For a week after the Brexit vote, every news pundit on every news service fixated on it. The reality of Brexit tops any fictional political farce. The London Review of Books (LRB), carried a particularly insightful review, dubbing it “Bullxit.” It’s a good term to describe our floundering with most issues in a complex world, including the environmental ones.
Brexit is a complex issue, but from the start, the campaign was flimflam in a fog. Competing bloviators compared few consequences, pro and con. They outsmarted themselves and confused voters, baiting them by scapegoating immigrants, for instance. The losers (Remainers) were shocked when they lost. The winners (Leavers) were shocked when they won. No one had a plan to negotiate an exit from the EU. Political parties splintered, leaders made ridiculous appeals to emotion, and the morning after, everyone awoke in an excruciating state of sobriety. The only positive was that Britain’s Bullxit was mercifully shorter than endless American Bullxit.
Technically, the election was a referendum, a non-binding public advisory on leaving the EU. Making it a law requires a vote by Parliament, presumably after negotiations.
But among neglected plebes, the election was a referendum on British political and economic institutions – the system. Leavers contended that Brits were losing jobs to the EU and other global competitors – and to immigrants. They disliked cuts to public services, resented remote EU regulation from Brussels, and in general, plain distrusted their elites. (Economic growth in the UK boosted financial and software companies in London while the rest of the country languished.) The Remainers screeched that leaving was imbecilic; it could only make worse everything that Leavers already detested.
The Leavers “won.” Now what? Try to Bullxit our way out?
Post-Brexit, uncertainty plunged financial markets into chaos for a few days, as questions mounted. Will London remain a financial center? Will banking jobs leave Britain? Will the fast-growing software industry stagnate if it can’t obtain foreign software experts? Will a lower pound increase manufacturing exports, or will EU-imposed tariffs kill the cost differential? Will Scotland secede from the UK in order to remain in the EU? Who will vote to exit the EU? Greece? Again? Is this the final nail in the coffin of the old British Empire? Is this the beginning of the EU’s unraveling?
Most post-Brexit consternation – and reporting – was constrained to financial flows, cross-border travel, and contract renegotiations. From big industries to small towns, analysts tried to divine how Brexit would affect their contracts and finances. For example, sports fans feared that the Premier Football league could no longer pay top talent, while auto executives could not find any scenario that would improve sales and profits. As Leavers began to realize how deeply the existing system might unravel, they began to backtrack. Could they hit an undo button?
Undoing Brexit would not fix a muted issue underlying public distrust in the EU and the system: debt-fueled economic growth. The EU’s 27 different countries are half-sovereign. They have a currency in common, but responsibility to support it with fiscal policy is retained by each separately, and their sovereign debts keep growing. That debt is sliced and diced into $500 trillion of global derivatives market. If any one of them (Greece, Italy, Spain, France) declared their debt payments at the bottom of this pile not to be payable, they would light the fuse for a 2008 financial lockup all over again, only worse. The EU has to defuse this time bomb – if it can.
In their haste to patch up the existing system, elites are overlooking that, however they may have been misled, voters expressed no confidence in that system. Whatever they want, it’s not what they’ve got. If they still saw little net benefit from the EU, undoing Brexit might only make public disaffection boil higher. The Leavers appealed to nostalgia for yesteryear, an imagined happier time – for those unaffected by the racial nationalism that went with it – but had no plan to make life better.
Pre-Brexit debates featured aimless, vague proposals. Politicians still don’t have a plan; party leaders change too fast. Post-Brexit concepts of change largely omit major factors, like environmental problems. In Bullxit, emotional fairness issues jolt people to vote for one side or another, but disconnected wedge-issue choices are an illusion. Abstract, long-term issues, important for setting long-term direction, stir little passion when we need long-term direction for taking our short-term actions.
Could the existing system become a Bullxit joke if we compared it with a clearly envisioned alternate system? Such a vision is sorely needed and long overdue.
True, those whom the current system favors insist that none other could be better, but the disaffected have now warned them to cock their ears for the sound of sharpening pitchforks. However, these us-and-them squabbles distract us from big threats to us all – overuse and degradation of the environment.
We can’t wrap our collective minds around complex, interrelated environmental threats, and the environmentally concerned are not of one mind about them. The smallest of environmental tut-tuts is not music to “free marketer’s ears,” while action proposals are background din: Limit human population growth? Promote improved quality of life in underdeveloped regions so people don’t strip the ground trying to stay alive? Be frugal with water? Try geo-engineering fixes? Promote circular, recycling economies to diminish consumption of raw resources? Eliminate fossil fuels quickly? Set up local experiments, or advocate grand public policy? All of these and more at once?
A cohesive vision has to guide localities and companies, as well as macro-economies, and it has to begin with why to. Otherwise regulatory dictates are misunderstood, resented, and ineffective. Besides, one set of regulations cannot cover all situations. There seems to be little recourse to a huge human mindset shift. By comparison, geo-engineering is trivial; it neglects messy human issues.
In general, environmentalists agree on what they would ideally like to see, but are fearful. Consequently they lack even an agreed understanding of what an achievable, sustainable economy might be. They are split between practical change and ideal change. The practical ones don’t want to push system change harder than the public and powers-that-be can accept. Campaigning idealists are ignored – too far outside the box of conventional economic thinking. The result is environmental Bullxit.
Bullxit is evidence of an old philosophical issue, reductionism – fragmented thinking in narrow slices, and often very short-term. Fragmented thinking contrasts with systems thinking, trying to see a whole picture and as far ahead as we can.
Murky and corrupt as they may be, when the politics of a democracy work, they are a way for contending, single issue interests to give and take, blending fragmented perspectives into a workable compromise; nobody gets all they want; nobody is totally shut out. But now, Bullxit signals that we need a better means for groping our way into the future, and not just for government. We need revolutions in our concepts of how work organizations are structured, and how we relate to each other.
And we need systemic methods for coping with changes that are coming our way. The late futurist, Alvin Toffler, warned in 1970 that a huge human problem was inability to cope with the need for rapid change. He called it Future Shock, but instead of meeting this challenge, we appear to have regressed. It’s embodied in Bullxit. The need to reform should now be obvious.
Here and there in the environmental movement, recognition is emerging that preserving earth depends on humans making much greater use of systems thinking. A recent article by Richard Heinberg is an example. Technical advances will help, but since old human systems and behavior have created environmental messes, only new human systems and behaviors can remediate them.
Subsequent updates will propose a v that might have a chance of success. Perhaps we can call this, “Beyond Bullxit.”