Cultural agents for the Great Transition

Originally posted in October 2010:

I went to a very stimulating event last night at the South Bank Centre, organised by the New Economics Foundation. It’s just a straight account. I don’t have time for analysis because, well, I’m off to the seaside with my daughter. If in that there is an analysis, it is to act out a lesson of the event – that you have to focus on wellbeing, and that means for me going down to the shore and spending time with my loved ones.

The event was compered by Andrew Simms, who reminded us of the big triple crunch, our ecological debt and the urgency of climate action. He introduced the first panel, Ann Pettifor, author of books on international finance, Professor Tim Jackson, who is interested in cultural solutions to climate action, Vivienne Westwood, who has put out a manifesto calling for people to overcome consumerist distraction through cultural engagement, and Rosie Boycott, who is helping generate a local food movement in London.

Anne Pettifor, when asked: ‘Where is our money?’ gave the simple answer, ‘The banks have it. They are hoarding it from the quantitative easing payments (or queasing as we call it at NEF).’ Her basic point is that banks are a public good not private and that we need capital controls.

Tim Jackson was rather more wordy. He said that there’s a false belief that growth means prosperity. But it’s only generating ‘thin value’ e.g. money, not a sense of meaning. Prosperity actually means hope. We have a huge task to collectively understand what an economy can be that is not predicated on growth. He asked: Is this really us? Is it really human to want things so much? True human qualities are altruism, playfulness etc. But we have all cast ourselves as villains. We have to let that go then construct institutions that really engage with who we are as humans. He’s appalled by the idea that we’re manipulating and dehumanising our children, making it much harder to instil the values of humanity that we are endowed with.

Vivienne Westwood was a breath of fresh air because she expressed her feelings, her distress and passion. She said ‘I was so upset [to read about the likely mass human die-offs] and worried and I still am’. We need to say and hear those feelings in public, I believe. And I liked her because, although it wasn’t articulated powerfully, she believes in cultural engagement as a key antidote to our addiction to things. She said: “My idea is that culture is the antidote to consumerist propaganda, so you should go to art galleries. I truly believe we are an endangered species…We will be killed by habit.” When asked what she does in terms of sustainable fashion, she said “I tell people to stop buying clothes for 6 months. Wear your husbands boxers and lovely things from your grandmother, buy only things that will last.”

Just as Westwood realises that (lots of) clothes don’t sustain us, Rosie Boycott knows that food will. Her radical view is that the food system is about to fall apart like the money system has, and that this is good news. Food regulation remains untouched by any governments. It’s not in the common good. It has always been left to trade. Our system produces one calorie of food from ten calories of oil. Collapse should come quickly so people realise how central it is to the crises we face and so that a revolutionary change comes about. This change is happening at grassroots. All over London and other cities people are reclaiming space that otherwise would be full of needles and trash. They are triumphant in their contests to grow food in the oddest kinds of containers.
Alice Walters has done research that proves primary kids who grow veg do eat more healthily and have better health overall. Farmers are a dying breed in the UK. The average age for a farmer is 58 because there is not enough training and support for the next generation. Don’t be fooled by the argument that you mustn’t buy local because it might deprive developing countries of income. They are subject to a modern form of slavery and our demands are reducing their lands to monoculture. Grenadans now eat Canadian wheat, not cassava and breadfruit, though it is one of the most fertile countries on the planet.

Caroline Lucas was after the break, along with Professor Jayati Ghosh. Both brilliant, insightful women.

Caroline said that what keeps her awake at night is the timescale needed to tackle the climate crisis, compared to the anachronistic timeworld of the Houses of Parliament. She doesn’t want humans to go down in universal history as the only species that monitored its downfall and role in environmental collapse, that knew what was happening but did nothing.

She asked, what if the Coalition convinced us that climate action, not deficit cuts, are absolutely necessary? They have no mandate as a Government, they didn’t tell us that they were going to exact those cuts, and they haven’t convinced us they are necessary or even helpful. We realised Hitler was a threat but realistion about climate change is dispersed. It’s like the slowly boiling frog.

Jayati Ghosh then talked about global trade. She followed on from Caroline Lucas, who had finished by saying that trade, not aid, is a dangerous strategy. The poorest people are most likely to suffer when we develop trade. She explained that although we hear constantly that India and China are ‘taking over’ and so much better off, several indicators show that that both the quality for life and the economy are actually worse. It’s not decent work, it’s slavery. Farmers are at the brink of survival, shifting to cash crops for survival, making farming inviable. Those problems stem from export led growth, which is the development aid model. This then leads to forced economic migration. The south has been providing net financial flows to north, not the other way round: “We’ve been paying for the Iraq war and for the fact you have to change your sofa sets every year.” She told the story of Malawi, which decided to defy the World Bank by developing their food system in a way that is now enabling them to thrive. Localism is not a retreat from the world but is actually more internationalist in its outlook, as it encourages knowledge sharing between localities about survival.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s