Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Quotation Nation

Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more expensive goods, houses and technology; pushing them to take more and more expensive credit, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalized and the State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism - Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1867.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gift Of The Givers

We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it - Wendell Berry

Let us be clear; the purpose of non-accumulation is not to exculpate oneself from the crimes of a money based civilization. That is merely ego. You don't get virtue points for poverty; non-accumulation is not a goal in and of itself. The goal is to enjoy true wealth, the wealth of connection and flow; rather than the counterfeit wealth of having. But what if you have wealth beyond what you can share in the ordinary flow of life?

To the conscientious person, such wealth might seem to be more a burden than a gift. We are bound, and we are pleased, to make right use of what we have been given. Wealth is no exception. Those who are blessed and cursed with a lot of it have no more reason to abdicate its duties than anyone has to spurn the gifts, responsibilities, and opportunities to serve that we are each born with.

Excess wealth, whether inherited from family or from an earlier time in one's own life, carries with it a desire to use it well. It is a dharma, a call to service. The challenge of excess wealth is to give of it in a way that is beautiful. This is the kind of investment that is aligned with a future economy in which status comes from giving, not having; and security comes not from accumulation, but from being a nexus of flow.

Can we do away with the word and concept of investment altogether? Consider its etymology: it means to clothe, as in to take naked money and put it into new vestments, something material, something real in the physical or social realm. Money is naked human potential-creative energy that has not yet been "clothed" with material or social constructions. True investment is to array money in sacred vestments: to use it to create, protect and sustain the things that are becoming sacred to us today. These are the same things that will form the backbone of tomorrow's economy.

How obvious it is that sacred investing has little to do with turning a profit. If you want to help the village, then give a woman a cow. Or if her dignity demands it, lend the money at zero interest (which is a gift of the use of money). If you care more about increasing your monetary wealth instead, then do that instead and forget the pretense. The saying is true: you cannot serve two masters. In both the examples, at some point the conflicting agendas come to the surface; and one must choose. But, this choice will no longer pertain in a sacred economy - the two will be united.

If you want to create a world of gratitude, a world of the gift, you can start by using today's money; while it still exists, to create more gratitude in the world. If we have a large enough reservoir of gratitude, then our society can withstand practically anything. Again, we live in a world of fundamental abundance that we have, through our beliefs and habits, rendered artificially poor. So badly have we damaged planet and spirit that it will require a full outpouring of all our gifts to heal it. The outpouring of gifts comes from gratitude. Therefore, the best investment you can make with your money is to generate gratitude. It doesn't matter if the gratitude recognizes you as the giver.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

No Planet B

In the late afternoon on day two of the international climate change talks in Durban, Christiana Figueres (Head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) made a passionate case for why failure to reach an agreement was not an option: the future of humanity is at stake. She went on to stress that there is no Plan B, just as there is no Planet B.

As the Kyoto protocol on global warming runs out, the COP17 conference to agree a replacement limps towards failure. Sir David Attenborough, of the BBC Planet series, says that city dwellers are out of touch with what is happening in the natural world; and therefore don't take responsibility for the future of the planet. Judging by the response to date, politicians and corporate leaders are urban animals who - apart from the odd tropical vacation - spend their days inside the airconditioned spaces of parliament or head office buildings.

The message is that we may as well carry on belching carbon into the atmosphere because, if we don't, someone else will – an argument that could equally be used to justify selling one's daughter into prostitution. If the representatives of developing countries won't take responsibility, most other political leaders in developed countries won't either. The implicit message is that the job of tackling global warming can be placed on hold while they sort out the economic crisis. That, on more optimistic estimates, will take until about 2017. The planet will then be perilously close, scientists predict, to the tipping point for irreversible climate damage. 

Some say we need a miracle to save the eurozone and the banks. We need a far bigger one to save the planet. According to the World Bank's 2010 world development report, if all coal-fired plants scheduled to be built in the next 25 years come into operation, their lifetime CO2 emissions will equal those of all coal burning since the industrial revolution. Business leaders, particularly in financial services, are now the true rulers of the world. Can they take responsibility? It seems not yet. The world's banks may be running out of cash, but a report just published by environmental groups shows that in 2010 they invested nearly twice as much in coal-fired electricity and coal mining as they did in 2005.

No, if we want the planet to be saved, we must rely on the politicians. But, persuading the public that they should tolerate nearly a decade of austerity, is itself a daunting challenge for leaders; who have assured voters that neoliberalism could deliver uninterrupted growth. Global warming presents an even greater challenge. People have to be persuaded to make sacrifices for the common good. Neoliberalism, however, has left politicians holding the ring between competing demands for individual gratification. 

They run what the US political theorist Philip Bobbitt calls "market states", which have the sole duty of maximising opportunities for their individual citizens, and accept no obligation to social justice or collective welfare. The common good has become, to politicians of both left and right, a completely alien concept. They have no language in which to convey to their electorates the importance and urgency of what needs to be done. They will no doubt emerge from Durban with fine words and some semblance of agreement or, if nothing else, agreement on when they should make an agreement. But for now, the planet will just have to carry on burning.

Homo Urbanus Africanus

In 1950, there were 20 million city dwellers in Africa. Today, the number has gone up to 400 million and in 2050 it is projected that there will be more than a billion people. This radical evolution is due to rural migration, economics, border changes and above all population growth.

To describe this accelerated urbanising phenomenon, sociologists have coined a new term: "Homo urbanus." After Europe, the Americas and Asia, Africa's own urban revolution has begun. The most urbanised regions of the continent are found along the coastal areas of North Africa, West Africa, the Nile Valley and Ethiopia. In the Southern Africa region, the coast connects Cape Town to Maputo. Whilst some 40 percent of citizens live in megalopolises such as Cairo, Lagos, Kinshasa, Abidjan, Johannesburg, and Casablanca; the remaining 60 percent live in cities with less than 500,000 inhabitants.

A meeting place par excellence, the city is a melting pot of cultural and economic exchanges. It's also a space for individual expression where many easily escape social pressures. Eating habits have evolved in the city. In Dakar, like in Kinshasa, meals are being eaten more and more on the go; outside the traditional family setting. In Rabat and Casablanca, the middle class go grocery shopping in large malls while parents take their children to activity centers, have lunch at a restaurant and go to the gym for a boost of energy during the weekend. Costly pleasures far from the grasp of the less fortunate.

The city has also become the preferred place of expression for the younger generation (the average age of the African city dweller is 18) who are particularly affected by job insecurity, the failure of the education system and the end of the welfare state. While some are tempted by emigration, others are exploring new ways of affirming their identity by virtue of popular protests and economic resourcefulness.

Many have opted to become taxi drivers, tourist guides or resorted to touting on the streets. They exorcise their ill-feelings in slang) and music based on social realities. The youth's disquietness is also reflected in their struggle with marginalisation, the consumption of drugs and involvement in violent crime. A real challenge for African leaders.

More than ever, urban policies need to take into account citizens' needs in essential services such as drinking water and sanitation systems, electricity, medical access, education, sports and activities. Equally important is a continent wide economic policy focusing on the creation of jobs. This year, the youths were instrumental in the toppling of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and they have started turning up the heat on Sub-Saharan Africa. Homo urbanus africanus takes change seriously.