Assisted Dying – my thoughts on the subject

The right to consume clickbaity outrage news on the internet, with peace and dignity

Some current affairs topics refuse to go away. They start as a minor irritation you scroll past in the online media. Then they develop into a more serious outbreak, covering the news in debilitating fashion. Every poorly informed article or overwrought tweet causes you throbbing, continuous pain, sucking the joy out of your daily doomscroll, until the only humane solution is to seek the sweet, peaceful relief of writing your own blog post on the topic. So it is with the debate on Assisted Dying (AD).

So here goes.

At the core of the question of whether or not there should be some legal framework for Assisted Dying is one of agency. Specifically, it prompts the question: What right does an individual have to exterminate his own live?

We hold these truths to be self-evident…

It has been commonly held in Western society that a rational individual should enjoy all and any freedoms which do not directly impinge on the freedoms of others – or as a pugilistically inclined fellow student at Trinity once put it, “the limit of one man’s fist is another’s face”. It follows from this that a rational individual who wishes to commit suicide should not be held back from jumping, provided it is done in a way that minimises collateral blood splatter.

But it is in the very word ‘rational’ that the rub lies. For implicit in our understanding of what is rational is an acceptance of the root desire a human – in common with all living things – must have to continue to live. It is taken as axiomatic that life, above all, craves its own continuance. We see it in every ant, every garden weed, every government agency. So the wisdom holds that he who would go against this most basic instinct has lost his mind, and therefore can no longer be presumed to enjoy the freedoms we allow to ‘rational’ individuals – it’s padded cells and happy pills for you, dear chap.

Don’t jump!…

This paternalism for the suicidal is not beyond criticism – at very least it should be clear that the policy is predicated on the assumption that a determined self-destroyer will always retain sufficient sovereignty to carry out the act, irrespective of the rules. We don’t so much prohibit suicide, as deny freedom to those who have engaged in clumsy attempts at self-harm. Still, the policy enjoys wide public support and a long tradition in almost all Western countries.

In this context, I can’t help but marvel at the incongruity between a system that would at once lock away one set of people for the sin of wanting to end their own lives, while at the same time creating the legal space, in some cases even taxpayer-funded, to provide the practical means for a different set of people to end theirs. A physically healthy 18 year old who tells her therapist she wants to kill herself can be committed to prevent self-harm; but if she waits forty years and can prove she has some chronic pain, the same doctors will stick the death serum in her arm.

…no wait, your life really sucks. Jump!

To square this circle, society must make some judgement of when and under which conditions the desire for suicide can be considered ‘rational’. If you have a healthy young body, you’d have to be crazy to want to destroy it. If you’re body is covered in wrinkles and riddled with cancer, you might just have a point. In other words, we must make an evaluation of what is the value of residual life.

Who precisely makes this evaluation and under which criteria? This is not a trivial question, neither in law nor in moral reasoning. Health economics has some tools to value life, notably the concept of a Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs), which are used to determine objective thresholds for the approval and administration of expensive treatments. But these are blunt tools. Using them to set solid benchmarks for AD is anything but straightforward. Even if it were possible to decide how much remaining life is enough to force someone to live it, the thornier question of how much suffering a person should be expected to endure during that period cannot be answered with statistical tools alone.

Nine out of ten doctors agree … with whatever pays their golf club membership dues

And so most AD regimes rely on the opinion of two medical experts, and some round concepts to do with ‘chronic pain’ or ‘terminal illness’ (being born is a terminal illness, but okay…) Here we are far from out of the woods – opponents of AD point to the risk of slippage, the arbitrary nature of medical opinion, and the influence greedy heirs or a cash-strapped healthcare system might put on an fragile, elderly patient who doesn’t “want to be a burden”. If we are killing impoverished, unemployed 45 year olds, depressed because they can’t pay their rent, how far have we come from the ‘peace and dignity’ the Death Serum Dispensers promised our beloved parents would be free to choose?

You can’t place a value on something unless you know what it is for

But the thing I find most interesting in the AD debate is not where or how this line is drawn, but rather what the line itself tells us about our society. The very act of valuing the quality of residual human life reveals something fundamental about what we see as the purpose of life itself.

In those distant times before social media, a majority of Westerners still did not consider that they had come to earth in order to seek happiness. Looking further back into the pre-history of the 20th Century and before, much of our Judaeo-Christian theology exhorts us to treat such indulgences as sinful. We are here, so the stoic reasoning goes, in order to suffer, to cleanse our spirits and prepare for a higher state of being in the next life. A painful exit from this world was a cleansing one; the peace ultimately achieved all the more divine.

But increasingly, it is hedonism that underpins our culture now. We live for no higher purpose than the pleasure of our own flesh. It follows that pain is abhorrent and must be avoided at all costs. As that flesh fails, and the possibility of pleasuring it recedes, there can be no reason for a hedonist to keep living. Of course, this is itself a pernicious death spiral, because hedonism is too shallow a philosophy to provide any meaningful fulfillment, especially for those who suffer the kinds of trauma that make superficial happiness appear elusive. This is why more and more young people are turning to depression, medication and ultimately, to the Assisted Dying solutions that, a decade ago, would have landed them in a mental hospital. No one is even inviting them to think about changing their world view from self-absorbed hedonism, to living a life in service of others.

I just want the Almighty to have the right to die with dignity

However, I remain an optimist. Contrary to Nietzsche’s assertions, rumours of God’s death are greatly exaggerated. He might be chronically pained to see the sorry state of our culture. It might even seem like He is terminally ill. But I’m not ready to sign off on His dose of death serum quite yet. So I’ll put my back behind stopping this Assisted Dying madness.

