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“What if you’re the people you’ve been waiting for?” – Prof John Barry ‪- Sentientism Ep:202

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism podcast.

John is an activist academic, a green political economist and former Green Party politician in Northern Ireland. He is Professor of Green Political Economy in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. His main research interests span politics, economics, the ethics of sustainability/ sustainable development, green moral and political theory, green political economy, vulnerability, resilience , civic republicanism and green politics, Irish/Northern Irish politics, Q Methodology and sustainable energy politics and policy.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the most important questions: “what’s real?”, “who matters?” and “how can we make a better future?”

Sentientism answers those questions with “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” In addition to the YouTube video above the audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

00:00 Clips!

01:01 Welcome

– “Summer in Ireland… best weekend of the year” 🙂

Zion Lights episode

03:34 John’s Introduction

– Green political economy

– Co-chair the Belfast Climate Commission

– “A recovering politician” led the Green Party of Northern Ireland

– “I’ve always been politically active… I feel compelled… at this moment of crisis… a polycrisis… climate, ecological, social… animal welfare horrors of our current social order”

– “A dissident political economist – I don’t accept either #capitalism or endless economic growth”

– “Our current economic system has now passed its sell-by date… industrialisation, globalism, the horrendous suffering of the more-than-human world”

– Pessimism amongst climate scientists “describing in many respects… an uninhabitable world in the future”

– “We cannot continue in a business as usual manner in the academy while the world is on fire… we need to practice what we teach”

– “This time, not only of crisis… of great opportunity… we can fix so many problems… science… political will… justice focus” (global, inter-generational and inter-species justice and equity)

– “We have all the solutions… What we lack… is the political will and the ethical courage of our convictions”

07:33 What’s Real?

– Growing up in working class Dublin

– “Not just as a lapsed but a completely collapsed #Catholic… I’ve been an #atheist  all my thinking life”

– At ~10yrs old asking “What’s the evidence for this off-world, male, white deity?… Not really finding satisfactory answers from the priest or from teachers.”

– “I do hold some affection for Catholicism…”

– The denial of evolution & #creationism among some Northern Irish Protestants and Evangelicals. Often #climatechange denialism too

– Flaws of Catholicism: abuse of women & children & abuse cover-ups “effectively brought down the church… in Ireland… from its position of power”

– General acceptance of science within Catholicism

– “A form of poetry… religious perspectives as beautiful stories… they’re fairy tales… beautiful but they’re not real… can have certain morality lessons”

– A naturalistic understanding of the world “led me [to]… we’re not just like animals we are animals”

– The importance for human beings of meaning making outside of naturalistic understandings “there is room for certain metaphysical understandings of what makes life meaningful”

– “My own moral compass always has included… parts of the more than human world”

– “I’d probably balk at the inanimate world although I’m open to persuasion… thinking like a mountain… rights of rivers and mountains…”

– “Everyone can have their own opinions – you can’t have your own facts”

– The #Abortion issue in Ireland “I just could not understand… why Ireland… dominated as it was by the Catholic church was content to send often poor women off to England for back-street abortions where many of them died…”

– Being shown pictures of aborted foetuses in University classes by anti-abortion priests and nun lecturers

– “This idea that life begins at conception… I just couldn’t see the evidence for it”

– A feminist analysis: “It seemed the Catholic church was just anti-women”

– “Where’s the female Pope? Where’s the female priests… bishops?”

– “A metaphysical view of the world… causing irreparable harm to people who did not deserve it”

– Emerging class/race awareness “I still describe myself as a bit of a Marxist”

– “Class… gender… race… speciesism… are all intersectionally connected”

– “I was also quite a lippy child”

– “The more educated you become the less likely you are to believe in religion… the more knowledge you have… how can we believe in this stuff… it’s often based on ignorance”

– Parents and peers were moving in the same direction “shedding of the Catholic faith”

– Mother now “absolutely detests the church and regrets how many years of her life she spent in being loyal to it”

– “It was more a curiosity of how many of my fellow citizens were still in hock [to Catholicism]…”

– “There were better stories… you could still keep… the major tenets of Catholicism or Christianity or Judaism or Islam… do unto others… be just, be kind, leave the world a better place… you can do all of those things without a belief in a supernatural deity and these bizarre rules that often these dead white men have bequeathed to society.”

– “Take the good of what religion can offer… but then ditch all this crap which was just harming and no longer useful”

– Andre Gide: “Trust those who search for the truth but doubt those who say they’ve found it”

– Rebelling against dogmatism and certainty… whether in Catholicism, Marxism or elsewhere

– Parallels between Marxism and Christianity “a Christian heresy”?… Eden, the fall, redemption

–  “Redemption… an important element… motivating us to work… redeem our broken world… it’s about trying to despiritualise that religious sense of redemption”

21:50 What Matters?

– “A childlike view of right and wrong… based in harm… how can we go through life without causing harm… minimising the harm”

– Then adding on solidarity, vulnerability, unfairness, inequality…

– Reading JS Mill, Jeremy Bentham then Peter Singer on utilitarianism (Peter Singer Sentientism episode)

– Singer’s essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality

– Extending utilitarianism to other sentient beings “helped give me a philosophical grounding for something I was already uncomfortable about… meat eating”

– Children’s story books “Then suddenly you’re eating Larry the Lamb at the table… we slaughter them”

– Meat vs. flesh and the obfuscations of language “putting a veil over what we’re doing to these creatures”

– “I loved black pudding… I then realised… this is blood pudding… I was appalled”

– “How do you connect consumption with production… therein began an awakening”

– “There’s a reason why abattoirs don’t have glass walls”

– “This is not right… they can feel”

– The virtue of moral agents vs. the experience of moral patients “it’s both”

– Being fascinated by ancient Greek philosophy and virtue ethics

– “Because we live in an uncertain and unknowable world… you need to have dispositions”

– “What are the properties of those who can be harmed?… do they feel pleasure and pain…?”

– Working in McDonalds “being exploited by this horrendous company… the stench of it… I’d already gone vegetarian.”

– Senior management… Curiosity… humour “and then a sense of anger”

– “Part of the induction was to tell us not to join unions… I was brought up in a very strong trade union family”

– Trying to start up a union “all hell broke loose”

– Exploiting workers, exploiting animals, deforestation, preventing collective action… “these are all absolutely interconnected… bolstered my own intersectional sense of justice”

– JW: Should economics be about money/prices/transactions or value (grounded in what sentient beings value) #SentientistEconomics

– Ecology, political economics, green politics

– “There was no separation between ethics, politics and economics”… then capitalism and an importing of engineering and physics into economics “…economics becomes a science. It becomes detached from politics and power, the state, ethics and so on”

– Green political-economist “You cannot divorce economics from ethics… I’ve spent all my academic career railing against it”

– Neo-classical / capitalist economics “They pretend that they’re neutral and objective… it sounds very scientific” but failed to predict the 2007-8 global financial crisis

– “What passes for economics… is only one brand of economics”

– We expect to have different versions of politics so… “why on earth do we think that when it comes to the economy that there’s only one version?”

– Modern economics hasn’t lost its ethical basis “it’s simply hidden it… assumes that human beings are rational, we’re acquisitive, we’re accumulating, we’re like these pleasure machines…”

– “But we’re also co-operative, we also can reach levels of sufficiency where we have enough – we don’t need to consume more and more”

– “There is no value-free understanding of the human economy” but neo-classical economics “pretending to students that it’s value-free and neutral… means that we’re producing every year in higher education thousands and thousands of… technically competent barbarians”

– Energy, resources, land as the roots of our economy. “Neo-classical economics is fundamentally ecologically ignorant and irrational”

– “Ideological… but it hides in plain sight… we have to have GDP growth… nobody stops to ask that child-like question: ‘why do we need endless GDP growth?… are people healthier and happier?’”

– “Part of the armoury for maintaining… an ecocidal and suboptimal capitalist system”

39:54 Who Matters?

– “You’re often as welcome as a fart in a space-suit… when you start questioning [animal agriculture and foods]”

– “It’s a great basis for understanding everything… class, gender, speciesism, our appalling abuse of the more than human world”

– Asking people “Do you know where it came from… are you enjoying its flesh?… there’s something about the word flesh that really riles people up”

– “When you study economics… all that counted was humans… even more narrow… your function as a worker or a consumer… nothing about you being a parent or a footballer or an artist… the more than human world was just reduced to being resources… or a sink… our effluent and pollution”

– “I do try and deprogram my students”

– GDP measuring the value of goods/services circulating: “But what if the goods circulating are actually harmful?”

– “Why isn’t the unpaid work of my mother… why does that not count in GDP?”

– An arbitrary decision re: GDP definition made in the 1930s “they explicitly excluded the unpaid work of women”

– “Ecology is about the economy of nature… a flow of materials… resources… pollution within ecosystems… a metabolic exchange”

– “There’s no waste in nature… we’re [via human economy] building up wastes that cannot be absorbed by the natural world… greenhouse gas emissions… we’re treating the earth’s atmosphere as an open sewer”

– “There’s already an economy in nature… living entities that also labour, they also feel, some of them also have rudimentary senses of ethical action” (see Frans de Waal Sentientism episode)

– “Why do we think that there’s… this strict barrier between humans and non-humans?… we are a special type of creature… but we’re not unique.”

– “I completely abandoned… that strict division… began to see humans and non-human relationships more in terms of kinship”

– “Life predates on life… but we can eat plants as opposed to animals”

– Vegan for 5 years now “I just couldn’t cope with losing cheese and milk… but I overcame them… preferences rather than strict moral principles”

–  “Once you know something… the horror… and it is horror… they know… absolute terror and fear… it’s hard not to know it”

– The child-like response to cognitive dissonance “try to block it out”

– “A lot of people – they feel uncomfortable – they know deep down…”

– “It normally comes down to some bullshit, weak argument… taste… if we weren’t raising them to kill them they wouldn’t exists… I have not come across any credible, strong moral argument for eating the flesh or other products from animals… when we can produce food without engaging in these harm-causing activities”

– JW: Why is human solidarity “so brutally selective”?

– “Talking about reducing suffering… why are we stopping at the species barrier?”

– “The only ethical justifiable position… that we extend solidarity to all living, sentient, feeling entities on the planet”

– The idea that concern for animals will undermine concern for other humans “that’s absolute crap!”

– “Ethical concern is like a muscle… it’s not like we have a limited amount… maybe it’s a mark of a capitalist kind of mindset… budgeting… scarcity”

– “Compassion and care and concern and love… is like a muscle… the more you use it the more you extend it to other entities that are deserving of our moral consideration”

– “Akrasia – a weakness of will”

– “An arbitrariness… an unwillingness to follow the logic of the argument… a sign of moral weakness… or intellectual weakness… you can agree… but you don’t like the conclusion because it would lead to a change in your lifestyle…”

– Talking to religious people about religious values re: intra-human and intra-species ethics

– “The shared exploitation of workers under capitalism… you can extend that to the exploitation of animals”

– “If you’re a Marxist or you’re a socialist and you’re concerned with ending exploitation… why not extend it… end all exploitation… including the non-human world?”

55:43 A Better Future?

– Stances re: climate/environment: tecno-optimism, doomerism, denialism, within current systems… vs. a post-carbon, post-growth, post-capitalist political economy?

– Theory of change “how do you think change happens?”

– “My own view is much more revolutionary… I cannot see any capitalist solution to the climate and ecological crisis”

– “We have to have radical changes… tinkering around will no longer do”

– Doomers / tech optimism “there’s no agency required… one says it’s too late… the other is ‘Elon’s got this’… some tech-bro from California is going to invent some whizz-bang technology – we don’t need to do anything”

– “Educate, agitate, organise” slogan from the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies)

– “Do not believe anything I’ve said… verify, look-up…”

– Malcolm X “We’re not outnumbered, we’re out-organised” vs. fossil fuel / animal agriculture industries, politicians…

– Post growth/capitalism/carbon “should not be seen in a negative sense”

– JW: Fears of “post-growth” that either 1) The poor will have to stay poor; 2) the rich will have to drop to the global average ~$8k/annum average; 3) Radical population reduction

– “I’m always sceptical of the population argument… we do have a population problem… too many fat, white westerners given the disproportionate ecological footprint of those of us who live in the global north”

– “There’s often a dog-whistle racism that goes along with those population arguments – I’m never convinced by those”

– “Post-growth… It is only for the over-developed countries of the global north… we’re living way outside of our fair allocation of the worlds resources and its absorbtative capacity”

– “Post-growth… Is only applicable at the macro-level of the economy… we can have different bits within that economy growing and declining… less nuclear weapons… more kidney dialysis machines… [as long as] we stay within that overall macro-economic stability”

– JW: Plant agriculture could grow radically by displacing animal agriculture. Feed conversion ratios and ~90% input waste

– “From farm to fork our industrial food system is dripping in oil… there’s an energy dimension never mind a land-use issue”

– “A post-growth society is not this ‘back to the caves’ position… let’s shift to more socialised forms of consumption… sharing goods and services… libraries… public transport… laundromats… having our needs met in ways that are much more ecologically and energy and resource efficient… forms of collective provision… transport, healthcare, education…”

– “Never mind the ethical arguments… justice & inclusion & reducing inequality… just functionally it makes sense to share more… recomposing consumption”

– “It’s not about a reduction in our quality of life – we simply find new ways of providing for our quality of life”

– “How can we have high, flourishing lives that minimise and lower our overall environmental and energy impact on the planet. There are ways we can do that…” Technology, plant agriculture, sharing, 15 minute cities, reducing the need to travel

– “The welfare state led the way on this”

– “The Marxist element… We need to not just socialise consumption… we need to democratise production”

– “Why is it democracy ends at the office door… the factory gate… the classroom door?”

– “We profess to live in democracies but for most of our waking lives we live in maybe benign or maybe malign dictatorships”

– Benefits of more active citizenship, autonomy, freedom

– “Democratising workplaces actually reduces ecological and energy footprints – it removes this compulsion to grow”

– “Capitalism is like a bicycle. It either goes and grows or it collapses. It only has two positions”

– “What we need to do… is find a steady state economy. Nothing in nature grows for ever… homeostasis… how can we have a sustainable metabolism?”

Troy Vettese episode re: “Half Earth Socialism”

– “Marx was building on Hegel… the preservative transcendence… how do we preserve what’s best… ditch the stuff we don’t want and then move on”

– “We cannot have a capitalist, free-market solution… we are now in a position of un-economic growth… it’s causing more problems than solutions”

– “Very powerful groups and classes are benefitting from it… but… causing these irreparable ecological problems”

– “Meaningful free time… who wants a 3 day working week?”

– “We are producing less stuff… that’s OK because we’re now producing less stuff rationally in a more collective manner – rather than each of us having to buy a car or a ladder… power drill… how often do we use them – not that much?… tool libraries?… Universal Basic Ladders! 😊”

– “There are ways we can provide for meeting our needs that don’t require endless growth… we’ve seen this during the war… it was a war-time economy… it worked – people in Britain didn’t starve… it was tough… but we have examples where we have organised our society in very different ways”

– “The height of the welfare states in Britain and France… where we had large areas of our lives that were de-commodified… healthcare… university…” transport, energy, food, education, social housing… “these should be certainly outside the market system”

– “Things like underwear… electronic goods… fill your boots with a capitalist organisation of those things… but the really important things that matter for people we have to take out of that capitalist compulsion in terms of profit making and commodification”

– Walmart is the world’s biggest corporation “it is organised internally in a non-market form… in a planned way… If Walmart can do it… are we really seriously saying we cannot use some of those methods?… If Walmart can have a planned economy then why can’t we have it?”

– Might we look back on capitalism as “a phase… maybe the adolescent phase… individualistic, selfish… then move on to something different?”

– “This is about creating a better world for people… more meaningful free time… decent schools… clean air… a more rational way of meeting our food needs that doesn’t cause horrendous suffering for animals or indeed for workers”

– “Often people are ‘small c conservative’… the scale of the changes I’m proposing seem so utopian… [but envisioning this future] it’s like getting a postcard from a beautiful holiday destination – why can’t we have this?”

– “It’s all perfectly possible… we have all the technologies that we need. But we do need political will”

– Fridays for the Future. Trade Unions getting behind the environmental movement… “It’s growing but we’re not there yet”

– JW: Is capitalism best at meeting immediate, shallow, individual needs – and generating them (vs. our longer-term, more fundamental, collective needs)

– “It has to be around abundance… there is no limit to the immaterial desires and pleasures of human beings… our capacity to learn and to love and to be curious about the world.”

– “Many of us are essentially time poor… modern capitalism… has effectively led to less workers working more rather than more workers working less… that’s the vision I think a lot of people could get behind… economic security guaranteed… more staycations…”

– “Not the abundance we have under capitalism… earn loads of money then ‘Buying shit you don’t need to impress people you don’t care about’ [Fight Club]”

– The neo-classical economics “fiction of… endogenous preferences… human beings themselves are desiring these things – if that’s the case why do we have a multi-million dollar industry in advertising and marketing… there is no consumer sovereignty in that system”

– Devolution and localisation rather than centralisation

– “More time… less stressful… less harried… yes it’ll be very different”

– “Green politics… this wonderful fusion… a complementarity between ethics and science… this double benefit of a science based rational organisation of society… that also delivers… good ethical outcomes in terms of justice, equality, inclusion and solidarity”

– “Questioning things like GDP. Does your heart sing when a BBC report… talks about ‘British GDP is up’… that has not made a material difference to most people’s lives”

– “For most ordinary people what they want are good jobs, well paid jobs, decent public services… the chance of a pension… rest and an 8-hour day… things that the trade union movement have struggled with for decades”

– “We need a working class or popular view of economics… [and] how do we democratise the language” and involving people

– “For a lot of people there’s a sense that the current system we have is ending… like a degenerative disease… people are up for the type of radical discussions that we’ve been having…”

– “Radical means getting to the root… root causes… speciesism, anthropocentrism, capitalism, carbon energy and economic growth… and all those things are connected.”

– “What if you’re the people you’ve been waiting for?… there is no tech-bro coming to save us… I don’t think the state itself as its currently configured is going to save us… we’re the only ones that are going to save each other… we are looking at the end of the world as we know it… not the end of the world just the end of the world as we know it.”

01:27:03 Follow John:

@ProfJohnBarry

John on LinkedIn “I like subverting LinkedIn – there’s far too many shiny, happy business-type people”

John’s MarxistLentilist Blog

John on Academia.edu

John at Queens University Belfast

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at Sentientism.info.

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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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