Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On Monbiot's Manifesto

A just world is one in which the labour forces of all nations recognize that they can no longer evade their own problems by demanding the exploitation of other people.  (Manifesto, p. 245)

To be truly free...we must be prepared to contemplate revolution.  (Manifesto, p. 253)

Via The Guardian
It's been interesting to see the path Monbiot's taken to offer grand solutions to the problem of climate change - well, the problems inherent to human nature, really.  He offers a means to overthrow the current world-wide governmental system, then a means for an overseeing organization to dramatically reduce GHG production, then he goes off to the woods to explore the other side of the story.  I'm invigorated by his passion, but I'm dubious that any of it can possibly come to pass.

Via Dax
I read Heat first on the recommendation of both David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis.   I wrote about it ages ago, and my students have debated its merits every semester since.  In it, Monbiot (Mon-B-O) suggests the solution for climate change is, in part, Aubrey Meyer's "contraction and convergence" idea of a global governing body that will ration out GHGs like they're food stamps based on how much GHGs the planet can manage each year.  The premise is the pretty reasonable assumption that we won't change our greedy, short-sighted behaviour unless we fear that we'll each run out of a personal supply of GHG "ice-caps" by the end of each month.  Nobody wants more month than ice-cap supply, so we'll quickly and radically start conserving fuel in every regard:  better quality refrigerators, no more hair-straightening irons, fewer trips to the corner store by car, and we'll actually, for reals, turn down the thermostat.  It's the only thing that might help us help ourselves.  And, if you read my synopsis linked above, it can help alleviate poverty too!  But, as my students are quick to point out, why would any powerful government agree to this plan when they can create GHGs till the cows come home - or keel over trying?

Via Goodreads
Then, out of order, I read Manifesto for a New World Order.  Heat was hard slogging - lots of facts and details and footnotes; his Manifesto is a walk in the park by comparison.  And I got a very different vision of Monbiot through each book.  Reading Heat, I pictured him in a white lab coat.  In Manifesto, he's in torn jeans with a beard and a beret:
"This manifesto is founded on the conviction that one can lead a satisfactory life without having to ruin other people's.  The world possesses sufficient resources, if carefully managed and properly distributed, to meet the needs of all of its people, possibly for as long as the species persists.  It is only beacause they are badly managed and poorly distributed that so many human beings are deprived of the means of survival" (181).
This book is a call to evolve beyond an age of coercion towards an age of consent, to "abandon nationhood and see ourselves as a species" (10), for the masses to reclaim power from corrupt leaders even if it means risking our own lives in the process.  The UN and IMF are corrupted, and there's "no effective restraint of the ability of the rich and powerful to control the lives of the poor and weak" (15).

He talks about the merits of anarchy for a bit, but lands squarely in the arms of democracy because it has the benefit of providing us "with opportunities for dissent" (43).  BUT, how do we deal with the problems of democracy:  tyranny of the majority, a puppet-parliament, and the ability for the rich to oppress the poor?  The big problem in a nutshell: "While states, over the past few years, have become ever more willing to regulate their citizens, they have become ever less willing to regulate the corporations" (45).

Mindful consumption, my chosen path, is a "weak and diffuse means of changing the world...greatly overemphasized" (56).  To stop exploitation, we have to start at the other end and actively close the mines and factories and plantations that exploit workers and/or resources.  So, "we must democratize globalization" (62).  

But that's so much harder that bringing my own bags and walking everywhere and only eating fair trade chocolate!   I get a feeling of empowerment when I'm careful about the purchasing choices I make, but I recognize that it's illusory.  Still, it feels good.  And at least I'm not adding to the problem, right?  I've been reading Chomsky at the same time, and he says being a careful consumer who never buys Coke products has the same effect of killing yourself.  Really.  He says that.  Coke won't notice that one activist in Waterloo won't buy their product.

So it goes.

Anyway, Monbiot further explains how to take down the system:

We need to pressure the US to permit the constitution of the World Bank and IMF to be changed: "why not embrace those proposals which give us what we want, rather than just what we imagine 'the authorities are ready to consider?'" (64).  It shouldn't be hard because they already did it once when they ignored the UN to invade Iraq (134).  Then "replace the system which works for the powerful with one which works for the weak....by altering the mediation of war and peace and the relations between nation states" (67).  Here he talks at length about the problems with the Security Council.  We also need to restrict the freedom of financial speculators (75).  And finally, we can create a world parliament in which, "Every adult on earth possesses one vote" (87).

