Vinay Gupta: A simple plan for repairing our society: we need new human rights, and this is how we get them.

ORIGINAL SOURCE

[Foreward by up yours truly: This engaging article has broadened my perspective, changed some views, and enlightened. I feel less anger and more substantial hope from reading this in its entirity than making limitless satire of everyday life; as some of you know is my forte.

Please read with an open mind and do not skip to the end. Test your fortitude and willingness to explore new ideas. ]

Everybody knows the old world ended this weekend.
We better have a dialogue about what comes next.

We all know that this is the end of the line for the old vision of America. As a result, it is also the end of a particular vision of the world. We have been drawing ever closer to this cliff since the unfortunate events of 9/11, and the two decades of war which followed have strained the domestic and international order past the breaking point.

In the 1990s, we had a brief decade in a crude first approximation of world peace. The purpose of this essay is to ask how did we get there, and how can we get there again. It is imperative that we find new political and philosophical space to breathe, because all of our proposed solutions look like dystopias to so many people they will fight to stop any movement towards those futures.

We need a trans-ideological consensus to allow people with incompatible world models to tolerate each other well enough to work together to combat climate change and preserve and expand our rights as human beings.

At the end of this document, I’ll tell you what I think the foundation of that trans-ideological consensus should be, something so universal, deep and unexplored that it might give us new political perspective at a time when we are all desperately lost in hell. But first, we need to get a crystal clear understanding of what has gone wrong with our politics and governance, and why our elites are so irrational and despicable.

It’s going to be a long read. You should make a cup of tea, and wade in.

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Section one: what tomorrow knows

Allow me to briefly summarise our global situation.

We now number 8 billion humans, give or take. Population is expected to rise to 10 billion over the next 20 to 30 years all things being equal, which they are not.

The total environmental impact of the human race is several times what the earth can sustain. What that means is that every year, the natural systems that sustain the world break down, leaving less resources for next year. We are living in environmental debt, and making minimum payments every month as the hole we are in deepens.

Let’s look at carbon dioxide first. CO2 is emitted, broadly speaking, by mining coal and drilling for oil, and by burning down forests. There are many other lesser sources.

Industry and agriculture kick out 36 billion tons of CO2 per year, or about 4.5 tons per person. The earth absorbs about half of that. The rest goes into the atmosphere. The more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the more sunlight heats up the earth: the greenhouse effect. So far we have warmed the world by 1C/1.8F and even if we pull out all the stops with catastrophic social and financial impacts, we will see 1.5C/2.7F of warming. Farming will basically continue to work in most places more or less as it does now in that scenario, but it is by no means certain to leave any specific place intact.

But if we continue what we are doing today, we are headed for 3C to 4C of warming (5.4F to 7.2F). This much warming is like moving a thousand miles south in a lot of climates: places go from pleasant to parched, and agriculture collapses. There are a sea of unbelievably severe and serious secondary effects as a result: melting permafrost releasing gigatons more of warming gasses, oceans become more acidic and entire ecosystems die as a result, and so on.

The “carbon buffer” — how much carbon we can emit for how much warming — is said to be anywhere from 150 gigatons to 500 gigatons. At the lower bound, given that of the 36gt we emit every year only about half is soaked up, we hit the buffer in less than ten years. Inevitablyhit the buffer. This broad outline has been known for at least 40 years by specialists, and I devoted my life to reducing the humanitarian consequences of this disaster since 2002. It has been a long, lonely struggle.

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What this means personally is a lot easier to think about.

EU citizens (500m) kick out about 8 tons of CO2 per person per year, and US citizens about 15 tons. To be “sustainable” — not to be warming the earth — we would need to reduce our carbon emissions by unthinkably large amounts. Can Americans live on 20% of their current CO2 emissions?

Not if they live in Minneapolis and drive a 4×4 to handle the roads, and live in an older house that just eatsfuel oil all winter and needs air conditioning in the summer. That won’t work at all.

We are at a hard impasse here, and we have been handling it by paying attention to something, anything else. Each government says “it’s not going to hit during my 4 year elected term” and focusses on short range political impact while the world literally burns. All those forest fires etc. are not unrelated to climate change.

Sources for this climate summary are here. I welcome corrections.https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissionshttps://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC?locations=EU-US-1W-SEhttps://www.skepticalscience.com/human-co2-smaller-than-natural-emissions.htmhttps://www.theguardian.com/environment/datablog/2009/sep/02/co2-emissions-historical

Add to this our hunger situation. Broadly speaking, 10% of the world’s population eats so little they are physically ill as a result. 800 million people. The death toll varies a bit year on year, but a few million people die directly of hunger every year. And it’s not that we do not produce enough food: we grow enough food. If all the food waste in the world was eliminated, and the food saved given to the hungry, there would be no hungry. We literally waste enough food every year to feed the planet.

https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-world-hunger

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We could run over half a dozen other issues in much the same light: deforestation, topsoil depletion, collapse of ocean ecosystems because we ate all the fish, it just goes on.

The political situation internationally isn’t much better: a constant cycle of stupid wars and assassinations, death squads slowly turning into drone war, as various nations take turns booting the poor in the head to try and extract a few more resources for whatever cause happens to be a convenient excuse today.

A common analysis is that the root cause of all of these problems is overpopulation. I’m not going to waste your time and mine cranking through that argument, but briefly: yes, population in 1800 was 1 billion. Now it’s 8 billion. If consumption per person had stayed at 1800s levels, we would have very few environmental problems. But consumption per person in the rich world has skyrocketed to incredible levels: the total environmental impact of an American citizen is often ballpark estimated at 30x the environmental impact of a Bangladeshi. There are 8x more people, and up to 30x more consumption for one nation than another, on average. The compounding impact is gigantic. But population growth is slowing down, and consumption is rapidly accelerating: the problem we can change today is consumption. Maybe.

What’s driving consumption is the rise of the global middle class.

The very poor consume almost nothing. About half the world were “one acre farmers” who grew most of their own food on their own land, and were often near starvation in bad years. Needless to say, many of these people got jobs and urbanised as soon as the possibility arose, and as they’ve joined industrial and consumer society, their needs have risen. The result is a gigantic rise in global consumption, as people go from having negligible or even negative CO2 emissions to having a scooter and a cooker and electric light coming off a coal-fired grid. Meanwhile, those left in the villages are often becoming more and more impoverished, although great boasts are made about their progress, because the economic books are cooked when we estimate fundamental underlying poverty.

https://ec.europa.eu/knowledge4policy/foresight/topic/growing-consumerism_en

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/29/bill-gates-davos-global-poverty-infographic-neoliberal

So this is our situation: the human race is destroying its future very quickly, with catastrophic impacts from climate change already visible and rapidly accelerating, in a situation where “business as usual” economic development will simply pile more and more people into the global middle class economic niche, which is at something like 2x or 5x sustainable consumption, resulting in an ever-faster ecological collapse.

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Does it have to be this way? No.

Even within the model we call “progress” a different world is possible. Most of us could live in ultra well insulated houses, waste almost no food and eat mostly vegetarian diets, bicycle most places, fly a few times in a lifetime. Our nations could replace most of their electrical power with a combination of zero carbon options: hydro power, wind, solar, and a bit of nuclear maybe (a cheat). Our consumer goods — our tools — could last forever and be easily repaired, and second hand markets could be ultra-efficient at taking things and finding uses for them.

It would not be a bad lifestyle, but it is 100% achievable only if governments prevent people from living any other way, in much the same way and for much the same reasons that we prevent slavery not by allowing the free market to sort it out, but by actively prohibiting it. People will do evil if they are permitted to, and evil is often cheaper than good.

So wehave to mandate our own survival, not leave it to chance. Why do we seem to be unable to do this?

Section two: for whose advantage?

Who benefits from a world bent on self-destruction? Why can’t we get the elites to back down or change their minds?

The captains of finance are not innumerate fools. Quantitative finance employs many of the world’s best minds in physics.

The world’s militaries are not stupid organisations on the technical front. Maintaining nuclear weapons stockpiles is no joke, and even the simple logistics of maintaining groups of hundreds of thousands of soldiers represents massive logistical challenges.

Plenty of brains. But somehow they seem to be stuck, like a child’s toy trains on a track which goes straight over a cliff. But this is the real world: much worse things happen than toy railway cars bouncing down half a flight of carpeted stairs. People die!

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So why are we stuck doing these things? Everybody wants to point at somebody else: politicians point at the voters, the media point at politicians, the voters point at the billionaires. This is actually the simple key to the whole mess: society is structured so that each bad actor — they’re all bad — can simply point to other people and say “I’m just a simple man, they are the ones in control.”

The billionaires fear anti-trust suits against their company, or regulations which will destroy their industry. The politicians depend the billionaires for support and funding, and so it goes, and so it goes. This snarl has its own tension, like a tangled cat’s cradle made of rubber bands: everybody enmeshed in the snarl is subject to the power of various forces which pull on them or constrain them, while at the same time having the power to pull on and constrain other actors in the system. Power is a dense weave, a black mesh, in which even the strongest are fundamentally beholden to everybody else in the system in complex, hard to define ways.

This is clearest in the symbiotic-parasitic relationship between regulators and industry which they call regulatory capture, where the only people who know enough about the industry to regulate it are former industry executives, who usually leave the regulatory post they had to work for somebody they used to regulate. And, yes, you could change the law to stop that happening, but those same corporate interests donate money to re-election campaign funds, and so the whole dirty mess slides through time, decade through decade.

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Even worse is selective enforcement. Somebody breaks the rules to get ahead, and somebody else does them a favour and turns a blind eye to the event. But the knowledge of wrongdoing is now currency, a marker, a returnable favour which might be passed to a third party and delegated. On the way to the top so many of these deals get done that the person in power becomes effectively a slave to those who know their buried secrets. This corrupt economy is more or less always what makes our laws: what politician is so clean that nobody knows where the bodies are buried, because no bodies were buried?

In fact, the very structure of these games is that you have to do illicit things to win, guaranteeing that the winners will be under the control of the powerbrokers that helped them on the way up. These systems guarantee corruption: corruption is the desired product of the system, because corruption allows for stable, durable, secret extra-judicial control: to have power from the sidelines, even to rule, without any oversight.

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Jeffrey Epstein is a good example of all of these phenomena: a victim and a perpetrator, when he was no longer safe to have around, somebody had him murdered in a secure jail cell, and had the surveillance camera footage of the murderers erased. But he also had strings on an unknown but vast network of the world’s elite, including many in John Brockman’s famous EDGE network, which Epstein funded. It is almost certain that nobody involved in this situation at any level experienced any degree of freedom from fear: so much dirt on so many people, so much coercion of so many women, and the whole thing likely overseen by lethal intelligence networks who could black bag anybody involved in the blink of an eye.

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This is hell.

The critical insight is that Epstine likely perceived himself to be just as enslaved as the girls he pimped.

It is not even a hierarchy of terror and control, because as in politics, there are feedback loops and strange networks: all masters and all servants. As in mafias, even the boss simply serves as a neutral dispute resolver between his lieutenants: if he pisses off too many of them at once, they will simply elect new leadership and off him.

Situations in which even the most “successful” players are still essentially living in fear all the time are easily recognised as hells. Games where victory (or even survival) will cost you all of your integrity are the proto-hells which surround the deep dark pits that, for example, so many combat veterans emerge from war with. Hell and the penumbra of hell. The survivors of war, and the cheerleaders for war.

These systems have lives of their own. There are any number of stories about this, perhaps my favourite is a cage of (mostly imaginary) monkeys who get sprayed with cold water every time a monkey climbs a ladder. Pretty soon, they don’t climb the ladder any more, and stop other monkeys from doing it. After a while, they replace the monkeys one at a time, and eventually they have a set of monkeys who all stop each-other climbing the ladder, even though not a single one of them has ever seen anybody climb the ladder, or seen the monkeys get squirted. This might be thought of as a taboo, but it’s really just “the system” being imprinted on the animals.

We are all those monkeys. The fact that the monkey story is mostly nonsense is just more evidence for the pervasive power of cultural lock in.

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Into these interlocking systems of systemic corruption, we now add the urgent pressure for whole systems change to limit the extent of climate change.

But all the finely balanced checks-and-balances of our corrupt political cultures come apart when the culture has to change in a hurry: everybody’s got something on everyone else, and when you start to change the system rapidly, all those invisible strings get pulled to make the puppets dance.

America still spends half a trillion dollars a year on fossil fuel subsidies, because of the quid-pro-quos attached to the oil funding: if you cut that subsidy pipeline off, bad things happen, because the oil guys are connected. And it’s like this all the way through: building codes, urban planning, tariffs and subsidies, procurement processes. The entire thing is a solid interwoven slab of graft in which doing what is expedient and keeps the system going is always going to be more valuable than a clean sweep.

This is not to say that no progress is ever made. When there is enough money on the table — such as with mobile phones or electric cars — and few enough losers with leverage, some progress is possible.

But think back to those horrifying carbon and hunger statistics. To fix those problem — to cut US oil consumption by 80% — involves making changes that nobody can possibly permit if they are to leave the current system of quid-pro-quos in place.

The power is balkanized into a million struggling, competing groups, and so nothing gets doneThis problem is obviously much more severe in, for example, America than Germany, but there is not a single nation which has really put cleaning up its environmental act as a top priority which it clearly deserves to be.

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So think about “the system” as an enormous web of corrupt people who have made promises to each-other to keep secrets, return favours, and grease palms.

This sticky, gory mess with all of its quid-pro-quos is what it means to be a “powerful” person in this society: you have more strings to pull than people pulling your strings, for the moment. For a temporary moment the equilibrium is tipped in your favour. But power is fleeting, even an ex-President is only an ex-President. The winners are not winners for long, with a handful of world famous exceptions like Gates or Buffet.

Imagine such a system in an expanding empire. Promises are made, deals are struck, and because the empire under the control of this system is expanding, on average those promises are kept. The system’s overall growth washes enough hands that rivalries and destructive conflicts inside of the system are kept to some kind of workable minimum. If people over-estimate what they can pull off, underlying economic growth and success in colonial endeavours like wars or colonisations generates enough wealth to make good on enough of the promises made by junior players “on the way up” that by the time they are a mature power network, everybody is basically on the same side.

But now imagine such a system in a time of recession, depression, or collapse. The web of dark obligations woven through the system puts more claims on money, position, status, valuable assets than can be cleared through the system: the quid-pro-quo back-hander favour network, the thing which buries the bodies, pays off the “mistresses”, sorts out the entirely too favourable government contracts, and makes sure that your kids get into Eton or Harvard starts to break down. Players in the elite game are defined by these interlocking webs of obligation and implicit contract.

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Then it all starts unravelling. The economy starts to go south, the wars are lost, the cat is out of the bag, the wolf is on the fold, and so on.

Now we have a real problem. Because the house of cards that the elites have constructed is based on growth, on the feeling that you can kite a cheque or make a promise you might not be able to keep, but something will come along and it will all get sorted out.

The web of mutual obligation on which the elite is constructed begins to strain. This can be as simple as “musical chairs” in the financial system in 2008, where everybody tries to sit down at the same time, and Lehman Brothers is a little too slow — had to be somebody, happened to be them. Or it can be more subtle, as we see in (for example) the Epstein Incident. A series of things go wrong, we will never know which things, and at the end of that process, rather than the polite sweeping under the rug which had protected the show until that point, somebody winds up so exposed that they are willing to kill a prisoner in a locked cellerase the tapes, and intimidate the staff into silence.

Maybe they can get away with that once, twice, three times, but make a habit of it and pretty soon the public will begin realising the ship is sunk, and what then?

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Murdering Epstein in such a dramatic and obvious way is a sign that the networks of power are so over-extended that problems are slipping through their fingers, and crashing into the public eye.

As a result, the elites are more eager than ever to settle debts with hard political assets, the equivalent of cash payments, now. The faith that the system will perform well enough in future to protect elites from the consequences of their actions is starting to fray, and as the future horizon of the elites shortens and shortens, they are willing to do increasingly desperate things to keep the balloon inflated. But the pressure for immediate settlement, do this for me now instead of the more leisurely and efficient welcome to the club, dear boy creates a political liquidity crisis. The elites cannot work as an integrated mass nearly so easily when the faith in future power to cover up today’s transgressions weakens.

Now let’s take this back to the climate change story.

There’s no way forwards which continues to increase absolute consumption globally which does not wind up with a catastrophic hard crash on every level. But the elites have very minimal capability to reduce their resource intake without it causing a fraying of their web of dirty obligations, resulting in raging destructive civil wars among the elite. Those kinds of wars are inconceivably destructive to the elites: think McCarthyism as the American Cultural Elite turns on itself around the issue of communism, or the long history of Christian heretical sects getting burned at the stake. The elites have so much power, and run such big risks (Iran Contra anybody?) that if something blows out there’s nobody to Make The Problem Go Away and it slams into reality through the media or somebody presses charges or a lawsuit or a bankruptcy, entire dynasties can be destroyed in months: Lehman Brothers, or the Wall Street Journal being sold to Murdoch.

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Climate change, for the elites, is a mass of big personal risks that they have taken, all detonating one after another. Everyone is a day late and a dollar short, and the whole mess unravels.

A sensible oil policy, sure, the government can do that on paper: but as the oil companies contract, the power players running that scene take their foot off the scandal pipeline, and a whole new set of bad news starts pump down that pipeline, into the ear of a brave journalist who is willing to publish.

Because, you know, those oil guys, they have to make living too, and if they had your back in Iraq, and you’re turning on them now… well obviously this is a fundamental matter of quid-pro-quos being violated. And there are always more chips on the table than cash to back the chips. The elites live highly leveraged lives, personally, politically, and economically because over-all, in the good times, risk is good. The more risks you take, the faster you climb the ladder. Power is the ability to suppress downside risks: when something goes wrong, you know you will be protected.

So you pile on the risk, and attain the meteoric rise.

The elites cannot climb down without tearing each-other to pieces. They’ve been fighting climate change awareness, starting futile wars, and looting the treasury with bailouts because a climbdown will start civil war among the elites as their promises to each-other can no longer be kept, and the political exchange of quid-pro-quos collapse.

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And this is why the elites are stuck in place, unable to face reality. They’ve concentrated so much personal risk into their positions that if the system as a whole has to be cooled and basic needs reprioritized, their entire house of cards will come down.

One of the ways that the elites gain power is by making promises to the poor and working class that their lives will get better faster if a given leader is put in charge. Almost never is the promise that things will get worse more slowly, or that they’ll get worse but the worst won’t be so bad. The masses are strongly conditioned by 300 years of industrial revolution, labour unions, and colonialist extraction that life gets better year on year.

The horror of a recession is that this is suddenly no longer true. The future is worse than the past, at least for a while, and people passing through critical stages of their life during that period are going to underperform financially for the rest of their lives on average, in most models.

What we are looking at with climate change, if it is handled using existing political machinery, is managed decline. It does not have to be that way, there are much better options than managed decline, but within the existing political norms there is no way to get to that space. Managed decline is the way climate change looks to the elites, and as we’ve just discussed, theirs is a machine which has to keep growing, or tear itself apart in cascade failures and civil wars.

The people with the least power are first to get shoved off a cliff. The exploitation of most Americans working in dead end jobs for enormously powerful corporations is generally limited only by law, because they have little negotiation power and are generally not unionized. The American labour unions are strange beasts by international standards, and this may not help. But, in any case, there is a three way negotiation between the employer, the law, and the employee, and basically the law is the decider: employers will generally only offer what the law mandates they must, and employees will generally take it because the other option is even worse. Add to this the breakage in campaign finance reform, and what you are left with is people with no rights and no negotiating power — closer in the great continuum of possible lives to slaves than to, say, doctors. Plenty of fancy Marxist language (“immiseration”) but the plight is obvious.

Now, let me frame this one more time, because this is subtle. The elites can’t perform a managed descent because their entire show is an over-leveraged house of cards, both financially and especially politically. Even the best among them, who might like to do the right thing, often can’t.

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What do I mean by can’t?

The rich, for the most part, are dirty and cruel. If they stop being rich and powerful, the backlash of all the people they’ve tooled over on the way up the ladder will catch up with them. Like sharks, they must keep moving.

This is a class trait, it may not apply to any given individual, but it’s a model of why things are as they are which has a lot of explanatory power. The rich could, in theory, just reduce their lifestyle expectations a bit, make some more room at the table, maybe pay some taxes.

But here we hit the enormous interwoven web of corruption, lies, and obligation. If the resource pool controlled by that system drops by 20%, the conflict and friction inside of the elite system might erupt into a slaughterhouse. You can see this in the financial markets, where an entire apparatus conspired to rip people off by selling mortgages which would likely never be paid to unsuspecting pension fund managers. The losers were the people who had made retirement nest eggs that got wipe out. Everybody else along that entire chain made money, every single day, until suddenly it all unwound in the 2008 bloodbath.

Now imagine that happening to an entire civilisation’s controlling elites. To them, it is unthinkable — the gigantic personal risks of an uncontrolled civil war, as every cut corner and dodgy court case starts unravelling at the same time. We see “they have plenty, why can’t they take a pay cut” and they see “this house of cards is all going to come down if somebody even sneezes out of turn.” Lehman Brothers collapse was like seeing somebody shot in the head at close range for the people that had sunk their entire lives into finance.

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Implicitly, the condition of the elites is “no retreat, no surrender” and the gigantic concentrations of wealth and power since 2008 are “too big to fail” fortresses, hoping to force government’s hands into protecting dinosaurs from calamity.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Elon Musk. Musk rides through the skies on a great torchship of concentrated risk: famously he cashed out $300m and put $100m each into Tesla, SolarCity, and Space X, leaving himself so little personal wealth he had to borrow money from friends to pay rent. Tesla and Space X are made almost entirely of possible futures, might-becomes, and every time either one hits a roadblock, stock market bears swarm, looking to make a buck betting on a collapsing stock price. Musk is the ultimate shark: he moves forwards, towards Mars and a sustainable Earth, or he dies. He is never more than a sneeze away from the abyss, and while he’s likely relatively disconnected from the complex, interconnected cess pool which is Washington in that he’s an outsider from South Africa, never forget how many billions of dollars the Federal government put into Musk’s companies. This kind of bundling of multiple different kinds of risks — political, technical, financial — into a single huge rolling portfolio is exactly the kind of situation which pertains right across the sociotechnical frontage of our high tech society. A company like Boeing is so interwoven with US national interest, huge amounts of debt, technical risk, and dirty deals like having the NSA spy on their behalf in a Saudi plane contract negotiation.

The elites cannot surrender for fear the entire situation will unravel, making them liable for all that they did on the way up, and all the promises they can now no longer deliver on. It is a catastrophic risk all round.

There is no rational negotiation with this position. Rather, rationally, they are completely screwed by the things they did to get where they are, and only their ill-gotten gains protect them. This is not true of every individual, but this is why the stuff you see happening on TV looks the way it does most of the time.

It is horrendous. These webs of corruption are strangling our civilization.

Section three: the brave and the willing

Life goes on. How does life go on?

The answer is both sharp and subtle: the young do not know any better.

Born in a cave? That’s life. All progress forwards is measured from this set point. Born at the peak of an economic boom, same thing. Wherever you are born is the starting point, this is “normal.” Some cultures, usually old cultures, are focussed on not coming out any worse off than you went in: if the culture is stable enough that most of the people do ok, then it will tend to ossify and stratify. The famous Scandinavian conservatism: yes, these people are doing better than us, but rocking the boat to get more of our fair share is too risky. It’s a working society, why mess with it. Well, covid in Sweden might have some ideas about that, but for the most part, the Scandinavians are right: when things are good, stasis is important.

The Americans are entirely at the other pole. No stability, the entire culture is on fire, all the time. Constant sweeping change, and if you snooze, you lose. Buy a house in a great neighbourhood, wind up penniless 20 years later as the gentrification wave produces better housing cheaper half a mile away in what was once a ghetto. It’s a constant gamble, a constant struggle to stay alive.

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Plenty of money in America, but it don’t sit still long. Many Americans will experience a few years of fleeting wealth, before winding up back where they started, or living in their cars, and this is not just lottery winners. Getting wealth to stick is hard, but it comes through at speed.

The young were born in good enough conditions to survive. Biologically, all they have to do is reproduce at whatever level they were at, maybe improve it a bit, and life’s core mission is accomplished: keep the fire lit, keep the light of consciousness alive. That basic story hasn’t changed since the first replicator a billion years ago, and it is the foundation so many of our human values.

How did the American slaves survive such horror? Two generations in, that was normal. Somehow, life went on, as it did for the survivors of the concentration camps, and every other atrocity in human history. Life finds a way.

Even if there were stories about other times, normal is whatever you’re born into.

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This creates another bad set point problem: if you’re born in a boom, everything else feels like a bust. I use the term “born” loosely, really it’s the period of childhood and early adulthood that sets our expectations. I was born in 1972, picked up a good solid bedrock of cold war angst, then my 20s were in the 1990s economic boom, dotcom boom, early Burning Mans. You can’t imagine the sheer cultural optimism of 1996 and 1998 on the Playa as Silicon Valley started to foresee the future it would come to enjoy, then ruin, and the hippie elite looked at our peaceful, prosperous future and saw the infinite expansion of liminal space and transformative values extending before us into a utopian future.

When they say 9/11 changed everything, they weren’t kidding.

So how is life to go on, in a world where we cannot but do with less? We’ve covered the elites, it’s fratricidal warfare for them at least in the place where big business, big government, and big military meet.

