May 2010

Unpopular Ideas #1

The general election campaign is coming to an end over in the UK and the public will soon place an ‘x’ in a little box on a sheet of paper… this act — performed every four or five years — is modern democracy in action. Government by the people. Apparently.

This particular election is being contested by three main parties plus several smaller ones. And although there is a real possibility of the smaller parties gaining a couple of seats in parliament this time round, the British electoral system is heavily stacked in favour of the larger ones (of course the “local” parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will all win seats in Westminster, but I’m concentrating here on parties with a UK-wide presence… my knowledge of Scottish and Welsh politics is severely limited and Northern Irish politics have little bearing on the UK as a whole, mired as they still are in local sectarianism). Indeed with the recent surge of the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls, it’s possible that the Greens, UKIP, Respect and others will be even further marginalised by the consolidation of power on the centre-right.

And let’s not be under any illusions, all three (Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems) are centre-right parties. None of them propose real change, none of them — despite claims to the contrary — can be considered progressive, except by twisting the definition of that word until it means almost its precise opposite. All three are dedicated to free market capitalism even as they pay lip service to public service. All three promise a “return to growth”, betraying not merely a sorry lack of imagination but also a dreadful ignorance; one so extreme that it’s difficult not to suspect it’s willful; of the current situation regarding energy resources and global sustainability. None of them will even use the word “sustainable” except, oxymoronically, as a prefix to the word “growth”.

The single most important issue facing British — and global — society has been utterly ignored by those campaigning to run the UK for the next half-decade. So whilst a very real, very serious and very physical problem has begun to manifest around us, anyone watching this election campaign could be forgiven for concluding that the only issues facing the modern world involve the social graces of those seeking election and the artificial construct known as money. Currency, debt, money… it’s essentially a human-created system for which we have written (and if we choose, can re-write) the rules. Energy, food, natural resources… these on the other hand are the building blocks of the physical systems by which human life is maintained. Our mistake is to have overlaid the former on top of the latter, and then somehow forgot we did so; so that we have fallen into the trap Korzybski tried to warn us about… that of confusing the map for the territory.

“Getting the economy moving again” has become the mantra for all sides in this election campaign. And one of the ways they intend to achieve this is via a radical shake-up of the welfare system. While I agree that the question of how society supports those without an income is going to become a huge one over the next few years, the ideas being considered in the current political mainstream are wrong-headed in the extreme. Based — as they are — on a mistaken belief; that maximising employment is a good thing.

However, considering what we know to be true about the short-to-medium term sustainability of energy resources (see my recent three-parter on Peak Oil if you don’t know what I’m talking about), this brings me quite neatly to the first of my ‘Unpopular Ideas’. Namely that:

Unemployment is a good thing

I’m aware that this sounds vaguely “wrong by definition”, like suggesting that racism or beating up old ladies is a good thing. We have been conditioned to accept certain premises by the very structure of the society we’ve created. And those ‘structural premises’ are difficult to shake off. If, however, that society is fundamentally flawed (and unsustainability is perhaps the biggest flaw that any society can suffer from)… guilty of what Gregory Bateson calls “epistemological lunacy”… then we are obliged to re-examine those initial premises.

… the premises work only up to a certain limit, and, at some stage or under certain circumstances, if you are carrying serious epistemological errors, you will find that they do not work any more. At this point you discover to your horror that it is exceedingly difficult to get rid of the error, that it’s sticky. It is as if you had touched honey. As with honey, the falsification gets around; and each thing you try to wipe it off on gets sticky, and your hand still remains sticky.

Gregory Bateson | Pathologies of Epistemology

Nonetheless, we must try to rid ourselves of the stickiness before we make too much of a mess. Because when our continued survival (perhaps not as a species, but certainly as a civilisation) depends upon those premises being corrected, then it’s surely a matter of urgency for us to do so. And one of the first of those premises that gets called into question when re-examining society through the filter of decreasing energy resources, is the notion that people should be encouraged to be economically active; furthermore that such economic activity should be maximised.

See, I’m not claiming — by any stretch of the imagination — that being unemployed is a good thing in our current society. Our society, after all, is specifically designed to make unemployment relatively uncomfortable in the hope of minimising it*. What I’m suggesting is that we need to re-imagine our society as one that views economic activity as a necessary evil; itself a process to be minimised. We need to reshape society so that the basic needs of all members are met, while consuming as little energy as possible in meeting them.

Energy, after all, can be defined as “the ability to do work”. Indeed, in physical terms, the SI unit for work (the joule) is identical to the SI unit for energy. So, as I said recently…

…with less energy available, there will be less work. This is not predicated upon an ideology or desired policy, but on the basic laws of physics. And we need to get used to it.

A recession is another word for a decrease in economic activity. And because we have built a world that is unable to tolerate such decreases, we strive to avoid recessions and to quickly overcome them via a “return to growth”. It seems to me, however, that we should perhaps view our current recession in a more positive light. We should perhaps find a way to use this slowdown as a springboard towards a powerdown. As unemployment rises, we should be looking at ways to accommodate this as a positive thing, rather than viewing it negatively through the lens of our old premises and searching for ways to reverse it.

I’m not suggesting that our society — in its current form — is capable of sustaining a continuing decrease in economic activity and the subsequent large-scale unemployment such a decrease will bring. I’m instead suggesting that a continuing decrease in economic activity is completely unavoidable, and society must be remodelled in such a way as to turn this to our advantage.

* That said, I do know several people who consciously choose to avoid work… placing time above money and avoiding all that messy materialism that becomes so addictive once you get a taste of it. By and large they tend to be happier than most of the people I know who work. Given a basic, functioning welfare state, unemployment generally becomes a serious burden only when thrust upon the unwilling.

Posted in: Opinion