Can't take the heat

Washington ground to a halt in a recent heatwave. What better proof of how America's infrastructure

This week, I vowed, I would do something unprecedented in modern times: I would not write a single word about the shenanigans of B****k or Mc***n or H*****y, or even about this year's presidential election at all. I intend to keep my word, too, with just one proviso: to say that the subject I have chosen to write about, notwithstanding its tragicomic aspects, should be exercising the mind of the next US president perhaps more than any other single issue.

The fact that I sat in my top-floor office in a puddle of sweat for most of the second week of this month because the air-conditioning had failed, for example, is hardly something I would expect the candidates to lose too much sleep over - even when the temperature inside crept past 110 degrees. For me, it all culminated in a visit from Bill, my friendly air-conditioning technician, on the morning of Friday the 13th.

What he told me symbolised much more than the strangely confused and angry mood that consumes America when the mere subject of "energy conservation" comes up. The ramifications went far beyond my usually nicely cooled, breezy office. Even America's outrageous hogging of the world's energy supplies - it comprises just 5 per cent of the world's population but uses 23 per cent of its energy resources - no longer seemed that surprising, let alone outrageous. It was what was going on around me and Bill as we spoke early that morning that brought home something I have been noticing with increasing alarm over the past two decades: the sheer fragility of America's crumbling infrastructures.

To my American readers: please do not get too angry with me when I say this, but the rapidity of the deterioration of your country's infra structures often reminds me of an extensive tour of the Soviet Union I undertook in 1986 - when I saw for myself, in places such as industrial Ukraine and Siberia and St Petersburg, that the Soviet Union had already had its day. For just as Bill and I were having our grim conversation early that Friday morning - and unknown to either of us at the time - the heart of the capital of the most powerful nation on earth, less than a mile from where we stood, had been plunged into the kind of chaos one might envisage in, say, New Delhi on a very, very bad day.

Because of the temperature, an underground train had earlier derailed as a result of what was described as a "heat-buckle" on the tracks. Two separate fires on the subway system were then triggered that morning by faulty "stud bolts". Terrified, sweaty commuters sprinted up stationary escalators while, from above, all they could hear was ambulance, police and fire sirens zigzagging frantically around them.

In the meantime, a switch in an electrical sub-station sizzled out, cutting power throughout central Washington - including, yes, the White House. "It was like each man for himself . . . like a third world country," next day's Washington Post quoted 34-year-old David Zaidain, "a city planner who was stunned by the level of anarchy he encountered while walking to work", as saying. Pedestrians were struck by cars at junctions where traffic lights were not working (although, miraculously, nobody was killed).

That one fused switch alone left 12,000 customers - which, in power company terminology, can mean one family house or a block of offices with thousands of workers - without power, the very prospect of which sent wealthy Washingtonians scurrying to book cool rooms or suites at the Four Seasons.

Most were not so lucky: every day, according to the Galvin Electricity Initiative, half a million Americans spend at least two hours without power, at an annual cost to the nation of at least $150bn. And yet, with conditions like those in DC on Friday-the-13th and the politicians who created them, Americans are scared of al-Qaeda? Bush et al scoffed at the prospect of the US joining the 174 other nations that ratified the Kyoto Accord, on the grounds that industrial giants such as China would then be able to take advantage of decent Americans doing the right thing.

Back in my office, I was not surprised when Bill pronounced my air-conditioning unit to be finished, but I was amazed to be told that, in order to replace it, we would need a much bigger unit that would have to be hoisted on to the roof by a crane; the street would have to be closed, a licence obtained beforehand to do so, and the roof strengthened to take the new weight.

Hadn't miniaturisation come to air-conditioning units, I asked Bill incredulously? Surely China, or some other poor smog-infested country, now churned out trillions of tiny units that cost next to nothing so that the likes of me could sit and work in comfort? No, he told me: because of emissions laws overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency, air-conditioning units had become much bigger rather than smaller.

This, in fact, is a neatly illustrative little allegory that demonstrates just how rabidly right-wing America has become in recent decades. The EPA has become a symbol of soppy lefty hand-wringing to so many Americans, yet it was proposed and signed into law in 1970 by none other than President Richard Nixon.

The lesson? All that do-gooding just means that you - the decent guy - now have to fuss around with licences and cranes while the likes of China, India and France (the French are always guilty of something truly diabolical) get away with murder.

Central truism

This is the one central truism about the United States that most Brits (particularly Blair, Brown and co) fail to understand: that (Nixon's noble exception notwithstanding) Americans instinctively reject strong government or regulatory rule, with the result that the government frequently fails to cope with problems or disasters (whether they be of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or the ridiculous DC dramas on 13 June, or the collapse last August of the busy commuter I-35W bridge over the Mississippi in central Minneapolis, which led to 13 deaths).

The first of three official reports into why that bridge collapsed illustrates succinctly what I am saying. The reasons, in the words of Construction Bulletin of 16 June, were that "the Minnesota Department of Transportation missed opportunities to detect potentially fatal problems, lacked money which led to poor decisions, did not have the leadership to properly address a variety of projects, and did not document or follow up on its inspections . . ." The structure was only 40 years old, but for 17 successive years had been deemed to be in "poor" corrosive condition by inspectors; the American Society of Civil Engineers, which should know what it is talking about, estimates that some $1.7trn is now needed to repair America's crumbling infrastructure.

There are some hopeful signs, however. In March this year, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles than they did in March 2007; they also took 10.3 billion trips on public transport in 2007, the highest total for 50 years. In other words, they may not be as genetically predisposed against public transport as many think. Indeed, Americans are outraged that a (US) gallon of petrol (the equivalent of 3.7 litres) now costs (at my local station last Monday, at least) between $4.19 and $4.49; I didn't have the heart to tell anyone that petrol was selling in Britain at around £1.18 a litre, almost double that.

Should anybody doubt my warnings about US infrastructure or comparisons with the Soviet Union of two or more decades ago, I recommend Fareed Zakaria's excellent The Post-American World. Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, tells us that although the US remains militarily and economically the most powerful nation on earth, its role is changing. The world's wealthiest person is not American, but Mexican, he says; the world's tallest building is in Taipei and will soon be overshadowed by one in Dubai; Bollywood now makes more films and sells more tickets than Hollywood. And where do you go if you want to shop away to your heart's content at the world's biggest shopping mall? Beijing, of course.

Please don't write to me to say that, because I don't want to work in 110 degrees, I am part of the problem. I know that; I don't claim any moral superiority. I can report, too, that after I told Bill to mend my unit as best he could, he shook his head but said he would try - and that I am now sitting at my desk in blissfully cooled air, but doubtless still pumping out carbon dioxide to an extent that would certainly get me a deserved scolding from Dick Nixon.

Fareed Zakaria tells us, incidentally, that 48 million air conditioners were made in 2005 in, er, China - compared with 200 in 1978. It's just that these modern ones, you see, are big and designed to compete in the world market, and . . . Need I go on?

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood