In many ways this has been a strange month in a somewhat strange year! No, more than that! We are at last seeing climate change come to the fore in terms of topics. Yves Smith, who produces Naked Capitalism (and it’s a great blog) had an item on climate change recently. Here’s an extract:
Yves here. As many of you know, I am considerably frustrated with Green New Deal advocates, because I see them as selling hopium. They act as if we can preserve modern lifestyles as long as we throw money, some elbow grease, and a lot of new development (using current dirty infrastructure to build it) at it. We’re already nearing the point where very bad outcomes, like widespread famines and mass migrations due to flooding, are baked in. And even that take charitably assumes that a rump of what we consider to be civilization survives.
There were many replies from a variety of people; I loved this one from Tom Stone:
A rational response to this crisis is not politically or societally feasible.
And the crisis is here, now.
The changes are not linear, a concept many of the people I talk to about climate change have difficulty accepting.
Large parts of the SF Bay Area are going to be heavily impacted (It’s my stomping ground, so I’m familiar with it) by salt water intrusion, levee failure, lack of water to to changing precipitation patterns in the Sierra’s…
A lot of Bay Area Housing is built on fill or in low lying areas, those homes will start to be abandoned within a decade if current trends continue.
Add the devastation from the inevitable Earthquake on the Hayward Fault which our local and State Governments are totally incapable of dealing with and it is going to be a godawful mess.
I looked at the Disaster planning for a quake on the Hayward Fault some years ago and all of the assumptions are for a “Best Case” scenario.
The quake won’t come in October during a drought and a high wind event, it won’t come at the wrong time of day, it won’t come in the spring during a high water period when Levee’s are stressed…
The Bay areas disaster response center was built in the 1950’s to withstand a nuclear attack, it is underground and was built smack dab in the middle of the Hayward Fault.
Have I mentioned that 20 years after 9/11 the various emergency responders do not have a commonality in their communications gear?
The more people that read this and other article the better.
Plus I am going to include my reply:
Your piece, Yves, that you published from Rolf was excellent and so was Tom Stone’s comment above. The scale of the issue is immense but at least climate change has now become a mainstream topic, and rightly so. National Geographic magazine published a special edition in May, 2020 to commemorate the anniversary of the fiftieth Earth Day. I think it was 1962 when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. So we can’t complain that this isn’t a new issue. But whether or not we make it to the one hundred anniversary of that first Earth Day depends on the myriad of actions that we, as in all of us, including especially our leaders and politicians, make NOW! Let me spell it out. NOW means within the next 5 years at the latest. I am 76 and a passionate advocate of a change in mass behaviors. For I have a single grandson, Morten, living with his parents back in England who is 10. I fear for his future and for the future of all of his age.
Anyway, to get back to the article about dogs that I wanted to share with you. It is from Treehugger.
This 13-Year-Old Dog Has a Home Again
It’s heartbreaking when senior pets lose their families.
This weekend, my husband and I were the last step in a transport to get a dog to her new home.
Typically, when we have a new dog in the backseat, it’s a raucous foster puppy (or two) in a crate. There’s usually barking and tumbling and playing until the motion of the car lulls them to sleep.
But this passenger was a much different story.
Magdalen is a 13-year-old border collie. Her owner gave her up temporarily when he was sick, but when he fully recuperated a few months later, he said he didn’t want her back. He had her since she was a puppy but now had no place for her.
The family who had given her a temporary home had children and other dogs and was unable to give her a permanent home. When Speak St. Louis, the rescue I work with, was contacted about the border collie, they offered to take her in.
She went to the groomer for her very matted coat and to the vet for a basic health check.
The spa visit made her look (and no doubt, feel) much better. But the vet didn’t have great news. She had to have surgery for mammary masses and her mouth was swollen with all sorts of dental issues. One surgery later and she had six masses removed. Two teeth fell out during cleaning and 11 more had to be extracted.
Fortunately, the growths were benign and she slowly began to recover.
Stressed and Resigned
On the trip home, the sweet senior looked so resigned in our backseat. The last kind transporter gently lifted her from her car and placed her in ours, where she barely moved as she re-settled herself.
She had just spent several weeks in the care of a wonderful foster parent where she recuperated from her surgery and from being left by her family.
I’m sure at this point she was just shut down and stressed and quietly rolling with whatever happened to her. She took the pieces of kibble we offered but her tail didn’t wag because it was tucked mostly between her legs.
It was heartbreaking to know that not so long ago she was someone’s pet and she was discarded.
It’s understandable that her owner needed some temporary help when he was sick and overwhelmed. But I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t have wanted her back now. I think of my own dog and dogs we’ve lost to old age in the past. They’re family and they stay that way forever.
Senior pets often end up in shelters and with rescues when their owners die and no one in the family is able to take them in.
Or some people give them up when they become harder to care for. Seniors can have more health problems and often people can’t afford the costs. They also aren’t as fun as their younger counterparts, and sometimes get cranky or snippy around children.
For rescues and shelters, it’s much easier to get a cute, bouncy puppy adopted than a less active senior that might come with health baggage and who might only be with the family for a few years.
A survey by PetFinder found that “less adoptable” pets like seniors or special needs animals spend nearly four times as long on the adoption site before they find a home.1
But older dogs have lots of benefits. Unlike puppies, they usually arrive housebroken. Sure, there are the occasional accidents as they figure things out, but they mostly know they are supposed to potty outside.
Senior dogs won’t chew your furniture or your fingers. They don’t bounce off the walls and wake you up in the middle of the night to go outside. They don’t need as much exercise as younger dogs but will revel in all the attention you want to give them.
As for Magdalen, she is coming out of her shell in her new home. She was adopted by a good friend of mine who is a dog trainer. She has a soft heart for seniors and a passion for brainy border collies.
Because the pup is very driven by food, her new mom is going to try nosework with her. That’s an activity where she can sniff out treats in all sorts of hidden places. That will give her a job and a hobby—and lots of food!
Magdalen doesn’t have her tail between her legs anymore and the resident dogs are figuring out that she’s here to stay. But the key is for her to understand that this is now her forever home and no one will ever leave her again.
Of the six dogs we have here at home three are old. But they still remain happy and carefree which is a little different to yours truly who, as much as he tries very hard not to do so, worries about the big things in life and, frankly, the biggest of them all is climate change.
These times in this fine country, The United States of America, are troubling as Rebecca Gordon set out so compellingly in yesterday’s post.
But what is so terrible about these times is the failure to put integrity at the heart of every pronouncement that comes from a Government. And it would be grossly unfair to pick on the present US Government as the only example of this failure.
Because just a few mouse clicks can inform millions of us as to the real issues. Such as the effect that Climate Change is having on our health, as this recent Grist article so aptly put it in the opening paragraphs:
Here are 4 ways climate change is messing with our brains — for the worse.
We might think of climate change as purely physical: wildfires blazing through forests, rising seas lapping at the doors of coastal homes.
But those brutal conditions also affect our mental health, changing how we think and act. Mental health professionals are paying attention to the link between climate change and emotional health — and health insurance companies are, too.
Yves here. Grist has been doing an admirable job of keeping on top of this important yet oddly still-under-the-radar story. In the US, the big driver of rising water costs is the need to invest in aging, neglected water works. But water is going to become an issue in many places for differing reasons. As we have been saying for years, the natural resource that is projected to come under pressure first is potable water. And please don’t push desalination as a magic bullet. That costs money (both the plants and new transportation infrastructure, uses energy, plus has the not-trivial problem of how to dispose of the salt residues.
By Ciara O’Rourke, a freelance writer and 2015-16 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. Originally published by Fusion and reproduced at Grist as part of the Climate Desk collaboration
When Elizabeth Mack wondered about a future in which Americans wouldn’t be able to pay for water, a couple of colleagues waved her off. “Don’t be ridiculous,” they said. But the idea niggled at Mack, an assistant professor at the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences at Michigan State University. And in January, in an article published in the science journal PLOS ONE, she asked a new question: Is there a burgeoning water affordability crisis in the United States?
Yes, integrity in politics is more, so much more, than a nice idea from this silly old Brit now living in Oregon. Here’s a post I published some four years ago that says it as clearly as it needs to be said.
Reflections on Integrity.
Going back to basics.
Many will know the origins of this blog; a chance comment by Jon Lavin back in England in early 2007 that dogs were integrous, (a score of 210 as defined by Dr David Hawkins).
“There is nothing to fear except the persistent refusal to find out the truth, the persistent refusal to analyse the causes of happenings.” Dorothy Thompson.
When I started Learning from Dogs I was initially rather vague but knew that the Blog should reflect the growing need for greater integrity and mindfulness in our planetary civilisation. Here are some early musings,
Show that integrity delivers better results … integrity doesn’t require force … networking power of a group … demonstrate the power of intention … cut through the power of propaganda and media distortion …
Promulgate the idea that integrity is the glue that holds a just society together … urgent need as society under huge pressures …. want a decent world for my grandchildren … for all our grandchildren …. feels like the 11th hour….
But as the initial, rather hesitant, start to the Blog settled into a reliable, daily posting, and as the minuscule number of readers steadily grew to the present level of many hundreds each day, the clarity of the purpose of Learning from Dogs also improved.
Because, while it may sound a tad grandiose and pompous, if society doesn’t eschew the games, half-truths and selfish attitudes of the last, say, 30 years or more, then civilisation, as we know it, could be under threat.
Or, possibly, it’s more accurate to say that our civilisation is under threat and the time left to change our ways, to embrace those qualities of integrity, truth and consciousness for the very planet we all live on, is running out.
“Time left to change our ways is running out.”
So what’s rattled my cage, so to speak, that prompted today’s reflection? I’ll tell you! (You knew I was going to anyway, didn’t you!)
I’m drafting these thoughts around noon Pacific Standard Time on Sunday, 17th. At the same time, tens of thousands of ordinary good folk (40,000 plus at the latest estimate) are gathering by the Washington Monument ready to march past the White House demanding that President Obama block the Keystone XL pipeline and move forward toward climate action.
Do I trust the US Government to take this action? On balance, no! That hurts me terribly to write that. I really want to trust and believe what the President of my new home country says.
Here’s a snippet of what the President did say in his State of the Union speech on February 12th.
Now, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, all are now more frequent and more intense.
We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it’s too late.
A frank admission that the climate is changing in dramatic ways; the overwhelming judgment of science – fantastic!
The evidence that burning carbon-based fuels (coal, oil, gas) is the primary cause of today’s high CO2 levels is overwhelming. As a recent BBC radio programme reveals (being featured tomorrow) huge climate changes going back millions of years are a natural part of Earth’s history. However, as one of the scientists explains at the end of that radio programme, the present CO2 level, 395.55 ppm as of January, is now way above the safe, stable limit for the majority of life species on the planet.
But say you are reading this and are not yet convinced?
Let me borrow an old pilot’s saying from the world of aviation: If there’s any doubt, there’s no doubt!
That embracing, cautious attitude is part of the reason why commercial air transport is among the most safest forms of transport. If you had the slightest doubt about the safety of a flight, you wouldn’t board the aircraft.
If you had the slightest doubt about the future for civilisation on this planet likewise you would do something! Remember, that dry word civilisation means family, children, grandchildren, friends and loved ones. The last thing you would do is to carry on as before!
Which is where my lack of trust of leaders comes from!
Back to that State of the Union speech. Just 210 words after the spoken words “act before it’s too late” (I counted them!) Pres. Obama says, “That’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.”
Here’s the relevant section:
I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.
Now, four years ago, other countries dominated the clean-energy market and the jobs that came with it. And we’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year. Let’s drive down costs even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.
Now, in the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. We need to encourage that. That’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.
We don’t require any more oil to be used. We are already using a staggering amount of it. Let me refer you to an essay on Nature Bats Last called Math. The scary kind, not the fuzzy kind. Prof. McPherson wrote:
I performed a little rudimentary math last week. A little because even a little pushes my limit for math, these days. And rudimentary for the same reason. The outcome was staggering: We’re using oil at the rate of 5,500 cubic feet per second (cfs).
“5,500 cubic feet per second” Don’t know about you but I have some trouble in visualising that flow rate. Try this from later in the essay:
Here’s another shot of perspective: We burn a cubic mile of crude oil every year. The Empire State Building, the world’s ninth-tallest building, towers above New York at 1,250 feet. The world’s tallest building, Taipei 101, is 1,667 feet from ground to tip.
Put those buildings together, end to end, and you have one side of a cube. Do it again, and you have the second side. Once more, but this time straight up, and you have one big cube. Filling that cube with oil takes nearly 200 billion gallons … which is about one-sixth the size of the cube of oil we’re burning every year.
Burning a cubic mile every year! Yes, Mr. President, more oil permits is a wonderful way of taking action before it’s too late!
So let’s see what transpires? Let’s see if integrity is given the highest political focus. As in “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.” Because if there’s ever been a time when all of us, from every spectrum of society need honesty about what we are doing to the planet, it’s now!
As the tag on the home page of this blog says, “Dogs are integrous animals. We have much to learn from them.”
Going to close with two more quotations from Mr. Lovelock.
You never know with politicians what they are really saying. And I don’t say that in a negative way-they have an appalling job.
And the second one to close today’s post:
If you start any large theory, such as quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, evolution, it takes about 40 years for mainstream science to come around. Gaia has been going for only 30 years or so.
Now one might argue that this has nothing whatsoever to do with Learning from Dogs but I would disagree. For as I declare in The Vision of this blog:
It seems to me that a Vision statement should encapsulate just why the owners of the enterprise are committed to that venture. The author of Learning from Dogs is committed to this project; here is the Vision.
Our children require a world that understands the importance of faith, integrity and honesty
Learning from Dogs will serve as a reminder of the values of life and the power of unconditional love – as so many, many dogs prove each and every day
Constantly trying to get to the truth …
The power of greater self-awareness and faith; faith that the only way forward for us is through the truth …
For in a very real and devastating way even a small rise in global sea level is going to cause tens of thousands of dogs, and their loving owners, to become homeless. We are long overdue a commitment from our global leaders and power-brokers to that, “.. faith, integrity and honesty.”
I have written for years that a runaway Antarctica was certain, with half the icy continent melting rather spectacularly on an horizon of two centuries at most, and probably much less than that. This rested on the fact that half of Antarctica rests on nothing but bedrock at the bottom of the sea. At the bottom of what should naturally be the sea, in the present circumstances of significant greenhouse gas concentrations.
Visualize this: until sometimes in the Nineteenth Century, GreenHouse Gas (GHG) concentration was 280 ppm (280 parts per million), including the man-made sort. Now we are close to 500 ppm, using a variety of exotic gases we produce industrially, among them, CO2. In CO2 alone we are at: Week beginning on March 20, 2016: 405.62 ppm. Weekly value from 1 year ago: 401.43 ppm. Weekly value from 10 years ago: 382.76 ppm. So the CO2 alone is augmenting at a bit more than 1% a year. Thus we will be at an equivalent of 550 ppm in ten years (including the full panoply of all the other man-made greenhouse gases, not just CO2). There is evidence that, with just 400 ppm, disaster is guaranteed.
Now visualize this:
Why so watery? Because the enormous glaciers, up to nearly 5,000 meter thick, press down on the continent with their enormous weight. Since the end of the last glaciation, 10,000 years ago, Scandinavia has been rising, and is still rising (I long used a picture with a similar information about Antarctica’s bedrock.)
Polar temperatures over the last several million years have, at times, been slightly warmer than today, yet global mean sea level has been 6–9 metres higher as recently as the Last Interglacial (130,000 to 115,000 years ago) and possibly higher during the Pliocene epoch (about three million years ago). In both cases the Antarctic ice sheet has been implicated as the primary contributor, hinting at its future vulnerability. Here we use a model coupling ice sheet and climate dynamics—including previously underappreciated processes linking atmospheric warming with hydrofracturing of buttressing ice shelves and structural collapse of marine-terminating ice cliffs—that is calibrated against Pliocene and Last Interglacial sea-level estimates and applied to future greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than a metre of sea-level rise by 2100 and more than 15 metres by 2500, if emissions continue unabated. In this case atmospheric warming will soon become the dominant driver of ice loss, but prolonged ocean warming will delay its recovery for thousands of years.
Notice that the scenario evoked in the last sentence is different from my very old scenario, which is similar to the one advanced in November 2015 by the famous Hansen and Al. (I raised the alarm before Hansen, at least seven years ago). In my scenario, and Hansen’s the ice sheets melt from below, due to warm sea water intrusion.
The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is larger than Mexico.
Here is a taste of the paper (I have a Nature subscription):
“Reconstructions of the global mean sea level (GMSL) during past warm climate intervals including the Pliocene (about three million years ago)1 and late Pleistocene interglacials2,3,4,5 imply that the Antarctic ice sheet has considerable sensitivity. Pliocene atmospheric CO2 concentrations were comparable to today’s (~400 parts per million by volume, p.p.m.v.)6, but some sea-level reconstructions are 10–30 m higher1,7. In addition to the loss of the Greenland Ice Sheet and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS)2, these high sea levels require the partial retreat of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS), which is further supported by sedimentary evidence from the Antarctic margin8. During the more recent Last Interglacial (LIG, 130,000 to 115,000 years ago), GMSL was 6–9.3 m higher than it is today2,3,4, at a time when atmospheric CO2 concentrations were below 280 p.p.m.v. (ref.9) and global mean temperatures were only about 0–2 °C warmer10. This requires a substantial sea-level contribution from Antarctica of 3.6–7.4 m in addition to an estimated 1.5–2 m from Greenland11,12 and around 0.4 m from ocean steric effects10.”
So notice: when CO2 ppm per volume was at 280 130,000 to 115,000 years ago, sea level was up to ten meter higher than now. And now we are at 500 ppmv…
And notice again: When CO2 ppmv was at 400, sea level was up to 30 meters (100 feet) higher than today. And now we are at 500 ppm, and, in a blink, in ten years, at 550 ppm.
Here is another example from the paper. I said all of this before, but to have scientists paid to do research in this area write it black on white in the world’s most prestigious scientific magazine, will no doubt endow me with greater, and much desired, gravitas. So let me indulge, not so much for my greater glory, but because it should help taking what I have long said more seriously.
“Much of the WAIS sits on bedrock hundreds to thousands of metres below sea level (Fig. 1a)13. Today, extensive floating ice shelves in the Ross and Weddell Seas, and smaller ice shelves and ice tongues in the Amundsen and Bellingshausen seas (Fig. 1b) provide buttressing that impedes the seaward flow of ice and stabilizes marine grounding zones (Fig. 2a). Despite their thickness (typically about 1 km near the grounding line to a few hundred metres at the calving front), a warming ocean has the potential to quickly erode ice shelves from below, at rates exceeding 10 m yr−1 °C−1 (ref. 14). Ice-shelf thinning and reduced backstress enhance seaward ice flow, grounding-zone thinning, and retreat (Fig. 2b). Because the flux of ice across the grounding line increases strongly as a function of its thickness15, initial retreat onto a reverse-sloping bed (where the bed deepens and the ice thickens upstream) can trigger a runaway Marine Ice Sheet Instability (MISI; Fig. 2c)15, 16, 17. Many WAIS grounding zones sit precariously on the edge of such reverse-sloped beds, but the EAIS also contains deep subglacial basins with reverse-sloping, marine-terminating outlet troughs up to 1,500 m deep (Fig. 1). The ice above floatation in these East Antarctic basins is much thicker than in West Antarctica, with the potential to raise GMSL by around 20 m if the ice in those basins is lost13. Importantly, previous ice-sheet simulations accounting for migrating grounding lines and MISI dynamics have shown the potential for repeated WAIS retreats and readvances over the past few million years18, but could only account for GMSL rises of about 1 m during the LIG and 7 m in the warm Pliocene, which are substantially smaller than geological estimates.”
I said it before. Including the details. So the evidence was clear, and out there. The optimism (it will take 5 centuries for 50 feet of sea level rise) is not supported by evidence. Actually collapsing channels coming from inverted rivers running up on the bellies of ice sheets are now obvious on satellite pictures and collapse of major ice shelves is going to be a matter of years, not centuries.
But science is made by tribes and these tribes honor the gods (of plutocracy) who finance them, and their whims. So they don’t want to make their sponsors feel bad. So they say unsupported, optimistic stuff, contradicted by a first order analysis.
Science is good, metascience, better. Metascience includes the sociological reasons which explain why some scientists will take some “facts” for obvious (although, coming from another sociology, they are not).
Deep in the Nature paper, in the quote above, or in four drawings and graphs of future sea level rise, one can find projections according to what various models “predict”… 130,000 years ago (!) The “Old Physics” model predicts one meter rise of the sea (this is the official UN maximal prediction for 2100). The new model, again starting with the present conditions, predict more than a six meter rise (!) This is a case of metascience playing with sea level.
This way, the authors of the paper will be able to say, one day: we told you so. While at the same time not irritating their sponsors now (because to understand what they are really saying takes quite a while, and has to be understood as tongue in cheek, when they pretend to apply the analysis to 130,000 years ago… What they really mean is six meters now, not just one meter… Bye bye Wall Street. Punished by its own instruments…)
The question is not whether we will be able to avoid a twenty meter sea level rise: that’s, unbelievably, a given (barring unforeseeable, yet imaginable technological advances to extract quickly a lot of CO2 from the atmosphere). The question is whether we will avoid a 60 meter rise.
In the paper, to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Applied Energy, the authors calculate the Two degree capital stock – the global stock of electricity infrastructure from which future emissions have a 50% probability of staying within 2°C of warming. The researchers estimate that the world will reach Two degree capital stock next year, in 2017.
Dogs ‘teaching’ man to be so successful a hunter enabled evolution, some 20,000 years later, to farming, thence the long journey to modern man. But in the last, say 100 years, that farming spirit has become corrupted to the point where we see the planet’s plant and mineral resources as infinite. Mankind is close to the edge of extinction, literally and spiritually.
I continue that theme in Part Two of my book (Chapter 7: This Twenty-First Century)
Bad news sells! Bad news also causes stress and worry. In my previous explanation, I explained that the last thing you want is a catalogue of all the things that have that power to cause you stress and worry. However, I do see three fundamental aspects of this new century that have their roots in that loss of principles that I referred to in the previous chapter. They are
1. the global financial system,
2. the potential for social disorder, and
3. the process of government.
Because they are at the heart of how the coming years will pan out.
The first aspect, our global financial system, was selected because it underpins all our lives in so many ways. When I was living in southwest England I was a client of Kauders Portfolio Services. The founder of the company, David Kauders, published a book, The Greatest Crash, in 2011. It was an obvious read for me at that time and I still have the book on my shelves here in Oregon.
David explained that whether we like it or not, our lives are inextricably caught up in the twin dependencies of the global financial system: credit and debt. As he wrote in his opening chapter:
Households can barely afford their existing debts, let alone take on more. Since households now prefer not to borrow, indeed some even choose to pay back debt, it follows that those who have already borrowed, as a group, can no longer contribute to economic expansion.
People can be divided into borrowers and savers. With existing borrowers unable to afford or unwilling to take on extra debt, can new borrowers be found instead? Those who do not need to borrow are unlikely to volunteer. Except for the young wishing to buy houses, facing the reality that house prices are beyond their pockets, where are the new borrowers?
Businesses are also under pressure. There has been an inadequate recovery from recession, business prospects are poor as households cut back their spending. Lack of bank lending is a symptom rather than a cause, for if existing businesses were to be given more credit, they would probably be unlikely to find profitable growth opportunities in a world of austerity.
Later on in the book David describes this as “the financial system limit”. In other words, the period of growth and expansion, especially of financial and economic expansion, has come to an end in a structural sense. This was his perspective from 2011.
Recently, I chose to reread The Greatest Crash. What struck me forcibly, reading the book again some four years later on, was how visible this “system limit” appeared in the world today. Everywhere there are signs that the era of growth has come to an end. Many countries are now indebted to a point that reinforces the proposition of there being a financial system limit. The United States is greatly in debt but the only thing mitigating that situation, for the time being anyway, is that the American dollar is the quasi dominant global currency.
The changing nature of the global population is also reinforcing the fact that this is the end of a long period of growth. Even without embracing the question of how much longer we can increase the number of people living on a finite planet, the demographics spell out a greater-than-even chance of a decline in consumption and economic activity. Simply because in all regions of the planet, except for India where there is still a growing youth element in the country, people are ageing. To state the obvious, ageing persons do not consume as much as middle-aged and younger persons.
Thus, the world’s economy that is just around the corner is certainly going to be very different to what it has been in the past. It is not being widely discussed. Worse than that, there is a widespread assumption adopted by many governments that a return to the “normal” economic growth of previous times is a given. Many do not share that assumption.
The second aspect that isn’t being spoken about is the potential for massive, widespread social disorder. All summed up in just three words: greed, inequality, and poverty. Just three words that metaphorically appear to me like a round, wooden lid hiding a very deep, dark well. That lifting this particular lid, the metaphorical one, exposes an almost endless drop into the depths of where our society appears to have fallen.
Even the slightest raising of awareness of where this modern global world is heading is scary. I have in mind the author Thomas Piketty who warned that, “the inequality gap is toxic, dangerous.” Then there was the news in 2015 that, “Billionaires control the vast majority of the world’s wealth, 67 billionaires already own half the world’s assets; by 2100 we’ll have 11 trillionaires, while American worker income has stagnated for a generation.”
The third and final aspect that isn’t being widely discussed is the process of government. Not from the viewpoint of “left” or “right”, Labour or Conservative, Democratic or Republican (insert the labels appropriate to your own country), that is being discussed ad nauseum, but from the viewpoint of good government. It might be a terrible generalisation but it is still a fair criticism to say that many peoples of many countries have lost faith in their governments.
There appears to be a chronic absence of open debate about the need for good government, what that good government would look like, and how do societies bring it about.
If we were a dog pack, then our leader, our female mentor dog, would have moved us all to a new, pristine territory!
So, dear reader, you can understand why a recent article over on Naked Capitalism spoke to me. It was penned by Satyajit Das, a former banker and the author of a number of books. Both Satyajit and Yves, of Naked Capitalism, were delighted to offer me permission to republish the full post.
Yves here. If you’ve read Das regularly, one of the characteristics of his writing is wry detachment. The shift to a sense of foreboding is a big departure.
By Satyajit Das, a former banker and author whose latest book, The Age of Stagnation, is now available. The following is an edited excerpt from Age of Stagnation (published with the permission of Prometheus Books)
If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth, only . . . wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair. C.S. Lewis
The world is entering a period of stagnation, the new mediocre. The end of growth and fragile, volatile economic conditions are now the sometimes silent background to all social and political debates. For individuals, this is about the destruction of human hopes and dreams.
For most of human history, as Thomas Hobbes recognised, life has been ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. The fortunate coincidence of factors that drove the unprecedented improvement in living standards following the Industrial Revolution, and especially in the period after World War II, may have been unique, an historical aberration. Now, different influences threaten to halt further increases, and even reverse the gains.
Since the early 1980s, economic activity and growth have been increasingly driven by financialisation – the replacement of industrial activity with financial trading and increased levels of borrowing to finance consumption and investment. By 2007, US$5 of new debt was necessary to create an additional US$1 of American economic activity, a fivefold increase from the 1950s. Debt levels had risen beyond the repayment capacity of borrowers, triggering the 2008 crisis and the Great Recession that followed. But the world shows little sign of shaking off its addiction to borrowing. Ever-increasing amounts of debt now act as a brake on growth.
Growth in international trade and capital flows is slowing. Emerging markets that have benefited from and, in recent times, supported growth are slowing.
Rising inequality and economic exclusion also impacts negatively upon activity.
Financial problems are compounded by lower population growth and ageing populations; slower increases in productivity and innovation; looming shortages of critical resources, such as water, food and energy; and manmade climate change and extreme weather conditions.
The world requires an additional 64 billion cubic metres of water a year, equivalent to the annual water flow through Germany’s Rhine River. Agronomists estimate that production will need to increase by 60–100 percent by 2050 to feed the population of the world. While the world’s supply of energy will not be exhausted any time soon, the human race is on track to exhaust the energy content of hundreds of millions years’ worth of sunlight stored in the form of coal, oil and natural gas in a few hundred years. 10 tons of pre-historic buried plant and organic matter converted by pressure and heat over millennia was needed to create a single gallon (4.5 litres) of gasoline.
Europe is currently struggling to deal with a few million refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East. How will the world deal with hundreds of millions of people at risk of displacement as a resulting of rising sea levels?
Extend and Pretend
The official response to the 2008 crisis was a policy of ‘extend and pretend’, whereby authorities chose to ignore the underlying problem, cover it up, or devise deferral strategies to ‘kick the can down the road’. The assumption was that government spending, lower interest rates, and the supply of liquidity or cash to money markets would create growth. It would also increase inflation to help reduce the level of debt, by decreasing its value.
It was the grifter’s long con, a confidence trick with a potentially large payoff but difficult to pull off. Houses prices and stock markets have risen, but growth, employment, income and investment have barely recovered to pre-crisis levels in most advanced economies. Inflation for the most part remains stubbornly low.
In countries that have ‘recovered’, financial markets are, in many cases, at or above pre-crisis prices. But conditions in the real economy have not returned to normal. Must-have latest electronic gadgets cannot obscure the fact that living standards for most people are stagnant. Job insecurity has risen. Wages are static, where they are not falling. Accepted perquisites of life in developed countries, such as education, houses, health services, aged care, savings and retirement, are increasingly unattainable.
In more severely affected countries, conditions are worse. Despite talk of a return to growth, the Greek economy has shrunk by a quarter. Spending by Greeks has fallen by 40 percent, reflecting reduced wages and pensions. Reported unemployment is 26 percent of the labour force. Youth unemployment is over 50 percent. One commentator observed that the government could save money on education, as it was unnecessary to prepare people for jobs that did not exist.
Future generations may have fewer opportunities and lower living standards than their parents. A 2013 Pew Research Centre survey conducted in thirty-nine countries asked whether people believed that their children would enjoy better living standards: 33 percent of Americans believed so, as did 28 percent of Germans, 17 percent of British and 14 percent of Italians. Just 9 percent of French people thought their children would be better off than previous generations.
The Deadly Cure
Authorities have been increasingly forced to resort to untested policies including QE forever and negative interest rates. It was an attempt to buy time, to let economies achieve a self-sustaining recovery, as they had done before. Unfortunately the policies have not succeeded. The expensively purchased time has been wasted. The necessary changes have not been made.
There are toxic side effects. Global debt has increased, not decreased, in response to low rates and government spending. Banks, considered dangerously large after the events of 2008, have increased in size and market power since then. In the US the six largest banks now control nearly 70 percent of all the assets in the US financial system, having increased their share by around 40 percent.
Individual countries have sought to export their troubles, abandoning international cooperation for beggar-thy-neighbour strategies. Destructive retaliation, in the form of tit-for-tat interest rate cuts, currency wars, and restrictions on trade, limits the ability of any nation to gain a decisive advantage.
The policies have also set the stage for a new financial crisis. Easy money has artificially boosted prices of financial assets beyond their real value. A significant amount of this capital has flowed into and destabilised emerging markets. Addicted to government and central bank support, the world economy may not be able to survive without low rates and excessive liquidity.
Authorities increasingly find themselves trapped, with little room for manoeuvre and unable to discontinue support for the economy. Central bankers know, even if they are unwilling to publicly acknowledge it, that their tools are inadequate or exhausted, now possessing the potency of shamanic rain dances. More than two decades of trying similar measures in Japan highlight their ineffectiveness in avoiding stagnation.
Heart of the Matter
Conscious that the social compact requires growth and prosperity, politicians, irrespective of ideology, are unwilling to openly discuss the real issues. They claim crisis fatigue, arguing that the problems are too far into the future to require immediate action. Fearing electoral oblivion, they have succumbed to populist demands for faux certainty and placebo policies. But in so doing they are merely piling up the problems.
Policymakers interrogate their models and torture data, failing to grasp that ‘many of the things you can count don’t count [while] many of the things you can’t count really count’. The possibility of a historical shift does not inform current thinking.
It is not in the interest of bankers and financial advisers to tell their clients about the real outlook. Bad news is bad for business. The media and commentariat, for the most part, accentuate the positive. Facts, they argue, are too depressing. The priority is to maintain the appearance of normality, to engender confidence.
Ordinary people refuse to acknowledge that maybe you cannot have it all. But there is increasingly a visceral unease about the present and a fear of the future. Everyone senses that the ultimate cost of the inevitable adjustments will be large. It is not simply the threat of economic hardship; it is fear of a loss of dignity and pride. It is a pervasive sense of powerlessness.
For the moment, the world hopes for the best of times but is afraid of the worst. People everywhere resemble Dory, the Royal Blue Tang fish in the animated film Finding Nemo. Suffering from short-term memory loss, she just tells herself to keep on swimming. Her direction is entirely random and without purpose.
The world has postponed, indefinitely, dealing decisively with the challenges, choosing instead to risk stagnation or collapse. But reality cannot be deferred forever. Kicking the can down the road only shifts the responsibility for dealing with it onto others, especially future generations.
A slow, controlled correction of the financial, economic, resource and environmental excesses now would be serious but manageable. If changes are not made, then the forced correction will be dramatic and violent, with unknown consequences.
During the last half-century each successive economic crisis has increased in severity, requiring progressively larger measures to ameliorate its effects. Over time, the policies have distorted the economy. The effectiveness of instruments has diminished. With public finances weakened and interest rates at historic lows, there is now little room for manoeuvre. Geo-political risks have risen. Trust and faith in institutions and policy makers has weakened.
Economic problems are feeding social and political discontent, opening the way for extremism. In the Great Depression the fear and disaffection of ordinary people who had lost their jobs and savings gave rise to fascism. Writing of the period, historian A.J.P. Taylor noted: ‘[the] middle class, everywhere the pillar of stability and respectability . . . was now utterly destroyed . . . they became resentful . . . violent and irresponsible . . . ready to follow the first demagogic saviour . . .’
The new crisis that is now approaching or may already be with us will be like a virulent infection attacking a body whose immune system is already compromised.
As Robert Louis Stevenson knew, sooner or later we all have to sit down to a banquet of consequences.
This is not some intellectual exercise; far from it!
As often happens, a number of seemingly disconnected articles and reports seem to have provided a common theme. A theme that has previously been aired on Learning from Dogs yet a theme that always needs to be in the front of our faces: integrity.
The revelation that humanity’s dominant characteristic is, er, humanity will come as no surprise to those who have followed recent developments in behavioural and social sciences. People, these findings suggest, are basically and inherently nice.
The architecture of inequality must be carefully constructed. As the founding fathers of the United States clearly understood, democracy must be kept in check. For this purpose, they invented the Electoral College to prevent the president from being elected by popular vote.
To ensure an effective electoral system, an obsequious media must be skilled in drowning the public with a flood of misinformation to maintain a constant level of fear to make them more likely to side with the CS (corporate system).
If there is ever one example of how that lack of integrity manifests itself in our world it is through inequality. Professor Perelman’s essay is clearly written “tongue-in-cheek” but that doesn’t lessen the impact of his essay. Try his closing paragraphs: (CES = a subset of CS; WEM = The Wondrous Efficiency of Markets)
Regulators are not the only ones to see the benefits of working with the CES. Politicians who resign or are defeated are almost inevitably destined to enjoy the benefits of their dedication to the WEM with the returns from taking a rewarding position with a major corporation, lobbying, or even a lucrative contract to write a book that virtually no one would want to read.
When done correctly, this system works magnificently, although it periodically it seems to fall apart until the detested government apparatus rescues it. In the meantime, huge amounts of wealth and income fall into the hands of the top 1%, the people of greatest importance, while the rest of the public can enjoy watching the spectacular performance of the CES, a reward worthy of their place in society especially because envy of the wealthy brethren will obviously make them work harder to succeed, adding to WEM.
All power to WEM!
Does this have anything to do with dogs?
Let me steal a little from Chapter 16: Community from my forthcoming book:
When dogs lived in the wild, their natural pack size was about fifty animals and there were just three dogs that had pack status: the mentor, minder and nanny dogs, as described in Chapter 5. [Pharaoh: the Teaching Dog] As was explained in that chapter, all three dogs of status are born into their respective roles and their duties in their pack are instinctive. There was no such thing as competition for that role as all the other dogs in that natural pack grouping would be equal participants with no ambitions to be anything else.
Anyone who has had the privilege of living with a group of dogs will know beyond doubt that they develop a wonderful community strength. Let’s reflect on the lessons being offered for us in this regard by our dogs.
To reinforce the fact that this is not a new phenomena, at the time I was drafting my book last November, a new report was issued by the Center of Economic Policy Research (CEPR) on the latest (American) Survey of Consumer Finances. It painted a picture very familiar to many: the rich becoming richer while those with less wealth are falling further and further behind.
David Rosnick of the CEPR, and one of the report co-authors, made this important observation:
The decline in the position of typical households is even worse than the Consumer Finances survey indicates. In 1989, many workers had pensions. Far fewer do now. The value of pensions isn’t included in these surveys due to the difficulty of determining what they are worth on a current basis. But they clearly are significant assets that relatively few working age people have now.
Sharmini Peries, of The Real News Network, in an interview with David Rosnick, asked:
PERIES: David, just quickly explain to us what is the Consumer Finance Survey. I know it’s an important survey for economists, but why is it important to ordinary people? Why is it important to us?
ROSNICK: So, every three years, the Federal Reserve interviews a number of households to get an idea of what their finances are like, do they have a lot of wealth, how much are their house’s worth, how much they owe on their mortgages, how much they have in the bank account, how much stocks do wealthy people own. This gives us an idea of their situations, whether they’re going to be prepared for retirement. And we can see things like the effect of the housing and stock bubbles on people’s wealth, whether they’ve been preparing for eventual downfalls, how they’ve reacted to various economic circumstances, how they’re looking to the long term. So it’s a very useful survey in terms of finding out how households are prepared and what the distribution of wealth is like.
PERIES: So your report is an analysis of the report. And what are your key findings?
ROSNICK: So, largely over the last 24 years there’s been a considerable increase in wealth on average, but it’s been very maldistributed. Households in the bottom half of the distribution have actually seen their wealth fall, but the people at the very top have actually done very well. And so that means that a lot of people who are nearing retirement at this point in time are actually not well prepared at all for retirement and are going to be very dependent on Social Security in order to make it through their retirement years.
PERIES: So, David, address the gap. You said there’s a great gap between those that are very wealthy and those that are not. Has this gap widened over this period?
