Guest post: To Save The Economy, We Have To Break Its One Sacred Rule

Written by Jason Hickel, originally appeared on FastCo on 15/03/16.

Scholars are still trying to figure out why the society on Easter Island collapsed, ending the people famed for their construction of towering stone heads. One interesting theory holds that it had to do with the heads themselves. Somehow, the islanders decided that the giant heads represented power and success, so different groups competed to build as many heads as possible. But because there was only one quarry, to move the stones around the island required felling trees to use as rollers. To feed their lust for heads, they felled the trees so eagerly that, over just a few generations, what was once a tropical forest was reduced to barren scrubland.

The islanders must have realized that their obsession with heads would quickly spell their doom. As the project wore on, they no longer had sufficient wood to build fishing boats or houses, nor trees from which to gather fruits and nuts. They must have seen this disaster unfolding—slowly starving to death and forced to live in caves for shelter—right up until they felled the last palm. It was all because of a myth, but a myth so powerful that, despite knowing its madness, they could not resist it.

Humans are strange creatures. We create our own myths and then we live by them almost as though we didn’t create them at all, as if they were handed down to us by the gods. And this is not just a characteristic of small societies. Our global civilization has its fair share of powerful myths, one of which is remarkably similar to that which destroyed Easter Island. Just as multiplying heads became the sacred rule of Easter Island economics, so there is one sacred rule that underpins our global economic system: namely, that GDP must grow, and must grow at all costs. Why must GDP grow? Because GDP growth is equivalent to human progress.

We tend to take the GDP measure for granted as though it has always existed. Most people don’t know that it was invented only recently. It has a history. During the 1930s, the economists Simon Kuznets and John Maynard Keynes set out to design an economic aggregate that would help policymakers figure out how to escape the Great Depression. Kuznets argued for a measure that would help us maximize human well-being and track the progress of human welfare. But when World War II struck, Keynes argued that we should count all money-based activities—even negative ones—so we would know what was available for the war effort.

In the end Keynes won, and his version of GDP came into use. GDP was intended to be a war-time measure, which is why it’s so single-minded—almost violent. It counts money-based activity, but it doesn’t care whether that activity is useful or destructive. If you cut down a forest and sell the timber, GDP goes up; GDP does not count the cost of losing the forest as a habitat, or as a future resource, or as a sinkhole for carbon. What is more, GDP doesn’t count useful activities that are not monetized. If you grow your own food, clean your own house, or take care of your aging parents, GDP says nothing. But if you buy food from Tesco, hire a cleaner, and send your parents to a nursing home, GDP goes up.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with measuring some things and not others. GDP itself doesn’t have any impact in the real world. GDPgrowth, however, does. As soon as we start focusing on GDP growth, we’re not only promoting the things that GDP measures, we’re promoting the indefinite increase of those things. And that’s exactly what we started to do in the 1960s. GDP was adopted during the Cold War for the sake of adjudicating the grand pissing match between the West and the USSR. Suddenly, politicians on both sides became feverish about promoting GDP growth. GDP growth became a sacred rule. And we remain in thrall to it today.

The imperative for growth is incredibly powerful; probably the most powerful force in our world. When the entire global political establishment puts its force behind this goal, human and natural systems come under enormous, overwhelming pressure.

What does this pressure look like in the real world? In India, it looks like corporate land grabs, which leave peasant farmers dispossessed. In the U.K., it looks like privatization of public services—with corporations eager to exploit untapped markets. In Brazil it looks like deforestation, which is eating the Amazon at a rapid clip. In the U.S. it looks like fracking, backed by a government desperate for cheap energy. Around the world it looks like trade agreements that strip away regulations that protect workers and the environment. And for all of us it looks like longer working hours, expensive housing, depleted soils, polluted cities, wasted oceans, and—above all—climate change.

We normally think of these as separate crises. But they are not: they are all connected. They all proceed from the same deep logic of GDP growth, the collective madness at the heart of our economic system. To fight them as separate issues is to mistake the symptoms for the disease.

People who spend their lives pushing against these destructive trends will tell you how futile it feels. It is futile because our governments don’t care. They don’t care because according to their most important measure of progress, destruction counts as good. Indeed, under the tyranny of GDP growth, the destruction must continue at all costs. The problem here is not that humans are inherently destructive. The problem is that we have created a myth that encourages us to behave in destructive ways, and have given that myth the power of a sacred rule. As Joseph Stiglitz has put it, “What we measure informs what we do. And if we’re measuring the wrong thing, we’re going to do the wrong thing.”

