Glimpses of Utopia

Book Reviews, January 14, 2021

This book explores real ideas for a fairer world. I loved it.

Jess Sculley, the deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney takes examples from all over the world on how to make the world better and fairer for all. Sculley shows culturally diverse groups of people confronting universal problems with creativity, resilience, and compassion. Looking at new ideas, rather than just tinkering with obsolete systems that have not, and are not working.

Eudaimonia is a beautiful term in philosophy meaning human flourishing- or cultivating the best conditions for a human to thrive. Aristotle stated‘it was that which made life worth living’. Living well is leading a life with meaning and purpose in line with your values, striving for potential.

Since the 1930s the way we measure a countries 'flourishing' is by measuring the amount of stuff created, and services bought and sold - this is added up as the Gross Domestic product (GDP). Simon Kuznets who created the concept stated'the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income'. It doesn't differentiate between harmful or beneficial activity (socially or environmentally). Cutting down a forest might be awesome for GDP in the short term but terrible for the planet, and the economy in the long term. GDP also doesn't measure unpaid work that is the glue of our society. Examples of care work are volunteering, caring for infants, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, caring for our planet and restoring ecosystems. This value of unpaid work has been calculated as an invisible 30% in some countries GDP (Understanding the unpaid economy', PwC discussion paper, March 2017) Historically capitalism has played an important role with development and improving the quality of life for people in many parts of the world. In this moment of massive change and growing unfairness we have the opportunity to confront the fact that our society grossly undervalues essential roles like caring. Caring roles have the lightest environmental footprint while providing the most essential services to help humans thrive in their environment. 


'People do not spring up like mushrooms. People produce people. They need to be cared for and nurtured through varying stages of their lives by other people.' (Eva Kittay et al, 'Dependence, Difference, and the Global Ethic of Longterm Care', The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol 13, No. 4 (2005), p 443) 


One of the most profound political ideas that steers Jess Sculley's work originates from Edmond Burke (Irish politician and philosopher in the 1700's) who talked about 'social contracts'. These contracts are not to be negotiated between competing groups in the community but a partnership between generations.


'Society is indeed a contract....The state is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.'  Edmond Burke


We need to be making decisions with wisdom and tradition from the past and looking ahead to the needs of future generations. It is intergenerational. Present day politics is not dealing with intergenerational issues (poverty gap, climate change, pollution, environmental destruction, ethics for all sentient beings) with problems left to future generations to sort out. 

One of the most inspiring stories of political possibility was born out of one of the most unstable and war torn regions on earth. In 2011 the Arab Spring swept the Middle East. Syrians revolted against dictator Bashar al-Assad. The ensuing civil war was very complex with proxy wars between bigger players in geopolitics, the USA, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia funding sides and creating an ongoing battle ground with more meaning than a people dismayed with a countries leadership. In amongst the carnage a new political system of community-led social organisation was created. This was named Rojava or Kobane (or the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria). This region is home to up to 5 million people with 7 districts. In Rojava a new kind of politics is being constructed - one that puts the planet first, embraces differences, elevates the status and role of women, and brings working democracy into daily life to work towards 'Eudaimonia' - a thriving environment for all. The Kurdish definition of 'autonomous administration' translates to 'society leading itself. So rather than top down directives, Rojava decisions are made street by street, town by town. This concept has been embraced in many more oppressed people from this unstable region. It has equality, and community at it's very foundation. At least 50% of leadership roles are required to be held by women, and Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis, Christians, and other religious groups are invited to share in decisions. This is a beautiful example of coming together in a part of the world ravaged by holy war and patriarchy. Politics becomes a working part of everyday life for the people politics is supposed to serve.  If you would like more details on how this works check out page 106 of the book.

A democratic economy should put the idea of a common good at the heart of how we run businesses and manage the economy. Employees have a stake in their work places, and business have an obligation to establish models that are socially and environmentally responsible. Unfortunately people and the planet are costs to be cut in the 'business as usual' model. Owners and shareholders who financially benefit from a company will care about the 'profit' over environmental sustainability and workers rights, compared to local people who have more of a buy in to make sure employees well-being and the local environment is cared for. 

Sculley discusses the story of Stephanie Gutierrez (first nation Indian in the US) who tells the story of her Lakota homeland - where the Standing Rock reservation is situated. This place was made famous when the Lakota people took a stand to protect their ancestral land from the Dakota Access Pipeline. There are trying to protect their community and in doing so standing firm with their ancient traditions of loyalty to 'Oyate' (people), and 'Unci Maka' (planet). These people are standing up for the planet, and trying to stop corporations utilising fossil fuels that will further destroy our planet now and in the long term. 

We must remember that history is written by the victors - the victors are usually the white colonising forces that take over and attempt to usurp the 'natives' with a better standard of living. Australia is case and point to this unfortunate fact. 'Dark Emu' - a book by Bunurong man and author Bruce Pascoe reveals the 'lies' and 'myths' that we have been told about the Aboriginal people. The book documents large scale agriculture and engineering works, from ploughed plains of grains and tubers, to the sophisticated Clyde River fish trapping systems. Complex food preservation, water wells, and buildings. The First nation people harvested crops and reared animals, while living in comfortable houses with settlements of thousands of people. Pascoe says that the construction methods was so complex the colonists made up stories about earlier European arrivals and even alien visitors, so determined to belittle the Aboriginal people. This is a story we don't know. We have been conditioned to believe that the Aboriginal people were nomads with no structure, scrapping for a living off the land. 

To help pay for changes that need to happen wealthy companies need to pay their fair share of tax. I liked this explanation....'imagine a company with 10,000 employees in Tanzania, 10,000 in Sweden, and 2 accountants in Bermuda. the profits are shifted to Bermuda, which doesn't tax them. We need unitary tax - where you take the companies global profits then allocate FAIRLY. 50% to Sweden, 50% to Tanzania, and almost none to Bermuda. Each county can tax it's portion at the appropriate rate.' We need to close these gaping loop holes that contribute to the rich getting richer (shareholders and board members) while the poor get poorer with countries not able to get hold of their fair tax take. 

We also need to tax pollution not people. Tax policy is outdated and it's warping society and destroying our planet. For instance when we drive our car rather than take a bike, or choose to drink cows milk over oat milk it has more negative impact on our planet through emissions, and resource use (land and water). Governments need to shift tax systems to put a price on those externalities - having the polluter pay. The true cost of producing milk from a cow (water use - irrigation, river degradation - fertiliser and nitrogen run off,  methane emission, palm kernal import, forest destruction) is not taken into account. They could also incentivise making the better choice for the greater good. Some countries in Europe give tax credits for commuting with a bike rather than taking a car into the city.  NZ needs to take some lessons from the Netherlands.  They are going through a 'Nitrogen crises'. Nitrogen pollution (form of nitrous oxide and ammonia) is emitted in construction, industrial agriculture, and car exhausts. The Netherlands needed to make drastic change. Construction permits were slashed in half, speed limits were cut on motorways (down from 130 to 100 kph - cars emit more nitrogen when going faster). Emissions from agriculture account for 46% of nitrogen pollution (similar to NZ) and politicians are calling for livestock to be cut by 50%. Farmers jumped on their tractors and blockaded the Hague in protest (sound familiar NZ?). These changes need to be made because it's damaging the health of the people, and the natural environment. We have to have a more expansive view - we are not against farmers - we need to change the processes.  This kind of crisis shows how society and the economy is more unstable by governments refusing to take action on climate change because 'it's too expensive' to transition to a new kind of economy, and risk jobs and economic output that's here today. Maintaining the status quo that doesn't account for impacts on ecosystems is not economic stewardship. Continuing to devalue our land makes the whole system fragile. 

We need to have town planning  for equity - Winston Churchill stated'We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us'. Our cities and towns should be for every one of us. A place for opportunity and connection. The human need for connection and collaboration is what drives the success of a city. Economist Edward Glaeser states - 'We are a social species that gets smarter by being around other smart people, and that's why cities thrive'. This comes back to Eudaimonia- the beautiful term in philosophy meaning human flourishing or thriving. We need to design cities that are aligned with having less impact on our environment as well. We need a partnership in flourishing people with a flourishing planet. More space for bikes, walking, less car centric, more green spaces, community places to meet and engage, efficient house foot prints, more trees. We need proactive local councilors, that engage with the community and each other positive ways to enact change. Professor Mat Santamouris (energy physicist, expert in high performance architecture) is looking to make life better for the poor and creating energy positive settlements that will help cities and people. 'Energy poverty is in my opinion, one of the major issues in the Europe we have 150 million energy poor....70% of the Portuguese cannot afford to heat their homes.' To design homes that are not efficient in terms of temperature control is going to create more issues. 'The first victims of climate change and local overheating in the low income populations.' Heatwaves are becoming more common (in the UK summer of 2018 during a 14 day stretch there was an extra 700 deaths than that average time of the year). Local governments need to invest in urban greening, shady parks, cooled community centre's and pools. Houses on tree less streets are more reliant on air con start to make these areas even more unaffordable. Redesigning the way we create our living spaces would have a massive social and environmental benefit. Building and construction is responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions. 28% of that is spent heating, cooling, and lighting buildings, while the rest comes from the materials themselves. This is a way we can have an immediate effect on the health of people and our planet. We need to align policy with peoples and our natural worlds ability to thrive. 

'More knowledge is not going to solve our issues' Prof Kees Dorst is working on the biggest problem we have - achieving the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The conversation won't be won on the battle of the footnotes. It needs to include our value's and a future that is ALL inclusive. If a problem can't be solved in principle then people will ignore it. We need to see the light at the end of the tunnel. So it has to be less about the planetary doom and gloom and more about how each individual fits into the bigger picture of a place and time. We have to connect with people where they are by understanding what motivates them, what pushes their buttons of pride in the places and communities they value. If people struggle to fit in to a community then they won't want to be part of the solution. It's difficult to have intrinsic motivation if there is no platform to thrive from. It comes back to having security and a sense of belonging as a basis of wellbeing and health. Without this as an individual then they are like a solo cell struggling to thrive, no energy to give to the greater organism. 


Kee's talks about understanding someones 'social space' - a sweet spot to see what they are willing to give to the greater good. He asks 3 questions
  1. What do you want?
  2. Whats good for your family, your community? (the difference between the first and second question is the 'social space' - how far are they willing to let go of self interest for others they know)
  3. Whats good for the country?

I would ask a third question to be more expansive with the social space and create an understanding of the interconnectiveness of everything - Whats good for the planet? First we have to engage with each other where they are in reality, in their busy, stressful lives. We have to get back to value's rather than throwing research at each other like hand grenades from our entrenched position. It's time we leave the echo rooms, leave the trenches, and come together to move forward. You move fast along, but we move far together. 


My book 'Holistic Human - Expansive Wellness Habits for thriving humans on a healthy planet' is available through my site for NZ and Australia