THE speed at which a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) is growing has for the past 60-70 years come to be considered the most important measure of whether a country is succeeding or failing. But what if our most cherished notions about what makes a nation successful are wrong? What if economists who lead the obsession with this metric are, in fact, charlatans?
There have been some very prominent critics of our obsession with GDP growth.
In 1968, Robert Kennedy noted that GDP includes the costs of air pollution, road accidents, managing crime, militarism and environmental destruction, but does not include the “decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike … the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials”. He concluded that GDP “measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.
The public debate about climate change is an aberration because we do not have debates in newspapers about the validity of medical science, physics, aeronautics, geology or genetics. So what is different about climate science?
Two things, perhaps: its conclusions demand that most of us make significant adjustments to our lifestyles, and it threatens major vested interests: the fossil fuel industry that supplies the world’s coal, gas and oil.
But, like the tobacco industry before it, the fossil fuel industry has funded a vast campaign of lies and disinformation to undermine public trust in science. To understand the so-called climate debate, one must understand this context, rarely if ever acknowledged in South Africa. A debate fuelled mostly by propaganda is not a real debate.
As Jeremy Grantham, a leading US fund manager, observes: “We have the energy industry — the only other vested interest as powerful as that of the financial world — egging people on to be confused about the issues. They do it very successfully, with foundations with misleading names, think-tanks like the Cato Institute and the Hudson Institute, whose job in life appears to be propagandise anything and everything that is useful for energy interests.”
PERHAPS, one day, an article on climate change will be written that tells us that things are getting better. Sadly, this is not that article and that day, if it ever comes, is a long way in the future. Though climate change has largely disappeared from the public agenda in South Africa since the 17th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP-17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban in December 2011, the problem itself remains stubbornly immune to fluctuations in media attention.
Two recent climate-change updates from the World Bank and International Energy Agency have restated the scale and dangers of the problem. The reports should make anyone younger than 50 worry about the future, because, on present emissions trends, significant effects are predicted in just the next 30 years. Some of the worst effects will hit sub-Saharan Africa.
Twenty years after this country chose to end relentless violence and injustice by introducing political democracy, our rightwing government is ready to roll out the troops and subdue mineworkers by force of arms. But the only lasting remedy for the discontent on the mines is to make South Africa an economic democracy.
Currently, South Africa is being crushed by economic totalitarianism. Few of us realise this, and few of us know that there are alternatives, many of them up and running in other countries.
Economic democracy is about ensuring that everyone in society, not just the elites, has a meaningful share in the wealth of the country, and a voice in deciding how that wealth is shared. It’s a term that has emerged from nearly two centuries of worker mobilisation in Europe, the United States and Latin America.
It’s particularly necessary in South Africa because of our history of colonialism and apartheid. To paraphrase Walter Rodney, most South Africans are not underdeveloped, they have been underdeveloped. This means that real development will be impossible so long as the institutions responsible for underdevelopment persist. Continue reading ‘SA must build economic democracy’
Published 18 November 2012 by the Sunday Times (in print, but not online)
Since the tragic massacre at Marikana, there’s been increasing discussion of the problem of South Africa’s terrifying inequality. But commentators and government representatives get rather shy when it comes to talking about real solutions. They take refuge in calls for ‘solidarity’, ‘symbolic steps’, ‘dialogue’ and, as ever, ‘poverty reduction’.
These calls are at best timid and ignorant of the real nature of inequality, and at worst, evasive.
Eight thousand kilometres from Nkandla, the Uruguayan president, Jose Mujica, eschews his official residence for his wife’s shabby old farmhouse, and gives a large portion of his salary to the poor. That’s real solidarity.
But since we’re not yet seeing that kind of solidarity here, let’s talk frankly about two things: Firstly, the ways in which the very existence of excessive wealth actually creates poverty, and secondly, what some real solutions might look like. Continue reading Fix inequality with a maximum wage
Published in Business Day, 19 November 2012
THE other day, I spotted a small flurry of activity just outside my front door. A gecko had died and its body was covered in black ants. Within days, the ants reduced it to a shell of crumbling skin.
The world is full of beings and processes that support us in ways we take for granted, just as some take for granted their domestic workers. Yet this symphony of all life on Earth, “biodiversity”, is profoundly threatened. The word is almost designed to sound inconsequential. Yet biodiversity is the sum and wonder of all species on Earth — perhaps all species in the universe.
Last month, the Convention on Biological Diversity met in India. The world barely noticed, which is amazing compared with the attention given to climate change, because the biodiversity crisis is more advanced than the climate crisis.
You’ve probably heard it said a hundred times that South Africa has one of the world’s best constitutions. But do we have the world’s best parliament? Hm…
So what would a really great parliament look like?
Well, we’d probably have members of parliament (MPs) who run strong constituency offices and are visible in the communities they represent. They would be standing up regularly for the rights of the vulnerable. Like MPs in the UK and members of congress in the US, they’d have no hesitation in criticising the leaders of their own parties or big businesses that abuse their power and influence. But unlike US congresspeople, they would not be receiving enormous amounts of money from special interests and handing out endless favours in return. Unlike the British government, they would not be giving more attention to the needs of bankers than to those of ordinary people.
We have good people in our parliament, but who knows of a South African MP like that? Anyone? So why don’t we have a parliament like that?