Why does GDP growth retain such a hold on our imagination? Because we assume that when GDP goes up, it makes our lives better: it raises our incomes, it creates more jobs, it means better schools and hospitals and so on. This may have been true in the past. But unfortunately it no longer holds. In the United States GDP has risen steadily over the past half century, yet median incomes have stagnated, the poverty rate has increased, and inequality has grown. The same is true on a global scale: since 1980, global GDP has grown by 380%, but the number of people living in poverty has, according to World Bank numbers of people living on $5 a day, increased by more than 1.1 billion. Why is this? Because past a certain point, GDP growth begins to produce more negative outcomes than positive ones—more “illth” than wealth, as the economist Herman Daly has put it (if “ill” is the opposite of “well,” “illth” is the opposite of “wealth”).

GDP growth might make sense on a planet with endless room and endless resources. But we don’t live on such a planet. In fact, we’re already overshooting our planet’s biocapacity by more than 50% each year. There are no longer any frontiers where accumulation doesn’t directly harm someone else, by, say, degrading the soils, polluting the water, poisoning the air, and exploiting human beings. At this point in our history, GDP growth is creating more misery than it eliminates. And the problem is not just that the growth is inequitably shared, although that it is a major issue; the problem, rather, is aggregate growth itself. In our era of climate change, even sober scientists are pointing out that growth is leading us down a path that that has widespread famine and mass displacement just around the corner.

Yes, some try to reassure us that our economy is gradually “decoupling” from material throughput, and that soon we will have growth without destruction. Butstudy after study has proven that it’s not true. In fact, global consumption of materials has nearly doubled over the past 30 years, and accelerated since 2000.

The rule of GDP growth may seem sacred, but it is not. As quickly as we created it, we can pull it apart. And pull it apart we must—it’s time for the giant stone heads to roll. There are already movements in this direction. A number of states and countries have adopted much more sensible alternatives, like the Genuine Progress Indicator, which seek to promote human and environmental well-being. There are many others we might consider, and it doesn’t much matter which we choose—indeed, each city or country could pick a different measure, or no measure at all. The important thing is that we shake off the tyranny of GDP growth and open up a creative, democratic conversation about what kind of world we want to live in.

Video

Keep connecting dots…

Written by Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk, originally posted at The Rules

What do rising sea levels in Bangladesh, the break up of public utilities in Ghana and austerity in the UK have in common?

They’re all symptoms of the same disease: neoliberal capitalism.

This is not the story we’re most often told. Instead, we’re encouraged to see the many economic, political, environmental and societal crises faced by communities around the world as separate. In this story, rising food prices in Kenya, for example, have nothing to do with exploding student debt in America. But this simply isn’t true. They are both inevitable outcomes of the same neoliberal logic that says that life must ultimately serve capital, rather than the other way round.

It’s only when we connect enough dots that we can expose the deep logic and rules that govern the whole global economy. Rules like, “material growth, everywhere, at all costs”; a ridiculous idea on a planet with finite resources. And it’s only when we connect the dots that we can see that the people who have the most power in this system aren’t the most thoughtful, talented or worthy, but merely those who most effectively obey these rules.

Like all stories, the way to undermine its power is to be conscious of it. Understanding and then exposing the deep logic and rules of the global system is one of the most important political acts we can engage in. It’s the beginning of our own de-programming, and it leads us to alternative solutions to these whole-system problems. Alternatives like strong local economies that can bypass debt-based currencies, and food sovereignty approaches that challenge the monoculture model of neoliberal ‘development.’ Alternatives that are already to be found all around us; from the Brixton Pound in Britain, to the Zapatistas in Mexico, to Rojava, the Kurdish free state in northern Syria.

The mainstream media is not set up to see these shifts and so continues to push the old story of “growth at all costs”. It’s up to us to connect the dots. To expose how oppressions around the world are connected. And to recognise that something wonderful and powerful is emerging all around us, outgrowing the cruel limitations of neoliberal capitalism by embracing life in all its glorious, indescribable diversity.

Will you help us connect the dots and build the alternatives before it’s too late?

Here’s how you can help:

Watch and share our short video to keep #ConnectingDots between our global oppressions:

Keep connecting dots

Saying “everything is connected” is pretty popular these days. ‘Intersectionality’ is the latest buzzword.  ‘Systems thinking’ is the discipline du jour.  Everyone, it seems, is trying to make sense of this dawning awareness that the challenges we face do not stand alone. Climate change, for example, is not just about carbon emissions but also economics, race relations, patriarchy and power. There is no line of disconnect, except where we draw it with our minds.

Starting with How

Simply saying that everything is connected doesn’t get you very far, though. The real challenge is to understand how. When it comes to the root causes of inequality and poverty, many of the all-important hows are not only to be found in every national economy, but transcend them all.

Globalisation is a word that’s been in common use for at least thirty years. At this point, It feels old hat; the 90s version of the social justice struggle.

But that sort of easy dismissal surrenders crucial intellectual ground. It removes from view not just basic facts – e.g. global trade is the lifeblood of most national economies – but some critical realities about how the world works.

The first critical reality is that, in the most practical and important sense, there is one global economic system. There are networks of national systems within it, but they are all part of, and increasingly subservient to, a single mother-system.

This is an astonishingly important idea to get our heads around. Instead of starting with, for example, the US or Greek economies and then looking for where it links to the global system, we start with the global, look down at the US and Greek economies and start to connect dots to see how they are similar.

You don’t have to work from this perspective for long to recognise that there is a single set of rules. They may be implemented in different ways or clothed in different language, but they are as true for the US and Greece as they are for China and South Africa.

The second point is that this one system, with its single set of rules, is being governed. There are people who see its wholeness clearly and operate from that perspective. Right now, most of these people, unsurprisingly, sit in organisations that have genuine planetary reach; private corporations, international institutions like the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, and a small number of large NGOs.

This leads to the third truth, which is that the people with the most power in the global economy are those who align with its interests. Which is another way of saying that they effectively promote and implement its rules. This isn’t some conspiracy theory, merely a truth about the nature of complex adaptive systems. The top priority of any system is to survive. Once a network becomes sufficiently complex, it becomes self-organising. From that point on, it will always ‘want’ to survive. One way the global economic system does this is to draw into positions of influence those people who best serve that purpose. A capitalist system, whose Prime Directive is the production of capital, will work constantly to refine and improve its ability to do just that. It will continue until it is stopped by an external force of some kind, or it collapses under its own weight.

Connecting these dots leads us to one very important realisation: even the most powerful people in the world have no choice but to obey the rules as long as they want to be rewarded by the system, with more power or wealth. In other words, unless a politically significant mass of people actively choose otherwise, the rules of the system will govern us, not the other way round.

The system itself will not see human suffering as an imperative to change its rules as long as those rules serve its immediate survival. It has no inherent predictive capacity. It is self-organising but not independently sentient. It can no more ‘feel’ human suffering than it can foresee its own destruction at the hands of climate change. Only us humans, with our predictive capacities, can do that. If the rules are to be changed, we cannot expect the system to auto-correct. We must change them manually.

Growth as Given

There are few rules of the single global economy more fundamental than growth. The mantra that “growth is good” has been repeated so often that it has the feel of common sense. It is almost impossible to think of how economies might work, let alone how inequality and poverty might be reduced, if we aren’t growing the amount of capital there is in the world through ever-increasing production and consumption.

This logic pervades all international debates and plans. Take, for example, the recent “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs). They rest on the fundamental assumption that every country, every company, even every human being, must grow their material wealth over time, as a precondition to anything else. This is measured in GDP for countries, and profit for businesses. In other words, they obey the rule that the global economy must grow continually through the perpetual growth of all of its parts.

But what if there is a fatal flaw in this logic? What if this rule is not fit for the purpose of guiding us into the future? What if, instead of being a panacea for all that is good, it is a driver of so much that is bad?

The evidence is clear. Totalitarian growth of all parts of the system has not only led to destabilising the climate by making sure consumption is always increasing, everywhere, but has also created vast amounts of poverty and inequality. This might sound counter-intuitive at first glance – doesn’t more money mean less poverty? But consider this: since 1990, global GDP has increased 271%, and yet both the number of people living on less than $5 a day, and the number of people going hungry has also increased, by 10% and 9% respectively. Add to that the wage stagnation across the developed world, and increasing inequality both within and between countries pretty much everywhere, and the shakiness of this basic logic becomes evident. Aggregate economic growth does not translate into less poverty.

Maybe this would only be problematic, something that could be fixed by tweaking the growth model while keeping the basic imperative in place, were it not for the second part of the problem. The imperative for every part of the system to constantly grow its material wealth is destroying us, in the most real and painful way. The consumption-driven mechanisms we use to achieve it, and the GDP measure we use to define it, have us locked on a path to ruin by actively encouraging us to treat finite natural resources as if they were infinite, and prioritize the growth of the money supply over everything else. Said another way, the perceived moral imperative for economic growth actually contradicts the laws of nature.

It is only by connecting dots that we start to be able to see the true shape of the challenges we face. We all face. Whatever our issue-focus, there are underlying rules and norms that affect every facet of human life. Growth is just one.

At first glance, connecting dots in this way might make the job of radical change feel more difficult. We struggle hard enough to affect change locally, let alone nationally, let alone globally. But something liberating and empowering happens when you start to connect the dots to see what’s going wrong; the same process also allows you to connect the dots between the struggles for making things better. We start to see that what’s driving the destruction of the rainforest in Indonesia is the same basic set of rules that are causing rising food prices in Kenya, and the explosion of student debt in America. We become connected, in very real and actionable ways, by a realization that we are all being screwed by the same basic set of rules.

Most importantly, we start to see new and different solutions. Ideas that previously seemed to only mitigate one problem can start to be seen to mitigate all.

For example, strong local economies with independent currencies and food sovereignty challenge the monoculture model of ‘development’. Gift economies that deny the commodification of life disrupt the system’s rules by their very existence. As we contract new types of relationships, with each other, with our communities, with Nature itself, we will usher in new types of social relations based on a vast range of diverse and mutually-supporting solutions that will render the old paradigm, with its slavish adherence to ideas like perpetual growth, wholly obsolete.

These new models and experiments are already taking place all around us. From the Brixton Pound in Britain, to the Zapatistas in Mexico, to Rojava, the Kurdish free state in northern Syria; a new breed of post-capitalist thinking is taking hold and spreading through networks of conscious citizens. However, the mainstream media is not set up to see these shifts. They are pushing the old story of growth, lifting boats, charity and ‘financial access’. And in their blindness lies our opportunity. The antidote lies in our ability to see how the old system is connected, while recognising the patterns in the diversity and wellspring of wonder and power that is filling the void of the crumbling edifice of growth-based capitalism. The question is, will we connect the dots before it’s too late?

Video

I name this video: “Enthusiastic majority white progressives saving the world in a Western lecture hall while multicultural stock video beneficiaries from across the globe dance with happiness and gratitude’

#Facepalm. #WhiteSaviours

Does anyone singing this song realise how much they (we) are part of the problem, or that the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are NOT going to fix a system that has inequality and oppression built into it?

I don’t really want to give this any more oxygen. But. Really?

Audio

No Words

Words. I’ve saved few and spent many. Baiting minds with a frustrated tongue.

Speaking from a pulpit of privilege.

Self-absorbed, indulgent responsibility.

Mattering to no one.

 

Each word a pill, a placebo; Anything to stem the ceaseless flow;

Of despair leaking from me.

Sleeping doesn’t work when you’re woke. The systems fucked. Fucked up. Broke.

You can’t un-know when you know.

 

Despair meet anxiety. There’s no escape from this reality,

The Ten O’Clock news has become

Ten second bulletins of bullets in.

Eyes clamped open seeing things I can’t un-see.

 

Hearts once soft and tender; now trapped in ribbed cages.

Petrified and petrifying. Tight and getting tighter.

Lungs punctured with panicked breaths.

No help, no hope for the faithful or faithless. No one to save us.

 

A heart, once juicy, now juice-free. A rusted metal shell.

Cold and hard. Bloody anger coursing through veins.

Hearts and minds shutting down. Shutting off.

It could break windows. Every beat resistance. Existence. Hell.

 

On top of this chest. The weight of the world’s hatred,

Bearing down on breastbone,

Underneath, anxiety sits, curled up there it’s made its home.

Waking to stretch and flex itself, screaming, naked.

 

Whiteness worn like scratchy clothes encrusted with stolen privilege. A scar of my lineage.

Can’t take them off they’re all I have. They’re all the rage.

My skin an armour…y that I want to surrender, but a cross I bear. For our sins.

A canvas for blood. A key to escape a smaller cage.

An over-stamped passport to opportunity, impunity, liberty.

A leg up over carefully built barriers to keep ‘others’ out.

The pen and sword are mighty, but this story is mightier.

Tearing this shit down is our responsibility.