ROSNICK: It absolutely has. As, say, the top 5 percent in wealth, the average wealth for people in the top 5 percent is about 66 percent higher in 2013, the last survey that was completed, compared to 1989. By comparison, for the bottom 20 percent, their wealth has actually fallen 420 percent. They basically had very little to start with, and now they have less than little.
PERIES: So the poorer is getting poorer and the richer is getting extremely richer.
ROSNICK: Very much so.
To my way of thinking, if in the period 1989 through to 2013 “the average wealth for (American) people in the top 5 percent is about 66 percent higher” and “for the bottom 20 percent, their wealth has actually fallen 420 percent” it’s very difficult not to see the hands of greed at work and a consequential devastating increase in inequality.
In other words, the previous few paragraphs seemed to present, and present clearly, the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, comparatively speaking, and that it was now time for society to understand the trends, to reflect on where this is taking us, if left unchallenged, and to push back as hard as we can both politically and socially.
I wrote that shortly before another item appeared in my email ‘in-box’ in the middle of November (2014), a further report about inequality that, frankly, emotionally speaking, just smacked me in the face. It seemed a critical addition to the picture I was endeavouring to present.
Namely, on the 13th October, 2014, the US edition of The Guardian newspaper published a story entitled: US wealth inequality – top 0.1% worth as much as the bottom 90%. The sub-heading enlarged the headline: Not since the Great Depression has wealth inequality in the US been so acute, new in-depth study finds.
The study referred to was a paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, based on research conducted by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. The paper’s bland title belied the reality of the research findings: Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913.
As the Guardian reported:
Wealth inequality in the US is at near record levels according to a new study by academics. Over the past three decades, the share of household wealth owned by the top 0.1% has increased from 7% to 22%. For the bottom 90% of families, a combination of rising debt, the collapse of the value of their assets during the financial crisis, and stagnant real wages have led to the erosion of wealth. The share of wealth owned by the top 0.1% is almost the same as the bottom 90%.
The picture actually improved in the aftermath of the 1930s Great Depression, with wealth inequality falling through to the late 1970s. It then started to rise again, with the share of total household wealth owned by the top 0.1% rising to 22% in 2012 from 7% in the late 1970s. The top 0.1% includes 160,000 families with total net assets of more than $20m (£13m) in 2012.
In contrast, the share of total US wealth owned by the bottom 90% of families fell from a peak of 36% in the mid-1980s, to 23% in 2012 – just one percentage point above the top 0.1%.
The report was not exclusively about the USA. As the closing paragraphs in The Guardian’s article illustrated:
Among the nine G20 countries with sufficient data, the richest 1% of people (by income) have increased their income share significantly since 1980, according to Oxfam. In Australia, for example, the top 1% earned 4.8% of the country’s income in 1980. That had risen to more than 9% by 2010.
Oxfam says that in the time that Australia has held the G20 presidency (between 2013 and 2014) the total wealth in the G20 increased by $17tn but the richest 1% of people in the G20 captured $6.2tn of this wealth – 36% of the total increase.
I find it incredibly difficult to have any rational response to those figures. I am just aware that there is a flurry of mixed emotions inside me and, perhaps, that’s how I should leave it. Nonetheless, there’s one thing that I can’t keep to myself and that this isn’t the first time that such inequality has arisen; the period leading up the the Great Depression of the 1930s comes immediately to mind.
Taking a shortcut and reposting something from 2009
Yesterday, Sunday, was a quiet day. For several good reasons. Firstly, on Saturday evening Jean and I and eleven of our close neighbours enjoyed a glorious birthday meal at the River’s Edge restaurant in Grants Pass.
That meant, inevitably, that Jean and I were a little jaded yesterday.
Secondly, I needed to get my head down and put a few thousand words under my belt in terms of NaNoWriMo and ‘the book’.
Lastly, a comment from a new reader to a post that was published nearly five years ago reminded me of how special a person is Kevin Richardson. Here’s that comment:
Paul, this article is amazing. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this, I’m a huge fan of Kevin. So is my Marine boyfriend who actually told me to look him up, this man is truly remarkable. I’ve always wanted to work with animals, my dream is to be a veterinary pathologist but lately I’ve been so stressed with school and college I wasn’t sure if I could make it. But Kevin is the one who has motivated me to continue to pursue my dream, so you think there’s a way I could contact him? I know it’s kinda crazy but I would love to get to speak to him. My boyfriend looks up to him alot too and I’ve tried looking for it but I had no luck. If there’s the possibility that you may know where I could find it or somehow contact him I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you so much. Maria.
So here is that post, and can anyone find a way to help Maria? (I have her email address.)
Remarkable people – Kevin Richardson
December 30th, 2009
Trust is both taught and learnt!
Thanks to Naked Capitalism, we posted an item on the 19th December about an unknown wild-life ranger working in the wildlife refuge area of Lanseria, South Africa. Here was one of the pictures included in that Post:
The Post finished with an appeal to anyone that knew the name of this Ranger. Many of you did and responded; thank you!
His name is Kevin Richardson and there is an interesting account of how he works and some of his ‘experiences’ in Revolution Magazine, luckily with online content. That article is here. It starts thus:
To do this he does not use the common methods of breaking the animal’s spirit with sticks and chains, instead he uses love, understanding and trust. With this unusual method of training he has developed some exceptionally personal bonds with his students. He sleeps with lions, cuddles newborn hyenas, swims with lionesses. Kevin can confidently look into their eyes, crouch to the their level and even lie down with them – all taboos in the normal world of wild animal handling – yet he doesn’t get mauled or attacked.
The article goes on to say that Kevin often works with the animals when they are very young. Thus he is demonstrating very powerfully that how we behave, especially with our children when they are young, creates the environment for building trust out of consistency of deed and thought. (By the way, do read some of the comments posted at the end of that Magazine article – some of them make for powerful reading.)
Luckily, thanks to this wired world we now live in, there is also video of Kevin available on YouTube. A quick search under Kevin Richardson on YouTube will quickly find a number of videos but here are two that I wanted to share with you.
The first will leave you speechless and possibly wet-eyed!
The second is a promotional video by Kevin encouraging us to buy his recent book – and why not!
This is a very remarkable person and it’s an honour to share this with you. We have so much to learn from all animals.
We are looking for a new person to take over WordPress support for Naked Capitalism. Even though our old WordPress person Kristin was technically skilled and did a fine job with the redesign, the professional relationship wasn’t working out.
The difficulty for finding a replacement is that the overwhelming majority of WordPress specialists have never worked on a site like NC. WordPress scales badly and its Achilles heel is its database. Most WordPress support staff have never encountered a site with large databases (close to 12,000 posts and over 500,000 comments) that loads them the way we do (hundreds of updates a day).
Please also bear in mind we are NOT looking for a host. We are happy with our webhost. But WordPress is complicated and breakage prone enough that any site that is run on a professional basis needs a WordPress expert in the mix.
So we need someone with experience in supporting a WordPress site with:
• Very large database that updates very frequently
• Advertising. We use a third party ad service and often have to change ad code and make layout adjustments
Aside from routine support, we also have some projects we’d like to undertake, like fixing categories and tags.
A WordPress specialist also needs to understand that we are in a news-driven business and work constantly to deadlines. So while there are often weeks where there is only routine activity (monitoring site performance and working on non-time-critical assignments), when we have problem, we have a sense of urgency about getting it fixed.
Kristin operated solo, but if the provider was in a small firm (as in had more than one person who could work on our account) that could be even better, particularly if it got us closer to 24/7 support.
If you have any ideas or leads, please e-mail me at yves-at-nakedcapitalism.com, with “WordPress” in the subject line. Thanks!
Before I move on to today’s essay, published courtesy of The Automatic Earth, let me ponder about the nature of reason. A quick dip into the dictionary offers this:
a basis or cause, as for some belief, action, fact, event, etc.: the reason for declaring war.
a statement presented in justification or explanation of a belief or action.
the mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences.
sound judgment; good sense.
normal or sound powers of mind; sanity.
The PhilosopherAyn Rand wrote once, “The Renaissance was specifically the rebirth of reason, the liberation of man’s mind, the triumph of rationality over mysticism – a faltering, incomplete, but impassioned triumph that led to the birth of science, of individualism, of freedom.”
Now as we move on, endeavour to keep this notion of reason in the forefront of your mind!
A few days ago, I read an essay that was first seen on Naked Capitalism. It was introduced by Yves Smith of NC thus:
Yves here. As Ilargi himself acknowledges, even by the standards of his fare, this post on “overshoot” is plenty sobering. We do seem to be on our way to precipitating a mass species die off (as in it’s underway already and humans seem remarkably unwilling to take sufficiently stern measures to stop it). The end of civilization as we know it seems almost inevitable, given that most “advanced” economies are seeing serious erosion of their social fabric, as reflected in falling social well-being measures.
However, the provocative point that Jay Hanson argues is that our hard-wired political habits guarantee our undoing. It’s akin to a literary rendering I read long ago of Dollo’s theory of evolution, which went something like this:
Species develop characteristics which give them competitive advantage. Dinosaurs get big so no predators can eat them up. Saber tooth tigers develop monster jaws so they can chomp on mastadons and other large prey.
But the problem is that species continue to develop these characteristics beyond the point of maximum advantage. Dinosaurs get so big that they need to get a second brain in their midsection to manage their bodies and they die of anatomical schizophrenia. Saber-tooth tiger become such efficient killers of large prey that they begin to wipe them out, and their hypertrophied jaws are badly adapted to killing smaller prey, so they die of starvation. And humans have developed overly large brains and are in the process of thinking themselves to death.
It was then a matter of moments to find that the essay was originally published on The Automatic Earth and, as was noted yesterday, a request to republish was very promptly replied to in the affirmative. It’s a privilege to share it with you.
It’s a long essay but entirely engaging; right through to the last footnote. More than that, many of those footnote links open up a majesty of learning and knowledge.
So if you aren’t in the right ‘headspace’ to settle down now and read it fully then bookmark it for a later date. I guarantee you will not be disappointed!
Debt Rattle Jul 7 2014: Overshoot Loop
Posted by Raúl Ilargi Meijer
There is not one single person I’ve learned more from than Jay Hanson, back when I was even younger than I am now. Jay is not the greatest writer in the world, his talent is that he has the right kind of unrelenting curiosity, needed to dig deep into the reasons we put ourselves where we do (it’s hardwired). This curiosity put together the best library of information on ourselves and the world we live in that one can ever hope to find, at dieoff.org, much of it not published anywhere else. I took a month off, 15 years ago, and read it all back to back. The dieoff library was – mostly – finished by then. So it was a nice surprise to have someone send me the following piece, which is recent. It may look bleak and dark to you, but the challenge is to find where you think Jay goes wrong, and what you know better. That will not be easy, Jay’s a mighty smart puppy. I guess the essence is this: our brains are our destiny. That this leads to things we don’t like to acknowledge is something we will need to deal with. Walking away from it is neither a solution nor the best way to use the one part of us that may help find a solution. Which is also our brain.
Jay Hanson: I have been forced to review the key lessons that I have learned concerning human nature and collapse over the last 20 years. Our collective behavior is the problem that must be overcome before anything can be done to mitigate the coming global social collapse. The single most-important lesson for me was that we cannot re-wire (literally, because thought is physical) our basic political agendas through reading or discussion alone. Moreover, since our thoughts are subject to physical law, we do not have the free-will to either think or behave autonomously.
We swim in “politics” like fish swim in water; it’s everywhere, but we can’t see it!
We are “political” animals from birth until death. Everything we do or say can be seen as part of lifelong political agendas. Despite decades of scientific warnings, we continue to destroy our life-support system because that behavior is part of our inherited (DNA/RNA) hard wiring. We use scientific warnings, like all inter-animal communications, for cementing group identity and for elevating one’s own status (politics).
Only physical hardship can force us to rewire our mental agendas. I am certainly not the first to make the observation, but now, after 20 years of study and debate, I am totally certain. The net energy principle guarantees that our global supply lines will collapse. The rush to social collapse cannot be stopped no matter what is written or said. Humans have never been able to intentionally-avoid collapse because fundamental system-wide change is only possible after the collapse begins.
What about survivors? Within a couple of generations, all lessons learned from the collapse will be lost, and people will revert to genetic baselines. I wish it weren’t so, but all my experience screams “it’s hopeless.” Nevertheless, all we can do is the best we can and carry on…
I am thankful for the Internet where I can find others bright enough to discuss these complex ideas and help me to understand them.
Today, when one observes the many severe environmental and social problems, it appears that we are rushing towards extinction and are powerless to stop it. Why can’t we save ourselves? To answer that question we only need to integrate three of the key influences on our behavior: biological evolution, overshoot, and a proposed fourth law of thermodynamics called the “Maximum Power Principle”(MPP). The MPP states that biological systems will organize to increase power  generation, by degrading more energy, whenever systemic constraints allow it .
Biological evolution is a change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. Individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic (DNA/RNA) material from one generation to the next.
Natural selection is one of the basic mechanisms of evolution, along with mutation, migration, and genetic drift. Selection favors individuals who succeed at generating more power and reproducing more copies of themselves than their competitors.
Energy is a key aspect of overshoot because available energy is always limited by the energy required to utilize it.
Since natural selection occurs under thermodynamic laws, individual and group behaviors are biased by the MPP to generate maximum power, which requires over-reproduction and/or over-consumption of resources  whenever system constraints allow it. Individuals and families will form social groups to generate more power by degrading more energy. Differential power generation and accumulation result in a hierarchical group structure.
Overshoot eventually leads to decreasing power attainable for the group with lower-ranking members suffering first. Low-rank members will form subgroups and coalitions to demand a greater share of power from higher-ranking individuals who will resist by forming their own coalitions to maintain it. Meanwhile, social conflict will intensify as available power continues to fall.
Eventually, members of the weakest group (high or low rank) are forced to “disperse.”  Those members of the weak group who do not disperse are killed,  enslaved, or in modern times imprisoned. By most estimates, 10 to 20 percent of Stone-Age people died at the hands of other humans. The process of overshoot, followed by forced dispersal, may be seen as a sort of repetitive pumping action — a collective behavioural loop — that drove humans into every inhabitable niche.
Here is a synopsis of the behavioral loop described above:
Step 1. Individual and group behaviors are biased by the MPP to generate maximum power, which requires over-reproduction and/or over-consumption of natural resources (overshoot), whenever systemic constraints allow it. Individuals and families will form social groups to generate more power by degrading more energy. Differential power generation and accumulation result in a hierarchical group structure.
Step 2. Energy is always limited, so overshoot eventually leads to decreasing power available to the group, with lower-ranking members suffering first.
Step 3. Diminishing power availability creates divisive subgroups within the original group. Low-rank members will form subgroups and coalitions to demand a greater share of power from higher-ranking individuals, who will resist by forming their own coalitions to maintain power.
Step 4. Violent social strife eventually occurs among subgroups who demand a greater share of the remaining power.
Step 5. The weakest subgroups (high or low rank) are either forced to disperse to a new territory, are killed, enslaved, or imprisoned.
Step 6. Go back to step 1.
The above loop was repeated countless thousands of times during the millions of years that we were evolving . This behavior is entrained in our genetic material and will be repeated until we go extinct. Carrying capacity will decline  with each future iteration of the overshoot loop, and this will cause human numbers to decline until they reach levels not seen since the Pleistocene.
Current models used to predict the end of the biosphere suggest that sometime between 0.5 billion to 1.5 billion years from now, land life as we know it will end on Earth due to the combination of CO2 starvation and increasing heat. It is this decisive end that biologists and planetary geologists have targeted for attention. However, all of their graphs reveal an equally disturbing finding: that global productivity will plummet from our time onward, and indeed, it already has been doing so for the last 300 million years. 
It’s impossible to know the details of how our rush to extinction will play itself out, but we do know that it is going to be hell for those who are unlucky to be alive at the time.
• To those who followed Columbus and Cortez, the New World truly seemed incredible because of the natural endowments. The land often announced itself with a heavy scent miles out into the ocean. Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524 smelled the cedars of the East Coast a hundred leagues out. The men of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon were temporarily disarmed by the fragrance of the New Jersey shore, while ships running farther up the coast occasionally swam through large beds of floating flowers. Wherever they came inland they found a rich riot of color and sound, of game and luxuriant vegetation. Had they been other than they were, they might have written a new mythology here. As it was, they took inventory. Frederick Jackson Turner
• Genocide is as human as art or prayer. John Gray
• Kai su, teknon. Julius Caesar
 Power is energy utilization for a purpose; proportional to forces x flows = work rate + entropy produced (Maximum Power and Maximum Entropy Production: Finalities in Nature, by S. N. Salthe, 2010). A surplus resource is stored power. Energy is a key aspect of overshoot because available energy is always limited by the energy required to utilize it.
 Originally formulated by Lotka and further developed by Odum and Pinkerton, the MPP states that biological systems capture and use energy to build and maintain structures and gradients, which allow additional capture and utilization of energy. One of the great strengths of the MPP is that it directly relates energetics to fitness; organisms maximize fitness by maximizing power. With greater power, there is greater opportunity to allocate energy to reproduction and survival, and therefore, an organism that captures and utilizes more energy than another organism in a population will have a fitness advantage (The maximum power principle predicts the outcomes of two-species competition experiments, by John P. DeLong, 2008).
 The best way to survive in such a milieu is not to live in ecological balance with slow growth, but to grow rapidly and be able to fend off competitors as well as take resources from others.
Not only are human societies never alone, but regardless of how well they control their own population or act ecologically, they cannot control their neighbors behavior. Each society must confront the real possibility that its neighbors will not live in ecological balance but will grow its numbers and attempt to take the resources from nearby groups. Not only have societies always lived in a changing environment, but they always have neighbors. The best way to survive in such a milieu is not to live in ecological balance with slow growth, but to grow rapidly and be able to fend off competitors as well as take resources from others.
To see how this most human dynamic works, imagine an extremely simple world with only two societies and no unoccupied land. Under normal conditions, neither group would have much motivation to take resources from the other. People may be somewhat hungry, but not hungry enough to risk getting killed in order to eat a little better. A few members of either group may die indirectly from food shortages—via disease or infant mortality, for example—but from an individual s perspective, he or she is much more likely to be killed trying to take food from the neighbors than from the usual provisioning shortfalls. Such a constant world would never last for long. Populations would grow and human activity would degrade the land or resources, reducing their abundance. Even if, by sheer luck, all things remained equal, it must be remembered that the climate would never be constant: Times of food stress occur because of changes in the weather, especially over the course of several generations. When a very bad year or series of years occurs, the willingness to risk a fight increases because the likelihood of starving goes up.
If one group is much bigger, better organized, or has better fighters among its members and the group faces starvation, the motivation to take over the territory of its neighbor is high, because it is very likely to succeed. Since human groups are never identical, there will always be some groups for whom warfare as a solution is a rational choice in any food crisis, because they are likely to succeed in getting more resources by warring on their neighbors.
Now comes the most important part of this overly simplified story: The group with the larger population always has an advantage in any competition over resources, whatever those resources may be. Over the course of human history, one side rarely has better weapons or tactics for any length of time, and most such warfare between smaller societies is attritional. With equal skills and weapons, each side would be expected to kill an equal number of its opponents. Over time, the larger group will finally overwhelm the smaller one. This advantage of size is well recognized by humans all over the world, and they go to great lengths to keep their numbers comparable to their potential enemies. This is observed anthropologically by the universal desire to have many allies, and the common tactic of smaller groups inviting other societies to join them, even in times of food stress.
