On the sacred

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet”

As this post comes out, we up here in the northern hemisphere will have had our longest day of the year: the summer solstice. This blog began on the autumn equinox; we likewise marked the winter solstice (although the spring solstice got hijacked by World Water Day). You might be wondering why a blog whose themes are ostensibly social criticism and political economy is interested in these events. This is my attempt to frame an answer to that question .

There is a great void at the heart of industrial civilisation, and that is the sacred. It is a category of experience that is central to all human cultures, and yet with us it finds no expression. Our established religions have lost touch with it, and our material practices have no space for it. You will often hear a person say: “Oh, I’m not religious, but I am spiritual,” but they can rarely tell you what they mean by that – except that they need the sacred in their lives.

For industrial capitalism, nothing is or can be sacred. Its view of the world is robustly materialistic. There is stuff to be consumed, there is other stuff that gets in the way of consuming the first kind of stuff, and that’s about it. To you, the Appalachians may seem picturesque; to a mining engineer, they’re overburden.

Time to crack open the explosives, boys; there’s coal in them thar hills!

Trying to articulate exactly why this approach to the world is wrong – and it is wrong – is a challenge, because everything we learn from infancy tells us that this is the only way, and that everything else is mere sentimentality. One can bring practical arguments to bear, and some of these are starting to get grudging traction, but somehow they fail to get to the heart of the issue.

There may be some practical drawbacks to this approach to the natural world.

It seems to me that the sense of the sacred is the sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves. This need not involve the supernatural. We are, after all, members of the community of living beings on this planet. We are as much a part of nature as a tree or a dolphin or an eagle. As such, we have a part to play.

Intuitively, we recognise this when we find ourselves in a natural landscape. One does not need to have spent an idyllic childhood tripping barefoot through daisy-strewn meadows to experience this. I grew up in the English Black Country, a part of the world that industrial capitalism had been systematically ravaging for a long, long time. This landscape was a large part of Tolkien’s inspiration for Mordor, and I had no problem relating to it when I came to read The Lord of the Rings. Give me a wild green space any day of the week.

We like to imagine that ours is the leading role in the community of life, but the reality is that no such role exists, even though we are strangely desperate to pretend there is. You often hear of the time when “dinosaurs ruled the earth” – dinosaurs just lived here, the same as everything else. There were a lot of them about, and they filled a lot of ecological niches, but that’s it. No legislation was passed, no sway was exercised. We project our own supposed world-dominance back onto them, as if they were some sort of trial run for us. It’s utter nonsense.

Multiple studies have shown that time spent in a natural environment is beneficial to people’s physical and mental well-being. Mostly, in my opinion, what these studies show is that too much grant money goes on demonstrating the patently obvious. Human beings did not evolve to live the way they are made to live in urban industrial society; I’ll be expanding on this theme in a future post, but for now suffice it to say we are fish out of water.

We need this experience of belonging on our planet. We need it at a basic instinctual level, just as we need to breathe air. And to get it, we need to give up on this idea that we are separate from, better than, and somehow more valuable than everyone else in our natural community. We need some basic humility, some compassion, and the readiness to acknowledge the existence of something greater than ourselves which we cannot – and need not – control.

People were certainly aware of the movements of the sun and the moon a long time before we have written records, and the written records themselves go back almost to the beginning of writing. For a farmer, awareness of the seasons is obviously vital, but the same goes for most hunter-gatherers too, and of course for many, many other species.

Marking the quarters of the year is a simple way of reminding ourselves that we are small, limited and vulnerable. It need not interfere with the practices and rules of any organised religion, although those are more elastic in practice than we sometimes think.

These people are good Catholics, celebrating the feast of San Juan. Nothing pagan going on here, no sireee.

When we situate ourselves as members of the community of living things, rather than as overlords of it, the world looks rather different. How you react to that is going to vary from one person to another. There are some people who can’t cope with being somewhere that doesn’t have a WiFi signal. To others, it will already be closely aligned to their existing viewpoint. Others still will find it confronting. After all, it flies in the face of so much we have been taught to believe is true. If your job is to blow the tops off the Appalachians, or something similar – and so many jobs contain at least an element of that – you will find it very hard to stand there.

Nevertheless it seems to me that this is the only place to stand. From this perspective one can see what needs to be done, and just as importantly what needs to be given up. It is a point of view which the built environment tends to obscure; so many of us live in surroundings where everything we see was either made by a human being or put there by a human being, where we can’t even see the stars at night.

The stars are still shining down, however, even if we don’t see them. Take some time to look at them, and be still, and breathe. Remember who you are – and who you aren’t. This may involve some kind of spiritual practice for you, or it may not. For my part, an hour in a wood where the birds are singing will do it. Try it. I think you’ll find a lot of things will make more sense.

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

On blame

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.

Terry Pratchett, Jingo

Blame is a response to adversity which is reasonable up to a point, but only up to a point. If I were to hit your mother over the head with an axe, you would be completely justified in blaming me for her demise. In that sense, the entire criminal justice system is about apportioning blame for the bad things that people do. But there are many bad situations which are not simply the fault of one person, or of a particular group of people, and in those cases blame is unhelpful and indeed counter-productive.

In itself, blame is never the solution to your problem. Even in the case where I attacked your mother, the problem is that there is an axe-murderer on the loose, and the solution is to lock me up before I attack someone else. It may turn out to be helpful if you finger me at an identity parade, but it is isn’t the solution in itself. (It may not even be necessary if my fingerprints are on the axe, for instance.)

But of course blame is always a temptation whenever things go wrong. Which of us doesn’t enjoy the occasional blast of righteous anger? I know I do. Social media are notoriously awash with the stuff. I suspect there are multiple reasons for this: the platforms themselves benefit, of course, and we should never forget that these are commercial organisations who trade in your attention; it may also be true, as John Michael Greer suggests that “hate is the new sex” – public anger is taboo-breaking; but there’s also another reason why it’s so prevalent in our current culture.

Quite simply, if blame is a response to things going wrong, there will more of it flung around when a lot of things are going wrong all at once. Increasing numbers of people are becoming aware of at least some of these; blissful ignorance is difficult to maintain in the presence of ever more intrusive problems. There are not many places you can look these days and not see at least one serious issue.

We’ve been here before, of course. At the height of the Black Death, the flagellants rather publicly blamed themselves and their sinfulness for what they saw as God’s righteous anger. Nero blamed the Christians for the outbreak of the Great Fire of Rome; subsequently the Christians blamed the Jews for pretty much everything. Lots of people felt better about things, but the Black Death kept on killing people, Rome kept catching fire, and things still went wrong in mediaeval Europe.

Blame, in other words, is a diversion. It is a natural response to feeling overwhelmed by what is happening around us; if may even be a necessary one, if you subscribe to the Kübler-Ross model of grief; but it is not in itself going to fix anything. Every revolution sees the heads of the oppressors paraded on pikes, and every revolution is succeeded by another oppression, often worse than what preceded it.

People sometimes use blame as an excuse for inaction. After all, if (say) climate change is all the fault of the big oil companies, then that lets you off the hook, unless you happen to be the CEO of Exxon-Mobil. Conspiracy theories are simply a more extreme version of this. If it’s all down to the evil space lizards, well, what can you do?

What is useful about blame, however, is the energy it gives us. As William Blake said: “Damn, braces: Bless relaxes.” Many of the problems we face collectively today do not admit of a solution, but at least some of the problems we face individually can be addressed by our own actions. Often this requires hard work on our part: growing your own vegetables, for instance, is going to involve a fair amount of physical labour. But pushing a wheelbarrow full of manure is a lot easier if you can tell yourself that by doing so you’re really sticking it to The Man.

And of course in many ways you are. One of the more insidious features of our culture is that it encourages individual passivity while pretending to do the opposite. Want to reduce your consumption of natural resources? Buy our product! Want to do – well, pretty much anything? Buy our product! And if you do buy their product, suddenly you’re even more deeply entangled in the whole mess of industrial civilisation and jobs and all the rest of it. It’s like a spider’s web: the harder you struggle to get out, the more stuck you get.

Blaming yourself can be a trap. Naturally you bear some share of the responsibility for where we all are, although probably not as much as you think. Most of what happens is the consequence of a vast number of mostly very small decisions, some of them made by you, and largely in good faith. Most people, most of the time, are just doing their best. Blaming yourself is no more appropriate than blaming anyone else, because no single person is wholly responsible for the outcome.

But attributing blame is attributing agency, and just as power brings responsibility, so too does responsibility bring power. You have no control over Exxon-Mobil – I don’t think any one person does have control over Exxon-Mobil, to the extent that they could stop it doing what it does – but you can choose to drive less, or to drive a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Not only will that make you feel better about yourself (and save you money), but if enough people start to make those choices then Big Oil is going to feel it.

As Gauguin said: “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.” Sometimes, though, the most obvious form of revenge is not the most effective. Where commercial organisations are concerned, the best way is to stop giving them your money. I have successfully resisted the temptation to send Bill Gates a letter-bomb, but I haven’t paid money for a Microsoft product in 25 years – for most of which time, by the way, I was a professional software developer. Likewise, by avoiding social media like the plague that it is, I have not allowed myself to be a commodity in the “attention economy.”

There are many small things you can change in your life than can make the world a better place for you and for others. You won’t be able to fix everything, but you don’t have to. And best of all, instead of taking the blame, you can take the credit.

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

On the abuse of logic

Here, in a sentence, is the moral case for fossil fuels, the single thought that can empower us to empower the world: Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous – because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.

Alex Epstein, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (2016)

I came across the bold assertion above while reading Carey W. King’s interesting and thoughtful book The Economic Superorganism (Springer, 2021; the quotation is on page 106). It’s an interesting example of the sort of reasoning we seem to see around a lot these days: an ill-formed argument founded on false premises, intended to answer a poorly-chosen question.

Mr Epstein is attempting a kind of syllogism. This is a form of argument going back to the ancient Greeks, and exhaustively discussed by Aristotle amongst others. It takes the form of two propositions which, if both true, prove a conclusion. The classic example is:

  • all men are mortal (A)
  • Socrates is a man (B)
  • therefore Socrates is mortal (Z)

There are many variations, of course, but that’s the general idea. If proposition A and proposition B are both true, then conclusion Z follows. Mr Epstein’s argument looks like this when cast into the form of a syllogism:

  • “human life is the standard of value” (A)
  • “using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life” (B)
  • therefore “Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous” (Z)

Now I would dispute the truth Mr Epstein’s proposition A, but it’s not in itself a claim that can be proved or disproved; it is an article of faith. I strongly disagree with it, if only on the pragmatic grounds that it leads one to short-sighted actions that have negative consequences. I wrote a previous post on the folly of human exceptionalism, and won’t repeat myself here.

Yet even granting A for the sake of argument, proposition B fails abjectly on its own terms. Mankind’s use of fossil fuels led directly to the view of Beijing at the head of this post, which is not even slightly “wonderful for human life” or any other form of life for that matter. Very large numbers of humans currently live in places which in the future will be underwater, once again as a direct consequence of mankind’s use of fossil fuels.

Now one might claim – and I imagine Mr Epstein certainly would – that these are minor drawbacks which are outweighed by all the other benefits that fossil fuels bring us, such as microplastics and the ability to watch videos of kittens 24/7. Air-conditioning is certainly convenient if you choose to live in a desert. Then again, perhaps the majority of mankind is onto something in choosing to live somewhere other than a desert.

I do wonder also just what the scope of “human life” is for Mr Epstein. Some people certainly do very well out of our fossil-fuelled industrial civilisation, but plenty of others don’t, and indeed suffer for it. I venture to suggest that Mr Epstein is not thinking of rice-farmers in the Mekong Delta, for example, or crab fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. I suspect, like most of us, his notion of humanity is based largely on himself and people like him – and in his case also on the Koch brothers. Life may indeed be wonderful for them, but the rest of us surely also count if we are going to be included in such sweeping claims.

Yet even if I were to grant his proposition B as well, I don’t see that the conclusion follows. Is fossil fuel use the only thing that conduces to making the world “wonderful for human life”? It certainly would not appear to be true that everyone experienced the world as uniformly horrible prior to the Industrial Revolution. Shakespeare, for instance, contributed quite a bit to making life wonderful for many people, despite not driving an SUV.

I doubt that most visitors to National Parks go there in order to make them lovelier by burning fossil fuels. On the contrary, people go to these places because they do not exhibit the effects of burning fossil fuels, compared to (say) Los Angeles. On Mr Epstein’s view, surely they should be flocking to the Alberta Tar Sands instead, in order to contemplate the loveliness that fossil fuel use has wrought.

Isn’t it lovely? Those tiny dots are huge earth-moving machines. They are not powered by renewables.

We can just about make the argument work by restating it with a little more precision:

  • virtue consists in advancing the interests of a certain group of people
  • using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for that group of people
  • therefore using fossil fuels is “supremely virtuous”

I would have more respect for Mr Epstein if he had had the honesty to express himself in these terms. Even so, we are left with a definition of virtue that equates it baldly with making money for the Koch brothers. Such a definition certainly exists, in the sense that plenty of people live their lives in accordance with it, but I don’t feel compelled to accept it, and neither, I hope, do you.

It also implies a narrow view of the interests of these über-humans. Even the Koch brothers need oxygen, for example. Conventional thinking, especially economic thinking, tends to discount the future as inherently unpredictable, but if an economist is sealed in a chamber and the air is then removed from that chamber, even the economist would predict his or her imminent demise. The vital interests of all human beings include the vital interests of all other forms of life.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” as John Donne pointed out a long time ago. We can pretend otherwise, and of course we do, but we do so at our peril. It takes considerable skill, in fact, to persuade ourselves and others of it. No doubt it appears self-evident to sociopaths that they are islands; they may live to discover, however, that they are not entire of themselves.

The rest of us, who already know this, will do well to keep a sharp eye out for the sophistries of Alex Epstein and his ilk. We would be fools to try and navigate the choppy waters ahead of us with a faulty compass. There is a great deal more at stake here than the share price of Koch Industries (motto: “Creating value. Transforming life.”).

It is of course already the mainstream view that burning fossil fuels is not really the best idea. Despite this, however, unlike them, this kind of twaddle is clearly an abundant and renewable resource. As Albert Einstein is supposed to have said: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” Be on your guard.

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

On management and control

The I of the basic word I-Thou is different from that of the basic word I-It.

