There are so many critical global problems at present, each of which could easily lead to the premature death of billions of people: climate change, nuclear war, extreme poverty at a time of enormous accumulation of individual wealth. Meanwhile, there are more localized crises, each of which lead to untold suffering: the two wars in Iraq and the sanctions regime, the resource-based wars of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel’s wars which could well expand into Iran. In this letter, I would like to raise a few of many questions, some of which are speculative based on impressions, and some of which are to some degree already researched.
First, is there any common thread to all these problems, an underlying cause that needs to be addressed immediately, especially given the time frame of climate change? One answer that is increasingly considered is that this is all a consequence of capitalism which by definition and practice requires perpetual growth and expansion.
The role of capitalism is increasingly part of the analysis, such as the work of James Gustave Speth, dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, in his work The Bridge at the Edge of the world: capitalism, the environment, and crossing from crisis to sustainability (2008. Yale U Press: New Haven). Which aspects of capitalism can then be and need to be altered quickly? Some crucial areas seem to be interest rates, the unregulated financial sector, the very structure of corporations that requires growth, responsibility only to shareholders, and impunity regarding the public good.
What would rapid transformation mean for democratic processes and what is the essence of a democratic process? Regulation is not inherently undemocratic, and a socialistic arrangement of the economy is not inherently undemocratic either. Ambiguity about the political structure and economic set-up comes with the terms neo-liberalism (as implemented by the IMF and World Bank) and Leninist capitalism used to describe China. Is neo-liberalism democratic, and does Leninist capitalism imply a democratic process?
How has power become so entrenched? What is the role of leadership and of the public? Why is the “public” so often abstracted in such a way that responsibility becomes generalized materially and morally? My impression is that there is a great deal of reluctance to identify individual culpability as if the existence of systems or institutions explains behaviour. A corollary is that it is difficult to realistically assess how to change institutions if particular individuals are not held responsible. In his recent Toronto talk George Monbiot spoke about our “psychopathic” leaders. And when Richard Falk1 was last in Toronto, I had the opportunity to talk with him about leadership. He said that he is hoping to write more about it and that his impression is that in the United States, it is not that power corrupts but that powerful people have an ability to select corruptible people and exclude people with integrity and strength of character. He has taught a number of people who eventually entered the leadership class. Questions remain about whether this kind of insight can provide direction in terms of pressing criminal charges, shedding light on the current paralysis, clarifying interconnections such as those between banking, Canadian extraction industries and the military industrial complex, by looking to see who profits.
Among many other questions, why is it taboo here to discuss the need to cut back? Is it not deceptive to imply that while we cannot continue business as usual, that daily life need not actually change much because of technological solutions? Is there not a wishful illusion that others will have to give up a great deal but not us? The only person who really describes necessary cut backs is Monbiot in his book Heat. He spells out how it is necessary to eliminate most air travel and shipping (including imported produce). Looking at full-cost accounting which includes energy use, overall environmental degradation, and the place of people in the process, questions about the availability of agricultural land to feed the world’s people might include the amount of fertile land used for suburbs, for conversion to industry such as India’s Tata car, for biofuels, for pet food, for crops inessential for life like sugar and tobacco? What actually are the food necessities and what could be cut back if the aim is to prevent premature death worldwide?
Historical processes are generally complex and many factors contribute to shifts. Perhaps unique at this time is the availability of sufficient knowledge to confront and fix many of the deepest problems and yet the paralysis in applying these solutions. Going back to origins, it is helpful to consider Thucydides’ (through Pericles) words on democracy in which he focuses on the responsibility of citizens and leaders to be well-informed in the service of action and on the psychological capacity to experience deep feelings (i.e. not to shy away from “stress”): “We are unique in the way we regard anyone who takes no part in public affairs: we do not call that a quiet life, we call it a useless life. We are all involved in either the proper formulation or at least the proper review of policy, thinking that what cripples action is not talk, but rather the failure to talk through the policy before proceeding to the required action. True strength of spirit would rightly be attributed to those who have the sharpest perception of both terrors and pleasures and through that knowledge do not shrink from danger.”
Is there an implicit and convenient assumption that people are not able to, or should not make the “proper review of policy…[to] talk through the policy before proceeding to the required action”? It is timely and fortunate that science means knowledge.
1 U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Middle East and professor of international law at Princeton University, currently visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. ^