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South Africa

OPINIONISTA: Greta Thunberg is wonderful — and brilliantly right!

Her challenge of ‘Fairy tales of eternal economic growth’ at the United Nations Climate Change Action Summit in September provoked a reaction from her critics.

They did not like it because economic growth is what most political leaders, economists and the media promote daily. “We have to get our economy growing, we have to raise our GDP,” as if economic growth is the panacea to all our troubles. What critics chose to overlook was the beginning of her statement: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money…”

Isn’t that true? Have we not made money the centre of our concerns? We hear daily on the radio, television and read in newsprint the state of the economy, the stock exchange, the currency exchange rates, and of course, the price of oil and gold. In his well-known election slogan in 1992, Bill Clinton said, “It’s the economy, stupid”. But it’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the planet! We don’t need economic growth. We need growth in justice, equity and well-being.

We are entirely dependent on the well-being of the planet, yet we are in the process of destroying all its life. Instead of pursuing money — wealth — we should pursue the well-being of people and planet. That should be the goal and objective of our endeavours and our lives. When the well-being of the planet becomes our priority, we will find wellbeing for people.

Climate change is only a symptom, a clear message that we are disrupting and destroying our life support systems. As more and more species become extinct, so our web of life unravels and our very survival is imperilled. Our goal must be for a healthy planet sustaining all life and ensuring our survival.

At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the concept of sustainable development was formulated, based on the three pillars of economics, environment and society, or profit, planet and people. Each platform was to be pursued inter-dependently, balancing the needs of the planet and people. The reality has been the total domination of economics over people and our planet.

Since the 1960s, scientists have been warning of the danger fossil fuels pose to the climate, but world leaders have consistently failed to take the steps necessary to secure a sustainable future. Why?

We have built our 20th-century civilisation on fossil fuel, and are now being held captive to the fossil-fuel industry and its capitalist owners, who don’t want to let go.

We have become dependent on fossil fuel for transport, for agriculture, for industry. Fossil fuel drove the green revolution with fossil-based chemical inputs and massive machines which plough, plant, fertilise, poison and harvest, doing people out of jobs and destroying the soil and natural environment in the process.

But the overriding reason for the lack of any will to change is the enormous amount of money the fossil fuel capitalists have invested. This means they have to keep drilling and excavating, regardless, and ensure that the media and politicians are in league. A study earlier this year found that the largest five stock-market-listed oil and gas companies spend nearly $200-million each year lobbying to delay, control or block policies to tackle climate change. (The Guardian 22 March 2019).

Trump even stated that he had to withdraw from the Paris Agreement because it would be “bad for American business”. He and the fossil fuel industry clearly believe that a flourishing dollar is more important than life. Such behaviour is wicked because climate change is already causing massive suffering, havoc, death and destruction, particularly among poor communities who don’t have resources to recover. As a matter of urgency, ecocide should be added to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

The great tragedy of the climate crisis is that 7.5 billion people must pay the price — in the form of a degraded planet — so that a couple of dozen polluting interests can continue to make record profits. It is a great moral failing of our political system that we have allowed this to happen,” said Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist, in The Guardian (14 October 2019).

We need to end neoliberal Washington consensus capitalism, which is so pernicious, unjust and destructive. It is premised on and requires growth — constant growth, which means mining more, producing more, selling more, and expanding around the globe to gobble up smaller companies and local initiatives. Neoliberal capitalism has strongly maintained that capital must be free to go where it can get the best returns, regardless of the consequences to the natural environment or the well-being of people. As a result, we have experienced deregulation and the unravelling of environmental protection. “Fairy tales of eternal economic growth” on a finite planet with finite resources, with no regard for a safe and secure future.

Capitalism encourages us to be selfish and self-centred, to consume more, and get into debt to do so. This benefits the owners of capital, but the resources of this planet are not limitless. What right have we to exploit them all, as if there is no future? Why don’t we make goods that last, that can be repaired and reused? We have to keep on manufacturing and selling to keep those in mining and industry and retail in jobs. As a young person in the US, I recall hearing that it was a patriotic duty to buy a new car every year to keep employment and the economy rising. In her book “This Changes Everything — Capitalism vs the Climate”, Naomi Klein lists disastrous investments and “developments” that were driven by profit, not by what was right or good for people and planet.

Here in Cape Town, why would the City allow the Philippi Horticultural Area, Cape Town’s vegetable basket and unique aquifer, to be concreted over, other than for the money to be made from higher land prices and increased rates? Our economic system allows money to dominate over our wellbeing, instead of serving our needs. However, we can’t survive without our life-support systems of clean water, fertile soil and unpolluted air with a reliable climate.

Economists tell us that profit requires economies of scale. South Africa lost an excellent clothing industry because we could not meet the “economies of scale” of Chinese and Eastern industry. That undercutting did not take into account the social and human impact of lost jobs or the environmental impact of transporting goods halfway around the globe. With profit as the dominant motive, the impact on community, people and the planet are put aside. Africa’s wonderful tradition and philosophy — Ubuntu — has been undermined by capitalism.

Fossil fuel capitalism doesn’t want to let us have our freedom, but we can and we will change, because the climate crisis and planet require it, and we now have the means and resources to do so. There are amazing developments in renewable energy, including energy storage, which is cheaper than fossil fuel and nuclear. The question is whether we will change before it is too late, before the planet reacts with even greater ferocity.

From Christian Scriptures we read “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” “You cannot serve God and wealth”

For a sustainable future, we humans must overcome our self-centred arrogance and recognise that we are part of the web of life, with the rest of creation. We not only need to recognise, but care for and love this web of life, this incredible planet of such abundance, beauty and variety. A great challenge lies before us. It is to preserve and pass on this magnificent world to Greta’s generation, so they can experience the joy of well-being in safe, secure and healthy communities. DM

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