(This piece by Tim Hewitt-Coleman first appeared in the Weekend Post on 24 March 2018)
On our way to swim in the ocean on Wednesday morning, we were chatting in the the car about Human Rights day. As we drove, I gave a little lecture explaining how on the 21st of March 1960, 69 unarmed protesters were gunned down outside a police station in Sharpville. “Why were they protesting?” asks Mandisa. “They were protesting about the “pass laws”. They burned the papers that they were required to carry as evidence that they had permission to leave the “homelands” in order to seek work in the city”. Mandisa silently nodded her head in the backseat as she continued to flip through Instagram, but Poppina said: ”You know, come to think of it, not much has really changed since 1960! If you walk down any Hillbrow street today, you run the risk of being thrown in the back of a police van if you don’t have the correct, ID papers, Refugee papers or Asylum papers”
I thought about this statement as I bobbed in the ocean that morning. Mandisa and I swam to the end of the pier. Poppina strolled on the beach. “What has changed since 1960?” I asked myself. Yes, things are much better for a whole lot of people that happen to have the right papers, but really, we have fallen into exactly the same thinking of the apartheid government. Then, the state said: “If your ancestors come from the wrong side of the Kei river, you go back there and do whatever your ancestors did there” All that has actually happened since 1960, is that the state has now just changed the rivers that they choose to use as reference points for their cruelty and brutality. “You dare not set your foot on “our” side of the Limpopo River. Go back to where you came from! Go do there whatever it is that your ancestors did there!”
We feel good about ourselves and justify our cruelty by referring to concepts such as “The Constitution” or “The Sovereign State”. My friends, I am writing to you today to remind you that these, and many such like fabrications, are merely “concepts”. They are just ideas formed in the minds of people. They are neither real nor tangible. What is real and what is tangible is the tremendous suffering of many millions of people across the globe and especially in africa that are unable to flee drought, famine, war, rape and slavery because of the notional concept of a “sovereign state”, with borders that cannot be freely crossed without risking death and imprisonment. People are dying (and worse) for the sake of these concepts. The “lucky” few that make it out of whatever desperate situation that has driven them to give up their ancestral home and their families, find themselves in a situation in a country like South Africa perhaps, where they are, at best, treated as second class citizens. They struggle to get a bank account, they struggle to own land, they struggle to get the same wages as those who have the “correct papers”, they struggle to access education. They are harassed by the police, they are exploited by the criminal underworld.
As we speak, right now, somewhere north of the Limpopo, young girls are being captured by rebels and sold into slavery. As we speak, right now, children are embarking on foot on a thousand mile journey in the hope of escaping the hell that has driven them to find the courage to flee. As we speak, in this town of ours, young girls from Somalia or Zimbabwe, or the DRC or Sudan, with no papers, no means of support and no hope, are trapped in a living hell of drug induced sex slavery. Tell me my friends, why, why, why do we think of this unspeakable injustice in different terms to the way we have come to think about the crime of apartheid?
We are deluding ourselves to think that this is in any way OK!
It must stop right now!
I am not a prophet and I do not pretend to be one, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that we will look back at this time and we will judge ourselves for tolerating this situation. We will be embarrassed that we committed our energy to attempts to rid the oceans of plastic bottles, arguing against backyard dog breeders and whether our leaders should be permitted to smash each other’s heads with water jugs. We will judge ourselves for dedicating our time to this relative pettiness while this tragedy of human suffering continues as the result of our silence in condoning the rubbish idea of “Sovereign” borders.
The reality is that our species is a wandering species. From the time when we first emerged from the Cradle of Humankind near Krugersdorp, we have wandered. We have moved our families on to new lands when the conditions we were facing became unpleasant. This movement over thousands and thousands of years was a gradual process, but a fundamental ingredient to our continued success as a species.
Impermeable national boundaries are unnatural! They cause untold suffering and must abolished without delay. We are a species gifted with profound intelligence. We split the atom. We send our representatives to the moon. We have credible plans to colonize Mars. Trust me, we can figure out how to overcome the challenges that emerge out of the removal of national boundaries. What do you think?
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I have never yet been a civil servant and I don’t have any immediate plans to become one. In fact I have my doubts that I am really “employable” in that the sense of the word. But if I was employed by the taxpayers, I suspect I would be a little miffed that Minister Malusi Gigaba thinks that it’s not such a bad idea that the PIC (the public investment company) bails out ever-ailing South African Airways with the savings of ordinary working people who have contributed a chunk of their civil servant salary month after month to a pension fund they believe will look after them in the years when they are too old to be a fire man, or that guy that comes around to your house to be sure that you have a TV liscence
But I am not angry at Minister Gigaba. He like many of my otherwise intelligent friends, labour under the continued belief that the only way any of us can ever fly from PE or Joburg, or from Cape Town to Singapore, is if we use taxpayers money to own and run airline to do so. But I must admit, I struggle to get it. Is it a matter of national pride that we fly to Doha in a plane marked “South African”? Is it a huge embarrassment if I fly from Mangaung to King Shaka International in a plane owned by Comair or some other privately owned enterprise? I don’t think so. So why then, I ask, are so many of us obsessed with the idea that we need to year after year be called upon to bail out SAA, or the Postal Services, or Eskom or Sanral? I’ll tell you why. It’s quite understandable actually. You see, there was a time, not very long ago, where the only way to get an airline up and running was to use tax payer’s money to do so. There was a time, not too long ago (before email and couriers) when the only way to effectively get important messages to each other was through a Postal Service paid for by the tax payers. There was a time, not to long ago, before Skype, WhatsApp and Cell C, when the only way in which we could ensure effective voice communication was by the taxpayers investing in a telephone network now called Telkom. The reality of course is that times change and as great minds bring new innovation. We figure out ways in which projects can be made to happen in such a way as not to depend on violently extorting funds from the public (remember tax would not be collected unless there was the violent threat of Jail time). There was a time that it was the accepted general consensus that the only way humanity to get into space was through the efforts of publicly funded programmes like NASA. Now companies like Space X embrace advances in technology in order to make it possible to do so without any government support.
Where am I going with all this? What I am trying to do, in a roundabout way, is to open a conversation beyond the political poles of “statists” and “anarchists”. Where the extreme “statists” would argue toward the state controlling everything (like in North Korea) and the extreme anarchists would argue for a “government free” situation as we may find in Somalia. What I am trying to argue is that as technology and innovation advance, the things we think we needed government for become fewer and a fewer. Right now, I believe that we need government to, for example, see to basic education and to address the wealth gap. I am however completely open to the idea that we will very soon have access to innovation and technology that is able to achieve these critical objectives without the requirement of a state. It’s just that I can’t yet imagine how this could be done. But then again, it was inconceivable a few years ago that we could bypass the state in the creation of a reliable currency to use as a means of exchange. Now we have Bitcoin and Ethereum (Google them if you’re out of the loop)
I saw on Youtube the other day how the IBM Artificial Intelligence platform “Watson” was able to compete and win against very able human players in the US television game show “Jeopardy”. That’s not very exciting in itself, what is exciting, is that there are now stories of UK Law firms and Japanese Insurance companies buying the Watson computer and as a result being able to retrench dozens of graduate attorneys and actuaries. I begin to ask myself then, if even these highly complex professional posts can be replaced by computers, how soon will it be until we begin to reconsider our belief that the only way to, for example, keep our toilets flushing and out refuse removed is to have a 120 elected Councillors overseeing thousands of unionised municipal employees? It must be plain to us that it is only a matter of time until we come to see that the idea of government, was an “interim measure”; a mere blip in history until technology caught up with our desire to live in a world where we are free, but a world where still there is order.
In order for a city to express its “soul” through built form, a framework must exist where real people, with real passions and real desires, are able to give direction to urban space and structure. The reality however in most cities throughout the world is that it is not the passion and energy of committed individuals (be they Architects, developers or investors) that drive the shape and form of the city. We observe rather that increasingly form is given to buildings and the spaces they frame by an anonymous set of bureaucratic procedures, codes and planning controls.
We live in a time where much of the world is emerging into greater and greater freedom. This culture of freedom permeated the US hippy movement of the sixties, South Africa’s “Freedom Struggle” of the eighties and the Arab Spring in the earlier parts of this decade. In spite of news headlines that speak of a minority reactionary backlash, the general tendency is towards freedom to choose one’s religion, sexual orientation and vocation.
It seems contradictory therefore that during this time of widespread personal freedom, we have witnessed a global tendency toward increasing state control over what individuals may and may not build on land that they own. The work of Architects, more than ever, is an almost impossible task of navigating land use rights, permits and compliances. The physical act of building too is constrained by state imposed controls instigated by career bureaucrats and “technical experts” under the guise of “Health and Safety”. While the sustained attack on the Architect’s freedom to guide the building process is to be understood as part of a global tendency toward bloated self-serving civil service, desperate to claim increasing power as an end in itself, we argue here that this should not be allowed to continue on its current trajectory without exposure to the spotlight of academic scrutiny.
While this paper will contextualise itself within the global tendency away from freedom in the built environment, it will focus specifically on impact of land use rights and building controls on wealth inequality in South Africa. The paper explores the possibility of establishing a methodology that can reliably measure whether the building and land use controls currently in place represent a “nett cost” or a “nett benefit” to economy, the environment and to the community and especially to wealth inequality.
Keywords: Wealth Inequality, Freedom, Building Codes, Local Government, African City, Land Use rights, Planning Control
It has become widely understood that wealth inequality is a significant threat to stability and sustainability. Even in advanced economies like the US the reality is that the 10% that make up the wealthiest part of the population own 76% of the country’s assets. The French economist Thomas Piketty argues that “extremely high levels” of wealth inequality are “incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” and that “the risk of a drift towards oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism.” Piketty, T, and Ganser, L. J. (2014)
The basic premise of Piketty’s argument is those whose livelihoods depend on labour (blue and white collar) tend over time to have to work harder and harder to maintain their status quo. By contrast those that own assets tend to become wealthier and wealthier. More significantly to the architects reading this paper is that we know from an analysis of Piketty’s data by Matthew Rognile, an American scholar, that in fact the growth in wealth among those who own assets can largely be ascribed to real estate assets and not to equities. Rognlie, M. (2016)
Since at very least the time of Marx and Engels, scholars and politicians have discussed, formulated and proposed a broad range of solutions to wealth inequality and motivated their work as an attempt to respond to a threat to global order. Most recently Thomas Picketty has proposed a progressive wealth tax as an essential component to any economy aiming for stability. Piketty, T, and Ganser, L. J. (2014)
Picketty’s “wealth tax” falls into the category of strategies that the state can employ through coercing the citizenry into doing what they would otherwise not choose to do. It is understood that scholars and politicians would resort to proposing coercion in the absence of any other seemingly workable macro solutions. This paper will therefore begin to explore the possible effectiveness of “micro” solutions born out of industry specific knowledge gained through years of professional practice. It will explore the detail as it applies to the real estate and construction sectors and to the Architect’s profession. This paper will not seek to add complexity to existing strategies to address wealth inequality. It will not propose new legislation or regulations that serve to further coerce or constrain private individuals. This paper explores rather the potential impact of simplifying the approach toward land use rights and building controls with the aim of initiating a discussion around the relationship between land use right restrictions and wealth inequality.
Corresponding Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman
PO Box 12956
Phone: +27 415822753
Email: email@example.com 2. Defining land use controls
In Port Elizabeth, where I have lived and practiced as an architect for the last twenty five years, owning a piece of land does not necessarily mean that you are free to use this land as you please. While you are free to sell the land or generate and income through rental, the manner in which you use the building and the manner in which permanent changes and improvements are made are restricted by a range of land use right restrictions and building controls. While controls and restrictions may vary, the following schedule of controls and restrictions would apply to a sample site in Port Elizabeth.
