The Greatest Gift that I Possess

Philosophy & Ethics, Politics & Public Debate

Everywhere I look I see countless miniature empires. This makes sense when one considers the many necrophilous sectarians ostensibly populating Britain, as their morals seem to be founded (if Brexit is anything to go by) in the delusional glory of this little island’s historically imperial sovereignty. Small-man syndrome is a natural phenomenon, even at the state level. However, worryingly, even members of today’s ‘hipster’, left-wing subculture – cultural decedents of a cleaner living, hitchhiking, happy-go-lucky, hippy era – revel in the excesses of their individual realms. Today everyone is an emperor. Myopic, capitalistic narcissism is pervasive. It’s killing humanism and the planet with it.

Taken from his recent book, Happy (his recent and a fascinating serious prose on welfare philosophy), Derren Brown hits the nail on the head, when he says, “‘Get what you want’ remains a mantra of modern living, as if we each had the birthright to accumulate whatever we think will make us happy.” We’re programmed to desire, indoctrinated even. Society is set up to consume. Without our desires being quenched by consumption, we’re destined to be miserable. This is the message we’re sold.

As a result, we’re constantly seeking to expand our empires in the pursuit of something more addictive, more socially corrosive than crystal meth. Purchasing is the tool by which we seek our little hits of serotonin and dopamine, each dose a sparrows-step toward securing a peculiarly phantom mental state: happiness. Obsessively, most of us seek it, but in vain. The era of achieving happiness collaterally is long over. Now, we seek it as an end in itself. More fool us.

We’re so addicted to these minute hits of gratification that we don’t let anything or anyone get in the way of our attaining them. This is not a clean drug, its cut with numerous toxins. It kills. Collateral damages, in the form of physical (1, 2), mental, environmental (1, 2, 3, 4) and cultural sickness (1, 3, 2), have been normalised. It’s an unfortunate necessity but a necessity all the same; a small price to pay for “happiness”. Crucially, we reject that our pursuit of happiness is damningly self-defeating (perhaps through fear of self-loathing). Moreover, those that indiscriminately pursue happiness are often considered virtuous. This is despite their holding a complete disregard for traditional virtues such as moderation, wisdom, morality, or empathy and a sense of community.

Regretfully, and rather non-virtuously, Conspicuous and invidious consumption (purchasing goods to flaunt economic power and incite envy), the bread and butter of capitalism, affect us greatly (the recent #OOTD appeal is a hideous example). Products are designed and marketed specifically to create and then cure anxietynot to promote happiness – which stimulates us to indulge in further self-destructive retail therapy. Possessions are seen and brandished as symbols of identity, wealth and “happiness”. This is no conspiracy theory; it is advertising theory (1, 2). It’s business. As a result, western society has entered a mental health crisis (1, 2) as its free markets mass produce depression and narcissism, as we are all miss-sold happiness.

Social media compounds the issue, providing “short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” (1, 2) which manipulate us into to further embellishing and flaunting our lively possessions – the flags of our empires – in the virtual world, as we unwittingly encourage one another to consume more still.

What is deeply disconcerting is that the means by which we might relearn the value of empathy, community and virtue, and consequently rediscover happiness as contentedness, is being dismantled. With central government stripping powers of discretionary spending from local councils and redirecting the cash to Whitehall, our communal infrastructure is rapidly disintegrating. With it go the remnants of a once humanistic, community-based Great British culture. Youth centres, libraries, care homes, parks and public gardens are being left to ruin, so that the state can financially compete on a global scale in order to recreate the illusion of a “Great British Empire”.

It’s difficult to decide which of Britain’s politico-economic ideologies are causing all this: sectarianism, capitalism or neo-liberalism? It could be any or all of them. However, all of them scream the same battle-cry, wealth and empire are all.


A.C. Stark

Recommended Reading
Happy; Out of the Wreckage; Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered;
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

Climate Change: The Elephant in the Room

Nature & the Environment, Politics & Public Debate

The elephant in the room is trampling all over us. Yet we’re still living, thinking and talking as though it were not there.

Climate change is so inescapable, so entangled within the definition of our politico-economic system, that to explore it, to educate about it, is to create a wide-spread existential crisis wherein the persistence of the very thing by which millions of us in some way identify and define ourselves – our culture – is perceived as both necessary for very short-term pleasure but morally abominable for the sake of those millions who have, are or will suffer and die as a consequence of it.

As such, discussions surrounding the climate breakdown are not being appropriately entertained by those in power (nor the media). They know that such discussions, if made publicly, would expose our economic system for what it really is (i.e., the root cause of the climate issue), and would certainly cause public outcry – they know that very well. However, maintained as a mere side issue, the realities of climate change will unlikely be exposed and the necessary changes never made. Those in power will retain their grip.

In reality, however, they are not psychopaths. They are not intentionally drowning, burning and starving people (though that is what they/we are all doing). They’re simply petrified to face up to the moral imperative. They’re fully aware of their irrationalities; they can feel the increasing pull of their inner cognitive dissonances. But to talk about climate change would require them to iron out their irrationalities, bring their subconscious biases to the fore, force them to realise their complicity in Othering, which would ultimately oblige them to change who they are. Regrettably, to many, that notion is more terrifying than the seemingly distant idea that our culture, in keeping with its very definition, is currently committing mass genocide (1, 2, 3, 4).

You see, it is not simply the case that people must accept climate change as a reality. We must also explore its causes and implications and talk about them and shout about them, and be outwardly furious with the forces that continue in trying to avert our eyes from them – even if this means that in so doing we ourselves suffer a little. For the sake of humanity, and for those you profess to love, be willing to challenge yourself. Be willing to talk about climate change. Further still, encourage it.

But the media is talking about climate change, is it not?  Yes, albeit sporadically and obtusely. The typical style of the ostensibly rare pieces of coverage concerning the relationship between climate change and, for example, Hurricane Irma or Harvey obstruct the wider conversation. That conversation would lead us to recognise that our deep-seated consumerism, our self-professed right to newer, better, more, is the cause of it all. (I suspect it’d also lead us to recognise that the depraved neo-liberal system in which we live is based on a theory of democratic “consent without consent”).

Many of the reports caveat that freak weather events are not caused by climate change (1, 2). This is extremely damaging for two reasons: Firstly, the inclusion of such caveats (regardless of whether such a report exaggerates that the increasing ferocity, frequency and consequent suffering to ‘natural disasters’ is directly linked to human-induced climate change) foolishly reassures already steadfast climate change sceptics. Secondly, and most importantly, this caveating deflects blame away from those who created the problem, i.e., us! – the post-industrial capitalist world. It serves to destroy our sense of agency, enabling us to reject responsibility. It solidifies climate change as a side issue, as something not deserving of inquiry or exposition, and ultimately promotes the damning political praxis of business as usual.

As long as the media persists in caveating, as long as we fail in holding those in power to account, and as long as we entertain the deluded idea that we and the culture by which we define ourselves is not the problem, the greater the catastrophes will become. It is our duty to start talking openly and candidly about the elephant in the room.


A.C. Stark

Recommended Reading
Introductory: 10 Billion;  2071: The World We’ll Leave Our Grandchildren
Advanced: Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations;  Fossil Capital

Populism: Activism’s Evil Twin

Politics & Public Debate

A word has been washing around in the media, spilling from the plump and pouted lips of politicians and journalists everywhere, with a meaning that is surreptitiously adapted at every convenient opportunity. It’s as though they’re all in on the act, utilising the word to make specious claims about things which in reality they have no factually-based ideas. The only certainty about this term is that it serves a receptacle function, enabling any debate within which it plays a significant role to be argued from divergent purposes, ever evading truth and certainty. Is it a Trojan Horse, a decoy, a false premise, or just utterly confused empty talk? What are people really talking about when they speak of ‘populism’? 

One answer is that populism denotes a society with a heightened degree of political engagement. In which case, the term ‘populism’ has recently been used as a veil to mask what is otherwise known as democracy, disguising it as an undesirable, even radical ideology deserving of great criticism. When sold under the guise of an “-ism”, the term becomes categorised alongside real ideologies, truly deserving of our concern (be it socialism, capitalism, fascism – now rebranded, the ‘alt-right’ – etcetera). And when the term is propagated by the media, given precedence in discourse above some truly heinous, yet increasingly popular alternative political and economic systems, more important issues relating to the corruptive intention of this term’s use become buried and forgotten under pages and pages of hypocrisy: Long live democracy, down with populism! This is the layman’s view, and has been interpreted by many as David Cameron’s view also.

Perhaps, however, populism isn’t about the political actions or championing of the common folk and their expressions against whichever branch of the politico-economic elite that they deem either (at best) detached from the needs of society or (at worst) entirely uncivilised. Maybe it has nothing to do with political empowerment or mobilisation whatsoever. Maybe it’s simply a descriptive term, used as shorthand to express a state of democracy, whereby the people take democratic action as a consequence of the system force-feeding them ‘untruths’ within a ‘post-factual’ era – still implying that it is the people and not the system that is untrustworthy, denigrating the value of democracy without appearing to do so. Indeed, a world in which the people’s opinions can do easily be called into question would be utterly enticing, would it not? Opportunities to defend the infallible necessity of radical paternalism would regularly present themselves, clearing the road to a seemingly democratic plutocracy! Bliss. Oh what a beautiful world… I kid, of course, but that’s how Donald Trump’s cabinet seem to be benefiting from populism (12).

But then, maybe it is not the political system that is populistic. Maybe it is the politicians themselves who are the populists – popularising themselves and their prejudices via vicious demagoguery and nationalistic fear mongering. If this is the case, then it appears as though populism isn’t being used as a veil but instead creates the veil through which the electorate are presented a skewed and biased version of democracy. (This leads one to consider whether contemporary populism is a symptom of neoliberalism – read here).

In one sense, these two ideas – that populism describes a state of true democracy and that it is the leaders, the protagonists and not the people who are the populists – both hold true. Just as an activist movement can be described as democratic action, so too can a populist movement. Similarly, activist and populist movements and groups share the characteristic of being led by those who we might also refer to as activists or populists. This might suggest that activism and populism are one and the same; activists are populists and populists are activists.

However, what differentiates these two schools (as far as I see it), if they are truly differentiable at all, is that activism is led by the virtuous and populism is lead by the incongruous. What this means is that, quite unfortunately, well-intentioned, politically-engaged people, who might otherwise be seen as activists, unknowingly become populists when their chieftains decide to take the low road, promoting their positions through deceitful means, justifying them using pseudo-academic literature. (Which is suggested by the rhetoric and subsequent rise of history’s most prominent populist leaders as being so tightly associated with and attributed to post-fact politics. As two examples of this rising trend, Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump come to mind here. Hence, whilst Bernie Sanders may be described, perhaps even criticised as a champion of activism, Trump is populism’s equivalent, as was Hitler during his rise). In short, populism is activism’s evil twin.

So, whilst activism is the attempt by the people to perpetuate democracy through social empowerment, populism is the attempt to perpetuate politico-economic empowerment through pseudo-democracy. Populism is democracy gone wrong. And whether or not you find this conception compelling, one thing is for sure: ‘populism’ is rarely ever what is seems.

 

A.C. Stark

Look Zoos Talking

Nature & the Environment

Blackfish stirred up a storm. The documentary exposed Sea World for the mistreatment of its captive orcas, its inhumane and sometimes fatal capture, breeding and training methods, its coercive staffing procedures, and the comprehensive duplicity of its senior management and public relations teams. In August 2015, almost two years after its release, Sea World reported an 84% drop in second-quarter profits. It’s stock prices have dramatically fallen. And in March of this year, in a desperate attempt to claw back a little credibility, the park announced the end of its whale breeding program. Hurrah!