 

A carefully edited book, a history of ‘victory’;

And conquest. White hands crafting shackles for slavery.

A world map glittering, littered with ‘error’.

Dividing and conquering, raping and pillaging.

A uniform for abuse, murder, horror, terror.

Thinking past these identities takes steely determination.

Pale fashions for mass devastation.

 

My head is swirling. Always. Looping back on itself. Questioning questions.

Tracing thoughts to their conclusion and watching how they play out. Checking myself. Clawing for solutions.

Thinking. Thinking. Overthinking. Rethinking. Unthinking. Dethinking. Rethinking. Thinking. Thinking. Madness. I’m sinking.

 

Deep breaths waiting for the sedation of hope, or possibility.

A mind craving an antidote to this. Existential hostility.

An answer For you. For me. For us.

For a broken ego cloaked in fragility.

 

Locked together, treading on each other, pushing. Biting. Clawing.

Feeding on each other and killing and fighting. Drawing blood.

I want to hold you close, but that’s not the story…

We’ve been taught. We’ve fought. So we fight.

 

Some of us have the sum of us.

Some have bigger teeth and bite harder

And the rest of us scream and shout and stamp our feet.

Hatred and anger and pain and fear giving birth to hatred and anger and pain and fear. Repeat.

Beat… beat by steady beat.

 

Wars in my name via WiFi while we fight in the comments section.

Extinguishing tangible insurrection.

We trigger each other with Twitter happy trigger fingers, while trigger happy cops kill…No end of Black. Lives….Matter.

For those that survive it’s incarceration, indoctrination, gentrification.

 

We stub out the pain with cigarettes and burn each other with thoughts and words.

Generation after generation.

We inject hatred, fuck pain and drink to be sedated.

We condemn and curse each other.

Ancestors, grandparents, parents, children and the yet unborn, bearing the weight of this world we’ve created.

 

My womb aches – it’s been filled up with hatred and scraped out to hatred. Sedated.

My body debated, rated. Excavated. The passage is tainted. The gestation unwanted. The exit terrorised.

Many hands make light work of tearing up women’s bodies and choices. Narrated…with thought and word and deed.

Unwanted fingers creep into our sex. Followed by guns. Loaded with creed.

What choice exists? The choice to remain barren. Too many people. Too much hatred. Stripped naked. Degraded. Who’d want to plan parenthood in a world like this?

 

We tear down trees and put up walls.

We fucked you over, but sorry we’re full.

We stand of the shoulder of giant…injustices. Treading on nations and nature and people who have paid for this all.

 

Hateful comes easy,

But I know to be grateful, believe me.

Wearing this privilege is a privilege that drowns me,  but who gives a shit when people are drowning.

And those who can…do jack shit about it.

 

Mainstream flowing with vicious suspicions.

Chip wrappers with more nipple than news. Spitting hate and fuelling fires with incendiary lies. Words do more damage than devices.

And we’re divided. Not minded to give a shit about each other as we buy this and that.

Factories of news. And Carbon. And tat. We’re in crisis.

 

And we all want to live like an American. Idiot.

The civilising nation that leaves a trail of devastation with its cultural colonisation.

Built on graves and living bodies of ancient generations.

Following in hot pursuit of its European relations.

And the system fucks people up and infiltrates education and teaches them a story with grandiose decoration. Of Pale Kings and Queens who brought civilisation erasing the wisdom of indigenous populations.

‘History’ the very concept a western creation.

 

Genocide. Ecocide. Femicide. Maangamizi.

Chose a side, pick a side. Repeating history is easy.

Pamoja. Ubuntu. Uhuru. Reparations.

Solutions that exist outside Western imaginations.

Are ignored, sidelined, marginalised freely. Kwa nini sio sisi kusema Swahili?*

 

And we forget that all this shit is connected.

Stories created, told and resurrected.

Connected oppression under market depression that we’re all feeling.

This world’s no longer spinning, it’s reeling.

From the shock of these missiles on a mission creating climates for terror, and changing climates. Punching holes in a sinking ship in stormy weather.

 

Growth at all costs, whatever the loss. Cashing in our future. This is futile.

Greedy hands steal resources from lands, while bearing arms that costs lives and money.

Don’t you think it’s funny that we spend more on death than life?

Man-on-man more acceptable on the battlefield than in the bedroom.

With pro-lifers on the rampage, there’s no safety within or without the womb.

Fuck this shit.

