The slow fix: towards a contributory society

Hands reaching up to COMMUNITY signHSV Public Lecture by Carl Mahoney at Balwyn Library on 25 October 2018

Carl outlined that he would cover Living Better, Business, Environment and Climate Change, the Rise of Technology, Practical Economy, Public Services, Education and Training and Healthcare in this lecture. Urban and Regional Development, Regulation and Participation, International Relations and Integrated Development remained for another presentation. His title, ‘The Slow Fix’, was a reminder that real and lasting improvements in our world will need not only political solutions but institutional and cultural changes as well. This may take several generations.

In August this year, the General Assembly of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), published the Auckland Declaration against the Politics of Division [Australian Humanist, New Series No. 132, October-December 2018, p. 5].  It affirmed, ‘the greatest achievements of human progress and solidarity can be won by rejecting the politics of xenophobia and tribalism and instead working together for the common good.’ However, there is general dissatisfaction with political rule around the world. Ordinary people would like to participate to a greater extent in democratic rule, rather than air their grievances emptily to what appears to be closed system.

Living Better

Over time, humans have aggregated in larger and larger groups. Tension between the interests of the individual and the group has been an inevitable result. From the outset, issues of dominance and territorialism have created problems. Animal groups, including human, suffer from effects of the ‘alpha male’. If we wish for greater social harmony, we need to breed out this innate tendency – not by eugenics, but rather using education and upbringing to achieve a cultural shift.

Charles Darwin speculated about the mental evolution of humans and George Romanes expanded this theme in his 1888 book, Mental Evolution of Man. Carl believes that there has been a significant shift in social thought, away from the so-called ‘old paradigm’ that underpinned a tenet of selfishness, which was associated with greed, corruption, cruelty and environmental vandalism. By contrast, a ‘new paradigm’ is emerging, one that promotes peace, social harmony and sustainability.

Business

Business is the production of goods and services for society. Initially, there was a barter system. The industrial revolution was associated with a large increase in the workforce. By contrast, in recent times, many technological advances have meant that fewer workers are needed.

In the 1990s, the Keating government introduced the Business Networks Scheme. This linked small businesses to help them compete against large multinational corporations. This worked well, but was short-lived after government funding was withdrawn.

Robots, virtual reality, 3D printers and artificial intelligence software are keeping larger businesses afloat for the moment, but labour forces are shrinking as a result. However, ‘cobots’, or collaborative robots, offer the chance of keeping the ratio of people to robots at a reasonable level. Could the Keating scheme be rejuvenated? With today’s miniaturization, business units can be located in smaller workshops and could play an important role in rejuvenating some regional centres.

The concept of the Triple Bottom Line gained favour in the 1990s. Linking economic profitability to social and environmental responsibility led to the appointment of Community Liaison Officers and Environment Officers. However, the success of a business or its Board is measured by shareholder benefit alone, in the main. While some businesses do contribute to world development, greater awareness of the Triple Bottom Line is needed.

Environment and Climate Change

The temperature of the biosphere is rising and despite the inertia fuelled by scepticism and political reluctance, we must do what we can to help. The Tropical Wind System is expanding, bringing with it increasing desertification. Spain and Australia are experiencing the effect of this now and the NSW drought is an example of this trend.

Scientists and agronomists are attempting to modify river flows and water catchment systems to compensate for altered rainfall patterns. A Great Forest National Park, northeast of Melbourne has been proposed to help conserve a large area of old-growth forest and wildlife habitat. Using recycled material much more for building would also help preserve our forests. After all, they are valuable carbon sinks.

The economist, E. F. Schumacher, in Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered (1974), argued that we treat our natural capital as a free provider of resources and, as a result, often devalue and squander it. Energy was one of his key concerns.

In the ‘70s, the State Electricity Commission (SEC) was researching opportunities for renewable energy, such as solar plants and wind farms. However, when the SEC was privatised, this approach was undermined. Energy storage and the ability to supply baseload power have been on-going problems where renewable energy is concerned. New batteries are offering hope in this area. The take-up of domestic solar systems in Australia is now 22% overall, and 30% in Queensland.

The Rise of Technology

The phenomenal rise in technology since the 80s has had huge societal effects. The internet, AI, 3D printing, robotics, biotechnology and cognitive science advances have revolutionised our world. But do we have sufficient regulation to safeguard ourselves from their consequences? For example, drones are now used in warfare, and can be used to carry weapons. What if they were to become autonomous?

Similarly, research on the brain and mind has transformed the way prostheses operate. However, if we were to reach the point where information could be transmitted into someone else’s mind, this could open the door to brainwashing or torture under hostile conditions.

Practical Economy

Income distribution has been reshaped by the rise of technology, with changing employment opportunities. The integration of small business units could help offset some of the effects of industrial automation. However, some politicians are calling for rapid population growth in order to make production more economical. This is short-sighted.

Carl recommends simplifying the taxation system as follows: use a simple fixed percentage rate with a deductible offset of a fixed amount at the bottom end and aim to plug loopholes at the upper end of the income scale. In addition, special taxes should be eliminated.

Finally, remove the stigma attached at present to the notion of government deficit. It is impossible to implement infrastructure and construction projects without long-term funding and debt. All sizeable businesses have capital development funds. Governments should follow suit, with a capital development fund that is separate from, but fed by, the current account.

Public Services

Governments need to invest in their people – in education, training and healthcare. These underpin productivity and well-being. However, funding arrangements are complex and often deficient.

Education and Training

The Dunedin Longitudinal Study by the University of Otago (NZ) followed a cohort of students from birth into adult life. Character development in teenage and early adult years was a key area of the study. Carl also emphasised that trust and ethical behavior should be stressed in education.

In the 21st century, empowerment training is crucial. This involves responsibility for a project from its start until the end. Likewise, multidisciplinary teamwork is frequently an essential feature which needs to start in school. Rather than being knowledge pumps, schools need to stress rational thinking, self-education and creativity.

Universities have recently had their public funding reduced, with more contract research and specialist Research and Development centres starting up as a result.

The idea of a technical university has been promoted. In engineering and related fields, the roles of the technician and the professional have become closer. Universities need to maintain a capacity for pure research while fostering bridges to the community and the needs of industry.

Healthcare

Good health is a priority for maintaining productivity and is an important investment for any government. Australia is a highly urbanized nation, and ensuring that services reach regional centres and the outback is a difficult challenge. As well, we are now living longer and the allocation of funding for health services in view of the rapidly escalating cost of new treatments and the ageing population is complex and challenging.

Many other issues need to be discussed and reviewed in the future in order to sustain and improve our world, and Carl sees the ideas in this talk as a preliminary to further debate.

Report by Jennie Stuart

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