On the failure of political leadership

Everyone stay calm! This is not happening!

King Arnulf in Erik the Viking by Terry Jones

Anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to current events in, say, the last couple of years will be aware of at least one crisis besetting the industrial world. We have, of course, had the Covid-19 pandemic, which still seems to be ongoing as I write this despite various claims of success. There is the climate crisis. There is the biodiversity crisis, which gets rather less airtime, possibly because it poses less of an immediate threat to the insurance industry. There are various debt crises – the Chinese property market is the debt crisis du jour, but when has there not been at least one somewhere?

There is also a crisis of confidence in governments and in public institutions more generally. When the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom tells people not to panic-buy fuel, panic-buying of fuel promptly ensues. For someone in his position, there is no swifter way to cause panic than to tell everyone not to panic. It speaks volumes that he did so anyway.

All these crises are hopelessly entangled, and trying to solve one usually results in at least three others getting worse. Public spending to alleviate the effects of the pandemic only adds to the debt crisis, for instance. The current high price of natural gas is having impacts on both industry and agriculture, which by further damaging the economy will also end up piling on more debt. The collapse of public confidence in the official line also tends to undermine vaccination programmes, and so on. And of course doing pretty much anything in an industrial context screws with the environment.

Human beings are not terribly good at coping with this sort of thing, for understandable reasons. When our ancestors evolved back on the African savannah, they certainly had to deal with crises, but these tended to arrive one at a time and to be obvious and acute, for example being attacked by a lion. In that situation, you are not going to be worrying about the long-term consequences of climbing the nearest tree, nor do you need to. Solving the immediate problem at hand is all that’s required.

Unfortunately this is not the kind of situation we have to deal with. I don’t claim to know all the major issues facing industrial civilisation today, but I can think of plenty more than I’ve already mentioned, and doubtless so can you. What we tend to miss, though, is the interactions between them. This is not something our brains are especially well-equipped to deal with, and it would be surprising if they were.

But what is making all of these problems worse is the thoroughgoing ineptitude of the political leaders who are supposed to be dealing with them. This is not a party political point. I cannot name a single prominent political figure in the United Kingdom who shows the remotest sign of the competence required to address any of them singly, let alone all of them together. Nor do other countries in the industrialised world appear to be faring much better.

Winston Churchill famously told the British people that he had nothing to offer them but blood, toil, tears and sweat. People forget that this was not a platform on which he stood for election. He didn’t become Prime Minister in 1940 because the British people chose him – it was an internal party decision – and when he did stand for election after the war he was thrown out on his ear. On the other hand, Barack Obama won two terms as President of the United States on a nebulous promise of hope and change, without noticeably delivering much of either.

Politicians win elections by promising goodies. Sometimes the promise is nothing more than being less appalling than the alternative – this seems to be the usual approach in the USA, and it certainly worked for Tony Blair in 1997 – but in general the message always has to be: “Vote for me, and things will get better.”

This would be okay if things had any real prospect of getting better, but they don’t. When Churchill came to power in 1940, there was no point in pretending that the immediate future was at all bright. He therefore had the luxury of being able to be realistic. He also had the luxury of having one big obvious problem in front of him. Modern leaders have neither.

Even if they did, however, there’s no reason to suppose they’d be up to the job. There is too vast a gulf between the political realm and the reality it seeks to control, or at least react to. Most of those with access to the levers of power have a very narrow experience of the world, if only because they tend to be drawn from the richer end of society. Some of them have never had a career outside of politics. They have never had to work around hard limits, because they have never been faced with them. They have never had to choose between keeping warm in winter and having enough to eat. The lower reaches of Maslow’s pyramid are unknown to them. Nor are they eager to rock the boat when they are the ones in the first-class cabins.

Such people are even less likely than most of us to face up to uncomfortable truths. Indeed, it seems as if our political class actively seeks to protect itself from them. The strongest word a modern politician can utter is “challenge,” and even then they do so in the secret belief that someone else will actually have to deal with it.

Even worse, they occasionally seem to entertain fantasies of their own omnipotence, as notoriously exemplified by Karl Rove. Certainly they appear to believe Koko’s version of how government works:

It’s like this: When your Majesty says, “Let a thing be done,” it’s as good as done – practically, it is done – because your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says, “Kill a gentleman,” and a gentleman is told off to be killed. Consequently, that gentleman is as good as dead – practically, he is dead – and if he is dead, why not say so?

W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado, Act II

So if a President or a Prime Minister makes a speech saying that we must all take (say) climate change very seriously, nothing much actually has to be done. It is entirely to the credit of Greta Thunberg that she won’t stand for any of this flannel and is prepared to say so in public. There are plenty more who will say so in private.

Some of the problems we face are probably insoluble, and we are certainly not capable of solving all of them. We could, however, accomplish many useful things if governments were prepared to take their responsibilities seriously and to act in the best interests of those they govern. As it is, we are going to have to do the best we can without them. They have made themselves into yet another problem instead, tangled up with all the others.

I am not advocating a revolution. But profound political change can occur without a revolution ever taking place. Nobody campaigned to bring down the Roman Empire, but it fell all the same. And when it did, I doubt most people missed it much. There will be life on the other side of all this, and perhaps in some ways a better life, even if you and I may not live to see it. But that’s a matter for another post.

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

On forgiveness

Forgive yourself your sins

Lloyd Cole, “Sweetness” (Rattlesnakes, 1984)

The subject of this week’s post was suggested by on of my readers, Phil Harris. I welcome further suggestions via the comment section below, although of course I reserve the right to ignore them 🙂

In English, we speak of bearing a grudge. I like this expression; it brings out the way in which a grudge, which is the refusal to forgive a real or imagined wrong, is a thing to be toted about. It has a cost to it.

Of course we might feel that the cost is worth it. I don’t imagine most Jews are going to let go of their grudge against the Nazi Party any time soon. I’m not sure about the Palestinians with regard to the Jews, but that isn’t looking too hopeful either. Closer to home, when will the French and English embrace one another as brothers? Or the English and the Scots, for that matter. There are rights and wrongs and everybody knows what they are. People disagree, but they are always right. And people like to be right. If the Internet has done nothing else for us, it has surely demonstrated that beyond any possible doubt.

What is it that we find so difficult about forgiveness? I ask this for myself as much as anyone. It’s not as if an individual act of forgiveness has earth-shattering cosmic consequences. If I gave William the Conqueror a free pass, not much would change. Not much more would change, frankly, if I extended the same courtesy to Jeff Bezos or Boris Johnson or that git who was my headmaster at junior school. That is to say, the world would go on much as it did before.

And for myself, wouldn’t I be the lighter and freer for it? Not that I spend that much time and energy brooding over the Harrying of the North, but such time and energy as I do spend is surely wasted. Any judgement on the old miscreant’s soul would have been passed back in 1087, and even if I’d been around then I don’t suppose my opinion would have been taken into account. The world kept on turning, much as it does today.

I have heard of an individual case where a Holocaust survivor, much later in life, was able to forgive the guards. This is forgiveness on a heroic scale, but if that is possible, surely anything is.

For a lot of these cases, forgiveness is obviously the remedy, and I do try to apply it where I can. I could certainly do more in that direction; most of us could. What I find harder – and I speak for myself, as always in these posts, but not, I think, only for myself – is to forgive my own shortcomings.

None of us, after all, is perfect. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” as Kant said, “no straight thing was ever made.” I have done things that I regret, and so, dear reader, have you. Sometimes we can make amends, but all too often we can’t. And then?

And then all we can do is to make sure we don’t do it again. That may not sound like much, but actually this is what atonement means. Becoming a better person means not screwing up in the same way we screwed up before. Of course human beings are what they are, and we will find new and original ways of screwing up, but then you just rinse and repeat. If you do this often enough, you may well find you have become an okay person.

Which is what it seems to me we are called to do. To invoke Kant again, what would happen if everyone did this? The world would be full of okay people, and Facebook would be out of business. I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as a future worth struggling for, even if it does mean letting go of that unpleasant incident in 1971.

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

On economists

Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.

Kenneth Boulding (attr.)

What on earth is “the economy”? It is a term much bandied about. Its study is an academic heavy industry, and its exponents are listened to with great reverence, but what is it ultimately all about, and why should we care?

Economics as a discipline is said to have originated with Adam Smith, who was a moral philosopher and theologian. When you think about it, this is an odd starting-point for something so relentlessly materialistic. For the first century or so of its existence it was known as political economy, but the political part has mysteriously gone away, or so we are to suppose. The word itself has Greek roots, meaning something like “household governance” (from oikos – house, and nomos – custom or rule), but the concerns of economists have long since ceased to be of any relevance to the domestic sphere.

We think of economics as being about money, but this is only partially the case. The Merriam-Webster definition of the term calls it “a social science concerned chiefly with description and analysis of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services” and actually there’s nothing in there about money as such. It so happens that in our society we facilitate a great many of these things by the use of money, but we don’t do everything that way.

Consider, for example, all the things that friends or family or even complete strangers routinely do for one another free of charge. If I give a passer-by directions, or my partner makes me a sandwich, no money changes hands, and it would be surprising and somehow a bit weird if it did. Then there are all those other arrangements where there is payment in kind of a sort, even if it may not be formalised; you do me a favour, I buy you a drink.

The problem with all this from the point of view of economics is that none of it appears in readily-available statistics, and boy do economists love statistics because they can be used to construct mathematical models. Financial transactions generally do appear in statistics, and money of course is a mathematical quantity, so economists study the money economy for much the same reason as the proverbial drunk searching for his keys under the streetlight.

Theoretical physicists also construct mathematical models. The key difference is that the physicists’ models are supposed to be accurate descriptions of the world. If the model is contradicted by experimental data, then the model needs to be fixed so that it matches the data. As I write this, it is reported that this process is happening right now in regard to the expected behaviour of muons; the discrepancy between theory and experiment is extremely small, but it appears to be there. Theoretical physics is hard.

Luckily for economists, their models don’t have this problem. The economic system, even the subset of it that economists actually study, is too complex to model exactly, so a simplified model has to be used. This is of course fine; nobody would want a map the same size as the territory it represents. Unfortunately this offers some temptations that economists have not always resisted:

  1. Mathematical elegance – the model is so lovely that it ought to describe reality, but it doesn’t. Prizewinning economist Paul Samuelson said: “In pointing out the consequences of a set of abstract assumptions, one need not be committed unduly to the relation between reality and these assumptions.” This results in a model that is ornamental rather than useful. To be clear, I have nothing against pure mathematics; I merely ask for it to be called what it is.
  2. Detachment from reality – like all academic disciplines, economics has a tendency to become an end in itself. One could easily imagine a model in which all economic activity consisted of computers selling one another financial instruments, while everybody starved. As far as I can see, there is nothing in modern economic thought which would consider this invalid.
  3. Political convenience – the model gives the answers that are most acceptable to the rich and powerful, who may well be funding the economist one way or another. A nice example of this is the famous Laffer Curve, which is supposed to prove that cutting tax rates will increase tax revenue. When this was tried in the USA under Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr, public debt quadrupled. (The official statistics can be viewed or downloaded here if you want the gory details.) Naturally Arthur Laffer got the Presidential Medal of Freedom for this outstanding contribution to human knowledge.

This last point reminds us of the mysterious disappearance of the word “political” from the name of the discipline. Economics is supposed to have some sort of supra-political authority. In the deathless words of Dr Wolfgang Schäuble, “Elections can not be allowed to change the economic policies of any country.” In this view, the economy, which is an entirely abstract concept, somehow trumps everything else. And of course the only ones capable of interpreting its sacred mysteries are economists, who – entirely coincidentally – find themselves with access to highly-paid employment.

The rest of us are essentially at their mercy. We have no agency: The Economy causes the world to be the way it is, and we just have to put up with it. Certainly, if the good Dr Schäuble is to be believed, the way we vote won’t make much difference. We are but the playthings of impersonal market forces. Free will is an illusion: either we act in the way economics says we should, or we are behaving (gasp) irrationally.

This is an interesting perspective, especially when you think that for countless millennia everyone was blissfully ignorant of all this. People were of course aware that goods and services were produced, distributed and consumed, but nobody seems to have supposed that this was all that was going on, or even the most important thing. I suppose it is possible that everyone who lived before The Wealth of Nations was published was an idiot, but these are the same people who came up with the wheel, the arch, double-entry book-keeping and moveable type.

