The other night I watched Surviving Progress, a documentary shown on BBC4 that questions the standard view of progress, suggesting that civilizations are repeatedly destroyed by ‘progress traps’ – technologies that serve immediate needs, but ransom the future. In the past, civilizations could use up a region’s resources and move on. But if today the global economic system collapses from over-consumption and laying waste the planet’s resources, that’s it. There is nowhere else to go.
The message of the film seemed to reinforce a growing feeling I’ve had in recent weeks that the global capitalist system we live under (‘civilization’ seems to noble a term), far from being, as presented by the practitioners of that dubious discipline economics, one of rationally operating markets that deliver sensible and sustainable outcomes, is no more than an infantile disorder: stupid, irrational, and self-destructive.
Surviving Progress argues that the world has financed an unsustainable growth rate by essentially encouraging whole nations to take out unpayable mortgages on their own futures. In the film, Brazil is taken as an example: huge loans are advanced to the nation, which is unable to keep up the repayments, and is then encouraged to liquefy its own natural assets – the rainforests. When the assets are gone and the wealth extracted, the corporations leave behind a drained nation and the bankers move on to another loan customer.
Dumb? Absolutely. The same sense of stupidity emerged from a piece in The Guardian recently, written by Ha-Joon Chang of Cambridge University and author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Commenting on the eurozone crisis and the unwillingness of the eurozone leaders to alter their austerity policies, even as Greece and Spain fall apart, he noted that it is increasingly accepted that these policies are not working in the current environment. But what’s worse is that there is abundant historical evidence showing that austerity has never worked. What kind of person fails to learn the lessons of previous experience? Ha-Joon Chang has the answer:
Perhaps they are insane – if we follow Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. But the more likely explanation is that, by pushing these policies against all evidence, our leaders are really telling us that they want to preserve – or even intensify, in areas like welfare policy – the economic system that has served them so well in the past three decades.
He concludes that the time has come for us to decide:
Do we want a society where 50% of young people are kept out of work in order to bring the deficit down from 9% of GDP to 3% in three years? A society in which the rich have to be made richer to work harder (at their supposed jobs of investing and creating wealth) while the poor have to be made poorer in order to work harder? Where a tiny minority (often called the 1% but more like the 0.1% or even 0.01%) control a disproportionate, and increasing, share of everything – not just income and wealth but also political power and influence (through control of the media, thinktanks, and even academia)?
If you want a tiny example of how a rich elite are increasing their share of wealth and running the country in their selfish interests, meanwhile threatening the environment, read George Monbiot’s brilliant piece of investigative journalism, published this week in the Guardian. He writes that ‘the pheasant, rather than the Gini coefficient should now be the unit for measuring inequality.
As Britain heads towards Edwardian levels of inequality, the countryside reverts to a playground for the rich, in which anything that cannot be shot and eaten is shot and hung from a gibbet. The aristocracy is back in charge. … In the countryside, as in the towns, policy is becoming the preserve of the 1%. The rest of us pay the landowners to expand their estates and destroy the wildlife. That’s what they mean when they say we’re all in this together.
Worth reading, too, is Larry Elliott’s chilling despatch from Greece last week. Elliott, along with Paul Mason of Newsnight, is always a reliable guide to the world of financial capitalism. Just days after IMF Chief Christine Lagarde provoked fury with her outrageous comments about ‘tax-dodging’ Greeks, Elliott wrote:
Greece is broke and close to being broken. It is a country where children are fainting in school because they are hungry, where 20,000 Athenians are scavenging through waste tips for food, and where the lifeblood of a modern economy – credit – is fast drying up. It is a country where the fascists and the anarchists battle for control of the streets, where immigrants fear to go out at night and where a woman whispers “it’s like the Weimar republic” as a motorcycle cavalcade from the Golden Dawn party, devotees of Adolf Hitler, cruises past the parliament building. Graffiti says: “Foreigners get out of Greece. Greece is for the Greeks. I will vote for Golden Dawn to remove the filth from the country.”
It has been interesting, too, to read the reviews of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy. It’s a study of ‘the moral limits of markets’ in the context of the increasing ubiquity of market ideas.
‘Over the past three decades,’ Sandel writes, ‘markets – and market values – have come to govern out lives as never before.’ Sandel is not arguing from a socialist position, and argues that markets can work in the right situation. He asserts: ‘No other mechanism for organising the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful for generating affluence and prosperity’. But Sandel is interested in what he sees as a critical loss of our collective moral compass in recent times as market thinking has swept the board in economics, and then spread to almost every area of public policy:
The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.
His central thesis is that markets have a moral impact on the goods that are traded in them. When something which is supposed to be a common good is marketised it invariably leads not only to unfairness, but, just as importantly, it corrupts and degrades the thing being marketised.
He quotes a vivid example that sums up the entire argument of What Money Can’t Buy; an Israeli daycare centre, which had a problem of parents turning up late to collect their children, introduced fines. The result? Late pick-ups increased. Parents turned up late, paid the fine, and thought no more of it; the fine had turned into a fee. Morality had been marketised. The fear of disapproval and of doing the wrong thing (turning up late) was based on non-monetary values, on morality. Even though the daycare centre went back to the old system, parents kept turning up late, because the introduction of market values had killed the old ideas of collective responsibility. Sandel concludes:
The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?
The economic and social progress that has resulted in climate change raises questions of morality in an intractable form. In a recent article in the London Review of Books, Malcolm Bull wrote:
Adam Smith once noted that we are less troubled by the prospect of a hundred million people dying as a result of an earthquake in some distant location than of losing our little finger, but would nevertheless be horrified by the idea we might allow them to die in order to save it. Climate change effectively transforms the former scenario into the latter, and so places unprecedented demands on our moral imagination. Almost every little thing we do contributes to our carbon footprint, which increases greenhouse gases, which could in turn ultimately threaten hundreds of millions of lives in some remote time and place – the uncertainty only adding to the sublime awfulness of our responsibilities.
Bull’s conclusion was hopeful, though:
Climate change does not tempt us to be less moral than we might otherwise be; it invites us to be more moral than we could ever have imagined. … Climate ethics is … a new chapter in the moral education of mankind. It may tell us things we do not wish to know … but the future development of humanity may depend on what, if anything, it can teach us.
Returning to Surviving Progress. The film illustrates the argument of the book, A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. He was previously known to me as an authority on the pre-Colombian civilizations of the Americas. Some time ago I read a couple of his books on this subject, Stolen Continents: The ‘New World’ through Indian Eyes and Cut Stones and Crossroads: Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru. This film continues and develops Wright’s interest in how civilizations rise – and are destroyed. He coins the term ‘progress trap’ to define human behaviours that seem to amount to progress and to provide benefits in the short-term, but which ultimately lead to disaster because they’re unsustainable.
The film argues his case that the exponential growth in human numbers, the development of technologies, and the rapacious exploitation of the world’s natural resources threaten the planet, and the very existence of humanity. ‘Progress’ – defined in terms of never-ending economic growth – could destroy us. On population growth, he states controversially:
Between the fall of the Roman Empire and Columbus sailing, it took 13 centuries to add 200 million people to the world’s population. Now it takes only three years. A simple thing like pasteurization, the warming of milk so that the bacteria are killed and the control of smallpox. Things like that have led to a great boom in human numbers. So, overpopulation, which nobody really wants to talk about because it cuts at things like religious beliefs and the freedom of the individual and the autonomy of the family and so forth, is something that we’re going to have to deal with. We probably have to work towards a much smaller worldwide population than 6 or 7 billion. We probably need to go down to a half that or possibly even a third of that, if everybody is going to live comfortably and decently.
But the film also tackles the more significant aspect of this problem: the footprint of the individuals at the top of the social pyramid who are consuming the most. Somebody in the United States or Europe is consuming about 50 times more resources than a poor person in a place like Bangladesh. And to sustain the lifestyles of the planet’s rich, the banks and big corporations plunder the natural capital of our home, planet earth. In the film Wright sums up the problem as he sees it:
Some people have written about natural capital, the capital that nature provides, which is the clean air, the clean water, the, the uncut forests, the, the rich farmland, and the minerals, the oil, the metals. All of these things are the capital that nature has provided. And until about 1980, human civilization was able to live on, what we might term, the interest of that capital, the surplus that nature is able to produce, the food that farmland can grow without actually degrading the farmland or the number of fish you can pull out of the sea without causing the fish stocks to crash. But since 1980, we’ve been using more than the interest, and so we are in effect like somebody who thinks he’s rich because he’s spending the money that has been left in his inheritance, not spending the interest but eating into the capital.
Margaret Atwood appears in the film, and underlines its message with these words:
Instead of thinking that nature is this huge bank that we can just, this endless credit card that we can just keep drawing on, we have to think about the finite nature of that planet and how to keep it alive so that we too may remain alive. Unless we conserve the planet, there isn’t going to be any ‘the economy’.
Surviving Progress argues that faith in progress has become a kind of religious faith, a sort of fundamentalism, rather like the market fundamentalism that has just recently crashed and burned. Wright says:
The idea that you can let markets rip is a delusion, just as the idea that you can let technology rip, and it will solve the problems created by itself in a slightly earlier phase. That, that has become a belief very similar to the religious delusions that caused some societies to crash and burn in the past.
The anthropologist Jane Goodall puts it this way:
Unlimited economic progress in a world of finite natural resources doesn’t make sense. It’s a pattern that is bound to collapse. And we keep seeing it collapsing, but then we build it up because there are these strong vested interests, we must have business as usual. And you know, you get the arms manufacturers, you get the petroleum industry, the pharmaceutical industry and all of this feeding into helping to create corrupt governments who are putting the future of their own people at risk.
Towards the end of the film, Ronald Wright sums up his case in these words:
All the civilizations of the past, and I think our own, only seem to be doing well when they’re expanding, when the population is growing, when the industrial output is growing, and when the cities are spreading outwards. Eventually you reach the point at which the population has overrun everything, the cities have expanded over the farmland, the people at the bottom begin to starve, and the people at the top lose their legitimacy. And so, you get, you get hunger, you get revolution.Now, one kind of scary thing about the moment we’re in is that for the first time there’s kind of only one system. So, if the whole thing goes down, you won’t have what you’ve had in previous eras of epic collapse, which is that even a one civilization goes down, and it may take a while to recover, there are other robust civilizations that are kind of the guardians of progress.
As I listened to Margaret Atwood say, ‘all we’ve got is planet Earth, and we are destroying, we are polluting, we are damaging the future of our own species’, I thought of Banga, the new album from Patti Smith that I’ve been listening to this week. In part, her theme is environmental crisis and the destruction of the beauty and mystery of the natural world. The album concludes with her own haunting take on Neil Young’s visionary account of planetary collapse from the 1970s, ‘After the Gold Rush’, which has ‘Mother nature’s silver seed’ setting off in spaceships to a new home. Only – there is nowhere else to go.
On the previous track Patti Smith explores ideas that touch on the discussion here. ‘Constantine’s Dream’ is a ten minute improvised, half-sung, half-spoken meditation that weaves together Columbus’s voyage to the New World, the life and work of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the pastoral ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, and environmental cataclysm.
In Arezzo, Patti has a dream in which Saint Francis weeps at the current state of the environment,then, in the dawn, she leaves her room, ‘stepping down the ancient stones, washed with dawn’ and enters the Basilica of San Francesco:
I saw before me the world of his world
The bright fields, the birds in abundance
All of nature of which he sang
Singing to him
All the beauty of nature surrounded him as he walked
But Patti is senses ‘the call of art, the call of man’ and is drawn to the beauty of Piero della Francesca‘s ‘Legend of the True Cross’, a series of tableaux that includes ‘The Dream of Constantine’, Francesca’s representation of the moment when the crusading Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity after seeing the vision of the True Cross: ‘with this sign shall thou conquer’. In her poem, Patti has Francesca cry out on finishing his painting:
Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure
With a brush and an eye full of light.
Francesca dies in October 1492, just as ‘a world away, on three great ships, adventure itself’ Columbus arrives on the shore of the ‘New World’. Patti imagines the ecstatic vision of Columbus as he sees the New World for the first time:
And as far as his eyes could see
No longer blind
All of nature unspoiled, beautiful
Columbus set foot on the New World
And witnessed beauty unspoiled
All the delights given by God
As if Eden had opened up her heart to him
And opened her dress
And all of her fruit gave to him
Columbus falls into a swoon and a vision of his own:
The 21st century advancing like the angel
That had come to Constantine
Constantine in his dream
Oh this is your cross to bear …
All shall crumble into dust
Oh thou navigator
The terrible end of man
This is your gift to mankind
This is your cross to bear
Then Columbus saw all of nature aflame
The apocalyptic night
And the dream of the troubled king
Dissolved into light.
The album closes with Patti, accompanied by small children, singing:
Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 21st century…