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The Fourth Transition

Webdiarist Ian MacDougall writes:

Norman Mailer once wrote something, in an article picked up by The Sydney Morning Herald, that I found arresting: “My long experience with human nature - I'm 80 years old now - suggests that it is possible that fascism, not democracy, is the natural state.” [0]

Mailer was a novelist, and his business was being provocative. The Naked and the Dead (1948), based on his experience serving in the US Army in the Pacific, was just so. In the context of the times, it made his reputation. I found his article, like his novel, to be food for considerable worthwhile thought. After the thinking, I decided he was wrong.

However, he was very usefully wrong. The resulting perspective on the last 10,000 years of human history set out below covers the major transitions in humanity’s economic base: agricultural, industrial and cybernetic, each of which in turn brought distinctive and dramatic social consequences. It is highly probable that we are now commencing a fourth transition, one as transforming as any of the previous three. Karl Marx got many things right in social analysis, and the class struggle central to his philosophy remains embedded in the modern political division between Labor and the conservatives, left and right. Capitalist societies around the world may well start tearing themselves and each other apart, but whatever new ways there will be in future political and economic organisation, a socialism based on centralisation of economic decision making will almost certainly not be one of them.

The Fourth Transition

by Ian MacDougall

The ‘natural state’ which humans seem to gravitate to, both while they are in and when they get beyond the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer band, is not Mailer’s pessimistic fascism but a more generalised order of which fascism is but an extreme example. That order is hierarchy, its most stable form being a pyramid of competence, or as Denis Dutton describes it, a reverse dominance hierarchy:

“…a human reverse dominance hierarchy is something that is led by an individual at the top who by dint of skill, talent or knowledge, or maybe just force of personality, becomes the corporal, the staff sergeant, the team captain, the platoon leader or the chairman, and the rest of the guys go along with it. It's called a reverse dominance hierarchy because the leader needs the co-operation of the led.” [4]

Stalin’s Russia, in which the supreme leader’s main area of competence was in overseeing the control apparatus of a police state, was the most outstanding example in all history of a pure dominance hierarchy.

Across the stages of social order from the hunter-gatherer hierarchy we see a tension between power based on experience and ability, and one based on inheritance. Tribal chieftains were leaders in both war and peace, and a process of natural selection must have weeded out the incompetents. A transfer of power by simple inheritance, typically from father to eldest son, arguably minimised disputes over succession, but often at the expense of quality in leadership. Nobody likes obeying orders from a fool, no matter how well the fool is connected. People naturally follow those they have greatest confidence in, and will only follow a fool if the alternative is something worse, like summary execution. That for example, was the choice presented to British soldiers unlucky enough to be under the command of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, (1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE, ADC) in the First World War, and to German airmen under Hermann Goering in the Second. (The Scottish historian Norman Stone described Haig as the greatest of Scottish generals, since he killed the highest number of English soldiers at any front in history.)

The transition from the egalitarian social organisation of hunter-gatherers to more elaborate and uneven hierarchical distribution of power can be seen in the agricultural communities of Melanesians in the islands of the Western Pacific. Chiefs and Grand Chiefs must be treated with the greatest respect, their housing traditionally is superior and set well apart from the rest of the village, and one does not simply call at their front door for a friendly chat, as one might do with people lower down the ladder. These fishermen-gardeners have a way to go, and clearly models originating in the expanses of the continental landmasses will have only limited application for them, but further economic development will bring more elaborate division of labour and more aloof hierarchy. They are on their way to feudalism.

Whether they can circumvent that stage and plunge straight into capitalism is an open question. The current situation in Niugini suggests not.

Agriculture developed because it consolidated food supply around plants and animals that were themselves in process of rapid domestication. The division of labour in agricultural societies gave rise to villages, towns and cities, and the required defence abilities produced systems of marked ranking and social stratification, underpinned in the consciousness of the participants by elaborate religious justifications. In Europe there developed what we know as feudalism and in Asia, Oriental despotism. In both, hierarchy of rank and privilege became the basis both of social order and military organisation. But the bedrock of agriculture, villages, towns, cities, systems of marked ranking and social stratification, together with their elaborate religious justifications, was a fundamental physical law known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The creation of order out of wilderness: fields, harvests in granaries, paved roads, and villages of mud-brick houses, requires work to bring about an entropy reduction, or reduction in disorder. Left to itself the order will go into reverse: houses will decay and the fields go wild with a multitude of species instead of a mere few desirable ones. Thus if work has to be done, and especially repetitive tasks involving great muscular exertion, then one either does it oneself, or organises for one or more others to do it. One man can command a fortress, but he cannot build it on his own. Hierarchy follows, as night follows day. Thus in time, the castles on the Rhine and the Great Wall of China.

Feudalism was elaborated upon until, in an ironic European twist, an urban-based class of traders, tradespeople, merchants, manufacturers and professionals, which over several hundred years had developed within the shelter it provided, rebelled against its absolutist and aristocratic political structures, and its hierarchies’ self-favour in distribution of wealth. In the aftermath, feudal estates started turning into capitalist farms, there to be bought and sold like the produce off them. At around the same time (in the mid-Eighteenth Century) that same class of people who had been revolutionising society began what we now call the Industrial Revolution, in which the energy of fossil fuels progressively displaced animal and human muscle power from many tasks.

The changed social relations of the successful bourgeois and industrial revolutions also extended the Agricultural Revolution, industrialising agriculture. Feudal revivals and new feudal ventures became impossible, even in the colonies. The project sponsored in 1853 by such notables as WC Wentworth and John Macarthur, which would have set up a ‘bunyip’ aristocracy in Australia, became rapidly mired in popular ridicule, rather than admired with solemn popular respect. However, in Queensland a plantation aristocracy working slave labour did begin to develop in the 1880s in the cane-growing coastal areas such as the Cairns district, and lasted until 1900, using indentured or kidnapped (‘blackbirded’) Melanesian labour from the nearby Pacific islands, chiefly the Solomons (modern Vanuatu). [2.1] Arguably, these were the first Melanesians to experience feudalism. But the experiment terminated well before it brought forth an Ancien Regime on the French model. The closest colonial or transplanted approximation, the Deep South of the US, collapsed in the Civil War of 1861-65.

In 1989, when I.M. Pei’s Glass Pyramid was installed in the courtyard of the Louvre Palace in Paris, [2.2] 200 years after that building was transformed into one of the great art museums of the world by the revolutionaries of 1789, it was not without its critics. They focused on the dissonance between the original ornate building from the period of high feudalism of France and the glass pyramid somewhere between New Age and Pharaonic Egypt. But to my mind, both buildings sit well together, the original palace as one of the Ancien Regime’s most outrageous (which rage came out in 1789) creations, and the pyramid as a summary comment on the structure of the regime itself.

In feudal society, a man of whatever rank gave service to his liege or patron. As a member of a hierarchically organised society, in return he received in return certain benefits, chiefly protection from the lord’s enemies, but also from the lord himself. The hierarchy of feudalism was arguably the greatest chain-letter protection racket yet devised, and to escape from it one had to have tradeable skills, such as those of the international brotherhood of cathedral-building stonemasons, the mercenaries and romanticised ‘knights errant’ in the feudal wars of Europe, or of the ronin samurai of feudal Japan in the period 1185-1868. Sometimes whole companies of men would serve as ‘free lances’. One modern survival of this is the Pope’s company of Swiss Guards.

