Prejudiced, moi?

how to be rightJust how gullible are we human beings, and how easily do we cling on to ideas that have no true justification? This question appears increasingly relevant to those of a liberal disposition, and is indirectly the subject of James O’Brien’s book How to Be Right… in a world gone wrong.

O’Brien runs a talk show on LBC radio and has callers on many controversial subjects: Islam, Brexit, LGBT, political correctness, feminism, the nanny state, Trump… The book basically gives his own ‘take’ on the subject from a ‘reality-based’ perspective, and demonstrates how various callers from different perspectives handle explaining their views, with many entertaining dialogues.

He essentially seeks to understand the caller’s viewpoint. The striking thing is often just how shallow those viewpoints are, and what little justification is given for them when questioned. It’s as if the person has unquestioningly swallowed a viewpoint and subsequently regurgitates it, without any understanding of why it might make sense. In other words, it is blind prejudice. They have effectively been brainwashed.

O’Brien’s technique is remarkable for its persistence, sticking to the point, and not allowing the caller to get away with simply restating their prejudice in another form. As well as giving us all ideas on how to handle the prejudice we inevitably encounter, it gives some insight into the minds that are most susceptible to populism.

It is also an entertaining read.

Featured pic of James O’Brien is from LBC website

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The Web of Life Paradigm

My previous post on ecoliteracy brought to mind a review I did of two books, both published in 1996.

  • The Whispering Pond, Ervin Laszlo, Element
  • The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra, Harper Collins

The review appeared in Long Range Planning magazine in 1997, so is written from a business/ strategic planning perspective, but the messages are widely applicable. Any books by these two authors are well worth reading.

Some of the references to current trends now appear somewhat dated, a lot has happened in over 20 years! Sadly, a lot of the change since then has not been for the better.

Why should business people be interested in two recent books describing thinking from the forefront of popular science? The answer lies in the way all our thinking is dominated by the underlying paradigms that have crystallised in our consciousness since the scientific revolution. This structure is being shattered by the sort of developments described in these books. The world of the future is likely to be founded on this emerging underlying paradigm.

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Winning

It’s in the nature of polarity that neither side can ‘win’. There is always a balance to be achieved in the creative interplay of opposites.

So what are we to make of the attitude of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ in this context? Everywhere, it seems, we see groups fighting for their ideal and resisting ever compromising on what they see as ‘right’.

In the UK, the Brexiteers will never compromise on anything short of hard Brexit. The Remainers think a big mistake has been made, which must be reversed. The US thought it ‘won’ the cold war and sought to impose its will on the rest of the world.

Of course, you can win in sport, and you can apparently win in life. In 2000, the neoconservatives ‘won’ the direction of US policy for decades, by fair means or foul.

But you cannot cheat the polarity for ever. The chickens come home to roost if the balance gets too far out of kilter. Make inequality too great, and you get unrest, then revolution. Ignore the scientific evidence on climate and the climate comes back to bite you.

Populism thrives on simple ideas about ‘winning’. We desperately need to reach a more sophisticated level of discourse. Winning is illusory, and usually involves overriding or ignoring the necessary counterbalance.

Featured image. When England won. The queen presents 1966 World Cup to England captain Bobby Robson, via Wikimedia Commons

Justice and Generosity, Hierarchy and Equality

This fascinating post by Chris Lansdown explains why we form social hierarchies, despite their evident limitations. And why ‘ideal’ forms of organisation usually fail in the end.

Chris Lansdown

I recently said, on Twitter:

If you wish to understand how society always organizes itself:

Equals can get along if they have nothing to do with each other or both are generous to each other.

Superior/sub-ordinate can get along if both will be merely just to each other.

There was some interest in this so I’ll explain what I mean and why it is the case.

There are and have been many forms of social organization—democracy, republics monarchies, dictatorships, bureaucracies, clubs, churches, friends, families, neighbors, villages, cities, etc.—but they all share some basic traits because they are organizations of human beings and human nature imposes restrictions upon how human beings can be organized.

In a fallen world, one of the biggest problems which needs to be handled in human relationships is how to handle when two people’s wills diverge. There are only three possible outcomes: both get their way, one…

View original post 1,095 more words

Travellers in the Third Reich

The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People

As one of a generation haunted by discovering the then-recent calamity of WW2, now disturbed by the rise in populism across the world, I found this a timely book by Julia Boyd.

It tells the story of the Third Reich through the eyes of people who visited or lived in Germany through the days of Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, its consolidation, the increasing drumbeats towards war, and the war itself.

What is remarkable is how many people gave the Nazi regime the benefit of the doubt, despite the clear signs, such as the centralisation of all power, rescinding of civil liberties and press freedom, the early concentration camps, the persecution of Jews, the burning of books (all in 1933) through to Kristallnacht (1938) and the subsequent descent into war.

Of course, the desire to avoid another war was a major part of this, and there is the interesting story of Neville Chamberlain’s vain attempt to make peace in Munich in 1938, and Hitler’s dismissive attitude to the whole affair.

The book presents an interesting story, perhaps a bit long-winded at times. It certainly opened my eyes to some things, such as the fact that Germany welcomed English and American tourists throughout the 1930s, and many found the country very efficient and friendly, except where they came face to face with the persecution of Jews and supposed non-aryans.

The stories from the 1920s and early 1930s show that, after making a fair recovery from WW1, Germany was not in a good place after the shock of the great depression. The arduous reparation terms imposed by the Allies at the end of WW1 were a major cause of German suffering and dissatisfaction. It seems that these were major factors in the rise to power of Hitler.

The evident parallel today is the rise of populism following the 2008 financial crash, and the subsequent failure to make due reckoning with its causes. The missing factor today is there is no sense of national persecution similar to that caused in Germany by the WW1 armistice terms.  

In the case of Donald Trump and the US, it is maybe too early to say how far the parallels go – but he clearly came to the presidency by exploiting white male dissatisfaction with the status quo that had come about – economic, racial and misogynistic. On the positive side, the US constitution appears to be much more robust in resisting over-centralization of power than was Germany in the 1930s.


In the groove

Human societies get so stuck in a collective mental groove, like a railroad track, that they cannot see a way out of the predicaments caused by being in that groove. Take ‘jobs’. As automation gradually replaces many of the jobs that make society work today, we worry about where the future jobs are going to come from. For instance, what are all those lorry/taxi/delivery drivers going to do to earn a living when transport is automated? How are we going to generate enough taxes to adequately provision the public sphere and feed those who don’t have jobs?

The only answer is to get out of the groove.

  • Why do we need a 5-day-week job, why not 4 or 3 days?
  • Why does everybody have to have a ‘job’?
  • Why not a basic income for everyone that provides for minimal subsistence?
  • Why do countries across the world need to compete economically, and thus drive down standards of living for everyone, can they not co-operate?
  • Why is money created to the benefit of banks, not of people or of governance?
  • Why can’t we have a more equal distribution of wealth?

The answers lie in the human imagination. History suggests that crisis precedes the inevitable change. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are enough intelligent people on the planet, but many vested interests that do not want things to change…

The same is of course true about other issues, such as climate breakdown and its consequent travails. The forward scouts (scientists) have long told us the bridge is down on the track ahead, and the train will go over into the ravine if we stay on this track. We just need the imagination to change track.

Featured image by Mississippi Department of Archives and History – via Wikimedia Commons


Alcohol and gambling

We were sent to Methodist chapel every Sunday in 1950s Lincoln – morning service and afternoon Sunday School. This gave a good grounding in bible stories and hymn singing, and table tennis at the social club. Two messages became memorably ingrained into us – the evils of alcohol and gambling.

In the later teenage years, we tried beer at the local pubs. It turned out to be a good social lubricant, especially for a quiet lad like me, and we soon learned not to drink too much – the effects were most unpleasant. At university I discovered wine and that was that.

Gambling was a different matter. My dad did the football pools every week, so I got to looking at the weekly sheet that he had to fill in. At the back I noticed the ‘fixed odds’ where you could bet on the outcome of particular matches. This seemed more attractive to me than the general lottery entered by my dad. I used to notionally fill it in and then check on the results – I usually ‘lost’. But I became aware of the inner ‘pull’ of fixed odds betting, so never tried it out for real. So I can understand the attraction of the fixed odds betting terminals that have been the subject of recent controversy in the UK, where the maximum stake in a betting shop is being reduced from £100 to £2. Good thing too.

Gambling is highly regulated in the UK yet, since the relaxation of attitudes in the 1960s, plays a significant part in the economy. My own attitude to gambling has changed little since the 1950s, apart from the odd raffle ticket. Maybe that’s one up to my teachers at Chapel, or down to a wartime-induced attitude of frugality.

At times I’ve come across people who became addicted to alcohol or gambling – for them, yes these things really are evil. And Alcoholics/Gambling Anonymous provide a necessary salvation.

Featured image from 1857 report by James Haughton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gratitude

Daughter often sends interesting web links. The latest was this one How to Avoid Raising a Materialistic Child. Apparently, research shows that practising gratitude makes children’s attitudes less materialistic. Well of course it does.

Psychology Today defines gratitude: “Gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to, for instance, a consumer-driven emphasis on what one wants or thinks they need.” So it is also an antidote to consumerism.

Those messages to children to ‘say thank you’ are very important and need reinforcement by adults in their words and their behaviour. I know I used to think this was just a socialised habit that was meaningless; I now know it’s just so important. Gratitude is one of the main ways we connect with others, and with the natural world.

While researching this, I came across this excellent TEDxSF talk by Louis Schwarzberg – well worth the ten minutes run time, with some superb time lapse photography and inspirational messages – gratitude is the secret! The beauty of the natural world inspires gratitude for existence, gives meaning to life.

The Last Million Mile Men

It’s scary to think how much driving I’ve done in over 50 years since the late sixties. Probably not quite a million miles (that would be 20000 miles per annum), but getting well towards that. That’s about 28000 hours, assuming a probable average speed around 35mpg, or around 3500 average 8-hour days. So that’s nearly 10 years of possibly productive time devoted to driving.

There must be many of mine and the next generation who will ‘achieve’ the million miles over their lifetime. No wonder we have a problem with global warming and pollution! Now, driving is not unpleasant, but what could I have achieved in all that time spent driving?

But it is clear that these generations will be the last million mile men. The technologies are converging fast and change will happen fast – just as horses and carriages were supplanted by the motor car within a decade or so at the start of the twentieth century. Electric vehicles, order on demand and automated driving are inevitable. Only the rich and people in sparsely populated areas will bother to own cars – until driving is banned on many roads for safety reasons.

Just think of the advantages – unpolluted towns and cities, no hassle of car ownership, an end to 1.25 million global traffic deaths per year (WHO-2013), reclaiming of the suburban front garden for plants and wildlife, a new mobility for the old and disabled, the opportunity to work or read while travelling… Of course, there will be problems, like hacking could take in a whole new dimension of crime – but these should be soluble. In the end, economics should force the change.

Well, yes but… There is now that unpredictable variable of climate breakdown, with extreme weather events becoming ever more frequent. Those who can afford it may just like to hang on to their motor vehicles, just in case… But they won’t be million mile men.

PS Before feminists complain, I would say that I am using ‘man’ in its old sense to refer to both genders. It would spoil the alliteration to add ‘and women’ to the title.
And I know I haven’t considered truckers, the ten million mile men!

Liver Birds

Liverpool’s Liver Birds enhance the attractive waterfront skyline at any time, but especially on an autumn afternoon, when a clear sun is at a low angle across the River Mersey. The mythical birds, believed to be representations of cormorants, have stood on the clock towers of the Royal Liver Building since 1911 (my grandfather worked for the company Royal Liver Assurance).

According to legend, the female looks out to sea, watching for the seamen to return safely home, and the male looks in to the city, watching over the seamen’s families. The birds face away from each other; if were they to mate and fly away, the city would cease to exist.

liver birds

Look at the full-size photograph and the image appears to not be horizontal. That diagonal line from the modern building in the foreground has completely messed up the perspective. Actually, I think it is pretty well true.

The interloper in the picture is unfortunately not a cormorant, but probably a pigeon.

Never despair

World affairs can sometimes lead us into a trough of despair. Gandhi must have felt this sometimes in his battles for truth and justice. I just came across this quote which gives hope in difficult times:

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”
Mahatma Gandhi

It also reminds me of EF Schumacher’s words at the end of A Guide for the Perplexed (pub 1977):

“Can we rely on it that a ‘turning around’ will be accomplished by enough people quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is often asked, but whatever answer is given to it will mislead. The answer ‘Yes’ would lead to complacency; the answer ‘No’ to despair. It is desirable to leave these perplexities behind us and get down to work.”
EF Schumacher

Of course, hope is the antidote to fear, and one of the great messengers of hope in the world has been Barak Obama. For example:

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”
Barak Obama

If Only They Didn’t Speak English

of onlyMy post on Competition and Co-operation touched on cultural differences between The UK and the US, so I was attracted to read Jon Sopel’s recent book ‘If Only They Didn’t Speak English’, which explores the differences Jon has found during his long stint as the BBC’s North America correspondent.

Jon’s book confirms that the US is a very different country, quite alien in many ways to a European perspective – resulting of course from a very different history and geography. A list of the subjects covered by chapter gives an idea of its scope:

  • the anger felt by many Americans, the ‘losers’ in the globalising project
  • the pervasive influence of race and discrimination
  • the evident patriotism
  • the system of government, and the current neglect of public infrastructure
  • the continued major influence of religion and God
  • the issue of guns and the right to bear arms
  • the easily aroused anxiety felt by many Americans
  • the ‘special’ role that Americans feel they have with the world, and the supposed ‘special’ relationship with UK
  • the increasing loss of contact with truth in the political arena
  • the descent into chaos with the Trump administration.

There is much insight here, although interestingly he does not focus on issues of competition vs co-operation. The book provides a stimulating read. And Jon warns that we should not expect major change or realignment; these are real differences. We really are confused by a common language, to suppose that the differences are not as great as they appear – they are.

At the end of the day, although Britain aspires to provide a bridge between Europe and America, our culture is much more European than American. Attempts to move us in an American direction must be seen in this light. Americans think we’re socialists, and most Brits don’t really want to change the current settlement and, for example, lose our NHS. Brexit puts this all in jeopardy, engineered as it was on a misleading and false prospectus of supporting the NHS.

 

Light and Dark

I have a vibrant memory of Sunday evenings in the 1950s, walking home after visiting grandparents in the nearby village. We walked on the pavement in almost complete darkness through the countryside. The stars were so bright, and my dad pointed out the common constellations (the Plough/Big Dipper, Orion…) and the Milky Way.

1280px-Another_Milky_Way_Shot
The Milky Way

There were street lamps, still gas powered in those days. They cast small oases of light in the pervading darkness, an essential aid when the Moon was not up. As we navigated from oasis to oasis, they gave a feeling of security.

In later decades street lights became ever brighter, until more recently people realised that this over-brightness was polluting any chance of being aware of the majesty of the night sky – the pervading influence for all earlier human generations. So, they’ve become more subdued and direct light downwards rather than everywhere. On our residential estate there’s now a small sense of those earlier oases of light in the darkness – although the power of modern leds is inevitably much stronger than the old gas lamps.

But there’s a new kid on the block: a proliferation of lighting from residential houses, notably porch lights, and lights at the end of the drive. Some throw stronger light than the actual street lighting. My senses are repelled by this unnecessary brightness and the accompanying waste of energy. Why? When a cheap sensor could turn the light on only when needed. If every house did the same we would rarely experience the darkness of night.

We need to make friends with the darkness, it is as much a part of life as the light. Only then do we and our children see those gems in the sky, perhaps inspiring an interest in astronomy or its twin astrology.

Human eyes are actually very good at seeing in low light conditions. So please can we turn those lights out, except when needed.

And make friends with the dusk, one of the truly magical parts of the day (I’m sure the dawn is also, but I rarely make it.)

Featured image of gas lamp by Tulane Public Relations (Uploaded by AlbertHerring), via Wikimedia Commons
Image of The Milky Way by John Fowler, via Wikimedia Commons

Recycling progress?

In their recent report East Cheshire council was pleased to report that 55% of garbage is now recycled. That means it went into the recycling bins. How much was really recycled is anyone’s guess.

This reminds me of the first Knutsford Lectures in 1994, the days of the single black rubbish bin. We had subsidiary short talks on matters of local interest and one was given by a man from the then Macclesfield Borough Council. He had the good news that recycling was to begin soon, which indeed it did a few years later. So this was progress of a sort, and people are now furiously engaged in playing a part in recycling. Of course this led to the plague of wheelie bins that now disfigures streets and alleyways across the world. [One day we will get back to a single bin which is automatically recycled, like the mostly manual French dechetterie we toured round many years ago, but that’s not my main focus here.]

It feels that we actually generate more rubbish than we did 25 years ago. Now why is that? Packaging – both plastic packaging from supermarket products and the endless excessively large cardboard boxes and internal wadding from ever more internet purchases. Amazon and product producers are actually filling up the recycling bins and thereby increasing that recycling statistic. It seems like two steps forward and one step back.

And of course Amazon avoid paying the tax that would pay for the extra cost of all this recycling. Politicians seem so slow to grasp these nettles!

Featured image shows bins in Christchurch, New Zealand
by gobeirne via Wikimedia Commons

Dog Walkers

dog walkers

At first sight this image looks rather dark and unpromising, and yet on the other hand I find it a very pleasing composition. It was taken in the deep gloom of gathering dusk; the ability of a handheld modern camera to give a image of this level of brightness and detail in such circumstances is quite amazing.

The featured image shows a cut of the original image, centred on the two human figures and their dogs. The lack of detail due to the low light gives a rather impressionistic picture, which is also quite pleasing.

Picture taken end  June 2018 in auto mode by Panasonic ZX100
on the Wirral Way near Thursaston, Wirral, UK.

Polarity

Polarities obey polar logic, which is not the same as having logical opposites. Polar opposites exist by virtue of each other – they need each other. Eg day/night, inner/outer, understanding/imagination, left/right brain, material/spiritual, masculine/feminine, magnetic poles, yin/yang.

Shifts in the relationship between the poles give rise to imbalances that inevitably need to be rebalanced. This is not a logical process but requires imagination and creativity.

If the imbalance is not corrected, stasis occurs, the polarity loses its active, creative, character – the polar system is not working. Eg if we focus entirely on the outer at the expense of the inner, life becomes shallow and without meaning, meaning coming from inner experience. One might imagine a materialist world devoid of inner/spiritual experience to be meaningless (cf Beckett, Sartre) or a surface life of triviality and entertainment (cf today’s popular culture).

Look at politics for another example. There is a clear polarity between the capitalist entrepreneur and the needs of labour – if you like, capitalism vs socialism. Since the 1970s the balance has been shifting away from socialism, a process driven by people who believe that one ‘side’ can win. They are deluded. Inequality gets ever greater. In a dysfunctional system, no one wins.

Or consider integration of UK with EU (remainers) vs UK being totally independent (brexiteers). Full independence is an illusion, just as full integration is probably not desirable. We need the benefits of both. Theresa May seems to be trying to tread that necessary balancing line between the two, as is, probably, Jeremy Corbyn. Good luck to them. A sudden ‘hard brexit’ would simply mean years of hardship, until a new balance of the inevitable relationship is achieved.

The Chinese yin/yang picture perfectly encapsulates the nature of these polarities.

Inspired by Gary Lachman’s book ‘Lost Knowledge of the Imagination’, p122. 

Touring Trumpland

In March we took a road trip through some of the Deep South US States. A few images stick in my mind.

Exploring the Louisiana flatlands down towards the Gulf, south of Lake Charles – Lafayette. This is clearly hurricane alley. There is evident poverty. Many plots of land have an aged RV next to the shack, ready for quick getaway. Some just comprise an RV in a shelter.

In Birmingham, Alabama the great industrial centre built by blacks for white money is no more, just a few museums, like the Sloss steel mill.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the famous choo choo runs no more and its very fine station is closed.

FT._PAYNE_OPERA_HOUSE
Fort Payne Opera house

Fort Payne in Alabama was built in the 1830s to intern and relocate Cherokee Indians. In the 1880s, due to the railroad, it was a booming iron and steel town until the minerals ran out. The opera house is still there. In the early 1900s a hosiery industry started and by the 1990s Fort Payne was ‘sock capital of the world’. Globalisation put an end to that, and the place now feels like it is struggling.

winona station
Winona station

Winona in Mississippi is another a town which owes its existence to the railroad. It now seems more dead than alive, with many shuttered buildings.

Vicksburg, Mississippi was the site of a major battle of the Civil War in 1863, and grew on the back of the trading boats plying the River Mississippi. Vicksburg has a history of suppression of first Indians and then blacks.

vicksburg mansion
Vicksburg mansion

It is now a tourist town, with an apparently prosperous posh residential area. But Main Street looks faded, with many closed shops. Drunks or druggies patrol the edges of the civilised area.

I see all these as symptoms that the great American Dream is not working. Struggling towns and communities, due to jobs destroyed or moved elsewhere, particularly due to globalisation. Donald Trump offered change from this failed system, which has been engineered by both Republicans and Democrats. It is not surprising that people voted for him despite reservations on his character.

There is no evidence yet that politicians other than the Bernie Sanders left wing Democrats offer any solutions.

Featured image is the now-static Chattanooga Choochoo.
Picture of Fort Payne Opera House courtesy Jerry & Roy Klotz, via Wikimedia Commons.

The tyranny of metrics and algorithms

I just read a short review by David Lorimer of a book The Tyranny of Metrics, author Jerry Z. Muller. This problem of over-reliance on metrics was apparent during my career in industry, and is increasingly apparent in the world today, particularly in management and government.

Metrics are defined and targeted, and actions are put in place to achieve the targets. All very focusing, you might think, but what is lost is attention to the real world and its appropriate management – all the other factors not involved in the metric. We begin to manage by the numbers, and not by the need. For example, the quarterly results, the bottom line, become all-important, never mind we have to ‘lose’ hundreds of workers in transferring jobs to places where labour is cheaper and standards are less, destroying social cohesion, never mind we have to make the social care system unnecessarily harsh to achieve savings, and on and on.

Unfortunately, this obsession with metrics is undermining professionals across many fields. As the review points out, “judgement based on experience is the hallmark of an accomplished professional in every field”. The over-emphasis on metrics is slowly undermining the accumulated wisdom of centuries of professionalism. It also overrides any consideration of human values.

Worse, computers and so-called artificial intelligence are increasingly being used in situations that can supposedly be managed by algorithms. Indeed, this can be very helpful to the professional – enabling better-informed decisions. The problem, however, comes when the algorithm is given control, and the professional is cut out of the process – what a great cost saving that would be – but at what cost?

It’s all about what sort of world we want to live in. Metrics and algorithms are good servants, but incompetent masters. The world is not algorithmic, and we cannot allow our societies to be ruled by rigid targets and faceless algorithms. There lies an ultimate tyranny.

The driverless car presents an interesting challenge to my rant. Can we ever trust its algorithms and let them loose willy nilly on the roads? They may actually prove safer in the long run than the average ‘human’ driver. So why not? At the end of the day, people must remain in charge at some level (maybe not in the car) and take the key decisions.

An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls was the title of the most popular of J.B.Priestley’s plays, which are not generally popular today, probably because they are quite philosophical and not merely entertaining. In his closing speech, the inspector is quite profound:

“We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night.”

The play premiered in Russia in 1945, although the action takes place in one day in the English Midlands in 1912. It can be seen as a social comment on the attitudes that led up to the destruction of the two world wars. The above quote also seems prescient today, when crystallised attitudes and separation are potentially leading us once again into peril.

This post was inspired by Paul Kieniewicz’s review of
‘Time and the Rose Garden’, by Anthony Peake,
which is about the works of Priestley.

Photo of Priestley statue in Bradford By Chemical Engineer,
via Wikimedia Commons

An unfortunate legacy of Justus von Liebig

Every good idea that takes off in human thinking seems to have its downside that eventually requires correction, as it is taken to extremes. I think this is what Hegel’s dialectic of thesis –> antithesis –> synthesis was about. The German chemist Justus von Liebig provides an example very relevant today, in a story told by Beata Bishop in the recent SciMed newsletter.

Von Liebig (1802-1873) is variously regarded as the founder of organic chemistry and the father of the fertilizer industry. He notably discovered that nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are key minerals that plants need to grow and thrive. Thus came about the modern fertilizer industry, which gradually supplanted traditional farming techniques based on manure, compost, crop rotation, leaving fields fallow, etc.

Of course, initially this approach appeared successful and crops thrived. With the development of modern pesticides the industrial approach to agriculture seemed sensible and was commercially successful. But what has only become apparent after many decades is that this approach is over-simple and other vital minerals and organic matter are being gradually lost from the now-depleted soils. The organic movement arose to try to counteract this, but still only has a foothold where people can afford it. And the agrochemical industry has become so powerful that it is difficult to change towards the organic antithesis, or indeed any new synthesis.

Of course the pendulum will swing back, they always do. Unfortunately, this is also a critical time of climate change, caused by the related explosion of fossil fuel exploitation over the same period.

Historically, civilisations come to an end when changes of climate and crop yields eventually make them unsupportable. We really now are in a critical period of human history, partly thanks to the worthy efforts of Justus von Liebig. But never say die, necessity is the mother of invention, and humanity is a very inventive and adaptable species.