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Consumerism: The real threat to our liberties

August 11, 2010

This is another article that appeared in the Guardian some time ago. I thought I’d posted it here too, but it seems I forgot to do it…

George Monbiot recently wrote on Cif that “the neoliberalism forced upon governments by corporate power and the Washington consensus; the terror of the tabloid press – all combine to create a political culture which cannot respond to altered realities without collapsing.”

Consider how such institutional inflexibility affects our response to climate change, the limited resources and the asymmetric lifestyles we now lead. Monbiot asserts that our civil liberties are being assaulted as a means of suppressing dissent, and that is most certainly one intention. However, at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, here is an alternative analysis of what is happening to our civil liberties.

Let’s say you are a newly-minted Labour government and your best and brightest are holding quiet chats with scientists, who spell out the potential for massive global collapse. Clever chaps like Nicholas Stern do back-of-a-fag-packet calculations to show that the only way to address the coming problems will be to raise all kinds of new taxes, but you know this is political suicide, a view reinforced when riots break out over a minor increase in fuel duties alone. The wired world and the markets are now interlocked; you can no longer exert power nationally when jobs, money and security are inextricably entwined with those of other countries, many of them hostile over our colonial past while others are just hostile. And everybody, everywhere, is frightened by that which we don’t understand: a world of incessant, accelerating change.

So, according to the best national advice, mirrored consistently by international opinion and events, you realise that there is no chance of staving off the coming crises: climate change, a burgeoning world populationcreating demand for oil and gas that will certainly run out and an ecosystem about to experience changes that will cause unimaginable disruption to virtually everything we take for granted. On top of these anxieties, people are now so angry in other parts of the world that they keep turning up here and try to blow us up. Order in society is achieved by an electorate being more satisfied with their lot, rather than less. Despite our overt, tireless consumption, this balance is shifting.

So you come to a reasonable, if cynical conclusion. The primary aim of any government is to maintain law and order of sufficient reach and power that democracy can operate – or appear to – and to protect those who have gained from those who might otherwise take those gains away. You study the various storms on the horizon and realise that there is only one certain prediction you can make: a breakdown of the social order comparable only to that of a world war. It will be global, so security will become a nightmare as refugee populations bounce from border to camp to scavenging mob. Extremists will become a law unto themselves, as has the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Governments will make promises they cannot possibly keep (on growth, security, energy costs, jobs) and western democracies will become a merry-go-round as each helpless administration in turn gets booted out, replaced by an identikit helpless alternative that is really no alternative at all.

Given all of the above, a review of the encroachments on our civil liberties creates a picture of a government gearing up for a new civil war, whose opening skirmishes we may have already witnessed. The government cannot address climate change without losing office. It cannot find oil where there is none, prevent terrorism or protect our jobs, our money and our pensions. It can no longer effectively run this country because its operation is subject to controls and influences that originate half-way round the world. Our problems are interconnected as never before, but we have failed to effectively connect up our societies and align our aims, because you cannot connect to people in poverty, nor can you align with the aims of those you have disenfranchised. In this situation, everything that is taking place — the polarisation, the demonisation and the concomitant legislation to suppress dissent — are the logical steps of a government protecting itself, convinced that its actions are meritorious by dint of good intentions: in order to keep us safe, they must watch us like distrustful, paranoid parents and act swiftly when we appear to be getting out of control.

We in the industrial nations have been living beyond our means for some time. Did we really think this could continue indefinitely? That the “third world” of yesteryear would just put up with relentless exploitation, even when the inequality was made explicit night after night on the TVs we sold them? When climate change makes a nonsense of the promise that they could enjoy a similar quality of life if they just did what they were told and waited long enough?

We did this. We went along with it all. We took our civil liberties for granted. None of us are ignorant of our circumstances. No longer are we the children of an agrarian lifestyle, where our understanding stops at the edge of the field we till. Yet we still insist that everything is the fault of some paternalistic figure or body, and that we can do nothing to solve our own problems because we are powerless, held in thrall by our desire to consume. And yet, now the invoice has turned up, nobody wants to foot the bill.

Our elected representatives cannot pass laws that address matters for which we have not been prepared in advance through the simple but effective expedient of making us terrified of any number of boogie men – a strategy for dealing with unruly children. Because we vote like fickle teenagers, politicians know their tenure depends not on doing what is right, but what keeps us complaisant. They know we will not vote a second time for any government that methodically reduces our standard of living in the name of climate change or energy security, no matter that the reduction is entirely in our own best interests. Governments can do nothing significant now except prepare for a future in which this oil empire will implode in a violent catharsis, as did all previous empires. We are addicted to our consumptive habits and no government will risk trying to wean us off the teat by legislation. They will do it at the end of a riot-stick and what we see now is only the ground being laid for things to come. Unless we prevent it.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2010 3:18 am

    By the time the world wakes up to what global warming really means, peak oil will have damaged our economy to such an extent, that it will no longer be able to generate the funds needed to invest in renewable energies. These projects may also get stuck in diesel shortages. We may end up with declining CO2 from burning oil but our coal fired power plants may still chugg along until they break down.

  2. August 12, 2010 6:29 pm

    Yes, great piece, which I somehow missed the first time around, though again, perhaps you have a higher view of the coherence and foresight of government action than I do.

  3. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 12, 2010 8:35 pm

    That’s nicely ironic Byron. I want to believe that the people who run this country are capable of doing so, and know more about what’s going on than I do. On the other hand…

  4. August 13, 2010 8:21 am

    Yes, you’re right. It would be odd if they didn’t know more of what was going on than me. Odd, but perhaps not entirely surprising. Not because I’m particularly smart or up with it, but simply because of the nature of institutional knowledge. That is, individuals may have a grasp on what is going on and some may be doing their best to warn of upcoming dangers, but their voices could well be drowned out by the complexities of all the various wings and branches of “the people who run this country”, but also by institutional interests, ingrained habits and, if I may say it, the dominance of an older generation who are frequently more blind to what could be up ahead (i.e. who are probably more prone to assuming that the future will be like the past, but more so).

  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 13, 2010 8:27 am

    There’s another point that is consistent with your comment – that ‘government’ isn’t one big joined up unit where they all know what’s going on. It occurred to me that I should have suggested that ‘departments’ may or may not have known – although you’d think this kind of stuff would make it to the cabinet, given the seriousness. But considering the fiasco that was COP15, seriousness doesn’t necessarily invoke sense, apparently.

    I agree about the older generation too – the Watts web traffic demographics were very revealing in terms of age differentials and I suspect this is a pattern throughout society, so government is hardly immune. It is also the case that, regrettably, there will always be individuals in government who are rather more beholden to special interests than the electorate they are meant to be serving. Now’t new there, of course – Roman history is replete with all the same problems.

  6. August 13, 2010 8:33 am

    Yes, are you familiar with Tainter’s work on societal collapse? Declining marginal returns on investments in complexity. I see it everywhere now; quite a compelling thesis.

  7. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 13, 2010 9:17 am

    Not heard of Tainter – I’ll check it out. Thanks for the tip.

  8. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 13, 2010 10:10 am

    Hey – just read up a bit on Tainter – bloody interesting, and very relevant to me. In my business career as an analyst, I developed a method of assessing business performance in the context of a fixed amount of available energy, and what a company or organisation did with it. Wish I’d read Tainter a decade ago – it would have helped, and may still do once I get hold of the paper itself.

    I saw this on the Wiki page for Tainter:

    We often assume that the collapse of the Roman Empire was a catastrophe for everyone involved. Tainter points out that it can be seen as a very rational preference of individuals at the time, many of whom were actually better off…

    I’d like to find an analysis of the collapse of the British empire that evaluated the same criteria. I often wonder if most of us wouldn’t be better off without the ‘great’ civilisation we have built.

    Anyway, really good tip Byron, and thank you.

  9. August 13, 2010 10:47 am

    Some links to help.
    Book: ISBN 0-521-38673-X.
    A brief summary & review:

  10. August 13, 2010 10:49 am

    Oops – just realised you’ve already found it. I heard of it through the review I linked, and also through Jared Diamond’s popularised version of pretty much the same thesis: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

  11. August 16, 2010 5:56 pm

    Hi Graham

    A good article, and it’s hard to disagree with the type of challenges you predict Governments and humans will face.

    James Lovelock stated that we shouldn’t feel guilty as we’ve not got ourselves in this position on purpose. We’re only doing what’s natural to us.

    When I try talk to my contemporaries about some of the issues you raise here, particularly human caused global warming, I find few who understand the potential problem. It is too complex for them to comprehend, so you have to assume people in Government will have the same problem.

    Anyway, I’m going to buy a house high up a hill side in Cumbria and start a vegetable patch just in case.


  12. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 18, 2010 6:07 am

    Thanks Matthew – nice to see your graphic doing the rounds BTW – and I do love the domain name – never thought of conservatories being subversive before 🙂

  13. August 18, 2010 8:22 am

    Not so subversive these days, due to several legal threats when I challenged competitors.

    Re: doing the rounds. Trying to get my head around the AGW arguments and in the middle of setting up a new website specialising in producing infographics on the topic which will hopefully help in trying to change perceptions. So, I’ll keep my eye on your posts just in case 🙂

  14. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 18, 2010 8:36 am

    Let me know when you get set up – I’d be pleased to post something on it…

    …and for those who haven’t seen the excellent infographic Matthew produced recently, have a look here –

  15. August 18, 2010 8:41 am

    Great. Will do. Just working on the functionality. Been speaking with John Cook about trying to set up some sort of peer-review system for the graphics so we get across more accurate messages than the consensus/media/perception one. My challenge is I’ve good bundles of enthusiasm and want to do something constructive, but I don’t have enough knowledge of the science or understanding of the arguments. I’ll keep you informed. thanks.

  16. August 18, 2010 2:24 pm

    That’s great – if future graphics are as good as your science/media/public perceptions one, I’ll be linking to them as well.

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