Book review: Limits to Growth

Who could have predicted the climate crisis?

Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, 31.12.2022

This is a review of a deeply unfashionable book. It was published a little over half a century ago, which is certainly inconvenient for those who, like M. Macron, would like to suggest that these issues are a recent development. Its conclusions have moreover been confirmed repeatedly by subsequent studies. It represents, indeed, an inconvenient set of truths.

Limits to Growth was the result of a research project originally sponsored by an organisation called the Club of Rome. I should make it clear that I hold no brief for the Club of Rome; as far as I can see, it belongs to the large category of bodies whose shtick is, essentially, “Here is an existential crisis! Just give us absolute power and we will sort it out!” I am not suggesting for a moment that giving absolute power to the Club of Rome will sort this out – and the same goes for the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

But Limits to Growth is a genuine achievement. It came from a marriage between the first stirrings of systems theory and computer modelling (courtesy of MIT). Systems theory is another unfashionable thing these days, because it suggests amongst other things that we might not actually be able to achieve the kind of total mastery of complex systems that we would like – including systems like the global climate, the global ecosystem, and other things which we seem to need in order to live, inconveniently enough.

Limits to Growth does not actually contain any predictions. What it contains is scenarios. If you do X, you will get Y. This would be comforting, were it not for the fact that follow-up studies have shown that having done X, we are indeed getting Y. This is pretty impressive, given what computer modelling was able to do fifty-odd years ago.

Of course it necessarily paints with a pretty broad brush-stroke. You won’t find here specific figures about tractor production in Yakutsk or the electrification of the Donets basin. But you will see here prefigured the general shape of the last fifty years.

Interestingly, the climate crisis which has come as such a shock to M. Macron (despite the 1896 paper by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius and numerous subsequent studies) does not even figure in the Limits to Growth outside of the broad rubric of “pollution” – that is, stuff that industrial civilisation puts into the environment which is inimical to life. It turns out, to the astonishment of absolutely nobody – except M. Macron, and perhaps a few other “leaders of the free world” – that shitting on your own doorstop is not the brightest idea.

Of course, Limits to Growth was published more than ten minutes ago and doesn’t have its own TikTok channel, so we can all safely ignore it. I’m sure they’ll think of something.

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

On activism

Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

John Stuart Mill

And yet what, as Lenin asked a very long time ago, is to be done?

Lenin has been dead for almost a century, of course, but while I wouldn’t claim to be a disciple of his it’s still a pretty good question. There’s one popular answer to it, however, that is definitely wrong. I’m talking about what currently goes under the name of activism.

It takes a couple of forms. One, probably the more popular, occurs entirely in the strange pretend-world of the Internet, and is sometimes referred to – with appropriate derision – as clicktivism. By this I mean the signing of online petitions (and, in the interests of full disclosure, I confess to having signed a few myself) but also self-important declarations on social media concerning the issue du jour. If it has a #hashtag, it’s clicktivism.

The second is the more physical manifestation of demonstrations, marches, happenings, and all the other nonsense that used to be big in the 1960s. It’s possible that some impression was made by the Million Man March. Nobody gave a toss about the million people who reportedly demonstrated against the second Iraq war; the UK went ahead and joined in anyway. In any case, it’s easy enough for governments to criminalise such activities, and it’s already happened in the UK, and doubtless elsewhere.

Why am I claiming these things are useless? Because they trivialise what is at stake. It is a trivialisation of what is at stake to imagine that “I went on a march, therefore I have stuck it to the Man.” It is infinitely more of a trivialisation of what is at stake to imagine that “I clicked on a button, therefore I have stuck it to the Man.” The Man doesn’t care. The Man would only care if what you did posed some sort of threat to his activities.

Governments require the consent of the governed in order to operate. Notice that I said consent, not enthusiasm. Few regimes have been able to count on much in the way of enthusiasm, apart from a few relatively brief episodes. You just need to make being governed seem tolerable.

That consent can be obtained in a variety of ways. Brute force is one way, although it’s hard to sustain for any length of time. Offering people some sort of vision of the greater good is more sustainable. That vision can be religious, ideological, economic, or some combination of the above. Another approach, which can be combined with a positive vision, is a negative vision of the alternative: hence the endless denigration of the “barbarian” or “savage” which is the appalling fate of those who fail to avail themselves of the manifold benefits of civilisation.

The word “barbarian”, incidentally, comes to us from the Greeks, for whom it simply meant “people who don’t speak Greek.” You may wish to consider on which side of that line you fall, dear reader. But I digress.

The real threat to governments – all governments, of whatever stripe – is ordinary people deciding to go their own way: to live in communities of their own choosing, making their own rules, providing for themselves, and owing nothing to self-proclaimed outside authorities. That doesn’t look like a riot in the streets. It certainly doesn’t look like a poll on Twitter. It can be – indeed it needs to be – a slow and gradual shift, something that happens under the radar, a change in the relationship between one family and their neighbours, a guerilla garden here, an informal quid pro quo there, conversations in informal spaces, an untold litany of tiny changes that add up to something profound.

This, in the end, is how empires fall. What, after all, is a Dark Age but an immense lacuna in the tax records? Those at the margins ease themselves out of the spotlight of official notice; gradually the margins enlarge, until the centre is eclipsed altogether. With any luck, the new set of thugs who take over the palace will take a generation or three to get around to us.

The revolution, as Gil Scott-Heron observed many years ago, will not be televised. Neither will it be notarised; or live-streamed; or otherwise taken notice of by the authorities. (Oh, what a Kafka-esque phrase “the authorities” is!) But it will occur, as it must. It may take a generation, or more than one, but occur it must, if people are to continue living on this planet.

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

On knowing your place

Home’s where you go when you run out of homes.

John le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy

In British usage, at least, telling someone they should know their place is (or used to be) a rebuke. It meant knowing their place in the class hierarchy – with the not very subtle subtext that their place was a good deal lower than they supposed. In the words of the well-known hymn:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Cecil Frances Alexander, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”

But that is not what I want to talk about in this essay. What I want to talk about is what the title says, knowing your place.

For most people in the industrialised world, this presents a problem. After all, many if not most of us don’t really have a place. For years I have struggled with the answer to the simple question: “Where are you from?” Am I really from anywhere? There’s the place I was born, which I haven’t visited for the thick end of twenty years; am I from there? There’s the place where I live now, but it seems utterly fraudulent to pretend that I’m from here; it’s too obviously not the case. There are the many places I have lived in between those two times, but I am certainly not from any of them.

So I am effectively from nowhere. There are many, many other people in the same boat. It is considered normal in our society to move around a good deal. You are born in place A, you go to university in place B, get a job at C, another in D, maybe you even emigrate to E… That’s just a career. It’s not even a particularly middle-class thing; think of the Cornish miners who went to Mexico, to take a random example.

What we easily forget is that this is quite counter to the human experience for the vast majority of our existence. I’m not just talking about agricultural societies either. Of course, if you have a farm you’re going to stay on it, but there’s a lot of nonsense said (and taught) about “sedentary” versus “nomadic” lifestyles, with the implication that before the Neolithic revolution and the widespread adoption of agriculture people used to wander about aimlessly. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you’re going to live as a hunter-gatherer, as everyone did for most of human (pre)history and some people still do, you are heavily dependent on local knowledge, and I cannot stress that word “local” enough. You need to know what food plants grow where, and at what season you can harvest them. You need to know what game animals live where, and at what season you should hunt them and at what other seasons you should leave them alone. You need to know the spots where the edible fungi grow, and when you can expect to see them, and which ones look edible but aren’t. Any or all of these things may be different in the next valley along, and the further you go from your patch the less useful your local knowledge is likely to be.

Obviously people did make those transitions, but it took a while. Maybe you can venture into the next valley, and maybe it will work out. If it does, once you’ve figured out how to live in this valley, maybe you can try the next one. And so on. But you wouldn’t really do it if you didn’t have to. It’s difficult and also dangerous. Remember, we’re talking about access to food and water. Without those things, you and your family will die. This isn’t just about idle curiousity.

Living as a farmer is really a more confined version of the same thing. You are still dependent on the outputs of a particular area of land; it’s typically a much smaller area, but you have a bit more control over it. It is, however, a lot more work, and because you are dependent on a smaller set of foodstuffs it’s also more precarious. The archaeological evidence overwhelmingly suggests that farmers were less well-nourished and less healthy than their forebears. Controversy rages about why people adopted that lifestyle, but it certainly wasn’t because it made life easier.

But one effect of farming is that it creates a deeper attachment to that smaller area. Farms tend to be de facto inherited, even when the farmers are technically tenants:

There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort.

Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

This has a number of effects. For one thing, the farmer has a commitment to the long-term well-being of his land. There is a saying that you plant a walnut tree for your grandchildren. Certainly, given that a walnut tree can easily have a productive life of three hundred years, you personally are not going to see most of the walnuts from a tree you plant today. If modern financial analysts had anything to do with it, walnuts would probably be extinct. Thankfully, they are not.

Secondly, the farmer has an intimate knowledge of his land. Let me here introduce a technical term from the ancient art of shepherding. (Sheep are thought the be one of the first domesticated animals, so it’s an art we’ve had quite a few millennia to perfect.) I speak here of the hefted flock.

Now sheep are mostly left to fend for themselves. Yes, they’re brought in for lambing, and even then some of the hardier breeds can cope well enough without human intervention. But the key is letting the same flock graze the same land over multiple generations. Of course it isn’t the same flock exactly: sheep are born, sheep die; it’s the old philosophical chestnut about the ship of Theseus, or, if you prefer, Trigger’s broom. But you know what I mean.

It turns out that sheep, like people, can hand down traditional knowledge. Sheep that know these particular hills will do well here. They know where the good grazing is, they know the sheltered places to give birth, in short they have the same sort of knowledge as the human hunter-gatherer does, but in a more sheep-oriented way. Sheep brought in from elsewhere will need to figure it all out, and in the short term will do less well. (In the long term, of course, they will have become sheep that know these particular hills, which is where we came in.) A flock that knows a particular patch of land is said to be hefted to that land.

I don’t think this is something that is unique to sheep. I think people need it too, or at least can derive huge benefit from it. Many of the ills we see today are due to the fact that the decisions which call them into being are all too often taken by someone on the other side of the world who presses a button, possibly while eating breakfast and reading a newspaper article about something completely unrelated. It would never occur to such a person to plant a walnut tree, which will just show up as a liability in next quarter’s figures.

Imagine instead a world in which the person making the decisions about a place actually lives in that place and knows that their children and grandchildren will also live in that place. This is the positive aspect of the NIMBY syndrome: if enough people don’t want a thing in their back yard, it won’t happen in anyone’s back yard, and frankly this is probably a good thing. After all, why should anyone have to send their kids to school next to a toxic waste dump? Come to that, why should there even be toxic waste in the first place? People who complain about NIMBYism are really saying that the NIMBYists ought to know their place, and not in the good sense.

Of course this goes against the prevailing ethic, which is that cosmopolitanism is the thing. This works pretty well for rich people who would prefer their tax affairs to be conducted in Bermuda and wish to be able to move their business to whichever place has the lowest wages and the fewest workers’ rights. It doesn’t work quite so well for the rest of us. And it won’t work at all when globalisation grinds to halt, dependent as it is on cheap transportation and compliant governments.

Wherever you live, I urge you to get hefted to your place. Learn how you can live there: the basics, of course – nutritious food, potable water, breathable air, a liveable community – but how you can live well. And if you can’t live there, for heaven’s sake find somewhere that you can, while you still have that luxury. Time is short.

For what it’s worth, I’ve taken my own advice. It isn’t necessarily the easiest path, but in the longer run – and I’m allowing here for grandchildren who haven’t even been considered, let alone conceived – it seems to me the best. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

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

On renewable energy

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I originally wrote this essay a few weeks ago, but it’s now something of a companion piece to last week’s post on false hope, particularly as that relates to nuclear fusion. Because a lot of the false hope that people attach to fusion power is often attached to renewables, and many of the same issues apply.

People have been using the power of the wind and of running water to do useful stuff for a very long time. Sails have been in use for millennia, windmills go back at least as far as 9th-century Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the water-wheel may have been known to the ancient Greeks as well as to the Chinese of the same era. Now that people are finally noticing that we can’t go on relying on fossil fuels, renewable energy is all the rage.

This is perfectly sensible, as far as it goes. It will not, however, go as far as we tend to think. Due to the catastrophic failure of our collective imagination, which I’ve already discussed in a previous post, the only kind of future we can envisage is one that is just like the present, only with all the fossil-fuel energy replaced by renewables. This future is easy to imagine. It is also not going to happen.

Electric cars are of course a thing. Indeed they have been a thing for a surprisingly long time, predating the internal combustion engine. What we don’t have, though, is a practicable electric truck, and as far as I know nobody is even working on an electric tractor (apparently John Deere have actually denied it) or an electric cargo-ship. There have been heroic efforts to develop electric aircraft, but you are never going to have batteries offering the same energy density as aviation fuel.

Even if we knew how to build all these things, we probably don’t have the raw materials to manufacture them in the quantities needed, not to mention the enormous infrastructure of charging points. And charging-points aren’t much use unless you can generate the actual electricity for them, and that’s going to be a big issue if your power-grid is based on renewables.

The fundamental reason for this is that renewable energy sources, unlike fossil fuels, are intermittent. That is to say, you can’t rely on solar or wind-generated electricity being available at the time you need to use it. This is an issue, because demand for electricity fluctuates quite dramatically.

Moreover, wind and water power derive from the climate, which is to say they are affected by the weather. There are simply times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Even hydro-electric power can be disrupted by drought, as the Chinese and Americans are discovering at the moment. This isn’t an issue so long as renewables are merely supplementing the fossil-fuelled grid, because a gas-fired power station can merrily run 24/7 so long as it has gas. When renewables are it, though, you have a problem.

The existing power grids across the industrialised world were not designed to cope with intermittency. This is hardly surprising. But it turns out that building such a grid is extremely difficult, because we have no good way of efficiently storing large amounts of electricity, which is what you need to be able to do.

This is not to say that renewables are useless. They don’t solve the problem of powering a nationwide power grid, but we used to get along well enough without having such a thing. They can work well for small-scale local power generation, which also avoids the loss of electricity in transmission (around 6% for the US national grid). Back in the 1970s, when at least some people were prepared to assign some value to small-scale local solutions, a lot of useful work was done in this area. We could do worse than to revisit some of that.

Renewables can work even better to provide direct mechanical energy to do useful stuff, as they always used to do. This is far more energy-efficient, because the process of turning that raw mechanical energy into electricity and then back into useful energy again itself uses energy.

Imagine a cargo-ship that is powered by renewables. You could half-fill the thing with electric motors and batteries, cover the deck in solar panels, and have masts with wind-turbines on them. Alternatively, you could just put sails on the darn thing. That’s how global trade was powered through most of human history. It’s well-understood technology, although of course attempts to revive it have to involve computer-controlled sails, because it’s a well-known fact that nothing can be any good unless computers are involved.

Again, imagine a factory powered entirely by renewables. You could do what was done on the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and use water-power directly to drive the machinery. Indeed, steam-engines were quite a hard sell in those days, because coal costs money and the flow of a river doesn’t. This does mean you can’t just build a factory wherever you want, and it does put a hard limit on the number you can have, but where it works, it works pretty well.

All of this talk of limits and restrictions is of course rank heresy. We’re still committed to infinite growth on a finite planet, and we’re still going to face-plant until we finally grasp that it can’t be done. (It would still be a terrible idea even if it could be done, but that’s another conversation.) But we shouldn’t discard renewables just because they won’t fulfill our impossible fantasies. A hammer is still a useful tool, even if you can’t darn your socks with it.

In any case, soon enough we won’t need to imagine a world in which electricity supplies are intermittent: that will we be the world we inhabit. Thinking about alternatives now strikes me as a sensible use of time; certainly more sensible than trying to make a battery-powered aeroplane.

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

On false hope

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Proverb

Well, here we are in 2023, and maybe some of you have been making New Year’s resolutions, and maybe you’re even still sticking to at least some of them. I’ve written before about the dangers of hope, at least when not accompanied by effective action. The most pernicious form of that is false hope: the mistaken belief that not only will they think of something, they already have thought of something. Isn’t that just fine and dandy?

Naturally, this putative solution will be a technology of some sort, because we always seem to suppose that new technology is the answer, even though it is technological hypertrophy that has landed in out current mess. The topical example right now is that evergreen favourite, nuclear fusion.

Of course life on this planet has been pretty much dependent on nuclear fusion for the last 3.7 billion years or so, courtesy of the sun, which is itself an immense fusion reactor. That’s not the kind we’re talking about here, though. Usable fusion energy down here needs to be contained – we wouldn’t last long in the heart of the sun, after all – and the energy needed to provide that containment plus the energy to set off the fusion reaction in the first place has a tendency to exceed the amount of energy we can get out of the process as a whole. Obviously, this is not terribly useful in itself.

Recently there have been many articles claiming that this barrier has been breached. Well, an experiment has been performed that seems to show that we can actually get more energy out than we put in, if we don’t count some of the energy that we put in.

But experts have stressed that while the results would be an important proof of principle, the technology is a long way from being a mainstay of the energy landscape. To start with, 0.4MJ is about 0.1kWh – about enough energy to boil a kettle….

Prof Justin Wark, professor of physics at the University of Oxford, added that while, in principle, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory could produce such a result about once a day, a fusion power plant would need to do it 10 times a second.