And I will remain a believer in life – the fun & quirky; the hard & ugly; the warts, the cancer cells and all.

The Parable of the Twin Kingdoms

Once upon a time, there was a fair, prosperous land known as the Twin Kingdoms. It was so named because it was divided neatly in two halves by a swift river. These two halves were left by the dying king to his twin sons – the right half to Prince Cleo and the left half to Prince Tharm. The King thought both to be strong, honest rulers, who loved each other and their subjects. Their father had fought many wars to bring them peace and prosperity, and both princes swore to him they would work to protect it.

When it came time to marry, Prince Cleo searched wide and long, threw many balls, until finally he made his choice: Hannelore – she was neither the wealthiest, nor the wisest, nor the fairest of the maidens in his realm, but rather was a good mix of all these things together. She loved her fiancé and he loved her.

When the banns were announced, his brother Tharm – full of love – embraced Cleo and wished him every happiness. However, as the wedding day grew nearer, Tharm began to have jealous thoughts, for he had yet to find a bride of his own. The night of the wedding, when all were dancing in celebration of Cleo and Hannelore, Tharm’s eye fell upon a lesser nobleman’s daughter – frail as a flower and as beautiful as a whole bouquet. Prince Tharm danced with her for so long that the noblewomen all took note. Her name was Mischa, and her beauty far surpassed that of Hannelore’s.

That very night, just before the newlyweds departed to their honeymoon, Prince Tharm stumbled atop a table, took a draft from his ale and declared aloud that he too had found a bride. He lifted the frail Mischa up in his strong arms and she blushed as he kissed her full on the lips. The crowd erupted in applause, and declared this the most joyful night in the history of the Twin Kingdoms. Only Cleo and Hannelore, who had grown in each other’s confidence through their long courtship, exchanged a quick glance of concern.

For many long years thereafter, all seemed well in the Twin Kingdoms. The harvests were good and the Twin Kings, as they were now known, made good on their promise to rule wisely and selflessly. Queen Hannelore bore Cleo seven children – and after each new prince or princess had come, Queen Mischa seemed to follow, as if to preserve the balance, or perhaps to compete.

Then one year, when winter fell, a violent storm swept across the Twin Kingdoms, uprooting trees and sending them hurtling down the river, destroying the bridge that linked the the Left Kingdom with the Right. Both Kings took action, riding out into the storm with their bravest men to secure the granaries, save the flocks and lead the peasants to safety. Queen Hannelore sat in her high tower, comforting the infant prince at her chest, while the other children gathered about her.

Suddenly, there was a fluttering at the tower window. A crow entered the chamber and to Hannelore’s astonishment, it transformed into a woman – tall, unnaturally pure and pale, with jet black hair and black eyes to match her long black velvet dress.

“Fear not, O Queen,” spoke the witch (for Hannelore knew it could be nothing else, and drew her children protectively around her. “I come with ill tidings, but I come also with a gift.”

“I want none of your tidings,” replied Hannelore. “Still less do I want your gifts. Leave now before I call the palace guards.”

But the witch continued as if she had not heard this. “The good harvests are over. Now disease and famine will come to the Twin Kingdoms.” She paused and cast her jet black eyes over the seven children gathered at the mother’s feet. “Many of the young will die and your own children will not be spared. Unless…” Here she drew from within her sleeve a vial, containing a shimmering colourful liquid. “…you accept to have them take this potion, which protects from all disease and will guarantee them long years of life.”

The thought of saving her children made Hannelore pause. “And what would you ask in return?”

“Nothing at all.” replied the witch. “Only that you hold me in better regard, for I wish to be a friend of the Twin Kingdoms.”

However, Queen Hannelore had grown wise. She knew that nothing was given for nothing. “Guards!” she called, and in a moment the doors flew open and the King’s men entered with halberds at the ready. The witch gave a ghastly cry, smashing the vial of potion on the floor and jumping out the window into the storm before the guards could reach her.

When the storm lifted, the Twin Kings saw that much of their Kingdoms had been laid to ruin. The winter that followed was long and hard, with snows lasting well into June. Just as the witch had foretold, hunger took hold of the Kingdoms, and disease began to spread, taking the weakest to their graves. One by one, Queen Hannelore’s seven children fell ill, and though she tended them with the greatest of care and devotion, all died, save the youngest prince, who bore his father’s name. This young Prince Cleo already resembled his father, and as the hard years went on, he grew to be a strong man in his own right; ever serving the Kingdom, ever by his father’s side.

Things were very different in Left Kingdom, however. To everyone’s astonishment, Queen Mischa survived the disease despite her frailty, and so did all seven of her princely children, and many others in her court besides. As the years went on, Cleo and Hannelore were made less and less welcome in King Tharm’s Court, though the witch was often seen there. Worse, rumours were spread among the common folk that Hannelore had denied them a great potion, and that they had suffered needlessly because of her vanity. Distrust was sown across the mighty river and the work to repair the storm-damaged bridge came to a halt.

When the springs came early again, and the summers once more grew long, King Cleo and his son crossed the river to meet Tharm and make common plans for a harvest. To his astonishment, he found his brother asleep, slouched in his throne and uninterested in making any plans.

“I have ceded my power to the Council of Seven Children. Together with their many advisors, they rule the Left Kingdom in my name.” He pointed to a long table set on a pedestal above the throne. At it were seated Prince Cleo’s seven cousins, four sickly girls and three weak, simpering boys. The heads of the princess and princes seemed hardly able to support the weight of their crowns. Behind each, a magistrate stood, wearing a heavy golden chain. At the head of the table sat the witch, smiling darkly. Behind her, in an attitude of fear, cowered Queen Mischa.

“Cousins,” Prince Cleo declared, for he had gone to the table already. “Our moment has come. Our fathers the Kings depend on us to resow the crops. To rebuild the granaries. To bring prosperity back to our people.”

“Many decisions to be made…” one of them muttered, while a magistrate whispered into her ear. “We must consider that the people are so very tired.”

“We cannot ask too much of them,” another said, appearing to repeat the words of her own magistrate.

“But work they must!” cried Prince Cleo.

“There must be equity. For on this side of the Twin Kingdoms, we are righteous,” another cousin answered, taking a sip from a vial of potion that lay before him. “Whereas your mother chose to let many die, we bear the responsibility for those who have lived and must now be kept safe.”

“And because your half of the Kingdom is strong. You must come to our aid,” the witch spoke at last. “For here, on our side, we cannot sustain ourselves. Ever have the Twin Kingdoms acted as one. You must start by rebuilding the bridge, so that grain can be brought in aid of our sick and our weak.”

Now the witch had lost her unnatural sheen and her pale face peeled away into yellow scabs. Prince Cleo grew angry at the sight of her. “By whose authority do you dare address orders to a Prince, you withered hag?”

“By the authority of the king!” It was King Tharm who spoke these words, roused from his throne below the Council Table. Prince Cleo looked to the table and saw now that each of his seven cousins had before them a vial of potion, from which they constantly took little sips.

“Be merciful nephew,” Queen Mischa spoke timidly, “Without the aid of her magic, they would soon die. She commands us now.”

Prince Cleo was enraged. His strong body flew into action, drawing a great long-sword from its scabbard. But as he lifted the blade to cut the hag’s head from her shoulders, his father the King stayed his arm and led his son away.

King Cleo and Prince Cleo sailed from the Left Kingdom back to the Right. The bridge was never rebuilt and the two Kingdoms grew ever apart – the Right one grew prosperous and stronger; the Left one slowly died, being sickly and false.

The Climate Consensus: reasons to be sceptical

Before Covid, I had a high degree of confidence in the scientific consensus around climate change – i.e. I believed the scientists who said that climate change was real and was primarily caused by human activity. I even read some of the IPCC policy summary documents – notably this one. My faith in science-flavoured policy institutions like the IPCC was in large part owed to my status as an educated, middle class person, with employment and a social set in the same milieu.

It took Covid, and the destastrous string of wrong-headed policy decisions that followed – from community masking to lockdowns to vaxxine passports – for my faith to be forever shaken. I have filed for divorce from ‘the Science’.

What does ‘the Science’ really say?

And so I have now re-read the policy summary, with a more critical eye. When I do so, it’s quite shocking how weak the evidence for anthropogenic climate change actually is, and to which lengths the rapporteurs go to mislead on the strength of the evidence. Essentially, the evidence for greenhouse-gas driven climate change boils down to:

  1. Measures of temperature: They measure the temperature and indeed, find that with very high confidence, the Earth is getting warmer.
  2. Measures of concentrations of certain atmospheric gases: Notably CO2, Methane and NO. These too, can be measured with high confidence. There are more of these gases in the atmosphere now than at any time in the Earth’s history, though they are still very rare compared to NItrogen, Oxygen and Argon, which together account for 99.5% of the atmosphere.
  3. A concept of ‘Radiative Forcing’ as applied to greenhouse gases (GHGs), which provides a theoretically link between (1) and (2), i.e. which measures the extent to which changes in (2) can cause (1).

So that might look like a slam-dunk case, until you think about what is really being said – and what is ‘not’ being said. Sure GHGs can have an effect on surface temperatures, but what else causes radiative forcing? Three things, it turns out, and the least important of them is GHGs. First on the list – and this should surprise absolutely no one – is the heating effect of the sun (Solar irradiance).

The glowing hot Elephant in the room

Essentially the sun is the reason why we are not a barren, icy rock floating in space. The magnitude of the sun’s energy is so great that if it were to be switched off, the average surface temperature on Earth would fall to -17 degrees celsius in just a week – almost all life would be extinguished. Within a year, it would be -73 degrees, an unimaginably cold temperature.

The IPCC report makes a brief mention of Solar Irradiance, suggesting a positive change in SI contributes only minimally to global warming, essentially because the amount of variation is thought to be very, very low. The problem here, is that, given the size of the effect of solar irradiance, even small errors in the measurement or composition of the sun’s energy can overpower the effects of greenhouse gas concentrations in determining overall temperature change – by an order of magnitude. So a really KEY question in all of climate science must be, how accurately can we measure solar irradiance?

Sceptics will not be surprised to discover that the answer is, in fact, ‘not accurately at all’. This very readable Nature paper has all the details, but the upshot is that you can’t really measure SI from Earth, because the atmosphere gets in the way. You can try to measure it from space, but unfortunately space also gets in the way – high-energy particles, outgassing and optics damage all mean that the data has to be ‘adjusted’ to create anything like a time series. A number of space-based measurement exercises have been undertaken, starting in 1985, but each with different techniques and equipment. In other words, we have no idea if the amount of solar irradiance has been increasing or decreasing over the time period in which the climate on Earth has been warming.