Martin Buber, I and Thou (1923)

In this week’s essay, I want to discuss the concept of management: not just the management of a company or other organisation, but the notion of control in general. We really, really like things to be under control – our own, if possible, but even if things are being controlled by evil space lizards it is still a more comforting thought than things being out of control. One of the standard responses to the presidency of Donald Trump was to declare him to be “out of control.” I hold no brief for Mr Trump, but the President of the United States of America should be controlled by someone else? Seriously?

(Of course, the people who say this want to suggest that Mr Trump is not in control of himself, as if he suffers from a kind of political Tourette’s syndrome. I very much doubt that that is the case, however. One does not become the US President by accident.)

Human beings imagine they can manage anything. Time, for example. You can buy entire books that claim to tell you how you can manage your time – searching Amazon for the phrase “time management books” gave me over 60,000 hits – and yet you can’t even turn it on and off.

We are particularly fond of managing the natural world. Heaven forbid that a forest should be left to its own devices: no, it must be managed. Otherwise it would just be wilderness – or to put it another way, not co-opted for our benefit. We are far from being the only species to adapt our environment to our needs – nesting birds, beavers and ants all do it – but we seem to be the only one that seeks to adapt everyone else’s environment while we’re at it.

The same urge to control is evident in our relations with one another. Wherever one group of people has some measure of control over another group of people, that control is never relinquished or even diminished. Bureaucracies never shrink of their own volition, either in the public or private sector. On the contrary, those with power seek ever greater power. And power-relationships are intrinsically dehumanising, and not even especially functional per Hagbard’s Law.

Why do we do this? (And in saying we I include myself and also you, dear, reader, together with most other people in this civilisation.) Let me explain what I think is at least part of the answer by means of a little story.

Let’s suppose I’m waiting for a train and I fancy some chocolate. (Don’t judge me.) It’s late and everywhere is closed, but there’s a vending machine. I punch in the code for what I what and insert an exorbitant amount of money, and all being well there will be a dull thud and my Twix® will drop onto the shelf at the bottom (other brands of confectionary are available). Most of us have had this kind of experience many times; this is in no way novel – indeed, vending machines have a surprisingly long history.

Now let’s consider a similar scenario during the day. There’s a newsagent’s kiosk, which is open. I hand the guy a slightly less exorbitant amount of money, and he gives me a Twix® (other brands of confectionary are still available). How is this transaction different? An economist would certainly struggle to tell them apart, except for the difference in the price paid for the goods.

Well, let’s say something goes wrong and I don’t get my chocolate. If it’s down to a faulty vending machine – and I think we’ve all been there – I may express my frustration in various ways, especially if I am the only person on the platform. I may also attempt to get the damn thing to disgorge my chocolate by strategic whacks or kicks. Who knows, it might even work.

But what about the kiosk scenario? If the guy behind the counter refused to sell me chocolate, for whatever reason, would I be justified in whacking him, strategically or otherwise? I don’t think so, and not just because I’d probably get done for assault. The difference is that the vending machine is, well, a machine. Its entire purpose is to dispense chocolate and other goodies in exchange for money. If it fails in that one purpose, it is broken, and the would-be eater of chocolate is fully entitled to complain. Moreover, there is probably a simple mechanical explanation for its failure.

The man in the newsagent’s kiosk is not a machine. Why is it that he won’t give me my chocolate? There could be many reasons. Perhaps I’ve been particularly obnoxious to him. Perhaps he is suffering a nervous breakdown. Perhaps he thinks I’m fat enough already (and he might have a point). Whatever the reason, it probably can’t be fixed by someone with a spanner. Whacking him is also unlikely to help.

The man in the newsagent’s kiosk is a person, not a machine. Now you will find philosophers who will claim that there is no such distinction, but if you ever find yourself behind one of them in the queue at the newsagent’s just watch how they go about buying confectionary. I’ll bet they treat the person behind the counter as if they were a person and not a machine.

Because there is, or should be, a fundamental qualitative difference behind how one relates to a machine as distinct from a person, and this is one of the things that Martin Buber is driving at in the quotation at the head of this post. The vending machine is very much an it. I am not going to ask it what it thinks of the weather. I don’t imagine that it cares about my weight.

The newsagent, however, is a person. You’ll notice that in my little story I included the detail that he happens to be male. I could have elaborated my description in all sorts of ways. For example, what relationship do I have to him, apart from being a customer at his kiosk? Perhaps I went to school with him, or he lives in my street, or he’s engaged to my cousin. Perhaps he suspects me of having an affair with his wife, which might be another explanation for his mysterious reluctance to sell me chocolate.

This slightly contrived example is presented to show that it is very much simpler to deal with machines than with persons. It is much easier to predict what a vending machine will do to than it is to predict what a person might do. Most of the time a vending machine will simply do what it was designed to do. It may run out of stock, or be too full to accept money, or develop a mechanical fault, but that is pretty much it. A vending machine is not going to have a psychotic episode or discover religion, nor will it catch flu or ask for maternity leave.

For this reason, those who manage people much prefer to treat them as if they were machines. This is a poor way to persuade a newsagent to give you chocolate and in general it is a poor way to get the best out of someone, but it is simple. It is probably the only way to do it at all if the number of people you are managing is at all large – Dunbar’s number as an absolute maximum, and probably rather less in practice.

This explains the rather obvious fact that management doesn’t really work. People are far too complicated to manage, even in the benign case where they are not actively trying to subvert management’s purposes. As Robert Anton Wilson pointed out: “There are no governors anywhere.” Or at least there are no governors where people choose not to be governed. This works on the political level too. East Germany is the poster child for governments who wish to control their citizens, and it could only exist at all with the support of the Soviet Union: when that went away, so did the regime. Effectively, the entire country was in the secret police, which placed severe limits on what else the state could accomplish.

The same goes in spades for “managing” the natural world. Most of us have some basic intuitions as to how to relate to other people. We’re social animals; we need those skills in order to survive. In industrial culture, we have no such intuitions when it comes to relating to a forest, say, or the ocean. These are vastly more complex than any vending machine, or any human being, and anything one does or doesn’t do can have unpredictable consequences. If I decide to have an affair with my newsagent’s wife I do at least have some inkling of what I might be letting myself in for. Filling the airwaves with electromagnetic radiation? Your guess is as good as mine, and probably as good as anyone’s.

Of course we still need to deal with complex systems like forests, oceans, and the weather. What we must not do is kid ourselves that they are like vending machines and that we control them. Instead we need to learn – or re-learn – ways to relate to them as if they were more like persons. Once upon a time this used to be called reverence; but that’s a subject for another time.

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

On the fall of Rome, part two

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

Last week, we took a (very brief) look at how and why the Roman empire in the west fell, or rather faded away. The executive summary is that while there were certainly external pressures, the empire’s demise was due to the ruling elite’s failure to deal with those pressures. There was no single disaster, just a series of cock-ups and bad breaks until the situation was too far gone for anyone to retrieve.

This ought to come as no surprise. History in general tends to go like that. What looks inevitable in hindsight rarely did at the time. Of course, it was inevitable that the empire would collapse at some point: that is what empires do. The Western Roman empire actually had a pretty good innings, as these things go.

Trite as it may be, this is really the lesson to take from the fall of Rome. The decline of an empire, or more generally of a civilisation, is just one damn thing after another. Things that break somehow never get fixed – look at New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or more prosaically at the potholes in the road. Every generation of politicians is a little bit more corrupt or inept (or both) than the one that preceded it.

I am old enough to remember the resignation of Lord Carrington on the grounds that the British Foreign Office, which he headed, had failed to predict the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. There was no suggestion that he personally had screwed up, but it was his department and therefore his responsibility. It is hard to imagine any current member of the British Cabinet resigning for such a reason, or indeed for any reason short of launching a leadership challenge.

(I speak here of British politics because that’s what I’m familiar with; I’d be very interested to hear in the comments about the trends in other countries. Perhaps some places are even improving.)

The mineral resources on which industry depends are gradually depleting. For example, we are now extracting copper from much lower-grade ores then we used to, which is more expensive; hence the price of copper is on an inexorable upwards trend. (Former mining engineer and academic Simon Michaux has an excellent presentation on this and some of its implications.) Copper, of course, is in everything electrical, not least the much-vaunted electric vehicles. Other conductive metals are of course available, but I don’t imagine that substituting gold for all that copper would make electrical goods very affordable.

Unsurprisingly a similar situation exists for the rare earth metals required for things like smartphones and solar panels – unsurprisingly, because the clue is in the name. Many of these have no known substitutes, and the substitutes that are known are not as good. Nor are deposits of these metals evenly distributed around the world: most of them are in China, with something between 40-50% of global production coming from one small region of Inner Mongolia. What could possibly go wrong?

Discoveries of crude oil reserves peaked in the 1960s, and have been below consumption since the 1980s. Many of the uses to which we put oil cannot be substituted: good luck using renewable electricity as a feedstock for plastic, for instance, or as a source of lubricants. Nobody has a solution for this problem, which is slowly but surely killing the industrial model on which our entire way of life is founded. Cheap long-distance transportation is going to go away, to mention just one glaring example. Industrial agriculture will be another casualty.

One could compare this to the decline of agriculture in the later stages of the Western Roman empire, which was also in its own way a fuel crisis. The empire became dependent on food from its North African provinces, and when these were lost to the Vandals the end was clearly in sight. Part of the issue seems to have been topsoil loss, which is also a huge problem today. The Romans failed to cope with this, and we are not showing much sign of doing so either.

Economic equality was likewise an issue for the Romans, just as it is for us. The rich became phenomenally rich, with vast estates in Italy and Gaul, while further down the social scale life became progressively tougher. I’m not even talking about slaves. The provincial well-off originally used to compete for public office, with the ambition of becoming a decurion or town councillor. As time went on, it became more onerous than rewarding, and eventually the office became compulsory, passed down from father to son.

At a lower level still, the small farmers who had originally been the backbone of the army were squeezed out by the growth of latifundia – large estates worked by slaves. This obliged the army to seek recruits from outside the empire, with the unfortunate results that we discussed last week. It may or may not have detracted from the effectiveness of the army – opinion is divided – but certainly the later Roman army was a very different beast from that commanded by Caesar or Scipio Africanus. Perhaps more importantly, this development also gave the average Roman subject much less of a stake in the empire.

Economic polarisation is a defining characteristic of our own times. When I was a child in the 1960s, my family was unusual in having both parents working full-time. Most households could manage reasonably well on a single working-class wage. That arrangement, which was the norm just a few decades ago, is almost unheard-of today. Although income inequality in the UK is said to be more extreme than in other industrial nations, the same holds good for many other countries. The explosive growth of shanty towns in the USA is hardly a sign of a healthy economy.

Personal debt is another problem we have in common with ancient Rome. At least in modern first-world countries there is no legal mechanism for reducing debtors to literal slavery; still, the plight of a great many ordinary people is not much better. These depressing statistics are for the UK; this table gives a wider picture, with startling figures for most of the large industrialised nations. It is increasingly the normal pattern for people to be indebted essentially for their entire working lives, if not beyond. One must borrow in order to study at university, and borrow more to purchase a home; more again to buy a car.

As the economist Michael Hudson succinctly puts it: “Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be paid.” (Killing the Host (ISLET, 2015), page 25.) As incomes decline, the ability – and willingness – to service debt decline as well. A point will be reached at which the downsides of the current arrangements for the average person outweigh the upsides; at that point, any alternative to the status quo will begin to look attractive to the mass of the population. That is a very dangerous place to be. Remember this guy?

None of these things are making the headlines, or do so only occasionally and are soon forgotten. Yet if there are historians a thousand years in the future, looking back on us from a similar distance as we look back on Rome, I expect many of them will be cited as reasons for the “inevitable” decline and fall of industrial civilisation. Perhaps some future Edward Gibbon will sit musing among the ruins of Manhattan or Canary Wharf, if any such are still standing. More likely, people will have better things to do.

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

On the fall of Rome, part one

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “OzymandiAs”

Those who worry about the impending collapse of our industrial civilisation often compare it – the United States in particular – to the Roman Empire. Even pieces like this one which attempt to deny the parallel are clearly haunted by it. In this essay, I want to explore the history of the collapse of Rome and its impact both at the time and in retrospect. Next week I will discuss the parallels and differences between that history and the world situation today.

What exactly am I talking about when I say “the collapse of Rome”? The end of the Western Roman Empire is conventionally dated to the abdication of the last person to claim the title of emperor in 476, but the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire lasted until 1453. If you take seriously the claim of the Russian Tsars to be the successor of Byzantium, then you could even argue it lasted until 1917. Then again, the Ottoman Sultans arrogated the title of Roman Emperor to themselves when they took Constantinople, and they lasted until 1922. But like most people who compare Rome to the USA, or to industrial civilisation generally, I shall confine myself to the fall of the West.

Many causes have been suggested, ranging from the rise of Christianity to climate change to lead poisoning, and many of them may have been contributory factors. But most people imagine it to have been the result of barbarian incursions from outside, perhaps coupled with some sort of moral decay within. This is the standard Hollywood version. Depending on your point of view, this is either a cleansing victory of the freedom-loving barbarians over the evil and decadent Romans, or a calamitous defeat involving the wanton destruction of all that’s valuable.

As usual, the Hollywood version has very little in common with the historical realities. It was not all, or even mostly, a matter of large hairy men with axes setting fire to things. The Roman Empire was not overwhelmed by a tidal wave of barbarians surging through a breach in its hitherto impregnable borders. For one thing, it was a slow process – histories of the fall of Rome usually start a good hundred years before the finale, when a body of Goths asked permission of the Emperor Valens to enter the empire. That’s right: asked permission. And they did this because there were precedents for that kind of thing.

At a fairly early stage in its history, the Romans decided that their empire was quite large enough to be going on with, and they weren’t going to expand it in any major way. True, the Emperor Trajan annexed Dacia (more or less modern Romania) in the early second century AD and built a column to brag about it, and the eastern frontier with Persia moved back and forth a bit over the years, but the empire in the time of Valens was pretty much what it had been five hundred years previously.

The reasons for this decision were eminently practical. Before railways, telecommunications and steamships, it took a long time for an emperor to get reports about what was going on or to issue orders. Even with an elaborate bureaucracy, excellent roads, and a dedicated messenger service, the empire was as much as one man could rule – in fact, it was really too big for one man to rule. Hence various schemes were tried to divide the responsibility between two (or sometimes four) rulers, with an east-west split being natural as that was the empire’s longer axis.

Apart from Persia – shown here as the Dominion of the Sassanids – none of the empire’s neighbours posed a serious military threat. The tried and true system was to keep the tribes adjacent to the border sweet with judicious gifts, playing one off against the other so as prevent any alliance that might be a serious threat from forming. These tribes were also a convenient source of recruits for the army, as well as forming a buffer zone between the empire and more distant tribes. It was a game that the Romans had played for a long time, and they were extremely good at it.

As modern scholarship has shown, the influx of non-Romans into the army led to the Roman-barbarian distinction becoming less of an ethnic one than that of a choice of career path. Civilian administrators saw themselves as Romans; soldiers were barbarians. People moved between the two, of course, as they always had, but they might do this under two names. (Romans traditionally had always used multiple names, so this was less of big deal than it might seem to us.) The Roman empire was always multi-ethnic, and nobody was particularly bothered by this.

Whole groups of barbarians might be admitted to the empire, under supervision, because what government doesn’t like extra taxpayers? So long as they didn’t form a separate state within the state – and the Romans could easily prevent this – they were an asset. These people wanted to assimilate. Roman civilisation was an ideal to which many people aspired. The empire was a multi-ethnic state from very early in its history; the Romans didn’t care what language you spoke or what gods you worshipped, so long as you paid your taxes and didn’t cause trouble. Plenty of people were happy to take that deal.

This is what the Goths were after when they applied to Valens for permission to enter the empire. I won’t go into the details here, but mistakes were made – Valens was planning a campaign against Persia, and took his eye off the ball. The Romans tried trickery, screwed up, had to resort to force, and were then heavily defeated at the battle of Adrianople, in which Valens got himself killed for good measure.

Adrianople is often presented as the turning-point, after which the empire was doomed. But the Romans had lost battles – indeed, entire armies – plenty of times before and coped perfectly well. They had also lost senior leaders in battle, up to and including emperors, and also coped perfectly well. So what went wrong?

As with most things that go wrong, it seems to have been a mixture of malice and incompetence. A key weakness of the empire was the lack of a generally agreed source of political legitimacy. While there were dynasties, and it definitely helped to be related to the right people, it was never really a hereditary monarchy as, say, mediaeval England was. Anyone who had the support of the army could become emperor, or – if they didn’t look “Roman” enough – install some pliant aristocrat as a sock puppet. Romulus Augustulus was the last but by no means the first in that mould, and unlike some of his predecessors he at least managed to enjoy a long and peaceful retirement.

If an ambitious commander couldn’t manage that, he could look for a power base outside the empire. The first person to pull this off was a soldier of Gothic origin best known to us as Alaric, who started off in the Roman army and then became king of the Visigoths (possibly creating that position). His troops sacked Rome itself in 410, although he seems to have been reluctant to do this; the city got off quite lightly in comparison to what the Vandals did to it fifteen years later. Had he been offered the right job, a lot of unpleasantness could have been avoided.

The empire was always the big prize, and the serious players were focussed on that rather than on the larger picture of the empire’s well-being. By the time things started to go seriously wrong – the loss of North Africa to the Vandals was probably the fatal blow – Rome no longer had the military force or more importantly the prestige to recover. Rome fell, in other words, much as Ernest Hemingway described the process of going bankrupt: slowly, then all at once.

Along the way plenty of things could have gone differently. The empire came through a string of crises in the third century, after all. As late as 451, they were able to see off Attila the Hun, with some help from the Visigoths. Valens might have won at Adrianople. Indeed, Adrianople might not have needed to be fought at all. When Romulus abdicated, there was still some expectation that someone else might take the job – perhaps Julius Nepos. Successive Eastern emperors tried to recover some of the lost territory, with fair initial success, but the magic had gone.

Because Rome had never imposed itself solely by armed force. By and large, the people they ruled – or at least the upper crust, the people who mattered – wanted to be Roman. There were a lot of tangible benefits; the famous list in The Life of Brian is not too far from the truth. And less tangibly, Romanness was something to which many outside the empire aspired, in the same way that America used to be cool before the Iron Curtain came down.

But over time, taxes went up, imperial rule became more oppressive, and the army was less able or willing to guarantee the peace and security of the provincials, especially at the borders (and a glance at the map shows how much of the empire was on or near a border). For many people, life was actually better under a barbarian overlord. Taxes certainly went down. The existing administrators were largely co-opted by the new regimes. Many of the more annoying laws, such as those obliging a man to follow his father’s occupation, went away.

In short, the Roman empire in the West died because it no longer served a useful purpose for enough people. When the armies of the Eastern emperor Justinian conquered Italy in the sixth century they were not welcomed as liberators. Most people preferred life under the Goths, and the territory was soon lost again. People adapted, and life went on.

Next week I’ll explore what we can learn from this story in relation to the world-empire of industrialism. Don’t touch that dial….

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

On economic growth

Yes! There will be growth in the spring!

Chance, the gardener in the film Being There (1979)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that economic growth is a good thing. Well, not quite universally, but it’s the view you’ll find in the mainstream media and on the lips of pretty much every politician and pundit. Usually this growth is denoted in annual gross domestic product (GDP). There are a number of problems with that measure, not least that it ignores economic activity that doesn’t involve money changing hands, but it’s the one that everyone uses. The real point about GDP is that it is a number which is used – however wrongly – to capture the size of the economy, and it is expected (or at least hoped) that this number will increase year on year.

Two questions immediately arise from this expectation: (1) What are the grounds for believing it to be true? {2) If it were true, is it a good idea? Very few people actually ask these questions, because most of us go with the flow – after all, economists all seem to say this, and they’re supposed to understand this stuff, so it’s probably fine. (Some don’t, of course – Herman Daly would be an obvious example, but when was the last time you saw him interviewed on TV?) Nevertheless they strike me as questions that need to be addressed, and that is what I intend to do here.

Why do we expect growth to continue?

We can only predict the future on the basis of what happened in the past and what we know to be fundamental patterns (also known as natural laws). Economics as a discipline emerged at the onset of the first Industrial Revolution, and it often seems to treat that epoch as if it constituted the beginning of time. At any rate, the explosive growth (not just in GDP but also in population) that began at that time is treated as though it were normal, without reference to the vast majority of human history when it has been anything but normal.

The Industrial Revolution was made possible by the harnessing of energy sources that had not hitherto been much used: initially coal and later petroleum and natural gas as well. People had been burning coal for a long time, of course, but they’d been using it for heating and cooking, not as fuel for steam engines. Coal continues to be mined and used extensively, mostly to generate electricity these days. Oil was a latecomer to the party, but now completely dominates the transportation sector, amongst other things. Natural gas is a massive contributor to domestic and industrial energy use, both directly and via generated electricity.

What do all these energy sources have in common? They are non-renewable. The coal in the world right now is all the coal there is ever going to be, now that bacteria have evolved capable of digesting lignin. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. The same goes for oil and natural gas. Yes, there’s still a lot of it in the ground, but there’s a finite amount, and we’re getting through it at a stupendous rate. Naturally, the high-quality stuff that’s cheap and easy to access was extracted first, with the result that much of what is left is expensive, dangerous and hard to get at, and also of lower quality. The same goes, incidentally, for many other resources that we extract to feed the industrial economy; copper, for example.

Now the usual response to this issue is substitutability. A common lamp fuel used to be whale-oil; then it was found you could substitute kerosene, and get cheaper, brighter and less smelly lighting – good news for everyone, apart from the whaling industry. Similarly we used to power railways with steam; in most countries this has now been replaced by electricity, diesel, or a combination of the two. As the saying goes, the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.

