Monday, 7 November 2011

Enough with the violence already

So much going on: the world economy struggling, the European project in jeopardy, the UK experiencing cuts, unemployment and inflation. OccupyEverywhere in cities around the world, Greek politics demonstrating the full complexities of democracy, events in the Middle East and North Africa sending ripples of unfathomable consequence around the globe. What to think? What to say?

Somehow the threat of disorder both lurks and looms, above and beneath and around. The OECD and the ILO warn of “
social unrest”; the protests in Italy and Spain spawn flame and violence; the British riots of the summer, recreational though they may have been, had a weirdly similar underpinning: there’s stuff that people want – money, jobs, shoes – and the people are angry. If they can’t get what they want, and if the people in positions of leadership seem unable to explain, then elemental forces move from simmer to boil.

The state will respond, as it always does. Bring out the water cannon! Bring out the plastic bullets! Bring out the tanks, the machine guns! Choose your country, choose your weapons. Think of Syria and, as Bon Geldof and Midge Ure once put it: “Tonight, thank god it’s them instead of you.”

The propensity of a state to resort to violence is an enormously complex issue: history, culture, economics, leadership, politics, all are in play. The ability of a state to perpetrate violence upon its citizens, on the other hand, is a little less complex: it can only be done if the state has the necessary resources. If you are really intent on suppressing a belligerent populace, you will need guns, ammunition, vehicles, aeroplanes and so forth. Someone, somewhere, will need to have made these things and sold them to you.

How do I feel about the fact that the UK is one of the
world’s leading producers of military hardware, with a track record of having sold such hardware to some of the world’s most unpleasant regimes, regimes with little or no regard for democracy, civil rights or basic human dignity?

I found out how I feel when I had the privilege of hearing Will Self’s
recent broadcast about the arms trade on Radio 4. In ten minutes, and without descending into his occasional trap of vocabularian excess, Self blended argument, fact and anecdote with moral outrage to produce a truly compelling case: this is not something a genuinely civilised country should be doing.

This struck me as relevant to Enough in two powerful ways. First, a genuinely sustainable economy is not merely one that delivers human well-being within environmental limits. It is also an economy in which ethical considerations are a central and integrated component. A sustainable economy is not an economy that depends on the production of materiel for use in the violent suppression of citizens. Anywhere.

Second, the resolution of this situation is an illustration of the adaptive, evolutionary principles that characterise the operation of the social construct called ‘an economy’. We cannot simply wave a magic wand and make it go away. But we can change the fitness landscape and accelerate its withering. We need to say: from April 2020, Britain will no longer export weapons. Period. Not ‘no longer export weapons to evil regimes’ or somesuch; but ‘no longer export weapons’.

The precision of the date, and its distance, are important. We draw a very firm line in the sand, and stand back. The adaptive forces will do their work. BAE Systems? Invent a new widget. Switch to the manufacture of machine tools. Start making high-tech health equipment. Whatever. I don’t mind. But you’ve got a decade. Get your R&D bods on the case, right now. If you’re really as world class and fabulous as you say you are, you should be able to do that.

There’s some details we’d need to sort out, of course: maybe some tax breaks for non-military R&D for a few years, maybe some collaboration on the modification of apprenticeships, that sort of thing, but the big picture is simple, and it applies in the case of any transformative effort that a government might wish to take.

We’ve done it before, after all: clean air, lead in petrol, that sort of thing. Set the rules for the new landscape, provide a long enough horizon, and let creative, adaptive forces do their thing.

No weapons. Imagine how good it would feel to know that we were making the world a better place.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

No one wants a Great Depression - but what do we want instead?

Interesting juxtaposition on the Letters page of today’s Grauniad. In the ‘Response’ column, Baroness Jenny Tonge writes, in the course of an article on family planning, “Yes, of course, the developed world should reduce its consumption…”; while, above, sundry letters debate whether QE2 will or will not forge a return to economic growth, and what catastrophes await us as this ‘worst ever economic crisis’ unfolds around us.

On the one hand, the casual “Yes of course”: the planet is finite, its resources are finite, the distribution of those finite resources is profoundly unjust, yes of course the developed world needs to reduce its consumption otherwise we’re… stuffed.

On the other, ohmigod, the Euro and the banks and the Great Depression and cuts and GDP and inflation, bloody hell will someone please just sort this out?

And then, on the previous page,
Monbiot quoting Steve Keen explaining that it’s all caused by excessive debt and we need, really, to rethink the whole ball game at a much deeper level, with the help of folk such as Daly and Jackson.

Yup. We wasted what appeared to be the first crisis: and we’ll probably waste this one, too; but the model is collapsing around us and the crises will lurch from one trough to another for the next few years and at some point we are going to have to say: Enough. We need to have a really good think about
what an economy is for; what do we really want it to do, and not do, for us? And, having answered that, then we need to design a new one. Not some sticking-plastered capitalism, but something purpose-built for the 21st century, something grown up, not something adolescent.

Opening gambit: if the economy we have at present was a person presenting at a GP, what would the GP say?

Gambit #2: if the economy had the following character traits, would we admire it? Zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity…

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Monkeying around

I had the opportunity recently to spend a little while in the company of a marmoset.

A bit like this one:

He was cute, he ran around and up and down and generally behaved the way you’d expect a small primate to behave.

After a few moments in his company, and while the marmoset was still looking at me, I changed my position slightly and inadvertently moved my face briefly behind a vertical wooden strut. As my eyes emerged from the other side of the strut, the monkey had not merely moved his gaze to where I would appear, but had tilted his head slightly in the direction I had moved.

Intrigued, I ducked back behind the pole, and then ducked back in the direction from which I had just come. The monkey played along: he’d expected me one way, and I emerged the other, so both his gaze and his head jumped quickly to my new position.

Then the monkey ducked behind a tree trunk. And re-emerged, looking at me.

For the next five minutes, me’n’the marmoset played the game of
peek-a-boo. We used several different vertical blockages – the posts at the corner of his cage, the tree trunks inside his cage – but always with the same objective: to catch the other one out, and have fun.

Parents play this game with their infant children almost instinctively. If you have never had the pleasure, I heartily recommend it. It is a marvellous way to engage with a child who is 3 or 6 or 9 months old.

But with a monkey?

As the link above shows, the game is a key indicator of cognitive development. It is not possible to play this game with a fish. Or a dog, or a cat.

But with a monkey?

It begs big and fascinating questions. What is a game? Was the monkey really playing, or did it just seem that way? If a creature ‘seems’ to be playing, how would we know that it isn’t? Is ‘play’ some sort of universal indicator? Think of the way you can play with a cat or a dog; and think of how much effort we humans put into ‘play’; and think of the enormous range and varying complexity of games. Is peek-a-boo just simple chess?

And if play and cognitive development follow some sort of hierarchical pattern, why not other aspects of ‘the human condition’? Frans de Waal’s
work seems to show that morality and ethics – concepts supposed by many to be uniquely human and possible divine in origin – are evident among primates and are, in humans, merely more thoroughly evolved.

We are just monkeys with sophisticated communication skills. Maybe if we just came to terms with that a little more, we’d learn to relax a little.

PS Incidentally, the link to peek-a-boo cites Piaget, but – in my view – gives an incomplete account of the game. In my experience, there is an important feedback loop between the older player (i.e. the adult) and the younger player (i.e. the infant), in which a variety of responses (head movements, laughter, agitated hand movements and so forth) act as clues to each player. The game is, after all, being made up as the players go along, without a rule book or words; to play the game requires co-operative behaviour at a more intuitive, unprocessed level.

Also important is the fact that the two players are in intense eye contact. Indeed, it is the breaking and re-making of eye contact that lies at the heart of the game. The ‘object relations’ experiment described on the wiki link does not include this vital element, so does not comprise an accurate representation of the game. Piaget may be right to say that an infant has to have reached eight or nine months of age to play his version of the game; but I’ve certainly played it ‘properly’ with much younger babies.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Not William Burroughs

Inspired by Burrough's 'cut up' technique, I once spent a summer collecting snippets of overheard conversation - fragments from the street, the tube, the bus. I arranged them as lines of dialogue in a play, speculating that serendipity or somesuch would reveal the hidden meaning that must somehow be inherent to the fact that these snippets had been heard by this person in pursuit of this project.

Sadly, and inevitably, it was gibberish. Fun to make, for sure, but beyond, there was nothing.

Individual snippets, on the other hand, can sometimes do great work (Dennett uses the phrase 'intuition pump'). This morning's happened as the couple approaching me on the pavement were briefly intercepted by the hapless and enthusiastic youth from WWF seeking to recruit them to the cause of 'Save the Tiger'. Having rebuffed his entreaty, and as the couple passed me, the one said to the other:

"I'll do well to save myself never mind the bloody tiger..."

Friday, 8 April 2011


The taxi driver seemed intent on describing recent accidents, occasions on which he had witnessed or narrowly avoided those hideous illustrations of the true relationship between high speed metal and wilderness flesh. This is no yin and yang duality, I told him, this is the material representation of the necessary tensions that underlie existence. Great forces are at work, tumult is ever-present, any thought you have of harmonious stability is either an illusion or a fleeting instant of inflexion. You think you are safe in your mobile living room - but at any moment your business may collapse, your loved ones may die, your life's work may crumble. The other driver may finally experience a lifestyle-induced coronary and the oncoming vehicle may veer wildly into your path.

He acknowledged the terrible power of war and tsunamis, of capitalist exploitation and communist control, of globe-spanning mega-corporations and media conglomerates. He did not gainsay the fragility of existence, the convulsions that befall us. The human condition, he noted, was not subject to any contractual clauses exempting us from the standard operating procedures that applied to the rest of the universe.

We both thought of the large Hadron collider - we were, after all, on the ring road - and we remembered our friend S. Had she not told us about the Higgs Boson? The Higgs Boson is the particle that is supposed to give things mass, I reminded him. It's the thing that makes matter matter. There must be some psychological analogue, she'd said. There's something that makes the things we do matter, some ethereal essence attached to each act and thought that is the reason why the things we do matter.

We pondered those images produced when particles collide, when the impossible arcs and tangents spiral for a billionth of a second, when the deep strangeness is fleetingly exposed, and we wondered - it is only through collision that the truth is exposed? Was Ballard right all along? It is only when we crash that we find out what really matters? Who we really are?

You can drop me off here, I told him. The ground seemed solid as I stepped from the cab, but I couldn't be sure.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Common People

On the front page of today's Guardian, under the heading "The human cost of the cuts", Amelia Gentleman writes:

"[The disappearance of these services] may not be noticed by anyone with a good income, in secure employment, in sound health, without caring responsibilities... [but] for the more vulnerable, the decision to close these bodies and cut these jobs will be sharply felt... Women, parents, carers, disabled poeple, teenagers and elderly people are likely to be most affected... From a Westminster perspective these may be easy to ignore... Viewed from Downing Street, they probably seem a fractured collection of regrettable but relatively insignificant services.."

And at the same moment, the iPod's shuffle chooses Common People from Pulp:

"Rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job.
Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you never went to school.
But still you'll never get it right
'cos when you're laid in bed at night, watching roaches climb the wall
If you call your Dad he could stop it all.
You'll never live like common people
You'll never do what common people do
You'll never fail like common people
You'll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw
Because there's nothing else to do"

And I am fiercely reminded of the crushing inability of those that have been limousined through life to genuinely comprehend the consequences of their decisions for those that did not share their good fortune.

More Borges

So I was following protocols on the tube the other day, numbly adhering to the social norms by staring vaguely in no direction in particular, when I glanced at the newspaper to my right. This, too, is a social norm when travelling on the London Underground: you are allowed to take a brief look at the reading material of your near neighbours, but it is considered inappropriate to too conspicuously begin reading.

An article on cricket caught my eye - I have been following the ongoing cricket world cup - and I lingered for a fraction.

The newspaper was dated 27th December 2010. The man on the tube next to me was reading the sports section from The Times dated 27th December 2010.

And he wasn't poring over it as if it was a special process, as perhaps one might suppose if he was doing some background research, or was searching for a particular piece having that morning vaguely recalled something he wanted to revisit. He was simply reading the sports pages of his newspaper, casually turning the pages, pausing here and there when something caught his attention.

I double checked: was it really the 24th of March? Maybe I'd imagined the last three months?

Perhaps he was mad. Perhaps he really thought it was the 27th of December. Perhaps he has built up a bit of a backlog, and doesn't yet know we're bombing Libya. I'm worried for him: he can't possibly catch up, the backlog can only get worse, he can only fall further and further behind. This time next year it'll only be May 2011.

Perhaps he's a Situationist, deliberately reading a paper from the past in order to sow mild confusion, a prick against the comfortably numb.

Perhaps he's a character from a Borges short story, for whom time is passing at a different rate from the rest of us, a character who is progressively slowing down until he comes to complete halt.

Perhaps he has just had enough and wants to get off.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Definitely not a prose poem by Baudelaire

When I wanted to buy stuff, I used to think nothing of undertaking a journey to the shops. It's where they store the stuff.

When I'd had enough of the stuff, I'd think nothing of leaving it outside my door in the belief that someone would take it away. And usually they did.

Increasingly, of course, I cannot even be bothered to travel to the shops, so I tell my computer to summon things and they arrive: books, food, electrical goods.

And when I've had enough of them, I put them in bags and boxes outside my home and someone still takes them away.

