On the failure of imagination

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

William Blake, Vision of the Last Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

You are here.

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

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

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

This is just going to hurt your toe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On pollution

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

T. Danforth Quayle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On being unreasonable

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

George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mind how you go.

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

On the failure of political leadership

Everyone stay calm! This is not happening!

King Arnulf in Erik the Viking by Terry Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado, Act II

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

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

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

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

On forgiveness

Forgive yourself your sins

Lloyd Cole, “Sweetness” (Rattlesnakes, 1984)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On economists

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

Kenneth Boulding (attr.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On tipping-points

“How did you go bankrupt?”

“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Imagine heating a pan of cold water over a flame. Soon, you will have a pan of warm water; then it becomes hot and begins to smoke. After a while, small bubbles begin to form around the edge. And then, hey presto! You have a pan of boiling water.

This is an example of a state change. You have a state of affairs – the cold water – to which a stimulus is applied – the heat. For a while, things go on much as they were; there’s no dramatic difference between the original cold water and the warm version. But then you reach a point when things do change dramatically. Suddenly you have something with which you can make tea, for instance, or cook eggs, or even power a locomotive if you have enough of it.

There are many examples of state changes with which we are all familiar. The transition from a cloudy sky to rain is an example known to all non-desert-dwellers, and it has clear practical consequences. Overcast skies won’t water your vegetables. It’s also something you can’t necessarily predict just based on the initial conditions. Someone who had only known the desert might be surprised by clouds, and it’s highly unlikely they could use them to forecast rain.

If you take if off the heat, boiling water will cool back down. Tipping-points, however, are not so obliging. They are state changes that stay changed. Consider death. I think we can agree that death is not reversible, in the normal course of events. It can also be brought on by surprisingly small causes; an aneurysm, for example. A complex system – the body, in this case – flips from one state (being alive) to a different state (being dead). While the person was alive, they were in a steady state; which is to say that people who are alive mostly carry on being alive. When they died, they went into another steady state; dead people usually stay dead. This is the nature of tipping-points.

I bring this up now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, tipping-points or potential tipping-points are in the news as the moment, specifically in regard to the climate, although as I’ve already shown they occur in many other contexts. Any complex system, in fact, will exhibit tipping-points, as I shall go on to discuss. The second reason, of course, is that this is the autumn equinox up here in the northern hemisphere, the point at which the nights start being longer than the days, and we begin to approach winter. But this is not a tipping-point: it is entirely predicable, and in six months’ time it will reverse itself. It does, however, so happen to mark the first anniversary of this blog.

Here’s another complex system which is also in the news at the moment: the supply chain. Of course, in reality there are multiple supply chains which interact with one another in complex ways. Shortages in one area can have impacts in many others. For example, a shortage in available trucks is leading to a shortage in spare parts for trucks, which is exacerbating the shortage of trucks. At the same time, for various reasons there is a shortage of people able and willing to drive the trucks that are available. Between them, these shortages are disrupting supplies of everything which moves by truck, which is – well, everything.

The thing with both state changes and tipping-points is that they tend to be impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy. You can be sure that the pan of water will boil at some point, but exactly when is hard to say. Now this isn’t a huge issue if you’re just trying to boil an egg, but it you’re trying to judge when some complex system like an economy is going to collapse then it’s pretty much impossible. This is why not many people get rich off the stock-market. Everyone would like to know when the price of stock X is going to drop like a rock so that they can offload their holdings of stock X onto some other sucker investor (this is actually known as the “greater fool” theory – I’m not kidding). However, without access to privileged information, a.k.a. insider trading, it’s impossible to know for sure.

There are big and important things in our world that are subject to tipping-points. The climate is one; the global economy is another; ecosystems in general, including the human ecosystem, are another. In other words, things are unpredictable. As Robert Anton Wilson ironically suggested, everything is not under control. Readers of this blog will be aware that I am not persuaded that the world as a whole is about to collapse in some all-consuming catastrophe, but that emphatically does not preclude something happening that is quite catastrophic enough to be going on with. We should always bear that in mind.

“May you live in interesting times!” Apparently this is not actually a Chinese curse, but it’s a curse in its way – and maybe also a blessing. Either way, those are the times we live in. I don’t claim to be able to predict when any of the numerous Swords of Damocles hanging over us will drop, but I’m pretty sure this pan of water will come to the boil soon.

In many ways, it doesn’t actually matter than much which one hits first. As Simon Michaux points out in this valuable lecture, the practical actions required to prepare and respond are much the same. But the first step is to grasp the fragility of our situation. We are living on the slopes of a volcano.

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

On crypto-currencies

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.

William Gibson, The Economist, 4/12/2003

The crypto-currency thing has been going for a while now, but this post has been precipitated by the recent story that the government of El Salvador has expressed the desire to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender. Leaving aside the question of whether of not this would be a good move for El Salvador – spoiler alert: nope – it raises the issue of whether crypto-currencies are a good bet in general. Can they ever hope to function as actual money?

I’m not here going to rail against their spectacular volatility, which calls into question their utility as a store of value. It could be argued that this will smooth out over time, and indeed I agree, in that I expect their value to stabilise at zero. I’m not even going to complain about how cumbersome most of them are as a medium of exchange. If El Salvador does adopt Bitcoin as legal tender, I guess it would meet David Graeber’s loose definition of money as that which is accepted as payment of taxes. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the attitude of Roosta in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “If you can’t scratch a window with it, I don’t accept it.”

My issue is more with the physical realities underpinning all crypto-currencies. They appear to rely on a strange perversion of Marx’s theory of value: crypto entities have value, not because of the labour that went into them, but because of the computational effort required to create them. There are issues with Marx’s theory, of course, but I don’t need to debate those here, because there is a more fundamental issue at play.

The photo at the head of this post depicts an electricity substation. Now you may well have grown up with the vague notion that electricity is something that naturally seeps out of wall-sockets, but this is not so. Human agency puts it there, and is required to keep it there. There is a huge infrastructure, mostly invisible to us, that generates the electricity – whether by means of coal, natural gas, nuclear, or renewables, each of which entails its own vast infrastructure that has to be maintained and sustained, using finite resources – and distributes it. That infrastructure itself has to be maintained and sustained, also using finite resources.

I am not suggesting that some or all of this might go away at some point in the future. I am stating baldly that it will go away, and has already started going away. Californians already know this. Many people in Louisiana will also have noticed this fact, I imagine. Now that can be dismissed as a temporary blip, just like the current shortage of computer chips is a temporary blip, and the shortage of transportation to get the computer chips to where they’re needed is a temporary blip. The occupation of North Africa by the Vandals was doubtless seen as a temporary blip by the officials of the Western Roman Empire, until it wasn’t, and the empire fell. In the long run – and that may not be as long as you think – it’s gone. Kiss it goodbye.

Even if the chips were available to build the necessary computing resources to support crypto-currencies, those resources will be useless without electricity. And I am talking here about reliable, clean electricity, available every hour of the day, every day of the year. (I could also talk about the price of that electricity, but I’m in a generous mood today.) The whole point of crypto-currencies is that the calculations which underlie them cannot be performed in a reasonable time other than by the use of a computer. Without computers, what would you have?

It could be argued that you’d have another fiat currency, just like all the others in general circulation. That is to say, it would have value because people generally believe that it did. But why would it be more credible than any of the others? Is the possible endorsement of a temporarily (or permanently) dead computer network more valuable than the endorsement of, say, the government of the USA? Admittedly, there are people still trying to cash in things like this, more than a century since the demise of Nicholas II:

A bond issued by the Tsarist government of Russia to finance the railway system. Good luck!

But I’m not sure people are going to accord much value to a digital entity when the digital world goes away, as it inevitably must.

Incidentally, I’m also not arguing here that currencies backed by a precious metal are any improvement on this. Gold and silver, shiny though they may be, don’t seem to me to possess any magic “intrinsic” value – the Inca, for example, seem to have been fairly nonchalant about both. There is ultimately a strong flavour of the fiat about all currencies. I don’t, however, assume that all fiat currencies are equally plausible. If I offer you a piece of plastic, paper, or metal in payment for a good or service, I depend on your accepting it. I wouldn’t expect to use a Costa Coffee loyalty card to fuel my car.

Without reliable, clean electricity, available every hour of the day, every day of the year, I’m not even sure a Bitcoin owner would have something as substantial as a Costa Coffee loyalty card to offer in payment. It’s certainly not something I would be comfortable relying on when things get rough, and you don’t need to be Nostradamus these days to expect things to get pretty rough indeed, and sooner than any of us would like.

I must say that I have some sympathy behind the wish to develop an alternative currency safe from the manipulation of banks and governments. I just don’t think crypto-currencies meet that requirement. The answer, it seems to me, is to invest in real value: actual physical goods and services that people need, or at least really, really want. I discussed this in more detail in my post on wealth, but that is what it boils down to.

Obviously I am not a qualified financial adviser, whatever that might imply, and in any case I assume that readers of this blog are perfectly capable of making up their own minds. My advice is worth no more than what you pay for it, and maybe less. All I will say is this: if I had any money invested in crypto-currencies, I would get it out now, if not sooner. I might be getting out less than what I put in, but I should get something, at least. And wisdom is cheaply bought at any price.

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

On people

Some years back, Wendell Berry published an essay collection with the pertinent title: What are people for? (Counterpoint, 2010; ISBN 978-1582434872), and it’s a very good question. What, according to the commonly-accepted values of our civilisation, are people for? Economists will tell you that people are producers and consumers of goods and services. But both of those functions could be completely automated. We could have a world in which economic activity is reduced to computers selling one another financial instruments, and economists would pronounce it good – indeed, far better than the one we live in now. From the perspective of economics, people are just a nuisance.

I am going to come right out and say it: people are not a nuisance. Okay, some people are a nuisance, but human beings have a part to play in the world. Some of us aren’t playing that part very well, and that includes almost everyone in what I call industrial civilisation, but it remains an option for all of us to be human.

What do I mean by that? I mean that there is a larger picture, a dance of all living things, and that we have our part in that dance alongside everything else that lives, from grass to mosquitoes to crocodiles to hummingbirds to sticklebacks to mangroves. In that dance, we are both the eaters and the eaten. When I die, I want my body to go back to the land, because from the land it drew its nourishment. I don’t want it to go up some industrial smokestack: that was the premise of Auschwitz.

More than that, I mean that there is a vast source of meaning there. Modern life has been pretty thoroughly stripped of meaning, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a mental health epidemic has ensued. We are now at the point that we have a Soviet-style definition of mental health as being a state of well-adjustment to a profoundly sick society. You may already know what Jiddhu Krishnamurti had to say about that.

We are at a moment now when the merely economic concept of what it is to be human is being exposed as the empty husk it is. Our culture has nothing to offer us any more, a point which is brutally apparent to the younger generations. There used to be a story which went like this (I know, because it was told to me, amongst many others): “Get a job. You’ll be able to keep doing that job for many years, so it makes sense to get a mortgage and buy a house – who knows, as the value of that house keeps on rising, you may be able to sell it and get a mortgage on a better one. You’ll be fine: your corporate employers will look after you. And at the end of it, you’ll be able to retire, on a comfortable pension.”

I don’t think anyone believes that story any more. I’m not sure if it’s even being told any more. Frankly, the one about being rescued by space unicorns from Alpha Centauri is more plausible at the moment. And some commentators appear to be surprised by the Great Resignation! Frankly, the only surprising thing about it is that it took so long.

Who in their right mind would choose a life in which they are no more than a corporate serf, doing some dull repetitive chore on a zero-hours contract for the smallest wage that some office drone has determined the company can get away with? Too few people now have the prospect of anything else. So they will choose some combination of living on benefits, petty crime, and the black economy. This is not new. Exactly the same thing happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Much the same thing, really, happened when the Western Roman Empire fell. Ultimately, people vote with their feet.

The industrialised West is currently suffering what they are pleased to call a “labour shortage.” This is really just a sucker shortage. Nobody believes the fairy stories any more. They have been contradicted too often and too brutally by the reality of lived experience. This article gives a nice summary for the UK; I would be surprised if the reality in other industrialised countries is much different. (Feel free to weigh in below in the comments section below. More data is always welcome.)

So we have some collective clarity about what life is not about. The task now is to get some clarity about what it could be about, and how that could work in practice. Because if your life isn’t yielding the things required to sustain you – nourishing food, drinkable water, breathable air, and a supportive community – then that isn’t working. I’d draw your attention to the fact that few if any of the things on that list are presently being supplied by the arrangements we have in place, unless you’re very, very lucky.

Human beings have inhabited this planet for quite a few millennia – exactly how many depends on who you believe, but a lot. They have done so successfully; if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here today. For the most part, they managed to do this without the aid of economists, or of the industrial model, or even of science. I see no good reason to assume, as many people seem to, that their lives were, as Hobbes famously put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutal and short.” Certainly they were not solitary, and there is no indication that they felt human existence to be meaningless. On the contrary, so far as we can tell from the observation of indigenous peoples, they felt their lives to be crammed with meaning and purpose.

There are people living today – perhaps you, dear reader, are one of them – who can imagine nothing good of a world without iPhones. You may encounter some of them ranting about people who insist on having children, since assuredly those children will not have iPhones, the facts of geology being what they are. Well, I am old enough to have grown up without an iPhone or indeed the Internet, and you know what? We coped. Your children will also cope, and your grandchildren won’t even feel the lack. People adapt. This is how we got to a world containing Inuit and !Kung and Maasai and Wall Street day-traders and you, dear reader.

I am not here to tell you what your life ought to mean. I have no idea what your life ought to mean, because I have no idea who you are or what place you are in or how you got to that place, let alone what that place might look like in ten or twenty or a hundred years’ time. These are questions only you can answer. What I will tell you, however, is that you can make a meaning and a purpose that will make sense to you out of your present circumstances. I will assert the possibility of doing that even if you happen to be on Death Row, although I hope you are not. The meaning of a human life does not have to end when that person’s life ends.

It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.

Steve Biko

People are not there to serve an economic or ideological end. Economics and ideologies are there to serve the needs of people. If the present arrangements fail to recognise this – and they do – so much the worse for them. Whatever the future holds, the one thing you can be sure of is that it won’t be business as usual. This is a moment where, collectively and individually, we can and should be asking the big questions. What are you for?

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