Would it be easier to create a sustainable global economy if the world more closely resembled the demographics and geography of Iceland — a volcanic island with a manageably small population and a unique abundance of renewable energy? This was among the many questions raised during a panel discussion at Tipping Point Film Fund’s UK premier of Future of Hope, often referred to as the Iceland documentary.
Since the Nordic country experienced the systemic failure of its entire banking sector in 2008, a number of Iceland’s senior banking executives have been arrested, sacked or sued. Grass roots organisations, including the Ministry of Ideas that was featured in the film, have since hosted a National Assembly of unprecedented scale. The government-backed Assembly was designed to focus specifically on the nation’s next steps; to agree on a set of collective values and to establish a clear vision for how to rebuild their economy from the ashes of the old. While the film did not focus on the Assembly itself, progressives would not be surprised by its outcome: participants emphasised the importance of robust public services, establishing an environmentally responsible and sustainable economy, and ensuring equality and transparency in the country’s future renaissance.
There are some important parallels between the Icelandic response to financial collapse and what concerned citizens and activists attempted to do in 2011 — from the Arab spring to the multitude of public occupations in towns and cities around the world. After the collapse of their financial sector, Icelanders took the opportunity to reflect on what went wrong. Given the various interconnected crises that humanity faces at this crucial juncture in history, it would be prudent for us all to do the same. Moreover, we need to identify the root causes of these crises and create a public dialogue to ensure that these causative factors are widely recognised and understood. Like the Icelanders, we also need to agree on the core values that should guide the reform process, and communicate a practical vision of how these values can create a more sustainable and equitable world.
Identifying the Crises We Face
Of the many crises facing humankind, none is more pressing than the reality of poverty and deprivation, a crisis that humanity has routinely failed to address since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was first adopted in 1948. Despite decades of ‘development’ pledges and donor aid, three billion people still live on less than $2.50 a day, two and a half billion do not have access to clean water and sanitation, and almost a billion people are classified as hungry. According to the World Health Organisation, around 40,000 people a day die from a lack of nutritious food, clean water and rudimentary medical care — over 14 million people every year.
Another fundamental concern is how a deregulated and globalised economy has locked large swathes of humanity into unsustainable patterns of overproduction and overconsumption. This irresponsible economic model is the real cause of our environmental problems, which include the rapid depletion of the world’s natural resources and surging carbon emissions that governments seem unable — or unwilling — to contain. We are also confronted by an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, the excessive influence of corporate power, on-going financial instability and economic uncertainty.
A commentator in Future of Hope identified one of the root causes of their financial collapse as the domination of aggressively masculine business practices sanctioned by their government. These, he went on to explain, would still be considered successful strategies if they hadn’t ultimately precipitated the country’s collapse. The same blinkered approach to commerce applies across the world. The inherent flaws in the ‘business as usual’ model remain largely unacknowledged despite the grave financial and environmental crises it has exacerbated, and policy makers continue to blindly pursue their intimate relationship with the corporate sector.
The values that have driven this aggressive and ideological approach to business and politics are not difficult to identify: self-interest, excessive competition and greed. These values are embodied in the ‘neoliberal policies’ of deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation that facilitate wealth accumulation through the pursuit of profit and endless GDP growth. We have constructed a world where national institutions and systems of global governance are very much guided by these policies. And everything from world trade, global finance, climate change mitigation, and even international development is influenced by this ideological approach to politics and policymaking.
Much more needs to be done to stimulate a popular debate about the impact of neoliberal policies on our everyday lives. Just as challenging is establishing a common vision for what a sustainable and equitable future world should look like and how to make it a reality. A key theme of the Iceland film was that of ‘sustainable sufficiency’ — the need to produce and consume only what we really need. Localising economies and rethinking patterns of international trade, production and consumption can go a long way to achieving this. But this is not enough. As Icelanders interviewed in the film appreciated, we can only succeed in creating a more sustainable world if we replace the outdated values that underpin our failed policies of the past with ones that more accurately reflect what it means to be human.
Rethinking Human Values: Sharing and Cooperation
Self-interest, competition and wealth accumulation have had their day and reaped havoc in the process. It stands to reason that their ill effects can be counterbalanced when the principles of sharing and cooperation occupy the hearts and minds of future policy makers. These are values we are all familiar with — we practice them in our homes and communities and teach them to our children. Placing international cooperation and sharing at the heart of policymaking has the potential to transform our economies, our societies and our relationship with the natural world.
The redistribution of financial resources is the logical first step in making this fundamental shift in economic, social and environmental policy. If implemented as a program on an international scale, redistribution can rapidly end deprivation and prevent needless deaths. More equitably sharing the world’s financial resources will not address the structural causes of our global malaise, but it is the most practical way to ensure people everywhere have access to basic food, water and medicine in the immediate future. Financial redistribution can also fund climate adaption and mitigation programs in developing countries, and can even help plug the hole in public finances when nations are forced to implement measures of economic austerity.
The world is awash with money, and there are many options available to governments for harnessing it for redistributive purposes. For example, hundreds of billions of dollars can be raised by closing tax havens, preventing tax evasion, implementing financial transaction taxes and a tax on carbon. Vast sums can be raised by reducing military budgets, redirecting fossil fuel subsidies and ending the most perverse subsidies provided to large scale industrial farming corporations in rich countries. It is also possible to tap into the IMF’s massive gold reserves and to harness the Fund’s Special Drawing Right’s facility. The list goes on.
Redistribution also presents a starting point for broader reforms to the global economy. Central to these in an era of dwindling natural resources and escalating emissions is the sustainable management of the global commons. Applying the principle of sharing to the way natural resources are managed requires us to recognise that they are limited in quantity and that they must be distributed and consumed more equitably across the world. By conserving and regulating our use of the world’s resources through this understanding, economic sharing can help nations to move away from patterns of overconsumption and excessive carbon emissions.
Building World Public Opinion
Future of Hope conveys the message that humanity’s entrepreneurial spirit can ultimately overcome adversity and rebuild life for the better. This hope and vision will be sorely needed in the coming years as campaigners continue to highlight injustice and demand that governments enact reforms that are commensurate with the basic needs of the majority of the world.
The crises we face and the movements campaigning for change are an increasingly global phenomenon. The process of reform, therefore, must also take place on an international scale. A worldwide public debate about these issues is something that until recently might have seemed an unlikely possibility. But with so many options for global collaboration now available — all turbocharged by social media platforms and the extended reach of the ‘networked individual’ — it is entirely conceivable that world public opinion will eventually take its rightful place as the real superpower in world affairs.
As the burgeoning array of movements for social and economic justice continue to connect across national borders, it is clear that our collective progress depends on the growth in our sense of global unity and an appreciation of humanity’s interdependence. Within this new paradigm of collective responsibility and vision, it seems only natural for nations to shift away from upholding the values of self-interest, competition and greed, and to focus instead on sharing the world’s financial and natural resources more equitably and sustainably.
• Future of Hope is a documentary film following individuals that strive to change the world of consumerism, a system of credit and debt that the Icelandic economy was built upon for the past 10 years or more.