tag: Manifesto 17

Jan 2013

The best we can do?

I didn’t hear the statement first hand, but I’m reliably informed that last Thursday on BBC Radio 4 a Tory MP (Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire) lamented the pitiful remuneration that he and his colleagues receive for the sterling work they’re doing to further impoverish Britain. By choosing a life of public service, he claims that MPs risk “foregoing Christmas presents for their children”. The basic salary for a member of the UK parliament is £65,738 (almost €80k). They also – as we now know in some detail – have a pretty generous expense account should that £65k prove insufficient. And their pension package is second-to-none.

Andrew Bridgen

Andrew “the poor are too rich
and the rich too poor” Bridgen MP

Now, let’s analyse that statement. The average salary in the UK is a little under £30k (approx €35k). Most of the people drawing that salary don’t have an expense account, generous or otherwise. And almost none of them have a pension plan that comes anywhere close to that of an MP. This leads us to one of three conclusions…

  1. The vast majority of people in the UK don’t get Christmas presents for their children (thank god for Santa, eh Mr. Bridgen?)
  2. The children of MPs either require or deserve more expensive gifts than the children of the plebs.
  3. Andrew Bridgen MP, and those other MPs for whom he is speaking, are terrible at managing their money and/or have more important things to spend 65 grand on than their children.

Alternatively, I suppose he could just be lying.

Of course, when taken out of context, Bridgen’s statement seems to paint him as an over-privileged, out-of-touch tosser of the first order. However, when placed into the proper context things look somewhat different. Because you see, his statement came the same week as his party carried out a singularly vicious attack on the living standards of the poorest Britons. In that context Bridgen’s statement no longer paints him as an out-of-touch tosser. In that context, his statement paints him as an evil bastard.

Oh, and don’t for a moment think he’s alone in this. Though other MPs might have the intelligence (and/or instinct for self-preservation) to refrain from making such offensive and crass statements in the national media; in private a large majority of them seem to concur with Bridgen. The majority of sitting MPs, when guaranteed anonymity, suggest that they deserve a pay-rise of more than 30%. Once again, let’s not forget this is against a backdrop of the majority of them voting for a cut (in real terms) of the income of those at the very bottom of society.

Those poor MPs

At the same time as Bridgen is whining about the terrible sacrifice he’s making by earning more than twice the national average (plus expenses), a magazine has published a list of British MPs earnings from the Gulf region. Gordon Brown pocketed a tidy quarter million dollars from his four speeches in the region in 2012. David Miliband fared less well with his paltry $230k. And the list goes on. These are sitting MPs remember… this is what they’re picking up despite the pesky distractions of public service.

There are people – and I’m sure Andrew Bridgen MP is one of them – who point to this as evidence that MPs are underpaid (“look how much we could be making…!”). But the notion that David Miliband would be getting paid $100k to give a speech in the Emirates if he wasn’t a prominent British MP is beyond absurd. Also, my mischievous side would like to point out to Bridgen that if he was any good at being an MP he’d probably be getting paid lots to give speeches in Kuwait along with the rest of them. Then his kids could have that diamond-encrusted Playstation they so clearly deserve. Turns out though, Bridgen just isn’t good enough to merit such “performance-related bonuses”. Which I guess means that as well as being an evil bastard and an over-privileged, out-of-touch tosser, he also happens to be bloody terrible at his job.

But of course that’s just the mischief in me. In reality I don’t think any MP should be earning a small fortune by making themselves available to wealthy vested-interests. Not only is £65k and a generous expense-account more than enough to live on; it’s also more than enough to ensure your kids have a good Christmas. Damn near everyone else manages on less.

There are generally two responses to this line of criticism (a line of criticism, let us not forget, that these people invite upon themselves when they start whinging on the radio about how difficult their life is). The first is that we need to pay the best salaries to ensure we get the best people. The second is that the whole subject is something of a distraction given how small the total expenditure on MP salaries is compared with the national budget. Let us conclusively examine and address both responses…

And by the way, let’s not kid ourselves that this is a British thing. It’s just as relevant here in Ireland (where, astonishingly, TDs get paid more than their British counterparts yet are just as eager to impose massive cuts on the income of the poor – all the while complaining about how “difficult” the decision to further impoverish the already impoverished is for them. For them.)

But we need The Best

This argument is also frequently used to defend the massive bonuses of bankers. And it’s really quite simple. The job of an MP/TD is extremely important. Therefore we need to make sure that the best people for the job will be attracted to it. We do this by incentivising them with large salaries. Otherwise these “best of the best” would find high paying jobs in the private sector and the nation would be in a far worse state.

The stream of colourful expletives that rises unbidden to my lips whenever I hear this argument would be enough to make even the most worldly of you blush, dear reader. It’s an argument that not only contains a basic (and blatant) fallacy, but is also at its core utterly misanthropic.

Firstly let’s deal with the misanthropy. Anyone who believes that “the best people” are currently sitting in the House of Commons in London, or The Dáil here in Dublin, must utterly loathe humanity. Because their opinion of the rest of us must be so incredibly low. Seriously, Andrew Bridgen MP… one of the best and brightest in Britain? I’d wager that were he enclosed with a handful of slightly slow chimpanzees, he’d struggle to emerge as one of the best and brightest in that room.

Yes, I know the idea is not to attract “the best people” but rather “the best people for the job”. But even that’s utter nonsense. Given the ungodly mess that these people are consistently making of running their countries, the argument becomes “the absolute best that humanity can achieve is a society that lurches from one crisis of mismanagement to the next”. I know there are plenty of people out there who possess such a relentlessly negative view of the human race that such a statement makes sense to them. I just think they’re wrong. I think we could do better if we had better people making the decisions. No, I’m not suggesting utopia is within our grasp – but I’m pretty sure we could manage a society where substantially less people were killed in wars, driven into poverty and oppressed by the powerful. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it’d be better than the unholy mess created by the Andrew Bridgens (or Eamon Gilmores) of this world.

At the moment Ireland’s unemployment rate is hovering around the 15% mark (it’s probably a fair bit higher than that, what with all the Job-bridge internships and Back-to-Work training schemes artificially suppressing the numbers). Our parliament – The Dáil – consists of 166 members, known as TDs. Now, having collected my winnings from my Andrew Bridgens / slow chimpanzees wager, let me place it all on another bet… given moderate resources, I wager I could find from within that 15% of the population who are currently unemployed, 166 people who would do a much better job at being a TD than the current crop. On top of that, I could find 166 of them who would be willing to do that job for half the salary.

That’s not hyperbole. No, I don’t personally know 166 unemployed people who would meet those criteria but I know enough people to understand that the vast majority of those who currently sit in The Dáil are not even “above average” at what they’re doing, let alone “the best”. And I know enough to know that the 400,000+ unemployed people in this country includes plenty of genuinely excellent ones.

Because – and this is where the fallacy in the statement “we need to attract the best by offering huge salaries” is revealed – the people who succeed in politics are not the best people to run a country. No, they are just the most manipulative, self-serving, hyper-ambitious, back-stabbing bastards willing to negotiate the appalling party political system. The best people to run a country would have a combination of skills and characteristics that included a genuine acceptance of the occasional need for self-sacrifice in pursuit of the common good, a broad compassion for their fellow men and women, excellent management and administration skills, an analytical mind capable of grasping and weighing up the potential consequences of any decision, the ability to communicate their ideas to a wide audience, a willingness to consider seriously alternative viewpoints and change their position where the evidence demands, and finally a thorough understanding of the history of political philosophy (allowing them to understand the difference between fashionable ideology and the long-term needs of a society). Yes, that’s a pretty lofty job specification, but it’s a pretty lofty job. And yes, those people do exist. Just not within the modern political system.

Fat Cats

It wasn’t perfect, but despite initial misgivings, everyone eventually agreed that firing the politicians and
putting a “different bunch of fat cats” in charge had resulted in the country being better run

What’s remarkable is that the modern party political system actively excludes people with many of those qualities. So don’t tell me that we have the best people for the job sitting in our houses of parliament. Hell, pick 166 random people from the register of unemployed and you’d probably get a marginal improvement. Add a half-decent selection process and you’d do even better. And no, I’m not arguing for a particular electoral system / selection process here – just railing against the nonsense of the “we need the best” argument when used to defend a system that excludes them.

If huge salaries attracted “the best people for the job” we would not have had a massive collapse in the banking sector. OK? So let’s put that ridiculous argument to bed once and for all.

It’s just a distraction

This is the other argument. It emerged most recently in the political expenses scandals. Given the billions lost in the financial crisis (by the best people for the job) and the debt crisis it has revealed, getting in a tizz about a few million euro in political salaries and expenses is silly, and it distracts us from more important issues.

