Jellyfish, capitalism and trees: Perspectives on the human-earth relationship
Willow Aliento | 30 August 2018
Climate change is not a binary issue of believe or don’t believe, whether it is examined from the perspective of the economic system, disruptions in the marine environment, or the impact on trees.
The Fifth Estate spoke to three authors who have applied different perspectives to the wicked problem of “how did we get into this mess – and how do we get out” ahead of their appearances at the Antidote Festival at the Sydney Opera House this Sunday, 2 September.
Dr Rajeev Patel is the co-author with Jason Moore of A history of the world in seven cheap things – a guide to capitalism, nature and the future of the planet.
He is also research professor at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin; and a senior research associate at the Unit for the Humanities at the Rhodes University in South Africa.
Patel tells The Fifth Estate that one of the biggest shifts he has seen in the US is it’s “OK to be a socialist for the first time in as
long as I have lived.”
“Liberalism and liberal capitalism are under suspicion”.
The book examines how liberal capitalism evolved through exploiting “seven cheap things” – nature, money, work, care, food, energy and lives.
These things are explained as not inherently cheap, but made cheap through social and political mechanisms including colonialism, racism, sexism and profit-first approaches.
For example, while some use the phrase “tragedy of the commons” to mean a failure to appreciate the value of natural capital until it’s too late, the book portrays the actual tragedy for those who relied on common land – their annexation for private exploitation and profit and the subsequent erosion of livelihoods for grassroots communities.
Patel says that even though there is a groundswell of resistance to liberal capitalism, the book initially was promoted through universities as it would have struggled to gain fair reviews in the mainstream press.
He says its ideas and insights are not likely to win many friends in conservative circles.
The other benefit of pushing the book through the tertiary education system is “that it gets taught”.
It has already been adopted by some courses, and has been translated into 12 or more languages, he says.
His view is that “neoliberalism is shameless”.
He often points to an old Monty Python sketch about someone trying to raise money for children. The arguments used, including “it’s a tax dodge” and “it’s an investment”, were regarded as “hilarious” back in the day, Patel says.
“But now we have an investment in children fund.”
“In the 70s and 80s presenting the idea that ending hunger was a good investment would have got you spat at,” he says.
But what was once “morally reprehensible” – the idea that doing the right thing must have a profitable business case and deliver a return on investment – is “now OK”.
Global capital then profits from working classes that are “willing to exploit themselves”. This is part of the essence of “cheap work”.
He looks at the way doctrines around race, for example, have been used to make some lives simply less important, disposable and dispensable.
The “cultural tropes” around nationhood are also used against the working class, Patel says.
There is around 600 years of “racist history” to confront.
Patel notes how “hard it is to unthink the world we’ve made for ourselves”.
Our language is “peppered with the legacy of colonialism”.
Just think about the phrase “beyond the pale”, which had its origins in the British annexation of what is now the Irish Republic.
Savages, monsters – our language abounds in terms that reflect attitudes towards people that were close to nature, or don’t fit into “heteronormative” ideals.
Yet, there is “no still point of the universe where we can calmly re-evaluate,” Patel says.
“But we need to.”
Patel says the idea that capitalism will shift climate change is “obviously wrong”.
“Capitalism is a system that never pays its bills. To imagine it will pick up the tab for the sixth extinction is to not understand how the system works.”
A KPMG analysis found, for example, that the dollar value of the environmental footprint of food industry giant Nestle is 224 per cent of its revenue.
“This is the tragedy of capitalism,” Patel says.
By day it sets up a way people can avoid paying for the impact they have, and by night is worries about the consequences.
“Unless we address what happens by day – we have no hope.”
There are grassroots movements afoot that map the way forward, such as the LEAP Manifesto out of Canada and the global La Via Campesino movement which involves around 200 million peasants.
People are “looking at building political organisation around what a different world might look like”.
Other movements such as #BlackLivesMatter have evolved into a broader discussion around education, economy and work.
Patel says that in general, when looking at system-wide changes, things have been accelerated by climate change and the debate around it.
However, he is “not hugely sanguine about how we shift from the world we’re in now”. He thinks that Trump following Obama challenges the idea of constant human progress.
Patel is also not convinced “billionaires have our best interests at heart”.
The idea of achieving success then “giving back a little” is not the solution.
“We need ways to manage, confront and overthrow capitalism,” Patel says.
“We need to develop an alternative – how to escape it altogether and create breathing room.
“I am not a happy ever-after radical.”
Why jellyfish might rule the oceans
CSIRO marine biologist Dr Lisa-Ann Gershwin is one of the world’s leading experts on jellyfish. She has published two books for lay readers, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean; and Jellyfish – a Natural History.
She also has a new book nearing completion that looks broadly at the impact humans have had on the natural environment, and what individuals can do to reduce that impact.
Gershwin tells The Fifth Estate that she’d been reading about the growing incidence of jellyfish blooms and became intrigued.
What she found was a “really uncomfortable answer” to the puzzle.
A jellyfish bloom indicates something is out of balance and is responding. The combined impact of warming oceans, pollution, overfishing, eutrophication, coastal tourism and coastal development has created the right circumstances for jellyfish to thrive en masse.
The resulting blooms have shut down power stations, crippled shipping, and impacted the farmed salmon industry, among other incidents.
The key to controlling the rise of jellyfish is to “do less of the things we are doing that are causing them.”
“Less fishing, less pollution, less activity… doing less human stuff in the ocean.
“But we’re not going to do that.”
Gershwin says the idea of jellies interacting with climate change, acidification and eutrophication “doesn’t get enough airplay”.
It’s symptomatic of a broader issue, which is we “don’t hear about what comes after the damage”.
We don’t hear about who is going to inherit that damaged ecosystem.
We know who it is, Gershwin says, it is “the people we hug” – our children, and grandchildren.
Her book Stung! presents in a clear and credible way “what comes next”.
It is science-based, and written in a way the natural scientist in all of us can understand.
She gives clear – and sometimes disquieting – examples of where jellyfish have taken over ecosystems.
They succeed because the ocean “keeps going, habitats keep going, and when you take away the predators, something else will do better, usually the opportunists.”
“When you disturb an ecosystem something has the advantage.”
Gershwin says that socially we are “still waving the flag and trying to convince people that climate change is real” but the situation is “past that.”
The debate means we are not looking at what comes next and how to manage what comes next.
While we debate whether climate change is true or false, we are failing to deal with problems while they are smaller.
She says it is similar to having a tumour – it is better to deal with it sooner rather than later.
Her conclusion in the current book is that there are things being done, and there are things that can be scaled up, but there is “no one solution” to the environmental disaster.
The big shift is “changing culturally how we as a species look at these things.”
The solutions we need are out there, Gershwin says. We don’t need new technology.
“We keep expecting to find one big global solution… but that absolves us from having to do stuff now. We are looking in the wrong place, and clinging to straws that aren’t real.”
Meanwhile, the “jellyfish are sitting there silently, quietly waiting, slowly taking over – and we lose.”
Why trees are our besties
Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori is a beautiful book. It gives biographies of 80 tree species from around the world and what makes them unique and remarkable.
The delight is in the detail – not just the magnificent illustrations, but also the clever and quirky facts and narratives about
each tree and how it relates to the human and natural world in its immediate vicinity.
The big issues such as climate change, impacts on pollinators, pollution, land clearing, extinction and exploitation of natural capital are wisely woven throughout the book.
The contribution trees make and have made historically to human society, wellbeing and culture are also highlighted.
Drori says that he is “sufficiently obsessed” with trees that he’d like to see people take the same interest in them.
Trees are also the poster children for the climate impacts affecting a whole host of living things.
They are an “easy way in” to discussing the big issues like sustainability and climate change.
As a member of the board of the Eden Project, an ambassador for WWF and in other not-for-profit roles he holds, these are topics close to his heart.
“The trouble with climate change is it requires governments to do things – and that is difficult if you believe in small government,” he says.
Humans are “great at dealing with things that are incredibly urgent”. Humans have an “itch for speed” and want “quick fixes.”
But trees don’t work like that.
As he points out in the book, they provide a whole range of ecosystem services including cleaning the air, preventing flood, and holding ground together.
But people can lose sight of the value of those things in the face of short-termism.
Drori says there is something about his book, which was released in May this year, that “really struck a nerve”.
It’s had rave reviews in the science press and in the right-wing Daily Mail in the UK.
“It has managed to bridge the gap,” he says.
Talking about trees also reflects a growing shift in how Europeans think about their built environment.
“In Europe there is a growing feeling that the short-termism of steel, glass and concrete without thinking about nature is maybe not the best thing,” he says.
There is a need for longer-term thinking to deal with the problems in front of us. Not the three to four years of the political cycle, but 30 years from now – more a tree’s timeframe than a poll’s timeframe.
“Some incentive to think longer term would be great,” Drori says.
“Trees can’t up sticks and run away. They have developed techniques for surviving and thriving that will outlast generations and the things that will kill them.
“[But now they have to] compete for land and space.
“Things happen so rapidly, and trees have never had to deal with this pace of climate change.”