Via Rosario
To prove it's all possible, he harkens back to 494 BCE and the massive strike that shook up the Roman Empire.  That worked for a century until "the tribunes began to accumulate so much power that they ceased to identify with the powerless and came, instead, to see themselves as the new ruling class" (98).  Animal Farm much?   But eventually, "the oppressed moderated the power of the ruling class by means of a parliamentary assembly founded on moral authority" (98).  If government sustains power only through the direct (not representative) support of the people then we have a self-regulating system.

While we're at it, we also need to address the fact that "mass media which systematically distorts our perception of the way the world is run is one of the greatest impediments to democratic choice" (125).  His solution: "The best we can do, I believe, is to seek to establish competing sources of information"  (126).  I'm on it.

He also proposes a solution to third-world debt:
"How do we overthrow the system which works for the powerful and replace it with one which works for the weak?  I believe I have the answer.  It is the very injustice of the existing system which has provided the poor nations with the weapon required to overturn it.  That weapon is their debt....The poor world should do as the IMF and the World Bank have done, and attach 'conditionalities' to the handling of its debt... threaten to ruin the economies of the rich nations if they do not agree to its terms" (174-6).
Trade regulations are the cause of this debt, and if we can "reawakening the anger of the disenchanted" (185), of the injustice, loss of democratic powers, erosion of cultural integrity, and loss of jobs to cheaper labour, then we will have the numbers to change the system.   He suggests protections for poor nations that are gradually lifted as the nation develops (218), and allowing poor nations to figure out their own path out of poverty rather than others imposing policy on them.  We have to stop imposing a single, coercive system upon everyone knowing full well, as we do, that it benefits the wealthy far more than the poor (220).  Finally, we can make fair trade mandatory worldwide with all companies assessed at their own expense by an accredited monitory company.  Then slavery would vanish.   But are we really altruistic enough to truly want that to happen?   (Warning - lots of swears in the video.)

If we're going down this road, we don't need new regulations.  We've had some since 1919 through the International Labour Organization's set of principles (229) which include making producers and consumers pay the entire cost of the product - getting rid of externalities which  "represent the theft by the wealthy of the natural and material wealth possessed by the poor...it is arguable that the majority of the world's large corporations depend on it for their continued existence....Many companies object that if they were forced to pay the full price for the resources they use and the damage they cause, they would be driven out of business.  To this the only sensible answer is 'good'" (230-1).  Then to curtail the "world-eating and mathematically impossible system we call capitalism" (238), he suggests a book by Bernard Lietaer that explains, "Rather than money gaining value over time through interest, it loses value, through demurrage, or negative interest.  This means that it is impossible to invest in money..."  (239).

So, what should I do beyond walking to work every day?  Three things:
1. Build the foundation for a world parliament - explain ideas, organize community consultations, compete with mainstream media (256),
2. Build public pressure to dump the Security Council (257), and
3. Campaign for a Fair Trade Organization and International Clearing Union (258).

My take on this is we need to spread the word (blogging and talking it up), and write letters and petitions or otherwise organize to change global governmental structures.
"Governments will not act on our behalf until we force them to do so....It depends on your preparedness to abandon your attachment to the old world and start thinking like a citizen of the new; to exchange your security for liberty" (261).
But this is too big for me.  It's overwhelming to think of the effort it will take to overthrow the entire system.  The Romans had a mass strike of pretty much all the workers willing to give up their lives and jobs for the sake of social change.  I can't get my colleagues to use travel mugs.  And worse, I found it difficult to convince students of the strike action teachers recently took that stopped all extra-curriculars when the government wanted to impose a contract that could be changed at any time without union representation or discussion - or even notice.  It effectively undermines democracy and too few were concerned with that.  Too many people don't seem to see the necessity of unions to protect workers' rights.  Some of the kids told us to stop whining - times are hard and we all have to make sacrifices.  That kind of shite.  They don't worry about unions being dismantled.  They are either not able or willing to take a long view of this.

Now, I love Monbiot's energy and optimism.  It's all overwhelming, but, I suppose, possible.  If we keep slogging we might get there.  And if we don't, maybe our work will carry over to the next generations.  Hopefully it all goes in this general direction though.  The alternatives are truly terrifying.

Via Allen Lane Canada
Finally, I read Monbiot's most recent book, Feral.  It's less meaty by far. Here the writer is, in my mind, in a Tilley Hat and hiking boots and sporting a well-worn backpack.  This gives a version of Monbiot far more personal than the other two.  It's about his passion for nature.   The intro of the book almost had me in tears because it was mainly about Canada's recent environmental degradation,
"Canadian government continues stoutly to defend the nation from the dark forces of science and reason....Canada is becoming a pariah state, whose name now invokes images formerly associated with countries like Nigeria and Congo."
But the rest of the book is about the glories of nature.  "Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way" (9).  "We have urged only that people consume less, travel less....Without offering new freedoms" (12).  The freedom we have to gain if we restrain ourselves is time in the woods.

I completely agree that time spent outdoors in the wild is the best reward we have, but the problem is that many people don't.  I just got back from a camping trip - car-camping with kids - and a few of the surrounding campers brought flat-screen TVs with them.  They're too plugged in to enjoy the sun filtered through the leaves or to watch the stars and fireflies at night.

He hints at a need for that Robert Bly drum thing - a craving for ritual and connection: "an unexpressed wish for lives wilder and fiercer than those we now lead" (60).   He spends a lot of time marvelling at nature, then explains at length why sheep are bad and wolves are good if we want to re-wild more areas of the world.

Via Derek Flack
Most of the rewilding that has taken place on earth so far has happened as a result of humanitarian disasters (196).  Will the recent flood in Toronto help the cause?

In this last effort, Monbiot writes long descriptive passages about nature that some people will love.  It's Walden-esque, but I much prefer Civil Disobedience.


The Mound of Sound said...

Well done, Marie. Thanks for this. Monbiot advocates mass revolution. Chomsky said much the same recently in defence of the global commons. Yet what is ascendant? Corporatism, authoritarianism, oligarchy. The very forces against which Monbiot and Chomsky would have us rise up are quite effectively and rapidly expanding, consolidating and reinforcing their domination. Their most threatening achievement must be the dismantling of the last vestiges of our privacy in a digital world. They don't need an army of agents and informers. Their computers are all that's needed to finger likely problems.

My own blog is regularly visited by Lockheed Martin, U.S. Navy intelligence and U.S. Army internet intelligence and periodically the CIA, even the FBI. Should I think there might be a dossier with my name on it somewhere?

Stephen Harper has instituted his own secret police force for the Northern Gateway pipeline initiative comprised of members of the Edmonton and Calgary police, the RCMP and - wait for it - CSIS. They're monitoring and cataloguing outspoken opponents of the bitumen traffickers.

Monbiot's and Chomsky's solutions are as sensible as they are unrealistic. The American Congress is positively phobic of anything smacking of world order. It sends them into scriptural seizures, foaming at the mouth.

What we should do, what we can do, what we may do and what we are most likely to do is - nothing. Chaos is the default option.

Marie Snyder said...

Mound - I get in a place, from time to time, where I'm willing to let it all happen. I read some Taoist stuff and feel better about it all. But my personal default is towards action. I'm more willing to spin my wheels in a place of frustrating uselessness than do nothing. I recognize the likelihood of my actions being futile, but the illusion that they have a small effect - greater than the effect of killing myself to decreases the surplus population - is enough. Sort of. Sometimes. We do our part in the dismantling by writing and spreading the word! If the population is educated on the matter, something might shift eventually. Barring that, I have land further north - away from the US border - that could be habitable off-grid to get my kids out of the fray .

The Mound of Sound said...

I understand and agree. I come from a horde of lay people and experts who have been watching this fiasco gather for the better part of 20-years. Not in on the ground floor by any means but at the early end of the spectrum. I know a couple of science types who put on a positive face in public but, sitting down over a couple of beers, conclude we're screwed. There was an item recently that rippled through the blogosphere, an account of a fellow asking a climate expert how he might prepare his son for what's coming. The expert replied, "teach him how to use a gun."

I don't know if you saw Chris Hedges' column at TruthDig, "We Are All Aboard the Pequod." http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/we_are_all_aboard_the_pequod_20130707/?ln

Worth a read.

Marie Snyder said...

I did read Hedges' column and sent it along on Twitter. There are countless examples of our collective madness throughout literature (and history) that should be a forewarning, but likely won't be. So it goes.

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