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Are you really doing all you can to make a difference?

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

Every now and then, someone holds a mirror up to you, and you see your own attempts to achieve impact in a new light, and realise how much more you could and should be doing. I wonder how many of us are tinkering at the edges of an issue that we don't have the confidence to tackle head-on? And that's what I'd like you to reflect on as I share what I've realised about my own attempts to achieve benefits for the environment from my research. But the environment is something we should all be taking responsibility for, so my hope is that in addition to reflecting on what more you could do in terms of your own research impacts, you might also reflect on whether you might be able to do more to help the environment. So, hold the mirror up to your own research and impact and ask if you are really doing all you can to make a difference?

For me, the mirror was a book and it has changed my life - I don't think I've ever said that about a book before. It is Less is More by Jason Hickle. The thing that surprised me is that I knew about three quarters of the stuff he wrote about - I just didn't ever connect it all, the way he did. In fact, I now realise I had allowed my prejudices to cloud my thinking, and obscure the message that had been sitting there in plain sight for so many years. And in case you dismiss this blog before I even start, I want to challenge that prejudice head on - it is the belief that capitalism, for all its failings is here to stay, and has actually given us all the things we value most in life, from a free NHS to the roofs over our heads, and that without capitalism we would lose all these things and end up in a communist state like we saw in USSR and Eastern Europe.

But Jason Hickle questions these basic assumptions. Life expectancy and wellbeing are not linked to GDP - they are linked to the provision of sanitation, universal healthcare and education. We just think that there's a link to GDP because we think richer countries have higher life expectancy and wellbeing than less developed countries. But if they do, this isn't because of the level of GDP these countries enjoy, but because of the extent to which they have been able to invest in sanitation, healthcare and education, compared to the poorest countries of the world. The amount of GDP we currently have is way more than we need to provide these basic needs and rights, and it turns out that countries with significantly lower levels of GDP that we think of as "developing" countries, often have higher life expectancy and wellbeing than rich nations - if they have enough GDP to be able to prioritise these basic needs. Costa Rica and Chile both have life expectancies of 81 years for example, compared to 79 in the USA.

Many countries tried to prioritise these needs and rights after independence but got into debt, primarily due to corruption rather than over-spending on the needs of their population, and were then forced to withdraw funding from public services and open their economies to international investment under the IMF's structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s, with the promise that this would grow GDP and give them the money to pay for these services. The problem with this approach, as with any approach based on growing GDP is that private companies need profit, and so while they may create jobs, they tend to do so at the lowest cost possible, which is why we see so much of the world's economic activity happening in countries with low wages and limited protections for workers - all to grow the profits of corporations based in the richest countries, whose profits lead to the accumulation of even more wealth for the world's richest people. So rather than helping these countries out of debt, the liberalisation of their economies turned them into the very thing they had been trying to escape from, under colonialism; profit generation machines for the richest countries, who could now legally exploit the resources and labour of these countries without consequence.

As we extract more and more resources from these countries, we have this belief that the resources will always be there and that there is an endless supply. But when you consider how many resources we would need to build enough solar panels and wind farms to switch from fossil fuels to renewables and to switch to electric cars, the numbers are staggering. And these resources all come from mines, mainly in the developing world, where working conditions are often brutal. And here's the real problem. Long before we actually run out of these materials, we will have caused irreversible ecological damage. I think it is important to understand some of the figures for this, so I'm going to quote Jason Hickle:

“Mining has become one of the biggest single drivers of deforestation, ecosystem collapse, and biodiversity loss around the world. Ecologists estimate that even at present rates of global material use, we are overshooting sustainable levels by 82 percent.

Take silver, for instance. Mexico is home to the Peñasquito mine, one of the biggest silver mines in the world. Covering nearly 40 square miles, the operation is staggering in its scale: a sprawling open-pit complex ripped into the mountains, flanked by two waste dumps each a mile long, and a tailings dam full of toxic sludge held back by a wall that’s 7 miles around and as high as a 50-story skyscraper. This mine will produce 11,000 tons of silver in 10 years before its reserves, the biggest in the world, are gone.

To transition the global economy to renewables, we need to commission up to 130 more mines on the scale of Peñasquito. Just for silver.”

