Viewpoint by Roberto Savio
The writer is publisher of Other News, a vehicle for “voices against the tide”, and founder of IPS–Inter Press Service News Agency. This article is being reproduced courtesy of Other News with the writer’s permission. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and his articles and comments can be read on Facebook @robertosavioutopia
ROME (IDN) – Rita Levi-Montalcini, the Italian Nobel laureate honoured for her work in neurobiology, once gave a splendid conference with the title “The imperfect brain”. There she explained that man has a brain that is not used completely, while the reverse is true for the cockroach.
In the growing fog that envelops the planet and its inhabitants, looking at things from the point of view of a cockroach would probably give us a new perspective. Also because the cockroach survived the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, it is 300 million years old, and it is distributed around the planet in over 4,000 species. All things that give it a great advantage over man.
Obviously, both are part of the animal kingdom. But man does things that other animals do not. For example, torture. Man has a level of consciousness and intelligence that no other animal possesses. But he does not, for example, learn from mistakes, which all other animals do. Today, 70 years after its adoption, we are celebrating the Declaration of Human Rights, but we are recreating all the conditions that led to the Second World War, so much so that we talk about the “New Thirties”.
We have returned to waving the well-known flags of “In the name of God” and “In the name of the nation”, flags under which millions of people have died.
We have been questioning ourselves about the climate since the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). Rio de Janeiro gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol for the control of climate change which, despite its good intentions, has had negligible results. Finally, after years of negotiations, we managed to convene the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris in 2015, with the participation of all the world’s countries.
For it to happen, every country was left free to set its own goals for reducing carbon monoxide emissions and responsible for monitoring their application. (Just think what would happen if we left citizens the same rules for their taxes). We now know that the result of the commitments made in Paris is leading to a 3.6°C increase in the planet’s temperature. Since 1992, the work of climate scientists has been to calculate how far the temperature can rise from the days of the Industrial Revolution without causing too much damage. The consensus is 1.5°C, and that at more than two degrees the consequences of heating become irreversible and escape man’s control. For example, the permafrost of Siberia would melt, releasing a quantity of methane, an element 25 times more harmful than carbon monoxide. And the Paris agreement does not include methane, which is already massively produced by livestock farms, planes, ships and much more.
Long before the Rio Conference, in 1988, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) had created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brought together the climate scientists of 90 countries to present reports on the state of the climate. These reports have progressively identified human activity as responsible for the increase in temperature, obviously with the opposition of the fossil, oil and coal sectors. But the figures speak clearly. CO2 emissions have continued to increase, even after the Paris Conference. And the latest report of the 2018 “emissions gap report” sounds a brutal alarm: at the current rate, we need to triple efforts to stay within the famous 1.5 degree mark, because we will get there within the next 12 years. Only 57 countries are on the correct path.
Now we have entered into the realm of myth. That of indefinite development, in which science and the market will be the saviours of the planet. The Trump administration has even presented a report to the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) defending fossil fuels, with the support of producer countries (Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc.). As for science, there is no doubt that it is playing a positive role. But science has become a market variable. If its findings are not used, they count for little. And history shows us that the free market uses them only if they can give immediate profits and do not create conflict with the sources of profit already in use.
An easy example is that of the automotive industry. Without the progressively introduced regulations, we would have cars that are much inferior to those of today if we were to increase their safety and efficiency, and reduce their pollution.
And the myth of the efficiency of the free market, which has been left without checks and controls since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has created some winners, but many losers, who wear yellow jackets and bring revolt to Paris. To keep to the theme, total subsidies to the fossil industries currently amount to 250 billion dollars a year, while those in the renewables sector now stand at 120 billion … and the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, has calculated that inaction on climate change will cost Europe 240 billion euro a year, with southern Europe as the major victim.
Then the worst that could happen to the climate happened: it became no longer a problem of survival of the planet, but a political confrontation. Trump withdrew from the Paris agreement for three reasons: i) to undo what his predecessor Barack Obama had done, which is one of Trump’s automatic reflexes; ii) to satisfy the North American fossil world, which runs from unemployed miners to the billionaires of the fossil sector like the Koch brothers, who invested (their declaration) 900 million dollars in the last US presidential elections – a good example of democracy in a country where corporations have the same rights as citizens); and iii) to oppose any international agreement because America must play its role of great power without being harnessed into any multilateral agreement. And his world echoes him: the new Brazilian foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, has declared that “climate change has been used to increase the regulatory power of states over the economy, and the power of international institutions over nations and their population, as well as slowing economic growth in democratic capitalist countries, and promoting the growth of China.”
