David Boyle

Newsletter spring 2009


One of the problems with world crises is that the chattering classes are often wrong about them at the time. The outbreak of war in 1914 unleashed a wave of unpleasant jingoism among the self-proclaimed radicals. In the 1930s, there was a widely-held view that democracy itself was staggering into oblivion, consigned to the dustbin of history by the sheer efficiency of totalitarianism.

Perhaps that wasn’t so surprising, given that Karl Popper was only then writing his book The Open Society and its Enemies which argued that totalitarianism was always hideously inefficient, and so it proved.

So I have been wondering how history will perceive the hideous mistakes of our own chatterers about our own crisis, and all I had to do in the end was turn on the BBC.

It revealed clear evidence that progressive opinion has now swallowed whole the PR spin being offered by two groups of powerful international companies, the nuclear industry and the agro-business industry. Just when we most need radical new decentralised thinking, our own concerned classes are buying into the blandishments of a handful of monopolistic monoliths.

The nuclear industry seems to have successfully portrayed itself as potential saviours of the world from global warming, but there is every reason to expect another journey through the 1970s – billions wasted, renewables starved of funding and the global proliferation of plutonium.

Plus, of course, a return to centralised technocratic energy, when what we so badly need is decentralised generation, which is cheaper, more resilient and a very great deal safer.

That much is pretty familiar. But the GM food lobby has managed to pull a similar trick, persuading progressives that they have the potential to solve the world’s food problems.

In fact, the major foothold that Monsanto and their handful of competitors now have on the global food market has been used to change the law to criminalise small farmers who still use the traditional methods of seed saving. Seed contamination is now considered ‘counterfeiting’ unless farmers can prove otherwise.

The main engines for GM, Bt cotton and hybrid rice, have plunged many small farmers using them into debt, because their yields have not justified the loans required to buy them, and in practice they have often needed considerably more inputs than for traditional seeds. GM seeds lie behind the terrifying stories of the tens of thousands of small farmers who have committed suicide in India.

The project to dominate the world’s food market is about undermining genetic diversity, re-introducing the Terminator technology to make seed-saving impossible – under the guise of a safety feature to prevent contamination – and offering these seeds cheaply at first until their hold on the market is stronger.

These are terrifying new twists in global centralisation. They are the energy and food equivalents of the mistakes that led to the banking crisis. Any localism worthy of the name must tackle the growing power of corporate monopoly.

Local energy, and local food production, is safer, more energetic, more diverse, more resilient and more innovative when it is done by millions of ordinary people – small companies, small farms – than when the decisions are taken by the boards of a handful of multinationals.

New kinds of money

The global financial crisis has brought the idea of complementary currencies back onto the agenda, if not yet the mainstream. The result is that I find myself interviewed most weeks on the subject, and in particular whether they can provide the kind of local lending infrastructure that the big banks have abandoned. My Today programme interview followed this article in the Daily Telegraph.

New kinds of banking

My new economics foundation colleague Lindsay Mackie has pulled together a powerful coalition to call for a new kind of bank, based in post offices, to tackle the gaping hole left behind by the big banks when they withdrew from the real economy. It now has all-party support.

Fabians under the bed

The launch of the new Social Liberal Forum moved me to start a debate about what direction the Lib Dem left ought to move in – and whether it could shake off the old Fabian assumptions about taxing and spending as the sole solution to inequality. I can’t say the debate has actually set the world on fire, but it’s there...

Fairies at the bottom of the garden

Yes, something in the prevailing culture has made fairies increasingly popular again – as the antidote to Heathrow, Tesco and the grim utilitarianism of the present government. I am all in favour of this: see my article on the subject in the French horticulture magazine Bloom.

Iatrogenic disease

Iatrogenic disease was a term coined by Ivan Illich in his attack on the medical profession, meaning sickness caused by doctors. We now need a similar term to mean, not just bankruptcy caused by bankers – but local collapse caused by regenerators. See my column on the subject in Town & Country Planning magazine.

Back to top


title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers