Think of Boston, not Berlin

Ireland is second only to Greece in terms of the scale and speed of health cutbacks undertaken by “developed” countries.

One hundred years ago this month, an inspiring revolt kicked off in Dublin. After tram workers in the city centre demanded a pay rise, the industrialist William Martin Murphy locked out trade union members from their jobs. The dispute that ensued caught the attention of socialists in many countries. Vladimir Lenin praised the “seething Irish energy” of the union leader Jim Larkin.
 
On a recent trip home (I’m a Dubliner living in Belgium), I heard several radio interviews with representatives of the Irish Labour Party. Though Larkin was a founder of that party, its present-day grandees dance to Murphy’s tune. One of them, Ruairi Quinn, is now the country’s education minister; he has been boasting about how the school curriculum has been revamped at the behest of major companies.
 
The Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec) wants science and maths to be given greater priority at secondary level and more courses with an “explicit focus on enterprise” in higher education. Ibec’s objective here is to achieve a “well-skilled and flexible labour force”. Part of the flexibility being championed is that companies don’t have to recognise unions. The industrialists of 2013 insist they should still be able to lock out recalcitrant workers.
 
Labour is the junior partner in a coalition government with the centre-right Fine Gael. Known colloquially as the “Blueshirts” because of the party’s historical ties to fascists who aided Francisco Franco during the Spanish civil war, Fine Gael fought the February 2011 election on a pledge to “burn the bondholders”. Lenders to Anglo Irish Bank, a feckless institution that almost capsized the economy, would not be repaid, according to the party’s manifesto.
 
The promised incineration has not materialised. Ireland’s real masters – officials at the European Commission – told Fine Gael and Labour before the election that satisfying such creditors as Deutsche Asset Management and BNP Paribas was non-negotiable.
 
Hospitals have been forced to pay Anglo’s gambling debts. Ireland is second only to Greece in terms of the scale and speed of health cutbacks undertaken by “developed” countries. The Health Service Executive, which runs Ireland’s medical services, has had its budget cut by €3bn since 2008. The Irish Times has reported that the reductions are making it difficult to comply with standards for childcare and cancer treatment.
 
A bizarre twist to this sorry saga is that Ireland’s government is committed to introducing a universal health insurance scheme. How can this be achieved at a time of austerity? The details remain fuzzy but the overriding goal is clear: the private insurance industry will be put in charge of the scheme.
 
Mary Harney, the health minister between 2004 and 2011, once claimed that Ireland was “closer to Boston than Berlin”. The current “reforms” reflect that spirit. It is instructive that Alain Enthoven, an American free-market economist, also advocates that Ireland adopt universal health insurance with private firms in the driving seat. In his view, medical care is “a kind of luxury good”. Dublin is toying with ideas from a man who compares life-saving operations to Fabergé eggs.
 
I love going home to Ireland. However, when I think about the regressive measures being implemented in my country, it is impossible not to leave with a sense of despair.
 
David Cronin is the author of “Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War” (Pluto Press, £17.99) 
People make their way across a bridge over the river Liffey in central Dublin. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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