Tag: Capitalism

Politics, Climate Change – Impacts and the IPCC

Climate Change – Impacts and the apolitical nature of reports.

 

The IPCC on the 2nd November 2014 issued a press release: ‘Concluding instalment of the Fifth Assessment Report: Climate change threatens irreversible and dangerous impacts, but options exist to limit its effects’.

 

 

Their first statement is:
“Human influence on the climate system is clear and growing, with impacts observed on all continents. If left unchecked, climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. However, options are available to adapt to climate change and implementing stringent mitigations activities can ensure that the impacts of climate change remain within a manageable range, creating a brighter and more sustainable future” (p1).

 

This much we know from the 5th assessment report, but this release is not about bringing anything new to the table, it is a synthesis of the 3 working group reports published earlier in 2014.

 

The IPCC feel that progress for human development can still be made if there is the will to do it based on the knowledge brought forward by the thousands of scientists. In this they are placing faith in the ‘Translational model’ of science and policy (Wynne 2010). The ‘Translational’ model assumes that what all policy makers need, and by inference the public, is an understanding of the science to enact change.

 

However this does not work because as Mike Hulme points out, climate change is an ‘idea’ and not a scientific ‘fact’ for many people. Hulme (2009) and Wynne (2010) argue that what is at issue is not the propositional claims of climate science, but the conditional and epistemic nature of all science which then relates to the complex and often politicised relationship between science and policy; see also Carlisle (2001) in health inequalities and Pielke’s ‘iron law’ of climate policy (2010). Science ‘produces’ knowledge but it is conditional, i.e. always open to be refuted and it uses propositions, not certainty, in its statements. In reality, we accept as fact science’s propositions as the evidence stacks up and refutations achieve less success – who doubts the laws of gravity, a heliocentric cosmos, or aerodynamics?

 

Politicised uncertainty applies especially to environmental science, which Douglas discussed as far back as 1970. Goldenburg (2010), Ward (2012), Klein (2014) and Marshall (2014) outline the work of the Heartland Institute, the Cato institute, influential politicians and Tea Party members in regard to attempts to refute climate science.

 

The IPCC point out current impacts on the least developed countries and argue for adaption through cooperative responses. They also argue that adaptation is not enough and that reduction in emissions is still required. However, the report is written within the frame of reference of growth based capitalism, the language of adaption and mitigation is used within this growth paradigm. In other words, the argument is that capitalism requires collective action to change what it does, but not a root and branch reform of the process itself.

 

The time scale for capitalism to correct its market failures is now measured in decades:

 

“We have little time before the window of opportunity to stay within 2 degrees C of warming closes. To keep a good chance of staying below 2C, and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally between 2010 and 2050, falling to zero or below by 2100. We have that opportunity, and the choice is in our hands.” (p2).

 

A counter to this is the fossil fuel lobby and industries which continue to get billions of dollars in subsidies to extract fossil fuels. One measure has this subsidy at between $544 billion and $2 trillion. So while we have scientists telling us we must reduce emissions on one side, we have a very powerful vested interests and billions of dollars invested in continuing that extraction. Populations however must expect rises in energy prices if these subsidies are cut. This pertains if we do not also address wealth and income redistribution. For example In June 2014 Indonesia increased petrol prices by 44% to cut its annual subsidy bill of $20 billion. These sorts of increases hit the poor disproportionally while it is the rich who use cars more and thus benefit from subsidies. This could be addressed using tax transfers and other redistributive measures but redistribution is not on the agenda in many countries.

 

It perhaps is not the role of the IPCC to delve into politics, however we must make those links because the science can only take us so far. The broader arguments are cultural, moral and political and we must decide which to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carlisle, S. (2001) Inequalities in Health: contested explanations, shifting discourses and ambiguous polices. Critical Public Health 11 (3)

 

Douglas, M. (1970) Environments at Risk. Times Literary Supplement. 23 (4th June): 124-7

 

Goldenburg, S. (2012) Climate Scientist Peter Gleick admits he leaked Heartland Institute documents. The Guardian. 21st February. [online] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/21/peter-gleick-admits-leaked-heartland-institute-documents

 

Hulme, M. (2009) Why we disagree about Climate Change. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

 

Pielke, R. (2010) The Climate Fix in Borofsky , Y. (2010) YaleE360: Pielke’s “Iron law” of Climate Policy [online] http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/2010/10/yalee360_pielkes_iron_law_of_c.shtml

 

Ward, B. (2012) Heartland Institute leak exposes strategies of climate attack machine. The Guardian. 21st February. [online] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/21/heartland-institute-leak-climate-attack?intcmp=239

 

Wynne, B. (2010) Strange Weather, Again: Climate Science as Political Art. Theory Culture and Society. 27 (2-13): 289-305

 

Health and Capitalism again.

Health and Capitalism.

 

Resistance is futile” and if you heard those words uttered by the Borg, it often was. However, that did not deter the crew of the starship ‘Enterprise’ from carrying on resisting. And so it is with our current predicament on his planet. The Borg, for the global population, is the capitalist class executive supported by their political power elite. We could just call them the capitalist class or what Graham Scambler refers to as the “Greedy Bastards”.

 

One issue is the globalised ‘capital surplus absorption problem’ (Harvey 2010) which drives capital across the globe looking for profit and cheap labour. If capital cannot make a decent return it moves on, as it did in Cornwall’s mining regions in the 20th century.

The resistance to the current global capitalist system is legion (Hawken 2009), but it is disorganised, fragmented, unfocused, without a clear plan and often unsure of who or what the real threat actually is. Some of the resistance movement of course would misguidedly seek to replace one form of exploitation and crisis generation with another, but with a kinder social democratic or green face. But, while capitalism exists it never resolves its crises, it merely moves then around the globe.

 

I seek in to cut through the mess of analysis as to why we are heading for continued economic disaster which is in tandem with the ecological one, a disaster in which we are lied to by a feral elite as being ‘all in it together’, while the distribution of wealth remains in very few hands and is then turned to exploiting the planet’s natural and social capital with often deadly results.

 

This analysis has emotional elements to it, given what the science is telling us about the crossing of planetary boundaries, how could it not? It is not however based on an emotional analysis but an attempt to understand how social worlds change and upon what basis current societies are organised. It is a complex interdependence of economy and ideology shaping social relationships, which in turn shape who we are. In the coming together as individuals to trade, work, exchange, distribute, sell, buy, advertise we bring our hopes, values and ideals to that process and in turn that process shapes our hopes, values and ideals.

 

This is an agenda that brings together  ‘inequalities in health’ (Marmot 2010), the social determinants of health, Ecological Public health (Lang and Rayner 2014) and critiques of political economy. It is a realisation that education has failed us on a grand scale. It is a realisation that a few powerful men, and it is usually men, have been bought by men of wealth and have commandeered the levers of power for their own benefit, arguing as they do that it is for our own good. It is a realisation that only when populations wake up to the fact of this old fashioned class war and demand a better way of social organization that we will we have a hope of bequeathing to our children a better world. It is a realisation that well meaning individual action that does not challenge the fundamental driver is at best useless and at worse a distraction from the real battle.

It is a realisation that the war is very possibly already lost and the best we can hope for is managed decline in human welfare before restructuring of the social economy is forced upon us. There remains optimism of the will but pessismism of the intellect.

Some are more optimistic about our ability to use technology and our transformation of economic models. The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate suggest that economic growth and combating climate change can be done together. In their “Better Growth, Better Climate “ Report (2014), the starting point for this “New Climate Economy” has been to see the issue from the perspective of economic decision-makers. By this they mean government ministers, particularly ministers of finance, economy, energy and agriculture; business leaders and financial investors; state governors and city mayors. None of these decision makers will be anti capitalist and probably have been schooled in either neoclassical economics or economic orthodoxy. I suspect few have read deeply or understood Tim Jackson, David Harvey, Steve Keen or Thomas Picketty, let alone volume’s 1 and 2 of Capital. I suggest that capital accumulation and the contradictions within capitalism is the base issue upon which climate change rests. Naomi Klein has recently (2014) linked these two and brought them into the public sphere in her book “This Changes everything. Capitalism vs Climate”.

Health

Upon what is human health based? It is largely social in nature, determined by the social relationships in a material world. No one lives alone and so it is in the coming together in communities and societies that we fashion the determinants of health. There is a biological basis for some individuals, and this may account for 30% of premature deaths. However genetic determinants (e.g. in cystic fibrosis) operate at this individual level and are manifest in a relatively minor way. This is not to deny that for the individual the medical condition is anything but minor, but health on population levels are not determined thus. Even genetic manifestations are at times made worse or better by the social conditions in which the individual finds themselves. Poverty has a knack of making underlying biological problems much worse.

 

Social Conditions and Relations

Marx (1859) wrote “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”.

 

In other words, capitalism as an economic system is formed by particular social relationships which give rise to our laws such as private property, our political system and our ideas about how society should be. The current ‘mode of production of material life’ is capitalism in its various forms and is the basis for our social life and our social relationships. Simplistically, this means economic factors – the way people produce the necessities of life (mode of production) – determine the kind of politics and ideology a society can have.

If health is socially determined by social relationships, what are the current forms of social relationships that give rise to certain patterns of health, illness and disease? We know from studying inequalities in health that socio-economic conditions and relative social status determine populations’ health status including measurable outcomes such as life expectancy and the under 5 mortality rate. Other social relationships such as gender and ethnicity also affect health status. However, these are subservient social conditions to the socio-economic in the last instance. Thus material conditions and poverty are prepotent conditions for health. That is not to deny that affluent women and affluent BME’s may also experience ill health disproportionately in certain medical categories. However, the major driver for global health are the socio-economic relationships which are based on a certain forms of capitalist political economy.

