Peter Singer on humanity and climate change

9 05 2009


For most of human existence, people living only short distances apart might as well have been living in separate worlds. A river, a mountain range, a stretch of forest or desert: these were enough to cut people off from each other.

As a result, our moral intuitions evolved to deal with problems within our community, rather than with the impact of our actions on those far away. Resources like the atmosphere and the oceans seemed unlimited, and we have had no inhibitions against making the fullest use of them.

Over the past few centuries the isolation has dwindled, and now people living on opposite sides of the world are linked in ways previously unimaginable. Problems like climate change have revealed that by driving your car, you could be releasing carbon dioxide that is part of a causal chain leading to lethal floods in Bangladesh.

How can our ethics take account of this new situation?

“Enough and as Good”
Imagine that we live in a village in which everyone puts their wastes down a giant sink. The capacity of the sink to dispose of our wastes seems limitless, and as long as that situation continues, it is reasonable to believe that we are leaving “enough and as good” for others. No matter how much we pour down the sink, others can do the same.

This phrase “enough and as good” comes from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government, published in 1690. In that work Locke says that the earth and its contents “belong to mankind in common.” How, then, can there be private property? Because our labor is our own, and hence when we mix our labor with the land and its products, we make them our own. It has this effect, Locke says, as long as our appropriation does not prevent there being “enough and as good left in common for others.”

Locke’s justification of the acquisition of private property is the classic historical account of how property can be legitimately acquired, and it has served as the starting point for more recent discussions.

Now imagine that conditions change, so that the sink’s capacity to carry away our wastes is used to the full. At this point, when we continue to throw our wastes down the sink we are no longer leaving “enough and as good” for others, and hence our right to unchecked waste disposal becomes questionable.

Think of that giant sink as our atmosphere and our wastes as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Once we have used up the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb our gases without harmful consequences, it has become a finite resource on which various parties have competing claims. The problem is to allocate those claims justly.

Defining Equitable Distribution

During the 2000 U.S. presidential election, when the candidates were asked in a televised debate what they would do about global warming, George W. Bush said:

I’ll tell you one thing I’m not going to do is I’m not going to let the United States carry the burden for cleaning up the world’s air, like the Kyoto treaty would have done. China and India were exempted from that treaty. I think we need to be more even-handed.As president, Bush frequently repeated this line of reasoning. Indeed, the issue of what constitutes even-handedness, or fairness or equity, is perhaps the greatest hurdle to international action on climate change. But was Bush right to say that it is not even-handed to expect the United States to restrict its emissions before China and India begin to restrict theirs?

There are various principles that people use to judge what is fair or even-handed. In political philosophy, it is common to follow Robert Nozick, who distinguished between historical principles and time-slice principles.

A historical principle is one that says: To understand whether a given distribution of goods is just or unjust, we must ask how the situation came about; we must know its history. Are the parties entitled, by an originally justifiable acquisition and a chain of legitimate transfers, to the holdings they now have? If so, the present distribution is just. If not, rectification or compensation will be needed to produce a just distribution.

Looking at data for 1900 to 1999, we find that the United States, for example, with about 5 percent of the world’s population, was responsible for about 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, the primary source of greenhouse gases.  Most of this carbon dioxide is still up in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

In this case, the application of the historical principle might be called “the polluter pays” or “you broke it you fix it.” It would assign responsibility proportionate to the amount that each country has contributed, a view that puts a heavy burden on the developed nations.

In their defense, it might be argued that at the time when the developed nations contributed most of their greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, they could not know of its limits in absorbing those gases. It would therefore be fairer to make a fresh start now and set standards that look to the future, rather than to the past.

This is the idea behind the time-slice principle. It looks at the existing distribution at a particular moment in time and asks whether that distribution satisfies some idea of fairness – irrespective of any preceding sequence of events.

An Equal Share for Everyone
If we begin by asking, “Why should anyone have a greater claim to part of the global atmospheric sink than any other?” then the first, and simplest response is: “No reason at all.” Everyone has the same claim to part of the atmospheric sink as everyone else. This kind of equality seems self-evidently fair, at least as a starting point for discussion.

The Kyoto Protocol aimed to achieve a level for developed nations that was 5 percent below 1990 levels. Suppose that we focus on emissions for the entire planet and aim just to stabilize them. If we choose a target of 1996 emissions levels, then the allocation per person works out conveniently to about 1 metric ton of carbon per year. This becomes the basic equitable entitlement for every human being on the planet.  (Note that emissions are sometimes expressed in terms of tons of carbon dioxide, rather than tons of carbon. One ton of carbon is equivalent to 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide.)

Now compare actual emissions for some key nations. In 2004, the United States produced 5.61 tons of carbon per person per year, while Japan, Germany and the U.K. each produced less than 3 tons. China was at 1.05 and India at 0.34. This means that to reach an equal per capita annual emission limit of 1 ton, India would be able to increase its emissions three times. China, on the other hand, would need to stabilize its current emissions, and the United States would have to reduce its emissions to one-fifth of present levels.

One objection to this approach is that it gives countries an insufficient incentive to do anything about population growth. We can meet this objection by setting national allocations that are tied to a specified population, rather than letting them rise with an increase in population.

But since different countries have different proportions of young people about to reach reproductive age, this provision might produce greater hardship in countries that have younger populations. To overcome this, the per capita allocation could be based on an estimate of a country’s population at some future date. Countries would then receive a reward in terms of an increased emission quota per citizen if they achieved a lower population than had been expected.

A Proposal
Each of these principles of fairness, or others, could be defended as the best one to take. I propose, both because of its simplicity, and hence its suitability as a political compromise, and because it seems likely to increase global welfare, that we support the principle of equal per capita shares of the capacity of the atmospheric sink, tied to the current projections of population growth per country for 2050.

Some will say that this is excessively harsh on industrialized nations, which will have to cut back the most on their output of greenhouse gases. Yet the one person, one share principle is more indulgent to the industrialized nations than some other others, including the historical principle.

Allocating on the basis of equal per capita shares will be tremendously dislocating for the industrialized nations, and the mechanism of emissions trading can make this transition much easier. Emissions trading works on a simple economic principle: If you can buy something more cheaply than you can produce it yourself, you are better off buying it than making it. In this case, what you can buy will be a transferable quota to produce greenhouse gases, allocated on the basis of an equal per capita share.

Appropriate Scale
The ancient Greek iconoclast Diogenes, when asked what country he came from, is said to have replied: “I am a citizen of the world.” Until recently, such thoughts have been the dreams of idealists. But now we are beginning to live in a global community. The impact of human activity on our atmosphere exemplifies the need for human beings to act globally. On this issue, as well as others, the planet should become the basic unit for our ethical thinking.

Af-Pak: Obama’s War

3 04 2009

As Obama ups the war rhetoric and tries to rally support at NATO for war in Afghanistan Immanuel Wallerstein, a sociologist and world-systems scientist, assesses his motivations, the details of the situation and the potential situation in six months time.

Af-Pak is the new acronym the U.S. government has invented for Afghanistan-Pakistan. Its meaning is that there is a geopolitical concern of the United States in which the strategy that the United States wishes to pursue involves both countries simultaneously and they cannot be considered separately. The United States has emphasized this policy by appointing a single Special Representative to the two countries, Richard Holbrooke.

It was George W. Bush who sent U.S. troops into Afghanistan. And it was George W. Bush who initiated the policy of using U.S. drones to bomb sites in Paklstan. But, now that Barack Obama, after a “careful policy review,” has embraced both policies, it has become Barack Obama’s war. This comes as no enormous surprise since, during the presidential campaign, Obama indicated that he would do these things. Still, now he has done it.

This decision is likely to be seen in retrospect as Obama’s single biggest decision concerning U.S. foreign policy, one that will be noticed by future historians as imprinting its stamp on his reputation. And it is likely to be seen as well as his single biggest mistake. For, as Vice-President Biden apparently warned in the inner policy debate on the issue, it is likely to be a quagmire from which it will be as easy to disengage as the Vietnam war.

There are therefore two questions. Why did he do it? And what are likely to be the consequences during his term of office?

Let us begin with his own explanation of why he did it. He said that “the situation is increasingly perilous,” that “the future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan,” and that “for the American people, [Pakistan’s] border region [with Afghanistan] has become the most dangerous place in the world.”

And why is it so dangerous? Quite simply, it is because it is a safe haven for al-Qaeda to “train terrorists” and to “plot attacks” – not only against Afghanistan and the United States but everywhere in the world. The fight against al-Qaeda is no longer called the “war on terrorism” but is hard to see the difference. Obama claims that the Bush administration had lost its “focus” and that he has now installed a “comprehensive, new strategy.” In short, Obama is going to do this better than Bush.

What then are the new elements? The United States will send more troops to Afghanistan – 17,000 combat troops and 4000 trainers of the Afghan forces. It will send more money. It proposes to give Pakistan $1.5 billion a year for five years to “build schools and roads and hospitals.” It proposes to send “agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers” to Afghanistan to “develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs.” In short, Obama says that he believes that “a campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone.”

However, implicitly unlike Bush, this will not be a “blank check” to the two governments. “Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders.” As for Afghanistan, the United States “will seek a new compact with the Afghan government that cracks down on corrupt behavior.” The Afghan and Pakistani governments are pleased to be getting the new resources. They haven’t said that they will meet Obama’s conditions. And Obama hasn’t said what he will do if the two governments don’t meet his conditions.

As for the way forward, Obama asserts that “there will be no peace without reconciliation with former enemies.” Reconciliation? Well, not with the “uncompromising core of the Taliban,” or with al-Qaeda, but with those Taliban “who’ve taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price.” To do this, Obama wants assistance. He proposes to create a new Contact Group that will include not only “our NATO allies” but also “the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran, Russia, India and China.”

The most striking aspect of this major commitment is how little enthusiasm it has evoked around the world. In the United States, it has been applauded by the remnants of the neo-cons and McCain. So far, other politicians and the press have been reserved. Iran, Russia, India, and China have not exactly jumped on the bandwagon. They are particularly cool about the idea of reconciliation with so-called moderate Taliban. And both the Guardian and McClatchy report that the Taliban themselves have reacted by creating unity within their hitherto divided ranks – presumably the opposite of what Obama is trying to achieve.

So, where will we probably be six months from now? There will be more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the U.S. commanders will probably say that the 21,000 Obama is sending are not enough. There will be further withdrawals of NATO troops from there – a repeat of the Iraq scenario. There will be further, perhaps more extensive, bombings in Pakistan, and consequently even more intensive anti-American sentiments throughout the country. The Pakistani government will not be moving against the Taliban for at least three reasons. The still very influential ISI component of the Pakistani army actually supports the Taliban. The rest of the army is conflicted and in any case probably too weak to do the job. The government will not really press them to do more because it will only thereby strengthen its main rival party which opposes such action and the result may be another army coup.

In short, the “clear and focused goal” that Obama proposes – “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future” – will probably be further than ever from accomplishment. The question is what can Obama do then? He can “stay the course” (shades of Rumsfeld in Iraq), constantly escalate the troop commitment, while changing the local political leadership (shades of Kennedy/Johnson and Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam), or he can turn tail and pull out (as the United States finally did in Vietnam). He is not going to be cheered for any of these choices.

I have the impression that Obama thinks that his speech left him some wiggle room. I think he will find out rather how few choices he will have that are palatable. I think therefore he made a big, probably irreparable, mistake.


G20 forgets the environment

2 04 2009

I really don’t want to rely too much on the mainstream media for information/comment but Monbiot mentions some important points on the complete neglect of the global environmental crisis at the G20 in his  latest Guardian blog entry:

Here is the text of the G20 communique, in compressed form.

“We, the Leaders of the Group of Twenty, will use every cent we don’t possess to rescue corporate capitalism from its contradictions and set the world economy back onto the path of unsustainable growth. We have already spent trillions of dollars of your money on bailing out the banks, so that they can be returned to their proper functions of fleecing the poor and wrecking the Earth’s living systems. Now we’re going to spend another $1.1 trillion. As an exemplary punishment for their long record of promoting crises, we will give the IMF and the World Bank even more of your money. These actions constitute the greatest mobilisation of resources to support global financial flows in modern times.

Oh – and we nearly forgot. We must do something about the environment. We don’t have any definite plans as yet, but we’ll think of something in due course.”

The G20’s strategy for solving the financial and economic crisis, in other words, is detailed, innovative, fully costed and of vast scale and ambition. Its plans for solving the environmental crisis are brief, vague and uncosted. The environmental clauses – which contradict almost everything that goes before – have been tacked onto the end of the communique as an afterthought. No new money has been set aside. No new ideas are proposed; just the usual wishful thinking: let’s call the whole package green and hope for the best.

So much for the pledge, expressed in different forms by most of the governments present at the talks, to put the environment at the heart of decision-making. Though the economy is merely a measure of our engagement with the environment; though, as most of the leaders acknowledge, continued prosperity is impossible without sustainability, the communique shows that the environment still comes last. No expense is spared in saving the banks. Every expense is spared in saving the biosphere.

This suggests to me that our leaders have learnt nothing from the financial crisis. It was caused by allowing powerful agents (the banks) to exploit a common resource (the global economy) without proper control or regulation. Governments deployed a form of magical thinking: that the boom would go on forever, that a bunch of predatory psychopaths would regulate themselves, that profits, dividends and share prices could grow indefinitely even though they bore no relation to actual value.

They treat the environmental crisis the same way. Climate breakdown, peak oil and resource depletion will all dwarf the current financial crisis, in both financial and humanitarian terms. But, just as they did with the banks, the G20 leaders appear to have decided to deal with these problems only when they have to – in other words, when it’s too late. They persuade themselves that getting the economy back to where it was – infinite growth on a finite planet – can somehow be reconciled with the pledge “to address the threat of irreversible climate change”.

Next time this magical thinking fails, there’ll be no chance of a bail-out.

Baghdad in a time of cholera

24 03 2009

A solution to the horror of the global trade in drugs?

22 03 2009

Anti-drugs policy is an absolute disaster. For decades governments have struggled to control the international trade in drugs. Prohibition has had consequences that are the polar opposite of its intentions. Policy-makers are hellbent on a regressive and ineffective approach that has done nothing to stem escalating violence in underdeveloped countries, the creation of a narco-state in Africa and rising drug consumption in western countries. The 52nd session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna has just agreed to maintain this approach. The Economist, regardless of its ideological positions, has published four articles on “illegal” drugs. Here’s one of them.

A hundred years ago a group of foreign diplomats gathered in Shanghai for the first-ever international effort to ban trade in a narcotic drug. On February 26th 1909 they agreed to set up the International Opium Commission—just a few decades after Britain had fought a war with China to assert its right to peddle the stuff. Many other bans of mood-altering drugs have followed. In 1998 the UN General Assembly committed member countries to achieving a “drug-free world” and to “eliminating or significantly reducing” the production of opium, cocaine and cannabis by 2008.

That is the kind of promise politicians love to make. It assuages the sense of moral panic that has been the handmaiden of prohibition for a century. It is intended to reassure the parents of teenagers across the world. Yet it is a hugely irresponsible promise, because it cannot be fulfilled.

Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless. That is why The Economist continues to believe that the least bad policy is to legalise drugs.

“Least bad” does not mean good. Legalisation, though clearly better for producer countries, would bring (different) risks to consumer countries. As we outline below, many vulnerable drug-takers would suffer. But in our view, more would gain.

The evidence of failure

Nowadays the UN Office on Drugs and Crime no longer talks about a drug-free world. Its boast is that the drug market has “stabilised”, meaning that more than 200m people, or almost 5% of the world’s adult population, still take illegal drugs—roughly the same proportion as a decade ago. (Like most purported drug facts, this one is just an educated guess: evidential rigour is another casualty of illegality.) The production of cocaine and opium is probably about the same as it was a decade ago; that of cannabis is higher. Consumption of cocaine has declined gradually in the United States from its peak in the early 1980s, but the path is uneven (it remains higher than in the mid-1990s), and it is rising in many places, including Europe.

This is not for want of effort. The United States alone spends some $40 billion each year on trying to eliminate the supply of drugs. It arrests 1.5m of its citizens each year for drug offences, locking up half a million of them; tougher drug laws are the main reason why one in five black American men spend some time behind bars. In the developing world blood is being shed at an astonishing rate. In Mexico more than 800 policemen and soldiers have been killed since December 2006 (and the annual overall death toll is running at over 6,000). This week yet another leader of a troubled drug-ridden country—Guinea Bissau—was assassinated.

Yet prohibition itself vitiates the efforts of the drug warriors. The price of an illegal substance is determined more by the cost of distribution than of production. Take cocaine: the mark-up between coca field and consumer is more than a hundredfold. Even if dumping weedkiller on the crops of peasant farmers quadruples the local price of coca leaves, this tends to have little impact on the street price, which is set mainly by the risk of getting cocaine into Europe or the United States.

Nowadays the drug warriors claim to seize close to half of all the cocaine that is produced. The street price in the United States does seem to have risen, and the purity seems to have fallen, over the past year. But it is not clear that drug demand drops when prices rise. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the drug business quickly adapts to market disruption. At best, effective repression merely forces it to shift production sites. Thus opium has moved from Turkey and Thailand to Myanmar and southern Afghanistan, where it undermines the West’s efforts to defeat the Taliban.

Al Capone, but on a global scale

Indeed, far from reducing crime, prohibition has fostered gangsterism on a scale that the world has never seen before. According to the UN’s perhaps inflated estimate, the illegal drug industry is worth some $320 billion a year. In the West it makes criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens (the current American president could easily have ended up in prison for his youthful experiments with “blow”). It also makes drugs more dangerous: addicts buy heavily adulterated cocaine and heroin; many use dirty needles to inject themselves, spreading HIV; the wretches who succumb to “crack” or “meth” are outside the law, with only their pushers to “treat” them. But it is countries in the emerging world that pay most of the price. Even a relatively developed democracy such as Mexico now finds itself in a life-or-death struggle against gangsters. American officials, including a former drug tsar, have publicly worried about having a “narco state” as their neighbour.

The failure of the drug war has led a few of its braver generals, especially from Europe and Latin America, to suggest shifting the focus from locking up people to public health and “harm reduction” (such as encouraging addicts to use clean needles). This approach would put more emphasis on public education and the treatment of addicts, and less on the harassment of peasants who grow coca and the punishment of consumers of “soft” drugs for personal use. That would be a step in the right direction. But it is unlikely to be adequately funded, and it does nothing to take organised crime out of the picture.

Legalisation would not only drive away the gangsters; it would transform drugs from a law-and-order problem into a public-health problem, which is how they ought to be treated. Governments would tax and regulate the drug trade, and use the funds raised (and the billions saved on law-enforcement) to educate the public about the risks of drug-taking and to treat addiction. The sale of drugs to minors should remain banned. Different drugs would command different levels of taxation and regulation. This system would be fiddly and imperfect, requiring constant monitoring and hard-to-measure trade-offs. Post-tax prices should be set at a level that would strike a balance between damping down use on the one hand, and discouraging a black market and the desperate acts of theft and prostitution to which addicts now resort to feed their habits.

Selling even this flawed system to people in producer countries, where organised crime is the central political issue, is fairly easy. The tough part comes in the consumer countries, where addiction is the main political battle. Plenty of American parents might accept that legalisation would be the right answer for the people of Latin America, Asia and Africa; they might even see its usefulness in the fight against terrorism. But their immediate fear would be for their own children.

That fear is based in large part on the presumption that more people would take drugs under a legal regime. That presumption may be wrong. There is no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and the incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer. Embarrassed drug warriors blame this on alleged cultural differences, but even in fairly similar countries tough rules make little difference to the number of addicts: harsh Sweden and more liberal Norway have precisely the same addiction rates. Legalisation might reduce both supply (pushers by definition push) and demand (part of that dangerous thrill would go). Nobody knows for certain. But it is hard to argue that sales of any product that is made cheaper, safer and more widely available would fall. Any honest proponent of legalisation would be wise to assume that drug-taking as a whole would rise.

There are two main reasons for arguing that prohibition should be scrapped all the same. The first is one of liberal principle. Although some illegal drugs are extremely dangerous to some people, most are not especially harmful. (Tobacco is more addictive than virtually all of them.) Most consumers of illegal drugs, including cocaine and even heroin, take them only occasionally. They do so because they derive enjoyment from them (as they do from whisky or a Marlboro Light). It is not the state’s job to stop them from doing so.

What about addiction? That is partly covered by this first argument, as the harm involved is primarily visited upon the user. But addiction can also inflict misery on the families and especially the children of any addict, and involves wider social costs. That is why discouraging and treating addiction should be the priority for drug policy. Hence the second argument: legalisation offers the opportunity to deal with addiction properly.

By providing honest information about the health risks of different drugs, and pricing them accordingly, governments could steer consumers towards the least harmful ones. Prohibition has failed to prevent the proliferation of designer drugs, dreamed up in laboratories. Legalisation might encourage legitimate drug companies to try to improve the stuff that people take. The resources gained from tax and saved on repression would allow governments to guarantee treatment to addicts—a way of making legalisation more politically palatable. The success of developed countries in stopping people smoking tobacco, which is similarly subject to tax and regulation, provides grounds for hope.

A calculated gamble, or another century of failure?

This newspaper first argued for legalisation 20 years ago (see article). Reviewing the evidence again (see article), prohibition seems even more harmful, especially for the poor and weak of the world. Legalisation would not drive gangsters completely out of drugs; as with alcohol and cigarettes, there would be taxes to avoid and rules to subvert. Nor would it automatically cure failed states like Afghanistan. Our solution is a messy one; but a century of manifest failure argues for trying it.

This article can found here, while one on the Mexican drug issue can be found here.

Check out the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, they are working to create a more humane drug control system.

A great mission: The Olympics of destruction

16 03 2009

The characteristic corporatisation and social destruction of the Olympics is already becoming evident.

Apparently infrastructure and obsolete buildings are more important than local communities.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Summit protests and the economic crisis

15 03 2009

Pulled from

Summit-hopping is so last year. Or is it? When we began conceiving this issue a few months back, it seemed like everyone was gearing up for a busy 2009: NATO’s 60th anniversary party, the G20 summit in London, the G8 in Italy, the UN’s climate summit in Copenhagen… Ten years on from the ‘battle of Seattle’, 2009 was set to be the return of summit-hopping.

However, so far, anti-capitalists in Italy appear to have made little progress in mobilising against the G8 summit in July. What is more, everyone is talking about the UN’s climate change conference next December in Copenhagen. This comes with the awful package of environment minister Miliband calling for a mass movement for green capitalism and an austerity deal. The threat of another paralysing ‘Make Poverty History’-style mobilisation looms. On the other hand, there are, of course, some summits that continue to attract fundamental antagonism. The EU’s meeting on immigration in Vichy, France, last November was one example, despite a lack of mobilisation from the UK.

There is something that is fundamentally different from the previous decade of large anti-globalisation mobilisations: neo-liberalism itself is in crisis! The policies that were promoted by the anti-globalisation arch enemies (WTO, World Bank, IMF) are failing not only in Argentina and Mexico, but also in Europe and North America. The current financial crisis provides a platform for a systematic critique of the current economic system.

Maybe we should be excited that suddenly everyone is talking about the economy. Or should we? Many analyses of the crisis seem to be putting forward reactionary solutions. For a start, who we blame will define how we respond. Socialists blame bankers, government ministers and conservatives (and increasingly liberals) blame immigration, environmentalists and the middle classes blame the mass consumerism of the working class and the corporate media blames everyone. And what, then, will the response be? Anti-consumerism and austerity politics? Economy-boosting interest rate cuts? Tougher immigration controls? Urban riots? Blame creates hierarchies and characterises anti-globalisation protests. If we are to build a collective, emancipatory response to the crisis we need to be critical of any strategies that ignore the realities of life in capitalism, that fuel moral superiority and reinforce class divisions.

Furthermore, with every crisis comes a new conspiracy theory. The problem with these ‘explanations’ is that a capitalist crisis is not the result of the errors of a ‘small and elusive group of people’ as the conspiracy theorists want us to believe.

We live in a system that is antithetical to our needs, and importantly, our desires.

Crises are inherent in capitalism. There is no solution that will make capitalism free of crises. We can demand more regulation of the financial sector or the nationalisation and democratic ownership of banks. Still, capitalism’s crises are based in its inherent contradictory character with the desire to produce for profit-maximisation rather than social needs. And this will always be the central goal of capitalist production. A crisis won’t change that. There are more crises to come, with indications that speculation with raw materials and food could lead to much bigger misery than the bursting of the credit bubble. It is contradictory and irrational to produce, distribute and exchange resources as is done in a capitalist economy, thus capitalism without crises would be an oxymoron.

The left should take the crisis as an opportunity to push for more, to push for a system that puts our needs and desires above profit, to avoid limiting ourselves and scapegoating others. At a time where political leaders are making our demands seem reasonable (whether that’s the nationalisation of banks or a strong climate deal), we should not settle for compromise but demand the impossible!

Despite these new opportunities, there are few signs for a new wave of summit protests that can escape the attempts by governments to recuperate them. Protests are not happening outside summits now. As we write, they are happening in suburbs and big university towns. The migrant youths of St. Denis, the anti-CPE students, the Anomalous Wave movement and the Greek anarchist youth all dominate the headlines, rather than the plans for opposition to the G8 or G20. Also in Britain, radical anti-capitalist protest is no longer connected to the anti-globalisation movement, but is at the radical edge of the failed anti-war movement of 2003. Maybe in 2009 ‘suburb-hopping’ offers new opportunities for resistance?