Category Archives: Politics

The ethical city: an idea whose time has come

Written by Brendan Barrett, RMIT University and originally published on The Conversation.


Globally, there is intense discussion about the future of urban life through the World Urban Campaign. The central proposition is that:

… the battle for a more sustainable future will be won or lost in cities.

Presumably, this is predicated on the fact that 54% of the world’s people live in cities, where 70% of global GDP is generated. By 2050 the urban population will have risen to 66%.

In parallel, following the Paris climate agreement, major cities are committing to measures designed to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The poster for this campaign should read “Coming to your city soon”.

It is clear 2016 will be the “urban year” as the global community prepares for the Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador, this October.

At Habitat III, governments will agree an urban agenda to guide global urban development over the next 20 years. The agenda is taking shape through preparatory meetings (the next one is in Indonesia in July), as well as regional and thematic meetings.

A series of 28 urban thinkers campuses has been organised across the globe, running until February 2016. One of the last of these is in Melbourne, Australia.

A world of challenges

We are all too familiar with the problems cities commonly face. These include rising house prices putting ownership beyond the reach of many, suburban sprawl, long commutes, traffic congestion, social problems, isolation and polarisation.

Melbourne leads the pack of Australian cities that rank highly for liveability, but they rate much more poorly for sustainability.
AAP/David Crosling

At the same time, Australian cities have real strengths. This is reflected in their performance in various rankings on liveability and quality of urban life. But we ought not assume that this situation is sustainable, or that we can lock in liveability.

Globally, cities face even greater challenges. In the global south, if you live in a city there is a one-in-three chance that you live in a slum.

Also, despite progress on the Millennium Development Goals, poverty is still our greatest urban concern. It is not limited to the south and has been growing across cities globally since the global financial crisis. Limited financial resources constrain the capacity of city administrations to respond to these challenges, especially in the face of austerity measures.

While that may seem like a pretty glum picture, there are reasons to be hopeful.

In a survey of 20 cities last year for the UN Global Compact Cities Program we identified many examples of civic leadership and urban innovations.

Related to this, in the US, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley at Brookings have described these innovations as a “metropolitan revolution”. They argue that local leaders are doing the hard work of growing the job market and making their communities more prosperous. They cite examples in New York, Portland, Houston and Miami.

In Europe, the Norwegian city of Oslo plans to be fossil-fuel-free by 2030. Utrecht is the first of several cities in the Netherlands planning trials in which they pay citizens a universal basic income.

Oslo aims to be a fossil-fuel-free city by 2030.
flickr/News Oresund, CC BY

Across the English Channel, Bristol is seeking to transform the economy by introducing a local currency. The Bristol pound is designed to strengthen business relationships within the city and to build trust.

What these cities and their leaders have recognised is that “business as usual” will not get us to where we need to be.

Technological innovation, institutional reform, financial investment and regulatory change are all part of the answer, especially as we seek to achieve development goals while ensuring we do not undermine our environmental sustainability. However, we may need to dig deeper. Something that we neglect is the need for changes in values at both the societal and individual levels.

Twisting Einstein’s famous quote somewhat, it is possible to assert that “we can’t solve problems by using the same value system that created them”.

Here is where the notion of the ethical city comes in.

What is the ethical city?

Ethics is concerned with what is “right, fair, just or good”, not necessarily what is most accepted as normal or expedient.

Most people will have heard of the term ethical corporation. It suggests that such businesses place certain key values and practices at the centre of their operations. This could include fairness, integrity, respect for the environment, elimination of discrimination, and so on.

Internationally, some of these key values are elaborated in the ten principles of the UN Global Compact. Thousands of companies have signed up. Mayors of cities and governors of regions can also sign up to these principles by sending a letter to the UN secretary-general.

Yet the term ethical city is rarely used, even though ethical considerations underpin how we plan and manage our cities. And the ethical values underpinning the vast majority of our decisions about city life are rarely made explicit.

Even so, in most cities we already see various measures designed to support ethical governance. These range from internal commissions to audit and check on performance through to measures to promote transparency and community participation in decision-making.

Urban leaders, administrators, planners, engineers and others are aware of the ethical ramifications of their work, have guidance to refer to and training when needed. Although sometimes people fall foul, the vast majority do not because they are seen to be doing the right thing.

But we must recognise that there is a dominant view of “business as usual” based on an embedded set of values. Good examples include how most cities are designed primarily to accommodate the car, how we work in the CBD and live in the suburbs, or how homelessness is seen as a fact of life in many cities.

How do we create a more ethical city?

Thought leaders like Peter Singer have done a lot to elaborate the importance of ethics in everyday life, especially with his book Practical Ethics. However, we live in utilitarian times.

More than ever, our cities need ethical leadership – good governance, transparency, public trust building and fairness. They need ethically based planning to deal with the complex challenges facing our communities. This depends on our willingness to tackle the tough questions around sustainability, resilience, economic vibrancy and inclusiveness.

There is also our role as citizens. What are our expectations of ourselves as ethical, engaged citizens? What do we expect and deserve, and what are we prepared to commit to each other in the ethical city? What kind of citizens do we need to be?

Most of all, if we end up agreeing that we need a city that cares, how do we navigate to this end in a world where private profit and consumption are kings and where the tenets of the ethical city – social inclusion, climate action, gender equity, rights of children and youth, and myriad other rights and needs – are lacking?

If this sounds like a new year dose of utopianism, think of cases that you could envisage in your city – from participatory budgeting, to crowd-funded social enterprises, to any number of people who decided “what should we do?”, then acted on it.


The Ethical Cities Urban Thinkers Campus, to be hosted at RMIT University in Melbourne on February 16, will explore the ethical city in relation to urban development, inclusion and rights, and resilience.The Conversation

Brendan Barrett, Research Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

RISING TEMPERATURES, RISING INEQUALITY AND CONDITIONS FOR REVOLUTION: THE DAWN OF THE ANTHROPOCENE

[Mike, from Watching the Deniers, has moved to a new location. I’m really enjoying his new work. With his permission, I’m planning to repost much of it. Originally posted here]

38-french-revolution-1789-granger

“The modern day external shocks are clear: energy depletion, climate change, ageing populations and migration. They are altering the dynamics of capitalism and making it unworkable in the long term…” Paul Mason, The End of Capitalism has Begun (The Guardian, 17 July 2015)

As the planet burns, wealth has been rushing up, not down

Three pieces of recent news should give all of us pause, as they tell us something about the nature of capitalism and the state of the world in it’s present form.

Firstly Oxfam’s recent report on the growing wealth divide in which it was revealed that 62 individuals own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people.

That’s not the most shocking thing about their report though: since 2010 the wealth of the 1% has been growing at an exponential rate while the wealth of the bottom third of humanity has decreased by trillions of dollars.

As we take a moment to ponder the implications of this massive transfer of wealth from, let’s consider a piece of “science” news.

The World Meteorological Organisation has just announced that 2015 was the hottest year on record:

The global average surface temperature in 2015 broke all previous records by a strikingly wide margin, at 0.76±0.1° Celsius above the 1961-1990 average. For the first time on record, temperatures in 2015 were about 1°C above the pre-industrial era, according to a consolidated analysis from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

The future, should we fail to act decisively now looks grim:

“We have reached for the first time the threshold of 1°C above pre-industrial temperatures. It is a sobering moment in the history of our planet, ” said Mr Taalas. ” If the commitments made during the climate change negotiations in Paris and furthermore a higher emission reduction ambition level is reached, we still have chance to stay within the maximum 2°C limit,” said Mr Taalas.

As the planet burns, wealth has been rushing up, not down.

The third piece of news? We’ve also ushered in a new geological age:

Humans have produced enough concrete to thinly pave the entire surface of the Earth, while carbon dioxide emissions are rising 100 times quicker than at any time during the past 800,000 years.

Such dramatic transformations of the planet are showing up in the world’s sediments and warrant the declaration of a new geological epoch – aptly known as Anthropocene to reflect humanity’s role – according to a new paper published in the journal Science.

The research, compiled by two dozen scientists and academics, identified planet-wide impacts ranging from nuclear fallout from weapons testing to mining that displaces 57 billion tonnes of material a year – or almost three times the amount of sediment carried by the world’s rivers.

What is one to make of these reports?

Welcome to the Anthropocene: where economics, environmental collapse and politics collide

Typically these pieces of information are presented separately, often buried among the middle pages of the remaining print newspapers in their op-ed sections.

Taken together they paint a picture of the world today: that of rising temperatures, rising inequality and burgeoning conditions for social upheaval.

Journalist Eugene Linden in his work “The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations” notes this repeating pattern throughout history. From the collapse of the Greenland Viking colonies, the climatic chaos of the Little Ice Ages or the fall of the Mayan kingdoms due to extreme drought, shifts in climate and weather often preempt and drive significant disruptions to human societies.

The concern is that we may not be adequately prepared for it:

“We have not been tested by climate change. Moreover, humans have a tendency to fit new information into familiar patterns. This may explain why so few people have noted that the climate began changing during the past two decades, and even fewer more have become alarmed…”

What is true of the climate, is also true and the growing disparity in wealth and the ecological destruction around us.

The best of times, the worst of times: conditions for social disruption? 

This wealth transfer, and the stealthy takeover of the planet by corporations, has been in progress for decades. It is a process that individually we have not noticed, nor seen how it was effected. And yet we are now living with the results of the free-market extremism of neo-libralism.

Greece’s former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, recently summed up this state of affairs in a recent TED talk:

“Democracy. In the West, we make a colossal mistake taking it for granted. We see democracy not as the most fragile of flowers that it really is, but we see it as part of our society’s furniture. We tend to think of it as an intransigent given. We mistakenly believe that capitalism begets inevitably democracy. It doesn’t.

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and his great imitators in Beijing have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it is perfectly possible to have a flourishing capitalism, spectacular growth, while politics remain democracy free. Indeed, democracy is receding in our neck of the woods, here in Europe.

Earlier this year, while I was representing Greece — the newly elected Greek government — in the Eurogroup as its Finance Minister, I was told in no uncertain terms that our nation’s democratic process — our elections — could not be allowed to interfere with economic policies that were being implemented in Greece. At that moment, I felt that there could be no greater vindication of Lee Kuan Yew, or the Chinese Communist Party, indeed of some recalcitrant friends of mine who kept telling me that democracy would be banned if it ever threatened to change anything…”

We live in an era of rapid technological, economic and social change. Some of these changes are empowering the individual and society, while others constrain them.

As the Anthropocene dawns we witness the conditions the proceeded the great revolutions of the past.

In this I am reminded of the French Revolution, and Dicken’s famous opening lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The Anthropocene; too obvious to ignore but pointless to linger upon

Making the news over the last couple weeks as been that geologists are now saying that our impact is so great that it could be recognised in the geology in distant times as a distinct change – enough to make a change of times. From the Holocene to the anthropocene.

It’s better last than never, I guess.

At the end of the day, these geological eras are artificial creations that are agreed upon to define certain fragments of Earth’s history; all with shared long-term trends of some sort, beginning and ending with a break from this trend.

When did the Anthropocene actually start? Our species have dramatically altered landscapes, species distributions / genetics (and even extinction) as well as the atmospheric chemistry for longer than recorded history.

What I became interested in when I moved to this blog was not simply the recognition of the human-era, but instead the acknowledgement and ownership of the fact.

We can continue to deny, denounce and vilify the human influence on our biosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and atmosphere or we can become worthy of our status as a force of nature. The former is to keep the blindfold on, press down harder on accelerator and ignorantly hope for the best. The latter can lead to a prosperous, entrepreneurial and unimaginable future.

I wanted to start to paint a picture of what the latter could look like. Unfortunately, I allowed myself to fall into the rabbit holes of insular thinking and politics. While a natural progression, as climate change influences both, it still wasn’t helpful.

We are a force of nature and one that has thus far remained blind and detrimental. I want us to own up to it and find the possibilities exhilarating, as I already do.

Now that the case is strong enough for the Anthropocene to be “official”, let’s rush from that to a new one; one that we create with the focus on a thriving, prosperous planet.

Australia has a new PM, or does it?

Today Australia awoke to a new Prime Minister.

If anyone thinks that their problems are solved, they’re kidding themselves.

We might expect the polls to reflect an improvement for the Coalition. But my guess is that they won’t be as much an improvement as that we saw with the last spill.

For, the problem wasn’t just one man, one front bench or even one party. The problem is that the political arena is still the battle grounds for the wars of last century. A pair of Hipster glasses doesn’t help outdated ideologs speak to the younger voters.

“Kevin07” was so successful because, on the surface it looked like a leader had got with the times. In practice, it was the same song and dance as ever before.

The battle between “fat cats” and unions doesn’t inspire younger voters like it did their parents and grandparents. There has been enough royal commissions and investigations to conclude that both sides are as bad and irrelevant as the other.

Even capitalism itself has lost its glow to gen-Y and Millennials. Did I just hear people gasp and collapse in the offices of the IPA?

Think about it. Aussies now starting or just establishing a career find themselves with a terrifying student load debt (if they could even stomach that future and went to uni). The prospects of home ownership within an hour’s drive from most jobs is practically impossible and anything outside that region is an overpriced, monotonous, sprawling hell-hole, made and sold like mobile phones.

In their childhood, they watched successive state and federal governments flog off any service of value for seemingly little return. In selling off communication utilities especially, it has meant that they now pay top dollar for suboptimal services.

They pay a premium on most technology simply because they are Australian.

In short, they entered a mature capital marketplace that presents them few opportunities. They lost the game before they had even started.

If this is the best their governments and the marketplace can offer them, why should they defend either or the ideology behind them?

Moreover, for the new Prime Minister, he finds himself part of a scene stuck on repeat for the last eight years. The man he ousted was in many ways a victim of his own success.

Being such a potent critic of the other party, he needed to demonstrate how much more improved he was when he had his turn. Removing a couple wealthy business taxes and being hard of refugees can only got him so far. If that was his entire vision, the term should have ended a few months in.

The voting base is changing quicker than our major parties can evolve and they have so far failed to understand why the ensuing teams post-Howard have failed to find legs.

They haven’t even begun to start a discussion with younger voters. They’ve only talked down to them and blame them. Anyone with a child in their twenties knows just how far that will get you (even if your tech-savvy and say it with hashtags).

It’s for that reason that I’m stuck on how to wind up this post. I can’t say (in one way or another) that it’ll be interesting to see how this next leadership plays out, because I doubt it will be interesting. I guess all that I can say is that I hope we’ve past the trough and that they have learnt enough to see the need to revise their party policies, on all sides of parliament

Refugee crisis: are we better than that?

It’s good to see that, globally, we are finally motivated to care about the plight of the growing number of refugees.

In a heart beat, we stopped calling them the sterile term “asylum-seekers” (or more idiotically, illegal asylum-seekers) and recognised them for what they are.

What changed our perception were, primarily two photographs; one of an emotional father on the beach and another, more horrible; a lifeless child on another beach.

“Aren’t we better than this?” many have been asking.

No. No, we’re not better than this. If we were, actions would never have led us to such conclusions.

We’ve had more than a decade of scapegoating refugees as potential terrorists, the eroders of cultural identity and even the cause of job loss or economic weakness. Even since this shift in attitude, our own PM has stated that by helping the refugees we hold in detention camps, we would be rewarding people smugglers.

(A word to the wise: the people smugglers already have the money, they don’t care about the future of these people.)

Refugees are the easy option for that ails your political sphere. Afterall, how often do they have enough of a voice to defend themselves?

We are only ever as good as our behaviour, including, more damningly, those voted in to direct future actions. Polls shouldn’t be just a signal for anxious politicians, but also a gauge of popular attitude.

Policies geared towards coming down hard on refugees have remained popular for years.

No, we’re not better than that.

Sure, a voice of defence for refugees has lingered in the national discourse, but this has been drowned out by red-faced rants wrapped in a makeshift Aussie flag cape. Morality has long tried to be entertained, only to be rejected, on most platforms.

So, again, we’re not better than that.

If we cared about the risks of boat arrival, we would have long recognised that these refugees are not idiots. Just like us, they know just how risky this venture is. Moreover, they often burn the last of their meagre cash supplies on the gamble.

Given a genuine alternative in an Asian country, say a processing office that gave them real hope of refuge, the whole “business model” of the smugglers would be undermined.

Because risky behaviour remains the preferable option also tells us that we are not better than that.

If we were better than this, we would have been proactive, not reactive after some gruesome photos went viral.

It’s always easier to ignore a problem than to face it. Our willingness to warp the problem and to blame the victims speaks volumes to what we will condone.

My only hope is that this is not a mere wisp of concern to quickly be lost the next time a politician points the finger and screams “bogeyman!”

Don’t be hoodwinked.

Allow this to be another step forward in our moral development.

Ultimately, this is only the start of the problem. Not only are the players involved seemed determined to annihilate the Middle East, but food and water security will increasingly shift where people will need to be, simply to live.

Without tolerance, we will fail to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Abbott plays blame games to defy the democratic process

The fallacy is better known as a Red Herring.

I know that I said I would move away from politics (primarily because the topic is career limiting to say the least – good luck democracy!) but how could I avoid the relentless march into absurdity that encapsulates the mob entrusted to make decisions on our behalf?

The straw that broke this camel’s back is the waste of taxpayer funds to advertise a red herring as obvious as dog’s… um…

Our fearless (if myopia can be called that) leader unveiled a mobile billboard yesterday. It reads; “East West Link Scrapped and you’re… Stuck in traffic! Blame Labor.”

Who is he kidding? It will no doubt stir up rage in the average fan of Andrew Bolt, but arguably most Victorian’s get that another toll road is not what the state needs at this point in time.

Actually, it’s not subjective; Victorians knew what they were voting for in the 2014 election; The East West Link (Coalition) or Rail upgrades (Labor). The parties made no secret that this was one of the main contests and the East West Link lost.

Victoria, not just Labor, rejected this toll road.

Building new roads instead of improving public transport is at odds with 21st century urban planning. Our devoting to roads is weird. If we continue to be stuck in traffic, it’s because our Federal government refuses to fund what the people voted for (and again, democracy takes a hit).

To give an example, Eastlink caps a one way trip at $5.84. If you used CityLink to the CBD from the Monash Freeway, one way would cost you $7.20. A return trip would land you $11.68 or $14.40 respectively, with the stop-start pain of peak hour on either the Eastern or Monash Freeways.

By contrast, a full day trip that covers zones 1 & 2 (most regions) will set you back a modest $7.52, without additional fuel, wear-and-tear and the overwhelming threat of being involved in the next accident (too often the result of impatience).

With Melbourne’s population growth projections expecting as much as 7.8 million people by 2051, we can’t expect each person to ride alone in our cars to work. No amount of roads could cope.

The people stuck in traffic are those who don’t have access to good public transport and those who need their cars for work. Reinforce the public transport system and most of the former will convert, leaving the roads for the latter.

And yet, here we are with a PM refusing to part with promise funds to the state. It’s a bitter revenge for rejecting his state counterparts and more toll roads that we don’t need or want.

Instead, he’s loose with cash for a political stunt that flies in the face of Victorian voters. He does so, of course, not to play state politics, but to try to get one state one side in the lead up to next year’s election. It’s negative rhetoric and what he does best.

A better person might acknowledge the will of the people and act accordingly.

We can only hope that this red herring is transparent to Victorian voters. We can hope that they show this PM, just as they did the former Premier, that they will not cave into 20th century thinking.

When you’re stuck in traffic, I hope it gives you enough time to reflect on who is truly to blame.

Movie Wish List for #auspol – What they missed out on as children

For a whole host of reasons, I’ve been unable, even reluctant, to write.

Firstly, the survey flopped. I managed to get around 40 people to sign it within the first couple days. However there wasn’t enough interest to obtain 2nd and 3rd generation participation. All up only 50 people signed it which simply wasn’t enough to comment on.

Secondly, the job front has been stressful and disheartening. That it has been relentless has meant that it has required more and more of my time and energy. I’ve even wishfully mused over monetising NewAnthro through minimal advertisements and looking into Patreon so that I can dedicate my entire efforts to it. This would allow me to move into different media (eg. video production, podcasting, etc) and genuine reporting.

Of course, I’m enough of a realist to see that I don’t have weight enough for this bud to fruit.

Thirdly, the last year in politics has left me speechless. I don’t know if I’m more surprised that my predictions have largely been proven right or that enough of the population (46% is not a mandate, mind you) didn’t see it coming. From Pyne’s attempted wordplay of ‘schools’ or school’s’ regarding funding, to Morrison’s mute reply to every horrendous truth that we eventually learn of on his watch…

Moreover, that many members in the general public honestly think any refugee could be considered a “queue jumper” and that sending their children alone half way around the world is anything but traumatic (only achievable in that it is less traumatic than leaving them at risk of death in a war zone) or that our disadvantaged are “bludgers” is a disgraceful badge on the Aussie culture.

Perhaps I’m the odd one.

I’m not sure what might follow with my writing. However there is one thing I want to say for now.

I suspect our political class collectively suffered a deprived childhood that could have helped to make them better people. Here are a few movies / TV series they could have seen that may have helped them to learn valuable moral lessons. It’s by no means a complete list; please feel free to suggest others.

Movie Life lesson
The Emperor’s new groove Compromise and cooperation (indeed even building regulations) can lead to greater positive outcomes for all parties than pure selfish, individualistic, pursuits.
Aladdin While our political class might have the lesson “bee yourself” sorted, this only applies if ‘yourself’ is someone willing to share with those less fortunate.
The Little Mermaid Be wary of making deals with powerful magnates. They are where they are only because their deals favour themselves more than anyone else.
The Lion King Without genuine, fair and empathetic leadership, scoundrels take over and erode the quality of life for all.
Full House / The Brady Bunch / The Smurfs Pretty much every moral question imaginable over their many seasons.
Bob the Builder / Thomas the tank engine Hard work and consideration for those around you builds lasting personal and professional relationships.
Gremlins Prevention is more cost effective than a cure. This is directly concerned with nutrition and the advice of experts, but applicable elsewhere.
The Dark Crystal Draining the vital resources from the vulnerable is only a short-term move which will lead to escalating social problems.
The Labyrinth Imprisoning children to get your way will ultimately outrage those you seek to impress.
Spiderman With great power comes great responsibility
Snow White Obsessing over popular opinion leads to poor decision-making.
Pinocchio Telling lies only leaves you looking like an ass.
Ghost busters Adequate funding of science, even if you don’t personally understand the field in question, is essential in mitigating larger problems in the long run.