Omitting albedo from the models reflects badly on ‘the Science’

The second most important cause of radiative forcing is albedo, or ‘reflectiveness’. The more reflective the Earth’s surface, the more sunlight ‘bounces’ off the planet and goes back out into space. The less reflective, the more sunlight is absorbed and turned into heat energy when it hits a terrestrial surface. Some surfaces are very reflective – like deserts, snowscapes, still lakes and the tops of clouds. Others are less reflective, like forests, urban environments and oceans. Needless to say, constructing a model with anything like accuracy that takes these effects into account is a data scientist’s worst nightmare – the risks of model misspecification or data error are enormous. In fairness, ‘the Science’ doesn’t even claim to understand clouds, much less cloud albedo, because they know that we all know how rubbish the weather forecasts are one week out – not to mention fifty years out.

The IPCC report does mention albedo as an offsetting effect in relation to aerosols, but fails to provide context as to just how much uncertainty there is in taking account of these effects. For example, how much does global warming increase cloud cover? Or: is deforestation increasing albedo and contributing to cooling? What about desertification? Not covered by the IPCC because the answer is, they simply don’t know.

The big point here is: if you are going to include radiative forcing in the model for the GHGs, you need to consider all the ways in which the Earth’s atmosphere gets and retains heat. Otherwise, what you are left with is a casual correlation between an observed increase in temperatures and a rise in GHG concentrations since pre-industrial times. We are reminded that correlation is not causation.

Is global warming causing GHG emissions?

For one thing, it may be the exact reverse. We see increasing temperatures from 1880 onwards, and this corresponds pretty neatly with an increase in global population.

Just compare the two graphs above, and pretend you knew nothing of the ‘climate change consensus’. Would it not make sense to say that (1) the earth starts warming (due to, say, increased solar irradiance), (2) more heat makes the planet more livable for large animals like us, so our population goes up, and (3) with more of us around, we burn more fossil fuels making CO2 and trace gases in the atmosphere rise?

It might seem like hubris that I – who has never studied atmospheric science or indeed any hard science – should dare to think I could understand these phenomena better than the many bright researchers whose business it is to do just that. The fact is, I actually don’t consider myself any smarter than all of these people, and certainly not the best of them, and in an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to even try. The lessons from Covid, however, is that there are three good reasons why all the climate scientists could form a consensus so wrong-headed that even humble Graham can formulate a clearer understanding:

Undiagnosed irrationality.

Human beings are deeply irrational, a fact which societies of the past understood and made a functional part of their world view. There is no zealot more dangerous than the one who believes that he is above belief. Whereas a hundred years ago, most Christian priests understood that the spiritual realm was defined along a separate axis to the scientific one (and respected that other realm as distinct from their own), the condition of ‘the Science’ today is that its adherents are unaware of their own proclivity for myth-making. They treat articles of faith as if they were fact, because they lack a place to safely park their own irrationality.

This creates a dangerous culture of cognitive bias. Dogma, by its nature, is beyond questioning. We saw this clearly in Covid, where many scientists and doctors were afraid to challenge the ‘safe and effective’ mantra. Even today, with excess deaths for cardiovascular disease continuing at unprecedented levels, the mainstream cling to an irrational belief in their vaxxine theology.


The lumping in of climate anxiety with other tenants of contemporary ‘woke’ orthodoxy, such as trans-activism or critical race theory, is a favourite trope of the right. Yet, there is something to be said for the role of post-modernism in all of these trends. Post-modernism is the philosophical belief that reality is a social construct and therefore independent of objective truth. I and others have argued that this belief flourishes in developed countries today because so many people have been freed from the immediate constraints of the physical world by the luxury of their well-catered urban lifestyles. It is precisely here that we have a tie-in to climate activism.

Much of the ‘science’ around anthropogenic climate change reposes on an assumption that humans possess absolute mastery over the physical world. If you are an apartment-dwelling urbanite for whom food comes from a restaurant or an express supermarket, and water comes purified out of a pipe or a plastic bottle, you could be forgiven for believing this to be true.

Therefore climate activism, as a faith system, reposes on the idea that ‘we’ have the power to change everything, including the temperature of the planet. The idea that the massive ball of heat in the sky above us, infinitely more powerful than anything we could ever produce, is the true master of our climatic fate, goes against this world view, just as it is anathema to post-modernism that you are born into a sex, which is determined by God/nature and is immutable. How easy, therefore, to downplay the role of solar irradiation (outside our control) in favour of GHGs (something we can control).


Simply put, academia is not what it used to be, back when only a handful of really smart people got to do it. Not alone does mass access to higher education reduce the average IQs of those with university degrees, I have argued that the very process of educating someone beyond their cognitive abilities leads to a reduction in their capacity to engage in critical thought. Increasingly, the scientific consensus to which the IPCC and policymakers like to refer, is created among these very people whose qualifications are not a result of intellectual merit, but rather is owed to the fact that, at age 18, they had both middle class parents and a distaste for any kind of manual labour.

Critical thought is beyond them. Even where the predominant ‘Science’ is patently in error, these young overeducated bourgeois lack the mental faculties and the tools to challenge it. What kind of a consensus are they likely to form, and why on Earth should the rest of us trust it?

Lenten wishes – my 16th letter to you

My dear son,

We are in the final week of Lent, the period in the Christian calendar in which, according to the Gospel, Jesus crossed the desert to come to Jerusalem, where he would sacrifice himself for our salvation.

Lent is a time to reflect and look inwards. To pause and think about the journey we are on. When I do so, I always think about you Daniel. I think about the years we have not been able to spend together, all the things I would have taught you and the fun we never had together.

But more than anything, I reflect on the future. Lent will not last forever. One day, Jesus came out of the desert and walked into the city. People laid palms at his feet.

Maybe, one day, you and I will get a chance to meet and to know each other. You might find out that I am not such a bad guy after all.

I pray that it will be so.



Happy New Year (15th letter)

Hello my dear son!

Well, it is 2022 and I am in the United States, making an emergency visit to your grandfather, whom you don’t remember. But he did meet you once, when you were a tiny baby.
He’s not doing so well – he had a stroke, which is like a wound in your brain. He can’t walk and his speech is slurred. But the doctors think he could make a recovery, with hard work and a bit of luck.

The most I can do is give him encouragement. Your sister Anna is also here, helping and just being the wonderful person she always is.

In ways, I feel very blessed.

But of course I still miss you. The fact that you were taken out of my life remains the biggest point of soreness in my heart.

But one day, sooner or later, we will meet. I am sure of it.

Meanwhile: Happy New Year, my son.



My review of John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps’

The 39 Steps (Richard Hannay, #1)The 39 Steps by John Buchan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What is the ultimate homage one can pay to an author?

Surely it is to say that his or her work, when viewed through the lens of time, has lost some of its impact on the modern audience because it has become a genre-defining cliche – done and redone by copycats, some very talented, until the novelty fades. This kind of ‘victimhood of one’s own success’ can be said of the great Alfred Hitchcock. It can be said of the classic hip hop group Public Enemy.

And it can be said of John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps’. For the contemporary reader whose appetite for vicarious thrills has been fattened on the fast food of Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer – not to mention James Bond, the antics of Richard Hannay come across as a little hammy.

For one thing, his protagonist (Richard Hannay) has a first name which doesn’t begin with J. And then, many of the plot devices – the just-in-time escapes, the ‘ordinary man antihero’, the ratcheting up of the stakes as the plot reveals – all seem rather tired. That is, until you remember that Buchan’s character was penned in 1915, at a time when writing of this kind was largely non-existant. Richard Hannay was escaping from exploding buildings long before John McClane was even Born Hard, never mind the ‘Die’ bit.

Regarding the plot of this book itself, I won’t say too much, except to note the extent to which it is pregnant with the zeitgeist of a powerful Britain, caught in the midst of the Great War. The villification of the Germans and the rabid jingoism of the Empire are anacharonisms, which, when viewed in the tail lights of the muddy, blood-soaked trenches and sour colonial legacy of racist Western powers, retain appeal only insofar as they provide us with historical context.

Buchan called his books ‘shockers’, which in itself sounds silly and antiquated, until you think a little on the word ‘thriller’ and realise it’s actually no less silly-sounding. As a politician and a well-known biographer, he considered his shockers among the least important of his accomplishments. And yet even in his own lifetime it was clear that this is what he would be remembered for.

I give ‘The 39 Steps’ three stars for the story in its own right, and an additional star in recognition of the many Johns, Jacks, James’ and Jasons who followed in Richard Hannay’s wake.

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Review of Philip K Dick’s “The Penultimate Truth”

The Penultimate TruthThe Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Philip K. Dick is above all a writer of ideas. To him we are indebted for some of the most innovative concepts to come out of 20th Century sci-fi. For me the debt is also personal. With the release of the movie Bladerunner, his ideas began to go mainstream at roughly the same time as I was gaining literary and creative consciousness, and so I will forever associate his work with that delicious awakening.

But ideas do not a great novel make. For that, you need other elements, such as literary craftsmanship, compelling characters and good plotting. Taking these three things in order, I have to say this book does not rise above a good C+. Most of the prose is pedestrian, relying on an overuse of adverbs and needless jargon (why robots have to be called ‘leadies’ is beyond me). Where Dick’s prose does accelerate, it becomes torturously overwrought. (Example: “Anything which might mitigate the quality striven for, that of free and easy authenticity; this simulacrum, out of all which they, the Yance-men, were involved in, required the greatest semblance of the actuality which it mimicked.”)

The characters never evolve beyond mere props; wooden actors through which the events are channelled. They are a means of telling the story. So much so that in one instance, Dick himself seems to forget whose point-of-view he is narrating, and attributes the wrong train of thought to the wrong character; an easy mistake to make when they are all essentially the same soulless person.

This leaves the plot. [Spoiler alert] In theory, plot should be the element of writing which Dick, as an ideas man, would master most easily. And indeed, in some of his best known works this is the case. But sadly, he does only half a job in The Penultimate Truth. Although the pacing is excellent and the premise is brilliant (most of humanity forced to toil away in subterranean ‘tanks’ under a false pretext), for some reason he sees fit, about halfway through the story, to introduce devices (both figuratively, as plot devices; and literally, as devices of war) which overcomplicate the story, un-suspend the reader’s disbelief and disobey the internal logic of the world he has created. The most obscene of these is time travel – a spice so pungent it can spoil the best sci-fi soup if not added with extreme caution. To top it all off, the story finishes too quickly, and without a clear resolution of the key conflict point. We (or at any rate I) don’t even understand what the meaning of the title was supposed to be, and are left with the suspicion that it was merely chosen because it would look snappy on a bookshelf.

Whatever the penultimate truth was supposed to have been, for me the ultimate truth is that this book is a disappointment to the good idea from which it was born.

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Review of Buddenbrooks

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a FamilyBuddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is an unfortunate consequence of universal education that the way we are exposed to the greatest works of literature is through prescribed school curriculae. Because no novel, no matter how good it might otherwise be, can be truly enjoyed when one has to finish writing a 1,000 word summary of chapters 12, 13 and 14 on the bus ride into school on a rainy Monday morning in February.

This, I fear, has been the experience of all too many teenage readers of Thomas Mann’s spectacular opus, Buddenbrooks, a staple of German ‘Gymnasium’ literature courses for decades. In one sense, the book does itself no favours, extending across three generations of a family of Northern German grain merchants, most of the Nineteenth Century and 750 pages. Even I, a willing reader well past his teenage years, with no exams to prepare for and no essay to write, found myself struggling at times with its length and degree of detail.

Yet there is so much to be enjoyed in Thomas Mann’s greatest novel. From a purely technical point of view, it is wonderfully crafted prose. Mann possesses that rare ability of writing third-person point-of-view narration so intimately the reader becomes immersed in characters with whom he shares neither gender, century nor social class; but with whom the bond of essential human experience generates a kinship and empathy that moves him to tears. The best passages of writing, as is so often the case in great literature, are bare, sparse, almost haphazard fragments, whose richness lies in that which they do not contain as much as what they do.

From the perspective of a 21st Century humanist, the merchantilist feudalism of the Buddenbrook family, with its disdain for social democracy and elevated sense of capitalist, Protestant morality, is anathema to our modern sensibilities, once we abstract ourselves from the narrative. But that’s just the point: Mann manages to turn you into a Buddenbrook. You care about their destiny and you feel the pain of their inevitable decline; you feel passionately they deserve their seat in the Senate of Lübeck. And you are just as envious and resentful as they are themselves, of the rise of a new generation of more vital, less traditional competitors.

There is not really much to give away in the plot which the subtitle has not already spoiled. Buddenbrooks is about the decline of a family. And yet it is about so much more. Economists and students of business studies will no doubt remember from their textbooks the reference to the ‘Buddenbooks Effect’, in which it is postulated that family businesses (or dynasties more generally) will inevitably decline over the course of a few generations. How this plays out – whether in the person of the hypochondriac Christian and his penchant for the good life, the superciliousness of his sister Antonie, the physical weakness of their brother Thomas, or the latter’s dreamy, timid and unhealthy son Hanno – teaches us not just about economics, but about our own strengths and weaknesses; or own hopes and fears of death; or own hypocritical self-righteousness and sense of family purpose.

Buddenbrooks should not be dismissed as merely a great work of German literature. It is also a damn fine read.

View all my reviews

Overpopulation and Climate Catastrophe: An economist view

If you know me or have visited this blog before, you’ll know that my book, The Hydra, is about overpopulation. In it, a scientist decides the world is so full of humans, that he must save the planet by engineering and releasing an infertility virus. I won’t give away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say as a novel it doesn’t really do much hard number crunching. It begs -but perhaps never really comprehensively answers- the crucial question: Is the world so overpopulated that we’ll destroy the planet unless we change our policy direction?

Indeed, when you discuss the issue with most people, you get lots of uninformed opinions, which range from “I think we’re all doomed, unless there’s some major war or something” to “There are definitely not too many people in the world. It’s just a question of sharing out the world’s resources fairly and investing in technology instead of war” I always find it astounding just how convinced both sides can be of their opinions, without the faintest notion of what the hard numbers are saying.

So let’s see if we can do any better. First stop, the databank of the World Bank where, after some data cleaning, we can come up with a list of useful data for the world’s countries, grouped into categories depending on how rich they are. Basically we’re looking at four things: population, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, GDP and birth/death rates, from 1960 to 2015.

What can we see from the numbers?

The first thing to look at is Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. By 2012 we humans had pumped about 567 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2) into the atmosphere since the dawn of industrialisation (1870). In 2012 alone we added 52 GtCO2 to this stock, up from an annual total of 27 in 1970. While the data are jumpy, on average, the amount of carbon we release in the atmosphere annually is growing by about 1.3% a year. Even if this pace of annual emissions growth were to fall from 1.3% to 0% a year, that would still mean we would be adding the 2012 payload of 52 GtCO2 into the atmosphere every year. If that level of emissions were to continue until 2050, that would result in an atmosphere laden with 2,572 GtCO2 released by humans. That number is so big, it is literally off the charts, as far as the climate scientists are concerned. To illustrate, I’ve made a simplified version of “the chart”, i.e. the UN’s reckoning of how cumulative emissions will raise temperatures. You can find the full chart on page 54 of this document.

The UN shows what sort of temperature changes we'll get in 2100 for given levels of emissions up to 2050
The UN shows what sort of temperature changes we’ll get in 2100 for given levels of emissions

As you can see, they don’t even consider a scenario in which we keep emitting the level of GHG which we emitted in 2012. What this is telling us is pretty clear: if we continue with business as usual, we’re going to miss the current climate targets by more than a factor of 2, resulting in massive, truly massive, changes to our climate which may well spell disaster for the planet and for us all. Now of course, nobody believes business as usual is an option, which is why we had Kyoto and then Paris and soon Marrakesh.

Linking emissions to income

Money makes the world go round. And it also determines how much GHG we put into the atmosphere. Or more precisely, the things people like to spend money on: heat, bigger houses, clothes, high-protein food, transport. The precise link between income and emissions depends on where a person is on the income scale: For very rich countries, there is already evidence of ‘decoupling’, i.e. as rich people get richer, emissions don’t increase, they actually go down. But because rich countries only account for 15% of the world’s population, that doesn’t really matter. What matters are the middle income countries, places like China and Brazil, who make up 35% of the world’s population. The 2.6 billion people living in these countries have been getting richer since 1990, and whenever they’ve got their extra cash, they’ve burned it and pumped it into the atmosphere. Here’s the chart that shows it:

This chart shows growth in GHG emissions and growth in per capita income for “Upper Middle income” countries like China and Brazil

As these countries get to the sort of income levels the rich world has already achieved (and they are well on their way) there is every reason to assume that they too will ‘decouple’ emissions from growth, but for now, they are still hungering for more of the things that make the atmosphere hot: steak, cars, swimming pools and city breaks. And this is set to go on into the foreseeable future.

The real problem, though, is the next wave of countries, the so-called “Lower Middle Income” countries like India, which as a group are home to even more homo sapiens (2.8 billion or 40% of the world’s population). If these countries grow in the same way as China and Brazil have done, it will mean even more pressure to emit.

The power of econometrics can help us to estimate this relationship, which turns out to be very well approximated by the equation [kilograms of emissions / per person] = 1090 + (0.7093)*[GDP/person] – (0.0000047025)*[GDP/person]^2 – (0.00000000010531380)*[GDP/person]^3. If you want the nerdy details of where I got this, click here, but for everyone else I’ll just summarise what this means: If you have zero income, you will still emit about 1,000 kg of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere every year. Emissions go up at about a rate of 700 grams a year for every dollar of extra income you get, but this slows down as your income approaches $35,000 a year. After that, extra income leads to lower carbon emissions per year. Here’s what the graph looks like:

The graph shows that when incomes grow beyond about $35,000, the link to emissions is broken, i.e. 'decoupling'
The graph shows that when incomes grow beyond about $35,000, the link to emissions is broken, i.e. ‘decoupling’

So what about population?

In 2015, there were 7.3 billion humans on Earth, more than ever before. This population increases about 1.2% a year, and while the rate of increase has been slowing since the late 1960s, it hasn’t been slowing by very much. If the pace of population increase we have observed since 1969 were to continue (i.e. let’s assume it continues slowing a bit every year, like it has been doing) there would be 9.75 billion of us by 2050. This, by the way, is the EXACT baseline estimate for the UN’s own population projects, but more about the UN’s numbers in a bit.

The main driver in the growth of populations is the crude birth rate, which measures how many children are born per 1,000 people. It turns out there’s a pretty stable relationship between birth rates and per capita GDP. Crude birth rates have been going down pretty much everywhere in the world, and it’s because of money. Basically, the richer a country, the fewer babies they make. In very poor countries, crude birth rates are around 35-40; as a country gets richer, the birth rate falls to just under 10. Figure X illustrates the relationship, which mathematically can be approximated by this formula: b = (45 * minY^a)/Y^a, where b = birth rate, Y is per capita GDP, and a is a “shape parameter” which is somewhere in the range of 0.2622 to 0.36487 Again, for the nerds out there, all the details are here.

The other thing that affects population is the death rate (deaths per 1,000 population). This too is ultimately a function of cash, but the relationship’s a little trickier because of demographic effects. (For example, Germany’s death rate is higher than Zimbabwe’s, not because Mugabe has better health policies than Merkel, but because, when you break it down, old age is the single worst thing for your health, no matter how rich you are. And Germany simply has a lot more old people than Zimbabwe.)

But here again, statistics can come to our aid. We can isolate the effect of the demographics and when we do, we get a pretty similar relationship as with per capita income. This is the equation that tells the story: d = (minY^a)/Y^a * (1/AGE^g), where d = the death rate, minY is a constant equal to 1,011, Y is per capita GDP, AGE is the percentage of the population aged over 65 and a and g are shape parameters equal to 1.0144 and -2.0097 respectively. In other words, the richer a country’s people are, the lower its death rate. The more oldies are in a country’s population, the higher the death rate.

So to recap, as people get richer, they have fewer babies, but they also tend to live longer, and we can use statistics to estimate by how much this is so for every extra dollar of income they get.

Putting it all together

Equipped with the three sets of estimations we have done above, we are ready to put the whole picture together. The first step is to make an assumption about how per capita GDP might evolve in the future. Of course we don’t know, but let’s imagine it continues to grow at the same annual rate it has been growing from 1990 to 2015, for the four classes of countries the World Bank identifies: high income (e.g. the US and Europe), upper middle income (e.g. Russia, China and Brazil), lower middle income (e.g. India and Indonesia) and low income (i.e. mostly sub-saharan Africa). This is what we would get:


The dashed green line illustrates the ‘decoupling’ threshold, i.e. the point beyond which getting richer no longer causes more per capita emissions. As you can see, while the ‘Upper Middle Income’ countries pass this threshold, the ‘Lower Middle Income’ countries – and remember in population terms these are the big guys – won’t even have got there.

Using our equations which we estimated above, let’s now link this assumed GDP/capita path to what we know about birth rates and death rates and see what that gives us for total population:


Now, there’s an awful lot to say about these “GDP driven” estimates of total population on earth. The first thing is that it gives us an estimate of 11.4 billion for the 2050 population, which is a good 1.7 billion more than the UN’s estimates. When you compare the two sets of projections line by line, you see that the differences are in the two “Middle Income” categories. The UN’s estimates seem to assume that these countries population’s will grow more slowly, driven by a faster decrease in birth rates.

The next major difference is that unlike the UN’s demographic projections, these GDP driven projections show no sign of population levelling off any time soon. Indeed, it seems to imply that for the bulk of countries, there’s a good ways to go until death rates overtake birth rates. (I’m willing to put my hands up and say I’m not a demographer, so maybe there’s things I have missed. For one thing, my modelling takes no account of migration trends. I guess I’m kind of assuming that for the world as a whole, net migration is zero. But as people move from poor to rich countries, their birth rates also change, so it’s possible to argue with my numbers).

Now you might be tempted to say: hang on, you just assumed GDP would grow like that. What if growth levels off? Wouldn’t that solve the problem?

Not really. If we change the model so that there is zero growth in per capita GDP from now until 2050 for all four classes of countries, here’s what we get:

If you believe my model, zero growth means even more humans on the planet
If you believe my model, zero growth means even more humans on the planet

Now the 2050 population is projected at a whopping 13 billion! This is because the lower per capita GDP among the ‘middle income’ countries is driving higher crude birth rates.

Finally, let’s bring this all back to total GHG emissions. If we plug these population numbers into our estimate for per capita GHG emissions by income level, we should be in a good position to tally up the total GHG emissions that this implies, under the two scenarios (no growth and growth at the average).ghg-in-atmosphere-to-2050

As you can see, with zero economic growth, the level of emissions is lower, but still really high. (The reason why it stays so high is because, at zero growth, although lower middle income countries like India are not pumping more GHG into the atmosphere, the rich and upper middle income countries still are. Furthermore, while the per capita emissions of the poor stays low, their numbers are increasing at a faster rate.)

For both graphs, the red line indicates the UN’s uppermost threshold (2,310 Gt CO2) for their most extreme emissions scenario. Therefore, the current projections put us on a path of GHG emissions that would mean temperature increases to 2100 of more than 4 degrees Celsius. Once again, well off the charts!

Can technology save our bacon?

It’s entirely possible that sometime next year, “they” will discover cold fusion, a carbon-less, virtually free and infinitely renewable energy source that will allow us to rapidly decarbonise and merrily turn the planet into some kind of Coruscant. I have no clue whether this is a realistic prospect.

But sadly, neither do the people who seem to be depending on it as a solution. And my instincts tell me it is very bad policy to rely on a solution not yet invented in order to solve a problem so grave that it threatens our species’ very existence.

Maybe the way to save our bacon is simply to stop eating it? Lowering our consumption of meat and other carbon intensive goods will surely help. Yet when we look at the scale of the challenge as outlined above, it is clear to me this can only be a part of the solution.

Given that the underlying problem is that there are a lot of people in the world, birth rates are higher than death rates, and most of the world’s poor are getting richer, it seems to me that – absent Cold Fusion – there are really only two other choices:

1) Keep the poor as they are: poor. Stop them from developing economically, so they can’t burn the CO2 which we, the rich folks, have been torching for decades now. Don’t let them have decent houses, clean water or high protein diets, because these things cost carbon, and we haven’t got it to spare. This solution would likely work but it seems to me to be highly immoral. I would hate to live in squalor, be hungry, or to not have healthcare. So I don’t want to espouse policies that depend on others having to live in a way I would not.

2) Move to a Global Single-child policy: The one-woman, one-child policy is the best way there is of controlling these effects. Policies which shift the birth rate equation down at all income levels are the ones most likely to achieve our environmental aims without having to inflict misery and suffering on our own species, or on others. It would take a policy step-shift in thinking to address these problems, but as far as I am concerned, when I look at the numbers, I am certain that this is the only reasonable policy solution there is. We can start by asking religious leaders like Pope Francis to change their messaging around birth control.

And, of course, we can stop thinking of demographic change in the West as a ‘problem’. It isn’t a problem, it’s the start of the only real solution.

NOTE: I am including the full set of data which I used to do all calculations. I welcome any corrections or suggestions for improving the model.

Why is the world polarising? And what can we do about it?

In the aftermath of the First World War, at a time when massive social divisions were fuelling the rise of extremism both on the left and the right, and venerable empires in Britain, Austria and Russia were crumbling, Irish poet William Butler Yeats appeared to capture the Zeitgeist perfectly with his poem, The Second Coming, first published in 1919. It begins like this:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The thinking behind the verse was rooted in Yeats’ conviction that the world would turn in 2,000 year cycles (“turning and turning in a widening gyre”), and that we were due another significant crisis in his time, which was roughly 2,000 years since the birth of Christ.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the publication of this poem, one might legitimately pose the question, was Yeats a century off? Are we now entering a period in which the centre cannot hold, the fateful time when the “ceremony of innocence” will be drowned?

The recent events in the UK and the rise of populism in the form of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and others suggests that if the centre is still holding, it’s only just holding. And it’s certainly straining under the weight of events. Meanwhile the tensions triggered by the apparently racially motivated shootings of black men in the US recall the image of a “blood-dimmed tide” being loosed.

Is this, as Yeats believed, part of an unstoppable cycle? A turn in the great wheel of time which we might observe, but are powerless to direct?

I for one refuse to believe that is so. I think we are the masters of our own destiny. And while there is a sick comfort in fatalism, in the abdication of responsibility to ‘Fate’, I believe we should resist this temptation and continue to fight for what we know is right: Compassion, justice and a fairer, better world.

If the wheel is “turning and turning in a widening gyre”, and if we can’t stop it, let’s at least direct it away from the cliff and onto safer pastures.