On being a modern employee

Live the behaviours!

An actual manager at my step-daughter’s workplace

Before the media became obsessed with how evil Vladimir Putin is, there was a fair bit of hot air given to the phenomenon known as the Great Resignation. This is not, as one might suppose, some sort of renaissance of Stoicism in which large numbers of people have become reconciled to the evils of modern life. Rather it is an unprecedentedly high rate of job resignations, notably in the US and Europe but also seen elsewhere in the industrialised world. In this week’s post, I’d like to look into this phenomenon, as it is still apparently ongoing even though it has ceased to feature much in the news.

Originally it was blamed on the Covid-19 pandemic (remember back when that was a thing?) – as was everything bad that happened before we realised that everything was actually Mr Putin’s fault. Certainly that was a precipitating factor. When it broke out, various governments brought in schemes that boiled down to paying people in non-essential jobs to stay at home (with a pay-cut, naturally; a healthy 20% in the case of the UK scheme). It may well be that some of those people, given time to reflect on their lives, actually did so and concluded that they might be well-advised to do something else with them. It is clear that not all of the resignations were simply due to health reasons, and they certainly weren’t the result of people taking better jobs in a resurgent economy, given that the economy has not been especially resurgent.

But why would people with jobs not want to keep those jobs? After all, getting a job is what you do, for most people. Even quite rich people feel obliged to have a career, which is just getting a job only made to sound nicer. (It’s a bit like the well-known distinction between going insane and becoming eccentric.) And why are other people not queuing up to take those jobs that have unexpectedly become vacant? After all, doesn’t everyone want a job? Lots of people need two or three of the things these days, just to get by.

Well, maybe some of the people who find this surprising need to acquaint themselves with life as it actually is in the modern workplace.

I’m going to try and illustrate this by means of a case-study, based on my step-daughter’s current employer. (By the time you read this, they may very well be her former employer.) I’m going to refer to them as Acme Foobar Retail, for the very good reason that they’re called something else in real life and I’m not a big fan of being sued. Their core business is selling foobars over the counter, but she actually works for a subsidiary, which I’ll call Acme Frobnicating. (Yes, that’s a made-up word. See previous reference to being sued.) This is an appointment-based service, which allows individuals to come in and have their foobars frobnicated by trained frobnicators, because with today’s fast-paced lifestyles not everyone has time to do it themselves.

Now the management of Acme Frobnicating know absolutely nothing about the nitty-gritty of frobnicating, except that you can make money from it. All they care about is getting clients through the door in largest possible numbers, getting their foobars frobnicated as quickly as possible, and moving on to the next. Like so many things in modern life, this is a completely rational view, provided your only window on reality is Microsoft Excel.

For the actual frobnicators, though, it’s different. They actually care about frobnicating and they want their clients’ foobars to be as well-frobnicated as possible. To be clear, this is not intrinsically a McJob. Rather it’s a calling, and people go into it genuinely wanting to make a difference.

I think you can probably see where this is going.

No malice is required to make this situation untenable for the frobnicators,. The decisions are being made by people with no clue as to what their decisions entail. Worse than that, the decision-makers actively avoid finding out what their decisions might entail. They are afraid, I strongly suspect, that decisions that will make things better in the real frobnicating world will make things look much worse in Microsoft Excel world, and that is the world in which they are judged. Because the managers’ managers look no further than that. It’s all about the bottom line.

But although malice is not required, it is nevertheless present in bucketfuls. For no apparent reason, it turns out that Acme Foobar Retail, or at least the branch where my step-daughter works, is a pit of scorpions. The mentality reminds me strongly of a cult. If you work there, you may not have contact with any other branch of the business. (My step-daughter used to work at another branch.) You will comply with the whims of management. You will not have time off, except at times that the management deems convenient, that is at times when nobody wants to have their foobar frobnicated, which turns out to be never, because of course their business model is predicated on an endless stream of people who want to have their foobar frobnicated. If you do have time off, you will naturally still be on call, because why wouldn’t you be? And you will never, ever, bother management with the troublesome details of actual frobnicating, because they don’t need to know about that stuff.

Is this typical of the modern workplace? I don’t claim to know, but I would happily wager that it is typical enough to explain many of the resignations were are seeing today. After all, why would anyone subject themselves to this kind of petty tyranny if they had any alternative? And people are creative enough to find alternatives.

There is no labour shortage today. What there is is a shortage of gullible idiots. Except, perhaps, amongst the managerial classes. Maybe a few of them might want to shut down Microsoft Excel and look out of the window. There’s quite a lot going on out here nowadays.

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

On spring

In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of civilisational collapse.

Alfred Lord Tennyson (slightly amended)

As I write these words, it’s the Spring Equinox up here in the northern hemisphere. From today onwards, the days will be longer than the nights. The clocks will be going forward. The birds are singing, the flowers are opening, and people are traditionally starting to cheer up after the long dark winter.

Except that 2022 is a bit less cheerful than usual. It’s not just that the weather is weird – although it certainly is weird, with simultaneous heatwaves at both poles – or that there’s a major war happening in Eastern Europe. There are multiple serious issues besetting industrial civilisation right now. The price of oil, the life-blood without which globalism cannot function, is well over $100 a barrel, has been for months, and is showing no signs of decline. (Even before the Ukraine crisis it was north of $90, a fact which was not exactly on every front page.)

Vladimir Putin is the current object of media hysteria. It is remarkable how swiftly and completely he has eclipsed the Covid-19 pandemic as the monomaniac centre of attention. I am pretty sure I can remember a time when more than one thing was allowed to be happening in the world, but this has apparently ceased to be the case. Anyway, all the things that go wrong that we used to blame on the virus can now be blamed on Mr Putin instead.

If this strikes you as irrational, then you are correct. Many of the issues that are coming down the pike have nothing to do either with Covid-19 or Mr Putin or indeed the Tooth Fairy. For example: take food. Industrial agriculture depends heavily on artificial fertilisers. The major ingredient for these is ammonium nitrate. A lot of this is manufactured in China, and China has started to restrict exports of it, reserving its production for domestic use (weirdly, they prefer to feed their own people rather than make money). This started happening last year.

This is going to have a big impact on this year’s harvest. A lot of countries in the Middle East and North Africa rely on importing wheat from Russia and/or Ukraine, and they may be in for a second edition of the Arab Spring as bread prices are forced up – this is already happening. But it will be worse next year. I can’t imagine Ukraine will be bringing in a bumper harvest in 2022. We will discover the hard way that however much money you have you can’t buy something that ain’t there.

Or nickel. A lot of nickel comes out of Russia. It’s required for many industrial processes, such as the manufacture of stainless steel and of course batteries. You can’t magically replace it with cryptocurrency or tweets from Elon Musk or anything else; for the stuff we need nickel to do, you need actual physical nickel. The price of nickel has been going all over the shop, to the extent that the London Metal Exchange felt obliged to cancel an entire day’s trading recently. It’s one of those natural resources on which we depend and yet nobody really talks about it.

Or natural gas. Europe is heavily dependent on this both for direct use and indirectly for electricity generation. Much of that gas is imported from Russia. I don’t need to tell you which way the price of that is going. This is not happy news for energy-intensive industries – aluminium smelting, for example. Still, it’s not as if we use aluminium for anything important.

Or there’s the obvious knock-on effects of the price of oil. There are fishing fleets in Spain that are not sailing because they can no longer make money. Spain is also in the grip of a nationwide transport strike, with lorry drivers protesting the cost of diesel, which in turn is having adverse effects on the rest of the economy (those fishermen who have been going to sea can no longer dispose of their catch, for example). Unless you live in Spain, you probably haven’t been reading about any of this in your local paper.

Another issue for the Spanish fishing industry, incidentally, is the shortage of sunflower oil for canning purposes. The immediate cause is the Ukraine war, as sunflower oil production is largely centred there, but the larger cause is the mindset that assumes that the place for all of your eggs is automatically in the one cheapest basket. This brilliant thinking has led to the concentration of so much of US agriculture in the Central Valley of California, which is struggling with a multi-year drought, Again.

With expensive fuel, the world gets bigger again. Importing everything from the other side of the globe becomes a less attractive business model. Where businesses are operating on tight margins, like the Spanish fishermen, quite a small price rise can be fatal. At the risk of stating the obvious, the price rises we are seeing now are not small. And there’s not much prospect of this improving.

So we’re looking forward to a world in which multiple essential items – wheat not least among them – are going to be scarce, expensive, or downright unobtainable for many people. At the same time, their incomes are going to be squeezed still further, in the aftermath of the forgotten pandemic. This is how revolutions start, especially given the absence of even semi-competent political leadership in large parts of the world. (Biden? Johnson? Macron? Scholz? Hello, anyone at home?)

I fear particularly for the United States, a country riven by many divisions which have only deepened over the last few years, which continues to be addicted to oil (as George W. Bush so memorably put it), and which is also well-provided with heavily-armed people with military training. But violence could erupt almost anywhere. The extreme measures used again the Canadian truckers recently are a case in point. My own country, the UK, could very easily kick off.

Spring is traditionally a time of hope. I’m finding it quite hard to be hopeful about this year, or next. Still, in the immortal words of the late George Michael: “You gotta have faith.”

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

Book review: Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (Vintage, 1998), ISBN: 978-0099302780

I want to approach this book by means of its subtitle. Specifically, I want to contrast its subtitle with that of another classic text. This may seem perverse, but bear with me. The subtitle of this book is – or rather was originally; it has changed since the first edition, perhaps revealingly – “A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years.”

Now I do admire the sheer cheek of this. It’s deliberately provocative. Obviously it isn’t really such a book, because such a book couldn’t possibly be written, and if it could it would be much, much longer than this, even if it was short, because 13,000 years is a long time, and everybody is a lot of people. At one level Diamond is aware of this, and I don’t hold that against him. Perhaps it was his publisher who came up with it. But at another level, he really does appear to suppose that this is that book, or at least a synopsis of it, and that is where we part company.

The other subtitle I’m thinking of is that of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: “A study of economics as if people mattered.” It’s equally provocative, of course. But I think the main thing I have against Diamond’s book is that, ultimately, for him people don’t matter at all. Which slightly begs the question of why his book exists at all, but we’ll get onto that.

Other critics of this book have taken issue with particular details, and this was probably inevitable. After all, there is a lot of detailed archeology which the book skips merrily over, not all of which has dated especially well, which of course isn’t Diamond’s fault. The pyramids, for example, are blithely put into the category of “public works advertising state power” (Chapter 14, “From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy,” p. 285 in my copy). I am not an Egyptologist, and I don’t even play one on TV, but even I have a hard time swallowing that Diamond can really assert such a superficial account with a straight face.

There’s a version of the human story that we all get taught, and it goes something like this. In the beginning, we were all hunter-gatherers, living in small groups, and it sucked (spoiler alert: it probably didn’t). Later, some bright spark discovered farming, and everything got much better (spoiler alert: it definitely didn’t) because that meant we could become more numerous (because that has to be a good thing, right?) and also because we had surplus food we could support people who didn’t produce food (because that also has to be a good thing). And that took us on a smooth trajectory to the paradise we live in today, where half the world is starving and we have the Department of Work and Pensions. Hoorah!

I’d love to say that Diamond’s book is the antidote to all this. In some ways it is, or tries to be. Diamond’s field-work as an ornithologist has led him to spend a lot of time in New Guinea, which has made him a kind of amateur anthropologist. He often recurs to New Guinea in the book, and those are often the most valuable passages, because they stem from his own lived experience. He is by no means an uncritical cheerleader for the modern lifestyle, as witness his 2013 book The World Until Yesterday, which is even subtitled: “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” – it’s just that from this account we’re lumbered with it, apparently everywhere and forever.

Diamond sets himself the question of why it is that the people of Western Europe – not, on the face of it, either the smartest, wisest, or materially well-endowed people on the planet – were able to subdue so much of the rest of the world. This is a reasonable question, and he gives it his best shot. But I am reminded of the work of a justifiably forgotten English essayist of the eighteenth century, Soame Jenyns. If anyone remembers him today, it is probably because of the righteous stomping his work received at the hands of Samuel Johnson: that he maintained that whatever is, is right. This, ultimately, is Diamond’s thesis too.

For essentially his explanations are entirely mechanical. There is no room for human agency in any of it. He occasionally weeps crocodile tears over, say, Native Americans being deliberately given blankets infected with smallpox, but it’s just the way it is. The Aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania were still using stone tools when Europeans arrived, so ultimately it was fine for them to be exterminated. (British officers had a wager on how many human bodies a musket ball could pass through, so in order to resolve it they lined up a bunch of Tasmanians and fired a musket ball through them and counted the corpses. Sad, but you know, kind of inevitable.) Diamond tries very hard not to be racist about all of this, but it’s pretty cold comfort for the losers.

The mechanistic basis of his world-view is betrayed in his account of religion. For Diamond, religion is just a manifestation of what he terms “kleptocracy.” With touching faith, he seems to imagine that as human society progresses, there is less room for kleptocracy. (Sweet summer child! Does he truly know nothing of the corporate world?) But there’s also no room in his account for actual spiritual experience. Even if he has no direct knowledge of this, it seems strange to me that he has heard nothing of it from his friends in New Guinea, to say nothing of friends closer to home. It’s not so much an omission as a gaping void. After all, an awful lot of those people in the last 13,000 years have been religious, one way or another. They can’t all have been idiots.