That all sounds reasonable, until you get down to specifics. Where are the cheap highly-concentrated energy sources we need if we’re going to keep the party going? Most of the suggested answers to this focus on generating electricity, and we certainly consume plenty of that, but even if the electricity generation problem were solved overnight, it would help less than you might think.

Let me wave a magic wand and remove all the technical obstacles from nuclear fusion as a power source. With a second wave of my wand I shall also replace all the existing power stations in the world with shiny new fusion plants overnight – using no money, energy, or natural resources in the process, because I’m in a generous mood. Where does that leave us?

As I discussed in a previous post, our economy is based on extracting raw materials, applying energy to those raw materials to create products, and shipping those products around the world for people to consume. Electricity “too cheap to meter” does essentially zero to help with transportation – as of this writing, it is not possible to buy a single electric lorry, anywhere – and not that much for the extraction or manufacturing processes. (Those hoping I will wave my wand a third time and remove the resource issues involved in all-electric transportation should consider this presentation. There are limits to my generosity.) It would be massively helpful for internet companies and aluminium-smelters, but not so much for the rest of the economy.

Economists tend to regard human ingenuity as the universal solvent, and plenty of it has been applied to oil and natural gas extraction in particular. The results have not been too encouraging, however. Traditionally, oil was extracted by finding a suitable reservoir of oil, drilling down into it, and getting the oil out ideally under its own pressure. That requires comparatively little investment to do, either financially or in terms of energy. Compare that with the outlay for something like the Deepwater Horizon, which went on to blow up and sink into the Gulf of Mexico.

A lot of energy and money goes into fracking, which involves drilling many short-lived wells, detonating explosives, and frantic pumping, all to extract oil that is too light to provide the diesel which is needed by much of our global transport fleet (to say nothing of agriculture or mining). It does not appear that anyone has ever managed to produce fracked oil cheaply enough to make a profit. To put it another way, when the price of oil is high enough for fracking to be profitable, oil is too expensive for the economy to be able to afford it.

Falling off a cliff is not a problem. The problem is hitting the ground.

Huge amounts of money and energy are being invested in fracking even though it is a losing proposition, simply because there is no alternative in sight. The spice must flow. But it is not hard to foresee the point at which it will have to cease. At that point we won’t even be able to run the economy at the rate we do now, let alone grow it exponentially.

Is perpetual growth a good thing?

As ever with questions like this, you need to ask: good for whom? A lot of people benefit from our current economic arrangements, although as I’ll discuss in a future post those benefits are by no means distributed equally. When the current arrangements go away, those people are going to suffer in proportion to how much they benefit at the moment.

Those people who are more or less disconnected from the global economic nexus will not be greatly inconvenienced. I don’t just mean undiscovered tribes in the Amazon rainforest. Those with access to local networks of economic production which can meet their basic needs will survive. Some of them will even thrive.

Economic growth causes an immense amount of collateral damage to the natural systems of the planet, and by its nature the longer it goes on the more damage it will do. When organic systems grow normally, their growth is limited. The illustration at the top of this post shows cancer cells multiplying: that is what unlimited growth looks like.

You hear a lot of people saying that we need to transition to a low-carbon economy. We are going to be doing that because physics demands it, and if physics and economics argue, physics will win. But as Wile E. Coyote reminds us, some transitions are more comfortable than others.

A moment ago I pointed out that we can all be placed on a spectrum, depending on how tightly integrated our lives are with the modern global economy. At one end might be a subsistence farmer in sub-Saharan Africa, at the other – well, most of us in “developed” countries, to a greater extent that we might like to acknowledge. Disentangling one’s life from the economic webs that surround us is not a quick or easy process, but anything you can do to nudge yourself in the direction of that African farmer is going to pay off down the road.

In the immortal words of John Michael Greer: “Collapse now, and avoid the rush.”

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

On desperation

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

Desperation is not, of course, to be confused with despair. Both are marked by the absence of hope, but whereas despair is passive, desperation is active. People sunk into despair tend to do nothing; desperate people will do pretty much anything. There is something calming about really deep despair. There is nothing calming about desperation.

It is desperation that has families with small children trying to cross the English Channel in rubber dinghies. Desperation took Russian and Polish Jews to the East End of London in the 1880s, and the Irish to America a generation previously. Nobody wants to leave home when times are good. I remember seeing an interview with John Perkins, the author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (Ebury Press, 2006), in which he observed that he had met a lot of terrorists in the course of his career, and none of them wanted to be terrorists.

Quite substantial chunks of history have been driven by desperation. Popular uprisings, for sure, of which history offers plenty of examples. According to the Chinese historian Gang Deng (cited by David Graeber in Debt: The First Five Thousand Years), there have been periods in that country’s history where on average there was a peasant revolt breaking out somewhere over forty times per day. That’s a lot of desperation.

While some rioters are undoubtedly opportunists (or paid for), the ones who create the opportunities for looting are often genuinely desperate. People, on the whole, want to lead quiet lives; they generally accept the status quo. Only when the status quo becomes intolerable will they be driven to act to try and change it. Typically their resentment builds up slowly over time, much like the gradual increase in subterranean stresses that results in a sudden earthquake. Then something – it may be trivial – tips them over the edge. If this happens to a lot of people at about the same time, the results are apt to be spectacular.

A prudent regime finds ways to divert all that energy into harmless channels. The Roman elite famously kept the lower orders in check with “bread and circuses” – that is to say free food and free entertainment. The modern equivalent of the former is UBI, although this is mostly still hot air. We do, however, offer a fine array of free (or almost free) entertainment to distract us from all those unpleasant thoughts that lurk just in the background for many, if not most, of us.

Desperate people are, understandably, prone to substance use. A desperate person, more than anything else, just wants it to stop; drugs and alcohol can make that happen, at least temporarily. Of course addiction can then give them an even worse case of desperation. It’s a devil’s bargain, but by no means the only one we end up making in the industrial world. Of course people who are off their heads on the stimulant du jour will probably be disinhibited, making extreme behaviour more likely.

At the individual level, we see school shootings in the US, and at the other end of the spectrum an upsurge in petty crime. Suicide rates continue to rise in both the UK and the US. Much of this is the expression of desperation on an individual level (especially the suicides). Everyone deplores this, but we see no coherent political solutions to the underlying problems put forward, merely fixes for some of the symptoms. So we crack down on drugs, or propose legislation to limit the availability of firearms. (The Hungerford Massacre in the UK back in 1987 is a textbook example of shutting the stable door when the horse is already on the menu of a French restaurant.)

The obvious explanation for this reaction is that it is always easier to treat the symptoms than the underlying disease. In truth the issues are systemic: there simply is no way to improve the lot of the bulk of the population without radical change. At this point, there may not be a way even with radical change, but in any case the turkeys who govern us are never going to vote for Christmas.

I am not going to offer advice here to the desperate person, who has no doubt already examined their (limited) alternatives. I am certainly not going to recommend that they do anything illegal, in case I get a visit from the soi-disant competent authorities. But what can such a person do that is legal?

They can die. Technically this is illegal in some jurisdictions (it was in the UK until 1961), although once you’re dead you probably don’t care. This is a popular option, as per the suicide statistics I alluded to above. It is not, however, anyone’s choice of first resort. In a sense, suicide is self-harm taken to its logical conclusion. Abuse of alcohol and other drugs, eating disorders, and extreme behaviour in general can likewise be seen as on the same spectrum.

They can go somewhere else, where circumstances may be better. I’ve already referred to migration. It’s chancy, but if home is uninhabitable – whether because of war, famine or plague – it may be necessary. It definitely works out for some people, but not all or even most who try it. It is also a lot easier to do if you are comparatively well-off.

They can attempt to change the system from within. I am not aware of any examples of this strategy ever succeeding – suggestions in the comments are welcome. In societies where democracy has been reduced to a spectator sport, the opportunities are in any case few and far between. Where they do arise, voting for “anything but this” is likely get you President Trump or your local equivalent. On a bad day, it could be worse. In 1970, the people of Chile elected the wrong president – or wrong in the view of the United States, which arranged to have him replaced by General Pinochet, and the people of Chile didn’t get to elect another president until 1993. As Emma Goldman said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

There is really no advice to be given to the truly desperate. Someone with reasonable options open to them will not, in any event, be desperate. The fact I want to draw attention to in this essay is simply that desperation is widespread, it is growing, and that it will erupt – how and where is anyone’s guess. This is not just a matter of statistics, either. This is the lived experience of people you know, the people you pass in the street, perhaps of you yourself. You see it on people’s faces every day.

I don’t believe all this bodes well for a smooth transition to a better state of society. Desperate people cause revolutions to happen, and while they may be interesting to read about they are generally not much fun to live through. Usually they result in extremely authoritarian and repressive regimes. There were a lot of desperate people around in the latter stages of the First World War, and again in the Great Depression, and the names of the winners of those struggles are a roll-call of tyrants. Those regimes themselves tend to be unstable.

But we should not forget that Hitler, for instance, garnered a lot of popular support by promising and delivering a better life for the average German worker (with some glaring exceptions). His contemporary Huey Long was on a similar path in the United States; had not been assassinated before he could run in the 1936 presidential election, who knows how things might have turned out? Such politicians are nowadays dismissed as “populists,” a term which seems to mean “someone I dislike who has won (or is likely to win) an election.” That description was certainly applied by the Americans to the unfortunate Salvador Allende, and we’ve already seen what the sequel was.

When the cake is shrinking – as I believe it is today and for the foreseeable future – those who currently get the lion’s share have a choice to make. They can either take less for themselves or risk losing everything at the hands of desperate people. Roosevelt saw this, and took America down a different path by bringing in the New Deal over the loud protests of the monied. It was a closer call than we like to remember.

The question is: where are the Roosevelts of today?

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

On resilience

When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.


After last week’s discussion of efficiency, it’s time to talk about its complement: resilience, literally the quality of springing back, like a rubber ball. It’s a broader and vaguer concept, with none of the satisfyingly crisp arithmetic we can bring to bear on efficiency, but I would argue it is more important.

As I mentioned, efficiency and resilience are in some ways antagonistic. If you have a warehouse full of goods waiting to be sold, you’re paying the costs of that now before you get any income from sales. On the other hand, you are resilient to disruptions to supply. Sometimes choosing the full warehouse is obviously the way to go, as it was for many UK business who stockpiled in the run-up to Brexit. Usually, however, businesses are under pressure to remain “lean.” Like many things in modern life, this strategy works well until it doesn’t.

On a more individual level, resilience might mean keeping money in a savings account, earning effectively no interest, rather than relying on borrowing to cover major expenditures. More generally, it would imply being ready to cope in the event that services on which you rely – healthcare, fuel, food in the shops – might become expensive or unobtainable. Many people have only one income stream, for example: their job, or their state pension or other benefits. They rely on that income for pretty much all of their needs, and yet it is in no way guaranteed. Job security is a distant memory these days (except for Cabinet ministers, apparently), and if you think you can rely on a state pension you clearly aren’t Greek.

This is the standard way of life in industrial civilisation, even for farmers. It’s typical for a farmer to focus on just a few crops, perhaps maybe even one, and feed themselves and their families from the money they make from doing so. The vast majority of farmers in history (or indeed today outside the industrialised world) would find the idea of farmers buying their food at the supermarket bizarre, but that is what they end up doing.

Our model of agriculture, in fact, is designed to be fragile. We depend, for one thing, on a small number of crops and animals, often growing the same varieties will little genetic variation. This increases our vulnerability to plant or animal diseases. It was a novel pathogen that led to the great Irish potato famine; since most of the population were heavily dependent on potatoes, the result was a catastrophe (admittedly not helped by the British government’s deliberate decision to continue exporting Irish wheat rather than feeding the Irish with it).

Resilient potato cultivation is quite a different beast. In his classic book The Unsettling of America (Counterpoint Press, 1977), Wendell Berry describes traditional potato farming in Peru. Here farmers have to cope with difficult conditions on the steep slopes of the Andes, with different parts of the same farm often being in quite different climate zones. They deal with this by using a very large number of different potato varieties, typically seventy or more, often planting many different varieties in the same small field, trying to match the characteristics of the plant to the specific microclimate in which they are gown. Their aim is not to maximise yield as such, but to ensure a consistent yield. They always want to have enough to eat: a surplus might be nice, but it isn’t the goal. They have been successful in this approach for many centuries, because it is resilient: enough of their crop will always do well in any given season.

Attempts have been made to try “conventional” potato farming methods in this environment. They have never succeeded for long. In a context where a failed harvest means going hungry, and two in a row would mean dying, only a fool would gamble everything on a single variety. And while potatoes are the staple crop, they grow others as well, such as oca, which is a tuber similar to the potato but unrelated and thus impervious to blight.

This is inefficient in a number of ways: it’s hard work, you need to know a lot about different potato varieties, it isn’t easy to mechanise, and you will never get the biggest possible harvest. On the other hand, you won’t starve to death either. It’s hard to argue that the Peruvian farmers have made the wrong trade-off here.

By contrast, our entire way of life is almost as if designed to be as un-resilient as possible. Consider a typical day for an average person. They wake up in what they think of as their house or flat, although if it’s rented or mortgaged they depend on being able to pay someone else for the privilege of living there. They have breakfast from food they bought from a third party, using energy which also comes from sources they don’t control and which again they must pay for. They travel to work, which is likely to involve energy from somewhere else, perhaps in a vehicle on which they owe even more money and which they cannot repair or maintain themselves. The job they do is unlikely to give them skills they could use to make money on their own account, especially if they work in an office, and probably offers few intrinsic rewards other than money. Then they go home and spend the evening consuming entertainment provided by other people. And so to bed, to do it all again tomorrow.

It should come as no surprise that many people feel helpless, because in actual fact they are helpless. But the good news is that this can be remedied. After all, human beings may be born helpless but they don’t have to remain so.

There are measures we can all take to make our lives more resilient. Modest stockpiling of some essentials is not expensive and will buy you some time if the shops empty. I lived through the UK miners’ strike of 1972, when we had to cope with power-cuts (most of the UK’s electricity was generated using coal at that time). Luckily, my family had camping equipment, so we could provide cooking, lighting and some heating for ourselves during those times. Many people were not so fortunate. If anything, our society is even more dependent on reliable electricity today than it was then.

More broadly, learn some skills. You won’t be able to do everything for yourself, but if you have some useful skills you can offer to others then you won’t have to. I recommend skills over material things (such as gold coins) because things can be stolen. If you already have a solid trade such as plumbing or carpentry then you have a head start here, but you might want to reassure yourself you can still work without things like power tools or plastic widgets that might present problems down the road.

Broaden your social networks too. I’m not talking about Facebook “friends” here, but in-person relationships with people in your vicinity. They say the definition of a friend is someone who will help you dispose of a body without asking questions. I’m not suggesting that level of trust, but the more people who might have your back in a crisis the safer you are. After all, they also say that any society is only three missed meals away from anarchy, and that isn’t so hard to imagine if you live as I do in a country that imports almost half of its food.

Issues with transportation are something we may all have to face in an uncertain future. By this I mean both transporting ourselves and the transport of goods. We have spent decades de-localising our lives in the name of efficiency; that process needs to reverse, and the sooner we start the better. Find and support local businesses that provide the things you need. If necessary, start one. Someone’s going to have to, sooner or later.

And remember, you are not alone. There are a lot of us in the same boat, and more and more people are starting to notice the resemblance to the Titanic. Check out movements like Transition Towns or Strong Towns or similar organisations; they’re trying to facilitate progress in the right direction. You’re not going to be able to fix everything all at once, but the more you can manage without, the better off you’ll be when less is readily available. It doesn’t have to be the Apocalypse; a lot of people would be seriously stuck if they had no electricity for a week, say.

More than anything else, resilience is an attitude of mind. Call it adaptability, call it bloody-mindedness, call it what you like, it is an attitude that has served our species well for quite a few millennia and with any luck will do so for plenty more. Look at your life, see where the weak spots are, and consider what you can do to fix them. You might surprise yourself.

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

On efficiency

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

Peter Drucker

Surely if there is one thing we can all agree on, it is that efficiency is a good thing. By efficiency I simply mean the ratio between what one puts in and what one gets out. Fuel efficiency in cars is a straightforward example: it is expressed as miles per gallon (or kilometres per litre), stating that for every unit of fuel you put into the car you can travel a certain distance. The further the distance, the more fuel-efficient the car. One comparison site I looked at told me, for example, that I could expect to get 67.5 mpg out of a Ford Fiesta, compared to 13.3 from a Lamborghini Murcielago.

This is not of course the only measure of a car’s performance. I expect if I looked at how long it takes to get from 0-60 mph, the Lamborghini would look a lot better than the Ford. But that is not a measure of efficiency.

Which type of efficiency we choose to measure has a large bearing on whether we consider one thing more efficient than another. For example, industrial agriculture is often considered more efficient than traditional methods, but it depends on what you look at. In terms of calories out per man-hour in, industrial ag looks terrific; but if you look instead at calories out per calorie in – that is, at energy efficiency – the picture is very different.

A subsistence farmer using his own muscle power and that of his draught animals must always obtain at least one calorie of food for each calorie of effort put in – any less than that and he will stop subsisting and start starving. According to one study (Steinhart, J.S. and Steinhart, C.E., 1974, “Energy history of the U.S. food system”, Science, vol. 184), such farmers normally manage to get between 11 and 61 calories out for each calorie they put in. By comparison, another study (Leach, G., 1976, Energy and Food Production) found that UK agriculture in general gets 0.35 calories out per calorie in. I’ve seen estimates for US agriculture of 13 calories in for each calorie out, which works out at around 0.08.

On the face of it, these figures are catastrophically inefficient. The only reason the industrial-farming nations have not all starved to death is that most of the calories going in are coming from fossil fuels. Very little of that energy input is from the person sat in the cab. This is fine until it isn’t: fossil fuels are depleting, and at some point will become prohibitively expensive. That point is not as far in the future as we would like.

Another factor which can distort our perception of efficiency is the tendency to measure it in terms of price. Other things being equal, the cheapest way of doing something should be the most efficient, but other things never are equal. Economists have a delightful euphemism for a cost that a business is not going to pay; they call it an “externality.” The diesel which keeps all those tractors running is produced at considerable environmental cost which is in no way factored into the price. This is still true even if we insist on defining that cost purely in financial terms; it’s going to be an expensive proposition to deal with sea-level rise, for instance.

Because prices are often distorted in this way, the magic of the free market is unable to work as the theory says it should. The price no longer reflects the true cost. It would be interesting to know what the price of a barrel of crude oil really ought to be, once one includes all the externalised costs. As far as I can tell that study hasn’t been done, but I suspect the result would be somewhat higher than the $60-odd the stuff is going for at the moment.

Our love of efficiency has brought us the magic of the Just-in-time supply chain, where the amount of stock sitting in warehouses is minimised as far as possible. Sadly, this can all too easily morph into its evil twin, the Not-quite-in-time supply chain. As I write this, an enormous container ship has got itself wedged across the Suez Canal. Now I am sure that ship looks very efficient in terms of volume of goods moved per dollar, but at the moment it is holding up hundreds of other vessels and goodness know how many gazillion dollars’ worth of stuff. Nobody yet knows how long it will take to unblock the canal.

And this exposes the dark side of efficiency: its antagonism to resilience. Many of the ships queuing up to the south of the canal are oil tankers. Refineries typically keep about a week’s worth of crude on hand in case of interruptions to supply, but if any of those tankers end up having to go the long way around Africa, there will be more than a week’s gap. By the time you read this, no doubt we will have seen how that plays out, but issues like that are not uncommon. Recently, for instance, an earthquake in Japan shut down a semiconductor plant, interrupting production at a number of car factories.

Back in 2000, there was a strike by petrol tanker drivers in the UK which disrupted supplies to supermarkets, amongst other things. It emerged that only a few days’ worth of food was kept in stores. People know this; hence the incidence of panic buying in the early days of the 2020 pandemic. (This is one of those irregular verbs: I am stocking up on essentials, you are panic buying, he is a prepper.) As the saying has it, any society is three square meals away from anarchy.

Resilience implies a certain level of inefficiency. That spare tyre is increasing the weight of your car as well as taking up space, but it also makes the car resilient in the event of a puncture. The most efficient way is not necessarily the best. As with most things in life, a balance needs to be struck. Efficiency, after all, is a one-dimensional measure. It can tell you which car has the highest mpg, but that may not be the only or even the most important factor in your purchasing decision.

Consider the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the first person to apply the rigorous empirical methods of science to the workplace. In his case, he was trying to maximise output per man-hour. What he really wanted to achieve, but couldn’t due to the limited technology of his day, was complete automation. Instead he tried to treat the human beings he was studying as if they were robots. He advocated rigid adherence to standards which were to be defined and enforced by management, making Adam Smith’s pin factory a worker’s paradise in comparison.

Now of course Taylor wasn’t optimising for happiness, and indeed it is hard to imagine how one would go about doing such a thing. (The Utilitarians gave it a try, but their definitions beg most of the interesting questions.) If we define efficiency as a ratio between quantities, then only quantifiable things can be considered. That does not however mean that they are the only important things, or even the most important.

Efficiency is a seductive notion. It looks so clear-cut. After all, you can’t argue with arithmetic. Nor is it a bad tool when employed correctly. Fuel economy is certainly something I would take into consideration when buying a car, and it’s useful to have a standard for comparison. But like everything else, dedication to efficiency can be taken too far.

As we have seen with the example of agriculture, something may be efficient by one measure and appallingly inefficient by another. It is important to be aware of which measure we are choosing, and why. Nor is “efficient” a straightforward synonym for “good.” Would the Nazi death camps have been better if they had been more efficient at killing people? There is always a bigger picture than a simple measurement of efficiency will give us.

The next time you see something touted as efficient, look for that bigger picture and ask the awkward questions. You might be surprised by the answers.

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