Every time that I watch this video it has me creased up with laughter but it does raise a theoretical issue in my mind – what are dilemmas and Catch 22s and why there are so many of them at this point in time?
The video clip metaphorically points to the dilemmas that are at the heart of Brexit. It superficially seemed as if there were great benefits to be had by withdrawing from the European Union – focusing on these benefits it was possible to make a case for “leave”. But it turned out that there were all sorts of costs of leaving which were being ignored or not noticed – and no doubt it was in the interests of the EU power structure to ensure that Britain was worse off if it does leave. Given the way that, over decades, Britain’s economy and society had evolved jointly with Europe the losses are now being more properly recognised for real and how serious they are.
The situation, like the situation in the film clip, is a Catch 22. When trying to make a grab for the benefits there is a risk that Brexit “takes the UK over the cliff edge”. With the Northern Ireland border for example, if Britain leaves the customs union and the common market there will need to be a border. If it does not leave there will not need to be a border but the UK will be stuck having to accept European Union decisions, without any say and with no ability to negotiate UK trade policy independently.
A Catch 22 occurs where what you want is associated with costs and disadvantages that, far from making things better, make things worse. That’s because the costs are greater than the aspired for benefits and one does not have the power to dump the costs on other parties – these other people have the upper hand and in this case the disadvantages are mainly to be dumped on us. This is an unusual experience for her Britannic Majesty’s government and is actually an experience of hubris for the British ruling elite. They had not realised what it was like to be unable to throw their weight around.They are disorientated and unable to grasp the simple fact – that outside the EU the UK is relatively powerless. It is vulnerable and does not call he shots. It can slip over the cliff edge.
But this inability to recognise that times have changed – and that old ways of thinking and acting reap more problems than benefits – is more widespread than merely the case for Brexit. The Catch 22 of Brexit is a wider sign of the times. “Making Britain Great Again” (Brexit) goes together with “Making America Great Again” – and a variety of other industrial projects like “Making the Oil and Gas Industry Great Again” (by fracking) and they are all about throwing around weight – to try to recover lost glory and strength.
Brexit is happening while many former world powers are reaching the limits to economic growth. It is occurring where the elite has still not adjusted its thinking to the new realities in the global economy including a declining ability to dictate the course of events – not just in diplomatic relations but also through technologies and other affairs.
The scale of economic activity is now such that attempts to continue expansion by applying more energy to bigger economic processes mean that increasingly the destructive costs of trying to continue business expansion exceeds any real benefits…..and that sets up other conditions in which business and society finds itself in Catch 22 quagmires.
Let me take, for example, the apparently unrelated example of fracking in the UK. For five or six years a movement has developed opposed to fracking because communities have recognised a threat to their water supplies, air quality, use of roads, seismic and other problems associated with industrialising the countryside where fracking would take place. This anti fracking movement has counterposed the threat of health and environmental costs to communities over and against the alleged benefits of energy security and profits to the fracking companies. Now, after several years in which fracking has been held up, it has taken place again on a test basis in Lancashire – and it brought about a cluster of tremors, some of them sufficiently big to put the fracking company and the government in a dilemma.
The dilemma is another example of a Catch 22. To make shale gas profitable there has to be a sufficiently large gas flow – which requires fracking with sufficient pressure. But the cluster of small tremors suggests that even greater pressure risks even more damaging earthquakes that might lead to a damaged well. (An earthquake in 2011 led to the well that was being fracked by Cuadrilla being damaged).
At the limits to growth one cannot simply turn up the scale and the violence of the supposed techno fixes without environmental consequences and knock on community opposition, together with regulatory implications. The point is that the limits to economic growth means that things are being attempted at too big a scale and negative consequences exceed benefits. These negative consequences are at a sufficient scale that the people who are going to be impacted by them are not prepared to accept them and no amount of spin and rigging the regulations will get them to. Just as the EU will not accept that Britain can have it both ways so the attempts to throw around weight only make things worse. This is a story of hubris and waning power.
Dilemmas – Catch 22s – are intrinsic to the limits of economic growth and put communities at odds with governments and industries tryngn to drive on with old and destructive technological approaches.
So what is the answer? If attempts to expand and to innovate at the expense of others leads to situations where these others are not prepared to accept the costs of formerly powerful actors dumping on them then one either gets irresolvable conflicts or destructive innovations which must be halted. The drive for innovation must, indeed, go in the other direction – towards equitable contraction or “degrowth”.
Among other things this means sharing, repairing and re-purposing already existing resources and infrastructures. Sharing as in the library principle extended to other resources – resource centres for tools and machinery, workshop space, domestic appliances. Sharing space – people living together to save energy as in co-housing. Sharing transport – including public transport infrastructures. Shared cultivation space as in community gardens and community supported agriculture. Re-thinking and adapting educational, training and community leisure provision at a local level. Re-organisation of the domestic and neighbourhood level economy – outside the market. It is by such approaches that resoures are saved and an equitable contraction of resource use is possible – without loss of welfare.
It seems to me that although, as with the video clip, the Brexit crisis is funny now it will not be funny as the small minded idiots that govern us flip flop chaotically and drag our complex systems of economy and governance into a major gridlock in a few months time. By trying to make Britannia Great Again they are not recognising the times we are in and are generating mayhem.
The result could well be a disaster caused by the hubris of the British elite. We will need to support and help each other get through a difficult time through “disaster collectivism” – instead of going round and round in circles repeatedly trying what will not work. Watch how our politicians demonstrate Einstein’s definition of madness – trying over and over again what has already failed – because they cannot grasp that the time is for degrowth – and a lot of sharing – rather than their insane attempts to grow more powerful at the expense of others in a disintegrating world.
Featured image: Urban Decay. Source: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/urban-decay-1220412
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Brian Davey trained as an economist but, aside from a brief spell working in eastern Germany showing how to do community development work, has spent most of his life working in the community and voluntary sector in Nottingham particularly in health promotion, mental health and environmental fields. He helped form Ecoworks, a community garden and environmental project for people with mental health problems. He is a member of Feasta Climate Working Group and former co-ordinator of the Cap and Share Campaign. He is editor of the Feasta book Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, and the author of Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis.