On fear

No power so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.

– Edmund Burke

I don’t know about you, but I’m quite scared a lot of the time. I’m talking lying-awake-at-night scared. There seems to be a lot of it about at the moment. People fear the unknown. In modern industrial society, where most people live in anonymous urban environments, this includes almost all of the people around them. I couldn’t put a name to more than two of my neighbours in this street, and while I grant you it’s a short street, it isn’t that short.

In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic feels like a lightning-rod for the unspoken undercurrents of fear which were already getting too uncomfortable to keep on ignoring. In one of John le Carré’s novels, fear is described as “information without the cure” which seems particularly apt in today’s (supposedly) information-rich age. Try as we may to remain unconscious of the less welcome bits of this information, it isn’t going away. There are so many elephants in the room that it’s standing room only.

Can we believe what we are told? The official version of reality seems to diverge ever further from what we live and experience. Here are just a few things we are all supposed to believe that are getting less and less plausible:

  • The economy will always keep growing, and even if it stops temporarily it will always return to growth, even though we only have one planet’s worth of resources. This occurs in many variants, especially in the UK with the deeply-held faith that house prices will always go up, in the teeth of the evidence. Conversely:
  • If the economy ever stopped growing, the sky would fall in (© Chicken Little).
  • Things in general will improve, and have always improved, and must always improve, as if the mere passage of time were some sort of guarantee of this. The Canadian academic Stephen Pinker went so far as to write an entire book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, in order to prove this, but most of us aren’t experiencing any such thing. This is particularly difficult for people with children, who naturally would like to think they will have a bright future.
  • Technology will fix all of our problems, including – indeed, especially – the ones that technology gave us in the first place. I’ll be writing in more detail about the electric vehicle fetish, which is just one example of this line of thinking (if you can call it that), but this comes up a lot. “They’ll think of something” is an evergreen mantra.
  • There will always be plenty in the shops – the fear that this one may be a lemon is often demonstrated, for example in the recent wave of panic buying when Covid-19 first kicked in. Freud would no doubt make much of the central role that toilet paper always seems to play on these occasions.
  • There will always be money in the ATMs and that money will always be worth something. Very few people in industrial society would have a clue how to meet most of their basic needs without the money economy. One the other hand, why should someone give me a thing of real value like a bag of carrots in exchange for a piece of paper? Let alone waving a piece of plastic so that a machine goes beep.
  • Most of our problems are caused by bad people (who by definition are not us). Opinions vary as to exactly who these bad people are, ranging from Islamic extremists through the 1% to David Icke’s evil space lizards, and there may be a grain of truth in some of these opinions (okay, maybe not the lizards), but none of them is a complete or satisfactory explanation. But at least none of it is my fault, right? Just as well, because:
  • There’s nothing I can do to fix the world – the only thing I know how to do is stack shelves/create marketing strategies/sanitise telephones/whatever. And a lot of the world’s problems look big and scary. And we’ve all got bills to pay.
  • The people in charge can lead us through this because, per the above, we are individually pretty helpless, so if they can’t then we are pretty much toast. Nobody likes to think they’re toast. Still, the evidence in favour of this proposition is not exactly strong.

Cognitive dissonance is therefore our constant companion. It’s uncomfortable. We want it to go away, but it won’t. Despite Apple’s best assurances, there isn’t an app for this.

And now Covid-19 has pressed a lot of these buttons for many people. As far as anyone can tell, it’s just another coronavirus mutation, but there was initially a widespread belief that it was all caused by the evil Chinese, which has now morphed into a belief that it would have gone away if it weren’t for the evil non-mask-wearers. Face-masks seem to have become some sort of talisman, like the nosegays of flowers people used to carry to ward off the Black Death; I’m reminded of Bruce Schneier’s useful concept of security theatre, whereby we perform rituals that don’t actually make us more secure but make us feel as if we are. To be clear, I wear one myself, because it’s really no trouble and it can only help, but I don’t imagine it will cure all ills.

The economic implications of the measures taken to counter the spread of the virus have brought us to the brink of the abyss. Those still in employment fear unemployment; those made redundant have little chance of finding work; and at least in the UK the government’s plan seems to consist of borrowing money like there’s no tomorrow and hoping it will all just blow over. Given that we have been told repeatedly that government borrowing is the root of all evil, this is not especially reassuring.

This is not to single out the UK government, by the way; governments across the industrialised world are floundering in the face of this. Many have implemented policies that were supposed to be impossible, especially when they were called for by environmentalists, like suppressing passenger air travel. (We’re not supposed to notice that these policies have had some beneficial effects, either, because that might lend credibility to those evil Greenies.)