What about the rest of us? People that want to have a couple of kids and a dog, and know they’ll never become billionaires. Or people who’s idea of a dream is having a refrigerator which gets cold enough in summer to keep ice cream from melting. Or people who’d like it if their kids didn’t cry from hunger towards the end of the month sometimes.

It only gets worse from there. We won’t go down that ladder further. You know what I’m saying: there are a lot of tiers of “normal.” Kids will adapt.

But the parents. What about the parents?

Yes, kids can live pretty well on not much. If they have enough food and a community, and other kids to play with, they’ll grow up into functional human beings, more so than if they grow up in palaces, in fact.

The problem here is accommodation, not just in the sense of having a place to live, but in the sense of getting used to having what you have. If you have kids and there’s a back yard, and suddenly there’s no more back yard because the job went and the new job is crappier, now there’s a problem. Resources staying about the same or expanding parents can live with, but losing resources as a parent is a total nightmare. How are parents supposed to cope in a world with this kind of uncertainty?

A lot of them aren’t. Have you seen the rates of antidepressant use in America? Precarity with kids is hell on earth.

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So a future of perpetually declining resources is inevitable: either we hold on to what we have, and the collapsing environment takes it away from us as food prices go through the roof, or we cut our consumption to something which will cause the earth not to boil, fry, and kick our asses to kingdom come, and therefore at least in theory we face complaining children and neurotic children, year on year, as budgets get thinner.

I’m not kidding about this. You know how hard-screwed America has been since 2008, and everybody wants to blame wealth concentration in the elites, and the cost of the Iraq war. But right underneath that is the Long Decline, which is that America’s world class manufacturing advantage in the 1970s was unstoppable, as it had been from the 1950s, and that absolutely massive productivity edge let American workers live like kings for a generation after WW2. Turns out winning a global war is good for you.

But those advantages diluted away over time because they were products of unique circumstances. It wasn’t inherent to the American experience that they have enormous wealth while the world struggled — indeed America had been face down in the mud, so poor that slavery was considered the only way to maintain standards of living for a century, so poor that out west there was no law and seas of seamstresses, and not an honest dollar to be made except in gold mining. America 200 years ago looked more like Liberia than London, for the most part.

So how are people going to have kids?

We can’t buy our way out of this. Suppose Bill Gates had given his money away not to a foundation, but split it among Black Americans equally. It’s about $5000 each, which is enough to clear credit card debts, get the car fixed, and maybe see a dentist, but it’s not enough money to buy any kind of capital asset you can earn a living from using like machine tools, or to buy a place to live. It’s cash flow, not capital.

Split it among all the American poor and it’s maybe a thousand bucks, a little windfall. We just can’t buy our way out of this. And, let me note, the gigantic bailouts going into the banks and the big companies for the most part aren’t real money: loans they owe money on charge interest, and that money in turn was borrowed. They money which the fed is printing does essentially nothing to the real economy, it just keeps the compounding interest from bankrupting the entire world. That’s why they can keep printing money, and we don’t see inflation. Redistribution certainly takes the sting out of things, and basic income (done right) is probably a good idea, but where is the actual economic productivity going to come from?

If people aren’t making things, and the service economy is menial, low-paid, unpredictable gig economy nonsense, how is anybody going to hold their Mittelstand middle class dignity for more than a fleeting five minutes?

This is no joke: half of the western economies are being supported by American credit card debt. If America cracks under economic, social and cultural pressure, the resulting shockwaves are going to break the western world in half, and we might want to prepare some policy options for handling this.

How can we make policy with such hard economic and ecological limits in front of us? What are we really trying to achieve here?

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Let me make a suggestion: within our current terms of discourse, these problems are insoluble. Growth-oriented colonialist cultures — which is all of us — cannot easily adapt to a steady state or declining standard of living. It flies in the face of hundreds of years of experience, and the aforementioned “elite swamp” problem means we cannot simply unwind things a day at a time and hope it all works out, because they’ll fight it to the teeth not just because they are greedy (money) but because they are afraid (power).

We need some new perspective here, desperately, because climate change is going to tear our societies apart. All those promises of a better future? It ain’t happening, and if you ask the kids, they’re just trying to get out of this horror show without too much pain and with their souls intact. That’s what happens when you see people asking for ambulances not to be called because they cannot afford it. Do the young expect better futures any more? Why?

And, really, it’s not a big deal to make a world that works. We could reorganise to feed all the people like tomorrow morning if we could get all the people to go along with it. But as we saw in the previous section, the swamp will not be drained.

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The problem we have is one of purpose. If you ask people what is our society for? They don’t really have answers. It used to be White Man’s Burden colonialist stuff, or the US Manifest Destiny model. Sometimes you get a kind of settling in, like the Swedes and the rest of Scandinavia, into higge, a sort of homish comfort zone in which everything is kind of nice, and so life continues. And hygge is pretty close to what I’m going to propose, with certain modifications.

Of course, Sweden in particular, and Scandinavia in general can’t stand on their own feet any more than the Europeans can, if Americans stop buying. On paper it’s 8% of their economy, but it’s also 8% or more of everybody else’s economy: demand would drop across the entire global economy. The American global demand sink is huge. It’s not like American hyper consumption stops and everything else in the world stays the same, everybody’s being sustained by that economic engine, whether people like it or not. And there is Russia to consider: economic and military factors could both disrupt the Scandinavian Dream. Norway is another Saudi Arabia, and that’s a rich prize with very little protection. They better hope that solar panels and electric cars make the oil worthless long-term before Putin gets bored.

The American system is breaking: too many poor, angry people, and a swamp in Washington DC that just flooded every main street in America with troops. Something new forms in its place: hopefully the same Constitution or a better one, but that’s not the level of this situation we can see from here: it’s breaking economically, and the social contract, such as it is, is going down the toilet.

But the brave and the willing are going to continue to have kids. Parents are the economic engine: they’ll do anything for their kids, and that’s what capitalism depends on. Everybody’s kids are being held hostage by the economy: if you don’t work hard, if you are unlucky, your kids will have crappy lives. That’s the big stick which is hidden inside every handshake. Make it work or your kids will pay.

People are talking social contracts again, and we need a new one: how’s this for a start.

We’re going to stop holding each-other’s kids hostage.

