GUEST COLUMNIST: Pursuit of wealth depletes natural capital and threatens human species

TWO news stories from recent days eloquently reveal the madness of a world order that we have come to accept as normal, as “the way things are”.

On Monday, RTE’s Ray Kennedy reported from Niger. Not from Nigeria, but from Niger. Fair play, incidentally, to our beleaguered national broadcaster for sending him to a place that most of us would have difficulty finding on a map.

Kennedy has a compelling news story to tell, though many commercial news organisations will ignore it. The Government of Niger has been unable to persuade the international community to pledge €700 million to avert a famine. Yet another sub-Saharan disaster looms.

In a rather fine speech to commemorate our own experience of the Great Famine on Sunday, Enda Kenny, had reminded us of something very relevant to Niger’s crisis.

While multitudes of Irish people were dying of hunger in the late 1840s, he said, “Shops were still full of food. The well-off [were] still sated.”

The Taoiseach is making a very important point. Famine is rarely a question of the availability of food. Even in years of terrible harvests, there is usually enough to feed everyone. The problem is entitlement to food, not its availability.

In times of scarcity, prices soar and entitlement to food is severely limited by lack of cash, unless governments intervene in markets. A recent American book, Hunger: the biology and politics of starvation, traces this grim phenomenon through human history, using the Irish Famine as its key example.

Pity the people of Niger, who will now likely die in their hundreds of thousands. They will die because of their shortage of cash, not food. The global financial crisis is choking off aid budgets and donations that just might have alleviated that shortage. Right to life, how are you? Just as we were learning that the entire world could not find €700m to feed the people of Niger, we were also trying to digest the news that the JP Morgan bank had managed to lose €2bn in a single sequence of risky trading.

The bank’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, a fierce opponent of regulation of the financial sector, did have the grace to admit that he and his colleagues had been “sloppy and stupid”. Amen to that.

If only they had been generous instead of stupid. One third of JP Morgan’s losses could have fed the people of Niger.

But profits, enormous profits, are sacrosanct in the global financial markets. Much more sacrosanct than human life. A mad world indeed, with mad rulers.

There is, even now, no austerity on the agenda for the likes of Jamie Dimon, much less for his clients.

But that’s just the way things are, isn’t it? Well, yes it is. But things can change, and they always do change, one way or another. We should never forget that. The real question is, can we still make them change for the better? The financial industry has been playing, and continues to play, so recklessly, for such high stakes — entire currencies, for example — that things may very well change for the worse. Not that the people of Niger are likely to notice that.

Deregulated banks and bond market speculators still surf insanely after ever-larger profits. They are doing it so sloppily that they have accumulated enough debt to sink whole societies.

Criminally complacent governments — yes, it was indeed “economic treason” — went along for the ride. Along the way, they ditched not only financial regulation, but prudence in the management of our national accounts.

The Fiscal Stability Treaty is supposed to deal with the latter problem, which must indeed be addressed.

But many of us wonder why we should put iron clamps on the flexibility of our elected representatives, while continuing to leave the markets free destabilise the European Union, and the wider world. We need a much broader vision than that offered by this treaty and its political sponsors if we are to move forward confidently into a better future.

At the moment, as the economic storm rages, it feels as if we, the citizens, are being spewed up on a barren beach, our pockets empty. And it’s pretty obvious to all of us by now that things could, indeed, get much worse, and very quickly.

There are some among us — the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, the xenophobic National Front in France — who are using this crisis to advance monstrous agendas of ultra-nationalist racism and violence. This is the very right-wing madness that our European Union was established to eliminate for ever.

There are others who cling to reviving the old dreams of the left. Given the outrageously rapacious behaviour of so many of our leading capitalists in recent years, that is understandable.

As the financier George Soros memorably put it — and he should know: “This is class war. My class is winning. And it shouldn’t be.”

But I don’t see convincing new solutions being advanced by the class warriors of the left either. The last century’s tragic experiments with state socialism failed, and showed us that we do need markets.

Conversely, the current failed experiment of unbridled capitalism shows us that these markets need to be strictly supervised.

Obviously, we must find ways of renewing our democracies, so that our elected governments regulate our banks and corporations, and not the other way around.

Resolving the deficits in our markets, and in our democratic systems, will be difficult enough. Yet that may be, relatively speaking, the easy bit.

The bigger, much bigger, challenge will be to change the way we live, and what we live for, individually and collectively.

The consumer ethic — “I shop, therefore I am” — is the trap that has led so many of us to entrust our sense of wellbeing in the world to market forces over which we have lost control.

We have come to believe that “growth” must always mean the acquisition of more material goods. The skilful manipulation of illusion, envy and greed by the advertising industry convinces us that one more acquisition — one more shirt, one more car, one more sexual partner — will bring us happiness. And then, of course, they will tell us that we still need more.

In pursuit of this illusion, we are already consuming more natural capital — the ultimate source of all our wealth — than the Earth can produce. The Living Planet Index, just released, estimates that we would need two planets to sustain us by 2030 if (over) consumption continues at current rates. That is a deficit that puts our current financial and political woes, severe as they are, in stark perspective.

Resolving these massive triple deficits — in our economies, our democracies, and our use of natural resources — will test our species to the limits over the coming decades.

Only a dramatic shift in our culture of consumption will enable us to meet these challenges effectively.

That’s a big problem, for sure. But you can bet that the people of Niger wished they shared it with us.

* Hunger: the Biology and Politics of Starvation, by John R. Butterly and Jack Shepherd, is published by Dartmouth College Press, New England.

Living Planet Index: Public Lectures on Sustainable Consumption, NUI Galway, tomorrow and Saturday:


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