We used to walk from our house to the nearby fields to pick mushrooms. Those fields are now part of a huge housing estate. We used to drive a short distance to pick blackberries in the hedgerows, and my mother would collect a huge basketful which she brought home to make jam, which lasted all year, or to make an apple and blackberry pie, using apples from the garden. Those hedgerows are gone now.
My grandparents had an inner-city garden where they grew celery, onions, rhubarb, potatoes, leeks, cabbage, peaches and more, watered from a water butt. Soil rich, dark and crumbly. All waste composted naturally. All now carpeted by a four-lane road.
Our garden used to be a place where flocks of sparrows and starlings settled on the grass, a heron stopped at the pond, wagtails were frequent visitors, house martins lodged in the eaves, doves could be heard cooing, robins, wrens, chaffinch, bullfinches, blackbirds, thrushes, hordes of butterflies, moths, spiders, bees, wasps, flies, dragonflies and caterpillars were seen throughout the summer. Now, mostly just the odd pigeon or crow.
Nationwide the story is the same. Fish stocks depleted to almost nothing, sea birds, predatory birds, over-wintering birds and migrating birds all seriously reduced in numbers, as are the insects, seeds and grubs that they feed on. Rivers and beaches are polluted. Most fields are intensively farmed, mono-culturally, fertiliser and pesticides generously applied, with hedgerows and trees trimmed down or removed, orchards ripped up, livestock reared in sheds with low welfare standards. Housing and shopping areas are intensely concreted or tarmacked over, affecting drainage.
My great-uncle ran a smallholding of about three acres in a nearby village, selling the produce in his shop on the High Street. The shop was small and dark, the smell earthy, almost Dickensian, a delightful visit for a child. A little bell tinkled when a customer entered the shop from the street, bringing my great aunt from her kitchen into the shop. Now all gone for new housing.
Almost every food item is now supplied in plastic boxes or plastic bags. There was no plastic in 1950. Plastic is a product of the oil industry, which is one of the most powerful and environmentally neglectful, exploitative, voracious and profit-driven industries in the world. The chemical industry is little better. The beef industry is now also one of the most environmentally destructive and harmful, with vast areas given over to it. When you buy a McDonald’s meal, the amount of plastic and paper waste exceeds in volume the food itself. When you buy a coffee, water or soft drink, you acquire a container which has to be disposed of. Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and PepsiCo (see Ruweyda Ahmed’s article in the Guardian) are monster contributors to packaging pollution.
Discarded plastic notoriously blights the environment and harms nature. PFAS (‘forever chemicals’) have now been found in high concentrations in water supplies.
Consumers seek their convenience and choice, politicians seek their votes, and corporations seek their profit, often without much sense of social responsibility. Regulations are too-often lax or non-existent, while the world we all live in is harmed.
The price paid, in terms of social and environmental harm, is recognised only in hindsight. The retrofit solution now, widespread cooperation to design strong regulation and financial incentives to avoid carbon and environmental damage, is obvious. However governments, acting alone or jointly, won’t or can’t do it. The present UK government embarked on its ‘bonfire of the regulations’ and has done virtually nothing in 13 years to stem the pollution and plastic tide. The UK Environment Agency has had its budget cut so much that despite hundreds of permit infringements, it has only ever fined four water companies. Ofwat has fined only one.
Economic growth, driven by the capitalist system and its private investment, brings more and more products to the market, many of them quite unnecessary. In 1950, you bought what you needed, repaired what you could, and your requirements and desires were mostly modest – a washing machine or a vacuum cleaner. Does a healthy society really need so much supermarket aisle space for its alcohol offering, for crisps, cereals, so many different varieties of yoghurt? Does the High Street need so many large shops offering new fashion clothes? Resources devoted to investments of this kind are not available for more socially beneficial uses.
Such a consumer-orientated, GDP-growth-orientated society, mostly dominated by larger and larger corporations who are more anxious to satisfy their owners and shareholders than to reduce harm and implement more socially beneficial activities and products, is the route to damage and waste.
When I was young, my mother was a regular shopper at the one chemist shop in the town, Boots. This was modestly sized, with its own library occupying the whole of the upstairs where my mother changed her books. Staff behind the counter were friendly and helpful, they recognised me from my regular visits, which were a pleasure. Recently I visited my local Boots store, which felt the size of an aircraft hangar, with an equally large upstairs. As you enter, you pass through counter after counter of beauty products, with a few sales assistants. The pharmacy is right at the back of the store, where two people dispense prescriptions. In the main area of the store where chemist items are located, there was just one other member of staff, an elderly man who barely seemed to know where he was let alone where any products were to be found.
With the growth of giant retail corporations, personal service has mostly disappeared, replaced by self-service. This may be efficient, but it is a great loss.
In 1950, we visited the gas office every month to pay our gas bill, and the electricity office to pay our electricity bill. After the energy companies were privatised, salesmen visited my mother, and she ended up having her electricity supplied by the gas company, and her gas supplied by the electric company. This was farcical.
If people had known what was going to happen to their own utility companies, back in the 1970s and ‘80s when they were sold off, to be owned abroad mainly by private equity capitalists, and run purely for profit, they would have been up in arms in protest.
But Mrs Thatcher and her party thought that there was ‘no such thing as society’. If that is what you believe it is easy to ignore societal harms arising from the capitalist ethic. But market fundamentalism, which started with the Thatcher government’s privatisation programme, has run riot in society. UK rail ticket prices and energy prices are among the highest in Europe. Food price inflation is the highest, and water quality the worst, in Europe.
Meanwhile, investment in non-infrastructure things like education, health, local government services and social care is disproportionately low.
Proper regulation is the only way to ensure public provision is not exploitative, monopolistic, harmful or environmentally degrading, and conforms to health, safety, environment and employee standards. This is not happening today. The system is broken.
And in the US? President Trump missed no opportunity to repeal environmental protections. The US Supreme Court has recently voted to stop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which operates under the authority of Congress, from protecting water resources. The US Justice System has been corrupted to serve the interests of the big corporations and the right-wing agenda. An omen of the havoc to come from the next Republican president?
There have been large changes in the scope of employment. Manufacturing represented around 28% of the economy in 1950. That figure is now around 10%. By contrast, for services, including health and education, the figure has risen from around 20% to 48%.
Women frequently gave up work when they married. All three of my maternal aunts did so, even though they didn’t have children. My mother however continued working.
Female employment has now increased dramatically. Since 1971, the ratio of male to female employees has fallen from 2.6 to 1.4. The number of female MPs has gone from 24 in 1945 to 224 today. And this has been accompanied by better outcomes, just as companies with a female CEO have above-average performance. Might one go further and speculate that countries with a female leader have a better record too?
Employee rights have been transformed for the better, though more remains to be done.
Computers have transformed the workplace, and social media the social space, mostly in good ways. But many more opportunities for fraudulent or hostile actions have opened up, which are not being controlled. Artificial Intelligence offers more great opportunities with accompanying dangers.
My first full-time wage in 1960 was £7/week.
My parents’ house in 1950 cost about £1000. The average UK salary then was around £290/year, so that house cost around three to four times as much. Our own first house, a small detached estate house with three bedrooms and a small garden, in an outer London suburb, bought in 1972, cost £7000. It has recently been sold for nearly £650,000, almost a hundred-fold increase over 50 years. The average annual salary today in the UK is around £30,000, so our house is now 22 times this amount.
This crazy rate of house price growth is unsustainable, and completely undermines any meaningful levelling up agenda. It leaves most young people unable to buy a property, nor rent one from the council as there are now so few council houses available. In my home town now, just 15% of houses are social housing. In the 1950s, every other house being built was a council house.
The reasons for the house price and rent explosion are complex, but the present government takes no meaningful remedial action as so many of its voters appear to gain from it.
None of our problems are helped by the two-party, adversarial style of politics we have here in the UK, driven by a partisan greed for power, the effects of which have been dire. This was true in the 1950s and remains true today. Two changes would help improve matters. Firstly, large political parties are unregulated and appear to operate in a cowboy world of their own, free to pursue funding and votes indiscriminately and without restraint. That needs to change. Secondly, the effect of the First Past the Post voting system is to largely limit elected political representatives to quite narrow partisan interests, Capital and Labour. A Proportional Representation system of voting would widen the electorate’s choices and permit a more diverse and representative group of people and parties to enter parliament.
The above is a rather rambling collection of thoughts, which together describe some of the immense changes which have taken place over the last 80 years. Overall there have been many well-known and very welcome improvements in health, education, longevity, pensions, standards of living, working conditions and welfare.
Some of these changes have also brought immense challenges and losses, many of which society has not managed very well. But the political and decision-making processes to address them are desperately slow, cumbersome, and plagued by partisan jostling for advantage. They don’t always bring solutions.
Major losses include the deterioration of the environment and nature, growth in the power and wealth of big corporations accompanied by a sense of loss of control by individual citizens, growth in the power and reach of uncontrolled high tech, growth of inequality, loss of social cohesion and sense of togetherness, and a more impersonal society.
Perhaps it is not too late to hope for better days to come. However citizens and voters will have to consider their options carefully and create some changes to make that happen.
This concludes the series.