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Chapter 3. Converging Crises

How the divorce between power and politics leads to increased insecurity

People feel more insecure because politics and power have been disconnected. Multinational corporations make decisions within transnational market conditions that can just marginally be controlled. This feeling of insecurity undoubtedly goes with the fear of losing jobs and material welfare; legitimate fears. Zygmunt Bauman describes them:

Power is the ability to act, Bauman argues. Politics is the ability to decide what will happen. Power and politics have been torn apart. Where politics used to have power to make thinks happen, they can now only make plans but have limited power for their execution.

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Resource Crisis – introduction

We are running out of natural resources. Limited resources for more people means trouble. What are we running out of exactly, how do these relate and what does it mean?

Zizek, with Ed Ayres, sees four spikes of environmental threat: population growth, consumption of resources, carbon gas emissions, mass extinction of species.[1]

Bloomberg recently turned things around; it’s not that humanity is threatening the earth, but the earth treats humanity. That is, they distinguished nine boundaries that will threat human living conditions. From their perspective (see image), it’s first and foremost declining biodiversity that will render the planet uninhabitable.

Main conclusion is that systems that support human life are being depleted now rapidly, with unpredictable effects but with food being the ultimate resource. Some of these we are experiencing already quite forcefully; high oil prices, rising food prices, atmospheric instability.

The most important dimensions of resource depletion will be described in this part.

  1. [1]Zizek 2011: 327, quoting Ed Ayres (2001), quoted in Rolston, “Four Spikes, Last Chance”, Conservation Biology 14:2, pp. 584-5.

Ill Fares The Land – Tony Judt (2010)

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

Free market atrocities have to be balanced by government. Judt describes how the wellfare state, built upon the ruins of the Second World War, has been squandered since Reagan and Thatcher adopted neo-liberal market fundamentalism. Every statesman and citizen should read this book. I think the argument is powerful and of life-saving importance. On top of that, I like timely and seemingly-pathetic statements.

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Four Horsemen – and other crisis documentaries

We are living in turbulent times. I could not help but coming to a selection of films screening at IDFA that not even make the point we are on a tipping point for our survival as a species, but rather depart from that point. Are we living in The End Times, as Slavoj Zizek puts it? The Four Horsemen in Ross Ashcrofts’ 2011 film are mere indicators for the tipping point we reach; banking crisis, terrorism, inequality and a resource crisis (see presentation below).

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Converging Crises

Multiple systems supporting human life on earth are threatened. We are running into a number of boundaries in the natural and social worlds. First, natural resources like oil and a stable climate are running low, which holds a crisis in food production and energy supply. Other natural resources like fish, fresh water and minerals are increasingly scarce. Second, social inequality is soaring, bringing many negative consequences. Third, probably as a result of the resource crisis, financials systems partially collapsed.

Before exploring ways of dealing with these phenomenal challenges, in this chapter the converging crises are explored. Both their individual impacts and combined risks are evaluated.

Complex systems theory is used to explore combined risks. Natural and the social systems have equilibria that can be seriously disturbed. Changes that used to come gradually then speed up and the results become utterly unpredictable. What will happen when we cross systemic boundaries? We do not know. But the outcomes for ourselves may depend on the wisdom of the quick decisions we make in the process.

With Jeremy Rifkin we conclude that it is not a financial crisis that leads to higher oil prices, but rather “oil is the crisis”; first oil prices started rising, only after that the housing bubble started bursting. People simply couldn’t pay their mortgage with the cost of gas rising. With the financial crisis a social crisis follows that has been mainly ideologically caused. As Naomi Klein analysed in her Shock Doctrine (2007), financial crises often result in redistribution of wealth favoring the haves. Neo-liberal market ideology resulted in soaring inequality – problematic because of status issues. But the financial crisis, with the crisis in social inequality following in its trail, has been triggered by a resource crisis.

The Big History picture holds that we are simply hitting the boundaries of the fossil fuel economy, that has been uptil recently incredibly succesful. Within decades the fossil fuel based first and second Industrial Revolutions enabled an incredibly fast growth of human population – a growth however that as we will see will stabilize at around 9 billion people in 2050. In the meanwhile however we are reaching the end of abundant oil; the success of the industrial revolutions is reaching limits of the natural resources it is depending on.

Is this a crisis of resources, energy, or ecosystems? Those are intimately related. Energy as fossil fuels was formed by the ecosystem, and burning them influences ecosystems in the form of climate change, ocean acidity and so on. We need ecosystems for breathing, food production, and oil again is needed to produce fertilizer. Meat production produces gasses influencing the climate. It is all related. The current human use of the ecological systems we depend on is unsustainable. Not even we will have to change – our natural resource use will force change upon us eventually.

Change holds opportunities. Possibilities range from mass suffering and death to emergence and establishment of new values, juster societies, secure well-being and unexpectedly rewarding social bonds. This book is dedicated to the latter options.

Inequality

Inequality is mortally dangerous.[1] Socio-economic inequality is a most perverse side effect of globalization under a neo-liberal market economic ideology. The rich grow richer while the poor lag behind. The bottom billion, World Bank economist Paul Collier calls them.[2].

Inequality within countries is the most problematic; on the large global scale, inequality between nations seems to be decreasing mainly because of the surprising development in parts of Asia and Africa. Research shows that inequality within countries has numerous disastrous social effects.[3]

Money buys you stuff, but also other people’s time. So what happens when you have a lot of money? You gain power over others. The more money, the more you can decide upon. Where money accumulates, power is concentrated. The power to keep your assets safe, as well as the power to have other people working for you. As long as markets are not corrected for the self-inflating effects of big capital, free markets lead to growing inequality.

  1. [1]Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, 2010: 81-84.
  2. [2]Collier, Paul (2007). The Bottom Billion. Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  3. [3]Judt (2010)

Finance = Trust?

Money is power. It is a social construction. In fact, all media of exchange are. As soon as you start putting something in between trading bread for fish, you rely on a belief that the ‘something in between’, like gold or shells, will in the end get you something else that will roughly equal the worth of the thing you traded it for.

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