In this week’s Socialist Hour I started by using a song by Barry McGuire called the “Eve of Destruction” to discuss the current political situation. It probably reveals something of my current state of mind because if the past 16 months have taught us anything at all it is that the political classes almost without exception across the globe have failed miserably when it comes to confronting a crisis. When the situation called for leadership what we got from London to Washington, from New Delhi to Rio de Janeiro was prevarication.
During the show my guest Luke Andreski makes the point that it is no use blaming individuals for the crisis it is necessary to blame the conceptual framework they are working with. In short, when given a choice between saving the lives of ordinary citizens who remain largely nameless and faceless or ensuring that business can continue to make a small percentage of the World’s population ever more wealthy, they chose the latter.
Hence, my assertion that we are on the eve of destruction. Of course, the pandemic has been hard to ignore, although there are plenty of people out there who are happy to deny that it exists, or if it does exist to see it as some giant conspiracy to remove your civil liberties. I have to say that wearing a mask to stop the spread of a lethal virus does not seem to me a major incursion on your rights, whereas being told you cannot protest does. Perhaps the two are linked somehow but if so I can’t see it because as far as the U.K. is concerned the enactment of legislation to curtail what you thought of as rights was always going to happen under a Tory Party whose MPs were selected precisely for their right wing views.
The catastrophic handling of the pandemic across the globe leading to over 4 million deaths gives us an insight of the inability of national governments to put narrow, nationalistic, agendas to one side. It reveals why as the global climate catastrophe looms over us the decisive actions needed to save our species are not being taken. Just so that we are clear on what we are talking about here, the World Population Review defines a greenhouse gas:
“A greenhouse gas (GHG) is a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases let sunlight pass through the atmosphere but prevent heat from leaving the atmosphere, also known as the greenhouse effect.”
Since 1970, global carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 90%, with emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributing to about 78% of the total greenhouse gas emissions increase. In other words, the Earth’s temperature is increasing and this is leading to changes in the planet that could lead to it being unable to sustain human life. Let’s make this simple if your house was on fire would you douse it with water or pour oil on it? Or, perhaps you would stand back and say “houses catch fire we just have to learn to live with it”. I’m betting that most people would do what they could to stop their house catching fire in the first place, but were it to catch fire they would do all they could to stop the fire spreading to save their house.
Pouring oil on a burning house
Governments are doing the equivalent of pouring oil on a burning house by constantly putting off taking the measures needed to reduce greenhouse gases to an acceptable level. China, which is the World’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases has not pledged to reduce its emissions, neither has India who are second on the list. The USA withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord under Trump but Biden has now affirmed his commitment to reduce greenhouse emissions but without a definite plan of how to do so. In short, most governments are putting off doing too much, if anything, in the short term and making in many cases ambitious targets with no idea of how to meet them.
What we are seeing is that governments, much like those they govern, are fixated on the here and now (especially the pandemic but always their economy) and less concerned to save the future, especially a future which is beyond the next electoral cycle. The Pew Research Centre reported in 2019 that whilst there was a shift in attitudes toward seeing climate change as a threat the picture was very mixed. Whilst overall 68% of those surveyed saw climate change as a major threat to their country, this varied from 90% in Greece to 38% in Israel. In the USA it was 59% but a worrying 16% saw it as no threat at all. The largest percentage seeing it as no threat was 21% in Nigeria, followed by 18% in both Russia and Israel.
According to World Atlas in July 2020 the issues Americans care most about are poverty, healthcare and climate change in that order. Ahead of the General Election in 2019 The Independent reported that despite being at its highest level ever as an important issue the environment was still 4th behind Brexit, health and crime. In India, according to Pew Research, climate change hardly registers as an issue with unemployment, rising prices, crime, corruption, and inequality all more important than pollution, the only tangible reference to the environment.
In the U.K. as my Socialist Hour guest Relish Hendy told me it is hard for poor working class families to think of much else when the loss of £20 per week can have a devastating impact on your chances of survival. Whilst Karl Smith on the same show described the brutal life of being homeless. When you are, literally, just trying to survive thinking about a global catastrophe that might not happen for another 30 or 40 years is a big stretch. But, this is the point, politicians have short term goals that are not conducive to long term problems.
In the last U.K. election the Conservatives successfully made it about Brexit. In the US Presidential election Biden, according to The Atlantic: “won because he was a reaction to Trump, but also because he was a white guy who could connect with white guys even as his association with Barack Obama helped legitimize him with Black voters. He updated some of his policy positions to fit where his party had moved—and to respond to the pandemic. But he didn’t swing hard left, or hard right.”
These were not victories motivated by a desire for change, well not progressive change at any rate, but by people’s who wanted a return to a mythical normal. In Biden’s case it wasn’t the bombastic ‘make America great again’ but rather a reassuring ‘make America unassuming again but restored to its position as the World’s leader’. For Johnson there was no big idea just a simple message ‘taking back control’ which was code for ‘get rid of foreigners’. They are not unique but neither Johnson nor Biden are what anybody could realistically describe as visionaries.
What this means is a narrow focus on national capitalism at a time when we need to work on a global scale. It is always true that there is more that unites us than divides us. We have all been inconvenienced by the global pandemic rather than denying it or ignoring it we needed the World’s leaders to get together and to agree a set of actions. Disease is not ideological and although the poor always suffer more than the rich a highly contagious virus is a threat to all of us. It needed, but did not get, a global strategy of suppression where the entire human race united in their common opposition to the virus and where keeping deaths and long term illness to a minimum should have been the goal. The Worlds political elites failed us.
If they were unable to tackle the, relatively, simple task of suppressing a virus because they were too concerned to maintain a competitive advantage over each other, then what chance they can bring about the changes necessary to take on global climate change? Make no mistake business as usual will destroy the planet as a safe habitat for humanity. For it is business, specifically industrialisation, that is adding to the poisonous gases that are changing our environment. It is as if there was a small fire on your living room floor and instead of smothering it you decided to go to the pub and deal with it when you got back, at which point you are shocked to find your house and those of your neighbours ablaze. We are, it seems, on the eve of destruction.
Pockets of hope
But amidst this doom and gloom there are pockets of hope. They are not to be found in an MP calling Boris Johnson a liar, or in winning court cases against the Jewish Chronicle as welcome as they are. They are not even to be found in the brilliant and inspirational work of Extinction Rebellion, but are to be found in a realisation that if business as usual is a large part of the problem so is what we have come to regard as ‘normal life’. The problem is with a political system that wants to secure our future whilst denying our past and refusing to change our present. We had to change for the pandemic, but the fact that people began hankering after normal so quickly should give us pause for thought. Saving the planet won’t be achieved by turning off light bulbs when you leave a room or cycling to work (though those won’t harm either), but by major changes in our social system.
Capitalism achieved marvellous things in terms of improving the living conditions of many. But, it did so at an, at the time, unforeseen consequence. It gave us a political system – parliamentary democracy – that provided the illusion of control. For a while we probably never had had it so good. But, if something is too good to be true, it’s usually got a serious downside. Capitalism survives on consumerism, the constant production of commodities for sale on the market. That means industrialisation on a global scale to satisfy global markets. It also means massive inequalities. Moreover, it has given us a political class that by any subjective measure is entirely unsuited for its position and ensures that most of us have no say in the decisions that affect us. If we are to survive as a species we need to move from our current state of stasis to evolve to a higher state.
Some people tell me that we shouldn’t use the word socialism because of its negative connotations. But whatever you call it a system where we produce for need rather than profit, a system of direct democracy where everybody (including our youngest citizens) have a say in the things that affect them, a system where we don’t pursue goods for the sake of esteem or because our neighbours have them and a system where we prioritise compassion and kindness over greed and acquisitiveness, community over individualism and nurturing the planet rather than abusing it, is what I think of as socialist. If you prefer to call it something else feel free but the point is that if we don’t change, and change soon, then it really won’t matter what you call anything because we won’t be here to disagree.
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