Category Archives: capitalism

Building social capacity – not social capital

Whether it’s the need for social economy, the importance of civil society, the potential benefits of deliberative democracy, the means to address climate change, or the idea of ecological citizenship, we consistently find a common theme at the root of what we are talking about.

That common theme is the need to build social capacity.

You might be familiar with another very widely used term that I could have chosen to use ­– ‘social capital’. Indeed, Barry and I have used this phrase a couple of times, but not extensively. We have largely (if instinctively) avoided the phrase ‘social capital,’ I think, because there are serious problems with it, both in the vocabulary and in the way the concept is understood.

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Questions for activists

I recently checked out the website again. Since David first wrote about their work, they have continued to develop their ideas. They have some good ones too. Sometimes I find the approach a bit too simplistically rationalist, but there’s no doubt they are thinking about social change, asking “why have we not achieved the changes we’ve been struggling for?”, and trying to come up with better methods.

Activists are usually busy people. The word itself is based on the root “action”. Gandhi, one of the world’s greatest non-violent activists, stressed the vital importance of action – even going so far as to argue that violent action is better than passivity. Yet Ghandi’s activism was never unthinking. It was based on serious efforts at self-understanding and self-control, and rooted in a deeply thought out theory of power, which lead logically to non-violent strategies for social change.
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Overcoming the growth mania through the social economy

In his splendidly provocative Tools for conviviality, Ivan Illich (1973) describes the pursuit of growth as a general affliction of industrial society. He writes that “While evidence shows that more of the same leads to utter defeat, nothing less than more and more seems worthwhile in a society infected by the growth mania” (p.8). His conclusion is that

society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. (p.10)

The analysis of the ‘growth mania’ is taken further by Herman Daly (1974) in “Steady-State Economics versus Growthmania” (pdf here). Daly decries the growth orthodoxy, the desire for “growth forever and the more the better,” calling it “a rigorous exercise in wishful thinking” (p.154).

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If not capitalism, then what?

We’ve done a fair bit of criticising contemporary capitalism in this blog. One of the follow-up questions we have been asking ourselves all along is: “if not capitalism, then what?’

Well yes. If not life as we know it, with all its enormous ‘reality’, complexity, and slow-turning, apparently unstoppable power and momentum – then what? And how do we get from here to there? It’s quite a topic for a couple of part-time bloggers to tackle. The hubris! But then we’re not tackling it on our own – human society is always and inescapably a collaborative venture – we’re hitching a ride with the thinkers whose work we’ve commented on, hopefully in return bringing it to some who would not otherwise have met it.

So where have we got to so far, in our hitching, in our answer to this big question?
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The Overseas Expert and the climate change population myth

In an interview broadcast on TVNZ’s One News a couple of days ago, the renowned naturalist David Attenborough was asked about the politics of climate change. He answered by remarking that when he started making  tv programmes, the global human population was only one-third what it is now. The clear suggestion is that the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is caused by the growth in numbers of humans.

On the One News report, as usual, the Overseas Expert’s viewpoint went entirely unquestioned; to the casual observer it would seem the issue is simple and clearly understood. And so it follows that the solution to climate change is population reduction.

This idea could not be more wrong.

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Investors – it’s time to put your mouth where your money is

The collective wisdom of capital markets is probably still ‘in some doubt’ in many peoples’ minds at the moment. Interestingly though, from a green perspective, capital markets appear to have been estimating the likely costs of climate change to be higher than those predicted by cost-benefit analyses (such as the Stern Report) that have been much maligned by some industry lobby groups. And, of course, this implies that – even from a purely economic point of view – there is a case for stronger climate change mitigation policies than have been suggested by the cost-benefit analyses.

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News media and the logic of commerce: The rising tide of “churnalism”

In his groundbreaking and highly influential book first published in 1983, Benedict Anderson suggests that nations are socially constructed and imagined into existence. The title of the book is now just about a cliché: Imagined Communities.

One of the major contributing factors in the emergence of nations and nationalism in the era of the industrial revolution, Anderson argues, was the development of mass communication – books and newspapers – which he refers to as “print capitalism”. It was this new means of regular communication among and between people who had never met each other which was critical to the development of the imagined community of an entire nation.

The continuing power of communication media to determine how we understand ourselves and engage with each other in both the public and private sphere is well recognised. But degree of this power is difficult to assess accurately. In particular, we might ask – to what extent does the media report political events and to what extent does it control and shape them?

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Decoupling: green capitalism’s cunning plan

Baldrick: 'I've just thought of a cunning plan.'‘Decoupling’ is green capitalism’s cunning plan: break the link between ecological degradation and economic growth, and voila! The ecological crisis of capitalism is overcome.

If decoupling is achieved, growth can continue, profits can be taken, standards of living can be raised, and there will be no discernable ecological consequences.

In their recently published article “The emperor’s green clothes”, urban planning academics Petter Naess and Karl Georg Hoyer have reported on their search for signs of decoupling. Their conclusion is that the possibility of decoupling is  “not valid.”

Like many another cunning plan, decoupling is simply an empty promise.

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Ecological macroeconomics: resolving the three dilemmas of transformation

Jonathan Harris, “Ecological macroeconomics: consumption, investment, and climate change”, real-world economics review, issue no. 50, 1 September 2009, pp. 34-48,

Harris (Tufts University) begins his discussion by using the charmingly mild phrase “cognitive disconnect” to decribe the yawning great chasm between “scientists’ warnings of potential catastrophe if carbon emissions continue unchecked on the one hand and the political and economic realities of steadily increasing emissions on the other” (p.34)

It is, as he says, “the outstanding economic problem of the twenty-first century. Can economic growth continue while carbon emissions are drastically reduced?” (p.34) And asking that question makes us look more closely at what, in fact, economic growth is and how we might make a successful economic and social transition to sustainability.

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Go green for fiscal prudence!

Ramon Lopez, The Great Financial Crisis, Commodity Prices and Environmental Limits (WP 09-02, Revised May 31, 2009)

Professor Ramon Lopez of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Maryland, has written an interesting working paper that draws the links between changes in the global economy, commodity prices, and the current global financial crisis. It is an argument that calls into question the viability and wisdom of efforts to resume ‘business as usual’, suggests future global economic growth will be slow at best, and (implicitly) suggests that policies of large-scale public borrowing based on the assumption that future growth will help pay it off may be highly risky.
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