On markets and competition

The free market is a myth. Everybody knows that. Just very few people say it. If you’re in the position like I am and do business all over the world, and if I’m not smart enough to know there’s no free market, I ought to be fired.

The reason we don’t call it socialism is that socialism is a bad word.

Dwayne Andreas, then CEO and chairman of Archer DaniElS Midland, from an interview with Richard Manning (Against the Grain (North Point Press, 2004), p. 144)

Markets, we are often told, are the solution to all our problems. Hardcore market fundamentalists, indeed, seem to think that markets are, or ought to be, the only way in which human beings interact with one another. I sometimes wonder if people who think like that were picked up enough as a baby.

Economic models, like all models, are a simplification of reality. If they weren’t, they would be like the map that Jorge Luis Borges imagined which was exactly the same size are the territory it represented – accurate, but too cumbersome to be of any use. But like all good ideas, simplification can be taken too far. As Einstein is reputed to have said, everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

One of the assumptions economists make about markets is that the parties have perfect information. I’m sure this makes the mathematics a lot simpler but this has never been true of any actual market anywhere. Of course they usually have some information; for the most part, when we go to a shop to buy some bananas, we have an expectation of how much we’re likely to be charged, based on past experience. But we are unlikely to be well-informed on the state of banana production across the globe, let alone on shipping costs, warehousing, and all the other factors that play a part in determining the price we pay.

In theory, we don’t need to worry about any of this because competition between retailers is supposed to ensure the price is kept within bounds. This can work reasonably well so long as our expectations remain in line with the underlying reality. If that reality changes, you can get screwed. An example: long-distance telephone calls.

I am just about old enough to remember when long-distance calls were significantly more expensive than local ones, because they involved more work on the part of the telephone service provider. Am actual human being in a telephone exchange had to set up your call. (In those days phones were provided by the Post Office, thanks to the Telegraph Act (1868), brought in by that notorious socialist Benjamin Disraeli). When automatic exchanges came in, a long-distance call cost the Post Office no more than a local call, but because everyone was used to paying extra for long-distance they merrily continued charging extra.

Now of course an economist would argue that this is a classic case of a market failure. In the orthodox view, market failures are never, ever due to the market. Here we have the evil socialist Benjamin Disraeli distorting the free market by creating a state monopoly. But of course markets tend towards monopoly in any case, although usually there’s some attempt to save appearances. Adam Smith himself was well aware of this:

The interest of the dealers… in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Book I, Chapter XI

This has brought us such wonders as the US healthcare system, which is now the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in that country (66.5% of cases, according to a 2019 study). Given that other industrialised nations don’t seem to have this problem – in the UK we have a mix of state and private healthcare provision, and you’d have to work quite hard to go bust that way – this looks like a market failure to me. And heavy-handed interference on the part of the government isn’t the issue. On the contrary, there probably needs to be more of that sort of thing.

Because government and markets, far from being antagonists, are intimately linked. Mediaeval lords were forever granting charters to allow markets to be held in towns they controlled. But they also intervened, for example, to enforce the use of standard weights and measures. To this day. the German brewing industry still abides by a sixteenth-century decree specifying what may or may not be put into beer. Regulations of this kind go back to the first literate civilisations that we know of, and for good reason.

A market is never a neutral space nor a level playing-field, at least not if it is left to its own devices. And if it starts to tilt too far in the direction of either buyers or sellers, it quickly ceases to be an efficient means of allocating economic resources, which is what markets are cracked up to be.

A monopoly is one obvious extreme, a market in which there is effectively only one vendor. The opposite extreme is a monopsony, where there is only one purchaser. The US has an example of that one too: the immense US arms industry sells pretty much exclusively to their own military. I dare say a lot of what they provide is fine, but there are definitely some real lemons in there – the F-35 fighter, supposedly nicknamed the Penguin by its pilots because it flies like one, or the Zumwalt class destroyers, of which only three ended up being commissioned due to cost overruns, not least the high-tech ammunition for its guns, weighing in at $800,000 per round. It’s hard to see this as representing the efficient allocation of economic resources unless you happen to have shares in Lockheed-Martin.

All of this suggests that we should be very careful of the term “free market.” As the quotation from Dwayne Andreas at the head of this piece makes clear, it is generally a fig-leaf for something else. The Wikipedia article for his company has an entire section dedicated to various scandals in which it has been involved over the years, including (but not not limited to) price-fixing, lobbying for government subsidies, and straight-up corruption. Not that I want to single out ADM here; it seems to be an endemic problem with contemporary capitalism, at least amongst large corporations (ADM’s revenue in 2021 was reportedly $85 billion).

People have always traded for what they need or want, and they always will. There’s evidence for long-distance trade, at least in luxury goods, going right back to the Stone Age. What we need to remember, more often than we tend to do these days, is that unregulated markets tend to degenerate into the equivalent of extortion. Of course it’s possible to over-regulate markets, but it’s just as harmful to under-regulate them too. The best way, as so often, lies somewhere between the two extremes.

I began this piece with a quotation taken from Richard Manning’s Against the Grain (North Point Press, 2004), which is an investigation into industrial agriculture in the US. It’s well worth reading for a number of reasons, not least as a case-study of market failure. There is very, very little that could be considered efficient about the agricultural systems that Manning discusses; any method of food production that requires the expenditure of ten or more calories of energy to deliver a single calorie of food must be on a hiding to nothing.

This is what the free market will give you, if you let it. Demand better.

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

On the longest day

If eternity had a season, it would be midsummer. Autumn, winter, spring are all change and passage, but at the height of summer the year stands poised. It’s only a passing moment, but even as it passes the heart knows it cannot change.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Edward Gibbon begins his epic history of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by considering what he takes to have been its high point: the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD). I wonder what historians of the future might take to be the equivalent moment in the decline and fall of industrial civilisation. If Roman history were a year, that would be its Midsummer’s Day. From that point onward, the nights only got longer.

My guess would probably be somewhere around the 1960s. Oil, coal and natural gas were all freely available at reasonable prices. The industrial gospel was being actively spread across the world, into places like Hong Kong and South Korea. The world might have been divided politically between the communist East and capitalist West, but everyone was busily building factories, mechanising, and merrily screwing up the environment on heroic scale.

