Sunday, October 19, 2008

This Way to Utopia

The New Scientist has done us a big favour this week by showing us the way to Utopia, and away from all the talk of recession and depression now gripping the headlines. The wise stewards who will lead us to Utopia will be, surprise surprise, scientists - in particular, ecologists. This week's issue is dedicated to the theme of How Our Economy is Killing the Earth: probably not quite the issue-du-jour right now but you have to credit for them for trying ...

Theirs is a green version of the socialist schadenfreude more common among the Irish commentariat. Though the NS version starts with the same premise - modern capitalism is more a curse than a blessing and just can't go on as evident in the current crisis - it nevertheless goes somewhere rather different to where the Lefties would likely want to end up. Or most everyone else for that matter. But in fairness to the New Scientist they do actually have a go at painting a picture of Utopia - or Life in a Land without Growth. Here are just few highlights:
In our society, scientists set the rules. They work out what levels of consumption and emission are sustainable - and if they're not sure they work out a cautious estimate ...

We are gradually redistributing resources by setting upper limits for income inequality. It was tricky deciding what the permitted range of incomes should be - one that rewards real differences and contributions rather than just multiplying privilege. ... As a first step, we are aiming to lower the overall range to a factor of 100 ... Eventually, we may try to bring this down to a factor of 30.

We are gradually raising the percentage of money deposited that banks are required to keep in reserve. As a result, commercial lending is declining - banks get their income by financial intermediation and service charges instead - and we are moving to a culture in which you have to save money before you can lend or invest it.

Without as much economic growth as before, we can't maintain full employment - but then, our old growth economy wasn't so good at doing that either. Instead, people work part time, generally as a co-owner of a business rather than as an employee. The whole pace of life is more relaxed. Incomes are lower but we are rich in something that many of us had never experienced before: time.

Completely free trade isn't feasible any more, of course, because we have to count many costs to the environment and the future that foreign firms in growth economies are allowed to ignore.

One of the toughest issues, politically, has been population. We know that we will have to stabilise our population - and that includes immigration rates as well as birth rate.
They kindly spare us the details of what will happen to those who object to this state of affairs: sustainable concentration camps perhaps? Still, I do admire their willingness to publish this stuff, and I don't doubt the genuiness of their intentions. Which is the scary bit really. As science fiction-type images of the future go, the New Scientist version is not much different to that brilliantly portrayed in Ira Levin's novel This Perfect Day. Think of it as a sort of kinder, gentler fascism.

One of the contributors to the special issue of the New Scientist is Andrew Simms - a regular contributor to the Guardian and policy director at the New Economic Foundation. For a sense of where current 'new economic' thinking is going you just have to read his piece in today's Observer on how it is possible to design an economic system that is not dependent on the invisible hand. One idea is to get local authorities to make local businesses dedicated 10% of their staff's time to helping the local community. Notice how there's never any choice in these utopia's they are so keen for us to join them in?

What's maybe more surprising than the fascist undertones of the new economic agenda is their lack of originality. As Jonathan Wolff reminds us in a fascinating interview over at Philosophy Bites, Karl Marx speculated about a world in which labour was no longer alienated. Frankly it sounds a lot more fun than what the New Scientist has in mind for us. Though no disrespect to Dr Marx or Mr Simms I'd really prefer to just make my own choices about what future I want - if you don't mind.

Here in Ireland our own Greens are showing a lot more common sense than their counterparts elsewhere. Being in government probably does that to you I guess. One sign: green advocate John Gibbons writing in the Irish Times last week suggesting that maybe we need to reconsider the nuclear option. Welcome to the club John! And let's leave utopia where it belongs: in the science fiction section of our local book shops.

4 comments:

  1. Indeed, I have looked in a hobbyist sort of way at the economic models and came to the same conclusions as NS, accompanied by the same conclusion as yourself; that it would require a totalitarian regime and the stripping away of some rights (reproduction) that are considered basic.

    The fact of the matter is that sooner or later the world is going to have to either go the route of voluntary population control or the simpler, more savage feedback mechanism of famine, war and disease. I'm not being pessimistic here, if we get to the point where we cant feed ourselves countries are going to start fighting over the resources, look at Iraq.

    And hey, the Chicago school used oppressive totalitarian regimes to push free market policies into most of the south American countries, so whats good for the goose etc.

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  2. Teasing apart cause and effect via controlled experiment is the triumph of science yet so-called "soft scientists" such as economists refuse to face the fact that they have almost no basis in controlled experimentation.

    The soft sciences have an ethical obligation to stand against the kind of systems that routinely subject humans to experimental treatment without their consent. Yes, this does mean that the international regime based on the idea of "liberal democracies", where populations within fixed territorial boundaries are subjected to a experimental treatments (aka "tyranny of the majority" limited only by a laundry list of selectively enforced "human rights") is ethically bankrupt from a scientific point of view.

    The economists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, etc., have an ethical obligation to demand that their theories not be tested except on individuals that have consented to adopt them as working hypotheses (as quasi religious beliefs). This does mean that soft scientists have an ethical obligation to the rest of society to advocate the formation of experimental controls via assortative migration -- migration supported with all the moral and material force supporting human rights -- so that ideological purity is maintained within respective human ecologies.

    Thomas Jefferson at least had the excuse that to the west lay a huge territory largely occupied by people with relatively low carrying capacity technologies -- so he could more or less presume the assortative migration required for crafting an ethical State by scientists, as Jefferson saw himself, and as many other founders saw themselves.

    What scientists as citizens need to do is recognize that they do have a responsibility that falls to them as heirs of the tradition of Jefferson and other founders of the "laboratory of the states" to speak out and, if necessary, act, to prevent the further abuse of human rights entailed by the closing of the frontier -- now generations old.

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  3. In relation to the issue of how our economy might be killing the earth, its worth having a look at the recent Channel 4 documentary: "The Great Global Warming Swindle". It argues against the scientific consensus that global warming is "very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (man-made) greenhouse gas concentrations". While the documentary has been described by both its original broadcaster Channel 4 and the British regulator Ofcom as "a polemic", it is worth engaging with to maintain a healthy level of skepticism. There's plenty of interest here: everything from the possible political motivations to develop nuclear energy, to the nuances of time-series analysis on carbon emissions. One take-away for me is that even if a global warming were a myth, there is still a very definite time-horizon in which carbon fuels will be completely used up. Also, there are very definite negative health effects from excessive carbon emissions in urban conglomerations. Thankfully, genomics is accelerating improvements for converting plant biomass into biofuel (this wasn't mentioned in the documentary), and several commentators seem hopeful that this will be a major source of energy in the future.

    For more on genomics and biofuels, click here:
    http://www.jgi.doe.gov/News/news_8_13_08.html

    For the Wiki-page on the documentary, click here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Global_Warming_Swindle

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  4. /wiki/The_Great_Global_Warming_Swindle

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