Thursday, April 23, 2015

The rising challenge to entitlement: disasters, migration and western values

2015 is a year of global agreements regarding climate change, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development. The new frameworks proposed will invariably require innovative strategies for change. But is society ready to accept change and adaptation for the good of future generations? Change invariably involves sacrifice. The belief that our very way of life is being eroded by the demands of environmentalists is prevalent, but we must consider who this narrative serves. The ‘risk’ of change to those who have accumulated power, wealth and resources under the status quo must not be ignored. An assessment of ruling-class risk may indeed help us to contextualise some of the important debate of 2015.

Entitled to Succeed

If schooling has taught us anything, it is that success manifests as wealth, power, achievements and accolades. ‘Work hard and succeed`, they say. ‘If you don't succeed, you didn't try hard enough’. Nobody likes to admit that disadvantage runs deep and 'failure' according to our system is more accurately predicted by socio-economic indicators than by work ethic. Those 'born to rule' hate to admit that privilege is a factor and will point to rags to riches success stories that supposedly prove that a meritocracy exists. However, the systemic inequality that is all around us challenges the very values of a free society that our democracies uphold.

What, in fact, are 'western values'? Freedom, justice, compassion? The freedom to accumulate. Retributive justice. Conditional compassion. Perhaps it's the expectation that someone be employed and pays taxes (so that our government can fund war and distribute private sector welfare).

In these times of austerity, most Western governments favour neoliberal economic ideologies and, as a consequence, policies that target the least at fault for economic crisis and the least able to afford cuts, taxes and levies. Underpinning this agenda is an insidious belief that the poor are lazy and the disabled are frauds. We are told that to help such poor souls, we must impose some sort of punishment. It’s the moral thing to do, after all.


How does our perception of western values (and the incentives and punishments attached to these values) affect our attitude towards those outside our borders, and indeed towards the ‘others’ within our borders? It's hard to know what our values truly are, if you consider the rhetoric of our elected leaders. They preach social justice while passing legislation to persecute the vulnerable. Perhaps that is what social justice means to such ideologues. How do we view more than two billion in poverty worldwide, populations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine exposed to ongoing conflict or the disproportionate number of people in developing countries vulnerable to climate change?

Despite all of our advances, every second child on the planet lives in poverty. Of the world’s 2.2 billion children there are 1 billion in poverty. 18,000 children (under 5) still die every day from poverty, hunger and preventable disease. As UNICEF articulated in 2000, these children,

die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.”

Do we consider that many of the problems felt beyond our borders persist as a result of inequality? Indeed, systemic inequality is capitalized upon by western corporate and governmental entities to maintain growth and accumulate wealth for the 1%. However unintentionally, we in the west are born with a perceived entitlement to benefit from this inequality, established hundreds of years ago, largely through slavery and the global domination and destruction of indigenous people groups.

Climate change, migration and disaster risk reduction:

"people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change."

Those most vulnerable; children, women, the elderly and the disabled, located in developing countries, already suffer disproportionately due to conflict and disaster. Needless to say, programs that address the underlying causes of this vulnerability have a significant impact on long term disaster risk. However, the current near-consensus towards technocratic solutions to poverty does little to reduce growing inequality and lack of individual freedom. Indeed, the solutions imposed by development experts often serve to increase vulnerability among the most marginalised in a society.

Extreme events force many more people from their homes than conflict, yet few governments are facing up to the potential of future mass migration. As of end-2013, 51.2million people were forcibly displaced worldwide. We cannot be entirely sure what the consequences will be of planetary boundaries being exceeded, but it is hardly a stretch to imagine that more people than ever would be forced to seek safe refuge from violent conflicts, stronger and more frequent natural hazards and food and water shortages.

Photo credit: worldmaritimenews

Perhaps the Hunger Games narrative isn’t so far-fetched.

Risk reduction holds a different meaning for the wealthy and for the poor. As renewable energy alternatives become accessible to all, entire industries are at risk. The opponents of freely available sustainable energy will fight on for their ‘right’ to collect profit in the years to come. Global agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership will attempt to reinforce structures designed purely for profit and domination. Whether it is energy generation or food production - sustainability and resilience for you and I come at a cost to the global elite. Sustainability demands that we moderate/reduce consumption (largely procure from established corporate elite) while resilience empowers ‘people’ to cope for themselves (thus reducing reliance upon elite derived/powered systems and products).

Sameness or Variety:

No amount of positivity or optimism prevents people dying of thirst and starvation daily. Meanwhile, the west gets fatter. We place our faith in business, in foreign aid, in development, to provide the solution. Are we wrong to assume that this system, created by corporations, banks and government, will act in the interests of humanity? We so easily swallow the narrative that says that ‘the others’ are out to ruin life as we know it- single mothers, unemployed youth, the disabled and asylum seekers. But does our existence really depend on protecting ourselves from these vulnerable groups? The lie is pervasive. Our leaders tell us to just believe, over and over again.

While 3 million people turn out to advocate for free speech in Paris, there is little outrage against what Joseph Conrad called "the merry dance of death and trade." As sections of Western society become more and more polarised and marginalised, the ability to empathise with ‘others’ is rapidly eroded, within and beyond our borders.

Current global systems (economic/social/moral etc.) are ideologically flawed; they assign power, wealth and resources to the few at a detriment to the many. These systems are also highly contemptuous of change. A healthy system should naturally transition through periods of creative destruction, allowing innovation and creativity to flourish. Instead, we have been programmed to favour growth and conservation at all costs, while protecting the status quo.

Voltaire and Inequality

Can we envisage a world where no one starves to death or dies of treatable disease in any given day, and where everyone has access to life’s basic necessities? Do the poor choose to remain poor?

‘The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.’ - Voltaire

If we truly do aspire to a more equitable and sustainable way of life, what needs to happen to make it a reality? Can current global systems deliver on such a vision or is such thinking ultimately utopian? The current status quo gives us a scenario where the poorest 10% of humanity account for just 0.5% ofconsumption while the wealthiest 10% account for 59%. The demand for global resources and strain on our environment does not arise due to the actions or inactions of the global poor. Economic distress is never caused by families on social welfare, it is caused by banks and corporations that effectively benefit from publicly sourced subsidies (source?). What is the tipping point for injustice, the last straw before moral outrage?

Is the very (western) way of life that we protect and treasure part of the global malaise? Are we so devoted to materialism, consumerism and individualism (the religions of the West, as defined by Russell Brand) that we would cast off all responsibility for the consequences of the flawed ideological underpinnings of empire and globalisation?

Voltaire’s oft-quoted and adapted words, ‘the best is the enemy of the good,’ in the poem La Begueule, are commonly used to justify failed systems or as pretext for trivial solutions. The correct meaning was in fact to warn against greed, envy and lack of gratitude. It was upon such a misconstrued meaning of Voltaire’s words that the Obama administration oversaw the robbery of US taxpayers to feed a reckless and greedy banking sector, as Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz points out. Consider this on a global scale...does the current economic system ‘require’ an abundant supply of the poor? Is growing inequality a positive thing, as argued by Kevin O’Leary? A 2014 report by Oxfam states that the richest 85 people in the world hold the same amount of wealth as the poorer half of humanity. Inequality is increasing all across the globe. The clear warning is that,

“when wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favour the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else.”

Poverty. Inequality. War. The military industrial complex. Human trafficking. Crony capitalism. Humanity requires drastic reorganisation. However, those who benefit from sameness will not make way for variety without resistance.