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Even a cursory search of the internet quickly reveals how many ‘World Days’ occur each year.  In February, we have World Play Your Ukulele Day, World Hippo Day and World Bartender Day, to pick just three at random.  This week, however, sees the annual celebration of World Thinking Day, which falls on February 22nd each year.

Celebrated since 1926, and the idea of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, or WAGGS as they rather cleverly style themselves, the day was chosen because it was the birthday of Robert Baden-Powell, who founded the Scout Movement.  By an unusual coincidence, his wife, Olivia St Clair Soames, was also born on 22nd February.  The relationship caused something of a stir back in the day because he was fifty-five when they married and she was twenty-three. 

World Thinking Day was just plain old Thinking Day until 1999, but since then has become a day of international friendship, a chance to think about ‘Sisters’ and ‘Brothers’ in the scouting world and beyond, and notably an opportunity to speak out on issues that affect young women.  Each year has a dedicated theme, which in 2024 is ‘The Environment and Global Poverty’, which ties in very nicely with the book I have highlighted to the pupils in my assemblies this week.

I found ‘Less Is More’ by Jason Hickel to be an exceptional read, which opened my blinkered eyes to the reality of climate change and the imperative of the need for effective action to replace what Greta Thunberg quite rightly described as the ‘blah, blah, blah’ of the rhetoric surrounding the reduction of emissions and the transition away from fossil fuels.  It strikes me as the perfect read for World Thinking Day because it genuinely made me sit up and pay attention to the causes of the problems we are facing.

Hickel’s argument goes further than the demand for the sort of green measures we are familiar with, many of which he cogently argues will not work anyway, and which are just a smokescreen for those in power to do as little as possible.  Carbon capture, for example, he says is just a pipe dream.  Even if it can at some point be scaled up to reduce the harmful gases in the atmosphere, the damage being done to the planet will continue until such time as we realise that it does not matter where we get our energy from or whether we can offset its omissions.

The problem, Hickel persuasively formulates, is not the source of the fuel but the relentless pursuit of economic growth, driven by our obsession with capitalism.  From the feudal system in the Middle Ages, via the enclosure of fields in the 1500s and 1600s and the theft of resources driven by colonialism, to the exploitation of the industrial revolution, the seemingly unstoppable drive for profit to secure growth, he believes, is the cause of all our ills.

These are just a few of the facts he cites that I shared with the pupils: three-quarters of flying insects in Germany’s nature reserves have disappeared in the last twenty-five years; agricultural soil under industrial tillage is declining one hundred times faster than it is  being formed; exploitable fish stocks in the Pacific Ocean could decline to zero by 2050 if current trends continue; and greater acidity in the oceans is causing marine creatures to disappear at twice the rate of land animals.

It gets worse: sixty-five million people have been displaced from their homes by war and drought, which will only get worse as temperatures rise; in the 1980s, Arctic sea ice covered an average of about seven million square kilometres; this is now down to four million square kilometres; and rising sea levels will flood coastal areas, for example the country of Bangladesh and the cities of Kolkata, Shanghai, New York…and London.

In India, the average person consumes four kilograms of meat per year; in Kenya, the figure is seventeen kilograms and in America it is 120 kilograms – thirty times as much as India; in Africa, the average person gets through sixteen kilograms of plastic per year; in Europe it is 136 kilograms – nine times as much as Africa; low-income countries consume about two tons of ‘material stuff’ per person per year; in America it is thirty-five tons – more than four times the level of eight tons per person that is thought to be sustainable.

The capitalist obsession with economic growth leads directly to the exploitation of people’s labour and the planet’s resources, but more money does not make people live longer or happier lives.  This is instead achieved through better education and healthcare.  One per cent of people on the planet own almost fifty per cent of the wealth, and the poorest fifty per cent of the people own just 0.75% of the wealth.  If we could redistribute just half of the wealth of the richest, we could end global poverty almost at once.

Hickel argues that the goal of capitalism is to extract and accumulate surplus, to obtain resources as cheaply as possible regardless of the wider implications of such an approach.  It works according to a simple formula: take more – from nature and from labour – than you give back.  It is little wonder, therefore, that he lays the blame for our existential crisis firmly at the door of the capitalist system.

He quotes the American philosopher Fredric Jameson, who said, ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.’  But Hickel says that change is possible, with surveys around the world showing that a majority of people in many countries think capitalism is unfair.  Apparently, even seventy per cent of Americans agree with the statement: ‘Environmental protection is more important than economic growth.’  Though whether they are prepared to reduce the amount of meat they eat, the fuel they consume or the air conditioning units they need to inhabit large areas of their country is a moot point.

There was a time when we believed the Earth was flat, that it was the centre of the Universe and revolved around the Sun, and that you could reach India by sailing west from Europe without anything getting in your way, but we do not believe any of that any longer.  It is less than two hundred years since Charles Darwin demonstrated that life on our planet developed through evolution rather than any other way, and less than fifty years since the Soviet experiment with communism was discredited – which is not what Hickel is suggesting should replace capitalism.

It seems highly unlikely that any of these arguments will gain the traction needed to bring about genuine change any time soon.  The vested interests, despite there being so few of them, are too firmly entrenched to give much consideration to abandoning the status quo, and too fearful of the proletariat to pay more than lip service to any sort of levelling up.  This appears to be the case even within the richest of countries, so it is hardly going to be contemplated through a wider reduction of poverty across the world.

If those of us who are part of the older generation really care about the legacy that we are passing to those who follow us, rather than a short-term desire to profit from the system as it is currently constituted, it seems to me that we must at least be prepared to consider that there are other ways to do things.  If the purpose of World Thinking Day is to encourage debate, many of Hickel’s arguments in this exceptional book strike me as very good place to start.

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