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.

On living in interesting times

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Rudyard Kipling, “Recessional

Everyone, of course, has heard of the Chinese curse, or the supposedly Chinese curse. And it’s hard to deny that the times we’re going through will make interesting reading in the histories of the future, if they ever get written.

It’s an interesting exercise to wonder what those future historians will make of us. We’ll certainly leave a plentiful archaeological record, although much of it may be unpleasant, especially the parts involving spent nuclear fuel. How much of the written word will survive it’s hard to say. Most of our printed matter is on paper that quite quickly becomes yellow and brittle. The electronic stuff will be unreadable to future generations – even some of our quite recently made digital artifacts already fall into that category, and we still have access to computers.

Still, you’d like to think that it will be possible for the basic narrative of our civilisation’s fall to be reconstructed. After all, we can still manage a reasonable job of it with the Roman Empire even after all this time. That empire, or at least the Western half of it, took about a century to collapse. Let’s take that as a ballpark estimate of the span of our imagined future history. What would be our equivalent of the battle of Adrianople?

I’m tempted to suggest the 1973-4 oil crisis, which puts us about halfway along the trajectory of collapse. Back then there was much wringing of hands when the price of oil almost reached the dizzying heights of $12 a barrel – around $78 in today’s money. (At the time of this writing, incidentally, Brent Crude was $120 a barrel.) That crisis was blamed on the evil Arabs, much as the current one is being blamed on the evil Russians.

Where they will choose to end the story is hard to say. Conventionally, the end of the Western Roman Empire is dated from the abdication of the last emperor in 476, but to be honest, if they’d had newspapers back then it would have rated a filler paragraph at the bottom of page eleven. History is always a continuum, after all. Perhaps the equivalent for us will be the closure of the last oil-well, or the manufacture of the last car.

Whatever it is, it will probably also rate a filler paragraph at the bottom of page eleven, if there are still newspapers by that point. These things will have ceased to be relevant to the mass of the population, other than on a symbolic level. We’ll all be too busy getting on with our lives to shed too many tears for Royal Dutch Shell.

The details, of course, can’t be known in advance. But perhaps we can be clearer on what attitude towards us our descendents are likely to take. Historians of the Roman Empire have generally taken a broadly sympathetic view – helped by the fact that the bulk of the written sources come from the Roman side, of course, but also drawing on a genuine feeling that Roman civilisation and culture bequeathed many things of lasting value.

What will the future make of us?

On the physical level, it will be a mixed bag. I can imagine at least some of the road network being of some use, as indeed was the case with the Roman roads. We will have left an immense amount of scrap metal and other materials which can be salvaged in the future. On the other hand, we will also have left behind plenty of toxic rubbish which will continue to cause trouble for centuries if not millennia.

But I can’t imagine future cultures having much time for our values or our art. Those who prosper in the future will need to have adapted their ways of thinking about the world, and especially their relationship to other living beings, in a way that will be quite inimical to ours. This may indeed develop to a point where we become quite incomprehensible to them. There may, in the end, be no market for some putative Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Industrial Civilisation.

In many ways this is a sad prospect. Much will be lost that might indeed have had lasting value. But that, after all, is how it goes. And at least in this imaginary future life goes on, in different ways from what we are used to, of course, but it will still have meaning for those who live it.

Let us hope that their times are a little less interesting than ours.

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

On taking the first step

Houston, we have a problem.

Jim Lovell (attr.)

It is a truism, although nonetheless true, that the first step towards dealing with a problem is acknowledging that it exists. We know this because a very large fraction of adults in the industrialised world are either in an addiction programme of some sort, have been in one, or know someone who is. This in itself is suggestive; nobody starts sniffing glue because their life is going spectacularly well.

One of the problems faced by industrial civilisation at the moment is a meta-problem: our collective inability to recognise more than one problem at a time. This is a weird one, because there seems to be no good reason why this should be so. On a personal level, I have no difficulty grasping simultaneously that I have high blood pressure and the roof of the house needs to be fixed and all the other things that are going on (an extensive list, I can tell you). I’m sure you could do the same for whatever issues you may be facing. At a societal level, though, it seems to be restricted to one thing at a time.

When I finally get round to reviewing Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on this blog, one of the things I will be pointing out that he got right about the future is the sudden and arbitrary reversals of collective opinion in his future society. “We have always been at war with Eastasia.” But the point here is that there always seems to be exactly one thing dominating the agenda.

No doubt this is largely a psychological defence mechanism. By concentrating on one issue, you can ignore all the others. This is especially effective if you focus on something tangential to the really serious stuff, of course. And it gets you off the hook of taking serious collective action as a society, with all of the political and economic inconveniences that would entail.

On an individual level, however, it may not be so easy. We all have practical problems to solve, like getting enough to eat, keeping a roof over our heads (even a leaky one), and finding the money to pay for it all. This stuff is getting harder and harder for more and more people to pull off, even in supposedly wealthy countries. Assuming you don’t go down the glue-sniffing route, how do you deal with this?

The first step, it seems to me, is not actually anything practical. Don’t get me wrong, you’re going to need to find and take plenty of practical measures, but the first step is something else.

It’s a fundamental change in approach.

There are many beliefs commonly held amongst the denizens of industrial civilisation about what the world is like and how it works. Some of those beliefs might have been appropriate in the past, but they many of them are no longer helpful and in fact are going to be major obstacles in the future. The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but it includes a few of what I reckon are the real doozies.

  • Technology makes things better, and will save us. Well, it’s true that some technology, applied sensibly, can help a lot. If you want to dig a hole, there’s a lot to be said for a spade. If you want to dig a really big hole, you could consider a mechanical digger, but if you can’t afford (or get) the diesel to run it, you’re better off with a spade. And reliance on this kind of technology can become a trap.
  • I can expect things to get better over time. I suppose this depends on your definition of “better,” but the evidence for this view has not been especially convincing over the last fifty years or so. Let go of the mystical view that the passage of time in and of itself makes things better. Apart from anything else, this allows you to see things from the past that may be of value in the future: ploughing with heavy horses, say, or spinning and weaving wool by hand.
  • The Government should/will/can fix things. I’m not sure how prevalent this view is in the US, where many people seem to wish that their government would basically go away, but again there’s been very little evidence of governments anywhere doing anything very constructive for the benefit of society as a whole, at least in my lifetime. Nor should this be surprising. Governments could help more than they do, but they can’t really fix things. Many of the problems we have are essentially unfixable anyway.
  • The free market should/will/can fix things. Even if they existed, which they don’t, free markets have very little scope to help us, and plenty of scope to do harm. I sometimes wonder whether people who think along these lines have confused profit with utility.
  • Somebody else should/will/can fix things. Seriously, the cavalry is not coming. You are not going to be rescued. This is because rescue is not ultimately available. That doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily on your own, but you’re going to have to do a lot for yourself.
  • Nobody really needs to make uncomfortable changes to their lifestyle. This is the shtick of companies like Tesla. You can still have a nice car, even if the batteries die in a few years and will cost almost as much as the car to replace, and there isn’t physically enough of the raw materials to make enough to replace the existing car fleet, and we have no way of generating or distributing the electricity to power them. But it’ll be great. And who needs tractors or lorries anyway? No. The private car is going away for most of us. That’s an issue if you live in a way that depends on it. Same goes for the Internet, of course.
  • I will always be able to buy whatever I want. Of course money is getting tight for a lot of people nowadays, and inflation seems likely to become rampant across the industrialised world in the near future, but even if that weren’t the case, this is not true even in principle. It will cease to be feasible to fly green beans from Kenya to the UK, for instance. At some point it will cease to be feasible to fly much of anything anywhere, I should think. And there’s also the point that the currency may cease to have value if we get into hyperinflation. The UK got pretty close to that point back in the 1970s, and I’m old enough to remember those days.
  • The only alternative to business as usual is sudden and total catastrophe. There’s a lot of this in popular culture these days; post-apocalyptic books and movies constitute an actual genre. The Western Roman Empire took a hundred years to collapse, and the Eastern Roman Empire lasted another millennium after that. There were disasters along the way, of course: a famine here, a city sacked there. To those who lived through these events, it was just one damned thing after another, much like what we’re seeing today. People had to adapt. On the whole, they did so successfully.
  • I can’t cope with all this. See above. Of course, you’re going to have to adapt, and it may be harder for you than it was for the average Roman, because none of them were dependent on GPS or freezers or mains sewage.

If you ever visit the Reddit forum r/collapse you will find many people wigging out because they haven’t taken the first step. As a voice of sanity, I can heartily recommend the work of Sid Smith, who has some useful talks on YouTube. Start with this one. You’ll be glad you did.

Get your head straight, as best you can. It’s not going be easy, but once you can start to make better decisions, that’s the time to get practical. Good luck.

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

On greatness

Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that generation. Let greatness blossom.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

“I think continually,” the poet Stephen Spender wrote, “of those who were truly great.” Personally I often find myself thinking of something else, but there are certainly people, living and dead, who I would consider great.

Now before I go any further I should make this clear that this post is in no way intended to be inspirational. It will not contain any sentence that might be put onto a poster of a soaring condor and stuck up in a cubicle farm to encourage people to hit their KPIs this quarter. It is probably a decent rule of thumb to state that if someone even has KPIs they are unlikely to be doing anything useful or worthwhile.

But none of this detracts from the fact that there are useful and worthwhile things to be done, and many of them are being done by exceptional people. Off the top of my head, I can think of Simon Fairlie (whose autobiography I reviewed last week), Vandana Shiva, Martin Crawford, Colin Tudge, Gabe Brown – and that’s just in the area of food and farming.

Indeed, there are so many of these exceptional people around that I do wonder how exceptional they are. That is to say, many, if not most, people have talents and capacities that usually never come to the fore. It may simply be luck that enables them to blossom.

Consider, for example, the case of Charles Darwin. On his own admission, at school he was considered “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common intelligence.” Neither did he show any exceptional promise at Cambridge, where he largely neglected his studies. He was supposed to go into the Church, which in those days was a kind of fallback option for men of his class who had no special professional vocation. (This was quite a useful institution; throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England an awful lot of scientific and especially mathematical research was conducted by country parsons with time on their hands.)

Darwin had long had an interest in what was called in those days natural history, but it was largely good fortune and good connections that got him the gig on HMS Beagle which not only made his name but also furnished him with the raw material for his theory of evolution through natural selection. Had he gone on to be another obscure country vicar, nobody would have paid any attention even if he’d still come up with it, which seems unlikely.

Of course, in the nature of things we don’t know how many potential Darwins there are knocking around. But history does seem to lend colour to the saying: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” Who would have predicted that an unpromising West Point cadet who graduated 21st out of a class of 39 would go on to become the victorious commander of the Union armies in the American Civil War? Or, again, that an obscure Huntingdonshire farmer would be offered – and decline – the crown of England?

These examples suggest that opportunities are often available in times of crisis, and the good news for any potential Grants or Cromwells out there is that times of crisis will soon be upon us, if they aren’t already. This is not, of course, necessarily good news for the rest of us. I don’t want to fall foul of Godwin’s Law, so I’ll point you instead to the career of Benito Mussolini.

But to return to my earlier examples. There are useful things to be done in these times, and most of us can do something. Apart from anything else, taking action will dispel those feelings of panic and impotence that so often threaten to overwhelm us once we start to notice what’s going on with the world. Whatever you’re going to have to face in the future, the stronger you are mentally the better your chances will be of dealing with it.

Consider learning a new practical skill: sewing, baking, gardening, herbal medicine. Do it now, when you can still afford to screw up. For example, we are having a go at growing potatoes this year. Potatoes are cheap and freely available; if it all goes wrong, we’ll still have access to potatoes, and with any luck we’ll be able to learn from it. There may come a time when potatoes are no longer cheap and/or freely available, and it makes sense to be able to grow our own potatoes before that happens,

You don’t need to be able to fix everything, which is frankly a good thing, because you can’t. But you can make a difference to your own life and the lives of those around you. And that’s not a bad definition of a life well lived.

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

Book review: Going to Seed

Going to Seed: A Counterculture Memoir by Simon Fairlie (Chelsea Green, 2022), ISBN: 978-1-64502-061-5

You might know Simon Fairlie’s name from his previous book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance (Permanent Publications, 2010), which rather remarkably caused George Monbiot to change his mind about veganism. Perhaps you’ve come across the magazine he founded, The Land, if you frequent a certain type of bookshop. You may even have bought a scythe from his shop, or learned to use one on one of the courses he runs. He is, as this cursory and highly incomplete list suggests, a man of many parts.

Some years ago, I attended a talk he gave under the auspices of the Low-Impact Living Initiative as an introduction to smallholding. He came across as the kind of man you’d like to go to the pub with. This book is probably the closest I will ever get to going to the pub with Simon Fairlie.

Which is not to say that this is just a collection of anecdotes, as he makes very clear in his introduction.

My focus is on politics (in the wider sense of the term), social relations and economics (i.e. work). It is a political memoir by someone who never entered politics (in the narrow sense of the term). As far as is consistent with the narrative, I have tried to keep personal relations out of it….

p. 3

So what we have is a kind of mixture of autobiographical narrative and political discourse, which is indeed, I suspect. very much what you might get if you did go down to the pub with him.

Fairlie is a hippie, a label he accepts with some resignation. Unlike many hippies, though, he is a thorough pragmatist. Having discovered the hard way that smashing the system is not as easy as he and his peers hoped, he has decided to continue the fight but to pick his battles with care. When so many of his generation gave up and sold out, he has carried on. This is one of the things that makes him interesting.

The autobiographical part is interesting and well-told. His father was a journalist, credited with inventing the term “the Establishment” and something of a rogue. Fairlie had the sort of quasi-privileged background that so often forms the characters in John le Carré’s books; he spent three years at Westminster School, for instance, until he was obliged to leave because his father had never paid any of their bills. He studied at Cambridge but found it a disappointment and dropped out.

Fairlie had and exploited the opportunity to travel – he laments the decline of hitch-hiking, which enabled him to go to Istanbul effectively free – and he pursued the hippie trail, partly motivated, as he frankly admits, by the desire to get access to decent marijuana. Very few of the things he did in his youth would be feasible today. Inevitably, there is an elegiac tone to some of these passages.

Like many of his contemporaries on the counter-culture scene, he sought to build a viable alternative to the capitalist-industrial system by going back to the land. Like many of this contemporaries also he found this difficult. This kind of life was not at all in his background, which was bohemian and largely urban. But he stuck to it, and has made a success of it where so many have fallen by the wayside.

Fairlie is refreshingly honest about his early failures and indeed ineptitude. Reading his account in Chapter 6 of communal living in a remote part of France, it is heartening to realise that we are not the only people to make daft practical mistakes, especially in the realm of DIY building work. But his doggedness paid off. He was clearly not afraid of hard work, and this led to what he describes as an “entente” between his motley crew of foreigners and the local population. It was a poor wine-growing region with a local labour shortage, and anyone prepared to fill that need could get a warm welcome.

On one occasion I worked for ten days on my own hoeing around the base of 20,000 vines with a mattock, 2,000 every day. That job made me realise what a valuable skill it is to be able to enjoy repetitive manual labour.

p. 110

It may have helped that part of the pay was in kind: “three litres a day of red wine that could politely be described as robust.”

Despite having no training in stonemasonry, he undercut a local builder to get the job of constructing a stone arch. When the project was a success, as he disarmingly puts it, “Nobody was more surprised than myself.” He did however go on to get properly trained – he describes how he ought to have build that arch compared to how he actually did it. Later he spent a year doing restoration work on Salisbury Cathedral.

His determination to acquire the practical skills he needed is shown many times. When he became part of the Tinker’s Bubble community, for instance, he took on the job of working with and looking after their heavy horse, Samson. They were committed to avoiding the internal combustion engine, not so much on environmental grounds as to avoid creating a dependency on the industrial system, and they needed a heavy horse to make their logging business work. It was a thoroughly practical decision, and very much the way Fairlie rolls.

Again, his scythe shop is a practical scheme. Having realised that scythes are a more useful tool than people think, and that Austrian scythes are especially good, he decided to start importing them into the UK so as to get them into people’s hands and at the same time have another income stream. (You can watch him using one here.)

His activism is likewise very practical and specific. He details his role in opposing road-building in various parts of the UK. It’s very much a guerilla war against the system. He know he isn’t going to be able to stop every new road everywhere, but he will do what he can. And he has not been without his successes.

Of a piece with this is his ongoing interest in the availability of land. After all, if you are going to go back to the land, the first thing you need is some land to go back to. This is not easy to arrange unless you have a great deal of money, certainly in the UK. As he puts it in the manifesto of The Land magazine:

The market (however attractive it may appear) is built on promises: the only source of wealth is the earth. Anyone who has land has access to energy, water, nourishment, shelter, healing, wisdom, ancestors and a grave….

The politics of land — who owns it, who controls it and who has access to it — is more important than ever, though you might not think so from a superficial reading of government policy and the media. The purpose of this magazine is to focus attention back onto the politics of land.

Rome fell; the Soviet Empire collapsed; the stars and stripes are fading in the west. Nothing is forever in history, except geography. Capitalism is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises. It may stand longer than some of us anticipate, but when it crumbles, the land will remain.


His sheer staying-power is one of the most impressive things about Fairlie. This is a book to give hope to us all. At seventy, he is still keeping on, with no sign of giving up any time soon.

Let me be clear: I’m not one of those bronzed and wiry septuagenarians who take on challenges like rowing across the Atlantic. I’m pink and fat, and I avoid having to bend down to tie up my shoelaces. Yet despite this corporeal decadence, I can still milk the cows, muck out the yard and mow [a] quarter of an acre of hay in the morning, and I intend to keep it up. I expect to die in bed with my boots on, having been too knackered and drunk to take them off.

p. 260

Here is a life well-lived if ever there was one. Here, moreover, is a person who will not throw up his hands in despair in face of impossible odds. In this sense, ageing hippie though he may be, Simon Fairlie is an inspiration for our times.

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

On disagreement

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

S.G. Tallentyre, The Friends of Voltaire

Disagreements have been with us for as long as people have had opinions, which is to say for as long as there have been people. What is interesting about this historical moment is that thanks to the Internet we can now disagree with people on the other side of the world. Indeed, disagreement has now become a spectator sport on a scale never seen before.

There are broadly three ways one can react to an opinion with which you disagree, You can just shrug, if it’s not something you care about that much. I may think you’re wrong to claim that Sergeant Pepper is the best Beatles album, but frankly I’m not that bothered about it. As my grandfather used to say, “Everyone’s entitled to their own stupid opinion.” Even with social media, I suspect that a lot of shrugging still goes on, but of course the replies that are never posted are effectively invisible.

Alternatively you can try to persuade the other party that they are wrong. This very, very rarely works, but people often try. Abuse certainly never works, although it’s a popular approach. Reasoned argument supported by evidence will very occasionally work, especially if the other party has not decided in advance that this the hill they will die on. But it is surprising how attached people become to their opinions.

Some opinions, indeed, have the character of religious faith. You will never talk someone out of such a tenet. Faith is generally proof against reason, and trying to argue someone out of their beliefs will only irritate them. The best you can do is try to understand what the emotional payoff is for the true believer, and come up with something else that will give them something similar, but this is not always possible.

A conventional economist, for example, will never abandon their faith in endless growth, because it promises that everyone will have goodies forever (everyone probably being defined as the well-to-do, a group that not coincidentally tends to include economists). Since the universe is not in face a limitless sweetie-shop, there is nothing that can deliver that promise, and if that’s what you need to hear then only a fairy-tale will do.

This leads us to the third response to disagreement, which basically means tying someone to a stake and setting fire to them, either literally or metaphorically. If someone finds your view too painful to hear, this is what you will get. The Internet has inevitably led to a great deal of this sort of thing. For some reason, it never occurs to people that they don’t have to read things that they find upsetting. Or else they actually enjoy being upset. I get the impression this is quite common.

After all, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of righteous indignation? Many people feel powerless in their lives; industrial civilisation tends to make us all over-dependent on institutions and corporations over whom we feel we can exercise no control. What better outlet than to take it all out on some individual who is – according to our lights – wrong? By attacking them, we identify ourselves as being not wrong, and therefore exempt from such attacks ourselves.

Typically we also proclaim ourselves as belonging to some group. This is something social primates find satisfying, for excellent reasons that have nothing to do with whatever the notional point of disagreement du jour happens to be. But it is not, in any useful sense, argument.

Those wishing to discredit a point of view sometimes do so by pointing out that some bad person also holds, or held, that view. There was an example of this a few years ago where the Heartland Institute sought to discredit climate change by putting up a billboard stating – correctly – that this opinion was shared by Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber. Now I am not personally acquainted with Mr Kaczynski, but I would be prepared to claim that he would also agree that 1 + 1 = 2, and yet nobody so far as I know has argued that this undermines the basis of arithmetic.

Of course this a silly example, but there is a lot of this kind of thinking about at the moment. There are plenty of people prepared to claim that because person X has some attribute that they find obnoxious, nothing said or done by person X can have any value. Take slave-owning. I don’t know about you, but I’m against it. Does that invalidate the political thought of Thomas Jefferson, or the philosophy of Plato, or for that matter the mathematics of Euclid? The entirety of classical civilisation was built, as a practical matter, on slavery. Nevertheless there are still things of value it can teach us.

Because virtue is increasingly identified with group membership, it becomes impossible to bring any nuance to the discussion. As President George W. Bush so memorably put it, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” But a person can be right about some things and wrong about others. In rejecting an opinion one need not reject the entire person. Indeed, doing so is the most certain way to guarantee that they will not change their view. We must always remember to distinguish the person from their opinions.

Social media might almost have been designed to foster groupthink. (Maybe it actually was, given that it is really a way of harvesting marketing data, and marketeers love segmentation.) People often complain that society is becoming polarised, that people are speaking past one another, that consensus is impossible on almost anything. I don’t believe this is a coincidence.

Of course participation in social media is optional, and it is a perfectly reasonable choice to opt out. I have done this myself. Partly this is is because I suffer from hypertension, but also I would hate this kind of thinking to contaminate my personal relationships – by which I mean the actual human beings with whom I interact in the real world. I want the freedom to agree to disagree.

It will be interesting to see what difference, if any, will be made to this by Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter. Readers of this blog will be aware that I have some fairly major differences of opinion with Mr Musk; it is unlikely, for example, that he and I will ever see eye to eye on the future of electric vehicles. His avowed motive in buying Twitter, however, is to make it a place where all opinions may be freely expressed – a notion which many people seem to find strangely horrifying. Free speech used to be a pillar of liberalism not so long ago.

It would be nice to think that people might grow up a little, given more exposure to diverse opinions. I’m not holding my breath. What worries me is that Twitter will simply start censoring a different set of opinions instead, and we will be back to where we were. We shall see.

You are, of course, perfectly free to disagree with all of this in the comments below….

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

On rationality

Of all the ways of defining man, the worst is the one which makes him out to be a rational animal.

Anatole France

As a culture, we are unusually fond of rationality. I blame the ancient Greeks. Economists are very keen to stress how rational everyone is, all of the time, and yet this flies in the face of absolutely everybody’s actual experience of being human and being around other humans. If people really were rational, there would be no $647 billion advertising industry, Las Vegas would be a slightly green patch of desert in the middle of nowhere, and nobody would smoke, drink, fall in love, read fiction, or go to the movies. The world would be a very different – and frankly duller – place.

Of course people do act rationally quite a bit of the time. It’s a rare and newsworthy event when someone deliberately drives on the wrong side of the road, for instance. We can all manage simple calculations of short-term self-interest, because people who can’t tend to get weeded out of the gene pool pretty quickly. Where we struggle is taking longer-term decisions and/or in choosing well in complex scenarios.

A simple example. I am a type 2 diabetic, and also rather overweight. Nevertheless I will still eat things that will make those problems worse, because I enjoy eating them. It’s not at all rational to do this. No amount of chocolate mousse is worth having your foot amputated for. And it isn’t that I don’t know this. Very few obese people are obese because they don’t know what foods make you fat. Rational beings would not have this issue. Look in the street and see how many you can spot.

All this would just be a charming eccentricity of our culture, like the ancient Egyptians worshipping cats, except that it gives us some huge individual and collective blind-spots. One of these is the popular belief that so long as we are given the full information about (say) climate change, we will all do the Right Thing™. This in spite of the fact that I already know everything I need to know about doughnuts – you can actually see the sugar, for goodness’ sake – and yet I still eat them sometimes. The recent Netflix movie Don’t Look Up is largely about this illusion, and I can recommend it as a corrective.

Another popular belief is that the people in charge are rational and well-informed and will therefore do the Right Thing™ when they are making decisions. If you have a sufficiently narrow definition of what is rational, then they are indeed, at least most of the time, rational. The problem is that this leads them to do incredibly stupid things. Given certain assumptions, for example, ghost flights are a rational solution to the problem of airlines losing their slots at airports due to a lack of passengers during the pandemic. At least, they’re a rational solution if you ignore the wasted fuel and the pollution caused by flying aircraft around for no reason other than to satisfy the criteria for keeping a slot. It would have been much better to have suspended the requirement for these flights altogether, but apparently this solution was not on the table.

Again, cutting down the Amazon rain-forest to feed beef cattle is a rational solution if all you care about is feeding (and exporting the meat of) beef cattle. The impact on biodiversity, the climate and indeed atmospheric oxygen is a mere “externality” – economics-speak for “someone else’s problem.” Except, of course, it will be everyone’s problem in due course. This is capitalism doing what it does best: screwing up the planet, one rational decision at a time.

