The difficulty of thinking Ecologically

May 17, 2018

Last night I attended a panel run by the International Panel on Social Progress, effectively launching their soon to be released three volume report called “Rethinking Society for the 21st Century” This report involves 269 different authors from all over the world and aims to change the game in thinking about society.

There were 6-7 authors launching it. Not one of them mentioned ecology. Not one.

When I made a query about this, they said the report was big, and well there may have been something about it somewhere. Someone said they had mentioned the sustainable development goals. (These have very little to do with ecology, and ecology is not sustainable – it changes, its called ‘evolution’).

The point is not that ‘environment’ should be tacked onto social and economic thought as an extra, which it can, it is fundamental to social existence, and thinking ecologically in terms of interrelationships, complexity, surprise, conflicting systems, and the importance of the planet, etc. is something which cannot be marginal to any future politics and social thinking. If it is marginal, then we simply reproduce the kinds of mess that we are in nowadays….

That this international multi-authored ‘report’ (and it was emphasised that authors had the capacity to make input everywhere, and had to sign off on the whole thing) seems to have ignored this completely, or made it marginal, shows the problems we face in generating constructive change…

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Donut Economics

May 17, 2018

Kate Raworth’s ‘donut’ presents a relatively new way of looking at the economy, which has attained some fame. I’ve attached the picture below.

As you approach the hole in the middle, you have an economy which does not satisfy people’s needs such as water, food, housing, relative equity, liberty, education and so on.

As you approach the edge of the image you begin to destroy the ecologies of the planet that the economy depends upon, producing events such as biodiversity loss, climate change, disruption of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, destruction of fertile land, and so on.

Whereas without such a diagram, the capitalist economy is perceived as a matter of self-contained markets isolated from ecology, she argues that the aim of economics should be to satisfy people’s needs without destroying that planetary ecology.

Normal economic theory, can argue that inequality decreases as growth increases, and that growth cleans up economies, because the economic model looks at the world in isolated ways. Some economies appear to clean up ecologies, but they do so at the expense of other ecologies, and businesses are always happy to lower the costs of pollution and increase profit when offered an opportunity.

People may object that it is impossible to meet the needs of everyone – especially while respecting the planetary boundaries, but at least in this model it appears as something which can be discussed as a major concern. Just as we can ask “What is the economy for? What is it about?” and get a reasonably useful answer.

The old economics had an extremely confining view of human nature, it was humanity stripped of everything but the profit motive. This was a decision originally taken to distinguish economics from other fields such as history or philosophy, and to make things simpler, but it became the model of humanity. Under it we are *just* individual profit seekers. We only cooperate in order to make personal profit, we naturally destroy for profit, we have fixed preferences which we neutrally evaluate, and we have no purpose, happiness or virtue other than wealth seeking.

This view is simply not true, or adequate. Humans co-operate as naturally as they compete. We are social as much as individual, we do not naturally only value money and we do not destroy what we share. We are creatures with many purposes and many aims. Wealth is usually only important to the extent it brings about those other purposes and we are not made happy by consumption.
Raworth’s model, to me, is reasonably obvious and elegant and allows humans to be complex. It is not reductive.

It does have a few problems.

1) It does not explicitly recognise that the current economy is a mode of power, situated within frameworks of power relations, and that historical evidence appears to show that those who benefit from this mode of power will do almost anything to preserve it – including wreck the earth.

Nearly all forms of organisation are nowadays reduced to economic/capitalistic organisations. Media and information is controlled by capitalists, the law is controlled by capitalists, the State is controlled by capitalists, education is controlled by capitalists, and so on. Paying attention to the “bottom line” (measured in terms of money) is a mantra that both permeates society, and ignores reality.

It will be hard to move against inertia and the active power dedicated to preserving existing hierarchy. The model does not easily provide for the distortions that power puts into economics – any more than standard economics does. But as standard economics aims to preserve that power it is not a handicap for it, but a strength, as its users can pretend that inequality of outcome is always proportional to inequality of talent.

2) More importantly, the model does not provide a set of simple positive instructions for politicians. It does not give them an easy and painless set of action slogans and programs, whereas conventional economics does.

Conventional economics says: business is always good and always delivers, you must increase growth, nature is limitless or unimportant, commons don’t work so sell them off to business, government is inefficient so hand it over to business, rich people are talented so give them more support and protection (and pick up the rewards), reduce taxes, stop government services, increase charges, abandon poor people as they are without virtue, and individual wealth and its owners should be worshiped.

Donut economics, just says don’t destroy the world, and let everyone participate. Neither is easy under the current power relations, and these actions do not reward players in the State. The model grinds to a halt.

It needs simple and positive directives.

So time to think what those might be….

the donut

What can we do to protect the Environment?

April 30, 2018

This is a much asked question, and it is one that people often retreat from. It seems too big because the simplest answer is also the most difficult, and that is.

We must stop wrecking and polluting the environment as soon as possible; the environment is amazingly resilient, and it is likely to come back, if we give it a chance, and its better if we don’t interfere too much with what comes back, until its clear what comes back.

Stopping destruction is expensive, and will cut some people’s profit down, hence it is resisted politically. Furthermore, some people will put their temporary interests ahead of permanent ones, or they may freeload on other people’s attempts to put things right.

However, it will almost certainly be more expensive in all kinds of ways from simple prosperity to health and even personal survival, if we don’t take some preventative action NOW.

The ‘now’ is important. Which sets the first condition: “Do what you can, no matter how small.” It all helps.

The first step is to realize that Nature (the air, the water, the soils, the caves) cannot be used as dumping grounds for harmful waste products. Harmful in this case, means not just directly poisonous substances, but those substances like CO2 which are fine in small amounts, but become environmental stressors in large amounts.

Once you really realize this, then make your trash output as small as possible. Compost your food waste and use it in your garden. Most people buy too much food, cut back and eat what you have, that will save money too. If you are offered recycling use it, but also check the material actually is recycled – this may not be the case. In any case reduce your use of plastics. Ask local shops to stop wrapping everything in plastic – or unwrap it in the store (after you have paid:). Go to the street and pick up some plastic waste and at least stop it entering the drains.

If you can buy or install renewable energy then do so – again that reduces your waste over time, and this action is vital to stabilize the climate and wider ecology.

Protest against any attempts to promote deforestation in your region, or pollute rivers, or streams. Planned destruction rarely helps. Get to know the local wildlife and flora – even the creatures and plants you don’t like. Campaign for nature zones, and don’t be dismayed if you get the “wrong creatures” first off – nature is full of unintended consequences, while people have to learn how ecologies work in your area, and it may take a while for things to improve.

Support political parties which have a chance of gaining some power and influence, and which recognize the facts of ecological degradation and propose plausible solutions. Join them, and help! If you are a member of a political party which is doing nothing, think of leaving them or agitating for real action. Political participation is important and helps all kinds of people protect their own backyard against excessive development or useless highways, or whatever your local business/government people think is essential but wrecks things for others. And remember, many small business people like where they live and work and can help. The destructive organize, so help constructive people to organize as well. If you participate you cannot fail, you can (at worst) only learn about the obstacles to success, and move on.

If you have money and invest, then invest in green companies or, at least, protest at what is being done in the name of shareholders.

Do not be welded to solutions, but be prepared to learn what works and what doesn’t. Always remember unintended consequences are everywhere – because some plan sounds good does not mean it will always work, but do your best.

There are lots of books around to help with change, borrow them and read them. Buy them if they are good and helpful to support the authors.

Above all, do what you can. If you think you can’t do much, at least do that. It all helps, and builds consciousness, and that makes it easier to learn and do more.

Classical Liberalism

April 30, 2018

Liberalism was an ideology whereby the rising business classes fought against the land-owning aristocracy. It’s birth is usually assumed to occur in the 17th Century, with the alchemist, doctor and sponsored political writer, John Locke being its first significant philosopher.

While it has many virtues as a philosophy, classical liberalism (and modern libertarianism) also functions as a way of disguising the interests of capitalists and protecting the liberty of the capitalist and helping to ensure the wage-slavery of the workers. This is not accidental. Classical liberalism has been used to justify conquest, because of its insistence that unworked land is open for conquest, as people have not ‘improved it’ in a recognizable capitalist way – even if it was common land and occupied and used. Classical liberalism also either approved of slavery or the conquest of “lower races”, as part of capitalist expansion. It was a convenient philosophy. The work of Domenico Losurdo is good on this.

By emphasizing the individual alone, it also naturalizes people’s alienation from each other and from the creative process of co-operative labor and co-operative survival, this further acts as a way of preventing workers from organizing to form unions or political parties to participate in the political process, or to reject the organization of their lives by wage labor. Classical liberalism tends to be hostile to workers organizing, as it is a disruption of “free trade” and business power. Anything that disrupts business power becomes bad and unnatural in liberalism. In the long run everything becomes judged in terms of profit. Art is good if it makes money. Virtue is good if it makes money, and so on.

This is why the right spends so much time creating a false binary and arguing that socialism suppresses individuality and capitalism protects it, when (in reality, we are both social and individual. We exist in groups and require social being to truly exist – where else do we get language, ideas and culture from? Where else do our major satisfactions originate? Without society we cannot be individuals and vice versa. Any form which emphasizes one without the other is potentially tyrannous. Classical liberalism and modern individualisms all need modification by attention to their histories, unravelling the unintended consequences, and by the findings of social ‘science’.

Ethics and Culture

April 23, 2018

Ethics is cultural, we are brought up to feel that certain things are wrong, and that we should behave in certain ways. It is also bound up with political relationships between groups – if a person is a member of our group, or someone we identify with then we are likely to treat them specially; usually (but not always) we will be more sympathetic, accept excuses, assume they are really right, be persuaded by their arguments, and so on. These seem to be matters of fact. But our responses to them are ethical.

Should ethics be cultural? Should ethics be political? This is instantly an ethical question, and thus irresolvable if my initial question as to whether any ethical propositions could exist that were not already ethical, although I suspect most people would not say ‘yes’ to either of these propositions…

it seems to me that agreement with local customs cannot be a basis for ethics. It seems to be a cop out. I would expect a an ethicist to challenge local customs. That they would be socratic in the sense of seeing whether those customs had any basis in reality or were coherent, or likely to produce the results that the holders’ intended. While arguing that ethics should produce the result it intends is another ethical statement, it seems to be one most people might agree with – although they don’t have to, its not compelling. My kind of ethicist would not be socratic in looking for a definition of the good or the just, because that leads to the unreal….

When I suggest that there is no basis for ethics which is not already ethical, I’m not suggesting that ethics is always coherent, although I may assume an ethical position that coherence is usually good. For example an ‘ethics of love’, may also generate violence, oppression and hatred (especially if it is applied via rules… but that is another argument for another time), and this may not seem compatible with its initial formulation. People with this ethics may be aware of these problems (as when Franciscans were brought into the inquisition), but these ethical people may attempt to suppress awareness of unintended consequences, in order to support their ethical systems, and produce even worse consequences and incoherencies….. And it seems ethicists might challenge that, although the challenge can always be denied.

Ethics and its basis – Again….

April 22, 2018

My recurring question is whether it is possible to find a basis for ethics which is not already ethical?

Thus some people argue that we should obey God’s commands (let us ignore the fact that almost nobody obeys the complete commands of any religious text) but the idea that obeying God is ethical is already an ethical proposition which can be challenged by other ethical propositions.

The Utilitarian idea of the greatest good for the greatest number, depends on the ethical idea that ethics should benefit the many rather than the few, this also could be challenged by another ethical proposition.

The idea that we should behave in a situation in the way that we would want all such situations to be treated (‘the categorical imperative’), contains an ethical assumption that generality should override specific context. It could be argued that ethics must attend to context. (‘should’ and ‘must’ are almost always terms implying an ethics is going on).

The idea that ethical behaviour resides in a mean (Aristotelian arête ethics), is a proposition which implies that extremes are unethical (and come in binaries!)

Anti-cultural relativism, often seems to assume similarity is ethical and unsimilarity is not.

And so on.

I think people can argue that I am cheating here because I have not given a definition of ethics. But while definitions are helpful I don’t think it solves problems.

I’m not a Platonist, so I don’t believe that giving a definition always provides understanding, or is always possible.

Sometimes people know what they mean well enough…. But let us assume that ethics has to something to do with terms like virtue, good behaviour, right behaviour, morality and things like that. I may not know what ethics is, you (as reader) may, but I all I kind of know is how people use the word.

One gentleman discussing this issue with me gave the following definition:

By “ethical”, I mean “anything that pertains or is related to some system of ethical values and duties”.

I would also stipulate that, according to my own preferred use of terms, a system of values and duties is to be called “ethical” if — at a minimum — it is designed with the (implicit or explicit) goal of protecting (and even of increasing) the well-being of some sentient entities (human or non-human).

This encapsulates part of my problem with ethics as a “set of propositions” and illustrates my question… “Is it possible to find a basis for ethics which is not already ethical [i.e., value-laden]?”

Lets look at the beginning of this definition: “By ‘ethical’, I mean ‘anything that pertains or is related to some system of ethical values and duties’.”

I don’t have to say this is circular, and I certainly couldn’t do any better myself. ‘Ethics is about ethics.’ Obviously he moves on to illustrate what he means by ethics…

“a system of values and duties is to be called “ethical” if — at a minimum — it is designed with the (implicit or explicit) goal of protecting (and even of increasing) the well-being of some sentient entities (human or non-human).”

So he makes what seems to me to be an ethical proposition, that ethics is about ‘protection’, and ‘well being’, of ‘sentient entities’.

There is no non ethical reason why this should be the case. It is already value laden. Thus a person with a different ethical position might argue that not everyone should be protected, only particular special people (this is common in ethical systems – foetuses cannot be killed by surgery, but enemy mothers and foetuses can be killed by bombs). They might object to “well-being” saying that was the decadent ethics of bourgeois society and ‘hardiness’ or ‘spiritual discipline’ should be the end of ethics as it was ethically superior, etc. Finally a non-humanist eco-philosopher could argue that that ethics has to be directed to the environment, as there are no singly existing sentient entities, everything exists together, or that sentience is not that important ethically speaking; it is an “unethical” form of exclusion, structurally comparable to racist ethics, and so on…

If so, and if this makes sense, yet again we have an illustration of it appearing not to be the case that we can have an ethical proposition/axiom which is not already ethical, or value laden…

Libertarianism, communism and freedom

April 17, 2018

“Liberal” is a weird word. To people in the European tradition it means someone for whom free markets are important, and personal liberty is tied up with wealth and the removal of barriers, and so a nowadays a “non-conservative” member of the right. At one time this kind of liberalism was radical, now it is simply a way of enforcing the power of money, hence it sits well with the establishment. In America this position is “libertarian” while the term liberal implies a person who thinks that we should all get on with each other, that government should be helpful, and that participation in government should not be restricted to the wealthiest.

“Communist” is equally a weird word, because communism as a aspiration is radically different from the communist powers which used to exist. There were as many varieties of communism as liberalism. Originally communism meant the withering away of the state, liberty and co-operative freedom. This kind of communism recognized that freedom and life required other people, and sometimes required help, not simply the removal of barriers. Too much poverty and violence does not grant freedom, or the capacity to act on what freedom is available. Later, official communism simply supported the power of the Communist State and its rulers. Official communism was not an egalitarian arrangement.

“Freedom” is also weird. Some people have asserted that freedom is recognition of necessity, which often seems to mean keep carrying on with oppression. Personally I think there is no liberty without enablement, and without some degree of equality. Sure there will always be some inequality as people don’t have equal abilities or good fortune, but massive inequality usually means that the society is being run for the benefit of those at the top (who may not have great ability and who have some protection from ill fortune). Consequently the liberty of those people has to be curtailed slightly for the benefit of others. It is, for example, often (but not always) agreed that a person’s freedom to use their ability to beat other people up, or kill them, should be limited, so it is with other freedoms. Freedoms can always contradict, that is why it is a struggle.

In complex systems attempts to impose either order and freedom can have unintended consequences. Imposing the freedom of the market can lead to freedom for the wealthy and non for everyone else. Imposing equality through the State can also lead to lack of freedom for some people. We perhaps need to carry awareness of these oppositions and contradictions in mind, and allow something new to arise, rather than simply assert what we believe to be true, but which has never worked, is the way to go.

short libertarianism

April 13, 2018

Libertarianism seems to function as the friendly propaganda for the neoliberal project of tipping all power relations over to the side of the corporate sector and weakening any power that ordinary people may use to contain that sector.

It occupies a similar space to that libertarian communism occupied with respect to Stalinism – except (and its a vital except) that some libertarian communists were some of the fiercest critics of Stalinism. If libertarians say they are against corporate power, they never want to eliminate that power before they eliminate the check of government restriction on it.

This is why there is rarely any real facture between libertarians and ordinary politician conservatives, because they are both about preserving and increasing the power of money.

Any real conservative would recognise that libertarianism reduces all virtue and value to profit and stay as far away from it as possible. And any real anarchist would have nothing to do with supporting religious or corporate authority.

Libertarianism is fake news.

Commercial in Confidence

April 12, 2018

Commercial in-confidence is when a government makes an agreement with a private company either to outsource work which could be done by the government or sells off public property to a commercial concern, and at least some details of the contract are not to be revealed to tax payers.

Usually commercial in-confidence is used to hide details the public might object to such as: exit fees the government might have to pay if the work is not done on time; agreements that freight has to pay extra charges if it is landed in another port; tax and royalty concessions; changes of a road’s route so the toll charges can make more money; or simply paying more than is necessary to friends and donors. Yes this all refers to real cases…

In terms of social category theory the government identifies with the private sector and judges them with a friendly eye and aims to support them, while it sees tax payers as a hostile other who are ignorant.

Let’s be clear. If Taxpayers’ money is involved then commercial in-confidence should not exist after the contract is signed. It is our money, and we should know how it is being spent and what we are giving away. If companies don’t want to participate under these conditions, then that is their business and we probably don’t want them to participate.

Commercial in-confidence is simply a cover for commercial incompetence.

So far privatisation has failed, and it is largely because of these confidences, and sometimes because public servants do a better job.

Minorities rule….

April 12, 2018

The interesting thing about Australian Coalition Government’s policy which has been revealed by the so called “Monash group” (which is pro-coal), is that policy appears to be dictated by the fear of not offending five non-cabinet MPs.

This means our climate and energy policies, in a lower house of 150 people, is being decided by less than 10% of the members (I’m adding extra people to their cause out of generosity). This is not remotely democracy in action – this is rule by the miniscule; the fleas controlling the dog.

How does it come about? Firstly because those 5 people have the support of the Murdoch Empire and the Minerals Council of Australia, which have helped make resistance to the idea of climate change, a hallmark and definer of conservative politics. Indeed they supress discussion of climate change to make everything about an ‘economics’ that is concerned with the profit of established corporations. Mass protests against climate change just don’t get reported, while tiny protests against the left do. Even those radical conservatives like One Nation who think international corporations are destroying local customs and culture, and need to be checked, support fossil fuel companies who are as international and destructive as they come. Any right winger who breaks on this issue will be misinterpreted, seen as a traitor, seen as losing nerve, and punished. Any right winger with principles, fears they will lose selection.

This is polarized information group dynamics in action, and stopping discussion. These groups can be created for this purpose, and are reinforcing it. The 5 people become exemplary examples of a right wing ‘us’ group – while possibly moderate people like the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull become outsiders, who have to continually demonstrate their group loyalty, by not steering too far away from the extreme, and by refusing to challenge that extreme. In this situation the so called ‘centre’ suffers – even when the official ‘left’ move further rightwards to capture its shifting point, and even if ‘the people’ show their commitment to renewables by plopping them on every available rooftop.

The dedication of the far right is reinforced because they stick with the Murdoch Empire and do not see contrary evidence, or have it explained away for them well enough. They are hung up on being just and fair (so if anyone is doing less to mitigate climate change than them, they can always argue it is just for them to support even less action) and they suffer the Dunning Kruger effect, were they do not realise their ignorance in the field and subsequently cannot recognize competence in the field – and they reinforce their ignorance out of group loyalty and the sense of persecution which comes from being wrong.

And so it goes. It could be combatted by strong leadership which stood up for principles and argued against them for the good of the country. But we are probably not going to get that. All we can hope for is that the people themselves get on with the business of lowering carbon emissions, reducing their pollution, getting their workplaces to reduce emissions, protesting against government sell outs to corporations and doing anything else they can no matter how small. While voting Labor and Green is useful, it will not be enough either, because they continually move to the right, to keep on side with the powers that be.

It is up to us to do we what we need to do to survive, and to take government back should we want.