Soon I shall be the character in Michael Frayn's 1968 classic "A Very Private Life".

* * *

How many rules am I willing to tolerate?

Does it matter how obvious to me they are?

* * *

I shall not be writing the book entitled "Deshopping Society". I shall not be writing it because it is so obviously a riff on the work of a genius ("Deschooling Society", Ivan Illich, 1973) and because Jorge Luis Borges, in "Pierre Maynard, author of the Quixote" (1939), has already established the folly of trying to write something that has already been written.

* * *

If thinking in systems: beware!
The leverage points are so rare
that the obvious ploys
may be just random noise
and your insight may just be thin air

Friday, 4 March 2011

Enough of the enoughness

Mixed emotions this week as I finally face up to the fact that 'The Economics of Enough' is hitting the bookshelves in the UK.

Positive emotions because it's great to see the concept in solid paper format, available for all and sundry to read; negative emotions because the author of said tome is not my good self but someone else.

It's my own silly fault, of course. I spent five years telling everyone I was working on a book called 'The Economics of Enough'; I spent bloody ages actually drafting the thing; and I had an agent in 2009 who gaily took the title to the Frankfurt bookfair where it begin a life of its own. Who could blame the publisher who heard the great title, but also heard that the text itself was too long and that the author was someone no-one had ever heard of? A much better idea, surely, to publish something by an established and capable author.

So, well done
Diane Coyle. The reviews are coming in and they look solid; the lecture tour is underway and as a Fellow of the RSA I'm even part-funding it. It's a great idea, and I genuinely hope it's successful. It is, in the end, the ideas that matter, not the egos.

I, meanwhile, have to re-think a little. It seems that the Diane Coyle Enough and my Enough, whilst both looking at the future of economics, take different perspectives and cover different ground, so there may still be some room for the things I wanted to say. It looks, too, like I may finally have found someone to publish the thing - only now it's going to need to be called something else.

We'll see what emerges.

Friday, 21 January 2011

What is this life if full of care?

On Monday I spoke at a conference organised by a coalition of community groups that is working to tackle climate change. There are three main reasons why I think their work is important.

Firstly, there is a growing body of evidence to show that one of the most important determinants of individual behaviour is the behaviour of others. Humans are social animals and, whether consciously or not, we are powerfully impelled to ‘fit in’ with those around us. The rules of how to fit in – the ‘social norms’ – are co-determined, co-evolving phenomena, shaped and affected by a variety of influences. If active and enthusiast people ‘set the tone’ by galvanising community groups to raise awareness about climate change, to show what can be done to tackle it, this has the potential to play a powerful role in shaping social norms. As social norms change, the ‘rules’ of belonging, of what it means to be a citizen, to be a member of a community, inevitably and subtly influence everyone. Once upon a time it was completely normal to drive a car whilst drunk; in the future, those responsible for carbon-reckless behaviour will be an ostracised minority.

The second reason they’re important is because of their potential to collaborate. In ‘The Economics of Enough’ I talk at some length about the evolution of institutions, and how the interaction between different institutions, and the way they co-evolve with respect to one another, is conducted on a ‘fitness landscape’. I also spend quite a bit of time discussing how this ‘fitness landscape’ is disproportionately shaped by some institutions rather than others: in short, more powerful entities are able to shape the landscape to suit their own ends, frequently at the expense of other, smaller, less powerful entities.

For too long, an ‘organised citizenry’ has been in retreat, seduced by the shiny trinkets of capitalism into a world of solipsistic individualism. Bigger beasts – big governments, big corporations – have been in charge, and have shaped the landscape to suit their own objectives. Mass movements – trade unions, political parties – have been shrinking remorselessly, and their replacements have been single-issue entities (dealing with birds or trees or whales or whatever) that seem not to engage with ‘the bigger picture’ and/or are unwilling to promote ‘mobilisation’ among their supporters.

A coalition of community groups, joining across the country, sharing practice, building capacity, making things happen, is not merely positive in and of itself (because it will mean improved efforts to tackle climate change in each and every community); it has the potential to constitute a rebalancing of power relations in a bigger sense. At present, atomised, each community can in effect be ‘picked off’, whether by an energy company or a local authority or a big corporate entity. (Even the allocation of grants by governments or charitable trusts can, indirectly, have this effect, by endorsing this ‘winner’ and marginalising or excluding that ‘loser’.) If part of a wider group, if able to act in concert with others, the ability to challenge established power, to shape the overall fitness landscape, is dramatically enhanced.

And the third reason I think it’s important is because I am less and less persuaded that the established machinery – of European institutions, of UK government, even of parliamentary democracy – is going to be able to drive the kinds of changes that we’ll need either to mitigate or adapt to climate change. The failure of global climate talks, the flimsy impacts of the Emissions Trading Scheme and the limp talk of ‘transforming to a low carbon economy’ illustrate the problem. The UK may have the world’s first ‘legally enforceable’ climate change legislation, but our politicians are simply unable or unwilling to talk to us about what it might really mean, or what we’re really going to have to change.

It’s a bit tricky for them, I acknowledge: tell people that you’re hoping will vote for you that, once in power, you’ll increase the price of energy, petrol, waste disposal, food, in fact more or less everything so as to save the planet in a hundred years’ time; or explain to them that they’ll have to fly less, drive less, earn less, buy less; either way, they’re unlikely to vote for you. (Turkeys, Christmas, you get the gist.) Or even invert it, and try to tell the positive story – a low carbon lifestyle could mean less work, longer holidays, less stress, a healthier planet, a slower pace of life – and they’d be treated as naïve romantics and similarly unworthy of your vote.

Bluntly, the short term nature of the democratic cycle is at odds, in a world of myopic animals, with the long run nature of the problem. (The collective failure, in all the world’s developed economies, to tackle the developing pensions crisis, is another illustration of the same defect.)

So we can’t leave it to the politicians, which means we’re just going to have to get on with it ourselves. And that means collective action, mass mobilisation and effective and committed coalitions.

So when invited to speak on ‘Trust, engagement and behaviour change’ I was delighted to accept.

During the workshop that followed my talk, there was some discussion around a challenge I’d issued to the audience, reflecting the arguments I’ve just set out. I wondered:

Would it be better to try to increase the number of members of each of the ‘climate change’ groups that the individuals in the room represented? Or would it be better to attempt to persuade other – potentially larger and/or more influential groups – to incorporate climate change into their existing raison d’être?

For each individual community climate change group, obviously, the answer is: recruit more members to our group. (It’s the same with all organisations – they all want to persist into the future. It’s very hard, and very rare, for an organisation to one day say to itself: that’s it, our work is done, we should stop now; and even harder, and even rarer, for an organisation to say – d’you know what, we’re the wrong organisation, this kind of thing should be done by someone else, it’s time for us to disband.)

But from the bigger perspective, at the aggregate level, that might not be right.

One audience member expressed the view that attempting to recruit people to the ‘climate change’ cause was, in the end, just not the right thing. There is too much ‘denialism’, too much passive resistance; there are too many handy reasons why perfectly ordinary, nice people, who almost certainly don’t want their children’s children to have to live on an overcooked planet, can find a way to postpone or prevaricate or otherwise avoid doing anything dramatic about climate change. (For a brilliant insight into this phenomenon, see the October 2010 essay from Clive Hamilton, ‘Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change: A paper to the Climate Controversies: Science and politics conference’.) Instead, my interlocutor argued, we need to find a different way to engage people in a ‘movement’, we need to find a new kind of argument to bring people on board, an argument, or a concept, or a word that enables people to get to the climate change implications, but which works and appeals on a broader or deeper level.

She suggested ‘love’.

From up on the panel I had the opportunity to respond to this suggestion; and – in principle – I think she’s right, so I said so. I think that we do indeed need a ‘bigger’ concept than climate change, a concept that enables people to consider their own lives, their family, their community, their job, their world, as well as the rest of humanity and the planet and all the really big stuff. If tackling climate change can be shown to be a perfectly reasonable and ordinary part of living by this bigger concept, it becomes altogether easier. Rather than being a shock, a block, a threat, a low-carbon life becomes an organic expression of some other idea.

But I think that idea is not ‘love’ (which I just think is too difficult a word to use in this kind of discourse). I think that the word should be ‘care’. I think that ‘care’ is a word with overwhelmingly positive connotations, applicable in virtually every setting: to care for one’s family, to care for one’s self, to care about the job you do, to care about an issue, to care about and to care for the planet.

Do you care? Of course you do. What are the things you care about? Well, this, and this, and this. That’s great. Look, the way you care about those things is the same as the way I care about this, and this, and this. How about stretching a little – you already care about this, why not care about this, too? It’s a natural extension of something you already do, something that you know is good: you already know – everyone already knows – how much better it feels to do something you care about than to do something you don’t care about. It might take a little time, but on the basis of a ‘care ethic’ saving the planet is no different from stuff you already do.

If we had to, we could even reverse engineer it into an acronym: how about Community Action to Reach Enough?