Increasing global consumption

Global consumption figures have quadrupled since the 1970s: global population figures have doubled in that time, but the average amount of materials consumed per person has doubled.

The annual consumption of material goods now stands at over 100 billion tonnes per year, according to a recent report by the Circle Economy think tank, using data from 2017, the latest year for which data is available.

Breakdown of materials consumed by humanity:

  • 50% –  sand, clay, gravel and cement, used for building
  • 15% – coal, gas, oil
  • 10% – metal ores
  • Most of the remainder – plants and trees used for food and fuel.

Recycling in Decline…

According to more recent trends, the proportion of materials being recycled is actually falling slightly – down from 9.1% in 2015 to 8.6% in 2017.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is most relevant to the Global Development option

This 50-year increase in consumption is mainly due to rapid economic development in the most populous countries on earth, namely China and India. As these countries develop, so governments, companies and people spend more money on buildings, transport and consumer goods.

These figures remind us of the fact that western models of development rely on increasing consumption of a range of natural resources, and our level of consumption is increasing.

It’s difficult to see how this mode of development can continue for much longer – given that there is already intense pressure on the Earth’s natural resources – not only in form of deforestation and desertification, but also in the simple fact that some resources, such as certain metal ores, are scarce, which means they could be the source of conflict in future years, or at the very least price rises, all of which could make sustained economic growth and development challenging to say the least!

Sociological Perspectives on the Coronavirus

The UK government today declared that the Coronavirus was a ‘serious and imminent threat to public health‘.

This certainly seems to be justified as the number of UK confirmed cases has recently doubled from 4 to 8, and the virus does seem to spreading in South East Asia and beyond.

There’s no doubt this virus is very contagious and the consequences of catching this virus are severe

Based on it’s R0 score (interesting article that, and worth a read!) scientists believe this viurs is more infectious that SARS or Ebola, so there is a high risk of catching it if you come into contact with someone whose got it.

And given the death toll is now approaching 1000, out of 40000 confirmed cases, the stats suggest that you’ve got a a 1/ 4o chance of dying from it, a chance I wouldn’t like to take!

Measures of control as a response

You’ve no doubt heard of the Chinese authorities putting Wuhan in lock-down, and borders being closed, and people being placed in quarantine on return from China to the UK.

All of this is a great example of the continued power of the Nation State to control people’s lives in response to ‘risks to public health’.

A global threat

It’s obvious by now that this is a global threat with global consequences, especially as people are stopped from moving between countries, as are goods, which means there are possibly sever health and economic consequences.

Apparently it’s having a very negative effect on the global education market, the Chinese are big consumers of education, especially in the UK!

Social media, uncertainty, misinformation and fear

This article in the conversation reports on how rumors about the virus have spread, even in China where there are penalties for reposting non-official content about the virus.

But then there’s the fact that we know we can’t trust the Chinese authorities reports on how many people have contracted the virus – it was the Wuhan province authority underplaying the extent of the virus in the first place which led to its rapid spread.

So despite its very ‘real’ nature, the lack of certainty surrounding its spread of tmakes the Coronavirus a very post-modern phenomenon.

Coronavirus – like the Borg but worse, apparently!

The World Health Organisation is meeting today to decide whether the Coronavirus constitutes an international global health emergency.

The first human case of the virus was found in the Chinese city of Wuhan, but it has since spread beyond into other parts of China and internationally to other countries such as South Korea and Japan.

I listed to an interesting item this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme which featured an interview with David Quammen, the author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.

Quammen says that the characteristics of this latest virus were predicted by the various health experts he spoke to when he wrote his book, which was 10 years ago. The experts he spoke to said the next major Pandemic would probably have the following features:

  • It would be a single strain RNA virus
  • It would probably come from the Corona family
  • It would be spread through respiratory transmission
  • And possibly from a live market in China

The problem with the single strand RNA virus is that they make a lot of mistakes, they don’t copy directly, the evolve and adapt, which means when the virus transmits from an animal to a human, it can adapt so that it can replicate and then transmit between humans.

NB – that’s the bit that reminded me of The Borg (from Star Trek) – they adapt to Phaser attacks, rendering further attacks impotent – just like the Coronavirus might adapt to treatments in the future, except that virus works inside humans, which kind of makes it more terrifying!

It is also a possibility that it can become more harmful when it mutates, however it could become less harmful – we just don’t know, there is a lot uncertainty.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is a great example of how we live in a Risk Society – we simply don’t know what the consequences of this virus will be, so we have to put in place extreme measures to deal with it – The Chinese Authorities have put Wuhan into lock-down, shutting transport hubs for example.

It also reminds us about how global problems transcend national boarders – the virus has already spread to other countries, and the World Health Organisation is coordinating a global response.

However, it also maybe reminds us of the importance of the Nation State for dealing with a crisis like this – it’s difficult to see how an effective strategy to stop the spread of the virus could work without a massive power like the Nation State putting in place measures of control.

A useful Documentary illustrating Globalization – Mediterranean with Simon Reeve

This is a great resource for teaching some of the content of the global development module within A-level sociology. 

I caught the final episode of the BBC’s Mediterranean with Simon Reeve on Sunday night, and I ended up watching the whole thing! It may only be in the Med, which is relatively local to the UK, but nonetheless this final episode is so useful for illustrating many aspects of globalisation.

mediterranean globalisation.PNG

In retrospect I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised at this: the Med is the boarder between Europe, the Middle East and Africa after all, so it spans three very different regions in the world.

The documentary series is available on iplayer for the next 8 months, so you can use it for teaching globalisation for almost the entire 2019-20 academic year.

I can’t speak for other three episodes, but the final one alone covers the following, mainly focusing on migration and environmental problems in the Med.

  • How over-fishing has led to the declining viability of fishing for a living in Tunisia and how this is making fishermen turn to people smuggling (destination Europe) instead.
  • The brutality of detainment centres in Tunisia – in which illegal migrants, mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa are kept and effectively work as slaves.
  • The hundreds of square miles of plastic covered farms in Southern Spain which grow year round salad veg, much of which we eat in the UK.
  • The plight of the workers (often illegal migrants) who work in said salad farms.
  • The fact that much of the plastic waste from said farms ends up in tiny shreds in the Med and in our food chain.

Simon Reeves also visits Monaco, the world’s most expensive place, and comments that it’s a sunny place for shady people. He doesn’t seem too impressed by this tax haven for the undeserving privileged having spent the previous month touring around some of the less advantaged places in neighbouring countries.

Anyway, it’s a great documentary: very sociological!

 

The challenges of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Ebola recently resurfaced in Democratic Republic of Congo, and has now infected more than 2500 people in the Eastern part of the country, near the border with Uganda.

ebola congo 2019.PNG

Ebola is one of the world’s most infectious and deadliest diseases: as of 22nd July 2019 the World Health Organisation reported 2503 cases in this latest outbreak, with 1764 deaths. (Source: Relief Web).

The World Health Organisation first declared an Ebola outbreak in the DRC in August 2018, but the number of cases have increased dramatically since Spring of 2019. This is now the second largest Ebola outbreak after the 2014-16 epidemic in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, which killed 11, 300.

Health workers have a new vaccine which appears to work to deploy to help keep the disease under control but they face the following barriers to treating people:

  1. There is ongoing conflict in Eastern DRC. This extends to attacks on health care facilities – there have been around 200 such attacks reported which have killed 5 people.
  2. Local people are being displaced as a result of the conflict – at least 300 000 so far, and some of these are heading across the border to Uganda, where there have been some reported cases of Ebola.
  3. There is a local rumor that aid workers are actually infecting people with Ebola because they are ‘paid by the corpse’ – and in a country mired by corruption and conflict, I guess this sounds plausible.

It remains to be seen whether the Ebola outbreak can be kept under control: the ongoing conflict and local suspicions are certainly going to hamper efforts, and it seems aid agencies are going to have to spend a lot of time working with locals and building trust in order to keep things under control!

Relevance to A-level Sociology 

This recent tragedy should be of interest to any students studying the Global Development module in A-level sociology. The case of Ebola in the DRC illustrates the relationship between conflict and health problems and it also shows some of the local challenges Aid agencies face when trying to deliver emergency aid.

Additional Sources 

The Week, 29 June 2019

The UK – a world leader in renewable energy generation…

The UK is generating more energy from zero carbon sources than from fossil fuels for the first time since the industrial revolution, the National Grid announced recently.

Gas and coal generated 46.7% of Britain’s power in the year to the end of May, while zero carbon sources generated 47.9%. The rest came from biomass.

A decade ago coal plants generated almost a third of the UK’s electricity. Now there are only 7 left, two of which are going to close in the near future.

Energy from renewables has risen from 2% in 2009 to almost 25% with most coming from wind (18.8%).

renewable energy.png

What’s the relevance of this to A-level sociology?

For anyone studying the module in Global Development, this is a great counter trend to the doom and gloom of the ‘environmental decline’ we see in so many parts of the world.

It might also be a sign of a new value consensus emerging about the ‘right way’ to generate energy? At least at the level of the UK.

However, I guess we shouldn’t overstate the importance of this, the UK is only home to >1% of the global population after all!

Sources

The Week, 6th July 2019

 

Global Justice Now – A Useful Example of an NGO

Global Justice Now is a decentralized democratic global social movement which aims to challenge the powerful and create a more equal and just world.

It’s a great example of a small, politically oriented NGO (Non-governmental organisation) so makes a great study for that part of the Global Development module within A-level sociology.

Some of their current main campaigns include focusing on promoting Fair Trade that works for people and planet and the Freedom of movement for people (pro migration).

They have a strong anti-Corporate and anti-Trump agenda.

They organize several activities every year to highlight global social justice issues, which typically involve small protests and handing petitions to ministers expressing concern about generally neo-liberal policies.

They also produce a magazine full of leftist articles focusing on fair trade and the global south and organize occasional meetings around global social justice issues.

One of things to be critical of is how effective (or ineffective) this organisation is their budget is only £1.5 million a year, which is less than the annual salaries of most of the CEOs of the companies they criticise!

Still, it’s a good NGO case study and useful source of information to keep you up to date with global justice issues.

 

China – The World’s Biggest Tech Thief?

Chinese theft of intellectual property from other countries (mainly the US and those in the EU) represents the greatest transfer of wealth in history according to Keith B Alexander, former director of the US National Security Agency.

intellectual property includes such things as patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets and software, and China has a long history of stealing such things ever since it opened up its economy to foreign trade in the late 1970s. China has long been known as the country of origin for counterfeit DVDs (among other products), but more recently one its largest tech firms, the phone manufacturer Huwai was accussed of encouraging employees with bonuses for gathering confidential information from competitors.

To give you an idea of the scale of this, The United States estimated in 2017 that Chinese theft of American intellectual property costs between $225bn and $600bn annually,

The type of information stolen covers a huge range of sectors: everything from the designs for wind turbines to cars, medical devices and computer chips. In one infamous case, Germany’s Siemens introduced the high-speed train to China only to find that subsequent extensions of the system were manufactured by its Chinese partner, China National Railway Corporation, which had developed similar technology suspiciously quickly.

How has China managed this?

Back in day China was more likely to engage in full on cyber-espionage, but more recently it has developed a set of policies which forces foreign multinationals working in China to divulge secrets while they are forbidden similar access to Chinese companies’ information.

Technically this is against WTO rules, but it seems that China, being a ‘big player’ on the international scene can get away with this.

Relevance to A-level sociology 

This is a great example of a ‘state crime’ – state sponsored theft of intellectual property, and it’s a great example of a crime that up until this point has gone unpunished!

It also reminds us that where globalisation is concerned, there is no such thing as genuine free-trade, it’s only as free as the large nation states allow it to be.

NB – as a final note, Chinese intellectual property theft might be a thing of a past, China has invested so much in skilling its population up in technology that it is likely to become a cutting edge tech innovator in its own right in the not too distant future!

Would would falling back on WTO rules mean for Britain?

If the UK leaves the EU with ‘no deal’, it will fall back on World Trade Organisation Rules, but what does this mean?

The WTO and Free Trade 

The WTO was founded in 1995 and sets the rule book by which global trade takes place.

One of the main things it has done over the past two decades is to reduce tariffs (basically taxes) levied by governments on imports and exports, and to promote a free-trade agenda.

In 1947, the average external tariff charged by GATT (the predecessor of the WTO) signatories was 22%, which was a massive disincentive to trade, by 1999 it was down to 5%, and today the weighted average tariff charged by the US and EU is 1.6%.

Over the same period, there has been a massive increase in world trade: In the 1950s international trade accounted for 8% of the world economy, today it accounts for 30% of a much bigger global economy.

The Limitations of the WTO

Recently, the WTO’s trade liberalisation has stalled, and most of the progress countries have made in reducing barriers to trade have been through regional and bilateral trade agreements. The European Union is a principle example of this: UK companies pay no tariffs on exports to Europe or imports from Europe, which makes trade easy.

If we were to fall back on WTO trade rules, there are some economic areas which still have very high tariffs – cars and car parts would face a 10% tariff every time they crossed a boarder (making BMWs a LOT more expensive! given international supply chains) and agricultural tariffs stand at 35%.

The latest Treasury forecast predicts that the UK economy would be 9.3% smaller in 15 years if we exited the EU under WTO rules.

Isn’t this just all part of ‘project fear’?

Of course Brexiteers argue that we could forge new bilateral and multilateral trade agreements once we leave the EU, but most estimates suggest that a no deal WTO fall-back Brexit would be detrimental to the UK economy.

However, what all of the above suggests is maybe that ‘globalisation’ isn’t so good for world trade anymore…. maybe it’s too difficult to sort out genuinely mutually beneficial trade agreements between all 160 odd member states of the WTO.

Instead it seems that regional agreements are much more important for economic growth – it makes sense that it’s easier to get a deal between a dozen local countries rather than ten times that number after all.

To my mind it seems unlikely that we’re going to be able to negotiate dozens of little deals with specific countries that outweigh the benefits of being part of a massive trading block like the EU!

Sources:

The Week, 26 January.

 

More Neoliberalism – Brazil’s shift to the right

The extreme right wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro was recently declared as Brazil’s president – he’s anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and anti-environment, and yet the public voted him in to take office from January 2019.

neoliberal brazil.jpg

He’s also strong on law and order: he’s praised former Brazilian dictatorships which used torture, among other tactics as a means of social control, and he’s promised to outlaw protest and op positional social movements.

Given that Brazil is the fourth largest democracy in the world, and one of the BRIC nations, this is quite significant in terms of global politics – it probably means that Brazil will be opened up for even more deregulated trade, while the poor who suffer the consequences of this will be disciplined more harshly by the state’s security forces.

In short, this is the most significant global shift towards more repressive neoliberal politics since Trump’s election. It’s something worth keeping an eye on!

This comment piece by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian is worth a read (it’s short) – it  blames this shift to the right on the failure of a corrupt left-wing government in Brazil to effectively maintain social order, and he also blames social media – which becomes an echo chamber for far right scapegoating and polarises public opinion.

With this shift to the right, it seems that global consensus politics has become even less likely!