On crypto-currencies

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.

William Gibson, The Economist, 4/12/2003

The crypto-currency thing has been going for a while now, but this post has been precipitated by the recent story that the government of El Salvador has expressed the desire to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender. Leaving aside the question of whether of not this would be a good move for El Salvador – spoiler alert: nope – it raises the issue of whether crypto-currencies are a good bet in general. Can they ever hope to function as actual money?

I’m not here going to rail against their spectacular volatility, which calls into question their utility as a store of value. It could be argued that this will smooth out over time, and indeed I agree, in that I expect their value to stabilise at zero. I’m not even going to complain about how cumbersome most of them are as a medium of exchange. If El Salvador does adopt Bitcoin as legal tender, I guess it would meet David Graeber’s loose definition of money as that which is accepted as payment of taxes. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the attitude of Roosta in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “If you can’t scratch a window with it, I don’t accept it.”

My issue is more with the physical realities underpinning all crypto-currencies. They appear to rely on a strange perversion of Marx’s theory of value: crypto entities have value, not because of the labour that went into them, but because of the computational effort required to create them. There are issues with Marx’s theory, of course, but I don’t need to debate those here, because there is a more fundamental issue at play.

The photo at the head of this post depicts an electricity substation. Now you may well have grown up with the vague notion that electricity is something that naturally seeps out of wall-sockets, but this is not so. Human agency puts it there, and is required to keep it there. There is a huge infrastructure, mostly invisible to us, that generates the electricity – whether by means of coal, natural gas, nuclear, or renewables, each of which entails its own vast infrastructure that has to be maintained and sustained, using finite resources – and distributes it. That infrastructure itself has to be maintained and sustained, also using finite resources.

I am not suggesting that some or all of this might go away at some point in the future. I am stating baldly that it will go away, and has already started going away. Californians already know this. Many people in Louisiana will also have noticed this fact, I imagine. Now that can be dismissed as a temporary blip, just like the current shortage of computer chips is a temporary blip, and the shortage of transportation to get the computer chips to where they’re needed is a temporary blip. The occupation of North Africa by the Vandals was doubtless seen as a temporary blip by the officials of the Western Roman Empire, until it wasn’t, and the empire fell. In the long run – and that may not be as long as you think – it’s gone. Kiss it goodbye.

Even if the chips were available to build the necessary computing resources to support crypto-currencies, those resources will be useless without electricity. And I am talking here about reliable, clean electricity, available every hour of the day, every day of the year. (I could also talk about the price of that electricity, but I’m in a generous mood today.) The whole point of crypto-currencies is that the calculations which underlie them cannot be performed in a reasonable time other than by the use of a computer. Without computers, what would you have?

It could be argued that you’d have another fiat currency, just like all the others in general circulation. That is to say, it would have value because people generally believe that it did. But why would it be more credible than any of the others? Is the possible endorsement of a temporarily (or permanently) dead computer network more valuable than the endorsement of, say, the government of the USA? Admittedly, there are people still trying to cash in things like this, more than a century since the demise of Nicholas II:

A bond issued by the Tsarist government of Russia to finance the railway system. Good luck!

But I’m not sure people are going to accord much value to a digital entity when the digital world goes away, as it inevitably must.

Incidentally, I’m also not arguing here that currencies backed by a precious metal are any improvement on this. Gold and silver, shiny though they may be, don’t seem to me to possess any magic “intrinsic” value – the Inca, for example, seem to have been fairly nonchalant about both. There is ultimately a strong flavour of the fiat about all currencies. I don’t, however, assume that all fiat currencies are equally plausible. If I offer you a piece of plastic, paper, or metal in payment for a good or service, I depend on your accepting it. I wouldn’t expect to use a Costa Coffee loyalty card to fuel my car.

Without reliable, clean electricity, available every hour of the day, every day of the year, I’m not even sure a Bitcoin owner would have something as substantial as a Costa Coffee loyalty card to offer in payment. It’s certainly not something I would be comfortable relying on when things get rough, and you don’t need to be Nostradamus these days to expect things to get pretty rough indeed, and sooner than any of us would like.

I must say that I have some sympathy behind the wish to develop an alternative currency safe from the manipulation of banks and governments. I just don’t think crypto-currencies meet that requirement. The answer, it seems to me, is to invest in real value: actual physical goods and services that people need, or at least really, really want. I discussed this in more detail in my post on wealth, but that is what it boils down to.

Obviously I am not a qualified financial adviser, whatever that might imply, and in any case I assume that readers of this blog are perfectly capable of making up their own minds. My advice is worth no more than what you pay for it, and maybe less. All I will say is this: if I had any money invested in crypto-currencies, I would get it out now, if not sooner. I might be getting out less than what I put in, but I should get something, at least. And wisdom is cheaply bought at any price.

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

On people

Some years back, Wendell Berry published an essay collection with the pertinent title: What are people for? (Counterpoint, 2010; ISBN 978-1582434872), and it’s a very good question. What, according to the commonly-accepted values of our civilisation, are people for? Economists will tell you that people are producers and consumers of goods and services. But both of those functions could be completely automated. We could have a world in which economic activity is reduced to computers selling one another financial instruments, and economists would pronounce it good – indeed, far better than the one we live in now. From the perspective of economics, people are just a nuisance.

I am going to come right out and say it: people are not a nuisance. Okay, some people are a nuisance, but human beings have a part to play in the world. Some of us aren’t playing that part very well, and that includes almost everyone in what I call industrial civilisation, but it remains an option for all of us to be human.

What do I mean by that? I mean that there is a larger picture, a dance of all living things, and that we have our part in that dance alongside everything else that lives, from grass to mosquitoes to crocodiles to hummingbirds to sticklebacks to mangroves. In that dance, we are both the eaters and the eaten. When I die, I want my body to go back to the land, because from the land it drew its nourishment. I don’t want it to go up some industrial smokestack: that was the premise of Auschwitz.

More than that, I mean that there is a vast source of meaning there. Modern life has been pretty thoroughly stripped of meaning, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a mental health epidemic has ensued. We are now at the point that we have a Soviet-style definition of mental health as being a state of well-adjustment to a profoundly sick society. You may already know what Jiddhu Krishnamurti had to say about that.

We are at a moment now when the merely economic concept of what it is to be human is being exposed as the empty husk it is. Our culture has nothing to offer us any more, a point which is brutally apparent to the younger generations. There used to be a story which went like this (I know, because it was told to me, amongst many others): “Get a job. You’ll be able to keep doing that job for many years, so it makes sense to get a mortgage and buy a house – who knows, as the value of that house keeps on rising, you may be able to sell it and get a mortgage on a better one. You’ll be fine: your corporate employers will look after you. And at the end of it, you’ll be able to retire, on a comfortable pension.”

I don’t think anyone believes that story any more. I’m not sure if it’s even being told any more. Frankly, the one about being rescued by space unicorns from Alpha Centauri is more plausible at the moment. And some commentators appear to be surprised by the Great Resignation! Frankly, the only surprising thing about it is that it took so long.

Who in their right mind would choose a life in which they are no more than a corporate serf, doing some dull repetitive chore on a zero-hours contract for the smallest wage that some office drone has determined the company can get away with? Too few people now have the prospect of anything else. So they will choose some combination of living on benefits, petty crime, and the black economy. This is not new. Exactly the same thing happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Much the same thing, really, happened when the Western Roman Empire fell. Ultimately, people vote with their feet.

The industrialised West is currently suffering what they are pleased to call a “labour shortage.” This is really just a sucker shortage. Nobody believes the fairy stories any more. They have been contradicted too often and too brutally by the reality of lived experience. This article gives a nice summary for the UK; I would be surprised if the reality in other industrialised countries is much different. (Feel free to weigh in below in the comments section below. More data is always welcome.)

So we have some collective clarity about what life is not about. The task now is to get some clarity about what it could be about, and how that could work in practice. Because if your life isn’t yielding the things required to sustain you – nourishing food, drinkable water, breathable air, and a supportive community – then that isn’t working. I’d draw your attention to the fact that few if any of the things on that list are presently being supplied by the arrangements we have in place, unless you’re very, very lucky.

Human beings have inhabited this planet for quite a few millennia – exactly how many depends on who you believe, but a lot. They have done so successfully; if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here today. For the most part, they managed to do this without the aid of economists, or of the industrial model, or even of science. I see no good reason to assume, as many people seem to, that their lives were, as Hobbes famously put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutal and short.” Certainly they were not solitary, and there is no indication that they felt human existence to be meaningless. On the contrary, so far as we can tell from the observation of indigenous peoples, they felt their lives to be crammed with meaning and purpose.

There are people living today – perhaps you, dear reader, are one of them – who can imagine nothing good of a world without iPhones. You may encounter some of them ranting about people who insist on having children, since assuredly those children will not have iPhones, the facts of geology being what they are. Well, I am old enough to have grown up without an iPhone or indeed the Internet, and you know what? We coped. Your children will also cope, and your grandchildren won’t even feel the lack. People adapt. This is how we got to a world containing Inuit and !Kung and Maasai and Wall Street day-traders and you, dear reader.

I am not here to tell you what your life ought to mean. I have no idea what your life ought to mean, because I have no idea who you are or what place you are in or how you got to that place, let alone what that place might look like in ten or twenty or a hundred years’ time. These are questions only you can answer. What I will tell you, however, is that you can make a meaning and a purpose that will make sense to you out of your present circumstances. I will assert the possibility of doing that even if you happen to be on Death Row, although I hope you are not. The meaning of a human life does not have to end when that person’s life ends.

It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.

Steve Biko

People are not there to serve an economic or ideological end. Economics and ideologies are there to serve the needs of people. If the present arrangements fail to recognise this – and they do – so much the worse for them. Whatever the future holds, the one thing you can be sure of is that it won’t be business as usual. This is a moment where, collectively and individually, we can and should be asking the big questions. What are you for?

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

On homelessness

Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.

Wendell Berry, “The objective”

There are many people in the industrialised world who currently have no fixed address – some of them voluntarily, but most of them not. Exactly how many depends on who you believe. Government statistics will naturally understate the figures and homelessness charities will tend to overstate them, but either way it’s a lot.

This essay is not, however, about that problem, serious as it is. I’m talking about the decay of home as a concept in our culture: what home is, and why it matters. This may seem an odd thing to be worrying about at this juncture in human affairs, but I think its importance will become clear.

Human beings were originally hunter-gatherers, and we tend to imagine that this involved a kind of aimless meandering about in the hope of coming across something edible. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Being a successful hunter-gatherer means knowing your patch very, very well. You may move from place to place with the seasons, but you will know exactly where you’re going and why. Gaining this level of knowledge about a new territory is a slow process of trial and error, which is why it initially took a long time for people to spread out across the globe.

Some hunter-gatherers were able to be sedentary, if they were lucky enough to live in a place rich enough to support this on a year-round basis. We tend to forget this because agriculturalists have progressively turfed hunter-gatherers out of the good spots, and so modern exponents of that lifestyle are relegated to marginal areas such as deserts or the Arctic. Even in these areas, incidentally, people have still managed to find a living, which is one reason I am not worried about imminent human extinction.

But even nomads have a home region, and farmers are even more closely tied to a specific place. In farming communities, one would typically live and die in the same place, or at least the same area. This is much less usual in industrial culture. I don’t live in the town where I was born, and this is entirely normal. People move around, and are expected to move around. You leave home to study, and you move again for your career, certainly within your home country and often internationally. This is known as a flexible labour market, and we are told that it is good.

City living has historically relied on people moving in from the countryside, if only because cities were such unhealthy places that that was the only way to maintain the population, let alone increase it. We like to suppose that people did this because life in the cities was so much better than life in the country that people flocked there, but I’m not convinced by this argument. The original Industrial Revolution in England was able to attract workers largely because the Enclosures had made life much harder for the peasantry. It is a comparatively modern thing for the urban population to outnumber the rural.

Still, we don’t think about moving home as a big deal. I am going to argue that this is a mistake.

Having a home implies a long-term commitment to a particular place. That place might be quite a large area if you are a nomadic pastoralist roaming the steppes of central Asia, but the principle still holds. Now being committed to a place means that you are also committed to its long-term well-being, because you need it to carry on supplying you and your children and grandchildren with the necessities of life. Of course human beings will make mistakes, that’s a given, but you won’t deliberately pollute your groundwater or exhaust your soil or overfish your rivers.

If, on the other hand, you don’t live anywhere in particular, you don’t really care about any of this, and even if you do you may not have the necessary local knowledge to make good decisions. One of the long-term problems with US agriculture, dating back to the days of the Frontier, is the assumption that you can always move on and farm somewhere else. As a result, the US has seen topsoil erosion on an epic scale as well as general abuse of the land, to the extent that serious estimates suggest that farming will only be possible there for a few more decades.

The logical extension of the Frontier mindset is the Elon Musk school of thought whereby we solve all our problems by going to another planet. But of course even if Mars offered us a liveable world – which it really doesn’t; you can’t even breathe there, let alone grow food – we would soon destroy Mars too, unless we really and truly made it our home, as we are failing to do on our own planet.

This sort of thing is inevitable if nobody’s paying attention, if nobody’s home. It’s an attitude of mind as much as anything. To quote Derrick Jensen:

It’s no wonder we don’t defend the land where we live. We don’t live here. We live in television programs and movies and books and with celebrities and in heaven and by rules and laws and abstractions created by people far away and we live anywhere and everywhere except in our particular bodies on this particular land at this particular moment in these particular circumstances.

Derrick Jensen, Endgame, Vol. 2: Resistance

As the saying goes, what is not sustainable will not be sustained. The fact remains that we do all of us live in a particular place, and it we need to learn to treat that place as home. By which I mean we should treat it as if we will need it to carry on supplying us and our children and grandchildren with the necessities of life, because if we do that then maybe it will. Conversely, if nobody does that there will eventually be nowhere for anyone to live, apart from marginal places like deserts and the Arctic.

I don’t think that the notion of home is a difficult one. It’s one we have always had as a species; we are, after all, noticeably territorial. It seems to be commonplace amongst human beings in non-industrial cultures, and there are still some of us who value it, despite the tendency to treat home as if it were merely a parking-space.

For many of us, of course, that is what it largely is. We work somewhere else, we shop somewhere else, we holiday somewhere else. Our mental and emotional lives largely occur elsewhere. There is no sense of attachment to this particular spot. After all, in a few years we’ll probably be moving somewhere else, because somewhere else is always better than here. It’ll probably have the identical chain-stores and chain-restaurants and supermarkets, of course.

At some point, it seems to me, we each of us need to choose a home, to put down roots, and find a place in the world. To survive anywhere, you need to belong. Citizens of the industrial world belong anywhere and therefore belong nowhere. It’s up to each of us to change that. Over to you.

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

On democracy

The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeois.

Gustave Flaubert

The word “democracy” comes to us from the Greeks, and was originally a term of abuse. It means, literally, “mob rule”, as distinct from “aristocracy”, or “rule by the best people.” (Of course exactly who the “best people” might be was, then as now, a subject for discussion.)

The poster child for ancient democracy has always been Athens. The Athenian system was not, in some ways, all that democratic, excluding from the franchise as it did women, slaves and foreigners. Another difference from modern democracy is that is was not representative but participatory – that is to say, the citizens voted directly on the issues, rather than electing representatives to vote on their behalf. Ordinary citizens were also expected to carry out government work; there was no civil service, and no such thing as a professional politician. Officers were chosen by lot, much as jurors are nowadays, and for the same reasons.

Athens was not always a democracy. Indeed, for most of its history it was either a tyranny or an oligarchy. Much as democracy was a term of political abuse then, but is not now, so tyranny has become a term of abuse now, but was not then. A tyrant (tyrannos in Greek) was simply a strong-man who ruled on his own – not exactly a king, because there was no sense of dynastic legitimacy, although that might be acquired over time, but an acting king. Tyrants were of course a mixed bag, but at least some of them had a reputation for good government and were very popular (for example Cypselus of Corinth or Polycrates of Samos).

An oligarchy is literally “rule by the few.” I think we can all point to plenty of those on the modern political scene, most of them fervently claiming to be democracies. It was already clear to ancient political observers, notably the Greek historian Polybius, that there is a cyclic pattern in which democracies tend to devolve into oligarchies, due to the fact that rich people can buy votes; oligarchies devolve into monarchies or tyrannies, when one person effectively manages to become top oligarch; and then these are overthrown by popular revolt and replaced by democracies. Rinse and repeat.

The country whose political history I know best is my own, the (allegedly) United Kingdom. Back in the seventeenth century, which technically predates the UK but was a time when the same kings ruled both England and Scotland, there was an attempt at running the place as an absolute monarchy. When the ensuing civil wars swept that monarchy away, there was an interesting moment when actual democracy might have broken out. (Read up on the Putney Debates for more information.) Instead, an oligarchy was installed, and even though the monarchy was ostensibly restored in 1660 that is how the place has been run ever since.

This has not prevented the British establishment from pretending with increasing fervour to be democratic. From 1832, the franchise was gradually extended over time to reduce and finally remove the property qualifications required to be able to vote, even including – gasp – women by 1928. However, the system was always from the beginning representative, not participatory, and the House of Lords has never been elected.

Parliament was never originally more than an advisory body. In England, it was originally instituted in 1215 by the nobility, who wanted to prevent the monarch from accruing too much power at their expense. There was also some token representation from non-aristocrats (the House of Commons), but in the original version the House of Lords was where the action was. Nowadays the balance of power has shifted, and the House of Commons is the driving force. The last British Prime Minister to govern as a member of the upper house was Lord Salisbury, who left office back in 1892, and even at the time it was considered something of an anachronism.

But the House of Commons is something of a misnomer. The wealthy and well-connected predominate, and always have done. The Prime Minister as I write this is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the product of Eton and Oxford; his predecessor, Theresa May, is also an Oxford graduate whose non-political career was in banking; her predecessor, David Cameron, was a contemporary of Johnson’s at Eton and Oxford; and so on.

As far as I can see – and as a foreigner I realise my view is only partial – much the same state of affairs prevails in the USA, which seems to be run largely by and for the super-rich. Inevitably, this results in considerable cognitive dissonance when such a regime claims not only to be democratic but to be bringing the gift of democracy to other countries – especially when, as so often, this is accompanied by the further gift of high explosives. Dropping an awful lot of bombs on Cambodia resulted in the not terribly democratic government of Pol Pot, and later efforts in that direction elsewhere have not been much more successful. The recent debacle in Afghanistan is by no means the first of its kind.

This saddens me, because in many ways democracy is, or would be, an excellent form of government. I am not sure, however, that it scales well. The democracy of Athens started to go off the rails when it acquired an empire. Something similar could be said of the USA when it began to expand dramatically westwards from the original Thirteen Colonies. At a small local level, however, democracy can function much more effectively.

That’s good news for the future, because it is precisely at the small local level that we will mostly be living. Any system of government requires the consent of the governed, or at least a significant part of them, and democracy’s strength is being able to achieve that and sustain it. If enough people are unhappy with those in charge, they can be removed and replaced with another more acceptable set without anyone’s heads getting stuck on pikes.

Democracy ultimately depends on accountability. The smaller the scale, the more effectively this can be enforced. In his book The Breakdown of Nations (Chelsea Green, 2001), Leopold Kohr argued that the Principality of Liechtenstein is about the ideal size for a nation-state, because everyone knows where the prince lives and can take their grievances directly to him. A world made up of micro-states would of course be unwieldy under present economic arrangements, but when those arrangements go away it may make a lot more sense.

Without such direct mechanisms of accountability, all we can do is trust in the government to be, on the whole, benign. This trust is however eroding rapidly, certainly in the UK and by all accounts in the US also, to say nothing of countries like France or Italy. The honour system can only function when honourable people are running things. There was a time when this was largely the case, but it no longer seems to be. Voter turnout is low, cynicism is rife. The system is rotten to the core, and widely seen to be so. It is not hard to foresee the day when public confidence in it collapses to a point where the government can no longer govern.

We should beware of throwing out the baby with the bath-water, though. Democracy is still, as Churchill famously remarked, the worst form of government apart from all the others. It provides the best safeguards against oppressive, corrupt or simply incompetent regimes. You are more likely to accept a decision you disagree with if your voice has at least been heard. It’s no guarantee of correct decision-making – the Athenians certainly made plenty of mistakes, most spectacularly the decision to invade Sicily – but it’s at least as reliable as leaving it in the hands of a self-defining elite, the “best people” in their own opinion. And mistaken policies can at least be reversed reasonably quickly.

Many of our modern “democracies” may be past saving, but the democratic ideal is something worth preserving. I may not live to see a future world in which it prevails, but I very much hope it will come. To quote Noam Chomsky: “In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued – they may be essential to survival.”

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

On the latest IPCC report

The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.

IPPC AR6 WG1 Headline Statements from the Summary for Policymakers

I don’t propose to go into the ins and outs of the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which have already been widely covered in the media. This is the sixth report they’ve issued so far, and it promises to have the same impact as the previous five, which is to say more or less zero. This blog post is more concerned with the reasons why that is the case. It seems to me that these fall into two broad categories:

The inability of scientists to assess and convey the issues accurately

There are a couple of issues here. The first is that scientists are trained to be inherently conservative. I can’t emphasise enough that no blame attaches to them for this. In most circumstances, this is a completely appropriate attitude. We all know the story about the boy who cried “Wolf!” – the kicker to which, remember, is that the wolf did show up in the end.

This does lead to incomplete models being used. There are many, many things that feed into climate change, and some of them are very difficult to model, involving as they do extremely complex feedback loops. Methane emissions from melting permafrost are one example; we know that methane is indeed being emitted as the permafrost melts, and we know that methane is a very potent greenhouse gas (far more so than CO2, although it doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere for anything like as long). What we don’t know is exactly how this will play out; x amount of methane emissions results in y amount of extra heating, which causes z amount of additional emissions, which in turn results… you see how this is going.

But the fact that we don’t know how to model something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. We can be reasonably confident that methane emissions from melting permafrost will have an effect on the climate, and that that effect is going to be bad. Therefore we should treat any model that omits that fact as unduly optimistic – we may not not know just how optimistic, but we can be sure that there is an error in that direction. This may well be obvious to climate scientists, indeed I expect it is, but I’m not sure that it’s grasped widely enough by the general public.

The second issue, and blame is definitely involved here, is that IPCC reports are vetted by economists to try and prevent anything too scary coming out. The collapse of the basic systems on which life on this planet depends is Kryptonite to conventional economics, so I don’t expect economists to like the prospect in front of them. I do however expect them to have the intellectual honesty to admit that that is the prospect we’re all facing. Well, actually, I don’t, but that’s because, as H. L. Mencken pointed out a long time ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his income depends on his not understanding it.”

Which brings me onto my second category:

The inability of our political and economic systems to respond appropriately

As I have already explained in a number of previous posts (such as this one, this one and this one, for starters), our civilisation is based on economic growth; or, as Captain Jack Sparrow puts it: “Take what you can, give nothing back.” This may work well in a fantasy version of the Caribbean but not so much on a finite planet with many complex interrelated systems (of which the climate is but one), each having the ability to respond to our behaviour in unpredictable ways.

This is not the place, nor do I have the competence, to try and give you a primer on systems theory. We all have daily practical experience of dealing with complex systems, however, and those complex systems are other people.

We all have people in our lives we don’t get on with. Whatever they say or do, we just get more annoyed with them. In fact, in extreme cases there’s nothing they could say or do to alter our opinion of them. We currently have that kind of relationship with the global climate. There’s nothing we can do at this point that will make the climate be nice to us. In effect, we’ve just made too many snide remarks about its mother.

We could in principle at least stop winding it up, but the imperatives that made us act that way to begin with are all still in place. We can still only do things that make a profit, or at least those are the only activities to which we assign value. Doing less harm to the world entails doing less, and doing less is always framed as catastrophic. Remember all the lamentation about the plight of the airline industry when Covid-19 first hit? That was a terrific win from an environmental standpoint, but almost nobody said so.

There are many enterprises – airlines just being a conspicuous example – for which going green is basically the same as going out of business. You won’t hear this discussed by the talking heads, because nobody wants to admit it, but that doesn’t stop it being the case. What you will hear is a a lot of talk about decoupling, a concept which deserves a blog post to itself, but the executive summary is that it’s the kind of thing that gets wishful thinking a bad name.

What of political solutions? Well, to paraphrase Professor Herman Daly, politics nowadays is pretty much a wholly owned subsidiary of economics. There is very little room for any political opinion that is not framed within the commonly accepted world-view of industrial capitalism. If having factories is causing problems, the solution must be more factories. Politicians exist in order to facilitate the multiplication of factories and to arrange the distribution of the resulting goodies in a way that gets them re-elected.

The leaders of industrialised nations across the world – and I include the leaders of the late, mostly unlamented USSR in this – have been cheerleading industrialisation, growth and progress for well over a century at this point. It is simply unrealistic to expect them to reverse their position now. Arguably it was wrong when they first took it up, although at least back then it was plausible. Today it is, in practical terms, suicidal, but they are lumbered with it.

So then, as the late Comrade Lenin asked, what is to be done? Large-scale converted responses from businesses or governments might be helpful but I don’t expect them to be forthcoming. Therefore we are left with small-scale, local initiatives. I don’t mean to discount these; there’s a lot that can be done at this level. Some good work has already been done by the Permaculture, Transition Towns and Strong Towns movements; there’s a lot of practical advice and support out there; this forum, for example. By all means get involved. Skill up. Build your local network. One way or another, you’re going to need it, and maybe sooner than you think.

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

On my favourite Tarot trump

It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

If you know nothing else about the Tarot, you will have seen this card. It is the one that the gypsy fortune-teller always picks out in every cheesy horror film or TV show since the dawn of time. It is, as I’m sure you know or have guessed, Death.

Many versions of the Tarot exist, but they are all divided into two parts. One is essentially the same as a regular deck of playing-cards, with different (but related) symbols for the suits, and an extra court card – similar to the playing-cards used in Spain, if you’re familiar with those. These are sometimes known as the Minor Arcana. The other is what is known as the Major Arcana, or Trumps, and these are all individually named and (mostly) numbered. The number for Death, as we see here, is thirteen.

This may all sound like unalloyed bad news. If you’re wondering what I think is so great about this card, well, that’s why I’m blogging about it.

If you get this card in a Tarot reading, it probably doesn’t mean you are about to die. I cannot stress this point enough. If it does mean that, then you will be in a place where you are ready to die, and may even be looking forward to it: prepared, in fact, to die a good death, of which more later. But, as I say, it probably isn’t referring to actual death, either yours or anyone else’s. The Death card refers more generally to letting go of something. We all need to do this many times in life, and while it can be sad it can also be liberating. Losing one’s virginity is a loss, but not necessarily something to regret.

Imagine, for example, that you are a heavy smoker who decides to give up smoking – and more power to your elbow. This is not an easy thing to do. People who have been addicted to both report that giving up tobacco is actually harder than giving up heroin, and that ain’t no walk in the park.

So giving up smoking will be a struggle. But it also has considerable rewards. On a purely financial level, you’ll save a small fortune, at least if you’re in a country that taxes tobacco heavily, as the UK does. It will have a massive beneficial impact on your health and well-being. It will also be one less need that you will have to satisfy and plan for and make time for. But it will also be the death of your tobacco habit.

Now the death of your tobacco habit maybe something to mourn from the point of view of Philip Morris, but for you it’s a win all round. There will be suffering, no doubt about that, but the gains outweigh it. You will, in fact, have gained something by not having something, which is a concept that appears paradoxical in our culture but not, as far as I know, in any other. That’s why I like the Death card.

The ultimate expression of this paradox is the good death, to which I alluded earlier. By this I don’t just mean altruistic self-sacrifice in the manner of Sydney Carton, although that has its place. I speak of a death which concludes a life well-lived: which doesn’t mean that you need to have been a hero, just someone who mostly did right by those around them and left the world a better place than they found it.

If you want to read a modern exploration of how that can look at the sharp end, I can heartily recommend the book With the End in Mind: How to Live and Die Well by Kathryn Mannix (William Collins, 2019; ISBN 978-0008210915). Dr Mannix is a specialist in palliative care and knows whereof she writes, and her patients are ordinary people, in as much as ordinary people exist, which I doubt. You may find the book difficult in places. Persevere: it’s worth it.

The Death card seems to me very much a card for our times. Right now, many people all over the world are having to let go of some pretty big things – their homes, for example, through fire or flood. We are all going to be letting go of many things over the coming years and decades as industrial civilisation slowly and messily disintegrates. Ready access to tobacco, for example. Mains electricity 24/7. The ability to run a car. Regular paid employment. That sort of thing.

Plenty among us have already had to say goodbye to some of those. Perhaps you already have some experience of that; if not, a rehearsal might not be a bad idea. Just a suggestion.

Not all of the things we shall lose will be material goods, either. We are all going to have to rethink a lot of our fundamental beliefs and assumptions about how the world works and what is and is not really valuable. For some people, that will be harder than having their house burn down. You don’t want to be one of those people.

In the immortal words of John Michael Greer: “Collapse now, and avoid the rush.”

The Death card is about collapse; it’s about losing things, but also about learning that the things you lose are not, after all, things you need. It’s like trees shedding their leaves in autumn. The leaves were worth growing, and all through summer they contributed greatly to the life of the tree, but as winter approaches they cost more to maintain than they are worth, now that the days are shorter and the sunlight is weaker. Shedding those leaves is a smart move. Nobody is quite sure exactly why or when some species of tree started doing this, but it was long enough ago that we can be quite sure it works from an evolutionary perspective.

If it’s going to work out for us from an evolutionary perspective, we’re going to have to get back to basics. That means the end of a lot of extraneous nonsense that we have mistaken for reality, and in some cases for essentials. If you are one of those people who can conceive of nothing good about a world without iPhones, you are either going to revise your ideas or die despairing, because where we are going is just that kind of world. Do not, I beg you, die despairing. Life is bigger and richer than that.

Ultimately the Death card is an invitation to life: a different life, true, a life that lacks some things, but which at the same time makes room for other things. Everything that lives does so from something else that dies; even plants – where do you think humus comes from? – even the veganest vegan that ever veganed. That’s how nature works. And [spoiler alert] nature will carry on working like that whether you or I like it or not.

A bizarre phobia about natural processes is the besetting hobgoblin of our culture. It springs, I think – I hope – largely from ignorance. Remedy that ignorance, dear reader. Live a little amongst wild things, or at least non-human things. Grow a house-plant. Keep chickens. Watch and learn. Begin to think like a tree.

Death has much to teach us. Its gift, ultimately, is life.

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

On superpowers

Hubris calls for nemesis, and in one form or another it’s going to get it, not as a punishment from outside but as the completion of a pattern already started.

Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live by

According to Stewart Brand, we are as gods; and this certainly seems to be a widespread view, judging by the sort of thing people seem to think they can get away with. I’m not just talking about the Darwin Awards, although some of those stories are quite revealing. There are more than a few divine of quasi-divine attributes that we in the industrial world believe – or would like to believe – we possess.

We can live forever

One of the many interesting things which the Covid-19 pandemic has flushed out of the cultural woodwork is just how poorly our civilisation copes with death. People do of course die all the time, but we make heroic efforts not to notice this unless the people in question are our close relatives or celebrities (categories that for many people seem to merge into one another). A death can be tragic, but that’s to do with the surrounding circumstances and not because death in itself always is.

