For a long time, the Netherlands has been a highly egalitarian country, but inequality is very slowly starting to increase there, even though most people in the Netherlands still live – in a comparison to make you understand – with caviare and champagne for breakfast and gold taps and door handles throughout the home.
For the past fourteen years, I have been living in a country that has a huge degree of inequality, which is much worse than in all the other EU countries. Yes, all of them. I want you to know what that looks like, at the bottom. So that you can help stop the Netherlands from going into that direction too.
There is a HUGE amount of homelessness here in the UK, for mostly financial reasons.
Yes, the simple lack of sufficient income for people to support their basic needs.
You see that in countries like the US and Australia too. It includes many female older adults and also people like Manda in one of the videos below, who sustained a brain injury with associated nerve damage. (The Hanes corporation decided to help her.) Most of these people never thought in their wildest dreams that they might ever end up homeless. Among the poorest retired women are former nurses and researchers but also many former stay-at-home mothers.
One of the things it sometimes leads to in Britain is a great deal of envy or discomfort when people in poverty see someone who does not appear to be miserable or who appears to be able to support himself or herself financially. It makes them feel like something has been taken away from them, and they often focus those feelings and their energy on the person who is not miserable. As a result, that person may then be pushed into poverty as well. There are no efforts, certainly not by the British government (to the contrary), to pull people out of poverty here.
In Britain, I have learned what it is like to live without hot water, heat and electricity, to sit in your bed all day long, and walk over to a place where they provide a hot meal for you (and where they may treat you as if you are a potentially dangerous wild animal for no other reason than that you are poor). In Britain, I have seen what it is like to live in deep poverty, to stop looking toward the future because you know that you will never get out of that poverty, and become so accustomed to it that you completely forget what a life is like without poverty.
The other side of the spectrum, the crazy consumerism, the drive for higher and higher GDPs, and the accumulation of personal possessions as the only measure of one’s self-worth, the push for ever-increasing industrial production without any concern for the costs of that and the senseless of it all seems to be also pushing a lot of people into deep poverty.
The key word in many developments and environments is balance. Leading simpler lives is generally more fun than pursuing a consumerist lifestyle, but deep poverty is is just as bad as crazy consumerism. And they seem to go hand in hand.
I’ve heard someone who was spending about 6000 a month describe himself as poor. That’s crazy.
Poor, in the western world, is 6000 a year, or 8000 a year, or 2000 a year.
Poor is having no or limited access to medical care, in the western world.
Poor, in the western world, is having so little income that you have to choose between having a roof over your head and having food in your stomach or having food in your stomach and having food in your children’s stomachs.
One of the videos below features Charlotte, a young British woman who lives on one day a meal and who does not want a sandwich for lunch because eating the sandwich would make her feel hungry the next day. When you have to live on very little food, your metabolism changes, and you will want to keep your body functioning in that mode because it helps you cope. (People who want to stuff people who’ve been living on very little food for a long time, say a year or half a year or one and a half year, and get angry when they don’t want to gorge themselves are simply totally clueless. On the other hand, when your food intake fluctuates, then you will likely want to stuff yourself and may not be able to stop eating when you do get food and may eat 4 plates full of pasta and/or 6 bagels in one go.)
You may also develop nutritional deficiencies.
The medical profession is mostly completely blind to all of this. If you complain about muscle weakness to your doctor, he or she will likely suggest that you join a gym club. Because that is what he or she would do in your place. But these doctors aren’t you. They aren’t poor and haven’t got the foggiest idea what it is like to be really poor.
So instead of buying yet another fancy this or that for your garden or patio and an Alexa or iPhone, you could go to your local Aldi or Lidl, look at how other people are shopping and spend the money you would have spent on your new garden ornament on on that new iPhone on people who would, in a sense, have been paying for your iPhone, Alexa or garden ornament.
Inequality seems to be the result of you not wanting to pay 600 for your new phone but only 400, so that you can spend 200 on your garden ornament. It seems to mean that there are people who get paid very little so that you can get what you want (but don’t need). It seems to mean that there are people who live in environments that have been polluted by the side effects of your consumerism. (It is not healthy to live close to a garbage dump, for example.)
Money and income are not limited resources like oil and gas, but consumerist spending is linked to the depletion of limited resources, and somehow, that results in greater inequality.
Research by universities and the IMF has shown that greater equality makes everyone better off, including those at the top socio-economic levels.
In 2017, the Home Office ignored one court order and attempted to set aside another in the deportation of someone to Afghanistan, only to see itself forced by another court order to collect the person in question in Afghanistan, escort him to an airport and whisk him out of the country to which he had been deported. See…
“I don’t agree with you. What you just told me, well, that’s never happened to me. (And I wasn’t there when you said it happened to you. So it never happened, period.)”
“And anyway, I think you’re crazy. (You’re a woman and everybody knows that women are crazy.) It’s all those hormones. Women are way too emotional. (Always seeing things that aren’t there.)”
“(She’s getting too old for technology, but I am not going to say that in her face. Everybody knows that only large corporations get hacked. She’s just imagining things because she doesn’t know which buttons to press.)”
“(I bet she has a crush on him and he rejected her.)”
And various versions and combinations of the above.
That’s the real mansplaining.
It includes the fact that people who did speak out about the Harvey Weinsteins in the world in the past were dismissed with this type of bullshit arguments.
However, being a male feminist does not mean that you need to take an interest in whether a woman has ever been raped or not. That’s a common misunderstanding. Women’s emancipation is about a little bit more than women no longer getting raped.
One of the hardest things for me to deal with is the poverty and misery in Britain. These days, that British poverty mindset drags me down on an almost daily basis, this belief and attitude that anything that you consider doing is “daft”, a “waste of time” or “above your station”, this pervasive conviction that you have to be obedient and patient, that you have no choice.
That is me there, in the middle, emigrating to Florida at the age of 33. I used to believe that emigrating to Florida was something that “other people” did. (I did that after having quit my full-time job in my mid-twenties to go to university.)
That’s what a poverty mindset is about. Believe you can’t and you can’t. Believe you can and you can. The poverty mindset is NOT the cause of poverty, but it can be the result and then it can become a cause of getting trapped in poverty.
It did not used to be like that for me at first in Britain. If it affects me this badly after my years in Britain, you can imagine how it impacts people who have been living here all their lives and may never have set foot in another country.
In my home country too, there used to be this idea “wie als dubbeltje is geboren wordt nooit een kwartje” en “iedereen die met zijn kop boven het maaiveld uitsteekt wordt genadeloos afgehakt”. It is one of the reasons why I didn’t like my home country, this idea that everyone has to stick to a mould and not dare to be different, or excel. It’s not the same, but there are similarities.
Apparently, most Brits don’t like it when someone is very confident and enthusiastic, but confidence and enthusiasm are nothing to be embarrassed about. To the contrary. Maybe confidence and enthusiasm sometimes get confused with snobbery and arrogance?
Interview with Mark Easton, BBC. Date unknown, but near the end of Tony Blair’s premiership.
Keep in mind that “hooliganism” and “anti-social behaviour” are often labels used to indicate (and reject) people from a lower socioeconomic class in Britain and that this “hooliganism” for example gets expressed in graffiti.
Of course, causing (increased) financial hardship for parents by taking any benefits away is most definitely not “in the best interest of the child”.
Tony Blair did consider graffiti “anti-social behaviour”. During a photo-op as part of his crusade, he hosed down graffiti and said that older generations of his family would have abhorred such behaviour. It then turned out that his own grandmother had been a “commie” graffiti vandal.
There probably is a work by Banksy somewhere in response to all of this.
Tony Blair also criminalized a lot of behavior that is essentially merely human behavior. That too was in nobody’s best interest and probably did nothing toward decreasing inequality in Britain.
I am wrapping up the much improved version of “We need to talk about this“. There is now a chapter on euthanasia, for instance, with a discussion of the Groningen Protocol.
I didn’t write this book to convince you that my views are the right ones, even though I hope you will agree with many of them. I wrote this book to encourage as many people as possible to develop their own opinions in these areas, to go beyond impassioned exclamations like “this is so wrong” or “this is very good” and to make their opinions known to their governments and academics, and to discuss these issues with their friends, relatives and colleagues. Continue reading →
As a psychiatrist, I find that one of the hardest parts of my job is telling parents and their children that they are not to blame for their illness.
Children with emotional and behavioral problems continue to suffer considerable stigma. Many in the medical community refer to them as “diagnostic and therapeutic orphans.” Unfortunately, for many, access to high-quality mental health care remains elusive.
An accurate diagnosis is the best way to tell whether or not someone will respond well to treatment, though that can be far more complicated than it sounds.
I have written three textbooks about using medication in children and adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems. I know that this is never a decision to take lightly.
But there’s reason for hope. While not medically able to diagnose any psychiatric condition, dramatic advances in brain imaging, genetics and other technologies are helping us objectively identify mental illness.
Separating out normal behavior from problematic behavior can be challenging. Emotional and behavior problems can also vary with age. For example, depression in pre-adolescent children occurs equally in boys and girls. During adolescence, however, depression rates increase much more dramatically in girls than in boys.
It can be very hard for people to accept that they – or their family member – are not to blame for their mental illness. That’s partly because there are no current objective markers of psychiatric illness, making it difficult to pin down. Imagine diagnosing and treating cancer based on history alone. Inconceivable! But that is exactly what mental health professionals do every day. This can make it harder for parents and their children to accept that they don’t have control over the situation.
Most important of all is making sure your child is assessed by a licensed mental health professional experienced in diagnosing and treating children. This is particularly important when medications that affect the child’s brain are being considered.
Seeing the problem
Thanks to recent developments in genetics, neuroimaging and the science of mental health, it’s becoming easier to characterize patients. New technologies may also make it easier to predict who is more likely to respond to a particular treatment or experience side effects from medication.
Our laboratory has used brain MRI studies to help unlock the underlying anatomy, chemistry and physiology underlying OCD. This repetitive, ritualistic illness – while sometimes used among laypeople to describe someone who is uptight – is actually a serious and often devastating behavioral illness that can paralyze children and their families.
Through sophisticated, high-field brain imaging techniques – such as fMRI and magnetic resonance spectroscopy – that have become available recently, we can actually measure the child brain to see malfunctioning areas.
We have found, for example, that children 8 to 19 years old with OCD never get the “all clear signal” from a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. This signal is essential to feeling safe and secure. That’s why, for example, people with OCD may continue checking that the door is locked or repeatedly wash their hands. They have striking brain abnormalities that appear to normalize with effective treatment.
We have also begun a pilot study with a pair of identical twins. One has OCD and the other does not. We found brain abnormalities in the affected twin, but not in the unaffected twin. Further study is clearly warranted, but the results fit the pattern we have found in larger studies of children with OCD before and after treatment as compared to children without OCD.
Meanwhile, the field of psychiatry continues to grow. For example, new techniques may soon be able to identify children at increased genetic risk for psychiatric illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
New, more sophisticated brain imaging and genetics technology actually allows doctors and scientists to see what is going on in a child’s brain and genes. For example, by using MRI, our laboratory discovered that the brain chemical glutamate, which serves as the brain’s “light switch,” plays a critical role in childhood OCD.
What a scan means
When I show families their child’s MRI brain scans, they often tell me they are relieved and reassured to “be able to see it.”
Children with mental illness continue to face enormous stigma. Often when they are hospitalized, families are frightened that others may find out. They may hesitate to let schools, employers or coaches know about a child’s mental illness. They often fear that other parents will not want to let their children spend too much time with a child who has been labeled mentally ill. Terms like “psycho” or “going mental” remain part of our everyday language.
The example I like to give is epilepsy. Epilepsy once had all the stigma that mental illness today has. In the Middle Ages, one was considered to be possessed by the devil. Then, more advanced thinking said that people with epilepsy were crazy. Who else would shake all over their body or urinate and defecate on themselves but a crazy person? Many patients with epilepsy were locked in lunatic asylums.
Then in 1924, psychiatrist Hans Berger discovered something called the electroencephalogram (EEG). This showed that epilepsy was caused by electrical abnormalities in the brain. The specific location of these abnormalities dictated not only the diagnosis but the appropriate treatment.
That is the goal of modern biological psychiatry: to unlock the mysteries of the brain’s chemistry, physiology and structure. This can help better diagnose and precisely treat childhood onset mental illness. Knowledge heals, informs and defeats ignorance and stigma every time.
Large health inequalities exist in Australia. Car ownership and its costs add to the health inequalities between low-income and high-income households. The physical characteristics of neighbourhoods influence our transport use and, in turn, make health inequalities better or worse.
Rising housing prices have forced many low-income families to live on the fringes of Australian capital cities. Residents of these sprawling outer suburbs often have worse access to public transport, employment, shops and services. They need one or more motor vehicles simply to get to work and take children to school.
Buying and maintaining vehicles in Australia is expensive. These costs have a large impact on household budgets. Household finances then affect health in two main ways:
through the ability to access health-related resources, such as healthy foods, health care and high-quality living conditions (like heating and cooling)
through stress caused by financial difficulties, insecure incomes and exposure to poorer environments such as crowding, crime and noise pollution.
Living in the car-dependent urban fringes also often dooms residents to long sedentary commutes.
Four scenarios of transport costs
The following four hypothetical households demonstrate the costs of varying levels of car ownership and transport behaviours.
Scenario 1: A household with two cars that are 15,000km and 10,000km, respectively, per year. The car that is driven 15,000km is assumed to be less than three years old, bought new and financed with a loan. The other car is assumed to be 10 years old and owned outright. This household aligns with estimates by the Australian Automobile Association.
Scenario 2: Scenario one, minus the used car and substituting five return public transport trips a week to the Melbourne central business district from the outer suburbs.
Scenario 3: No cars, substituting 10 return trips to the CBD from the outer suburbs.
Scenario 4: No cars, substituting three return trips to the CBD (i.e. occasional public transport use), with walking and cycling as the main forms of transport.
Table 1 shows how reducing household car ownership, even after adding the cost of public transport, can improve household finances.
Moving from a two-car household to a one-car household cuts weekly costs by as much as A$41, even after increased public transport use adds a A$41-a-week cost.
Moving from a two-car household to having no cars can improve weekly finances by as much as A$237, after adding 10 return trips to the CBD.
The fourth scenario, emphasising walking and cycling, shows the greatest improvement in household finances. These families are $294 per week better off.
The impacts on households of each of these car ownership and transport scenarios differ depending on their incomes. To illustrate this, we’ve taken the median disposable household income from the lowest, middle and highest quintiles from the ABS in 2015-16.
Although becoming car-free will increase disposable household income after paying for transport, the largest proportional differences are for the lowest-income households. This means these households will benefit most from reducing car ownership and switching to more active and affordable forms of transport.
Urban design can boost household health and wealth
So how do we help households make the transition from private car ownership? The answer lies in the environments we live in.
The evidence from research suggests several strategies to improve uptake of active and affordable transport, while reducing car dependence and related health inequities. These include local urban design features such as:
connected and safe street networks (including pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure) that reduce exposure to traffic
Australia has yet to fully realise the potential of promoting active transport and reducing car dependency as a way to reduce health inequities.
For example, the Victorian government recently announced 17 new low-density suburbs for Melbourne’s outer fringes (up to 50 kilometres from the CBD). It did so with a goal of creating more affordable housing. But urban planning experts have criticised these plans for increasing car dependence and commute times – due to the lack of nearby destinations and amenities – which have been shown to be bad for health.
In another case, the Planning Institute of Australia described the proposed A$5.5 billion West Gate Tunnel as a “retrograde solution”. The institute expressed concern about “entrenched inequality for those in the outer suburbs”.
Changes to city transport environments can take years or even decades, and funding is often limited. Phased interventions that target lower-income neighbourhoods should be considered first as these are likely to produce the greatest gains in health equity.
This approach does have some caveats. Urban renewal projects carry a risk of gentrification, whereby higher and middle-income households displace those on lower incomes. Place-based government investment, such as improvements to public transport, has been shown to increase local housing prices. That could force lower-income households to relocate, often to car-dependent neighbourhoods on the urban fringes.
In these scenarios, a lack of government policies that safeguard against displacement of low-income residents can make health inequities worse.
These figures summarise the story of the power gap between Indigenous peoples and the settler state in both countries. Policy solutions lie beyond the liberal welfare state, beyond egalitarian justice. The origins of the persistent power gaps in each country are different, however, and reflect different understandings of relationships among sovereignty, citizenship, nationhood and self-determination.
The Indigenous peoples of Canada and New Zealand share similar experiences as subjects of British colonialism.
Yet there are profound differences both in the situation for Indigenous peoples in both countries and in the opportunities for resistance they’ve been able to pursue.
Maori have always held a greater share of the New Zealand national population than the Indigenous in Canada. Maori share a common language, and New Zealand’s smaller land mass makes resistance simpler to organize. Yet their place in the body politic is always contested, as state and public strategies of exclusion compete with the claim to self-determination.
‘Lead the lad to be a good farmer’
Historically, the greater Maori capacity for resistance did not dampen colonial resolve. But it did mean that assimilation, rather than genocide, was the intent of government policy. The purpose of New Zealand’s non-residential native schools, for example, was to “lead the lad to be a good farmer and the girl to be a good farmer’s wife,” as the director-general of education put it in 1931.
Trudeau expressed concern at the UN about the self-determination of First Nations in Canada, but he didn’t speak of the individual Indigenous citizen’s self-determination.
He did not speak to the child on the reserve whose poverty is a direct result of lesser access to services that others in Canada take for granted as rights of citizenship.
Similar circumstances do exist in New Zealand where racism in schooling, health, the labour market and criminal justice compromise citizenship. However, Maori in New Zealand can demand better with reference to the Treaty of Waitangi and the “rights and privileges of British subjects” that it confers.
Maori protected under treaty
That treaty gave the British Crown the right to establish government. In return, Britain offered protection of Maori authority over their own affairs and natural resources.
The promise has not been consistently kept, but the treaty does give moral and increasingly political and jurisprudential authority to the Maori claim to self-determination. The treaty means that Maori do not contest the post-settler presence, but they do contest the Crown exercising a unilateral sovereign authority.
In 2015, the Waitangi Tribunal, which hears claims against the Crown for breaches of the treaty, found that the agreement was not a cession of sovereignty as the Crown had always claimed. While the government does not accept the finding, and it’s not legally binding, it affirms the Maori position on self-determination.
It also affirms a Maori way of thinking about contemporary politics. It raises possibilities for deeper introspection about Maori as nations, and Maori as citizens, in ways that are not apparent in Trudeau’s interpretation of the UN’s Indigenous declaration as it pertains to Canada.
There is an argument that nation to nation relationships respect the fact that sovereignty was never ceded. Perhaps an argument that indigenous Canadians claiming the full rights and capacities of state citizenship requires accepting the moral legitimacy of Crown sovereignty. However, if sovereignty means the capacity to function as a self-determining people one needs to think about the relative and relational character of political authority, and the sources of political possibility. These exist both inside and outside the state. They exist simultaneously. Neither is a site of political possibility for self-determination that can reach its potential without the support of the other.
Sharing sovereignty does not mean assimilation
Political authority and self-determination can’t reach their full potential without the support of each other. They exist both inside and outside the state. They exist simultaneously.
If the Crown is sovereign, it exercises that sovereignty only as the people’s agent. The UN declaration is insistent that, if they wish, Indigenous peoples have a right to share that sovereignty.
Sharing sovereignty is not dependent on the Indigenous person’s assimilation into an homogenous body politic, but on the capacity to contribute to society as an Indigenous person.
That could include the ability to receive public education in one’s own language, to be elected to Parliament by one’s own people (as is the situation in New Zealand) or to receive health care in ways that are responsive to cultural preferences.
In these ways, state sovereignty is not an authority that exists over and above Indigenous citizens. Nor does state citizenship exist at the expense of the Indigenous nation. It complements and supports self-determination.
In the only book-length comparative study of Indigenous politics in Canada and New Zealand, Roger Maaka and Augie Fleras imagine Indigenous peoples as “sovereign in their own right yet sharing sovereignty with society at large.”
New Zealand continues to work out the terms of this kind of system.
Canada does not give it substantive thought, and that’s a serious constraint on the goal of self-determination for First Nations.
Women’s role in science has been hotly debated and discussed in recent decades. Policy-oriented and scholarly studies have explored a range of topics on the issue. From girls’ participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); to how women are represented and perform in STEM occupations and women’s access to technologies – it’s all been studied.
But only one study has examined women’s representation and participation in national science academies. This silence is ironic. These academies honour scientific excellence and synthesise scientific findings to support evidence-based policymaking. This means they are well placed to contribute towards strengthening their countries’ national innovation systems. They can advocate to get more girls and women participating in STEM, and advise on system-wide application of the gender lens in research and innovation.
So one of the first steps, surely, would be for academies to address their own gender gaps. But there’s a data problem. Academies simply don’t know how they’re doing when it comes to the representation of women compared to their counterparts within the science-policy environment. So they’re unable to monitor their progress.
A common message emerged from our research: with one or two notable exceptions, women are massively underrepresented in national science academies compared to their male peers.
Women in the minority
The information was gathered through two separate but related online surveys during 2014 and 2015.
The InterAmerican Network of Academies of Sciences surveyed the partnership’s 19 national science academies in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean. The South African academy surveyed 84 academies in the other world regions: Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, South Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific, Western and Northern Europe, South Eastern Europe and Central and Eastern Europe.
There was a response rate of 63%: 65 of the InterAcademy Partnership’s 103 national academics provided us with data. A full table of the data is available in this article published in the South African Journal of Science.
The Cuban Academy of Sciences (27%) and the Caribbean Academy of Sciences (26%) had the highest representation of women in their membership. A “member” was taken to mean any person elected into the academy. The national science academies of Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay, Honduras and Canada also featured on the list of the top 10 academies with the largest shares of women members – between 16% and 23%.
In Africa, meanwhile, women comprise on average 10% of academy members. Academy of Science of South Africa is the only academy on the continent that ranks among the top five organisations for women membership (24%). The Uganda National Academy of Sciences was second in Africa (13%), followed by the academies of Ghana and Cameroon (both 11%).
The average share of women members, across all 63 national science academies that responded, is 12%.
More women in governance
Interestingly, women fared better when it came to national science academies’ governing bodies. Here the average was 20%. In Africa, the Academy of Science of South Africa recorded the largest share of women in academy governance (31%).
It’s not clear why and at this stage we can only speculate about possible reasons. For instance, there could be a general recognition among academies that women need greater representation. A logical first step would be to include those already elected into the academy in the governing body. An equally plausible hypothesis is that women volunteer their time more readily.
The Academy of Science of South Africa arm of the survey also asked whether academies had either a committee to address gender or diversity issues, or at least someone to advise on them. The answer was “no” from 61% of academies. A third – typically academies with a larger share of women in their membership, specifically in North and Latin America – had a dedicated committee. The remaining 6% of academies relied on individuals’ input and guidance.
We would have liked to obtain more data. But we believe the number and spread of participating academies provide a good base for future surveys. Based on the data, we propose several recommendations for the InterAcademy Partnership and its affiliated academies.
Recommendations and unanswered questions
First, member academies should annually collect, analyse and report gender-disaggregated data. This should then be published in the partnership’s annual report. The document can then be used to discuss the gender dimensions of its membership activities. It’s also important for member academies to establish permanent organisational structures related to gender. These can provide strategic direction and implement the academy’s gender mainstreaming activities.
Several aspects of women’s representation in science weren’t explored in this study. How much of a role does unconscious bias play in academies’ election or selection as members? Are the criteria for membership limiting women’s chances? What about socio-cultural aspects? Many cultures have male and female work spheres, confine girls to less valued “women’s work” and underestimate women’s intellectual and technological capacities.
This bias can be replicated in the processes of nomination, evaluation and selection of women and men, for example, for research grants, fellowships, prizes, key aspects that contribute to building the scientific excellence that is associated with honorific recognition of an individual by an academy of science.
These are important questions and issues. Further qualitative research will help to engage the unsettling narrative which emerged from the data in our study.
The rapid development of so-called NBIC technologies – nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science – are giving rise to possibilities that have long been the domain of science fiction. Disease, ageing and even death are all human realities that these technologies seek to end.
They may enable us to enjoy greater “morphological freedom” – we could take on new forms through prosthetics or genetic engineering. Or advance our cognitive capacities. We could use brain-computer interfaces to link us to advanced artificial intelligence (AI).
Nanobots could roam our bloodstream to monitor our health and enhance our emotional propensities for joy, love or other emotions. Advances in one area often raise new possibilities in others, and this “convergence” may bring about radical changes to our world in the near-future.
“Transhumanism” is the idea that humans should transcend their current natural state and limitations through the use of technology – that we should embrace self-directed human evolution. If the history of technological progress can be seen as humankind’s attempt to tame nature to better serve its needs, transhumanism is the logical continuation: the revision of humankind’s nature to better serve its fantasies.
If we want to live in paradise, we will have to engineer it ourselves. If we want eternal life, then we’ll need to rewrite our bug-ridden genetic code and become god-like … only hi-tech solutions can ever eradicate suffering from the world. Compassion alone is not enough.
But there is a darker side to the naive faith that Pearce and other proponents have in transhumanism – one that is decidedly dystopian.
