What keeps me awake at night

posted by Kaihsu Tai on January 4th, 2006

We are pretty rubbish as a species. We are not very good at passing on our genes or our bits (digital information). The longest-living legacy of ours is likely to be our crap, in the form of radioactive waste.

We scatter a few mebioctets of information here and there in the universe beyond our planet, but that is not a very good archival system when our species produces about zebioctets per year nowadays. It would be good if a few pieces of paper in the desert and some stone carving survive our waste, but that looks unlikely, and if at all, it would be a boring atomic-‘heritage’ manuals (which is not the worst case scenario actually … but not as ‘interesting’ as, say, Dante Alighieri). It looks like we are about to destroy the planet, with either carbon dioxide (or methane?) or uranium-235 (or plutonium-239 or hydrogen?), or we are simply going to run out of energy and have a large fraction of us too stupid to cope (I am trying to get out of this category).

It appears that the most likely people (of the Homo sapiens species — what else?) to survive are of three categories: One, the transhumanist extropians: people who are either trying to preserve themselves — or rather, their (near-)dead bodies — in cryogenic suites (but who are going to keep them plugged in when our energy runs out?); or those who are planning to colonize the Moon and Mars. (Bob Marley: ‘You see men sailing on their ego trips / Blast off on their space ship / Million miles from reality / No care for you, no care for me.’ So much trouble in the world) Two, Christian Identity nutters (this noun probably applies to the first category as well) in Montana or elsewhere. Both of the first two categories conjure up mental images of white males. Come on, as you read the last two sentences, did you think of any woman actually thinking of doing these things? We are the first species we know of to produce Richard Dawkins and Jared Diamond, pedlars of ‘sin’ in the sense of the impossibility of human transcendence and the propensity of human beings to violence and/as imperfection, respectively. (I have to say that I have nearly infinitely more respect for the latter thinker.)

But the third category I have few mental images for, other than those of (what we now call) ‘the poor’ and of the hippies. These are resourceful people who are self-sufficient and resilient, who have not been absorbed into the globalized monetary economy. They are of all sorts, and more likely to emerge (!) from (what we now call) the global South. By the way, our species also produced Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy. And isn’t ‘all sorts’ the key word!

Clive Lord, in his book Citizen’s Income (ISBN 1-897766-87-4), had an interesting twist at the end: He said (in effect) that space exploration becomes a legitimate exercise once we learn how to live sustainably, within the bounds of a planet. (Did you expect that from a book on citizen’s income?) I agree. Rather than engineering ourselves to get out of this planet post-haste, we should first try to engineer ourselves to be able to stay in comfortably. Perhaps I should get my hands on a copy of Cottage Economy (1822; ISBN 0-9538325-0-3) by William Cobbett, and its current successor, Self-sufficiency (1973, 2002; ISBN 0751364428) by John and Sally Seymour; thanks to Paul Mobbs for these references in his book Energy Beyond Oil (ISBN 1905237006).

Kaihsu Tai, 2005-12-28 07:30

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  1. On January 12, 2006 at 20:13 Mike (Worcester) said:

    As for your third category, Dorothy Day wrote:

    The only way to live in any true security is to live so close to the bottom that when you fall you do not have far to drop, you do not have much to lose.

  2. On February 2, 2006 at 07:14 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    Beyond some marginally-surprising items from the 2006 State of the Union address, Nature reports today, inter alia, that

    Toshiba is set to purchase Westinghouse, the world’s largest builder of nuclear reactors, for about US$5 billion. The acquisition is the largest-ever foreign purchase by the Japanese consumer electronics group. And the purchase price is almost double what was anticipated when UK-based BNFL put the Pittsburgh company up for sale last year. This reflects growing expectations that the construction of nuclear power plants is about to see a revival worldwide after decades in the doldrums.

    And the Guardian has a piece by Robert Newman: It’s capitalism or a habitable planet – you can’t have both.

  3. On February 15, 2006 at 07:21 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    I have here a glossy leaflet about the James Martin Institute’s First World Forum on Science and Civilization, which will take place here in Oxford next month. The speakers include Hwang Woo-suk and Joel Garreau. The topics have a transhumanist extropian tendency. Further, a session topic which only appears on the printed leaflet but not on the website is “A fairer world: What are the implications for human inequality?”. This omission eerily fits the schema described by Kees van der Pijl in his recent paper “A Lockean Europe?” (New Left Review II/37) that “The economy, let alone social equality, is no longer on the democratic agenda.”

    And “year 1, issue 1” of Nudibranch: the biology magazine, a student publication here in Oxford, has an article titled “Organic food is the devil” by a certain “Lobar Ostrich”.

  4. On February 15, 2006 at 14:34 Adam (Southern California) said:

    One problem with rejecting capitalism is that if we reject the notion of a growing economy, then by necessity we are turning the economy into a zero-sum game. In other words, any gain by me is a loss for someone else, and class warfare is guaranteed. Certainly there is no guarantee under capitalism that a growing economy will benefit all, but there is at least the possibility that benefits to one group need not be balanced by a loss to another group.

    I don’t think there is necessarily a conflict with the environment here, either. Wealth and production can take many forms. Improved technologies and a knowledge or service-based economy can create more wealth than less advanced industrial production that damages the environment more.

  5. On March 13, 2006 at 05:43 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    Hi Adam, with due respect:

    On one hand, you avoid the logical necessity that there is a limit to the Earth’s resources; but on the other hand you allow too much leeway in the logical possibilities for capitalism. Classical Marxian analysis affords that capitalism results in capital accumulation. Inequality is not just a possible configuration of capitalism: it is the necessary result thereof.

    “Capitalism is like a bicycle. A bicycle tends to fall over if one ceases peddling; capitalism tends to collapse if it fails to grow.” (Derek Wall, Babylon and Beyond, page 108, ISBN 0-7453-2390-1)

    Another problem is: what are we measuring? You mentioned wealth and production, which I take to mean “gross domestic product per capita” or some such. That may well be a zero-sum game (or may not), but what if we measure “quality of life”, which may be more closely coupled to “happiness” than “GDP/capita”?

  6. On March 13, 2006 at 12:55 Adam (Southern California) said:

    It’s true that quality of life is not directly correlated with GDP/capita; it would be nice if someone developed a more robust, quantified measure of happiness/lack of want/etc.

    It is interesting to consider quality of life and how it has changed over time. Certainly I would not envy the life of the common worker in the early decades of industrialization, nor, for that matter, the back-breaking work of a farm laborer under any economic system. The growth and technological development we’ve seen under capitalism has largely shifted labor from requiring great physical exertion to being more knowledge- and service-based. That’s lessened the load for many but left some without good prospects.

    Materially, our middle class is sizable and even many poor Americans have their basic needs met. Bizarrely, though, many items once considered luxuries are commonplace for even those below the poverty level while basic needs like shelter or good, nutritious food may be lacking. Perhaps these luxuries are attempts to fill the spiritual gap left by the declining community spirit.

    More fundamentally, though, I don’t see how a centrally-planned economy can possibly foresee changing needs on the micro level or spark innovations except under very limited circumstances. Corporate mergers are bad enough under capitalism; the thought of all corporations merging into one government-run entity is a nightmare. Is it not better for people to have the freedom to direct their own destinies? Now, I am no laissez-faire capitalist; I can see than injustices and poverty can still happen under capitalist systems, but we can put reasonable constraints on businesses.

    “On one hand, you avoid the logical necessity that there is a limit to the Earth’s resources”. No, I addressed this; advanced technologies do not necessarily use more resources. There is less smog in Southern California today than when I was a child. Yes, much of this is due to government requirements for cleaner technologies, but that is precisely the sort of thing I’m talking about when I say “reasonable constraints on businesses.”

    Also, many Western European countries have birthrates below the replacement rate. There is no reason to believe that the world’s population will necessarily continue to expand. Paul Ehrlich has been proven to be wrong time and time again, and across the world birth rates are declining voluntarily.

  7. On March 13, 2006 at 16:33 Adam (Southern California) said:

    Furthermore, I should note that the empirical evidence does not favor countries with centrally-planned economies either in the environmental or social justice departments. Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain was an environmental mess even without Chernobyl, and the crimes of Stalin and Mao are well-documented elsewhere. More directly, one can compare nations split into communist and free-market halves. East Germany lagged far behind West Germany in living standards and environmental quality. South Korea has risen from poverty to prosperity while North Korea has descended into horrific totalitarianism.

    Command economies with strong dictators can count some victories; Cuba’s health system is the best in the Caribbean, if not all of Latin America, and Tito successfully kept polyglot Yugoslavia unified and peaceful outside of the Soviet sphere. Overall, though, the record of success under communism is not good. Yes, there is always the argument that communism has never been tried in its “true form,” but almost any philosophy is compromised when it meets the real world. Indeed, one could ask how a centrally-controlled economy could exist without a centrally-controlled government. You can’t tell a man what work he can do or how much of his property you’ll take without expecting him to want to have a say in the matter. Different people will have different needs and different opinions, and I believe letting these differences “sort themselves out” through the market is a better alternative than dictating by fiat.

    None of this is meant to excuse the abuses of capitalism, though. A growing, free economy gives more opportunities for people to rise up above their situation. People with a voice can demand a cleaner, healthier environment. Government regulations can alleviate labor abuses, as was seen in the Progressive era of the early 20th century and extended with environmental legislation of the past several decades. I would favor a new progressive era to tip the balance of power away from corporations and back to the people, and to stop the exploitation of overseas labor. But that is a different thing altogether from Marxism, which promises nothing but stagnation and tyranny.

  8. On March 14, 2006 at 06:11 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    I think we agree about a lot of things and both disagree with much of the “historical” hard Marxism. There is a body of “green economics” literature that deals with many of the issues raised here. For example, there exist several metrics of “happiness”/“quality of life”. (And I do not think happiness is a one-dimensional scalar, but that is another topic.)

  9. On March 14, 2006 at 08:37 Bob Waldrop said:

    Another good book (cf Cottage Economy) is Community Technology, by Karl Hess. I don’t have the ISBN handy, but it is typically available for $2-$3 from any good used book search.

  10. On March 14, 2006 at 08:45 Bob Waldrop said:

    Regarding growth, as they say, unbridled growth is the ideology of a cancer cell, at least in physical terms. To quote an advertisement for a major computer computer, we can “grow big or grow small”.

    Marxism and Capitalism alike share several of the same errors — e.g. a focus on economics, denial of the dignity of the human person and of Creation. They are both “structures of sin” that enable evil. They are created by the myriad of decisions and actions of human persons.

    A more sustainable way of living would focus on the dignity of the human person and all Creation. It would recognize and enable virtues like temperance and penalize and discourage evils like gluttony.

    I don’t know all the details of this, because it doesn’t exist now and has never existed in the past. I do know, however, that we are creating structures of goodness, wisdom, and sustainability when we reject gluttony and embrace temperance, when we do the works of mercy, justice, and peace. As well as, of course, when we bake mulberry pie.

  11. On March 14, 2006 at 09:17 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    Indeed! St Fritz pointed out as early as the 1970s the necessity of virtues and the futility of designing economic systems “so perfect that nobody needs to be good”.

  12. On March 14, 2006 at 12:32 Adam (Southern California) said:

    Good quote, Kaihsu!

  13. On March 14, 2006 at 12:38 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    I cannot quite remember whether those were Schumacher’s exact words nor be sure that he was the first to use that phrase, but it seems a nice way to put it in our soundbite culture. In any case, I highly recommend the book Small Is Beautiful.

  14. On March 14, 2006 at 12:59 Adam (Southern California) said:

    “Marxism and Capitalism alike share several of the same errors — e.g. a focus on economics, denial of the dignity of the human person and of Creation.”

    True. Indeed, it is important to not measure a person’s worth by their “usefulness.” As a corollary, we should be aware that the economic decisions we make have human consequences. The trap of capitalistic thinking is in seeing market forces as inherently good. This is the blind spot of Milton Friedman – he’s so enamored of his system that he has absolute faith in its ability to *eventually*, through market forces, create better lives for people. If we take this thinking at face value, it can absolve us of a responsibility to work directly for a better world rather than waiting for a better world to “trickle down” to everyone else.

    No, market forces are not an inherent good, they are merely a useful mechanism. The goal must be a better, more just world with dignity for all. Where a capitalist structure works as a means to a good end, then we should support it, but where capitalism leads to the degradation and exploitation of people, we must reject it, or make the deliberate corrections necessary.

  15. On March 14, 2006 at 13:07 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    Yes. With the vocabulary of Herman Dooyeweerd: Pushing ideology too far, namely the absolutization of a certain modal aspect – in the cases of both Marxism and capitalism, the aspect being the “economical” – is idolatry, and far from shalom.

    I am glad of the discussions here. Things are clearer now.

  16. On March 20, 2006 at 05:50 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    This weekend on a walk organized by Sage, I had the privilege to meet Dr Donald M Bruce who attended the James Martin conference as a speaker and (in his own words) ‘a party pooper’. The Church of Scotland certainly is fulfiling its prophetic function by paying him to be the Director of its Society, Religion and Technology Project.

  17. On March 20, 2006 at 05:59 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    Hi Adam – regarding “reasonable constraints on businesses”, I wonder what you (and others) think about the new kind of structure introduced by the United Kingdom called the “community interest company”? (I think it is a glorified version of the co-operative.) Also, what about the call of the CORE Coalition, which includes what is called the “triple bottom line”? Cheers.

  18. On March 20, 2006 at 10:58 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    The James Martin 21st Century Foundation is the sole benefactor giving more than 10 000 000 GBP to the University of Oxford in 2004/2005 (the online version of the Annual Review somehow does not include the list of benefactors).

  19. On April 2, 2006 at 11:48 Dr Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    Whilst trying to find John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s ‘The Israel Lobby’ in the London Review of Books, I came across this (yet another) fine piece of Slavoj Žižek’s buttock-kicking, an act he does so often with such casual insightfulness: ‘Nobody has to be vile’, the title after Thomas Friedman, one of the several recipients of this intimate treatment, a gentle antidote against the chocolate-flavoured laxative. I wonder where dear Slavoj would place Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Joschka Fischer, two German Green veterans of May 1968?