Graham Scambler argues that a way to understand health is to see ‘asset flows’ operating throughout the life course:

“The noun ‘flows’ is significant here. People do not either have or not have assets positive for health and longevity, rather the strength of flow of these assets varies through the life- course”. So it is not about the static acquisition of wealth or material deprivation that is at work. It is about what assets flow in and out of people’s lives over the course of their life, and this is particularly important in childhood and older age.

The ‘assets’ are:

biological: your ‘genetic inheritance’, sex, your disabilities, your long term conditions. A healthy child born in Redruth in 1960 starts with good biological assets.

psychological: e.g. your self-efficacy, locus of control, learned helplessness. This same child grows up in social world in which she learns that female roles are pretty much limited, her belief regarding her ability to achive anything she wants is limited by the role models and messages around her. Her ‘self efficacy’ is thus reduced to acting within strict and socially moulded goals. Her self belief does not stretch to being Prime Minister. Her psychological asset is not weak but it is certainly not as strong as a young boy at Eton.

social:  family network, community networks, friendships. All her friends do not pass the 11 plus and so her network ‘learns’ a factory fodder secondary school education hell bent on training the local girls for the local textiles factory. Father drives a bus, mother works part time at the local electronics factory. No one goes to university out of the county. This girls position on the social gradient is not the worse but it is not the best either. Her social asset is low to medium.

cultural, your lifestyle choices such as smoking. Cigarette smoking is very common, all the adults around smoke, it is a rite of passage at school and fags are relatively cheap. A 20 a day habit is soon formed. This is a very weak cultural asset.

spatial: where you live, leafy Surrey or inner city Glasgow? Thankfully Camborne is a rural small town lacking the street and environemental dangers of a Toxteth or Lewisham.

symbolic: status as a ‘chav’ or as member of the elite. Thankfully growing up in rural Cornwall in the 60’s, the word ‘chav’ is not known, the demonisation of the working class has not started and there is no talk of benefit cheats and scroungers as the girl grows, she is spared this symbolic humiliation, but the ‘gippoes’ at Carn Brea are not.

material: income and wealth. As an adult, the girl ‘marries well’, her husband has a decent job and they live in a nice part of town. The house is not damp, they can afford to heat it and provide adequate food for the children.

In addition, Scambler suggests that we need to understand that:

  1. The strength of flow of material assets (i.e. standard of living via personal and household income) is paramount. This links with the material deprivation thesis explaining the link between health inequalities and socioeconomic status.
  2. Flows of assets tend to vary together (i.e. mostly strong or weak ‘across the board’);
  3. Weak asset flows across the board tend at critical junctures of the life-course (e.g. during infancy and childhood) to have especially deleterious effects on life-time health and longevity: a child born with a chronic illness, into the lowest decile of income distribution, in an abusive psychological and social environment, living in damp squalid housing in which both parents smoke, in an area of high unemployment and poor access to health care and a proliferation of fast food outlets, in a culture that demonises ‘chavs and benefits cheats’…….
  4. Weak asset flows across the board, and I daresay strong asset flows across the board, tend to exercise a cumulative effect over the life-course (negatively and positively respectively);
  5. The ‘subjective’ evaluation of the strength of an asset flow can exert an effect over and above any ‘objective’ measure of that flow (e.g. a symbolic asset flow perceived as weak relative to that enjoyed by an individual’s reference group can be injurious in its own right). That is, how we perceive how good or poor our ‘asset’ is, affects us even if that asset is not in itself injurious. This is the social comparison thesis or psychosocial hypothesis.

Scambler regards the material asset flow as vital or ‘prepotent’. Of all assets it is the material conditions of life that underpin much of our health outcomes. In this, Scambler is adopting a Marxist take on health inequalities. To argue that material conditions underpin all other asset flows is not to diminish their importance for health inequalities. This is only highlighting the key point of Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level, in that that action on the reduction in income inequality is a precondition for tackling health inequalities.

Danny Dorling (2014) points to the rising levels of inequality and argues that being born outside the 1% has a dramatic effect on a person’s potential – their asset flows – reducing life expectancy, limiting educational and work prospects and adversely affecting mental health. The ‘greedy bastards’ are of course not the 1%, they are part of it, but their wealth puts them more into the 0.01% of income earners.

What are the current dominant socio economic conditions therefore that give rise to the health and illness patterns we note, are affect the asset flows in people’s lives?

 

Political Economy.

A feature of modern capitalism, which in its neoliberal form especially has now gone global, is that it determines in the last instance forms of social relationships that are exploitative and unequal. The material conditions of life are shaped by these unequal and damaging social relationships. Thus, how much land you have to feed your family and where that land is, is determined by systems of private property, commodity prices and the rules of the state. The same goes for water and shelter. The fundamental building blocks of life, including eco systems services, e.g. fresh water, waste recycling, are subsumed within capitalist social relationships. Nature, the air, water, livestock et, upon which we depend has been fashioned into a mere instrument for human survival and development. There is very little ‘nature’ left untouched by human hand. All of nature has been turned into natural capital and is being used up as if it is limitless.

Capitalism has to continue to do what it does because of the ‘surplus capital absorption problem’ (SCAP). As surplus value accrues to the ruling class, those who own and control the means of production, it has to be reinvested or it is lost. Thus capital continually seeks new markets and new profits. It cannot stand still and so it looks to exploit more and more natural capital in the process. The drive for capital accumulation is the engine of this whole process.

When capital comes up against a barrier to this process e.g. strong labour organisations who demand living wages and pensions, it either designs a solution, e.g. strict labour laws that outlaw strikes and unions, or finds other investment opportunities. It takes manufacturing to countries where there is weak, cheap or surplus labour. This is one of the foundational contradictions of capitalism – the capital and labour conflict. An economy that is not returning 3% growth is seen as sluggish and, as we are experiencing in the UK, recessions which result from lack of aggregate demand and lack of surplus capital investment result in unemployment and social unrest.

Capitalism has proved to be dynamic and inventive. It has taken on many forms – mercantile, industrial and recently financial and consumer based. Apologists for capital accumulation argue it is good for societies, pointing to the jobs and wealth created while ignoring the social misery that often follows in its wake and various waves of ‘creative destruction’ as it comes up against barriers to accumulation and then seeks new forms. In this manner whole cities, e.g. Detroit, are nearly laid to waste as old forms of capital accumulation, e.g. car manufacturing, becomes unprofitable and shifts across the globe. In Cornwall, capital fled following its inability to make a profit from mining and engineering leaving a service and tourism sector characterised by low wages and precarious seasonal contracts. Camborne and Redruth are hollowed out towns still trying to recover from the creative destruction unleashed by the forces of globalisation that resulted in tin being cheaper in South East Asia.

Meanwhile whole populations have been ‘bribed‘ by the baubles and cheap credit that capitalism produces which, as the recent credit and consumer led boom and bust has proved, are merely will o’ the wisps. The phrase ‘wage slave’ resonates with many in so called ‘advanced’ societies who are trapped in alienating forms of work ameliorated only by the lures of consumer products and services. The promises of ‘you’ve never had it so good’ turning sour on sovereign and private debt while the ruling class run away with the spoils in ‘Richistan’.

 Wealth

We have heard the mantra “we are all in this together” which is supposed to reassure us that everyone in society is shouldering some of the burden of the consequences of the financial crash of 2008. We also hear that the UK’s debt has to be reduced quickly and that means cuts in public spending. This is an international phenomenon affecting the United States as well as Europe. Many other countries are not quite so indebted. Global capitalism is still working very well in certain localities and everywhere for the capitalist class.

Forbes has been reporting global wealth for 25 years and states that 2011 was a year to remember. For positive reasons. The 2011 Billionaires List breaks two records: total number of listees (1,210) and combined wealth ($4.5 trillion). This amount of money is bigger than the gross domestic product of Germany, one of only six nations to have fewer billionaires that year. BRICs led the way: Brazil, Russia, India and China produced 108 of the 214 new names. These four nations are home to one-in-four members, up from one-in-ten in 2006. Before 2011, only the U.S. had ever produced more than 100 billionaires. China in 2011 has 115 and Russia 101. While nearly all emerging markets showed solid gains, wealth creation is moving at an especially breakneck speed in Asia-Pacific. The region now has a record 332 billionaires, up from 234 in 2010 and 130 at the depth of the financial crisis in 2009. High performing stock markets are behind the surge. Three-fourths of Asia’s 105 newcomers get the bulk of their fortunes from stakes in publicly traded companies, 25 of which have been public only since the start of 2010.

Forbes argues that the reason they track this wealth is because these billionaires have the power to change the world. For example, Telecom billionaire and prime minister Najib Mikati supports the Lebanese government. Ernesto Bertarelli, is now focusing on saving the oceans from eco disaster. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have already traveled to three continents working to change giving practices among the ultra-rich. This is feudal ‘noblesse oblige’, the power of the divine right of kings by dint of wealth with little democratic control. Meanhwile the UK’s Candy brothers like to boast of their wealth and how little tax they pay in the context where “only the little people pay taxes” and in which the rich are winning the class war.

Meanwhile nearly half of the world – 3 billion people – live on less than $2.50 a day and 80% of humanity live on less than $10 a day (2008 figures from the World Bank Development Indicators).

In the UK, the inequality briefings report that  the richest 1% of the population have as much wealth as the poorest 55% combined; Oxfam report the 5 richest families are wealthier that the poorest 20% combined.

“We are all in this together”. Right.

Green thinking

One way to confront this machine is to get off the consumerist treadmill and hope that through collective consumer choices, i.e. not to buy stuff, that the ruling class will mend their accumulative ways, invest in health, education, the conditions of social life and design products that are ‘green‘ and ‘environmentally friendly’. This is already occurring. The plethora of products from hybrid cars to organic and locally sourced food products indicate that some companies are basing their business models with sustainability in mind. What this does not do however is change the underlying dynamic of the surplus capital absorption problem which demands growth in the economy and the overuse of natural resources.

