Licence to Operate?

We see so many instances of large corporations acting against the public interest – tobacco, sugar, pesticides, pollution, Enron, subprime bank lending, plastics, enabling interference with elections, cartels, monopoly restriction of competition, and on and on.

Is it not time to require a licence for any corporation above a certain size to operate in a particular country, renewable say every five years, based on a transparent licensing process that is under democratic supervision?

Large businesses have privileges such as limited liability, generous bankruptcy laws and the ability to act trans-nationally and shift profits between countries; it is only reasonable to require them to not act against the interest of the societies in which they operate.

This provides a way for democratic politicians to take back control of forces that are, frankly, acting purely to make as much money as they can regardless of the impact on everyone else.

[US readers note licence = license.]

James Robertson

james-robertsonI was sorry to learn that James Robertson is to no longer produce his regular newsletter or maintain his website, This is a great shame, but one can well understand it at the age of 89.

I first came across James at Schumacher Lectures in Bristol, maybe in the 1980s, and was inspired by his ideas on economics and the money system, which originated in a career at times closely associated with UK governance. This inspiration has continued over the years since then, in his articles, books, talks, seminars and then his regular newsletters – Turning Point 2000 up to the turn of the millennium, and his regular email newsletter since then.

James’s ideas deserve to be more widely known. I won’t try to summarise; the following from the front page of his website gives a good idea. This truly does indicate a necessary component of a New Renaissance, as indeed James said in his Knutsford Lecture in the 1990s.Read More »

Growth vs Sustainability

It is one of the main dilemmas of our time. Economic growth is seen by governments and people as essential. If the economy falters then there is unrest and governments get thrown out.

Yet economic growth is creating unsustainable demands on the ecosystem – pollution, global warming, resource depletion, and so on. The two do not appear to be reconcilable. We know all this.

There has to come a solution. If we leave it to the earth’s natural systems, we may well not like the result. We are getting a taste, as extreme weather events become more common, plastic pollution becomes increasingly pervasive, species extinctions accelerate. Refugee crises, population migrations and epidemics are likely to get much worse.

So it’s important to consider possible solutions. One is put forward by Positive Money in their excellent research paper Escaping Growth Dependency, just published. They argue that the debt-based money system is a major factor driving the growth imperative, and reform of this money system is essential as part of the solution.

They propose adding a new tool to the Central Bank’s toolkit: ‘sovereign money creation’, and preventing banks from creating money altogether. Thus money as means of payment is decoupled from money as a source of credit.

The paper suggests that such a change could ‘open the door to a transition to a sustainable economy’. I’m all for that!

 

 

World Economic Forum

So the annual shindig of the world’s rich and powerful is soon upon us, 23-26 January at Davos-Klosters, as usual.

Its theme is Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World. The overview context is impressive, and I note that it has 7 female co-chairs. The website claims that the WEF process is having a positive impact (it is much more than just Davos.) It appears to be addressing the right sort of issues, but has the state of the world actually improved in the nearly-50-years of the Forum? There has been progress in some areas, but the current situation on global warming and pollution, and increasing inequality, let alone the ongoing disasters in the Middle East and Korea, suggest there is so much more to do. Obviously, the influence of this one organisation/ process is limited and the vested interests preventing progress are so strong.

We should at least wish WEF well, with honourable intentions. The Lucis Trust suggests a theme for meditation, from the impressive Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of WEF, to send helpful energies to the forum in this time of world need:

Our collective responsibility must be to develop  new models for cooperation that are not based on narrow interests but on the destiny of humanity as a whole.
Worth trying.

Brexit turkey evidence

More evidence of Brexit turkeys voting for Christmas in this Birmingham University Regional Paper on the economic impacts of Brexit, reported in today’s Guardian. What the paper aims to analyse is “the exposure of regions in the UK and the EU to Brexit, via an analysis of the nature and scale of their trade linkages”. (The paper itself looks rather complex – not easy reading.) The featured image shows the paper’s illustration of the level of impact by region.

Key findings include:

So it’s pretty clear who has the strongest negotiating hand in the forthcoming trade talks.

 

Disasters

I wrote this post a while ago, but didn’t publish it because it seemed too negative. But then again it is facing the truth, they are coming thick and fast…

Disasters are in the nature of things. Life is evolution and change. Galaxies collide, solar systems merge, orbiting objects crash into each other, storms and subterranean events cause cataclysmic events on planets. So however stable things might seem, it is inevitable that disasters will occur.

california wildfire
Wildfire, Ventura, California, December 2017, NY Times

So is it any surprise that disasters are also caused by human beings. However, we do seem to be particularly good at creating the conditions for them, e.g. we:

  • invest in new sources of fossil fuels that we know are not sustainable, thereby exacerbating the global warming we know is happening – and continue to prevaricate on taking effective action to minimise and mitigate its effects.
  • degrade our soil and food with chemical-based farming, when biological and organic methods are the only sustainable way.
  • base our economic system solely on growth, regardless of the quality of that growth and its ecological non-sustainability.
  • propagate increasing inequalities that history tells us are not sustainable and result in conflict, yet refuse to contemplate alleviatory measures, such as taxes on financial transactions, wealth and land.
  • elect those who base their campaigns around separation and collective illusions, such as making countries ‘great again’, standing above others.
  • fill our seas with plastic, to the extent that our food coming from the oceans includes increasing residues of it.
  • cut down forests to create more land to feed animals for food or grow more oil, thereby removing the planet’s lungs (analogy).
  • globalise everything such that (with climate change) diversity of species is drastically reduced.
  • invest in escalation of arms including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that no sane person would wish to see ever used.

The entrenched status quo appears to be manipulated by the main beneficiaries (the rich and powerful) such that any rapid change of direction is not possible.Read More »

Easy abstractions 

This week’s Guardian ‘long read’ on Globalisation: the rise and fall of an idea that swept the world by Nikil Saval is well worth a read, outlining the failures of economic/political policy that have led to today’s dysfunctional world economy and its increasing inequalities.

How easy it is to propound abstractions and not consider the real world implications – free trade, free markets, globalisation – the apparent obsession of many economists and politicians over the last 40 years.

Of course, chickens eventually come home to roost. And this is what we see in the real world, with people in the West disillusioned with the effects of a failing globalisation system, just as in the early 20th century.

Deluded by these abstractions have politicians failed to act according to the interests of those they represent? It is after all their job to so act.

But of course we all have our own favourite abstractions, and our own view of what might have been better decisions…

Energy and economy

In her post The Next Financial Crisis is not Far Away Gail Tverberg presents an interesting assessment of where the world economy has been, is and is going. It seems to explain a lot of what we see going on.

Gail makes a number of observations, based on extensive research, that appear to look deeper than most so-called economists.

  • our economy is a self-organised system that seems to grow by itself
  • economies can collapse if circumstances are not right cf USSR
  • oil exporting nations can have problems if prices are too low cf Venezuela, whereas oil importing nations can have problems if prices are too high cf Greece
  • energy consumption correlates with and enables economic growth (see Gail’s chart), so cheap energy means high growth cf recent China, India, but not now

world-gpd-growth-has-followed-changes-in-energy-consumption

  • world growth in energy consumption is now negative
  • these factors explain lack of strong Western growth since 2007/8, and corresponding structural problems such as many low-paying jobs resulting in reducing tax take, which generates pressure on public services and so on
  • Likely symptoms of collapse: political parties cannot agree, debt repayment problems, falling international trade, breakdown of higher layers of organisation cf USSR

The point Gail does not really bring out is that economic growth also tends to correlate with negative environmental impacts, so low growth is actually much better for the environment.

We seem to be in a bind: economic growth and social stability versus environment. It is likely that we will always default to the former until the effects of the latter are so disastrous that action is forced upon us.

In a sensible world, we’d be having a big conference to try to work out a better way of managing human affairs that works with the environment, and perhaps decouples perceived benefits from both energy and growth. Which brings us back to the money/debt system, who controls it and who benefits…

In the real world we will just muddle on. And whether Brexit represents a national suicidal impulse or a prescient reading of the runes will not become clear for some time yet! (Its short term negative impact is becoming increasingly clear.)

 

So there is a Magic Money Tree

The status quo is not working, and there is increasingly insufficient money to fund adequate public services in many countries. Let’s try a simple thought experiment.

Suppose that the Central Bank takes back control of the creation of money. Instead of most new money being created by banks as debt, it is just created centrally by the sovereign power – and then loaned at a very low rate to accredited banks to lend on to customers. Let’s call this very low rate delta. Alternatively, delta is taken as a levy on bank lending/debt creation activities – the effect is the same.

Now, if delta is small enough, I would suggest that there will be little or no effect on either bank lending or confidence in the currency. But the sum of a lot of all these small deltas can be quite large. All this money could be passed on to government and would be available either to finance public services or to provide the beginnings of a basic income – and maybe bankers would be not be quite so rich.

Of course, there would need to be adequate safeguards around delta to prevent unscrupulous use by politicians. In the UK, we know how to do such things, eg monetary policy committee.

So there is a magic money tree, after all. Of course, there are others, eg Tobin Tax on financial transactions, as mentioned in an earlier post Magic Money Trees.

Magic Money Trees

“There’s no magic money tree”

Tory general election campaign slogan.

Well there are lots of them, actually.

How about the ability of banks to create money out of thin air and charge interest on it, gaining profits in the process? Why do you think banks have the biggest buildings in towns and cities and reliably generate huge salaries, bonuses and profits? Central banks could take over all money creation, to the benefit of all. See discussion at Positive Money.Read More »

Mega farming

I’m standing on a country road by the edge of a rather large field in Picardy. Nothing stirs, apart from a tractor in the distance, slowly wending its way across the field.

It seems like a desert. Except that, in my experience, most deserts actually support a fair population of vegetation and wildlife – probably much more than this godforsaken space.

How is the fertility/ biodiversity/ microorganisms/ health of the soil maintained in this space where fertiliser and weedkiller are probably the only inputs, apart from sun and rain? And should we really be surprised if heavy rainfall, increasingly common, causes run-off, flooding and loss of topsoil? And if long dry spells lead to dust storms?

picardy-field-edgeThere is no alleviation, even at the roadside. A thin strip of grass is all there is – no hedge, no trees, no ditch. No environment for small mammals, birds, insects – no space for the natural world. All confined to the nearby small village and woodland.

This shows quite clearly the alienation of the money economy from the nature on which it is dependent – and the alienation of European politics, such as in the Common Agricultural Policy that would appear to have encouraged this sort of thing.

Just imagine the difference if each field could only be so big, and had to be surrounded by hedges with trees, and space for grasses and wildflowers – well you don’t actually have to imagine it, as there are still plenty of examples in England and the rest of Europe. We spent millennia learning how to farm sustainably alongside nature. Yes, crop yields might be less in the short term, but I suggest they would be much greater in the long run.

Economy cannot win this battle with ecology. We will all be the losers.

Please note that I am not criticising Picardy itself –  a mostly charming part of France with many examples of small farms and rolling countryside. However, this mega farming is quite prevalent in that large area of northern France you drive through as quickly as possible to get to the nice bits! Having toured in the USA, I know where it came from.

Who makes money?

You might think the Bank of England makes the money that is used to oil the wheels of the economy. You’d be wrong. The BoE creates only  around 2.8% of the money in circulation. The rest is created out of thin air by commercial banks as debt. Debt is built into the system – so […]

Ill gotten gains

Tax havens exist so that rich people, corporations, corrupt ruling cliques and criminals can avoid paying tax or launder/hide money.

Tax is of course what makes human societies work – the rich gain disproportionate benefit, so should pay the appropriate level of tax.

Governments fail to address tax havens in varying degrees because of the influence of those beneficiaries. They invent reasons to avoid solving the problem.

It is possible to close down tax havens and achieve the necessary transparency. See eg Richard Murphy’s excellent post re one of the biggest, controlled by the UK.

All it needs is the political will to do it.

 

It’s going to be all right?

Climate Change

So we had the Paris climate accord and everything is going to be all right? Unlikely. Nothing is binding and business goes on as usual, with exceptionally low oil prices.

My_village
‘My Village’ in Bangladesh

Scientific voices are increasingly strident about the dangers. Have we actually already reached a tipping point? We do not know. In one recent piece of research, former top NASA scientist  James Hansen and 18 co-authors suggest that current climate models grossly underestimate the effects of climate change on ocean currents. It seems that ice sheets may melt much faster than current models have anticipated – leading to much faster rise in sea levels than currently predicted. And storms could become much more severe that we have experienced so far, resulting in unimaginable tsunamis.

In the recent ‘Network Review’ of the Scientific & Medical Network, David Lorimer reviews the book ‘Paris and the Survival of Civilisation’ by David Ray Griffin, retired American professor of philosophy of religion and theology. Griffin, a meticulous scholar, analyses the current situation. Lorimer’s review gives a good overview, which you can read if you join the network.

Here’s my 3 point summary:

  1. There is already clear evidence of disruption caused by climate change in the increasing incidence of extreme weather events and related political problems, such as Syria, which are leading to increasing refugees and terrorism. This can only accelerate with current emission trends.
  2. There has been a massive collective failure of media and politicians across the world to respond to the challenge, encouraged by fossil fuel interests funding climate denial and a mindset dominated by the need for short term economic growth in a system that is clearly failing us.
  3. 80% of known fossil fuel reserves would need to stay in the ground to avoid catastrophe, yet governments continue to subsidise fossil fuels when in fact the rapid transition to ‘mostly renewables’ is the only real viable option.

In the above, I’ve just picked out a couple of examples of the voices calling for sanity. There are many.

What is really needed is a clear vision of a sustainable future with renewable energies, such as that being pioneered by Elon Musk and Tesla, and a worldwide programme to manage the transition. And then a sense of urgency, that was not evident in the conclusions from Paris.

Minimal first steps would be removal of all carbon subsidies and their transfer to renewables, and immediate carbon taxes to establish the funds needed to fight the consequences. Then at least we’d know our leaders were taking it seriously.

The economic/banking system also needs some sort of overhaul, so that it will support the transition and not be a continuous obstacle.

Will it happen? Not today. A sea change in the cultural and economic climate is needed. Every mind changed will help. Every piece of research, personal interaction, tweet, post and book will help. Every vote for right thinking politicians will help, in the democracies. Every choice to reduce personal carbon emissions will help.

We have to believe that collectively we can act in time.

The danger is that we get bogged down in fighting the symptoms, such as flooding, wildfires, water shortages, refugees and terrorism – and forget about the real problem that will eventually overwhelm many or all of us, or our children and grandchildren.

Picture of ‘My village’ By Almunimsajib2014,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36054289

 

 

Mother Nature Bats Last

This Changes Everything

Review of the book by Naomi Klein

this_changes_everythingIt took me a long time to read Naomi Klein’s latest book, published in 2014. Basically, a lot of the material was so depressing that I could only take in so much at a time, and yet it was also deeply encouraging. Naomi Kline has been a leading writer and activist on climate change and the problems of capitalism for many years, and this book shines light in all the dark places she has come across, and that is a lot of places.

Here we see close up the waters of the gulf and Mississippi delta degraded by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster; we follow the pipeline, fracking and tar oil battles and spills across the US and Canada; we witness the horrific social and environmental degradation and corruption in the Niger delta, and so on and on… We see how democratic politics has been undermined across the world by the corporate interests intent on continuing this plunder.

Diagnosis

Why has climate change “never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than collapsed banks or collapsed buildings”?

