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Prague Spring, Arab Spring, new world

Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer

The series of connected revolutions known as the Arab Spring did not happen in a vacuum. Partly, of course, they inspired each other and made revolution seem possible. But one of the contexts was a drought and famine throughout the region that is settling into a pattern of drier, hotter weather that does not support local populations in the traditional way. This context produced what we might think of as pressure for change or, alternatively, the near impossibility that things would remain the way they were — socially, economically and politically.

If you consulted activists, ordinary citizens, politicians, and administrative officials in the various countries they would not necessarily focus on the climate patterns. At best, mostly that would be a background awareness. The pressure — the impossibility of continuity — can be the most important factor in the situation without ever being conscious or an immediate concern.

We have a quite natural tendency to understand the normal state of affairs. We know how things worked yesterday. It is easy to be seduced into thinking that this will be the way they will operate tomorrow.[1] The significance of the Arab Spring example is that quite large things can be so different tomorrow that our instincts are wrong and our guesses are wrong-footed. We need to develop a sensitivity to things in the wider environment that have changed.

There is a whole discipline of scenario planning. The classic exposition is of the transition to democracy in South Africa and the end of apartheid. Scenario planners worked with the government and the ANC and others to understand that even though each group saw the situation very differently, they all had reasons to choose the same future scenario. We cannot stress enough that this chosen scenario contained realities that everyone thought were impossible.

There are lots of things that feel are highly unlikely and yet are in the process of becoming.[2] I don’t even want to say that there will be new normal because some things are simply going unstable. The key thing is not to get stranded in an old reality, where all your analysis and creative thought is systematically wrong. The question is what factors are there that are pushing aspects of our world to behave in new ways. What pressure cooker are we in? In South Africa the new world could happen when enough of the leadership spectrum had been convinced. In Tunisia things simply boiled over from a tiny triggering event.

Structural imbalance

One of the vague concepts that economists and politicians talk about is structural imbalance in the economy. I think the first time I could feel this in my gut was thinking about the crisis in the Spanish economy from the building boom. For a while, half the young people in Spain were building houses one way or another. And then they weren’t, because there was a crash and an overstock of new property and no-one wanted any builders. What do all those clever and skilled young people do, when they left school early to make good money in building trades and then were thrown out of a job?

In the UK, the economy has been structurally imbalanced for a long time towards financial services. It cannot possibly make sense for 25% of the economy to be providing financial services to the other parts, many of them not even needing financial services at all. When we are sensitised to it we can see that many things have been financialised that were better as they were. People on the inside recognise that great swathes of professionals make fat salaries dealing with other people’s pensions: one of the results is that pensions are very bad value and often inadequate to pensioners’ needs.

It is possible to understand structural imbalance towards financial services intellectually without feeling how it threatens everyone in the economy. This post is about what that feeling of threat leads to, in the way of pressure for change that remains implicit. Working class people used to know absolutely that people were getting rich off the backs of their labour. We have lost the consciousness without losing the reality.

I checked with a sensitive colleague whether she could feel the effect of the gross structural imbalance produced by financial services in the UK and she had no problem. She feels somewhat dirty and degraded to be part of it. When I worked with victims of the excess of financial professionals, people just felt ground down and depressed and helpless.

Correcting structural imbalance is a big political task, a huge task. David Graeber says that President Obama looked at the three million people employed in back office jobs to administer peoples’ insurance claims, and backed off.[3] But that looks to me like 200 billion dollars of unproductive labour in the health industry, an industry with a reputation for waste and ineffectiveness. 600,000 people go bankrupt in the US per year because of medical bills. They know what structural imbalance feels like and they probably don’t think of it that way.

Educational privilege

Educational privilege is structural too in the UK and elsewhere. We unthinkingly attribute acquired privilege to personal attainment, which insidiously limits talent and social mobility. Here is Carol Black:

· The structural advantages that accrue to people who are “good at school” & that harm people who think & learn in other ways.

· The mistaken belief that people who are “good at school” are more intelligent than people who think & learn in other ways.

· The belief that people who are “good at school” actually deserve the privilege that comes with grades, test scores, & degrees.

· The belief that the only way to help people who are not “good at school” is to help them be more like people who are “good at school.”

· The belief that social hierarchies based in school performance are in some sense natural, inevitable, & consistent with justice & morality.

The belief that school performance is anything other than a biased social construct that advantages some people by disadvantaging others.

We can actually feel how a society built on educational privilege in this way chokes on itself and becomes an unpleasant place to live. If you like, everyone is subtly or grossly forced out of shape. It doesn’t actually matter whether you are the one with the silver spoon in your mouth and an Eton education or whether school failed you altogether. There are plenty of buffoons with Eton educations in public life and jail is overstocked with people who were never given even half a chance but both make for a society that can’t learn and work.

John Raven has a narrative about how kids who were forced to be survivors in early life carry that instinct with them. The very bright ones sometimes do well in our school system, get into senior positions in big companies and wreak havoc because their survival instincts mean they cannot make decisions that are good for everyone: they pursue narrow advantage at all costs.

We can certainly feel the way educational privilege induces hopelessness and despair. Whether we can connect the dots and recognise that it is precisely this totally irrational privilege that produces these feelings in us is another matter. It is almost as though we need to have a checklist on the wall and repeatedly ask ourselves “is my mood today connected to this injustice or that social evil? Am I able to feel what the falsely entitled or the stupidly trashed members of my society do to my sense of community?”.

Climate instability

It is a cliché much exploited in books and films that excess heat in the weather leads to friction and anger in human affairs. So maybe looking at climate change as a structural factor is the easiest example. For the people under the heat dome or in the path of the typhoon, the most basic practical necessities can easily become a pressing and very visible problem.

What I try to observe is the degree to which people tell themselves and their friends that things are different now, that different rules apply and that the old social relations are going to change whether anyone accepts that or not. This brings us back to the subtler causes of the Arab Spring.

Every day, thousands of pages are published and thousands of hours are broadcast by the media. But scarcely any of this space and time is made available for the issues that count. This is denial on an industrial scale. George Monbiot

We have always had weather. Even extreme weather. Trees get blown down, landslips slip, houses get flooded, forest fires burn out of control. Individuals suffer damage, loss, and injury. Whole villages and towns can suffer, whole regions can be devastated. And somewhere in that range of events we move from what might be expected to things that people cannot expect on the basis of their experience of the past. They don’t expect a couple of metres of sea level rise. They don’t expect heat and drought at temperatures not seen in the record and year after year.

And climate change is both local and global. Regions such as the Sahara and Australia have turned into deserts during recorded history. Some of that change is down to the US love of cars and the corruption of big oil, and some of it is down to farming and hunting practices. Where people choose to locate the nexus of “we must act before it is too late” is fascinating. There is no precedent to follow but they must throw their energies into a programme of action. Truly a focussing of the human situation down to its nub: do we need to fight each other, develop programmes to change industrial energy use or reform our farming to help cool geographical regions? How does everything in our lives shift when we commit?

Bodily biochemistry

We face a complete wall of misinformation about how our bodies work. So strangely, our experience of how our bodies behave is in some respects not our own. We have an experience of being bodily but in a way far from how we were designed to work. That affects everything in our lives: our mental acuity, the power systems in society and what we are sold, the health of our children, the nature of the chronic diseases we suffer and invest so much in “curing”, even our lifespans.

So, when we try to think through in a practical way who we are and what we need to do, the basis on which that thinking happens is perverted before we start. It is not for nothing that our culture emphasises individual freedom and responsibility: it is precisely because that is what is taken away from us. The big factors that we are considering in this blog post are part of, but also overlay, the craziness of our societies. I think of the old joke: what the world suffers from is apathy, but then who cares about apathy.

As an example, there is much in the zeitgeist about people, especially young people, turning vegan. They think it is trendy, healthy, and planet-saving. They feel better for a while, for a hosts of reasons including the fact that they are finding meaning in food and typically turning away from the worst junk food. Then they start getting ill, as many vegans suffer from subtle malnutritions that they try to address by becoming more strictly vegan and eating various so-called superfoods. What is the chance that they are going to discover that they need to be eating lots of red meat?

Vegans have produced arguments about not being cruel to animals and about how eating animals uses more of the earth’s resources. How are they going to discover that you can achieve regional cooling of arid regions by a properly managed ruminant based agriculture, and that there is no other way to lock up vast amounts of carbon in the soil? In a time of less crisis, people might expect these blind alleys to work themselves out. But when we are approaching last chance saloon, these well-meaning delusions could easily be fatal to us all.

So, our ability to think, and to think with the flexibility our bodies evolved to use, is as far from an academic concern as it is possible to get. We need to experience and then firmly locate what is our ecosystem place and function, and what it feels like to be there and what it feels like to lose our way.

[1] For a long time, the best prediction of tomorrow’s weather was that it would be the same as today’s weather. Not always true by any stretch, but vastly more accurate than the algorithms of the day could manage.

[2] Recent political examples, of course, include the Brexit leave vote (unthinkable!), Trump (unthinkable!), and a second-round presidential election in France forcing a choice between the far-right candidate and the far-left candidate (unthinkable!). One of those didn’t happen, but could have.

[3] A Danish ambulance company expanded its operations to the USA. In Denmark, they have a part time person to handle the billing, sending four invoices each month (one to each region of the country). In the US, they need a small army of accounts receivables clerks to handle invoicing each insurer separately in each state…

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Aidan Ward

Aidan Ward

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Smallholder rapidly learning about the way the world works