The last day

The limits to growth

Imagine there is a lake in a distant forest. On the surface of the lake a plant is growing. It suffocates all life below. The plant has already been there for a 1,000 days and it grows at a rate of 100% each day. If the lake is already covered half by the plant then how many days are left to save the remaining life in the lake? The correct answer is one day.

The plant doubles in size in one day. As the lake is already half covered, it will be fully covered the next day. It doesn’t matter that the plant was there already for 1,000 days. This is the power of exponential growth. And it ends suddenly. As soon as the lake is fully covered, the plant has no more room for growth. For every leaf the plant adds, another has to die.

The lake represents Earth. The plant represents humanity. The leafs are people like you and me. No more room for growth may mean that for every child that is born, someone has to die. It is estimated that as of 1971 humans use more of the Earth’s resources than nature can replenish. Currently we use one-and-a-half times as much as nature can replace. By 2050 three Earths may be needed to sustain humanity. Make no mistake, this is the “last day”.

The end may come suddenly. Most people don’t see it coming. Some people believe that the end can’t be avoided. They are preparing for the worst. In 1970 a group of scientists called the Club Of Rome predicted “the end” when natural resources would run out. They expected it to happen shortly after the year 2000. It didn’t happen until now, but that doesn’t mean that the current path of humanity can continue for much longer.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend
The end

– The Doors, The End

The depletion of natural resources and the degradation of our planet are amongst the most serious challenges we are facing. If these challenges are not addressed adequately, billions of humans may die of hunger, pollution, resource wars and ecological disasters. Poverty may spread because of the depletion of natural resources.

Perhaps new technologies will become available in the future that can deal with these issues but we don’t know whether that will happen and when. Even if these new technologies become available in the future, we may still have to bridge a gap in time and adapt our lifestyles until that happens.

Climate change

The average temperature on Earth is expected to rise by three degrees Celsius by the year 2100. It has already risen by one degree Celsius since the year 1900. Such a rise in temperature may alter the weather globally and cause massive harvests fails. Polar ice may melt so that the sea level will rise and low-lying territory where more than 500 million people currently live, may be lost. The main cause of the temperature rise is our use of fossil fuels.

There is a lot of uncertainty about the accuracy of the estimates regarding the consequences of climate change as was the case with the predictions made by the Club Of Rome. The exact impact of rising carbon dioxide levels on the weather is hard to predict. The estimates of the climate scientists are the best we currently have as were the estimates made by the Club Of Rome in 1970. Probably they are right but not accurate. This means that human civilisation is on the brink.

Ignoring climate change is like playing Russian roulette with the future of humanity without knowing exactly how many bullets are in the revolver, but sensing that it is at least two out of six. Taking action may result in wasting an unprecedented amount of effort and resources on combating climate change if these predictions are wrong, but you need to pull the trigger to know that.

It is hard to imagine how bad it will get and it is even harder to imagine that it may be happening very soon. Drastic actions like ending frivolous uses of fossil fuels and investing massively in clean sources of energy appear necessary. Several scientists believe that nuclear energy is an option. There may be accidents and dangerous waste, but they believe that nuclear energy will cause fewer deaths than fossil fuels.

Going nuclear?

An incident in my life makes me cautious about nuclear energy. In 1994 I met my wife Ingrid. In 1995 we spent our first holidays together in the Dutch province of Zeeland. During one of our trips we came across a village named Kwadendamme. The English translation of this name is Evildam. Ingrid was driving. Suddenly she hit the brakes. I was lucky to have my seatbelts fastened. “Antiques,” she cried. By the side of the road was a small shabby shed with a sign “King’s Antiques”. Inside were piles of stuff. An elderly couple entered the shed via a back door. They may have been in their seventies or eighties. They may have the only real antiques in the shop.

Ingrid was browsing the shelves and soon she found a doll. 185 guilders (85 euros) was the price tag. Ingrid kept on staring in bewilderment. “This doll isn’t very old but the price reflects that,” the old lady said. Later Ingrid told me that she had seen this doll a few years earlier in a store chain. Back then the price was 9 guilders (4 euros). We were about to leave, but then the old man said: “Don’t go yet, there’s another hall.” He pointed at the back door. Behind the shed was a small place and another shed. It may have been a henhouse previously. I could hardly stand upright in there. It was filled with even more stuff.

Just after we left Kwadendamme we found ourselves on route N666 (National Route 666) to Borssele. Back then I already found this to be a bit peculiar, not only because of the route N666 passing Kwadendamme (Evildam), but even more so because it was the route to Borssele, which is the site of the only remaining Dutch nuclear power plant. The N666 ends near Borssele next to a village named ‘s Heerenhoek, which can be translated into The Lord’s Corner. With the benefit of hindsight, this probably is not a coincidence, and The Maker may have left this mark.

The other Dutch nuclear power plant was located in Dodewaard. It had been closed in 1997. Dodewaard can be translated into Death Holm, which is a bit spooky considering that Route 666 leads to Borssele. The Dodewaard area is 66.5 square kilometres, close enough to 66.6 to be a bit eerie. If this is an omen with regard to nuclear energy, it isn’t a good one. I would therefore not recommend using nuclear energy using the technologies that are currently available. It may be more dangerous than scientists believe.

Nuclear fusion can be a lot safer than nuclear fission, which is the type of nuclear energy that is currently available. If something goes wrong with nuclear fusion, the process dies out. It can’t go out of control like nuclear fission. The nuclear waste would also be more manageable. Nuclear waste from fission will be dangerous for thousands of years, while nuclear waste from fusion is safe after one hundred years.

There may be energy from nuclear fusion within a few decades, but that’s still far from certain. It is extremely challenging to generate energy from nuclear fusion. It requires working with temperatures of 150 million degrees Celsius. Scientists now estimate that nuclear fusion may be available by 2050, but only if the technical issues are solved.

Nuclear fusion could bring us unlimited energy at virtually no cost. In that case it would be possible to recycle much more than we currently do as the value of the recycled materials is now often lower than the cost of the energy needed to reclaim them. Even though developments in the field of nuclear fusion seem promising, it is still far from certain that it will be available soon. And as long as it isn’t available, living within the limits of our planet may require considerable sacrifices.

Mass extinction

Climate change gets a lot of attention but there are several other environmental disasters happening at the same time. Many species of plants and animals have become extinct or are on the brink of extinction because humans destroy their habitat. On average, there was 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in the last 40 years.1 There is hardly any wildlife left.

To put it into perspective, one can compare the total weight of all humans and their domesticated animals with the remaining wildlife, which are all the wild animals except insects and microbes. The seven billion humans on this planet together weigh 300 million tonnes. All the domesticated animals, such as pigs, cows, horses and sheep, together weigh 700 million tonnes. By comparison, all the remaining large wildlife on planet Earth, such as lions, elephants, whales, crocodiles and penguins, together weigh less than 100 million tonnes.2

And then there is pollution. The list with problems caused by the exponential growth of human activities is long. This is perhaps not a complete list:
– depletion of natural resources, especially fossil fuels;
– shortage of drinking water;
– air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination and noise;
– deforestation and loss of ecosystems that sustain global atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide balance;
– loss of arable land and a growth of deserts;
– increased chance of new epidemics;
– low life expectancy in countries with fastest growing populations;
– unhygienic living conditions for many because of water resource depletion and discharge of raw sewage and waste disposal;
– more crime rate as people revert to stealing in order to survive;
– conflict over scarce resources leading to wars;
– fewer personal freedoms and more restrictive laws.

Why produce garbage

Why produce garbage if it is thrown away?

Wealthy countries are throw-away societies. There is an excessive use of disposable items. Why should we recycle garbage when we can use more durable goods? Why are there so many packaging materials? For instance, liquids be transported in tanks and consumers could fill up their bottles at the supermarket. Why isn’t anybody dong this? Marketeers believe that the packaging and not the content is what makes a product unique. This is irrational. The amount of packaging can be reduced significantly.

There may be no other option than to curb polluting activities, the consumption of raw materials and carbon emissions. Frivolous consumption may need to be banned if it uses too many scarce resources. Harmful activities that are difficult to end may need to be taxed and the proceeds of these taxes may be used to reduce taxes on labour, so that labour can replace energy and materials consumption where possible. These changes can make it more attractive to recycle and to make products longer lasting. Tariffs may need to be put on products from countries that do not comply to these standards.

Population control

A mother in waiting once asked the biologist Midas Dekkers what she could do to raise her child as environmentally friendly as possible. Dekkers then said that nothing affects the environment more badly than having a child. For the environment it is better to cut down one hundred hectares of tropical rainforest than to have a child, he added. It may be a good idea to limit the number of children, for instance to one child per couple.

Apart from people wanting to have children, many poor people seek security. They worry about making ends meet. The depletion of natural resources is probably not on their mind. The only long-term plan of many poor people is having children who can care for them when they are old. Even though poor people do not use a lot of resources, they often have many children, and if we like them to prosper, that could be a problem.

If the rights of a couple to have a child can be sold, wealthy people may bid up the price of these rights, and poor people can have a pension out of selling them. There are some ethical issues with such a measure as it may result in poor people having fewer children and people from specific ethnicities opting for this more often than others. The limits of our planet are such a serious issue that these consequences may need to be accepted. And on the bright side, fewer children may be raised in poverty.

The food situation

In the face of the unpredictable climate and the possibility of massive harvest failures it is wise to look at the food situation. currently, the available food stocks can feed humanity for a few months. Famine is just around the corner. It therefore seems wise to heed the advice Joseph gave to the Pharaoh, which is to store massive amounts of food for bad times. Perhaps a Natural Money currency backed by stored food can be issued to pay for the food storage.

The food situation requires another look at meat consumption. Animals used for consumption eat food humans could eat. It takes three to seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat. There are other disadvantages to meat. Eating meat causes animal suffering as many of these animals live in factory farms. It will be hard to change human diets unless good substitutes for meat become available, but reducing meat consumption may be feasible in the short term.

Nothing but flowers

The challenge is so huge that it seems impossible. It can only succeed when we believe that we can make it happen and that we are going to make it happen. In the past no appropriate action has been taken, so extremely drastic measures may be inevitable. It probably will not be easy to make you accept the proposed measures. They may require a sacrifice you never imagined you would make. The economy may become like a wartime economy where every scrap is saved for victory.

The measures can have undesirable side-effects. For instance, China had a one-child-policy for decades. Many parents preferred a son so baby girls were often killed. Nowadays many men in China can’t find a wife. Another example is tropical rainforests making room for palm oil plantations that produce ‘renewable energy’. We need to deal with undesirable side-effects as soon as they emerge.

Even when everything ends well, you may not be satisfied with the outcome. The Garden Of Eden was a Paradise for Eve and Adam, but it may not be great for most of us. We will probably adapt over time. If you have trouble adapting, you can think of the children of the future. They won’t remember this era from personal experience. They may be happy.

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
Waterfalls
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?

[…]

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
You got it, you got it
I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
You got it, you got it
We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
You got it, you got it
This was a discount store,
Now it’s turned into a cornfield
You’ve got it, you’ve got it
Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle

– Talking Heads, Nothing But Flowers

Featured image: Judgement Day. Royal Museum Of Fine Arts of Belgium. Rama (2008). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Other image: Why produce garbage when it is thrown away all the same. Loesje. Loesje.org.

1. Living Planet Report. World Wildlife Fund (2018). [link]
2. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
3. The Future of Money: Creating New Wealth, Work and a Wiser World. Lietaer, Bernard (2001). Random House.

What’s the use of politics?

Politics is worthless many people agree. Hence, the use of politics may need some clarification. Humans became the dominant animal species because they cooperate in large numbers in a flexible way. This makes us unique in the animal world. Some animals such as ants and bees can cooperate in large numbers, but they are not flexible in the ways they do that. Their cooperation is based on their genetic code. Social animals like chimpanzees, elephants, wolves and dolphins can cooperate more flexibly, but not in very large numbers. Cooperation in a chimpanzee band, an elephant band or a wolf pack is based on intimate familiarity of the band members.1

Language is the main tool for human cooperation. Animals have languages too. Animals can communicate about the whereabouts of food or enemies. Only, human language can be used for many more things. Most notably, humans can gossip and exchange information about what other people are doing and thinking. This gives them better information about other people in the group so that they can develop more sophisticated ways of cooperating. Apes like chimpanzees, baboons and gorillas all show interest in social information, but they have trouble gossiping because their languages don’t allow for that.1

The truly unique feature of human language is not gossip, but its ability to transmit information about imaginary things. All forms of large-scale human cooperation, such as nation states, churches, cities and corporations, are rooted in fictions that exist only in the collective imagination of human beings. Myths, like the existence of gods, laws, corporations and nation states, gave humans the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in very large numbers. For example, churches are based on common religious beliefs. Religious beliefs make it possible that Christians who never met before can do things together like going on a crusade or building a hospital.1

Religions and ideologies have a lot in common. You could either call them myths or models of reality. Religions as well as ideologies maintain there is a superhuman order of universal laws that govern the world, which should guide human actions. For example, Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama. Communists believe that the laws of nature were discovered by Karl Marx. Like other religions, Communism had its holy scriptures and prophetic books such as Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which prophesied that history would soon end with the inevitable victory of the proletariat over the capitalist system.1

What does this have to do with politics? In democracies people can decide about what needs to be done and determine who should do what. Politics involves discussing collective imaginations such as laws, nation states, religions and ideologies to determine what course of action should be taken as well as gossip to determine who should do what, for instance who is going to be the leader of a political party or a nation. Many people nowadays believe that democracy is the best political system, even though democracy has some disadvantages.

Politicians may not do what they promised their voters to do. There might be intense political struggle. And politics might result in poor decisions when voters don’t like the measures that need to be taken. In times of upheaval people might opt for someone who promises to take drastic action, for instance when the economy has collapsed or when insurgents and criminals wreak havoc. The most notorious example in history was the rise of Adolf Hitler. The suffering of the Germans during the Great Depression and the inability of politicians to relieving their plight helped Hitler to grab power.

Featured image: House Of Commons in the United Kingdom. Parliament.uk. [link]

1. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

US Declaration Of Independence

What a social order needs to be

A social order is an imagined order. Humans imagine that people have rights and are part of social classes. There has been a wide variety of social orders throughout history.1 For instance, you can compare the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law from 1750 BC, with the United States Declaration of Independence from 1776 AD.

The Code of Hammurabi declares that the Babylonian social order is based on universal and eternal principles of justice dictated by the gods. It divides people into three classes, nobility, ordinary people and slaves. The code then sets out all kinds of laws and punishments for transgressions. The United States Declaration of Independence begins with the following sentence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

On closer inspection 3,500 years didn’t make a lot of difference. The eternal principles are replaced by self-evident truths and the order still needed divine support. There is no mentioning of classes in the United States Declaration of Independence. All men are created equal. But the devil is in the detail. Women and slaves did not have these unalienable rights when the constitution was written. Only nobility was done away with as businesspeople had become the new ruling class. It is often the ruling class that invents a social order and benefits the most from it. In the 200 years that followed slavery was abolished and women received equal rights before the law.

Saying that people are equal and have rights is problematic. People are not equal in their abilities as well as their opportunities. For example, we can imagine the right to live but we all die. Some people die young and some live very long. Still, we imagine that people have equal rights like the Babylonians imagined that people are divided into classes.

A social order is a collective imagination. It doesn’t exist in reality as such, but only in the minds of groups of people. If people agree on a social order, whether it is a division into classes or the notion that everyone is created equal, it can be a stable order. Social orders bring peace and stability. In most cases social orders don’t only benefit the ruling class. If that were true, people wouldn’t support the social order. If people agree on the social order, they can cooperate more easily.

Featured image: United States Declaration of Indepence

1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

Wisdom of crowds and mass delusions

The quality of decisions in democracies depends on how large groups of people form their opinions. In this respect there are two opposing ideas, the wisdom of crowds and mass delusions. The wisdom of crowds was first discovered in 1906 by Francis Galton. He was visiting a livestock fair where an ox was on display. Villagers were invited to guess the animal’s weight. Nearly 800 people participated in the contest. No-one guessed the weight of 1,198 pounds exactly, but the average guess of 1,197 pounds was almost perfectly right.

At least in specific cases groups of individuals can on aggregate assess a situation quite good and better than nearly every individual on his or her own. The average guess included the extremes on both sides. Galton was impressed. He came to believe that this was an argument in favour of democracy. It suggests that if all views are reflected in parliament, it can result in good decisions.

The wisdom of crowds depends on individuals having different backgrounds and making their assessments independently so that they look at the issue in different ways. The more people are alike or the more they influence each other, the more they can become prone to group think so that the wisdom of the crowd disappears.1 In extreme cases this can lead to mass delusions like stock market bubbles.2

Diversity of opinions is a reasons why decision-making in democracies can be better than other forms of decision-making. Mass delusions are a reason why this is not always the case. The greatest mass delusion humanity is suffering from currently is not dealing adequately with the limits of our planet. Our planet cannot support our life styles for much longer. This information is freely available to everyone.

So why don’t people in democracies act? The required measures affect us all directly and significantly. They would require considerable sacrifice, while we won’t feel the consequences of our inaction right now. Most people have a short-term bias and value the present more than the future, most notably a distant and uncertain future. And no country can take action alone as that wouldn’t make a difference.

1. The Wisdom of Crowds. James Surowiecki (2004). Doubleday, Anchor.
2. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Charles Mackay (1841). Richard Bentley, London.

New World Order

The direction of history

We are heading towards a single integrated world order, sometimes called the New World Order. Humanity is converging in three major ways, intellectually, economically and politically. The spread of religions and ideologies made it possible to unify different peoples under the same set of ideas. Trade and money enabled the cooperation between strangers all over the globe. And the increased cooperation between nation states is paving the way for a closer integration of governments.1

The world is now run by a global elite of business people, politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, journalists, scientists, opinion makers, writers and artists. No matter where they live, whether it is New York, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Dubai or Cape Town, these people increasingly have the same interests, the same viewpoints about the world, the same culture, and increasingly live similar lifestyles. The individuals in these elites have more in common with each other than with their fellow countrymen.1

The need for global cooperation

Global issues such as climate change, human rights, international crime and financial markets require international agreement and cooperation. The Old World Order was based on the sovereignty of nation states, which means that, at least in theory, there was no higher authority than the nation state. All nation states were equally sovereign, at least in theory. Their power was restricted only by the treaties they signed.

Nowadays nation states are increasingly under pressure to conform to global standards as actions of one nation affect other nations as well. The global elite makes decisions on these issues. The elite believes that it acts to the benefit of mankind and that we need more international cooperation or even a global government. This is reflected in the words of the British politician Denis Healey, who had been involved in Bilderberg Conferences in which members of the elite gathered in secrecy. He told the Guardian:

To say we were striving for a one-world government is exaggerated, but not wholly unfair. Those of us in Bilderberg felt we couldn’t go on forever fighting one another for nothing and killing people and rendering millions homeless. So we felt that a single community throughout the world would be a good thing.2

It is hard to get a clear picture of the influence of meetings like Bilderberg. It seems that these gatherings influence the political agenda. For instance the European Union has been discussed at Bilderberg and it may well be that these meetings helped to create the European Union by making the elite agree on the agenda. As Europe had just been ravaged by two world wars, it probably seemed a good plan.

Neoliberalism or neofeudalism?

The share of the wealthy of global wealth and income has increased in recent decades. A 2017 report from Oxfam points out that the world’s eight wealthiest people own as much as the poorest 50%.3 Until now there is no global government or binding international treaties so nation states end up competing to please large corporations and billionaires. There is no effective way to reclaim illicit profits and stolen funds.

In the 1970s the situation in Western Europe and the United States was different. Most people were middle class. Since then a growing divide between the rich and the poor emerged. This coincided with the rise of neoliberalism, which is the idea that more should be left to the markets and that governments shouldn’t interfere.

Neoliberalism emerged in the 1970s when the ruling class was in trouble. The economy was stagnating. Unions had a lot of power. Businesses were struggling because of the competition of low-wage countries. The elite started to promote freedom of the markets, privatisation, entrepreneurial spirit and individual liberty. The power of labour was curtailed and wealth inequality began to increase.4

Good paying jobs moved to low wage countries because of international competition. People in emerging economies like China and India saw their living standards increase. The question is how the living standard in Europe and the United States would have developed if these neoliberal reforms had not taken place, but the loss of security and perspective contributed to the rise of populism in Europe and the United States.

Deep state

Politicians come and go but many officials remain within the governmental institutions for a longer period of time. Most of these people aren’t democratically elected. Often they are technocrats who believe to work interest of the country. They may obstruct decisions made by democratically elected officials. That may not always be bad as technocrats tend to have better knowledge of the field they are working in than politicians.

The deep state also consists of interest groups that have captured the government to profiteer at the expense of the taxpayers. One can think of lobbyist groups and think tanks who represent interests that live off government contracts or benefit from favourable legislation, for instance  the Military Industrial Complex. These people work covertly via social networks to influence politicians and other officials.

Conspiracy theory

Some people claim the elite has a secret plan to create a New World Order where ordinary humans will be mere serfs. Rather than seeing the emerging oligarchy as a result of social and economic developments, they believe it was deliberately planned. This plan is believed to be worked out in secretive meetings like Bilderberg.

Corruption in politics can be so pervasive that people seek refuge in conspiracy theories. In the United States politicians need to fund their campaigns. They often accept money from large corporations and wealthy individuals so that they represent their wealthy donors rather than the people electing them.

Conspiracy theorists tend to mischaracterize facts and intentions in order to spin them into their narrative. On the other hand, traditional media sometimes ignore their journalistic duties by under reporting issues that can threaten the social order. With the advent of internet and social media, everyone can start a website and become a source of information and opinion. And so traditional media are losing their grip on the public.

The rise of China and India

Half the world’s population lives in Asia. In China and India live nearly four times as many people as in the European Union and the United States. The importance of the European Union and the United States is declining. If current trends continue, China will be the most powerful nation soon. The Chinese economy may be the biggest in the world already. If India is going to follow a similar path, it may become China’s main contender.

Chinese leaders are planning for a New World Order under Chinese leadership. Chinese policy includes economic colonisation of developing countries like the United States did previously. For instance, China grants loans to countries to build their infrastructure. If these countries can’t repay these loans, China may take possession of assets like mines, harbours and corporations as payment.

A better political system

The elite hardly cares for ordinary people. Individual members of the elite may care, but as a group, the elite behaves as if they don’t care. The rise of populism in Europe and the United States signal a growing awareness of  this issue. The same applies to humans caring for the planet. Individual people may care, but as a group humans behave as if they don’t care at all. More democracy can help to solve the first issue. Taking on the second issue might require a form of dictatorship.

Direct democracy as practised in Switzerland can be helpful to curtail the power of the elite. It gives the citizens more control over their government. If this power is used wisely, which may require a culture of compromise and an adequate education of the citizens, this can work out well. In Switzerland people have confidence in their government while political debates tend to be rational. A world-wide adoption of direct democracy may ensure that people are more in control.

1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
2. Who pulls the strings? (part 3). The Guardian (2001). [link]
3. Just 8 men own same wealth as half the world. Oxfam (2017). [link]
4. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. David Harvey. Oxford University Press (2005).