunity for a reset on just about everything.
After a decade of boofhead behaviour, we had had enough—the liberal bully oxymoron is no more.
When I went to university in 1979, there was plenty of noise. British students were boisterous.
We shouted and boycotted Barclays because it was the biggest high street bank in South Africa. We listened when the Anti-Apartheid Movement campaigned against Barclays because it helped finance the Cabora Bassa dam project in Mozambique.
Then, after James Callaghan’s minority Labour government lost a no-confidence motion by one vote forcing a general election that elected Margaret Thatcher, we had some local politics to get us lefties agitated. We crowed when the new conservative government introduced means-tested student loans. A few of my buddies estranged from wealthy families suddenly had to fund their education.
I remember that the first black-led government of Rhodesia in 90 years came to power after the power-sharing deal of Ian Smith in the soon to be independent Zimbabwe. I didn’t know that I would live in that beautiful country a few years later.
The handsome young fellow at the start of his academic career, Zimbabwe, 1987
1979 saw the One-child policy introduced in China with significant political and population consequences.
Meanwhile, in the United States, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.
By 1979, protests to end the Vietnam war were over. But their residue left a slightly cantankerous youth still able to muster an occupation of the university administration building. I can’t remember why.
What I do remember was that protest was inherently political.
It meant something to throw challenges and abuse at the politicians because these were the people who made decisions. Whether that was Margaret or PW Botha, the last prime minister of South Africa before the State President was given executive powers under the new post-apartheid constitution, politicians were the target.
What I didn’t feel was any danger.
My generation railed for others because we had it lucky. The world was our oyster, and we were enjoying a fabulous education heavily subsidised by the state.
Not so much now.
It is much harder everywhere, with more obscure prospects and a clear risk of system collapse. Even the fundamentals of the social contract are crumbling.
Activism skipped a few generations before it landed in schools.
Today, the teenagers have taken up the chants and populated the demonstrations because they are worried. And I don’t blame them.
They point to the risk of environmental collapse and ask for urgent action.
Only the groundswell of justice that pushed my generation onto the moral high ground is, at best, a trickle of support. The political elite has insulated themselves from the noise in the fantasy land of their parliaments and used the media to make blunders like Brexit into great victories.
They are all deaf, dumb, blind and crap at pinball.
Even when the best of the schoolkid activists addresses them, all they can say is “go back to school”.
“Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future.”
Greta Thunberg, Houses of Parliament, UK, April 2019.
Guardian columnist and writer Zoe Williams sums it up.
And then, in the matter-of-fact simplicity of youth.
We are sick of conference upon conference as if that alone is the solution.
Ella Simons, 15-year-old high school student from Melbourne, Member of the School Strike for Climate movement.
Each generation lives with noise.
In hindsight, my late baby boomer peers had few moral dilemmas to chant about; the reality was far away in another land. We were unhappy with one in ten and danced with Rankin Roger as he implored Margaret to stand down, but these issues were never existential.
Today’s generation has its very future in the frame.
A recent opinion poll in the US had 70% of respondents agreeing that global warming was happening.
After a decade or more of IPCC reports and any number of respected scientists pointing to the evidence, not to mention the school kids gathering in the streets, the message appears to have landed with a significant majority.
Climate-related disasters worldwide that grabbed headlines helped, as did the heavy-duty local weather events that everyone has experienced in the last few years.
Of course, that 70% changes on party lines. Almost all Democrats, some 89%, accept the science of a climate emergency, whilst 42% of Republicans agreed that global warming is a reality and a third deny it altogether.
When it came to what causes climate change, two-thirds of Democrats went with a human cause. One in five Republicans agree humans are responsible, many citing disagreement among scientists as the reason for doubt. No matter that a separate survey of scientists had near-unanimous agreement (99.9%) that the climate emergency results from human actions.
All this is pretty predictable and has been in the wind for a while.
Report after report has carried the evidence.
In 2021, the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) State of the Global Climate 2020 reported carbon dioxide levels at 413.2 parts per million in 2020, rising more than the average rate over the last decade despite a temporary dip in emissions during COVID-19 lockdowns.
After the long and hostile climate denial wars that still linger in some parts of the world, notably in the Australian government, most people are convinced that something is happening. However, Greta would be quick to say that we are not concerned enough about the crisis.
Back to the original opinion survey in the US where there is a statistic that explains the delay and the lack of urgency.
More than 60% of respondents said oil and gas companies were “completely or mostly responsible” for global warming.
Ah, yes, the ‘them, not us’ response.
The majority now believe in the science that says climate change is real but another majority reckon it is the fault of the fossil fuel industry.
It is worth a pause here.
Let that response sink in.
Close to two out of three people blame the oil companies for global warming.
Only those companies, who admittedly are out to maximise shareholder value, the same objective of just about every other for-profit organisation on the planet, are extracting and selling a resource. They can do this because they have buyers.
Now those buyers are other companies that convert oil to energy or put the refined oil into their aircraft and commercial vehicles or refine the oil into a host of products that end up on the shelves of retail outlets.
We buy the products and a ticket to put our butt in seat F3 of the Airbus A380.
I think this ‘them, not us’ dissonance is more critical than taking a decade to get the science.
It explains why the youngsters are so frustrated at the ‘blah, blah, blah’. They know that rhetoric panders to this avoidance of responsibility.
Luckily, it is all fine because we have Boris, Scotty, and Donald. Oh my lordy.
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.
In my comfortable home with a fridge full of food, potable water in the tap, and all the modern conveniences of a western lifestyle, I am one of the most fortunate people lucky enough to have existed.
Life is not all roses and freshly ground coffee. Two years ago, a massive 300,000 ha wildfire threatened our suburb after the previous one destroyed our backyard. Along with everyone else, we struggled through COVID lockdowns, survived shortages of toilet rolls, and went along to get vaccinated. Just as the lockdown rules were relaxed, we sloshed our way through the wettest summer I can remember as our region was declared a disaster area in the floods of early March and April 2022. But the record-breaking weather didn’t lead the newsfeed because there was a horrible unnecessary war in Europe.
So when I pinch myself, I am numb, not quite sure how to be grateful for my good luck.
There is a knot in my stomach. I realise that the current events are just harbingers—signals of what is to come. And although in my comfort, I have no right to be fearful, I am.
Here is why. I have a niggling question.
How are we going to feed everyone well?
Nothing like a pile of healthy greens—source Alloporus
Food prices will rise
Bread is a staple in the diet of billions of people worldwide. In 2021 global wheat production was around 766 million tons. Three countries make up 30% of the world’s production: Ukraine 26 million, Russian Federation 73 million, and China 132 million. Russia and Ukraine export about a quarter of the world’s wheat and half of its sunflower products.
Even if we assume that Ukrainian farmers will continue to grow crops when the conflict subsides, there will be a disruption to supply in 2022 and beyond.
Some countries are heavily exposed to this disruption.
Egypt imports the most grain, including around 5.60% of the world’s wheat imports. Flatbread is a staple food in Egypt, where the government has subsidised bread for decades but plans to raise the price. Egypt imported 6.1 million tonnes of wheat in 2021, with Russia supplying 4.2 million tonnes worth $1.2 billion. What happens if the Egyptians need to source wheat from elsewhere?
“I cannot provide 20 loaves of bread at the cost of one cigarette.”
Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Egyptian President
In Tunisia, where the state controls the price of bread, half the country’s wheat imports come from Ukraine, and since the war started, wheat prices have risen to a 14-year high.
Lebanon imports more than half of its wheat from Ukraine and reportedly has only weeks worth of supply.
“Over time, depending on the length and the severity of this war, you could begin to see shortages of shipments that come to the African continent, and that could cause shortages. Particularly in the North African countries, and to an extent in East Africa.”
Wandile Sihlobo, Chief economist, Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa
I could go on, but when staple foods are not on the shelves or price rises put them out of reach, the social consequences reach further than toilet tissue.
In the acute phase of the conflict, people will treat these challenges like disasters. They will rally, help each other, and strike new trade deals.
But the combination of war, COVID disruption, and population growth are not like a natural disaster that comes and goes away, leaving some clean air to rebuild and recover.
Given we have bread on our minds, annual wheat production in the EU has been around 120 million tons for a decade. This is a little more than Russia and Ukraine combined.
Almost all of this production comes from intensive input-driven agriculture. Failure to add fertiliser and yield declines rapidly because the soils are already depleted from centuries of production.
Bread is humans eating fertiliser (or drinking oil).
And for the EU, a quarter of this fertiliser comes from Russia.
Russia produces 50 million tons of fertilisers every year, 13% of the world’s total, and is a significant exporter of potash, phosphate, and nitrogen-containing fertilisers. Economic sanctions will hurt the Russian economy, but restricting fertiliser exports would be an equivalent retaliation to impact the west.
But fertiliser supply is not all that Russia controls.
Ammonia is a critical ingredient in nitrogen fertilisers. It is made from natural gas. Yara International, one of the largest fertiliser producers in Europe, cut 40% of its production capacity in Europe in 2021 before the conflict because of a spike in the price of wholesale gas.
Self-sufficiency is not just about farmers. It is about the tools of their trade and the inputs they need to get the job done.
“Half the world’s population gets food as a result of fertilisers… and if that’s removed from the field for some crops, [the yield] will drop by 50%… For me, it’s not whether we are moving into a global food crisis – it’s how large the crisis will be.“
Svein Tore Holsether, CEO, Yara International
Homemade pavlova that was simply delicious—Alloporus
Global food supply.
A lot has happened to the world since WW2. Most of it was peaceful, at least for the average citizen in Europe or the US.
Once the Cold War ended, globalisation took over. Products, components, energy, and expertise come from anywhere and go anywhere, especially food.
Currently, enough food is grown to feed everyone. Goods made or produced are shipped everywhere through a global supply system to arrive just in time. Many western countries rely heavily on this trade. They find it cheaper to buy the food than grow it themselves. Governments can point to the efficiency of the global food system to justify the easy option.
However, food production systems lack resilience.
A small example. There are 74,542 farms and 1,000 agricultural and food companies in Minnesota, but there are shortages everywhere because the supply chain is down over 5,000 commercial drivers. Brexit and then COVID created a similar problem for British consumers who get 80% of their food from France, Germany, the Netherlands and over 150 other countries.
Problems with distribution, access and waste leave one in ten of the global population hungry. Historically, most of these people lived in poorer countries, but the US and UK examples show the jurisdictional us and them breaking down.
Hungry people exist everywhere.
Intensive agriculture that only produces cheap food with an energy subsidy and just in time trade is precarious.
Scarcity is a failed crop away.
Feeding the poor well
“War leads to greater food insecurity, and food insecurity increases the chance of unrest and violence. So a conflict in Ukraine leading to hunger and pushing people into food insecurity elsewhere could have [the] potential for unrest and violence in other areas. And really, the world cannot afford another conflict.”
Abeer Etefa, World Food Programme spokesperson based in Cairo
Back in my comfortable home with a fridge full of food and my status as one of the fortunate people feels secure.
Putting food in the fridge costs me roughly 10% of the household income. Should the food prices rise globally, I will feel inconvenienced. In only eight countries in the world do residents spend less than 10% of their household income on food: US, Singapore, UK, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Australia and Austria.
The average Kenyan spends $543 a year on food, a fifth of the money spent by an average American. But that $543 is equivalent to 47% of disposable income. Double food prices, and the average Kenyan has no money left for anything else.
This high proportional spending on food is not just about poorer countries.
Over the past 25 years, USDA estimates suggest that the poorest 20% of households in the US spent between 30% and 43% of their income on food. This explains in part why there are 40 million Americans on food stamps.
Any inequity in access to resources is made more acute by a crisis. When prices rise, it is usually because of high demand, supply constrictions, or both. In all the higher price scenarios, the poor have less flexibility and suffer the consequences before anyone else.
Oxfam estimated that as of September 2021, 18 months into the pandemic, the economic decline, mass unemployment and severely disrupted food production led to a 40% surge in global food prices—the highest rise in over a decade—and more than 40 million people experiencing extreme levels of hunger, a 70% increase over the previous year.
We can predict that famines will be publicised and the acute phases will be supported with global aid. There might even be another LiveAid concert or two.
What will be harder to do is to support the poor diffused through otherwise prosperous-looking societies. These impoverished people will need policy changes to reduce their immediate food insecurity and create opportunities to earn more as food prices rise.
Thanks for reading this far into such a torrid story. It is scary to think about these issues but they are critical. They must be open for honest adult discussion because humanity will face disaster with our pants around our ankles if we fail to prepare.
Fear makes us irrational, so we have to take courage, overcome our worries and start coming up with solutions.
I co-founded sustainably FED as a tiny contribution. Please go over and check it out.
This sequence of quotes I plucked at random from my superficial reading of U.S. political commentary early in 2022 before Putin chose to further destabilise the world.
Then I put them in a chilling order.
“Only free and fair elections in which the loser abides by the result stand between each of us and life at the mercy of a despotic regime”
Laurence Tribe, Harvard law professor
“One thing Democrats and Republicans share is the belief that, to save the country, the other side must not be allowed to win … Every election is an existential crisis,”
Jedediah Britton-Purdy, Columbia law professor
“If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place and that’s bloodshed.”
Congressman Madison Cawthorn, Republican, North Carolina
“The groups that tend to start civil wars are the groups that were once dominant politically but are in decline. They’ve either lost political power or they’re losing political power and they truly believe that the country is theirs by right and they are justified in using force to regain control because the system no longer works for them.”
Barbara Walter, political scientist, University of California, San Diego
“It would not be like the first civil war, with armies manoeuvring on the battlefield. I think it would very much be a free-for-all, neighbour on neighbour, based on beliefs and skin colours and religion. And it would be horrific.”
Col Peter Mansoor, military history professor, Iraq war veteran
“I speak to you as a human being, a woman whose dreams of motherhood now taste bittersweet because of what I know about our children’s future”
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat, New York
Worried about the future, what will happen to our food, environment, and safety? Get some accurate information and ideas at sustainability FED.
It was my turn to cook dinner the other day, chicken biryani made with thigh meat, coriander, and a healthy teaspoon of Kashmiri chilli.
Whilst waiting for the chicken to defrost, I decided to progress my step count and march up and down the hallway. Indoor exercise looks odd but is necessary in a La Nina year when it seems to rain 24/7 here in Sydney.
Rather than just march, I fired up Spotify and chose a few tunes to make it easier to move. This track came up first.
I always put this version in my ‘best ever’ top 20 — the performance is sublime, and the song, written by Paul Simon when he was just 21 years old, is a work of genius.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
Then the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
In tenement halls”
And whispered in the sound of silence
This lyric tells us we have made trouble that we dare not speak. It is as powerful today as it was in 1963 and ably supported by Disturbed, I am spontaneously singing at the top of my voice as I march up and down the living room.
The delivery builds until the prophets scream their words… only I can’t.
My vocal cords are starved. My core pushes hard at the air in my lungs only for the words on the walls to stick in my throat.
I am silent.
I keep walking up and down in shock until the next relatively obscure track with delightful African rhythms makes everything okay again.
The chicken is ready to simmer with the basmati, and it all comes together into a delicious dish. My wife came home, and we chatted over our dinner as though nothing had happened.
The impact of my strangled voice took a while to register.
Not until the following day did I realise that my closed throat had been that way for years, maybe even my whole life. I can’t sing from my core. My best is to mumble a few ideas through closed lips.
Just thinking this reality shocked me again.
Then I realised where it all came from.
I was brought up in a religious household scared of alternative world views. My parents couldn’t listen to anything other than the bible and the church.
As a lad, just as an adult, I was curious. I had a lot of questions that needed answers. Why must I go to the church three times every Sunday? Do I have to wear this uniform? Why do I have to pray? What is God anyway?
But if I spoke it was, in Paul Simon’s words, to ‘people hearing without listening’ and so after a while, I shut up and said nothing.
I didn’t know that this clamming up would last my whole life.
It took music for me to realise.
The irony is that my career has seen me become an educator, advisor, author, and blogger. This combination of activities is all about voice. I have had plenty of things to say, or so it seems.
My constricted throat screamed at me because even with the tools and the opportunity, I was silent.
This is a big deal for me.
Now that I know my voice is strangled, I can rescue it.
Well, who would have thought that after 13 years and a handful of readers that this blog would reach 500 posts?
Not me, certainly.
I am amazed and a little proud of myself for keeping it going all this time.
When I started, the blogosphere was the online space. There were prospects for a wide readership and perhaps even a side hustle from the proliferation of traffic. Then Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and a host of other online distractions hogged the breeze, and what was left was quickly mopped up by aggregators like Medium. Bloggers do it now for personal satisfaction, with only a handful of the early adopters maintaining their readership.
I can’t complain because I write rather than read blog posts, and it seems unfair to lament a lack of traffic. So the blog ticks along with 50 to 100 visitors a month.
Anyway, low traffic volume just needs a few viral outbreaks to explode. We live in hope.
A huge thank you to those kind folk who stumbled onto this blog over the years and read a post or two. And especially the few regulars who clicked the RSS.
It is nice to know that there are real people in the ether.
What did I blog about?
Not surprisingly, for an ecologist, the environment was the most popular category (142 posts), chased by awareness (135) and the Big Picture (127).
I did not expect to write about leadership (88 posts) as much as I did. But the political debacle that Australians have lived through in the last decade meant that laments on the absence of leadership were inevitable.
If any of these whinges offended, then good. It is beyond time that we woke each other up with a cattle prod and did something about the ugly, shameful behaviour that passes for political leadership in this country.
This week, I watched Strong Female Lead, a documentary film billed as “an exploration of gender politics during Julia Gillard’s term as Australia’s first female prime minister”.
It was harrowing to see grown adults dispense abuse to a colleague without the slightest remorse. I might have looked for the nearest bus if it wasn’t for this documentary’s hopeful ending. Let’s just say those 88 posts came about because the nation’s moral compass is buried six feet under.
No doubt there is more to say about our vacuous leaders.
I have always believed that awareness is essential to human wellbeing. No surprise that several posts were tagged thus. Our personal and social lives are better if we pay attention to each other.
Knowledge and perception of the bigger picture are more tricky.
Dissonance, denial and disbelief are much more accessible than confronting the truth of a finite planet with close to 8 billion eager people. Ostrich behaviour makes it hard to raise awareness without sounding pessimistic or preachy. But we all must confront fears, or our grandchildren will have a terrible and short time on earth.
I am working on some practical tools to help with awareness. It is a little early to announce what they are, but the intro has begun over at our new website sustainably FED.
What happens next for Alloporus?
A blog with 230,000+ words of depressing content should have run its course.
After a break from posting through 2010, I tried to reset Alloporus onto a more positive path, and it lasted for a month or two before returning to the usual laments. It seems I am stuck with the frustration of the information age being full of worthless detail.
Why can’t we see that food security is critical to the future of humanity, not climate change or koalas?
Humanity needs 23 trillion kilocalories per day, for goodness sake, just to keep the people alive, let alone the pets — by 2030, it will be 32 trillion.
There is a therapeutic effect of writing about the world in this way. It makes for depressing reading, but it helps to get it off my chest.
I am semi-retired now, too — phew, that was an admission I have been avoiding — so there should be more time to craft more engaging pieces.
So I will continue to post once a week in the hope of seeding some healthy thinking.
I suspect that most people believe that the primary job of a bank is to look after their cash.
Deposit your money and, at any point in time, you can rock up at a branch or a hole in the wall and receive your cash up to the amount that you put in, minus a few fees.
The reality is that banks only provide a haven for our cash because it allows them to leverage the money held into investments. They borrow against their available capital and invest funds into a wide range of assets that they expect will yield more than what they’re giving you for the privilege of looking after your money.
It’s a fantastic financial model.
It’s the reason that having conquered the world of futures trading, capital gains, and hedge funds, Bobby Axelrod, the megalomaniac character in the Stan thriller Billions, played by Damian Lewis, decides he wants to become a bank.
Essentially it’s a license to print money.
Banks are always looking for assets that will yield investment returns in the shortest space of time. Their mantra, indeed their requirement under the law, is to profit, and they are ‘in the pound seats’ to do it, literally.
They have the scale and capacity to invest in projects that your average Joe couldn’t dream of, from skyscrapers to industrial plants, freeways, and airports. The kinds of investments that require tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to see them to fruition.
Banks have the advantage of using other people’s money and the advantage of scale. They make huge sums from investments that yield high returns for long periods, partly on the fact that no one else can invest in them.
And so it is and has been.
The banks make money, but the projects they fund often deliver utility.
It is not always good.
The pursuit of profit is relentless and ruthless.
Goldrush mentality attracts the most ardent and most skilled as well as the opportunist. Money gives banks the very best people with a sharp mind and a ruthless attitude. They quickly find the best ways to reduce costs and maximise returns.
No surprise that banking can support projects that have severe externalities and direct impacts on the environment. Recall an externality happens when the cost of an activity is not absorbed but shipped out. The commons are excellent dumping ground because no one person or entity gets hit with the liability.
Capitalism degrading the environment is profound. Development has to happen, but it becomes pointless if humanity has no safe place to live.
So who is to blame?
The reality is that we, the people, want roads, skyscrapers, and industrial plants that deliver raw materials for all of the stuff we want to buy.
We are the ones that live in large houses with more bedrooms than you could ever need, more luxury than you could ever really afford. And yet, everyone wants a better life, and it is forever the human condition to want betterment.
In other words, the consumer is ultimately responsible.
Instead of blaming the banks, what if we blame the consumer?
Maybe get consumers, us, to give up our desire for stuff, our emotional and mental drive to better ourselves and provide for our families. Quosh those innate biological feelings to make more that is in all of us.
Well, good luck with that one.
Perhaps there is a compromise position where both individuals and the finance community begin to work together to look long and prosper.
Currently, we do this through regulation.
Governments curtail the riskiest financial behaviours through legislation limiting the amounts of money banks can borrow, their financial ratios, and their ability to exploit customers, in itself a significant ongoing task.
Governments are in a difficult position. They see growth as a political necessity and are reluctant to curtail development activity or the banks that finance it. Yet, all the while, development activity is damaging the planet.
If we can’t blame ourselves or the banks for doing what we want them to do, humanity has a problem.
We do have a choice.
We can accept that consumption and more-making has an impact and try to do something about it. Even a little is better than doing nothing. Light bulbs, anyone?
But fiddling just puts off the inevitable. Instead, something dramatic is needed. The doughnut, perhaps?
Alternatives to historic capitalism exist, and many of the options are maturing nicely.
For example, ‘cooperative enterprises’ where workers make the major enterprise decisions rather than boards of directors selected by shareholders. This alternative is called economic democracy.
Only this is not a million miles away from what we already have. The people choose, but this will not guarantee decisions in favour of anything other than the people.
Robin Hahnel’s book Of the People, By the People: The Case for a Participatory Economy describes the participatory economy where all citizens, through the creation of worker councils and consumer councils, deal with large-scale production and consumption issues without the need for appointed representatives. The participatory economy is the origin of the Green New Deal, a package of policies that address climate change and financial crises.
A participatory economy is different. Imagine the circus of state and national politics banished to the bench.
Doughnut economics is an economic model proposed by Kate Raworth that combines planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries. Look after everyone and the planet.
Doughnut economics is different too.
And these are just three of the many alternatives with potential.
What do the alternatives require of us?
Most of the alternative economic systems require a shift in responsibility.
It would be on us, not the banks or the government or the unscrupulous developers. We will all have to step up and understand the consequences of our choices.
The banks would continue to do their thing on our behalf; only we would be responsible for the consequences of what they do.
And so we get to the rub.
Capitalism has delivered growth and, on average, betterment for humanity. Only it comes at an uncomfortable cost. And the only way to pay back that cost is to take responsibility for it.
Are banks bad? No, they are a caricature of our abdication from personal responsibility.
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