what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Whatever Happened to “Peak Oil”?

It was almost 50 years ago we first heard the notion of there being “Limits to Growth” and the idea of oil supply – the basic source of modern civilisation – reaching a peak was developed by a geophysicist a decade earlier.

It was, however, Dmitry Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse – the soviet experience and American prospects and J Michael Greer’s The Long Descent – a user’s guide to the end of the industrial age” (both 2008) which first made me aware of the dramatic changes we would need to make in our life styles - if these predictions proved true. These, of course, were the days when the reality of global warming had not really struck home – although there had been no shortage of warning voices in earlier years eg Bill McKibben whose “The End of Nature” was published in 1989.                 

The rise and fall of civilisations had, of course, been a popular theme at both the beginning and the middle of the 20th Century in the writings of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee but, by the 1960s, we had become so enthralled with the notion of technical progress that such writing was seen as “old wives’ tales”. Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1987) may have been a warning shot but, coming a mere 2 years before the collapse of the Soviet Empire, served only to boost the celebrationism of the time.  And Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988) was too narrowly conceived – with this critical review lambasting it,

Jared Diamond tried to jolt us back to our senses with his “Collapse – how societies choose to fail or succeed” (2005) - but it took the global financial crash of 2008 to make us begin to question our direction with any seriousness.

Right-wing historian Niall Fergusson’s 2010 article in “Foreign Affairs” reflects that new mood of sober realism.

And it was that same global financial crash that brought oil prices down and made investment in renewable energy once again a “yessable” proposition – as Greer anticipates in “The Long Descent”. Covid19 is having the same effect…  

I read Orlov’s book some years ago and followed Greer’s blog until it ended a couple of years ago. But I have just been able to download “The Long Descent” from Zlibrary (https://1lib.eu/) and found this recent post by Michael Greer a useful summary of his position -

Since some of my current readers weren’t yet reading me when I last discussed these issues – in “The Long Descent” (2008), I’ll start with some general points and go from there.

One of the great mental blind spots of our society is the notion that there are only two possible futures: on the one hand, business as usual stretching endlessly into the future, with a side order of technological progress dished up at intervals; on the other, sudden apocalyptic mass death, with or without a small band of plucky survivors sitting around a campfire as the final credits roll. An astonishing number of people these days literally won’t let themselves think about any other possible future, and will either change the subject or get furiously angry at you if you should be so bold as to suggest one.


The evasion and the anger come from the same source, which is that those imaginary futures are the ways most of us distract ourselves from the future we’re actually getting: a future of decline.

·         We all know this. If you’re old enough to be out of elementary school, you’ve already seen ongoing declines in standards of living, public health, public order, the quality of education, the condition of our infrastructure, and much more.

·         Those trends define our future. They also defined the future of every past civilization, because that’s how civilizations end, and it’s how ours will end, 100 to 300 years from now.

·         Again, at some level, all of us know this, but it’s taboo to discuss the matter or even think about it, which is why so many people bury their heads in shopworn fantasies of perpetual progress or overnight cataclysm.


One other thing. Technology will not save us from the Long Descent, because technology is the main factor driving the Long Descent. The more technology you have, the more energy and resources of every kind you need to build, maintain, repair, replace, and dispose of it, and the mismatch between endlessly rising resource costs and the hard limits of a finite planet is one of the main factors bringing about the declines I’ve just described. Nor does technology allow one energy resource to be replaced with another, except in small and irrelevant ways.


The world now burns more coal than it did at the peak of the Coal Age, for example, and more wood than it did when firewood was the main source of heating fuel worldwide. As renewable power sources got added to the mix, furthermore, the amount of fossil fuels being burnt didn’t go down -- it went up. (That’s caused by a widely recognized law of energy economics, by the way; look up Jevons’ Paradox sometime.) If progress is the problem, more progress is not the solution -- but here again, that’s utterly unthinkable these days. Faith in progress is the most popular idolatry of our time, and a vast number of people who claim to belong to other religions or to no religion at all are devout worshipers at the shrine of the golden calf named Progress.


So where are we headed?  That hasn’t changed one iota since the last time I discussed these issues. “The Limits to Growth”, the most thoughtful (and thus inevitably the most savagely denounced) of the Seventies-era books that explored the landscape ahead of us, traced the arc of our future in a convenient graph. Between 1972 and the present, its predictions have proven much more accurate than those of the book’s critics -- another reason why it’s been assailed in such shrill language for all these years. Here’s the graph: (sorry it doesn't show in this text - please consult Greer's post)


I’d encourage my readers to pay attention to two things about the graph. The first, which should be obvious at a glance but has been ignored astonishingly often, is that it doesn’t show any kind of sudden apocalyptic event. What it shows is a long and relatively smooth transition from a world of abundant resources and sustained economic growth to a world of scarce resources and sustained economic contraction. Population doesn’t fall off a cliff, it rises, crests, and declines. Pollution doesn’t up and kill everybody; it rises, helps drive declines in food and population, and then declines in turn as industrial output falls off.


The second thing about the graph I’d like readers to notice is subtler, and you may need to read the book to grasp it: the limits to growth are economic limits, not technical ones. What happens, in brief, is that the costs of growth rise faster than the benefits, until finally they overwhelm growth itself and force the global economy to its knees. What this means, in turn, is that proposed solutions have to be economically viable, not just technically feasible. 

As you can see, Greer writes very well. And he’s not just good on theory but on practice. Chapter 4 of his book has 4 bits of advice –

- reduce your energy use (by half id possible – restrict use of the car;praxtice coping with blackout)

- DIY health

- community networking

- choose a viable profession (market gardening; clothes repair) 

A Peak Oil resource

- Some of Greer’s writings can still be found in the Counter Currents website eg  https://www.countercurrents.org/greer290511A.htm; and   https://www.countercurrents.org/greer241111.htm. Just type J Michael Greer in the search engine

-       The Five Stages of Collapse – survivor’s toolkit; Dmitry Orlov (2013) I’ve just been able to download this more recent book by Orlov. The guy has a great sense of humour.

-       https://www.resilience.org/ One of the movement’s main mags

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The continuing Saga of Brexit

In just over 2 months, the fate of the UK will be finally sealed – the country will leave the European Union not just on paper but with full legal consequences, the transitional arrangements of this year expiring on 31 January 2021. I follow only 3 blogs on these issues – Boffy’s Blog; Brexit Blog and EU Referendum. First Boffy                        

The reality is that Britain needs the EU far more than the EU needs Britain - and all the cards are in the hands of the EU, when it comes to these negotiations. The end result will be that, at the end of the process, Britain will have less sovereignty than it did as a member of the EU, and has been greatly depreciated in its power and influence in the world, just as Boris's inevitable capitulation again leaves him looking weak and powerless, and quite frankly a bit of a blow-hard, much as is Britain itself

The reality is that if Britain wants a trade deal with the EU, and it does, because the EU accounts for the vast majority of Britain's trade, and will do forever more, simply on the basis of its proximity, Britain will have to comply with EU rules and regulations, because the EU is seven times bigger than Britain, and is, therefore, able to dictate the terms.

If Britain wanted a trade deal with the US or China, the same would apply, because neither the US nor China will allow goods into their economies that do not comply with their rules and regulations, otherwise they would be putting their own producers at a competitive disadvantage.


Similarly, the US and China would insist that Britain accept into its market US or Chinese goods that comply only with their standards, not with any that the UK wants to impose, otherwise there would be no advantage for those large economies in striking any such deal. They may not bother in relation to any goods that are not important to them, but for every type of production that is significant to their economy they will insist on their rules, regulations and standards being the ones that have to be complied with. That is the subordinate position that Brexit has put Britain in. It no longer has any leverage to determine those rules, regulations and standards, and no say in their determination, as it did as a member of the EU. 


Tory politicians keep banging on about it being unfair that the EU will not give them a Canada style free trade deal. Welcome to the real world where what happens has nothing to do with “fairness” or morality, but is instead determined by power relations, and those with more power get to set the terms. The Tories, of course, have always been used to sitting in the bosses' seat which has power in relation to workers, and where they have been able to negotiate on that basis. Now they are in the position of a group of weak workers, badly organised and facing a powerful employer. 

Moreover, the EU was never going to give the UK a deal like Canada, because Britain is on the EU's border; in Ireland physically on its border. Also the deal with Canada increases trade and reduces costs between them, but any EU-UK trade deal will result in less trade, and greater costs than already exists.


