The Tragedy of British Steel

Though not as frightening as climate breakdown, a no-deal Brexit, or T May’s successor, the collapse of British Steel offers an insight into why we are trashing the ecosphere.

The use of the Tragedy of the Commons as a (false) pretext to justify privatization has misled some into missing its real significance.

Humans are the latest species to benefit from mutations which enable them to do what their ancestors could not. Earlier examples were the first amphibians and birds, so that a period of expansion followed whist the new opportunities were exploited to the full.

Due to the exponential principle, this period of opportunity comes to a sudden, unexpected end. (See my weblog Page on the Tragedy). The strategies which have always produced excellent results suddenly begin to do more harm than good. In earlier examples, the existential threat was no wider than the species in question, though they must have survived it somehow as witness their many descendants. But in our case, the entire ecosphere, the thin shell within which life is possible, is in danger.

Despite this, economic growth remains the world-wide orthodox economic strategy. China was late into the rat race, but has pursued it with considerable vigour for several decades. One of the results has been a glut of steel production.  If we (world-wide) were planning for ecological sustainability. steel production would have been limited by agreement some years ago. But as long as someone thinks that a profit can be made, which used to be true when expansion was possible, then the new manufacturing capability goes ahead. This approach is of course not limited to steel production. Not only has China a serious smog problem, think hydraulic fracturing causing methane escapes.

As long as expansion is the normal expectation, competition must also be the norm. In that case, the Tragedy of the Commons dictates that no one can afford to be at a disadvantage. This applies to large corporations, governments and individuals alike.

No doubt the FT and other media outlets will give a more detailed account of British Steel’s demise. The ‘Independent’ link above casts doubt on the role of Greybull, for example. But the need to heed physical limits much sooner than happens under the current arrangements and mind set remains fundamental.

The universal unconditional basic income (UBI) is not a panacea, but it does give every individual a guarantee of security whatever the level of economic activity. At least it would/will, as long as damage to the ecosphere has not gone too far. This will allow individuals to elect governments who propose to give everything its true ecological footprint. This will not immediately bring capitalists to heel, merely trim their profits at first.

It is true that capitalists are the main destroyers of the ecosphere, but they are trapped by the logic of the Tragedy explained above. Only reducing their profits will worry them. But this will happen anyway, either sooner due to governments doing what Greta Thunberg demands, or later, as a terrible accident.

Mind you, the rule that if competition is the norm, no individual can allow themselves to be at a  disadvantage leads to some difficult dilemmas. Protection of the ecosphere requires that world steel production must be reduced. But who should downsize?

I write as the UK’s status in Europe is still not known, For what it is worth, imo, it is important that the UK stays in Europe so that once no growth linked to the UBI underpins EU thinking, it  has the ability to stand up to transnational corporations as these problems are resolved

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