Après moi le déluge!

The system-driven selfishness of the capitalist mode of production, as seen by Marx all those many years ago:

In every stock-jobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but everyone hopes that is may fall on the head of his neighbor, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in secure hands. Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Capital therefore takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so. Its answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, is this: Should that pain trouble us, since it increases out pleasure (profit)? But looking at these things as a whole, it is evident that this does not depend on the will, either good or bad, of the individual capitalist. Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him.

(Capital, 381)

It is perhaps the last two sentences which speaks most readily to current predicaments.

Progressive change (whether in relation to workers rights or environmental degradation) as a purely market-driven effect, divorced from ethics, is only too palpable when it comes to the depletion of nonrenewable energy resources, where serious implementation and funding of alternatives will only commence (in the coming decades) when the price of producing oil exceeds the production costs of its cleaner rivals.

Growth, Growth, Growth

7 billion people now inhabit the Earth. Although they don’t, of course—the article announcing the news is by now hours old. Now there will be several thousand more. Even now you can add on another couple or so. And now? Yeah, maybe you’d better just keep your pen handy …

This 7,000,000,000+ already uses 1.5 planet Earth’s per year—an inescapable statistic which defies logic as it damns. “Use” is perhaps a little neutral in this sense. How about “consume”? Everyone is, after all, born into a capitalist system hell-bent on consumption, on the acquisition and loss of money.

This capitalist system requires at least 3% growth in order to sustain itself. David Harvey’s lecture does better than I could ever do. As does Sir David Attenborough quoting President Kennedy’s environmental advisor Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad—or an economist.”

The whole of the Attenborough speech can and should be read here.

I wrote nearly 18 months ago on this same topic and surmised that we suffer from what political scientists call “status quo bias”—basically a resistance to change when the imperative for change seems insufficient. Expensive products and holidays help drive this. The worldwide Occupy protests are an important step in the opposite direction.

Population Growth, consumption Growth and 3% compound Growth feed each other hungrily. And it is from these three interconnecting issues that a whole host of other worthy causes stem. It almost seems unnecessary now to talk of the environment, of animal welfare, of renewable energy, of global warming, since all are intimately related to and negatively dependent upon these three predominant (and growing) problems.

Answers? Well, I’ll probably have it all figured out in the morning …

For starters though, a healthy dose of consciousness raising through the (very limited, given the readership of this blog) dissemination of important information. Start with the Harvey lecture. Go on—consume it up all nice and tight.

Hypocrites! or pragmatists?

The criticism of the Occupy London protests in much of the right-leaning press in the UK recently has focussed largely on issues of hypocrisy. How can these so-called activists possibly be politically motivated, the question goes, if they’re seen drinking Starbucks coffee, browsing the internet on their Apple laptops, and wearing designer clothes? There they sit, complaining about a system of excess and corruption, whilst they themselves reap the benefits. Hypocrites!

The alternative (but still linked) rebuke is that the activists are made up only of feckless students, rich kids with nothing better do to, or the lowly unemployed. And why should anybody listen to these freeloaders? Do they really think that without capitalism’s guiding hand they’d be receiving their benefits or student-loans? And as for Henrietta and Ptolemy living off daddy’s oil money: they don’t know they’re born …

The recent (debatable and debated) news reports claiming that 90% of the Occupy London tents were vacant overnight conforms to this same all-or-nothing logic. Activists are clearly required to conform to an unchanging social role involving minimal shades of grey. As soon as one social category is breached or blended with another then activism ceases, political messages are compromised and hypocrisy reigns.

But then what does this really leave?

If the logic states that it’s impossible to engage in the activity of activism whilst immersed in the activity of capitalism, then who is left to speak? The answer, presumably, is only those with no political voice at all; those who can be easily derided or ignored—those, in effect, who can safely protest without ruffling too many feathers.

Undoing this cleverly disarming logic is, of course, quite easy. The influence of markets, branding and capitalism is inescapable. Put simply, it is impossible to be an effective political activist without engaging in hypocrisy. Just as it is very difficult to be an effective environmental activist without, say, international air-travel. Slavoj Žižek puts it well:

What one should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on enemy’s turf; time is needed to deploy the new content. All we say now can be taken from us – everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our “terror”, ominous and threatening as it should be.

To remove these necessarily overlapping areas leaves only a choice between the ‘all-in’, easily stereotyped (and ignored) left-wing anarchists who want a return to communism, or the ‘all-out’ Mr Monopoly bankers who’d willingly sell Africa to Shell—which is effectively a choice between fuck- and bugger-all.

If someone at Occupy London leaves the camp every three days to go and catch up on paid work (so as to lengthen their stay at the protest), then their act of so-called hypocrisy is in fact a pragmatic choice based upon the realisation that whilst the current system is broken, it is the only system in town, and that it is only through such a system that new and collective political agency can emerge.

Within a hegemonic system like capitalism, hypocrisy must in fact be the point of departure for any act of political dissent. And whilst there are certainly some modes of hypocrisy it would be better to avoid (protestors drinking Starbucks coffee for one), to simply berate pragmatic people for working within their limitations is a shortsighted and manipulative attempt to caricature what is a complex social movement into clearly defined parameters, and works only to stultify debate.

And it makes me mad.

Eating Animals (again)

To anyone who’s already done a bit of reading on factory farming and animal welfare, Jonathon Safran-Foer’s book Eating Animals is unlikely to say anything all that new, but what it will do is present the old arguments in a new and impassioned way.

Safran-Foer is happy to admit that the arguments against eating animals are deeply subjective, multifaceted and often hypocritical, and this is reflected in the structure of the book itself, where the author’s own polemic is interleaved with often conflicting, personalised accounts from animal rights activists, factory farmers and vegans (among others).

This narrative style lends the book an engaging and readable quality that so many of the more stern treatises on the subject lack, and it’s for this reason—coupled with the author’s already well-established reputation as an author with Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—that I hope Eating Animals will reach as wide an audience as possible.

Buy it. Then read it. And then encourage others to do the same.

Here are some bits that had me reaching pen-ward:

“Not responding is a response—we are equally responsible for what we don’t do. In the case of animal slaughter, to throw your hands in the air is to wrap your fingers around a knife.”
p. 226

“Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else? If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn’t enough, what is? If being the number one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming) isn’t enough, what is? And if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience to say not now, then when?
p. 243

“However much we obfuscate or ignore it, we know that the factory farm is inhumane in the deepest sense of the word. And we know that there is something that matters in a deep way about the lives we create for the living beings most within our power. Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless—it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another.”
pp. 266–267

“When we lift our forks, we hang our hat somewhere. We set ourselves in one relationship or another with farmed animals, farm-workers, national economies and global warming. Not making a decision—eating ‘like everyone else’—is to make the easiest decision, a decision that is increasingly problematic. Without question, in most places and in most times, to decide one’s diet by not deciding—to eat like everyone else—was probably a fine idea. Today, to eat like everyone else is to add another straw to the camel’s back. Our straw might not be the backbreaker, but the act will be repeated—every day of our lives, and perhaps every day of the lives of our children and our children’s children.”
pp. 261–262

Learning isn’t always fun

I visited the Hong Kong Science Museum the other day, and buried among all the knob-twiddling, lever-pulling exhibits is a simple dot-matrix display designed to plunge people (like me, specifically) into prolonged terror. The information shown on the screen relates to the Earth’s human population, which, it turns out, is increasing by around 2-3 people every single second. That means that by the time you’re done with reading this paragraph, there’s an additional 60 people scouring the planet in search of food, water and shelter. (Not to mention fame and fabulous wealth.)

Only a small amount of arithmetic reveals that such an increase equates more or less to:

  • 9,000 people an hour;
  • 216,000 people a day;
  • 1,512,000 people a week; or
  • 78,624,000 people a year (about the population of Ethiopia, the 15th most populous country in the world).

Were such a rate to be sustained, the current (and there’s a word being ripped apart at the seams) population of the planet would double within the next 86 years—a startling fact considering the 200,000 or so years that went into the making of the first 6.8 billion.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Such a projection relies upon a sustainability that we simply haven’t got. Even at our current (and there’s that word again) level of population we’re eating, displacing and hunting animals into extinction, eviscerating our natural resources in the name of economic efficacy, and causing irreversible damage to our climate by burning fossil fuels. It doesn’t take an awful lot of brain power to realise that these problems are only going to increase (and exponentially so) along with our burgeoning population. And that’s without throwing things like disease, overcrowding, and food and water scarcity into the mix.

In a very real sense then, we have become victims of our own evolutionary success. Our survival instincts, which have brought countless medical, scientific, agricultural and mechanical advances in the name of human longevity, may yet, in fact, be the end of us. We are just that bit too good at surviving, procreating and making use of what’s around us. We really are canny bunch, that’s for sure, but then this isn’t a question of resourcefulness, it’s a question of resources.

Others, I admit, would argue that the opposite is in fact true: that questions of resources can and will be answered by human ingenuity and brilliance. It’s certainly a tempting interpretation, but then any argument that suggests we can maintain the status quo is always going to be tempting. It’s just far too easy to accept a viewpoint that divests us of ethical responsibility, and in placing the fate of humanity in the hands of an unnamed, messianic scientist, we can free ourselves from our consciences without changing a single aspect of our lives. Perfect.

I think this is what economists and political scientists would call the ‘status quo bias’—a model which states that without a compelling imperative for change, no change will come. If we’re given the choice between change and stability, the theory posits, we will nearly always choose stability, and only significant benefits (or threats) to our health, status or bank balance can alter this outcome. When our notion of ‘stability’ entails flat-screen TVs, expensive holidays and never going hungry, it’s easy to see how the case for change rapidly loses weight and significance, and the unseen abilities of a miracle scientist look all the more appealing.

Unfortunately though, as demonstrated by the population figures above, this status quo is actually in rapid and increasingly entropic movement. We’ve just managed to convince ourselves otherwise. Our ballooning population, spurred on by capitalism’s need for year-on-year economic growth, will just consume more, spend more and waste more until such time that any compelling imperative for change has transmogrified into a very real change we’re no longer able to temper.

Things are moving away from us, and the longer that we remain swaddled in the solipsism, luxury and greed of the 21st century, the more permanent this ‘distance’ becomes. We need to remember that we are part of an ever-expanding planetary population, and that the choices we make in our everyday lives matter, more now than ever before.