Monday , December 17 2018
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Dying of wilful ignorance
Image: DigaoSPBR

Dying of (wilful) ignorance

Perhaps the most despicable thing about climate change denial is that the science behind the greenhouse effect is long established.  As I noted in my book – The Consciousness of Sheep:

“French mathematician and physicist, Joseph Fourier, first discovered the ‘greenhouse effect’ in 1824, when he discovered that gases such as water vapour and carbon dioxide can act like a blanket, preventing excess solar energy being radiated back into space.  In the 1850s, British physicist John Tyndall accurately calculated the heat absorption of carbon dioxide.  In 1896, Swedish physicist and chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated the additional impact of fossil fuel emissions.  Although this early science did not offer an accurate prediction of global warming rates, it was sufficient to demonstrate that man-made global warming should be taken seriously.

“Despite the early science, it was only in 1958 that American scientist Charles Keeling began monitoring atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.  Keeling was able to demonstrate that one in every four carbon dioxide atoms in the atmosphere was man-made.  Moreover, Keeling produced the now famous ‘Keeling Curve‘ that demonstrates the causal relationship between human carbon dioxide emissions and global average temperature rises.”

But here we are 193 years after the greenhouse effect was discovered and 59 years after Keeling first began his work, still debating whether human activity adds to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels; and if it does, whether this has any impact on the climate – ignoring, of course that you can now stand up to your shins in floodwater on the sunniest of days in towns and cities along the USA’s eastern seaboard, because the sea level has risen above the drainage systems.  Closer to home, the frequency and severity of north Atlantic storms now threatens to bankrupt the beleaguered UK insurance industry with bi-annual multi-billion pound storm damage claims.  For our peace of mind, we should probably ignore the shift in polar air flows this winter, which resulted in barely below freezing air over the North Pole as polar air brought a freeze to central and southern Europe – along the way killing a large part of the early crops that Europe takes for granted in the lean weeks of February/March.

It should be obvious enough to anyone who has been paying attention to the climate change story that we are not going to do anything to stop global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels.  Indeed, although this is an unpopular thing to say, it is now time for at least some of our leading minds to begin thinking about how we might mitigate at least some of the worst impacts of perhaps 5 or 6 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels.  At least that way, some of you may at least survive the disaster that is coming.

Unfortunately, climate change relates to just one of what have come to be known as “The Three E’s” – Environment, Energy and Economy.  In both energy and economy, we have also been engaged in wilful ignorance to the point that we stand on the edge of disaster.

Ironically, the least critical of these – economy – is the one that most of our efforts are being wasted on.  This, perhaps is because it is the most obvious and the one that affects us most immediately.  In the UK, the economic news sections of the mainstream media look like a war zone.  To give just three example headlines on the BBC website at the time of writing:

UK economy ‘loses momentum’ as services growth slows

‘Long shadow’ of financial crisis hits incomes

Zero hours contracts reach record levels

A great deal of political and journalistic effort has gone into inventing stories to persuade people that these signs of collapse can be blamed on the UK’s decision to leave the EU.  But anybody who has been following economic trends since the crash of 2008 or even earlier will fully understand that in fact it is Brexit – and, indeed, Donald Trump and the rise of the European hard-right – that is the symptom of the collapse that these indicators point to.

Underlying the collapse of our economy is one simple fact – capitalism begins with debt.  Indeed, the terms capital and debt are almost interchangeable.  A capitalist invests (i.e. lends) to a business in order to reap an additional return (profit/interest) on his or her capital.

How is this trick achieved?

This is where the human economy intersects with the real world.  The currency invested is used to pay for the machinery/technology; natural and manufactured-from-natural resources; the energy; and the human labour required to produce a good or service that has more value than its component parts; and that can be sold for a greater return than the original investment.

In the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, which triggered a depression around the world, English Noble Prize winning chemist and economist Frederick Soddy was one of a small band of quickly silenced contrarian economists who set out exactly why the crash and ensuing depression occurred.  The reason, in a word, was counterfeiting.  It ought to be obvious enough.  But we have largely been too polite to mention the fact that people cheat.  And while we prosecute incompetent amateurs  when they create obviously forged notes and coins, we actively reward banks and central banks when they do exactly the same thing.

The point Soddy was getting at was this:  Capital is meant to be a store of pre-existing wealth – you have to give up some wealth in order to lend it.  But in the run up to the 1929 crash, banks had been creating money in the form of debt out of thin air.  Unfortunately, Soddy’s books are currently out of print.  But in my book The Root of All Evil, I use this quote from his book Wealth and Debt: The solution of the economic paradox (he is using the British Imperial System of pounds, shillings and pence – £sd):

“Before the [1914-18] War it was considered “safe” for the banker to keep some £15 per £100 of cash against deposits. That is, for every £100 deposited £15 of cash sufficed for the small cash demands, most of the depositors’ purchasing power being exercised by cheque. We may take this 15 per cent for purpose of illustration only. It is doubtful if as much has been necessary for a very long time.

“Now the whole secret of the system is contained in the fact that when a bank creates a loan and lends £100 to a borrower, to do so it need only have £15 of its depositors’ money, or whatever the “safe” ratio may be.

“Thus, dealing throughout with averages, against the original depositor of £100, £15 of legal tender must be kept in the till, leaving £85 available to be lent to a borrower. It is true this borrower might demand it in cash, but, on the average for him no less than for the original depositor, only 15 per cent of cash, or £12 15s. is necessary, leaving £72 5s. free to be lent to a second borrower. Of this 15 per cent, or £10 17s., again suffices to be retained, leaving £61 8s. available to be lent to a third borrower. So it goes on until each £100 of original cash becomes a total of £666 13s. 4d. Of this £100 are due to the depositor and £566 13s. 4d. is owing to the bank from the borrowers.

“The borrowers have to deposit with the bank acceptable collateral securities, which, if they default, the bank can sell, or try to sell, to recoup itself. But such securities are usually not sold. The bank charges interest upon the fictitious loan. At the modest 5 per cent bank rate the interest on £566 13s. 4d. is £28 6s. 8d. per year, which is, it must be admitted, not a bad return on £100 which the original “depositor” has not lent.

“If the truth were known it would probably be found that this estimate is altogether too modest.  At least since, if not before, the War the figures suggest rather a 7 per cent “safe” limit than 15 per cent. On this basis a cli