“The modern day external shocks are clear: energy depletion, climate change, ageing populations and migration. They are altering the dynamics of capitalism and making it unworkable in the long term…” Paul Mason, The End of Capitalism has Begun (The Guardian, 17 July 2015)
As the planet burns, wealth has been rushing up, not down
Three pieces of recent news should give all of us pause, as they tell us something about the nature of capitalism and the state of the world in it’s present form.
Firstly Oxfam’s recent report on the growing wealth divide in which it was revealed that 62 individuals own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people.
That’s not the most shocking thing about their report though: since 2010 the wealth of the 1% has been growing at an exponential rate while the wealth of the bottom third of humanity has decreased by trillions of dollars.
As we take a moment to ponder the implications of this massive transfer of wealth from, let’s consider a piece of “science” news.
The World Meteorological Organisation has just announced that 2015 was the hottest year on record:
The global average surface temperature in 2015 broke all previous records by a strikingly wide margin, at 0.76±0.1° Celsius above the 1961-1990 average. For the first time on record, temperatures in 2015 were about 1°C above the pre-industrial era, according to a consolidated analysis from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
The future, should we fail to act decisively now looks grim:
“We have reached for the first time the threshold of 1°C above pre-industrial temperatures. It is a sobering moment in the history of our planet, ” said Mr Taalas. ” If the commitments made during the climate change negotiations in Paris and furthermore a higher emission reduction ambition level is reached, we still have chance to stay within the maximum 2°C limit,” said Mr Taalas.
As the planet burns, wealth has been rushing up, not down.
The third piece of news? We’ve also ushered in a new geological age:
Humans have produced enough concrete to thinly pave the entire surface of the Earth, while carbon dioxide emissions are rising 100 times quicker than at any time during the past 800,000 years.
Such dramatic transformations of the planet are showing up in the world’s sediments and warrant the declaration of a new geological epoch – aptly known as Anthropocene to reflect humanity’s role – according to a new paper published in the journal Science.
The research, compiled by two dozen scientists and academics, identified planet-wide impacts ranging from nuclear fallout from weapons testing to mining that displaces 57 billion tonnes of material a year – or almost three times the amount of sediment carried by the world’s rivers.
What is one to make of these reports?
Welcome to the Anthropocene: where economics, environmental collapse and politics collide
Typically these pieces of information are presented separately, often buried among the middle pages of the remaining print newspapers in their op-ed sections.
Taken together they paint a picture of the world today: that of rising temperatures, rising inequality and burgeoning conditions for social upheaval.
Journalist Eugene Linden in his work “The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations” notes this repeating pattern throughout history. From the collapse of the Greenland Viking colonies, the climatic chaos of the Little Ice Ages or the fall of the Mayan kingdoms due to extreme drought, shifts in climate and weather often preempt and drive significant disruptions to human societies.
The concern is that we may not be adequately prepared for it:
“We have not been tested by climate change. Moreover, humans have a tendency to fit new information into familiar patterns. This may explain why so few people have noted that the climate began changing during the past two decades, and even fewer more have become alarmed…”
What is true of the climate, is also true and the growing disparity in wealth and the ecological destruction around us.
The best of times, the worst of times: conditions for social disruption?
This wealth transfer, and the stealthy takeover of the planet by corporations, has been in progress for decades. It is a process that individually we have not noticed, nor seen how it was effected. And yet we are now living with the results of the free-market extremism of neo-libralism.
Greece’s former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, recently summed up this state of affairs in a recent TED talk:
“Democracy. In the West, we make a colossal mistake taking it for granted. We see democracy not as the most fragile of flowers that it really is, but we see it as part of our society’s furniture. We tend to think of it as an intransigent given. We mistakenly believe that capitalism begets inevitably democracy. It doesn’t.
Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and his great imitators in Beijing have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it is perfectly possible to have a flourishing capitalism, spectacular growth, while politics remain democracy free. Indeed, democracy is receding in our neck of the woods, here in Europe.
Earlier this year, while I was representing Greece — the newly elected Greek government — in the Eurogroup as its Finance Minister, I was told in no uncertain terms that our nation’s democratic process — our elections — could not be allowed to interfere with economic policies that were being implemented in Greece. At that moment, I felt that there could be no greater vindication of Lee Kuan Yew, or the Chinese Communist Party, indeed of some recalcitrant friends of mine who kept telling me that democracy would be banned if it ever threatened to change anything…”
We live in an era of rapid technological, economic and social change. Some of these changes are empowering the individual and society, while others constrain them.
As the Anthropocene dawns we witness conditions that proceeded the great revolutions of the past.
In this I am reminded of the French Revolution, and Dicken’s famous opening lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”