The economic conductor of the catastrophes of climate change and biodiversity loss

The human brain seems unable to grasp the magnitude of the global problems we face in moving to ways of sustainable living and governance systems which can deliver a secure future for our children.

Antonio Guterres urges world leaders to declare a state of climate emergency with desperation in his voice. Yet climate change is only one of several interlocking wicked problems each of which augments all others.

Climate change, accelerating environmental loss, the threat of continuance of Covid and the genesis of other aggressive pandemics are only one side of the equation milling around in the right side our brains. Of deep concern are the more occult beliefs entrenched in the left side.

Each of us has our own silo of interest and I suspect that each day we open Pearls and Irritations and read the couple of articles in our sphere of interest without bothering about the others. However my mind grasps the other articles in the realisation that each has a kernel of truth and commonality, even the seemingly endless debate over the Palace letters!

We define a silos to demarcate and simplify issues seemingly too complex for our brains to grasp. Government Minsters and departments (silos) compete for budget to enhance their power and influence. Whoever gained promotion by advocating for the homeless and protecting the environment?

It was Mark Diesendorf’s recent article in Pearls, “Economic Recovery from Covid-19 while mitigating Climate Change” that leads me to spell out my own thoughts as an “all rounder” in the disciplines of academic and clinical medicine, science and education together with my experience working with a number of organisations, legal, environmental, economic and world governance. These experiences have been intertwined with my work on climate change and environmental collapse over the past four decades.

Diesendorf’s article explains why green growth is not enough to stop us progressing to disaster. Yet it is a vital step to curb climate change which threatens to destroy the fundamental structure of human lives this century. But even if we succeed in this difficult task we need a Steady State Economy and perhaps De Growth for civilisation to survive.

In grappling with this issue, the studies that have most influenced my thinking are Herman Daily’s Steady State Economics 1977 and the rather obscure William Forster Lloyd’s Two Lectures on the Checks to Population (1833)in which he introduced the concept of The Commons and its overuse which was taken up in a paper in 1967. The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin.

The Commons land in the Anglo- Saxon village was available to each family to graze one beast; when one enterprising inhabitant grazed more animals the resource was depleted and all suffered. Hardin was interested in this as an economic phenomenon.

“The World Commons”, as explained by Hardin is the stability of resources of land, sea, air and fresh water, all necessary for the health and wellbeing of humanity.

Hardin predicted a confluence of population growth, depletion of resources and the ravages of climate change bringing ruin to humanity this century.

This leads me to explain why climate change , environmental degeneration, Covid and the likely occurrence of more zoonotic pandemics are the orchestra playing Chopin’s funeral march for humanity. The Conductor of Catastrophe’s is the ideology and practice of neoliberalism.

The neoliberals haven’t had to infiltrate government and society like the coal lobby; their ideology exists as a retrovirus which has invaded our brains over several decades. It is an ideology now entrenched in the slow burn operation of liberal democracies which have morphed into the explosion of neoliberalism. In the words of Karagiannis “Neoliberalism must die because it does not serve humanity”

It is “the dominant ideology permeating the public policies of many governments in developed and developing countries and of international agencies such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and many technical agencies of the United Nations, including the World Health Organisation”

And “a policy model that encompasses both politics and economics and seeks to transfer the control of economic factors from the public sector to the private sector. Many neoliberal policies enhance the workings of free market capitalism and attempt to place limits on government spending, government regulation, and public ownership”

Furthermore, “This ideology postulates that the reduction of state interventions in economic and social activities and the deregulation of labor and financial markets, as well as of commerce and investments, have liberated the enormous potential of capitalism to create an unprecedented era of social well-being in the world’s population”.

Then why must neoliberalism die and what is the link between the Anglo Saxon Commons and the environmental crisis today?

In the words of Karagiannis “Despite its alleged commitment to market competition, the neoliberal economic agenda instead brought the decline of competition and the rise of close to monopoly power in vast swaths of the economy” In truth it has resulted in poverty, increasing inequalities and powerful rich owners with access to governments which depend on them for growth which retains their power.

This economic power scythes through democratic regulation impacting most on the environment for uncontained growth requires environmental plunder or as the Pope puts it we live in a “myth of self-sufficiency — that the earth exists to be plundered; that others exist to meet our needs; that what we have earned or what we lack is what we deserve; that my reward is riches, even if that means that the fate of others will be poverty.

The World Commons of air, water and ecological services which we all share are plundered daily by the big corporations and their subservient governments.

In Australia recent subservience takes the form of environmental protection weakened to allow plunder in the name of economic progress. It delivered a revised and weakened EPBC Act to deliver fast tracked approvals for resource developments. This disregards the rate of loss of biodiversity in Australia being much greater than most other countries.

Trade with other countries usually exists to provide cheaper products without considering externalities or environmental harm and not to provide essentials which we cannot produce ourselves.

Within the current climate change debate, many nations have failed to recognise that beneficial globalisation would mean cooperation for the common good. It has become Bolsonaro’s right to destroy the Amazon and change the climate of sub-Saharan Africa, and to some extent the world climate.

Mr Morrison, resisting the minimal emissions target for 2050, says “Whatever country that may be, that may seek to impose whatever position on this country, Australia’s policy will always remain sovereign within our borders, and nowhere else.” This was spoken as the leader of a sovereign country with one of the highest emissions per capita in the world.

Unfortunately as explained by Diesendorf green growth is only an oasis in humanity’s long journey to sustainability. As we are seeing, the neoliberals have recognised that they can embrace this transition within their profit motive and with electric cars, batteries, solar panels we can continue the myth of the dream of riches- for some.

By contrast a steady state economy has to bring an end to plunder and there is little monetary profit in not cutting down trees, in not producing plastic which pollutes the ocean, and in not polluting the atmosphere. This is the current main game for survival, and climate change action is the promo for more difficult tasks. Over 30 years the nations have moved at glacial speed to understand and commence action on climate change. This should have been the easiest part of addressing this complex problem, but the economic dogma versus a finite planet must be addressed and this is much more demanding. Democratic governments are supposed to respond to public need and opinion but today Ministers have no standing or ability to educate and there are no trusted means to do so with the rise to power of huge, powerful social media platforms.

Hardin’s thoughts have been on the table for 50 years. During that time we have not disseminated a modicum of understanding to public and government. The start has to be for those with understanding of a Steady State Economy to gain coverage in the diminishing independent media. The few politicians who understand the issue must be enlisted. One such is Kevin Rudd who declared that the 2008 crash “called into question the prevailing neoliberal economic orthodoxy of the past 30 years –the orthodoxy that has underpinned the national and global regulatory frameworks that have so spectacularly failed to prevent the economic mayhem which has been visited upon us”

Guterres also reminds us we are waging war on nature which is our life support system.

The end point of this war will be no economy. We must reflect that one species, Homo sapiens, shares the Commons with the millions of species comprising the world’s biodiversity.

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Dr David Shearman AM PhD FRACP FRCPE, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide

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