Bill Gates: Enemy of the Earth

July 1, 2008

For those who have been on holiday (and thus purposefully out of the loop) or living in a remote corner of the world untouched by the media, the owner and founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, has retired.

Some of the publicity surrounding his retirement has been amusing: I enjoyed the spectacle of a BBC reporter visiting him and asking if his computer ever froze. Some of it has been ridiculous: the idea that he was some uber-geek is plainly daft. His first great success, MS DOS, was not created by him: he merely bought it, and sold it on to IBM. Some of it has been honest: statements made that Windows would not have come about without Apple’s Mac inventing the Graphical User Interface are entirely true. However, all of the coverage I’ve seen has ignored the environmental impact that Microsoft has had, particularly in recent years.

We don’t tend to think of software having an ecological dimension. When we worry about carbon emissions, there is a propensity to envisage old-fashioned, heavy industry with large factories spewing smoke into the atmosphere. Alternatively, there is a tendency to imagine the spectacle of automobiles idling in traffic, the rippling haze of emissions drifting into a smog of poisons which is increasingly strangling the planet. Software, sitting in a DVD case in a local store, or as a link on a website, seems unthreatening in comparison.

However, software matters, particularly if it reinforces the consumptive habits that create further carbon emissions. Microsoft is guilty of locking us into a deadly cycle which does precisely that.

Everyone who owns a Windows machine is by now familiar with the pattern: one buys a PC. It runs adequately for a while, but patches eventually bog the machine down. Microsoft offers a new operating system, for which one’s existing machine is entirely unsuited and too underpowered to handle. The old PC is thrown out, a new one is bought, and the cycle begins again.

The average user may moan about the cost involved, but Microsoft’s tactics of pushing out the old operating system and replacing it with the new means that the user has little choice. Rapid consumption and disposal, in order to maintain one’s relative position in the realm of technology, is essentially forced on the PC owning public. Let’s be clear about the costs: there is the carbon impact in producing the metals, silicon and plastics. There are the transport costs from Asia (at least for components). There are the disposal costs for the old units. There are the energy costs for ever more power hungry processors, graphics cards and motherboards. Whereas the auto industry is looking at new ways to reduce consumption, the PC industry is apparently rampaging in the opposite direction.

Having said all this, what does the user get in return for paying the aforementioned financial and ecological pricetag? The answer is: not much. Vista’s appearance was enhanced, but there are few anecdotal indications that increased performance or stability has been the result. Vista has been such a damp squib that Microsoft executives are already talking up the mythical “Windows 7”. Furthermore, the Windows approach, fundamental to requiring the ever more powerful machines, has a flaw at its heart: bundling everything into the kernel, the heart of the operating system, means that maintaining the stability of that operating system is an ever more complicated task as new features are added.

Fortunately, the Open Source movement has more ecologically sound alternatives. This website was built using a 5 year old laptop running Ubuntu Linux and exclusively Open Source tools. Furthermore, Firefox 3, Opera 9.50: both the latest and greatest browsers, run with no difficulty. Nor does the Microsoft Office equivalent, OpenOffice 2.4, which ironically looks more like the old, familiar Microsoft Office than Office 2007 does. It is a clear, albeit personal, example of advanced software not necessarily requiring advanced hardware to run it. Progress in both fields can happen independently, and can occur in a context in which ecological impacts are minimised.

Bill Gates is apparently now going to spend most of his time running his charitable foundation. This foundation is supposed spread some of his ill gotten gains to those in need. There is so far no indication that he has quite the same impulses as Andrew Carnegie, who had such a loathing of money that it made him physically sick to handle it, and who created institutions as wide ranging as the Carnegie Foundation, Carnegie Mellon University and Carnegie Hall. Hopefully, however, Gates will put something back into helping those he has hurt by insisting on his unsustainable model. It would have been much better, however, if he had not caused the harm in the first place.

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An “Anti-Enjoyment” Political Campaign

June 26, 2008

This is perhaps one of the few anti-“jouissance” political broadcasts in history:

John Cleese SDP/Liberal Alliance political broadcast 1987

John Cleese offered to help Obama; perhaps he can construct a similar ad campaign based on the idea that you can either have the perverse “enjoyment” of extremism, or actually attempt to solve the problems facing America.

