Pickled Heads, Mud Cakes, Rivers of Babylon: First the revelation, then the revolution. — By Richard Neville
It has long been known by alert sections of the public that growth has its limits and overuse of natural resources leads to collapse. The first evidence of this is provided by the world’s oldest written records. These come from the civilization of Sumer, which flourished around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in an area that is now part of Iraq. Its story is eerily intertwined with events of today and the future of the West. Around 5000 years ago, the construction of a vast network of canals to supply water to Sumer’s bustling cities led to seepage, silting and over-irrigation, which increased the salinity of the soil. This played a key role in the break-up of Sumerian civilization. Today, a similar surge of salinity is destroying the world’s croplands.
The policy of modern governments is to pursue high growth, a goal that seems incompatible with achieving true sustainability. In 1987 the Brundtland Commission defined sustainable growth as “development that would meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It sounds simple, but here’s the catch. First, sustainability can only be achieved if the vexed question of population control is faced. Then consumption and carbon emissions must be reduced. This applies to individuals, to the operation of farms and factories, to the design and construction of infrastructure. Yet growth is the engine that drives the economy, and economics is the prism through which the elite view the world. Growth is the Holy Grail, nature is an optional extra.
Bicycles, Adbusters, Haystacks
It is natural for politicians to love growth, it funds schools and hospitals and social welfare programs, as well as arsenals. Growth means freeways, medical miracles, I-pods, refrigeration, non stop entertainment and brand name underwear. Sustainability evokes “small is beautiful”, self reliance and home grown vegetables. The clash of attitudes was never an even match. Growth is New York, Dubai, Beijing. Sustainability is Third World villages, farmers markets, carbon neutrality. Growth is Vanity Fair, Lear Jets, Sex in the City. Sustainability is Adbusters, bicycles, sex in the haystack. And now, just as eco awareness is spreading, the financial meltdown hits.
Hedge fund managers get death threats. Those behind the threats are probably similar spirits to those behind the hedge funds – driven by a desire for enormous wealth as quick as possible by any means necessary. The dumping of sub prime mortgages is an act of ethical terror which triggered an unexpected outcome. Millions of people are being forced to curtail their levels of consumption. For some this is tragic, for others it is merely belt tightening. It may also induce a shift of perspective, a reminder of things forgotten. I recently caught a fleeting news report on the situation in Haiti, where starvation is rife and families are living off mud cakes. Yes, real mud and clay. The agriculture of Haiti collapsed after the country was swamped with cheap imports of processed food from America. Yum, yum, anyone for Kellogs? When funds ran dry, imports ceased. (Same as happened in Jamaica.) Other factors were deforestation, soil erosion, droughts, flooding, natural disasters and a corrupt government.
Today in the West we worry about the security of our bank balance, while two thirds of the world worries about its next meal. The blame for the ever widening global wealth gap is often pinned on the poorer nations for being inefficient and/or corrupt, with a barely a mention of the decades of pillaging by colonial powers. The prosperity of the West is built on theft and slaughter; later re-packaged as a Boys Own Adventure.
Your land is my land
The recent screening of a documentary series on the treatment of the indigenous population of Australia by the British colonizers and their descendants is dramatically re-shaping the country’s view of itself. Informed by academics, documents, oral testimony and a wealth of shameful photographs, the series reveals a narrative that has long been hidden and steadfastly denied. The revelations of cruelty make grown men weep. We also learned this: some of our citizens stood up for justice, while successive governments generally behaved badly or were ineffective. Institutions that sounded benign, such as Aboriginal Protection Boards, were bent on exterminating aboriginals … in the nicest possible way.
Today’s swinging-dick rulers continue to cloak their crimes with misleading descriptions. The purpose of the “Defence” forces is not to defend, but to attack. Based on the “lowest credible estimates” at least two million civilians have been killed or seriously injured in Afghanistan and Iraq. Australians are still told their troops are in Afghanistan to build schools and infrastructure, whereas our purpose is to shape political outcomes to suit the West, never mind the dead civilians. It’s the same old geo-political game of exerting force to maintain power, wealth and leverage. While this is not emphasized in popular culture, the truth is there to find: violence is at the core of Western economic wellbeing. The Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently apologised to Libya for 30 years of colonial rule and agreed to pay $US5 billion as a “complete and moral compensation for the damage inflicted on Libya by Italians during the colonial occupation”. Other former occupiers are not rushing to imitate Berlusconi. Britain won’t return the Elgin marbles to Greece or the Rossetta Stone to Egypt, though some of its museums have been shamed into returning the pickled heads and other remains of aboriginals back to their homeland communities.
Playing dirty in Lear jets
Kicking off with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, it took several decades of simmering pressure to catapult the issue of sustainability into global awareness; where it is now in danger of being waylaid by the economic meltdown. While the crash will curb the excesses of the shopping religion, it will also deter investment in renewable energy – for awhile. Then, as the world heats up, the rush will be on to slash emissions. Mining, manufacturing and retail sectors will slow. According to academic futurist Bruce E Tonn, the economic impact of a world “characterized by lower material input” will result in the rise of NGO’s, the decline of corporations and a rebirth of people’s self sufficiency. As we make the inescapable transition to sustainability it is expected that GDP and the money supply will decrease while the pursuit of innovation intensifies. Cash once squandered on “must have” baubles will be re-directed to harnessing small scale technologies.
Herman Daly and other eco-economists put the goal as leapfrogging “beyond growth”. This evokes a carbon neutral way of life that nourishes self reliance, human rights and the bright ideas that keep civilization rolling along. What other choice do we have? Humanity’s consumption already exceeds the capacity of Earth to regenerate its resources by 30 percent.
The mind shift will be hotly contested, especially by a traumatised corporate media clinging to the growth/spend/ Lear Jet paradigm and playing dirty. Expect incessant calls for war. Expect reports on future wars to be sanitized even more so than today. Right now CIA spooks in Langley, Virginia are able to instigate air strikes on any country they fancy, be it friend or foe and liquidate anyone they want – including women and children – and yet not have to answer for such deeds. Not a peep of complaint from the West.
Also, do not expect corporate media to remind you that the ‘wars against terror’ are also wars that accelerate global warming.
Since March 2003, the Iraq war has produced over 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. According to Oil Change international, “the costs of the war would cover all of the global investments in renewable power generation that are needed between now and 2030 in order to halt current warming trends”. Iraq meanwhile is a crime scene.
Five years of compulsive bombardment has wrecked Iraq’s “already weakened underground sewage systems… with a lake of sewage clearly visible on satellite photographs”, notes Michael Schwartz. The ultimate destination of this filth is the Tigris and Euphrates river system, now thoroughly contaminated. “Their water can no longer be safely drunk by humans or animals, the remaining fish cannot be safely eaten, and the contaminated water reportedly withers the crops it irrigates”. All this achieved by nations that claim a “moral authority”. We came for the oil, left a mountain of corpses and filled up the rivers of Babylon with shit.
Citizenship is about much more than casting a vote. It’s about taking time to flush out the truth behind official fairy tales and confront the crimes of those in power, or the place where civilisation began could well mark the spot where it ends.
Richard Neville has been a practicing futurist since 1963, when he launched the countercultural magazine, Oz, which widened the boundaries of free speech on two continents. He has written several books, including Playpower, the bio of a global serial killer, his sixties memoir, Hippie Hippie Shake and his latest handbook of social change, Footprints of the Future. A social commentator and a professional futurist with a sharp tongue, Richard is based in Australia, where he continues to “stir the possum”.