Complex civilisations & the precariat

This end of year Guardian article relates Joseph Tainter’s 1988 analysis of how increasingly complex societies lead to diminishing returns that precipitate collapse. The writer, who talked to Tainter, sees that the current phenomena of populism in 2016 exemplified by the Brexit vote and the success of Trump in winning election to the most powerful leadership position on earth, can be seen as the revolt against complexity. The the Leave and Trump voters were motivated by an emotional yearning for simpler times when returns were still growing to the benefit of the population at large.

Another analysis by Guy Standing, a SOAS academic, relates the rise of populism to the precariat’s anxieties. He coined this term to describe the hugely expanded social class of indebted workers who have no permanent security in their lives and who live precariously unlike those with secure employment (the salariat). While the precariat fails to advance, the financial and corporate elites garner most of the benefits of increasing wealth and social injustice increases.

Standing sets out three categories of precariat:

 “everywhere the precariat is split into three factions, each suffering from feelings of relative deprivation, with respect to others and to time.

1. The first faction consists of those who have fallen from old working-class communities or families. They feel they do not have what their parents or peers had. They may be called atavists, since they look backwards, feeling deprived of a real or imagined past. Not having much education, they listen to populist sirens who play on their fears and blame “the other” – migrants, refugees, foreigners, or some other group easily demonized. The atavists supported Brexit and have flocked to the far right everywhere. They will continue to go that way until a new progressive politics reaches out to them.

2. The second group are nostalgics. These consist of migrants and beleaguered minorities, who feel deprived of a present time, a home, a belonging. Recognizing their supplicant status, mostly they keep their heads down politically. But occasionally the pressures become too great and they explode in days of rage. It would be churlish to blame them.

3. The third faction is what I call progressives, since they feel deprived of a lost future. It consists of people who go to college, promised by their parents, teachers and politicians that this will grant them a career. They soon realize they were sold a lottery ticket and come out without a future and with plenty of debt. This faction is dangerous in a more positive way. They are unlikely to support populists. But they also reject old conservative or social democratic political parties. Intuitively, they are looking for a new politics of paradise, which they do not see in the old political spectrum or in such bodies as trade unions.

For a while, the progressives opted out of mainstream politics, reflected in declining voter turnouts and so on. However, this has been changing since 2011, albeit not by enough to stop the UK voting to leave the European Union and the US from electing Donald Trump. They have begun to define the future again, drawing energy from the need to revive the great trinity of the Enlightenment –liberté, egalité and fraternité.”

This is the Wikipedia entry on the Precariat.

Merchants of Doubt

This video of a documentary film shockingly exposes the deliberate and wicked distortion of scientific findings that was employed to delay for 50 years the truth about the consequences for health of smoking tobacco and how similar strategies are now being used by corporate interests to sow doubt about the scientific evidence relating to anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The perpetrators of these tactics are the hugely wealthy corporations that benefit from the profits they accumulate, firstly from the tobacco industry and now from the production and distribution of fossil fuels. The most shocking aspect of the deception is how ‘deniers’ were bought to tell their lies and to defame the scientists and the vicious slanders that were employed for mercenary gain against serious researchers, particularly by PR men and think tanks funded by corporate interests.

The arrival on 8 November 2016 of climate denier confidence man Donald Trump as president-elect of the USA just at a time when the Marrakesh COP 22 meeting was attempting to implement the COP 21 Paris commitments, is a profound setback for Spaceship Earth and future generations.

2016 Hottest Year

This article provides well-graphed evidence that, even with discounting the El Nino spike in global average temperatures, the upward trend of human induced global warming continues to breadk records. The article Factcheck: Newspaper claim about Global Temperature is ‘Deeply Misleading’” from the Resilience website is in response to yet another distortion of the facts by the mainstream corporate-backed press, in the case, the UK’s Mail on Sunday newspaper. It is a classic case of misrepresentation by cherry-picking journalists of what rigorous scientists are concluding.

These distortions presumably are motivated by the broader commitment to economic growth and wealth accumulation for those who control the content of such newspapers. This commitment to wealth accumulation is made, irrespective of the long-term  human impact on the support systems of Spaceship Earth (current levels of GDP increase at 3% per annum globally is a geometric progresion, doubling every 23.3 years).

As a society are we trying to maximise (a) economic activity or (b) health and wellbeing of our species and the planet? What happens if two fundamental objectives are incompatible, and if the benefits and costs are borne by different people? The rich will also be victims of global warming and the many other exponentially accelerating threats to well-being. Their wealth may help them delay the impact of system collapse on their own welfare for a while, but blindness, denial and wilful distortion of evidence is profoundly wicked. Sadly we appear to inhabit a ‘post-fact, post truth’ world of public debate. As a friend put it, lamenting the democratic process after the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump: “People don’t know that they don’t know – and more to the point, don’t even care about it.”

For the impact of global warming on the melting of the global cryosphere and related rises in sea level, see this new video.

‘UNLIMITED’ Stephen Hawking

The world famous Cambridge professor has expressed his concerns for Spaceship Earth and its destructive human species in this article in the Guardian – “This is the most dangerous time for our planet”.  He has also created a website ‘UNLIMITED which elaborates these concerns.

“Why are so many people around the world rejecting the establishment and turning their backs to the ‘elites’? Professor Hawking explores the impact of populism, globalisation and technology – arguing that we need to break down and not build up barriers between nations.”

“Professor Hawking explains why we must question what we mean by wealth and what we must retain to be inherently human. This is The Resolution.

“Voltaire wrote that we should judge a man by his questions, and not his answers. Which is why I was pleased to launch Unlimited earlier this year, the thought leadership platform powered by UBS, the purpose of which is to seek answers to life’s big questions.

The first question they asked was ‘Does wealth make us rich anymore’? In the intervening six months, they have uncovered a variety of answers, from new forms of currency to models of communal living but the real significance was that they asked the question at all. We need as a species to consider what we mean by wealth, by possessions, by yours and mine.

As the world shifts to a place where technology seems to hold limitless possibilities, we need a debate about what we value as societies, what we must retain to be inherently human and what we feel able to compromise on. The rise of AI and a planet in which routine tasks are increasingly undertaken by machines makes the need to understand this question and what makes us ‘rich’ ever more pressing.

We need to develop maps to help us explore this uncharted territory, in which humanity could take a great leap forward, and be thrust back into a darker age. 

I am an optimist, because I believe that the capacity of the human species to explore and discover and question is truly Unlimited. That if we work together there is nothing that we cannot understand or achieve.”

Love of transport

This blog from Jeremy Williams offers a breakdown  of GHG emissions from transport sources illustrated in pie graphs:

“the biggest source of transport emissions is cars – and I imagine that’s the main reason why reports of transport emissions have lagged behind. People love their cars. Governments tackle car culture at the peril, fearful of that old tabloid accusation, ‘war on motorists’. But we need to get to grips with car culture. It’s contribution to climate change is too great to give it a free pass”.

This is just one example of how we value, even ‘love’, the convenience of our immediate world ahead of that of our planetary home, in this case, our personal transport resides in our minds and hearts in a far more prominent position than Spaceship Earth. Spaceship Earth transports our entire species and all other species – Life itself – through space.  It cannot be replaced if trashed. Our future generations need us to love it and keep it intact to ensure their existence. When love of transport is concerned we have a profound contradiction, depending on the scale in space and time at which we choose to locate what we value.

The sources of transport emissions

The Earthbound Report

A few days ago I wrote about why we need to pay more attention to transport emissions. Today I want to look at where transport emissions come from, and what the biggest challenges are. It won’t take long. Here’s a hasty graph drawn from the Committee on Climate Change figures for 2012:


For better or worse, international aviation and shipping aren’t covered by national emissions plans. They’re treated through separate agreements, such as the one on aviation negotiated this year. That doesn’t mean we can ignore it, but it does mean that the government won’t feel much obligation to act on aviation or shipping.

The bit it can focus on is domestic emissions, and it’s very obvious what the biggest problem is. So what do we mean by surface transport? Here’s how that divides up:


By some distance, the biggest source of transport emissions is cars – and…

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