Sunday reading

Written By: - Date published: 12:48 pm, May 27th, 2012 - 8 comments
Categories: economy, equality, International, interweb, radio, sustainability, water - Tags: , ,

Just a couple of intriguing articles on the BBC for you to read to while away your Sunday afternoon:

Firstly a view looking at Britain, struggling at a time of unrest across Europe, with rising unemployment and inflation leading to riots.  The populist right-wing is on the rise, and secessionists are pushing for a break-up of the long-prevailing order across the continent.  Cuts in public services, and the rich retreating to their mansions and avoiding their responsibilities, is leading to the poor becoming disengaged from society and opting out.

Only the view is of 400AD, and the collapse of the Roman Empire, much as it parallels today.

As the inequality grows and rich and poor retreat from each other – and under climate pressure – society collapses, the population drops from 4 million to 1 million, and takes centuries to rebuild.

An historian from the 5th century Gildas

talks about right-wing politicians advocating glibly attractive solutions that appealed to the populace while “any leader who seemed more soft, or who was more inclined to actually tell things as they are, was painted as ruinous to the country and everyone directed their contempt towards him”.

Gildas also singles out his leaders’ sheer ineptitude and bad judgement, recalling some governments and financiers in today’s banking crisis.

“Everything our leaders did to try to save the situation ended up having the opposite effect. Society became prey to corrosive quarrels and dissensions, anger towards the rich, and political opportunism was rife that made no distinction between right and wrong.”

A second BBC article looks again at Rio+20 and whether we could have sustainable consumption goals.

“We’ve been living a big fat lie,” [Leo Johnson, brother of London mayor Boris] said. “We know that consumption doesn’t make happy lives.”

Sustainable consumption is the little-mentioned corollary to sustainable development.  As a briefing document for Rio puts it:

“Increased consumption by those whose basic needs are not met would be considered progress by most.

“On the other hand, increasing the competitive consumption of luxury goods among the rich would only be considered progress by a few.”

Leo Johnson puts it as avoiding

“the American dream where you serve the same billion people nine times… rather, you serve the nine billion once or twice.”

This will of course be massively resisted, as at the original Rio conference, where George Bush Snr told the world that the American way of life was non-negotiable.

In a time of recession, the need for growth contrasts with the need to limit consumption.  There are few comments from John Key or Bill English about making growth ecologically sustainable, or more equal across society – they’d be happy with any growth…

But really the question we need to ask is:

“Could we devise a model of society that did not depend on us becoming ill with our fatness?” [Claire Foster-Gilbert, founder of the Ethics Academy]

[If you’re looking for some thought-provoking listening I’d go for Steve Keen on Kim Hill from yesterday morning]

8 comments on “Sunday reading”

  1. Shaz 1

    and if you have still got time after all that this short review is thought provoking and also captures the “plus ca change” meme ;-)! What chance a more robust democracy?
    http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/05/review-defending-politics-why-democracy-matters-21st-century.

  2. Lanthanide 2

    Steve Keen mentioned that he thinks Britain might have a rather catastrophic debt collapse sometime in the next 12 months.

  3. Excellent comment Bunji and so brave.

    The approaches of the major parties rely on growth to get us out of our current bind.  Stopping growth and dealing with debt is beyond the comprehension of all current politicians except IMHO David Cunliffe and some of the Greens.

    To get us out of this mess we need to cut consumption really fast, start living better quality lives, set up alternatives, such as education to soak up unemployment and keep people engaged, share the wealth around so that we can do this, and avoid revolution.

    This will not be easy.  Cool heads and persuading people that the last few decades of brainwashing of the benefits of consumption will be required. 

  4. SHG 5

    Reality check: more time elapsed between Rome’s withdrawal from Britain and the eventual end of the Empire than has elapsed SINCE the end of the Empire. The Empire kept on doing its thing in one form or another for more than a thousand years after the last Roman bureaucrat got on a boat back to Europe.

    This is a common aspect of British historical commentary by British academics: the withdrawal of Rome from Britain WAS OBVIOUSLY THE BIGGEST MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER AND MARKED THE END OF TEH EMPIRE!!!1

    • Colonial Viper 5.1

      You’ve simply pointed out something that Greer has consistently pointed out. Civilisations in decline often decline gradually. And during each stage of decline, they put up a story that the set back is merely temporary before the expected return to ‘growth’ or ‘expansion’.

      After all, it would have been considered disloyal, politically untenable and unthinkable to say out loud that the Empire was in permanent decline.

      There is something else inherent in what you have written. Yes, the Roman Empire did continue in some form for very many centuries after being forced to leave Britain and Germania.

      But the lives of the very many people left behind altered irrevocably as imperial influence and wealth declined then disappeared. And the politicians and elite based in Rome only felt real changes very late in the piece. They were far away from the front lines and well insulated from the harshest edges of ongoing collapse.

      We’re undergoing similar changes, and our elite will be able to pretend and extend for a while more, but for us the transformation is going to happen over a few decades, not a few centuries.

    • Sanctuary 5.2

      “…This is a common aspect of British historical commentary by British academics: the withdrawal of Rome from Britain WAS OBVIOUSLY THE BIGGEST MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER AND MARKED THE END OF TEH EMPIRE!!!1…”

      You know, in the age of Wikipedia I think that being this stupid and ignorant actually requires almost as much work as acquainting oneself with the facts and the current sate of scholarship on the matter being discussed. Almost is, unfortunately, the operative word here, much too all our regret.

      Firstly, to claim that somehow the survival of Byzantium to 1453 constitutes a continuation of the Roman Empire is complete rubbish. The empire had been divided into western and eastern halves since Diocletian. The division was formalised as permanent on the death Theodosius in 395AD. The last Latin speaking emperor was Justinian who died in 565AD. Between 565AD and 641AD the new political entity of Byzantine Empire evolved in the east. For the purposes of the inhabitants of Britain, all the leading experts still find the deposition of the last Western emperor in 476 as a handy date to mark the end of the western empire as a political entity and the beginning of the dark ages. The late Roman army was divided into mobile or field formations which originally had been detachments made up of the best troops from the now largely immobile legions on their permanent frontier bases. These were called vexillations, after the Latin word for “banner”. The best Vexillations of Roman troops left Britain around 382-384AD, and the very last Roman troops (the rump of the by now second line cohorts of the legions) left Britain around 406-410AD. You might say the last useful vexillations of the Roman army left seventy or so years before the rescript to Honorius, which only really tells us the Britons were by then ruling themselves but had not yet succumbed to barbarian invasions.

      Secondly, to claim that British historians are somehow skewed in their view of the important dates in the fall of the Roman empire is at complete variance with the state of current scholarship; I suggest you trouble yourself with at least a good popular history in English by an British historian (I found Peter Heather’s 2005 book The Fall of the Roman Empire a jolly good read) before commenting again on this subject.

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