I have been thinking a lot about the ‘end times’ that are looming, thanks to the global economic crisis. Mirroring the social and political mood of the 1970s, the recession has distracted us from the ecological game that we were always going to lose – due to the very nature of prevailing global capitalism, which is tied up so closely with the ecological problem, both heading for catastrophe. This is something I wrote a long while ago on the topic of the distracted global political system that so closely resembles a disorganised schoolchild. I just wanted to revisit it because I had just started out at the time and was very proud of it… and I’m still pretty sick of hearing phrases such as “…the revolution WILL be televised!!!” or the derivations thereof that appear ad nauseum in commentary. Hilarious. Not hilarious: missing the point.
It is easy to become disenchanted with public policy, if not politics in general. Its failures are rife at every level of planning and implementation. It may not always be for lack of trying, but—let’s face it—it often is. I don’t want to go into the underhanded self-interest that forms the bulk of political careers here…we know about that all too well. But it isn’t all about government: public consciousness is as wild and as complicated as Richard Nixon’s “wild beast”, appearing to change its behavior radically after years of stagnant debate. The key is to identify how we can accelerate these changes in behavior that are a force for good. We don’t need to hang on government’s continual stalling of progress on environmental issues; instead, we can do certain things to empower ourselves and others around us to make a positive change.
What is government?
This question is not as straightforward as it seems; after all, its intended function is somewhat different to its role in reality. Of course, it’s designed purpose is to control the elements of the state to varying degrees, where this control encompasses the formulation and the enforcement of policies. The fact that retaining power is as much in the minds of politicians as are the policies themselves is the essence of the crippling effects of political ego. By fluffing the very duty that is their millstone, resource misallocation and poor decision-making result, at least through the eyes of the general public.
There are other strange and unsavory effects of poor policy management. In our modern era of fun-house mirror political spin, the phrase ‘meeting a policy target’ can have a completely different meaning to actually achieving its real and intended goals with any degree of truth or longevity. For example, policy targets were met with gusto and ingenuity in the UK after the introduction of hospital waiting time penalties, as supposedly many seriously ill patients were left waiting in the emergency department in favor of addressing less serious cases (that could be discharged quicker), so that quotas could be met. This sort of shenanigans epitomizes the modern ’90-day’ government: a quick fix for a quick result.
Marketing and statistical jiggling aside, the failure of policy can be reduced to a purely academic matter: even a roomful of people cannot be convinced entirely of the same thing, so how do you determine what a whole nation wants? The conflicting desires of a nation’s inhabitants will always bring about adversity and antagonism.
The complexity of real world problems in general, and the dogged implementation of simple policies attempting to ameliorate them, throws up many unintended and unexpected outcomes—a commonly cited one being the raising of income taxes for higher rate payers disincentivizing entrepreneurialism and wealth generation. Many cases of unintended consequences are terrible: a recent Russian increase in taxes on alcohol led to masses of people dying or being blinded as a result of drinking the moonshine that they brewed to cater for their alcoholism. Conversely, many are positive, such as the formation of ecologically diverse habitats in the world’s many demilitarized zones.
Ecological policies are unfortunately a great example of a big global problem that is not being changed fast enough or effectively enough. But how can we force it to change more quickly? The answer lies within changing attitudes. If we consider a nation that is used to its creature comforts and blessings, how do you convince people to change its habits, even when the habit is as trivial as reusing plastic bags or walking two blocks instead of using the car? People tend to react negatively to change, perhaps because it gives the impression of threatening freedom of choice, or it is just too plum hard… that is, unless they are the advocates of change in which case they simply need to keep their voices heard.
The bit about Gil Scott Heron
The revolution will be digitized. I have read this line over and over recently (not least because it is the title of a new book by journalist Heather Brooke), and I can’t help feeling that the real meaning of Gil Scott-Heron’s poem has been somewhat overlooked. True, its wit and beauty refers to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but its profundity has not aged. And it cuts to the root of the problem that every one of us faces in coming to terms with an ever-changing world and the need to adapt with a quicker pace in order to save ourselves and each other.
That tension and struggle endures, and yes: the revolution will still not be televised – or digitized for that matter. The revolution that Scott-Heron refers to is a revolution of the mind. He describes a certain level of enlightenment, a paradigm shift, that must occur on a mass scale, before a new way of thinking and behaving is adopted. Coming back to public policy, we cannot be changed because some policy tells us we are to change. We don’t want to leave the car at home, because we can’t yet be bothered, and besides, the neighbors don’t either. It is as if affluent nations are a group of addicts that are still stuck at step one of the twelve step program (or perhaps the five stages of grief are more fitting of the global ecological crisis).
Guns and germs
Father of twins (twins!) and living polymath Jared Diamond explored the failure of societies to adapt to ecological change in his book Collapse (2005). Perhaps the most striking example of a nation that failed to meet a pressing need for change is that of the Easter Islanders, who died out after imprudently chopping down the last of their trees upon which they so heavily relied. The rationale for doing so may have been washed away forever by the waves of the South Pacific, but one thing can be logically surmised: they suffered from a lack of education and this resulted in their extinction. We, with our ability to educate and to gain new knowledge, really ought to do better!
Must try harder
Mr. Diamond goes on to cite three stages that occur in the process of changing behavior with respect to societal problems. First, the problem must be identified. Hindsight makes this process trivial, however take a look at the conflicting opinions on climate change: even though an overwhelming proportion of the scientific community take global warming to be a fact, its adversaries are quite happy to quote the few papers that discredit it because it backs up an argument that they find highly convenient. As an aside (because I like to complicate things), a not-so-recent but damning analysis of peer-review literature in the past few decades revealed that most scientific studies turn out to be wrong; however sensationalist this may be, we are at the very least reminded of how facts can only be informed by a body of evidence and, importantly, the willingness to believe in it.
The second of Diamond’s stages is the formulation of a solution. Overlooking the failure of policy and putting our belief in the revolution of the mind for the moment, we can move swiftly on to stage three: acting out that solution. All too often in history, these stages have been carried out too little and too late. The question is, are we enlightened enough as a human race to see that we have been too slow to act to great problems up to now?
Social problems, such as the racism that was spearheaded by the Civil Rights movement, never really go away; such is the argument of some. Society changes, its indiscretions become muddied and institutionalized, and liberties can disappear from under our noses beneath a veil of complacency. For the time being, the consciousness of the global ecological crisis may have been eclipsed by the meretriciousness of its financial cousin—yet another of our unsavory addictions—but we can take heart and courage from a key factor that we have skimmed over so far: maintaining of an idea in the consciousness of a nation is an important part of bringing about change. Policy may not bring about a revolution, but keeping an issue under the nation’s nose is certainly one way of accelerating the revolution of the mind of which Gil Scott-Heron speaks.