A 21st century crisis in integrity? We live in vacuous times, which can seem devoid of humanity and decency at a macro level in governments and at a micro level in individual citizens.
Even before cut, UK aid budget less than 1% of money flow from poor to rich countries
Who drives this short-termist, me-first culture? Is it driven by governments’ apathetic and/or unscrupulous natures, or would individuals exhibit it regardless? I tend to believe that the former is, by and large, responsible. Apart from the corrosive effects of inequality (see https://equalitytrust.org.uk/about-inequality/impacts), fostered by government policies, members of the government are highly visible as role models, so surely they set the bar in society? Yet, only a few weeks ago, the UK’s international aid budget lost over £4bn in funding at a time when it should not be reduced. It should be being trebled (or more) to help the Global South address the climate crisis (by and large caused by the Global North), and to support the vaccine rollout. Setting aside the questionable way much aid has historically been spent, think how many lives could be saved if this budget were not being cut and were spent appropriately (see footnote)? How is the Global South going to cope, given also that the aid budget should be viewed in the context of the net flow of income from so-called ‘developing’ to so-called ‘developed’ countries, which is of the order of a staggering £2-3tn a year in 2012 (and there’s no reason to think that this figure has substantially changed)! To be clear, the UK aid budget, before it was cut, was significantly less than 1% of the net outflow of wealth from poor to rich countries! Who is developing and supporting whom?
This funding cut comes months away from what is probably the world’s last chance to tackle the climate crisis. The IPCC report gives stark warnings to all of humanity. COP26, set to be held in Glasgow later this year, must respond to the rallying cry from Indigenous communities and others across the globe asking for the threat of climate change to be taken seriously. Their voices don’t appear to be loud enough to be heard in Westminster. In Pakistan the temperature soared to 52oC (126oF) which a recent report stated was incompatible with human survival. We are passing the tipping point, and if the aid budget cut is anything to go by we don’t appear to care about it. Pakistan is not and will not be the only place impacted by catastrophic climate events; such horror will become ever more frequent for many vulnerable places in the world.
So, integrity is required: doing the right things, saying the difficult stuff, even to those you think don’t want to listen to you or to hear what you must say, showing moral fortitude, developing some backbone even against the ‘me-first’ cultural racism that seems pervasive in the UK. To illustrate this attitude, someone recently posted on my Twitter feed in relation to a tweet about the cuts, saying, ‘Slash it and stash it; our need is greater.’
Self-defeating lunacy and lacklustre leadership
What? The Global South and peasant farmers are the major food producers in the world. If you aren’t yet motivated by altruism and intrinsic values, then perhaps you might like to think on this: when global food supplies are seriously impacted by weather events such as drought or severe storms or flooding, you’ll be going hungry, because we simply do not produce enough food to feed ourselves within the UK. The attitude displayed by the tweeter is not only hideous, it is arguably self-sabotaging. We are facing a world crisis and we in the north will not escape the impacts. Such ignorant, racist and short-termist attitudes are self-defeating lunacy, which must be quashed if society is to make the significant changes required to avoid complete meltdown. The lacklustre leadership we see today across the globe does not appear to have the necessary compassion, humanity and vision. They aren’t up to the scale of the task.
18 new coal-fired power stations
There’s little sign of the necessary integrity and decency on wealthy nations’ governments’ to-do lists, and no meaningful acknowledgment of the climate crisis can be found there. Is COP26 is just another chance to get together on a stage and pretend we care, whilst charging on and doing the opposite in the wings? We cannot simply ignore our problems and pretend they will just go away, carrying on with the business-as-usual which actually exacerbates them. It is reprehensible, incongruent behaviour. It’s bad enough that we are cutting our foreign aid budget, but in another potentially fatal blow to reaching our targets they are also considering allowing the Cambo oil field off Shetland to go ahead. In a recent article, Dr Richard Dixon, of Friends of the Earth Scotland, says the site would produce over 70 million tonnes of CO2, which is the equivalent of opening 18 new coal-fired power stations.
Rubs eyes* – this is astonishing! How can this even be considered at such a perilous time and what does it say about our commitment to COP26? Granted, Nicola Sturgeon’s government has made tremendous efforts to support grassroot organisations like ours to grow and flourish, enabling us, and many like us, to do what we can in a Scottish context. I’d go on to suggest that much of our Scottish Government funding has been enlightened, and the thinking that underpinned this should pervade all of the government apparatus, it is time to go deeper, drive harder, go further. Ms Sturgeon surely must hear the call of her citizens and make a stand against Cambo!
Just as I am astonished that Cambo could even be considered at this time, at a local level I am dumbfounded that the Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) campaign struggles to find support for the change we so desperately need. More cars on the road, more oil… The car lobby has been ferocious, and many residents seem to resent the Places for People movement. If it is too much to seriously restrict the use of private motor vehicles altogether (which is arguably the best option), what on earth is holding up our move to electric vehicles? While there appear to be some charging stations around the country, it looks to me as if the bigger ones are largely sitting empty, without any vehicles charging. There aren’t enough electric cars on the road because they are still very expensive. Yet subsidies for extractive industries abound, and UK military spending is of the order of £50bn/year (dwarfing foreign aid, of course).
Grassroots initiatives leading the way
All is not lost, however. Though many governments have failed and are still largely failing to demonstrate any sign of real care, and whilst we do see real resistance to change on a micro level, there are glimmers of hope, with individuals and communities at a grassroots level, community organisations, and umbrella bodies of these, pushing forward with determination and showing the real moral leadership that governments are so lacking.
In our charity, Earth in Common, and on our flagship urban croft, which we know locally as Leith Community Croft, we strive to build a caring community. In fact, using Non-Violent Communication (NVC) is mentioned in our charitable purposes and has been since the charity’s foundation in 2013. We knew back then what, sadly, we still know today, and that is that if we really want to tackle the climate crisis, we need to cultivate a cultural rEVOLution, putting care at the heart of our movement, compassion both for ourselves and for those around us and, furthermore, for the world – the biosphere – in general. We’ve always set out to foster the notion of responsible global citizens as a foil to the atomised society of short-termist, self-interested ‘consumers’ fostered by neoliberal capitalism.
…And others are doing similar work, with flare and vigour: people are becoming food-producers, seed-savers, forest-gardeners, etc., whether on their own initiative or through the work of pioneering charities like ours or like the incredible Reuben Chesters and his organisation, Locavore, which is making significant strides to replace bigger supermarkets with his local food shops, and just recently secured a contract with East Ayrshire Council for providing school meals. Way to go, East Ayrshire!
In the food sector, I must also mention the Scottish Food Coalition, and its vast array of members, including Nourish, who drive much of its work. They (or we, as we are part of them) are pushing forward with a campaign for a radical Good Food Nation Bill. I implore the Scottish Government to respond positively to these ambitions and not to dilute the upcoming GFN Bill to a mere tinkering around the edges of existing policy, with a few decorative frills thrown in.
Other major Scottish organisations which in their own ways are part of this movement (and are certainly active with regard to campaiging for integrity at an international level) are the Scotland-Malawi Partnership and the International Development Alliance. With their many member organisations, they are working incredibly hard (particularly now, in the run-up to COP26) to shine a light on the havoc climate breakdown is wreaking in the Global South and highlight the fact that we all have the earth in common, and must look after it!
Stewards of the land
Speaking of connections with the international scene, my article would be incomplete without mentioning La Via Campesina, an international food sovereignty movement of peasant farmers across the world calling for more action to radically transform our food system and to support those who live in intimate contact with the land, and who act as wonderful stewards of it.
Also part of the broad movement to reconfigure our relationship with nature and simultaneously look after ourselves, are the people in their thousands being drawn to the sea and rivers as, for example, documented (and further stimulated) by Vicky Allan and Anna Deacon in their book on wild swimming: Taking the Plunge.
Food system transformation and wild swimming: two sides of the same coin
So I believe that while it is easy to become cynical and despondent, there is indeed a revolution in integrity, self-care, community care, and care for nature, of which all the people and organisations I have mentioned (and others) are a part. This phenomenon has swept the nation at a micro level and offers a much-needed antidote to the depressing inaction of governments. If you look for it, you will see it up and down the country, and what might seem disconnected at first, is in fact two sides of the same coin. We are witnessing a movement to connect to nature in multiple ways, whether by putting our hands into the soil or plunging our entire bodies into water, many of us are letting ourselves be immersed in the natural world.
To destroy nature is to destroy ourselves
This desire to become one with nature could be seen as a way of dealing with grief at the state of the world, or even a form of pilgrimage: a sort of apology and homage to nature for the way it has been extracted, polluted, destroyed, neglected. To destroy nature is to destroy ourselves too; we must recognise that we are part of it.
Joyful and impactful
Governments should learn lessons from their people – at least from those engaged in this, as yet relatively unobtrusive, but joyful, and potentially massively impactful, movement. We are not all devoid of humanity and decency.
We are Nature
Modern man does not experience himself as a part of Nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with Nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has now come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realise what this means for the continued existence of humanity.
– extract from E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered (first published in 1973)
Want to meet some of the many people and organisations making a difference? On Saturday 14th August many grassroots organisations, such as Bikes for Refugees, Shrub Coop and Remode Collective will come together to inspire more climate action locally at the Edinburgh Climate Festival on Leith Links.
Footnote: Here is how we think foreign aid should be spent, in accordance with the principles of restorative climate justice: https://tinyurl.com/rcjust.