On borders

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

George Packer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On accountability

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

Mahatma Gandhi

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

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

That’s one. O-N-E.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On political authority

There are no governors anywhere.

Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, The Illuminatus! Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On being disconnected from reality

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

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arundhati Roy

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

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

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

On excess

Too much of a good thing is wonderful.

Mae West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until it does, of course.

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

On helplessness

I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.

Vincent van Gogh

Back in 1902, a pamphlet appeared with the arresting title What is to be Done? It was a pretty good question then, and it’s an even more pressing one today.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling helpless sometimes in the face of all the stuff that’s going on in the world – droughts, floods, topsoil loss, wars, food shortages, fuel shortages, debt, rampant inflation, and of course the embarrassing uselessness of governmental responses to all of this across the industrialised world. After all, there’s not much I as an individual can do to fix any of these things.

It’s possible to try and stop being so much part of the problem: use less, waste less, produce what I can, and when I can’t be particular about choosing what I buy in. There are limits to all this, of course. I only have so much money, especially if I avoid going into debt. And none of it achieves anything spectacular. There’s not much in the way of dopamine hits from being frugal, unless you’re particularly into that sort of thing.

Meanwhile most of us are just hoping that someone will come along and fix it all. It’s no coincidence that popular culture has become obsessed with superheroes. Everything appears lost and then bam! Captain Climate Change arrives, in a cape and Lycra® shorts, and Gaia in Her aspect of Lois Lane is rescued at the eleventh hour.

At the same time, of course, everybody secretly knows it doesn’t work like that. The world isn’t even going to fall apart in a conveniently quick and tidy fashion. Instead Monday comes round again, only slightly less endurable than last Monday, and we have to make the best of it. The industrial machine keeps lumbering on, even though more and more parts of it are held together with string and duct-tape, still gamely making everything worse for the vast majority of us.

The author of What is to be Done?, a young firebrand by the name of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, thought the answer lay in violent revolution. Certainly the reaction of many people has been and will be violent. Rioters have been killed in Sri Lanka, where collapse is now in full swing, with the country unable to import fuel. Protesters in Libya set fire to their Parliament building. A recent poll, admittedly with a very small sample size, suggested that up to a quarter of Americans would be prepared to take up arms against their own government. You would need to be a very committed optimist to suppose that things are not going to get even nastier.

Let me make it quite clear that I am not an advocate of violence, except as a last resort. For increasing numbers of people around the world, though, it may be all they have left. I don’t welcome the rising tide of rioting, terrorism, and insurrection, and I don’t think it will accomplish much that is at all useful, even in a negative sense. But there may be plenty of dopamine about, if only briefly in many cases.

But those of us who abstain from violence are likely to feel just as helpless. And helpless people are easy to lead. Many people were feeling helpless in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, and look where they ended up going. And you can say the same for Russia in 1917 (and 1989), and France in 1789, and the USA in the years of the Great Depression. Something clearly had to be done. If you were lucky, the Man with a Plan would turn out to be Franklin D. Roosevelt, but for every FDR history can show us plenty of Robespierres, Mussolinis or indeed Lenins.

So as usual the best course appears to be somewhere in the middle, if that is possible. I have no wish to die on a barricade, and neither do I wish to live under a totalitarian regime, whatever flavour it purports to be. But is such a middle course available to us? What, indeed, is to be done?

The answer is and must be action at a local level. Since most of the things people need, especially food, are going to need to be produced at a local level anyway there is an obvious sphere of action and an obvious motivation for people to work together for their mutual benefit. I am only too aware of the face that for many people in many places this is going to be a difficult and alien concept; consumer culture fetishizes the individual so much that we have forgotten that local collective action is even a possibility.

It has always seemed to me that the real value of things like the Transition Towns movement lies as much in the training people get in working together as in anything concrete they achieve at this stage. As such, it’s never too late to start. Even getting yourself on first-name terms with everyone on your street would be a real step forward.

None of the efforts we make are guaranteed to be successful. I am not going to save the world single-handed, and neither, dear reader, are you, unless you happen to have a cape and a pair of Lycra® shorts in your wardrobe. In the long run, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out, we are all dead. That does not, however, mean that our lives are not worth living, or that the small things we do achieve are without value. After all, we are only here today as the result of a vast number of small things our ancestors accomplished, day in and day out.

Hang in there. Someone, somewhere in the future, will be glad you did.

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

On markets and competition

The free market is a myth. Everybody knows that. Just very few people say it. If you’re in the position like I am and do business all over the world, and if I’m not smart enough to know there’s no free market, I ought to be fired.

The reason we don’t call it socialism is that socialism is a bad word.

Dwayne Andreas, then CEO and chairman of Archer DaniElS Midland, from an interview with Richard Manning (Against the Grain (North Point Press, 2004), p. 144)

Markets, we are often told, are the solution to all our problems. Hardcore market fundamentalists, indeed, seem to think that markets are, or ought to be, the only way in which human beings interact with one another. I sometimes wonder if people who think like that were picked up enough as a baby.

Economic models, like all models, are a simplification of reality. If they weren’t, they would be like the map that Jorge Luis Borges imagined which was exactly the same size are the territory it represented – accurate, but too cumbersome to be of any use. But like all good ideas, simplification can be taken too far. As Einstein is reputed to have said, everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

One of the assumptions economists make about markets is that the parties have perfect information. I’m sure this makes the mathematics a lot simpler but this has never been true of any actual market anywhere. Of course they usually have some information; for the most part, when we go to a shop to buy some bananas, we have an expectation of how much we’re likely to be charged, based on past experience. But we are unlikely to be well-informed on the state of banana production across the globe, let alone on shipping costs, warehousing, and all the other factors that play a part in determining the price we pay.

In theory, we don’t need to worry about any of this because competition between retailers is supposed to ensure the price is kept within bounds. This can work reasonably well so long as our expectations remain in line with the underlying reality. If that reality changes, you can get screwed. An example: long-distance telephone calls.

I am just about old enough to remember when long-distance calls were significantly more expensive than local ones, because they involved more work on the part of the telephone service provider. Am actual human being in a telephone exchange had to set up your call. (In those days phones were provided by the Post Office, thanks to the Telegraph Act (1868), brought in by that notorious socialist Benjamin Disraeli). When automatic exchanges came in, a long-distance call cost the Post Office no more than a local call, but because everyone was used to paying extra for long-distance they merrily continued charging extra.

Now of course an economist would argue that this is a classic case of a market failure. In the orthodox view, market failures are never, ever due to the market. Here we have the evil socialist Benjamin Disraeli distorting the free market by creating a state monopoly. But of course markets tend towards monopoly in any case, although usually there’s some attempt to save appearances. Adam Smith himself was well aware of this:

The interest of the dealers… in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Book I, Chapter XI

This has brought us such wonders as the US healthcare system, which is now the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in that country (66.5% of cases, according to a 2019 study). Given that other industrialised nations don’t seem to have this problem – in the UK we have a mix of state and private healthcare provision, and you’d have to work quite hard to go bust that way – this looks like a market failure to me. And heavy-handed interference on the part of the government isn’t the issue. On the contrary, there probably needs to be more of that sort of thing.

Because government and markets, far from being antagonists, are intimately linked. Mediaeval lords were forever granting charters to allow markets to be held in towns they controlled. But they also intervened, for example, to enforce the use of standard weights and measures. To this day. the German brewing industry still abides by a sixteenth-century decree specifying what may or may not be put into beer. Regulations of this kind go back to the first literate civilisations that we know of, and for good reason.

A market is never a neutral space nor a level playing-field, at least not if it is left to its own devices. And if it starts to tilt too far in the direction of either buyers or sellers, it quickly ceases to be an efficient means of allocating economic resources, which is what markets are cracked up to be.

A monopoly is one obvious extreme, a market in which there is effectively only one vendor. The opposite extreme is a monopsony, where there is only one purchaser. The US has an example of that one too: the immense US arms industry sells pretty much exclusively to their own military. I dare say a lot of what they provide is fine, but there are definitely some real lemons in there – the F-35 fighter, supposedly nicknamed the Penguin by its pilots because it flies like one, or the Zumwalt class destroyers, of which only three ended up being commissioned due to cost overruns, not least the high-tech ammunition for its guns, weighing in at $800,000 per round. It’s hard to see this as representing the efficient allocation of economic resources unless you happen to have shares in Lockheed-Martin.

All of this suggests that we should be very careful of the term “free market.” As the quotation from Dwayne Andreas at the head of this piece makes clear, it is generally a fig-leaf for something else. The Wikipedia article for his company has an entire section dedicated to various scandals in which it has been involved over the years, including (but not not limited to) price-fixing, lobbying for government subsidies, and straight-up corruption. Not that I want to single out ADM here; it seems to be an endemic problem with contemporary capitalism, at least amongst large corporations (ADM’s revenue in 2021 was reportedly $85 billion).

People have always traded for what they need or want, and they always will. There’s evidence for long-distance trade, at least in luxury goods, going right back to the Stone Age. What we need to remember, more often than we tend to do these days, is that unregulated markets tend to degenerate into the equivalent of extortion. Of course it’s possible to over-regulate markets, but it’s just as harmful to under-regulate them too. The best way, as so often, lies somewhere between the two extremes.

I began this piece with a quotation taken from Richard Manning’s Against the Grain (North Point Press, 2004), which is an investigation into industrial agriculture in the US. It’s well worth reading for a number of reasons, not least as a case-study of market failure. There is very, very little that could be considered efficient about the agricultural systems that Manning discusses; any method of food production that requires the expenditure of ten or more calories of energy to deliver a single calorie of food must be on a hiding to nothing.

This is what the free market will give you, if you let it. Demand better.

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

On the longest day

If eternity had a season, it would be midsummer. Autumn, winter, spring are all change and passage, but at the height of summer the year stands poised. It’s only a passing moment, but even as it passes the heart knows it cannot change.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Edward Gibbon begins his epic history of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by considering what he takes to have been its high point: the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD). I wonder what historians of the future might take to be the equivalent moment in the decline and fall of industrial civilisation. If Roman history were a year, that would be its Midsummer’s Day. From that point onward, the nights only got longer.

My guess would probably be somewhere around the 1960s. Oil, coal and natural gas were all freely available at reasonable prices. The industrial gospel was being actively spread across the world, into places like Hong Kong and South Korea. The world might have been divided politically between the communist East and capitalist West, but everyone was busily building factories, mechanising, and merrily screwing up the environment on heroic scale.

It’s a pretty safe bet that nobody is going to be looking back on the twenty-first century as any kind of golden age. Or at least, nobody adopting the point of view of the industrialised nations. The historian James C. Scott writes of a “golden age of the barbarians” – partly, he claims, to be provocative, but I think he’s onto something. The fifth century was a pretty sweet time to be a Vandal, after all, living high on the hog in some of the richest (former) provinces of the Roman Empire.

The Summer Solstice reminds us that these things always go basically in cycles. In the sixth century, it got considerably less sweet to be a Vandal when a resurgent Eastern Roman Empire reconquered North Africa. So it goes. When civilisations fall, they replaced by something else. It may be better in some respects and worse in others, but we can say with confidence that it will be different.

It will have to be different, if only because we plainly cannot carry on doing what we’re doing indefinitely. As the saying goes, that which is not sustainable will not be sustained. Unfortunately that includes a number of things we fondly imagine to be sustainable, such as EVs, biodiesel, and the Internet.

But to think exclusively in terms of loss is to overlook what there is to be gained. It’s true that we won’t be gaining GDP, but that matters less than you may think. (The economist who invented it as a measure was very clear that GDP should not be taken as a simple “score” of national prosperity, despite the fact that it is invariably treated as exactly that.) There can be plenty of positive results when empires fall. The Roman Empire was notoriously based on slavery; when the Western Empire fell to the barbarians, slavery pretty much went away in their former territories.

Industrialism is not so openly based on classic chattel slavery. but there is a very large amount of unfreedom involved. I’m not just talking here of the sweatshops documented (for example) in Naomi Klein’s excellent book No Logo (Picador, 1999). It is increasingly the case that the majority of the population, even in notionally “wealthy” nations like the UK or USA, cannot survive without government assistance even when they are employed – even, in may cases, when they work multiple jobs. This is now extending to the middle classes, many of whom are now resorting to food banks.

It’s not even as if the jobs these people are doing are in any way rewarding. I am by no means the first person to point out that a mediaeval peasant worked shorter hours, with more job security, and under far less rigorous supervision than the average modern worker. Being a serf gets a bad rap these days, but I’m not sure that it compares that badly with working for Amazon on a zero-hours contract.

And I’m not even going to start on the tax system. In the glory days of the Roman Empire, citizens paid no tax at all. Nothing. Not a bean. In fact, those who lived in Rome (and later Constantinople) were entitled to free food – the original dole, a ration of grain officially termed the Cura Annonae which was the “bread” component of the famous “bread and circuses.” (The circuses were free as well.) As things began to go downhill, however, and the nights got longer, the tax burden increased dramatically. Roman citizenship had originally been a jealously-guarded privilege, as you can imagine, but in 212 AD it was extended to all non-slaves, with the motive – according to the contemporary historian Cassius Dio – of maximising the number of people who would have to pay taxes.

