(after the novel by Haruki Murakami)
When I started this series of articles two-and-a-half years ago, my themes were the complexity of modern life, the difficulty in making sense of what is actually happening around us, and the confusion of messages with which we are constantly bombarded. This is compounded by our own personal predispositions, leading different individuals to perceive external reality in very different ways, and creating dilemmas which have both practical and moral dimensions. Currently-topical local questions in this vein are: how do we decide whether a giant Tesco store in Grafton Way will be good or bad for Ipswich, and which system of local government will be in the town's best interests? And in the background, of course, is the world really going to end in climate catastrophe, and do we really want to be bothered?
The fundamental question is, "How do we decide anything?" In seeking to resolve dilemmas, different individuals will reach different conclusions according to the unique combination of facets of those individuals' personalities, such as: do you welcome change and opportunity, or do you tend to resist it, valuing what we have and being risk-averse? Is your approach rational and systematic, or do you place more emphasis on human values and principles? Are you outgoing and gregarious, or do you prefer to mind your own business and value your privacy? The list is virtually endless, and there are no "right answers" when it comes to individual personality: we are who we are, a mix of all these influences in differing proportions which, by definition, means that each of us is individually incomplete. In a sense, we are all equally "wrong" in that, try as we may, our individual perceptions and judgements cannot encompass all the possibilities at once: the opportunity is therefore to cooperate with each other in building a better conclusion from a more complete understanding, arrived at through constructive discussion and debate; yet so often the approach taken is to put all the partial points of view in futile competition with each other. Indeed, the dichotomy between values and rationality perhaps explains why there currently seems to be disproportionately more perceived outrage about the millions of pounds' worth of MPs' expenses, than about the trillions that went "missing" in the banking crash. What is objectively the more massive reality gives way to what is subjectively the more outrageous reality, courtesy of our human perception and judgement.
Despite the objective reality of a given situation, therefore, the acts of perception and judgement by incomplete human personalities introduce a moral dimension which sets "what is" against "what could be", and logic against values, rather than using each constructively to test the validity of the other. Ideally rationality and morality would be complementary rather than adversarial: but how do we resolve issues when we disagree? And how, therefore, can the Ipswich Society properly represent its disparate membership?
Tesco and the Ipswich Society
Starting with the last question, I don't believe the Society does try to represent every individual member. How could it? What it does seek to represent is the best interests of the town as a living entity. For instance, the Society would not seek to be the arbiter of good taste when it comes to comparing one supermarket's offering with another's, but it can usefully and constructively offer objective views on how a given major development will affect the life of the town. With Tesco at Grafton Way, the issue is not specifically with Tesco, but whether such a large single store in such a large complex in that prime location will benefit the town as a whole: whether it will serve as a stepping-stone to link the waterfront with the town centre, or as a barrier which cuts the two of from each other; whether it will be a proper town-centre store, or a "drive-to" destination which happens to be centrally-located; hence whether it will enhance the life of the town centre, or undermine it. And if the result is to create a "Tescopolis" as some have suggested, is it prudent to put so many of the town's eggs into one retail basket? Supermarkets are indeed crucial to modern life and are by no means minimised in the Society's deliberations: indeed we should all appreciate how dependent we are on 'just-in-time" provisioning, which carries the corollary that in the event of a major infrastructure failure, we are just nine meals from starvation. But equally, we should value a healthy degree of diversity, lest the modern supermarket business model, currently very healthy, should one day be rendered non-viable, for instance by fuel shortages.
It may take considerable effort to defend this long-term imperative in the face of short-term market forces. Individual members of the Society may favour Tesco or a different store, or they may simply want to put food on the table, and such preferences are for them to express. But merely leaving the site derelict is neither preferable nor the only alternative! The Society's aim is surely to promote a healthy balance so that everyone's legitimate interests and aspirations are met to some equitable degree. The risk is that low-cost convenience will be bought at the expense of town-centre vitality and diversity, unless an appropriate balance is achieved between the scale of the new development and that which is essential elsewhere.
Unitary Local Government
The same principle of equity has guided the Society's submissions to the Boundary Committee on Unitary Local Government for Suffolk. It is a matter of personal perception as to whether you believe we live in one Suffolk, or whether there are two distinct Suffolks, or three, or more. Arguably, the fact that there can be such disagreement undermines the argument that there is only one! And there is a different consideration again as to whether your own personal interests would be better served by one model or another. But the choice is restricted by the Boundary Committee to those models which are deemed financially viable, hence we have to choose between a single authority or two distinct ones. I seem to recall a correspondent to the Evening Star urging the view that a simple majority vote across the county is the appropriate mechanism for sustaining Suffolk's agricultural heritage through a single unitary authority. On the contrary, this logic seems to me to argue very strongly for two separate authorities, and the Society's view remains that there are at least two communities with disparate but complementary interests which would be best served by having their proper voices at regional and national level, through distinct but cooperative unitary authorities. The arguments are made more completely elsewhere, but the principle is worth re-iterating, that everyone's legitimate interests and aspirations should be supported and promoted to some equitable degree. The risk is that one-Suffolk may buy lower-cost unitary local government at the expense of the distinct aspirations of a viable North Haven, unless an appropriate balance is achieved by creating two unitary authorities.
Greenhouse gas emissions and climate catastrophe
This brings us to the end of the world. Returning to the issue of food retail, the modern business model is predicated on cheap energy and low-cost food-miles. Customers might argue, "It's all very well for the Ipswich Society to argue against a new Tesco in the centre of town, but I just want to put food on the table without having to drive miles for it: why should they be allowed to stop that?" Never mind that it may already have travelled around the world before reaching the table: I recall one firm shipping seafood from the UK to the Far East for processing and packaging before shipping it back to the UK, because it was the best way to deliver a quality product. And why not? But now shift the setting to somewhere such as Darfur, whose residents might say, "It's all very well for the developed countries to defend their food-miles, but their carbon emissions have brought prolonged drought to this country, and I just want to put food on the table: why should they be allowed to stop that?" I choose Darfur because of the all-too-present impact of sustained drought, but the same may soon be true of California, Southern Europe, and Australia, where there has been sustained drought for the past decade. Just look at the falling water level behind the Hoover Dam.
The point is this: cheap energy has brought us great freedoms and independence, but the price is now becoming apparent in impending climate catastrophe, yet there remain differences as yet unreconciled on what actions will be effective, and how we should pursue them. It is said that our rate of carbon emissions properly requires three planet Earths to re-absorb them: how simple it would be if we had three such planets, one for the sceptics who prefer to squander energy, one for those who would safeguard future generations, and one for those who don't know who to believe or what to do. But sadly, there is only one. There may still be options for the moment but, with only one planet, it must eventually come down to just one outcome for all of us. How do we decide what to do, in such a way that everyone's legitimate interests and aspirations are met to some equitable degree on one planet?
As if all that wasn't enough, our perceptions can, of course, be manipulated. Consider the following statements:
- The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change has said that if the effective concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is doubled, the average global temperature will be expected to rise by between 2Â°C and 4.5Â°C this century.
- The IPCC and the EU each recommend working to limit the average global temperature rise to no more than 2Â°C: this is not a "safe" limit, but merely the very lowest that may be achievable in practice and therefore least likely to incur runaway global warming and climate catastrophe.
- The Government has committed to targets for emissions with the stated aim of restricting the average global temperature rise to no more than 2Â°C, but based on a doubling of the effective carbon dioxide concentration.
These three statements can be reconciled ("spun") in several ways. Politically, we might conclude that the Government prudently recognises the immense cost of measures to address climate change, and is taking the most optimistic view while it sees how the climate develops in practice, in order to minimise the risk to the world economic order. Scientifically, it is self-evident that on this course, the Government will fail to meet its objective, since 2C is the lower limit for the temperature rise, which means in practice that the actual outturn will inevitably be higher. And sceptically, not to say cynically, we might infer that the Government is incompetently committing to the greatest level of measures that will definitely fail! Which of these interpretations is objective, and which ones are loaded with values and implied motivations which mayor may not be relevant, and which may clearly influence your view of what action is appropriate?
We have a few short years in which to tackle emissions across the globe, and still no credible plan. The risk is that the continued emission of greenhouse gases will buy low-cost energy at the expense of the viability of the planet for future generations, unless we find an appropriate balance between energy demands and a sustainable aggregation of energy supplies, and ultimately between exponential population growth and finite resources. Whatever the outcome, it will very likely be a natural consequence of human activity: objective reality and human nature have to be reconciled if the species is to survive. As physicist Richard Feynman said, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled".
On all of these issues, is it within human nature to pursue mutual benefit for all through equitable cooperative agreement, or will we simply squander the opportunity in pursuit of individual advantage through futile adversarial difference? The Society aspires to a better Ipswich for all, but does society yet aspire to a better world for all? Don't both depend on your own democratic involvement?