On asking the right questions

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being

It is not, I suppose, controversial to suggest that many people these days are confused about a lot of things. I know I am. Sometimes, though, this confusion is brought about by trying to answer the wrong question.

The question might be a valid one in itself, just asked at the wrong time. For example, when the Titanic struck the iceberg, the wrong question to ask – although it was much debated subsequently – was: “Whose fault is it?” Far more constructive would have been to ask: “How do we get everyone off the ship and into the lifeboats?” – a question which was not answered very well at the time. (“Whose fault is it?” is always a popular question, as I discussed recently.)

Sometimes, however, the question itself obscures the nature of the problem. Here you are, at the bottom of a deep hole, digging away. An unhelpful question might be: “Should I be using a sharper spade?” Whereas the obvious question is: “What will happen if I just keep digging?” Asking that question gives you the option to stop digging altogether. After all, what is your underlying problem? Could it be the fact that you’re at the bottom of a deep hole?

Here is a question many people are asking right now, in various guises:

How are we going to keep on doing business as usual?

I don’t happen to think this is a useful question to ask, because the underlying reality is that we are not. More to the point, attempts to answer it give rise to things that look like solutions but aren’t:

  • How can we have cars? We have cars, therefore there must always be cars; we can’t fuel them using hydrocarbons (that’s screwing up the climate, not to mention that they’re running out/getting too expensive), so the answer must be electric cars. Except it isn’t.
  • How can we have all the electricity we want? We have electricity, therefore there must always be electricity (especially if we’re all going to drive electric cars); we can’t rely on hydrocarbons (they’re running out/getting too expensive, remember?), so the answer must be renewable energy – which isn’t actually practical – or the answer must be nuclear fusion – except we can’t get it to work – or the answer must be nuclear fission, even though it costs a huge amount, we don’t know how to deal with the waste products, and it also depends on another non-renewable resource, uranium. (Nor is that uranium mined and refined by magic pixies; that process requires further energy.)
  • How can we have jobs? Because jobs are a good thing, right? Or at least they are the only way that most of us know how to make a living, so we have to have lots of those.
  • How can we maximise corporate earnings? Because corporations are people, except that somehow they seem to matter more than people do, let alone the natural communities that we don’t count as people (even though they make it possible for us to live, which is more than most corporations do). I don’t think this is a fruitful avenue of enquiry, if only because corporations have done a great deal more damage to the world than any actual people have ever managed in human history.
  • How can we grow the economy? This is mostly the same as the previous question, although it is usually dressed up to look like the one about jobs. The answer is the same: we can’t. Not even if we fiddle about with the accounting rules to make it look as it we can. As Kenneth Boulding is supposed to have said: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.”
  • How can we feed ten billion people? I’m by no means sure the human population will grow to this figure, but it’s an assumption people often make, so let’s go with it. We could start off by distributing the food we grow now in a more equitable manner (unlikely; see the point about corporate earnings), but ultimately, in the total absence of electrically-powered agricultural machinery (point 1), sufficient electricity to power them if they existed (point 2), and the many agricultural inputs (fertiliser, pesticides) which we derive from hydrocarbons (did I mention those are running out/getting too expensive?), that may not be a viable option in the long term. I’m not saying this question has no good answer, but it won’t be one from the usual menu of solutions. (AI! Drones! GM crops! Robots! Um… hope?)
  • How can we stop disrupting the climate? The flippant answer is to invent time travel, go back at least fifty years, and stop doing all that stuff that caused the damage whose effects we are seeing now. The non-flippant answer is to stop causing even more damage, which sadly is not compatible with economic growth, maximising corporate earnings, or the rest of business as usual. (Accounting tricks like carbon credits won’t help here either.) But sadly an awful lot of the damage is already a done deal, and carbon capture and storage won’t fix it. Using the soil for this purpose as advocated by Isabella Tree in her excellent book Wilding (Picador, 2018; ISBN 978-1509805099) might be a good approach, were it not for the issues about corporate profits and feeding ten billion people.
  • How can we prevent the collapse of our present living arrangements? We can’t. We can prepare for it, and mitigate the shock to some extent, individually and collectively, but it’s going to happen. You might as well ask how you personally plan to live forever. Which perhaps you think is possible, if you’re these people, in which case I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to buy.
  • How can we get around the laws of thermodynamics? You’re just trolling me at this point.

This is not to sat that there aren’t plenty of questions worth asking. Indeed, the above list itself throws up any number of them. Our whole way of life in the industrialised world – despite being, as George Bush Sr. presciently said, not negotiable – is going away. But that doesn’t imply the demise of humanity overnight. Everything is up for discussion: how and what we eat, how we obtain and exchange the other necessities of life, what the necessities of life actually are: these are big and important questions. How we live together as communities. How we see ourselves and others – and by others, I don”t just mean other human beings. What our lives mean, at a fundamental level.

I urge you to think of your own questions, and to discuss them with the people who are important to you. This is the time to do it, while we may still have some leisure to think and the resources to act. If the answers you come up with involve practical measures, then make a start today. You will be glad you did.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On being the villain

Exterminate!

Every dalek ever

Anyone who has even the vaguest idea about Doctor Who – the British Sci-fi TV series which has been going almost as long as I have – is familiar with the Daleks. The Doctor has grappled with many foes over that timespan, but the Daleks are the classic adversaries. However often the Doctor regenerates, the Daleks are right there to take him on again. You’d think they’d give it up as a bad job.

But of course they can’t. The Daleks have a simple mandate: to exterminate all other life-forms, wherever they may be. Luckily for us, here on Earth at least the Doctor has our back. But you do wonder just what it is about the Daleks that makes them such an evergreen opponent, one that every version of the Doctor has to face over and over again. It certainly isn’t for want of alternatives.

I think it’s because, like all really good villains, they show us an aspect of ourselves. After all, we are responsible for the Sixth Extinction of life on this planet. The fact that we aren’t traversing the galaxy wiping out non-human life on other planets is more to do with technical difficulties around interstellar travel than any squeamishness on our part. We are certainly very intolerant of the other species with whom we share the planet, even when they don’t particularly inconvenience us. I have no idea what anyone ever had against the passenger pigeon, but we exterminated them anyway.

Daleks are also a fusion of the biological and mechanical. Usually you only see the external armour, as shown in the picture above, but occasionally the series offers a glimpse of the squid-like creature that lurks within. This is another home truth about the way we live, at least those of us who have bought into the promises of industrial civilisation. Is a Dalek that different from a motorist, when it comes down to it? Both, after all, are just intelligent life-forms in a metal box with a gargantuan sense of entitlement.

But isn’t that always the way with alien invaders from outer space? Don’t they always have basically the same agenda? We’ve seen this over and over again, especially in the movies. The aliens – and all we ever really know about them is that They Came From Somewhere Else (which would serve well enough as the title of a 50s B-movie) – arrive on Earth, usually in the USA and sometimes right on the White House lawn, intent on nothing more than death and destruction. Sometimes it’s explained that They Want Our Stuff for some more or less contrived reason, but everyone knows that’s just a pretext for the death and destruction.

Now part of this is just the fact that death and destruction make for spectacular cinema, especially now we have CGI. But also a part of this surely is just recapitulating what Europeans have historically done on other continents, especially (but not only) the Americas. When Francisco Pizzaro landed in Peru, he definitely wanted Their Stuff, especially the shiny bits. The effects on the local population would surely have met with Dalek approval.

We are all, in fact, at least potentially super-villains. I am typing these words on a machine whose manufacture certainly involved a lot of death and destruction, both in the human and non-human worlds. The electricity to make the thing go will have involved more death and destruction. Industrial civilisation, considered as a whole, might as well be a full-scale invasion of this planet by Daleks, from the point of view of most of the non-Dalek life-forms living on it. Or, in the case of the passenger pigeon, no longer living on it.

Now to some extent we are all now bound by decisions made by other people in our past, not all of whom were clairvoyants. When Colonel Edwin Drake drilled his famous oil-well back in the 1850s, it need not have led to the Exxon Valdez. Watt’s steam engine was not designed to screw the planet, although indirectly it ended up doing so. The lives we live today are inextricably bound up with a wealth of toxic practices, most of which we manage to ignore, because to be fully aware of what your daily life in this civilisation entails is to jeopardise your sanity.

Of course, we can choose instead to embrace our inner destructive alien, and plenty of people do that. This involves pretending that all that exists is Us and Stuff. Because we are Us, we have the right – indeed, according to some the duty – to take All the Stuff. This is essentially the premise of mainstream economics, amongst other things. It is at this point that I carefully abstain from mentioning Jeff Bezos, to pick one name from many, mostly for legal reasons. But you are, I hope, following along.

I’ve been expecting you, Mr Bezos.

The problem with all this, of course, that there are other things in the world than Us and Stuff. There are Others. The people who wonder about whether there is other (other?) intelligent life in the universe have not been paying much attention to the world around them. (I refer interested readers to Derrick Jensen’s book The Myth of Human Supremacy (Seven Stories Press, 2016); read it and weep.) Some of these Others, it turns out, do some things that are actually quite convenient for us, such as putting oxygen into the atmosphere.

Even if they didn’t, though, are we really justified in stomping Others out of existence just because they aren’t Us? This is quite an urgent question, given that we seem to be doing exactly that at unprecedented rates. Human beings have certainly got long-standing form in this area, by some accounts, but it doesn’t seem on the face of it that we have no choice in this. If you start from the observation that we are essentially a subspecies of chimpanzee with delusions of grandeur, it clearly doesn’t follow; our cousins have been around for a good long while, and as far as I know they are not responsible for the death of a single species.

Google is not my favourite corporation in the world. I use their email service, but not their advertising search engine. Even so, they tried their best originally with their mission statement: “Don’t be evil.” There are worse words to live by. Think about them, the next time you’re shopping for ant killer.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On cars

Personally, I refuse to drive a car – I won’t have anything to do with any kind of transportation in which I can’t read.

Arthur C. Clarke, Report on Planet Three

The picture above is of Kathmandu. I mention this fact just because it could be a picture of almost any city that has been touched by the blessings of industrial civilisation. There are many, many cars in this picture, although of course there are not enough cars because the thing about industrial civilisation is that there’s never enough of anything.

Cars are the signature of our culture. If there’s a car, industrial civilisation is there, or at least it could get there if it wanted to, which amounts to the same thing. Hollywood shorthand for the end of the world is always a bunch of wrecked and abandoned cars. That’s our worst nightmare, apparently.

Oh no! The cars are all broken!

Somehow the car, which is really nothing more than a machine for moving a small number of people (often just one) and a small amount of goods from A to B, has become a cult object. It is a symbol of personhood: “You are what you drive.” That formula denies almost everything about what it is to be human. If it were true, almost everyone in human history and prehistory would not have existed, not to mention all the people alive today who don’t drive a car. Human beings are a subspecies of chimpanzee with delusions of grandeur. Driving a car doesn’t come into it.

The one nugget of humanity that is preserved by that saying is that we care what others in our group think of us. Hence people buy newer, shinier and faster cars, often with borrowed money, in the hope that other people will be impressed. This is good news for car manufacturers, and a triumph for the advertising industry, but not for anyone else.

Why do I think that? Isn’t it great that you can move a small number of people (often just one) and a small amount of goods from A to B? Well, for one thing cars have an enormous cost, and I’m not just talking about depreciation. This National Geographic article sets out the real cost, and notice that many of them don’t go away if your car is electric. Apart from the car itself, there’s all the supporting infrastructure. There’s a lot of concrete in that picture too, which is not the best thing for the environment either. Not to mention the street lighting, the signage… I could go on.

The techno-optimists have a solution to this, and like most of their solutions it’s heavy on technology and optimism and light on practicality. In the future™ there will be self-driving electric cars that we will summon to take us to where we want to go. Now I have more than once drawn attention to this presentation on the material limitations on manufacturing and powering electric vehicles, and as someone who used to build software for a living I would be more than a little reluctant to trust my life to it; it’s very easy to find articles such as this which go into the issues in more depth. Of course, there is something to be said for giving up your car and hiring one or getting a taxi if you need one, but that wouldn’t be Progress.

Importantly, though, what such a solution fails to address is the set of values that goes along with private car ownership. Cars are sold to us as tokens of personal freedom. Your average car commercial doesn’t show images like the one at the head of this post, even though that is the car’s natural habitat in most cases. You’re much more likely to see a single car taking hairpin bends along the Amalfi coast, or something equally picturesque. You’ll never see an oil well in a car commercial either, unless it’s for an electric car, in which case you won’t see a lithium mine.

People identify with their cars in a way that they don’t with their washing-machines or toasters. These are equally machines that perform useful tasks, but they lack the romance of the car. It seems unlikely that anyone ever slept with someone on the strength of the brand of microwave they had (although this may not happen with cars as often as car manufacturers would have you believe). Part of this romance may simply be due to the fact that there have been no real innovations in the car since the invention of the electric starter, and the marketing people have had to fall back on other ways to persuade us that brand X is better than brand Y.

Driving a car at speed along an empty road gives the illusion of freedom; but as Ivan Illich long ago pointed out, once you factor in the time spent earning the money to buy, fuel and maintain the thing, the average speed of a car works out at about 3.7 mph or just under 6 kph, which is a brisk walking pace. I don’t believe the cost of motoring has gone down dramatically since then (Illich published that figure in 1974). If anything, it has probably gone up. Nevertheless we find that illusion seductive, addictive even, despite – or because of – the fact that participating in industrial civilisation gives most of us less and less of the real thing.

That feeling bears much the same relationship to genuine freedom as refined sugar does to genuine nutrition. It is a fantasy. You are not going to be driving your car round hairpin bends along the Amalfi coast; you’re going to be on the school run or stuck in a queue or trying to find a parking spot. Yes, in theory you could drive your magic machine anywhere you like, but in practice you don’t, because you have stuff to do, in large part in order to meet the payments on your car. It’s completely appropriate that Walter Mitty dreams of his secret life at the wheel of his car.

Self-expression in our culture is nowadays accomplished by purchasing mass-produced consumer goods. (I appear to be one of the few people who sees any irony in this.) For most of us, the most expensive and certainly the most visible of these goods is the car. It is thus a proxy for how much money one has, which is itself a proxy for one’s standing in the social-primate hierarchy. In principle, any type of good could serve this purpose – historically, it has often been clothing – but it so happens we have fixated on cars. This makes us doubly reluctant to let go of the wretched things.

As with so much, it doesn’t have to be like this. Moving a small number of people and a small amount of goods from A to B was already a solved problem long before Gottlieb Daimler was born. Even in his day there were already steam locomotives and canal barges to move the heavy stuff. There were, and are, far more efficient solutions than the private car. It is a terrible way to get around London, for example.

When I wrote that the photo at the head of this post could be of almost any city, I had an exception in mind. Some years ago, the Spanish city of Pontevedra banned cars altogether from the city centre. Remarkably, they did not wait to be attacked by Godzilla, but did it voluntarily. By all accounts it seems to be working out pretty well for them. I grant you that Pontevedra isn’t Los Angeles, but a lot of other places aren’t Los Angeles either. Perhaps something similar to what they have done could work where you live.

It’s a thought, isn’t it?

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On climate change

We live our comfortable lives in the shadow of a disaster of our own making. That disaster is being brought about by the very things that allow us to live our comfortable lives.

Sir David Attenborough, A Life on Our Planet

In view of the recent unfortunate events in western North America – such as the destruction of the Canadian town of Lytton by a wildfire shortly after registering a record temperature of 49.6℃ (121.28℉) – many people seem to be saying: “Blimey, perhaps there’s something in this climate change malarkey after all.” Some people are calling for something to be done, and even a few politicians are saying that steps ought to be taken. At the very least, there ought to be a committee to set the terms of reference for a steering group.

It is of course far too late to prevent climate change, as well-informed people have been saying for quite a long time now. You can’t prevent something that is already happening. Nor is there much future in blaming the oil companies, space lizards, or the Bilderberg Group. Yes, Exxon and the rest of them sold us hydrocarbons for profit, but equally we bought those hydrocarbons and burned them. You can’t really blame corporations for doing what they are designed to do.

The point is, climate change is not some bogeyman invented by vegans. It’s here, it’s doing a lot of damage (not just to us), and it’s not going away. If we want to fix it, we need to develop time travel, go back at least thirty years, and get mediaeval on capitalism’s collective ass. That is not going to happen, and it makes me want to weep that I even have to point this out. Svante Arrhenius was onto this in 1896, for crying out loud, although being Swedish he thought global warming might be quite nice.

So it’s a given, right up there with death and taxes (and even those are only for the little people). We have to live with it. Many places are going to become hotter and drier, as per the image above. Many other places are going to become much wetter, in that they will be underwater. I don’t like this either, and I live 600m above sea-level (about 2,000 feet), but there it is.

Therefore we are going to have to adapt, both individually and collectively. You and I and everyone else need food, water and shelter. Exactly how you ensure that depends on where you are, and in many cases that is going to involve moving somewhere else. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you might not want to invest in real estate in South Florida. Former US President Barack Obama purchased a beach property in Martha’s Vineyard a little while ago. Former US President Barack Obama will probably live to regret it.

I am not one of those who believe that this is going to wipe us out as a species, although arguably that’s what we deserve. We got through the last Ice Age, after all, and at least some of us will get through this – not eight billion of us, I very much suspect not even one billion, but enough to survive. If that sounds rough, well, it probably will be, but that’s what we’re looking at, realistically. Like rats, cockroaches, and hooded crows, human beings are generalists. We can adapt to a lot of things. Not, granted, a wet bulb temperature in excess of 35℃/95℉, but there will doubtless be some places cooler than that, although tragically Las Vegas may not be one of them.

Once you grasp that this is what’s coming – and not for our children or grandchildren, but for us, which also includes you, dear reader – it concentrates the mind wonderfully. For my part, I have a house designed to stay cool in summer and warm in winter, with its own water supply and enough land to feed me and mine. That could all fail if the prevailing winds were to shift or if the weather patterns here were to change radically for some other reason I haven’t thought of. There are far fewer 100% guarantees than there used to be. Death is still a pretty safe bet; as for taxes, your guess is as good as mine.

The point also needs to be made that the obsession with climate change can tend to obscure the numerous other issues facing industrial civilisation. Even if we were to meet the implausible emissions targets that politicians are so fond of pledging, it wouldn’t somehow magically fix everything. Atmospheric CO2 is a symptom, not the disease. When our descendants – those of them who survive – find some less destructive way of life that can actually be sustained, then most assuredly their CO2 emissions will be dramatically lower than ours. But that is entailed by the premise. If they don’t manage to do that, they won’t survive, after all.

I usually try to end these posts of mine with something uplifting, or at least a call to action. This one, not so much. All I can think of is the good old saying: Sauve qui peut.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On supermarket shopping

The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields, and forests. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard.

Joel Salatin, Folks, This Ain’t Normal

The supermarket in this picture is in Fiji, and I have never been to it; but if I ever did, I would understand at once how to shop there. That is the thing about supermarkets: they may vary a little in exactly what products they stock or in what currency they accept at the checkout, but essentially they are all the same. They are machines, designed to sell groceries and some other commonly-bought things; in this essay, though, I’m going to focus on groceries, as that is still their principal offering.

Supermarkets purport to offer convenience, affordability and quality, at costs that are invisible to their customers but are all too obvious to their suppliers. (If you would like hair-curling detail on this latter point, I heartily recommend Joanna Blythman‘s excellent book Shopped (Fourth Estate, 2004); it’s UK-centric, but the points it makes about the supermarket model apply everywhere.) Let me address these claims one by one.

Convenience

Supermarkets are certainly convenient in the absence of anywhere else to get food in your immediate area, which is the case for depressingly large tracts of the UK. But this is not much of a claim. Most supermarkets would certainly wish us to agree that it is quicker and easier to go to one of their megastores than to visit multiple specialist shops – butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger and so on.

To the extent that this is true, it is entirely a by-product of the ubiquitous private car. It’s true that you can get to some supermarkets by public transport, but nobody who has tried it would describe it as convenient. You will rarely find a supermarket without a car-park. They depend on cars as a fish does on water.

This is an issue, because the ubiquitous private car is destined to get a lot less ubiquitous, and eventually it will go away altogether. People will resist this, because we have a frankly bizarre attachment to the things, but it is going to cost much more than the average person can afford (and would do already if we paid the real costs). Even the techno-utopians seem to envisage a world in which we all hire self-driving electric cars to get us around, and for a number of reasons which will be meat for another post I don’t expect that to happen, or not outside a handful of wealthy areas.

At that point, it would much more convenient to have a butcher, a greengrocer, and a fishmonger in your town centre, and people will be digging up those car-parks in order to do something more useful with the land, such as grow food. Of course this change will disrupt rather more things than supermarkets, but do you really want to pay your hard-earned money into a system that will be incapable of feeding your grandchildren? As opposed, say, to planting a walnut tree.

The reality is that while your High Street in ye olden days would have had a separate butcher, greengrocer, and so forth, they would all be in the same locality. You can cover quite as much ground wheeling your trolley around a large supermarket as you can flitting from shop to shop in an old-fashioned market town, or from stall to stall in an indoor food market.

Ah yes – the indoor food market, still a staple in many European cities. In the UK, they are few and far between and usually very expensive. Borough Market in London is the poster child for this. There may be people who regularly get the bulk of their fresh produce from Borough Market, but those people are earning a lot more than the national average. In Europe, by contrast, many people still do use them, and they are reasonably priced. I remember staying in a somewhat ropy hotel round the back of the Termini railway station in Rome; there was a fantastic food-market there, heaving with working-class Italians getting their groceries. Which brings me to:

Affordability

We believe that shopping in supermarkets is cheap largely because the advertising put out by the supermarket industry is endlessly banging on about it. Most of the time, their point is that Supermarket A is cheaper than Supermarket B (at least for certain products). What they dwell on far less is whether supermarkets are the cheapest way to buy food, which is still their main purpose. They are the cheapest way to buy certain kinds of food, granted; if I wanted to buy an Indonesian factory-farmed meat chicken, for example, I would struggle to find one anywhere else, and certainly not for three quid. But if you want to eat good food cheaply, supermarkets are not that helpful.

Consider pork. Almost all parts of the pig are edible – as demonstrated in John Barlow’s entertaining book Everything but the Squeal (W F Howes, 2009) – but not that much of the pig is on sale in your local supermarket. Admittedly there might be almost any part of the pig in a sausage, but you might wish to be a little more selective. Pig’s ears are a delicacy in parts of Europe, but you won’t see them in the meat aisle. Offal? You can have liver, and that’s about it.

It’s a similar tale with beef and lamb. The cheap cuts simply aren’t there. You won’t find oxtail or neck of lamb – either would be the basis of a tasty and nutritious stew, the kind of thing a reasonably well-to-do peasant might expect to eat fairly regularly. As for rabbit, you can whistle for it.

But it’s not just the stuff you can’t buy, it’s all the stuff you can – and do – buy above and beyond the things you went in for. This is not accidental. Supermarkets, like all commercial enterprises, are there to part you from your money. They design their stores with great care to tempt you to buy. They run loss leaders – usually at the expense of their suppliers – to make it look as if you are getting amazing value. If you go into a supermarket with a shopping-list, you are very likely to end up buying things that weren’t on it. This does not represent a saving in money, unless you are very bad at compiling shopping-lists.

Quality

It may be true that you can buy the expensive cuts of meat slightly less expensively in a supermarket than in a proper butcher’s, but I still think you’re getting a worse deal. That is because food quality matters. I’ve written about this topic before; it’s something I care deeply about, and something I think everyone should. As long as 1947, the pioneering agronomist Sir Albert Howard published a book entitled The Soil and Health which made this very point, and subsequent research backs him up. It makes intuitive sense, after all, that you’re not going to get something out of a foodstuff that didn’t go into it.

Supermarkets sell industrially-produced food. They can hardly do otherwise; that is what they were invented to do, and the economies of scale supposedly offered by this approach are what give them their edge. Their grim determination to flout seasonal production also mandates this. You can buy something in the middle of winter which is, at least botanically, a strawberry.

Quality manifests itself to the food industry as a set of regulatory hurdles to be surmounted or, ideally, circumvented. They want the cheapest product possible, and if this requires the use of industrial solvents then so be it. (Another of Joanna Blythman’s books, Swallow This (Fourth Estate, 2015), will tell you more about this than you want to know. Read it anyway; you’ll never skip the list of ingredients on the side of a package again.) The problem with this approach, of course, is that the result may not be especially good to eat, either from a health standpoint or that of gastronomy.

That £3 Indonesian chicken is technically a chicken, but it lived a dreadful life and had a dreadful death and in between was never allowed to any of the things that constitute the good life for a chicken. I’ve raised chickens myself, and to do it for £3 a time involves cutting every corner there is. Don’t forget, that £3 also covers wrapping it in plastic and shipping it half-way round the world. Frankly, I want no part of it.

Have you noticed the existence of lemonade which proclaims itself to have been made with real lemons? Of course it should be made with real lemons: the clue is in the name. Yet we can’t assume this by default. The same goes for grass-fed beef. Cows eat grass. I don’t think you need to be an expert in farming to know this. But it’s cheaper to feed them something else – for example, the brains of sheep. That plan didn’t work out well. The depressing thing is that it came as a surprise.

Do I shop at supermarkets? When I have to. I prefer to eat less meat and spend the extra money on getting decent quality, because I think it’s better for me and also for the producers (and, ultimately, the animals). If I can buy food directly from the producer, I do so. If I can produce my own, better still. My chickens cost me more than £3 each, and I don’t regret a penny.

My aim in writing this is not to make you feel bad about shopping at supermarkets (if you do). What I hope is that you consider your options – there may be more than you think. If there are independent food producers local to you, support them if you can. The day may come when you rely on them.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the sacred

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet”

As this post comes out, we up here in the northern hemisphere will have had our longest day of the year: the summer solstice. This blog began on the autumn equinox; we likewise marked the winter solstice (although the spring solstice got hijacked by World Water Day). You might be wondering why a blog whose themes are ostensibly social criticism and political economy is interested in these events. This is my attempt to frame an answer to that question .

There is a great void at the heart of industrial civilisation, and that is the sacred. It is a category of experience that is central to all human cultures, and yet with us it finds no expression. Our established religions have lost touch with it, and our material practices have no space for it. You will often hear a person say: “Oh, I’m not religious, but I am spiritual,” but they can rarely tell you what they mean by that – except that they need the sacred in their lives.

For industrial capitalism, nothing is or can be sacred. Its view of the world is robustly materialistic. There is stuff to be consumed, there is other stuff that gets in the way of consuming the first kind of stuff, and that’s about it. To you, the Appalachians may seem picturesque; to a mining engineer, they’re overburden.

Time to crack open the explosives, boys; there’s coal in them thar hills!

Trying to articulate exactly why this approach to the world is wrong – and it is wrong – is a challenge, because everything we learn from infancy tells us that this is the only way, and that everything else is mere sentimentality. One can bring practical arguments to bear, and some of these are starting to get grudging traction, but somehow they fail to get to the heart of the issue.

There may be some practical drawbacks to this approach to the natural world.

It seems to me that the sense of the sacred is the sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves. This need not involve the supernatural. We are, after all, members of the community of living beings on this planet. We are as much a part of nature as a tree or a dolphin or an eagle. As such, we have a part to play.

Intuitively, we recognise this when we find ourselves in a natural landscape. One does not need to have spent an idyllic childhood tripping barefoot through daisy-strewn meadows to experience this. I grew up in the English Black Country, a part of the world that industrial capitalism had been systematically ravaging for a long, long time. This landscape was a large part of Tolkien’s inspiration for Mordor, and I had no problem relating to it when I came to read The Lord of the Rings. Give me a wild green space any day of the week.

We like to imagine that ours is the leading role in the community of life, but the reality is that no such role exists, even though we are strangely desperate to pretend there is. You often hear of the time when “dinosaurs ruled the earth” – dinosaurs just lived here, the same as everything else. There were a lot of them about, and they filled a lot of ecological niches, but that’s it. No legislation was passed, no sway was exercised. We project our own supposed world-dominance back onto them, as if they were some sort of trial run for us. It’s utter nonsense.

Multiple studies have shown that time spent in a natural environment is beneficial to people’s physical and mental well-being. Mostly, in my opinion, what these studies show is that too much grant money goes on demonstrating the patently obvious. Human beings did not evolve to live the way they are made to live in urban industrial society; I’ll be expanding on this theme in a future post, but for now suffice it to say we are fish out of water.

We need this experience of belonging on our planet. We need it at a basic instinctual level, just as we need to breathe air. And to get it, we need to give up on this idea that we are separate from, better than, and somehow more valuable than everyone else in our natural community. We need some basic humility, some compassion, and the readiness to acknowledge the existence of something greater than ourselves which we cannot – and need not – control.

People were certainly aware of the movements of the sun and the moon a long time before we have written records, and the written records themselves go back almost to the beginning of writing. For a farmer, awareness of the seasons is obviously vital, but the same goes for most hunter-gatherers too, and of course for many, many other species.

Marking the quarters of the year is a simple way of reminding ourselves that we are small, limited and vulnerable. It need not interfere with the practices and rules of any organised religion, although those are more elastic in practice than we sometimes think.

These people are good Catholics, celebrating the feast of San Juan. Nothing pagan going on here, no sireee.

When we situate ourselves as members of the community of living things, rather than as overlords of it, the world looks rather different. How you react to that is going to vary from one person to another. There are some people who can’t cope with being somewhere that doesn’t have a WiFi signal. To others, it will already be closely aligned to their existing viewpoint. Others still will find it confronting. After all, it flies in the face of so much we have been taught to believe is true. If your job is to blow the tops off the Appalachians, or something similar – and so many jobs contain at least an element of that – you will find it very hard to stand there.

Nevertheless it seems to me that this is the only place to stand. From this perspective one can see what needs to be done, and just as importantly what needs to be given up. It is a point of view which the built environment tends to obscure; so many of us live in surroundings where everything we see was either made by a human being or put there by a human being, where we can’t even see the stars at night.

The stars are still shining down, however, even if we don’t see them. Take some time to look at them, and be still, and breathe. Remember who you are – and who you aren’t. This may involve some kind of spiritual practice for you, or it may not. For my part, an hour in a wood where the birds are singing will do it. Try it. I think you’ll find a lot of things will make more sense.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On blame

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.

Terry Pratchett, Jingo

Blame is a response to adversity which is reasonable up to a point, but only up to a point. If I were to hit your mother over the head with an axe, you would be completely justified in blaming me for her demise. In that sense, the entire criminal justice system is about apportioning blame for the bad things that people do. But there are many bad situations which are not simply the fault of one person, or of a particular group of people, and in those cases blame is unhelpful and indeed counter-productive.

In itself, blame is never the solution to your problem. Even in the case where I attacked your mother, the problem is that there is an axe-murderer on the loose, and the solution is to lock me up before I attack someone else. It may turn out to be helpful if you finger me at an identity parade, but it is isn’t the solution in itself. (It may not even be necessary if my fingerprints are on the axe, for instance.)

But of course blame is always a temptation whenever things go wrong. Which of us doesn’t enjoy the occasional blast of righteous anger? I know I do. Social media are notoriously awash with the stuff. I suspect there are multiple reasons for this: the platforms themselves benefit, of course, and we should never forget that these are commercial organisations who trade in your attention; it may also be true, as John Michael Greer suggests that “hate is the new sex” – public anger is taboo-breaking; but there’s also another reason why it’s so prevalent in our current culture.

Quite simply, if blame is a response to things going wrong, there will more of it flung around when a lot of things are going wrong all at once. Increasing numbers of people are becoming aware of at least some of these; blissful ignorance is difficult to maintain in the presence of ever more intrusive problems. There are not many places you can look these days and not see at least one serious issue.

We’ve been here before, of course. At the height of the Black Death, the flagellants rather publicly blamed themselves and their sinfulness for what they saw as God’s righteous anger. Nero blamed the Christians for the outbreak of the Great Fire of Rome; subsequently the Christians blamed the Jews for pretty much everything. Lots of people felt better about things, but the Black Death kept on killing people, Rome kept catching fire, and things still went wrong in mediaeval Europe.

Blame, in other words, is a diversion. It is a natural response to feeling overwhelmed by what is happening around us; if may even be a necessary one, if you subscribe to the Kübler-Ross model of grief; but it is not in itself going to fix anything. Every revolution sees the heads of the oppressors paraded on pikes, and every revolution is succeeded by another oppression, often worse than what preceded it.

People sometimes use blame as an excuse for inaction. After all, if (say) climate change is all the fault of the big oil companies, then that lets you off the hook, unless you happen to be the CEO of Exxon-Mobil. Conspiracy theories are simply a more extreme version of this. If it’s all down to the evil space lizards, well, what can you do?

What is useful about blame, however, is the energy it gives us. As William Blake said: “Damn, braces: Bless relaxes.” Many of the problems we face collectively today do not admit of a solution, but at least some of the problems we face individually can be addressed by our own actions. Often this requires hard work on our part: growing your own vegetables, for instance, is going to involve a fair amount of physical labour. But pushing a wheelbarrow full of manure is a lot easier if you can tell yourself that by doing so you’re really sticking it to The Man.

And of course in many ways you are. One of the more insidious features of our culture is that it encourages individual passivity while pretending to do the opposite. Want to reduce your consumption of natural resources? Buy our product! Want to do – well, pretty much anything? Buy our product! And if you do buy their product, suddenly you’re even more deeply entangled in the whole mess of industrial civilisation and jobs and all the rest of it. It’s like a spider’s web: the harder you struggle to get out, the more stuck you get.

Blaming yourself can be a trap. Naturally you bear some share of the responsibility for where we all are, although probably not as much as you think. Most of what happens is the consequence of a vast number of mostly very small decisions, some of them made by you, and largely in good faith. Most people, most of the time, are just doing their best. Blaming yourself is no more appropriate than blaming anyone else, because no single person is wholly responsible for the outcome.

But attributing blame is attributing agency, and just as power brings responsibility, so too does responsibility bring power. You have no control over Exxon-Mobil – I don’t think any one person does have control over Exxon-Mobil, to the extent that they could stop it doing what it does – but you can choose to drive less, or to drive a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Not only will that make you feel better about yourself (and save you money), but if enough people start to make those choices then Big Oil is going to feel it.

As Gauguin said: “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.” Sometimes, though, the most obvious form of revenge is not the most effective. Where commercial organisations are concerned, the best way is to stop giving them your money. I have successfully resisted the temptation to send Bill Gates a letter-bomb, but I haven’t paid money for a Microsoft product in 25 years – for most of which time, by the way, I was a professional software developer. Likewise, by avoiding social media like the plague that it is, I have not allowed myself to be a commodity in the “attention economy.”

There are many small things you can change in your life than can make the world a better place for you and for others. You won’t be able to fix everything, but you don’t have to. And best of all, instead of taking the blame, you can take the credit.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the abuse of logic

Here, in a sentence, is the moral case for fossil fuels, the single thought that can empower us to empower the world: Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous – because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.

Alex Epstein, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (2016)

I came across the bold assertion above while reading Carey W. King’s interesting and thoughtful book The Economic Superorganism (Springer, 2021; the quotation is on page 106). It’s an interesting example of the sort of reasoning we seem to see around a lot these days: an ill-formed argument founded on false premises, intended to answer a poorly-chosen question.

Mr Epstein is attempting a kind of syllogism. This is a form of argument going back to the ancient Greeks, and exhaustively discussed by Aristotle amongst others. It takes the form of two propositions which, if both true, prove a conclusion. The classic example is:

  • all men are mortal (A)
  • Socrates is a man (B)
  • therefore Socrates is mortal (Z)

There are many variations, of course, but that’s the general idea. If proposition A and proposition B are both true, then conclusion Z follows. Mr Epstein’s argument looks like this when cast into the form of a syllogism:

  • “human life is the standard of value” (A)
  • “using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life” (B)
  • therefore “Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous” (Z)

Now I would dispute the truth Mr Epstein’s proposition A, but it’s not in itself a claim that can be proved or disproved; it is an article of faith. I strongly disagree with it, if only on the pragmatic grounds that it leads one to short-sighted actions that have negative consequences. I wrote a previous post on the folly of human exceptionalism, and won’t repeat myself here.

Yet even granting A for the sake of argument, proposition B fails abjectly on its own terms. Mankind’s use of fossil fuels led directly to the view of Beijing at the head of this post, which is not even slightly “wonderful for human life” or any other form of life for that matter. Very large numbers of humans currently live in places which in the future will be underwater, once again as a direct consequence of mankind’s use of fossil fuels.

Now one might claim – and I imagine Mr Epstein certainly would – that these are minor drawbacks which are outweighed by all the other benefits that fossil fuels bring us, such as microplastics and the ability to watch videos of kittens 24/7. Air-conditioning is certainly convenient if you choose to live in a desert. Then again, perhaps the majority of mankind is onto something in choosing to live somewhere other than a desert.

I do wonder also just what the scope of “human life” is for Mr Epstein. Some people certainly do very well out of our fossil-fuelled industrial civilisation, but plenty of others don’t, and indeed suffer for it. I venture to suggest that Mr Epstein is not thinking of rice-farmers in the Mekong Delta, for example, or crab fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. I suspect, like most of us, his notion of humanity is based largely on himself and people like him – and in his case also on the Koch brothers. Life may indeed be wonderful for them, but the rest of us surely also count if we are going to be included in such sweeping claims.

Yet even if I were to grant his proposition B as well, I don’t see that the conclusion follows. Is fossil fuel use the only thing that conduces to making the world “wonderful for human life”? It certainly would not appear to be true that everyone experienced the world as uniformly horrible prior to the Industrial Revolution. Shakespeare, for instance, contributed quite a bit to making life wonderful for many people, despite not driving an SUV.

I doubt that most visitors to National Parks go there in order to make them lovelier by burning fossil fuels. On the contrary, people go to these places because they do not exhibit the effects of burning fossil fuels, compared to (say) Los Angeles. On Mr Epstein’s view, surely they should be flocking to the Alberta Tar Sands instead, in order to contemplate the loveliness that fossil fuel use has wrought.

Isn’t it lovely? Those tiny dots are huge earth-moving machines. They are not powered by renewables.

We can just about make the argument work by restating it with a little more precision:

  • virtue consists in advancing the interests of a certain group of people
  • using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for that group of people
  • therefore using fossil fuels is “supremely virtuous”

I would have more respect for Mr Epstein if he had had the honesty to express himself in these terms. Even so, we are left with a definition of virtue that equates it baldly with making money for the Koch brothers. Such a definition certainly exists, in the sense that plenty of people live their lives in accordance with it, but I don’t feel compelled to accept it, and neither, I hope, do you.

It also implies a narrow view of the interests of these über-humans. Even the Koch brothers need oxygen, for example. Conventional thinking, especially economic thinking, tends to discount the future as inherently unpredictable, but if an economist is sealed in a chamber and the air is then removed from that chamber, even the economist would predict his or her imminent demise. The vital interests of all human beings include the vital interests of all other forms of life.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” as John Donne pointed out a long time ago. We can pretend otherwise, and of course we do, but we do so at our peril. It takes considerable skill, in fact, to persuade ourselves and others of it. No doubt it appears self-evident to sociopaths that they are islands; they may live to discover, however, that they are not entire of themselves.

The rest of us, who already know this, will do well to keep a sharp eye out for the sophistries of Alex Epstein and his ilk. We would be fools to try and navigate the choppy waters ahead of us with a faulty compass. There is a great deal more at stake here than the share price of Koch Industries (motto: “Creating value. Transforming life.”).

It is of course already the mainstream view that burning fossil fuels is not really the best idea. Despite this, however, unlike them, this kind of twaddle is clearly an abundant and renewable resource. As Albert Einstein is supposed to have said: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” Be on your guard.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On management and control

The I of the basic word I-Thou is different from that of the basic word I-It.

Martin Buber, I and Thou (1923)

In this week’s essay, I want to discuss the concept of management: not just the management of a company or other organisation, but the notion of control in general. We really, really like things to be under control – our own, if possible, but even if things are being controlled by evil space lizards it is still a more comforting thought than things being out of control. One of the standard responses to the presidency of Donald Trump was to declare him to be “out of control.” I hold no brief for Mr Trump, but the President of the United States of America should be controlled by someone else? Seriously?

(Of course, the people who say this want to suggest that Mr Trump is not in control of himself, as if he suffers from a kind of political Tourette’s syndrome. I very much doubt that that is the case, however. One does not become the US President by accident.)

Human beings imagine they can manage anything. Time, for example. You can buy entire books that claim to tell you how you can manage your time – searching Amazon for the phrase “time management books” gave me over 60,000 hits – and yet you can’t even turn it on and off.

We are particularly fond of managing the natural world. Heaven forbid that a forest should be left to its own devices: no, it must be managed. Otherwise it would just be wilderness – or to put it another way, not co-opted for our benefit. We are far from being the only species to adapt our environment to our needs – nesting birds, beavers and ants all do it – but we seem to be the only one that seeks to adapt everyone else’s environment while we’re at it.

The same urge to control is evident in our relations with one another. Wherever one group of people has some measure of control over another group of people, that control is never relinquished or even diminished. Bureaucracies never shrink of their own volition, either in the public or private sector. On the contrary, those with power seek ever greater power. And power-relationships are intrinsically dehumanising, and not even especially functional per Hagbard’s Law.

Why do we do this? (And in saying we I include myself and also you, dear, reader, together with most other people in this civilisation.) Let me explain what I think is at least part of the answer by means of a little story.

Let’s suppose I’m waiting for a train and I fancy some chocolate. (Don’t judge me.) It’s late and everywhere is closed, but there’s a vending machine. I punch in the code for what I what and insert an exorbitant amount of money, and all being well there will be a dull thud and my Twix® will drop onto the shelf at the bottom (other brands of confectionary are available). Most of us have had this kind of experience many times; this is in no way novel – indeed, vending machines have a surprisingly long history.

Now let’s consider a similar scenario during the day. There’s a newsagent’s kiosk, which is open. I hand the guy a slightly less exorbitant amount of money, and he gives me a Twix® (other brands of confectionary are still available). How is this transaction different? An economist would certainly struggle to tell them apart, except for the difference in the price paid for the goods.

Well, let’s say something goes wrong and I don’t get my chocolate. If it’s down to a faulty vending machine – and I think we’ve all been there – I may express my frustration in various ways, especially if I am the only person on the platform. I may also attempt to get the damn thing to disgorge my chocolate by strategic whacks or kicks. Who knows, it might even work.

But what about the kiosk scenario? If the guy behind the counter refused to sell me chocolate, for whatever reason, would I be justified in whacking him, strategically or otherwise? I don’t think so, and not just because I’d probably get done for assault. The difference is that the vending machine is, well, a machine. Its entire purpose is to dispense chocolate and other goodies in exchange for money. If it fails in that one purpose, it is broken, and the would-be eater of chocolate is fully entitled to complain. Moreover, there is probably a simple mechanical explanation for its failure.

The man in the newsagent’s kiosk is not a machine. Why is it that he won’t give me my chocolate? There could be many reasons. Perhaps I’ve been particularly obnoxious to him. Perhaps he is suffering a nervous breakdown. Perhaps he thinks I’m fat enough already (and he might have a point). Whatever the reason, it probably can’t be fixed by someone with a spanner. Whacking him is also unlikely to help.

The man in the newsagent’s kiosk is a person, not a machine. Now you will find philosophers who will claim that there is no such distinction, but if you ever find yourself behind one of them in the queue at the newsagent’s just watch how they go about buying confectionary. I’ll bet they treat the person behind the counter as if they were a person and not a machine.

Because there is, or should be, a fundamental qualitative difference behind how one relates to a machine as distinct from a person, and this is one of the things that Martin Buber is driving at in the quotation at the head of this post. The vending machine is very much an it. I am not going to ask it what it thinks of the weather. I don’t imagine that it cares about my weight.

The newsagent, however, is a person. You’ll notice that in my little story I included the detail that he happens to be male. I could have elaborated my description in all sorts of ways. For example, what relationship do I have to him, apart from being a customer at his kiosk? Perhaps I went to school with him, or he lives in my street, or he’s engaged to my cousin. Perhaps he suspects me of having an affair with his wife, which might be another explanation for his mysterious reluctance to sell me chocolate.

This slightly contrived example is presented to show that it is very much simpler to deal with machines than with persons. It is much easier to predict what a vending machine will do to than it is to predict what a person might do. Most of the time a vending machine will simply do what it was designed to do. It may run out of stock, or be too full to accept money, or develop a mechanical fault, but that is pretty much it. A vending machine is not going to have a psychotic episode or discover religion, nor will it catch flu or ask for maternity leave.

For this reason, those who manage people much prefer to treat them as if they were machines. This is a poor way to persuade a newsagent to give you chocolate and in general it is a poor way to get the best out of someone, but it is simple. It is probably the only way to do it at all if the number of people you are managing is at all large – Dunbar’s number as an absolute maximum, and probably rather less in practice.

This explains the rather obvious fact that management doesn’t really work. People are far too complicated to manage, even in the benign case where they are not actively trying to subvert management’s purposes. As Robert Anton Wilson pointed out: “There are no governors anywhere.” Or at least there are no governors where people choose not to be governed. This works on the political level too. East Germany is the poster child for governments who wish to control their citizens, and it could only exist at all with the support of the Soviet Union: when that went away, so did the regime. Effectively, the entire country was in the secret police, which placed severe limits on what else the state could accomplish.

The same goes in spades for “managing” the natural world. Most of us have some basic intuitions as to how to relate to other people. We’re social animals; we need those skills in order to survive. In industrial culture, we have no such intuitions when it comes to relating to a forest, say, or the ocean. These are vastly more complex than any vending machine, or any human being, and anything one does or doesn’t do can have unpredictable consequences. If I decide to have an affair with my newsagent’s wife I do at least have some inkling of what I might be letting myself in for. Filling the airwaves with electromagnetic radiation? Your guess is as good as mine, and probably as good as anyone’s.

Of course we still need to deal with complex systems like forests, oceans, and the weather. What we must not do is kid ourselves that they are like vending machines and that we control them. Instead we need to learn – or re-learn – ways to relate to them as if they were more like persons. Once upon a time this used to be called reverence; but that’s a subject for another time.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On the fall of Rome, part two

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

Last week, we took a (very brief) look at how and why the Roman empire in the west fell, or rather faded away. The executive summary is that while there were certainly external pressures, the empire’s demise was due to the ruling elite’s failure to deal with those pressures. There was no single disaster, just a series of cock-ups and bad breaks until the situation was too far gone for anyone to retrieve.

This ought to come as no surprise. History in general tends to go like that. What looks inevitable in hindsight rarely did at the time. Of course, it was inevitable that the empire would collapse at some point: that is what empires do. The Western Roman empire actually had a pretty good innings, as these things go.

Trite as it may be, this is really the lesson to take from the fall of Rome. The decline of an empire, or more generally of a civilisation, is just one damn thing after another. Things that break somehow never get fixed – look at New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or more prosaically at the potholes in the road. Every generation of politicians is a little bit more corrupt or inept (or both) than the one that preceded it.

I am old enough to remember the resignation of Lord Carrington on the grounds that the British Foreign Office, which he headed, had failed to predict the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. There was no suggestion that he personally had screwed up, but it was his department and therefore his responsibility. It is hard to imagine any current member of the British Cabinet resigning for such a reason, or indeed for any reason short of launching a leadership challenge.

(I speak here of British politics because that’s what I’m familiar with; I’d be very interested to hear in the comments about the trends in other countries. Perhaps some places are even improving.)

The mineral resources on which industry depends are gradually depleting. For example, we are now extracting copper from much lower-grade ores then we used to, which is more expensive; hence the price of copper is on an inexorable upwards trend. (Former mining engineer and academic Simon Michaux has an excellent presentation on this and some of its implications.) Copper, of course, is in everything electrical, not least the much-vaunted electric vehicles. Other conductive metals are of course available, but I don’t imagine that substituting gold for all that copper would make electrical goods very affordable.

Unsurprisingly a similar situation exists for the rare earth metals required for things like smartphones and solar panels – unsurprisingly, because the clue is in the name. Many of these have no known substitutes, and the substitutes that are known are not as good. Nor are deposits of these metals evenly distributed around the world: most of them are in China, with something between 40-50% of global production coming from one small region of Inner Mongolia. What could possibly go wrong?

Discoveries of crude oil reserves peaked in the 1960s, and have been below consumption since the 1980s. Many of the uses to which we put oil cannot be substituted: good luck using renewable electricity as a feedstock for plastic, for instance, or as a source of lubricants. Nobody has a solution for this problem, which is slowly but surely killing the industrial model on which our entire way of life is founded. Cheap long-distance transportation is going to go away, to mention just one glaring example. Industrial agriculture will be another casualty.

One could compare this to the decline of agriculture in the later stages of the Western Roman empire, which was also in its own way a fuel crisis. The empire became dependent on food from its North African provinces, and when these were lost to the Vandals the end was clearly in sight. Part of the issue seems to have been topsoil loss, which is also a huge problem today. The Romans failed to cope with this, and we are not showing much sign of doing so either.

Economic equality was likewise an issue for the Romans, just as it is for us. The rich became phenomenally rich, with vast estates in Italy and Gaul, while further down the social scale life became progressively tougher. I’m not even talking about slaves. The provincial well-off originally used to compete for public office, with the ambition of becoming a decurion or town councillor. As time went on, it became more onerous than rewarding, and eventually the office became compulsory, passed down from father to son.

At a lower level still, the small farmers who had originally been the backbone of the army were squeezed out by the growth of latifundia – large estates worked by slaves. This obliged the army to seek recruits from outside the empire, with the unfortunate results that we discussed last week. It may or may not have detracted from the effectiveness of the army – opinion is divided – but certainly the later Roman army was a very different beast from that commanded by Caesar or Scipio Africanus. Perhaps more importantly, this development also gave the average Roman subject much less of a stake in the empire.

Economic polarisation is a defining characteristic of our own times. When I was a child in the 1960s, my family was unusual in having both parents working full-time. Most households could manage reasonably well on a single working-class wage. That arrangement, which was the norm just a few decades ago, is almost unheard-of today. Although income inequality in the UK is said to be more extreme than in other industrial nations, the same holds good for many other countries. The explosive growth of shanty towns in the USA is hardly a sign of a healthy economy.

Personal debt is another problem we have in common with ancient Rome. At least in modern first-world countries there is no legal mechanism for reducing debtors to literal slavery; still, the plight of a great many ordinary people is not much better. These depressing statistics are for the UK; this table gives a wider picture, with startling figures for most of the large industrialised nations. It is increasingly the normal pattern for people to be indebted essentially for their entire working lives, if not beyond. One must borrow in order to study at university, and borrow more to purchase a home; more again to buy a car.

As the economist Michael Hudson succinctly puts it: “Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be paid.” (Killing the Host (ISLET, 2015), page 25.) As incomes decline, the ability – and willingness – to service debt decline as well. A point will be reached at which the downsides of the current arrangements for the average person outweigh the upsides; at that point, any alternative to the status quo will begin to look attractive to the mass of the population. That is a very dangerous place to be. Remember this guy?

None of these things are making the headlines, or do so only occasionally and are soon forgotten. Yet if there are historians a thousand years in the future, looking back on us from a similar distance as we look back on Rome, I expect many of them will be cited as reasons for the “inevitable” decline and fall of industrial civilisation. Perhaps some future Edward Gibbon will sit musing among the ruins of Manhattan or Canary Wharf, if any such are still standing. More likely, people will have better things to do.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.