Sunday 23rd October 2016                 Change text size:

Investing our way towards dystopia

earth by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

Dystopian fiction is all the rage on the silver screen. From Terminator: Genisys, Mad Max: Fury Road, the final instalment of the Hunger Games: Mockingjay, to the next instalment of Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, to Divergent’s sequel, Insurgent. Meanwhile, mainstream investment seems determined to make all that fiction a reality as fast as possible.

The joke question that asks ‘how to get somewhere’ is answered, “If you want to get there, I wouldn’t start from here.” If we wanted to live in a secure and free society, with the highest possible levels of health, wealth and happiness for all, we wouldn’t start from here, we’d start in 1978.

1978, the year the world had never had it so good. University of Canberra researchers used a novel method to work out when individual countries and the whole world enjoyed the best quality of life. Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) uses economic data as well as statistics relating to pollution, housework and car accidents among other factors. They found GPI peaked in globally in 1978 and has steadily declined since then.

Where are we in 2015? Global insecurity. The possibility of a new Cold War with Russia. Economic and political breakdown in Europe. Environmental degradation and mass extinction. Inequality within nations increasing. Voter turnout falling and extreme parties rising.

Today, vast sums of money are invested in harming people and planet for short-term profit with those who dare to protest seen as naive idealists. An even greater share of investment serves no function at all – apart from enriching the already rich. A lot of pensioners’ income unwittingly depends on damaging the prospects of their children and grandchildren. We have the exact opposite of Adam Smithsonian capitalism, with poor people’s incomes taxed to the hilt and rent-seeking property owners and wealth inheritors relatively untaxed. To protest is deemed the ‘politics of envy’, as accidental wealth inheritance is conflated with blood-sweat-and-toil wealth creation.

Our dependency on fossil fuels means we fight wars and destabilise whole regions while poisoning our atmosphere, ravaging people and landscapes. Our advertising-fuelled need for the latest shiny thing means we consume more than two earths could provide. Our need for cheaper and cheaper stuff means five million hard-working people don’t earn a living wage in the UK, the sixth richest country in the world. 168 million child workers around the world suffer modern day slavery to supply cheap stuff to the rich world – we rob the poor to feed the rich. Wealthy corporations’ need for greater margins means they demand unsustainable tax breaks, leading to cuts in essential public services and taxpayer-funded subsidies for underpaid workers.

Meanwhile we’re casually poisoning the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land and seas that provides our food. Our ice caps melt, our forests are cut down, our weather becomes more unpredictable and entire species are pushed into extinction. We jeopardise many more species, not least ourselves.

And the greatest swindle perpetrated in modern history has been the transformation of systemic private sector recklessness and failure during the financial crisis into (drum roll) public sector austerity. Clearly all those doctors, nurses, teachers, hardworking families, young people or unborn children are responsible for the credit crunch. And it will happen again as nothing has fundamentally changed and there is no moral hazard for the financial masters of the universe now.

And more people than ever impotently sign petitions, march and protest but perversely don’t vote because, “it doesn’t make a difference”. In the UK, around 6m didn’t even bother to register in the first place. 15.7m of those who were registered to vote chose not to. This non-voting constituency was 2.4m more than the 11.3m who voted for the winning Conservative party. Across OECD countries voter turnout is falling (-11%), just as we need greater engagement in the political process.

For all our incredible resilience, ingenuity, intelligence and opposable thumbs we really are a very stupid primate.

Melodramatic tosh? Not really. Intergovernmental, organisational and individual action isn’t commensurate with the challenges we face. We all fiddle while earth burns. I can confidently make a prediction that Paris 2015 will fudge an agreement that ineffectively addresses those challenges. We are all child abusers screwing the planet up for future generations.

So what can you do? Have a big ‘End of the World’ party to hasten oblivion (which is what we’re doing), bravely fight the long defeat or cleave to optimism and our species’ ability to tackle the coming catastrophe.

What you can do is invest and buy sustainably. Every pound you invest and spend is a powerful agent of change. It’s the only vote that some care about, especially those dealing with Greece. Capitalism in a liberal democracy has all the ingredients we need to create a genuinely sustainable future. If you don’t have money or power, lobby someone who does and publish what they reply – name and shame them if they do nothing. In the digital age you don’t even need to pay for a stamp.

We are racing headlong towards a dystopian future – where brutal fiction will become a hellish fact. There are real issues just round the corner with food, water and energy shortages, not to mention the catastrophic effects of runaway climate change. Resource shortages lead to war of a civil and military nature. In times of war totalitarianism is a simple step. Climate change will lead to large scale migration (is already leading to migration) which gives rise to intolerance and extremism. In times of intolerance and extremism it is harder to find a common cause.

Utopia is unachievable, but avoiding dystopia is within our grasp if we reach for it.

Invest and spend sustainably.

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