But wait… Is this really enough? After all, the orcas remain in captivity, enclosed within tanks so small they’d have to swim well over 3000 lengths to match the distances they’d usually travel on a single day in the oceans. Reverberating throughout the tanks, their vocalisations cause disorientation and consequent unnecessary stress. Originating from different social groups, occasionally from distinct subspecies, they can be hostile towards one another. And as inherently social creatures, those that are subsequently separated develop chronic, sometimes manic, depression (as opposed to the regular state of despondency they’d experience if successfully socialised). As a result of all of this and much more orcas tend to live considerably shorter lives in captivity, with an average life expectancy of around 13 years, as opposed to the normal 30 or 50 (dependent on sex). So, clearly, captivity is far from the best place for these creatures.

The same can be said of countless other animals held within zoological parks worldwide. I dare say most of them. (They frequently suffer from zoochosis, a psychological disorder with obsessive and repetitive behavioural symptoms such as pacing or rocking back and forth for up to hours at a time. We’ve all seen it). Yet if captivity is not appropriate for them, why do we persist in containing animals? Do zoos really have an honourable purpose?

Many people believe they do (1, 2). They argue that zoos intrigue and educate us and that they’re integral to conservation. Others contend that zoos are entirely immoral; that they’re nothing more than profit-seeking businesses. Having experienced Sea World’s spectacular facade first hand, as well as dozens of other zoos and animal parks worldwide, I sympathise more with the latter school of thought.

Undeniably, zoos are both inspirational and educational (though, the extent to which they are either is debatable). However, it’s difficult to see their importance to environmental conservation when the methods of conservation employed by even the world’s biggest and best zoos are so clearly inexpedient. Both collectively and individually zoos spend absurd amounts of money upgrading facilities. Money that could be better utilised towards protecting or enhancing the natural habitats and ecosystems from which their detainees were originally hijacked. For example, in March of 2007 London Zoo opened its state-of the-art gorilla enclosure, the Gorilla Kingdom, the construction of which cost somewhere in the region of £5.3M. Better yet, the Bronx Zoo recently spent over $43M on its Congo Gorilla Forest, an enclosure unprecedented in both scale and diversity (holding 400 animals from 55 different species). But this 6.5 acre glorified gorilla asylum still compares to no more than 0.026% of what its primary inhabitant’s, the western lowland gorillas, home territory can naturally span. In being concerned with zoology these organisations are without doubt completely aware of their inherent inadequacies; they’re fully aware that true conservation requires much more than they’re willing to offer.

As an organisation capable of offering far less but which gives so much more, consider Trees For Life in comparison. In 2008 the charity purchased the 10,000 acre Dundreggan estate in Glenmoriston of the Scottish Highlands for a mere sum of £1.65M. They have since worked hard to reforest the area, planting 30,000 trees per year, enabling local ecosystems to flourish free from the constant and intrusive glare of bolshie spectators (they understand that to properly conserve the natural world is to preserve the world in which animals live naturally, free from the constant bombardment of human intrigue and activity). With the money used to finance Gorilla Kingdom, London Zoo could have purchased Dundreggan three times over. Equivalently, the Bronx Zoo could have purchased it almost 19 times over. Why then did they not invest in something more worth while, something more in line with the environmental conservation they’re supposedly so integral to? Simply put, inexpediency is good for business. Indeed, if zoo’s were sufficiently expedient, then they’d cease to remain profitable.

But inexpediency isn’t the only problem concerning our zoos’ conservation efforts. Some general practices also are greatly condemnible, on the grounds that they directly conflict with the very concept of environmental conservation and demote animal welfare. For example, in order to manage genetics, populations or sometimes simply in order to feed their more predatory species, zoos cull animals that aren’t useful to them. Undeniably this is a deplorable practice, contrary to conservation, which if justifiable at all is so only on shallow economic grounds (12, 3, 4). Consider also the practice of keeping elephants. It has been repeatedly reported that elephants in captivity live on average less than half as long as their wild counter parts. Still, the vast majority of commercial zoos worldwide retain elephants as a main feature. Why? Well, elephants draw a lot of attention from spectators, bringing more people in through the gates, increasing revenues. Further still, consider the after-hours adult only events hosted by many of our favourite national zoos – such as London Zoo’s late night parties, Bristol Zoo’s Sunset Specials or it’s Big Night Out, or Edinburgh Zoo’s Summer Nights – all of which encourage their guests to partake in hedonistic activities whilst the zoo’s inhabitants are obliged to endure a night shift haunted by jesting, inebriated merry men and their wandering bands of louts and ladettes. How’s that zoochosis now, lion?! This is yet another practice accepted solely on the basis that it gets more people in through the gates. So, undoubtedly, for many zoo’s profits are a key factor in determining their practices. Moreover, profits clearly take precedence over conservation, to a degree by which the pursuit of them is often detrimental to the conservation efforts they’re purportedly intended to fund. Worse even still, this capitalistic culture has cultivated a zoo industry which further blurs the already hazy lines between what is and is not deemed morally acceptable in zoological practice, according to the normative framework laid down by our Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice.

As businesses more than anything else, their agendas are fundamentally at odds with environmental conservation. The problems associated with Sea World are not unique. They’re  wide spread. They’re happening right under our noses, on our shores, committed by our zoos and adventure parks. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a place for zoos in the contemporary world, only that we need to drastically reevaluate the standards of practice by which they are run – something which hasn’t been done here in the UK for decades! (Some zoos are doing this off their own backs (1, 2) while some governments, such as Costa Rica’s, are closing zoos down altogether).

Ultimately, here in the UK, we’re deeply in need of a comprehensive review of our Standards of Practice. Furthermore, as individuals, we ought to consider whether our zoos are currently worthy of our attendance fees. I myself will boycott them all. And I implore you to do the same.

A.C. Stark

 

 

 

 

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Nature & the Environment, Politics & Public Debate
“[I]nstead of making excuses tomorrow to our children and grandchildren, we should be taking action against climate change today.”David Cameron, COP 21 Summit in Paris

 

I haven’t had much time to write recently. Besides working a day job I’ve been supporting Campaign Against Climate Change with their current campaign, Going Backwards on Climate Change – a cause that’s well worth the sacrifice.

Going Backwards will reach its climax on the 7th and 8th of May, as communities around the UK, in London, Bristol, Manchester, Brighton, Leeds, Leicester, Nottingham and Sidmouth will take to the streets in protest against government backtracking on laws and initiatives fundamentally created to tackle anthropogenic climate change (click here for full event details). 

For a while I’ve been wanting to write a post about what inspired this campaign. Thankfully, courtesy of Claire James from Campaign Against Climate Change, my work has been done for me. Here, in full, is her article.


Going Backwards on Climate Change

In 2008, an unprecedented law was passed in the UK: the Climate Change Act, committing the UK to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Recognising the crisis faced and the need for urgent action, all major parties supported it: just five MPs voted against.

What has changed since then? More greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, inducing record heat. Even climate scientists were surprised by the record-breaking temperatures in January and February 2016, following 2014 and 2015 consecutively being the warmest recorded. More extreme weather events linked to climate change, including severe flooding in the UK in recent years. Clearer science, including a better idea of the (diminishing) carbon budget we can afford to burn. In short: even greater urgency.

But that cross-party consensus on climate change has fractured. This is not admitted openly: David Cameron still felt able to deliver a speech urging negotiators in Paris “Instead of making excuses tomorrow to our children and grandchildren, we should be taking action against climate change today”. But the sense of urgency in tackling climate change at home has clearly slipped away. And since the current government took office on 8 May 2015, there have been a series of major policy reversals taking us backwards on climate action, just when we should be pressing forward with a shared understanding that the alternative is unthinkable.

We call on the government to start going forwards again – to base all policy-making in a clear recognition of the reality of our situation, facing catastrophic climate change…

Going Backwards on Solar
In December subsidies for solar panels on homes were cut by 65%. The Government has also imposed a cap on the total subsidy paid out, meaning the rate of domestic solar installations is set to halve, according to the Solar Trade Association. Larger solar installations (more than 1MW) on roofs and in solar parks have had their support cut by 85% and 71% respectively, meaning the market for the most cost-effective projects is all but dead.1

The industry said the planned cuts announced in the summer have already cost 6,500 jobs. The government’s impact assessment for the changes shows that between 9,700 and 18,700 jobs in the solar industry could be lost as a result of the cuts.2

Going Backwards on Wind Energy
Perhaps it should not be a surprise that this government has been less than green: the Conservative manifesto even contained a pledge to ‘halt the spread of onshore wind’. Onshore wind farms are the cheapest form of clean energy, recently found to be competitive with burning coal or gas.3 And despite some active campaigns against them, they are relatively popular with the public compared to other forms of energy generation.

New planning obstructions were introduced to make wind farms more difficult to build, and then the tap was turned off on government support. New onshore wind farms are excluded from the Renewables Obligation subsidy scheme from 1 April 2016, a year earlier than expected (with a grace period for projects which already have planning permission).

Going Backwards – Taxing Renewables
The Climate Change Levy (CCL) is a tax on business energy use, from which electricity generated from qualifying renewable sources was exempt, to encourage a switch to clean energy. But this exemption was removed in July 2015 with almost-immediate effect. The additional tax on renewable energy was estimated at £450 million in 2015/16, rising to £910 million in 2020/21, a total of £3.9 billion over the next six years. This is now expected to be even higher from 2017 onwards, because of changes announced in the 2016 budget.

Going Backwards on Warm Homes
The UK’s renewable resources mean we can quit our dependence on fossil fuels – if we cut down our energy waste by becoming more efficient. CO2 emissions from housing currently make up nearly a third of all the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions4 and we have among the poorest-insulated homes in Europe. There is an immediate human cost to this: there were 43,900 excess winter deaths in 2014/15, of which 9000 are directly attributed to people living in cold homes.5

First the Green Deal was scrapped. With no forewarning or consultation with industry, the scheme offering loans for energy efficiency measures was killed off. Then ECO (the requirement for energy companies to fund energy efficiency measures, targeted on poorer households) was cut back: to be replaced in 2017 by a ‘cheaper’ option.6

The number of energy efficiency measures installed in British homes has fallen by 80% since 2012. During the last Parliament 5 million households were helped but only 1.2 million households are expected to receive energy efficiency measures this Parliament.7

Much more effective than retrofitting existing homes is ensuring new ones are efficient, but the government has also scrapped the Zero Carbon Homes requirement. This would have ensured that all new dwellings from 2016 would generate as much energy on-site – through renewable sources, such as wind or solar power – as they would use in heating, hot water, lighting and ventilation. This was to be supported by tighter energy efficiency standards that would come into force in 2016, and a scheme which would allow housebuilders to deliver equivalent carbon savings off site.8

 Going Backwards – Fossil Fuel Subsidies
For decades, exploitation of the UK’s North Sea oil reserves brought in billions in tax receipts (although whether this was wisely invested is another question…). Now with low oil prices and oil companies pulling out of the depleted fields,9 it is no longer a cash cow.

But in February 2015 the Infrastructure Act legally bound all future governments to ‘maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum’, in direct contradiction of climate change obligations.10 George Osborne has been throwing tax breaks at the sector (the only G7 country to dramatically increase fossil fuel subsidies, despite a pledge to phase them out).11 Further tax breaks in the 2016 budget mean that between 2016 and 2021 oil companies will be actually receiving up to £1.2 billion a year from taxpayers because of tax repayments to loss-making operators.

There is only one way to protect jobs in the long term: a plan for a carefully managed transition to a sustainable economy based on clean energy, not a desperate scramble to extract every drop of oil while pulling the plug on jobs in renewables and energy efficiency.

Going Backwards – Fracking and Local Democracy
The government continues to look to fracking in search of a new oil and gas bonanza. But they face two obstacles. The first is growing evidence that any significant exploitation of shale gas would breach UK carbon budgets.12Claims that it could be a cleaner ‘bridge fuel’ to replace coal have been shattered by alarming research is emerging from the US on the scale of leaks of the greenhouse gas methane from fracking sites.

The second is determined local opposition. Campaigners in Lancashire celebrated last year when the local council rejected Cuadrilla’s fracking application, but were then told that the decision could be taken away from the local council by the Secretary of State. Councils had already been told to fast-track decisions on fracking or ministers will step in13 (as announced shortly after making it harder for wind farms to get planning permission).14 The consistent message from government has been that fracking is of such national importance that local concerns can be overridden.

Going Backwards –  Coal
The government announced that coal power stations would be shut by 2025 (“if we’re confident that the shift to new gas can be achieved within these timescales.”)15 But in last year’s ‘capacity market auction’, handing out subsidies for electricity generation, a total of £139 million of subsidies were to be awarded to coal power stations in 2019, in addition to £176 million over the next 15 years to small-scale dirty diesel generators.16

Coal burning in the UK needs to stop, and so does opencast coal extraction. However there are currently applications for new or extended opencast coal mines in Wales and North East England. In 21st century Britain, local communities should not be having to mount a defence against these threats to the local and global environment.

Going Backwards on Sustainable Transport
It has been estimated that £30 billion of public money from various sources will be spent during 2015-2020 on roads. This spending is predominantly on large-scale new roads, widening motorways etc.17 In his 2016 budget, the Chancellor announced £75 million funding for research into a Trans-Pennine tunnel, a project which if it goes ahead would have a £6bn budget. Meanwhile local bus services are being slashed under the pressure of shrinking local authority budgets.

Fuel duty has now been frozen for six years. And in July 2015 Vehicle Excise Duty was reshaped to remove incentives to buy less polluting cars. After the first year, rates for new vehicles would be set at a standard rate unless their CO2 emissions were zero. So owners of efficient vehicles get a tax rise, owners of the most polluting cars get a big tax cut, and to round it off, the income will be ring-fenced for spending on roads.

Going Backwards on aviation expansion
The lack of concern for carbon emissions is shown most dramatically in Cameron’s own personal U-turn on a third runway at Heathrow – emitting more than the whole of Kenya, this would make it impossible for the UK to meet its legally binding climate targets, even if a coherent carbon-cutting policy was adopted for the rest of the economy.18

Going Backwards – One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back?
To avoid being accused of caricature or unfairness, it should be said that not every decision made by the government in the past year has been relentlessly negative for the climate. However, overall these decisions have taken us in the wrong direction. And the way decisions have been taken has seemed almost designed to undermine the confidence of potential investors in clean energy or energy efficiency. Drastic changes have been made at short notice with no forewarning or consultation; existing schemes scrapped with a vague promise of replacing them at some point in the future; and despite ambitious long-term targets, there is a lack of clarity on how the UK will meet them.

 Going Forwards on Climate Change
Looking globally, there is a huge shift underway to clean energy. But it’s not happening fast enough. The only thing that can get us on the right track in the UK is huge public pressure. We are building a mass movement and it needs participation from people from all walks of life. There is an urgent need for both inspiring direct actions and millions of conversations on climate change among ordinary people – breaking the silence and bringing the message to politicians that we will not accept any more backtracking on climate change.

1. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2015/dec/17/uk-cuts-renewable-energy-make-a-mockery-of-its-pledge-paris-climate-talks1

2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35119173 

3. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/07/onshore-wind-farms-cheapest-form-of-uk-electricity-report-shows

4. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/10/uk-scraps-zero-carbon-home-target

5. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/fuel-poverty-killed-15000-people-last-winter-10217215.html

6. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/energy/12017361/autumn-statement-2015-30-energy-bill-saving-as-Chancellor-cuts-insulation.html

7. http://www.ukace.org/2016/03/treasury-slammed-following-9000-cold-home-deaths/

8. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/10/uk-scraps-zero-carbon-home-target

 9. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/02/23/north-sea-oil-standing-at-the-edge-of-a-chasm/

10. http://www.desmog.uk/2016/03/29/not-even-osborne-s-1bn-fossil-fuel-tax-break-can-convince-some-oil-companies-stay-north-sea

11. http://www.desmog.uk/2015/11/12/uk-government-has-ramped-fossil-fuel-subsidies-nearly-6-billion-year

 12. http://www.carbonbrief.org/mps-brand-fracking-incompatible-with-uk-climate-targets

13. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/aug/13/government-will-step-in-if-councils-dont-fast-track-fracking-applications

 14. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/giving-local-people-the-final-say-over-onshore-wind-farms

15. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34851718

16. https://sandbag.org.uk/site_media/pdfs/reports/Capacity_Mechanism_analysis4.pdf

 17. http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/blog/roads/231114-road-spending-30-billion

 18. http://www.aef.org.uk/2015/06/19/aviation-emissions-to-soar-under-airports-commission-proposals-new-aef-report-shows/

 

In-Out, Shake it All About

Nature & the Environment, Politics & Public Debate

History seems to have taught us nothing. Those who experienced the world wars have almost all departed us, and with them we’ve lost the memories of what a divided Europe looks like. We forget why the EU was established in the first place.

Originally formed to increase European cohesion through geopolitical and social inclusivity, the EU is now seen predominantly as a platform for economic gain. Reductions in the scale and regularity of conflicts between European states are seen as merely incidental. But in a world torn by scores of armed conflicts (1, 2,), by the effects of corrupt and mismanaged plutocracies (12, 3), with Russia roughhousing it’s neighbours, with the emergence of overpopulation and climate change, cohesion is crucial. It’s plain to see that if we are to stand even the slightest chance of surmounting these obstacles, we desperately need to enhance our unifications, not divide them.

As our biggest global challenge, the inevitable effects of climate change in a world of broad geopolitical division are huge. With increasingly sporadic and extreme weather events, rising sea levels and ocean acidification, the collapsing of ecosystems, consequently diminished crop yields and fish stocks, economic ruin, together with a plethora of other issues all causing the displacement of communities and wide-scope civil unrest, tackling climate change requires a great deal of collaboration. If our efforts are not collaborated, we risk intensifying these already inexorable natural disasters, not to mention humanitarian crises. Yet, heedlessly, the majority of discourse surrounding the in-out debate mentions almost nothing of the importance of the union the EU is supposed to embody. Instead, it obsessively procrastinates over conjectural economics.

But the truth is economics are nigh-on redundant in this debate. This obsession with financial gains is de facto a primary cause of the climatic mess we find ourselves in. For many this is a hard pill to swallow. It’s almost tautologous that capitalism produces climate change, which eventually comes with the added cost of complete economic collapse. This is just the paradox of capitalism: As an economic system which necessarily commodifies nature, capitalism relies on the destruction of nature for its own development. While innovation speeds up market efficiency, the speed of nature’s regeneration remains constant. Without curbing innovation, without slowing down market efficiency, our natural resources dwindle and the complex tapestry of our biosphere begins to rapidly unravel. In other words, “the Earth is f**ked unless somehow the market can be prevented from working so well.” So, clearly, focusing on the economic aspects of the in-out debate is not only imprudent but entirely absurd.

On the rare occasion when economics is not at the forefront of the debate, patriotic calls for sovereignty tend take the spot light. Similarly, this argument can be severely damaging to the war on climate change. After all, it consists in the very antithesis of unification. But the flaws in this argument run a little deeper.

Putting aside the many psychosocial aspects of patriotism (how and why it develops etc.) – many of which I respect and find fascinating – as a phenomenon, I find it deeply disturbing. Just thinking about patriotism one can sense it has something strangely sinister about it. It’s designed to promote a sense of national individualism, a sense of national pride. A sense of self-worth. The perverse and competitive sense that we are better, superior, more valuable. In this way patriotism is comparable to ordinary pride; it’s one of arrogance’s inconspicuous siblings.

“[E]ach person’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride… Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.”C.S. Lewis

So these calls for sovereignty aren’t just damaging because they reject the value of geopolitical unification. They’re damaging because they foster a culture of narcissistic individualism. And this is so clearly undesirable, because any system of people joined by common aims is automatically disadvantaged by it. The soldier that puts his pride before the ambitions of his army tends to die and/or frustrate his army’s efforts. The footballer that puts his pride before the ambitions of his team gets dropped to the bench and/or sold. Only once they becomes a little more modest and trust in the abilities of their colleagues do their partners better utilise them and discover their full potential. After all, there is no in ‘team’ (or ‘army’ for that matter).

In short, the value of unification is much greater than economics and sovereignty. Unification breaks barriers. It re-enforces bonds. Union will help us navigate the minefield of issues facing the world today. Most importantly, it’ll allow us to hone our efforts in the fight against climate change. Let’s learn from history. Instead of building walls, let’s knock them down

We are all Stronger In.

A.C. Stark

 

You’re an Activist, Big Wow

Nature & the Environment, Politics & Public Debate

At the dawn of the new year the British media decided that the SoCalGas leak in Aliso Canyon LA qualified as big enough news to permit a moderate level of broadcasting. The stories that followed focused almost solely on the evacuation of thousands of local residents who suffered from nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds and various other ailments, due to high levels of air-bound pollutants. Unquestionably, this widespread degradation of well-being was alone worthy of headline news. Yet, nearly all of the reports were overly anthropocentric and failed to paint a full picture of the disaster.

In response, alongside a multitude of others fully aware of the media’s inability (or sheer reluctance) to properly inform, I wrote to the BBC and engaged with social media to educate people on the wider scope of problems related to the leak, concerning global warming.

(To note some key points, the leak officially lasted 110 days – though probably began well before it was reported  spewing up to 1,300 metric tonnes of methane into the atmosphere per day. In total, upwards of 96,000 metric tonnes are predicted to have been emitted between October 23rd and February 11th. Is that a lot? Most definitely. Whilst methane escapes the atmosphere faster than CO2, the damage it causes to the climate in the meantime is, for it’s first two decades at least, 84 times more calamitous. Comparatively speaking, the amount of methane released equates to roughly 8,000,000 metric tonnes of CO2, or the burning of 900,000,000 gallons of gasoline).

Subsequently the BBC expanded their story, stating that activists held the leak to be comparable, in terms of environmental damage, to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.  

At the time I took this rather personally. I felt slightly disenchanted. It wasn’t the lack of calculated journalism that peeved me the most. Instead, I found myself somewhat insulted by this notion of activism, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. Was I an activist?

Having mulled over it for some considerable time here’s what I have come to believe: Activism is heavily weighted down with negative connotations. It has an image problem. When imagining the stereotypical activist one pictures an eccentric, badly-dressed hippy-like character with contentious and overbearing social qualities. A vegan, clad in hand-me-downs. A militant idealist. An inconvenience on daily living. Big wow. Tell me something I don’t know.

But, and maybe only subconsciously, most people don’t want to be affiliated with that image. Affiliations with activists or persons with alternative ideals tend to impede upon our aspirations. That’s because the truths that they reveal can be extremely threatening and touch the core of how we understand and navigate the world. Moreover, affiliations can mould the way in which the world understands us. You see, opportunities are gained as a consequence of the impressions we inspire. Creating good impressions generates opportunities. The converse diminishes them. 

So, ultimately, I was insulted because of an unnecessary fear. I was subconsciously afraid of affiliation. That fear caused me to hold an unconscious bias. A prejudice, I believe, no sufficiently moral person ought to have.

There may appear to be a simple cure for this unwanted affiliation: Stop campaigning. Stop promoting ideals. Or, in my case, stop attempting to inform people on the full extent of damages caused by the SoCalGas leak and other such issues. Ultimately, stop being an activist. But no one should ever let their fear of unwanted affiliation negate their moral beliefs. For that’s all activism is. In its purest form, activism just is acting to promote a world consistent with ones moral beliefs. So if you fail to champion your morals through fear of being affiliated with those associated with a stereotype which conflicts with your ulterior desires, whom at the same time share your moral beliefs, you are a hypocrite unto yourself. You favour your ulterior desires over your morals. Your life is, by your own account of right and wrong, immoral.

Hence, we ought not to avoid activism simply because of the stereotypes it carries. Activism comes in many forms. It’s performed by all types of people. The stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. We ought to make activism what we want it to be. Give it the image we want it to have. Dare to challenge the stereotype. And don’t let unwanted affiliations deter us from promoting what’s right.

Am I an activist? I suppose I am. But shame on those who aren’t.

A.C. Stark

 

 

There’s Something Funky About Mr Cheese: Education and Minimalistic Living

Philosophy & Ethics, Politics & Public Debate

It’s been reported recently that a great portion of UK graduates find themselves in non-graduate roles. The numbers vary depending upon where they’re sourced (1, 2), but the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) find this to be the case for 59% of graduates. On top of that, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) reports that while graduate employment is increasing, graduate salaries are decreasing. Our once financially accessible, comprehensive education system has caused an imbalance. We are now inundated with ‘over-qualified’ and ‘underpaid’ workers. This is apparently a bad thing, and undoubtedly provides the government with ammunition as they continue to make higher-education less financially feasible.

“The assumption that we will transition to a more productive, higher value, higher skilled economy just by increasing the conveyor belt of graduates is proven to be flawed. Simply increasing the qualification level of individuals going into a job does not typically result in the skill required to do the job being enhanced – in many cases that skills premium, if it exists at all, is simply wasted.”      Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of the CIPD.

However, we ought to ensure that education and qualification are not conflated, nor used in politico-economic equivocations. They are very much separate things, valuable in their own distinct ways. Indeed, whilst someone may well be overqualified, no one can ever be overeducated. Such a thing just doesn’t exist. The idea that education is only valuable insofar as it provides us with routes to prosperity is flawed (such sentiments perfectly encapsulate the nature by which our democracy is cannibalised by our economic culture). Education has many more advantages other than simply enhancing one’s qualifications. It provides the ability to navigate complex moral scenarios. It enables informed democratic participation. It facilitates compassion and understanding. Education provides the tools with which we can properly avoid or manage conflict. Qualifications provide little value in comparison.

So, whether they realise it or not, Mr Cheese, the BIS and the political arguments their reports endorse, all of them are firing blanks. The key to this professed problem is not to discourage education, nor to make it less accessible. Rather, it is to encourage a culture that embraces education as it is, valuable in and of itself. A culture which, as a benefit of being educated, is versatile, inclusive, resourceful and sustainable. Hence why I do not believe that a country containing a considerable number ‘over-qualified’ graduates is a bad thing. The same goes for working a job that is well within the limits of one’s capabilities. You can have a PhD and be shopkeeper, a dustbin-man, a cleaner. That’s fine. Your qualification might have gone to waist but your education certainly has not.

In fact, given the tremendous contributions extravagant lifestyles pay towards the destruction of our biosphere, living a little more minimalistically is nothing short of applaudable. It ought to be encouraged even. When the common conception of a good job is one that pays well, something has gone awry. Higher earners, with their gas-guzzling cars and imported goods, their hasty purchasing and disposal of needless novelty products, their Christmases, Valentines Days, Easters, Halloweens, not to mention several dozen somewhat insignificant celebrations dotted in-between, their urgent desire to buy bigger, better, more – the higher earners definitely contribute more to global warming. Far from speculation, this is simply the truth of the matterSomewhere in the region of 26% of all the UK’s emissions are created by domestic and international transport, imports and exports. The more you consume, the greater your involvement in that statistic. The typical Brit will emit as much CO2 in one day as a Kenyan will in a year. The average American emits 2000 times more than someone living in Chad. Such statistics seem a little extreme, but they definitely highlight the point. Aren’t their any limits to the excessive compulsions of those who have a little doe? The culture we’ve been raised in demands us to consume. It says, earn more, buy more, eat more – repeat, and sells it all under a light of good intention, but tells us little of the wider ruinous effects it has on the natural world, the poor and underprivileged, indigenous communities, and future generations. Minimalism, or at least living a little less extravagantly, given our currently fragile position, is now a moral requirement.

This is why the statistics surrounding graduate employment are to some extent encouraging. How can we expect anything less if this is what is morally required of us? By embracing minimalism and realising the true value of education as something entirely distinct from any qualification it may or may not underpin, the concept of over-qualification becomes entirely redundant. So too does the notion that a broadly accessible, comprehensive education system can produce anything other than desirable effects on the whole.

As soon as I read these reports I could smell that there was something a little funky with Mr Cheese and his gang. Their equivocations failed to go undetected.

A.C. Stark

 

 

 

The Road to Ruin (The Impending Overpopulation Crisis)

Politics & Public Debate
“[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” – John Stuart Mill

In 2015 the People’s Republic of China ended its 35 year old one-child policy. Having broadened the laws surrounding procreation, resident families are now permitted to have two children. This, of course, is worthy of celebration. The one-child policy created a disproportionate infanticide-obsessed China, with vastly more men than women and a rapidly ageing older generation. Though, many see this as only a minor victory. Don’t people have the right to have as many or as few children as they desire? Surely, any restriction on procreation is immoral or unjust, a restriction on liberty, an infringement of human rights.

Whilst I too condemn infanticide, I fail to recognise the strength of arguments in favour of unrestricted procreation. So, I’ll get to my point (as if you hadn’t guessed it already): Our right to procreate is not, neither should it be a universal human right. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that we are not, morally speaking, at liberty to procreate willy-nilly. Why? Because limitless procreation in a world of finite resources necessarily leads to the mathematical problem of overpopulation. And that problem is presently lurking. As it stands today overpopulation is seen exclusively in parcels – in relatively small segregated communities, subsets of the global populace. These communities’ demands for food and resources outweigh their net supply of those available. That being said, in a global context overpopulation is not yet an issue. Indeed, the world produces enough food to feed more than 10 billion mouths, some 30 to 40 percent more than is required (these numbers are a little loose but still tell a horrific injustice). But this doesn’t merit us ignoring it. Rather, it tells us that we have the power to take preventative rather than reactionary measures.

It’s rather obscure as to whether the situation in China is a consequences of reactionary or preventative action. What is certain is that China’s one-child policy was implemented in part to prevent a relapse of the Great Chinese Famine. Between 1958 and 1962, 45 million people died from starvation, hunger-related disease, murder and in some instances cannibalism. On top of that, 40 million babies were unborn (again, these numbers are a little shaky, but the magnitude of this tragedy is somewhat comparable to that of the Second World War which took the lives of 60 million). As a result of Chairman Mao Zedong’s vision to empower China through population growth and then to embark upon The Great Leap Forward, the people of China were condemned to enacting a pilot program of mass overpopulation. The horrors which unfolded were unprecedented and almost immeasurable.

Imagining what such a disaster would look like on a global scale is nigh-on impossible. However, looking at such things in statistical terms can sometimes enable us to understand them a little clearer. So here it is: During the Great Chinese Famine the amount of lives lost compared to somewhere in the region of 10% of the entire Chinese population at the time (to round down!). If such a famine happened today on a global scale 700,000,000 lives would be lost. That’s seven hundred million fatalities. An enormous number. And these aren’t quick deaths. We’re not talking about pressing a switch which simply takes seven hundred million people out of ever existing. We’re talking about the sluggish toil; the gradual, harrowing journey towards fatal starvation. A scenario so dire it inspires an impulse to eat anything whatsoever. Trash, bark, mud, bodily remains. But like I said, as it is, the world is far from overpopulated (if only in numerical terms). That being said, our population continues to increase dramatically. So, let’s look at some fairly standard population projections and see what the world might look like in the not too distant future.

The UN predicts that the world’s population will increase from 7 billion to roughly 10 billion by 2050, possibly to even 13 billion by 2100. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, demands for food will increase by 70% by 2050 as a result of having to feed around 200,000 more mouths every single day. This in turn increases our demands on agriculture and industry. Harvests are required to produce higher yields subsequent to an increase in food, medicine and multiple other recourse requirements. Rather than investing in sustainable life-giving methods, up-scaling our agricultural systems typically involves clearing rare and precious forestland (up to 58,000 square miles of forestland is lost each year; that’s 48 football fields per minute!). At present, approximately 40% of the land-surface is dedicated to agriculture. If we assume that the same agricultural methods remain in 2050, ≃68% of all the worlds land-surface will be dedicated to agriculture. I’ll not project these figures into 2100. Though, undoubtedly, they’d paint a pretty bleak picture.

With an increasing need for forested areas in order to tackle the effects of climate change and to create carbon capture and storage sinks, there’s just not enough land to go around. Indeed, without appropriate and careful changes to how we utilise our rural areas the quality of our soils, with help from a rising climate, having already deteriorated over recent decades, will continue to degrade. This doesn’t bode well for the people of 2050. Where on earth will they get their food if their most precious commodity, that upon which their harvests depend, dies? Undeniably, a world that destroys its soil destroys itself. But I stray from the point. Global warming is one of, if not the most pressing issue the world has ever faced. We are yet to feel even a fraction of its true force. If we fail to curb our emissions, which even the most incongruous of persons can see is probable, the likelihood of global overpopulation increases greatly. With the desolation of vast rural and urban areas resultant from violent weather systems, the collapse of industry, a global recession, food, water and aid all in short supply, it’s clear that we’ll be unable to sustain a standard of living similar to that to which we have become accustomed. Yet, even if global warming were a myth, at some point in the future, in the absence of any formal or natural population control, an analogous scenario would still come to fruition. Without a cap on procreation we would almost certainly find ourselves in a state of global overpopulation. The fact that global warming is a reality means that our currently being on the verge of overpopulation stands only to intensify its effects; it stands only to produce more suffering in the long run.

Especially given the evident inevitability of our world being ravaged by climate change, I’d propose that a child-cap policy is, contrary to popular belief, a morally good thing. What China is doing by sticking to their guns and not permitting unadulterated procreative freedom is, in my eyes, commendable. Relatively speaking, if there are fewer mouths to feed, there are more resources to share. With more resources we could delay succumbing to the effects of overpopulation, giving us a little more time to mitigate the consequences of and/or adapt to climate change. This would prevent a great degree of additional and unnecessary suffering.

Whilst we’ve been raised to be wary of eastern political sentiments, when it comes to China’s child-cap policy we have something to learn. Yes, it remains controversial subject, but political intervention on such matters is not as radical as it once seemed. It is clearly incumbent upon us to curb our rate of procreation, to prevent harm to ourselves and to those that we create. We are on the road to ruin, but we’re capable of making that road a longer one and of making our destination a little less austere.

A.C. Stark