Thursday, 18 May 2023

True thinkers sit at the same table


 by Hishaam Ramoly

 The intellectual landscape often becomes limited by the rigid adherence to particular “isms” or schools of thought. This tendency is especially evident in modern culture, where individuals and groups align themselves with specific ideologies to the point of dogma. Rather than engaging in thoughtful analysis, many people simply declare themselves followers or fans, failing to recognize the deeper connections between seemingly opposing perspectives.

This phenomenon is particularly evident in the United States, where the false dichotomies of “Republicans” versus “Democrats” or “Marxists” versus “Capitalists” dominate public discourse. Such categorizations reduce complex ideas to simplistic identities, ignoring the nuances and subtleties of the original thinkers’ works. The great minds behind these ideas would likely be appalled by such superficial understanding.

One aspect that frustrates me is the misinterpretation and distortion of the works of influential thinkers like Adam Smith and Karl Marx. For instance, the term “invisible hand,” often attributed to Smith, is frequently misused and overquoted by adherents of neoliberalism. However, in Smith’s extensive writings, this term appears only three times. Such cherry-picking and selective interpretation of texts have led to radicalization and a failure to grasp the broader ideas presented by these thinkers.

Nevertheless, there are notable similarities between Smith and Marx in their approach to key issues:

Labour Theory: Both Smith and Marx recognize the pivotal role of labour in the production process and its contribution to value creation. Smith emphasizes the efficiency and productivity gains derived from the division of labour, while Marx focuses on labour exploitation within a capitalist system.

“The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.” (Book I, Chapter V) – Adam Smith

“The twofold character of the labour embodied in commodities — as concrete labour and as abstract human labour — becomes practically important, only when the products of labour are exchanged, and take the form of commodities.” (Volume I, Chapter I) – Marx

Critique of Mercantilism: Smith and Marx both critique mercantilism, the dominant economic theory of their time. Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” scrutinizes mercantilist policies, advocating for free trade and open markets. Similarly, Marx criticizes the capitalist system that emerged from mercantilism, highlighting its contradictions and exploitative nature.

“The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition…is so powerful a principle, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often encumbers its operations.” (Book IV, Chapter II) – Adam Smith

“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’… Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.” (Volume I, Chapter I) – Marx

Income Distribution: Both theorists express concerns about wealth and income distribution in society. Smith emphasizes the need for fair income distribution and underscores the importance of social welfare in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Marx condemns the extreme concentration of wealth among capitalists under capitalism and advocates for a more equitable distribution of resources.

Critique of Capitalism: While approaching it from different angles, both Smith and Marx offer critiques of capitalism. Smith, often regarded as the progenitor of modern capitalism, acknowledges the potential for wealth accumulation but warns against unchecked greed and its detrimental societal consequences. Marx presents a more comprehensive and radical critique, arguing that capitalism inherently exploits labour and perpetuates inequality.

Emphasis on Social Progress: Despite their divergent views on achieving social progress, both Smith and Marx ultimately seek societal improvement. Smith argues that the pursuit of individual self-interest, when appropriately regulated, can lead to collective benefits. Marx envisions a society prioritizing the collective interests of the working class, aiming for greater equality and justice.

It is important to recognize that these theoretical writings are responses to specific contexts and should not be treated as timeless or dogmatic doctrines. They are products of intellectual engagement and intended to foster critical thinking rather than blind adherence.

In fact, Marx himself demonstrated the fluidity of intellectual thought when he remarked, “What is certain is that [if they are Marxists], [then] I myself am not a Marxist,” in reference to French socialists Guesde and Paul Lafargue. This statement underscores the need to move beyond superficial labels and realize that true thinkers often share common ground. That true thought is not confined by its terminology.

In conclusion, the intellectual sheep must break free from their confines and understand that genuine thinkers sit at the same table, engage in nuanced analysis and seek to address practical issues through theoretical perspectives; by recognizing the similarities and interconnectedness of different ideologies, a more comprehensive understanding of thought.

Tuesday, 18 April 2023

Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist: ‘Happiness depends on what we’re lacking’


Question. You follow all the people who participate in the study for decades, you know what they vote for, you have their DNA, you see inside their brains... It looks like an in-depth Big Brother.

