23 March 2018
You just never know what to expect! Keswick’s annual literary festival, Words By The Water, has previously thrown up some ‘interesting’ events: including the appearance of a war criminal in 2013 (Jack Straw) and, this year, of a neoliberal now desperately trying to claim that, despite voting FOR the Bedroom Tax, he was always against austerity (Vince Cable)!
This year’s festival has just ended. Whilst I expected to be buying several books connected to the various interesting talks for which I’d booked tickets, I never expected to come away convinced of the need for a doughnut! But that is exactly what happened!
However, the ‘doughnut’ in question isn’t one of those delightful sugary & fatty ones that, sadly, aren’t that good for you: instead it’s one that is VITAL for the health of the planet! It’s a ‘doughnut’ that we all really need - but one that is especially needed by the world’s current crop of politicians and economists. Though it’s not one neoliberals will be keen on. Maybe, like the women who went on hunger strike 100 years ago, as part of their struggle to gain the vote, we shall just have to force feed these particular economists and politicians!
The essence of the Doughnut: a social foundation of well-being that no one should fall below, and an ecological ceiling of planetary pressure that we should not go beyond. Between the two lies a safe and just space for all.
Kate Raworth, 2017.
Early Eco-Socialism and the Planet
In early 1848, The Communist Manifesto - written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels - was published. While it is widely known that Marx and Engels wanted social and economic justice, these two - until recently - have not been seen as having been very concerned about environmental issues.
However, it is now increasingly recognised that they were, in fact, early Eco-Socialists who were fully aware of how the capitalist Industrial Revolution of the 19th. C. was threatening the environment, and of the need for economic development to be in harmony with the natural world and thus sustainable.
Their short 1848 book began with this famous short sentence:
'A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism.’
Now, 170 years since their book was first published, a new spectre is haunting planet Earth - the spectre of catastrophic climate breakdown as a result of global warming. This spectre is now threatening the very stable conditions of the Holocene epoch which have lasted for about 12,000 years. These are the climatic conditions which have enabled the human species to thrive via agriculture.
In fact, the growing threats to, and mounting pressures on, planet Earth have led most Earth scientists to conclude that the geological epoch known as the Holocene has already been left behind. Instead, they argue that, since about 1950, we have been living in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.
In the Anthropocene - unlike previous in previous geological epochs and ages - the overwhelming majority of factors now affecting the global climate are the result of human activities, NOT the usual natural changes. Most of those human-led changes are down to the great increases in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuels - mostly since the start of the ‘Great Acceleration’ in economic growth that began after the end of the Second World War.
A previous article - Living in the Anthropocene, August 2017:
- dwelt on the various causes of current climate breakdown. However, as in medicine, the point is to move on from diagnosis of a particular problem to the cure of that problem. And this is where that ‘doughnut’ comes in! That ‘doughnut’ - an economic and ecological one - has been ‘cooked’ by Kate Raworth, currently a Senior Visiting Research Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, and a Senior Associate of the Ambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.
Previously, she has worked as Senior Researcher at Oxfam, as a Fellow of the Overseas Development Institute, and was a co-author of the UN’s Development Programme. In addition, she has been named by the Guardian as ‘one of the top ten tweeters on economic transformation.’ For those interested in these issues - and perhaps wanting to contribute to on-line discussions - here is a useful link: https://discuss.doughnuteconomics.org
What makes her book, Doughnut Economics (2017), so valuable at this present time is that she goes beyond identifying problems to mapping out, in a very accessible way, how we can go about dealing with these problems - before it is too late. If her book is read widely and purposefully, it has the potential to be much more influential than Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto.
A picture IS worth a thousand words!
Her book is especially accessible for non-economists because her points are usually made - deliberately - via interesting illustrations. Particularly important is her whole concept of the ‘Doughnut’ -
that ‘safe and just space for humanity’, between the social foundation and the ecological ceiling:
Now IS the time!
This whole concept is based on the need to develop a ‘new economics’ for the 21st C. and its current problems, which is focussed on regeneration and redistribution. However, the point of this book is not just to read it - it is to act on it. This is especially true as she, like most Earth system scientists, is fully aware that four key planetary boundaries (out of the nine which have been identified) have already been breached - as a direct result of human economic activities:
These breaches have thus already gone beyond the ecological ceiling that Kate Raworth has identified as the upper limit for a ‘safe and just space’. Hence the importance of what she has termed
‘The twenty-first-century challenge’: to get into, and stay in, the space in which ‘we can meet the needs of all within the means of the planet.’
The Seven Ways
The bulk of the book deals with the seven main ways she has identified as essential to getting people to think like 21st. C economists:
1. Change the Goal (from continuously chasing after ever-rising GDP)
2. See the Big Picture (recognise the contribution of the home and the commons to a genuinely socially-embedded economy)
3. Nurture Human Nature (moving from individualistic economic goals to focussing on the nurturing of social adaptable humans)
4. Get Savvy with Systems (by developing economic systems that are based on dynamic complexity)
5. Design to Distribute (ensuring that economies are distributive by design, in order to create social and economic justice, rather than leaving it to the market)
6. Create to Regenerate (instead of leaving it up to growth and the market to ‘solve’ problems of pollution, economies are deliberately designed to be regenerative)
7. Be Agnostic about Growth (moving to a situation where ‘growth’ per se becomes less important - putting quality of life above continuous growth in products)
Hopefully, there’s enough outlined above to get you running to your local bookshop - and then you can put into practice what Gandhi said:
‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’
A BOOK FOR YOUR OTHER LEG!
Whilst I strongly recommend buying/reading Kate Raworth’s book, there is another - very much connected - new book which should also be essential reading for all those concerned about the environment and climate breakdown. This is Tony Juniper’s latest book:
The main connection between Tony Juniper’s book and Doughnut Economics is that Rainforest deals with two of the planetary boundaries which have already been exceeded/over-shot since 1950:
• Land conversion
• Biodiversity loss
Land conversion and the rainforests
Many of the problems associated with ever-growing land conversion is because of the great demand for palm oil and meat - with huge swathes of tropical and temperate rainforests still being destroyed by the activities of large global corporations:
As a consequence, deforestation in the rainforests continues to be a growing problem. Furthermore, much of this continuing destruction is amplified by organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF which - in line with their neoliberal outlook - have tried to move public spending in developing countries away from ‘unproductive’ areas - such as the environment. Instead, such countries have been pushed into exporting natural resources via the ‘liberalisation’ of trade and foreign investment. The latter, typically, then requires massive road systems to be driven through the rainforests - with all the attendant negative consequences.
The global importance of rainforests
As has long been know, the rainforests act as the ‘lungs of the planet’ - absorbing/capturing carbon, and releasing oxygen. However, it is now increasingly understood how the rainforests - whether in the Americas, Asia or Africa - play an incredibly important role in the planet’s rainfall and freshwater systems. Not only do rainforests have a lot of rain - they also create rain and help move it great distances across the globe. The Amazon is, in fact, Earth’s largest freshwater system - and, like other rainforests, creates large-scale air movements which, in turn, effectively pump moisture-laden air inland.
But destroying great swathes of rainforest results in reduced rainfall (the clue’s in the word ‘rainforest’!) and creeping desertification in adjoining areas. Such destruction also reduces the planet’s ability to stay temperate - in part, by destroying the Earth’s capacity to absorb carbon. Thus, in turn, making extreme weather events much more common, and much more destructive. Ultimately, then, deforestation of the rainforests makes it more difficult for the Earth’s delicate systems to keep increases in global temperatures below 2 degrees C. As most thinking people now realise, temperature increases beyond that figure will, at best, make life much more difficult and unpleasant. At worst, if tipping points are passed, then it is quite likely that life on planet Earth will become unsustainable.
Apart from such problems mentioned above, deforestation is also associated with increasing biodiversity loss - or, to put it more bluntly, the extinction of many species of flora and fauna. This is such a huge problem, that many scientists are describing our era as the ‘Sixth Extinction’.
Yet, as Tony Juniper points out, we’ve only just begun to understand how many potential health benefits for humans are locked up in various rainforest plants. Many medicines - such as anti-cancer drugs, medications to prevent cardiovascular disease and painkillers - were first identified among rainforest species. Altogether, over 28,000 plant species have already been identified as having some medical benefits. The more research is done, the greater the number of helpful plants that are found in the mega-diverse rainforests.
Areas that are both biologically unique and under pressure are known as ‘biodiversity hotspots’. So far, 34 biodiversity hotspots have been identified - to qualify as hotspots, these regions have to have at least 1500 unique higher plants AND to have lost at least 70% of the their original natural habitat. Together, these make up about 2.5% of the Earth’s land - and are home to a truly staggering 60% of the world’s entire animal and plant species!
What on Earth is the 8th great ape doing?
In addition to the mounting threats to so many plant species, several mammals are also increasingly under threat in the remaining rainforests. Such as the tiger in Thailand. Many of the great apes - in particular gorillas and orangutans - are also facing extinction in the wild.
The recent discovery of a new species of orangutan in Sumatra, means that scientists now recognise, in addition to humans, 7 other types of great ape. Sadly, many of these latter great apes are now seriously under threat because of the activities of the Earth’s 8th. great ape - aka humans! Not the kindest, most caring way to treat our very-near cousins!
But don’t despair - there IS hope!
Despite all of the above, there is hope that we can still turn things around - and give all life on planet Earth a really sustainable, secure and just future for centuries to come.
Kate Raworth’s book points out, very clearly, the way to go with economics - if her work can capture the minds of economists and politicians, then things will change. If such groups remain impervious then, if civil society can get behind such ideas and visions, economists and politicians can be forced to change.
Similarly, Tony Juniper points out how self-interest is already beginning to shape the actions of some of the world’s biggest corporations. Several have come to realise that continued loss of the rainforests will seriously jeopardise their agricultural businesses. Whilst a growing number of developing countries are realising the economic benefits of eco-tourism as an alternative and less-destructive way of generating funds badly-needed to finance health and education projects.
In the end, as it often is, it’s a question of doing some joined-up thinking - and these two books help join up a lot of the most important environmental dots. These books also underline the need to do whatever we can to slow environmental degradation - such as doing all we can to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions are not increased further by such climate crimes as fracking.
In relation to that, remember to keep checking our website for the latest updates on the forthcoming three months of United Resistance at Preston New Road.
These two books show it is most definitely NOT too late to act! At such times, it’s useful to remember Antonio Gramsci’s advice:
Pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will!
One thing is certain: if you do nothing, things will never improve!