Locked into destruction

April 16, 2009

The threats of climate change and peak oil necessitate a radical change in the way that we live our lives, yet we are structurally restrained from making such changes by the ideas, laws and inequalities which underpin (what’s left of) modern capitalism.

It’s all reminiscent of Julian Schnabel’s film “the Diving Bell and the Butterfly” in which the central character, a Parisian playboy fashion magazine editor, finds himself suffering from “locked in syndrome” which leaves him unable to move or to communicate beyond a simply blink.

Capitalism, while opening up many routes to the accumulation of monetary wealth, locks its participants into its logic, which impairs their freedom to pursue lifepaths which revolve around the accumulation of other things such as human solidarity, ecological health, even basic sanity.

Home owners, for example, are able to access credit based upon the value of their home on the housing market. This allows (allowed?) them to increase their consumption to levels well above those that would be accessible based on their wages (or other assets) alone.

Yet the need to maximise house value tends to force home owners into creating homes and gardens which are homogenous, unimaginative and, in a variety of senses, sterile. Gardens are produced which while exhibiting the virtues of tidiness and, in some cases, beauty, lack biodiversity or productivity. Buildings tend to avoid experiments in renewable energy, compost toilets, unusual materials or architectural ideas that would make them more sustainable. The need to both maximise value and drive costs down ensures that home building does not approach ecological sanity.

Dissident homeowners, by and large, are wealthy ones. Squatters can experiment, but those renting accomodation or the majority of homeowners who simply have to protect the value of their investment cannot really afford, or are not allowed, to make where they live sustainable places.

They are not free in any meaningful sense to do the things that we need to do to reduce carbon emissions, close nutrient loops which will enhance soil fertility and reduce the consumption of scarce fossil fuels. In a general sense, this “locked in syndrome” means that wealthier homeowners will be better prepared for increasing fuel bills and government mandated renewable energy consumption. It will therefore exacerbate already deep economic inequalities, particularly as the housing market is unlikely to near recent peaks over the decades to come.

So to give those with homes the freedom to experiment, a departure from the economic system that we live under is necessary. In making that shift, the demands of mortgage payments and the pressure to conform must be lifted. If not, then as the housing market responds to new fashions for renewable energy installations or ecologically sensitive gardens, then the rich will be well placed to make off with an unearned bounty.

The same applies to states within the international economy, making them far less likely to adapt to the same problems. Brazil, for example, is on the front line of dealing with climate change. If its Amazon rainforest is felled or burns, then we will see all hopes of avoiding catastrophic warming fade.

Yet felling the forests has developed as an economic imperative. The forests supply valuable timber products and, in the wake of their felling, farmland for ranches and soy production. The expansion of the agricultural frontier into Brazil’s forests has been driven by the poverty of Brazil’s people, which has been produced through a combination of crippling international debts, years of ruinous military dictatorship propped up by the United States and a colonial history which implanted a low value commodity plantation economy.

A wealthy landowning elite has developed with strong links to multinational corporations, which grows fat from ranching and  plantations, hoarding land while the forest is toppled. This is the product of market economics. With Brazil integrating into the global economy, its richest people have accumulated land, reserving it for business practices which serve wealthy consumers across the world, but not the nation’s people, most of whom remain extremely poor.

All of this has been pushed along by Brazil’s need to earn foreign currency to pay off creditors and compete in a global economy against other struggling commodity producers.

Now, as Roberto Unger, the country’s Minister for Strategic Affairs puts it, “For every acre under cultivation in Brazil, there are more than four acres given over to low-intensity ranching and much of that has become degraded pasture land.”

Unger maintains that “If we could recover even a small part of that territory, we could double the area under cultivation and triple our agricultural output in a brief time without touching a single tree.” But in seven years of power, the Workers Party under Lula da Silva has failed to challenge to power of Brazil’s landowning elite. They have been locked in by the same logic that repressed homeowners in Britain.

Redistributive policies tend to anger creditors, leading to lowered credit ratings and capital flight. Elites threatened by such policies always reach out to allies abroad, of which they tend to have many, as has happened in Bolivia and Zimbabwe over recent years, which complicates the process by eroding the government’s standing in international circles, whether rightly or wrongly.

So to break the mould requires some courage. Of course, with a popular movement behind them, the government could achieve their aims, but Lula has shown no signs of wanting to work closely with already existing social movements. That’s despite the fact that Brazil’s Landless Movement (MST) is the largest such movement in the world, and settles thousands of farmers on degraded land every year.

But without land reform, as Unger suggests, the Amazon will continue to be eroded. Without housing reform, British homes will continue to be dull, fossil fuel dependent commodities. We’ll all be locked into a spiral of destruction while our minds remain trapped in the paranoid competition that capitalism has, up to now, produced.

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