‘Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time’ is back!  Enrolments now open

‘Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time’ is back! Enrolments now open

(Update: All 100 places are now taken, with guest teachers confirmed so far including David Abram, Eve Annecke, Nate Hagens, Rob Hopkins, Lucy Neal, Richard Heinberg and Chris Smaje.  If you want to sign up to be notified about our next course, you can do so here.) I...
My coronavirus dilemma – weighing crises against each other?

My coronavirus dilemma – weighing crises against each other?

So, we have a sold-out London event on Monday, launching our film, book and online course. And all week I've been agonising - with the others involved - about whether to cancel it or not, in light of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of writing (Thursday morning) the advice from the UK government and Public Health England is clear. Keep calm and carry on. Cancelling events would be too soon and could even be counterproductive. And yet advice from analysts I trust and some established medical experts is quite different... On one level it seems an easy decision - despite all the organisational efforts that have gone in, the financial costs of cancelling etc, lives are potentially at risk, and a society starting social distancing even a day earlier can make a huge difference. On the other hand, I see two considerations. Firstly, even though I don't agree with the UK government's decision to continue to delay social distancing measures - and we would unquestionably comply if society as a whole had decided to limit social gatherings - does taking a unilateral decision while much else continues as normal actually make a difference, especially if we take all the precautions we have planned? And more importantly, coronavirus is not the biggest challenge we face today. And that's the thing - while coronavirus now looks as though it could kill tens of millions of people globally, the whole impetus of Monday's event is to launch ideas and conversations that address unfolding crises that are on course to doom billions of humans this century. And are already devastating the natural systems that make all life on Earth possible. Crises too, that share that critical characteristic whereby acting a little sooner (or not) has huge repercussions. My first book back in 2009 noted that more people died in the 1918 'Spanish flu' pandemic than in both World Wars put together, and that our travel habits would spread future pandemics with extreme speed. Yet, for good reason, that was not my focus. Instead I explored the systemic and economic changes that would be necessary to avoid the yet more horrific consequences of untrammelled economic growth and its attendant ecological devastation in this time of depleting resources. The book helped inspire a movement - and I have since been involved in many others, from Occupy to Extinction Rebellion - but they didn't (yet?) shift our collective course away from that devastating path. And from that perspective, it's fascinating to see the response to this pandemic. If we think of 'coronavirus awareness' as a movement, it's been incredibly successful at attracting attention. And is rapidly bringing into place measures and responses that would have been deemed unthinkable and impossible disruptions to the economy in response to other threats. Many have noted the inconsistency, and indeed detailed the characteristics that make us so vulnerable to climate apathy, but fewer have noted that had we acted appropriately and curtailed globalisation to avoid destabilising our climate, we might not be facing a coronavirus pandemic at all. Because these crises interlock - they are not separate issues competing for attention; they are two symptoms of global emergency. The pandemic is not some external 'act of God' event threatening our globalised way of life. It is a direct consequence of our globalised way of life, with its international flights, long supply chains and all the rest. And these are exactly the kinds of interacting crises that we're going to see more of as we continue on this omnicidal path. As Chris Shaw has asked, what do you do if you're self-isolating and you're told to evacuate your community due to flooding? How do you cope with coronavirus when you're already weakened by food shortages, or drought, or economic crisis? Or all three? Our planned launch is grounded in the work of the late David Fleming, whose posthumous books provide the basis for all the new conversation-starters and resources that we are launching. And we are beginning to experience what he termed 'the climacteric':
"The convergence of events which can be expected in the period 2010-2040...including deep deficits in energy, water and food, along with climate change...degraded ecologies, the failure of keystone species such as bees and plankton. This could be followed by economic and social fracture...and these events may be expected to lead to large movements of refugees and to steep reductions in population comparable with those associated with the climacterics of previous civilisations."
So there is no question that lives hang in the balance anyway, if in a way that is harder to quantify. We are discussing issues that inescapably involve mortality. Nonetheless, if we hold the event it is possible that, with hindsight, someone's death might be traceable back to that decision. That certainly weighs heavily on me. Equally, the same is true of every gathering at present, and London is still thronging, football games with tens of thousands in attendance are still going ahead, etc. Jurgen Klopp not up for high fives By contrast, one of my closest friends is from Italy - my thanks to her for inspiring this blog post as I wrestled with the decision last night - and has been in close contact with friends and relatives there as society has shut down (now only pharmacies, supermarkets and banks are allowed to open). She has seen attitudes change as people there have come to terms with the growing numbers of deaths - memes mocking the 'paranoid' giving way to a real sense of social solidarity where it would feel despicable to put others at risk by breaking isolation unnecessarily. As this brilliant piece has argued, this crisis could be a call to a necessary rebirth of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values. Equally it could set up a false binary in people's minds that the only alternative to globalisation is awful. The classic criticism of any attempt to query whether our current path towards disaster really represents progress - "you want to take us back to the Stone Age" - might become "you want us to live like we did during the pandemic". Or then again, perhaps it is not completely inappropriate to think that we could remember it positively - the Blitz spirit of London in World War II, the sense of solidarity in surviving wars or natural disasters. Paradoxically, seemingly even perversely, people often look back on such times with nostalgia, as Rebecca Solnit has documented. Why? Because in such times we rediscover what it is to be fully human - to collaborate and support each other in something that matters. To share jokes together that make us laugh and cry because the truth of them strikes so deeply. To know that we are needed. To be helpless and helped. To lose, and to grieve together. For better or worse, these are the times we never forget. In this crisis, that might look a little different - care might be offered over the phone, for example, rather than in person - but it wouldn't be the worst aim to try to cultivate this vivid aliveness in ways that don't depend on the crisis, sickness and death that coronavirus brings. MonbiotCoronavirusTweet Or perhaps more realistically - given that our short-termist globalised society is storing up no shortage of crises for ourselves - might it be possible to fashion it into a radically different, viable response to these critical times? Have you noticed how over recent decades, our expectations of the future have gradually shifted? How maybe we used to quietly assume that life for the next generation would be better than ours, and now quietly assume the opposite? That is not the mark of a civilisation that is making good choices. That is not a show that we need to get back on the road. In Fleming's words "Forward movement is not helpful if what is needed is a change of direction"... And his work lays out the most compelling vision I have yet encountered of how that sense of solidarity and self-sacrifice that is sweeping Italy could form the response to the post-growth era of economic, ecological and cultural crisis that we are moving into. That is why I have gladly given so many unpaid years to bringing it to the world, and feel such peace with that course. And that is why I hope that this film, his posthumous books and our new online course continue to reach ever more people as we all try to make sense of life today. I'll admit that there can be a certain sense of 'learned helplessness' when you have been writing and speaking on these issues for so long and yet seen the dire consequences of our current path continue to pile up. But perhaps the hope of coronavirus is that in bringing a taste of death and disruption home to much of the global north, it could cultivate a much stronger sense of compassion for those already suffering the consequences of the minority world's way of life, and widen a deep determination to change course. Chinks of light like this support for a ban on short-haul flights give me hope that perhaps appetite is growing to sacrifice (literally, to make sacred) some of our actions in the name of a better future, and to recognise the joy of solidarity again, both with each other, and with future beings. Ultimately, for each of us our role is to be a force in that direction - to support and trust that people are waking up to the time we're living through. Rob Hopkins - one of our planned speakers - has written a wonderful book on our need to reinvigorate our imaginations so that it is no longer "easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism". Let's use this unusually unignorable crisis to give us a much-needed jolt in that direction - reminding us that we are capable of rapid, radical change - so that we might avoid the far worse consequences otherwise to come.
~~~
But I am still left with my decision. I have written this piece as a way of thinking through the dilemma, and to occupy myself while waiting on the output from the UK government's latest emergency meeting. That's now available, and while they now acknowledge "the worst public health crisis for a generation", the advice is still that we should not at this stage be cancelling such events, so it's time to make a decision. And on balance, in a country where restaurants, public transport and most workplaces remain busy, and its half a million cinema screenings a day are going ahead in line with the government's advice, adding one more isn't a significant contribution to spreading the pandemic, yet might just spark a significant contribution to finding a better way forward for our world. We have extensively considered both postponing (likely to be for at least six months) and moving the event online (high risk of technical problems, less compelling content, smaller audience), but in the circumstances, I think going ahead with the gathering is the right decision. (Update - Sat 14th March - due to a number of developments, including shifts in the government lead, our main camera/livestream operator developing a cough and so self-isolating, a ticket holder testing positive for COVID-19 coronavirus and a better idea for how we could run it online, I have reversed this decision. The event will now be online only - join us here) St Ethelburga's nave That said, I completely understand anyone who decides not to attend, and will offer them a full refund (email me, as Eventbrite doesn't allow such late refund requests). And if you can't be with us on the night - or choose not to be, as those in high-risk groups or their carers might well - I very much hope you will join us via Extinction Rebellion's livestream, which we expect tens of thousands to watch. We will of course continue monitoring developments over the weekend, in case anything significant changes. I fully expect that the government will change the guidance in the coming weeks, and once that happens it would clearly be irresponsible to go against it. Prospective attendees will also receive further information tomorrow on the precautions we will be taking on the night. And in general, I will personally now be strictly curtailing my social engagements, to minimise the risk of becoming a spreader as the pandemic continues its deadly progress. In love and solidarity, Shaun
A post-doom conversation, with Michael Dowd

A post-doom conversation, with Michael Dowd

When the bestselling theologian Reverend Michael Dowd invited me to open his 'Post-Doom' series of interviews on dealing with the widespread foreboding about climate chaos, societal collapse, and ecological 'doom', I didn't imagine how beautifully warm and touching a conversation it would be! We forged a real connection and it was an absolute pleasure to get to know such an authentic man. Here's a direct link to the full interview, or for a list of topics covered and links to jump straight to them, head through to Youtube and click "Show More" under the video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MR0C8h7go40 You can also subscribe there for the full series (also at www.postdoom.com), with confirmed future participants including Joanna Macy, Derrick Jensen, Chris Martenson and David Abram.
Humanity – not just a virus with shoes

Humanity – not just a virus with shoes

As awareness spreads of the ecocidal consequences of our civilisation, I increasingly hear opinions to the effect that humanity is nothing but a plague, a parasite. A virus with shoes... It can even lead to the opinion (frequently expressed by those in favour of burying our heads in the sand) that people concerned about humanity's impacts should do the world a favour and kill themselves. Indeed, as this hypothesis continues to spread, I don't doubt that it has contributed to actual suicides. So it seems worth highlighting that it isn't true. Now, don't get me wrong, there might well be a case to classify the particular culture we were born into - this eternal-growth-requiring, industrialised, globalised culture - among the diseases. Unending growth for growth's sake is truly the ideology of the cancer cell. And very possibly the majority of the humans you are likely to encounter day-to-day hold tight to that culture and its values. But does that encompass all of humanity? Or indeed, 'human nature'? Not one bit. A glance to anthropology reminds us that older human cultures have thrived for tens, even hundreds of thousands of years without causing comparable extinction rates, catastrophically destabilising the climate or teetering on the brink of nuclear annihilation. People for most of human history have raised children, explored philosophy, created beautiful art and lived good lives without once imagining themselves as intrinsically fated to devastate all around them. Yet the idea that we are incapable of anything else is becoming so powerful that I can hear the objections already: Haven't these older human cultures also caused extinctions? Well yes, some have. You'll find no 'noble savage' claim here that pre-industrial people or societies were incapable of ecological ineptitude. For example, some argue that humanity's spread across North America was the key factor in the extinction of the mammoths, giant beavers and others around 11,000 years ago. To quote M. Kat Anderson, author of the impressive Tending the Wild,
"...the peoples migrating into what is now California more than ten thousand years ago undoubtedly experienced a learning curve, apprising the limits to resource use and then adjusting their harvesting and management from the lessons learned. At times, the result was landscape degradation and species reductions or extinctions, but over the long term, valuable lessons were learned about how to steward nature for future generations."