It’s a pretty safe bet that nobody is going to be looking back on the twenty-first century as any kind of golden age. Or at least, nobody adopting the point of view of the industrialised nations. The historian James C. Scott writes of a “golden age of the barbarians” – partly, he claims, to be provocative, but I think he’s onto something. The fifth century was a pretty sweet time to be a Vandal, after all, living high on the hog in some of the richest (former) provinces of the Roman Empire.

The Summer Solstice reminds us that these things always go basically in cycles. In the sixth century, it got considerably less sweet to be a Vandal when a resurgent Eastern Roman Empire reconquered North Africa. So it goes. When civilisations fall, they replaced by something else. It may be better in some respects and worse in others, but we can say with confidence that it will be different.

It will have to be different, if only because we plainly cannot carry on doing what we’re doing indefinitely. As the saying goes, that which is not sustainable will not be sustained. Unfortunately that includes a number of things we fondly imagine to be sustainable, such as EVs, biodiesel, and the Internet.

But to think exclusively in terms of loss is to overlook what there is to be gained. It’s true that we won’t be gaining GDP, but that matters less than you may think. (The economist who invented it as a measure was very clear that GDP should not be taken as a simple “score” of national prosperity, despite the fact that it is invariably treated as exactly that.) There can be plenty of positive results when empires fall. The Roman Empire was notoriously based on slavery; when the Western Empire fell to the barbarians, slavery pretty much went away in their former territories.

Industrialism is not so openly based on classic chattel slavery. but there is a very large amount of unfreedom involved. I’m not just talking here of the sweatshops documented (for example) in Naomi Klein’s excellent book No Logo (Picador, 1999). It is increasingly the case that the majority of the population, even in notionally “wealthy” nations like the UK or USA, cannot survive without government assistance even when they are employed – even, in may cases, when they work multiple jobs. This is now extending to the middle classes, many of whom are now resorting to food banks.

It’s not even as if the jobs these people are doing are in any way rewarding. I am by no means the first person to point out that a mediaeval peasant worked shorter hours, with more job security, and under far less rigorous supervision than the average modern worker. Being a serf gets a bad rap these days, but I’m not sure that it compares that badly with working for Amazon on a zero-hours contract.

And I’m not even going to start on the tax system. In the glory days of the Roman Empire, citizens paid no tax at all. Nothing. Not a bean. In fact, those who lived in Rome (and later Constantinople) were entitled to free food – the original dole, a ration of grain officially termed the Cura Annonae which was the “bread” component of the famous “bread and circuses.” (The circuses were free as well.) As things began to go downhill, however, and the nights got longer, the tax burden increased dramatically. Roman citizenship had originally been a jealously-guarded privilege, as you can imagine, but in 212 AD it was extended to all non-slaves, with the motive – according to the contemporary historian Cassius Dio – of maximising the number of people who would have to pay taxes.

Returning to our mediaeval peasant: he was obliged to contribute a certain fraction of his output to his lord, which was taxation of a sort. This might be goods or labour or some combination of the two, and what was expected of him would usually remain constant over time – over generations, typically. It might not be written down anywhere, and given that most non-clergy were illiterate it wouldn’t have made much difference it it had been, but everyone knew where they stood.

I’m not claiming for a moment that this kind of social order would be perfect, still less advocating that we return to it or even predicting that it lies in our future. (Although something like it may well be; this sort of thing has arisen in many times and places, and this is just the version of it we’re most familiar with.) What I’m saying is that autumn and winter are not to be feared. They will, after all, be followed by spring again.

And yes, there will be another midsummer. So it goes.

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

On supply-chains

Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

Until quite recently, many people lived their lives in blissful ignorance of supply-chains. Unless you happened to work in logistics, you would just order stuff and it would magically arrive. There would be things in the shops. You could go to a filling-station and there would be fuel. It all just worked.

I need hardly point out that this happy state of affairs no longer obtains throughout much of the industrialised world. Currently for the wealthier parts it is mostly an inconvenience. apart from being a major driver of inflation; it’s rather more serious in places like Sri Lanka and Lebanon and likely to get more so, especially across North Africa.

As with most things that happen, there are various factors at play. We all learn at school that the First World War was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but the reality is that there were many, many causes of that war, and it would almost certainly have happened at some point even if Gavrilo Princip had missed. Indeed, there’s a whole academic industry devoted to studying the causes of the war.

In the present case, people tend to point at issues like Covid or Brexit or the war in Ukraine and blame the evil Chinese/EU/Russians/little men in pointy hats. It’s certainly true that the was has helped the price of oil and natural gas to rise even further, although people tend to skate over the fact that Brent crude was well over $90 a barrel even before the war, which is not exactly cheap. The Chinese lockdowns have slowed down its production for export, which is obviously bad news for those countries that no longer manufacture stuff and depend on the Chinese.

These are all shocks to the system, but the real issue is that the system itself is so rickety. It only works when a number of things happen to be the case:

  • It is cheap and easy to move goods from one place to another. There have been solutions to this problem historically that didn’t rely on fossil fuels – the Chinese used to move goods by wheelbarrow, for example – but we aren’t using those solutions today, and the price of oil is quickly becoming prohibitive. A few enterprising people are beginning to try and bring back sailing-ships for freight (these guys, for example), but there’s a very long way to go.
  • It is easy and convenient to take goods across national borders. This is certainly no longer the case for trade between Britain and the EU, but this issue is showing up elsewhere in various ways. India, for example, has recently decided to restrict exports of wheat.
  • It is easy and convenient to pay for foreign goods. One of the interesting aspects of the war in Ukraine has been the decision to exclude Russia from the SWIFT payment system, and Russia’s subsequent demand to be paid for its goods in its own currency. This is leading more or less directly to energy shortages in Europe, where natural gas has mostly been supplied by Russia. Diesel is also an issue.
  • Storage facilities are cheap and plentiful so that the system can smooth over any temporary disruptions to the flow of goods. Well, we don’t do that any more. Nowadays we prefer to use the “just in time” approach. To quote from the linked article: “…you don’t stockpile products and raw materials just in case you need them—you simply reorder products to replace those you’ve already sold.” Good luck with that. I’m particularly enjoying the word “simply” in that sentence. Again, natural gas is a case in point; with its trademark foresight, the UK government scaled back storage capacity just in time for prices to rise.
  • There are people willing and able to do the work. I’m thinking here mostly of lorry-drivers, or rather of all the people who could drive lorries but have realised they’d rather do something else. Still, I guess a shortage of drivers is less of an issue if you can’t afford the diesel to fuel the lorries or get the spare parts to keep them on the road.
  • End users can absorb all these extra costs. Up to a point, of course, they will, if the alternative is starving; but only up to a point. In the UK we are currently enjoying what is delicately referred to as a “cost of living crisis,” which is a polite way of saying that we are rapidly approaching that point, if we haven’t already reached it.

A major problem in any of these areas would be worrying. Seeing issues in all of them is downright scary. It’s a miracle that it still functions at all.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. Indeed, there’s no way it can carry on like this. Supply-chains need to be shorter and simpler. That implies that goods will need to be produced a lot closer to where they are needed. Now this all sounds fine and dandy, but many of us are going to have to redefine the word “needed” in ways we have not been brought up to expect.

Consider food. I talk about food a lot on this blog, because it’s something we all have in common – we may not all choose to eat the same things, but we all eat something, with the possible exception of breatharians. Many parts of the industrialised world are partly or wholly dependent on food imported from elsewhere; the UK certainly falls into that category, but so is much of USA, for example. Egypt, apparently, is heavily dependent on wheat imports, a fact which would have astonished any citizen of the Roman Empire. We are all noticing the effect of the current war on supplies of sunflower oil.

So if it can’t be produced within a reasonable distance of where you are, you won’t be eating it. This is not the end of the world. People inhabited the British Isles for millennia without ever tasting a pineapple. That is actually business as usual. We have forgotten this, because we have grown up with a normality that is profoundly abnormal. At some stage the laws of physics were always going to reassert themselves, and that moment may be coming soon.

Now there is the more pressing issue of whether enough of anything can be produced within a reasonable distance of where you are. If you look at the map of the United Kingdom, you will see it is largely covered by a network of (what originally used to be) market towns about twenty miles apart. That’s a reasonable radius if you are moving goods around by horse and cart: ten miles to market, and ten miles home again. We are no longer used to thinking on that scale.

Most of us, however, are now living in cities. As an example of how cities were fed before the Industrial Revolution, let us consider eighteenth-century Paris, which had a population of about 600,000 people – pretty big for those days, nothing to write home about today. It was fed in large part by the efforts of intensive market-gardeners based around the city, many of whose techniques have been picked up and developed by today’s organic growers. There were, nevertheless, bread riots, and eventually France ended up having a revolution at least partly as a result.

This is not an encouraging precedent. Of course, not all cities had this problem; contemporary London was bigger than Paris, and managed to get by. Still, it does suggest that having the bulk of your population in big cities is not the ideal strategy. If you can’t get the food closer to the people, then you need to get the people closer to the food. The alternative won’t be pretty; some analysts are already predicting another go-round of the Arab Spring in view of the current state of the global wheat market, and food riots are not something confined to Arabs.

All this implies a major change in our practical arrangements, and not just when it comes to food. For example, according to this paper, “In recent years ore supplies [for the British iron and steel industry] have come mainly from Australia, Brazil, Canada and South Africa.” Those are pretty long supply-lines.

So far as I can tell, nobody is planning for any of this. It’s going to be a mess, and all bets are off. On an individual level, while you might be able to grow some of your own veg, you’re probably not going to mine your own coal.

I wish I had something more cheerful to say about this. The best I can do is to suggest is that maybe the wheels won’t come off this thing just yet, but it definitely resembles a clown car more than it does a BMW.

In the meantime, enjoy your pineapple.

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

On processed food

“Eating is an agricultural act,” as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

What, it may reasonably asked, is processed food? I first came across this notion in the context of cheese. When I was a kid of around nine or ten, one of the substances that often formed part of my lunch was Swiss Knight processed cheese, which I believe is still available, although I haven’t personally touched the stuff in a number of decades. It consisted of a number of foil-wrapped triangles of squishy stuff, each of a different flavour – one even purported to be Gruyère, if I remember correctly.

Now as a child you tend to eat whatever is put in front of you without asking too many questions, but later on I started to wonder. After all, the word “processed” is pretty vague. All the manufacturers were claiming was that they had taken cheese and done something to it, and no doubt as far as it went this was true enough.

Cheese is of course the result of a process, and differences in that process (and the ingredients) account for the manifold differences we see between varieties of cheese. Fermented foods in general are processed, in this sense. But that clearly isn’t the kind of processing we’re talking about here. Processed cheese, whatever it is, must be something distinct from just cheese.

Some of the mysteries here are investigated in Joanna Blythman’s excellent book Swallow This (Fourth Estate, 2016). It’s not a pretty picture. Essentially, the food industry is based on replacing actual food with what Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances,” because actual food is generally more expensive than industrial chemicals, and less convenient to work with.

(Incidentally, I’m not saying that the makers of Swiss Knight do this to their product. I still have no idea what their processing entails, and given that I ate so much of the stuff in the 1970s I’m not sure I want to know.)

Now I’m not going to belabour the obvious point that eating industrial chemicals is probably not the greatest idea from a health point of view. Nor I am I going to address the ethics of doing this kind of thing to food. The point I want to make is that this state of affairs ought to be surprising. After all, you would think on the face of it that industrial chemicals would be more expensive than food, some of which literally grows on trees.

The solution to this conundrum is the industrial model. I referred a moment ago to the food industry. It wasn’t long ago that there was no such thing. There was food, of course, and there were people involved in growing it and selling it and even packaging it, but food was food, and not a “product.” Nobody in the northern hemisphere was expecting to eat strawberries in January. You would visit multiple shops to buy your food – the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, the fishmonger – assuming you bought food at all. In pre-industrial times, remember, most people were living and working on the land.

With the Industrial Revolution, things changed in a number of ways. For one thing, a lot more people found themselves living in cities. For another, most of them had very little money to spend on food, or indeed on anything else. There was a large and growing market for cheap calories. A case can be made that the availability of cheap sugar from the West Indian slave plantations was a large part of that. Moreover, if you are working fourteen to sixteen hours a day, six days a week, you aren’t going to have much time or energy to buy and prepare food, even if you have access to the facilities to do that.

So food became a product. This was in line with the new industrial modes of thinking, in which everything was a product. We are still in that mindset today – and indeed we still have plenty of people without access to the facilities to cook or store food. And access to cheap food, or edible food-like substances, became a key element of the social contract.

This has had many ramifications. In so far as food is a central element of culture, it has tended to destroy and homogenise culture. Everyone eats the same things, because those things are what you can buy in the shops. And what you can buy in the shops is no longer confined to what can be grown in the time or place you happen to inhabit, due to globalisation, which is itself made possible by industrialisation, and so if you want strawberries in January you can have them.

Of course they won’t be especially good strawberries. By definition, they won’t be fresh, and they’ll be of a variety selected to pack well, travel well and look the part, rather than to taste particularly good or be particularly nutritious. Considered as a product, that doesn’t matter – the only thing that matters is that you can sell them as a product. But considered as food, it’s a complete disaster.

Fresh produce itself is a product, and industrial agriculture exists to supply that product. There’s considerable evidence that food produced in this way is significantly less nutritious than it used to be, and therefore less nutritious than consumers tend to suppose. People have tested fresh oranges and found no vitamin C in them, for example.

Now processed food is a far more satisfactory product than fresh, from the shop’s point of view. A strawberry mousse in a plastic tub comes in a standard package and will last a lot longer on the shelf than actual strawberries will. This is particularly valuable if your supply chains are a bit dodgy, as they are at the moment (and will only get more so over time, for a number of reasons, which I’ll get into in another blog post). It’s not the supermarket’s problem if people eat unhealthily.

If you want to eat better, bluntly, you are going to have to avoid the food industry as far as you can. The bad news is that it will require more of your time, energy, and (to some extent) money than you are used to investing in what you eat. The good news is that this is likely to be doable, if you are prepared to make the commitment. For example, anything that you can grow yourself will be of value, even if it’s just a few herbs and microgreens on a windowsill or a couple of containers of tomatoes. At least you will be eating fresh food in season.

Anything you can buy directly from a local grower – meat, as well as fruit and veg – is a win. Again, this will be fresh food in season. Vegetable box schemes, also known as community supported agriculture, is one way to do this. I would urge you, however, to develop a direct personal relationship with the actual grower. If possible, visit their farm or garden. Apart from anything else, you can learn a lot that way.

While you’re at it, seek out local producers of cheese, if you can find any. If you’re near the coast, find a good fishmonger. You don’t have to be on the quay to meet the fishing-boats coming in at dawn, unless you want to. Try to source things like eggs and milk from local, small-scale producers. There may not be any, but you never know unless to you look. You may not be able to run to a house-cow, but keeping chickens (or ducks) might be an option.

Above all, learn to cook. Cooking is not sticking a fork through the lid of a plastic tub and putting it into a microwave. But neither does it have to be the kind of thing you see on Masterchef, unless you want to get into that. People used to learn this kind of skill at mother’s knee; it isn’t rocket science. Seek out the recipes for peasant cooking in whatever cuisine floats your boat: it will be cheap, filling and nutritious, because that’s what works for peasants the world over.

Whatever you can do in that direction will help you (and your family, if you have one) in multiple ways. Good food is a basic requirement for a good life. It is also one of life’s great pleasures. And if access to industrial food becomes patchy, expensive, or just plain impossible – and I wouldn’t rule out any of those possibilities in the next few years, let alone decades – you will have something to fall back on.

One day you’ll be very, very glad of that.

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

On living in interesting times

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Rudyard Kipling, “Recessional

Everyone, of course, has heard of the Chinese curse, or the supposedly Chinese curse. And it’s hard to deny that the times we’re going through will make interesting reading in the histories of the future, if they ever get written.

It’s an interesting exercise to wonder what those future historians will make of us. We’ll certainly leave a plentiful archaeological record, although much of it may be unpleasant, especially the parts involving spent nuclear fuel. How much of the written word will survive it’s hard to say. Most of our printed matter is on paper that quite quickly becomes yellow and brittle. The electronic stuff will be unreadable to future generations – even some of our quite recently made digital artifacts already fall into that category, and we still have access to computers.

Still, you’d like to think that it will be possible for the basic narrative of our civilisation’s fall to be reconstructed. After all, we can still manage a reasonable job of it with the Roman Empire even after all this time. That empire, or at least the Western half of it, took about a century to collapse. Let’s take that as a ballpark estimate of the span of our imagined future history. What would be our equivalent of the battle of Adrianople?

I’m tempted to suggest the 1973-4 oil crisis, which puts us about halfway along the trajectory of collapse. Back then there was much wringing of hands when the price of oil almost reached the dizzying heights of $12 a barrel – around $78 in today’s money. (At the time of this writing, incidentally, Brent Crude was $120 a barrel.) That crisis was blamed on the evil Arabs, much as the current one is being blamed on the evil Russians.

Where they will choose to end the story is hard to say. Conventionally, the end of the Western Roman Empire is dated from the abdication of the last emperor in 476, but to be honest, if they’d had newspapers back then it would have rated a filler paragraph at the bottom of page eleven. History is always a continuum, after all. Perhaps the equivalent for us will be the closure of the last oil-well, or the manufacture of the last car.

Whatever it is, it will probably also rate a filler paragraph at the bottom of page eleven, if there are still newspapers by that point. These things will have ceased to be relevant to the mass of the population, other than on a symbolic level. We’ll all be too busy getting on with our lives to shed too many tears for Royal Dutch Shell.

The details, of course, can’t be known in advance. But perhaps we can be clearer on what attitude towards us our descendents are likely to take. Historians of the Roman Empire have generally taken a broadly sympathetic view – helped by the fact that the bulk of the written sources come from the Roman side, of course, but also drawing on a genuine feeling that Roman civilisation and culture bequeathed many things of lasting value.

What will the future make of us?

On the physical level, it will be a mixed bag. I can imagine at least some of the road network being of some use, as indeed was the case with the Roman roads. We will have left an immense amount of scrap metal and other materials which can be salvaged in the future. On the other hand, we will also have left behind plenty of toxic rubbish which will continue to cause trouble for centuries if not millennia.

But I can’t imagine future cultures having much time for our values or our art. Those who prosper in the future will need to have adapted their ways of thinking about the world, and especially their relationship to other living beings, in a way that will be quite inimical to ours. This may indeed develop to a point where we become quite incomprehensible to them. There may, in the end, be no market for some putative Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Industrial Civilisation.

In many ways this is a sad prospect. Much will be lost that might indeed have had lasting value. But that, after all, is how it goes. And at least in this imaginary future life goes on, in different ways from what we are used to, of course, but it will still have meaning for those who live it.

Let us hope that their times are a little less interesting than ours.

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

On taking the first step

Houston, we have a problem.

Jim Lovell (attr.)

It is a truism, although nonetheless true, that the first step towards dealing with a problem is acknowledging that it exists. We know this because a very large fraction of adults in the industrialised world are either in an addiction programme of some sort, have been in one, or know someone who is. This in itself is suggestive; nobody starts sniffing glue because their life is going spectacularly well.

One of the problems faced by industrial civilisation at the moment is a meta-problem: our collective inability to recognise more than one problem at a time. This is a weird one, because there seems to be no good reason why this should be so. On a personal level, I have no difficulty grasping simultaneously that I have high blood pressure and the roof of the house needs to be fixed and all the other things that are going on (an extensive list, I can tell you). I’m sure you could do the same for whatever issues you may be facing. At a societal level, though, it seems to be restricted to one thing at a time.

When I finally get round to reviewing Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on this blog, one of the things I will be pointing out that he got right about the future is the sudden and arbitrary reversals of collective opinion in his future society. “We have always been at war with Eastasia.” But the point here is that there always seems to be exactly one thing dominating the agenda.

No doubt this is largely a psychological defence mechanism. By concentrating on one issue, you can ignore all the others. This is especially effective if you focus on something tangential to the really serious stuff, of course. And it gets you off the hook of taking serious collective action as a society, with all of the political and economic inconveniences that would entail.

On an individual level, however, it may not be so easy. We all have practical problems to solve, like getting enough to eat, keeping a roof over our heads (even a leaky one), and finding the money to pay for it all. This stuff is getting harder and harder for more and more people to pull off, even in supposedly wealthy countries. Assuming you don’t go down the glue-sniffing route, how do you deal with this?

The first step, it seems to me, is not actually anything practical. Don’t get me wrong, you’re going to need to find and take plenty of practical measures, but the first step is something else.

It’s a fundamental change in approach.

There are many beliefs commonly held amongst the denizens of industrial civilisation about what the world is like and how it works. Some of those beliefs might have been appropriate in the past, but they many of them are no longer helpful and in fact are going to be major obstacles in the future. The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but it includes a few of what I reckon are the real doozies.

  • Technology makes things better, and will save us. Well, it’s true that some technology, applied sensibly, can help a lot. If you want to dig a hole, there’s a lot to be said for a spade. If you want to dig a really big hole, you could consider a mechanical digger, but if you can’t afford (or get) the diesel to run it, you’re better off with a spade. And reliance on this kind of technology can become a trap.
  • I can expect things to get better over time. I suppose this depends on your definition of “better,” but the evidence for this view has not been especially convincing over the last fifty years or so. Let go of the mystical view that the passage of time in and of itself makes things better. Apart from anything else, this allows you to see things from the past that may be of value in the future: ploughing with heavy horses, say, or spinning and weaving wool by hand.
  • The Government should/will/can fix things. I’m not sure how prevalent this view is in the US, where many people seem to wish that their government would basically go away, but again there’s been very little evidence of governments anywhere doing anything very constructive for the benefit of society as a whole, at least in my lifetime. Nor should this be surprising. Governments could help more than they do, but they can’t really fix things. Many of the problems we have are essentially unfixable anyway.
  • The free market should/will/can fix things. Even if they existed, which they don’t, free markets have very little scope to help us, and plenty of scope to do harm. I sometimes wonder whether people who think along these lines have confused profit with utility.
  • Somebody else should/will/can fix things. Seriously, the cavalry is not coming. You are not going to be rescued. This is because rescue is not ultimately available. That doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily on your own, but you’re going to have to do a lot for yourself.
  • Nobody really needs to make uncomfortable changes to their lifestyle. This is the shtick of companies like Tesla. You can still have a nice car, even if the batteries die in a few years and will cost almost as much as the car to replace, and there isn’t physically enough of the raw materials to make enough to replace the existing car fleet, and we have no way of generating or distributing the electricity to power them. But it’ll be great. And who needs tractors or lorries anyway? No. The private car is going away for most of us. That’s an issue if you live in a way that depends on it. Same goes for the Internet, of course.
  • I will always be able to buy whatever I want. Of course money is getting tight for a lot of people nowadays, and inflation seems likely to become rampant across the industrialised world in the near future, but even if that weren’t the case, this is not true even in principle. It will cease to be feasible to fly green beans from Kenya to the UK, for instance. At some point it will cease to be feasible to fly much of anything anywhere, I should think. And there’s also the point that the currency may cease to have value if we get into hyperinflation. The UK got pretty close to that point back in the 1970s, and I’m old enough to remember those days.
  • The only alternative to business as usual is sudden and total catastrophe. There’s a lot of this in popular culture these days; post-apocalyptic books and movies constitute an actual genre. The Western Roman Empire took a hundred years to collapse, and the Eastern Roman Empire lasted another millennium after that. There were disasters along the way, of course: a famine here, a city sacked there. To those who lived through these events, it was just one damned thing after another, much like what we’re seeing today. People had to adapt. On the whole, they did so successfully.
  • I can’t cope with all this. See above. Of course, you’re going to have to adapt, and it may be harder for you than it was for the average Roman, because none of them were dependent on GPS or freezers or mains sewage.

If you ever visit the Reddit forum r/collapse you will find many people wigging out because they haven’t taken the first step. As a voice of sanity, I can heartily recommend the work of Sid Smith, who has some useful talks on YouTube. Start with this one. You’ll be glad you did.

Get your head straight, as best you can. It’s not going be easy, but once you can start to make better decisions, that’s the time to get practical. Good luck.

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

On greatness

Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that generation. Let greatness blossom.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

“I think continually,” the poet Stephen Spender wrote, “of those who were truly great.” Personally I often find myself thinking of something else, but there are certainly people, living and dead, who I would consider great.

Now before I go any further I should make this clear that this post is in no way intended to be inspirational. It will not contain any sentence that might be put onto a poster of a soaring condor and stuck up in a cubicle farm to encourage people to hit their KPIs this quarter. It is probably a decent rule of thumb to state that if someone even has KPIs they are unlikely to be doing anything useful or worthwhile.

But none of this detracts from the fact that there are useful and worthwhile things to be done, and many of them are being done by exceptional people. Off the top of my head, I can think of Simon Fairlie (whose autobiography I reviewed last week), Vandana Shiva, Martin Crawford, Colin Tudge, Gabe Brown – and that’s just in the area of food and farming.

Indeed, there are so many of these exceptional people around that I do wonder how exceptional they are. That is to say, many, if not most, people have talents and capacities that usually never come to the fore. It may simply be luck that enables them to blossom.

Consider, for example, the case of Charles Darwin. On his own admission, at school he was considered “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common intelligence.” Neither did he show any exceptional promise at Cambridge, where he largely neglected his studies. He was supposed to go into the Church, which in those days was a kind of fallback option for men of his class who had no special professional vocation. (This was quite a useful institution; throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England an awful lot of scientific and especially mathematical research was conducted by country parsons with time on their hands.)

Darwin had long had an interest in what was called in those days natural history, but it was largely good fortune and good connections that got him the gig on HMS Beagle which not only made his name but also furnished him with the raw material for his theory of evolution through natural selection. Had he gone on to be another obscure country vicar, nobody would have paid any attention even if he’d still come up with it, which seems unlikely.

Of course, in the nature of things we don’t know how many potential Darwins there are knocking around. But history does seem to lend colour to the saying: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” Who would have predicted that an unpromising West Point cadet who graduated 21st out of a class of 39 would go on to become the victorious commander of the Union armies in the American Civil War? Or, again, that an obscure Huntingdonshire farmer would be offered – and decline – the crown of England?

These examples suggest that opportunities are often available in times of crisis, and the good news for any potential Grants or Cromwells out there is that times of crisis will soon be upon us, if they aren’t already. This is not, of course, necessarily good news for the rest of us. I don’t want to fall foul of Godwin’s Law, so I’ll point you instead to the career of Benito Mussolini.

But to return to my earlier examples. There are useful things to be done in these times, and most of us can do something. Apart from anything else, taking action will dispel those feelings of panic and impotence that so often threaten to overwhelm us once we start to notice what’s going on with the world. Whatever you’re going to have to face in the future, the stronger you are mentally the better your chances will be of dealing with it.

Consider learning a new practical skill: sewing, baking, gardening, herbal medicine. Do it now, when you can still afford to screw up. For example, we are having a go at growing potatoes this year. Potatoes are cheap and freely available; if it all goes wrong, we’ll still have access to potatoes, and with any luck we’ll be able to learn from it. There may come a time when potatoes are no longer cheap and/or freely available, and it makes sense to be able to grow our own potatoes before that happens,

You don’t need to be able to fix everything, which is frankly a good thing, because you can’t. But you can make a difference to your own life and the lives of those around you. And that’s not a bad definition of a life well lived.

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

Book review: Going to Seed

Going to Seed: A Counterculture Memoir by Simon Fairlie (Chelsea Green, 2022), ISBN: 978-1-64502-061-5

You might know Simon Fairlie’s name from his previous book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance (Permanent Publications, 2010), which rather remarkably caused George Monbiot to change his mind about veganism. Perhaps you’ve come across the magazine he founded, The Land, if you frequent a certain type of bookshop. You may even have bought a scythe from his shop, or learned to use one on one of the courses he runs. He is, as this cursory and highly incomplete list suggests, a man of many parts.

Some years ago, I attended a talk he gave under the auspices of the Low-Impact Living Initiative as an introduction to smallholding. He came across as the kind of man you’d like to go to the pub with. This book is probably the closest I will ever get to going to the pub with Simon Fairlie.

Which is not to say that this is just a collection of anecdotes, as he makes very clear in his introduction.

My focus is on politics (in the wider sense of the term), social relations and economics (i.e. work). It is a political memoir by someone who never entered politics (in the narrow sense of the term). As far as is consistent with the narrative, I have tried to keep personal relations out of it….

p. 3

So what we have is a kind of mixture of autobiographical narrative and political discourse, which is indeed, I suspect. very much what you might get if you did go down to the pub with him.

Fairlie is a hippie, a label he accepts with some resignation. Unlike many hippies, though, he is a thorough pragmatist. Having discovered the hard way that smashing the system is not as easy as he and his peers hoped, he has decided to continue the fight but to pick his battles with care. When so many of his generation gave up and sold out, he has carried on. This is one of the things that makes him interesting.

The autobiographical part is interesting and well-told. His father was a journalist, credited with inventing the term “the Establishment” and something of a rogue. Fairlie had the sort of quasi-privileged background that so often forms the characters in John le Carré’s books; he spent three years at Westminster School, for instance, until he was obliged to leave because his father had never paid any of their bills. He studied at Cambridge but found it a disappointment and dropped out.

Fairlie had and exploited the opportunity to travel – he laments the decline of hitch-hiking, which enabled him to go to Istanbul effectively free – and he pursued the hippie trail, partly motivated, as he frankly admits, by the desire to get access to decent marijuana. Very few of the things he did in his youth would be feasible today. Inevitably, there is an elegiac tone to some of these passages.

Like many of his contemporaries on the counter-culture scene, he sought to build a viable alternative to the capitalist-industrial system by going back to the land. Like many of this contemporaries also he found this difficult. This kind of life was not at all in his background, which was bohemian and largely urban. But he stuck to it, and has made a success of it where so many have fallen by the wayside.

Fairlie is refreshingly honest about his early failures and indeed ineptitude. Reading his account in Chapter 6 of communal living in a remote part of France, it is heartening to realise that we are not the only people to make daft practical mistakes, especially in the realm of DIY building work. But his doggedness paid off. He was clearly not afraid of hard work, and this led to what he describes as an “entente” between his motley crew of foreigners and the local population. It was a poor wine-growing region with a local labour shortage, and anyone prepared to fill that need could get a warm welcome.

On one occasion I worked for ten days on my own hoeing around the base of 20,000 vines with a mattock, 2,000 every day. That job made me realise what a valuable skill it is to be able to enjoy repetitive manual labour.

p. 110

It may have helped that part of the pay was in kind: “three litres a day of red wine that could politely be described as robust.”

Despite having no training in stonemasonry, he undercut a local builder to get the job of constructing a stone arch. When the project was a success, as he disarmingly puts it, “Nobody was more surprised than myself.” He did however go on to get properly trained – he describes how he ought to have build that arch compared to how he actually did it. Later he spent a year doing restoration work on Salisbury Cathedral.

His determination to acquire the practical skills he needed is shown many times. When he became part of the Tinker’s Bubble community, for instance, he took on the job of working with and looking after their heavy horse, Samson. They were committed to avoiding the internal combustion engine, not so much on environmental grounds as to avoid creating a dependency on the industrial system, and they needed a heavy horse to make their logging business work. It was a thoroughly practical decision, and very much the way Fairlie rolls.

Again, his scythe shop is a practical scheme. Having realised that scythes are a more useful tool than people think, and that Austrian scythes are especially good, he decided to start importing them into the UK so as to get them into people’s hands and at the same time have another income stream. (You can watch him using one here.)

His activism is likewise very practical and specific. He details his role in opposing road-building in various parts of the UK. It’s very much a guerilla war against the system. He know he isn’t going to be able to stop every new road everywhere, but he will do what he can. And he has not been without his successes.

Of a piece with this is his ongoing interest in the availability of land. After all, if you are going to go back to the land, the first thing you need is some land to go back to. This is not easy to arrange unless you have a great deal of money, certainly in the UK. As he puts it in the manifesto of The Land magazine:

The market (however attractive it may appear) is built on promises: the only source of wealth is the earth. Anyone who has land has access to energy, water, nourishment, shelter, healing, wisdom, ancestors and a grave….

The politics of land — who owns it, who controls it and who has access to it — is more important than ever, though you might not think so from a superficial reading of government policy and the media. The purpose of this magazine is to focus attention back onto the politics of land.

Rome fell; the Soviet Empire collapsed; the stars and stripes are fading in the west. Nothing is forever in history, except geography. Capitalism is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises. It may stand longer than some of us anticipate, but when it crumbles, the land will remain.

https://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/manifesto

His sheer staying-power is one of the most impressive things about Fairlie. This is a book to give hope to us all. At seventy, he is still keeping on, with no sign of giving up any time soon.

Let me be clear: I’m not one of those bronzed and wiry septuagenarians who take on challenges like rowing across the Atlantic. I’m pink and fat, and I avoid having to bend down to tie up my shoelaces. Yet despite this corporeal decadence, I can still milk the cows, muck out the yard and mow [a] quarter of an acre of hay in the morning, and I intend to keep it up. I expect to die in bed with my boots on, having been too knackered and drunk to take them off.

p. 260

Here is a life well-lived if ever there was one. Here, moreover, is a person who will not throw up his hands in despair in face of impossible odds. In this sense, ageing hippie though he may be, Simon Fairlie is an inspiration for our times.

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

On disagreement

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

S.G. Tallentyre, The Friends of Voltaire

Disagreements have been with us for as long as people have had opinions, which is to say for as long as there have been people. What is interesting about this historical moment is that thanks to the Internet we can now disagree with people on the other side of the world. Indeed, disagreement has now become a spectator sport on a scale never seen before.

There are broadly three ways one can react to an opinion with which you disagree, You can just shrug, if it’s not something you care about that much. I may think you’re wrong to claim that Sergeant Pepper is the best Beatles album, but frankly I’m not that bothered about it. As my grandfather used to say, “Everyone’s entitled to their own stupid opinion.” Even with social media, I suspect that a lot of shrugging still goes on, but of course the replies that are never posted are effectively invisible.

Alternatively you can try to persuade the other party that they are wrong. This very, very rarely works, but people often try. Abuse certainly never works, although it’s a popular approach. Reasoned argument supported by evidence will very occasionally work, especially if the other party has not decided in advance that this the hill they will die on. But it is surprising how attached people become to their opinions.

Some opinions, indeed, have the character of religious faith. You will never talk someone out of such a tenet. Faith is generally proof against reason, and trying to argue someone out of their beliefs will only irritate them. The best you can do is try to understand what the emotional payoff is for the true believer, and come up with something else that will give them something similar, but this is not always possible.

A conventional economist, for example, will never abandon their faith in endless growth, because it promises that everyone will have goodies forever (everyone probably being defined as the well-to-do, a group that not coincidentally tends to include economists). Since the universe is not in face a limitless sweetie-shop, there is nothing that can deliver that promise, and if that’s what you need to hear then only a fairy-tale will do.

This leads us to the third response to disagreement, which basically means tying someone to a stake and setting fire to them, either literally or metaphorically. If someone finds your view too painful to hear, this is what you will get. The Internet has inevitably led to a great deal of this sort of thing. For some reason, it never occurs to people that they don’t have to read things that they find upsetting. Or else they actually enjoy being upset. I get the impression this is quite common.

After all, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of righteous indignation? Many people feel powerless in their lives; industrial civilisation tends to make us all over-dependent on institutions and corporations over whom we feel we can exercise no control. What better outlet than to take it all out on some individual who is – according to our lights – wrong? By attacking them, we identify ourselves as being not wrong, and therefore exempt from such attacks ourselves.

Typically we also proclaim ourselves as belonging to some group. This is something social primates find satisfying, for excellent reasons that have nothing to do with whatever the notional point of disagreement du jour happens to be. But it is not, in any useful sense, argument.

Those wishing to discredit a point of view sometimes do so by pointing out that some bad person also holds, or held, that view. There was an example of this a few years ago where the Heartland Institute sought to discredit climate change by putting up a billboard stating – correctly – that this opinion was shared by Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber. Now I am not personally acquainted with Mr Kaczynski, but I would be prepared to claim that he would also agree that 1 + 1 = 2, and yet nobody so far as I know has argued that this undermines the basis of arithmetic.

Of course this a silly example, but there is a lot of this kind of thinking about at the moment. There are plenty of people prepared to claim that because person X has some attribute that they find obnoxious, nothing said or done by person X can have any value. Take slave-owning. I don’t know about you, but I’m against it. Does that invalidate the political thought of Thomas Jefferson, or the philosophy of Plato, or for that matter the mathematics of Euclid? The entirety of classical civilisation was built, as a practical matter, on slavery. Nevertheless there are still things of value it can teach us.

Because virtue is increasingly identified with group membership, it becomes impossible to bring any nuance to the discussion. As President George W. Bush so memorably put it, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” But a person can be right about some things and wrong about others. In rejecting an opinion one need not reject the entire person. Indeed, doing so is the most certain way to guarantee that they will not change their view. We must always remember to distinguish the person from their opinions.

Social media might almost have been designed to foster groupthink. (Maybe it actually was, given that it is really a way of harvesting marketing data, and marketeers love segmentation.) People often complain that society is becoming polarised, that people are speaking past one another, that consensus is impossible on almost anything. I don’t believe this is a coincidence.

Of course participation in social media is optional, and it is a perfectly reasonable choice to opt out. I have done this myself. Partly this is is because I suffer from hypertension, but also I would hate this kind of thinking to contaminate my personal relationships – by which I mean the actual human beings with whom I interact in the real world. I want the freedom to agree to disagree.

It will be interesting to see what difference, if any, will be made to this by Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter. Readers of this blog will be aware that I have some fairly major differences of opinion with Mr Musk; it is unlikely, for example, that he and I will ever see eye to eye on the future of electric vehicles. His avowed motive in buying Twitter, however, is to make it a place where all opinions may be freely expressed – a notion which many people seem to find strangely horrifying. Free speech used to be a pillar of liberalism not so long ago.

It would be nice to think that people might grow up a little, given more exposure to diverse opinions. I’m not holding my breath. What worries me is that Twitter will simply start censoring a different set of opinions instead, and we will be back to where we were. We shall see.

You are, of course, perfectly free to disagree with all of this in the comments below….

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

On rationality

Of all the ways of defining man, the worst is the one which makes him out to be a rational animal.

Anatole France

As a culture, we are unusually fond of rationality. I blame the ancient Greeks. Economists are very keen to stress how rational everyone is, all of the time, and yet this flies in the face of absolutely everybody’s actual experience of being human and being around other humans. If people really were rational, there would be no $647 billion advertising industry, Las Vegas would be a slightly green patch of desert in the middle of nowhere, and nobody would smoke, drink, fall in love, read fiction, or go to the movies. The world would be a very different – and frankly duller – place.

Of course people do act rationally quite a bit of the time. It’s a rare and newsworthy event when someone deliberately drives on the wrong side of the road, for instance. We can all manage simple calculations of short-term self-interest, because people who can’t tend to get weeded out of the gene pool pretty quickly. Where we struggle is taking longer-term decisions and/or in choosing well in complex scenarios.

A simple example. I am a type 2 diabetic, and also rather overweight. Nevertheless I will still eat things that will make those problems worse, because I enjoy eating them. It’s not at all rational to do this. No amount of chocolate mousse is worth having your foot amputated for. And it isn’t that I don’t know this. Very few obese people are obese because they don’t know what foods make you fat. Rational beings would not have this issue. Look in the street and see how many you can spot.

All this would just be a charming eccentricity of our culture, like the ancient Egyptians worshipping cats, except that it gives us some huge individual and collective blind-spots. One of these is the popular belief that so long as we are given the full information about (say) climate change, we will all do the Right Thing™. This in spite of the fact that I already know everything I need to know about doughnuts – you can actually see the sugar, for goodness’ sake – and yet I still eat them sometimes. The recent Netflix movie Don’t Look Up is largely about this illusion, and I can recommend it as a corrective.

Another popular belief is that the people in charge are rational and well-informed and will therefore do the Right Thing™ when they are making decisions. If you have a sufficiently narrow definition of what is rational, then they are indeed, at least most of the time, rational. The problem is that this leads them to do incredibly stupid things. Given certain assumptions, for example, ghost flights are a rational solution to the problem of airlines losing their slots at airports due to a lack of passengers during the pandemic. At least, they’re a rational solution if you ignore the wasted fuel and the pollution caused by flying aircraft around for no reason other than to satisfy the criteria for keeping a slot. It would have been much better to have suspended the requirement for these flights altogether, but apparently this solution was not on the table.

Again, cutting down the Amazon rain-forest to feed beef cattle is a rational solution if all you care about is feeding (and exporting the meat of) beef cattle. The impact on biodiversity, the climate and indeed atmospheric oxygen is a mere “externality” – economics-speak for “someone else’s problem.” Except, of course, it will be everyone’s problem in due course. This is capitalism doing what it does best: screwing up the planet, one rational decision at a time.

It isn’t really that surprising that people are like this. We can’t hold a comprehensive model of the world in our heads that would allow us to make truly enlightened decisions, for the same reason that snakes can’t tap-dance: from an evolutionary perspective, it isn’t necessary. To a very large extent, we are chimpanzees. We’re quite smart chimpanzees in some ways, but we aren’t that smart. The selection pressures on us have tended to favour individuals who can spot immediate short-term threats and opportunities and act accordingly.

This is not, however, the same thing as being rational. To be truly rational, one would really need to have access to much more information than we actually have, or indeed could cope with if we had it.

The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife. Trin Tragula — for that was his name — was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.

“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.

And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Fortunately we don’t have to depend exclusively on our rational capacities to navigate the universe. We have emotional responses, which have a bad press but which can also serve us pretty well sometimes. The fight-or-flight response has been keeping people alive since well before there were modern humans, and no rational calculation is involved in that.

There is also such a thing as intuition. This is not something we like to talk about in Western culture. It’s all a bit woo-woo. You can’t take it seriously. Damn it, it’s not rational! Still, most people on the planet even today openly subscribe to a view of the world that isn’t rational, and so did most people in the past. Notoriously, there are no atheists in foxholes, and the proportion of us in literal or metaphorical foxholes is only going to increase in the coming years and decades.

If you want to read a truly in-depth exploration of how people actually think, I can highly recommend The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. If, having read that book, you still imagine that human beings are rational, I have a bridge you might want to purchase.

Logic is great, as far as it goes. The problem with it is we can’t take it all that far. If we’re going to cope with life as it is, let alone as it’s going to be, we are going to need all the tools in the box. I’d say the time to start getting familiar with those tools is round about now.

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