If only Nietzsche had done a better job!

In the same way that you do not need to be an out and out royalist to keep the myth of the acceptability of inherited social status and privilege alive, you do not need to be devoutly religious to keep the myth of a transcendent origin and reference point for human morality alive. Even tacit support for the monarchy and God keeps these two myths breathing and influencing our social relations. Unless they are both laid to rest once and for all they will continue to influence, even at the level of the unconscious, who we think we are, our role in society, and how we behave towards each other. And in doing so they will act as severe restraints on our ability to creatively respond to the problems we encounter. In my previous blog I focussed on the former of these, now I present my case against God.

A few weeks ago I attended a debate organised by Dorset Humanists on belief in the existence of God. The debate was between a humanist and an evangelical Christian. The humanist presented what he considered to be the six main areas of argument, and why he though that such belief was unfounded. The Christian responded by focussing on just three of these areas in explaining why he thought it was. In the spirit of fairness, I will attempt a brief summary of the three contested areas, and add my tuppence worth.

In the beginning…was the cosmological argument, the idea that every event has a cause, and that even the ‘big bang’ which brought the universe into being had to have had a cause. For the Christian, that cause was God (though to be fair he did say that this was the weakest of his three arguments), whilst the humanist offered two potential causes, a personal creator or a cause that derived from contemporary scientific thinking – a ‘multi-verse’, the idea that the ‘big-bang’ was simply the emergence of this universe from any number of possible previous universes. If I sound like I actually understand this last bit, you are very much mistaken. But in a way that is my response to both of these arguments.

They both assume that because our logic tells us that there had to be a cause, there was one. But, as far as I can understand, at the moment of the ‘big-bang’, matter as we experience it, did not exist – this emerged later. All that existed probably did so at the quantum level, which is a very strange place indeed, certainly a place in which cause and effect, as we know it, did not / does not happen. Our whole conception of cause and effect is premised on our experiences of the physical world, and is totally unsuited to comprehend the interaction of energy outside of this physical world. For me, any argument from first cause falls at this hurdle.

The second argument concerns morality. From the Christian perspective, our conscience requires us to have objective moral values, some transcendent reference point against which we can measure goodness – and that reference point is, of course, God. The humanist response, which I fully endorse, is that, quite simply, there are no objective moral values, and no transcendent reference point. Our morality is the result of the evolution of social norms, the evolution of a loose set of ethical responses that have been found, through practical experience, to be advantageous to our continued survival. These are neither objective (have total universal application) nor subjective (are totally relative to the individual), they are inter-subjective – they are the result of our social interaction with each other. Many have close to universal application, but none totally so.

And the third argument concerned the existence and ‘experiencing of’ Jesus Christ. For the evangelic Christian this was the most important argument for the existence of God. He firmly believed that Christ was God incarnate, that there is good historical evidence to support this, and, for him, this belief is confirmed by his own religious experiences. For the humanist, there is no historical evidence to support this. From my perspective, the so called ‘evidence’ has two irreconcilable problems: it was first written many years after the events it claims to record happening (therefore allowing a huge degree of mental rewriting, interpretation and story telling), and has undergone many translations (all of which would, almost of necessity, require further ‘interpretation’). Additionally, both of the above, together with any attempt to understand our personal experiences, are subject to what psychologists term ‘confirmation bias’. We interpret the evidence to confirm what we already believe.

Religion, and the concept of a transcendent being, were simply stories constructed by our distant ancestors to make sense of the world that they were experiencing; an attempt to impart meaning and purpose to their experiences such that they could better deal with what life threw at them. They served a purpose, a purpose that is now better served by science and the scientific method of requiring experimental evidence before we provisionally accept something as ‘true’. Continued belief in religion, even tacitly, prevents us responding creatively, and in a more informed way, to the events of life. It attempts to anchor our thinking, either consciously or unconsciously, to myths that hold back our social, moral and cognitive evolution. We need to accept that the concept of God is dead. If only Nietzsche had done a better job!

It’s time for a British Republic

There are two subjects that I try to avoid for fear of upsetting people: God and the monarchy. To my thinking, belief in both is not only outdated and unreasonable, but constitutes a habit that prevents people responding positively and creatively to the problems we face. Prompted by a certain royal wedding this week-end, I have decided that it’s time the gloves came off. In this particular blog I present my case against the monarchy, in the next I’ll present my case against God.

I fully understand that the British monarchy are only constitutional monarchs and have no real power – that the Queen is a purely symbolic head of state. But that’s the issue – my main concern regards what the monarchy actually symbolises: inherited status and privilege; a social structure in which we know our place and bow down to people simply because of the position they were born into. Why should I place anybody on pedestal (or a throne) and revere them simply on the grounds of their birth? But that is the insidious and unconscious message that support for the monarchy entails – support for a social structure that is hierarchical, archaic and grounded in inherited privilege.

I would like my head of state to symbolise meritocracy and accountability. Whilst I’m actually quite reluctant to place anybody on a pedestal, I am prepared respect their position if they have acquired it through merit and ability, through some form or democratic process, and if they are accountable to the people for their actions. And I want them to actually have power – power to change things, power to drive forward the common good. I would like my head of state to have an understanding of the problems we face, a vision of the future, and the ability to drive us towards that vision.  But most of all, I would like my head of state to symbolise and campaign for human global egalitarianism.

The Crown Chronicles website lists eight reasons why we should retain the monarchy. From my perspective, eight reasons why we should assign them to room 101.

  1. They unite the people: Potentially that is true, but united under an archaic and privileged social structure that keeps people in their place rather than united behind a vision for the future that promotes their creativity.
  2. They provide stability: Again true, but an outdated stability that is creeping towards stagnation.
  3. They are cheaper than a Republic: I’ve not done the maths on this so am prepared to take them at their word (though intuitively it feels wrong), but even if they are correct I think the price of a Republic would be one well worth paying.
  4. They are less corrupt and more trusted than politicians: It’s difficult to be corrupt without power, but what’s the point of a head of state without power? The solution is to demand higher standards from our politicians, not retain an inherited position in which the incumbent is not accountable to the people.
  5. They are good for the economy: So was slavery, an expansive empire, and coal production, but that doesn’t make them desirable in the twenty-first century.
  6. They have morals: They may or may not, but who is there to judge, or hold them to account? Surely the argument is not that their inherited position somehow provides them with an intrinsic morality only available to one such as themselves?
  7. The monarchy makes sense: No it doesn’t, for all the reasons stated above.
  8. Important causes and issues are highlighted: Various members of the royal family have, over recent years, highlighted important issues, but no more than a whole host of politicians and other campaigners. Again, surely the argument is not that only the view from their privileged position provides insight into issues the rest of us are incapable of seeing, or that only their privileged position permits the dissemination of these issues to people capable of doing something about them?

So I’m sorry if I offend any royalists, but everything about the monarchy seriously offends my sense of humanity. I have nothing against any individual member of the royal family other than the wealth and status they have acquired simply by virtue of their birth, and I wish them no harm other than they experience life as the vast majority of us experience it. We need to end this outdated system now, and replace it with a British Republic. Until we do, their background privileged and hierarchical structure will continue to infest the remainder of our social structure in ways we are not even aware of.

Are you sitting comfortably?

We all like a good story, don’t we. Whether its reading a novel, watching a film, or being absorbed in a drama on television, there’s just something about a well told story that’s deeply satisfying. But have you ever considered just how integral story telling is to our life? Or the degree to which stories control us?

We all have stories we tell, stories concerning our lives, stories that provide the structures from which we derive the meaning and purpose of our lives. We have, for example, the story we tell at a job interview, or the story we tell when we go on a date for the first time with a potential new partner. These tend to use highly selective aspects of our lives, deliberately edited to place us in the best possible light, constructed to get us the job we want or impress the person sitting opposite. But there are also the stories we tell our selves, the stories through which we make sense of our numerous life events, through which these often disparate events are woven into a coherent narrative that makes sense, that has a story line that is going somewhere.

In these all these stories we feature as a subject, a subject partly based on fact, but a subject that is also part fiction. I mean, let’s be brutally honest about this, we revise, edit, polish, round the corners, remove the ugly bits from the events of our life. To use a well quoted journalistic phrase, ‘why let the truth get in the way of a good story?’ We don’t do this because we are inherently bad, or because we set out to deceive (though on the job interview or first date this may be the case), we do it because we have a need to make sense of the constant stream of experiences life throws at us – and life is just too complex for us to make sense of it ‘as it is’.

But who is the author of this story? Who is doing the editing and re-writing? Who selects what to include and what to leave out? And, further, what is the relationship between author and subject? This, I believe, is a very ambiguous relationship, not least because the subject is both created by, and in turn creates, the author.

To make this relationship even more ambiguous, the subject-author is not the only writer of our life story; the subject-author is also subjected to the meanings and structures of the dominant social narrative – a larger, mostly silent background story from which we absorb our place in the world and create our take on life’s meaning and purpose. Our various roles only have meaning against this backdrop, through a comparison with the roles of others. We make sense of our own lives by differentiating them from those of others.

This ghostly background story structure exerts a huge influence on us as the subject-author of our own life story, an influence that is particularly noticeable when we are faced with the need for fundamental social change. Take our dominant economic narrative for example, the story that supplies us with the role of being good consumers and the goal of measuring the success of our life by the amount of wealth we have created. We may reason that in order to mitigate the worst effects of man-made climate change we need to consume less stuff, take fewer flights, and measure success by non-monetary means. But making these changes often involves a fundamental change in our role as a subject within this all pervasive economic story, and this makes us feel emotionally ill at ease. For many of us the necessary changes just feel wrong, and they often feel to be against common-sense. This is because our own personal stories are so deeply embedded within this all pervasive economic story that this grand-narrative has become, quite literally, common-sense.

So, how do we start to loosen the strangle hold these social narratives have over us? How do we achieve a sufficient degree of freedom for our ability to reason such that we can escape the tyranny of this so called common-sense? I will end with just three suggestions: We try very hard to bring this ghostly background into into the sunlit foreground by talking about the role of stories in our lives at every opportunity. We become accustomed to thinking of our lives as narratives which we author and feature in as the main character. Next, we simply accept what I call the paradox of necessary fiction – that all these stories, whilst based on actual events, are, nevertheless, fictions – but that they are totally necessary fictions in as far as we need the meaning and purpose they supply to our lives. And third, that we try to break the ‘common-sense’ spell through the prodigious use of comedy and satire – invaluable tools in exposing the absurdities of life.

 

Gambling with the future of humanity

One of the many great things about events like Bridport’s Film Festival is that you are drawn to performances that you would probably not otherwise see. Take the film Molly’s Game for example. If screened at a local cinema it probably would not have caught my attention. But because you want to support the festival, and because it’s right on your doorstep, you have licence to be less circumspect. And this was a gem.

It’s the true story of Molly Bloom, a beautiful, highly intelligent young American skier who, on the verge of qualifying for the Olympics literally crashes out of her sport. Picking herself up she goes on to run, over the course of a decade, a number of the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker games, before being arrested and put on trial by the FBI. This film works on many levels, but I want to focus on just one. The psychology of those addicted to high-stakes gambling.

What has really haunted me about the film is the image of one of the poker players, a supposed ‘professional’ player who knew exactly what he was doing and who was more than capable of assessing the odds, being broken by a chance event – a rare piece of ‘good’ play from an otherwise complete amateur. Unable to back-down and walkaway from the table, unable to accept that things have not turned out as planned, unable to accept the loss, he just keeps on betting – and, as emotion takes over from reason, keeps on losing. This normally rational player gets sucked into an irrational vortex of his own making: borrowing more money than he actually has, losing, borrowing and losing, convinced that just one win will balance everything out. It doesn’t happen.

And all time I’m watching this I’m simultaneously thinking of two high-stakes politicians constantly ‘upping the ante’ on the world stage. One threatening missile strikes to deter and punish a third party for their use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and alleging the complicity of their opponent at the table, the other denying their involvement and threatening to not only shoot down any missile fired at their friend and ally, but to retaliate by striking the sites the missiles were launched from.

In the poker games depicted in the film, most of the winning and losing derived not from who had the better hand, or who had calculated the odds more accurately, but who was able to out bluff their opponent – who was able to convince the person sitting opposite them that the hand they held was the higher, even though it often was not. But in the scene I described above the players managed to position themselves into such a corner that there was no room to back down. As the surge of irrational responses overwhelmed their play the only way they felt they could walk away from the table was by beating their opponent. It was literally winner takes all. The loser lost everything.

This loss was heart-breaking to see. But when applied to the world stage the metaphors start to break down. Potentially there will be no winners and losers, just losers. The world, at every level, environmentally, politically, and economically, is now so highly connected that it will be impossible to confine the results of losing ‘the game’ to the opposition. We will all suffer. And when it comes to politicians with a nuclear arsenal at their disposal, the stakes include the very future of humanity.

May ’68: what’s relevant after 50 years?

Fifty years after the events of May ’68 it may be worth reflecting on their relevance to contemporary circumstances: what’s changed, what’s the same, and what inspiration could we acquire? What led me to ask these questions was the memory of 10 years ago, as a post-graduate student, taking part in a series of seminars organised between the philosophy and politics departments at Staffordshire University, to reflect on the events at the then 40th anniversary. Having just just revisited a review of the events by the French philosopher Alain Badiou, written to mark the same anniversary, I am struck by two particular points of his analysis: his conception of communism, and his view that the events opened the possibility of there being a “political practice that accepted new trajectories, impossible encounters, and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other.” Taken together, these two points could inaugurate something of value.

Let me start by attempting to get past the use of the ‘c’ word. Badiou is a communist, and communism is a dirty word in the UK – far more than it is in France. As soon as it is mentioned images of Stalinist repression, excessive state control, and bread queues are conjured up. This is nowhere close to what Badiou means by communism. For one thing his idea of communism is one where “we are not doomed to lives programmed by the constraints of the State”; instead, he’s in favour of “the withering away of the State”. No, rather than being something that most people in the UK would shun, his Communist Hypothesis, as he calls it, is something that could unite and rejuvenate left of centre politics: his communism is “the politics of emancipation”, a politics that simply aims for freedom “from the law of profit and private interest”; it is a politics which believes both that the “Party-form, like that of the Socialist State, is longer suitable”, but which, nevertheless, is revolutionary in the face of “an utterly cynical capitalism”.

So having, hopefully, at least mitigated the worst of the potential ‘commuphobias’, let’s move on to his forty-year review of May ’68. Badiou suggests that there were four “quite heterogeneous” dimensions to these events. Three of these (that the events were primarily a revolt by school and university students, that there was “the biggest general strike in the whole of French history”, and it brought about a radical change in the moral, sexual and cultural climate of the country) are obvious, well discussed, and arguably only of historical interest. However, he suggests a fourth dimension, the most important, that is more forward looking. The events in France, he argues, inaugurated a “search for a new conception of politics”. Protesting students and striking trade unionists, for example, found themselves on the same side of the protests, but struggled at first to communicate with each other. There existed a mutual distrust.

In overcoming these barriers there was a forced break-away from the ‘old language of politics’, a language that was heavy with such terms as ‘the working class’ and ‘the proletariat’; there was a forced review of how politics was organised and the sites of power within a strong political-party system; and there developed an obsession with the question ‘What is politics?’ As a result, students and trade-unionists found their mutual distrust evaporating, and that a “sort of local fusion was taking place”. They “agreed to get together to organize joint meetings”. This heralded “the process of the Union of the Left” and a decade (1968 to 1978) of intense politics in France. Admittedly this union and political action was repressed with the election of Mitterrand, an event that “seemed to impose a return to the classical model”, but it does indicate what is possible if we “realize that all politics is organized, and that the most difficult question is probably that of what type of organization we need”.

How is all this relevant to our contemporary situation? Well I take hope from Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis as a form of language capable of bringing about a generalised union of the Left. Whether we regard ourselves as being members of either the Green or Red factions of the Left, we have some conception of the type of society we want to bring about. Whether this conception is egalitarian in the traditional sense of being focused on the social, economic and ethical relations between our fellow humans across the world, or whether these relations are expanded to include those with non-human life and our natural environment, this vision will only come about through our emancipation from Capitalism, our obsession with economic growth and wealth, and the liberal illusion of the primacy of individualism. Freedom from the law of profit and private interest is as vital to the Green conception politics as it is to the more traditional left conceptions.

I also take hope from the possibility of there being an intense period of political activity as the result of a generalised union of the Left, a union brought about by all parties and factions being prepared to question the political language they use, the constraints imposed by the way they currently organise themselves, and by constantly asking the question ‘What is politics?’

Green and Red co-operation: A practical strategy or a blind alley?

If we (the Green Party) are serious about the need for a wide range of radical environmental, social and economic changes, we need to accept that, of necessity, these changes will require a strong top-down dimension. As much as I admire and support grass-root initiatives and campaigns, they will not, on their own, bring about the changes to both social attitudes and political / economic structures that are required if we want to avert the worst effects of climate change, environment degradation and global inequality. At best, bottom-up approaches will just take too long. At worst, they will never acquire the power and momentum to overpower the neo-liberal agenda that forms the status quo. No, if we are serious, and I really do hope that we all are, we need to acquire political power. Or, at the very least, a degree of political power; a strong Green voice at the level of national government.

Now, I don’t want this to come as a shock to anyone, but we will not win the next General Election. I also suspect that we will really struggle to increase our solitary representation in Parliament. Without a fair electoral system, without some form of proportional representation, without a process that allows the various important yet minority views held by the electorate to be represented in Parliament in proportion to their existence in the country as a whole, we will just be banging our heads against the proverbial brick wall. And I for one do not like pain. Under our current electoral system, not only will the views of Green Party supporters not be aired on the national stage, where they have the potential to influence top-down strategies and recruit further Green Party supporters, but these existing supporters will find themselves wanting to support other parties in the hope of bringing about some actual positive change, however trivial. A small step away from disaster may not be sufficient, but it makes a lot more sense than running towards it.

I usually consider myself more of an optimist than a pessimist, and I don’t like the way my argument is going any more than you may do, but things gets worse. We are nowhere close to getting a system of proportional representation. Yes, there are many very active campaigns doing their very best, there is even a campaign within the Labour Party for its adoption. But so far the likelihood of there being a change to some system of PR in the near future seems highly unlikely. For this to happen the Labour Party will need to adopt it and campaign for it. How long are we prepared to wait for PR? I believe that the changes we need to bring about are too urgent to wait for the argument to be won. Yes, we need to continue campaigning for PR, but we also need to consider an additional strategy.

I disagree with the Labour Party, even the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, on several key issues. Their lack of support for PR I’ve already mentioned. Their reluctance to reject nuclear weapons is another. But most importantly, I disagree with their economic policy. It’s old fashioned, and it fails to acknowledge our relationship with non-human life and our environment. They still put forward the goal of economic growth as the raison d’être of the economy. Until they become agnostic towards growth, as Kate Raworth would phrase it, until they adopt a different goal and measure of economic success, one that aims to meet the needs of people whilst living within the means of the planet, we will still be sleep walking towards the next great extinction event – the one of, and the one caused by, humans.

One the other hand, I still regard myself a socialist at heart. And from talking to many other Green Party members I know that I am not the only one. My initial reason for joining the Green Party was my total disillusionment with ‘New Labour’ and the discovery that the then Green Party manifesto was more ‘socialist’ than anything put forward by Labour, certainly in my political life-time. Since joining, however, my developing understanding of our relationship with our planet and non-human life, relationships that need to be considered alongside our social and economic relationships with each other, means that I now consider my political colour to be deeply Green. I could never return to the Red camp, even though there are many aspects of Labour policy, particularly their social policies, that I would have little trouble supporting.

And there’s something else in Labour’s favour. Bearing in mind all the problems associated with the absence of a fair voting system, they offer the best chance of getting a radical alternative to the warring Neo-liberalism and Conservatism amalgam that passes for the current Government. Certainly the best chance of doing so in the near future. And at the risk of sounding too ‘doom mongering’, could I point out that time is not on our side! We need to start introducing legislation soon – legislation, for example, to facilitate the rapid expansion and development of renewable energy, to restructure our public transport system, and to control the types of plastics that can be sold and used.

So, here’s my suggestion. Why not start working with Labour whilst maintaining our own clear identity? I’m thinking on the lines of a critical friend. One who is prepared to offer constructive criticism – not with the intention of belittling or trying to usurp, but with the intention of offering a much needed Green perspective to Red policies. Why not offer help and support to the Labour Party where we can, whilst at the same time campaigning for them to adopt PR and to reconsider their economic policies. More specifically, at the local level why not work with Labour for the joint selection of candidates: not necessarily competing with each other at all elections; not necessarily both running a full slate of candidates; perhaps selecting those candidates from either party with the best chance of winning. And at the national level, Labour not challenging the Green Party candidate in our (very few) target wards in return for us not standing in those constituencies where they have the best chance of winning. If, for example, Labour challenged Caroline Lucas’s seat in Brighton Pavilion I would be the very first to admit that any deal would be impossible. Such a challenge would serve no purpose and would simply reveal the degree to which Labour needed to ‘get with the times’.

All this, of course, to be truly effective, would need to be top-down, would require an agreement between both parties at the national level. It would require a Labour commitment to PR and an understanding that they were prepared to offer us the same consideration and respect as we offer them. And it would need to be undertaken as a creative exercise, one in which everyone believed that the collaborative result would be greater than the sum of our individual contributions. But as above, can we afford to wait for such a national agreement? Whilst waiting, would it be worth exploring how we could collaborate at the local party level? Would the structure of Labour allow this? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do believe that if some dialogue could be started it would be an important first step in the walk away from the fast approaching precipice.

Stating the ****ing obvious: the case for a second EU referendum

At the risk of stating the [insert your expletive of choice] obvious, the question asked at the EU referendum (‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’) contained such an intrinsic imbalance that it has resulted in the impossibility of there ever being a clear consensus of the way forward. We were not asked to choose between two different but tangible options (do you support the policies of party a, b, c or d?), but between the tangible status quo and an intangible ‘not the status quo’. And because choosing the intangible option is leading us, dream-like, down a misty path towards who-knows-what, I’m happy to follow the advice of P. J. Kavanagh and “never to be afraid of the deafeningly obvious, it is always news to somebody.”

Being a member of the EU meant (means) something very real. It doesn’t matter whether you like it, dislike it, or want to improve it, there is a reasonably clear ‘it’, a substantial ‘it’ that can be grasped by the mind, that doesn’t need to be imagined, an ‘it’ that actually exists, that you like, dislike or want to improve. In terms of the 2016 referendum (was it really that long ago?) this meant that whether you voted Remain or Leave, your reference point was our (then) current status as a member of the EU. But what were you actually voting for? What did you hope to achieve by voting the way you did?

If you voted Remain this is a reasonably straight forward question to answer. You voted for the tangible status quo. Even if you were not entirely happy with this status quo (and that was probably the situation for most of us) this was the clear and concrete situation which we wanted to retain (and improve from the inside). But if you voted ‘not the status quo’ there was no clear and concrete situation which you were actually voting for. At the very best, each voter who voted Leave had an imagined situation they were voting for, a situation that, because it was imagined, may or may not have been realist or achievable. But even in the very unlikely situation that all people voting Leave had a clear imagined scenario they were voting in favour of, it, by definition, was subjective. It would have been impossible for all Leave voters to be imagining the same future scenario. However much some on the Leave side of the argument may argue to the contrary, it is utterly impossible for there to be a clear and tangible situation that they were all in favour of. It was impossible for Leave voters to know what they were voting for!

This is why there has to be a second referendum on the proposed scenario post Brexit. Whilst such a proposed imagined scenario will not be as tangible as the more concrete status quo, it will hopefully (to use a phrase from my days as a Careers Adviser) be the result of a well-informed and realistic decision. This means that the Brexit deal that the Government and their Civil Service advisers negotiate and lay before the country has had all the relevant information taken into account and (within the limits of an inherent uncertainty) that the resulting imagined future economic and political relationships have a realistic chance of coming about. This will, at the very least, mean that we have a clear and tangible (if not concrete) image that our minds can grasp and which we can decide whether we approve or not.

I feel somewhat embarrassed making this analysis because, as I’ve said, it all seems so very obvious. Maybe it will be news to some people. Or maybe it is just another of those inconvenient truths – a truth that is in danger of getting in the way of a ‘good’ Brexit story. Either way, it’s “deafeningly obvious” that the Emperor has no clothes on, and baby it’s cold out there!

 

What the Dickens?

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Such was the view of scientific rationalism in Victorian times, given voice by Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times. Of course it was not a view endorsed by Dickens himself. Dickens, who had a more Romantic (bordering on sentimentalist) view of society, saw the misery such a dismissal of emotion and feeling unleashed on the working poor. But it is a view totally endorsed by the eminent scientist Steven Pinker in his new book Enlightenment Now, a book the Guardian critic, William Davies, describes as “a bold, wonderfully expansive and occasionally irate defence of scientific rationality and liberal humanism, of the sort that took root in Europe between the mid-17th and late 18th century.” I’m on the side of Dickens for this one.

Pinker’s basic argument is that for the vast majority of people in the world life has been getting progressively better. This progress is the result of Enlightenment thinking, the result of scientific rationalism. How do we know this? Because we count – we count the facts, nothing but the facts Mr Gradgrind. So, according to this view, all those people who feel let down by the current economic system, the system that allows the privileged few to get progressively richer whilst the majority at best manage to tread water, at worst start to drown, need to reassess their take on things. They need to stop feeling their hardships, and instead start counting the facts. Ultimately, Pinker informs us, economic inequality “is not itself a dimension of human wellbeing.”

The problem is, of course, that facts are not the clear and obvious entities that they are often made out to be, entities that demand to be received and understood in only one way by anyone using a completely rational thought process. Most facts are derived from raw data (often in the form of statistics) or some other form of evidence (an historic document or DNA sample depending on your area of investigation) which are then interpreted in order to make a meaningful statement. And whilst the various theories used to interpret this date and turn them into facts are usually well tested and reliable (and, in the case of science, to attempts to falsify them), they are never-the-less abstractions from a highly complex and inter-related world. In order to form a workable theory many of the ‘minor’ variables involved are ignored. They have to be. If they were not the theory would become too complex to be used.

But most of us don’t use rigorous, peer-tested theory to interpret data presented to us. We use heuristics, rules of thumb that we have been socialised into using or have formed over the years. One of the great failings of classic economic theory is its belief that economic actors make rational decisions based on perfect knowledge. This has been shown to be false. First, because the world is just too complex for all the facts to be taken into account, and second, because most of the heuristics we use have an emotional rather than a rational basis.

Of even greater importance for politics is the realisation that it tends not to be facts that motivate people to act, to change things. It’s emotions like anger, frustration, a sense or feeling of injustice or unfairness (not an analysis of justice or fairness). One of the targets of Dickens’ critique was the Utilitarian approach to ethics and social reform, an approach that that valued the greatest good for the greatest number decided through some form of calculus. This overly rational approach led to many absurdities and injustices. In Hard Times, Louisa Gradgrind, the eldest child of the Gradgrind family, has been taught to suppress her feelings. As a consequence, she finds it difficult to express herself clearly. But by the end of the novel she has found liberation from the factoid straight-jacket through an appreciation of the value of emotions and the imagination. She reproaches her father for his dry and fact-based approach to the world and convinces him of the error of his ways. Who will so convince Steven Pinker?

 

By-election special: why vote Green?

All I ask is about fifteen minutes of your time. I want to tell you why I think that you should elect Green Party councillors at the two local council by-elections in Bridport this week – or at any other time in any other place if you are reading this after the event and / or do not live in this wonderful and unique town.

Most of us fully accept that caring for our environment is important. We accept the evidence that man-made climate change is not only happening but is a potential threat to the flourishing of human life, and we accept that world plastic pollution is a disaster that has crept up upon when we were not looking. All the main political parties in the UK accept this. All the main political parties have environmental policies that they will talk about as evidence of their commitment to doing something about the dawning environmental threats to our well-being.

But, and this is a very big but, none of the other parties come even close to accepting the essential link between their economic policies and their environmental policies. And until they do, their environmental policies, however well intentioned, are doomed to failure. Our economy forms a complex and dynamic subset of human relations that sit within the wider and even more complex system of human relations we call human society. And both sit within an even more complex system of relations that we call our environment. None of these systems can be understood in isolation – with the possible exception of our natural environment which would still exist even if humanity became extinct (though, of course, there would be no one around to understand it).

Our economic activity has always had, and will continue to have, an effect on the environment in which it is embedded. It’s just up until the onset of the industrial revolution human numbers were relatively small and our technology mostly harmless to our environment. In the year 1500 the world population was approx. 500 million. Today it is approx. 7.5 billion, and is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. And since the year 1500 we have discovered coal, oil, nuclear energy, and have invented plastic.

All the main political parties, with the exception of the Green Party, have economic growth as not only the goal of their economic policy, but as the measure of their success as a government. And because their economic policies are not essentially linked to their environmental policies, because they are not seen as two sides of the same coin, they pursue both in relative isolation. They will approve environmental action if they think it necessary providing it does not threaten economic growth. This is wrong. This is very wrong.

The goal of our economic policy should be to meet the needs of all our citizens, whilst keeping within the safe limits of a number of crucial environmental measures – measures that are not negotiable. This should be our goal, not constant economic growth. If the economy grows, then it grows. If it shrinks, it shrinks. That should not be our concern. All we should be concerned about is meeting our needs whilst not making our planet incapable of supporting human life. Only the Green Party will take this approach. All the others will focus on economic growth, an approach that will work against their environmental good will.

Thank you for your time.

Sustainability

Sustainability is a fashionable word in politics. You may think this a good thing, but when the use of a word becomes fashionable its meaning very quickly becomes vague; at best it starts to mean different things to different people, at worst it becomes devoid of meaning altogether. This trend is even more acute for a word like ‘sustainability’. The English philosopher W.B. Gallie used the term essentially contested concept to refer to concepts that have formed through the amalgamation of many ‘smaller’ concepts of which no single user ever agrees on exactly which set applies. In other words, the default position is that everyone uses it in a slightly different way to mean slightly different things. Philosophers have been arguing that ‘sustainability’ is such a word for several years. This does not mean, of course, that we should not seek some clarity.

A good place to start, as ever, is the dictionary. ‘Sustainability’ is the ability to sustain, and phrased in that way the first problem becomes clear – the ability to sustain what? The verb ‘sustain’ is a transitive verb (it requires a direct object) that simply means to maintain or prolong. On a purely abstract level, talking about the ability to maintain or prolong makes some sense, but we can really only have clarity when we know what it is we want to maintain or prolong. The ability to maintain my house is radically different from my ability to maintain a relationship with my daughter or to maintain a note of a certain pitch with my voice. Constantly referring to my commitment to ‘maintainability’ is close to being devoid of meaning – the skills sets required for each example are so radically different. So, when politicians or environmentalists talk about sustainability what is it they are trying to maintain or prolong?

The use of the term ‘sustainability’ entered popular usage following publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987. Here it refers quite specifically to ‘sustainable development’, and whilst sustainability can be used in just about any context it is in this particular context that it is most commonly used. But use of the concept ‘development’ is not without difficulty. My dictionary defines ‘development’ (noun) as “the act or process of growing, progressing or developing” and ‘develop’ (verb) as “to come or bring to a later or more advanced stage; to grow or cause to grow gradually.” Again, clarity regarding the context or the object of development is crucial to any understanding.

There are two particular aspects of the above definitions that are worth examining: the act or process of growing, and that of progressing to a later of more advanced stage. Starting with the latter, when we talk about later or more advanced stages the implication must be that we have some type of blue-print or dynamic model in mind that gives shape, meaning or purpose to the process. This works fine with, for example, notions of child-development. Medicine and psychology have, over the years, charted the ‘normal’ course of development of human children. We can use this to quite accurately predict what will happen to any particular child and assume that there is a problem if it doesn’t. However, this doesn’t work when when applied to human collectives, whether communities, particular societies, or humanity as a whole. Here we have no experience, no evidence at all, that allows us to construct a model of ‘normal’ development.

There are similar problems with the notion of ‘growth’, the most obvious meaning of which is to increase in size. Applied to individual children growth is considered good – provided it is within the boundaries of our model of ‘normal’ development. We expect babies to put on weight (though not too much) and to grow in height. However, such growth is limited. No human child, or any other living being, continues to grow for ever. There are limits – both in terms of age and size or weight gained during the aging process. To go beyond certain limits of weight is to create health problems. So if there are limits to the growth of any particular living being, why should there not be similar limits to the growth of collectives of such beings, or limits to any of their enterprises? Well, there are, as any ecologist will explain. All living collectives are interdependent with other collectives and the environment in which they live. Push any boundary too far and the balance is too greatly disturbed: the result is a feedback reaction which causes the balance to go in the other direction. So in terms of human ‘development’, development cannot mean either constant growth or the progression towards some pre-ordained future state. Neither can be maintained or prolonged. So where does this leave the notion of ‘sustainable development’?

Increasing in size isn’t the only meaning applicable to ‘growth’ – there is also the development of novelty. And this is where systems thinking comes to our aid. All collectives of living beings, from ant colonies to large human cities, form complex, dynamic systems, whose structure can, to a large degree, be understood and described through complexity science. These systems are always embedded within larger systems that form their environment, and form a dynamic balance with the other living systems that share that environment. Together with the Earth, all these systems or collectives form one immensely complex dynamic system: our ecosystem. One of the very few certainties for any individual system within this interdependent whole is that, because of the sheer complexity and dynamics of that whole, their immediate environment will change. If that system does not adapt to these changes, if it doesn’t develop novelty, if it is not creative in its response – it will stagnate and die. This applies to human communities as much as to any troop of wild animal or species of plant.

According to this line of thinking, sustainable development is the ability to develop novelty in response to changes in the environment, to be creative when considering how we do things, or, as Jared Diamond so brilliantly argues in Collapse, to have the “willingness to reconsider core values”. Diamond also argues that in order to survive potential collapse, in other words to maintain or prolong themselves, societies also need long-term planning rather than the short-term planning that seems to dominate politics.

And this brings us nicely back to the Brundtland report. This defines sustainable development as the ability to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The working definition of sustainable development that I suggest, therefore, would simply prefix this with: “The ability and willingness to reconsider our core values in order to meet…”. Oh, and please note, the Brundtland report says ‘needs’, not ‘wants’!

Sustainable development: The ability and willingness to reconsider our core values in order to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.