We Can’t Live on Borrowed Freedom Forever – part 4 of a #RealGreenRevolution

This is the 4th in a 7-part essay on the type of policy innovations that would respond to the truth of the environmental predicament and, also, why most environmental professionals ignore such ideas to promote limited and limiting ideas instead. These ideas on a #RealGreenRevolution provide a contrast to current agendas, with the aim of encouraging a global environmental movement as a rights-based political force.  In this part of the essay, I focus on the impossible yet essential matter of governance reform. It is something made even more difficult by the recent capture of public space to global tech platforms, which most politicians choose to ignore.

To receive each part of the essay, subscribe to my blog. To engage with other people who are responding to these ideas, either engage on the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn (where I will check in) or the Deep Adaptation group on Facebook, or by following the hashtag #RealGreenRevolution on twitter. A list of previous parts of this essay is available.

Governance Reform

The past decades have witnessed similar political trends across many countries, involving market deregulation, privatisation, foreign ownership and increased financialization. The way such trends have occurred worldwide is an indication of the lack of sovereignty of individual nations. Instead, global financial institutions provide the intellectual resources and talking points via professional institutes, media, universities and thinktanks, and exert a disciplinary force via the government bond and foreign exchange markets. In each country there is a particular packaging for this agenda, and a story told about how it is a result of the leadership of a particular politician or political faction. But the global trend reveals as a complete fraud the story in mainstream media that individual politicians are leaders rather than administrators of the interests of national and international capital, however knowingly or not, and the sales assistants for the ideas that advance those interests. Many politicians are actually trained in such sales techniques, including public relations professionals, actors, presenters and celebrities.

The banking reforms I mentioned earlier would help remove some of the undemocratic pressures on governments. That is unlikely to occur given the way that finance influences politics in most countries. Therefore, governance reform is urgently required to reduce the influence of money on politics and allow for a serious attempt at a Real Green Revolution. Despite governance affecting every single social and environmental issue in every country, this matter of governance reform is not prioritised by trade unions, environmental organisations, human rights organisations, amongst all the other interest groups in society. Part of the reason is the desire for some organisations that have charitable status to avoid appearing political. However, education and advocacy on governance reform could easily be done within the rules governing charities. So what might this involve?

Some of the ideas that could be advanced by coalitions within civil society are the following, which could apply at various levels of government from local to national, and free up politics to grapple with the ClimatePlus agenda more coherently. Stricter rules and limits on donations to politicians and political parties and instead some supplementary funding from the state on the basis of agreed metrics on levels of support. A ban on private consulting or investment management by politicians and senior bureaucrats or their families, and a minimum 3-year break between working in government and working in any employment related to their official role. Criminalisation of the paid-for publishing of repeated lying about political opponents (e.g. by adverts on Facebook). Criminalisation of police or secret agency involvement in domestic or foreign political parties (which may require an international treaty, given that many secret agencies infiltrate their own political parties in order to monitor and defend from foreign influences).

Unless we address these issues, any devolution of power to regional governments will still experience the same problems of capture by economic interests as is seen at the national level. It is important to try and change the situation at all levels of government, as without it, then politicians and their bureaucracies will not be able to centre the #ClimatePlus agenda, and instead are likely to respond either weakly, haphazardly, or in ways that serve narrow corporate interests.

Media, Advertising and Big Tech Reform

The governance we experience is a direct outcome of the way we communicate in our societies. The money system is itself a form of communication. When banks decide what you can get a loan for, that is a form of communication to you and everyone around the world involved in the making, selling, servicing, use and future purchase of whatever it is. As I explored in my Inaugural Professorial Lecture back in 2014, corporations are the biggest storytellers in our lives. Through advertising, public relations, media content of all kinds, and the methods of the multinational Big Tech online platforms, corporations shape our experience of information and communication. All of these communications have been shaped by the aim of commerce – making us need more of their stuff, rather than stuff made by others or no stuff at all. No wonder society seems to have become a hodgepodge of neurotic status seekers. I often wonder how afflicted I am by the culture I am critiquing here. If I had greater self-acceptance, would I have been nicer to myself and everyone, rather than rushed around with big stuff to do? Probably. Which is why we all need to wake up to how our lives – and those of people we love – have been injured by a culture shaped in the interests of corporations. From that place of sadness and pain, we might begin to consider policies relevant to the size of the issue. Here are some of my ideas – I encourage you to think of your own.

We need to ban any advertising to children under the age of 14. Any kind of advertising to them or to their parents about them needs to be understood as a form of child abuse, by making them feel inadequate. No ifs, not buts, it should be a criminal offence to advertise to kids or seek to manipulate their attention in any way to sell stuff. That also includes product placement in TV and video content aimed at kids. In addition, we need to accept that selling stories of better lives, happier marriages, and suchlike from a specific product is actually a form of lying. Therefore, any advertising which promotes lifestyles and feelings, rather than providing factual information on a product, should be illegal. Yes, that means we might see extremely boring ads. But then we could have more exciting lives, as we would stop being sold bullshit ideas, and rediscover what we know about the meaning of our lives having nothing to do with a logo.

The large tech firms would oppose this approach to advertising, as that is a huge part of their profits. They would likely not comply and await blocking of their services in a country for that non-compliance, knowing that a large section of the public would be adversely affected and demand government find a solution. This is a reminder of the illegitimate power of large corporations. Their investors have even bragged about their strategies to become monopolies, in order to then extract increased profits from all who interact with the platforms. Humanity has a history of megalomaniac greed, in the form of monopolist capitalists. For their intention to turn everyone and every other business into a subject of their corporations, they need to be regarded as enemies of humanity, not esteemed billionaires. To begin with, all the platforms should be broken up into their constituent parts. Youtube should not be part of Google, Whatsapp not part of Facebook and so on. Then, key systems like Youtube should be broken up again into companies related to content type and language. Therefore, entertainment content would be shown through one post-Youtube company, and news content another. The fact that this sounds odd and unreasonable to so many people is because the basic facts of corporate history have been hidden from the public – breaking up monopolistic companies is part of the defence of democracy and always has been. The arguments that better efficiency and end user experience come from monopolies have always been made by the monopolists and we hear the same arguments from them today. Instead, standards for interoperability between systems and companies can address any difficulties associated with breaking up companies, just as they always have done in the past, in all kinds of industries including electronics, communications and internet. To begin to work on this issue, governments would need to prepare their populations from aggressive preemptive responses from the Big Tech platforms, by enabling and incentivising their citizens to prepare for disruption to key platforms that they use.

The implications for the ClimatePlus agenda are significant. Greater tax revenues for governments and greater shares of incomes for producers at the base of supply chains will help societies with resources they need to invest in all aspects of the ClimatePlus agenda. What is not widely recognised is how the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on economic processes, including long and complex supply chains, pose a threat to their continued smooth and cost-effective operation, especially in an era of just-in-time supplies to factories and retail outlets. The resilience of communities and companies to disruptions to finance and trade will be increased if they are less reliant on a global companies that can be affected by disruptions from any part of the globe (or cause the disruptions through their own unaccountable policies and practices).  

Corporate media reform is needed as well. Large corporations that own multiple TV channels and newspapers are known to influence the political conversation in countries around the world. In the past, that has supported the interests of corporations via advancement of neo-liberal policies, and in the last few years their agenda has switched to support corporate interests through government subsidising of such companies. The ownership and aims of this media sector has meant a lack of attention to critical issues of our time, a lack of attention and undermining of significant ideas to address those issues, a promotion of reactionary and opportunistic political narratives, and a constant flow of content that contributes to the ‘aspirational dissatisfaction’ that a consumer capitalist system produces and requires within a populous.

The first policy that is needed is the banning of controlling share-holder interests in media corporations by foreign individuals or corporations. Any newspaper, radio or TV station with a large market share in a country must be majority-owned by citizens of that country. That would pose difficult challenges for the largest internet TV channels, which would either have to create new companies in countries to sell their content to, or find themselves blocked by those countries, if non-compliant.  Secondly, at least half of all licenses for TV and radio in a country should be awarded to either non-profit foundation owned, or cooperatively owned organisations, with preferential pricing of licenses if necessary to achieve that aim. These measures would help to both pluralise media content and change the incentives, thereby enabling a more diverse and relevant discussion of the situation humanity now faces. If that happens, then many more ideas related to a ClimatePlus agenda will be able to emerge, be discussed, refined and implemented.

Yes, it is unlikely these reforms will occur, as all the trends are in the opposite direction – towards “technofeudalism”. Unless you are a technoauthoritarian, with zero evidence that will work, this is a problem, and we must keep up the focus on the capture of our political processes. Tomorrow I discuss some of the topics more often addressed by environmental professionals, campaigners and policy makers – adaptation, geoengineering, and nuclear power. To receive each part of the essay, subscribe to my blog. To engage with other people who are responding to these ideas, either engage on the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn (where I will check in) or the Deep Adaptation group on Facebook, or by following the hashtag #RealGreenRevolution on twitter. A list of previous parts of this essay is available.