On population

Malthus has been buried many times, and Malthusian scarcity with him. But as Garrett Hardin remarked, anyone who has to be reburied so often cannot be entirely dead.

Herman E. Daly, Steady-State Economics: The Economics of Biophysical Equilibrium and Moral Growth (1991)

There are several canned responses that always seem to come up whenever the topic of human population comes up. In this essay I want to discuss why none of them are very helpful, and to try and suggest some other ways of approaching it.

“There is no problem with over-population.” This is the techno-optimist position. It has no basis in either physical or ecological reality, and is merely a confession of faith in the Religion of Progress. Some proponents of this view do point out that there is enough food produced to feed everyone, and that malnutrition and starvation are the result of maldistribution. There’s some truth to this, although it ignores the fact that much of that food is produced by unsustainable industrial methods and that it depends on a reasonably stable climate, which is going away. (I saw just yesterday that olive oil production this year in both Spain and Italy – i.e. the world’s major producers – is expected to be down 75% due to the ongoing drought.) It also ignores the reality that this maldistribution is not actually going to be fixed.

People who adopt this view seem to think that more human beings on the planet must ipso facto be better than fewer human beings on the planet. I am not sure why they should think this. It seems to be an example of the fetishisation of quantity for its own sake that is so characteristic of industrial civilisation. More is not always better, nor is it always worse. More is just more. Without context, it means nothing.

“If you think there is a problem with over-population, you must be a racist.” This claim can just be a way of saying “I don’t want to talk about this,” in that calling someone a racist is basically telling them to shut up. Of course there have been unpleasant episodes in the not too distant past such as the Bengal famines of 1943 and 1770, not to mention the Irish “Great Hunger,” in which colonised peoples were allowed to starve due to malign neglect, to put it no more strongly, on the part of their imperial overlords. This isn’t purely a British thing either; the Holodomor was arguably another case, and a topical one at the present day. There was certainly a strong racist element in the thinking of the relevant decision-makers in those cases. The British had been thinking ot the Irish as more or less sub-human for centuries, so it is no surprise that they were largely unmoved by the thought of millions of them dying off.

But there is a big difference between predicting a fall in the global population and willing it to occur, let alone willing it to affect only some sub-group of humanity. When the Met Office forecasts rain, it isn’t because they want it to rain, and indeed nobody supposes that that is the case. They forecast rain because they have sound scientific reasons for expecting rain to occur. Saying that the global population is too high is not at all the same as suggesting that surplus people should be fed into gas-ovens, and it is intellectually dishonest to pretend that it is.

“There is an optimum number of people, and it is X.” A version of this claim used to be on the Georgia Guidestones before they got blown up. The problem is that even if we knew this – and X would need to be a range, not a single figure, because populations of all living things are constrained by factors that vary over time – it would be of no use whatever. Are we going to set up some kind of global population police? That’s back to the gas-ovens. Again, people want to say this kind of thing because they want to think about everything purely numerically. It’s not going to help us here.

“Human beings are evil and it would be better if they just died out.” This may not be a mainstream notion (or not yet), but you can easily find it on forums like the r/collapse Reddit group. I suppose you could interpret this view as a version of the previous one in which X is defined to be zero, but the motivation seems to be quite different. There’s a lot of self-hatred going on here, and also a lot of projection. Human beings are not simply evil, or at least I don’t find them to be so. It’s been my experience that most people, most of the time, under most circumstances, are pretty much okay.

What underlies this is the notion that human beings have some inevitable tendency to turn into planet-wrecking industrial capitalists. Now planet-wrecking industrial capitalists certainly exist, but they are a pretty small percentage of the population today, let alone of all the human beings who have walked the earth since we first evolved. Without romanticising indigenous people, they have generally worked out a more or less sustainable way of living in their environment, because, as the saying goes, what is not sustainable will not be sustained.

Industrial capitalism is an anomaly founded on a one-off energy bonanza from the exploitation of fossil fuels. As those fuels become scarcer, harder to access, and consequently more expensive – which is happening right now, in case you hadn’t noticed – its physical basis will go away.

This is what unsustainability looks like.

Even if it were the case that all human beings are somehow uniquely hard-wired to be planet-wrecking industrial capitalists, in other words, the ability to carry out these evil intentions will not be there in the future.

“Over-population is inevitable, and we are all doomed.” This is one of a diverse family of beliefs of the form “X is inevitable, and we are all doomed,” and I don’t put much store in any of them, apart from the trivial case where X is the heat death of the universe. Actually, of the many challenges we face today, over-population is one of the few that is self-correcting. We may not like the form that that self-correction will take, but we can be confident that it will happen.

In his classic book Overshoot, which I reviewed on this blog a little while back, the late William R. Catton Jr. lucidly explained the mechanics of this process. It applies generally to all living things, and human beings are no exception, however much we might like to suppose we are. We depend absolutely on certain environmental factors to survive: breathable air, drinking water, food, and a liveable climate. Where those things are absent, we cannot live. It is not a coincidence that nobody lives in Antarctica, apart from a few scientists who are completely dependent on supplies from elsewhere.

As with so many things, it seems to me that what we need to be thinking about here is mitigation. This can take many forms. Addressing the maldistribution of food I mentioned above would be helpful, although I see no reason to expect it go away. More importantly, we need to be looking at the ways we currently meet our needs and adapting them to methods that stand a chance of working in the future. Remember that the future we are facing includes an unstable climate, expensive oil and gas (and all their derivatives, like chemical fertilisers), and expensive long-distance transport, with all that that implies for international trade.

This means taking a lot more care of fresh water than we currently do. It means growing crops that are suitable for where we are growing them, and robust to the extremes of climate – which implies planting multiple varieties and/or species instead of monocultures. More than anything, it requires care of the soil, especially given that access to artificial fertilisers is already constrained. Food production will also need to be oriented towards local consumption rather than for export, as so much of it now is.

Some land where we currently grow food will no longer be usable for that purpose. On the other hands, some areas which are currently too cold for agriculture may become available as the planet warms. Large numbers of people are going to be moving out of areas where life has become difficult, if not impossible, in the hope of finding a home elsewhere, and indeed we are already seeing this. Obviously all this is going to lead to increasing political instability, and again we have been seeing this for a while; the ongoing Syrian civil war is a case in point.

