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Archive for the ‘Civilisation Building’ Category

South American silver

Rich deposits of silver were discovered in South America in 1545 and exploited by the Spanish conquistadors. Photograph: Images Group/Rex/Shutterstock

I’ve just bought the book that is reviewed in this recent Guardian article by Mark O’Connell. It is proving even more compelling, than I thought it would be from the review.  Below is a short extract: for the full article, see link.

Raj Patel and Jason W Moore illustrate a ruinous economic system that benefits a minority class.

In the early pages of their book A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel and Jason W Moore ask us to consider the McNugget as the reigning symbol of the modern era. One of their central contentions is that we are no longer living in the Holocene, but in a new geological era they refer to as the Capitalocene – the currently fashionable term “Anthropocene”, they argue, suggests that our current state of ecological emergency is merely the result of humans doing what humans do, whereas the reality is that it flows out of the specific historical phenomenon of capitalism. As a term, then, Capitalocene is designed to nudge us away from evolutionary determinism, and from a sense of collective culpability for climate change, towards an understanding of the way in which the destruction of nature has largely been the result of an economic system organised around a minority class and its pursuit of profit. “We may all be in the same boat when it comes to climate change,” as they put it, “but most of us are in steerage.”

Patel and Moore’s essential argument is that the history of capitalism, and therefore of our current mess, can be usefully viewed through the lens of cheapness. (An earlier, more knottily theoretical work of eco-Marxism by Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, argues that “cheap nature” is as central an imperative of capitalism as cheap labour.)

. . .

One of the most persuasive aspects of Patel and Moore’s argument, in this sense, is their demonstration of the extent to which capitalism’s reliance on cheap labour is itself reliant on what they call cheap care – the domestic work mostly performed for nothing, and mostly by women, that is rarely factored into the cost of labour. Capitalism has created a binary opposition between this care work and the “real work” it makes possible. “Writing a history of work without care work,” they write, “would be like writing an ecology of fish without mentioning the water. It’d be possible, in a limited fashion, but, once you’d realised the omission, hard to continue.”

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Cattle

A cattle farm in Mato Grosso, Brazil. 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock. Photograph: Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

Another Guardian article has motivated me to recommend it, even though I’m treading very lightly on my blog at present. I have always known we have a disproportionate impact on the planet, but grossly underestimated the size of the mismatch, it seems. And, of course, it’s good to see the vegetarian case strengthened by this data! Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

Groundbreaking assessment of all life on Earth reveals humanity’s surprisingly tiny part in it as well as our disproportionate impact.

The world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds.

The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria are indeed a major life form – 13% of everything – but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals, make up just 5% of the world’s biomass.

. . .

The new work reveals that farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. The picture is even more stark for mammals – 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals.

“It is pretty staggering,” said Milo. “In wildlife films, we see flocks of birds, of every kind, in vast amounts, and then when we did the analysis we found there are [far] more domesticated birds.”

. . .

Despite humanity’s supremacy, in weight terms Homo sapiens is puny. Viruses alone have a combined weight three times that of humans, as do worms. Fish are 12 times greater than people and fungi 200 times as large.

. . .

[O]ur impact on the natural world remains immense, said Milo, particularly in what we choose to eat: “Our dietary choices have a vast effect on the habitats of animals, plants and other organisms.”

“I would hope people would take this [work] as part of their world view of how they consume,” he said. ”I have not become vegetarian, but I do take the environmental impact into my decision making, so it helps me think, do I want to choose beef or poultry or use tofu instead?”

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Given my current sequence on the dangers of ideology, idealism and meaning systems, I couldn’t resist reblogging this.

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A brave and powerful piece has just been published on James Neal’s blog. It spells out a message that needs to be made as widely available as possible. The sooner such thoughts are taken seriously and pave the way to effective action the better for the children and the future of America. Below is a brief extract: for the full post see link.

By the time this prints, the fervor of media coverage surrounding the latest mass killing will have subsided.

Funerals will be planned. Families will grieve. Survivors will suffer.

A nation will shake its head in a collective “So sad, but what can we do?”

Politicians will slink behind their “thoughts and prayers,” with no intention of doing anything to prevent the next atrocity. And, when more of our children inevitably are massacred, they will waste no time in offering more thoughts and prayers.

Thoughts and prayers are important.

Collaborative, well-reasoned thoughts are needed to improve our society, and keep more of our children out of the crosshairs. And, in a society that’s grown numb to school children being cut down by rifle fire, prayer is entirely appropriate. If you are grounded in faith, I urge you to pray for these families, and for our society.

But to what end do we offer thoughts and prayers?

Do we give serious thought to how we might prevent these killings? To why these events are a peculiarly American tragedy? To what it means for us as a society when we forget mass killings before the bodies are in the ground?

The thinking part of this equation has been done, in mountains of research from institutions the world over (all of which are morbidly amazed by our society’s proclivity for murdering children).

But, no matter the factual basis of those thoughts, they are easily wiped away with a few Fox News sound bytes, a well-placed fear-mongering ad or two by the NRA and a few dollars of blood money donated to cheap prostitute-politicians. And so dies thought.

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In yesterday’s Guardian an article by Ai Weiwei resonated strongly with the basic principle of the oneness of humanity that is at the core of the Bahá’í Faith. Below is a short extract: for the full article, see link.

At this moment, the west – which has disproportionately benefited from globalisation – simply refuses to bear its responsibilities, even though the condition of many refugees is a direct result of the greed inherent in a global capitalist system. If we map the 70-plus border walls and fences built between nations in the past three decades – increasing from roughly a dozen after the fall of the Berlin Wall – we can see the extent of global economic and political disparities. The people most negatively affected by these walls are the poorest and most desperate of society.
. . . Can physical borders stop refugees? Instead of building walls, we should look at what is causing people to become refugees and work to solve those conditions to stem the flow at its source. To do so will require the most powerful nations in the world to adjust how they are actively shaping the world, how they are using political and economic ideology – enforced by overwhelming military power – to disrupt entire societies.
. . . Establishing the understanding that we all belong to one humanity is the most essential step for how we might continue to coexist on this sphere we call Earth. I know what it feels like to be a refugee and to experience the dehumanisation that comes with displacement from home and country. There are many borders to dismantle, but the most important are the ones within our own hearts and minds – these are the borders that are dividing humanity from itself.

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There was an interesting article on the future of work in Friday’s Guardian.  Considered in the context of Walker’s book on sleep, which argues that Western society at least is dangerously sleep-deprived, pictures of the future along the lines of those in this article should be viewed as not hopelessly Utopian dreams but the potential source of desperately needed remedies. Well worth a read. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Work has ruled our lives for centuries, and it does so today more than ever. But a new generation of thinkers insists there is an alternative.

Work is the master of the modern world. For most people, it is impossible to imagine society without it. It dominates and pervades everyday life – especially in Britain and the US – more completely than at any time in recent history. An obsession with employability runs through education. Even severely disabled welfare claimants are required to be work-seekers. Corporate superstars show off their epic work schedules. “Hard-working families” are idealised by politicians. Friends pitch each other business ideas. Tech companies persuade their employees that round-the-clock work is play. Gig economy companies claim that round-the-clock work is freedom. Workers commute further, strike less, retire later. Digital technology lets work invade leisure.

In all these mutually reinforcing ways, work increasingly forms our routines and psyches, and squeezes out other influences. As Joanna Biggs put it in her quietly disturbing 2015 book All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work, “Work is … how we give our lives meaning when religion, party politics and community fall away.”

. . . Our culture of work strains to cover its flaws by claiming to be unavoidable and natural. “Mankind is hardwired to work,” as the Conservative MP Nick Boles puts it in a new book, Square Deal. It is an argument most of us have long internalised.

But not quite all. The idea of a world freed from work, wholly or in part, has been intermittently expressed – and mocked and suppressed – for as long as modern capitalism has existed. Repeatedly, the promise of less work has been prominent in visions of the future. In 1845, Karl Marx wrote that in a communist society workers would be freed from the monotony of a single draining job to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner”. In 1884, the socialist William Morris proposed that in “beautiful” factories of the future, surrounded by gardens for relaxation, employees should work only “four hours a day”.

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the early 21st century, advances in technology would lead to an “age of leisure and abundance”, in which people might work 15 hours a week. In 1980, as robots began to depopulate factories, the French social and economic theorist André Gorz declared: “The abolition of work is a process already underway … The manner in which [it] is to be managed … constitutes the central political issue of the coming decades.”

Since the early 2010s, as the crisis of work has become increasingly unavoidable in the US and the UK, these heretical ideas have been rediscovered and developed further. Brief polemics such as Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” have been followed by more nuanced books, creating a rapidly growing literature that critiques work as an ideology – sometimes labelling it “workism” – and explores what could take its place. A new anti-work movement has taken shape.

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Pollution in Shanghai

I meant to share this Guardian July article by David Runciman some time ago but it somehow slipped through the net. However, I think it makes so many important points, I still need to post a link no matter how late in the day. It resonates for me not just because the issue itself is so critical, and not just because discussion of it has become ensnared in the fake-news zeitgeist, but also because it highlights the importance of asserting uncertainty, one of my hobby horses:

We live in an age when mistrust of politics has spilled over into mistrust of expertise, and vice versa. To respond with ever-greater certainty in the name of science is a big mistake. Expertise doesn’t just need humility. It also needs to reclaim the idea of scepticism from the people who have abused it. Experts need to find a way of expressing uncertainty without feeling it undermines their expertise. Voicing doubt has been allowed to become a synonym for admitting you were wrong. The way out is to stop insisting that you were right in the first place.

Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Doubts about the science are being replaced by doubts about the motives of scientists and their political supporters. Once this kind of cynicism takes hold, is there any hope for the truth?

Last month Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. For his supporters, it provided evidence, at last, that the president is a man of his word. He may not have kept many campaign promises, but he kept this one. For his numerous critics it is just another sign of how little Trump cares about evidence of any kind. His decision to junk the Paris accord confirms Trump as the poster politician for the “post-truth” age.

But this is not just about Trump. The motley array of candidates who ran for the Republican presidential nomination was divided on many things, but not on climate change. None of them was willing to take the issue seriously. In a bitterly contentious election, it was a rare instance of unanimity. The consensus that climate is a non-subject was shared by all the candidates who appeared in the first major Republican debate in August 2015 – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee and Trump. Republican voters were offered 10 shades of denialism.

As Huckabee quipped in January 2015, any talk of global warming was a distraction from the real dangers the country faced: “A beheading is a far greater threat to an American than a sunburn.” Trump’s remarks on climate may have more been erratic (“I want to use hairspray!” he said at one point, confusing global warming with the hole in the ozone layer) but their consistent theme was that manmade climate change is a “hoax”, perpetrated by the enemies of the US, who may or may not include China.

Climate science has become a red rag to the political right. The scientific consensus is clear: more than 95% of climate researchers agree that human activity is causing global warming, and that without action to combat it we are on a path to dangerous temperature rises from pre-industrial levels. But the mere existence of this consensus gets taken by its political opponents as a priorievidence of a stitch-up. Why else would scientists and left-leaning politicians be agreeing with each other all the time if they weren’t scratching each others’ backs? Knowledge is easily turned into “elite” knowledge, which is tantamount to privileged snobs telling ordinary people what to think. Trump’s stance reflects the mutual intolerance that now exists between those promoting the scientific consensus and those for whom the consensus is just another political racket. Trump didn’t create this division. He is simply exploiting it.

It is tempting for anyone on the scientific side of the divide to want to apportion all the blame to the “alt-facts” crowd, who see elite conspiracies everywhere. But there is more going on here than dumb politics versus smart science. The facts are not just the innocent victims of politics. The facts have long been put in the service of politics, which is what fuels the suspicions of those who wish to deny them. The politicisation can cut both ways.

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