This is history without the ethics. It isn’t, actually, history at all. History is not just about what happened, but what might have happened instead. Otherwise it’s basically just physics. In Diamond’s universe, what happened is the only thing that could have happened, because for him it really is all just physics. (Not quantum mechanics, of course, because that would be embarrassingly non-deterministic. Newton for the win!) Resistance is useless.

For Diamond, it would appear that everyone in the world is doomed to end up buying their groceries online, because that’s just the way things are. We’ll all be ruled in every tiny detail of our lives by faceless bureaucracies, because that’s just the way things are. In fact, we’ll all be living in some version of the USA, because that’s just the way things are. Is that what he wants, on some level? Judging from this book, I think perhaps it is.

Well: sod that for a game of soldiers. Luckily for us, the laws of physics (ha!) will render this version of the world unfeasible, and possibly sooner than we may think. Diamond may have written a history of the last 13,000 years, but it will take far less time than that for it to appear – well, dare I say dated?

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

On values in the sphere of politics

Liberal democracies must defend their values….

Andrew RawnsleY, The Guardian 27/2/2022

So who are these liberal democracies, and what are their values? It’s easy enough to list the states who routinely self-identify as liberal democracies: the United States of America (which is a republic, not a democracy; the framers of its constitution explicitly wished to avoid creating a democracy); the United Kingdom (which is an oligarchy with some window-dressing); the members of the European Union (well, most of them); Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

What interests me here is the question of values. Now most of us, it’s true to say, have two sets of values. There are the values that we profess to have, and the values that we actually live by, as shown by our actions. Of course there’s usually a lot of overlap between the two sets – I not only say that murder is wrong, but I abstain from going around murdering people – but perhaps only saints manage to walk the talk without exceptions.

When it comes to political regimes, however, there is often much less overlap. The values espoused by the Soviet Union, for instance, were far more pleasant than the reality it inflicted on its citizens. Likewise, the values which the liberal democracies claim to espouse are not often evident in their foreign policy – or even in their domestic policies, as Canada has recently shown us.

Police in Ottawa supporting the right to free speech.

I’m mostly going to talk about the UK government here, because that’s the example I’m most familiar with, but I imagine you can find plenty of parallels with your own government’s behaviour, wherever you happen to live.

Consider the international equivalent of murder, which is the invasion of one country by another. This is topical at the moment, given the unpleasant events occurring in Ukraine as I write this. What is less topical are the equally unpleasant events occurring in Yemen. Only one of these is currently being loudly deplored by Western governments. Why is that? After all, both the Russian Federation and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are major exporters of petroleum. Is Saudi Arabia a shining beacon of liberal values? I don’t think so.

Britain sells lots of arms to Saudi Arabia. In the quarter following the decision to resume exports of arms in 2021 (after a brief episode of pretending to give a damn), £1.4 billion quid’s worth of sales were authorised by the UK government. Given that the Saudis have been trying to bomb Yemen into oblivion since 2015 and still haven’t succeeded, I’m not sure that they’ve been getting their money’s worth. The Russians, on the other hand, make their own.

When Britain formed part of the “coalition of the willing” assembled to invade Iraq, a good deal was made of how unpleasant Saddam Hussein was. We might have taken that into consideration when the West installed him as leader of Iraq, so that he could fight another war with Iran. The reality is that he was welcome to gas as many Marsh Arabs as he liked until he started to think he could formulate policies of his own based on oil revenue. As soon as he wanted to sell Iraqi oil in a currency other than the US dollar he had to go.

Indeed, choosing your own path is rarely a good career move in international politics. Look up what happened to Salvator Allende, for example. It sometimes seems to me that what the liberal democracies really have against Vladimir Putin is that he won’t do what he’s told. If only he would let us pillage his country freely as we used to in the good old days of the 1990s, we wouldn’t really care what he did domestically. Alas, he has nukes, so we have to pretend to be at least a little bit nice to him.

The UK will probably be hoping that nobody is paying too much attention to what we do domestically, for that matter. Legislation is currently making its way through Parliament that will effectively criminalise public protest. I grant you this is pretty milk-and-water stuff compared to the drastic emergency powers recently taken by Justin Trudeau to suppress the truckers’ protest in Canada, but it still isn’t the sort of legislation we would normally approve of in other countries.

The fact is that most, if not all, of the self-styled liberal democracies are becoming ever less liberal and less democratic. They are effectively oligarchies, and behaving like oligarchies. I might have more respect for them if they were at least honest about it. The good news is that I can’t see this state of affairs continuing for much longer. Now that we have reached the point where even Canadians are taking to the streets the writing is surely on the wall.

Oligarchies fail because they pursue policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many, and the many are – well – many. As the Canadian truckers have reminded us, they also do all the stuff we can’t get along without. Even oligarchs need to eat. Yes, the elites have the machinery of repression at their disposal, and as we have seen that are eager to upgrade it, but that machinery may not be as effective as they imagine. Even Trudeau found it expedient to abandon his emergency powers before they were voted on by the Canadian Senate.

I don’t suppose we will ever see a world in which governments really pursue what the late Robin Cook called “an ethical foreign policy.” We may however get one where governments have to be a bit more careful about what they do because they are actually answerable to the people they govern. But that’s a long way off, and as the proverbial Irishman said, “I wouldn’t start from here.”

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

On careers

Only those who decline to scramble up the career ladder are interesting as human beings. Nothing is more boring than a man with a career.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

There’s an interesting sentence in Robert Heinlein’s classic SF novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress where he describes the attitudes of the typical (mostly male) inhabitants of his fictional lunar colony: “Average Loonie was interested in beer, betting, women, and work, in that order.” I think it points to a divide in our own society: between those who have (or aspire to) a job, and those who have a career.

Of course I’m leaving out the vanishingly small fraction of people who do something they genuinely love for a living. More power to them, but most of us aren’t in that happy position. I’ve certainly never had paid employment of any kind that I would have kept doing if I hadn’t needed the money. I’m also leaving out those people who are rich enough that they don’t need to work at all. There are probably even fewer of those.

A job is a disposable thing. Jobs come and go. You might be a plumber, say, and a job may consist of installing a shower. When it’s done, it’s done. Unless you happen to be a particularly neurotic plumber, it probably won’t occupy your thoughts beyond what is needed to do it. You might be a participant in the “gig economy” and have multiple jobs, none of which are really part of your sense of who you are. After all, who wants to identify with delivering pizzas?

A career, on the other hand, is a thing to be spoken of with reverence; it is composed of a series of jobs, it’s true, but you’re not supposed to think of it that way. The myth of the career is the personalised version of the great Myth of Progress which we are all supposed to believe in, despite evidence to the contrary. It is aspirational. If you are asked at a job interview where you see yourself in five years’ time, then the job under discussion is not a mere job but a step in a career.

The picture at the head of this post sums that thinking up rather well. What strikes me about it most forcefully is what will happen to the leaping woman if the rock she is aiming for turns out not to be there. She will suddenly become a briefcase-carrying Wile E. Coyote, doomed to plunge into the apparently bottomless chasm. And this is going to happen to a lot of people in the not too distant future, and far from metaphorically either. We already have “software professionals” who are obliged to live in their car because the cost of housing in California is so high that even they can’t afford it.

When I was at school leaving age, there was a bloke who was called in to advise us all about our future careers. As it turns out, I spent most of my working life doing things that hadn’t been invented at the time, so it wasn’t especially helpful. But it’s an odd thing to suppose that an eighteen-year-old is going to be able to say, with any real honesty, “I want to be an accountant/commodities trader/quantity surveyor/optician/whatever.” And if you tried the trick today, you’d be assuming rather optimistically that there will be accountants, commodities traders, quantity surveyors or opticians for the duration of your working life. I’m not at all sure that that’s a good assumption, given the way things are going.

Nobody, I think, would deny that plumbers do useful work. I could say the same for practitioners of any of the classic trades. Most of them will be needed in some form whatever the future holds, and they offer many transferable skills. Carpenters will be needed for as long as there are trees. Commodities traders, maybe not so much.

I think of some of the magnificently pointless job titles cited in David Graeber’s entertaining Bullshit Jobs. There is probably not much actual need for an East Coast Vision Co-ordinator even today, but I would be prepared to bet cash money there’ll be even less in twenty years’ time. What will become of the person who has that job? Will they find they have leapt daringly onto a non-existent rock? And will they be able to cope psychologically with the knowledge that they have no useful skills in the world in which they find themselves? I rather think that someone who delivers pizza today will be far less attached to their “career” and will positively welcome the chance to do something else.

If you have a career, I suggest that you start thinking about it as if it were just a job. For one thing you will be saner and better-adjusted. But you will also be far better-placed to confront the future, even just from that change in your thinking. The world is a richer, hairier and more interesting place than we sometimes let ourselves imagine, and we ourselves have more potential than we may think. After all, Albert Einstein could have had a perfectly good career in the Swiss patent office.

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

On justice

Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Is life fair? And given that the answer to that question appears to be no, should it be fair, and if so, can we make it fair? These are questions on many people’s minds right now, and I don’t think they are as straightforward as people think. Let me expand on that.

To quote Miss Prism from The Importance of Being Earnest, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” Which is to say that we all know that isn’t how things usually go. For every Mussolini hanging upside-down from a lamp-post, there are a hundred Stalins dying in their own bed. Injustices occur daily, and very few of them are ever punished.

I’m not talking about the unfairness of, say, a child dying of leukaemia. I’m interested here in the injustices perpetrated by human beings on other human beings. This still leaves me with a very wide field of enquiry, of course, and it seems to be getting wider all the time. And this is not surprising.

As the pie shrinks, those who have most of it have the most to lose. They are therefore doing their best to keep what they have, and indeed to grab more. The rich are getting richer. This means that the rest of us are getting poorer, because we have less and less of a pie that is getting smaller and smaller. Flannel about a glorious future of prosperity for all is getting less and less convincing. If you’ve watched the film Don’t Look Up, you may remember the speech where the weirdo tech billionaire waxes lyrical about how his scheme to capture and mine the incoming asteroid for rare minerals will end world poverty, and we all know perfectly well it wouldn’t, even if it worked: all it would do it make him even richer.

Let’s just pluck a couple of examples from the recent UK news. Britain has, or more correctly used to have, substantial oil and gas deposits under the North Sea. This was an obvious opportunity for the oil and gas industry to make a lot of money, and you would imagine they would need no urging to take it. But the government decided that the industry should get massive tax breaks anyway – it has emerged that between 2018 and 2020 Shell and BP paid no corporation tax on their North Sea operations, and somehow got rebates on the tax they didn’t pay to the tune of £400 million. Effectively they were being paid to take the stuff away.

Was this equitable? Norway also had some access to North Sea oil and gas, and they decided to put the profits into a fund to be used for the benefit of Norwegians.

This looks even worse when you look at the forthcoming rises in energy bill for British households. These prices are subject to a government cap, but this cap is to be raised by a chunky 54%, equating to an additional £700 a year for the average household at a time when, according to the Office for National Statistics, the poorest fifth of the population has suffered a drop in income over the past decade. This handy graph shows how the richest fifth did rather better:

You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to work out that a lot of people in the UK are going to have trouble paying their bills. The government clearly felt that they ought to be seen to be doing something about this, but their answer is a bizarre scheme of Byzantine complexity which is manifestly going to fail to help large numbers of those affected, while incidentally taking money away from local government. Their main aim seems to have been to take the edge off the immediate pain without spending much money or indeed addressing the underlying issues.

And this is completely par for the course. A gulf is opening up between the rich and poor, and it’s a gulf of mutual understanding as much as anything else. Government ministers can tell themselves that they have been generous because they have no idea what it’s like to have to choose between food and heating, for example. And this kind of cluelessness is going to end up with heads on pikes if they’re not careful. I am not seeing many signs of carefulness.

Nor is this a UK-specific problem. President Macron sometimes appears to be channelling the spirit of Louis XVI, and the news of Canada’s Prime Minister being evacuated by helicopter from his own capital also does not suggest a man with confidence in the people he governs. US politics has notoriously been captured by the rich; the difference between Republicans and Democrats is much the same as that between Coke and Pepsi – neither will do you much good. When a multi-millionaire property developer with strange hair can capture the Republican nomination and win the Presidency by representing himself as being more in touch with working people than mainstream politicians, it’s pretty evident that the system simply isn’t working for many Americans.

Of course the rich and powerful have been oppressing the poor and weak for as long as these categories have existed. The fulminations of the prophet Isaiah weren’t original even in his day. It may be that industrial civilisation even requires this to occur – attempts to run it on ostensibly more egalitarian lines were not a success in the Soviet Union or its satellites.

You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.

The Man With No Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

I am not suggesting that the demise of industrial civilisation will make this kind of thing magically stop. I do think that it may be easier to resist, at least in certain places and at certain times. And if we have that opportunity, we should take it, to the best of our ability. Perfect justice is an ideal that we will never attain, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Doctors still try to heal people even though all of their patients will eventually die, and I for one am very glad they do.