On a personal level, a great many of us have been given a lot of time to think. This is not something we generally have, and indeed is something most of us actively avoid, for reasons that should be obvious by now. But some awkward questions are coming up for people; for example:

  • “Is my job really that important?” Many people have discovered that their work is officially non-essential, and what’s worse that may not have come as a complete surprise.
  • “Are my relationships with my partner/family/friends all that they should be?” There’s nothing like being locked down with someone to stress-test this kind of thing; many of us suddenly found ourselves in the Big Brother house minus the cameras.
  • “What if I/my loved one should die of this?” Death is a massive taboo subject in modern industrial culture, where few of us ever even see a dead body. As pandemics go, Covid is not actually all that lethal, but this is a Pandora’s box that perhaps we are collectively desperate to open. I’ll be devoting a post to death in due course.
  • “What if it all goes south?” Nobody really wants to go there. A lot of this blog will be going there anyway, but it’s hairy.
  • “What is my life actually all about? Is that enough? What else could I be doing with it?” This is the big one for many people. A recent survey suggests that a very large proportion of the UK population has been asking itself this and deciding that “normal life” wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. What they might want instead is an open question which urgently needs to be addressed, and so far as I can tell it isn’t, at least in terms of public discourse.

There is of course supposed to be a Covid-19 vaccine Real Soon Now™ which appears to be the tacitly accepted exit strategy from the current situation. Nobody openly questions that this will happen (because they always think of something, right?) even though it will certainly be tricky. Even if it does, though, the genie will be out of the bottle. I suspect a significant portion of the population will be less than thrilled at the return to “normal”, even if normal is still an option, which there seems reason to doubt.

So here we are, staring into the unknown. It’s no wonder we’re afraid. We’re hanging on to a cliff and we’ve been told not to look down, and now we have looked down, and it’s a long, long way to the bottom. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that at least we have a realistic idea of where we are, and maybe there’s a way to climb out of it. Life at the top of the cliff may not be much of an improvement, but we’re going to have to find out. At least there’ll be a view.

Sleep well.

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

On complexity

If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.

– Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution

It is a cliché to say that modern life is complicated, but like many clichés it is also manifestly true. Of course, life always has been complicated and always will be, for the simple reason that we constantly interact with complex systems that are hard to predict or control – other people, for a start.

But life in present-day industrial civilisation has a dizzyingly baroque complexity to it that human beings have not had to deal with previously. We evolved with the ability to deal with other people, at least most of the time, but the way we live now is far removed from life on the African savanna of our ancestors.

An example: this morning I made myself a pot of coffee. The cafetière is a typical product of modern industry, made of glass, plastic and metal, and manufactured in China. The glass body is the result of a high-energy process, involving a lot of heat and producing a fair amount of pollution. The plastic parts are a product of the petro-chemical industry – as a lay person I have no idea which of the many types of plastic are in my coffee-pot. Metal of course has to be mined and smelted and machined into the various components required, all of which requires both energy and other complex technologies. And then the whole thing has to be assembled, put into a box (which itself has to be designed and printed) and taken to somewhere I can buy it.

Having obtained my coffee-pot, I put water from the tap into the kettle. Again there is a vast and complex infrastructure of reservoirs and water-mains and pumps and purification systems involved in having water come out of the tap on demand. The kettle is another metal and plastic affair, and I suspect there’s some electronics in there too. It was also made in China.

Plugging the kettle into the wall involves the national power grid, and all the technology and effort that both powers and maintains that. I have no way of knowing for certain, but the electricity to boil my kettle was probably generated using natural gas, which is a fossil fuel of finite availability which we are using at a stupendous rate (2,543,775 cubic feet of the stuff in 2015, just in the UK).

As to the coffee itself, it was grown in Java, which is about 3,800 miles away from where I live. It wasn’t marketed as organic coffee, so I can safely assume that various fossil-fuel derived fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides were used by the farmer. At some point the berries will have been roasted, ground and vacuum-packed in a weird plastic-cum-foil material which I couldn’t put a name to. That package also got transported to a shop near me.

All this just for a pot of coffee. I haven’t even got started on the mug I’m drinking it from.

You may have noticed that there was a lot of fossil fuel sloshing about in that account. There’s actually a good deal more that I only hinted at: all those container ships bringing consumer goods from China to Europe run on oil, as do the lorries that deliver them to the shops, and the car that I probably travelled in to purchase them. And of course there are the roads themselves, paved in asphalt, and all the effort that goes into maintaining them, policing them, and so forth.

This is the 2020 version. Go back to 1720, and I would have to go to London to a coffee-house in order to enjoy the bean. At least the coffee would have travelled from Java by sailing-ship (hooray for renewable energy!) and it would have been prepared by hand, admittedly using a coal fire. Adjusting for inflation, it would also have cost me substantially more money than my 2020 brew, at least in terms of the purchase price. Then again, it might well have been better coffee; organic production was the default prior to the development of the Haber-Bosch process, after all.

But skip back just another century to 1620 and coffee isn’t available in England at all. I probably wouldn’t even have heard of it. I would be drinking small beer instead – a weak beer just strong enough to kill any nasties in the water, brewed in my household from locally available ingredients. There’s still complexity there – growing barley is a lot of work, and then there’s the malting process, not to mention fetching water by hand (no mains water in 1620!) and gathering firewood to heat the mash and then boil the wort. Then there’s the skill involved in making a watertight barrel to store it in. But it’s simpler, and the constituent parts of the processes involved are all visible to the end user.

So even with something as apparently simple and straightforward as making a brew in the morning, once you start pulling at the threads it keeps on unravelling. It’s enough to make your head spin. No wonder we choose not to do it most of the time. But it’s all still there, going on in the background, whether you think about it or not. I would argue that it has a lot to do with the background sense of unease, even paranoia, that many people in the industrial world experience today.

As we all know, if only from having used the internet, complex systems work fine until they don’t. Let’s try pulling a brick from the Jenga tower that is my pot of coffee; let’s say mains water goes away. I turn on the tap and nothing happens. Maybe there’s a drought, or some kind of systemic problem with the mains. Maybe terrorists have poisoned all the reservoirs that feed my area. Maybe aliens did it. Humour me.

Well, I need a source of potable water, even if I give up on the idea of drinking coffee, because if don’t get it I’ll die. So what do I do?

Ideally I need to locate a spring, or a stream or river, or failing that a lake, and I need to get there with a nice big watertight container. Luckily for me I live in an area with a reasonable level of rainfall; if I were in Arizona I’d be worried. I need to have confidence that my water source isn’t contaminated, which isn’t that easy to tell (I’d be looking for living things in that water). If I don’t know, I’m going to be boiling it before use – but that’s okay, isn’t it, because I still have mains energy to my house, don’t I?

One thing that will definitely happen is that I will become very aware of the amount of water that I use, and will try to re-use it where I can – for example, using grey water to flush toilets or water the garden. No showers or garden sprinklers for me.

But that’s just me. There are a lot of industrial processes that depend heavily on the use of water – we’ve already mentioned glass-making – and of course it’s essential to agriculture. I don’t claim to be able to list even the major consequences of a large-scale water shortage. My point is that they are numerous and they are serious. Our cavalier treatment of fresh water will be subject of a later essay, but for now let’s just say this is a more realistic scenario that we might like to think. And I’m talking about the UK, where we have plenty of rainfall. Your mileage may well vary if you live somewhere arid.

That’s already having a major impact on my life and perhaps the entire country, and I’ve only pulled one brick out. Let’s try the one labelled “cheap fossil fuel.” (There will be a future essay going into the likelihood of this scenario; for now, just go with it.)

An awful lot of things suddenly become very difficult or at least very expensive. That coffee, for instance. The grower will have to ramp up the price of his product to reflect the increased price of the fossil-fuel derived inputs, or else switch to organic production; neither of these options is cost-free. Shipping the product those 3,800 miles is now a much more expensive proposition, which is also going to add to the price I have to pay. (If we still had those sailing-ships from 1720, of course, this might be another story.) The energy going into the processing and packaging is likely to be pricier too. I may find myself getting charged the equivalent of 1720 prices for my coffee, or more.

You know what? Peppermint tea is nice. I can grow that myself if I need to. Maybe I’ll stop buying coffee. That’s less income for the coffee producer, for the packager, for the shipper, for the supermarket, all of whom are having to cope with increased costs. (How do you think supermarkets keep the lights on?) It won’t just be me choosing to spend my cash on other things either.

And of course many, many more things will go up in price, some of them to the point where not enough people want to buy the thing to make it worth producing it. The ramifications of that would be vast. Food miles would need to decrease a lot, for one thing, and that’s a big deal in a country like the UK where we import something like 45% of our food. People need food. When it’s too expensive or simply not available, they can get quite cross.

