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A quote from Gus Speth in the latest Common Cause newsletter: “I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
Two things determine the functionality of a car engine - whether it is getting enough of the resources it requires (petroleum and oxygen), and whether the various internal components of the engine are operational and in appropriate relationship with one other.
An engine may run at less than optimal efficiency because it is receiving insufficient fuel or oxygen - perhaps due to a blocked fuel line, or to driving at a high altitude. Or, an engine may run at less than optimal efficiency because the carburettor is wrongly calibrated and is mixing the fuel and oxygen in the wrong quantities, or because the cylinders are not firing in well-timed sequence, or because the engine is not properly lubricated.
An engine can fail entirely because it overheats or a vital component breaks; or because there is simply not sufficient fuel or oxygen available.
Much of modern economics concerns the appropriate relational functioning of the economy’s internal components - whether there is enough money to lubricate the interaction of the economy’s various elements, or what the best mixture of state and private sector activity is. Very occasionally, war or natural disaster forces it to consider the temporary effect of a vital component failing.
This is largely a function of the fact that, for 1st World (sic) industrialised nations over the last century or so, it has been safe to assume that the flow of input resources will be continuous and uninterrupted. Through expansion, conquest, colonialism and the exploitation of untapped natural wealth (including shifting from wood to coal to oil as energetic feedstock), the input-flow has largely been assured, and the problems that have arisen have largely been a function of internal calibration and emergent systemic phenomena.
Much of the knee-jerk criticism of Keynesianism, for example, (often by people who have never actually read Keynes), argues that increasing the amount of money in circulation without a concomitant increase in real wealth will simply devalue the currency - in an economy of 100 groats and 100 loaves, minting an extra 100 groats will just make loaves cost 2 groats instead of 1 (will make the groats worth half as much, or the loaves twice as dear, depending on your preferred perspective).
This ignores the possibility, however, that a when a systemic problem occurs (one independent of any interruption of fundamental inputs), it may indeed require a purely systemic - and often counter-intuitive - intervention to correct it.
If a fuel line is blocked, for example, rather than simply adapt to a lower input of fuel, it might be appropriate to try to force fuel through the hose at higher pressure, to dislodge the blockage. When a cold car engine keeps stalling, we make higher rather than lower demands on it, revving the engine in the hope of keeping it turning over long enough to warm up.
And when an economy becomes locked into a downward spiral of decreasing demand, activity and expenditure, it can be (and has been) appropriate to flood the economy with artificial demand or increased monetary lubricant to break out of the dysfunctional systemic pattern, as Keynes suggested.
When there is a genuine shortage of external inputs, however - oxygen for engines or grain for economies; petroleum for engines, or, erm, petroleum for economies - such internal systemic considerations are no longer relevant.
Keynes’ idea can be re-stated as: assuming a continuous throughflow of resources, governments should save during times of surplus in order to be able to overcome systemic slowdowns in times of scarcity. Nowhere did Keynes deny that a choking-off of the supply of fundamental inputs would result in a very different kind of economic problem, to which Keynesian solutions would not apply (although, from the perspective of Edwardian Britain, the prospect of such an eventuality probably seemed very remote to him).
At this stage, most of the mainstream economic conversation still revolves around ‘to stimulus or not to stimulus’; Krugman vs. Friedman, Stiglitz vs. Bison (A., not M.), Keynes vs. Keynes-haters. But if, as I would suggest, our current economic difficulties primarily arise not from an internal systemic dysfunction, but from our having reached the peak and decline of conventional oil, alongside the near limits of agricultural, mineral and ecological extraction, then this kind of economic thinking is less than helpful.
To attempt to resolve our current crisis using the economic theories of the last two centuries is like trying to fix an engine by endlessly tinkering with the carburettor, timing, sparkplugs and oil levels, without actually bothering to check whether there is any gas left in the tank.
I’m writing this as Zoe Ball is on the TV presenting some kind of live reveal-a-thon for the new Doctor. Or rather the actor playing the new Doctor. I’ve got the sound off, because I can guess how mind-warpingly awful it must be, and I’m not sure that dwelling on the identity of the actor playing the character (in the guise, evidently, of that most oxymoronic of TV events, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year), is really likely to help me with the necessary suspension of disbelief when it comes to believing that the character played by that actor somehow is the same as the character played by the previous actor.* But we’ll get to that.
"There’s no such thing as alternative medicine: if it’s proved to work, it’s just medicine har har har.”
"OK, what was it before it was proved to work?"
"Before it was proved to work, did it already work? Or did it only suddenly start to work at the exact instant a scientist ran his experiment in a laboratory?"
"Well, no, obviously it’s got nothing to do with that."
"So what was it called before it was proved to work?"
"Wasn’t it considered something outside of the mainstream of medical practice? Didn’t people refer to it as in some way ‘alternative’?"
"The point is, once it’s been proven, it’s no longer ‘alternative’."
"So ‘alternative medicine’ is just another way of saying ‘medicine that might well work but hasn’t yet been rigorously proven to do so’? So loads of ‘alternative medicine’ might actually work?"
"No, but if it worked it would already have been proved."
"So if I discover a new therapeutic technique that genuinely helps people, Science will instantaneously verify it for me in the moment of discovery?"
"What are you talking about?"
"What if scientists refuse to run proper experiments? What if they don’t know enough about the subject to realise that they don’t know how to run proper experiments? What if they just run a couple of lame-ass experiments and then say ‘that’s it, we’ve proven it doesn’t work, no-one should waste any more time looking into that stuff’? What if the institutional practice of scientific research isn’t perfectly objective and infallible and gifted with infinite resources, so that it can’t and won’t automatically test any and all hypotheses instantly, intelligently and thoroughly?"
"Tim Minchin says you’re either lying or mentally ill har har."
"Why are you standing like that?"
"Oh, I’ve got this back problem, I went to the doctor’s but they said there was nothing they could do about it…"
Strangely, though, the majority of these stories covering the Bilderberg Group meeting do not focus on the fact that elected representatives from the British parliament [edit: including the Prime Minister] will be having clandestine meetings with figures from private corporate interests and - perhaps more importantly - with the leaders of other sovereign nations.
The majority of them just think that anything happening near Watford is intrinsically funny.
In which Alex and I struggle with Indian culture, the cult of factuality and substandard audio equipment. Forgive the occasional garbling and enjoy our Indian intellectual adventure! Oh, and also I rant about The Hobbit for about 20 minutes…
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