Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fear and Loathing in the West

One could hardly have called the Paris terror attacks unexpected. After all, we are constantly being told that murderous plots are being foiled but that others are being planned. I was about to go to bed on Friday night when I noticed the headlines. I turned on the TV and watched the rolling news coverage for a couple of hours before retiring. I felt sad about those people, most of them gunned down in their prime, but perhaps I had been dwelling upon the darkness of the human soul for too long because all I saw were a few more tally marks on a seven digit number filed under ‘War on Terror’. Yes, they were closer to my living room that, say, Yemen or Palestine, but physical distance should not count for much when death is being considered. 

And yet, the next morning it seemed like the whole world had changed. I walked to the corner shop to buy some milk just as it was getting light, and already someone had hung a giant French flag on a wall, presumably in solidarity. There was an intuitive feeling that something had changed on a deep level. As I drank my morning cup of tea and checked in on Facebook and various news sites it became immediately apparent that a very pungent genie had been let out of a bottle. Fear and anger bristled on the screen, alongside sorrow and solidarity. It might just have been a bunch of disaffected and murderous young men gunning down a collection of random civilians in a major European city, but the effect was as a bomb going off in the collective western psyche. Daesh had kicked the west in the goolies.

The blood had barely dried before French president François Hollande declared that his nation would be ‘pitiless’ in avenging the attacks. Jets were immediately dispatched to pound Daesh (as ISIS/ISIL/IS should properly be known - it is an insulting term that confers no legitimacy upon them, unlike the other acronyms) targets, and the president – who had been mocked as a ‘marshmallow’ – was afforded the strongman status he had so desired.

In Britain, too, the psychological ramifications were (and continue to be) deep. The shiny-faced David Cameron, who desperately wants us to be involved in bombing Syria but was thwarted by a popular resistance against such a plan, instantly appeared on television talking about ‘cutting off the head of the snake’ and proclaiming that “We’ll be bombing them by Christmas.” (I’m sure Christ will be happy.) A million fingers pointed at Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as if somehow this was their fault. “A refugee’s passport has been found at the scene of the massacre,” screamed the news and everyone nodded wisely and said “Told you so, you softy liberals.” Of course, when it later turned out to be false they didn’t shout quite so loud. In any case, what kind of suicide terrorist brings his passport to a massacre? Come on people, you can do better than this.

I, born in 1971, have never lived in a time of such hysteria. 9/11 came close, but even in the dark days of the Cold War, in which we children were told that we may, at any given moment, be given a four-minute warning before being nuked, this sense of hysteria was absent. Not so now. Perhaps it’s a side effect of rolling news channels, internet feeds tailored to suit one’s prejudices and social media, but it seems as if the effect of all this is an electronic catalyst for inflaming passions. In the past few days I have seen people – normal everyday people – call for all Muslims to be put in vast concentration camps, for refugees to be gunned down before they reach Europe and for the entire Middle East to be nuked. I have also seen suggestions that if you don’t agree with these sentiments you should be tied to a post and shot. 

I’ll just get my blindfold …

But it pays to take a step back from this madness, take a deep breath and consider how we, individually or collectively, can work to de-fang the monster that has been unleashed. I’m not talking about Daesh exclusively, I’m talking about the cycle of violence that is growing like a whirlwind, sucking in ever more people as it spins wildly out of control. Daesh is like a fire elemental, conjured up by evil magicians. Those magicians - some of whom know full well what they are doing, others less so -  are in both the east and the west. The fire tornado grows stronger and wider with every petrodollar donated by sympathetic nations and every bomb and bullet manufactured in the west and sent to the Middle East. There will be more massacres, for sure, whether it's London, or Copenhagen or wherever - we just don't know.

It also pays to realise some deeper truths. The conflict in Syria, which is fuelling so much fundamentalism and driving the tides of refugees moving towards Europe, is effectively a proxy war between the US and Russia. A deep trauma was inflicted on the Russian psyche after the battle of Stalingrad, in which over a million Russians were killed, and that trauma has never been allowed to heal. Germany, the aggressor, eventually lost the battle of Stalingrad after sustaining losses of several hundred thousand soldiers. But (west) Germany, following the war, was afforded the protection of the United States, which stepped in to the bombed out space to become the new global hegemon. As a result, Germany prospered, becoming one of the most successful industrial economies in the world. By contrast Russia, in the guise of the USSR, decayed from the inside out and eventually collapsed.

Before the USSR collapsed, it could have followed the time honoured tradition of trying to take down its enemies with it. They still had enough nuclear weapons to atomise most of mankind. But they didn’t. Instead, Mikhail Gorbachev, as General Secretary of the Communist Party, pursued a policy of peace in the spirit of glasnost (openness).  World War III was avoided, but instead of reaching out to shake its outstretched hand, the west made a grab for Russia’s throat. Since then NATO has been expanding eastwards for the last quarter of a century and the west – especially the United States – has been gobbling up companies and resources like a bunch of hungry puppies let loose on a dog food factory. All notion of ‘consequences’ flew out the window. History was proclaimed to be dead, ‘we’ had defeated the evil empire and ‘we’ would thus endure endless prosperity as a result. Hooray for us!

Of course, the Russians never saw it like that. Perhaps not immediately, but they caught onto the fact that the concept of democracy was not all it was cracked up to be. For, instead of it meaning ‘the right to choose your own destiny’ in reality it manifested as an economic concept that simply meant your economy would be ‘reformed’ in a manner that made it easy for foreign multinationals to plunder it, that you would be offered a ‘choice’ to vote for one of two insipid pro business-as-usual parties, and that you would lose your rights as a worker. Westerners have so far not been able to understand this reluctance to embrace ‘democracy’, even as the ground is eaten out from under them while they congratulate themselves on being ‘free’.

Unlike western leaders, President Putin, whom Dmitry Orlov memorably described as ‘a shark who eats other sharks’ is not stupid. Having cracked down hard on the thugs and Mafiosi who were making life miserable for the average Russian, Putin is a pretty popular guy. He might have Chechen blood all over his hands, but frankly most Russians don’t care, and it’s not as if he has ever denied it. So, seeing the US and its NATO allies make a mess out of every country they interfere with - a growing list that includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine and many others - Putin has decided to draw the line at Syria, a country with which Russia has historic ties (and, let’s not forget, a strategically-important naval port). By launching bombing raids and committing ground troops to fight Daesh, Putin has (again) wrong-footed the increasingly inept-looking west. At the same time, by launching long-range cruise missiles that fly at altitudes lower than 100m, he has effectively sent the clear message: “Don’t mess with us.” With its ability to block NATO military communications, Russia has sent a very clear signal that it could take out US forces - a truth recently echoed by an American army commander "Russia would annihilate US in head to head battle". 

If there is to be no reconciliation with Russia and a chance for the country to heal its deep-seated wounds, then it appears that Putin will simply act in a unilateral fashion until the west comes along, cap in hand, asking to join him. Which they are (see today’s Guardian: “Putin: from Pariah to Powerbroker in one year”).

I don’t think there’s much doubt that before last Friday the United States and its allies were not much interested in destroying Daesh. There was much hand-wringing and saying ‘something must be done with these barbarians’, but on the other hand there was much profitable reaping of the whirlwind to be had. An endless war in the Middle East is endlessly profitable for the elite classes who parasitise our societies. Stocks in weapons manufacturers have jumped since Friday, national governments across Europe are suddenly able to award themselves sweeping powers, and the obedient mainstream media beats the drums for war louder than ever, whipping up the citizens into a frenzy of blood lust. To point out that our allies, such as Saudi Arabia, are funding Daesh – using money that we gave them to satisfy our oil addiction – is to invite ridicule. To point out that over a million have died in Iraq in an illegal oil war is to be labeled a ‘peacenik’. To ask why there was no similar outcry over the bombing in Lebanon the day before, or why such little fuss was made when a Russian plane full of holidaymakers was blown out of the sky over Egypt is to invites puzzled looks. 2,000 dead in Nigeria – yawn. “You have no respect for the dead in Paris!” arises the cry from the army of social media soundbiters whose profile pictures are uniformly plastered in the tricolor as if it means something.

Nevertheless, despite all this, there does remain some hope and it comes from the same place as the hopelessness. The mainsteam forms of communication are losing their power. They change their allegiances so often that it’s hard not to think of Winston Smith in 1984 trying to remember which country they were currently at war with or allied to -  Eurasia or Eastasia - and what atrocities the enemy is supposed to have committed:

“They have attacked an unarmed village with rocket bombs and murdered 4,000 defenseless, innocent and peaceful citizens of Oceania. This is no longer war. This is cold-blooded murder. Until now, the war has been conducted with honor and bravery with the ideals of truth and justice in the best traditions of mankind... until this moment. Brothers and sisters, the endless catalog of beastie atrocities which will inevitably ensue from this appalling act must, can, and will be terminated. The forces of darkness and treasonable maggots who collaborate with them must, can, and will be wiped from the face of the Earth. We must crush them! We must smash them! We must stamp them out! We the people of Oceania and our traditional allies, the people of Eurasia, will not rest until a final victory has been achieved. Death of the eternal enemy of Oceania. Death! Death! DEATH!” From 1984

It is to be hoped that emotions and fiery opinions may burn bright and burn out fast. But the drivers that put in motion current events are like deep ocean currents and for the time being these forces will have to play themselves out. The politicians and global military industrial complex demand our participation and ask that we join in unthinkingly - but we still have the free will to refuse to do so. A friend of a friend wrote something on Facebook the other day that I am going to paraphrase here:

“Here in France it’s just gone 11 O’clock and almost nobody has paid any attention to the decree that we observe two minutes’ silence. Life went on as normal, people spoke to one another in the streets and shops and carried on with their everyday lives. Yet every news site is saying that we are all fell silent when we didn’t – it’s all a gross exaggeration. This is just to let you know that most people here know they are being manipulated and refuse to be part of the narrative of a war machine.”

For my own part I decided to simply shut off all forms of electronic information on Saturday and instead gathered a handful of acorns and ash keys, 25 in total (that was all I could find). I planted them in pots of soil and with each one expressed the wish that by the time it had grown to maturity, so too would humankind, for the only way for a fire elemental to be dissipated is with an opposite element, such as earth or water. Call it a prayer for peace, if you like.

And perhaps it would also do us well to recognise that the world is changing into a different form which will be uncomfortable for many of us living cosseted lives. Our public institutions are crumbling, our financial and political systems are rigged and corrupt, our resources are becoming more scarce and unaffordable, and our ability to project power upon the rest of the world is waning. These things are simply what happens to civilisations in old age: there is nothing new under the Sun. The more energy we expend in fighting this change, the less there will be that is worth saving when we eventually face reality. Old forms die, new forms are born – it has always been this way. We consider it a ‘right’ that we should be able to drive cars, eat expensive meals in fancy restaurants and enjoy being showered in consumer goods, but we don’t accept that with every right there is a responsibility. We stand by and allow our governments to reduce foreign countries to rubble with barely a peep, and we turn a blind eye while the corporations that are given protection by those same governments plunder resources, pollute the environment and treat people as commodities to be exploited.

I know it’s a tall order to ask for these things to be understood – especially when the news media obsesses about such minutiae as whether the latest James Bond film (the fable of an emotionally-crippled man who travels around the world murdering people for the geopolitical advantage of his country – a character originally conceived of as high satire but now admired as a role model) has earned more money than some other film, or whether a television commercial for a shop is ‘genius’ or not. But we have to try. We have to wriggle free somehow. My kids know it’s all false, other kids I speak to know it’s all false, even some adults are starting to realise it’s all false. And therein lies some hope.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Feeling the Elephant

Artwork by Digital Gheko

Most people have heard the Indian tale about the blind men and the elephant. For those that have not, it goes something like this. A group of blind men come across an elephant and, perhaps puzzled by the noise it is making, set out one by one to investigate. The first one feels the elephant’s leg and rushes back to report to the others that it is some kind of pillar. The second one feels the beast’s tail and decides that the thing making the noises is some kind of rope. The third feels the trunk and decides that it must be some kind of tree. Another feels a flapping ear and thinks they must be dealing with a giant fan. The last one feels a tusk and concludes the bellowing noise is coming from some sort of pipe.

When the blind men get together again they cannot agree with one another at all about what they have encountered. Because each one of them had felt a different part of the elephant’s anatomy they all had a different subjective explanation for the phenomenon. Different traditions tell different versions of the story. In one, the king laughs at the blind men and tells them “You are all correct, and yet you are all wrong.” In another the blind men work this out for themselves and collaborate to build up a picture of the whole elephant based on the subjective experience of each one of them, thus obtaining an objective whole.

The story of the elephant works as a nice analogy for our understanding of the world. Each one of us is blind in so many ways and yet we all have to feel the elephant of reality. Our blindness is often educated into us, or sometimes it is because of a lack of experience. Some people see the world in terms of economics and finance. They are always talking about monetary policy and central banks and the value of currencies and commodities as if these things are the only aspects of any worth. Others see it primarily in terms of competition and threats. There are ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and allies and enemies. To their mind the world is just a stage for conflict, where the victorious and the defeated dance a tango until the end of time.

Then there are the religiously blind. These are the people who feel that everything can be explained through their own ‘one true faith’ and that the people of other faiths have got it all wrong. They say that God created the elephant in a magical flash.

For the greater part, most people can’t even be bothered to feel the elephant. "Roaring noise, what roaring noise?" they say. They are too busy listening to the snake charmer playing his flute, and they walk towards the sweet music, unaware of the cobra coiled in the basket.

And perhaps it’s dangerous to stand there for too long feeling the elephant. If one blind man were to run his hands all over the elephant’s body he might suddenly realise he was dealing with an immense beast that had the power to put a tusk through him like a toothpick going through an olive. And even if the beast didn’t do that and he ran back to his blind friends, who were all arguing about whether it was a fan or a pipe or a pillar, shouting “It’s a giant beast and it’s going to trample us!” they might all assume he had been at the shisha pipe too much and tell him to shut up.

The elephant analogy is often used to illustrate the concept of systems thinking. Thinking in systems gives us a wider perspective and allows us to see things more clearly, and to make predictions based upon this. If more people thought about the important systems that sustain them there’s a good chance that our problems as a species would be lessened. They might, for example, realise that pouring pollutants into the biosphere in ever greater amounts would inevitably lead to the biosphere being degraded and unable to support them. Instead, and given that we tend to be ruled by short-term economic thinking, we are told that the economy has a greater value than the biosphere, even though it is a tiny subset of the latter. An intelligent species would reorganise human economic affairs so that they complemented the natural processes of the Earth. Instead we get fracking, nuclear power and excessive fossil fuel burning.

But systems thinking has its limits too. Because humans are not robots we tend to be irrational in our actions and thought patterns. The conceit of many an intelligent systems thinker is that the boundaries of their mental model are wide enough to incorporate ‘enough of reality’ so as to make the stuff that lies outside of their model irrelevant. This can be a fatal error in a world of chaos theory because what you don't know or can't see can hurt you.

That's why the more intelligent branches of systems thinking recognise the limits of both knowledge and understanding. So, for example, someone practicing permaculture on a piece of land may have come up with what they consider to be the spiffiest design that incorporates natural cycles and organisms right down to the earth worms and the mychoorizal tendrils that transport nitrogen from plants' root nodules to nearby trees. If they are a good permaculturist they will know that their model is not infallible, that they can never know about the millions of different microscopic organisms that make up the soil and how they will interact with one another. They will do their best to create some system resilience by piling on organic matter, by not using industrial poisons, and by encouraging a diversity of life to flourish. But at the forefront of their mind will be the thought that they are merely the baton-waving conductor of a vast orchestra in which most of the musicians don’t even have eyes. They know the boundary of their perception and they hope things will work out. They observe and they make adjustments, but they can never play God. 

I was thinking about this recently in terms of renewable energy. Renewable energy, such as solar and wind, is abundant and free and relatively non-polluting. And yet, when you get down into the nitty gritty and feel the elephant, it looks a lot less feasible than its proponents claim. There are any number of grand claims that renewables can power an ever-expanding industrial civilisation in such a way that we don’t need to make any cutbacks in our usage. But, to me, these claims look highly dubious because they take little or no account of many of the major factors that make industrial civilisation - and therefore the production of these renewable energy systems - tick. Where would the investment capital come from to transform the world’s energy systems – which have taken over a hundred years to build and are eminently designed to burn fossil fuels and distribute the resultant energy from centralised generating plants? Where would the materials to do so come from? How will the political will to do such a thing be garnered in the face of such stiff opposition from powerful players? How would you convince the majority of people – most of whom either do not regard energy depletion or climate change as a problem - that the huge subsidies fossil fuels enjoy should be switched to renewables? There are plenty of parts to this elephant.

So, having felt the renewable energy elephant, the picture I get in my head is that barring some kind of miracle there will not be – cannot possibly be – a worldwide rollout of renewable energy to replace the fossil fuelled infrastructure in any time frame that could realistically be achieved. It’s simply not going to happen.

But then …

But then I consider that whatever opinion I might have reached on the matter doesn’t feature at all in the calculations and daydreams of those who claim that it is possible. And thus we get memes spreading around the internet like wild fire claiming things such as ‘Denmark produced 140% of its electricity from wind power in one day’ and ‘X square miles of solar panels in the Sahara could power the whole of Europe.’

So then I have to add in another factor to my mental elephant, namely that: even if I think, based on some pretty extensive feeling, that this beast is an elephant, everyone else is claiming that it’s a tiger. And what happens if something you think is an elephant is widely considered to be a long-nosed tiger? Will people be feeding it live chickens and admiring its imaginary stripes? Or will, on some metaphysical level, the elephant turn into a tiger?

Put more prosaically, will the fact that so many people believe a worldwide renewable energy grid could work – despite physical reality seeming to say otherwise – actually lead to its creation? Or will it lead to some kind of half-realised dream or, worse, will we end up with a tusk through our chest? When I pointed out the absurdity of Denmark’s claim to a friend he responded curtly “Yes, but at least they are trying.” It has a certain logic to it: trying is better than not trying.

So maybe that’s what will happen. Perhaps if we try hard enough we’ll produce enough renewable energy infrastructure to take the some of the sharp edges off the soon-to-be precipitous decline of fossil fuels (precipitous because we are can't dig 'em up cheap enough for our growth-wired economies to function). Perhaps at that point people will realise that renewables are great for some things and lousy for others but that we don’t really have a choice any more because of the nature of entropy. What will happen then? No doubt some will still hold onto their dreams of limitless energy and flying cars and cities on Mars, but by that point they will be in the minority. Perhaps then – and not until then – our shared predicament will mean we can start to agree on a consensual version of reality once again.


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