Friday, 8 January 2016

Kant, Chips and Future Generations

The confession with which I wish to begin the year is: I eat meat.

Not only that.  When I cannot be arsed to meet my own usual standards (organic, free-range, locally-sourced, well-read etc) I occasionally indulge in a burger. Ready cooked.  From a high street provider.

On one such recent occasion I happed upon Steers, a brand previously unknown to me.   Their advertising was enticing; and the burger was good.  So were the chips.

The chips came in a cardboard envelope, the front of which explained just how good the chips were, the back of which encouraged me as follows:

“Please do not litter and help save the planet
so that future generations will also be able
to enjoy our flame-grilled burgers”

Leaving aside the ambiguous grammar (am I being asked not to save the planet?) we are confronted here by a very interesting piece of irony.  It is clearly expected that I already know that I should be behaving in an environmentally-friendly fashion; and, further, that I know the reason why I should be behaving this way.  But why should I really care about these future generations?  I, after all, will not be around.  And the answer?  So that they can enjoy one of these burgers!  Just as I have!  Marvellous!

It’s possible, of course, that no irony is intended, and that Steers really does believe that its customers are more likely to dispose of the waste cardboard envelope in a responsible fashion if they conjure, for a moment, a vision of a future burger-eating human.

Either way, the question is firmly on the table: what is the best way of motivating the typical Steers customer – or, indeed, anyone else in the act of eating some food – to act responsibly?

The ironies multiply.  As my opening confession reminds us, eating meat is itself difficult to justify on environmental grounds.  The most environmentally responsible choice would in fact be not to have eaten the burger at all, in which case I would not have been exposed to the motivational message in the first place.  Less of an irony, more of a paradox akin to the old chestnut ‘The statement on the other side of this card is true/The statement on the other side of this card is false’.

No matter.  The question remains.  Why should we bother with any of this stuff?

The mainstream response, as the Steers encomium acknowledges, is that we have some sort of responsibility to the future.  Normally this is expressed in terms of our, or the, children.  Most parents have a bit of a soft spot for their children, so the assumption is that an appeal to the welfare of our children will motivate us to act.

Hmm.  The evidence suggests that, whilst we may have good intentions when it comes to our children, we’re not so good when it comes to the follow up: just look at how fat they’re all getting! It’s too straightforward to make the easy decision today and leave the tricky action stuff until tomorrow.  (Economics does this all the time.  Why should we pay to stop climate change, when future generations will be much richer than us and will be able to afford to clear up the mess much more easily than we can?)

The appeal to future generations is simply a way of shifting the responsibility.  It’s not our problem, it’s theirs.  It lets us off the hook.

So, what sort of reason would be enough?

One sort of answer would be, pace Cameron, that it’s ‘the right thing to do’.  This is obviously inadequate.  Cameron’s automated utterance, crafted as it has been by that recently knighted Sly Bony Corn, is utterly bereft of content and is in reality an opportunity to repeat the word ‘right’ so as to subliminally reassure the relevant political wing.  (It also, heinously, traduces Spike Lee’sDo the Right Thing’.)  The notion of ‘right’ is entirely subjective, possibly even arbitrary.  My definition of right might well include eating thousands of burgers and throwing many tonnes of cardboard on the planet’s funeral pyre.

The subjectivity issue here is, of course, the very stuff of ethics, about which a very great deal has been written and only a small fraction of which has ever been read.  I am in no position to summarise even the vanishingly small portion of that small fraction with which I am familiar, so will hazard instead some possible one-liners:

The golden rule – we could rely on the maxim that we should treat others as we ourselves expect to be treated.  This is obviously classy in general terms, but I don’t immediately see the connection to an empty bag of chips; and when I think about it for a bit longer, I can’t be sure that a future burger eater will mind that much about throwing away an empty chip bag, so probably won’t mind if I do either.

Kant’s categorical imperative – which states: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”, and is again a classy formulation, and would certainly act as a motivation if you understood it, but I’m not convinced the average Steers customer would be too impressed if they discovered it written on the back of the packet.

The Allen Carr model – who, in his classic “The Easy Way to Give Up Smoking” framed smoking as self-evidently bad by posing the question: would you wish it for your children?  It borders on being a universal test: if a behaviour you’re thinking of is one you hope your children would never do, then it’s bad; if it’s something you’d be proud of your children doing, then it’s good.  The weakness, again, is the peril of subjectivity: you and I might be ashamed if our children threw their empty chip packets to the floor, but there may be others who simply don’t give a monkeys.

