This could be our last chance

New Internationalist co-editor Chris Brazier kicked off a lively Put People First meeting in Edinburgh on Monday 23 March with this brief speech...

This could be our last chance. The economic volcano that’s erupting all around us is going to cause immense pain to hundreds of millions of vulnerable people all over the world. That pain is already being felt by people who are being made redundant, who are losing their houses, who have seen pensions they’ve saved for a lifetime disappear in the blink of a banker’s blue eye. But for all the pain and disruption this is going to bring – and I’m afraid we’re still only at the beginning of that – this is also an opportunity to change course and stop ourselves plunging towards the rocks of climate chaos. Many of us have known for decades that this couldn’t go on, that we couldn’t go on chasing economic growth without worrying about the damage it was doing to the planet and our collective future. But as long as the consumerist, free-trade bubble seemed to be still blowing up, there was probably little chance of the world changing course.

This massive economic shock is our wake-up call, our chance to rethink our whole social and economic model and start putting the needs of people and the planet first.

You might ask why I’m qualified to offer an opinion on this. Well, a year ago I probably wouldn’t have been offering one. But the most striking thing about this meltdown has been that it’s the supposed experts who haven’t had a clue what they’re doing. They had no idea what they were doing beforehand, when they allowed the insane debt mountain to pile up. They had no idea what they were doing when they put shedloads of money in the safe pairs of hands owned by the likes of Bernie Madoff, Allen Stanford and Fred Goodwin. And world leaders like Gordon Brown, once a student of this parish as I’m sure you’ve been told ad nauseam, have absolutely no idea what they are doing now as they desperately try to put the genie back in the bottle.

I think people like that have been blinding us with science for far too long, making out that you need a PhD in Economics before you can advance an opinion. It’s time for all of us to have our say – economics shouldn’t be about the slavish study of how the free market works, it should be a science that enables us to create the kind of society that will sustain us all.

I’ve been an editor of New Internationalist magazine for more than two decades. In that time we have consistently argued against exactly the values that blew up this balloon of greed and consumerism and have now popped it, leaving us all plummeting to earth. We’ve campaigned against privatization, we’ve talked about the problems with free trade, and we have argued for years that the emperor of economic growth has no clothes. We can honestly claim to be among those who argued that a mighty crash was coming.

New Internationalist has always been organized as a co-operative. Although we all have different roles and our jobs would be have different values attached to them by the marketplace, we are all paid the same and are all directors of the company with an equal say over the key decisions. And it works – none of us would trade it. Over the years we haven’t made a big song and dance about this but have enjoyed the quality of life it has given us – the sense of comradeship, the control over our own destinies and so on. We find it hard to imagine what it would be like to work in a hierarchy and often find dictatorial behaviour in other organizations incomprehensible when we encounter it – and not just in private companies, but in local government, in schools and even in campaigning charities, many of whom have lapped up corporate culture over the past few years. We do see our co-operative organization as practising what we preach about social justice but we’ve tended not to extrapolate from this to recommend the co-operative model to every other area of society.

But now we’re starting to feel a bit more bullish, like we have a duty to point out that there is another, more co-operative way. It’s been so galling over the last two decades to have campaigned against mutual building societies becoming banks at every conceivable turn, only to have been swept aside by people assuring us that they knew best, that you needed to be a bank with shareholders to be effective and that the mutual way of operating had had its day. Well, look how that’s turned out. The mutuals and co-operative institutions who stuck to their principles are the ones who didn’t go crazy with greed and are still rock solid.

So that’s one reason why New Internationalist is not just writing about the state of the world now but is getting actively involved in campaigning and is an active member of the Put People First platform helping to organize and rally support for the march in London on Saturday. It’s why we’ve produced this special supplement that poses some of the simple but burning questions about our economic future that we should all be asking now – do come and see me for a copy afterwards. And it’s why we will go on campaigning throughout this year in the run-up to the Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen.

When the G20 leaders meet in London on April the 2nd, they’ll be seeking to put some sticking plaster over the cracks in the global financial system. They’ll be aiming to hand the world back to the care of the same near-sighted, free-market fundamentalists that caused the mess in the first place. Don’t let them do it.

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