Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Yesterday my neighbour had a large lathe, to turn and mill metal, delivered to his door. Four guys pulled the palette off the lorry and drove off leaving it in his drive. It was enormous and heavy, and he was unable to move it. Luckily, shortly after this, a van with some local youths, on their way back from shearing sheep, passed by. They noticed his dilemma, stopped and helped him lift the crate up to his workshop.

After unpacking the lathe and assembling its stand in the workshop another problem became apparent. The machine weighed 300kg it was going to be difficult to lift it up, through the door, and onto its stand. I was passing, walking the dogs, and started to help. We fashioned a moving shelf with a car jack and a metal plate but, even with crowbars, we couldn’t get the machine up onto the shelf.

Luckily another farmer was passing bringing hay back from a field recently cut. We flagged him down and asked if he would help us with the last leg of the lathe’s journey. This was no minor request. This weighed over quarter of a ton, was difficult to handle and could cause serious injury, or death, if it toppled and fell. But none the less we all set to and after an hour of panting, groaning and swearing the job was done. We gossiped for a while about politics and Brexit, then I completed my walk with the dog, the farmer finished his journey with the hay, and my neighbour settled down to read the lathe’s handbook.

What struck me, as I was walking the dog, was how ready people are to help each other. Happy to help for no reward other than to be helpful. It struck me how often I see this. Or local community hall is run and shared by volunteers who maintain the grounds at their own cost and who give hours of time to organize local events. I recalled spending an afternoon with a man I did not know as we cut and cleared a tree which had fallen and blocked the road, and a prior evening when a different stranger had helped me round up someone’s sheep that had got out through a broken fence and were wandering the lanes. I have an evening booked, later this week, to go to the pub with some people in the town who, like me are Community First Responders, and give up some of their free time to help should anyone be in need.

Life would scarcely be liveable were it not for these multiple acts of kindness from strangers. If I drop my wallet, or leave my phone on the table, as I leave a cafe someone will call to alert me or run after me to make sure I don’t lost my property. Anyone with the misfortune to be in an accident will recall the offers of help from bystanders. Anyone lost knows you can ask a passerby for directions. Every day our interactions with others is usually helpful. When we walk on a busy pavement in the city we do not jump and jostle for space but step aside and ensure we can all move as freely as possible. It’s the way we are made, it’s our nature, we are designed to be helpful.

It is for this reason that I get annoyed with post-apocalyptic films and novels which suggest that when the state is destroyed we will all descend into barbarism. The usual scenario is, that after a disaster, man-made or natural, all the authorities have gone and our heroes have to travel across a land populated by villains intent on rape and murder. These dystopias paint a bleak picture of life without the state. The message is clear, without the state to protect us we world all be at risk from the murderous impulses of our neighbours.

This runs counter to our general experience. We rarely call on the state to defend us and every day we experience pleasant or useful communal interactions with our fellows. Our instincts to be sociable and create society are so innate and quotidian that we fail to notice them. Rather, we only notice when people fail to be nice and are, on rare occasions, rude to us.

There is a misconception that the state creates society. It does not, individuals by their nature create society. The state, by contrast, creates power; rather than fostering cooperation it creates compulsion and obligation. Humans do not by instinct kill each other, if you want to see violent and cruel behaviour you need a ruling class to compel it. The mass killings our species has seen (wars, genocide or pogroms) have always been instigated by a state and a call to the authority of a God, King, Nation or ideology. We have to compel people to go to war and sometimes shoot them if they won’t go – to encourage the others. People spontaneously build communities and society not war and oppression, you need a state for that.

Even the benign aspects of the state carry their risks. If, ‘for or own good’, the state looks after our welfare it takes it out of our hands. It means we do not make the choices and priorities, and we do not make the social bonds and links to promote our welfare. Charity, locality planning and fraternal organizations all become weakened when the state steps in. As the sociologist Frank Furedi noted :-

“Indeed, it can be argued that state intervention in everyday life corrodes community life no less, and arguably even more, than market forces. In many societies, people who come to rely on the state depend far less on each other and on their community. When what matters is access to the state then many citizens can become distracted, and stop cooperating and working with fellow members of their community”

In a practical sense, here is some free advice. If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, or jungle, or crossing barren windswept plains after a nuclear holocaust, and you see other people don’t run away from them. They are your best hope, do what all your instincts tell you to do and run towards them shouting for help; they probably will.

If we ever do see the breakdown of the state then I will be even more reliant on my friend and neighbours. We would quickly reorganise our local community again and people might take the opportunity not to return to power structures that we had lost, with all the inequality that accompanied it. The world would go on but sone of those who leeched of our backs would now have to fund a way to be helpful and productive.

The state might tell us whether we can buy a lathe or not, or might put taxes on its purchase to fund its own agenda, and it may punish someone if they steal it from us, but it doesn’t do much else. It didn’t design it, make it, or transport it, individuals working cooperatively did that. The state didn’t help us move the lathe in the past and we will still be able to move it, despite its weight, once the state has gone.

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.

The End of the World Running Club. (Adrian J. Walker)

While I was cleaning our holiday let, in 51NXDkgb5VLpreparation for the next set of visitors, I noticed an addition to the bookcase. This book, “The End Of The World Running Club” by Adrian J . Walker, had been put on the shelf on it’s side (It was this that drew my attention to it). I had a quick look at the cover and the blurb on the backpage and decided I would give it a try. It was not the type of book to which I am normally drawn though I had enjoyed the post-apocalyptic tale of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and thus knew it was possible to tackle important themes in this potentially depressing genre.

The book starts at the end of the world with a bang, literally a bang, as an asteroid shower hits the UK ending life as we know it. Interestingly the opening scenes take place in Edinburgh and the Lothians which was a pleasant surprise and the geography, or what is left of it, was well and accurately described. The main protagonist, Edward Hill, and his family survive the initial strike but soon become separated and find themselves at different ends of the British Isles. This sets up the premise for the book; Edward must race, against time, from one end of Britain to the other for the sake of his family.

Unfortunately, Edward is an overweight, un-fit, sluggard who has had a lifelong aversion to healthy activities and in no fit state to undertake a run like this. But heteams up with a few others and they start their odyssey. During the run they meet number of people, both good and bad, and issues of trust and survival are discussed. The characters are well drawn, believable and, our heroes, are likeable. There is a great deal of the self-deprecating humour that is characteristic of the UK and Australia as Edward considers his failings and shortcomings as a man and, especially, as a husband and father. Some of these passages are ‘laugh out loud’ funny (as my wife trying to sleep will testify). Unfortunately,  I think this aspect of the humour was behind many of the poor reviews on Goodreads where reviewers found Edward unlikeable as he spends a great deal of the time considering his failings rather than ever blowing his own trumpet. I suppose that is possible that this particularly ‘blokeish’ humour may be off-putting to some, though I found it enjoyable.

It is when Edward, and the other characters, consider their difficulties and how they will face up to them that the meat of the story develops. They have to face adversity, learn responsibility, trust and endurance. These lessons are drawn by very human scenarios in extreme circumstances. The humanity of the characters makes these situations credible and make us empathise with the players and care what happens to them. These are frail people not heroes and it is easy to imagine yourself in their shoes. As a consequence this book rips along at a fast pace and even though it is lengthy (466 pages) I found that I read it in a few eager sittings. As the story neared its end and the conclusion drew into view I really didn’t want it to happen and could happily have read on.

This is an excellent holiday novel, one to pack for beside the pool. It is also an excellent choice as bedtime reading. Either way don’t expect it to last too long.

 

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. Lionel Shriver

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. Lionel Shriver

It is difficult to categorise this novel as it crosses many genres. It a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, science fiction story wrapped up in a family saga and present day morality tale, it contains a fair bit of humour, and  there is a fair bit of economic theory and history thrown in for leavening. Surprisingly it is all the better because of this, it is engrossing. The story follows a number of members of the Mandibles clan as they cope with the changes that follow the economic collapse in America.

The discussion about the problems with fiat money, inflation, central banking and the nature of money itself is well written and manages to explain many things, by using the form of a novel, that many economics textbooks fail to clarify. The impact of these problems is made real by the realistic descriptions of life post-collapse. Time will tell if Shriver is going to prove to be prescient, or rather, in which areas her predictions were accurate.

The characters are well drawn, some likeable, others despicable, but all believable. Shriver’s ability to reveal the darker side of our nature is well known. In this story, as the characters try to survive, many facets of human nature are turned over for assessment. We will sometimes see features we recognise in ourselves and sometimes this will not flatter, but shame, us. It is always better to be self aware and to know our faults and, if it has to be done, it is better to do it to the accompaniment of some dark comic humour.

Leaving the last word to Shriver herself :-

Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all. The future is just the ultimate monster in the closet, the great unknown.

When I was young, millions of years ago .. ..

via Daily Prompt: Millions

I can understand nostalgia. I can understand looking back to a time when I was younger, fitter, faster, thinner, more attractive, more self assured and thinking it was better then. All those years ago I had been lied to less often, I had experienced cheating less often and had been disappointed less often, so perhaps it is not surprising these times have a rosy glow of the ‘good old days’. But although I remember those times fondly I am also aware that there were, in many significant ways worse.

As a baby boomer my early life was spend in the 60’s and 70’s and it was substantially different to that of my children’s. In those days many fewer of us went into tertiary education, foreign travel was an exotic figment of our imagination, central heating was known only to the wealthy. Television and car ownership had spread to the populace but cars were primitive compared to our current models and “one car families” were the norm as were television sets which could  provide our three, or later four, broadcast channels.  Ideas such as personal computers, digital photography, mobile phones, satellite navigation, and the internet were still science fiction. So although I may be nostalgic for my young self I am not nostalgic, in any true sense, for that period of time.

the-evil-of-capitalism-in-one-chart-foundation-for-economic-education

Individually my life was certainly less materially wealthy than my children’s and much less so than my own life now. But on a bigger scale there have been much more important changes with life changing effects.

In America last year 3,500,000 fewer Americans were in poverty according to the national census  (1). In China millions have been pulled out of poverty especially in the urban centres (2). Across the globe, with varying degrees of success, absolute poverty is declining. Between 1990 and 2010, millions of people were taken out of extreme poverty when this was halved according to the World Bank (3). These changes would seem to relate to our growing trade and, as a consequence, wealth. This growth in trade has also been associated with a reduction in deaths from violence. We are less likely to be  killed or injured by others of our own species (4). Millions more of us now live free from actual  violence, whether personal assault or as a consequence of war.  Diseases which used to kill millions are now plagues of the past and part of history. Recall that smallpox, a killer of billions,  was declared eradicated in 1980 (5).

It is unusual then, in the face off all these numbers and in the face of our own personal experience we are still so pessimistic and nostalgic. All our experience is that life has got better both for ourselves and for others. We can all see that materially we are much more affluent than generations before us. Our life expectancy figures let us know that we are less plagued by illness and early death than before. We may not know it but we are freer from violence and live in a more sociable society with less crime than before and the figures are quite clear on this – despite our perception

 

But despite all of this, still only 30% of us think life has improved and 43% of us feel Britain has changed for the worse (6). While recently 44% worried for the future (7) when all our experience is that things tend to get better.

Were this nostalgia and pessimism merely a pleasant  fondness for our youth passed the there would be no problem. Unfortunately, however, we often believe life was better, rather then were better, those days ago. This leads us to make mistakes. It makes us hanker for old certainties, to look back at old ways of doing things, when what we need to do is to continue the progress we have made. It sometimes makes us fear the future and change. For example our fear of GM crops, and “golden rice” in particular, will consign 2 million children to an avoidable early death next year(8).  We have not run out of challenges facing mankind and there is no good reason to try and put the brakes on progress.

Our rose tinted spectacles can also mislead us into reactionary, or backward looking, politics; wistfully thinking back of times of national pride and fearing globalisation. The future problems we will have to overcome will require continued trade, continued free movement of people, continued intermingling of peoples and knowledge. To think otherwise will lead us to miss opportunities which will consign present generations to experience  unnecessary illness, hardship or violence. If we want a bright and optimistic future we will have to believe it possible and  work to make it. We should not give up hope or wallow in nostalgia. In the wise words of Abraham Lincoln “The best way to predict your future is to create it

 


Millions

(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/26/business/economy/millions-in-us-climb-out-of-poverty-at-long-last.html

(2) https://www.theguardian.com/business/economics-blog/2015/aug/19/china-poverty-inequality-development-goals

(3) http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview

(4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature

(5)http://www.who.int/csr/disease/smallpox/en/

(6) https://yougov.co.uk/news/2012/02/07/britains-nostalgic-pessimism/

(7) http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/after-brexit-vote-44-employees-uk-are-pessimistic-about-future-cipd-survey-shows-1573215

(8) http://supportprecisionagriculture.org/nobel-laureate-gmo-letter_rjr.html