I wonder, then, if the answer lies in something more cunningly social, of the form:

Is it civilised?

We perhaps don’t have to worry too much about exactly what is meant by ‘civilised’ and can actually exploit the vagueness: the civilised thing to do is clearly that behaviour which respects the fact that we are civilised people living in a civilisation. We don’t have to worry too much about the children or the future, or how my individual action relates to the individual actions of others: throwing an empty packet of chips on the floor is clearly not very civilised. Don’t do it.

Even this formulation is flawed, however.  Is driving a car civilised or uncivilised?  Travelling on an aeroplane?

Maybe we should simply let Cameron and Lee slug it out:

It’s only the right thing to do if you actually do the right thing.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The show's not uber til the fat lady sings

I don't know when they disappeared but, once upon a time and surely not that long ago, each London bus sported upon its right butt cheek a simple injunction: Please let the bus out. I was fond of the message, yet also disappointed: it was a clear and simple request, but painfully obvious, too: who needs to be reminded that the bus should be let out?

Presumably an incredibly detailed and expensive evaluation came to this conclusion - that London's road users were indeed aware that they should let the bus out, and that going to the extraordinary lengths of stencilling a short message on the right butt cheek of every London bus did not represent value for money and/or deliver the appropriate return on investment.

(An alternative explanation is suggested by the subsequent appearance on the left butt cheek of every London bus the warning to cyclists that attempting to pass the bus on its left hand side was a potentially lethal activity since - the message says - the bus 'stops frequently', it presumably being the case that London's road users would be profoundly disoriented if they had somehow to pay attention to two omnibusular butts simultaneously and that, all things considered, preserving the lives of the astonishingly stupid cyclists who think they can muscle their way along the inside of a twenty ton metal object is more important than supporting the smooth flow of the daily journeys of millions of Londoners.)

It is my observation, however, being variously a driver, cyclist and pedestrian on London's roads these past twenty five years that the disappearance of the LetMeOut butt sign has coincided with a marked deterioration in the quality, safety, efficiency and politeness of road use in our capital.


Visitors and other new arrivals to London often conclude that Londoners are an impolite and unfriendly bunch.  This seems to reflect their initial experience of the density and intensity of London folk as they go about their business - so many people! Moving so quickly! Through such small spaces!

All of us who choose to stay, however, soon discover that Londoners are merely intent upon their business and assume that everyone else is, too.  They ignore you, in what appears to be an unfriendly fashion, until you need some help - at which point Londoners are remarkably supportive.  As a road user, particularly a car driver, this manifests itself in a very striking fashion: when joining a main road from a side road, particularly when traffic on the main road is moving slowly (as, of course, it usually does), the Londoner will allow their fellow Londoner to fold into the traffic.  This behaviour is not some highly infrequent occurrence which brings a warm glow of surprise at the residual civility of humanity; it is, in London, normal.  (That is not to say it happens all the time, of course; but every time I find myself driving in some other part of the country I am shocked to discover how needlessly discourteous the majority of road users are in these kinds of situations, or how, when I fold into the traffic, London-style, they become enraged that they are now some 6 or 7 metres less further forward than they would otherwise have been.)

Or so it was for many years.  Most recently I have noticed a marked increase in whole range of dis-civilised road behaviour in London: jumping red lights, sneaking along bus lanes, artificially creating an additional lane so as to gain some minor positional advantage, not allowing fellow road users to fold into the traffic, not allowing pedestrians to cross the road - and, for sure, not allowing the bus to pull out.

All the fault of a bare bus butt?

Of course not.  Tis a mere coincidence.  There is a much more obvious answer: London is now a much more crowded place than it used to be, its population having soared over the past decade or so, and the attempt to squeeze more road users into the same finite space inevitably increases the pressure, and thus the tension, and thus the 'bad' behaviour.

Except that this, too, is not enough.  The real culprit is the increased number of minicabs in London.  Their number has risen by more than 50% in the past decade, and by more than a quarter in just the past couple of Uber-years.  Unlike a black cab, which charges a fare based on a combination of distance and time, a minicab charges a fee based only upon the distance it travels. To make money, a minicab driver must make each journey in the shortest time possible, so as to be free as soon as possible to get the next fare.  The only way to make a journey of a fixed length shorter is to attempt to drive more quickly - which, in London, means driving more aggressively.

The price competition accelerated so dramatically by Uber (friends that have used the service report fares that I can scarcely believe) reinforces this trend significantly: with less money per customer, the minicab driver needs to make even more journeys to generate a worthwhile income, so is impelled to drive even more quickly, even more aggressively, even more dangerously.

These vehicles are always on the road, of course, so very visibly 'set the tone', changing the descriptive norms that govern the behaviour of all the other road users, thereby dragging down the whole system.

I predict, on this basis, that there will be an increase in accidents, road-rage incidents and collisions between road users; that a rise in road traffic injuries is already underway (the stats always lag reality) and will worsen over the coming months and years; and that one of London's key strengths (often omitted from the strategies and policy documents), namely its deep capacity for conviviality, is under threat.

It is one of the wonders of complexity that overall system conditions are invariably dependent on just a handful of key elements within the system; and that, just as typically, one or some or even all of these elements can be very small relative to the overall size of the system.  Could it really be that Uber jeopardises not merely the livelihood of our black cab drivers, but the entirety of London's culture?

Legal challenges having failed, it seems unlikely that Uber's free-market methods will be restricted to any significant degree anytime soon.  I propose, instead, that we go back to the bottom and start from there: the right butt cheek of all Uber vehicles and all minicabs should be obliged to sport the message:

but I earn less than
the minimum wage

On drawing the line - twice

Part One

As the vehicle breaches the dotted white line, and the beeping continues to insist, and as the dumb green man entices one way and the great red beam commands the other, it is clear: the driver has jumped the lights.

And if at that moment the vehicle collides with the pedestrian, it is clear too: the driver has transgressed and is very clearly responsible.  We can only hope that the pedestrian's injuries are not too severe.

A second pedestrian replaces the first; but this new pedestrian has chosen to cross the road not directly at the crossing but in its shadow, three or four metres further along.  No matter.  The vehicle is moving at such a speed that it still strikes the pedestrian, and it is yet again clear that the driver is to blame for any injuries, mild though we hope they are.

Five minutes later, with both the first and second pedestrian never having been struck, the vehicle is close to a mile from the crossing when, as it turns left onto a side road, it strikes a third pedestrian.  Initially there is some confusion, because the driver had been clearly indicating (there are witnesses) and was not speeding (as indicated subsequently by the length of the tyre marks on the road) and it was thus assumed that the collision was the fault of the pedestrian, who had stepped into the road without looking (concentrating, instead, on the small screen in their hand).

Only later was it discovered that the driver had a few minutes earlier jumped a red light and was thus, in fact, responsible, since if he or she had not done so then they would, clearly, not have been turning left at the time required to collide with this particular pedestrian.

* * *

Except, of course, it really was the third pedestrian's fault.

So it becomes necessary to arrange for several dozen, possibly several hundred pedestrians, each positioned at a small regular interval from one another, stretching from the site of the original transgression to a distance of, well, let's say a mile for argument's sake.

It is clear - is it not? - that the pedestrians positioned 1 and 2 and 3 metres from the crossing could, should they be struck by the vehicle, quite rightly claim that the collision was the fault of the driver, who had just jumped a red light at a pedestrian crossing.  It seems clear, too, that the pedestrians positioned a mile away could not make such a claim, even though the collision would not have occurred had the driver not committed the transgression in question.

Which means that somewhere, between here and there, there is a line, to one side of which is a blameless pedestrian, and to the other of which is a guilty pedestrian.

Part Two

"So you wouldn't work for a tobacco company?"


"Or an arms manufacturer?"

"Definitely not."

"Or an oil company."


"What about an accountancy firm?"

"That sounds ok."

"What if they do the accounts for an oil company?  Or an arms firm?"


"Would you work for a private equity business."

"Definitely not.  Evil capitalist bastards."

"What if they invest in potentially life-saving drugs?"


"Would you work for a charity?"


"What if they provide community development support to people in a developing country who work for a tobacco company?"


"Would you work for government?"

"Yes, definitely."

"What if their money comes from the taxes paid by arms manufacturers, private equity firms, oil companies, exploitative pharmaceutical conglomerates, rapacious retail giants and devious vehicle manufacturers?"

"Well that would obviously depend on whether the vehicles struck the pedestrians close to or some distance away from the official crossing."

"You mean it just depends on where you draw the line."


A slightly more abstract poem than usual

Both of Me are One

I have
an identity
It is
Everyone else has one too
but mine is unique


The twins
each have an identity
and also
they are identical

But their identities
are not identical


The identical twins
cannot be identical
because even if two things
are exactly the same as one another
one of them is 'the one'
and the other is 
'the other'

So they are different


The only thing that can be identical to a thing
is the thing itself
and the thing that the thing has 
to which it is identical
is its identity


I have an identity
It is mine
And it is identical
to me.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Seventy one murdered

The bastards said we'd soon be free
     while fire fell from the sky
I cower and imagine how
     I'll watch my children die
With rescue gone the time has come
     to take the risk and fly:
A man explains the fare

Beneath the furtive night it seems
     the price may be too high
The journey's blurring hours stretch
     this agonised goodbye
Until a bolting door explains
     the driver's frozen lie:
There is insufficient air

On Thursday you were late again
     you had no reason why
You moaned about a colleague and
     the weather made you sigh
You drifted through the motes until
     the splinter beamed your eye:
The grace that has you here,
                           not there

Saturday, 11 July 2015

I wandered lonely in Bromley by Bow

They don’t look like they used to
do they? he said
gesturing at the sky
and gazing at cloud

I wondered how far
his mind was cast

I drew one once
I said
when I was stuck in a traffic jam;
it didn’t look
like a cloud

Just like trees
we agreed

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

On leadership

As the vanquished political parties seek new leaders; and the 'winner' (which is to say, in the current climate, the party that did not lose) presents evidence on a daily basis of having no notion of a 'vision' or a 'theory' or an 'organising principle' of any kind (merely, ahem, a 'long term economic plan', the contents of which are secret); I find myself wondering:-

What would persuade me I had just seen
a leader worthy of the times?

And, rather more quickly than I had anticipated, I found an answer in the cross-hairs of two insights:

"All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership." [my emphasis]
John Kenneth Galbraith, 'The Age of Uncertainty', Andre Deutsch (1977)

"We have, in my view, reached a position which is potentially of great historical significance. We are witnessing a decline in confidence, and sometimes a growing mistrust, not only in political processes and politicians, but in social institutions such as the media and journalism, the police and religious organisations. Inequality is rising on many crucial dimensions. We have, for many, a confusion or anxiety around moral or social values, and community or individual identity. In my own subject of economics, we have less confidence in our ability to understand processes of growth, employment and change. We must seek growth that is sustainable in relation to our natural environment. And these difficulties are not confined to our own country; they are reflected in many societies, rich and poor, around the world. These difficulties affect us all, from young people looking for work, to older people worried about the future of their healthcare."
Lord Stern of Brentford, 'Prospering Wisely', British Academy (2014) 
[my emphasis]

I was fortunate enough about a year ago to hear Lord Stern talking about his work on 'Prospering Wisely'.  His summation centred on 'anxiety', that most corrosive state of being, gnawing away as we wonder where the money will come from, who will care for us when we are old, whether we will ever be able to have our own home, if the fighting will ever stop...  And it stretches, he suggested, to a planetary level: how do we acknowledge and access and then address our anxiety about the planet - the only one we have, the one that we seem hellbent on poisoning?

Anxiety.  The spirit of the age.

A leader - the one who can confront that anxiety, who can name it for us, who can stare at it with unflinching gaze.  Who can help us to work out what to do.

I can barely imagine such a person emerging from the current panorama of politicians.  There are, to be sure, some wonderful, even inspirational individuals among them; and though I subscribe to the proposition that politicians are coming from an ever narrower subset of the population (and may even be members of a 'chumocracy'), I am in general admiring of politicians: most of those I've actually met really are trying to make the world a better place.

And I have a suspicion that, should a leader of the kind I am describing ever appear before the great British public, he or she would be forgiven a great deal in return for understanding our anxiety.  Perhaps they wouldn't be quite as televisual, or as erudite, or as processed or as sound-bitten as those we've become used to: perhaps their 'back story' would contain themes and sub-plots currently considered untenable; but they would speak and move and operate with an authenticity that would simply overwhelm such minutiae.

It's a fantasy, of course.  A vain plea.  A Utopian cry in the wilderness from one who is far from having even to consider whether to take the extraordinary risk of putting one's head above the parapet...

Or maybe I'm just getting old.

Or anxious.