On protest

Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.

Wendell Berry,. What Are People For?

As I write this, the present government of the United Kingdom is preparing to pass legislation that will make public protest illegal. It contains plenty of other objectionable measures, but this is the one getting most attention. Its announcement naturally provoked public protests – which were of course pointed to by the government as further evidence that such things cannot be tolerated.

I am not sure, actually, that public protest has ever accomplished a great deal in terms of convincing governments to change their mind. There was, for example, an enormous rally in 2003 to protest against the UK’s involvement in the second Gulf War; the reported number of people involved varied depending on whether the newspaper reporting it was for or against the war, but it was certainly very large, on the order of hundreds of thousands in London alone. We joined the war anyway, and the electorate failed to eject the New Labour government at their next opportunity.

Long before that we had the Chartist movement, which aimed at turning Britain into a democracy – something it has never actually been, despite what people say. Their methods consisted of drawing up a charter stating their demands, holding public meetings, and submitting petitions, all of which were ignored. When the rest of Europe was ablaze with revolution in the heady year of 1848, the Chartists submitted a third and final petition. (Of course these days we have online petitions, which allow public opinion to be ignored much more efficiently.) Needless to say, the practical upshot of all this was essentially nothing.

Given that governments can and do ignore these events, it is perhaps surprising that they are so keen to restrict them. They already require police permission to occur in the UK, and are banned from taking place in Parliament Square, where Members of Parliament might be obliged to take some notice of them. I can only suppose that it is part of the growing tendency amongst governments across the world to feel that people should just shut up and do what they are told.

The ongoing pandemic has offered many opportunities for this tendency to display itself, in the UK and elsewhere. In a recent essay, Paul Kingsnorth has surveyed a few of these, and it is already looking quite disturbing. In parts of Australia, we have already reached the point at which citizens are being put in internment camps by the military. I don’t think you have to be paranoid to find this a worrying development. The same goes for compulsory vaccinations, as we are now seeing in Austria, and soon in Germany too by all accounts.

This is not a public health issue, by the way. The vaccines do have a value in terms of reducing the severity of the disease, should you be infected by it. If you are likely to be severely affected, I advise you to get the jab; I have myself. But they do very little in terms of reducing transmission. It therefore makes very little sense to vaccinate and re-vaccinate people in low-risk groups, especially when you consider that none of these drugs has passed the normal clinical trials (nor are they likely to, given that the control groups have now been vaccinated).

What this is about, increasingly, is governments asserting their authority over individual citizens. It may well be that for many, perhaps most, people it is more rational to risk infection than to risk taking the vaccine – leaving aside the possibility that it may well not work against the variant du jour in any case. But rationality has nothing to do with it. The government wills it thus, and therefore it must be so, and anyone who doesn’t like it will feel the full rigour of the emergency legislation.

Emergencies, of course, can go on for a long time. Income tax was brought in back in 1798 to pay for the Napoleonic Wars. Those must have been some pretty expensive wars, because we’re still paying the tax. (It did go away briefly in the early nineteenth century, to be fair.) Once governments have powers, they rarely choose to relinquish them. Even if the current government is forced out of office at the next election – which seems vanishingly unlikely – I doubt whether the current bill, doubtless law by then, will be repealed wholesale. A show will be made of getting rid of this or that provision; they might even re-legalise public protest. But they will keep as much of it as they dare.

So what can we do? Should we all take to the streets? Perhaps if enough people did so the system would be swamped, but that is a little akin to the idea current in my childhood that if everyone in China jumped up and down at the same time it would cause an earthquake. (If you want to do that, fracking is much more practical.) In other words, it probably isn’t going to happen. How could such protests even be organised in an age when telephone and digital communications are monitored both by governments and by corporations whose interests those governments serve?

We live in dark times, but there is always something to be done. We can all put a little grit into the gears of the machine from time to time. There is a lot to be said for opting out of those things we still can: such institutions as Buy Nothing Day are helpful (and of course can save you a packet too). Passive resistance can be surprisingly effective. The best way to get a bureaucrat to ignore you is to be slightly more trouble than you are worth. Let the good soldier Å vejk be your role-model.

The art here is judging what you can get away with. Big obvious things, like going on one of those illegal protest marches, will probably land you in jail. But there is always a gap between the official reality depicted in legislation and the actual situation. That is the space you want to inhabit. If rules are bent often enough then they cease to be enforced and eventually become unenforceable. The rules governing corruption in public life in the UK are approaching that point now, for example, as the case of Owen Paterson demonstrates.

MPs, of course, get to change the rules that govern them (and sufficiently senior MPs get to ignore them altogether). The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Time, however, is on our side. All governments rely on the consent of the governed, and if that consent has to be extorted by force then an expensive and potentially unreliable machinery is needed to do the extorting. I am not sure, for instance, that the current UK government is as well-beloved by its police as it might need to be, after long years of “downsizing.”

Let us remember that even large things that appear permanently established may not in fact be so. When I was growing up, the Soviet Union was one of the great givens of geopolitics. Then, quite suddenly, it went away. Perhaps history will surprise us again. For this too will pass.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

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

On rent

I love you

You pay my rent

Pet Shop Boys, “Rent”

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in rented accommodation. Why is this?

The relationship between landlord and tenant goes back at least to the feudal period, as does much of the legislation governing it, at least in Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions. Now the feudal period gets a lot of bad press, to the point where there is a school of historians who want to deny that “feudalism” was ever a thing. but without getting into all that there is one characteristic of feudalism that I want to stress: economic (and political and military) arrangements were based above all on personal relationships.

This is so utterly alien to the way we do things in modern industrial society that I want to explore it a little. Your typical mediaeval peasant would have a landlord. In all likelihood, he would know his landlord personally. Indeed, quite often the landlord wouldn’t be all that much richer than some of his tenants. The rent would not however be paid in money but in kind (so many bushels of wheat, say), in service (so many days a year of labour), or in some combination of the two, to an amount that tended not to change much over time. The peasant’s family would live in the same village for many generations, and the landlord’s family would stay in the same manor-house for many generations. This makes for dull history, but remember what the Chinese are supposed to say about interesting times.

The landlord himself was in turn probably the tenant of someone else higher up the food-chain, right up to the tenants-in-chief, who were technically tenants of the king. We don’t tend to think of, say, Warwick the Kingmaker as a tenant, but legally he was. Only the king really owned the land, at least in theory, and Warwick the Kingmaker had a personal relationship with the king – in his case, with several of them. At the Warwick the Kingmaker level, rent would usually take the form of military service. This is how mediaeval kings raised their armies, and also why their armies tended to disintegrate once they had better things to do, like get in the harvest. This obligation to military service went all the way down to the peasant level, which is where foot-soldiers came from, and also why mediaeval foot-soldiers were generally seen as a bit rubbish.

Now I am not arguing that this was some ideal form of society, although it lasted for enough centuries that we can assume that it had its points. But where it differs most dramatically from our current arrangements is that it was a set of personal relationships, and that there were obligations in both directions. A good lord would look after his tenants, and his tenants would look after him. Of course in practice there were plenty of bad lords and for that matter bad tenants, but that was how it was supposed to work, and on the whole it seems to have worked well enough most of the time.

None of this obtains nowadays. I spent many years in rented accommodation, and I only knew two of my landlords personally. (One of them, indeed, was an insurance company, and not knowable personally at all.). My rent consisted of a monetary payment, which was subject to review (read: increase) every year. Usually I dealt with a management company or some other intermediary, paid by my landlord and therefore acting in his/her/its interests. And the arrangement was always assumed to be temporary. Indeed, it was defined as such.

These are not conditions which encourage good relations. In fact, they almost prohibit such relations. They are also not conducive to stability, either at the individual level or at the social level. The mediaeval peasant may not have owned his tenancy, but neither was there any serious danger that his family would be thrown out of it when he died. The modern tenant may have some legal protections, but once the person whose name is on the lease hops the twig, it’s game over.

Now this is part of a wider trend, in which people become increasingly isolated and atomised and the cash-relationship is substituted for every other kind of relationship. In such an environment, stability is an impossible dream – rather, it becomes a nightmare, since in a static world there is no scope for arbitrage. The fantasy of those who promote and profit from this world has been nicely articulated by an acolyte of the delightful Klaus Schwab and his World Economic Forum:

Welcome to the year 2030. Welcome to my city – or should I say, “our city.” I don’t own anything. I don’t own a car. I don’t own a house. I don’t own any appliances or any clothes.

Ida Auken

If you follow the link to that article – go on, I dare you – everything is described as being free. But I can’t imagine anyone who has ever paid rent could really believe that, because the one unquestioned fact about our world is that, if money can be made from a thing, someone is making money from that thing.

And I would wager, dear reader, that you have paid and are paying rent. Even if you “own” your house, if you have a mortgage then you are paying rent on the money you used to buy it – and the bank still has the deeds. The same goes for your car, or for anything else you “bought” with borrowed money. For many people, this goes for the fuel they use, the water they drink and the food they eat. We already live in a world in which ownership is concentrated in very few hands; as few as in mediaeval Europe. What we don’t have is the slightest reciprocity from the owners.

Because housing has ceased to be something that exists primarily for people to live in. It has become an investment vehicle, a cow to be milked by those who own it. And it isn’t just housing that is going this way. There are very few enterprises you can make money from these days, and so the wealthy are increasingly becoming what economists call rentiers. A rentier is someone who does absolutely nothing productive, but owns an asset – an apartment block, a patent, a copyright, a tract of land, a monopoly – from which money can be extracted, because other people need it to use it.

Entire books have been written on this phenomenon – recently, for example, Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy, and Who Pays for It? by Brett Christophers (Verso, 2020). The reason it has become so prevalent is not, I think, simply the fact that rich people want to get even richer; that was the case well before even the days of Warwick the Kingmaker. The reason is that you can no longer make money they way you used to, by having some kind of productive enterprise like a farm or an iron-foundry or even a software house. There are no good investments, as we used to understand the term. On the contrary, real wealth is contracting already, and I don’t see it expanding any time soon.

So I don’t happen to think that 2030 will look the way Ms Auken invites us to imagine. Dr Schwab and his merry pranksters have a little over eight years from the time of writing to bring that scenario about, and the omens are not propitious. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if global property markets – and stock markets – were to experience what is euphemistically known as a “correction” between now and 2030. Frankly, I would be more surprised if that didn’t happen.

You may see this as good news, or bad news, or not news at all. Like most news, I expect it to be mixed. But to paraphrase Michael Hudson, rent that can’t be paid, won’t be paid. What that means for you, dear reader, depends on whether you are a landlord or a tenant. Prepare accordingly.

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

On the perils of accountancy

Many of our psychologists, sociologists, economists and other latter-day cabalists will have numbers to tell them the truth or they will have nothing.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

When I graduated from university, back in the 1980s when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, there used to be an institution known as the Milk Round, whereby various corporations toured universities hoping to recruit the nation’s best and brightest. Rather disappointingly, to my mind, most of these seemed to be after future accountants. They had a point, in that the CEOs of many large UK businesses already came from a background in accountancy, and the trend was for this tendency to become more pronounced. “Become an accountant, me hearty,” they didn’t actually say but I suspect secretly wanted to. “‘Tis a man’s life! The smack of the salt breeze in your spreadsheet….”

You have to realise that prior to this time accountancy was generally seen as very, very boring. There was a well-known Monty Python sketch in which an accountant by the name of Herbert Anchovy seeks to break out of the stereotype by re-training as a lion tamer. He says of accountancy: “It’s dull. Dull. Dull. My God it’s dull, it’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL.” The joke, of course, is that when he realises how scary lions actually are he changes his mind.

Looking back, I dodged a couple of bullets at this moment in my life. I didn’t go into accountancy. I also didn’t go into academia, which was what I thought I was going to do, but that’s another story. Accountants did, however, go on to rule the world, and I think this is no longer helpful, if it ever was. Let me explain.

An account is, fundamentally, another word for a story. In the sense accountants use the term, it’s a story about financial transactions, and it is told to an auditor – literally, a hearer. These stories are not, for the most part, especially riveting. My point, however, is that like all narratives they construct a reality. In this case, the reality is based around arithmetic, which is itself an abstract view of the world, and what is being counted is money, which is not of itself a real thing.

Our oldest written records are financial accounts, but when they speak (for instance) of the movement of ingots of silver there is good reason to believe that no physical ingots ever stirred from the temple treasuries in which they resided. As I have discussed previously, we should always bear in mind that money is not the same thing as wealth. Interested readers are referred to the works of Michael Hudson concerning ancient Mesopotamian economics, and to the late David Graeber’s excellent Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House Publishing, 2013).

Now the idea behind keeping accounts is to have an accurate and verifiable record of financial transactions – originally for the purposes of keeping track of tax liabilities and payments, but the practice is now used by pretty much any organisation that uses money, which is all of them. But like any account of the truth, it is capable of being adapted for the narrator’s own purposes. “Creative accounting” is not a compliment. It is the kind of thing that led to the collapse of Enron, and when people are caught doing it they can end up doing prison time.

Because accounts are supposed to be a true description of affairs. That is their whole value. For this reason, we have a system of supposedly independent scrutiny by external auditors which is meant to ensure this. Notoriously, Enron’s auditors, Arthur Andersen, failed spectacularly in this regard. But without going to such extremes, accountants can choose to represent basically the same underlying facts in different ways in order, for example, to reduce their client’s liability to taxation. Whatever you may think of the morality of this, it is perfectly legal and quite a substantial industry in its own right.

This is an example of how changing the narrative can have real-world effects. I remember hearing the political economist Mark Blyth remark in a lecture that in the previous year he personally had paid more tax than America Airlines did. A further real-world effect of this might well be, as he went on to suggest, that Americans would cease to be willing to put up with this sort of thing, which might not be such good news from American Airlines’ point of view.

Now this may be reprehensible in the financial sphere, but it’s downright dangerous when we apply the accounting mentality to other things, as we are so prone to do. The poster child for this is CO2 emissions. Many industrialised nations claim to have reduced their emissions when in fact what they have done is offshored them – that is, transferred them to the balance-sheet of some other, poorer nation. This completely overlooks the central fact that the global levels of actual, physical CO2 in the atmosphere are what counts.

Massaging statistics does not and cannot affect the underlying realities. The map is not the territory, nor the accounts the reality they describe. Our physical environment is not a tax system. You might be able to fool the Inland Revenue, but not Mother Nature. This goes for all other forms of pollution, depletion of fossil fuels and other natural resources, social issues, and so on. The stories we tell ourselves will not help us unless they relate usefully to what it actually happening and suggest practical action.

As I write these words, COP26 has yet to produce a definitive agreed text. I very much doubt whether that text, when it emerges – and something or other will have to emerge to justify the thing being held – will meet either of those criteria. There will be pledges. There will be nice-sounding generalisations. There will be continued growth in CO2 emissions and in all the other harms we are perpetrating to the living world to which we belong and on which we depend.

Nothing to see here, move along.

We no longer have the luxury of pretending that manipulating numbers in Excel is the same thing as making effective change in the world. We’ll probably keep on doing it, of course, because it’s what we do. But there will be a reckoning, and it will entail more than just a tax bill.

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

On the failure of imagination

What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty…

William Blake, Vision of the Last Judgment

One of the many crises that industrial civilisation is currently facing, and to my mind one of the most serious, is a crisis of imagination. Indeed, an active imagination is something we fear, to the point of declaring it pathological. If William Blake were alive today he would almost certainly be on some fairly heavy-duty medication.

