Am I Just My Brain by Sharon Dirckx

I was listening to an online debate which considered the topic of panpsychism (The idea that everything is conscious to some degree) when I heard about this book. As it seemed to consider that perennial, but vital, problem for philosophy of the “mind-brain” problem I decided to give it a try.

It is quite clearly a book of two parts. The first part considers the problem that are encountered when we try to take a simple materialistic viewpoint of the mind and the limitations that still exist when we adopt any of the dualist positions. These arguments are well described and the strengths and weakness of each position well delineated. In particular the problems we encounter with the issues of free will and personhood, when we adopt a unitary materialistic (You are your brain) position, are well made. This is a useful counterpoint to much of the current media which feels that this issue has been solved.

I can remember working through this period when the advances in the neurosciences seemed to leave little room for the mind. There seemed to be little need to consider the psyche as we could now explain everything by looking at the brain. Certainly this approach played great dividends in my specialised area (dementia) but it never seem to offer any hope of help to those poor souls troubled by purely turmoil in the mind. Indeed the only real change was that psychiatry seemed to change from being ‘brainless’ to become simply ‘mindless’.

The first part of the book is successful but the second half is, unfortunately, less so. The latter portion of the book takes the stance that, if there is evidence that consciousness is best looked in a non-material way (qualitatively rather than quantitatively), then we can take this as proof for the Christian beliefs. I found this much harder to take for two reasons. Firstly the arguments were less well laid out and argued and secondly I felt she presumed faith on the reader’s part. I think someone who is already a believer would find the statements convincing. However, a reader who does not already have religious faith (especially if this is not Christian) will find this half of the book heavy with statements lacking convincing support.

Overall, an interesting read, brief but engaging, initially at least.

Smaller is often better.

Smaller is often better.

A small group of folk in the town had arranged a rather unusual concert for Friday night. They had organised a fusion of Welsh Cerdd Dant and Jamaican dub poetry. This may sound an unusual mix but there was a reason for this; the group organizing the night were researching the historical links between the local wool trade and slavery.

When I lived in Scotland I was aware of the strong link between the tobacco and sugar trades and the slave trade and there were very many reminders of this in my home town. The street names, statues and buildings all bore witness to this shameful period. I had not been aware when I moved that this was also the case in North Wales, though perhaps I was rather naïve to think there is anywhere in the country, the hub of old Empire, which doesn’t have reminders to squalid aspects of our past. In any event I looked forward to this evening as it promised something different and I had little familiarity with either of the cultural forms.

But as we gathered for the evening I started to realise something was amiss. The night was cold and wet and there had been weather warnings of rain and flooding. We had noted that the town was rather quiet but, as my wife and I sat in the bar, we realised the only others there were either the performers or the theatre staff. Quarter of an hour after the due start time only three other people had joined us – we were hardly a throng being swollen. By the start of the show the audience was outnumbered by the staff and performers by a ratio of 2 to 1, but the show had to go on!

The main act was Yasas Afari. He is a well know poet but he also is a tall, handsome, striking man who has a great deal of charisma. This was a man who was not going to be intimidated by a poor turnout and was still intent of giving his performance. He delivered his poetry with gusto and verve. There was a powerful physicality to his delivery. This was made all the more potent by the fact that at times there were literally only inches between ourselves and the performer.

This evening clearly threatened ‘audience participation‘ and I was not sure my usual strategy was going to work on this occasion. Usually I adopt a pose of studiously looking at my feet, putting a glower on my face and trying to radiate an aura of “Don’t even think about choosing me, it would be more trouble than it is worth” as a protective shield around me. This usually works, but when I comprised fully 20% of the audience I anticipated that this was not going to be successful and I was correct : I had no option but to join in.

Yasus took an evening which could have been awkward and turned it into something quite special. He had us on our feet (all ten of them), we took part in the chorus, we made pledges and said oaths, we even danced along to some of the poems (Though shuffled may be a more appropriate verb than danced). He transformed an a difficult concert into an intimate gathering and we had a great night. We discussed language and culture and the links between language and political power. He made the links between the Welsh Language and Jamaican Patois clear and obvious.

We also discussed Rastafari and whether Yasus realises it, or not, he is an obviously a preacher. By the end of the night I had a much better understanding of this religion than I ever had expected. My knowledge of Rastafari had been limited to knowing some famous names associated with it (Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley) but I knew very little of the beliefs that it contained. Much is very similar to Christianity which, I am ashamed to say, I had not realised. I enjoyed his descriptions which were vivid and clear, and was struck when he said that he though many of our current problems stem from a modern mistake. The mistake, in his eyes, is to view ourselves as bodily entities having spiritual experiences rather than spiritual entities having bodily experiences. I thought this an interesting echo of the old view of the Cathars and early gnostics.

Mr. Afari really deserved a much bigger audience. If you ever have the chance to hear him deliver his poetry give it a go, you will enjoy yourself and find yourself thinking about a variety of issues. However, I am partially glad that this night was a “flop” and had such a small audience. It delivered a great deal more than it would have with a crowd and I would otherwise never had a chance to high five the poet!

How Much Is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky

How Much Is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky

“How much is enough?”  is a deceptively simple question and one which appears easy to answer. It is also a perennial and vital question as many of our actions, as individuals or as societies, have as their intention either the reduction of want (when there is not enough) or the control of waste and excess (when there is more than enough). However, as this book reveals, it is quite clear that currently we really have little idea of “How much is enough?”

The book is written by father and son academics how-much-is-enough-skidelsky(in Economics and Philosophy respectively) and, in part takes as its starting point the 1930 essay by John Maynard Keynes “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. In this essay Keynes believed that by 2030 capitalism would be hugely successful at generating wealth (which has been the case) and much more productive, requiring less labour, so we would all have much more leisure (which has not been the case). Indeed, as our wealth has increased so has our workload; it appears now that as we have more we also want more. We seem to have become an insatiable society and our wants no longer have limits.

“The question is: why do people who ‘have everything’ always seem to want more?”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 34). Penguin Books Ltd.

Some of this is due to the modern functioning of capitalism which valorises growth over all things. Growth and increasing consumption are the motors which drive our development. We assess our needs and wants ‘relatively’, that is, we determine our needs and desires on the basis of comparison with others. Our happiness and status arise from our position in relation to others, meaning that we will never feel we have enough and also meaning we will never feel truly happy.

 

“It is not just that we want more but that we want more than others, who at the same time want more than us; this fuels an endless race.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. viii). Penguin Books Ltd.

“The American combination of social equality and income inequality has since become the capitalist norm, leading to a situation in which every member of society is in a sense competing against every other.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 40). Penguin Books Ltd.

In an interesting chapter they discuss the types of good which will often keep this spiral of increasing consumption moving. They discuss “bandwagon goods“, these are goods that people want as everybody has them (e.g. Mobile phones, microwaves). Envy and social conformity drive the desire for them. Then there are “snob goods“, these are goods that most people do not have (e.g. exotic holidays, cult films). Here the desire is to stand out from the crowd. Often successful snob goods will change to become bandwagon goods. Then there are “Velben goods“, these are goods which are expensive and known to be expensive (e.g. Rolex watches, Apple watches). These goods act as advertisements of the owner’s wealth.

These trends to the constant amassing of wealth might not be a concern if we knew what to do with our wealth. If our wealth allowed us to live a “good life“, then it would clearly be a boon. If we knew what was a “good life”, then we would know when we had what we required to live it. In essence, we would know “how much is enough ?” We seem unable to agree on what constitutes “the good life” therefore we continue to want and seek more wealth without thinking ‘what is this for?” It leads into the danger of loving money and wealth rather than what they provide.

All the ancient civilizations and all the main religions warned against the “love of money”. It was felt to corrupt the individual and also all of their actions; from Aristotle to Adam Smith greed and the love of money were major problems which endangered society. In prior times, until our present increasingly secular society, religion could act as a counterbalance to capitalism’s drives – the fears of being thought a sinner through avarice or gluttony, coupled with the need to display charity, may have tempered some of the excess.

 

“Money is the one thing of which there is never enough, for the simple reason that the concept ‘enough’ has no logical application to it. There is perfect health and happiness, but there is no perfect wealth.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 75). Penguin Books Ltd.

The old civilizations of Europe, India and China all shared a basically Aristotelian outlook, even if it was not drawn from Aristotle. All viewed commerce as properly subordinate to politics and contemplation, while at the same time recognizing and fearing its capacity to subdue these other activities to its own end. All regarded the love of money for its own sake as an aberration. Such agreement between three great and largely independent cultures ought to give us pause.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 86). Penguin Books Ltd.

