Stockholm Syndrome for ideas: Why environmental and social debates are dripping with hostility

We’re all prisoners of Plato’s Cave.

To give the most brief explanation of Plato’s cave; we’re born unaware and as we reach adult years, we have developed a kind of Stockholm syndrome towards the conclusions we have reached over our lifetime, however poorly informed they may be. And, we will violently protect these conclusions as well.

I disagree with Plato on one point – no-one is ever entirely free from the cave.

For instance, I believe that I endeavour to learn daily from science, literature and history. But I know I remain ignorant to a great many subjects. Learning one subject comes at the cost of the ignorance of others and there are other subjects – such as gender / racial discrimination – which I never fully understand, given my gender and race.

I, we, everyone, remains a prisoner.

Realising this has helped me to adjust my interpretation of how many respond to the environmental and social problems we face.

On topics such a climate change, vaccination, gender / racial / marriage equality, we’ve all witnessed the vicious nature of opponents. It’s not really maliciousness aimed at us, but hostility towards ‘images’ that challenge their ‘shadows’.

I’ll give you an example case, primarily regarding progressive gender equality.

Loss of advantage

Recently, I saw an article appear in my news feed of Gavin McInnes resorting to fairly juvenile name calling in response to Waleed Aly’s comments.

McInnes makes clear his world views with his constant comments around masculinity, chauvinism, feminism / the social status of women and how the actions of the daughter reflect her father.

Further, his noted experience being around wealthy men has clearly exposed him to just one tiny group of people: women who look past men and to their wallets and men who look past women’s minds and to their bodies.

The insults used by McInnes demonstrate all of this in how they hark back to the puffed chest, member measuring masculinity of yesteryear.

Like me, you might find his views abhorrent, but they deserve greater attention.

Stepping back a few generations, being born a white male in the West instantly meant that your chances of success were above average, when compared to all women and other ethnic and racial groups.

Women expected unwanted attention and were taught to tolerate it. Domestic violence wasn’t spoken of and women found it hard to leave a relationship.

Basically, everything was in its place for white men to conclude that he was the master of his destiny.

Social reform over the twentieth century has progressively chiselled away at this pedestal.

Don’t get me wrong, it still exists. However it is not so lofty that, say a man of darker skin or a woman would be excluded from becoming a US president.

Privilege is no longer guaranteed for one subgroup.

This fall from grace is so great that the leveling of privilege feels like disadvantage to some.

The anger too over “political correctness” is very much the same: It’s not actually about what can legally be said, but that our moral values have shifted so much that some, once common points of view, are now deemed offensive. It’s not political correctness, but moral decency. The complaints come from resenting being on the wrongside.

Politically, what we’re experiencing across the west is, in part, a revolt against progressive modernity, where race and gender mean less in success.

The shadows of yesterday were more comforting than the images of today…. for some.

What now?


Remember, we’re all prisoners of Plato’s Cave.

For me, I hope that McInnes eventually meets enough genuine people who respect him for who he is and not for badges of success. Eventually, it may illuminate more light on how superficial the relationships he seems to glorify actually are.

An anti-vaxxer is often a scared parent who wants to protect their children. The misinformation they have been imprisoned by is terrifying. There is nobility to be found in their actions, even if misguided.

And with climate change, the shadows paint a story that human condition is only improved through growth, carbon emissions and industry. You hear it in the refuting argument; “they want to send us back to the stone age!”

We are on the edge of a new frontier. Our climate, industry and societies will necessarily be different from what we are familiar with. Change is difficult. Any loss, or perceived loss, leads to grieving. A loss of ignorance often means a loss of perceived comfort.

If we can remain mindful of Plato’s Cave, hopefully, we develop productive strategies to help bring everyone along to the new frontier: the Anthropocene.

Bigger ways to lose it all: the climate, natural resources and even what’s ours

“If we develop a global nuclear economy with synthesised hydrocarbon fuels, or truly effective electric batteries for motor vehicles, why the hell not buy a bigger SUV next year?”

This comment by another has since remained with me – even inspiring its own cartoon.


Because, of course, bigger is better. Provided we can eradicate this pesky climate concern, we’re onto something great (please note my sarcasm).

The trouble with such a linear, dare I say blinkered, perspective is that sustainable energy is not our only concern. If the Nine Planetary Boundaries are taken as a fair indicator of the state our planet, climate change is actually in fourth place, with biosphere integrity (genetic diversity), biochemical flows and land use changes all more heavily modified and/or eroded.

With climate change included, these four represent the major threats to long term prosperity. All are the result of the “bigger is better” mentality.

Bigger cities and farms, and more produce and energy use, equal greater economic activity.

When efficiency is improved, we don’t make savings, we simply make more, exploiting resources more quickly.

Stocks up! GDP up!… up, up, up!!

Growth is the modern god, more tangible than any other before it.

The blessed, after all, are showered in fortune. Those who doubt it deserve their meager station. Oh, how wonderful is the union of neo-liberal individualism and meritocracy.

But how big can a city get before the term “city” loses all meaning? How many hectares can be converted from ecosystems to monocultures before we lose all bio-services (that underpin so much of our economic activity)?

And we openly scoff at the loss of biodiversity when the compounds found in plants, fungi and animals (especially venom) have probably saved each of our life at one point or another.

With another species lost, so too could a lifesaving compound.

But we need to be bigger to stay afloat!

When will we exhaust the resources we dig up in wild places – the metals, minerals and hydrocarbons – and be forced to turn our mining activities to sifting through yesteryear’s junk yards for the same resources?

When will we remove the white lines down our roads, merging two lanes into one to fit the colossal SUV’s just waiting for a primed market?

I’m personally uncomfortable with such naive economic philosophies we broadly celebrate. And I fail to see how we can even start to talk meaningfully about taking action on biodiversity loss, land degradation or climate change, while still holding out on “endless growth”.

Just because it is, doesn’t mean that it should be.

We need to start thinking differently about how we interact with our common natural resources.

Some years ago, Michael Tobis suggested that we encourage much more economic activity towards non-material (or renewable) sources, such as art and entertainment. Given that higher density cities can achieve greater efficiencies, that automation is reducing the need for full time work and the concerns mentioned above, this could develop into hubs of economic activity while reducing such sources of stress.

And then there’s the thinking of people, such as Epicurus who said, “To become rich, do not add to your account, but subtract from your desires.

Materialism brings loneliness and anxiety. We feel a strong want for so many things we don’t actually need and, moreover, are only momentarily fulfilling once they are obtained.

Learning to quiet the inner voice of trivial want makes us richer on a number of fronts: Of course, without spending, one has additional income to spend on more meaningful things (or to work less). And then there is the other side as well; if you desire less, you already have most of what you need and want.

This is the proper outcome of having wealth – the amount accrued to subjective and trivial, the outcome (i.e. contentment with one’s lot) more objective.

We may think we want to be a millionaire, but that is just the tool used to quench our desires. The same thing can be achieved, for a fraction of the cost, through the taming of want, while at the same reducing our anxieties, pointless efforts and vanities.

With our death, material stuff and wealth pass on to others or erode to nothing. We don’t own any of it, but borrow it for a brief speck of time.

The only thing we do own is our time. It’s ours to spend however we see fit. Unlike wealth, once it’s gone, it can never again be reclaimed.

We could waste our fleeting moments, stressing over our desk and work floors on how we can acquire a bigger SUV, house and other soon-to-be-forgotten goods (made more so by planned obsolescence). Or we could treasure the moments we save to hold our loved ones, laugh with old friends and build bonds with new friends.

Before bigger meant better, it was often defined by greed and gluttony.

Spend your time preciously and, in turn, tread a little lighter on our limited resources.

Who deserves equal rights: One reason why so many social and environmental debates fail

Thoughts 2The further you chip away at the essential meaning of any social structure, two fundamental causes appear: guiding regulations must aim (however successfully) to further the well-being and opportunity of its free citizens.

Now, what defines a citizen within the population has often changed within societies – take slaves, gender or race discrimination, for example. Likewise the political and economic philosophies  behind these societies have also been as varied. However, the fundamental causes of such a unified population remains the same.

Recently, I’ve noticed an increase of opinion articles challenging the suitability of the neo-liberal philosophy.

Personally, I don’t hold a preference towards any system, provided it meets the objectives of improved well-being and opportunity for its citizens. In some society neo-liberal philosophies may achieve these ends, but they certainly do not today in any country I’m aware of.

I know I will be challenged on this conclusion.

And, I also know that neither my opponent nor myself would actually be wrong. The fault would be, as it so often is, that we would not be arguing the same thing.

The whole discrepancy starts with the view of the citizen.

Being more equal

Coupled with neol-liberalism is what is known as Meritocracy. The basic idea behind meritocracy is that the better the person, the more they are showered in fortune. There is something special, or it is the result of endless sacrifice, that leads our betters to their natural economic status.

Yet, over time, we find an increasing divide, not only economically, but socially, between the super rich and the rest, as meritocratic and neo-liberal principles couple in new policy.

For the so-called “land of the free,” it was interesting to witness in recent years the hot debate over basic universal healthcare for all US citizens. In much the same fashion, our own Medicare is always under threat of erosion for much the same reasons:

Why should the successful pay taxes so that society’s “losers” can receive free or subsidised healthcare?

The economic “leaners” as they are called in Australia.

This perspective effectively defines two groups within the population and, to return to the premise above about free citizens, I can only conclude that those who cannot afford adequate health care are not truly citizens with equal rights and dignities compared to their wealthy counterparts.

Beyond subsistence

I happen to disagree with this conclusion. Citizenship in my eyes applies to our whole species, regardless of wealth, race, gender, religion, age or ability.

A society I stand for is one that protects all people from cruelty, slavery and discrimination based on physical / cultural attributes (as opposed to one’s choices). It is a society that provides fair opportunity to all members, based on equal access to quality health care, education and essential utilities / amenities, which services as a fair starting platform for all to aspire to grow. Rights and dignities in such a society are universal, with law enforcers fair and balanced.

As has been said in numerous ways before; how many potential geniuses were snuffed out in the slums before they could ever spark? How fickle is fortune who sends so many falling from grace?

Providing a life beyond subsistence for all, provides greater intellectual capital for industry, a safety net from misfortune, and dignity for those of us who could never stand alone, or who time has exhausted.

The bad cocktail

Maybe neo-liberal ideas could work, if the society held strong social values to champion the lives and opportunities of their neighbours over favour and fortune.

“The wise are informed in what is right, the inferior in what will pay,” being such an example of this idea from Confucius.

Maybe Meritocracy could work, if it truly valued the efforts of all members equitably, for no-one is worthless (service providers shouldn’t need penalty rates just to make ends meet while massive profits from the business activity flow elsewhere).

No, neo-liberal and meritocracy are not compatible philosophies unless we conclude that not all members of a population are true citizens, which of course, I don’t.

And it is the latter – meritocracy – with which I most thoroughly disagree.

Social science shows us that wealth, beyond a given point, is superfluous and even potentially harmful – leading to worse outcomes even for the most wealthy among us.

Seneca also adds, “No man, however, enjoys a blessing that brings anxiety; he is always trying to add a little more. While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it. In short, he ceases to be master and becomes a steward.”

Forwarding on from my previous posts on loneliness and slavery, here again, I find common fault with our social practices.

The endlessly hot debates over environmental management, climate change, social wealthfare, refugees, wages / taxes and even same-sex marriage have a level of commonality, with the source being this bad cocktail. Who is a citizen, or deserves to be a citizen, with the same universal rights?

Both sides of the debate fail to understand what it is they are actually debating, because they address the symptom and not the cause. Regardless of the topic, we are only trying to define who is eligible for citizenship within our personal world view.

We will continue to fail to answer any of these issues, leading to needless suffering, unless we start with the central cause to them all.

Who deserves to be our equals?

Slavery and Climate Change: the same question we were never good at answering

Carbon slaves

“…[if] the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.”
Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part 4. (350 BCE)

Aristotle was correct. The day that brute human labour was no longer needed to achieve productive output, slaves would not be wanted.

I don’t believe for a second that there was a sudden uprising in human morality that led to the end of legalised ownership of people. In fact, in the quoted book above, Aristotle himself notes that, more than two thousand years ago, there were some people who thought slavery unjust.

No, our species has never felt entirely comfortable with slavery, but worked hard to justify it while they thought it necessary to reach a given standard of living.

For instance, Aristotle argued in Politics that it freed superior men from brutish toil, allowing them to become upright statesmen.

He wasn’t alone, of course. Many of the ancient thinkers and even The Bible not only condoned slavery, but provided guidance on how to most appropriately, that is, “morally”, master one’s human property.

There’s no surprised that it only went out of fashion with the Age of Enlightenment, the birth of modern science and the accompanying technological revolution. Rather quickly we had machines that methodically completed such tasks without the setbacks of slaves.

Indeed we could finally weave without guiding hands.

The end of legalised slavery was not a win for human morality, but merely a byproduct of changing technology and economic activity. Had advances in thought and technology been a century earlier or later, the results would be much the same, except with different names to the champions in our history books.

How does this relate to climate change?

It’s more than similes and parallels, but entirely the same problem.

For decades, academics have tried to argue the case, from evidence alone, as to why we should be concerned about growing carbon emissions and their impact on our fruitful (and very stable) Holocene climate.

Equally, the moral argument has grown ever louder for the rights of future people as well as the more vulnerable developing nations of today.

Yet, here we are, at 2016, with little more than token mitigation gestures to show for all the education and moral discussion.

The fundamental underlying problem is the same as with slavery: How can we maintain the standard of living we have, and expect to enjoy, without the cheap energy we currently exploit?

With human stock, the answer was only found when machines could fill the gap and business as usual could continue.

The underlying question took thousands of years to answer in the case of slavery. Why should we believe societies today to be any better with, again, answering the same problem, from a different energy source?

We must expect that the answer will be technological, not in education, or through morals or an uprising in, say, a minimalistic culture.

I know that many of us feel uncomfortable in betting on a “techno-fix” but human nature, as illustrated through our recorded history, leaves us with that as the most likely method for success.

To Supercede the Industrial Revolution…

Accepting that research and technological advancement are the only way to meaningfully mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to unavoidable climate change isn’t to handball the problem off to academics and industry so we can sit back and enjoy a cup of tea.

To act quickly requires, no, demands, public will.

Votes and the wallet don’t just speak, they shout.

Who we choose to represent us and what we choose to purchase both influence research and development. This is the democratic power we have in capitalistic countries.

Further, we know that climate change has, and will continue to have, significant impact on our global economy. To Invest in research and technology to replace the current carbon emitting systems is to invest in future prosperity.

We either let future climates make us poor or envision new markets, new niches and new ways of living for future wealth.

Thus the real champions to tackle climate change will come from the same group who led us to the problem – the entrepreneurs. Others might be remembered for great speeches and good policies, but it will be the entrepreneurs who will not only make these ideas reality, but also make them profitable, household names.

Slavery didn’t end because we worked to replace human hands with mechanics, but because of the reverse; new machines were seen to suit these tasks and were cheaper per unit of output.

Because our ancestors justified slavery, it wasn’t addressed until it was rendered unnecessary.

If we take a similar approach with climate change, we will be extremely poor before we face the question and thus be in a position unable to answer it. There’s a strong economic incentive to invest in finding the answer today.

Moreover, the so-called “debate” is rendered mute. We’re no longer pulling the moral or intellectual reins, but instead paving the path many steps ahead. That’s how progress is primarily achieved, as history teaches us.

Wars of ideology have never led us to prosperous futures. They only lead to a loss of life, wealth and intellectual freedom. The dreamer paved the way for the electrical light, radio and the aircraft.

The future is the entrepreneurs’ canvas while the ideologue does nothing but anchor us to the past. Climate change is the problem for the indefinite future.

If the car would drive and the city live without carbonised fossils to power them, the nation wouldn’t want fossil fuels nor the citizen the combustion engine.

Nothing but junk: How we buy up loneliness

A recent Lifeline survey found that the majority of respondents felt lonely. Even more respondents believed that loneliness was on the rise.

For me, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes to mind.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs (click for source)
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (click for source)

We live with the endless pursuit of stuff.

Stuff is suppose to make us entertained and more desirable to others. Stuff fills our homes and our spare time. Stuff weighs upon our anxieties.

Yet, to return to Maslow, beyond basic comfort (eg. shelter, warmth etc) and safety, much of the stuff is pointless.

We are sold on the idea that brands provide us with esteem, but does anyone really respect others more because they wear or hold a certain brand?

Even if the answer is yes, is this genuine esteem; after all, its attention is not the result of the person in any way, but only due to the badge they hold? Envy would be a better name for it, but more often, the types of people we would prefer to respect us are not the types of people so caught up in such trivialities as branding.

Brand association also means we spend a lot more on stuff when the generic alternative is just as good or, where the item is actually superfluous, we could live better without it entirely.

Self-actualisation too is not found in stuff. In fact the opposite is often true.

The advertisement shows us the driver cruising on empty roads through forests by sunset, and never the repayment schedule that leaves them pinned to the office desk.

Self-actualisation demands minimal overheads and expensive items that require undue attention and protection. The aim is to have opportunity to learn what fuels the fire in our hearts and minds as well as to provide us with the power to pursue these personal interests.

I entered into the discussion of environmental management from a natural sciences avenue, but the more I’ve learnt, the more I’ve come to realise that the problem is cultural. We are generally unfulfilled and needlessly isolated in a world of abundance and opportunity. We admire people that we typically don’t like and suffer endlessly from buyer’s remorse.

All the while, we churn over resources ever faster, quickly filling up garbage tip after garbage tip. The sigh of disappointment grows, pumping ever more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere and we are left paralysed, unable to stop it.

The valley of lost dreams (click for source)
The valley of lost dreams (click for source)

The problem isn’t new. Thinkers have long recognised that stuff does not bring happiness. Seneca, Epicurus and Lao Tzu are all examples of such thinkers who warned us thousands of years ago.

We are told that we want this stuff, but we fail to listen to the inner self as to what we actually need: The laughter of good friends over lively conversation. The affection of one in particular. To master something for no other reason but the enjoyment of it. To tread on new grounds.

To live.

To achieve a higher level of joy in life, it starts with recognising that the most rewarding goals are not found in material stuff. We need to focus on friendships and pursuing our hobbies.

Rather than a new pair of designer sunglasses, buy a $15 pair of sunnies and spend the rest on a BBQ with mates.

When your mobile plan is up, keep your phone if it’s otherwise fine (or replace it with a reasonable one you can buy outright), move to a SIM only plan and use the money you save to have regular movie nights with close friends once a month.

Reassess the house and car for functionality over prestige.

Make “work less, live more” central to all your future planning.

You’ll feel better for it.

Storrar and the redfaced middle: When we have it so easy that we forget how to do it.

It seems that everyone in Australia is talking about Duncan Storrar. A number of articles relating to him appear on my news feed. Without a doubt, his question has hit a sensitive national nerve.

Regardless of ones political or economic views, the fight that has erupted points out to me that we are universally unhappy with the current system.

I’m inclined to tip my hat to people, such as Wilkinson and Pickette, with their research behind the book ‘The Spirit Level’. In short, with moderate inequality, the nation’s economy flows more freely between all contributors than where we have super rich (who, by definition, remove significant amounts of the nation’s GDP into personal accounts) and entrenched poor.

I think of money like the blood of a nation. Clots are bad. Flow is good.

That said, one of the recommended articles in my new feed stood out;

OPINION: Is a family on $120,000 doing that much better than Duncan? Written by Johanna Morley

I had to read it. I can’t say that I was very moved.

Not only did the article rely on a range of fallacies and an inappropriate use of statistical data, but it also point out a lot of what is wrong with modern day Australia.

The sense of entitlement that various groups wax lyrically about is not restricted to a single cohort of the community. It’s wide spread.

To start with the simple errors – MS Morley’s article conflates rich with a household of two incomes of $60k. That’s by no means rich and not even part of the wage brackets likely to see much change in tax brakes.

To go further, while it sounds impressive to rely on ABS data, this data has limited use and is certainly erroneously applied to the article. For instance, two statistics used in one paragraph were the average grocery and transport costs for a couple with children. This is a blanket number for all couples with children (one has to assume because no link is given) regardless of household income. The greater the inequality within the sample, the less applicable this average would be to a single situation.

Ms Morley is likely to misapplied this data.

Certainly, Mr Storrar couldn’t spend the amounts provided in that article and so if these fictional families are, then yes, they are doing better than him.

But here’s my real grievance with the article; the phrase is ‘to live within ones means’ and not ‘to live to ones means’. Here’s my personal case study.

I definitely believe that I live a good life with my wife and two children.

My wife is a full time mother. With her background in early childhood development and our views on embedding our personal values on them prior to schooling age, it was a choice that we reached fairly early.

This of course means that I am the only earner.

She of course gets the FTB, but it amounts to pocket money because of my earnings. That said, our shared gross household income is significantly less than Ms Morley’s example families net income.

Moreover, I have a car loan and pay child support on my teenage son from a previous relationship. All of this is taken out of my payslip prior to addressing our own living expenses.

Even though I wouldn’t complain about my income, we probably have a little less than two thirds of one of her example families.

I would agree with Ms Morley’s example of Melbourne rent, but apart from that, my life is very different from her examples.

We have quality family holidays. We eat well. My children have everything they could ask for. Yet, we don’t live to our limits.

We budget hard and give ourselves a wide margin for the unexpected. We shop around and make the most of the variety of options out there.

We hunt op-shops. We budget annual memberships to places that our children love to visit often, meaning that weekend activities are exciting yet cheap.

And most importantly, we sacrifice what we don’t actually need (to be honest, it isn’t really a sacrifice).

To take mobile phones for example; you can buy a good phone for under $250 and pay for a sim only plan for $25-$30 per month, with unlimited calls and texts as well as sufficient data. This can amount to around half the cost of a phone-plan package that you buy from any retailer.

I also grow a wide range of fruit and vegetables to supplement our groceries (in a small space). We don’t watch (or pay for) TV and couldn’t care less about what is ‘the to-have item’ of the month.

Lastly, we aim to save at least 10% of our pay each week. This is the safety net that goes towards the unexpected and our holidays.

Through a careful eye on our income and critically evaluating our needs and wants, it’s possible to live well on a moderate income.

So to respond to Ms Morley’s question; is a family on $120,000 doing that much better than Duncan?

If they’re not, they’re doing it wrong.

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.


[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]


“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