Kids killing kids in classrooms in a ‘civilised’ nation where gun-loving indoctrination allows for mass shootings as a routine realisation. An indication. Of. Just. How. Fucked. We. Are.

 

Protests. Marches. Petitions. Civil disobedience.

Pounding fists and pavement. Nothing civil about this fucked up experience.

Pounds for pounds of flesh. Necks that turn heads. Hands that cover eyes and ears.

Mindless television a balm calming fears and drying tears.

 

These words taking space of those voices silenced. You’ve heard it all before from voices wiser than mine and you’ve seen it all before. A hundred thousand times.

 

Ammi. Nanny. Dessalines. Palmares. and Kleine.

Grant. West. Cole. Parkes. hooks. and Eistenstein.

Clemencia. Naciemento. Nehanda. Boyle. and Marley.

Rasta. Huxley. Orwell. Truth. Garvey. Garvey and Garvey.

Ahmed. Ensler. Monbiot. Morales. King. Sankara.

Obadele. Fatiman. Morris. Robeson. Cabral. Jones. Akala.

Fanon. Tempest. Lorde. Moore. Francis. Ghandi.

Corbyn. Kuya. Lewis and Lewis. Martinez. Kimathi.

Selassie. Tubman. Wainaina. Boyle. Davies. Wiwa.

Asantewaa. Tharoor. Ramsey. Smokey. Mckesson. Shiva.

Chomsky. Rodney. Roi. X. Lumumba and Lumumba.

Tutu. Kofi. Kuti. Mandela. Adichie and Nkrumah.

 

A dawn chorus.
A wake up call.

Are we too late? Have we lost it all?

 

*Why don’t we speak Swahili?

So I wrote a poem, which I haven’t really done since school. It’s about how I’m feeling about the world at this moment. It kind of just came out. It was a strange experience. I just sat there and was drawn to write and write. The words fell onto the paper.

I also recorded it, in one very rough take without editing. It’s a bit long (please bear with it) and this was the first time I’d read it out loud, so it’s raw.

Anyway, I wanted to share it with you to see what you think.

Thanks for listening.

Video

Mallence Bart-Williams on Sierra Leone – the richest country in the world and Western dependency on Africa

THIS.

Mallence Bart-Williams talks to Berlin about Sierra Leone – the richest country in the world, in nature, people, culture, treasures, minerals…and stamps.

“Of course the West needs Africa’s resources, most desperately. To power aeroplanes, cellphones, computers and engines. And the gold and diamonds of course. A status symbol to determine their powers by decor and to give value to their currencies.

One thing that keeps me puzzled, despite having studied finance and economics at the world’s best universities, the following question remains unanswered. Why is it that 5,000 units of our currency is worth 1 unit of your currency, where we are the ones with actual gold reserves?

It’s quite evident that the aid is in fact not coming from the West to Africa, but from Africa to the Western world. The Western world depends on Africa in every possible way, since alternative resources are scarce out here.

So how does the West ensure that the free aid keeps coming? By systematically destabilising the wealthiest African nations and their systems, and all that backed by huge PR campaigns, leaving the entire world under the impression that Africa is poor and dying and merely surviving on the mercy of the West. Well done Oxfam, UNICEF, Red Cross, Live Aid and all the other organisations that continuously run multimillion dollar advertising campaigns depicting charity porn to sustain that image of Africa globally.”

J’accuse: Laying Poverty Blame Where It Belongs

“How could one hope that a council of war would demolish what a council of war had done?”

– Émile Zola, from J’accuse! – his open letter to Felix Faure, the President of France, 1898.

A lot of people might agree that the United Nations as a concept is a good one – it’s intended to protect human rights, seemingly uphold some sense of ‘universal’ values and strive for some kind of international cohesion. But can an organisation arguably run by the old rich, (largely) white boys club of the West, who do well out of the status quo, really deliver on a commitment to ending poverty and inequality by 2030 with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Apart from the fact that his hierarchy is completely unfair, unequal, patriarchal, racist and unjust, here are four reasons why I think not:

1) Those with the power won’t take responsibility

When it comes to issues like ending global poverty and inequality, many powerful governments, businesses and stakeholders do not take responsibility for the role they play in both creating and perpetuating it.

In the discussions taking place over the last few years about the SDGs there has been little acknowledgment that – conversations have largely focused on poverty being a ‘disease’ to be ‘eradicated’ rather than something that humans have created with centuries of systems and actions that have widened gaps, disempowered some and made others rich and powerful – things like slavery, racism, resource theft, empire, patriarchy, tax avoidance, colonialism and war without end.

The UN and the Global North seem to focus on problems within ‘developing’ countries like they fell from the sky, or they exist in isolation from the global system created by, and designed to benefit elites in, the Global North. Poverty is often blamed on things like corruption within poor countries, on disease and on the environment – all things that put accountability firmly in the hands of nature or the poor countries themselves. Those with the power and wealth never take responsibility for their contributions through arms trading, empire building, resource theft, multinationals sucking countries dry of their resource base, self-interested foreign policy and more. They won’t admit that the poor are poor because the rich are rich.

The most powerful governments, stakeholders and companies sit around the table and lead discussions to come up with ‘solutions’ to problems that they don’t think (or won’t acknowledge) they’ve played any part in. The SDGs are a good example – how are we going to solve global poverty if those who are causing it won’t admit that they’re part of (and principle creators of) the problem? To solve a problem you need to focus on its root causes, otherwise the SDGs as a solution are like taking paracetamol for cancer – they dim the pain, but don’t offer the cure.

2) Marginalised countries and people don’t get a proper seat at the table

The SDGs have been paraded in the media as an entirely inclusive process, but if that’s the case, then why do they not include literally ANY of the demands that countries in the Global South have been making for the past thirty years? Things like;

  • an end to structural adjustment,
  • an end to tax evasion and mispricing,
  • an end to odious debt,
  • democratisation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund,
  • reform of the World Trade Organisation,
  • an end to the extreme patent licensing fees under TRIPS

I could go on. And these are ALL absent in the SDGs Zero Draft.

So really, the strings of the system, and of processes like designing the SDGs, are pulled by a limited number of people who are definitely not representative of the global population. Unless you’re a rich, powerful country or a rich, powerful multinational corporation, your influence is limited.

3) Those who claim to want to end poverty and inequality, benefit from it

I refer back to the Émile Zola quote at the beginning of this post:

“How could one hope that a council of war would demolish what a council of war had done?”

and then to George Orwell, who wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937:

“For in the last resort, the only important question is, Do you want the British Empire to hold together or do you want it to disintegrate?  And at the bottom of his heart no Englishman does want it to disintegrate.  For, apart from any other consideration, the high standard of life we enjoy in England depends upon our keeping a tight hold on the Empire, particularly the tropical portions of it such as India and Africa.  Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation – an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.  The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should all have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes.”

It’s time to give up the charade. The SDGs are asking countries and businesses that maintain a society or a business model that function on the basis of inequality and/or built their foundations on poverty, to be responsible for eradicating them.

It’s like asking a thief (who isn’t ready to give it up any time soon) to design a system to stop people thieving.

4) Poverty is created, intentionally

This is going to be hugely controversial and I’m very willing to be challenged on it, but I accuse.

I’m reminded of the words of Siegfried L.Sassoon, a British poet serving as a solider in the First World War, who wrote, when called back to the trenches after convalescence in 1917: “I believe that [World War I] is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”

So is poverty being deliberately perpetuated by those who have the power to end it?

I’m not talking about conspiracies and rooms full of people in suits who meet every month to plot the downfall of humanity, but of the individuals and businesses and governments, all over the world, who (often with the ability to separate themselves from the reality of quite how much damage they are doing) operate intentionally with self interest and without integrity and contribute to the creation of a system that perpetuates poverty and inequality.

We know that companies are going to benefit from delivering the SDGs – an opportunity that will only end when poverty ends. We also know that countries that enjoy a relatively high standard of living (despite internal inequality) are only able to do so in the current system because there are countries that don’t. If we’d need 4.1 world’s worth of resources for everyone in the world to live like an American, you only need to do a simple maths equation to work out that global equality at that standard of living under the current system is physically impossible – so why do we pretend it is? We don’t all need to live in destitution, but when are the rich and powerful going to stop pretending that economic growth and mosquito nets are going to bring about equality – it’s never worked, it won’t work and it can’t work. It’s going to need more give and take – those with the money, power and resources giving some of it up for others to take.

…But there is possibility

Have you ever done something SO bad that you knew if you confessed to it that the repercussions would be unthinkable?

I have.

Have you ever broken something you knew couldn’t be replaced, and tried to blame someone or something else? Or…pretended it never happened?

I have.

Have you ever ignored someone you knew were right because what they were saying hurt you? Or deliberately picked on someone because you didn’t want to be picked on yourself? Or hurt someone else’s friend because you thought they were going to hurt yours? We’ve all had experiences like these in our lives.

I’m not equating hundreds of years of unthinkable human degradation, of slavery and pillaging to hurting a loved one, but I am trying to demonstrate the fact that humans committed these acts. Humans who are capable of remorse, of self-reflection, who ask deep, searching questions about ourselves and our lives, and who come together collectively as humans to challenge things we know in our hearts are wrong. We can take responsibility for our actions and our failures and we can change them. We can ask for forgiveness and try to make amends. We can listen, learn, unlearn and relearn.

The demands we are making of a system where power rules is a change in perspective and actions beyond anything many of us think possible. Change requires taking the first step and recognising and admitting our systemic addiction to power; changing harmful behaviour and making amends for everyone and everything that has been hurt in pursuit of it.

Maybe we can’t expect those who have benefitted from unfair rules for centuries to rewrite them and play fair, but maybe it’s time to stop playing games and co-create a world that works for all.

This post was written by me…but it originally appeared on The Rules on the 25th September 2015, because, you know… that’s what I do.

Let me know what you think!

Why is economic growth our measure of human progress?

Whether you believe that ‘money makes the world go round’ or that it’s the ‘root of all evil’, increasingly humanity is waking up to the fact that money can’t ‘buy you happiness’ and that it’s certainly no longer an accurate or helpful measure of planetary progress. Our world faces multiple crises of which continuing economic growth has often been the cause and less often the solution.

Today the planet is a miserable and frightening place for most of its inhabitants. Many of the rich are not happy, while the gap between the rich and poor gets wider. The wealthiest 80 people in the world have the same wealth as the poorest 50%, or 3.5 billion people. Our pursuit of economic growth means that we are ruining the planet at such a rate that – sooner than most people can imagine – large parts of it will become uninhabitable. Our soils and forests are disappearing, our oceans are being vacuumed of fish, unstable financial markets lurch from crisis to crisis, disengaged people vent their anger and frustration at oppressive governments and we live in an economic system that rewards our greed and immorality and that forces those living in rural areas and no longer able to support themselves, more than a billion people, to swarm towards cities where there is no work for them.

In 2014 young people in 20 countries around the world were asked ‘to what extent, if at all, do you feel that today’s youth will have had a better or worse life than your parents’ generation or will it be about the same?’ On average, only 37% of young people living in the ten wealthiest countries ranked by gross domestic product (GDP) thought that life would be better for their generation than it was for their parents. In the US, the richest country, only 26% thought it would be better.

  Country GDP in millions of US$ (World Bank, 2013) % of people aged 29 or under who believe that today’s youth will have had a better life than their parents’ generation (Ipsos Mori, 2014)
1 USA 16,768,100 26%
2 China 9,240,270 76%
3 Japan 4,919,563 41%
4 Germany 3,730,261 30%
5 France 2,806,428 16%
6 UK 2,678,455 22%
7 Brazil 2,245,673 48%
8 Italy 2,149,485 21%
9 Russia 2,096,777 41%
10 India 1,875,141 46%
  AVERAGE(Rounded to the nearest whole) 4,851,015 37%

When the future is looking bleak for the wealthiest countries on the planet, it’s perhaps time to reconsider GDP as a measure of progress.

Gross domestic product, or GDP is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period, but usually calculated annually. GDP has traditionally been used to measure progress economically, but fails to take into account social and environmental ‘wealth’ or causes of social tension or inequality, something that I believe is essential to truly understanding if, how and where human progress is being made.

GDP measures everything “…except that which makes life worthwhile.”

“Our Gross National Product…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Robert F. Kennedy, speech at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

There is already an abundance of measurements that we could call on to replace GDP and give a fairer, more useful picture of what is and isn’t working and how we go about creating a world that works for all, not for the few. So far, suggestions range from birth weight (usually a good indicator of a child’s likely future quality of life) the number and sound of birds in a city (a good indicator for biodiversity); and ownership of washing machines (with the assumption that their requirement for piped water and electricity make them a good measure of development); to the economic emancipation of women. I’m sure you can think of more…

Today, I’d invite you to think about why our leaders and big businesses measure economic growth as a measure of human progress and how we can move beyond measuring success by how much we makerather than how we live.

What do you think human progress is? And why is growth the only answer? #WhyGrowth

This post was originally posted on The Rules website on 11th September 2015.