The EU does not have to worry that capital is going to relocate to Canada to avoid EU regulations, but it does in relation to Britain. That is why the EU is insistent on the points about state aid, and on regulation. Britain's perfidy in relation to the Withdrawal Agreement, and the UK Internal Markets Bill, as well as its proposals to introduce Free Ports where all sorts of fly by night and shady businesses are allowed to set up shop, and flout rules, gives the EU more than ample reason to distrust UK intentions in that regard. It’s not that the EU fears the UK's plans for “state aid” as such. Why would it, its Britain that has been the champion of the small state, and red in tooth and claw free market competition, and devil take the hindmost. Britain has not even used current state aid provisions, inside the EU, to provide short term assistance to struggling industries. No, what the EU knows is that the Tories would use any such leeway simply to provide assistance to chosen businesses to compete unfairly with it. 


And fisheries provides an interesting lesson. The contribution of fishing to the UK economy is minimal. If the fishing industry disappeared tomorrow the economy would not notice it. From an economic standpoint, allowing defence of fishing to get in the way of a trade deal makes no sense. Britain would benefit far more from a deal where fishing disappeared, but where it had better access to EU markets, than denying itself such access simply to protect fishing. For one thing, if Britain tries to exclude EU fishing fleets, and does not get a trade deal, it will find great difficulty selling the fish it catches, when they have large tariffs imposed on them, because the majority of that fish is sold in Europe not Britain. 

So, why are the Tories making a big thing about fishing? The reason is that the Tories hung their Brexit hat on questions like fishing. Fishing for them became totemic of the drive for national sovereignty. The right to exclude others from your waters was a symbol of the implementation of that sovereignty…..the Tories have made a big thing about fishing, because having made it totemic of their claims about national sovereignty, they picked up political support, and parliamentary seats in those coastal areas where fishing is seen as important. In other words, the Tories are failing to strike a deal, by insisting on their position on fishing, not out of any national interest, but purely out of their own narrow party political interest. They know that when they capitulate on fishing, a lot of the rhetoric around national sovereignty goes down the pan, and with it all of the nationalistic argument for Brexit itself, but they also know that they lose face in all those coastal areas where they picked up votes and MP's. 

Chris Grey’s weekly Brexit Blog is, for me, the bible on these issues – and his latest weekly post duly landed yesterday with a thud in my letterbox

It is clear that the EU will not walk out of the talks and that whilst they continue, fisheries, state aid and the governance of any agreement remain the familiar, widely-reported, stumbling blocks. Of these, the third, governance, has grown in salience because the Internal Market Bill (IMB) has so badly damaged the EU’s trust in the UK (£). But the truth is that this lack of trust has been growing over years, as I catalogued in a post last May, accelerating with Johnson’s cavalier repudiation of much of the Political Declaration.

Lack of trust is now central
The IMB was just the last straw, and - even if the relevant clauses get abandoned, as 
they still may - its attempt at hardball tactics has badly misfired. For, especially given the new Covid-19 situation, Johnson might want to play the same trick as he did in January and sign up to some kind of deal which he could then try to backtrack on later. If so, the IMB has made that a great deal harder. He has played his tricks so many times that there is no longer any goodwill. Trust and goodwill can sound like airy-fairy concepts in the cold-eyed world of trade negotiations and international relations but they are indispensable, especially in such a complex and unprecedented negotiation as this one.
…..At the same time, there are increasing concerns about the government’s commitment to the rule of law, not just because of the IMB but also the recent attacks from the Home Office 
on the legal profession, attacks repeated by Johnson in his party conference speech. The backdrop of the illegal prorogation of parliament and the grab of executive power in relation to both Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, especially through the extensive use of Statutory Instruments, contributes to these concerns. As David Allen Green, the Financial Times’ Law and Policy commentator, discusses, there is now a question as to whether Britain is moving towards “government by decree”.

Also rumbling away in the background is the long-standing hostility of many parts of the Tory Party – strongly overlapping with those that are the most pro-Brexit – to the Human Rights Act and, even, to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Indeed it is worth recalling that before the Referendum, Theresa May, whilst campaigning to remain in the EU, 
proposed that Britain leave the ECHR. Perhaps of more relevance at the present time is Dominic Cummings’ assertion that after Brexit “we’ll be coming for the ECHR”.

No doubt this would find considerable support amongst many leave voters. Throughout the Referendum campaign in conversations and on social media when leavers were asked to give examples of EU laws they disliked these were almost invariably judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (usually garbled versions of these, but that is another matter). Although this is only based on my own experience, I’m pretty sure it was the case more generally. It perhaps doesn’t need to be said here, but the ECHR and its Court are not EU institutions, and Brexit does not affect Britain’s participation in them.

A problematic neighbour
Having been repeatedly stung by British perfidy – especially over the Withdrawal Agreement/ Political Declaration - there is a strong incentive to 
nail down the governance terms of any agreement, and if that is not possible to accept that there will be no deal this year. As Clement Beaune, the French European Affairs Minister said this week, “it’s a matter of how the UK is a partner of trust in the years to come”.

Britain unprepared
If such strategic considerations inform the EU’s approach to these final phases of the negotiations, in the UK it is short-term factors which mainly predominate. I’ve been writing 
since at least October 2018 about the lack of preparedness of businesses (and other organizations) for Brexit, and in several recent posts about how government information for businesses has come too late and been lacking in key operational detail. Throughout that time there has been a drumbeat of implicit criticism from the government of businesses for being unprepared (and – paradoxically – a veritable orchestra attacking business bodies for their warnings of how much will change).
In recent days, these criticisms have mounted. First, the Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, issued a panicky sounding 
“urgent message” to businesses to get ready for the end of transition. The next day Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew accused them of “burying their heads in the sand”, attracting widespread condemnation (£). I’m conscious that I keep repeating that I am repeating myself but as I wrote a few weeks ago these criticisms of business are outrageous given the years of dishonest promises of continued ‘frictionless trade’, the lateness of government planning for the effects of Brexit, and the dismissal of the warnings about both.

Even now, although it is true that some of what is to come will occur with or without a deal, businesses that will face tariffs if there isn’t a deal are left in limbo since, in at least some cases, this is not something they can prepare for as it will simply sound their death knell regardless of any actions they take in advance. Nor are tariffs the only issue. It has long been explained to Brexiters that a ‘Canada-style’ Free Trade Agreement – actually, any Free Trade Agreement – will do relatively little for services trade and, certainly, will offer far less integration than single market membership. But for years they either ignored it, or pretended that a ‘Super-Canada’ deal would be done that would magically avoid this problem. 

The reason why trade agreements do little for services is because, even more than for goods trade, liberalisation requires removing non-tariff barriers. This in turn entails some loss of national regulatory control or, in Brexiter terms, sovereignty. An example of the kind of issue at stake is the mutual recognition of professional qualifications in, for example, law and accountancy, and in fact, despite its recent rhetoric of asking for no more than what Canada has, the UK has been seeking such recognition in the negotiations with the EU.
This seems to have been unsuccessful (though that cannot yet be said definitively) and if so that is unsurprising as it is a version of ‘cakeism’ – that is, wanting to have a benefit of single market membership without being a member. The consequence, 
as a House of Lords sub-committee reported this week (£), will be very considerable potential damage to the UK’s £225 billion professional services industry. As with sectors like pharmaceuticals, auto, aerospace, chemicals and also some that get less attention (e.g. musiccomputer gamingfintech) the UK is ripping up some of its biggest economic success stories – areas where, to use the government’s favourite phrase, Britain is ‘world-beating’ – in the name of the Brexit theology of sovereignty.

Holding all the cards?
Also unsuccessful has been 
the “UK plea” for special allowances on electric car and battery exports (this would have meant an exemption for this sector from rules of origin which, in general, we already know will be applied). This, remember, is a sector identified by Boris Johnson in 2019 as being one in which the UK plans to emerge as a future world leader. And in the balance are arrangements for air travel at the end of the Transition Period if there is no deal. As things stand, it is not known what will be in place but, in the event of no deal, the Transport Secretary says “we expect the EU to bring forward contingency measures” so that flights can continue. Hardly reassuring for those wanting to plan travel for a time which is now less than eighty days away.
It’s worth noting the tone in both these stories. Whereas the Brexiters promised that Britain would ‘hold all the cards’ once it voted to leave the EU it is now a matter of ‘pleading’ with the EU for special treatment and being entirely dependent upon the EU to keep something as basic as air travel to the continent. That’s not the result of EU ‘bullying’ but the fact, as the air travel case illustrates literally, that if a country disconnects itself from an interconnected world then inevitably it becomes the supplicant when seeking to reconnect itself. Sovereignty doesn’t put planes in the air.