Unfortunately the brakes, that these older views may have given, are now off. Our consumption and growth continue ever upward. There is no doubt that this has pulled millions out of poverty and destitution and that there are areas of the world that still need development. However, developed countries are witnessing increased personal harm from this continued greed – alcohol deaths, drug death, obesity deaths all have increased as have prescriptions for antidepressants and anxiolytics – our affluence is not continuing to buy happiness. Further, our continued consumption and production of waste now threatens the very existence of our habitat and our species. If this book prompts more people to consider “How much is enough?” it will have served a very valuable purpose.

4-out-of-5-stars


“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith”
Proverbs 15:17

 

Let’s say a big thank you to all the w@nkers !

Let’s say a big thank you to all the w@nkers !

I know that my blog title appears possibly crude, especially the inclusion of an ampersand in the text. However, I have no wish to offend and do indeed want to offer my thanks to people who have been horribly maligned over many years. I had been thinking recently about the importance of attitudes to sexual behaviour in our modern society. We have known for many years how potent the sexual drive is in guiding human behaviour. This potency has lead been used to sell everything from apples to zinc baths, advertisers know that the our sexual urge is one of the strongest tools in their armoury. Generations of young men and women have striven and improved themselves in the hope of attracting mates and society has had untold benefits from this as they sublimated their sexual urges into self improvement, artistic endeavours, sporting success or charity. Unfortunately it has also been used to drive men to war and nations into conflict. It is indeed our primal and basic drive.

I have been concerned, however, on a rather different method of influencing us by our sexual desires. For millennia the state, usually through religious bodies, has used sexual desire to control us. It has stated that some very basic impulses are to be shunned, to be avoided and to be shameful. By telling us that those who fornicate wrongly, and don’t limit their desires to the prescribed form and frequency, are damned and the lowest of the low they created shame and fearfulness. Every young boy or girl whose hand slid to their waist knew they faced hellfire and eternal suffering. Or, if they escaped the horrors of hell then they would succumb to the secular terrors of insanity or blindness. Indeed after the priests had lost their hold over the public the medical experts were there ready to step into the breach and warn us of the terrible fates that would befall us if we were one of these morally weak degenerates.

The intention of these concerns about sexual behaviour was never the well being of the individual, despite the medicalization of the ‘problem’. The intention was always precisely to cause anxiety and doubt. To take something everyone did (to lust after a beauty, to fantasize over others) and to make it shameful turned us all into sinners whose only escape was to ask forgiveness from our betters. So shameful were our thoughts that we could not discuss them with our family or friends we had to admit them in the privacy of the confessional or the discuss them behind the doctor’s closed doors. It meant we all knew we were failures, we all carried a secret shame which could be revealed to our harm at any point, we all had the anxiety of being found out as morally imperfect.

This strategy is still being used today though the vendors of our shame and anxiety have changed. It is no longer the church that inculcates our doubts and shame. Now the elite in our media ensure that we know the mantras that we should repeat and the sins that we might harbour. We know, that now, it is a sin to say “A lesbian doesn’t have a penis” and hateful to exert that “Woman: noun, adult human female” might be a statement of fact. Apart from some specially chosen ‘facts’ it is now impossible to consider that there may be some innate differences between men and women. Anyone doubting this had best keep their tongue still if they wish to keep their friends and job. There is a veritable minefield of ideas about what is, and what is not, normal sexual behaviour, so difficult is this area, that it is best avoided all together.

All these statements do the same old thing. They keep the public anxious and ill-at-ease, fearful of saying the wrong thing. It makes us watchful of our superiors so we might be given the cues of what is permissible to think and to say. This keep our superiors in a position of strength over us. They hold the keys to the ideas that imprison us and can unleash the hounds when they decide we have transgressed. It can be terrifying to watch social media these days when people are pilloried for statements that would have been commonplace a decade ago. It is alarming when we see someone cast as a heretic for ideas that are similar to our own.

As in prior times, the easiest thing to do in these situations is to say nothing and keep your head down and bowed. It is even safer to agree with the inquisitors and to call out the heretics. After all while they are persecuting them they will be too busy to get round to you. This silence is now palpable. In politics across the globe the common people are afraid to voice their true opinions. They know they are viewed as the uncultured, immoral mob and worry, if they say what they think, they will be dammed. This means no one takes their opinions seriously and nobody discusses their concerns. It is adequate just to say that these are just deplorable, uneducated and unrefined folk who haven’t recognised the error of their ways. So when pollsters call, or interviews are held, we all toe the line and confirm what we know is safe to say. Many elections recently have stunned the pollsters when the results have been very different to predictions. Just as in years gone by nobody ever admitted to masturbating or lustful thoughts nowadays nobody doubts it is better today to use the term “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women”, and that sometimes it is best to place a rapist, with a penis, in a female prison, when they are asked by someone holding a microphone or notepad.

As these inanities multiply I often become depressed and worry people are loosing their rational facilities: How can people not see the contradictions in these statements ? Why do people not speak up ? Do people believe this guff ? Then I remember the wankers; the millions of young men and women who over the years heard the dire warnings to their bodies an souls (Even today I had some trepidation using the word in the title such is the fear that has been instilled in us). downloadI remember them facing with the eternal torment of the demons and fires of hell as their parents and elders had warned them. I remember them thinking of a life of blindness or of dribbling insanity that the medical profession had clearly warned them lay ahead. I remember that despite this, these wankers slid their hands below the bedcovers and ignored them all. They knew, not with 100% certainty, that it was guff that they were being told. They doubted what the authorities told them and then went and did what came naturally.

So I am optimistic that as we move forward people will still think that their desires are normal, their common sense is indeed sensible and common to most of us, that though our superiors may demand lip-service to current sexual shibboleths we know they are wrong and maybe in the future we might be able to talk honestly about our opinions. We will look back, have a laugh, and feel sheepish about what we said. Perhaps one day the time will come when we can recognise that we don’t need this guidance and we can talk and interact as free individuals, unashamed to express our opinions. Then, if our opinions are wrong, we have a fighting chance of learning this and correcting them, rather than spouting the incorrect opinions of others.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Over the last week I had a project to complete. In the lull period in the middle of lambing I wanted to extend our goat yard to create an adjacent sheep and goat pen, with hard standing and some cover, where we could undertake activities like drenching, shearing or foot clipping. We had a good area just next to the barn for this and all we needed to do was make planks and create a post and rail enclosure. While doing this kind of work I like to have a good book with me. It can be a handy companion when the work is laborious, or the weather turns foul. I found “Sapiens” by Dr Juval Noah Harari, who lectures in history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and saw that the majority of reviews had been favourable. I thought it might be a good choice.

I was glad I did. This is a book written on a huge scale, as the title proclaims it aims to be a “brief history of humankind” and it does not shirk from trying to cover a broad story and starts millions of years ago with the evolution of groups of humans (Neanderthals, erectus, sapiens, etc) and the commences in the stone age. The bulk of the book concerns the last 200,000 years and sapiens’ history and covers the periods through the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the development of religion and money, the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution. Obviously with such a large filed to cover he needs to use a broad brush. However, this keep the book readable and lively and there are many things covered which will challenge the notions that you had held of our past. Harari has a deft writing style and make difficult concepts easy to comprehend without, I believe, oversimplifying them. He also has a good sense of humour so even sections on potentially leaden subjects become enjoyable.

There are two main strands to the book. Firstly he proposes that “inter subjective realities”, shared beliefs that humans hold (money, God, femininity, Nationhood, etc) act as the foundations of our cultures and these and the cultural impact they have are what have allowed our species to develop to extensively. The second strand of the book is to remind us of just how recent the majority of this development has been: the cognitive revolution and the emergence of language started about 70,000 years ago, but the scientific revolution only 500 years ago, and the industrial revolution only 200 years ago. The last 20 years has witnessed, with the development of the internet, a further revolution with major changes in our species’ community structures.

There is a warning running throughout the book. There is always a tendency to view the world from the viewpoint of humans and to marvel at our progress, our expansion in numbers to every corner of the globe, the domestication of our animals and the taming of our environment. However, if one looked at the history from the viewpoint of other animals now extinct, or enslaved, by our activities; or from the viewpoint of other humans in our genus (Neanderthals or Homo floriensis for example) who we probably drove to extinction; or from the viewpoint of the planet as a whole; then the picture is not as rosy and perhaps history will not be kind to our species. As our powers increase, and our desires also, we have become a very rapacious and dangerous animal. Capitalism, our current stage of development, demands constant growth and expansion to generate increasing wealth and this growth is based on ever increasing consumption. Though there are many benefits from this growth, there are also many dangers, and it is far from clear that this system makes us happier as people. Our religions served us well in times of scarcity and upheld our morals, but they do not seem to have weathered the passage of time. We are increasingly rootless individuals, atomised and alienated, and requiring the state to replace the families and communities we evolved, as a species, to rely upon. In planning for our future, we need to know of our past as blindly ploughing on carries huge risks. As Harari ends his book :-

We are more powerful than ever before but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want ?

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (p. 415). Random House. Kindle Edition.

I finished the yard and the book in about the same time and, having thought about our species handling of animals, was glad I’d done something that hopefully will improve their lot.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I have, over a period of nearly half a century, read this book three times. Interestingly it has made a very different impression on me on each occasion.

I first read the book in my late teens. This book was one of the important texts of the day and every young man and woman had read it. One would have risked being seen as uncultured if one hadn’t read this book. I knew that it was an acclaimed dystopian vision of the future and an important warning of the dangers of totalitarianism by one of the century’s greatest thinkers. However, I have to be honest and say that much of this was lost upon me. At the time I was in the revolutionary socialist phase of my development and thus found the warnings about the dangers from an over powerful state rather fanciful. Though I did see the risks associated with increasing consumerism I couldn’t really see the risks of increasing technological advancement. As a child of the 60s the Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech was still ringing in my ears. But essentially the major problem was that I was an adolescent male. The idea that a future could be full of easy sex and free recreational drugs didn’t really scare me. At some level I think I might have thought it a utopia rather than a dystopia.

A few decades passed until I read the book again. Now I was a middle-aged man with a mortgage, children and many responsibilities. I re-read this book and discovered what all the fuss was about. This was a book that really frightened me. As a parent of children, I could see the dangers that he foresaw. The risks of the loss of liberty, the debasement of relationships and art, the dangers in shallow and glib answers to deep and difficult problems were all things I now knew first hand. He was warning us of an exploitative, consumerist society where little matters other than consumption and the fulfilment of appetites. As a ‘baby boomer’ I had witnessed these changes first hand and worried, if the changes continued unabated, what the future my children might inherit.

Recently, again after an internal of some decades, I read the book again (It had been chosen by my book club).If my first reading had led to disbelief, and the second to anxiety, the third reading led to depression. Now with enough years under my belt I was able to see that the book was not just a dystopian novel but Huxley has been shown to be eerily prescient and the book is, with hindsight, rather prophetic. The decoupling of sex from reproduction and relationships now seems almost complete in our days of contraception and tinder. The predicted use of psychotropics to cure us of our angst and unhappiness is now well established. His warning that there would an assault on the idea of the family (as it suits neither capitalism nor communism) seems to be starting in earnest. Many aspects of family life (the education of children, the care of the elderly, for example) and now the responsibility of the state and when the family is discussed it is often seen as a problem – the place where unspeakable evils happen to children or where parents fill their childrens’ heads with antiquated cultural views. Huxley feared that we would not be able to play without the use of gadgets we have to buy and anyone who has watched the changes to play in children and adults can see that this is a growing problem. He feared art would become debased, and films (or rather the “feelies”) would descend to simple tales of excitement, ” .. plays, where there’s nothing but helicopters flying about, and you feel the people kissing’; anyone who has seen Die Hard 5 or The Fast and The Furious 9 know that this has already happened. Some of his wildest predictions have some echoes to recent changes:-

‘Why do the smoke-stacks have those things like balconies round them?’ enquired Lenina. ‘Phosphorus recovery,’ exclaimed Henry telegraphically. ‘On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. P2O5 used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight per cent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of four hundred tons of phosphorus every year from England alone.’ Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as though it had been his own. ‘Fine to think we can go on being socially useful even after we’re dead. Making plants grow.‘ Brave New World (p. 31). Random House. Kindle Edition.

We now presume consent for organ donation, our dead bodies are not a gift to others but presumed property of the state – just as the motto of the Brave New World proclaims – “Everybody belongs to everyone else“.

If there is a problem with the novel it is that it tries to cover too much ground and there are many, many themes. There are trenchant discussions on the role of suffering in life, the place of religion in society and whether truth and happiness can ever be compatible. It does rather lead the penultimate chapter to be less part of the novel and more a philosophical essay. However, these are minor flaws in what is an excellent novel. If you have not read it you really should. If you have already read it then it may be worthwhile reading it again if, like me, you were a callow youth first time around.

Parabolic

Parabolic

I sometimes feel that I, and the rest of our society, are sitting atop a giant inverted parabola. For millennia we have tried to elevate ourselves individually and as a culture with the exhortation and hope that we are not simply animals. We felt we were something set apart and duty bound to try and live lives that were better than the lowly animals. We may never have hoped to be gods but we always hoped to be closer to our God.

After eons of aspiring upwards away from our animal base we now seem to look downwards. We see ourselves as simply a smarter animal driven by the base animal desires we share with our less evolved kin. We no longer look upwards to the skies with soaring urges to exalt our difference, we look down into the depths and express our animal passions as freely and vigorously as we can.

It has never been proven that the path of humankind will always be one that is onwards and upwards, extinct species before us testify to that, our parabola may have both an apex and a nadir. It is a little like sitting atop a giant rollercoaster peering down filled with fear and dread but without having the certainty that this will all work out allright. Our present day large societies may feel that that they can ditch religion and operate on simply secular lines but, as revealed in a recent article in Nature,  religion played an important point in our development. If we ditch our religions and faith we shouldn’t be surprised if some of the effects we see are equally major and potentially damaging.

 

 

The 3 ‘R’s

The important triad that we need to consider, if we are to have any hope of tackling the problem we face with climate change and degradation of our environment, is the triad of:-

  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

Unfortunately, it is the most important of these that we tend to forget and ignore. The most important is “reduce“; indeed, the instruction to reuse and recycle are just other methods to avoid using new things and thus simple practical ways to reduce our consumption. If we recycle something, or use if for a different purpose, it saves us from buying or creating something new, it reduces our consumption. The key part of the triad remains reduce and it is the aspect which, unfortunately, the one to which we pay less attention. I can understand this, as it can quite easy to enjoy the other two instructions. There is indeed pleasure to be had from finding a new use for something you thought past its days. Recycling and reuse can save us money and certainly help us have a feeling of smugness, that we have done our bit, without any real cost to ourselves. In contrast “reducing” consumption has little fun associated with it, and any smugness is probably obliterated by a feeling of missing out on what other are having.

We are, in fact, exhorted to do the exact opposite of reducing our consumption. Although we all know that, if we want to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment, we must start to consume less and more wisely. But every day adverts tell us our lives are not complete without this, or that, product or service. Every day we are informed we will be happier if we just have something else; a new car, a foreign holiday, this year’s fashion in clothing or music. Increasingly advertisers try to urge us to become better people buy buying their products, suggesting that people who buy car X are obviously those who go against the herd, thinking individuals who understand the social and environmental threats we must tackle. The “greenwashing” that we see in the luxury market is particularly galling when we are urged to buy something new, because it is more efficient or green, while the much better option would be to not buy something and make our car, or washing machine, or fridge, or whatever, last that bit longer. The calculations to work out the better environmental option in these situations can be quite difficult to work out but it is generally safe to presume that not consuming something is the greenest option open to you.

At the social level this situation gets even worse. The mantra enthrals that all politicians is that “growth is good”. We are told that economic growth is the best marker for the health of our societies. It is suggested that if growth slackens then our future is grim, only ever increasing production and consumption can save us. While it is true that the spectacular growth we have seen has lifted most of the world’s population out of poverty but the problem is no longer inadequacy of wealth (there is more than enough for all) the problems are waste and faulty distribution. The wealth we have is not fairly spread and the creating of this wealth is at the expense of our future safety. It might be much better to be aiming, in the developed world, for what Adam Smith described as “stationarity” or the “steady-state economy” described by the ecological economist Herman Daly. Those of us living in the post-scarcity economies of the developed world need to try and find ways to alter our living and let us reflect on our problems.

This problem was brought home to me this week, on Tuesday to be precise. This week included Shrove Tuesday but most of our press and media were keen to remind me it was Pancake Day. It is clear that this is another ritual or celebration which is going through a metamorphosis to become more useful for our current times. Shrove Tuesday is so called because of the word shrive which means to absolve. This day marked the end of the period before lent. A day to use up, and so not waste, the foodstuff that would no be eaten during the fast to come. (Mardi Gras has the same origin, its meaning being Fat Tuesday). It was time to start reflecting on our failures and begin the period of Lent during which we would be expected to give up some of the pleasures of life and, instead, pay attention to our failings.

This aspect of the celebration does not fit with a modern consumer culture. A ritual that encourages reduced consumption and thoughtful introspection really doesn’t fit with our current world view. The last thing a consumer society wishes is for consumers to doubt or reduce their consumption. So as Breugel (See Picture) anticipated we have converted it into another excuse to consume, to carouse, to eat and drink to excess. Just as Easter has become the celebration of eating chocolate, Christmas the celebration of general excess, the remnants of Lent have become the celebration of eating sweet carbohydrate treats. They all join the new celebrations of consumption such as Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day.

At a time when the last thing in the world we need is encouragement to consume more it is sad to see a tradition promoting moderation and self-reflection dying. If anything we need to try and revive Lent and to encourage people that we need to think about our consumption and behaviour. We may think that we no longer need to think on our sins nor repent as we are modern and above such primitive things. However, greed, gluttony, lust and envy are factors that drive our overconsumption and promote the unequal distribution of our wealth and we need to think about these. If we do not, and we continue as we are, then the inequalities we see will worsen and we will fail to stop the global warming which we clearly know is starting to threaten our future as a species. At a time when our behaviour is such that it threatens our very survival it might be a wise time to salvage a period of reflection and repentance, and the exhortation from Ash Wednesday would seem a very good place to start :-

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return

The Favourite – not mine

The Favourite continues to do well in the awards,the-favourite-poster gathering praise where it is shown, and seems likely to do well on Oscars night. It has garnered praise in most film reviews and on-line the critics are, almost to a man, bowed over by its greatness. Only PostTrak seems a little discordant, with its more cautious rating, but then this rating is given by audiences rather than critics and this may be the reason. Unfortunately, I too have to be much more reserved in my praise for the film, as overall I found it more of a miss than a hit.

I have been looking forward to this film as I have enjoyed the earlier work of the director (especially Dogtooth) and I knew that he was a capable and inventive movie maker. Indeed the visual production of the film is excellent and does warrant any awards in this area. There is clever scene composition and good use of the fisheye lens which does add to the pictorial elegance of the film. The music was effective  and used well in driving emotional tension and it to was possibly worthy of awards. The acting was fairly good and in no way let the film down but I don’t share the view that it was exceptional. It would have been difficult for the actors to shine as the characters and script were so poor. Characters were essentially caricatures and their dialogues were very poor and peppered with anachronisms. The three female leads are excellent actors but they did not display their metal in this film.

Unfortunately all of the excellent work above (the direction, the music, the settings and the actors) was then largely undone for me. This film presented a view of an important period of history as a combination period drama and ribald romp. As is almost de rigueur today, the power struggles were described as simply the outgrowth of personal and identity politics; the consequences of the machinations of the lusts of three powerful women. This might have worked if the period drama had been historically more accurate but it really omitted most that was important in this period. Preferring the scandal of a hint of homosexuality to any consideration of the true turmoil of the time.

Queen Anne’s reign was an important time. It followed the Glorious Revolution with the conflict that split Britain along religious Catholic/Protestant  lines. It was the time when England’s relations with Europe were changing , especially with the Dutch and the French. Indeed Anne was married to Prince George of Denmark in an attempt to create a Danish-English alliance to try and contain the maritime power of the Dutch.  Indeed the whole scene at home was changing with the Union of the Crowns and the creation of a single sovereign state of Great Britain; Anne was Queen of Scotland, England and Ireland at the start of her reign but by the end she was the first Queen of Great Britain and Ireland at her death. Her reign also saw the development of the two-party political system, with Whigs and Tories, in Britain. Queen Anne took an active interest, and played an active role, in politics and did receive considerable criticism as a consequence. None of this really appears in the film. The viewer could leave the cinema ignorant of all of this and with the impression that Anne was a silly, demanding lady lead by her girlfriends.

There are precious few times when women have played important and pivotal roles in British history that we know about. This era was one of them. Queen Anne, The Duchess of Marlborough and Baroness Masham were key players in defining aspects of British history. These women were significant agents in the religious and political power struggles that define much of British Society today. They did this as intelligent thinking individuals who knew the basis to these religious and political differences and clearly took principled stances in these battles. To portray them as scheming harpies belittles their success. It is reminiscent of the misogynistic criticism Queen Anne experienced during her lifetime. She was often derided as a weak woman, not of the stuff to rule and govern. It is terrible that today when, as usual, we try and rewrite history as we would have liked it to have been, rather than as it was, we end up belittling the very women who did manage to overcome the oppression of the age and take charge. This meant the film, despite it technical merits, left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I was left with the feeling that I had just watched a titillating tale of sex and swearing, wrapped up in good production values to give the illusion of class and worth, which told us nothing of the individuals then, nor anything about ourselves now. This lack of content made it difficult to end the film which comes to an unsatisfactory abrupt stop with the superimposition of some inappropriate rabbits (If you see the film you will understand).2-stars-out-of-5

 

Three rolls of fencing.

Three rolls of fencing.

I was on pleasant walk to post a letter this afternoon when I had an opportunity for a short thought experiment. As I walked along the road, with the dog, I noticed that the fence at the side of the road had been removed in preparation for being replaced. Every hundred yards or so there were neatly stacked piles of fence posts and rolls of fencing; some new and some tidily rewound ready to be reused. Everything was left ready for tomorrow’s task of refencing a large field.

I looked at these piles of equipment and recalled that I need to refence or middle field and will need to do this next month before I am able move the sheep. I then had the ‘thought experiment’ – “Why don’t I steal the fencing?”. This equipment, like so many other pieces of farm equipment, had been left here unguarded and with no protection, why don’t I just take some? If would be so easy just to lift it up and take it home.

The first reason I considered was that perhaps I didn’t need or want this stuff. This was easy to dismiss. Fencing is an never ending job on farms, a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge, once you get to one end it is time to go back to the beginning and start again. Nor was it because this material is so inexpensive as to not be worth stealing. Although fence posts are relatively cheap, the fencing itself is reasonably dear and this is a noticeable cost in the farm budget. These weren’t the reasons.

I then considered the law and issues of crime and punishment. I knew that this was against the law, as taking without permission would be stealing. However, this would only influence my decision if I had a chance of falling into the hands of the justice system. In other words, it would only be an issue if I might, possibly  be caught. The risks of this were really quite negligible. One bit of fence wire is much like any other and who would be able to prove that this was not my wire once it was on my land. No, if I stole this wire punishment by the legal system would not be my biggest concern. Punishment in another way, however, might well be the reason.

The obvious reason I don’t take the wire is because I know it is wrong and that if I acted wrongly I would feel bad. The anticipation of guilt is the main barrier to bad actions. This guilt is modulated by a number of factors but, in today’s walk, community seemed to be the biggest modifier. I know who is repairing that fence. I know who would be hurt by my actions. I know that they, like I have, had left things out because they trust that their neighbours will behave well. My guilt would be even worse if I broke this trust. My knowledge of who was involved was the biggest factor in my decision. If I did steal from them,even if they never found out I would know. This knowledge, that I had stolen from them, would be corrosive to my soul and very difficult to bear.

All our lives, from when we are able to be independant, we are trying to balance the drive to keep our individuality whilst seeking to enjoin ourselves in community. Our first step is usually to find a partner, then to create a family, while all the time trying to find a community, or kinship group, in which to thrive. It is no surprise that the Lord’s Prayer asks for “our daily bread”, rather than “my daily bread”, and to pardon “our trespasses” not “my trespasses”. We only exist, as people, when we are in relationships with others. John Donne described this well in his poem “No Man Is An Island” :-

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 

But as we build bigger and bigger communities there may be a cost. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated, that due to the limitations of the size of our cortex, we can only get truly to know between 100 and 200 people. This number, usually rounded to 150, is Dunbar’s Number and is the limit of people we can know in any real and significant manner. Above this number,  communities start to require stricter rules and regulations to ensure good behaviour from its members. Above this number, the knowing interaction between individuals, and filial feelings, can no longer be relied upon to ensure decent behaviour.

I found the idea of stealing the wire “unthinkable” and I believe in part this was due to my temptation occuring in a smaller community. Were I tempted in a larger group, with anonymity for me and for my victim, I am not sure I could be relied upon to behave as well. Those of us who wish people to behave well, to seek out the good, and to become better people need to think about this. Rather than devising more, strict rules, which might more strictly control behaviour, but at the expense of weakening moral abilities, we should perhaps ensure that our communities are small and human sized. In larger communities there is a danger we become a myriad of individuals, in a huge shoal of individuals, requiring supervision to ensure we don’t harm one and other. In smaller communities the instinctive urges we have to look after ourselves while working cooperatively with our fellows are well balanced and effective.  Larger societies don’t just end up concentrating power they need to concentrate power and it is for this reason that we should resist this danger.