As Society Unravels, the Future Is Up for Grabs

As civilization faces an existential crisis, our leaders demonstrate their inability to respond. Theory of change shows that now is the time for radically new ideas to transform society before it’s too late.

Image result for resilience: As Society Unravels, the Future Is Up for Grabs

Of all the terrifying news bombarding us from the burning of the Amazon, perhaps the most disturbing was the offer of $22 million made by France’s President Emmanuel Macron and other G7 leaders to help Brazil put the fires out. Why is that? The answer can help to hone in on the true structural changes needed to avert civilizational collapse.

Scientists have publicly warned that, at the current rate of deforestation, the Amazon is getting dangerously close to a die-back scenario, after which it will be gone forever, turned into sparse savanna. Quite apart from the fact that this would be the greatest human-made ecological catastrophe in history, it would also further accelerate a climate cataclysm, as one of the world’s great carbon sinks would convert overnight to a major carbon emitter, with reinforcing feedback effects causing even more extreme global heating, ultimately threatening the continued existence of our current civilization.

Macron and the other leaders meeting in late August in Biarritz were well aware of these facts. And yet, in the face of this impending disaster, these supposed leaders of the free world, representing over half the economic wealth of all humanity, offered a paltry $22 million—less than Americans spend on popcorn in a single day. By way of context, global fossil fuel subsidies (much of it from G7 members) total roughly $5.2 trillion annually—over two hundred thousand times the amount offered to help Brazil fight the Amazon fires.

Brazil’s brutal president Bolsonaro is emerging as one of the worst perpetrators of ecocide in the modern world, but it’s difficult to criticize his immediate rejection of an amount that is, at best a pittance, at worst an insult. True to form, Donald Trump didn’t bother to turn up for the discussion on the Amazon fires, but it hardly made a difference. The ultimate message from the rest of the G7 nations was they were utterly unable, or unwilling, to lift a finger to help prevent the looming existential crisis facing our civilization.

Why Aren’t They Doing Anything?

This should not be news to anyone following the unfolding twin disasters of climate breakdown and ecological collapse. It’s easy enough to be horrified at Bolsonaro’s brazenness, encouraging lawless ranchers to burn down the Amazon rainforest to clear land for soybean plantations and cattle grazing, but the subtler, and far more powerful, forces driving us to the precipice come from the Global North. It’s the global appetite for beef consumption that lures Brazil’s farmers to devastate one of the world’s most precious treasure troves of biodiversity. It’s the global demand for fossil fuels that rewards oil companies for the wanton destruction of pristine forest.

There is no clearer evidence of the Global North’s hypocrisy in this regard than the sad story of Ecuador’s Yasuní initiative. In 2007, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa proposed an indefinite ban on oil exploration in the pristine Yasuní National Park—representing 20% of the nation’s oil deposits—as long as the developed world would contribute half the cost that Ecuador faced by foregoing oil revenues. Initially, wealthier countries announced their support for this visionary plan, and a UN-administered fund was established. However, after six years of strenuous effort, Ecuador had received just 0.37% of the fund’s target. With sorrow, the government announced it would allow oil drilling to begin.

The Yasuni National Park is now open to oil exploration, following the Global North’s inaction. (Audubon/Neil Ever Osborne)

The simple lesson is that our global leaders currently have no intention to make even the feeblest steps toward changing the underlying drivers of our society’s self-destruction. They are merely marching in lockstep to the true forces propelling our global civilization: the transnational corporations that control virtually every aspect of economic activity. These, in turn, are driven by the requirement to relentlessly increase shareholder value at all cost, which they do by turning the living Earth into a resource for reckless exploitation, and conditioning people everywhere to become zombie consumers.

This global system of unregulated neoliberal capitalism was unleashed in full fury by the free market credo of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and has since become the underlying substrate of our politics, culture, and economics. The system’s true cruelty, destructiveness, and suicidal negligence are now showing themselves in the unraveling of our world order, as manifested in the most extreme inequality in history, the polarized intolerance of political discourse, the rise in desperate climate refugees, and a natural world that is burning upmelting down, and has already lost most of its nonhuman inhabitants.

How Change Happens

Studies of past civilizations show that all the major criteria that predictably lead to civilizational collapse are currently confronting us: climate change, environmental degradation, rising inequality, and escalation in societal complexity. As societies begin to unravel, they have to keep running faster and faster to remain in the same place, until finally an unexpected shock arrives and the whole edifice disintegrates.

It’s a terrifying scenario, but understanding its dynamics enables us to have greater impact on what actually happens than we may realize.  MORE

Governments Created the Housing Crisis. Here’s How They Can Fix It

The roots of our housing crisis: austerity, debt and extreme speculation.

‘Developers were only too happy to keep building safety deposit boxes in the sky, helping domestic and foreign capital — rather than people — find a home.’ Photo by Magnus Larsson, Creative Commons licensed.

We’re now 10 years on from the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Or, as our national mythology puts it, 10 years since Canada breathed a deep sigh of relief as the crisis mostly grazed our economy and financial system.

Since 2008, we’ve had 10 years of congratulatory back-patting over our system of financial regulation, 10 years of low inflation and low interest rates, 10 years of periodically oil-driven economic growth — and 10 years of exploding housing prices, of renovictions and demovictions, of working people pushed out of some cities and a real estate investment bonanza for the homegrown and foreign rich.

The neoliberal state we’ve inherited prides itself on not interfering with or, god forbid, regulating markets and financial flows except when inaction might be systemically destabilizing. Unfortunately for the government, our housing sector needs patching up — even if it means breaking out the red tape.

Both Ontario and British Columbia have instituted foreign buyers taxes. B.C. has also implemented a mildly progressive property tax on homes valued at over $3 million and increased property transfer tax rates. Vancouver has an empty homes tax starting this year.

These measures, which are welcome and contributing to cooling the two most haywire housing markets (Vancouver and Toronto) in terms of both sales and price growth, are nonetheless insufficient to the scale of Canada’s housing affordability crisis.

Luckily, the alternative policy toolbox is full for those willing to make use of it. Here are some of the sharper implements:

    • The direct provision of non-market housing. The public sector should be an aggressive “builder of first resort” that embarks on a massive build-out of high-quality, democratic, non-market housing that the poor, working and middle classes can afford. Direct publicly provided housing, private non-profit housing, co-ops and community land trusts are all good options. Not only would a rapid build-out eliminate some of the current stigma around social housing, it would directly challenge both the primacy of the market and the prices it currently sets. And it would pay for itself in the long run, courtesy of the joint magic of state-backed credit, existing public urban land and cross-subsidization.
    • Stronger tenant protections and rent controls. These measures help people stay in their homes, reduce potential future income streams from land and bring tenancy closer to ownership in terms of stability, security and control.
    • An end to exclusive zoning in cities. We can carefully dismantle the system of exclusion that maintains a false scarcity of land and keeps significant portions of our cities off limits to renters and workers. At the same time, we should introduce measures to capture any increases in land values to incumbent owners and redirect that money to the public good.
    • Reform of the tax system. Several tax changes would make housing less attractive as an investment relative to other assets and generally increase carrying costs. These include progressive and overall higher property taxes geared toward the taxation of land value at the local level, taxes on capital gains from short-term speculation at the provincial level, and an end to preferential treatment of capital gains at the federal level.
    • More generous public pensions. Less pressure on housing as a retirement asset would bring the value of homes and land more in line with their role as places to live.



Ford government slashes funding to research institutes focused on artificial intelligence

The Ford Government is a textbook example of extreme neoliberal policy: reduce government and regulations to a minimum; cut taxes; let business operate freely without restrictions; encourage investment and embrace the free market to deliver growth, maximum profits — all leading to prosperity. Question: Is this making your life better?

Yoshua Bengio, an artificial intelligence pioneer and CIFAR fellow, says the institute helped position Canada as an international leader in AI.

The Ford government has axed provincial funding for two institutes credited with positioning Ontario and Canada at the forefront of artificial intelligence research — a field the government’s own prosperity think tank says must be supported if the province wants to remain competitive and create jobs in a booming technology sector.

The Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade cut $20 million from the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence and $4 million annually from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), which supports a hub of AI-focused computer scientists. Both draw funding from the federal government and other sources and say they will adjust programming or operations.

A prosperity think tank funded by the ministry concluded in a report last year that Ontario has a “rich AI ecosystem led by some of the world’s best AI scientists and business thinkers,” thanks in part to early investment in basic research. The report cited the Vector Institute as an attractor of high-profile talent to the region.

The report’s key recommendation: “It is imperative that the province stay ahead of the curve and support the research and development of this technology, so that we stay at the leading edge of AI innovation.”

The think tank that issued the report, the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, was itself axed by the government and closed its doors last week after 18 years. It was the research arm of a task force created by then premier Mike Harris in 2001 and was designed to examine policies that could help Ontario become more competitive. MORE


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