It isn’t really that surprising that people are like this. We can’t hold a comprehensive model of the world in our heads that would allow us to make truly enlightened decisions, for the same reason that snakes can’t tap-dance: from an evolutionary perspective, it isn’t necessary. To a very large extent, we are chimpanzees. We’re quite smart chimpanzees in some ways, but we aren’t that smart. The selection pressures on us have tended to favour individuals who can spot immediate short-term threats and opportunities and act accordingly.

This is not, however, the same thing as being rational. To be truly rational, one would really need to have access to much more information than we actually have, or indeed could cope with if we had it.

The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife. Trin Tragula — for that was his name — was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.

“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.

And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Fortunately we don’t have to depend exclusively on our rational capacities to navigate the universe. We have emotional responses, which have a bad press but which can also serve us pretty well sometimes. The fight-or-flight response has been keeping people alive since well before there were modern humans, and no rational calculation is involved in that.

There is also such a thing as intuition. This is not something we like to talk about in Western culture. It’s all a bit woo-woo. You can’t take it seriously. Damn it, it’s not rational! Still, most people on the planet even today openly subscribe to a view of the world that isn’t rational, and so did most people in the past. Notoriously, there are no atheists in foxholes, and the proportion of us in literal or metaphorical foxholes is only going to increase in the coming years and decades.

If you want to read a truly in-depth exploration of how people actually think, I can highly recommend The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. If, having read that book, you still imagine that human beings are rational, I have a bridge you might want to purchase.

Logic is great, as far as it goes. The problem with it is we can’t take it all that far. If we’re going to cope with life as it is, let alone as it’s going to be, we are going to need all the tools in the box. I’d say the time to start getting familiar with those tools is round about now.

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

On the end of politics

Man is by nature a political animal.

Aristotle, Politics I.ii

When Tony Benn retired from the House of Commons in 2001, he said he was doing so in order to spend more time on politics. Certainly the body which is supposed to represent the mass of the population has increasingly detached itself from reality over the years. In part this is a result of the electoral system in the United Kingdom; today’s “safe seat” is essentially a pocket borough with good PR, that is to say whoever is nominated by the party that owns the seat will be elected regardless of their fitness for the post.

This sort of thing was supposed to have been done away with by the Great Reform Act of 1832, but something so convenient to the governing classes was always likely to find its way back sooner or later. In the years of agitation leading up to the passing of that Act, Thomas Love Peacock wrote the satirical novel Melincourt in which an orangutan is elected to the House of Commons by these means. Surveying the current government, I’m not sure an orangutan wouldn’t do a better job.

A good deal of nonsense has been written about the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom. It’s generally supposed to be a good thing, although it’s noticeable that when we gave constitutions to various bits of the Empire as they gained independence we always gave them something in writing. It does have the issue that there is no clear way of resolving issues that arise.When I was younger, whenever there was some knotty constitutional problem the cry would go up “Let’s ask Norman St John-Stevas!” but as he died in 2012 we would need to hold a seance.

So it is not definitively unconstitutional that the Prime Minister and his most senior minister are now convicted criminals, having broken their own laws. It is hard to square the Prime Minister’s claim that he wasn’t clear about the meaning of those laws with the fact that he was appearing nightly on national television to explain them to the rest of us. If he did know what they meant, then he knew he was breaking the law and therefore his statements to the House of Commons that he wasn’t were, to put it baldly, lies. Even if he misled the House unwittingly, he is supposed to correct the record, which he has not done.

It is usually considered a resigning issue for politicians to lie to the the House. Or at least, it used to be. But it doesn’t seem to be written down anywhere, apart from in the Ministerial Code which has already been broken with impunity by other ministers (I’m looking at you, Home Secretary). Meanwhile, Mr Johnson has a majority in the House of Commons and as far as he is concerned he can just carry merrily on.

The written constitution on which we are now relying to sort this out is that of the Conservative Party, which he leads. That does include a mechanism whereby he can be removed from that job and therefore from his office. But it depends entirely on Conservative MPs, who are not on the whole the kind of people you would want on an ethics committee. (Imran Ahmad Khan MP is merely the latest example.) It’s fair to say that they will be moved largely by self-interest rather than any high-minded desire to save democracy.

Not so very long ago, Anthony Eden resigned as Prime Minister just on suspicion of having misled the House over the Suez Crisis. Today, apparently, the Right Honourable Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson MP feels no qualms about remaining in office.

I’m not saying this, incidentally, because I believe a Labour government would solve all our problems. The most that can be said for such a government is that it would probably do very little, which might be a small improvement on a government that intends to send asylum seekers to Rwanda and to suppress meaningful political protest. First, as Hippocrates is supposed to have said, do no harm. But I am under no illusion that they would respond meaningfully to the many crises of our day, even if they were to be elected, which still seems unlikely even now.

The deeper issue is that the UK system has long ceased to furnish us with competent governments who had the interests of the governed at least somewhat at heart. It never really did, if we’re going to be honest, but at least we used to have Ministers of the Crown who could string a sentence together. Now the system has zero incentive to deliver politicians who actually represent the electorate at large.

