Occupy World Street: a call to action for the '99 per cent'

Occupy World Street by Ross Jackson
The Ecologist speaks to author, activist and former businessman Ross Jackson about his idea for a roadmap for radical economic and political reform

Why did you write a book advocating radical economic reform?

I've been working on this for 30 or 40 years, having been active in both the business and the NGO world and struggling with the question of how to develop a much more equal and fair economic and political system.

I'm not anti-business or anti-capitalist as such. In my book I am trying to present a solution that would align the private system with the needs of the world's seven billion.

The current system is not doing that. But the problem isn't the capitalism system, it's neoliberal economics. It benefits the wealthiest and exploits developing countries and the environment.

Can the ‘Gaian economics' you propose operate in a capitalist system?

Absolutely. One of the major differences is how we organise our international trade. The WTO does not enable an individual country to protect itself from another country's lower international environmental standards. There is no way you can have a sustainable system with the WTO controlling trade. Another thing that the WTO does not allow is protection from from foreign competition. This means that developing countries can never develop as they are forced to remain suppliers of cheap labour and materials. The WTO is preventing their comparative advantage. The only way a country has achieved industrialisation is through protectionism, precisely what the IMF and WTO are preventing.

Another problem is the World Bank. It's major task is to create foreign debt. It takes a developing country, gives it a large loan in collaboration with the local elite, and the money is used to keep the local people who are in charge of things happy and satisfy the needs of the West, such as supporting infrastructure for Western mining companies. The policies are specifically designed to keep them as raw materials suppliers.

Ecological economics won't work with the current institutions; we need a new system and new institutions.

You talk about a paradigm shift. Can you explain?

I tend to go back to Kuhn's original idea. The major paradigm of the last 400 years has been the separation of man from nature and man from each other. It is the primary reason we have developed high standards of living, but there have also been high costs, mainly the destruction of the environment in the last 150-200 years.

We have been moving away from a reductionist to a more holistic way of thinking over the past 80 years, and we will probably continue for a few more decades until it becomes mainstream. The main thing is to accept that mankind is an integral part of nature. Once this happens a lot of what we currently do becomes unacceptable.

One of the major problems slowing down this paradigm shift is that countries like the US and China are unwilling to act in the general interest. They are only concerned with their own spheres of interests; there are no international institutions with the interest of the entire planet.

We first need to recognise that the current political leaders are not going to show any leadership on the issue. American society in particular has gone through many mutations in the past years. In the US, the 0.1 per cent has so much wealth, they are now able to control the whole political system, enabling corporations to control political candidates.

What is the roadmap for the future?

It is clear we aren't going to see any leadership from the currently powerful countries. My suggestion is that some of the smaller countries, say eight or nine, get together and form a new ‘Gaian league'. The idea is that they will form these institutions, introduce capital controls on economies, do this on small scale but in such a way as is designed to benefit the entire planet, i.e. the private sector would be aligned with needs of all seven billion inhabitants. If this group can make such a prototype it would be a major event itself, and the first time there would be an alternative to the system.

What role does the Occupy movement play?

The problem now is that they don't have a single polity; they are basically just dissatisfied with status quo. But ideally they would organise and focus on one thing, such as a referendum on whether people want to join the Gaian league. Around one third of the population in the EU and America would in theory be favourable to the idea of a Gaian league. They are called the ‘cultural creatives' and today they are a silent minority, it is impossible for them to have political power in the current system.

Does democracy matter?

In the longer term whatever system we develop globally has to be inclusive, that is the nature of the new paradigm. We are all one large family. However, in the beginning, the Gaian league should be coming from democratic backgrounds in developing countries and two or three smaller industrialised countries.

One of the factors is energy. The first thing the Gaian league needs to develop is an effective methodology for limiting CO2. There is only one way and that is rationing, there needs to be a ceiling on the amount and this needs to be done in a fair way. Companies that introduce CO2 in to the atmosphere would purchase these rights and the money would be distributed to seven billion citizens.

If a small group of countries got together to start it and then invited others to join, we would begin to see a microcosm of the entire global system operating and others could join in when they are ready.

How severe a problem is world population growth?

Major, major. We are heading for an energy descent; the demand for oil and gas is going to exceed the supply, causing a major downturn in global economics. Population has exploded in the past 150 years and one of the major reasons is cheap oil has allowed the mass production of food. Once you have limits to growth there are really only two ways to improve standards of living: reduce population and the more efficient use of natural resources use each year. If you want to be sustainable, you cannot use more natural capital than nature can replenish. We are now using 40 per cent more than nature can replenish. Population reduction is going to become a very major political hot potato.

What are the signs of hope for the creation of a ‘Gaian league'?

There are a large minority of people who support this idea but they've been blocked by the current political leadership's different agenda. If we could get some countries to plant the seeds and show how it could work, people would begin to say we should be joining this, these people are showing all the values we cherish.

The EU knows how important it is to be sustainable, but it is supporting more growth. If the EU decided to take this on then it would need to change priorities.

GNP is not a good measure of growth. The happiness index would be a better measure. Studies have shown that since the 1970s, there is a flat curve, i.e. no improvement in well-being in many countries despite there being greater GNP. What we have seen is that wealth has been sucked out of the economy by this 0.1 per cent.

Research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level shows the myriad problems associated with increasing levels of inequality in industrialised countries. It also shows we can have a society with much lower level of consumption and be happy. It's not a sacrifice.

In terms of economic growth, we have to distinguish between physical growth and development. We can't continue to consume so much natural capital, but we can develop to improve our quality of life and become more efficient.

To push this idea and make it work, we'll need thousands of people behind it. We've set up an online forum, Occupyworldstreet.org, where people could meet with their ideas to organise and support this idea and to start a dialogue going in their own countries.

Occupy World Street: A Global Roadmap for Radical Economic and Political Reform by Ross Jackson (pictured above) is published by Green Books (March 2012). Green Books are offering a 20 per cent discount for Ecologist readers.  All you have to do is enter the code OWS20 when you check out online at www.greenbooks.co.uk. Ecologist subscribers should click here to get an even better discount.

'From Protest to Progress ─ What next for capitalism?'

Ross Jackson will speak at the London School of Economics' Hong Kong Theatre on Wednesday March 21st 2012 at 18:00. The event, hosted by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), will also include Tony Greenham (NEF) and Danni Paffard (Move your Money UK). Anna Coote will chair.
For more info click here.

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