In addition to these controls more specific by-laws are developed from time to time to limit specific uses including keeping animals, accommodating paying guests or accommodating students.
3. How do land use right restrictions impact on wealth inequality?
It may not be immediately obvious that restrictions on land use rights as expressed in zoning schemes, building regulations and other “compliance measures” are not in the public interest. When they are discussed at all, they are defended as necessary devices to avoid urban chaos and mayhem. The scientific evidence however for this supposed chaos and mayhem is very thin. We have reviewed the National Environmental Management Act, National Heritage Resources Management Act, National Building Regulations Act, Port Elizabeth Zoning Scheme, The Nelson Mandela Bay Guest House Policy and the South African National Department of Transport Parking Standards. Not one of these documents quote any case study or any scholarly work that predicts the chaos and urban mayhem that would emerge should these restrictions on personal freedom not be imposed.What is clear and beyond discussion or dispute is that land use controls have the very powerful effect of entrenching the status quo. Any attempt to change the status quo is met with complicated compliance hurdles that need to be overcome. So while being defended as necessary devises to maintain urban order, land use right restrictions serve to maintain and the status quo of the built form making it difficult for new entrants in to the market. Since, as it can be seen from Rognlie’s work, much wealth accumulation actually arises from the ownership of real estate Rognlie, M. (2016), any attempt to maintain an urban form status quo, must simultaneously be understood to be an attempt to maintain (if inadvertently) a wealth inequality status qou.
Those individuals attempting for the first time to build wealth through real estate are confronted with a set of building regulations that are very difficult to comply with when working in such a way as to best mobilise sweat equity. Building materials that are freely available, such as those required for wattle and daub wall construction or round pole roof construction for example, are not permitted by the national building regulations. While South Africa has a rich and varied pre-colonial architectural tradition, Frescura, F. (1981) traditional building skills have also been lost (partly as a result of the imposition of building regulations making the application of these
traditional skills illegal). The net effect of the imposition of building controls historically in South Africa has been to outlaw traditional building methods, bringing to an abrupt end the evolution of building materials and methods that comes with societies that urbanise organically outside of the context of colonialism. This evolution of building technique from rural to urban circumstance is evident throughout Europe, India and China but largely absent in societies that have been colonised. While this may appear to be a subject of importance perhaps only to architectural historians, the loss of a tradition of building to meet a families’ housing needs, has had a significant impact on wealth creation over passing generations. Those new entrants into the market, who do manage to acquire a structure compliant with the National Building Regulations, find themselves limited in a number of ways. They very often may not build on the full extent of their site (limited by coverage and bulk factors). Their attempts to increase their wealth by adding value to the property are limited by these controls. They are very often limited in the uses they may put their property to. Their ability to grow their wealth by adding revenue generating actives to their land is severely curtailed. The height to which they are able to build is very often limited, once again limiting the value that could have been added and thus the wealth growth opportunities.
Because of a pattern of restriction on land use rights over the years, the understanding that changing the status quo is very complicated and time consuming has become common among landowners. The impact of this “common knowledge” is to dissuade land owners from ever attempting to build wealth through expanding their own properties. This results in either spending on non-investment grade consumer items or in allocating resources toward poorly performing listed assets or derivatives thereof marketed by the financial planning industry. The available research on the impact of land use rights on wealth inequality is sparse or only indirectly relevant. The research however on the impact of the tendency of land use rights to dissuade landowners from consider changing the status quo is completely absent from scholarly literature. This is not surprising as it is of course very difficult to develop a methodology to quantify that which did not happen or that would have happened. Taleb, N. N. (2007). So while the points above illustrate the mechanisms that serve to limit the ability of new entrants and small land owners to fully exploit the wealth generation potential of their land, wealth inequality does not arise out of this phenomenon only by virtue of it being very complicated to close the wealth gap from the bottom up but also because those investors in the economy that already have significant wealth are able to negotiate the hurdles of land use right restrictions to release value and thus increase their wealth. In the case of land and land use rights it is certainly a pattern of the rich get richer, not only because the rich are able to purchase real estate in greater quantities, but because “the rich” are able to afford, the lawyers, town planners, environmental consultants, architects, engineers and heritage practitioners required to unlock the value in investment land. This is evidenced by the fact that by far the significant majority of new retail space, new office space and new industrial space in cities like Port Elizabeth results not from the small private land owners transforming their properties to meet these needs, but results rather from the work of big capital acquiring land and (at great expense) changing its rights to accommodate significant new investment. 4. What can be done?
In South Africa, as in many other parts of the world, land use rights and building controls are entrenched at many levels of government. To remove or modify them will prove to be a very complicated task requiring significant resources and determination. But before there can be any hope of progress in this regard, the important work that needs to be done is to develop a comprehensive “cost benefit analysis” of the barrage of land use right and building controls that are current and applicable. This paper postulates the hypothesis that land use right restrictions and building controls in their current form serve to not only perpetuate wealth inequality in South Africa, but in fact aid in the increasing the gap between the rich and the poor.
The economy of Port Elizabeth, South Africa and the world, has been characterised since its establishment by a series of “disruptions”. A disruption can best be described as an innovation that creates new markets and radical transforms and industry or even an entire economy. Seba, T. (2014). Perhaps the first major disruption the Port Elizabeth region experienced was the introduction of an agricultural economy introduced by Nguni speaking
people migrating slowly from the north along the east coast of Africa. Beef, dairy and crop growing technologies combined with a whole range of implements possible with iron smelting technology, completely overwhelmed the pre-existing hunter gatherer economic model. Mostert, N. (1992) Evidence suggests that hunter gatherer economy that had existed for tens of thousands of years was completely disrupted and replaced with in a relative “blink of an eye”. Since that disruption there have been continuous waves of disruption characterised by among others, shipping and navigation, gun powder, telecommunications (since the telegraph), railways, the internal combustion engine, Air transportation, the internet and smart phones. Disruptions are very difficult to predict. Taleb, N. N. (2007) This fact is true even for the most well-resourced corporations in the world including those corporations who are highly specialised in the sector of the economy in which the disruption is about to occur. In 1985 AT and T famously predicted that the US demand for mobile phones would be no more than 900 000 by 2000. The actual figure was in fact will over 100 million. Seba, T. (2014) Governments have an even worse record at anticipating disruptions than do corporations. When we return to our focus on land use rights, we see that in places like Port Elizabeth where we find that restrictions on land use rights, have the potential to significantly impair and slow a region’s ability to take up new demand that may emanate from a future disruption.
This is especially significant in economies, like South Africa, that are attempting to transform existing and entrenched patterns of wealth distribution. This is true because one of the few things that we do know about disruptions is that they generally tend to not favour those already entrenched in the sector or the economy. AT and T was not the major beneficiary of the disruption caused by mobile phones in the US, the existing taxi industry was not the major beneficiary of disruption caused by Uber and horse breeders were not the major beneficiary of the disruption caused by the steam engines.
Transformation in patterns of wealth distribution is of course complicated and all encompassing, but where transformation touches land use rights, it is clear that we need to act firstly to remove land use right restrictions that are standing in the way of current and future disruptions. Presenly, technologies like Air B and B are disrupting the short stay rental economy, but the Local Authority has on its books a “Guest House Policy” that would cause law abiding citizens to think twice before taking advantage of the sometimes significant revenue streams that would be accessed by making use of the simple, free disruptive technology.
Uber and its competitors have begun to disrupt the pattern of private motor vehicle ownership. One of the consequences is a dramatic reduction in demand for parking space at for example shopping centres or theatres. Henao, A. (2017) We know that government takes a long time to react. It takes a lot of effort to remove a regulation or a statute, the real fear therefore is that in spite of a disruption enabling a much greater percentage of the investment on each retail site being invested in retail space, that this will not happen very soon because of the length of time it takes for processes to pass through government. It is because of our poor track record in anticipating disruptions and governments poor record in in reacting quickly that we argue that the options under consideration must include the complete removal of land use right restrictions and building controls.
It is anticipated that there will be significant resistance and intransigence toward any campaigning for the removal of land use right restrictions and building controls. It is also anticipated that it will not be enough to popularise and analyse studies that point to the many success stories of cities with little or no planning.
A possible route to consider is that of the court system, where the attempt would be to show that land use right restrictions and building controls are an infringement on personal freedom that cannot be justified by any scientific evidence of harm that would be caused if this personal freedom were not infringed upon. While this route remains a possibility, what is required to precede such action, is a clear and defensible methodology to illustrate the beneficial economic impact of the removal or relaxation of land use restrictions and building controls. The route therefore proposed to test the hypothesis put forward in this paper, is the development of a computer model that is able to test the impact of relaxing or removing land use right restrictions and building
controls in the context of a functioning urban economy. It is proposed that we use data from the city of Port Elizabeth in the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality to develop and test this model.
This type of modelling has been used with varying success for years to model demand for public and private transport. Sophisticated modelling packages have been able to test impact of various road building projects on trip times and other quantifiable measurable that enable policy makers and public executives to make decisions regarding the allocation of funds to public works projects. What we propose is the development of similar city wide modelling software that is able to deliver clear physical, spatial and economic measurables resulting from the manipulation of land use right restrictions. The economic measurables we propose though should include, overall economic impact, impact on job creation, impact on wealth creation, impact on wealth inequality. Because of the number of variable involved it is anticipated that the computing power required of a model of this nature would be significant. The timing of this proposed model may therefore be especially appropriate given the continued rapid grown in computing power with machines now rapidly nearing human intelligence in some complex fields and already outstripping human performance in a number of less complex tasks.
Understanding land use rights and their impact on the potential of land to express its full development potential, is a highly technical field. Many architects through years of practice and working up against these land use right restrictions have become acutely aware of the impact that these controls have. In South Africa there exists a group of professionals that call themselves “Town Planners”. These professionals, in the South African context, are experts in the processes involved in changing land use rights from one form into another. Due to the amount of time that Town Planners spend dealing with the technical aspects relating to land use rights, they are well placed to articulate themselves on the subject. The fact however that the town planning profession relies for its income on Land Use rights existing (in as complex a form as possible), makes it less likely that voices will emerge from this profession that will honestly and critically reflect on the negative impact that land use right controls may have on society.
This being the case, Architects, as a group of professionals seem the most likely group to take up the cause of activism in this regard. This paper therefore reaches out to Architects to criticise and guide the activism and research that may be triggered by ideas contained herein. Feedback from this paper will guide the next step to be taken either by the author of this paper or by other individuals that may emerge as a result of the discourse that flows from it. References
Frescura, F. (1981). Rural shelter in Southern Africa. Ravan press,
Henao, A. (2017) “Impacts of Ridesourcing-Lyft and Uber-on Transportation Including VMT, Mode Replacement, Parking, and Travel Behavior.”
May, J, and Juby G. (1998) “Poverty and inequality in South Africa.” Indicator South Africa 15
Mostert, N. (1992) “Frontiers: the epic of South Africa’s creation and the tragedy of the Xhosa people.” Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable (Vol. 2). Random house.
Piketty, T, and L. J. Ganser. (2014) “Capital in the twenty-first century.”
Rognlie, M. (2016) “Deciphering the fall and rise in the net capital share: accumulation or scarcity?.” Brookings papers on economic activity 2015.
Seba, T. (2014) “Clean disruption of energy and transportation.” Milton Keynes
(This piece first appeared in Port Elizabeth’s “Weekend Post” on 1 July 2017)
I am inspired by the phenomenally innovative work of, California based, Elon Musk. You may know him as the founder and CEO of the ground-breaking Tesla Company. You may know that in spite of Elon growing up with the smell of mind-numbing bureaucratic paralysis in the Pretoria air, his thinking on electric cars and battery storage is proving to be hugely disruptive. His bold ideas will absolutely and fundamentally change the way we all live and work. This dramatic transformation will happen very soon and I am very excited to see it all pan out.
But I heard Mr Musk speaking the other day about his planned missions to Mars to build a colony there. I just can help feeling that that this kind of thinking is just a lot of crap, perhaps not unlike the kind of thinking of other technologists like (the American) J. Robert Oppenheimer, who applied his incredible skill to enable our species to blow up Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I can see that I think a little differently to Musk and Oppenheimer. In my reading and in my quiet time, I have come to see that we, as a species, have evolved here on this planet and are an integral part of it, perhaps like our gut bacteria are an integral part of us. To just plonk us somewhere else, is misunderstanding just how integral we are to our ecosystem and to what extent we are a product of it. I see this in the writings of brilliant and enlightened souls and I see this when I watch my cattle going about their business in the pasture.
Pasture and grasslands are a fascinating subject, but I do understand that it is quite possibly more interesting to me than it is to you. Books have been written about pasture. Entire library shelves filled. The important thing to take from our knowledge of pasture is the undeniable fact that we are dealing with a living interconnected system. In a very real and observable way cattle and grass and soil are part of the same “organism”. Grass has evolved to thrive on nutrient provided by herbivore manure, which in turn is digested by specifically evolved soil based mycelium and bacteria. Grass had evolved to look, taste and behave the way it has because of grazing animals like cattle. Cattle have developed their size, shape and biology because they have evolved in the pasture (alongside their predators) eating the grasses that they do. These are not just curious facts of anatomy and biology. These are fundamental truths. They are absolute “laws”, that whether we choose to or not, are a governing force in all of our lives. It may appear to me that I, as an individual, am a separate organism to the people around me and to the things that I consume and to the things that try to consume me, but in truth, with the perspective of evolution and of time, I am not.
So much of what I see around us attempts to convince me that I am a separate organism, that I am able to survive even without this planet; that I am separate from the earth. The spectacular 1960’s project to send a man to the moon, walk around up there and take photographs of the blue planet from that far off position, is one in a sequence of events, since the beginnings of consciousness, that have made us feel more and more comfortable with the argument that we, human beings, are a separate and distinct organism.
But when I sit in the pasture. When I observe the earthworm magically building soil from excrement, when I appreciate the cattle, I let the picture remind me of who I am. I let the picture remind me that I am a part of an organism that is beginning to show signs of disease caused largely by people (people very much like me) that have somehow come to forget the obvious truth that they are only a small (yet very important) part of a big and complex organism. Perhaps, with time, we will come to see that the disease afflicting our planet is like the disease of cancer that afflicts so many of our bodies.( A disease that killed my own father.) Some doctors say that a cancer cell is a cell that has forgotten that it is part of body, that it is part of an organism. A cancer cell consumes energy and replicates very rapidly, but it has forgotten its function within and as part of the organism. Cancer cells grow and grow until they kill the very same body that it forgot that it was integrally part of. Cancer cells form tumours that are fuelled by excess sugar in the system. In the same way perhaps as our bodies make up rapidly growing populations that cluster in cities that have become distorted way beyond any useful shape and size by the injection of excess energy in the form of over exploited fossil fuels. Perhaps tumours, cities and Elon Musk behave in this way because they have forgotten what our species has known since it has first emerged from the cradle of human kind all those years ago.
So what do we do about all this? I can only suggest that you come sit with me in the in the pasture one afternoon. Perhaps we can be still, observe and help each other remember.
(this piece first appeared in The Herald on 12 May 2017)
I don’t eat much sugar at all. In my experience, sugar and starch cause me to become fat and lazy. So I drink bitter coffee by day, red wine at night and water when I train. So I’m personally not too stressed about government’s plans to tax the consumption of sugar in the same way it taxes cigarettes and alcohol. Selfish of me perhaps? (for the record though, I don’t think the amount of sugar I put in my tea, or how many hours I spend watching TV or whether I spend enough time in gym are the business of government at all.)
I think what interests me more is the game playing out as the sugar industry attempts, through the media, to argue the case against introducing such a tax. I recall that the initial attempts by the makers of fizzy cool drinks was to rubbish any of the science that has growingly begun to link increased carbohydrate intake with a number of ailments including diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. The merits of that discussion we will leave to another, perhaps more scientifically oriented, writer.
What I notice though, is that the sugar industry’s PR campaign has now shifted to how many jobs will be lost and the general impact that this new tax will have on the economy. The latest headline reading “Sugar Tax – blow to GDP!”… or something like that. And this is what I would like to talk about here today. Not Sugar, not tax, but our community’s continued focus on GDP growth as a measure of whether we are doing well or not. We seem do descend into a collective state of panic when Treasury projects a 0% growth rate. We seem all to be in awe of Indonesia or Ghana when it reports GDP growth of 7 or 8%. But if that GDP growth has occurred as a result of the economic activity resulting from the logging of thousand year old forests, or the activity of building roads and rail to move logs from the 1000 year old forest to the Port that was built for no reason other than parking big ships that will move these logs across the ocean, then can such 7 or 8% growth really be good for any country?
Because GDP growth, at the end of the day, is a simple measure of how much money has been spent in economy. So … to use cigarettes as an example. If a farm is bought to plant tobacco, that transaction is counted as part of the GDP, so it the cost of ploughing the field and planting the tobacco seed, harvesting, drying, transporting, rolling into cigarettes in huge factories, advertising, marketing….. all part of GDP, but also all the medical costs of people dying of lung cancer or buying twisps or patches in an attempt to free themselves from nicotine addiction. Each and every transaction in the value chain is counted in the calculation of the GDP figure. So perhaps the question that you and I need to ask is: “Is it automatically good for us just because it makes up part of the GDP figure?” (Because I suppose, if everyone suddenly stopped smoking cigarettes, those people who used to smoke would spend their money on something else and therefore still show up in the GDP figures.)
I am arguing that we need to develop of ourselves a more sophisticated measure of whether or not something is good for our community than the measure of GDP growth. A measure that reflects on the value that is added by the purchases we make with the money circulating though the economy. A measure that can distinguish the value difference between money spent on a bottle of imported whiskey or the planting of a fruit tree. (Both of similar value but one of lasting contribution to the well-being of the community). A measure that helps us decide whether or not it’s good for our community to build a new supermall outside of town, or a nuclear plant at Thyspunt or a new Chinese motor vehicle assembly plant at Coega. You see, what I am introducing is the question of how do we quantify the “qualitative”. We all know through life experience that some things, some experiences, some places are better than others. We all know this, but find it very difficult to argue or prove. We know that it is better to see our economy directed to spend money of the “better stuff”, but we also know that it is so difficult to adjudicate between two parties that claim that their stuff is better, that we just tend to abandon the whole concept of quality and focus more on what we can, without doubt, quantify, and that ladies and gentlemen, is why we have this obsession with GDP growth! Not because it is useful measure of if we are doing the right stuff or not, but quite simply because it can be quantified in such a way that invites very little dispute. But this is where you and I come in. We have a duty as individuals to be vocal and outspoken about what we as individuals view to be the “better stuff”. What is your favourite building? Your favourite place to view the sunset? Your favourite street vista? Make it an issue. We don’t need consensus in order for it to be reality.
Perhaps quality cannot be quantified, but that does not mean that it’s not real?