But there is small comfort in the spectacle of all the Brexiter claims being discredited. Between the ravages that Covid-19 is inflicting on businesses and those self-inflicted by Brexit it is becoming increasingly difficult to see what kind of economy Britain is going to be left with this time next year. And that self-inflicted wound isn’t just a result of Brexit, but of the way Brexit has been done and even just of the bone-headed refusal, in the midst of a pandemic, to extend the Transition Period, which would at least have cushioned or delayed much of the damage.

Time is running out but negotiations will never end
Having refused to do so when it was both possible and obviously going to be needed has now exposed the UK to a dire set of risks, for the end of year deadline is one that Johnson cannot now conveniently drop. It is ironic that David Frost is 
reportedly complaining that (£) the EU is “using the old playbook” of “running down the clock” when it was the UK that ensured that the clock stopped on 31 January. That of course was predicated on the theory that ‘the EU always blinks at the last minute’, a theory now being tested to destruction, with the most recent EU Council statement having a decidedly ‘take it or leave it’ tone.
This exposes the obvious difficulty with the government’s approach which is that it entails the UK being willing to ‘walk away’ without a deal. But apart from all the damage that would do, disproportionately to the UK, the story about contingency measures for air travel in the event of no deal shows the hollowness of the idea. For immediately after having done so Johnson would have to return to the table to agree these and other measures. So if later today, or any other time, he were to announce the end of future terms talks then almost the next day they would resume in a new form.

In several recent posts 
I’ve argued that it is pointless trying to predict whether or not there will be a deal, and I must confess to becoming increasingly irritated by the numerous pundits trying to do so. But, in addition to that, the wider implication of what I’ve written today is that if there is no deal – and, in a less dramatic way, even if there is a deal – that won’t be a ‘settled’ relationship, and so won’t be the end of ‘Brexit negotiations’. It will be the beginning of more negotiations.
So, depressing as it is to say it, the current ‘deal or no deal’ episode isn’t even the prelude to a resolution. For, given the irreducible fact that the EU is a major economic bloc sitting geographically right next door, there will be never-ending negotiations of one sort or another. Indeed it must be conceded that one, at least, of the Brexiters’ slogans has been proved true. Unsurprisingly so, since it was the truism that ‘we’re leaving the EU but we’re not leaving Europe’.

Covid19, governments, lies and science

Confession time – for years I have referred to ex-UK PM Tony Blair as T Bliar because of the role he played in leading us into the Iraq war on the basis of the lies he spread about Hussein’s possession of “Weapons of Mass Destruction”.

But Blair is an innocent compared to current British Prime Minister Boris Johnston – renowned throughout the world for the apparently temperamental inability his entire career has demonstrated of being unable to distinguish truth from reality.

This is nowhere more obvious than in the constant refrain Johnson has offered, throughout the Covid pandemic, of simply “following the science”. The 3Quarks Daily site offers today the best putdown of this defence 

Since Covid became an epidemic it is no longer a merely scientific problem. Dealing with it requires balancing conflicting values and the interests of multitudes of people and organisations. This is an essentially political challenge that scientists lack the conceptual apparatus or legitimacy to address.

Epidemiologists can inform the political process but not replace it. In particular, they can advise governments on the sources of risk and the projected levels of risk associated with different Covid policies.

However, as we have seen in the various approaches to lockdown and rollback around the world, how governments address Covid does not follow directly from their different epidemiological circumstances. Governments make two specific political choices well or badly:

-       how much Covid risk to tolerate and

-       how that risk ‘budget’ should be allocated between competing social needs and interest groups.


First governments must decide how much Covid matters to them, i.e. how far to prioritise controlling the epidemic relative to their other priorities, such as economic prosperity, other aspects of public health, and their own political survival.

The health of the general population will never be the only concern, and this is entirely reasonable and moral in a world of trade-offs (or we would all demand a speed limit of 10 mph on our roads). This does not mean that we cannot criticise the specific trade-offs a government chooses to make ‘on our behalf’, for example if it seems to value its own political survival far above the lives of citizens.

Closely connected to how much to care is the question of how rosy a view of the risks to take, i.e. whether to plan for the best or worst case scenarios posited by epidemiologists. Together this exercise generates what may be called a ‘risk budget’.


Second, governments must decide how to allocate their risk budget among a society’s competing needs and interests. Whatever precautions individuals follow, all physical interactions carry some risk of transmission and hence of raising R nought. Which interactions are worth that risk?

For example, should the airline industry, the hospitality sector, or schools get to resume something like normal services, and thereby resume serving those who depend on them (such as children and working parents), while imposing risks on those who work in them (such as teachers)?

Because there is a limited amount of normality to go around, who gets to enjoy its benefits or suffer its consequences is a matter of intense political competition. One would hope that the political system would prioritise those whose interests have the greatest moral claims and/or generate the greatest net beneficial impact. For example, in person schooling is of great direct and indirect value to children, and also frees up working parents to do all the things we would like them to do, like run ICUs. In contrast, in person university teaching is entirely dispensable except for a handful of vocational subjects like nursing.


However we all know that even in the best of times and the best democracies, risks are distributed rather more according to a political than a moral logic, i.e. those groups least able to resist end up holding the shortest straw. Hence the fact that noxious and dangerous facilities like highways, refineries, incinerators and so on are much more likely to be sited in poor and minority neighbourhoods. So it is not surprising that even democratic governments who can legitimately appeal to the public interest are vulnerable to political resentment from those who lose out from Covid risk rationing, especially as time passes and their costs mount.


Governments pass from being seen as saviours into callous and arbitrary gatekeepers controlling who gets access to the suddenly precious domain of business as usual. People lose their jobs and fear losing their homes; business owners lose their shirts; families lose the chance to say goodbye to dying relatives; and so on just because of the rules set by the government. Set us free! they cry. 

Covid can’t be worse than this! Ironically, this challenge is only possible because of the success that Covid risk rationing achieved in preventing far more infections and deaths. It thus invokes the paradox of expertise in which the absence of catastrophe counts as evidence that there was no real catastrophe to evade, rather than as evidence that it has successfully been evaded by following the experts’ advice (elsewhere).

Sunday, October 18, 2020

How Myths take root and are difficult to shift

The beauty of a book with large print is that it’s easy to go back and read – and that’s what I’ve been doing today with Bregman’s “Humankind – a hopeful history”. I also wanted to check out some references and landed up with some good material, including an interview and a discussion between Bregman and Steve Pinker.

But the main focus has been one of my famous tables which I’ve used to build a map of the various “research myths” about human nature which Bregman identified during the course of his writing – I’ve identified more than 20

I draw two conclusions from my rereading -

- first that, once a myth takes root, it’s very difficult to shift. The media don’t like revisionism and never give equal space or time to something that challenges the conventional wisdom – particularly if it seems to contain a positive message.

- second that most people are fairly decent – but power corrupts ie the evil is in those with power and the battalions of police, soldiers, spies and bureaucrats they control

Here’s Bregman with a couple of comments on two of the experiments -

     The Stanford experiement

RB: Then many of these students said that they didn’t want to do it. They didn’t want to do it because they said: No, that’s not who I am. Then Zimbardo said: You got to do this because I need these results, then we can go to the press and say look, prisons are horrible environments. We need to reform the whole thing. That was actually a movement in the 60s where people said, you know, we got to abolish prisons totally.

And the terrible irony of this movement, which, and Zimbardo was part of that as well, is that it was  then later used by conservatives to say, oh, well, if prisons you know don’t work at all, if rehabilitation is not an option, then, you know, let’s just throw people in prison and throw away the key, right? Let’s just lock people up for life, because then that’s the only option. It’s a history full of dark ironies.

But yeah, the Stanford Prison Experiment is — I think it can only be described as a hoax and it’s very sad that this has been taught to students for 50 years.


The Milgram shocks

RB; It’s a problematic experiment as well. The archives have opened up, again, and we now know that many of the subjects didn’t believe the situation was real. And we also know that the people who went all the way, to give 450 volt shocks, yeah, the chance that they would do that was higher if they didn’t believe the whole thing was real. Maybe it was not 65 percent, as Milgram initially reported, maybe it was 50 percent, or 40, or 30, but it’s still way too high. It’s still a very dark and sinister experiment that shows that, indeed, friendly people can do this.

But I do think the experiment needs to be reinterpreted. So Milgram made the argument that people became sort of rigid robots, that they just blindly followed orders, just as many Germans said after the war, you know, “I was just following orders.”

