In the autumn of 1989, I was a student. I left a dormitory because I did not fit in the group. Most notably, I could not get along with a particular Lady. I returned to my parental home to gather courage before trying out another dormitory.
There was not much to laugh about in those days, except for a few episodes of Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau aired on German television. My parents lived near the German border so that I could watch them.
Clouseau was inept, but he always managed to solve the mystery. Guided by a few hunches and vague clues that only made sense to him, he ignored the apparent explanations of the facts and uncovered the truth by accident.
How could a bumbling clown like Clouseau be correct while the competent fail? The answer is that he is a fictional character in a story. The plot is always that Clouseau is right in the end, much to the chagrin of his superior officer.
And what about my claims about this universe and the identity of God? The world we live in could be fiction, and we could be characters in a story, just like an episode of Chief Inspector Clouseau. And so, I could be right after all.
Close to Enschede, in the east of the Netherlands, is a village called Eibergen. I was born there on Iepenstraat, which means elm street. The assassination of US President Kennedy took place on Elm Street, and that event became part of a web of remarkable coincidences. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror film first released in the United States on 9 November 1984 (11/9) and in the Netherlands on 11 September 1986 (9/11). 9/11 refers to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, another event marked by an array of remarkable coincidences. As these words indicate, this is the beginning of a most peculiar story. More precisely, a story inside a story.
Eibergen means egg mountains, which could be a cryptic reference to a mother’s womb. The initials of my last name, KI, make the Dutch abbreviation for artificial insemination, a way to become pregnant without sexual intercourse so that a virgin can give birth. By the way, it also is the abbreviation for artificial intelligence, so if you think you are smart, think again after reading what I have written. The name of the nearby city, Enschede, may refer to the female reproductive organ. And the initials of my first and middle name, BH, make the Dutch abbreviation for a bra. The song A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash suggests that funny names, particularly of this kind, build strong character. The meaning of songs is relevant to this story too.
I lived in Eibergen until I was four, so I do not recall much of that time. As far as I remember, nothing unusual happened. You might expect something extraordinary to transpire if you know where this story is heading, but it didn’t. Often I went out on a tricycle to feed the sheep in the pasture at the end of the street. Being a shepherd may have been my calling. There often was a clock on television, and I was afraid of it. If it appeared, I took cover behind the sofa. My younger sister Anne Marie was born in 1971. I remember that my mother was pregnant. She was ironing. And I sang songs for the baby in the baby room while my mother was changing diapers.
Our home was in a block. Next door lived an older lady, probably in her sixties. She came from the former Dutch Indies and had a fish tank in the living room. On the other side was another young family with children. They had a daughter of my age and a younger son. I remember playing with them. And I once electrocuted myself by putting the chain of the stopper of the kitchen sink into a wall outlet. Others later said I had used scissors, but I am sure it was the stopper’s chain, which then was confirmed by my mother, suggesting my memories are of good quality.
My father went to work around 6 AM and returned around 9 PM. He loved his job. On Saturdays, he often went out with his friends, hunting, I suppose. And so, I hardly saw him. At home, he caught up on his sleep on the couch to wake up when sports started on television. So, when I was three years old, I once said to my mother, jokingly, I suppose, ‘Who is that man sleeping on the couch?’ That is what my mother later told me. My father probably took the hint. I remember that he took me out of bed every morning before he went to work and played with me for a few minutes for a few weeks.
When I was three, I fell on my teeth on the wooden table in the living room in a brutal smash. A piece of the wood broke off. My front teeth turned black until my permanent teeth came. And so, I became an ugly duckling for years to come. We also had a biking accident. My mother was biking, Anne Marie was in the front, I was in the back, and my mother had trouble handling the bags full of groceries at the handlebar. And then the bike fell over. In early 1973, we moved to Nijverdal, which means industrious valley. It suggests we left the mountains for a life in a valley, but the Dutch mountains are imaginary, and the name of a song by my favourite band, The Nits. The music you like may reveal your character. And I think that is correct in my case.
Featured image: my mother, my younger sister, and I (in the foreground)
In 2002, I started to work as an Oracle database administrator at a government agency near home. Most people in the Netherlands know about the agency because it processes traffic fines. For that reason, it isn’t popular with the general public, just like the Internal Revenue Service. So if someone asked who my employer was, I kept it vague and said the government or the Department of Justice. It didn’t take long before something went seriously wrong. On my second day on the job, one of the production systems crashed after running the batch jobs, leaving a corrupt database, and with the benefit of hindsight, that was a bit peculiar. After two days of searching, I still hadn’t found the exact cause. When I restored the backup of the previous evening, which was still valid, and ran the batch jobs, the database became corrupt again. It probably was a software bug, so I advised restoring the backup of the previous evening and upgrading the database software to the latest version and seeing if it would solve the issue. Instead, the IT director declared a crisis and set up a multi-disciplinary task force to deal with the situation.
The head of the task force was a corpulent project leader who decided we should find the cause, which I hadn’t uncovered. I just wanted to fix the problem. Every day at 10 AM, there was a meeting to discuss the state of affairs. Every day I proposed to upgrade the database software to see if it would help. And every day, my proposal was brushed aside. I would have done it myself, but I was new on the job, and they used VAX VMS, an operating system I wasn’t familiar with, so I couldn’t install software or restore backups on my own. Two weeks later, after our experts had all weighed in and also after hiring a database corruption expert from Oracle, the cause remained elusive, and managers were getting desperate. Finally, they were willing to consider my suggestion. And it solved the problem. It was a harbinger of things yet to come. During a review, they grilled me for not being interested in researching the cause. I said that solving a crisis was more important as it was a production system, and the users needed it to work. And by the way, the upgrade demonstrated that it was a software bug.
A few months later, my employer hired a security officer. Probably the audit department had advised it. He was a guy in a suit who soon began to make our work harder by implementing unnecessary procedures. For instance, we had to lock up our Oracle manuals in a secure location after work and bring the keys to the porter’s lodge. But our manuals were public information like Windows manuals. Today, you can find this information on the Internet. At the same time, Mulder, the system that processed the traffic fines, had a superuser named MULDER with the password MULDER. Everyone knew that and could mess with the traffic fines. I notified the security officer, but being a true bureaucrat, he had more important things to do, such as attending meetings, inventing procedures and making management reports. Other systems had this issue too. And so, I contacted a few senior programmers, and we fixed that problem.
There were other issues with access rights too. As they would say in the course Professional Skills, ‘There was room for improvement.’ If a new employee came in, the service desk made a ticket stating, ‘Create user account X as a copy of account Y,’ and sent it from one department to another. Usually, it took two weeks for the ticket to pass through all our departments, and system administrators made errors. Hence, account X was rarely exactly like account Y. If people switched departments or left, the defunct access rights usually weren’t deleted. Perhaps the audit department had figured this out, as our management soon initiated a project role-based access rights (RBAC).
RBAC works like so. You have a role in a department. In ordinary language, it is your job. For your job, you need access to an array of systems. Your job description determines which rights you need, for instance, reading specific data or changing it. As a rule, employees should not receive more access rights than required to perform their tasks. RBAC is about the rights an employee in a specific job role needs. Business consultants came in and defined job roles and access requirements. A programmer then built an administrative database. But the database wasn’t connected to our systems, so there was no guarantee that the access rights in our systems matched the administration. And if you know how things fare in practice, you know that the administration would soon become stale and pointless. People are lazy, make errors, and forget things. And that would change once the administration and our systems connected. If the administration connected but was wrong, people couldn’t do their jobs properly, so the administration had to be constantly updated.
In 2004, I secretly began building an account administration system named DBB using Designer/2000, leaving the bureaucrats out of the loop because they would probably stand in the way and make it harder for me. Only my manager and a few colleagues knew about it. DBB automated granting and revoking access rights in our systems the RBAC way. It took me nine months as I also had to do my regular work as a database administrator. But when I was ready to implement DBB on the production databases, the bureaucrats became aware of what was happening and tried to block it. In early 2005, I introduced it sneakily with the help of the people from the service desk who wanted to use it. They installed the DBB client programmes on their personal computers. And I was a database administrator, so I could install anything I wanted on any database.
The outcomes were spectacular. The service desk now created the accounts, so the tickets didn’t have to pass through so many departments. We created accounts in one day instead of two weeks. And the service desk could reset passwords on the spot instead of relaying the request to a department, bringing down the time to reset passwords from hours to seconds. And the access rights accurately reflected job roles. So, once DBB was operational, the opposition crumbled, and DBB became a regular application, even though not an official one, and we had RBAC forcefully implemented.
The logo of DBB was a drawing made by Ingrid. She had drawn it for another purpose. It features jokers grinning at a set of file folders. To me, these folders symbolised bureaucracy. DBB joked with the bureaucrats as the bureaucrats considered it a rogue system. Supposedly, I was one of those jokers, so I made one of them my avatar on the web. DBB was my love child, just like Fokker once was Jürgen Schrempp’s. And so, I ensured DBB could survive if I ever left the agency. I produced design documents and manuals and built DBB according to accepted Designer/2000 practices. We had a lot of Designer/2000 programmers, so they could easily have maintained DBB. But I hadn’t followed the proper procedures when building and implementing it, so it never became official. So, if something went wrong, it was not a mere incident, as would be the case with any other system, but a cause to replace DBB. And something went wrong once.
For over ten years, bureaucrats devised plans to replace DBB. Our management started two projects to replace it. The first effort stalled because they had underestimated the complexity of the matter. They might have thought, ‘If one guy can do it, how difficult can it be?’ In 2016, a new project team realised it was pointless to replace DBB as it was doing fine and replacing it was costly. The newer Java systems ran on Postgres databases and used web access, so they didn’t use DBB. And our management planned to decommission the old Designer/2000 systems so DBB could retire by then.
And so, I wondered how bureaucrats think and concluded that it is like so, ‘If I mess things up but stick to the rules and follow procedure, no one can blame me. If do the right thing but do not follow procedure, and something goes wrong, my job is on the balance.’ If something has gone wrong, the government hires consultants to investigate the issue and propose changes to the procedures to prevent it from happening the next time. Sadly, the next time, the situation may be different, and then it goes wrong again. You might think it is better to do away with procedures, but in a government administration, that might not be a good idea. The role of government is to provide and implement rules. Just imagine that every government employee does as he sees fit. Nevertheless, there could be room for improvement.
DBB not only joked with the bureaucrats. The joke was also on me and in a most peculiar fashion. In June 2010, I received a highly unusual request from a system administrator to drop a user account manually. That hadn’t happened for several years. DBB usually took care of that, but for some unknown reason, DBB failed to drop this particular account. The username was ELVELVEN. If you read that aloud, you say eleven elevens in Dutch, a reference to the 11:11 time-prompt phenomenon. Usernames consisted of the first one or two characters of the employee’s first name followed by the employee’s last name. In this case, the user’s last name was Velven. To me, 11:11 signals a combination of two related unlikely events. And indeed, the joke had a part two, and it was even more peculiar.
In 2014, I tested an improvement to DBB. My test signalled that an illegal account had sneaked into our systems. The username was AD******, the first character of the first name followed by the last name of A******* [the lady who might be God and appears to stalk me with coincidences]. Had she been employed with us, this would have been her username. And her name isn’t common, so this was unnerving, even more so because it was the only username that popped up. It couldn’t be her, or could it? It turned out that a guy with the same last name as hers had worked for us. His first name began with an A too. And the account wasn’t illegal. I had mixed data from two different dates in the test, which made it appear that this account had sneaked in illegally. Just imagine the odds of only this account popping up.
In 2005, my manager promised me a promotion. He told me that I had managed to introduce DBB. ‘You had a vision and you made it happen and you overcame all the opposition, and now we have RBAC,’ he said. He added that I was the best database administrator of the lot. I doubted that and said we had a tech genius in our department who was better than me. And then he said, ‘Having the right vision and making it happen are far more important.’ Only, he didn’t formalise the promotion, so I tried to make him put his promise into writing. I asked him several times to do that. And then, he took on a new job somewhere else, so I feared I would end up empty-handed. After all, I hadn’t many friends in high places.
Just before he left, I pressed him again to put his promise into writing. As the promotion had not yet come through, he wrote I could get a minor wage increase, and then he filed it for processing at the human resources department. A few weeks later, they summoned me to the human resources department. A bureaucrat had come up with a technicality. I couldn’t even keep the minor wage increase. That was a breach of contract, plain and simple, but to bureaucrats, only rules and procedures count. My previous manager had already left, so they blamed it on him, and his temporary replacement didn’t care as he also was on his way out. As I had put a lot of effort into having it in writing, and my manager had already fobbed me with a minor wage increase, I walked out of the meeting angrily.
When I arrived home, Ingrid told me that a freelance agency had offered me a job. It was the first offer of this kind since I started working for my employer. And so, I made a rash decision and resigned. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a remarkable coincidence that the freelance agency called me on this particular day. It didn’t take long before I started to have second thoughts. Out of the blue, a strong feeling emerged that it was a wrong decision. I can rationalise it by saying there weren’t many jobs for database administrators near home. And the issues with my son didn’t allow me to work far away from home while my physical condition didn’t allow for long travels. That may all be true, but these considerations were not the real reason. The feeling became so strong that I had no other choice but to reverse course and try to undo my resignation.
There was a new manager, and he accepted my change of mind. He pledged to do his best to restore my confidence in my employer. Due to a bureaucratic error, I missed the promotion again a year later. I began to distrust him and feared he might not make good on his promise. That didn’t happen at the time, but he soon gave the tech genius a higher pay grade and left me out. And several years later, after he had risen in rank, in another remarkable coincidence, he tried to take away the pay grade that came with the promotion when I switched to Java programming. Nevertheless, he was a very competent manager who later played a leading role in improving the IT department. After some years of bureaucratic wrangling, the promotion finally came through.
‘Politics is not worth a lightning bolt to me. Throw it to the sharks,’ the Dutch band Normaal sang in 1984. Many people in democracies experience disillusionment with their government and political system, but the feeling is not new. Something appears to be wrong with politics. But what is the problem, and what are the solutions? Perhaps, we expect too much of our politicians as they often have limited influence on affairs. Maybe, politicians interfere with issues that are the domain of experts. And what is the point of politics when there is no food on the table?
Still, there has been some progress in political institutions. Political institutions can be customs, laws, government organisations, and other arrangements. Human nature does not change, and politicians have remained more or less the same, but our forefathers devised political institutions to provide political stability and make governments work better. They learned from previous mistakes, so there was some improvement. But institutions can outlive their usefulness because societies change over time. So, what is the point of politics? To answer that question, it might be good to start with the basics.
The basics of politics
Humans flexibly cooperate in large numbers. That made us so successful as a species. To do that, we need language to describe what is happening. For instance, during a hunt, I can tell you that a deer hides behind the tree in front of us. Some animals have languages to communicate about the whereabouts of food or enemies, but human language serves more purposes. Most notably, we gossip and discuss what others are doing and thinking. That gives us more accurate information about other people in the group, for instance, who can do a particular job best. We use this information to cooperate in sophisticated ways.1
Another essential feature of human language is not gossip but the ability to convey information about imaginary things. Many forms of large-scale human cooperation, such as nation-states, religions, corporations, laws and money, are fictions that exist only in the collective imagination of human beings. Our collaboration depends on shared beliefs or collective imaginations.1 If you believe that a piece of paper is money, but I do not, we cannot trade. If I think a law exists, but you do not, we may get into a conflict. And if we share the same religion, we can do things together, like praying or building a temple.
Politics usually deals with questions like: what should we be doing as a group, which are our rules, and who will lead us? What we are going to do, is decided by ideas like we should sow crops in the spring, do a rain dance in the summer to please the rain fairy, and harvest in the autumn. Doing a rain dance in the summer is a rule. It depends on our belief in the rain fairy, our collective imagination. Religions and ideologies more or less play the same role in politics. Ideologies are beliefs too. They can be wrong. For instance, we could expect better results from an irrigation system connected to a nearby lake. And ideologies like socialism and liberalism do not work in practice as their proponents claim.
The rules could dictate that we need a priest for the religion of the rain fairy. Every year, he leads a procession while holding the stature of the rain fairy in front of him before the rain dance begins. The priest is a sage of the village. The priesthood is open only to highly esteemed men of a certain age. If rain does not come and the crops fail, the question of who will lead the procession next year becomes of the utmost importance, as harvests depend on rain and, therefore, on pleasing the fairy. Our ability to gossip allows us to evaluate potential candidates. And so, the village may elect a new priest, hoping the fairy will send rain next season. If droughts are rare, this approach usually seems to work.
This short tale about the village that worships the rain fairy and elects a priest explains a lot about politics. There is a belief system. There are rules about the priesthood, and the priest has authority. Villagers believe the priest can influence the rainfall. Political leaders can influence what happens, but in many cases, they have to deal with circumstances over which they have little control. Leaders might revert to public display, like doing a rain dance to show the public they are working on the problem because building an irrigation system is not an option in our religion. Imaging can trump facts, but the underlying cause is often not politicians but our beliefs, for instance, the imagination that rain dances promote rainfall.
The big man
We are social animals, and politics is part of our nature. Traditional societies have politicians too. For instance, the big man is the leader of a family group or a small tribe in Papua New Guinea. No one is born a big man, nor can a big man hand that title down to his son. Rather, his position has to be earned. It falls not necessarily to those who are physically strong, but to those who have earned the community’s trust, usually on the ability to distribute pigs, shell money, and other resources to the members of his tribe. The big man must constantly be looking over his shoulder, because a competitor for authority may be coming up behind him. Without resources to distribute, he loses his status as a leader.2
This description comes from Francis Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order. The big man is a politician. Much of politics comes down to distributing resources and favours. To become the leader, the big man forges a coalition of followers, and his followers benefit once he becomes the leader. A big man can also take actions that benefit the entire community. Likewise, a politician can look after the interests of his followers or work in the public interest. Also, the ideology-based programmatic political parties in Europe operated for the benefit of their voters. For instance, labourers often voted for socialist parties because they expected to benefit, while business owners often voted for liberal parties for the same reason.
The role of institutions
Our disappointment with politics is not always justified. Politicians in modern democracies are like the big men in Papua New Guinea or the priests of the rain fairy. And in democracies, the citizens elect their leaders, so why do we not elect better ones? Hence, the room for improvement in the quality of politicians appears limited. But we cannot do without politics. After all, it is part of our nature. The programmatic ideological political parties of Western Europe may have been an apex in the development of politics. They promoted general policies in the interest of their constituency rather than benefits for individuals.
These parties have lost their lustre. Today’s world differs from the world where these parties emerged and flourished. If you were born in a socialist or Roman Catholic family in the Netherlands in 1900, you remained a socialist or a Roman Catholic for the remainder of your life. Society was stable and politicians didn’t need to compete for attention. The ideologies and religions of these parties have not passed the test of time. They do not answer the questions of today. And many voters think traditional parties have neglected their interests. In the absence of better ideas, politics became more about personalities and emotions.
Institutions can raise politics beyond the level of individuals and their interests, emotions and weaknesses. Traditional societies already have them. For instance, the practice of electing a new priest if the crops fail is an institution. This arrangement answers the question of what we should do on such an occasion. Otherwise, villagers might disagree and start a bloody conflict. After all, the harvest is of the utmost importance, so if you do not have faith in the measures taken, you must protect yourself and your family. But institutions like rain dances do not guarantee good outcomes.
The Chinese were the first to develop a modern state with a rationally organised administration with merit-based recruitment and promotion. It was one of the most significant improvements in state institutions in history. But Chinese emperors did not have to pass an exam. They usually inherited the title or emerged from a power struggle. Emperors had unchecked powers. So the question was how to guarantee a continuing supply of good emperors?2 You cannot, but perhaps institutions can protect the country from poor rulers. And this problem does not go away by electing leaders. That is why democratic states also have institutions, most notably, the separation of powers.
The separation of powers aims to split the state into three independent branches, which are the administration (the executive), the parliaments (the legislative) and the courts (the judiciary). Each has its responsibilities, and the branches do not interfere with each other’s tasks. Parliaments make the laws, the administration executes them, and the courts verify whether they are applied correctly. Ideally, the administration has no power over the parliaments and the courts, for instance, the administration should not nominate or appoint candidates for the parliaments and the courts, and the courts should stay out of political affairs, which is the domain of parliaments.
As political leaders often change or are controversial, many nations have a ceremonial head of state to provide a sense of stability and continuity in the form of a person. Some countries hold on to their royal families, while others have presidents. Usually, ceremonial presidents are highly respected individuals who are supposed not to interfere with political affairs. Royals can also provide a stable sense of nationhood, but kingship is a birthright. Kings do not need to have particular qualities, so they may lose respect, while a ceremonial president usually has earned respect.
Improvements in democratic political systems are possible, but our current predicament is not so much the result of a lack of democratic oversight of governments. Our belief systems are at stake here, for instance, nationalism, socialism and liberalism, but also cultures, religions and traditions. And money can buy influence in politics. That has always been so, but wealth inequality has increased in recent decades, creating a self-reinforcing trend. Existing ideas and ideologies are models of reality with assumptions that do not always apply.
For instance, you can analyse the economy from a socialist or a capitalist perspective. The results are very different, and neither is entirely wrong or right. The proponents of ideologies and religions have an explanation for everything. Within the confines of their models, their arguments make sense. If you believe in the rain fairy, it makes perfect sense to think she is angry if rain does not come. We all have beliefs, and so do I. And it might surprise you how often I find my opinions wrong. We should let go of them and see them as models of reality with merits and limitations. That allows us to have rational debates.
Our political institutions are based on ideas from the past. Clinging to defunct ideas is like doing rain dances to prevent harvest failures. If existing ideas do not work anymore, troubles arise. If crops continue to fail because of persistent droughts, some villagers realise that electing a new priest does not solve the issue, and they may get into conflict with adherents of the religion of the rain fairy. And even though the causes appear complex, our predicament is about the failure of ideas. We are at a crossroads and some developments may soon alter human existence:
We are running out of resources, and a protracted period of economic decline might be upon us. Our institutions are built for growth. And so, we could expect political instability to increase.
Nation-states and their ambitions pose a constant threat to peace. To have peace, we need the world to be unified under one leadership, which could be democracy on a global level.
Humans may soon enhance themselves with biotechnology, information technology, and cyborg engineering, and may turn into post-humans with abilities we do not have, while artificial intelligence may make decisions for us.
Post-humans might already exist and created virtual universes for their personal entertainment. We may find out that we live inside one of those universes and who owns our universe.
Apart from that, several developments have converged to make existing political systems increasingly dysfunctional:
Political institutions developed on a national level. They are not well-suited for today’s globalised world. At the same time, existing global institutions lack legitimacy.
Globalisation changed politics. Wealth inequality is extreme, mass migration creates new social problems, while elites have undue political and economic influence.
Individualism makes it harder for people to rally for common causes, make sacrifices, and for individuals to submit themselves to agreed collective purposes.
Identity politics pits people against each other. In the past, it was about nations, but nowadays it is often about religion, gender, race, and political orientation.
The outcomes of policy measures are often not easy to estimate as many factors interfere. Usually, there are unintended consequences. We must allow for a degree of trial and error to arrive at improvements.
Many issues are of a technocratic nature and involve science and uncertainty. Most people have not learned to evaluate scientific research and statistical analysis.
Parliaments are theatres where politicians compete for voter attention. They often do not quietly and diligently work on the nation’s problems.
Many important decisions are made outside the public view. Governments and businesses collect data about us. We often do not know what is going on.
Each country has a distinct history, hence unique institutions, laws and arrangements. Nowadays, many critical issues are global, but it is not the level at which states operate. As a result, the influence of the elites and wealth inequality increased, and the elites became less accountable. The issues we face, like global warming, crime, and infectious diseases, require a global approach. Businesses increasingly operate internationally. Existing world institutions lack legitimacy and democratic oversight. And there are issues with democracy itself.
Liberal democracy emanated from liberalism, which centres around the individual. We are social animals and collaborate in groups and societies. Liberals may neglect societies. Most notably, neoliberalism helped to undermine their social fabric. Societies are more than social contracts. They can make people feel they belong to a community and it is a basis of social cohesion. That is why we can become emotionally attached to our nation-states.
The liberal view holds that you are free to do as you please unless you harm others. That can work well if we correctly identify harm to others. In the past, the definition of harm has been too narrow. As a result, we now have to deal with consequences like the disintegration of societies, mass migration, pollution and depletion of resources. Liberal democracy works best when there is a balance of power between social groups, and none can dominate the others. In recent decades, the balance of power shifted in favour of corporations and wealthy people, and conditions became less favourable to liberal democracy.
Individualism allows us to appreciate personal experiences and feelings. Everyone’s life is different, and you do not know how it is to be someone else who has a different life. For instance, a white man can never truly understand how it is to be a black woman and how it is to be discriminated against by whites and to be beaten up by her jealous boyfriend. That is true, and personal experiences can help to identify underlying problems, but once personal feelings get the upper hand, there remains less room for objective reality. And solutions more likely come from addressing facts than from catering for sensitivities. But people often desire attention and understanding rather than solutions for their problems.
It is hard to interpret data, scientific analysis, correlation and probability when multiple causes interfere with the outcome. In economics, that is all too clear, and the mathematical models that economists use can give us a false impression of exactness. Scientists can err, but usually, it is up to science to prove that. For instance, we use coronavirus vaccines based on a risk assessment. There is a chance the vaccine harms you, so you only take it if the disease is more dangerous than the vaccine. Vaccine sceptics have a different assessment of the risks of the disease and the vaccine, often based on incorrect information. Nevertheless, the coronavirus vaccines are of a new type, and their long-term consequences are not yet known.
We do not always know beforehand what will work. Technocratic issues usually are not well-suited for politics. Measures can have unintended consequences. Improvements may come from trial and error, and problems often are not fully solved. Politicians may not be interested in improvement. Instead, they may tout their ‘solutions’ based on their ideology or religion and simplify matters to play on the emotions of voters. Perhaps you have the impression that politicians are more occupied with political theatre or doing the bidding of lobbyists than the betterment of your country. You are not alone.
The boards of corporations and government agencies make decisions that affect us all. Meanwhile, corporations and governments collect data about us. Their decisions usually stay outside the public view. Lobbyists influence the political process and often operate in secret. On the local level, business representatives befriend politicians and civil servants who grant them contacts. These things happen everywhere, and also in countries with low levels of corruption. Successful people in business and politics spend much time on social networking. The elites are, above all, a social network.
We are accustomed to growth, for instance, economic growth, and so are our political institutions, but we are using more than Earth can provide. To prosper in the future, we must change how we live. We hope for a better future but think in material terms, not well-being. Property, not happiness or love, has become the ultimate goal in many lives. And for many, the ultimate nightmare is to own nothing and be happy. We will not elect politicians who tell us we have to do with less. The expectation of material gain defines our political systems. After all, big men distribute resources to their followers.
The limits of democracy
In democratic countries, leadership often changes, and that can cause discontinuity. Dictators often stay in power for a long time. The limits of democracy are most visible in times of crisis because there is freedom of speech and the press. Usually, the institutions of a nation provide political stability, but if people think the institutions fail, political instability ensues. Today, this is most visible in the United States where political violence is rising. China is moving ahead and may become the most powerful nation in the near future. During the Great Depression, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union also powered ahead but failed later on. And so, China’s success is not necessarily a failure of democracy.
Politicians often do not do what they promised to do. There might be political struggles that deflect attention away from the nation’s problems. And democracies can make poor decisions when voters don’t like much-needed measures. In times of upheaval, voters might opt for a leader who promises to take drastic action, for instance when the economy has collapsed or when insurgents and criminals wreak havoc. The most notorious example is Adolf Hitler. The suffering of the Germans during the Great Depression and the inability of politicians to solve the economic crisis helped Hitler to grab power.
Political debates can be about facts, interpretation of facts, and fiction, for instance, the rain fairy, reptilians, or the Jewish deity. People also believe in money, laws, nation-states, and corporations, but these fictions create reality. In other words, we make these imaginations come true. Our faith in the rain fairy does not produce a rain fairy, but this religion might promote social stability. Lying and misrepresenting facts to forward political goals can undermine the functioning of democracies. Usually, people believe these lies. Politics is about which collective imaginations should drive our decision-making. A correct assessment of the situation likely leads to more favourable outcomes. Ridicule and containment probably are better countermeasures than banning free speech. After all, sometimes crazy ideas turn out to have merit.
Even in stable and functioning democracies, citizens often lack faith in politicians. Politicians are easy scapegoats if things go wrong. Most people do not see their contribution to a problem. Parliaments are not a representation of the population at large. Those who like to talk, for example, lawyers and teachers, tend to be overrepresented. Engineers who know how systems work tend to be underrepresented. Perhaps that is why laws often fail to meet the intended objectives. Poor people and people with little education also do not enter parliaments in large numbers. And so, politicians neglect their interests.
Perhaps giving citizens more responsibility via direct democracy can make democracy work better. If you voted for it, you won’t blame others if it goes wrong. And that can make you think better about the consequences of your choices. Switzerland uses referendums in addition to parliaments. The Swiss are content with their political system. Hence, it could be an improvement. Implementing direct democracy the right way is not simply introducing referendums. After all, good institutions do not guarantee good outcomes. Referendums can go wrong, for instance, by reducing complex matters into simple yes-or-no questions. Referendums work well in Switzerland because the conditions in society are favourable. Switzerland has a political climate in which citizens civilly debate issues, and people are willing to compromise.
As they say, freedom comes with responsibility. Perhaps, we can only be free if we consider the interests of everyone else because our choices can impede the liberty of others. And so, individual liberty may only thrive with social equality. Societies that succeed in combining personal freedom and social equality tend to be the happiest. The American natives had a great degree of individual liberty and social equality. When making decisions, they strived for consensus. They could be an example to us.
Some countries have done a better job of creating a prosperous, free and equal society than others, and their examples can help to lead us to a better future. Denmark is such a country, and Francis Fukuyama calls the issue of creating a prosperous, free and equal society ‘getting to Denmark’. Denmark combines a competent government with a cooperative relationship between unions and employers. The Danish economy is innovative, incomes and social benefits are high, and labour markets are flexible. Many pundits argue that cultural differences block the introduction of these features into other societies. It is not easy and takes time, but it helps when everyone agrees on the goal and helps to make it happen.
Featured image: House Of Commons in the United Kingdom. Parliament.uk. [link]
1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker. 2. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Francis Fukuyama (2011).
Princess, a friend from the United States, once came to visit me. I took a shopping bag with me when we went to the shopping mall. She remarked on it. I said that getting a new bag at the shop produced unnecessary waste. She then called me an environmental extremist. That reinforced my prejudice of Americans being wasteful consumers. Why should we make things to throw away? But perhaps, she was right. Bringing a shopping bag with you might be a minor inconvenience, but it can be the first step on the road to extreme living where nothing gets wasted. Before you know it, you are separating your waste for recycling. And what’s next? It is scary to think of it.
My mother once said that I overdo things. Buying second-hand is what poor people do, usually not privileged people like me. I have done my best to appear normal, but I can’t help eating scraps others leave behind or using paper towels my son has thrown away after hardly using them. Waste and spillage unnerve me somehow. It is better not to upset others, but I cannot always guess what disturbs them. Once, I wore worn-out clothes at a family party. My father was not amused. It probably reminded him of the poverty in which he once lived. He wanted me to have a better life. But can you overdo environmentalism? Buying new clothes is one of the worst things we can do to our planet. And some people do much more to save Earth than I do.
Indeed, I am a most peculiar person, and the evidence is mounting. Lately, I began having second thoughts about ‘normal’ living again. We are using far more than Earth can provide. The cuts in profligate consumption might need to be drastic, like in the vicinity of 100%. And excessive is anything we do not need. So what is extreme living? You can go out bungee jumping, take a vacation to a far-away country, or indulge in a hot dog eating contest and think that is extreme, but you are just unnecessarily turning precious resources into waste. That is normal living. My great-grandparents hardly ever left the village in which they lived. They had never been to Germany, even though it was only ten kilometres from their home. And bungee jumping was not on their bucket list either. That is more like it.
Perhaps it is not as hard as it seems
Most people in the past led extreme lives, and many still do today, most notably in areas that have not yet developed into consumerist economies. Compared to them, I am reasonably conventional. I do not live in a shed without heating, nor do I grow food in a kitchen garden. Well, I tried the latter. Indeed, there are stranger people out there than me. But my wasteful lifestyle cannot remain a standard for much longer. People like me should drastically reduce their consumption. Perhaps it is not as hard as it seems. You can see extreme living as the destination of a journey. You are not there yet.
There are many things you can do now. And there is always another step after that. And after you have taken action, you might be as happy or miserable as before. The 80/20 rule states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. And so, excessive consumption might only contribute a small part to our well-being. Many of us see that differently because squandering is a virtue nowadays.
In the consumerist economy, squandering boosts profits and employment. Those who do not waste energy and resources are deplorable because they are poor and cannot do what others can. We envy the rich and famous with their extravagant lifestyles. But if living a modest life is a virtue, and we see squanderers as planetary destroyers or wreckers of God’s creation, poor people become less deplorable. And there may be another benefit. A lot of crime comes from people desiring status goods they cannot afford with an ordinary job. But who needs a Rolex watch or Nike sneakers?
Time is money or convenience
Times have changed. We will not go back to the nineteenth century. So what is extreme living today? Perhaps, you think it is living in a car or a cold home, but that is just appearance. It is about saving the Earth and our future. The consumerist economy is about spending and squandering resources and energy. We should stop doing that as we are running out of resources. If you spend less, you save money. We hear that time is money. But if time is money, money might be time. For instance, if you spend half your income on rent, living in a car saves you lots of money. And you may only have to work half days to make ends meet, so it also saves you time. A tiny house is less extreme but comes from the same logic.
Convenience translates into using energy and resources. Advertisements tell us how easy the product is and the time or trouble it saves you. They do not tell you how many hours you sweat for it. Eating out is convenient, but you have to work for it. As a result, you have less time and crave more convenience. Before you know it, you are like a mouse trapped on a treadmill. If you forego ease, you may have time. In the past, people had time, for instance, to grow their food or mend their clothes. That is a lot of work, but food and clothes were expensive because incomes were low. Buying clothes meant more work, so mending saved time. It may not be a coincidence that poor people often have more time than rich people.
The consumerist economy is about selling stuff. And you work for it. If you do not need a product or a service, the advertising industry gets the order to make you believe you need it. Soon, you may find celebrities flaunting the product on social media. The more you work and buy, the wealthier you appear. It increases GDP and profits, but it harms life on the planet. Businesses make money if you buy their products, while your employer makes money when you go to work. Economists call it creating wealth. That is why time is money. There is no problem with that unless your job or the products you buy are unneeded and use energy and scarce resources. It applies to most people in today’s ‘advanced’ economies, myself included. But worsening the future of our children is not creating wealth. And so, we need a new definition of wealth.
Wealth could be the time we can live off our capital. If you own € 50,000 and need € 10,000 per year, you are better off than someone who has € 100,000 and needs € 40,000 per year. We save to increase our wealth. If we live off the interest, we do not touch our capital. In either case, we forego consumption to invest or live within our means. And even though we do not own it, the most precious resource we live off is Earth. By saving Earth, we create wealth. And so, most activities in the consumerist economy do not create wealth. Extreme living is about saving the planet and providing the children of the Earth with a better future. Sustainable living is living off the interest and keeping the capital intact. Sadly, we live on borrowings and have consumed a significant part of our most precious resource. And so we should restore Earth first. That requires investment hence savings, hence sacrifice.
We prefer a comfortable life, but extreme living could be our near future. And if we do it, we probably will do fine, and it will become normal. If you are honest, you might arrive at this conclusion too. I do not believe we can expect solutions to come from corporations and governments alone. It begins with us. Once we stop buying unnecessary and harmful products, corporations will become less wasteful. And if we do it ourselves, governments do not have to tell us that we should do it. Costs are the best motivator. Low costs inspire us to squander, while high costs motivate us to save. When natural gas prices soared because Russia cut the gas supply to Europe, natural gas consumption in the Netherlands dropped by 30%. My savings were considerable too.
Most of us think saving energy is good, but we do much more if we are rewarded or cannot afford it. High energy prices cause a lot of stress because we are accustomed, or perhaps addicted, to low energy prices. We have to adapt and give up comfort. We have built our lives on cheap fossil fuels. High energy prices cause shock. Some businesses, for instance, bakers, get in trouble, while poor people with high energy bills face stark choices. If energy prices remain high, we have to deal with that and prevent essential businesses from closing and the poor from freezing. But many things we consider necessities nowadays have never been necessities in the past. If resource and energy prices had always been high, we would have different lifestyles and a higher price for a loaf of bread. And it would have been normal rather than extreme living.
Living without a car
My great-grandparents never owned a car. They walked, and perhaps they had a bike. They might have taken the train occasionally. Today, many people work one day per week for their car alone. You can have lots of extra spare time if you ditch your car. You might need that time because the same trip takes longer if you use public transport, but you can ditch that trip too. Why should you go there? In the past, people usually did not go outside their village. Back then, if your aunt celebrated her birthday and lived thirty kilometres away, you didn’t go, and she wasn’t offended. There were festivals in your village you could attend instead. Extreme living is about not doing things that cost energy and resources. Does that sound boring? Sure. But think of what you can do instead, for instance, taking a walk or visiting your neighbours.
Your family and friends expect you to emit greenhouse gases to come to their parties. They might be offended if you forego the occasion to avoid contributing to global warming. That is socially unacceptable, so you have to find other excuses, like feeling sick. Few people want to hear that the Earth is more important than them. But you can also cancel trips without offending someone. Nearly every week, I go to the forest with my wife, which is a thirty minutes drive. After that, we go to a pub before returning home. Alternatively, we could go by bus. That would take fifty minutes. In that case, we must plan the trip as there is one bus every hour. Sometimes the bus might not come, and we must wait another hour. It is an inconvenience that car drivers prefer to avoid. But going to the forest is just walking and watching trees. We can do that near home. And there are pubs in my hometown too. One of them has become the theme of a song.
For many years, I did not own a car while having a job that required it. My employer could send me to jobs all over the country. But I lived in a remote city. I had a job over there, or the job was at least 200 kilometres from home, so I had to stay in a hotel or rent an apartment. In either case, I could go to my work by bike. For long trips, I used the train. Using public transport requires some planning, extra time, and sometimes sacrifice. I remember a thirty-minute walk through the snow to reach the Oracle office in De Meern because buses only go there during rush hour. And all that waiting at train stations. But it saved me money so I could buy a house. After all, time is money.
After I met my wife, we often borrowed her mother’s car for trips, so my life was not entirely without a car from then on. And we rented a car if we needed one. Most people can do without a car most of the time, but it requires planning and sacrifice, for instance, sharing a car with colleagues, finding another job or relocating. The proximity to a public transport hub was a reason for me to buy my house. In areas without public transport, there is room for an alternative. When I was on vacation in Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean, I noticed that van drivers provided this service to the public. They had no timetables, but the driver went off once the van was filled with people. Usually, you had to wait fifteen minutes or so. But the people who used this service had time. In the Summer of 2021, I started using public transport again when travelling alone if it was not too much trouble.
Turning down the heating
My great-grandparents did not have central heating. It was cold inside their home, and it could freeze. They warmed themselves at the stove in the living room, the only warm place in their home. More and more people in the Netherlands only heat the living room. And so do I. A few even turn off the heating entirely and put on a warm vest or a coat. You may not want to go that far, but heating only the living room makes sense. It is the place where you spend most of the time when you are at home.
Others turn down the heating. I do that too. That is healthy for most people, except for the elderly and the sick. I can work at 17 degrees Celsius if I wear extra clothes and thin gloves. Cold fingers are my biggest worry because I work with a computer. If the temperature inside your house goes below 15 degrees Celsius, you may need to ventilate more often. If you feel chilly, you can do some physical exercise. The heat you generate can help to warm the room. In any case, you will feel warmer.
Growing your own food or local farming
There is not much I can tell you about growing food. I have tried it, but it was too much work. The clay soil was not easy to till, and the savings were negligible. If you love gardening, it can be a great hobby, but I do not expect that kitchen gardens can provide for our food requirements. High energy prices may revive farming for local markets and growing crops in their seasons. Agricultural products are bulky. Today, farmers offer their produce to national or even world markets. Transport costs can be substantial. It can make sense for farmers to diversify and grow several crops for local markets.
The distribution of these goods can be an obstacle. In the past, agricultural products were usually sold on local markets. Today, they are sold in supermarkets. Selling local products may require a separate distribution channel, for instance, someone collecting the produce from farmers and running a stand in a shopping mall. For several foods, there are safety considerations and they may require industrial processing. Still, a wide range of foods is suitable for local production and consumption. Governments could relax regulations to promote small-scale local trade, but food safety regulations exist for a reason.
And some crazy things are going on, like growing crops in South America to feed livestock in Europe to produce meat for Asia. That brings us to the damage and suffering caused by meat and dairy consumption. Taking in less is already an improvement if you cannot stop. I forego meat if it is not too much trouble, and I never buy meat for myself. Meat substitutes likely become available that cause not as much animal suffering and damage to the planet. Let’s hope it will happen soon.
Compared to heating, you probably use less energy for showering or bathing. I would not recommend turning yourself into a stinky monster, but if you bathe or shower daily, you can save energy and water by taking shorter showers and doing it less frequently. If you do not sweat, you might not need to shower daily. My great-grandparents did not shower or bathe but may have used a washcloth instead. For that, you need to warm a bit of water, add some soap, and there you are. Compared to taking a bath, you use 99% less water and energy.
There are other savings you can make. You can wear your clothes longer and wash them less frequently. Again, if you do not sweat, you may wear your clothes for a week without becoming smelly. You may scrub under your armpits regularly to lengthen the interval between clothing switches and showers. I do these things too, and two or three short showers a week usually suffice. I think there are a lot of tips on the Internet if you consider going more extreme, for instance, doing the dishes manually, cooking your meals shorter or installing solar panels and adapting your electricity use to the sunshine.
Not throwing away
Pundits talk a lot about recycling, but what about not throwing away? Recycling costs energy, and you do not recover all the waste. For instance, glass must be melted at high temperatures. You can recycle glass by throwing it in a glass container, but recycling still costs a lot of energy. And there is so much packaging. And thirty brands sell the same stuff. They call it freedom of choice. Take, for example, shampoo. You go to a shop and buy a bottle. And you throw away the old bottle. That is normal. A crazy individual might suggest that a supermarket should have a tank and that you can fill your bottle there. Once you think of that, you can imagine a wide range of products supermarkets might distribute in this way. For instance, you might bring a bag with you for apples. Some are doing that already.
There are some considerations. It is better not to mix the shampoo with a detergent. And so, there should be different types of bottles for products that we should not mingle. The hard part is, and that is why consumers might oppose it, you must bring these bottles and bags with you. That is an inconvenience if the shop is far away and you have forgotten some bottles or bags. Having thirty brands is also a waste. You need thirty tanks for shampoo, not to mention thirty trucks delivering shampoo to the distribution centre of your supermarket. If you say that, consumers can get angry. Their identity is attached to the brand of shampoo they use. The advertising industry has done its job well.
But there are some really crazy things going on. Recently, I saw a documentary on Netflix about bottled water. There is a multi-billion industry selling a free commodity. Did you know that drinking the recommended eight daily glasses of water from the tap costs less dan € 1 per year? The same water in bottles costs you more than € 1,000. Did you know that Americans use over 70 billion bottles of water per year? The energy to make them could fuel two million cars. And nearly all those bottles are disposed of, creating an environmental disaster.
It is about marketing and brand identity. Cool dudes and gals cannot go without bottled water. That is what the advertising industry told them. But what if they are mere idiots paying a thousand times more and producing waste that ends up as microplastics in their health foods? Water from the tap is at least 99.9% the same. You might consider giving the money you save from not drinking bottled water to a charity that provides clean drinking water to people in developing countries. They often have no choice but to buy these expensive bottles. Talk about exploiting poor people. They can do a lot with an extra € 1,000 per year.
If it is about being cool
Buying bottled water or choosing between thirty different brands is often about being trendy and cool, at least if we believe the word of the advertising industry. But if wasting nothing becomes the new awesome, then we do not need bottled water or brands. And all those salespeople, influencers, brand managers, bloggers and advertisement sellers may have to find a job that contributes to society. Big internet corporations might stop tracking you, but you may have to pay for their services.