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mapping the omnidirectional halo
Sep 11 '14

Some Saltire pun? Something about thistles? I don’t know.

Couple of quick thoughts on the Scotland thing. Looking over them, they mostly seem to be to do with canards and Failures of Think of the (media-reported) pro-independencers, but as the Yes campaign is actually doing a reasonable job of pointing out the equivalent idiocies on the other side, I’m sure it all balances out in the end:

= I’ve heard quite a few Yes-voters complaining that they didn’t vote for a single Tory (actually, they literally voted for a single Tory), so why should they be ruled by them? This conveniently ignores some Facts:

- 412,000 people in Scotland voted Conservative in 2010 - but we have a Firstpastthepost system, so they only got one seat.

- That’s on a 63% turnout, so plenty of people chose to acquiesce in a Tory government.

- Except the Tories didn’t get a majority, which is why there’s a coalition - with the Lib Dems, who won a sixth of the seats in Scotland.

- For 13 years, there was a Labour government when the vast majority of people in Southern and Eastern England (excluding London) did not vote for them. That’s democracy for you, though. You agree to pool your votes with everyone else and abide by the majority decision (not actually how it works in the UK, obviously, but that’s the basic idea). So it all boils down to who ‘we’ are - how far you are willing to extend your sense of identity to include diverse others. If you feel exclusively Scottish and not British at all, you probably aren’t interested in averaging your vote out with a bunch of English Tories…

= Speaking of which, Alex Salmond has been at pains to stress that this is not about ‘nationalism’ - that Scotland The State will be a modern, liberal, multicultural nation, and that the justification for its separation from the UK is that there is a clear commonality of politic and perspective in that region and a clear difference from the rest of the island.

This is somewhat disingenuous, though. It has to be more than coincidence that the boundaries of this ‘clade’ of political consensus just happen to coincide with the boundaries of a nation of the same name that last existed in the C17th (at a time when the technology and infrastructure of governance, which influence what constitutes a workable size for a nation state, were massively different than today).

Now, unlike some, I don’t think that it’s necessarily a terrible idea for there to be some relation between ethnic identity and the boundaries of a nation state. The Middle East and Africa, for example, would likely be far less riven by conflict and violence if the colonial powers hadn’t imposed national boundaries across the grain of tribal identity.

But there have been a few hints of the ugly side of nationalism in the IndyRef campaign so far, and I can’t help wondering whether independence would make that tendency better or worse. If I were a member of an ethnic minority living in Scotland right now, (including the English), it would certainly give me pause for thought.

= Geography is the main (and, I acknowledge, somewhat ridiculous) basis for me (kinda, sorta, some of the time) wanting Scotland to remain part of the UK - it would offend my OCD to have a small island off the coast of Eurasia split unnecessarily into two countries (actually, the neatest thing for the map would be for a federation of Britain and Eire, but I understand the historical reasons why that’s not about to happen any time soon!).

But it also informs our understanding of why Scotland feels distinct enough in culture and outlook for independence to be a plausible outcome of the referendum - Britain is long and thin, and Scotland is at the far end, with a bottle neck of underpopulated land in between. Contrast this with squarish France, for example, and you can see that, even if the people of South-West France feel culturally distant from Paris, there are other comparably distinct regions to their North and East, making secession seem that much less reasonable.

Conversely, arguing for independence on the basis that London is too far away carries little weight with me. London is where it is for reasons (roughly: Romans, plus the river as major trade route to continental Europe, which was our economic and cultural superior for many centuries). Dublin, Stockholm and Oslo are all similarly located for easy water-borne access to the continent. I have no doubt there are Irish, Swedes and Norwegians on the opposite corners of their respective countries who are also annoyed by that fact, but it doesn’t seem to me a sound basis on which to plump for secession.

Given that the British economy is no longer based on shipping wool and tin to Calais in wooden galleons, though, these concerns are an excellent argument for relocating the capital (of a Federal UK?) somewhere less South-East-y

= There is another strange aspect to the ‘relocalisation’ element of the pro-independence argument, and it seems odd to me that the No campaign has so singularly failed to grasp this nettle.

