George Monbiot reminds us how much of the 20th century still clings to us and why we have to shed that skin if we're to survive the 21st.
We are still living in the long 20th century. We are stuck with its redundant technologies: the internal combustion engine, thermal power plants, factory farms. We are stuck with its redundant politics: unfair electoral systems, their capture by funders and lobbyists, the failure to temper representation with real participation.
And we are stuck with its redundant economics: neoliberalism, and the Keynesianism still proposed by its opponents. While the latter system worked very well for 30 years or more, it is hard to see how it can take us through this century, not least because the growth it seeks to sustain smacks headlong into the environmental crisis.
Sustained economic growth on a planet that is not growing means crashing through environmental limits: this is what we are witnessing, worldwide, today. A recent paper in Nature puts our current chances of keeping global heating to less than 1.5C at just 1%, and less than 2C at only 5%. Why? Because while the carbon intensity of economic activity is expected to decline by 1.9% a year, global per capita GDP is expected to grow by 1.8%. Almost all investment in renewables and efficiency is cancelled out. The index that was supposed to measure our prosperity, instead measures our progress towards ruin.
Monbiot sees the need for something along the lines of a wartime mobilization to rapidly decarbonize our economy and our society. It sounds much like Schellnhuber's "induced implosion" of the fossil fuel industry. This he would see followed with an equally if not more radical shift in how we hold property....if everyone in London acquired a tennis court, a swimming pool, a garden and a private art collection, the city would cover England. Private luxury shuts down space, creating deprivation. But magnificent public amenities – wonderful parks and playgrounds, public sports centres and swimming pools, galleries, allotments and public transport networks – create more space for everyone at a fraction of the cost.
Wherever possible, such assets should be owned and managed by neither state nor market, but by communities, in the form of commons. A commons in its true form is a non-capitalist system in which a resource is controlled in perpetuity by a community for the shared and equal benefit of its members. A possible model is the commons transition plan commissioned by the Flemish city of Ghent.
What Monbiot envisions is eerily akin to a command economy, an experiment that ran its course also in the 20th century and decisively failed. It didn't succumb to its theory but to human nature in putting it into operation. In a utopian world in which everyone embraced his ideal it might work but, absent some near universal consensus it would require compulsion and that usually triggers the worst instincts of government and bureaucracy.
Our values and ways, some good, some very bad, are deeply ingrained in us as our natural order. Monbiot offers no insights into how he would overcome that and lead the masses to his enlightenment. Human civilization has a 12,000 year history. When has this degree of collective magnanimity ever been attempted much less achieved?
It saddens me to say that I'm so unconvinced, the more so because the sort of correction he advocates is quite possibly the sine qua non to our future.