Returning to our mediaeval peasant: he was obliged to contribute a certain fraction of his output to his lord, which was taxation of a sort. This might be goods or labour or some combination of the two, and what was expected of him would usually remain constant over time – over generations, typically. It might not be written down anywhere, and given that most non-clergy were illiterate it wouldn’t have made much difference it it had been, but everyone knew where they stood.

I’m not claiming for a moment that this kind of social order would be perfect, still less advocating that we return to it or even predicting that it lies in our future. (Although something like it may well be; this sort of thing has arisen in many times and places, and this is just the version of it we’re most familiar with.) What I’m saying is that autumn and winter are not to be feared. They will, after all, be followed by spring again.

And yes, there will be another midsummer. So it goes.

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

On supply-chains

Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

Until quite recently, many people lived their lives in blissful ignorance of supply-chains. Unless you happened to work in logistics, you would just order stuff and it would magically arrive. There would be things in the shops. You could go to a filling-station and there would be fuel. It all just worked.

I need hardly point out that this happy state of affairs no longer obtains throughout much of the industrialised world. Currently for the wealthier parts it is mostly an inconvenience. apart from being a major driver of inflation; it’s rather more serious in places like Sri Lanka and Lebanon and likely to get more so, especially across North Africa.

As with most things that happen, there are various factors at play. We all learn at school that the First World War was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but the reality is that there were many, many causes of that war, and it would almost certainly have happened at some point even if Gavrilo Princip had missed. Indeed, there’s a whole academic industry devoted to studying the causes of the war.

In the present case, people tend to point at issues like Covid or Brexit or the war in Ukraine and blame the evil Chinese/EU/Russians/little men in pointy hats. It’s certainly true that the was has helped the price of oil and natural gas to rise even further, although people tend to skate over the fact that Brent crude was well over $90 a barrel even before the war, which is not exactly cheap. The Chinese lockdowns have slowed down its production for export, which is obviously bad news for those countries that no longer manufacture stuff and depend on the Chinese.

These are all shocks to the system, but the real issue is that the system itself is so rickety. It only works when a number of things happen to be the case:

  • It is cheap and easy to move goods from one place to another. There have been solutions to this problem historically that didn’t rely on fossil fuels – the Chinese used to move goods by wheelbarrow, for example – but we aren’t using those solutions today, and the price of oil is quickly becoming prohibitive. A few enterprising people are beginning to try and bring back sailing-ships for freight (these guys, for example), but there’s a very long way to go.
  • It is easy and convenient to take goods across national borders. This is certainly no longer the case for trade between Britain and the EU, but this issue is showing up elsewhere in various ways. India, for example, has recently decided to restrict exports of wheat.
  • It is easy and convenient to pay for foreign goods. One of the interesting aspects of the war in Ukraine has been the decision to exclude Russia from the SWIFT payment system, and Russia’s subsequent demand to be paid for its goods in its own currency. This is leading more or less directly to energy shortages in Europe, where natural gas has mostly been supplied by Russia. Diesel is also an issue.
  • Storage facilities are cheap and plentiful so that the system can smooth over any temporary disruptions to the flow of goods. Well, we don’t do that any more. Nowadays we prefer to use the “just in time” approach. To quote from the linked article: “…you don’t stockpile products and raw materials just in case you need them—you simply reorder products to replace those you’ve already sold.” Good luck with that. I’m particularly enjoying the word “simply” in that sentence. Again, natural gas is a case in point; with its trademark foresight, the UK government scaled back storage capacity just in time for prices to rise.
  • There are people willing and able to do the work. I’m thinking here mostly of lorry-drivers, or rather of all the people who could drive lorries but have realised they’d rather do something else. Still, I guess a shortage of drivers is less of an issue if you can’t afford the diesel to fuel the lorries or get the spare parts to keep them on the road.
  • End users can absorb all these extra costs. Up to a point, of course, they will, if the alternative is starving; but only up to a point. In the UK we are currently enjoying what is delicately referred to as a “cost of living crisis,” which is a polite way of saying that we are rapidly approaching that point, if we haven’t already reached it.

A major problem in any of these areas would be worrying. Seeing issues in all of them is downright scary. It’s a miracle that it still functions at all.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. Indeed, there’s no way it can carry on like this. Supply-chains need to be shorter and simpler. That implies that goods will need to be produced a lot closer to where they are needed. Now this all sounds fine and dandy, but many of us are going to have to redefine the word “needed” in ways we have not been brought up to expect.

Consider food. I talk about food a lot on this blog, because it’s something we all have in common – we may not all choose to eat the same things, but we all eat something, with the possible exception of breatharians. Many parts of the industrialised world are partly or wholly dependent on food imported from elsewhere; the UK certainly falls into that category, but so is much of USA, for example. Egypt, apparently, is heavily dependent on wheat imports, a fact which would have astonished any citizen of the Roman Empire. We are all noticing the effect of the current war on supplies of sunflower oil.

So if it can’t be produced within a reasonable distance of where you are, you won’t be eating it. This is not the end of the world. People inhabited the British Isles for millennia without ever tasting a pineapple. That is actually business as usual. We have forgotten this, because we have grown up with a normality that is profoundly abnormal. At some stage the laws of physics were always going to reassert themselves, and that moment may be coming soon.

Now there is the more pressing issue of whether enough of anything can be produced within a reasonable distance of where you are. If you look at the map of the United Kingdom, you will see it is largely covered by a network of (what originally used to be) market towns about twenty miles apart. That’s a reasonable radius if you are moving goods around by horse and cart: ten miles to market, and ten miles home again. We are no longer used to thinking on that scale.

Most of us, however, are now living in cities. As an example of how cities were fed before the Industrial Revolution, let us consider eighteenth-century Paris, which had a population of about 600,000 people – pretty big for those days, nothing to write home about today. It was fed in large part by the efforts of intensive market-gardeners based around the city, many of whose techniques have been picked up and developed by today’s organic growers. There were, nevertheless, bread riots, and eventually France ended up having a revolution at least partly as a result.

This is not an encouraging precedent. Of course, not all cities had this problem; contemporary London was bigger than Paris, and managed to get by. Still, it does suggest that having the bulk of your population in big cities is not the ideal strategy. If you can’t get the food closer to the people, then you need to get the people closer to the food. The alternative won’t be pretty; some analysts are already predicting another go-round of the Arab Spring in view of the current state of the global wheat market, and food riots are not something confined to Arabs.

All this implies a major change in our practical arrangements, and not just when it comes to food. For example, according to this paper, “In recent years ore supplies [for the British iron and steel industry] have come mainly from Australia, Brazil, Canada and South Africa.” Those are pretty long supply-lines.

So far as I can tell, nobody is planning for any of this. It’s going to be a mess, and all bets are off. On an individual level, while you might be able to grow some of your own veg, you’re probably not going to mine your own coal.

I wish I had something more cheerful to say about this. The best I can do is to suggest is that maybe the wheels won’t come off this thing just yet, but it definitely resembles a clown car more than it does a BMW.

In the meantime, enjoy your pineapple.

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

On processed food

“Eating is an agricultural act,” as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

What, it may reasonably asked, is processed food? I first came across this notion in the context of cheese. When I was a kid of around nine or ten, one of the substances that often formed part of my lunch was Swiss Knight processed cheese, which I believe is still available, although I haven’t personally touched the stuff in a number of decades. It consisted of a number of foil-wrapped triangles of squishy stuff, each of a different flavour – one even purported to be Gruyère, if I remember correctly.

Now as a child you tend to eat whatever is put in front of you without asking too many questions, but later on I started to wonder. After all, the word “processed” is pretty vague. All the manufacturers were claiming was that they had taken cheese and done something to it, and no doubt as far as it went this was true enough.

Cheese is of course the result of a process, and differences in that process (and the ingredients) account for the manifold differences we see between varieties of cheese. Fermented foods in general are processed, in this sense. But that clearly isn’t the kind of processing we’re talking about here. Processed cheese, whatever it is, must be something distinct from just cheese.

Some of the mysteries here are investigated in Joanna Blythman’s excellent book Swallow This (Fourth Estate, 2016). It’s not a pretty picture. Essentially, the food industry is based on replacing actual food with what Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances,” because actual food is generally more expensive than industrial chemicals, and less convenient to work with.

(Incidentally, I’m not saying that the makers of Swiss Knight do this to their product. I still have no idea what their processing entails, and given that I ate so much of the stuff in the 1970s I’m not sure I want to know.)

Now I’m not going to belabour the obvious point that eating industrial chemicals is probably not the greatest idea from a health point of view. Nor I am I going to address the ethics of doing this kind of thing to food. The point I want to make is that this state of affairs ought to be surprising. After all, you would think on the face of it that industrial chemicals would be more expensive than food, some of which literally grows on trees.

The solution to this conundrum is the industrial model. I referred a moment ago to the food industry. It wasn’t long ago that there was no such thing. There was food, of course, and there were people involved in growing it and selling it and even packaging it, but food was food, and not a “product.” Nobody in the northern hemisphere was expecting to eat strawberries in January. You would visit multiple shops to buy your food – the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, the fishmonger – assuming you bought food at all. In pre-industrial times, remember, most people were living and working on the land.

With the Industrial Revolution, things changed in a number of ways. For one thing, a lot more people found themselves living in cities. For another, most of them had very little money to spend on food, or indeed on anything else. There was a large and growing market for cheap calories. A case can be made that the availability of cheap sugar from the West Indian slave plantations was a large part of that. Moreover, if you are working fourteen to sixteen hours a day, six days a week, you aren’t going to have much time or energy to buy and prepare food, even if you have access to the facilities to do that.

So food became a product. This was in line with the new industrial modes of thinking, in which everything was a product. We are still in that mindset today – and indeed we still have plenty of people without access to the facilities to cook or store food. And access to cheap food, or edible food-like substances, became a key element of the social contract.

This has had many ramifications. In so far as food is a central element of culture, it has tended to destroy and homogenise culture. Everyone eats the same things, because those things are what you can buy in the shops. And what you can buy in the shops is no longer confined to what can be grown in the time or place you happen to inhabit, due to globalisation, which is itself made possible by industrialisation, and so if you want strawberries in January you can have them.

Of course they won’t be especially good strawberries. By definition, they won’t be fresh, and they’ll be of a variety selected to pack well, travel well and look the part, rather than to taste particularly good or be particularly nutritious. Considered as a product, that doesn’t matter – the only thing that matters is that you can sell them as a product. But considered as food, it’s a complete disaster.

Fresh produce itself is a product, and industrial agriculture exists to supply that product. There’s considerable evidence that food produced in this way is significantly less nutritious than it used to be, and therefore less nutritious than consumers tend to suppose. People have tested fresh oranges and found no vitamin C in them, for example.

Now processed food is a far more satisfactory product than fresh, from the shop’s point of view. A strawberry mousse in a plastic tub comes in a standard package and will last a lot longer on the shelf than actual strawberries will. This is particularly valuable if your supply chains are a bit dodgy, as they are at the moment (and will only get more so over time, for a number of reasons, which I’ll get into in another blog post). It’s not the supermarket’s problem if people eat unhealthily.

If you want to eat better, bluntly, you are going to have to avoid the food industry as far as you can. The bad news is that it will require more of your time, energy, and (to some extent) money than you are used to investing in what you eat. The good news is that this is likely to be doable, if you are prepared to make the commitment. For example, anything that you can grow yourself will be of value, even if it’s just a few herbs and microgreens on a windowsill or a couple of containers of tomatoes. At least you will be eating fresh food in season.

Anything you can buy directly from a local grower – meat, as well as fruit and veg – is a win. Again, this will be fresh food in season. Vegetable box schemes, also known as community supported agriculture, is one way to do this. I would urge you, however, to develop a direct personal relationship with the actual grower. If possible, visit their farm or garden. Apart from anything else, you can learn a lot that way.

While you’re at it, seek out local producers of cheese, if you can find any. If you’re near the coast, find a good fishmonger. You don’t have to be on the quay to meet the fishing-boats coming in at dawn, unless you want to. Try to source things like eggs and milk from local, small-scale producers. There may not be any, but you never know unless to you look. You may not be able to run to a house-cow, but keeping chickens (or ducks) might be an option.

Above all, learn to cook. Cooking is not sticking a fork through the lid of a plastic tub and putting it into a microwave. But neither does it have to be the kind of thing you see on Masterchef, unless you want to get into that. People used to learn this kind of skill at mother’s knee; it isn’t rocket science. Seek out the recipes for peasant cooking in whatever cuisine floats your boat: it will be cheap, filling and nutritious, because that’s what works for peasants the world over.

Whatever you can do in that direction will help you (and your family, if you have one) in multiple ways. Good food is a basic requirement for a good life. It is also one of life’s great pleasures. And if access to industrial food becomes patchy, expensive, or just plain impossible – and I wouldn’t rule out any of those possibilities in the next few years, let alone decades – you will have something to fall back on.

One day you’ll be very, very glad of that.

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