The argument goes: if we have independence, we won’t be ruled by distant Westminster, and we will have more control over our own lives.

But this is obviously, trivially true in any country. Partly this is just a result of the tendency towards primacy of a capital city - without strong intervention to reverse the trend, power, money and people tend to end up in the major city, and the regional vacuum is filled with retired people and resentment: people in Perpignan complain about stuck-up Parisians, Washingtonians dismiss Washington DC as ‘back East’, and so on.

If this were the only factor in play, the logic of self-empowerment would dictate continual further fragmentation:

Why should the Highlands be ruled from distant Edinburgh? Better for them to break away and become a country in their own right (bye bye oil revenues, incidentally).

Why should Lewis submit to the unaccountable Highland Parliament at Fort William? Surely Lewis should become a sovereign nation.

Those metropolitan bigwigs in Stornoway don’t understand the needs of us Taransayians - vote for independence!

And so on.

The obvious reason this doesn’t happen is that there are counter-benefits to being part of a larger union: economies of scale, greater resilience through shared diversity of weather, landscape, resources and industry, etc.

Beyond these considerations is the key recognition that power over domestic policy is not the be-all and end-all of agency - a lot of what affects a country’s wellbeing, prosperity and stability comes in the form of extra-territorial influences: international finance, foreign trade, war, climate change, to name but a few. And the greater the number of people who can agree a common position together, the greater their ability to navigate these external influences, and to have their influence on the rest of the world - not to relive the past glories of empire, or to engage in military adventurism, but to try to influence the factors that directly impact on their own wellbeing. So we’re back to deciding how big the ‘we’ you’re prepared to be part of is…

[Of course, what this really ought to draw our attention to is how ridiculous it is to try to sort these things out from the top down, by drawing boundaries around an area (containing other bounded sub-areas) and saying that final sovereignty resides at that uppermost administrative tier. How much easier this would all be if we worked from the bottom up, as any sensible radical democratic anarchist could explain to you…]

Sep 4 '14

Exposure Levels


I really tried to ignore the whole thing. I did, honestly. But it’s just the plain weirdness of the phenomenon that got to me.

Let’s start from the beginning. As you may have heard, purported photos of lots of (female) ‘celebrities’ without their clothes on were posted on the controversial online community 4chan. Some of the individuals have denied the photos’ authenticity, some confirmed it but stated that they were private pictures that could not have been leaked, and that some form of active hacking must therefore have taken place.

So far, so tawdry, sleazy and immoral. Human beings like seeing pictures other human beings without their clothes on, particularly if they are human beings they have previously found attractive with some or all of their clothes on. But it’s good manners not to steal such pictures and share them indiscriminately against the individual’s wishes. On this much we can agree.

And then someone opened a new pack of gender-cards to play with. Step forward The Guardian:

First up was Van Badham, who, in a generally reasonable article published on the same day the news broke, made the points I just made, but chose to also argue that, in the words of the article’s headline, “If you click on Jennifer Lawrence’s naked pictures, you’re perpetuating her abuse”; an interesting, if legally tendentious suggestion.

It’s an act of sexual violation,” Badham argued - which you might be OK with, if you are happy to dilute the usual sense of the term ‘sexual violation’ to include an act that does not involve the presence of the ‘violated’ individual, does not intensify their existing suffering, and the existence of which act they will forever be entirely ignorant of – “…and it deserves the same social and legal punishment as meted out to stalkers and other sexual predators.”

Now, if you’ve agreed that looking at an image of someone on a computer screen without that someone’s permission constitutes ‘sexual violation’, you may well be of the opinion that there should be some legal or social sanction against anyone caught doing so. But I am at a loss as to why that sanction should necessarily be equal to all other possible forms of sexual violation. Or, to put it the other way round, why the punishment for other forms of sexual violation – rape, for example, or stealing the nude photos in the first place – should be restricted to the same level of severity as that appropriate for the crime of looking at a particular webpage.

Still, Badham’s entitled to her opinion, and there’s nothing particularly gender-specific in her argument – although we will return to her use of the language of ‘abuse’ and ‘violation’ - language which, as we will see, is rarely employed in relation to men.

