Ozymandias Johnson

By Alan Simpson 

‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Resist the temptation to wallow in the civil war Conservative MPs are embroiled in or the resignation of yet another of Boris Johnson’s Ethics Advisors. Johnson lurches between sophistry and stupidity, and Labour may think all its Christmases have arrived at once, but more serious issues hang over us.

Politically, we are at a moment standing somewhere between George Monbiot’s ‘Regenesis’ and Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’. It is a perilous place to be.

Almost all environmental indicators flash between amber and red. Conventional economics is in meltdown. Millions of people are trapped in a cost of living crisis, made worse by both food and energy insecurity. And in response, Johnson’s government remains obsessed with feeding the problem – our addiction to high carbon consumption – rather than chasing radical, survivable alternatives. To do so would threaten the hierarchy of wealth and patronage that continues to put the Conservatives in power.

The last tree

In his classic study of societal collapse, Jared Diamond identified eight categories (and five human factors) that lead societies to implode. It is the last of the human factors – disastrous human decision making – we need to focus on. It may be his speciality, but this doesn’t apply solely to Boris.

Diamond was often asked what he thought was in the mind of the Easter Islander who cut down their last surviving tree? We will never know the answer. But it marked the end of a society that had previously lived within its ecological limits.

The same applies to Norse Greenlanders, for whom soil depletion and deforestation delivered collapse. Even the culturally rich Mayan society fell to a leadership blindness about the ecological consequences of their own actions.

“Like most leaders in human history, the Mayan kings and nobles did not heed long-term problems, insofar as they perceived them.”

This is today’s predicament. Across the planet, economic orthodoxies and human stupidity lock parliaments, industries, countries and whole communities into self-destroying loops. This is the race towards societal and ecological collapse.

Avoiding ecocide

George Monbiot brings a brutal honesty to what this means for food and farming. By radically decarbonising our diets, however, Monbiot offers ways of getting off the ecocide path.

No-till farming is an important part of this, but this is no more of a one-shot solution than the government’s plan for industrial-scale greenhouses. Monbiot recognises (in ways that Boris never will) that systemic change is as complex as it is disruptive. His belief is that more than enough of the proteins we need can come from plants, fungi, algae and fermented bacteria. If he’s right then the localisation of tomorrow’s (decarbonised) food systems is within reach.

Others offer the same transformative thinking to energy, water, industry, nature, health and well-being. In combination, they form the silver-linings upon which human survival itself may depend. What stands in the way is our addiction to disastrous human decision making.

Diamond argued that such ‘disastrous thinking’ fell into four distinct categories –

  • societies that failed to anticipate existential problems they were heading into,
  • leaders who failed to recognise the emerging existential threat,
  • societies that refused to tackle the problem confronting them, and
  • leaders who locked themselves into (self-deceiving) solutions, destined to fail.

Boris Johnson’s government ticks all four boxes. But the follies Diamond described as ‘prestige’ would, today, be better classed as ‘greed’, specifically corporate greed.

This is the biggest millstone being hung around everyone’s necks. All serious proposals to avert climate breakdown, and/or to redress inequality, are sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed. This isn’t just in Britain.

  • A major deforestation law, developed by the EU, faces last minute ‘watering down’ proposals to weaken the monitoring of forest-risk commodities such as soya and palm oil. The world’s biggest commodity traders have pressed for loopholes to render it useless.
  • In Britain, Johnson’s much heralded Food Strategy is no strategy at all. It has been stripped of any commitment to extend free school meals to the poorest families or to raise food standards. The proposed tax on salt and sugar content has been dropped entirely. And there’s no requirement for local food plans. Lobbying from the biggest food corporates again delivered political compliance.
  • The fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster saw no sign of a government willing to make developers and construction companies criminally liable for the fire hazards they created. In the race to prop up corporate profiteering, the public (and the planet) get little more than platitudes.
  • In energy policy, the Chancellor’s £350 payment to households in fuel poverty will only reach a fraction of the 10 million households struggling to pay their bills. But at the same time, Sunak slipped £5.7 billion into the pockets of oil and gas companies. Roughly half this amount would have insulated the nation’s homes, saving bill payers over £700 million a year.
  • Back in the EU, successful corporate lobbying has just scuppered plans to introduce a carbon border tax, reform the (crooked) carbon market and set up a Social Climate Fund.
  • And in the UK, the politics of distraction sees refugees who survived the cynicism of people traffickers, now falling into the hands of a government that has taken to people trafficking.

The land of the lost

We are living in the land of the lost. It isn’t just the absence of ethics. Almost every policy coming through Parliament ticks all four of Jared Diamond’s ‘disastrous decision making’ boxes.

What makes the moment different is that, unlike the Mayans, Easter Islanders, or Norse Greenlanders, contemporary society is more in touch with the urgent need for change than our political leaders.

Social movements that cross generations clamour for change that outstrips anything coming from Parliament. This is what ticks the two ‘survival’ boxes Diamond identified: a willingness to address long-term, transformative planning and a fundamental rethink of core values.

Societies that avoided collapse are the ones that took bold, courageous decisions, tackling problems before being overwhelmed by them. They are also ones that completely rethought the values and lifestyles survival itself would come to depend on.

In our case it involves rediscovering that ‘interdependency’, rather than rampant individualism, is the key. Equality, ecology and social stability are what will then get us through.

Of course the rich will have to contribute much of what they have hoovered up in the deregulated decades that raced us into this mess. But there are lessons for the poor too. There is no future for any of us if we split between the traffickers and the trafficked. Both are parts of the Hunger Games that Boris and his corporate backers use to divide us.

Parliament’s ‘lost leaders’ will not show the way out of this disastrous distraction. Nor will a new Ethics Advisor. Radical, inclusive change must come from from the rest of us: not as opponents of a corrupt present, but as proponents of a completely different future.

Those currently trying to do so are the ones we must support now.

Alan Simpson was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010. This article first appeared on his blog here

Main image: c/o Mike Phipps

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