It is becoming difficult to know whether we are listening to a professor, a preacher or a politician. Our knowledge, beliefs and values get mixed up while governments and corporations surf on very real interests. Instead of a pact for progress, we get narratives, prayers and stern advice, between commercials. How come we believe this junk?
The human race is always all ears for a fairy tale.
(Lucretius, De rerum natura, 50 AC, (p. 590))
Insistence on a rooted notion regardless of contrary evidence is the source of the self-deception that characterizes folly.
(Barbara Tuchman (p. 224))
The scientific part is not complicated. We are firmly progressing in what has been called a slow-motion catastrophe. The destruction of this solitary earth, our own habitat, through climate change, biodiversity drastic reduction, soil sterilization, water and air pollution, chemical contamination, deforestation and so many surrealistic dramas such as plastics in the seas, in rivers and in our blood. We have all the numbers, statistics, and causality chains, we know what and who is/are responsible. And we have all the information on the social catastrophe, 850 million going hungry, of which some 180 million are children, as well 2.3 billion in food insecurity, and even more with difficult access to safe water. Some 2 billion have no access to electricity, not to speak of digital inclusion. We are destroying our vital environment, for the profit of the few. Where has our rationality gone?
We can shrug it off: poverty has always existed. And pretend we do not know: the plastic in the seas is not always visible, the Amazon is burning but far away, and 2050 seems so far. Omelets and broken eggs and so forth. But the fact is that all this drama is simply not inevitable, and suffering is not necessary. We have all the obvious measures lined out in the 2030 Agenda, 17 goals and 169 objectives. And we have all the technology we need, including the basic income system well experimented with in Brazil and other countries. And of course, we have the financial means. The 100 trillion-dollar world GDP we are reaching this year means that what we produce in goods and services is equivalent to 4200 dollars per month per four-member family. What we presently produce is amply sufficient to ensure everyone has access to basic family needs, comfort and dignity. Of course, we can refer to net national income instead of gross domestic product, or add accumulated fixed capital, but that does not change the basic fact: we are destroying our environment, and generating huge suffering of billions, preparing for a bigger catastrophe still for our children, while we have all the necessary means to revert the dramas. Our problems are not economic, in the sense of lack of resources: they are political and social organization issues.
A simple example helps us get back to earth. The world is facing inflation, and governments, with strong support from financial interests, are raising the basic interest rates, as if economies were overheating, too dynamic. But take energy. Oil production and consumption in the world has been around 90 million barrels a day during the last decades, remarkably stable. But its prices have presented a yo-yo behavior. This is attributed to “markets”, but the fact is that the extraction costs, the volume of supply and final use have not changed significantly. We did not have to wait for the Ukraine conflict for speculation on oil1:
The obvious reason is that these are not “market prices”, which would reflect supply and demand variations, but political decisions. We are facing market makers, not market takers. Oil is a natural resource, it is extracted, not produced. And it belongs to countries, not to corporations. But corporate extractors and traders decide on the prices. It is not an issue of costs, but of power to raise profits. At the end of 2022, “profits at the world’s biggest oil companies have soared to nearly £150bn so far this year as Russia’s war on Ukraine pushed up energy prices, according to estimates from analysts. Britain’s Shell and France’s TotalEnergies on Thursday reported profits for the first nine months of 2022 of $59bn (£51bn). US rivals Chevron and ExxonMobil are expected to report year-to-date earnings approaching $70bn on Friday, while 2022 profits at Britain’s BP could break the $20bn mark on Tuesday. The cumulative takings for the seven biggest private sector oil drillers during the first nine months of 2022 could hit $173bn (£150bn), according to analyst forecasts collated by S&P Global Market Intelligence and reported earnings.”2 Oil profits at Exxon tripled in 12 months.3
As energy use permeates all economic sectors, prices rise throughout the economy. Many governments are subsidizing final users, instead of reducing profits through taxes on windfall profits. The higher prices paid by the population feed these higher profits. Prices do not “go up”, they are raised at the origin, with whatever pretext. Inflation is a transfer of money to Big Oil, and too big traders, and leaking to various sectors. Must we give up the control of natural resources to private speculators? The former Bolsonaro government in Brazil privatized in great part the state-owned Petrobrás, in the name of “fighting corruption” - a polyvalent political narrative – almost doubling prices for a gas canister and at gas stations. It was a political decision, and the money households have to pay is transferred to private corporations in the form of dividends. Is there any scientific justification for giant profits for a natural resource? Attributing the chaos to inevitable market mechanisms belongs to what Michael Hudson has called “Junk Economics”.
These are political choices. The Economist laments that “every year $2.6trn worth of food is wasted – enough to end hunger four times over.”4 Four traders, ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus, control the trade of 80% of the grain. Markets? Are they competing to better satisfy clients? Brazilian food production is in their hands, we produced 3.7 kilos of grain alone per capita in the last harvest, but 33 million go hungry and 125 million are under-nourished.5 The government of India simply blocked exports of wheat and rice, to ensure more food supply to the population. A political decision that feeds the population and keeps prices down. The elephant in the room, when considering the environmental disaster and explosive poverty, is that corporate and social interests have broken up, generating an unsustainable situation.
The last UNRISD (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development) 2022 Report, Crises of Inequality: shifting power for a new eco-social contract, presents the Crédit Suisse figures on wealth concentration, a direct result of the overall income and wealth drain by corporate giants:
To make the figures plain, 1.2% of the richest adults in the world have 47.8% of total wealth, $221.7trn. At the bottom of the pyramid, more than half of humanity, 53.2%, have only $5trn, 1.1% of total wealth. To double the wealth of the poorer half of the population, it would suffice to transfer 2.2% from the wealthiest, which they would hardly notice. The numbers are explosive, and getting rapidly worse. The ‘free market’ has become a giant drain for an unproductive elite, generating a universal drama. The UNRISD Report states the obvious: “Today’s extreme inequalities, environmental destruction and vulnerability to the crisis are not a flaw in the system, but a feature of it. Only large-scale systemic change can resolve this dire situation."6
As the Report states, “our world is in a state of fracture”. The science is there, we know what is happening, and yet the ‘facts’ basically remain buried in technical reports, and the population is insufficiently informed. But it is not only a question of information. In the recent presidential election in Brazil, which Lula won by 1.8%, roughly half the population not only accepted but fought (and keeps fighting) for arguments such as that Lula is a communist, that his government wants to bring children to homosexuality, that the world wants to take over “our” Amazon forest, and so many completely absurd arguments, meekly accepted by intelligent people, technicians with university degrees, normal people, not just gun-toting extremists. In the political debates, we did not discuss what is necessary to preserve the environment, generate jobs, reduce inequality, or expand schooling: basically, the issue was around “Deus, Pátria, Família”.
With the priority of moral judgment and religious arguments, screeching nationalism, gun-toting in the name of Jesus, and the national flag spread on so many shoulders, we are facing people with hate in their eyes, a set of attitudes so well presented by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind. With what ease people are taken over by fanaticism, becoming unreachable by common-sense arguments, rationality and science. This is not particularly Brazilian, of course, and stimulating the irrational features that are so powerful in all of us, has become a major political tool. The same Dio, Patria, Famiglia resonated in the election of Meloni in Italy, Erdogan in Turkey, Duda in Poland, Orban in Hungary, Le Pen in France, Duterte in the Philippines, Netanyahu in Israel, Kristersson in Sweden, not to speak of the sickening discourse of Donald Trump or the absurdities of Brexit, as well as so many local politicians’ discourse. We must bring much more effort into rationally understanding our irrational dimensions.
Mark Twain was very taken by these issues, as he saw society “having wars all the time, and raising armies and building navies, and striving after the approval of God every way they could. And wherever there was a savage country that needed civilizing, they went there and took it, and divided it up among the several enlightened monarchs, and civilized it – each monarch in his own way, but generally with Bibles and bullets and taxes. And the way they did whoop-up Morals, and Patriotism, and Religion, and the Brotherhood of Man was noble to see.”(182)7 This is powerful, and it is essential we separate religious feeling, spirituality, which we find in so many civilizations, from its political use in different structures of power, using divinities to justify anything, a trend becoming so generalized with the social media, algorithms and industrial-scale manipulation technologies allow.
“Reason can take you anywhere you want to go”, writes Haidt. (122)8 He qualifies the deformed use of rationality as confirmatory thinking, motivated reasoning, or the partisan brain. (81, 88) Barbara Tuchman, in trying to understand The March of Folly, refers to self-hypnosis, as well as to self-righteousness. (269, 271) “Psychologists call the process of screening out discordant information ‘cognitive dissonance,’ an academic disguise for ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts’.” (322)9 But what is particularly shocking, is the scale in which the corporate world supports and funds these manipulations, particularly plain in the US Republican sphere, but also in Brazil, bringing votes and support to the destruction of the environment, privatizations, and evangelical fortunes.
The fact is also that so many economists have meekly transformed science into a justification of interests they know are destructive, so many lawyers are defending absurdities, in the name of loyalty to their clients, and so many journalists professionally spread lies and hate with the power of TVs like Fox News in the US and so many channels in Brazil. We are not only heading toward a systemic catastrophe, we are losing our capacity to cope with it, basic public decision process control. Democracy? Quo Vadis?
1 UNCTAD – Trade and Development Report 2022 p. 13.
2 The Guardian, October 27, 2022.
3 Sharon Zhang. Truthout. October 28, 2022.
4 The Economist, October 27, 2022.
5 Tereza Campello e Ana Paula Bortoletto (Orgs.). Da Fome à Fome. Ed. Elefante, São Paulo, 2022.
6 UNRISD. Crises of Inequality: shifting power for a new eco-social contract Geneva, 2022.
7 Mark Twain. The Bible According to Mark Twain. Touchstone, 1995.
8 Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion. Pantheon Books, New York, 2012.
9 Barbara Tuchman. The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam. Random House, New York, 2014.