I personally would hope to have a good death after a life well lived. This used to be a common attitude, but to many people the whole notion of “a good death” seems paradoxical. Consequently, some of our more avant-garde would-be deities are seriously claiming that death is now optional, or will be soon, or at any rate ought to be.

We can go faster than a speeding bullet

The fastest speed ever attained by a human being is 39,897 km/h (24790.85 mph), which I guess is technically faster than the speed of a bullet (generally somewhere between between 370 m/s and 460 m/s). On the other hand, this was achieved basically by falling from an extremely great height, which is not that amazing a trick. Inanimate objects can and do pull that one off all the time; some meteors may be travelling at close to the speed of light when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. And on a more mundane level, no human being can run anything like as fast as a cheetah, for example.

We can go to the stars

Elon Musk’s grandiose plans to colonise Mars are, on his own admission, merely the preliminary to spreading across the entire galaxy. We can debate whether this would be a good idea if it were a practical possibility – you won’t be surprised I think it wouldn’t be – but it isn’t a practical possibility, and we might as well admit it. The distances involved are too vast, the time and energy and materials required are all on far too gigantic a scale.

With immense effort and expenditure, we just about managed to get a few people to the Moon and back, which in galactic terms is almost nothing. If we do somehow get human beings to Mars, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of ever getting them back again. (Apparently there are some people who are up for that. It takes all sorts.) Even the outer planets of our own solar system would appear to be off-limits, let alone other star-systems.

There’s a reason why unmanned probes are considered the way forward in space exploration nowadays.

We can terraform other planets

Even if we could get to other planets (and back again), there is the small matter of living there. We evolved to live on this planet, which offers a number of conveniences such as a breathable atmosphere, shielding from toxic radiation, and a comfortable amount of gravity. None of those are available elsewhere, and providing them for ourselves is not going to be easy.

It has been usefully pointed out that Antarctica is far more human-friendly environment than, say, Mars. Antarctica is not especially pleasant. Its human population today consists entirely of research scientists whose work obliges them to be there, and those people are not camping out and living off the land.

I’m not in favour of trying to “improve” Antarctica by terraforming techniques, but it would be a darn sight easier than trying to do it to another planet. Apart from anything else, assembling the equipment and workers required and shunting them down to the Southern Ocean would be a picnic compared to doing the same just for the distance between here and Mars, our nearest planet, let alone exoplanets.

We can do what we like to this planet

I suppose this one is true – although if we wanted, say, to move the Himalayas three feet to the left it might pose a bit of a challenge – but we need to be realistic about the consequences of our actions. We are currently trying to burn down the Amazon rain-forest, for example. We may even succeed in this project, but if we do we shall regret it. As Satish Kumar has pointed out: “If we ever win the war against nature, we will find ourselves on the losing side.”

Human beings have wiped out the seemingly inexhaustible numbers of the passenger pigeon and almost did the same to the plains buffalo. Indeed, exhausting the apparently inexhaustible is our party trick. According to some researchers, we will soon have removed all the fish from the sea; which, impressive at it kind of is in one way, is surely an extraordinarily bad move, even from the narrow perspective of commercial fisheries.

We (can or will) know everything

Many, many years ago, an Oxford undergraduate wrote a skit featuring many of the prominent dons of his time, starting with the then Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett:

First come I, my name is Jowett;

There’s no knowledge but I know it.

I am the Master of this college,

What I know not is not knowledge.

Anon.

This is the intellectual life of Western civilisation in a nutshell. The truth is that our collective ignorance is nothing short of encyclopaedic. We know almost nothing, for example, of the life of the soil under our feet, on which our lives depend. We can only guess how many species we are rendering extinct, because we only have a very patchy knowledge of what species there were to begin with.

Mathematics is an honourable exception to this tendency, because it has the honesty to admit – indeed, to rigorously define – questions that cannot be decided, propositions that can never be shown to be true or false. But of course industrial civilisation only cares about mathematics to the extent that you can make a buck out of it, which indeed is the only extent to which it cares about anything.

Another relevant saying here is one attributed to Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” There is a great deal of such “knowledge” underpinning much of our civilisation; I can highly recommend this list from Wendell Berry as a starting-point for your explorations.

We are unique and special

And we are, of course; as is the orang-utan, the coelacanth, and the pistol shrimp. And so were the dodo, the elephant bird, and Gardiner’s giant mite. Unlike them, we’re still around, although if we carry on like this we may not be for much longer.

Is this sustainable?

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

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.