And there is another point: the positive energy gain reported ignores the 500MJ of energy that was put into the lasers themselves.

The Guardian, 13th December 2022

But let’s not be nay-sayers. Let’s just imagine for a moment that this time the researchers have finally cracked it. Indeed, let’s imagine that somehow every power-station in the industrialised world had been magically transformed into a fusion-powered generator overnight. What would that actually achieve?

Would it fix our transportation issues? Not unless we invent some sort of battery technology that doesn’t spontaneously burst into flame and is not so heavy and bulky as to preclude the development of the electric truck or the electric container ship. (In case you hadn’t noticed, neither of those things is available right now.) Nor will it conjure uo the physical resources need to build these things out of thin air. I’ve already waved my magic wand twice; three times seems excessive.

Would it fix our food issues? Well, we don’t have electric tractors or combine harvesters yet, and of course abundant free electricity would have zero impact on issues such as soil erosion or the declining nutritional value of our food or the depletion of water sources. (Look up fossil water if you want to be depressed.) Nor would it do anything to improve the grotesque maldistribution of food and water which we find today.

Would it fix the biodiversity crisis? Again, it’s hard to see how cheap, abundant electricity would help. If anything, it would merely empower capitalists in their quest to exterminate all other life on the planet, in the finest Dalek tradition.

Indeed it’s hard to see how it would do anything, really, beyond allowing the current Business As Usual™ scenario to stagger on for a few more decades, doing even more harm to the vast majority of people, so say nothing of other living beings. That’s not really a future to be very hopeful about, when you look at it.

That’s not to say that we can’t build a liveable future. Plenty of people across the globe are doing that right now, and at least some of them are going to succeed, at least to some extent. The future is not going to contain electricity too cheap to meter – that promise is older than I am, and I ain’t no spring chicken. It won’t contain iPhones or data-centres or plastics or inverted GM corn syrup. We can do without those things, and better without those things.

But you – yes, you, the person reading these words – you are going to have to make that happen. It won’t come from scientists in white coats, and it sure as hell isn’t going to come from whichever government you happen to live under. Whether or not Gandhi actually said it, be the change you want to see in the world. Seriously, that’s what it comes down to. Change doesn’t happen because you hope it will. Change happens because you make it happen.

Have a great year. Surprise yourself.

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

Predictions for 2023

Predictions are a mug’s game.

Nigel Farage

So another year draws to a close, and as is my custom I’ll be looking back on my predictions for 2022 and having another bash for the year to come.

So this what my crystal ball showed last time:

(1) Russia to invade or annexe Ukraine but not start World War III

Well, Russia did indeed invade Ukraine, and despite a lot of hyperventilating from various politicians World War III has not ensued. The jury is still out on whether this will end well or ill for the Russians, but I’m going to claim a hit.

(2) China not to invade Taiwan and not start World War III either

If I can quote myself: “My prediction is for tension to keep on ratcheting up but without any actual explosion, at least in 2022.” Pretty much sums it up. If anyone, it’s been the US trying to stir up trouble rather than China, which has quite enough on its plate at the moment.

(3) Donald J. Trump to announce his candidature for the US Presidency

And so he has. Not that it has caused too much excitement yet.

(4) Scotland to demand another referendum on independence

Quoting myself again: “It is likely the courts will be involved. But my prediction is that there will be a serious official request to hold such a thing.” The Scottish government did indeed bring legal proceedings to try and establish if an independence referendum could be held in 2023 without Westminster’s approval. The Supreme Court said no, although that surely won’t be the end of the matter.

(5) Global supply-chains to deteriorate to the point of causing serious shortages

This has not happened on quite the scale I was expecting, I will admit. There are shortages of this and that – antibiotics, some other medications, specific foods (eggs, for example, at least in the UK) – but nothing apocalyptic. Then again we are entering a major recession, so there’s less demand for stuff and hence less strain on supply-chains.

Still, as Meat Loaf might have said, four out of five ain’t bad. So, what about 2023?

(1) The government of a major industrialised nation to face a serious popular uprising

I almost discarded this one when I heard about the recent shenanigans in Germany featuring an alleged plot to mount a coup as well as large-scale anti-government demonstrations, but I don’t think either of those things would quite count. I’m talking about something large-scale, well-organised, and threatening enough to provoke a substantial reaction from the government; something along the lines of the 1926 General Strike, say. It’s possible that the Canadian Truckers’ Convoy might already have been such a thing, but I don’t feel that I have sufficiently reliable information to say – I live a very long way away from Canada, and have no contacts there.

It doesn’t have to be successful, by the way; it probably won’t be. I’m just saying it’s likely to be tried. However, I’m not going to guess at which nation (or nations) will kick off, because there are too many plausible candidates.

(2) A resolution to the Ukraine conflict which is less unfavourable to Russia than the West would like

I am not saying that Russia will “win,” whatever winning might mean in the context. There may well not be a permanent settlement, at least not next year. What I predict is that (a) the active fighting will stop, and (b) Russian will get a reasonable measure of security on her western border, whatever that looks like.

If this happens, I would also predict that the mainstream will quickly forget that Ukraine exists and will start obsessing about something else, as they have (for example) with the wars in Syria, Yemen, various parts of Africa, et cetera. But that’s rather like predicting that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning.

(3) A major corporation will declare bankruptcy

And no, I’m not thinking about Twitter. (Or the fairy gold cryptocurrency sector, come to that.) But I reckon at least one “household name” company will be revealed to be deep in the manure over the course of the next year. There are too many dubious business models being propped up by dubious money for this not to happen. Quite a few banks probably fall into that category, for one thing.

By the way, I’m still going to claim a partial hit if the corporation in question is acquired for a song by a rival and/or bailed out by the relevant government. That’s just more dubious money sloshing around.

(4) A country to leave/be expelled from the European Union

Again there are multiple candidates for exactly which country we’re talking about for this one. Hungary, Poland, and Italy are all possibilities. Leaving voluntarily is more likely than expulsion, as the good old UK has provided a precedent, if not an especially encouraging one.

I would probably admit that this is a fairly long shot for 2023, and is included here mostly because of my ghoulish curiosity to see exactly what the fallout might be. But it’s not impossible.

(5) A war to break out for control of one or more of the metals required to build EVs

This is going to be a tricky one to adjudicate, because of course the ostensible justification for the war will be something else. I remember a sardonic comment by a US General around the time of the First Gulf War to the effect that he wouldn’t be there if Kuwait’s principal export were carrots. I don’t expect to see that level of honesty in the future.

As for the specifics, I would expect either cobalt or lithium to be the metal in question, although there are plenty of others. Although many of these minerals are largely mined in China, of course it won’t be China on the receiving end. The picture is further complicated by the fact that some of the candidates for “liberation” already have wars going on – the Democratic Republic of Congo comes to mind.

But I am pretty sure something along these lines will be tried as it becomes clear that the ambitions expressed by several major(ish) industrialised nations to transition to EVs will require a lot in the way of physical resources. More, indeed, than are actually available, although you won’t hear that admitted publicly until it can be blamed on the reluctance of the evil [insert name of bad guys here] to roll over and just let us have their stuff.

So there you have it. If you’d like to chip in with your own predictions, or tell me why you think one or more of these won’t happen – well, feel free to leave a comment below!

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

On death and rebirth

Nothing can dwindle to nothing, as Nature restores one thing from the stuff of another, nor does she allow a birth, without a corresponding death.

Titus Lucretius Carus, De Rerum Natura, Book I.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to write a post at each of the four quarters of the year concerning what each of them represents. It’s a useful exercise, if only because it reminds us of our physical connection to, and dependence on, the natural world. It actually does matter whether or not the sun shines, as solar-energy enthusiasts are now belatedly (re)discovering.

The particular turning-point we are approaching now – at least in the Northern Hemisphere – is the winter solstice. It’s the shortest day of the year, and the moment at which the long pendulum of the seasons begins to swing back around towards spring, even as winter is just getting going.

That’s a thought that many of us will need to cling onto this winter, at least in the UK and Europe. Times are already hard for many of us: short of money, short of energy, and short of ideas. There are so many strikes going on right now that I can’t even list them all. Teachers, rail workers, postal workers, even nurses for heaven’s sake. In a completely unsurprising development, UK house prices are dropping like a rock as most people are struggling to pay their existing mortgage/rent, let alone take on a new one. There’s a shortage of eggs. There’s a shortage of turkeys (just in time for Christmas). Some supermarkets are putting security tags on cheese in case those who can no longer afford it are tempted to nick the stuff.

I don’t know how bad it’s going to get over the course of this winter, but it will be pretty bad. I’m old enough to remember the grim times of the 1980s, when we had rioting in the streets, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it got worse than that. The safety-nets have been fraying for years, and I doubt if the welfare system will cope, not that it is even intended to cope these days.

The British people are notoriously phlegmatic; “Mustn’t grumble” is practically the national motto. But it’s as if the government is trying to see how far they can push it before people actually kick off. And they’ll have to kick off, because public protest is now illegal for all practical purposes, and I don’t think too many people believe that Sir Keir Starmer KCB KC, a.k.a. “The Worker’s Friend,” is the political messiah who will fix any of this, even though he will probably win the next general election on the anybody-but-these-idiots platform. (I almost said he would probably be our next Prime Minister, but the on current form the Conservatives could still get in a couple more changes of leadership before 2024 rolls around.)

I’m not especially reassured by the news that the German government has apparently just thwarted a plot for a coup d’ḗtat. Given how badly the last right-wing takeover worked out for them, there must be a significant measure of desperation amongst the people at large for this to have struck anyone as plausible. I’ve heard similar rumours about France, although it’s always hard to distinguish genuine revolutionary fervour from the normal background level of French rambunctiousness.

Not so long ago, Mrs Thatcher came to power in Britain on the back of the so-called “Winter of Discontent.” We can surely look forward to plenty of discontent this winter, and we’ll be lucky if nobody takes political advantage of it in the same way she did. If we ever get anything that calls itself a Government of National Unity we’ll be in deep, deep trouble.

But this, too, will pass. Let’s remember that our species has survived an entire Ice Age. It’s not always fun to live through a time of what the economist and Nosferatu look-alike Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” (the Thatcher years being but one example), but sometime it really is creative. We are, after all, going to have to find new ways in which to live – new to us, if not new under the sun. We will have to unlearn a lot of what we think we know, and learn a great deal that may seem strange, if not repugnant. That’s not going to be unalloyed fun, although it might not be as grim as you imagine.

And there’s something real to be gained at the end of all this. As the saying goes, you should never waste a good crisis. (This one has been attributed to everyone from Churchill to Machiavelli, so there’s probably some truth in it.) We may run short of eggs, but we aren’t going to run short of crises. Despite all the management-speak baloney about every crisis being an opportunity – these are the sort of people who, had they been captain of the Titanic, would have described striking the iceberg as “challenging” – when things fall apart, there is a genuine opportunity to put them back together in new and better ways.

Now is a good time to start imagining what some of those ways might be. What might a future world you want to live in actually look like? How are people’s basic needs met? How are the decisions that affect your life taken? What skills do you need to live, and how did you acquire them? How will your children acquire them?

We think we know the answers to those questions, but as events are proving, we really don’t. You can see that as terrifying or see it as exciting, and the reality is it’s probably going to be a bit of both. To answer them, we need to start having many conversations with one another that aren’t happening yet, or only happening in pockets. Join in one of those conversations if you can find one, or start your own.

Winter is here. Spring is coming.

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

On the Vast Machine

We are being watched, but who is in charge of the watching? Although some of us freely offer up our private lives to the Vast Machine, we have no knowledge of how the information is being used and who is using it. Criminals can duplicate our identities. Corporations can manipulate our spending behavior [sic]. Governments can manufacture opinions and crush dissent. We are seen, but they are faceless. We are asked to live in a transparent house, while the forces of power are concealed.

John Twelve Hawks, The Golden City

I could have done this as a book review, either of this volume or (more likely) of the whole Fourth Realm trilogy (The Traveller, The Black River, and The Golden City, in case you don’t know). Instead I thought I’d pick out one of the major themes of that trilogy for discussion. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t read the books – they’re terrific, fast-paced, and contain plenty of other interesting things.

The Vast Machine is also referred to in the books as the Panopticon. The original Panopticon, whose name is the Greek for “everything [being] seen” was a design for a prison – never built – devised by the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The idea behind the design of the Panopticon is that a single guard stationed in a central tower can potentially observe any inmate at any time, without that inmate’s knowledge. Bentham’s key insight is that from the inmate’s point of view, this is effectively the same thing as 24/7 monitoring, because they can never be sure that they are not under observation at any given moment. Therefore all the inmates will be well-behaved all the time. If you’re running a prison, this is pretty much the perfect outcome, especially as you only need one member of staff on duty – say three guards working eight-hour shifts – plus, presumably, a few goons on hand to punish any infractions, at least until the inmates get the message.

By the Vast Machine, a.k.a. the Panopticon, the author means the immense network of (mostly automated) systems which monitor the lucky denizens of industrial civilisation in every aspect of our lives. On a literal level, there are numberless cameras watching our public spaces, especially in the UK. Some of those cameras are connected to various artificial intelligences, such as the ANPR systems which track vehicles by their registration numbers (license plates, for US readers). But of course there are even more watchers in the cyber realm: whenever you pay on your card, visit a website, post on social media, or even move around while carrying a mobile phone, you leave a digital trail that is stored and analysed by entities which you cannot even put a name to, let alone control. And that data will persist indefinitely, and is even a traded commodity.

Utilitarianism, which was more or less the intellectual creation of Bentham and his good friend James Mill, is an ethical system whose influence is still very pervasive. We don’t think of it that way, any more than fish think of water as being very pervasive, but it is. It is often characterised as seeking “the greatest good of the greatest number,” which, like a lot of formulae, sounds terrific until you think about it.

The huge question this formula begs is, of course, what is good? There are plenty of answers to that, but the “easy” answer is simply material well-being. It isn’t hard to see the appeal of that to people who want to sell you things. After all, in order to be happy, don’t you need this season’s must-have eyebrow pencil? It also isn’t hard to see the appeal to people who simply want to control you. And there has never been any shortage of people like that. Even in a social group as small and innocuous as a bridge club or a scout troop one can usually spot a potential Pol Pot.

Now it is true that living in a village is not unlike living in a Panopticon, except that the prison guards are your neighbours, The sanctions are likely to be less drastic, though, and the rules are on the whole less arbitrary. You may even have some input into them yourself. Communities based around survival – and that’s what a village is, when you get down to it – have two sets of norms: one set which lays down the kind of behaviour needed to go on surviving, and another set which, in the finest traditions of social primates, determines whether you are One Of Us – that is, the sort of person likely to go along with the first set.

But a lot of the time this is going to come down to basic common sense. If you live in a fishing community, you can expect to get the cold shoulder if you devote your life to developing an effective torpedo, and rightly so. Even a Utilitarian could see the sense in that. And the rules of the average village are likely to be somewhat more liberal than those of the average prison. Plus it’s usually possible to leave a village and go and live somewhere else, a practice that prisons typically frown upon.

Is it possible, though, to leave the Vast Machine? It gets harder all the time. There are suggestions, for example, that we should move to a cashless society – that is to say, a society in which every single transaction can be monitored and recorded and assessed in real time. (That will be the last time you chuck a few coins into a busker’s hat.) There is endless scrutiny of travel. I remember reading somewhere in Bertrand Russell that when he was young it was considered a mark of how oppressive Tsarist Russian was that in order to go there you had to get a passport. Today there are few international boundaries where a passport (or other officially-recognised ID) is not the minimum requirement to enter; certainly none that I know of amongst the soi-disant developed nations – by which we mean the industrialised nations.

This trick has been tried before. It is, indeed, as old as civilisation, if by civilisation we mean the practice of living in, or under the domination of, cities. It was tried all the way back in the third millennium BC by the Third Dynasty of Ur; over in China, the Emperor Qin Shi Huang gave it the old college try in the third century BC; “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1) – and so it goes on.

Will it work this time? After all, Qin Shi Huang didn’t have computers or CCTV. For myself, much of my hope rests on my first-hand knowledge of how fragile and chaotic a lot of this stuff is; those who have not peered behind the curtain, as most of us have not, probably imagine things are much better-organised than they in fact are.

But the mere fact that an immense amount of effort and expense would be required to turn today’s rather Heath Robinson IT infrastructure into the smooth glowing thing of techno-fantasy is no guarantee that it will never happen. Certainly the motivation to make it happen is there. Consider that the Great Pyramid was built, so far as we know, by people without iron tools, let alone sophisticated. machinery. And their motivation is far less obvious.

If you don’t want to be chipped and barcoded as if you were a box of paperclips, what are your options? Well, there are plenty of things you can do, although you should be prepared to be treated as a weirdo by many of your family and friends and also to find that your life will become slightly more difficult in small and mysterious ways. Here are some suggestions:

  • Get off social media, in all of its forms. All of those sites exists primarily in order to harvest your personal data; that’s why they don’t need to charge money. (As the saying goes, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”) As a side benefit, you won’t waste any more of your time and energy being swept up in the Two Minutes Hate du jour, and you might even find something useful outside your echo-chamber.
  • While you’re at it, ditch your smartphone. By all means have a phone; I’m not suggesting you should stop speaking to people, quite the reverse. But smartphones have become the Telescreens of the21st century. They do not exist primarily for the benefit of the person holding them in their hand. If you need one to find your way around, learn to read a map. It isn’t hard; people have been doing it for centuries. Or maybe even ask an actual person for directions.
  • Pay cash. There’s nothing wrong with paying cash. Businesses pay a fee to accept credit or debit card payments; you’re actually doing them a favour by paying cash. If the payee decides not to put that payment through the books, that’s between them, God, and the tax authorities. You’re just paying for your stuff.
  • And make sure you pay some of that cash to local food producers. After all, you’re going to have to deal with these people sooner or later, so you may as well make friends while times are relatively good, You’ll get to eat fresh, healthy food, and if you end up learning to cook from scratch that’s a bonus. After all, skills are better than money in the bank: they can freeze your bank account, but they can’t confiscate your recipe for chili con carne.
  • Read things printed on paper – books, newspapers, magazines – rather than the on-line equivalents. The battery won’t go flat, and you aren’t reliant on wi-fi. Nobody is tracking your eye movements while you’re reading a book, which they may be if you’re reading a website. And you are much less likely to end up on a list of Bad People. By the way, don’t fall for any guilt-trip about “dead trees” – the amount of ecological damage caused by data centres is untold, and you can easily compost a newspaper.
  • While I’m on the subject of reading, read widely, both in space and in time. By which I mean, read writers from other times and places. Stephen King says in his book On Writing that writing is like telepathy. We can access the thoughts of other people in other times: the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, for example, has been pushing up the daises for the thick end of two millennia, but we can still read his Meditations, without even having to master the classical Greek in which he wrote them. Give it a go. You might get some perspective on your current circumstances, or even learn something new.

None of these things will cost you much money; some of them will even save you money. All of them will, in different ways, give you a bit more autonomy as an individual. Moreover, they’ll make it a bit harder for the guard in the central tower to see exactly what you’re up to.

Of course, if you’ve read this far they’ll already know about it. Welcome to the Vast Machine.

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

On education

In George Orwell’s prophetic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the various government ministries are named for the opposite of what they actually do: the Ministry of Peace is responsible for the perpetual state of war, the Ministry of Plenty is in charge of rationing, and so on. (I will admit that I was a little worried in 2007 when the UK government created a Ministry of Justice.) Is the Department of Education really that different?

Education is rather like prison, in that nobody is quite sure exactly what it is for. But everyone is quite sure what education – and prison – are supposed to prevent. It’s more explicit with prisons, because there are people that most of us can agree should be locked away to prevent them from doing more harm. My Uncle Raymond is a case in point. I have only the vaguest memory of him as a person, but I’m quite glad he was prevented from carrying on the stuff he was doing.

In theory, education is the “drawing-out” (Latin educare, e(x) (out) ducare (lead or draw, as in conduct), that is to say the drawing out of a child’s innate potential. Those of us with a classical bent – even more bent than having a tendency to reference Latin etymologies – might even be thinking of the passage in Plato’s Meno where Socrates elicits a geometrical proof from a slave-boy, thereboy showing that the slave-boy knew it all along without realising.

In practice, of course, none of this high-mindedness applies. I imagine, dear reader, you passed through at least some fraction of the official educational system in an industrialised nation, as I did. There was not a great deal of drawing-out to be seen. There was, on the other hand, a good deal of putting-in, or at least an attempt at putting-in.

It was the Prussians, God bless them, who laid the foundations of our modern school systems. For various historical reasons, Prussia was very much oriented towards the military, and a key objective of their system was therefore to produce people who would do what they were told. It’s entirely understandable that they should do this. The initial impulse came with Frederick the Great’s Generallandschulreglement at the end of the Seven Years’ War, a conflict in which Prussia was almost annihilated by the combined forces of France, Austria and Russia.

The main features of this regime are: segregating pupils by age, as opposed to (say) aptitude; having a standardised curriculum; and making teaching a profession, rather than something that certain people simply do as a matter of course. In many societies, those people are known as elders. I’d just like to take a moment to point out that industrial civilisation seems to be mysteriously elder-free. Ask yourself if that is a good or healthy thing.

As it turns out, having a general population that will do what you tell it is extraordinarily convenient if you happen to be running a factory. There are, of course, bonus points if those people happen to be drilled in those particular skills that you require. And, of course, the Prussian model has education be a function of the state, so the factory-owner is only paying a relatively small part of the cost. What’s not to like?

I was an exceptionally fortunate child. For one thing, my mother was an infant-school teacher, so I knew how to read before I ever went to school, as did both my siblings. (This caused much consternation when I got there, as it violated the rule that children of age X must know exactly Y, neither more nor less.) For another thing, my father had grown up in a family imbued with the spirit of working-class self-improvement that produced institutions like the Workers’ Educational Association and Ruskin College. The house I grew up in was therefore filled with books, and while we never had much money I always knew as a child that I could rely on my Dad to spring for an interesting book (always second-hand).

In many ways, therefore, my actual education occurred outside the official system. I regarded that as merely a system of hoops through which I needed to jump in order to obtain the various totemic pieces of paper which it can provide and to access the promised land of university. I did that, and I can’t complain too much about the results, but as a system of education it was not impressive.

Here’s the thing. Nobody emerges from the womb exactly the same as anyone else. Even identical twins have their differences (ask one if you don’t believe me). Therefore treating every child as if they were a lump of pig-iron is never going to bring out the best in them. There are kids who are ready to learn to read at the age of three. There are kids who aren’t ready to learn to read until the age of seven. Maybe there are even kids who never need to learn to read at all. (After all, nobody did until we came up with writing just a few short millennia ago.) To decree some arbitrary standard for all children is to guarantee that many will fail.

When I first went to school, I could already read to a reasonable standard. In a system designed to draw out the pupil’s talents, this would have been a cause for celebration. Of course, it was a complete disaster. I was taught to read a second time using a thing called the Initial Teaching Alphabet, which I’d like to think has died in a fire now, and with excellent reason. If that had any educational value at all, which I doubt, it prepared me slightly for the study of Greek, which also has a phonetic alphabet. Although their only shared character ɷ is pronounced differently, so go figure. Even at the time, the whole thing seemed like an attempt to retard my education, not advance it.

In every human society – in all places and at all times – there has been some process to convert a newborn infant into a functioning adult who can participate fully in that society. That process will be different where different results are required; it is one thing to be an Inuit hunter and quite another to be a Roman senator or a Javascript developer in California. But there will be some process there, and that, in the broadest sense, is education.

One of the oddest things about our civilisation, compared to the way most human societies seem to have managed this throughout history, is the way this process has been formalised. Nobody amongst the !Kung bushmen holds a diploma in the gathering of mongongo nuts. It’s just something you learn how to do when you live in the Kalahari.

It may be that in a couple of generations’ time the fetish for certification will have been abandoned. I’d like to think people could once again arrive at a way of living fitting to the challenges of their actual lives. But in order to get there, we will need to rediscover a kind of creativity and flexibility that our ancestors knew but which is utterly foreign to the kind of education we are foisting on our children today. If I had school-age children today, I think I’d want them to be home-schooled. After all, in most respects, I was.

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

On free speech

Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.

Benjamin Franklin, On Freedom of Speech and the Press (1737)

Let me begin by stating frankly that I am not, personally, at all bothered about Twitter. I do not have, and have never had, a Twitter account. (Or Facebook Meta, Instagram, Pinterest, or [insert name of social media thing here].) If Twitter disappeared in a puff of smoke tomorrow, it would have essentially zero impact on my life. Indeed, if Twitter had never existed in the first place, it would also have had essentially zero impact on my life.

I speak, therefore, as a non-Twitting member of the general populace. What interests me about it – far more than the not especially interesting face that a billionaire has been bought out by another billionaire; plus ça change and all that – is that a poll was recently conducted to determine whether to re-admit Donald Trump to its hallowed virtual turf. Apparently, 52% of those who expressed a preference said that he should be so re-admitted, which presumably means 48% said he shouldn’t.

Now I am not especially keen to hear more from Mr Trump, although (1) as a non-Twit I won’t have to and (2) as a non-US citizen I don’t suppose he cares what I think. What is interesting here is that it is such a controversial proposition that someone so prominent in American public life – after all, in case anyone has forgotten, he used to be the gosh-darned President – should be denied a platform from which to express his views. After all, isn’t the First Amendment to the US Constitution supposed to guarantee free speech?

Well, apparently free speech is like democracy. You can say whatever you like, so long as we agree with it, just as you can elect whichever government you choose, so long as we approve of it. (Hard luck, Salvador Allende; no mandate for you!) It is, of course, so different for those unfortunate people groaning under the heel of, say, the Chinese Communist Party, who can only say things approved of by some different value of “we”.

But who exactly is this “we” that determines what can be said, or who can be voted in? How did they get to be in such a position of authority? Is there, indeed, only One Truth that everyone must accept, One True Answer to every question that can be asked? I don’t think it’s just me and Ben Franklin that would answer that with a resounding No.

I hear things all the time that I find deeply offensive. People in positions of authority routinely say things that I consider wrong, stupid, and frankly dangerous. (Very few of them, of course, would care much even if they knew about that (see above, under “democracy”).) There are certainly times when I wish that chorus of idiots would just shut the hell up. Then again, it’s entirely in my gift what measure of my attention I choose to give to them. There are plenty of other people, both alive and dead, who deserve it a whole lot more.

It’s not often that I find myself in agreement with the late Mao Zedong, but: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” After all, isn’t that what liberalism is meant to be about? Although, having said that, I may have missed the news that John Stuart Mill has now been cancelled, possibly due to having been the wrong sort of feminist. But I digress.

Free speech is necessary for free thought, and free thought is necessary for intelligent thought. It’s hardly controversial to suggest that we need as much intelligent thought as we can get to deal with all the stuff that’s in store for is in the near term, not to mention the medium and long term. I dare say even Mr Musk would agree with that proposition, although his notion of intelligent thought is perhaps not quite the same as mine.

Whether or not Einstein said so, we really can’t solve our problems using the same thinking by which we created them. If, however, the only thinking allowed is the One True Way, then surely we never will. And we see this everywhere. The One True Way, for example, is endless growth and endless consumption of more stuff, regardless of how much stuff there is. The One True way is endless growth of the human population, regardless of the impacts on the non-human population or how grim the lives of most of the human population will be. The One True Way is happy motoring, in EVs if necessary, even if we can’t generate the electricity, let alone manufacture all the necessary batteries and electronics, to make that happen. And so on.

It is a still rarer occurrence for me to find myself in agreement with David Icke than with Chairman Mao, but really, it doesn’t have to be like this. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have existed on this planet, after all, it has not been like this. Indeed, it hasn’t been remotely like this, and there’s a decent case to argue that human societies have often chosen otherwise. From where I’m sitting, that looks like a smart call. Why wouldn’t you choose to live in a way that gives you personal autonomy and your community every prospect of future prosperity?

An obvious answer to that question would be that the question could never be asked. That, after all, would be wrongthink. A really well-educated population – that is to say, one that had been trained never to think critically – would never even be able to form such an idea. (Why yes, I am considering a post on the education system, now that you mention it.) If you have been taught to drive a car on the assumption that the steering-wheel is merely decorative and that the accelerator pedal must always be flat to the metal, you are going to crash hard at some point. Right now, we are all driving in that car, and most of us are passengers.

It’s time to start thinking freely, and that means speaking freely. Some people are going to find some of those things hard to hear, and that’s okay. Shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre if the theatre is in fact on fire has some merit, after all. But we can’t go on as we are. You don’t want to be in that car when it hits the wall, whichever wall that turns out to be.

Of course, that’s just my two penn’orth. You’re free to disagree.

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