De-industrialism is a plague on reasonable forward thinking

Yesterday afternoon, I saw my new baby for the first time.

From head to tail bone it was 41mm long and 11 weeks old. Slightly too young to check for defects, so we’ll have another scan in a week and a half. The image, albeit not the highest quality, showed a little person, nudging around in its little space. We could see its tiny heart beating.

Over the past few day, I have also attempted to engage in a conversation on the blogosphere, which I’ve since decided to leave alone. What irked me most about the exchange was that I was characterised as arrogant, bombastic egotist simply because I attempted to be critical of factually baseless claims. If you find yourself in a debate, do you not try to present your argument as completely as possible? How is it a failing if you’re not presented with compelling rebuttals?

Trying to present a strong case has never, in my professional life, been a failing. If I took my academic career further, it could have been far more brutal for me with many of the best minds tearing apart my work to test its validity. Scientists are not about listening to what amounts to little more than someone’s hopes and dreams, if they don’t have a strong case to back it up. It’s this ever improving system of critical analysis which has resulted in the many scientific laws and principles that make our modern life possible.

How are these two things related?

The igniting spark to the discussion was one word; egalitarianism.

Presented to me was something akin to the late Victorian naturalistic romanticism coupled with a social ideology of equality. In this case, of course, it didn’t call itself socialism, however. More worrisome still, the theme included a de-industrialised world with all members of our species part-time peasants. In doing so, it was suggested to me, we would all be free of debt and would all enjoy copious free time around our, apparently minimal food production obligations.*

I use the word “worrisome” because, as I see it, that late Victorian utopian ideology has been tried and tested and proved just as corrupt and doomed to failure as the neo-liberal capitalism now accelerating us to resource and biodiversity depletion – perhaps even more so in that the jealous ego that accompanied that economic model, which ultimately starved it of its initial wealth.

The two are related because of work. Work seemed to be demonised in this ideology I encountered. It was considered parallel to slavery.

Well, that scientific “slavery” led to numerous Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine which all in turn led to me, sitting by my wife, looking at a fantastic flat plate, able to represent millions of colours in high definition, which at that precise time represented a reconstruction of “echolocation”, outlining our child.

If it wasn’t for the many thousands of hours “slavery” in tertiary education, the handful of doctors and midwives may not have been present to perform an emergency C-section when my first born was stuck, a problem that potentially could have killed them both.

More importantly, none of these professional people resent their roles as “slavery”. They have all worked hard, received accolades for their efforts and improved / saved lives.

I had to write it as, “many thousands of hours” for a simple reason; think if these same people had to do the same work and tend to a crop, a herd or had to fish as well. Sure, in some places, where the rain is good and reliable and the soil rich and fertile, one may keep an orchard without many thousands of hours of labour. The same cannot be said for Australia’s 20 million people on this old, depleted soil and highly variable rainfall.

Besides, would you want a surgeon, who just laid out compost this morning to head in to work on your heart in the afternoon (fatigue and potential infection) – noting also that he is probably much older than he otherwise would have been if left to focus on medicine alone?

I’ve been on dairy farms, vine yards and orchards. It’s not easy work to be done part time.

This morning news informed me that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has much of coastal Northern Territory on “cyclone watch”. Due to the weak winds, they are not yet sure where the forming cyclone will land, but they have a good idea when it will form.

Without countless hours of atmospheric research and mindboggling ingenuity in developing weather models, we would have no warning of any sort. People would be left to the elements, at best praying to some deity that they may be spared.

We could do as far as to include the reporter who articulated the message in a meaningful fashion to a wide audience or even further still and say without James Clerk Maxwell’s work with electromagnetism and Heinrich Hertz effectively producing the first radio, the reporter would be unable to report to such an audience at all.

I don’t care what field you wish to look at, when all else is said and done, you need full time research and development people. Einstein would have been wasted with the plough and Stephen Hawking is still enlightening the rest of us due to improvements in medical science and engineering.

To think otherwise is comparable to anti-vax advocates who have never seen small pox in their lives and so don’t understand the threat. Thinking that we have enough knowledge today, so we can now stop and focus on another ways of life is effectively the principle to the Amish.

We indeed have pressing problems facing our immediate future, never better demonstrated than in Rockström et al (2009), but turning our back on research to pursue Tolkien’s dream of returning to the shire, aware from the beastly machine, is foolish. To face tomorrow’s problems with today’s knowledge will not do. If we are to weather the storm of climate change, peak oil (and natural gas somewhere behind it – incredibly important for nitrogen fertilisers), biodiversity loss and rising food and water insecurity, we need ingenuity, not 7 billion farmers.

Therefore, we’ll need surplus (continuing on egalitarian fancy) to feed these R&D people. To be truly effective, they should come together. For that reason and for the sheer sake of having some variety in our diets and to have the materials required for efficient farmer / clothing / household goods, we will also require resource distributers. Surplus and distribution requires governance to be fair, equal and effective. To make sense of the various roles, credit (ie. cash) comes back into the system. How do you value physical produce and research output “equally”?

Already you’re returning to a similar structure to the Orwellian farmyard. It’s Cartmanland; designed to exclude all that one doesn’t like, but slowly over time becoming more and more like that which it replaced simply out of necessity.

Let’s instead look at an egalitarian world that provides many of the services and goods (albeit, materials that continue in the system rather than linear to waste, to stop, for a moment, concerns over consumerism) that we have today. We’ll compare a teenager, working an after-school job to a GP doctor. Both earn the same hourly rate.

The doctor of course has debt in the form of household bills, school fees (if they were “free” the support in providing educators, maintenance etc, would need to come from somewhere – in this case, the government, therefore tax or society sacrifice), a mortgage (to think the society around him would build him a beautiful house, decked out however he wished just as soon as he became a doctor is a pipedream – building material isn’t free and often is far away nowadays from where people live, therefore a home costs in some form; the doctor’s sacrifice, societies sacrifice or both via tax), food (he is a full time doctor and I’m certain not every patient could pay him in food enough to feed his family – especially if they’re so sick they cannot work) etc.

On the other hand, the teenager doesn’t even pay board to their parents.

Already the situation is unequal. Sure, the doctor works more hours, but in his reduced hourly rate (compared to the real world), he is only getting by, while the youth is living it up with copious disposable income. Their obligations, input and outputs are not equal, so it doesn’t make sense.

The teen’s father has an accident and cannot work and so now the youth has to contribute a significant part of their pay to the family.

On the other hand, the doctor’s oldest child gets a job and the doctor makes them pay board and the mother too goes back to work with the children now able to look after themselves.

Now the situation is unequal again.

Egalitarian communities were far smaller and most importantly, did not share the diversity of roles that make society as we know it possible. They couldn’t turn on the radio or surf the web to find out any weather notifications. If a baby had a head circumference too large, chances were mum would die (either in child bird or painfully due to gangrene in the following days and weeks – which were both common even as little as a century and a half ago), very likely the baby also. They had no way to stop highly infectious viruses (none of them even begun to understand virology). They had no way to overcome years when the weather didn’t permit their usual food production avenues or foraging techniques to work for them (again, we too easily forget in the west, with easy food distribution just how real famine is).

In short, egalitarianism is not a good social model for major civilizations. Even Adelaide’s relatively modest population of 1.2 million couldn’t coordinate such model – even if the soil was fertile, which much of it isn’t (and a lot of what was, is now contaminated) – especially without governance and other full time professionals outside of food production.

Yet, we do, as a global community produce enough food to feed everyone, the problem is instead distribution. This could be changed if we instead focused our energy on this problem and the problems outlined in Rockström et al (2009) (including population), rather than hold out for a near utopian dream in universal care, appreciation and support, which after all, was not the true state of the societies used as example of a ‘model egalitarian society’ or their ability to support the level of healthcare and education we can do today.

This type of thinking is, in all honesty, de-industrialisation. Nothing more.

Many generations have made a mistake and my generation and those who have followed were born when the fuel guzzling machine was already accelerating. Our lives have seen the bulk of the oil burned.

Realising, at this hour, that the machine has left a mess, we can’t simply jump off at speed – the effects of it barrelling along will continue and we’ll be roughed up in the jump (who knows how bad).

We need figure out how the hell it works and bring it to a stop instead (ie. steady state economy). We need to fix up our population explosion in a humane way. These two problems will take time because they have compounded themselves over time and rash decisions are simply dangerous (ie. think about applying a “one child policy” globally overnight; expect to be working yourself to the grave, because we simply could not support such an aging population).

It’s too late for a quick fix. It will take time and it will take a lot of effort to mend. Then and only then can we head down the path to fix up the mess the machine left in its wake.

*Some of my readers will be aware of my making fun of Poptech for his word mining, to insult me on his own space. I detest this behaviour and thus will not be pursuing the case presented to me further in this piece or resorting to referring to the individuals here personally, where they wouldn’t have the opportunity to defend themselves. I merely wished to take their case – one that is not exclusively their own – and explore it here instead. Hence why I am not linking or naming.


6 thoughts on “De-industrialism is a plague on reasonable forward thinking

  1. Moth,

    In the ‘discussion on the blogosphere’ to which you refer, I believe you made the mistake of conflating numerous views and discussion topics into a single theme that contradicted your own world view. What you appear to have read as a desire to ‘pursue Tolkien’s dream of returning to the shire’ was — the way I read it — nothing of the sort.

    We are all different. We all see things in different ways. Moreover, we all communicate in flawed ways — especially when trying to get a handle on the reasons why our society has gone so badly wrong, and how best to proceed to fix things. Nobody has the right answer. Not me. Not even you.

    On another note: a part of me is glad that you and your other half are expecting a child. Another, less politically-correct, part of me is unable to offer the customary congratulations for two reasons: 1) we have enough people on this planet already: we should not be celebrating further overpopulation; and 2) what the technology you value (in my opinion too) highly is showing you is not (yet) a ‘new baby’, it is a ‘fetus‘. Of course, for your sake, I hope that it will become ‘a little person’ — but it is not one yet. This distinction is useful for reasons that are easiest to consider when one is not directly emotionally involved.

    You may consider (1) and (2), both, to be heartless and cold observations: however, I think they illustrate well the hard thinking we are all forced to make if we are to make it through the coming transition. It’s up to us to provide humanity’s future children with the best chance of living happy, fulfilling lives. I suspect too many of us are simply not up to the task.


    1. I have to disagree, I’m sorry. In this and the following three articles, I have tried to pursue my reasoning against a subject presented to me on that site. Less so the article itself in the end, as my criticisms of that article were never really addressed and more so what occurred in the comments. The, apparently approved, notion in the comment thread of a world of part-time peasants is so fundamentally flawed I’m staggered to understand how anybody could actually promote it. I am very much a back-to-basics person in many regards of my life, but I do not attack specialisation which has allowed my life to be as long and as comfortable as I’m likely to experience it. Those achievements have equally fed back into food production as well (even if only a personal plot – for instance, fertiliser, which is fundamental to almost any Australian plot, is produced, the tools of the trade need to be manufactured and by doing it through mass production means is the only way to give 7 billion farmers their tools and what about labour? Work animals made village life possible for producers so we either need billions of work animals or machines for each property etc).

      What I witnessed was akin to the anti-vax groups who have never seen small pox or whooping cough and act so blasé about one of the greatest social gifts (and is a great example of equality) through mass vaccination. The same in criticising technology (through technology no less!). I’ve made it clear for a long time my position regarding materialism and mass consumerism, but technology is not the same thing. Technology has improved our lives immensely, while consumerism has less to increasing short lived devices and ridiculous landfill heaps. If we are to overcome ailments, we will rely on medical science and if required the technological advancements of that field, resulting from many hundreds of research hours and development. Likewise, to solve our problems regarding population and environmental degradation, we will need to rely on many fields of natural and social science as well as technology that will be able to make it possible (such as mass transport, the internet, architecture and process / reclaim technologies to reduce waste). Innovation is key and I certainly disagree – we need to value science and technology as high as we do the environment if we are going to be true problem solvers.

      I know I don’t have the answers, but I am allowed to present a strong argument. I wanted valid criticism to rebut my points, however I got wishful thinking without a strong ideology of how it would be achievable and demonisation of my character in lieu of a debate. I even received the “you’ll get there one day” condescending reply when I attempted to present ideas based on my learning to date. I am the first to attempt that I’m wrong – it’s an important part of learning.

      I’m fully aware of the anti-natal process and point 2 is simply nit-picking. True, at this stage it’s early days, but it’s hard not to think of this small thing, with it’s tiny heart beat, developed hands and feet moving around in it’s mothers tummy as nothing less than my own baby.

      I agree with point 1. However, population growth in Aust is about 1.7%. The population growth rates are much higher in developing nations for reasons I’ve discussed previously (such as children being the only retirement plan, higher childhood mortality etc). But assisting in the increase in health care and education in developing nations by developed nations we will make a much greater contribution to limiting population growth than by the developed nations simply stop having children. I believe long term we’ll need something similar to China’s “one-child policy” but at a lesser rate – something staggered so we won’t face the problem of an aging population. As for now, I’ve strongly believe for as long as I remember in two for two. I’m certain you yourself have a family, why on Earth shouldn’t it be an option for others as well?

      “we have enough people on this planet already” -> “It’s up to us to provide humanity’s future children with the best chance of living happy.”

      We don’t live forever and children are required so my wife and I will leave one or two in our wake. And indeed, I am tried to do all I can to help make the future as bright as I possibly can through my efforts in discussion on the blogosphere, my career in environmental science and through my activities in my personal life. Too many of us are not up to the task – many still have their heads in the sand on any given subject while others dreamily look on utopian societies which never existed (and show no valid reason for being otherwise). It is a tough road ahead and my money is on science and technology (both mechanical and “organic” technology) providing the most sensible means of answering the problems we face.


  2. You’re certain I have a family — which can only be read as meaning children of my own. Well, you’d be wrong there, then. Incidentally, it’s ‘antenatal’, not anti-natal. Perhaps you need to examine your assumptions a little more, not jump to conclusions, and try a little harder to understand the points of view of others.


    1. Thanks for picking up the typo.
      Sorry for assuming that you were not like the majority and had a family of your own. However I doubt it was a conscious decision due to the overpopulation situation and even if it were, it would do little to help as I previously stated.
      You’re continuing to nit-pick rather than address the point I’ve made – much like I encountered on that comment thread. That I go to such detail in explaining the case I’m putting forward and resorted to explicitly pointing out each point to which I was referring to surely demonstrates that I am listing and that I do understand, but I just don’t agree.
      That I’m returned with lofty notions about nature, baseless criticism of my confidence in science and technology (ie “technology you value (in my opinion too) highly” – without justification as to why it is wrong) and such nit-picking which leads to a result of me being nothing more than a horrible, thoughtless and arrogant egotist show that no-one involved cared to understand my point of view, but simply wished to harp on the same ideology that I tried repeatedly to show will not work in saving our skins or the great environment around us.
      I don’t wish to carry on that pointless exchange here, so please just let it go. I do understand the point of view being made there, I just didn’t see how it could fit in with the real world and no-one there cared to outline its validity and I don’t wish for you to bring the same kind of rebuttal here – I can’t waste my life being told that my point of view isn’t worth addressing because I’m such a low person.


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