How we confuse the future with the past.
I am neither a socialist nor a paid up free market capitalist. I think all economic and social systems become toxic when taken to an extreme. Too much socialism gives you Stalinist Russia. Low tax Thatcherite deregulated capitalism has given us a few golden winners rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but also hungry children and people living on the streets. In my boyhood Keynesian moderated capitalism had banished the destitution of the nineteen thirties, there were no hungry children and few people living on the streets. So I think a half-way house, a moderated capitalism is best. But that isn’t without its problems too. Remember the sluggish economy of the nineteen seventies, held to ransom by unions and entrepreneurs stifled by too much taxation. Nevertheless, in an imperfect world a moderated capitalism, which was what we were supposed to have, is best.
In any case, my aim is not to attack capitalism, but the structural inability to read the signs of the coming future from which so many seem to suffer, for so many who read newspapers that nourish their complacent satiety can only see what’s happening when it’s happened. It is now 2020 but imagine yourself alive in 1920. How many foresaw that the coming century would give them Auschwitz, the atom bomb, a world in which much of it might be mutually obliterated in a few minutes, landing on the moon, 20/20 cricket. The future is nearly always unimaginably different from the past. You could have been forgiven if in 1920 you hadn’t foreseen the moon landings. But not this time, the signs of what is coming are everywhere. I loathe Brexit. Not because leaving the EU is necessarily a bad idea, but because the Brexiters dream of a future century which is going to a supercharged prosperous version of the last one. Instead of dealing with the alarming signals of what the future is most probably going to be, they are failing to take the decisive action which even at this late hour we could still take to avert the disaster it might well be, because they are lost in bygone fantasies. The day of the kind of capitalism they want is drawing to a close. I don’t see myself as some sort of mad doom and gloom fantasist, would that I were. I’m only paying attention to what the vast majority of climate scientists are now telling us.
The wild fires in Australia and California are harbingers of the inferno that is to come. Because burnt trees release stored carbon, every tree that catches fire causes more trees to catch fire. The feedback mechanism that makes worse still worse and yet still worse and then yet more and still more is all over climate change. The whole Amazon rain forest on fire is not an impossible fantasy. The Arctic tundra is just beginning to melt and release its vast stores of methane into the atmosphere. Over twenty years, methane is up to 84 times worse a greenhouse gas than CO2. If we don’t take drastic action to ban fossil fuels a.s.a.p. we stand on the brink of a most, the most terrible, terrible disaster. But are most people that bothered? In a CNN straw poll in the 2020 election in the US a third of voters, both Democrat and Republican, said the economy was the most important issue, one in five racial inequality and one in six corona virus. The biggest challenge the world has ever faced wasn’t even mentioned. The scientists gave us till 2050 to ban fossil fuels altogether, 2030 to ban them by 45%, and 2020 to stop the rise in emissions. They are, of course, still rising. The oil companies, faced with being outpriced by renewables, are building immense installations to manufacture plastic. Yeah yeah, we accept there’s climate change but we’re fixing it by planting a few trees. Good in itself but it won’t fix it. Climate change is still only marginally on the edge of our field of anxiety. We need to start seriously getting rid of fossil fuels within five years and ban at least single use plastic today, now, difficult as that would be. Try if you can, spending twenty minutes a day feeling desperately unhappy and miserable and uncontrollably anxious.
According to the FAO the world is losing a soccer pitch of top soil every five seconds. Even the Farmer’s Weekly thinks there are only a hundred harvests left in the UK. What are the kids going to eat? We are suffering from a chronic lack of forethought. If we are to save the soil, it is imperative we go back to organic agriculture. If we ate less meat organic could feed the world easily. But is there a single MP in Parliament campaigning for subsidies for organic agriculture? Automation is coming towards us galloping. We could, indeed almost certainly will, see at least 40% of the work force unemployed. How are they going to live? Are we preparing for it?
I think Covid 19 could well be the beginning of the new age. If you had told me a year ago that a Tory government would have borrowed billions to finance state handouts, it isn’t so much I wouldn’t have believed it as that I couldn’t have believed it. Would the private sector have been able or willing to fork out such vast sums which are productive of no future profit whatsoever (although Serco et al have gratefully swallowed 12bn of tax payers’ money on a test and trace system that doesn’t work, so somebody’s doing alright) but only shoring up the past? According to the WHO even if we get this under control there could be waves of future pandemics. Where is the money to deal with them going to come from? Even now, we’ll be paying for the costs of the covid 19 lockdowns for decades. A great free-trading nation full of bold risk-taking entrepreneurs, with this kind of debt round their necks, let alone worse to come? Tell it to the birds before their numbers decline even more rapidly than they already are. The bills for dealing with the consequences of hurricanes and floods will be beyond astronomical. Who will pay? Who will finance the benefits of the vast number of unemployed? Will capitalism as we know it be able to deal with all this? I don’t hate capitalism at all and I’m not being dogmatic but just asking you to think about it. I believe that great as these problems are, if we are sufficiently intellectually and emotionally nimble we can overcome them. But we have to stop dreaming that the future we do not yet know is going to be much like the past that we did know. The past is always a safe place to take shelter because nobody now can alter it. We need to escape from the past and start thinking about the future. The future we can still alter. And already do something about it.