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Overcoming the epidemic of loneliness
by Fabian Scheidler
Saturday Sep 25th, 2021 8:27 AM
The planet can do without human beings, but humanity cannot do a second without the planet. A subsystem can never dominate the superordinate system, nor can it grow indefinitely within it. For this simple reason, the two central premises of industrial society - endless growth and domination of nature - are deadly illusions based on a reversal of the real order of priorities.
"Overcoming the epidemic of loneliness".
Fabian Scheidler
[This article published on 9/20/2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, «Die Epidemie der Einsamkeit überwinden» - infosperber.]

Individualization and chronic loneliness would prevent collective action, says Fabian Scheidler.

Humans are completely dependent on nature on our planet. Author Fabian Scheidler describes the insanity of the current development in his new book "The Stuff We Are Made Of "*. He encourages us to set fundamentally different priorities in business and politics. Scheidler has allowed Infosperber to publish a core chapter from his book. In the first part, Scheidler explained why we should prepare for coming radical disruptions. However, we could only do that if we recognize the hopelessness of the current development.

The consumer democracy of the lonely
One of the biggest obstacles to even imagining coming systemic social changes is the atomization of people, their isolation. For some years now, more and more psychologists and social scientists have been speaking of an "epidemic of loneliness" that is spreading in many countries of the world. This phenomenon by no means only affects the older generations, where chronic loneliness has been rampant for a long time, but increasingly also young people who no longer have any friends and wander around in cyberspace without any relationships.

In 2017, a study commissioned by the British government concluded that 9 million out of 67 million people in the country reported suffering from frequent or chronic loneliness. In response to the study, the government even appointed a loneliness minister, though he soon threw in the towel due to a lack of funding for his portfolio.

In her book A Biography of Loneliness - The History of an Emotion, British cultural historian Fay Bound Alberti points out that the roots of this loneliness go far back into the past. The neoliberal era of recent decades has clearly reinforced this development,. But its origins lie much further back, in the industrialization era, when factory work, disciplinary institutions, and money economies undermined earlier networks of social connectedness. In English, for example, the word "loneliness" did not find currency until the 1800s.

Systemic changes and collective action are needed
The atomization of society and the silencing of the world that accompanies it, however, are often sold to us as the natural state of human beings. From an early age we are told that everyone is the architect of his own fortune or misfortune. In school we learn to define ourselves in competition with others. We are told that recognition and wealth are attainable for everyone, if one only tries hard enough and knocks as many others out of the race as possible.

Yet this ideology is an obvious lie: It is impossible for everyone to get to the top, because the top is only defined by the fact that it rests on a pyramid of countless people who carry it. Or to use another image, in order for a few to be in the spotlight, it must be dark everywhere else.

At the political level, increasing isolation has meant that collective action and self-organization on a larger scale are no longer conceivable at all for many. Social decisions are understood as the sum of individual decisions - whether as a consumer in the supermarket or as a voter at the ballot box. This consumer democracy of the lonely is extremely convenient for all those who want to maintain the status quo, including social inequality and overexploitation of the planet, for as long as possible. This is because major systemic changes, such as those affecting infrastructures or property relations, which can only be realized on a collective-political level, are not at all up for debate.

History shows that such structural changes only ever take place when people organize themselves permanently and establish new relationships among themselves. Or, to be more precise: when they make their relationships, which were made invisible by the mask of money, visible again. When we realize that with the bus driver who lives around the corner, the Moroccan harvester who picks our tomatoes, the coffee farmer in Guatemala, and the miner in Congo, we form a web of relationships that sustains us and makes our lives possible, then we begin to break out of the artificial loneliness into which the ideology of separation locks us.

Industrial agriculture and the climate crisis
The loneliness and alienation do not refer solely to the human co-world, but also to the world of animals and plants. While we still show our children idyllic farms from grandma's times in picture books and movies, the reality is usually completely different: Industrial animal husbandry and automated mass slaughter document the extreme alienation in dealing with animals, which are degraded to mere objects in the wheelwork of money multiplication.
The relationship to non-human nature is structurally schizophrenic: Empathy, care and appreciation are limited to a very narrow circle, such as one's own dog and garden, while the great cycles of food production are blanked out and abandoned to a merciless logic of exploitation.

