"What is a system? A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. The aim of the system must be clear to everyone in the system. The aim must include plans for the future. The aim is a value judgment. (We are of course talking here about a man-made system.) (…) It is important that an aim never be defined in terms of a specific activity or method. It must always relate to a better life for everyone." – W. Edwards Deming

Last week we digressed about the preponderance of a materialist culture in our world, although, as we mentioned, it's been a recurring topic throughout human history. The key issue however, is that the shift in our mindset coupled with the reach and intensity of modern civilization changes the scale and depth of these disruptions. Indeed, in the past, civilizations grew, over-extended themselves and collapsed locally. Now, for the first time in human history, the whole world is threatened by our actions.

Consumerism, which by definition is "a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts", is quite the opposite of what centuries of various religions and philosophies have tried to moderate in human nature. Instead, we are actively promoting it: desire is no longer a plague, but the unacknowledged centre of our private lives.

The obvious dangers raised are the intrinsic unsustainability of such system, the creeping destruction of our environment, and the rise of hyper-individualism, which implies a gradual decline of the ability to organize politically. Indeed, the failure of the left to come up with an inspiring vision following the Great Financial Crisis is rather troubling, but there is more than that.

The race to the bottom of companies to excite and then answer the insatiable desire of consumers have gradually shifted production to low labour costs countries, while the rising wealth and education has increased the tertiary sector's share of working population to unprecedented highs. Add up globalization and new information technologies and you end up with the perfect mix: a working class under pressure and a disconnected white collar class afraid to lose its comfortable position.

Along with this process, our vocabulary changed (if not voluntarily distorted), and with it our ability to assess, analyse and offer solutions to our problems. Moral problems are now legal problems. Good and bad have been over-simplified to financial costs analysis, and thus everything must now have a price, starting with global warming. Unknowingly, we have reduced our vision of the world -and ourselves- to a very narrow definition: that of a closed system in which everything is shrunk to its financial value.

The implicit yet pervasive message throughout media and culture is that we are now all cogs in a system which is deemed too complex for citizens to understand and must therefore be left to deal with by specialists. Although it is true that a technologically advanced and globalized world is complex, this should not be a reason for 'specialists' (often with not-so-well-hidden conflicts of interest) to claim sole ability for management.

Because by invoking complexity, specialists have snatched democracy away. The majority is now managed (not led) by a minority of well off, educated, and powerful people with a peculiar vision of society and incentives quite different from the rest of their citizens.

Still, their argument is very powerful: if the system doesn't work, it is not because of its structure, but because people are not doing what they are expected to do: keep training, accept lower wages, work longer hours… We are too expensive, too organized, too greedy, too educated, too poor, too young or too old. We need to be more 'flexible' in a 'dynamic' job market. And if you are not happy, look at what the developing countries are doing, that should give you a good reason to be thankful for your current position/salary/working conditions.

When things go wrong, we are told the 'system' (or foreigners once we reached acute stage) is to blame. But because of the changes in the structure of the economy, of our ability to think, and of our culture, we are unable to organize or even envision an alternative. Yet staying on the same path will most likely lead to massive disruptions.

The recent demonstration against global warming was a good first step, but we now need to gather momentum to put changes into effect. If global warming is the most potent threat to our world, let societies debate at the lowest and highest places of what it means politically, economically and environmentally. People are the most powerful tool against daily life waste while the state must pass laws to anticipate the future disruptions. After all, we're all in this together.

Science, General Knowledge & Environment

The Case for Delayed Adulthood – (Hat tip CO) – "Indeed, those who can prolong adolescence actually have an advantage, as long as their environment gives them continued stimulation and increasing challenges."

Death, drones and driverless cars: how Google wants to control our lives – “Look, it’s the most interesting company in the world, but it’s still a company. It won’t always be working in the public interest. And that’s OK: companies don’t always work in our interest. Once we recognise that these companies are not our protectors, we can approach them reasonably, and find the right political framework for the next Google or Facebook eventually to rise and replace the current ones.

Climate Change Is an Opportunity to Dramatically Reinvent the Economy – "Changing the Earth’s climate in ways that will be incontrovertibly disastrous seems to be easier to accept than the prospect of altering the fundamental, growth-based, profit-seeking logic of capitalism."

World population to hit 11bn in 2100 – with 70% chance of continuous rise – "“There is now a strong argument that population should return to the top of the international agenda. Population is the driver of just about everything else and rapid population growth can exacerbate all kinds of challenges.” Lack of healthcare, poverty, pollution and rising unrest and crime are all problems linked to booming populations."

To Save the Planet, Don’t Plant Trees – (Hat tip CO) – "Planting trees and avoiding deforestation do offer unambiguous benefits to biodiversity and many forms of life. But relying on forestry to slow or reverse global warming is another matter entirely."

The Great Frack Forward – Fracking in China "You've got this 'damn the torpedoes' development strategy that sets out all sorts of quotas, expectations, and productivity targets that are not constrained or balanced in any way by environmental protection or public participation to hold people to account."

What We’re Afraid to Say About Ebola – (Hat tip Gatoune) – "The current Ebola virus’s hyper-evolution is unprecedented; there has been more human-to-human transmission in the past four months than most likely occurred in the last 500 to 1,000 years. Each new infection represents trillions of throws of the genetic dice."

History & Geopolitics

Scotland’s Independence Vote Shows a Global Crisis of the Elites – (Hat tip CO) – "The details of the policy mistakes are different, as are the political movements that have arisen in protest. But together they are a reminder that no matter how entrenched our government institutions may seem, they rest on a bedrock assumption: that the leaders entrusted with power will deliver the goods."

Scotland’s No echoes Europe’s Yes to grand coalitions – (Hat tip CO) – "The right response is for the centrists to join forces, hard though it is to bury their ancestral rivalries."

Xi who must be obeyed – (Hat tip CO) – "Mao pushed China to the brink of social and economic collapse, and Deng steered it on the right economic path but squandered a chance to reform it politically. If Mr Xi used his power to reform the way power works in China, he could do his country great good. So far, the signs are mixed."

The power of Xi Jinping – (Hat tip CO) – "Mr Rittenberg, Mao’s former interpreter, says that promoting a single popular figure may have been a deliberate strategy of the party elite, in the hope that such a politician could more effectively carry out the difficult economic and social reforms which Mr Xi says are needed."

Centripetal and Centrifugal Forces at Work in the Nation-State – "Historically, when Han China is strong, so is its control over these buffer regions. Control of the buffer regions, in turn, is a key precondition for a strong and secure Han China. This arrangement will become crucial as Beijing grapples with the potential challenges in the social, economic and political transformation in the Han core in the coming years."

‘Some May Welcome 6/4-Style Crackdown on HK’ says China Uncensored – [Video] (Hat tip Lu Do) – "In this latest episode of the Middle Kingdom’s answer to The Daily Show, China Uncensored, Chris Chappell shares a theory that Jiang Zemin loyalists in China’s Communist Party want to see a sequel to the Tiananmen crackdown unfold in Hong Kong… Another catastrophic 6/4-style crackdown would force Xi’s faction from power, allowing the Jiang camp to take regain power, according to Chappell."

South China Sea: Still no evidence of historical Chinese claims – "Rectifying this situation would require proof of actual acts of sovereignty demonstrated by agents of governments. It is my contention that these do not exist on the Chinese side before June 6, 1909, in the case of the Paracels and December 12, 1946, in the Spratlys."

Finance & Economics

Pay pressure – (Hat tip CO) – "From a cosmopolitan perspective, stagnation of wages and incomes among people who are relatively well off may be a small price to pay for the massive growth in incomes of much poorer groups in Asia. Politically, though, it is a big problem."

The short-sighted US buyback boom – (Hat tip CO) – "Since the fashion for buybacks took off, average corporate pay has risen to more than 300 times average earnings (up from a multiple of 20 times in the 1970s), while median wages have stagnated. Meanwhile, corporate taxes keep dwindling as a share of federal revenues."

Number of the day: "In order to grow food, humans have changed about 50 percent of the earth’s surface area from native forests and grasslands to crops, pasture and wood harvest."

Picture of the day: Images from NASA


Written by Carlito

About Carlito Riego

"Great perfection may appear imperfect, but its usefulness is inexhaustible. Great abundance may appear empty, but its usefulness cannot be exhausted. Great correctness may appear twisted, great skills appear crude, great eloquence appear awkward. Activity conquers cold; inactivity conquers heat. Clear serenity governs the world." - Lao Zi