At a time when we are governed by opportunists, expedience, selfishness and the narrowness and short-term perspectives of money, we do need a re-examination of what it is to be ‘civilised’. I do not think we can hope to survive if our current dominant values continue to reign, as they have since what Bryan Bruce referred to as the virus of neoliberalism infected our country in 1984.
By way of contrast …. a story.
In the 1960s when a proposal was tabled to sell a Crown-owned asset, an island, the then New Zealand Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake asked, “But what will we tell our grandchildren?” The proposal was then taken off the table.
That is about as good a seven-word description of ‘sustainability’ as you will find. Not just in terms of a goal – create legacies for a future society – but also in terms of a process – think about whether an act is good before you do it – not for selfish expedience, but for a confident future; for our grandchildren.
It is more than being sustainable. To be sustainable is to be civilised, at least in the eyes of historian Kenneth Clark who thought a ‘sense of permanence’ was what separated opportunists like the Vikings from civilised folk. More than that even, thinking about our grandchildren represents what it is to be ethical in the sense that almost all ethical theories are concerned with doing the right thing by a community and not just for yourself.
Well, ethical in almost all theories. There is Egoism – care about no one but yourself – extolled by neo-liberal economists, those corporate-funded fundamentalist faith-worshippers who have driven policy in New Zealand and internationally since Reagan and Thatcher.
Yes, yes, they’re still here. Never mind that ‘trickle-down’ was a hilarious con. It has been a gush upwards at the expense of the bottom 80 percent. Never mind crash after crash, market con after market con, various debt-fuelled Ponzi schemes, the ever-extending
creed of corporate inhumanity. That little boy keeps pointing out that the neo-liberal emperor is stark naked, as well as stark raving mad, but it’s just not working out like the fairy tale.
Our values have shifted since Holyoake’s time from the civilising values espoused by Clark, to the values of short-term expedience. The depression and war generation valued development for the common good, generally building legacies to create a more resilient world for their children. Many of their children then grabbed hold of egoism and short-
term thinking for their own ends, and mined those legacies. We get the rise of cynicism and the fall of confidence in who we are. The loss of purpose created by working within an autocratic money-obsessed organisation destroys our sense of self, as well as culture.
The consequences of losing grasp of fundamental values – the perennial philosophies of good – are dire. Ariel Durant observed those patterns in history. So did Clark. In The Big Short, a film about the excesses and corruption that led to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, Steve Carell’s character points out that for 15,000 years fraud and short-sighted thinking have never worked.
Civilisation has its critics. Many writers refer to the historical loss of connection with nature that has resulted from our shift into the city. Whether that loss is due to civilisation per se, or to the industrialisation and objectification of people and place – reducing them to mere ‘resources’ without moral consideration – is a moot point. Those writers against civilisation are more against a type of civilisation that emphasises hierarchy, control, colonialism, exploitation, objectification of others, and the loss of a sense that there is more out there than just the physical. If the only meaning is money and market transactions, then there can be no hope.
Many think civilisation is necessarily pathological. But any solution that requires a return to the hunter-gatherer is ridiculous. A return to a value-based civilisation that neither objectifies people, nor denies community, nor sees land in some vile factory image, is a far more promising and realistic project. Agrarianism and the City perhaps.
Writers like John Armstrong and Clark take a more philosophical than historical approach to the virtues of civilisation. The real underpinnings of civilisation, argued Clark, were particular human values. Not ‘resources’ properly priced by the Lord Market, but the energy that comes from a belief in a culture. Sane social and economic thinkers like Robert Putnam, Elinor Ostrom, and Amartya Sen argue a similar line – build social capital (trust, participations, etc.), justice, social behaviours, social capacities – not policies to encourage those who see no culture and objectify people and place. Lose social justice, checks on excesses of power, social norms that control exploitation, engagement, participation and trust, and you will go under – as a community, an environment ….. and an economy. This, even the billionaires now realise, as they clamour to ‘buy’ what is a apparently a commodity of ‘citizenship’ in New Zealand.
The work of Sen et al. demonstrates that if you want a strong economy, then build a strong society. Since the neo-liberals believe there is no such thing as society, and we are all greedy, calculating individuals out for ourselves, then it follows – for them – that there is no need to build anything that is social, let alone a social quality. So they degrade it, or they ask with smirking superciliousness to give us a value for these things so they can put them in their models (true Oracles apparently). What nonsense. What price do you put on trust, or justice? (I once replied, OK $17 Trillion. To which they replied, you’ve made that up, it has no relevance. To which I replied, and so I have, just as you made up zero. We are both wrong – though mine might still be an underestimate – but our choices are logically the same – a baseless choice of some random number, where the whole model and number is completely irrelevant to governance.)
Civilisation is not founded on failed autocratic attempts at ‘efficiency’ that reduce humanity to wage bills and prescriptive job descriptions. It is built on the confidence, aspirations and inspirations that makes people visualise and then lay the first stone of a cathedral they’ll never see finished, or a tree they’ll never see at its flourishing best.
Critical values, said Clark, included both this social ‘energy’, and ‘confidence’ in themselves as a people. But the most important value of all was what he called ‘a sense of permanence’. That means thinking about all of our grandchildren as Holyoake did.
Conversely, the biggest threat to civilisation is a loss of belief and confidence, resulting in an exhaustion and fear – at its worse when we are so tired of it all that we do nothing constructive. We become destructive. We lose our sense of permanence. Rather than adapt for the uncertainties of the future, we cling to the relative certainties of the now. Rather than strategise and think, we count our beans and hoard for the inevitable disaster; like the bookkeeper or Treasury official who believes that what is cheapest is best, who prink and save until all falls about them. Or we go the gold rush and the Viking way; drilling, mining, selling, exploiting, degrading. Clearfell the mighty Kauri forests for the benefit of a few today and the loss to many, many more, now and into the future.
Rather than building legacies for our community’s children, we sell those legacies our grandparents built for us. The greater focus on self overrides any sense of belonging to something more permanent than our own short-term thrill of the gusher, or the hope of the pokie win, both fuelled by greed and fear, even despair. We lose our confidence and energy, and then we inevitably lose what we most fear losing, living the good life. Examine history and all the lessons of expedience are there: the Viking raiders; the rush-to-destruction mentality toward natural ‘resources’; those who attempt domination without self-restraint. All resulting in civil, environmental and economic collapse.
From the days of Holyoake, the values within politics in New Zealand and around the Western World have steadily devolved from the sense of a functioning community and place that were reinforced by the trials of the depression and WWII, into a sales job to justify short-term immorality.
The perennial values of civilisation has no room for a dominant culture of neoliberal opportunism. We need a shift in values from a focus on the Viking raids of expedient fortune. We need to do once again what is civilised, sustainable and ethical. We need a strategy that builds value rather than destroys it. We need to ask Holyoake’s question of policies, “But what will we tell our grandchildren?” again, and again, and again.
If we cannot tell them honestly that we are building legacies, then we should pause, and think again.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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