I recently submitted evidence to a key Parliamentary Select Committee on a key issue of our time: the huge increase in carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels relatively inefficiently in parts of the world which have low levels of state regulation (e.g. China). This ‘outsourcing’ or ‘offshoring’ of emissions completely undermines Britain’s supposed reduction in carbon emissions since 1990.
We are thoroughly used now to thinking of our society as a ‘consumerist’ society, and of ourselves as, above all, ‘consumers’. This seems to many of us now quite simply an obvious truth, and in some ways a good truth: think of ‘consumer protection’ and ‘consumer rights’ organisations, from Ralph Nader to Which? Think of ‘ethical consumerism’.
But: what if this self-image were in fact both misleading and disastrous?
There is a deep need for a deep reframing of politics. Politics needs to be understood as about making the world a better place, about saving our common future.
But there is in fact widespread cynicism about politics at present. Why is this?
Because: such cynicism is largely justified…
In other words: the bind that we are in as a culture is that, because of the state of our politics, which frequently and in many respects justifies cynicism, there is insufficient drive towards creating a non-cynical alternative politics that would work. Moreover, in order to succeed in creating that politics, we have first to understand properly just how bad the current situation is: that is, how deep are the forces that create our more or less corrupt current politics.
If you want a primer on Wilkinson and Pickett's joint book The Spirit Level, then the pieces here are worth a look (one by me). And for a comprehensive set of responses to their critics, including a pre-emptive strike against Gerry Hassan’s recent piece on OK this is all you need. (It is worth noting too that Wilkinson and Pickett’s work is peer-reviewed; that of their critics isn’t.)
For me as a philosopher, the thing about The Spirit Level that is most exciting is that as a study of the pervasive harms of inequality it strongly suggests that John Rawls's 'difference principle', which says that inequalities are OK provided that they materially benefit the worst off, a principle that has dominated political philosophy for 40 years, is simply wrong. Empirically wrong.
How ought we to think of our relationship to — our responsibility for — future people? Is this question (a question pressing all the harder in the wake of the recent failure to adequately safeguard those future people, at Copenhagen) essentially a question of justice? The rallying cry at Copenhagen was, "What we do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!" But what if it's not enough to call for justice?
Many voters are 'against immigration' and against foreign aid (they say things to me on the doorstep along the lines of: "We should take care of our own; that's enough"); and yet they insist that they are not racists. This includes many Tories and the whole of UKIP – and many ordinary voters.
My reaction, perhaps like yours, is to suspect that, actually, in many cases they are racists. But it is hard to prove that; dangerous to say it (at least, to someone's face) – and, I increasingly suspect, not always true, not by any means.