Pleasure and to hell with the future?

MY QUESTION AS I REACH OLD AGE: Given the inevitability of social collapse, maybe we should live out our declining years as disciples of the pleasure principle and to hell with the future?


Do I detect some post-Methodist disdain for pleasure?

I wonder what a world run according to pleasure might be like? It’s so hard to imagine, conditioned as we are to believe life is about struggle, self-sacrifice and deferral? The mainstream religions are strongly opposed to any notion that life could or should be about pleasure, and when did any politician refer to it? One of the phrases I most disliked from the last Labour government was “hard-working families”, which seemed to encapsulate an appallingly narrow view of life, as well as contradictory ideas of both undesirable and necessary toil. Why should life be about working hard? That idea has been propagated by Christianity, capitalism and communism, which must indicate that something is seriously wrong!

I think this denial of pleasure also largely explains modern society’s strange attitudes toward sex. It’s one thing that’s rarely discussed openly and honestly, though of course we are assailed on all sides by sexualised images. I’m endlessly perplexed why people should disapprove of homosexuality, and I can only conclude that they have found no genuine pleasure in sex. Contented people have no desire to repress others.

My own life has been significantly conditioned by my parents’ inability to discern and seek any real pleasure in life. For them everything was a means to an end, and those ends never seemed attainable in this life. But our lives are so short, so why should we not want what we might attain right here, right now (provided that it doesn’t cause suffering to others)?

Of course you will say that the modern world’s behaviour is indeed causing suffering for others: for the poor and future generations.  But my point is that we are busy trashing the planet for no good reason. There is now much evidence that economic well-being ceases to add to happiness after a certain point, and we might reasonably conclude that our society’s excessive consumption is unconscious compensation for our pleasure-free, stress-filled, overworked lives. Money itself is largely a surrogate for all those things we can’t directly experience for ourselves.

Politicians cannot talk about pleasure because really it’s about what we can do for ourselves. Our “political selves” are weirdly two-dimensional, but we are multi-dimensional beings. I’m becoming less and less interested in what any politician or religious person has to say; I’d rather lie in the sun, listen to music or go for a run! This is probably how I shall live out my “declining years”, though I shall be holding off the “decline” as long as possible!

Personal freedom & social collapse


For some time we’ve been discussing two interrelated issues: how humans relate to the planet, and how humans relate to each other.

The ecological crisis requires that humanity significantly reduces its impact on the planet, which can only come about through:

  1. top-down control/coercion,
  2. voluntary action,
  3. a combination of economic and population collapse.

The first is highly undesirable and almost certainly unworkable (given the record of previous attempts, e.g. communist regimes). The second is preferable but unrealistic, as governments are most unlikely ever to agree on behalf of their people to the necessary sacrifices (e.g. Rio +20), and groups of citizens working together will never have more than a negligible effect on the overall problem. The third is not a policy option but a plausible and alarming consequence of inaction.

In contrast, the core issue for modern human society is the development of personal freedom. Most of the political argument over the last century or so has been about this, though many of the options have presented this is in language that now seems strange to us. I’m not arguing for historical inevitability, though in the globalised era it does seem to be the case that when people have tasted some measure of freedom or observed it elsewhere, they demand more of it for themselves. Part of the psychological appeal of capitalism and consumerism is that they give some experience of personal choice. The hundreds of millions of the new middle classes in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere will certainly feel that their lives have got better. Greater economic freedom probably leads to an expectation of freedom in other areas of life because it expands the idea of personal sovereignty. We no longer see ourselves as part of the collective in the same way and become less willing to submit to controls and coercion. The “social contract” has been rewritten, and on the whole this is a very good thing.

These two trends are clearly antagonistic. This is the dilemma of contemporary humanity, and I see no means of resolution unless people become radically different from the way they are and are ever likely to be. This is where we’ve got to in the “human beings on planet earth experiment”, and the outcome doesn’t look very hopeful. However, we don’t know how this will play out and over what timescale, so I don’t think we should become overly pessimistic. We are still individually experiencing the miracle of life, and there are endless things we can do to make our lives rewarding and meaningful, including acting on behalf of others and the planet. The point is not to be deluded about this, or fanatical, or coercive.

I have no blueprint to offer. I know I cannot preach to others actions I’m not prepared to take myself. My life is not “sustainable” in planetary terms, and neither is yours. Also, I’m not willing to accept others’ rules about how I should live my life. I am very wary of the collective. I am clearly part of the problem rather than the solution!

Can evidence transform worldviews?

My on-line friend Slav Heller has created a useful map of existential beliefs (MEB) or ideologies which can be used to compare basic worldviews. The scientific-rational worldview is termed by Heller the Ideology of Superior Mind, implying a certain hubris for those who see the world through the lens of reason and science and are not confident in using supernatural beliefs to make sense of the world. His map uses the label Ideology of Power and Domination as underpinning the almost universal driver of ‘progress’ as unending wealth accumulation. Opposed to this is the still minority worldview whcih he labels the Ideology of Nature’s Wisdom.

This article which summarises an academic papaer, makes an assertion and asks the question: Global politics is based on an outmoded and increasingly destructive model of human progress and development. Can science change a dire situation? It argues that the political notion of progress as modernisation and GDP growth needs to be re-examined against a scinetific analysis of its costs not only its benefits.  Costs include, especially, the growing impacts of modern ways of life on the natural environment and on human wellbeing (which are, of course inextricably linked). That many of the world’s most populous nations, including China, India and Brazil, are, in important respects, following this path of progress greatly increases the global threat.

Unfortunately for those wishing to redefine ‘progress’: Changing the political and cultural status quo runs up against formidable obstacles. One is the inertia in the system, with currents ways of doing things locked into place by entrenched and self-perpetuating organisational values and attitudes, and the multitude of existing mechanisms by which the world is run. Another obstacle is the money and effort that vested political and corporate interests put into maintaining their advantage….

the task is to enlarge political debate to question the worldviews that underpin politics. This would open the way for far-reaching policy choices that the current status quo precludes. Politics and the media define arbitrarily what warrants coverage and discussion, and much that is important is left out. … There is no valid reason why the worldview of leaders could not be a central theme of political debate. This would be very different from today’s emphasis on ‘issue’ and ‘identity’ politics, whose elements are kept firmly within the conventional framework of progress.

The article concludes: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are useful, but remain embedded in the orthodox model of development. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides one model for how to move forward if it can be applied to the much larger task of genuine sustainable development.

Governments and leaders will not implement solutions to the threats facing humanity if they are not convinced of their extent and magnitude, which they are not at present. Perceived scientific legitimacy is a central justification for these political perceptions. Changing these perceptions is arguably science’s greatest challenge today.

On a website that is concerned for the sustainablilty of sentient life on Spaceship Earth the definition of ‘progress and development’, as represented by prevailing worldviews, is fundamental. For years it has been my clear mission to challenge the ‘no brainer’ delusion that unending economic, population and technological exponential growth (human impact on the finite planet) is a fatal trajectory and the resources on this site offer ample evidence of the consequences, but sadly, few indicators of evidence that the worldviews that drive this trajectory can or are being significantly changed.

Catastrophic Metaphors

Monbiot in this review claims that Jeremy Lent’s “The Patterning Instinct”  is the most important book he has ever read. This is a remarkable claim from such a prolific writer, scholar and activist who has dedicated his life to the protection of nature from the ravages of human civilisation. Lent’s work falls within a new discipline called cognitive history.

From infancy, our minds are shaped by the culture we grow into, which lays trails we learn to follow, like paths through a field of tall grass. Helping us to construct these patterns of meaning are powerful root metaphors embedded in our language. Without our conscious knowledge, they guide the choices we make.

Lent argues that the peculiar character of Western religious and scientific thought, that has come to dominate the rest of the world, has pushed both human civilisation and the rest of the living world to the brink of collapse. But he also shows how, through comprehending its metaphors and patterns, we can step off our path and develop new trails through the field of grass, leading us away from the precipice at its edge….

Far from standing aside from nature or being able to dominate it, we are embedded in it, intimately connected to processes we can never fully control. It allows us, potentially, to see the universe itself as a web of meaning: a powerful new root metaphor that could, perhaps, change the way we live.

There is plenty of work to do, to translate these insights into a practical politics. But it seems to me that Lent has explained why, despite our knowledge and even our intentions, we continue to follow our path to the precipice. To solve a problem, we need first to understand it: this is what “a good start” looks like. We cannot change the destination until we change the path.

Prophets and Wizards

This article from the Atlantic is an extract from a new book by Charles Mann. It provides an excellent overview of two divergent streams of  thought and action in relation to a sustainable future, particularly with reference to feeding 10 billion people anticipate three decades from now. The extract from the book labels the work following from that of William Vogt as ‘Prophets’ and that from Norman Borlaug as ‘Wizards’. Essentially Vogt advocated curbing human impact on the planet whereas Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, and his successors see the possiblity of technological solutions to the predicament of exponentially growing  population and affluence. The article reports ‘moon shot’ scale R & D  on the genetic modification of plants following on the original works of Borlaug but does not shy away from a complex and cautionary systems view of the complexity of the challenges facing food production in the years ahead.

