• To see the world, and act – the real Big Society

    by  • August 20, 2010 • Everything Else • 10 Comments

    We are in crisis.

    One third of the population of our species live in abject poverty and horror. They watch their children die young. They die young themselves. You know these people are out there.

    The world is on fire. We have climate change. We have massive destruction of the natural world, mass extinction that will be visible in the fossil record forever. We are trashing the planet.

    You know these things.

    In a particular crisis like Haiti, a few people stop their lives and Do Something. A lot of people take the cost of a night out and send it. And our lives go on as if nothing had happened, while they scrape and scramble and try not to die in the process of recovery, perhaps one day returning to the abject poverty of their pre-disaster conditions rather than the utter disaster of their post disaster state. Before the earth quake, half of Haiti had no clean drinking water or toilets. From bad to worse to bad again is not a recovery.

    The economic crisis is where we are about to get slugged. Greece is falling apart. Iceland narrowly avoided it. America is abandoning core public service provision.

    You are not going to have the future you expect.

    Now, that does not mean that it’s going to be wars and rumors of wars, and violent mayhem in every city center. That is not at all the future we should expect – in almost all cases, hardship and massive civil disorder are different phenomena. The hardship comes from a shrinkage in opportunity. The civil disorder comes from pre-existing perceived wrongs: racial, ethic, nationalist, religious and other pre-existing time-bombs finally explode in the hardship and contraction of the future which comes with economic contractions. Those are the things you really need to watch.

    The inability to buy our way to the lifestyles we have always thought we would have one day is one of the critical features of our time. But we should not be confused about the position we are in – as some of the most protected and privileged people in the world, the hardships we can rationally expect to face in upcoming years as our economies shrink and some of our nations run into severe political problems are as nothing compared to the living conditions which people all over the world call “normal”. It is bad out there, and when we had everything we did little or nothing about it.

    After all that we took from the Empire, is 0.7% of GDP in international aid really reflective of a good, fair deal?

    Why did Kyoto and Copenhagen fail? Fundamentally the world divided into two factions – the poor, populace nations who said that every human has the same right to use the atmosphere, and the rich, smaller nations who said that everybody should tighten their belts by the same percentage, regardless of current consumption. You can see the hypocrisy of that position from here.

    And we sit with it. Tiny fragments of the population get upset and act, some directly, and some as activists trying to raise general awareness of these paired crisis issues. The vast majority of us sit concerned with our own affairs as the situation worsens, both politically and ecologically. Business as usual is about to close.

    This middle position, of the quiet struggle to maintain our advantages and borrow our way to maintaining our quality of life as the world gets harder has come to an end. The next phase is how we are going to adapt to a world in which financial constraints precede ecological constraints as we are forced by reality to live within our real means.

    Apathy is not longer a viable strategy for making a good life for yourself. It is going to take bold and decisive action, as individuals, groups, organizations and states to push through the oncoming chaos to a genuinely sustainable “new normal” based on real ethics and actual productivity. We are going to change, or we are never going to become an old culture.

    Now I want to put this in perspective. Haiti and Pakistan are real places. The people there feel about their lives much as we would in the situation they are in. It is awful. Are we our neighbor’s keepers? That is an open ethical question for each of us. But there can be no doubt that we are equally entitled to our fair share of our country’s and our world’s resources simply by virtue of being alive.

    Did you do for Haiti, or Pakistan, what you would wish them to do for you were our situations reversed?

    Worse, before the disasters came, did you do for them what you would wish them to do for you?

    In the upcoming shenanigans, as the world throws off the last vestiges of the colonial/superpower order, we are going to have to justify every single advantage which we wish to keep while denying to others. Our nations may well be made liable, financially, ethically and morally, for what our ancestors did in the colonial period, and for our roles in toxifying and destroying our shared world, its climate, and our fellow species. The prosperity we have was bought at the cost of trashing the world for the entire human race, and the time for settling these accounts is near.

    The debt we owe is cultural and economic. The atmosphere is not filled with carbon because of Africa’s historical winching itself out of poverty by burning fossil fuels: that is our carbon.

    Our governments are created by popularity contest. It is impossible to stand up in front of a room full of people and tell them that they are inevitably going to get poorer and that they are liable for the massive over-consumption of their forefathers. Do not expect this kind of political accountability to come from our shared structures of democratic governance. It may be hashed out at international treaty negotiations as our elected leaders are coerced into accepting full responsibility for the previous actions of our states, but it is never going to be a platform on which people get elected. The inability of democracies to say no to their people has cost us the fundamental legitimacy of the nation state as a way of organizing our affairs.

    This is not good news. But if liberal democracies sabotage global climate negotiations to keep their populations fat and happy for one more electoral cycle, costing us the vital time we need to implement real climate management steps, in what way can we stand up and say that “the will of the people” is the correct form of governance?

    I raise this as an open question. Perhaps more responsible populations will emerge and elect stronger leaders who are capable of making us live within our environmental and financial means. Perhaps the truth will become a gold standard currency. But, in going forwards, I want to light a flame in your hearts.

    The government and our democratic ideals have fallen far below the standard of behavior required for us to protect the planet, take care of our responsibilities to our fellow man based on our previous treatment if nothing else, and therefore the burden of responsibility for these matters must fall from the shoulders of the state to the individual.

    This is not to say that the state has nothing to offer, rather it is a mechanism we must push as hard as we can to do what is necessary. But until we can admit, cleanly and clearly, that the international order of the nation states has fallen far, far below the standard of discipline necessary to protect the world we have not taken responsibility for the problem.

    Kyoto was the warning shot. Copenhagen is the last straw. It is up to us now, and I do not know what that means, but I no longer believe solely in state-level solution.

    The Green movement, Transition towns and similar groups have looked at this problem from various angles in the past. But they have not seized the fire from heaven, and that is what must be done now. It is up to us to redesign institutions which will actually take responsibility for protecting the planet from human weakness and corruptibility, and from the irresponsibility of the states in pandering to whatever will make the voters check the right box at the polling station.

    You have to face this: democracy in its current form has not delivered the results we were promised. The governments of the world’s leading democracies lied to each other and their populations to justify illegal, bloody, destructive wars. Hundreds of thousands died. They sabotaged the climate talks. We have no idea what the consequences of that action may be. They have largely ignored poverty for decades, costing millions upon millions of lives. All of this in our name and with our consent, one election at a time.

    Is this the best of all possible worlds? I say no.

    The state takes our individual free wills, and binds them together to create a collective will to produce peace, prosperity and order. But our states have become diseased and insane, threatening the very continuity of our world and our species. We all know there is something wrong with the government. Nobody wanted the Cold War, mutually assured destruction, the horrific site of nuclear stockpiles that stretched to heaven while the world starved and drowned.

    All of that was pathology – behavior that at an individual level would have been psychopathic and delusional but which we accepted meekly as our leaders did it allegedly for our own good.

    This is not the way.

    So you must stop looking to the government to set the acceptable standards of environmental behavior and international relationships with citizens of other countries. There are terrible limits in the ability of democracies to produce the kinds of collective behaviors that we wish to see.

    Gandhi was not elected.

    Hitler was.

    Let us stop electing tyrants and expecting this arbitrary concentration of power at the center to result in justice and good government. Rather, let us each shoulder the individual moral burden of containing global warming, adapting to climate change, stopping biodiversity loss and repairing our relationships with people in foreign countries. We will need to design new forms of collective action to make up for the shortfalls in our existing systems, which almost all draw their legitimacy and power from the state. They’ve tried, they’ve failed, and now it’s our turn.

    The state is not going to do it for us. This is the real meaning of the big society.

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    10 Responses to To see the world, and act – the real Big Society

    1. Chris
      August 20, 2010 at 2:06 pm

      Vinay thank you. So important, and so well said.

    2. Dirk
      August 22, 2010 at 11:52 pm

      This is a passionate, eloquent call for action. I share your frustration with the inability of human beings to see beyond their own problems. However using the example of Hitler’s election as a demonstration of democracy’s flaws strongly diminishes the value of your article, for several reasons, chiefly Godwin’s law (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law). I would also point out that all attempts to create a just society that were not based on democracy have been unsuccessful. If an old lady falls over in the street, 9 out of 10 people will help her. The problem is not that people don’t care, it’s that they are geographically and socially removed. What we need is more interconnection, in emotional, economic and informational terms.

    3. August 25, 2010 at 1:21 am

      As I understand it, Hitler only actually won elections after banning the opposition.

    4. August 25, 2010 at 1:21 am

      Great post by the way :)

    5. August 26, 2010 at 9:37 am

      Hitler’s party was part of a coalition, and he was put in power by normal democratic succession (i.e. procedurally.)

    6. August 27, 2010 at 6:44 pm

      Couldn’t have said it better myself Vinay. But you know this means you have become an anarchist, don’t you?

      This is powerful stuff, and right on the button. But what happens next? What does getting from here to where we should be look like? I used to think the answer was Zapatismo. Perhaps it is still the best answer. But I also think that until the electorates in rich countries have no privilege left to protect, they will have no incentive to do what is ‘necessary’, even if they know it’s necessary.

    7. August 27, 2010 at 6:49 pm

      Have I told you about the Space Giraffes? I really think they’re key here…

      But, seriously, I’m searching for leverage, some point in history where a few people can get one or two good ideas implemented. We’ve seen those critical points for action before.

      We just have to be ready and recognize our time when it comes.

    8. August 27, 2010 at 7:25 pm

      Well put.

      It’s all very well being the one on the Titanic saying things aren’t going too well, but when you’re saying this from inside one of the last lifeboats you really need to put your words into actions.

    9. Chris Naden
      December 10, 2011 at 9:49 am

      Dirk: Godwin’s law says that in any internet debate, the probability of someone comparing *his opponent*, that is the person he is actually arguing with right then, to Hitler, approaches 1. The corrollary is that this invalidates that distputant’s right to argue. Vinay has contrasted Hitler with *Gandhi*. He is not arguing with Gandhi. Nor is he comparing the two. Godwin has no place here.

    10. Pingback: » The Immiseration of the Bourgeoisie Collapsonomics!

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