We spend a lot of time arguing about the way to achieve a world where everyone has their fundamental needs met but what we can surely agree on is what those basic needs are. We need a planet which can sustain life via breathable air, liveable temperatures, water we can drink, food we can eat and weather that doesn’t kill us all. We need adequate shelter against the weather/climate, we need sanitation and we need to be safe.
In the modern world, each of us also needs to play a part in society: mostly through employment. To do that, we have a few more essential needs: education; healthcare; transport and energy.
I don’t think that these needs are in any way compatible with the wants and desires of the millionaires and billionaires who wield so much power over our societies.
What happens when residents in a particular area no longer feel happy or safe there? The obvious answer might be that they leave but that’s not quite true. Those who are able to leave will move away but many will stay, either because they can’t afford to leave or are unable to because of family, work or their own health.
Fires, floods and record high temperatures are now a regular occurrence and not just in one or two traditionally vulnerable areas: we are seeing the disastrous consequences of climate breakdown right around the globe.
Life on earth exists within a freakishly fragile set of coincidences. How far we are from the sun and how big and how hot that star is determined how the earth was able to cool and how the atmosphere formed. The moon is just the right size and distance from the earth for its gravitational pull to hold our tilted axis in place: without the moon we would have a wild climate and life would probably never have had a chance to even start. The earth’s temperature is within a narrow range, with a perfect balance of crucial chemical elements needed to ensure life can survive and over millions of years, all of that life found a crucial balance to allow it all to continue.
This delicate equilibrium has been put at grave risk. Destroying forests to build enormous meat production sites or to grow soy for animal feed or palm oil for cheap processed food and cosmetics not only removes the trees which are crucial to maintaining our atmosphere, it also destroys habitats. The knock-on effects are enormous as plants, insects and animals exist in another carefully-balanced system. Without one crucial element of that system, you end up with too much or too little of another. One element being out of kilter can lead to another and another and another.
Then there are our waters: polluted with chemicals from intensive farming and manufacturing, and plastics and sewage from unsustainable production and development. Then there are the particles released into the atmosphere during the manufacture and transportation of consumer goods and building materials, and in the production of the energy we use.
So what happens when an entire planet starts to feel unsafe? Well in just the last month, intrepid billionaires have been using the money made for them by their workers to build penis-shaped rockets and explore a future away from this rock. Bezos and Branson are typical of the sort of greedy capitalists who are responsible for the destruction of our planet (Amazon’s carbon footprint grew by 19% in 2020 and, well, Branson owns a long-haul airline) and others like them wield extraordinary influence over governments who are doing pretty much nothing to arrest the destruction of the planet. Their stratospheric adventures are ostensibly with a view to enabling other wealthy people see the curvature of the earth but surely they have their sights set on mining asteroids or other planets. Bezos says he thinks we can move all carbon-intensive industry off the planet although I’m not sure if he has plans beyond that or whether it will just float around as debris like Elon Musk’s car.
Climate disaster has seemed quite far off: we have all talked about what the world might be like for our grandchildren and their children. But what’s really scary is how quickly this has become not just our fault but our problem.
We all need shelter and that means we all need a small amount of land, ideally it would be somewhere we could build a home, source our own clean water and also grow at least some of the food we need. Land might not feel like a natural resource but it works in much the same way as materials that are mined and collected, in that rich people make money by making the rest of us pay them for it.
Here in England, cash-strapped councils jump at inappropriate developments which wouldn’t pass even the most ignorant definition of ‘affordable housing’ while landlords charge ever increasing rents and house prices continue to rise way above inflation. Many of the people who have recently been outed as the most critical workers in our society simply don’t earn enough to live securely in homes that aren’t mould-infested health hazards.
We already pay for water: of course it needs to be cleaned and pumped into our homes but I’d rather private companies weren’t making a profit from it. There can be little doubt that a future will come where oxygen and sunlight are also sold to us by the descendants of the people who polluted our air, rivers and oceans and created the dust clouds that block out the sun.
Capitalism demands more
When society is such that most people need to work for a living, on top of the basic things we need to survive, we also need infrastructure that educates us, keeps us in good enough health to work and can transport us there and back.
Those other modern-day essentials are also playthings for the rich. While our railways may have become so dreadful that even the children of Thatcher decided they had little choice but to take franchises back into public ownership (I assume this was with a view to fixing them and bringing the private sector back in to make a profit again, like they did with the East Coast mainline), our NHS seems to be just about surviving a pandemic sufficiently for the Tories to speed up its privatisation. If bringing in a Randian disaster capitalist as secretary of state for health and social care wasn’t enough of a hint, another massive reorganisation bill – which will give the secretary of state much more control, including over appointments to local boards – has been unleashed on England’s beleaguered NHS.
In 2010, the Coalition government pledged “no more top-down reorganisations” of the NHS. Two years later, we had Lansley’s Health and Social Care act which led to a huge increase in private sector contracts. Perhaps the most famous pre-COVID example of private sector vultures cashing in on the NHS was when Virgin Care (yes, it’s that grabbing Branson again) sued the NHS for missing out on a contract. Then during the pandemic, we found out that the Tories hadn’t kept up the stockpile of PPE, which was set up just in case we were hit by a pandemic. We saw huge contracts being stuffed into the pockets of Tory chums and donors for contracts they didn’t have the first clue how to fulfil. And now Sajid Javid is health secretary.
We all know how much our energy bills have risen in recent years and how much profit the energy companies make. For example, British Gas have seen their profits rise by 121% in the last year and now they’re decided to fire and rehire staff on worse contracts so that will surely increase even further.
I think the only one of our essential needs I haven’t yet covered is education. Higher Education has been marketised: Universities now have to make a much larger portion of their own income from fees, rather than being directly funded by the state. I have also experienced first hand how many Universities are now run like businesses: constantly restructuring and making redundancies while expecting higher standards.
At school level, we now have ‘free’ schools and academies running schools alongside local authorities: these are methods designed to reduce state control, which is a recurring feature of neoliberal capitalism. The anti-capitalist in me can’t help but see all of these developments in education as tentative steps towards private sector involvement: indeed a ‘free’ school can be run by a private company, using public money but with their logos and company ethos all over the way they teach.
So there it is. The things we need to exist in a modern society are commodities for rich people to control and make money from. And our planet’s survival is gravely under threat from capitalism.
We do have the power to change this. We need to stop voting for people billionaires want us to vote for. We have to stop telling ourselves that there is nothing we can do about a few very rich people controlling everything we need. We need to keep having those awkward conversations with our comfortable friends who are too busy trying to mix with their bosses and chuckling at Marina Hyde’s latest column to consider their position in all of this. We need to fight to make sure everyone has those basic things they need.
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