So, the world is protesting against increasing social and economic injustice – about time! But what are we protesting for? I visited the Occupy Edinburgh site at St Andrew’s Square on Thursday (20 Oct) – there are some good photos here. If anyone reading this finds themselves in Edinburgh, do go along and say hello – 2 minutes from bus station and 4 minutes from Waverley. While handing out leaflets, I was impressed by how many passers-by were supportive – they wouldn’t have crossed the threshold to the camp but were happy to talk and the phrase “it’s great what you are doing” was heard more than once.
While having a chat about anarcho-primitivism (as you do!) I noticed a guy walk past and look at the wee marquee where free food and hot drinks were on display. He walked on but then came back and said to me, “I’m homeless”. He said it in such a way that I thought he was asking if it was OK to come in. I welcomed him in for a cup of tea and said, “you don’t need to have a house to be welcome here”. I then heard someone say that the Mosque kitchen was providing free food that night. A woman called Hannah from Friends of the Earth Scotland came over and said they had international activists over for a conference or some such and how could they help. Oh, the coming together of people – it makes me want to greet just typing this! People of all faiths and none. People homeless and dispossessed. Students and workers. People talking about history, politics and energy (OK, the latter was me!) We really are the 99% – possibly 99.9% – certainly the vast majority.
However, I have mixed feelings about this year of protest. From Tunisia and Egypt to New York and London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and 900 sites around the world, people know that something’s seriously wrong with the system we live in. But if everyone who is concerned about the social, economic and environmental injustices being carried out in the name of progress, civilisation, development (call it what you will) got together, what would the slogan be? The problem is that most people simply don’t have the capacity (time &/or will) to analyse how we came to this situation where a mere 0.5% of the world’s adult population are millionaires (i.e. their net assets exceed $1 million), while billions live in poverty. They know the cost of living is rising, while house prices and wages (if they still have a job) are falling. But it’s hard to get people to engage with the idea of radical change because we’ve been sold the myth that capitalism is the only way. It isn’t. It was imposed by those who thought capitalism was a good way to seem to spread the wealth amongst everyone while it actually accumulated in the assets and bank accounts of the few – the old trickle-down bullshit! That said, some certainly did have the interests of the masses at heart, such as John Stuart Mill, who I’ve written about previously.
But you only have to look around to see that the gap between rich and poor is wider now than ever. Almost half the world live on less than $2.50 a day if this report is correct. Since 2008, half the world live in cities http://www.unfpa.org/pds/urbanization.htm, having been forced by war or economics to leave their land. We have indigenous peoples being displaced as we harvest their forests and mine their ores. We have our insatiable appetite for fossil fuel energy seeing us switch to tar sands and other non-conventional fossil fuels (with their lower energy returns) while CO2 levels rise year on year. I could go on but will spare you – even I can’t find a humorous side to this.
It’s taken me nigh on 20 years to understand that the problem is civilisation itself and I really don’t know what to do with this belief (other than adopting my default setting of hoping I’m wrong!). We take resources from around the world, forcing people off of their land, forcing them to live how we think they should (“Here, buy this.” “No, you can’t do that.” “If you don’t believe this, you’ll be eternally damned.”) to feed the desires of those who can afford to buy. The Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries in Scotland continues to this day. Over half of the global population now live in cities, yet I just don’t see how cities can feed themselves from their own land – that is, without importing resources from other people’s land, not to mention the wildlife which once lived there before the monocultures came. That said, I do believe we should try and the Transition movement is key to this aspiration. But we also need to get real about the limits to growth and consumption. And equality – where’s the Make Millionaires History campaign?
We have to see ourselves as part of nature rather than thinking we can control it and this is hardest message of all because it only features in the world-view of indigenous people – those who understand that their survival depends on protecting those resources, not exploiting them in the name of progress. This kind of talk then leads those who disagree to complain that we want to ‘go back to the Stone Age’ or live in caves. But perhaps the Stone Age was the last time humans lived sustainably? I struggle to grow a bit of veg and do not know how such a transition could happen. But I do believe that we are right up against the limits to growth and that we must not be afraid to talk about such issues.
Next year is the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Limits to Growth, which argued that unchecked consumption and economic growth on our finite planet would lead to disaster. Put simply – we’re using too much stuff and it has to stop or there will be trouble. But that’s not a message anyone wants to hear – we’ve been sold the myth that the future will always provide more than the past; so long as we work and spend, our kids will do better than we did if we just trust the system. Now that myth is wearing thin and what replaces it is up to us – our collective actions will determine the future. The streets are full of protest but I’m not sure what we want.