Newsletter winter 2006
See below: Mobile phones and fundamentalism.
A brief history of new economics
New economics is emerging as a discipline in its own right – a critique of conventional economics that sees no further than money. But it does have a history which goes back to Ruskin and before, as I wrote in the new economics foundation’s new booklet Are You Happy?
Why centralisers hate history
The memory of the local philanthropist William Stanley is being excised by developers and officials from Norwood in south London. Why does this happen? Is it because the mere idea of local history, and therefore local variation, scares those who are responsible for the centralisation of corporate and government power?
The real cost of closing post offices
Every urban post office that is closed will deprive the local ward economy of about £300,000 a year, according to new research by the new economics foundation, linked to my Hometown programme there, which quantifies for the first time the contribution that they make in some of the most deprived area of the UK.
The top 100 eco-heroes of all time
The Environment Agency has published a full list in Your Environment to coincide with its tenth birthday. Rachel Carson came top and E. F. Schumacher second. I contributed the essay on Schumacher.
Mobile phones and fundamentalism
Of all the predictions for the year ahead none quite took the breath away like those of the philosopher Daniel Denett. More information over the next decade or so, he said, downloadable via mobile phones and the internet, would lead to the end of religion and other pieces of what Richard Dawkins calls “superstitious juvenilia”.
Many of the predictions by scientists in Edge magazine had a similar edge of silliness which betrayed a naïve faith that technology would be the saviour of mankind. Why is it that scientists, and particular the fervent atheists among them, so misunderstand the way technology develops?
It seems pretty obvious to those of us who use mobile phones that, with some exceptions, the technology is increasingly dominated by corporate interests which prefer to keep us stupid.
To be fair, it is a naivety shared by others. I know one child in primary school who asked their teacher in a class about astronomy recently, about what the point there was in anything if the sun would eventually explode. “Good question,” they were told. “Why don’t you look up the answer on Askjeeves?”
The naïve faith of scientists is particularly worrying, because it is infectious.
For one thing, people still seem to regard the last century as a period of unprecedented change – mainly because of long-haul flights, telephones and wireless internet connections. Actually, on everything that is really vital for human survival, the twentieth century saw precious few of the urgent social innovations we need that might create peace and sustainable wealth.
Go back to London in 1907 and you’ll find the same bus routes, with much the same numbers, the same kind of hours of work, and the same number of people going to FA Cup finals (OK, in Crystal Palace in those days, big deal). Compared to the massive shift off the land in the previous century, change has actually been slowing down.
For another thing, the fervent scientific atheists are themselves contributing to the spread of fundamentalism. Thanks to them, our culture is increasingly uncomfortable with any kind of truth that isn’t unambiguously material.
In Climbing Mount Improbable (1997), Dawkins starts off by complaining about a lecture he attended on the literature of figs, in which the lecturer made the mistake of referring to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve: “The speaker obviously knew that there never was a Garden of Eden, never a tree of knowledge of good and evil,” he writes. “So what was he actually trying to say?”
When people are encouraged to believe that the only things worth saying are scientific – deriding any truth but the literal – they don’t just condemn symbolic, philosophical, moral or historical discussions, like neo-puritans. Nor do they just limit how we can talk about life. Nor do they just bang the drum for atheism, as they believe they intend. They encourage a creeping fundamentalism in all areas. They are lining up behind those who peddle a similar kind of narrow, intolerant religious truth.
If you follow these rigorous materialists too far, our national life will be shorn of mystery, paradox, poetry, symbol, myth and much of what makes life meaningful.