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, 8 February 2012


This is the final piece in the The Calyptorhynchus Blog. I began the series in February 2010 and soon decided to write one piece a week for year and then stop.

There are quite a lot of arguments in these pieces, but probably only one important one: that because globally we are living beyond our ecological means we cannot have a normal or peaceful existence, nor do we deserve to. And because we are living beyond our ecological means our way of life will soon end, leaving us to face the consequences. We can either start facing these consequences now, and perhaps have an orderly transition to a praeter-modern world, or continue to ignore them and face disaster.

The most important corollary from this recognition that the best thing we can do to try to bring our society back within reasonable ecological bounds is to begin advocating for a lower global population. If this transition is achieved it would enable humanity to survive at lower levels of population for hundreds of thousands of years into the future, rather than a high-population global society facing disaster in the next century or so, and humanity possibly not surviving.

In his 1904 novel Nostromo Joseph Conrad has one of his characters say:

There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is unhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can found only in moral principle.

And this is an excellent voicing of the Romantic/socialist view of capitalism. This view has, of course, since the 1960s been supplemented by the ecologically-informed view that whatever capitalism’s achievements, the assessment of them must be modified by the knowledge of the essential unsustainability of the modernistic enterprise after a certain point.

The fact that the Romantic view of capital arose so soon after the beginnings of modernity in the late C18 (amongst the German Romantics, Blake, Wordsworth &c) is, I believe an unconscious recognition on the part of artists and thinkers that the modernistic project was unsustainable in the long-term, although, because the necessary scientific work had not been done, this knowledge was not explicit and a critique of capitalism had to be couched in moralistic terms. This is my Daoist-inspired view that people, as part of the natural world, the Dao, have an instinctive feeling for how their lives should run, and it is only a very specious ideology that can divert them from this.

This is my hope—that as soon as a general recognition of the ecological dire straits we are in happens, then the necessary societal changes that this entails will become obvious and perhaps even welcome, and then begin. ‘The Dao does nothing, yet there is nothing that is not done.’ (Daode jing 37)

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Political Action

In this penultimate blog I want to ask how we can act politically to ensure that the concerns elaborated here are brought to light and acting on.

It’s a truism frequently mentioned in political writing that in order to succeed in a political campaign you have to be moderate, you have to capture the centre ground of politics in order to succeed. This I suppose is the distilled wisdom of the C20, where moderate social progress was made on a number of fronts, but no great transformation of society was effected. The Second World War brought about a desire for a social democratic polity, and this was more or less happening up until the 1970s, but no socialist transition occurred and all those people who wished for it were disappointed.

In my view this is because the socialist transition was not necessary, and because in it were several ideas that produced widespread opposition, such as the abolition of private property and the view that the state had to run every aspect of society. In this respect people who were too extreme didn’t succeed in their political aims because there was nothing vital about their ideas, they didnt have to happen.

However, our situation is now completely unlike that faced by would be socialists in the 1970s. They wished to bring about familiar goals (widespread prosperity) by unfamiliar methods. Nowadays people who share the concerns of these blogs will be wishing to bring about changes to society that most people do not currently see the necessity for, in ways that they also do not recognise. This seems an even harder goal.

However, in speaking to people I meet about the concerns raised in these blogs, I have frequently been surprised by what an extent of agreement with these ideas already exists amongst people of all walks of life. Of course these often appear in the guise of unattractive sentiments, such as racism, or anti-immigrant and anti-working class feelings, and most people are very ready to agree that there is a population problem.... amongst people on other continents!

Nevertheless I have been surprised by the number of people I have spoken to over the years who have agreed that, yes, we do need a lower population in Australia, yes, we do need to cut consumption, yes, we do need to work less, but work better &c &c I believe that there is a case for saying that such sentiments are universally neglected by all political parties and a sector of the population exists which has the right ideas and no-one to speak for them, rather like, or unlike, Menzies’ and Nixon’s ‘forgotten people’.

I think that what anyone who thinks along the lines of The Calyptorhynchus Blog (or has similar, more sophisticated thoughts) needs to do is as follows:
    • Continue to propagate these ideas in contravention of accepted political ideas, this could be in the form of corresponding with MPs and other figures in public life, making submissions to political consultation processes, contributing to Internet blogs, talking to friends and relatives, or by any other means that clever people than me can think of.
    • Continue to pour scorn on conventional media, political parties (perhaps including green parties) and all products (including social interactions) which are designed to capture our engagement and allegiance in the cause of the old paradigms.
    • Refuse financial contributions to anything connected with the old economy where possible, and try to live as though the better future was already here.

In time, and probably not very much more time, obvious manifestations of the collapse in the ecological support for our activities will begin to manifest themselves and the cause of ecological sanity might seem easier. Paul Gilding has described these in his work The Great Transformation, and others have written along similar lines. But this will be no reason to celebrate, after all, how much better and smarter would it have been to have avoided such disruptions and to have transitioned undramatically into a greener future?

Such dramatic events will bring their own problems; the natural reaction of most people in the face of events that belie their beliefs is to intensify their allegiance in these beliefs. At this point many false prophets will arise and the number of false solutions to humanity’s problems will proliferate.

At this time wiser heads will need to be particularly careful to understand what is going on and the correct attitude to be be taken at the time. Presently we know that we have problems, that no conventional political solutions are viable, and it is very easy to oppose everything. In the future, after ecological breakdown becomes obvious, then various solutions will be proposed and it will be necessary for people to choose amongst them and give support to some of these, or parts of some of these.

In that future it will be as well to bear in mind two important principles. The first is that in the main nothing of modernity will prove of much value, since it was modernity which got us into this mess in the first place. For example currently the issue of fracking for natural gas in rural eastern Australia is quite big in the news: fracking involves injecting a fluid under high pressure into rocks that contain natural gas (in this case) and extracting the gas. The practice is, of course, appalling environmental vandalism, spreading pollutants through the rocks and contaminating ground water, and environmentalists and land-owners (who cannot, legally, preventing fracking on their land) are, rightly, opposed to it.

Apart from this, however, is it not also the case that fracking is rather pathetic? 150 years ago the petroleum industry drilled its first gushers, now it is forced to use highly expensive and inefficient technology to extract the last few drops of petrochemicals from the rocks, rather like a penniless drunk licking the carpet of a bar in the hopes that someone has spilt some beer on it.

My point here is that, whether the oil industry likes it or not, fossil fuels are on the way out, and in the future any political solution that relies on fossil fuels, or other related technology, such as nuclear, is clearly part of the problem, not the solution. The solution(s) to the problems of modernity will look different from modernity.

But the other side of this question, how to evaluate future solutions to the ecological crisis, is that they must be reasonable and not unconscionable. A solution to the problem of ecological overreach must recognise the problem of overpopulation, but one that does so and proposes action that is based on coercion, not consent, or on racial, or class lines (such as forbidding certain social groups or classes to have children), is clearly on the wrong track. Humanity may be in a deep hole, but no solution is worth considering that abandons humanity.

Next Week: Farewell