Modern industrial agriculture itself is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. By one estimate, in North America 13.3 calories of energy are used to produce every calorie of food. To get an idea of just how nuts this is, imagine that that energy was being provided solely by human and animal muscle-power, as it was in pre-industrial times (and still is in many places). Pretty much everyone would have starved to death by the end of the first growing season. You need to get more calories out than you put in; that’s the entire point of agriculture.

That’s the subject of another essay. The point I’m trying to make here is that industrial civilisation is immensely complex but also immensely fragile. I’ve deliberately chosen a couple of examples of resources that underpin many other important processes. I could add others. For instance, the Australian mining engineer Simon Michaux has an entertaining and informative presentation on YouTube where he discusses copper mining, amongst other things. There’s copper all over the place in the industrial world; if it involves electricity, it almost certainly relies on copper. And it’s getting more expensive.

Of course, there’s a rich irony in the fact that I’m using the most complex communications system know to humanity to discuss these ideas. Plenty of copper involved there, for sure, and it uses a ton of energy. Still, while it’s here, I might as well use it.

There’s more to the complexity of modern life than just technology, though. Our social structures are mind-bogglingly complex. Think of the bureaucracy that surrounds us on every side; the late David Graeber argued in his book The Utopia of Rules (Melville House, 2015) that modern life largely consists of filling in forms, and there’s a lot of truth in that. This isn’t just government red tape; it’s also corporate red tape. How much of internet usage comes down to form-filling?

It’s impossible for any individual to understand all the rules, with the result that many of us are haunted by a vague sense that anything we do might violate one or more them, incurring penalties we can only imagine. This undermines our sense of personal agency and makes us feel powerless. Would Columbus have set sail across the Atlantic if he’d had to do a full health and safety assessment first?

My aim here is not to contribute to this sense of powerlessness. Rather I believe that we need, individually and collectively, to face up to the complexity of the world we inhabit, to see it steadily and see it whole, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold. We can at least discern some of the major connections between things, identify some of the vulnerabilities of the system, and maybe suggest some useful and positive actions we can take ourselves. As David Icke said – before he got into the space lizards thing – it doesn’t have to be like this.

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

Why another blog?

Whatever problems the internet may be facing, a shortage of opinions isn’t one of them. So why add more?

I believe that many people today – probably most of them – are feeling lost, angry, frightened or at least disquieted by the state of the industrialised world. I know I am. Everything seems to be getting out of control – of politicians and of individuals. The mainstream media is selective in what it covers and has forfeited the trust of many in its reliability.

On the other hand, social media is a poisoned well, and it’s hard to know who (if anyone) can be trusted there either. Governments, corporations and other sectarian interests are all trying to control it, and by extension public opinion.

There is very little in the way of informed debate or reasoned discussion, and what there is tends to be very specific in its focus and very limited in historical scope. What we face is a huge tangle of interconnected issues, and we need to get a handle on the whole mess, not just this or that part.

This blog hopes to be the home of a sane conversation about all this. It will avoid politics in the narrow party-political sense; if you want to see monkeys throwing excrement at one another, there’s always the zoo. It will also try to avoid ideologies of all flavours. But of course the questions raised here will have a political dimension, in the sense that they are intimately connected to questions of how we are to live together.

Nor is this blog going to obsess over current affairs, although it may direct attention to some of the news that doesn’t make the news. An example: a few days ago I discovered – through the chance of happening to watch some French TV news – that my country’s largest neighbour was in the grip of a severe drought. Well, you might say, that was a local news story (quite a big locality, though), but put enough local news stories together and you get a global one: in the case, more evidence that weather patterns are changing, and not necessarily to our advantage.

I intend to range freely over many large subject areas – world history, systems theory, economics, political theory, ecology, education, agriculture, psychology and philosophy, to name a few – cheerfully admitting that I am a lay person in practically all of them. I propose this because the crises we are all facing, as individuals, as families, and as societies, have many aspects and many causes interwoven together. Nobody could be an expert on all of them.

But I also want to discuss practical questions. Many of us feel helpless in the face of the many-headed hydra that is the world today. We feel stuck. We have debts to pay, we have other people who depend on us; we are in a labyrinth of rules and regulations that Kafka would have been proud of, with little control over the making or enforcing of those rules. The problems of the world seem so immense, and our power to make a difference so puny.

I don’t claim to have all the answers. I don’t even claim to have all the questions. What I am hoping to do is to put some different ideas out there, to explore some alternative ways of seeing the world and of living in it day to day. I’m also hoping to learn more about all these issues, both from my own researches and from my readers.

You’re more than welcome to come along for the ride. It should be fun!