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Green agendas and grey dawns

It’s not so much about how many of us there are on the planet, but how we consume, and how we cope w

Britain has never had a population policy, but it seems we are well on the way to having one. The population of this country is at present growing at approximately 1,000 people a day and is predicted to reach 77 million in 2050. The immigration minister, Phil Woolas, felt the need to “give assurances to people that that sort of figure is not on the horizon”. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have been making similar noises of concern.

Yet the point of a population policy has yet to be made clear. Whether in England, which is now the most crowded large nation in Europe, or at a global level, concern about overpopulation is being expressed ever more freely. But the messages are often mixed, the rationales confused. Many think the real arguments for taking population seriously are green ones. If so, let’s hear them.

Environmental targets are much harder to meet with a rising population. Yet we also need to accept that, on a planet where a growing number of people are buying increasing quantities of stuff, merely stabilising numbers is not going to be enough. Consumer citizens gobble up resources at an alarming rate. If we demand such a lifestyle – and it seems that most of us do – we must also accept the environmental penalty clause. We need a decisive shift away from going for growth, and towards managing decline.

The sooner we get used to this transition, the easier it will be to cope with it. For one of the main facts in this whole debate is that fertility is in free fall in many countries. It has plummeted not just in the UK, but worldwide: in the early 1970s, women had, on average, 4.5 children; today that has fallen to 2.6. And it is still falling. Across the developed world, it averages out at roughly 1.6 (that is, below replacement level). The prediction is that the world’s population will plateau at about nine billion some time in the middle of the 21st century. At this point, small families will be the norm across most of the world.

It is a prediction which relies on the idea that, by 2050, the poverty and social conservatism that force so many women to have large numbers of babies will be history. It sounds like wishful thinking. In fact, it is already happening. In many countries, we are experiencing a transition from population explosion to grey dawn. Japan is seen as the trendsetter here: its population is in steady decline and the number of over-65s is set to rise to one in three by 2025. This is a pattern also now affecting South Korea.

Some countries with shrinking indigenous populations, such as Britain, Germany and Italy, have tried to buck the trend by drawing in young workers from developing countries with still-growing populations, such as India (of the UK’s predicted 77 million people in 2050, 80 per cent will be a product of direct or indirect immigration). But the fertility of many developing nations is already withering: sooner or later they will go the same way as Europe. In 1952, women in India had six babies on average. Today, that figure has halved and is likely to fall further this century. The same is true for much of the developing world (with the exception of large chunks of Africa).

It is time to adapt to this new world and deal with the consequences. The environmental implications of continuing to “go for growth” are certainly pretty scary. Coupled with an exploding rate of consumption, the impact of nine billion people on the planet in 2050 will be profound (today, we have six billion; in 1960, it was three billion; in 1800, one billion). Each Canadian consumes about 6.5 times as much energy as the average Chinese. What happens when 1.3 billion Chinese get anywhere near this? Or when each Haitian has the same environmental impact as each American (at the moment, just one citizen of the United States has the impact of 280 Haitians). It is something of an eco-ditty, but it happens to be true: that even to supply our existing six billion at US levels of consumption, we would need four more Planet Earths (the comparable figure for consumption levels in the UK is just three Planet Earths).

It has been more than 40 years since Paul Ehrlich introduced us to the “population bomb”. Yet Ehrlich’s contention that population growth would lead to mass starvation was wrong. Thanks largely to the intensive use of fertilisers and pesticides, the global population is larger and better fed than at any time in human history. But does that mean population size doesn’t matter? If we approach the issue from a broader environmental perspective – encompassing everything from biodiversity to climate change – then the bomb has already gone off.

The catch-22 of today’s debate is that population slowdown is premised on rising consumption. Wealthier families have fewer children, but such children as they do have enjoy lives of cradle-to-grave consumerism. That pretty much describes my life so far, and it is just as true for most of us in Britain. The Chinese and Indians are heading exactly the same way. The western lifestyle is within reach for billions of people. As such, while efforts to reduce consumption are important, their potential is very limited. Nor is it good enough just to lie back and hope that once world population growth has levelled out, issues of scarcity and environmental degradation will cease to be a problem. They won’t. A smaller world population needs to be actively promoted, its benefits extolled and the problems of models of wealth generation based on labour growth understood.

One of the most absurd modern myths is that societies with lots of old people are destined for poverty. It is worth pointing out that demographic bulges are not permanent. In Britain, we will experience a bulge of people who are aged 70 or above in 20 years, but they will be pushing up the daisies 20 years later. The demographic profile of Britain is not an inverted triangle, but a weird, knobbly thing. Bulges come and go. In the absence of attempts to “go for growth” by inflating the population through immigration, the overall trend would be towards a smaller but then stable population (at least a few million under the present population). This wouldn’t be bad news and it certainly should not be cause for panic.

The message may finally be getting across. A report issued by the Office for National Statistics in December 2008 had the refreshing title Benefits and Challenges of an Ageing Population. So let’s rid ourselves of the mantra that old people are non-productive units. We spend far longer being an unproductive burden on society as infants and young people than we do as broken-down wrecks at the end of our lives. The old are often the main carers for the young and are far better employees. Lurid fears about hordes of welfare vampire wrinklies draining every last penny from the twitching bodies of the overworked young are fantasy.

A society with a declining population has to be an old-age-friendly society. It would also be a place that could combine somewhat reduced rates of consumption with environmental sustainability. In Britain, moreover, it might allow ordinary people to gain access to things that have been priced beyond their reach, such as space and tranquillity. This is an aspirational agenda that the current punitive discourse on population control bypasses.

Last year George Monbiot wrote in the Guar­dian that “most greens will not discuss” overpopulation. Once a favourite liberal-left cause, the whole issue has become taboo for some people. The phrase “population control” still evokes images of enforced sterilisation in Indian villages and draconian sanctions in China. State bullying of the impoverished is nasty stuff. Yet, if I am right, 21st-century population policies should not be about clamping down on the poor but about managing the numerical decline of the rich. A more positive spin on the same argument is to say that 21st-century population policies need to be pro old people. To be honest, there is not much choice. A grey dawn is breaking across the world. On our messed-up planet, it’s a welcome sight. l

Alastair Bonnett is professor of geography at Newcastle University. His latest book is “What Is Geography?” (Sage, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge