Thursday, April 11, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - II

Climate change is passed off as a matter of individual responsibility and consumer choice. The notion of the per capita carbon footprint is a good example. It is calculated by dividing a nation’s total carbon emissions by the sum of its population. This measure is used to attribute climate change to the usage of gas-guzzling cars, wasteful usage of domestic energy, meat-heavy diets, and so on. Such a framing excludes institutional emissions, like those related to the US military and to the projection of American power. 

In The Nutmeg’s Curse, Amitav Ghosh writes that the literature on climate change mysteriously ignores numbers regarding emission of  greenhouse gases by the military. This is because a decision was taken, at the behest of the US, that emissions related to military activities would be excluded from the negotiations for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Ever since then the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has continued “to treat national military emissions, specifically international aircraft and naval bunker fuels, differently than other emission types.”

In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rate of consumption of fossil fuels was sixteen gallons per soldier per day. Amitav Ghosh says that today the Pentagon is the single largest consumer of energy in the United States — and probably in the world. The US military maintains vast fleets of vehicles, ships, and aircraft, and many of these consume huge amounts of fossil fuels. A non-nuclear aircraft carrier consumes 5,621 gallons of fuel per hour; in other words, these vessels burn up as much fuel in one day as a small town might use in a year. 

A single F-16 aircraft consumes 1700 gallons of fuel in one hour of ordinary operations. The US Air Force has around a thousand F-16s, and they are but a small part of the air fleet. Add to this battle tanks, armoured cars, Humvees, and so on which also require large amounts of fuel. Nor are these machines idle in peacetime; many of them are in constant use, not just for training and maintenance, but also because the US’s nine hundred domestic military installations need to be connected to its network of around a thousand bases in other countries.

In the 1990s the three branches of the US military consumed approximately 25 billion tons of fuel per year. This was more than a fifth of the country’s total consumption, and “more than the total commercial energy consumption of nearly two thirds of the world’s countries.” In 2017, the Pentagon’s total greenhouse gas emissions was greater than all CO2 emissions from US production of iron and steel. During the years of the Iraq War, the US military was consuming around 1.3 billion gallons of oil annually for its Middle Eastern operations alone. That was more than the annual consumption of Bangladesh, a country of 180 million people.

The operation of military equipment requires the use of many kinds of toxic chemicals like thinners, solvents, pesticides, and so on. As a result, the Department of Defence “generates 500,000 tons of toxic waste annually, more than the top five US chemical companies combined", and it is estimated that the armed forces of the major world powers produce the greatest amount of hazardous waste in the world. This does not include the emissions and waste products that are generated in the process of constructing weapons, warships, and warplanes. 

The armed forces of China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, and India are expanding very rapidly, and they are all spending huge amounts of money on energy-intensive systems. “Militarization,” it has been said, “is the single most ecologically destructive human endeavor.” Yet the subject is so little studied that, according to three leading scholars in the field, “research on the environmental impacts of militarism [is] non-existent in the social sciences.”

At the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, it was agreed that wealthy countries would channel $100 billion a year to poorer nations, to help them cope with the impacts of climate change. But the Green Climate Fund set up by the UN succeeded in raising only $10.43 billion and is now running out of money: it never came close to being funded at the level envisaged at the summit. In that same period the world’s annual military expenditure has risen from slightly above $1.5 trillion to almost $2 trillion.

What is ironical is that the US military knows the reality of climate change. Yet, the Pentagon does not acknowledge that its own fuel use is a major contributor to climate change.  The military’s climate-related plans are mainly oriented toward dealing with the conflicts that global warming will create or exacerbate: for instance, struggles over water; regional wars; terrorism; and mass movements of people caused by hurricanes and desertification, droughts and flooding. They assume that the effects of climate change as a “threat multiplier” will only continue to grow more severe, requiring more and more military interventions.

Every year governments around the world justify $1.7 trillion in military expenditure for protecting citizens against entirely uncertain and ill-defined threats. This is supported by many people who, in other regards, would strongly oppose government spending. They argue against climate change on the basis of uncertainty but use uncertainty as a justification for militarypreparedness. 

Mitt Romney, the first presidential candidate to openly deny climate change, justified increasing spending for the military because “we don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty.” Former vice president Dick Cheney, another outspoken denier of climate change, said that “even if there is only a one percent chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.” 

Saturday, March 23, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - I

Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities begins with the observation: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.'

The description fits the period we are living in very well. There are a class of problems called 'wicked problems' which are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad because there are ideological, cultural, political and economic constraints which keep changing over time.  These problems have a lot of ambiguity and the consequences are difficult to imagine. Most wicked problems are connected to other problems. Trying to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. 

Climate change is such an issue and it is caused by our great need for energy. Society runs on energy and materials, but most people think it runs on money. As GDP increases globally, energy needs to increase in lockstep, i.e. for additional economic activity, we need more energy. Study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year. We face increasing effort and cost to extract minerals from lower grade ores. This will have a corresponding effect on benefits to societies while increasing carbon emissions. 

As Timothy Mitchell says in Carbon Democracy, modern mass politics was made possible by the development of ways of living that used energy on a new scale. Without the energy derived from oil, the current forms of political and economic life would not exist. People have developed ways of eating, travelling, housing themselves and consuming goods and services that require very large amounts of energy from oil and other fossil fuels. More than half the total fossil fuel consumed in the 150 years or so between the 1860s, when the modern petroleum industry began, and 2020 was burned in the four decades after 1980. 

In the early period of human civilization, human activity was limited by the muscular power of animals and the speed of regeneration of woodlands. When freed from these limits, the supply of energy began to grow at an exponential rather than a linear rate. You can think of fossil fuels as forms of energy in which great quantities of space and time have been compressed into a concentrated form. This means that organic matter equivalent to all of the plant and animal life produced over the entire earth for four hundred years was required to produce the fossil fuels we burn today in less than a year. 

A human labourer can perform about 0.6 kWh in one workday while one barrel of crude oil can perform about 1700 kWh of work. This means that a barrel of oil has the same work potential as a human working for over 9 years (taking 300 working days a year). This energy/labor relationship was the foundation of the industrial revolution. Most technological processes require hundreds to thousands of calories of fossil energy to replace each human calorie previously used to do the same tasks manually. And fossil energy is much cheaper than human energy. These fossil ‘armies’ are the foundation of the modern global economy. We didn’t pay for the creation of these armies of workers, only their liberation. 

According to modern economic theory if the price of one input gets too high, the market will develop an alternative. However, energy does not cooperate with this theory because different sources of energy exhibit critical differences in quality, density, storability, surplus, transportability, environmental impact, and other factors. For instance, there are many medium and high heat industrial processes (for textiles, chemicals, cement, steel etc.) using fossil fuels that have no current (or even under development) alternative using low-carbon technology.

One factor that would prevent any meaningful action on climate change is that it would result in changing the power relations between countries. The world’s most powerful countries are also oil states, Timothy Mitchell notes, that “without the energy they derive from oil their current forms of political and economic life would not exist.” Nor would they continue to occupy their present positions in the global ranking of power. The increase in the consumption of fossil fuels in China and India has already brought about an enormous change in their international influence.

Everybody talks of climate justice. This would require a fair apportioning of the world’s remaining “climate budget.” But if the emissions of some countries were to be curbed while the emissions of others were allowed to rise, then this would lead inevitably to a redistribution of global power. From the point of view of the American security establishment that wants maintenance of global dominance, this is precisely the scenario that is most greatly to be feared; from this perspective the continuance of the status quo is the most desirable of outcomes. This was clearly stated by George Kennan, one of the architects of the postwar strategic order (quoted in The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh):

We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relations which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives.

Friday, March 8, 2024

Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh

Picture a man named Lal Bihari, born in 1955, a farmer from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. He was told by a government officer in 1976 that he was dead. The land record said that the previous year, after the death of Lal Bihari, his one bigha (one-fifth of an acre) of land had devolved to his cousins. He was officially dead. The fact that he was a familiar figure standing before them made no difference: government records showed that  he was dead so he was dead. He had no proof that he was alive. Now how to get such a proof.

Lal Bihari renamed himself Lal Bihari Mritak (dead man), and went about proving himself alive. This would take him 17 years. One method was to organise his own funeral which would give him a receipt proving that he was alive.  Others were to apply for compensation for his ‘widow’, throw stones at a police station so that he is arrested and his existence recorded, kidnap his cousin, and finally, stand for election. He took on VP Singh from Allahabad in 1988 and Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi in 1989, but didn’t win.

By this time, he found that there were many others in the same plight as him, and founded the Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh, an association of legally dead people. At last count, they had 20,000 members, of whom four had managed to come back to life. One of them was Lal Bihari. From 1994 he was no longer Mritak. This tactic of declaring a person dead and grabbing his land seems to be a common practice. One person from  Azamgarh says, “My own son had killed me off. If it had not been for Lal Bihari, I would still be dead.”

Another person had left his village for some years and found that his brother had declared him dead. Following a dharna by the Mritak Sangh he was declared alive. He then lost on appeal, won on further appeal, but another officer pronounced him dead again. “I have died thrice. At present, I am dead but have a stay on it by the court,” he says. Another person and his four brothers were all shown dead in one village but alive in three other villages where they own land. 

You cannot make this up. Kafka was born in the wrong country and the wrong century. In present day India, he would have been a reporter writing about truth stranger than his fiction. There is a brief mention of the walking dead in the film Jolly LLB 2. Two movies that show the strange ways of the bureaucratic and legal systems in India are Chaitanya Tamhane's Court and Shyam Benegal's Well Done, Abba

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Acting like Segrid

In my younger days, I was an avid reader of comics. Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon, Tintin, Asterix, Archie, Richie Rich, Superman and other super-heroes . . . I would be excited about all sorts of facts in them - the 3rd Phantom was Juliet in Shakespeare's production of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre; Mandrake's arch enemy, The Cobra was actually Luciphor, Theron's oldest son and, thus, Mandrake's half-brother; Tintin's perennial antagonist. Roberto Rastapopoulos. . . .

My cousin had several comics bound into two thick volumes. Every summer and winter vacations (whenever I had not gone to Kerala), I would go to his house, bring the two volumes and read them frequently. I would repeat this practice during the next vacation and the next. . . I would have read them more often than any other book. 

Speaking of comics, I am reminded of a character in Mandrake comics. Mandrake had a girlfriend called Narda who is Princess of the European nation Cockaigne, ruled by her brother Segrid. Whenever Segrid felt ill, he would do his exercises more vigorously and show himself to be very active. He said that the reason he did this was because he had many enemies around who were constantly monitoring him for any sign of weakness and use it as an excuse to depose him. This made him act as if he had more physical vigour than what he actually felt so that they would be deterred from taking such an action.

Even though I don’t have any enemies around, I sometimes resort to the Segrid manoeuvre. Sometimes, I will feel a bit under the weather and will feel like lying down quietly without the TV being switched on. This will make everyone think that I have some major health issue. Jaya will check my temperature and B.P. I may be asked whether a doctor should be called. In order to avoid all this hullabaloo, I will keep quiet about bodily discomforts that I think are minor. I would switch on the TV or sit in front of the computer as usual but I would actually not be doing anything so nobody will suspect anything out of the ordinary. 

Even other apes seem to indulge in this kind of play act. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, Edward Sloan Wilson writes about a large, male bonobo that had recently died. He was a leader with a pleasant disposition, never overly aggressive yet supremely self-confident during his heyday. His  postmortem showed that he had several cancerous growths in addition to a hugely enlarged liver. Even though his condition must have been building for years, he had acted normally until his end. He must have felt miserable for months, but any sign of vulnerability would have meant loss of status. Chimps seem to realize this. 

Wilson also mentions a limping male chimp in the wild who was seen to isolate himself for weeks to nurse his injuries. But he would show up now and then in the midst of his community to give a charging display full of vigour and strength, after which he’d withdraw again. That way his status would be safe and no one would get any ideas of challenging him.

This brings to mind a 'Segrid manoeuvre' that I had to do in my teens. I was hit in my private parts while battling and was moving with a pronounced limp because of pain. (We usually played cricket with a hard ball so the blow was quite painful.) After play, I limped back home. As soon as I came near my house, I tried my best to walk normally. I was afraid that if my parents saw me limping, they would not allow me to play the next day. I knew that the pain would disappear by the next day and playing would not be a problem. 

When I reached my house, my mother told me to go to a market around a kilometre away and buy some vegetables. I was in a fix - I usually agreed to such a request so if I showed any reluctance this time, she might ask some uncomfortable questions; on the other hand, walking that distance was not going to be fun. I decided to go to the market and began limping down the stairs - my house was on the third floor and there was no lift. 

When I emerged out of the apartment, I started walking normally. When I was out of sight of my house, I began limping again. I limped to the market, bought the vegetables, and limped back. When I was within sight of my house, I started walking normally. I reached my house, gave the vegetables to my mother, grabbed my books and sat on a chair from which I did not move for a couple of hours. By that time, my pain had reduced so the rest of the evening passed off uneventfully. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Two 'Fulfillment Stories'

“Time” is  one of the main themes in Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time. The narrator thinks all memories of his youth  have been permanently lost. And then one day, while dipping a piece of madeleine cake into a cup of tea his mother had made him, the memory of his happy childhood days in Combray came unexpectedly flooding back to him. He realized that they had been released by the taste and smell of the tea and madeleine crumbs which had reminded him of the cakes his aunt LĂ©onie used to make for him as a child.

I breathe through a tracheostomy and I rarely have anything through my mouth so taste and smell do not stimulate any memories for me. (It is not that I have lost my sense of smell. I breathe through a tracheotomy so very little air and hence very few odour molecules pass through my nose. An odour has to be particularly strong for it to register.) My Proustian moments come when I read a book. A passage in a book will remind me of some incident in the distant past which might lead to another memory and yet another . . . And as Macbeth said,  “My dull brain was wrought / With things forgotten.” 

In Wanting, Luis Burgis writes about  hearing what he calls 'Fulfilment Stories' - stories about times in your life when you took an action that ended up being deeply fulfilling. According to him, a Fulfilment story has three essential elements: 1. You took some concrete action and you were the main protagonist, 2. You believe you did well for an achievement that matters to you.  3.  Your action brought you a deep sense of fulfilment, maybe even joy and just thinking about it brings some of it back. 

The first incident happened when I was in high school when a cousin had come to Jamshedpur to stay for a while. Once, we were practicing our catching skills with a tennis ball in a room inside the house. The play was proceeding sedately along expected lines when suddenly . . . (Chekov writes in Death of a Government Clerk that 'very often in stories you come upon this word “suddenly,” and this is all very proper, since authors must always concern themselves with the unexpectedness of life.)

Suddenly, my cousin threw the ball somewhat off target and to our misfortune, it hit a clock behind me. The glass on the face of the clock shattered into million pieces with an unseemly noise accentuating our horrified silence. My cousin was very worried about how to break the news to his uncle (my father) when he returned from the office. This was surprising for me because my father was a mild mannered person who was not likely to fly into a rage and shout at us. 

Looking at the worried expression on my cousin's face and listening to his fears, I told him that I will tell my father that I had thrown the ball that had inadvertently hit the clock. 'Really?', he asked with a look of disbelief. I assured him that I would.  When my father came home in the evening, I took the blame for the broken clock as I had promised. As I had expected, nothing much happened, with my father expressing some disapproval and telling me to be more careful in future. My cousin was relieved and I soon forgot about the incident. 

Years later, about a year after my stroke, the cousin visited me. During the visit, he mentioed the incident which was the first time I recalled the incident after the day it had occurred and I felt happy about it. It was an insignificant incident for me but it must have meant something for him if he still remembered it after almost two decades. 

The second incident occurred when I was in Bajaj Auto Ltd. which was my first job. When I got my first salary, I sent some money separately to both my grandparents. (I will be writing only about my maternal grandparents since my father was an orphan and I don't know anything about the authors of his existence.) I don't know why I did it because both lived in the same house, my grandfather had always looked after financial matters and my grandmother was perfectly happy with this arrangement. It must have been a spontaneous action and I promptly forgot all about it. 

After a few months, I got admission in IIMA, resigned from my job and served the mandatory one-month notice period. After this,  there were two weeks to go before joining IIMA and I decided to go to Palakkad, Kerala where my mother and sister were staying along with my grandparents. I had to travel by bus for an hour from Palakkad Junction to reach my village. I reached the bus stop near my house at my usual time of around eight in the morning. 

There was a short walk from the bus stop to my house. On the way a relative called out to me, 'Grandmother died.' Huh? 

- 'Whose grandmother?'

- 'Your grandmother.'

This came as a shock.  For a moment I did not know what to say. I had had no knowledge of any ailment or accident. Then what had happened? I hurried home. My mother and an aunt came out to receive me and from the looks on their faces I knew that what I had heard was true. (Anyway this was not a matter about which somebody will make jokes. Perhaps I was hoping unconsciously that it would be one.) Soon after, when we (my mother, sister, grandfather, an aunt and myself) were settled in a room, I was told what had happened. 

My grandmother had complained of stomach pain and was taken to a hospital in Coimbatore. After examination, the doctors said that they had to perform an operation. During the procedure, they found that she had stomach cancer which had spread to many organs. She had never complained of any pain so nobody had known anything about this. The doctors tried desperately to retrieve the situation but their struggles were in vain and she died on the operating table. Everybody was stunned by what had happened. I had not been informed because everybody knew that I had given notice and couldn't take leave and anyway I will be home in a week. 

Then my mother told me about the money order that I had sent to my grandmother some months ago, something I had forgotten about. (Those days, one way to send  money was by using a money order which was sent through the postal system.) It seemed that nobody had ever sent any money to her. My grandfather looked after financial matters and my grandmother was content to look after the kitchen. When my grandmother heard her name called out by the postman, she was surprised. 

When the postman told her that one Suresh had sent her money, she swelled with pride. She had to sign in order to get the money which was the first time in her life that she had been asked to sign anywhere. She practised her signature gravely for some time and then put her signature at the required place feeling very important. She then took the money and kept it carefully among some clothes in her cupboard. She never spent any of the money but periodically, she would look at it with great joy.  

The story overwhelmed me. What had been an insignificant act that I had forgotten about soon had now become the best act of my life. Both the above acts were ones I had initially thought were minor but later assumed significance. They often remind me of the last stanza of Wordsworth's poem Daffodils

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.


Saturday, January 27, 2024

Typing upgrade

About a year ago, when Jaya and I were celebrating our 27th wedding anniversary, Sujit presented me with an I-Mac. I received it with a mixture of happiness and bewilderment. The bewilderment was because I had never used a Mac before and I didn’t know if all my files would be compatible with the Mac OS. Sujit assured me that it will not be a problem which eased some of my worries. 

He then gave me some tutorials about common Mac commands. For eg. instead of the 'cntrl' key in Windows, I had to use the 'command' key in Mac. So for copying something, I had to click command+c. For Mac, it is Finder, while for Windows PCs, it was File Explorer. Instead of Explorer, there is Safari. I could search podcasts and music more easily. What made Sujit opt for an I-Mac was the Dwell feature in the Accessibility features about which he learned from a friend. When he used it in a showroom, he knew that I would take to it quickly.  

The mouse-pointer is moved using head-tracking technology. The pointer appears over the chosen spot and the dwell time countdown begins (a pointer circle starts to empty). When the countdown is over (which takes a couple of seconds), the chosen action is performed. The default dwell action is set to left click. By clicking on a dropdown menu, I can select a different action like double click, right click etc. The current dwell action will revert to 'left click' after the action is performed.

The Dwell function allows me to do what anyone else can do in a computer including browsing, switching between documents and reading pdf documents directly. Previously, once I had specified a document, I had to type within that document till someone changed it. For reading pdfs, I used to ask somebody to copy it in Word which would result in the images being lost. All such problems are no longer there. 

Another advantage is that there is a text prediction feature in the Accessibility keyboard which makes typing easier. After typing just a few letters, some words are suggested. I can select the word I want, and just click on it for it to get typed. For example, for typing the word 'example', I just had to type 'e' and it was the first word predicted. The software had predicted that after 'For' it was likely to be 'example'. 

Of course, so many advantages have to be accompanied by at least one disadvantage - the curse of distraction. In The Count of Monte Cristo, the protagonist Edmund Dantes reflected upon the enormous degree of intelligence and ability that a fellow prisoner Abbe Faria displayed and said, 'What would you not have accomplished if you had been free?' Abbe Faria replied, 'Possibly nothing at all; the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; misfortune is needed to bring to light the treasures of the human intellect.'

Freedom is great but unrestricted freedom brings its own problems. Now that I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted in a computer, I felt the urge to do things other than what I was currently doing. If a WhatsApp notification came, I wanted to check what it was. I would think of something I wanted to check in Google. This would lead me to a link which would lead me to another link and another. . . I would be reading a book in pdf and I would be tempted to check another book. Previously, I could not do any of these things so I focused on the file I was working on for a couple of hours before I asked somebody to change it. 

At this time, I happened to read a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport. It mentioned a 2012 McKinsey study which found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone. This state of fragmented attention does not allow you to do deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking. 

He said that many assume that they can switch between a state of distraction and one of concentration as needed, but this is wishful thinking: Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it. The constant switching from deep, focused activities to superficial activities at the slightest hint of boredom teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. The urge to turn your attention toward something more superficial is always present. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy.  They just can’t keep on task. 

The key to developing a deep work habit is to  add routines and rituals which help maintain a state of unbroken concentration. Hours of practice is necessary to strengthen one's “mental muscle” to maintain this focus. A lot of advice for the problem of distraction follows the general template of finding occasional time to get away from the noise. Some put aside one or two months a year to escape these temptations, others follow one-day-a-week schedule of avoiding distraction, while others put aside an hour or two every day for the same purpose. 

Instead of following such a schedule, Cal Newport suggests following the opposite strategy of specifying a particular time for giving in to distraction. Regardless of how you schedule these blocks of time, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use. The idea behind this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from focused activities to superficial activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. 

This constant switching weakens the 'mental muscles' responsible for focusing your attention. By segregating Internet use you’re minimising the number of times you give in to distraction, and by doing so you let these 'mental muscles' strengthen. A full day of scheduled distraction therefore becomes a full day of similar mental training. Following this advice, I first kept 30 minutes for focused activity during which I resisted any temptation for distraction. Then I would schedule 15 minutes for checking e-mail, Google searches etc. I gradually increased the Internet-free chunks of time to 40 minutes, 50 minutes, one hour, etc. This practice has worked well. 

Friday, January 12, 2024

Social production of moral indifference - 15b

The philosopher George Santayana once said,  ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’  Perhaps it is also important to know what to remember and what to forget. Those who do not remember the extraordinary truces of the World War I trenches, or who do not learn of Gandhi, Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Viljoen, Tutu, the extraordinary statements of many ordinary people in the South African TRC etc., are condemned to be less likely to repeat them.  (Hemmingway  - “As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.”)

After the pogrom against the Sikhs in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi made infamous Newton’ First Law of Motion by justifying the horror with the statement - ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’.  This statement is often made for justifying negative emotions. But what can be done is to use it to justify positive emotions. During his debate with Tilak about the interpretation of the Gita, Gandhi refuted Tilak’s justification of violence by saying: 

The text from the Bhagavad Gita shows to me how the principle of conquering hate by love, untruth by truth, can and must be applied. If it be true that God metes out the same measure to us that we mete out to others, it follows that if we would escape condign punishment, we may not return anger but gentleness even against anger. And this is the law not for the unworldly but essentially for the worldly

A study found that cooperative behaviour is contagious and that it spreads from person to person. And it takes only a handful of individuals to really make a difference. When people benefit from kindness they "pay it forward" by helping others who were not originally involved, and this creates a cascade of cooperation that influences dozens more in a social network. Groups with altruists in them will be more altruistic as a whole and more likely to survive than selfish groups. (Oscar Wilde -  “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” ) 

I have never seen violence or even been near a scene of violence. I have only read about the horrible acts of violence that people commit on each other and get sickened by it. Probably the same is the case with the majority of people who read this blog. About the only type of violence I have enjoyed is a statement by P G Wodehouse  (I think he put it in the mouth of Bertie Wooster): 'Whenever I get that sad, depressed feeling, I go out and kill a policeman. ' 

In contemporary times, people kidnap girls and sell them into slavery, commit atrocities like slitting a person's throat and, instead of being scared and concealing them, display the evidence online, enjoying the horror  it creates. As the Irish poet William Butler Yeats said, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ To merely accept that this is the kind of world we live in  and  agree with received wisdom about the selfishness of human nature would prove right Goebbels’ perverse prediction: “Even if we lose, we shall win, for our ideals will have penetrated the hearts of our enemies.”

Antonio Gramsci once talked about pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will. Pessimism of the intellect means accepting nothing at face value, doubting all that we are told, and questioning everything, not in the spirit of cynicism but of scepticism. But always, pessimism of the intellect needs to be balanced by optimism of the will. In other words, see the world as it really is, warts and all, but still forge ahead tenaciously. It is a powerful warning against wishful thinking and simultaneously a cry against resignation. 

Logical analysis of a situation may lead the intellect to despair, but we can’t let anxiety overwhelm and paralyse us. The underlying lack of conviction, the absence of an optimism of the will, influences how we see ourselves and events every day.  P.G. Wodehouse once said, 'I can detach myself from the world. If there is a better world to detach oneself from than the one functioning at the moment I have yet to hear of it.' And if we still wonder how an insignificant individual action can make any difference, Adam Smith has the answer.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he describes his concept of an invisible hand using a moral example rather than a monetary one showing how individual choices can lead to important social outcomes. We decide what is proper and improper and what is honourable and noble and kind. We give our approval to honourable behaviour and our disapproval to dishonourable behaviour. All these patterns of behaviour around us come from all our actions together thereby setting the norms by which society functions. And few of us realize that we play a role in creating these norms and values.

There’s no way to legislate the virtues of courtesy, kindness, thoughtfulness, compassion, honour and integrity. No statute could be written to enforce them or to punish their opposites. They are best encouraged — and their opposites discouraged — by human interaction. A society of decent behaviour is created through the signals of approval and disapproval we send to each other and through the admonitions we give to our children. We create the understandings of behaviour that we each in turn use to moderate our self-centredness.

Smith is saying that our choices matter. When we honour bad people or avoid good people, we are playing a role in degrading the world around us. When you honour honourable behaviour by others, you play a role in breaking an unvirtuous circle. Being good encourages others to be good.  It’s a small role, almost negligible. But together, our combined actions are decisive. As Goethe said, “When you take a man as he is, you make him worse. When you take a man as he can be, you make him better.” (See How Adam Smith can change your life by Russell Roberts.) Robert M. Sapolsky says in Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst

Eventually it can seem hopeless that you can actually fix something, can make things better. But we have no choice but to try. And if you are reading this, you are probably ideally suited to do so. You’ve amply proven you have intellectual tenacity. 

You probably also have running water, a home, adequate calories, and low odds of festering with a bad parasitic disease. You probably don’t have to worry about Ebola virus, warlords, or being invisible in your world. And you’ve been educated. In other words, you’re one of the lucky humans. So try.

PS: If you are interested in Biology, you can listen to the talks by Robert M. Sapolsky in YouTube especially his Stanford lectures on Human Behavioural Biology.  Robert Sapolsky Rocks.