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Upton-on-line Diaspora Edition - 12th September 04

Diaspora Edition

12th September 2004

In this edition:

Paris celebrates the 60th anniversary of the French liberation of Paris; the diplomatic triumphs and moral dilemmas of being non-aligned; taking food seriously from a cultural point of view; and excerpts from a recent paper on sustainable development (strictly for policy wonks)

A summer of memories

August in Paris is always another place. As long as the heat is not too suffocating (and this year it has been very moderate) Paris is emptied of its high pressure inhabitants and left to curious tourists from the provinces, the elderly and those like upton-on-line who savour the emptiness and languor of a great but half-closed city. There are times, especially in the early morning, when the calm is almost eerie. In still, empty boulevards in which the first dry leaves are already starting to collect around closed up news stands and abandoned bikes chained to railings, the decades start to peel away. It is a short step back to the 1940s.

Walking back across the city after a late and lengthy meal in an unusually quiet brasserie, upton-on-line walked literally into the mid-1940s - 25th August 1944 to be precise. Stepping out onto the quais from the Place St Gervais near the Hôtel de Ville, after-dinner promeneurs were confronted by an extraordinary collection of second world war jeeps, trucks, tanks and assorted militaria. It was the dress rehearsal for the 60th commemoration of the liberation of Paris the next morning. And it was a rehearsal of dress in a very literal sense. Everyone was togged up in uniforms and costumes of the era. With all the precision that one expects of the wardrobe designers at the Opéra Bastille, every single participant was impeccably dressed for his or her role. Only the cell phone communications between drivers gave the game away. Best of all were the splendid old Citroens carrying actors playing the part of political intriguers weaving their way through the military traffic.

The next day the whole thing was carried off in front of banks of notables from the President downwards in between downpours which seemed to do nothing to suppress the carefully choreographed street dancing and official parties. Upton-on-line watched it all comfortably on television. It was very much a day for the French.

As indeed was the liberation of Paris. The whole thing took about a week starting with a civil up-rising on 18th August and finishing with de Gaulle's brilliantly calculated procession down the Champs-Elysées. It was, as these things go, scarcely a battle to the last man. A total of 1,483 Parisians lost their lives (the Germans lost about double that). A realistic General von Choltitz ignored Hitler's orders to raise the city. It was about as civilised as one could have hoped. And saturated in politics from start to finish. Because the political under-currents between resistants of various factions meant that de Gaulle was acutely aware that communists had a rather different idea of France than he did.

From the instant he set foot in Paris, de Gaulle was in myth-making mode - for it is in durable myths that nations reinvent themselves. You wouldn't known from his declarations that there were any allied forces in the game. Every French newspaper must have reproduced his declaration of sixty years earlier before the town hall: "Paris! Paris insulted! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris freed! Freed by herself, freed by her people, with the collaboration of the armies of France, with the support and collaboration of France herself, of the France which fights, the sole France, the real France, eternal France..."

As noted, it was a wholly French affair. There can be no doubting de Gaulle's superb theatrical grasp of the situation. Minutes after addressing the crowd he entered Notre Dame for a grand thanksgiving service. Shots rang out causing widespread panic in the enormous crowd. Imperturbable, de Gaulle continued intoning the Magnificat. Great men don't duck and legends need heroes. France had so much to forget by 1944. De Gaulle and the Free French provided the perfect release from a ghastly chapter in the history of a country that lives and re-lives its history like New Zealand lives and re-lives its sporting moments.

New role models 60 years on

There can be no doubt that de Gaulle enabled the French to believe that honour survived the dark days of the occupation and that France should still be accorded a place of honour in the councils of the world. He lies, today, in sight of the enormous Cross of Lorraine erected to his memory on a hilltop at Collombey-les-Deux Eglises in the rolling rural vastness of north-east France. One wonders what this singular man would make of France's place in the world today. A recent pronouncement by Alain Minc, chairman of the Conseil de Surveillance at Le Monde newspaper puts the question in a particularly sharpened form. In Minc's view, Jacques Chirac has taken it upon himself to become the successor to Nasser and Nehru as leader of the non-aligned nations of the world. (Le Figaro Magazine, 4th September, page 53). Has it really come to this?

De Gaulle was determined that France should not become a supplicant to American global power. He presided over the creation of French military independence. But he would surely have turned in his grave if anyone had described him as being a natural co-traveller with Nasser. In Minc's view, taking France right out of any alliances and making it the leader of a new non-aligned bloc isn't completely absurd but, as he says, it doesn't stack up if France wants at the same time to play a key role in Europe. Minc has also uttered for the first time (to upton-on-line's memory) the other great geo-political truth that the French establishment finds so hard to swallow: "Too often neglected, Spain ... with her strong identity and 400 million Spanish speakers in North and South America, constitutes the true European world power". (It goes without saying that Britain, on this analysis, does not count as being European...)

So if Minc is right, what has Chirac's non-alignment done for French diplomacy? This has become a fascinating question in the light of the abduction of two prominent French journalists by an extremist faction in Iraq. Not since arriving here four years ago has upton-on-line witnessed such a closing of ranks. When the hostage's captors demanded that France abandon its law making it illegal to wear Islamic veils in schools, they could scarcely have forseen the massive counter reaction that saw even strenuous opponents of the new rule fall into line. Timed to coincide with the commencement of a new school year that was shaping up to be pretty tense, the hostage-taking swiftly put every Islamic group in France on the spot - and without exception they backed the State ahead of the fundamentalists. If the Iraqi Islamists thought they were going to the aid of their embattled co-religionists that couldn't have got it more wrong as French Muslim leaders descended on Baghdad to help secure their release.

Calling in diplomatic credits

Heart-warming as this was for a country wanting to be reassured of its essential unity, it couldn't of itself secure the release of the hostages. To secure this end, France has mobilised incredible diplomatic and intelligence resources. At the time this edition went to press, the hostages - despite tantalisingly hopeful signs - had still not been released. But neither were they dead - a fact owed almost certainly to the extraordinary credits France was able to call in throughout the Middle East. Ministers and diplomats have left no stone unturned in every conceivable capital likely to have links with religious figures in Iraq.

France is one of the few countries with the skills and resources even to have attempted this. France has serious depth when it comes to interpreting the Arab world - the quality of academic and official commentary is testament to that. No other western country could have persuaded Iraqi religious leaders to issue a fatwacommanding the prisoners' release. So it comes as no surprise that the reception received by French emissaries has been overwhelmingly flattering. And the sub-text of every diplomatically phrased comment is that it is shocking that the citizens of a country that so strenuously opposed the war in Iraq should be kidnapped.

French authorities must be hugely heartened that their diplomatic stakes in the region are so high. If there is a western country about whom Middle Eastern leaders can be guiltlessly enthusiastic it is France. It goes without saying that from the point of view of Middle Eastern governments and religious leaders there is much at stake. If the hostages should suffer the same fate as American or Italian hostages, their sheer powerlessness will be nakedly revealed. And here surely lies a problem Paris may yet have to confront. That the world is embroiled in a turmoil which doesn't distinguish between the aligned and the non-aligned. In which case, where has the non-alignment Minc speaks of taken France?

On the other hand, should the hostages be released because they are French, what special brand of morality does that suggest? Are human beings legitimate targets for terror depending on whether or not their countries of origin have aligned themselves this way or that? No feeling person could wish for anything other than the immediate release of these men whose families must be going through agony. But the awful truth is that whatever the outcome, there will be deeply worrying diplomatic and moral consequences to deal with. While America and her allies are having to walk barefoot over all the glass they have broken, France's apparently gilded reputation also has a leaden lining.

Not so cordial

In the centennial year of the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale it is all supposed to be sweetness and light on both sides of the channel. But in French eyes, the British press is not playing ball. The Times had the affrontery to point out that Mr Chirac had not actually attacked the kidnappers. And The Daily Telegraph was insensitive enough to suggest that "opposition to the war [in Iraq] provides no immunity to Islamic terrorism." This is just not cricket - or petanque or anything else. Le Figaro was moved to catalogue the list of French citizens killed in recent years long before the Iraq fiasco (most recently 11 French naval engineers killed in Karachi in 2002), in expressing indignation that The Daily Telegraph could go so low as to claim that Paris has been "suspected, in the past, of securing the release of French hostages by paying ransoms." That was one too much for a nation with an impregnable historical memory: "Exactly," thundered Figaro, "just like in 1360 for example, to obtain the release of King Jean le Bon by paying 3000 gold ducats to ... England!"

Bringing up the next generation of foodies

Upton-on-line has long wondered how France manages to maintain a cultural affinity for food. In most fields, modernity (these days defined as ultra-liberalisme) seems to be more or less effectively corroding all sorts of aspects of the the great French cultural exception. The belief that the laws of economics worked differently in the hexagone has taken a battering with the debacle of the 35 hour week; the assumed French leadership of the EU took a knock when all the French candidate for the Commission could carry off was the transport portfolio; the box office for French films is dismally shy of the American competition. All of this makes the dawning of the twenty first century a distinctly less Frankish event than the dawn of the last one. But somehow food remains a field in which the French - with some justification - feel completely unchallenged. Even McDonalds has felt compelled to Gallicise its offerings rather than insist on a single global standard of culinary awfulness.

Upton-on-line can now reveal that this is no accident. It is all part of a meticulously executed State plan that targets every Primary School tummy. In retrospect it comes as no surprise. Little Uptons had been heard to express excessively well-developed views on things like cheeses on expeditions to the market, but this was brushed off as a precocious appearance of the pickiness that accompanies advancing years. Only at the beginning of the new school year was the plot revealed - a glossy pamphlet provided by the local Town Hall detailing the complete lunchtime menus for the first eight weeks of the term.

Carefully laid out were scores of mouthwatering creations for little palates in the minutest detail - hors d'oeuvre, main course, accompanying garniture, cheese course and dessert. How do these sound as mains - Filet de hoki au beurre citron, Tagliatelles au saumon gratinées or Parmentier de boeuf au cacao? Or what about the old dessert classics like Poire Belle-Hélène or Crème anglaises with Pépites de chocolat and gateau sec au chocolat? And the daily cheese offerings are a veritable tour de France.

Needless to say, nothing approaching this sophistication has ever come home in respect of any other school activity. There is no sports calendar (because there's virtually no sport). Other school announcements, few and far between, rarely rate more than a xeroxed scrap. But the menu borders on being a calendar of religious observances. Ostentatious signs of religious allegiance are not permitted. But solemnly marking the liturgies of the tummy is a matter of the highest importance. And in this, the State knows it is absolutely safe since similar attention is being lavished on the same rituals at home.

But as with all high art forms, nothing must be done to excess - the yin and yang of equilibrium and poise applies as much to the alimentary canal as it does to the new art galleries that continue to rise along the Seine. So the dietary seers at the Town Hall have also included a column devoted to Suggestions du Soir. If lunchtime in the school canteen displays the splendours of roast thigh of best French farmyard chicken, that could imply a light feta and cucumber salad for supper whereas a simple steak might call for a more elaborate Galette au sarrazin garnie aux épinards et saumon (as one dreamy date in October envisages).

Frivolous? It's all a question of priorities. For the French it is inconceivable that anyone would not take this extremely seriously. Judging by the loving attention that the little Uptons have been paying to the menu chart, they've struck a vein of French culture that appears to be effortlessly exportable.

The sustainability of sustainable development

This week in Zurich, Upton-on-line is presenting a paper at the inaugural Holcim Forum - a symposium for engineers, architects and construction industry people put together by the Holcim Foundation. This bodly, established to advance the cause of sustainable construction has been created by Holcim, one of the world's biggest cement companies. Somewhat rashly the organisers asked the chairman of the Round Table on Sustainable Development at the OECD to provide an over-view of the international policy environment. What follows are some extracts from the address which will shortly appear on the arcadia website -

Upton-on-line's verdict on the twelve years since Rio is less than flattering:

"Any honest assessment of whether, in the 12 years since Rio, the world economy has embarked on the sort of sustainable global development path many hoped for, would have to be that it has not. One popular explanation for this is what is claimed to be a ‘lack of political will’. You will hear this phrase in many international fora. But this seems to me facile. Better explanations might be that leaders either didn’t know what they were signing up to or, more cynically, that they never intended to deliver.

I prefer the first explanation. I think the world embraced a concept that it only poorly understood and then allowed it to be elaborated in ways that assumed agreement where there wasn’t any. Over and over again we have witnessed verbal consensus where there were real differences or, more importantly, insufficient hard information to operationalise concepts that were often nebulous."

So what is the way forward for those who have embraced the cause? A much longer extract follows:

"To my mind the public policy agenda should be re-cast in a more modest, pared down version that is compatible with the sort of human and institutional limitations that politicians and citizens with limited resources and, frankly, limited attention spans can realistically be asked to embrace.

In the first place, policy makers should avoid versions of sustainability that represent themselves as ethically-imperious theories of everything. This is contested terrain where what we don’t know is almost certainly more significant than what we do know. Paradigms that seek to enfold everything take on a quasi-religious status that simply will not command widespread engagement or support debate and disagreement, the essential raw material for problem solving.

Secondly, they should return to that original Rio compromise – avoiding irreversible environmental degradation that would be to our long-run cost while allowing for a path out of poverty in the developing countries of the world. (The ‘modesty’ of that agenda is, by the way, strictly relative!) We need to deal with four factors: ignorance, time, a reluctance to make difficult trade-offs and a system of international treaties that is not equal to some of the challenges globalisation poses. Let me deal briefly with each in turn.

Ignorance is in some ways the easiest problem to describe. We know the extent of the changes we have made to the concentration of atmospheric gases responsible for trapping incoming solar radiation and the likely impact on tropospheric temperatures ; we know that human activity is now controlling or interfering with 25-40% of the planet’s photosynthetic output ; we know that we have doubled the global terrestrial fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere and tripled the rate at which phosphorus is lost from soils to watercourses (and ultimately finding its way into the oceans) .

These are significant interferences in the bio-geochemical cycles that have over time created the sort of biosphere we are familiar with. What we don’t know is the likely consequence of this scale of interference or (as seems inevitable) the consequences of even larger interferences. The sheer complexity of these cycles – and the paucity of available data in some respects – means that we cannot say with any confidence what sort of feedbacks might cause sudden, unexpected changes in the sort of world we expect to be living in. These feedbacks might not necessarily all be negative. We just don’t know.

Remaining resolutely focussed on improving our scientific understanding is essential. The biosphere is – and always has been – in a state of constant change. Human pressures are adding to those changes. We need to understand better the changing, dynamic nature of the biosphere and, given its complexity, be cautious about rash verdicts either of impending doom or Pollyanna-ish complacency. As Professor Vaclav Smil reminds us:

“What we need is not more clever arguing, and what we cannot get, given the inherent complexities of biospheric transformations and major uncertainties concerning their outcomes, is a confident, albeit probabilistic, appraisal of our prospects.”

Take loss of biodiversity as an illustration of flying blind. While there is huge debate over the number of species and the natural or ‘background’ rate of species extinction, there seems little doubt that we have increased that rate by as much as an order of magnitude. In the process we are getting rid of species we haven’t described and whose importance for eco-system functioning and/or potential human value are unknown. The implicit choice that is being made is between the conservation of potential ‘knowledge’ embodied in living things versus the creation of new ‘knowledge’ through the on-going substitution of natural for human capital. What we don’t know is whether we’re losing something of much greater long-term value than what we’re gaining.

Ignorance of the human world is no less concerning although potentially more tractable. Certainly, if we are talking about what we need to do to meet basic developmental goals, we don’t need large amounts of additional information to know where the priority issues reside. The analysis of global health priorities, for instance, presented by the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health provides a more than adequate ‘ball-park’ idea of what governments would need to do to tackle the major causes of morbidity and early mortality. But a similar level of prioritising is lacking from some of the other development goals governments say they take seriously.

What about time? It’s something all of us are short of and much attention has been lavished on trying to forecast the timescales within which actions must be taken to avert this or that crisis. There are two problems here.

