On well-known facts

The more you look at ‘common knowledge’, the more you realise that it is more likely to be common than it is to be knowledge.

Idries Shah, Reflections

We live in an age of faith. This may seem a strange thing to say at a time when rationalism and science are supposedly so dominant, but it is true and necessarily true because every age is an age of faith. This is so because we must take so much on trust. The scientific method is supposed to provide us with a guarantee that every assertion can be checked, but of course in practice this is simply impossible. I accept that the speed of light is 299,792,458 metres per second because I’ve been told as much by someone with no obvious motivation to lie to me, not because I have personally replicated the Fizeau experiment in my kitchen.

Of course, an assertion is not true just because it is a well-known fact. The long-running TV show QI largely consists of questions about well-known facts which are not actually true, or which used to be thought true but no longer are. Many of these are simply redefinitions of terms, such as the Moon no longer being a moon, or strawberries not being berries, but some are substantive.

These examples are trivial, of course. Most of us will continue to think of the Moon as a moon, whatever astronomers deem the definition of a moon to be, and frankly it doesn’t much matter either way. Others have practical implications. It used to be a well-known fact that the human stomach was too acid an environment for bacteria to live in it, and then Helicobacter pylori was discovered. This has had significant practical implications, as it can cause stomach ulcers; the discoverers were subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine.

But this extends beyond simple facts. There is a quotation I have been unable to track down (Derrick Jensen cites it somewhere) to the effect that the real authority in any society is its unquestioned assumptions. These are more pernicious; they are not facts but attitudes, perspectives on the world. We all frame the world in different ways, but in looking through the frame it is easy to lose sight of the frame itself.

Consider the proposition: “Technological progress is inevitable.” Now it is certainly the case that technological progress has occurred, in the sense that there are more complicated and resource-intensive ways of doing things available now compared to the past. It is also the case – though we don’t talk about this much – that it has not always been an unmixed blessing.

The Luddites, after all, were quite correct. The deterioration in working conditions which they prophesied did indeed come to pass. Was this inevitable? We tend to think so, because it happened. And yet was there any reason why Archduke Franz Ferdinand might not have lived to a ripe old age, as his uncle in fact did? History is notoriously written by the victors. In his interesting book Fossil Capital (Verso Books, 2015), Andreas Malm tells the interesting story of how and why steam engines replaced water-power. It is not because steam was ‘better’ – Boulton and Watt had a lot of trouble persuading mill-owners to pay good money to replace the free energy they were getting from rivers with costly and dangerous steam-engines. The decisive factor, in Malm’s account, was political. You can only build a water-mill on a suitable site, and this gives the local labour-force bargaining power. A steam engine can be put almost anywhere, provided you can afford to get coal to it, putting the mill-owner in a stronger position. It’s an early example of the mobility of capital which has become one of the plagues of the modern world.

We have many narratives of the form “A replaced B, therefore A was better than B.” We even apply this to biological evolution, even though Darwin himself repudiated this view. (“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives,” as he pointed out. “It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”) And this has real and unpleasant implications, as the history of so-called social Darwinism makes plain, a history which is by no means over.

To take a current example, who has actually called for the development and installation of the 5G phone network? What is its justification, beyond the fact that 5 comes after 4? Are we taking the potential risks to health, for example, as seriously as we would if it were not “progress”? Any political measure can be made more palatable, it seems, if it is represented as “reform” or “modernisation”, which are synonyms for progress. If only Henry VIII had known this dodge we would presumably have had the Modernisation of the Monasteries instead, whereby he claimed to be bringing them into the sixteenth century.

A newer thing is not intrinsically better (or worse) than an older thing. It is just newer. But we tend not to think of it that way. When I was a kid, products used to be advertised as “new and improved”; these days, “new” is held to be sufficient. (It’s also less committal; advertisers prefer not to be pinned down to too many questions of fact.) Out mystical faith in the passage of time as an inexorable bringer of improvement goes very deep. Hence the many complaints that X is unacceptable in this day and age. Presumably the speaker has in mind some previous day and age in which X would have been fine, although they never specify this. 2021 must be better than 2020, on the same principle that 5G is better then 4G, and presumably George VI was better than George V, and our present monarch is better still. It’s absolute bobbins, but hardly anyone questions it, because it’s a well-known fact.

Here’s another popular credo: “There is no truth but The Science, and The Data is its prophet.” Now if you talk to actual scientists, they will tell you that their claims to truth are strictly provisional. They have theories that correspond to and explain actual observations of the world, but those theories are always susceptible of improvement and even wholesale replacement in the light of newer observations. Some of these theories, especially in physics, are extremely well-grounded: if they are not the truth, they are as near as dammit the truth. But in principle, scientific knowledge is not absolute; it has an asymptotic relationship with truth, approximating closer and closer to it as out observations and theories are refined, without necessarily ever reaching it. (Here I distinguish empirical science from mathematics, which is rather more sure of itself.)

You won’t, however, find much of this in popular parlance. It is cheerfully assumed that some scientist or other will be able to give us offhand the truth about almost any question, up to and including those which cannot be investigated scientifically, such as the existence of God. These days we expect this truth to emerge from some curious metaphysical entity called The Data. Now any experimenter or engineer will tell you that data is tricky stuff; it’s never as accurate or complete as you would like it to be, and the statistical techniques used to correct this are a minefield of potential error. Never mind this: The Data knows all. It knew, for example, that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 US Presidential election.

Moreover, there is no such thing as The Science. Science is full of disagreements, by its very nature. Some researchers support hypothesis X, others hypothesis Y. Eventually one or other will be discarded, or someone else will suggest hypothesis Z which will turn out better than either. This is how science advances. It’s always messier, slower and more complicated than this in practice – the classic text is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn – but that’s how it works. People, including scientists, tend to be reluctant to change their mind; as the saying goes, “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

Now as I said, some aspects of science are so well-established that nobody seriously denies them. (Well, I suppose economists deny the Laws of Thermodynamics, but that’s matter for another time.) In such cases we may perhaps speak of The Science. But there are many aspects that are still in dispute, and there always will be some. We should not be looking to scientists for ex cathedra pronouncements in these cases, even if some of them are happy to provide them. Scientists have egos too. All too often, however we do, a fact also well-known to advertisers who know that putting an actor in a lab-coat will add spurious authority to their message.

There is however an unfortunate tendency to lurch to the other extreme, taking all pronouncements by scientists as prima facie false. This is even more foolish than taking them all as prima facie true. We should beware though of consigning any opinion contrary to current science to the lunatic fringe without scrutiny. Today’s lunatic fringe can become tomorrow’s orthodoxy, as the sad history of Dr Semmelweis tells us.

Science, of course, can only address those questions to which its methods are applicable. This does not mean that the other questions cannot be asked, although you might sometimes be forgiven for thinking so. Indeed some of them demand to be asked. Any question regarding the purpose of anything other than a man-made object is beyond its purview, so asking about the purpose of life, for example, or the point of suffering, will go unanswered. Some philosophers would like to get around this by calling such questions meaningless, but in practice that won’t wash. And indeed the way people, including scientists and philosophers, actually live their lives gives it the lie. We need a larger context.

Back in 1884, Edwin Abbott Abbott wrote a novel called Flatland. In it, he imagines the inhabitants of a two-dimensional universe encountering the third dimension. This obliges them to abandon what was previously the well-known fact that the world has only two dimensions. As a result, their frame becomes larger and more inclusive.

Trying to peer around the edges of our frame seems to me a worthwhile exercise in itself. But it has practical consequences too, if only in enabling us to see through a lot of the flannel that passes for the truth. The fact that something is unquestioned does not render it unquestionable. Try it the next time you encounter a well-known fact. Once you start to spot them, you’ll find them all around you.

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

On being overwhelmed

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

This is where we are: we have a wide range of urgent problems which all need to be solved, and the resources to address only some of them. If we look at any one of these in isolation, it may seem soluble, but if we look at the whole picture the difficulties soon become obvious.

We’re in the position of someone – let’s call him Clarence – with £100 who has ten £50 bills to pay. He can easily pay any one of them; at a pinch he can cover two. But the reality is that Clarence is insolvent, and a soon as he looks at those bills all at once there’s no denying it.

Except that it’s worse than that, because some of our problems may not actually be soluble problems at all. I’m just going to pick a few examples more at less random:

  • Climate change is happening now and would continue to happen even it we were to stop polluting today (like that’s going to happen) because so much damage has already been done; the CO2 is already up there doing its thing. Nobody really knows how bad it will get or how quickly it will get that bad, but even the official don’t-scare-the-horses version is bad enough.
  • Topsoil erosion is a serious issue we don’t hear too much about, and it’s not something you can reverse overnight. There are techniques for building soils up relatively quickly, but very few people are applying them. Without topsoil, obviously, there won’t be any hope for agriculture. And if you’re thinking hydroponics, well:
  • Fresh water is increasingly in short supply, which isn’t great news for agriculture either, and it isn’t helped by fracking. And we’re only doing that because:
  • Easily accessible petroleum is declining – I’ll say more on this in my post on energy, but this article is a good introduction. There’s a vast literature on this topic, none of which has made it go away.

And so on. I could go on, and doubtless so could you. There’s a section in the 2007 documentary What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire where the film-makers show a scrolling list of the relevant topics they’re not going to discuss. It seems endless.

Once you start looking into these issues, and you start to realise that they all feed into one another, and that even the ones we might be able to fix aren’t getting fixed, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. These are all huge problems, after all. What can one person do?

Well, there are several possible responses. The most overwhelmingly popular one is denial: pretend none of this is happening, usually by distracting yourself with some safer activity like watching reality TV or taking heroin. Since you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you aren’t going for that.

A more dangerous response is to try something desperate in the hope that it fixes the problem. The person with all the bills might buy a lottery ticket, for instance. That’s a reasonably benign example; the worst case scenario = admittedly the most likely one – is that they’ve wasted the price of a ticket. A scarier example would be trying to fix climate change by geoengineering. This is scary because the only way to know if the flavour you’re trying actually works, is safe, and can be sustained is to do it. If it doesn’t work, isn’t safe, or can’t be sustained, then you’ve made things worse. I don’t like those odds.

In the case of Clarence and his ten £50 bills, he might be able to work something out with his creditors. But as Dick Cheney rightly said, “our way of life is not negotiable.” (Although he may not have meant it in that sense.) You can’t arrange an easy payment plan with the laws of physics.

So being overwhelmed is an issue both for us as individuals and for industrial society as a whole. What can we do about it?

The answer is to prioritise. What can we live without? This question will need to be addressed at both an individual and a national level. Clarence can only cover two of his bills; that’s eight things that are going to have to go by the board. I don’t think that’s an unrealistic proportion for a lot of us, if not today then soon.

Going without things is not considered an attractive option in our culture. There are many, many people in the marketing and advertising industries who work tirelessly to ensure that this remains so; on the contrary, we are supposed to want more and more things, newer and shinier things, all the time, and if we can’t afford them we should just borrow the money.

But you don’t actually have to live like this. Even within the bounds of industrial civilisation, nobody actually has a gun to your head insisting that you get the latest iPhone. I don’t have a smartphone. I never have, except for a few weeks when I borrowed one because the screen went on my old phone. I don’t need one. I have no problems that I need a smartphone to solve. If I could get away with it, I’d happily live without a phone of any kind. When I was a student, all I had was a payphone down the corridor, and it was absolutely fine. If someone wanted to interrupt me, they had to go to the effort of physically coming to the door. Nowadays there are robots to interrupt me. I don’t see that as an improvement.

Similarly with cars. By a happy combination of sloth and physical ineptitude, I have never learned to drive a car. (This may shock my US readers; as the Mongols are said to have learned to ride before they could walk, Americans seem to learn to drive as if by osmosis.) If you are what you drive, I don’t exist. I have therefore always depended on lifts from other people or public transport, which in the UK is pretty patchy, especially in rural areas. I am still here. I did not starve to death because I couldn’t get to the shops.

Now I could be accused of cheating here because my wife does have a car. It is not, however, a car that could accused of being new or shiny. It’s a somewhat battered Citroën Berlingo that is old enough to vote. We bought it used – we’ve never owned a new vehicle, and wouldn’t if we could afford to – based on entirely practical criteria. (The key question being “Can you get a pig in the back?” which apparently was part of the design brief for the original Citroën 2CV.)

Choosing to do without things is not without its benefits. On a practical level, if the thing becomes unavailable – if, for example, the Internet went away, or became too expensive for you to afford – you will be less drastically affected than someone who shelled out for a fridge that requires Internet access in order to work. If you have learned to manage without owning a fridge at all, as everyone used to for most of human history, then you will be that much more relaxed about the possibility of power cuts.

Of course living without a fridge involves some thought and inconvenience, and people often joke that the simple life is surprisingly complicated. I would argue that it is less complicated but that the complications are more obvious. There is an awful lot of complexity hidden from view in many of the things we take for granted. If you had to make your own 1,1,1,2-Tetrafluoroethane to keep your milk chilled, the advantages of a naturally cool larder would be clear.

Psychologically, feeling overwhelmed is the realisation that you are not in control. People like to think they are in control, even when – especially when – they manifestly aren’t. It is much easier to control a relatively simple thing than a complex thing. These days, few things have user-serviceable parts, if they’re even designed to be fixable at all. When something breaks – and it will break sooner rather than later, because they want to sell you another one – you are at someone else’s mercy. There are plenty of things that can go wrong even with something so comparatively straightforward as a fridge. With a larder, well, I guess the worst thing that can happen is that a shelf falls down.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should immediately start living like Mark Boyle. As with most issues, there are plenty of shades of grey that are more interesting and useful than pure black or white. Start small. Think of some of the things in your life that consume money, time or attention which could be better used elsewhere. Try doing without some of them, or cutting back, or replacing them with something simpler. You might surprise yourself.

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

On death

Tʜᴇʀᴇ’ꜱ ɴᴏ ᴊᴜꜱᴛɪᴄᴇ, ᴛʜᴇʀᴇ’ꜱ ᴊᴜꜱᴛ ᴍᴇ.

– Death, in Terry Pratchett, Mort

Death has become rather topical these days, what with the pandemic. At the time of writing, it’s difficult to assess the actual level of excess mortality globally, given the paucity of data and the variability from country to country in such data as we have. What is clear, however, is that many people, at least in the industrialised world, are extremely uncomfortable with the fact that people die.

Comparisons have been made with previous pandemics, notably the (misnamed) Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20 and the Black Death of 1346-53. The first of those killed at most 6% of the world’s population; the second killed something between 30-60% of the population of Europe and around 10-25 million people globally. We are not seeing those numbers currently, and as far as I know we aren’t expecting to. Yet we seem to be reacting as if we were.

Partly this is due to the fact that we rarely think about death and its causes. When we do, it’s often in connection with some specific cause of death; for example, this recent article states that half a million babies die annually because of air pollution. But most of us don’t have much context for that, so it’s hard to assign meaning to such a statement. Half a million certainly sounds like a lot. Then again, is it a lot out of 7.8 billion people? It’s hard to have an intuitive sense of large numbers.

But I think there is a deeper cultural issue here. As a society, we are not good at dealing with death. We like to pretend that it doesn’t happen. Many of us have never seen a human corpse or even an animal one; meat just magically appears shrink-wrapped in the supermarket chiller cabinet. You will not find a book in the self-help section called The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, although it was a best-seller in its day. (You can download it here if you’re curious.) Consciously preparing for death is completely alien to us.

When the English cleric Jeremy Taylor wrote that book in the mid-seventeenth century, he had the advantage of working in a culture that was much more familiar with death and which had its own tools for dealing with it. Pretty much everyone in the England of his day was a Christian of some sort. That gives you a basis for viewing death as part of something larger and with a greater purpose, not to mention the prospect of a good personal outcome (even if you’re a Calvinist).

According to a 2018 survey, the UK population is about 40% agnostic or atheist. What proportion of those who claimed to be religious take their theology seriously is unclear, but I suspect it is not high. I don’t claim that religion per se is the only valid framework for contemplating one’s own death – Stoic philosophy is one counter-example – but most of the world’s major religions have a story to tell about death which is not uniformly dismal.

This wouldn’t matter if we could just ignore death, but of course we can’t, especially when the news media can talk of little else. People die. I am going to die; you are going to die. The people you love will die, if they haven’t already. Human beings have a stupendous capacity to deny what is in front of them, but it’s difficult to pretend that death doesn’t occur, or that it won’t apply to us.

Of course there are people who think we can use technology to make death go away. This is because there are people who believe technology can somehow make just about anything inconvenient go away. I’m not here to make fun of anyone’s sincerely held beliefs, and if the prospect of being uploaded to Elon Musk’s laptop helps them get through the day then I hope it keeps fine for them. For my part, I am not persuaded.

I’m not even persuaded that immortality would be that great an option, even if it were possible. After all, it was traditionally conceived of as a punishment, but even the Wandering Jew and the Flying Dutchman are supposed to find an end on the Day of Judgement. There’s more to happiness than being alive. We struggle to keep people alive for as long as possible, hoping that quantity can somehow make up for quality, partly because the death of a patient is seen as a failure of medical care, and partly I suspect because days and hours can be quantified whereas happiness cannot.

The fear of death is perfectly reasonable, although it can be mixed up with the fear of physical pain, which is not quite the same thing. (“I’m not afraid of death,” said Woody Allen; “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”) But when it gets out of hand, when people panic, we see the emergence of fear-the-mind-killer. Bureaucrats devise elaborate and futile rules in order to be seen to be doing something. Some people are afraid to leave their homes. It’s difficult to know how many people died because they were afraid to seek treatment for a heart attack, or missed out on cancer screening, or took their own lives because they couldn’t cope. There may never be such a reckoning.

Other cultures have been more comfortable with the notion of a good death, even an honourable suicide. Many of Caesar’s assassins took their own lives when it became apparent the game was up, and none of their contemporaries thought any the worse of them for it. If your life has meaning, you death can have meaning too; consider the death of Beowulf, who dies of his wounds after having slain a dragon and thereby saved his people. Even amongst us, a heroic death is fine, so long as we aren’t expected to be heroes ourselves.

But this is view death through the narrow prism of human society. Death, in fact, is the essential counterpart of life. Life, indeed, comes from death. Anyone with a compost heap sees this in action. We all know, even if we don’t care to think about it, what happens to dead animals in nature. Maggots aren’t attractive, even to other maggots, but they do vital work. When this work gets disrupted bad things happen, as in the case of Indian vultures. It may not be the Disney version, but the circle of life really is the way it works. In the biosphere, recycling is not optional.

Plenty of things have died so that I could live. This was the case even when I was a vegetarian, and would be the case even if I were vegan. Because:

  • Every calorie I eat is a calorie some other person doesn’t get to eat. (I include non-human persons in this.) I consider this self-evident.
  • The land on which my food is produced is denied to others. Again, I include both human and non-human persons, and again I consider this self-evident. This is one reason why fields have fences round them. The immense tracts of Amazon rain-forest cleared to create grazing for beef cattle or fields for soya beans also fall under this heading.
  • Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides kill living things. This is true by definition, including the organic versions of these things. The scope of this can sometimes be larger than the intended targets, as with the effects on bees of neonicotinoid pesticides and the weedkiller glyphosate. In that case, of course, there are knock-on effects well beyond the demise of the unfortunate bees.
  • The food I eat is itself directly derived from living things. Of course that doesn’t involve their death in all cases – an apple-tree won’t be killed if I eat its fruit – but in most cases it will. If I eat a carrot, that carrot will not survive.

When you look at it like this, I’m still getting a pretty good deal even though I end up dead myself. For this reason I consider it only fair that when my time comes my body should be returned to the earth to make its contribution to the cycle of life; it seems the least I can do. But your mileage may vary.

Given these basic facts about life and death, it remains up to us to choose how we respond to it. We can pretend they aren’t so, which is popular but not ultimately workable. We can try to minimise the amount of damage we do, and I have much sympathy with this position, even though I wouldn’t take it as far as Jainism. It does however require care: that carton of soya milk may have cost a few acres of rainforest.

My personal position is one of respect. We used to keep chickens, both for eggs and for meat. There is a lot more to chickens than you might think if you haven’t spent time around them in a more or less natural setting; the idea that one chicken is much the same as another is far from the truth. When the time came to kill them – we would normally have a batch of about half a dozen meat birds, and do them all at once – it was never a happy occasion, but at least I had the satisfaction of giving them as quick and easy a death as I could, and of knowing that they had had the best life that I could provide.

I am not saying that one should exclusively eat the meat of creatures one has personally killed. But having some awareness of how that animal lived and died gives value to the process. My father was a meat inspector, so I grew up with more knowledge of what goes on in slaughterhouses than the average person. This was part of my decision to become a vegetarian. Having made the choice to eat meat again has made me a lot fussier about my meat. I would never eat a conventionally grown turkey, for instance, because I know how vast a difference there is between the short, cramped and heavily-drugged existence of a conventionally grown turkey and the life that a turkey can and should live. (Yes, we used to keep turkeys occasionally as well. How did you guess?)

“In the midst of life,” as the Book of Common Prayer points out, “we are in death” – a text that would been more than familiar to Jeremy Taylor. That seems to me a healthy thing to be aware of, at least some of the time. Our lives do not take place in a vacuum, and neither do our deaths.

The present pandemic is an opportunity for us to contemplate death, and life, without blinkers. Many of us, perhaps you yourself, are reacting with blind fear. Take a breath. Consider what is important to you. It is a commonplace amongst people who have had a close brush with death that it has changed how they look at the world. If you choose, you can do the same, and in the safety and comfort of your own home. Death is not the enemy. Failure to live, truly live, is far worse.

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

On the collapse of civilisation

We’re doomed!

Private Frazer

There is much talk on the interwebs about the imminent fall of civilisation. There’s an entire subreddit devoted to it, whose membership has increased dramatically over the last twelve months, not that I would necessarily recommend it. I’d like to spend this week’s post unpacking this idea of civilisational collapse a bit, and trying to see how likely and/or imminent it is.

First, I’d like to take a moment to defined what I mean by the collapse of civilisation. Joseph Tainter, in his book on the subject, talks about collapse as a decline in social complexity. He’s coming at it from an archaeological perspective, so this level of abstraction is appropriate to the kind of evidence he has to work with. There are a lot of cities, or the remains of cities, that were more or less hastily abandoned by their inhabitants without their having left much in the way of a detailed record of why they did it; the Mayan cities that turn up in the jungles of Yucatan are the classic example of this. We have to try to infer from other evidence what the problems were that led to such drastic action.

But this take on collapse also reminds us that it isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing event. There are still Maya around; they may not be building pyramids any more, but they weren’t completely wiped out either (despite the best efforts of the Spanish colonists). All the same, we can definitely point to some Seriously Bad Stuff that happened in their past.

So we should beware the connotations of this word “collapse” if it suggests that everything is going to fall apart all at once, like this:

One minute it’s business as usual, the next it’s Mad Max. This makes for a good Hollywood movie, if you like CGI, but I think there are good reasons for thinking it isn’t what will actually happen.

For one thing, some parts of our civilisation are a good deal more resilient than others, and/or more effort will be put into keeping some things going than others. People will try to keep cars on the road for as long as possible, for example – indeed, I expect them to keep trying even when it manifestly isn’t possible. On the other hand, strawberries will stop being available in October a good deal sooner than that.

There are some possible scenarios that might take things down more rapidly, such as a supervolcano, or a large asteroid colliding with Earth, but even something like that would have a hard time wiping us all out. Like hooded crows, rats and cockroaches, we’re smart generalists that can adapt to many different environments. Even the dinosaurs never got wiped out completely when the asteroid made the Chicxulub crater in Yucatán; their descendants are still around and are pretty numerous. In any event, there’s nothing much you or I can do make such an event more or less likely, unless your name is Bruce Willis. I’m more interested in things I can have some influence over, however slight.

Also, civilisational collapse has historically been a long-drawn-out process. Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire starts in the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD) and only ends with the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 (there’s a reason it’s a long book). I’ll be devoting another post to the fall of the Roman Empire, but even the Western version lasted at least notionally right up until 476, making the process of its collapse rather longer than the entire history of the USA to date.

And the collapse of the Roman Empire, which was a political event, was by no means the end of Roman civilisation. Plenty of its elements survived for many centuries – in architecture, for example, or in the use of Latin as the common language of scholarship; Newton’s Principia Mathematica was written in Latin – and arguably there’s a fair bit around to this day. We stil name our children after noble Roman families: hello Julia, Claudia, Hortense…. So there’s much more to the collapse of civilisation than a single event.

This is not to say that we will not be living through what the apocryphal Chinese curse describes as interesting times. Things will get worse, and some things may get a lot worse very quickly and without much warning. There are parts of the world not unadjacent to what we think of as the West where some of these things are happening now: Venezuela, for instance. As the Wikipedia article says: “The country struggles with record hyperinflation, shortages of basic goods, unemployment, poverty, disease, high child mortality, malnutrition, severe crime and corruption. These factors have precipitated the Venezuelan migrant crisis where more than three million people have fled the country.” This, or some of it, may be a sneak preview of where you live today at some point in the not-too-distant future.

According to the World Bank, more than half of the world’s population now lives in an urban environment, many in cities, and this trend is projected to continue. A city generally consumes a lot more food than it produces, making it a famine waiting to happen. Cities are also prone to epidemics, because there are a lot of people packed closely together; this is in the news a lot right now, but it’s been the case for as long as there have been cities. Until comparatively recently, cities were such unhealthy places to live that they relied on inward migration from the countryside to maintain their population. This tendency goes right back to the first cities we know of and indeed it makes intuitive sense.

Modern life depends on a wide variety of infrastructure which requires constant maintenance. Consider the sewers of London, built 150 years ago to serve the needs of a much smaller city. London and many other cities did a great deal of building in concrete in the 1960s and 70s, and a lot of that concrete is now starting to suffer from spalling and other problems, which may lead to structural issues. Even in the USA, roads and other basic pieces of infrastructure are in a pretty bad way. If the richest country in the world is struggling to keep on top of this stuff, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.

So is industrial civilisation heading for collapse? Definitely. But it may not be as bad as you think. We’ll start to see a lot of things breaking down or going out of use. If I’m right in thinking that cheap transportation across the globe is going away, then many things we import from afar will become prohibitively expensive and/or in very short supply. We’ll start having to triage what we consume; the economy will become a lot smaller, simpler and more localised, because it will have to. We will make do, because we’ll have to.

Some of these things are going to impact you and me directly, even if we don’t see freeways full of burnt-out cars. (You can always tell that the Apocalypse has come in a Hollywood film when nobody has a working car.) We can’t stop them happening, but we may be able mitigate some of the worst effects. I’m not talking here about getting a shotgun and a large stock of tinned food and heading for the hills. Rather, I suggest that we learn some skills that will help us to take care of ourselves and others, not least how to be in a community. But that is matter for future posts.

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

On the Covid-19 pandemic

As I write this, England – which is the bit of the UK I happen to inhabit – is about to enter a second lockdown, prompted by the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

It’s been an interesting experience, this pandemic. Of course we’ve had plenty of them before – many originating as this one did from the Far East – and some of them with a much higher mortality rate (the 2003 SARS outbreak effectively had a rate of 100%). For years now, a global pandemic has been on the collective radar of the powers that be. This is not surprising, given that intensive livestock farming is practically designed to give rise to new diseases, and globalisation is a great way to spread them. The Black Death took something like a decade to reach Europe from China; Covid-19 managed it in a matter of weeks.

There are many, many communicable diseases with a higher mortality rate than Covid-19; I’ve mentioned SARS and the Black Death, and Ebola is another example which was back in the news not so long ago. By all accounts, it’s still a pretty unpleasant disease to catch, and people with existing health conditions die of it quite readily (or at least die having tested positive for it, which is the basis for official statistics). It’s at least as bad as influenza, which itself is horrible enough and kills a lot of people. On the other hand, many people who test positive for it show no symptoms – although to what extent this represents false positives is currently unknown.

Nevertheless reaction to the outbreak seems to be highly polarised. (I’m speaking here of UK reaction; as far as I can tell, this seems to be even more so in the US.) Essentially the two camps are:

  • “It’s just a sniffle” – the restrictions imposed by the Government are intolerable and can safely be flouted; or
  • “This is the second coming of the Spanish Flu – we will all die unless even more stringent measures are adopted.

Obviously the government is going to have a hard time keeping everyone happy, especially since many of its own MPs fall into the former camp whereas their scientific advisers tend towards the latter.

Much of the motivation for the snifflers is economic. With the country in lockdown, many businesses are unable to trade once again, having been severely weakened already by the original lockdown in March. The government has been spending eye-watering sums of money supporting most (though not all) of these businesses, in particular funding a furlough scheme so that the many thousands of people effectively out of work because of this are not counted as unemployed.

On the other hand, a great deal of the impetus behind the second-comers is a blind panic about death. I have a forthcoming post on this topic; suffice it to say here that our culture is in massive denial about death, and it always seems to be considered scandalous that anyone ever dies of anything. There is very little grasp of what normal death rates look like. Here is a table of the top ten causes of death in England and Wales for September of this year, from the government’s own statisticians; Covid-19 does not figure in it at all. Here is a graph of UK deaths from all causes between 2000 and 2018; the annual figure fluctuates between 552,230 and 612,090 per year. It turns out that lots of people die all the time. Who knew?

I don’t want to sound here as if I’m channelling Stalin (“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”). Every one of those deaths was a cause of sadness. But even if it were desirable for everyone to live forever, it’s not exactly a practical proposition. In 2019, on average 79 people a day were killed on the UK’s roads. We could reduce that figure dramatically by banning all motor traffic, but of course we aren’t going to. Apparently we consider it a price well worth paying, in the words of Norman Lamont.

As I noted above, these viruses tend to originate in the Far East, and it is Far Eastern countries that have tended to have the greatest success in dealing with Covid-19 (see this chart, for instance). Most European governments appear to have been flailing about helplessly, and the UK government is no exception, although its apparent inability to organise a press conference give it a worse look than most.

One positive thing is that this pandemic is giving us an opportunity to practice dealing with such outbreaks so that if something more virulent does hit us in the future, which seems likely enough, we may have more of a clue how to deal with it. It’s also given us a sneak peak into the future in other ways too. Per capita income will have been significantly reduced over this year, as will GDP. There will be uncomfortable recognition of what we need, individually and as a nation, and what would be nice to have. Luxuries are being identified and discarded. There is also, I think, a growing recognition of the value of non-material goods, such as friends and family and a sense of community, and even, dare I say it, of place.

One of the many issues that has been brought sharply to the fore is the devolution of power across the UK. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have increasingly diverged from one another in their handling of the pandemic, and the comparisons have not been all in favour of Westminster. Already in 2014, Scotland came very close to voting for independence, and Brexit – whose imminence has largely been masked by the pandemic – will put further strains on the Union. It has major implications for Northern Ireland, for example, with the real possibility that the Conservative and Unionist Party (which currently governs the UK) will end up bringing about Irish reunification by accident.

Other fault-lines in the UK’s power-structures are becoming more conspicuous as they creak under the strain. For many years most major government projects have been contracted out to the same small group of companies, and for many years they have been delivered late, over budget, and/or unfit for purpose. (It is a well-known fact that spending money on civil servants is wasteful, whereas giving it to outside companies is efficient, owing to their being sprinkled with private-sector pixie dust.) This was more or less accepted so long as it wasn’t obviously leading to people dying. Unfortunately, one of the usual suspects was given the job of building a system to trace people who have been exposed to the virus and contacting them so that they can self-isolate, the somewhat redundantly named track and trace system, and they have not exactly done a stellar job.

The suspicion is that the UK government is abusing its emergency powers to dish out these contracts without the usual parliamentary scrutiny, cursory though that too often is. And while naturally nobody is suggesting that this could be in any way corrupt, obviously it probably is. This can only add to the growing disenchantment with the way in which the UK is presently run, and the order of things in general.

So there are good grounds for supposing that even when we have bidden a fond farewell to Covid-19 – and like all pandemics, it will eventually burn itself out; no parasite has an interest in exterminating the host – the new normal will be significantly different from the old normal. It won’t be the end of the world, although it may well be the end of the United Kingdom as we currently know it. It certainly won’t be a quick of comfortable process, and such good as may come of it may only be apparent in retrospect.

What gives me hope is that this process of what might euphemistically be described as creative destruction will, in the end, be creative: that is to say that a new society will emerge, albeit materially poorer and perhaps politically fragmented, that has more of a focus on what is important to the average person, more scope for individual initiative, and more realistic sense of where and what we are in the world. And if I end up needing a passport to go to Scotland, well, worse things happen at sea.

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

On technology

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.

– Albert Einstein

The word technology covers a vast array of things, from movable type to firearms, the internal combustion engine, steam power, the wheel, the transistor, powered flight, anaesthetics, symbolic logic, the lever, nuclear energy, digital computers and windmills. It is, in short, so vague as to be useless.

One thing we can say about technology in general, though, is that the often-made claim that it is value-free is nonsense. Technology comes about because people want to perform some action, and action is never value-free: that’s why the field of ethics exists. Take firearms. The AK-47 was developed in order to kill people, and so far as I can judge it’s very effective. Killing people may be right or wrong, depending on the circumstances and your ethical code, but I don’t think anyone would pretend it was value-free.

The Manhattan Project is an even more blatant example of this. Because the end product was dropped on Japan, we tend to forget that it was undertaken to pre-empt any similar development by Nazi Germany. This technology was explicitly developed for military purpose, and all the “atoms for peace” guff was plastered over it subsequently to make this less obvious.

All this leads one to the suspicion that the people who claim that technology is value-free are hoping you won’t notice what their values are. When James Watt and Matthew Boulton were trying to sell steam-engines to early industrialists in the late 19th century, they initially had a hard time of it: factories were being powered by water, and water-power is a lot cheaper than steam, especially at a time when coal was being mined by hand and was therefore expensive.

Steam won out for political reasons, that is to say for reasons to do with the power-relation between employer and employee; you can only build a water-mill in certain favourable locations, which means you need to get the local workforce to co-operate with you, whereas you can put a steam-engine pretty much anywhere, and if the locals won’t play ball, you can put it somewhere else. (See Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital (Verso Books, 2015) for the gory details of how this played out in 18th-century England.) So steam-power implies a set of values, in this case that the employer-employee relationship should favour the employer. This is not, incidentally, some sort of commandment from the Almighty, still less a law of physics; it’s a value which human beings have arrived at for our society, which could perfectly well be otherwise.

Pause for a moment, and think about all the other things to which that description applies. If you haven’t already, consider social media in this light.

But to return to our subject. Given the huge baggy mess that we put under the heading of technology, it seems to me more useful to consider technologies in the plural – what are sometimes referred to as technological suites. (Why “suite” should be collective noun for this is a mystery to me, right up there with why political measures come in “rafts”.) So for instance: let’s consider the technologies for transport available in 1820, two hundred year or six generations back from the day I am writing these words.

There are sailing-ships for long-distance travel. For inland freight transport, there are canals with horse-drawn barges, or there are carts and carriages, also horse-drawn, if you need to go along the more or less awful roads. Or there’s walking. If you read Thomas Hardy’s novels, which are mostly set in the 1830s, you’ll find a lot of ordinary people walking when they need to get from A to B.

But a lot of this involves horses, which implies a bunch of other technologies and associated infrastructure. You could expect to stay at an inn with stables attached, and ostlers to look after your horse. There would be troughs to water your horse along the way. If your horse cast a shoe, you could expect to find a local farrier to replace it. And of course there were horse-dealers to sell you your horse in the first place, horse-breeders to supply those dealers, saddlers to supply you with tack, and all the rest of it.

And almost none of this exists today in the industrialised world. The author Tim Severin wrote a book about his experiences riding from Belgium to Jerusalem, following the route taken by the crusaders (Crusader, Arrow 1990). He had great practical difficulties with such basics as stabling until he got as far as Hungary, where there is a still a strong popular equestrian tradition, or at least there was in 1990. This might give us pause when we consider what our options for travel – and indeed field-scale agriculture – are going to be once cheap petroleum goes away, as it certainly will.

The more complex a technology, the greater the scope for unintended consequences. I am not here to blame global warming on Karl Benz or Gottlieb Daimler. They were trying to solve an engineering problem, and to make a buck. A lot of people fall into that category, and from their point of view it’s eminently reasonable. I used to be one of them myself. How could Benz or Daimler have possibly foreseen that, just in the UK, there would be 18.8 million petrol-engined vehicles today? In their day, petrol was an unwanted by-product of paraffin refining. Using it to power vehicles was positively thrifty. And now look at us.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Just driving one of these things around emits a lot of CO2, and that’s before we think about the steel it’s made from, the rubber tyres, the plastic trim, the glass in the windows, the battery, the ubiquitous electronics, and all the supporting infrastructure – the filling stations (and the fuel tankers that supply those filling stations, and everything supporting them), the spare parts, the regulatory agencies, even the roads themselves. It’s a fractal mess of technological dependencies and environmental damage, all of it unintended. Karl and Gottlieb are not in the frame for any of this, but this is where we are.

All technologies are prone to this kind of thing, but some technologies are more prone to it than others. I would divide these into two broad categories:

  • Simple technologies with a very broad application. Whoever first came up with the wheel was probably not thinking this would enable Hitler to invade France in 1940, although it certainly did.
  • Complex technologies which entail many other technologies. The internal combustion engine is an example of this one, as we’ve seen.

I contend that we are suffering from a surfeit of the second kind of technology and their endless ramifications. They tend to require a good deal more in the way of energy and raw materials than they seem to on the surface. Modern industrial agriculture is an excellent example.

The modern farmer cultivates his fields using tractors and a variety of tractor-towed implements; these are made out of steel which requires iron ore and lot of energy, and the tractors rely on petroleum (extracted, shipped and refined at the expense of more energy) for fuel and lubrication. He also uses artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, which are products of an immense chemical industry, as well as depending on fossil fuels as inputs. Having harvested his crop, it is packaged in plastic (more petrochemicals) and shipped by road (more steel, diesel and lubricants for the lorries, and asphalt for the roads) to the supermarket; you then drive in your car (steel, petroleum, yada yada yada) in order to get it.

And you thought it was just a bag of carrots.

There are other ways to get carrots which avoid all of this. After all, people have been eating carrots for a long time, well before Edwin Drake struck black gold in 1858. But the current arrangements aren’t set up for most people to get locally-grown carrots that aren’t grown using tractors and all the rest of it. In fact, due to the sunk cost fallacy the huge investment we have already made and continue to make in industrial farming and its huge infrastructure tends to act as a barrier to doing things any other way.

Like it or not, though, we are going to have to start doing things another way. The room is positively crowded with elephants; I’ve touched on food and transport here, but there are plenty more. Future posts will try to identify at least the largest of these elephants and try to suggest alternative directions. For now, I just want to throw two words out there: appropriate technology.

I am old enough to remember the 1970s when appropriate technology was the next big thing. Not only had people heard of E. F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful, quite a number had actually read it. There were a couple of events that focused minds around that time: the 1973-4 OPEC oil embargo and, at least here in the UK, national strikes by coal-miners in 1972 and 1974. The second of these put the country onto a three-day week, and because most electricity came at that time from coal-fired power stations there were frequent power cuts. Suddenly, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels seemed like a really good idea.

The bad news is that, for a number of reasons which I may discuss in a future post, we didn’t take that path. The good news is that people did a lot of research and development, a good deal was produced that has seen practical service (especially in the Third World) and a good deal more was rediscovered. For instance, the techniques of the French market-gardeners who fed Paris in the 18th century provided much of the foundation for modern intensive organic gardening. This stuff has not gone away; there are still people doing it, teaching it and writing about it.

Useful technologies to provide for our basic needs at a local level exist. They are necessarily simpler – which doesn’t necessarily mean easier – than the dominant technologies of our civilisation, and that makes them very much more resilient. I highly recommend that you find out about some of these technologies, find ones that interest you, and learn them – not just by watching a video or reading a book, but by doing things for yourself. You may be surprised what you can accomplish.

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

Book review: A Small Farm Future

A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity and a Shared Earth by Chris Smaje, Chelsea Green Publishing (2020), ISBN: 9781603589024

The virtual ink was scarcely dry on my forthcoming post on food when this book came into my hands. I should confess that this is only the second book I have ever pre-ordered, having followed the eponymous blog for some time. You may infer from this that my expectations of it were high. I was not disappointed.

It would perhaps be extravagant to claim that Chris Smaje is Britain’s answer to Wendell Berry, but like Berry he withdrew from a career in academia (he was Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Surrey) to become a small farmer. He has been farming for 20 years, so his seriousness cannot be doubted. He knows whereof he writes, as Wendell Berry does, lending the writings of both men a rare authority.

This is not just a book about farms and farming, although it does discuss those subjects. It is an attempt to provide a positive vision of a possible future society, and this is certainly something we desperately need. The sub-title makes clear the general outlines of what Smaje has in mind. Perhaps ambitiously, he sets himself the task of answering these questions:

What if the route out of widespread farming towards urban-industrial prosperity that today’s rich countries followed is no longer feasible for millions of poor people in ‘developing’ countries? What if that urban-industrial life in fact becomes increasingly unfeasible even in the rich countries in the face of various political, economic and ecological crises? How might the future of humanity then unfold?

p. 3

Smaje discusses some of these crises in a long first chapter, “Ten Crises”, which on its own would be worth the price of admission. One of the strengths of his analysis is that he recognises that the problems we collectively face are made intractable not merely by their intrinsic technical difficulty – which would be quite enough to cope with – but by deep-rooted political and cultural structures. Radical change is required along a number of different axes simultaneously.

The basic argument of the book is that degrowth is inevitable, and I am inclined to agree. The key questions raised by this are: what might such a future look like? And how might we get there? Also: will we like it when we get it?

Part II of the book addresses head-on the key question “Can Alternative Agriculture Feed Us?” (Chapter 9). Smaje comes at this from an ecological perspective but also a practical one. He presents a case-study for the UK – reasonably enough, given that’s what he knows – for 2050, assuming conservative levels of yield and a substantially higher population, and is able to answer the question affirmatively. This is at least reassuring for those of us who live there, and gives some basis for optimism for everyone else.

But Smaje realises that there are deeper issues at play here. This is not an argument that all will be well if everyone does (insert action here), despite the fact that hell is likelier to freeze over. (We’ve all had quite enough of this kind of tripe from climate scientists.) He is under no illusions about the capacity of our current political arrangements to bring about the changes that need to occur:

… it… seems unlikely that existing states will be able to deliver a small farm future, or else rescue the present global order from the crises enveloping it. This is partly because the depth and speed of these crises isn’t prompting the degree of radical rethinking that’s needed to overcome them. It’s also because the very structure of the modern state is part of the problem….

p. 231

The same goes for our economic arrangements. In the UK, most people get most of their food from the big supermarkets. Those supermarkets aren’t there to ensure that their customers get the best food (when one takes ecological and nutritional factors into consideration), nor are they there to foster British agriculture. They are there to make money for their shareholders, which they do very well. Considering that they constitute an oligopoly, it would be surprising if they didn’t. But in a small farm society, people would get their food from a combination of their own production and local suppliers, with whom they would deal face to face. There isn’t much for the shareholders in this, which is why it will be resisted.

There is also a deeply-ingrained cultural narrative which exalts the “progressive” urban life above the “backward” peasantry. Smaje is, with some reservations, pro-peasant. As he writes:

…we need to lay aside romantic views of how small-scale, face-to-face, self-reliant small farm communities operate. We also need to lay aside romantic views of how modern, large-scale, market-oriented, urbanised societies operate, and the directions in which they’re heading.

p. 166

He also acknowledges that his optimistic vision is not inevitable, and that if it arrives the road there is unlikely to be smooth. Given that top-down change is vanishingly unlikely, Smaje envisages it as mostly bottom-up, through what he calls “the supersedure state” (p. 235). This is his term for whatever regional or local power-base emerges as central state power declines, as he argues it inevitably must in the face of multiple crises. He does acknowledge, however, that “[t]he outcomes of such political crises will be uncertain and possibly ugly…” (p. 233).

It is here that perhaps I diverge a little from Smaje, perhaps because I am simply less optimistic. I wonder if, understandably, he is skating over the ugly parts of this transition. He is even prepared to countenance the notion that “modern civilisation is transcending violence” (p. 240), to which I can only say, paraphrasing Gandhi, that modern civilisation would be a very good idea. But the reality is, as he says, that nobody knows at this point. There’s some reason for optimism, which is perhaps enough. I certainly hope he’s right.

This is not to accuse Smaje of starry-eyed unworldliness. On the contrary, he is pragmatic, as indeed befits a farmer. He does not claim to have a one-size-fits-all solution to all the world’s ills. As he says:

Confident programmes are a tic of modernist politics in its taste for single keys that explain the forward march of history, whether it’s the profit motive, democratic freedom, the inevitable march of science and Enlightenment ideals, or class struggle. Since I don’t subscribe to single keys, forward marches or inevitablity, the politics I’ve outlined is vaguer and less certain of success.

p. 255

If more political thinkers worked in this vein, the quality of public discourse would be vastly improved.

This is a lucidly-written, well-researched and cogently-argued book. Its subject-matter demands that it be wide-ranging, and it is; a brief review such as this can scarcely hope to do it justice. I rarely say this, but I would like it to have been longer. I’m thinking particularly of Chapter 16, “From Religion to Science (and Back)”, which could be a book in itself. If Smaje were to write it, I’d certainly want to read it.

On the back cover, Richard Heinberg is quoted as saying: “Every young person should read this book.” I would go further: everyone under the age of 100 should read this book. To put it another way, I would recommend it to anyone looking for an appealing and practicable vision of the future, at a time when most of those available are one but not the other. Let me give his final paragraph in full:

It’s true of course that we’re facing some vast and pressing global problems, but one of the main reasons that they’re so vast and pressing is that we’ve been unable to think outside the frameworks that continue to generate them, so we keep amplifying them. Humanity is now sailing in dangerous waters. In this book, I’ve tried to chart what now seems to me to be our safest course, though without illusions about the difficulties of following it and the chances of success. I think it involves rejecting grand solutionism and creating local autonomies as best we can that may just see us through into a new phase of history, with its own contradictions and difficulties. We need to prefigure it by thinking, and farming, for the long haul. It begins when you start raising chickens.

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

On industrialism

The Industrial Revolution was another one of those extraordinary jumps forward in the story of civilization.

– Stephen Gardiner

The Industrial Revolution, considered as the onset of industrialism, powered initially by water and then by steam, is usually represented as having been a Good Thing. A lot of people didn’t see it that way at the time, and there are plenty who don’t see it that way in retrospect either, but we’re supposed to think of it as Progress and therefore Good.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit to having grown up in the Black Country of England in the 1970s. We were post-industrial long before it became fashionable. It was a depressing landscape of decaying canals and abandoned factories, and I got out of there at my first opportunity. So my view of the Industrial Revolution may be a trifle jaundiced.)

The quotation at the head of this article is a particularly choice example of this. There’s so much wrong with this sentence that I hardly know where to start. Apparently “the story of civilization” – the story, because there’s been only one civilisation and there’s only one story to be told about it – consists of “jumps forward”, and the Industrial Revolution is Exhibit A in the demonstration.

It’s hard to avoid viewing historical events as inevitable in retrospect. The Industrial Revolution resulted in where we are today, and where we are today is supposed to be good (although not as good as where we’ll be tomorrow, when we’ll all have flying cars). The standard metaphor for a thing being good in our culture is that it is further forward or more advanced – that is to say, tending in the direction of flying cars, as opposed to the other (“backward”) direction, which leads directly to the caves without passing Go or collecting £200.

I’ll give him “extraordinary jump”, though. It was certainly a period of rapid and thoroughgoing and often jarring change. There wasn’t much that was smooth or gradual about it. Mind you, the same description applies equally well to the final scene of Thelma and Louise.

But what do I mean by this word industrialism? Well, I’m talking about large-scale processes that follow this kind of model:

We’re all familiar with this kind of thing: there’s some central location where the magic happens, stuff goes in, stuff comes out. People have been doing this on a small scale since the palaeolithic. What makes it industrial is the scale of it. The Industrial Revolution consisted of the development of this large-scale processing of raw materials, initially using wind and water power and then steam. We all learned this in school. Nothing to see here, move along.

There’s something rather vital missing from that diagram, by the way: energy. Industrial processes are typically energy-intensive, as are the extractive processes that feed them and the transport systems that make them useful. Energy will be getting its own post; suffice it to say for the purposes of this discussion that without a concentrated energy source, large-scale industry doesn’t work.

Another thing the diagram doesn’t show is that all this needs to make a profit. People want to buy the products, and this pays for the factory, for the raw materials and labour, and for dealing with the resulting pollution (unless the industry has managed to shift this burden onto society at large, which most of them do to some extent). When the industrial model is used for activities that don’t directly make a profit, the result is either going to be straight failure, a requirement for government subsidy, or profit-gouging by other means. Without profit, the production-line stops running.

Something else I want to stress about the industrial model is that it operates at a large scale. Consider someone back in the Palaeolithic era making a stone axe. There’s a worker, there’s raw material (the piece of flint), and there’s energy expended – muscle energy in this case, but still energy. And the output includes a product (the axe) and some waste (flint chippings). But this is just one person making one axe. We don’t see any evidence that there were special places where lots of people gathered in order to make hand axes full-time, in the way that there are special places where lots of people gather today in order to make Ford Fiestas full-time. Nor do we find huge mounds of flint chippings comparable to the slag heaps left behind by many industrial processes.

What characterises industrial civilisation is the relentless application of the industrial model to all spheres of life, regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate. Some obvious examples:

  • education – children and teachers in, supposedly well-educated adults out (we call the factory a school);
  • healthcare – sick people, doctors and nurses in, well people (or corpses) out (this factory is called a hospital);
  • agriculture – seeds, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and lots of diesel in, crops out (the factory is called a farm);
  • food – raw foodstuffs and various additives in, “edible food-like substances” out (at least we call a factory a factory in this case).

I’m sure you can come up with plenty more.

This model is so central to our society that anything that wants to be taken seriously has to characterise itself as an industry. Hence we have the leisure industry, the childcare industry, even (heaven help us) the culture industry. Even something as nebulous as financial services calls itself an industry. If it’s not an industry, it’s trivial by definition. Forestry is an industry; being a tree isn’t.

Incidentally, this worship of the industrial model is by no means confined to capitalist societies. The old Soviet Union was very keen on factories, especially as the industrial proletariat was seen as its power-base and justification. The ecological consequences of this obsession are still being felt across large tracts of the former USSR. Modern China is also doing plenty of this sort of thing.

Another definition of an industry is that industries have lobbyists. They exert local and sometimes national political influence. Some of the really big ones even get to write legislation. It furthers one, therefore, to be an industry.

But thinking about everything as an industry can lead us in the wrong direction. It might suggest, for example, that we would be better off having a small number of big hospitals (because economies of scale are great, right?) rather than having lots of smaller ones. The logical conclusion of this would be one enormous hospital somewhere in the middle of the country – bad news if you break your leg in Aberdeen, though. And making a direct profit out of healthcare is something only the US seems to be able to manage; here in the UK we have spent many years frantically sprinkling the National Health Service with private-sector pixie dust, but it still seems to cost us money, strangely enough.

As to education, that will be getting a post of its own; but throughout my lifetime successive governments have sought to tweak the education process in various ways, apparently in the hope of discovering some kind of pedagogical Chorleywood process, without noticeable success. It’s almost as if children were individuals and not lumps of pig-iron to be moulded into the desired shape.

The desire to have children be lumps of pig-iron to be moulded into the desired shape is itself a consequence of the industrial model, since workers tend to be conflated with raw materials, given that they’re both inputs to the system, and it’s convenient to have access to a steady supply of both. The tendency towards automation and robotics is another symptom of this. After all, robots don’t sleep, get ill, go on holiday, go on strike, have industrial accidents and sue the factory-owner, or do any of the other annoying things that human beings are prone to do.

Something else to notice about the industrial model, which has been pointed out many times but I’m going to point it out again, is that it is linear. Stuff comes in, different stuff goes out. In this it differs from the ecological model, in which one actor’s waste output is another’s useful input. Within an ecological system, stuff goes round in cycles. Cow manure feeds the soil; the soil feeds the grass; the grass feeds the cow; and so on.

Ecological systems are of course vastly more complex than industrial ones, and we tend to avoid thinking too hard about complex things. Still, they have some useful properties, such as being able to sustain themselves, and being able (within limits) to adapt themselves to changing conditions. And of course there’s the useful property of sustaining all life on this planet, including us. But more of that in a forthcoming post.

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

On fear

No power so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.

– Edmund Burke

I don’t know about you, but I’m quite scared a lot of the time. I’m talking lying-awake-at-night scared. There seems to be a lot of it about at the moment. People fear the unknown. In modern industrial society, where most people live in anonymous urban environments, this includes almost all of the people around them. I couldn’t put a name to more than two of my neighbours in this street, and while I grant you it’s a short street, it isn’t that short.

In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic feels like a lightning-rod for the unspoken undercurrents of fear which were already getting too uncomfortable to keep on ignoring. In one of John le Carré’s novels, fear is described as “information without the cure” which seems particularly apt in today’s (supposedly) information-rich age. Try as we may to remain unconscious of the less welcome bits of this information, it isn’t going away. There are so many elephants in the room that it’s standing room only.

Can we believe what we are told? The official version of reality seems to diverge ever further from what we live and experience. Here are just a few things we are all supposed to believe that are getting less and less plausible:

  • The economy will always keep growing, and even if it stops temporarily it will always return to growth, even though we only have one planet’s worth of resources. This occurs in many variants, especially in the UK with the deeply-held faith that house prices will always go up, in the teeth of the evidence. Conversely:
  • If the economy ever stopped growing, the sky would fall in (© Chicken Little).
  • Things in general will improve, and have always improved, and must always improve, as if the mere passage of time were some sort of guarantee of this. The Canadian academic Stephen Pinker went so far as to write an entire book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, in order to prove this, but most of us aren’t experiencing any such thing. This is particularly difficult for people with children, who naturally would like to think they will have a bright future.
  • Technology will fix all of our problems, including – indeed, especially – the ones that technology gave us in the first place. I’ll be writing in more detail about the electric vehicle fetish, which is just one example of this line of thinking (if you can call it that), but this comes up a lot. “They’ll think of something” is an evergreen mantra.
  • There will always be plenty in the shops – the fear that this one may be a lemon is often demonstrated, for example in the recent wave of panic buying when Covid-19 first kicked in. Freud would no doubt make much of the central role that toilet paper always seems to play on these occasions.
  • There will always be money in the ATMs and that money will always be worth something. Very few people in industrial society would have a clue how to meet most of their basic needs without the money economy. One the other hand, why should someone give me a thing of real value like a bag of carrots in exchange for a piece of paper? Let alone waving a piece of plastic so that a machine goes beep.
  • Most of our problems are caused by bad people (who by definition are not us). Opinions vary as to exactly who these bad people are, ranging from Islamic extremists through the 1% to David Icke’s evil space lizards, and there may be a grain of truth in some of these opinions (okay, maybe not the lizards), but none of them is a complete or satisfactory explanation. But at least none of it is my fault, right? Just as well, because:
  • There’s nothing I can do to fix the world – the only thing I know how to do is stack shelves/create marketing strategies/sanitise telephones/whatever. And a lot of the world’s problems look big and scary. And we’ve all got bills to pay.
  • The people in charge can lead us through this because, per the above, we are individually pretty helpless, so if they can’t then we are pretty much toast. Nobody likes to think they’re toast. Still, the evidence in favour of this proposition is not exactly strong.

Cognitive dissonance is therefore our constant companion. It’s uncomfortable. We want it to go away, but it won’t. Despite Apple’s best assurances, there isn’t an app for this.

And now Covid-19 has pressed a lot of these buttons for many people. As far as anyone can tell, it’s just another coronavirus mutation, but there was initially a widespread belief that it was all caused by the evil Chinese, which has now morphed into a belief that it would have gone away if it weren’t for the evil non-mask-wearers. Face-masks seem to have become some sort of talisman, like the nosegays of flowers people used to carry to ward off the Black Death; I’m reminded of Bruce Schneier’s useful concept of security theatre, whereby we perform rituals that don’t actually make us more secure but make us feel as if we are. To be clear, I wear one myself, because it’s really no trouble and it can only help, but I don’t imagine it will cure all ills.

The economic implications of the measures taken to counter the spread of the virus have brought us to the brink of the abyss. Those still in employment fear unemployment; those made redundant have little chance of finding work; and at least in the UK the government’s plan seems to consist of borrowing money like there’s no tomorrow and hoping it will all just blow over. Given that we have been told repeatedly that government borrowing is the root of all evil, this is not especially reassuring.

This is not to single out the UK government, by the way; governments across the industrialised world are floundering in the face of this. Many have implemented policies that were supposed to be impossible, especially when they were called for by environmentalists, like suppressing passenger air travel. (We’re not supposed to notice that these policies have had some beneficial effects, either, because that might lend credibility to those evil Greenies.)

On a personal level, a great many of us have been given a lot of time to think. This is not something we generally have, and indeed is something most of us actively avoid, for reasons that should be obvious by now. But some awkward questions are coming up for people; for example:

  • “Is my job really that important?” Many people have discovered that their work is officially non-essential, and what’s worse that may not have come as a complete surprise.
  • “Are my relationships with my partner/family/friends all that they should be?” There’s nothing like being locked down with someone to stress-test this kind of thing; many of us suddenly found ourselves in the Big Brother house minus the cameras.
  • “What if I/my loved one should die of this?” Death is a massive taboo subject in modern industrial culture, where few of us ever even see a dead body. As pandemics go, Covid is not actually all that lethal, but this is a Pandora’s box that perhaps we are collectively desperate to open. I’ll be devoting a post to death in due course.
  • “What if it all goes south?” Nobody really wants to go there. A lot of this blog will be going there anyway, but it’s hairy.
  • “What is my life actually all about? Is that enough? What else could I be doing with it?” This is the big one for many people. A recent survey suggests that a very large proportion of the UK population has been asking itself this and deciding that “normal life” wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. What they might want instead is an open question which urgently needs to be addressed, and so far as I can tell it isn’t, at least in terms of public discourse.

There is of course supposed to be a Covid-19 vaccine Real Soon Now™ which appears to be the tacitly accepted exit strategy from the current situation. Nobody openly questions that this will happen (because they always think of something, right?) even though it will certainly be tricky. Even if it does, though, the genie will be out of the bottle. I suspect a significant portion of the population will be less than thrilled at the return to “normal”, even if normal is still an option, which there seems reason to doubt.

So here we are, staring into the unknown. It’s no wonder we’re afraid. We’re hanging on to a cliff and we’ve been told not to look down, and now we have looked down, and it’s a long, long way to the bottom. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that at least we have a realistic idea of where we are, and maybe there’s a way to climb out of it. Life at the top of the cliff may not be much of an improvement, but we’re going to have to find out. At least there’ll be a view.

Sleep well.

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

On complexity

If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.

– Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution

It is a cliché to say that modern life is complicated, but like many clichés it is also manifestly true. Of course, life always has been complicated and always will be, for the simple reason that we constantly interact with complex systems that are hard to predict or control – other people, for a start.

But life in present-day industrial civilisation has a dizzyingly baroque complexity to it that human beings have not had to deal with previously. We evolved with the ability to deal with other people, at least most of the time, but the way we live now is far removed from life on the African savanna of our ancestors.

An example: this morning I made myself a pot of coffee. The cafetière is a typical product of modern industry, made of glass, plastic and metal, and manufactured in China. The glass body is the result of a high-energy process, involving a lot of heat and producing a fair amount of pollution. The plastic parts are a product of the petro-chemical industry – as a lay person I have no idea which of the many types of plastic are in my coffee-pot. Metal of course has to be mined and smelted and machined into the various components required, all of which requires both energy and other complex technologies. And then the whole thing has to be assembled, put into a box (which itself has to be designed and printed) and taken to somewhere I can buy it.

Having obtained my coffee-pot, I put water from the tap into the kettle. Again there is a vast and complex infrastructure of reservoirs and water-mains and pumps and purification systems involved in having water come out of the tap on demand. The kettle is another metal and plastic affair, and I suspect there’s some electronics in there too. It was also made in China.

Plugging the kettle into the wall involves the national power grid, and all the technology and effort that both powers and maintains that. I have no way of knowing for certain, but the electricity to boil my kettle was probably generated using natural gas, which is a fossil fuel of finite availability which we are using at a stupendous rate (2,543,775 cubic feet of the stuff in 2015, just in the UK).

As to the coffee itself, it was grown in Java, which is about 3,800 miles away from where I live. It wasn’t marketed as organic coffee, so I can safely assume that various fossil-fuel derived fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides were used by the farmer. At some point the berries will have been roasted, ground and vacuum-packed in a weird plastic-cum-foil material which I couldn’t put a name to. That package also got transported to a shop near me.

All this just for a pot of coffee. I haven’t even got started on the mug I’m drinking it from.

You may have noticed that there was a lot of fossil fuel sloshing about in that account. There’s actually a good deal more that I only hinted at: all those container ships bringing consumer goods from China to Europe run on oil, as do the lorries that deliver them to the shops, and the car that I probably travelled in to purchase them. And of course there are the roads themselves, paved in asphalt, and all the effort that goes into maintaining them, policing them, and so forth.

This is the 2020 version. Go back to 1720, and I would have to go to London to a coffee-house in order to enjoy the bean. At least the coffee would have travelled from Java by sailing-ship (hooray for renewable energy!) and it would have been prepared by hand, admittedly using a coal fire. Adjusting for inflation, it would also have cost me substantially more money than my 2020 brew, at least in terms of the purchase price. Then again, it might well have been better coffee; organic production was the default prior to the development of the Haber-Bosch process, after all.

But skip back just another century to 1620 and coffee isn’t available in England at all. I probably wouldn’t even have heard of it. I would be drinking small beer instead – a weak beer just strong enough to kill any nasties in the water, brewed in my household from locally available ingredients. There’s still complexity there – growing barley is a lot of work, and then there’s the malting process, not to mention fetching water by hand (no mains water in 1620!) and gathering firewood to heat the mash and then boil the wort. Then there’s the skill involved in making a watertight barrel to store it in. But it’s simpler, and the constituent parts of the processes involved are all visible to the end user.

So even with something as apparently simple and straightforward as making a brew in the morning, once you start pulling at the threads it keeps on unravelling. It’s enough to make your head spin. No wonder we choose not to do it most of the time. But it’s all still there, going on in the background, whether you think about it or not. I would argue that it has a lot to do with the background sense of unease, even paranoia, that many people in the industrial world experience today.

As we all know, if only from having used the internet, complex systems work fine until they don’t. Let’s try pulling a brick from the Jenga tower that is my pot of coffee; let’s say mains water goes away. I turn on the tap and nothing happens. Maybe there’s a drought, or some kind of systemic problem with the mains. Maybe terrorists have poisoned all the reservoirs that feed my area. Maybe aliens did it. Humour me.

Well, I need a source of potable water, even if I give up on the idea of drinking coffee, because if don’t get it I’ll die. So what do I do?

Ideally I need to locate a spring, or a stream or river, or failing that a lake, and I need to get there with a nice big watertight container. Luckily for me I live in an area with a reasonable level of rainfall; if I were in Arizona I’d be worried. I need to have confidence that my water source isn’t contaminated, which isn’t that easy to tell (I’d be looking for living things in that water). If I don’t know, I’m going to be boiling it before use – but that’s okay, isn’t it, because I still have mains energy to my house, don’t I?

One thing that will definitely happen is that I will become very aware of the amount of water that I use, and will try to re-use it where I can – for example, using grey water to flush toilets or water the garden. No showers or garden sprinklers for me.

But that’s just me. There are a lot of industrial processes that depend heavily on the use of water – we’ve already mentioned glass-making – and of course it’s essential to agriculture. I don’t claim to be able to list even the major consequences of a large-scale water shortage. My point is that they are numerous and they are serious. Our cavalier treatment of fresh water will be subject of a later essay, but for now let’s just say this is a more realistic scenario that we might like to think. And I’m talking about the UK, where we have plenty of rainfall. Your mileage may well vary if you live somewhere arid.

That’s already having a major impact on my life and perhaps the entire country, and I’ve only pulled one brick out. Let’s try the one labelled “cheap fossil fuel.” (There will be a future essay going into the likelihood of this scenario; for now, just go with it.)

An awful lot of things suddenly become very difficult or at least very expensive. That coffee, for instance. The grower will have to ramp up the price of his product to reflect the increased price of the fossil-fuel derived inputs, or else switch to organic production; neither of these options is cost-free. Shipping the product those 3,800 miles is now a much more expensive proposition, which is also going to add to the price I have to pay. (If we still had those sailing-ships from 1720, of course, this might be another story.) The energy going into the processing and packaging is likely to be pricier too. I may find myself getting charged the equivalent of 1720 prices for my coffee, or more.

You know what? Peppermint tea is nice. I can grow that myself if I need to. Maybe I’ll stop buying coffee. That’s less income for the coffee producer, for the packager, for the shipper, for the supermarket, all of whom are having to cope with increased costs. (How do you think supermarkets keep the lights on?) It won’t just be me choosing to spend my cash on other things either.

And of course many, many more things will go up in price, some of them to the point where not enough people want to buy the thing to make it worth producing it. The ramifications of that would be vast. Food miles would need to decrease a lot, for one thing, and that’s a big deal in a country like the UK where we import something like 45% of our food. People need food. When it’s too expensive or simply not available, they can get quite cross.

Modern industrial agriculture itself is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. By one estimate, in North America 13.3 calories of energy are used to produce every calorie of food. To get an idea of just how nuts this is, imagine that that energy was being provided solely by human and animal muscle-power, as it was in pre-industrial times (and still is in many places). Pretty much everyone would have starved to death by the end of the first growing season. You need to get more calories out than you put in; that’s the entire point of agriculture.

That’s the subject of another essay. The point I’m trying to make here is that industrial civilisation is immensely complex but also immensely fragile. I’ve deliberately chosen a couple of examples of resources that underpin many other important processes. I could add others. For instance, the Australian mining engineer Simon Michaux has an entertaining and informative presentation on YouTube where he discusses copper mining, amongst other things. There’s copper all over the place in the industrial world; if it involves electricity, it almost certainly relies on copper. And it’s getting more expensive.

Of course, there’s a rich irony in the fact that I’m using the most complex communications system know to humanity to discuss these ideas. Plenty of copper involved there, for sure, and it uses a ton of energy. Still, while it’s here, I might as well use it.

There’s more to the complexity of modern life than just technology, though. Our social structures are mind-bogglingly complex. Think of the bureaucracy that surrounds us on every side; the late David Graeber argued in his book The Utopia of Rules (Melville House, 2015) that modern life largely consists of filling in forms, and there’s a lot of truth in that. This isn’t just government red tape; it’s also corporate red tape. How much of internet usage comes down to form-filling?

It’s impossible for any individual to understand all the rules, with the result that many of us are haunted by a vague sense that anything we do might violate one or more them, incurring penalties we can only imagine. This undermines our sense of personal agency and makes us feel powerless. Would Columbus have set sail across the Atlantic if he’d had to do a full health and safety assessment first?

My aim here is not to contribute to this sense of powerlessness. Rather I believe that we need, individually and collectively, to face up to the complexity of the world we inhabit, to see it steadily and see it whole, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold. We can at least discern some of the major connections between things, identify some of the vulnerabilities of the system, and maybe suggest some useful and positive actions we can take ourselves. As David Icke said – before he got into the space lizards thing – it doesn’t have to be like this.

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