Here’s the thing though. I happen to think that the type of people we have running our affairs is extremely relevant when it comes to these kinds of crises and the strategies we might use to solve them. If we have people motivated by personal greed, rampant ambition and a hunger for power… people who are willing to fiddle their expenses and cheat the public out of money they have no right to… people more interested in scoring petty party political points and making the other guy look “wrong” than they are in solving problems and making themselves “right”… people who go on the radio and insist that earning more than twice the national average is not enough to provide for their children, while simultaneously trying to reduce that national average… if we have those people in power then we’re basically screwed. Permanently.

It’s not a distraction to point that out. It’s not a distraction to point out that we need better people, and more than that, we need people who are willing to set aside personal greed for the greater good. If you don’t think there are 166 people in Ireland capable of that, then fair enough. But I think you’re wrong. I think we can do better. Because I think we are better.

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Jul 2011

Bateson of The Day

What the unaided consciousness (unaided by art, dreams, and the like) can never appreciate is the systemic nature of mind.

This notion can conveniently be illustrated by an analogy: the living human body is a complex, cybernetically integrated system. This system has been studied by scientists — mostly medical men — for many years. What they now know about the body may (aptly) be compared with what the unaided consciousness knows about the mind. Being doctors, they had purposes: to cure this and that. Their research efforts were therefore focused (as attention focuses the consciousness) upon those short trains of causality which they could manipulate, by means of drugs or other intervention, to correct more or less specific and identifiable states or symptoms. Whenever they discovered an effective “cure” for something, research in that area ceased and attention was directed elsewhere. We can now prevent polio, but nobody knows much more about the systemic aspects of that fascinating disease. Research on it has ceased or is, at best, confined to improving the vaccines.

But a bag of tricks for curing or preventing a list of specified diseases provides no overall wisdom. The ecology and population dynamics of the species has been disrupted; parasites have been made immune to antibiotics; the relationship between mother and neonate has been almost destroyed; and so on.

Characteristically, errors occur wherever the altered causal chain is part of some large or small circuit structure of system. And the remainder of our technology (of which medical science is only a part) bids fair to disrupt the rest of our ecology.

The point, however, which I am trying to make in this paper is not an attack on medical science but a demonstration of an inevitable fact; that mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and that its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.

In a word, the unaided consciousness must always involve man in the sort of stupidity of which evolution was guilty when she urged upon the dinosaurs the common-sense values of an armaments race. She inevitably realized her mistake a million years later and wiped them out.

Unaided consciousness must always tend toward hate; not only because it is good common sense to exterminate the other fellow, but for the more profound reason that, seeing only arcs of circuits, the individual is continually surprised and necessarily angered when his hardheaded policies return to plague the inventor.

If you use DDT to kill insects, you may succeed in reducing the insect population so far that the insectivores will starve. You will then have to use more DDT than before to kill the insects which the birds no longer eat. More probably, you will kill off the birds in the first round when they eat the poisoned insects. If the DDT kills off the dogs, you will have to have more police to keep down the burglars. The burglars will become better armed and more cunning … and so on.

That is the sort of world we live in — a world of circuit structures — and love can survive only if wisdom (i.e., a sense or recognition of the fact of circuitry) has an effective voice.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

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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.

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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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Nov 2009

A quick note about wind power

I’m generally a fan of engineers and the engineering mindset. Although I’ve now left that industry, I always felt that being an engineer meant that I was essentially a problem-solver. In fact, often when people asked me what I did, that was my response… “I solve problems”. Of course, the primary problem I tended to be solving back then was how to get fizzy pop into bottles as efficiently as possible which — let’s face it — probably doesn’t rank very high on the list of the world’s priorities. All the same, the last project I worked on prior to my career change involved saving a company that was about to go out of business. Safeguarding the world’s fizzy pop supplies may not be all that important, but ensuring that a couple of thousand people kept their jobs (many in some of the most deprived towns in America) seemed like a positive thing at the time.

These days my views about the nature of unnecessary economic activity call even that assessment into question, but we live and learn, eh?

Given my belief that engineers are the world’s problem solvers (leastways when it comes to physical systems), I was both taken-aback and dismayed when I encountered an article in The Guardian yesterday entitled Britain’s renewable energy targets are ‘physically impossible’, says study. It cites a study carried out by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers which insists that Britain needs to begin looking at some of the more esoteric geo-engineering solutions to Climate Change because there is no chance of installing enough renewable power in the required timescale.

They talk about a lack of construction and installation capacity for wind turbines (as one example) and instead suggest untested and, in many cases, still-theoretical solutions. This seems bizarre to me when the obvious response to a lack of turbine manufacturing and installation capacity is to add more, not throw our hands up in the air and suggest that it’s somehow easier and more realistic to explore theoretical carbon capture technologies than it is to build some more turbine factories and installation vessels.

Certainly research should continue into these new technologies, but if the Institution tells us that we run out of turbine manufacturing capacity in 2018, then I suggest that increasing that capacity before 2018 might be something we should explore rather than announcing it’s impossible.

In 1997 the Spanish government made a decision to begin a rapid expansion of wind energy. About a week ago, on November 8th, a milestone was reached when — for a period of five hours — wind power accounted for 50% of the electricity being produced in the country (link in Spanish). And they are far from finished building turbines.

The technical problems are not insurmountable. The rapid expansion of renewables is not impossible. It just requires the political will. And engineers willing to solve problems.

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Nov 2009

Blessed are the merciful

Less than 12 hours ago the State of Virginia executed John Allen Muhammed. I’m sure most people will recall the killing spree he went on in 2002 when the media dubbed him “The Washington Sniper”. Muhammed stalked the suburbs and, from a concealed location, shot people at random with a high-powered rifle. By the time he was caught ten people were dead and four seriously injured. Prior to his execution, Muhammed expressed no remorse for his actions.

Over at The Guardian, Virginia Moffatt has written a column headlined John Allen Muhammed deserved mercy. But as is so often the case with the work of sub-editors and headline writers, this misrepresents her argument. I don’t believe Moffatt actually suggests that Muhammed deserved mercy. I believe her position is a little more subtle; a fact that escaped both the sub-editor and the legion of commentators on her piece insisting — with, I suspect, no little froth — that Muhammed deserved to die.

Moffatt’s primary objection to the execution of Muhammed, and I suspect to the death penalty in general, is not that murderers deserve to live, but that putting them to death “diminishes our humanity”. To me, this is the crux of the death penalty debate and the reason I too am absolutely opposed to it. Of course, Moffatt goes a little far and damages her own argument by suggesting that the execution of Muhammed “makes us no better than the murderer [himself]”.

Terrorising three states for a period of weeks by randomly killing residents, leaving 14 people dead or injured and co-opting a teenager into your murderous plan… well, that probably counts as a worse crime than catching and killing the person who did it. So I really wish that those who — like me — oppose the death penalty, would stop trotting out the “it makes us no better than them” cliché. It would be a very difficult claim to substantiate even if your audience was comprised entirely of wise moral philosophers with no personal axe to grind. But in the real world, where almost all of us allow our gut feelings and emotions to influence our judgment, it just sounds silly.

Nonetheless, I’ll stick by the first part of Moffatt’s argument, even if it also requires a certain overcoming of our gut reaction. A failure to show mercy does indeed diminish our humanity.

See, this is the bit that most people (judging by the comments on Moffatt’s article) fail to understand. We do not show mercy to people like Muhammed because he deserves mercy. We don’t show mercy because of what it offers him. We do it because of what it offers us. Just as forgiveness — which tends to come a long time after mercy — is less about what it offers those who have harmed us, than it is about healing ourselves.

To show mercy is to grant a victory to compassion over hatred. It reinforces the light while diminishing the darkness. It makes us better people. That is why John Allen Muhammed should not have received a lethal injection last night. Not because he deserved mercy. But because we do.

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Aug 2009

Summer's not for blogging

Hey y’all.

Yeah, I’ve been absent for a while and am just about to head off to sunny Montenegro for two weeks. So I’ll be absent a while longer. Expect a return to semi-regular blogging in September. Summer’s just not the time for it.

I’ve not been writing as much as I’d like, and the two major projects that I’m working on have kind of stalled. But I’ve had quite a lot of ideas for them once I get back up and running — and frankly I’ve been enjoying the downtime. There’s the occasional pang of guilt about not getting stuff done, but it is very occasional… an echo of my long dead work ethic (it nearly killed me, I responded in kind). Summer is for drifting. For enjoying the company of a lovely lady and reminding yourself that it’s OK to live life effortlessly for a while — if you’re lucky enough to be in a position to do so. Neither work nor leisure. Amen to that, brother.

That said, there’s been plenty happening lately that would have drawn remark had I been actively blogging. The fact that the entire economy over here could collapse at any moment has added a certain edge to Irish politics just now… to Irish life in general in fact. Politicians and business leaders are looking increasingly like they’re not getting enough sleep.

The nation is bankrupt though nobody wants to be the first to put it in those terms. The bank guarantees are now the only thing propping up the financial system… but the bank guarantees will bankrupt the country if actually called upon.

There’s a vague hope that if the government can engineer a ‘Yes’ vote in our second Lisbon referendum (far from a foregone conclusion) that the EU might — just might — step in and help bail us out. The EU firmly denies that’s even possible, let alone likely.

But in the corridors of power in Europe the Irish have a single last-gasp ace in the hole. The uneasy thought in the minds of Europe’s bankers that while Ireland has clearly been the architect of its own downfall, it is actually small enough to bail-out. And the cost of that bail-out might well be cheaper than the impact on the single currency and Central Bank of a member state collapsing. Because nobody’s really sure what it means for a member of the Euro to go bankrupt. That’s just got to be an event with all manner of unexpected consequences.

Whatever happens though, one thing is certain, for a very long time we will all be paying for the follies of the last decade. And for the bizarre decisions made by the banking and construction sectors.

Don’t get me wrong. The entire country was possessed by that rampant Celtic Tiger. Every sector was making bizarre decisions. 4 million people embarked upon a decade-long binge. A bonfire of over-consumption with everyone eager to fan the flames. Politicians, retailers, banks, the hospitality sector, the auto industry, the land-developers… just everyone!

But although everyone was possessed by the same madness, it’s the land developers and bankers who created the vast majority of the debt. Approving loans based upon valuations that bear all the hallmarks of having been arrived at after an afternoon of champagne and cocaine. Tens of billions of euros just disappeariing.

Sadly, my own solution isn’t really catching on…

Phase I: Round them all up. Yes, every banker, developer and politician… in fact anyone at all who was a “decision maker” during the past 10 years. They know who they are and frankly should have the decency to step forward.

Phase II: Stick ’em all in one of those ghostly half-full developments that sprung up around Dublin during the boom. Homes built for an imaginary profit not because anyone actually wanted them. Keep them comfortable, well-fed and let them have all the Sky Channels for free. But keep them there.

Phase III: Nationalise everything (starting with every asset currently owned by Shell Oil in this country. Honestly, the gall of that company, selling our gas back to us at a profit!)

Phase IV: Come round to my place and ask me what to do with it all, now it’s been nationalised. I imagine Phases I through III will take a few weeks. I’ll have worked out what to do next by then (hint: it’ll probably involve a combination of private property rights, socialised services and collectivised production… think Cuba via Stockholm with a heavy dash of Deep Ecology).

Anyhoo, enjoy what’s left of the summer.

I’m planning to.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2009

Financial crisis as symptom

Regular readers will know by now that I have some pretty definite views about the nature of capitalism and the society we have built from it. Views that are still quite a bit outside the mainstream (although it probably bears mentioning that the mainstream has begun its long, inexorable drift in my direction).

A few months ago I had a couple of meetings with an advisor / strategist for a very large financial institution. The credit crunch had just kicked off and mass panic was ensuing. At least, on the news it was. I myself never once saw anyone actively freaking out… not even the financial institution guy, and he was exactly the sort of person who was supposed to be screaming “Sell! Sell! For the love of God, Sell!” down the phone at some poor bugger in the midst of a heart-attack.

But instead he was taking leisurely lunches-slash-dinner-and-drinks with people like me in expensive Dublin restaurants. All in the interests of “canvassing alternative opinions”. Specifically, he was interested in my take on resource depletion / peak oil and what role — if any — it was playing in the current economic downturn.

I told him I had two responses. The first was that there was little or no link between the two. Simple, straight-forward and in the world of five-year futures and seven-year long-terms, undoubtedly true. Don’t get me wrong, there’s speculation to be done on the role that high oil prices may have played in accelerating the collapse, or upon the negative influence that continuing high prices will undoubtedly have upon the various infrastructure projects that governments have proposed as economic bail-outs. But the fact remains that this particular financial kerfuffle would be happening even if peak oil were not underway at this very moment (as I believe it is).

My second response was, I told him, a good deal more abstract. And it demanded a certain effort on his part. He’d read my thesis though, so was no stranger to the kind of effort I was talking about.