And here, by mechanical logic, the battle against climate change has become a thing of the left (as have peace, solidarity and social justice). It is the thesis by which Trump withdraws from the Paris agreements and has declared that he does not believe the three reports of his administration on climate change, including one of 1,700 pages. And since he has become a specialist in putting Draculas to administer the various blood banks that for him represent the various administrations inherited from Obama, the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is opening national parks and protected areas to the exploitation of fossil companies, just like newly-elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro declares he wants to open the Amazon to deforestation and the production of soy.
Moreover, this is the common thread that connects us with two other major events of December 2018 – the United Nations conferences in Katowice, Poland (on climate change), and Marrakech, Morocco (on migration). These, along with the revolt of the “yellow jackets” in France, mean that this month will go down in history as the date on which the international system formally entered into crisis and the revolt of the excluded can no longer be ignored, with Trump as a central protagonist.
The Marrakech conference was about adopting a document of principles on migration, for coordinated action, with respect for the human rights of migrants. It ended up leaving every state to establish its own policy. It was a non-binding document, which was not even signed. In Marrakech, the United States revolted, issuing a statement which, among others, stated: “We believe the Compact [Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration] and the process that led to its adoption, including the New York Declaration [for Refugees and Migrants], represent an effort by the United Nations to advance global governance at the expense of the sovereign right of States to manage their immigration systems in accordance with their national laws, policies, and interests.”
This was enough for the quick formation of a coalition of sovereignists, xenophobes and populists who boycotted the agreement. After Austria, here come Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Croatia, Switzerland and Trump’s allies, such as Israel, Australia and Chile. And it is here that migration, like the climate, becomes something that is of the left … and the Belgian government loses the far-right party of Flemish autonomy and is forced to redo its coalition, because it decides to participate in the Marrakech conference. And Germany and Italy pass the buck to their parliaments. All this over a non-binding document of principles!
What is apparently incomprehensible is that a serious debate about migration continues to be avoided. The great phenomena of migration, like that of Syria, were caused by international intervention to change the regime, without even thinking about the aftermath of invading. Obviously there are those who flee from poverty, and not only from conflicts. But this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), every two seconds one person is expelled from their territory due to conflict and persecution: the result is an unprecedented total of 68.5 million migrants in the world. Of these, 24.5 million are refugees, and more than half are under the age of 18. The number of authoritarian states has been on the increase over the last 10 years, and those fleeing from them has also been increasing, also for political reasons. But those who flee for ethnic, religious or political reasons are refugees (and not economic migrants, who have no rights). And there are 10 million people (like the Rohingya in Myanmar) who are denied nationality, and do not have access to basic rights, such as education, health and freedom of movement: they do not legally exist.
And now comes a new category that does not exist legally: that of environmental refugees who, according to the European Union number 258 million people, forced to leave their homes for climatic reasons. But this is a whole new and difficult discussion. While it is clear who are the victims of a hurricane or an earthquake, it is more difficult in the case of desertification. Let’s think about the case of island countries like the Maldives where an increase of just one metre in sea level would be enough for them to disappear physically. You can send an immigrant who comes to another country to escape hunger back to Senegal for example, but where do you send back people who no longer have their country?
One of the laws of physics is that of communicating vessels. Africa will double its population in a few decades. Nigeria alone will grow to 400 million inhabitants; that is, the population of Europe. Sixty percent of Africans are under 25, compared with 32 percent for North Americans, and 27 percent for Europeans. According to the United Nations, Europe will need at least twenty million immigrants to maintain its pension system and its competitiveness. Even Japan, which has always struggled to keep its identity and ethnic and cultural purity intact, is opening its doors without fanfare in the face of the aging of its citizens. European statistics are public, but ignored. In Italy, immigrants totalling five million out of a population of 60.6 million have produced 130 billion euro, 8.9 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, an amount larger than the GDPs of Hungary, Slovakia and Croatia. And Italy now has seven births against 11 deaths. In the last five years, 570,000 new businesses out of six million have been created by immigrants in Italy, and the complaint of entrepreneurs, especially in agriculture, is that an Italian workforce cannot be found.
At global level, according to William Swing, former director-general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), although immigrants account for only 3.5 percent of the world’s population, they produce nine percent of the world’s GDP. But this is not what people believe. According to a survey by the European Union on the myths and reality of immigration, Italians believe that immigrants account for 20 percent of the population while the figure is actually 10 percent. They believe that 50 percent are Muslims while they are really 30 percent, and that 30 percent are Christians while they are 60 percent. They also believe that 30 percent of them are unemployed while the figure is 10 percent, not far from the national average.
These Italian myths are actually shared by the whole of Europe, and with Trump by the United States. Fox News, Trump’s television arm, now refers to immigrants as “invaders”, and Trump wants to erect the most expensive wall in history, after the Great Wall of Chinese, to keep out criminals and drug traffickers.
And here comes the central theme of this article, which is too short to deal with issues that are apparently unrelated to each other in an effective way. Who elected the Trumps, the Salvinis, the Orbans, the Bolsonaros, and who sees peace and the fight against climate change as leftist positions, international cooperation as a plot in favour of the Chinese and immigrants as invaders? Well, the Catalan nations where a far-right party, born from nothing, won 400,000 votes can be very useful for understanding the revolt of the “yellow jackets” in France.
In Andalusia, the arrival of Vox has messed up all the cards. It took votes from the electorate of the right-wing parties, the Popular Party and Ciudadanos. After 23 years of governing the region, the PSOE, the Social Democrats, has lost control. How did it happen? In order of importance, the arguments of the voters were: 1) Vox fights against immigrants, who are an invasion;2) the party fights corruption, which is instead widespread in traditional parties; 3) it wants a strong government, because with the struggle for the independence of Catalonia Spain is becoming dismembered; and 4) why should a Spaniard go hungry, or be evicted for not paying rent, when food and a roof are being given to arriving immigrants? There was a heavy female vote, despite the anti-gay statements and anti-feminist slogans such as WOMEN IN THE HOME.
Now the place where Vox took more votes than any other party is the town of El Ejido, in the province of Almeria, which has become the nursery of Spain. It has a population of 86,000, of whom one-third are foreigners and one in five is Moroccan. These work in the nurseries surrounding the town, in precarious conditions and exploited. Unemployment is lower than the Spanish average. The town has no library, and a total of 600 newspapers a day are sold. It is evident that immigrants, many of them not registered, do a job that Spaniards do not want to do. If one-third of the population was to leave, that would be the end of prosperity. And who employs immigrants, at 41 euro for eight hours of work (35 for those who are not registered)? They are Spanish citizens. The situation is identical for immigrants in the south of Italy, exploited by local farmers who say that they manage to survive with cheap labour. Otherwise, they would have to shut down.
In other words, immigration has become a myth. America first has become Spain First, Italy First, and so on. The mayor of Almeria sums the situation up: Vox is the voice of anger.
How was this anger reached? It was not born today, but has been created over three decades. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the threat of communism has disappeared, social concerns have fallen, and the market has replaced man as the central element of society. Spending that is not immediately productive (health, education, assistance for the elderly) has been progressively decreased. The rich, because they are productive, receive a progressive reduction in taxation, unlike the poor. Globalisation has led the rich to become richer, and the poor poorer; it has delocalised businesses and reduced the purchasing power of the middle class, while finance has grown in a world of its own, free from business.
The class of craftsmen/women and small traders is disappearing, if it has not already disappeared, devoured by the likes of IKEA and supermarkets. Cities become increasingly important, and the countryside increasingly empty and poor. A farmer’s product is sold to intermediaries for one-quarter of the final price. Where voters once identified themselves with a factory, with a trade union, with a community of peers, today they are atomised in a vacuum without incentives. And because, after the end of the Soviet Union, the new ethics is to become as rich as possible (today 80 people possess the same wealth as 2.3 million people) and the value of individual competition is increasing the frustration of the losers. Finally, the financial crisis of 2008,
The arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution with technological development, which is eliminating technology that has not been updated from the market, creates a situation of fear and insecurity; the losers no longer feel represented in politics, which seen at the service of the elites and in the hands of a self-referential, corrupt political class, which is directed to satisfying above all the world of the city, the elites, the system. Institutions are perceived as serving the system, and the same fate awaits international institutions, the European Union and the United Nations. Anti-politics is born, and the wave is ridden by parties born largely after the 2008 financial crisis. The struggle of anti-politics against politics becomes stronger than the division between right and left.
This struggle leads, for example, to Brexit, where cities vote to remain in the European Union and the countryside to leave, something that was repeated recently in the Polish elections. It is the same policy of fear and redemption of the losers that led to the power of Trump, who lost in the cities, in the rich states, and won among the poor, in the rural world, in the world of closed factories and abandoned mines, among voters motivated by rancour, anger and fear. In all small cities, the phenomenon is the same.
An investigation in Montauban, one of the most active towns in the “yellow jackets” revolt with less than 60,000 inhabitants, found that there were 27 butchers before the arrival of Carrefour. There are four left. The same happened with greengrocers, with many clothing stores and craft workshops after the arrival of supermarkets. In all, around 900 shops had closed down. Respected citizens considered middle-class suddenly found themselves marginalised and ignored. Through television, they basically see programmes from cities and a world that is changing in which they have no future. Is it any wonder that this turns into resentment towards the system and those who belong to it? Le Monde has published a table on salaries, which shows that those in a higher intellectual profession earn an average of 2,732 euro a month, which falls to 1,672 for farmers, artisans and traders, but plunges to 1,203 for those in precarious activities. And the “yellow jackets” revolt was triggered by a 10 euro cent increase in the tax on diesel fuel. One of the demonstrators’ slogans was: ‘Macron fears the end of the world, we fear the end of the month’.
Now, to remain in France, Macron has failed to understand that for the losers rational analysis of efficiency increases their estrangement. Life is above all a human fact, and no one is concerned with this aspect any longer. Schumpeter’s model – that the efficiency of the market creates a process of economy that grows thanks to the market’s capacity for creative destruction – is for the losers proof that the system is made only for the winners, and that neither they nor their children will ever have the ability to escape the situation in which they have come to find themselves through no fault of their own. The ‘Yellow Jackets’ movement has been very successful, because many categories feel ignored. When frustration increases with the passing of the years, of governments, and is reduced only to an economic problem of subsidies, the passage to violence, from dignity that is awakened, is unstoppable. And those who present themselves as “men of providence”, capable of listening and understanding, opening fights against corruption, for the restoration of law, for traditional society, for the world in which everything went well – from the old independent Britain to the great factories and steel mills of the United States – will have unshakable support. In reality, there was once a social contract, also regulated by intermediary forces such as trade unions, by a sense of hope and collective identity, such as being a worker or a railwayman. This sense of community has disappeared, almost all places of aggregation have disappeared, such as clubs or dance halls, replaced today by the halls of supermarkets and discos, to which only young people have access.
It would also be necessary to open a chapter on the impact of technology, with internet and social media, which instead of leading to greater communication, have led to a self-referential and narcissistic world, where each one organises their own virtual world, escapes from real society, creating aggregations among peers and no longer dialogue with others. Another instrument that is felt as exclusion for generational reasons. Even though the revolt of the ‘Yellow Jackets’ was made possible by Facebook, which brought together hundreds of thousands of people aggregated against the common enemy: the system, which ignored and marginalised them. However, it should be clear that robotisation and artificial intelligence will put more people on the margins of society than immigration ever will, with new priests of the system, technicians who will manage the world of artificial intelligence.
It is thus now clear that without social justice, we will not go far. Macron who lifts taxes from the rich to attract investments to France lives in a world that is different from that of most of its citizens. And above all, in a world of numbers and Excel tables. A world in which “men of providence” will lead us inexorably towards a war. Exploiting fear and injustice works politically for obtaining votes. The battles of the losers of globalisation have been opened by social movements, by the World Social Forum. But who uses them is not the left, which with Tony Blair’s ‘third way’ thought it could ride the wave of globalisation, when it only managed to lose its base: the battle of the losers is used by right that is not ideological but of the gut.
Creating a new social pact as existed before the fall of the Berlin Wall is not easy. Money – which is no longer there – is necessary. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) tells us that world debt exceeds 182 trillion dollars. In just one year, it has increased by 18 trillion dollars. Since the 2007 crisis, it has increased by 60 percent. We are all living on credit, and Macron, who now would like to use social justice to restore peace, has no funds to do so.
Moreover, as always in a world that has lost its compass, the money would be there. Every year, countries’ tax authorities collect 150 billion dollars less than they could because of tax havens that could easily be outlawed in a very short time. It is always the same: if we could introduce social justice as the first objective, it would be easy, even on a global scale. The United States, for example, spent the absurd sum of 5.9 trillion dollars in military operations and armaments after the attack on the Twin Towers. In 2017, 1.719 billion dollars were spent on armaments worldwide, a figure never before reached in history. And if military expenses could be considered necessary by some, I do not see who defends the spending for corruption: in the last year, according to the United Nations, this amounted to one trillion dollars, and the money stolen in governments another 2.6 trillion. Another proof of the efficiency of the free market!
And now let’s go back to our cockroach. According to scientists, we are heading towards the sixth crisis of extinction of the animal and plant kingdom. Extinction is a natural phenomenon, affecting one to five species each year. But scientists estimate that the current rate is at least a thousand times higher, with dozens of species every day. It is believed that by the middle of the century at least 30 percent of existing species will have disappeared.
Obviously, the cockroach is not one of these. It is estimated that a building in New York has at least 36,000 cockroaches.
But men have come to the conclusion that it is necessary to find a way to give animal proteins in a different, more sustainable way, and that the path to follow is to eat insects. There are cultural resistances (not in China and other countries), but they can be overcome with an appealing presentation …
And our cockroach can only desire that the bunglers of the animal kingdom, called men, get out of the way as soon as possible. The entire animal and plant kingdoms, and probably also the mineral one, are asking for this. Certainly, without man, in the space of twenty years the planet would become ideal for nature. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 December 2018]
Photo credit: OtherNews
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