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The Dreaded “P” Word

June 26, 2008

It’s become clear that one of the biggest challenges facing Senator Obama is the weight of expectation placed upon him. Somehow, he is supposed to be the champion of the liberal cause, yet have an appeal to the centre. He is supposed to be an idealist, yet be a realist too. Indeed, he is supposed to avoid compromise, yet actually win an election. His shoulders must have developed a psychosomatic ache from the crushing weight of these conflicting demands. It is remarkable that he remains as publicly unflappable as he does; the fact that his sole vice is indulging in the occasional cigarette speaks well about his stress management skills.

That said, it appears that the edifice of his coalition has developed some cracks. Senator Obama has disappointed liberals with his stance on the FISA bill, as well as corn ethanol. Objections are understandable: FISA is a completely repellent bill, as it contains a provision to provide immunity for telecom companies who spied on American citizens. Corn ethanol is a boondoggle which actually costs more energy and carbon emissions than what it’s worth.

As disheartening as it may be, to expect Senator Obama to do any differently may be asking too much: for a successful candidate, elections are an exercise in carefully deployed pragmatism. This may be disappointing to those who cling most dearly to ideology, but the candidate whose “base” has the strongest stomach for the dreaded “p” word is the one most likely to triumph.

The American electorate, at present, is split into three main segments: conservative, moderate and liberal. According to Rasmussen Reports, the largest segment are the moderates, who represent 37% of the electorate. 36% identify themselves as conservative. 25% identify themselves as liberal. Under these circumstances, it is not only undesirable, but it is impossible for a successful candidate to give in fully to the demands of any one group. Obama was always going to have to hunt for votes in at least two of these groupings.

There is another element which needs to be acknowledged: people tend to only embrace radical solutions, whether they come from the left or right, in a situation of crisis. Britain in 1979 was a leading example of just such a situation: there were massive winter strikes during which the dead were unburied, and rubbish had to be stacked high in the middle of Leicester Square. Even so, Margaret Thatcher had to appear moderate in the General Election and quote St. Francis of Assisi upon arriving at Downing Street; the crisis allowed her to get away with being radical afterwards.

While fuel and food prices are rising, the environment is degrading and the war in Iraq remains steeped in blood, employment is still relatively high by historical standards. Having a job and earning a living, creates an impulse whereby one has a stake in the existing order, rather than has a need to overturn it. Thus even a transformational candidate has to breathe reassurance for those who may feel that change might mean matters get worse rather than better. The model for this approach is Tony Blair’s campaign in 1997, whereby his team put out reassuring messages on taxation and other issues in order to get the public “comfortable” with voting Labour.

Apparently Obama is a pupil of Blair’s in this respect. According to the Economist, his team of economic advisers is “impeccably centrist”. His puzzling stance on FISA is intended to quash, albeit via questionable means, any doubts about his credentials on national security. Support for corn ethanol indicates he won’t radically shake up the heartland, at least not to begin with. Telling the corn farmers and the telecom companies that their time is up will only conjure up visions of Obama being a “dangerous radical” and push those who are alarmed into McCain’s column.

There is good news, however. The challenges that Obama faces in assembling a winning coalition are just as acute, if not worse for Senator McCain. His long standing “maverick” stance has infuriated conservatives; his “green agenda”, such as it is, offends ideologues who don’t believe in climate change at all. His tepid adherence to religion has earned him the emnity of many evangelicals. Some on the far right appear to want to paraphrase Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “It is far better to lose with Barr (or other third party candidate) than win with McCain”. Their stomach for the compromises required by the electoral process is even more questionable than those on the liberal side, indeed, there is a compulsion at large amongst them which implies that electoral suicide is the ultimate expression of principle.

The early days of Obama’s campaign twinkle in the memory with the starlight of idealism, punctuated by flashbulbs and awash with the romanticism inherent in the word “change”. This sensation was always bound to diminish once the realities of practical policy set in. It was never going to be perfect; people need to let go of that lovely “p” word and embrace the other, more sombre one. Being pragmatic may not be a vehicle for the instant realisation of dreams, however, it can serve in making things better and dramatically so.

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Hillary Supporters: Get Over Your Enjoyment!

