We need to put the breaks on plastic

The Problem With Plastic

Let’s be honest, plastics are easy to manufacture and they have brought innumerable benefits to the development of our society (i.e. food safety, transportation, construction and medicine). Nowadays, plastics have an important role in our global economy. However, we’ve got to a point where they have become worryingly common: at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean every year – which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute.

According to the recent study “The New Plastics Economy” published by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation; if no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050.

Also, current estimates suggest that there are over 150 million tonnes of plastics in the ocean today. In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for…

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Bombing Syria? Really? (Part 3: It’s a different kind of war)

Going to war against a state makes some sort of logical sense. It doesn’t make great sense, as Libya and Iraq show. But, at least, in principle, if you kill the people of a government or displace them to a different country, they are suddenly disempowered to continue their threats to the freedoms of others. Daesh does not work like that. They used to be called ISIL, and the L stood for Libya; they used to be called ISIS, and the S stood for Syria; the I stands for Iraq. These are lunatics without borders. They are not a state. They can migrate and pose the exact same threat.

Daesh is an ideology. There are ‘cells’ of people in the UK holding to those ideals. There are cells of people in the US holding to those ideals. Unlike a state, Daesh is not a location-based geographic target. It is malleable, mobile and dynamic. (It is Ultron!)

Daesh is more like a recruitment service than an army. People don’t even have to migrate for Daesh to suddenly appear in a country: it is simply the case that the recruitment has to be successful. Their recruitment has a warped ethical element to it: what right has the West to suppress Islamic ideas? I don’t care right now if you agree Daesh represents Islamic ideas or not; so long as they have that message, bombing them plays into their recruitment drive.

Bombing could result in the radicalisation of some Muslims in Turkey,1 or another nearby country, and suddenly our ‘war’ has spread to a new country. Or many.2 War against the Nazis wasn’t like that: if the Nazis died the problem disappeared; if the Nazis were splintered and forced to migrate3 the problem disappeared. Poland wasn’t radicalised, it was invaded.

This is a big different in the nature of war. Add to that, drones and remote bombing. All of war is faster. Except the intelligence building; that is not faster. Digital and surveillance intelligence is collected extraordinarily quickly, but it then has to be processed and understood before it can inform a decision and thus isn’t faster. The rest of intelligence, gathered by infiltration and ‘moles’ is essentially unchanged and is therefore as quick. This makes acting on incomplete data not just more likely, but necessary. And that puts innocent people at considerable risk. Yet, we are treating our intervention like a conventional war.

 

1 Really, you only radicalise the already notably far-right individuals. Harmless as many of the Turkish far-right Muslims are, radicalise a few and allow the propaganda to permeate the country and you will have a problem.

 

2 People don’t really holiday to Syria and they don’t really imagine the country all-that-vividly when they discuss bombing it. Perhaps the horror of our decision to bomb Syria is more apparent if we imagined it were Turkey or Malaysia

 

3 Being splintered and forced to migrate is very different from choosing to, in a very organised fashion, invade another country.

Bombing Syria? Really? (Part 2: Looking after British National Security?)

I am going to avoid the apparent and terrifying implication in the decision to bomb Syria to protect British National security: that foreign lives are somehow worth less than British lives. It’s a real implication, as the government has agreed to an unknown body count of foreign innocents to stave off terror attacks on British soil that may result in a body count of 100 (estimated number, on my part, based on an average terror attack claiming 10 people or less and there being 10 terror attacks ― which is a high number).

I am also willing to play Devil’s Advocate here and simply accept that bombing Syria will stop terrorism on British soil. I don’t believe it will. But, I will accept that and see where it leads us. Let’s start with having a look at what the airstrikes will cost, in purely financial terms:

George Osborne has estimated the cost will be in the ‘low tens of millions of pounds’. He has given no indication of how it will cost so much less than our current spend in Iraq, exceeding £200 million every year. He also hasn’t explained how it will cost less than the £250 million spent on a 7-month involvement in Libya. More importantly, action in Libya didn’t get the results anybody wanted, so military action was increased and its total cost was £1.5 billion.

Oh dear. We have uncertainty margins ranging from the ‘low tens of millions’ to ‘£1.5 billion’, with further uncertainty regarding a potential £200 million annual subscription (or, £1 billion every 5 years).

It has to be said that £200 million is cheap. It’s barely enough to plug the gap between medical workers’ salary and giving them a decent salary. I doubt it will cover the costs of getting more medical staff to improve the working conditions of the existing staff (i.e. them being allowed time off1). But £1.5 billion? That’s a very different kind of sum of money: that would improve the NHS.

I’m not bringing up the NHS for nothing. The NHS is a real tool for increasing the national security of the UK. It saves lives. It means the poorest people don’t go without healthcare. It adds hundreds of thousands of life-years2 to the population every year, more than has ever been taken away by terrorism on British soil. But people still die in the NHS: the number of mistakes being made is increased by poor funding. Poor funding makes communication and training difficult, and makes the NHS understaffed and the employees tired. We could fix this with well-planning funding.

So, that brings us to what the British people should be more scared of: terrorism or poor health. The British live in a country where it isn’t really apparent how quickly poor health could kill us. If I cut myself while cooking, I live in a society where I can expect it to be an acute and minor problem. Without the NHS, it is possible that cut could kill me. With an NHS, the odds of that shrink away into barely needing to be thought about. Terrorism: I’m already doing just fine not thinking about terrorism.

I say, if we really care about British lives, we pump the money we can expect to spend bombing Syria into the NHS and look at political agreements to starve Daesh of its oil revenue.

 

1 I’m not arguing that working in the NHS should be a normal 9 – 5 style job. But doctors and nurses should be allowed to rest. The 16-hour day should not be standard (would you want a surgeon to operate on you on the far-end of a 14 hour shift?).

 

2 I don’t know that a ‘life-year’ is a normal metric. But it doesn’t always make sense to talk about ‘saving a life’, because everyone dies eventually. Life years are a metric to show how much life someone had left after they were saved from their immediate problem.

Bombing Syria? Really? (Part 1: What did it take government 10 hours to say?)

Here comes another mini-series. This time, discussing the UK government’s decision to bomb Syria (if you don’t want to miss an installment, follow me). I am going to keep this relatively short, because I am less well versed in politics. I want to give people who really do understand these ideas the opportunity to set me straight on the issues and for me to update, add to or amend the course of this mini-series, just in case.

On 3rd December 2015, the UK government gathered to discuss the option of military airstrikes against Daesh/ISIS/ISIL*. The bombing was described as an extension of our current foreign policy campaign in Iraq, which I feel overtly trivialised the issue. It also raised an important problem, in my mind, which is that we’re spending a lot of time discussing borders, and Daesh is not. The vote, which happened after the 10 hour debate, supported the airstrikes and, in case anyone though the government was hesitant, our planes left the hangars for Syria within 1 hour.

But what, exactly, did it take the UK government 10 hours to discuss?

Supporting the proposition

We need to respond to terrorism. As the attack on Paris showed, we in Europe are vulnerable to terrorism and, for the sake of our national security, we must act now.

ISIS is an affront to our freedom, our ideals, our security and our way of life. They must be stopped.

We need to show support to our allies, the French, who recently suffered an attack. Imagine if our roles were reversed and they refused to support us.

We’ve learned our mistakes from Iraq, and can now bomb a country without innocent casualties.

Opposing the proposition

Yes, action is needed. Airstrikes are not the right answer, and for many reasons. What we really learned from Iraq is that we cannot bomb without killing innocent people, because our information is necessarily uncertain; Daesh is not a state and this is a dynamic and very different type of war, the information we use to bomb locations will be even more scant and unreliable than it has been in the past; bombing Syria may focus Daesh’s attention on us and increase their recruitment opportunities, which will decrease our security, not increase it; it simply hasn’t worked in Iraq and it is foolhardy to think it may work this time.

Daesh is well funded because it has control of oil fields. Someone must be buying that oil and it is diplomatic efforts that can cease that and cut off Daesh’s funding.

 

And that was it, really. The pro-bombing discussion highlighted the need for action but didn’t really explain why bombing is what that action must be; it all felt a bit emotional, listening to the live debate (which I did). The anti-bombing team said bombing doesn’t work and there are feasible alternatives. Everyone agreed action was necessary, no one was a “terrorist sympathiser” (as David Cameron, our Prime Minister, suggested and refused to apologise for).

 

* I’m going to call them Daesh, because a Syrian political commentator explained what Daesh means; it has tribal and primitive connotations.

xPrae: How I defeated you so soundly (part 3: What does atheism have to do with the superiority of farming?)

The latter of the two seamless discussions xPrae and I were having the was about ‘Humanised’ religion, where, I argue, the ethics of humanism altered the way people read their religious text and, specifically, ignore the horrid parts. It was borne out of the former discussion about atheism’s role in the tyrannies of the modern-Western-consensus-World: Hitler and the Nazis; Stalin and Marxism; Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and farming economies; and Mao and economically regressive, dogmatic socialism. Between them, xPrae claimed, they have a total body count of 120 million people. That’s probably about accurate, but I didn’t check the figure for several reasons: my interlocutor abhors citations and so disagreements about figures would never be settled, and their body count is irrelevant to my counter-point. (There is a third reason, which is that I wanted to accuse my interlocutor of falling foul of Moore’s Law of Nazi Analogies, but apparently all our discussion had to be “original thought”. I don’t know the last time an original though actually took place, nor why we are ignoring every great thinker that precedes us, but I played the game xPrae set out.)

My counter-argument is that it makes no sense to blame atheism for these atrocities. Although the named tyrants do seem to show a correlation, they are a nasty example of a selection bias. Jorge Rafael Videla’s Christianity never came up, and neither did the peaceful administration of the atheist prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. Examples of peaceful atheists with power and tyrannical Christian leaders abound, but listing them never happened. In part this was because I suspected from previous comments that xPrae would employ the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, but also because it would have been source-duelling. So I allowed the false-correlation to stand.

I allowed the false-correlation to stand because the fact the correlation could only be supported by careful selection bias also wasn’t my point. See, there’s genuine correlation between divorce rates in Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine in the US. The same is true for the number of Nicolas Cage films released in a year and the number of US deaths in a swimming pool. A correlation tells you precisely nothing, no matter how compelling it is (or one could make it seem by selecting their facts very carefully). One actually needs an explanation. It is only an explanation of a correlation that permits itself to accusation or blame. Margarine is not to blame for divorce in Maine, nor vice versa (although, I’m not ruling out Nicolas Cage films causing drownings in swimming pools).

If you want an explanation of how one gets to the tyranny alluded to, I offered an explanation: the belief in absolute superiority. That has explanatory power, and is something I think is best avoided. Hitler believed, unwaveringly, in the superiority of the German ‘race’; Pol Pot believed, infallibly, in the superiority of agrarian economies (and eventually in his own paranoid delusions); Stalin believed, uncritically, in the superiority of socialism. It is these absolutist beliefs, that each individual refused to accept criticism of, that I think best explains what it is they did.

(As a momentary almost-philosophical aside, I am a fallibilist. That’s an attitude that goes alongside my ontology―what I think we can know about the world―and my epistemology―how I think we can know about the world. Fallibilism is the stance that all knowledge and explanations are provisional; better explanations may be attainable, but at any given time we are working toward the best explanations available. This attitude is a self-cleaning mechanism that relies on being willing to criticise one’s own thoughts, especially the ones thought to be above criticism.)

Atheism has none of the traits that permit it to be elevated to the position of absolute superiority. This is because it has precisely no content and no pretensions to offer insights into any questions. Atheism doesn’t address questions of ethics or knowledge. It is merely a label applied to people who are not (yet) convinced of a God. The label encompasses those who are yet to conceive of a God, like the very young; those whose ontology doesn’t expand into those sorts of realms of existence, inclusive of most varieties of agnostic atheism; and those whose epistemologies allow them to evaluate that insufficient evidence or evidence of the wrong form currently are known to them. Atheism relates only to the question of God, and answers “not convinced”.

This is the problem of the label “atheism”. So much baggage has been added that if I had guest-posted this at xPrae’s blog, by now, many of the readers would probably be outraged that I would suggest atheism isn’t what they think it is, with all the dogma they’ve attached to it. Atheism is too quickly, and too intentionally, confused with secularism and anti-theism (but not with Humanism, and I don’t know why), and secularism is too readily confused as an infringement on religious rights. This isn’t just biased baggage, it is outright wrong. As a secularist, I support and value your right to religious freedom and reject anti-theism. I have religious secular friends who realise that only secularism can protect their and everyone else’ religious rights.

One may argue, and xPrae may have (but he’s not articulate enough for me to be sure), that religion necessarily excludes the self-aggrandising certainty and and absolute dogma that lead to the tyrannies; religion teaches humility. I think it is very hard to argue that is true given a reading of Christian history. Christians may have been humble to other Christians, but they believed they had God on their side and, despite personal humility (maybe), in the superiority of their faith. That has lead to tyrannies, and any interested reader could list five off right now.

In more extreme cases, atheism is equated to Marxist-Leninist Atheism (M-LA). But, a little reading on what M-LA is shows that it was actually an anti-theistic position, which―although compatible with atheism―cannot be what atheism is. After all, M-LA is also compatible with all hair styles, facial hair, and genders. Yet, we hold none of these responsible for M-LA. Conceivably, although admittedly unlikely, M-LA is even compatible with Christianity. It is consistent for a person to believe in the truth of Christianity and yet also believe that Christianity and its followers stand in the way of M-LAist’s progress and power, and therefore that both must be destroyed. If it’s compatible with a religion, it is in no way dependent on atheism.

More importantly M-LA isn’t a problem by itself. If someone holds that position, but is not absolute about that positions and has left room for some doubt, then it’s difficult to imagine how dictatorial tyranny could grow up out of that.

Atheism itself, despite the content many commentators have appended to it, is content free. As a reader, you need to step back from the media outlets you frequent for a moment and decide not which source you find more reliable―me or them―but which explanation seems more reasonable.

Without content, atheism simply cannot lead to the tyrannies of the modern-Western world. No causative explanation exists. Arguably, atheism permits everything and some may stretch that to mean atheism is responsible for all atrocities. But that is only because atheism doesn’t address answers of politics or ethics. For those answers, you need to find something different: a worldview. A worldview with content. Secularism and humanism, respectively, give answers to politics and ethics. (But I’d advocate a pinch of fallibilism to go alongside them.) But they don’t lead to atrocity, either.

It is, therefore, absolute certainty and dogma I wish to blame for the tyranny. Hitchens used to say the tyranny came from those tyrants and tyrants like them (North Korea comes to mind) not because they had atheists at the helm, but because the ideas they held operated so much like a religion. David Deutsch calls these kind of ideas non-rational memes: part of the idea is that it shields itself from criticism, so any calls to violence or dehumanising of opposition goes uncontested precisely because the idea demands that all opposition fall on deaf ears. But, really, there’s no good reason to abandon the word “dogma”. This is why you can tell someone probably has a bad idea when they must demonise their opposition, because they are not open to criticism. And they are willing to kill for it. They are ideas that operate so much like a religion.

xPrae: How I defeated you so soundly (part 2: Understanding another religion)

Inter-faith dialogues, despite their pretty name, should be a case of pitting infallible and mutually exclusive ideas against each other: God says this vs God says that. It’s not, and that’s a good thing. Anyone who has watched an interfaith discussion in a university, on the TV or listened to one on the radio will know the discussion actually centres around central core ideas of peace, love, equality and justice. My interlocutor, xPrae, in the earlier debate wanted to focus on these elements of Christianity, and defended that by way of modern-Western-Christian-consensus. Such favour was not extended to Islam and Muslims, despite the fact that Muslims in the US (the home of my interlocutor) and the UK (my home) are clearly peaceful. Else, let’s be honest, we’d be dead. Modern-Western-Muslim-consensus on the nature of Islam was not xPrae’s criteria for evaluating Islam.

Whatever the cause of this disparity is, it is important. It colours our discussions of other religions which, in turn, affects foreign policy and politics. I linked a video that highlighted this problem; that although xPrae wanted to define Christianity in terms of a modern-Western-Christian consensus, people were not allowing the same favour to extend to Islam. Although that comment got some atheist support, it saw only a very poor response from my xPrae. The video shows a small TV crew reading passages from the Bible to people on the street, except the Bible had a cover on it to make it look like the Koran. The passages were intentionally selected to be provocative. I am sure Christians will rush to the defense of each passage, trying to put it into some socio-economic or religious context and justify the horror. They are welcome to do that, because not only do I find defending such horrors to be completely contrary to the Christian thesis of absolute morality and a good God, but because that was not my point. My point was that such support of the passages was not forthcoming when the listeners thought the passage was from the Koran: then it received unfiltered criticism.

xPrae’s response was to wholly abandon the modern-Western-Christian-consensus and appeal instead to what I called, somewhat sardonically, the ‘obvious’ truth of Christianity. I do not mean to suggest xPrae thought Christianity was obviously true, but that the moral message was obviously clear and that the provocative passages that had been read could obviously be ignored: there was a true way to understand the Bible. I don’t see that the Bible has a clear message or set of messages and I certainly do not see a way my interlocutor could evaluate his ‘obvious‘ interpretations and other’s interpretation in wholly Biblical terms to decide which is closest to the true meaning, if such a thing existed.

Our dialogue with and about Muslims at large, and extremists specifically, is coloured by this bias.

I argue that modern-Western-religious-consensus on the nature of religion is more nuanced and interesting than xPrae initially supposed. I argue that the consensus, firstly, doesn’t exist and, secondly, if it did exist, would be a good thing, and, thirdly, is very far from purely religious.

I argue that the consensus doesn’t exist, even within a given religion, because there is so much variation from its followers. Remember: we’re discussing consensus here, not the content. Within Christianity there are people who espouse the ethic of universal love and acceptance. But there are also people who picket funerals, advocate the murder of Muslims, hate homosexuals and want to suppress the role of women and transgender people and who murder prostitutes thinking God commanded it of them. It would be a mistake to assume all these people are on the fringes of Christianity; John Zande named a prominent Christian―Jerry Falwell―who has close ties with members of the Republican party as an example of someone inciting hatred. There are even people on both sides of the ambiguity of what it means to ‘apologise for the Inquisitions’: there’s those who offer apologies and renounce it, and there are those who offer apologetics to explain why it was the divine thing. There is no consensus. (I also argue that it is a Humanised Catholic Church that apologised for the Inquisition. I come to that later.)

However, themes of tolerance and love can be picked out of the haze. These are the ideas xPrae also managed to untangle from the haze, but managed to do so without the ambiguity I see. The ideas were also applied only to Christianity. But, if we run with them now, we can assume these form the basis of that consensus. Although cherry-picked from opinions at large, I am willing to play devil’s advocate and accept that without too much scrutiny for the sake of this discussion (that’s the true meaning of devil’s advocate). If true, it’s a good thing.

However, it’s not strictly religious. Using only the books themselves, we are not really able to tell whose views are more ‘right’. The homophobes do seem to have explicit passages in defence of their views. Yet, the support for embracing homosexuals is implicit in the words of Jesus. But Jesus came not to change one jot or tittle of the old law and I’m not sure the Bible explains how to weigh up implicit and explicit imperatives. This leaves believers with the question of how to cut through this knot. I argue they use the blade of Humanism. I’m sure there are discussions in pulpits and arguments in homes and the Enlightenment has been bashing free enquiry and criticism over religion for hundreds of years. Through this, societies―overwhelmingly, the developed ones―have created a framework or a lens through which they read their books and accept or reject passages. (It is the moderate Islam of Turkey that gives me hope for its economic prosperity, because that is a symptom of a freely enquiring culture.) That framework is not offered in the books themselves, but developed through a method much more at home under a name like “Humanism” over “Religion”.

xPrae: How I defeated you so soundly (part 1: introduction and atheism)

Introduction

I have recently been locked into a debate with a rather strange interlocutor, who I shall call xPrae (this is short for xPraetori, which in turn has a slightly different meaning on the blog in question). The strangeness comes from a number of elements, like encouraging the discussion to not cite or even use sources, and to try to avoid labels. The accusation of ‘label use’ was used to great effect: xPrae could, obviously, accuse any word of being a label and, when the conversation got difficult for him, he would. The conversation was also strange in its repetitiveness, as xPrae seemed to want to use his labels in a very specifically wrong way, especially regarding atheism; that’s sort of how the conversation started.

I started writing a post that I considered guest-posting at xPrae’s blog, but I decided against it after reading the divisive, condescending and smug way in which they refer to ‘leftists’ in one of the pages of their blog. There’s no point posting where you’re not welcome and the environment is intentionally hostile. xPrae did have a very hostile approach: commenters were chastised for making any level of assumptions, even if they seemed well founded, yet xPrae would take his own really-quite-wild assumptions about his commenters and put them in quotation marks and present them as the exact wording of the commenter. So, I soon realised conversation there was going to be without merit, as xPrae was actually mining for little nuggets to support his own view, instead of engaging in honest discussion.

So, instead, I decided to alter my post and turn it into mini-series. The mini-series will include a short discussion of this video, where a film crew try to pass off passages of the Bible as passages from the Koran. It highlights an important problem with how we engage religious discussions. I also use it to highlight how xPrae is an inconsistent interlocutor, but how that inconsistency is actually a useful tool implemented by many people in religious discussions to avoid having a rational or even a useful conversation. Another post in the series will talk about atheism in respect to its role in tyranny. But first, a quick look at atheism as a label.

What is Atheism?

I engaged in a lengthy but unstructured debate here, and to an extent it is still ongoing; or, at least, it is still open-ended. The issue I managed to engage an interlocutor on was a question pertaining to atheism and its role relating to “socialism” (but not actual socialism) and ethics. “Atheism” is a label I am loathe to use because it doesn’t denote anything, and others use it as a hook to append any baggage they see fit or convenient. I’ve tried to define ‘atheism’ and ‘New Atheism’ before, but my position has evolved, so I want to look at it again.

Religion―all religions―are at a massive advantage and disadvantage over atheism in all discussions where the issue is framed in reference to religion and atheism. Religions have answers to questions: there is at least one book; the book or collection of writings is large and very comprehensive; the content of those writings, at the very least, entertains the idea of answering big questions, like those of ethics. I’d argue that is simultaneously the weakness of religion: absolute (and often contradictory) answers. Not just absolute answers, but old ones at that. By contrast, atheism does not: atheism does not purport to even entertain the idea of answering any questions at all. That’s not its strength, but it’s also not its weakness; atheism is not a player in a debate, it has no horse in the race.

The sentence “I am an atheist, therefore…” can only end with words to the effect of “… I am unconvinced of the existence of a God”; it cannot meaningfully end with “… I believe this is morally acceptable” or anything else. Atheists have other mechanisms by which they explain the world in terms of ethics and existence and material etc. It is common for religious people to append nihilism to atheism, as well as anti-theism. This is ridiculous: nihilism answers questions of ethics and meaning and purpose, and it’s not a monolith. There is a complex of answers and different schools of thought in nihilism. Yet, nihilism gets its own baggage and suddenly ‘atheism’ is bogged down in the existential despair interpretation of nihilism that some religious people assume. Some religious people even like to append their own ethical prescription from biological evolution to some imagined ‘Book of Atheism’.

Atheists are free to pick a number of God-free philosophies to answer questions of ethics and meaning and politics: secularism, humanism, Deep Ecology, positive nihilism. Atheists could even adopt God-based philosophies as ‘useful’ (but not ‘true’) philosophies, if they wished. But none of these are defining of atheism; they can’t be. Some of the philosophies an atheist would use are incompatible with other, so they cannot form the definition of atheism. Trying to fit doctrines into atheism is linguistic trickery and sophistry.

I asked xPrae to offer a list of High Priests, core books, dogmas or tenets of atheism, to demonstrate that atheism is not actually content free. He ignored that request. I open it to the floor.