A clear-eyed view
How did we get to the brink of ecological collapse?
We’re not here by accident
I read something today which took my breath away, and not in a good way. I was curious about what we could learn from Costa Rica in terms of it being a country that achieves a high level of social thresholds, but in doing so transgresses very few planetary boundaries, when I came across this paragraph from this piece written by economic anthropologist, Professor Jason Hickel:
…Costa Rica is the most efficient economy on earth: it produces high standards of living with low GDP and minimal pressure on the environment.
How do they do it? Professors Martínez-Franzoni and Sánchez-Ancochea argue that it’s all down to Costa Rica’s commitment to universalism: the principle that everyone – regardless of income – should have equal access to generous, high-quality social services as a basic right. A series of progressive governments started rolling out healthcare, education and social security in the 1940s and expanded these to the whole population from the 50s onward, after abolishing the military and freeing up more resources for social spending.
Costa Rica wasn’t alone in this effort, of course. Progressive governments elsewhere in Latin America made similar moves, but in nearly every case the US violently intervened to stop them for fear that “communist” ideas might scupper American interests in the region. Costa Rica escaped this fate by outwardly claiming to be anti-communist and – horribly – allowing US-backed forces to use the country as a base in the contra war against Nicaragua. (Emphasis mine).
It's one thing to understand that we’ve unwittingly made a wrong turn somewhere and now we face ecological collapse. It’s quite another to realise that this didn’t just accidently happen. In fact, without the anti-communist intervention of the USA and other Western interests from the 1950s onwards we would highly likely be decades behind the current trajectory of planetary harm.
How the West fast-tracked planetary overshoot
The list of Western-backed military interventions and coups is long and often extremely violent, starting in the 1950s in Iran, Guyana, Guatemala, in the 1960s in The Congo, Cuba, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Ghana, in the 1970s in Uganda, Australia, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde and in the 1980s in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The US also supported right-wing dictatorships in Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, Paraguay, Honduras, Venezuela and Panama. (This is a non-exhaustive list).
By the 1980s the Global North, and the USA in particular, changed strategy and realised they could continue to achieve their objectives while avoiding many of the violent coups (although not entirely). Instead, they stacked the IMF and World bank in their favour and to this day, through a process of imperialism, they pull the strings of the global economic system. The below image of the start of the open resignation letter from Davison L Budhoo, Senior Economist at the IMF in 1988, gives some indication of the depravity of the IMF policies on the people of the Global South:
The stranglehold Western corporations have on governments is proving to be a huge barrier to effectively addressing the ecological issues that we face. This 10 minute video by investigative journalist, Matt Kennard, co-author of Silent Coup: How Corporations Overthrew Democracy, is a revealing look at the role of corporations in subverting the democratic will of the people in favour of their own interests. We continue to see it today, with COP28 being run by the chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
What can we learn from Costa Rica?
In the end I learned that Costa Rica achieves a number of social thresholds because of its high provision of universal basic services: healthcare, education, affordable housing and social security. I was also interested to learn, from the same article by Jason Hickel that I cited at start of this piece:
… the part of Costa Rica where people live the longest, happiest lives – the Nicoya Peninsula – is also the poorest, in terms of GDP per capita. Researchers have concluded that Nicoyans do so well not in spite of their “poverty”, but because of it – because their communities, environment and relationships haven’t been ploughed over by industrial expansion.
I find it fascinating to consider what we have lost – community, connection, friendship - in our quest for evermore growth. Research has shown that those who live the longest do so because they have strong relationships, and that loneliness can be as bad for our health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. It’s clear that, once our needs are met via universal public services, less really could be more for so many of us.
Are ‘developed’ nations really achieving social wellbeing?
Looking at these social thresholds, I also was unconvinced that we are actually achieving the social thresholds in ‘developed’ nations that these charts suggest. Can the USA, UK and Australia (to name just a few) really be considered to have high levels of ‘Democratic Quality’ (one of eleven social thresholds)? If corporations – who have no need for housing, healthcare or education - can donate to political parties to gain their favour is this really an acceptable level of ‘Democratic Quality’? If there’s a semblance of political democracy but none of economic democracy (currently what gets made, how much and at what price is determined by capital and not citizens), is this really an acceptable level of ‘Democratic Quality’? If media is highly concentrated in the hands of those who have vested interested in stymying action on anything that might affect their profits, such that citizens are no longer fully informed in a non-biased manner, does this also affect the quality of our democracies?
Another social threshold is ‘Social Security’. The rates of poverty in Australia, the USA and the UK range between 11% and 22% of people – including 14% to 31% of children. According to the information from the University of Leeds, all these countries are achieving the ‘Social Security’ threshold, but how can these high levels of poverty in wealthy nations be acceptable? Two-thirds of Australians are classified as overweight or obese, and yet we are achieving the social threshold for ‘Nutrition’. Excess weight, especially obesity, is a risk factor for heart disease, type two diabetes, stroke and some forms of cancers. The corporatisation and subsequent processing and marketing of food – making it less nutritious and hyperpalatable - is a key cause of the obesity epidemic we see in ‘wealthy’ nations.
In Australia, researchers “identified 408 regional and remote locations with a combined population of 627,736 people that failed to measure up to the [Australian Drinking Water Guidelines’] aesthetic determinants of good water quality across safety, taste and physical characteristics”. Due to the quality of tap water, people in some regions have no choice but to buy bottled water, at a cost higher than sugar-filled soft drinks. Schools in regional Queensland have run out of water and had to have some trucked in as commercial bottlers truck out the local supplies they over-harvested. There are similar stories in both the USA and the UK. Apparently, this an acceptable level of ‘Sanitation’ to meet social thresholds.
A key issue could be that the data used in the University of Leeds research is from 2011 and may not capture some of the data that I have mentioned above. I still believe it gives us pause for thought: are ‘wealthy’ (or as I prefer to call them, ‘over-consuming’) nations really achieving high levels of societal wellbeing? Or, are the very interests that are driving their ecological overshoot also undermining social wellbeing?
Where to from here?
My reading has strongly reinforced we are misguided if we think making enough people aware of the ecological crises we face will somehow grow the momentum we need. The current system is not an accident. It was violently brought into being by corporations and the governments they control, and it continues to be perpetuated by the desire for ever-increasing profits and growth. We must be clear-eyed about the opposition we face to keeping the planet habitable.
The legal structure of public corporations (for example: limited liability, shareholder primacy and legal personhood) and the power they hold over our political systems is at the heart of our ecological crises. Any efforts that aren’t directed at dismantling this legal structure aren’t going far enough.
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