Jan 2010

Chris Morris, film director

It’s a nailed-on certainty that the Daily Mail is going to have an outrage-athon when it’s released (the premiere is tonight at The Sundance Festival). But if the first feature film from Chris Morris (Day Today, Blue Jam, Brass Eye, etc.) is half as funny as this clip implies, then it’s also a nailed-on certainty that it’ll be worth seeing. Four Lions is being described as “jihadist comedy”.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Video

Jan 2010

The essential disconnect

It’s not part of my brief to go, I’m quite satisfied with what I hear and what I see on video with the standards of the factories. It’s the job of the buyers and the ethical trade team to visit the factories.

That’s how we do it. How we keep it all going. A clothing retailer. A supermarket. A chain of petrol stations. A million other things. That chain of insulation. Our delegation of consequence and responsibility. The essential disconnect.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2010

Top TV

The Guardian has recently published a list of the 50 Greatest Television Dramas of all time. As I’ve written before, I don’t watch an awful lot of TV because almost all TV is awful. But I am a sucker for a well-written series containing genuine character development and unexpected plot lines. They only appear very occasionally, but when they do they can hold their own against a good novel or film.

The Guardian’s list contains a fair few shows that I’ve never seen and plenty that I have seen and don’t rate. For instance, the over-hyped Mad Men (No. 4 on their list) I found dull as dishwater and never made it past the third episode. Shows such as Prime Suspect (#19) and Inspector Morse (#30) seem flat, lifeless and formulaic to me. Especially if you’ve got something like The Wire (#14) on the list which demonstrates that you can make a show about the police without it being a hymn to law and order; a hagiography of The Cop… see, for example, Hill Street Blues (#33) or — in the words of Hakim Bey — the “most evil TV show ever”.

I was glad to see that Buffy The Vampire Slayer (#22) made the list, even if it’s a lot further down that I think it deserves to be. I noticed there was some controversy about that in the comments that followed the article (though you can stir up a hornets nest of dissent over at The Guardian by suggesting that the sky might be blue and rain a bit wet). I firmly believe that those who decry Buffy have either (a) never watched it beyond flicking into it for five minutes as they channel surf between Celebrity Big Brother and How Clean Is My House; or (b) been unable or unwilling to see beyond the 90210 with Monsters facade that covers this incredible piece of work.

There’s no way I could make a top 50 TV shows list as I don’t think there’s half that number that I’d consider even watchable, let alone worthy of recommendation. But as a brief response to The Guardian, here’s my Top 15 (I thought I’d only be able to produce a Top 10 and was surprised that there were as many as 13 that I consider genuinely worth recommending… the last two made it in as much to make up the numbers as anything else; fine shows but not essential).

  1. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (including Angel, the spin-off)
  2. The Wire
  3. Breaking Bad
  4. Twin Peaks
  5. Six Feet Under
  6. Firefly
  7. Carnivale
  8. Dexter
  9. Dollhouse
  10. Millennium
  11. Veronica Mars
  12. The X-Files
  13. Battlestar Galactica
  14. The West Wing
  15. Lie to me

5 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » TV reviews

Jan 2010

Electing The CamBot

It's time for change... time to elect a scary robot bloke

Official second draft of the new Tory campaign poster

Make your own poster here (via Chicken Yoghurt).

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2010

War & The Noble Savage

The latest book from my friend and fellow traveller, Gyrus, is subtitled “A Critical Inquiry into Recent Accounts of Violence amongst Uncivilized Peoples”. Over the past few years a debate has been raging… quietly raging, but raging nonetheless… regarding the nature of pre-civilized human society. In this slim but incisive volume, Gyrus summarises the debate and adds to it. Signficantly, in my view.

War and The Noble Savage

There is a tendency within our culture (perhaps within humanity, though anthropology suggests that it’s not universal, merely rather prevalent) to reduce everything to a kind of oppositional dualism. To polarise every debate. The baddies and the goodies. Yin and Yang. Male and female. Left and Right. I find this tendency rather unsatisfactory as it often (usually!) ends up simplifying issues to the point of uselessness.

The debate regarding pre-civilized cultures; specifically regarding the questions of whether they are/were more or less violent than civilized cultures and whether they are/were more or less ecologically conscientious than civilized cultures; has followed that general tendency and become polarised. On the one hand there’s the view — generally attributed to Rousseau — that pre-civilized peoples were “Noble Savages”. On the other hand there’s the view expressed by Hobbes that primitive life was “nasty, brutish and short”.

These two positions (both of which appear to have started life as thought-experiments, rather than deeply held convictions) have led to various kinds of caricature. The post-Hobbesians paint a ridiculous Dances With Wolves-esque idyllic utopia — minus the inter-tribal warfare scenes — picture of the other side, and insist they are guilty of nostalgia and wishful thinking. This is of course compounded by New Age primitivists with their Back to Nature rhetoric. On the other hand, the post-Hobbesians are themselves painted as deluded apologists for progress; desperately trying to portray the past as hellish even as civilisation destroys the future.

Where Gyrus, characteristically, succeeds is by refusing to be taken in by the propaganda of either established camps and instead casting a genuinely critical eye over the claims of both. In doing so, I believe he likely comes as close to the truth of the matter as we’re going to get — given the difficulties involved in establishing facts when discussing prehistoric societies and/or modern indigenous societies prior to our contact with them.

War & The Noble Savage is accessible, educational and well-written enough to be described as entertaining. It serves as a fine rebuttal to the recent tendency to view the past through a Hobbesian lens while never succumbing to the seduction of nostalgia or primitivism. I’m pretty much going to insist that my few regular readers (and the rest of you too!) buy it (think of it as returning the favour for the excellent service I’ve been providing here for several years, ahem). It’s privately published and costs a paltry four pounds (including P&P… people outside the UK add a quid for postage). Even if this isn’t a subject that traditionally you’d be interested in (though you’ll be surprised at how relevant it is to all manner of other areas of debate), you should still buy it in order to support the kind of independent research and publishing that the author, and others, undertake.

Overall, War & The Noble Savage is an important contribution to an important debate. For those interested in an introduction to the subject (while you’re waiting for the book to be delievered) Gyrus has given some talks on this subject, one of which was recently turned into a Slidecast which you can listen to on his website for free.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews

Jan 2010

The campaign’s started…

All hail our new alien overlords!

Official first draft of the new Tory campaign poster

Make your own poster here (via Chicken Yoghurt).

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2010

Bateson on ‘The Sacred’

Everyone who knows me is aware that I can be rather evangelical about the work of Gregory Bateson, and in particular about his collected essays, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. There are two reasons for this unabashed proselytizing.

Firstly, from a purely personal standpoint, when I first began to get my head around his work it was an incredibly satisfying experience. While I was certainly learning plenty of new ideas, much of it felt more like I was having long-held suspicions confirmed. A thousand things I’d been thinking about and grappling with — for the best part of 20 years — up until Bateson, they’d been like so many fragments of paper… each hinting at something beyond it, but something still unconscious and inaccessible. Steps to an Ecology of Mind didn’t tell me what it was. It just showed me that I didn’t have a random bunch of paper fragments; I had an unsolved jigsaw.

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

The picture is almost always a little bigger than you imagine.

The second reason I spend so much time banging on about Bateson’s ideas is because I think they are incredibly important. I believe we are facing an imminent crisis arising from the unsustainable nature of our civilisation. Not only does Bateson offer us an incisive explanation of this crisis, he provides a perspective on it that I believe is invaluable should we wish to deal with it effectively.

Having said that, I often suspect I detect a tone in some of Bateson’s work that suggests he didn’t think we had a hope in hell of dealing with this crisis effectively. Not because we don’t have the necessary tools or wherewithal. But because we don’t have the vision. Our epistemology is savagely flawed.

I think my, shall we say… “Batesonian proselytizing” is an attempt to share that realisation. Or at least suggest to others that it’s there to be shared. Of course, when I thrust a copy of Steps to an Ecology of Mind into someone’s hand, I’m immediately forced to launch into a lengthy explanation of how to read the book. It’s not Finnegans Wake or anything, but nor is it the easiest text to get into. And it’s very easy to get discouraged. I started reading it three times before it finally clicked with me. Though it’s worth pointing out that I never once considered not reading it after that first abortive attempt. You only need to spend an hour or so browsing Steps to an Ecology of Mind to know that there’s something valuable there.

Earlier today, I was listening to a talk Bateson gave in 1971 on the subject of The Sacred. It’s labelled “a lecture on Consciousness and Psychopathology” though his rambling, conversational style definitely puts it under the category “talk” rather than “lecture”. About halfway through, he muses:

There are things, you know, that people do… that just give one the shivers. They will put the potted plants on the radiator… and this is just bad biology. And I guess “bad biology” is, in the end, bad Buddhism… bad Zen… and an assault on The Sacred. And that, really, is what we’re trying to do; defend The Sacred from being put on the radiator in this sort of way.

Gregory Bateson | 1971 lecture on consciousness and psychopathology

This simple metaphor (much of the talk is about the necessity of bridging the gap between the metaphorical and the literal) sums up the challenge facing humanity today. It’s the very heart of Colin Tudge’s argument in the essential So Shall We Reap, for instance. It’s at the heart of the Climate Change debate and almost all environmental activism.

If you’ve got an hour and a half to spare, why not download and listen to the talk. It barely scratches the surface of Bateson’s work, and like his books can be a little opaque in places (in the sense that he’s discussing complex subjects that are by their nature rather difficult to discuss and often inhabit that fuzzy area where language has trouble finding a firm grip). Nonetheless it’s filled with wisdom, warmth, humour and genuine insight. And there’s not much about which that can be said.

Gregory Bateson: 1971 lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (Part 1) | (Part 2)

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2010


It’s been over for a few weeks now, and the general consensus seems to be that the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit achieved nothing worthwhile. In fact, the view that the summit actively damaged efforts to combat anthropogenic climate change seems more plausible than the idea that it helped in any way.

In an attempt to save face, a few Western governments have claimed limited success for the summit… the UK wheeled out John Prescott to insist that “some progress” had been made, while the Irish environment minister described it as “underwhelming” (both of which fall a long way short of an accurate assessment). Having spent a year preparing for a ten day summit which failed to achieve a single thing of real value, it was obviously rather impolitic to use phrases like “abject failure”, “sheer incompetence” or “couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery”.

Environmental writers are split on who was primarily responsible for torpedoing the summit. Some blame China, others blame the USA. It seems rather obvious to me though, that neither the Chinese nor the US governments actually wanted an agreement that would do anything to limit their economic activity. So they were both happy for the summit to fail by being seen to disagree.

See, it’s really quite simple. Any nation or government that genuinely feels combating Climate Change by limiting emissions is more important than economic growth (hint: it is) would simply announce unilateral cuts and wait for the rest of the world to catch up. They go down in history as The Good Guys, and they get a head start on the rest of the planet when it comes to coping with peak oil. That no major industrial nation is doing this (hint: they’re not, carbon trading and PR campaigns notwithstanding) tells us that either (a) our governments don’t consider Climate Change to be as big a threat as a planned reduction in economic activity, which means they are idiots; or (b) they do consider it a bigger threat but don’t think they can sell it to their population, which means they are crap at their job.

Either way, why the hell do we put up with them?

The sheer magnitude of Copenhagen’s failure was brought home to me earlier this week by a headline over at the BBC. Copenhagen climate deal ‘satisfies’ Saudi Arabia, it read. That the world’s largest producer of crude oil is happy with the outcome of the summit pretty much tells you everything you need to know about it. Ultimately our failure to deal with Climate Change — which is what Copenhagen will long represent — is as perfect an example of our inability to live sustainably as can be imagined.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2010

The genie's out of the bottle

A message was recently sent to an online group of which I’m a member. Dealing with numerous issues, the group has expanded beyond merely “energy resources” and now tends to cover the broader issue of sustainability. Recently one member (Pedro from Madrid) suggested — quite correctly in many ways — that the problem is “technology”. He writes:

… I am very much in line with Einstein, when he said “We can not solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” And it is clear that something went wrong, specially since we developed machines (technology) and started massive exploitation of cumulated fuel resources from the lithosphere. We should not expect that using technology “wisely” we are going to solve anything. Better use our brain to change the paradigm. That way of living is over, whether we like it or not.

Now, that particular Einstein line is often wheeled out in discussions about sustainability and technology. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time studying Einstein’s work, and has a great deal of respect for him both as a scientist and a philosopher, I’m the first to acknowledge that there’s a great truth within that quotation. However, I think it’s somewhat unlikely that he would have agreed with the conclusions that Pedro has drawn from his words. Certainly he wrote “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity” but he was also realistic about the likelihood of reversing this trend (at least without total collapse).

And such a total collapse (what’s known in sustainability circles as a “die-off”) was obviously unthinkable to Einstein. He wrote:

I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind […] Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me: “Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?”

I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made a statement of this kind. It is the statement of a man who has striven in vain to attain an equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people are suffering in these days. What is the cause? Is there a way out?

Albert Einstein | Why Socialism?

Then later in that same essay, he writes

If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural attitude of man should be changed […] we should constantly be conscious of the fact that there are certain conditions which we are unable to modify. […] technological and demographic developments of the last few centuries have created conditions which are here to stay. In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly-centralized productive apparatus are absolutely necessary. The time—which, looking back, seems so idyllic—is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption.


Humanity clearly cannot continue along the same road we’ve been on for the past few centuries. We made a wrong turn at industrialisation (arguably even earlier; when we decided to take up agriculture) and desperately need to correct our course. But undoing the past is not an option. We can’t simply backtrack… return to pre-industrial pastoralism. Or return even further to a hunter-gatherer existence. I hardly need to explain why such options are unavailable to us. Perhaps if the planet got six and a half billion people lighter, such a course of action may be thinkable? But even then, it’s likely we’d just start the same process again.

Technology is a genie that won’t go back in the bottle. Are we to abandon electricity? What about the wheel? The plough? Sharp edges and lighting the dark places? Do we get rid of fire-making?

We’re tool-users, so the only option is to use technology more wisely. Perhaps Pedro is correct and this won’t “solve our problems”. Indeed, I’m rather sceptical that it will. But just like Einstein, I don’t see despair as an option. We should be seeking “a way out” of the mess we’ve created, even if the odds are stacked heavily against us.

We have to do the best we can. This is our sacred human responsibility.Albert Einstein

Let’s consider two hypothetical scenarios. One: some kind of “technological wisdom” allowing us to harness some of our tools and ingenuity and reduce our collective impact on our ecology to sustainable levels. Two: sustainability through a wholesale abandonment of technological progress.

While Scenario One has — in my view — a miniscule chance of success, Scenario Two is simply a non-starter. To pursue the second at the expense of the first (which is the only way to pursue it) is to succumb to despair. To admit defeat.

The major problems we face are not technical per se. Realistically the world has enough engineers to deal with whatever technical challenges we do face. Rather, the problems that need to be urgently addressed involve how we, as a culture, view the world and behave within it. They are essentially problems of group psychodynamics (yes, yes, I know I sound like a broken record, but I wouldn’t have spent the past few years studying the subject if I didn’t think it was important).

We are discovering today that several of the premises which are deeply ingrained in our way of life are simply untrue and become pathogenic when implemented with modern technology.Gregory Bateson | Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization

The unfortunate reality is that we cannot go back. Certainly if we continue along our present destructive course we may well end up, greatly reduced in number, living in a world that resembles the past in some ways… an end to mass production, feudal political structures, and yes; a dramatic reduction in available technology. But so long as there’s still a handful of humans in this world, some of them will be sharpening sticks and lighting fires.

Abandoning technology is a pipe dream. Instead we need to use it more wisely (and likely, more sparingly). Einstein also wrote that technological progress was “like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal”. It seems beyond obvious that the long-term solution to such a situation is not to convince the guy to drop the axe for a while. The solution is to successfully treat the pathology.

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Jan 2010

2010: A year of global famine?

I’ve been reading a lot lately about something that appears to be getting little or no media coverage… namely the fact that last year saw some of the lowest crop yields in recent history. And that’s on a global scale. US yields in most staples fell dramatically, as did — from what we can tell, given the lack of transparency involved — yields in China.

South America and Europe were slightly down on expectations while Africa and Asia turned out well below predicted numbers. And Australia had a disastrous year. It’s worth noting that this covers both northern and southern hemispheres.

Now, it seems to me that these reductions in harvests across the entire globe may well be connected in some way to Climate Change (both in terms of the weather affecting crops and in terms of one of the half-arsed solutions we’ve pursued; agrofuels). But I don’t want to get into that particular argument right now, so let’s say for the sake of discussion that the low yields are entirely unconnected with global warming. The point is that whatever the cause, it has happened.

We all know that historically speaking, famine is (by and large) a product of inequitable distribution rather than actual shortages. “It’s politics rather than reality”, as a friend of mine used to say. And it’s probably true to suggest that the world would not face famine this year if every resident of the wealthy nations ate only what they genuinely needed, wasted little and allowed the surplus to be consumed by the world’s poor.

But that’s not very likely. Because the nature of food shortages, indeed the nature of food (the annual — occasionally bi-annual — production cycle coupled with the disparity between the length of time required to produce food; months; and the length of time we can go without the stuff before severe problems manifest; days) means that we tend not to become aware of the problem until it’s too late to deal with it. It’s little consolation to a hungry person in June that there may be enough wheat to make bread in September.

The indications from the articles I’ve been reading are that there will be widespread food shortages in 2010. I’ve been following this story as it developed (a long way below the mainstream media radar) throughout the last few months, and an excellent summation of the situation has recently been published here: 2010 Food Crisis for Dummies. I recommend you read it.

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