Last night at 2030 hrs GMT the Prime Minister, The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, made a statement to the British people. He told us that freedom of movement in the UK was terminated. We’re now confined to quarters, enforceable by law. You can go to work (but only if you absolutely cannot work from home); you can shop for food; all other types of shops and community spaces will close; weddings and baptisms are prohibited; you can exercise once a day. You can’t gather in a group of more than two people apart from with your immediate family. You can’t attend a place of worship. This, declared the Prime Minister, is ‘a national emergency’. I don’t know about you, but I’m curious to understand where all this could be heading. I’ve been giving the matter some thought since Corona Virus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) first erupted several weeks ago. So, this is Part 1 of a two-part post. In this post I set the scene for explaining what I think will be the impact on our lives of Covid-19. The Chinese curse that we may live in interesting times is certainly gaining traction.
The Long Emergency
Twelve years ago, I read a book called ‘The Long Emergency’ (2005) by James Kunstler. Kunstler’s thesis was that our western developed societies were unsustainably complex. Against a backdrop of the American geophysicist M King Hubbert’s theory of ‘Peak Oil’, Kunstler argued that our globalised life as we knew it was on notice. Kunstler explained how it would become increasingly difficult to find, extract and distribute oil to our societies at a price consistent with sustaining our prosperity and all the benefits that flow from it. As an aside, a fellow blogger of mine, Dr Tim Morgan, explains here on his ‘Surplus Energy Economics’ website how the weakening energy equation, articulated by Kunstler in ‘The Long Emergency’, threatens the global economy, finance and ultimately governments themselves.
Kunstler argued that the time would come when the threat posed by Peak Oil would precipitate the transformation of not just national economies, but our understanding of economics itself. Dr Morgan subsequently coined this as ‘surplus energy economics’ and articulates it in a compelling fashion. Deprived of cheap oil – which is, after all, nothing more than a 250-year blip in mankind’s access to energy on Earth – complex societies like our own would face an emergency; Kunstler’s long emergency. Kunstler felt that the impact of Peak Oil would change fundamentally how we live our lives in a process taking decades, perhaps even over a century or so; hence ‘the long emergency’. However, Kunstler also felt that there was a reasonable chance of a sort of Mad Max scenario in which the world could descend into dystopia uncomfortably quickly.
Listening to and watching the news lately, does this sound familiar, ie the alarming speed at which society can change before your very eyes? Stay with me because this post isn’t about Peak Oil of course, rather it’s about rapid economic, political and social change, and the implications for everyday life. The thoughts of James Kunstler and Dr Morgan are relevant to this theme because they and others have given much thought over the past ten to twenty years to the implications of relatively sudden and profound economic and social change; societal transformation, in fact.
An Amateur Interest
For over a decade, I’ve taken an amateur interest in the rise and fall of civilisations; my interest was prompted by reading Kunstler’s book. Since then I’ve read works on the subject of the comings and goings of civilisations by authors including Joseph Tainter (‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’), Jared Diamond (‘Collapse’), Richard Heinberg (‘The End of Growth’), John Michael Greer (‘The Long Descent’), Chris Martenson (‘The Crash Course’), Michael C Ruppert (‘Confronting Collapse’), Dmitry Orlov (‘Reinventing Collapse’), Ronald Wright (‘A Short History of Progress’) and others.
Now this is an important point – particularly for my children and family: my interest in civilisations and, in particular, how civilisations fail was not borne out of any morbid curiosity, still less a desire for societal collapse to happen during my lifetime, any more than a cancer specialist expects or desires to be diagnosed with cancer. My interest in how complex societies fail was and remains somewhat academic, dispassionate and, I hope, reasonably well informed. It’s an amateur pastime in the same way that some people take an interest in bird-watching, or military history, or painting with watercolours.
And Your Point Is?
I’m not suggesting that society is collapsing into a Mad Maxian dystopia as I write this post. However, it’s difficult not to conclude that Covid-19 now poses a transformational threat to our familiar way of life. In a matter of just weeks, we’ve moved from cranking up after the joys of the festive season and gearing up for another year’s work, to having our fundamental, time-honoured freedoms withdrawn literally overnight. Societal transformation doesn’t come much starker than that; a ‘black swan’ event if ever there was one. Now, you may disagree with this initial analysis, in which case disengage at this juncture and go surf elsewhere on the internet. On the other hand, if like me you’re thinking things are looking a tad scary at the moment – it’s all happening so fast, and you’re wondering where this could end up – then read on. The end result is hopeful by the way, at the risk of giving the game away. Read that last sentence again.
Human beings have always predicted and been fearful of Armageddon. Indeed, mankind has endured near-Armageddons in the past. For example, think the Plague of Athens (430 BC); think Bubonic Plague/Black Death (1346 – 1353); think Spanish Flu (1918 – 1920) to name but three. Indeed, HIV/AIDS has taken 32 million lives in the past 40 years. So, the emergence of Covid-19 shouldn’t have surprised us as such; however, it did because it was in the nature of the beast. Different routes to Armageddon may be all very well, but we prefer not to think too much about these things day-to-day, still less plan and prepare for them in any detail. Covid-19 was in fact predictable, but we’re really not very good at resourcing for what we tend to treat as unthinkable.
In his book, ‘A Short History of Progress’ (2004), Ronald Wright noted that ‘medical experts worry that nature may swat us with disease: billions of overcrowded primates, many sick, malnourished and connected by air travel, are a free lunch waiting for a nimble microbe’. Wright went on to observe that, ‘civilisations often fall quite suddenly – the House of Cards effect – because they reach full demand on their ecologies; they become highly vulnerable to natural fluctations’.
I’m a physicist by university education; I like reading (these days non-mathematical) physics books written by physicists such as Paul Davies, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox, Michio Kaku, Martin Rees and others. One way or another all those physicists have had something to say over the past 10 years or so about life, the universe and everything. In his book, ‘Our Final Century’ (2003), Professor Martin Rees concluded that, ‘the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilisation will survive to the end of the present century … unless all nations adopt low-risk and sustainable policies based on present technology’.
Let’s link the work of Ronald Wright and Joseph Tainter. Wright said that globally, ‘we still have differing cultures and political systems, but at the economic level there is now only one big civilisation, feeding on the whole planet’s natural capital … the twenty-fold growth in world trade since the 1970s has meant that hardly anywhere on Earth is self-sufficient’.
Joseph Tainter, author of ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’ (1990) charted the rise and fall of several civilisations including The Harrapans, Mesopotamia, The Egyptian Old Kingdom, The Hittite Empire, The Minoans, The Mycenaeans, The Western Roman Empire, The Olmec and no less than nine other civilisations throughout history. Tainter highlighted today’s global interdependence as referred to by Wright above. Tainter said that unlike with previous civilisations, which were effectively sub-sets of the global population, ‘collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global … world civilisation will disintegrate as a whole’.
It’s this unprecedented global connectedness of mankind – we call it ‘globalisation’, beloved by many (but not by me) – which could now be our undoing as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds. It’s correct to say that we’ve never been in a situation like this before. As I write this post, Covid-19 is now impacting 195 countries around the world; the world comprises 195 countries. The late Kofi Annan, erstwhile Secretary-General of the United Nations once said, ‘globalisation is a fact of life, but I believe we have underestimated its fragility’.
How Do We Decide What To Do?
Politicians are grappling with how to deal with the Covid-19 black swan. We’ve never before been faced with quite such an acute threat to life on such a scale, absent total warfare. Historically, even total warfare comes with some degree of warning and the opportunity to prepare for the consequences. In the UK, worst case analysis suggests that up to 500,000 people could be killed by Covid-19 if we did little or nothing to avert the spread of the virus. That sounds pretty horrendous; indeed, it is horrendous. However, one of the requirements of effective problem-solving – however big the problem seems – is to keep everything in perspective.
Every year, about 500,000 people die in the UK, so we’re looking at a potential doubling of the death rate in a trice. In 1918, Spanish Flu killed 228,000 British people. During the Second World War the UK suffered some 451,000 deaths from all causes over a period of 6 years. The population of the UK today is 66 million. So, Covid-19 could conceivably shift the annual death rate from 0.75% to 1.50% of the population. Apart from the obvious grief associated with this, the logistics of coping with an overnight doubling of the UK’s annual death rate is difficult to comprehend.
So, what should we do to prevent or at least to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on the UK’s death rate? At the moment, politicians around the world including here in the UK are pursuing the nuclear option, to coin a phrase. In a nutshell, the British government, like others around the world, has opted to all intents and purposes to shut down swathes of the economy – directly and indirectly – and summarily to withdraw a raft of our ancient freedoms. The purpose of doing this is to buy time. Time is required: to arrest the spread of the virus; to allow the National Health Service (NHS) to build capability and resources; to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.
The question is, however, is it right to take such draconian action? Is it right precipitously to switch off activity in numerous sectors of the economy, potentially putting millions of people out of work for the foreseeable future; to make the government the employer of last resort; to deny citizens the right to leave their homes other than for strictly controlled reasons; to load an extraordinary debt burden on the nation’s future taxpayers; and to create massive uncertainty about how the economy and, therefore, society will recover from such an acute massive, disruptive change to what was until just a few weeks ago the natural order of things?
Economists call decision-making under these circumstances ‘utilitarianism’. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that determines right from wrong by focusing on outcomes. It’s a form of consequentialism: the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. Utilitarianism holds that the most ethical choice is the one which will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. There are three principles of utilitarianism:
- Happiness (meaning pleasure and the absence of pain) is the only thing that truly has intrinsic value.
- Actions are right insofar as they promote happiness; wrong insofar as they produce unhappiness.
- Everyone’s happiness counts equally,
The problem with utilitarianism, some say, is this: it’s wrong to punish an innocent person because it violates their human rights and is unjust. However, for the utilitarian, all that matters is the net gain of happiness. If the happiness of the many is increased enough, it can justify making one (or a few) miserable in service of the rest. I guess you can see how the concept of utilitarianism relates to Covid-19. Is saving the lives of 500,000 people (0.75% of the British population) worth threatening millions of people with unemployment and potential poverty, if not ruin?
As an aside, President Donald Trump is showing signs of being a utilitarian, whether he realises it, or not. President Trump is already suggesting that perhaps locking down the entire US economy to protect a single-figure percentage of American lives may not be such a great idea after all. The net gain in happiness could be greater by keeping the US economy fighting fit whilst letting a proportion of Covid-19 victims bite the dust. Who’d be a President or a Prime Minister, eh?
Nobody yet really knows the likely consequences of the British government’s Covid-19 fiscal and monetary policies; however, some analysts are already saying that a recession if not outright depression is conceivable if using the government as the employer of last resort continues for too long (whatever ‘too long’ means). In the Great Depression of the 1930s, UK unemployment rose to 20% of the workforce – which today would mean some 6.5 to 7.0 million people without work. That’s without even considering the potentially inflationary or, heaven forfend, hyperinflationary consequences of substantial ‘quantitative easing’ (printing money), again if this parlous state of affairs continues for months or for as much as twelve to eighteen months.
OK, calm down dear, this is heady stuff and it’s early days, so let’s leave economics, utilitarianism and government decision-making to one side for now. To be quite clear, however, I’m not arguing the case for the application of utilitarianism per se to make decisions vis-à-vis Covid-19, but it’s a useful concept for understanding just how extraordinarily difficult it is to make decisions in a situation like this. The title of this post is ‘Where’s this Heading?’ and I want just to touch on the answer to that question before pausing and posting again as Part 2 of this series.
It seems to me that everything I’ve said above opens the door to some potentially serious social consequences. Despite us patently being at the thin end of a wedge, some people are already behaving antisocially: panic-buying goods; stealing sanitary products from ambulances and hospitals; defrauding people using online sales’ portals; congregating and socialising against government ‘social distancing’ advice and so on.
It’s occurred to me also that the government’s intention to step in and act as the employer of last resort raises the potential for a rupturing of social cohesion. Already we’ve seen that the UK’s 5 million self-employed workers have been excluded from the government’s safety net (I’m one of those 5 million people), albeit the Chancellor is said to be working on some policies in this respect. I’m financially secure, but there could well be two, three, four million people now staring real hardship in the face.
Furthermore, how long will it be before people start saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I’m having to go to work and risk contracting Covid-19 whilst the guy next door has been furloughed and is getting two grand a month from the government for sitting safely at home doing nothing’. This thought occurred to me as I looked at five ‘scaffies’ (as we call refuse collectors here in Scotland) crammed into the cab of a truck outside my house going about their refuse collecting work this morning. Scaffies are essential workers, but they’re also at risk. Meanwhile, I’m prohibited by law from congregating with three or more of my fellow citizens in the village park opposite my home. How come I’m being protected, but the scaffies aren’t? Who’s the utilitarian behind that decision?
You can see what I’m getting at here. In Part 2 I want to explore further the social consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and I also want to set out how I think the world should look after what is shaping up to be a seminal moment in the history of mankind.
A best buddy of mine sent me a WhatsApp message this morning in which he signed off by asking how things were here in my village? Here’s my response:
‘It’s all a bit surreal, n’est ce pas. I would never have thought [my village] could get quieter than it is normally; but it is quieter. It’s as if we’re all living through an apocalypse movie. We’re so lucky here, of course. We spend our lives in ‘isolation’ normally, so the privations placed upon us now are mere bagatelle. Village shops stocked to the gunnels too. It wasn’t a mistake that we chose to settle here, but who would ever have imagined it would come to this? Apart, that is, from my preoccupation with the collapse of complex societies and the tons of stuff we’ve hoarded over the years with just that in the back of our minds. It’s just that it wasn’t actually supposed to happen …’
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See you down the pub …