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Issue 246
January/February 2008
Gandhi's Gift: The Power Of Nonviolence

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In My Own Words: The Big Earth Book
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Hmong women and children, Vietnam, from The Big Earth Book by James Bruges published by Alastair Saw

Hmong women and children, Vietnam, from The Big Earth Book by James Bruges published by Alastair Saw

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In My Own Words: The Big Earth Book

The prospect of catastrophe is an opportunity.

WE ARE LIVING with crises. Poverty in the Third World is, to use the words of Michael Rowbotham, the greatest economic, cultural and humanitarian disaster, outstripping the two great wars for the sheer scale and depth of unrelenting tragedy. We now face runaway global warming which, if it reaches a tipping point, will be unstoppable. There are other crises such as population growth, inequality, antibiotics losing their effectiveness, and the huge decline in the bees that pollinate a third of our food.

Scientists are now warning, unequivocally, that we face environmental catastrophe, possibly even extinction of our species, if we continue with present policies. We can either respond with horror and depression or we can see this as the most exciting period of history in which to be alive. Radical change to many of those things we thought could not be changed is the only option.

There is an imaginary incident recounted by Karl-Hendrik Robert in which a sink is overflowing: “Quick, put a blanket in that doorway to save the living room, lift the carpet, pick that electric lead from the floor.” But no-one thought to turn the tap off, or even just turn it down. He pointed out that our first response to crisis should be at the point where the fault is generated.

Three-quarters of causes for global warming, for example, can be traced back to the mining of coal, gas and oil. But how often do you hear politicians demanding that these three fuels should be left in the ground? The UK government invaded Iraq to get its oil on the global market, it puts pressure on OPEC to produce more, it wants to find new ways to extract gas from the North Sea and, when Russia turns down the tap, it is furious instead of seeing it as a wake-up call for the need to live with less fossil fuel.

I would prefer to live in an economy that is constrained by the amount of fossil fuel available than to be made to feel guilty every time I get into a car. This constraint would stimulate initiative and creativeness in using what is available to the best advantage.

New thinking is emerging from Ireland, where the government may put a cap on fossil fuels supplied to the transport sector. It is a simple scheme: the ration is issued to all citizens, and fuel companies would have to acquire sufficient of these rations through banks to cover the fuel they sell. It is called Cap and Share because some of the profit from the sale of these fuels would be shared among the population.

A second example concerns money. The economy is a fragile house of cards built on the foundation of a specific money system that is fundamentally flawed. At its heart is the charging of interest.

In the 1920s a Nobel physicist, Frederick Soddy, was worried that a nuclear device, if ever developed, would be used for warfare. Scientists could not prevent this because world power is controlled through the economy. He therefore turned his scientific thinking to the economy and was horrified by what he found.

In the real world everything is subject to entropy. A coat rots or is eaten by weevils and turns to dust. But the economist wears a negative coat, a meaningless concept that can only inhabit mathematical formulae. His money is debt, which does not decay. His make-believe world, with compound interest on debt, can grow for ever. Soddy pointed out that if Jesus had invested £1 in this interest-based economy, his investment would now be worth the world’s weight in gold. This is why an economy based on interest inevitably requires correction from time to time by wars, revolution or collapse.

It may seem unrealistic to suggest a money system not based on interest, but there have been many prosperous periods in the past when interest was banned, and there are some zero-interest currencies now. Local Exchange Trading Systems don’t use interest. In Sweden the JAK bank, with 50,000 customers, and growing, does not pay or charge interest. One of the world’s leading money traders is proposing an international currency based on negative interest because big corporations don’t like using a currency for exchange that is primarily a vehicle for gambling by shareholders and money traders.

The above two changes – the need to leave most fossil fuels in the ground and the need to abandon a money system based on interest – are necessary if we are to survive the two particular crises of global warming and inequality.

WHAT IF WE fail? Collapse of our economy, or even our civilisation, would be a calamity. But complex human societies are not the norm: they represent only about 5% of human life on Earth and take constant creative energy to keep going. So it is worth looking at why civilisations collapse and return to the norm.

The most quoted example is the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. In its early years, when it was bringing back loot from new conquests, it could survive Hannibal and his elephants overrunning the countryside for five years. But when the Roman Empire reached the limits of growth, all its efforts were spent in administering itself and struggling to get its hands on sufficient resources. The empire had no spare energy to deal with external shocks, and finally succumbed to a relatively minor incursion.

I sometimes wonder whether we could be in a similar situation, since so much effort goes into administering ourselves in more and more complex ways.

I find that rail travel here is 50 to 100 times more expensive than in India though the trains run on diesel that costs the same on the world market for both countries. A virus that affected all internet communication or aircraft computers would cause havoc. Laws and tax complexities multiply. We have a myriad of safety regulations. Our health service, however much money our government throws at it, sometimes seems little better than Cuba’s cheap community-based approach. And –another parallel with Rome – some resources are running out.

Any one of the crises might, due to the excessive complexity of a society that has few reserves for dealing with external shocks, provide the shock that stops us in our tracks.

If this is a possibility, should we be leaving structures of concrete and plate glass that make hideous ruins? And nuclear plants that future generations may not have the expertise to manage, together with their piles of radioactive waste? And should we leave toxic chemicals and genetically modified organisms, neither of which have been subject to the process of evolution?

With this perspective, these practical issues become questions of morality. In my book I look at radical solutions to many of the crises we now face: how Keynes’ proposals would have prevented the horrors of Third World debt; the American Founders’ success in curbing corporate power (for a time); the frightening madness of our food system; how agricultural science could be weaned off oil-based research; how reducing population of some countries could become a global trend; or the weird ideas for the ‘singularity’ among some philosophers in respectable institutions, which resemble fundamentalist Christian belief in the ‘rapture’.

We live in exciting times because all the crises have solutions. I explain these and refer to their authors for further reading.

The Big Earth Book: Ideas and Solutions for a Planet in Crisis is published by Alastair Sawday.

To order a copy of The Big Earth Book for the special price of £20.00 (RRP £25.00) with free p&p in the UK, call 01275 395431 and quote ‘BEBRes’.

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