Section four: destiny and commerce

Colonialism was two parts destiny to one part commerce. That destiny was in its turn made of two parts: a religious faith, Christianity, as the engine of absolution as conquest ravaged the earth and the blood flowed. The other component was Progress, the scientific and engineering conquest of poverty. The three together formed an enormously powerful extractive engine which ran directly on the willingness of parents to do whatever it takes for their kids, including turning a blind eye to why everything from abroad is so cheap. Profit, Protestantism, Progress, if you like. The predestined road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But this three part engine was The Bomb, literally. Profit, Protestantism, and Progress formed a mighty tripod: Profit was the why, Protestantism removed the guilt from expansionist wars, and Progress provided the tools and clear, permanent improvements in standards of living through advances in basic hygiene, transportation, energy and a million and one other things, most of all, medicine. How could this bloody engine of progress be anything other than god’s grace manifest on earth? Nothing else seemed to be happening. The world was moving at a crawl, apart from this fearsome engine just chewing apart the old world and remaking it in a new image, a new age of man. Toilets and vaccines and rivers of food: this was manifest destiny, people thought. Slaughter the natives, take the gold, built the lab, cure the diseases of the natives, and convert them away from their heathen religions to a nice, clean, scientific Christianity at the same time.

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The whole thing makes a kind of obscene sense, which is basically how the Victorians were able to con themselves into invading 150 countries and still thought of themselves as the Good Guys.

No culture has ever performed greater military feats, or feats of mental gymnastics to justify their violent rampage. As the joke went, God gave the English an Empire on which the sun never set (literally true — land in every timezone!) because he simply could not trust them in the dark. The Americans were no better, they just had more land and so tended to keep the violent adventurism separate from their boating habits.

So this is broadly the “moral engine” which built the modern world. It’s a sort of unholy trinity, an assemblage, a war machine. It’s rolled through time consuming everything in its path, and laying down a paved road called modernity behind it. It’s taken us 200 years since the Abolitionists got started to actually begin to dismantle the intellectual and moral edifice which enabled slavery, and colonialism (mostly through multinational companies) continues unabated and unchallenged: where was your phone or laptop made anyway? Did those people have a union? The intellectual edifices are barely scratched: layers of titanium around impregnable self interest.

But in spite of all this, the machine stops. What’s happening in America isn’t just “the Americans are rioting.” It’s a near-bankrupt superpower filled with overflowing ethnic tensions, lead by a fascist who might well enjoy becoming a dictator, crushing dissent with troops in the streets, with volatile internet militias in Hawaiian shirts trying to decide whether they’re standing with the cops and the President (boring) or whether they really are agents of chaos preparing to stand with the people: the Fat Weird Line. Who do the Boogaloo lads dislike more: authority figures, or people of colour? I suspect many of them are quite torn about this.

Obviously this entire situation is just bullshit right, we all know this. The elites are sacking Rome themselves, selling out America to anybody who will buy, turning the Federal government into their own personal ATM machine, and screw the people, screw the future, and screw the long term national interest. Because their personal show is crashing, because they made too many promises and too many enemies on the way up, and now that things are getting tight they have too much to lose to let a little thing like The Law get in the way.

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The People are trapped up against globalisation, climate change, and the death of the American dream. The elites are trapped between The People and all the bullshit and lies and bribes and blind eyes they turned to get where they are today. And the rubber cheques written by the elites to each-other and to us are bouncing sky high. It is over.

We better find a new way forwards, or the future is going to look like the Renaissance running in reverse, as beautiful layer by beautiful layer of western civilisation is stripped away and replaced by dumb, ignorant, ugly feudalism. It’s going to be a car crash which makes the Fall of Rome look like the invasion of Grenada. I don’t want to see that. You don’t want to see that. Your kids don’t want to see that.

People are starting to talk about the social contract again. A bad sign, it’s a garbage concept, and yet within it there is the seeds of an idea.

Here’s what I want to propose to you: I think we need a couple of structural, semantic changes to how we approach the business of running civilisation. Let’s call them reprioritizations, or insights. Little tweaks to give us some ways of stripping out the toxicity which is destroying our world and our culture, and gives us a shot as survival.

So first thing up is let’s look at this Profit, Protestantism, Progress thing. Most of the profit is world-destroying nonsense: oil companies, cow torture-murder farms that happen to emit beef, prisons of many kinds. This is all bullshit, and if government worked we would gradually raise taxes on all of this bullshit until alternatives evolved it fell out of civilization. We can’t do this because elite corruption prevents it, but bear with me: I’m talking about what we should do, and I’ll discuss how we get there presently. Profit: yes, but use taxation to shift filthy industries to clean ones, or else. Apply as much pressure over time as needed, as much as you can afford. It’s not that hard, they’re all paying tax anyways. Except the really big ones. We have to defeat the elites on this.

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Protestantism: god is dead, there’s no Predestination, and the Catholic equivalent structure, Confession, stopped working after 1) we discovered psychotherapy, and 2) we discovered how many priests were fiddling with kids (to use the UK parlance.) So just as when we move out into our own apartment, we discover Your Mother Is Not Here and start to figure out why she was always so damn busy, we have to stop doing dumb, stupid, evil stuff just because we figure that God told somebody to do this and we’re still at it. In particular: the rape/torture/murder stuff which is so much a part of the colonialist trip is so often excused with ideas like the White Man’s Burden, or bringing people to Christianity so they don’t go to hell. It’s all lies, you can stop that now. If somebody does a bad, bad thing, their karma is fucked and that’s the end of it. There is no god that forgives the stuff that people do, and the recognition of that is the recognition of spiritual adulthood. There may be a God, but not one that picks up the tab for you like your mom did. We need to actually be good people now.

Progress. The key to it all. Progress on the current trajectory is no longer progress. Taking oil out of the ground and burning it was progress until 1950-something. After 1976’s oil shocks, oil was a stupid risk. After 1990s environmental awakening about global warming (yes, we’ve been worried that long, longer even) oil was a toxic habit, like smoking. In 2020 oil is like heroin: an addictive curse which is ripping our societies apart. We need a new model of what progress is, and this right here is the key.

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We need to develop new objectives and aesthetics for progress.

Progress, right now, is just a mad rush of ugly engineering and ruthless evolutionary competition. Anything that can happen does happen, and some of it is profitable enough to get done again. There’s no design in progress, apart from occasional walled gardens like Apple where they take the long term vision super seriously and do great work towards that end. For the most part, we are going helter skelter, and anything which pays the bills and isn’t illegal yet is fair game: genetically engineered food butts up against eating insects butts up against “clean meat” butts up against impossible burgers, and it all sort of thrashes out in the market, and that’s all we do in terms of trying to steer progress, and that and some random government subsidies governed by bureaucrats in grey suits.

On the current trajectory, we’re on a road to nowhere. That can’t be progress.

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So the UN lays out the Sustainable Development Goals. 17 priorities, because hey, that’s a round number right?

Designed by committee, self-contradictory, and without any actual unified idea of how things are going to get done. There’s no actual plan to reach these goals, there are no costed spreadsheets and draft legislation stuff. They’re working on it across ten thousand forums. It’s a grab-bag wish list of nice to haves, some of which are necessary to human survival, and some of which are just passing cultural fads. Needless to say, as a compromise product of the global elites, the SDGs are mired in quid-pro-quos two miles deep and sixty meters wide. Everything about them is filthy horse traded compromises, as bad as putting torture regimes on rights panels, a perennial UN favourite.

So what would the SDG goals look like done right? If we actually think clearly, rather than trying to gather support through an endless sequence of committees, what is the actual essential universal goal of human life that we can rally everybody around? How do we create a universal design language for working with the future, something which can allow people to come together around a table, in a new light, and solve cooperation problems which are currently insoluble. It’s not a list of 17 global todos.

We can either rebuild one disaster at a time, trying to unpick issue-by-issue, modifying existing legislation to be slightly less broken, like trying to glue a broken glass vase back together. It will take decades, time we do not have because of climate change. Or we can look at some radically different alternatives, and try to find political inspiration there.

How do we find a new framework to understand the present and change the future? I have an idea.

“We should stop exploiting each-other’s children and taking away their futures.”

Boom. Job done. That’s all there is, that’s all that’s necessary. Wasn’t that easy? Home in time for supper.

Think of the children. It’s such a cliche. But let’s think about it in terms of our ability to solve problems and work towards a better future for the world. How far can we get by putting children first? Just roll with this, we’ll do details later. If we just think in terms of what happens if we go about ensuring global child welfare, how do we do on the other global challenges?

Poverty? Covered.

Environment? Covered.

You can look, situation by situation, rule by rule, law by law, and ask “am I harming these the children?” If the answer is yes, you don’t do that. The kids are profoundly collateral damage in the power struggles of the adults, and we’re using them like hostages all the time. But a cease fire could be arranged.

Giants like Monsanto pursue policies which drive farmers into suicide, and this is going to make their kids lives even worse. It’s not hard to draw a line between good and evil here: don’t make orphans, it infringes the human rights of the children, who are innocents in this situation and bear no moral responsibility for the actions of their parents. Thou shalt not harm a child for profit. They can’t consent to be ripped off, because they can’t sign contracts. Therefore standards of protection apply! It’s a simple logic that hangs together pretty well.

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Civilisation in its deepest core is a pact between adults to make a better place to raise their children. There is no reason planetary civilisation could not work that way too.

Now, I’m not suggesting this as some hippiedippy “let’s put the children first” type nonsense. I’m not coming at this from an emotional place. I’m coming at this from a philosophical and legalistic place.

We need a different set of abstract principles for humans to make decisions: “is this profitable” and “is this legal” dominate the current landscape, and clearly that’s not enough because, well, look at the state of this place. Those principles do not work well enough on a planet of 8 billion people, where a million or three kids starve to death every year. The adults may be responsible for their poverty, from a neoliberal perspective, but the children cannot be responsible for their poverty. And from this, we can build some principles to protect them, and repair the damage we have done each-other and the world.

Let’s talk about basic income. Let’s have basic income, right now, globally if possible. Who gets paid? The kids. The adults, you can argue about welfare state policy, are they standing on their own feet enough and all of those questions, but bottom line is that no child should be so poor they can’t eat, because kids have a different set of inherent human rights. It’s not like you can blame them for gambling or drinking away their options. Likewise, they’re not responsible for they parents they were born to. All those nasty means testing social policy arguments should really go out the window right here: the kids should eat.

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Let’s think about putting the rights of children at the heart of the redesign of industrial capitalism which is currently being triggered by the riots in America, the pandemic, and the global financial collapse.

It’s a simple thing: ratify the rights of the child, as beings that have no responsibilities for their living conditions. Create and ratify a duty of care, not just here and now, but also to protect planet for their future sustenance.

Let every child be fed. Let any attempt to interfere in the wellbeing of a child be treated as an act of war against the future of the species.

This is not hard to arrange conceptually: if there’s one thing that we human beings are wired for, it’s protecting our children. If we put this responsibility directly into our political thinking as a primary priority, backed by constitutional-type force, I think amazing things will happen to our world. I believe it’s a feasible cultural and legalistic structure: a Bill of Rights for children.

There is about to be an almighty crash of our old ways of seeing the world, of our old standards and values and methods. We have a chance for a profound rethink.

Nothing is straight, it’s all as crooked as a hawthorn tree.

Civilisation is the pact between adults to make a place to take better care of our children. There isn’t a person on earth that doesn’t want the world to be a better place for their kids. If we get that one thing right, we will with the rest of the fallout and still call our lives a success.

Rather than coming out of our period of crises clinging to the old political solutions as if they might work, we could try something new. We can stop, take a deep breath, and figure out what the rights of the child are and then use that absolutely clear new human rights framework to straighten out the rest of this global mess. You know the soul searching about America’s near miss with insurrection is going to be agonizing. Let’s see if we can’t turn that process to the good, in a profoundly new direction. Kids have Rights. Work out what they are, and the figure out how to enforce them.

Our existing political methods do not work: too shortsighted and too selfish. But we could put the rights of the child on the table as a new set of fundamental human rights, based on the needs of children and their non-responsibility for their own conditions, and our resulting duty of care. Kids are, after all, citizens.

But the children are not responsible for the way things are. We are responsible. We could use an explicit right framework for children as a way of forcing political and cultural change towards a better path human survival right here on this earth. We would have to acknowledge more clearly that children have rights beyond those of adults with self-determination.

I propose this as an alternative to any other pathway towards national and global political change.

It’s obvious that we need to overhaul things at a really fundamental level, and I think this approach opens up radically new moral territory without throwing out any of our pre-existing valuable human rights frameworks. It cuts far deeper into what is wrong with our society than any other approach I have been able to think of.

We can get all sides, black, white, conservative, liberal, around a table to discuss the fundamental rights of their children, and the duty of care that society owes people’s kids. Unpicking the current mess by working through the existing issues will take 40 years. We need a radically new approach to resolving our political differences, and this is it.

“What are the Rights of children?” is a conversation America knows how to have.


