Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Have we really decided that progress is profit over people?

Waking up another day during summer drought and a heat wave in Namibia and I watch as our factories spew waste and we all drive singly into the city with our cars sputtering smoke in the air.

We are all complaining. Desperate, for rain. But most of us don't realise that we are the cause of all this, and are continuously making our situation worse. Our development plan is meant to be sustainable but it continues to be a copy-and-paste approach from western paradigms of development. Our air conditioning causes the climate to become hotter, and in turn we put the air conditioning on higher.

We, as humanity have come to a point where our destruction has caused suffering onto ourselves.

Naomi Klein, in her book "This Changes Everything", puts it like this "And we tell ourselves all kinds of similarly implausible no-consequences stories all the time, about how we can ravage the world and suffer no adverse effects. Indeed we are always surprised when it works out otherwise. We extract and do not replenish and wonder why the fish have disappeared and the soil needs even more inputs (like phosphate) to stay fertile. We occupy countries and arm their militas and then wonder why they hate us. We drive down wages, ship jobs oversees, destroy worker protections, hollow out local economies, then wonder why people can't afford to shop as much as they used to. We offer those failed shoppers subprime mortgages instead of steady jobs and then wonder why noone foresaw that a system built on bad debts would collapse."

And so the vicious cycle continues, into the Global South.Yet, what about so many other ways we could be living. What about the better life we could be living, without ruining the conditions we live in.

Why do we live in a world where we choose profit over people? How can we say Namibia is progressing when I see more and more men on the side of the street desperate for work, and more and more fancy Land Cruisers and Prados on the street electronically closing their windows as they come to a stop sign, not wanting to face the sadness of the desperately unemployed and hungry. Off the Prados go home to their high walls and big screen TVs where they don't know their neighbours and spend their time in a virtual world that is causing them depression, anxiety and loneliness. A world where the connection they have is with their smart phones. Smart phones that were built off the bloody backs of desperate people waging war in countries like Congo. What progress is this? Why are we choosing this path - and why are we choosing this path when we know that it will probably kill us in our lifetimes, or at best, our children's lifetimes?

And to think of the rapidly developing nations who are following the god of economic growth, while paying lip service at the major climate conferences. Like Klein says, the victims of this are real people - the workers who lose their factory jobs in Juarez and Windsor; the workers who get the factory jobs in Shenzen and Dhaka, jobs that are by this point so degraded that some employers install nets along the perimeters of roofs to catch employees when they jump. Toddlers mouthing lead-laden toys, the Walmart employee expected to work over the American holiday just to be trampled by a stampede of frenzied customers, while not earning a living wage. And the Chinese villagers whos' water is contaminated by one of those coal plants we all use as our excuse of inaction.

Venezuelan political scientist Edgargo Lander said quite aptly "The total failure of climate negotiation serves to highlight the extent to which we now live in a post-democratic society. The interests of financial capital and the oil industry are much more important than the democratic will of people around the world. In the global neoliberal society profit is more important than life."

Klein in her book says that to avoid carnage there needs to be radical and immediate de-growth strategies. Now, especially to us still trying to "develop", this sounds unfair and apocalyptic - as if reducing emissions requires massive economic crises and human suffering. But that seems so only because we have an economic system that fetishizes GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human and ecological consequences, while failing to place value on those that most of us cherish above all - a decent standard of living, a measure of future security, and our relationships with one another. We are permanently faced with advertisements giving us fantasies displayed as attainable realities, but at the cost of hyper consumption and worse problems in the nations where people live this charade of a Fake Empire than in those where we are considered poor.

Lets look at some of our sectors:

Generally, those sectors that are not governed by the drive for increased yearly profit - the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, non profits should expand their share of the overall economic activity. Prosperity without Growth, by Tim Jackson says that "in the first place, the time spent by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives. Making them more efficient is not, after a certain point, actually desirable. What sense does it make to ask teachers to teach bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour?"

When we start delving into the depths of the fossil fuel industry excusing the boiling of the climate because the alternatives are just not feasible. So instead we dig deeper and dirtier, conducting the business of mountain top coal, fracking, tar sands, and horizon drilling. All the while renewable energy isn't only in our reach, it is, quite frankly, desirable. Plenty of reports and publications that show various countries in the world being capable of going 60% by 2030 in US, 100% in Australia in next ten years, why still the dependence on oil, fracking, mountain top coal? And for those of us pushing for nuclear power and advocating that it is carbon free - vast amounts of fossil fuels must be burned to mine, transport and enrich uranium!

Lets look at food - its often claimed that the Green Revolution saved the world from hunger. But the problem is, that even with the Green Revolution, starvation continues, particularly in India where it was the most intense. Climate-smart, conservation agriculture or agroecelogical projects can work because they are characterised not by expensive fertilizer from Yara and proprietary seeds from Monsanto, but knowledge developed and shared by subsistence farmers freely and equitably. When we take our fish, for instance in Africa and compare artisanal to industrial fisheries. Every part of the equation, whether its capital investment, employment creation along the value chain, and social positives, come out better with artisanal - yet we still push for export-led large scale industrial fisheries in our economic development in coastal countries of Africa.

The emergence of positive, practical and concrete alternatives to dirty development that do not ask people to choose between higher living standards and toxic extraction do exist. And there are alternative models of development that do not require massive wealth stratification, tragic cultural losses, or ecological devastation. Movements in our Global South are fighting hard for these alternative development models - policies that would bring power to a larger amount of people through decentralised renewable energy and revolutionized urban transport so that public transit is much more desirable than private cars. We just need to ask the right questions - what is important to us? What is important to me? What do I want Namibia, and Africa, and indeed the world, to really look like? And I am sure most of us, probably 99% of us would say, not like this.

So how do we stop and reroute the powerful economic wheel from turning, especially when a number of very powerful individuals, and indeed many of us, think we depend on GDP growth and dirty energy only for our wellbeing. Well, lets look at an example of a large scale social change that happened because a number of people were being treated in a grotesque manner, even though it brought economic returns that were unmeasureable to those in power. The slave trade. Chris Hayes wrote an essay comparing climate change to the abolition of slavery. At the time when the slave trade was being abolished slave labour was worth, in today's terms, 10 trillion USD. This is roughly the same value of the amount of carbon reserves still in the ground. If we have chosen society over profit before for a socially just cause, then there should be no reason why we shouldn't do this again. Especially when the entire human race is now at stake.

[Watch this space for some work on For Progress Namibia - a project some of us are embarking on to look at this very different alternative development model for Namibia.] 

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