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New times need new ideas

By Peter McMahon - posted Thursday, 23 March 2006

All but the wilfully ignorant now know that civilisation faces a challenge of unique proportions. The profligate consumption of fossil fuels over the last century has polluted the atmosphere to the point where it is changing the very climate, while that consumption has used up most of the easily available oil. As realisation that Peak Oil is imminent and the climate models become more alarming (as the underlying mechanisms are better understood), the future looks more and more difficult.

Quite clearly, drastic and immediate action is called for if disaster is to be averted. But there are no signs that such remedial action is at hand: instead, economic growth and terrorism dominate world politics.

The reason for this is that the core ideas of mainstream politics have not been challenged. In essence these ideas view society as a collection of individuals interacting through free markets, with the state just tidying up around the edges. In other words, they are the basic ideas of classical (or neo-classical) economics.


These big ideas never had much to say about human beings other than they were consumers and less important, producers. They never had much to say at all about the ongoing incidence of war. And they never had much to say about the costs of economic growth on the natural world. Nevertheless, because they arose with mass industrialisation, they seemed to be the best way of explaining the manifest material changes that occurred, and which transformed the daily lives of all. That phase, short by historical standards, is now concluding due to the end of cheap oil and the impact of industrial pollution on the environment.

A new big idea is being pushed by some commentators writing about the new age of environmental uncertainty and energy crisis. This idea says that cheap energy, not markets, is the key cause, and that the great spurt in wealth and population has been built on the use of oil, an unavoidably short-term situation. They would talk about society in terms of energy usage, and they mostly see huge trouble ahead as cheap energy goes.

This view is at least a return to the physical reality, and a shift away from the ideals of free markets and “rational economic men”, but it has its own problems and is ultimately too limiting. Ultimately, it discounts the great potential for social co-operation when the chips are down; however, this co-operation can only occur under the right conditions.

There is another big idea that gives us hope for such co-operation. This idea centres on the growth of information in modern times, some of which we can call knowledge. The explosion of information is the single most extraordinary phenomenon of modernity, much more significant that the growth in wealth or energy usage. This is because, unlike material wealth and energy sources, information, although related to material conditions, is not ultimately limited by them. Unlike material things, the more information there is, the more information is created. This abundance of information has completely flummoxed economists who rely on a “scarcity” model of value.

The modern age did not begin with oil, not really even with steam, but with a surge of information related to changes in Europe and the spread of European power across the globe. The Renaissance unleased an era of unprecedented creativity which fed into the Enlightenment which was directly about the capacity of human beings to understand their world, and thus generate knowledge. Science, modern philosophy and a plethora of big ideas (including economics) grew out of this radical transformation.

Indeed, the most important aspect of the creation of modernity was the unleashing of a multitude of human minds to collaborate in changing the world. Hitherto held in check by church, state and grinding poverty, the masses of humanity played little part in history, the big decisions being made by a tiny fraction of men who ran the church, military and state. The two properties by which we identify ourselves - liberal and democratic - resulted from the rise of middle and working classes which played an ever larger part in the generation and exchange of information in an increasingly complex society. Education, literacy and a mass media surged, and with them came a new mass politics. With the development of true information technologies - everything from telegraphy to the Internet - a real, increasingly global information society arose.


Over the last few decades, however, the level of popular participation in politics has dropped off. Politics is now dominated by a stratum of professional politicians who wield power in the interests of the dominant economic powers, mostly huge transnational corporations and global finance markets, which increasingly express their interests through advertising, lobbyists and think tanks. The mass media have given up any claim to serious investigation or analysis, and the education system is in rapid decline as government support evaporates. These are changes experienced right across the developed world.

Most people are now not well enough informed to even understand the gravity of the situation they are in. Instead, for them the information society has become about money (that singular form of information) and entertainment. They concentrate on their own core needs - family, house, work - while wider social contacts decay through neglect. And they vote accordingly - those that bother to vote - immediate self interest being the only concern.

Information is essential to running complex organisations, and to dealing with complex problems. If we are to climb out of the hole we have dug for ourselves through the explosive surge of economic growth and associated energy usage, we can only do it through expanding our capacity to generate and use appropriate information. Information from experts, information from our everyday experiences, integrated into policy through a process of sustained negotiation.

To do this we need to re-engage people in a concern for the big picture. Change and sacrifice are needed, and they must be shared fairly through consultation. At the very least our mass media needs to take up the big issues seriously and we need to refocus on education for education’s sake to produce more people who can understand complex issues and whose stock in trade is knowledge itself.

There is currently in existence an extraordinarily powerful information infrastructure, made up of TV, computers, the Internet, mobile phones and so on. This infrastructure can be used to provide the necessary debate on how to rectify things, and to carry out decisions in such a way that everyone feels as if they can participate, and thus take responsibility. Or this infrastructure can be used to continue doing what it does now - mostly just distracting us while our civilisation teeters on the edge.

The material world is undergoing profound transformation, and we must turn to our greatest strength as a species to prevail. That strength is the ability to think, to communicate and to co-operate with a view to the big picture and to sacrifice for the greater good once we understand just what is required.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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