They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot. – Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell, 1970
The old parking lot is looking shabby. It’s full of cracks and parts of it are breaking up. Green shoots are pushing through. There are patches of tall grass, even small trees here and there. Customers are complaining. The owners are overseas living the high life, but cost cutting means management can’t afford maintenance. They’re running around pulling weeds and stomping on new shoots.
A parking lot across town is under new management. They carry guns. They are spraying poison everywhere and dynamiting trees. Big trucks and steamrollers are barrelling around. Some customers are getting hurt, others are fleeing.
The world order is faltering. The old management is getting desperate. It all seemed so brilliant in the 1980s and 90s, but now nothing seems to work the way it used to. People are getting restless and voting irresponsibly. Opposition movements are gaining strength and threatening to upset crucial arrangements. Then there are the wars that grind on, the terrorists, and the tides of refugees. Growth remains anaemic after the big crash of 2008. And please don’t go on again about global warming.
It was never going to work, just deregulating everything and expecting free markets to run the world automatically. It hasn’t worked either, the poor performance has just been disguised by running up big debts. The debts caused one big crash and they are still a burden. Another crash is all-too plausible.
Despite official bewilderment, there are straightforward reasons for the failures, for those with eyes to see. If we don’t properly understand the problems and fix them at their source then those with simplistic and violent responses will take over.
The green shoots are not weeds, they are the hope, the world trying to return to the way it has be. We need not fear the living world. It sustains us and we are part of it. Call it Paradise, or Eden, or just the only way we can survive into a long future.
We can run our societies to support our quality of life, not just to produce more stuff. We can have the rest of the living world thrive around us. We already have everything we need to start the transformation. We have clean technologies and nurturing farming methods. We know how to build efficient, pleasant houses and cities. We have deeper understandings of ourselves, of living systems, and of living economies.
We just have to lift the old pavement to expose the fertile ground. Old ideas and habits are blocking the change. As we let go of destructive old notions the blockages will crumble, and the people who cling to them will be pushed aside.
Our leaders discourage us from being well-rounded human beings. They would like us rather to be like reptiles. Calculating reptiles. They may or may not realise it, but that is what they are asking. They want us to be individualists who look after number one. We should transact, not share. We should compete, not work together. We should be efficient, not have fun. We should feel no empathy for those less fortunate. We should be fearful and ever-vigilant.
If you would like to know where this leads, then consider the health system in the United States. Photographer and writer Michael Katakis, in A Thousand Shards of Glass, tells of when his wife developed a brain tumour. This took them “into the bowels of a brutal and savage corporate medical business”. His wife was not seen as a patient but as a consumer. They were advised to hire an advocate to help them through the Kafkaesque maze. “The promises made prior to an illness quickly evaporate at the most desperate of times to reveal a labyrinth of conditions, ever-changing rules and small print that not only fails to soothe or elucidate but terrifies instead.” It emerged, too late and despite assurances of “complete” coverage, that the doctors at her hospital did not accept payment from her partilcular insurance company. Katakis and his wife were deluged with incomprehensible forms, and endless phone calls from strangers demanding more and more money. What purported to be a caring system instead was incompetent, obfuscating, unjust and above all callous.
Katakis’ greatest resentment is that they robbed him and his wife of much of their remaining time together. He reminds us that the riches we possess are not the things we own, our riches are each other.
The abomination experienced by Katakis was turbo-charged by the neoliberal ideology that has dominated the world since 1980. The signs are that this neoliberal project has run its course. It has never matched the performance of the postwar social democratic regime, a fact rarely noticed or noted. It has undermined democracy, which is being supplanted by plutocracy, rule by wealth.
Rising political instability is one consequence. In Australia we have unstable governments, a plethora of small parties, increasing vindictiveness in politics and growing divisions within our society. Globally there are the Brexit vote and political instability in the UK, the growing divisions in the European Union, the depression in the European periphery, and the anger in the United States that has propelled Donald Trump to the presidency.
The confusion is fertile ground for fear-mongering demagogues like Trump, wielding simplistic slogans and promising security to the frightened masses. We know where this leads, we’ve been there before.
One path to the essence of the problem is to acknowledge we are highly social beings. We crave to belong and we sicken if we are outcast. We are empathetic. We compete and cooperate, and we must balance the two for a healthy life. We have passions. We like to have fun. We can override primitive urges: we can choose to act from love, rather be driven by fear.
Instead we are presumed to be like that most dismal of creatures, the economist who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Worse, corporations have been created in the image of that economist, the epitome of the calculating reptile.
The neoliberal ideology also harbours remarkable ignorance and folly. For example there is ignorance of how modern banks actually work, or of how computers allow us to extend economic models far beyond the limitations of old ideas. There is a pretence that mountains of debt do not matter, and an inability to construct a simple balance sheet when purporting to do national accounting.
The so-called neoclassical school of economics, the promoter of free-markets, has become entrenched and dominant globally. It has yet to acknowledge that our behaviour is far more complex and subtle than a reptile’s, nor other basic deficiencies of its central theory. That theory is irrelevant to the real world. If it were true, there would be no market crashes.
In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis the neoclassicists sit around like stunned mullets, mouthing the same old formulas and failing to grasp the monumental failure that was the GFC. They are utterly unwilling to loosen their grip on power, even as they demonstrate day after day they are incapable of doing things any other way.
A rising chorus outside the economics establishment calls for new economic thinking, but even most of those who recognise the inadequacy of free markets seem unable to offer a coherent alternative.
Political establishments are now populated by people who have known little else, and who clearly have little conception of what a serious alternative might look like, so they fiddle at the edges. However the signs of breakdown are now so obvious that even some of the mainstream commentariat are acknowledging the system is in disarray and we need some more fundamental kind of change.
Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK are turning to social democracy, and that is a sensible move. Without the exogenous challenges of the 1970s, like the oil embargoes and the Vietnam war, social democracy could once again do better than neoliberalism.
A better prospect even than social democracy will emerge in this book. Not only can markets be guided, they need to be guided, as wild horses need to be tamed and guided if they are to be useful to us. We can harness the power of markets to deliver what we want, instead of inequality, chaos and environmental destruction.
Globalisation has been a key part of the neoliberal program. In their conception of us as reptiles, we are all pretty much the same, and so the same nostrums can be applied globally. The world comprises seven billion consumers, and national and cultural borders only get in the way of efficiency. Giant transnational corporations are now big enough to dominate most governments, and they are happy to use the neoliberal license to extract profit from us, according to their reptilian natures. It is no surprise that global cultural diversity is being trampled and crushed.
But of course we humans are sophisticated social beings and our extremely diverse cultures are an expression of that. Why should every culture have to submit to doctrinaire claims that we all have to make our living in the same way? They don’t of course, and the ability of each society and culture to manage its material basis as it wishes will be elucidated in this book.
Australia has its own unique history and culture, and we can manage our economy so it supports our own aspirations. We can also heed some lessons from our history. Although we gained nominal independence in 1901, the colonial mentality has continued to flow strongly through our leadership class. Donald Horne, in The Lucky Country, 1964, was scathing of the complacency of our leaders. However they also tend strongly to subservience. Spurred on by the neoliberal doctrine, this mindset is handing control of many of our affairs to foreign corporations and countries. It seems the Coalition’s only conception of promoting our economy is to invite foreigners to do it for us.
The colonial mindset of our leaders, political and cultural, led us to develop a serious inferiority complex through the 20th century. It was called the cultural cringe. We were always better than that, and our artists have moved through it and strut their stuff to the world. However our politicians and economists are still very much in its grip.
A look behind the cliches of our history shows that in fact we were a remarkable society through much of the 19th century and into the early 20th. We were highly pragmatic and innovative, and we weakened the bonds of class, demanded a fair go for everyone, and set about getting it. We are still remarkable, having peacefully incorporated people from many other cultures. Aboriginal culture is resurgent, despite having been crushed by occupation and marginalisation. We have the opportunity to forge a joint future with them, one that heeds and celebrates wisdom from the oldest living culture in the world.
Such is our potential, but the old political parties are still fighting the battles of last century, and they have prostituted themselves to big money. They ignore the huge challenges of economic instability, inequality, global warming and growing floods of refugees worldwide. They propagate caricatures of our history and character.
We can move on from those old, limiting habits and stories. To do so we will need to reclaim the means of our national conversation. The media have been allowed to fall into the hands of a few self-interested people who limit our view of the world. They promote dissension and feed us distortions and outright lies. We can require responsible behaviour as the price of the great privilege of broadcasting to large numbers of us. We can also explore ownership arrangements beyond those of big money or big government.
For several decades we have been deluged with the mantra of selfish individualism. At the same time, and paradoxically, we have been encouraged into dependence and helplessness by commercial marketing and right-wing demagogues. In spite of these pervasive influences, we Aussies still have not capitulated to selfishness and inequality. Voters’ rejection of extreme right-wing policies accounts for much of the recent political instability.
There is not yet a coherent political movement in Australia comparable to those Sanders and Corbyn have inspired. If one is to emerge then progressives need to find compelling messaging based on a clear understanding of our situation. That will include highlighting our full potential and fostering our innate decency. We may then be able to mute our divisions, work together, get creative, resume the task of giving everyone a fair go, and constructively face the big new challenges bearing down on us.
Nothing physical can grow indefinitely in a finite world. It will eventually fill up the world or use up all its resources. Yet growth of “the economy” has become the over-riding measure of success in managing our society. Much of the thing called “the economy” is physical in its nature, so it follows that the economy cannot grow indefinitely, in its present form. Our so-called leaders deal with this problem by averting their eyes. We carry on as if there is no tomorrow.
Indeed, it seems Western culture has been losing its belief in a future. It is a curious paradox that even as we are exhorted to be modern, to keep up with ever-changing technology, to rat-race into the future, so the future we admit into our perception has become more and more foreshortened.
Our movies, for example, portray futures in which the natural Earth does not feature. There is mean, violent and artificial life in a future New York City, or space fantasies like Star Wars, or post-apocalypse dystopias in which humanity has been decimated and lives a mean and precarious existence (Mad Max). Some movies even claim to portray the end of humanity (Armageddon, 2012).
We seem to have no expectation of a future on our home planet. We have no vision of what world we might pass to the seventh generation unborn, as the Iroquois people so poignantly framed it. We can barely even conceive of the world our children might inhabit. Do you know of a movie, a book, a play, anything in which an indefinite future on a healthy planet Earth is even implied, let alone explicitly identified?
So we do not expect a long future. It’s as though our industrial civilisation is intent on delivering a future that is nasty, brutish and short, echoing Hobbes’ ignorant caricature of the pre-civilised past.
A startling recent survey by Melanie Randle and Richard Eckersley underscores this perception. It reveals a widespread and profound fatalism. Broadly similar results were found in four Western nations: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Overall, a majority (54%) rated the risk of our way of life ending within the next 100 years at 50% or greater. A quarter (24%) rated the risk of humans being wiped out at 50% or greater. The authors point out that these responses probably do not reflect carefully considered assessments, they are more like lurking gut feelings that are rarely examined or articulated.
People report three main kinds of response to their gloomy perception of the situation. Almost 80% agreed “we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world”. About a half agreed that “the world’s future looks grim so we have to focus on looking after ourselves and those we love”, and over a third that “we are facing a final conflict between good and evil in the world”. The proportions add up to more than one, so evidently some people hold more than one of these attitudes. (By the way, references and sources of information such as this study will be identified sufficiently throughout the text so they can be located in the Bibliography.)
The underlying problem that feeds this pessimism has been widely understood for many decades now. Our civilisation is not sustainable. The 1972 book Limits to Growth by Meadows and others was only one of the more prominent warnings. Its message was that human use of natural resources was approaching the planet’s capacity, and if we did not soon moderate our use the human population could overshoot and crash sometime within the following century (i.e. before about 2070). The book was widely maligned by pro-growth advocates, especially economists. However the criticisms were mostly based on misunderstanding and misrepresentation. We are in fact still following its projections rather closely, including the increasing signs of a badly overstretched planet. That is made clear in Limits to Growth, the 30-Year Updatepublished in 2004.
Many others have recognised the problem, and many have been working on ways to reduce our heavy footprint on the planet. These efforts have been very successful. However their effect is still marginal and the old destructive practices are still dominant. The clean and healthy practices exist, and some are very well developed, but this new way of thinking and doing is struggling to gain traction against the entrenched old ways.