But don’t worry, we’re just getting warmed up:

There is an insatiable curiosity when it comes to the nude celebrity woman’s body,” claimed Roxane Gay in the next day’s edition, which I guess is true, although the sentence would also work without the word “woman” in it. “It goes without saying that there aren’t many nude photos of men being released. Men are largely free to bare their bodies as they choose without repercussion…”

Like I said, I tried to ignore this whole bullshit media non-issue. I tried to restrain myself from writing this essay. It is, apart from anything else, such a fucking a cliché for me, a man, to write a piece on the internet complaining about some feminists being too woman-centric, and the point I need to make is uncomfortably close to that unhelpful habit of male trolls everywhere, of saying “yes, but what about the men?”.

So let me be clear: I in no way deny that our deep cultural ideology continues to construct women as passive objects, as useful tools for men’s sexual fulfillment, as chattels to be traded for wealth and status. I acknowledge it as fact that more naked photos of women than men are circulated in this manner (although there is some evidence that both men and women are strongly attuned to images of women, and that men are more sexually oriented to the purely visual, which, when coupled with the male-heterosexual predominance of the hacker demographic, goes some way to explaining this differential). I recognise that there is a spectrum of abuse, that the trauma of public exposure is very real, and that ‘violation’ in that more abstract sense enables and legitimises sexual violation of women in the horrifically physical sense.

But there is a problem with contemporary feminism, and this particular moment of media self-mastication seems to capture it in particularly stark clarity. When a journalist can write sentences so divorced from well-known and easily confirmable facts, so bluntly at odds with established reality, I find myself consumed with curiosity as to how an otherwise intelligent person could be inhabiting such a distorted perceptual world.

These women’s lives and their private choices will be dissected. They are women, so they must be judged,” writes Gay. “Lives have been, if not ruined, irreparably harmed, because we are a culture that thrives on the hatred of women, of anyone who is Other in some way, of anyone who dares to threaten the status quo.”

Gay’s claim that “The Great Celebrity Naked Photo Leak of 2014… is meant to remind women of their place,” comes over a tad conspiratorial, given the alternative possibility that the photos might have been intended as an aid to masturbation (or as a means to gain status or money by providing such an aid to others).

But the major problem with this perspective is that it assumes that men are entirely untouched by such victimisation. The assumption continues for another two paragraphs:

Don’t get too high and mighty, ladies. Don’t step out of line. Don’t do anything to upset or disappoint men who feel entitled to your time, bodies, affection or attention. Your bared body can always be used as a weapon against you. You bared body can always be used to shame and humiliate you. Your bared body is at once desired and loathed.

“This is what we must remember. Women cannot be sexual in certain ways without consequence. Women cannot pose nude or provocatively, whether for a lover or themselves, without consequence. We are never allowed to forget how the rules are different girls [sic].”

This is not simply a case of talking about a problem that affects women. To wade in uninvited (whatever that means on the internet) to say “what about the men” might well be considered ‘derailing’ such a conversation. But these are active assertions that women are victims and men are not; direct comparisons of the relative victimhood of the two genders - and to question the veracity of the weighting of one of those genders’ victimhood is far from a derailing of the subject. It is, in fact, very much on topic.

In this case, Gay’s assertions go strangely unillustrated by anything resembling evidence. So let’s examine whether the rules really are “different for girls”:

It goes without saying that there aren’t many nude photos of men being released” - in this particular leak, perhaps (presumably because it was the work of o̶n̶e̶ a gang of male heterosexual hackers). But to ignore the multitude of leaks of nude photos of men seems obtuse, to say the least.

Take Kanye West, for example. Or NFL quarterback Brett Favre.

Men are largely free to bare their bodies as they choose without repercussion…” Is this why, when Premier League footballer Ashley Cole sent nude photos to a model (who then chose to leak them and sell her story to the Sunday Mirror), he was referred to as “disgraced Ashley Cole”? Were his “life and private choices” insufficiently “dissected” to engage Gay’s sympathy? “They are women, so they must be judged” implies that men would not be judged – but that doesn’t seem to be true.

When former professional wrestler Terry Bollea’s private sex tape was released, he was the recipient of extraordinary ridicule. This Gawker article exults in what it calls “a masterpiece”, evidently finding the prospect of a 59-year old man having sex inherently hilarious.

His physical appearance is mocked: Hulk strips down. His tan line is exposed and his hairline is vulnerable and silly without the do-rag, but there is sex to be had regardless.” There is an unrelentingly detailed account of his actions, pausing only to imagine how funny it would be for a man to show signs of domesticity: “It is a slow, dutiful blowjob and Hulk is thrusting himself into her mouth to speed up the process. This goes on for a few minutes and at one point Hulk examines the canopy bed curtains in a way that suggests he’d like to purchase this particular style for his own canopy bed some day.”

But, according to Gay, it is only women who need to remember that “your bared body can always be used as a weapon against you; your bared body can always be used to shame and humiliate you.”

When a judge ordered the footage be removed from the website, Gawker posted a defiant article headlined A Judge Told Us to Take Down Our Hulk Hogan Sex Tape Post. We Won’t. (They did, eventually, but were sure to provide links to other sites where it could still be watched.) There is a stark comparison with the general outcry of disapproval in relation to the more recent leaks, which have been removed by all the major sites that initially posted them. As of this post, naked pictures of Prince Harry are still available on the site, with a deeply ironic sidebar of links to articles decrying the leaked images of women:


Lives have been, if not ruined, irreparably harmed, because we are a culture that thrives on the hatred of women” states Gay, and I think this belief cuts to the heart of the willful blindness she and so many other commentators have exhibited; to the reason language like “abuse” and “violation” is employed in relation to female victims of such leaks and not to male victims: they believe that it is worse for women to be exposed in this way than men, that women suffer more from such treatment.

And this is in line with the – sexist – beliefs of our culture in general. Women are portrayed as vulnerable, sensitive; attention towards their bodies is always considered to be fundamentally sexual; and sexual attention towards them is considered, if not always coercive, assertive to the point of violation.

Conversely, men are tough, active, possessed of no meaningful emotional vulnerabilities, and are thus not to be considered as equivalent victims of public exposure. Men enjoy any and all kinds of sexual attention, and thus it’s impossible for them to be ‘shamed’. Their public exposure is not worthy of sympathy – they should just ‘man up’ and get over it.

But none of this is true. When long-lens nude photos of Brad Pitt were published by Playgirl, his legal action to stop distribution of the magazine cited the “emotional distress and humiliation” the exposure had caused. Should we disbelieve this distress was genuine simply because he is male? When Pete Wentz of the band Fall Out Boy had his private photos hacked he was so upset he quit his band (albeit temporarily). His trauma was real; those photos are still easily available online. Was this not “irreparable harm”? Why is this suffering invisible to Gay and her ilk?

Gay’s list of ‘invasions of privacy’ suffered by ‘the Other’ stretches the concept of ‘privacy’ to breaking point: “A stranger reaches out and touches a pregnant woman’s belly. A man walking down the street offers an opinion on a woman’s appearance or implores her to smile. A group of teenagers driving by as a person of color walks on a sidewalk shout racial slurs, interrupting their quiet.” But real invasions, violations and humiliations of people who happen to be white and men seem to be beneath her notice.

To be curious about the psychology of this perspective is a long way from “whataboutism”; in order for Gay to re-cast a phenomenon of general human suffering as a specific exemplar of misogyny, she must actively deny the existence of the male victims. Is this not a strange thing to do - to sacrifice one’s relation to reality on the altar of gender partisanship? When did a belief in truth as inherently valuable get traded for this kind of rank tribalism?

Today, Hadley Freeman added her voice to the gendering of the issue, with an article headlined “The naked celebrity hack: an outstanding example of sexism” and subtitled “Why are there almost no men included on the list of celebrities whose privacy has been violated?” – the obvious answer, the sex and sexual orientation of the average 4chan user, again being mysteriously ignored.

“Personally, I have never understood the appeal in looking at naked photos of people who I don’t know and who certainly have no interest in me” claims Freeman, and on the basis of this personal proclivity feels empowered to declare that no-one else could possibly have a sexual motivation: “Anyway, the point of these pictures isn’t to give anyone sexual pleasure… It’s purely a power thing.”

Unlike Gay, Freeman has evidently noticed that some naked photos of men occasionally appear against their wishes, but she moves swiftly to block any misguided extension of empathy in that direction: “The only time naked photos of men get leaked onto the internet is when they ham-fistedly leak them themselves, as happens with various priapic male politicians like Anthony Weiner, and the general response is laughter and mockery.”

“The only time…” - except when it’s a leaked sex tape, like Bollea. Or paparazzi intrusion, as with Pitt. Or, just like the latest leaks, having a private photo cache hacked into, as happened to Wentz. And the appropriate response? Laughter and mockery. Even though Gay told us that “men are largely free to bare their bodies as they choose without repercussion…”. Never mind, back to the female exceptionalism:

“With women, that leaking happens when others steal the images from their phones, and the response here is darker, sexual, triumphal. Neither response is good, but the one in regards to women is definitely more threatening.” Is this just a feeling Freeman has, or is she claiming that things are “darker… more threatening” for women in some objectively real fashion? How does she know the inner psychology of the leakers? How can she be so sure that there isn’t a simple motivation of sexual titillation? Is it possible that her impression that things are “darker… more threatening” is just the result of her being more inclined to empathise with the women’s suffering?

She goes on to suggest that the phenomenon of “revenge porn” can be defined as “when a man leaks photos of an ex-partner” - despite the many examples of women doing the same to men. Once again, the fact that she personally would not derive sexual enjoyment from naked images of a celebrity is taken as proof that the leaks are not about sexual attraction, but are actually all about reinforcing society’s structural misogyny: “It’s a means of exuding [sic] power over someone who thought they were, if not powerful, at least independent.”

It’s fun to take the piss out of lazy journalists whose attempt to provide post-hoc rationalisations for their pre-existent prejudices can easily be disproved by facts (really, I still find it hard to believe that professional commentators could write things like: “The only time naked photos of men get leaked onto the internet is when they ham-fistedly leak them themselves” or “Men are largely free to bare their bodies as they choose without repercussion.”).

But there is a serious aspect to all this. Because what we might as well call “internet feminism” (that small, largely Anglophone, white, Western and well-educated pocket of online individuals who occasionally mistake themselves for a representative sample of the world’s women) is becoming more and more obsessed with crying wolf over issues of minor importance, to the detriment of genuine emancipatory human politics.

When the ills of modern media – be they idiocy, immorality, prurience or simply superficiality and banality – strike, they will of course strike asymmetrically, along the societal fracture lines of intersectional identity. The ideologically and structurally disadvantaged – whether by class, age, race, sexuality or, yes, gender – will always suffer more. But that’s not always the most important thing to say about the problem. And when the automatic reaction to every injustice and obstacle is to pour energy into arguing why one particular demographic group is the greatest victim, the solidarity that might actually enable genuine liberational change in society is dispersed.

The women who were the victims of this latest intrusion deserve our sympathy. We should not ignore the way attitudes to them are affected by the continued, entrenched sexism of our culture. But to use their suffering as an excuse to belittle or ignore the suffering of others is inhumane. To use the existence of certain anti-women attitudes in our society as an excuse to mock and humiliate men who have also been victims – of public exposure, of rape, of domestic abuse – is contemptible. And to twist, distort and brazenly falsify the facts to promote the value of one gender’s suffering over that of the other is to diminish the power and purpose of democratic society, to pollute the very arena of collective communication upon which we all rely for the continuation of the freedoms and tolerance we rely upon so much, and need at this time in history so much more than ever before.

So stop that shit.

Apr 11 '14

Faith Fool


Many people are allergic to the word ‘faith’; in skeptic circles it tends to be used in the sense of “believing in something in the absence of any evidence or rational basis for believing in it.” When non-skeptics say “ah, but everyone has a faith of some kind – yours is just in ‘skepticism’ and ‘rationality’,” they often respond with anger, vitriol and Richard Dawkins quotes.

I think there is a more useful definition, however:

We all accrue various fragmentary models of reality in relation to aspects of our lives as we go along. We may well think that we have good reasons for using these models, such that they become the default interpretive frameworks in their appropriate contexts – in which case, they can fairly be called ‘beliefs’: I believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun (because I find the scientific reasoning behind that supposition convincing), and that societies work better when people better understand one another’s perspective (because many people have observed this throughout history, and because I’m a big old hippy), and that the best remedy for having put too much lemon in a dish is soy sauce (I worked that one out myself); but none of these beliefs impacts greatly on the others - they are, essentially, fragmentary and isolated.

Faith occurs when enough of these fragments of experience, perception and belief coalesce that they form an integrated ontology, a stable and unified way of relating to the world.* Such gestalt perspectives can still be examined and analysed using the same tools of reason, experimentation and contemplation that we often use to determine the validity of our fragmentary beliefs. However, the experience of developing such a gestalt feels very different to the individual – it is an experience of being immersed in a pool, rather than gauging the amount of water left in the kettle, or of being carried along by a strong tidal current, rather than judging the strength of flow from a showerhead.

The defining characteristic of a faith, then, is the sense of surrendering oneself to it; of accepting it not as just an owned fragment of knowledge but as a context that is fundamentally constitutive of one’s being and personality. This is, in essence, to say ‘I do not intend to spend much more time questioning the validity of this overall approach – it has come to seem self-evident to me that it is helpful, meaningful and profound, such that I wish to live my whole life, and to engage the world, on the basis of it’.

Such a description can be applied to religious faiths of course (and I believe the above is a more accurate description of the way in which most people come to religious faith than the skeptics’ common assumption that people have somehow been tricked or brainwashed into accepting every dogmatic proposition of the religion in question) – but it is also an appropriate description of the place ideas such as ‘rationality’ and ‘skepticism’ can play in the lives of the non-religious.

*As we point out in the comments, we actually start out with this kind of integrated ontology, also known as ‘just being’, before we start to develop conscious thoughts (and awareness of those thoughts). But we don’t really think of it as an integrated ontology, because we’re too busy sleeping and crying and stuffing our faces with rusks. Some people retain a sense of unified being into adulthood, which forms the basis of their religious faith. But for those of us who discover the joys of existential angst, it’s only after we’ve lost this kind of integration - and then rediscovered it - that we are consciously aware of the presence and significance of it, and are thus drawn to try to rehabilitate the term ‘faith’ as something meaningful and valid.

Dec 14 '13

Dec 10 '13
"The Disenchantment Of Modern Life"
The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.
It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental, nor is it accidental that today only within the smallest and intimate circles, in personal human situations, in pianissimo, that something is pulsating that corresponds to the prophetic pneuma, which in former times swept through the great communities like a firebrand, welding them together.

If one tries intellectually to construe new religions without a new and genuine prophecy, then, in an inner sense, something similar will result, but with still worse effects. And academic prophecy, finally, will create only fanatical sects but never a genuine community.
- Max Weber
Dec 10 '13

Proverbial Cake Rant

"You can’t have your cake and eat it" has always annoyed me. You can’t eat a cake if you don’t have it in the first place, so presumably the phrase means "You can’t eat your cake and still have it afterwards."

But why would you want to? It’s not like a wedge of cake can be usefully repurposed as a functional doorstop. There’s icing and that, but compared to chandeliers and Kandinsky prints, cakes don’t have any great ornamental value. It’s not like we look at photos of past cakes in our lives and say “I wish I still had that cake, to remind me of the good times”. The only viable function of a cake is to be consumed.

But if by “You can’t have your cake and eat it”, or even the marginally preferable “You can’t eat your cake and have it”, we simply mean “I wish I could eat this cake and still have it afterwards so I could eat it again”, we could have just started with more cake in the first place. Or just made another cake. We aren’t alotted a cake quota at birth allowing us to consume but a single cake once in our entire lives, such that the eating of it is a bitter-sweet moment of meditation on the mutability of all things. It’s a fucking cake.

In summary, this phrase is dumb.

Nov 26 '13
Nov 11 '13

Top environmental problems


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.”

Oct 26 '13

I think I want all music to sound like this. Another point in favour of Slowing Things Down…

Sep 24 '13

Steelweaver’s Easily Understood Car Engine / Economics Analogy


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.