This book by Ross Jackson, published in March 2012 by Chelsea Green, asks a good question: what can we do about the fact that we live in an unacceptably unjust and hopelessly unsustainable world? We know there are many useful things that can be done at home or locally, and by corporations or governments. Lots of examples were suggested by contributors to Fleeing Vesuvius. The trouble is that not nearly enough individuals, local communities, corporations or governments do these things. To reverse current trends the system as a whole has to change. But how? It’s such a huge question that few, if any, other writers have tackled it head on, which is what this book does.
The book addresses the question in six stages: one, what are the problems we face today? Two, what are the drivers of the current system that have created these problems? Three, who is in charge and what are they about? That’s half the book. The other half: four, what will a just and sustainable system look like? Five, how might it be organised? Six, how could we get there? The format makes sense and is easy to follow.
Part one sets the scene – our growing ecological footprint, over-population, global warming, species extinction, growing inequality, global injustice, genetic engineering etc, plus the failure to heed the many clear warnings of scientists. The author is in no doubt about the seriousness of the situation and the dangers ahead if current trends continue. And now, in the short term, we face a new and different kind of threat: that of energy descent, likely to result in the collapse of civilisation as we know it, a collapse that will continue to play out over several decades. In Joseph Tainter’s words, there is bound to be “a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity”, which the author explains means simpler, so what we are really talking about here is “a return to a simpler, more satisfying, more sustainable lifestyle”.
How did we get here? The dominant paradigm has been the Cartesian/Newtonian worldview – the reductionist, mechanical approach to problem solving inspired by Newton and others combined with Descartes’ concept of the separation of humankind and nature. Economics has been deceptively presented as an objective science whose consequences we must passively accept. People have been assumed to be motivated primarily by the desire for gain when in fact gain as motive is a relatively recent concept. It is pointed out that David Ricardo’s concept of comparative advantage, generally relied on to explain why countries benefit from trade, requires the immobility of capital across borders. The author also shows how countries that got rich (like Great Britain in the 19th century and USA in the 20th) only did so by a combination of colonialism, or an equivalent, and protectionism. The final chapter in this part describes the disastrous rise of neoliberal economics and its implementation through the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and deregulation during the Reagan-Thatcher years.
This is an interesting account of what lay behind the trends we have experienced but for me it isn’t comprehensive enough: the defects of today’s dominant system, that make it incompetent to handle the ‘wicked problems’ facing humanity in the 21st century, include, in my opinion, three factors not stressed by this author: a top-down, command-and-control, essentially violent paradigm of government; the bank-created debt-money system which requires growth to avoid crashing; and an inter-national – meaning composed of nation states – model of world order, as opposed to a cosmopolitan one, which includes nation states but also many other players including people, local communities, NGOs and, very significantly, corporations.
Part three is a welcome recognition of the deliberate nature of the developments described in part two. As the author illustrates with the secret advice given to the US government by George F Kennan in 1948, these developments were not in fact intended to create a just and sustainable world: if the USA with 6.3% of the world’s population was to continue to control 50% of the world’s resources, Kennan’s firm advice was that it would have to be completely unscrupulous in the way it operated. As indeed it has been ever since, a fact the author illustrates with examples of US action in Iran, Guatemala, Brazil and Chile. Nor is the Kennan doctrine implemented for the benefit of US citizens generally: it is a doctrine of the ruling elite, as the author illustrates with a description of politics in the USA, emphasising the power of money, and extent of inequality there.
The political/economic system, which Jackson calls the Empire, both within countries and globally, is run for the benefit of the rich. That truth is, in my experience, seldom recognised by writers with expertise in economic and environmental fields comparable to that of this author.
The conclusion at the end of the first half of the book is that the present economic system lacks any concept of limits to growth. “That system is driving our planet to ruin and must be replaced by a new economic system that is more in line with science and the real needs of people.” This, Jackson asserts, will require “completely new international institutions to regulate law, trade, environmental protection and real development in the developing countries.” And as the existing institutions are incapable of reform, “We must begin with a clean slate. We must design new institutions to deal with international finance that respect the needs of all states on a more equal basis. This must include better control of destabilising international speculation, and a critical review of the role of the US dollar, which is a major pillar supporting the Empire’s power structure”. And at the domestic level, safeguards are required to prevent a takeover by elements (commercial companies, for example) whose interests are not aligned with the vast majority.
That reasoning accurately reflects the analysis that precedes it. I agree with the author when he writes that “the initiative for change will never come from those who are the major beneficiaries of the current system, certainly not from the Empire. The initiative must come from elsewhere. Radical new thinking is required”. That’s the first answer to the basic question “What can we do…?”. The book is important and well worth reading just for that. I am not so sure that Jackson is right when he goes on the say “It is necessary in the first instance to design a new international political and economic structure that can achieve the desired result, and in the second instance to develop a strategy to bring it about.” My own view is that a more iterative process is probably more realistic.
When looking to the future Ross Jackson is confident that the basic conditions for a sustainable system already exist. The old Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm has been dying for the last eight decades and is already being replaced by the Gaian paradigm based on James Lovelock’s theory of the Earth and its atmosphere and life on earth as a single self-regulating complex system. The values of the new paradigm are embraced by a fast-increasing number of people identified by sociologists Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson as ‘Cultural Creatives’ now estimated at 35% of the population of USA, Europe and Japan, up from 4% in the 1970s. Similar values are represented by millions of diverse NGOs described in Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest. Recent international developments in South America are cited as signs of dissatisfaction with the current world order.
Moreover sustainable living is perfectly practicable if we see ourselves as part of the Gaian system, switch the emphasis from competition to cooperation and adopt the basic principles of ecological economics described by economists such as Herman Daly, Kenneth Boulding, EF Schumacher and Hazel Henderson. Some companies will impose limits on themselves. A formal regulatory framework will be required, the author says, to define the playing field for commercial actors generally.
The author’s most challenging view is that the necessary transformation cannot happen unless we establish a new international framework designed to regulate intergovernmental relations in a Gaian world order. This is envisaged as a world of many self-determining, cooperating small sovereign states under a common umbrella of protection of the environment. States (states are still envisaged as the main actors on the global stage) would delegate a degree of sovereignty to a global governance body responsible for ensuring longterm sustainability of the planet and the observance of human rights in all members states. This should be the longterm goal. In the meantime what we can do is to design the institutions that would allow such a Gaian world order to evolve. There would be
The author’s descriptions of how these institutions would work is the subject of the next sixty pages. The author claims that it is a realistic vision, based on principles of ecological sustainability and human rights and using sound economics. Whilst accepting that it will take time to evolve, he is confident that it will do so. As an example of international institutional change, he cites the European Union which has taken several decades to develop into its present form. The trouble about this as a precedent for the possibility of establishing a Gaian world order, it seems to me, is that the EU was in harmony with, and indeed was intended to implement, the values of market/corporate dominated governments, whereas a Gaian world order would implement values that are at odds with those of the governments that currently dominate the world.
Jackson recognises that the necessary initiatives to create a Gaian world order will not come from the USA and other governments who control the Empire. Nor is there any sign of the NGO community implementing an international project of this scale. The only realistic possibility, he believes, is a combination of cooperation between top-down and bottom-up agents for change – a handful of small nations from the top and the grassroots of the world from the bottom. Jackson suggests a number of countries which might be founding members of a Gaian League and explains why in each case. He then outlines how they might set about creating the new order, with the support of civil society.
This is an important book, a tough read perhaps, some of which you may or may not agree with, but a clearly thought out and well written analysis of the extremely grave state we are in and some clear proposals about what could and should be done to change the system as a whole. Most commentators, having described the current situation and what needs to be done about it, throw up their hands and say: what’s missing is the political will. That leads to campaigns to persuade governments to act. The end result is that the trends continue inexorably. Jackson, by contrast, says: humanity has a problem, let’s analyse it, decide on a plan and then implement it. There are enough Cultural Creatives in the world to make it happen. It’s a response one can only admire. As the author writes in the Afterword, “A bold initiative is necessary to shake up the logjam that is preventing global solutions from emerging in our contemporary world”. This book proposes such an initiative and ends with an invitation to readers to join it via the website he has set up for the purpose at www.occupyworldstreet.org.