I am currently hunkered down working on a project close to my heart, editing my late friend and colleague Dr. David Fleming‘s incredible life’s work Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It, for its publication by Chelsea Green later this year.
I did though hear about the pope’s interesting new encyclical. It’s well worth a browse (and do check out Rap News’ take), but here are a few of my favourite lines:
“The ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms.”
“Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever … We have no such right. … We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”
“The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide.” (see last month’s post)
“Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market.”
“Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom.”
…I was immediately struck by the powerful juxtaposition with David Fleming’s entertaining and eye-opening passage in the book on religion’s role in our future, which is simply the best thing I have read on the matter, and indeed has changed my own thinking.
So I thought I’d allow you to share in the pleasures of this extract, at this apposite moment.
Religion has a curious relationship with truth. To tease it out, we will need to identify five forms of truth:
1) Material truth is direct, plain, literal description of reality. There is no interest here in exploring deeper implications, insights and echo-meanings.
This is the truth which tells you about the route taken by the hot water pipe from the boiler to the bathroom, how to make flat-bread, how to photograph otters, what Darwinism is, why a herd of cows’ milk yield is higher if the cows are named as well as numbered, what a well-tempered scale is, what a Higgs boson probably is, why pregnant women don’t topple over, whether you went to the pub last night. Accuracy is not essential: it does not have to be true to belong in the domain of material truth, but it does have to be the speaker’s intention that the other person should understand it to be true. It can use metaphor that helps to get an unfamiliar idea across. The intention is to provide a truthful and uncluttered description. Here facts matter.
For religion, there is material truth in its historical account, and in at least some of religion’s practical and ethical teaching.
2) Narrative truth (or poetic truth) is the truth present not just in story-telling but in myth, art and the whole of our culture. This is the truth of Pride and Prejudice. It is not materially true, in that it is fiction; on the other hand, it is true-to-life: it is as accurate an insight into human character as we have. Elizabeth Bennett’s story can neither be dismissed as untrue nor accepted as true; it is in the middle ground. It may or may not report the material truth, but the narrative says something that cannot be said in any other way. It has a shadow-meaning that extends beyond metaphor, and can lead to the discovery of material or implicit truths, as an explorer in search of the Holy Grail may discover and map real mountains and rivers.
Narrative truth makes sense of the roots of our word “belief”, which comes to our literal-minded age from a story-rich antiquity. It can be traced to the ancient Germanic root, galaubjan [to hold dear]; the Latin for “to believe” is credere, which comes from cor dare, to give [one’s] heart.
Narrative truth may be a parable with a clear message, or a story for the story’s sake, or the meaning may be forever unknown, a question to be reflected-on, perhaps the subject of a lifetime’s exploration. It is the domain of poetry, music, laughter; if you ask whether it is true, you are at the wrong party.
And yet, our culture regularly lacks the mature judgment necessary to distinguish between material and narrative truth. A work of art makes the question of whether it is true or not absurd. It is a category error and should not be asked. You might as well ask whether Schubert’s String Quintet in C major Deutsch No. 956 likes broccoli.
Although religion inhabits all five forms of truth, narrative truth is at its core, most obviously in its allegory, parable and myth.
3) Implicit truth is the product of reflection, and is particular to the person reflecting. Different people may reach sharply different insights which may, however, all be true, despite contrasts in emphasis and meaning. They are different in that they are features in the landscape of the observers’ different cognitive homelands. The differences may be consistent with each other, or they may mature into deep contradictions: “This is my territory”; “The ideal place for our honeymoon would be Scunthorpe”; “We’ve won”. All these are true or untrue depending on who is speaking, but all are in the category of implicit truth.
Religion’s implicit truth is the insight derived from deliberation; it is the guidance, comfort, inspiration and prudence derived by a person’s own participation in his or her religion.
4) Performative truth is the truth that is created by statements that do something: I challenge, I thee wed, I bet, I curse, thank you. The speaking makes the truth: a promise is brought into existence by being spoken: loyal cantons of contemned love make love come alive (for a variant – it does not quite qualify as a performative truth, but it is a good try – see: “Making It Come True”).
MAKING IT COME TRUE…
by saying it often enough
“So if it’s not focus that breeds success, how do you get a project as vast and ambitious as Eden off the ground? Simple: you just announce you’re going to do it. I discovered a technique that revolutionised my life. It’s called lying – or rather, the telling of future truths. It’s about putting yourself in the most public jeopardy possible and saying ‘I am going to do this’, so the shame of not doing it would be so great it energises every part of your being.”
~ Tim Smit, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Eden Project, Cornwall
Performative truths can also be created by symbolic events or even thoughts. Contracts are an example – they may be recorded, but the contract itself has no material expression: you cannot see it or say where it is, and if minds change profoundly enough it may simply cease to exist.
The performative truth of religion lies in its ritual, as in the performance of the Christian Eucharist and other practices of religion which affirm and bring into existence a reality of identity and belief as real as, and in many ways the same as, a contract.
5) Self-denying truth is paradox which contradicts itself: it is (materially) true until it is spoken: the speaking of a self-denying truth kills it. Examples: “I refuse to admit my addiction”, “The religious belief which unites us so securely is in fact a useful falsehood”, “The reason we have such a loving relationship is that you remind me of my mother”. It is a matter of acknowledging the limits of what we can say without destroying the truth in the process: you can kill an insight by analysing it, love by telling it:
~ William Blake (1793)
Self-denying truth is the opposite of performative truth. It is a statement which makes itself untrue. By unpacking a useful mystery you are making it no longer a mystery, and maybe no longer useful.
Religion involves a self-denying truth, in that the commanding authority of a myth is impaired, or even destroyed, when it is described as a myth. The author of this book, as a critic, affirms the truth of this description of religion – but, as an observant, he denies it and, instead, enters into the performative truth which gives religion real presence.
All five forms of truths, then, are exuberantly present in religion, which, if confined in the narrow space inhabited by material truth, decays into fundamentalism. There are paradoxes and shadow-meanings in all of these, especially in narrative truth and self-denying truth, yet all five are needed for the common purpose of making a future, which requires both brain and soul. Alfred North Whitehead, with the sureness of touch of a philosopher of science, captures it:
Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.
Religions are works of art – narrative truths affirmed by ritual; they variously assert the existence of many gods, one God, a mystical union of three gods in one, or their myth does not have a concept of God at all. The narrative truth and the ritual in which it is affirmed have essential functions for a community, for the individuals within it, and for its social capital, giving it identity and meaning.
Religion, like all other living things, dies if dissected; the dissector kills what he seeks to understand. It exists because it is performed, affirmed and loved. The view that dismisses religion on the grounds that it contains untrue statements is a solecism, a naïve failure to understand the significance of religion, the culture which it expresses, and the many natures of truth.
If a common practice celebrates the identifying narrative or myth of the community, if it is expressed in one or more of the arts, especially music, if there is at least a degree of repetition and constancy in that expression, and if it requires some, or many, members of the community to participate, it is, for Lean Logic, an expression of religion. At least to some degree. Binary definitions – this is/is not religious – have value only at the extremes, at which the identification of the religious is trivial in any case.
Religion provides meeting places in which people can come together, building and sustaining the friendships of social capital; it is the hub through which needs are signalled and answered. That can be done in other ways, too, of course: by playing cards, or being a regular at the pub, or being on a committee. But religion can do it in ways which those other meeting places cannot. It enables a lot of people to participate in a collective activity, doing the same thing at the same time, to the same music. Its ritual is, in itself, of no direct practical value, and this makes it especially potent and effective as a statement by participants that they are there as members of the community. It delivers tradition to us – a present from the past – where core values are represented in forms of exceptional beauty. And it brings shared presence; in religious observance, friends, neighbours, beloveds and families face the same way.
The critic will point out that religion can bring strife as well as concord; that there have been many abuses of power; that some expressions of religion misapprehend their own myths – by, for instance, naïvely supposing the Creation Story to be fact. Religion, like every other human enterprise, comes with no guarantee of being done well. It can be more drawn to guilt than to joy, to the personal than the collective, to righteous narcissism than to communal care. Religion can be intolerant, sanctimonious and cruel. But it is hard to think of any political or social order to which those regrettable properties do not apply from time to time. The secular world, too, with chilling good intentions, and at whatever cost in lives and capital in all its forms, sometimes tries to build a new and secular Jerusalem.
But look again at what religion can do. Religion is the community speaking. It is culture in the service of the community. It is a framework for integrating care into the community’s life and culture; it takes charitable giving beyond the level of personal conscience and integrates it into the way the community sees itself and expresses itself.
Religion uses allegory, opening up the potent space of questions unsettled, paradoxes unresolved, beauty undescribed. It occupies, with benign myth, the space in the mind which, if vacated, is wide open to takeover by ideology. Akin to carnival, it provides powerfully-cohesive rituals that give reality to membership of the community and locate it as particular to, and steward of, the place; that invite emotional daring; and that also alert the community to time – to the natural cycles of day and season, as well as to its existence as inheritor from previous generations and benefactor of future generations. The ritual itself is a skilled practice recruiting the deep intellectual power which is available only to the subconscious mind. In all these ways, religion underpins the trust and permanence which make it possible to sustain reciprocity, the network of interconnected talent and service which makes the local economy real.
We cannot tell what forms the religion of future communities will take. Very small communities, with cultures shaped by a closeness to nature, which is held in respect and awe, could be close to pagan spiritualism – like the lelira of the Inuit and the shamanic religions whose rituals sustain the scripts which in turn sustain their local ecologies. On the other hand, cultures which are settled, more domestic than wild, and with a religion to match, may find themselves in the Christian tradition. If they do, they will inherit a proven, full-mouthed, full-blooded liturgy of great depth and brilliance, the existence of which – if they have formerly experienced only the winsome banalities from the time of the late market economy – they might not suspect. And they will also inherit the architectural expression of that liturgy – the churches – spectacular assertions that community is a mere prelude to the great fugue of overlapping mysteries, parables, affections and accomplishments that give us Gaia.
Lean Logic brings whatever values and insights it can to the task of holding community together in the absence of a robust market economy. Religion (Latin: ligare, to bind, + re, intensely) is the binding-together of people with stories, music, dance, emotion, death, spirit – all really about the celebratory making of community, and real enough to give your heart to.
Unfortunately, the religions of the world will not, in general, be in good shape for these creative responsibilities. There are four reasons for this:
The first is that religions have been shattered and depleted by the disintegration of social structure and the loss of social capital which have followed the advance of the market economy. Religion has been separated from its cultural context and become something that people come together to do, like rally-driving – a personal journey for you, because that is the sort of thing you like. At the same time, the advance of science and the literal-minded, disenchanted thinking that is widely taken to be the only sort of thinking there is has made it harder to recognise and accept the poetic discourse of religion. Challenged by science, its leaders and ministers quickly surrendered to the idea that scientific, material, truth is the only kind of truth there is. Argued on science’s own terms, the religions that have been exposed to the debate in any serious way have been routed.
Secondly, and for similar reasons, a large part of (at least) the divided and confused western Christian church, as it developed in the late twentieth century, has gone to great lengths to present the most plain-speaking of interpretations, abandoning the unchanging text needed if people are to have any chance of holding it in the memory. It has scrapped its liturgies and strained, instead, at spontaneity, and at presenting the simple message of personal salvation in literal terms to be accepted as material truth or rejected as false. When it is presented in those terms, many reasonable people have no choice but to refuse to accept a proposition which they reject as simply nonsense. In this way, the church has thrown out the whole set of implicit functions, narrative and allegorical truths which are integral to the artistic and cultural meaning of the community, and which are the essence of religion. Christian religion in the market economy has found itself drawn into the idolatry of reducing complex meaning and the reflective Imitation of Christ to an iconic Imitation of Marketing, falling for a technique which it can only do with breathless and piteous amateurism, in place of what it used to do with assured and numinous skill.
Thirdly, although at present there is a yearning for an expression of other, non-materialistic, non-scientific, spiritual values, the established churches almost completely fail to benefit from this. They are not on that wavelength and, for much of the spiritual movement in the world of strongly developed green awareness, the affirmation of a Christian faith stands at the opposite extreme from what they need. It seems cold and absurd, full of confident reassurance about an afterlife which is not only grossly incredible but an offence to people whose concern is focused on how much longer there is going to be a planet for this life. Established religion, especially the Christian church, seems to be the embodiment of urban, and human-centred, alienation from nature, while green values look for ways to establish some real contact with, and come to the defence of, the rural. The childishness of happy-camper services is disempowering; in contrast, the green movement’s central purpose is empowerment – to develop its intelligence and resources, to empower its members to act, having observed for themselves the extent of the ecological betrayal that has taken place at the command of centralised urban civilisation and its centralised religion since the invention of the plough.
The fourth handicap which religions have to bear as they find themselves with their new society-building and life-saving responsibilities is the mixing-up of religions which has taken place over the same period. There is no doubt that they have something to learn from each other, gaining insights through their faiths which may not be accessible in any other way. Every religion has something to teach; they are each best in some way: the Lean Economy, which will inherit pluralism, will have to derive advantages from them.
Nonetheless, pluralism is a self-denying truth. It contradicts itself with multiple claims to authority. If it is spoken too loud, the contradiction is fatal. It has introduced a sense of branding into the matter which, in itself, trivialises religious encounter: it effectively forces people to make an instrumental choice with the conscious mind between the seductive appeals of competing retailers in the salvation market, rather than undergoing a bit-by-bit discovery of meaning and affection at the level of the subconscious, starting in childhood when the foundations for this facility are laid.
Pluralism also means that society itself dare not favour one story over another, so collective expression of any one religion is an offence to the rest: many turns into none. Society is largely excluded from the benign vocabulary of ceremony, celebration, solidarity, spirit and belief provided by religion; the culture, scrubbed clean of allegory, is filled with secular kitsch.
But the act of transcending this pluralism is something in which art can help. When different traditions develop their artistic differences to the fullest extent, they may find common ground on which there is a chance that they can meet. You cannot argue with a song.
None of this is rational from the point of view of the market economy, whose instinct for worship is directed to its technology, but the idea that a society can be held together without either an energy-rich market or a culture-rich religion – that is seriously irrational. A coherent social order in the future will need a religion; a religion will need a rich cultural inheritance: it will give culture a real job to do, something to participate in, and not simply to be watched: something to give your heart to, to give you the moral strength you need to keep going because there is no big Something in the sky who is going to do it for you.
Lately we’ve seen the president of the World Bank and ‘business leaders from the very carbon-intensive industries’ pushing for carbon pricing (taxes or ‘carbon trading’ schemes). This is intended to demonstrate their deep change of heart and determination to start seriously addressing climate change, but to my eyes it is a deeply cynical, pernicious attempt to channel the passion of those deeply-committed to action on climate change into mechanisms that will only maintain the suicidal status quo.
Which is why I poured all my experience of ten years’ work on the topic into this peer-reviewed academic paper, which I believe demolishes the case for carbon taxes or carbon trading schemes as the way forward, and shows a clear, well-researched alternative (though it took almost as much effort as writing my book!).
The paper, co-authored with Drs. Larch Maxey and Victoria Hurth, focuses on the TEQs scheme devised by the late David Fleming, the radical economist whose work was a core inspiration for the Transition Towns movement. Since meeting David in 2006 I have been rather inspired by his design for a policy framework for a society that really wanted to decarbonise. We may not live in that society yet, but it’s nonetheless a rather important tool to have in the box.
Over the years that inspiration has led me to write and speak widely on TEQs (to audiences ranging from community groups, Climate Camps and Occupations to the UK Committee on Climate Change, the London School of Economics, the UK and Scottish Parliaments and the European Commission), as well as advising the UK government on their feasibility study into the scheme.
After David Fleming’s sudden death in 2010, it fell to me to keep the fruits of his genius on the table, and so I created The Fleming Policy Centre to continue advocacy in light of the extensive media interest the scheme was attracting.
This new piece in the Carbon Management journal has emerged from all of that as the definitive paper on TEQs, covering its design, history and importance, and directly contrasting its hard cap on emissions with the ‘carbon pricing’ approach that has undermined public engagement with, and support for, climate policy.
I have written before about the shortcomings of global-scale action on global-scale problems, but local-scale action has its inherent problems too. Without a supportive economic/political framework in place, it is always swimming against the tide, and this can be exhausting and disheartening. As explained in the paper, TEQs provides the key framework to join up local and global scale efforts into an effective solution, making it clear to everyone – across all sectors – how to act on our intrinsic shared desires to sustain affordable access to energy and preserve a benign climate (see section on “Integration – cross-sector engagement, motivation and collaboration”, pp. 8-10).
Not to mention leading to support and investment for human-scale, community-level initiatives and enterprises and local economies, making for more integrated, happier, resilient communities and a stronger sense of common purpose across society. I really believe that TEQs could catalyse a turning point towards a happier world and, more importantly, the extensive research done to date backs that up. Also, as discussed in the paper, unlike many other beautiful ideas, it actually has a hope of being implemented!
Rather than seeing our most committed people channelled into building inherently flawed ‘carbon pricing’ mechanisms, let’s focus our energies on something genuinely radical that creates a fairer, more equitable world, and which enjoys greater public support.
I look forward to hearing what you make of our work, in the comments below or elsewhere.
~ UPDATE – This was my first venture into scientific academic writing (and likely last, after such an arduous process!), but I strove to ensure that academic-speak was kept to a minimum, and that the message is clear.
So it is gratifying to see that only a month after publication it is already in the Top 10 most-read pieces that have been published in the Carbon Management journal and, according to Altmetric, in the top 5% most discussed articles among the 4 million or so that they track! That said, it will have to have one hell of an impact to tempt me into academia ever again ~
~ SECOND UPDATE – 23rd Sept 2015 – Tom Burke has published an exceptional blog post giving far more insight into the devious motivations of Big Oil in promoting carbon pricing.
And in the meantime, our paper has become the most read in the history of the Carbon Management journal, and in the top 3% most discussed on Altmetric. Despite Big Oil’s best efforts, word’s getting out… ~
In the meantime, I have been ‘offsetting’ the pain of academic writing by indulging in some deeply nourishing artivist agnosticism with Reverend Billy and his glorious Stop Shopping Choir (spot me flyering around the 1m30 mark).
A little analysis and deep thinking is important – after all “action for action’s sake is the last resort of mentally and morally exhausted men” – but too much makes Jack a dull boy… I must confess, I’m rather tempted to run away and join the church. My mother would be truly horrified!
I’ll have to content myself with heading to the Reclaim The Power direct action camp this weekend See you there?
This is an excerpt from a longer video interview Rhonda Fabian conducted with Shaun Chamberlin at the New Story Summit in Findhorn, Scotland as part of a Findhorn Foundation documentary initiative.
Originally published in the Kosmos Journal.
Rhonda Fabian: Shaun, please tell me what Dark Optimism means to you.
Dark Optimism is a widely misunderstood term. I get a lot of people coming up to me saying, “Are you feeling dark today, or optimistic?” That’s not quite what I mean. Dark Optimism means being unashamedly positive about the kind of world we could create, but unashamedly realistic about how far we are from doing that right now.
So it’s not that sort of bright shiny optimism, which I can find quite frustrating. It’s more like, “Well everything isn’t fine actually, you know?” It’s an ability to look at the more difficult aspects of where we are and what we’re doing, whilst also retaining a sort of deep faith in human potential. And also drawing on the deeper questions of why we’re really here. And does the state of the world in any way challenge our purpose in being here, or make that impossible? I don’t think it does.
Even if we are into a world of unstoppable, runaway climate change, for example. There’s still love to do, there’s still positive change to make in the world.
Fabian: How does it compare with the Dark Mountain movement?
Obviously they stole my darkness. (laughs) Actually, that comes from a Robinson Jeffers poem. But Dark Mountain plays an incredibly important part enabling us to ask the questions that we’re often not allowed to ask. You know, maybe it is all too late. And if it is, what does that mean?
There’s a logical flaw at the heart of a lot of arguments that we make in “the movement” – whichever movement label you want to put on it – which is that we tend to look at things and say, “Well that won’t work, so we need this.” An example might be people saying, “Well renewable energy can’t ramp up fast enough to solve our energy crisis, so we need nuclear.” Or, “The mainstream parties aren’t going to give us what we need, so we need the Green Party.” Or to not vote…or whatever. The premise isn’t the conclusion – they don’t join up! You might just as well say, “Renewable energy can’t ramp up fast enough to deal with our energy crisis, so we need sardines.” You’ve not said anything about the alternative. You’ve just said, “This doesn’t work, so that.”
And I think Dark Mountain addresses that to an extent. The argument we hear again and again in environmentalism is, “Should we be working for radical change, or should we be working within the existing paradigms?” So, people will say, “Well, you know, we don’t have time to wait for a revolution. Everything has to happen now, so we’ve got to work within the existing paradigms.” And then other people say, “Well, you know, if we don’t have a radical, fundamental revolution, then what’s the point, because we’re just addressing symptoms.” And both of those arguments, I think, are completely valid. Yet, you hear people arguing back and forth and back and forth about this and never finding resolution. They can’t admit that they’re actually both right.
There isn’t time for radical change, AND we need radical change. And so, if you can never accept that actually maybe they’re both right, and that we have to ask some really deeper questions about what that means, then you just end up with people over here having a nice career saying this, and people over there having a nice career saying that. And you never actually get to the deeper truth.
For me, Dark Mountain is a venue where we can ask those kinds of questions. Well, what if this doesn’t work AND that doesn’t work? And what if we don’t actually know of an alternative. Can we sit with that? Can we actually sit with that together? And can we have a conversation about what that means? To me that’s a really potent and fertile space.
Fabian: It says to me that there’s a place for sorrow in optimism?
Yes. Part of my journey over the last few years is that David Fleming, who was my mentor and very close friend passed away very suddenly at the end of 2010. And actually, we were just a few weeks away from launching a big project that we’d co-authored. So it was a very difficult and busy time. To try and hold that – deal with the work and bring it to the fruition we were both hoping for, whilst also trying to process the grief of the sudden loss of my – my good friend. And then just three weeks after he passed, my fiancée passed away very suddenly as well.
That was a profoundly challenging time. And I’m quite happy with how I moved through that. Yet, I don’t think grief is a process that ends. I think it’s a relationship that continues throughout your life. I sort of found over the past few years that when I reflect on and write about my personal grief, there’s a very strong correlation between that and the grief that many of us carry, maybe all of us carry, for the state of the world and the state of nature and the state of our society.
I think grieving, as opposed to loss, is a process of opening ourselves. When we suffer a loss that’s overwhelming, we shut down. Your body just says, “That’s too much”, right? “I’m gonna shut it down.” We shut down part of ourselves and that keeps us from being completely overwhelmed, but it also keeps us from being fully alive.
And so the process of grieving is the process of – of coming back to life. On a societal level, on a collective level, that’s true as well. Part of the reason we fail collectively right now to face up to the kind of damage that we’re doing in the world, is because the grief of it is so overwhelming, that the process of opening those doors again is incredibly difficult. Because behind them is a huge, overwhelming bunch of pain. So every time you open one of them again, there it is waiting for you.
And so you have to have the space to do that – to work through that pain. And it’s only by doing that that you come back to life and you start to be able to respond to these problems in a way that is more open, to look at it all in the round and say, “Okay. What is the most appropriate way of acting here?” Rather than, “Oh god, I can’t look at that. I’m just gonna keep my head down and work really hard at this thing, because I can’t look at the bigger questions.” Because the grief is still there.
Fabian: So if grief is a process, what about despair?
Well there’s a really interesting thing about despair, I think. It has a spark in it of deep motivation. I think despair can be described as looking at every possible scenario and seeing no hopeful one. But what that means is, that if you can present someone in despair with one scenario that looks hopeful – that looks like a real possibility – then there’s this immense wealth of motivation to drive toward it, because despair is not a nice place to be.
If you can actually present someone with a possibility, even if it’s just a narrow possibility, then despair becomes this huge driver, this huge motivation that can achieve incredible things.
Fabian: Is this despair at the heart of Dark Optimism? Does that drive your activism?
For me, becoming whatever I am, whether that’s an activist, or whatever, was about selfishness really. It was about the perspective I hold that in a very real and important sense – we’re all one. And our well-being is completely interdependent.
From that sort of spiritual perspective, the suffering of others and the suffering of the world is my suffering. Consequently, you know, sitting on the sofa, watching TV, selfishly consuming, wasn’t very selfish because it – it didn’t satisfy me. It left me with this – this sort of pain about what was happening. And it was really uncomfortable for me as an individual.
And the only thing that could make me more comfortable, was to feel like I was facing up to these challenges, trying to engage with them in some impactful, positive way. That was the only way I as an individual could feel happier, more content, and more whole. And so, yes, that process of opening to the pain that we feel at the state of the world; the anger, or dissatisfaction, or sense of injustice, or whatever it might be that we feel when we look at how things are;
if we don’t try and face what we feel, and hear the call that it might give to us, then we’re shutting ourselves down. Then we’re becoming less alive.
The one piece of advice I would give to young people is to remember that you cannot NOT change the world. Whatever you do will change the world. If you take the most default option, you follow the most mainstream, down the line, ‘just keep your head down and get on with what they’re telling you to do’, approach, then that’s the world that you’re helping to create. There is no way that you cannot change the world.
And so open yourself to everything that you feel about the state of the world. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do. But just ask yourself, “How do I want to respond to this in a way that isn’t shutting me down; that is opening me up; that is helping me be fully who I am.” And that will lead you for the rest of your life.
This is an excerpt from a longer video interview conducted at the New Story Summit in Findhorn, Scotland in October, 2014.
A couple of nice videos from my wanderings in August. I started with a few days at the ever-wonderful Transition Heathrow, to support them through their threatened eviction. You can see how that went in the short video above.
And then a coach was arranged from Grow Heathrow up to the Reclaim The Power anti-fracking camp in Blackpool, where I gave a couple of workshops, on TEQs and the Grow Heathrow eviction resistance, as well as doing my first Legal Observer training. The video below tells the story of that camp, and I certainly learned a lot there, as well as having a great time.
It reminded me in many ways of the Climate Camps – it’s amazing what a group of committed people can build and achieve when nobody’s telling them what to do…
Oh, and those with keen eyes might spot me in both vids!
Now time for an overdue month of reading, writing and generally catching up with myself before October’s adventures in Scotland with Findhorn and Trees for Life.
A response to a recent post by Rob Hopkins ‘The impact of Transition. In numbers.‘.
Transition is a wonderful melange of conversations, projects, interactions, inspirations, hard work, failures, successes and entirely unexpected events which we are altogether unsure what to make of! Transition initiatives themselves are as unique as the people who make them up. Initially termed ‘Transition Towns’, they have twisted and squirmed out from under that label like squealing children from under a favourite uncle, becoming Transition Islands, Sustainable Villages, Cities in Transition and all the rest.
To use Rob’s favourite quote from Moominland:
"It was a funny little path, winding here and there, dashing off in different directions, and sometimes even tying a knot in itself from sheer joy. (You don’t get tired of a path like that, and I’m not sure that it doesn’t get you home quicker in the end).”
Yes, Transition: fun, exciting, inspirational, powerful, even maybe uncharacterisable!
But, remember, it is just one thing, this Transition.
Deadening isn’t it, this counting?
What does it even mean anyway: "one thing"? Surely Transition is a mess of thousands of different people, communities, activities, passions..? At best it’s one category. And who wants to be categorised?
And what’s a category anyway?
There is always a difference between any one thing and any other, so to say that there are two of something (let alone two hundred) is always an imperfect statement, in the same way that an analogy between two things is always imperfect. Analogies may highlight important similarities between two things, but they gloss over important differences too, which is why they can be dangerously misleading when applied too widely. Numbers too are imperfect analogies for reality, and are dangerous in just the same way.
George Monbiot wrote an excellent piece last month on the very real dangers of quantifying nature by in which he pointed out that pricing is only one of the ways in which numbering can be problematic. "For every tree we cut down, we’ll plant two new ones!" Which sounds great until you realise that in reality one tree is not the same as one tree (perhaps one is a thousand year old cornerstone of its local ecosystem, and the other is a sapling planted where it will never thrive).
Numbers separate us from that which is described, sucking it out of all context or relationship. As Charles Eisenstein put it, "I don’t think the cruelty of today’s world could exist without the distancing effects of language and measure. Few people can bring themselves to harm a baby, but, distanced by the statistics and data of national policy-making, our leaders do just that, on a mass scale, with hardly a thought."
But for all this, there is undoubtedly something tempting about growing numbers, whether we are numbering event attendees, Twitter followers, or pounds sterling. In a world where it is so hard to know whether we are doing the right thing, making a difference, making a positive difference, it is so tempting to have a concrete number to grow. A way to keep score! Finally!!
And of course many funders tend to encourage it. They want to see the impact their £s are having, and they want it quantified. There’s no money in poetry.
But then, as Robert Graves reminded us, there’s no poetry in money either. For the sake of the soul of transition, let us be wary of converting quality into quantity. Let us welcome unique people, not uniform numbers, into our embrace:
51 people attended.
Fifty people were there to listen to Bill McKibben.
Fifty people were there, and Jane from the bakery on Rose Street arrived late.
Well, there was Jane, from the bakery on Rose Street, Josh, of course, me and my family, Roger, Jamal, Biggles and Margaret, Jenny and the twins…
Which of these more accurately reflects the reality of the event? And which audiences are more likely to be given which report?
Of course we are all excited when two hundred people come along to help with a Transition project when we were only expecting thirty (but maybe we’re more excited that Pritesh and Sarah came, of all people!). And of course we want to tell people about this, in a brief and comprehensible way. I’m only highlighting that numbers can be pernicious, and we should be a little wary of their habit of seductively coming to dominate everything that we do. While numbers may be the easiest way of explaining our impact, and even the expected way, they may not always be the best.
Numbers are only an abbreviation of what we’re up to. The reality of Transition lies in the inspiration of stories, in losing track of time while tending a garden, in passions that might never add up to anything much, in countless cups of tea, in unmeasurable love – in all those things that the cold abstraction of numbers will never touch.
I have long found it fascinating that there are cultures do not have words for numbers other than "one", "two" and "many". I fondly imagine that if Transition had its own language it might add one more: “one”, “two”, “many” and “enough”. The dominant culture has enough numbers. But perhaps we can help it remember another way to count?
When environmentalists argue amongst themselves, whether at some formal debate or late at night over a few drinks, I confidently predict that the argument will go like this.
One will say (in one form or another):
“There’s no time to wait for radical change or revolution; the crisis is overwhelmingly urgent, we simply have to act within the frameworks we have now”.
The other will argue (in one form or another):
“But there’s no point in acting without radical change or revolution; without that we are only addressing symptoms and not the real problems”.
We’ve all participated in those kinds of arguments, and we’ve all heard them a hundred times. They become a little tiresome. But I believe that they point towards a truth that remains unspoken.
Such debates are rarely resolved, because one side can argue completely convincingly for the overwhelming urgency of whichever aspect of the crisis they’re talking about, while the other side can argue completely convincingly that without fundamental, radical change, we’re toast. So on and on they go, all night long (hell, all career long…)
But what both sides tend to avoid admitting is that neither will back down because they’re both right. Maybe we do need radical change, and maybe there isn’t time for radical change to take root in our culture.
The fear of acknowledging that is understandable – it’s a scary thing to contemplate. Because if it’s too late, well, what do we do then? Where does that leave us? Despair? Giving up? Surely that’s no use to anyone?
But too late for what?
We environmentalists can tend to forget that ultimately, there is no way to make life sustainable, whether on an individual level (we all die) or collectively (the sun will burn out, the universe will cease to be hospitable). Reform won’t do it, revolution won’t do it.
It is clear that if we make sustainability our ‘God’, then we will fail our God.
For me personally, the harsh truth is that I cannot save Nature and/or humanity from the ongoing devastation, though I could burn myself out trying. It seems to me that there is not one thing that I can do to divert history.
And facing that reality hurts.
But, beyond agony, joy.
I sit with that pain, and its attendant tears and rage, I refuse to run from it or to distract myself with entertainment or with frantic work, and I find that it does not end me.
Eventually, I come out the other side, somehow empowered. The psychic energy I have been using to suppress that fear and despair is released, and I look at the world with fresh eyes.
“Ok”, I breathe, “here I am, in a dying world”. It’s the same dying world I lived in yesterday, but today I see it for what it is. “What now?”
And this time the question feels less desperate, less anxious. What story do I want to tell with this day, with this life? The question is suddenly filled with possibilities.
The knowledge that we are all going to die becomes liberating, rather than oppressive. There is simply no hope, no truth in fighting against that reality. If I seek to overcome it then, no, there is not one thing that I can do. Yet there are many, once I allow myself to accept it and live for viable hopes – perhaps simply to live a life that stands for something.
And then maybe, yes, I decide to spend my time trying to preserve dying species, to right injustices, to create more joy and wonder, maybe even to work for reform or revolution – maybe those are the stories I want my life to tell. But now it comes from such a different energy; from a deeper wellspring. Maybe that new energy will even bring other stories, other possibilities? But certainly it banishes the sense of desperate obligation, the futility and frustration, and leaves the simple expression of who and what I am.
There is no fear of burn out, for now I am doing and being exactly what I choose at every moment. No, the impossible struggle towards sustainability is not what I’m here to do, but for now, maybe it is what the thing that I’m here to do looks like, from the outside.
(…Gah, try as I might to explore the darkness, it seems I always find light there )
Let me tell you a story.
It’s a story about our land – our home – and our ability to live peaceful, harmonious, respectful lives upon it and in partnership with it.
And it’s a story about the big bad political structures and corporate institutions that conspire to stop us doing so, using the unspeakable, impenetrable black magic of bureaucracy and backhanders to bind our best efforts with frustration and fatigue.
Oh, you already know that one?
Ok, then maybe you’re ready for the next chapter, about what comes after?
Fine. Sit down, make yourselves comfortable.
But you should know that this isn’t a Hollywood story, about a heroic individual battling the faceless hordes of bureaucratic ennui and struggling towards an inevitable triumph.
No, this is a collective adventure, and a story I have to try to tell from the inside, as it occurs. Although perhaps it could be all the more powerful, for that?
This story really matters to me. To us.
It is the story of our lives. It seems you know the early chapters. The ones where the twisted power of the demons seems unstoppable, where calling the future uncertain sounds recklessly optimistic, where our humble efforts seem insignificant, and where our all-powerful superhero is nowhere to be seen.
And you know too that, as in the most gripping stories of our childhood, the stakes are higher even than death. Though death is at stake; for us, for our loved ones.
Higher than the destruction of our entire communities. Though their destruction is ongoing.
Maybe higher, even, than extinction: that death of birth itself. Though that too hangs in the balance, for us and for others.
Here I sense some of your eyes widen. What could be worse than that?
But some of you nod sadly, knowing that I speak of ‘undeath’. That living death that hollows all joy, pleasure and meaning from our souls even as our bodies continue to feast on all around us. The realm of zombies, of vampires.
This is our story, so we all know it is no fiction. Rather, it is the true story that some of us don’t dare to tell our children, because we know they will be scared, and that we may have no honest way to reassure them.
You should know that I do not speak of death lightly. Two years ago I lost both my closest partner and mentor, and my fiancée, both suddenly, and within a few weeks of each other. Shortly afterwards, my father suffered a double heart attack and barely survived.
I am coming to know a little of death, of its causes, and of what it leaves behind. And I am learning a great deal.
Eventually, painfully, I am beginning to learn what Nature tells us so clearly, and what our culture fights so hard to ignore.
That death is not evil. That death has its rightful place, as the partner of life, and it always will.
But that undeath does not. Undeath is the enemy of nature and of life. The enemy of art and of love.
It is the hollow-eyed, insatiable hunger that works to consume all that we hold dear, and takes no pleasure in that work.
But I am getting ahead of myself…
Instead, let me speak a little to those who feel their unity with their lover, Earth.
Those who step into the wild from which we came and can feel the terrible grief that she herself carries.
Unending, as all grief is. As all relationships are.
But who also feel something more from our wise, wise, deep lover.
That grief too has its place.
That feeling the loss of life, aching over it, is, truly, a triumph for life.
Grief cannot – stubbornly will not – overcome death, but it vanquishes life’s true enemy.
This is the gift we can eventually bring back from our time in the underworld, clutched tight against those from whose realm we return.
The gift of the tingling intensity of full life – the simple joys of a path untainted by despair, corruption or surrender. The exquisite tastes of food, the truth and beauty ringing in the music and, for me, always the dancing; my wild, beloved dancing. The aliveness that grief works to return us to – in its agonising, unhurried way – in the aftermath of beloved death.
And, possibly, the gift for which environmentalism hungers.
So often, when I hear the learnéd speak of environmental collapse, ongoing or long done, all I can hear is their pain – sometimes articulated, often not – lurking among the figures and statistics. Unresolved..
I hear a zombie speaking.
It is no great wonder that when a man seeks a podium to speak of his pain, the audience is limited.
Most flinch before this uninvited onslaught, are put out, offended, impinged upon.
Yet we can – I can – learn to speak from the place beyond agony.
The place that faces down death, even the death of birth, and finds life beyond that. In this world.
In that place I find the other voices, the non-human and the no longer human. The others who share in the life of this planet, and those who no longer do.
All speak in this place.
And those dread, tender voices speak of death. Shatter undeath. Bring life.
There is a time for everything – a time for grieving, a time for reflection, a time for action, a time for silence. I feel that the time for storytelling, and for sitting comfortably, is drawing to a close.
On Dark Optimism I sometimes speak of the paths I am choosing to walk, and if they seem a little inadequate in the face of the big bad, well it is because they are. But they bring me life – true life – and a little voice whispers to me that that is enough. That that is everything.
I know that voice, and I love her.
The right to access land matters, in a fundamental way. It is a place to live, a source for food, for water, for fuel, and for sustenance of almost every kind. And land management also has profound impacts on our ecosystems and environment, and thus on our well-being and our collective future. So it matters deeply that while UK supermarkets and housing estates find permission to build easy to come by, those who wish to use land to explore truly sustainable living are blocked and frustrated at every turn.
It is this sorry state of affairs that has given birth to the “Reclaim the Fields” movement and activist groups like Grow Heathrow and the Diggers 2012. Inspired by the example of Gerrard Winstanley’s 17th Century Diggers, these peaceful, practical radicals have moved onto disused UK land in order to cultivate it, build dwellings and live in common “by the sweat of our brow”.
In other words, they have asserted their right to simply exist on nature’s bounty, seeking neither permission from anyone nor dominion over anyone; a right that they believe people should still share with the other animals. A right, indeed, that was enshrined in UK law in the 1217 Charter of the Forest. More recently, however, the strange young notion of owning exclusive rights to land has pushed back hard (as this excellent article documents). Thus, as they fully expected – and as happened to their forebears – the Diggers 2012’s crops have been torn up and they themselves have been hassled, moved on and in some cases arrested.
It might seem, then, that the efforts of these determined folk are being successfully repelled by ‘the system’, were it not for two crucial considerations – that they have history on their side, and that there is an enormous army surging at their backs.
