Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

So Where Did It All Go Wrong?

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Pan Books, London, 1979
So where did it all start to go wrong?

With the exception of the most wildly optimistic Bright Green, most environmentalists believe what passes for Western Civilisation made a disastrous wrong turn some time in the past. This has resulted in us facing, at the very least, a Sixth Great Extinction, and at the very worst our own extinction.

But when did we go wrong? Perhaps not as far back as Douglas Adams, writing at the end of the 'Decade of the Environment' suggests, but perhaps not.

So when exactly did we go wrong? When did we have alternatives?

The combination of Trump and Brexit looks set to see a bonfire of environmental legislation, but we were hardly heading for paradise in 2015. The War on Terror has provided a huge distraction from more pressing issues, whilst Dubya's decision to ditch the Kyoto Treaty set progress on climate change back by fifteen years. However for my first junction I will choose:

1989 The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The end of communism in Eastern Europe was a moment of optimism. A system that had promised paradise on earth, but which had delivered only poverty and oppression, had fallen. Democracy had triumphed, and with it capitalism, although rather fewer celebrated that.

The subsequent closure of polluting communist factories led to the only significant drop in European carbon dioxide emissions since industrialisation has begun. Things looked good, but it wasn't to be all good news.

Capitalism in the third quarter of the twentieth century had been different to the rest of its history. Now it wasn't enough to just make the rich richer, the poor had to also be kept happy enough not to want to vote in the dreaded communists. In the UK we got a National Health Service and in the US factor workers got complementary health insurance. Trade unions were tolerated, a labour policy tried to keep full employment, and when Rachel Carson and others revealed the extent of the damage to Nature caused by industrial pollution, a raft of government bodies were created to try to deal with the problem.

But with the red threat gone, capitalism had no need to compromise with anyone any more.

When George Bush Senior went to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 he basically said no to any steps to deal with any of the problems discussed.

At the same time intelligence agencies, with time on their hands now, turned their well honed skills on Green campaigners. So effective was this that when the War on Terror gave them a new threat to worry about, plenty of time was still found to deal with the 'terrorists' who targeted fossil fuels.

The men and women who broke the Berlin Wall in November 1989 had not wanted this. They had wanted the best of both worlds, socialism and democracy. However those brave pioneers were naive about what they were letting in. The world on the other side of the wall was not what they were expecting, and it has become increasingly clear that without communism to keep it honest, capitalism itself became the monlithic ideology prepared to do anything to defend itself.

The difference is that the 1%, unlike the geriatric rulers of communist eastern europe, look unlikely to go quietly.

1971 The Rise of Neoliberalism

On 15 August 1971 President Nixon broke the financial system that had run the capitalist world since the end of the Second World War.

France had sent a destroyer to New York to claim its share of the US Federal gold reserve. In response Nixon took the US dollar off the Gold Standard.

Nixon was responding to a growing crisis in the US economy, caused by the state living beyond its means whilst trying to keep the cost of the Vietnam War off the books. However the move was the first victory for a group that had been plotting the downfall of the western model of capitalism since 1945.

This group were radicals, but not left wing ones. The Mont Pelerin society, named after Swiss hotel they met in, were followers of the economic theories of Freidrich von Hayek. Hayek told them exactly what he thought of the sort of mixed economy, introduced by Roosevelt to deal with the Great Depression, with the title of his book The Road To Serfdom.

The doctrine he espoused was neoliberalism. At its simplest it said that the only transactions that matter are those involving money. Industry was not important, unless it was a way to make money. Family, society and the environment certainly didn't matter. The only role for the state was to maintain law and order, meaning to maintain the laws that allowed corporations to do what they want, and the order where the rich were protected from anyone who might object.
When the US launched a military coup in Chile to remove a democratically elected communist, it gave neoliberalism exactly the conditions it needed to thrive - total chaos. Whilst the army rounded up the leftists to be tortured or killed, the military regime imported Chicago school economists to rewrite the rules.

The election of Thatcher in the UK in 1979 and Reagan in the US the next year saw neoliberalsim rolled out across the western world. Trade unions were crushed, taxes were cut, and environmental laws slashed. The result was that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the USSR fell apart in 1991, the chaos that followed was ruthlessly exploited by the neoliberals.

Flooding in New Orleans, the invasion of Iraq, the Credit Crunch. All these provided opportunities for the neoliberals to extend their grip. Green capitalists belive that government regulation, smart taxation and a controlled market can make us sustainable. Neoliberals believe regulations, taxes and controllign the market are all morally wrong.

We cannot save the world whilst the neoliberals run it.

1945 The Triumph of Consumerism

Having lived my entire adult life in the chaos of the post-Cold War neoliberal world, it's easy to be nostalgic about the world my parents inherited after the Second World War ended.

Unlike the other eras in this blog, this one was carefully planned in advance. In 1945, with the world in ruins, the memory of the Great Depression still fresh, and Stalin's tanks in Berlin, Prague and Budapest, the free world met at Mount Washington Hotel in Breton Woods, New Hampshire, to work out how the capitalist world's economy should work. The genius behind it all was Britain's Maynard Keynes, although he wouldn't get things entirely his own way.

Compared to wht followed, the Bretton Woods was very sensible, It provided the engine for social democracy which made the West somewhere that most people were actually happy to live.

But something had to power the machine, and that thing was consumerism. This was not a new idea, but one that accelerated after 1945. Things were no longer manufactured to meet needs, but desires. Unlike need desire, if the ad men did their job properly, was unlimited. From cars to washing machines industry produced a house full of new gadgets for people to want, and new forms of credit allowed them to buy it. 

The result is that we entered the exponential age, when everything, except the earth's capacity to sustain us, increased by a little more each year.

Since 1945 we have been always buying, but never happy, whilst the planet has been always dying, but we never noticed.

1771 The Industrial Revolution

In 1771 the modern world was created in Cromford, Derbyshire.

Visiting Arkwright's first mill now it's easy to be beguiled it. Resting in a picturesque valley, and powered only by the water, it seems a far cry from the Dark Satanic Mills of Blake. But that is to miss what the Industrial Revolution was. Later there would be a coal revolution, and a financial revolution, but the first revolution was a social one.

Previously human life had revolved around the family and the village. It had been human scale. Work had ended with the setting of the sun and followed the rhythms of the seasons. Life could be nasty, brutish and short, and the main source of wealth - land - was not evenly shared. But the system was sustainable, both in balance with the earth and relatively unchanging over time.

Cromford Mill changed all that. Women and children were dragooned into the factories. The worked, not at a pace set by themselves, but by a brutal overseer. The speed of the machines was set by the power they drew from the water. The people kept up, or perished.

Welcome to the modern world.

1620 The Scientific Revolution

In 1620 Sir Francis Bacon published his great work Novum Organum, which aimed tofinally move western science on from where Aristotle had left it two thousand years earlier.

To many Bacon was the man who demystified nature, who removed the wonder from the natural world and severed the sacred bond with the organic world that was carried over from pagan times.

This is going too far. Science has given us ecology as well as ecocide, the Gaia Hypothesis as well as the China Syndrome. It is a tool to be used wisely, and it is not the fault of Bacon that we have chosen to use this tool otherwise.

But the fact remains that if, like China in Bacon's time, we had chosen stability over enquiry, we would not be where we are now. The rulers of the world in the seventeenth century had the power to make human life hell on earth, but without the revolution Bacon started the earth itself would have been safe.

c. 10,000 BC The First Agricultural Revolution

But if Bacon started the process that would eventually lead us to be able to win a war on Nature, he was not the one who started the fight. Anyone who puts a plough into the earth knows that they are starting a battle. As soon as you clear and till an area of land you are in conflict with weeds, pests and
disease. You don't have to resort to chemical warfare, but fight you must.

But it wasn't always this way.

12,000 years ago we were all hunter-gatherers. This may not be
everyone's cup of tea, but the evidence is that the agricultural revolution actually made things worse. Early agriculturalists worker harder, died younger and lived in more socially fragmented societies.

What's more, it is probably only in the last century or so that average human health improved over what it was farming, and we still work harder than our 'caveman' ancestors.

What farming did though was allow a small elite of kings, priests, warriors and so on to be supported by everyone else. You can see what was in it for them, by why did the rest of us go along with it? They probably didn't, voluntarily.

Agriculture also allowed more people to live on the land, and in a fight 100 half starved farmers will usually beat a dozen well fed hunter-gatherers. The agricultural revolution did eventually allow what we call civilisation. Everything from art to science, dentistry to Doctor Who followed on eventually to make our lives more pleasant followed on.

But twelve millennia on not still everyone enjoys these things, whilst the earth has less than a hundred harvest left in her. Was it really worth it?


We can't turn back the clock even if we want to. We can no more rewrite Breton Woods than we can unthink the scientific revolution. We wouldn't want to rebuild the Berlin Wall even if we could, and we couldn't return to being hunter-gatherers even if we wanted to.

We must continue the fight from where we are, not where we'd like to be. However by looking back at our history, and seeing how how many times what looked right at the time has turned out wrong, should at least make us more modest about our achievements as a species.

As Douglas Adams also wrote:
For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.