Intellectual Bravery

“Nobody’s that good. That’s why we need each other.” – Dr. Barry Bickmore

Anyone can back their own point of view. But real progress comes when you’re able to accept that the things you used to think and do weren’t good enough, that you can do better.

I was struck by this damascene account because not only had Dr. Bickmore accepted that he had been wrong about global warming, but had actually put together a presentation on why. Best of all, he identified the exact info that led him to accept the scientific consensus:

  • Scientific debate about human responsibility for global warming is over.
  • The models used to show changing global temperature are well-supported by a massive variety of evidence.
  • While there is uncertainty, this is normal in science, and global warming is probably higher than the usual estimates.

Beyond the science, though, Bickmore talks personally about how he once managed to avoid the truth. He talks about “me and people like me”, but the fallacies and fallabilities he talks about are human failings, not specific to global warming deniers. Because we all suffer from the tendency to filter information to support our own preconceptions, the ability and courage to change your mind is vital.

Even responsible mainstream media avoid responsibility for reporting the truth through the ideal of ‘neutrality’ or ‘balance': reporting both sides of the story, even when one side is composed of “truth-challenged individuals”.

On a tangent, possibly more dangerous is the fact that big-R Reality is not limited to two sides – it ramifies in all directions. The media ‘norms’ issues when they claim to present ‘both’ sides. The truth, they imply, lies somewhere in between these two. But nonscientific media deliberately avoid establishing where the truth actually is! Telling two sides of a story implies there are only two sides: no shades of grey, only black and white. Reality is full-spectrum vivid colour (and spilling out beyond the two sides of that spectrum, too, into the invisible!)

Ahem. In the words of Frank Tyger, “Listening to both sides of a story will convince you that there is more to a story than both sides.”

In relation to global warming, for example, the most common prescription is to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees centigrade (the 350 parts per million atmospheric CO2 goal). However, not only is that target too high, but we are already producing more emissions than the IPCC allowed for in their ‘worst case scenario’.

The challenge is far-reaching. The International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook points out that the long lifespan of energy infrastructure means that our existing infrastructure will push us over the 350 ppm limit. Unless we radically change our construction habits by 2017, we will be committed to going above 450 ppm within the next half-century.

By building that unsustainable infrastructure, we are creating a future in which we face a bad choice: either turn the atmosphere into a sweltering greenhouse, or stop using CO2-intensive power stations – wasting the work and resources that went into them. Building sustainable infrastructure now means not having to make stupid choices later. And that requires us to admit that what we’re doing now is really, badly, wrong.

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Getting along, and moving on.

Political passion can be powerful in creating positive change, but it can also be unnecessarily divisive. Today I attended the Occupy Christchurch demonstration, which is in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. There were a huge range of issues that attendees cared about, from specific (fracking in Canterbury) to general (people before profit). While it was great to see such solidarity in our increasingly individualised society, I couldn’t help being concerned about the potential for Occupy to turn into a binary and oversimplified good/evil movement, ending not in consensus and much needed change but indignant defensiveness and bitter disappointment. This concern of mine is not unique to the Occupy movements, nor left-wing political movements more generally – it applies to any political discussion, media coverage, article or simple slogan. The stubborn arrogance I’m talking about has been espoused by people all over the political spectrum, and is often present in many of those contentious issues: arguments about vegetarianism being a prime example. There’s no way everyone will agree on everything, even if you believe that those who disagree with you are uninformed or stupid. However, I think we are missing far too many opportunities to be nicer to each other, find common points of interest despite our disagreements, and solve common problems.

My concern about the Occupy movements is that they have been painted (a bit unfairly, since that isn’t their sole purpose) as protesting against a certain set of people, rather than a certain set of policies. Occupy has been framed as simply being against right-wing political parties, greedy corporations and the financial industry. Understandably so, some would argue, because many of these groups crafted the policies that have caused the problems Occupy are against. However, there is nothing positive or progressive about name-calling. You’re never going to get someone you just insulted to agree with you (you do give them a reason to insult you in turn though). You’re unlikely to inform anyone, or “raise awareness” about the causes of social problems through clever puns on a politician’s name (you do give the opposition reason to paint you as a raving, mean-spirited jerk though). You’re never going to learn anything yourself by point-blank refusing to listen (you might become so absorbed in your own beliefs that people literally ask what you’re on about though). Perhaps worst of all, you’re never going to enrich your own life or the life of others. It’s easy to revolve around criticism, simplify problems, reduce policies to certain individuals/groups – just don’t think you’ll ever get anywhere if that’s all you’re doing.

Of course, it’s easy for me to just criticise, but I also want to suggest a better way forward. I’m glad that Occupy Christchurch has planned to do the latter as well, in the form of an inclusive discussion that will hopefully welcome everyone. Two things stood out today that give me hope. First, a sign reading something like “I’m in the 1%, but I support the 99%.” Second, someone in the movement shaking the hand of a guy in young ACT who got booed for voicing his opinion that the crowd didn’t like, and thanking him for coming to an event which obviously he didn’t necessarily agree with fully. If we all listened to people we disagreed with more with an open mind, we would not only strengthen our own beliefs, but also discover that we have more in common with our “enemies” than we ever thought. Only on precious common ground can lasting and positive change be built.

So here are my suggestions for participating in politics passionately, but also progressively:

  • If you’re going to criticise something, focus on policies and/or outcomes, not people or parties.
  • Really listen to people you normally disagree with – the only way you’ll ever change their minds is if you can genuinely understand why they think the way they do.
  • Be open to compromise on details as long as you remember the bigger picture.
  • Find and foster common ground.
  • Disagree respectfully, with reason.
I’ll admit I don’t always stick to these principles myself, and that I enjoy the odd chuckle over puns on our Prime Minister’s name. I think it’s time to grow up though, and realise our demands for a better society also need to start from within.

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It ain’t easy being green.

“People buy time from the economy, and the economy then robs them of it”

 

 

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Capital Ideas

I walked completely around the Christchurch central cordon a few weeks ago, and over the handful of hours it took I started to wake up to some realities I’ve really been trying to ignore. My city, the country it lives in, and indeed the world, is in the grip of a deep crisis. We are led by a National government that not only underfunds our recovery, but actually wants to cut back further. They are captives of an ideology of government that is opposed to governing.

I needed to get out of the city. Driving out south, mazing through closed turnoffs and bumping over rippled roads, I caught the end of a National Radio broadcast about the World Economics Association. This international organisation, launched in May, aims to break the neoliberal lock American economics has on the discipline. The coverage is illuminating.

Ideas on Sunday interviewed Robert wade, who talks about the lack of change in macroeconomics, and the way that its outdated, ‘respectable’ ideas favour big financial institutions over productive businesses and people. He notes how large international financial organisations have avoided the initial post-crash moves towards regulation, and how the theory economists promote looks after economists, and their classmates (hah! a pun) who went on into finance. Deregulation is founded on the faith that the market best takes care of society – a fantasy that nobody should believe anymore.

Ideas also spoke to Ha-Joon Chang, author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, who exposes the illusion that the market pays people what they’re worth, and explains how individual productivity is dependent on social setting. Society, he concludes, therefore has the right to intervene. Individual rewards are collectively determined; pretending otherwise merely privileges those individuals who manage to secure a disproportionate slice.

The final third of the hour is spent with Steve Keen, author of Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences who explains the logical flaws in neoliberalism, well-known for over 50 years, and says that economics has rebuilt the world in its own image – a pseudoscientific, flawed and unfair image, if his critique is to be believed. Neoclassical economists, he says, don’t understand neoclassical economics. Naive, they are like Ptolemaic astronomers post-Copernicus, unaware or unwilling to accept that they are not at the centre of the universe. Unlike astronomers, unfortunately, these economists dominate global education and decision-making, and their provably false beliefs (Keen cites their belief that the level of debt does not matter) create crisis after crisis, which the rest of us have to bear while financiers reap gigantic bailout packages (government intervention in the economy… what?).

I have just started economics at university. In the first week, they introduced and then glossed over the major flaw in market capitalism: markets, it is claimed, are allocatively efficient, that is, they portion out goods and services to those who want them most (and will therefore pay the highest price). In the words of my lecturer Steve Agnew, the problem with this is people have different amounts of money to spend. In other words, markets are only efficient when everyone has the same ability to indicate their preferences. In a world where CEOs make over 500 times the average wage (ignoring the income gap between nations), the idea of allocative efficiency is simply a fallacy. Markets are systematically inefficient, ignoring the needs of the poor and the many, and massively overvaluing the demands of the rich and powerful. Who knew? This is a major problem in economics and apparently solving it will give one instant celebrity among economists worldwide. Well, we’ll see.

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Fast fashion: about as good as fast food.

To kick off this extended review of Lucy Siegle’s book, “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?” I’ll start with a bit of personal background (which kind of reflects the way Lucy guides her discussion in the book, something that I found quite helpful). The next bit will look at some of the core points from the book that particularly interested me, and the last bit will be a critique and discussion of what I think Lucy could have expanded, and where I think I will expand my fashion future. 

In my first year of Uni I met some amazing people. They seemed to know so much more about why the world was so screwed up. Young and eager, I wanted to do right by myself, and others, but I didn’t really know how. I tried to educate myself by attending Oxfam’s meetings about Fair Trade, and joined the Greens on campus. I began to question everything I bought. How was it made, and by who, and at what real cost? It sounded “green,” but was it? What’s the alternative? The questions always seemed particularly pertinent when it came to clothes and shoes (now it’s food). I started appreciating my mother’s addiction to buying things second hand, and bought a pair of No Sweat sneakers, which I walked to Uni in almost daily until they got holes in the soles (it didn’t take long, actually, and I felt a little betrayed to be honest). This is about the time fast fashion, the topic at the centre of Siegle’s book, began to kick off in New Zealand. Anyone who has bought a few new items at a mall in the last few years will know what I’m talking about: clothes and shoes that have become so cheap that even students can somehow afford them. Lots of them. Enough to be on trend for every trend. Then came the fashion blogs, which made buying all these cheap items socially acceptable (with a few gifted luxury extras): if these individuals, who now work with labels at the design level and get interviewed by international fashion magazines, could do it, surely everyone could. With fast fashion, it was. It was all incredible enticing. Like Lucy, when fast fashion emerged, I simply stopped having time to think about the wider consequences of the garments I was about to buy. Every sale item felt like a score, not a sore, even in my fairly eco-conscious mind.

One day I just stopped reading the countless (literally…I was too lazy to count them) fashion blogs in my google reader. I felt tired, and the magical fairy dust of fast fashion wore off. It’s a bit like the feeling you get after having too much fast food actually. Boy do the first few bites feel worth it, but then you need a lie down. Well, during this lie down, I stopped being interested in acquiring the next addition to my wardrobe (which had overflowed so much I had to dedicate a second rack to my wearables). Don’t get me wrong, there are pieces I still adore, and I haven’t stopped caring what I put on in the morning. There are still things I admire (even started a fashion blog dedicated to my admiration). I’m still not sure why I stopped wanting to buy new things, but when I read the blurb of Lucy’s book I felt like my neglected conscience finally broke out and did a smug little dance. My willful ignorance had finally found an exit.

As it turns out, the rather grisly truths about fast fashion were far worse than my conscience had imagined. When Lucy told her story about being sucked in to the sales rack, I felt relieved that I wasn’t alone. This relief soon turned into horror at the reality of continued sweatshop labour that has arguably gotten worse since the Nike and Gap scandals, and remorse for the people (mostly women) making our frivolous bargains a reality. Then there’s the guilt and fear about the ecological consequences of fast fashion that will inevitably come back to haunt us. My boredom with fast fashion turned into revulsion when reading Lucy’s book. I felt physically sick at some points, because quite unlike with food, the fast fashion purchases I had made were totally unnecessary – not just in a survival sense, but I mean they did not make me more popular, or happy…hell, some of my fast fashion doesn’t even make me look more attractive (and I know I’m not alone in doing this!). They were made in vain, in all the senses of the word.

It has been a few weeks since I finished the book, and now I feel a bit empty (not in an emotional way, just in a bit of a “now what?” way). I’ve had a peek at my long-dormant fashion blog feeds, scrolled through some relatively inspiring sustainably-minded designers, and currently am re-coveting some $200 bike pants I’ve been wanting for over a year. No new fashion purchases in months, although I did attend a clothing swap. I don’t feel empowered at all though, and I will elaborate on this in my eventual critique, but for now, I’m still waiting to be woken up, this time not into the nightmare that is the real world, but hopefully something that I realise is not a dream after all.

 

 

 

 

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Eco survival week at UC

A quick message about Eco Survival Week on campus from the 11-15 October. Check out the awesome events and hop along to some if you have time. There are so many amazing events I’d love to get involved in but since two of my papers didn’t get offered formal extensions, I need to get myself into writing mode!

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