Much of the material on this website falls into the ‘Prophet’ stream of thought as does David C Korten’s “Change the Story; Change the Future” tha my son recently bought me. He also at the same time bought me by way of balance, Oliver Morton’s”The Planet Remade” which is firmly located in the ‘Wizard’ stream with its advocacy of geoengineering to change the planet.

Polar vortex & jet stream effects

Not the most compelling title for a blog entry, but the recent extreme weather events that brought snow to both Florida and the Sahara desert are clearly explained in this 5 minute video.  Produced by Yale Climate Connections, it denies the notion that when cold weather reaches further south than expected, this must be evidence that there is no global warming. The heating of the Arctic region and the reduction of sea ice disrupts the polar vortex of high pressure and alters the paths of the jet stream that results in cold air being dragged further south and warm air being dragged further north. Thus, while Florida freezes, Alaska has experienced abnormally high temperatures. Would that climate deniers in power who are rolling back attempts at amelioration of global warming could grasp the points made in this excellent and authoritative video! If they did, then perhaps a sustainable future might seem more desireable than the accumulation and concentration of wealth as a guiding principle of public and private leadership.

Governance for “Full Spaceship Earth”

Club of Rome publishes a major new report on the governance of “Spaceship Earth”

New book Come On!  proposes an overhaul in the way that governments, businesses, financial systems, innovators and families interact with our planet.  Heidelberg | Winterthur, 05 December 2017

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Anders Wijkman
Come On! 

Capitalism, Short-termism, Population and the Destruction of the Planet
1st ed. 2018, XIV, 220 p. 46 illus., 42 illus. in color.
Hardcover $29.99, € 24,99, £19.99  ISBN 978-1-4939-7418-4
Also available as an eBook ISBN 978-1-4939-7419-1

The human footprint is increasing fast and will – if not reversed – eventually lead to a collapse of the global economy. So say the authors of the new book Come On! which proposes an overhaul in the way that governments, businesses, financial systems, innovators and families interact with our planet.

Now, in cooperation with more than 30 members from the Club of Rome, authors Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and Anders Wijkman, the sitting co-presidents of the Club, suggest possible solutions to the global ecological and social crises. At the core is the suggestion to develop a new Enlightenment for a „Full World”: we can no longer depend on a societal model that was developed for a world of less than one billion people.

Humans and farm animals constitute 97 percent of the bodyweight of all living land vertebrates on earth so it’s not surprising that the remaining 3 percent of wildlife struggles to compete for land and for survival. Alongside an environmental crisis are social, political and moral crises. Billions of people no longer put trust in their governments, poverty has deepened in many countries, in the US the middle-class is rapidly shrinking.

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker argues: “Our shared wellbeing on a healthy planet demands a rethinking of reigning philosophies and a new Enlightenment that could seek inspiration from old traditions.”

Measuring our success on GDP growth has proven inadequate to the task and it also masks a growth in inequality between rich and poor. New indicators such as a Genuine Progress Indicator could more accurately measure economic welfare.

The present model of development is seriously flawed. Profit maximization – under the principle of shareholder value first – and saving the planet are inherently in conflict. The new Enlightenment must be characterized by a vastly improved balance between humans and nature, between markets and the law, between private consumption and public goods, between short-term and long term thinking, between social justice and incentives for excellence.

Advances in technology will be crucial. We need technology disruption in many sectors, not least to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But disruption must be balanced by efforts to support the losers, both among companies and employees.

This book comprises many practical examples, success stories and opportunities for the “Full World”. A move towards a circular economy can help overcome mineral scarcity, significantly lower carbon emissions and increase the number of jobs. Regenerative agriculture will help stop soil erosion, enhance yields and build carbon in the soil. Efforts have to be made to rein in the financial sector by increasing capital reserves and control of money creation. Some insights can come from the Hopi tradition in North America, which developed sustainable agriculture and maintained a stable population size while avoiding wars.

“This book is hard stuff. Politically, it is very uncomfortable. But the fresh and original thought within it should be seen as an invitation to ‘come on’ and join on a fascinating journey of testing new ways to make the full world a sustainable and prospering one,” says co-author Anders Wijkman.

Civil society, the communities of investors, and the research and education communities should become strong players in the necessary transformation.

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and Anders Wijkman are co-presidents of the Club of Rome.

The Club of Rome is an organization of individuals who share a common concern for the future of humanity and strive to make a difference. It is made up of notable scientists, economists, representatives from business, high level civil servants and former heads of state from around the world. In 2018 the Club of Rome will celebrate 50 years since it was founded.

Is London Sustainable?

Since 2002 a Commission for Sustainable Development (LSDC)  has been working on this question and Mayor Sadiq Kahn has just revamped it to:

“focus on promoting good economic growth, improving the quality of life for all Londoners while respecting the environment and promoting social cohesion and inclusion. The commission will strive to ensure sustainability is at the core of policies and strategies impacting on London, and will help make sustainability a meaningful concept for Londoners”.

The concept of ‘good economic  growth’ could relate to features of the circular economy such as renewable energy and ways of lowering demand for consumer goods and carbon-producing emissions, for example. Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut economy’ takes an agnostic stance on the notion of growth for the very reason that one needs investment in sustainable processes while downsizing the most profligate activities that threaten long-term survival.

Development is usually equated with expansion, as opposed to the maintenance of equilibrium which is clearly the only way that a sustainable future for cities. nations and the human population as a whole can be assured. One would hope that this perspective is part of the intention of the LSDC’s attempt to ‘make sustainability a meaningful concept’.

Demographic deafness

In 1970 when I was a teacher and professional tutor at Knox Grammar School, an elite private academy for well-heeled secondary-sage pupils in Sydney, Australia, I was involved in PYE – Protect Your Environment (Australia) Schools’ Branch. Apart from organising a ‘teach-in’ for ten schools held at Knox, a highlight of my contribution to PYE almost half a century ago was an appearance on ABC TV of some of my concerned pupils with Paul Ehrlich, author of “The Population Bomb”, a best-seller at the time that was predicting social breakdown due to demographic pressures from an expanding human population that was pressing upon limits of resources, especially food supplies.

This MAHB blog today “A call to arms” is from Stanford University where nonagenarian Ehrlich is still actively trying to spread his dire demographic warning, postponed by the Green Revolution and the rise of industrial, chemically based agriculture that has allowed the human population to almost triple since he wrote his scary blockbuster.  Ehrlich’s call is still going unheeded despite the slowing down of population growth to just above 1% per annum, a doubling rate of less than 70 years and the new concerns about human impact on the planet and other species in the natural world. The blog points out the failure of the UN to give a high priority to broadcasting the consequences of ‘the infestation of Gaia’ by our fecund technologically-sustained species. Sadly, those in the demographic research community, like Ehrlich (and case4all,org), who do point to the imminent consequences of overshooting planetary boundaries are still met with deafness to news that few wish to hear.

The UN is today addressing the problems of pollution as this BBC report outlines. But the underlying  formula I = P x A x T proposed by Ehrlich (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology) reminds us that it is increasing numbers of people (228000 extra per day) that produced the dead weight of indestructible plastics now beginning to dominate the oceans to the detriment of wildlife.

Small families; Small planet – this short video tries to overcome the taboo on discussing demographics and shows alarming projections of population growth and impact.

Monbiot sounds the alarm

George Monbiot is another of the hero-activists working tirelessly to educate the [Guardian reading] public about the core problem of how consumer societies are trashing the planet due to relentless and universal commitment to GDP-measured exponential economic growth and consumption. In this article he adds to his stream of publications yet more telling detail about the implications of this unsustainable credit-driven greed for more and more wealth that is a feature of both the rich and emerging economies.

A global growth rate of 3% means that the size of the world economy doubles every 24 years. This is why environmental crises are accelerating at such a rate. Yet the plan is to ensure that it doubles and doubles again, and keeps doubling in perpetuity. In seeking to defend the living world from the maelstrom of destruction, we might believe we are fighting corporations and governments and the general foolishness of humankind. But they are all proxies for the real issue: perpetual growth on a planet that is not growing.

As always, Monbiot supplies additonal links to his sources and previous articles and uses powerful passionate prose to make his case. Here on video Monbiot in a wide-ranging 13-minute oration calls for a restorative narrative as an alternative to neoliberal economics and politics. He adds ‘household’ and ‘commons’ (community land purchase) to conventional economic calculations to replace token representative democracy with genuine participative democracy and to replace public squalor; private affluence with public affluence and private sufficiency – ‘a politics of belonging’. His detailed  vision is set out in his book ‘Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis’.