What Makes a Fair Society?

In early May, I received a notification from LinkedIn. What made this work-a-day event unusual is that it’s the first useful thing LinkedIn has come up with since I joined over 5 years ago. A chap called Simon Marriott, a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts, was soliciting opinion on the matter of growing socio-economic inequality across the world. The collection is to be published online by The Society for Curious Thought. Not sure when that might happen but given my inability to blog for months on end, I thought I’d pop what I wrote here. (It did happen but without the footnotes, which appear as links in this version). The project has links with Ragged, which seems interesting too.

In short, equity makes a fair society. Equity involves trying to understand and give people what they need (as opposed to want) to enjoy full, healthy lives. Equality, in contrast, aims to ensure that everyone gets the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives. Like equity, equality aims to promote fairness and justice, but equality can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same things, which is not the case.

A breakthrough might come when we see ourselves as all one species (as well as just one species), each member of which is as important as the next. We tend to care more about our contemporaries than about ‘others’ – in a fair society, there is no ‘other’. Take one of those ‘needs’ – food. Today, as many people are overweight as are malnourished, and in the ‘west’ you can be both at the same time. Go, progress! In 2013, food banks fed 913,138 people across Britain, over a third of whom were children. This is no fair society, and that’s in the so-called developed world.

Many cultures have lived and developed in ways that persisted for millennia – they were sustainable. Hierarchical behaviour was not known among hunter-gatherers, but once humans settled down and started accumulating property for agriculture, hierarchy became more the norm. This, I believe, was the dawn of inequality, when we left the Garden of Eden. Consider Christian texts in the context of the indigenous people of the day and ‘the fall of man’ makes a bit more sense.

So what drives the destruction of sustainable cultures in the name of progress? What dictates that indigenous people should become ‘civilised’? I am not being romantic about the joys of forest-dwelling and subsistence agriculture but we have to ask why it is that the only people left who truly understand how to live sustainably are being told that how they live is wrong, backwards – Stone Age. We have to ask why ‘progress’ is more important to us than their survival. Why is it that people are removed from their land so that ‘we’ can extract natural resources (unsustainably, of course), only to move on once that land has given up its treasures? Unless we can answer questions like these, then talking about what makes a fair society is just an academic exercise. As Chomsky might say, “who decides?”

Consider the recently-landless – those generations who don’t remember how they used to live, but nor have they found a way to live well in the degraded landscape they are now stuck with. Millions could be lifted from poverty by rural electrification using decentralised renewables, for example – but where’s the profit in that? Can a capitalist society be fair? Can industrialism be sustainable? And development for all? There’s no point wanting to ‘make poverty history’ without also addressing the other end of the spectrum. Why isn’t there a ‘make millionaires history’ campaign?Make Millionaires History small

This ‘fast-track to oblivion’ approach is not ‘just human nature’ for it is not a trait of all human beings. It is a trait of certain human beings who benefit from having the rest of us stuck on a treadmill of work (if it’s not been outsourced), debt and tabloid media. We fail to even notice the smoke and mirrors, let alone see through them. The fear of being rendered jobless or homeless – worthless – is essential for our complicity in this charade called civilisation. That and the ‘dream’ of joining the wealthy, whether via hard graft or the lottery.

Like Gail Tverberg, I used to think it was just the energy of fossil fuels which allowed our population to rise so dramatically over the last 200 years. However, Gail introduced me to another aspect: globalisation has effectively eliminated territorial boundaries. Yes, there are still wars – the economy needs wars, just like it needs fashion, luxury items and waste – but we no longer limit our population to what our environment can provide for sustainably. Without sustainability there can be no equity because this isn’t just about the here and now – future generations come into this too.

In a fair society, limits need to be the basis for every decision we make, business or otherwise. As economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen put it in 1975, “Will mankind listen to any program that implies a constriction of its addiction to exosomatic comfort? Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short but fiery, exciting, and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful, and vegetative existence…” Destiny aside, which is more fair?

Caption: Graffiti under a bridge near Kennington, Oxford on the Thames. If I knew who had created it, I would credit them. I first used the phrase years ago and Googled to see if there was a campaign. Sadly nothing but various images of the slogan. I’ve also tried using #makemillionaireshistory as a hashtag on Twitter – the tweets kept disappearing (and still do) so it’s now my Twitter image. Think about it – how else can we bring people out of poverty on a finite planet?

Posted in Civilisation, Growth | 3 Comments

Speaking the unspeakable

Monday 16 September (2013) was the deadline for submissions to the little-discussed draft Deregulation Bill, which threatens to put “a duty on persons exercising certain regulatory functions to ‘have regard’ to the desirability of ‘promoting economic growth’.” The Bill is intended to reduce the burden of regulation on business, civil society and individuals but is also a classic example of the entrenched economic narrative regarding growth. I’m not convinced the Committee will pay heed to my contribution focusing, as it does, on fundamentals like energy returns. But after hearing Tim Jenkins of nef give a great session on the urgent need for a new economic narrative two days later, I was glad I did.

After a 10-month absence, on Friday I finally posted to the excellent Social Reports’ site again, this time on the issue of involving the wider public and making a breakthrough. “A fundamental change took place in society because the ‘truth’ of the civil rights movement could no longer be ignored. What has to happen for the truth of the environmental and social justice movements to be heard?”, I mused. As Tim Jenkins said, we have to discredit the old narrative and repeat the new narrative confidently, over and over, at every opportunity. That’s the tricky bit: getting rid of the old narrative of perpetual economic growth and ever-accumulating wealth – even in this era of resource depletion and ecosystem loss. It’s difficult because it works for those in power today who are unlikely to give it up without a fight.

The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds
John Maynard Keynes (1935)

The best analogy I’ve heard for our current reality is that of Wile E. Coyote flapping his arms, hoping for flight, long after having run off the edge of the cliff. Fossil fuels are a vast, one-off bank of energy which we have drained in the pursuit of industrial capitalism. In just 15 decades, we’ve gone from an abundance of cheap and easy shallow onshore reserves of good quality oil to kiddding ourselves that tar sand oil and shale gas are just the same as conventional oil & gas. Flap!

The energy bank is now struggling to pay out what we require to keep growth economics growing. Flap, flap! We refuse to reduce energy demand (for that’s what’s needed, not just reducing carbon emissions) and we carry on hoping for some technological breakthrough. But technology uses energy, it doesn’t create it. Uh-oh! All renewable devices have a fossil fuel input and it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to know that biofuels grown today can never release an amount of energy comparable to that contained within fossil fuels, which took millions of years to form. At this point, Coyote waves solemnly and plummits.

Society is in a kind of free-fall. We were just beginning to wonder if movements like the Transition Initiative might be onto something when out of nowhere, the mainstream decided that peak oil was a myth. I’ve no time to expand on that just now but you can read my thoughts on page 8 of Greenprint.

We have to understand what makes people tick and that is their perceptions of the world. For several generations now, the marketing machine has been manipulating our minds, our common sense, our perception of the world to the point that we now think a TV and diet Coke are human rights. This is what we have to counter – our whole cultural narrative, which still wants to ‘civilise’ those without industry and electricity. I’m not denying that bringing electric light to the developing world provides huge advances in education, health, women’s rights – of course it does. But what’s being talked about isn’t localised schemes, built from local materials by local people and potentially sustainable. It’s a continuation of the system which builds centralised coal-fired power stations and thinks they’re somehow clean if you toss a bunch of trees in there too.

Unlike Coyote, we can make the landing softer – IF we accept the laws of physics and work to change how we live. A shock can sometimes bring us to our senses but I fear we may hit the ground first.

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Protecting nature from ourselves

On Monday, I went to a training course on using WordPress. I was really looking forward to learning how to add images (nae laughing!) and what I did wrong when trying to add a Twitter button. Sadly, time did not allow for this but it did make me think I should dust off the Cheery Pessimist and at least say hello to the 2 people with an RSS feed!

My problem is time – I do not know how people find the time to write. Or to garden. Or to cook. Or to visit friends. Yeah, my problem is myself! Anyhoo, I found myself commenting on a blog so the least I can do is cut & paste it here. Then at least I’ve managed 2 posts this year.

Having a wee break from reviewing climate justice papers (so interesting yet so depressing!), I had a look at Twitter and came across a tweet on wilderness, which led the this blog. Which stimulated the following stream of thought…

This debate seems to be another example of disagreement stemming from perceptions – what we see people as being. Surely it’s not whether any people live on a piece of land, it’s what they do to that piece of land in order to live on it that matters. Do they destroy every obviously useful ecosystem and then move on, or do they live in ecological balance with it for generations – millennia, even?

Our problem is that we don’t seem able talk honestly and openly, rationally even, about what ‘civilisation’ and ‘progress’ are. We won’t accept that nature simply cannot keep giving what we think we need. Economies cannot keep growing – even under the false flag of making poverty history. How about making millionaires history too? Balance up the equation a bit.

I understand and sympathise with both sides of the wilderness argument because neither side gets this fundamental problem of how we live and of what we mean by ‘development’. It’s the same for energy. One side says we absolutely need renewables while the other says they cannot replace fossil fuels. Both are right but they rarely slap their foreheads and give each other a hug as they rush off to radically reduce their energy demand.

John Muir came from a time before oil, before huge opencast mines and mountain-top removal, before extinction rates and pollution were understood. Back in the days when our own bees could pollinate crops and most people knew how to feed themselves. When Muir was born, only a billion people walked the Earth & most of them lived ‘sustainably’ compared to what we do today. It does make you wonder what he’d think if he saw us today.

That’s another of these areas of disagreement – population. I have no idea if current systems of intensive, fossil-fuelled food production could, theoretically, feed everyone if only we wasted nothing and distribution was fair. I don’t know – reports vary. But I’d bet my arse that such systems cannot be sustained, even if population growth was falling.

It’s our mindset which has to change, our attitude to all people, rich and poor, and to ALL species, not just those we have a use for or which look cute. I long for the day when we don’t have to protect nature from ourselves.

Posted in Civilisation | 2 Comments

Why blog?

Good old WordPress – their annual stats have handily revealed that this blog gets about the same number of visitors whether I post to it or not! The Cheery Pessimist started in May 2010 as a blog about the energy crisis but is really just a place to dump my thoughts and practice writing. I posted 11 times in 2010 but don’t have figures for how many people viewed the site, though I know it wasn’t many and comments were mostly from people I knew. Not really the point of blogging! In 2011, I managed 8 posts and got a pleasing 1,500 viewings, while 2012 saw a paltry 3 posts but 1,400 viewings. So while I do feel a little bad at neglecting my blog, and remain perpetually in awe of those who write for a living (or even regularly), I know that I need a better reason to write than feeling that I should.

Social Reporters
If given a deadline, I usually stick to it. I like deadlines, I need deadlines, but they work better for me if they are someone else’s. During 2012, I also posted 8 blogs on the Transition Network’s Social Reporters site. A Chance is Enough, an interview with the inspirational Eva Schonveld, is the only blog I’ve also put on this site. That post gave a wee summary of my three previous posts but since then I’ve written about the Transition Research Network, Reforesting Scotland, my adventures with setting up a local Community Trust and looked into another aspect of supermarkets: The Gruen Transfer.

So I am still blogging, nearly three years later, just not here. And as for why I do it, I’m not sure. I guess I like the fact that you can take time to mould your thoughts into something, hopefully, understandable. In conversation, my single mouth fails to cope with the multiple thoughts which inevitably thunder into my mind, before most of them thunder off again. Giving lectures is better – you’ve prepared your words and there are pictures too.

Knowing there is an audience, a potentially critical audience, certainly helps me to think hard about what I’m saying. I shudder to think how many hours I’ve spent composing text which ultimately succumbs to the delete button, especially on email lists where geoengineering is hailed as the solution we’re all too dumb to appreciate! I’ve been slacking off on such exchanges, partly to find time to blog and partly because it has become so obvious to me that we are never going to voluntarily choose to become sustainable – fracking has proven that to me. This is what I believe; others don’t. That’s fine – it was ever thus. But we still need to have conversations about the issues no one wants to face, including me. We’re at the peak, we’re hitting barriers – what should we do about that? That’s one reason to blog.

What do the next five years hold here where I live, or there where you live? Does the phrase ‘triple dip recession’ make you shout at the radio? Will the Tories’ Bedroom Tax be a step too far in taking from those who already have so little, while the rich get richer? What do you think?

Posted in Writing | 7 Comments

Tales untold

I don’t know how many column inches have been given over to the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) disaster but not many told the stories of ordinary people. While the environmental impact is often prominent in oil spill reporting, initially at least, the people affected rarely feature. Seeing Look Left Look Right’s production of NOLA at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last Wednesday (15 April 2012) was the next best thing to interviewing these people yourself.

NOLA, a local acronym for New Orleans, Louisiana, is a verbatim play based on interviews carried out since December 2010 with various people affected by DWH. And it was brilliant! Four actors played various characters including rig workers who managed to escape, people who fished for a living, those who helped clean oiled birds and those who lost loved ones.

One character, a local doctor, opined “you can find out all about how pelicans and shrimp and fish and whales were affected but not about the people”. It’s true. In many disasters, from earthquakes to war, it is only the impact on people we hear about while associated environmental damage goes unreported. Yet we don’t we hear about the impacts of DWH on people’s livelihoods and their health, even although they continue today.

Another character said that if the spill had been off the coast of Angola, it would have been “a one-day wonder” as far as media coverage goes. This character was anonymous, the only one to feature in the play without a name and occupation ascribed, making an old cynic like me suspect they were from BP, or at least from the industry. Let’s replace ‘Angola’ with ‘Russia’ for a moment and see if I am being cynical.

At 4.9 million barrels, the DWH explosion is often described as the “largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry”, beaten only by the deliberate release of around 6 million barrels by Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait in 1991. So what about the 30 million barrels of oil spilled on land each year by the Russian oil industry? This oil, which amounts to several DWH disasters, hasn’t even made it to “one-day wonder” status. Greenpeace has investigated and documented the ongoing disaster, revealing how the oil seeps into rivers and farmland, suffocating plants and animals, and forcing people to abandon the area as food and water supplies are poisoned. Perhaps the DWH spill was merely in the right part of the world to be noticed.

Back at the post-play debate, my co-debater was Rob Edwards, an environmental journalist who writes for the Sunday Herald. The first question from the audience was whether the impact of 4.9 million barrels of oil was worse than the gradual pollution which would have been caused if that oil had made it to market. A good question which I answered by extolling the virtues of  the notion to ‘leave it in the ground’, not that we are likely to do that any time soon.

The discussion moved on to the role of the arts in getting social and environmental messages out there. Yes, of course a play like NOLA will reach new audiences with rarely heard voices but is it really information we lack? Is there really a story, once told, which will wake us up to the havoc we are wreaking on the Earth?

And, inevitably, there was a ‘what we can do?’ question. I wish I knew. We talk about tackling climate change and weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels but there’s nothing quite like oil. The popular solutions tend to be those that allow us to go on living as we do now. In addition, everything we hold dear requires the economy to grow, which requires more energy to process more natural resources to sell to us, the ‘consumers’, to keep the economic merry-go-round turning. So one thing we can do is to stop buying new stuff! But that’s a drop in the ocean. A look at the oil industry sees us pushing the limits to record-breaking depths and in increasingly hostile locations, where the potential for future disasters can only rise. How will the Arctic fare when that pesky ice melts and drilling for oil and gas escalates off the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway and elsewhere in Arctic Russia – and will those tales be told?

You can join Greenpeace and ‘Save the Arctic’ here. This post was written for Greenpeace Edinburgh’s blog. Tonight, I’m off to see Donovan Hohn and Kate Rawles speak at the Book Festival. Donovan wrote Moby-Duck after hearing about 28,902 bath toys which spilled into the Pacific en route to the US from China and have been washing up along beaches throughout the world (or have they?). Kate’s book, The Carbon Cycle, tells of her 4,553 mile cycle ride from Texas to Alaska, encountering bears, wolves and a lynx. Should be good & I’ll endeavour to report back on my Book Festival exploits…

Posted in Growth, Pollution | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A chance is enough

Well, 2 March was a while ago and life hasn’t stopped interveneing so here are links to some other articles I’ve written for the Social Reporters‘ since then.

After my first social report on Energy, discussions came round to the fact that I work part time in a supermarket – so that became an article. Then there was a session on ‘transitioners without initiative‘, of which I’m one so an easy prompt to get me writing. Maybe I should explain that the term refers to those involved with Transition to some extent but not actually part of a local Transition group. Although if it meant someone shit-scared of the future but lacking the attributes to really make a difference, that fits too!

And finally, posted today, is my interview with the wonderful Eva Schonveld (from where the title of this post comes). Eva is the leading light behind Transition in Scotland and interviewing her was fascinating. I had been interviewed a few times before, but conducting an interview was a new experience for me. In addition, it was all typically rushed so I was amazed how well it went given how little thought went into the questions. Maybe this blog will see more interviews in future? Do let me know if you have any ideas for inspirational people to interview, ideally located near Edinburgh!

Posted in Transition | 2 Comments


It is truly shocking that I haven’t posted since last year! I want to link to my good pal’s excellent blog on his life in transition in northern Portugal and also a link to an article, called Seven years on the plateau, which I wrote recently for the Transition Network’s Social Reporters site. I will write again, as soon as life stops intervening!

Posted in Transition | 4 Comments