On technology

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.

– Albert Einstein

The word technology covers a vast array of things, from movable type to firearms, the internal combustion engine, steam power, the wheel, the transistor, powered flight, anaesthetics, symbolic logic, the lever, nuclear energy, digital computers and windmills. It is, in short, so vague as to be useless.

One thing we can say about technology in general, though, is that the often-made claim that it is value-free is nonsense. Technology comes about because people want to perform some action, and action is never value-free: that’s why the field of ethics exists. Take firearms. The AK-47 was developed in order to kill people, and so far as I can judge it’s very effective. Killing people may be right or wrong, depending on the circumstances and your ethical code, but I don’t think anyone would pretend it was value-free.

The Manhattan Project is an even more blatant example of this. Because the end product was dropped on Japan, we tend to forget that it was undertaken to pre-empt any similar development by Nazi Germany. This technology was explicitly developed for military purpose, and all the “atoms for peace” guff was plastered over it subsequently to make this less obvious.

All this leads one to the suspicion that the people who claim that technology is value-free are hoping you won’t notice what their values are. When James Watt and Matthew Boulton were trying to sell steam-engines to early industrialists in the late 19th century, they initially had a hard time of it: factories were being powered by water, and water-power is a lot cheaper than steam, especially at a time when coal was being mined by hand and was therefore expensive.

Steam won out for political reasons, that is to say for reasons to do with the power-relation between employer and employee; you can only build a water-mill in certain favourable locations, which means you need to get the local workforce to co-operate with you, whereas you can put a steam-engine pretty much anywhere, and if the locals won’t play ball, you can put it somewhere else. (See Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital (Verso Books, 2015) for the gory details of how this played out in 18th-century England.) So steam-power implies a set of values, in this case that the employer-employee relationship should favour the employer. This is not, incidentally, some sort of commandment from the Almighty, still less a law of physics; it’s a value which human beings have arrived at for our society, which could perfectly well be otherwise.

Pause for a moment, and think about all the other things to which that description applies. If you haven’t already, consider social media in this light.

But to return to our subject. Given the huge baggy mess that we put under the heading of technology, it seems to me more useful to consider technologies in the plural – what are sometimes referred to as technological suites. (Why “suite” should be collective noun for this is a mystery to me, right up there with why political measures come in “rafts”.) So for instance: let’s consider the technologies for transport available in 1820, two hundred year or six generations back from the day I am writing these words.

There are sailing-ships for long-distance travel. For inland freight transport, there are canals with horse-drawn barges, or there are carts and carriages, also horse-drawn, if you need to go along the more or less awful roads. Or there’s walking. If you read Thomas Hardy’s novels, which are mostly set in the 1830s, you’ll find a lot of ordinary people walking when they need to get from A to B.

But a lot of this involves horses, which implies a bunch of other technologies and associated infrastructure. You could expect to stay at an inn with stables attached, and ostlers to look after your horse. There would be troughs to water your horse along the way. If your horse cast a shoe, you could expect to find a local farrier to replace it. And of course there were horse-dealers to sell you your horse in the first place, horse-breeders to supply those dealers, saddlers to supply you with tack, and all the rest of it.

And almost none of this exists today in the industrialised world. The author Tim Severin wrote a book about his experiences riding from Belgium to Jerusalem, following the route taken by the crusaders (Crusader, Arrow 1990). He had great practical difficulties with such basics as stabling until he got as far as Hungary, where there is a still a strong popular equestrian tradition, or at least there was in 1990. This might give us pause when we consider what our options for travel – and indeed field-scale agriculture – are going to be once cheap petroleum goes away, as it certainly will.

The more complex a technology, the greater the scope for unintended consequences. I am not here to blame global warming on Karl Benz or Gottlieb Daimler. They were trying to solve an engineering problem, and to make a buck. A lot of people fall into that category, and from their point of view it’s eminently reasonable. I used to be one of them myself. How could Benz or Daimler have possibly foreseen that, just in the UK, there would be 18.8 million petrol-engined vehicles today? In their day, petrol was an unwanted by-product of paraffin refining. Using it to power vehicles was positively thrifty. And now look at us.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Just driving one of these things around emits a lot of CO2, and that’s before we think about the steel it’s made from, the rubber tyres, the plastic trim, the glass in the windows, the battery, the ubiquitous electronics, and all the supporting infrastructure – the filling stations (and the fuel tankers that supply those filling stations, and everything supporting them), the spare parts, the regulatory agencies, even the roads themselves. It’s a fractal mess of technological dependencies and environmental damage, all of it unintended. Karl and Gottlieb are not in the frame for any of this, but this is where we are.

All technologies are prone to this kind of thing, but some technologies are more prone to it than others. I would divide these into two broad categories:

  • Simple technologies with a very broad application. Whoever first came up with the wheel was probably not thinking this would enable Hitler to invade France in 1940, although it certainly did.
  • Complex technologies which entail many other technologies. The internal combustion engine is an example of this one, as we’ve seen.

I contend that we are suffering from a surfeit of the second kind of technology and their endless ramifications. They tend to require a good deal more in the way of energy and raw materials than they seem to on the surface. Modern industrial agriculture is an excellent example.

The modern farmer cultivates his fields using tractors and a variety of tractor-towed implements; these are made out of steel which requires iron ore and lot of energy, and the tractors rely on petroleum (extracted, shipped and refined at the expense of more energy) for fuel and lubrication. He also uses artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, which are products of an immense chemical industry, as well as depending on fossil fuels as inputs. Having harvested his crop, it is packaged in plastic (more petrochemicals) and shipped by road (more steel, diesel and lubricants for the lorries, and asphalt for the roads) to the supermarket; you then drive in your car (steel, petroleum, yada yada yada) in order to get it.

And you thought it was just a bag of carrots.

There are other ways to get carrots which avoid all of this. After all, people have been eating carrots for a long time, well before Edwin Drake struck black gold in 1858. But the current arrangements aren’t set up for most people to get locally-grown carrots that aren’t grown using tractors and all the rest of it. In fact, due to the sunk cost fallacy the huge investment we have already made and continue to make in industrial farming and its huge infrastructure tends to act as a barrier to doing things any other way.

Like it or not, though, we are going to have to start doing things another way. The room is positively crowded with elephants; I’ve touched on food and transport here, but there are plenty more. Future posts will try to identify at least the largest of these elephants and try to suggest alternative directions. For now, I just want to throw two words out there: appropriate technology.

I am old enough to remember the 1970s when appropriate technology was the next big thing. Not only had people heard of E. F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful, quite a number had actually read it. There were a couple of events that focused minds around that time: the 1973-4 OPEC oil embargo and, at least here in the UK, national strikes by coal-miners in 1972 and 1974. The second of these put the country onto a three-day week, and because most electricity came at that time from coal-fired power stations there were frequent power cuts. Suddenly, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels seemed like a really good idea.

The bad news is that, for a number of reasons which I may discuss in a future post, we didn’t take that path. The good news is that people did a lot of research and development, a good deal was produced that has seen practical service (especially in the Third World) and a good deal more was rediscovered. For instance, the techniques of the French market-gardeners who fed Paris in the 18th century provided much of the foundation for modern intensive organic gardening. This stuff has not gone away; there are still people doing it, teaching it and writing about it.

Useful technologies to provide for our basic needs at a local level exist. They are necessarily simpler – which doesn’t necessarily mean easier – than the dominant technologies of our civilisation, and that makes them very much more resilient. I highly recommend that you find out about some of these technologies, find ones that interest you, and learn them – not just by watching a video or reading a book, but by doing things for yourself. You may be surprised what you can accomplish.

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

Book review: A Small Farm Future

A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity and a Shared Earth by Chris Smaje, Chelsea Green Publishing (2020), ISBN: 9781603589024

The virtual ink was scarcely dry on my forthcoming post on food when this book came into my hands. I should confess that this is only the second book I have ever pre-ordered, having followed the eponymous blog for some time. You may infer from this that my expectations of it were high. I was not disappointed.

It would perhaps be extravagant to claim that Chris Smaje is Britain’s answer to Wendell Berry, but like Berry he withdrew from a career in academia (he was Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Surrey) to become a small farmer. He has been farming for 20 years, so his seriousness cannot be doubted. He knows whereof he writes, as Wendell Berry does, lending the writings of both men a rare authority.

This is not just a book about farms and farming, although it does discuss those subjects. It is an attempt to provide a positive vision of a possible future society, and this is certainly something we desperately need. The sub-title makes clear the general outlines of what Smaje has in mind. Perhaps ambitiously, he sets himself the task of answering these questions:

What if the route out of widespread farming towards urban-industrial prosperity that today’s rich countries followed is no longer feasible for millions of poor people in ‘developing’ countries? What if that urban-industrial life in fact becomes increasingly unfeasible even in the rich countries in the face of various political, economic and ecological crises? How might the future of humanity then unfold?

p. 3

Smaje discusses some of these crises in a long first chapter, “Ten Crises”, which on its own would be worth the price of admission. One of the strengths of his analysis is that he recognises that the problems we collectively face are made intractable not merely by their intrinsic technical difficulty – which would be quite enough to cope with – but by deep-rooted political and cultural structures. Radical change is required along a number of different axes simultaneously.

The basic argument of the book is that degrowth is inevitable, and I am inclined to agree. The key questions raised by this are: what might such a future look like? And how might we get there? Also: will we like it when we get it?

Part II of the book addresses head-on the key question “Can Alternative Agriculture Feed Us?” (Chapter 9). Smaje comes at this from an ecological perspective but also a practical one. He presents a case-study for the UK – reasonably enough, given that’s what he knows – for 2050, assuming conservative levels of yield and a substantially higher population, and is able to answer the question affirmatively. This is at least reassuring for those of us who live there, and gives some basis for optimism for everyone else.

But Smaje realises that there are deeper issues at play here. This is not an argument that all will be well if everyone does (insert action here), despite the fact that hell is likelier to freeze over. (We’ve all had quite enough of this kind of tripe from climate scientists.) He is under no illusions about the capacity of our current political arrangements to bring about the changes that need to occur:

… it… seems unlikely that existing states will be able to deliver a small farm future, or else rescue the present global order from the crises enveloping it. This is partly because the depth and speed of these crises isn’t prompting the degree of radical rethinking that’s needed to overcome them. It’s also because the very structure of the modern state is part of the problem….

p. 231

The same goes for our economic arrangements. In the UK, most people get most of their food from the big supermarkets. Those supermarkets aren’t there to ensure that their customers get the best food (when one takes ecological and nutritional factors into consideration), nor are they there to foster British agriculture. They are there to make money for their shareholders, which they do very well. Considering that they constitute an oligopoly, it would be surprising if they didn’t. But in a small farm society, people would get their food from a combination of their own production and local suppliers, with whom they would deal face to face. There isn’t much for the shareholders in this, which is why it will be resisted.

There is also a deeply-ingrained cultural narrative which exalts the “progressive” urban life above the “backward” peasantry. Smaje is, with some reservations, pro-peasant. As he writes:

…we need to lay aside romantic views of how small-scale, face-to-face, self-reliant small farm communities operate. We also need to lay aside romantic views of how modern, large-scale, market-oriented, urbanised societies operate, and the directions in which they’re heading.

p. 166

He also acknowledges that his optimistic vision is not inevitable, and that if it arrives the road there is unlikely to be smooth. Given that top-down change is vanishingly unlikely, Smaje envisages it as mostly bottom-up, through what he calls “the supersedure state” (p. 235). This is his term for whatever regional or local power-base emerges as central state power declines, as he argues it inevitably must in the face of multiple crises. He does acknowledge, however, that “[t]he outcomes of such political crises will be uncertain and possibly ugly…” (p. 233).

It is here that perhaps I diverge a little from Smaje, perhaps because I am simply less optimistic. I wonder if, understandably, he is skating over the ugly parts of this transition. He is even prepared to countenance the notion that “modern civilisation is transcending violence” (p. 240), to which I can only say, paraphrasing Gandhi, that modern civilisation would be a very good idea. But the reality is, as he says, that nobody knows at this point. There’s some reason for optimism, which is perhaps enough. I certainly hope he’s right.

This is not to accuse Smaje of starry-eyed unworldliness. On the contrary, he is pragmatic, as indeed befits a farmer. He does not claim to have a one-size-fits-all solution to all the world’s ills. As he says:

Confident programmes are a tic of modernist politics in its taste for single keys that explain the forward march of history, whether it’s the profit motive, democratic freedom, the inevitable march of science and Enlightenment ideals, or class struggle. Since I don’t subscribe to single keys, forward marches or inevitablity, the politics I’ve outlined is vaguer and less certain of success.

p. 255

If more political thinkers worked in this vein, the quality of public discourse would be vastly improved.

This is a lucidly-written, well-researched and cogently-argued book. Its subject-matter demands that it be wide-ranging, and it is; a brief review such as this can scarcely hope to do it justice. I rarely say this, but I would like it to have been longer. I’m thinking particularly of Chapter 16, “From Religion to Science (and Back)”, which could be a book in itself. If Smaje were to write it, I’d certainly want to read it.

On the back cover, Richard Heinberg is quoted as saying: “Every young person should read this book.” I would go further: everyone under the age of 100 should read this book. To put it another way, I would recommend it to anyone looking for an appealing and practicable vision of the future, at a time when most of those available are one but not the other. Let me give his final paragraph in full:

It’s true of course that we’re facing some vast and pressing global problems, but one of the main reasons that they’re so vast and pressing is that we’ve been unable to think outside the frameworks that continue to generate them, so we keep amplifying them. Humanity is now sailing in dangerous waters. In this book, I’ve tried to chart what now seems to me to be our safest course, though without illusions about the difficulties of following it and the chances of success. I think it involves rejecting grand solutionism and creating local autonomies as best we can that may just see us through into a new phase of history, with its own contradictions and difficulties. We need to prefigure it by thinking, and farming, for the long haul. It begins when you start raising chickens.

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

On industrialism

The Industrial Revolution was another one of those extraordinary jumps forward in the story of civilization.

– Stephen Gardiner

The Industrial Revolution, considered as the onset of industrialism, powered initially by water and then by steam, is usually represented as having been a Good Thing. A lot of people didn’t see it that way at the time, and there are plenty who don’t see it that way in retrospect either, but we’re supposed to think of it as Progress and therefore Good.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit to having grown up in the Black Country of England in the 1970s. We were post-industrial long before it became fashionable. It was a depressing landscape of decaying canals and abandoned factories, and I got out of there at my first opportunity. So my view of the Industrial Revolution may be a trifle jaundiced.)

The quotation at the head of this article is a particularly choice example of this. There’s so much wrong with this sentence that I hardly know where to start. Apparently “the story of civilization” – the story, because there’s been only one civilisation and there’s only one story to be told about it – consists of “jumps forward”, and the Industrial Revolution is Exhibit A in the demonstration.

It’s hard to avoid viewing historical events as inevitable in retrospect. The Industrial Revolution resulted in where we are today, and where we are today is supposed to be good (although not as good as where we’ll be tomorrow, when we’ll all have flying cars). The standard metaphor for a thing being good in our culture is that it is further forward or more advanced – that is to say, tending in the direction of flying cars, as opposed to the other (“backward”) direction, which leads directly to the caves without passing Go or collecting £200.

I’ll give him “extraordinary jump”, though. It was certainly a period of rapid and thoroughgoing and often jarring change. There wasn’t much that was smooth or gradual about it. Mind you, the same description applies equally well to the final scene of Thelma and Louise.

But what do I mean by this word industrialism? Well, I’m talking about large-scale processes that follow this kind of model:

We’re all familiar with this kind of thing: there’s some central location where the magic happens, stuff goes in, stuff comes out. People have been doing this on a small scale since the palaeolithic. What makes it industrial is the scale of it. The Industrial Revolution consisted of the development of this large-scale processing of raw materials, initially using wind and water power and then steam. We all learned this in school. Nothing to see here, move along.

There’s something rather vital missing from that diagram, by the way: energy. Industrial processes are typically energy-intensive, as are the extractive processes that feed them and the transport systems that make them useful. Energy will be getting its own post; suffice it to say for the purposes of this discussion that without a concentrated energy source, large-scale industry doesn’t work.

Another thing the diagram doesn’t show is that all this needs to make a profit. People want to buy the products, and this pays for the factory, for the raw materials and labour, and for dealing with the resulting pollution (unless the industry has managed to shift this burden onto society at large, which most of them do to some extent). When the industrial model is used for activities that don’t directly make a profit, the result is either going to be straight failure, a requirement for government subsidy, or profit-gouging by other means. Without profit, the production-line stops running.

Something else I want to stress about the industrial model is that it operates at a large scale. Consider someone back in the Palaeolithic era making a stone axe. There’s a worker, there’s raw material (the piece of flint), and there’s energy expended – muscle energy in this case, but still energy. And the output includes a product (the axe) and some waste (flint chippings). But this is just one person making one axe. We don’t see any evidence that there were special places where lots of people gathered in order to make hand axes full-time, in the way that there are special places where lots of people gather today in order to make Ford Fiestas full-time. Nor do we find huge mounds of flint chippings comparable to the slag heaps left behind by many industrial processes.

What characterises industrial civilisation is the relentless application of the industrial model to all spheres of life, regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate. Some obvious examples:

  • education – children and teachers in, supposedly well-educated adults out (we call the factory a school);
  • healthcare – sick people, doctors and nurses in, well people (or corpses) out (this factory is called a hospital);
  • agriculture – seeds, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and lots of diesel in, crops out (the factory is called a farm);
  • food – raw foodstuffs and various additives in, “edible food-like substances” out (at least we call a factory a factory in this case).

I’m sure you can come up with plenty more.

This model is so central to our society that anything that wants to be taken seriously has to characterise itself as an industry. Hence we have the leisure industry, the childcare industry, even (heaven help us) the culture industry. Even something as nebulous as financial services calls itself an industry. If it’s not an industry, it’s trivial by definition. Forestry is an industry; being a tree isn’t.

Incidentally, this worship of the industrial model is by no means confined to capitalist societies. The old Soviet Union was very keen on factories, especially as the industrial proletariat was seen as its power-base and justification. The ecological consequences of this obsession are still being felt across large tracts of the former USSR. Modern China is also doing plenty of this sort of thing.

Another definition of an industry is that industries have lobbyists. They exert local and sometimes national political influence. Some of the really big ones even get to write legislation. It furthers one, therefore, to be an industry.

But thinking about everything as an industry can lead us in the wrong direction. It might suggest, for example, that we would be better off having a small number of big hospitals (because economies of scale are great, right?) rather than having lots of smaller ones. The logical conclusion of this would be one enormous hospital somewhere in the middle of the country – bad news if you break your leg in Aberdeen, though. And making a direct profit out of healthcare is something only the US seems to be able to manage; here in the UK we have spent many years frantically sprinkling the National Health Service with private-sector pixie dust, but it still seems to cost us money, strangely enough.

As to education, that will be getting a post of its own; but throughout my lifetime successive governments have sought to tweak the education process in various ways, apparently in the hope of discovering some kind of pedagogical Chorleywood process, without noticeable success. It’s almost as if children were individuals and not lumps of pig-iron to be moulded into the desired shape.

The desire to have children be lumps of pig-iron to be moulded into the desired shape is itself a consequence of the industrial model, since workers tend to be conflated with raw materials, given that they’re both inputs to the system, and it’s convenient to have access to a steady supply of both. The tendency towards automation and robotics is another symptom of this. After all, robots don’t sleep, get ill, go on holiday, go on strike, have industrial accidents and sue the factory-owner, or do any of the other annoying things that human beings are prone to do.

Something else to notice about the industrial model, which has been pointed out many times but I’m going to point it out again, is that it is linear. Stuff comes in, different stuff goes out. In this it differs from the ecological model, in which one actor’s waste output is another’s useful input. Within an ecological system, stuff goes round in cycles. Cow manure feeds the soil; the soil feeds the grass; the grass feeds the cow; and so on.

Ecological systems are of course vastly more complex than industrial ones, and we tend to avoid thinking too hard about complex things. Still, they have some useful properties, such as being able to sustain themselves, and being able (within limits) to adapt themselves to changing conditions. And of course there’s the useful property of sustaining all life on this planet, including us. But more of that in a forthcoming post.

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

On fear

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

– Edmund Burke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep well.

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

On complexity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why another blog?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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