This means there is a race on between developing goods and services that are carbon neutral and environmentally friendly and the supply of goods that are killing ecosystem services and wreck social relationships through alienating labour and growing inequality. This race occurs within the context of the SCAP which will seek to overcome any barriers to the investment of that surplus value and will not wait until all goods and services become eco friendly. If investment in eco friendly products can be found, and is profitable, capitalism will do so, but it is not fussy in this regard. Canadian tar sands exploitation is an example in which demand for oil and the chance for investing surplus capital to turn a profit cannot be overlooked.

Thus, living the good life runs up against globalised capital accumulation, especially in the form of the subsidized Fossil Fuel industry.

Green thinking is also a minority sport as it is up against other forces as well. The idea of human progress and technological advances to solve our problems runs in tandem with those who have the capital to invest. This also includes some forms of religious ideology, which affirms man’s right to dominate nature and an anthropocentric and dualist world view.

Greens need a critique of political economy or risk being sidelined in the Shire as Mordor advances its deathly grip.

So what?

It is unlikely that human populations under globalised capitalism will stop the SCAP dynamic. They don’t understand it. What they do understand is that there are winners and losers in the current system. If you win, you win big. Many also feel impotent to prevent the investment decisions being made by suits in the financial districts of first world countries. Politicians have let their electorates down or more likely could not deliver as they are merely apologists for the ruling class. Democracy is under challenge, more than ironic given that many are currently dying for a democratic ideal.

Many shrug and say ‘nothing can be done’. They may be right. The ruling class may have too powerful a grip and ‘enjoy’ too much of the spoils to change. Meanwhile the political economy of SCAP produces social relationships that determine our current unequal patterns of health.

To date, not enough people are discussing the underlying dynamic of capitalism that produces periodic crises and which may eventually allow Gaia to take revenge. We are locked into a cluster of high carbon systems underpinned by this capitalist dynamic and we don’t have a key. There is an urgent need to design one but our so called elite Universities are currently so wrapped up in producing technologies for capitalist production and equipping people with skills fit for capitalist purpose that they are ill placed to produce radical thinking, challenges and alternative plans. Education is not the solution, it is the problem. Politics is not the solution it is the problem. Ecology is not the solution it is the problem.

And as for a voice? In the UK it takes a comedian to rattle cages in tandem with a few commentattors such as Owen Jones.

“Philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world in many ways, the point however is to change it”.

That means confronting Capital. Changing the light bulbs ain’t enough and may give a false sense of ‘doing something’.

The ruins of Cornwall’s mines stand in silent testament to the destructive forces of globalisation, mirroring the ruins of people’s lives in the sunken inland towns of Cornwall’s backbone, connected together by a road that fails to take them to the golden reaches of England’s South Eastern metropolis 300 miles way.

So:

  • Join/start an anti capitalist social movement.
  • Use social media to connect for example 38 degrees.
  • Confront your elected representatives in writing.
  • Identify and contact the ‘suits’.
  • Find someone who knows what campaigning is all about and share skills.
  • Focus on your core skills, attributes and role and fashion a response that suits them.
  • Identify a sphere of influence and work within that.
  • Consider direct civic action, e.g. ‘Occupy’.
  • Read and understand the issues.

…or realise that no one gives a toss about any of this, go home and get pissed or pregnant.

 

The unlearned, fed by the unscrupulous, led by the clueless.

The unlearned, fed by the unscrupulous, led by the clueless.

 

 The economies of Europe and the US are still feeling the after effects of the financial crisis of 2007/8. Next week midwives go on strike for the first time in their history, other NHS workers have been denied a 1% increase in pay. In the US over 13,000,000 foreclosures, i.e. banks taking back property on mortgage defaults, were filed since 2007. There is evidence that China is following the US in experiencing housing bubbles. Although ‘growth’ has resumed in the UK, the nature of recovery is weak and is still based on the system that crashed in the first place. For the first time ever the majority of people in poverty are working while the government subsidises business to the tune of £85 billion. Britain First has 500,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook; neonazis in Neasden, Northampton and Newcastle.

 

Meanwhile UKIP preach that our salvation lies in curbing Immigration and getting out of the EU. That has about as much credibility as waiting for the Messiah, and is as useless as a bible in a whorehouse. It would be government by ‘white van man’ who doesn’t like ‘darkies’ coming over here and stealing our right to petty nationalistic ignorance.

 

The political response is weaker than pissed gnat and only half as intelligent. It is predicated upon assumptions and theories about how the economy works that either focus on the supply side (neoliberal economics) or the demand side (Keynesian). In other words, one side see that policies are put in place to revive the supply of jobs and products through low taxation, cutting back public spending to reduce government debt, removing state regulation and curbing the power of labour in an attempt to unleash the creative forces of capitalism. This is the neoliberal response and has been dominant since about the 1980’s. The other side, Keynesian demand management, focuses on more public spending, increasing worker’s wages, investments in new technologies, education and infrastructure to stimulate demand. Demand then stimulates growth with which to pay back the governments’ borrowing. This was dominant from about the late 1940 until the 1970-80s. However each attempt produces a crisis in the system that requires a resolution. This is economic orthodoxy, which is only now being challenged by post crash economics in Manchester. However, way back in the 1980’s the humble Plymouth Polytechnic was teaching unorthodox political economy (Marx, Veblen, Galbraith) while Russell group elites were mired in neoliberal classical economic theory.

 

Orthodoxy has not analysed the underlying contradictions of capitalism or understands it as a dynamic system. Crises in capitalism, e.g. too much worker power or too much Capital power, do not get solved as much as moved around the globe.

 

So if we want to understand the current economic mess we are in, we need to try and understand the underlying dynamic and systemic processes at work.

 

I don’t think this is going to happen in the short to medium term because the general population likes its politics in bite-sized chunks based on slogans and soundbites and a bit of showbiz. The myopic media know this and pander to this tendency by presenting us with a woeful lack of analysis and baking.

 

Political parties in the UK: Tory, Labour, Lib-Dem, UKIP are all united in accepting economic orthodoxy either in its neoliberal form or its Keynesian form. All accept growth as the key objective indicator of success, and growth measured in GDP terms. Only the Green party challenges growth but even then are often hazy on the underlying dynamics of capitalism and so are in danger of ‘greening the capitalist machine’ which is of course an oxymoron. It cannot be done.

 

What is required is hard work. We need to get our heads around how capital goes about its business, to understand that contradictions are inherent within it and that right now there are three dangerous contradictions that could wreak havoc on civilised societies around the globe:

 

  1. Endless Compound growth (exponential growth).
  2. Capital’s relationship with nature (consumption is killing us)
  3. Universal Alienation: the revolt of human nature.

 

 

So for now, know that you are being fed bullshit, lies and myopic analysis leading to the Clacton bell being rung for the victory of the disenchanted, uneducated and alienated ‘consumer citizen’ looking for a scapegoat.

 

 

 

 

See: David Harvey 2014 ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’.

 

Want to thank a War Veteran?

Most politicians in the established parties are merely the outward looking face of the 0.1% or, as Professor of Sociology Graham Scambler calls them, the “Capitalist Class Executive”. I prefer his other term for them: the “Greedy Bastards”. Politicians who currently support the activities of the GBs form part of the ‘Political Power Elite’ and are the public facing wing of the GBs. Obama et al in the US; Cameron, Clegg and Miliband in the UK; Abbott in Australia.  In the UK they form part of the ‘Establishment’ while the other parts of the Establishment merely acquiesce  and squabble among themselves about the size of the crumbs falling from the GBs’ table.

The real people to punch are the self satisfied, smug, post imperialist, authoritarian, narrowly educated but often from ‘elite’ universities, usually white and overwhelmingly male plutocrats and oligarchs, the ‘focused autonomous reflexives’ , embedded in globalised corporate networks who believe in their own propaganda about their innate superiority, achievements and right to rule over the underclasses, women, inferior ‘races’ and of course nature.

Their comic, and not so funny, face in the UK is Boris Johnson.

These men usually share an ‘autocratic father metaphor’ and base their politics around core beliefs:

1. The world is a dangerous place and always will be, because evil exists.

2. The world is hard and difficult because it is competitive.

3. There will always be winners and losers.

4. There are absolute right and wrongs.

5. Children are born bad, in that they only want to do that which feels good rather than that which is right.

6. Children therefore have to be made to do the right thing.

7. This world therefore needs a strong strict father who can: protect the family in a dangerous world; support the family in a dangerous world and teach children right from wrong.

Their wealth, they believe, gives them a superior position because they ‘earned’ it based on their own hard work and innate cleverness drawing often unconsciously from the assumptions above.  They are ready to defend it with other people’s lives and the desecration and destruction of the ecosystems on which the rest of us rely. Chapter 1 of Naomi Klein’s latest book is a chilling read and fleshes out some detail on the attitudes of many US CCE’s and their apologists, to climate change. Polly Toynbee and David Walker also illustrates their attitudes in a UK context.

These are the boys to make us think again. Their defence of their wealth and power is wrapped up in words about freedom and democracy and the “American way of life”. This acts as a smokescreen because in reality, as Klein shows, those who inhabit ‘Richistan’ are only concerned about themselves, their class, their privileges and are now actively protecting themselves against climate change, social unrest based in inequality and global jihad. They do so with the blood of others.

The soldiers you see above have been dragooned into this unholy class war.

Veterans are often the saps who, through necessity or through unexamined ideological traps, are the tools of the GB’s. Believing in higher motives such as camaraderie, or poorly thought through notions of democracy, they engage now in fighting the GB’s battles, suffering the costs at hourly pay rates the GB’s would not bother to raise their bloated carcasses out of bed to receive.

To add injury now to insult, we now have to face a medieval Caliphate, largely of our own making.

A young man near you may be sent to die for a cause he knows nothing about other than lies, distortions and false premises. Joining the British military always had its dark side, and apart from fighting Hitler has always been about establishing imperial power to allow extractive capital to freely go about its business. The UK now has a long established military culture, it’s loftier manifestation being the ‘heroes’ trope, and a more base manifestation is our infantile clinging to nuclear weapons.

