Saturday, November 03, 2007

Neo-liberalism and consumerism: common enemies of community and citizens.

The title of this article is somewhat grand, but i don't have any grand insights, only a few thoughts that have recently came together in my mind. A bit of background should help to explain where i am coming from: I have been brought up in the Cairngorms of Scotland. If any one characteristic where to be said to define my personality it would be curiosity, i have always asked why. This has never been a methodical or organised enquiry, i went on to study science at university but this could hardly be said to be a natural aptitude of mine. Recently i have become interested in climate change, a tremendously broad subject. This has brought me in to contact with a wide range of political writings along with the more obvious climate science, policy and mitigation options.

As a chemistry graduate climate change was not a difficult subject to come to grasps with in terms of its basics. However, the politics is not simple. Climate change, much to my disdain, cannot be dealt with as a technocratic issue. The problem is not one of turning a valve to reduce carbon emissions.

Clearly a line has to be drawn somewhere for people worried about the impacts of climate change, we don't want a vast ideology that seems to suggest an impossible utopia, but neither does it make sense for people concerned about biodiversity loss, desertification, health impacts etc., caused by climate change to be unconcerned when they are caused by other means.

I currently think that this larger agenda is sustainability, or the idea of leaving the next generation with the same or greater level of natural wealth that we enjoy.

Sustainability is a specific example of a public commons issue. Neoliberals have carried out an attack on the commons due to the free market position that sees government and collective ownership as inherently bad and that proclaims private ownership as the only way to ensure competent protection of the environment. There are also many who have neoliberal sympathies due to the prescriptions and how they re-inforce power structures. The global economy has globalised but government has not. This is partly due to speed but also due to power which internationally lays in the hands of the corporations these corporations have worked to restrict the globalisation of government in the form of regulation.

This is what the anti-globalisation movement is a reaction against. It is also a situation that is strengthened by unquestioning an politically inactive consumers. The key to this whole problem seems to be lack of relevant information. Consumers by products which companies—primarily large multinationals—have produced in an economically efficient manner i.e. by externalising every possible environmental and social cost. All of this is invisible, primarily through distance, it is also common place, and it is subtle.

There is a complex interplay between media, which distract us, advertisers who earn a living providing goods as an alternative to fulfilment and governments who are reliant on both media and corporate cash.

Many of these ideas are exposed when looking at urban planning, suburbia represents an consumer ideal of sorts, an atomised anti-social market based ideal, and a real world crisis of farm land destruction, wasted resources, a variety of social ills, dependence on oil etc. The contrast between suburbia as conceived in the US and inner city urbanism as exemplified by Copenhagen could not be greater. My recent interest in planning consolidated my various political views, and currently forms an important part of the frame through which i perceive climate change.

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