Anger & Complicity in a Time of Limits

Alexander Ac interview with David Korowicz, Part II
Brno, Czech Republic, 29 January 2014 (with subsequent re-editing)

Part 1: How to be Trapped

And we also have another kind of growth. That is, what do you think are the key factors behind the growing number of angry people?

DK: Anger is a natural part of being human and can arise because people feel they have been badly treated, a personal boundary has been crossed or they have been denied something. It is also part of collective behavior that can regulate or amplify stress.

We’re part of an integrated globalised society hitting financial and ecological limits and this is starting to challenge peoples’ habituated expectations. There’s been a clear emergence of tensions and anger in many parts of the world since the global financial crisis began. The effects of the crisis, and responses to it have made people angry at the financial sector, governments, the “One Percent”, international institutions or capitalism itself. Ecological constraints are being reflected in record food and oil prices. Food prices have always been a trigger of social unrest, in France in 1789 and the year of revolutions in 1848. More recently Yaneer Bar-Yam and colleagues show a strong correlation between the Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) food price index and outbreaks of social unrest. This has forced simmering but contained antagonisms to the surface as happened in the Arab Spring.

But we need to be clear, the large-scale predicament and the emergent socio-economic stresses that we are beginning to experience has very little to with fraud, corruption and the greed of a tiny few. It has a lot to do with our human civilization running into limits. As socio-economic stress deepens and uncertainty rises we can expect anger spreading in severity and scale in the coming years. Uncomprehending rage turned outwards and inwards, fantasies of catharsis through revolution, extremism and authoritarianism, aggressive power/productive asset accumulation and scapegoating are just some of destructive behaviors we’re likely to see.

The stakes involved in such transitions mean that it’s important to interrogate our anger, and question its foundations. That’s why I’d argue that in the rich part of the world there has been a huge amount of self-righteous finger-pointing that is not only delusional but may well be detrimental to how we deal with the collective challenges ahead. None of this means, for example, that fairness and inequality (especially in-group) are not hugely (and innately) important for people, and that societies who fail to engage with it in the difficult years ahead are greatly adding to the risk of catastrophic social fractures that will do nobody any good.

As a species we’re very sensitive to intra-human drama, and in a time of growing crisis, tend to frame narratives as those who are with us and those against. We claim our own complex introspection, virtue, wisdom, victimhood and understanding, and too easily assume that those with whom we disagree are more stupid, venal and the bearer of grudges toward us. Growing socio-economic stress is systemic, very complex, and far beyond full comprehension for anybody. Decisions can be made with good intentions, but there may still be unpleasant outcomes and trade-offs. The temptation is to simplify and personify its ill-effects in people or institutions. That if only ‘our idea’ was implemented, the government changed, or the European Central Bank was filled with green-minded, economically astute, monetarily enlightened altruists like our selves, all would be well, or at least a lot better. Now this may be so, or it may not, or it may be that we are just playing out our own delusions.

Governments aren’t doing ‘austerity’ or bank bailouts because they enjoy causing suffering and are tickled pink at the thought of bankers’ gigantic bonuses. Policy is being implemented in uncertainty and complexity, within environments over which there is limited control, and where the potential consequences are potentially far more catastrophic then what has befallen Greece. Choices are constrained and involve risks, uncertainties and trade-offs. Mostly policymakers are acting in good faith. None of this is suggest that we should be complacent about what governments do nor that we should not be forthright in holding them to account.

But it’s good to take some perspective, and even to be grateful although we might complain. We ordinary Europeans acknowledge what we don’t have and look to others who have more, but compared to virtually everybody in history and most of the world today, we have a huge amount. We have habituated to this so the loss of a little of what we take for granted can make people angry. On one side we have feelings about fairness, particularly within our own social in-groups. We are angry say about the one percent (71 million people) but we among the global 15 percent (1.14 billion people) are less concerned by the fact that there are 85% of population below us, and half of them don’t have access to basic sanitation. Remember that in earnings terms you join the global one percent when you earn about €40,000- how many globe-trotting radical activists earn less than that? And if you get unemployment benefit in Ireland you join the global 15 percent , with the additional benefits of advanced health-care and high levels of security and freedom (in historical and modern-day relative terms.) So here we are talking about something very human and indeed ‘animal’- relative status, in/out-groupings and habituation.

As societies face increasing challenges in the years ahead, and governments and international institutions fail to hold together our web of expectations, we can expect a lot more anger and more people feeding it. Some form of dis-orderly economic contraction is almost certain and nothing will change that. As economist Colm McCarthy noted, anger is not a policy. In fact we know very little about how a society might practically and dynamically furnish large and bewildered populations with the basics of food, healthcare, critical services, security and governance in the context of a complex society falling apart.

Anger can be a positive force for change, a motivation and lever to prize open vested interests and ensure a level of fairness within a society. But it can also be an addictive and narcissistic form of social bonding that feeds upon itself; narrowing the field of empathy, foreshortening the range of options, encouraging disastrous simplicities, turning people and groups into cyphers, all while offering the easy comfort of certainty and righteousness. At its worst, especially in times of dislocation, it can turn into something violent, while inviting and even finding meaning in violent response; sucking oxygen from the middle-ground, undermining societal trust, absorbing scarce resources, and sowing the seeds of prolonged antagonisms and psycho-social fractures.

Usually we can notice these traits in others, and even take a righteous pride in pointing it out; the moral challenge is to tackle it in ourselves. And Europe’s history provides enough warning that it’s a beast we feed at our peril.

So we are the same as those 15, because we are complaining about them while ignoring those below us.
DK: Let me put it in a jokey and anachronistic way. We are the global haute-bourgeoisie railing against the global aristocracy while claiming the mantle of the global proletariat. It allows us to feel righteous while skirting the issues that make us complicit.

So we have no moral rights to be angry?

DK: We will be angry or not as the case may be – irrespective of the intellectual or moral veneer we give to it.

Anyway, who are we angry at, the “One Percent”, or fraction thereof? Most of their financial wealth is based on abstract future promises that cannot be turned into goods and services except at the margins. A lot of that wealth is financial, where total observable global financial wealth has a value of about 350% of Gross World Product – if the wealthy tried to convert their share of this into money the value would vaporize (who would buy the assets?). And what of the £50 million Belgravia mansion and the Old Masters collection? These are sometimes called Velben goods, they are goods that are desirable because their price is high, and they are usually relatively unique and made from resources produced long ago. Again if the rich tried to sell at any scale, the price would crash. But let us imagine the super-rich, by desire or because they were forced to, could sell off their wealth getting say 3 time GWP in ready cash to help the poorer world, it could still not increase the flow of goods and services produced in the world except marginally (assuming the resultant inflation did not turn the economy into a tail-spin) – to do that requires the energy, resources, and the coordination of a complex socio-economic system that is already straining at these limits.

What’s more, if all the super-wealthy’s personal resource and energy consumption was shared per-capita over the world it would barely register; there’s too few of them and anyway after the mega-yacht and a couple of car collections and running a few homes, more energy and resource consumption just takes so much, well, work! For example, there are 60,000 ships of weight greater than 10,000 tons in the world, a little time on Google should convince you that there are only a tiny number of personal super-yachts this size – it’s a mere statistical blip on the total number. Most of the super-richs’ wealth requires almost no resources in global terms, it’s just abstract status markers.

This is why when Oxfam say that the richest 100 people have enough wealth to end global poverty four times over they’re being deeply misleading. They confuse real wealth with virtual claims on wealth. To end poverty would require massive investments in resource-intensive infrastructures (energy, water, waste, roads, telecommunications); food (more fossil fuel based pesticides, fertilizers, drainage, irrigation, storage, logistics); housing; healthcare (hospitals, clinics, drugs, equipment, training), and education. This would add a huge requirement for energy and resources on top of what we are already using, which is at a limit.

The only possible thing we can do globally to provide investment energy and resources for the poor is to take it from the richer world of real resource use, not the piles of paper and electronic promises. And those resources are used in our food, clothing, healthcare, sanitation, cars and holidays, electronic devices, books, light and heating. Behind these personal goods and services are complex infrastructures, factories upon factories, shipping and airports, schools and civil administration etc, all across the world. To significantly lift the real poverty of the global bottom third would require that at least the global 25% would have to undertake a massive drop in consumption, which would affect even people on social welfare across Europe and in an interdependent world cause disruption across the globe, even for poor people. However, I mentioned that our complex socio-economic system is growth and scale adaptive. That means that a withdrawal of consumption of such scale would most likely cause a largely uncontrollable and systemic collapse of the globalised economy. Energy and resource use would collapse (80, 90%??) and so to would the system integration in the globalised economy, but this is what would be needed to manufacture and deploy poverty alleviation measures for the global poor, which would now include everybody!

Of course status matters, it gives one power, for example, as does fairness. And inequality has many negative correlates. But I suspect the super-wealthy’s expectations are far more vulnerable then they or most people think- there’ll be very few chances of the latifundia (landed estate) styled opt-out that shielded the Roman elites as their empire faded.

Energy companies? Well, if we don’t want the companies (or global corporations in general), and the waste produced by the energy, resources and manufacturing associated with renewables and fossil fuel systems then all we need to do is stop consuming. And as the world’s grade A consumers we’ve lots of scope (what Ireland spends on alcohol is equivalent to the GDP of Kyrgyzstan which has a similar population; what UK women spend on cosmetics is equivalent to the GDP of the Central African Republic). Indeed if the relatively small group of developed world environmentalists, anti-frackers, Occupy Wall Street supporters, and the righteous revolutionaries of Facebook slashed their own consumption, stopped having children and destroyed their saved income, there is a fair chance they could tip an already vulnerable global economy into a spiraling depression that would collapse energy use, energy companies, greenhouse gas emissions, resource use, habitat destruction, and all this would result in catastrophic suffering. A similar argument was posited by David Holmgren recently in his Crash On Demand paper.

What of all those hindering efforts on tackling climate change? Firstly, if one wants to cut emissions, stop consuming, then there’s no need to convince governments or corporations – only some of your fellow citizens. If you’re worried about climate change deniers, stop feeding them with the attention they thrive off, and anyway, since when have governments needed a full consensus to do anything? There’s pretty broad agreement both politically and in the corporate world that climate change is a real risk. At issue is the cost, and companies and governments will not pay the costs of reducing emissions if it loses them competitiveness or undermines economic growth. What company will put itself and its employees out of work? This is especially critical when governments are trying to drive up GDP to stave off rising social pressure and stop the financial system falling in upon everyone’s head.

There have been estimates that the cost of reducing emissions to 550ppm CO2eq would be about 2 percent of GDP per annum (Stern, revised estimate). Others have said it would cost almost nothing. An essential problem is that economists don’t know how to model energy nor do they understand the system dynamics of complex systems. (One notable exception of the former is Michael Kumhof‘s group at the IMF which has developed a more realistic energy-economy model to look at peak oil, but as they accept, it cannot describe large-scale effects). If you wanted to reduce global emissions by, say, 3 percent per annum and ensure the world’s poor can afford some energy (assuming you could get agreement for it) then you could use a system such as the Feasta-developed Cap & Share. However, I suspect it would never work. Forcing that much carbon at that rate out of the globalised economy would be equivalent to forcing a peak and decline in energy on the economy, and increase global food prices. That would enforce economic contraction. Again, such a contraction is unstable, it would probably collapse the globalised economy within a few years and in the process destroy the whole system of caps and permits. What are the odds of any democratic state agreeing to the instigation of such a calamity? Most of what we talk about when we discuss policy around climate change is tangential to the real issues, which suits almost everybody; activists, deniers, the public, governments, the UNFCCC and so on. As I mentioned at the first part of the interview, emissions are likely to drop very significantly anyway because of the effects of debt deflation, financial/monetary shocks and peak oil.

In a similar vein, one of the many privileges we Europeans have had is not having to suffer the massive consequences of the necessary (because of the laws of thermodynamics) wastes, dangers and environmental destruction that comes from our  grade A consumption. That’s mostly fallen at the feet of people much poorer than us and with far less freedom to adapt. So, for example, if we protest against wind turbines or fracking (the final flicker of the fossil fuel age, with little time left to run), yet we do not slash our own consumption or acknowledge our complicity, we’re not protecting ‘the’ environment; we’re protecting ‘our’ piece of the environment, the accustomed privileges of our first world in-group. There’s little to be holier-than-thou about.

Politicians? They’re human, imperfect and sometimes delusional, elected by the very same. What do we expect them to do? One can command the moral high ground by saying we want sustainability and we want our basic European standard of living and we want global equity, but not only is it impossible from a bio-physical economics point of view and dubious in terms of how people actually behave; it’s the active cultivation of avoidance and delusion. If one requires of politics the maintenance of our habituated expectations, the control of uncertainty, and the ever-rescuing hand then all politics will fail you.

All this looks like hypocrisy, but we should be gentle with ourselves. As evolutionary psychologists such as Robert Trivers and Robert Kurzban have explored, social interactions are exercises in impression management. In such situations being considered altruistic and caring towards others is a valuable trait; we’re considered part of an in-group, somebody worth having around in a time of need, and we get to share the benefits of cooperation. But we are never perfectly altruistic. Behavior that encouraged a person to treat her own welfare and that of her children or community as equivalent to an unrelated stranger elsewhere would be whittled out of existence by natural selection. Rather, in social situations we practice hypocrisy, which is the free-rider’s solution of how to appear altruistic while behaving selfishly. The best way to convince others of our earnest virtue is to believe it ourselves. Cognitive dissonance is the occasional cost of this mental separation of beliefs and actions. However, within our own interest/ in-groups you’ll usually find the members don’t allude to such complicities, which is one of their benefits.

Recognizing these somewhat uncomfortable truths will be profoundly important. As we face the challenges ahead, an acceptance of our complicity and a degree of humility will serve to soften the wider societal conversation that we desperately need to have. Righteously focusing all condemnation on small, albeit influential, groups, signals to the wider public that our predicament could be solved if only the targets were as virtuous and wise as their critics. This is balderdash! Whatever the arguments about bankers, energy companies and climate change deniers, they’re marginal, mere froth relative to our collective responsibilities and challenges we face. We are a complex civilization in over-shoot and we should be grateful we’ve had pretty much the best of it.

The limits to growth are likely to be expressed through financial and economic stress, then disintegration, meaning that the ecological constraints that are at the kernel of those limits will be obscured to most. If all that happens is that people end up blaming bankers and politicians we will have lost the most crucial insights that we need to carry on; the meaning of dependency and inter-dependency and that we must care for and nurture the environment which sustains us. We may also in our rage and righteousness end up replacing our imperfect political institutions with rotten ones- John Michael Greer’s excellent recent series on Fascism (it would not look like most people think it would) gives a narrative insight into such processes.

Our best hope for going forward is learning to let go, and part of that is letting go of anger and delusion. Much of the current finger-pointing is fundamentally conservative as it seeks to maintain an impossible status quo, even if it waves a radical banner. But the big conversations we need to have are with each other. And for that we’re more in need of wounded healers (grateful, uncertain, compassionate, complicit) than raging prophets.

But if you lose a job, lose your income…

DK: In the broad sense, that’s life! We’re a species in overshoot. We 10 percent have had the best slice of the global cake. It’s only unfair if you think your expectations are a right or that they are owed to you. But by whom? It is all conditional on the historically contingent self-organized viability of the globalised economy and the resource flows that it required. Those conditions are coming to a close and no group of rich, no companies, no central banks, no politicians, no community efforts can change this.

So yes, jobs, incomes and world-views will be shattered. Of course it’s sad, but we just have to learn to accept it, to let go. The more exciting and necessary part of the debate is how do we respond to those changing conditions? Can we learn to live with uncertainty and loss? Can we creatively adapt and fashion new expectations that honor the best of human aspirations? Can we support each other for the common good? So one might ask, are the newly unemployed merely victims, or have they been given an opportunity to be a pathfinders and guides to the many who will follow them. How then can they be supported in this?

What do you think are the key necessary conditions for a sustainable future?

DK: We need basic food, water, shelter, security and communities where our voices are heard and respected. If this can be done without undermining future welfare, than we’re on our way. Once basic needs are supported, and if we’re as wise and brilliant as we think we are, then we shouldn’t need more stuff to keep us happy and entertained. Our need for status, for example, can be found in much more ecologically and socially supportive activities.

If you have any estimation, when do you expect peak population globally?

DK: I do expect there to be a peak in population, but not like the UN scenarios. Our complex globalised economy has massively expanded the human carrying capacity of the planet, while at the same time undermining the planet’s ability to support us without the globalised economy. If that globalised economy suffers a major failure – and I think this is likely in the coming decades – a chasm will open up between our real needs and what is producible, accessible and affordable. The recurrent mortality challenges of human history: famine, disease and conflict are very real risks. I think in complex societies the risks of hunger and disease are greatly underplayed and the risks of violence probably overplayed by commentators.

But this is part of our challenge; how we set the conditions for better outcomes. In the end our dependencies will be largely localized and that will shape a huge range of differing ecological and environmental conditions that different communities and regions have to interact with. After that, there’s a choice about who we are, how do we prepare and whether we go forward wisely.

Do you think we can reduce the consumption of fossil fuels say by 80-90% by middle of this century?

DK: Well, I can see how it will happen (an 80% drop brings us to a level of world energy use mid-twentieth century). But it is not because we have collectively decided it, rather because circumstances have brought us there. And this is a possible global scenario that we may not have to wait until mid-century to find out about.

Do you think that the large-scale behavioral change towards sustainability is possible?

DK: Circumstances will lead behavior. And how our behavior adapts to circumstances, that will vary. That is where there are fields of different possibilities.

What is your carbon footprint?

I would say it is quite a bit below the average for Ireland, but well above the average globally.

What was your biggest professional mistake?

DK: In the early day of this type of work I felt the need to warn the public, politicians and policymakers; so I did – in Ireland and elsewhere – but it could be soul-destroying. I really think I shouldn’t have bothered, for various reasons – though this is not a criticism of people. Now I prefer to work with those who have already made the part of the journey, who are already interested and concerned.

Most cringe-making is my inability to edit my own work. Too often I’ve sent out publications only to receive an inbox full of fury about my spelling, missing words, inverted words, grammar calamities, mixing up left and right, positive and negative. Of course this doesn’t help my credibility! I’ve had dyslexia and a little still lingers. I’m better behaved now and get things edited by someone else….but something always escapes!

What kind of the world do we live in?

DK: Always immanent, revealing itself. Ultimately, neither good or bad. But I feel it to be beautiful, profound, improbable…. one can’t be a pessimist about the universe and our place within it. I’ll walk into the city now, along the canal under drooping trees where families feed swans – wallowing in the habitual and the banal – as the poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote about this very walk. We live in the day, in each footfall, in the breeze on our skin and the people we meet. There’s no need to worry about the future, the world we live in is more than enough.

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

One Reply to “Anger & Complicity in a Time of Limits”

  1. I am sorry – but I feel that the position of David (and Nicole Foss who takes a similar view) is somewhat pious. He appears to offer us absolutely nothing practical about what to do and he is content to let policy makers and politicians off the hook because they are operating under difficult and uncertain conditions and he regards them as doing the best that they can in the circumstances. Instead people like me…people who have supported or participated in the Occupy Movement, the anti frackers, environmentalists and others must beware of self righteousness because actually we are really rather privileged in world terms…

    What David appears to be offering us is a sort of philosophical disposition to an impending catastrophic situation in which we must first of all consider just how lucky and well off we are compared to most other people in the world first and then we need to recognise too the frailty of human beings, the delusions of politicians and the invevitable anger and turmoil that will occur in the difficult times ahead. However, by taking the view of a physicist and systems ecologist, David is able to show us the tragic inevitability of anger, conflict and strife when seen from a distance. He is there to show us how, from the right perspective we can rise above it, distancing ourselves from visceral participation in the passions of the process.

    When I read all of this my strongest emotional inclination is to blow a rasberry. It is true that we are all part of a larger process which we cannot wish away and that will sweep everything along with it – but it is illusory to expect that any individual or community can escape the implications of the immediate, the local and the particular by choosing to conceptually privilege the general processes in descriptions of what is happening. By all means paint a panoramic view on a broad canvas but those little scurrying dots trying to escape the deluge are you and me mate, in a state of anger and fear. And its true that many of us are self righteous – but what exactly is all this stuff here, written by you, if not moralising too – yet another lengthy sermon about how we should feel?

    All of us are flesh and blood and thus creatures of feeling and passion – though some of us try to freeze these feelings, for example by intellectualizing them to manage them and keep them under control. However, let’s not kid ourselves. All of us are doomed to participate in the passions of the process whether we like it or not – the best that we can do is focus and use our passions in the most constructive way.

    “No longer can we be satisfied with a life where the heart has its reasons which reason cannot know. Our hearts must know the world of reason, and reason must be guided by an informed heart.” Bruno Bettelheim. An informed heart can get angry – and use that anger as the energy to keep going.

    This includes passions about the fairness of the process. Sure, I note that you acknowledge the issue of fairness but passions about fairness are what we use to mediate and glue communities together…. or not. It’s not something to acknowledge in passing – fairness and our passions about that are at the very heart of the matter of whether we survive as societies based on helping each other or not. Mutual aid and solidarity will get us through this – or society will tear itself apart because that mutual aid and solidarity has been undermined by sociopathic leaders who tell us that ‘we are all in it together’ and then take, take, take, take, take, take… It’s because the issue of fairness is so central to how human societies work, or do not work,that public health research finds over and again that societies with high levels of inequality are more unhealthy in multiple ways – and that poor public health extends to the rich too. It’s central to being human beings. So when we have a highly unequal society run by a sociopathic elite that is THE biggest problem in dealing with the forthcoming crisis.

    And the level of inequality of wealth and power is not just a question of abstract fairness. It also means highly centralised institutions that are unable to delegate or hear feedback from the local level – elites and institutions that are prepared to take risks with other people’s health and wellbeing. These institutions are trying to impose highly destructive solutions to the crisis – like fracking and unconventional gas extraction where the ecological damage will be incalculable unless resisted and fought off. Thus one CANNOT opt out of all conflicts by “standing above them” and then declaring them inevitable.

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