One is that our forecasting abilities are woefully inadequate for the complex human responses we are trying to guess. Even something as apparently quantifiable as the dynamics of population growth remains shrouded in conjecture. As a distinguished demographer, Joel Cohen, has remarked, “the demographic future has none of the inevitability that population projections convey …[because] … no one knows what people will choose to want.” If we can’t predict choices about fertility, it should come as even less of a surprise that attempts to forecast future energy demand (a key determinant of the time we may or may not have to head off serious climatic risks) are almost doomed at the outset. A recent survey of forecasting attempts over the last 100 years described the whole enterprise as “a manifest record of failure”.

Yet we need to have some working hypotheses about what it is we are trying to sustain over what time-frame and then be in a position to monitor what actually happens because, as has been observed, sustainability can only be assessed after the fact. Hence the importance of constantly monitoring trends over time and being prepared to adapt to those trends. (This is what the universal take up of the economic and environmental accounts I spoke of earlier would help us to do.)

But there is a second sense in which time is not ‘on our side’ and that is the time it takes for both institutions and attitudes to change. Look at the time it takes to try to stabilise dysfunctional states. Look at the time it takes to mobilise even functional societies to confront a challenge such as AIDS. I don’t intend to dwell on this point but it does seem to me the single biggest challenge to those who argue for urgent change, with little more than exhortations for information and education.

I am unaware of any evidence to suggest that even democratic societies (which one assumes tend to be the most information rich and open to new ideas) are capable of sustaining radical policy changes without the stimulus of a crisis. Is this so surprising? At the level of individual agents, we know how difficult it is to persuade people to modify their behaviour even when lifestyle risks they run are well described and the risks of harm strongly predictable.

I don’t expect you to draw comfort from this assessment, but I can see little to be gained by promoting policies that simply ignore the time it takes for people to change their behaviour in the face of risks that, in terms of human timescales, are relatively long term.

Next there is the question of trade-offs – both in a physical sense and in a policy sense. One of the unfortunate trends in much writing about sustainability has been a flirtation with the notion that there is some lost equilibrium that must be re-captured. It is certainly valid to point to the greatly-increased rate of change that human activity is causing to the biosphere thereby possibly placing at us at risk of feedbacks that occur on timescales to which our civilisation cannot adapt. But it is misleading to suggest that there is some way we can live that removes the need for constant adaptation.

Indeed there are intriguing possibilities that natural climate change has actually been a driver for a succession of civilisational turning points that have in turn been rendered fragile by successive changes. Our civilisation is inextricably caught up in a dynamic process that has always required change. With this is mind I must tell you that my eyebrows were raised by one item on the Holcim Foundation’s website under a picture of some cave drawings from Brazil. The caption claims that that the cave dwellers of the Serra de Capìvera “lived in total harmony with their environment. They are considered forerunners of a balanced interaction between all nature’s forces.” Is this really so? How do we know? They are not there today. Whatever happened to them – be it climatic, biological or social – proves that their state of ‘total harmony’ was transient.

Civilisation as it has evolved since the last ice age has been based on the transformation of natural capital (to revert to the language of accounting I have already spoken of). We have chosen to transform natural capital into physical and intellectual resources which we have found more desirable (and in many cases necessary to secure our survival in the face of an environment in which total harmony has eluded us). That is going to continue. Amidst all the various scenarios of which I am aware, none posits a world in which we achieve some equilibrium that leaves the remaining unaltered elements of the biosphere in their present state. Even the most optimistic scenarios envisage a widening human ‘footprint’.

Take for example the most radical ‘sustainability first’ scenario sketched in UNEP’s GEO-3 report published in 2002. This scenario (one of four) is described as one in which

“a more visionary state of affairs prevails, where radical shifts in the way people interact with one another and with the world around them stimulate and support sustainable policy measures and accountable corporate behaviour.”

In comparing the outcomes of the four scenarios the authors rightly point out that many of the benefits of their ‘sustainability first ‘scenario would accrue beyond the period for which they modelled results (to 2030). Notwithstanding that their results show large, ongoing substitutions of natural capital. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would still rise from 380 to 450 ppm, biodiversity is still under threat across 56% of the land area.

The numbers here are less important than the trends. Very simply, a future world even involving ‘radical’ changes in human interactions will involve massive on-going change.

That means facing a future with, at the least, very significant continuing trade-offs. And since a prudent acquaintance with human nature suggests not using a ‘visionary’ or ‘radical’ state of affairs as the baseline, the trade-offs are likely to be even more significant. Last year’s World Energy Outlook forecast $16 trillion of new investment in energy services, the overwhelming bulk of which was in the fossil fuel sector.

Clearly there is no single sort of ‘sustainability’ or balance of trade-offs we might aim for. It all depends on the choices everyone from governments to individual consumers make. Different substitutions of resources will degrade or enhance different stocks in different ways, almost certainly unpredictably. If you look at the consumption trends of rich societies – and even more so those of rapidly developing societies – it is tempting to conclude that we’ve taken a collective ‘bet’ that high and rising levels of resource use bring with them the technological capability to deal with any unforeseen problem. What if we’re wrong?

On the other hand, to take – by means of stringent government controls – a different bet, namely that we should radically constrain resource use takes a different sort of a bet: that a radical change to political and social expectations in many countries is sustainable and that we have the institutional capabilities to deal with unforeseen human problems!

My own view of the trade-offs is irrelevant. All I want to emphasise is that there is no unique pathway to some ideal state. All we have are messy trade-offs, none of them costless. I note that the Holcim Foundation has soberly proposed that the benefits of its balancing of economic, social and environmental goals must “outweigh the costs and efforts made to achieve them”. Who could disagree with that? The answer is potentially everyone, because we don’t have a standard metric with which to weigh many of the benefits in particular.

Finally there is the issue of sorting out the jungle of treaties and international initiatives that currently take the place of any coherent global governance. I have already referred to the post-Rio flurry of treaty writing that has lost momentum. A similar disillusionment has followed from the experience of the Commission on Sustainable Development. There simply is not enough human negotiating capacity in rich countries to embark on the range of issues policy advisers find themselves grappling with; imagine how overwhelming it must be for poorer countries.

But there is also a degree of disconnect between the idea of global environmental treaties and the way in which global trade rules have been constructed. This is a fiendishly complex and controversial field. But in simple terms, the laudable objective of fighting egregious subsidies and trade barriers that stand in the way of development opportunities for poor countries runs up against the equally laudable desire of citizens to minimise the environmental impact of their consumption not just locally, but globally. Little is gained if consumers in rich countries raise their own environmental standards but impose an increasingly destructive consumption ‘footprint’ far away where the damage can only be seen by global monitoring satellites.

Developing countries are rightly concerned about green protectionism. But developed world consumers are equally right to be concerned about the environmental and social scars that may lie behind an apparently harmless product on the supermarket shelves. Getting coherent ground rules for a genuinely global economy that is environmentally sustainable remains a key priority.

The scale of the issues I have outlined does not demand a grand theory from policy makers. Rather, as I have argued, it demands modesty. Sustainable development is a useful idea if we are prepared to focus on the basics – the issues which, at any given time, promise the greatest leverage in respect of the most pressing issues – and accept that change will not be driven from the top down but be triggered by a widespread understanding of the key priorities. This Forum’s focus on ‘basic needs’ is to my mind the right one. It is as applicable to environmental pressures as it is to human needs.

In the world of policy those needs are better understood on the social and developmental front than the environmental front. The Millennium Development Goals command an increasingly broad consensus. There will be no human security or environmental integrity in a world in which there is widespread illiteracy, chronic sickness or short life-expectancy owing to dysfunctional governance, degraded water quality, and the absence of even basic sanitation services. The problems are soluble but they will require trade-offs including fiscal ones that run into many billions of euros.

Estimates of the sums involved can easily be assailed given the frailties of the available data. But the direction of the cost-benefit equation is unambiguous. By staying with these basic needs we know the gains are potentially enormous. The fiscal trade-offs needed within rich societies are pretty clear.

On the environmental side, the numbers may be less certain. It is one thing to spell out goals for percentages of well-defined human populations and estimate the financial resources that would need to be marshalled. It is another to seek to aim to preserve particular levels or elements of biodiversity when fewer than 2 million species have been described and estimates of the total number ‘out there’ range from 5 million to 30 million or more.

This brings us back to the issue of making trade-offs in the face of uncertainty. Basic needs, environmentally, are not about fine-tuning some equilibrium but trying to get agreement on key vulnerabilities and some provisional prudential limits that will avoid significant harm. Two key issues requiring better definition and then active co-operation are firstly, what components of the earth’s biodiversity are needed for ecosystems to function in a way that will provide the ‘environmental services’ on which the continuation of life relies; and secondly, what level of green house gas accumulation in the atmosphere are we prepared to nominate as being potentially dangerous.

Any answer to these questions will involve trade-offs which will depend ultimately on the resilience and flexibility of human institutions. Deciding not to address them will not remove the need for trade-offs. It might simply mean we have fewer choices and less time to adapt than would otherwise be available. Foundations like Holcim can help by generating ever-more cost-effective ways of making scarce developing economy resources go further while at the same time reducing the environmental ‘footprint’ of the built environment. While I have sketched some of the issues we need to know more about, you as practical people don’t need to wait for precise answers before acting. As leading companies know, eco-efficient solutions are good for business and good for the environment."


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    To understand the origins of this “ecosystem emergency” we need to understand the “dominion” worldview of capitalism. A worldview can be seen as a kind of self-replicating societal mind-virus or meme perpetuating and spreading its reality and manner of seeing the world. The scientific theory of memetics helps explain the power of such memes to spread a set of ideas throughout society. As Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk explain, memetics is increasingly validated by various branches of science, including evolutionary theory, quantum physics, cognitive linguistics, and epigenetics.

    The dominion worldview of the current global capitalist system is based on an inherently racist and patriarchal meme inherited from the bible. In this meme, God (usually depicted as an old white guy) grants Adam (a younger white guy) “dominion” over the earth and all of nature to “control and shape it.” (God: Genesis 1:26) This meme spread was globally through the enlightenment and places both nature and non-European people (or poor people in general) as inferior beings in a hierarchical construct called the “chain of being.” 

    The logic of the capitalist system sees eternal growth and control of nature and humanity as the primary motives within a game played by rational self-serving players. However, this dominion meme underpinning capitalism is ultimately predicated on the absolute rationality and morality of the cannibalistic consumption of both natural resources and human energy. This worldview ultimately leads to a narrowly materialist and reductionist vision of “human progress” that ignores the inherent importance of human and ecological diversity and interconnection with nature. 

    This mind-virus of the capitalist project has proven so infectious that it has spread its absolute dominion over the entire planet to achieve near-absolute hegemony and catastrophic consequences for the ecosystem and indigenous peoples. As Ladha and Kirk state “in order for Christianity to become dominant, the existing pagan belief-system, with its understanding of humanity’s place within rather than above nature, had to be all but annihilated.”

    Over the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, the global economy has orchestrated an unprecedented acceleration of the destruction of nature in its quest for eternal growth from ever-dwindling resources. This is simply because the rules of its operating system depend on this expansion and consumption of new territories and natural and human resources for its continued existence. However, as Ladha and Kirk outline, the exponential nature of the World Bank’s 3% global GDP growth imperative to avoid recession, means we now need over US2 trillion in growth every year “just so the entire house of cards doesn’t crumble.”

    The ever-higher levels of consumption of the commons needed to provide grist for this mill, has also given rise to an increase in authoritarianism and an associated chilling of the freedom of the press and human rights globally. A fierce suppression of whistleblowers, inconvenient journalists, and activists, all but ignored by the mainstream media has effectively ended the accountability of governments and businesses for this human and ecosystem devastation.

    Meanwhile, the propaganda arm of this capitalist mind-virus has entered a golden age by taking advantage of the unregulated social media frontier and the breakdown of real journalism. In this new environment, the use of memes as warfare to control, manipulate and misinform the populace to perpetuate and spread the dominion mindset has been perfected.

    What is the end game of this dominion worldview? It appears to be incapable of stopping anywhere short of the destruction of all life on Earth. As Nafeez Ahmed defines it: 

    “This is a life-destroying paradigm, a death-machine whose internal logic culminates in its own termination. It is a matrix of interlocking beliefs, values, behaviours and organisational forms which functions as a barrier, not an entry-point, to life, nature and reality.”

    The First Great Extermination

    What is the Rojava Revolution? | Accidental Anarchist

    “The future of the extraordinary feminist and democratic revolution in Rojava is now in danger. The US has announced it will withdraw its military forces from Syria, with whom the Kurdish forces have been fighting against ISIS. This will be a green light for Erdogan’s Turkey to fulfill its threats to attack Rojava and eradicate its nascent democracy. There’s never been a more important time to support Rojava. This clip from Accidental Anarchist shows why it matters.” – Carne Ross

    Watch the full movie:

    Posted by Films For Action on Saturday, 22 December 2018

    “This Is Not the Sixth Extinction. It’s the First Extermination Event. What we are witnessing is not a passive geological event but extermination by capitalism.”  

    Justin McBrien

    This increasingly aggressive search of capitalism for new territories and untapped resources has placed increasing pressure on ecosystems across the globe in what Justin McBrien terms the First Extermination Event. As McBrien says, “the great historical struggle against this extermination has been, and remains, the struggle for land and the rights of the commons.”

    Developing nations and indigenous people are at the forefront of this struggle as the commons in the global south have increasingly come under pressure from privatisation. Indigenous nations account for less than 5 percent of the global population, but are protecting 80 percent of its biodiversity. This ecological wealth is largely in the form of commonly held ecosystems such as forests, oceans, wetlands, and other wildernesses that are crucial reservoirs of biodiversity and buffers against climate change.

    Indigenous peoples and developing nations are also suffering disproportionate losses due to an increased reliance on and interconnection with the natural world. Many have already faced, or now face Cultural Extinction due to the fact that their languages, stories, religions, and customs are inextricably interconnected with the ecosystems being destroyed. Nowhere is this process more evident than in the Amazon, where Guardians such as Paulino Paulo Guajajara (above) are being killed for defending their ancestral lands from deforestation.

    Due to indebtedness and years of extractive imperialism and capitalism, these nations have minimal ability alone to resist the destruction of these commons or to fund mitigation or adaptation measures. However, they also hold the key to our survival. Unless we are prepared to aggressively challenge this destruction of the remaining commons in the developed world, our chances of preserving biodiversity and a habitable climate on this planet are slim.

    Ah… About That “Hope”?

    Tree at dawn. Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

    “Hopelessness isn’t natural. It needs to be produced.” – David Graeber

    Hope and belief in a better future is an important and subversive act of defiance against the possibility-limiting paradigm of this dominant worldview. In such concerning times, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of “learned hopelessness.” However, as anthropologist David Graeber states in a recent “Tactical Briefing,” to make sense of the seeming impasse of our current situation we must realise that this feeling is the product of:

    “a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a kind of giant machine that is designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures.”

    So where is one to find hope in the face of this death machine? 

    There are plenty of indications the people have finally had enough of this worldview driving life on the planet towards extinction. Worldwide uprisings of Extinction Rebellion, the Youth Climate Marches, or other little-publicised uprisings in Ecuador, Iraq, Algeria or Lebanon are all evidence of a desire for a more equal and sustainable world. Perhaps most significant are the protests raging in Chile – the birthplace, most extreme testing ground, and now death ground? of the neoliberal project. 

    However, past uprisings teach us that in order to ensure this distributed energy succeeds in bringing about lasting change, we require a clear shared vision of the future world we seek to create. The emergent cooperatism worldview gaining traction worldwide provides such a potential framework for the more “life-affirming” future these many groups are seeking to create.

    Hope In Common 

    Protesters react as they gather during the evacuation operation by French gendarmes in the ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes, France, April 11, 2018. Stephane Mahe

    “Every time a civilization is in crisis, there is a return of the commons”

    Michel Bauwens

    The current crisis can be seen as stemming from the failure of the dominion worldview and the increasingly strained institutions of the capitalist system to protect our environmental and social commons. One result has been a global resurgence of interest in the commons. This resurgence is underpinned by the cooperatism worldview which stands in direct contradiction to the assumptions of the dominion paradigm of global capitalism.

    As Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation summarises, “The commons are three things at the same time: a resource (shared), a community (which maintains them) and precise principles of autonomous governance (to regulate them).” This complex and inherently cooperatist nature makes the commons a powerful and popular organising system for managing natural resources and ecosystems amongst people across the world.

    This broad-based nature of the commons increases human agency by redistributing power and control over land-use decisions and favouring direct, participatory decision-making by the greatest number of people affected. The bottom-up and decentralised nature of the cooperatism worldview enables solutions and responses to environmental challenges to emerge from those most intricately familiar with particular ecosystems.

    This upsurge in the ground-up approach to land-use is evident in the many distributed, local-level collaborative initiatives taking on the guardianship and sustainable use of common lands and resources. In NZ examples include the landscape-scale community conservation literally in my own backyard in Miramar, the self-governance of Te Urewera or the granting of legal rights to the Whanganui river. Ellen Rykers’ recent article on The Dig explores the potential of the Community-centred to biodiversity action in Aotearoa.

    More ambitious commons-based approaches abroad include commons fisheries management in Kenya or Nepal’s Community-owned native forests or a plethora of tea, coffee and cacao cooperatives across the developing world. Then there is the astounding (ZAD) “Zone a Defender” – an occupied autonomous zone near Nantes, France (pictured above). Here occupiers have been conserving the forests and wetlands, collectively farming the commons and with community support, resisting forcible eviction by the police for decades. 

    Zapatista Women work on community-owned and operated farms. Tim Russo

    There are many other examples of the cooperatism approach emerging to create a parallel economy of self-governing alternatives alongside the global capitalist system. These range from small neighbourhood cooperatives and Community Land Trusts to large-scale anti-capitalist experiments like the autonomous indigenous communities of Chiapas, Mexico’s indigenous Zapatista movement.

    Such alternatives also include the occupied factories in Paraguay, Argentina or the USA, and autonomous institutes in Korea or the cooperatives, self-governed city areas, and free medical care centres formed in Greece after the recent political and economic crisis. As David Graeber says, such forms of mutual aid associations “spring up pretty much anywhere that state power and global capital seem to be temporarily looking the other way.” 

    Perhaps most inspiring of all is the success of Rojava, a self-governing, non-denominational and non-patriarchal, autonomous Kurdish region amidst the chaos of Syria. Sadly, this revolutionary “democratic confederalist” project is currently being crushed by surrounding authoritarian powers clearly threatened by the precedent it sets.

    Bringing Out The Best In Humans

    A commons-based or cooperatist approach to organising society, offers a more rational and scientifically sound way to relate to natural resources than the top-down and growth-based imperatives of the dominion worldview.

    The standard argument for the application of a dominion approach to land and resources is Garrett Hardin’s theory of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” However, Elinor Ostrom’s worldwide Nobel Economics prize-winningstudy of “common-pool resource” (CPR) groups in the ‘90s, debunked this idea entirely. Ostrom concluded that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, as long as certain “core-design conditions” are met. 

    Even that champion of neoliberal economic theory, The Economist is now on board. The September 2019 issue featured the article:“The alternatives to privatization and nationalization: More public resources could be managed as commons without much loss of efficiency.” The author cites Ostrom’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which she called on policymakers to “facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.” 

    However, the fact is, a thermodynamics perspective actually demonstrates the commons approach is MORE energy efficient than standard methods. A research project led by the P2P Foundation on the thermodynamic efficiencies of peer production found that a transition to open and shared models can result in an 80% saving in the amount of matter and energy used in running our society.

    Hope From The Edge of the World

    April 2019 protest in Brasilia (Sergio Lima)

    “The kin networks that bind people with other living systems resonate with the science
    of complex networks, key to understanding many ‘wicked problems’ of our time…”

    Dame Anne Salmond, Gary Brierly and Dan Hikuroa.
    Let the Rivers Speak: thinking about waterways in Aotearoa New Zealand

    We can also take much inspiration from those indigenous people acting as guardians of the natural world against extermination where states and institutions have failed to do so. Examples such as the Guardians of the Amazon, Mauna Kea or Ihumātao represent a refusal to accept the arrogant and materialist dismissal by the dominion paradigm of ancient indigenous knowledge and locally-derived wisdom, democracy and sustainability. 

    Understanding the worldviews of indigenous societies offers important shifts in perspective, consciousness, and behaviour that global society needs to make urgently in order to have any chance of surviving the coming wave of ecological and social disruption. These worldviews are imbued with a deep understanding of cooperatism and shaped by long histories of using the commons as an approach to land-use and social organisation.

    Growing understanding in anthropology and archeology and the science of complex networks confirms the validity of the fundamental tenets of indigenous worldviews: 1. that cooperation is what defines us evolutionarily as a species (Graeber), and 2. that humanity and nature are inextricably interconnected (Salmond et al). Veronika Meduna previously discussed these concepts in relation to Mātauranga Māori in her article on The Dig: Kaitiakitanga: Seeing Nature as your Elder.

    We are not, as the dominion worldview of capitalism holds, hierarchical and self-serving beings governed by a “selfish gene.” For most of our history, humans have existed in a mode of cooperation and relational interconnectedness with each other and the natural world. We must all urgently remember and recreate this way of being.

    Changing Our Minds

    Roy Scott Getty Images

    “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

    George Bernard Shaw 

    Widespread adoption of a worldview grounded in Cooperatism is the fastest way to get public support for an overhaul of our approach to land-use and rapidly regenerate ecosystems. However, this is easier said than done. The theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’, holds that when reality falsifies our deepest beliefs, we’d rather tinker with the nature of our reality than update our worldview. This accounts for the growing tribalism of populist politics and the susceptibility to disinformation and narrative control that holds the status quo in place.

    Cognitive dissonance means that changing minds regarding the environment and our insane economic paradigm will not be done by using facts, statistics or rational debate to convince people of the merits of such an approach. Rather, as Maarten Van Doorn outlines, “Ideas change the world by upgrading people’s ‘normal’… by showing people what is possible, and changing their views about what is socially acceptable.”

    In short – the most effective way to change minds is to actually build the world (and worldview) of the commons all around us, making it the new normal as ordinary people rub up against it in their everyday life. Ensuring as many people as possible are able to participate in or benefit from commons-based and ground-up initiatives is one of the most powerful solutions there is to have an impact on the current crisis. 

    A Global New Deal For The Commons 

    Launch your meme boldly and see if it will replicate—just like genes replicate, and infect, and move into the organism of society… I believe these memes are the key to societal evolution. But unless the memes are released to play the game, there is no progress.

    ~ Terrence McKenna

    To have any chance of being adopted en masse, proposals for environmental action must directly benefit everyone, but especially disadvantaged communities in most need – migrants, working-class communities and developing nations. As Naomi Klein argues on The Intercept (and in her new book), if we do not link the intersecting climate, migration and social justice crises together into a holistic response, we will face a popular backlash. Klein’s astute hypothesis is that “only a Green New Deal can douse the fires of eco-fascism.”

    However, proposals for a Green New Deal and other green-growth based approaches such as New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Act, simply do not go far enough. They fail to effectively challenge the core extractivist and dominion assumptions of the paradigm that has created the biodiversity crisis. Such approaches miss the point entirely unless they ensure that the basic needs of people and planet are met. The neglect of these core needs for so long by the establishment is the breeding ground for both the increased susceptibility to fascist and authoritarian memes and environmental catastrophe.

    There is an existing proposal and petition for a Global Deal for Nature, which I fully support and recommend. However, due to the importance of language and memes to changing worldviews, I still wish to launch this slightly different framing.

    So allow me to launch my meme: A Global New Deal For The Commons:

    I propose that what humanity and the planet desperately needs is a Global New Deal For The Commons. Such a deal would require a global mobilisation to ensure that the natural and cultural commons are protected and sustainable biodiversity-friendly and cooperatist land-use is adopted. If structured right, such a deal would have a massive impact towards restoring the planetary ecosystem and biodiversity, as well as healing deprived and hopeless communities everywhere in the process.

    To truly turn the biodiversity and climate crises around, this new deal needs to happen at least on a scale of wartime efforts such as the Marshall Plan of WWII or the New Deal of the Depression-era. As Rutger Bregman argues, centralised state action will be essential to any realistic efforts to drive an environmental effort on the scale required. However, I am less cynical than Bregman about the power of bottom-up efforts, and believe a properly balanced combination of the two is essential.

    A biodiversity-focused investment on this scale could combine central investment with an approach focused on catalysing, fostering, and scaling bottom-up land-use initiatives and ideas. It could prioritise local communities as workforces and support the emergence of ground-up, decentralised solutions and initiatives over centrally imposed or market-based solutions wherever possible.

    Such a new deal for the commons would require associated work on reforming land tenure and local democratic and economic institutions on a scale not attempted since the communist project. However, rather than the top-down command and control approach of communism, it would provide a framework, resources and tools for communities to re-learn how to live harmoniously with each other and with nature’s abundance. This approach could spread knowledge, technology and best practice for environmental restoration globally through open sourcing IP and implementing solidarity networks or networks of mutual aid across society.

    This new deal would also require real action on the national and global level to reform global governance and regulation and build a more just international order and institutions. This would require new agreements such as an international law of “ecocide,” and strengthened international environmental laws and enforcement mechanisms to ensure the compliance of corporations and rogue imperialist nations. This new order would also need to address debt-enslavement, eternal growth imperatives, and rebalance global wealth disparity to stop wealthy nations from shifting the impacts of growth onto vulnerable populations and ecosystems.

    However, crucially, to bring about this new order, we must find ways to continue challenging the narrow confines of permitted thought and debate keeping us locked in the destructive dominion paradigm. It would need to restore the rule of law and ensure the protection of whistleblowers, journalists, activists and politicians challenging this narrative. If not, who will hold power accountable for their inaction or blocking of real progress? Who will continue to tell the stories and defend the rights of those on the margins building the alternative futures discussed above?

    The debate around Te Koiroa o Te Koiora, and the to-be-finalised national biodiversity strategy and policy provide an excellent opportunity for New Zealand to lead the way in protecting and restoring the commons with such a new deal. There are good indications that a more community-focused approach is being considered and that more radical proposals resonated well with the public in our recent HiveMind engagement. However, we must ensure that translating this into real progress to fund and support ground-up and cooperatist environmental initiatives is seen as a priority for the Government.

    Please indicate if you agree with this statement of hope and declaration of intent here. You can also add your own statements for others to vote on if you wish: