Right now many groups round New Zealand are doing a lot of thinking about how we might build back better after the pandemic. They are identifying issues and making recommendations, whether it be on addressing climate change properly, facing the wealth disparity or generally working towards a world with a future for humanity.
But where should we intervene in the global or national political economy? It’s easy to suffer from overwhelm of ideas and information so it might just be helpful to think about which interventions would have the most leverage. Would a small intervention somewhere have a big effect?
Donella Meadows, a systems analyst focused on environmental limits to economic growth did a lot of thinking on this topic during the 1990s and wrote a classic piece. She identified twelve leverage points to intervene in a system. A complex system could be a firm, a city, an economy, a living being, an ecosystem or an ecoregion.
So I am just going to deal with the first three which bring the greatest results. They are also the hardest ones to move. Here is a quote from Wikipedia
“3. Goal of the system
Changing goals changes every item listed above: parameters, feedback loops, information and self-organization.
A city council decision might be to change the goal of the lake from making it a free facility for public and private use, to a more tourist oriented facility. That goal change will effect several of the above leverage points: information on water quality will become mandatory and legal punishment will be set for any illegal effluent.
Mindset or paradigm that the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises from
A societal paradigm is an idea, a shared unstated assumption, or a system of thought that is the foundation of complex social structures. Paradigms are very hard to change, but there are no limits to paradigm change. Meadows indicates paradigms might be changed by repeatedly and consistently pointing out anomalies and failures in the current paradigm to those with open minds.
A current paradigm is “Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purpose”. What might happen to the lake were this collective idea changed ?
Power to transcend paradigms
Transcending paradigms may go beyond challenging fundamental assumptions, into the realm of changing the values and priorities that lead to the assumptions, and being able to choose among value sets at will.
Many today see Nature as a stock of resources to be converted to human purpose. Many Native Americans see Nature as a living god, to be loved, worshipped, and lived with. These views are incompatible, but perhaps another viewpoint could incorporate them both, along with others.”
Donella Meadows wrote, “The shared idea in the minds of society, the great unstated assumptions, unstated because unnecessary to state; everyone knows them‚ constitute that society’s deepest set of beliefs about how the world works. There is a difference between nouns and verbs. People who are paid less are worth less. Growth is good. Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purposes. Evolution stopped with the emergence of Homo sapiens. One can “own” land. Those are just a few of the paradigmatic assumptions of our culture, all of which utterly dumbfound people of other cultures. Paradigms are the sources of systems. From them come goals, information”.
When I first perused this book I thought it might be boring, as he named each chapter with another version of reductionism. But I ended up reading it twice and taking notes.
T Colin Campbell is well known in the Whole Foods Plant Based eating community; in fact he invented the phrase in 1978 while he was on a cancer research grant review panel. He spent his life in nutrition research publishing 350 papers, most of which were peer reviewed and printed in prestigious scientific journals. He had 20 years of being on expert committees that evaluated and formulated national and international policies on food and health and determined which research should be funded.
I came away with a huge respect not only for the miraculous human body, but for a man who stepped outside the prevailing paradigm and stayed there. It wasn’t easy for someone from a dairy farm who went as a wide eyed scientist with the noble goal of ending childhood malnutrition in the Philippines to face the shocking fact that animal protein was the culprit in turning on cancer and that in this case it was the casein from milk. “I chose to follow this discovery everywhere it led me.”
When he submitted a paper saying that animal protein intake determined cancer development far more than the dose of chemical carcinogen, he had difficulty getting it published in Cancer Research. The reaction: “Colin, you’re talking about good food. Don’t take it away from us.” He had hit a sensitive nerve. He said, “Even rational, data-driven scientists could be sent into prolonged state of hysteria when presented with evidence that their favourite foods might be killing them.”
He is glad, and so should we be, that he doesn’t live in an era where heretics are burnt at the stake.
It was his research on an enzyme called MFO which converted him to wholism, because the scientific method itself had to be questioned. He says the battle between wholism and reductionism is unnecessary because there is no inherent conflict. “Wholism doesn’t oppose reductionism; rather it encompasses it.” He realised the enzyme doesn’t stand alone, it is an integral element of a larger system. When one part is altered, all the other parts are forced to adapt to try to keep the system running. “To reductionists nutrition is just the arithmetical sum of the individual parts”. An apple does a lot more inside out bodies than all the known apple nutrients ingested in pill form.
The various dogmas of our society include “calcium grows strong bones” and “Vitamin A is necessary for good eyesight.” It’s simply wrong to talk about a nutrient on its own as if it acted alone in a mechanical fashion. Nutrition is not a mathematical equation.
Campbell of course has huge respect for Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn, John McDougall, Neal Barnard and Alan Goldhamer who have done experiments comparing the effects of a diet high in animal protein with the effects of a WFPB diet. He describes Esselstyn’s results as “jaw-dropping, nothing comes close.”
Why doesn’t he say eat x gm of this nutrient and y gm of that?
That is reductionist. Firstly, the body knows how much to absorb of any mineral. Eat a carrot and the body can convert the beta-carotene in it to its most common metabolite, Vitamin A or into eight times as much Vitamin A. The body decides, according to what it needs. Our digestive processes are complex and unpredictable.
Secondly, foods vary. One peach may contain forty times more beta-carotene than another depending on the season and many other things. So we can have variation in foods as well as in nutrient absorption and utilisation.
Thirdly nutrients modify each other’s activities. Magnesium influences the effects of iron, manganese etc through the activities of hundreds of enzymes.
This explains how silly it is to megadose on nutrients isolated from whole foods.
The body has to keep every mineral and iron within a certain range, quite a narrow range in fact. Sodium has to be between 135-145 mol/L, magnesium 0.6 to 0.8 mol/L, chloride 340-370mg/dL etc And it does it without any thinking or directing from us!
So we don’t know the effects of a single agent on health because that’s not the way the body works.
His study of one enzyme was what converted him to wholism. He found that an enzyme called MFO could act either as a cancer fighting machine or as something that produced carcinogenic by-products. When we eat the right foods, MFO moves towards homeostasis. When we don’t it contributes to disease. And MFO is just one of the 100,000 or more enzymes that contribute to the function of the human body. “Nutrients don’t follow a single predictable pathway; rather after they enter the trillions of cells in our bodies.” They can branch out into multiple pathways of metabolites.
He is stunned by the brilliant ways our enzymes work using minimal energy and describes the system as “a symphony extraordinaire”.
So as a nutritional scientist he teaches us how complex and intelligent the body is.
When it comes to genetics and foods he says the foods we eat and the nutrition they provide is far more important in determining cancer than our genetic backgrounds. “When people migrate from one country to another they acquire the cancer rate of the country to which they move, despite the facts their genes remain the same.”
Then comes his astonishing statement. “At least 80-90 percent and probably closer to 97-98% of all cancers are related to diet and lifestyle, not to genes.” Digest that one if you will. The current common figure is about 30 percent.
No wonder he said he was not a popular figure in the cancer research community, one which is focussed on discovering the chemical carcinogens that cause cancer. He threatened jobs, careers and structure.
There are three sentences I learnt by heart. “We live in a world where carcinogenic mutations abound, many of them from natural sources like the sun, viruses and moulds. You can’t avoid these carcinogens or the mutations they produce. The more effective method of prevention is to address what determines whether or not these mutations progress into cancer: nutrition.”
This all fits perfectly with the first page of Dr William Li’s book Eat to Beat Disease.
Li is the co-founder of the Angiogenesis Foundation. Angiogenesis is the process our bodies use to grow and maintain blood vessels. He explains that in autopsy studies on individuals who had never been diagnosed with cancer, almost 40 percent of women between forty and fifty had microscopic tumours in their breasts and almost 100 percent of people over the age of seventy had microscopic cancers in the thyroid gland. “Up to ten thousand mistakes occur in the DNA of dividing cells in your body every day, making the formation of cancers not only common but inevitable. And yet these microscopic cancers are completely harmless.” He then goes on to say the body starves them of the blood and nutrients they need to grow and you can optimise this defence system through the foods you eat.
When it comes to supplementation the same logic applies – you can’t expect chemicals ripped from their natural context are as good or better than whole foods. But the natural health community has fallen prey to this ideology.
Dr Rui Hai Liu, a Chinese researcher found that 100 gm of fresh apple had an anti-oxidant Vitamin C-like activity equivalent to 1500 mg of Vitamin C. Yet that 100 gm when analysed had only 5.7mg of Vitamin C. The Vitamin C-like activity was 263 times as potent as the same amount of isolated Vitamin C. “Take a Vitamin C pill and we miss out on the cast of supporting characters that may give Vitamin C its potency – Vitamin K, Vitamin B6, copper, niacin, magnesium, potassium, dietary fibre, quercetin, catechin, phlorizin and cholorogenic acid. There are hundreds if not thousands of chemicals in apples each of which in turn may affect thousands of reactions and metabolic systems.”
He cites studies showing supplementation with Vitamin E being useless because it acts in conjunction with selenium, some amino acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. On omega 3 he says 89 studies were summarised and concluded that omega 3 fats do not have a clear effect on total mortality. And a 15 year study with 200,000 people found it increased the risk of type 2 diabetes with a dose related response. A study on beta-carotene supplement had to be terminated early due to increased risk of death. But nutrients are great in food.
He claims we have reductionist social policy too. “We know that polluting rivers and streams is bad but polluting our own bodies is OK, as if what we eat has no impact on the rest of the environment…Our high consumption of animal based foods contributes to environmental problems like soil loss, groundwater contamination, deforestation, fossil fuel use and depletion of deep aquifers.”
The last section deals with understanding the system. As there is no money to be made for drug companies, the medical industry or the supplement industry by funding research on the benefits of eating plant based foods, the system is rigged to fund reductionist research for drugs. “You can’t patent a recommendation to eat lots of fruit, veggies, nuts and whole grains.” There’s a lot of money to be made in cancer treatment. “Most researchers in the field not only fail to acknowledge nutrition as a means to create and restore health but also refuse to even become curious about its possibilities.”
The majority of total health research, basic and applied, is funded by the pharmaceutical industries or by agencies beholden to it. The author is horrified that there is no institute or centre of the NIH devoted to nutrition. Even the word epigenetic implies that genetics is primary and nutrition is a subdiscipline of it or even irrelevant. His personal stories make sad reading e.g. JAMA didn’t ever publish a single letter that was written to the editor criticising a published study on the effect of four different diets on obesity in women, despite the fact that Dean Ornish’s diet had been misrepresented. He says the Atkins Foundation is the propaganda arm of a billion dollar business.
Reading of his series of disappointments with medical journals, print media and television, I can only applaud the current policy of the WFPB community to record their seminars on video and put them up on YouTube and Facebook. Thanks heavens for the internet.
He talks of industry lobbyists writing and editing legislation and regulations for grateful understaffed legislators and agency head. He has had bitter experiences with high ranking government decision makers who privately say his views on nutrition and health should be public policy, yet who will be punished by the political system if they do. The message to eat more veggies, drink fewer sodas and choose leaner cuts of meat is woefully inadequate and has no impact.
On RDIs (Recommended Daily Intake) they have long been biased on the high side to the point where they encourage the consumption of animal based foods. The calcium recommendation for US (1200 to 1300 mg/day) considerably exceeds the intake in countries that consume no dairy and less calcium (400-600mg/day) but experience a lower rate of osteoporosis. The RDI for Vit B2 or riboflavin is also high.
But the protein story is worse. “The RDI for protein has for decades been 10-11 percent of calories, which is already more than enough (the average amount consumed on a WFPB diet).” In 2002, the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences (FNB) concluded, based on no credible evidence, that we can consume protein up to an astounding 35 percent of calories without health risk – a number three times the longstanding RDI! At the time of the report, the director of the FNB was a major dairy consultant, and six out of eleven members of a companion policy committee also had well-hidden dairy industry ties. Dairy groups even helped to fund the report itself.”
Regarding daily fat recommendations, he was on a National Academy of Health panel himself in 1982. Although they wanted to reduce the fat recommendations to 20% of calories, the panel worried about the political palatability of an honest dietary fat recommendation that would have doomed their report to oblivion. So they chose 30 percent, a figure that remained part of the public narrative for many years –and the Atkins enthusiasts loved it.
Discussing organisations and their influence, he focusses on the American Cancer Society, the MS Society and AND (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) and paints a grim picture when it comes to their recommendations or their funding of nutrition research. He says the junk food industry contributes to the ACS and it is cosy with cattle barons. AND serves dieticians, schools, hospitals, day-care centres, government agencies and the public, but donors include Coca Cola, the National Dairy Council, Kelloggs, Mars, Pepsi cola and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. AND controls the course content for dietitians.
In his final chapter he says our society believes so passionately in the health value of milk and meat that it is hard for us to conceive we might be wrong. His study of four specific nutrients led him to understand that any one of them could substantially change the activities of the other three and hence his awe of the complexity of nutrition. “The way our bodies create and maintain health is the result of millions of years of evolution – not just of the functional systems, or even the entire body, you of the body as a part of the food web and all of nature.” He concludes that enacting change from the top down doesn’t work. “Eat whole, plant based foods, with little or no added pit, salt or refined carbohydrates. The crucial shift will happen one person at a time.”
Of late the Opposition has been pointing out that business confidence is declining. NZIER had released a survey saying business confidence is at a seven year low. The Government has been quick to dismiss it as a political bias by business – as something they always opine when a Labour Government comes in. And the Asian stockmarkets are currently looking wobbly. RNZ’s long term economic commentator Patrick O’Meara talked of softer demands, slower growth, lower investment intentions. He talked of the looming US-China trade war has attributed that to the fact that on Saturday Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods begin. It may also affect markets in Europe, Canada and Mexico.
The trend started well before Trump appeared.
But because of declining net energy, worrying trends happened decades before Trump’s tariffs kicked in. Let me explain declining net energy. Whereas in the mid 20th century if you spent one unit of energy to extract oil, you would get 100 units of energy back, nowadays because it takes more energy to extract fossil fuels from deep sea wells and from fracking, the energy left for the economy is progressively declining. Since net energy available is closely correlated with economic growth we would expect economic growth to decline. Moreover productivity will decline. Productivity is an economic measure of output per unit of input and input includes energy.
British investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed has written a great article explaining the gradual decline of both economic growth and productivity in the UK economy. He concludes, “In other words, trying to keep the growth machine growing when the machine itself is running out of steam is precisely the problem — the challenge is to move into a new economic model entirely.”
He quotes from a piece of research for the government by Professor Tim Jackson giving graphs of declining economic growth and productivity. Jackson says, “In 1996, the trend rate of growth in the global GDP was 5.5%. By 2016 it was little more than 2.5%”. From 1971-2016 productivity growth dropped from over 3% to just 1%. We must have similar graphs in New Zealand.
Economist Michael Reddell says on his website “Over the last five years there has been only about 1.5 per cent productivity growth in total.”
Ahmed himself is well ahead of others in the way he puts together and explains the connection between many serious global issues –fossil fuel depletion, climate change, finance, geopolitics, terrorism, food security, political instability.
Trump is just a symptom
Ahmed wrote on Inauguration Day 2017 that “Trump is not the problem. Trump is merely one symptom of a deeper systemic crisis. His emergence signals a fundamental and accelerating shift within a global geopolitical and domestic American political order which is breaking down.” He talked of the elephant in the room being the global net energy decline that drives all this.
Less than a month later he penned a chilling analysis of Trump’s regime. Half of them are now gone, having resigned or been fired by Trump. He grouped them under five headings – money monsters, fossil fuel freaks, black ops brigade, Ku Klux Klan and the guru gang – saying that was the perfect combination required to keep the old model working. Business as Usual must proceed. Drill baby drill. Increase funding for the military. If things look bad financially try riskier and riskier financial instruments.
Never before has there been such an environmental crisis where our emissions are making our habitat more and more inhospitable with floods, fires, droughts and the accompanying food insecurity. Never before have we seen governments like ours desperate to solve child poverty throwing money at them. We have even got a superannuitants winter energy payment. Yet homelessness and poverty continue.
The tragedy is that while the current government has its heart in the right place – to end poverty and preserve our environment – it is hamstrung. It is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Political instability is becoming inevitable. Will New Zealanders after the hope of Jacinda Ardern be doomed to see in a Trump like government within five years? Nigel Farage is coming to our country soon. If we don’t find a new economic model that is not dependent on growth, we will come nowhere near a just, sustainable economy. That is the tragedy.
Many are asking if we have to sit around waiting for the current system to collapse. If we have only 3 years to turn around the emissions pattern as the UN has said, we had better get on with designing the next system.
The current system assumes:
There will be only one currency for a country.
The majority of the country’s money will be created and controlled by private banks.
The money will be created as interest-bearing debt.
All land, all natural resources and natural monopolies can be privately owned, and this means people can profit from buying and selling it.
All major decisions will be made by national or international governments or agencies.
This all adds up to a system with a growth imperative built in.(For years I thought it was just the money system but I believe now after a conversation with Steve Keen it is a combination of that and the land tenure system) The consequences are regular booms and busts, regular monetary crises, banking crises and sovereign debt crises and ever widening wealth inequality.
The growth imperative also means that it is inevitable that we consume our natural and social capital. Perpetual growth is not natural. There is no entity in nature which is designed to grow forever, unless, as Margrit Kennedy pointed out, you count cancer. And now we are paying for our blindness with floods, droughts, coastal erosion and food shortages.
Therefore the phrases ‘doughnut economy’, ‘stable state economy’, ‘no-growth economy’, ‘regenerative or resilient economy’ are good descriptive words, but they don’t change the current economy’s DNA. We have been inventing more and more names for this since the publication of The Limits to Growth and arrival of the NZ Values Party in the seventies. They all sound good but we can’t go on and on pretending there isn’t a growth imperative built into the design of our mono-currency economy.
It is like saying I would like this rose to be white and scented but in fact it is red and unscented. The redness and unscented is built into its DNA and no amount of nice new language or great new writing will alter it. We just can’t go on creating more and more names for a good economy.
I am sure economists like Kate Raworth are contributing to raising awareness but honestly, give or take a few years of dormancy, people in the advanced economies have been at it since the 1970s. The Greens talked about it for a few years but dropped it like a hot cake quite a while ago.
Now I don’t expect too much new thinking will come out of universities. It is tricky for a university economist to breach the parameters of what they can say without losing their salary. Professor Steve Keen is having to crowdfund his salary now.
It is now time to acknowledge that we need to leave the new system alone and invent an entirely new model. We can’t solve climate change within the current model. Within the old system you can’t put on a hefty carbon tax and expect a different political result from Australia. (Yes you can plant trees and do other things, sure.)
Supposing therefore we allow:
There to be more than one currency
It must be publicly created and controlled for inflation.
The currency will be spent into existence not lent into existence.
The currency will be designed to decay (Silvio Gesell’s quote is “Only money that goes out of date like a newspaper, rots like potatoes, rusts like iron and evaporates like ether can be capable of standing the test as an instrument for the exchange of newspapers, potatoes, iron and ether.”)
The commons must be publicly owned and rent for their monopoly use must replace income tax and sales tax.
I realise that these are all huge jumps in thinking and the last point means there have to be very strong leasehold contracts to protect the occupier of the property together with no rent on land used for conservation or historic purposes.
Naomi Klein has spelt out this challenge for a new economic system in her book This Changes Everything.
Though The Next System Project is grappling with the challenge of finding it in Washington DC it would be great to have a special platform somewhere in NZ to work on it ourselves.
Oh, and by the way, my book The Big Shift – Reinventing Money, Tax, Welfare and Governance for the Next Economic System is available from Living Economies bookshop. It is the result of a four-year think tank of what was the New Economics Party and is the source of the above ideas. We may be right we don’t know, but we tried.
If you want to design a political economy that works, you actually have to go to the roots. That means the money system the tax system, the welfare system and the governance system. So I was shocked to read the six winning essays in The Next System’s essay competition to discover that so few of them had addressed the money system or the tax system.
It is like an engineering professor setting out to teach students without having a course on materials. “OK just let’s assume everything is built out of this one material. I have no idea what it is but it is just a given. I have no idea of its properties, but honestly I don’t want to waste my time thinking about them. They are just here and it is what we have to work with. In fact if I have a mental block when talking about materials. I have an excuse.”
Yes that is how stupid it is trying to design a new political economy without thinking about money, the very exchange we use for trading between us.
Or it is like a dressmaker always having the same material available and not being in control over whether it stretches, breathes or shrinks. Dumb dressmaker always assumes that the same material in the same colour is the only one we have available.
Yet the design of money can determine our attitudes to scarcity or abundance and our attitudes to spending or hoarding. And when you realise that the money designer is also the one who decides how much will be created it is doubly worrying. What if the creator of credit pushes out a whole lot of credit at one time and then just slows up for a while? Yet this is exactly what the private banks do because then they make the most profit.
What if the creator of money also designs new instruments for gambling in that money? And they can also steer your investments in certain directions because they are investment advisers and stand to gain if you use certain funds? Yet this is what happens.
And how few of them have addressed the tax system. That is like saying to us, “Well we have got a tax system and honestly I can’t do anything about that. It just is. Well I do know you have to tax the rich more and I assume that means you will put up their income tax.”
Yes it is about as stupid as that. Thomas Piketty warned us to look at the tax system and said how critical it was. I have a quote from him in my book.
The winning essay in the open section mentions money once and tax once.