But what about recycling and the circular economy, I hear you say? We think its okay to keep using more materials because the circular economy will save us and we're all recycling more than we've ever done before, but the percentage of materials that are recycled is actually going down at the moment - not because we're recycling less, but because we're using more and more material resources. So to take silver as our example, we currently only recycle 18% of the world's silver that's extracted every year, and as our use of silver in car batteries skyrockets, that figure is likely to go steadily down, rather than up. Recycling is important, but it is part of the problem if it convinces us that we can just keep consuming more materials because we can just recycle them.

So what can we do about all this? Communism is clearly not the answer and nobody is suggesting that it might be - again, the idea that the alternative to capitalism is communism is propaganda to protect the capitalist machine against anyone who might question it. It turns out that there are loads of ways we could re-organise our economy in a post-capitalist economy, for example:

  • Banks could be nationalised so that only the Government lends money based on its reserves, and it can do so without interest or at least at a rate that is designed to just cover the cost of administering the loans, because it lends in the public interest. It is a public good for people to be able to afford their mortgages and not be at the mercy of rate increases from bank. But in our current system, banks are allowed to charge eye-watering levels of interest. At 3% interest over 25 years, you have to pay a bank over £100K to get a mortgage of £250K - there is no way the banks need that amount of money to administer your loan - it is almost all profit. And what is the social good of letting banks charge such eye-watering fees? Who gets that money? What if we were to invest that in schools or health?

  • There is evidence that moving to a four day week can increase health and wellbeing more than increasing someone's salary, easing pressure on physical and mental health services. And as long as it doesn't impact your salary - you should feel better off as you'll have a day less childcare and commuting to pay for. And there's no reason moving to a four day week should affect your salary, given the evidence that people working a 4 day week are significantly more productive and efficient - so much so that a Henley Business School study in 2021 estimated that UK businesses would save a combined £104 billion a year if a four-day week was implemented across the entire workforce.

  • We can take important services back into public ownership. We have a belief that competition will make services better, but I don't know anyone who thinks that trains are any more reliable or comfortable since they've been privatised in the UK, but everyone agrees that they are now unaffordable and are the reason so many people continue to drive or take planes. What benefits did any of us get from privatising water companies, but now rich investors get to extract profits from us all for our access to the most fundamental human need. If we didn't have to pay as much as we do for all these things, we would be able to afford a four day week.

  • The other way of achieving this is universal basic income - which you could use to take your extra day at the weekend, or depending on the amount you need to live, potentially you could afford not to work at all. But what about all the workers we need to staff our services etc? Well most people choose to continue working - just less, and we would need less workers if we weren't consuming so much. The idea that people will just sit around and drink themselves into oblivion is a prejudice that has been cultivated since the industrial revolution when industrialists argued that the poor were lazy and immoral in their regular feast days and celebrations and that forcing them to work would be good for their souls.

  • If we were to ban advertising, companies would easily be able to afford higher taxes to pay for a measure like universal income. As it happens, countries where people work less hours have less advertising because it is less effective - people are happier so they know that they don't need all the stuff that's being marketed at them. Most of the things that are advertised aren't things we need anyway - we all need to eat, but how often do we see whole foods advertised - farmers are being screwed down to the lowest possible price for their produce by supermarkets and food processors who are making all the profits, and it is them who have the advertising money and so who are in charge of the narratives we hear. We are all capable of shopping around to see which products we prefer or who has the lowest prices without having to be told through adverts. At best, they are unnecessary but at worst they persuade people that their two-year old phone is no longer good enough and that they need to find enough money to upgrade to the latest version

  • Which leads to another post-capitalist policy - one that's been debated in the EU parliament recently - ending planned obsolescence. How often have you been told something's not worth fixing because you can buy a new one cheaper? Part of the reason is that the manufacturers make the parts inaccessible or too expensive to fix, because they want to sell more new units. One of the stories you hear if you go round a whiskey distillery (I live in distillery country) is the story of Porteous Mills, a Scottish company that made malt mills that never broke down or needed replacing. Once they reached market saturation, they collapsed because their mills were too good, and they're all still working perfectly to this day. Others have learned from this - if you want to sell more products, make sure they break down and need replacing. And if they can be fixed, make sure the part is too expensive to justify fixing, like the drum bearings in washing machine drums - a small mechanical part that if replaced could double the life of your appliance. It would be cheap and easy to replace - if it weren't sealed into the tub, requiring you replace the entire unbroken tub with it.

  • Or what about a cap on earnings and wealth? If you earn over a hundred thousand pounds a year, why not move to a 100% tax rate for these people? Even if you moved that to half a million, you would bring in significant amounts of tax without causing any pain - you can live very comfortably indeed on a six figure salary. The same applies to wealth. 58% of the world's population currently lives in poverty, but a dozen billionaires have more than all their wealth combined. Put another way, the top one percent of households globally own 43 percent of all personal wealth, while the bottom 50 percent own only one percent. It is these richest people who are driving emissions disproportionately with their regularly air travel and consumption of the latest products. Simply redistributing this wealth could pay for the sanitation, healthcare and education we know could increase life expectancy and help pull people out of poverty around the world

Each of these policies do two things - they reduce our need to buy or pay for things we shouldn't have to spend money on, and they mean we don't have to work as hard to make money to pay for all the stuff we don't need. De-growth, as it is called, isn't about taking a vow of poverty - it is about not consuming stuff we don't need and refocussing the purpose of our lives, not on being more productive so we can consume more, but on the things that really matter. People think that the alternative to capitalism is communism, but as China has so effectively shown us, communism is a political system, not an economic system - they combine communist policies with a capitalist economy. Instead of looking for examples in communism, if we want to get a sense of what might be possible, we need to look no further than Scottish Government's decision to retain free prescriptions and University education when the rest of the UK started charging for these - I know nobody in Scotland who would ever want to give these rights up. Or look at the level of public services people get in Scandanavian countries. Or the health and wellbeing of people in countries like Costa Rica and Chile. None of these countries need to restrict the personal liberty of their population to achieve these things, and that's not what has ever been proposed. And if you are worried that raising taxes on corporations and wealthy people will lead to economic collapse then you've fallen for the rhetoric that these people have fed us through the media machine. We were told that there would be an exodus of companies from Scotland to England if we voted for independence, which I didn't believe for one minute. Then we were told that there would be a mass exodus if we voted for Brexit, which I confess to have believed. But the reality is that Brexit has contributed to a shrinking of our economy, but only by a bit - we are still functioning okay as an economy. And for those who voted for Brexit, clearly that was a price worth paying, in the same way I would argue a minor contraction of the Scottish economy, were that to happen, would be a price worth paying for independence. The same threats were made over every other country that sought independence from Britain over the years, and even if their economies are weaker as a result, which is arguable, nobody would suggest that losing their independence again would be a price worth paying to increase their GDP. Ultimately, based on data from countries like Costa Rica and Chile, we could probably contract our economies significantly in terms of GDP if we used the GDP we have to pay for things that increase wellbeing, rather than just pursuing growth to make the rich richer. Why is the idea of an economy that's no longer growing or contracting so terrifying to us all? It is because we've been told that we'll all be poorer if the economy isn't growing, but planned de-growth would be about reducing the unnecessary profit that primarily goes into the pockets of rich investors, and putting more money in the pockets of ordinary people - we would actually all feel better off.

So who would like to feel better off and get to work less? Surely a vast majority of us would vote for a manifesto that gave us these things. But the problem is that no political party is prepared to give us these choices, because they know they will never win. Any politician in the UK who comes anywhere near any of these policies is instantly characterised as a dangerous communist who will destroy the economy and with it our prosperity and way of life. In reality the only people who are threatened by a manifesto like this are the super-rich, but it just so happens that they've got enough money to control the media machine. It explains a lot. Most people in the UK are fiercely protective of our National Health Service, and can't understand how a developed country like the US still has a system where your ability to get treated when you're sick depends on how rich you are, and that US people are happy to pay so much despite knowing that the healthcare companies are making obscene profits. And yet whenever anyone tries to challenge the system, the media mobilises to warn people of the dangers of a national health service and why they will all be worse off. It is the same around the world when any politician attempts to undermine the ways in which the rich grow richer.

In theory, politics should be the solution to capitalism, but this would only work if there were true democracy, where people had access to all the evidence and could make a free choice about the policies that would benefit the majority of people. It is clear to me that the stranglehold that the media has over the information we receive will prevent us in the West from ever voting for governments that could do anything fundamental about the system they've inherited. The best we can do at this point is not listen to the media, so that it has less of a stranglehold. Although I'm encouraged by my children's generation's avoidance of mainstream media, this is something that will take a long time to work through.

In the meantime, we have to each take our own steps to become more self-aware and start making better decisions in our own lives, and that's deeper than just an intellectual decision to consume less. It is about awakening our spirits and becoming more aware of our deep dependency on the natural world.

And so the surprising conclusion of Jason Hickle's book is that the solution to capitalism is not political but spiritual. If we want to replace capitalism, we need to understand where it came from, and it didn't come out of a void. It came out of a concerted effort to convince us that we are separate from and superior to nature, and that nature is scary and needs to be tamed and brought into use for the benefit of humans. And to harness the human resources to tame nature, we were told that our spirit and body were seperate, so it didn't matter how badly we abused the bodies of our workers as long as their souls were saved. To tackle the cause of the disease that is killing the planet, we need to go back to a way of being that predates capitalism and that survives in some Indigenous communities around the world to this day.

To explain, Jason Hickle tells a story about the Achuar tribe in the Amazon, who puzzled anthropologists for years. They practice slash and burn agriculture, surrounded by and depending on the forest. They consider the animals to be their brothers and sisters and the plants to be their children - each with a soul that must be treated with respect. And yet they have no word for "nature" - why could this be? Well, the answer is obvious - we have to have a word for nature because we are separate from nature - it is out there. But if you are part of nature then there is no us and them - it is all one and you don't need a word for nature.

That's why decolonising our language (like the word stakeholder) isn't just about being politically correct - it is about tackling a deeper spiritual malaise at the heart of how we see the world - as connected beings who are all equal, whether human or not human, not "our" stakeholders.

Christians talk of "the fall" as a historical event and that because of this we are all born sinners and need redemption. But what I think this is getting at, is the innate selfishness of our animal being that prioritises our own survival over all else. Instead, we are called to overcome our evolution to become fully human and no longer serve the animal's selfish drive to prioritise our own individual survival or the survival of our own group, to see ourselves as connected to all other groups in society and all other species, and prioritise the survival of a connected whole. The story of the fall is a story of pride, and how pride always comes before a fall. And now we are falling as a species, because we thought we were clever enough to change nature for our benefit, wiping out species that might harm us or our livestock, re-routing and damming rivers - compensating for loss by building new habitats elsewhere, because we are clever enough to uproot and replant entire ecosystems. We have got too big for our boots. We were all born one with nature and connected to God, but our pride got in the way. To tackle the spiritual roots of capitalism we need to each examine the roots of our own pride and start seeing ourselves as just one small part of a bigger whole, rather than as the centre of the universe or the pinnacle of creation.

And so back to the mirror I've had held up to myself in this blog. I think I'm part of the solution because I'm working on the development and regulation of ecosystem markets that could help provide nature-based solutions to climate change. But this is just one small part of a complex system that needs to be transformed and I've always seen that as somebody else's job - I can only focus on the one small part of the system for which I have evidence and expertise. And you might argue that that's all we can ever do as academics, and that's fine if that's what you see when you hold the mirror up to what you're trying to achieve in terms of impact. But what I see is falling short of what I can now see is needed.

Partly, my reticence to go any further than I have done to date, is that I prefer to keep my politics to myself, and present myself as an apolitical researcher. I've always thought that's important as someone who works closely with governments in the UK and internationally, as they might not trust me if they know my political beliefs. But in reality, I now see that this position has been part expedience (I don't want to compromise my influence) and part fear (I don't like confrontation and don't want to create political enemies).

I have never believed that there is any such thing as objectivity or independence in research. I say this as a conservationist by training; a discipline that wears its values on its sleeves. In the recent debate over innovation zones and freeports in the UK, depending on the questions you ask, you may draw on evidence that such a policy could create new jobs and stimulate local economies. However, you could draw on research to show the impact this would have on nature, and the broader impact of pursuing compound economic growth on our ability to meet net zero targets. In research, as in policy, the answers you get depend on the questions you ask, and these in turn reflect your values.

As a conservationist, despite what I have maintained publicly, it turns out that I took sides long ago on the question of economic growth versus protecting the natural world. Although I'd like to argue that protecting the environment should be a cross-party issue that is not politicised, it is impossible to escape the reality that any decision between economic growth and reducing emissions is an inherently political decision.

I’ve described what I’m now doing to become politically engaged in this blog. But each of my existing roles are safe ways to make a difference. Playing safe won't always be enough to keep us safe from climate change, and I want to do more. I realise that these are baby steps and I will probably stumble and fall many times before I am able to do anything meaningful, but I want to get off the fence, and start to be part of the solution.

What do you see when you hold the mirror up to your attempts to achieve impact? Are you doing enough? If not, what are your excuses and assumptions, and what could you do to do more?

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