Saturday, June 2, 2012

Nicole Foss - reflections on lifeboat ethics

Nicole Foss, co-editor of "The Automatic Earth" gave a well attended talk in Canberra in February (2012), as part of her Australian tour. But while her conclusion that civilisation faces enormous problems is important and accurate, I was unsettled by her recommended responses. Essentially, Foss diagnosed that the ship of civilisation is doomed to founder. To survive, we should first pay off our debt; if necessary by downsizing. That’s sensible advice. But having done that, we should then leave the sinking ship; withdraw our support from the financial system, for example by converting term deposits to cash and precious metals, hidden under the mattress. We should nurture and rejuvenate survival skills (how to wring a chicken’s neck?) and cultivate community; especially people with survival skills, akin to those common in English villages in 1580.
But who is our community? Clearly not most Australians. Even more clearly our community is not villagers on Lake Victoria. Globalisation has failed; it’s (more or less) every woman for herself, though perhaps for the next few years sufficient civilisation will linger to allow these first generation survivalists to hone their skills, while there is still electricity, and while coloured plastic can still be exchanged for food from all over the planet. Then what will happen? Foss did not quite say, but presumably, survivalists will also need to become skilled in self-defence, as one can surely expect marauders and violence to flourish in the world we are moving into, in which police have vanished or work for the highest bidder.
If everyone acts like this, there would be a run not only on the banks but also on the gunshops. The chaos that Foss foresees (and about which I also worry) would instantly materialise. Clearly, no collective solution lies in that direction. But might it work for a hardy band of Fossian acolytes? It will take years to be self-sufficient, but perhaps we can practice by growing a few spuds and learning to darn our clothes. If we are still employed; we can use our salary to reduce debt and accumulate tradeables. We can stock up with sacks of rice and tins of soup; but how many do we need? What happens after a year, when weevils are in the flour? No bother, if civilisation is still with us, we can just replace it.
Perhaps I am being too harsh on Nicole. Perhaps my own experience of survivalists when I lived off the grid in the 1970s has soured my attitude. I have no doubt that civilisation faces a tremendous crisis. Humans, the herd animal par excellence, have been led by charlatan economists and timid politicians. For too long we have mistaken cheap energy for genuine progress. We must act collectively, but our effort should be directed to reform rather than to desert the system.
If global collapse does occur, it may be more like staged retreat than complete fiasco. Banked money, share certificates and superannuation may become worthless, but money under the bed may also lose its value. Gold bars (slivers?) will be hard to trade and vulnerable to theft. Such strategies are neither practical nor appealing. A staged retreat of civilisation is likely to see extension of “no go” areas like Somalia and a simplification of lifestyles, with spartan rationing. But while I have long been critical of our political leadership, I have not lost such faith in wider society to think that I and (say) 200 companions can somehow survive if Canberra turns into a scene from Mad Max. I would rather trust in the whole of society.
I trained in medicine. I remember enough of to be of some help in such a world, in which barter may dominate. Even if the cost of a barrel of oil equivalent is $400, Australia (and some other countries) will probably still feed itself. Infrastructure will deteriorate. It is a very unsettling prospect. I think, though, if we try hard enough, then we can reduce or even avoid this calamity. Yes, we should pay down debt and nurture our health. But primarily we should use our collective energy to work for reform, not hasten collapse. If the boat sinks, at least we will drown with honour.
A version of this essay was published in the Nature and Society Forum newsletter.
Lifeboat ethics is a term popularised by Garret Hardin, who, I think, did the population movement more harm than good, even though his 1968 essay in Science on the Tragedy of the Commons remains very famous. As Susan Buck, Elinor Ostrom and others have pointed out the Tragedy can be avoided by regulation, that is by a combination of social norms, laws and enforcement. However, of course the Tragedy often does occur, due to those with more power stealing the goods of the poor, and then re-writing the rules.
I am giving a public talk  for the Nature and Society Forum on June 20, 2012
Conjuring a parachute

Where: Frank Fenner Building, Australian National University, Acton Canberra 

Prophets of the impending collapse of civilisation are increasing in number and credibility, bolstered by accumulating evidence. Glib reassurances of hope, technological  rescue and reminders of previous false prophets of doom no longer bring relief; new strategies are needed. These include eroding the social contract that permits actions that poison our collective future, analysis of denial, and exposure of oppression. We need to create “social vaccines”; new fables that can help thwart collapse. Principally, we need a vast social movement; with scores of overlapping approaches. These are just a few.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Climate change: what can Buddhists do?

Read to about 1000 people at the
United Nations Day of Vesak celebration
Sydney Town Hall May 27, 2012

Venerables, Distinguished guests, Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, friends in the dhamma.

First I pay homage to the triple gem; second, let me thank the organisers of this United Nations Day of Vesak commemoration, in Sydney, for their wisdom in including the topic of climate change. I listened to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in this same building, in 1982, in his first visit to Australia. That shows the reality of impermanence to me, and also that 30 years is not a long time.

Climate change and its shadow, energy security are among the largest threats to human well-being this century, especially in so-called developing countries. Some nations at special risk of climate change have large Buddhist populations, but this is not the main reason that we should be concerned.

The feature of Buddhism that attracts me most is compassion. Whether we call this metta, loving kindness, or bodhicitta, it is important to all Buddhist schools. It is very important to understand that the wish to be of benefit to others is not restricted to people who look like us, speak like us, think like us, and have the same faith. Nor should this wish be confined to human beings. Many species beside our own have a degree of awareness, they have emotions, and they suffer. And just as we recognise our own suffering as unwanted, such as when we are sick or bereaved, we should also reflect that the suffering of others is painful.

It is possible to develop, through meditation, compassion for other people and other species, and even for Earth itself, so that one feels their pain very deeply. I don’t recommend doing this in excess, as I think life would become unbearable. However, I do think that as Buddhists we should practice enough of this form of meditation to recognise the crisis occurring on our home planet, and to generate motivation to do something to reduce this crisis, which takes many forms.

Few of you are scientists, and probably many are unsure how big this problem is, or even if it exists at all. In Australia, there are many climate change sceptics; probably some are here today. I’m not going to explain why we should believe climate scientists, but ask sceptics if they have the same lack of respect towards other professionals, such as the engineers who designed the vehicle you will next travel on, or the doctor who will treat your next illness. The coal and gas industries also actively suppress understanding.

I think much scepticism about climate change is because of deep-seated selfishness. A major implication of climate change is that we have to be less selfish in sharing Earth’s resources, and we have to become more frugal. This message is very unpopular. As Buddhists, however, we should understand that happiness comes more from internal factors than from buying excessive material things. Scepticism is also fuelled by carbon trading, which is very open to abuse. I will not take carbon offsets seriously until funds raised are used to wean Australia off its addiction to using coal for electricity and to selling it.

From a Buddhist view, we know that impermanence or anicca, is fundamental, so the fact that the climate is changing is not surprising. Climate is not the same as weather, nor seasons. Climate is like long-distance weather; weather observed over many years or decades. The change in climate is so slow that many people do not notice it, but one role of science is to provide careful measures and these show that the average temperature of the world is rising, and also that rainfall patterns are changing.

The environment is not more important than humanity. Buddhists should not worship the Earth. But we should try to understand that human prosperity, and even world peace, depends on an environment that has sufficiently abundant goods and services, especially food, to provide for everyone. Causes and effects of climate change Climate change is happening mostly because we are burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas, at a great pace. We have become excellent at finding buried energy sources and then destroying them. The invisible waste products of these fuels trap heat in the air and acidify the oceans, harming marine life. Rainfall patterns are changing, with more intense droughts and more flooding too. This makes it harder for farmers to grow food, and this, along with dearer energy, is one reason food prices are dearer.

The sea level is rising, as the ocean warms, and the polar ice melts. By 2100, unless climate change is slowed, sea level rise will make some coastal parts uninhabitable, such as in Bangladesh and the Nile delta. Bangkok is also at risk.

The other important reason for climate change is forest destruction, in places like Indonesia and Brazil. This removes carbon stored in the trees, returning it to the atmosphere. Some politicians claim carbon in the air is essential for plants, so that more is good. This is a very simple and wrong understanding. There is an issue of dose. One pill a day might be useful, but five a day might make you sick.

Forests are also being destroyed to grow palm oil, used for fuel. This is not extra energy, as it takes a lot of energy (mainly from coal) to grow these crops and to make the fuel. In the last century we have destroyed enough fossil fuels and forest to give us a taste of human driven climate change. We should now urgently alter the global energy system to one that does not rely on oil, coal and gas, but instead mainly on solar. Delay places at risk the well-being of the poor and future generations, even in rich countries.

Health and climate change

I finish by describing three main forms of health effects due to climate change; primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary school is the most basic form of education, young children can understand it. Then comes secondary and tertiary. During the 2009 heatwave in southeast Australia, more people died of heat stress than the terrible fires. Too much heat is bad for your health.

A secondary effect is that diseases like dengue fever or malaria are likely to become harder to control, as rising temperatures and increased rainfall gives more chances for mosquitoes to flourish. In human health terms the extra harm from these things is not large. Malaria is important, but not because of climate change.

However, the tertiary effects of climate change are likely to be extremely large, even catastrophic. There is growing fear that climate change, with other factors, such as rising energy costs, will increase under-nutrition and famine. In fact this is already happening, such as in North Africa. In India, a country especially significant to Buddhists, there is already enormous problem of poor nutrition, affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Climate change is also likely to drive considerable migration this century. And that might contribute to conflict and war.


In 1989, I heard a joke about an ecologist and an economist falling from a tall building. The ecologist is panicking, but the economist is very calm. “Don’t worry”, she says, “demand will create a parachute”. But in order for that to happen, we have to see the ground.

Solutions exist, and I list four. First, I think world leaders need to recognise that the global economic system is seriously flawed. I don’t just mean because of the global financial crisis including in Europe. The main error is to think that the world economy can keep on growing for ever. It can’t – unless we redefine growth.

Second, we need to be less selfish, to really start to practice metta and the middle path. Metta should not just be for ourselves and family, but for people we do not know, and will never meet. We cannot have a truly peaceful, prosperous planet when so many people live dreadful lives. Of course, we live in samsara, the world has problems, but collectively we can reduce them.

Third, we need new forms of capturing energy, especially solar, that do not harm the climate, and can slow the rate at which we are wasting fossil fuel. Australia could be a world leader here, but our political leaders are slow to understand this. But we can’t just blame politicians, we need to realise that they behave like this because most people do not care enough about these issues to try to change their behaviour.

Finally, Buddhists must combine meditation and peacefulness with action. It is not enough to pray for a more peaceful world, we also need practical action. For example, if we are comfortably well-off, we should try to spend some of our time and money increasing the chances for others to also become prosperous. I am not saying we can all be bodhisattvas or saints, but I am sure many of us can give practical help to others.

I am not saying we should foster dependency, but there are many ways to help people less fortunate than we are in ways that will increase self-reliance. One way is to try to improve education, especially for girls, in low-income countries such as India.

Thank you again for this chance to speak to you today.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The cornucopian enchantment

The cornucopian enchantment: "the conceit that ingenuity will always trump scarcity".

I just heard an interview with Prof Robert Shiller on ABC Radio National. Schiller mentioned Montesquieu foreshadowed Adam Smith by suggesting commerce would help civilise society. However Smith warned against capitalist criminals - monopolists, market riggers and so on (the Goldman Sachs traders of his time).

Schiller refers in passing to everyone being "fed well" as a component of that civilising effect; to me this implies also a reasonably fair distribution, today shared abundance has to be more than food, especially in rich nations with abundant calories, in order to produce civil happiness. The manifest unfairness of Wall St legitimately fuels the backlash of the Occupy movement, just as the unfairness of the French court legitimately fuelled the French revolution. Montesquieu and Smith are right - capitalism is potentially a better driver for happiness and abundance than complete market control - but as Keynes (as Smith) understood it needs regulation to reduce the unfairness, and a lot of that regulation must be self-organised by social norms and moral framework. But those governors have been substantially, deliberately undermined since the late 70s – as Paul Krugman describes in various essays about the 'return of the gilded age".

Philanthropy is useful, but of course rarely is of sufficient scale to repair the damage to public goods that enables the philanthropists to acquire their wealth in the first place (and then to rig the market to further lock in the inequality.) Shiller talks (without calling it that) of the groupthink dominant in the US early in his career (but still after the return of market deregulation) and also in the rise of irrational exuberance (by the way attributed to Greenspan in 1996 not Shiller in 2002).

There is an even stronger form of irrational groupthink operant today – I coined the term “cornucopian enchantment” for this sometime around 1999 (the term appears in my PhD, Inequality and Sustainability). This is the conceit that ingenuity will always trump scarcity. Unless society can rapidly produce a suite of energy, technological and social rabbits then global scarcity will deepen, and indeed hunger will return, not just to Niger and Somalia, but more generally. Then followed by conflict, despite Montesquieu's hopes (and those of Steven Pinker, for that matter). In that context reducing unfairness is essential.

This period of enchantment can be traced roughly to the late 1970s when Limits to Growth started to be ridiculed. We should be awakening from it by now, but in privileged parts of the word we keep dozing on. Europe bleeds $1 billion a day importing energy. This is a greatly under-recognised causal factor in the global financial crisis, and looks as if it will get worse. Not only my opinion, also that of Sir David King (former UK chief scientist.)