Klein’s diagnosis is clear:

“A destabilized climate is the cost of deregulated, global capitalism, its unintended, yet unavoidable consequence…”

Essentially she suggests that the neoliberal consensus with its three pillars  — privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending — is incompatible with the actions necessary to bring emissions to safe levels. Corporate interests have systematically exploited this situation, funding the movement of climate change denial and ramming through policies that enrich a small elite. The situation has also been the excuse for crackdowns on civil liberties and human rights violations.

Politicians and regulators have not been up to the job, even “systematically failing to conduct basic research, and silencing experts who are properly tasked to investigate health and environmental concerns”, so that they can suggest that all is well with the oil industry. “The failure of our political leaders to even attempt to ensure a safe future for us represents a crisis of legitimacy of almost unfathomable proportions.”

Children

At some point Klein became aware that what suffered most from chemical overload in the environment was the foetus and the young, and the worst effects of disasters such as Deepwater Horizon may be felt many years later because it was the young fauna that were most affected. There are moving parallels in the book with her own experiences of failing and then succeeding in having her own child.

“More than three quarters of the mass-produced chemicals in the United States have never been tested for their impacts on fetuses or children…  it was only once humans came up with the lethal concept of the earth as an inert machine and man its engineer, that some began to forget the duty to protect and promote the natural cycles of regeneration on which we all depend.”

Hope

But there are also signs of hope. Klein describes how indigenous movements have marshalled across North America and elsewhere to successfully resist the depradation of their lands. She invents the concept of Blockadia to describe these bottom-up initiatives to block further extraction of fossil fuels.

“What is clear is that fighting a giant extractive industry on your own can seem impossible, especially in a remote, sparsely populated location. But being part of a continent-wide, even global, movement that has the industry surrounded is a very different story… Blockadia is turning the tables, insisting that it is up to industry to prove that its methods are safe…”

Fossil fuels have always required what Klein calls ‘sacrifice zones’, such as the Niger delta or the Alberta tar sands, where the unfortunate inhabitants of particular areas are sacrificed so that others may have their fuels. Most people, including the middle classes, were not affected.

But “… the extractive industries have broken that unspoken bargain… the sacrifice zones have gotten a great deal larger, swallowing ever more territory and putting many people who thought they were safe at risk… Fracking, tar sands pipelines, coal trains, and export terminals are being proposed in many parts of the world where a clear majority of the population has made its opposition unmistakable…”

This is mobilising people as never before, and governments need to respond.

“… if governments are unwilling to live up to their international (and domestic) responsibilities, then movements of people have to step into that leadership vacuum and find ways to change the power equation.”

Liberation movements

Klein finds positive evidence in the liberation movements of the past few centuries. The situation on fossil fuels is very similar to that before slavery was abolished – the vested financial interests were eventually forced to change, or bought off.

A similar level of change was achieved by the labor movement in the aftermath of the Great Depression— the massive wave of unionization that forced owners to share more wealth with their workers, and helped create a context for social programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance [this is a US perspective].

There is ‘unfinished business’ with most of the powerful liberation movements of the past two centuries, from civil rights to feminism to indigenous sovereignty, which are very much related to the climate movement.

Klein suggests that “… climate change can be the force— the grand push— that will bring together all of these still living movements.”

Unwinnable battle

Finally, we are reminded that humankind cannot win the battle against nature that it has appeared to be engaged in. The solutions must involve working in sympathy with nature:

“The notion that we could separate ourselves from nature, that we did not need to be in perpetual partnership with the earth around us, is, after all, a relatively new concept, even in the West.”

At the end of the day, “Mother Nature bats last.”

Should you read it?

This book is certainly not easy to read, and you may not agree with some of Klein’s analysis – many will see her anti-corporate position as too extreme. But you will be better prepared for the battles to come – a generational change in values is no easy task.

 

 

Materialism

i_thinkThere are two major definitions of materialism, which we tend to conflate in casual consideration. [See Wikipedia entry.]

The doctrine of philosophical materialism states that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications – and consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency. This is closely related to physicalism, the view that all that exists is ultimately physical.

Then there is the related economic materialism, a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values, such as compassion for others.

I believe that both of these belief systems are inherently misguided and self defeating. Let me explain.

Philosophical materialism

Many scientists believe in philosophical materialism, with a touching faith that consciousness will eventually be explained by science in material terms. This faith is closely linked to scientism, defined in Wikipedia as belief that empirical science and the scientific method provide the most “authoritative” worldview.

It seems to me that this is not really tenable, despite the undoubted cleverness of some of its adherents.

If we simply observe, we see our inner consciousness and an outer world – inner and outer. It is reasonable to accept that all beings of any scale experience that inner and outer – if not, where is the point of discontinuity?

As Descartes suggested, the outer is measurable, objective – and became the subject matter for the emerging science. Science became very good at creating mathematical models of the objective and establishing technologies to manipulate it, hence the technological wonders of the modern world. [Of course, any mathematician will tell you that Gödel’s theorem applies to such models, and it is impossible to construct a complete model that answers all questions. It cannot be done.]

The inner, subjective is the arena of qualities and values and cannot be objectively measured directly, so science cannot get a proper handle on it. It can try to generalise with statistics and probabilities, and it can establish material correlates [such a neurological] – all subject to the scientific method. But that’s about it.

Note that I do not mean to denigrate science itself, which is wonderful in its own domain. But it does have its limited field of application and should not imply that it can do more than it can.

Economic materialism

Economic materialism appears to be a dominant paradigm among that class of people who drive the economic development of our great corporations and economies. It is perhaps expressed most strongly in the extreme capitalist conception that the business enterprise must make money as its primary objective, and that all other considerations (which clearly include anything to do with values and the subjective) are secondary. Thus the leaders of a corporation are required to act in the ‘interest’ of shareholders to the detriment of all else, except where explicitly forbidden by laws, which are mostly arguable by that most inventive of professions – the legal. Civil society, what is right or the public interest are well down the list of priorities – hence the widespread tax avoidance common today.

The comforting theory is that the ‘invisible hand’ will make it all work out well in the end. It is even arguable that while economies are growing this attitude works well, there are always jobs, and inflation ensures that things do not get out of hand.

But here we are, and for many years the limits to growth have become increasingly apparent. Now our very planetary environment is at stake – with climate change related effects, inexorably increasing pollution, species loss, impoverished soils and seas, resource scarcity etc – and economic growth is stalled worldwide.

And the focus on ‘money at all costs’ by corporations and governments appears to stall any attempts to properly address the threats represented by climate change and pollution.

So, in the end, this would seem to be another self-defeating paradigm whose time has passed. The focus on outer has forgotten what really matters – the inner people, their values, their relationships, their compassion,… We need to go back to doing what is right, not what makes the most money.

Conclusion

Both these sorts of materialism have led us up a cul de sac, and it is difficult to see how we can get out. Their time has come and gone; we need to rediscover our place in the natural world. We need to understand and act on the inner, as well as the outer.

Martin Luther King said something similar, using completely different language, a year before he was assassinated:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin—we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

From Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” address

 

Footnote

I have tagged this blog item ‘conceptus’, in memory of a personal project I took on in the 1980s on an early computer. I aimed to set down in ‘The Conceptus’ key concepts that I thought it was important to understand, at a time of great change and personal development. I guess this idea is still within, so I will from time to time publish items with this tag when it seems appropriate.

In Praise of The Beans

beans
Beans Cafe, Eldridge, Houston

It was the last visit of our time in Houston to the ubiquitous Beans Cafe (mentioned in several of my posts), which is one of those locally run independent coffee shops that are done so well in the US, alongside all those regional and (inter)national chains. The feeling is homespun, the service friendly, the coffee is great, the music always discreet and well-chosen, the seating old-fashioned armchairs, but quite comfortable. Wifi is free and reliable, and many appear to use it as a temporary office with their laptops, as they linger over their drink or food. It just feels comfortable to be there, hence our regular visits.

Such local independents seem to turn up in most of the towns of the US we have visited during several road trips. Trip Advisor is good at unearthing them and the reviews are usually good, as is the food, drink and ambience. At the Village Cafe in Bryan on our way to Fort Worth there was even live music following the lunchtime rush.

Of course, the same is true in the UK. Many high streets have their own independent coffee shops or tea rooms, alongside the inevitable Costa, Nero or Starbucks. So the choice is local colour versus the known standard of the global brand.

Now it seems to me that the rules are somewhat stacked against these local shops, in that their ability to avoid taxation is not on a level playing field with the Starbucks of this world, with their international financial arrangements, paying taxes where it most suits. And the big chains can run outlets at a loss until they have killed off the local competition. Yet local shops are effectively largely recycling money in the local economy, so good for local prosperity – whereas the chains are slowly sucking money out of the local economy. The local shop is probably paying its staff better, and forms much more a part of the cultural ‘glue’ of the local community. It’s the same story that has over the years seen American high streets denuded of small business shops, replaced by chains paying peanut wages.

Free market enthusiasts will say that it’s just natural that small shops may get crowded out by chains, they just have to be good enough to survive. Well yes, but at least we should make sure that the playing field is level. It does not appear to be. Maybe the field should actually be biased towards local businesses, because of the benefits they bring to the community as a whole? By all accounts, and the evidence of my own eyes, the capitalist free market seems to have done a pretty good job at destroying any sense of community and individuality in many places in US and UK. The high streets and malls are all pretty similar, the same set of stores and cafes with their national/global branding. We need more unique outlets with their own style, local colour and individuality. Let’s support them and move the political environment to encourage them…

The heart of capitalism?

I am standing on the footpath that threads around a large field in Cheshire. It looks like flattened mud, with rows and row of small young plants, maybe winter wheat? I feel desolate at the barren scene – no variation, no birds, no insects, just that vast cloying mud.

Confined-animal-feeding-operation
Combined animal feeding operation

I am being driven through eastern Texas. We pass seemingly endless cowsheds, enclosures, corrals of cows. Arid flattened earth, not a blade of green to be seen anywhere. A nothing environment for an unlucky cow to live what can hardly be called a cow’s life. My heart cannot grasp the enormity of what is being done here.

I read the story of DDT and Rachel Carson, and how the world stepped back from the brink of massive destruction of natural beings. And now I read again of the new DDT, neonicotinoids, which are being extensively used without due precaution. Not only the bees our life depends on, but other insects, the birds that feed on them, and the thousands of organisms of the very soil itself are being massacred. Ignorance on a grand scale in the name of money. I weep internally.

I drive through the northern French countryside. More huge fields, thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy. Yet there is not a hedgerow in sight, so few insects and birds. I grieve for the lost opportunity to maintain the threads of nature.

I observe in my own Cheshire garden the decimation of populations of bees, butterflies, hoverflies, some bird species over less than half a lifetime. My heart tells me something is amiss with the web of life, and it is something to do with the way we farm and the chemicals we use.

And yet through all this there are signs of hope. Part fields of wild flowers in southern France – lost but now re-established. Land set aside for wildlife. Campaigns to keep and extend old forests. The organic and small farm movements. The national parks, scientific areas, conservation movements etc etc. In the hearts of many the connection with nature is still strong.

Does not the problem lie in our hearts? If we cannot feel that empathy with the whole living world, as we do for example with our pets, what hope is there for us? Industrial agriculture with its related chemicals appears to be largely about the pursuit of money at the expense of the natural world. Land ownership should imply stewardship of nature on that land, which means maintaining the connections of nature and should not allow them to be destroyed.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the currently manifested capitalist system, that has money as its supreme value, lies at the root of the problem. If decisions are taken based on what makes the most money, rather than what the heart says is right, then does that not inevitably lead to the increasingly denatured world we see before us?

[Of course, similar problems are evident in totalitarian countries, which are either part of or have aped the capitalist money system.]

Featured image of Confined Animal Feeding Operation, from Wikimedia Commons