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Approaching Day Zero

“Day Zero is now very likely,” said Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille. “Despite our urging for months, 60 per cent of Capetonians are callously using more than 87 litres per day. It is quite unbelievable that a majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards Day Zero.”

— Globe and Mail

Day Zero refers to the shut off of all water to residents. Most schools and many businesses will also have to close. The drought that has caused this has been described as so rare as to occur “once a millennium”. For any of you still unclear as to the trajectory of modern meteorological events, yes climate scientists are agreed that climate change is involved. Climate models have been predicting for decades that Cape Town would get dryer if global warming continued and dryer it is. Once known as “the place where clouds gather” it will now be known as the first in what will likely become a long list of Day Zero cities.

Day Zero is now forecast to take place on April 21 if voluntary measures continue to be ineffective. If ever there was a canary in the coal mine for the inevitable results of climate change this is it. If ever there was a substance that people know they cannot do without, and so therefore must cooperate to avoid disaster, water is that substance. And yet.

Unlike the Mayor of Cape Town I am not at all surprised that collective action has proved impossible even when faced with such a dire circumstance. It is an expanded version of the ‘prisoners dilemma’ in an age where the ideal of the collective has been eradicated everywhere except perhaps Cuba and China.

For those of you who have either forgotten or never run into the ‘prisoners dilemma’ let me explain. Two people are arrested for a crime. There are three possible outcomes. A) Nobody talks and they get 1 year in jail. B) Only one of them talks. He goes free the other guy gets 3 years in jail. C) Both talk and both get 2 years in jail. In this game theory exercise it is assumed that if both individuals are ‘rational actors’ then the likeliest outcome is that they both talk.

In the Cape Town version this translates as: If everyone else cooperates and you don’t then you get the best outcome from a game theory perspective. What this version of ‘rationality’ leaves out is A) That people don’t feel diminished for cheating and B) Don’t feel better about themselves when participating in shared sacrifice. In other words it equates ‘rationality’ with selfish and unethical individualism. If there is a better expression of the dominant ethos of the last forty years I’ve yet to find it.

I believe its true to the point of being inarguable that the period immediately after WWII saw the greatest expression of global solidarity in human history. This resulted from our collective revulsion to the horrors of Nazism, the industrial scale slaughter of WWI and WWII, and the existential danger created by nuclear weapons. It also came out of the collective solidarity of labor movements around the world that had developed in response to the immense human suffering caused by the Great Depression.

Nothing could be more valuable at this moment in human history than global solidarity, social cohesion, and collective action given the challenges presented by climate change, resource depletion and chemical and plastic pollution. Yet the solidarity within and between countries that we witnessed in the first few decades after WWII has long since evaporated. Where did it go?

The unfortunate truth is that our elites began their attack on this solidarity pretty much the day after the declaration of peace.

In the U.S. the effort to disempower collective action after WWII began in earnest with the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. This Act was the first legislative salvo by the financial elite aimed at rolling back the gains made from the New Deal. The elites throughout the West have of course always despised communism and socialism, and have always exalted the rights of private property over social welfare. They did however have something of a public relations problem as Russia had been central to the winning of WWII, and social programs were being demanded across the Western world. Not least in England which voted in a socialist Labour government in a landslide.

They did not, however, let this slow them down. Churchill began the propaganda offensive in May, 1946, in a speech which should still be required reading. A speech he gave tellingly with President Harry Truman in attendance even though Churchill was no longer Prime Minister. Russian historians in fact date the beginning of the Cold War from this speech. In it Churchill declared the ‘special relationship’ with the U.S., declared that an “Iron Curtain” had descended on Europe, warned of “tyranny”, and the dangers of a “communist fifth column” to “Anglo Christian civilization”.

In the U.S. military spending remained very high, McCarthyism took hold, as did the propping up of repressive regimes throughout the developing world. Governments that would in turn preference U.S. and Western corporations and banks at the expense of their citizens and with the purpose of personal enrichment.

The U.S. accelerated this Cold War with two very hot wars first in Korea and then Vietnam. While it is true that these major wars and the many smaller proxy wars did significant harm to international relations the biggest blow to international solidarity was the dismantling of the Bretton Woods agreement by the Nixon administration in 1971. Until that moment the world was a place where control of capital allowed for national development pretty much everywhere. Every continent had seen significant gains until this point and these gains had been evenly spread within the society of most countries. John Ralston Saul described Nixon’s action as “perhaps the single most destructive act of the postwar world.” This action opened wide the door for the domination of capital over labor and as importantly the domination of international capital over domestic governments.

Thatcherism/Reaganism aka neoliberalism grabbed this opportunity with both hands. Thatcher famously declared “there is no such thing as society”, and proceeded to prove the point by dismantling hers. Reagan ratcheted up the attack against the power of collective bargaining and to this was added a major increase in U.S. military spending funded entirely by deficit spending.

To some it may not be immediately clear why this too represented a major attack on the social cohesion of U.S. society. For the best long answer to this question I highly suggest the work of Seymour Melman. The short answer is that tax cuts and military spending at this level generates enormous fortunes for a very few while leaving the nation as a whole on the hook for repayment. The ensuing deficit is further used as a means of lowering spending on the few programs that benefit the many. This program has been pushed to virtually every corner of the globe by the ‘Anglo Christian civilization’.

The cult of individualism exported everywhere by neoliberalism makes the lack of cooperation in Cape Town not so much surprising as inevitable. Globally we are of course faced with precisely the same dilemma when it comes to climate change. I.e. If everyone else does it we don’t have to. Whether we will face up to our environmental challenges before Day Zero is anyone’s guess.

What is not in dispute is that we will have to rebuild the power of our governments over the economy if there is to be any chance of success. Because there is one way and one way only of getting people to agree to the sacrifices required to avert disaster and that is to prove we are all in this together. This time there truly is no alternative.

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