Ye shall know them by their Fruits!

This classic saying from the New Testament (Matthew 7:16) confronts effect and cause. A bad effect is not likely to have a good cause, and vice versa. Thorns do not bear grapes, and we find no figs on thistles. We should therefore not rely on fine words and theories. What counts are the effects that arise from them.

Ludwig Boltzmann, the great Austrian physicist, applied this elementary truth to the natural sciences. “It is not logic, not philosophy, not metaphysics that ultimately decides whether something is true or false, but action. That is why I do not consider the achievements of technology to be incidental; I consider them to be logical evidence. If we had not achieved these practical results, we would not know how to argue. Only such conclusions, which have practical success, are correct”

Very well, a type of thinking without proven results,

which regarded all natural phenomena as causally determined, already existed 1500 years before Christ, namely in the so-called Brahmana texts, where all events of the universe were considered to be magically linked to human thinking and acting. What the Vedic priest imagined and then magically set in scene by piling up sacrificial stones and pouring holy butter over them, resulted in definite and inevitable consequences – or so the priests of that time believed. These magicians thought themselves capable of destroying enemy armies with their incantations or of arbitrarily inducing lunar eclipses (apart from healing all possible diseases and misfortunes). The Indologist Hermann Oldenberg described the world view of that time as “prescientific science”; the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss interpreted it as an anticipation of scientific determinism. But it was Ludwig Boltzmann, who highlighted the crucial difference between this way of thinking and the scientific world view that emerged almost two thousand years later in the 17th century. Magical thinking merely wreaked havoc in the minds of priests, but nature remained unchanged. After all, enemies were never really defeated by priests, lunar eclipses were never induced by priests. At some point, these aberrations of mere thinking were doomed to death because people no longer believed in them. In recent times a somewhat bewildered American anthropologist even called them the senseless “jabbering of priests”. So Boltzmann is right indeed and so is the Bible: Ye shall know them by their fruits!

Ludwig Boltzmann was to live until the beginning

of the last century. He could rightly speak of a spectacular success of the natural sciences. Within only three centuries, these had made the states of Europe by far the richest and most powerful of the globe. Never before had a majority of the population enjoyed such great material prosperity, never before had people enjoyed longer lives, never had they been able to protect themselves better against diseases. And technological progress had given Europe enormous power over the rest of the world. By 1914, Great Britain controlled a quarter of the globe’s total land area before it achieved its greatest expansion in 1921. Tiny industrially armed states of a tiny western part of Eurasia had conquered entire continents (North America and Australia) and brought the rest of the world, including the two advanced civilizations of China and India, under their sway. No one was in any doubt as to the reason of this extraordinary success: All those new weapons recently developed with high scientific expertise played the decisive role: They were the direct fruit of the new scientific knowledge and skills.

But beware, how do these fruits look like today

more than a century after Boltzmann? Let’s apply the ethical standard of the Bible and the scientific standard of the great Austrian scientist to our present situation. What conclusion will we reach? Albert Einstein, the theorist, scribbled the famous formula of the equivalence of mass and energy on a piece of paper. This was a Faustian act, but Mephisto was immediately on hand to make a fruit of it, by which to recognize the validity of the theoretical formula. Since then mankind has been living with that enormous arsenal of weapons of mass destruction with which it can exterminate itself more than a hundred times over. No theorist wanted this, least of all Einstein himself, who later warned like no other of the effects of the bomb and saw in a world government the only way to deal with the deadly threat. But thistles are made to carry thorns. If we follow Boltzmann’s logic, we are not allowed to rave one-sidedly about the sweet fruits of science only – such as the historically unique wealth it has brought to a substantial part of the world’s population. No, we must also have the courage to see its poisonous fruits.

It does not even require special courage to do so

An intact world only exists in fairy tale books, the real world is made of a multitude of red lists. From California past Australia and Indonesia to Siberia forests are blazing everywhere. At the same time storms are getting more and more violent and destructive, floods are becoming more and more frequent. Already in 2006 the Stern Report conjured up the frightening prospect that agriculture in large parts of Africa can no longer feed the people so that millions of people can be expected to storm Fortress Europe.

Doctor Faust, the bold theorist, has drawn up those abstract

formulas that give modern man a dominion over nature, which until then was considered a prerogative of God. It was Mephisto, the incarnation of thousands and thousands of gifted engineers, who subsequently put the theory into actual practice. The latter was, as Boltzmann says, its logical proof.

Both together, Doctor Faustus and Mephistoles, embody the two sides of man, whose deeds consist of both good and poisonous fruits. No one, for example, doubts the tremendous progress of medicine. However, its breathtaking not only enabled man to extend life by decades and keep him healthy into old age, but it made us change the genetic make-up of living beings according to our wishes. And now we see Mephisto whispering in  our ears why not apply this ability to humans themselves, so that we may create superman not caring for the danger that he may turn out to be a mere Frankenstein monster? Such prospects are depressing. Our earth will soon become a terrible place unless we are willing and able to put something completely different alongside the superior intelligence of Dr. Faust and his alter ego Mephisto. For such help we must turn to Sophia, human wisdom, which, fortunately, we find in ourselves as well. For the sake of the common good – or rather for the sake of mere survival on an increasingly maltreated planet – Sophia must issue binding ethical rules to protect humanity from itself, namely from the poisonous fruits of scientific intelligence.

For – let us not forget – the fruits of science

cannot be obtained without exploiting things, that is nature and its resources. Without the ever increasing use of coal, oil and gas hidden in the earth’s crust, the industrial revolution would never have happened. With equal justification we may therefore call it “fossil revolution” as well. One of the poisonous fruits of the new scientific world view is that it brought about acts of unbelievable brutality against nature. In the introduction to a new, as yet unpublished book, I use the following comparison:

“Should we not compare our present situation to that of a victorious army that after seizing all the booty of a conquered country now squanders it in a short, drunken frenzy? Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, which should rather be called a fossil flash in the pan, we have been squandering the wealth of the earth and do not want to admit that all this may last for just one or two generations more. And we certainly do not want to be told that our great feast produces poisonous traces all around us: in the air, in the water and in the soil.”

For sensitive ears these are Cassandra warnings,

which endanger the complacent lies of our state-sponsored “positive” world view. But the ecological crisis is a hard fact long since accepted by all leading ecologists. Herman E. Daly, former economic officer of the World Bank, whose ecological writings are considered by many to be represent outstanding examples of scientific analysis, has given my book his explicit applause. ” Dear Dr. Jenner, Thanks for sending me your cogently reasoned, well informed, and clearly written book. I hope it is widely read. Best wishes, Herman E. Daly.

I had already received praise for my writings from economic experts, namely two well-known German economists Bert Rürup and Gerhard Scherhorn. However, I regard Prof. Daly’s benevolent assessment as particularly important, because I know of only a few scientists who uphold the truth even when it turns out to be rather “unsavory” (in Al Gore’s words) and violates the subjection to “political correctness”, which is about to force thinking more and more onto the track of self-censorship.

In any case, my book is certainly not politically correct

for I had no other intention than to be “well informed” with regard to facts, to present a ‘”clearly written” text and all arguments in a “cogently reasoned” way. Nevertheless, will those who demand political correctness so that everybody is content, shy away from some of its statements, even if their professional soundness is expressly acknowledged by an internationally celebrated authority. Ms. Julia Womser, an editor at the German dtv publishing house, with whom I had on telephone arranged the sending of the manuscript, may until now not have understood that even a young student like Greta Thunberg is fully aware of the dramatic situation we are faced with. In any case, my disregard for political correctness apparently upset the lady so much that she did not even consider it necessary to maintain the outward rules of common politeness: Even after a written inquiry – one month after delivery I asked if there was any interest in publishing my book – she did not consider it necessary to give an answer.*1* 

Yes, it is true: The book “Yes, we can – No, we must!”*2*

is characterized throughout by political incorrectness. Renouncing any euphemism, it deals with climate change, migration, basic income and similar topics that have become combat terms for many contemporaries by which to recognize other humans either as like-minded ideological friends or as enemies to be ruthlessly fought. I believe that the scientific search for truth depends on our willingness to deal objectively with each matter – carefully weighing the pros and cons. Open discussion is essential, as criticism constitutes the very essence and impetus of science. What fundamentally contradicts its spirit is the popular shitstorm as well as any secret string pulling in the background. Unfortunately, I had to experience the latter myself. I mention this incident, which in itself is devoid of any general interest, for the sole reason that it has become part of current political correctness too to make oneself small like a sneak and cowardly conceal violations of the ethos of truth and science.

The editor of a German publishing house and a German scientist

acted, in my opinion, quite carelessly, the first with regard to his reputation, the second in view of scientific ethos – such may be the consequences caused by political incorrectness. Or is it not a serious danger for the good reputation of an editor, if two weeks after my inquiry, whether there is any interest in publishing the book, he states that the “idea of the book … naturally suits us and it is surely also Worth /sic!/ to appear in Germany”, but then concludes  only the mail with the standard phrase: “please do not evaluate this refusal as criticism of the book’s quality.” Mind you, Mr. Hirsch said so without having read even one line of the book, because in my publishing offer I had only mentioned the title together with  the benevolent assessment by an internationally renowned expert. But in truth, he learned to know about the manuscript too from Mr. Niko Paech, an esteemed author of his house, who had indeed received the manuscript and already congratulated me on the commendatory statement from Mr. Daly: “I would have liked to have such a feedback from the Pope /the growth criticism/…” Prof. Paech also knew that I wanted to contact the oekom publishing house, because I had previously informed him of my intent in two emails.*3*

Well, such intrigues and secret arrangements behind the scenes are so commonplace that it would not be worthwhile to Even mention them. On the other hand, I don’t want to be told that I’m closing my eyes to such manoevres out of a sense of defenselessness. Open discussion also means calling by name those who avoid  such discussion and prefer to whisper behind the scenes. Ye shall know them by their fruits!

But is there still anything more to be learned about climate change

that is not already known to those who want to be informed? Not really much, indeed. My book will only be granted a certain originality and value for further discussion in one respect. If it is true that the depletion of resources and – even more so – the constant poisoning of the environment by the residues of industrial processes (of which CO2 is only one among hundreds of thousands) represents an even greater turning point than the two greatest revolutions of the past, the Neolithic and the fossil. And if it is equally true that the measures necessary to overcome this historic crisis are in themselves quite simple and well known to science, then we must ask ourselves why these rather simple and well known measures are meeting with such bitter resistance so that despite the Paris Treaty and countless other efforts we are de facto sliding towards the abyss ever faster? This question cries for an answer – and this what the book wants to provide.

1 We should not be surprised that in view of such proceedings on the part of editors it is becoming more and more common for authors to send their manuscripts to several publishers at the same time – otherwise they must reckon with waiting for an anser until the end of their days.

2 The German original is titled “Wir schaffen das!” (We can do it!); the English version, available as Kindle on Amazon, has a better title: “Yes, we can – No, we must!”.

3 I very much appreciate the thoughtful and often challenging reflections of German ecologist Prof. Niko Paech. That was the reason why I sent him a copy of the present book venturing at the same time to ask him to intercede with the oekom publishing house, where he was an esteemed author, in case he liked the manuscript. I even made this request a second time after he had confirmed receipt of the manuscript. I then contacted Mr. Hirsch of the oekom publishing house to ask if he was interested in the work, in which case I would send him the manuscript. I did so by mail and by phone on the same day. If from the outset he had to turn down my offer because at that time there was no more room left for further publications, then he could have told me this right away on the phone – indeed that is what he should have done.

It was not until two weeks later that I received a rejection in the form of the usual standard text, namely that unfortunately the publisher already had other books in its program and that I should please not take this as a statement about the quality of my book. This was pure mockery in view of the fact that Mr. Hirsch never received the manuscript. Only Mr. Paech, the established author of the publishing house, had been able to provide information within these two weeks – I had twice informed Mr. Paech that I wanted to contact oekom.

I mention this refusal which in itself is, of course, quite insignificant, because it is the opposite of a possibly very justified criticism of my work. Indeed, I would have been grateful to Mr. Paech if he had conducted in an open way. As to Mr. Hirsch: publishers are private companies and therefore have the right to accept or reject whom or what they want, even without giving reasons, but there are rules of decency that even a Mr. Hirsch should observe. Let me add that the presumption of innocence applies to Mr. Paech as it does to everybody else. After all, nothing is impossible with God – perhaps archangel Gabriel gave Mr. Hirsch insight into my book making him a competent judge.

Brave New Corona World – A heated Debate between Steven Pinker and Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley: Did I not make sufficiently clear what I think about principled optimists and ideological perfectionism when I wrote a masterpiece of world literature on the subject? Don’t believe that a man of the mind ever takes leave of thinking and simply retires. Instead I’m anxiously following what you’re doing down there – and certainly that gives me no rest. Coronavirus is only one among many threatening forebodings. Homo sapiens insapientissimus seems to do everything in his power in order to put himself on the red list of species without a future. And you don’t even know what you are doing! *0*

Steven Pinker: Here you go, I don’t talk to the dead; you’ve had your time, now the living are calling the shots. What you delivered in your great masterpiece was after all nothing but poetry, that is to say nothing but fantasy. But I can prove – figures at hand – that almost everything is much better today than it has ever been in the past. People live longer, they kill themselves less, they eat better, they have fewer illnesses than ever before – even though their numbers have increased sevenfold during the last two hundred years. *1* What better proof is there to reduce all your objections to absurdity – together with those of all other naysayers and prophets of doom, both living and dead?

Huxley: Oh certainly, I can provide the proof. It is being delivered to us right now. While you make man believe that he is in paradise, pestilences are spreading at ever shorter intervals and with ever greater devastation. First among the animals. “Hundreds of thousands of closely packed animals waiting to be taken to the slaughterhouse: ideal conditions for the mutation of microbes into deadly pathogens.”*2* The only way to combat the danger is to stuff those animals with antibiotics (which we then use to poison ourselves). Nevertheless, entire populations of pigs, cattle, chickens, geese etc. have to be culled, mauled, gassed and buried.

Pinker: So what? This is but a minor technical problem, which we successfully overcome. The sick is wiped out, the healthy remains, where is the problem?

Huxley: We will never eliminate the problem as long as the habitat for animals and humans is getting more and more cramped. Man himself will have increased his number tenfold within only three hundred years. The emergence of epidemic diseases such as cholera, plague, influenza, typhoid fever and smallpox requires a certain population density to allow effective transmission of germs. Hunter-gatherers were still spared this evil which for us has turned into a murderous danger. Up to the present day, Europe was regularly hit by epidemics. None was as deadly as the so-called Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920. This epidemic, spread by soldiers in America and Europe through the H1N1 influenza virus, killed almost as many people in a single year as the Black Death killed in a whole century: between 50 and 100 million people, far more than the 40 million soldiers who fell victim to the First World War.

But compared to former times, the problem could become much worse. Today, not only Western affluent citizens are demanding more and more meat, but also China and soon Africa and the rest of humanity. And in order to satisfy this hunger for meat, we need an area for all farm animals together that is already as large as the entire African continent.*3*

In other words, industrialized husbandry created those very conditions which produce pestilences not only among animals but also in agriculture at large. Our monocultures among farm animals correspond to the monocultures among edible plants. These too are devastated by epidemics. Meanwhile, we are burdening the agriculturally used landscape with vast amounts of poison – each year with new and stronger ones to save the harvests from hosts of constantly mutating plagues. Where once poets and thinkers sang the praises of nature in romantic verses, we are now confronted with disgusting stench. Who will still be happy let alone be poetically inspired when walking through vineyards or orchards freshly sprayed with pesticides? Ours are landscapes where the devil lets pop his bestial farts.

Pinker: Oh yes, I can see, Aldous, you are a grumpy spoilsport. Instead of shuddering in awe at the great achievements of man’s overpowering mind that led us down to the atom and the genome of living species and up to the galaxies, you criticize what is nothing more than children’s diseases, which of course always existed and will certainly still exist in the future. But I assure you, at some point our phytosanitary experts will invent odorless poisons and then your sensitive romantics and poets will go back to the vineyards to adorn the grapes with their verses. As to the wine, you continue drinking it anyway; I don’t know any sober poets. I tell you, we scientists have so far overcome all difficulties.

Huxley: No, that is definitely not true. So drunk you are with your own mind and Faustian endeavors that you are simply blind to all forebodings, though they be close enough. We are no longer speaking about animals only, it is about us, it is about people that we must worry. Our exploding numbers ensure that mass animal husbandry now goes along with mass human husbandry. In the large concrete heaps, we call metropolises, our species lives similarly confined as the animals we feed upon. What we do to other species, we end up doing to ourselves. To be sure, the Corona crisis has not led to mass slaughter among humans, but we lock ourselves up in multistoried sardine tins for weeks or even months, just to avoid contaminating each other through mutual contact.

Pinker: What’s the point of whining? In the end, we will invent a vaccine – and that’s the end of our problems..

Huxley: We will certainly invent a vaccine, perhaps even odorless poisons. But that only means that we will be forced to search for antidotes at an ever faster pace just to repair all those damages we have caused in the first place. From the era of progressive society, meant to improve people’s lives, we stumbled into the era of risk society during the last century, careful not to let a nuclear power station become an atomic bomb (Chernobyl or Fukushima). In the 21st century, however, we entered the era of repair society, where we are mainly concerned with containing damage. I mean the damage we have caused to the air (CO2), to the soil (destruction of humus) and to the water (plastic waste) over during hundred years of industrialization.

But that’s a race against time, which is becoming more and more complex and expensive. As world population has grown larger and larger, wanting to be fed better and better, we need more and more energy just to satisfy our basic physical needs. Today we realize that the so-called industrial revolution is above all an energy revolution. We can no longer close our eyes to the evidence that we ruthlessly plundered the planet’s energy reserves stored in the ground over millions of years – and that we still do so today. This plundering of scarce resources explains why both have grown exponentially within just two hundred years: energy consumption as well as the material standard of living measured in terms of GNP.

Energy consumption: In 1800, it amounted to about 400 million tons of oil equivalents. A hundred years later it was already 1.9 billion tons, almost five times as much. In the next ninety years, until 1990, consumption increased by a factor of sixteen to 30 billion tons (McNeill).

GNP: While global GNP – converted into US dollars in 1990 – was still around 650 billion around 1800, it had tripled to 1.98 trillion by 1900. With 28 trillion around 1990, this amount had grown fourteenfold in less than a century (Maddison).

The connection between the two exponential curves is obvious. Of course, coal and oil would never have had an effect without the invention of the steam engine, diesel and electric motor. But conversely, these machines were able to begin their triumphal march solely because mankind had by now ignited the fossil fire. The industrial revolution and the use of fossil fuels form an indissoluble unity. It’s only because we plundered the planet without any restraint that we are doing so well today.

Pinker: Right. Today we are doing better than ever before in all human history. I have proven this point in my groundbreaking book “Enlightenment Now” with reference to quite a number of indicators.

Huxley: Certainly, the book is one single hymn to the spirit of invention, but the dark flipside of the coin is unfortunately left out altogether. Any objective observer will understand that our experiment with the energy reserves hidden underneath the earth’s mantle will prove to be a flash in the pan. After just three hundred years, the reserves are already running out – and worse still, the residues from combustion (CO2) are heating up the globe in such a way that the rising tides of the oceans threaten us with submerging most coastal cities thus transforming millions of people into refugees. We already passed the peak of the Gaussian normal distribution of early rise and later fall. Even if our reserves were unlimited, we can no longer use them because the fossil fire leads to climate change. Our wealth is so closely linked to fossil combustion that one can only marvel at how optimists still have the upper hand in most governments and even among economists – optimists who cling with strange naivety to the myth of eternal growth.

Whether we want to admit it or not, growth will be over as soon as our supply of fossil gold is exhausted. Perhaps we will then even be pushed back into the poverty of earlier eras. This is a view openly expressed by the collective of scientists led by Ugo Bardi.*4* In any case, we are facing a way of life in which we will have to make do with the amount of energy that the sun provides for our territory. It is obvious that the discovery of fossil fuels – that is, the solar energy stored in coal and oil over millions of years – allows us to consume far more than the current solar radiation. “It is possible to calculate that at the peak of national coal production in the 1920s, coal was produced in England in such large quantities that it generated almost the same amount of heat as would have been produced by burning down the entire global forest” (Bardi, my italics).*5*

Pinker: How similar you Cassandra’s are! Your true and only trademark is lack of imagination. Maybe oil and gas will one day come to an end – of course they will -, and maybe we will not be able to use the methane abundantly found on the ocean’s seabed because we want to shield the globe from further CO2 emissions. But then fusion energy will come to our aid and provide us with a cornucopia of energy. Don’t you see, dear colleague, that we are the only species on earth, and perhaps in the whole cosmos, that has so far been able to give unlimited scope to the mind finding the right technical answer to every problem? For me, this superior trait represents no less than the very definition of what makes us human: we are the problem-solving species par excellence.

Huxley: And I regret to have to contradict you once more. We are the problem-blind species, because we are very close to the abyss yet hardly anybody seems to notice or – perhaps more correctly – hardly anybody wants to notice. “Listen to the news, to elected politicians, to economic and political pundits in this time of crisis. You will hear virtually no reference to climate change (remember climate change?), wild-fires, biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, sea level rise, tropical deforestation, land/soil degradation, human expansion into wild-lands, etc., etc., and there is no hint of understanding that these trends are connected to each other and to the pandemic.” *6*

Your vision of unlimited fusion power, dear Steven, would probably signal the final end of the human experiment. After all, energy is mainly used to convert substances. However, all the materials we need are now rapidly diminishing: copper, rare earths, phosphorus, even the sand needed for concrete. An unlimited supply of energy would only cause us to use up all the resources still left in one wild, orgiastic feast, so to speak – whereupon mankind then wakes up crowding naked on a barren planet. Although we need more and more energy to produce the food for those ten billion people expected during this century, we are quickly running out of the energy needed to do so – by the way, of green energy too. A research group around Jessica Lovering has calculated that we would have to cover with wind turbines and solar modules an area the size of the United States (including Alaska) together with the inhabited area of Canada and furthermore Central America if we want to produce the amount of energy projected for 2050.*7*

Pinker: Stop it! Such pessimism, Aldous, is a crime not only against the people living now but against future generations as well. It darkens the mind and paralyses the power of invention. The best proof that man’s story is one of unending success can be read from our numbers. We are born survivors. Whereas in the days of hunter-gatherers only hordes of at most a hundred people roamed the savannahs, cities with millions of inhabitants are now shooting out of the ground on all continents. Charles Darwin, undoubtedly the greatest scientist after Newton, gave us the right theory explaining this success already a century and a half ago. Whoever is better equipped in the life struggle will prevail, he will have the largest offspring and rule the globe.

Huxley: Sorry that I have to contradict you again. How can Darwin’s theory be correct, when counterevidence is so obvious? When putting all mammals on the scale, humans account for only 36% of total biomass. With a total of just 4%, elephants, tigers, seals, whales, etc. are practically extinct. An overwhelming mass of 60% is made up of cattle, pigs, chickens and the like. Obviously, these represent by far the most successful species – I can’t see how this fact can be reconciled with Darwin’s theory other than by auxiliary constructions. Man and the animals he devours have multiplied like locusts and lemmings within only two hundred years. But we should know what fate regularly befalls such a population explosion – population collapse. Darwin or not, I do not see how this can be seen as a success.

Pinker: Oh, that’s what you’re getting at.  Nature will help itself – with wars, epidemics, famines, etc., so that in the end there will be a small group of people left who will then again go hunting and gathering, as they did ten thousand years ago. That’s the same old tune I do no longer want to hear. To tell you the truth right to your face. I was always advocating freedom and condemning censorship, but such spoilsports and defeatists like you should simply be forbidden to open their mouth.

Sorry for that, but a small thought experiment would suffice to show you how harmless our current situation really is. If we were to accommodate all seven billion people in your dwarf state of Austria, then there would still be 12m2 for every single inhabitant, that is six by two meters – more space than granted by most prisons where quite a few of our contemporaries have to spend their entire life. So, there can be no question of overpopulation. What bothers me about your pessimism is that it is so mentally barren. If you consider it your task to critically question every achievement of our great technical-scientific civilization, then please tell me how you would devise a better world. Mere criticism is a disease that does no good to anyone unless it is administered at the same time as a prescription for healing.

Huxley: I accept this objection. I am even in complete agreement with you, but I also demand that you understand the immense difficulty we are facing. The sudden proliferation of our species beyond the ecosystem’s biological carrying capacity is a misfortune for which there are endless examples in nature – all of them quite unfortunate. I already mentioned lemmings and locusts, but among bacteria and viruses, exponential-explosive reproduction is the norm. And it is a norm too that nature solves the problem in quite a brutal way: it lets the surplus perish. We humans never rebelled against this cruelty as long as it merely affected other species. Then it seemed even quite “natural”. But now, it is we ourselves with almost ten billion individuals that face an ecosystem that can no longer cope with this burden. “Even at current global average levels of consumption (about a third of the Canadian average) the human population far exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth.  We’d need almost five Earth-like planets to support just the present world population indefinitely at Canadian average material standards.”*8*

Yes, we are much better off materially than all of humanity before our time – you are absolutely right insisting on this point. But as soon as we realize that our success is due to the fact that we stripped the planet like locusts, the picture looks completely different. Only we, the ones you revile as naysayers and Cassandras, point out the danger. We say as loudly as we can that in the beginning 21st century humanity must do everything in its capacity to prevent nature from taking revenge on us by treating us in the same way as locusts and lemmings. Or to prevent nature from making ourselves its executors as we destroy each other with wars for the sake of the last remaining resources. “There are no exceptions to the 1st law of plague dynamics:  the unconstrained expansion of any species’ population invariably destroys the conditions that enabled the expansion, thus triggering collapse. “*9* 

Pinker: All right, let’s get to the main topic. Tell me now what you think the world should look like. I assume you either want to lead us back to stone age frugality or to radically reduce our number, as nature does with locusts. That’s what your prescription boils down to.

Huxley: I am surprised by the ease with which you compare humans with locusts, although you see reason, gained through enlightenment, as a characteristic that distinguishes us from other living beings. I guess you know that lots of scientific studies unequivocally prove that the present Western standard of living can only be maintained quite a short time for a population of almost ten billion people. Our energetic flash of the pan will probably be extinguished before the end of this century. If we want to avoid this collapse and create a sustainable world, we will only achieve this goal in two ways: either we reduce our consumption of nature to about one fifth of its actual amount, or only two billion people will be allowed to enjoy the current Western standard of living.

Pinker: Bravo, I already knew that’s what it boils down to. Either radical renunciation, where we all lead an existence of beggars, or five of the existing seven billion people are simply declared superfluous. Maybe you’ll dispose of them on Mars?

Huxley: Please, put mockery aside for a moment. It’s nothing but the usual flight reflex when we are confronted with an existential threat. I guess you’re thinking of the disastrous book by Ilija Trojanow “Der Überflüssige Mensch” (Superfluous Man). But no one who advocates a sensible population policy – Bertrand Russell himself had already done so more than half a century ago – has even for a moment thought of misunderstanding it in the sense of declaring any part of people already living to be superfluous. Such an absurd (and criminal) idea can only arise in the heads of demagogues. The point is to work towards the goal of sustainable population size by limiting the birth rate, as already practiced with considerable success in China. With its falling birth rate, Europe too provides a praiseworthy example.

Pinker: Oh really? And why do companies, politicians and pensioners continue to complain about a lack of workers and even of money to pay their pensions? And why do European nations let foreigners from all over the world stream across their borders in Order to compensate for shrinking population numbers? In Europe, no one seems to be happy about what you call a praiseworthy example. Instead everyone seems to see demographic decline as a national disaster.

Huxley: True, unfortunately, I have to agree with you. Leading scientists leave no doubt that a radical restriction of births is the only sensible policy if we want to escape ecological catastrophe. Everything: the overfishing of oceans and their rapid pollution with plastic, the poisoning of the atmosphere with CO2, the imminent depletion of energy reserves, the increasing threat of all kinds of epidemics in a totally overcrowded world – all this can only be overcome if a consistent population policy succeeds in reducing the birth rate to a fraction within this century. However, instead of presenting the Chinese and European examples as the best solution to what is currently the biggest problem facing humanity, we complain about dwindling pensions. Instead of recommending a radically different policy to the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, where the birth surplus is thwarting all sustainability, and supporting all efforts to this effect, we are opening up our borders, thus encouraging these countries to stick to their existing population policies.

Pinker: Do I understand you correctly that we should close our borders? Beware, dear colleague, of mutating into an inhuman, brutal national egoist who lets others die on the other side of the border rather than allowing foreigners into his country.

Huxley: I admit that you are touching a sore point – and one that is extremely problematic and controversial. Let’s leave migration aside for a moment and look at the same problem from a different point of view. Then we may perhaps find more easily common ground.

Let’s take waste production, for example. It seems obvious to me that, in future, every state will have to dispose of it exclusively by itself. More and more foreign countries (once treated superciliously as the “Third World”) are now refusing to poison their own territory with Western garbage. This trend should be welcome. Only by being forced to deal with the problem ourselves do we find strategies for waste avoidance. The responsibility for one’s own actions must again lie with the actor himself, whether individual, company or state. But what is true for waste should apply to industrial production as well. The Corona crisis has shown that, in an emergency, we should produce everything that is essential for life, if not in our own country then at least within the existing federations of states such as the European Union. We must not bring ourselves into existential dependence by relying on a workbench on the other side of the world.*10* In an ideal world, as described by orthodox economics, completely free trade would bring the greatest benefit to all people, that is true, but so far we never lived in a similar world, and we will only achieve it under a future world government.

Yes, and this brings me to point three. Every country (or federation or Union) should only accommodate as many people as can live sustainably on its territory. This conclusion too seems to be inescapable.

Pinker: Quite interesting – and quite strange. Do you really know what you are saying? This is a program to reverse 150 years of globalization. You want to go back to the world as it was a thousand years ago, when China, India, Europe, Australia and America either knew nothing about each other or at least needed almost nothing from each other to satisfy their immediate material needs.

Huxley: If it were as simple as that! Didn’t I just remark that the world is facing what is perhaps the greatest challenge of all times? It belongs to the power of each of the three great powers that it may at any moment contaminate any point on earth with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in such a disastrous way that the entire human race will be affected. This globalization through the “progress” of weapons technology is irreversible. Even if, in the future, each state or confederation of states were to bear sole responsibility for its own territory and the people living within it, common survival would still depend on no one harming the other. But this can only be achieved through peace, cooperation and mutually binding treaties. In other words, current humanity will have to achieve two major feats at the same time: regionalization on the one hand, i.e. full responsibility within its own borders, and globalization on the other, because we are all passengers on the same boat that may easily capsize.

Pinker: That is again your usual exaggeration and panic mongering! In the times of the Thirty Years’ War, people believed that salvation could only be found in the right faith. In his great book “The God Delusion”, my dear friend Richard Dawkins has denounced the hopeless nonsense of all past and present religious fighters.  A century after thirty years of religious murder, the Enlightenment has for the first time exposed this madness. But then Karl Marx came and created a new delusion. Supposedly, the workers only had to own the machines used by them for production in order to make them happy. Soviet Russia has shown us that they did not become happier at all but were simply turned into beggars, when  compared with their rich counterparts in the US. Now the latest craze is that we ruin all previous progress for the sake of ecology.

Huxley: No, we don’t ruin progress, we only turn to the evidence. In the “Lucky Latitudes” located in the Old World in a strip of about 20 to 35 degrees north and in the New World between 15 degrees south to 20 degrees north, collecting yielded the best results. For a single calorie invested on the work of collecting, our distant ancestors ten thousand years ago gained fifty calories from the food thus collected.  Today, this balance has turned into the opposite: 22,000 calories are needed to produce 100g of beef with a calorie content of 270 calories. Instead of being rewarded for a single calorie of bodily exertion with fifty calories of food, we now put 81 calories into work to gain just one calorie of food. Most of the calories needed are obtained from fossil fuels that are used in tractors, fertilizers, etc. – a devastating energy balance. Every thinking person must understand that things cannot go on like this. The Green Revolution quadrupled the harvest yield between 1950 and 2000; only in this way was it at all possible to largely feed the number of people, which jumped from about 1.5 to six billion during this period. If instead the old methods would have remained in place, so that the agricultural yield had not been increased, then an area equivalent to the entire surface of the United States plus Canada and China would have had to be cleared and ploughed up to feed today’s world population.*11*

However, the willingness to draw the right conclusions from these facts has so far been demonstrated by only a handful of scientists. For it is at this point that something quite different comes into play. The elementary problem of ecology turns into a social question – one could also say a question of consciousness. As long as a minority wallows in power and wealth, the majority will not want to accept any loss. Seen in this light, Marx was indeed perfectly right.

Pinker: No, even this argument is far too simple. As long as the superpowers remain suspicious of each other, neither of them will want to give up the slightest advantage if it benefits the competitor. It’s a great naivety to think that while the superpowers invest billions in weapons just to keep up with their rivals, they will voluntarily cut back on their use of resources just because they listen to the siren sounds of ecologists. It’s here, my dear colleague, where all your hopeless idealism is suddenly revealed.

Let me suggest a little more realism. Mankind has developed something much more effective and thoroughly democratic than the voluntary cutting back of resources and waste production. And you should know that as well as everybody else. We have got the market, which does not show any consideration even for governments. The market controls all economic transactions through prices. That’s why we have nothing to fear for the environment. If oil becomes too expensive or the disposal of waste no longer affordable, the industry will switch to other forms of energy. Market and prices – that is global reason embodied in a global institution, which tames and regulates itself. As long as the market is intact, we have nothing to fear!

Huxley: Steven, now you are making me laugh! You call me an idealist when you yourself are nothing but a conservative dreamer. Do the melting glaciers have a price? Will wild animals dying out all over the world ever be included in market calculations? Does industry measure CO2 content in the atmosphere in order to add the cost of climate change to its prices? Has inequality that made some people multi-billionaires and others starving ever unsettled the market?

No, it is not the market that saves the world, but strong governments that consider the interests of both present and future generations. Our current misfortune could, however, prove to be helpful. As long as the world market, i.e. international competition, sets the tone, regionalization is out of the question. But now the major economic blocs have to think about themselves. This could turn out to be a huge opportunity. Before the onslaught of corona, many people were complaining about the fact that the environment cannot cope with the ever growing air traffic. Now the air industry has collapsed. Corona does almost everything that the saviors of the environment have been preaching and demanding for years. The virus has significantly reduced energy consumption, exhaust gases were reduced to a minimum because traffic came to a standstill, the sky over the cities has turned blue again, in sheer amazement some animals venture out of their hiding places. Corona forces the world to change.

Pinker: That sounds as if you ecologists had been longing for such a crisis.

Huxley: If without a smaller crisis it is not possible to save the world from the great catastrophe, then this question should be answered in the affirmative, because it is a fact that humans learn best from their mistakes. Incidentally, international cooperation in the fight against Corona is the obvious proof of the salutary aspect of globalization. The common misfortune could become a common opportunity.

Pinker: This won’t do. Man needs hope and a positive narrative. With my groundbreaking book on the Enlightenment, I succeeded in conveying precisely that kind of hope. We should be proud of everything we have achieved in science and technology. But you are taking hope away from the people.

Huxley: Is there a greater hope than a world whose beauty we preserve for ourselves and future generations? Has it never occurred to you that a peacock, a hippopotamus or a lion are greater and far more complex inventions than even our fastest supercomputers? It is this world of incredible beauty and complexity that we want to preserve. I know of no greater positive narrative than this common task.

.

*0* Arguably an even more convincing partner in this dispute with Steven Pinker would have been the former German psychiatrist and neurologist Hoimar v. Ditfurth, who is, however, little known outside Germany. The title of his book (published already in 1985!) “So lasst uns denn ein Apfelbäumchen pflanzen – Es ist soweit” (let’s plant an apple tree – it’s time) alludes to what Luther would have done if the world were to perish. The book provides not only a detailed description of mankind’s likely self-extermination through nuclear, biological and chemical weapons but also identifies the main reason for the predicament of our species: exponential growth of world population. For one thing only would I blame this extraordinarily well-informed, intelligent and sympathetic man. He saw no way out of mankind’s predicament and equated his own demise – which took place four years after the publication of the book – with the end of the world.

*1* Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now.

*2*  Des centaines de milliers de bêtes entassées les unes sur les autres en attendant d’être conduites à l’abattoir : voilà des conditions idéales pour que les microbes se muent en agents pathogènes mortels. (https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2020/03/SHAH/61547#nb9)

*3*  Pour assouvir son appétit carnivore, l’homme a rasé une surface équivalant à celle du continent africain (8) afin de nourrir et d’élever des bêtes destinées à l’abattage. (https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2020/03/SHAH/61547#nb9)

*4* Bardi (2014): “Extracted. How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet”, Chelsea Green Publishing 2014,

*5* Quoted from Jenner (2019): Reflections.

*6* William E. Rees (2020): The Earth Is Telling Us We Must Rethink Our Growth Society (https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2020/04/06/The-Earth-Is-Telling-Us-We-Must-Rethink-Our-Growth-Society/).

*7* Quoted from Jenner (2019), Reflections.

*8* William E. Rees, op. cit.

*9* Rees, op cit.: Now here’s the thing. H. sapiens has recently experienced a genuine population explosion. It took all of human evolutionary history, at least 200,000 years, for our population to reach its first billion early in the 19th Century. Then, in just two hundred years, (less than 1/1000thas much time) we blossomed to over seven billion at the beginning of this century.  This unprecedented outbreak is attributable to H. sapiens’ technological ingenuity, e.g., modern medicine and especially the use of fossil fuels. (The latter enabled the continuous increases in food production and provided access to all the other resources needed to expand the human enterprise.) 

The problem is that Earth is a finite planet, a human Petri dish on which the seven-fold increase in human numbers, vastly augmented by a 100-fold increase in gross world product (consumption), is systematically destroying prospects for continued civilized existence.

*10* This imperative I had already advocated in my first book on economics: “Die arbeitslose Gesellschaft” (S. Fischer 1997; now newly published by Amazon “Nach der Coronakrise – keine Arbeitslosigkeit durch Auslagerung und Automation”).

*11* Quoted from Jenner (2019): Reflections.

Is Democracy still alive?

We are used to measuring this form of government above all by the degree of freedom that a government grants its citizens. Viewed from this perspective, the picture is as bright as it is gloomy. No one prevents me from expressing even the most absurd opinions. I may even call publicly for the overthrow of the government, provided that this is done without insulting specific individuals and without denouncing the democratic constitution as such. We should not regard this as a matter of course. In Putin’s Russia, we see opposition members disappearing under unresolved circumstances; in China, they are simply eliminated under resolved circumstances. Countries such as Germany or Austria not only allow an almost unlimited freedom of speech but to a certain degree even of action. I am not forbidden to organize my life according to personal preferences living as a single person, in a homosexual relationship or as a protester with long hair or full body tattoo or even as an accepted dropout somewhere in the province. In the leading democracy of the West, in the US, I am even allowed to publish books in which I offer detailed descriptions of how to best crack the safes of rich people. Yes, and nobody prevents me from selling the tools that are best suited for this purpose. I am only forbidden to realize such recipes or to put those tools to a practical test.

This distinction is generally valid in the US. No law forbids me to openly confess my liking for human butchers like Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot as long as I do not take concrete steps to translate their ideas into practice. Even a cursory glance at history teaches us that individual freedom, as it seems self-evident in the US or in contemporary Western democracies, never existed to such an extent.

Seen from this perspective, we have good reason to be grateful

for not being citizens of Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China. Many people who do not want to keep their own opinions in check would have to spend their lives in a prison cell – unless, that is to say, they are threatened with something even worse. These are facts that are hard to argue about. And yet, we have to say that such gratitude is not very widespread and rather meets with sneering smiles. We may be astonished by such reactions but they are not so difficult to understand. Let us for this purpose take a second look at Russia or rather at the international broadcaster RT (Russia today). It is striking how many outstanding Western intellectuals regularly appear at this platform – by no means only those who are sympathetic to the policy of the new Russian Tsar. They take this as a welcome opportunity to familiarize a wider audience with their thoughts, because they have little chance of being invited by the media in their own country.

It is true that in western democracies

everything may be said. Nobody wants serious thinkers to shut up, even annoying oppositionists, unscrupulous quacks, radical do-gooders or incorrigible reactionaries are allowed to speak out unhindered. The question is whether what they say will be heard.

Here the odds are definitely against them. Media concentration in a few hands has so much progressed in Western states – above all in the US – that opinions are now sifted and controlled by a handful of press moguls. This means that only those they admit as politically correct have any chance of being published and known by a broad public. Of course, social media such as Facebook etc. still open an almost limitless field to the freedom of expression, but at the cost of being unnoticed and unheeded. Utmost freedom is indeed perfectly compatible with an undemocratic control of media-effective opinion. The end of this development could very well be a de facto opinion dictatorship.

The fact that high-ranking US intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky are barred from public appearance in the media of their own country so that in order to be heard they accept invitations by RT, suggests that we are already heading in this direction.

Western societies suffer from a paradox

On the one hand, their people are doing better than ever before. Material living standards have never been as high as in modern welfare states. In earlier societies people regularly starved to death – as we know, in some parts of the world, this is the case even today. That is not to say that we do not witness premature deaths in Western societies, but instead of being caused by want as in earlier times they are the result of excess: obesity and other luxury diseases of present-day civilization.

On the other hand, we do experience a process of creeping disempowerment of the democratic sovereign. Many people are painfully aware that their vote counts for less or even nothing; the trend towards abstention should be an unmistakable warning. People feel the same with regard to their electoral participation as with regard to their personal opinions: they may freely indulge in both, but in the end they hardly matter.

Is this resignation justified

or does it only indicate an oversaturation with benefits that one takes for granted? After all, it is still up to the voter to decide whether Mrs. Merkel or the AfD, Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump come to power! And it is still up to the voter to elect a social regime like in Sweden or a decidedly neo-liberal one like in Great Britain. Such alternatives continue to be full of meaning! The democratic sovereign may still decide to use his voice for the sake of more social peace at home and greater respect from outside.

And yet the suspicion that even Western democratic states are granting their citizens less and less power is more than just an illusion. If Western peoples were really the lords of their own destiny, they should be happy with what is, after all, the outcome of their own choices. The barometer of satisfaction in Sweden or Great Britain would have to show a higher value than in autocratic China (before the Corona epidemic). But this is definitely not the case. A majority of Chinese look to their own future with optimism, while people in Western states – whether under left-wing or right-wing governments – face it with concern and fear.

But let’s leave psychology aside,

as it is subject to great fluctuations, and turn instead to those objective conditions that increasingly limit democratic freedom. Regardless of whether they are democratically governed or not, all modern states are forced to measure and align their own policies with those of their most successful competitors. Not only the latest inventions of technology, but also the most efficient organization of work or the most effective ways of attracting investment and international corporations are spreading like wildfire across the globe. Large companies always copied the best strategies of their competitors lest they fall behind. External pressure tends to be so overwhelming that they pay little or no attention to the needs of their workforce. But the same thing is happening between countries. These are increasingly behaving as if they were nothing more than variants of big corporations. Democratic self-determination is well on the way to being replaced by undemocratic external conditioning.

The progressive choking of democratic self-determination

is not the work of malicious conspirators against democracy – it is the result of external conditions. Without Germany and Austria succeeding in maintaining a presence on global markets through innovation, they will not be able to maintain their current standard of living. But in order to remain at the top, they must subject their people to the same degree of performance – and ultimately the same working conditions – as their most successful competitors. They must even allow the same concentration of banks and corporations as soon as mere size becomes an advantage in global competition.

And even more: they will have to sacrifice their own industries if their competitors gain an advantage by doing so. The policy of outsourcing industrial production to Asia was not the result of democratic decision nor of government planning – not even the CEOs of German industries wanted to do so, but it was dictated from outside by Germany’s most powerful competitor, the US. After the United States had embarked on this path, giving it a huge cost advantage, the Europeans had no choice but to follow suite, otherwise European products would no longer be able to compete with American products on world markets.

Why does the struggle between left and right political camps

seems rather unimportant after Tony Blair in England or Gerhard Schröder in Germany? Not at all because these two ideological positions suddenly lost credibility. It still makes a big difference whether we want to realize a maximum of material equality or a maximum of freedom.

The loss of significance of both positions is the result of external constraints. It is due to the fact that the individual state is no longer able to enforce its preferences when these are in conflict with the demands of global competition. In other words, the margin left to the democratic sovereign is increasingly restricted by globalization. Freedom only exists where neither a nation’s economic and military position nor the standard of living of its population is at stake. In the election of its President, Austria was able to choose between Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer – a difference like between light and darkness. In Francois Hollande’s France, millions of people could take to the streets for or against homosexual marriage – the pressure from outside triggered by global competition only played a role insofar as the decision for this form of human bonds was considered “progressive” by most Western states. But even a decision against homosexual marriage would not have had any influence on the French standard of living.

But in a globalized world

it no longer depends on the decision of the democratic sovereign whether or not the country’s economy continues to follow a path of growth, whether or not it is dominated by international corporations and banks, whether or not Greta Thunberg’s demands are applied.

No – this observation needs to be corrected. It still depends on the democratic sovereign, because theoretically he could indeed elect a party that prohibits economic growth as well as any further increase in the consumption of resources. A democratic majority could even impose a radical green turn and initiate a basic transformation of the economy by reducing the current ecological footprint from more than two globes to the sustainable consumption of just a single one.

But this is precisely the step that no single state will take

Not because government or citizens are too stupid to recognize its necessity. After all, man has never been so foolish as to voluntarily devastate his own garden when he owes his survival to its fruits. The real situation is much more difficult and much more dramatic because the democratic sovereign literally fights against himself as he is torn between two insights that both have equal strength. Of course, every informed person would like put an end to ecological destruction rather today than tomorrow. But at the same time, everybody is equally aware that it would be of no use to his nation or to nature – if a single state sets an example that others do not follow. This applies both to sustainability in our dealing with nature and to the use of increasingly deadly weapons. The state that offers the world a truly Christian example by scrapping from one day to the next its entire nuclear armament will find itself the following day under the guardianship of villains who did not for a moment think of following its lead. Europe, militarily utterly weak when compared to the US, Russia and soon even China, likes to regard its weakness as proof of a higher moral stance. But it could one day bitterly regret this as fatal mistake if the superpowers exploit its weakness by making it the next theatre of war between them (like they did before to so many militarily defenseless states).*1*

The limitations of democratic sovereignty due to global competition

are a lot more pervasive than the interventions of the Brussels Commission in the sovereignty of European member states. In all central matters of national existence industrialized countries such as Germany, France or Canada follow the lead of the world’s most successful nations, just as every successful company constantly looks to its competitors in order to remain competitive. That is why consistent growth and the concomitant sell-out of nature remain categorical imperatives of governmental action as long as they give the individual state greater economic power in the race of nations and its citizens a higher material standard of living. States that would decouple themselves from this trend fall back to the level of developing countries or may even end up among “failed nations”.

The fear of relegation explains why CO2 emissions and the destruction of nature are constantly in the rise, although the need for green policies is being talked about more loudly every year. Every educated person is perfectly aware that progressive growth – both economic and military – is bringing humanity ever closer to its own ruin and that of the planet, but as long as the race of nations continues, they will not be able to do anything serious about it.

The question of whether we still live in democracies

thus allows for a twofold answer. Yes, we may still decide in favor of Merkel and against Höcke (AfD), in favor of Van der Bellen and against Hofer (FPÖ) – and that is an enormous asset. But unless being content with economic marginalization or imposed militarily domination, we must adapt to the most successful “role model” of leading competitors – in other words, we are forced to exchange a substantial part of democratic self-determination for a determination from outside – even doing so in the knowledge that it is precisely this race of competing nations that is leading all of them into disaster.

This insight amounts to an admission of powerlessness. But we must have the courage to face the truth, because only then will we be able to find a way of escape. This can only consist of a willingness in all states to renounce part of their sovereignty in order to put an end to the disastrous race that threatens everyone with both environmental and nuclear destruction. True, this demand too reduces sovereignty but it does so on a voluntary base in preventing disaster while current constraints from outside, that is the race of nations, make us involuntarily court disaster. In a globalized world, where each state influences the fate of all others by consuming scarce resources and destroying precious environment, events do no longer follow man’s true needs and intentions: democracy is in danger of degenerating into a mere farce. In the 21st century, man will reemerge as the master of his destiny only when he entrusts to an international authority the care for the tiny boat that (despite Mars and the Moon) will probably remain forever the only one for mankind.

1 How I hate to write this sentence! On a globe that already resembles a powder keg, every additional atomic bomb means another step towards the apocalypse. Unfortunately, strict pacifism is no alternative either when applied to a shark tank. The global race of nations has maneuvered mankind into a situation from which it can only rescue a supranational authority that ends this race.

De gustibus EST disputandum!

An important, perhaps the most important, task of a good teacher is to dissuade students from making hasty judgments, for it is with this craving that we come into the world, while on the contrary reason only develops very slowly. Infants immediately start crying when they feel unwell and they smile when being treated kindly. But the vocabulary of pubescent young people still contains mainly expressions like super, cool, great or negative ones like poo, disgusting, evil etc. The aversion to independent thinking and the tendency to replace arguments with hasty values and judgments remains in later life – for many people throughout their lives.

As we know, demagogues and populists know how to make virtuoso use of this innate inclination when they seduce their clientele with emotionally charged promises or vice versa with slogans of hate. Stirring up emotions for some tempting cause is in line with the human herd instinct – but to be outraged against some real or imaginary evil welds people even closer together. Only slowly and often very laboriously is man brought to maturity and reason when asking for relevant facts before pronouncing his judgment.

So far, we should applaud teachers when they try to impart this very important lesson to their students: “First acquire thorough knowledge before you presume to pass your own judgement.”

On the other hand, we should be allowed to ask,

what a person will look like if taking this seemingly golden rule literally in that he contents himself with mere factual knowledge? The answer is obvious, though quite sobering. We would be dealing with a walking encyclopedia. As is well known, these works of collected facts are neither able to arouse enthusiasm, nor are they capable of outrage. They are emotionally aseptic containers of pure knowledge. But does this freedom from emotion make them carriers of reason? I doubt that anybody will answer this question in the affirmative. Pure facts about the world and human beings say nothing at all about how we should relate to them. Let us hope that teachers know this quite well and therefore do not try to transform their students into walking encyclopedias!

But are there not also flesh and blood human beings,

who come closest to the ideal so dear to the heart of teachers? People, who completely abstain or at least want to abstain from judging and evaluating because they are only interested in facts? Indeed – this kind of person has been around since the 17th century at the latest, and it has spread exponentially across the globe, so that one day it could even become the dominant type. Everyone knows, of course, who I am talking about here, namely scientists – especially those who deal with the facts of nature.

In the textbooks of physics, chemistry, engineering, etc., there is no mention of good and evil, beautiful or ugly. The real breakthrough of the sciences consisted precisely in this turnaround: man asked exclusively about the objective laws governing nature, without bringing his subjective hopes and desires into play.

This was the great achievement that first succeeded in 17th century Europe, for until then man had done exactly the opposite. He had projected his own will, desire, hate and hope into nature by imagining it in his own image, as if controlled by the same forces of will and hope, that governed himself. But science has pushed human values, such as good and evil, beautiful and ugly, completely out of nature, which it conceived as a kind of machine. It was only after this revolutionary step that man became nature’s master.

The theoretical foundation for this revolution

was laid by Galileo Galilei at the end of the 16th century, when he postulated a fundamental difference between “primary” and “secondary” properties of things. Shape, size, number as well as rest or movement belong, according to Galileo, to the inherent or primary properties, whereas taste, smell or sound are secondary sensations that arise in ourselves through our dealings with the external world.*1*

This division of knowledge into objective – lying in objects themselves – and subjective – lying in man – was further deepened after Galileo, because it seemed obvious that aesthetic and ethical standards too (beautiful and ugly, good and evil) must have their origin in man but not in things. For this very reason it would not occur to a scientist to qualify a uranium atom as morally bad or the quantum leap as esthetically ugly. As a matter of fact and of principle, science has banned all subjective judgments and values from its own sphere. It has extended the Latin motto “de gustibus non disputandum” far beyond its rather harmless everyday use. The Romans were critical of arguing about questions of taste, because each of us likes to defend our own preferences. Since Galileo, science has taken a decisive step beyond this harmless admonition by rejecting all human values and judgements as subjective and thus relegating them to a status of arbitrariness.*2*

If science were right in upholding this conviction,

man would have to regard himself as a mistake of evolution, because what use is the subjective tendency to relate his own value judgements to people and things around him? Shouldn’t he rather have been shaped into a walking encyclopedia? Why is he so enthusiastic about beauty and keeps away from what he rejects as ugly? Why does he ask for justice and condemn deceit and selfishness, when these are merely subjective and arbitrary values that he draws from himself? Shouldn’t man be guided exclusively by facts and probabilities?

The renowned German sociologist Max Horkheimer succinctly expressed the problem in the following words: “According to the philosophy of the average modern intellectual there is only one authority, namely science, understood as the classification of facts and the calculation of probabilities. The statement that justice and freedom are in themselves better than injustice and oppression is scientifically unverifiable and useless. It sounds just as meaningless as the statement that ‘red is more beautiful than blue or an egg is better than milk’ ” (1967, 33).

The statement is remarkable, because it shows that something in our world view has gone awry or maybe even be totally wrong.

If teachers were serious about the intention

to wean students from values in order to stuff them exclusively with facts, they would have turned our schools into training grounds for future scientists. However, they would be somewhat careless in doing so, as they overlook the fact that scientists always remain human beings. As such, no matter how much they seem to abstain from value judgments, they never can do without them.

No, I don’t refer to the fashionable objection, which might immediately come to the mind of some readers. We are used to hearing again and again, even from clever contemporaries, that we should not talk about objectivity, because it is no more than a pipe dream. Even supposedly “objective” science offers only subjective views of reality.*3*

I am sorry to say that this is logical nonsense. The number of solar planets does not depend on our subjective will and desires any more than the relative weight of iron and copper. True, the laws of nature are necessarily described in conventional concepts of human language, which in their turn may rely on different units of measurement and we may, of course, choose to illuminate quite different dimensions of reality, but the latter itself is not subject to change because of our descriptions (quantum physics only being partly a different matter). Our descriptions remain “objectively correct” if predictions based on them are correct and they are “objectively wrong” if they are not. The fact that we invented so many machines that perform exactly the tasks they are made to fulfill constitutes an obvious proof that we have correctly understood the laws of nature. Contrary to the view of German idealist Gottlieb Fichte, persistent regularities of nature exist outside of the ideas we may conceive about the latter – that is precisely what objectivity means.

Until the 17th century, the objective autonomy of nature

did not come into view. Until then, nature was conceived as the playground of gods and spirits, who ruled it by means of will and desire. Man had projected his own self and essence into nature.*4* As he himself was guided by his own will, nature was guided by the will of spiritual powers. If he wanted to find his way through nature and influence events, he had to recognize what gods and spirits consider good or bad, beautiful or ugly – in other words, he had to study their will and intentions.

Therein lay the aspiration of most people before the onset of the scientific revolution. “Get to know and to propitiate the world’s hidden spiritual agents (gods and ghosts) and you will easily come to terms with nature and man.”

For in this prescientific view, the regularities of nature, its so-called laws, were not independent of will and desire: the gods could override or change them at any time by way of alternative laws or miracles – and man could do so by propitiating the gods through prayer and sacrifice or even by trying to compel them by magical means.

Scientists have put an end to this view

by insisting on the objective autonomy, in short the “objectivity” of nature. Gods, myths, fairy tales and art – all these projections of human values and desires – they have banished completely from extra-human reality.

And yet this is not the whole story. In the process of demystifying the world, scientists had definitely to stop at one point – namely at their own persons.  For it is precisely here that will and desire inevitably play a decisive role. The scientist must be subjectively convinced that it is as important for himself as it is for humanity to unravel nature’s objective rules. Only after having settled this question for himself will he be ready to undergo the enormous efforts of scientific research. After all, many scientists submit to a way of life that bears the greatest similarity to the asceticism of medieval monks.

At this point, personal subjectivity comes into full play

But individual intentions are by no means sufficient to make science possible. Intentions and inclinations use to be as diverse as individuals. No matter how passionately someone may be interested in the family tree of the man in the moon, his passion is of no use to him if he is unable to convince the general public of the relevance of the subject. Since the 18th century more and more people were willing to support research because its results started to make their lives so much easier. Without this positive attitude towards science, i.e. without the collective evaluation of the new way of dealing with nature as right and good, the rise of science would never have taken place.

This leads to an important conclusion. Man is inevitably prompted by subjective desires even when completely eliminating his own values of good and evil while exploring the objective structure of nature – he wouldn’t do so unless driven by the urge of improving or enriching his life. If it had turned out that science only worsens people’s lives, it certainly would never have gained any influence in the first place.*5* In the past, different world views were regularly abandoned for this very reason – they did not keep the promises they had made. To name just one among many examples. In the infamous massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890, the ghost shirts of the Indians proved to be completely ineffective against white man’s bullets. But they had been praised by local seers as an absolute weapon guaranteed by the gods.

Because man cannot help but evaluate

his own actions and thoughts according to moral or aesthetic criteria, it is very well conceivable that one day society may considerably reduce its support for science. German sociologist Ulrich Beck stated that modern mankind has created what he called Risk Society. That was forty years ago. In the meantime, risks have long since turned into dire reality. Science and technology are increasingly concerned with getting to grips with the largely unforeseen, partly catastrophic consequences of their own making, that is, of science and technology. At the latest since the climate crisis, we are living in what we now should call Repair Society. What progress has spoiled, progress is now supposed to repair.

On the one hand, the world created by science

corresponds to the deepest hopes and wishes of mankind. Famines have been largely eliminated, most diseases successfully overcome, life has been prolonged and made much easier by lots of amazing inventions. It is precisely this undoub­ted progress that led to the resounding success of the new world view. But since the second half of the twentieth century, the dark sides of this development have become increasingly visible too. More than 4000 nuclear explosives, dozens of lethal nerve poisons, hundreds of biological and chemical weapons are ready to exterminate humanity several times over. But even if their use may seem unlikely to optimists, it cannot be ignored that the residues and toxins of industrial production are globally contaminating air, soil and oceans – the air being already irreversibly polluted with carbon dioxide. In other words: the industrial Anthropocene, while turning out to be a fountainhead of unbelievable material progress, has at the same time created conditions that may transform progress into mankind’s greatest step backwards – a potential catastrophe which threatens not only the environment but also the very survival of our species.

In such a completely new and unique situation

we will again have to recognize that what ultimately counts are human values, wishes and hopes. De gustibus est disputandum! Humanity will have to ask itself what kind of life it wants for the future, because its future depends on such valuations. In doing so, it cannot avoid critically examining its previous dealing with reality. Science and technology are not areas detached from life, but must serve the well-being of mankind. If they do not or no longer do so, their use will have to be reconsidered in the same way as all other phenomena when they threaten to harm society.

But here too, humanity,

– shaken by the devastation caused by the “materialistic world view” – runs the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and falling back into superstition, esotericism and the denial of truth. The conscientious look at facts, which for three centuries science has made the basis of its approach, is an essential achievement, behind which there can be no going back. For it is this understanding of truth that enlightens us about the possibilities open to human will and where it encounters insurmountable limits. Ghost shirts do not protect against bullets, the exploitation of resources cannot go on indefinitely in a finite world. The poisoning of the environment with the residues of industrial production is another limit. It must be radically reduced if we are to survive in this world. The number of people or their consumption of resources must be commensurate with the carrying capacity of the planet.

It is the spirit of science, the spirit of reason, that asks such questions, but that reason is always based on human will and desire. Reason can never be value-free, because a value-free robot does neither care about life nor the fate of human beings. Nature itself is indifferent to whether humans exist or not.

These considerations owe their origin

to a rather trivial circumstance. A good acquaintance, a teacher, criticized the author of a historical work, whom I hold in high esteem, saying that he always tends to make value-judgments.*6* She was so thoroughly imbued with the resolve of weaning her students from evaluations that she could not tolerate these even in a work of history where they constitute the only means of bringing dead facts to life. I would, of course, be very skeptical if a chemist were to differentiate between beautiful and ugly hydrocarbons. As a rule, reality appears to him only in the form of symbols and formulas that are and should be free of all emotional connotations. This is generally true even for the language of the natural sciences, which is radically different from the emotionally colored idioms of everyday life.*7*

The humanities, however,

do not examine human beings in the manner of doctors, physiologists or geneticists as objects subject to the laws of chemistry, physics etc. just like the rest of nature; they want to understand them in a second and different way: as psychic entities (Wilhelm Dilthey). In so doing they want us to understand other people – regardless of time or origin – as we understand ourselves, namely as wanting and desiring beings. The mere enumeration of facts does not make history and certainly not explain it. We understand people only to the extent that we succeed in putting ourselves in their shoes by asking how we would behave under similar circumstances. Of course, we only succeed up to a certain degree – when not succeeding, their behavior becomes a mere fact remaining strange and incomprehensible. This is frequently the case when we deal with people whose culture we only superficially know. When dealing with other species, it becomes the rule. In a very imperfect way, we understand what happens in the minds of dogs and cats, no matter how many facts we gather about their behavior. And how a Corona virus experiences the world, we do not understand at all. The virus exists for us only as a value-free fact, like a hedge trimmer or a washing machine.

Brilliant historians are masters of understanding

They transform facts into events that concern us because they provide us with mirrors of ourselves serving as examples or warnings. When history becomes a mere value-free fact, it is as foreign to us as a virus or a lunar eclipse. It then lacks any human interest, unlike the facts of natural science, it does not even offer the instrumental use of controlling nature. Teachers should take this to heart when they inoculate their students with the hunt for facts. Certainly, without knowledge of facts we would be blind to reality, but without judging the facts according to whether or not they serve man’s will and desires, they are a dead weight.*8*

1 Philosophy is written in the great book that has always been before our eyes: I mean the universe. But we cannot understand its meaning until we have learned the language and grasped the symbols in which it is written. This book is written in the language of mathematics and its symbols are triangles, circles and other geometric figures. Without their help, it is impossible to understand a single word; without them, we wander through a dark labyrinth without success. (Galileo, 1842; Vol.IV, p.171)

So I do not believe that external things, in order to evoke in us sensations of taste, smell or sound, require anything other than size, shape, number and slow or fast movement. If we had removed ears, tongues and noses, I believe that the shape, number and movement would remain, but not the smells, tastes or sounds. Because outside the living being, in my opinion, these are nothing but names… (Galileo, 1936; II, p.801)

2 This denigration of the cultural, including the religious sphere, as ultimately arbitrary or even accidental was the result of the scientific revolution, which only allowed the laws of nature to be regarded as “iron”, “eternal” and “unbreakable”. This amounted to a devaluation of human creations – it is no wonder that for three centuries mankind has been occupied only with the exploration of non-human nature and its laws, while the sciences related to man and history, the humanities, have been removed from the curricula of schools and universities.

3 I can still remember a discussion with the Goliath among Austrian philosophers, namely Paul-Konrad Liessmann, who (at a meeting on the Kulm, Styria) held exactly this position. He probably never forgave me, who at that time took on the role of David, for daring to contradict him.

4 The thesis of projection, as already advocated by Xenophanes in antiquity and in more recent times by Ludwig Feuerbach, seems evident on the one hand, on the other hand it suffers from superficiality. It seems evident, because even a cursory look into the history of religions shows that people have attributed their own all-too-human qualities to gods and spirits. Even Prof. Hans Küng would hardly claim that the process has been the other way round, namely that people have copied and appropriated the all-too-human qualities of real gods. On the other hand, will (and the freedom it implies) proves to be as necessary a principle for explaining the complexity of this world as its counterpart: the principle of causality; both are complementary (see Jenner: Creative Reason – A Philosophy of Freedom (dedicated to William James).

