Morality, reality, and policy

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Economic strategies worldwide take precious little account of the world’s real problems, says Colin Tudge 

Even at this late hour, we (humanity) might still realistically hope to prevent the world’s final descent from catastrophe into meltdown – provided we took the real problems seriously enough and really were prepared to do, in Rishi Sunak’s bulldog phrase, “whatever it takes” to turn things around. 

But of course we don’t. Instead, through habit or convenience or because, in much of the world, we are liable to be shot or otherwise disappear if we don’t, we put our trust in governments. But modern governments in turn are beholden to corporates, and both depend on financiers of various kinds including the whimsical super-rich like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, and all take advice from experts and intellectuals though only when it suits them (as the covid inquiry is now making abundantly clear) and, on the whole, only from people who say what they want to hear, which, in the main, is how to become even richer. The world’s most influential people don’t waste time with pesky radicals (even the kind that have Nobel prizes) or turbulent priests. True democracy would surely help us to do better but democracy in practice is too difficult. The roughly twice-per-decade first-past-the-post general elections we’re accustomed to in Britain don’t really seem to fit the bill.  British elections are usually a two-horse race and as the satirist, cartoonist, and jazz clarinettist Wally Faukes commented circa 1960, it’s usually like choosing between stale trifle and sweaty cheddar.  

Many governments, or seriously influential people outside government, don’t take serious things seriously at all. Donald Trump still thinks global warming is a scam, put up by the wily Democrats, even as California and Florida, his favourite states, burn and flood or are simply blown away. Putin continues to pursue his wild and profligate dreams even though Siberia – Siberia! – lately burned like the Australian bush.  Whatever else it does, the war in Ukraine will not slow global warming. Neither will the war in Gaza. Both are driven by fanatical leaders backed by minorities – which are likely to be small minorities. On Channel 4 recently a senior Middle-Eastern ex-diplomat and scholar remarked that neither Hamas nor Netanyahu have the whole-hearted support of more than five per cent of their respected electorates. But still they are all-powerful. Fanatics triumph precisely because they are fanatical. 

What of Britain? Rishi’s King’s Speech on November 7 had some good things in it, including a ban on the export of live cattle to be slaughtered on foreign soil, a perverse and cruel example of commercial chicanery. But there’s a lot more wrong with Britain’s and the world’s farming than that – the whole thing needs re-thinking and re-structuring; and Rishi’s virtual ban on smoking does nothing to solve the immediate and long-term problems of the NHS; and whole life sentences for sadistic and sexually motivated murder does not easily square with the critical shortage of prison space; and tweaks to the leasing laws hardly seem likely to dent the huge and growing housing crisis; and it really isn’t easy to see how the extension of licenses for North Sea oil will help the promised transition to renewables, as the government claims, especially as the newly extracted oil is destined for export. In short, the government’s stall that was spread out before us with all the pomp and ceremony at which Britain really does excel, and was introduced to us by the highest in the land, had very little on it.  Like a bring-n-buy stall with nothing on it but a warm bottle of Liebfraumilch and a plastic fruit bowl (with a dead fly in it). Hardly worth putting on the gaiters for. 

In matters environmental Britain claims as in all good things to “lead the world”, though churls and killjoys may dare to suggest that the noxious condition of our rivers, lakes, and seashores, and the parlous state of our wildlife in general, and our paucity of trees compared to our European neighbours, and our uninsulated houses, and the continued enthusiasm in high places for industrial farming and building on erstwhile greenbelts, throw doubt on this. We do however mount high-profile, high-sounding conferences, like the Global Food Security Summit that was held in London on November 20.  Again the doomsters and nay-sayers might suggest that a one-day gathering somewhat bizarrely co-hosted by the UK, UEA, and Somalia wasn’t exactly global, and even though there were representatives from 20 countries they weren’t national leaders so it wasn’t exactly a summit. 

The agenda, though, was even more limited than its line-up. Its stated purpose was to “galvanize action to deal with hunger and malnutrition” which sounds very promising. But as the rest of the opening sentence made clear, the emphasis was to be on “cutting edge UK-funded science and technology”. The fundamental question, of course, is whether and when “cutting edge science and technology” is what the world really needs – whether and when, as E F Schumacher put the matter in the early 1970s, high-tech is the most appropriate. Some high-tech is indeed very useful – robust vaccines, accurate weather forecasts, the internet and mobile phones. AI in general surely has a lot more to offer on many fronts. But will GM crops and the Monbiot-style ersatz food factories that still stir such excitement in high places really help us to deliver good food for everyone without wrecking traditional societies and trashing the natural world?  I’ve discussed all this from various angles many a time and oft on this website (as referenced below). I don’t know whether these issues were discussed in depth or indeed at all but at a one-day meeting of self-confessed technophiles, co-funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this doesn’t seem very likely. I doubt whether the key concepts of agroecology or food sovereignty got much of a look-in. The closing address came from our brand-new and freshly refurbished and re-cycled Foreign Secretary Lord David (“That Green Crap”) Cameron. ’Nuff said. 

Similarly, in yesterday’s Autumn Statement chancellor Jeremy Hunt offered sweeteners here and there but continues to embrace the neoliberal economy even though it fails to recognize the importance of the natural world and is designed single-mindedly to maximize profit and bring about “growth”, even though indefinite growth is impossible in a finite world unless the economy is completely uncoupled from natural resource, which it obviously isn’t and never can be. Governments like ours fail to acknowledge too that the main economic problem in a rich country like ours, and indeed in most of the world, is not lack of wealth per se but economic inequality, and the neoliberal competition for more and more wealth in the global market is bound to make the rich richer and the poor grow poorer which indeed is what’s happening. Hunt’s sweeteners are crumbs from the rich man’s table, and the government’s solution is to make the table bigger so that it can deliver more crumbs. And that, quite simply, is absurd.  

In truth, when governments and corporates and financiers and their selected advisers hold what they pretend and possibly believe are serious talks on serious matters, they invariably bring two quite different and contradictory agendas to the table. To be fair, most are for the most part cognizant of the problems they are discussing and really would like to solve them. After all, most of the delegates are not monsters, and they all live on this planet whether they or the rest of us like it or not, and many have children and are aware of something called “the future” (albeit with a highly truncated view of what “the future” is, or could be). Most of them must know even if Trump does not that global warming is real, and could make nonsense of everything else we may aspire to do – and that global warming is not the world’s only problem. 

But for the most part our trusted leaders are badly educated. Expensively educated, to be sure. Oxford is a much-favoured alma mater. But narrowly: typically with a solid grounding in neoliberal economics, though not in economic alternatives, or in anything much outside economics. (The covid inquiry has revealed that the man in charge of Britain’s covid strategy, Boris Johnson, educated in Classics at Balliol, was hopelessly at sea in all matters vaguely scientific, which does seem a drawback when the problem in hand is primarily one of epidemiology. But that did not stop him imposing his will. Ideology trumps actuality every time. What the brain cannot easily grasp the makers of policy ignore). 

To a man and woman the people with most power tend to be conservative, meaning they are anxious to conserve the status quo. After all, if you’re perched at the top of the tree you don’t want the tree to be blown about. Politicians ill-versed in science and technology are wont to put their faith in the nostrums of Bill Gates et al just as Julius Caesar and Ronald Reagan put their faith in soothsayers (really!), and Vercingetorix of Asterix fame relied on the advice and ministrations of the wizard Getafix, who cured all ills with mistletoe cut with a golden sickle. But as fully trained neoliberals our present leaders take it for granted that all human activity of all kinds must be profitable, and preferably maximally profitable, and anything that isn’t they deem to be “unrealistic”, the ramblings of hippies. So although radical solutions are obviously needed, any thoughts outside the mainstream are excluded from the outset. 

Truly we need to do better than this. Truly we need to ask fundamental questions, not merely asking what is most profitable in the short term, or what is most convenient for the people with most influence, but what is really needed to make the world a better place, to secure better lives for humanity and our fellow creatures, not just until the next election or for a few more decades but for millennia to come. And to this end we need to get back to the Bedrock Principles of morality (compassion, humility, the sense of Oneness) and the serious, eclectic science of ecology. Neoliberal economics ignores both principles and clearly is not what we need, and winning the next election by whatever dubious means should not be our leaders’ priority. Truly we need the Renaissance, and truly it needs to be led and driven not by the present-day powers-that-be with their hype and their less-than-global one-day global “summits” but by us, people at large, or at least by those who really give a damn and want the world to be kinder and more secure. 

(I know I say the same thing over and over again but as the eminently wise Greta Thunberg has observed, and as all television advertisers know, you have to say the same thing over and over again if you really want to make an impact). 

Other relevant blogs on this website include

Of HS2 and GMOs,31 October 2023; The philosophy of technology,7 June 2023; From story book to cloud cuckoo land one easy step, 1 June 2023; Who are the real friends of science?March 14 2023; GMOs: Seven obvious questions in search of straightforward answers, 28 December 2012. 



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