Nor is this uniquely a British problem. Where in Europe will you find such a government today? Where, indeed, in the wider industrialised world? Leonard Cohen sang in “Anthem” of “the widowhood of every government” and you can see what he meant. Calling yourself a democracy doesn’t make you one, as witness the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is a truism that government is only possible with the consent of the governed; nowadays this is apparently taken as a given. It will be interesting to see how far this can be pushed without serious blowback. I suspect we are going to find out, and sooner than we would like.

Ancient Chinese thinkers developed the notion of the Mandate of Heaven to explain the otherwise inconvenient fact that every so often the divinely-ordained emperor was given the heave-ho and another dynasty rose to power. I am no expert, but it seems to me that more than one government in the industrial world has now lost that mandate.

I say this with some sadness, because I don’t think what will immediately replace the current order will necessarily look very pretty, nor will the transition to it be smooth and painless. I also say it with apprehension, because current issues with food supply are likely to get worse, not better, next year. High food prices are of course a classic precursor to violent uprisings, as was seen in France in 1789, Russia in 1917, and more recently the Arab Spring. Many of those same countries in the Middle East and North Africa are already feeling the pain from the current war in Ukraine.

The systems of government we have in place are not designed to provide us with leaders who can cope with this kind of thing. Justin Trudeau’s abject handling of the Canadian truckers is par for the course. Back in the late 1960s and 1970s there were various coup plots in the United Kingdom against the Wilson government, not all of them confined to Wilson’s fevered imagination. We may well be heading into a period of history that will look like the 1970s on steroids, not least because of increasing inflation.

I don’t know what the actual inflation rate in the UK is right now, but even based on the official numbers it ain’t going down. Food is going up; fuel is going up; energy is going up; the cost of accommodation is going up. As has been said before, that which is not sustainable will not be sustained.

This won’t be the end of politics, of course. As Aristotle said, politics of one sort or another will always be with us. What will end is the kind of politics we are used to. Time will tell what will replace it, but you wouldn’t bet against Caesarism. And then all bets are off.

The original Casar.

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

On denial

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed

Everybody knows that the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That’s how it goes

Everybody knows

Leonard Cohen, “Everybody knows”

There is rarely much point in telling a person that they are in denial. Such a person will, after all, probably deny it. What may sometimes be more useful to observe what is being denied and think about the consequences of its being true. After all, just because those in power are ignoring something won’t make that thing go away.

Denial is one way in which people respond to something which is the case but which they really, really wish were not the case. For example, it’s probably fair to say that the majority of people in the industrialised world are in denial about their own mortality. They know they’re going to die, they just don’t want to think about it. Governments and other institutions can behave in the same way, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

As ever, I’m going to speak here about the UK because that’s the example I know best, but I strongly suspect the UK is not unique in this regard. I’m sure my non-UK readers will be able to find parallels in their own countries – comments are more than welcome. We certainly have no monopoly on stupidity.

Something that is becoming painfully apparent, even amongst people who haven’t previously been paying much attention, is that the current arrangements by which most people in the UK get most of the food are – well, let’s just say fragile. There is at present a shortage of diesel fuel across Western Europe. This makes it expensive to fuel fleets of lorries to haul goods across the country, including food, as well as to operate tractors and other farm machinery. Freezers and refrigerators are also getting more expensive to run, as the price of electricity goes up. Private cars likewise, both fossil-fuel and electric.

None of this is good news either for industrial agriculture or for the supermarket model which we presently rely on to feed the bulk of the population. The artificial fertilisers on which our agriculture depends rely on natural gas to feed the Haber–Bosch process by which it is manufactured. Even the plastic packaging beloved of supermarkets will be getting more expensive, where these rely on a petroleum-based feedstock, as most plastics do.

So, in plain terms, the majority of people who are used to being able to drive cheaply to a supermarket to obtain their cheap industrially-grown food will no longer be able to do so. This is an issue today, but it has been coming for a long time. Plenty of people have been trying to draw the government’s attention to it since at least the 1973 oil crisis.

And what has been the response of successive UK governments? Sweet Fanny Adams.

You might have thought that someone might have imagined what the consequences of this might be. In the 1970s, after all, we still had recent memories of the Second World War, when the country was largely thrown back on its own resources due to the U-Boat blockade. In those days, titanic efforts were made to avoid starvation, and those efforts were pretty successful. The threat was immediate and obvious, and there had moreover been a similar effort by Germany in the previous war, so there was no difficulty in noticing that there was a problem.

There is likewise a problem now and in the medium-term future. Yet nothing is being done to try and wean us off the current model, to encourage localised food production by methods less dependent on oil, or to break up the effective monopoly on food supplies held by the supermarkets. Almost nobody in the UK knows how to work with heavy horses, for example, and even if the skilled workers were available the horses aren’t. Neither is the machinery, outside of a few museums.

Again, organic agriculture exists merely as a niche. Likewise farmer’s markets (once upon a time, that was what all markets basically were). Most people can’t afford to obtain their food this way, for a number of reasons, partly to do with the ludicrous cost of accommodation in most parts of the UK and also with the relentless driving down of wages which has been going on for the last thirty-odd years. Those things could be addressed by governments prepared to do so. But of course there is some political pain associated with doing that, and the food riots will happen in some future government’s term of office, so they do nothing.

