The declining influence of religion

By health and population, Religion

the decling influence of religionThe covid-19 pandemic has exposed how much religion has declined as a major influence in our lives.  In Mediaeval Europe, religion would have been at the centre of the response to the disease. People would have crowded into Church to pray for their loved ones. Priests would have organised special masses for those afflicted. The outbreak would have been blamed on God’s righteous punishment for human sins. There would have been a sense of resignation, inshallah, nothing happens unless God wills it. However, it was OK, those that had not sinned could still get to heaven (as long as they paid priests to get them through purgatory).

Now the attitude is quite different. The disease is understood as a virus that can be overcome. People believe that, in time, medical science will come up with a cure. The churches, temples and mosques are empty. Doctors have said it is not safe to gather together. Few believe that God will look after his flock better than a doctor. This is true of all religions: Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews are all foregoing to gather in places of worship. Burials and cremations are perfunctory affairs. Relatives and friends are denied a proper chance to say goodbye to the dead.

Meanwhile archbishops, popes, and imams mouth platitudes to empty churches and mosques, and hope that someone is listening on zoom.

For more read Yuval Noah Harari about the change in human attitudes to disease.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/apr/20/yuval-noah-harari-will-coronavirus-change-our-attitudes-to-death-quite-the-opposite

The endgame

By political thought

Covid-19 is the latest setback for mankind after a year of forest fires and floods. WeThe end game are entering the end game, when human advance can no longer be taken for granted.

History is evolution in action. Human progress has been driven by individuals and communities striving for success in an evolutionary process. Those communities that thrive, propagate their   technologies, skills, organisational systems, knowledge and culture. The unique habits, language and mores of failed communities are lost forever.

The process is known as memetic (or cultural) evolution, and up to now it has been a fantastic biological success story. World population now exceeds 7.5 billion. Complex multi-tiered societies have been formed, amazing new technologies have been created and science has established an understanding of the workings of the universe. We live 3 times longer than our distant ancestors and have massively more stimulating and enjoyable lives. It is true there have been setbacks along the historical path. There have been devastating wars, life-wasting pandemics, famines due to harvest failures and horrendous natural disasters. But thus far humans have recovered from these events and moved on.

Successful communities have to acquire wealth to thrive. We see the force of the desire to both gain and spend money in our everyday existence. Families aspire to acquire nice homes and flash cars. Charities beg us for contributions. Companies compete to sell us ever-more technically advanced goods. The NHS pleads for more money to keep us all healthy.

In this globally interactive world, the rich are accumulating wealth at a rate never seen before. However, there is a limit to the amount of wealth that the Earth can provide.  It appears that the easy years of thriving are now behind us; for every advance there is a setback. Recent forest fires, cyclones, floods, financial disasters, pandemics and revolutions have all taken their toll.

We have reached a pivotal point in human history; it is now apparent that there are environmental limits to the improvement in the human condition. It is no longer possible to pretend that it will be all right on the night, that all the nations of the world will find ways of co-operating and overcoming the evolutionary dangers ahead. Memetic evolutionary forces are too strong. The national, community and individual desire to act in their own self-interest is too difficult to overcome on a global scale. The fact that Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro and many other climate-change deniers have been elected to power is a testament to the challenges ahead.

We are at the start of the end-game, when global wealth will not advance, life expectancy will deteriorate and humanitarian crises will proliferate. As we cope with the coming emergencies, we have big decisions ahead on the type of society we want to become.  The citizens of those nations who believe in liberal humanist values and the need to preserve the environment, need to reach out across national boundaries and work fervently to protect both our values and societies from the traumas that are coming.

Covid-19 – the grim reaper

By health and population

covid-19 the grim reaperCovid-19 is sweeping the world in the form of a grim reaper, scything the old and chronically ill as it passes. In Memes, Society and Human Evolution identified eight grim reapers that could setback human progress as we reach the environmental limits that Earth can support:  war, revolution, famine, plague, natural disaster, economic malfunction, shortage of raw materials and environmental damage. Plague was conceived as being a less serious threat. I reasoned that, because we now live in such an interconnected world, there is less opportunity for pathogens to develop in isolation and therefore less risk that a virulent pathogen will wipe out large numbers of humans. If a pathogen is too potent it will kill its host before it has the chance to spread. Initially, therefore, a pathogen must allow a fair chance of human survival in order to allow its own propagation. A pathogen which develops over a long time in an isolated community will gradually increase its virulence as the community develops its own immunity. If this pathogen is then released to the world it can be devastating.

But today few communities live in seclusion, so a plague, such as the Black Death, which could kill a huge percentage of the population, is highly unlikely. The worst epidemic in modern times is the 1918/9 Spanish flu outbreak; it had a mortality rate between 1 and 6 %, leaving 17 million to 100million dead. Yet Covid-19, even though the likely death rate is much less, threatens to be much more disruptive. What I hadn’t foreseen was that improved medical technology would create a bottleneck to the passage of the disease.

Hospitals have only so many critical care beds equipped with ventilators. In order that their health care systems aren’t overwhelmed, all ‘advanced’ countries have adopted the strategy of limiting human contact in order to prevent the rapid spread of the disease. This could only be achieved by shutting down much of the service sector of the economy. Pubs, restaurants, hotels, airlines, trains, airports, travel firms and sports bodies have all seen their businesses disappear overnight. In the West the service sector is by far the largest part of the economy. As a result, Covid-19’s long term economic effects are likely to be much more significant than the impact on the nation’s health.

We didn’t have ventilators in 1918; the Spanish flu swept through the population but the nation’s economy was only slightly dented. The UK government is talking of a few months to get over the effects of the disease, but this is based on hope rather than any reality. There are about 4000 critical care beds in England. Figures of 250,000 potential deaths have been banded about. If each patient that died spent 4 days in a critical care bed, the disease would have to be delayed for 250 days – almost 9 months – if critical care capacity is not to be exceeded. The economic disruption of such a delay would be catastrophic.

It seems that grim reapers don’t act independently.  In this case plague may well lead to economic malfunction if the wrong decisions are taken by our government.

Humans are clever enough to avoid climate change?

By Uncategorized

Evolution drives change in the natural world. Human ‘progress’ is also an evolutionary process. It is driven by competing individuals and communities all trying to obtain wealth and improve their way of life. As a species we have been spectacularly successful. However, all species have environmental limits to growth. With the effects of climate change, environmental destruction, dwindling water supplies and pollution beginning to bite hard, it is clear that human activity is now approaching the limits that the Earth can support.

Humans are unique animals; we can reason and we understand many of the laws that determine the workings of the universe.  Scientists have been warning for decades of the perils of climate change. Many people believed them, but the issue was too big for individuals to tackle and too nebulous for them to demand action from politicians. I naively thought that when the adverse effects became clear and obvious that attitudes would change. That the human race would see climate change as a genuine emergency and begin to tackle the issue with urgency.

Climate chang in AustraliaI was wrong. Images of Australia burning seem to have little effect. You’d think that Australians, in the front line of catastrophic droughts, floods and fires would, by now, be demanding that their government front up to the problem. You’d be wrong. Writing in the Guardian Lenore Taylor reports:

… despite the widespread sense that the fires are a tipping point, despite global outrage at the self-defeating stupidity of our policies, despite the world’s largest fund manager ditching thermal coal, despite the wave of grief and anger from around the world – even from James Murdoch – it’s still not clear that Australian public opinion will force this government to change.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jan/17/if-the-bushfires-wont-force-climate-policy-change-we-need-to-circumvent-scott-morrison

 

How bad does it have to get before we act? It is already clear that the global temperature rise will surpass the 1.5-degree target set in the Paris Climate Change accord in 1916.  We are certainly on course for at least a 2-degree rise. Will we act when the rise exceeds even this? For the first time I am beginning to have my doubts whether the human species, despite all its cleverness, is capable of altering the path of evolution

American tax havens threaten democracy

By economics

Tax havens

Tax havens allow the rich and multi-nationals to avoid paying taxes, and crooks and corrupt politicians to hide their ill-gotten gains. They are pernicious regulatory authorities which act against the interests of tax payers everywhere.  In any rational world, countries would co-operate to ensure they were not allowed to operate.  The fact they exist at all signifies the degree to which the rich and multi-nationals have manage to subvert the democratic process.