Part of this is down to a cumbersome literal-mindedness that stems, I suspect, from the feeling that scientific discourse is the only vehicle of truth. Now the language of science is plain to the point of sterility – a scientific instrument 27 km (over 19 miles) across can only garner the adjective “large” even in a language unusually rich in adjectives denoting size (Ginormous Hadron Collider, anyone?). There is no room for ambiguity, let alone metaphor; it is like the Republic from which Plato wished to banish poets. But this is itself a rhetorical stance. When Julius Caesar wished to cultivate the image of a plain-speaking soldier, he published accounts of his wars in langage so simple that they are still used as introductory texts for students of Latin. This wasn’t because he was a plain-speaking soldier; he just wished to be taken for one.

In the same way, the authors of scientific papers wish to be taken for infallible oracles of truth. That’s fine so long as we realise that that’s what they’re doing. Certainly there are other ways of thinking, speaking and writing that also provide access to truths, not necessarily the same kinds of truths they are looking for at CERN, but nevertheless of value. And these are the truths we are lacking today, or so it seems to me.

When Shakespeare’s plays were originally produced, not only was Othello played by a white actor but all the female parts were played by men. Contemporary audiences nevertheless had no difficulty in believing in Romeo’s passion for Juliet, or Antony’s obsession with Cleopatra. You’d have a hard time staging a Shakespeare play that way now. (Having all the male parts played by women is apparently fine, though.)

All this would be merely sad – very sad, granted, but nothing more – except for the way this lack of imagination deprives us of possibilities for life and indeed survival. If there was ever a moment in our history when we needed to think outside the proverbial box, this is it. Because if we don’t, this is our situation:

You are here.

Industrial civilisation is predicated on consuming resources and turning them into unusable waste. That is what it does, always has done, and as far as I can see always will do. Some of those resources are intrinsically finite, like petroleum, and those that could be renewed in principle it tends to consume at rates that exceed replacement levels, like fish. “Decoupling” economic growth is a fantasy born of wishful thinking and blind faith that accounting tricks can accomplish things in the physical universe.

Continuing in a straight line along the same path – or, to use the popular word, “progress” – is not a viable option. As I write this, COP 26 has just begun in Glasgow. This is an international conference intended to address the issue of climate change. As its name suggests, there have already been twenty-five of these, and climate change is still merrily trucking along. And of course climate change is just one of the issues we face at the present time. We are not even holding ineffectual talking-shops when it comes to ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, or pollution.

So there are fundamental questions about the way we live that need to be addressed, and addressed quickly. We’ve been kicking the can down the road for a long time now, and it has been joined by plenty of other cans, to the point where we now have to kick this down the road:

This is just going to hurt your toe.

There’s an old saying that if you find yourself in a hole you should stop digging. That’s certainly true, and anything we can do, individually or collectively, to slow down the insanity has to be the first step. And I do not mean buying a Tesla: I mean consuming less, consuming more responsibly, and if at all possible giving the living world some breathing-room. We can’t all be Isabella Tree, but that must be the correct direction of travel.

And this is going to mean discarding many of the assumptions we have all grown up taking for granted. A “good job” is not one that facilitates the extraction and consumption of resources – what with rich if unconscious irony we call “productivity.” Not is it one that allows us to consume more of those resources ourselves. Maybe the individual is not the be-all and end-all. Maybe you don’t actually need that new iPhone. Maybe your life would be better if you didn’t own a smartphone at all.

People have lived sustainable lives on this planet for many millennia – at least two hundred of them. It can be done. The mere fact that you and I are alive today proves that. More than that, it can be done in ways that are at least as pleasant and fulfilling as driving a van for Amazon or developing pointless smartphone apps or writing reports. We have been mis-educated to imagine that all human life prior to the Industrial Revolution was so miserable as not to have been worth living. Arguably much human life during and after that revolution might deserve that description, but a lot of people before and outside industrial civilisation have been, and are, a good deal happier than we like to admit.

Because consuming stuff is not, ultimately, very satisfying. This is one of the few points on which all the major religions agree, and frankly it’s amply confirmed by experience. We don’t need industrial capitalism. Certainly, if the choice is between that and the extinction of most life on this planet – and I believe it is – it’s hardly a difficult one.

The difficulty lies in untangling ourselves from the mind-bogglingly complex web in which this way of living has enmeshed us. But that web is already starting to unravel. We can help that process along by buying less, making do, learning skills so that we can do more for ourselves rather than depending on the industrial economy to provide. The ongoing supply chain issues should already be teaching us that, but of course we can’t imagine a world in which the shelves are not magically refilled. But that’s the world we’re going to be living in.

All of this is going to require creative thinking and adaptability, which are qualities our culture has taken pains to educate out of us for many years now. The good news, so far as it goes, is that the process has only been partially successful. We still have imagination; and to quote Blake once more: “Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.”

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

On pollution

It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.

T. Danforth Quayle

When I first became aware of environmental issues back in the 1970s, pollution was a hot topic. Whether it was the use of pesticides like DDT, oil spills (as in the wreck of the Torrey Canyon), the problem of nuclear waste, or the disposal of toxic chemicals (as in the Love Canal disaster), pollution was big news. Nowadays, unless you count the excessive levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, not so much. Why is this?

Before I answer this question, I’d like to divide pollution into two categories. First, there are substances that exist naturally but which we have either put somewhere inappropriate, as in an oil spill, or in inappropriate quantities, as with CO2. Crude oil and CO2 both occur naturally on this planet, but crude oil does not belong off the coast of Cornwall and CO2 should not constitute 412.5 parts per million of the atmosphere, or not if we want good things to happen. There are natural mechanisms that will eventually take care of these things, although not necessarily in ways which we will like. This kind of pollution is bad, no question, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the biosphere as a whole. Large tracts of it, sure, but those tracts don’t affect our shareholders, so that makes it an externality, right?

The second type of pollution consists of substances that do not occur in nature. (Clever old Homo sapiens, eh?) I’m thinking here of things like Strontium-90 or PFAS. As far as I know, the living world presently has no good way of coping with these things. We’re merrily putting them out there in the blind hope that everything will be fine. After all, everything was fine yesterday – well, mostly fine – so everything will be fine tomorrow. Apart from the things that aren’t, and we obviously need more research to prove that those things are anything to do with us.

Possibly a big boy did it and ran off. As I say, more research is needed.

I think we’ve stopped having a conversation about pollution because everyone knows it’s going on – and on an epic and ever-increasing scale – but nobody wants to take responsibility for it or to accept the realities of a world in which it stops happening. And this is the real point. Because we are responsible – you are, I am, every member of industrial civilisation is. We demanded more and cheaper electricity, so nuclear power stations were invented; hence Strontium-90 and all the other nasties that result from that. (Oh yes, and electric cars are going to save the world. Right.)

Once upon a time there was a slogan that went like this: “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Well, of course reducing resource or energy use will be bad for economic growth, so that had to be discarded. Likewise reusing stuff implies buying less new stuff, which is likewise bad for growth, so chuck that one as well. Recycling might be okay if someone can make money out of it, but these days it mostly means sending stuff to China to go into a landfill somewhere. (Which it makes it into pollution, of course.)

If you’ve ever drunk alcohol, you have been involved in a little fable about pollution. Yeasts break down organic matter – almost any organic matter – into sugars, which they then use as food. Alcohol is a by-product of this process. From yeast’s point of view, it is excrement. Above a certain level, it is toxic to yeast (and indeed to people). The sediment at the bottom of a barrel of wine or beer consists of yeast which has drowned in its own excrement. I’d call this a sobering thought if that weren’t a contradiction in terms.

We are not, yet, drowning in our own excrement. But it isn’t hard to see how this could occur, perhaps in a more varied and colourful way than the yeast in a wine-barrel, but just as inevitably. And unlike yeast, we will be taking a lot more lives with us as we go. Nobody knows exactly how many species we are driving to extinction by our activities, but the ballpark figure is around two hundred per day. Per day. And that number is rising.

Think about that for a moment. Think about that in the context of the interconnectedness of all life on this planet – which includes you, dear reader. Imagine that you lived at the top of a tall building, and that every day someone randomly knocked out two hundred bricks from the fabric of that building. Would you feel secure? I wouldn’t. I don’t.

We do a lot of things that are inimical to life on this planet. Pollution is only one of them. We cut down forests. We hunt species to extinction. We invade and destroy unique habitats. We do these things not because we need to, but because we choose to – not explicitly, in many cases, but implicitly. If I choose to drive a car, I choose the oil industry, and all the pollution that entails. (Even if I drive an electric car, how is it lubricated? And where does the electricity come from? Not to mention the steel it’s made from, and all the exotic minerals that go into the electronics. And so forth.) If I choose to use a computer, I choose the semiconductor industry, and all the pollution that entails. And so on. This is how industrial civilisation rolls. We all know this, on some level.

Trouble is, this is both horrible and impractical. It’s like heating your house by cremating your immediate family. Not only is that sickening, pretty soon you’re going to run out of children. And that’s where we are.

Sorry if this is a downer, but, well, that’s how it is.

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

On being unreasonable

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

It is not often that you’ll find me in agreement with David Icke, especially when it comes to the role of lizards in political life, but he did write a book whose title I often wish I’d thought of first: It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This. For most people, the way the world is now is simply inevitable. Things could never have turned out differently. What they grew up with is normal, and anything else is just weird.

This isn’t a bad thing, in the main. It allows (most) people to adapt successfully to the society into which they are born. They learn and internalise the set of customs and practices which are normal in that society, which will usually be the customs and practices that will help them survive in that particular environment. This gives human beings their remarkable adaptability: they can survive in jungles and in deserts, in mountains and in swamps, and even in Los Angeles. We’re right up there with rats, cockroaches, and the hooded crow.

But this only works when your environment is reasonably stable. It’s not much use being an ace buffalo-hunter when someone else has exterminated all the buffalo. And that has been the experience of many, many indigenous people when industrial civilisation showed up in their country, including the English when the first Industrial Revolution happened, or rather was imposed on them. If you want to get some idea of what that was like, I can recommend Kirkpatrick Sale’s book Rebels Against the Future (Addison-Wesley, 1994).

Pre-industrial empires certainly conquered subject peoples throughout history, but from the point of view of ordinary people nothing much usually changed in day-to-day life. Last year you paid your taxes to King X, and now you pay them to King Y. Occasionally a population might be relocated wholesale, as the Assyrians (and Stalin) were wont to do, but for most empires this was too much hassle. If you were a rice farmer, you carried on growing rice.

Because of this basic continuity, there was relatively little appetite for radical change. Take the institution of chattel slavery under the Greeks and Romans. Everyone agreed that being a slave was a rough deal, but nobody really thought slavery should be abolished, apart from the slaves, and even they were often freed under the Roman system. But freed slaves didn’t campaign for all other slaves to be freed likewise. Often they went on to own slaves themselves. After all, slaves were the household appliances of the classical world.

We like to sit in judgement on others, particularly those in the past. It’s been said elsewhere, however, that this is not always the best idea, especially when we ourselves will be subject to the judgement of others.I rather think there are many things that we do in our society that will seem to future generations every bit as reprehensible as chattel slavery now seems to us. Our household appliances may not be slaves, but they are prodigal users of energy, water, and other resources. Our attitude to other living beings is, on the whole, crudely exploitative. Future generations will find much to revile. Of necessity, there will be many things they will do differently.

There is always scope, however, for doing things differently ourselves right now. We don’t have to wait for history to roll onwards. Indeed, as Shaw points out, history only does roll onwards because people choose to do things differently. Humanity is an abstraction; but you – the person sitting in your chair – are not. The reasonable thing to do is always what everyone else is doing. To choose to do something else is unreasonable, eccentric, sometimes even criminal. It may also be right and necessary.

Now the notion of unreasonableness that Shaw is talking about is slightly different from mine. For Shaw, the “unreasonable man” is a heroic figure, someone like Galileo, who takes some kind of exemplary stand and thereby changes the world. What I am advocating for here is something less dramatic, humdrum even – certainly lower-risk – namely having the courage to take a different path from everyone else. And that courage may turn out to be easier to come by than you think. I wouldn’t normally jump from the third floor of a building in cold blood, but if the building was on fire I very well might. And most of the decisions we make in life have much lower stakes than that, even for the likes of Red Adair.

The unreasonable option is not always right just because it is unreasonable. All I am arguing here is that we need to keep it on the menu of choices we make. In many areas of life this is already being acted on; think of the many workers in ill-paid jobs who have chosen to stop doing them, because they can see that there is no worthwhile future in continuing to do them. As the saying goes, if you’re in a hole, stop digging.

I have no idea if the current wave of environmental protests is going to achieve anything. But it is a fine example of unreasonableness in action, and if there is to be useful change, it will come from the unreasonable ones, the non-conformists, the awkward squad. Of course, I don’t presume to tell you what to think or do (actually, there’s no “of course” about it, as most Internet content is trying to tell you what to think or do). I don’t personally know you or your situation.

What I would urge you to do, though, is to be unreasonable. How many of the things you do in life are your own choice and how many are just the things everyone does? And your beliefs about the world: how many have you absorbed from your surroundings, and how many have you arrived at yourself by reflection and enquiry? The unexamined life may or may not be worth living, but at this juncture it strikes me as pretty dangerous. Progress, after all, is simply continued movement forwards, and while that might be reasonable it might also take you over the edge of a cliff if you’re not paying attention.

Mind how you go.

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

On the failure of political leadership

Everyone stay calm! This is not happening!

King Arnulf in Erik the Viking by Terry Jones

Anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to current events in, say, the last couple of years will be aware of at least one crisis besetting the industrial world. We have, of course, had the Covid-19 pandemic, which still seems to be ongoing as I write this despite various claims of success. There is the climate crisis. There is the biodiversity crisis, which gets rather less airtime, possibly because it poses less of an immediate threat to the insurance industry. There are various debt crises – the Chinese property market is the debt crisis du jour, but when has there not been at least one somewhere?

There is also a crisis of confidence in governments and in public institutions more generally. When the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom tells people not to panic-buy fuel, panic-buying of fuel promptly ensues. For someone in his position, there is no swifter way to cause panic than to tell everyone not to panic. It speaks volumes that he did so anyway.

All these crises are hopelessly entangled, and trying to solve one usually results in at least three others getting worse. Public spending to alleviate the effects of the pandemic only adds to the debt crisis, for instance. The current high price of natural gas is having impacts on both industry and agriculture, which by further damaging the economy will also end up piling on more debt. The collapse of public confidence in the official line also tends to undermine vaccination programmes, and so on. And of course doing pretty much anything in an industrial context screws with the environment.

Human beings are not terribly good at coping with this sort of thing, for understandable reasons. When our ancestors evolved back on the African savannah, they certainly had to deal with crises, but these tended to arrive one at a time and to be obvious and acute, for example being attacked by a lion. In that situation, you are not going to be worrying about the long-term consequences of climbing the nearest tree, nor do you need to. Solving the immediate problem at hand is all that’s required.

Unfortunately this is not the kind of situation we have to deal with. I don’t claim to know all the major issues facing industrial civilisation today, but I can think of plenty more than I’ve already mentioned, and doubtless so can you. What we tend to miss, though, is the interactions between them. This is not something our brains are especially well-equipped to deal with, and it would be surprising if they were.

But what is making all of these problems worse is the thoroughgoing ineptitude of the political leaders who are supposed to be dealing with them. This is not a party political point. I cannot name a single prominent political figure in the United Kingdom who shows the remotest sign of the competence required to address any of them singly, let alone all of them together. Nor do other countries in the industrialised world appear to be faring much better.

Winston Churchill famously told the British people that he had nothing to offer them but blood, toil, tears and sweat. People forget that this was not a platform on which he stood for election. He didn’t become Prime Minister in 1940 because the British people chose him – it was an internal party decision – and when he did stand for election after the war he was thrown out on his ear. On the other hand, Barack Obama won two terms as President of the United States on a nebulous promise of hope and change, without noticeably delivering much of either.

Politicians win elections by promising goodies. Sometimes the promise is nothing more than being less appalling than the alternative – this seems to be the usual approach in the USA, and it certainly worked for Tony Blair in 1997 – but in general the message always has to be: “Vote for me, and things will get better.”

This would be okay if things had any real prospect of getting better, but they don’t. When Churchill came to power in 1940, there was no point in pretending that the immediate future was at all bright. He therefore had the luxury of being able to be realistic. He also had the luxury of having one big obvious problem in front of him. Modern leaders have neither.

Even if they did, however, there’s no reason to suppose they’d be up to the job. There is too vast a gulf between the political realm and the reality it seeks to control, or at least react to. Most of those with access to the levers of power have a very narrow experience of the world, if only because they tend to be drawn from the richer end of society. Some of them have never had a career outside of politics. They have never had to work around hard limits, because they have never been faced with them. They have never had to choose between keeping warm in winter and having enough to eat. The lower reaches of Maslow’s pyramid are unknown to them. Nor are they eager to rock the boat when they are the ones in the first-class cabins.

Such people are even less likely than most of us to face up to uncomfortable truths. Indeed, it seems as if our political class actively seeks to protect itself from them. The strongest word a modern politician can utter is “challenge,” and even then they do so in the secret belief that someone else will actually have to deal with it.

Even worse, they occasionally seem to entertain fantasies of their own omnipotence, as notoriously exemplified by Karl Rove. Certainly they appear to believe Koko’s version of how government works:

It’s like this: When your Majesty says, “Let a thing be done,” it’s as good as done – practically, it is done – because your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says, “Kill a gentleman,” and a gentleman is told off to be killed. Consequently, that gentleman is as good as dead – practically, he is dead – and if he is dead, why not say so?

W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado, Act II

So if a President or a Prime Minister makes a speech saying that we must all take (say) climate change very seriously, nothing much actually has to be done. It is entirely to the credit of Greta Thunberg that she won’t stand for any of this flannel and is prepared to say so in public. There are plenty more who will say so in private.

Some of the problems we face are probably insoluble, and we are certainly not capable of solving all of them. We could, however, accomplish many useful things if governments were prepared to take their responsibilities seriously and to act in the best interests of those they govern. As it is, we are going to have to do the best we can without them. They have made themselves into yet another problem instead, tangled up with all the others.

I am not advocating a revolution. But profound political change can occur without a revolution ever taking place. Nobody campaigned to bring down the Roman Empire, but it fell all the same. And when it did, I doubt most people missed it much. There will be life on the other side of all this, and perhaps in some ways a better life, even if you and I may not live to see it. But that’s a matter for another post.

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

On forgiveness

Forgive yourself your sins

Lloyd Cole, “Sweetness” (Rattlesnakes, 1984)

The subject of this week’s post was suggested by on of my readers, Phil Harris. I welcome further suggestions via the comment section below, although of course I reserve the right to ignore them 🙂

In English, we speak of bearing a grudge. I like this expression; it brings out the way in which a grudge, which is the refusal to forgive a real or imagined wrong, is a thing to be toted about. It has a cost to it.

Of course we might feel that the cost is worth it. I don’t imagine most Jews are going to let go of their grudge against the Nazi Party any time soon. I’m not sure about the Palestinians with regard to the Jews, but that isn’t looking too hopeful either. Closer to home, when will the French and English embrace one another as brothers? Or the English and the Scots, for that matter. There are rights and wrongs and everybody knows what they are. People disagree, but they are always right. And people like to be right. If the Internet has done nothing else for us, it has surely demonstrated that beyond any possible doubt.

What is it that we find so difficult about forgiveness? I ask this for myself as much as anyone. It’s not as if an individual act of forgiveness has earth-shattering cosmic consequences. If I gave William the Conqueror a free pass, not much would change. Not much more would change, frankly, if I extended the same courtesy to Jeff Bezos or Boris Johnson or that git who was my headmaster at junior school. That is to say, the world would go on much as it did before.

And for myself, wouldn’t I be the lighter and freer for it? Not that I spend that much time and energy brooding over the Harrying of the North, but such time and energy as I do spend is surely wasted. Any judgement on the old miscreant’s soul would have been passed back in 1087, and even if I’d been around then I don’t suppose my opinion would have been taken into account. The world kept on turning, much as it does today.

I have heard of an individual case where a Holocaust survivor, much later in life, was able to forgive the guards. This is forgiveness on a heroic scale, but if that is possible, surely anything is.

For a lot of these cases, forgiveness is obviously the remedy, and I do try to apply it where I can. I could certainly do more in that direction; most of us could. What I find harder – and I speak for myself, as always in these posts, but not, I think, only for myself – is to forgive my own shortcomings.

None of us, after all, is perfect. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” as Kant said, “no straight thing was ever made.” I have done things that I regret, and so, dear reader, have you. Sometimes we can make amends, but all too often we can’t. And then?

And then all we can do is to make sure we don’t do it again. That may not sound like much, but actually this is what atonement means. Becoming a better person means not screwing up in the same way we screwed up before. Of course human beings are what they are, and we will find new and original ways of screwing up, but then you just rinse and repeat. If you do this often enough, you may well find you have become an okay person.

Which is what it seems to me we are called to do. To invoke Kant again, what would happen if everyone did this? The world would be full of okay people, and Facebook would be out of business. I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as a future worth struggling for, even if it does mean letting go of that unpleasant incident in 1971.

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

On economists

Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.

Kenneth Boulding (attr.)

What on earth is “the economy”? It is a term much bandied about. Its study is an academic heavy industry, and its exponents are listened to with great reverence, but what is it ultimately all about, and why should we care?

Economics as a discipline is said to have originated with Adam Smith, who was a moral philosopher and theologian. When you think about it, this is an odd starting-point for something so relentlessly materialistic. For the first century or so of its existence it was known as political economy, but the political part has mysteriously gone away, or so we are to suppose. The word itself has Greek roots, meaning something like “household governance” (from oikos – house, and nomos – custom or rule), but the concerns of economists have long since ceased to be of any relevance to the domestic sphere.

We think of economics as being about money, but this is only partially the case. The Merriam-Webster definition of the term calls it “a social science concerned chiefly with description and analysis of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services” and actually there’s nothing in there about money as such. It so happens that in our society we facilitate a great many of these things by the use of money, but we don’t do everything that way.

Consider, for example, all the things that friends or family or even complete strangers routinely do for one another free of charge. If I give a passer-by directions, or my partner makes me a sandwich, no money changes hands, and it would be surprising and somehow a bit weird if it did. Then there are all those other arrangements where there is payment in kind of a sort, even if it may not be formalised; you do me a favour, I buy you a drink.

The problem with all this from the point of view of economics is that none of it appears in readily-available statistics, and boy do economists love statistics because they can be used to construct mathematical models. Financial transactions generally do appear in statistics, and money of course is a mathematical quantity, so economists study the money economy for much the same reason as the proverbial drunk searching for his keys under the streetlight.

Theoretical physicists also construct mathematical models. The key difference is that the physicists’ models are supposed to be accurate descriptions of the world. If the model is contradicted by experimental data, then the model needs to be fixed so that it matches the data. As I write this, it is reported that this process is happening right now in regard to the expected behaviour of muons; the discrepancy between theory and experiment is extremely small, but it appears to be there. Theoretical physics is hard.

Luckily for economists, their models don’t have this problem. The economic system, even the subset of it that economists actually study, is too complex to model exactly, so a simplified model has to be used. This is of course fine; nobody would want a map the same size as the territory it represents. Unfortunately this offers some temptations that economists have not always resisted:

  1. Mathematical elegance – the model is so lovely that it ought to describe reality, but it doesn’t. Prizewinning economist Paul Samuelson said: “In pointing out the consequences of a set of abstract assumptions, one need not be committed unduly to the relation between reality and these assumptions.” This results in a model that is ornamental rather than useful. To be clear, I have nothing against pure mathematics; I merely ask for it to be called what it is.
  2. Detachment from reality – like all academic disciplines, economics has a tendency to become an end in itself. One could easily imagine a model in which all economic activity consisted of computers selling one another financial instruments, while everybody starved. As far as I can see, there is nothing in modern economic thought which would consider this invalid.
  3. Political convenience – the model gives the answers that are most acceptable to the rich and powerful, who may well be funding the economist one way or another. A nice example of this is the famous Laffer Curve, which is supposed to prove that cutting tax rates will increase tax revenue. When this was tried in the USA under Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr, public debt quadrupled. (The official statistics can be viewed or downloaded here if you want the gory details.) Naturally Arthur Laffer got the Presidential Medal of Freedom for this outstanding contribution to human knowledge.

This last point reminds us of the mysterious disappearance of the word “political” from the name of the discipline. Economics is supposed to have some sort of supra-political authority. In the deathless words of Dr Wolfgang Schäuble, “Elections can not be allowed to change the economic policies of any country.” In this view, the economy, which is an entirely abstract concept, somehow trumps everything else. And of course the only ones capable of interpreting its sacred mysteries are economists, who – entirely coincidentally – find themselves with access to highly-paid employment.

The rest of us are essentially at their mercy. We have no agency: The Economy causes the world to be the way it is, and we just have to put up with it. Certainly, if the good Dr Schäuble is to be believed, the way we vote won’t make much difference. We are but the playthings of impersonal market forces. Free will is an illusion: either we act in the way economics says we should, or we are behaving (gasp) irrationally.

This is an interesting perspective, especially when you think that for countless millennia everyone was blissfully ignorant of all this. People were of course aware that goods and services were produced, distributed and consumed, but nobody seems to have supposed that this was all that was going on, or even the most important thing. I suppose it is possible that everyone who lived before The Wealth of Nations was published was an idiot, but these are the same people who came up with the wheel, the arch, double-entry book-keeping and moveable type.

It seems to me that because economics has such prestige in our society, we are inclined to overlook all the parts of the picture that are missing from its world-view. (This sort of thing, for example.) Economics is about human beings, and even then only about some of the things that humans beings do or care about. Until economists change their world-view to something that corresponds to reality, we should stop giving them any credence. At this point, to take them seriously is, well, irrational.

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