I think a good deal of denial works in a similar way. The pain of accepting the facts, and especially the consequences of the facts, is immediate and clear. The rewards for actually facing up to the facts are nebulous and uncertain. Nobody in politics gets kudos for preventing food riots. You can get kudos for making food riots stop, but of course that’s much easier to do when the mechanics of actually feeding people are in place.

The trouble is that there are no quick fixes for this stuff. It takes time to change over your entire food infrastructure. 1940s Britain was a far more agrarian society than 2020s Britain is, and they barely managed it on an emergency basis. The supermarkets were so successful in the 1960s and ’70s just because they promised that we would never have to go through all that again. Alas, like so many of the promises of industrialism, it was only good for so long, and so long may not be that much longer.

There are plenty of other areas where people are in denial, of course. The whole renewable energy/electric vehicle fantasy realm is a case in point. We need to face the fact that electricity is largely going away. You can still get a lot of useful work out of water, wind and solar – water-mills, windmills and solar water heaters have immense potential – but wasting so much energy by generating electricity instead of using it directly is nuts, purely from a thermodynamic point of view. You really don’t want to be using solar PV to power your immersion heater.

Here I think the mental block is to do with the myth of Progress and the associated idea that the past has nothing to teach us. After all, the ancient Greeks had water-mills. The again, the ancient Greeks were pretty smart. If you can get over the fact that you can’t control it from your iPhone, you might well decide that a water-mill is a pretty neat idea if you have heavy work to do (like grinding grain) and you don’t want to use muscle power.

No doubt we all of us have our blind-spots. The trick is to find them and eliminate them as far as we can. Conventional wisdom is never quite as wise as people think it is. That’s especially the case now, as established certainties become less certain right across industrial culture. Not all well-known facts are actually true. If we want to cope with reality, we need to start by seeing what it is. You can pretend otherwise, of course. It’s your choice.

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

On the war in Ukraine

War is hell.

William Tecumseh Sherman

Industrial civilisation treats war the way it treats everything else: as an industrial process, and as a money-making opportunity. War has always been a horrible business, but these days we have the technology to make it more horrible for more people, so of course we do. And of course those of us who are not directly involved still get to see a lot of it; back when Tolui Khan wiped out the city of Merv in 1221, supposedly killing 700,000 people in the process, nobody was filming it on their phone.

Nevertheless it still seems to have come as a surprise to a lot of people how horrible the current war in Ukraine is turning out to be. I’m not sure what they were expecting. Perhaps they thought that wars don’t happen in Europe any more, although the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia weren’t that long ago. They surely can’t have imagined that war in general had become a thing of the past. After all, there are plenty of them going on around the world today, even if we tend to ignore most of them – this Wikipedia page contains an extensive list.

Of course there is a political angle to this. People in the West need to be told that this war is somehow uniquely horrible, seeing as how it is an act of aggression (unlike, say, the second Iraq war) perpetrated by the uniquely evil Vladimir Putin, who is therefore to blame for absolutely everything. They also need to told that the Russians will lose in the end, because good always triumphs over evil, except when it doesn’t. The International Criminal Court wasn’t sitting in 1221, but even it it had been I rather doubt that Tolui Khan would have appeared before it, any more than George W. Bush or Tony Blair have, or King Salman of Saudi Arabia will.

The war in Ukraine, like most wars, should never have been necessary. Like everyone else, I hope it comes to an end as soon as possible. I shall be very surprised, however, if it ends in abject defeat for the Russians and Vladimir Putin doing jail time. For one thing, he holds too many cards in the theatre where the war is really being fought, the economic theatre. There’s a lot of noise being made about the sanctions being applied to Russia, when to a large extent Russia will simply route around them. Take Russia’s expulsion from SWIFT, for instance. The consequence of that has been to undermine the US dollar’s status as the global reserve currency, as Russia make arrangements to sell its oil and gas in roubles, for example to India.

Confiscating yachts is not going to change the bald facts that Russia exports a lot of stuff that other countries need – wheat, ammonia, nickel, and of course oil and gas – and those countries are going to do what they need to obtain those things one way or another. Those who refuse to play ball will have to go without, and there are already issues with diesel fuel in Europe; Germany is said to have only forty days’ supply. Without Russian gas, Europe will have a hard time generating its electricity, despite US promises to teleport sufficient LNG across the Atlantic. (There are neither the tankers nor the terminals to accomplish this feat by conventional means.) As far as I am aware, the price of oil has been comfortably over $100 a barrel since the war began, over $130 at times, and some analysts expect it could hit $150. This is not good news for oil importers.

Even before the war, of course, it was already over $90, because the thing about oil is they’re not making any more of the stuff, and the high-quality, easily-extracted oil has now mostly gone up in smoke. If the war in Ukraine focuses minds on this issue, then it might conceivably have some positive results as well as all the death and suffering. I wish I felt more optimistic about this.

Whatever happens in Ukraine, though, even if the forces of supposed righteousness prevail, there will be considerable disruption to the existing economic order. And I see very little from Western governments that suggests they will be in any way prepared to cope with it. It may very well turn out that the real winners of this war will be India and China.

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