A lot of this is ugly, but some of it need not be so ugly as it is if we face the problems squarely. And by “we,” I mean you and I as individuals, with the help of such like-minded people as we can gather around us, because very little of this is going to be fixed from the top down. Governments could help in theory, but politicians do not get elected if they are not committed to business as usual – the reasons for that are matter for another essay, but it’s clearly the case. Business will help if the right long-term thing to do happens to coincide with the profitable short-term thing to do, which it may do occasionally, but not most of the time.

Oxfam used to have a mantra: “Think globally, act locally.” It’s a great starting-point for dealing with global crises. After all, a lot of the practical solutions we’ll need are going to be local in nature. Accept that we’re not going to save the world. That doesn’t mean that what we can save isn’t worth saving. After all, as John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long run we are all dead.” All the same, life is worth living while we still have it.

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

On demagogues

The lovely dullards again and again
Inspiring their bitter ambitious men.

W. H, Auden, “Danse Macabre”

Presumably due to some administrative lapse many years ago, I received the education of a gentleman, which included a study of the classical languages. (I suppose some unfortunate gentleman of the same name was sent to a Secondary Modern to get a CSE in Woodwork; I can only apologise.) This puts me ahead of the game when it comes to words like demagogue.

Now a pedagogue is a teacher, and the ped- root refers to children, as in paediatrician (and indeed paedophile). The dem- root in demagogue refers to the common people, as in democracy. Often this root demos is translated as mob, which tells you something about the translator. Certainly its meaning includes the proles, or hoi polloi (literally “the many”, as in Shelley’s famous phrase, “Ye are many, they are few”). So we can conclude that a demagogue is someone who does to the common people the same sort of thing that a teacher does to children, which presumably means to educate them.

You may be asking yourself how this is a bad thing.

Well, it clearly is, according to President Joe “Is is time for my cocoa now?” Biden, who has just given a rousing address claiming that supporters of Donald Trump are anti-democratic, or at least opposed to the US constitution. It has to be said that the optics for this speech did not help it appear pro-democracy.

Clearly this man is in no way a fascist. No sir.

Demagogues are considered a Bad Thing because they persuade people to vote The Wrong Way. This is populism, and that is evil; it’s a well-known fact. When the people of Chile voted for Salvator Allende in 1970, for example, they had clearly voted The Wrong Way, and they had to have General Senator Augusto Pinochet explain the error of their ways to them, often using thoughtfully-applied electrodes for this purpose. Democracy is only good, after all, when people vote The Right Way. That stands to reason.

So long as people vote The Right Way, however, those who persuade them to do so are not demagogues. Of course they aren’t. They are merely the exponents of truth and reason and goodness. Right.

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

Sir John Harington, Epigrams, Book IV, Epistle 5.

Or, to put it in the form of an irregular verb: “I am a thought leader, you are an influencer, he is a demagogue.”

Now Biden’s speech is an ephemeral thing, and he has already begun claiming not to have said some of the things he said, which is pretty quick work even by the standards of modern politics. But it was an odd speech to make if your shtick is that you want to unite the country, as distinct from the divisive stance of your opponents.

Then again, at this point is there any realistic possibility of uniting the allegedly United States of America? Certainly there is not much prospect of this in the allegedly United Kingdom, now that we have a Prime Minister who has made it clear that she favours the rich over the poor and isn’t even prepared to give the Scots the time of day. I wonder how many of the “developed” countries will avoid disintegrating into their constituent parts over the next few years. Metternich’s famous remark that Italy is no more than “a geographical expression” looks prescient, and the same might be said of Spain.

When the established order is failing to address the concerns of the majority of the population, as is happening now in many places, it can be said to have lost what the Chinese call the Mandate of Heaven, This means that it is likely to be replaced by some other order, and the prophets of that order will be what are now called demagogues. I am in no sense a cheerleader for many of these figures. If Donald Trump does manage to pull a Grover Cleveland and get himself re-elected President of the United States of America, I will not be cracking open the Krug. But it is not hard to see where this impulse is coming from.

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I don’t subscribe to the view prevalent amongst many on the Left there is loads of stuff available and we could all be enjoying Fully Automated Luxury Communism were it not for our evil overlords. On the contrary, I believe that there is less stuff than there used to be, and that the pie is shrinking. But at the same time, what is left of the pie is being distributed in an increasingly inequitable manner. If yesterday you had a 20% share of $1000, today you have only a 10% share of $500, and tomorrow that will be a 5% share of $250.

Beyond a certain point, you can’t really con the mass of the people into thinking this isn’t happening. People are already noticing that they can’t live the way they used to, seeing that prices are going up and incomes are going down. None of the existing political parties are addressing this; they are set up in such a way that they couldn’t address it, even if it could be addressed. (Spoiler: it can’t, because this way of life is predicated on cheap fossil fuels, which are going away. Sorry, but there it is.)

Anyone who claims to be able to fix this is going to have a massive short-term electoral advantage. It’s only going to be short-term, because it will be apparent soon enough that it can no more be fixed than a ghost shirt can repel bullets. Nevertheless, I suspect it will be long enough to dismantle much of the governmental and psychological apparatus that we currently take for granted. The Berlin Wall, after all, was permanent, until it wasn’t.

A more equitable redistribution of the smaller pie is no bad thing, although it may come about through unpleasant means. A less equitable redistribution is also certainly certainly on the cards, and that will also come about through unpleasant means. Frankly, much of the industrialised world can look forward to a lot of unpleasantness and a lot of instability over the next few years.

I have no words of wisdom to offer here beyond these: dig in, make common cause with those around you, try to provide for yourselves as far are you can, and be lucky. Some people always are, as evidenced by the fact that you and I are still here. I hope you will be in our uncertain future.

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

On the spectacularly obvious

We have to shift our attitude of ownership of nature to relationship with nature. The moment you change from ownership to relationship, you create a sense of the sacred.

Satish KUmar

Well, I try quite hard not to respond to all the examples of head-banging idiocy I see in the press, because life is short and I need to manage my blood-pressure. But every now and then I come across something so extraordinarily dumb that either I throw my laptop across the room or I write a blog post. And I can’t afford a new laptop, so here we go.

Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you contemplate the question posted in this headline: Do animals have emotions? No, seriously, this is apparently a thing. Indeed, it is a Big Idea, because presumably we are all supposed to reel in shock at the very notion.

Short answer: Yes. Yes, they do. Indeed, we do, because in case you haven’t noticed – and the author of the headline apparently hasn’t, perhaps having been off sick the day their school covered literally the whole of biology – we are animals. Therefore our very ability to reel in shock at this notion itself demonstrates the truth of the proposition.

Now I probably shouldn’t be too shocked to find such things in a newspaper which apparently finds it astonishing that fish can feel pain. But it is representative of a certain mindset which is ubiquitous in what passes for the intellectual culture of industrial civilisation, namely that all our intuitions about the world are false unless Studies Show™ that they are correct. We cannot claim that water is wet, unless Studies Show™ that it is indeed wet. And by a mind-boggling coincidence, it turns out that Studies Show™ only what commercial interests would like them to show, because that’s how they mostly get financed. Fancy that. I don’t suppose you saw that one coming.

Am I then daring to question The Science™? You can bet your sweet bippy I am, my friend, if it is talking obvious tosh. And I am referring here to the kind of thing that epistemologists technically describe as the bleeding obvious.

We are living beings. There are other living beings on this planet, although naturally we are doing our best to fix that. I find it hard to imagine how any of my fellow-beings have managed to lose sight of this blindingly obvious fact. Do they really need to have read a peer-reviewed paper before they can accept that water is wet? How do they even conduct their daily lives? That’s not a rhetorical question; I am genuinely perplexed.

We are living beings. We need nutritious food, clean water, breathable air. We eat, we shit, we fuck, we have emotions. Is any of this actually newsworthy? It’s not as if there have been many slow news days lately. What’s newsworthy, it seems to me, is the fact that some people find these basic and obvious facts new and surprising.

We are living beings. There are other living beings on this planet. They also do their equivalent of eating, shitting and fucking. Stap me, it’s almost as if they were like us. Who’d have thunk it? They’ll be telling us next that things fall to the ground when you let go of them. Thank goodness we have The Science™ to enlighten about all this, because we’d never have figured it out on our own.

We are living beings. There are other living beings on this planet. They are not things, and treating them as things is the kind of barbarism that gave us Treblinka. I do not know what it is like to be a dragonfly, or an oak tree, or a song-thrush. I do, however, know that there is such a thing as being a dragonfly, an oak tree, or a song-thrush. We don’t actually know what it is like, exactly, to be another human being. That’s no excuse for not trying to understand one another.

We are living beings. There are other living beings on this planet. As David Cameron was so fond of insisting, we’re all in this together. We have some vital interests in common. We could start from there when it comes to making policy decisions. Or we could just go along with vested interests, because Studies Show™ that they are always objectively right.

We are living beings. There are other living beings on this planet. Some of them are not that attractive, I grant you, but they have as much right to live here as we do. (Even David Cameron.) Perhaps we could take that fact into consideration when we are deciding if we really need to flood that valley or blast the top off that mountain or build a nuclear power station just there.

We are living beings. There are other living beings on this planet. Maybe, just maybe, their lives matter to them just as much as your life matters to you, or my life matters to me. Maybe the point of the universe is something other than Amazon’s share price. Maybe we could learn something of value if we just shut up and paid attention.

We are living beings. There are other living beings on this planet. Water is wet. No citation needed, thank you very much.

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

On corruption

As to the existence of corruption (it is a villainous word, by the bye we call it persuasion in a tangible shape): as to the existence, then, of persuasion in a tangible shape, we do not wish to deny it ; on the contrary, we have no hesitation in affirming that it is as notorious as the sun at noonday: but as to the inference that it ought to be extinguished, that is the point against which we direct the full fire of our critical artillery ; we maintain that it ought to exist…

Thomas Love Peacock, Melincourt (1817), Ch. XIII, “Desmond”

One of our most treasured beliefs about ourselves is that, as individuals and societies, we are rational. And there’s some truth in this, although a lot less than we like to think. Very few of the decisions we make in life are the result of deep thought. Most of them are simply habit, and most of the rest are driven more by prejudice than analysis. On Planet Economics, that bizarre parallel universe which is supposedly more real than the one we actually inhabit, things are of course different. Everyone is a rational actor, motivated by enlightened self-interest. It’s possible that the world might be a better place if this were so, but it ain’t. People are motivated by self-interest often enough, but “enlightened” is not really the word to describe it.

One of the unlovelier ways in which this truth manifests itself is corruption: the practice of obtaining a decision you want by giving the decision-maker cash or other goodies. This has been going on ever since there were individuals who got to make big important decisions, and it shouldn’t come as a shock to find out that it still goes on. We all know, for example, that large contracts are not always awarded to the ideal bidder. There are many conversations that go something like this:

ARMS SALESMAN: Would you like to buy some jet-fighters for $1bn?

DEFENCE MINISTER: We don’t really need any jet-fighters.

ARMS SALESMAN: Would you like $10m in your Swiss bank account?

DEFENCE MINISTER: Where do I sign?

A sufficiently enlightened defence minister might have saved the money for something that his armed forces actually need, but such people are in the minority.

It is fairly notorious in the UK that government services tend to be outsourced to the same small set of companies, regardless of how often and how spectacularly they cock things up. The mania for outsourcing almost everything is unaffected by this, even though the alleged “value for the taxpayer’s money” is non-existent. I am not going to name names, but most people in the UK could compile their own list without too much difficulty. The magazine Private Eye has been exposing this stuff for years; nothing changes.

At the start of the pandemic, when there was a mad dash to acquire PPE, many companies popped up out of nowhere with no track record or expertise in the delivery of PPE, which nevertheless were awarded contracts to deliver PPE, and which then failed to deliver PPE of the requisite standard (or, in some cases, anything at all). Those companies often seemed to have mysterious links to government ministers – in one case, a contract was famously awarded to the landlord of a pub frequented by the then Secretary of State for Health. None of this, naturally, is going to be investigated. The Treasury is also cheerfully writing off the money lost to fraudulent claims to government support, a figure estimated at a chunky £27bn.

Nor is this sort of thing confined to the public sector. In a previous life I once had a job at an insurance company. A large part of their business was motor insurance, which all drivers in the UK are obliged to have. Many drivers simply renew their existing policy every year, which is great news for insurers because they can charge them more money than they would have to charge new customers (for whom they are competing with other insurance companies). While savvy motorists know this and shop around, enough people either don’t realise it or can’t be bothered to switch that this is a very nice earner.

They wanted to buy an off-the-shelf software package to replace what they were currently using. As is generally the case in big companies, they set up a team to evaluate the package they were thinking of buying before they did so, because it was going to cost them a lot of money. So far, so rational. The team duly reported back that they didn’t recommend the package; for one thing, it didn’t handle renewals. (It was developed by a US company, and apparently in the US motor insurance renewals are not a thing; you have to get a brand-new policy every year.) There were some other big strikes against it too, but that was the biggie. (I wasn’t on the evaluation team, but I got this from someone who was.)

The company bought it anyway.

Now I am not in a position to accuse any specific individual of taking a back-hander in this case, but it’s pretty clear that this decision was not an enlightened one. What is laughingly known as “enterprise software” costs a lot of money. Another organisation I worked for had an agreement to lease a software package for £40,000 a year – this was in the early 1990s, when that was still quite a substantial figure – and never even installed it. The fact that the head of IT went on a jolly in the Caribbean at the software company’s expense had, I am sure, nothing to do with this.

As I say, this sort of thing has been commonplace for a very long time. What has changed, though, is how blatant it has become. It used to be the case, not so long ago, that something like this would be regarded as scandalous. Heads would rolls. People might even do jail time. Back in the day, BAE Systems got into hot water for conducting conversations not unlike the one above with various movers and shakers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Nowadays this is just how business is done. The government does it, the private sector does it – or at least those companies who engage in big-money contracts. And nobody seems to feel the slightest embarrassment about it. We used to suppose we were above that sort of thing; it was the difference between respectable countries and tin-pot third-world dictatorships. I’m sure it still went on, of course, but at least it was done discreetly.

When I was at school, we studied the history of the Third Republic in France (1870-1940), which was largely presented as an object lesson in how not to run a country. Indeed, the Wikipedia article is mostly a list of scandals. A phrase that sticks in my memory from the textbook we used was that many national newspapers in France “could notoriously be bought over the counter like so many pounds of cheese.” By implication, we were supposed to think that this was obviously much worse than having a quiet word with the editor of the Times at one’s club, which was how the British were doing these things at the time. These days it seems to be the newspapers doing the buying, not that it’s any improvement.

Ultimately, the problem with normalising corruption is that it undermines the moral authority of the status quo. There was a time when at least some of those in positions of power were people of good will who were at least trying to do the right thing. That no longer obtains, and it is seen not to obtain. Cynics always claim to be realists: when they actually are, something has to change.

I have written elsewhere about the importance of accountability. When the powerful refuse to be accountable for their actions, they are likely to have accountability thrust upon them, and that can get very ugly.

Joseph Foullon de Doué finds out the hard way that people don’t like him very much,

If those at the top of the pile don’t change their ways – and there seems no reason to suppose they will – scenes like this are going to occur. I don’t want to see them, but it seems inevitable. Maybe that’s what needs to happen to clean up public life, at least to a tolerable level. If this becomes the price of corruption, choosing the honest path will at least be the rational decision once again.

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

On domestication

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

George Orwell, Animal Farm

If you read any history of the beginnings of agriculture – and if you haven’t yet, I recommend that you do; Colin Tudge and James C. Scott are names to look out for – you will soon come across the idea of domestication. Simply put, a domesticated plant or animal is one that relies more or less on human beings for its survival.

Wheat, for example, wouldn’t last long without our help. It’s a variety of grass that is largely unable to reproduce, because we have bred out the ability of the seed-heads to break open naturally (that’s what threshing is for). Likewise our modern breeds of dairy cattle are unable to sustain themselves on natural foods, because we have selected for animals whose metabolism is directed at milk production rather than at sustaining the cow herself. This is why they tend to look as if they are starving to death, because in reality they are; without artificial concentrated feeds they would die.

Of course there are “domesticated” animals that retain the ability to survive independently. While some dogs have been bred to have hideous deformities that some people apparently find aesthetically pleasing – for example, the King Charles spaniel, whose skull is sometimes too small to contain its brain – the average mutt can usually fend for itself, especially once it finds some other mutts to make a pack. When I was a kid, most dogs on the street seemed to be living that way.

Cats are even more independent. It is usually said to have been the ancient Egyptians who were first domesticated by cats; they worshipped cats as avatars of the goddess Bastet, and that’s pretty much the way modern cats still seem to think it should work. Even so, we have managed to produce breeds of cat like the hairless Sphynx (oh, the irony of that name) which would struggle to survive in the wild.

There are studies that appear to show that domesticated animals tend to have smaller brains than their wild counterparts – even, for example, in the case of farmed salmon. Some of this is to do with removing the bits that deal with fleeing predators, since (1) we take care of that for them and (2) in the end we are the predators and we want them to be reasonably co-operative.

All of this makes me wonder how much this is equally applicable to the average citizen of an industrialised civilisation. After all, if all you know about drinking-water is that it comes out of the tap, and all you know about food is that you get it from the supermarket, how well-equipped will you be for survival when those things are taken away from you?

The cynical part of me – and if you’ve read this blog before, it won’t surprise you to learn that I have one – thinks that this suits our elites just fine. After all, if we can’t survive outside the world that has been built for us, they needn’t chain us to it. We just have to put up with it, the same way that battery chickens do. And if they dumb us down sufficiently, the idea of running away won’t even occur to us.

The people whom we dismissively term “hunter-gatherers” have got all that stuff down, because they have to. They may only know how to answer those questions within a limited area, but boy can they answer them. This is the result of collective knowledge handed down over generations, or what might otherwise be called tradition. (Indeed, that is the literal meaning of the Latin word traditio, “handing over.”)

Once upon a time someone ate one of those mushrooms, and they turned blue and keeled over, so we don’t eat those mushrooms. That’s the kind of thing you really need to know, because those other mushrooms are really good to eat. And so on. Anthropologists researching indigenous peoples routinely report that they can identify huge numbers of plant and other species in their environment, because of course they can. When you think about it, it’s no more remarkable than being able to read a train timetable is for us.

It’s been said that if you were to transport a Kalahari bushman to Piccadilly he wouldn’t last twenty minutes. But by the same token, if you were to transport the average denizen of Piccadilly to the Kalahari, neither would they. It’s a question of tradition, and of adequate education within that tradition.

It seems to me that the traditions of industrial civilisation within which we are all brought up are going to prove woefully inadequate to cope with what the future holds for us. We are already seeing food shortages, water shortages, fuel and energy prices which are increasingly out of reach for many people. The time is coming when more and more of us are going to have to fall back on what economists like to call primary production, or what we used to call Nature back when that was still a respectable term.

This is not to say that you are going to wake up one morning in the middle of the jungle with nothing but a machete and a rumbling stomach. You are, however, going to wake up one morning quite soon with a rumbling stomach and no access to whatever foodstuffs might still be stocked by our local supermarket. You may find one day that you turn on the tap and nothing happens. Is there a reliable source of potable water within walking distance of where you live? Who can you rely on to help in an emergency? What skills or other goods to you have to offer to someone else who has what you need? Do you even know who those people are or what they want?

The good news is that rescued battery chickens can usually adapt well to life in a more natural environment, and if a chicken can figure it out there must be hope for the rest if us. But we have rather more complex needs than a chicken does. It behoves us all to skill up, to the extent that we can, and above all to help one another through this mess. That may sound like Communism to you, but to me it just seems like common sense. Not that there’s too much of that about at the moment.

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

On borders

Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one—they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires.

George Packer

I was moved to write this post by an article in the Guardian newspaper entitled: “The big idea: do nations really need borders?” As those familiar with Betteridge’s Law might have predicted, the article argues that they do not. If the article had had comments enabled, I would have written this piece as a comment; since the Guardian apparently isn’t interested in my (or your) opinion, I shall have to say my piece here. Feel free, by the way, to go and read the original article first; I’m happy to wait.

Living without borders sounds great. The reality is, it doesn’t work, and the reason it doesn’t work is to do with people’s relationship to the land. People who consciously have such a relationship would never even entertain such a notion, which says a lot about the kind of people who write for the Guardian, and by extension a lot of the people who read it.

(Incidentally, I don’t single out the Guardian because it is the worst offender in this area. Indeed, I read it, and have done for years, because it is one of the few mainstream newspapers in the UK that still occasionally does journalism. I would even recommend it, with the the one caveat that you need to be aware of its biases; but there are no news outlets without bias these days, and at least with the Guardian you know what they are and can correct for them.)

The article starts by considering the predicament of the atoll nation of Tuvalu. As climate change proceeds – and, as the article tacitly admits, it will proceed – the attendant rise in sea-level will result in Tuvalu disappearing from the map, other than as a hazard to shipping. It will not come as a surprise to you, dear reader, that the people of Tuvalu are not very happy about this outcome, and it’s hard not to sympathise with them, in as much as Tuvalu has never done much in the way of coal-mining, oil-drilling or heavy industry.

So given that it sucks to be an inhabitant of Tuvalu, unless you happen to own a boat or be an exceptionally strong swimmer, you would need a heart of stone, and/or a commitment to neo-liberal economics, not to want to give them a helping hand. It is on this basis that, per the article, the Foreign Minister of Tuvalu, one Simon Kofe, is asking the world to recognise the concept of climate mobility.

Now I am not sure that climate mobility means anything more than the tendency of people to want to go and live somewhere less underwater than Tuvalu is soon going to be, and again I think it’s hard to want to deny that to our fellow-creatures. But it’s a stretch to go from that to the general principle that anyone should be able to go and live anywhere at any time, which is what the idea of a world entirely without borders implies.

Given physics, it is obvious that a lot of people are going to want to invoke the principle of climate mobility. Indeed many people have already voted with their feet and/or rubber dinghies, and you can’t blame them. If I could no longer feed my family because of a multi-year drought, you can bet your bottom dollar I’d be taking them elsewhere, by any means necessary.

But calling this “climate mobility” is merely a euphemism. Because refugees have a bad name these days, it is expedient to pretend that this group of refugees is somehow to be distinguished from those other refugees over there, who are bad. And I can understand why you would want to do that. If I were the Foreign Minister of Tuvalu, I might well try it on myself. Again, I am not judging the poor souls who are at the sharp end of all this.

I have had occasion to cross international borders in my time, as you may have done yourself, dear reader. There is no doubt that it is a pain in the rear, especially if your passport is from a nation deficient in “border privilege.” However, there are many things that are a pain in the rear but nevertheless necessary and worthwhile, so let us see why the article thinks that national borders are not amongst these.

It is claimed in the article that national borders were not really a thing before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. To me this looks like a fairly blatant sleight-of-hand. It is the conventional wisdom that the Treaty of Westphalia is the founding document for the idea of the nation-state. Be that as it may, it is not the founding document for the idea of borders. That idea goes back much, much further.

Many creatures have territories. This is a commonplace of biology. Anyone who has ever heard birdsong is a witness to this. (It may well be that the author of the Guardian piece has never heard birdsong, which might explain a lot.) Our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, also displays territorial behaviour. It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that we do it too.

Your territory determines what you get. For the most part, what we are talking about here is food and other necessities. It may be, as the article suggests, that settled agrarian societies tend to be more anal about this sort of thing than nomadic ones, but the difference is one of degree, not kind. Hunter-gatherer societies depend on knowing a specific patch very intimately, and they don’t wander about it at random. On the contrary, they go where they know the food is at a particular time, based on long years of experience. If someone comes along and forces them off that patch, it’s a crisis, because all that knowledge may need to be re-learned, in an environment where mistakes are liable to be fatal. Similarly, nomadic herders go where the grazing is in a given season. If someone else infringes on their grazing rights to some particular area, there will be trouble.

It might come as a great surprise to the author of the Guardian article to know that legal questions of exactly who could do exactly what in exactly what geographical area were the bread and butter of European law-courts for centuries before 1648. And this is necessarily so. If you are a peasant farmer in mediaeval Europe, it is not a small matter whether you can or cannot put your pigs to forage in a particular wood, or take fish from a particular stream. This is the difference between eating and starving. It’s just as much a life-and-death relationship as that between the people of Tuvalu and the level of the Pacific Ocean.

The particular example of a borderless nation which the article wishes to celebrate is that of Sápmi, the region of Scandinavia inhabited by the Sami, whom the article proudly terms “northern Europe’s last remaining indigenous people,” as if they were a museum exhibit. Well, that works okay as long as you are the only people interested in reindeer. If Elon Musk ever invents a car powered by reindeer antlers, I strongly suspect that Sápmi will soon cease to enjoy anything even vaguely resembling independence.

If history tells us anything, it is that indigenous people who have the misfortune to occupy land containing wealth that is coveted by our civilisation are either shunted aside or simply butchered in place. The Spanish conquistadors demonstrated that principle clearly enough when they occupied the gold- and silver-rich lands of central and southern America, but the fact that nowadays we are more interested in lithium has brought similar sorrows to the indigenous peoples of northern Argentina.

But there’s more to this than economics. A nation is not an arbitrary geographical area, even if the colonial powers divvying up Africa tried their best to make it look like that on the map. It is ultimately about the difference between one place and another, between one group of people and another, about the stories they tell, the songs they sing, the way they dress, the things they find funny or beautiful or sexy. It may be fashionable to pretend that these differences do not exist, but the tourist industry is powerful evidence to the contrary. There is, it turns out, an appreciable difference between Cleethorpes and Cancún, and you will find more of the world’s wealthy at one of them than the other.

It seems that you aren’t really supposed to invoke the notion of culture any more, but that is a huge part of what we are talking about. I’m going to look at this in terms of food, partly because I’m mildly obsessed with food but also because it’s something we all have in common. (Well, there may be some tech billionaires who subsist on an intravenous drip of Soylent Green, but those people aren’t really my target readership.)

What do you like to eat? If you are only interested in the kind of food available pretty much everywhere in the world, then I guess you don’t care which country you’re eating it in. (I also suspect you have type 2 diabetes, but hey, I’m not judging you.) But I’d like to think there’s at least one food you love that connects you to where you’re from, whether that food is cheese or fermented fish or grilled crickets or horse-meat – and I guarantee you that there are people somewhere who would rather starve to death than eat that food. And that’s completely fine.

According to my passport, I am a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, wherever the hell that is. I’ve never even been to Northern Ireland. I grew up in England, a place so bereft of cultural identity it doesn’t even have a national costume. But I can tell you that I’ve yet to eat a proper black pudding that was made outside Staffordshire.

If you want to live in a world without borders, you are ultimately asking to live in a world without difference, a world in which everyone consumes the same beige and inoffensive products marketed to them by the same handful of global mega-corporations – except, of course, for the fortunate few who will be holidaying in Cancún and enjoying the authentic local cuisine. Give me passport control any day of the week.

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

On accountability

It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one’s acts.

Mahatma Gandhi

I would go further than the Mahatma: it is impossible to escape the consequences of one’s acts. But this is is of course not the received wisdom amongst our elites. Of course one can escape the consequences of one’s acts. If you drive a business you are running into the ground, that’s a golden handshake for you. If you are a government minister whose policies are catastrophic for the country, that’s a string of lucrative non-executive directorships for you, and probably a seat in the House of Lords if you are in the UK. (That’s £313 a day just for turning up – $379.48 US at today’s exchange rate.)

There is a depressing video on YouTube discussing the number of bankers who have gone to prison for the numerous corporate crimes of which the banks are clearly guilty. Spoiler alert: that number is very, very small. The entire 2008 global financial crisis ended with one banker in the US doing jail time. One. One. One. Let me spell that out for you:

That’s one. O-N-E.

That banker’s name, incidentally, was Kareem Serageldin, and you’ve never heard of him because he was a very, very minor player. The real villains of the story got a slap on the wrist, if they got any punishment at all. To take one example from the UK, Fred “the Shred” Goodwin, who was instrumental in the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, lost his knighthood and suffered a reduction in his pension to a mere £342,500 a year (that’s $415,247.00 US at today’s exchange rates, without allowing for inflation). I don’t suppose Fred Goodwin slept under a railway bridge last night.

The sad thing is that this is completely unsurprising. If you are in the charmed circle, nothing bad will ever happen to you. It doesn’t matter what laws you break, which taxes you fail to pay, how many of the little people you abuse in whatever way takes your fancy. Fifty years ago, it was considered scandalous in the UK when Marcia Williams was given a peerage, supposedly for her work as Prime Minister Harold Wilson‘s personal secretary, but as was generally understood as a gift from him to his long-standing mistress. Nowadays something like that wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.

I am not going to get into the metaphysics of whether any of these people are going to suffer repercussions in a future life. What worries me is what repercussions they may suffer in this one, and more to the point, under what circumstances.

Yep, due process definitely observed here, nothing to see, move along…

What we seem to be seeing now in many Western nations, certainly in both the UK and as far as I can judge the USA, is a process of testing the political order to destruction. It’s almost as if the space lizards are running a book on how far they can push people before it all kicks off. I am not at all sure they can push it much further before many industrialised nations start going full Sri Lanka.

Justice is undoubtedly called for, but justice without mercy is not much of an improvement. In an environment in which any person or group can arbitrarily be designated enemies of the people, nobody is safe. Heaven knows I hold no brief for the current crop of idiots who are supposedly running my country, but I don’t want to replace them with Robespierre either.

Accountability and power should be fundamentally connected. If I am not accountable to you, there is no reason why you should grant me any power over you. Indeed, there is every reason why you should not. My accountability to you if the only guarantee you have, or could possibly have, that I will use that power in your interest. Without that, the whole edifice of “democratic” politics collapses, as indeed we are already seeing around the world.

The solution, if there is one, is to concentrate as much power as possible locally. If the people making the decisions have to live with the consequences of those decisions, they are likely to make better decisions. If you are living immediately downstream of a dam, you aren’t going to choose to skimp on maintenance. If you live in an area with low rainfall, you aren’t going to approve a project that will require 2m litres of water daily when you need that water for things like agriculture. (That’s rather more than half a million gallons a day, for those of you who are used to US measures.) If you depend on fishing for your livelihood, you will think twice before you deplete fish stocks below the point where they can recover. And so on.

There may not be a way to get to this point that doesn’t involve people’s heads being displayed on pikes. I don’t want that to happen, even for people who richly deserve it (and we can all name a few of those). If the space lizards are reading this, devolution of power is the way to go if they want to avoid that outcome. But even if they are, I don’t suppose they’ll choose that road. Because where is the billionaire who can say no to another dollar? Especially when it’s tax-free.

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

On political authority

There are no governors anywhere.

Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, The Illuminatus! Trilogy

We live in an age of problems, or more precisely, of predicaments: that is to say, issues that have no actual solutions, and which can at best be mitigated. To a greater or lesser extent, this has always been so for all human societies, but right now the outlook for industrial civilisation is depressing on many sides. There are shortages of fuels, of minerals of many kinds, of food, of water. Non-human life on Earth is under pressure on all fronts, due to climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, and general encroachment by human beings. It’s not going too well for a lot of human beings either, to judge from the upheavals across the world from Sri Lanka to Panama to Malaysia to the Netherlands and goodness knows where else.

It is natural to conclude from this that the people who are supposed to be in charge are not doing so great a job of it as they would have us believe. Certainly there is not much to be seen in the way of decisive action; so far as I can tell, the only thing the US Federal Government can manage to do is to throw even huger sums of money at their military. And yet if there is one thing agreed on by pretty much everyone, it is that Something Must Be Done.

Now, as H.L. Mencken pointed out a century ago, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” In the political sphere, one these well-known solutions has always been the Strong Man. (It usually is a man, incidentally, although why this should be is another conversation.) The Strong Man knows what the problem is, and more to the point he knows who is to blame. He achieves national unity in two ways: on the positive side he enrols the mass of the population into his vision, and on the negative side he disposes of those who object to it.

We don’t need to invoke Godwin’s Law to find numerous examples of this, not only in history but at the present day. But the classic Strong Man with his blaring propaganda machine and his apparatus of violent repression is just one end of the spectrum. All governments try to play the same game to some extent. In the Western democracies, there is no overt state censorship of the media, for example, but there is a lot of effort put into managing the Overton window.

Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges. Your scholars are free in the legal sense, but they are hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Harvard Commencement Address, delivered 8th June 1978.

It is not illegal for me to write this blog, but you won’t find much discussion of many of these issues in the mainstream media, and what there is mostly tries to wave them away, as for example in this NY Times article.

Again, those who criticise – or worse, embarrass – the powers that be may not all be found mysteriously dead in woodland, but they may find themselves on the wrong end of legislation purportedly directed against terrorists, as David Miranda found to his cost, to cite just one example. There is no doubt that much of this legislation is drafted so that it can be used for repressive purposes if necessary. Part of the beef the authorities had with Mr Miranda, as with his partner Glenn Greenwald, was his exposure of the surveillance apparatus available to the state precisely to monitor people like him. And you can be sure that the definition of “people like him” is quite elastic enough to include anyone the government du jour happens to dislike.

These same governments frequently accuse other governments of following the Strong Man model. The usual derogatory term is “populism.” A populist, so far as I can determine, is someone you don’t like who wins an election, or sometimes just appears likely to win an election. The poster-child for this phenomenon was Donald J. Trump, who became President of the USA despite the unanimous disapproval of the Great and the Good. Now I am no partisan of Mr Trump; but it seems to me that a political system which generates a list of candidates for high office all of whom are unfit for it is in trouble whoever wins. (As I write this, we are enjoying exactly the same thing in the UK with the ongoing elections for the leadership of the Conservative Party, which happens also to be for the leadership of the country.)

Anyone who governs must rely on the consent of the governed. This consent may be merely passive, in that the mass of the population isn’t taking to the streets to protest. Recently that seems to be the best that most governments have been able to hope for. At the last general election in the UK in 2019, for example, the winning party got 43.6% of the popular vote, which was considered exceptionally high. This is not the ringing endorsement you might imagine from the size of the government’s majority in the House of Commons, and since then the government’s popularity ratings have dropped like a rock.

Are the West’s political systems capable of offering a useful alternative to business as usual? The answer would seem to be no. Now and again the deck is reshuffled, but the result always seems to be a more or less interchangeable lineup of nonentities in suits, spouting the same old guff without ever changing anything much. There is an old saying involving deckchairs and RMS Titanic that comes to mind.

It seems likely that many, perhaps most, industrialised nations will end up resorting to some version of the Strong Man. Some already have, although we can argue about which ones. And it could most definitely happen here, despite what people fondly imagine. As recently as the 1970s, there were certainly rumours of attempts to remove the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and install a more authoritarian regime. And the waters the UK will have to navigate in the next few decades will make the 1970s look like a millpond.

This is not a prospect I look forward to with much joy. I don’t think it is a phase that will last forever, partly because nothing does, and partly because an elaborate system of political repression is quite resource-intensive and future regimes will struggle to sustain it. But that is likely to be cold comfort for those who have to live through it.

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

On being disconnected from reality

Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

One of the things that makes human beings as adaptable as they are – and therefore so numerous and widespread – is our ability to ignore inconvenient facts. When I was at school, I remember doing an experiment to demonstrate that woodlice are light-averse: put some woodlice under a petri dish, half of which is blacked out, and lo! they go to the blacked-out side. I never saw a single woodlouse don a tiny pair of sunglasses or put a knotted hanky on its head. They all made for the safety of the darkness.

Human beings are not like this. Human beings will fake it until they make it (or don’t make it, like the Vikings in Greenland). Consider how the British settled Australia. They paid no heed to they way the people who already lived there carried on their lives; instead, they decided to treat the place as if it were Surrey, importing sheep and cattle (and rabbits) as well as wheat and other crops that were familiar to them. The result has been a system of agriculture that is almost comically unsuited to its environment. It’s not a coincidence that Australia was the birthplace of the permaculture movement, due to the obvious need to devise a system of food production that might actually work.

Well. I say obvious. but very few things are so obvious that someone who is determined to ignore them will not be able to do so. I’ve spoken before about the film Don’t Look Up, but it is starting to look like a documentary. This is an actual clip from a UK daily news programme, à propos of the expected record-breaking temperatures. As I write this it hasn’t actually happened, but the UK Met Office is not known for its scaremongering tendencies, and they are forecasting maximum temperatures of 40°C (104°F) in London and the south-east of England.

40°C would be considered hot in many places. In England, it will cause mayhem. Nobody has air-conditioning in their home, for one thing. There are already warnings from the rail companies that there will be speed restrictions due to the risk of buckling tracks, and roads have been known to melt in lower temperatures than that. The meteorologist in in that clip is quite right to predict that people will die. There’s been precious little in the way of government advice as to how people should cope.

London in particular is going to be horrible, thanks to the heat island effect. I used to live there – no longer, thank goodness – and it was bad enough in a normal summer. The Underground will be unusable. And yet everyone expects business as usual to carry on regardless.

And this is because, like the news anchor in the clip, we want to feel happy about the weather. In the UK we are conditioned from a young age to equate sunshine with “good weather.” When the sun shines, you go to the seaside. We have very little experience of sunshine killing people, but this is what is going to happen.

It’s a very human thing, this ability to disregard the inconvenient. Without it, a balding subspecies of chimpanzee would never have managed to colonise the world from Siberia to Indonesia to Patagonia. But it’s a two-edged sword.

When your hands are full just getting through the day – which describes most of us – you really don’t want to have to deal with this reality stuff. If you’re living from the supermarket and/or the food bank – and you will be, given that you don’t have the time or energy to cook from scratch, let alone the time or energy (or land) to grow your own food – you really, really want to feel good about battery-farmed chicken. After all, that’s what you’re probably going to be eating.

As I write this, Tesco (a leading British supermarket) is offering what they describe as a “British Whole Medium Chicken” for the princely sum of £3.75, or £2.78/kg. I have raised my own meat chickens – and yes, that included killing and processing them. It is not possible to raise a decent chicken for £3.75. But apparently you can put a specimen of Gallus domesticus in a shed, feed it rubbish, slaughter it with methods that would have embarrassed the staff at Auschwitz, wrap it in plastic and truck it to a supermarket for £3.75 and still show a profit. Knowing what I know, it is very difficult to be happy about that.

It’s not so long ago that chicken and pork were luxury meats, compared to beef and mutton. (When the valuable output of a sheep was its wool, it would be foolish to eat lamb. Hence the prevalence of castrated male sheep (wethers) back then.) When I was growing up, we might have a roast chicken for Sunday lunch as a treat, but that wouldn’t be the last we saw of that chicken, even in a family of five. Today, people apparently buy whole chickens, cut off the breasts and bin the rest, a practice that would make my mother spin in her grave if she were dead.

The title of the film Don’t Look Up is brilliantly chosen. Who can spare the time to look up from what is right in front of them? Who is doing more than getting by, if indeed they are getting by, even if they are working two or three jobs? You already have enough to deal with, right?

You do. Of course you do. I completely get that. This is an incredibly inconvenient moment for the Titanic to strike the iceberg (not that there could be a convenient moment, exactly). The fact remains that in such a moment there are people who find themselves a lifeboat and people who drown. I don’t feel happy about that, and I don’t expect you to feel happy about it either. But in the immortal words of Boris Johnson, them’s the breaks.

There will be people who feel happy about 40°C in London, although I doubt that many of those people will be using the Underground. There will be many more people who prefer not to think about it. I can’t find it in my heart to blame those people. But then…

The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.

Arundhati Roy

I’ve seen it. If you haven’t seen it, by all means keep your eyes closed if you can’t handle the truth. I’m not judging you. Sometimes I wish I could unsee it myself.

To quote Theodore Roosevelt – not someone I normally look to for inspiration: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Nobody can ask more of you than that. And at least you’ll be able to sleep at night.

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

On excess

Too much of a good thing is wonderful.

Mae West

Context is a wonderful thing. Mae West was speaking in the context of the Hays Code, Prohibition, and the general backlash against freedom of expression of all kinds, but especially those involving sex, alcohol and recreational drugs. It was in the same context that H. L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “[t]he haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” I am not, I think, alone in detecting similar tendencies in our own time.

And yet the line still has to be drawn somewhere. We live in an age of ludicrous excess. There is a widespread disbelief in the existence of limits, with the result that many people push a good thing too far – whether that be weight loss, cosmetic surgery, tattooing, or even driving fast. We see this trend even in a body so far removed from the zeitgeist as the British Conservative Party, whose leader has lately been trying to see how long it is possible to carry on as Prime Minister well past the point at which all of his predecessors have thrown in the towel. (At the time of writing he has notionally resigned but is still in office.)

As the gap between rich and poor widens ever more drastically, the purchase by someone or other of a cask of whisky for £16 million (that’s well over US$19 million at today’s exchange rate) barely rates a filler paragraph in the newspaper. I like a dram as much as the next person, but that strikes me as a ludicrous amount of money. According to the article, and I have no reason to doubt it, the distillery that made it changed hands for less than half of that in 1997, in a deal that included all of its stock.

The extravagance of the rich and clueless has become a major spectator sport. A vast amount of space on social media, if something so vacuous can be said to occupy space, is given over to it. Of course this sort of thing has happened before; the extravagance of some of the Roman emperors, even if exaggerated by their enemies, was pretty staggering. But in their case they had competent people actually running things while they were tucking into flamingo brains. I am not at all sure we still do.

But even amongst those of us who are not buying gold-plated Lamborghinis the tendency to go too far is everywhere. At least in the UK, contemporary drinking culture has become focussed on getting as drunk as possible as quickly as possible. When I was young and foolish, I would go out on the weekend and get drunk, but getting drunk wasn’t the main purpose of the evening, as it now seems to have become. Of course there is an element of desperation to this, as there was back in the eighteenth century when gin was known as “the quickest way out of Manchester.”

Fashion seems to be going the same way, though. Now fashion has always had an element of the ridiculous about it; the serious fashionista risks looking like a prat, and that bravado is part of the appeal for some people. These days, though, it extends to surgical procedures. The late Pete Burns was an early adopter of this, but it doesn’t seem to have put people off. There is a very successful TV series in which two cosmetic surgeons either attempt to fix previous surgeries or try to talk people out of having even more extreme things done to them. This series has been running since 2014.

Where cosmetic surgery differs from regular fashion is that it is so inflexible. If you are wearing a stupid hat, it is the work of a moment to replace it with a less stupid hat. If you have had your breasts augmented to be the size of basketballs then you have a problem when a smaller bust becomes the thing (as it did in the 1920s, for instance). Even if that doesn’t happen, you have problems in any case, because human bodies can’t really cope with such things.

All of this would be mere froth if it didn’t point to a wider issue with our collective psyche (and by “our” I mean the inmates of industrial civilisation). That issue, it seems to me, is a pathological disregard for limits of all kinds. “To infinity, and beyond!” is our motto, however fatuous that is, and we must all admire the Emperor’s new clothes, not least because they’re new.

I would be less bothered by this if it was confined to body piercings and wallpaper at £840 a roll (that’s over US$1,000). Unfortunately we think it applies to the laws of physics as well. Once upon a time, a campaign group was founded with the goal of restricting atmospheric CO2 levels to 350 ppm; we have now reached 419 ppm with no sign of slowing down much, even given the dip in emissions associated with the Covid-19 lockdowns. Again, there was much trumpeting of the alleged international agreement to limit global temperature rise to an extra 2° C compared to pre-industrial levels. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how well that’s going.

Limits, schmimits. It’s not as if we don’t know what causes all this. We’ve known in some detail what this trajectory looks like since 1972. But we’re special. None of this applies to us.

Oops! Maybe speed limits are a good idea after all?

Until it does, of course.

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