This post follows on from some earlier posts in the wake of my withdrawal from the Labour party, in response to Kier Starmer’s apparent abandonment of principles that the party was formed upon and his subsequent purge of the left wing of the party. I found myself longing for passion and principles to be at the centre of our politics again rather than the expedient pursuit of power. I also fear that without an ideological anchor, anything goes. In these posts, I have tried to describe what this might look like, if I ruled the world. (Which would be a very bad idea.)
Our world desperately needs leaders. This is an obvious statement, but at a time when trust in the political process is rock bottom, and when we have experienced a series of ‘leaders’ who have failed to lead us towards any solution to the major problems facing our planet (climate change and it’s causal twin, rampant and widening inequality), we have to ask how we hold our leaders to account? Against which principles do we measure the policies they champion? How can we see past the distraction (deliberate or accidental) and how can we demand better if we do not know what better looks like?
The old ideologies, no matter how cherished, often feel inadequate. Can we take the best from them and make something genuinely new? There are many who are trying to do just that – with a predictable back-lash from the ‘establishment’. These voices are often forced out on to the margins by the UK political process – our two-party first-post-the-post election system, but consider this small idea from the ‘extremist’ group Extinction rebellion;
Ideas like this are only ‘radical’ if they seem disproportionate, but if we are serious about democracy, then we have to make our politics human-scale. This is not revolution, it is re-orientation, and we have never needed it more.
There is an asusmption here that decisions made by ordinary people would be better, but we have to remember that the messages and cultural cues that we live with are mostly concerned with things staying the same. We can argue over how much this hegemonic hold on our consciouness is deliberately constructed, but I would argue that for anything to change we need moral/spiritual/ethical yardsticks, alongisde working exemplars that make ideas seem more real. In these posts, I am trying to grapple with the yardsticks.
I do so not without considerable bias of course. I am left leaning, so suspicious of big-scale, non-human-level, top-down economic processes. My evolving faith background tells me that people matter, that compassion comes first and that we are here not just to exist, but to do good if we can. I was a social worker for many years, working with broken, marginalised people who were experiencing severe mental health problems and so this skews my focus to those at the margins. I make a living in a very small business, and raise veg to suppliment our small income, so I am convinced we can all live on much less. I live in a former wilderness in which everything is out of balance and diversity declining, so I am concerned about ecology and how we might preserve and restore. All of this makes me convinced that my priorities are the RIGHT ones, that my biases are in the direction of the angels and that my perpective is superior to yours.
It is not.
But then again…
Perhaps we can come to some broad agreement about what we build our future upon. If this is to be ‘owned’ rather than imposed, we have to have a conversation about it all. We might have to start by being clearer about the principles that have guided us in the recent past however, because I do not think we ever had THAT conversation before neoliberalism became so fixed and common-sense-immovable in the mind of our politicians.
We can surely agree that we want to live in a safe, prosperous country, free from oppression, protected from crime, with good education for our children and healthcare available to all who are sick. Despite some shifting of thresholds for these matters and the increasing exclusion of those on the margins, Britain is that country for most. It is still one of the best places to live on the planet. However, this comes at a terrible cost.
In terms of consumption, we use almost 100 times more energy per person than in the poorest countries, and most of this energy is still from non-renewables.
We are one of the least forested countries in Europe and our wildlife diversity is still declining alarmingly. One in seven of our native species faces extinction and more than 40% are reducing in frequency.
Our rich are becoming filthy rich, and our poor are becoming poorer. One in five of our children live in poverty.
On even these narrow parameters, something is wrong with our prosperity. Like our lifestyles, it is not sustainable.
Our politics, with it’s four year cycles and expedient short-termism, seems hellbent on ignoring this simple fact, in constantly kicking the can down the road, with a few nods at action that mostly are not worth a damn. Starmer seems to have deliberately cast himself in the same mould. Once again, there seems no escape.
But there are real alternative models of what a prosperous, fair and sustainable society might look like.
Back in 1973, E F Schumacher published his hugely precient and influential book Small is beautiful in which he described “The Problem of Production”, arguing even back then that the modern economy was unsustainable. Natural resources (like fossil fuels) were being treated as expendable income when in fact they should be treated as capital since they were – and are – very much not renewable, and thus subject to eventual depletion. He further argued that nature’s resistance to pollution is limited as well. He concluded that government effort must be concentrated on sustainable development, because relatively minor improvements, for example, technology transfer to third world countries, will not solve the underlying problem of an unsustainable economy. Schumacher’s philosophy is one of “enoughness”, appreciating both human needs and limitations, and appropriate use of technology His warnings went largely unheeded, so here we are.
More recently, Schmacher’s problem of production has been explored again through the idea of a circular economy, in which old linear inpout-output models are replaced by understanding that what we use up is gone for ever, but what we throw away is with us for ever. This idea has been applied on both a macro and a micro scale, for example in top-down planning in China and at the small company level, were waste products from one company become the raw materials for the next. Welcome as this model is, arguably it appears to be trying to redeem our current economic model whilst retaining most of the industrial processes.
Kate Raworth’s Doughnut economics has pointed us towards a different way to understand what a circular economiy might work by adding two crucial limitations – firstly, that of fair distribution of resources and secondly by adding an environmental limit on what the biosphere can sustain. It is about making our economics human scaled and nature scaled. Raworth argues that we need to be at least agnostic in relation of economic growth, which she sees as a poor measure of a functional economy, particularly when it tends to be the only measure used.
Towards circular connection
What I hope is emerging in this piece is a different way to view our economy. Smaller, more local, with an emphasis on reusing, recycling and repairing.
For example, why is it that all our domestic appliances are thrown away because they are not designed to be repairable? In a circular connected world ALL such machines would have a long life and companies would be expected to provide spare parts and repair instructions.
If we follow the logic, perhaps industrial production should be subject to scrutiny as to their sustainable practice in terms of both input and output, in terms of energy use and down the line waste implications. Taxation should be scaled to enure that less sustainable products pay more. Free market evangelists will bust a gut at the very thought, but although profit as a reasonable reward for innovation is not inconsistent with the model I am proposing, it must be mediated if we are going to stop the headlong slide into destruction we are on now.
Surely, if we have learning anything in the last decades it is that the market does NOT know best. It works always towards a concentration of wealth without responsibility;
What do I mean then by circular connection?
The ‘circular’ bit should be clear enough now. We must start seeing our activities as part of a cycle, not as linear input/output models. This principle can be applied at all levels, from individual families right through to companies to whole countries and then on to international relations.
This is the permaculture principle moved from the margins right to the centre of everything we do. Writer Emma Chapman defines it like this;
“Permaculture, originally ‘Permanent Agriculture’, is often viewed as a set of gardening techniques, but it has in fact developed into a whole design philosophy, and for some people a philosophy for life. Its central theme is the creation of human systems which provide for human needs, but using many natural elements and drawing inspiration from natural ecosystems. Its goals and priorities coincide with what many people see as the core requirements for sustainability.”
This means that when designing new societal structures/economic processes/government policies/industrial practices/gardens/transport systems etc etc, we have to learn to think like nature, even in the dark.
But man (and woman) can not live on bread alone, we are also spirit. We need to feel things before we can fully know them. This is where the ‘connection’ comes in. I will find it much harder to describe this, so perhaps it is best just to do so by sharing this poem.
They say that everything that ever was
Is with us still and that we are all
Our DNA, or so they say,
Contains some manta ray
Along with pterodactyl
Every leaf and every tree
Grows in you and grows in me
Every fish and every bird
Listens close to every word
For everything belongs to everything
And we are all
So much here that I agree with Chris… big thanks for putting your thoughts ‘on paper’. Much food for thought… and lots of helpful stuff!