Pandemic Diary – May 11-17
My industrial valley. [11.5.20]
I was born in the Oil Age, and in the Oil Age I will die. I first remember walking up the valley where I now live when I was aged ten or eleven. That was in the early 1960s. The sheep farms were flourishing then; the markets for wool and mutton were good. The wool market was destroyed by oil, used to make synthetic clothes and carpets.
Oil powers the ships and their chillers and freezers that take New Zealand meat to markets on the other side of the world. It powers the aeroplanes which take the fish caught on these Pacific shores to markets on the other side of the Pacific ocean. It powers the farm vehicles, the diggers and the other tools and machinery which shape the land and cut down trees, and the trucks which take the farm animals and the logs to processing plants and then to ships. Oil (in its natural gas form) is the basis of the nitrogenous fertilisers which are used instead of farming methods which do not pollute waterways and groundwater. Oil is also the basis of the synthetic herbicides and pesticides used instead of non-toxic methods of weed and pest management. Oil is the energy source for the topdressing planes which make regular flights over the valley for days at a time in spring and autumn, and for the helicopters which spray weeds, check power lines and carry tourists from oil-burning cruise ships on scenic flights.
The landscape in my valley is shaped by oil, and will continue to be so for as long as ‘free’ oil makes the global economy possible. For as long as the true ecological, atmospheric and human costs of oil-based farming and trade are not calculated and set against the true benefits – or lack of them. My valley is as industrial and oil-dependent as any urban area zoned industrial. In fact, it may even be more oil-dependent, since most factories in New Zealand use hydro-electricity as their primary energy source. Oil-based farming and trade still has a lot of life – and death – left in it, but one day it will stutter to a halt. By then the farming will either be aligned with what can be produced and exported within natural limits, or the valley will go back to the forested landscape it once was.
Picturing pandemic control. [12.5.20]
How reliable are the Covid-19 national case and death numbers currently being produced? The ones I currently check every day on the Johns Hopkins University map? David Spiegelhalter, who is a statistician and Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk in the Statistical Laboratory at the University of Cambridge says ‘not very’, and that it will be necessary to wait another year or more before reliable cross-national comparisons can be made.
I share his caution, which is based on the variable methods of testing for cases and recording of deaths in different countries. But although the actual numbers may well need adjusting to create true comparability, I have noticed that the bar graphs of daily case numbers produced by the Johns Hopkins site do seem to be a pretty reliable guide – when correlated with other information on how well a country is coping – to whether that state has the situation under control (or not) .
The bar graphs of countries where the virus has been contained and transmission reduced all show the bars steadily declining on the right hand side of the graph. This is for the last two weeks at least, and often longer (depending on when the outbreak began). The more rapid and even the decline, the better the control. Australia and New Zealand both exhibit this pattern, with low numbers of cases and deaths in recent weeks. So the right hand side of their graphs now takes up more space than the left (rising numbers) and central (peak numbers) parts.
Countries where things are still out of control show no such pattern of decline. The US is a series of rising and falling peaks, as is the UK, while Russia is still rising and Brazil’s pattern resembles that of the US. While the actual numbers may be out (either way) by as much as thousands, and that will matter a lot in terms what conclusions can be drawn about the lessons for future health care planning and provision, the political lessons in the bar graphs are already clear. Some states have done and are doing much better than others. In the case of the US and the UK, this is not because they do not have all the scientific and medical expertise, and the funds, needed to do better. Similarly, Russia and Brazil have the resources needed to do better – if they cared to use them. The bar graphs of daily Covid-19 cases are also a graph of what kind of (cot) case the state they refer to is, or is not.
Thirty years of tears for the food trade. [13.5.20]
As I drove into the city today for my first shop at Piko Wholefoods in six weeks, I stopped at a red light behind a food bank van. It had logos on the back, and said it was ‘proudly supported by’ (names of New Zealand’s two supermarket chains). I wept, as I remembered interviewing solo parents after the ‘Mother of All Budgets’ in 1991, which cut their domestic purposes benefits. I learned that their food budgets were already inadequate as regards quality and quantity. Food was the only thing they could economise on – rent or mortgage, electricity and phone payments were all non-negotiable.
So they and their children ate only very cheap foods, and not enough of them, most of the time. Fresh fruit was out of their budget, so they only ate it when it was given to them. Thirty years on, New Zealand’s GDP has grown every year, but wages have stagnated, and jobs have gone from the stable and better paid factory sector employment and have been replaced by the precarious and poorly paid service sector. There has been a great increase in ‘food’ for export (mainly powdered milk, plus meat and fruits) but most of the jobs involved with producing such exports are not secure and/or well-paid. Many (fruit picking and packing especially) are done by seasonal migrant labour.
Fifteen years after the benefit cuts (and the further deregulation of the economy by the National-led government of the 1990s, which was not reversed by the Labour-led government 2000-2008) the Child Poverty Action group released a report on foodbank use in New Zealand (Hard to Swallow: Foodbank use in New Zealand, 2005) which showed how much the ‘foodbank sector’ of the economy had grown since the 1990s. It also provided the data to show that while demand for food assistance fluctuated according to national economic circumstances, ‘business’ was always steady in those fifteen years, and sometimes very brisk. In other words, the numbers unable to buy food for themselves and their families did not decrease significantly, let alone go to the low levels of the 1950s-1970s, when charitable food assistance was only available for – and needed by – those in special circumstances.
Today, when national economic circumstances are the worst they have been since the 1930s, the hundreds of foodbanks which were set up in the 1990s and since then are failing to meet the demand for their charitable services. New categories of hungry people have been created by the pandemic (migrant workers and their families, stranded travellers). These are in addition to New Zealanders who have lost their jobs, or had their pay cut, or were already not receiving enough income to live on.
Food banks have been a crying shame for the past thirty years. It is long past time that citizens who the Prime Minister has been urging to ‘be kind’ for the past two months cried “Shame!” on this government – and any other one – which allows foodbanks to exist in a land of plenty. How about kindness all the time, not just in emergencies?
We bought machines. [14.5.20]
What does a country in lockdown in the early 21st century with access to on-line shopping buy? In a word – machines. On May 13 it was reported that the top ten categories of items bought online between April 28 and May 6, 2020, were as follows:
1 Portable game consoles
4 Sewing machines
5 Bread makers
6 Chest freezers
7 Stand mixers & kitchen machines
8 Gaming steering wheels & pedals
9 Exercise bikes
10 Hair trimmers & clippers
Apart from Lego, these are all household machines or tools. How necessary were they? Will they be used much (or at all) after lockdown? Or are they just this weird consumer society ‘speedbump’ which archaeologists a couple of hundred years from now will wonder at, when all the digital records of the pandemic (including the article I took these figures from) have long since degraded and been lost. Or there are no machines to read them on, as there are no longer machines to read the floppy disks which my Ph.D. thesis was originally saved to in 1999. And that was just twenty years ago.
So I am printing out a hard copy of these musings, and (while I still can) listening on line to Andrew London and pals singing Appliances, which is a great send-up of the futility of consumerism.
Buying manufactured experiences. [15.5.20]
Yesterday the bungy-jumping business in Queenstown swung (yes, literally) back into money-making life again. Hooray! Now people had a reason to visit this pre-Covid-19 tourist mecca and spend money there doing things they could well do at home. Not for them the dull and cheap experiences of just looking at the mountains and the lake, walking on the lake shore, and feeding the lake trout from the wharf with a cheap packet of mince bought from a local butcher. That is the sort of experience enjoyed by a working class family (mine) on its once-only South Island camping holiday in 1968. It is hardly going to cut it with the tens of thousands of foreign tourists who have each paid thousands of dollars to get to New Zealand, and do stuff here. (You want me to travel all that way and spend all that money just to feed some fish and look at some big hills?! What stuff and nonsense!)
Stuff is the operative word. About twenty or so years ago (just as the global consuming elite was cranking up burning through as much oil in thirty years as was burned in the previous century) the word got out in all the popular media that consuming objects was now passé, because it was not ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’. There was no point in living a life of consuming stuff, it was said, and leaving a pile of it to be disposed of when one died. No, the new point of life was to live in the now, and have memorable experiences instead. To get through one’s ‘bucket list’ of memorable things to do before one kicked the bucket.
At about the same time the experience industry really got into gear, creating off-the-peg ‘experiences’ to be consumed – just like the other stuff that hangs around in closets and on shelves. The new consumption of manufactured experiences, such as bungy-jumping, jet boat riding, helicopter rides, duty-free shopping, Hobbiton tours and so on is just as oil-rich and energy-wasting as the old consumption of things. In some cases it is much more so. But now people can curate the experiences on their bucket lists and reliably purchase them, just as with any other shopping list, while fostering the illusion (to themselves if not to others) that they are environmentally superior to those retrograde consumers of mere objects. They buy bread-making machines; we went to Paris to do a bread-making workshop with [name of famous baker].
There is mass tourism and there is elite tourism. Both depend on the consumption of oil in excess of the capacity of planet Earth to provide breathable air and a stable climate. So the next time anyone suggests to you that purchasing experiences is better than purchasing things because it is ‘better for the environment’, gently inquire how much energy is embedded in the experiences they are referring to. Also suggest to them that fully experiencing life at home without spending a cent is by far and away the most environmentally-friendly sort of experience anyone could ever have.
This morning I listened (with gritted teeth) to Kim Hill interviewing an Oxford University professor of moral philosophy, Toby Ord, on the views expressed in his just-released book The Precipice. Then I sent the email below to Kim. Not because I have any hopes that she will actually take up my suggestion that she interviews Hickel and/or Hornborg, but so that she (and her show’s producers) knows that there are much more credible sources on the subject than Ord, and where to find them. Should there be any interest in doing so.
“I have just listened to Toby Ord and his fairy tales to the saccharine end. The fact that people like him get LARGE incomes which they can sanctimoniously give away and advocate that others do likewise would bring on a gastrointestinal disorder of major proportions if I hadn’t already been vaccinated by reading the work of anthropologists who have made much deeper and more credible studies of humans and their economic and social behaviour than Ord appears to be capable of.
The two I would really recommend, and their books, are Jason Hickel/The Divide A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions (see https://www.jasonhickel.org/about) and Alf Hornborg/Global Magic. Technologies of Appropriation from Ancient Rome to Wall Street (see https://www.keg.lu.se/en/alf-hornborg)
Hornborg speaks excellent English and would be a great interview subject, as would Hickel.
Hickel is familiar with the work of the ‘we have never had it so good’ boosters on which Ord bases his opinion that global poverty is ‘improving’, and has shown how deficient and misleading it is in a series of blog posts.
Hornborg understands what really ’causes’ technologies like AI and what is really noxious about them. He gave a lecture (in English) on the subject in Vienna in 2017, which I have watched on line here – MACHINES AS MACHINATIONS – RETHINKING THE ONTOLOGY OF TECHNOLOGY / Lecture by Alf Hornborg (SE) Depot Breitegasse 3, 1070 Wien, 25.4.2017
and typed out one of the key points as follows:
“52:00 What really happened around 1870 in England – and this is not a coincidence – in the heart of the colonial empire of England you get a complete transformation of economic thought – neoclassical economic theory. Prior to that you had various schools of economic thought that were interested in the material substance of the commodities exchanged. If we go back to the Mercantalists, gold and silver. If you go to the Physiocrats, land was the basis of value. If you go to Ricardo, even Adam Smith, or of course Karl Marx – labour. So in all these different classical political economy schools you have an interest in the material substance of what is being traded. But with Alfred Marshall, Stanley Jevons and these other people in the 1870s you get a complete shift to an exclusive concern with market equilibrium. Output and demand, market prices. It’s all money.
53:05 So I would argue that at that point the discipline of economics decided not to look at what was traded any more, only at the rate at which they were traded and how those rates were determined by the market. I think this is extremely important in many ways … because we’re still living with that. To put it very bluntly I would argue that what these neoclassical economists did in the 1870s, at the height of British colonialism, was to create an ideology by which the asymmetric material flows of the British colonial empire could continue invisibly after the end of colonialism. After the official end of colonialism you could still have neocolonial asymmetric flows. So in a sense we’re still living in a European colonial world…”
Ord is one of the self-deluding colonists – as opposed to Elon Musk, who is brutally frank about his imperial ambitions. I have put the link to an excellent article by Hornborg below – but enough from me already.” [Alf Hornborg – A Globalised Solar-Powered Future is Wholly Unrealistic – and our Economy is the Reason Why
Ord and his ilk (Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, that annoying Swedish or is it Danish father and son duo whose names I forget) live in ivory towers and mistake their gilded walls and what goes on within them for reality. Whenever they talk about humanity as ‘we’ I want to yell “Who we, white man?!” at them. Their role in actual human history is that of the courtiers who assured the emperor that his new suit of clothes consisted of a fine silk shirt, beautiful velvet breeches, etc., etc., when none of it was real at all.
When the courtiers’ fabulations were exposed I assume they lost their cushy jobs, but given that the liars who caused the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 are mostly still secure in theirs, maybe not. Usually the truth-tellers are the first and major victims when they get too close to power, as is currently happening with those who have been giving honest advice to the American and Brazilian governments and presidents on preparing for and stopping a pandemic. This has been a theme for tragedies for a long time – King Lear springs to mind. It seems to be another thing which humans in power do over and over again, preferring the flattering liars to the blunt truth speakers.
At this point in world history I find that the most reliable sources on what the future will bring are those who understand both how humans societies rise and fall, and the biophysical realities which underpin, cause and are caused by human behaviours. One of the best non-academic sources in this regard is the award-winning Canadian writer Andrew Nikiforuk. His recent take on the pandemic in its historical context (Global Boom, Pandemic, Crash: Is History Just Repeating Itself?) is an example of how to think about the future intelligently by taking an intelligent look at the past.
The other important thing to do (which Ord and company do not do) is to stop thinking about the human species in teleological and eschatological ways. (Definitions: Teleology – “Philosophy – the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise; Theology – the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.” “Eschatology – the part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”)
You can cure yourself of this habit by substituting any other species for human and see how silly it sounds. I chose dolphins, and had fun thinking of sentences like “Dolphins are the most intelligent marine species, and exist to make sure that the oceans are properly looked after while enhancing dolphin wellbeing and growth.” and “If dolphins do not stop doing x and start doing y then there will be no further dolphin progress.” or “If dolphins do not stop doing x and start doing y then dolphin-kind will come to a nasty end.”
Why do (some) humans assume that humans are a species with a purpose and a goal to be achieved (or an own-goal to be avoided)? If this were a harmless habit one wouldn’t worry about it, but it has been used politically to the detriment of the lives of individuals and their communities for millennia. The Nazi ideology and Pol Pot’s ‘communism’ both had appalling teleological and eschatological elements, and so do all organised religions – and a fair few disorganised ones as well. Ord, Pinker and co. pretend that they are above all that, but the moment they use the word ‘progress’ (and they use it a lot) they give themselves away. Progress as defined by rich white men assumes a linear advance from supposedly primitive hunter-gatherer societies to space travel and colonisation. This ‘progress project’ is already falling apart due to its energy and biodiversity depletion and pollution increase effects. The reality is that it never was and never could or will be a viable way of life for any but the over-privileged few, who are determined to keep their privileges, as described and explained by Mark O’Connell in Why Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand. Some also attempt to disguise that this is what they are doing, as briefly outlined by insider Peter Buffett in 2013 in The Charitable-Industrial Complex. (There are now several books on the subject of ‘philanthro-capitalism’ which explain it in more detail.) A most recent example is Jeff Bezos – who rakes in $8 million per day – making a one-off donation of £250,000 to a fundraising appeal to help independent British booksellers suffering from the coronavirus lockdown.
The naked emperor had his courtiers; the naked billionaires have their philosophers. As for the rest of us humans, who just want to lead a good life within ecological limits now, and not suffer in the wastelands being created by the believers in and practitioners of ‘progress’ today and in the future, we can enhance our ‘good lives now’ project by recognising what’s wrong with the thinking of anyone who assures us that there was jam yesterday, or that there will be jam tomorrow, while deliberately obscuring the fact that there are some very bad reasons why, for so many, there is no jam today.
Rough God Goes Riding [17.5.20]
“I was flabbergasted by the headlines
People in glasshouses throwing stones…”
Van Morrison sang in Rough God Goes Riding on his 1997 album The Healing Game. Who knows what particular ‘rough god’ he was referring to at that time. There were plenty to choose from then, and now the children of the people who were ridden over roughshod by the neoliberal austerity and structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 1990s will understand why Morrison sings:
“And it’s a matter of survival
When you’re born with your back against the wall…”
They are raising their own children in a time of pandemic and associated economic collapse, while their parents are at the most vulnerable age for catching Covid-19. And today – May 17 – was the day that the top four countries for Covid-19 cases were the USA, Russia, the UK and Brazil. All ruled by rough men who would be as gods. Coincidence? Maybe…