There is unlikely to be a clear moment when we emerge as transhuman. Rather technologies will become more intrusive and integrate seamlessly with the human body. Technology has long been thought of as an extension of the self. Many aspects of our social world, not least our financial systems, are already largely machine-based. There is much to learn from these evolving human/machine hybrid systems.
Yet the often Utopian language and expectations that surround and shape our understanding of these developments have been under-interrogated. The profound changes that lie ahead are often talked about in abstract ways, because evolutionary “advancements” are deemed so radical that they ignore the reality of current social conditions.
In this way, transhumanism becomes a kind of “techno-anthropocentrism”, in which transhumanists often underestimate the complexity of our relationship with technology. They see it as a controllable, malleable tool that, with the correct logic and scientific rigour, can be turned to any end. In fact, just as technological developments are dependent on and reflective of the environment in which they arise, they in turn feed back into the culture and create new dynamics – often imperceptibly.
Situating transhumanism, then, within the broader social, cultural, political, and economic contexts within which it emerges is vital to understanding how ethical it is.
Max More and Natasha Vita-More, in their edited volume The Transhumanist Reader, claim the need in transhumanism “for inclusivity, plurality and continuous questioning of our knowledge”.
Yet these three principles are incompatible with developing transformative technologies within the prevailing system from which they are currently emerging: advanced capitalism.
One problem is that a highly competitive social environment doesn’t lend itself to diverse ways of being. Instead it demands increasingly efficient behaviour. Take students, for example. If some have access to pills that allow them to achieve better results, can other students afford not to follow? This is already a quandary. Increasing numbers of students reportedly pop performance-enhancing pills. And if pills become more powerful, or if the enhancements involve genetic engineering or intrusive nanotechnology that offer even stronger competitive advantages, what then? Rejecting an advanced technological orthodoxy could potentially render someone socially and economically moribund (perhaps evolutionarily so), while everyone with access is effectively forced to participate to keep up.
Going beyond everyday limits is suggestive of some kind of liberation. However, here it is an imprisoning compulsion to act a certain way. We literally have to transcend in order to conform (and survive). The more extreme the transcendence, the more profound the decision to conform and the imperative to do so.
The systemic forces cajoling the individual into being “upgraded” to remain competitive also play out on a geo-political level. One area where technology R&D has the greatest transhumanist potential is defence. DARPA (the US defence department responsible for developing military technologies), which is attempting to create “metabolically dominant soldiers”, is a clear example of how vested interests of a particular social system could determine the development of radically powerful transformative technologies that have destructive rather than Utopian applications.
The rush to develop super-intelligent AI by globally competitive and mutually distrustful nation states could also become an arms race. In Radical Evolution, novelist Verner Vinge describes a scenario in which superhuman intelligence is the “ultimate weapon”. Ideally, mankind would proceed with the utmost care in developing such a powerful and transformative innovation.
There is quite rightly a huge amount of trepidation around the creation of super-intelligence and the emergence of “the singularity” – the idea that once AI reaches a certain level it will rapidly redesign itself, leading to an explosion of intelligence that will quickly surpass that of humans (something that will happen by 2029 according to futurist Ray Kurzweil). If the world takes the shape of whatever the most powerful AI is programmed (or reprograms itself) to desire, it even opens the possibility of evolution taking a turn for the entirely banal – could an AI destroy humankind from a desire to produce the most paperclips for example?
It’s also difficult to conceive of any aspect of humanity that could not be “improved” by being made more efficient at satisfying the demands of a competitive system. It is the system, then, that determines humanity’s evolution – without taking any view on what humans are or what they should be. One of the ways in which advanced capitalism proves extremely dynamic is in its ideology of moral and metaphysical neutrality. As philosopher Michael Sandel says: markets don’t wag fingers. In advanced capitalism, maximising one’s spending power maximises one’s ability to flourish – hence shopping could be said to be a primary moral imperative of the individual.
If biotech has rendered human nature entirely revisable, then it has no grain to direct or constrain our designs on it. And so whose designs will our successor post-human artefacts likely bear? I have little doubt that in our vastly consumerist, media-saturated capitalist economy, market forces will have their way. So – the commercial imperative would be the true architect of the future human.
Whether the evolutionary process is determined by a super-intelligent AI or advanced capitalism, we may be compelled to conform to a perpetual transcendence that only makes us more efficient at activities demanded by the most powerful system. The end point is predictably an entirely nonhuman – though very efficient – technological entity derived from humanity that doesn’t necessarily serve a purpose that a modern-day human would value in any way. The ability to serve the system effectively will be the driving force. This is also true of natural evolution – technology is not a simple tool that allows us to engineer ourselves out of this conundrum. But transhumanism could amplify the speed and least desirable aspects of the process.
For bioethicist Julian Savulescu, the main reason humans must be enhanced is for our species to survive. He says we face a Bermuda Triangle of extinction: radical technological power, liberal democracy and our moral nature. As a transhumanist, Savulescu extols technological progress, also deeming it inevitable and unstoppable. It is liberal democracy – and particularly our moral nature – that should alter.
The failings of humankind to deal with global problems are increasingly obvious. But Savulescu neglects to situate our moral failings within their wider cultural, political and economic context, instead believing that solutions lie within our biological make up.
Yet how would Savulescu’s morality-enhancing technologies be disseminated, prescribed and potentially enforced to address the moral failings they seek to “cure”? This would likely reside in the power structures that may well bear much of the responsibility for these failings in the first place. He’s also quickly drawn into revealing how relative and contestable the concept of “morality” is:
We will need to relax our commitment to maximum protection of privacy. We’re seeing an increase in the surveillance of individuals and that will be necessary if we are to avert the threats that those with antisocial personality disorder, fanaticism, represent through their access to radically enhanced technology.
Such surveillance allows corporations and governments to access and make use of extremely valuable information. In Who Owns the Future, internet pioneer Jaron Lanier explains:
Troves of dossiers on the private lives and inner beings of ordinary people, collected over digital networks, are packaged into a new private form of elite money … It is a new kind of security the rich trade in, and the value is naturally driven up. It becomes a giant-scale levee inaccessible to ordinary people.
Crucially, this levee is also invisible to most people. Its impacts extend beyond skewing the economic system towards elites to significantly altering the very conception of liberty, because the authority of power is both radically more effective and dispersed.
Foucault’s notion that we live in a panoptic society – one in which the sense of being perpetually watched instils discipline – is now stretched to the point where today’s incessant machinery has been called a “superpanopticon”. The knowledge and information that transhumanist technologies will tend to create could strengthen existing power structures that cement the inherent logic of the system in which the knowledge arises.
This is in part evident in the tendency of algorithms toward race and gender bias, which reflects our already existing social failings. Information technology tends to interpret the world in defined ways: it privileges information that is easily measurable, such as GDP, at the expense of unquantifiable information such as human happiness or well-being. As invasive technologies provide ever more granular data about us, this data may in a very real sense come to define the world – and intangible information may not maintain its rightful place in human affairs.
Existing inequities will surely be magnified with the introduction of highly effective psycho-pharmaceuticals, genetic modification, super intelligence, brain-computer interfaces, nanotechnology, robotic prosthetics, and the possible development of life expansion. They are all fundamentally inegalitarian, based on a notion of limitlessness rather than a standard level of physical and mental well-being we’ve come to assume in healthcare. It’s not easy to conceive of a way in which these potentialities can be enjoyed by all.
Unprecedented acute concentration of wealth happens alongside these expulsions. Advanced economic and technical achievements enable this wealth and the expulsion of surplus groups. At the same time, Sassen writes, they create a kind of nebulous centrelessness as the locus of power:
The oppressed have often risen against their masters. But today the oppressed have mostly been expelled and survive a great distance from their oppressors … The “oppressor” is increasingly a complex system that combines persons, networks, and machines with no obvious centre.
Surplus populations removed from the productive aspects of the social world may rapidly increase in the near future as improvements in AI and robotics potentially result in significant automation unemployment. Large swaths of society may become productively and economically redundant. For historian Yuval Noah Harari “the most important question in 21st-century economics may well be: what should we do with all the superfluous people?”
We would be left with the scenario of a small elite that has an almost total concentration of wealth with access to the most powerfully transformative technologies in world history and a redundant mass of people, no longer suited to the evolutionary environment in which they find themselves and entirely dependent on the benevolence of that elite. The dehumanising treatment of today’s expelled groups shows that prevailing liberal values in developed countries don’t always extend to those who don’t share the same privilege, race, culture or religion.
In an era of radical technological power, the masses may even represent a significant security threat to the elite, which could be used to justify aggressive and authoritarian actions (perhaps enabled further by a culture of surveillance).
In their transhumanist tract, The Proactionary Imperative, Steve Fuller and Veronika Lipinska argue that we are obliged to pursue techno-scientific progress relentlessly, until we achieve our god-like destiny or infinite power – effectively to serve God by becoming God. They unabashedly reveal the incipient violence and destruction such Promethean aims would require: “replacing the natural with the artificial is so key to proactionary strategy … at least as a serious possibility if not a likelihood [it will lead to] the long-term environmental degradation of the Earth.”
The extent of suffering they would be willing to gamble in their cosmic casino is only fully evident when analysing what their project would mean for individual human beings:
A proactionary world would not merely tolerate risk-taking but outright encourage it, as people are provided with legal incentives to speculate with their bio-economic assets. Living riskily would amount to an entrepreneurship of the self … [proactionaries] seek large long-term benefits for survivors of a revolutionary regime that would permit many harms along the way.
Progress on overdrive will require sacrifices.
The economic fragility that humans may soon be faced with as a result of automation unemployment would likely prove extremely useful to proactionary goals. In a society where vast swaths of people are reliant on handouts for survival, market forces would determine that less social security means people will risk more for a lower reward, so “proactionaries would reinvent the welfare state as a vehicle for fostering securitised risk taking” while “the proactionary state would operate like a venture capitalist writ large”.
At the heart of this is the removal of basic rights for “Humanity 1.0”, Fuller’s term for modern, non-augmented human beings, replaced with duties towards the future augmented Humanity 2.0. Hence the very code of our being can and perhaps must be monetised: “personal autonomy should be seen as a politically licensed franchise whereby individuals understand their bodies as akin to plots of land in what might be called the ‘genetic commons’”.
The neoliberal preoccupation with privatisation would so extend to human beings. Indeed, the lifetime of debt that is the reality for most citizens in developed advanced capitalist nations, takes a further step when you are born into debt – simply by being alive “you are invested with capital on which a return is expected”.
Socially moribund masses may thus be forced to serve the technoscientific super-project of Humanity 2.0, which uses the ideology of market fundamentalism in its quest for perpetual progress and maximum productivity. The only significant difference is that the stated aim of godlike capabilities in Humanity 2.0 is overt, as opposed to the undefined end determined by the infinite “progress” of an ever more efficient market logic that we have now.
A new politics
Some transhumanists are beginning to understand that the most serious limitations to what humans can achieve are social and cultural – not technical. However, all too often their reframing of politics falls into the same trap as their techno-centric worldview. They commonly argue the new political poles are not left-right but techno-conservative or techno-progressive (and even techno-libertarian and techno-sceptic). Meanwhile Fuller and Lipinska argue that the new political poles will be up and down instead of left and right: those who want to dominate the skies and became all powerful, and those who want to preserve the Earth and its species-rich diversity. It is a false dichotomy. Preservation of the latter is likely to be necessary for any hope of achieving the former.
Transhumanism and advanced capitalism are two processes which value “progress” and “efficiency” above everything else. The former as a means to power and the latter as a means to profit. Humans become vessels to serve these values. Transhuman possibilities urgently call for a politics with more clearly delineated and explicit humane values to provide a safer environment in which to foster these profound changes. Where we stand on questions of social justice and environmental sustainability has never been more important. Technology doesn’t allow us to escape these questions – it doesn’t permit political neutrality. The contrary is true. It determines that our politics have never been more important. Savulescu is right when he says radical technologies are coming. He is wrong in thinking they will fix our morality. They will reflect it.
While reading three of Nelson Mandela’s (auto)biographies, I noticed some similarities with how the UK treats (oppresses) a large group of its population. I was not sure what to think of it, and a bit hesitant, held back by not wishing to offend anyone who’s endured apartheid in South Africa, to dare compare the situations.
Note the sharp contrast between the US and the UK. On paper, Britain and the US may have similar degrees of inequality, but in reality, very little is similar about it.
This appalling craziness has got to stop. We badly need more equality in the UK. Real equality.
As the main driver for this inequality appears to be the urge to accumulate more money by those who already have plenty, there have to be financial motives behind the UK’s inequality. So, is the UK deliberately – habitually – keeping a large group of people poor enough so that it has a buffer of powerless people it can milk and starve whenever the economy tanks, or what? (The answer to that is “yes”.)
There is money in these “poor doors”, a lot of money.
There is nothing wrong with money. The problem is the feudal thinking. The service charges argument is bullshit. That can be solved some other way.
Someone might consider sueing London over this. Its planning committee made this possible, and signed off on it.
(This is not the “pepperpotting” Ken Livingstone had in mind!)
A better step? Reverse the situation! Make the entire building affordable living on the condition that a few rich folks get to live in it as well.
Apparently, someone – an aide to the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions – threatened to have food banks shut down if they continued to raise awareness about their activities and about food poverty in the UK. This aide has the wrong idea.
Only a few years ago, in 2011, I noticed a major discrepancy in this area. The Trussell Trust – which runs the food banks in the UK – wasn’t accomplishing even 10% of what Dutch food banks were doing.
UK food banks handed out 40,000 parcels per year.
900,000 per year were handed out by Dutch food banks.
The population of England & Wales on 27 March 2011 was 56,075,912. The population of Scotland on that day was 5,295,000.
On 1 January 2011, the population of the Netherlands was around 16,700,000 persons. That’s almost 45 million people less!
So, while British food banks were handing out 0.00065 parcel per person per year, Dutch food banks handed out 0.054 parcel per person per year. Or did my calculator trip me up badly?
Around 83 times more food parcels were being handed out in a tiny country with much greater equality and almost none of the appallingly deep poverty of the UK!
That is not the Trussell Trust’s fault.
While the number of food parcels handed out in the UK has gone up substantially since then, it still is nowhere near enough. The Trussell Trust gave emergency food to 913,138 people in the UK in 2013-2014. Presumably, that means ‘once’.
According to the Trussell Trust, 13,000,000 people in the UK live below the poverty threshold. (That’s what it also said three years ago.)
Conquering poverty would also benefit the nation’s budget, as the estimated cost of child poverty alone in the UK is £25 billion per year in terms of costs to business, the police, courts and health and education services.
Inhabitants of the Netherlands rank among the happiest people on the planet, year after year after year. Dutch children consider themselves very happy children, regardless of their socioeconomic background. The same cannot be said for British children.
At the end of 2010, UNICEF research into child inequality in 24 developed countries showed that income poverty has the greatest impact on child inequality in the UK. The UK ranks alongside countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. There is little inequality in the Netherlands, however, and the lives of children from the richest families differ little from the lives of the poorest Dutch children.
‘We must not lose sight of the importance of family income to eradicating child poverty in this country. We must ensure that no family with children has to live on an income which cannot provide the warmth, shelter and food they need.’
We need to hand out many more food parcels. There is no shame in handing out food, and none in accepting it either. The embarrassment is in not handing it out.