However, recently some progress has been made. The US introduced the Financial Assets and Compliance Act which forced foreign financial institutions to tell the US government about any American-owned assets held on their books. Also, by signing up to a Common Reporting Standard (CRS), the rest of the world agreed to exchange information about the assets each other’s citizens held in their banks. The attraction of Jersey, Lichtenstein, and the Bahamas began to diminish. But it was a false dawn, the demise of some tax havens merely presaged the arrival of others. The US was not party to the CRS agreement and US States such as Delaware, Nevada and South Dakota have been able to create lucrative financial instruments for companies and the rich to avoid tax.  In South Dakota the rich can create trusts for their own benefit. Once two years have elapsed, no creditor or tax authority can gain access to the money held.

The US has now overtaken the Cayman Islands as the second most pernicious tax-haven in the world. Already there are huge income disparities in the US. This new form of tax avoidance will perpetuate wealth differences for generations to come, creating a new wealthy aristocracy in this supposedly classless society.  In the meantime, the Middle and Working Classes are left to labour alone to pay the taxes that support the State.

For more information about this new blow to democracy read.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/14/the-great-american-tax-haven-why-the-super-rich-love-south-dakota-trust-laws

Our political system is failing us

By Uncategorized

It’s not just our politicians that are failing us, it’s the whole political system of government.

The UK’s democratic processes were forged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was a world in which the pace of change was slower, the welfare state had yet to be born and emperors and monarchs exercised real power in many countries of the world. The complexities of governance that our leaders face today are many times more challenging than 2 centuries ago.

In business, candidates for job vacancies without a relevant track record would have little chance of success. In the UK, ministers are often catapulted into managing government departments for which they have no practical knowledge. As a result, they often act in an amateur knee-jerk fashion responding to each crisis as it occurs. Education and the National Health Service, in particular, have suffered greatly with ministers micro-managing according to their own pet ideas. Political ability is no guarantee of any management ability.

Listen to what Rory Stewart has to say about his own ministerial experience:

Our terms are absurdly short. I held five ministerial jobs in four years. Just as I was completing my 25-year environment plan, I was made a Middle East minister. Just as I was trying to change our aid policy in Syria, I was made the Africa minister. Just as I was finishing my Africa strategy, I was moved to prisons. I promised to reduce violence in prisons in 12 months, and violence was just beginning to come down – when I was made secretary of state for international development. How can this be a serious way to run a country?

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/06/rory-stewart-hope-i-got-out-of-tories-before-it-was-too-late

Surely leaders of state institutions need to be selected on their proven ability in office? We need leaders of our education systems, transport infrastructure, tax collection systems, health care and all our other major offices of state  who can build on expertise to construct world-class cost-effective institutions. This can’t be achieved by part-time appointees with little relevant experience.

Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN

By Uncategorized

Greta at the UNGreta Thunberg’s speech to the UN summarised perfectly our moral duty to preserve the planet for future generations.

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you?

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering, people are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?

For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight? You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency, but no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil and that I refuse to believe.

The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in ten years only gives us a 50 percent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees and the risk of setting up irreversible chain reactions beyond human control. Fifty percent may be acceptable to you, but those numbers do not include tipping points most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution, or the aspects of equity and climate justice.

They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. So a 50 percent risk is simply not acceptable to us. We who have to live with the consequences. To have a 67 percent chance of staying below the 1.5 degree of temperature rise, the best odds given by the IPCC, the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on January 1, 2018.

Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just business as usual and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 that entire budget will be gone is less than 8 and a half years. There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today because these numbers are too uncomfortable and you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.

You are failing us, but young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this, right here, right now, is where we draw the line. The world is waking up, and change is coming whether you like it or not.

Climate Nihilists

By Climate Change

Now that the effects of global warming are becoming apparent to all but the most diehard climate change deniers, we have to come up with a word that describes people who refuse to countenance any change to their lifestyle knowing full well the consequences of their actions. Gaby Hinsliff writing in the Guardian suggests the term climate nihilists.

[Climate] nihilists don’t necessarily deny the planet is frying but, essentially, they refuse to feel bad about it; they want their sunshine holidays and their 4×4’s, come hell or (possibly quite literally) high water, and screw anyone who gets in the way.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/17/greta-thunberg-brexit-culture-war-nigel-farage

Most people see the moral imperative of preserving the planet for their children, but they naturally demur when asked to make major changes to  their lifestyle by, e.g.  stopping eating meat or foregoing a foreign holiday. However, their actions tug a little at their conscience, and perhaps with more inspired leadership they could be persuaded to change course. However, there is a group of libertarians, who proudly reject any idea of curbing their behaviour for the good of others. They are devoid of common humanity and dangerous to the rest of society. We need to label them as climate nihilists and expose their moral corruption.

Local Government is in crisis

By political thought

Local democracy is in crisisLocal democracy is in deep crisis. Starved of funds by central government, but still with the same legal responsibilities, it is struggling to cope with the many problems laid at its door.  Disconnected with its electorate (only a third of people vote in local elections), it is failing to provide adequate leadership. Council services are failing across the country. How have we got in this mess?

The BBC asked people why they don’t vote: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-47666080. The responses they received should not be a surprise:

  • Many of the people we speak to feel there is a disconnect between politics and their everyday lives. Everyone has issues they care about, from local planning and leisure facilities to bin collections and schools, but it can be difficult to identify how local councils operate and affect these issues.
  • There is also little national attention paid to the role councils and councillors play in communities. While national politics continues to dominate headlines, it can appear that change can only happen via Westminster – and those making decisions at a local level are neglected of the due attention, and scrutiny, they deserve.
  • When you have one party dominating in an area it can be hugely off-putting, with many people feeling like their votes don’t count and it’s not worth turning out.

We desperately need to re-establish effective local government. The whole political process needs a complete rethink. Reform should be based on three criteria:

  1. Clear accountability- responsibility for many services is divided between central and local government. Local government should have clear areas of responsibility and the powers to raise money to manage them.
  2. A clear distinction between governance and representation- the leaders of those in government should be directly elected with powers to act. In an extension of the local mayor system, local responsibility of individuals should be emphasised. Those who represent should have the power to hold officials to account. The role of national political parties should be minimised.
  3. A need to engender a local community spirit and pride- local government services should be integrated with those of the charity and voluntary sectors to tackle local issues in an innovative, inclusive and cost-effective fashion.

Only when we reconfigure our local political system will we get the active and positive community governance that we need.

Optimism

By political thought

Optimism - the signpost to disasterBoris Johnson’s recipe for the future of the UK is clearly based on energy and optimism. The belief that if you think something will happen, put aside negative thoughts and stride forward with enthusiasm, you will succeed. However, if the direction is wrong and there is not sufficient analysis and forethought, it is also a recipe for disaster. A splendid piece by Tim Lott in the Guardian warns of the dangers ahead.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/24/boris-johnson-optimism-sales-pitch-only-disappoint.

He says that too often:

optimism leads to disappointment- attended by its henchmen, bitterness and resentment … If optimism does not produce the desired results, then optimism itself has been sabotaged – not by realists but by the pessimists, otherwise known as traitors.

Optimism and an appeal to national fervour are the building blocks of populism. The belief that if our nation/race/religion all band together we will overcome all obstacles and triumph over others. It is attractive to many because it appeals to deeply held tribal instincts.

However, if we are to seriously address the critical issues of our society such as climate change, an aging population, the gig economy and increasing wealth disparity, optimism alone will not succeed.  It will inevitably lead to further divisions within society, less and less rational action and diminishing international cooperation. We need a more thoughtful approach based on shared human values. Optimism and its cohort populism are dangerous.  They represent the antithesis of the principles of eco-humanity and will inevitably result in a poorer, more divided world that continues to destroy the planet.