I think it likely that 90% of our working time creates what we don’t need and also damages work to preserve what we do need. That is: most of our time is not only wasted but destructive. Of course, I’m speaking of the so called, First World and of the mass of what it does. First World economies could be renamed Last World economies. If First World people want to be constructive – to become Possible World people, then we must shrink our GDP to just that 10%. No government can or will even attempt to achieve that. I cannot think of a single powerful politician (even in the Green Party) who would even consider it. Only the household can do it. Politicians may then follow the fashion.
Money-flow through wages and profits follows (or should follow) the same trajectory as energy-flow. Let’s consider that 90% of energy-flow – of what people do – is powered by fossil fuels. So, then we can say that wasted time, destructive time and soul-sapping futility are also directly related to fossil fuels.
Remove fossil fuels and we can easily produce what we need, while also dramatically reducing ecological and economical harm. 90% of our time will be freed to devote to new, regenerative and more appropriate cultural activity. Removing fossil fuels will prove beneficial, not only to climate change, but to the conviviality and durability of culture.
Yes, cultures were often destructive before the use of fossil fuels. Even so, reliance on natural cycles will mean engaging with natural cycles, whereas those millions of years of sequestered photosynthesis lay supine for the plundering by the worst of our opportunistic human nature. Now we may find our better selves. That’s the moral – we may or may not do so. We need moral conversation. Decadent cultures, such as ours, refuse it in favour of “liberal”, amoral consumer choices. Both gossip and conversation could and should implicitly accept that it is wrong to use any part of the 90%.
I am looking for simplicity. Moral truth is simple, whereas pragmatic truth is complex. I pluck that figure of 90% as a simple moral. There it can remain as a black immoral mass. Place it back in complexity, and we become doubtful. The true figure may be 96%, or 85%. Actually, we won’t know the true figure. Perceptions are always limited and calculations using those perceptions are always fallible. Moral truth remains true. Waiting for the latest peer-reviewed research is a waste of fast diminishing time. The intrinsic moral, not the research paper, should be our guide.
With regard to the household – again no figures will hold – yet it remains a moral truth that if I do not act to shrink my consumption, then no democratic government action will be successful on a national scale. It remains a moral truth that the microcosm of household behaviour creates the macrocosm of a nation state.
I’ve seen various figures which present a litre of petrol as an energy equivalent to between two and three weeks of manual labour. A litre of oil for two weeks of toil? Well, that’s rather simple – it’s a useful moral truth – a lesson in humility. But how much manual time, ingenuity and stroking of chins is embedded in the petrol-drinking machine? Let’s pretend that after maintenance, insurance, licensing, manufacture, garaging, road-building, road-maintenance, road-policing and so on that we have returned to that moral 90% of unnecessary fossil power.
Plainly, without fossil fuels, the family car, aviation and suburban ways of life will become impossible. All three were created by fossil fuel and none can be maintained by a substituted renewable energy. As we engage with natural cycles, or more accurately – as we become natural cycles – so we will be limited by them. Fields will shrink from the compass of oil power to the compass of man power. Travel will descend and slow to the contours of terrain and must wait for wind and tide. Factories will shatter into air-born fragments to alight in open palms of evenly-spread workshops – a benign confetti of corporate ashes. Similarly, famous retail chains will evaporate and fall as rain – mostly on stony, or unoccupied ground – while a tithe’s-worth may water the seeds of villages and town centres. Cultures will shrink into the beauty and truth of loved landscape. We can tend that germination or gaze at selfies reflected in the pool (of economic flood water).
90% of GDP is harmful and useless. The necessary common good of the 10% can be maintained by manual and appropriate technologies. We’ll need to work a lot less, because we will produce a lot less, but we’ll need to work a lot more, because man, electrical (wind, solar, hydro) and direct-traction (wind, tide, hydro) power must replace fossil power. My moral says labour hours will stay the same but will be both more physical and more spiritually engaging. The 10% transmutes people from machinery slaves to economic actors. Cultures have been dominated by what machines do (the industrial revolution). Cultures can become what people do (the human renaissance). I can own the moral of what I do. I can see the effect of what I do. Those things make a recipe for happiness.
Ancient agricultures needed to work a lot less than we will, because we must spend time both undoing and doing. We must re-centre suburbia into villages and towns. We must house the necessary mass exodus to the countryside and we must learn from our doubtless many false turnings and mistakes. I am speaking of the benignity of the 10%. To say that these things will never come to pass is probably true, but still, to act as though they will, is a course to happiness. True – the black 90% will probably swallow any settled future, but we have no choice, but to act as though it won’t.
All I’ll need of my current wage will be a tithe. We’ll keep the tithe and refuse the rest. We’ll keep just a living, breathing Earth and refuse the strata of those many millions of sequestered and fossilised years.
“Keep the tithe and refuse the rest!” could prove a populist slogan, or the refrain to a popular song.
The physics says that there are many whose consumption is so massive and others, whose poverty is so acute, that keeping a tithe is an utterly inappropriate measure for both groups. But let’s keep the moral. The truth of complexity will have a multitude of complex answers. The moral remains true, whatever the answers.
The physics also says that manmade climate change has recently passed beyond human recall. It says that soils are degrading so rapidly that harvests will similarly decline. It says that ecologies are cascading towards mass extinctions not seen since the Age of the Dinosaurs, that sea level will rise above Earth’s ancient cities and that culture as we know it will end. Of course, like the black immoral mass of 90%, that understanding is also a black immoral mass – a simple, moral truth. It is also the evidence of (sceptical) scientific complexity. Many of us, including me, have difficulty retaining hope in that black mass of guilt and despair. In 2017, culturally-produced carbon emissions were higher than any year before and more fossil fuel was burnt than ever before. Yet national governments profess that they are meeting targets on climate change. One by one, nation states make up the whole and so there is something very wrong about the Paris Accord and the figures entered into it. We could innumerate the wrongs, but for now, since my reader will probably know them, we’ll leave them be.
One by one, citizens also make up the whole. “Culture as we know it will end…?” We can attempt to change the culture or wait to be changed. Governments will not and cannot change the culture… Even a carefully planned economic de-growth will probably cause the casino of stocks, shares, debt-trading and related currencies to collapse, but those things will collapse anyway. Even though collapse will come, governments will not risk blame for that collapse. Any de-growth planned to avoid casino and related economic crashes, must first freeze casino trading of stocks, shares and currencies. In that way the real economy of work and wages can be partially protected. Casinos implode, not by laws of physics, or the moral decisions of punters – they live and die in faith, loss of faith, hubris, panic, tea leaves and superstition. Loss of faith can lead to an irrational, contagious cascade. As Adam Smith would have advised, governments could mitigate collapse by making the trading of stocks and shares illegal. Shares remain a useful way to capitalise a venture, but those that invest, must truly invest in that particular enterprise’s future. Unfortunately, when casinos implode the real economy of production and infrastructure can explode into human chaos.
Anyway, argument with authority is a lost cause. It is too late. There is a historical tendency for weightless amorality to rise, but today, the weightless have risen to cover the entire human pond – obscuring the light. Nevertheless, hope has a quality that can remain in the blackest of predicaments. Anyone with children will know how to conjure and hold on to it. Once upon a time… and then – they all lived happily ever after… at bedtime – before turning off the light.
All the metaphors for hope – flickering candle, first-sighted swallows, South West wind, the delight of blue bells, a field of corn…
What have they to do with rapacious casinos of stocks and shares, or the sewer of today’s political powers? You might say everything, because they are defenceless to the rapine. You might say nothing, because within the household, behaviour is self-determined.
Invest or divest?
If we divest our time from the 90% and invest it in the 10% our lives gain illumination – we step from dark to light. This is not to claim virtue, but to claim what is fitting. The vices, which brought us to this ecologic, atmospheric, economic, political crisis belong to us all. My way of life in 1980 remains as CO.2 in the atmosphere today. None of us (in the “First” World) can claim virtue – only contrition and reparation – and then some sort of happiness by doing what is right. I was reared in an atheist family and remain an atheist today, but religious language seems the most appropriate. Perhaps it is no accident that the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change is the finest document we have on the moral imperative of acting on climate change.
Modern economists have fallen off the rails by becoming mere calculators of odds at the casino and like all gamblers, have become adept in superstition and cult reading of tea leaves – those things sell to punters. Because those things also need sums, “economists” pretend that sums mean science! They do not. Sums are the patterning of human brain. They are a technology – a useful tool without meaning. Meaning lies in interpretation of the physics of nature and in our part in both it and human society. Science uses the tool of scepticism to remove preconception. But once we apply scientific knowledge, we move back into the realms of technology. Technologies have effects and so always have morals.
Societies are bound by a common sense of history – its rights and wrongs – to the courses which brought us to this moment. There lies the true storyteller. All proper stories have a central form, which is their moral form. The true study of economics also belongs as a branch of moral philosophy – always has been, always will. How do we share a common wealth among singular households?
How do we limit the worst of human nature and encourage the best? How do we devise a fair currency of exchange? Do we need rationing, taxation, or do we appeal to, or trust citizens to apply the moral to themselves? What is the common good? What is happiness? Should the unpaid labours of mothers and carers be paid, or should they be celebrated? Should the trading of shares and bonds be regarded as illegal, or merely immoral? What of land property and enclosure? What of inherited violent enclosures? Is enclosure itself parasitic to economic activity? Are commons a universal solution? Should all rights bear an equal weight of responsibility? How well does a community manage its resources? Can current economic behaviour be maintained? … These are moral questions and they are economic questions. Every microcosmic step has ripples of macrocosmic consequence – the rights and wrongs of footsteps – of individuals, households and communities is the study of economics.
Here, where time has brought us the desolation of post modernity, it is accepted that it is an insult to use “should”, “right” and “wrong” in ordinary conversation. Personal decisions have become private. My destruction of ecosystems and my personal CO.2 emissions have also become private property. You’ve not the right to intrude, or trespass. Post-modern art confirms it – I’m saying nothing, says the artist – take it or leave it – interpret as you choose. Post-modernity is the definition of a decadence which will crumble any civilisation.
Well, Post-modernity is over. It’s time for new romance to emerge above those limp and nuanced ironies – for the impossible mountain – the lonely silhouette – for beauty and truth – for the exodus of the 90%. How did we get to this point? It is a moral story, with moral solutions. There are right actions and wrong actions. It is black and white. Oil and its machinery is black. 90% of GDP is black. There is very little nuance. If ever a story was to be the foundation of a new religion, then that story is ours – the story of the tithe. It will be an epic adventure, which may well fail, but if we remain with the 90%, then we’ve chosen certain chaos. There will be no nuance. Of course, religious and philosophic leaders – from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Protestant Christianity have joined Catholicism in issuing profound moral statements on climate change – I’m sure leaders within Judaism will also have done so. Had Europeans (such as me) retained our original religion of ancestor reverence and of those to come, we may never have reached this precarity.
We cannot conjure a new religion by reason – we end with a cult. The great religions have evolved within landscape, culture and intrinsic, inherited and ancient moral commons. Those moral commons are a truly common ground for every evolved religion and for everyone who has no formal religion. How do we wake them?
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