To be without either a patron or a means of independent livelihood left one vulnerable. The only social security any individual had was as now: that provided by other people. But whatever largesse they produced was collected and redistributed on terms dictated by the aristocracy. Translating this to the context of a modern feudal society, we can see its importance. After the Americans defeated the Iraqi Army in 2003, their administrator Paul Bremer disbanded it, leaving 300,000 trained soldiers with no patron, social security or independent means of support. Many turned to banditry, or sold their services to warlords, as in the glory days of European or Asiatic feudalism. Many today, faced with the choice of serving a patron or trying to survive out there in the remorseless market, happily choose the patron.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809), who lived on the cusp of time between collapsing feudalism and rising capitalist liberal democracy, made this observation:

To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho' himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in Kings, is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION. (Common Sense, 1776)

Transmission of office of leadership by inheritance avoided many a bloody squabble over succession, but not all. However, inheritance of office came with its own problems. Nothing gives better insight into the times than the fact that Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense became a best-seller, running to half a million copies. It was revolutionary because it was seen by so many as being so right. Paine’s challenge to the rights of birth was a crowbar in the biggest crack running in European feudalism, because life was at the time getting steadily worse for the growing mass comprising the lower orders and at the same time top heavy with privilege and conspicuous consumption of the elite. Principles that had given Europe the more equitable society as depicted by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales had disappeared. The social hierarchy involved all its people according to well understood and accepted principles of commons and nobility, which were based on worthiness in the sight of God: inheritance of title, estates and domains, and the granting and receipt of patronage. But aristocrats, visibly distinguished from commoners through their exclusive right to wear colourful clothes rather than the dyeless homespun of the commoners, had been from the outset in competition with each other over place in the order, as reflected by grandeur of castles, estates and palaces, numbers of retainers, and ability to bestow patronage.

Peasant revolts were as old as feudalism itself, but were always easily crushed due to the peasantry’s rural isolation and difficulties of organisation as compared with the aristocracy’s. In the classic formulation of Karl Marx regarding the French peasantry in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France’s poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small holding, permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. [5]

The history of the ‘third world’ in the Twentieth Century proved Marx somewhat pessimistic on the subject of the initiative and power of the peasantry to relieve itself of oppression. A peasantry led by town bourgeois like an Oliver Cromwell, a Citizen Robespierre, middle class radicals like Lenin, Gandhi, Mao, Ho Chi Minh or Castro, or a peasant-born soldier like Chu Teh was capable of overturning a lot of order, particularly since that order tended to tear itself apart in wars rather similar to those of the gangs of Chicago.

In its earliest phase, before the bourgeois began to opt out, there was no land or man without a lord above him. The King’s liege was God, and he ruled by God’s grace and grant of divine right, thus extending the social hierarchy all the way to the highest rank in Heaven. The Christian Church dovetailed into this system, being in many ways a parallel and rival to the power of states, and owning much land, the prevailing form of wealth. Suzerains, moreover, could be individuals or collectives. While bishops were commonly aristocrats by birth and lords in their own right, monasticism offered the lowly a way to a slice of the action, becoming to feudalism what the joint stock company was to the later capitalism. The catch was that on their departure for the next life, the unmarried and perhaps celibate clerics, monks and nuns, lacking legitimate offspring, would pass any and all of their accumulated property to the Church.

In the subsequent European epoch of capitalism, wealth was synonymous with money, and readily convertible to it. Inherited privilege steadily gave way to a combination of monetary ‘worth’ and individual achievement. Inherited right to state power was replaced by that conferred by popular suffrage, though this varied from country to country. The power of aristocrats across Europe declined as a result of the 1789 revolution in France and the subsequent Napoleonic wars. The mutual obligations of lords and serfs, though grossly lopsided in the later stages of feudalism, were replaced by an every-man-for-himself capitalist society in which alternative forms and assurances of social security were slow to develop. The mutual support of the tribe had been replaced by that of the common people mediated by their lord, and he was (slowly or abruptly, but inexorably) replaced as mediator by the market. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that movements like fascism and communism both achieved power out of the chaos following the defeat of the imperial Central Powers in World War 1. German fascism came to be sold to the demoralised populace as a path of (industrialised) return to the imagined glories, values, beliefs and social solidarity of early Germanic feudalism.

Representative democracy in the 19th and the first half of the 20th Century tended not to replicate itself. The colonial powers of Europe, whose own democracy was variable, ran autocratic regimes in all their colonies.

Feudal societies were also open to attack by pre-feudal tribesmen, such as the Central European ‘barbarians’ who brought down the later Roman Empire and by the Mongols in the 12th and 13th Centuries. While advanced capitalist societies today are in no way threatened by the surviving hunter-gatherers of the world, feudal societies such as those of Iraq and Afghanistan have an internal conservative resilience that does not succumb easily before the war machines of the modern capitalist states.

Israel remains to this day an intractable source of trouble because it was founded as an act of colonisation by the victorious capitalist powers of the two succeeding major wars of the Twentieth Century. It was not a colonisation that intruded upon hunter-gatherers, as happened in Australia and the Americas, but upon an already operating feudal society. Islamism represents a quite powerful reaction to this, yet is an already futile attempt to revive collapsing feudal social relations and project them renewed into the post-feudal age. For this reason it is most aptly described as Islamic fascism.

A zoological analogy: every member of the Class Reptilia alive today, every lizard, snake, crocodile, monitor and turtle, is a dinosaur in waiting. Its chance would come if only the mammals and maybe the birds would get out of the way. In the same manner, every leader of a local teenage gang, higher order gangster or drug ‘baron’ is a Charlemagne, Harold the Great, Richard Coeur de Leon (or more likely, Ivan the Terrible) couchant. Though they manage to do quite nicely in a strong liberal capitalist environment, such people cannot hope to go rampant and transcend it. Only where liberalism is weak or non-existent can they do so as, for example, in certain parts of Central America.

Imperialism won for the metropolitan countries practising it unprecedented sources of wealth in markets and raw materials, enabling assaults on peoples still in the tribal or feudal stages. Empire began in the Ancient World, and in Europe following the collapse of Rome, began anew with the expedition of Columbus to the Americas in 1492, which departed from the Iberian Peninsula, the region of feudal Europe with the strongest maritime development. Understandably, in the parts of the Americas conquered by the then-dominant Spanish and Portuguese, the new societies set up were on the feudal model, which later quite easily became military dictatorships. Military organisation and ranks, which began in ancient times, fitted well with the later feudal hierarchies, and any feudal society at peace was easily switched to a war footing without dislocation or reorganisation.

European imperialism led Europe into an arms race and the two great wars of the Twentieth Century. Communist rebels gained control of the defeated Russian Empire in 1917, of Yugoslavia in 1946, China in 1949, Vietnam in the period 1954-75 and Cuba in 1959. These last four social revolutions are, I believe, best understood as a reaction of feudal peoples against external imperialism. They were not what their leaders claimed them to be (workers’ and peasants’ states arising out of proletarian and peasant revolutions), but rather a new form of pyramidal hierarchy applied to an industrialising context, consequent everywhere upon the fact that they replaced in each country not a fully fledged capitalist social order, but a decadent and vulnerable feudal one. Joseph Stalin and other Soviet communist leaders presided over one such example of an industrialising ‘workers’ feudalism’. What they created was claimed as the next stage of social organisation beyond capitalism in the Marxist of sequence tribalism - feudalism - capitalism – socialism – communism. What actually occurred was that wage workers each now had the choice of one big company for which to work for wages, instead of one of a number of much smaller companies. Stalin finished his life in 1953 as the most powerful man who ever lived, and after a history of state repression and corruption rivalled only by Nazi Germany’s, and perhaps even exceeding it, the system he created collapsed in 1989. What emerged, unsurprisingly, was a gangster-capitalism.

The original October 1917 Revolution in the Russian Empire was actually a military coup, distinct from most others of the genre by originating in the lower rather than the upper ranks of the army. A destructive civil war ensued, ensuring that whatever emerged from it, the least likely was a liberal democracy. To their credit, the insurrectionary Bolshevik leadership of the time made a sincere effort to flatten the social pyramid of feudal privilege widely taken for granted in Russia, abolishing secrecy of government and diplomacy and paying themselves at the rate accorded skilled industrial workers, albeit for performance of self-chosen tasks. Had they extended that principle of payment and work progressively to the population at large, the outcome for the USSR might have been markedly different. Given what came under Stalin, it could hardly have been worse.

The ‘Second Industrial Revolution’, starting in the mid Twentieth Century, saw automatic systems and computers take over the control functions of both blue and white collar workers in industrialised countries. Also called the Cybernetic Revolution, it combined the power of the machine with the skill, patience and contented repetitiveness of the machine. Like the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions before, it was driven by the rewards and savings in time, energy and money to those in positions to make decisions regarding use of such systems. Surprisingly little industrial or political opposition to it was attempted, unlike the case of the Industrial Revolution where the (commonly misunderstood) ‘Luddite’ movement of machine-wrecking craft workers made its appearance. In the corporate capitalist environments where computerisation was introduced there was hierarchy of power like feudalism. But corporations and companies are inevitably ant-heaps, with personnel and shareholders coming and going, while the corporate entity continues until absorbed into another in the process of capital concentration.

Each of the three major revolutions in humanity’s economic base so far considered has had enormous social effects, so much so that return to the preceding economy and base was rendered impossible. We 6.6 billion inhabitants of this planet cannot return to our distant ancestors’ hunter-gatherer stage with its stone and wooden technology, nor to the stage dominated by agriculture, with power supplied directly by human and animal muscle, by wind for shipping, and by wind and water for industrial mills. If a nuclear war or comet impact did no more than supply a massive electromagnetic pulse to blow out all the circuitry of computers and other electronic devices, the modern economic world would come to a standstill, probably with terrible consequences. Electronic data storage and record-keeping underpins government and commerce: banking, finance, insurance, transport and communications everywhere, and there are simply not enough clerks or paper and pens in the world to take over should computers for whatever reason leave off, nor, I guess, personnel to run the industrial plants that are presently under automated control.

All of the previous mode transitions were incentive driven: the next immediate step to increased bounty, benefit and profits was easily seen from the preceding one. Though driven by the carrot rather than the stick, what those who each added their bit to the larger unfolding change did not see were the very long-term consequences. Those hunter-gatherers who increased their food supplies by clearing weeds away from desirable plants were oblivious to one logical consequence of that activity: castles and crusades. Nor did a pair of bicycle mechanics known to their locality as the Wright brothers realise in their time that beyond their flying machine project lay anything like the Boeing Corporation, the US Strategic Air Command, NASA and the European Space Agency. Likewise, while Tom Paine only had limited forward vision towards the modern world, his was undoubtedly better than that enjoyed by King Louis the Sixteenth of France, during those halcyon days when he still had his head connected to the rest of him.

The last Revolution is the one we are now starting, and it is driven not by the carrot, but by the sticks of climate change on the one hand and impending resource and fossil fuel exhaustion on the other. Like the Agricultural, Industrial and Cybernetic Revolutions before it, what I choose to call here the Sustainability Revolution implies enormous social consequences, impossible to foresee in detail from this vantage point in time.

In the Agricultural Revolution, progressive influence was exerted upon the ecological systems limiting human populations. Once humanity was dependent on diets based on domesticated animals and plants there was no going back to hunter-gathering. In the Industrial Revolution, our not-so-distant ancestors began tapping into the energy stored in huge natural deposits of carbon and its compounds, in turn derived from fossilised remains of plants and ecosystems that flourished tens to hundreds of millions of years previously. The factory system evolved to make elaborate products in a series of relatively simple steps, learnable by the peasants migrating to the cities. In the Cybernetic Revolution, we humans broke through the limitations of our own awareness and attention spans to create simplified brain analogues (a computer being to this point a high-speed electronic moron) that could process information millions of times faster and store huge volumes of it in memory devices, themselves ever diminishing in size and unit cost.

The Agricultural Revolution made feudalism possible, and feudalism made capitalism possible; the Industrial revolution made joint-stock and corporate capitalism not just possible, but necessary, while at the same time rendering a return to feudalism impossible. The Cybernetic Revolution has given us production and marketing on a global scale, and has involved the overwhelming majority of the world’s people in production for the markets and purchase for consumption from them. This in turn has involved the destruction of ever increasing areas of forest and other wilderness, and the increasing combustion fossil fuels mined out of sedimentary deposits laid down in the 300 million year interval between the rise of the land plants and the demise of the dinosaurs. It has also consolidated what James Burnham called the ‘Managerial Revolution’, with an executive layer in a position to determine what proportion of the social product it shall award unto itself, following the precedent set by the feudal aristocracy.

In the latest revolution, we are taking control of the Earth’s climate, and at the same time looking for sustainable energy alternatives, because we have to: because we have almost certainly if unintentionally caused the climate to go dangerously out of balance and to approach ever closer to runaway change, and because there is no staying with the existing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We have to bring the international air to a previous, lower concentration, while sustaining the present growing world population. In the process, we will possibly learn how to fine tune the planetary climate to suit ourselves, making it warmer or cooler to order, though not necessarily overnight. Putting it simply, we are adding the latest to our historic series of mode transitions, without which all previous examples will cease to have any meaning for us; because if we do not, the agriculture, industry and information transmission they revolutionised will become seriously impaired, or impossible.

From the Stern Report of 2006:

The risks of the worst impacts of climate change can be substantially reduced if greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere can be stabilised between 450 and 550ppm CO2 equivalent (CO2e). The current level is 430ppm CO2e today, and it is rising at more than 2ppm each year. Stabilisation in this range would require emissions to be at least 25% below current levels by 2050, and perhaps much more.

Ultimately, stabilisation – at whatever level – requires that annual emissions be brought down to more than 80% below current levels.

This is a major challenge, but sustained long-term action can achieve it at costs that are low in comparison to the risks of inaction. Central estimates of the annual costs of achieving stabilisation between 500 and 550ppm CO2e are around 1% of global GDP, if we start to take strong action now.

Costs could be even lower than that if there are major gains in efficiency, or if the strong co-benefits, for example from reduced air pollution, are measured. Costs will be higher if innovation in low-carbon technologies is slower than expected, or if policy-makers fail to make the most of economic instruments that allow emissions to be reduced whenever, wherever and however it is cheapest to do so.

It would already be very difficult and costly to aim to stabilise at 450ppm CO2e. If we delay, the opportunity to stabilise at 500-550ppm CO2e may slip away. [3]

Like it or not, we are already into the Sustainability Revolution. How we manage it will likely be a life and death matter for literally billions of human individuals, and for a large proportion of the million or so species on the surface of this planet. So far, the short term economic advantages to certain groups and individuals have lain behind denial or deliberate ignorance on the matter, though this becomes increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of popular acceptance of international climate control measures such as Kyoto, as expressed for example, in the 2007 federal election in Australia. Sir Nicholas Stern has stated in the same report that “climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen,” which is to say that the market mechanism has not only failed so far to correct it, its unregulated operation is the source of the problem, and is only making it worse.

Some likely consequences for Australia:

1. Coal will run down as a major export earner, and ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS) will not be able to save it, arriving either too late in proven form and on the necessary scale, or not at all.

2. The reduction in export income and therefore imports will have to be made up by import-replacement industries.

3. Massive public and private investment in natural carbon capture by plants (eg forests) will be necessary as a national contribution to global reduction of atmospheric CO2 concentration.

4. Steel, cement and road tar will become significantly more expensive, although technology exists for use of natural gas as a reducing agent in iron smelting.

5. The development of a popular consciousness reminiscent of that of the dark days of 1942 is likely: we are all in this together; there are no individual solutions; private (and particularly opulent) consumption must be adjusted downwards for the common good, particularly as revisions of the climate change scenario indicate that disaster is increasingly possible if not imminent.

6. Just as the received wisdom of feudal society was inappropriate for capitalism, that of the next, post-capitalist stage will be at least as different again. The present assumptions about what might be termed ‘human nature’ will be as appropriate as the idea that everyone has a station in life pre-ordained by God.

7. Marxian socialism sought to rein in the economic anarchy and free-for-all of capitalism by centralising economic power and decision making. At the same time it sought to decentralise political power. These two proved incompatible, and everywhere it was instituted, socialism was a combination of centralised economic and political power. Such centralisation is incompatible with individual autonomy, freedom and with democracy in the organic sense of the term.

8. The characteristics of the next social phase will largely be determined by the context: a global life-threatening crisis requiring global solutions. Capitalism will survive, but subsumed and incorporated into the next social phase. Wealth and power have been coupled through the whole history of civilisation to date. It is hard to see this situation changing much in future.

Hunter-gatherer economies still exist, and stone tools are still produced, but for the market. Feudalism also still exists, based on pastoral and farming economies, with the attendant technology, but it is integrated to some extent with the global market economy. Each stage of technical and economic development has produced pressure for considerable change in social relationships. While there is a possibility that climate change may not be a life and death issue for humanity, it is certainly seen as such by an increasing number. The changes it will likely involve in the productive base are likely to make for interesting times in future.


[0] http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/02/27/1046064162690.html

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neolithic_Revolution

[2] http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories/s806276.htm

[2.1] http://www.cairnsmuseum.org.au/multicultural.htm

[2.2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louvre

[3] http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/3/2/Summary_of_Conclusions.pdf

[4] http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23358497-27702,00.html

[5] http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch07.htm )


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Australia should join the EU

According to Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” of Wilhelmine Germany: “To speak of Europe is wrong: it is a geographical expression”.

Currently, the European market is worth $3 trillion and comprises a constituency of 320 million citizens. Opportunities are immense and can only grow.

For Europe, this would be equally true of an Australia which continues to grow strongly, as the world’s fifteenth largest economy, and which welcomes foreign investment and global engagement.

In the years ahead, Europe will endeavour to play far more of a role in Asia and the Pacific. Australia can be a trusted partner in many initiatives: from economic cooperation through to social and cultural exchanges and security conversations.

A comprehensive relationship between Australia and the EU would involve regular exchanges at the level of Prime Minister and President of the Commission. Regular meetings also between the Australian Foreign and Defence Ministers and the European Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security would serve to strengthen our ties. In time, both these meetings and other ministerial discussions should be achieved on an annual basis

But there is something that the business community ought to be doing to foster this relationship, as well. This dimensional step in the building of a new relationship with Europe cannot simply be left to Parliaments and diplomats.

This an extract from Stephen Loosely's speech to the EABC, published in The Australian.

When we search for ideas that bring nations together, to encourage global equity in trade, wealth and human rights, we should look at successful organisations and see if they can be improved or expanded.

The EU is an example of an organisation that has successfully developed models that have enabled nations to work together to spread peace and prosperity. It is a good example of a federation of nations. It is time the federation broadened its views and became a global federation. Australia should work to become part of this federation. Maybe the EU should become the Global Union.

Writing about Australia

The old Henry was definitely better than Shakespeare at writing about Australia, Jenny Hume.  On the other hand....


Yes, indeed, Jenny Hume, but the cost to the developer is, according to the article, about one tenth the cost in America.  I would expect some similar statistic here.

It made me consider the word that you introduced: greed.

And it made me aware that this is the face of capitalism that WE have presented to the world.

By example

Oh yes, F Kendall. We set a very good example in the West of how to do greed.

Pity there is no strong Union over there to at least get the workers a decent wage.  And we don't help by moving our own industries offshore just to plug into cheap labour, and hence bigger profits for ourselves.  Pure exploitation. We should at least be prepared to pay a decent wage to workers if we set up in their countries.

But we can't have people earning a decent living can we? They might get greedy and want something better than a bamboo shack. 

Globalisation. Seems to me that all it has delivered to millions is greater misery, and to the wealthier and middle classes, greater wealth.

As for taking food off the table of the poor to put it in the petrol tank of the rich - well that is the new low. A new simile for capitalism.

Or should that be metaphor. It is a long time since my last English class under the late Miss Waddell.  Lovely woman who could not erase my love of Henry Lawson with hers of Willie Shakespeare despite her best efforts. Some things are simply a lost cause. As seemingly the Yurt will one day be...

Friends tell me Mongolia proper is really beautiful and that I should go there, lovely friendly people too they say.  But when I saw a doco showing inter alia how they kill a sheep by disembowelling it alive that was all too much for me. Best I stay home.

What a nice little story,

What a nice little story, Jenny Hume: the role of chance in our lives. Or, is it chance? I couldn't say.

But I am a bit puzzled by your comments re architects, with those Mongolian units out-Mcmansioning our Mcmansions, as far as I could see. Perhaps I'm missing something - (er, perhaps I am, but also perhaps I'm failing to see something).

But the developer is certainly not missing anything. I see in the story that he is paying his workers $115 a month, that the houses cost $30 a square foot, and that he plans to sell them for $1.5 million each.

"The architects have become nomads", Mr Cai chortled, (or something like that). I think that may become the fate of a lot of us.

The nomadic life

F Kendall, well yes, in terms of what they represent I agree it is all a bit sad. But I must say the archictecture of the units is so much better than what we see around Canberra, even for those expensive lakeside jobs which are probably around the 1M mark also.

And yes, chance it was. Nice to know one's marriage had its beginnings due to the poor state of a boundary fence between a couple of cockies. I am glad those sheep and cattle took up the nomadic life....

Bring back the yurts

I found these pictures of development in Inner Mongolia - "houses to make a New Yorker jealous" - to be rather discouraging.


F Kendall, yurts are wonderfully simple and practical. The franchise for them in NSW is held by our best man who set up a factory in Goulburn twenty plus years ago. He has made countless sales over the years and has a yurt farm where he takes city kids and teaches them a thing or two about life in the bush. He has little windmills to generate the electriciy. The kids learn to milk a cow, skin and eat a rabbit and make a canoe.  The Mongolian lifestyle in many ways.

Mike is a real character with energy and ideas knowing no bounds.  He got the idea that the best way to deal with serrated tussock on his property was to take Japanese backpackers, give them free meals and accomodation in his yurts, in return for their doing their bit on the tussock. He farmed sheep but found yurts were a more reliable source of income.  We go back a long way, Mike and I, and in fact he was responsible for me meeting a certain Scot. I had a flock of sheep when I should have had a couple of hundred head of cattle. The fences between us were not the best  so round I went to see Mike about a swap back.  And there having a cup of tea was said Scot.  The rest is history. 

The archtiects of those units in Mongolia could show the architects of certain monstrosities here a thing or two.

Thanks Ian - I've got a lot to learn

Ian, to be honest mate, I am not qualified in anyway whatsoever to discuss this topic with any authority at all.

At school my science teacher, when reading out the results of our half yearly exam, claimed that Obodie managed to equal the score of a hypothetical monkey - 25%. The exam was one of those where you tick the correct answer A-D.

I thought the result was pretty good under the circumstances and replied that it only took me 10 minutes to complete a 2 hour paper, and still I managed 25%.

I certainly appreciate the point you are making and trust you have put a lot of research and time into arriving at your conclusions. For this you have my respect. All things considered we probably agree on most of the other important stuff.

I did say my gut was brainless and in this case I was not trying to be funny.

The challenges we all face are of immense importance and CO2 is but one of them.

Having said that what are your thoughts about the ozone layer or lack of it?

We are told that those bloody big holes are going to fix themselves as time goes by; and I have also read that if they don't and they get bigger then increased ultraviolet rays may inhibit the germination of seeds. This would be a catastrophe.

Being a farmer, have you done any research about this?

What stage are you?

I really can't blame the media for their reluctance to face up to peak oil. It's an unpleasant concept and it immediately strikes fear into one's heart.

I have often reflected on how coming to grips with peak oil is much like the process of grieving, as identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. In peaker terms, I'd describe it like this:

  1. Denial: "There's plenty of oil out there, and we can drill our way out of this."
  2. Anger: "Why aren't those bastards drilling our way out of this?"
  3. Bargaining: "Well maybe ANWR, the continental offshore, the tar sands, and slightly more efficient cars will fix it."
  4. Depression: "Oh man, we're screwed, it's too big a problem for me, I might as well give up."
  5. Acceptance: "I'm ready for the second half of the Age of Oil and I'm going to find a way forward."

Change is like a death: we have to give things up and face new realities. The process is not easy Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described the process of grieving as having five stages. It is easy to be caught in anyone of these stages. Climate change and peak oil are two big changes we are now going through. We need to move to the "acceptance" stage as quickly as possible.

Sounds good, Dylan

Dylan, I call it  - parking by ear.

Fiona: Groan. And some say women have problems?

CC denier? Nah – BIG car denier.

"CC Denier" -  I must have read a different article, Ian.

I am unaware that Ian Chapman was denying climate change; rather he was supporting it. He claimed the climate was changing, did he not?

Mr Chapman claimed the climate was getting cooler, not warmer. That would make him a climate change supporter.

The term "CC denier" has been introduced for curious reasons, reasons I don't fully understand, but it would appear if one is a supporter of the climate getting cooler then one is, for some curious reason, a "climate change denier".

On the other hand if one is a supporter of "climate change", then one  supports the possibility (or certainty) that human activity is making the climate hotter.

To date I have read stuff (by experts) from both camps, yet don't understand one bloody bit of it.

That's why I would rather we put our energies into cleaning up all the poisonous crap we have floating around our biosphere.

Our food chain is being poisoned; large fish are full of mercury.

CO2 doesn't worry me as much as dioxins, lead, mercury, cadmium, and all the other nasties we quite happily dump into our oceans and atmosphere. This stuff is deadly and once upon a time much attention was directed towards pollution.

Global warming supporters have created a sort of religion for themselves and in doing so introduce terms that are by definition illogical.

If we want to reduce CO2 then let's do it, for many of the industries that spew out CO2 also spew out other nasty stuff with it; but we don't seem to worry about the nasty stuff any more - why is that?

My personal gut feeling is that the sun has a lot more to do with climate change than CO2.

But my gut is brainless.

David Roffey, maybe if we had little electric cars you know, like dodgems  then we could have heaps of them. I often look at our main roads and imagine little cars, ten abreast, travelling along like little cartoons, with happy little drivers.

Just how much of a car do we need to drive to work or pick up a few groceries at the shops?

They would not have to go fast either. The present traffic speed across Sydney in this day and age is around 40k/hr or a little under, I think. So if we had little cars we would not get in one another's way as much as we currently do. And we could park thousands in the same area as we now park hundreds.

Slow little (city) cars with standard size rubbery bumper bars would probably get us there quicker, safer, and be a bloody lot of fun as well.

But how do we sell them to testosterone charged males who quite often consider their car an extension of their dicks?

Fiona: I particularly like the idea of the rubbery bumper bars, Justin. Then we could really see, in all of our metropolitan centres, parking as they do it in Paris and (even better to my mind) Rome. After all, why not just shunt up and down until the parking space fits? Seriously, though, I think your suggestion has a lot of merit.

CC, GW, pollution and recycling.

Justin: "CO2 doesn't worry me as much as dioxins, lead, mercury, cadmium, and all the other nasties we quite happily dump into our oceans and atmosphere. ... My personal gut feeling is that the sun has a lot more to do with climate change than CO2." 

Be your gut feeling as it may, the science points overwhelmingly to CO2. Global warming is climate change, and the converse is equally true. I regard this point as far too important for word games.

Phil (not Ian - my mistake) Chapman is obviously quite prepared to stake a hell of a lot more than most are on the idea that the planet is cooling, and the unstated but unavoidable conclusion that therefore the more CO2 we generate the better. We may have an excellent ski season this year, but that will not alter the fact, as stated by Karoly (see my previous post), that global average temperature is trending upwards.

Ken Davidson wrote in this morning's Age:

Without heavy rain in the upper catchment or the release of water from the Dartmouth Dam, which is allowed to flow past the already desperate farmers along the southern Murray, the poisonous heavy metals leached out of the exposed soils of Lake Alexandrina will by 2009 seep up the Murray to Murray Bridge, where Adelaide's pipeline draws its water.

CO2 is not the only 'nasty stuff' people are concerned about. Charles Sturt, after his expedition of 1829-30 reported that the Murray was crystal clear all the way from the Southern Alps to the sea. Today it is a ditch.

In my view, the river and all its tributaries should be fenced off from livestock at whatever distance required to clear its waters again, and stock water pumped out of it into troughs. It does not take much flowing through grass to clear muddy water, and my guess is that 50 metre wide wildlife corridors along the banks would probably be sufficient.

The biochemistry of all organisms is based on only 11 of the 92 cisuranic elements (ie with atomic numbers of 92 or less) in the periodic table. They are oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, calcium, chlorine, magnesium, potassium and sodium. All organisms require additional traces of cobalt, copper, iron, manganese and zinc, while some organisms require in addition aluminium, arsenic, boron, chromium, fluorine, gallium, iodine, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, silicon, tin and vanadium. (See Moran, LA et al Biochemistry, Prentice Hall NY, 1994, p 1.5). That is still only 29 of the 92 cisuranics, and in nature they are all recycled, which was why the Murray's waters flowed so clear in Sturt's day.

So far I have only been able to discover one element, namely no. 85, astatine, that has no human use. Even the barely different elements of the lanthanide series and the actinide series have their separate uses. The mining of all those elements and their subsequent use often involves pollution of ground and runoff water. As I said in my previous post, the challenge is for human economies to reform themselves on the model of the biosphere.

The biosphere is about 3.5 billion years old. It has only been able to reach that age because of recycling of nutrients. If human economy is to have any future worth talking about, it has to do the same, and do it as well as the biosphere as a whole does it.

Parking in France

Fiona: "I particularly like the idea of the rubbery bumper bars, Justin. Then we could really see, in all of our metropolitan centres, parking as they do it in Paris and (even better to my mind) Rome."

They do it all over France. The term for this parking style translates to English as 'Kiss Kiss' in reference to the 'kisses' you place on the bumpers of the cars in front and in rear of your parking space. It helps if the other cars leave their handbrakes off!

On other parking matters, we have a Smart Tower not too far from us here in Villeurbanne. A quick Google suggests that - while not common - it is not entirely unusual in Europe as a parking solution. At the very least it allows you to park more than 30 cars in the space that might usually be taken by 4 or 5 on ground level - something that might be appreciated in Aussie cities, too. All you would have to do is convince people to drive around in something the size of an average walk-in-wardrobe...

Fiona: Still giggling, Dylan - thanks ... But (at the risk of repeating myself, to everyone's boredom) I shall reiterate - they do it better in Italia....

Average speed

Justin, I happen to have been closely monitoring my fuel consumption recently and can vouch for a low estimate of average car commute speed in our cities.  Early each morning I complete a daily 22km trip across inner Melbourne and the computer in my car is indicating these trips are completed at an average speed of about 30 kmph.

The sacred path of the warrior

A few thoughts worth considering. First, Albert Einstein:

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.

Second, from Indian philosophy:

<>A vision of creating a respectful culture -- a society devoted to fostering and protecting the well being of all people and of the natural world. Since ancient times, people have worked to improve the various conditions of life: their relationships with each other, their tools, their understanding of the natural world, and the practices of the society itself. Unfortunately, many of these changes, based on partial knowledge, have caused far more problems than they solved. Today’s most serious difficulties are the side effects of yesterday's improvements. Compounding the misfortune, these flawed innovations are widely adopted before their harmful side effects are discovered, and once they have become standard practice it seems impossible to get rid of them. The side effects require solutions, which in turn have further, poorly understood but generally unfortunate, side effects of their own. All in all, the accumulated failure of wisdom is quite astonishing.

<>Currently, major aspects of the dominant culture of our "developed countries" are based on assumptions and practices which ensure that they will fail to support the well being of many of their own citizens, and relegate people living in "developing" areas to marginal ways of living, if even that. Specifically, our traditions, policies, standards and habitual practices entice or coerce vast numbers of people into devoting their time, effort and resources toward striving for goals that cannot possibly be attained -- effort which leads to widespread feelings of failure, despair and alienation, along with more and more increases in human population, greater and greater degradation of environments, and a host of other unfortunate consequences.

<>We believe that these problems are based on ignorance -- ignorance of the fundamental nature of human life and ignorance of the natural world. It isn't facts that we lack -- we have more than enough information -- what is missing is understanding. Accordingly, our goal is to seek out the roots of these failures of our current ways of doing things, to discover or develop alternatives based on deeper understanding, and to set them out for public examination and further exploration.

<>The vision of a world emerging from this sea of self-made disasters is more than just wishful thinking. From aboriginal cultures, from Western science, from contemplative and spiritual traditions all over the World, people are finding the deeper understanding, the wisdom we need to correct these difficulties.


<>According to ancient wisdom, external control of anything as complicated as a human being will eventually fail by destroying the will to live or by forcing rebellion. People must be allowed to choose their own leaders, or they will abandon or betray them at the first opportunity.

<>In order for such a democratic system to work, leaders must be worthy of being chosen. A system that forces choices among incompetent or self-serving candidates fails as quickly than one that offers no hope of choice.


<>Fortunately, integrity, compassion, clarity of vision, and wisdom are all qualities that can be developed. When leadership emerges naturally, conflict disolves.

<>To understand a complex situation, it helps to isolate the various important aspects and study them independently. When we begin to make changes, however, we need the broadest possible view of the results of our actions.

<>In other words, we need to be incredibly flexible. Such flexibility is only available to people who love what they are doing. This applies to the entire community. It most especially and directly applies to each individual.

<>"In this classic guide to enlightened living, Trungpa Rinpoche offers an inspiring vision for our time, based on the ideal of the sacred warrior. In ancient times, the warrior learned to master the challenges of life, both on and off the battlefield. Trungpa shows that in discovering the basic goodness of human life, the warrior learns to radiate that goodness into the world for the peace and sanity of others. With this book the warrior’s path is opened to modern men and women in search of practical wisdom."

<>Uniquely, this approach to basic sanity and authentic presence emphasizes going beyond one's own awakening to focus on the possibility of an awakened society. "Throughout history, men and women have aspired to create societies that express the dignity of human experience. Joining spiritual vision with practicality, such an 'enlightened society' provides a context for meaningful individual life within a flourishing culture. It is this vision which we refer to as 'Shambhala'."

Profound questions - and broad answers

Justin: "Growth on planet earth is finite; we can't enjoy infinite growth within a finite system. That would be considered logical, a self evident truth. Capitalism is all about growth; so is cancer. Growth being the generic term we use to describe cancer. How do we put ourselves into remission and reinvent a society and economic structure that is compatible with the challenges of an increasing world population all struggling and competing for the "good" things life has to offer?"

I agree with Fiona: your questions are pretty profound ones. I would hesitate to attempt a definitive answer to any of them, but none the less believe that very broad answers can be formulated.

The pessimistic answer to the above is simple: human societies will implode; go into irretrievable decline; diminishing resources will be jealously guarded by a fascist elite as their own exclusive preserve, and the rest of the world will go hang. That in my view cannot be ruled out.

The optimistic alternative, to which I naturally incline, says that whatever the 'limits to growth', humanity is probably smart enough and resourceful enough to cope. But we will have to do so within the constraints set by certain natural laws: conservation of matter and energy; the laws of thermodynamics and so on. Could every family on Earth be set up with a five bedroom house with double garage, ensuites, spa bath, 2 lounge rooms and swimming pool? Possibly. Oh, and consuming the Melbourne average in electric power of 2,161 kWh per head per year? Possibly not. But then again every square metre of collection surface placed across the direction of the sun's rays gets roughly a continuous kilowatt while the sun is shining: say something of the order of 10 kWh per day, or 3,650 kWh per year. The energy is there, but tapping into it is still a bit of a challenge.

Likewise the cars in the double garage. Everyone on Earth understandably aspires to a life of rapid transit and carefree motoring. If all on Earth have access to one car on a say 6.5 people to 1 car ratio, that means a billion cars, plus mechanics, service stations, roads and the rest to keep them running. According to this 2006 report, there are 683 million passenger vehicles worldwide, and the 304 million Americans drive 202 million of them. With everyone on Earth having a US lifestyle, and access to 2/3 of a car, 4.3 billion cars would be needed. That is, a bit over 6 times as many as presently on Earth. At a guess, I would say that present oil reserves would keep that lot running for at most 5 years.

Are our present 'consumerist' societies infinitely expandable? Definitely not. But here we have to be careful to distinguish between the concepts of growth and metamorphosis.

If we assume that all of the world's present stock of carbon was once in the oceans in the form of organic compounds of whatever solubility, those primordial oceans must have been a bit like 'Bonox': a drink with the consistency of dilute liquid Vegemite that my mother used to serve up enthusiastically to my sister and me. (I might add that there was palpably greater enthusiasm in the serving than in the drinking.) As life forms evolved, the oceans would have cleared, but with an abundance of organisms none the less: far more than today's oceanic biomass.

Following the rise of the land plants there came the great abundance of terrestrial life of the Carboniferous, Permian and upwards, when the great coal measures of the world were mostly formed. They and the oil and other carbon deposits of organic origin proceeded to lock away much of the world's carbon, taking it out of circulation in the biosphere, which has always grown in total biomass up to limits set by available carbon. But while the biosphere stopped growing, it did not stop developing and metamorphosing. Its total species mix was ever changing.

This I think is the future of the human economy, however organised. There will always be production and use/consumption. However, what is produced will vary within limits and possibilities set by available resources and constraints such as atmospheric CO2 concentration.

The challenge for human economies is to become sustainable the way the biosphere is overall: by continually recycling ‘nutrients’ (economic resources) and harnessing the sun’s energy so as to reduce the entropy (disorder) of the Earth’s crust, in which those resources are mainly found. Otherwise, what we are heading for is a more or less even distribution of elements through the crust, as concentrated deposits (ores) are mined, used as products, and then the worn out products discarded into landfills, seas etc, making for less than 100% recycling.

4 billion cars

... oh, and if there were 6 times as many cars on the road as there are now, what's the chances of you getting to work on time? or finding a parking space?

Wealth, waste, and short-term thinking

Jenny, I agree mostly with what you just wrote; however I would argue that this planet could support more than the current 6.5 billion or so humans if we were more prudent less wasteful and were prepared to distribute "wealth" fairly or at least reasonably.

The trouble is, and I'm sure you agree, we are good at being wasteful. In fact we encourage waste: it's good for business, good for profits and shareholders (indirectly) love it.

I've read that it was around the 1970's when the wealth distribution among western countries was most equitable. Since then the gap between rich and poor has widened once again.

The Chinese are in fact very much aware of overpopulation and have had a one child policy since the late 70's. 4,2,1s they call them; four grandparents, two parents, one child. This allows the Chinese to invest all their resourses into one child; meaning a good education and the best opportunity possible for that child to compete in an unforgiving world. Many Chinese parents know what is was like to go without, especially food.

My wife would save (daily) some of her rice ration and carry it on a five day rail journey to share with her Mum who was sent out to the countryside to labour during the Cultural Revolution. She did that while I refused to eat my peas. My Mum would say there are plenty of starving kids in China who would love those peas. How right she was.

Being hungry is something most of use have not experienced and probably explains why many (older) Chinese when visiting friends don't take a bottle of wine or a six pack; they take a chicken or fish or something the host can save and eat later.

The contemporary Chinese children of course end up the centre of attention (many spoilt), and how this plays out over the years remains to be seen. I know that in my Chinese family my stepson and my Chinese niece (who also lived with us) were the equivalent of brother and sister. So maybe Chinese kids will learn to share and relate with cousins and not siblings.

That said, somehow we will have to redefine wealth, as you say. And we will have to share that wealth to enable people in poorer countries the luxury of not having to have so many children who are needed to earn (household) cash when young - and be the equivalent of superannuation when their parents are too old to work.

If we can do that then population growth in poorer countries should decline and hopefully we would only have to replace ourselves. Thus the investment of time and resourses could be concentrated in fewer kids thus giving them a better diet, education and opportunities.

Should we as a species formulate policies to stabilise population at a level the planet could support and what population level would that be?

How would we go about achieving global consensus on such a (necessary) policy?

Also, how do we change the materialistic mindset of the west (which is the envy of third world countries) without destroying all those industries that employ (and support) people who produce rubbish we don't really need?

"So I think the discussion the world has to have is how to limit population growth, and that does not even seem to be on the agenda."

I agree, but capitalism doesn't; human beings are the market, the bigger the market the bigger potential and realised profits.

The problem with human beings is we tend to only address the questions that require immediate answers. We are in general motivated by fear, immediate fear. Politicians fear the next election and how they can win, punters worry about the next paycheque and if they can cover the bills.

Maybe we should bring security back into our day to day lives then we may, at least, be able to focus on the question of long term human survival.

Sadly globalisation is all about transferring risk from corporations to the workers.

Our current economic philosophy of globalisation appears to be a con, at least for most punters.

How indeed

Also, how do we change the materialistic mindset of the west (which is the envy of third world countries) without destroying all those industries that employ (and support) people who produce rubbish we don't really need?

How indeed Justin, and every time I go into one of those big shopping malls, about once a year or less, I realise that a hell of a lot of all that stuff on sale is totally unecessary, but yes, it is produced by people having to make a living all over the globe, including in third world countries. We are at present locked in to having all this stuff so that others might live, and yes, others may make a big profit. Yet in a world of declining resources we cannot afford to stay on this path. I once made a mental list of all the things I saw in the Mall that we could do without, till I ran out of brain space. How to turn all that around so that we conserve resources and produce the essentials would be a huge challenge.

The one child policy in China has been in place now for some time. I often wonder just what the population of China would be today had it not had that policy. It has not come without attendant social problems of course, such as the shortage of women for the large pool of unmarried young men. But on balance, it was a wise policy. Whether it will be sustained as affluence grows in China is debateable.

I believe that ultimately our species will be forced to address population growth as the resources of this planet are, as you say, finite. To get global consensus on a policy of population growth, one would first have to take on the Catholic church, and, as you say, address poverty and economic security for those in poor countries to reduce their dependency on multiple children.  And that seems as far away as ever. The poor get poorer and poorer, while the rich get richer. It is all so wrong.

As one educated Pakistani once commented to me about the number of kids in the poor families living in mud huts around the city of Lahore: "You can't blame them. All a poor man has at the end of a hard day is the comfort of his wife in bed at night."

I tell my family never to give me gifts. Instead I direct them to where the money they might have spent on me is to go, be it just a chicken or mosquito net for a family in Africa. We simply do not need all this clobber that clogs up our lives.  It drives me witless. And yes, if they come visiting and want to bring anything I often tell them if you must, then a pumpkin will do nicely. I guess I learned that when we were poor farmers in my youth as were many relatives and neighbours back then. A basket of veggies was always welcome. We were like those Chinese women you write of.  The wolf was never far from the door.  And he was always hungry.

I cannot see what the economic philosophy of globalisation has delivered, especially for the poor around the world, other than continuing misery.

 I believe that while greed prevails in large parts of the world there will be no answers to the problems it now faces, or will face in the not too distant future.

Too many cane toads in Oz

Ian: As for the climate: we are trying to take control of it in the sense of controlling global temperature by controlling CO2 concentration. We may or may not succeed. But success will offer the tempting possibility of selecting humanity's preferred global climate - eg one in which there is more rainforest and less desert."

To take control of something, Ian, we first need to understand the process. And that's the problem. To try and control the unknowable can lead to such things as err um ... cane toads.

I'm not sure whether this link has been posted on Webdiary but it is rather interesting regarding climate.

Personally, rather than trying to control climate I would rather take control of pollution (something we know and understand), ie heavy metals and such; then by association we will also help reduce CO2 - if CO2 is, at all, the problem.

CC Deniers

Justin, your link to Ian Chapman's climate change denial piece in The Oz has been soundly refuted in my view by Professor David Karoly in an article a week later in the same paper. 

See also this piece by geophysicist Dr Geoff Davies of the ANU: 'Clean energy to avert disaster.'  The title says it all, really.

As well, the North Pole is likely to be ice free in 2008. The fabled Northwest Passage, in search of which the former Governor of Tasmania Sir John Franklin (Mt Franklin, ACT; Franklin River, Tas.) lost his entire expedition in the 19th century, is now ice-free for about a month every year.

The dwindling band of climate change deniers are the ones playing fast and loose with the future of the planet. In my opinion, they cannot be refuted too hard or too often.


OK now lets get serious:

"Like it or not, we are already into the Sustainability Revolution."

Indeed, but mainly In our minds.

Growth on planet earth is finite; we can't enjoy infinite growth within a finite system. That would be considered logical, a self evident truth.

Capitalism is all about growth; so is cancer. Growth being the generic term we use to describe cancer.

How do we put ourselves into remission and reinvent a  society and economic structure that is compatible with the challenges of an increasing world population all struggling  and competing for  the "good" things life has to offer?

What questions need to be asked to facilitate action; both individual direct action and collective indirect action?

Two and a half thousand years ago a discussion took place in the house of Cephalus in Greece, between a group including Socrates, who served as the mouthpiece for Plato.

Socrates asked Cephalus "What do you consider to be the greatest blessing which you have reaped from wealth"

Cephalus answered that it enabled him to be "generous and honest and just."

Socrates in his sly fashion asked Celphalus what did he mean by "justice" thereby unleashing the dogs of philosophic war.

The discussion that took place covered three problems that still haunt us today:

The Ethical Problem

The Psychological Problem

The Political Problem

Socrates (Plato) in his usual dialectical and confronting manner  went on to "solve" those problems with the invention of philosopher kings and noble lies and such. Some of us know the story and for those who don't it is worth consideration.

Maybe we should revisit that discussion and within a contemporary context we may be able to formulate intelligent questions that lead us on a  path to a better world and a better life for all.

What are the questions we should be asking?

Should democratic capitalism deliver an equitable distribution of wealth?

Is democratic capitalism an oxymoron?

What does equitable mean?

What is the true cost of a glass of water?

Should information be centralised for efficiency or decentralised for personal security?

Should we give up on planet Earth and colonise the universe?

Are they some of the questions we should be asking ?

Help me out here; what questions emerge from the corridors and alley ways of your mind?

That's what I'd like to know, for at least we will have a starting point. Otherwise it will all end up either a shit fight or withdrawal, while the status quo destroys us.

Fiona: Justin, these are all excellent questions and yes please let us all discuss them without (for once) getting into a shit fight ...


Growth on planet earth is finite; we can't enjoy infinite growth within a finite system.

That is the self evident truth that no one seems to want to come to terms with and address, Justin.  Instead the focus is on how to limit the damage from runaway growth which has at its base world population growth and excessive consumerism.  Until we control that the world is on a runaway train downhill, and it will ultimately derail, that is a certainty.

We cannot feed, properly  house and clothe 6 billion, so how does anyone think we can ever meet the needs of the expected 9 billion, and of course 9 billion is just a figure for 2050 After that?

The issue of wealth distribution.  What is deemed wealth today is going to change considerably. Even in some of the wealthier nations such as Japan a bag of rice is now taking on much greater value than it might otherwise have been afforded, simply because it is no longer guaranteed. Wealth is starting to be measured in terms of food reserves.  And I note hoarding is now raising its head in many countries with the usual consequences for the poor nations. Looting and rioting for food is already with us.   

The growth based on consumption of luxury and unnecessary goods that has driven western economies for so long cannot go on. It is resource wasteful at every level and of every kind. So is the kind of diet that we now take for granted and which billions in Asia are now also wanting to take for granted. It is totally unsustainable.   

 Last night the issue of soy production for animal feedstuffs raised its head again, with South American countries feeling increasing pressure on land and environment through escalating demand for soya beans. The demand is coming from Asia  where millions and millions of animals are fed on the stuff. All to meet the growing desire for meat.

So I think the discussion the world has to have is how to limit population growth, and that does not even seem to be on the agenda. We also need to talk seriously about how to maximise the use of available food resources, including those resources upon which production is dependent, such as water and land. Those are the priorities. And to do that the most populous nations like China and India have to be at the table.

And no, colonising the universe is not an option. Time has run out.


Justin:  "I would argue that cybernetics has not necessarily given us those things [production and marketing on a global scale] (they have been there for yonks, even on a global scale); rather, they have allowed us to control the processes involved in a more cost efficient and intelligent manner. Norbert Wiener himself reduced cybernetics to two words: process control."

Of course, international trade was well established in the ancient world. However, computers and modern telecommunications have made possible some astounding real-time connections and integrations. By about 1980, for example, Qantas was setting up engines on test beds in Sydney and the appraisal of the results was being done in, I think, Seattle, using instantaneous data feeds. Something like this.

Up at the Siding Spring Observatory there is a little cluster of cottages built in the 1960s to house visiting astronomers. Physical visits to the telescope are no longer necessary in order to use it: an astronomer anywhere in the world can book time on a telescope and drive it via the Internet. This sort of system is being multiplied and adapted in all sorts of ways - even down to the 'smart meters' that are planned for household electricity supply.

As for the climate: we are trying to take control of it in the sense of controlling global temperature by controlling CO2 concentration. We may or may not succeed. But success will offer the tempting possibility of selecting humanity's preferred global climate - eg one in which there is more rainforest and less desert.

Can we 'control nature'? In the above sense, perhaps yes. But we will always be part of nature rather than standing outside of it, keypad in hand.

Managers are born - not trained ?????

I can just see it now John: all the troops on the admin floor reading Zen and the Art of Business Management; while the corporate directors sit back in their leather chairs with cigar and port flicking through Sun Tzu and The Art of War; which if read from a corporate perspective is very interesting indeed.

Although from an intellectual perspective I appreciate the advantages of empirical based management, from my own management experience (and observations)  I would argue good managers are more of a rational based mob.

I suspect it comes from genes, parents and upbringing, more than training and courses. I have employed hundreds of people in my day and have found quite often that compentant housewives and loving mothers make excellent managers - without them ever reading a training or management manual.

I once employed an overweight mother with two children. Her husband left her for someone more attractive but she had potential and a desire to prove herself. One of the company directors didn't want to employ her because she was 'fat". I politely told him to fuck off and gave her the job anyway.

That director got the sack six months later. The "fat" lady went on to manage the entire office of twenty-three full time employees, and field staff of up to two thousand contractors.  No training just the natural ability to plan, organise, identify and solve problems (quite often before they happened) - and treat fellow workers in a fair but firm manner.

In my corporate days I attended management meetings and conferences where grand ideas were presented to make companies work better.

After the three day events we would return to our home states and manage as our habit moulds dictated - not much changed at all.

But the evening piss ups were a lot of fun, and of course this cost the company a lot of shareholders' money.

I actually mentioned this to a CEO once, fortunatley it was in the evening - he replied "shut up Justin and have another drink."

I was  his obedient servant - QED.

Yep, agree totally

I suspect it comes from genes, parents and upbringing, more than training and courses. I have employed hundreds of people in my day and have found quite often that compentant housewives and loving mothers make excellent managers - without them ever reading a training or management manual.

Agree totally Justin. I was for many years a training officer with a big Government department and was expected to teach managers how to manage but frankly I think a lot of the theory is nonsense. You either have the mind and the knack for it, or you don't.

Just as some people are born to be musos and thinkers, and muddlers for that matter, others are born to be good managers. Women are better than men at juggling a lot of things at the same time and I think that is why many of them excel when in managerial roles. Well, that is how it seems in this house anyway.

Managers ARE born Justin

Ah Justin, not just a pretty face eh?

I have found exactly the same thing.

Having employed many staff over the years for various positions in supermarkets, I can also say that irrespective of schooling, some just seemed to have an aptitude for the position.One Deli Manager (left school when she was 15) become one of the highest paid managers in her field, earning good bonuses too. She just had that knack.

Incidentally, she and hubby, who was a store manager at another branch, went on to win Lotto. They both resigned from the company and moved up north with their two young kids and bought themselves a little deli by the sea.

Last I heard they were doing a rip roaring trade.

Good on 'em!

Deming, total quality management and Buddhism.

However, TQM does share some basic, non-trivial features with Buddhism. To begin with, TQM is an empirical management philosophy, which encourages managers to focus on direct evidence rather than assumed knowledge (Kujala & Lillrank, 2004). The corollary of this is that one must forever remain unconvinced that accepted practices are beyond improvement. Deming, for example, drew much of his philosophical basis from the early 20th century philosopher Lewis, who argued for a position in which the only knowledge of the world is of the probabilities of various events, and hence one must be sceptical of all knowledge (Petersen, 1997). These points are entirely consistent with Zen Buddhism, which renounces any form of dogmatic (or intellectual) mediation between experience and insight. Instead, a Zen practitioner approaches enlightenment by means of observation and experience, making Zen a highly empirical philosophy which stresses direct experience and action (Walton, 1989). This is exemplified in the Zen saying, “If you see the Buddha in the road, slay him!” – in other words, anything that claims to be indubitable and reliable is misleading and must be disposed of. Thus, the basic philosophical positions of both Zen Buddhism and TQM have a similar basis with respect to how one comes to know about the true nature of things, and the extent to which one should be sceptical about dogmatic positions.

To move forward politically and environmentally we need to be sceptical about dogmatic positions. Deming's management practices give us the tools to better manage our country and eventually the international community. Dogma is the disease, evidence based data is the cure. Bring on the fourth transition.

Inverting the pyramid

Ian, an excellent piece describing how we have evolved our economic and political systems. I believe the next step in to invert the pyramid. Leaders don't have all the answers. Democracy has given us the means to change leaders and this system is working well so far. What we need is to be more discerning with the leaders we choose.

Leadership is often associated with power. Today, the term has acquired negative connotations, particularly in politics. One has come to question the relative importance of being recognised as a "leader" when what we sorely need are individuals who both lead by their service and example
and follow the universally accepted principles of responsible living.

We are beginning to see that traditional autocratic and hierarchical models of leadership are slowly yielding to a newer model. This model - of leaders as servants - will simultaneously enhance the personal growth of the led and improve the quality of our many institutions through a combination of individual and community teamwork in decision-making infused with ethical and caring behaviour.

Doctor Deming has shown the way.

Workers work in the system, which management created or allowed to continue. Management must work on the system to improve the process. With instruction, workers can be enlisted in this improvement.

To study the processes that make up their system, management must involve those who actually use those processes -- the people who actually do the work. The people who build the product or provide the service are the only people who really understand the processes that management has assigned them. The role of management changes from giving orders and giving out punishments and rewards, to leading and supporting the workers in improving quality.

The organization's "culture" will change dramatically. Competition among individuals and among departments will be replaced with cooperation. Inter- and intra-personal tension will be reduced, and the ability to use intelligence to benefit oneself and others will be enhanced.

We cannot expect our leaders to have all the answers. What Rudd did with the 2020 summit was an example of good leadership - he opened a forum for new ideas, inviting all in the community to participate in the decision making process. What we need now are evidence-based ideas to be given a chance. No longer leaders who claim to have all the good ideas but every idea tested by evidence base data. "If you have a good idea, show me the data!" Rather than an elite group making the decisions we are using the brain power of a democratic nation to make the decision for the benefit of all.

Doctor Deming's 14 points system should be used to develop the processes we need to run the nation. We saw some of them being used at the 2020 summit.

But the 14 Points pose a challenge for many firms to figure out how to apply them in a meaningful way that will result in continual improvement. Leadership Institute has developed powerful processes for coaching executive teams, and eventually their entire organizations, to begin accomplishing what Deming referred to as "the transformation."

We can move into the fourth transition. We just have to get our processes right.

Where are we going?

A pretty good summary Ian on how we arrived here and, more importantly, where are we going?

The common thread in the history of civilization appears to be "control".

"The Cybernetic Revolution has given us production and marketing on a global scale."

I would argue that cybernetics has not necessarily given us those things (they have been there for yonks, even on a global scale); rather, they have allowed us to control the processes involved in a more cost efficient and intelligent manner. Norbert Wiener himself reduced cybernetics to two words: process control.

Intrinsically human beings are control freaks and now:

In the latest revolution, we are taking control of the Earth’s climate.

I would argue we think we are taking control of the Earth's climate. Controlling human beings and their economic relationships is one thing; controlling Mother Nature is something else.

Relationships between human beings work best (for most) when there is no (or minimal) control. We like our freedom. Relationships with machines work best when we humans have total control.

The (effective) aggregation of humans and machines in relationship with our environment at large is something we, at this point, in time do not properly understand. Although many (for varied reasons) think they do.

Going forward it will be necessary to make sense out of those relationships for the benefits of all mankind, rather than continuing with the economic (and by definition social) hierarchies we have developed to date.

Mailer may have been wrong, but not totally wrong.

The issues you raise, Ian, are of utmost importance and it will be interesting to read the responses. This is a discussion we have to have.

It's our children's future.....

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