5 That it was the success of the new scientific interpretation of the world which earned it the reputation of being logically “right” is also the view of Ludwig Boltzmann. “It is not logic, not philosophy, not metaphysics that decides in the last instance whether something is true or false, but the deed. That is why I do not consider the achievements of technology to be incidental byproducts of natural science, I consider them to be logical proofs. If we had not achieved these practical achievements, we would not know how to conclude. Only such conclusions which have practical success are correct” (1990).

6 Egon Friedell. I appreciate this ingenious historical dilettante (as whom he describes himself) precisely because of his evaluations, for as far as the quantity and, sometimes, even the reliability of facts are concerned, academic modern historians are, of course, in a much better position, especially since the “Cultural History of the modern Age” was written during the twenties of the last century. But Friedell’s artistic empathy and style are unsurpassed – if we accept the American Will Durant.

7 But in the early days, there were quite a few natural scientists who knew how to describe the beauty of crystals or of vegetative forms so convincingly that they contributed significantly to the enthusiasm for their respective fields (think of Ernst Häckel, for example).

8 This essay leaves many problems open. Science does not consist of a mere collection of facts, but of theories that combine facts into consistent wholes that can explain as wide a range of reality as possible. Since confirmed theories are not based on subjective assessments, but describe objective structures, they too belong to the sphere of facts. But what about reason, which asks about the limits of causality and our “objective” knowledge? On this topic I have tried to work out some perhaps not entirely irrelevant reflections elsewhere (Jenner, op. cit.).

From William E. Rees I got the following feedback by email:

Dear Gero –

I was, as usual, intrigued by your latest essay on the proper role of human values, wishes and hopes (about which there will always be disputes). 

In fact, this essay touched a number of nerves. As a scientist (systems ecologist) teaching in a school of planning and public policy, my primary had always been the judicious application of “objective (ecological) knowledge” to questions of human socioeconomic development.  By this I meant reasoned or evidence-based analysis seasoned by consideration of people’s history, desires, beliefs and aspirations.  However, it also meant making the case that policies and plans designed to satisfy people’s hopes and aspirations should be seasoned with hard facts and analysis about the biophysical world. If taken seriously, these would often impose constraints on the hopes and aspirations of client communities – even my colleague economists and social planners would sometimes object.

One colleague was an avowed post-modernist of the type you would regard as tending to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater.’  To her, scientific data had no special place in decision-making; there was no such thing as objective knowledge. She saw science as just another form of value-based ‘social construct’ that oppressed human ambition, apparently making no distinction between things which could actually be measured in time and space (e.g., water contamination, carbon emissions) and things that were entirely products of the human mind (e.g., democracy, civil rights).  Students who took courses from both of us were often torn between what they saw as conflicting interpretations of ‘what is real’. 

In working with students to resolve this problem, I often remembered something one of my undergraduate professors had emphasized—scientists were obliged to ferret out the objective truth but should stay away from policy and politics.  These were the domains of the value-based ‘humanities’ and social scientists.  In short, budding hard scientists were taught that the biophysical sciences could produce the numbers and discoveries, but it was up to political leaders — including policy wonks and planners — to decide whether and how the science should be applied (inadvertently providing an excuse for scientists working on the development of atomic weaponry). 

It seems that the separation of fact from values is endemic to western-style learning.  I remember being intrigued on discovery that modern neoliberal economic text-books pretend to eschew moral and ethical considerations.  In its efforts to appear ‘scientific’, formal economics (whose theoretical foundations and simplistic models owe a great deal to Newtonian analytic mechanics) ignores such soft considerations as attachment to place, compassion for others, the existence of family and friends, the idea of community, etc., etc.  Again, concern for these things is the domain of politics, not sound economics, and, as all students of economics learn, political intervention in the market introduces gross inefficiencies that undermine the elegant operation of short-term self-interest in market-based decision-making. In effect, values other than efficiency are disallowed.

I have never understood how mainstream economics can see people as ‘self-interested utility maximizers with fixed preferences and unlimited material demands’ as if this were a value-free description of H. sapiens, and markets as the most efficient allocators of essential resources as if privileging efficiency were not itself a value judgement with enormous moral implications.

There is one part of your essay that I might have structured differently.  You note that:

 “…the industrial Anthropocene, while turning out to be a fountainhead of unbelievable material progress, has at the same time created conditions that may transform progress into mankind’s greatest step backwards – a potential catastrophe which threatens not only the environment but also the very survival of our species.”

It seems to me that this phrasing confuses the fact of science-led material progress with the effects generated by shear economic scale and thus obscures the real cause.  The ecological crisis – potential catastrophe – is not the product of science and technology per se, but rather results from excessive population and average per capita resource consumption (i.e., economic growth beyond limits).  Humanity is in overshoot; we are consuming bioresources faster than ecosystems can regenerate and discharging wastes in excess of nature’s capacity to assimilate/neutralize. 

Most importantly, overshoot results from both nature and nurture: H. sapiens, like all other species has a genetically-determined predisposition to expand into accessible habitat and use all available resources (this is our ‘nature’) but  these tendencies are currently being reinforced  by the socially-constructed myth of perpetual economic growth driven by continuous technological progress (this is contemporary ‘nurture’).

Since a primary role of social learning (nurture) is to override natural behavioural predispositions that have become maladaptive in the context of ‘civilization’, the eco-crisis is arguably more a failure of human values, hopes and and aspirations than it is a product of science.  Far from tempering humanity’s primitive expansionist tendencies, the socially-constructed beliefs, values, assumptions of techno-industrial civilization amplify these now-destructive behaviours which are playing out on a finite planet.  

Worse, they combine with another highly-subjective social construct, human exceptionalism, which sees our species as somehow detached from nature and not subject natural laws.  This narrative virtually guarantees the continued dissipative destruction of the ecosphere and the collapse of life-support functions upon which we all depend.

Many thanks again for a thought-provoking essay and the chance to revisit some of my own life experience.

Best, 

Bill

My reply:

Dear Bill,

Thanks for your thoughtful and benevolent criticism, which points to a problem that I was well aware of even while writing the essay. Can the latter not be understood as a quasi-biblical objection to the presumption of knowledge, as if man had done better never to eat from the tree of knowledge? May it not even be read as an obscurantist criticism of modern science?

No, certainly not. You quote the passage where I decisevely reject such a misinterpretation. Science has provided a new foundation for truth: there is objective knowledge and it would be the worst regression if we were to fall back into superstition and esotericism, as often happens today. But – and this thesis pervades all my work – objective knowledge is not enough, it can only serve to define the limits and possibilities of human freedom (being, however, essential for that very purpose). Basically, I am only saying that scientists are not what some great philosophers of 18th century Enlightenment and their late descendants like Steven Pinker wanted to see in them, namely supermen. Man is more than what he represents as a scientist because apart from the laws of nature (which are the objects of his studies), there is also freedom, about which his theories either know nothing or which he reduces to mere chance.

This fundamental criticism seems important to me, but in your answer you discuss a point of greater practical relevance. Possibly you are quite right that my article may be understood as a warning as if science and technology themselves were responsible for many of present-day predicaments and not just the fact that their application by ten billion people inevitably produces quite different consequences than if they were applied by two billion only. Although I have sought the blame in the “Industrial Anthropocene” (not directly pointing to science and technology), the suspicion remains.

I admit that this is a difficult point, because science is based on an elementary urge, human curiosity, which is the breeding ground both for everything great and for everything terrible. I am afraid that this elementary urge gives us the same intellectual satisfaction when we apply it to the study of neutron bombs as to that of vaccines. That is why I believe that it is man’s ethical sense alone that can lead him to turn towards one and away from the other. Yes, in this sense – but in this sense only – do I believe that there may be a time that we must set limits to our thirst for knowledge, which means: limits even to science. After all the thirst for knowledge still operates in a boundless field even if only directed to things great.

Oh, I am concluding this letter with a rather trivial remark.

Best Gero

Mr. Rees’ answer:

Gero –

you are exceptionally fast off the mark–and your concluding paragraph is anything but trivial.  

You say: “…I believe that it is man’s ethical sense alone that can lead him to turn towards one and away from the other. Yes, in this sense – but in this sense only – do I believe that there may be a time that we must set limits to our thirst for knowledge, which means: limits even to science.”  

Seems to me that this is the distilled essence of the original essay and perhaps should be inserted/ amplified in such clear  words toward the end.  

Actually, this extract is really what I was trying to get at with my own more clumsy prose. 

I wrote: “Since a primary role of social learning (nurture) is to override natural behavioural predispositions that have become maladaptive in the context of ‘civilization’, the eco-crisis is arguably more a failure of human values, hopes and and aspirations than it is a product of science.”   

This is really an assertion that we have failed to use our ethical/moral sense (and associated values) to steer us toward accepting limits on the application of science (and techno-driven growth).  Hence, our failure to assert certain important human capacities is more to blame for the crisis than is science per se.  

And, again, the result is that the dominant “…beliefs, values, assumptions of techno-industrial civilization amplify [the natural but] now-destructive behaviours which are playing out on a finite planet.”    

With highest regards, 

Bill

From Prof. Steve Pinker I got the following feedback:

Please delete.

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