Author Archives: machinetell

Intellectual Bravery

“Nobody’s that good. That’s why we need each other.” – Dr. Barry Bickmore

Anyone can back their own point of view. But real progress comes when you’re able to accept that the things you used to think and do weren’t good enough, that you can do better.

I was struck by this damascene account because not only had Dr. Bickmore accepted that he had been wrong about global warming, but had actually put together a presentation on why. Best of all, he identified the exact info that led him to accept the scientific consensus:

  • Scientific debate about human responsibility for global warming is over.
  • The models used to show changing global temperature are well-supported by a massive variety of evidence.
  • While there is uncertainty, this is normal in science, and global warming is probably higher than the usual estimates.

Beyond the science, though, Bickmore talks personally about how he once managed to avoid the truth. He talks about “me and people like me”, but the fallacies and fallabilities he talks about are human failings, not specific to global warming deniers. Because we all suffer from the tendency to filter information to support our own preconceptions, the ability and courage to change your mind is vital.

Even responsible mainstream media avoid responsibility for reporting the truth through the ideal of ‘neutrality’ or ‘balance’: reporting both sides of the story, even when one side is composed of “truth-challenged individuals”.

On a tangent, possibly more dangerous is the fact that big-R Reality is not limited to two sides – it ramifies in all directions. The media ‘norms’ issues when they claim to present ‘both’ sides. The truth, they imply, lies somewhere in between these two. But nonscientific media deliberately avoid establishing where the truth actually is! Telling two sides of a story implies there are only two sides: no shades of grey, only black and white. Reality is full-spectrum vivid colour (and spilling out beyond the two sides of that spectrum, too, into the invisible!)

Ahem. In the words of Frank Tyger, “Listening to both sides of a story will convince you that there is more to a story than both sides.”

In relation to global warming, for example, the most common prescription is to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees centigrade (the 350 parts per million atmospheric CO2 goal). However, not only is that target too high, but we are already producing more emissions than the IPCC allowed for in their ‘worst case scenario’.

The challenge is far-reaching. The International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook points out that the long lifespan of energy infrastructure means that our existing infrastructure will push us over the 350 ppm limit. Unless we radically change our construction habits by 2017, we will be committed to going above 450 ppm within the next half-century.

By building that unsustainable infrastructure, we are creating a future in which we face a bad choice: either turn the atmosphere into a sweltering greenhouse, or stop using CO2-intensive power stations – wasting the work and resources that went into them. Building sustainable infrastructure now means not having to make stupid choices later. And that requires us to admit that what we’re doing now is really, badly, wrong.

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Capital Ideas

I walked completely around the Christchurch central cordon a few weeks ago, and over the handful of hours it took I started to wake up to some realities I’ve really been trying to ignore. My city, the country it lives in, and indeed the world, is in the grip of a deep crisis. We are led by a National government that not only underfunds our recovery, but actually wants to cut back further. They are captives of an ideology of government that is opposed to governing.

I needed to get out of the city. Driving out south, mazing through closed turnoffs and bumping over rippled roads, I caught the end of a National Radio broadcast about the World Economics Association. This international organisation, launched in May, aims to break the neoliberal lock American economics has on the discipline. The coverage is illuminating.

Ideas on Sunday interviewed Robert wade, who talks about the lack of change in macroeconomics, and the way that its outdated, ‘respectable’ ideas favour big financial institutions over productive businesses and people. He notes how large international financial organisations have avoided the initial post-crash moves towards regulation, and how the theory economists promote looks after economists, and their classmates (hah! a pun) who went on into finance. Deregulation is founded on the faith that the market best takes care of society – a fantasy that nobody should believe anymore.

Ideas also spoke to Ha-Joon Chang, author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, who exposes the illusion that the market pays people what they’re worth, and explains how individual productivity is dependent on social setting. Society, he concludes, therefore has the right to intervene. Individual rewards are collectively determined; pretending otherwise merely privileges those individuals who manage to secure a disproportionate slice.

The final third of the hour is spent with Steve Keen, author of Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences who explains the logical flaws in neoliberalism, well-known for over 50 years, and says that economics has rebuilt the world in its own image – a pseudoscientific, flawed and unfair image, if his critique is to be believed. Neoclassical economists, he says, don’t understand neoclassical economics. Naive, they are like Ptolemaic astronomers post-Copernicus, unaware or unwilling to accept that they are not at the centre of the universe. Unlike astronomers, unfortunately, these economists dominate global education and decision-making, and their provably false beliefs (Keen cites their belief that the level of debt does not matter) create crisis after crisis, which the rest of us have to bear while financiers reap gigantic bailout packages (government intervention in the economy… what?).

I have just started economics at university. In the first week, they introduced and then glossed over the major flaw in market capitalism: markets, it is claimed, are allocatively efficient, that is, they portion out goods and services to those who want them most (and will therefore pay the highest price). In the words of my lecturer Steve Agnew, the problem with this is people have different amounts of money to spend. In other words, markets are only efficient when everyone has the same ability to indicate their preferences. In a world where CEOs make over 500 times the average wage (ignoring the income gap between nations), the idea of allocative efficiency is simply a fallacy. Markets are systematically inefficient, ignoring the needs of the poor and the many, and massively overvaluing the demands of the rich and powerful. Who knew? This is a major problem in economics and apparently solving it will give one instant celebrity among economists worldwide. Well, we’ll see.

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RMS

It’s obligatory for me to begin this post by pointing out that Richard Stallman is so famous that I can just refer to him by his initials.

An early luminary in the MIT hacker culture, Stallman is founder of the GNU’s Not Unix Project, the free software movement and a champion of copyleft (which we use a version of!).

He’s currently touring New Zealand, and despite regular ninja hacks is giving a second talk in Christchurch, Tuesday October 13, Lecture Theatre A1, University of Canterbury, 5-7pm. Apparently the first speech, at the Chrsitchurch Town Hall, will run you $450 for a day registration (is this a typo? Do conferences really cost that much?). Stallman prefers talking in openly accessible settings anyway.

He also spoke on Kim Hill’s morning show last Saturday (archived here, but National Radio’s site is useless so you might have to right-click and select ‘save link as’, or open the location with a media player if you’re that savvy). This interview was hilarious; have a listen. Kim Hill doesn’t seem to believe a word Stallman has to say about abuse of surveillance and control technologies. It’s almost as if she’s never heard of the Security Intelligence Service, which spies on and maintains files on political dissidents, even if they’re focussed on the national interest, or Rob Gilchrist, the Police informant who infiltrated every harmless activist group I’ve ever been in, agitating for actions that would allow our arrests, as well as unions and other civil society groups. Not to mention the state terror raids of 2007.

Back to Stallman. He speaks about these issues in the abstract, and cites overseas examples. New Zealand has no shortage of examples of abuse of secret power, but Kim Hill needed so much convincing that Stallman barely had the chance to speak about software freedom. He also had some excellent ideas for funding media in the 21st Century, essentially proposing that creative works be made freely reproducible and available, and artists paid from the tax dollar on the basis of polls or some other way of tracking their popularity.

Most of all, I was struck by how close-minded and unimaginative his interviewer appeared, and how this mirrored my own experiences in talking about these issues with people. When pointing out that the present system is awful, and suggesting a few ideas for a positive alternative, one must expect a hostile and aggressive challenge to present a wholly-formed alternative, complete with revolutionary program and a denunciation of every paranoid fantasy presented (pogroms, terrorism, intellectual totalitarianism, women with hairy pits) with any admission of personal limits or ignorance taken as evidence that the status quo is unassailable. Stallman shows that it only takes a little bit of common sense to stop accepting the abuses of the powerful, and that stating the obvious is often a perfect response to one’s doubters.

Hopefully I’ll see you Tuesday.

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Impossible dreams

We will be using twice the planet’s capacity; that’s physically impossible. And that’s our collective dream.

Mathis Wackernagel, Executive Director of the Global Footprint Network.

Eternal growth is the central dream of capitalism. The promise of profit informs investment, invention, industry. It’s possible that it’s impossible to find the political will for any project that seriously threatens growth.

Today is Earth Overshoot Day – the day when humanity has used the total amount of resources that the Earth can regenerate in a year. All resources used beyond this point dig too deep, damaging the Earth’s ability to provide for us in future. Every year, Earth Overshoot Day comes a little earlier though this year, it came two days later than in 2008 – long may the recession continue >< ).

This is the price of dreams of limitless growth: you run past the very real limits, and then you pay the price.

In the early days of the 20th Century, there was the very real threat that the Western working class would rise up and overthrow capitalism. Hard to imagine these days I know. Thing is, they lived (by our standards) in abject poverty. The world had just gone through a period of economic liberalisation (sometimes referred to as the first round of globalisation), the welfare state didn’t exist. Unions were massive, militant, and revolutionary. Economic growth was an important part of the New Deal, which defused the tensions over class inequality by guaranteeing that all would benefit from a growing economy, with the extra value spread around through progressive taxation and a welfare system. In addition to being the source of economy-wide profit, economic growth also relieves the tensions of inequality in our class system.

So what happens when the economy has grown to fill all the space available? When all natural resources are fully exploited (or rather, overexploited: we already use more than the earth produces, and dump more than it absorbs).

The first thing to realise is that this is not an abstract question, nor one that sits safely in the distant future. It’s already happened countless times, though on a local scale far less disastrous than the present crisis. The Mediterranean, famous for thousands of years as a fertile cradle of civilisation, has suffered massive desertification. The ‘fertile crescent’, between the Tigris and Euphrates, the ‘historical garden of Eden’, is better known these days as the dust-blown, bomb-pocked desert backdrop of the occupation of Iraq.

This is not a drill. Exceeding the carrying capacity of one’s environment has brought down countless civilisations throughout history, and there is every sign it will end ours, too. Malnutrition alone already claims millions of lives each year, even leaving aside lack of other resources like healthcare. Now, you could say that this has nothing to do with the limits to economic growth, that it’s a problem of distribution. Yes, the USA throws away more than enough food to feed all of Africa. But this leads to the second point.

We live in a radically unequal society. Different people will run out of different resources at different rates, and unequal distribution will accentuate the burden on the humanity’s poorest. The system will eventually hit a wall, but rather than an abrupt twisting of flesh and metal it will be a prolonged affair. Most of our awareness of it will be awareness of the suffering of distant others.

This inequality produces all sorts of pressures, and once we can no longer hold out the promise of growth and improvement, many will find the pressure intolerable. In addition to civil unrest, we will see migration out of resource-starved areas (well, more: we already see a lot of this), wars over resources (again, I’m not actually predicting anything new here) and deepening class divisions (ok, I don’t have a single original thought).

Happy Earth Overshoot Day.

Links

A range of tools for approximating your ecological footprint.

Global Footprint Network.

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Filed under Climate Change, economics, Food

Reimagining Society

Communism began with the dream of a classless society, free of the exploitation and inequality of capitalism. Instead of private control of industry for private purposes, the fruits of human labour were to be shared by all.

The left never really recovered from the shocking reality of the Soviet Union. Capitalist control was simply replaced by Party control, and freedom and equality were strangled by the unity of state and economic power.

While the atrocities of the communist world were given a lot of airtime in Cold War propaganda, and those of the capitalist world conveniently ignored, the apparent failure of the people’s revolution was enough to ruin the name of communism. No longer is it a rallying cry for equality, but a derisive caricature of naive and outdated ideologues. Socialist parties throughout the industrial world embraced social democracy, alleviating the evils of capitalism rather than replacing them, reform rather than revolution.

At the dawn of a new century, with old revolutionary ideologies in tatters, it might seem that gradual reform of capitalism is the only way towards more freedom and equality, or at least free stuff and quality. However the revolutionary ideal remains alive and well, even in industrial capitalist democracies like the USA. Following on from the decades of non-communist activism like the civil rights, globalisation and peace movements and the success of events like the Life After Capitalism conference at the World Social Forum, a group of authors and activists have begun reimagining society.

Essentially a gigantic brainstorming session, Reimagining Society aims to move beyond simply criticising the existing system and towards an account of a revolutionary future. The loss of communism as an ideal has opened the field for more convincing alternatives, visions of the future that include concepts like gender and ethnic equality, decentralised planning, and democratic participation. In addition, contemporary revolutionary theory is beginning to recognise that classical communism fails to recognise a third class: in addition to owners and workers, society also includes a managerial class. The Soviet Union, China, Cuba – all simply replaced one set of rulers (the owners) with another (the managers). A real egalitarian revolution involves putting people in charge of themselves, through direct self-management. This is how the full development of every person’s potential can be achieved.

Such ideas can be found discussed throughout Z Communications, the hosts of the project. This site is an absolute stalwart of the radical left – a combination of magazine, social networking site, video and audio casts and blogs. One major source of inspiration for the Reimagining Society project comes from Zmag co-founder and -editor Michael Albert‘s work on Participatory Economics. If you’re at all interested in left or revolutionary theory, you owe it to yourself to frequent their site.

Links

Infinite collection of Reimagining Society essays
Instructional: developing economic vision
Participatory economics FAQ

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Don’t Let The Sun Set On Night Classes

From Scoop: “It was a neat cover-up on budget night. The government painted education as a winner because overall education funding increased by 2.9 percent from $10.5 billion to $10.8 billion. Not bad in the teeth of a developing recession. However most of the extra spending was for capital development for new schools and what was hidden from view was a wide range of savage cuts in all areas of public education.”

National day of action, Saturday 12 September. Join the rally at 12 noon in Cathedral Square.

I spent the first few years of my high schooling at a prestigious private school, before quitting in disgust and spending the remainder of my teenage years in the public education system. In a world where education is the key to social advancement, I was stunned by the comparison.

Going from one to the other, I discovered that my (private school) education was better than that of my (public school) teachers. I am not exaggerating, and I don’t mean to boast, but when I found it necessary to correct my science teachers, I realised our youth are badly ill-served by a starving public system.

It turns out, if you are willing and able to splurge on the best teachers, resources, support staff, and equipment, you can help students a lot more than if you don’t spend enough money on them.

National, and the Right generally, make a lot of noise about private initiative and the importance of lower taxes and lower public spending. On one level they are mistaken, on another they are deliberately lying, and on yet another they are simply hypocrites. To increase public funds to private education, while cutting the amount of public money going back to the public, is an iconic move.

The contemporary Right, regardless of their professed ideals of rugged individualism, stand for the appropriation of public money for private profit. It is that simple, and the methods range from Public-Private Partnerships, to outsourcing of government services, to manipulation of the public’s fear of Arabs, to night class cuts and private school funding.

The point of capitalism is to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich; that is in fact why they are the poor and the rich. All this talk about individual hard yakka is a lie; it is simply not true that a CEO does 10,000 times as much work as a janitor. Even if one accepts that people should be paid according to how valuable their work is (which I don’t), ignoring the different opportunities afforded by, say, private schooling, involvement in upper-class families and social networks, and the cultural badges of accent, dress, gender and skin colour that allow someone to secure such valuable work… is simply wilful ignorance. Ignorance that serves the valuable purpose of allowing the upper class to persist in the delusion that they deserve such a large slice of the pie that there is no longer enough for everyone else.

It sickens me that anyone can rationalise cutting night classes, and public education funding generally, in order to give more money to the already privileged. Having had access to that privilege myself, I can only say that the entire public education system should be as well-funded. Even the vicious morons that populate New Zealand’s upper class can benefit from such an education; how much better it would be for people who will actually have to work damn hard to get anywhere in life.

Links

Education funding to communities slashed – Scoop
Day of action – Uprising against night class cuts – Scoop
Taxpayers should not be funding Private Education – Scoop
Handouts to private schools appalling – Alliance – Scoop
NZ Tertiary Education Funding – A short history – Scoop
Tertiary Education Funding in New Zealand: Part II – Scoop
Nat’s plans for private school funds deplorable

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The Gullibility of Skeptics

I need to know the most diplomatic way to say “well, you’re entitled to your opinion, but you should really stop denying that it conflicts with the clear scientific evidence.” This need usually grips me in the depths of a civil discussion about global warming. You know the ones.

Many people perceive a scientific controversy where none exists. Naomi Oreskes has documented the extent of the scientific consensus, and I recently discovered she’s done further work looking at where these beliefs come from. Her answer, which takes up the latter half of that video, is that the controversy doesn’t come from within science, but from concerted PR campaigns by nonscientific lobbying organisations. A good watch if you’re a media/environment/science geek with a spare hour.

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