Answer. Yes, very much in depth. Most research is snapshots, where you just look at one point in time. In fact, 97% of research about human life is done just studying something right now. Longitudinal research is a much deeper and complicated enterprise. Most longitudinal studies stop before it’s been ten years because the funding dries out, the directors get tired... So, the fact that this has been going for 85 years is unheard of.

Q. I imagine it is complicated to have so many variables to analyse.

A. Absolutely. We must be careful about not doing what we call in English a fishing expedition, where you crunch a lot of numbers, and you see if you can find some findings that are statistically significant. And then you say, oh that’s a significant finding! So, we have to take precautions so that we have confidence that our findings are not by chance.

Q. How does it feel to open a person’s dossier and find their whole life in a handful of pages?

A. Well, you feel that life goes very fast. I can flip through from the beginning to the end of a life in five minutes. But it’s also very humbling. It feels like a huge privilege to be able to watch a life unfold like that. That’s what attracted me into doing this research. My predecessor, George Vaillant, was the third director and asked me if I wanted to come in and take over the study. I wasn’t sure because it’s very complicated, but he said, just read two life stories. And when I did that, I thought I definitely want to do this.

Q. What is happiness to you?

A. For me it is engaging in meaningful activities and being connected to people I care about and who care about me.

Q. Do perceptions of happiness vary between different people?

A. What we call happiness depends on what we need. So, if you come from a very unstable background, maybe for you happiness is stability. If you come from a very boring background, maybe for you happiness is excitement. So partly it depends on what we feel we’re lacking. But the research suggests that happiness is two big categories. One is hedonic, am I having a good time right now? Am I enjoying this cup of coffee? The other one is eudemonic wellbeing, from Aristotle. It has to do with the sense that life is meaningful, that life is worthwhile. 

Q. Are there any differences between how men and women or people of different ages feel happiness?

A. I don’t think women and men are different, and I don’t even think age groups are either. What we know is that everyone wants some of both kinds of happiness. Everyone wants some momentary pleasure, and no one wants to feel that their life has no meaning. But we make one type of happiness a priority depending on how we are, and maybe depending on the times in our lives. We think of many teenagers as wanting more hedonic wellbeing, but I’m not sure about that. What I do know is that both types of wellbeing are important to most people, but to different degrees.

Q. Would your conclusions be different if the study had been based on a more representative sample of the population?

A. The results, the numbers of course would’ve been different. But what you are asking is, would the big conclusions be different? We are careful not to publish something that may just be idiosyncratic to our study. For example, the big finding that relationships make us happier and keep us physically healthier. If we had only found that in our study, we would’ve never written a book about it. But many other teams have found the same in different investigations. Studies of less privileged groups, different racial or cultural groups around the world. We think that because so many different studies point in the same direction, that we can have confidence in the major findings that we have. That said, there is always room to be surprised, to find out that you were wrong when you’re doing research.

Q. You stress the importance of relationships; how does this apply in the age of loneliness and unconventional relationships?

A. You don’t need to be in a couple or to be in a romantic relationship to get the benefits. Those seem to be from the warmth of connection, from the sense of belonging, the sense of positive interaction. And we get bits of it from friendly encounters with someone you buy your coffee from, or someone who delivers your mail. And certainly, from friends, from relatives. I think in the U.S., something like 30% of the people live by themselves. But many of those people are quite happy. They don’t have a romantic partner, but they have relationships that provide them with what they need.

Q. Do you think some people may feel guilty for not strengthening ties with friends or family, as you recommend?

A. There’s always room to feel guilty, right? [laughs]. There are so many things telling us what we should do, how we should live, what we should eat… There are so many “shoulds” floating around in the culture. Besides, some people are shy, introverted, and they don’t need much social interaction, so they should not be very social with people, because it’s stressful for them. So, it’s a highly individual matter. What we’re hoping to do is simply raise awareness of the importance of relationships, rather that say, “you need to do this.” Just to help people see that focusing on relationships can be a source of wellbeing.

P. You mention the small day-to-day relationships, but in some countries, for example, banks are closing branches, reducing their face-to-face hours, and encouraging the need to make appointments. What would you say to those who run such businesses?

A. I don’t know what to say to those people because we know it’s less expensive to let technology do these interactions. But it’s much less satisfying. Have you ever called a customer service line? It is so difficult to get through to a human being. This worrisome trend of economics is driving us towards more disconnection. I think much is going to depend on what people end up demanding. Everybody buys their books from Amazon in the U.S., or you buy electronic books, and you just get it downloaded to your phone. But there is now a resurgence of independent bookstores because people like to go in, they like to talk to the owner, to handle a book, they like to ask questions about it. So it may be that as people begin to miss this kind of interaction that they will demand it. There are companies in the U.S. now that advertise, “if you call us, you will get a human being within 30 seconds.” That’s a plus, that might become a money maker to reverse this trend. It depends a lot on what people are willing to pay.

Q. The book does not mention anything about the deep relationships we can establish with non-human animals, such as cats or dogs. Why?

A. We didn’t study it; pets were in the background. They are much more now understood to be sources of wellbeing, that they take care of us as much as we take care of them. I think we will ask about it next time.

Q. Contrary to popular belief, you explain that we cannot do more than one thing at a time and stress the health benefits of focusing our attention. How do we do this in the face of an overabundance of stimuli?

A. There is a good study that shows that even if the phone is turned off or turned over, but on the table, conversations are less deep [he picks up his cellphone and puts it in his pocket; the interviewer also takes it out]. So just having a screen present, means that you are less likely to be fully engaged with another person. I think it’s being aware of the things that take us away of each other. Think about all the times when we’re in restaurants, and you see a whole table of people sitting and everyone’s on their phone. And specially if it’s young people, many times they’re not talking to each other, they’re testing each other around the table. It’s like a complete replacement of face-to-face interaction. And these screens are not going to go away, so the question is can we be more mindful of the effects of screens?

Q. How do they influence us?

A. Software is designed to capture our attention and to hold it, because the longer our attention is focused on it, the more money they make. So, it’s in their interest to hold us captive. There are many other influences that are trying to raise awareness about deliberately unhooking from your screens, so that one-on-one attention is something we’re allowed to give each bother. But it takes huge effort, because we are all being drawn more and more into avoiding each other. That sounds depressing.

Q. You also stress that generosity, curiosity and flexibility to adapt to changes are linked to happiness, which some people may consider naïve.

A. It has been shown in rigorous experiments that generosity makes people happier. Also, all the wisdom and religious traditions — I practice Zen and Buddhism — are constantly talking about kindness and generosity. For centuries people have understood that it actually works that way. It’s not naïve, it turns out to be how things work. And people who are more self-centred are less happy. There is a quote from the Dalai Lama, which I love: the wise selfish person, takes care of other people. The understanding is that being concerned about other people brings you joy, more wellbeing. And you can train yourself to do that. Like generosity, curiosity about others, kindness towards others end up making us happy. There’s a bumper sticker in the U.S. that says, “perform random acts of kindness.”

Q. What about spirituality or religious beliefs?

A. In studies of this kind or in our research, when we compare people with religious or spiritual beliefs with those without, one group is not happier than the other. The people who did have them said that they found it comforting during difficult times, but they weren’t happier on average. You can find studies that will show some increase in happiness or wellbeing from people who are religious, but you can find other studies that don’t show that.

Q. You told The Guardian that you wanted to be an actor, but gave it up because you weren’t able to take the rejection. How does pursuing a dream or giving it up affect our happiness? What is the wise choice?

A. That’s a good question. I loved doing theater, I really enjoyed it. I did act and directed, as a student. But I would be crushed every time we got a review that was bad. When the reviewer didn’t like the play, or didn’t like me as an actor, I would feel so terrible that I thought, “that’s going to hurt over and over again, I don’t know if I’m ever going to get used to that.” So, on the one hand I had this dream that I loved, but I also thought “this is probably not going to be good for my wellbeing, I’m probably going to suffer a lot if I do this,” and I was able to find other things that I really enjoy, like this work. One of my friends, who is a theater director, tells young actors: “don’t do this profession unless there is nothing else you could ever do.” You know, let go of the dream if you can find other dreams. I think most of us can. If you can’t, if this is the only thing you could ever do with your life, then you must do it.

Q. How has leading this study shaped your life?

A. It’s made me pay more attention to my own relationships. I’m a professor, I could work all the time, reading, writing, doing my emails. And specially once my kids were grown up and left, and I didn’t have them come in and say, “come on, do this with me” or “drive me to this place,” I realized I could just work endlessly and that my relationships would not do well. So, I began to pay more attention to staying in contact with friends, being sure that I made time, even during the pandemic, to go for walks. So, I build those in first and then, when I have time I do my email, I edit a paper... What I’ve tried to do is to take my own medicine, to practice what I preach.

Q. What would you say to the next director of the study?

A. I would say… keep opening yourself up to being surprised. It’s possible to make research in a way where you always know what you’re going to find, asking questions that are so predictable and get the research published. But some of our most interesting findings have been because we were surprised. In fact, this finding about relationships, we didn’t believe it at first. We knew that good relationships could keep you happier, but how could they make it less likely that you could get coronary artery disease? So, we began to do more extensive measures of heart coronary functioning, more genetic measures of stress related, epigenetic phenomena. We’re trying to be playful in how we do the science.

Tuesday, 28 March 2023

How the food machine is destroying our health and our planet

 Image result for the guardian logo 

Henry Dimbleby, the Leon co-founder and campaigner points the finger at the forces that make modern diets so unhealthy

Patrick Galbraith

Ravenous - Profile Books

One morning as he was getting up, Henry Dimbleby’s daughter asked him if he’d always been quite so chubby. It was, he admits, both “a bruising start to the day” and a tricky question to answer. “Maintaining a healthy weight”, for the co-founder of Leon restaurants turned food campaigner, “has always been a struggle”. And Dimbleby isn’t the only one. In fact, he says, 28% of us are clinically obese, which is startling when you compare that with just 1% of the population in 1950, an age when the planet too was in far better nick. It isn’t that we’re greedy, but we are not entirely blameless either. In Dimbleby’s words, it would be wrong to say that we “are powerless in the jaws of the machine”, but, as he shows, the machine is a formidable creation of supermarkets, food giants and fast-food chains. Ravenous, which is co-written by Dimbleby’s wife, the journalist Jemima Lewis, is a highly readable account of what needs to happen in order for us to both save the planet and fit into those old jeans again.

 Part of the problem is that the enemy is invisible. Most of us don’t even realise our eating habits are largely informed by a dystopian system we can’t see – one that produces, processes, markets and sells the food we eat. On a train heading for London, Dimbleby buys a “handmade” egg sandwich and turns it over to see that it contains 32 ingredients, including things most of us will have never heard of. When did you last put “diacetyl tartaric acid” in your shopping basket? Even natural-sounding ingredients, such as rapeseed oil, are often highly processed. In fact, highly processed foods make up 57% of our diet, a higher proportion than any other European country. The consequences are stark. Studies have shown, Dimbleby writes, that a “10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in a person’s diet is correlated with a 12% increase in cancers, a 21% increase in depressive symptoms, and a 12% increase in cardiovascular disease risk”. In a sense, it’s simple – these foods contain more of the things that cause us harm, such as sugars and fats. But it’s these very things, combined in a complicated way, that create “moreishness” – those crisps in your cupboard are designed so that you just can’t stop.

It is shocking to read that there are 3.3 million people in the UK “who live in an area where there are no shops selling fresh ingredients within 15 minutes by public transport”. In other words, those MPs who harp on about simply needing to make a nice vegetable broth have no understanding of the reality of living in a so-called food swamp, where chicken shops might be the only option. Those spicy wings, a product that’s very bad for people and very bad for the environment, are in a sense the denouement of Britain’s modern food story.

Like most of us, agricultural land in this country is in a sickly state. Growing plants, Dimbleby writes, “produces around 12 times more calories per hectare than rearing meat. Yet 85% of UK farmland is used for feeding and rearing livestock.” The remedy, if we are to reduce the loss of wildlife across the countryside, is to free up land and improve habitat; Dimbleby isn’t calling for us to all go vegan but if “everyone in the UK reduced their intake of meat and dairy by one-third, that would free up around 20% of our farmland”.

In 2019, Dimbleby was commissioned to write a food strategy for the nation. His report was lauded for its ambitious recommendations, from a sugar and salt tax to creating a map of British land use. But it is distressing to read in the final chapter of Ravenous that limited action has been taken. In the introduction to his book, Dimbleby promises to show us how the crisis can be averted. It delivers on that promise. It’s a fascinating book, but change requires the government to tackle “the machine”. Dimbleby has shown us the way, but we now need the government to show the will.

Wednesday, 22 March 2023

From SVB to the BBC: why did no one see the crisis coming?

Mikael Skapinker 

Silicon Valley Bank collapses after its investments in long-dated bonds made it vulnerable to interest rate rises. The BBC is thrown into chaos after suspending its top football pundit and colleagues abandon their posts in solidarity. JPMorgan Chase suffers reputational damage and lawsuits after keeping sex offender Jeffrey Epstein on as a client for five years after he pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution, including from a minor.

In all these cases, we can ask, as Queen Elizabeth II did on a visit to the London School of Economics during the global financial crisis in 2008: “Why did no one see it coming?”

Did anyone in the BBC’s leadership ask whether, if they suspended Gary Lineker from presenting its top Saturday night football programme Match of the Day, other pundits might walk out too? Did SVB run through the risks attached to its investment policies if interest rates rose faster than expected? And why did JPMorgan accede to senior banker Jes Staley’s desire to keep Epstein on? These are dramatic examples of what can go wrong, but any organisation that fails to keep its possible risks under regular review could go the same way.

All too often senior managers fail to consider the worst-case scenario. Why don’t they listen to doubters? Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, says sometimes it is because there are no doubters.

Leadership groups become so locked into a “shared myth” that they ignore any suggestions they might be wrong. “We’ve got the well-known confirmation bias where we are predisposed to pick up signals, data, evidence that reinforce our current belief. And we will be filtering out disconfirming evidence,” she says.

It is like taking the wrong route in a car. “You’re on the highway driving somewhere and you’re heading in the wrong direction, but you don’t know it until you’re just hit over the head by disconfirming data that you can’t miss: you suddenly cross a state line that you didn’t expect to cross.”

This groupthink and confirmation bias is prevalent in the wider society, where people leap on any evidence to support their view on, for example, climate change, Edmonson says. “Oh my gosh, this is the coldest winter ever. What do you mean global warming?”

In many cases, there are doubters, but they are either reluctant to raise their voices or, when they do, colleagues hesitate to join them. At JPMorgan, there were questions about Epstein. An internal email in 2010 asked: “Are you still comfortable with this client who is now a registered sex offender?”

James Detert, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, says evolution has hard-wired us not to deviate from our group. “If you think about our time on earth as a species, for most of it we lived in very small clans, bands, tribes, and our daily struggle was for survival, both around food security and physical safety. In that environment, if you were ostracised, you were going to die. There was no solo living in those days.”

We carry this fear of being cast out into our workplaces, compounded by the experience of whistleblowers, who sometimes suffer retribution from their employers and are shunned by colleagues. Dissenters present their colleagues with an uncomfortable choice: either to view themselves as cowards for not speaking up too, or to regard the rebel as “some kind of crackpot”. The second is often easier.

Isn’t the Lineker saga a counter-example? His colleagues supported him, forcing the BBC to quickly see how badly it had miscalculated. Detert says this was an unusual case. Celebrated footballers-turned-commentators are brands themselves, Lineker in particular. The BBC realised how much it needed him, and how easily he could have secured a contract with a rival. Usually, he says, rebels find themselves isolated.

So what can leaders do to encourage doubters to speak up, to ensure they consider all the possible downsides of their strategies, and escape eventual humiliation or disaster? Detert is not a fan of appointing a “devil’s advocate” who is tasked with giving a contrary view. It is often clear that they are simply going through the motions. He prefers what he calls “joint evaluation”. As well as the preferred policy — investing in long-dated bonds, for example — senior managers should draw up a distinctively different policy and compare the two. This is more likely to show up the flaws in the preferred strategy.

Simon Walker, whose roles have included head of communications at British Airways and spokesman for Queen Elizabeth, and Sue Williams, Scotland Yard’s former chief kidnap and hostage negotiator, told me at an event organised by the Financial Times’ business networking organisation, that leaders should involve every function from communications to legal to HR when examining possible future crises. Detert agrees this can be valuable, provided the presence of often under-regarded departments such as HR is taken seriously.

Leaders’ behaviour is a signal of whether they want staff to speak up. Edmondson says: “Leaders of organisations have to go out of their way to invite the dissenting view, the missed risk. Before we close down any conversation where there’s a decision, we need to say, without fail: ‘What are we missing?’ We say: ‘OK, let’s just say we’re wrong about this and it goes badly awry, what would have explained it?’” She recommends calling on people by name, asking what their thoughts are.

Detert adds that office design can signal to staff that their thoughts are welcome: the leader sitting in open plan, or having bright stripes on the floor indicating the way to their office, or sitting at square tables without place names rather than at rectangular ones where their seat position makes it obvious they are in charge.

How relevant are these workplace layouts when, post-lockdown, employees no longer come into the office every day? “That’s the $10mn question,” Detert says. On the one hand, remote working might be making it harder for leaders to read the signs that people are uneasy with a strategy. On the other, it could be that people find it easier to speak out from their own homes. They may also feel that other aspects of their lives, such as family, are now more important than work, which could encourage them to talk.

Others think SVB’s relaxed remote-working culture, which meant senior executives were scattered across the US, contributed to its failure. Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor who has studied remote working, told the Financial Times: “It’s hard to have a challenging call over Zoom.” Hedging interest rate risk was more likely to come up over lunch or in small meetings.

Leaders also need to persistently praise people who speak up. The penalties for doing so are often more obvious than the rewards. Those who keep their heads down are seldom blamed. As Warren Buffett said: “As a group, lemmings may have a rotten image, but no individual lemming has ever received bad press.”

Saturday, 28 January 2023

Geography is (almost) everything

Physical realities do more to shape world events than ideas

Janan Ganesh

I am writing this on the most precious object I own: a chaise longue that I found in one of those treasure-trove furniture stores in East Hollywood. It took an age to complete its passage to London. During the wait, well, there are pet-owners who have worried less about a dog in the cargo hold. The shipping delays of 2022 were a harrowing reminder of something that I believed globalisation had phased out: geography. 

Yes, I ham it up, this denatured urbanite thing, but the reality is even worse than the shtick. I don’t understand about pressure systems or harvests or water tables or fauna. I get rivers confused. As is the way in British public life, I am educated in abstractions. Human rights: a forward step for the species or hogwash? On which side should one have fought at Marston Moor? Who invented liberalism, David Hume or, perversely, by stressing the moral equality of all, St Paul? I can do this stuff all day. 

But it isn’t the stuff that makes the world turn. If the events of recent years show us anything, it is how much of life comes down not to human-generated ideas but to immutable facts of nature. Some countries have accessible deposits of fossil fuels. Some have the metals that go into chips. Some have long borders to be paranoid about. Some have more than others to lose from a heating globe. Some lack and crave warm water ports. Some vote for detachment from their continent but find the geographic logic of trade hard to buck. Geography is, if not everything, then almost everything. 

Back when this was denied, when tech and trade were held to have shrunk and “flattened” the world, some intellectuals kept going with their heresies. Ian Morris argued that Geography is Destiny. David Landes said that climate is under-discussed as an enricher or impoverisher of nations. Jared Diamond went down to the level of plant and animal life to explain the divergence of civilisations. Tim Marshall, in works of Naipaulian bleakness, said that war is almost inevitable in certain terrains. (If geographic determinists have a recurring obsession, it is with plains, which are said to instil a martial paranoia in their inhabitants by exposing them to ground invasion. Beware Nebraska.)

This worldview can be so fatalistic as to cross over into quackery. Russia “must” attack its western neighbours, such is its vulnerability to the flatlands. Xinjiang, at the hinge of east-west traffic through the millennia, will “always” be a trouble spot. The denial of human agency here has more of religion than of science about it.

But it is also a useful corrective for elites who too often err on the other side. Britain in particular accords a prestige to the study of ideas that it doesn’t to earthlier subjects. (I recall a colleague of hers mocking Theresa May as a “geographer”.) The life of the mind is only somewhat more rounded in America. Perhaps it all goes back to the Enlightenment view of the world as whatever human will and reason make of it. The idea that we are boxed in by intransigent facts of geography is not just dull to contemplate. It is an affront to a founding conceit of our civilisation. It is one in the eye for Descartes. 

Yet those facts are all around us. Rice is more calorific than wheat per hectare. How much of world history — the vast populations that Asia has sustained, for instance — turns on just that? Why didn’t China do transoceanic conquest when it had the power to? A lack of Christian zeal or all that bounteous land of its own?

Even where ideas themselves seem paramount, there might be an element of geographic accident involved. Would Germany have been less conflicted over the Enlightenment, more like Britain and the Netherlands, if more of it were coastal? Did the relative lack of maritime contact with other countries slow its absorption of ideas?

 You can vanish into a rabbit hole of conjecture. But that is healthier than not thinking in natural-physical terms at all. Francis Fukuyama still gets it in the neck for The End of History. The end of geography was a rasher call.