What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Summary of the Blogs So Far

In these blogs I have been outlining the problems facing humanity, possible solutions, and impediments. I intended to blog in weekly posts for one year, and we are nearly half-way through!

I started from the premise that beyond immediate survival our only goal should be to try to ensure that nothing we leave to the next generations can stand in the way of long-term human survival. I have mentioned 30,000 generations of human residence (one million years) on the earth as something to have regard for; so far we have had only around 2066 generations, so we have some way to go.

I then talked about global warming and opined that if we couldn’t even get stuck into solutions for this then it wasn’t looking good for the next problem: global ecological overreach. Global warming isn’t just an isolated problem, it’s symptom of a much bigger problem, the inconvenient truth that we are using 150% of the planet’s resources annually. This means that, as with someone overspending their income, eventually this spending will catch up with us, even though it appears that we can get away with it in short-term.

Funnily enough, conservatives, who are supposed to be very concerned with people living within their means and not getting into debt, are ignoring this enormous and obvious profligacy.

I then argued that the key variable in getting this over-consumption back into sustainable territory is population. Although every effective measure to make our energy- and resource use more efficient should be taken, without a decline in population this will still not be enough. I suggested a global population of around a billion people living high-technology lives was a sustainable long-term figure and an equitable goal. A billion people alive at any one time would make it more likely that humanity would survive long-term and that many more people would eventually live than is likely under the high-population, high-vulnerability state we are currently in.

I did not commit to how this population decline might be achieved globally, but I then went on to talk about how Australia could act as an example by introducing social policies to encourage the birth-rate to decline and to restrict immigration to the same end.

The next blogs dealt with problems in Australia that prevent us from dealing with the our problems and acknowledging ecological overreach as the key issue. These included our terrible media and our dysfunctional political system. I suggested we need in Australia to abolish the states (introducing regional government areas based on eco-regions) and bring in proportional representation as a way of overcoming the shortcomings of our political system. I also opined that the involvement of citizens’ panels in all areas could revitalise people’s involvement with society’s institutions.

I then listed 10 impediments that stood in the way of recognising our ecological shortcomings and the shortcomings of our political and social institutions (the last 11 posts):
  1. Work—the fixation with controlling people’s time and insisting that people have to be sitting in a particular spot for 8 or more hours a days in order to be seen to be working;
  2. The Arts—the illusion that if we have an ‘arts industry’ we are somehow dealing with our problems;
  3. Education—our education system leaves us uneducated;
  4. Government/Private Sector—the false dichotomy that sees these two sectors in opposition and the private sector as being preferable;
  5. Bad Religion—Christianity a bad religion because it is basically not true and distorts people’s attitudes to life, leaving them unable to live in the world;
  6. Bad Religion—couldn’t help myself going on about this for another week;
  7. Conservatism—the malign political philosophy that conserves nothing;
  8. Liberalism—selfishness as a political philosophy;
  9. Growth—our obsession with economic and population growth blinds us to the fact that growth is killing our life-support systems;
  10. Status—the human propensity to seek status in social interactions has become fatally intertwined with economic growth;
  11. Children—as a result of a poor education system we are largely raising children with no sense of ‘being in the world’ and being in society, and consequently liberalism, conservatism and other mental illnesses are perpetuated from generation to generation.
Where to from here? Next week I’m going to sketch a worse case scenario for the future, then the week after a better case scenario, then I will let the cat out of the bag and, having talked previously about Bad Religion, I will talk about good religion.

Then, after this high level, the blogs will descend to a series of whinges about this, that and the other. I have listed various impediments to our living sensibly and dealing with out problems sensibly; these blogs will dwell upon various consequences of these impediments. Sometimes, living in modernity feels like someone has read the Book of Living Well, and then gone and designed society and daily life in direct contradiction to the precepts of that (unwritten) book.

Keep reading.



Next Week: Worst Case Scenario

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Impediments 11: Children

I expect you’re all thinking that with a blog post title like that this misanthropic green is going to starting inveighing about there being too many children around.

In fact I have already explained in this series of blogs how I believe there should be fewer people on the planet at any one time in order that humanity should have a long existence and that many more people should live in the long-term than is likely to be the case if our present overcrowded ecology is to continue.

Instead the theme of this post is how we are failing posterity by not bringing children up properly.

On the first level of this we can note the statistics of children abuse and neglect in Australia. This report (Child protection Australia 2009-10, published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) shows that 6 in 1,000 Australian children were subject to a substantiation of a notification of child abuse or neglect in 2009-10. (Sorry about the official terminology).

