Book review: The Divide by Jason Hickel

The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its SolutionsThe Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions by Jason Hickel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How good is stealing from the poor?

The Divide attempts to help everyone understand that inequality has been made and entrenched by us in rich nations (global North). We created the systems, stole the wealth, marginalised the peoples, and dropped a whole lot of freedom bombs when anyone tried to get out from under our thumbs. Hickel covers how this happened, how it continues, and outlines paths forward that don’t involve growing the global GDP (consumption) by 175 times.

This was a fascinating book. It skewered many of the “good news” narratives that (sometimes) well-meaning intellectuals broadcast about progress and inequality. Too many of the “facts” often lack the context that Hickel brings into play in The Divide.

I first became interested in Hickel’s writing after seeing Steven Pinker’s “Everything is Fine” arguments being challenged by Taleb, Hickel, Giridharadas, and Lent. As much as I’m not a fan of the bloviating Nassim Taleb, his points were the first to make me reassess just accepting the merchants of the status quo’s narrative. That was when I came across some posts from Jason and Jeremy Lent. Before long it became semi-fashionable to dunk on Pinker, even Oxfam got in on the act.*

If there is an area where The Divide falls down it is in the same areas that many progressive books do. I’ve mentioned this before in my review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. In fact, the problems here are the exact same misunderstandings of agriculture as with Klein’s book. To Hickel’s credit, he does appear to have a firmer grasp of agriculture and doesn’t make as many missteps on other issues.

One of the points that Hickel makes throughout his book has started to gain prominence in addressing environmental issues (like climate change). You can’t just tinker with a growth system and not still end up with many of the same problems. We need a different way to run our economy, particularly so that environmental destruction doesn’t continue to be rewarded as it currently is.

The Divide is a must-read. If people were willing to acknowledge inequality’s causes and how our current systems don’t address it, we might actually start making some progress in not ruining people’s lives.

* Probably why Pinker is complaining about SJWs and chatting with IDW nutbags these days.

Comments while reading…. by comments I mean quotes I liked:
Great quote about how the “good news on progress” narrative is nothing more than an “Everything is Fine” justification of the status quo. You see this a lot and superficially it is correct. Just don’t look too hard.

“This is what I call the ‘good-news narrative’ about poverty. It is a comforting story, a welcome contrast to the depressing tales that often fill the daily news cycle. After all, it feels good to take a step back and realise that things are not as bad as they seem – that in the broad scheme of things, the world is gradually getting better. It is a story that vindicates our civilisation and affirms our deepest and most powerful ideas about progress.

It also serves as a potent political tool. The good-news narrative enjoins us to believe that the global economic system is on the right track. It implies that if we want to eradicate suffering, we should stick with the status quo and refrain from making drastic changes. For anyone who has an interest in maintaining the present order of distribution – the global 1 per cent, for instance – the good-news narrative is a useful story indeed.”

“To eradicate poverty at $5 a day, global GDP would have to increase to 175 times its present size.”

“Right now, the main strategy for eliminating poverty is to increase global GDP growth. The idea is that the yields of growth will gradually trickle down to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people. But all the data we have shows quite clearly that GDP growth doesn’t really benefit the poor. While global GDP per capita has grown by 65 per cent since 1990, the number of people living on less than $5 a day has increased by more than 370 million. Why does growth not help reduce poverty? Because the yields of growth are very unevenly distributed. The poorest 60 per cent of humanity receive only 5 per cent of all new income generated by global growth. The other 95 per cent of the new income goes to the richest 40 per cent of people. And that’s under best-case-scenario conditions. Given this distribution ratio, Woodward calculates that it will take more than 100 years to eradicate absolute poverty at $1.25 a day. At the more accurate level of $5 a day, eradicating poverty will take 207 years. This is the best we can expect from the business-as-usual trajectory of the development industry. And keep in mind that Woodward’s methodology is not able to capture the poorest 1 per cent of the world’s population, who will still remain in poverty even at the end of this period. That’s 90 million people who will remain in poverty for ever.”

“It is tempting to see this as just a list of crimes, but it is much more than that. These snippets of history hint at the contours of a world economic system that was designed over hundreds of years to enrich a small portion of humanity at the expense of the vast majority. By the early part of the 20th century, this new order was complete, designed so that the core of the system – Europe and the United States – could siphon cheap raw materials from the periphery and then sell manufactured products back to them while protecting themselves from competition by erecting disproportionately high tariffs.”

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Book review: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The ClimateThis Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who’d have thought that systemic problems require systemic changes?

This Changes Everything is an attempt to step people through how the existential crisis of our times, climate change, is a failure of our system of economics (and politics). Thus, despite all the handwaving from the well, and not so well, meaning business celebrities, we can’t rely upon this system to fix the crisis. Klein then attempts to offer up solutions and ideas that could work instead.

I should start this review by saying that, overall I think Klein’s argument and points are correct and well made. The bit about the free trade agreements being written at the same time as the international emission reductions agreements is a great example of the argument. Funny how those two deals were being made yet they didn’t bother to acknowledge that both needed to be aiming at the same goals. This Changes Everything covers a lot of ground, has a lot of detail, and joins a lot of dots that many people have probably not seen let alone joined together.

Obviously there is a “but” coming.

The issue I have with this book extends to a number of points raised throughout the text that seems to be all too common amongst the progressive authors. I think they can be summarised as well-intentioned arguments that are wrong on the details but correct in the broader scheme of things. The easiest way to explain what I mean is with an example.

Repeated references are made to agriculture and how bad modern versions are for the environment.* One example used multiple times is the idea of farmers no longer being allowed to retain seeds and having to buy new seed from (insert evil company name here) each season. This is at best a misunderstanding. Farmers aren’t really plant breeders anymore, they get professional plant breeders to do that. Most seeds are developed by companies or organisations who charge a fee or royalty for use of the seed. Some seeds can be retained, but you pay an IP license of sorts (for where I live, this is called End Point Royalties, paid when the grain is sold). Some seeds, particularly hybrid crops (like the super scary GMOs**), don’t retain traits in successive generations or have sex drift (male:female ratio not optimal for pollination), as two examples. So a farmer could breed their own seed and retain it, they could even retain commercial seed, except those which aren’t suited to doing so.

But that doesn’t mean the point is wholly wrong. Why are most crops bred by private companies or organisations who charge for their use? Why aren’t these companies owned by farmer groups?*** Why have so many public breeding companies been privatised? It could be argued that Klein’s overall point about capitalism and seeds in agriculture is valid, just not in the way it is presented.

These frustrations lead me to do a lot of fact-checking on the rest of the book’s point that I was less familiar with. It makes for disjointed reading despite Klein being mostly correct.

Which leads me to another point. I was reading this book around the time of Earth Day 2020. Another progressive, Michael Moore, released a doco he produced called Planet of the Humans at this time, which was bad in many, many ways. My friend Ketan has a good debunking of it.

One of the points that Moore tries to make in his polemic (all of his docos are polemics) is around how green groups are often part of the problem. Klein also makes this point in This Changes Everything. The main difference between the two is that Moore tries for some cheap shots at the wrong targets, whereas Klein goes into some detail and gives concrete examples of groups being in bed with “the enemy”, highlights unproductive trade-offs and concessions, and rampant hypocrisy (particularly around having funds invested in fossil fuel companies). But worse still, Planet of the Humans is a lazy superficial mess. It holds up outdated denier talking points rather than digging into genuine criticisms. It just acts as a distraction and fuel**** for the denier movement. You have to wonder why they’d release the doco at all.

In conclusion, This Changes Everything is a fascinating book and well worth a read. But do remember to lateral read and lobby to stop the use of fossil fuels.

* This is true but not necessarily for the reasons stated. I’d summarise the problems of agriculture being that it is currently run as an open system and done to make money. Open systems mean that the nutrient cycle doesn’t run in a loop, essentially your poop should come back to the farm. And that farming is a business, so you are rewarded for growing as much as you can on as much land as you can, rather than conserving land that isn’t needed and ensuring what is grown makes it to who needs it.
** They aren’t super scary. Honestly, I think much of the fear comes down to scientific illiteracy, otherwise, people would want better regulation over all new crops, not just GMOs.
*** I’m simplifying, as some are.
**** Do you like puns? Because I’ve got puns.

Some comments I had as I read the book:

I do want to quibble with the bit about exporting industrial agriculture. Sure, the vastly improved technological advancements to agriculture have been shared. That’s a good thing. More food, fewer impacts, less land needed for the same production, etc. But Klein’s overall point still holds, since the improved agriculture hasn’t been used to make more with less, rather it has followed the money and decided to make more with more.

Further on and a similar point comes up. The decentralised and bottom-up approach to fixing major problems is a good idea (with her caveat of needing national/international co-ordination). But it makes a lot of assumptions about how well it would work. This flows into another bit about agriculture and agroecology that is both wrong and right. It’s frustrating because I know where the misinformed aspects come from (I’ve read some of the research from one of the cited experts and it has limited scope outside of his particular location and situation). At the same time, there are still good points being made, like needing to cut the emissions from fertiliser production. It’s just that the answer is renewables being used to make the fertiliser, not pretend we can grow food without fertiliser (unless you have some sort of global bio-waste processing and redistribution happening).

It can be frustrating to read progressive texts. The right idea and goals in mind, just not always able to weed out the nonsense. I get it, seeds and GMOs are bred by companies now… It’s big business… Doesn’t make it evil, nor something that farmers would be able to do themselves.

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