Chris Thomson's three-part series on Intelligent Simplicity
#1 of 3: Better or Worse
Note to the reader: This is the first in a three-part series on intelligent simplicity. In this part I set the stage, and make the case that, on balance, things are getting worse. As we shall see, the reasons for this run deep. If we want things to get better, any changes we make will have to be equally deep.
Part One: Better or Worse?
“The world is getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster”
I met Tom Atlee in 2001 at a conference on the shores of Lake Tahoe in Nevada. Although I cannot remember much about the conference, I remember Tom vividly, partly because he looked just like Santa Claus, but mainly because of the words I have just quoted.
They made a big impression on me at the time, and they still do. I cannot think of a more succinct way of describing the state of the world today.
Many things are indeed getting better, and many are getting worse, and it is all happening faster. It is both educational and sobering to make two lists - what you think is getting better, and what you think is getting worse.
A central question for our time surely is: on balance, are things getting better or worse? I find it a little confusing that the two lists I made are both very long.
Steven Pinker believes that things are getting better. You can get details of his thinking in his book “Enlightenment Now”. The clue is in the title. He believes that the Enlightenment got us to where we are now, and that its ideas and practices will continue to bring good things.
I agree with the first half of this. The Enlightenment did bring good things, but I do not think that it will continue to do so. So what exactly was the Enlightenment?
The Enlightenment (roughly 1740 – 90) gave us all things modern – modern economics, modern science, modern medicine, and modern government. Collectively, this is known as “modernity”. For a long time, this went well, and things did get better for a lot of people – better health, longer lives, higher living standards, knowledge and education, and a reasonable level of freedom and democracy.
There is no doubt that Pinker has this part correct. However, I disagree with him on two points.
- First, I believe that, overall, things are getting worse.
- And second, I do not think that the Enlightenment is the solution he makes it out to be. This is because the Enlightenment has a dark side.
At the time, the Enlightenment really did bring light. It took us beyond superstition and away from the authority of the Church. It ushered in modern science and the Age of Reason. This in turn gave us the technology that makes our lives more comfortable. These were undoubtedly leaps in the right direction. The problem is that all the progress was underpinned by a particular worldview, usually known as the materialist worldview. I think it fair to say that its essential features are:
- The universe and everything in it, ourselves included, is physical, and only physical. Anything that seems not to be physical, such as consciousness, will eventually be shown to be physical in nature
- The universe and everything in it can usefully be regarded as machines…very sophisticated machines, but machines nonetheless. This is the “mechanistic worldview”. It is a strong influence in the world today
- The universe has no intrinsic meaning, because it began for no apparent reason. And life on this planet happened by chance. This suggests that we human beings also have no intrinsic meaning or purpose, except perhaps to replicate ourselves, as in “the selfish gene”
- Matter is primary, and consciousness is secondary. Consciousness is merely a product of matter. Scientists call it an “epiphenomenon of the brain”.
This worldview persists today despite profound discoveries in physics and biology that suggest that the universe is anything but a machine, that “chance” lies only in the eye of the beholder, that the universe is rich in intrinsic meaning, and that consciousness may be a fundamental feature of the universe, possibly even more fundamental than matter.
However, the classic science worldview remains so powerful and influential that all metaphysical, religious and philosophical claims that contradict it tend to be rejected. It rules our lives in more ways than we probably realise. More than anything else, it rules our lives through materialism, which seems to be the dominant ideology in the world today.
Our economics, our politics, our education, our health systems and our culture are steeped in material values and in the behaviours that flow from these. It is a short step from materialism to “economism”, one of the most pernicious features of modernity.
Economism is the tendency to view everything through the lens of economics, and to believe that economic considerations rank higher than all other ones.
- It is a powerful influence in business and political circles.
- It is significant that some people refer to countries as “economies” or “markets”, and that, when reporting natural disasters, some news channels mention the value of property damaged before they mention the number of people killed or injured.
In non-modern societies, economics is a means to an end. It is in service to some greater purpose. In contrast, the modern world seems to have made economics the end itself.
If our fundamental beliefs are materialist, then our idea of what constitutes “progress” is bound to reflect this. Although this is starting to change, the main indicator of “progress” in the modern world is still economic growth. Not only is growth thought to be desirable in itself, it is seen by many as the universal panacea that will eventually cure poverty, disease, unhappiness and many other ills. All we need is more money!
The reality is that there is nothing inherently desirable about economic growth. It simply means that we spent more money this year on goods and services than we spent last year.
- It does not tell us anything about the true value or quality of these additional goods and services.
- It does not tell us anything about the human, social and environmental costs of providing them. It does not tell us anything about income distribution and social justice.
- Just as important, it does not tell us whether we are getting happier, wiser, healthier and more fulfilled, which is surely the point of it all.
The principal measure of economic growth - GDP - treats the good, the bad and the ugly as if they were all good. So long as money legally changes hands, it counts towards GDP. If there is more crime to be dealt with, more divorces to be processed, more pollution to be cleaned up, more illness to be treated, and more debt being serviced, then all of these count towards economic growth. In fact, nothing boosts growth more than a war or a natural disaster.
There are much better indicators of progress. They give us a more accurate picture of what is really happening.
The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) is an excellent example. It was created in 1995. In contrast to GDP, GPI subtracts the costs of dealing with crime, divorce, and pollution; adds in unpaid housework and volunteer work; and takes account of income distribution and resource depletion.
At present, GPI is being actively developed in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and in some states of the USA. It has made no impact whatsoever in the UK, which is still firmly wedded to the outdated goal of economic growth.
It is very significant that although GDP and GPI grew at about the same rate in the UK, USA, and Germany until the early 1970’s, after that point GPI levelled off or declined, while GDP kept growing.
If the GPI is a better indicator of what is really happening, this tells us that, although the economy was growing, things were getting worse overall.
Comparisons between the GPI and GDP tell us that, after a certain point in the development of any economy, the pursuit of economic growth causes at least as many problems as it purports to solve. In economically developed countries, promoting more growth in the hope that it will enable us to solve our problems is the equivalent of using petrol to try to put out a fire. This comparison, between GDP and the GPI, adds weight to my contention that Pinker is correct about some things, but probably wrong about the overall trends.
Far from being a universal panacea, the relentless drive for economic growth on the part of governments, corporations and individuals may turn out to be a universal cause of problems, because it brings pressures that damage people, communities and the planet.
- There are pressures to work harder and to consume more. That causes stress and illness.
- There are pressures to exploit and cut corners in the interests of making profit. That causes injustice and corruption.
- There are pressures to acquire money and possessions illegally, if other means are unavailable. That causes crime.
As for the planet, it should be abundantly clear by now that it cannot tolerate these pressures. If economic growth is the central purpose of the modern world, then we are in deep trouble, because it is a purpose that has no heart and soul, and does not reflect our true humanity.
In his book Growth Fetish, Clive Hamilton reminds us that: “Growth not only fails to make people contented; it destroys many of the things that do. Growth fosters empty consumerism, degrades the natural environment, weakens social cohesion and corrodes character. Yet we are told, ad nauseam, that there is no alternative.”
Of course, there is an alternative. It is sustainable development. But not the kind of sustainable development that many people seem to have in mind.
What politicians, business people, and the media have in mind when they use the words “sustainable development” is yet more economic growth, but in ways that do less damage to the environment.
I have to tell you that that kind of sustainable development is simply not sustainable! Why? Because it is rooted in the mindset of growth, with all the negative connotations we have just noted. We do not need more. We need better!
-[We will explore this idea, of better rather than more, in the next article.]-
The consequences of rampant materialism are probably evident to you. I would just like to round off this brief impression of the state of the world by outlining the three big crises of our time. In my opinion, they are the main reason for doubting Steven Pinker’s optimistic outlook.
The environment crisis
This should be fairly well-known, so I will just summarise its two main features. These are climate change, and the decline of this planet’s life-support systems.
If you are still not sure that the climate is changing, you have not been paying attention. Here in Europe at the time of writing (August 2019), we have already had record high temperatures this year, in the UK, France, Germany and elsewhere. Although I live high in the Pyrenees, shielded from extremes of heat, people here tell me that it is getting noticeably warmer every year.
Nearly all the experts have been telling us for quite a long time that we are dangerously close to the tipping point, the point when life will become unbearable in many parts of the world. This will precipitate migration on a scale we have not seen since Europeans flooded to the New World in the 19th Century. Quite apart from the insupportable heat, and the effect this will have on sea levels and agriculture, mass migration alone poses a very serious challenge. But there is more.
You may not be aware that all this planet’s life-support systems are in serious decline, all of them. They are:
Clean air, clean water, forests, topsoil, aquifers, fisheries, wetlands, and biodiversity
All of these precious, finite resources are in decline. As always, we are the cause of this. No other species on this planet behaves as stupidly as we do. There are a lot of good sources on this. Here is an article from the Guardian newspaper:
Although the planet’s life support systems are often discussed item by item, they are rarely discussed as a whole. When I say they are in serious decline, I am being very serious.
If we continue to behave as we do, it will not be too long before there are no support-systems for life on this planet. The “most intelligent species” will have destroyed them all, with its greed and short-sightedness.
We need to keep reminding ourselves that we are the cause. It is our “normal” daily behaviour that is pushing the natural world to its limits.
All the good things Pinker mentions in his book (link above) would be wiped out if this one crisis continues to get worse. This is even more true when we factor in the other two crises.
The population crisis
There are far too many of us. This is a big problem for several reasons, but mainly because, as a species, we overuse and misuse the finite resources of this planet. If we lived wisely and ecologically, it would be less of a problem. But we don’t, so it is a problem
I recall looking out from my hotel window in Beijing in 2006. I overlooked one of the main routes into the city from the north. The traffic was in three lanes, and almost at a standstill. It was 5-30 in the morning! That’s when the population crisis really came home to me. It is sobering to reflect that the population of Beijing continues to grow, and the number of cars in the city even more.
Today – it is 2019 – there are about 7.7 billion of us, and this is increasing by about 70 million a year. To put this in perspective, this is an additional UK every year.
I challenge you to try to visualise this.
If you Google “world population clock”, you will probably be shocked at how fast the human population is growing every day. I asked Google how many cities there are with populations over 1 million. This is part of the reply…
- China 102
- India 46
- Brazil 17
- Russia 15
- Japan 12
- Indonesia 11
- Pakistan 10
- USA 10
- Mexico 10
- Nigeria 5
- Vietnam 5
How this information affects you will probably depend on your age. I lived in Glasgow when I was a boy in the 50s. With a population then of just over a million, it was widely known as the “second city of the empire”, meaning the British Empire.
That was when Glasgow built about 40% of the world’s big ships and the world population was about 2.5 billion. How things have changed! These days, hidden in the world’s vast population, Glasgow feels like a small backwater.
The environment crisis is serious enough in itself. When we add the population crisis, we are in dangerous waters. They get very dangerous indeed when we add the third crisis.
The nuclear crisis
This refers to the possibility of nuclear war. These days, the possibility is higher than ever.
There is a general sense that, with Trump in the White House, Putin in the Kremlin, and China becoming more assertive, the risk of nuclear war is greater that it has been since the Cuban missile crisis, some 60 years ago. Indeed, there is a clock that measures this.
I am indebted to Noam Chomsky for directing my attention to the Doomsday Clock. You can explore this on the internet.
On this clock midnight is the hour of global catastrophe, environmental or nuclear, or a combination of both.
In my lifetime, 73 years, the clock has been at 2 minutes to midnight only twice, in 1953 and 2018. 1953 was when the first H-bombs were exploded. I trust that 2018 speaks for itself!
Here is George Monbiot in the Guardian of 7th August 2019. What he says is very relevant:
“The tragedy of our times is that the gathering collapse of our life support systems has coincided with the age of public disservice. Just as we need to rise above self-interest and short-termism, governments around the world now represent the meanest and dirtiest of special interests. In the United Kingdom, the US, Brazil, Australia and many other nations, plutocrats rule.”
I recommend that you find and read the whole article. Even if plutocrats did not rule, the “solutions” put forward to solve our crises will almost inevitably fail, for reasons that are well worth discussing.
Too Little, Too Late
A classic example of this is the attitude of many governments and organisations to climate change. It is a long time since the Rio Earth Summit, in 1992.
You may recall that warm words were spoken, and hopes were raised. Nearly 30 years later, not much has changed. Although cars today are much cleaner, there are more than ever – over one billion. As if this were not enough, we fly more than ever – over 100,000 flights every day of the year.
In response to overwhelming evidence that the climate is changing dangerously, politicians and others fly to luxurious venues, often in private jets, and set targets for 2030 or 2050, when it will be too late. It is only when their own livelihoods or reputations are threatened that they act immediately, and seriously. Sadly, we keep electing these politicians.
Treating the Symptoms
Many organisations and governments try to solve problems by addressing the symptoms rather than the causes. This is neither effective nor sustainable in the long run.
Treating symptoms may make things seem better for a while. It may even give the impression that the problem has been cured. But if the causes are not addressed, the problem will return, often worse.
The analogy with medical treatment should be obvious. It is rare that we identify and treat the deeper, root causes of ill health, which might turn out to be cultural, emotional and psychological in nature.
Typically, we deal with ill health, poverty, crime and pollution as if they were the problems themselves, when in fact they are usually symptoms of things going wrong at a deeper level. They reflect a deeper malaise.
We may not fully understand the nature of the deeper malaise, but if we want to solve these things once and for all, we will eventually have to deal with it. Crime, for example, is typically addressed by recruiting more police, building more prisons and imposing tougher sentences, all because criminal behaviour is seen as the main problem rather than as a symptom of something deeper.
The same is true of health policy. The main focus is on the medical treatment of symptoms after people have fallen ill. That is a costly, inefficient way of doing things. It would save a lot of time, money and suffering if our main focus was on promoting good health and preventing people from falling ill in the first place. And if people did slip through a better health promotion net, it still makes more sense to identify and treat the underlying causes of illness. Comparatively speaking, we spend negligible sums on promoting health and preventing illness.
Prevention is obviously better than cure, but if you have to cure, make sure you are addressing the root causes. Having said this, the symptomatic approach is undoubtedly appropriate when the symptoms have become life threatening or otherwise intolerable. But we should remind ourselves that it is we who have allowed them to reach that point.
The “deeper causes” approach to solving and avoiding problems brings many benefits. Here are some of them:
- It is more effective because it gets to the underlying causes.
- It is less expensive in terms of money, time, effort and other resources because it is based on simple common sense and thoughtfulness and may not need much technology or legislation or management.
- It is empowering because it encourages people to be self-reliant and knowledgeable and to take responsibility for their own lives.
- It is sustainable in the long term because the symptoms (i.e., the “problems”) will not keep on recurring.
While it is true that good management, the wise use of technology, and well-drafted laws all have their place, it is equally true that they can be expensive, time-consuming, and complicated. A simpler, more direct approach is usually more effective and much less expensive. To illustrate what I mean, here is a true story.
A salesman in the United States had spent years trying to get a meeting with the Boeing Aircraft Company, but in vain. One day, out of desperation, he decided just to turn up at their premises in Seattle. His arrival happened to coincide with a crisis.
This was in the 1960s, at a time when the first 747 Jumbo Jets had been produced. There was a crisis because Boeing was unable to get a licence from the Federal Aviation Authority. Without this licence, the planes could not leave the ground. The one thing holding up the licence was the need to know the weight of the planes.
Boeing could not figure out how to weigh such big planes. Our salesman thought he knew a cheap, simple solution, and he eventually managed to persuade some very sceptical managers to give him a tape measure, a long length of string, and tyre pressure gauge. Can you guess what he did?
He led the managers out on to the tarmac and proceeded to wrap the string tightly around the base of one of the plane’s tyres. He was then able to calculate the surface area of the part of the tyre that was touching the ground. He then took the pressure of the tyre. He did this for several tyres, so as to work out an average for all the tyres. The only thing left to do was to count the total number of tyres and then do a quick calculation. This gave him the approximate weight of the plane. Boeing got their FAA licence, and he got his contract.
This is an excellent example of intelligent simplicity. Another way of expressing this is “less is better”, which is the subject of the next article.
Chris Thomson was a lawyer and economist in Scotland until the mid-80s, when he was asked to chair the Natural Medicines Commission in the UK. He then trained as a psychotherapist in London, before joining the Scottish Council Foundation, a think-tank in Edinburgh, set up in anticipation of devolution. From there he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he advised multinational corporations on various moral issues.
As well as passable Spanish and French, Chris speaks Chinese.
He now lives in the Catalan Pyrenees, where is a keen mountaineer. The ski slopes are only 20 minutes away!
Chris published Full Spectrum Intelligence in 2014. He is now writing The Inner Cosmos, and Intelligent Simplicity
YouTube or https://www.youtube.com/user/Vaguehighlander
As a guest post - the views are those of the author.
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