But I think what really happened in that experiment was something different. It was about joining; it was about followership. It was about people wanting to help the scientist, and yes, sort of feeling part of his group — which is not a comfortable message, right? It’s not a comfortable message at all. We talked earlier about, you know, how so often we do the most horrible things in the name of loyalty and friendship. And I think that’s also how we should interpret this experiment.

 And then the table



Initial thesis

Revised analysis

Bombing of German cities

It would lower civilian morale

It boosted morale

Hurricane Katrina


Social breakdown

Social support strong

“mean world syndrome”

The world is getting worse

Stephen Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature” tells us that past 70 years have been much less violent. It’s the media that stirs our pessimism and cynicism

Homo economicus


People are selfish

They are altruistic and cooperative

Veneer theory of civilisation


“Only recently have scientists concluded that the grim view of humanity needs revision” p19

“The Selfish Gene”

Richard Dawkins original book

Which he later disowned

Lord of the Flies

Even kids are aggressive

The original boys in Golding’s story actually rewarded cooperation

Friendly foxes

Darwinian selection rewards aggression

Russian geneticist demonstrating selection breeds friendly foxes

Cannibalistic apes

Aggression is inbuilt

Pinker wrong about  violence of hunter-gatherers

“Soldiers who don’t shoot”

Fighting is natural

Only about 15% of soldiers fire their rifles

“The curse of civilisation”

When ice retreated, farming became possible and progress started

Settled life was labour-intensive; possessions and leadership developed – sickness and violence started

“The Mystery of Easter Island”

Large statues were rolled into place with logs – requiring chopping down of forests – people then turned on one another (Mulloy 1974)

Duly repeated in J Diamond’s “Collapse” (2005).

 Reality was that rats destroyed the forests and western ships brought slavery and plague

Stanford University

1971 experiment - Students separated into prisoners and jailors and role-played – with sadism and violence resulting

When students protested they were told that results needed to prove that prisons didn’t work. Zimbardo published that research in 1973. Martinsen then pushed that thesis – with strong media support – although his subsequent retraction got no publicity

Stanley Milgram’s shock machine

1961 experiment which had psychology students apply ever-stronger voltage to control subjects

Follow-up research indicated that many students understood it was a mock study

38 New York Bystanders

1964 incident when a young woman loudly stabbed to death – with no one going to her rescue.

A few days later, the  killer was apprehended by 2 bystanders

Experiment confirmed there was a “bystander effect” when people thought that others would deal with sit.

No media reported fact that it was 2 bystanders who caught the killer

Meta analysis pub in 2011. In 90% of cases people help!

The “Broken Windows” theory

James Q Wilson started this with a 1982 article in The Atlantic which was taken up by Mayor Giuliana and police Commissioner Bratton

A 2015 meta-analysis disproved a theory which had cops arresting anyone for minor felons. Demographic trends were the basic cause of the decline in crime. Arguably the strategy has led to racial profiling and increased police aggression

German fighting zeal in 2nd WW

Janowitz and Shils discover that German soldiers fight for camaraderie

But outsiders don’t count

95% of soldier deaths in 2nd WW were from “distance” weapons

The Pygmalion effect

Humans can and should be classified into positive and negative categories

Expectations are self-reinforcing - it’s the basis of theory X and theory Y schools of management. If you assume people are lazy, they will prove you  right – and vv

Monetary rewards can demotivate

People need financial rewards to achieve

Edward Deci has demonstrated that bonuses are generally perverse

The tragedy of the commons

G Harin wrote an article with this title in 1968 which argued that people abused common land eg overgrazing

Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel prize in 2009 for proving him wrong – starting with a famous Workshop in 1973 to study the “commons” and her 1990 book “Governing the Commons”

Norway’s prisons

The US incarcerates about 10 times more people in prisons than the average country

Norway’s low recidivism rates demonstrate a better way

Drinking tea with terrorists

Heavy prion sentences are the normal recourse

Dutch and Danish treatment show there is a more effective way

 Further Reading

One of the most serious and systematic reviews of any book I have ever encountered - https://www.academia.edu/43631182/On_Rutger_Bregmans_Humankind_Minor_revisions_22_September_2020_


Bregman and Pinker discussion https://thepanpsycast.com/panpsycast2/episode80-1

The Power Paradox -