Bill Oddie (the naturalist and funny one in the Goodies) has produced a spoof documentary, Bankwatch, in association with Global Witness, on HSBC’s support for major logging and oil palm companies in Sarawak Malaysia, and in those other countries in which these companies operate, from which the bank has trousered nearly £100m offering “financial services”:
[Global Witnesses] investigations uncovered multiple instances of HSBC’s clients acting unethically and illegally. This included clearing proposed national parks, destroying world-renowned peat forests, abusing local indigenous communities, and clearing habitat of the critically endangered orangutan.
The only surprise is that this is still a surprise. The value of HSBC is zero without forests, water catchments and other natural resources- the earth’s endowment. The crash of 2007 was in part a flash of realisation that the ethic of the market economy, and any pretense of sustainable, equitable and efficient growth, is bankrupt.
I have noticed that I haven’t been reading much fiction these days. I keep adding novels to my Amazon wish list, and find myself returning to (older) le Carré and Kipling’s Stalky & Co…. But I did re-read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, sadly as relevant as ever, and I was mesmerised with Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth At Dawn. Michael Sandel’s Justice: What is the right thing to do? and Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save prompted a lot of thought. I realise that I have been giving less than I used to – I am keeping up with Give Well blogsite. I bought Chade-Meng Tan’s Look Inside Yourself to try something different. The language and style grate on this Brit – best not to read the cover or forewords … and try to let the assertion that “happiness is the default state of mind” wash over – but there are many useful pointers and guidance that I have found useful. I caught up with Alex Ross’ Listen to This having enjoyed The Rest Is Noise. And I am now enjoying trying out Messiaen, Morton Feldman, Jonathan Harvey, Elliot Carter, and most recently Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sibelius has been a long-time favourite).
Otherwise it’s been economics. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman left me a bit cold – the style is ponderous, a good editor would have halved the length. That homo economicus, homo sapiens, homo faber are straw men was not even an issue for Eric Hobsbawm: I was re-reading The Age of Capital when he died in November. That repeated crises are endemic to capitalism is also a theme of Nouriel Roubini’s excellent Crisis Economics. I enjoyed reading Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail, including their fence-sitting, which Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Island could not be accused of. But I have learnt most from The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism by David Harvey, and John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology.
Al Gore’s Nobel prize is well-deserved. He has done as much as any person to popularise environmental concerns. But does he really challenge current political views, which have now taken on-board most of his arguments, i.e. they have become mainstream.
For example, offsetting carbon is – albeit slowly -becoming a middle (and business) class habit. But it remains an option. And it does not come close to taking account of our total life-span ecological ‘footprint’.
The scantiness of the debate is endemic in the political elite in the United States and Britain, where economic growth remains the paramount consideration: in such an environment even progressive policies such as carbon trading run the danger of becoming political face-saving accounting exercises.
Herman Daly challenged the primacy of growth in his seminal book “Beyond Growth: the economics of sustainable development” (1996). His basic premise is that the economy is a subset of the environment and natural resources not vice versa as traditional economics assumes, and so there are real limits to its expansion and capacity to sustain human life. The key is to find the optimal use of material resources and energy for a ‘steady-state’ economy – whose aim is to create the “greatest good for an optimum number of people over the long run.” Daly stresses the need for development which equates to a qualitative improvement in our lives, whereby the economic benefits of increased consumption of good and services must be greater than their environmental costs.
Adapting to a steady state economy would of course take time given the extent of our current unsustainable economies. Perhaps gradually substituting income taxes with ecological taxes would be a step in the right direction, which could also form the basis of a fairer system where the poorest no longer pay a higher proportion of taxes than the rich.
Ruskin (quoted above) also said that: “When we build, let us think that we build for ever.”