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Time to aim for better than “normal”

Green neon sign with the slogan "Normal gets you nowhere"Image by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

‘We are not defenders of the river. We are the river.’

Fisherman, Magdalena River, Colombia

From Less is More by Jason Hickel


Spring has arrived. After a long, arduous year in which many people have died and are continuing to die around the world, are suffering the pain of loss and the economic consequences of Covid-19 which have affected many millions of people, we are, in the UK at least, hoping that the easing of lockdown and restrictions will be workable this time round.

Even at a time when there is still great uncertainty about what the future holds, given that Covid-19 remains a threat to our health and economic well-being both here and abroad, we are yearning for a restoration of what we call ‘normality’. Even as climate change is threatening our existence in recognisable formats, where the pursuit of endless growth to keep the capitalist truck on track and the profits rolling, we long for ‘normality. As resource extraction and depletion at ever-increasing levels continues to destroy soil, the land, the oceans and natural water resources upon which we depend, as well as people’s lives and livelihoods, we long for ‘normality’. Not a week goes by when there isn’t a report detailing the ongoing consequences of climate change or the social inequalities which plague the planet and have created huge disparities in access to real wealth and razed the land and seas in a scrabble for resources.

Understandably, we seek ‘normal’. That’s normal. It has been a hard year in so many ways – the loss of life, income and social interaction have irrevocably changed the way we see the world. Or at least one might hope so.

However, at this defining crossroads in history, what we do next will define the future for generations to come. Returning to normal may have its attractions, but in the light of the fact that normal wasn’t such a nice place for many, in terms of the vast inequalities of income, health, housing, opportunities, and political participation, all of which reflect decades of toxic economic ideology and which has been sustained by successive governments through their policies, shouldn’t we be aiming for something much better?

Whilst politicians, institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) paint positive pictures of a greener world with the build back better mantra, there still seems little appetite in Conservative quarters for doing so, particularly after a gruelling year of economic decline. Hot air is the order of the day in this regard.

The ‘building back better’ mantra is also often confused with the idea that if only it were ‘green growth’ everything would be hunky-dory, and the capitalist growth truck could just carry on rolling, mopping up profits and maintaining the status quo. However, this is a moment to upend everything we ever believed, challenge that status quo, and defy the capitalist modus operandi. We are indeed in uncharted territory and as Jesse Jenkins, assistant professor of engineering at Princeton University, put it this week ‘We’re now in a world where the past is no longer a good guide to the future.’ We have an uphill task to prepare for that future.

This week, it was reported that China’s economy surged 18.3% in the first quarter over last year, with strong investment in real estate and infrastructure, higher exports, and consumer spending. Of course, the economic rule is that spending creates income and makes the world go round, but now we need to consider, with the climate crisis bearing down upon us, what sort of spending will create the sustainable world we seek. Whether our consumption priorities should change to accommodate a different vision that puts public purpose as a goal and human and planetary flourishing at the top of the agenda.

There are rarely questions about the merits of growth and its designation in that magic term GDP, which in reality encapsulates the good, the bad and the really ugly. The ‘fruits’ of consumption can also be rotten, the damaging consequences of our endless search for profit. As Simon Kuznets, the developer of GDP as a measure of wealth knew, it is not a measure of human well-being. We need a different way of measuring our real ‘wealth’ and a lot of work is being done already in that area, in particular the use of the Genuine Progress Indicator developed by Philip Lawn, a Research Scholar at the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity.

And yet, even with a recognition that something has to be done, many in political, economic and media circles still talk about the affordability of policies that could bring about a just and sustainable transition. Or to put it more bluntly, avoid environmental collapse. Indeed, politicians themselves suggest that our public infrastructure depends on a healthy economy (which implies growth) and tax revenues to sustain it. Which is quite simply not true. We need to turn the question on its head and ask instead can we afford not to?

We still hold to the false narratives of how the government spends. Taxing to spend instead of spending to tax, or the myth of ‘borrowing’ to cover that dreadful deficit which is drummed into the public consciousness daily. The public is still, for the most part, in thrall to the idea that at some point in the future there will be a price to pay for the huge round of government spending. After all, we are told so, endlessly. And we often seem willing to accept it as a fact of life, even though we have witnessed and experienced the painful consequences of austerity and cuts to public spending in, for example, the NHS and other public health, or local government organisations over the past year.

In many cases, we are failing to even observe the inconsistencies in the narrative, let alone challenge them. And yet, if we are to create a better world, the only mechanism for real change to prevent the continuing slide into climate disaster, which also encompasses managing finite resource use, is for government to ACT, through its spending, taxation, and legislative policies, to change the very way in which we view the world and its gifts that sustain us. We need to recreate a sense that the planet is not a vast dustbin for human and planetary exploitation, and that we are not directing the orchestra. We are the orchestra. Therefore, we have an interest in cultivating global cooperation for our survival.

And yet, putting Covid-19 aside for a moment, whilst the planet and its inhabitants face their greatest challenge, it still seems that growth at any cost is the favoured god, particularly in the light of the past year. We are being urged to make up for lost growth by private spending. From Rishi Sunak’s ill-advised ‘eat out to help out’ scheme last summer, and ministers now urging us to spend the savings that some (but not all) have made during the past year, the government is yet again proposing to rely on an increase in private consumption to improve the holy grail of growth revealed in GDP figures. It is as if we should put to one side our worries about climate and excessive resource extraction and exploitation for the moment, at least until we get the economy back on track. Which is a contradiction in terms.

And yet, especially as the UK government is hosting the COP26 in November, which is believed to be one of the last opportunities to get the world on track to meet the 2015 Paris Climate agreement goals, scientists and campaigners are expressing their concerns about the government’s commitment to addressing climate change.

Many have been shocked by the decision to cut overseas aid (covered in a previous MMT Lens blog) on the basis of the false narrative about needing to get the finances back into shape. Climate change and all that that implies, for humans, the planet’s resources and every living creature, should be a bigger concern than worrying about the state of the public accounts and book balancing when we do not even need to. When our very future is at stake. Our concerns should rather lie in creating a thriving world within the context of the available resources, not yet more destruction to serve the hungry god of growth.

Rich nations have a duty and responsibility to address the huge inequalities that exist in the global south; some of which have been as a direct result of western colonisation and exploitation to serve western lifestyles. Equally, domestically, the UK government’s support for the development of a new coal mine in Cumbria, airport expansion, new licences for oil and gas exploration, scrapping its only ‘recovery measure’ the green homes grant, along with the approval of cuts to air passenger duty on domestic flights (at a time when the French government announced this week that it intends to ban short-haul internal flights where train alternatives exist) shows scant concern for really addressing the ‘building back greener’ mantra repeated endlessly in all quarters. The response from Jennifer Morgan, the head of Greenpeace International, was stark. ‘These decisions are going in the wrong direction… they are not prioritising the climate domestically or internationally. The clock is ticking.’

The government’s commitment to addressing climate change can clearly only be said to be lukewarm, despite the fancy rhetoric from the parliamentary ‘pulpit’. And as we have noted in many MMT Lens blogs, the government is serving, not the working people of this country and their families, rather the interests of big business and global corporations, whose coffers have been benefiting from the public money tap with a mind-boggling lack of accountability, not to mention personal favour, over the last year.

In an article this week, the Guardian quoted Peter Newell, who is a professor of international relations at the University of Sussex, and the author of a recently published report that suggested the government is ‘too cosy’ with vested interests. Saying ‘We are never going to have change while these actors are so close to government. The government is not willing to take on these interests as it has close ties to big industries, including fossil fuels.’ Adding that ‘the problem goes much deeper’ than just pure links to business and reflects ‘the revolving doors for ministers, and the internships by which energy companies send their employees to work inside the civil service on policy’.

The role of government should be to legislate in the best interests of the nation, and yet it fails miserably on that score. Corporate interest has trumped public interest for far too long, and lobbying, chumocracy and the revolving doors have been the modus operandi for creating self and corporate serving legislation.

Indeed, a report published this week by Energy Research & Social Science was very clear about the role played in climate change by big oil companies including Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Chevron, and that such companies knew decades ago that their products contributed to global warming but have used a ‘variety of tactics to slow down and shape the low-carbon transition alongside continued exploration and extraction’. They conclude in their report that ‘despite the growing disruption of the oil and gas sector accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic […] it is unlikely that the executives and directors at these four companies will decide to proactively decarbonise in line with climate science’. The report makes it clear that external pressure from governments through their policies will have to play a greater role in forcing change.

Over the past year, the nation has come face to face with the power of government to act in the interests of the economy (meaning people) through its spending policies, even if selectively. It has also highlighted the business interests that the higher ‘deficit’ has served. As the economist, Stephanie Kelton, so rightly expressed it: ‘Every deficit is good for someone… The question is for whom’?

If we can get our heads around monetary reality and how governments really spend, we can then ask that question and challenge the modus operandi of this government, which for 10 years pursued austerity policies, creating huge disparities in wealth and equality, damaging our public services through years of disinvestment, combined with a drive towards privatisation on the basis of the lie that these services were no longer affordable.

It must become increasingly evident that the vast inequalities that exist are not happenchance, or individual failings, but sit at the very heart of the matter and have done for decades, if not centuries. The actions of our elected officials and their pursuit of a rotten economic system, which puts growth and profits at the expense of people and the environment, lie at the core of it all.

Jason Hickel, author of ‘Less is More’ wrote:

“If your economy requires people to consume things they don’t need or even want, and to do more of it each year than the year before, just in order to keep the whole edifice from collapsing, then you need a different economy.”

This is the challenge we face for the future. Do we have the courage to look it in the eye and think differently? It starts by understanding monetary realities and the capacity of sovereign currency-issuing governments to spend for public purpose. Or to put it in unambiguous terms ‘planetary flourishing’.

Do we want to continue our path to the great planetary rubbish heap, or do we want to start the journey towards a sustainable world? One that lives within its resource boundaries and has stopped wasting and exploiting the real resources upon which we depend? Left or right-wing, the questions are the same. Covid-19 and the climate crisis should be our wake-up call, as Hickel’s book encourages us, to ‘bring our economy back into balance with the living world and build a thriving society for all.’



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The post Time to aim for better than “normal” appeared first on The Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies.