Pascal’s wager

The apocalyptic science fiction I read in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties seems to be coming true: ecological collapse (The Death of Grass, John Christopher), extreme inequality, AIs you can talk to, cyberspace (William Gibson), self-driving cars, gated communities, countries throwing nuclear threats about, people (serious people!) suggesting we are going to need to find another planet.

But on the other hand, so far, we have not been visited by aliens, friendly or otherwise. I watched a (devastating) lecture the other day (thanks to HoneythatsOK), arguing that we are past the point of no return on climate change and that civilisation and its collapse are  both heat engines. So, whether we act or not, the game is up – the game in question being the human race and much else, the endgame not just the collapse of civilisation but human extinction in the not too distant future. (That got dark quickly.)

This led me to thinking a few things (!), among which:

Maybe the reason we haven’t been visited by aliens is that any civilisation sophisticated enough to get out into space would be very likely to disrupt its home ecosystem so much that it would destroy itself before it could do so.

What is a reasonable response to this prophecy of doom? A form of Pascal’s wager perhaps. We cannot be absolutely sure what is to come. Our models and our understanding are limited. Some climate scientists seem more optimistic than the speaker in the video (and we hope that is not because of a conspiracy of silence to prevent mass panic). So we have a choice: to accept the prophecy of doom and give up on trying to mitigate climate change, or to act as if it is not too late and try to do something about it. If the prophecy of doom is true, it makes no difference what we do, but if it isn’t and we act as if it is by giving up, we may be making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. So rather than giving up in despair, we should work on the assumption that something can be done to prevent the worst-case scenario, and do so with even more urgency.

Geology – or ‘a throw of the dice’



Alternative Reality


In a luxurious and secluded venue, a group of rich and powerful people sit, sipping brandy and discussing the great problems of the world, climate change and how to respond to it without losing their position of privilege. One says, ‘Maybe we have to face it – fossil fuels, consumerism and endless growth are failing – the crazy, green socialists are right – we can’t go on using resources and destroying the planet just to keep siphoning wealth from the poor. Things have got to change.’

But another smiles and says, ‘Don’t forget the other solution.’

‘What’s that?’



‘Fewer people means less destruction of ecosystems and fewer poor people means less inequality. Just what those crazy greens want. If we didn’t have to support so many poor people the world would be much better off.’

‘But what about the gruntwork they do? I don’t want to slave in a care home or pick fruit!’

‘Most of that can be automated – and much of it is unnecessary anyway. We’re only farming them for the interest on the loans that keep them locked in to the system.’

‘Ok. How do you propose to downsize?’

‘Simple. Make sure universal healthcare fails and have a few wars … more brandy anyone?’

Red, blue and green (a storyboard)

If politics =

red versus blue

left versus right

mutual interdependence versus individual freedom to choose

public goods versus private property rights,

is green more red than blue?


(rotating the left-right axis to draw expanding circles of concern)

politicalspectrum 001

(panning down across the circles and out again)

politicalspectrum2 001

(zooming in)

polspec3 001


Gloom and doom (trigger warning)


I haven’t had much to say of late because everything that needs saying is being said by others more informed, articulate and public than this blog – Naomi Klein, George Monbiot, Owen Jones, Caroline Lucas, and even (whisper it) Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders…

But anyway, the stream of bad news and the ‘sign this petition’ requests keep on coming – the powers that be merrily continue to ignore or actively make worse the state of our world. Climate change? Issue some more fracking licenses. Declining bee populations? Spread those neonics (I wonder which arms company is planning to produce the nanobot microdrones to pollinate our food crops when all the bees are gone). Education? Health care? Gotta be better when you have to make a profit as well as cover the costs, doesn’t it? Who cares, as long as the 1% can make even more money out of it?

So Facebookers drown our sorrows (or bury our heads in the sand) with charming videos of cute animals and children laughing.

And even the climate change believers can’t mention the dirty word, ‘population’. Sustainable growth is what we must aim for. All we can do, it seems, is mitigate (energy efficiency and renewables and nuclear (don’t worry about the waste disposal issue – future us will sort that out, I’m sure)) and adapt (be prepared to move when sea levels rise – and maybe build some walls to keep out the people displaced by water shortages or flooding or wars?).

I watched a programme the other day about prehistoric Britain, and the Edenic image of a world when humans were few enough to be just part of the ecosystem seemed profoundly attractive. Back then it was a pretty hard existence, I expect, and agriculture and population growth probably did make for a more secure life (though not necessarily a healthier one, as diet was poorer than for hunter gatherers and the repetitive labour of production – an hour a day grinding corn, for instance – caused diseases like arthritis), but today, why can’t humans live better with fewer?

Here’s a mad, science fiction idea: women of the world unite and pledge not to have more than two children each. Population growth stops at a stroke and we can use our vaunted technologies to make a good life possible without devastating the environment with massive factory farms and without armies of underpaid workers to do the crap jobs (while generating the excess that makes the rich richer). If we can give up this addiction to consumption for the sake of consumption (or rather for the sake of ‘growth’ – that neoliberal, trickle-up Ponzi scheme), there would surely be more than enough carrying capacity for everyone and for the larger ecosystem we depend on and are part of.

However, that mad idea requires humans to act rationally and collectively, with thought for the future and the planet, instead of focusing on fearing and hating the ‘enemy’ next door. So maybe it will be down to other forces to redress the balance. Maybe the engines of population control will be antibiotic-resistant bacteria, obesity, the spread of tropical diseases in a warming world, water wars, and other unintended consequences we aren’t even aware of yet.

I’ll shut up again now. Let’s watch some lambs gambolling



All things bright and beautiful,

all creatures great and small

are part of the same nature –

together stand or fall.

The rich man in his castle,

the poor ones at the gate,

as waters rise and systems fail,

will suffer the same fate.

Can science save the world?

Outlining possible solutions to the crisis, he suggests there is little we can do about escalating population and the global economy. He pins his faith in greater energy efficiency and a growing dependence on renewables such as wind farms and solar power.

This comes from Michael Billington’s review of 2071, a theatrical ‘documentary’ on climate change, featuring Chris Rapley, a man with a distinguished career in science. Billington describes the production as ‘better than good…necessary’.

Chris Rapley

(image from Guardian article linked above)

The quoted statement made me think. It seems to be an example of how the scientific community contributes to our political and social failure to take the problem on. It encourages us and our political leaders to believe that science and technology can get us out of this, without changing our economic systems and cultural assumptions. The global economy can go on its merry way, pursuing endless growth, and population can continue to expand, because the scientists will save us.

Some scientists may be happy to take on this messianic role, but it might be better if they, along with the rest of us, acknowledged its hubris. Billington’s phrase ‘pins his faith‘ is telling. It is faith, not science, that supports the idea that science can protect us from catastrophic climate change, and it is a faith that seems to be driven more by the thought that it’s the only option; we can’t change economic and social forces, even though we know they are hugely significant, so we have to solve the problem technologically. A scientist, who naturally looks to science for solutions, sees that population control or global economic trends are not within the remit of science. So the scientist focuses on the aspects of the problem that he or she can address, and hopes that that will be enough.

The other elements of the problem, population, economic growth, consumerism, involve changes in the behaviour of masses of people. This is why it seems so intractable and why people often resist calls for more sustainable practices on the grounds that one individual’s actions can have no effect, or even one country’s. ‘What’s the point,’ they say, ‘when China is building all those coal-fired power stations?’* Human behaviour on this scale falls under the scope of the humanities, sociology, history, etc. The only branch of the humanities that we tend to look to for solutions to anything is economics, but in this case it seems that economics is part of the problem.

The things that do influence behaviour on such a large scale are religions and ideologies, which are even more remote from current individualistic and scientific outlooks. But perhaps this is where we should be looking. I do not mean to say that some traditional religion or god can save us, any more than science can. Rather, the kind of change in world-view and values that we need is akin to a religious movement, an ethos, both in content – a vision of how we ought to live – and in that it needs to provide a basis for a new social, cultural form of life, for individuals and communities in a global ecosystem.

This train of thought may have got carried away to a rather sweeping, utopian place. Another, smaller inference might be that (in spite of what I said in the previous paragraph) existing religions could have a role to play, by offering alternatives to prevailing economic orthodoxies and by reaching large sections of the population. But that would require global religions to seek common ground among themselves and with science, rather than enabling conflict – to act as unifying forces, not as divisive ones. History is not terribly encouraging on that point.

So let’s be wildly utopian and imagine a Green Reformation, where scientific solutions combine with social change, rather than being an excuse for social, political, and economic inertia.

*Shortly after I wrote this, the USA and China announced their agreement on deadlines for cutting carbon emissions – so that’s a step in the right direction and dare we hope a sign that change is coming? At least it makes it harder to give the ‘what about China?’ excuse for apathy.

False dichotomies

How many times must it be said? The issue is not ‘environment versus economy’. It is long-term thinking versus short-term thinking. If we ‘develop’ a coral island to increase tourism, because we need the income and the jobs, and the development destroys the coral reefs, we lose the tourism as well as the ecosystem that hitherto supported the community. How is that economics winning?

And here‘s some evidence.

And more:

Thanks to a double whammy of disease and bleaching, branched corals have given way to stumpier rivals in most of the Caribbean's reefs (Image: L Alvarez-Filip, N Dulvy, J Gill (UEA), I M Côté and A Watkinson)

(image from New Scientist article linked above)

(This mini-rant was triggered by listening to BBC Radio 4 Costing the Earth – a politician, when asked about the possibility of developing East Caicos (as yet undeveloped and uninhabited by humans and therefore with the most pristine reefs in the Caribbean), said ‘The economy has to win sometimes.’)