June 25, 2008

It’s sad but true, election campaigns often are a carnival of attractions akin to a procession of circus freaks, fire eaters and sword swallowers, with the media focusing on the monstrosity du jour.

Yesterday’s “bearded lady” was Charles Black, an aide to Senator McCain; he dared to suggest that the Republicans’ chances would benefit from a terrorist attack. The most obscene element of this comment was that it’s probably true: the spectacle of smoking ruins, victims covered in blood, families in tears and militants celebrating could crush thoughts of hope and change, and potentially send the voters “running to grandpa”. However, this is not something to be uttered, let alone entertained as anything other than a passing, cynical calculation which a basic sense of disgust should knock aside.

Meanwhile, there was a less-publicised spectacle arising from the Democrat camp: Senator Obama met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, to discuss how to lure Hillary’s supporters back into the fold. According to the June 24th UK Daily Telegraph, he uttered the following phrase:

“If women take a moment to realise that on every issue important to women, John McCain is not in their corner, that would help them get over it.”

This statement, while true, apparently caused great offense due its the last three words: “get over it”. Congressman Diane Watson reportedly told him, “Don’t use that terminology.”

But what precisely is so offensive about it? “Get over it” is a call to Hillary’s most ardent supporters to break with previously established patterns of behaviour, some of whom are continuing to resist Obama’s advances in spite of the fact that Hillary has, at least in public, “gotten over it”.

The philosophical works of Slavoj Zizek, and his interpretations of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan can help us understand the subterranean motives at work. Seen from this perspective, Senator Obama is actually asking them to break with their enjoyment, which is likely to be difficult.

As Zizek and Lacan remind us, enjoyment or “jouissance“, is a primary motivator in our behaviours: even the man who forsakes all comfort in the pursuit of a virtuous life is enjoying his relative virtue in comparison to others. Those in the environmentalist movement can recognise the type: the individual who is “more eco than thou”, demonstrating this purity overtly for an invisible audience (Zizek and Lacan would call the “Other”), is taking enjoyment in the act. The religious Right is littered with this type as well: the person who maintains an exclusivist position who denies themselves any public self-indulgence, so he or she can maintain the role of moral spokesman, is in their enjoyment of this status revealed to be a perverted type of hedonist.

Similarly, Hillary’s supporters are in the throes of enjoyment. They feel they were robbed, slighted, and they were the victims of sexism insofar as their favoured candidate was denied the nomination. This gives them a similar “perverted” position of moral superiority as the one held by the Religious Right; this “pleasure”, however, can only be maintained by continuing their outrage against Obama. In effect, Obama is having to deal with the political consequences of a psychological fetish.

Is there a way out of this? Zizek / Lacan have both stated, “the letter always arrives at its destination”. The meaning of this proverb can be deciphered as follows – no matter what, one has to deal with events as they arrive. It could be that injustice arrives at the door: for example, as sometimes happens, there could be a computer error and an outrageous bill or tax demand slips through the letterbox (the other day, a woman in England received an electricity bill for £90 million). It is wrong, but the “letter always arrives at its destination”, the event has happened and it remains there to be dealt with rather than trying to construct elaborate lamentations about its arrival. The person who does not shirk this responsibility fits into the Zizek / Lacanian definition of the Hero.

Hillary herself, has proven to be far more of the Hero than these supporters who refuse to relinquish their enjoyment. The letter arrived at its destination, and rather continue to dine on ashes, she has campaigned for Obama and helped him with her donors; so too, has her husband, though it must be said that it took longer for him to fall into line.

The remainder should, quite frankly, “get over it”. If the need to maintain this enjoyment persists, it could mutate into something far more pernicious: the need to enjoy their moral outrage at the policies of a President McCain. Hedonism rarely has had such a price tag attached.

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An Unusual Way to Protest Third World Poverty

June 24, 2008

For American readers, “pants” refers to “underwear”:

Pants To Poverty May17 08

And its predecessor event….

Pants to Poverty @ South Bank: bad pants amnesty

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An Open Letter to Nelson Mandela

June 24, 2008

Dear President Mandela:

First of all, please accept my sincere congratulations on your impending 90th birthday. I am sure that most, if not all of the world echoes me in the sentiment that a happy, restful retirement is your just reward, as are the accolades you continue to receive.

I am writing to you as a concerned citizen about the present situation in Zimbabwe. I know that you are probably receiving many letters like this one, but I hope that I can re-emphasise the contribution you can make towards resolving the crisis.

I am sure that you are kept in the loop as to the full nature of the horror going on in Zimbabwe. Only yesterday, President Mugabe’s thugs broke into the headquarters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and captured those seeking refuge within its walls. Their fate is unknown.

Meanwhile, hyperinflation has achieved new heights. According to Channel 4 News, it is in the region of 2,000,000 %. The stores are empty. Unemployment is rife. The country is in a state of collapse. All that seems to be holding the regime in place is Mugabe’s unflinching use of extreme violence against his own people.

In spite of this, the reaction of the African and international community is muted, blunted. Kofi Annan stated yesterday that African leaders were “too polite” to each other to speak up. You, sir, may be the only person who can “speak up” and thus change the entire tone of the discussion.

A clear statement from you stating that what is going on in Zimbabwe is thoroughly reprehensible and that Mugabe should let go of the reins of power would have an electric effect. Your prestige is such that the ZANU PF line that anyone who opposes it is somehow a Western stooge would look ridiculous. The fact that a living, breathing icon of the struggle against apartheid had said “enough” would embolden the other African leaders to be less polite, and perhaps stiffen the will of the international community. With a bit of luck, it might even persuade President Mbeki to stop supplying the regime with the economic and political aid it desperately needs to survive.

I realise that after a lifetime of struggle, that you may not want to engage in politics any longer. The burdens of the past accumulate and draw one to rest. But as you know, sometimes injustice is so great that repose is not possible, and indeed, it could be shirking one’s duty to humanity.

I implore you, sir, please speak as soon as possible. Help end the bloodshed, shake the loathsome Mugabe regime to its core with your moral force. It will represent a final triumph: not only will you have achieved a long march to freedom for the people of South Africa, but you will have advanced the cause throughout the continent.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Yours sincerely,

CDF

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In Memoriam, George Carlin

June 23, 2008

One of the funniest comedians ever to trod up to a microphone, George Carlin, has passed away at the age of 71.

Here is a sample of his best work:

Thanks for the laughter. Rest in peace, George.

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Book Review: “The Teapot Dome Scandal” by Laton McCartney

June 23, 2008

[AMAZONPRODUCT=1400063167]

It’s very rare that a book about the 1920’s should make one think about the science fiction show, “Battlestar Galactica”; however, this volume certainly brought to mind Battlestar’s signature line – “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.”   To which I would add, “…but I hope not.”

The Presidency of Warren G. Harding is an obscure blur on the fringes of American history, not extensively studied except by a small coterie of academics.  Laton McCartney’s volume brings this period to life for a wider audience, first of all, by showing how Harding was the candidate of oil interests from the very start.

The Republicans in 1920 were a party on the up; the ailing, enfeebled Woodrow Wilson seemed to symbolise the state of the Democrat Party.  However, when the Republicans went into the convention, their favoured candidate was incorruptible General Leonard Wood.  Then the oil men intervened.

Thanks to Theodore Roosevelt, much of America’s oil was held on public land – the Teapot Dome being one of the most prominent reserves.  The oil men desperately wanted to get their hands on it, even if it meant subverting the political process.  Leonard Wood refused to “play ball”.  Harding gave them carte blanche, and susbequently got the nomination.  Furthermore, Will Hays, the RNC chairman, depended on oil money to finance the 1920 campaign.

Harding himself was relatively unremarkable, sort of a mix of Bush’s intellectual abilities (H.L. Mencken said of Harding’s use of language, “It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”) and Bill Clinton’s sexual impulses.  He apparently enjoyed making love to his mistress Nan Britton, even under the most difficult of circumstances.  He was unambitious; he publically stated that he preferred the Senate.  However, pushed by his colleagues and his wife, he reluctantly took up the nomination, and helped by vast swathes of money and a relatively weak Democrat ticket (James Cox and a young Franklin Roosevelt), he won.

Once in office, it became a free-for-all; McCartney spares us no detail in the depths of the corruption, in particular that of Interior Secretary Albert Fall and Attorney General Harry Daughtery.  “The Ohio Gang” that surrounded Harding proceeded to rape the country’s resources. Papers like the Denver Post were bribed to keep quiet.  It seemed like the party would never end.

However, the scam ran into two obstacles: first, Harding died.  Second, the plotters had to contend with the unsung hero of Jazz Age politics, Senator Thomas Walsh of Montana.

The greatest service that McCartney’s book performs is to bring Senator Walsh to public attention.  His name should be on the lips of schoolchildren as a rare example of complete honesty in politics.  He led the investigations into Teapot Dome for a decade: he could not be bribed, intimidated, or deterred.  Indeed, his sole fault is apparently believing in the honour of others when there was none.

The other great service McCartney performs is to clear up the Coolidge record.  Coolidge was conspicuously absent during the Teapot Dome investigation, preferring to distance himself from it rather than take it on as a matter of priority.  In this, he was merely following the advice of former President Taft, who was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Finally, McCartney does show that the consequences of this wholesale swindle were minor: very few of those involved went to prison.  At worst, some reputations were sullied.  One of the oil magnates lost his son in a mysterious murder.  Senator Walsh did not get the 1932 Presidential nomination nor a distinguished retirement: he died of a sudden heart attack just after his honeymoon.

Usually, there is a temptation to look back at the past with nostalgia, as the cliche goes, they were “the good old days”.  We assume that the past is pristine in comparison to the now because the distance of time tends to diminish all that’s sordid and painful.  McCartney de-romanticises history, and shows that if anything, politicians were more venal and corrupt then than they are now, and the only reason they are less inclined to transgress the law at this point is because there is a blogosphere ready to jump on them.  Still, Bush is an oil man, Cheney worked for Halliburton, the oil companies have never had it so good in terms of return on investment.  All of it happened before, it just happened again, but perhaps McCartney’s book will encourage us not to repeat it a third time.

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A Matter of Trust

June 22, 2008

Much of the recent hullabaloo about the “credit crunch” and “sub prime crisis” is emotionally satisfying. The stockbrokers, hedge fund managers, and other grey pinstripe suit hucksters with six figure gas guzzlers who got us into this mess have a healthy air of panic about them and a salubrious paranoia born out of wondering when the next crisis will emerge. If one were to use Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” nomenclature, it could be said that “The Masters of the Universe” are finding their constellations collapsed, and the “Big Swinging Dicks” have shrivelled like they’ve been blasted by an Arctic chill.

Bravo! If we must go through a recession, at least the majority get generous dose of schadenfreude, the in-flight movie on the swan dive to hell.

That said, it’s not an unreasonable assumption that they’ll be back: after all, the Great Depression, the Savings and Loans problems in the 1980’s, dubious loans to Russia in the 1990’s and the Dot Com bubble failed to destroy them. However, the present period of the hairshirt and chastisement may last longer than the titans of finance care to admit.

For most of us, banks are simply a fact of life; something that is necessary, evil or both. Their initial reason for existence has been obscured by finance’s present-day Byzantine complexity.

Banking’s raison d’etre can be summarised in a single word: trust. First, individuals trusted banks to store gold and keep it safe: this was a much better prospect than keeping it hidden under a mattress or in a strongbox.

Later, individuals trusted that bits of paper issued by banks were backed by sufficient gold to take on the role of currency. Later still, investors trusted banks to make prudent investments and get a return on the cash they had stored with them. Individuals and enterprises also trusted banks to have sufficient assets to provide loans. None of these innovations are recent: these assumptions have been in force since the Italian Renaissance.

What is most remarkable about today’s crisis is how quickly this ancient trust has been undermined. People no longer believe their savings are safe: for example, Britain recently experienced its first bank run in over two hundred years. Banks simply don’t know if their investments are prudent: modern financial instruments are so complex and opaque that no one truly understands how thoroughly sub-prime assets have infected the blood flow of liquidity. Individuals and enterprises don’t trust financial institutions to have sufficient assets to provide or take on loans.

To put it in Shakespeare’s parlance, the result is a “reeling world”. It’s gotten so bad that, quietly, the central banks have replaced the invisible hand: they have instigated large-scale lending to private institutions, thus providing the “trust” that the free market can no longer supply. Will this work? Maybe. In recent weeks, the Masters of the Universe have occasionally indicated that their planets will again spin in predictable orbits: there have been brief stock price rallies. So far, these gains have proven temporary.

However, if we are lucky, the present instability will be the last straw. Re-regulation is the watchword; it’s clear that much more responsibility will be taken on by government for what happens in the financial markets: the “Big Swinging Dicks” may be constrained by a chastity belt before they screw anything else over. If so, we should be glad: a more predictable, if sedate world, is worth obtaining, even if it means we’re no longer entertained by brokers on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

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Up from Utopia

June 22, 2008

The collapse of Bear Stearns into the arms of the JP Morgan Chase was a seminal moment in economic history. It was not only indicative of how deeply the present “credit crunch” has affected long-time bastions of Wall Street, it was also an indicator of how far and wide the spectre of mistrust has affected the infrastructure of global finance.

Bear Stearns tried to keep the wolf at the door by bluffing; Chief Executive Alan Schwartz said on March 1that “We don’t see any pressure on our liquidity, let alone a liquidity crisis.” However, less than 48 hours later, he was going cap in hand to anyone who could help him.

It is a cliche, however, it is accurate to say that they only have themselves to blame; Bear Stearns heavily invested in financial instruments based on complex mortgage assets. Hence, they had problems approaching fellow banks in obtaining credit; other institutions understandably didn’t trust Bear, as they had no idea how valuable their assets were, given their potential exposure to problems in the sub-prime market.

This ignorance is widespread. One of the most pernicious elements of the sub-prime crisis was how inordinate risk was dispersed and hidden amongst other assets thus making it maddening difficult to untangle the good assets from the bad. Every bit of lending between institutions is done in a context where people are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Trust is a becoming commodity even rarer than credit.

This is a disaster for the titans of finance, for trust is the very foundation of banking, its reason for existence. Banks were founded in the first place as a safer, more trustworthy repository of gold than under one’s mattress. When bank notes were first issued, there was trust that a slip of paper had a particular value backed by precious metal. When loans were issued, there was trust that they would be paid back. When investments were made, there was trust that these funds would be used towards improving businesses.

Without trust, there is no finance. Without finance, there is no modern capitalism. The former “Masters of the Universe” of Tom Wolfe’s parlance are wandering around, blinking in the daylight of realisation, and unsure about what to do next. What will happen in a world that is devoid of the necessary confidence to keep the wheels turning?

Like most economic crises, the present situation has its roots in the extremes of human behaviour. There is something in the human mind that cannot cope with the idea of muddling along: rather, investors clung to the idea that prosperity was forever. The pendulum has since swung back to everything being cast in gloom. The truth has generally been somewhere in between.

These extremes have a consequence, however. In this instance, it has quietly murdered the neo-liberal capitalist order. We are not living in one now: the Federal Reserve and other central banks have been given ultimate responsibility for the economy, not the “invisible hand”. It is the central banks which are expected to prick the bubble of expectation when they become too inflated, and to pick up the pieces when illusions of eternal growth finally shatter. The people who pay the ultimate price are those who carry the weight of bailing out the folly. These are generally not the rich, who have access to accountants and tax lawyers who help them to (quite legally) avoid tax.

Rather, the burden falls on the middle class and the poor to fund these continual bail outs. What makes the present situation even more precarious is that the economy is under pressure from another direction: the ever increasing price of energy is having a knock on effect. In haste, the governments of both the United States and European nations have proclaimed bio-fuel as being the answer to the problem of diminished oil supplies. European regulations on leaving land fallow in order to recover have been ripped up to get as much of this valuable resource as possible. However, there are insufficient amounts of arable land to supply the demand for both fuel and food; the Brazilian answer of hacking down the rainforest to grow more sugarcane is an unappealing and environmentally costly solution.

The rise of inflation, and the absence of cheap food and fuel again hits the middle class and poor most strongly. In Britain alone, it is predicted that a family that had an average shopping bill of £100 per week last year, will see that annual bill rise by £570 in 2008. This is in an era in which supposedly the central banks have defeated inflation and achieved solid, year on year growth.
It gets worse: while in the West, there is a standard of living that would be incomprehensible to generations past, we find that at the same time, countries in the developing world cannot follow the same path. Their achievement the same level of consumption would only exacerbate the steep rise in
prices, and secondly, increase carbon emissions required to achieve the necessary economic output.

All in all, the picture is a very bleak one. We might wonder at the results of our cycles of extravagance and penury, trust and deceit. And again, it all leads back to the question: where do we go from here?

Where we go from here has to begin with a realistic assessment of how the world presently runs. First and foremost, with certain exceptions, there is very little appreciation for the long term. The requirements of shareholder capitalism and releasing of quarterly results mean that few firms are interested in six months down the road, let alone years from now. The incentives are structured in such a manner that one is inclined to grab as much as possible as quickly as possible, and leave the long term planning to someone else, even in a scenario where there is no someone else to make such decisions.

Second, there is no understanding of limitations. Massive economic growth cannot be maintained forever in circumstances where resources are finite. Even if a way is found out of the present commodities impasse, there is no way to get something for nothing: sooner or later, humanity will run into the obstacle that we inhabit one planet, and there is a limit to what can be extracted from it.

Third, we have to accept that democratic nations find it extremely difficult to make painful decisions. Politicians try to please the electorate rather than confront them with hard choices; for far too long, the electorate has been kept apart from the process, swaddled in the cotton wool of idle promises. In order to stave off pain, politicians borrow and divert resources, in the belief that they will be long gone once the final cheque comes due.

However, it looks as if the world is teetering on the edge of a reckoning. For example, the lack of preparation, the ignorance of limitations, and an inability to make painful decisions is particularly acute in Britain: the present Labour government did not use years of robust economic growth to shore up its financial position, it believed it could continue to operate in a scenario of limitless prosperity, and it has avoided making painful choices about where resources are best applied and how. The middle class and poor are paying the price, and getting no return on this investment.

Perhaps this is where the answer to the present scenario begins: the central banks are proposing and enacting massive bailouts of leading financial institutions. However, those who are actually paying for it are not receiving a share in the enterprises which have been rescued. Responsibility without power is the predicament of a eunuch.

The public should no longer be emasculated; at the very least, the governments and central banks should be giving shareholder certificates in any company that is rescued to the taxpayers. The amount of certificates received should be in direct proportion to percentage of income received by the state; thus those who specialise in tax avoidance should not disproportionally benefit merely because their contribution is more in absolute monetary terms. These shares should enable the taxpayers to have a voice in the decision making of these firms, and get a return on the investment made.

This alteration in the economic order should be augmented by a new kind of politics: “participatory democracy” naturally follows “participatory economics”. If politicians are not brave enough to set out the difficult choices because of their desire to maintain power, then decision making will need to be devolved to the most basic level. Hitherto, because of the somewhat tedious and arcane nature of politics, the public has been content to allow decision making to rest at the apex of a hierarchical pyramid. However, the present atmosphere of mistrust of politicians creates ideal conditions for pushing decision making to as close as the individual citizen as possible.

An emphasis on locality and pro-active citizenship could have the beneficial effect of framing debates in a way that shows that hard choices are inevitable, and that limits will have to be observed. These boundaries will have to be observed anyway: as Ayn Rand put it, “one can ignore the consequences of reality, but one cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”

As for the developing world, this is their chance to observe that if they continue to follow in the same path of development as the West, they will eventually reach the same impasse. While a certain level of scepticism has to be attached to the idea of others learning from history, the limitations on commodities necessary for further development will act as a spur towards this awakening.

Overall, however, the answer can be summarised in two rather dull words: thrift and accountability. Thrift and its synonyms frugality and parsimoniousness are neither pleasant nor fun words. The thought of being answerable for one’s actions tends to make one cringe. The idea of parcelling out resources intelligently, being cautious and responsible has very little appeal to people who want to buy an SUV, fly off to Ibiza for the weekend or “need” to buy several new pairs of shoes every two months. It is more akin to the grey necessities of rationing during wartime. However, if we are to maintain a decent standard of living, and if others are to achieve it, our lives need to be conducted within the confines of what we know will not lead to disaster in the medium to long term. It’s time to stop living just for today and to stop rising and falling with each tick of the stock market. It’s time to step up from the world as it is, to the world as it should be, not in a utopian sense, but in an anti-utopian sense, whereby a belief in uninterrupted prosperity is ditched, as such a belief always ends in tears. The question is, are we adult enough as a species to understand this? Can we conquer our own need to believe in illusions? If this present crisis doesn’t achieve this, perhaps nothing will.

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Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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