In modern parlance, mistakes were made. But lessons were indeed learned. When the native Americans discovered Columbus floating off their shore ten thousand years later, let's just note that they were not overcome with relief at the prospect of being saved from the ecological devastation they had wrought on the continent. They were doing just fine. Modern industrial culture, by contrast, increasingly clings to escape from the planet as its last remaining positive (if delusional) vision of the future, having devastated our home with the astonishing, ever-accelerating speed demanded of it by its economics. Oh, and by the way, for most of human history,
"...the average human being enjoyed economic and political freedoms which only a privileged minority enjoy today. Men decided for themselves how long they would work on a particular day, what they would work at - or if they would work at all. Women too ... generally set up their own daily schedules and paced themselves on an individual basis ... earth, water, plants and game were communally owned. Every man and woman held title to an equal share of nature."
I know which example impresses me more.
Why does it matter anyway? This is the culture that now dominates the world, so to all intents and purposes it is humanity today. Well, this is exactly the belief that I wrote this article to challenge. As we've seen, it's demonstrably not 'simply human nature' to annihilate all around us. No, it's the nature of this particular human culture. Human potential is so much more, and that's why conflating the two is so toxic. Firstly, because claiming that humans are capable of nothing else plants the seed of futility in exactly the people our world so desperately needs - those who see through this society's hollow self-congratulation and recognise it for the devourer of futures that it truly is. It encourages such people to channel their disgust into self-loathing, rather than into beautiful resistance, utter rejection of the default path laid out for them, and the creation of radically alternative lives/cultures of fierce inspiration and joy. Secondly, it takes disrespect for indigenous cultures to new heights to deny that their lifestyles are even part of human nature, especially while so many continue to seek to guide their 'younger brother' back towards a better future. And thirdly, because right now we desperately need a diversity of stories of what humanity can be, for one simple reason: the dominant culture and economy is coming to its end. To pick one trend among many, that culture has annihilated 60% of the mammals, birds, fish and reptiles that were on the planet in 1970. Put starkly, most of the wild nature that was here fifty years ago is gone. I think we can agree that this (accelerating) trajectory is not sustainable. And it is hopefully not too controversial to note that unsustainable things end. There are two possibilities from here - we dramatically change direction or we end up where we are headed. Either way, we are on the cusp of radical change. So don't buy the story that the status quo is overwhelmingly vast and powerful, far beyond your ability to change it. On the contrary, it is devouring its own foundations, and it is up to us to design the sequel. Those who see this necessity are the pioneers. We were born into a culture of death, but it needn't hold our allegiance. Of course, the quiet self-loathing invited by the 'virus with shoes' hypothesis is quite convenient for the powers that be - the billionaires, media and politicians who continue to defend and profit from that suicidal status quo, explaining it away as the inevitable product of human nature. But it's a lie. Nothing obliges us to follow the path - accept the values - laid out for us. We can do better. So much better. These times call for creativity and imagination in our lifepaths. Humour and magic in our days. Something far more compelling than the mainstream. For me that has looked like rejecting the twin myths of consumerism and financial independence, quitting my job in 2005 to live cheaply and seek my security in relationships rather than in money. Then using the huge time and energy freed up from earning to educate myself, savour life and do much more than I'm paid to in these urgent times. For others it might look radically different, but choosing our own aims in life - like, I don't know, maybe actually having a future worth the name? - is just so much more delicious than striving for the delusional ones laid out for us! However that looks for you, let's be so much more than anaemic terms like 'low impact living' or 'sustainability' suggest is possible. Let's blow some minds!! As Toby Hemenway pointed out, sustainability is nothing more than the mid-point between destructive activities and regenerative activities. It's a tediously low bar. How does it sound if someone asks how your marriage is and you reply "oh, it's sustainable..."? I guess it's an improvement on "honestly, we're so dysfunctional that we leave a trail of carnage and devastation everywhere we go", but we can definitely aim higher in our relationships, both with each other and with the world that sustains us. These times don't call us to 'low-impact' lives. It's time to have a huge positive impact. To break the mould. Many people have. Many cultures have. And so can we. Be less virus. Guerilla art in Bethnal Green