If you were to ponder each of the following statements, which would most closely reflect your view?
- 1A. Human society’s role is to serve and nurture the economy
- 1B. The economy’s role is to serve and nurture human society
- 2A. Human society’s role is to serve and nurture the natural world
- 2B. The natural world’s role is to serve and nurture human society
It seems to me as if the majority of those in power believe the answers are 1A and 2B. They appear to say that the natural world’s role is to serve and nurture human society, and its role is, in turn, to serve and nurture the economy.
In his first speech as prime minister, Rishi Sunak said, “I will place economic stability and confidence at the heart of this government’s agenda” and “this will mean difficult decisions to come”. He did not feel that it was important to say that his focus should be on the well-being of the citizens on whose behalf he would be governing but rather he would prioritise the stability (whatever that means) of the ‘economy’.
Sunak seemed to acknowledge, in describing the subsequent decisions he would feel it necessary to make as “difficult”, that this priority would have negative consequences for much of the populace.
Further confirmation that those in Westminster think of the economy as a separate thing from society came in a recent quote from a Department of Trade and Industry spokesperson who described a potential trade deal with India as, “in the best interests of the British people and the economy”. But what is this ‘economy’ which needs protecting as if it were some entity independent of people that dictates that we need to adapt our behaviour in order to not upset its stability?
A relatively recent ideological twist
Although ‘the economy’ dominates political discussion nowadays this has not always been the case. The term ‘the economy’ (with the definite article) did not appear in the manifesto of either of the two major parties until 1955, and then only in the Conservatives’. However, nowadays the impression is given that ‘the economy’ has its own rules to which we humans must adapt.
The idea that the rules which govern the human interactions that take place and result in what we call ‘economic activity’ (which actually encompasses much of our lives) are designed by us humans (and can therefore be redesigned), is not allowed to raise its ugly head. Answer 1B, that the economy’s role is to serve and nurture human society, seems to be too much of a threat to those who do very nicely out of the status quo.
Further evidence of this attitude can be seen in this year’s GCSE results which showed a widening gap between children with supportive backgrounds and those without. Sir Kevan Collins resigned as the government’s schools recovery tsar in 2021 after the government agreed to fund only 10% of the £15bn package he felt was “the minimum viable option” to help children recover from the disruption caused by Covid to their education.
Justine Greening, former Conservative education minister, wrote in the Observer on 27 August: “In its decision to reject that plan just months later, not for being wrong, but for being too expensive, the leadership of the Conservative party showed a breathtaking level of short-termism.” So belief in protecting ‘the economy’ overrode protecting the future prospects of millions of children.
When nature goes it takes us with it
The government’s view of humanity’s relationship to the natural world, however, displays the opposite priorities. Here the health of our natural environment comes second to preserving certain human commercial interests. For example, despite the environment secretary saying in 2018 that we couldn’t “afford to put our pollinator populations at risk”, in 2022 the government approved the use of a pesticide which does just that.
And despite undisputable scientific and, latterly, clearly observable real-world evidence that continued fossil fuel use is collapsing the earth’s ability to support human life, the government recently granted new licences for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. It has sought to pacify objectors by pledging to put faith in technologies such as carbon capture which have not been proven on the scale required. And then also they seem content not to prioritise counteracting the commercial view that sees our rivers as a convenient place to dispose of excess agricultural and human waste.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. So whereas we citizens are expected to be subservient to ‘the economy’, our government acts as if the natural world must be bent to suit business interests, despite the fact that its delicate balance has evolved over millions of years.
From finite game to infinite game
What would our lives be like if those who govern us believed the answers to those original questions should be 1B and 2A? The interactions which together make up our economic system would then need to be redesigned so that their aim is not to maximise profit for shareholders nor balance the nation’s books but to benefit the wellbeing of human society and to protect the natural environment on which our survival depends.
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