Yet industrial agriculture, factory farming and fishing are, along with the burning of fossil fuels, the biggest factor in the rapid destruction of the biosphere. About one-third of the world's greenhouse gases come from agriculture and deforestation, especially clearing for pasture and growing feed for meat production, cattle ranching, and over-fertilization, which releases large amounts of methane and nitrous oxide. Also, the depletion of freshwater sources, which is evident in many parts of the world, is mainly caused by the agricultural industry.

The absurdity of this whole system culminates in the fact that, for all that, it does not even provide adequate nutrition for all, but leaves some 800 million people going to bed hungry every day, while on the other hand, mountains of junk food and cheap meat masses are churned out, the ever-growing consumption of which causes a considerable number of diseases, from diabetes to obesity. And all this is artificially kept alive with huge subsidies from taxpayers' money, amounting to about 50 billion euros per year in the EU alone.

This system is the epitome of total alienation from the world that feeds us. At the same time, it shows how deadly it is to surrender our relationship with the plant and animal world to the logic of an endless increase in yield and profit. The World Agriculture Report and the studies of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food have shown that in order to preserve life-sustaining ecosystems, a switch to ecological and predominantly small-scale agriculture is urgently needed. Only in this way can the entire world population be fed without causing systemic collapse.[i]

The economy as an army of extraterrestrial colonizers
If nothing else, the pandemics arising from factory farming and the destruction of wildlife habitats make it abundantly clear: a profound change in our relations with non-human nature is a matter of survival. "We are nature defending itself": this slogan of the new global ecology movement sums it up. It is not about acting as a proxy for a nature that is somewhere separate from us "out there," but about recognizing that we have never been separate from it, and that everything we do to it is ultimately a blow against ourselves.

Although the global economy is a network that seemingly connects everything to everything - and although the Internet has created a kind of "global village" where, in principle, everyone can communicate with everyone - our economy, upon closer examination, is nevertheless based on a series of deep divisions. The most fundamental of these separations is the severance of nature, which serves as a dead disposal mass for the wheels of endless money multiplication. It is this disembedding from the biosphere that makes the modern economy so dangerous: it behaves on earth like an army of alien colonizers, taking everything they can get.

Gainful employment alienated from meaning
The social sphere is also riddled with divisions. First of all, working people are prevented from working together constructively in many ways and are played off against each other. Dependent workers must essentially do what they are told, and decisions are made by owners and managers. As Noam Chomsky aptly noted, large capitalist enterprises are basically organized along the lines of absolutist tyrannies. As a result, workers are also separated from the fruits of their labor and the experience of meaning that comes with it. What they produce is basically interchangeable. In place of the satisfying sense experience of producing useful things for a community, the abstract compensation is money, with which one hopes to buy back some of the life robbed by alienated labor.

At the top of the pyramid, this form of alienation is also found. It is true that top managers receive hundreds to thousands of times a worker's wage as compensation; but for them, too, the content of their activity is completely interchangeable, for their only purpose in the great gear is to increase shareholder value for the stock owners and for other shareholders, by whatever means and with whatever disastrous consequences. The shareholders themselves, in turn, are also divorced from the effects of their actions: the legal form of a corporation, for example, explicitly excludes shareholder responsibility and liability. Often, they do not even know what the company is doing in detail to generate their dividends.

This results in a chain of structural irresponsibility and systemic blindness built into the deep structures of our economy. For this reason, it is crucial for a sustainable economy to reintroduce feedback loops into economic relationships that directly reflect back to all participants the environmental and social impacts of their actions.

Above all, the economic order today ...

To envision an economy that recognizes and nurtures the networks of connectedness both between people and between people and the more-than-human world, rather than obscuring, exploiting, and destroying them, we must first turn the current model of the relationship between economy, society, and "environment" upside down. In the current model, the economic order is considered the overarching system into which everything else must fit. Social organization has to be guided by the economic framework, a view reflected, for example, in Angela Merkel's famous words about "democracy conforming to the market". Finally, one level below that is the "environment," which is taken into account when the needs of the economy and society are satisfied.

