In the wrong direction

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By PATRICK MAZZA*

Ecological overload, rising global conflicts and widening wealth disparity testify to the need to restore a sense of common good

The converging crises facing the world today scream the fact that their roots are systemic. Just tinkering around the edges won't solve these problems, because they are built into the system's own logic. The climate crisis is the most salient expression of the critical situation. Although concrete progress has been made in deploying low-carbon energy technologies, global carbon pollution has continued to increase due to systemic economic and political causes, stemming from the conditions under which dominant institutions operate.

This also applies to the general crisis of ecological overload, in which climate is an important factor, but which in no way fills the picture of adversities. Scientists led by the Stockholm Resilience Center have been analyzing the ecological boundaries that mark the safe space for human civilization on Earth as a whole. Last September, they announced the results of the first assessment of all nine processes that preserve the stability and resilience of the habitat for humans and other animals.

Six boundaries have already been crossed, including those affecting climate, land, water and the biosphere. Overloads of phosphorus and nitrogen are observed, as well as excesses in the introduction of new substances, such as microplastics and chemicals that function as endocrine disruptors.

All of this together suggests, the Center's scientists wrote, “that Earth is now well outside the safe operating space for humanity.”

These facts highlight the need for transformative changes in the economic and political systems that complement each other. Massive resources must be devoted to transforming the basic elements of human society, including how we obtain energy and materials to produce goods and services, how we grow our food, how we travel, how we construct our buildings, how we deal with waste. This implies a redirection in the way we invest resources.

Two significant indicators that our world is failing to claw its way out of trouble are the dramatic accumulation of wealth at the top and record military spending. In the last 4 years, billionaire wealth in the US alone has soared 88%, from US$2,9 trillion in 2020 to US$5,5 trillion today. The ten richest, led by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, accounts for US$1,4 trillion. Globally, in 2022, the richest 1% held 46% of the world's wealth. Without a doubt, this percentage has increased since then.

Could the planet be overcoming the ecological crisis if these people were investing in projects that create a resilient future? Obviously not. Sure, some are putting money into low-carbon technologies, doing environmental philanthropy, but the overwhelming preponderance of their investments and businesses continues to boost what is already supercharged. Whatever they do does not get to the systemic roots of the crisis.

Meanwhile, military spending worldwide consumed a record US$2,2 trillion in 2023, an increase of 9% compared to 2022; Now, another record is expected in 2024, reported the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The real spending of the largest military power, the USA, alone was estimated at US$1,5 trillion in 2022. All of this, without a doubt, is terrible. Meanwhile, wars are raging in Europe, the Middle East and Africa; Furthermore, a direct conflict between great powers may occur soon. The frightening words of World War III are increasingly on people's lips.

All of this indicates that the world is in desperate need of transformative change; however, it is moving in the diametrically opposite direction. Now, all of this crushes the hope of people who worry about the future: in fact, they are becoming desperate. Therefore, they ask themselves: how is it possible to obtain leverage to change such an interconnected global system? Those who are aware want to find a way to impose themselves so that a new system can be put into practice.

Restoring the commons

The first step is to understand the essence of the systemic transformation that is taking place. The guiding thread of our multiple global crises is the supremacy of private interests, narrow as they are, over the common good. Denialism persists: there is no problem with turning the atmosphere into a deposit for the pollution produced by the consumption of fossil fuels, while cutting down forests and tearing up the soil are the main drivers of climate disruption.

Certainly, the crisis of ecological overload reflects a blindness to our dependence on the planetary commons. The increase in global conflicts and military spending reflects the predominance of national interests above those of the world as a whole; Now, this is happening even in the face of the threat of nuclear extermination. The obscene and growing concentration of world wealth in so few hands screams against the prevalence of private interests over the common good.

Thus, there is a need to restore common sense in society, rebuilding our sense of common goods and the institutional frameworks that express them. This is the heart of the transformation that is needed. Self-interest is a powerful factor in human life and will remain so. It's part of human nature. But it cannot be a priority. We are also strongly inhabited by a cooperative and social sense, which must be emphasized if we want to overcome our converging crises.

Over the past four or five decades, a philosophy known as neoliberalism has prevailed. It is built on the belief that if each of us pursues our own self-interest, it will result in great outcomes for society. History has shown that this was and is wrong. The above-mentioned crises, ecological overload, rising global conflicts, and widening wealth disparity all testify to the need to restore a sense of common good through collective enterprise.

Neoliberalism has demeaned and denied these needs, demolishing institutions created to promote the public good. The general reduction of the public sector, with the widespread evasion of fair taxes by the wealthy classes, is central to the continuation of the setback. And he needs to stop.

In my homeland of Washington state, we have a notorious example. We just lost a billion dollars. The richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, failed to pay a quarter of a billion dollars in state taxes. This was his capital gain from changing his legal residence to Florida. This is a man whose oceanic wealth depends on a delivery system through public highways and aviation infrastructure that covers the country as a whole. His business is based on computing and digital innovation, which was publicly funded during World War II and the Cold War.

The capture of public institutions by private interests seems to be another aspect of the neoliberal era. And that made things worse for dealing with our crises. The fossil fuel industry and its allies, such as big agriculture and railroads, have thwarted important actions to improve climate quality. The military-industrial complex promotes conflict and war. The rich fight against fair taxation. And this list can be extended…

What can bring a new balance to this disastrous situation is popular power democratically organized to defend the common good. That's why we need a lever that empowers people so they can start making changes. Therefore, it is necessary to reinforce existing institutional frameworks and build new ones that promote the common good. We need to build resilient economies that meet the imperative of returning to planetary limits while meeting basic human needs.

The common good in its place

Inherent to the idea of ​​common good is that of community. Restoring the common good and restoring the community are one and the same thing. This directs us to an initial milestone that allows us to begin a process of restoring community life. This is how and only how we can begin the work of transformation, aiming to put new systems into practice. Only in our communities can we develop the deepest connections, enhancing a sense of commonality. Our surroundings, the social and natural environments in which we live, show us how we can work together to build the conditions that promote the common good.

Um insight The important thing is that you can't change everything at once. It is necessary to build a new system within the framework of the old one, using elements of the pre-existing system that contain potential to make the desired changes. In the case of building the future, local and subnational state and provincial governments are vital. These are the institutions charged with maintaining the public sphere at the local level, including transportation, building and zoning codes, public green spaces, waste and trash management, water supply, pollution control, all of it. with a view to economic development.

In many areas, they own public energy services, while private utilities are regulated by state commissions. In other words, local and subnational jurisdictions play central roles in many of the spheres that require transformation. In fact, much of the progress made towards a more sustainable society has been made at these levels of government.

But we need something more. We need to bring together a broader political movement that embraces a vision of transformative change. Therefore, it is necessary to recover the resources that originate in our communities to invest in public and community institutions that meet basic human needs. We need a kind of evolutionary revolution that builds the common good, that makes systemic and transformative changes in specific places. We need to build models and bases for change on broader scales, also creating horizontal networks with other places and vertical networks up to national and global levels.

Many of these concepts fall under the rubric of municipalism, the fundamental idea of ​​which is not only to leverage existing government institutions for change, but also to create a more participatory and inclusive context. This involves creating community assemblies or congresses that bring together diverse groups and movements to create visions of transformative change and build the political power to make them happen.

This strongly suggests that building a future based on the common good, on the restoration of community everywhere, begins by bringing together the many organized groups working for specific changes locally. Discussions and actions are born there to bring together scattered forces around a common agenda. One can imagine steps to be taken based on conversations between group organizers. Community congresses can be organized that agree on unified platforms and actions that can be taken through working with local governments and civil society.

Here is a key element: the election of local authorities who remain accountable to the will of the community congresses and who will work to promote the agenda. Many of these actions have already been modeled in places like Barcelona, ​​where for a few years a civic movement made significant gains based on organizing through neighborhood and city-wide assemblies. Although the movement has suffered setbacks, it still remains an influential model.

In addition to building a new political base, the main priority is to build a new economic base, based on peace and not war, that responds to real human needs. This is why the growing movement for public banks appears to be very fundamental. In the USA, the banking sector is largely maintained by private companies. One exception is the state bank in North Dakota, a legacy of the populist era.

In its current form, individuals, companies and even governments keep their money in institutions that send it around the world in search of the greatest profit opportunities, often undermining the interests of their depositors. Banks also have the power to create money, being able to lend beyond their reserves under the calculation that the vast majority of loans will be repaid.

A public banking system would treat money as a public utility. Thus, it could be created and invested using social, economic and environmental criteria that promote the common good. Public banks located at local and subnational levels could finance public infrastructure and eliminate interest paid to private banks.

They could also fund necessary community institutions such as social housing and worker cooperatives. They could focus investments in areas crucial to sustainability at all levels, such as public transportation, food production and distribution, clean energy, and materials recycling and recovery. Cities and states can become dynamic actors in building community-based economic institutions that meet needs where the private sector is falling short.

A political strategy for all conditions

Of course, such an agenda will be opposed by the same narrow private interests that impede progress at broader levels. Local business interests are powerful; Furthermore, they are generally well organized and well financed. This is why we need coherent political movements that have visions and agendas for transformative change and that build adequate institutional infrastructures to realize these ends. The locus in which these movements have the greatest potential to gain influence are local. This is where powerful local movements persist, as well as the ability to move state and provincial governments. They can also coalesce into networks that build a new sense of identity and common purpose around places defined by nature.

Obviously, the multiple crises we face require transformative change at all levels. Interest group politics that maintain a stranglehold on national governments must be dislodged. A new level of international cooperation must be achieved. These are needs that cannot wait. A local focus allows us to build models that are truly transformative and networks to disseminate them more widely and achieve broader gains. Local and regional communities are where people power politics can gain the most traction to begin rebalancing society and politics for the community and common good.

Ultimately, we need a very general policy that covers the various problems, a policy that can meet all the requirements. She needs to face a political strategy without regrets and that is prepared for the worst scenarios. It must provide effective pathways to bring about transformative change through marshalling people power. This is what makes it possible to rebalance power in society, reversing the trend towards greater concentration of economic and political power, distributing power more broadly. The objective is to effectively face converging crises, as it is necessary to restore the common good in the economy and society.

Many fear, and even consider it inevitable, that systemic collapse will befall everyone in the coming years. Ecologically, in the form of intensifying climate dysfunction and connected disruptions of vital systems such as food production. Economically, in the form of a new great depression. Politically, in the form of deepening social conflicts and electoral results that push national unity beyond the breaking point. All of this speaks to the need to build strong, resilient communities. A political strategy that builds a future based on the common good from the places we live can meet this need and potentially help avoid worst-case scenarios.

If humanity survives the current era, it will be remembered how we as a species navigated a time of great disruption on many levels. Certainly, we will not fail to leave behind a disturbed climate and ecosystems. We will no longer be able to stop experiencing the consequences of a predatory past. They now appear inevitable, but by changing course we will have avoided total civilizational collapse and nuclear war. I believe that, when this story is told, the importance of rediscovering the common good, of building a future based on community, human solidarity and mutual help, will be emphasized. We need to face the various degrees of denialism, starting to build this future now.

*Patrick Mazza is a journalist.

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the portal counterpunch.


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