Monckton and I

I post this here because it’s a lovely conversation.

Christopher Monckton (or Viscount Monckton of Brenchley as he is styled) produced this post on WUWT in the wake of the UKIP’s surge of support in the European Elections of 2014:

UK’s only climate skeptic party crushingly wins the EU election

Josh_UKIP

UPDATE: A cartoon from Josh drawn about a year ago has been added. See below.

By Christopher Monckton of Brenchley

The United Kingdom Independence Party, the only climate-skeptical party in Britain, has scored a crushing victory in Sunday’s elections to the Duma of the European Union.

Britain’s most true-believing party, the Greens, won one or two new seats, but the second most true-believing party and junior partner in the Children’s Coalition that currently governs at Westminster, the “Liberal” “Democrats” (who are neither), were all but wiped off the map.

 

….

However, after opposition to the EU’s militantly anti-democratic structure and to the mass immigration that has been forced upon Britain as a direct result, UKIP’s third most popular policy with the voters is its opposition to the official EU global-warming story-line.

It was I, as deputy leader of the party in 2009/10, who had the honor of introducing UKIP’s climate policy to the Press. Their reports, as usual, were sneeringly contemptuous. Now the sneers are beginning to falter.

The leadership thought long and hard before adopting the policy. I said we could not lose by adopting a policy that had the twin merits of being true and being otherwise unrepresented in British politics. Private polling confirmed this, so the policy was adopted.

Monckton then describes that manifesto from 2010 as continuing to this day and contributing to the UKIP’s 2014 success:

If you know of any political party, anywhere, that has a climate policy more vigorously and healthily skeptical than UKIP, let me know in comments.

O RLY?

I replied in the comments:

What Christopher Monckton has written is pure sophistry and I can only describe it as deceptive.

In the European election of 2014, UKIP made no mention of climate change or climate skepticism, so why is Christopher Monckton allowed to make such a claim? The only reference I can find in the 2014 local and European manifestos is a commitment to local, binding referenda on things like wind turbines and solar power and to building coal and nuclear power plants to reduce the cost of energy.

The leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, described the 2010 manifesto as “drivel”, so why is Monckton trumpeting the commitments made then as somehow relevant to the reasons why people voted UKIP in 2014 or even to the UKIP itself?

It seems to me that people voted UKIP largely as a protest vote against further EU integration (which is a common theme across the EU) and against continuing mass immigration (ditto).

I know that WUWT gives quite a bit of latitude to posters in the name of free speech, but this is a political tract for a policy position that even a right-wing party like UKIP does not promulgate any more.

Monckton responds:

Many thanks to so many commenters who have remarked so kindly on UKIP’s success in the EU elections. UKIP even won a seat in Scotland – the party’s first-ever representation north of the Border.

To those who continue to gripe that climate was not the major issue in the election (not that I had ever said it was), and to those who are determined to maintain that UKIP has changed or will change its climate policy, I say that UKIP is not going to change its climate policy as long as Roger Helmer remains its spokesman on the issue – and Roger came top of the poll in his region of England.

The purpose of the piece was simply to point out that a climate-skeptic party (the only one in Britain) has just won a national election – the first time in 100 years that neither the Conservative nor the Labour Party has won. Whether the trolls and naysayers like it or not, this is another big step in the direction of returning rationality to the climate debate.

Here is another commenter’s response:

To those who continue to gripe that climate was not the major issue in the election (not that I had ever said it was) ….

Yes, well, a line in your article pointing that out would have headed off the predictable criticism. It’s fine to note that one of their beliefs is sounder climate policy, but you can hardly ignore the reasons why most people actually voted for them or what they chose to actually run on when you write about an election result.

And I respond to Monckton thus:

Oh please, give us all a break. Your argument hinged on the UKIP winning in 2014 based on the disowned 2010 manifesto from which you quoted at length.

That you indulge in sophistry and verbal sleight-of-hand is deeply unimpressive to the rest of us who can actually read and think for ourselves.

Your article reeked of historical revisionism of which I had hoped you deplored whenever it is deployed by people on every side of the climate debate.

And then the wheels come off

The partly pseudonymous “JohnA” petulantly complains about my having said or implied that UKIP had won its crushing victory in the 2014 European elections in the UK because of its climate policy. I neither said nor implied that. What I said was that UKIP’s climate skepticism ranked third in the popularity of its policies, after the policies of leaving the European tyranny-by-clerk and of halting uncontrolled immigration.

Nor did I say or imply that UKIP won in 2014 on the basis of its 2010 manifesto (which has not, in fact, been “disowned”, but is being revised, as every manifesto is revised). Opposition to the climate nonsense, a question on which Nigel Farage has gone head-to-head with the unspeakable Barroso in the European Duma, will continue to be an important policy plank for UKIP. I did, however, reproduce UKIP’s 2010 climate policy, “for interest”, and not in any way to imply that UKIP had won because of that policy.

However, it is permissible for me to give some more details of the private polling that was carried out on UKIP’s behalf before it adopted its climate policy. The results showed that of all the issues on which UKIP might take a position but on which it had not already done so, climate skepticism was the one that was most likely to attract widespread support. Since it also has the merit of reflecting the objective truth, UKIP happily adopted the policy and – whether “JohnA” likes it or not – will continue to pursue it.

Whether or not UKIP’s victory is of any interest to the troll “JohnA”, it is of interest to most other readers here, who are happy to discover that in yet another country an avowedly climate-skeptical party has done well in elections. Why, o why, do trolls whine so often and so purposelessly, and with so little legitimate reason?

Ah yes, the personal touch of being called a “troll” and addressed directly. It burns so much.

No not really.

Here is my response:

John Asays:

Monckton:

I scarcely know where to begin with your response. To criticize your post by making factual statements about its reasoning and its citations is not being a “troll”, it is to engage in a democratic debate. Democracy is hardly your strong suit, is it Viscount Monckton of Brenchley?

For those of us who weren’t born with inherited wealth and inherited titles that permitted membership of Westminster up until recently with voting rights and legislative powers without democratic consent, sticking one’s head above the parapet with full disclosure is to invite economic disaster upon not only myself but also my family.

Setting up and administering Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit blog was trial enough, but then I was possessed with practicalities of keeping the blog alive for the benefit of science and fighting trolls myself and not personal promotion.

The UKIP did not promote its climate scepticism in the 2014 election other than the very limited proposals on referenda on wind farms and the scrapping of subsidies for renewals. It did not fight the 2014 campaign on the 2010 manifesto, despite your efforts to conflate the two.

But here I shall be specific in response to a key claim. You say

Nor did I say or imply that UKIP won in 2014 on the basis of its 2010 manifesto (which has not, in fact, been “disowned”, but is being revised, as every manifesto is revised)

Here is what Nigel Farage said about that 2010 manifesto:

The UK Independence Party would not scrap Trident, Nigel Farage has said, describing the manifesto that contained the policy as “drivel” .

He told LBC 97.3 radio the party had never advocated unilateral disarmament but was currently reviewing its policy.

In recent days, the UKIP leader has faced questions about pledges made in its 2010 general election manifesto.

David Campbell Bannerman, who drew up the 2010 document, said Mr Farage was “in terrible trouble over policies”.

Mr Farage said the 2010 manifesto had been binned and the party was working on new policies to be unveiled later this year.

Mr Farage stepped down briefly before the last election to concentrate on winning a seat in Parliament and says he was not involved in drawing up the manifesto.

Explaining why he had now disowned the document, he told LBC: “Malcolm Pearson, who was leader at the time, was picked up in interviews for not knowing the manifesto.

“Of course he didn’t – it was 486 pages of excessive detail. Eighteen months ago I said I want the whole lot taken down, we reject the whole thing…

“I didn’t read it. It was drivel. It was 486 pages of drivel…It was a nonsense. We have put that behind us and moved onto a professional footing.”

So not “revised”, not “continue to pursue it” but binned as “drivel”. The entire 2010 manifesto was sent to the round file. Bleeding demised. Gone to meet its maker.

It is mendacious of you to describe the 2010 manifesto as anything other than a temporary policy. The author of the 2010 manifesto, David Campbell Bannerman returned to the Conservative Party afterwards after handbags were swung inside the UKIP.

I am intellectually interested as a democrat in the progress of UKIP or any political party or grouping which can make binding changes upon my life and the life of my family. But I am not a supporter of UKIP, for the party makes commitments and policy statements that I cannot, in all conscience, support.

Why, o why, do trolls whine so often and so purposelessly, and with so little legitimate reason?

Perhaps because you and I have very differing views on what constitutes “legitimate” and “reason”.

Clearly this one could run and run (although I have much better things to do), but I will say that Monckton has a very thin skin when dealing with criticism of his own political views.

It’s not every day I get called a troll by a Viscount for daring to challenge him, but stranger things have happened.

Climate change alarmism and apocalyptic religion

Just reading this article by Nigel Lawson, reproduced on Watts Up With That, there is this excellent section which concurs with much of my own opinion that climate change alarmism is disguised fundamentalist religion:

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that climate change orthodoxy has in effect become a substitute religion, attended by all the intolerant zealotry that has so often marred religion in the past, and in some places still does so today.

Throughout the Western world, the two creeds that used to vie for popular support, Christianity and the atheistic belief system of Communism, are each clearly in decline. Yet people still feel the need both for the comfort and for the transcendent values that religion can provide. It is the quasi-religion of green alarmism and global salvationism, of which the climate change dogma is the prime example, which has filled the vacuum, with reasoned questioning of its mantras regarded as little short of sacrilege.

The parallel goes deeper. As I mentioned earlier, throughout the ages the weather has been an important part of the religious narrative. In primitive societies it was customary for extreme weather events to be explained as punishment from the gods for the sins of the people; and there is no shortage of this theme in the Bible, either — particularly, but not exclusively, in the Old Testament. The contemporary version of this is that, as a result of heedless industrialisation within a framework of materialistic capitalism, we have directly (albeit not deliberately) perverted the weather, and will duly receive our comeuppance.

There is another aspect, too, which may account for the appeal of this so-called explanation. Throughout the ages, something deep in man’s psyche has made him receptive to apocalyptic warnings that the end of the world is nigh. And almost all of us, whether we like it or not, are imbued with feelings of guilt and a sense of sin. How much less uncomfortable it is, how much more convenient, to divert attention away from our individual sins and reasons to feel guilty, and to sublimate them in collective guilt and collective sin.

Why does this matter? It matters, and matters a great deal, on two quite separate grounds. The first is that it has gone a long way towards ushering in a new age of unreason. It is a cruel irony that, while it was science which, more than anything else, was able by its great achievements, to establish the age of reason, it is all too many climate scientists and their hangers-on who have become the high priests of a new age of unreason.

I’ve been religious in the past (actually quite a long time ago, now I think about it) but I certainly recognize a perennial result of the belief in Original Sin and the coming Judgment Day: Apocalyptic Fever.

There’s a reason why people such as Steve McIntyre, Ross McKitrick, Patrick Michaels, Nigel Lawson and Christopher Monckton are derided in such extreme ways – because they are morally depraved, incapable of grasping the truth that Judgment Day is coming and heretics should be burned, less we all be thrown into the fire of climate Hell.

The entire speech is excellent. I’ve liked Nigel Lawson so much better when he stopped being a machine politician.

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Dueling climate reports

NOTE: This op-ed is apparently too hot for some editors to handle. Late last week it was accepted and posted on politix.topix.com only to be abruptly removed some two hours later. After several hours of attempting to determine why it was removed, I was informed the topix.com editor had permanently taken it down because of a strong negative reaction to it and because of “conflicting views from the scientific community” over factual assertions in the piece.

Fortunately, some media outlets recognize a vigorous scientific debate persists over humanity’s influence on climate and those outlets refuse outside efforts to silence viewpoints that run counter to prevailing climate alarmism. My original piece follows below.- Craig Idso

Guest essay by Dr. Craig D. Idso

The release of a United Nations (UN) climate change report last week energized various politicians and environmental activists, who issued a new round of calls to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the most fiery language in this regard came from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who called upon Congress to “wake up and do everything in its power to reduce dangerous carbon pollution,” while Secretary of State John Kerry expressed similar sentiments in a State Department release, claiming that “unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy.”

Really? Is Earth’s climate so fragile that both it and our way of life are in jeopardy because of rising carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions?

In a word, no! The human impact on global climate is small; and any warming that may occur as a result of anthropogenic CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions is likely to have little effect on either Earth’s climate or biosphere, according to the recently-released contrasting report Climate Change Reconsidered II: Biological Impacts, which was produced by the independent Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC).

This alternative assessment reviews literally thousands of peer-reviewed scientific journal articles that do not support and often contradict the findings of the UN report. Whether the subject is the effects of warming and rising CO2 on plants, animals, or humans, the UN report invariably highlights the studies and models that paint global warming in the darkest possible hue, ignoring or downplaying those that don’t.

To borrow a telling phrase from their report, the UN sees nothing but “death, injury, and disrupted livelihoods” everywhere it looks—as do Senator Boxer, Secretary Kerry, and others. Climate Change Reconsidered II: Biological Impacts demonstrates that life on Earth is not suffering from rising temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels. Citing reams of real-world data, it offers solid scientific evidence that most plants actually flourish when exposed to both higher temperatures and greater CO2 concentrations. In fact, it demonstrates that the planet’s terrestrial biosphere is undergoing a great greening, which is causing deserts to shrink and forests to expand, thereby enlarging and enhancing habitat for wildlife. And much the same story can be told of global warming and atmospheric CO2 enrichment’s impacts on terrestrial animals, aquatic life, and human health.

Why are these research findings and this positive perspective missing from the UN climate reports? Although the UN claims to be unbiased and to have based its assessments on the best available science, such is obviously not the case. And it is most fortunate, therefore, that the NIPCC report provides tangible evidence that the CO2-induced global warming and ocean acidification debate remains unsettled on multiple levels; for there are literally thousands of peer-reviewed scientific journal articles that do not support a catastrophic, or even problematic, view of atmospheric CO2 enrichment.

Unfortunately, climate alarmism has become the modus operandi of the UN assessment reports. This fact is sad, indeed, because in compiling these reports, the UN either was purposely blind to views that ran counter to the materials they utilized, or its authors did not invest the amount of time, energy, and resources needed to fully investigate an issue that has profound significance for all life on Earth. And as a result, the UN has seriously exaggerated many dire conclusions, distorted relevant facts, and omitted or ignored key scientific findings. Yet in spite of these failings, various politicians, governments, and institutions continue to rally around the UN climate reports and to utilize their contentions as justification to legislate reductions in CO2 emissions, such as epitomized by the remarks of Senator Boxer and Secretary Kerry.

Citing only studies that promote climate catastrophism as a basis for such regulation, while ignoring studies that suggest just the opposite, is simply wrong. Citizens of every nation deserve much better scientific scrutiny of this issue by their governments; and they should demand greater accountability from their elected officials as they attempt to provide it.

There it is, that’s my op-ed. It’s what some people apparently do not want you to read. While the over 3,000 peer-reviewed scientific references cited in Climate Change Reconsidered II: Biological Impacts are likely more than sufficient to establish scientific fact in a court of law, they are not sufficient to engage the real climate deniers in any debate. The rise in atmospheric CO2 is not having, nor will it have, a dangerous influence on the climate and biosphere. But don’t take my word for it, download and read the report for yourself (available at http://www.nipccreport.org). Compare it with the UN report. You be the judge!

Dr. Craig D. Idso is the lead editor and scientist for the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC).

When is a (warming) trend real?

Here is the problem. A cartoon by XKCD

Cold

..and of course it got a boost from the Bad Astronomer:

It’s not like my pal Randall needs the traffic from me, but his xkcd comic on the new normal from global warming is just perfect, so I’m putting it here

Now I followed the link given in the cartoon but Randall had not put in upper and lower case, and I got nowhere.

I went searching for temperature information for St Louis, Missouri and got this page  and in that page there are spreadsheets to data about weather extremes for St Louis especially numbers of cold days below 32F and 0F for each year since 1893!

From that sheet I was able to reconstruct the number of days per year where the min temperature reached 0F and the maximum temperature reached 0F and a plot a much longer series of the number of days where the temperature reached 0F every year since 1895.

cold days in st louis

One of the interesting things is that in 1936, the height of the Dustbowl, St Louis had far and away the most 0F days in the entire record.

What IS interesting is that I did not reproduce Randall’s diagram in the cartoon. There are clearly days below 0F in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

There might be a climate signal in the noise, who knows? But I am very wary of drawing any sort of trend through that data because of the inherent noise of temperature data and the filter used.

The question is: is the distribution of days below 0F distinguishable from a random process?

More to follow…

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A new decade, another stock bubble

We’re on the edge of a new stock bubble. First we get good IPOs (LinkedIn and Facebook in the near future) with reasonable growth and profits, then the quality goes south as investors pile in to ever shittier prospects.

And here comes the head of the crud IPO wave: Groupon

Groupon is running out of cash because a) although its growth in revenue is crazy high, its growth in overheads are even higher and b) its founders are stealthily cashing out using venture capitalists money and the forthcoming IPO.

See here: http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2011/06/06/does-mason-want-to-get-out-of-groupon/

Groupon is losing money by choice. In early 2010, the company was profitable, then it embarked on its aggressive expansion to stay ahead of competitors. Hypergrowth is expensive. Thanks to sales and marketing costs, Groupon is spending money even faster than the insane pace that it has been bringing it in. This approach, not uncommon in startups, is risky: It works if all that spending keeps revenue growing over time. But there are already worrying signs that might not be the case; according to Groupon’s own data, it’s already seeing diminishing returns on its investments in established cities like Boston.

This leaves Groupon in a fairly precarious financial position. Total liabilities are $534 million, only $7 million less than total assets. It may be premature to declare that Groupon is “effectively insolvent,” as some commentators have, but companies hoping to go public normally wait until income statements and balance sheets are in a healthier state. There is something rushed about this IPO, as if the company is acting in desperation. Desperation is never the mark of an attractive IPO.

Groupon is burning through cash so quickly that, without new financing, it will run dry come autumn. But again, the company chose to put itself in this position. The company raised $950 million in January, but 85 cents of every dollar went toward stock repurchases for Mason and other insiders. (In 2009, Groupon gave Mason a loan to buy some shares, which he repaid only in part.)

One of the founders has a lot of “previous” in this sort of thing: http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2011/06/10/groupon-eric-lefkofsky/

The strategy is clearly to pump up the growth and revenue at the expense of profitability, but like Amazon.com, anybody holding this stock for any length of time will risk losing nearly all of it when the laws of economic gravity reassert themselves.

Groupon is nearly insolvent and is issuing shares that values it at $30 billion, greater than Google’s IPO value . The shares are non-voting.

If there’s an IPO where the all of the risk is to be born by the ordinary investor and not at all by the founders or by the IPO underwriters [Morgan Stanley (MS), Goldman Sachs (GS) and Credit Suisse (CS), its like its 1999 all over again] then its this one.

If CNBC had any credibility it would run a story: “Groupon – run away screaming”. But I’m not expecting any credibility.

I’m watching Yet Another Tech Stock Bubble, this time in social networks. I wish I had the money to buy Put options on companies like this. I’d be sure to make a fortune from investors whose memory spans are shorter than Leonard Shelby

The iPad dead-end

In a slight departure from my normal blogging, I thought I’d tackle a subject close to my heart – the iPad. Or more accurately, in my opinion the iPad is not the dominant computing paradigm of the future, it’s a diversion to Nowheresville.

I actually own an iPad, albeit by accident after I applied to go on a cloud computing course where the iPad was thrown in as an incentive. I didn’t need the incentive but I did take the iPad and I loved it for a long time.

But I realise that the iPad is actually preventing me from properly functioning on the Internet and I think it’s reached a natural peak and its all downhill if someone can produce (or Michael Arrington can reproduce) the Crunchpad or similar.

Let me explain myself.

The greatest gift that the iPad has brought is easy-to-use, always-on Internet browsing, email and twittering. It certainly beats a laptop for passive consumption of the Internet (or at least, the part of the Internet that doesn’t use Flash). The iPad is a consumer device for people who don’t want to contribute too much but do want to browse a lot. I use iTunes a lot to download courses from premier academic institutions worldwide (especially MIT’s excellent OpenCourseware library). I watch these courses while commuting, or simply sitting in Starbucks. The iPad is great for downloading and watching movies and TV shows (as long as it’s on iTunes).

But let’s face it – this is a consumer device with less memory and storage capacity than an average netbook, and with a proprietary operating system and hardware locked down to prevent upgrades or any non-Apple approved modifications. The iPad 1, which I have, has 256MB of RAM while the iPad 2, just released, has 512MB of RAM.

My daughter’s netbook, by comparison, has 1GB of RAM and a 120GB hard disk. It runs Windows 7, but could run Ubuntu netbook Linux or any number of other Linuxes. And I could go anywhere to get movies and applications – including iTunes.

Can I work on an iPad? No, is the honest answer. Typing on a touchpad for anything more than a quick email is a trial of endurance – and it gets quickly painful if I try to enter some mathematics equations.

Let me demonstrate: try entering the following on an iPad

x= \frac{-b \pm \sqrt{b^2 -4ac}}{2a}

That took me 20 secs on a laptop keyboard using LaTeX. Now try it on an iPad any way you can think of. You have to jump from alphanumeric to numeric to symbols and back again at least 10 times. (Good luck finding \pm by the way)

Painful? Yup.

Never mind equations – is Mathematica, Maple, Mathcad, Sage, Matlab or R available for iPad? No. The math software on iTunes are all basic and real math software will never be available under such draconian limitations as are imposed by iPad’s crappy hardware specification.

I can run any of the above math software on my daughter’s netbook, as underpowered as that is.

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The Ecosystem Myth

A very interesting article by Adam Curtis on the origins of the “self-organizing human society” myth.

What you were seeing in that interchange was the expression of a very powerful ideology of our time. It is the idea of the “self-organising network”. It says that human beings can organise themselves into systems where they are linked, but where there is no hierarchy, no leaders and no control. It is not the old form of collective action that the left once believed in, where people subsumed themselves into the greater force of the movement. Instead all the individuals in the self-organising network can do whatever they want as creative, autonomous, self-expressive entities, yet somehow, through feedback between all the individuals in the system, a kind of order emerges.

Where have I heard this before? The notion of self-organizing societies is rooted in biological studies of phenomena such as ant colonies, which superficially look self-organized but in fact are rigidly controlled hierarchies.

Of course some of the ideas come out of anarchist thought. But the idea is also deeply rooted in a strange fantasy vision of nature that emerged in the 1920s and 30s as the British Empire began to decline. It was a vision of nature and – ultimately – the whole world as a giant system that could stabilise itself. And it rose up to grip the imagination of those in power – and is still central in our culture.

Here Curtis shows that James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis” has a very clear antecedent.

But we have long forgotten where it came from. To discover this you have to go back to a ferocious battle between two driven men in the 1920s. One was a botanist and Fabian socialist called Arthur Tansley. The other was one of the most powerful and ruthless rulers of the British Empire, Field Marshal Jan Smuts.

It all started with a dream. One night Tansley had an unsettling nightmare that involved him shooting his wife. So he did the natural thing and started reading the works of Sigmund Freud, and even went to be analysed by Freud himself. Then Tansley came up with an extraordinary theory. He took Freud’s idea that the human brain is like an electrical machine – a network around which energy flowed – and argued that the same thing was true in nature. That underneath the bewildering complexity of the natural world were interconnected systems around which energy also flowed. He coined a name for them. He called them ecosystems.

But Tansley went further. He said that the world was composed at every level of systems, and what’s more, all these systems had a natural desire to stabilise themselves. He grandly called it “the great universal law of equilibrium”. Everything, he wrote, from the human mind to nature to even human societies – all are tending towards a natural state of equilibrium.

But this is a Romantic biologist’s wild speculation and it has a counter-point – that all societies are manipulated by those who want to rule – often by force.

Field Marshal Smuts was one of the most powerful men in the British empire. He ruled South Africa for the British empire and he exercised power ruthlessly. When the Hottentots refused to pay their dog licences Smuts sent in planes to bomb them. As a result the black people hated him. But Smuts also saw himself as a philosopher – and he had a habit of walking up to the tops of mountains, taking off all his clothes, and dreaming up new theories about how nature and the world worked.

This culminated in 1926 when Smuts created his own philosophy. He called it Holism. It said that the world was composed of lots of “wholes” – the small wholes all evolving and fitting together into larger wholes until they all came together into one big whole – a giant natural system that would find its own stability if all the wholes were in the right places. Einstein liked the theory, and it became one of the big ideas that lots of right-thinking intellectuals wrote about in the 1930s. Even the King became fascinated by it.

But Tansley attacked. He publicly accused Smuts of what he called “the abuse of vegetational concepts” – which at the time was considered very rude. He said that Smuts had created a mystical philosophy of nature and its self-organisation in order to oppress black people. Or what Tansley maliciously called the “less exalted wholes”.

“Less exalted wholes” was ironic considering what was to come in South Africa: apartheid.

Because, although Tansley and Smuts and their argument about power would be forgotten, hybrid combinations of their ideas were going to re-emerge later in the century – strange fusions of systems engineering and mystical visions of organic wholes.

Thirty years later, thousands of young Americans who were disenchanted with politics went off instead to set up their own experimental communities – the commune movement. And they turned to Arthur Tansley’s idea of the ecosystem as a model for how to create a human system of order within the communes.

But they also fused it with cybernetic ideas drawn from computer theory, and out of this came a vision of strong, independent humans linked, just like in nature, in a network that was held together through feedback. The commune dwellers mimicked the ecosystem idea in their house meetings where they all had to say exactly what was on their minds at that moment – so information flowed freely round the system. And through that the communes were supposed to stabilise themselves.

But they didn’t. In many communes across America in the late 1960s house meetings became vicious bullying sessions where the strong preyed mercilessly on the weak, and nobody was allowed to voice any objections. The rules of the self-organising system said that no coalitions or alliances were allowed because that was politics – and politics was bad. If you talk today to ex-commune members they tell horrific stories of coercion, violent intimidation and sexual oppression within these utopian communities, while the other commune members stood mutely watching, unable under the rules of the system to do anything to stop it.

Of course this Utopian vision reached its logical conclusion in Jamestown, Guyana in 1978. People think that Jamestown was an aberration caused by religion – which it was, except the religion was Christianity and Communism and the Ecosystem Myth mixed together by the clinically paranoid Jim Jones.

In the late 70s an idea rose up that we – and everything else on the planet – are connected together in complex webs and networks. Out of it came epic visions of connectivity such as the Gaia theory and utopian ideas about the world wide web. And human beings believed that their duty was not to try to control the system, but to help it maintain its natural self-organising balance.

At the end of 1991 a giant experiment began in the Arizona desert. Its aim was to create from scratch a model for a whole self-organising world.

Biosphere 2 was a giant sealed world. Eight humans were locked in with a mass of flora and other fauna, and a balanced ecosystem was supposed to naturally emerge. But from the start it was completely unbalanced. The CO2 levels started soaring, so the experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but the CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the “ocean” and ate their precious coral reef. Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables and there was less and less food to eat. The men lost 18% of their body weight. Then millions of cockroaches took over. The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface. And it got worse – the oxygen in the world started to disappear and no one knew where it was going. The “bionauts” began to suffocate. And they began to hate one another – furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another’s faces. A psychiatrist was brought in to see if they had gone insane, but concluded simply that it was a struggle for power.

And a struggle for power is exactly what you get when human societies form and interact. In a sense, all of human history makes a mockery of the utopian visions of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, for example. I have always wondered why people like to wear uniforms, but then I realise that they are accepting of a hierarchy controlled by a benevolent dictator whom they admire.

The article is well worth reading.

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