Applying the evil genius of Finkelstein for the common good

In October Hungary will hold a referendum on the EU’s plan to force member states to receive immigrants / migrants / refugees. To ensure victory in the referendum, the Hungarian government has already started a large scale bill-board campaign: Budapest is wallpapered with large, blue, xenophobic posters. You drive from the airport into the city and can count dozens and dozens of these.

The posters tell us:

-          Since the start of the migrant crisis over 300 people have died in terror attacks in Europe

-          Since the start of the migrant crisis the number of attacks against women has grown dramatically in Europe

-          Brussels wants to move a towns-worth of illegal immigrants to Hungary

-          The Paris attacks were committed by immigrants

and so forth.

Here are some examples:

Guided by uber-nasty PR guru Arthur Finkelstein ( – the irony of a Jew driving a xenophobic and racist PR campaign is so delicious you almost want to bathe in it – the Hungarian government is not leaving a stone unturned to shape the minds of the people and to win the referendum.

Not even the Olympics safe. Government-funded anti-immigration advertisements punctuate the TV coverage. Loyal TV commentator Jenő Knézy pointedly ignored the Syrian refugee’s victory in the 100m butterfly. (linguistic paywall; i.e. it’s in Hungarian).

Without doubt, on 2 October the Christian nation of Hungary will vote overwhelmingly to reject the welcome of their less fortunate neighbours. [To be fair, I agree that the EU should not forcibly send migrants to Hungary. At the same time I think that Hungary should willingly take in some families, say, after screening to be sure that they are not extremists.] But this is not the point. The point is that it is all fantastic news for the climate and the natural world.

It is good news because it shows that through advertising the minds of the people can be controlled, with a high level of predictability. You need to use the right techniques (just ask Mr Finkelstein), figure out how to access the reptile brain of the masses, and you can get them to do what you want.

Based on this, I envisage a number of other campaigns which the Hungarian government could try out once the referendum is over:

-          Promotion of wildlife gardening: posters would exhort people to make hedgehog holes in their fences; to stop applying pesticides in their gardens; to uproot those ecologically dull rows of evergreens so beloved of the nouveau riche and their aspirants; to plant wildflowers and orchards; to mix up their emerald lawns with daisies and wild carrot and clover and buttercups

-          Promotion of transport modesty: posters would ridicule the profligacy and vanity of Ferraris and Porsches; they would surely mock peroxide yuppie wives and their vain attempts to reverse park 4x4s single handed while on their mobile to their masseur; they would celebrate the benefits of public transport; they would remind us of the joys of walking or of pottering around at home

-          Celebration of insulation: another poster campaign timed for winter would expose the evil of insufficient insulation; it would turn into social outcasts those who skimp on wadding out up their walls or lofts; just like the migrant campaign, it would be cruel and socially divisive, yet ruthlessly effective

-          Veganism: using the horror show of factory farming (try to full effect, the veganism campaign, expertly choreographed by Finkelstein, would slash meat and dairy consumption across Hungary by half within a few months, substantially cutting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions

I think that this approach would be far economically effective than battling with major investment in technology and infrastructure and having to deal with unhelpful lobbying from oil, cement, steel and energy companies.

Finkelstein and the Hungarian government understand how to engineer the behaviour and beliefs of the people. If it saves the world, perhaps climate policy makers might want to take a leaf out of their book.

Posted in Climate change policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Naming trees

At Danube Kids, a start-up charity aimed at helping children who live on the Danube Delta and along the Danube to develop a connection with nature, we have learned that children have a simplistic and utilitarian view of the natural world. There are four kinds of animal: dogs for chasing away strangers, cats for eating mice, mice for being eaten by cats, and pigs for eating. There are two kinds of bird: chickens for eating, and everything else. This is an exaggeration, but broadly it is true that their knowledge of living species is very limited.

We take children out into nature and open their eyes to that rich diversity – sparking their awareness of hundreds of different kinds of insect, spider, worm, duck, goose, woodpecker, lark, falcon, hawk, eagle, stork, gull, tern … The thinking is that when things are lumped into too few classes or groups, then we do not care for them. When things start to be identified into finer and finer groups, when they take on colour, sounds and behaviour, they take on identity and we begin to care for them. Once they have names that care become stronger. Class names yields one level of care, individual names yield a higher level of care.

A ferry sinks in Bangladesh and 250 people die and we don’t really care that much. Fred gets knocked over in the street and we do care.

Getting children to name trees and animals will make environmental policy far more effective than it is today. Policy measures for nature naming should be relatively simple to devise and implement.

Illustration from an earlier post –  Ten policies to increase demand for low carbon living and policies, November 2013 -



Posted in Climate change policy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

To make capitalism work: change the utility function (an extract from Waterford)

I thought I would publish some extracts from Waterford. Not the grizzly gory bits but the serious stuff.  Here is a description of how the people’s utility function changed so that they could still run on capitalism but without it doing the same damage as before.

From Chapter 4, Manxy’s Peace, p70.

What was it, then, that gave people purpose, deprived as they were of the need to seek celebrity, status or wealth? That purpose was the well-being of society and of the natural world; the purpose was this: the reduction of suffering of all creatures, human or non-human; to help those that randomness had made less fortunate; to celebrate in common the wonder of creation; to restore lost worlds and species; to preserve all that was beautiful or ugly, all that was fragrant or that stank, all that had life; to relish every smell or sensation that nature provided; to resist mediocrity and selfish gain; to take from the land gently; to give, to be kind; to love. Most of all, to engage in many and varied acts of kindness.

J. N. Stone categorised seven pursuits which took up most of our lives.

The greatest was the pursuit of truth: reading, conversing, attending school, researching alone or in groups, exploring, investigating and challenging assumptions. We increased our understanding of the mechanics of the universe, including the natural world and the minds of men and women and their society.

Next came the pursuit of justice. This meant to prevent the suffering of animals, birds, insects and humans – of anything living. The route to justice was kindness. We learnt to make acts of kindness and, since we understood the connection between things, we were sure that our acts of kindness actually led to justice.

To pursue justice, we had to learn the skills of justice: life-long study of wisdom and compassion. We also needed abilities in communication, mediation, meditation, negotiation and clear thinking, as well as medicinal and veterinary expertise, learning how to preserve and restore habitats, and duller activities such as programming computers or driving the few vehicles which still required a human touch, or manufacturing weaponry. All this was required only to pursue justice effectively.

Fourth came beauty. Discovering and appreciating the world’s beauty was a slowly acquired art, not to mention the creation of more beauty for all our senses, in music, art, theatre, sculpture, food and drink, alone or in groups. There were some with a crude or stunted appreciation of beauty – some liked gaudy, clashing colours; others forgot about colour completely, while some did not treasure harmony. It would often be those previously trained in architecture who still felt that beauty was an extension of their own brilliance, and they would need many years of quiet reflection and humbling before they began to create objects which met the very high standards of our culture.

At this point in J. N. Stone’s speech at the Royal Society of Compassion in England, someone interrupted:

‘All right for you, mate. What about the diggers? What about the pickers?’

‘Yeah,’ said another. ‘Call a fifty-hour week justice?’

‘No bloody time for justice in Hartlepool,’ said a third.

Stone blushed and stammered. ‘Oh … you don’t realise how lucky you are.’

Amid whistles, Stone continued his lecture.

The fifth discipline was physical health. We would take vigorous exercise and, occasionally, competitive sports (taking manly pleasure in outwitting our sparring partners, but always remembering that it was only a game). Usually exercise was built into one of the other pursuits, not as an art form for its own sake. This saved precious energy.

The sixth pursuit was love. Little needs to be said of this, except that as people became more and more healthy and their cheeks were flushed with the meaningfulness of life, the choice of mate became more difficult as there were simply so many beautiful people! This meant that more time was needed for love – to taste and savour the cornucopia of sensual variety as well as to learn the arts of seduction.

A heckler whistled lusciously.

Finally came the passing of these skills of living to our children. We maintain our wholesome culture by devotedly schooling our children. Schooling has become more varied than in earlier times, since parents have more time and suffer less from the stress that distanced them from those they loved or should love. Sometimes children learn at home, sometimes in classes, like in the schools of long-gone generations. Sometimes they travel long distances and meet children from other countries, embarking on adventures lasting several weeks or months in wild and uninhabited terrains and places.

It was discovered that children were as creative as adults, and in many areas of learning it was hard to tell who was teacher and who was pupil. It was as if learning was an effort in common, from which all benefited by an increase in knowledge, understanding, skills and love.

The purposes, then, were old-fashioned: truth, justice, beauty, love and good health, and these were sustained through acts of kindness, learning and teaching. The sense of gain which had previously been obtained from wealth and social advancement was now won by seeing the results of one’s own labours – the dawning of understanding, a forest restored, the thankfulness of strangers and the joy of a child’s discovery. By the good fortune of the laws of physics and the fine work of the technologists, the pursuit of these purposes could be done with rather limited use of energy and encroachment on the space of other species.

Posted in Environment, society, politics and economics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We need a grass roots response to Brexit

I saw there is a petition out calling for a rerun of the Brexit vote. I have also seen lots of anger at racism and UKIP. I don’t think any of this is useful. I think our response to the Brexit debacle must also be to look at the underlying issues and learn. This blog is based on some notes I wrote to a “Remain” friend in Shrewsbury, in the West Midlands, the region with the biggest support for Brexit.

The underlying issue is that there are lots and lots of people in the country who don’t enjoy the ease, pleasure, security, convenience, comfort and so forth that we enjoy and take for granted every day. People who don’t enjoy the fruits of a society which is designed by and for educated middle class people.

The beauty and ease which is either Waitrose or the farmer’s market. Espresso England. Nice houses and cricket and tennis and trees. All that is the Loop[1]. All of prosperity.

When UKIP reemerged and people sneered at them for being a bunch of racists it was an error of judgment. People chose to ignore the malaise and alienation which pushed them back to tribalism. If you listen to UKIP people it’s not about Poles or Refugess but about being alienated by big business, distant politicians and inequality. I think the loss of control is not control over England but people feeling rightly or wrongly they don’t have control over their own lives. (Whether they ever did or ever can is another question: it is probably all about perception.)

So we shouldn’t be surprised by Brexit because all the signs were there; and if we are angry we should be angry with ourselves for ignoring the signs and not working to undermine the inequality which led to it.

I think there are some fundamental things here because Brexit, Trump, Orban etc mark a strengthening of tribalism. For me the bad thing is not Farage or Trump or LePen: the bad thing is that there are millions of people who *listen* to them and have cause to listen to them. This is the crux of the matter.

For Farages and Trumps to have millions of followers shows that there are millions of people without the education, upbringing, culture, good fortune or confidence to resist the lure of tribalism. That is something we have some kind of responsibility for because I think the socio-economic model which allows us luckier people all those lovely fruits of a pleasurable life is the same one that cannot afford to let infants in their formative years spend lots of time with their mums [2]; cannot afford plenty of paternity leave; cannot afford high quality education across the board; can’t afford the caring nurturing of the young that innoculates them from tribalism.

If you want democracy and you want a certain outcome then you have to ensure that lots of people agree with you – so they need to have similar views and values. That means that lots of people have to have similar upbringing and education and influences to you, otherwise they’ll have different views and values. So you need to ensure that lots of people have the same chances for a happy home and good education as you did.

I don’t think politics will solve this because politics is still too controlled by big business and too enamoured of GDP and TTIP and all that nonsense. Politics can’t collect taxes any more (viz Google etc). Politics doesn’t get culture (culture in the broad sense, except perhaps Farage who says there is more to politics than economics, showing he is a fair bit wiser than George Osborne) – by culture I mean the social fabric that makes us civilised: you can’t count civilised so economists ignore it.

This issue will be best addressed by grass roots efforts: all manner of groups and movements and societies and charities which get among the people and spread the values which we cherish. England is really good at charities and social movements so we have the infrastructure for that.

I saw that West Midlands had the strongest showing for Leave. Perhaps we have to go to Telford and Wolverhampton and meet people there who are having a tough time and give them some support. It might be difficult and uncomfortable. It might remind us of our random good fortune and make us feel awkward. It’s not something I’d feel comfortable with but it is probably what needs to be done. Although I guess the last thing they want is a bunch of comfortable do-gooders and evangelists descending on their communities.

If we expect politics to do solve these issues for us, we are likely to be disappointed. If we want to rebuild social fabric, mutual trust and understanding, and undermine tribalism, it is up to us and we will have to get out and do it.



[1] The Loop is the rather idyllic central part of the town of Shrewsbury, within a loop of the River Severn.

[2] Worth seeing the Brazilian documentary film: The Beginning of Life

Posted in Climate change policy, Sundry | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No such thing as a bad question? How about the EU referendum?

There’s this thing where people say: “There’s no such thing as a bad question.” Well there is such a thing as a bad question, and the EU referendum, giving a simplistic choice between “In” or “Out”, is a bad question. One with tragic consequences.

The British people I have asked about their views on the EU have a nuanced view – there are plenty of reasons to stay in the EU and plenty of reasons to leave. There are reasons of different types reflecting short term and long-term considerations, tactical and strategic, matters of economics, security, history, identity, culture and society, as well as both practical and theoretical positions.

Often people have conditional positions like: “If it wasn’t for X, I’d vote to remain”; or “I’d normally say we should leave but Y is really important to me.”

Not only is there the complexity and multitude of issues to be weighed up. In theory you could have a range of different solutions to those questions, as a country can have different relationships with the EU.  As well as being “In” or “Out” there are various more subtle alternatives: you can “In” and enthusiastic like Germany or France, but you can also be “in” and grumpy like Hungary. You can be a bit in like Switzerland or Norway. You can be on the edge but getting closer like Bosnia and Hercegovina, a candidate country. You can be totally out of the EU but a close ally, like the US; or a neighbour but a fiend, like Russia.

Even staying in the EU there are a range of possible relationships because as an EU member you could take any number of stances – expansive or sullen – , and, with effective diplomacy, achieve goals on specific matters which affect you.

Besides the many dull arguments about economics (which are broadly baseless since the speed of social and technological change means we can’t reliably predict the economic future in any case), there are a few things associated the question of EU membership which make people very cross: immigration, sovereignty, corruption, and so forth. They make people cross because they touch on and question their identity and their ego, and they arouse a great sense of injustice or righteousness in people.

Just one such question, such as immigration, is hot enough. So when you are piling up half a dozen incendiary questions, you are guaranteed to get trouble.

Anyone raising these questions, which are important questions, is playing with fire because of the passions which can be aroused in these questions. Then when emotions are heated, the quality of debate, analysis and judgment is impaired, sometimes fatally. If you are to play with fire, it should be done carefully and responsibly. That is, it is important how you raise the questions.

Hence the issue of a “bad question”. If you force someone to take a black or white position on a subtle question, you are doing the opposite of an intelligent thing. Intelligence is about being able to handle the richness and complexity of things in a meaningful way. By crushing all the subtlety of the UK’s relationship with the EU into a stark, binary outcome (in or out) you are unnecessarily destroying, rather than creating intelligence. You are appealing to the dumb, simplistic and populist. Presenting a complex matter in terms of a binary outcome is a deception and an unnecessary deception at that, since there are a number of different possible relationships with the EU.

The stark, yes-no choice, is brutally formulated, forcing an artificial choice. If people are forced to take binary positions you force a polarisation – you force people apart, you force them to focus on their differences rather than what they have in common.

(A further problem is that the referendum kind of implies there is a connection between the make-people-cross problems like immigration and jobs, and the UK’s relationship with the EU. I expect these are global problems driven by matters far bigger than the EU, so in or out we will be stuck with the same problems.  We will just have a smaller bit of sand to stick our heads into.)

To avoid polarisation in society, the government should have posed a range of questions in the referendum exploring views on a range of specific issues and offering a choice between a range of different relationships with the EU. This would have led to more subtle and intelligent debate.

The UK’s status vis-à-vis the EU is a rich and complex matter. It should not and cannot be answered with a binary “yes/no” or “in/out” answer. By forcing people to adopt extreme positions which do not reflect the totality of their views, you are asking for trouble.


Note: I asked my proxy to spoil the ballot paper and write “Remain and Reform” on it.

Posted in Sundry | Tagged , , | Leave a comment