Assume for a moment that by some miracle one of our two groups is full of farsighted, ecological geniuses. They are able to keep their population in check and, moreover, keep it far enough below the carrying capacity that minor changes in the weather, or even longer-term changes in the climate, do not result in food stress. If they need to consume only half of what is available each year, even if there is a terrible year, this group will probably come through the hardship just fine. More important, when a few good years come along, these masterfully ecological people will/not/grow rapidly, because to do so would mean that they would have trouble when the good times end. Think of them as the ecological equivalent of the industrious ants.
The second group, on the other hand, is just the opposite—it consists of ecological dimwits. They have no wonderful processes available to control their population. They are forever on the edge of the carrying capacity, they reproduce with abandon, and they frequently suffer food shortages and the inevitable consequences. Think of this bunch as the ecological equivalent of the carefree grasshoppers. When the good years come, they have more children and grow their population rapidly. Twenty years later, they have doubled their numbers and quickly run out of food at the first minor change in the weather. Of course, had this been a group of “noble savages who eschewed warfare, they would have starved to death and only a much smaller and more sustainable group survived. This is not a bunch of noble savages; these are ecological dimwits and they attack their good neighbors in order to save their own skins. Since they now outnumber their good neighbors two to one, the dimwits prevail after heavy attrition on both sides. The “good” ants turn out to be dead ants, and the “bad” grasshoppers inherit the earth. The moral of this fable is that if any group can get itself into ecological balance and stabilize its population even in the face of environmental change, it will be tremendously disadvantaged against societies that do not behave that way. The long-term successful society, in a world with many different societies, will be the one that grows when it can and fights when it runs out of resources. It is useless to live an ecologically sustainable existence in the “Garden of Eden unless the neighbors do so as well. Only one nonconservationist society in an entire region can begin a process of conflict and expansion by the “grasshoppers” at the expense of the Eden-dwelling “ants”. This smacks of a Darwinian competition—survival of the fittest—between societies. Note that the “fittest” of our two groups was not the more ecological, it was the one that grew faster. The idea of such Darwinian competition is unpalatable to many, especially when the “bad” folks appear to be the winners.[pp. 73-75] (Constant Battles: Why we Fight, by Steven A. LeBlanc, St. Martin, 2004)
 “Dispersal” is important in biology. Many amazing biological devices have evolved to ensure it, such as the production of fruits and nectar by plants and the provision of tasty protuberances called elaiosomes by seeds to attract insects. Often a species will produce two forms:
(1) a maintenance phenotype (the outcome of genes and the structures they produce interacting with a specific environment) that is adapted to the environment in which it is born,
and (2) a dispersal phenotype that is programmed to move to a new area and that often has the capacity to adapt to a new environment.
According to the present theory, humans have developed two dispersal phenotypes in the forms of the prophet and the follower. The coordinated action of these two phenotypes would serve to disperse us over the available habitat. This dispersal must have been aided by the major climatic changes over the past few million years in which vast areas of potential human habitat have repeatedly become available because of melting of ice sheets.
The dispersal phenotypes might have evolved through selection at the individual level, since the reproductive advantage of colonizing a new habitat would have been enormous. They would also promote selection between groups. This is important because selection at the group level can achieve results not possible at the level of selection between individuals. One result of the dispersal phenotype includes ethnocentrism (the tendency to favor one’s own ethnic group over another) and the tendency to use “ethnic cleansing.” The other result, as previously noted, is selection for cooperation, self-sacrifice, and a devotion to group rather than individual goals. Factors that promote selection at the group level are rapid splitting of groups, small size of daughter groups, heterogeneity (differences) of culture between groups, and reduction in gene flow between groups. These factors are all promoted by the breaking away of prophet-led groups with new belief systems.
One of the problems of selection at the group level is that of free-riders. These are people who take more than their share and contribute to the common good of the group less than their proper share. Selection at the group level gives free-riders their free ride. They potentially could increase until they destroy the cooperative fabric of the group.
However, the psychology of the free-rider, which is one of self-aggrandizement and neglect of group goals, is not likely to be indoctrinated with the mazeway of the group. Nor is it likely to be converted to the new belief system of the prophet. Therefore, theoretically one would predict that cults and New Religious Movements should be relatively free of free-riders. Such an absence of free-riders would further enhance selection at the group level. Moreover, this is a testable theoretical proposition.
Cult followers have been studied and found to be high on schizotypal traits, such as abnormal experiences and beliefs. They have not yet been tested for the sort of selfish attitudes and behavior that characterize free-riders. If a large cohort of people were tested for some measure of selfishness, it is predicted that those who subsequently joined cults would be low on such a measure. Predictions could also be made about future cult leaders. They would be likely to be ambitious males who were not at the top of the social hierarchy of their original group. If part of why human groups split in general is to give more reproductive opportunities to males in the new group, it can also be predicted that leaders of new religious movements would be males of reproductive age. Female cult leaders are not likely to be more fertile as a result of having many sexual partners, but their sons might be in an advantageous position for increased reproduction.
Conclusion: The biobehavioral science of ethology is about the movement of individuals. We have seen that change of belief system has been responsible for massive movements of individuals over the face of the earth. Religious belief systems appear to have manifest advantages both for the groups that espouse them and the individuals who share them. It is still controversial whether belief systems are adaptations or by-products of other evolutionary adaptive processes. Regardless of the answer to this question, the capacity for change of belief system, both that seen in the prophet and also that seen in the follower, may be adaptations because they have fostered the alternative life history strategies of dispersal from the natal habitat.
Moreover, change of belief system, when it is successful in the formation of a new social group and transfer of that group to a “promised land,” accelerates many of the parameters that have been thought in the past to be too slow for significant selection at the group level, such as eliminating free-riders, rapid group splitting, heterogeneity between groups and reduction of gene transfer between groups. Natural selection at the group level would also favor the evolution of the capacity for change of belief system, so that during the past few million years we may have seen a positive feedback system leading to enhanced cult formation and accelerated splitting of groups. This may have contributed to the rapid development of language and culture in our lineage. (The Biology of Religious Behavior, Edited by Jay R. Feierman, pp. 184-186)
 The results of the study are striking, according to Robbins Schug, because violence and disease increased through time, with the highest rates found as the human population was abandoning the cities. However, an even more interesting result is that individuals who were excluded from the city’s formal cemeteries had the highest rates of violence and disease. (Violence, Infectious Disease and Climate Change Contributed to Indus Civilization Collapse , Science Daily, January 17, 2014)
 My discussion will revolve around two basic propositions regarding long-term human population history: 1) the near-zero growth rates that have prevailed through much of prehistory are likely due to long-term averaging across periods of relatively rapid local population growth interrupted by infrequent crashes caused by density-dependent and density-independent factors; and 2) broad changes in population growth rates across subsistence modes in prehistory are probably best explained in terms of changes in mortality due to the dampening or buffering of crashes rather than significant increases in fertility (Subsistence strategies and early human population history: an evolutionary ecological perspective, by James L. Boone, 2002).
So all of you will understand, without any doubt, why this key essay was published here on Learning from Dogs. It strikes me as a rather bitter-sweet irony that in today’s super-networked society, where it is so easy to ‘sit at the knees‘ of such learned folk, it may all be too late to have a decisive effect. So back to Jay Hanson. Yes, his well-presented and beautifully researched essay does have some pretty terrifying notions. But humanity’s only hope is that person-by-person, street-by-street, city-by-city, a cry for change becomes such a torrent of sound that like a huge waterfall it has the power to change our landscape. Nature needs to be listened to: and soon!
In yesterday’s post, I closed it by saying “More on the theme tomorrow.” What I had in mind was writing about a recent essay that I read; courtesy of Naked Capitalism. However, the essay struck me as of such interest that it should be republished in full. Thus I sent off a request for permission to so do. Hopefully, permission granted in time for me to publish the essay tomorrow (and see my note later on).
That then gave me the opportunity to explain my situation for the next few weeks.
In short, as a result of a number of guests coming to stay with us from the end of July right through to the end of September, the hours that I spend pleasurably preparing and writing posts for Learning from Dogs are going to be under some pressure.
Ahead of the arrival of our first set of guests, my mother from London and my sister from Tokyo, it has been decided to renovate the guest bathroom by upgrading the wash-basin. Naturally, something yours truly wants to do himself! (Don’t believe me? See the following photo!)
Of course, as well as still not speaking American, I’m a very long way from speaking American plumbing! I mean fancy going into a builder’s store and asking for a set of taps.
I looked at what the store attendant had placed in front of me and said, “No, I don’t mean that sort of tap, I mean a tap for a bathroom basin.”
“Oh, you mean force-it!“, replied the attendant.
(Now how did this attendant know that my tool of choice for jobs around the house was a 2-pound club hammer!)
“Of course,” I replied, “You Americans call them faucets!”
So you get the message!
(By the way, the permission to republish the article from The Automatic Earth just came through – just 12 minutes after I sent off my email request – great service, peeps.)
Plus there’s another distraction! Even more bizarre than pretending to be an American plumber! I am pretending to be an American author!
I have returned to writing the book!
Long-term readers of this blog (you crazy lot) will recall that last November I signed up for NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. From that accomplishment has flowed a number of very positive outcomes. One of them was being contacted by a company specialising in self-publishing. I was told that really before I get started in earnest, I need to set out a clear idea of what I am writing about and the audience I have in mind. I called it my Statement of Purpose and after a number of weeks of being amended and revised (huge thanks to Jon and John for their help) it was finally completed just a week ago. Here are the opening sections:
Learning from Dogs
Statement of Purpose v1.51
We live in very challenging times.
It seems rare these days to meet someone who doesn’t sense, to one degree or another, a feeling of vulnerability to today’s world. A sense that many aspects of their lives are beyond their control.
These are also times where it is widely acknowledged that the levers of privilege, power and money are undermining the rights and needs of so many. A feeling of unprecedented levels of deceit, lying and greed.