This in itself is worrying (even though, as the report points out, the trends for notifications and substantiations have declined from previous years)—you would like there to be no child abuse or neglect at all. Also, this report, like many official reports, quotes a lot of figures but doesn’t really provide the information it seems that it should. It seems mainly to be reporting on official statistics of notifications and substantiations for one financial year, whereas you’d think that the important information would be the total experience of children who are victims of abuse or neglect: for example, does a child typically have one notification in their childhood and live happily after this (in their family or out of it)? [I doubt it], what percentage of children will ever be subject to a substantiation of a notification during their childhood? &c &c.

If we leave these sad statistics and questions, however, we should also think that many children that don’t fall into the official categories of child abuse or neglect, and do not come to the notice of authorities, still have pretty miserable childhoods. As anyone who has had anything to do with abusive or inadequate parents will know, the family situation has to get pretty dire before child protection services will take any interest, and beyond this there are children who could not be categorised as suffering the mildest form of abuse (‘emotional abuse’) or neglect, and yet are not brought up in a happy context.

Beyond the simple moral issue of child abuse, we should think how we bring our children up to follow our thinking and way of life. Recently I was watching an episode of Season Three of the TV series The Sopranos, where the mafia boss Tony Soprano has a flash-back to an incident in his childhood when he witnessed his father, another mafioso, chopping off a man’s little finger with a meat cleaver because the man had failed to make a payment to him. In this case it’s easy to see how Tony’s father, who, like all the other mafia operatives, uses psychopathic (or at least sociopathic) violence to terrify people and maintain his authority, then exposes his son to his violence and conditions him into developing the same attributes and following his career.

It would be my argument that in the main our parenting of children follows this pattern—the exposure of children to common existential problems and their common consumerist palliatives—although the result isn’t (fortunately) a society of violent sociopaths. However, the common pattern of childhood care, a quite disengaged and talking-down-to style of parenting, with lavish use of the TV as a child-minder, accompanied by child-care in a similar style, and then great alienating experience of the education-industry (as I described in a previous post about education), does lead, in my view, to a society of people who are alienated, lonely and by default accept as valid Liberalism’s values of ‘personal freedom’ because they can’t consider an alternative (what would you call it? ‘grounded freedom’, or something similar, a sense of freedom with responsibilities, to other people, to the world).

Unfortunately it is a characteristic of people who were abused or neglected or unhappy as children that when they come adulthood they seem to want to repeat their experiences with their children. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people that you meet that you can tell at a glance don’t like their children, and don’t want to be parents. What the poet Robert Graves called ‘the huge tug of procreation’, can’t be that huge in an era of relatively inexpensive and accessible contraceptive methods, can it? (Certainly this is a good argument for public campaigns along the lines of ‘Are you sure you really want to have children?’ and the ending the Baby Bonus and any child support measures beyond a simple flat-rate child support payment (as previously argued in these blogs), just so that people are under no illusions about the responsibilities involved in raising children and do not have any grounds for believing that having children will lead to financial benefits).

This is where many contemporary social problems have their origin: mental illness, crime (it’s thought that most mental health conditions, and criminal propensities, are a result of child abuse or neglect, or unsatisfactory childhood experiences), loneliness, angst, anomie, an inability to raise children better in the next generation, fear of death, and voting for right-wing political parties and policies.

Ending the cycle of child abuse and further perpetuation of abuse in turn has to be a social policy imperative, and I don’t think that it can be done in our present system. I believe instead that we have to make the changes I mentioned to our welfare system and to our official ideology, so that not having children is seen as an entirely valid and meritorious way of life. I also believe, as with so many other problems of society, that once our population is seen to be declining, people will become much more relaxed and contented and therefore less worried about having no children, or, if they do, are much better parents than the standard at the moment.

Above all, people who have not had a good childhood in modernity suffer from a inability to appreciate the Great Transformation. This is a Chinese Daoist term (ta-hua) for immersion in the natural processes. David Hinton, translator of the Chinese poet T’ao Chien (365-427 CE) writes of T’ao famous decision to return to farming from official service ‘He settled on his secluded farm because Earth’s Great Transformation was perfectly immediate there, because there he could live life as it comes of itself, as it ends of itself’.*

The great difficulty for us is to live life ‘of itself’ (tzu-jan), because before doing so we have to see that all of life, not just the parts that are convenient for us, must flourish if we are to flourish. Most of us are not able to do this because most of us never experience a grounding in the fullness of human love and the natural world as children, and this flows through into our partial, bounded and apparently pointless lives.

Next week: Summary of the blogs so far

*Selected Poems of T’ao Chien. Port Townsend WA, Copper Canyon Press, 1993 (p 5).

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Impediments 10: Status

Last week we were looking at the fetish for growth of the economic and population kinds, and I quoted Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations to the effect that the desire for greater wealth personally and in society has ‘no limit or certain boundary’. Elsewhere in that work Smith describes the desire for greater wealth in another striking passage:

With regard to profusion, the principle which prompts to expence [ie extravagance], is the passion for present enjoyment; which, although sometimes very violent and very difficult to be restrained, is in general only momentary and occasional. But the principle which prompts to save, is the desire of bettering our condition, a desire which, though generally calm and dispassionate, comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till we go into the grave. In the whole interval which separates those two moments, there is scarce perhaps a single instant in which any man is so perfectly and completely satisfied with his situation, as to be without any wish of alternation or improvement of any kind. (II iii (363))


Here Smith is distinguishing between older style public display of wealth (which he regards as an aristocratic mode of social display, antithetical to the continued development of the ‘wealth of nations’) and the newer, more rational sort he favours. However, as a professor of moral philosophy, he recognises the relentlessness of the desire for ‘bettering our condition’, and, as history has demonstrated, through the course of modernity this ‘rational’ desire has led us to the mess we are in at the moment, our chronic ecological debt and our inability to do anything about it.

In various other places in The Wealth of Nations Smith diagnoses the strength of the desire for betterment as really a struggle for status vis a vis other people. And indeed here evolutionary biology agrees that humans, as is the case with other primates, beyond simple survival are primarily concerned with their status within their society. In human societies with few resources people try to modify their status by acquiring new information and knowledge, especially of religious rituals and the like, and their skills, ie of hunting, warfare &c. They can also enhance their status with personal relationships, for example, for men, taking several wives.
In societies with more resources, then hierarchies develop and societies tend to have hereditary privilege. However stored and surplus resources also make it easier to display and compare wealth and they tend to exacerbate the competition for status: if status is hereditary then it should follow that only the families of high status have wealth, however, other people can strive to acquire wealth and influence and the possibility begins of these nouveau riche individuals supplanting the older families of privilege... welcome to human history.

To my mind this is the primary factor that drives people’s desire that there be more and more wealth in each generation, only if there is greater and greater wealth can people be assured that there is still a path to upward social mobility that is negotiable without too much savage strife. As I’ve noted before, this is sad, this is the human condition, but while humanity remains at reasonable levels of population and its demands aren’t excessive, then so what? male baboons have red bottoms, humans want wealth. However, when we have excessive global population levels and excessive economic demands being put on the biosphere, then clearly our evolutionary heritage is serving only to push us towards extinction.

This is why I have suggested that we need to think about limiting our population, with fewer people around our economic demands are not so excessive, and also because there is less pressure from a high population then people are less stressed about status anyway (lab rats kept in high density accommodation will kill each other regardless of how well-fed they are, there is no reason to think humans do not have similar motivation).

However, within our society we can do more to promote the idea of status not being tied to wealth. I am not naïve enough to think that humans will ever stop trying to compete with each other, however, perhaps in a society with declining population people will be relaxed enough to find ways to enhance their status that are not connected with wealth—growing prize pumpkins or something similar.

We also need to look across society at how the desire for status warps our institutions. For example, both in the public and private sectors to is easy to find examples of organisations, or sections within organisations which exist merely because of the need for status of some individual or other. For example a company might set up a unit in a research division to develop a new product, but the staffing is way in excess of the level needed because X, the new head of the unit, can’t be seen to be running a unit with fewer people than Y, someone else in the company who runs a research unit. What we need is a facility in these cases for saying to X, ‘we’re not disrespecting your experience or skills, it’s just you don’t need 50 staff, 20 will do—Y has 50 staff because the project his team is working on requires it’.

Earlier in this series of blogs I suggested that society should have extensive involvement of citizens’ panels, and I would imagine that adjudicating these situations would be some of their more valuable functions.

As well as individuals and organisations being warped by status-competition, the same applies to nations. It would require several blogs this length to begin to catalogue the activities that nations engage in merely because of status. Indeed there is even competition over the measure of economic activity most commonly jused, GDP.

It’s cliché of political analysis to say that GDP is a very bad way of measuring progress in society. From what I have been arguing in these blogs it’s obvious that I agree with this sentiment (and I have been hearing this argument for 30 years or more, so why, I wonder, do we still use this index?). However, I also have to say that I do not think the substitution of another index of progress such as the Happy Planet Index is a such a good idea. Although this index is a useful corrective to growth economics (the latest HPI has Costa Rica at the top and Australia way down at 102), I think if we followed this index instead of GDP we would simply compete about happiness and be unhappy because we weren’t near the top of the list—that’s how status driven people are. Perhaps we should just forswear indices of all kinds, and with them, our obsession with status.

Next week: Children

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Impediments 9: Growth

We are getting towards the end of this series of posts on impediments that our society suffers which makes it unable to recognise and respond to the upcoming ecological crisis (of which global warming is only one part).

Our next topic is growth, which we always seem to need. The notion of ‘growth’ seems to include two concepts, economic growth (people getting wealthier) and population growth (there being more people around). It’s possible to have one without the other, of course, although population growth without economic growth can probably only be a short-term phenomenon. On the other hand it would be possible to have economic growth without population growth or even with a declining population.

However, in general the two seem to go hand in hand, and as we always seem to need there to be economic growth going on then population growth is going also to be seen as something that should be greatly desired. This is something I have already argued against extensively in these blogs, and have argued that we should be limiting ourselves, because, beyond survival in the short-term, the only valid goal for human societies to set themselves is long-term human survival, and unlimited growth in a finite ecosystem is not a possible strategy to achieve this. By contrast, making sure our population is not too large at any time is the surest way to achieve long term human survival.

The problem with growth is that it does not have a concept of limits. Right at the beginning of modernity Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations got into a enormous difficulties in his arguments about wealth because he was clever enough to see that beyond the necessities of life, there is no real purpose in the desire for economic growth, but that that desire will be unbounded:

The desire of food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire of the conveniences and ornaments of building, dress, equipage and household furniture, seems to have no limit or certain boundary. Those, therefore, who have the command of more food than they themselves can consume, are always willing to exchange the surplus ... for gratifications of this other kind. What is over and above satisfying the limited desire, is given for the amusement of those desires which cannot be satisfied and which seem altogether endless. (I ix ii)

So what we need to do, in my view, since the desire for economic growth seems so strong with humans, is to decouple economic growth and population growth—the growth that then occurs will be much more modest, and probably invisible to conventional scrutiny, but it would allow a sense of progress from generation to generation without imperilling the ecological foundations that humanity depends on. A preferable term for it would be ‘betterment’.

Growth is a convenient illusion for people, because it makes them feel better off, and provides the illusion of social mobility even when inequalities remain. People can say ‘at least I’m better off than my parents, I have a larger house which is worth more, I earn more’, when in reality the house is proportionally more expensive and requires a greater share of the household’s income than in previous generations, and requires the household to have two income flowing into it, rather than one, as in previous generations.

Indeed it never ceases to amaze me that people can consider themselves better off than their ancestors. To me it seems obvious that people nowadays are mostly unhappy mortgage-slaves in the same way that their ancestors were unhappy wage-slaves who rented. Widespread home-ownership in a society based on rapid growth merely inflates house prices and does nothing to lessen inequalities of income.

Growth is also seems good for businesses: when there are more people and they have more money it’s easier to sell them more things each year. When there is a contraction in demand, of course, we see many businesses going bankrupt. On the other hand you could argue that if we entered a period of economic stability you could expect that businesses would have greater certainly of long term survival, once they had learned to satisfy local customer expectations, as in periods of economic growth there is more business instability (I’ve often noticed that long-established businesses seem to go out of business more frequently in periods of economic ‘good times’ than in periods of recession).

There is a whole science of ‘Zero-Growth economics’ (see this page and the pages linked to it). However I am not qualified to speak about the details of this, and instead in the last part of this blog I want to discuss what the advantages (beyond ecological sustainability) there would be in a society with a declining population, and a stable, very-slowly-expanding economic basis.

A world with a much lower population would be:
  • A world with less ecological degradation, where increasingly everyone could live near to trees and natural vegetation. Land prices would be lower and people could combine work with working small-holdings, as in many parts more relaxed parts of the world.
  • A world that was less crowded, where cities were smaller, where there was less crime and less poverty and more wisdom.
  • A world where people felt less under pressure, and had more time on their hands.
  • A world where superfluous occupations and sectors of the economy could be neglected and wither away, everyone’s work would be more meaningful and people could see the results of their work and other activities directly.
  • A world where worship of growth hadn’t blinded people to inequality, where in place of growth for the sake of growth you had more equalisation of resources and income.
  • A world where progress in the sense of technological advance was still happening, but very slowed down. One of the problems with modernity is that technological progress has happened too quickly for society to be able to adapt it, instead societies have been transforming themselves in an unstable way, and again growth for the sake of growth then occurs.
  • A world where societies were based on talents not reputation. In large-scale societies we get the problem that only very pushy and self-advertising people achieve recognition, in smaller-scale societies people achieve recognition based on actual achievements.

Because of all these it would be a world where people were more at home, less lonely and frightened and more connected to nature and to their own natures. Because we have already achieved global communications and these, along with other technologies, are unlikely to die out in a world that has transformed gently into a steady-state, declining population mode, then isolation and ignorance would not be problems, as they were in the past.

Next week: Status