CancelTheApocalypseYou could be forgiven for thinking that there is a dearth of good ideas and alternative thinking, to deal with the social, economic and environmental woes of the world. Only just recently I read how students in Economics at the University of Manchester were in a state of near rebellion, demanding that alternatives to free-market economics be also taught and discussed. On top of this the mainstream media (papers, TV and radio) are almost entirely dominated by large corporate interests. It’s little wonder we get few alternatives to the status quo.

But folks the good ideas and alternatives are definitely out there. A year ago, I reviewed Richard Murphy’s fabulous book The Courageous State. Now just recently I finished reading a book by Andrew Simms – Cancel the Apocalypse. Great title eh?

In essence, Andrew’s book is a response to the doom and gloom – how we can and MUST cancel the apocalypse. This is a book packed full of ‘ammunition’ against the basic ideas and concepts of neoliberal and free-market thinking as well as materialism. In parts I found it a little too drawn out and found myself saying “Ok Andrew, I get your point. Now can we move on?” I think he could have made the chapters smaller and divided it into meaningful sub-sections. But overall I think it’s well thought out and argued. I initially read a public library copy of this book, but I thought this book was so useful and important, that I should have my own copy. This is a book I will want to refer back to again and again. It’s also packed full of great references and leads to other works and research.

Here’s a taste of some of the things covered in the book:

In his opening chapter, he challenges the current economic paradigm and indeed the obsession with economic growth:

“…there has long been an understanding in the quiet corners of economics, as well as louder protests in other disciplines that growth cannot and need not continue indefinitely.
In spite of data showing a clear break in already wealthy countries, between the growth of an economy and the life satisfaction of its citizens, no mainstream politician argues against the need for economic growth.” – Andrew Simms

and he’s not alone in his thinking. This from the great art critic of the Victorian era, John Ruskin:

“That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence both personal and by means of his possessions over the lives of others” – John Ruskin

And the kind of thinking we are up against:

“I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that” – Lawrence Summers, chief economist, World Bank, 1990. (Summers went on to be U.S. Treasury Secretary under Clinton, President of Harvard University and an economic advisor to the Obama administration)

He discusses alternative ways of measuring growth or human life satisfaction:

“A new composite indicator from the Centre for Wellbeing was developed combining the Ecological Footprint of William Rees with Life Expectancy and subjective life satisfaction. They called it the Happy Planet Index with a score measuring from 0 to 100. No single country scored well on all 3 counts. Costa Rica came tops in 2 consecutive editions. Compared with the U.S., it achieves higher life expectancy, higher life satisfaction levels and a much smaller ecological footprint…Vanuatu also came top of the index. It has an ecological footprint at almost one planet living, high life satisfaction and a life expectancy superior to Eastern and Central Europe, Indonesia and Bolivia. It’s democratic, peaceful and rich in natural resources; a strong notion of collective endeavour, local farming provides 2/3 of its food needs, few exports and little to do with international markets.”

In Chapter 5, Meaning and Imagination, he challenges the notion of “Homo Economicus”, the notion that humans will necessarily put themselves first and that a materialistic life will make for a happier life.

“It is in fact an extraordinary triumph of human nature that in spite of all the economic inducements to behave selfishly, the rarely acknowledged secret of what makes society work and tolerable is that most people, most of the time are generally kind, considerate and trusting”

He backs his arguments up with the work of many researchers and academics who are challenging mainstream economic doctrines; people such as Tim Kasser, Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist who turns upside down notions that consumers make “free choices” and. Daniel Pink, who does likewise to assumptions about the relationship between high pay and performance.

Tim Kasser did research on whether people who cared more about money and materialism were happier or not. He found that the more materialistic people’s outlook, the lower their level of satisfaction with life. And according to Kasser’s studies, people with materialistic values are more likely to demonstrate a wide range of anti-social behaviours; and are less likely to care about the planet.

Andrew Simms offers 5 ways to wellbeing and life satisfaction:

  1. Find ways to CONNECT with the people around us
  2. Be ACTIVE
  3. Take NOTICE of the world. Being curious, noticing what’s around you; but also becoming aware and appreciative of what matters to you through consciously noticing what you are feeling and reflecting on what you do and what happens to you.
  4. Keep LEARNING
  5. GIVE

And what decent book on challenging the socio-economic paradigm would leave out banks and the financial system. This he does in Chapter 6. Did you know for example that the ratio of CEO pay in the 7 largest US banks compared to the median national pay rose from 100:1 in 1989 to 500:1 in 2007. And that the ratio of CEO pay to average pay rose from 40 in 1960 to 344 in 2007. In that year the 50 highest earning hedge and private equity fund managers took home $588 million each on average. Staggering eh? But aside from discussing the current system he offers a number of suggestions including alternative and local currencies.

In Chapter 8 The Mechanisms, he discusses the alternatives that we have in energy and food production whilst challenging nuclear power and GM crops. Organic farming is often pooh-poohed as a viable source of food production and yet as Simms points out, small scale organic farming currently feeds most of the world’s population and it’s been shown that agro-ecological farms have greater outputs than industrialised farms.

Likewise, it’s often claimed that to implement alternative energy sources such as wind and solar would be costly to the economy, when in fact Simms points out that:

“Combine the subsidies given to the oil, coal and gas industries in 24 of the OECD countries together with subsidies given in emerging and developing countries and annual totals in the 2nd half of the last decade were around $500 billion with other estimates as high as $1 trillion.”

In the last part of the book (Reimagining places) Simms talks about our disconnection with our world, our society and ourselves, in a phenomenon that is referred to as “triple de-centring” :

“Big cities are being defined by their capacity to import and export people, products, images and messages; in dwellings PCs and TVs stand in the place of the hearth; and in individuals, people are de-centred from themselves…They reject nature and in rejecting nature become expressions of self-loathing, as we are a part of nature, it means we are rejecting ourselves.”

“So many of the global elite…spend so much time in the non-places of super modernity…with only each other for re-assurance that they are doing the right thing, arid visions get born of dissconnected souls in de-centred worlds fed by sensory deprivation”.

He discusses an experiment carried out by Dr Marc Arvan of the University of Tampa, which looked at the relationship between moral judgements and 3 dark personality traits (tendency to deceit, over-inflated sense of self-worth and psychopathy). Arvan looked at a number of attitudes including economic libertarianism and the view that we are all ‘economic humans’ and behave accordingly – and he found this view correlated significantly with the 3 dark traits.

Another study by Prof Robert Frank in New York, found that the study, appeal and internalisation of neo-liberal economic models attracted an un-representative more selfish slice of society.

Simms points out that there are a significant number of findings from biology, anthropology, psychology, ecology and neuroscience that contradict the reduction of humanity to competitive vessels of short-term, self-interested individualism. He challenges his readers to adopt a new economics – Climax economics – in which we optimize how we live rather than maximize what we consume. And he asks us to try and re-imagine the places where we work and live and how we use our time. For example, our high streets can become more than simply places where we go to shop – but places where we can also trade skills and knowledge, to repair and maintain things – and in the process connect more with our neighbours and local communities.

He asks to try and imagine a shorter working week, the benefits of which include:

  • Economic. Help to resolve overwork and unemployment
  • Social. Addressing the widening inequalities, giving people more time to be better parents, care-givers, friends, neighbours and citizens.
  • Environmental. Helping us to escape the consumer treadmill – in which we work constantly longer hours to earn money to buy things we don’t really need and which don’t really make us happy – and which the planet can’t afford.

This is probably one of the longest book reviews I’ve written, but there’s so much in this book that I wouldn’t have done it justice had I done otherwise. But I hope I’ve given you all a good sense of the value of this book.

Buy the book

Till next time
Cheers
Anthony

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