Nature Notes from Budapest: colonisation, silent gardening etc.

Colonisation and the discomfort of playing God

Refurbishing a house in Budapest – gutting it and rebuilding it to be low energy but with traditional aesthetics – I have learnt about nature’s extraordinary capacity for colonisation. Modest changes to the garden meant lifting many stones: under each was a wealth of life – earwigs, beetles, wireworms, woodlice, lizards. A pile of stones, saved from a wall which had to be demolished, and put onto the lawn in September last year, was, by spring, packed with lizards. I had to move these stones with great care, and slowly, to be sure that the lizard population was not traumatised.

The speed at which creatures colonise the ground underneath stones is extraordinary. I had not realised how important stone piles are. Needless to say, the garden will have lots of them.

Now, since the stones have been moved, the lizards have taken up residence behind the band of external xps insulation at the foot of the house. Sometimes they even go inside the bricks, having discovered a small hole in the wall. This gives me another concern: when the chaps come to fit the main wall insulation and render the whole thing, will the lizards run away or will they just get buried inside the wall? I will have to make them an escape tunnel under the xps. But then when the chap comes to lay the garden path, that really will be their last chance.

Some were not so lucky. Gutting of the house was – gutting. Thousands of bees and wasps and flies were living in holes in the rendering on the old walls. Their homes were destroyed as the plaster was hammered off. I can only hope they also found somewhere to winter.

When digging the pond, I realised many worms and other species had to be displaced: loss of one habitat for the creation of a new, aquatic one, designed for the benefit of frogs and perhaps even newts. It was with discomfort that I realised I was making decisions like a God, deciding which species should have a new home, and which should be moved. Creating a wildlife pond has its downsides if you happen to be a worm.

Silent gardening

It is difficult to complain about neighbours’ noisy gardening when you, yourself, are responsible for the noise of construction works. Nonetheless, I did. We have neighbours who garden noisily. Their contractors come once or twice a month and are armed with trimmers, strimmers, sprayers, mowers and leaf blowers. All powered and raucous. The noise is unholy and disturbs the birds, lizards, and some of the humans.

In researching about silent gardening, which turns out to be quite a movement, I came across actor Tom Conti’s struggles with his noisy, leaf-blowing neighbours.

This quotation of his sums the issue up: “If these people can’t stand the sight of a leaf then it’s not a leaf blower they need, it’s a psychiatrist.”

Wasp hysteria and evolution

At lunch today on the terrace at Park Vendeglo I observed three people at a table struggling with a wasp. The wasp wanted its share of the people’s lunch, and the three people were unhappy about this. The woman screeched, flapping her hands around; the two men with her tried to swat the wasp away. In all, a great deal of fuss and panic.

In contrast, this evening our cat was having supper outside and three or four wasps circled her plate and kept jumping into the food to carve off a little piece and fly away with it. The cat was not bothered. She just carried on eating – minding her own business while the wasps minded theirs.

Given that humans are much more intelligent and self-aware than cats, I assume that there must be an evolutionary benefit to hysterics and panicky swatting of wasps. I have not figured this one out.

Coaching for humans

In looking for a new home for mother-in-law’s dog, we came across a dog pensione in Southern Hungary which not only gives a temporary home for dogs, but it offers all sorts of training. This training includes making dogs more sociable, teaching them to be less aggressive, less dominant and more disciplined, tolerant and better behaved.

This raises an important question. We are prepared to teach dogs to be better members of the community. I think it would make sense to send people for similar training. It seems strange that we are happy to pay for dogs to be retrained but don’t consider retraining of anti-social humans – the payback would be much higher. We would start, for example, with owners of factory farms, the manufacturers of leaf-blowers and other enemies of nature. A few months intensive retraining at a dog pensione would revitalise them, making them kinder people. Their families and friends, wildlife, farm animals and those seeking peace and quiet, would all rejoice.

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

End of. Or why loving nature has never been more important.

A friend was concerned about the convergence of augmented reality, self-drive vehicles and 3D printing, not to mention free energy. Another wondered what everyone will do when machines do everything…

Energy is free, goods are free, food is free, transport is free. Nothing requires skills, just the pressing of buttons or not that, just the emergence of desires which are immediately satisfied. Food printers print from chemical cartridges the daily menu, or our taste buds are tickled with virtual foi gras while nourishment is injected by the Great Interconnector. No interaction is required between people. There is no economy. There is scarcely a concept of physical space. A small elite keeps The System going, for some old-fashioned reason – no economic interest, just habit or a relic of morality – checking that the Great Interconnector is ticking along. Mankind is in beauty sleep, a coma where all experience is in the mind. There might be still ageing and death so DNA is harvested from our blood by the Interconnector. There is no need for the messy jerking of semen into eggs, yet we sleep in a constant state of benign and gentle, sexual arousal. There is no human society. No civilisation. There are only ten billion people in paradise.[1]

Today commerce and economic acts are part of the social fabric and contribute to building it. Local shops still exist. But shops are on their way out because of online purchasing, because we will make it at home from glob pumped in and because we won’t actually want the stuff. Why buy jeans if you can sit at home in a tracksuit and have all your needs fulfilled? The less you need to buy the less your personal social skills develop. Farmers and the self-sufficient are not known for gregariousness.

When we are all just plugged into a stream of synthetic experiences, when all the experiences our brain urges for will be provided automatically through digital-hormonal drips, we will no longer have social skills because we won’t need them.

There is no economy. Economy needs a balance of supply and demand. For an economy to exist it needs to be easier to get someone else to do something than to do it yourself. Now that everything is free, there is nothing that someone else can do better than you, so there is no economy. There are ten billion poor and a handful of rich. But as all experience is costless, being poor or rich has no meaning in terms of material things. There is only poverty and wealth in imagination and ideas. The poor are plugged in, the rich are unplugged. Since the poor have nothing to offer the rich, there is no meeting point of supply and demand curves. Thus the poor are kept alive by an old-fashioned sense of duty of the rich – all the poor can supply is genetic accident which might, one day, have some benefit. It would be easy for the few rich to switch off the Great Interconnector and let the poor die. But as it costs virtually nothing to maintain, there is no reason to lose the optionality that the poor provide. Some day they might be needed and it would be difficult to recreate them.

If technology just meant we don’t need to work, you might think that people will have more time for association and socialising. Social skills will thrive. We can join clubs and societies and feel a strong sense of belonging and purpose. Or we will do our own thing and so revel in autonomy.

With no need to work we can embark on amazing projects to restore nature, bring wilderness into cities. We can learn to garden and cook. We can learn musical instruments and play sports. Mastery will give us deep and real satisfaction.

But we don’t bother. Technology plugs right into our brains, shortcuts and obviates traditional, offline routes to pleasure, fulfilment and wellbeing. We opt for the virtual world with its convenience, immediate gratification, an unadulterated drip of concentrate.

Having a cerebral world distinct from the physical world is nothing new. To be a human animal on this planet is to suffer boredom, fear, pain and drudgery and therefore to seek escape in virtual worlds of fantasy, song, stories, paintings and spirituality. What is new is the threat that the virtual world will dominate to the point that society is impossibly degraded or stops existing. Hiding in the virtual world means we lose the ability to love, to negotiate, to make peace, to tolerate and threatens a more fractious, argumentative and violent world. Without peace-making at all levels, society falls apart. But if society is just a construct to enable individuals to prosper, and technology means that society is no longer needed for some form of prospering, then does it matter. Or do we want society for its own sake?

We have an idea of what it is to be a fulfilled human being. We value the idea of people being fulfilled, whole and balanced. This includes being a social person and nurturing social relationships and having social skills. For some reason we loathe the idea of people being reduced to cerebral attachments to the Matrix, even though putting the human race into that coma might be the only way to preserve life on a planet: the fulfilment of our desires and aspirations in the real world is killing the real world. Perhaps the problem of “how do 10 billion people live fulfilled real lives in harmony with the rest of the natural world” is a problem without a solution. Perhaps the solution is to synthesize everything in a virtual world. We would no longer trample down other species; the only movement of our legs would be occasional involuntary twitches as hormone levels are adjusted during the daily maintenance cycle (24MC). It will not be a sadder world: we can synthesize every form of emotion we experience in the real world, so there need be no shortage of perceived contentment, wellbeing, happiness, joy – there might even be controlled experiences of grief, forgetfulness or grumpiness. Yes, human wellbeing needs mastery, purpose, belonging and autonomy. It needs love and relationships and care and hope and trust and many other ingredients. All that can be faked in the virtual world.

This is ok until something goes wrong. The machine breaks and people tumble back into the real world and find themselves in a strange place. We are struck by a smell of rust and rotting, until now blocked by the odour-firewall implant (OFI). Somewhere dust prevails – everything has dried out – water is synthesised from hydrogen and oxygen by the Great Interconnector. Other places dank and mouldy: we never knew.  As we feel our way through those wet corridors and emerge into the air, there is a roughness to experience, an unfamiliar sharpness: like something freshly squeezed and raw. Outside: Eden. What we recognise as gardens are delightfully overgrown, thickets, an impenetrable raucous of birds and insects now inheritors of the real world which we abandoned. Perhaps we don’t know fear and let a spider run across our hands. Others crunch barefoot into snow, trip, cold sears their bare skin: cold, icy cold, for the first time ever. She gasps with exhilaration, her entire body in almost orgasmic thrill – and there is a primal urge to express something, to share, to shout it out, to utter something – and a synaptic signal tries to activate the tongue – but she can make only a pained, spastic grunt: language is dead.

One view: it is a desirable outcome, and the only way to save life on the planet: put man into that coma. If you take that view, then do nothing. It is happening, and hopefully it will happen quickly enough.

Another view: it must be avoided at all costs because it means the end of humanity. It means the end of homo sapiens (good news for elephants!). To save homo sapiens we have to fight the system as we do in the case of all other problems. The system is moving where we don’t want it to. We have learnt from other social battles what to do: resistance, campaigning, counter-cultural enterprise, lobbying and so forth. It is a well-known list.

Interestingly, what we need to do to avoid that Orwellian-Matrixian world is the same as what we need to do to tackle climate change: raise our children to love nature. Get them outside, splatter them in mud, drop them into puddles, throw them into streams, heave them up into boughs, let them graze their knees on the bark, hide behind bushes to watch badgers, smell cow shit, eat blackberries, stalk pigeons, roll down hills, wonder about the moon, shake them out of their sleep to watch the sunrise, sit still while a blackbird sings, hurl pebbles at old people, scare sheep, clamber over walls, replace the stones they knocked off, snap sticks, feed ants, see the sun through crimson eyelids, catch shrimps, boil them, understand their pain, hug puppies, walk in long, wet grass in the morning.



[1] Note that free energy is no boon, despite the rejoicings of techno-optimists. It just means that, freed from one constraint, our species will continue its rampage until it hurtles into another constraint.

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

Go Pluto!

How many times do we criticise politicians as egoistical clowns, gallivanting on the international stage, inept, inefficient, conflicted, corrupt and so forth? Whether or not those characterisations are fair or true (it is probably much harder when you are in the seat of power than anyone who is not in that seat imagines), the great news is that politicians and politics don’t matter anymore!

Within a few days of Donald Trump pulling the USA out of the Paris Agreement, a group of US states, cities, counties, academic establishments, businesses and investors – over 1,200 organisations in total – launched “We Are Still In” a movement which will pursue ambitious climate goals independently of the US government’s decision not to. Check out:

Their goal is for the US to comply with its commitments under Paris without the government – through the efforts of individual members of the society – institutional, corporate and private.

For Libertarians and those that believe in small government, this is a very exciting development – it shows how you can get big stuff done without government. Smart, energetic, influential, visionary and rich organisations get together and simply side-step clumsy bureaucracy.

For true democrats, however, the initiative might be scary, or at least a chewy compromise. The group includes 900 businesses with sales of over 1.4 trillion dollars. The initiative is led by a billionaire, Mr Bloomberg. Yes, plutocracy in action: a kind of benevolent plutocracy. Big business getting what it wants, something that a majority of Americans voting for Trump perhaps didn’t really want. Which takes you awkwardly close to the dilemma-strewn position of “Us lot are highly educated and you lot aren’t, so we are doing what we think is best for you”.

But should we object to the rich getting their way if they are doing good, and insist on democracy even when it takes us into the dark ages? Good is so rare a commodity that we should not be too precious about how it comes about.

There is great potential here. When the approach is well understood as a system, there is a tremendous opportunity to roll out the “ignoring government” model across the world and just get things done despite government. It can be adopted in other fields such as education, healthcare and other areas of environmental protection – such as the restoration of insects, the elimination of factory farming, rebuilding soil and so forth.

Then we will have a world of two forms of government: Benevolent plutocracies where government is a superfluous circus; and dark authoritarian kleptocracies where it is all government and clientelism and the people scurry in the shadows, afraid, hungry and illiterate yet full of national pride. Go Pluto!

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

The pursuit of truth

A lot of education in England seems to be about learning “how to be right”, not learning “how to discover truth.” This is a reason why our politics is so messed up: our politicians are often very clever at being right but bad at discovering the truth, for the very same reason. When you are good at arguing, you are good at convincing yourself that you are right. If you have convinced yourself you are right, you are less likely to be motivated to discover the truth and therefore less likely to make good decisions. Here I have tried to examine this a bit more.

There is danger in educating people to be good at arguing. I have noticed among people that ability at arguing runs with increased risk of believing the argument irrespective of whether it is true or not.

When someone argues a case they might side emotionally with that case. They might attach the case to their own ego, so that if they “lose” the argument they might feel the shame that their ego or their identity has been diminished in some way. Diminished, at least, in the eyes of the person they are arguing with.

Fear of that eventual shame might motivate them to try and win the argument at all costs. This might include ignoring their deepest, most honest thoughts, overlooking certain observations they consider to be facts, attributing, with rhetorical sleight of tongue, less weight to one piece of evidence and more to another, than, in their heart of hearts, they would give at another time of calm examination.

They might also desire to enjoy a feeling of power which they associate with “winning” an argument, and feel motivated to use the techniques, to win the game, which, as above, lead them away from the honest truth.

These are the dangers of a person allowing an argument to attach itself to their identity: that the victor of the argument is not the truth.

Yet there is a strong case for employing ego and emotion in an argument: the desire to win, the desire to avoid the shame of loss are forces of motivation, which force the mind to pick away at the other side, to examine it with a toothpick, picking out any loose pieces from dark corners, to shine into the counter-argument a bright light, looking for small fissures or cracks, any weaknesses which might betray an untruth in the construction of the argument.

Without that egoistical motivation, the ensuing argument might be weaker and it might fail to progress closer to the truth.

The employment of one’s ego in an argument, therefore, is important but risky: it can help and can also hinder the desired outcome of discovering the truth.

When you examine a debate in terms of how it approaches the truth, you may well even discover that the “loser” actually makes a greater contribution to the truth than the “winner”. Understanding this turns many assumptions we have about winning and losing on their head.

In educating people, therefore, it is not enough to teach them the skills of analysis, logic and rhetoric, which is what schools and universities do, or once did. It is also not enough to spur them to be competitive, to nurture the desire to win through the culture of the ego and the tribe, which is practised in sports. Just those alone, and you get arrogant, narrow-minded Conservatives running a country. Or arrogant, narrow-minded Socialists running a country. Or even arrogant, narrow-minded Greens!

No: this education must be tempered through teaching, in some way, how to remain aware, when arguing, that achieving the truth is the primary goal of an argument; how to see an argument as a joint exploration of a domain and pursuit of truth, not a personal fight; how to subordinate one’s ego to that goal by detaching the ego from one particular side of the argument, yet still harnessing its energies in service of the argument; how to shrug off any sense of diminishment of ego if one discovers that a view held is not valid.

This is something that great educational establishments, in certain fields – more in humanities than sciences, because physics has a way, called gravity, of bringing flighty egos down to the ground – have failed to do, and the result is what we have.

There are other ways. Two come to mind:

The agile start-up approach to setting up a new business or venture, is based on creating hypotheses and testing them humbly in order to discover the truth about the business proposition. You create a model of your proposed business, tease out of it the assumptions you are making, and then, through interviews of potential customers and suppliers, test those assumptions. It is surely not the only way to start a business, but it is a great way of saving a lot of capital being spent on assumptions which the ego – proud at the revolutionary idea – prevents one from testing properly. Try out the Udacity course:–ep245

Another is the way that Buddhist monks learn to debate. They understand that a debate is a duel aimed, not at wounding the other, but at jointly discovering the truth and clearing the mind of misconceptions. The debate has rituals, such as the smacking of hands and foot stamping: by submitting to a ritual, you ease the pressure on your own ego – you are playing a game, there is a touch of levity to it, and it does not matter who wins or loses; what matters is that you jointly get closer to the truth.

If we want people to argue well, with the purpose of discovering truth and dispelling misconceptions, we must help them by promoting, in the education system as well as in the raising of children, a deep respect of truth and an understanding that argument must serve truth, not just be a vehicle for celebrating power and exposing weakness. Broadly this means that education and child-raising should put more emphasis on nurturing humility and kindness and less emphasis on encouraging clever-clogs and smarty-pants.

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

Why right-wing politicians need to be kind

When I think of right wing politicians, I don’t think of kind people. From Norman Tebbit (on yer bike) to Mrs Thatcher (there’s no such thing as society) to the populist modern types such as Trump and Orban, these appear to be unkind people.

They might be kind in their own circles – right wing people don’t lack empathy, just generally their circle of empathy or circle of compassion tends to be narrow. But they are not kind in the political arena or in the matter of policy. The closest they get to caring is the philosophy of “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind” or “tough love” or “on yer bike” – meaning: “We care, but it’s up to you to sort your life out; if we are kind towards you, we risk being indulgent, and if we are indulgent you will be spoiled and become dependent on the state’s largesse, resulting in economic calamity.”

Some politicians are not only unkind, but they deliberately stoke up unkindness. Such is Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister who deliberately creates a mood of xenophobia in Hungary; or Trump with his anti-muslim line.

From the point of view of fiscal conservatism this does not make sense.

It is well established that excessive inequality in a society harm the society and can harm the economy. At extremes, history shows that inequality can lead to societal breakdown, rebellion and revolution which is bad for members of the elite. You can defer this outcome by making the people drunk, stupid or unhealthy or otherwise unfit to rebel, but this also risks harming the economy and thereby destroying the wealth of the elite.

At the same time it is clear that increasing inequality is a natural result of our capitalist system. If you are a bit quicker, more aggressive, wily, canny or just lucky, you will wriggle to the top of the pile and accumulate wealth at a great rate than those who are less so. Inequality will inevitably grow exponentially. “Trickle-down” doesn’t work. This is partly because the weak will always be in the thrall of the cunning – even with increased wealth the weak make themselves poor again by bingeing their wealth on bad food and bad telly; and partly because even if the weak get richer, it is not their absolute wealth which counts in the matter of inequality but their relative wealth. While they made an extra £500 a month, the guys at the top made an extra £50,000 a month.

It follows that one of the greatest political questions is how to redistribute wealth so as to avoid catastrophic or harmful inequality. Over history politicians, economists and religious leaders have tried out various ways of redistributing wealth. Usually wealth redistribution leaves at least one side unhappy: people don’t like inflation, taxes or forced sequestration of assets. In fact, this is a pillar of right-wing politics: forcible redistribution of wealth by the government is seen as a bad thing by right-wing people.

Today our use of the term right-wing is rather mixed up and politicians called right-wing often are not traditionally right wing. For example, Orban’s politicis are not so right-wing but rather a mixture of socialist (government control of the economy) and nationalist (whipping up patriotism). Nonetheless, fiscally he is right-wing: Hungary aims to be one of the lowest tax regimes in Europe. And Trump’s promise is for lower taxes, too.

This is the strange thing: if redistribution is needed to avoid bad things happening to society, but you reject forcible redistribution, if implies you would favour voluntary redistribution.

Voluntary redistribution can happen in two ways. One way is for everyone to become similarly clever and entrepreneurial so that no one enterprise can ever generate a supernormal return on its investment. In this way everyone would be able to compete equally in the market and so no-one would be particularly wealthier than anyone else. To achieve this would require a stupendous amount of time and money being committed to education; an order of magnitude greater than any educational programme before: since people’s abilities vary in different areas, to decrease intellectual and physical competitive advantage to the point that economic inequality is significantly reduced, would be a substantial challenge.

The second form of voluntary redistribution is giving. Unlike paying taxes, giving can be an enjoyable thing. (It does not need to be, mind you, because you might give out of a sense of duty or sense of doing what is right.) Still, when people give, they often discover that they enjoy it. They like the sense of helping someone get on better in life, of making a difference, of solving a problem and of reducing suffering.

Religion is a context for voluntary giving. In the olden days when religions were stronger, the church played an important role in wealth redistribution. It still does, but not as much as needed to avoid undesirable levels of inequality.

Therefore a fiscally right-wing politician, seeking to reduce taxes and loathe to regulate, needs to look for ways to encourage voluntary redistribution: policy should be looking for ways to make up the shortfall in charitable giving, volunteering and the collection plate.

This is where kindness comes in. If people are kind and compassionate, they are more likely to give voluntarily. Therefore if makes sense for fiscally right wing politicians to encourage people to be kind and compassionate. Their kindness takes away all sorts of burdens that socialists might expect the state to bear: caring for the elderly and the sick, giving shelter to the poor and homeless; extend that kindness to helping young people learn life skills, giving those with tough lives confidence and wherewithal to overcome their troubles; to clearing litter, to planting trees and saving habitats, to eating less meat… A kind society would be transformational, with greater equality and a far smaller burden on the state. Thus a fiscally right-wing government would be able to lower taxes.

So right-wing politicians have got it all wrong. The only way to keep society from unravelling and to conserve your position, while maintaining fiscal probity, is to be kind. If they are kind, if the influential economic elite is kind, that will encourage the rest of society to be kind: since the rest of society always mimics the behaviour of the influential economic elite.

There are also plenty of left-wing politicians do well in the unkindness stakes: you wouldn’t have wanted Stalin running the old-people’s home where your mum is. But left-wing politicians don’t need to be kind because they believe in a big state and the state can do what it wants, nice or not. Right-wing politicians need kindness in order to achieve low taxes.

Kindness is the least painful form of resource redistribution so it should be number one on the list of right-wing people who want to keep society from unravelling.

Posted in Environment, society, politics and economics | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments