Tag Archives: environment

Performance -> Feedback -> Response

Just got back from Robin Ince’s Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People which you, dear reader, may recall I attended last year as well and I am delighted to be able to report that all three of my suggestions were taken on board and as an overall package it was a massive improvement on an evening which I enjoyed immensely. Now I know what it feels like to use Windows 7!

What did I learn this evening? Well, apparently things really can only get better after D:Ream – Brian Cox’s science bit was easily the most mind-blowing of the evening. I got to experience another aspect of Alan Moore’s genius – in this case as an incredibly funny, thought proviking and self-effacing stand up comic. I learned that Ben Goldacre can speak incredibly fast and still make perfect sense. And I learned that rap is the best medium for explaining how evolution works (although Monty Python managed to make it even simpler).

And then there was Johnny Ball. After the previous evening, where Ball was reportedly booed off stage, there was a bit of a squeaky bum moment in anticipation of his act. I would guess that like around 50% of the audience, Johnny Ball was one of the main reasons why I was there that evening, a childhood hero whose absence on childrens’ television has been sorely missed. And it is a real problem when it emerges that your heroes have feet of clay.

From what I’ve read, Balls’ arguments belittling anthropocentric climate change don’t really add up. Wisely he decided to drop this material this evening. Instead his piece focused on how Newton’s theory of gravity largely built on the work of Gallileo and Kepler and that a genius was only really someone who read more than one book and managed to join the dots. His message for the evening was that in the 21st century we have thousands of people out there doing what was regarded was genius-level work a couple of centuries out there and that we shouldn’t give into despair but instead be inspired by human ingenuity.

This resonated with me, mainly because of the way it so strongly contrasts with the basic message of George Monbiot’s Guardian column earlier this week. Monbiot’s argument could not be more different; as the subeditor writes “survival depends on accepting we live within limits”. Monbiot has a point; we can’t assume we can simply keep digging up more and more oil other natural resources and that somehow something will just come along and make it all right. But in dividing the world up between “expanders and restrainers” (which, ironically, does explain the great True Blood / Twilight controversy; something which I’m sure Monbiot will be delighted to discover), he asserts that for humanity to survive it must essentially give up that which makes us most human; the need to strive. In place of that, we should be content with mere survival.

“The summit’s premise is that the age of heroism is over” he asserts. What? Really? It seems to me that the one thing Copenhagen needs more than anything else is a bit of sentimental, schmaltzy, Hollywood-style heroism. If the world assembled world leaders were prepared to be a bit heroic, they could set in train a process which would avert possible catastrophe. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of ruling out any meaningful progress before the talks even began, Obama came back from Copenhagen with a wildly ambitious plan that the rest of the world agreed with and made it his mission to get the US to accept it? He might not succeed, but he’d almost certainly carry the debate far further than it has gone in the US thus far.

The problem is not that world leaders are obsessed with being heroic; anything but. Are we really about to cede heroism to the denialist right? Is the anonymous bureaucrat really going to be our future role model?

Monbiot has set himself an impossible task: he wants to remould humanity in a way that is not only uninspiring but would be both incapable and undeserving of surivival. As misanthropic narratives are concerned, that’s quite an achievement. It is manna from heaven for the denialists who seek to present climate change activists in precisely the light that Monbiot is now basking in.

One way or another, humanity is going to survive the 21st century; of that I’m quite certain. We might do it by having a collective change in consciousness over the next five years and changing our current path of destruction. Alternatively, we might do it in an extremely painful way by witnessing catastrophic climate change, social unrest, entire populations literally walking into less climate ravaged parts of the world (i.e. Europe) and the destruction of 90% of life on earth. To avoid that, we will require ingenuity (Performance -> Feedback -> Response) on a heroic scale. By contrast, the Malthusianism that Monbiot seems dangerously close to here diminishes human endeavour. And once you start down that path, you start valuing human life as extremely cheap.

Johnny Ball is almost certainly wrong about the science behind climate change and George Monbiot is almost certainly right. But when it comes to inspiration and basic humanism, I’d rather have the former batting for my team any day of the week. Let’s not make him our enemy.

James Delingpole – a caricature of a rightist flat-Earther?

James Delingpole is mad as hell and he isn’t going to take it any more! He is outraged that the Times has accused the 59% of the population who don’t believe in anthropocentric global warming of being idiots. There is the small matter that the Times doesn’t actually argue this, but rather quotes from a speech by Martyn Rees, but mere facts have never stopped a swivel-eyed rightwing polemicist in the past and by jingo! it isn’t going to stop Delingpole now.

What follows is a virtual caricature of the rightwing flat-Earther argument about, well, pretty much everything. In a few short paragraphs, he manages to conflate people who agree with the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change with “liberals” with “fascists” with “Marxists” – frankly I’m amazed he didn’t shoehorn the Freemasons, Elder Protocols and Common Purpose in for good measure. And all because a newspaper quoted a scientist making a somewhat uncharitable remark – something that a fruitbat who seems to think we can pin everything on a couple of sunspots would never do of course.

The Telegraph does seem to specialise in these swivel-eyed loons. Damian Thompson is a particularly vicious favourite of mine (if “favourite” is the right word). I was delighted to see him shortlisted for the New Humanist’s Bad Faith Awards but disappointed that he was up against Ratzinger himself. It’s no contest!

Quality of Life (1) – Introduction

I’ve got out of the habit of blogging my responses to the Lib Dem policy consultation papers of late but the Quality of Life one caught my eye and I thought I’d have a stab at it.

My overall response is that, while I applaud the party for wanting to tackle this issue and personally consider it to be very important, the direction that the consultation paper is taking somewhat concerns me. Unlike some, I don’t think this is an area where government should not intervene, but it needs to be realistic about what it can achieve and it would be better off taking fewer, more strategic decisions than attempting to meddle with every little issue.

I’m also increasingly coming to the conclusion that equality and quality of life are flipsides of the same coin (it is no coincidence that most people who disregard the former also dismiss the latter). To tackle one is to tackle the other, and vice versa. Having entirely seperate consultations on the two areas – the equality consultation begins at the next conference – is to a certain extent redundant.

Anyway, without further ado, here is my response. I will try to contain my comments to the questions in the paper (although such questions always irritate me so I am bound to drift off topic):

1. Should government be more concerned to increase their citizens’ wellbeing than their wealth? What is the proper role of government in promoting quality of life?

The answer to the first question is most definitely yes, but few would subscribe to the notion that wealth and wellbeing are entirely unrelated. Having recently read The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, some of the most compelling charts they print in that book are the ones where they compare the GDP of countries with life expectency (page 7) and happiness (page 9). What these charts show are that GDP, life expectency and happiness are related up to a certain point (around $25,000 per capita) and then level off. From that point onward, equality becomes a more defining factor.

So my tentative answer to the second question is that the role of government is to foster a political economy that is both healthy and where people are relatively equal. But it is absolutely crucial that the way we achieve that equality is itself equitable.

2. Should governments concentrate on minimising misery rather than augmenting happiness? If so, do they need to do more or less?

This is a bit of a silly question. I would answer that our goal should be more about “minimising misery” than “augmenting happiness” since the latter sounds a bit too Brave New World for my taste. But I’m not entirely convinced that the government should be especially concerned with either per se.

I’ve always been wary of the term “happiness” and its utilitarian ties. I understand that a lot of people use happiness and well-being as interchangeable terms but this question somewhat suggests that the author is thinking of happiness in rather more simplistic terms.

There are a variety of things we should be seeking to maximise: liberty, self-confidence, trust in society, questioning of authority, a sense of being in control of one’s life (indeed, I don’t think you can have the former without the latter four – others disagree). These are things we should be concerning ourselves with, not gross “happiness”.

3. Are the ways our public services work detrimental to our quality of life?

In a lot of ways, yes. Far too often they undermine our need for self-control, demand unquestioning obedience and assume that society is a dark and sinister place. They need to be as transparent, accountable and democratic as possible and controlled at the lowest possible level.

4. What additional or alternative indicators should government use in place of GDP?

There are lots of different indicators we could use. The debate about alternative indicators has been going on for at least as long as I’ve been involved in politics. It hasn’t got very far, partially because I think it misses the point.

I have a far stronger indicator for the state of the economy than GDP. It’s called the Maltesers Index. I’ve noticed that over the last six months, an increasing number of shops I walk into are trying to flog me packets of sweets at discount prices. Borders appear to have forgotten that their main trade is in books. The last time I walked into a WH Smiths you could barely reach the counter for all the bargain bins of confectionary they had put in front of it. I have a fairly good understanding of the economics of why that is, but I wouldn’t want the MI to guide national policy for the simple fact that the government could massively improve their figures by banning Maltesers. This wouldn’t actually help the economy – it would make things worse. What’s more I like Maltesers.

We can find all sorts of measurements, but they will always be open to abuse because they are prone to being gamed. What’s more, they have to feel real to people. Two major quality of life indicators have dominated public policy for decades – reported crime and the British Crime Survey – yet they are rarely referred to as such. Politicians tend to emphasise whichever of the two figures that are more helpful to them (in my view the BCS is better but it isn’t without its flaws) and the result is that we tend to distrust both of them. You could say the same about unemployment figures.

The fact is, government measures lots of things. We could measure a few more things but I’m not convinced it will change much. The best indicator in my book is the record of votes cast for whom in each election. We should try having an electoral system that reflects it at some point.

5. People are often bad predictors of what will improve their own quality of life. What role should government play here? What happens if our liberal commitments to equality and freedom of choice appear to conflict with our desire to enable to enjoy a good quality of life?

This is a question that is crying out for a “for instance”. The simple answer is “it depends.”

Yes, people are often bad predictors of what will improve their own quality of life, but governments are too. I’m not convinced that the solution is for the government to step in and meddle with every single solution. We need the government to be looking at more strategic shifts. This is why, for me, equality is such a big deal. The evidence before us suggests that by managing this shift, we could improve a whole range of social and health indicators in a way that hundreds of government programmes have been unable to match.

For the most part, the role of government should be to mitigate bad personal choices, not to prevent them. That of course brings in the question of moral hazard and there should certainly be a cost for making mistakes. But that isn’t the same thing as letting people rot.

Drugs policy is an excellent example. We know that taking drugs such as cocaine and heroin is generally not a very good idea, leading to addiction, the risk of overdose and mental health issues. Yet all attempts to restrict this choice have backfired. Yet all the experiments involving legalisation to one degree or another suggest that such an approach leads to fewer social problems and even less drug useage. Part of the lesson here is that by allowing people to make wrong choices and picking them up off the floor when they do, we enable them to make right choices in future instead of getting stuck in a cycle of desperation and criminality.

The real challenge to freedom of choice is the much cited tragedy of the commons, but I’m not convinced that simply removing choice or even costing in externalities will be the solution. Apart from anything else, such moves are not popular and the parties that propose easy solutions are the ones that tend to win at the ballot box. Mark van Vugt wrote an interesting article in New Scientist a couple of weeks ago challenging this and proposing an alternative approach, suggesting four “i”s: information, identity, institutions and incentives. Ultimately, if individual choices tend to be flawed then it is the role of the state to help inform those choices. In the longer term that will be more effective.