Appendix: a brief theory of the rights of the child

Worrying about the rights of children may seem like an odd place to start in a massive racial crisis coupled with an authoritarian power grab. But whatever trouble we face, the most vulnerable among us have it worst, and that is always the children. For all the problems that racism causes, the inability to get a decent education for your kids is one of the most painful for parents. How are we going to ensure that all the kids get a fair deal, not just today, but through the rest of their lives? It’s a better question than “how do we fix racism?” because it gets down to the core issues in a way which avoids the haggling about moral character which tends to pervade conversations about race involving adults. Why are people in the ghettos poor? Tough question. Why are the kids poor? Whatever it is, it’s not their fault, let’s just fix it. This is the direct approach. Same on the environment.

Human rights as they are conventionally constructed apply to adults. Where children are considered in rights frameworks, it is typically as an afterthought. This is a dread error because, in practice, everybody accords children a completely different set of rights to adults. Furthermore, in law (not Constitutional law, but the ordinary statues) children are considered differently in a plethora of ways. But we do not have much of a Constitutional framework for thinking about the rights of children separately from the (much more limited) rights of adults. Adults are able to do more, but they are inherently more responsible for their own actions, and less in need of constitutional protection.

What I’m suggesting is some broad outlines of a revised global constitutional framework around the rights of children. Not a single global law, but a commonly agreed framework that is useful in most places. We have pretty good implementations of the concept of “marriage” in almost all cultures: it’s not like you cross a national border and suddenly you’re no longer married. But it’s not as if marriage was defined by the UN and forced upon everybody either: a broad consensus had emerged.

Something like that, but for the rights of children.

We have, of course, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which is a pretty typical chunk of worthy UN legalese pointed at nation states and their lawyers. This is not what I think we need. What we need is a fit-for-purpose general understanding that we are going to do our agonising reappraisal of what is wrong with our societies which leads to the current horrific mess using the rights of children as a conceptual tool for thinking through what comes next and choosing less evil ways of going forwards. For that we need simple, flexible, clear general principles, not UN legalese.

The analysis of children as a completely separate category of beings from adults, with a fundamentally different set of human rights, seems distinctly under-explored at a philosophical and legal level. But it’s probably the leverage that we need for the stern environmental regulation we are going to need to mend our ways, given that the children will be the ones living in this world the longest.

So let me pull out five principles which I think are useful frameworks for this kind of analysis.

  1. Children are inheritors of a set of global commons, including the atmosphere, the oceans, and humanity’s common knowledge base. Any child has a right to legally claim and defend these global commons which are their birthright.
    this right equally well applies to adults, but given the kids will be around a lot longer than any adult, and that they have no other property, this seems important to establish first.
  2. Children ordinarily have no moral status: they are not good or evil, and their rights and privileges cannot be bound to a concept of moral reward. That is to say, concepts of “deservingness” which are typically applied when considering state aid to adults cannot be applied to children. Children just are.
    This makes children an excellent place to test concepts around basic income, for example. Why would one means-test benefits which flow directly to a child or their guardians?
  3. Children have the right to inherit the basic operating machinery of the world (i.e. the carbon and water cycles) in an operable form.
    Self explanatory. May also apply to disease management in some areas, deforestation and similar geographically-located natural assets are harder to put rights to. This is an extremely powerful principle. It’s slightly different from the “global commons” principle because it’s explicitly about processes, not property. I’ll get further into that distinction in a future piece.
  4. Children have the right not to be constrained by the peculiarities of their culture. They should have the right to make up their own minds about the nature of reality, without constraint of the culture they find themselves in. This is to say, adults should not have the right to impose their beliefs on children by force, coercion, or infliction of ignorance by hiding or forbidding common knowledge.
    Mainly targeted at political and religious indoctrination. Again, extremely powerful.
  5. Children are the fundamental priority of the human species, generation after generation, for millions of years. They should have the right to priority in resource allocation decisions by virtue of the fact that they are helpless to earn their own resources, vote, or otherwise lobby for their own best interests.
    No aircraft carriers get budgeted until the schools are pretty much as good as they can get. Without votes, children’s rights have to be more protected than the rights of adults. They don’t have the same access to legal machinery to pressure government to represent their interests, so their interests have to be enshrined at a deeper level than the rights of adults: constitutionally.

Now, I am not a constitutional scholar. Also I don’t even have kids, which makes it a little easier to be romantic about the little bastards: no parent could write this and not be sentimental about it. What I am is a moral and philosophical pragmatist, and we need a completely new language for political debate if we are going to dig ourselves out of the hole that we have gotten ourselves in here, globally. Everybody knows we are screwing everything up, and most especially, we are stealing the future from our children in so many ways.

Whether it is national debt or climate change, we are piling up unsustainable obligations to the sky knowing that the children will be the taxpayers who pay, and the ones that suffer.

What we need is a movement akin to feminism, but which fights for the rights of the child in and of themselves. I’m not the man to start such a movement (maybe ask Greta Thunberg) but I am very clear that this approach has never been tried, and I think we need a new perspective like this to cut through our tired, sordid old political debates in which limits are set only by a some very old models of human rights, from a time when children were seen and not heard, and often disciplined extremely harshly without a second’s thought.

In short, our global rights frameworks do not adequately protect the rights of the child, and I think a model based on the rights of children would be a thousand times clearer than the SDGs, easier to apply, easier to get engagement with, and cover about half of the same territory the SDG goals do: we need both, but nobody can apply the SDGs to common every-day problem solving.

It’s very hard to get adults to reason properly about the human rights of other adults, because we always tend to say “well, their conditions are their fault.” Lot of black people wind up in jail? “That’s either bad policing, or bad behavior, or both” says the adult analysis. “Lot of black children are getting substandard educations” well, this is clearly not their fault. You can say their parents are responsible, and basically abandon these kids to the mercy of their environment, whatever random spot they were born in, or you can say “the children have fundamental rights as children and these rights require us to act on their behalf as a society” and, for example, really seriously invest in and fix education. You see what I’m saying? We can get leverage on issues like race in America by using the human rights of children, free from moral responsibility for their fates, as a universal standard by which to measure our obligations. The same kind of logic applies to the environment: “is this commons being handed over to the children, its future owners, intact, or is it being degraded in a manner that violates their rights.” That gets you concepts like natural parks protection from fracking etc. very nicely.

In short, making the rights of children fully explicit, and enshrining them in our legal systems may be the shortest path forwards to creating a world in which we, as adults, are also protected. But the children first: none of this is their fault, and they should be protected as best we can.

And a rights framework for children, something simple, reasonably universal, clear and easy to work with is certainly possible. We can do this.

We hold the following to be self-evident, that every man, woman, and child is born with certain inalienable rights…

You’ll have to fill in the rest yourselves. I look forwards to a lively debate.

What should the rights of the child be?


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Vinay Gupta is a technologist and refugee activist who lives in London.

He does not have children.

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