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The annual Christmas urban melee for presents is over. Waistlines, expanded to bursting point are now forced into post-indulgence exercise programmes. New presents lie discarded and recycling bins are fit to burst with wrapping paper and packaging. Religious leaders typically bemoan the hijacking of the traditional message of Christmas by commerce in a festival of consumption, but recently I’ve had cause to challenge my thinking. In his book, Sapiens: A Brief Introduction to Mankind, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that we are now nearest to world peace thanks to the mutual cooperation necessary to satisfy our urge to purchase. Could it be that the this mutually-shared religion of consumption has probably done more for world peace than any of the more formally recognised religions.
Challenging your own viewpoint from time to time is really important. Its very easy to get set in your ways or indeed jump upon the most current wave of thinking without asking yourself what evidence you have for your belief.
I find myself, like many others, outraged by the destruction our developed and developing nations’ lifestyles are wrecking on habitats and species. There is good evidence that our capitalist-consumer lifestyles are the main driver of the sixth great extinction of earth’s biodiversity, the so-called Anthropecene Defaunation. Humans haven’t suddenly become environment wreckers through consumption though; we were ever thus. The anthropologist Jared Diamond here states that it is “clear that the first arrival of humans at any oceanic island with no previous human inhabitants has always precipitated a mass extinction in the island biota”. The problem now is a question of scale In 12,000 BCE the human population numbered between 5-10 million. Global population is now over 7 billion and is predicted to hit 11billion by the end of the century.
I thoroughly recommend Sapiens to anyone with an interest in why we are who we are today and what we are becoming- in Harari’s view not Homo sapiens for much longer if biotechnology advances continue on the current pace. There are some thought-provoking ideas in this book about the evolution of thinking (cooking food allowed the development of bigger brains); about storytelling (myths and stories are essential for allowing larger communities and trusting others who you don’t have a direct relationship or face to face contact with); and about happiness (why in broad biological terms a C15th peasant is no less happy than a C21st banker- the chemical response to stimulus that makes us happy is the same, even if the things that make us happy have changed).
Some of the most enlightening and challenging chapters for me were about the development of our modern society and in particular the concept of money and credit and how the development of these pillars of the modern world underpin the scientific revolution and the discovery of new worlds.
Harari’s theory on consumerism is that the relative peace of the modern world is due in large part to shared goals around commerce. We have all come to share, whether we like it or not, the Capitalist-Consumer ‘religious’ outlook and because of this our fellow human being is worth more to us alive than dead- its a nonzero-sumgame; the ability to cooperate brings both parties more gain than a win-lose landscape of conflict. The ideas are also explored by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature and in this TED talk .
One might argue, as George Monbiot does in his recent book Feral (an excerpt from it here) that the collapse of human society into conflict in the past provided biodiversity gains. But recent studies in Africa have shown that conflict poses a serious threat to the environment (Shambaugh et al 2001 The Trampled Grass_ Mitigating the impacts of Conflict on the Environment).
But this attempts to take humanity out of the equation within ecosystems, and I’m not an advocate of this. We have ourselves evolved with every other species on this planet to the place we find ourselves in today. Our consumptive behaviour which is defaunating the globe is no less ‘unnatural’ than the impacts of any other ecosystem engineer. As resources for our own survival are threatened it will necessitate a behaviour change or we risk our own extinction, as Jared Diamond has shown in his book Collapse. What is different is the insight we have into this process; one hopes, perhaps in vain, that our species might have gained enough insight into our role in structuring the global environment that we have the will to step back from the brink before self-preservation forces us to.
Without the intervention of technology to open up new horizons or exploitation (other worlds/worlds within worlds), resources expire and violent competition begins again. The Guardian Newspaper reported that US director of national intelligence warned in 2012 that overuse of water is a source of conflict that could potentially compromise US national security.
The evolution of the behaviour of our species needs to find another story that binds us together in mutual cooperation without exploiting our environment to destruction . There is an argument that mutual cooperation between people and our societies is essential to provide the framework necessary for a more sustainable future. And a globalised world is a perfect tool for rapid dissemination of big ideas.
Undoubtedly the biggest shift needed is a change in consciousness that sees our own survival as part of and not separate from the well-being of other species. While we have moved over the course of our existence from protectors of the family and the clan we need to extend our circle of concern past the barrier of species to find mutually cooperative links with other organisms and ecosystems.
Okay I should be cleaning the flat and going through unpaid bills and doing all the domestic stuff I have put off recently but I just can’t get this out of my head. The top 100 FT companies have increased their Chief Executive pay packets by 50%. It hit me like a bullet when I first heard it one early morning on The Today Programme on my way back from Harvest Mice Survey and it has been swept away in more seismic shifts in my personal life. But it’s just come back to hit home again, and I’m just incredulous at the powerful and simple immorality behind this.
Free Market Economics- A System not fully understood (not only by me)
We are in the midst of a global recession. Only last week, the system of free market economics was pulled from the brink of collapse (for now) by an agreement to service Greek debt. The EU had to turn to China to help with bail out. I am not an economist but my feeling is that the elements in the system (banks, governments, financiers and business) don’t really fully understand the processes that operate within the system. They haven’t really foreseen where the processes are taking us, and the system is on the verge of collapse. As an ecologist I can relate to the idea of knowing the function of elements in the system (dna, species, communities, ecosystems) but only having a small understanding of how the complex processes (immigration/ emigration, competition, predation etc) operate to govern its resilience. When the predictions are wrong, species are lost, ecosystems collapse.
Rise in Top Earners Wages
And in the midst of this, the people at the top feel they are doing such a good job that they deserve millions of pounds more than the rest of us who are getting by (and sometimes not) on wages orders of magnitude below this. This rise in remuneration has been shown not to be performance related. There are various arguments coming forward as to why wages keep going up and up for chief executives. The one I’ve heard put forward most is that the sector is global and that wages need to be set high to attract the best people not just from Britain but around the world. Well its an argument yes, but that doesn’t make it morally right does it. What appears to be happening is that wages are set according to the maximum earnings, not the average. When you keep comparing with high wage earners, it drives wages up and up all the time. And quite frankly, does every business need “the best” boss. Is the difference between one business guy and the next so critical for success that it justifies this endless escalation of wages. I’d like to see the hard data on that…
Markets should serve people, not the other way round
I’ll reiterate that I’m not an economist. I became an ecologist because when I was a local campaigner, a member of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace protesting about removal of trees I wanted to know more, to understand the processes at work. I felt it wasn’t enough to just say don’t cut those 75 Lombardy Poplars down its destroying the natural world. I wanted to know how the system worked and whether those Poplars were integral to the functioning of the ecosystem. I went through a time when in my professional arrogance I dismissed the passion of those earlier years that ended me up cooling off in a holding cell next to King Arthur (they wouldn’t let him keep Excalibur). Maybe those poplars weren’t vital for ecosystem functioning but they meant a lot to people walking through the park every day.
So I don’t feel now I necessarily need to understand the system perfectly to reflect on the morality of it. I know how bitter it makes people to see these high earners increasing their wages time and time again. I think its time to call for these people to step outside their own epistemic box and realise that free market economics doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It’s a tool to serve a functioning society. Its there to see that people have enough to service their needs for living (and there’s an essay there on whether we all need a reality check about what our needs for living are!), and should be fair enough so that feelings of injustice don’t drive crime and social unrest. Perhaps a fair and equitable financial system would drive down criminality and social unrest to the point we were all spending less on policing and violence-related healthcare?
You can still protest even if you don’t have the answers
This all leads back to the other story in the news (no, not the demise of x-factor). I mean the OCCUPY-ation (sorry) of St. Pauls. What I am mostly impressed with is the protestors’ honesty over their lack of answers to the questions posed by the financial meltdown. I have heard interviews (again on R4 thanks guys) criticising the protest for not having an agenda, demands or those soundbites loved by PR people to get the message across. I love that even though it’s not their intention the protestors are undermining the system by NOT having such a strategy!
But why should the protestors have answers. It’s not necessarily there role to provide answers. It’s their role to provide a visible manifestation of the unrest that’s gripping people in the country over the immorality of the current economic system. My belief is there maybe a lot of people out there feeling they don’t know enough about how the system works, don’t have a language to express their unhappiness (except in some cases direct action or violence) and instead just put their heads down and suffer in silence.
Well its time to hold your head up folks and say I don’t have the answers, but I know this isn’t how society should work and we need to talk about how it should change.