THE CHALLENGE OF CHANGING PERSPECTIVES


For those of you who accidentally received a first draft last week of this blog, this one is quite different in its overall perspective. You may be amused by the radical changes made.


As a member of the older generation, the changes I continue facing in everyday-life are historically unprecedented, wide-ranging, and in many ways controversial. A number are difficult to handle or to tolerate for many different age levels.

I find the continuing acceleration in the speed of change in life disturbing. Everybody is “busy” most of the time. We race from one place to another, spend too much time in traffic jams, rush through what we have to read, see on television and follow on our computers. Meals are cut short and Victorian style afternoon teas are no longer in fashion — they are too time consuming.

Through the dynamism of both technology and finance, we have changed not only the pace of life but also have altered its quality and direction. Money (that is, profits) has been the driving force of capitalism but almost no attention has been given to the effects on human beings which follow most innovations. In my last blog I focused on the unknown impact of iPads and tablets on infants. That was not the occasion to examine the possible impact of computers, mobiles and automation on adults.

What first comes to mind is what I am doing right now! The hours spent everyday on my computer are bad for my back, my eyes, my hands and my spirits. I still love writing with pen or pencil and find these wonderful, but slow and I, too, am often in a hurry. I am not on Facebook or the other social networks because they would intrude into my moments of leisure, time in the garden, or time to reflect.

So where can we take the currently uncontrolled and unplanned advances of technology which are popularly assumed may end with Artificial Intelligence? How to test the effects of automation on human beings as well as on entire societies? It is evident that as long as money/profits remain the prime driving force, there is little possibility of controlling the advance of untested but desirable technology-driven innovations for our brains and mental states.

Let me suggest that the pharmaceutical industry is a good example of what the Silicon valley giants could try to copy: In most countries almost all new medicines have to pass a variety of rigorous tests for their suitability on patients. If this difficult as well as bureaucratic program works effectively for protecting our physical health, why could different tests not be applied for the mental well-being of those subjected to electronically stimulated waves — ranging from head-sets to our everyday iPhones? We have little idea at the moment to what we are subjecting our brains (and hearts) and what the possibilities of damage there may be from many electronic devices.

On a broader perspective, some of the impacts of the new technology on the younger generation are evident: many no longer communicate in writing on paper and tend to stick to minimalism when it comes to expressing themselves. They even don’t like to use the telephone, regarding it as a medium of old-timers. I have been advised by a son that he no longer reads any email which extends beyond two terse paragraphs. As a writer, I find all of this poses cultural challenges which we could perhaps correct in schools and universities over time.

As a writer and former journalist, I am most disturbed by the newly popularized crisis of faith in journalism. The masses like to get the instant flow of events from Twitter and the online news organizations. What with the perverters of the truth, like Murdoch’s Sun newspaper in the UK and Fox News in the USA, the press increasingly gives readers the scandals they want rather than informing them of the events which might increase their knowledge or might be useful. For that matter, I have to confess that getting the Trump scenarios out of my mind is becoming an everyday challenge.

Even much of our economics are becoming unfathomable: Bit-Coins with their digital crypto-currencies make no sense. It seems that they are new instruments for gamblers, tax evaders, and high-tech risk takers rather than money to be used every day. Controls by governments of QE (Quantitative Easing) in which billions upon billions of dollars, pounds and other currencies have been pumped into bank reserves also seem most dubious. The whole QE process comes straight out of wonderland and tends to confuse minds, even in government, about reality.

I must balance these deep concerns with my expression of positive advances in so many areas. I am most enthusiastic about the giant greenhouses being based on the Eden Project in Cornwall. The co-founder, Sir Tim Smith, wants “to create oases of change… our job is to create a fever of excitement about the world that is ours to make better.” His group is now planning the construction of giant green-house domes in China, Australia and New Zealand.

I find the GPS of finding one’s way around the world as directed from outer space is a marvelous technological breakthrough, much as it may do away with our former ability to read maps. This is a variation of the impact that the technologies have on our abilities. When kids in schools some fifty years ago were given simple hand held adding machines, they quickly forgot how to do their sums.

The miracle cures for cancer exploiting the powers of genetics and our human immune systems are to be lauded. The related advances in gene editing techniques are promising extraordinary solutions to many of our genetically based illnesses. However, as with medicines, we should try to advance more carefully with intense examinations of the possible consequences rather than triumphantly announcing breakthroughs. The moral challenges we face with the introduction of gene editing must be dealt with enormous care and consideration. Our perspective of how to protect our minds after all these millennia of change and development must not be corrupted by the lure of money nor even by the competitive egos of leading scientists.1

Governments around the world are now planning to ban all diesel and petrol vehicles over the next 25+ years because the rising levels of nitrogen oxide present a major threat to public health as well as to climate change. If governments can do this on a cooperative basis, why can they not start research on whether the electronic products of ‘Silicon Valley” are affecting the mental and asocial imbalances of the population?

Thankfully, there are numerous aspects of our evolving cultures, like the above, which are greatly encouraging. I think it is most important to focus on these to bring greater hope to millions of people who have become deeply discouraged by the universal focus on capitalist competition, celebrity, and terrorism in this new millennium. I am advocating that the wonders of being alive on this incredible planet truly should be the basis for much of future optimism in the next generations.


1Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium, (1996) pp. 421-428

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EPILOGUE — THE NOVEMBER 8TH CALAMITY

Trump’s victory hit me like a blow to the head, totally disrupting  my thoughts, feelings, and reactions: There was no way I  could continue to write blogs focused on our positive prospects for tomorrow after the unmitigated catastrophe of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

Some months later, I still cannot see anything which will make life more meaningful emerging under Trump. This is a turning point for the US, but personally, from my individual perspective, it was and remains a disaster, like having been in a serious car crash.

I still cannot accept that such a large part of the American electorate failed to recognize Trump as a vain, politically inexperienced, deceptive, limited, insecure, lacking in empathy and pathologically unsuited con-man.

Trump had been exposed as being unfit to hold office by the entirety of the American press. (I described him as a 21st Century Satan in one of my blogs a few months ago.)  The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal and the editorial pages of all the leading newspapers across the country steadily warned against him to no avail. No point for me now to continue the loud chorus of printed dismay with  further denunciations in my blog.

Beyond their frustrated expectations of a better life, what could have persuaded so many American voters to endorse such an exceedingly unsuitable candidate? Were they blind? Out of their minds? Physically, on my first viewing years ago, I had immediately found his face revolting. Many of the people I know cannot stand the sight of him on their TV sets and yet the flood of truly vile items released about Trump and by him, has failed to arouse doubts in his admirers. They seemed to be saying at every chance: “He’s real. He’s just like us” and then they  repeat “He’ll Make America Great Agin.”(sic) Such chants speedily downgrade into shouting their stored hatreds and anger. Their disgusting behavior, reminded me of the way Germans had expressed their venom three generations ago, and had the unwelcome effect of hyper-activating my bile.

As a refugee from Nazi occupied France in 1941, I entered America as a youth who desired rapid assimilation: I immediately treasured the optimistic and positive spirit of my classmates in New York.  Intuitively I felt that the political attitudes of Americans offered a rational, generous and hopeful prospect for mankind. When I went to Harvard, purportedly surrounded by “the brightest and the best”, I came to take for granted the exchange of thoughts, the examination of given assumptions, (such as understanding, insight and acceptance), as representing a naturally intelligent way of life. This educational preparation received a few shocks during a stretch in the US Army as a “Private, third class.”  Basic training is focused on following orders, not on discussing Plato or Jefferson. However, I did come to appreciate the social equality of my fellow recruits.

My belief in the fundamental American values was strengthened in the years which followed as a writer and researcher for Congressional-Quarterly/Editorial Research in Washington, DC. I enjoyed asking questions at JFK’s White House press conferences. Such experience furthered my engagement in the search for truth, in factual reporting, and in expanding the understanding of my readers. I developed a belief, however misguided as it may have been, in the common-sense of the American people. At times, as in the elections of Richard Nixon and later in that of  George W. Bush, I began to have my doubts. These were electrified by the shocking antics of Donald Trump.

Was my entire outlook on life and on the premises by which I had embraced the American way of life erroneous or worthless? Have knowledge, rationality, intelligence and memory all become irrelevant in this new and most unwelcome era?

The long-term prospects are not good for a nation which is now led by a POTUS who has never held any position in service of the nation, who has skillfully avoided taxes, has no understanding of the necessity of compromise in the democratic process, is unable to accept criticism or to listen to the voice of others and ultimately appears unable to recognize the difference between truth and fiction.

All too many Americans seem to have succumbed to the misguiding power of celebrity, to the even greater power of money, and to the digital propaganda of Twitter. Millions of Americans have obviously become unreceptive to examining lies and falsehood, at the same time that they were rejecting expertise, debate, intelligence and experience. Serious analysis and criticism are no longer to be regarded as welcome or even essential. As a number of writers on The New York Times, from David Brooks on the right to Paul Krugman on the left, have noted: hypocrisy now flourishes in America. The evangelical believers and  conservative Republicans who swore by their religious tenets and balanced budgets, simply abandoned their fundamental beliefs for the sake of political power.

The new “Age of the Deal,” leaves me reeling. Where to turn? What to do? Should I give up my American citizenship? There is no way I can align my writings or outlook to counter-act the unending flow of brainless Tweets. What has happened to conscience, to values, to empathy and to cultural traditions in this misbegotten administration?

I felt and continue to feel that the response of the Congressional Democrats has been unacceptably feeble. It is without true fire in the belly. The exception of the heroic John Lewis, who stood up bravely to contest the validity of the election, was not matched by his Party. I regarded the inauguration not as a patriotic event but as an occasion to mourn the passing of much of the democratic dream of a better future. Trumpism seems to be heralding a period of denial in which the environmental threat to our planet is likely to accelerate.

I cannot see the point of joining voices to the powerful bandwagon against Trump.  I feel there is little place now for a blog which worked towards a positive exploration of our future possibilities. I shall try to continue to explore the more positive aspects and values of the world around us at a time when the stream of executive orders from the White House are spreading anxiety and gloom. I trust that correspondents like Roger Cohen will continue their exposure of the contradictions and rantings of a pathologically deranged Head of State.

I recognize that the best I can do in this chaotic period is to alter my focus: Instead of continuing to suggest social and economic alternatives, I shall explore cultural aspects of society much as I did in Paris decades ago for Newsweek. I hope that on occasion this will distract and uplift your spirits as much as they may mine.

108. Exit Corporate Capitalism

The fragility of our economic foundations has become a universal concern. Not only are these still nerve rattling after-shocks from the last crisis in 2008, but every day’s news warns us that there is the risk of a serious economic implosion around the corner. The truth is that our global economic system cannot long endure debts of $200 trillion — or three times the gross global product when the interest rates and inflation are both close to zero and QE (Quantitative Easing/printing money) is pumping billions into economies whose currencies continue to be devalued. As Stephen King, the HSBC economist, dramatically cautioned: “The world economy is a Titanic without lifeboats.”

I consistently argued in my book, Dollars or Democracy1, that we have to face up to the fact that after two centuries of undisputed advance, corporate capitalism has had its innings. Yes, it had great achievements: Corporate capitalism took most of humanity out of an agricultural existence into an industrial one and then into our own technological era. However, at no stage was corporate capitalism concerned with human well being. It was focused on the interest money could earn and the profits that could be made through goods and services. It never had an answer to nagging unemployment nor the entry of robots. Indeed, it was never responsible for the stewardship of our planet nor the equitable distribution of clean air, water and food. All those problems were left to the political sphere.

In many ways corporate capitalism sowed the seeds of its own predicament. It fostered ever-faster growth and changes which have had revolutionary consequences manifest in the populist upheaval in politics which we are currently experiencing. In a system which promoted naked self-interest, one of the major human problems which arose was that many world’s peoples adopted much of the ethos of corporate capitalism as an integral part of their perspective. Helped by the technological wonders of the Internet, we developed ever-mounting expectations. The popular focus turned to celebrity, wealth and the self. The highest “value” was no longer human nor divine but monetary. In this process humanity also became hooked on speed: fast travel, fast transactions, fast cars, ever-faster communications as well as mobility (which included upward mobility.)

The electorates, whose hopes had been advanced by the promotions of an elite, began to feel deeply alienated from an economic system that produces unacceptable inequalities. They started to recognize that terms like “growth” and “free trade” might just be the deceitful expressions of wishful thinking on the part of the politicians and the media. However, the populace have yet to recognize that in the 21st century the dollar has become the golden calf that much of humanity worships. Amen!

How much longer can the voters accept such an unbalanced economic system where less than one hundredth of one percent owns more than half of the entire global population, where robotics are putting ever increasing millions out of work, and where global giants are free to produce such high levels of pollution on this planet that the survival of most living species is now threatened?

Yes. The time has come to restructure an economy which feeds on the mathematically unsustainable, namely, Growth. Without it, corporate capitalism would have a short life span. And even the statistic dependent “economists,” whom few members of humanity now trust, admit that the levels of growth of the past 50 years cannot continue.

At the basis of an economic reconstruction stands the globalized corporations whose principal concern is profit for their shareholders and ever-higher pay for their executives. Corruption is rife in the biggest firms as evidenced by VW’s diesel emission scandal and the collapse of Enron. Moreover, corporations have had minimal tax demands put on them by nation states and have almost no legal responsibilities to the populations. When not in collusion with other corporations, competition for their product forces them towards innovation and changes which customers may initially welcome but whose overall long-term impact is unknown and may be damaging.2 The impact of corporate capitalism on the workings of the mind and on the environment we live in has been corrosive.

The reckless “short-termism” of corporate managements has corroded those very same virtues that capitalism originally was based upon: trust, honesty, craftsmanship, family values and cooperation.

Considering what an emotional creature Homo sapiens is, perhaps my desire for a degree of order in the world with a system which is rational may be unrealistic. All too often the “values” that society has established are not determined by the hard, cold facts and as a consequence our economic constructs are irrational, transient and often chaotic, Symbolically, words like “policy”, “program”, “plans” when uttered by politicians arouse immediate public cynicism.

I am fully aware that corporations are and will continue to be firmly opposed to any change in their select and privileged status. The environmental pollution they produce may be challenged and corrected by political forces, but their social responsibility will remain close to nil. Corporations have accumulated power by such tactics as emasculating the labor unions, and avoiding retribution for non-payment of national taxes by establishing opaque offshore tribunals. So what is to be done? My own response is that the coordinated decisions of governments must legally and gradually make it necessary for corporations to be transformed into cooperatives. The power must shift from the shareholders and investors to those who are the actual workers and their self-selected leaders. Yes, this could lower both effectiveness and competition. Yes, it would slow down the globalization of the economy. Yes, it would also diminish social change and innovation. And it would absolutely diminish the ever increasing inequalities: Please note that in the co-operative world the ratio of top pay to the lowest is around 12 to 1.

How could such revolutionary transition be achieved? I believe the first step could be to start repealing the 150 years of anti-cooperative legislation now on the books. The second would be to give powerful tax incentives to corporations to shift their legal structures away from the shareholders and in favor of the society at large. The third could be to pass restrictive legislation to end all the favoritism which has been shown to corporations in large measure through their lobbying. The final step would be to place vastly increased taxes on those remaining corporations which refused to comply.  In all probability it would take more than a decade to effect such a major shift – especially on organizations now perceived as “too big to fail,” where breaking these up into much smaller units would be challenging.

These basic changes can only come about when faced with such a serious economic meltdown as we are likely to experience in the highly unstable future ahead of us. I do not see this as an apocalyptic economic prediction. However, the corporations at the center of the capitalist system will also become the focus of popular discontent. Even now less than a quarter of the American electorate has confidence in corporate business — or in Wall Street, for that matter. Large corporations are resented for the way they have behaved towards the blue-collar workers. As Robert Reich has pointed out: “The corporate and financial elite has been able to influence the rules by which the economy run.3 Which means that the unacceptable compensation packages of the top executives of big companies are now 300 times greater than that of their average employees.

Corporate executives have been shifting risks on to their workers for the past 30 years. They have reduced payrolls, used part-time and contract workers, steadily introduced automation and outsourced from abroad. This has prevented wages of their work force from rising hand in hand with productivity gains which have gone towards higher corporate profits. Since the recession eight years ago, corporate profits have markedly increased as a sector of the US economy while the wages of their work force have declined. My contention is that corporations are no longer fit for purpose.

What all nations must do is to build a more cooperative superstructure which is not prone to the periodic economic swings of capitalism. Cooperatives would take fewer risks and would be far more conscious of the need for consumer protection. Their normal function would entail a general reduction in competition. (Which is anathema to capitalists.) But a more cooperatively run economy would result in a less anxious, less ostentatious but far more equal and stable society for all.

I have pointed out in past essays that cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain or John Lewis in the UK, are far more concerned with long-term planning than today’s corporations. They tend to create and keep more artisanal jobs. They are governed with greater openness and less secrecy. Foremost among all of these is that the workers enjoy greater individual empowerment and security. I believe this is a formula for future generations who are far more conscious of the need to end the frightening pollution which corporations have produced over the past two centuries. The time is ripe for drastic change. In the long term, Homo sapiens can do a lot better than being manipulated by the global corporate powers promoting ever greater inequalities.


1Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy, (2006). This book promoted an alternative called ”The Incentive Economy.”

2There is a feeling amongst the older generations that they have less and less free time, that the demands of the Internet and their mobiles actually increases their anxieties and isolation. There is also mounting concern about its effects on the younger generations.

3Robert Reich, Comment, The Observer, November 8, 2015, p.34

107. Respecting The Truth

The day before the election, I posted the long entry about optimism. I believe in it now as much as when I wrote it, but I am most discouraged by the election to the Presidency of a business man who has no interest in, nor respect for, the truth, facts, nor the written word. In this context, much of the American electorate seems equally unappreciative. Much as in Roman times, the populace wants entertainment and distraction.

We are, alas, all entering a new era of mass communication on the internet with such social media sites as Twitter and Facebook where celebrity is of the essence and wealth greedily clothes ignorance. The lack of values is most evident in the way truth is distorted. Facebook distributed “fake news” such as the falsified presidential endorsement of Trump by Pope Francis. Twitter, encouraged by Trump’s addiction, became a focus of disinformation. As a consequence, ever-increasing doubt was sown about how the media processed information.

What the masses in our time have lost is respect for truth, for facts, and for journalism. A blog like mine is typically viewed as a minor eccentricity. (Most fortunately, we still have exceptional newspapers like the New York Times and The Guardian as well as excellent magazines like The New Yorker and the Atlantic.) But this election has shown that what the best have written directly and with brilliance, ultimately had little impact on the majority when it came to the ballot box. The people obviously did not read, follow, nor understand the printed word. Never in history has any political contender for power faced such a focused rejection by the printed media as Donald Trump. And yet he emerged triumphant.

Journalism, as well as politics, have been unable to keep up to the speed with which change is altering the world. Technology has advanced this phenomenon through the internet, computers and cell phones. Thus far, it has developed without any social responsibility. I have tried my best to keep my blog factual (even using outdated footnotes) which has suggested ways to overcome the shock which has overwhelmed all those who respect such values as truth and integrity.

Yes, as a child I experienced the repetition of lies by Hitler and Goebbels whose Wagnerian preference for death over justice, freedom, or the truth climaxed in their own violent ends. Seventy years later, Trump paraded the repetition of lies most effectively, winning by any means at his disposal. Then, victorious, he shifted his position on matters of state without recognition of any discrepancy.

Philosophers, writers, thinkers and politicians have struggled over many centuries to define “the truth.” I have selected some quotations which I feel might re-enlighten those who deplore the descent of truth over the past year. Alas, Donald Trump is one of those rare, exceptional figures who seem unable to differentiate between truth and lying. The speed with which he has shifted positions, combined with his lack of experience, has evidenced his lack of interest in and understanding of “the truth.” Perhaps the circulation of my listing below could suggest to those around the President-elect that the truth is ultimately fundamental to his survival in office.

ON TRUTH

Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but a stab at the health of human society.

— Ralph W Emerson, Prudence, 1841

 

We arrive at the truth, not by the reason only, but also by the heart.

— Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 1670

 

The exact contrary of what is generally believed is often the truth.

— Jean de La Bruyere, Caracteres, 1688

 

To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.

— John-Locke, Letter to Anthony Collins, Oct 29, 1703

 

There are certain times when most people are in disposition of being informed, and ’tis incredible what a vast good little truth might do, spoken in such seasons.

— Alexander Pope, Letter to William Wycherley,
June 23, 1705

 

When fiction rises pleasing to the eye,

men will believe, because they love the lie;

but the truth herself, if clouded with a frown,

must have some solemn proof to pass her down.

— Charles Churchill, Epistle to William Hogarth, 1763

 

If we would only stop lying, if we would only testify the truth as we see it, it would turn out that once that there are hundreds, thousands, even millions of men just as we are, who see the truth as we do, are afraid as we are of

seeming to be singular by confessing it, and are only waiting, again as we are, for someone to proclaim it.

— Leo N. Tolstoy: The Kingdom of God is within you, 1893

 

If one tells he truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.

— Oscar Wilde, Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young, 1894

 

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get it accepted in the competition of the market.

— Justice O W Holmes, Dissenting opinion in the Abrams vs. United States, 1919

 

If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.

— Larry Speakes, White House Press Secretary,
December 16, 1983

 

In this crazy political business, at least in our times, a lie unanswered becomes truth within twenty-four hours.

— Willie Brown, quoted in the New York Times,
October 31, 1988

 

Each man has in him the potential to realize the truth through his own will and endeavour and to help others to realize it.

— Aung San Suu Kyi , In Quest of Democracy, 1991

 

In a free society, there comes a time when the truth — however hard it may be to hear, however impolitic it may seem to say — must be told.

— Al Gore, fundraising letter, May 2006

 

He who has the truth is in the majority, even though he be one.

— Arab Proverb

106. Optimism versus Pessimism in Our Rapidly Evolving World

Optimism is essential. It starts from a belief in oneself which gradually extends to a belief in others. Optimism is at the basis of a belief in the future. If the future is to be more than mere hope, it demands an active and engaged commitment in which risk is almost always involved. This risk taking demands self-confidence, and a willingness to take chances and pay the price.

My earliest expressions of optimism were certainly nourished by the influential way it was expressed by both my mother and father. My optimism was aroused by a realization that I could amuse others. My facial expressions could even change the mood in a room. This, in turn, affected me and gave me a sense of confidence to continue. Eventually, such expression of the positive, of hopes, was to lead to a more generalized personal optimism.

But in a world infected by pessimism this was not easy. Escaping from the horrors of a detention camp in WWII and arriving with my family as a refugee in New York at the age of ten could have led to highly negative reactions. Just learning to speak English was both frustrating and exhausting, but the affirmative American diet strengthened my determination to succeed.

Decades later I had gathered enough courage to write my most serious book, Optimistic Visions for Change. This did not do much to change the world, but it sufficiently intrigue the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees to invite me to a series of lunches at which he tried to find out more about the nature of my optimism: where it had come from, how solid it was, and what could it lead to. This great scientist truly sought to enhance his optimism about the challenging world in which we live.

The power of optimism is enormous, as is the power of pessimism. It is evident how an optimistic mood in the stock market can spur advances on a broad front while a pessimistic trend can result in a plunge. As human beings we prefer to act in unison with others rather than to cope alone or in isolation. Because this holds true for both optimists and pessimists, it has a strong impact on politics, economics, and our social contacts. We have seen this most recently in the economic consequences of the Brexit vote in the UK and the extraordinary swings in the electoral process in the US.

The basically negative approach by Donald Trump depended on arousing popular fear, hatred, and the desire for revenge, while Hillary took the optimistic path of change for the better. The competition of the two approaches was wrenching, but it is also universal. Writing in the Economist, “Schumpeter” suggested that the business world is also divided between pessimists and optimists:
“Some of the world’s best business people are giddy with optimism. They live in a world of digital wonders where every problem has a solution and every scarcity is yielding to abundance. Others are haunted by pessimism. They live in a world of “secular stagnation”, jobless growth, zero-sum completion and stability-threatening inequality.”1 The truth is that pessimists expect their nightmares to come true while the optimists hope for their dreams to be realized.

Ever since grade school I have found pessimism a repulsive social position, but I admit to being intrigued in later years to understand philosophical pessimism. It is true that throughout history the approach of pessimism has had an impact on all trends of thought. However, the skepticism which pessimists hold, that our efforts cannot actually improve the human condition, goes against my most firmly held beliefs. Pessimists contend that every step forward has been followed by a step back and that such oscillation is basically unfruitful. Philosophical pessimists have often turned into existential nihilists who doubt that life has intrinsic meaning.

One of the greatest philosophic pessimists was Friedrich Nietzsche who called his more life-affirming view a “Dionysian pessimism.” He developed this approach from the pessimism of the pre-Socratic Greeks which was at the core of their great tragedies. Nietzsche viewed the optimism of Socratic philosophy as an optimistic refuge for those Athenians who had come to reject the overdose of the tragic. To the Socratic proposition that wisdom could lead to happiness, Nietzsche in his Birth of Tragedy (1886) responded that this was “morally speaking, a sort of cowardice… amorally, a ruse.” To counteract this kind of escapism, Nietzsche proposed a total embrace of the nature of this world, a “great liberation” through a “pessimism of strength” which “does not sit in judgment of this decision.” To achieve this status, such “creative” pessimism had to be used like a hammer, attacking the basis of old beliefs and moralities, so that our philosophers could fly with “a new pair of wings.” Such Nietzschian pessimism would say “yes” to the forever changing nature of life on this planet and urged us to suffer joyfully while embracing Wagnerian destruction. My reaction to first reading about this was: No wonder the Nazis loved Nietzsche!

More recently, the campaign of Donald Trump made me realize that pessimists generally do not take to facts. Pessimists are likely to see negative events as permanent, pervasive and uncontrollable, while optimists tend to see downturns as temporary and changeable. Martin Seligman in his book, Learned Optimism (1990) explained that pessimistic thinkers generally take negative positions to heart. Some environmentalists who, like James Lovelock, are not philosophical pessimists do believe that our planet’s ecology has already been irretrievably damaged and that no revolutionary shift in politics can save it. The existence of 7 billion people, all aiming for the comforts publicized on their mobiles, is not compatible with the economy, the homeostasis of climate, or the chemistry and biology of this planet. As Lovelock said: “humans overpopulate until they do more harm than good.” His perspective is not far from those technological pessimists who believe that advances in science and technology will not lead to any improvement in the human condition.

While I recognize the pessimism of Lovelock, as well as that of technological pessimists, I have found that being optimistic usually allows me to pursue my own goals more successfully. Positive thoughts help me to enhance the activities in which I may be engaged with a broader optimism. Studies by various sociologists suggest there is a strong link between optimism and psychological well-being. A close correlation between optimism and happiness, life satisfaction and physical well being is now broadly accepted. Optimists apparently smoke less, drink alcohol more moderately, and eat more fruit, vegetables, and whole grain breads. As a consequence optimists enjoy increased life expectancy, greater recovery rates from heart operations, and increased success in sports.

Psychologists like Professor Suzanne Segerstrom claimed in 2006 that about 80% of people could be classified as optimistic, but back in 1990 a sociologist, Martin Seligman held that only 60% of people were somewhat optimistic.2 Both of these were in sharp contrast to past centuries in which only a very few people were able to hope that their future ever would be any better. It should increase our general optimism that in the past generation more than a billion people world-wide have been hauled out of extreme poverty. For those living in Europe and North America, medicine and technology combined to conquer diseases and extend life spans.

I have found it increasingly challenging to evoke my basic belief in optimism in a world steadily being changed by the advancing technologies in robotics, mobiles, computer engineering and bio-genetics. The advances are both undeniable and so fast that they are hard for many of us to manage. Indeed, one must ask whether this is ultimately good for humanity ? Optimists still think “yes” but a column in The Economist suggested that the sunny outlook which swept in after World War II is now turning pessimistic.3

I have to face up to it: Our destiny is no longer manifest. The desirability of advancing from hope to optimism is no longer self-evident. A dreary, somewhat fatalistic and dystopian outlook is spreading around the economically advanced nations of the world. Fatalists purport that as it is impossible to know what is going to happen, we should simply do our best and pray that the worst is not going to engulf us. Spiritually this debilitating outlook tends to erode the potential meaning of life.

For human beings, hope and meaning have become intertwined like the rings of the double helix. The sociologist Lionel Tiger, in his book on Optimism (1979), wrote that “As a mood, attitude and mode of perceiving life, optimism has been central to the process of human evolution; it determines to a degree not yet charted to the way humans think, play, and respond to birth and death.” Even though we can harbor enormous unease at the way things are turning out, we must have hopes about how things “could be.” Optimistically, we should open ourselves to the potentials of a new and brighter vision.

Optimism is frequently criticized because it exceeds reasonable boundaries, but that is exactly what we must do: Take a leap with our imaginations, soar with our hearts, and let what is finest in our spirits prevail. It should give us hope that we can creatively adapt ourselves to change, just as all other existing creations have through evolution. Positive feedback has been one of the very basic mechanisms of life. It should fill us with hope that bit-by-bit, we are unraveling the secrets of the universe as well of biology and that this ultimately will make our own existence more comprehensible.4 Optimism, however, does assume a belief in programmatic change. To those who deny this, a faith in the potential of amelioration appears unfounded.

In a world of 7 billion people, there will inevitably be a considerable percentage who find they share similar hopes, hold like-minded optimistic visions and who would be willing to take risks and endure hardships for the fulfillment of those dreams — if only they could unite and draw up a set of blueprints and manifestos. Science plays a large role in this. “What man does today and will do tomorrow is determined to a large extent by the techniques that expert knowledge puts at his disposal, and his dreams for the future reflect the achievements and promises of the scientists.”5 And one might add, to the promises offered by tomorrow’s robots… but will these ever be able to idealize?

The writer Irving Singer proposed that “Man would not be man unless he idealized, unless he constructed ideals of deliberate and imperative character that guide his life and give it a feeling of urgency as well as direction.”6 In this respect, both pessimists and optimists can use their differing view points to motivate themselves. Pessimists can help people reduce their natural anxiety and to perform better. Pessimists, who may be preoccupied with safety and security, also like to hear what the problems are so that they can work towards making corrections.7

I have often wondered why, when so many of the younger generation take euphoriants to improve their moods, governments have not shown greater interest in upgrading the levels of social optimism? Aldous Huxley suggested as much in his Brave New World (1932). Indeed, certain contemporary observers perceive optimism as a kind of dopamine which makes us see our own actions in a favorable, purposeful light. It is true that optimists tend to ignore the darker aspects of life and often attribute wrong-doing to ignorance.

My own optimistic vision is that in this new millennium a higher proportion of people could develop their own capacities to a far greater measure. Our hopes may be fragmentary but our optimism must be whole. We must do what we can to further an environment in which our hopes could collectively be transformed into optimism:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

The Prelude, William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

So to conclude this blog entry, I will go back to where I started, my own childhood — some 2000 words back! Critics may disparage both hope and optimism because they regard hope as the extension of the predominantly wishful thinking of childhood. Ironically, their rejection of hope then becomes a return to childhood’s way of sparing ourselves disappointment. I now see society much as I see the child: with the right education and approach there are any number of ways in which optimism can be realized. If you encourage the child, if you give selected praise, if you develop self-esteem and aspirations, you have a far better chance of achieving your goal than if you simply leave children to their own devices and let ‘life’ determine their fate. In this context, I find it optimistically encouraging to note how rapidly new generations can pick up an entirely new perspective: Ecology, for example, had hardly entered teen-age consciousness in the sixties, by the seventies it was being taught at the primary school level and today the supreme importance of clean air is finally recognized at a governmental level around the world. Yes, pessimists are moaning that it may well be too late.


1The Economist, January 31, 2015, p.66
2Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism (1990)
3Schumpeter, “Techno Wars”, The Economist, October 22, 2016, p.64
4Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium, Optimistic Visions for Change (1996)
5Rene Jules Dubos, Mirage of Health (1959) p. 214
6Irving Singer, The Meaning of Life (1992) p.93
7Abigail Hazlett et al., Social Cognition (2011).

105. Wither Nostalgia

Only recently have I begun to recognize that when people speak wistfully of the past, they often wax more optimistically about the future. Partially this is because nostalgia can increase one’s perceived meaning in life. Most of us have occasional yearnings to return to the past: a time or era when children were more innocent, when hitch-hiking was a hobby, when both men and women were more trusting, the tempo of life was slower, the skies bluer and the politicians more reputable.

In actuality, nostalgia expresses a yearning for a different time, the time of our childhood, with its slower rhythms and longer days. Nostalgia has become a form of protest against our modern idea of time linked to progress, speed, encumbered by appointments, demands, efficiency and competition. Nostalgia feeds the increasing belief in both American and British electorates that the past was better than the present and that the prospects for the future make them uneasy. Politicians like the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, are picking this up by looking backwards into the future on such issues as the education of children.1

As I started to look into the psychology of nostalgia I learned from a brilliant book by Harvard Professor Svetlana Boym that there are two main types of nostalgia: The restorative and the reflective. The restorative stresses nostos (the Greek word for a homeward journey) and the desire to return to our former “home.” The reflective focuses on algia (pain and longing) cherishing the fragments of memory and savoring all the details and memorabilia. At its ironic and humorous best, the reflective can present an ethical and creative challenge while temporalizing space. Boym contends that in this mode, critical thinking and longing are not in opposition. On the other hand, restorative nostalgia is not just about the historical past, but about universal values such as the homeland, family, nature and trust. It gravitates toward song and oral culture, as well as photographs and pictorial symbols – all of which it guards seriously.2

In the 21st century we are experiencing a global epidemic of nostalgia which encompasses an affective yearning for community and continuity in an increasingly fragmented world. However, there is not much that is new about our current nostalgia, even though the actress Simone Signoret entitled her autobiography: “Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be.”

Despite the inroads of Facebook, digital technology and startling pharmaceuticals, today’s nostalgia remains an engagement with a moment or moments one wants to preserve. As such, it is an existential resource which makes one feel that one’s life has roots even in an era which has lost touch with the mythical worlds of the past and all their enchantments.

One of the dangers of nostalgia is that it can confuse the past “home” with an imagined one. Such unreflective nostalgia can lead to aggression and war. The mourning of displacement and its irreversibility, as in the case of Gaza, the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the Brexit phenomenon, all are examples of the tragic aspects of nostalgia invading politics. Such slogans as, “Let’s Make America Great Again,” expose how widely nostalgia is being exploited.

Nostalgia has a long history in Western culture. In Virgil’s epic, Odysseus was most nostalgic about his lost friends, his wife and his Greek homeland. The hero made his sentiments accessible to homesick readers for centuries. However, by the 16th century nostalgia had come to be regarded as a dangerous but curable disease. Leeches, opiates or even a trip to higher altitudes were often prescribed, but none was believed to be better than a return to one’s birthplace. During the French Revolution of 1789, Jourdain Le Cointe, a doctor, held that terror and pain could cure nostalgia. Later another doctor was to claim that nostalgia was the result of hypochondria of the heart! Much as today genetic researchers seek to identify genes for sexual orientation and medical problems, so the doctors of the 19th century sought without success to discover the pathologic make-up of nostalgia.

Many 19th century thinkers believed that enlightenment and progress would stop people suffering from nostalgia. Instead, these very forces were to exacerbate it. The rapid pace of industrialization and the higher speed of railroads and steamships increased the yearning for the slower ways of the past. The spread of nostalgia was pushed both by the changing conception of time and the relocation of people from the countryside to cities. Nostalgia also became established in national museums and celebrated in urban memorials. This caused the past to be transformed into part of our “heritage” and to be popularized on a mass scale.3

Looking back on nostalgia, as I have done above with a degree of longing thrown in, can also help us in planning for our future and that of our progeny. The known past, the understood present, and plausible possibilities for the future are together helpful in guiding us. It assist us to consider that progress and nostalgia are mirror images of one another. While futuristic utopias are currently out of fashion, I have to admit that nostalgia itself opens many utopian dreams. As Professor Svetlana Boym has written: “The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future.” Nostalgia, then, can also be prospective.

Drawing on retrospective nostalgia, I shall now boldly try to look ahead some two generations (or 50 years) at how future members might look back as us with bewilderment, envy, resentment and nostalgia. This is similar to how we look back 50 years on the introduction of color television and cheap travel abroad as aspects of the “new” for our parents in the 60s, and consequently, much as they looked back on the glamour of the roaring twenties with its introduction of automobiles and telephones. So here go some advanced comments of the 2070s:

  • “The last shopping mall in our city closed recently. In films we have seen, it looked like people had such pleasure just wandering around years ago.’’
  • “It must have been wonderful to have lived in the era of low air pollution and clear blue skies.”
  • “It’s amazing to think back that many of our grandparents lived in a world purportedly based on “liberal values” such as “enlightenment.” What a challenge that must have been for them!”
  • “How exciting it must have been in the old days when people used to drive with steering wheels!”
  • “Could our grandparents really have enjoyed using their memories? Memory just gets in the way of our ever-helpful robots.”
  • “We often wish we were not so electronically addicted. A non-electronic world is hard to imagine, but it could be relaxing.”
  • “Did people in the early days of the 21st century really lead such varied and humane ways of life?”
  • “It must have been wonderful to live in a world which was real.”
  • “We may consider “the truth” as held by our grandparents as somewhat boring, but lying and fantasy are much more fun and challenging. So maybe we are less than nostalgic about the old-world realm of the mind and communications.”
  • “We wonder, and sometimes envy, how people back then really believed they could improve the world and hailed the promise of a better tomorrow! But then they had not yet lived according to our well-established and binding social networks.”
  • “What fun it must have been to have had “money!” In our nano-electronic era, none of us has ever experienced cash.”

1Martin Kettle, “On left and right, politics is now led by nostalgic gestures,” The Guardian, August 26, 2016.
2Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, (2001)
3Foster’s historic song seemed to me the essence of popularizing nostalgia

All up and down de whole creation

Sadly I roam

Still longing for de old plantation

And for de old folks at home.

 

— S C Foster, “Old Folks at Home” (1851)

104. A Twisted Energy Tale

All too many decisions being made in 2016 puzzle me because they appear not to have been rationally thought through. These range from Brexit to the further construction of already out-of-date gigantic nuclear power plants, such as Hinkley in the UK.1 Globally, all nations are increasingly dependent on electric power but there is an enormous variation of sources — most of them polluting the planet’s atmosphere. Coal is on its way out but China is still building one new, highly polluting coal burning power plant every day of the year. Oil supplies may be dwindling (as in the North Sea off Scotland), but at the same time the price of barrels has been falling causing severe economic distress in the less developed nations.

Among the energy sources that are non-polluting, there are only a handful which I believe will serve us well in the years ahead. For example, wind-powered units are safe, long-lasting, and clean but nations like the UK have reduced their under-writing as part of austerity measures. All such energy sources everywhere now have lobbyists promoting their particular merits and pointing out the dangerous consequences of those of their competitors. Some of the plausible, but safe, sources of energy are available but remain under-invested. Exploiting the heat of the interior of the planet itself, like Iceland does on a vast scale, should tantalize us. On the other hand, hydrogen produced by sunlight is highly desirable but is difficult to handle. Huge plants have been developed in North Africa, but marketing liquid forms of hydrogen has proved expensive. Personally, I have been badly burnt by my investment in the future of this technology. Nevertheless, I continue to believe in it.

Hydroelectric power has truly been a godsend for humanity but the few new dams being built (in part for the lack of suitable locations) are no longer matching growing demand. The sad truth is that globally we have become increasingly dependent on problematic sources of energy, Chernobyl and Fukoshima have demonstrated how risky nuclear fission can be. Why then, continue to invest billions in nuclear fission which will produce decades of frustration, frightening clean-up costs and storage problems?2 Does this make sense? One must ask: Why did the new British Prime Minister go ahead with the huge, untested and highly expensive nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point? Theresa May never did regard nuclear plants as an effective resolution to the UK’s forthcoming electricity shortage, but after years of deliberation by all parties she did not see a way out.

Her decision was primarily based on economic and political reasons: Some 40,000 jobs in the UK were at stake; so were the UK’s economic relations with China which might have been compromised; while its relationship with France would also have been endangered as would the UK’s fragile investment standing globally. One of the few positive reasons for the go-ahead was that nuclear fission has the advantage of being a low carbon producer and without it, Britain would struggle to meet its national environmental target of carbon free energy by 2050.3

But not all countries have taken the same dubious path. Russia has stepped up research and development of Integral Fast Reactors — the first to come into successful operation being the BN-880 launched in August. After being painstakingly developed over nearly 40 years of trial and error, this 880 Megawatt fast neutron reactor reached its full Megawatt power in Siberia this past summer. This new plant will help to reduce Russia’s deadly weapons-grade plutonium stockpile. An advanced version also is being bought by the Chinese who will increase its power. It is important to note that the closed cycle of these new reactors will not require chemical processing or plutonium separation. It has also made Russia the only nation that currently is operating this kind of advanced breeder reactor. Russian physicists are already working on a more powerful 1200 Megawatt plant to be operative by 2020. Their long-range plan is to have eight BN-1230 reactors constructed by 2030. Russia and China will be the only states to have introduced a new era of nuclear reactor generators that are clean and ecologically secure.

Regretfully, I believe that although there have been decades of frustration in researching a way to safely launch laboratory methods of controlling nuclear fusion, we are still far removed from developing its commercial potential. Fusion reactors ultimately would combine light atomic nuclei into heavier particles to generate heat, much as the sun does. The continuation of massive investment in fission, instead of deeply researching the possibilities of fusion, is a manifest failure of our era. Capitalism has forced investors to seek out ever faster profits. Research, for risky projects like nuclear fusion, demands long term investments to meet the eventual energy needs of our grandchildren.5 Alas, our economic system is not geared to underwrite uncertain research for long-term results. Instead of being inspired or guided by the research and technological advances of our scientists, politicians — responding to electoral pressures — continue to tread on the well-worn path of least risk. As in so many other areas this is not the best way forwards for humanity.


1Andrew Packer, “Decision follows Years of fierce Debate,” The Financial Times, September 16, 2016, p.3
2Jonathan Ford, “Britain’s great energy gamble,” The Financial Times, September 18, 2016, p.18
3Sam Coates, “Compromise was vital to keep France on Side,” The Times, September 16, 2016, p. 6
4Eric Albert, “Feu vert conditionnel a Hinkley Point, Le Monde,4 (supplement) September 16, 2016
5Nils Pratley, “More Hinkleys would be madness,” The Guardian, September 16, 2016, p.9