Show Hide image

In this week's magazine | Who owns the future?

A first look at this week's issue.

Yuval Harari, bestselling author of Sapiens: who owns the future? An essay on how the Silicon Valley prophets have taken over from politicians as the leaders of the world.

Craig Raine: how my “Gatwick” poem caused a Twitter storm.

Novelist John King: the left-wing case for leaving the EU.

Tim Farron interview: out of the wilderness, why I want to take on the toughest job in politics.

Jon Holmes, Gary Lineker’s agent: Before celebrating the fall of Sepp Blatter, English football should get its own house in order.

George Eaton asks whether Labour can avoid George Osborne’s austerity trap.

The Leader: The Europe Question and the NS’s endorsement for the Lib Dem leadership.

Xan Rice looks at the growing pay gap between chief executives and the rest of the workforce.

 

Who owns the future?

Yuval Harari notes that we live in an era when politics is “bereft of grand visions”, despite having more tools than ever to shape the future of humanity:

Whereas the Nazis sought to create superhumans through selective breeding, we now have an increasing arsenal of bioengineering tools at our disposal. These could be used to redesign the shapes, abilities and even desires of human beings, so as to fulfil this or that political ideal. Bioengineering starts with the understanding that we are far from realising the full potential of organic bodies. For four billion years natural selection has been tinkering and tweaking with these bodies, so that we have gone from amoebae to reptiles to mammals to Homo sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that sapiens is the last station. Relatively small changes in the genome, the neural system and the skeleton were enough to upgrade Homo erectus – who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives – to Homo sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers. Who knows what the outcome of a few more changes to our genome, neural system and skeleton might be? Bioengineering is not going to wait patiently for natural selection to work its magic. Instead, bioengineers will take the old sapiens body and ­intentionally rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance and grow entirely new body parts.

Harari writes that “present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago”. Instead, “business entrepreneurs and corporations” are the entities considering how technological developments will shape the future.

Harari concludes:

This should concern all of us. It is dangerous to mix godlike technology with megalomaniac politics but it might be even more dangerous to blend godlike technology with myopic politics. Our politics is becoming mere administration and is giving up on the future exactly when technology gives us the power to reshape that future beyond our wildest dreams. Indeed, technology gives us the power to start reshaping even our dreams. If politicians don’t want the job of planning this future, they will merely be handing it on a platter to somebody else. In consequence, the most important decisions in the history of life might be taken by a tiny group of engineers and businesspeople, while politicians are busy arguing about immigration quotas and the euro.

 

 

A very corporate coup

In the first part of a new series on the Europe Question, John King makes a left-wing case for leaving the EU. He begins by exploring the extent to which the British public feel hostile towards our current EU membership:

Despite the denials by our political and media elite, the most important issue of the 2015 election was Britain’s membership of the European Union. Nearly four million votes went to Ukip, a party that has been consistently abused and dismissed by our controllers, with much of that support coming from former Labour voters, while big numbers of people backed the little-loved Conservatives.

Both parties offered referendums on Britain leaving the EU – Ukip powerfully, the Tories reluctantly. It is not hard to work out why they did so well, yet there is still little acknowledgement of this fact from the establishment. An arrogant refusal to listen to the public has left Labour and the Liberal Democrats in tatters. Nick Clegg could moan about “identity” politics in the election’s aftermath, but this matters to the majority of people.

King writes an anti-EU position is seen as inexorably right-wing, something he dismisses as “bubblegum politics”. He writes that many form their pro-EU stance based simply on this association:

Backing the EU because the Tories are supposedly against it is pathetic. The EU is not a party issue. It is much more important.

Considering the myriad ways in which he feels the EU to be harmful to the UK, King concludes:

The EU offers us little. It costs billions to belong to a club that interferes in our affairs and has created needless divisions, one that will ultimately lead to our removal from the map. If a European superstate is achieved, the resentment and anger will flow through the centuries to come, creating resistance movements right across the continent.

Leaving the EU would save Britain money that could (in the right hands) be ploughed back into the public sector to safeguard jobs and services. And yet, nearly every mainstream politician lifts his nose in the air and turns away, embarrassed at ideas he considers crass. Across the world people are fighting to be more independent, not less so. They crave democracy and accountability, want to see their identities and cultures live on. The European Union is not new and it is not progressive, its trail winding back to the Roman empire. Britain needs to look to the future.

 

Tim Farron: Escape from the wilderness

George Eaton speaks to Tim Farron about the hardest job in politics, Lib Dem leader.

On coalition:

 “I would not sign off any agreement with any of the other parties that did not entail [electoral reform], end of story. Massive, massive red line, don’t even pick up the phone.”

On his competitors for party leader:

“Who can they [Lib Dems] see inspiring the people who are not yet members of the party and who didn’t vote for us this time round to change their minds next time?

“We need to have a voice that is a lot clearer and a lot louder to compensate for our size being smaller and I think I’m the person who’s the campaigner and the communicator who can do that.”

On his policy priorities:

He names housing, the environment and civil liberties as his priorities and declares his opposition to fracking (“It’s another fossil fuel”) and the like-for-like replacement of Trident (“It’s an act of aggression and will be seen as so by a global community that’s looking for people to disarm, not rearm to the max”).

On Charles Kennedy:

What Charles Kennedy is, is living proof that the good guys can be effective. We’ve just gone through an election where the bad guys were effective . . . Charles is proof that you can be human, you can be rigidly principled to a degree, thoroughly principled, and effective and win elections – and that’s a model I’d love us to follow.

 

Jon Holmes: Before celebrating the fall of Fifa’s Sepp Blatter, English football should get its own house in order

Jon Holmes writes that England shouldn’t feel smug about the fall of Blatter:

For all their righteous indignation about Fifa’s misdeeds under Blatter, the English football authorities were willing participants in the circus, bidding with the triple might of the nation’s royalty, David Beckham and the West Ham- (sorry, Aston Villa)-supporting Prime Minister for the right to stage the game’s premier international contest.

[...]

A transparent and much-reformed Fifa can be a force for good in world football, but if England and the UK are to play a part, then first they have to put their own house in order. Without proper powers and authority given to its governing bodies, without its own government representation at cabinet level, this cannot be. For too long a minister for sport has been a joke appointment, outside the cabinet. The Premier League, with its billions and billionaires, should not exist above the rule of law. Only when it is properly regulated and accountable to those who empower it – the billions of people who ­follow their clubs with cash and devotion – can we truly start to play a meaningful role in the rebuilding process.

 

Plus

Sophie McBain asks, can we survive the information assault of the digital age?

Michael Holroyd: Bernard Shaw, Nietzsche and the cult of the Superman.

Martin Fletcher explores the history and work of the Salvation Army on its 150th anniversary.

Mark Cocker: how much do the new nature writers actually care about nature?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496