This more abstract response involved viewing the global financial system as one part of a wider ecology of systems. Of recognising economics as the imperfect model of reality that it is. And of getting his head around strange notions like the idea that phenomena as disparate as cancer, psychosis and unsustainability might actually be manifestations of a common tendency within complex systems. That they are, in a sense, the same phenomena. A disease of The Complex System, so to speak. And you can only begin to see this, and realise its significance, when you start viewing the world in terms of the network of interconnecting complex systems — the ecology of mind — that it is.

Pretty much the moment you’ve got your perception atuned to the ecology of mind idea, it becomes staggeringly obvious that the current financial collapse is properly viewed as a symptom of this systemic unsustainability / collective psychosis. It’s “an episode”. A dramatic one no doubt, and maybe it’s even the one that’ll deal the knock-out blow… the one where we whack our collective head against the metaphorical sink on that final plunge to the floor. But if it’s not, then it’s still a symptom of the sickness that will eventually kill western civilisation. The world of five-year futures and seven-year long-terms ignores that fact at its peril.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2009


In which I lament, though acknowledge, the need for some level of authoritarianism.

For the past couple of years, a property developer has been applying to build a waste incinerator within sight of my home. Needless to say, I gave generously to the campaign against the Energy Recovery Facility (euphemism is required if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them, as someone once observed). I didn’t get actively involved in the campaign however. For two specific reasons. Firstly, I was quite busy with other stuff. Secondly, I was confident that the planning application would be turned down. Which is not to say that the campaign didn’t need funding (planning applications need to be actively challenged, and even if your challenge is likely to be a success, it still requires time, effort and resources).

And as far as I could make out, that success was pretty much guaranteed. There wasn’t a single local councillor in favour of the plan, and every one of the local TDs and senators openly opposed it. As everyone knows, land rights and planning are at the very heart of local politics in Ireland. But with memories of the Mahon tribunal still fresh (it’s still technically in session, I believe), it’d be a complete fool who’d pass brown envelopes around a controversial project like this. And with bribery not an option just now, the decision had to be made on the merits of the project. As such, it was never going to pass. You could prove that on an etch-a-sketch, as the man said.

Firstly the location was absurd. Genuinely off-the-wall, could-only-possibly-have-been-considered-for-financial-reasons, absurd. The plan was to build the thing on top of one of the highest hills in the Rathcoole area. Rathcoole is right on the southwest edge of Dublin city. For a significant chunk of the year, the prevailing wind in Ireland comes from the southwest. Seriously, that one fact alone should tell you all you need to know about the project.

And there’s so much more. The road that would feed the incinerator is already one of the most congested commuter routes in the country. There’s a project underway to bring Dublin’s light rail system further out this direction specifically to reduce the amount of traffic on that road. You just won’t find anyone on the local planning board who’ll vote in favour of more traffic on the N7. Not without the aid of an extra-large brown envelope.

But on top of all that, it turns out the developer is an out-of-town consortium. And this is commuter belt. Prime land from a development standpoint. Luxury golf hotels and expensive residential developments. Property values are high, but dropping like everywhere else, and existing developers — those with large plots of land in the area and long-standing relationships with local politicians — don’t want to see those values drop further thanks to the presence of an incinerator.

So for those three reasons, it realistically stood no chance. But interestingly, all three of those objections are rooted, to varying degrees, in NIMBYism.

Not In My Back Yard (ism)

My own objection to the incinerator, in contrast, was based on a fourth reason; one that applies to all waste incinerators whatever their location. So even if positioned in what’s demonstrated to be the best location for such a facility, even if the local infrastructure can take the pressure and local property values positively soar as a result… even then, I think generating electricity from burning waste is a staggeringly bad idea.

In fact, it’s difficult for me to get across just how bad an idea I think it is without straying perilously close to caricature. To not merely create an industry that generates profit from burning waste, but suggest we rely upon that industry to provide basic services, is utterly psychotic. I can think of other words for it, but that’s the least rude. It is, just like any decision to build new nuclear power stations is, a statement to the effect that we are incapable or unwilling to act rationally in pursuit of a sustainable society and have decided, instead, to be active participants in a spectacular collapse.

By and large we are not aware that’s the statement we’re making, of course. A big bunch of unconscious processes, dontchaknow.

All the same, in the case of the Rathcoole incinerator, it is a happy coincidence that the objections of the local population were in accord with the Greater Good (if, as I’ve come to do, we define the “Greater Good” as those actions and decisions that promote a transition towards sustainability involving the least possible suffering). But what if they weren’t? What happens when the objections of the local population become obstacles towards that Greater Good? Do we accept that people have the right to continue acting unsustainably even if that behaviour dooms us all to the same fate? Do we allow the psychotic to thrash about, damaging himself and everyone around him? Or do we accept the need for restraint? And do we accept that need even when the psychotic is ourself?

Clearly we do accept that need. We just haven’t learnt to identify western consumerism as the huge episode of self-harm that it is.

In defence of NIMBYism, Merrick has this to say…

NIMBYism, like preaching to the converted, is an underrated activity.

To decry NIMBYs is absurd. We all have more concern for the things that affect our personal lives, we all care more about the things we see every day.

A friend of mine was campaigning against some nonsense from his council and knocked on doors in his street. One person said ‘you know your problem, you think you can change the world’.

My friend replied, ‘how big’s your world? Our street is a pretty big part of it. We can change that. If everyone did the same, then in the bigger sense we would change the world, too’.

I appreciate the point being made. It’s the essence of all direct action politics in fact. But the central problem remains… this is only a valid strategy if we assume that the local concerns of individuals aren’t in contradiction with the needs of society as a whole. When everyone objects to an incinerator being built on their (metaphorical) street, then no incinerators get built and we can chalk one up for NIMBYism. But when nobody wants their view obstructed by wind farms… or nobody wants to abandon the luxury of their private car…

What then? I don’t accept that the demands of the masses; whether expressed democratically through the ballot box, or economically through their choice of soap powder; should be considered an adequate guide for our collective action. Especially when those demands can be shown to be reckless and destructive. A hundred years ago we had, in a sense, the luxury of basing our decisions upon ideological concerns. Our desires and demands could shape our behaviour because our environment could absorb anything we had the power to do. That’s just not the case any more. Thanks to technology and population growth, we have bumped up against the limits.

And because of this, it simply doesn’t matter what we want to do anymore. Our options have been curtailed, but we don’t quite appreciate this yet. Environmental limits will impose certain courses of action upon us. And these limits cannot be shifted by voting, nor by the most well-organised direct action campaign. We have reached the point where there are definite right and wrong ways to act, assuming our goal is anything remotely like the “Greater Good” I defined earlier.

Just as it is absurd to “decry NIMBYism” as a general principle (and it is absurd; I never suggested that, Merrick), so it’s absurd to assume it will always be a force pushing in the right direction. And when it pushes us further towards the brink…?

… well … as I said earlier… “in which I lament, though acknowledge, the need for some level of authoritarianism”.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Dec 2008

Where it's at

My hastily written post (Tories living in Stalinist Britain) about the arrest of British tory MP, Damian Green (or more accurately about the absurd statements made about his arrest by the tory party) got quoted all over the place. As a result my readership has more than doubled in the past couple of days. Not quite as dramatic as the infamous Joss Whedon link that saw thousands of people showing up, but a bit weird all the same. Of course, it’s pretty much guaranteed that none of the new folks will stick around to become regulars, but all the same, I bid you a hearty “Welcome!”

From what I can gather, I’ve mostly been cited or linked-to in a positive context (e.g. Bloggerheads, Chicken Yoghurt, Liberal Conspiracy, Shiraz Socialist, and more). Though there has been one clear denunciation, from a blogger called A Very British Dude (I know!), who accuses me of promoting a “pinko mythology”. As well as that, someone on the comment-thread on the Liberal Conspiracy post seems to imply that my position is based upon support for the British Labour Party.

Regular readers will — of course — realise just how absurd both accusations really are. However, many of my visitors right now won’t be regulars, so let me take this opportunity to dispel those misconceptions as well as provide a little bit of information about where I do stand (in the hope that it might, perhaps, provide some food for thought).

Firstly let’s point out that ‘pinko’ implies a kind of wishy-washy left-wing liberalism. According to Wikipedia (that font of all conjecture):

Pinko is a derogatory term for a person regarded as sympathetic to Communism, though not necessarily a Communist Party member. The term has its origins in the notion that pink is a lighter shade of red, the color associated with communism; thus pink could be thought of as a “lighter form of communism” promoted by mere supporters of socialism who weren’t, themselves, “card-carrying” communists.

I am not a communist. However, I am a collectivist. Albeit in a restricted sense. Certainly I am an opponent of capitalism and I believe that a free-market in non-renewable natural resources is both a symptom of, and a contributing factor in, a collective psychosis that dominates modern civilisation. If you insist upon viewing politics in terms of colours, then I guess I’d be dark green with enough red to create a kind of muddy brown hue, flecked with non-militaristic white.

The reason I balk at the “communist” label is because I strongly disagree with a whole host of traditionally communist positions which are common to both the Marxist-Leninist and Maoist flavours. Two points in particular make it utterly impossible for me to board the communist bus.

Firstly, there’s an emphasis on “work” — in the sense of economic activity — and “progress” within communism that I believe; (a) is almost identical to that found in capitalist ideology, and (b) leads inevitably to large-scale ecological destruction, which is little short of suicidal.

Secondly, communism — like capitalism — is an ideology which insists upon viewing the world primarily in economic terms.

I just can’t get behind that. I’m not disputing that the economic model of human activity has valid uses and is appropriate for many situations. However my own position is that the vast majority of people who subscribe to an economic and/or political philosophy are guilty of ignoring Alfred Korzybski’s famous golden rule: “The map is not the territory”.

I believe that our civilisation is facing an imminent crisis; one that we are ill-equipped to deal with. That crisis could be loosely described as “unsustainability”. In other words, we have developed systems of production and distribution upon which we have come to depend, but which cannot be sustained even in the short term because they rely upon the consumption of non-renewable natural resources at a rate that cannot be maintained for very much longer.

As a result, I do not believe that the economic model of human activity should be given anything like the prominence (indeed, the primacy) it has enjoyed during the last few centuries. Partly because economics is so riven by politics that it engenders a kind of tribalism in those who view the world in economic terms. A tribalism we can ill afford right now. And partly because economics is an extremely limited map; one that ends up actually contradicting reality when a certain narrow set of preconditions are not met. But because so many people fail to grasp Korzybski’s golden rule, those contradictions are simply ignored — occasionally even openly denied against all the evidence — by those who seek the comfort of a simple model of reality.

I’ve recently completed a Master’s thesis on Group Psychodynamics. I believe that a synthesis of psychodynamics and systems-theory will provide the best model with which to understand the issues surrounding sustainability. We should also be cautious, of course, about mistaking that map for the territory, but I believe that it will prove to be a far more useful one, all told, over the coming years and decades.

Leastways, it will do if anyone bothers to consult it.

Road to … where?

So broadly speaking, where would this map take us?

Firstly profit needs to be eliminated as the primary motive for the production and distribution of food, energy and all non-renewable resources. Concentrations of power and capital need to be curtailed in all but the most narrow of circumstances. Biodiversity should be preserved as a matter of extreme urgency and the conversion of currently ‘untouched’ land into agricultural or urban land should cease immediately.

Economic activity needs to be minimised. Not maximised as is the current trend. This is not a prescription for starvation. “Minimised” does not mean eliminated, and a policy of minimisation would involve differentiating between essential and non-essential activity; retaining the former in as efficient a manner as possible while eliminating the latter if it consumes any non-renewable natural resources.

Non-essential economic activity could continue so long as it is sustainable (under a strict definition of sustainability). In the words of Gregory Bateson:

[A sustainable civilisation] shall consume unreplaceable natural resources only as a means to facilitate necessary change (as a chrysalis in metamorphosis must live on its fat). For the rest, the metabolism of the civilisation must depend upon the energy income which Spaceship Earth derives from the sun.

It goes without saying that the replacement of our current unsustainable life-support systems (the production and distribution of food and other essentials) with sustainable substitutes will itself require a significant investment of those “unreplaceable natural resources”. This is unavoidable, though we should obviously strive to make the process as efficient as possible.

All of this needs to be done in an environment of rapidly decreasing consumption in those areas currently over-consuming and a planned, incremental increase of consumption (particularly food) in those areas currently experiencing shortages (this will hopefully prevent the movement of large populations which itself consumes resources in a number of direct and indirect ways).

A large number of powers currently enjoyed by central governments need to be delegated to local communities and the localisation of production and consumption should be encouraged where possible.

Conversely, some powers need to be denied to “the public” entirely. Whether or not a population votes to continue — for example — burning petrol in their private cars, is entirely irrelevant. Such activity is damaging to humanity and the planet as a whole, and those who decide to act in that way should be prevented. This is why democracy will have to be abandoned. Local communities should be organised along democratic lines, but their powers limited by a framework of rules defined by an understanding of sustainability.

Oh, there’s plenty more, but that should be enough to be getting on with. I trust, though, that I’ve provided enough information to demonstrate that I’m not a stooge of the British Labour Party trying to score partisan points against the tories in order to keep Gordon Brown in power…?

18 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion