Monbiot’s Mistake

July 3, 2012

George Monbiot has today announced his discovery of economics. Well, that’s perhaps not precisely what he meant, but it’s certainly what this means:

“The constraints on oil supply over the past 10 years appear to have had more to do with money than geology. The low prices before 2003 had discouraged investors from developing difficult fields. The high prices of the past few years have changed that.”

You see, there’s no such thing as supply-and-demand as discrete quantities. What there is is ‘demand-at-a-price’ and ‘supply-at-a-price’. Until oil passed the $70/barrel price – and looked to remain there for the long term – there was no additional supply, because there was no demand for oil at $70/barrel. Now the market price is reaching over $100/barrel, there certainly is.

Monbiot is interpreting this to mean that peak oil, which he seems to conceive of as actually running out of the stuff, is not going to happen. However, this isn’t what peak oil actually is. Rather, ‘peak oil’ is a price of oil so high that other commodities fulfilling a similar role become cheaper by comparison. This includes, for example, renewable sources of electricity, hydrogen or electric cars, and non-oil based plastics and lubricants. In economics, these are known as ‘substitute goods’.

The increasing supply of oil from non-traditional sources spurred on by the high oil price is beginning to foster a market in substitute goods. For example, the US firm Metabolix has been in the business of producing plant-based plastics for several years now, and is the brainchild of ex-oil and pharmaceutical types. This stands outwith any Government subsidy programme, although I’m sure significant amounts of subsidy for corn in the US helped. We can expect this to continue as the price of oil rises.

As a result of this, there will not be one ‘peak’ for oil – there will be multiple plateaus and transitions in the price, as one substitute good replaces demand for oil from a particular sector. Eventually, our economy will no longer be dependent on it, as the price rises so high that we substitute it entirely. This will be long before it actually runs out; as has been said, the stone age did not end because we ran out of stones.

The above is not an argument against environmental activism, or leaving everything to the market – far from it. ‘Peak Oil’ will not come soon enough to prevent dangerous climate change, and so activism, both for subsidies for cleantech which bring forward the date at which they’re cheap enough to be a substitute good and against oil production fromthe likes of the tar sands, which increases the cost of gaining permits and so on, makes a difference. This fundamentally economic difference made by environmental activists may yet be the difference between dangerous climate change and climate change we can just about adapt to.

The Boring God

February 3, 2012

Today I stumbled across the blog of Shiraz Socialist, on which is a fascinating post about the mini-controversy surrounding Terry Eagleton’s review of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. The post is a review of de Botton’s response to Eagleton’s review, achieving a level of nested meta that Tarski would appreciate. It is well worth a read, and I urge you to do so.

However, there is one part of the post in which SS appears to make a mistake, and that I would like to discuss. It’s this:


“For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.”:


“This is, in fact, no more and no less than the well-known (and ridiculous, banal) “ontological argument” of St Anselm: “Something than which nothing greater can be concieved”: he then argued that something that exists in reality must be greater than something that exists in the mind only; so God must exist outside as well as in the mind, for if he existed in the mind only and not in reality he would not be “something than which nothing greater can be conceived.” I’d call that a circular argument, not worth the time of day, if anyone asked me.”

Eagleton is here not using the ancient and decrepit ontological argument, rather a relatively more youthful transcendental argument. This is a form of argumentation named by Immanuel Kant, and the clue to Eagleton’s use of it is the very specific phrase ‘He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever’. A transcendental argument is not an ontological argument which relies upon definition, rather it is a consideration of what is required for something to be.

Kant starts out the Critique of Pure Reason with an example of this: we encounter the world as being three-dimensional and being subject to the passage of time, therefore the condition for the possibility of this is that we possess faculties which allow us to encounter the world through the categories of space and time. It is necessarily the case that we encounter the world through these categories, as we cannot conceive of another way of encountering the world. Try imagining the world without space or time if your brain hasn’t melted enough today.

Eagleton’s argument, therefore, is that God is defined as that which is necessary for anything to exist, the condition for the possibility of being. And this is a real problem for Eagleton, for such a definition is fundamentally uninteresting. It tells us precisely nothing about God, and allows for the possibility of God being practically anything – a set of physical laws, a non-sentient process of continuous creation from the void, the Big Bang itself and so on. You cannot derive the Judeo-Christian version of God from it, which is problematic for Eagleton because he explicitly claims that the Judeo-Christian God can only be understood in this way.

It’s pretty clear from this that Eagleton’s God is a long way removed from de Botton’s approved-opiate-of-the-people God, to the point where his God can have no relation with mankind whatsoever, on account of it being defined into tedium. It’s as close enough to atheism as makes no difference, and certainly precludes the vision of hell in which he seems to believe Christopher Hitchens is roasting.

One of the most amusing parts of the hacking scandal has been the increasingly shrill voices of the Right, who have taken it upon themselves to defend someone they perceive as their man from the Guardian-BBC Axis of Lefties. Somehow, all this phone-hacking nonsense is all the fault of dreadful unwashed types who hate that nice Mr Murdoch for that worst of crimes, being successful.  After all, they say, if you want to take a pop at an organisation with an excessive influence on the media, look at the BBC, which positively dominates our daily life, and refuses to accept that hanging should be brought back and that unmarried mothers should be forcibly sterilised. Clearly its influence upon our lives is pernicious.

Well. That’s quite a strong claim. Contrasted with it are the triumphant cries of the left, sensing the blood of their ancient and decrepit prey in the water. Mr Murdoch is eighty years old, and if he was a bit more poverty-stricken and in a nursing home surrounded by snapping paparazzi, would suddenly find his erstwhile persecutors become his greatest allies. Clearly, once this decrepit Emperor falls down the central shaft of Fox News, we’ll have an immediate revolution in the way our media represent reality.

Okay, perhaps no-one’s making the latter claim, but the former paragraph does summarise the attitude of the likes of Phillips. What’s interesting about this issue is that both left and right manage be simultaneously correct and wrong in exactly the same way.

You see, the media is two different things:

  • A means by which the population access information they use to inform their decisions. This is a clear public good; an educated populace is both more economically productive and better at engaging with democratic decision-making.
  • A means by which the population accesses information that entertains them. This is a clear public good; everyone likes titillating pieces of info, be it gossip, jokes or just an interesting story about something a long way off, and it helps make people happy.

Obviously, there are crossovers, making the above more of a continuum with The Open University at one end and The Daily Sport at the other. Nonetheless, they should both be perceived as separate public goods, with separate means of delivering them. It is immediately clear that different organisations will contain more of one and less than another, depending on their priorities. Herein lies the dispute: lefties think the media is all doing more of the first bit, while righties think the media is all doing more of the second bit. News International is perceived as poisonous by the Left because they think it’s contaminating public discourse by failing to stimulate real debate, while the Right resents the BBC at least in part because it’s hampering the ability of private companies to deliver similar offerings to the market.

What we want, if we’re good liberals, is to determine the most efficient method of delivering a given public good. The answer to this may simply be ‘The Market’. This is clearly true of the second aspect of the media – people have direct access to their preferences and desires with regard to entertainment, and can make the best choices for themselves. It is not, however, entirely true with regard to the first statement – you don’t know the things you don’t know, and can’t determine how best to access them if you have no information on how to access them. You need some mechanism by which people can access information that doesn’t depend upon the information they already possess. The media market can’t deliver that, as people obviously can’t express a preference for something they know nothing about.

Of course, the first aspect of the media is also provided through other methods – via schools, education, public awareness campaigns and self-directed learning. The question for liberals is whether these methods in themselves are sufficient to produce the reflective citizens considered by the likes of Adam Smith to be necessary for a flourishing society.

I feel safe to say that Smith would advocate making learning endemic throughout our society, and in the media especially – the most immediate form of information present to us. Information should not be simply dumped, but presented in many and varying ways in order to stimulate reflection upon it. A significant percentage of this can be left to the markets for art and literature, but they present their own informational barriers to entry. We require an institution that delivers information that encourages reflection and analysis to everyone via modes accessible to them, and does it on a daily basis.

This is the thinking behind the BBC as a means to deliver part of a public good. By and large, it is successful in doing so – its soap operas deal with social issues, it has innumerable documentaries and a solid news service. It is, however, guilty of ‘bloat’ into areas that are more properly the preserve of media intended to serve that second aspect – for example, is it really necessary that the BBC produces little Doctor Who computer games? It can also, especially in the present context, be guilty of not being able to differentiate between objectivity and its perspective as a media organisation, resulting in allegations that it has had an inappropriate focus on the hacking scandal. This may require some institutional tinkering to remedy.

It’s also important to be clear that the BBC isn’t left-leaning – perhaps its individual staff members are, but there’s a strong distinction between individuals and an organisational perspective. What it does do is follow the established line of the main democratically elected parties. None of the main parties advocate a complete halt to all immigration, so the BBC excludes anti-immigration voices – except when they’re elected, like the BNP. None of the main parties is calling for the criminalisation of homosexuality or endorsing discrimination against homosexuals, so the BBC has no space for homophobes. More broadly, questions of its political persuasion actually appear to be a feature of phraseology – referring to Government cuts as Government cuts, for example. This is a matter for the parties to debate between themselves and make representations to the BBC on the back of, which it is institutionally committed to take into account.

So, the BBC is a public service designed to deliver information to the public. This is not the same thing as News International, which is designed to deliver a news product to the public for them to buy if they wish it. They don’t ‘compete’ per se, because they’re designed to do different things, and the public understands that. To illustrate this, compare two figures. One is the audience share for all BBC channels (32.9%), versus the audience share for all Sky channels (6.61%). The other is the audience share for BBC News (70.67%) versus Sky News (4.41%). If the BBC were producing the same product as Sky, it would attract news watchers broadly in line with its overall audience. It’s not, because people actively want news delivered by an institution designed to deliver it as objectively as possible, and simply do not trust non-BBC providers to do so. The market couldn’t deliver that result.

Source for figures: BARB

The News Must Flow

July 8, 2011

By far the most amusing incident of yesterday’s spontaneous combustion of the News of the World was Charlie Brooker’s pithy Tweet:

It instantly captured how much of the Left perceives its role in this saga; as a collection of plucky rebels facing down an evil corporate empire. However, this is entirely the wrong sci-fi-franchise-prism through which to view these events, not least because it presents the disturbing image of Tom Watson finding out that Rebekah Brooks is his mother in the sequel.

Rather, the best analogy for these events is Frank Herbert’s Dune. For those not familiar with the franchise, the Dune universe revolves around the control of a mysterious substance called ‘spice’ or ‘melange’. ‘Spice’ unlocks various mental abilities, as well as extended life, and is the key to interstellar travel. The only source of the spice is the planet Arrakis, a desert world inhabited by the Fedayeen. The novel is largely a sci-fi re-imagining of Lawrence of Arabia’s exploits in the First World War in securing Middle Eastern oil supplies for the Allies by encouraging the Arabs to revolt.

The reason why I present it as an analogy is that it makes very clear the link between control of the production of a given resource and control in the wider sense. If you control the resource someone requires to travel, then you control their capacity to travel. This is summed up in the novel by the phrase, “He who controls the Spice, controls the universe!”

Why is this relevant? It’s relevant because what’s at stake in the News of the World saga is not control over something as manifest as oil, but rather control over modes of accessing reality. People buy newspapers not to be informed about the world, but to be informed about the world in a particular way. When you buy a newspaper you buy into a worldview. As a result, newspapers tailor their modes of presentation to be line with what they assume their readers want. Over time, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: people base their attitude to the world on the information presented to them, and if this information is repeatedly presented in a given mode, people will take up that mode to inform their own attitude and judgements.

Clearly, control over the modes by which people access information is control – or at least strong influence – over their decision-making. And here we come to the heart of the analogy.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with people tailoring a product to their consumers in order to sell more of that product, that’s how the free market operates. There is something wrong when control over a product becomes more important than selling that product. The contest in Dune for control over Arrakis between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, while ostensibly about profit, is in fact about that power. The Guardian, in the role of House Atreides, has always presented itself as a campaigning newspaper with little interest in profit. For News of the World, twinned with House Harkonnen and its red-headed Baron, they have always been a profit-seeking tabloid.

Baron Harkonnen Rebekah Brooks

No longer. The closure of the best-selling English language tabloid is not a move informed by mere avarice, but by cold political calculation. This decision will cost Murdoch money; the NotW, unlike much of the press, made a profit. It would’ve made a profit again in a couple of months when advertisers started crawling back. High-profile brands are remarkably resilient. People would once again buy it because they enjoyed gutter-tales of celebrity gossip and the angst of parents of murdered children. Its customer base still exists.

But to not make such a nakedly line-drawing move would have eliminated Murdoch’s influence with the political class. It would have handed politicians an ongoing stick to beat him with. His profits would remain, but his influence, and the scope of his newspapers to set the political agenda, would’ve been decreased. As it is, there will be reform, but it will be mitigated by the knowledge that its main target no longer exists. Murdoch has surrendered profit for political power, and in doing so has let the curtain fall back. No longer will it be possible to pretend that much of the press is truly only responding to its readers, rather than the agenda of its masters. As the profit margins of the press continue to decrease, and they are maintained as personal lobbying facilities by moguls, it will be increasingly difficult to see how their continued unregulated existence can be justified.

After all, he who controls the news about the universe, controls the universe. How can anyone have that power?

They’ve written an article here claiming that “Middle Britain’s tax rates ‘could rise to 83%'”.

I don’t know about you, but anyone earning over £40,000 isn’t middle class, they’re upper middle at the very least. Average individual earnings are around £26,000. If you’re earning that, you’re middle class. I’m not interested in anyone who squawks about class not being entirely defined by what you earn, because it simply is. Guardian journalists clearly can’t accept that they’re much better off than the majority of the population, and so are complaining about the Government making the better off suffer too. Let’s remember, the readjustment of the 40% rate to include more people – the subject of this article – is entirely about raising the lowest rate of tax to reduce the effective burden on the poorest. It’s as progressive (in the technical sense) as you like.

This article, therefore, is an example of wanton hypocrisy on the part of the Guardian. However, it’s not surprising – studies have repeatedly shown that whatever people earn, they think their earnings are ‘average’.

“You’re a mentalist!”

– Alan Partridge

An article on the Guardian’s ‘Cif Green’ section today actually makes the claim that:

“Of course we could solve the problems of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.”

I would like to dispute this, if I may, and in doing so discuss further the rise of the group I would like to call the Environ-Mentalists; those who believe that our current industrial civilisation has doomed itself and all that’s left is to sing sad songs in the dark, like a race of angst-ridden teenagers.

Let’s first look at the land area hunter-gather tribes require to provide nutrition. This study of a tribe living the tropical rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo appears to indicate that the maximum this lush & bountiful environment can sustain is a population density of one person per square kilometre – and this is factoring in a certain amount of agriculture. Making the very charitable assumption that every part of Earth is equally able to support hunter-gatherer humans, a land area of 148,300,000 square kilometres implies that 97.5% of the current human population of 6 billion would have to die to make this ‘dream’ a reality. It’s good to know that Caroline Wickham-Jones appears to view slaughter beyond nightmares with such casual disregard.

To be fair, I didn’t supply the entire quote:

“Of course we could solve the problems of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but global populations and changed circumstances make that impossible.”

Which does make clear that she doesn’t believe we should necessarily slaughter almost everyone on the planet, merely that the ‘changed circumstances’ that allowed that population to come about are an irritation in this sense.

But what are those changed circumstances?

“Over time, we have seen that economies of scale can be false economies; increasing specialisation can be loss of wisdom; industry can reduce ability.”

This woman is an archaeologist who believes that specialisation causes ‘wisdom’ to be lost. Just gape in astonishment at that statement; and ponder what ‘wisdom’ was lost when we stopped living in caves.

The Dark Mountain Project

Wickham-Jones isn’t the only one who believes that our pesky industrial civilisation is holding us back from running through the trees dancing and singing; we also have the astonishing chaps at the Dark Mountain Project who – honestly – believe that a civilisation isn’t defined by the machines they use or the goods they produce, but rather by the myths and stories associated with them. They’re trying to start what they term an Uncivilisation, which aims to be a collective of writers, artists & thinkers who will preserve these myths through the disruption and collapse of climate change. It’s all wonderfully romantic, but it contains a danger that the movement’s ostensible leader demonstrates in this article. His call for a return to the deep green of the older ecology movement is very enticing, but ultimately leads to the same conclusions as Wickham-Jones: billions must die to make it a reality.

On the other side, you have the anti-environmental ludicrousnessesses like James Delingpole, who are so wedded to such an individualistic epistemology that they’re willing to sacrifice science on its altar. Caught between the extremes of misanthropy and misology are the rest of us, whom I’m going to call the Industrial Environmentalists.  This includes the likes of George Monbiot (despite his recent paen of despair). We believe that humans do impact on the planet, on its atmosphere and on ecosystems – but that this can be overcome, not by giving up civilisation but by using the ingenuity that gave rise to it in the first place. We believe that ecological damage and global warming are major concerns – but concerns we can overcome through the application of reason and industry. And, if possible, we’d like both extremes of the debate to start talking to each other rather than us, so we can get on with saving the planet and our civilisation while they cancel each other out.