Archive for the 'the future' Category

Book Review: Bright Future: Abundance and Progress in the 21st century – From Outside the Box, a Positive Vision for the Planet

REVIEW Canberra Times (Saturday 3 February 2007, Panorama supplement, p. 17)

Author: David McMullen
Publisher: brightfuture publications
240 pp $20

Reviewer: Barry York

As a young long-haired student radical in the late 1960s, I used to gain inspiration from a cartoon that appeared in my university newspaper. The multi-panelled strip commenced with two characters crouched tightly in a sparse door-less little room. One of the characters stretches out his arms, accidentally damaging a wall. He becomes curious and starts making a hole in the wall but his companion is distressed and urges him to desist, lest he damage the room. The final panel shows an aerial view of the scene: both figures are actually confined in a tiny box but outside the box is a beautiful big sunny world. The message was and is clear: creativity requires destruction, a better world only comes from overturning the familiar safe one.

David McMullen’s book is refreshing in that it revives that spirit in consideration of the future. His analysis will jar anyone who uncritically accepts the prevailing ethos of ‘doom and gloom’. He reclaims rational optimism and rebelliousness, rejecting the inherent conservatism of opposition to globalisation and modern industrial society – which he characterises as pseudo-left.

Bright Future is no mere polemic. McMullen’s training in economics informs his view as much as his decades of involvement in left-wing movements. His analysis is essentially a Marxist one, though this is not stated in the book. The text is meticulously researched and there are nearly 700 endnotes to lead the critical reader into sources of substantiation for claims made. The book will either be ignored or, hopefully, will have an influence in promoting debate about the issues canvassed, including, controversially, the author’s support for ‘collective ownership’ as an alternative to capitalism.

The content is wide-ranging but focuses strongly on the question of food production and world hunger, affluence and resource exploitation. Specific issues discussed include GM foods, soil degradation, water, fisheries, non-renewable resources, fossil fuels, global warming, alternative energies, nuclear power, pollution, deforestation and species extinction. He shows how food production can be increased through technological and scientific advance and better management practices.

It is possible he argues, to eliminate hunger by the end of the century ‘The planet’s capacity to comfortably accommodate us’, he says, ‘is limited only by the application of human ingenuity, something we are never going to run out of’.

While not downplaying environmental problems, McMullen’s take is that Nature is remarkably resilient and human impact is minor compared to the planet’s ‘battering on a regular basis from super volcanoes, meteors and ice ages’. Moreover, the affluence of modern industrial societies is what allows for environmental awareness and protection. For example, the best way to save the tropical forests is to integrate the children of subsistence farmers into the modern economy rather than to idealize their way of life.

The author sees capitalism as playing a continuing progressive role in those places still emerging from pre-industrial feudalistic systems and a section of the text dealing with the problem of kleptocracy in Africa is particularly informative and cogently argued. What makes McMullen’s book unusual and important however is that it does not reach the conclusion of those who argue from the Right that material progress under capitalism is our benefactor and that this system is therefore the ‘end of history’.

McMullen points out that affluence under capitalism continues to mask gross inequality and is only achieved through the alienation of wage slavery which chokes personal development and human initiative.

He argues that the continuing industrial revolution creates the conditions necessary for capitalism’s demise. As technological change progressively does away with the old back-breaking, dangerous and boring jobs, making work more complex, interesting and challenging, the need for a capitalist ruling class becomes less and less. More than half the workforce in the most advanced industrial societies now requires post-secondary education. With the automation of the most unpleasant jobs, who needs the profit motive? And who needs what McMullen calls “the master class”?

Collective ownership, he argues, will be ‘the obvious way to go’ and would unleash the creative energies of the individual, ‘freeing the economy from the distorting effects of sectional interest’. This, he says, is ‘real free enterprise’.

The obvious challenge to McMullen’s thesis is that socialism, when attempted under Communist governments, has failed. To this he responds that the experience of such socialism has been limited to places that had barely emerged from feudalism and had not yet developed advanced forms of industrial capitalism. ‘Bright Future’ is a scintillatingly dangerous book; a threat to the stability of walls and boxed thinking everywhere.

This website kills fascists!

Right-wing conservative columnist, Andrew Bolt, has perplexed some of his followers by putting on his site a youtube clip of Woody Guthrie singing “This Land is your Land”. Another right-wing site, Just Grounds Community , has commented on those conservatives who do not have the knowledge of history or the “empathy” to understand why and how Guthrie supported socialism and sympathized with communism during the 1930s. I’m not precisely sure where JGC is coming from but they certainly make sense in their understanding that Woody Guthrie would not have been impressed with the pseudo-left of today – “the two bit hustlers… the present day chancers and fuzzy thinkers who would claim his endorsement”.

I sometimes wonder how many people identify with the right – the libertarian right in particular – because what passes for ‘the left’ is so appallingly unworthy of support.

Continue reading ‘This website kills fascists!’

small minds for a backward social system – time to think BIG!

Australians face a federal election in which the consensus among, and bi-partisan approach of, the principal parties is to aim to be small. We’re being told that inadequate infrastructure and public transport, along with a ‘water shortage’ (in the south east of our continent) and crowded shopping centres, are the product of too many people. As our population growth is predominantly fuelled by immigration, this means ‘too many immigrants’. It’s a familiar cry, usually originating on the overt far Right but for the past couple of decades reinforced by a pseudo-left concern about the carrying capacity of Australia.

It doesn’t seem to dawn on the opponents of immigration and population growth that trains might be over-crowded because there aren’t enough trains or that infrastructure is under pressure because governments are too incompetent and lacking vision to provide them. As for water, our north is drenching and a body of water the size of western Europe is gradually making its way south. In Victoria, the Mitchell River floods every seven years or so, causing millions of dollars in damage to towns and crops, yet it must not be dammed under any conditions. It is in a national park, after all. Who cares that such a dam would greatly alleviate Melbourne’s water crisis.

Not surprisingly, the State and Federal government leaders prefer to blame ‘too many people’ rather than themselves.

Of course, they are not racist. ALL immigrants are too blame.

The Greens are usually referred to in the mainstream media as a left-wing party that is more compassionate. Yet they too argue for less immigration and, in case readers are not aware, they support the deportation of all asylum seekers who are found not to be genuine refugees, just like the two principal parties.

(I have been wrong on this in the past, arguing for mandatory detention. In reassessing my position, largely through people at this site, I realize now that if you don’t think outside the box, you’re likely to be imprisoned within it). (An original quote by me – not bad, eh?)

The glorious objective to which Australians are meant to unite behind and aspire to is….. be small. Yep. Small. A vast continent, with vast natural resources, a mere 22 million people. Think small. Be small. The idea of 38 million by 2050 has scared the bejeezus out of the reactionaries.

What this confirms to me is that capitalism, for all the talk about its affirmation of free enterprise and its supposed commitment to development and material progress, is one social system that has way outlived any usefulness.

In a nation with vast resources, we still have homelessness and poverty, including Indigenous people who in remote areas live in appalling conditions. We have pensioners who die in summer from heat exhaustion and in winter from the cold. (I’m all for the Australian Medical Association which, to the horror of the Nature Worshippers, proposed that governments subsidize air-conditioners for pensioners during the summer months).

We brag of one of the highest rates of home ownership in the world, yet one third of the ‘home owners’ virtually work for the banks to pay off unfair mortages and interest rates – 90,000 are under threat of losing their homes – while another third simply can’t even put a depopsit on a house.

Oh for a left-wing party, or candidate, to point out that this only makes sense under capitalism, that the vast natural resources of this continent can feed and clothe many more people than a meagre 38 million. Let’s aim for a BIG Australia, one that sees itself firmly as part of inter-connected humanity, building bridges rather than closing borders. Stimulus package anyone? How about a bridge from Indonesia to Australia – a good way to defeat the evil people smugglers. How about some government investment at Broome and then let the people’s creativity loose. This just won’t happen under capitalism any time soon.

A left-wing party/candidate would at least raise the perspective that says the problem is that private ownership of means of production, and the ways in which production is organised under that system, is the main obstacle to thinking bigger than we ever have before.

You want free enterprise? Support social ownership of social wealth and support the reorganisation of production along democratic lines so that alienation is reduced.

The culture of a society reflects its social system in general terms. Recognition of this fact is an important step toward changing things. It takes conscious effort to see it, and to work at an alternative. Leftists generally are not submersed into the dominant outlook and that is why, for one thing, they are optimistic as individuals. This strikes those who are unable to think outside the box, to escape the weight of the reactionary hegemony, as weird.

Time to think BIG. To move beyond pre-History. To reach for those stars.

We really ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Economics of the alternative

Marxists are often accused of doing a lousy job of explaining how socialism would do consciously what the capitalist market system can do without anyone being all that aware of what is going on.

But that’s OK, because the efforts of bourgeois economists more than make up for this. Their mission has been to show how capitalism is good at allocating resources efficiently (if sometimes with a bit of restrained government tweaking). But in the process they have had to explain what this means and the role of a price system in achieving  it. Thank you chaps. The revolution will be forever grateful.

We just need to drive home how a system of social ownership will be able to avail itself of this unintentionally provided wisdom. Making the case is fairly easy. Debunking the “calculation debate” is particularly easy. (More on that in a few months but in the meantime see here.)

The hard job for people like me will be (1) convincing ourselves and others that we really can transcend the profit motive and rely instead mainly on intrinsic motivation and (2) developing a transitional program given that it will take time for people to take on the abilities, habits and inclinations needed to make social ownership viable.

By the way, I now find it easier to tell people what I am working on without being put on the defensive. I usually say something to the effect that it’s been a bit unfashionable for quite a long time but now that capitalism is collapsing all around us I am expecting a bit more interest. This is generally greeted with a nod.

I’ve just revised the sections on investment, money and public goods in the main article at my Economics of Social Ownership website. I have cleared out all mention of quasi-public goods and removed all the murky speculation from the money section. The old versions of these sections are stored here purely for reference.

Urban sprawl isn’t that scary

We rarely hear a good word for urban sprawl. Apparently it is “unsustainable” because it robs land from farming and nature conservation and has a big carbon “footprint”.

However if all 9 billion of us mid century were living at the density of a leafy suburb, say 3000 per square kilometre, that would require 3 million square kilometres. This would constitute an area considerably less than half that of the contiguous US – or a bit more than the eastern states of Australia. I must say I don’t find that especially scary.

We certainly would not want to encroach too much on farm land, at least not unless we had made the big shift to vertical farming where food is produced using hydroponics in high rise buildings. Nature conservation would also make us want to rule out habitation in some areas. In others, it may be that we would decide to keep down density by having various special arrangements in place. This would include retaining a lot of the original vegetation and controlling threats from exotic flora and fauna. Keeping the cat in at night would be essential.

And, there are lots of deserts to sprawl into. This is popular in places like Las Vegas, Phoenix and The Arab Gulf. You can’t grow anything there and nature would not mind too much.

A detached house with some land is more important for some people than others. Young families want it and so do older people with a garden. (And if your daughter has a horse you will need a nearby paddock…) Other people would be happy to sprawl upwards. This often happens where a location has a special attraction such as a view, lots of night life or requires less travelling. I am not talking “public housing” here. I have in mind a balcony, three bedrooms, study, large kitchen, lounge and dining room. I also envisage all the extras eg parking, gym and pool on the premises.

Floating cities are another possibility. These would allow us to sprawl out into the world’s oceans and experience constantly changing locations.

There is some dispute over whether living in the suburbs is more energy intensive, and hence more carbon intensive, than living in higher density inner areas. Either way I don’t think I can’t get too worried about carbon footprints. I’m not a climate alarmist, and besides we will undoubtedly move away from carbon based energy sometime later this century.

My hunch is that the urge to sprawl will increase as advances in transport technologies make travel cheaper and less painful. Personal Rapid Transit is one option. Driverless cars is another. These would involve far less death and injury, give us greater ability to avoid congestion and leave us free to read, teleconference, watch a movie, sleep or whatever.

Mass transit is definitely not the answer to current problems. Our transport needs are dispersed in both time and space, and so we need a system that moves individuals not masses.

Returning to the present, some cities have legal walls around them to prevent sprawl (“smart growth” it’s called). Often this is combined with a total failure to allow sufficient housing development within existing areas. House prices then go through the roof. The ratio of average house prices to average income is two to four times higher in “smart growth” cities than in places such as Germany, and the more freewheeling parts of the USA.

Melbourne (Australia), where I live, is surrounded by “green wedges” where building is not permitted. Given that there are no breaks between adjoining wedges, it is more like a noose strangling the city. A city under siege you might say.

In the long term however there will be no end to our sprawl as we spread out into the rest of the solar system and beyond.


Some extra links:

Demographia a pro-sprawl web site.

The Institute of Public Affairs’ page on Australian housing

Here is a Green link on Personal Rapid Transport