It seems to me that because economics has such prestige in our society, we are inclined to overlook all the parts of the picture that are missing from its world-view. (This sort of thing, for example.) Economics is about human beings, and even then only about some of the things that humans beings do or care about. Until economists change their world-view to something that corresponds to reality, we should stop giving them any credence. At this point, to take them seriously is, well, irrational.

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

On tipping-points

“How did you go bankrupt?”

“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Imagine heating a pan of cold water over a flame. Soon, you will have a pan of warm water; then it becomes hot and begins to smoke. After a while, small bubbles begin to form around the edge. And then, hey presto! You have a pan of boiling water.

This is an example of a state change. You have a state of affairs – the cold water – to which a stimulus is applied – the heat. For a while, things go on much as they were; there’s no dramatic difference between the original cold water and the warm version. But then you reach a point when things do change dramatically. Suddenly you have something with which you can make tea, for instance, or cook eggs, or even power a locomotive if you have enough of it.

There are many examples of state changes with which we are all familiar. The transition from a cloudy sky to rain is an example known to all non-desert-dwellers, and it has clear practical consequences. Overcast skies won’t water your vegetables. It’s also something you can’t necessarily predict just based on the initial conditions. Someone who had only known the desert might be surprised by clouds, and it’s highly unlikely they could use them to forecast rain.

If you take if off the heat, boiling water will cool back down. Tipping-points, however, are not so obliging. They are state changes that stay changed. Consider death. I think we can agree that death is not reversible, in the normal course of events. It can also be brought on by surprisingly small causes; an aneurysm, for example. A complex system – the body, in this case – flips from one state (being alive) to a different state (being dead). While the person was alive, they were in a steady state; which is to say that people who are alive mostly carry on being alive. When they died, they went into another steady state; dead people usually stay dead. This is the nature of tipping-points.

I bring this up now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, tipping-points or potential tipping-points are in the news as the moment, specifically in regard to the climate, although as I’ve already shown they occur in many other contexts. Any complex system, in fact, will exhibit tipping-points, as I shall go on to discuss. The second reason, of course, is that this is the autumn equinox up here in the northern hemisphere, the point at which the nights start being longer than the days, and we begin to approach winter. But this is not a tipping-point: it is entirely predicable, and in six months’ time it will reverse itself. It does, however, so happen to mark the first anniversary of this blog.

Here’s another complex system which is also in the news at the moment: the supply chain. Of course, in reality there are multiple supply chains which interact with one another in complex ways. Shortages in one area can have impacts in many others. For example, a shortage in available trucks is leading to a shortage in spare parts for trucks, which is exacerbating the shortage of trucks. At the same time, for various reasons there is a shortage of people able and willing to drive the trucks that are available. Between them, these shortages are disrupting supplies of everything which moves by truck, which is – well, everything.

The thing with both state changes and tipping-points is that they tend to be impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy. You can be sure that the pan of water will boil at some point, but exactly when is hard to say. Now this isn’t a huge issue if you’re just trying to boil an egg, but it you’re trying to judge when some complex system like an economy is going to collapse then it’s pretty much impossible. This is why not many people get rich off the stock-market. Everyone would like to know when the price of stock X is going to drop like a rock so that they can offload their holdings of stock X onto some other sucker investor (this is actually known as the “greater fool” theory – I’m not kidding). However, without access to privileged information, a.k.a. insider trading, it’s impossible to know for sure.

There are big and important things in our world that are subject to tipping-points. The climate is one; the global economy is another; ecosystems in general, including the human ecosystem, are another. In other words, things are unpredictable. As Robert Anton Wilson ironically suggested, everything is not under control. Readers of this blog will be aware that I am not persuaded that the world as a whole is about to collapse in some all-consuming catastrophe, but that emphatically does not preclude something happening that is quite catastrophic enough to be going on with. We should always bear that in mind.

“May you live in interesting times!” Apparently this is not actually a Chinese curse, but it’s a curse in its way – and maybe also a blessing. Either way, those are the times we live in. I don’t claim to be able to predict when any of the numerous Swords of Damocles hanging over us will drop, but I’m pretty sure this pan of water will come to the boil soon.

In many ways, it doesn’t actually matter than much which one hits first. As Simon Michaux points out in this valuable lecture, the practical actions required to prepare and respond are much the same. But the first step is to grasp the fragility of our situation. We are living on the slopes of a volcano.

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

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.