I met two young boys on the Dover-Calais ferry who had just joined the army, what else is there for them? Without privileged networks, or education, or wealth, their chances of getting ahead in civilian occupations are greatly reduced as they metaphorically jostle with sharper elbowed upper middle classes and the children of the elite who have a stranglehold on plum careers. They also compete with the Precariat, ‘Gringo’s and ‘Endies’ who fill the employment figures making the recession seem better than it actually is.

These two had been sent on a tour of the WW1 battle fields and cemeteries. They were learning military history as part of their basic training. Writing up their notes, one commented on the virtues of discipline in the trenches. I don’t think he’d seen ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’. So, with the best of motives and the least of opportunities, we are preparing two very young men to face lunatics with scimitars, or “ten thousand Watutsi warriors armed to the teeth with kiwi fruit and dry guava halves at Umboto gorge”. Fresh faced and poorly educated they might become veterans relying on a non existent mental health service to sort out their PTSD while their Etonian educated ‘superiors’ worry about the stock market and the price of a bottle of Chateau Lafitte.

Want to thank a veteran? Give, not ‘loan’,  an education, provide some proper mental health services and an economy orientated to the needs of the many not the few.

Climate Change, Health and Capitalism

Climate Change, Health and Capitalism The debate on climate change and health in the context of Ecological public health: A necessary corrective to Costello et al’s ‘biggest global health threat’, or co-opted apologists for the neoliberal hegemony?

Abstract

The threat posed to global health by climate change has been widely discussed internationally. The United Kingdom public health community seem to have accepted this as fact and have called for urgent action on climate change, often through state interventionist mitigation strategies and the adoption of a risk discourse. Putting aside the climate change deniers’ arguments, there are critics of this position who seem to accept climate change as a fact but argue that the market and/or economic development should address the issue. Their view is that carbon reduction (mitigation) is a distraction, may be costly and is ineffective. They argue that what is required is more economic development and progress even if that means a warmer world. Both positions however accept the fact of growth based capitalism and thus fail to critique neoliberal market driven capitalism or posit an alternative political economy that eschews growth. Ecological public health, however, appears to be a way forward in addressing not only social determinants of health but also the political and ecological determinants. This might allow us to consider not just public health but also planetary health and health threats that arise from growth based capitalism.

 

Keywords Ecological Public health, climate change; risk discourse; capitalism; neoliberalism;

The health impacts of climate change have been much discussed internationally1,2,3,4  however there is some disagreement about the magnitude of those effects, when they will occur and what the right course of action is. Underpinning those disagreements is a tacit and sometimes uncritical acceptance of the fundamental structure of the political economy of growth capitalism – neoliberalism5 , with the differences being around whether climate change requires more immediate public policy and health professionalintervention6 or whether capitalism will address the health issues though economic development. In other words, both use the frame of reference of capitalism to argue for either more market freedom or statist intervention based in a risk discourse. This paper seeks to outline the arguments over the health effects of climate change while rooting that discourse within wider often background taken for granted political economy. Two writers, Indur Goklany and Daniel Ben Ami will be used to represent the critical camp in riposte to Costello et al’s 2009 UCL-Lancet paper on climate change and health. While the focus is on climate change, other factors such as biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, all threaten the ecological systems we depend on7. These issues are also associated with our current growth based economic structures.  The ecological public health discourse will not be discussed at length here, but might provide a newer perspective linking global political structures, critiques of growth based capitalism and public health.

The Climate change ‘debate’

 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment Report (AR5)8 argues that scientists are 95% certain that humans are the ‘dominant cause’ of global warming since the 1950’s9,10 . Despite this, there is continuing doubt, denial and a focus on uncertainty,11,12,13,14,15   that Climate Change is human induced and that it requires radical shifts in public policy.   This doubt sits in opposition to many in the medical16and public health domain17. The World Health Organisation18,19  accepts IPCC assessments and considers climate change to be a ‘significant and emerging threat’ to public healthwhile previously ranking it very low down in a table of health threats20,21. In the United Kingdom, Costello22 et al argue that climate change is a major potential public health threat that does require major changes such as action on carbon emissions. In addition, Barton and Grant’s health map23 has in its outer ring ‘Climate Stability, Biodiversity and Global Ecosystems’ as key determinants of health and supports the WHO view that alongside the social determinants of health, health threats arise from large scale environmental hazards such as climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity losses, changes in water systems, land degradation, urbanisation and pressures on food production. WHO24  argues:   “Appreciation of this scale and type of influence on human health requires a new perspective which focuses on ecosystems and on the recognition that the foundations of long-term good health in populations rely in great part on the continued stability and functioning of the biosphere’s life-supporting systems”.

 

It is this call for a ‘new perspective on ecosystems’ that indicates why there is a backlash, one that underpins critiques of the link between climate change, environmental issues and human health. Many of those critical are libertarian, anti-state conservatives defending the neoliberal hegemony of free market dogma which ‘new perspectives’ may threaten.  For example, Stakaityte25 argues:   “Free market proponents are quick to point out that the whole climate change issue has been used to stifle freedom and to expand the nanny state – and they are right. If the climate is changing, and if humans really are responsible, the market will adapt”.

 

The WHO call for a ‘new perspective’ however is not a radical critique of neoliberal capitalism or a call for its replacement by other political economies. It sits within an overarching acceptance that growth25 capitalism is the only economic model, and that only its particular current form requires changing, for example by investments in green technologies.   Critical discourse over such an important issue is crucial. Argument should proceed over matters of empirical facts, within discourses of risk and an understanding of scientific uncertainty27 .  Attention also should turn to philosophical positions on political economy in which the dominant neoliberal hegemony28,29 attempts to build and maintain a sceptical view30,31  in the media on climate change and on alternative, including no growth, economic models32,33,34  because neoliberalism is antithetical to ‘nanny state’ intervention implicit in public health ‘upstream’ analysis.

 

Health Impacts of climate change and the policy response.

Indur Goklany and Daniel Ben Ami respectively are noted writers on the topic and both are in the sceptical camp regarding what to do about climate change. Both however appear to accept the fact of climate change, they just don’t agree with the focus on carbon reduction targets.   For the health community that makes decisions on what the main threats to health are, there is a need to carefully weigh up the evidence for threats to population health in the short, medium and long term, or what Goklany calls the ‘foreseeable future’ defined as 2085-2100. This means addressing Goklany’s argument, especially, on the ranking of health threats and Ben Ami’s argument on progress. For Goklany the health threats this century are not from climate change, nor will they be. For Ben Ami, the answer lies in any case of more progress based on economic growth and development.   In this there is some support from the latest IPCC report 35 (p3)  which states   “the present worldwide burden of ill health from climate change is relatively small compared with other stressors and is not well quantified”.   The report also states that rapid economic development will reduce health impacts on the poorest and least healthy groups, with further falls in mortality rates.  In addition, they argue36 (p4), alongside poverty alleviation and disaster preparedness, the most effective adaptation measures are:   “basic public health measures such as the provision of clean water, sanitation and essential healthcare”.   A key point is that climate change and extreme weather events affects the poor disproportionally and that37 (p3)   “until mid century climate change will act mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist”   So there is an emphasis on economic development and poverty alleviation by the IPCC, thereby accepting the basic tenets of growth capitalism, alongside mitigation and adaptation, to deliver them.   However, McCoy38  et al points out that by 2100,  ‘business usual’ emissions growth will see increases in levels of CO2 in the atmosphere giving a 50:50 chance that global mean temperatures will rise by more than 4 degrees, which they argue  is   “incompatible with an organised global community”.   However, they stop short of a critique of the political economy of growth capitalism that drives C02 emissions39,40,41.   Both Goklany and Ben-Ami’s faith in human progress is based on inductive reasoning, ignores the key statistical problem of exponential growth on a finite planet, and may be over confident that limits have been correctly identified or can be overcome. Goklany might turn out to be empirically correct that in the ‘foreseeable future’, climate change will not be the major threat to public health, however this line of reasoning might support the denial of climate change in particular and obscures the requirement of addressing the sustainability of current economic structures. It also sidesteps addressing the language and discourse of risk42,43 which includes considering that human action should not be based on total certainty but on the assessment of the probabilities of high and low impact events. However, the position taken by both writers is that humanity needs more capitalist economic and technological development even if that results in a warmer world.   Goklany44 argues that humanity, in developing and using fossil fuels, both freed itself from the vagaries of nature’s provision and also has saved nature from humanity’s need to turn more of it into cropland. The inference from this argument is that we ought to continue to use fossil fuels to further human progress and to save nature from ourselves. Increasing global GDP, i.e. a wealthier world, would also be better equipped to deal with future global warming issues45.   Daniel Ben-Ami46 forwards this argument. He points out that we are living longer and healthier lives than ever before thanks to economic development and growth. Therefore, inductively, we need more growth. Humanity should strive to achieve more in terms of economic development so that everyone should have access to a Ferrari if they want it.   Those who suggest climate change is a health threat do not address this economic and development argument head on.  There may be implicit acceptance of the current economic models of development. Instead there is a focus on the magnitude of climate change per se as a health threat rather than the economic structures which may drive climate change and other unsustainable practices such as deforestation.       Costello v Goklany.   In 2009 Costello et al 47(p1693)  argued that ‘climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century’ . Goklany48,49 in the same year replied and argued that climate change is not the number one threat to humanity, and questioned whether it is the defining challenge of our age. Goklany50  pointed out that climate change was ranked only 21st out of 24 global health threats. Goklany’s rebuttal data comes from the World Health Organisation51 ‘World Health Report 2002’ and the Comparative Quantification of Health Risks 200452and he used results from “Fast Track Assessments” (FTAs) of the global impacts of global warming53,54 .   Costello, Maslin and Montgomery 55  in reply to Goklany argued that     “The ranking of climate change at 21st out of 24 risk factors was made at a time when global temperature rise was only 0·74°C, and when the effects of climate change on the other risk factors was unclear”   …and they claimed that there has since been substantial changes in our understanding of climate change risks. They cite two papersshowing that about 1 trillion tonnes56 is probably the cumulative limit for all carbon emissions if we wish to stay within the 2°C “safety” limit57, and that, without action, we shall exceed this limit before 2050.  They also cite a paper by Schneider58 who raised the prospect of worst case scenarios: warming at 3°C gives a 90% probability that Greenland will melt, raising sea levels by many metres, and that on present evidence and trends there is a 5—17% chance that temperatures will go up by 6·4°C by 2100. They argue that this a risk threshold, way beyond which people would buy insurance.   Goklany59  in 2012,  argued Costello et al made their claim about climate change in 2009 without a comparative analysis of the magnitude, severity and manageability of a range of health threats at that time and therefore ranking it as the No 1 threat is untenable.  His position in 2012 is that the 2 degree target is irrelevant in any case and he seems happy to accept a 4 degree rise.   The 2013 IPCC report AR560, while accepting a pause in warming over recent years, argues that climate change is a continuing very serious issue and now post dates this difference in Goklany and Costello’s arguments which are based on data from 1999 to 2009. The report makes it clear that even if greenhouse gas emissions are stopped right now climate change will persists for many centuries, much of it will be irreversible characterised by impacts such as sea level rises and argues that the last time the world was 2 degrees warmer, sea levels were 5 -10 metres higher.   On what to do, Goklany61 (p69)  argued in 2009 that   “Societal resources devoted to curb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions will be unavailable for other…more urgent tasks including vector control, developing safer water supplies or installing sanitation facilities in developing countries….”   However this sets up a false dichotomy. The decision to spend on carbon reduction is not an either/or one. There are myriad spending decisions being made, and those choices are made from a raft of competing priorities. One could equally argue that resources devoted to nuclear armaments and other military spending is unavailable also for these other urgent tasks. So to focus on emissions reduction as the spending that diverts funds away from addressing other pressing health issues is a biased view. Goklany could argue for an end to subsidies for the fossil fuel and nuclear industries, reductions in military spending, changing the international tax regimes to access wealth deposited in offshore accounts, or the introduction of a Tobin tax on financial transactions. These are admittedly biased positions and may be seen to be too left wing, and ideologically incompatible with current growth capitalism and neoliberal hegemony62.   Whether funding spent on carbon reduction actually works in terms of human welfare and is less expensive than alternatives, is a valid question but has to be seen in a wider political discourse about spending decisions. His points regarding the need for poverty reduction via sustainable economic development and advancing our adaptive capacity would possibly bring broad agreement. In any case some63 consider that it is too late for mitigation and that adaptation to a warmer world is now needed. Goklany64  uses the term ‘focused adaptation’ meaning taking advantage of the positive benefits of warming. If sea levels are to rise by 5-10 metres this is beyond the foreseeable future and so we should focus on economic growth and development to adapt to those future scenarios rather than wasting time resources and energy on emission curbs. However, this seems somewhat an anthropocentric view taking in little regard for biodiversity loss and ocean acidification, both of which are also threats to human health.   Ben Ami and Goklany put faith instead in ‘secular technological change’. This believes that   1) Existing technologies will become cheaper or more cost effective. 2) New technologies that are even more cost effective will become available.   They may well be correct. They argue the potential health threats may be addressed through human ingenuity based on economic progress and economic progress is best served by accepting the IPCC worse case scenario which would result in greater per capita GDP and thus release capital for adaptation (figure 1).   Goklany argues that if humanity has a choice, it ought to strive for the developmental path corresponding to the richest IPCC scenario (A1FI  – 4 degrees C above 1990 by 2085), notwithstanding any associated global warming, because this increases adaptive capacity and poverty would be eliminated. Other health risks that rank higher than global warming are also associated with poverty and would thus also be eliminated. Poverty related diseases contribute to mortality and morbidity 70 to 80% more than warming. Mitigative capacity would be increased, therefore health improves with economic and technological development, and development encourages the ‘environmental transition’.   This is a very risky strategy which future generations will have to judge the merits of. There is gathering evidence beyond climate change suggesting that humanity is already transgressing other environmental limits65, transgressions which will not support a ‘safe operating space’ in the new era, the ‘anthropocene66,67 .   Risk Discourse.   Goklany68 argued in 2012   “This paper does not address hypothesized low-probability but potentially high consequence outcomes such as a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation or the melting of the Greenland and Antarctica Ice Sheets, which have been deemed unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future by both the IPCC and the US Global Change Research Program, among others”,   …although the IPCC69(p22) has since written that it is     “very unlikely that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (part of the global thermohaline) will undergo abrupt transition or collapse…however, a collapse beyond the 21st century…cannot be excluded”.   Goklany, in not addressing these risks, appears to dismiss the need for ‘risk discourse’ to frame public debate relying on ‘kicking into the long grass’ serious future consequences of climate change.   ‘Risk’ is already an essential part of everyone’s experience, including in the world of insurance, health and investment. It is not uncommon for people to insure against low probability but high impact events, e.g. house fires, and for the long term, e.g. pensions. It is thus arguable that the thermohaline shutdown and ice sheets melts may well be just the sort of low probability but high impact events that humanity ought to be insuring against and taking measures to prevent through carbon emissions reductions. Painter70 suggests therefore that elements of risk discourse would provide a better frame for debate than disaster and uncertainty frames, which are both more prevalent in news media.   Space precludes an examination of the concept of exponential growth and the requirement to produce resources to meet the needs of potentially 9-10 billion people by 2050. Costello et al’s position seems to be that climate change will stress ecosystems before we have time to adapt and that both direct and indirect affects will adversely impact on global health. They are not so sanguine about our ability to live within our limits.         Goklany is correct to point out that currently health threats arise from poverty and underdevelopment. In this assessment he is in accord with the WHO social determinants of health approach and the IPCC AR5 WGII71.  Costello et al have not dismissed this and public health experts would probably accept a similar position. A focus on the social determinants of health and the political determinants of health72 needs to run alongside mitigation or else the good work could be undone by a low probability, according to Goklany,  but high impact event such as the melting of the Arctic Ice. They differ on when climate change will be a health threat and importantly on how to address it. Goklany and Ben Ami appear to be on the market driven economic development model as the answer whereas Costello et al argue for more immediate state and public intervention in addressing climate change. All however do not critique the fundamental neoliberal growth economic model or call for alternative economic ‘no growth’ or circular models73,74. There is little doubt that we are running an experiment with the climate, there is agreement that this will impact on global health but the dominant discourse of political economy seems to be either more or less tweaking with capitalist growth models rather than a sustained examination of alternatives.There are voices, now however, pointing public health in another direction. Horton et al75 call for a new social movement in a ‘manifesto from public to planetary health’, to support collective action on Public Health, introducing the concept of ‘planetary’, rather than just ‘public’ health.  As with Lang and Rayner’s76  discussion of Ecological public health, there is a strong focus on the unsustainability of current consumption. Interestingly,  an overt political statement is introduced in the ‘manifesto’: “We have created an unjust global economic system that favours a small wealthy elite over the many who have so little”77 p847. They attack the idea of progress, and thus implicitly growth based neoliberalism, for deepening this ecological crisis and for being socially unjust. The call is for an urgent transformation in values and practices based on recognizing our interdependence and interconnectedness, and a new vision of democratic action and cooperation.  A principle of ‘planetism’ is invoked which requires us to conserve and sustain ecosystems upon which we rely.Finally they suggest that public health and medicine can be independent voices of conscience who along with ’empowered communities’ can confront entrenched interests. In the same vein, Ottersen et al78 are explicitly political on the links between health inequity, globalisation and the current system of global governance, including the actions of ‘powerful global actors’ and while they do not use the term ‘growth based capitalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, the tone of the report makes it quite clear that there is a need to address global governance and an analysis of power. The domains of Public Health, Medicine and Nursing may be insufficiently politically aware of the scale of the issues, and the sheer force and dynamics of capitalism79, that impacts on human health. This might be due to the (necessary?) ‘ahistoric’ and ‘apolitical’ education of health care professionals, resulting in a lack of a sociological or political imagination underpinned by a critical theory of capitalism. However, adopting the perspective of Ecological Public Health or seeing the world through a ‘sustainability lens’80 might move more health practitioners and policy makers into critique and action on current economic and political structures that result in health inequities, and indeed, if some are to be believed, that threaten western civilisation81,82.

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Figure 1: net GDP per capita, 1990-2200 for 4 IPCC scenarios. The warmest is A1FI (4 degrees C) and the coolest is B1 (2.1 degrees C)       Author’s statement

Funding: none

Competing Interests: None declared

Ethical approval: Not required. This is a review paper.

 

“NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Public Health. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in PUBLICATION, [VOL#, ISSUE#, (DATE)] DOI

Funding cuts to nurse education – austerity hits students

“Universities say nursing education has reached a “tipping point”, with proposed funding cuts putting the quality of courses and ultimately the quality of nursing care at risk”

The funding cuts and increase in student numbers may well have a detrimental affect on the learning experience. To address it we have to adopt new methods – some of which we need to do anyway – such as increasing use of web 2.0 technology for example ‘webinar’ presentations and discussions. Simulations are expensive and time consuming and allied to pressures on mentors, we have an overall picture of stress on the system. This will increase the call to take education back into the NHS, to see students as part of the workforce and not supernumerary, and the adoption of training rather than education. The wider context is the increasing control of nursing for managerial reasons within the contested economic policy of austerity. The country largely believes there is no money for education, health or welfare. In addition the policy is one of creating a market for those public goods based on the idea of a ‘consumer’ exercising rational choices. That is why the student pays fees so that through a market mechanism they will drive up quality by only buying education from quality providers. That is the theory. There is money – its just that it is in the hands of the few that gov’t dare not touch.

In a report, a Tale of Two Britains, Oxfam said the poorest 20% in the UK had wealth totalling £28.1bn – an average of £2,230 each. The latest rich list from Forbes magazine showed that the five top UK entries – the family of the Duke of Westminster, David and Simon Reuben, the Hinduja brothers, the Cadogan family, and Sports Direct retail boss Mike Ashley – between them had property, savings and other assets worth £28.2bn.

The UK study follows an Oxfam report earlier this year which found that the wealth of 85 global billionaires is equivalent to that of half the world’s population – or 3.5 billion people. The pope and Barack Obama have made tackling inequality a top priority for 2014, while the International Monetary Fund has warned that the growing divide between the haves and have-nots is leading to slower global growth.

This is the real issue – inequality politics resulting in an impoverished public sector. JK Galbraith way back in 1958 argued that a feature of advanced capitalism was that public (sector) squalor went alongside private affluence. Quite.

Planetary and Public Health – its in our hands ?

From public to planetary health: a manifesto.

The Lancet (Horton et al, 2014) has just published  a manifesto for transforming public health.

You can read the full one page easy to read manifesto here.

This is a call for a social movement at all levels, from individual to the global, to support collective action for public health. Public Health has been widely defined in this manifesto and draws upon the ideas of Barton and Grant’s health map which has climate change, biodiversity and global ecosystems as the outer ring of the determinants of health.

The current definitions of public health, for example from the Faculty of Public Health,  draw upon Acheson’s 1998 definition “The science and art of promoting and protecting health and well-being, preventing ill-health and prolonging life through the organised efforts of society”.  However this definition may now be outdated as there is no mention of environmental or ecological determinants of health and no express action on planetary health at all.

Therefore this manifesto is an implicit call to redefine what public health means. Currently you can read the FPH’s approach to public health and fail to consider issues around climate change, biodiversity loss or the crossing of planetary boundaries which delineate a ‘safe operating space for humanity‘. This needs changing.

The main points within this manifesto  include a definition of ‘planetary’ , rather than ‘public’ health which they argue is an “attitude towards life and a philosophy for living… emphasising people not diseases, and equity not the creation of unjust societies”.  There is a strong focus in the manifesto on the unsustainability of current consumption patterns of living, based on the harms this has on planetary systems. They argue “overconsumption…will cause the collapse of civilisation”. Jared Diamond is worth a read on the collapse of civilisations,  and this argument is in line with his analysis.

Interestingly, an overt political statement is introduced: “We have created an unjust global economic system that favours a small wealthy elite over the many who have so little”. They attack the idea of progress, and of neoliberalism  including ‘transnational forces”, for deepening this ecological crisis and for being socially unjust. There is also a hint of the ‘democratic deficit‘ in which trust between the public and political leaders is breaking down.

The call is for an urgent transformation in values and practices based on recognizing our interdependence and interconnectedness, a new vision of democratic action and cooperation.  A principle of ‘planetism’ is invoked which requires us to conserve and sustain ecosystems upon which we rely.

Finally they suggest that public health and medicine can be independent voices of conscience who along with ’empowered communities’ can confront entrenched interests.

So far so good, and in a one page document the detail is necessarily missing.  The principles outlined in this manifesto and the analysis focusing on neoliberalism and ‘entrenched interests’ point us in a direction. However, there is now a need for a map.

I am not convinced that public health, medicine and certainly not nursing, is sufficiently politically aware of the scale of the issue and the sheer force and dynamic of capitalism to even begin constructing the map. That may be an unfair criticism because the education of health care professionals is ‘ahistoric’ and ‘apolitical’ by nature,  they simply lack a sociological or political imagination underpinned by a critical theory of capitalism. And for good reasons.

However, if doctors and nurses are to engage with this manifesto and to debate and argue for an alternative world view, then there is an urgent need to understand the forces railed against them. This manifesto rightly points out the political nature of the issue and the authors no doubt have a clear idea what they mean, however I doubt very much if the majority of healthcare professionals really understand, or even perhaps care about,  the concept of neoliberalism.

In the UK we will be having an election in 2015, in which we will be offered similar versions of the system that is causing the mess. There will be little in the way of mainstream reporting or argument on radical alternatives to consumption or finance capitalism. Indeed parties will be arguing over who can best manage the system.  The only exception will be the Green party who are a fringe party, in terms of votes.

As an example of the scale of the problem, consider Bill McKibbens’  ‘three numbers‘ argument: 2 for two degrees, the threshold beyond which we should fear to tread; 565 gigatons of CO2 we might be able to put into the atmosphere and have some hope of staying below or around 2 degrees; 2795 gigatons which is the amount of carbon in current reserves, but is the the amount of carbon we are planning to burn!  Further, the wealth of investors is tied up in this number and would evaporate like petrol in a hot day should we globally decide that this reserve should stay in the ground. This is an example of an entrenched interest backed by neoliberal politics which is antithetical to global and governmental regulations. The current TTIP negotiations which is trying to establish a free trade area between the US and the EU,  possibly exemplifies the powerlessness of states in the face of lawsuits by corporations if George Monbiot is correct. TTIP is a public health issue and forms part of the backdrop to this manifesto.

I welcome this manifesto, and would urge public health bodies to become overtly political in their statements about public health, perhaps revisiting Acheson and redefining public health to include planetary health.

Following that observation, a new publication published in February 2014, appears to address the politics in an overt way. The Lancet – University of Oslo Commission on Global Governance for Health argues in a document called ‘The political origins of health inequity: prospects for change’ : “Although the health sector has a crucial role in addressing health inequalities, its efforts often come into conflict with powerful global actors in pursuit of other interests such as protection of national security, safeguarding of sovereignty, or economic goals.”

This then sets up political determinants of health which sit alongside the social determinants of health. Whether it goes as far as critiquing the underlying dynamic of various forms of capitalism remains to be seen.

Indur Goklany and Daniel Ben-Ami on health, climate change and progress: A necessary corrective to Costello et al’s climate change health ‘propaganda’, or co-opted apologists for the neoliberal hegemony?

Introduction

 

The health impacts of climate change have been much discussed internationally, however there is some disagreement about the magnitude of those effects, when they will occur and what the right course of action is. Underpinning those disagreements is a joint uncritical acceptance of the fundamental structure of the political economy of late modern capitalism (neoliberalism), with the differences being around whether climate change requires more immediate public policy intervention or whether capitalism will address the health issues though economic development. In other words, both use the frame of reference of capitalism to argue for more market freedom v statist intervention. This paper seeks to outline the arguments over the health effects of climate change while rooting that discourse within wider often background taken for granted political economy. Two writers, Indur Goklany and Daniel Ben Ami will be used to represent the critical camp in riposte to Costello et al’s 2009 Lancet paper on climate change and health.

 

Climate change ‘debate’

 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment Report (IPCC 2013) argues that scientists are 95% certain that humans are the ‘dominant cause’ of global warming since the 1950’s (McGrath 2013). Thomas Stocker, IPCC co-chair stated:  “…in order to limit climate change, it will require substantial and sustained reduction of greenhouse gas emission…” (BBC 2013). Despite this, there is continuing doubt, denial and a focus on uncertainty in many countries, especially in news media, that Climate Change is human induced and that it requires radical shifts in public policy. See for example Delingpole (2013) in the United Kingdom and particularly in the United States and Australia (Painter 2013). The UK’s Owen Paterson, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, told the 2013 Conservative party conference not to worry about global warming. “I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries.” (Syal 2013). Previously on BBC television’s ‘Any Questions’, he repeated ten discredited claims about climate change (Mason 2013).

 

This sits in opposition to many in the medical and public health domain. The World Health Organisation accepts IPCC assessments and considers climate change to be a ‘significant and emerging threat’ to public health (WHO 2013 a,b), while previously ranking it very low down in a table of health threats (WHO 2009). In the United Kingdom, Costello et al (2009) argue that climate change is a major potential public health threat that does require major changes such as action on carbon emissions. In addition, Barton and Grant’s health map (2006) has in its outer ring ‘Climate Change, Biodiversity and Global Ecosystems’ as key determinants of health and supports the WHO view that alongside the social determinants of health, health threats arise from large scale environmental hazards such as climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity losses, changes in water systems, land degradation, urbanisation and pressures on food production. WHO (2013c) argues:

 

“Appreciation of this scale and type of influence on human health requires a new perspective which focuses on ecosystems and on the recognition that the foundations of long-term good health in populations rely in great part on the continued stability and functioning of the biosphere’s life-supporting systems”.

 

It is this call for a ‘new perspective on ecosystems’ that indicates why there is a backlash that underpin long standing critiques of the link between climate change, environmental issues and human health. Many of those critical are libertarian, anti state conservatives defending the neoliberal hegemony of free market dogma which ‘new perspectives’ may threaten.  For example, Stakaityte (2013) argues:

 

“Free market proponents are quick to point out that the whole climate change issue has been used to stifle freedom and to expand the nanny state – and they are right. If the climate is changing, and if humans really are responsible, the market will adapt”.

 

The WHO call for a ‘new perspective’ however is not a radical critique of neoliberal capitalism or a call for its replacement by other political economies. It sits within an overarching acceptance that capitalism is the only economic model, and that only its particular current form requires changing, for example by investments in green technologies.

 

Critical discourse over such an important issue is crucial. Argument should proceed over matters of empirical facts, within discourses of risk and an understanding of scientific uncertainty (see Painter 2013). Attention also should turn to philosophical positions on political economy in which the dominant neoliberal hegemony (Crouch 2011, Plehwe et al 2006) attempts to build and maintain a sceptical view in the media on climate change and on alternative, including no growth, economic models (Jackson 2009) because it is antithetical to ‘nanny state’ intervention implicit in public health ‘upstream’ analysis.

 

Health Impacts of climate change and the policy response

 

Indur Goklany and Daniel Ben Ami respectively are noted writers on the topic and both are in the sceptical camp regarding what to do about climate change. Both however appear to accept the fact of climate change, they just don’t agree with the focus on carbon reduction targets. They are both far more nuanced in their arguments than other commentators such as the UK’s James Delingpole; Andrew Bolt of Australia’s Herald Sun and Steve Molloy of the United States’ Fox News. However, Goklany is associated with the Heartland Institute, but care should be taken not to debunk his thesis merely because he publishes at that anti climate change organisation.

 

For the health community that makes decisions on what the main threats to health are, there is a need to carefully weigh up the evidence for threats to population health in the short, medium and long term, or what Goklany calls the ‘foreseeable future’. This means addressing Goklany’s argument, especially, on the ranking of health threats and Ben Amis’ argument on progress. For Goklany the health threats are not from climate change, nor will they be for the foreseeable future. For Ben Ami, the answer lies in any case of more progress based on economic growth and development.

 

Both Goklany and Ben-Ami’s faith in human progress is based on inductive reasoning, ignores the key statistical problem of exponential growth, and may be over confident that limits have been correctly identified or can be overcome. Goklany might turn out to be empirically correct that in the ‘foreseeable future’, defined as 2085-2100, climate change will not be the major threat to public health, however this line of reasoning gives support to the denial of climate change in particular and obscures the requirement of addressing the sustainability of current economic structures. It also sidesteps addressing the language and discourse of risk (Haggett 2010, Painter 2013) which includes considering that human action should not be based on total certainty but on the assessment of the probabilities of high and low impact events. However, the position taken by both writers is that humanity needs more capitalist economic and technological development even if that results in a warmer world.

 

Goklany (2012) argues that humanity, in developing and using fossil fuels, both freed itself from the vagaries of nature’s provision and also has saved nature from humanity’s need to turn more of it into cropland. The inference from this argument is that we ought to continue to use fossil fuels to further human progress and to save nature from ourselves. Increasing global GDP, i.e. a wealthier world, would also be better equipped to deal with future global warming issues (Goklany 2007). This is inductive in that it assumes that this past pattern of innovation will be repeated in the future.

 

Daniel Ben-Ami (2010) also forwards this argument in ‘Ferrari’s for all –a defence of economic progress’. He points out that we are living longer and healthier lives than ever before thanks to economic development and growth. Therefore, inductively, we need more growth. The book is also based on the idea that humanity is apart from nature – human exceptualism – and is capable of enormous technical, cultural and progressive ingenuity. Humanity should strive to achieve more in terms of economic development so that everyone should have access to a Ferrari if they want it.

 

It is a counter to what he terms ‘growth scepticism’, i.e. the “tendency to undermine economic progress by indirect means” (p3). If populations are to be in better health and free from poverty then the only answer is more of the same. Those who suggest climate change is a health threat do not address this economic and development argument head on, there may be implicit acceptance of the current economic models of development. Instead there is a focus on the magnitude of climate change per se as a health threat rather than the economic structures which may drive climate change and other unsustainable practices such as deforestation.

 

Costello v Goklany

 

So, Costello et al (2009a) argued that climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century’ (p1693). Goklany in the same year replied and argued that climate change is not the number one threat to humanity and questioned whether it is “the defining challenge of our age” (Goklany 2009a). Costello replied to Goklany’s riposte again in 2009, but Goklany in 2012 further rebutted that claim.

 

Goklany argued Costello et al made their claim about climate change in 2009 without a comparative analysis of the magnitude, severity and manageability of a range of health threats at that time and therefore ranking it as the No 1 threat is untenable. Goklany (2009c) argued that climate change was ranked 21st out of 24th global health threats. Goklany’s rebuttal data comes from a World Health Organisation World Health Report 2002 and Comparative Quantification of Health Risks 2004 and he uses results from “Fast Track Assessments” (FTAs) of the global impacts of global warming (Arnell et al 2002, Parry 2004). In his 2012 article he also cites Parry (1999) and the World Health Organisation’s 2009 Global Health Risks.

 

Costello et al (2009b) in reply to Goklany argued that “The ranking of climate change at 21st out of 26 risk factors was made at a time when global temperature rise was only 0·74°C, and when the effects of climate change on the other risk factors was unclear” and they claimed that there has since been substantial changes in our understanding of climate change risks. They cite two papers showing that about 1 trillion tonnes is probably the cumulative limit for all carbon emissions if we wish to stay within the 2°C “safety” limit, and that, without action, we shall exceed this limit before 2050.  They also cite a paper by Schneider (2009) who raised the prospect of worst case scenarios: warming at 3°C gives a 90% probability that Greenland will melt, raising sea levels by many metres, and that on present evidence and trends there is a 5—17% chance that temperatures will go up by 6·4°C by 2100, “a risk way above the threshold at which people would usually buy insurance”.  Goklany’s position (2012) is that the 2 degree target is irrelevant in any case and he seems happy to accept a 4 degree rise.

 

The 2013 IPCC report AR5, while accepting a pause in warming over recent years, argues that climate change is a continuing very serious issue and now post dates this difference in Goklany and Costello’s arguments which are based on data from 1999 to 2009. This will need constant revision as more scientific data is published. The IPCC WGII contribution on ‘impacts adaptation and vulnerability’ is due to be reported in March 2014. The report makes it clear that even if greenhouse gas emissions are stopped right now climate change will persists for many centuries, much of it will be irreversible characterised by impacts such as sea level rises. The last time the world was 2 degrees warmer , sea levels were 5 -10 metres higher.

 

On what to do, Goklany (2009c) argues that ’Societal resources devoted to curb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions will be unavailable for other…more urgent tasks including vector control, developing safer water supplies or installing sanitation facilities in developing countries….’ (p69). However this sets up a false dichotomy. The decision to spend on carbon reduction is not an either/or one. There are myriad spending decisions being made, and those choices are made from a raft of competing priorities. One could equally argue that resources devoted to nuclear armaments and other military spending is unavailable also for these other urgent tasks. So to focus on emissions reduction as the spending that diverts funds away from addressing other pressing health issues is a biased view. Goklany could argue for an end to subsidies for the fossil fuel and nuclear industries, reductions in military spending, changing the international tax regimes to access wealth deposited in offshore accounts, or the introduction of a Tobin tax on financial transactions. These are admittedly biased positions and may be seen to be too left wing, and ideologically incompatible with current the neoliberal hegemony (Crouch 2011).

 

Whether funding spent on carbon reduction actually works in terms of human welfare and is less expensive than alternatives, is a valid question but has to be seen in a wider political discourse about spending decisions. His points regarding the need for poverty reduction via sustainable economic development and advancing our adaptive capacity would possibly bring broad agreement. In any case some consider that it is too late (Peters et al 2013) for mitigation and that adaptation to a warmer world is now needed. Goklany (2009b) uses the term ‘focused adaptation’ meaning taking advantage of the positive benefits of warming. If sea levels are to rise by 5-10 metres this is beyond the foreseeable future and so we should focus on economic growth and development to adapt to those future scenarios rather than wasting time resources and energy on emission curbs. However, this seems somewhat an anthropocentric view taking in little regard for biodiversity loss and ocean acidification. Both of which are also threats to human health

 

Ben Ami and Goklany put faith instead in ‘secular technological change’. This believes that

 

1) Existing technologies will become cheaper or more cost effective.

2) New technologies that are even more cost effective will become available.

 

They may well be correct. They argue the potential health threats may be addressed through human ingenuity based on economic progress and economic progress is best served by accepting the IPCC worse case scenario which would result in greater per capita GDP and thus release capital for adaptation (figure 1).

 

 

 

 

Figure 1: net GDP per capita, 1990-2200, after accounting for upper bound estimates of losses due to global warming for 4 IPCC scenarios. The warmest is A1FI (4 degrees C) and the coolest is B1 (2.1 degrees C) (source Goklany 2012)

 

 

Figure 1, therefore, indicates that if humanity has a choice, it ought to strive for the developmental path corresponding to the richest IPCC scenario (A1FI  – 4 degrees C above 1990 by 2085) notwithstanding any associated global warming. Because this increases adaptive capacity and poverty would be eliminated. Other health risks that rank higher than global warming are also associated with poverty and would thus also be eliminated. Poverty related diseases contribute to mortality and morbidity 70-80% more than warming. Mitigative capacity would be increased, therefore health improves with economic and technological development, and development encourages the ‘environmental transition’.

 

This is a very risky strategy which future generations will have to judge the merits of. There is gathering evidence beyond climate change suggesting that humanity is already transgressing other environmental limits, transgressions which will not support a ‘safe operating space’ as we enter a new era, the ‘anthropocene’. (Rockstrom et al 2009).

 

Risk Discourse

 

Goklany (2012) further argued “This paper does not address hypothesized low-probability but potentially high consequence outcomes such as a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation or the melting of the Greenland and Antarctica Ice Sheets, which have been deemed unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future by both the IPCC and the US Global Change Research Program, among others”, although the IPCC has since (2013) stated that it is “very unlikely that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (part of the global thermohaline) will undergo abrupt transition or collapse…however, a collapse beyond the 21st century…cannot be excluded” (IPCC 2013 SPM-17).

Goklany, in not addressing these risks, appears to dismiss the need for ‘risk discourse’ to frame public debate relying on ‘kicking into the long grass’ serious consequences of climate change.

 

‘Risk’ is already an essential part of everyone’s experience, including in the world of insurance, health and investment. It is not uncommon for people to insure against low probability but high impact events such as house fire, or critical illness. People also invest for the long term, for example in a pension that might take over 40 years to pay off. It is thus arguable that the thermohaline shutdown and ice sheets melts may well be just the sort of low probability but high impact events that humanity ought to be insuring against and taking measures to prevent through carbon emissions reductions. Painter (2013) suggests therefore that elements of risk discourse would provide a better frame for debate than disaster and uncertainty frames, which are both more prevalent in news media.

 

Space precludes an examination of the concept of exponential growth and the requirement to produce resources to meet the needs of potentially 9-10 billion people by 2050. Costello et al’s position seems to be that climate change will stress ecosystems before we have time to adapt and that both direct and indirect affects will adversely impact on global health. They are not so sanguine about our ability to live within our limits.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Goklany is correct to point out that currently that health threats arise from poverty and underdevelopment. In this assessment he is in accord with the WHO social determinants of health approach. Costello et al have not dismissed this and as public health experts would probably accept a similar position. A focus on the social determinants of health to address poverty needs to run alongside carbon reductions or else the good work could be undone by a low probability but high impact event such as the melting of the Arctic Ice. They differ on when climate change will be a health threat and importantly on how to address it. Goklany and Ben Ami appear to be on the market driven economic development model as the answer whereas Costello et al argue for more immediate state and public intervention in addressing climate change. All however do not critique the fundamental neoliberal economic model or call for alternative economic ‘no growth’ models (Jackson 2009).  There is little doubt that we are running an experiment with the climate, there is agreement that this will impact on global health but the answer seems to be either more or less tweaking with capitalist growth models rather than a sustained examination of alternatives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

 

Allen MR, Frame DJ, Huntingford C, et al. (2009) Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne. Nature pp 458: 1163-1166

 

Arnell N.W, et al. (2002) The consequences of CO2 stabilization

for the impacts of climate change. Climatic Change 53 pp 413-446.

 

BBC (2013) Climate change threatens our planet, our only home.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24292615 accessed 1st October 2013

 

Ben-Ami, D. (2010) Ferrari’s for All – In defence of economic progress.  Policy Press. University of Bristol.

 

Costello, A., et al (2009a) ‘Managing the health effects of climate change’, The Lancet, 373, pp. 1693 – 1733.

 

Costello, A., Maslin, M., and Montgomery, H. (2009b) Climate change is not the biggest global health threat  – author’s reply. The Lancet. 374 9694 pp 974-975

 

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Delingpole, J. (2013) Global warming believers are feeling the heat. The Telegraph. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100238047/global-warming-believers-are-feeling-the-heat/

 

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The democratic deficit: who runs the country?

The end of democracy now!

No, this is not a call to end democratic politics but to acknowledge it’s demise. We must acknowledge our inability to control our affairs, our politics and our social policy. We have sleep walked into a situation whereby we have ceded power to unelected and barely accountable corporations and markets. The neoliberal state has become the bedfellow for undemocratic power. This is now happening across the globe. The triumph of corporate power exists despite the financial crash of 2008. Rather than pulling the edifice down, corporate power has succeeded in harnessing the resources of the state for it’s own purposes. Civil society has been silenced or ignored in the process.

The paradox is that while espousing ‘Free’ Market ideology (neoliberalism) which calls for the withering away of the state, corporate power has entailed state intervention on a scale that might make a Marxist blush. Resources and power have been transferred from individuals and civil society to a global elite whose only interest is profit and monopoly capital.

They peddle a false dichotomy of private sector = good, public sector = bad. This is ideology. There is no homogenous private sector, an examination of non government private sector organisations reveals a huge diversity: some highly efficient global corporations, SME’s close to their customers, financial institutions that nearly brought the economic house down, firms using sweatshops, exploiting child labour, firms making shoddy goods, down market cafes and restaurants serving unhealthy and unhygienic foods, building firms that never complete on time, media and satellite companies fighting to monopolise, polluting mineral extracting companies which have had little regard to environmental concerns…there is no such things as ‘the’ private sector about which generalisations about efficiency, quality and customer relations can be made.

In addition the line between the private and public sector is blurred as Corporations are now involved in the running of public services to such an extent that they are now involved in social policy with little involvement of the publics they serve.

So, the state, the Market and corporations form a triumvirate of power usurping the democratic power. The fourth voice of civil society is now urgently needed. We need to call to account, to harass and to investigate the misdeeds and greed of the other three voices. This is to thus acknowledge that in becoming consumers we have abrogated our responsibilities as citizens, and thus we will get the social and political policy we deserve unless we exercise our voices loudly. We must speak truth to power and do so before we are further impoverished and diminished as subject rather than sovereign citizens.

Making our own histories – we can change things if we want to and are free to.

Musing on the freedom to act in society, and on the nature of capitalism and its pernicious effects upon us, it might do to consider that we are free to change and we are not free to change. Capitalism at once exists and acts and feels like a cage while at the same time does not exist and is also only a product of our own imaginations and our social relationships that we have chosen to engage in. This matters because real lives are affected by the decisions that others in positions of power take, and they take these decisions as if capitalism is immutable, all pervading, inevitable…as a fact of life. This then justifies the use of batons, tear gas and surveillance drones in civil society and in putting down protest, and it justifies fixing the legal, financial and political framework so that big money fulfills big money’s needs.

In response to a recent email exchange I engaged in, a suggestion was made to me that there is a tendency to ‘objectify’ capitalism in many discussions – to make it seem indeed like a cage – a thing that has its own almost material existence and ‘essence’. This means that we may talk about capitalism as if it has objective existence and also a fixed nature. Capitalism is, in Emile Durkheim’s phrase, ‘sui generis’ – ‘of its own kind’. This derives from thinking that capitalist society over time replaces individuals with others, yet the ‘essence’ of society will not necessarily change. Over the course of a few decades, many individuals die and are replaced, however, the society retains its distinctive character. It is a thing of itself existing independently of individuals. An entire society that is built in this manner has its own ‘essence’. It has this ‘essence’ before any individual currently living in it is born, and is therefore “independent of any individual” existing almost as an ‘objective fact.’ We acknowledge this objective existence when we use such phrases as “Society today is worse/better than it was back in the day when…”

Some commentators might use different labels for capitalism. For example ‘casino capitalism‘ or ‘responsible capitalism‘ which reflects thier differing understandings of what capitalist society might be like. This tendency to label and to treat it as an objective fact, however, may overlook the fact that capitalism, like any ism, is dynamic and on the move. Historically that has been true: we have seen mercantile capitalism, industrial capitalism, post industrial or financial capitalism. Nonetheless and however it has been labelled, we must remember that capitalism is not an ‘objective fact’, although it can certainly feel that way especially to those who feel the full force of economic decisions made in far away board rooms.

Capitalism is a dynamic ever changing social system which finds expression and manifestation in human social relationships. The ‘objectivity’ of capitalism is a chimera; we may reify it and miss the essential nature of human decision making and social relationships that underpins it. Susan Strange argued “economists simply do not understand how the global economy works” due to a poor understanding of power and an over-reliance on abstract economic models. In other words, economist are apt to treat capitalism and the working of markets based on a false premise: that there is a objective system that can be understood theoretically using mathematics and a theory of self interested utility maximising rational actors, the ‘homo economicus’ of JS Mill and Adam Smith. To be fair to Smith he tempered this view in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

What economists often miss is that what we are talking about here is a set of human relationships characterised by an imbalance of power.

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx). What have ‘we’ been given and transmitted from the past? Anti capitalist sentiment such as some of us in the sustainability or others in the Transition Towns movements express, are confronting Big Oil, and a cluster of high carbon social systems (John Urry) which are based on certain capitalist relations of production. ‘We’ ignore capitalist class relations at our peril. ‘We’ may confront power elites who have made, and are trying to continue to make, history in their own image: how that history will pan out depends on our collective and individual responses to Power, e.g. the Military-Industrial-Security complex, the World Bank, IMF, OECD, G8, Davos, Bilderberg (?), EU and other Regional blocs, the Trioka, the Corporate Class Executive and the Political Power Elite. We, e.g. ‘anti-capitalists’ or the Transition Towns or Environmentalists, are trying to remake history; history as we please, but within a certain socio-political context and power play not of our choosing. We do not have ‘self selected circumstances’ and that is what makes capitalism feel like a cage. Ask yourself: who has the guns?

For an example of circumstances being shaped by the powerful, note how successful the right wing press has been in sowing the seeds of doubt in the population about climate change,  and also for blaming the poor for their position while supporting austerity in the midst of one the greatest transfers of wealth from poor to uber rich (the 0.01%) we have seen, and the movement of private bank debt to sovereign public debt. There is ample evidence that the neoliberal agenda, which unites many of groups mentioned above, are antithetical to a ‘no growth economy’ and to social democracy.  In the West, there is only one game in town: growth based on neoliberal economics.

There are countervailing voices, e.g. Paul Hawken’s ‘Blessed Unrest’,  but some are increasingly despairing, Will Hutton articulates this well.

The post financial crash shifts of 2008 are playing out, but we don’t know in 10 years what this will look like. So far however, report after report shows the wealthy elite entrenching their power and wealth* while the occupy ‘movement’, the indignados, the precariat, come under increasing demonisation, e.g. skivers v strivers, surveillance and crack downs, using para militiary type tactics. The monolith of Capitalism stands while we crash against it.

Capitalist social relationships are backed by ideology and often force. Some argue it is the best of a bad lot, and that like democracy it is the worse system we have except for all the others, that it is the only game in town. Marx himself marvelled at its ability to produce abundance. However, is this really the best we can do? Is this really the best world in the best of all possible worlds? Growth capitalism, and there is no other sort, is leading us towards ecological disaster, while the social determinants of health result in inequalities in health whereby millions die prematurely and needlessly because of our socio-political arrangements.  Many of us bluster and blog and rage and rant and protest, some of us quietly get on with living differently, remaking our social relationships as best we can.

We are free but everywhere we are in chains.

 

*the richest 1,000 persons, just 0.003% of the adult population, increased their wealth over the last three years by £155bn. That is enough for themselves alone to pay off the entire current UK budget deficit and still leave them with £30bn to spare.

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