Climate for Change June 29
Effective and ineffective food politics in a time of climate change
In their May 23 article Investing in a Good Food Future, Paula Daniels and Alexa Delwiche from the Urban Resilience Project provide an impressive record of local governments and communities doing the hard and painstaking work necessary when it comes to ensuring that social protection, nutrition, equity and environmental restoration are the baseline considerations for developing and ensuring local food supplies. They report that “In the last decade, cities have increasingly recognized their leading role in upgrading food systems to comport with 21st Century values of people and planet. The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, created in 2014, is an international pact of 209 cities from around the world, representing 450 million people … The C40, a network of the world’s megacities recently launched a Food, Waste and Water Initiative; last year, Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti (currently the C40 chair) joined 13 other cities in signing a Good Food Cities Declaration, which includes a commitment to use their purchasing power for planetary and dietary health.”
Daniels and Delwiche have been studying these initiatives and say that “What we’ve learned is that food system change works most effectively and comprehensively where certain core elements are in place: a collaborative, multi-sector coalition (like a food policy council) focused on a localized food system with shared values of community, equity, economic and environmental health; quantifiable goals to direct the purchasing power of large anchor institutions (such as schools and hospitals) toward increasing economic viability along a values-based supply chain; supply chain infrastructure that includes mission-driven centers of aggregation and distribution (food hubs); and local government leadership connecting the dots within and across the many city and county agencies that intersect with food — which should include the workforce and economic development teams..”
If regions put these core elements in place, then impressive change can happen. In the data Daniels and Delwiche have collected over the last several years, they have “seen institutions double their food purchases from local producers, with 22% of public food dollars invested into the local economy and creating hundreds of new jobs. The institutions with whom we work have also markedly increased their purchases of environmentally sustainable and fairly produced food.”
So there are already numerous examples of cities and regions taking food equity and sustainability seriously, and stepping up to the challenge of getting as far away as possible from the unsustainable, unhealthy and unfair global supply chain system.
Then there are the people who know nothing about this work, are not engaged in it, and think that change happens if you whinge about something loud enough and long enough, and add a bit of lawbreaking to the mix. Such people create a party called Beyond Politics and steal food from a supermarket and give it away as their first publicity stunt. The stunt involved five members of the party walking out of Sainsbury’s in Camden [London] with shopping trolleys filled with food but without paying. A spokesperson for the new party said:
“While the government gives billions to its corporate buddies, millions of families don’t have enough money just to feed their kids. We want to establish a participatory democracy. We want to engage everyone and for people to be able to have their say. The current political system is incapable of making the structural changes necessary. We need a complete transformation of politics.”
I can agree with that last sentence. But I have come to the conclusion that Beyond Politics and its parent organisation Extinction Rebellion have no chance of making it happen, since their methods are completely ineffective. This arises from their flawed understanding of the current paradigmatic system and how it works, which in turn has led to splits in the organisation in the USA over the need (or not) “to engage everyone and for people to be able to have their say” if those people are not white middle class environmentalists and want the organisation to take a stand against racism as well as climate change. Geoff Demicki’s article A Debate Over Racism Has Split One of the World’s Most Famous Climate Groups explains the debate well.
I was already unimpressed by the inadequacy of XR’s political analysis on how to stop climate change, so the failure of Beyond Politics to do better on food issues is not surprising. But it is disappointing if it sucks the energy and attention away from the people who have been and are working on engaging everyone and are making change in a systematic and considered way, and sticking at it until they get results.
Effective and ineffective pandemic politics in a time of climate change
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a real curveball into the world’s political systems. On the week ending June 28 the global total of (reported) cases passed 10,000,000 and the global number of (reported) deaths reached 500,000. The true numbers are certain to be higher, especially with cases. Deaths are more easily ascertained by looking at the death rate for that month in the previous year in the country concerned, and deducting it from the actual death rate.
These sad numbers can be partially explained by the fact that there are quite a lot of countries which do not have the resources to do adequate testing and reporting. But they are better explained – given which countries are leading the case and death rate lists – by the political regimes which have permitted (and even encouraged) inadequate levels of testing, inept attempts at tracing, inadequate hospital care facilities, and refusals to set up and/or continue strict isolation measures until the virus is under control. This leads to deaths way in excess of those experienced by countries which have put such measures in place.
The best example of the differences between countries which have adequate resources but use them differently are the Scandinavian neighbours Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. By June 29 Sweden had reported over 65,000 cases and 5,280 deaths. The rate of increase in cases stayed steady in April and May, and then began rising markedly in June, and is still rising. The other countries were Denmark 12,875/605; Norway 8,853/249; and Finland 7,198/328. All these countries have smaller populations than Sweden, but not 5-7 times smaller. They also show a different pattern of infection than Sweden, with cases peaking in April and the rate of increase in infections decreasing significantly thereafter. (All figures from the Johns Hopkins University Covid 19 dashboard, accessed on 29.6.20.)
The best examples of countries blighted by authoritarian and inept political leadership are all in the top five for numbers of Covid-19 infections. They are the USA, Brazil, Russia, India and the UK. The US, Brazil and the UK are the top three for deaths. I am suspicious about the Russian and Indian figures, which do not seem credible given the numbers of cases and the size of their populations. In all these countries the rate of increase is either still going up, or is not showing the pattern of rapid decline which is indicative of a country which has the virus under control. Where and how all this is going to end no one can say, but for now things are not looking good.
The Market-State vs the health of the people
In the left-right, liberal-conservative, progressive-reactionary dichotomy which has dominated political thinking and analysis for the past three centuries, the left/liberal/progressive side has generally been associated with supporting and providing a greater role for the State in assuring public welfare, while the right/conservative/reactionary side believes it can and should be left to the Market. There are gradations and contradictions within this schema, but it is the one I hear trotted out by politicians and political journalists commentators every day with regard to politics in New Zealand and elsewhere.
Some of the contradictions seem very bizarre. The ACT party in New Zealand is a ‘more Market’ party to its core, but the key policies it is taking to the 2020 general election are support for its assisted dying legislation, and support for the gun lobby position on firearms legislation. The Green Party is usually put at the opposite end of the right-left spectrum to ACT, but it was Green MPs who approached Labour about a Budget Responsibility Rules policy going into the 2017 election (a classic neo-liberal or right wing policy). For this year’s election, however, it is proposing increasing the incomes of the poor by adjustments to the taxation of the rich (which is a ‘left-wing’ policy, but one which has yet to be supported by the Labour Party).
Somewhere in the valuable oeuvre of New Zealand’s best-ever political economist, Bruce Jesson, are the words “National is the party of capital and Labour is the party of capitalism.” Or to put it another way, it’s the same system, the people who support it are just positioned differently with regard to it. Both of them have, do and will use state power (when they have it) to keep it going, and they will use market power as well. There have always been more rich people and genuine capitalists elected as MPs representing the National Party, but the Labour Party’s ‘more market’ economic ‘reforms’ of the 1980s were achieved with the support of powerful capitalists who found Roger Douglas more amenable to their way of thinking than the National Party finance ministers. (This history was documented by Jesson in his books Fragments of Labour and Behind the Mirror Glass.)
Which brings me to the recently-released review of the New Zealand health system led by Heather Simpson, former top advisor to former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark. In his critique of what this review leaves out by focussing only on health-related organisations, such as the Ministry of Health, district health boards and the Health Promotion Agency, which are responsible for only 20% of health outcomes in New Zealand, Professor Boyd Swinburn states The health system review ignores what really shapes our wellbeing. He goes on to say what public health researchers and experts, such as himself, have been telling governments for years “About one third of our ill health and premature death is caused by just three commercial products – tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food.” So you’d think that a left/liberal/progressive government would at least do something about that, right? Stand up to the market and do something for the people? Not so.
Swinburn says that “Over 300,000 healthy life years are lost every year because successive governments have bowed to industry pressure and not implemented the policies, regulations, laws and taxes needed to curtail this huge toll of lost population health.” He goes on to say that “Every time a new report arrives from WHO, the Law Commission or a government inquiry, the proposed actions – which would be very effective, especially for reducing harm from alcohol and ultra-processed food – are squashed by the power those industry lobbies have over government actions. The scales are heavily tipped towards commercial profits over community health interests.”
In the last 35 years a Labour-led government has been in power 51% of the time. This includes the Helen Clark led government which Simpson worked for, which failed to take the advice on what promotes health from the scientific experts, and took advice on how not to make improvements from industry lobbyists instead. So has every subsequent government. How this works has been well-documented by addictions specialist Professor Doug Sellman, who shares Professor Swinburn’s analysis of – and frustration at – the ways in which the Market and the State are joined at the hip, and act in concert against the public interest.
Swinburn’s article goes on to list all the actions the State – working with and for the people – would have to take in order to make real inroads into improving the 80% of public health which is not treated or accounted for by the institutions covered in the Simpson review. He also says that “an influential health minister who battles long and hard for strong health policies can overcome [the current] policy inertia, but such ministers are very rare indeed.” New Zealand certainly does not have one such at present, and it is hard to see anyone who could or would step up to the job on the horizon.
Even if one does appear to correct the imbalances in the health system where the State does the Market’s bidding, over in Education or Primary Industries or Tourism or any other department you care to name the Market will continue to dominate State decision-making, either directly through regular and frequent contact with politicians, or indirectly via the civil service. So long as capitalism remains the dominant economic system, this situation is not likely to change any time soon. But we could at least stop pretending that the Market and the State are in opposition to each other, rather than in varying states of collusion, and that for as long as this state of affairs continues neither the left/liberal/progressive nor right/conservative/reactionary positions are accurate or even coherent descriptions of what politicians and governments actually believe in and do.