Will there be blood? I am afraid so. Will innocent people suffer? Yes, they will. As the wheels come off, a process which already further under way than many people imagine, a lot of people are going to get hurt. In theory there are nice ways to achieve the inevitable transition to a sustainable way of life, but they don’t seem likely to occur. So there will be blood, and injustice, and suffering. But just possibly something better will emerge on the other side, if we keep hold of some of our key principles. And justice, it seems to me, is one of the more important. Our rulers forget that at their peril.

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

Book review: Overshoot

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change by William R. Catton Jr., University of Illinois Press (1982), ISBN: 0-252-00988-6 / 978-0-252-00988-4

I believe it was Mark Twain who defined a classic as a book that nobody wants to read but everyone wants to have read. This is a book that everyone ought to have read by now – it came out originally back in 1980 – but apparently not many people actually have. In a small way, I hope this review will help to remedy that.

William Catton was an academic sociologist, but don’t let that put you off. This is very much a book for the lay reader. He assumes very little by way of prior knowledge, and the book includes an extensive glossary of terms. The book is written with great lucidity and indeed restraint, and this makes its message all the more powerful. It is rooted not in sociology as such, but in ecology. This is a perspective that, as he notes, was unusual in his day; sadly, it continues to be so.

Catton begins from the premise that humanity is in crisis. It is sobering to be reminded how apparent this was even when he was writing in the 1970s. His central contention is that the nature and causes of this crisis can only be appreciated from an ecological perspective. The meat of the book is his exposition of ecological principles, starting with the core concept of carrying capacity. He goes on to apply these principles as an explanatory tool for human history, both ancient and modern.

He anticipates and dismisses the claims of human exceptionalism, which is to say that ecological principles apply to all other living organisms but not to us. Given that those principles do in fact apply, he makes a cogent case for the self-defeating nature of industrial civilisation.

Human society is inextricably part of a global biotic community, and in that community human dominance has had and is having self-destructive consequences.

Chapter 1, “Our Need for a New Perspective” (p. 10)

His account of the Industrial Revolution and the succeeding period – what he terms “The Age of Exuberance” – is useful not only in itself but as an explanation for why we have the habits of thought that we do. As Catton makes clear, these habits in themselves are one of the biggest obstacles to be overcome. In an entertaining section, he categorises responses to the crisis into five groups, ranging from “Realism” to “Ostrichism” (Chapter 4, “Watershed Year: Modes of Adaptation”, Table 2). He is refreshingly free of acrimony in this; he understands why people react as they do. But it is very obvious that there is very little realism about, any more than there was in 1980.

At the same time, he is clear-eyed about the future that awaits us if we fail to see things realistically and to take the appropriate action. He views the Great Depression, for example, as a “preview” of the kinds of disruption industrial society can expect to face. A significant chunk of the book (Chapters 11 and 12) is devoted to the psychological difficulties we face in adapting appropriately. Catton shows compassion as well as ruthlessness here in his analysis.

It is impossible to read this book and remain optimistic about the future of industrial civilisation. Perhaps this is why it is not, as perhaps it should be, on every school curriculum in the “developed” world. The book’s publication was also, in a sense, ill-timed: even as it came off the presses, the Reagan-Thatcher worldview was becoming dominant in the West, and it was never going to get much of a hearing in the corridors of power. Witness the desperate rearguard action against reality being fought to this day by Nigel Lawson, Mrs Thatcher’s long-time Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In this historical context, even Catton’s very limited faith in the Carter administration appears rather tragic:

The third week in April, 1977, was a pivotal moment in history. It was the time when the world’s most colossal energy users were at last called upon by their president to face the future realistically.

Chapter 14, “Turning Around” (p. 227)

Well, we know how well that turned out. The little that Carter managed to achieve was undone, and worse, by his successors, with the results that we now see.

Nits can of course be picked. Catton’s account of early human history is rather outdated, as one might expected from a book written forty years ago by a non-specialist. (I would highly recommend James C. Scott, Against the Grain, and/or David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything, for a corrective.) But none of this detracts from his core argument. Indeed Overshoot has aged remarkably well, on the whole, because it relies mainly on extremely well-established truths and on logical argument rather than on passionate rhetoric.

If the book has a weakness, it is that while it is long on diagnosis it is rather short on remedies. Partly this is because there simply are none, or not palatable ones at any rate. The best-case scenario is both unlikely and horrible; it is just less horrible than the others. If you want practical guidance on measures you can take to cope with what’s coming – and you will once you’ve read this, if you don’t already – you will need to look elsewhere.

Reading Overshoot is like taking a cold shower. You will emerge with fewer illusions, but it won’t necessarily be fun. But it is also bracing and, in its way, invigorating. Once you’ve seen the world as Catton shows it to you, it is hard to stop seeing it that way. And from that viewpoint it becomes possible to see some ways forward.

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

On bargaining

However healthy you think you are, remember that vegetarians die too.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss

It is not a coincidence that I begin this week’s post with a quotation from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her work on dying and on the grieving process is of the highest importance in this historical moment, when we must all, each us, say goodbye to much that we had and to more that we were promised.

Many people, it seems to me, are currently at the stage of the grieving process that Kübler-Ross identified as bargaining: the stage at which one tries to stave off the inevitable by offers of sacrifice of one sort or another. Perhaps if I give up drinking, it won’t happen. Or if I go back to my husband. Or if I avoid stepping on the cracks in the pavement.

We’re all familiar with this kind of thinking, and mostly we discard it as childish. After all, it generally doesn’t work. Sacrificing a chicken probably won’t speed up my broadband, although it may sometimes be tempting to give it a shot. I won’t win the lottery just because I was wearing my lucky pants when I bought the ticket.

But now that the excrement is getting dangerously close to the rotating ventilation device, bargaining is undergoing something of a renaissance. A couple of examples spring to mind.

Veganism is one of them. Now, I have no problem if you want to be vegan. I am not going to tell anyone what they should eat. I spent enough of my childhood arguing about that. For many years I was a vegetarian, and I would still fall into the category of “fussy eater” in the opinion of many. But even when I was a vegetarian – and for some years I also abstained from eggs – it never occurred to me that I was “saving the planet.”

Frankly, saving the planet is not something human beings can ever aspire to. The planet is absolutely fine. Life on this planet is also absolutely fine, in the long run, even if we throw all of our toys out of the pram in some nuclear extravaganza. The fact is that Mother Nature is a tough old broad, and it will take a lot more than we could possibly do to end life on Earth. We don’t have that kind of agency, however much it may flatter us to suppose that we do. Earth has been through a lot worse than us.

But what I am arguing against here is the idea that veganism will save the world. Leaving aside the question of which world exactly is being saved here, it is vanishingly unlikely that everyone in the world would ever adopt a vegan diet – even assuming that everyone in the world would thrive on it. There are plants, there are animals that eat plants, and there are other animals that eat those animals, and we are omnivores who can eat both. This puts us in the same bracket as pigs and chickens and ducks and many other creatures. It’s not a shameful thing, but it’s the case. Yes, industrial farming is a terrible thing. That includes the industrial farming of lettuce and carrots and even parsley. Veganism won’t fix any of that.

Another bargaining chip is anti-natalism, or to spell it out, the idea that nobody should have children. I will put my cards on the table: I have no children myself, and at my age it is unlikely that I ever will. But it strikes me as obvious folly to assert that nobody ever should. Admittedly my species is not exactly covering itself with glory in its industrial incarnation, but human beings have managed to live on this planet for quite a few millennia without completely screwing up. Is all of that completely without value? Really?

We have seen this one before. Monasticism has been a feature of multiple religions, Christianity and Buddhism being the most conspicuous examples. It has had some profoundly beneficial effects – we would know very little of classical Greek and Latin literature without the efforts of monastic copyists, for example – but if nobody was prepared to procreate, our species would be extinct in a generation. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t think that’s a great outcome.

Ultimately, there is no bargaining with the future. There are no guarantees. You can be the world’s most deserving farmer; you can observe all of the permaculture principles religiously; and you can still be wiped out by drought or floods or an earthquake. Benjamin Franklin famously said that nothing is certain except death and taxes, and Vodafone laughs at his shadow, but even Elon Musk will meet the Reaper someday, and perhaps not when he expects it.

We live in a world heavy with contracts. You work under a contract, you buy your necessities under another contract, you sleep at night under a roof governed by yet another contract, even your most intimate relationships are encumbered by one contract or another. But none of these chains can give you certainty. There are no hard bargains any more.

These guys failed to avert the Black Death. Full marks for trying, though.

The future we face is uncertain, make no mistake about it. That is a frightening prospect. But we cannot improve it by offering some sort of deal. There is no deal to be done. We are coping here with forces beyond our control, and the best we can do is to adjust, if we can. Be flexible. It’s going to be a wild ride down from here.

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