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By Uncategorized

Rational decision making in democracies is becoming increasingly difficult due to the tide of misinformation launched by social media and lobby groups. There are those that support climate change denial, refute the seriousness of hospital admissions due to Covid, anti-vacs’ and many others. The purveyors of these mistruths are a danger to society and themselves. George Monbiot writing in the Guardian argues that ‘claims representing a danger to life’ should be prohibited. Few would disagree.


However, misinformation is more than a danger to life, it is a threat to democracy itself. This has been demonstrated with the election of Trump and the continual loyalty of his supporters, despite his lies, and his illegal and narcissistic behaviour. Trump has gathered a xenophobic tribe of followers who cherish his opinions, irrespective of their validity. This is a common characteristic of dictators.

Anne Applebaum in her book The Twilight of Democracy writes:

twilight of democracyAuthoritarians need people who will promote the riot or launch a coup. But they also need people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do. They need people who will give voice to grievances, manipulate discontent, channel anger and fear, and imagine a different future. They need embers of the intellectual elite, in other words, who will launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite, give voice to grievances…. [by] betraying the central task of an intellectual, the search for truth, in favour of particular political causes.


Pseudo-scientists that give validity to false and dangerous ideas are a serious threat both to life and democratic institutions. It is they that have given credibility to climate change denial, vaccination scares and downplaying the Covid threat. Taken up by unscrupulous rumour mongers with their own political agenda they manage to confuse arguments, obfuscate the truth and warp decisions.

The BBC, for all its virtues, has given time and credibility to these agents of disinformation in order to give a ‘balanced view’. Contrarian arguments, however bizarre, make for entertaining listening. We all have the right to speak freely but there are limits. The freedom to disseminate misinformation has been exploited by rumour mongers in a way that is dangerous to society.

Lobby groups and malicious organisations who deliberately distort the truth do not support the principles of eco-humanity. It is hard to overstate the danger they represent to our society. We need to take more direct steps to protect ourselves.

Democracy in crisis

By Uncategorized

Democracy is in crisis. Representative democracy, invented in the eighteenth century, is no longer fit for purpose. Politicians have 2 major roles: to represent and to govern.  They are failing in both.

Over the course of history, those elected in a representative democracy have rarely come from a broad cross-section of the electorate.  In Britain, democracy began as a popularity contest between local power-brokers of the ruling class.  In the nineteenth century, as the electorate was broadened, middle-class politicians muscled in on power. In the mid-twentieth century, there was a brief scary period for the upper echelons when working class people were elected and opinions of all classes were heard in Parliament. Today, however, the less well-off are again excluded. Gaining a degree has become a necessary qualification to be selected as a candidate. Britain is divided between those that went to university and those that didn’t. Those without degrees are unrepresented and their opinions are rarely sought. The result has been protest and populism as expressed in the election of Trump, the Brexit referendum and the French gilet jaune.

demcracy in crisis

The recent record of governance by Western democracies is also poor. Good decision making is hampered by the fact that political parties are only guaranteed to be in power for up to five years. This means governments focus on the short term. If there are difficult decisions to be made that could be unpopular, the temptation is to delay. When the pace of evolution was slower in the 19th and early 20th century the problem wasn’t so serious. Nowadays it is disastrous. Every major issue, whether it be climate change, the pandemic or the divided society, is being tackled too late. Only when problems become destructively overwhelming are solutions sought. By then much of the damage has been done.

We expect a lot of our politicians. They are required to be responsive to the needs of their constituents at the same time as looking after the interests of the nation as a whole. They are supposed to stay in contact with ordinary people while simultaneously running the country. We require them to respond to the latest petty scandal at the same time as looking after the long-term future of the country. They are supposed to be excellent communicators with their finger on the pulse of the nation as well as understanding the detailed minutiae of government issues. In office, we expect them to be excellent managers, with no training, expertise or experience in their roles. It is too much to ask.

The current form of representative democracy isn’t the only possible method of government in which people elect their leaders. If we are to confront the challenges ahead, we need new types of democratic institution which improve both governance and representation. Ones better able to foster excellence, capable both of taking the long-term view and, at the same time, representing the people in a more active fashion.

For more listen to David Runciman on BBC Sounds

Democratic Sclerosis

By political thought

democratic declineA country’s democratic systems of government age over time. It’s operational arteries, unable to adapt to a changing world, become sclerotic, and a cancer of vested interests invades the organs of government. No longer able to function for the good of all, democracies become increasingly distanced from the electorate at large.

This is most apparent in two of the oldest democracies in the world:  those of the USA and Great Britain. The USA’s democratic processes are showing the worst signs of distress. Its carefully structured systems of checks and balances have become gridlocked. Whatever President is elected, because the House of Representatives often has a Democratic majority and the Senate has a natural Republican bias, it is now rare that both Houses of Congress can agree any major legislative programme.

The US Supreme Court, by its Citizens United decision of 2010, gave companies the same electoral rights as ordinary citizens; this effectively allowed lobby groups to legally bribe Congressional candidates. The corruptive influence of money from business and the rich is now so ingrained in the American electoral system that, according to a 2015 poll, 52% of Americans believe that Congressmen are corrupt.

Britain is scarcely any better. In the British system Members of Parliament aspire to become government ministers. Hence, as it is damaging to their career prospects, government MPs rarely vote against their own side. This has given the executive inordinate power over the legislature.  Scrutiny of legislation is poor, allowing Governments to ramrod their bills through the Commons.  Curiously it is the unelected House of Lords which now provides the principal defence against bad legislation in the UK.

In Britain, as well, the wealthy are able to enhance the career prospects of their children by sending them to Private School. This has resulted in the creation of a class-based society based on wealth. For example, according to a Guardian report in 2019, nearly two thirds of Boris Johnson’s first cabinet went to Private School. As only 7 % of the population can afford private school fees, it seems that, as in America, those that have money and influence are able to unduly exercise power for their own benefit.

The result of this democratic sclerosis has been a discontented electorate, poor leadership and abysmal policy making. It is no coincidence that Britain and the USA have some of the worst records of all advanced countries in dealing with the Covid crisis.

The effectiveness of a country’s democracy can be measured by the security, health and wealth of its citizens. During the Covid crisis it has been manifestly clear that East Asian democracies looked after their citizens’ health and wealth much better than the older democracies of Western countries.  It is also clear that Chinese power and influence is growing and poses a major threat to the West.

Western democratic governments need to develop the capability to diagnose the state of health of their systems of government and develop appropriate therapies. They will need to unblock arteries of communication to their electorate and reinvent their organs of administration, if they are to avoid continued decline in world power and influence.


The dark forces almost won

By political thought

It’s depressing, the forces of darkness almost won. Even after 4 years of disorganised, divisive and retrograde government, almost 50% of Americans voted for Donald Trump. It seems they didn’t mind the lies and the irrational, racist and illegal behaviour. Although the less well-off were the back bone of his support, nothing had been done to improve their economic or health prospects. His much-heralded financial reforms, merely made the rich, and particularly Donald Trump, richer; his attacks on Obama Care reduced their access to medical support. Despite this, his appeal to the emotions and prejudices of his supporters remained strong and even grew.

Trump and the Republican party still deny the fact that mankind’s future depends on working in harmony with the natural world. Despite all the physical proofs in the form of storms, droughts, heat waves, ice melts, fires and rising seas, the existence of climate change is still denied. The threat of the Covid -19 virus was never taken seriously. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people died and the economy was excessively disrupted. Environmental protections were slashed and removed, threatening bio-diversity and releasing yet more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

None of these issues made any difference to his supporters. Like all populists, Trump’s appeal is to primitive emotions of tribal support. By exploiting the natural fear of change and emphasising threats from others he has built up a tribe of true believers. ‘USA’ is the cry of Trump supporters even though they represent only half the country. Threats and violence underpin his movement.

Trump and his tribe threaten all the principles of eco-humanity: liberty, by undermining the forces of law, egality by appealing to white supremacists, rationality by a barrage of lies, and sustainability by the denial of climate change.  They were not humiliated at this election. Their support has grown. This is a warning to us all.  All those who are concerned about the prospects of a sustained and happy life for our children need to take note and act.

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.

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  I  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.


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.

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?

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.