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An open letter to Owen Paterson, the new environment secretary

Robin McKie, The Guardian

Dear Owen

Welcome to your new job as secretary of state for the environment. I predict an interesting spell in office – for you certainly come with unusual credentials. You have virtually no record of making environmental pronouncements of any consequence or for showing concerns about ecological or climatic issues. You say you loathe wind turbines, a source of renewable energy on which Britain was supposed to be becoming reliant, while it is also said that you are a proponent of fracking, the extraction of shale gas, a process that would cause major increases in UK carbon emissions.

For good measure you arrive at your new post with the strong endorsement of Britain’s chief climate change denier, Nigel Lawson, the former chancellor who now believes his legacy of laissez-faire economics is being undermined by unnecessary curbs to carbon emissions and who has committed himself to the obstruction of such reforms.

It is quite a CV, and you can appreciate why those concerned with scientific issues might be worried. Apart from your own dubious record, several other individuals given cabinet posts last week have also voiced startling, unorthodox views.

…Hence my letter to you, Mr Paterson. In taking charge of UK environmental affairs, you have been handed a task that has never been more important. It needs to be directed with pressing urgency: ice sheets are melting, sea levels rising and farmland is turning to desert across the globe as temperatures rise.

Hundreds of millions of people are destined to lose their homes in the next few decades unless we take action now. Britain, which gave birth to the industrial revolution and which became the first country to pump significant excesses of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, has a special responsibility to the world. If nothing else, we need to set an example and end our reliance on the burning of fossil fuels to generate power.

And that is what worries me about your appointment. By all accounts you are a charming, pro-foxhunting, country gentleman who has an intense love of his North Shropshire constituency but who has yet to demonstrate any recognition of the global nature of the environmental crisis we face (though I acknowledge your 2010 green paper on fisheries management reveals an appreciation of the current crises affecting the oceans). Humanity is now going through the latter stages of an experiment far greater than the hunt for the Higgs boson or the decoding of the human genome. As we pump more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thereby melting ice caps, destroying precious ecosystems and eradicating species in their thousands, we are creating a future for ourselves that becomes less and less certain and more and more hostile…
(8 September 2012)

“The 1%”: The Pluses and Minuses of an Historic Term

Paul Street, ZCommunications
Six Difficulties

It’s not for nothing that I put “the 1%” in quotation marks in the title of a study I am drafting on the subject of who rules America. I have six related difficulties with the potent populist term popularized by the Occupy Wall Street movement and mainstream media last year – “the 1%” and its corollary (the other side of the populist coin) “the 99%.”

Capitalists and Capitalism

First, reflecting my own Left background, I would prefer that we call the United States’ economic elite capitalists. “Calling them capitalists,” the left anarchist Mike Albert explained last fall, “pinpoints that they own the economy …that the 1% are on top by virtue of owning productive property… It clarifies that to get rid of 1% dominating 99% ultimately requires replacing capitalism.”[3] I concur.

…The Corporation

Second, as the veteran liberal wealth disparity critic Chuck Collins notes, “The ‘1 percent’ icon….suggests we should focus on wealthy individuals when we should also be thinking about the role of the wealthiest corporations, sometimes summarized as ‘Wall Street.’”[6] The capitalist class has long pooled investments and organized its profit-seeking operations in those giant and fundamentally pathological “persons” called corporations.[7] The “corporate reconstruction of American capitalism”[8] was completed nearly a century ago and it is largely through the corporation that “the 1%” has gained its wealth and power.

The .001 Percent

Third, strange as it might seem, the top hundredth may actually be too big a slice of the population to highlight when it comes to the question of which Americans have gained most from the nation’s highly skewed and unequal pattern of economic growth over the last three plus decades. Between 1974 and 2007, it is true, the share of U.S. income “earned” by the top U.S. income hundredth more than doubled – from 8 to 18 percent. Including capital gains, the increase goes from 9 to 24 percent, the 1%’s highest share since 1928, the eve of the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression.

…“The Rule Riggers”

Fourth, “the 1%” is internally fragmented in a different, political sense between those within the top hundredth who are most engaged in and responsible for the nation’s increasing inequalities and those who are not. Collins makes an important point:

‘…a small segment of the of the top 1 percent – with an organized base in Wall Street’s financial institutions – has worked over many years to rig the rules of the economy in favor of the 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent….Not everyone in the top 1 percent is to blame for rigging the rules. Nor is everyone in the bottom 99 percent without blame for the growth of inequality. Within the 1 percent are people who have devoted their lives to building a healthy economy that works for everyone. The focus of our concern and organizing should be the “rule riggers” within the 1 percent – those who use their power and wealth to influence the game so that they and their corporations get more power and wealth.’

We do not have to exempt more passive and more well-intentioned “1 percenters” from, our critical focus to note the relevance of the political and ideological divisions Collins notes within the top hundredth.

The 10 and 20 Percents

Fifth, if “the 1%” is too large from one angle of egalitarian vision, it is too small from another such angle. By 2007, the top wealth 1 percent owned more than a third (34 percent) of the nation’s accumulated and privately held wealth, including 43 percent of the nation’s financial net worth, 38 percent of all privately held stock, 61 percent of financial securities, and 62 percent of business equity. This is terrible enough from an egalitarian perspective, but I am not sure it isn’t more disturbing to learn that the top tenth (“the 10 percent”) owns two-thirds of the nation’s wealth (including 90 percent of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and more than three fourths of non-home real estate)[11] and/or that the top quintile (“the 20 percent”’) owns 84 percent of the same pile. Think about it: more than four-fifths of the American populace is left to fight it out for a sixth of the nation’s wealth. As it happens, more than 100 million Americans are getting absolutely nowhere in that fight. As the Public Broadcasting System reported in the summer of 2011, on the eve of Occupy Wall Street’s emergence, the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. has 0.3 percent of the nation’s wealth, basically nothing.

Are We Really the 99%?

Sixth, if “the 1%” is far too small to capture the real depth and degree of American class inequality, then the corollary term “the 99%” is certainly too large to capture the group of people without power and privilege. Do we really want to pretend that everyone beyond the top hundredth – “the rest of us” – can be meaningfully considered a common group and actor? That would be a rather simplistic and populist application of a two-class “Marxist” model calling the top hundredth “the bourgeoisie” and everyone else “the proletariat.” In reality, there are of course plenty of fortunate, class-advantaged Americans beneath but often allied to “the 1%” – to the capitalist elite and its corporate system. These intermediate elites may not generally own “the means of production” (or the means of distribution, the means of finance, the means of transportation or the means of communication, etc.) or vast amounts of productive or personal property. They may not enjoy remarkable “earnings” and opulent lifestyles on the scale of the truly rich. Still, they do generally garner wealth and incomes well beyond the norm and enjoy intimately related and relatively privileged, autonomous, and empowered positions in the corporate structure and organization of work…

(7 September 2012)

We Are Now One Year Away From Global Riots, Complex Systems Theorists Say

Brian Merchant, Morther Board
What’s the number one reason we riot? The plausible, justifiable motivations of trampled-upon humanfolk to fight back are many—poverty, oppression, disenfranchisement, etc—but the big one is more primal than any of the above. It’s hunger, plain and simple. If there’s a single factor that reliably sparks social unrest, it’s food becoming too scarce or too expensive. So argues a group of complex systems theorists in Cambridge, and it makes sense.

In a 2011 paper, researchers at the Complex Systems Institute unveiled a model that accurately explained why the waves of unrest that swept the world in 2008 and 2011 crashed when they did. The number one determinant was soaring food prices. Their model identified a precise threshold for global food prices that, if breached, would lead to worldwide unrest.

The MIT Technology Review explains how CSI’s model works: “The evidence comes from two sources. The first is data gathered by the United Nations that plots the price of food against time, the so-called food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. The second is the date of riots around the world, whatever their cause.”…

Pretty simple. Black dots are the food prices, red lines are the riots. In other words, whenever the UN’s food price index, which measures the monthly change in the price of a basket of food commodities, climbs above 210, the conditions ripen for social unrest around the world. CSI doesn’t claim that any breach of 210 immediately leads to riots, obviously; just that the probability that riots will erupt grows much greater. For billions of people around the world, food comprises up to 80% of routine expenses (for rich-world people like you and I, it’s like 15%). When prices jump, people can’t afford anything else; or even food itself. And if you can’t eat—or worse, your family can’t eat—you fight.

But how accurate is the model? An anecdote the researchers outline in the report offers us an idea. They write that “on December 13, 2010, we submitted a government report analyzing the repercussions of the global financial crises, and directly identifying the risk of social unrest and political instability due to food prices.” Four days later, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest food prices in Tunisia. And we all know what happened after that…

(10 September 2012)