... but in fact, the biosphere is the superior system.
In reality, however, it is exactly the opposite: the superordinate system is the biosphere, any conceivable human order can only ever be a subsystem of it and is dependent at every moment on the functioning of the superordinate system. The planet can do without human beings, but humanity cannot do a second without the planet. A subsystem can never dominate the superordinate system, nor can it grow indefinitely within it. For this simple reason, the two central premises of industrial society - endless growth and domination of nature - are deadly illusions based on a reversal of the real order of priorities.

Societies, moreover, cannot in principle be subordinated to the economy, for any conceivable economy can in turn only be a subsystem of society. If parents, for example, made the care of their children dependent on monetary profit expectations, mankind would quickly die out.

There can be no compromise between economy and biosphere
If one turns the inverted model upside down, completely different priorities immediately emerge. Preserving the life-sustaining functions of the biosphere takes precedence over all other considerations, simply because without these functions everything else is nothing. Talk of trade-offs between the environment and the economy, as it dominates our political debates, makes no logical sense whatsoever. If it becomes apparent that a particular economic order is incompatible with the preservation of the biosphere, it must be changed. No matter how difficult that may be.
British economist Kate Raworth has put the biospheric and social boundaries of the economy in the image of a doughnut: At the inner edge lie the social foundations of the economy. These include access to food, water, energy, housing, health care, education, and networks and institutions that establish political, social, and legal justice. The outer edge is formed by ecological boundaries, including the climate system, freshwater cycles, land use, and biodiversity. What lies between these two edges forms the space within which a sustainable economy can operate.[ii]

In this perspective, the current economy proves to be maximally misconstrued: it far overshoots the ecological boundaries, and in the process does not even provide security for the elementary social foundations for the bulk of the world's population.
This article is a partial chapter of the book "The Stuff We Are Made Of - Why We Must Rethink Nature and Society", by Fabian Scheidler, Piper-Verlag, 2021, 23.90 CHF, 20.00 Euro.
From the publisher's announcement: "Ecological crisis and climate chaos threaten the future of humanity. One of the causes is a technocratic worldview that degrades nature to a controllable resource in the hands of man. In a fascinating journey through the history of science, Fabian Scheidler shows that this view of nature is a fatal error. With a surprising new look at life, science, and ourselves, this book opens perspectives for profound social change."

[i]; Olivier de Schutter:Agroecology and the Right to Food,
[ii] Kate Raworth:The Donut Economy. Finally an economic model that doesn't destroy the planet, Munich 2018.
Author and dramaturge Fabian Scheidler, born in 1968, is co-founder of the independent television magazine Kontext TV. In 2009, he received the Otto Brenner Media Prize for Critical Journalism for his journalistic-artistic work at Attac. In 2015, he published his book "The End of the Megamachine. Geschichte einer scheiternden Zivilisation" by Promedia Verlag (Vienna).
It will be followed by a third and final part: "An economy beyond growth and profit compulsion".
Economists in stagnation, perplexed
Stagnation is a reality. But economists' models and prescription books do not include this reality.
By Hanspeter Guggenbuhl
[This article published on Nov 7, 1996 is translated from the German on the Internet, Wirtschaftswissenschaftler in der Stagnation, ratlos - infosperber.]

Red. On August 30, Hanspeter Guggenbühl received the Zurich Journalism Prize for his complete works. Even before his death, he selected for the attention of the jury three of his thousands of articles that he considered important. As part of our series in memory of Hanspeter Guggenbühl, we are publishing them here. The following third article appeared in Weltwoche on November 7, 1996.

Principle of Hope
For six years, economic researchers have been predicting economic growth. But for six years we have been at a standstill. If you ask the economists for recipes to cope with long-term stagnation without major crises and collapses, you are met with perplexity. Hardly anyone likes to deal with an economy without growth.

"Stagnation is inconceivable over the long term," thinks Stephan Vaterlaus, Deputy Director of BAK Konjunkturforschung Basel AG. "That would be a macroeconomic catastrophe," judges Bernd Schips, head of the Swiss Institute for Business Cycle Research (KOF) at ETH Zurich, and he concludes: "As economists, we therefore have to ensure that this difficult situation does not occur in the first place." Henner Kleinewefers, economics professor at the University of Fribourg, is even more resolute: "Since it is impossible, there can be no recipes," he said in response to the question posed by "Weltwoche" about what economic policy measures should be taken to safeguard prosperity, jobs and government services as best as possible if the Swiss economy were to stop growing.

Forecasts and reality
The answers are exemplary: economists and economic researchers do not foresee a life with stagnation. And consequently, it is not foreseen. For example, the economic research institutes KOF, BAK and Créa have forecast economic growth of one percent or more every year since 1990 in astonishing agreement. If we extrapolate their autumn forecasts for the following year, Switzerland's real gross domestic product (GDP) - the inflation-adjusted measure of overall economic value added - would have risen by 10.0 percent (BAK) to 11.7 percent (Créa) from 1990 to 1996. Accordingly, the turnover of the Swiss economy in 1996 should have exceeded the 1990 result by 35 to 40 billion francs.

But the wish remained father of all forecasts, because in reality stagnation has prevailed for six years. To be precise: The Swiss economy has actually shrunk a bit since 1990: real GDP, according to the latest figures, is likely to be 0.5 percent below the 1990 level in 1996. And because the population increased by 4.5 percent during the same period, real GDP per capita actually fell by 5 percent.

Reasons for the mispredictions are readily apparent. The Swiss franc was too strong, the propensity to consume too weak, and the relocation of production abroad could not be estimated. The forecast models are based all too heavily on the past, which was characterized by strong growth until the end of the 1980s. In addition, the economic prophets are committed to a certain degree of expedient optimism from the outset. If KOF and BAK and others had accurately predicted the rates of contraction, they would be able to boast of their accuracy in retrospect. At the same time, however, companies and trade unions would accuse them of having fulfilled their forecasts by themselves and of having caused the economic standstill in the first place.

In spite of the existing horizontal curve, most economists continue to believe in the "upswing". The KOF, for example, forecasts an increase in real GDP of 0.9 percent for 1997, and 1.9 percent for 1998, and is by no means satisfied with this: "There can still be no talk of a strong upswing."

Economic researchers, scenario writers and budget planners certainly do not expect a long-term stabilization of economic production: "We have not made a scenario with zero growth, but are concentrating on improving the unsatisfactory growth," explains KOF head Schips. His colleague Jean Christian Lambelet, long-time head of the Lausanne-based Créa Institute, agrees. "We have to do everything we can to overcome stagnation."

However, a minority of economists surveyed by "Weltwoche" doubt whether this will succeed in the foreseeable future. Even the growth-oriented Henner Kleinewefers muses: "Stagnation will only be overcome when a politically relevant majority is in such a bad way that the reforms that have long been known about and are necessary will be implemented energetically, consistently and without ifs and buts. That may take many a year, but the longer it takes, the more painful it will become."

There is no shortage of proposals on how to overcome stagnation among economists, companies and trade unions; the only thing missing is agreement on which measures are now the right ones and how they can be implemented. The great perplexity only begins with the question of what should be done to overcome the stagnation, if it cannot be overcome, with as little crisis and social tension as possible. Even BAK Vice President Vaterlaus can do little with this: "This is a defensive, destructive and resigned question. We're not asking how to perpetuate today's stagnation, but what to do to get away from it."

From a brief perspective, it may be understandable if the stagnation of national economic turnover is excluded and suppressed from all economic policy perspectives and strategies. After all, as long as the population grows, a constant gross domestic product leads to declining income per capita. And as long as productivity per job or hour worked increases, the volume of labor shrinks while production remains stable, which increases unemployment for a given distribution of labor. It is also not advisable to refrain from increasing efficiency - be it in terms of labor, energy or material input - because this would reduce Switzerland's competitiveness in the global economy, which would have a negative impact on exports and thus lead to declining sales. As the saying goes, "standing still is going backwards."

Not only the private sector, but also the state is subject to a variety of growth constraints under today's general conditions. For example, the financing of state infrastructure, social benefits, AHV and unemployment funds requires permanent economic growth - unless one wants to change the financing key or accept a painful reduction in services.

This is why social democrats and trade unions reject the idea of so-called "zero growth" (a verbal contradiction in terms) as a "horror scenario. As the guardians of the weaker members of society, they would be particularly challenged in the current situation. After all, it is far more difficult to distribute a shrinking cake of prosperity and labor fairly than it is to simply ensure that a few additional pieces of the growing cake benefit one's own clientele. All respondents agree that lasting stagnation would intensify the distribution struggles.

Inevitable in the long term
In the long term, however, tougher distribution conflicts cannot be avoided anyway. After all, "steady and lasting growth," which business leaders and politicians with limited terms in office want so much, inevitably turns out to be an illusion in a finite world. This is illustrated by a simple calculation:

Even modest GDP growth - judged "insufficient" by most economic experts - of two percent annually will lead to a doubling of economic output within 35 years, a quadrupling within 70 years, an eightfold increase within 105 years, and a thousandfold increase in 350 years. At a 10 percent growth rate, as we are currently seeing in China, the thousandfold increase will occur in 72 years, i.e. within one human lifetime. Even if an ecological efficiency revolution succeeds in achieving a "factor 4" (four times less natural consumption per unit of production) or even a factor 10, perpetual growth is ecologically unacceptable.

Mathematically and ecologically minded people, led by the Club of Rome, first pointed out these "limits to growth" more than twenty years ago. In Switzerland in the 1970s, an interdisciplinary research group led by economist Hans Christoph Binswanger sought answers to the central question: "How and with what political-legal governance structures is it possible to move out of the phase of exponential growth in an orderly manner, without economic crises, into an economic-ecological equilibrium?"
However, the vague ideas for a "smooth transition from an aggressive and expansive economy to an equilibrium economy" developed in the process and published in the "NAWU Report" (S.Fischer-Verlag 1978) were hardly noticed, let alone developed further, by economists working in day-to-day business.

Certainly, a long-term stagnating economy raises economic problems and demands answers to fundamental questions: How can a shrinking volume of work be distributed more fairly among those willing to work? How do we reward those who voluntarily give up a piece of the scarce labor pie? How do we distribute a constant national income among a growing population without more people falling below the subsistence level? Or vice versa: How can the costs for the subsistence level - for food, clothing, health maintenance, etc. - be reduced to an acceptable level for all? What system changes are necessary to fulfill social tasks even in the face of shrinking state revenues? To what extent can neighborhood assistance replace part of the welfare state? And above all, how can we break through the self-dynamic growth compulsion of the money economy?

Even at the St. Gallen Institute for Economy and Ecology (IWÖ), which NAWU editor Hans Christoph Binswanger founded in 1991, one looks in vain today for a holistic economic model for overcoming economic stagnation. "Such overall scenarios do not fit in with today's zeitgeist; one is quickly accused of being a utopia builder who wants to design the economy and society at his desk," explains institute member Uwe Schneidewind. That's why the IWÖ concentrates on developing "modular" innovation strategies for companies and politicians with the aim of reconciling the concerns of economy and ecology.

Another explanation of why the "platonic utopia of a stable economy" (NAWU Report) has so far met with little response was provided by the economist and politician Franz Jäger in his book "Nature and Economy" (Rüegger-Verlag, 1993): "The fact that zero growth, apart from regulatory implications, cannot guarantee an overcoming of the economy-ecology conflict, as well as the disadvantage that zero growth raises welfare, employment and distribution problems, affect the political acceptance of economic policy stagnation strategies. "

Franz Jäger himself belongs to the majority of economists who would like to solve the problem of stagnation by overcoming it, prescribing "more flexibility," "more mobility," or the "decoupling of economic growth and natural consumption" as a recipe for doing so. Nevertheless, he concedes, it is necessary to consider how to do "damage minimization" in the event of long-term stagnation. Solving the problems associated with this, however, would require a change in values and, in particular, a "turning away from acquisitive thinking." Jäger believes that solving these problems is beyond the scope of economics alone, and requires the help of philosophy, psychology and sociology.

Conclusion: Stagnation (including thinking about it) is obviously unattractive. But it is inevitable in the long term. And currently a fact. Therefore, economics cannot avoid dealing with this reality more intensively - even if it is as a punitive task - in research and practice. Because repressing the situation and praying that it will go away will not help.
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