Then there’s the subject of climate change and the “end-of-world” sword just waiting to descend on us all; the so-called beat of the butterfly’s wing!
Yes, these are challenging times. As we are incessantly reminded by the drumbeat of the doom-and-gloom news industry every hour, frequently every half-hour, throughout the day. A symphony of negative energy.
Yet right next to us is a world of positive energy. The world of dogs. A canine world full of love and trust, playfulness and relaxation. A way of living that is both clear and straightforward; albeit far from being simple. As anyone will know who has seen the way dogs interact with each other and with us humans.
In other words, dogs offer endless examples of positive behaviours. The wonderful power of compassion for self, and others, and of loving joy. The way to live that we humans crave for. A life full of hope and positive energy that keeps the power of negativity at bay.
The book is written by ‘an ordinary bloke’, not by someone who has a specialist or professional understanding in the areas of mind and behaviour. The author is no different to the majority of people out there and, presumably, the majority of potential readers.
Readers who feel the weight of all that ‘doom-and-gloom’ and general negativity that seems to be in the air. Yet, readers who desire a positive, compassionate attitude to their own life, and to the lives of the people around them. Almost certainly readers who are animal lovers, in general, and dog lovers in particular.
The clarity provided by the above has been fantastic and I am now firmly committed to writing something, however small in words, each day.
Yet another drag on my blogging time; I regret.
So if over the coming weeks you read something that strikes you as familiar it may be because I have reposted the item from previous years. Or if there seems to be a string of posts that have been republished from elsewhere, then at least you will understand.
Of course even better would be for you, my dear reader, to send me stuff or point me towards material you think others would enjoy. Or write a guest post! 🙂 Now that would be splendid!
A run of essays that, collectively, deeply disturb me.
My seventieth birthday is fewer than six months away. Indeed, it will be just a little over two weeks after we celebrate the second anniversary of our arrival to this beautiful homestead back on October 25th, 2012. Two years: Seventy years! Time seems to run through one’s fingers like the proverbial sand. It’s difficult to avoid the irony that comes with recognising the two journeys. The one journey bringing me to living here on our rural Oregonian acres, with stunning scenery, wonderful animals and so much love in the air. The other journey bringing me to the realisation that this is the Autumn of my life and the sense, the keen sense, of my own mortality.
What, may you ask, has brought this feeling, these words, to the surface?
Well, I’ll tell you.
It’s been the coincidence of essays from three authors across the ‘blogosphere’ that I have recently read. Taken together, they paint a picture that disturbs me. Very much so. They sing out to me that mankind is spiralling ever downwards to oblivion and that the dark forces of greed, power and control will never be stopped; well not by man that is!
The United States has been at war — major boots-on-the-ground conflicts and minor interventions, firefights, air strikes, drone assassination campaigns, occupations, special ops raids, proxy conflicts, and covert actions — nearly nonstop since the Vietnam War began. That’s more than half a century of experience with war, American-style, and yet few in our world bother to draw the obvious conclusions.
Given the historical record, those conclusions should be staring us in the face. They are, however, the words that can’t be said in a country committed to a military-first approach to the world, a continual build-up of its forces, an emphasis on pioneering work in the development and deployment of the latest destructive technology, and a repetitious cycling through styles of war from full-scale invasions and occupations to counterinsurgency, proxy wars, and back again.
The second was from another American, Jim Wright, who is the author of the blog Stonekettle Station. Jim describes himself as:
I’m a retired US Navy Chief Warrant Officer. Nowadays I live in Alaska where I spend most of my time working in my woodshop or fishing. I occasionally consult for the Military. I have delusions of becoming a full time writer – or conquering the universe, whichever is easier…
Thanks to Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism, I followed a link to a recent essay from Jim under the title of Absolutely Nothing, published on the 14th June.
I’m not going to quote from it, not because I don’t approve of his essay, far from it, but because there are many tough, profane words and I do not wish inadvertently to upset my readers. But it is very strongly recommended.
The third essay is from fellow Englishman, George Monbiot, whose work has been regularly republished on Learning from Dogs.
While his essay is not specifically about war, unlike the other two, it does, nonetheless, contribute to my feelings of not wanting to engage with anything that is outside being a better husband, landowner and animal lover. It is called The Values Ratchet and is republished here with the generous permission of George Monbiot.
The Values Ratchet
June 10th, 2014
How to ensure that nations slide ever further into selfishness, and ever further to the right.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th June 2014
Any political movement that fails to understand two basic psychological traits will, before long, fizzle out. The first is Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Coined by the biologist Daniel Pauly, it originally described our relationship to ecosystems(1), but it’s just as relevant to politics. We perceive the circumstances of our youth as normal and unexceptional – however sparse or cruel they may be. By this means, over the generations, we adjust to almost any degree of deprivation or oppression, imagining it to be natural and immutable.
The second is the Values Ratchet (also known as policy feedback). If, for example, your country has a public health system which ensures that everyone who needs treatment receives it without payment, it helps instil the belief that it is normal to care for strangers, and abnormal and wrong to neglect them(2,3). If you live in a country where people are left to die, this embeds the idea that you have no responsibility towards the poor and weak. The existence of these traits is supported by a vast body of experimental and observational research, of which Labour and the US Democrats appear determined to know nothing.
We are not born with our core values: they are strongly shaped by our social environment. These values can be placed on a spectrum between extrinsic and intrinsic. People towards the intrinsic end have high levels of self-acceptance, strong bonds of intimacy and a powerful desire to help other people. People at the other end are drawn to external signifiers, such as fame, financial success, image and attractiveness(4). They seek praise and rewards from others.
Research across 70 countries suggests that intrinsic values are strongly associated with an understanding of others, tolerance, appreciation, cooperation and empathy(5,6,7). Those with strong extrinsic values tend to have lower empathy, a stronger attraction towards power, hierarchy and inequality, greater prejudice towards outsiders and less concern for global justice and the natural world(8,9). These clusters exist in opposition to each other: as one set of values strengthens, the other weakens(10,11).
People at the extrinsic end tend to report higher levels of stress, anxiety, anger, envy, dissatisfaction and depression than those at the intrinsic end of the spectrum(12,13,14). Societies in which extrinsic goals are widely adopted are more unequal and uncooperative than those with deep intrinsic values. In one experiment, people with strong extrinsic values who were given a resource to share soon exhausted it (unlike a group with strong intrinsic values), as they all sought to take more than their due(15).
As extrinsic values are strongly associated with conservative politics, it’s in the interests of conservative parties and conservative media to cultivate these values. There are three basic methods. The first is to generate a sense of threat. Experiments reported in the journal Motivation and Emotion suggest that when people feel threatened or insecure they gravitate towards extrinsic goals(16). Perceived dangers – such as the threat of crime, terrorism, deficits, inflation or immigration – trigger a short-term survival response, in which you protect your own interests and forget other people’s.
The second method is the creation of new frames, structures of thought through which we perceive the world. For example, if tax is repeatedly cast as a burden, and less tax is described as relief, people come to see taxation as a bad thing that must be remedied(17). The third method is to invoke the Values Ratchet: when you change the way society works, our values shift in response. Privatisation, marketisation, austerity for the poor, inequality: they all shift baselines, alter the social cues we receive and generate insecurity and a sense of threat.
Margaret Thatcher’s political genius arose from her instinctive understanding of these traits, long before they were described by psychologists and cognitive linguists: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”(18) But Labour and the Democrats no longer have objects, only methods. Their political philosophy is simply stated: if at first you don’t succeed, flinch, flinch and flinch again. They seem to believe that if they simply fall into line with prevailing values, people will vote for them by default. But those values and baselines keep shifting, and what seemed intolerable before becomes unremarkable today. Instead of challenging the new values, these parties keep adjusting. This is why they always look like their opponents, with a five-year lag.
There is no better political passion killer than Labour’s Zero-Based Review(19). Its cover is Tory blue. So are the contents. It promises to sustain the coalition’s programme of cuts and even threatens to apply them to the health service(20). But, though it treats the deficit as a threat that must be countered at any cost, it says not a word about plugging the gap with innovative measures such as a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, a land value tax, a progressively-banded council tax or a windfall tax on extreme wealth. Nor does it mention tax avoidance and evasion. The poor must bear the pain through spending cuts, sustaining a cruel and wildly unequal social settlement.
At the end of last month, Chris Leslie, Labour’s Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, promised, like George Osborne, that the cuts would be sustained for “decades ahead”(21). He asserted that Labour’s purpose in government would be to “finish that task on which [the Chancellor] has failed”: namely “to eradicate the deficit”. The following day the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, sought to explain why Labour had joined the political arms race on immigration. In doing so, he revealed that his party will be “radical in reforming our economy” in support of “a determinedly pro-business agenda”(22). They appear to believe that success depends on becoming indistinguishable from their opponents.
It’s not quite as mad as the old tactic among some Marxist groups of promoting inequality and injustice in the hope that popular fury would lead to revolution, but it’s not far off. Quite aside from the obvious flaw (what’s the sodding point of voting for a party that offers no substantial change in policy?), it evinces a near-perfect psychological illiteracy. When a party reinforces conservative values and conservative ideas, when it fails clearly to expound any countervailing values, when it refuses to reverse the direction of the Values Ratchet, what outcome does it expect, other than a shift towards conservatism?
12. Tim Kasser, 2014. Changes in materialism, changes in psychological well-being: Evidence from three longitudinal studies and an intervention experiment. Motivation and Emotion, 38:1–22. doi: 10.1007/s11031-013-9371-4
20. “We will be cutting departmental spending in 2015-16 and not raising it, with no more borrowing to cover day-to-day spending”
“The fundamental principle of the Zero-Based Review is that all spending is in scope and all budgets will be challenged. The review will cover all areas of public spending, including those that have been protected in the current Spending Review such as health”.