You know the scene: a child lies on the supermarket floor yelling, kicking and screaming because his mother wouldn’t let him have junk food. The child knows his mother is too weak to stand up to him and can’t bear the spectacle, so he will win in the end.
So the parents abdicate their responsibility to their child and society at large, failing to deliver the moral training so obviously needed. As he continues to get his selfish way, his nastiness proves to be an asset. He pulls legs off insects and gleefully watches them struggle, and if his parents try to stop him there’s another wild tantrum. His sensitive sister retreats into herself and tries to build her own values but receives no support from her feckless parents.
This scenario is precisely what is happening around the world: industry and big business are the brat kids and governments are the ineffectual parents. Why is it that, despite repeated, unrelenting and escalating warnings from the entire (uncompromised) scientific community, world governments have failed to take any significant action to prevent climate change, pollution and environmental desecration? Why did nothing happen at the Copenhagen Climate talks, despite unified demands for action from the public and commentators? Simply because industry shouts so loud, and in the face of the torrent, weak governments care only for their daily image.
Greenhouse gas emissions increased to a record amount last year, according to the International Energy Agency. Some European countries claim a drop but that is only because they have exported manufacturing elsewhere. In other words, we are doing nothing to prevent global warming. Governments have utterly failed to take any long term responsibility toward the planet and future generations, because this would require the same unpleasant treatment needed for the brat kid.
Mike Joy’s brilliant article in the NZ Herald recently (The dying myth of a clean, green Aotearoa) exposed John Key in all his unfortunate weakness. Joy states that half our lakes and 90% of our lowland rivers are “classed as polluted”. Yet Key had the gall to deny this on BBC, claiming we are 100% clean! Doesn’t he care about the cow shit and bacteria in rivers made dangerously low by over-extraction of water? It doesn’t seem to matter to him that our children can’t swim or play in these waters. Why has he done nothing about this? Because the brat-kid dairy industry would throw a tantrum, screaming that clean-up measures would hurt profitability too much. And because Key is one of them anyway. A truly responsible government can only be effective if it is impartial.
This is a small scandal, but the world is tragically full of them. Take bottom trawling, described by Claire Nouvian in Above magazine as “oceanicide”. Ninety percent of marine diversity is located in the sediment on the ocean floor, in a complex system that has taken hundreds, even thousands, of years to evolve. Dragging a trawl through this is like stripping the forest and topsoil off the Amazon rain forest. Yet silently, out of the spotlight, this is what is happening as the process cleans out each newly discovered species, such as orange roughy, then moves on to the next. We might not understand the full implications, but governments and the UN do; they were petitioned by 1,400 scientists about the issues in 2004.
Why do they not act and show responsibility? Because the brat-kid fishing industry protects the mere 285 boats responsible. It gets worse; bottom trawling is actually unprofitable and only able to continue through governmental oil subsidies. Unwittingly, the taxpayer funds this destruction of our last pristine wilderness for 0.3% of fish caught, all of which are sold to industrialised countries. The ultimate brat-kid is the banking and finance industry, as now fully revealed in an award-winning documentary Inside Job. This screaming little monster got its own way for so long that it caused the world-wide financial crisis. Even after the melt-down it caused, it accepts no responsibility and still has its way. There have been no inquiries and all regulators are industry appointed.
Across Europe, weak complicit governments force drastic austerity cuts on a pathetically compliant populace to pay for the banks’ excesses, even as the bankers return to business as usual and award themselves the same old outrageous bonuses. Now with all this anti-business talk, you are probably thinking that I am some sort of Fabian Luddite. Actually I would have to be called a businessman, because I own and run a company that turns over $2m and employs 18 people. There are other ways in which a business can be run: my catch phrase is that the business does not exist to make money – it makes money to exist . . . and it exists to provide a fulfilling and meaningful lifestyle for all of us, while at the same time producing what we like to call culturally nourishing products.
My role model is Yvon Chouinard with his company Patagonia, and my business bible is his book, Let My People Go Surfing. Our ‘Core Values’ are publicly stated on our website. I believe that businesses run on these principles can supply us with the things we need with hope for the future. Some years before Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, before global warming was widely accepted and before the financial crisis, I was writing that our systems of government, our economic systems and our capitalist system are failing us and need to be redesigned. It is even more acutely obvious now.
Sure, you will argue, capitalism has given unprecedented benefits to so many people, and of course that is true. But two crucial things have changed. Throughout most of the 20th century, the individual excesses of capitalism were balanced by the community demands of socialism. But since capitalism won the cold war, it has run rampant and unchecked as the ruthless Chicago neo-liberal school of Friedman economics violently forces itself onto the world (read Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein).
So the rich are getting immeasurably richer and the poor are getting poorer and more numerous. The “trickle-down effect” does not work – it goes the other way: 7% of Americans live below the poverty line.
Secondly, we have run up against the limits of the planet. Unending growth and prosperity were fine as long as the resources were there to feed them, which is no longer the case. Increasingly middle classes around the world chase fewer and fewer resources. Not only are we stripping the planet of its treasures but we are also denying future generations the prospect of a decent life.
That is why I say our present economic model is failing us. I can’t see any way in which the current, capitalist business-government coalition will take the drastic measures required to protect the planet and the future. Weak governments are in hock to the brat-kid industries and show no signs of shouldering any of the responsibility. It pains me to see the deeply-felt and well-meaning efforts of so many caring people trying to improve their lifestyle (the sensitive little sister) while the brat-kid negates it all a thousand-fold.
As long as the sole raison d’etre for business is its own profit, nothing will change. Future generations who inherit this mess will be utterly appalled by this abdication of parental responsibility. Hopefully the Bolivian initiative enshrining the rights of nature into law will spread and we will see some of these violators and ineffectual appeasers retrospectively brought to justice (just as war criminals are now) for crimes against nature. And, after all, we are just one more part of nature.