So we pretty much know what to do. We just have to get on and do it. The problem is not that we don’t know what to do, nor that it is horribly expensive, nor that it will wreck our economy or our civilisation. A big part of the problem is that the good news is being buried under the torrent of distraction, distortion and propaganda that passes for news, discussion and information in the current regime. So one of our immediate challenges is just to get the good news out.
However another challenge is to understand and counter the underlying mindset of the current paradigm. This mindset is older than neoliberalism, and can be traced back not just decades but centuries or millennia if you trace its essence, probably back to the beginning of agriculture. It is the idea that we can dominate and control the living world around us, rather than living as part of it as we did in earlier times.
It is the idea we can be takers rather than makers. Rana Foroohar, in her 2016 book Makers and Takers, details how pervasively finance and big business take, not just from the natural world but from the productive part of the economy. Naomi Klein, in her 2015 book This Changes Everything, calls the current manifestation of this mindset extractivism. It attempts to extractwealth from everyone else, and everything else, rather than relying on our own resourcefulness, and the innate productivity of the natural world, to create or renew wealth.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the problems we face: global warming, degradation of the land, terrorism, refugees and a remote political class. We are in danger and, under current leadership, we sit in stunned immobility.
Yet the means to deal with our problems are known. If we put our will to it, it is quite plausible that we can dramatically reduced the damage we inflict within a decade or two. We could do this without great physical discomfort or suffering. In fact it is likely we would soon realise our quality of life was improving, as we eliminated many activities that don’t really serve us, and as we learnt to live in a less frenetic and more fulfilling way.
It turns out most of us already want to go this way. In a 2016 study by Eckersley people were asked which of two possible futures came closer to what they expected, and which of the two they preferred.
Scenario one was “a fast paced, internationally competitive society, with emphasis on the individual, wealth generation and enjoying the good life”. Three quarters expected a future along these lines.
Scenario two was “a greener, more stable society, where the emphasis is on cooperation, community and family, more equal distribution of wealth, and greater economic self-sufficiency”. 93% preferred this scenario.
So we don’t like the path we are on, even if it had a future. We already prefer a society that would have a much better chance of surviving.
Ours is far from the first society to be led astray by harmful ideas. The Easter Islanders became obsessed with building giant stone statues. The Mayan leaders competed to build grand monuments even as the foundation of their society crumbled. In his 2005 book Collapse, Jared Diamond recounted the stories of many societies that faced crises, some of which collapsed through pursuing misguided ideas, and others of which survived by adapting.
Those societies that did survive their crises did so because one or a few people were able to perceive and articulate the problem and to influence or gain leadership. Those societies’ survival would also have required most people to be willing to change their ways. It is even possible for a society to change against the wishes of its leaders. The power of the old East German regime evaporated once the people realised how many of them wanted change.
At present more and more people are becoming aware not only that we need to change, but that the means to live sensibly and sustainably are largely available. Our power will emerge when we realise how many of us want to switch to a better path.
The Eckersley study says 93% of us want a cooperative, sustainable future. Perhaps all we need to do is wake up to how many of us there are, and the power of the present regime will evaporate, just as happened in East Germany.
Our main challenge, as individuals, is to let go of our old ways of seeing the world, including our expectations of who is in charge, and to reach for the world we want. The main challenge for our society is to persuade those in power to change, or to remove from power those unwilling to change. That applies not just to politics but to media, business and other institutions. Thus the main challenges are not in the physical world, nor from other societies. Our main challenges are within ourselves, and in our relationships with each other.
A century ago our adaptability and initiative helped to make us the wealthiest people, per capita, in the world, and we were world leaders in progressive social and political innovation. About that time we dropped the ball, and since then we have often manifested a national inferiority complex. Our earlier potential is there for us to take up again.
There are also darker aspects to our history and character. Indeed the national myths tend to gloss over the best and the worst in us, and to propagate a rather superficial view of ourselves.
This book is mainly addressed to, and about, non-indigenous Australians. However indigenous Australians are not forgotten. The mess we are in is mainly a Whitefella mess. If and as we Whitefellas extract ourselves from the mire we will be better able to support indigenous Australians to deal with their long-standing and urgent needs. Not that Blackfellas should have to wait, but at present official Australia is largely deaf to their voices and blind to their own strengths and approaches.