As we look around the world, we see them, from the likes of the 1.5m strong Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil and the vast international peasant’s movement La Via Campesina, to the tens of thousands of Greek families deserting the cities to return to any land they can access and the immense – and successful – land rights march across India earlier this year.
Meanwhile, closer to home, I see increasing numbers of my friends disillusioned and marginalised from the mainstream economy – ripped off by the banks, burdened with huge debts and struggling to find decent employment. As the inherently unsustainable financial economy continues to unravel, the people of England are not yet reaping the desperate consequences to the extent that those of Greece or India are, but it is growing even here, and it will come heavily home to this dark heart of the financial empire soon enough. For many, ‘austerity’ is already biting hard.
Naturally, in such circumstances, we seek alternatives. Yet while some might wish to follow the example of those Greek families and earn a simple, honest life “by the sweat of our brow”, rather than working frantically to earn ‘a living’ while paying off the debts incurred by a corrupt financial system, they are simply not being permitted to do so.
New laws are being passed absurdly criminalising the likes of squatting and trespass (even against the wishes of the police forces), meaning that the police are being forced to step in on behalf of landowners. Meanwhile, planning policy reform makes it ever easier for corporations – and harder for families – to control land, leaving the courts obliged to prosecute those who wish to work to heal disused, neglected land instead of relying on state handouts to survive the vagaries of the employment market. The glaring injustice that has mobilised mass movements in the likes of Brazil and India is becoming ever more apparent here.
Thus I see the tide of history at the backs of the Diggers 2012, with their direct action the vanguard of an inevitable UK movement to reclaim the land under our feet from the 1% – or 0.06% – who would call it theirs.
Yet, as with all influential movements for change in society, the activists cannot achieve much alone. Their direct action and willingness to put their bodies on the line powerfully expresses and demonstrates the ever-swelling public pressure, but if that pressure is to lead to a better society, rather than simply widespread frustration and anger, we also need positive lifestyle examples for law-abiding citizens to follow, complemented by the slow work of developing alternative legal and organisational forms that allow land to meet the pressing needs of the people.
This is why this year I agreed to become a director of an organisation called the Ecological Land Co-operative, which exists to overcome the two great barriers to land for those wishing to establish ecological businesses and smallholdings – soaring land prices and simple legal permission.
We are now on the brink of making our first area of land available, and my article in the latest edition of Permaculture Magazine (out now and highly recommended) explains how that has been done, as well as outlining the seven year journey to reach this point – with assistance from some of the leading experts on land reform – and our plans for the future. The photo at the top of this blog post shows that very piece of land; twenty-two acres in South-West England.
Crowdfunding and community financing have also allowed us to work on a pair of research reports. The first – Small Is Successful – examined existing land-based businesses of 10 acres or less and evidenced the economically viable and highly sustainable nature of the livelihoods they provide, without any need for the subsidies on which large farms so often rely. The Research Council UK showcased this as one of a hundred pieces of UK research ‘that will have a profound effect on our future’, and we have also presented our message at the House of Commons, to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Agroecology.
Our second research project has just begun; we are collaborating with others to produce a resource establishing both the current state of ecological farming in the UK – providing a single point of information on who is doing what and where, what acreages, to what markets, etc – and the current state of research into such agriculture.
I see this work as supporting and strengthening the wider movement to reclaim land from the ecologically destructive, market-driven mainstream of conventional land use. Or, if that sounds a little grand, perhaps I can borrow from one who speaks more plainly? In the words of a U.S. farmer quoted in Colin Tudge‘s So Shall We Reap:
“I just want to farm well. I don’t want to compete with anybody.”
In this world of frantic capitalism, there is a radical thought if ever I heard one.
It is a thought that inspires me. I feel more and more that the people the world needs most right now are not campaigners or activists, but such people who simply wish to live in relationship with a piece of land in a healing, productive and ecologically nurturing way. There is no shortage of them, and we should be making it as easy as possible for them to access land, without forcing them to launch political campaigns or planning permission battles in order to do so.
Perhaps that vast and diverse movement – from La Via Campesina and the Diggers 2012 to the Eco Land Co-op – in truth has but one simple aim. To safeguard the quiet dignity of that farmer, and the billions like him.
From the manifesto of The Land magazine:
“…Rarely will you hear someone with access to a microphone mouth the word “land”.
That is because economists define wealth and justice in terms of access to the market. Politicians echo the economists because the more dependent that people become upon the market, the more securely they can be roped into the fiscal and political hierarchy. Access to land is not simply a threat to landowning élites — it is a threat to the religion of unlimited economic growth and the power structure that depends upon it.
The market (however attractive it may appear) is built on promises: the only source of wealth is the earth. Anyone who has land has access to energy, water, nourishment, shelter, healing, wisdom, ancestors and a grave.
…Yet the earth is more than a tool cupboard, for although the earth gives, it dictates its terms; and its terms alter from place to place. So it is that agriculture begets human culture; and cultural diversity, like biological diversity, flowers in obedience to the conditions that the earth imposes. The first and inevitable effect of the global market is to uproot and destroy land-based human cultures. The final and inevitable achievement of a rootless global market will be to destroy itself.
In a shrunken world, taxed to keep the wheels of industry accelerating, land and its resources are increasingly contested. Seven billion people compete to acquire land for a variety of conflicting uses: land for food, for water, for energy, for timber, for carbon sinks, for housing, for wildlife, for recreation, for investment. The politics of land — who owns it, who controls it and who has access to it — is more important than ever, though you might not think so from a superficial reading of government policy and the media.
…Rome fell; the Soviet Empire collapsed; the stars and stripes are fading in the west. Nothing is forever in history, except geography. Capitalism is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises. It may stand longer than some of us anticipate, but when it crumbles, the land will remain.”