Book review: Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (Vintage, 1998), ISBN: 978-0099302780

I want to approach this book by means of its subtitle. Specifically, I want to contrast its subtitle with that of another classic text. This may seem perverse, but bear with me. The subtitle of this book is – or rather was originally; it has changed since the first edition, perhaps revealingly – “A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years.”

Now I do admire the sheer cheek of this. It’s deliberately provocative. Obviously it isn’t really such a book, because such a book couldn’t possibly be written, and if it could it would be much, much longer than this, even if it was short, because 13,000 years is a long time, and everybody is a lot of people. At one level Diamond is aware of this, and I don’t hold that against him. Perhaps it was his publisher who came up with it. But at another level, he really does appear to suppose that this is that book, or at least a synopsis of it, and that is where we part company.

The other subtitle I’m thinking of is that of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: “A study of economics as if people mattered.” It’s equally provocative, of course. But I think the main thing I have against Diamond’s book is that, ultimately, for him people don’t matter at all. Which slightly begs the question of why his book exists at all, but we’ll get onto that.

Other critics of this book have taken issue with particular details, and this was probably inevitable. After all, there is a lot of detailed archeology which the book skips merrily over, not all of which has dated especially well, which of course isn’t Diamond’s fault. The pyramids, for example, are blithely put into the category of “public works advertising state power” (Chapter 14, “From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy,” p. 285 in my copy). I am not an Egyptologist, and I don’t even play one on TV, but even I have a hard time swallowing that Diamond can really assert such a superficial account with a straight face.

There’s a version of the human story that we all get taught, and it goes something like this. In the beginning, we were all hunter-gatherers, living in small groups, and it sucked (spoiler alert: it probably didn’t). Later, some bright spark discovered farming, and everything got much better (spoiler alert: it definitely didn’t) because that meant we could become more numerous (because that has to be a good thing, right?) and also because we had surplus food we could support people who didn’t produce food (because that also has to be a good thing). And that took us on a smooth trajectory to the paradise we live in today, where half the world is starving and we have the Department of Work and Pensions. Hoorah!

I’d love to say that Diamond’s book is the antidote to all this. In some ways it is, or tries to be. Diamond’s field-work as an ornithologist has led him to spend a lot of time in New Guinea, which has made him a kind of amateur anthropologist. He often recurs to New Guinea in the book, and those are often the most valuable passages, because they stem from his own lived experience. He is by no means an uncritical cheerleader for the modern lifestyle, as witness his 2013 book The World Until Yesterday, which is even subtitled: “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” – it’s just that from this account we’re lumbered with it, apparently everywhere and forever.

Diamond sets himself the question of why it is that the people of Western Europe – not, on the face of it, either the smartest, wisest, or materially well-endowed people on the planet – were able to subdue so much of the rest of the world. This is a reasonable question, and he gives it his best shot. But I am reminded of the work of a justifiably forgotten English essayist of the eighteenth century, Soame Jenyns. If anyone remembers him today, it is probably because of the righteous stomping his work received at the hands of Samuel Johnson: that he maintained that whatever is, is right. This, ultimately, is Diamond’s thesis too.

For essentially his explanations are entirely mechanical. There is no room for human agency in any of it. He occasionally weeps crocodile tears over, say, Native Americans being deliberately given blankets infected with smallpox, but it’s just the way it is. The Aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania were still using stone tools when Europeans arrived, so ultimately it was fine for them to be exterminated. (British officers had a wager on how many human bodies a musket ball could pass through, so in order to resolve it they lined up a bunch of Tasmanians and fired a musket ball through them and counted the corpses. Sad, but you know, kind of inevitable.) Diamond tries very hard not to be racist about all of this, but it’s pretty cold comfort for the losers.

The mechanistic basis of his world-view is betrayed in his account of religion. For Diamond, religion is just a manifestation of what he terms “kleptocracy.” With touching faith, he seems to imagine that as human society progresses, there is less room for kleptocracy. (Sweet summer child! Does he truly know nothing of the corporate world?) But there’s also no room in his account for actual spiritual experience. Even if he has no direct knowledge of this, it seems strange to me that he has heard nothing of it from his friends in New Guinea, to say nothing of friends closer to home. It’s not so much an omission as a gaping void. After all, an awful lot of those people in the last 13,000 years have been religious, one way or another. They can’t all have been idiots.

This is history without the ethics. It isn’t, actually, history at all. History is not just about what happened, but what might have happened instead. Otherwise it’s basically just physics. In Diamond’s universe, what happened is the only thing that could have happened, because for him it really is all just physics. (Not quantum mechanics, of course, because that would be embarrassingly non-deterministic. Newton for the win!) Resistance is useless.

For Diamond, it would appear that everyone in the world is doomed to end up buying their groceries online, because that’s just the way things are. We’ll all be ruled in every tiny detail of our lives by faceless bureaucracies, because that’s just the way things are. In fact, we’ll all be living in some version of the USA, because that’s just the way things are. Is that what he wants, on some level? Judging from this book, I think perhaps it is.

Well: sod that for a game of soldiers. Luckily for us, the laws of physics (ha!) will render this version of the world unfeasible, and possibly sooner than we may think. Diamond may have written a history of the last 13,000 years, but it will take far less time than that for it to appear – well, dare I say dated?

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

On values in the sphere of politics

Liberal democracies must defend their values….

Andrew RawnsleY, The Guardian 27/2/2022

So who are these liberal democracies, and what are their values? It’s easy enough to list the states who routinely self-identify as liberal democracies: the United States of America (which is a republic, not a democracy; the framers of its constitution explicitly wished to avoid creating a democracy); the United Kingdom (which is an oligarchy with some window-dressing); the members of the European Union (well, most of them); Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

What interests me here is the question of values. Now most of us, it’s true to say, have two sets of values. There are the values that we profess to have, and the values that we actually live by, as shown by our actions. Of course there’s usually a lot of overlap between the two sets – I not only say that murder is wrong, but I abstain from going around murdering people – but perhaps only saints manage to walk the talk without exceptions.

When it comes to political regimes, however, there is often much less overlap. The values espoused by the Soviet Union, for instance, were far more pleasant than the reality it inflicted on its citizens. Likewise, the values which the liberal democracies claim to espouse are not often evident in their foreign policy – or even in their domestic policies, as Canada has recently shown us.

Police in Ottawa supporting the right to free speech.

I’m mostly going to talk about the UK government here, because that’s the example I’m most familiar with, but I imagine you can find plenty of parallels with your own government’s behaviour, wherever you happen to live.

Consider the international equivalent of murder, which is the invasion of one country by another. This is topical at the moment, given the unpleasant events occurring in Ukraine as I write this. What is less topical are the equally unpleasant events occurring in Yemen. Only one of these is currently being loudly deplored by Western governments. Why is that? After all, both the Russian Federation and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are major exporters of petroleum. Is Saudi Arabia a shining beacon of liberal values? I don’t think so.

Britain sells lots of arms to Saudi Arabia. In the quarter following the decision to resume exports of arms in 2021 (after a brief episode of pretending to give a damn), £1.4 billion quid’s worth of sales were authorised by the UK government. Given that the Saudis have been trying to bomb Yemen into oblivion since 2015 and still haven’t succeeded, I’m not sure that they’ve been getting their money’s worth. The Russians, on the other hand, make their own.

When Britain formed part of the “coalition of the willing” assembled to invade Iraq, a good deal was made of how unpleasant Saddam Hussein was. We might have taken that into consideration when the West installed him as leader of Iraq, so that he could fight another war with Iran. The reality is that he was welcome to gas as many Marsh Arabs as he liked until he started to think he could formulate policies of his own based on oil revenue. As soon as he wanted to sell Iraqi oil in a currency other than the US dollar he had to go.

Indeed, choosing your own path is rarely a good career move in international politics. Look up what happened to Salvator Allende, for example. It sometimes seems to me that what the liberal democracies really have against Vladimir Putin is that he won’t do what he’s told. If only he would let us pillage his country freely as we used to in the good old days of the 1990s, we wouldn’t really care what he did domestically. Alas, he has nukes, so we have to pretend to be at least a little bit nice to him.

The UK will probably be hoping that nobody is paying too much attention to what we do domestically, for that matter. Legislation is currently making its way through Parliament that will effectively criminalise public protest. I grant you this is pretty milk-and-water stuff compared to the drastic emergency powers recently taken by Justin Trudeau to suppress the truckers’ protest in Canada, but it still isn’t the sort of legislation we would normally approve of in other countries.

The fact is that most, if not all, of the self-styled liberal democracies are becoming ever less liberal and less democratic. They are effectively oligarchies, and behaving like oligarchies. I might have more respect for them if they were at least honest about it. The good news is that I can’t see this state of affairs continuing for much longer. Now that we have reached the point where even Canadians are taking to the streets the writing is surely on the wall.

Oligarchies fail because they pursue policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many, and the many are – well – many. As the Canadian truckers have reminded us, they also do all the stuff we can’t get along without. Even oligarchs need to eat. Yes, the elites have the machinery of repression at their disposal, and as we have seen that are eager to upgrade it, but that machinery may not be as effective as they imagine. Even Trudeau found it expedient to abandon his emergency powers before they were voted on by the Canadian Senate.

I don’t suppose we will ever see a world in which governments really pursue what the late Robin Cook called “an ethical foreign policy.” We may however get one where governments have to be a bit more careful about what they do because they are actually answerable to the people they govern. But that’s a long way off, and as the proverbial Irishman said, “I wouldn’t start from here.”

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

On careers

Only those who decline to scramble up the career ladder are interesting as human beings. Nothing is more boring than a man with a career.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

There’s an interesting sentence in Robert Heinlein’s classic SF novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress where he describes the attitudes of the typical (mostly male) inhabitants of his fictional lunar colony: “Average Loonie was interested in beer, betting, women, and work, in that order.” I think it points to a divide in our own society: between those who have (or aspire to) a job, and those who have a career.

Of course I’m leaving out the vanishingly small fraction of people who do something they genuinely love for a living. More power to them, but most of us aren’t in that happy position. I’ve certainly never had paid employment of any kind that I would have kept doing if I hadn’t needed the money. I’m also leaving out those people who are rich enough that they don’t need to work at all. There are probably even fewer of those.

A job is a disposable thing. Jobs come and go. You might be a plumber, say, and a job may consist of installing a shower. When it’s done, it’s done. Unless you happen to be a particularly neurotic plumber, it probably won’t occupy your thoughts beyond what is needed to do it. You might be a participant in the “gig economy” and have multiple jobs, none of which are really part of your sense of who you are. After all, who wants to identify with delivering pizzas?

A career, on the other hand, is a thing to be spoken of with reverence; it is composed of a series of jobs, it’s true, but you’re not supposed to think of it that way. The myth of the career is the personalised version of the great Myth of Progress which we are all supposed to believe in, despite evidence to the contrary. It is aspirational. If you are asked at a job interview where you see yourself in five years’ time, then the job under discussion is not a mere job but a step in a career.

The picture at the head of this post sums that thinking up rather well. What strikes me about it most forcefully is what will happen to the leaping woman if the rock she is aiming for turns out not to be there. She will suddenly become a briefcase-carrying Wile E. Coyote, doomed to plunge into the apparently bottomless chasm. And this is going to happen to a lot of people in the not too distant future, and far from metaphorically either. We already have “software professionals” who are obliged to live in their car because the cost of housing in California is so high that even they can’t afford it.

When I was at school leaving age, there was a bloke who was called in to advise us all about our future careers. As it turns out, I spent most of my working life doing things that hadn’t been invented at the time, so it wasn’t especially helpful. But it’s an odd thing to suppose that an eighteen-year-old is going to be able to say, with any real honesty, “I want to be an accountant/commodities trader/quantity surveyor/optician/whatever.” And if you tried the trick today, you’d be assuming rather optimistically that there will be accountants, commodities traders, quantity surveyors or opticians for the duration of your working life. I’m not at all sure that that’s a good assumption, given the way things are going.

Nobody, I think, would deny that plumbers do useful work. I could say the same for practitioners of any of the classic trades. Most of them will be needed in some form whatever the future holds, and they offer many transferable skills. Carpenters will be needed for as long as there are trees. Commodities traders, maybe not so much.

I think of some of the magnificently pointless job titles cited in David Graeber’s entertaining Bullshit Jobs. There is probably not much actual need for an East Coast Vision Co-ordinator even today, but I would be prepared to bet cash money there’ll be even less in twenty years’ time. What will become of the person who has that job? Will they find they have leapt daringly onto a non-existent rock? And will they be able to cope psychologically with the knowledge that they have no useful skills in the world in which they find themselves? I rather think that someone who delivers pizza today will be far less attached to their “career” and will positively welcome the chance to do something else.

If you have a career, I suggest that you start thinking about it as if it were just a job. For one thing you will be saner and better-adjusted. But you will also be far better-placed to confront the future, even just from that change in your thinking. The world is a richer, hairier and more interesting place than we sometimes let ourselves imagine, and we ourselves have more potential than we may think. After all, Albert Einstein could have had a perfectly good career in the Swiss patent office.

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

On justice

Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Is life fair? And given that the answer to that question appears to be no, should it be fair, and if so, can we make it fair? These are questions on many people’s minds right now, and I don’t think they are as straightforward as people think. Let me expand on that.

To quote Miss Prism from The Importance of Being Earnest, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” Which is to say that we all know that isn’t how things usually go. For every Mussolini hanging upside-down from a lamp-post, there are a hundred Stalins dying in their own bed. Injustices occur daily, and very few of them are ever punished.

I’m not talking about the unfairness of, say, a child dying of leukaemia. I’m interested here in the injustices perpetrated by human beings on other human beings. This still leaves me with a very wide field of enquiry, of course, and it seems to be getting wider all the time. And this is not surprising.

As the pie shrinks, those who have most of it have the most to lose. They are therefore doing their best to keep what they have, and indeed to grab more. The rich are getting richer. This means that the rest of us are getting poorer, because we have less and less of a pie that is getting smaller and smaller. Flannel about a glorious future of prosperity for all is getting less and less convincing. If you’ve watched the film Don’t Look Up, you may remember the speech where the weirdo tech billionaire waxes lyrical about how his scheme to capture and mine the incoming asteroid for rare minerals will end world poverty, and we all know perfectly well it wouldn’t, even if it worked: all it would do it make him even richer.

Let’s just pluck a couple of examples from the recent UK news. Britain has, or more correctly used to have, substantial oil and gas deposits under the North Sea. This was an obvious opportunity for the oil and gas industry to make a lot of money, and you would imagine they would need no urging to take it. But the government decided that the industry should get massive tax breaks anyway – it has emerged that between 2018 and 2020 Shell and BP paid no corporation tax on their North Sea operations, and somehow got rebates on the tax they didn’t pay to the tune of £400 million. Effectively they were being paid to take the stuff away.

Was this equitable? Norway also had some access to North Sea oil and gas, and they decided to put the profits into a fund to be used for the benefit of Norwegians.

This looks even worse when you look at the forthcoming rises in energy bill for British households. These prices are subject to a government cap, but this cap is to be raised by a chunky 54%, equating to an additional £700 a year for the average household at a time when, according to the Office for National Statistics, the poorest fifth of the population has suffered a drop in income over the past decade. This handy graph shows how the richest fifth did rather better:

You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to work out that a lot of people in the UK are going to have trouble paying their bills. The government clearly felt that they ought to be seen to be doing something about this, but their answer is a bizarre scheme of Byzantine complexity which is manifestly going to fail to help large numbers of those affected, while incidentally taking money away from local government. Their main aim seems to have been to take the edge off the immediate pain without spending much money or indeed addressing the underlying issues.

And this is completely par for the course. A gulf is opening up between the rich and poor, and it’s a gulf of mutual understanding as much as anything else. Government ministers can tell themselves that they have been generous because they have no idea what it’s like to have to choose between food and heating, for example. And this kind of cluelessness is going to end up with heads on pikes if they’re not careful. I am not seeing many signs of carefulness.

Nor is this a UK-specific problem. President Macron sometimes appears to be channelling the spirit of Louis XVI, and the news of Canada’s Prime Minister being evacuated by helicopter from his own capital also does not suggest a man with confidence in the people he governs. US politics has notoriously been captured by the rich; the difference between Republicans and Democrats is much the same as that between Coke and Pepsi – neither will do you much good. When a multi-millionaire property developer with strange hair can capture the Republican nomination and win the Presidency by representing himself as being more in touch with working people than mainstream politicians, it’s pretty evident that the system simply isn’t working for many Americans.

Of course the rich and powerful have been oppressing the poor and weak for as long as these categories have existed. The fulminations of the prophet Isaiah weren’t original even in his day. It may be that industrial civilisation even requires this to occur – attempts to run it on ostensibly more egalitarian lines were not a success in the Soviet Union or its satellites.

You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.

The Man With No Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

I am not suggesting that the demise of industrial civilisation will make this kind of thing magically stop. I do think that it may be easier to resist, at least in certain places and at certain times. And if we have that opportunity, we should take it, to the best of our ability. Perfect justice is an ideal that we will never attain, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Doctors still try to heal people even though all of their patients will eventually die, and I for one am very glad they do.

Will there be blood? I am afraid so. Will innocent people suffer? Yes, they will. As the wheels come off, a process which already further under way than many people imagine, a lot of people are going to get hurt. In theory there are nice ways to achieve the inevitable transition to a sustainable way of life, but they don’t seem likely to occur. So there will be blood, and injustice, and suffering. But just possibly something better will emerge on the other side, if we keep hold of some of our key principles. And justice, it seems to me, is one of the more important. Our rulers forget that at their peril.

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

Book review: Overshoot

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change by William R. Catton Jr., University of Illinois Press (1982), ISBN: 0-252-00988-6 / 978-0-252-00988-4

I believe it was Mark Twain who defined a classic as a book that nobody wants to read but everyone wants to have read. This is a book that everyone ought to have read by now – it came out originally back in 1980 – but apparently not many people actually have. In a small way, I hope this review will help to remedy that.

William Catton was an academic sociologist, but don’t let that put you off. This is very much a book for the lay reader. He assumes very little by way of prior knowledge, and the book includes an extensive glossary of terms. The book is written with great lucidity and indeed restraint, and this makes its message all the more powerful. It is rooted not in sociology as such, but in ecology. This is a perspective that, as he notes, was unusual in his day; sadly, it continues to be so.

Catton begins from the premise that humanity is in crisis. It is sobering to be reminded how apparent this was even when he was writing in the 1970s. His central contention is that the nature and causes of this crisis can only be appreciated from an ecological perspective. The meat of the book is his exposition of ecological principles, starting with the core concept of carrying capacity. He goes on to apply these principles as an explanatory tool for human history, both ancient and modern.

He anticipates and dismisses the claims of human exceptionalism, which is to say that ecological principles apply to all other living organisms but not to us. Given that those principles do in fact apply, he makes a cogent case for the self-defeating nature of industrial civilisation.

Human society is inextricably part of a global biotic community, and in that community human dominance has had and is having self-destructive consequences.

Chapter 1, “Our Need for a New Perspective” (p. 10)

His account of the Industrial Revolution and the succeeding period – what he terms “The Age of Exuberance” – is useful not only in itself but as an explanation for why we have the habits of thought that we do. As Catton makes clear, these habits in themselves are one of the biggest obstacles to be overcome. In an entertaining section, he categorises responses to the crisis into five groups, ranging from “Realism” to “Ostrichism” (Chapter 4, “Watershed Year: Modes of Adaptation”, Table 2). He is refreshingly free of acrimony in this; he understands why people react as they do. But it is very obvious that there is very little realism about, any more than there was in 1980.

At the same time, he is clear-eyed about the future that awaits us if we fail to see things realistically and to take the appropriate action. He views the Great Depression, for example, as a “preview” of the kinds of disruption industrial society can expect to face. A significant chunk of the book (Chapters 11 and 12) is devoted to the psychological difficulties we face in adapting appropriately. Catton shows compassion as well as ruthlessness here in his analysis.

It is impossible to read this book and remain optimistic about the future of industrial civilisation. Perhaps this is why it is not, as perhaps it should be, on every school curriculum in the “developed” world. The book’s publication was also, in a sense, ill-timed: even as it came off the presses, the Reagan-Thatcher worldview was becoming dominant in the West, and it was never going to get much of a hearing in the corridors of power. Witness the desperate rearguard action against reality being fought to this day by Nigel Lawson, Mrs Thatcher’s long-time Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In this historical context, even Catton’s very limited faith in the Carter administration appears rather tragic:

The third week in April, 1977, was a pivotal moment in history. It was the time when the world’s most colossal energy users were at last called upon by their president to face the future realistically.

Chapter 14, “Turning Around” (p. 227)

Well, we know how well that turned out. The little that Carter managed to achieve was undone, and worse, by his successors, with the results that we now see.

Nits can of course be picked. Catton’s account of early human history is rather outdated, as one might expected from a book written forty years ago by a non-specialist. (I would highly recommend James C. Scott, Against the Grain, and/or David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything, for a corrective.) But none of this detracts from his core argument. Indeed Overshoot has aged remarkably well, on the whole, because it relies mainly on extremely well-established truths and on logical argument rather than on passionate rhetoric.

If the book has a weakness, it is that while it is long on diagnosis it is rather short on remedies. Partly this is because there simply are none, or not palatable ones at any rate. The best-case scenario is both unlikely and horrible; it is just less horrible than the others. If you want practical guidance on measures you can take to cope with what’s coming – and you will once you’ve read this, if you don’t already – you will need to look elsewhere.

Reading Overshoot is like taking a cold shower. You will emerge with fewer illusions, but it won’t necessarily be fun. But it is also bracing and, in its way, invigorating. Once you’ve seen the world as Catton shows it to you, it is hard to stop seeing it that way. And from that viewpoint it becomes possible to see some ways forward.

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

On bargaining

However healthy you think you are, remember that vegetarians die too.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss

It is not a coincidence that I begin this week’s post with a quotation from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her work on dying and on the grieving process is of the highest importance in this historical moment, when we must all, each us, say goodbye to much that we had and to more that we were promised.

Many people, it seems to me, are currently at the stage of the grieving process that Kübler-Ross identified as bargaining: the stage at which one tries to stave off the inevitable by offers of sacrifice of one sort or another. Perhaps if I give up drinking, it won’t happen. Or if I go back to my husband. Or if I avoid stepping on the cracks in the pavement.

We’re all familiar with this kind of thinking, and mostly we discard it as childish. After all, it generally doesn’t work. Sacrificing a chicken probably won’t speed up my broadband, although it may sometimes be tempting to give it a shot. I won’t win the lottery just because I was wearing my lucky pants when I bought the ticket.

But now that the excrement is getting dangerously close to the rotating ventilation device, bargaining is undergoing something of a renaissance. A couple of examples spring to mind.

Veganism is one of them. Now, I have no problem if you want to be vegan. I am not going to tell anyone what they should eat. I spent enough of my childhood arguing about that. For many years I was a vegetarian, and I would still fall into the category of “fussy eater” in the opinion of many. But even when I was a vegetarian – and for some years I also abstained from eggs – it never occurred to me that I was “saving the planet.”

Frankly, saving the planet is not something human beings can ever aspire to. The planet is absolutely fine. Life on this planet is also absolutely fine, in the long run, even if we throw all of our toys out of the pram in some nuclear extravaganza. The fact is that Mother Nature is a tough old broad, and it will take a lot more than we could possibly do to end life on Earth. We don’t have that kind of agency, however much it may flatter us to suppose that we do. Earth has been through a lot worse than us.

But what I am arguing against here is the idea that veganism will save the world. Leaving aside the question of which world exactly is being saved here, it is vanishingly unlikely that everyone in the world would ever adopt a vegan diet – even assuming that everyone in the world would thrive on it. There are plants, there are animals that eat plants, and there are other animals that eat those animals, and we are omnivores who can eat both. This puts us in the same bracket as pigs and chickens and ducks and many other creatures. It’s not a shameful thing, but it’s the case. Yes, industrial farming is a terrible thing. That includes the industrial farming of lettuce and carrots and even parsley. Veganism won’t fix any of that.

Another bargaining chip is anti-natalism, or to spell it out, the idea that nobody should have children. I will put my cards on the table: I have no children myself, and at my age it is unlikely that I ever will. But it strikes me as obvious folly to assert that nobody ever should. Admittedly my species is not exactly covering itself with glory in its industrial incarnation, but human beings have managed to live on this planet for quite a few millennia without completely screwing up. Is all of that completely without value? Really?

We have seen this one before. Monasticism has been a feature of multiple religions, Christianity and Buddhism being the most conspicuous examples. It has had some profoundly beneficial effects – we would know very little of classical Greek and Latin literature without the efforts of monastic copyists, for example – but if nobody was prepared to procreate, our species would be extinct in a generation. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t think that’s a great outcome.

Ultimately, there is no bargaining with the future. There are no guarantees. You can be the world’s most deserving farmer; you can observe all of the permaculture principles religiously; and you can still be wiped out by drought or floods or an earthquake. Benjamin Franklin famously said that nothing is certain except death and taxes, and Vodafone laughs at his shadow, but even Elon Musk will meet the Reaper someday, and perhaps not when he expects it.

We live in a world heavy with contracts. You work under a contract, you buy your necessities under another contract, you sleep at night under a roof governed by yet another contract, even your most intimate relationships are encumbered by one contract or another. But none of these chains can give you certainty. There are no hard bargains any more.

These guys failed to avert the Black Death. Full marks for trying, though.

The future we face is uncertain, make no mistake about it. That is a frightening prospect. But we cannot improve it by offering some sort of deal. There is no deal to be done. We are coping here with forces beyond our control, and the best we can do is to adjust, if we can. Be flexible. It’s going to be a wild ride down from here.

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

On trust

Love all, trust a few, / Do wrong to none.

William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, I.1

Among the many crises that beset the modern world is a crisis of trust, or so we are told. People are losing their trust in the institutions of government, in corporations, even in the pronouncements of scientists. This is generally held to be a bad thing. But is it?

It’s undoubtedly true that a certain baseline level of trust has to exist in order for society to function. Money, for example, only works on the basis that everyone believes that these particular pieces of paper have value. Families and friendships can only hold together on the basis of mutual trust, and the loss of it is Kryptonite to any relationship. Without trust, there can be no love.

The cause of trust has not been helped by the economising mindset, which frames all human relations as a set of transactions in which the other party is always trying to do you down. Of course hardly anyone really sees the world like this, even economists, apart from paranoid schizophrenics. (Revealingly, perhaps, this was the affliction of the economist John Nash, subject of the movie A Beautiful Mind.) But it encourages distrust of others. So also does the fact that so many people live among strangers. This has always tended to be the case in cities, which have historically had a high turnover of population, but only comparatively recently has urban living become the majority lifestyle.

Trust creates the possibility of betrayal. In politics, a leader will inspire loyalty only up to the point that they can be trusted. A striking example of this from recent history is Margaret Thatcher. You knew where you were with Mrs T. You might not like it, but you knew. She had her principles, and she stuck to them.

The contrast with our current leadership in the UK is either comic or tragic, depending on your point of view. The excitement du jour happens to be about flouting of the rules concerning lockdown at the height of the pandemic, but they’ve flouted pretty much every other rule as well, awarding lucrative contracts to their mates, breaching their own code of conduct without repercussions, and even violating international treaties which they had themselves negotiated. The only principle they seem to believe in is that they can do what the hell they like because nothing will ever happen to them.

This kind of thinking has been seen before, and it rarely has a happy ending. The ancien régime in pre-Revolutionary France thought along those lines, for example, and how did that go?

It couldn’t happen here…

Governments need the consent of the governed. It is difficult to get or keep that consent if the governed can’t see anything in it for them. When nobody believes your promises, you are going to have a hard time of it. The same thing did for the Soviet Union, after all, which was a superpower not so long ago.

If someone is undeserving of trust, it makes sense for others to withdraw their trust. Nobody is surprised when someone leaves their partner after that partner has cheated on them. Indeed they would risk being thought a fool if they didn’t, if there were no other circumstances to be taken into consideration. Being mistrustful can often by a rational decision.

For wholesale abuse of the public trust has become commonplace, in a way that would never have been countenanced even a generation ago. For example, news media have always been the creatures of corporate interests to some extent, but these days the only way to get any idea of what is going on is to consume multiple disparate sources and triangulate from their known biases. And even that won’t tell you about the stuff that’s going on that they don’t want to publicise.

So people turn to the Internet. There are certainly plenty of alternative voices there, but which can you trust? Some of them are corporate shills, some are ideologues of various stripes, and others are just nutters. Sifting the wheat from the chaff is difficult, time-consuming and error-prone. Many people don’t have the time or the skills, and end up believing whatever’s in their feed for lack of anything else. But that doesn’t mean they’re completely gullible. There is a high level of background cynicism, and a good deal of it is justified.

One of the many sins of Donald J. Trump was that he drew attention to the omnipresence of “fake news.” I believe this is one of the things that struck a chord with the American public. Much of it is fake, of course, simply by being presented as if it were newsworthy. The world will not be a significantly different place if celebrity X marries (or divorces, or remarries) celebrity Y. The public interest is not the same thing as all the stuff the public is vaguely curious about. There’s a nice demonstration of this in the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up.

Another example is public trust in science, particularly as embodied by the pharmaceutical industry. You don’t have to be a tinfoil-hat-wearing anti-vaxxer to notice that the extravagant promises made about the various Covid-19 vaccines have not exactly been borne out. They don’t stop you catching it, they don’t stop you getting ill (although they may make you get less seriously ill), and they don’t stop you giving it to someone else. They jury is obviously still out on potential side-effects, particularly long-term ones, but it’s reasonable to expect that there will be at least some.

If people notice that they are being lied to, a loss of trust is the inevitable result. But the fault is with the liars. Trust has to be earned, and it is a good deal easier to lose than is to regain – rather like Louis XVI‘s head. Certain politicians might be well-advised to think about that.

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

On taking the long view

In the long run we are all dead.

John Maynard Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923)

How long is the long run? At one extreme, there is a principle attributed (perhaps wrongly) to the Iroquois that decisions should be taken in the light of their possible effect seven generations hence, which is at least two hundred years; at the other, the corporate mindset, driven by financial results and ultimately by investors, which considers six months to be pretty long-term and five years to be the realm of prophecy.

Economists argue, plausibly, that the future is uncertain, which is true up to a point, but only up to a point. If I push my coffee-mug off the table, it will fall to the floor, although it may or may not break. The connection between levels of atmospheric CO2 and global temperatures was published science back in 1896. The exact amount of the stuff we can put into the climate system without rendering the planet uninhabitable is as yet undetermined; apparently we will discover it experimentally.

We are led to believe that our species, the self-styled “wise man” Homo sapiens, is uniquely endowed with the power of forethought. The evidence, however, hardly bears this out. Plenty of other species, whose intelligence we fiercely deny, seem to be able to live without completely destroying their environment. They modify it, to be sure – termites, moles and beavers all do so in various ways – but the changes they make are harmless and indeed in many ways beneficial.

Perhaps we are so reluctant to allow intelligence to these other creatures because they make us look so stupid in comparison. The failure of squirrels to dig up all of their buried acorns we attribute to lack of memory, rather than a natural desire on their part to propagate oak-trees. When you look at the results, frankly, the squirrels’ mental processes are beside the point. No beaver would ever have built such a monstrosity as the Three Gorges Dam, even it it were possible.

Of course immense amounts of planning and calculation went into the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, but very little thought seems to have been given to the future consequences of building it. The same can be said of the plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport at a time when (1) we are supposed to be cutting back on CO2 emissions, to which air travel is a major contributor, (2) aviation fuel is likely to get increasingly more expensive, and (3) many fewer people wish to fly during a pandemic.

The only consequences anyone seems to worry about are financial. Whenever a corporation is caught behaving recklessly, the defence usually takes the form of claiming that nobody could possibly have foreseen that the awful consequence du jour would result from their actions. Since corporations are treated nowadays more or less as sacred persons, they generally get away with this, however obvious the awful consequence clearly was.

For example: who could possibly have foreseen that prescribing opiates – a notoriously addictive family of drugs – to large number of people might result in widespread addiction? Evidently not Purdue Pharma, whose flagship product OxyContin is apparently still available despite the company having declared bankruptcy after pleading guilty to criminal charges. The settlement was for $8bn, compared with around $35bn in revenue that Purdue garnered from the sale of OxyContin since its launch in 1995, so financially it was a massive success. The human costs, of course, are a mere externality.

Examples could be multiplied: the insouciance of mining companies about toxic wastes, of the nuclear energy industry about its unimaginably long-lived radioactive by-products, or of fracking companies about the (permanent) poisoning of groundwater in the areas where they operate. Is our ignorance of the future really so profound that we cannot foresee any ill-effects of poisoning the same water that local people are accustomed to drink? Anyone who has seen the documentary Gasland (2010) will recall the footage of people actually setting light to the fluid coming from their tap. Exactly how much research is needed to establish whether or not it’s safe to drink that stuff?

Closer to home, British Telecom are planning to do away with landlines by the end of 2025. This will make your phone dependent on mains electricity, as opposed to the current system where the phone line also supplies power. Thus if your power is cut off, for example in a storm, and you don’t happen to have a (charged) mobile phone (and coverage), you won’t be able to tell the power company or indeed contact the emergency services. There are also implications for such things as burglar alarms, fire alarms and traffic lights, which will also stop working the moment mains power goes down. BT’s excuse is that it would be too expensive to fix the existing infrastructure – which of course they haven’t been maintaining adequately, presumably on the off-chance that it would miraculously go on working forever.

If the people doing these things genuinely have no knowledge of the consequences – which I very much doubt – then they have no business being in charge of anything, let alone a major industrial enterprise. Frankly, they should be locked up for their own safety as well as that of others. Presumably they also park without applying the handbrake, or indeed locking the car. It’s an open question whether they put any clothes on before leaving the house.

Presumably the truth is that they do know and they don’t care. They are completely insulated from the bad outcomes of their decisions, just as the Sackler family are protected in perpetuity from fallout from the Purdue Pharma debacle. Except, of course, ultimately this is a delusion. Even billionaires need to eat, which is going to be a tricky proposition without topsoil. They also need breathable air, drinkable water and a living space which isn’t underwater. If the forthcoming shortages of these commodities are simply dismissed as part of an unknowable future, they will become part of an uninhabitable present.

It is revealing that the insurance industry, which depends on making accurate assessments of the future, is one of the few parts of out establishment expressing concern about climate change – for example in this report. Nobody else, apparently, is really bothered, except in so far as it can be made into a money-making vehicle.

The seven-generation standard may be an unreachable ideal, but we aren’t even aiming for a one-generation view. Anyone with children is already invested that far ahead, or so you would think. There is a saying that you plant a walnut tree for your grandchildren; the squirrels would seem to be thinking much further ahead than that.

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

On beginnings

VLADIMIR: It’s the start that’s difficult.

ESTRAGON: You can start from anything.

VLADIMIR: Yes, but you have to decide.

ESTRAGON: True.

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

So here we are in 2022, and – if you’re anything like me – looking forward to it with some apprehension. But there’s no denying that a new year is a good opportunity, if only psychologically, to review what might be possible and to reflect on some of the positive actions we can take.

I am not a great enthusiast for New Year’s Resolutions; they have always struck me as a reliable way to set yourself up for failure. What none of us needs right now is an additional source of tension. Look on the following as a set of helpful suggestions, rather than a to-do list. But maybe consider doing at least some of them.

  • Repair and extend your personal networks. By which I mean networks of actual people you know in real life, not just online. (Social media has given the phrase “imaginary friend” a whole new meaning.) We all have friends and family members we have drifted apart from, especially with lockdown. Get back in touch. You’ll feel better, and you’ll have – and provide – that little bit more support. This is a big part of what keeps society from unravelling, and we’ll certainly need more of that.
  • Learn a real-life skill. Anything that takes your fancy. Knitting. Sailing a boat. Welding. Map-reading. (How many people can read a paper map these days?) Learn another language, or a card-game, or how to bake your own bread. Something that has been on my list since forever is brewing beer. Apart from anything else, it will get you away from the Internet, and you might even meet other people with the same interests (see above). And you never know what use it may be in the future.
  • Make time in your life for reflection. As Pascal said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” This has become an even more acute issue since his day. We all need to wean ourselves off the river of guff that pours over us daily on all sides. I don’t know what is of real importance in your life – and neither do you, if you never stop to think about it – but I can guarantee you it isn’t in your Facebook feed.
  • Get to know the place where you live. Explore its history too. Why did people come to to live there, and where from? Have those reasons changed, and if so, why? Learn to love it, if you can. (And if you can’t, why not? Is there somewhere else that you should be?) Too many of us have no real connection to where we live; rootlessness is no better for people than it is for trees. Which brings me to:
  • Plant a tree. If you don’t have space for one, find somewhere that does. Especially in urban areas, there are lots of green corners that nobody cares about. There is an Indian proverb to the effect that everyone should plant five trees in their lifetime, and certainly if everyone did that the world would be a better place in many respects. George Orwell expressed regret that he had never planted a walnut. As he also said:

The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil.

Finally, I have this suggestion – which could also form part of my first one, depending on who you choose:

  • Forgive someone. I’ve written elsewhere on this subject, but it’s a very simple thing to do, even if it may not always be easy, and it will certainly benefit you and perhaps them. Why carry that burden for another year? Don’t you have enough of them already?

Those are my thoughts; I’d welcome yours in the comments. And let me take this opportunity to wish you a happy and prosperous New Year.

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