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
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
Realists of a larger reality

Realists of a larger reality

In 2014 Ursula K. Le Guin accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters with a deliciously powerful speech. Aware that her time was nearing its end, she declared that her “beautiful reward” was accepted on behalf of, and shared with...
. . . writers of the imagination who, for the last fifty years, watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists. I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now. Who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries; the realists of a larger reality. . . . We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art: the art of words. . . . The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.
Today, it is evident that those hard times have arrived for many, and will continue to arrive for ever more people around the world. As Simon Mont wrote in Tikkun’s recent issue on the New Economy, “capitalism is collapsing under the weight of itself, and it’s not pretty”. Our globalised world finds itself caught on the horns of a seemingly impossible dilemma – either cease growing, and so collapse the economy on which we all depend, or continue to grow until we overwhelm and destroy the ecosystems on which we all depend. As my late mentor, the historian and economist David Fleming, put it,
It is certain that there are no simple answers to this—none that could be proposed without proposing at the same time a transformation in the whole of the way we think, work and order our lives.
Polyp - Steady as she goes It was in this context that I read that wonderful issue of Tikkun, exploring just such "alternatives to how we live now". I found myself in wholehearted agreement with the pieces therein, but I could still hear that voice in the back of my mind – surely it’s not realistic. Despite the numerous inspiring examples cited, surely the mainstream economy is just too big, too established, too real, to be overthrown by such utopian dreams. I’m certain I’m not the only one with this internal realist for company. But as the much-missed Le Guin said, the age of such realists is ending. Indeed, they have come close to dooming our world. For those paying attention, it could not be clearer that our time demands “realists of a larger reality”. To take one pressing example, the inherently conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent Global Warming of 1.5ºC report makes it abundantly clear that the unfolding realities studied by climate science are dramatically outpacing the policies notionally intended to address them. They find that we must halve emissions in the next twelve years, and so their observations force them to call for:
Rapid and far-reaching … unprecedented transformation in the economy.
In other words, it has become impossible to be simultaneously realistic with regard to both the political climate and the physics of climate. The two stubbornly refuse to reconcile, so we are forced to decide which carries more weight, and then be profoundly unrealistic about the other. To take present policy seriously demands a total rejection of the science. And to take science seriously demands a total rejection of present policy (with grassroots movements like the Extinction Rebellion and Climate Mobilization emerging accordingly). As such, I turn to my internal realist with a challenge – which reality is it that deserves our allegiance: today’s political economy or physical reality? Slightly to my surprise, he sees my point, and switches sides. And then, as an unrepentant realist, he gets straight to the point: What then does this larger reality demand? How might we solve the impossible dilemma? What is necessary, that we might have a future? “Patience”, I counsel my unexpected new ally. First, let us consider what we face. An economy so violently contrary to our human instincts and desires that it leaves epidemics of depression, loneliness and suicide everywhere it goes. That uses mass media and financial stress to hollow our souls and seize control of both our days and our hearts, sparking not only economic and environmental devastation, but cultural and spiritual annihilation. Like villagers glancing fearfully up at the castle of some dauntingly powerful vampire, we live our lives under the shadow of the economy of undeath. We owe this reality no allegiance. But we owe it respect. It is a worthy adversary, no doubt. Yet its weak point is obvious. People straight up hate it. They hate their jobs and the materialist hollowness imposed on their lives. Nonetheless, as I grew up inside it the corporate media kept us blind to other possibilities, made it seem patently obvious – only common sense – that continuing to participate in this grim reality is the only realistic option. But it’s a lie. And while a lie may take care of the present, it has no future. The truth is that it takes immense energy (of all kinds) to keep a population suppressed – to fight all our contrary impulses; to quieten our profound inner misgivings, our spark of creativity and rebellion. Leunig - Healthy Economy And this energy is running low. The domination economy of mass media and financial stress is probably the most effective system for alienating people from their spirit that our Earth has ever seen, but cracks are appearing everywhere. The edifice is crumbling. We all know, of course, that it is unsustainable – devouring its very foundations as it does – but it is somehow easy to forget that this means that it will end. Easy to forget, perhaps, because for all that we resent the hollow emptiness it imparts, the prospect of its absence too is terrifying, for those of us who were only raised to secure water from a tap; food from a supermarket. As Mont writes,
Only by knowing how to stay alive without the dominant system can we actually have the courage and wisdom to abandon or dismantle it.
He’s right, but it sounds pretty daunting. Must we then build a whole alternative economy before we can begin? Fortunately not… ~~~ An Teach Saor I am writing this article from my dear compañero Mark Boyle’s small community in Ireland, An Teach Saor (The Free House). It is a home from home for me, and one of many, many places around the world where the residents are making the logic of money and the market obsolete – abandoning it, before it abandons us. For example, the ‘free pub’ and bunkhouse here – The Happy Pig – is a place where anyone can stay, free of charge, and remember what it is to not have to find money simply to have a place to exist. You may not have heard much about such places, because that suits the corporate media just fine. But awareness of this agenda brings with it an emboldening thought. Doubtless, for every bastion of hope and joy you hear of or encounter, there are a hundred more that you haven’t. It is a heartening multiplication that I regularly remind myself of; a counterweight to the mainstream media’s narrow, oppressive ‘realism’. Here at An Teach Saor a different future is being built, day by day, smile by smile. One that is grounded in relationships of love and respect, and ultimately in the only economic system that has ever truly worked – the system upon which all others have depended – Nature. Being here is a healing, nourishing experience, surrounded by inspiring books, wild nature and wonderful, trustworthy people with hands dirty from the soil, who seek nothing more from each other than the pleasure of companionship. Once we remember the taste of freedom, the zombie economy holds little allure. Yet Mark’s words take me back to the wider world...
Despite knowing little or nothing of the bloody, mucky realities of land-based lives, techno-utopians will warn you to be careful not to romanticise the past. On this, I agree, and I know it first-hand. But be even more careful of those who romanticise the future.
No Exit - Andy Singer And among the books on the shelf here rests one that speaks to that very theme – Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy, a posthumously published work by my aforementioned mentor David Fleming. Therein, he reminds us of just how unusual today’s ‘ordinary’ is, and how profoundly unrealistic it is to pin our hopes on market capitalism – an economic system that has existed for less than 1% of human history and is already not only destroying its own foundations, but those of life on Earth. In his words,
The Great Transformation has already happened. It was the revolution in politics, economics and society that came with the market economy, and which hit its stride in Britain in the late eighteenth century. Most of human history had been bred, fed and watered by another sort of economy, but the market has replaced, as far as possible, the social capital of reciprocal obligation, loyalties, authority structures, culture and traditions with exchange, price and the impersonal principles of economics.
This historical context is critical. The New Economy our times call for is in many ways the Old Economy. We are rediscovering the ways human beings related to each other for hundreds of thousands of years before we were ripped into isolation by the brief historical anomaly of market capitalism, into which most of us alive today happened to be born. Suddenly it makes sense that living as we do here should feel so right. After all, what is the Happy Pig – which sounds so radical to modern ears – if not a simple rekindling of the ancient Irish tradition of hospitality? As Mont put it:
[The New Economy] is a groundswell to relying on a memory harboured in our hearts to make real a vision of humans returning to deep relationships with earth, spirit, and each other, that is constantly evolving and changing, while staying acutely cognizant of the fact that we must relearn how to keep ourselves alive without capitalism and extraction.
Fleming took that dear memory harboured in our hearts and wrote it large across the page. “We know what we need to do,” he writes, “We need to build the sequel, to draw on inspiration which has lain dormant, like the seed beneath the snow.” Lean Logic & Surviving the Future - David Fleming An Teach Saor is just one of thousands of communities around the world today inspired by his sparkling, tantalising writing, which also helped inspire the birth of the now-global Transition Towns movement. Why? Because his fundamental answer to our core dilemma is so refreshing – unique, perhaps, among modern economists. For him, the key to a better future lies not in jobs, growth and mathematics, but in culture, community and conviviality. He notes, for example, the startlingly extensive holidays of the medieval calendar (five months of each year, in some places) and ponders why the good folk of the Middle Ages were enjoying so much more leisure time than we are in our technologically-advanced society. What gives? He explains,
In a competitive market economy a large amount of roughly equally-shared leisure time – say, a three-day working week, or less – is hard to sustain, because any individuals who decide to instead work a full week can produce for a lower price (by working longer hours than the competition they can produce a greater quantity of goods and services, and thus earn the same wage by selling each one more cheaply). These more competitive people would then be fully employed, and would put the more leisurely out of business completely. This is what puts the grim into reality.
So in an economy like ours, a technological advance that doubles the amount of useful work a person can do in a day becomes a problem rather than a benefit. It tends to put half the workers out of work, turning them into a potential drain on the state (or simply leaving them destitute). Of course, in theory all the workers could just work half-time and still produce all that is needed, as is promised by today’s latest wave of automation utopians. But in practice workers are often afraid of having their pay cut, or losing their jobs to a stranger who is willing to work longer hours. In the absence of a sense of community or mutual trust, and having been taught to seek their security in a wage, people instead compete against each other for the right to perform the pointless tasks that anthropologist David Graeber memorably characterised as “bullshit jobs”. Dilbert BS jobs Meanwhile, governments see that the only way to keep unemployment from rising to the point where the system breaks down is through endless economic growth, which thus becomes a non-negotiable obligation – a dogma. So we just keep growing and cross our fingers that somehow Nature will continue to bail us out forever. As Fleming put it,
Civilisations self-destruct anyway, but it is reasonable to ask whether they have done so before with such enthusiasm, in obedience to such an acutely absurd superstition, while claiming with such insistence that they were beyond being seduced by the irrational promises of religion.
Take heart though, for when the current paradigm transparently offers nothing but a literal dead end, we can be sure that we are on the cusp of a fundamental shift. And Fleming provides the radical but historically-proven alternative: focusing neither on the growth nor de-growth of the market economy, but on huge expansion of the ‘informal’ or non-monetary economy—the ‘core economy’ that keeps our society alive, even today. This is the economy of what we love: of the things we naturally do when not otherwise compelled, of music, play, family, volunteering, activism, friendship and home. Yet over the past couple of centuries, this core economy has been much weakened, as the ever-growing stresses of precarious employment, debt and rising prices have left people with less time and energy for friendships, family and fun. As such, to sustain a post-growth economy we will need to get beyond mainstream economics’ aim of minimising spare labour. This ‘spare labour’ is what most of us might call spare time—time enjoyed outside the formal economy—a welcome part of a life well lived rather than a ‘problem of unemployment.’ Party night Those extensive holidays of former times were far from a product of laziness. Rather they were, in an important sense, what men and women lived for. ‘Spare time’ spent in feasting, performing, collaborating and merrymaking together formed the basis of communal bonding, membership and trust. These shared cultural ties then bind people together in cooperation, support and solidarity, the essential foundations for the communities which have thrived throughout history in the absence of economic growth (and its attendant certainty of devastating collapse) or full-time employment. As Fleming writes,
The [future] economy will depend for its existence on a deep foundation in culture. It is possible to live without it, but only for a time, like holding your breath under water.
Or as one of his readers put it – when productivity improves “in our system you have a problem; in Fleming’s system you have a party”. This is the party we are enjoying here at An Teach Saor, and in so many other places, families and communities around the world. Meanwhile, Fleming’s writing up on the shelf, with its rare combination of charm and rigour, reminds us that nurturing the core economy back to health in this way is not merely some quaint and obsolete shared longing, but an absolute practical priority – unadulterated realism. Wherever we are, we can spend our days relearning how to seek our security in each other – and in Nature – rather than in money, and as we do, we notice that the unfolding end of the undeath economy (no longer our undeath economy) becomes less something to fear, and more something to celebrate. We think less about what we might stand to lose and far more about the joys we had already lost and are slowly learning to regain, together. At long last we are remembering how to build a world in which, as dear David wrote,
There will be time for music.
-- Note: I first drafted this in September, but then decided to rework parts of it for publication as free-standing articles for Tikkun and Kosmos magazines. With those pieces now published, I have decided to release the original full piece here.
Interview on David Fleming, music and hippos!

Interview on David Fleming, music and hippos!

Last week the wonderful Brianne Goodspeed of Chelsea Green Publishing interviewed me on my late mentor David Fleming and the astonishing gift he left to the world. His sudden death in 2010 left behind his great unpublished work—Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It—a masterpiece more than thirty years in the making. In it, Fleming examines the consequences of an economy that destroys the very foundations—ecological, economic, and cultural—upon which it is built. But his core focus is on what could follow its inevitable demise: his compelling, grounded vision for a cohesive society that provides a satisfying, culturally-rich context for lives well lived, in an economy not reliant on the impossible promise of eternal economic growth. A society worth living in. Worth fighting for. Worth contributing to. And since his death, I have edited out a paperback version—Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy—to concisely present his rare insights and uniquely enjoyable writing style in a more conventional read-it-front-to-back format. Chelsea Green are simultaneously launching both on September 8th, but since I have just received my first copies, I believe some bookshops may have them already... For more about the man, the books, and the hippo, read on!

Q: Who was David Fleming?

For me, a life-changer. I first met him ten years ago, when I was struggling to find a way to engage with the great ecological crises of our time, and he showed me how to build a life following my passion. He was teaching at Schumacher College—a sort of elder of the UK green movement who had been involved with the origins of the Green Party here, and of the New Economics Foundation, designed a carbon rationing system under active investigation by the government, and was just in the process of shaping the birth of the Transition movement. But above all, he was one of the most generous and insightful people I ever met, and conversations with him rank among the most startling and refreshing experiences of my life. I think that really shines through in his writing.

Q: What was David’s involvement with the Transition movement?

Rob Hopkins once told me—rather too humbly, I’d say—that creating Transition was simply a process of taking Heinberg’s insights into peak oil, Holmgren on permaculture and Fleming on community resilience, rolling them together and making the whole thing comprehensible! In his foreword to Surviving the Future, Rob talks a lot more about David’s important influence and direct involvement, and his role as a great friend of the early Transition groups in London. At Transition Town Kingston, which I cofounded, the talk David gave us on carnival remains legendary!

Q: Lean Logic is described as his life's work. How so? And why did he choose a dictionary format as its conveyance?

Ha—no one who knew him would ask such a question! I rarely saw him without the manuscript in close reach, and perpetually scribbling, editing and re-editing. I’m reliably informed that the same was true for the preceding couple of decades. During interesting conversations, he would often proclaim that the insights gleaned would lead to a rewrite of the relevant section, and he meant it! We used to joke that I would end up publishing the book posthumously, and of course that’s exactly how it turned out. In truth, after putting so much of his heart and soul into it, I think he was a little afraid to release it; partly because his perfectionism said that it was never quite finished, but perhaps more because it would have broken his heart if nobody read it. Fortunately, early indications are that it’s proving very popular indeed. The dictionary format is, I think, a unique expression of a unique mind. One of the most striking things about conversations with David was the utterly unexpected connections he would draw, suddenly quoting poetry by heart to break the rational mindset, or enlightening a conversation about complexity with a reference to antelopes, or bringing The Wind in the Willows into an earnest chat about local identity. The dictionary format translates that onto the page, with an unexpected asterisk leading the mystified reader from “Frankness” to “Carnival”, or from “Local Wisdom” to “Insult”, with that intrigue often resolving into laughter shortly after! For the reader, it also overcomes one of the frustrations that can often exist when encountering a writer who marshals such a range of influences. Rather than opening each entry with a long introduction giving all the ideas he wants to draw upon, Fleming can get straight to the heart of what he wants to say, leaving the option with the reader as to whether they want to follow up the links for more context. It also gives a wonderfully free ‘choose your own adventure’ feel to exploring the book as you pursue the threads of your fascination. And being divided into convenient chunks makes it ideal for dipping in and out, even if it can be tantalisingly tricky to put down! Surviving the Future - David Fleming

Q: What is its relationship to Surviving the Future?

Well, of course David never had a sniff that Surviving the Future would exist! Lean Logic was the legacy he left to the world, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a very big book and a very unconventional one. Nothing wrong with that, but the first potential posthumous publishers I spoke with were worried that people might find it a bit daunting. Never afraid of a good daunt, myself and a couple of David’s friends took this as an invitation to produce something a bit more accessible, which ended up, a few years later, emerging as the manuscript for Surviving the Future. Essentially we picked one of those potential paths through Lean Logic, and then I edited that narrative into a conventional read-it-front-to-back paperback. For me the core of David’s work—the part I find most unique and inspiring, and the part that everything else in Lean Logic hangs off—is his revolutionary economics. Drawing on his education in modern history, he explains that economics before the market economy was rooted wholeheartedly in culture; and that the ongoing loss of community and culture that so many bemoan today is because they have become merely decorative—an optional extra—rather than the essence of our economic lives. And his work shows how much more beautiful life could be—not to mention how much more able to be sustained—if we rediscover and rebuild that. I’m sure others will disagree that this is the core of Lean Logic—David’s own introduction lists 14 key questions that the book addresses, of which this is only one—but that is probably the key thread that I pulled out for the paperback. I won’t pretend it wasn’t painful to leave out treasures such as “Nanotechnology”, “Spirit”, “Humility”, “Climate Change”, “Imagination”, “Anarchism” and “Resilience”, but that’s what the full dictionary’s for! Overall, I couldn’t be happier with the result as a sort of friendly gateway to Fleming’s masterpiece; not least because once Chelsea Green Publishing saw it, they didn’t hesitate to sign up the books!
Shaun Chamberlin and David Fleming

Q: What was your relationship to David?

As I mentioned, we first met at Schumacher College back in 2006. He was teaching on a two-week course there called “Life After Oil”, alongside Richard Heinberg, Rob Hopkins, Michael Meacher and others. At that point I was deeply concerned about environmental issues such as climate change and oil depletion, and looking for a meaningful way to engage with that, and Fleming’s talk really energised me. When he mentioned that he felt he was somewhat lacking in allies, I took my chance and somewhat cheekily suggested that I had some ideas for editing his recent “Energy and the Common Purpose” booklet that I felt could improve it. An English gentleman through and through, he was a little taken back by the impertinence of this young man, and I well remember him looking me down and up before eventually suggesting that I should join him for lunch that day. After that, he extended the same invitation the following day, and at the end of that second lunch he proffered his card, with an invitation to visit his Hampstead flat when I returned to London. Incidentally, on that same course my fellow student Ben Brangwyn met Rob Hopkins, and they went off and founded the Transition Network together. As it turned out, David very much liked what I did with his booklet, and from then on we were pretty well inseparable, working closely together on various projects until his sudden death in 2010. He placed only one firm condition on the arrangement—ever a fan of the informal, he insisted that we share a drink in the local pub at least once a week, to avoid things getting too stuffy! That suited me just fine, and I will treasure those drinks and wide-ranging conversations for the rest of my life. He was a storehouse of fascination as well as a remarkably attentive listener, and for me it was incredible to have a mentor who seemed to know everyone—if I mentioned some book or article I had read, his usual response was along the lines of “oh, I’ll give the author a call, we’ll have coffee”! For someone who up ‘til then had largely been researching things alone on the internet, it was a godsend. And from his point of view it was a delight to find a firm ally with remarkably similar interests and perspective. The partnership worked beautifully, and we often edited each other’s work, which fortunately left me with a strong “internal David” to consult for my work on these books. Curiously, I saw David on the London Underground last week—well, ok, someone who looked and moved exactly like him from where I was standing. I take it that he’d stopped by the mortal plane to check out his new books! ‘Seeing’ him brought back to me quite viscerally just what a pleasure it was to be in his company and brought to mind the words of a fellow Transitioner remembering his first meeting with David—“I was left thinking that this was the sort of man I would aspire to be.” Quite.

Q: One of the wonderful things about Fleming’s work is that while, yes, he deals with peak oil and climate change and all the difficulties that go with living beyond our planetary means, one of the things he mourns the loss of most in our current globalized market economy is the space for play, and carnival, and culture. And he envisions a future when that will once again have an important place in our lives. Can you describe his vision?

A few months before he died, David did an interview up an oak tree—don’t ask!—in which he was asked to describe his book . . .
“I think the book is all really about getting on with life and crucially getting on in life in the things that really matter. And what really matters is music . . . Interviewer: music. . . ? David: . . . and humour and conversation and painting, the arts, things like that, and having fun, play and farting about and generally enjoying life. That’s what really, really matters, I mean everything else is . . . well, the needle hiss, we used to say in the old days. Gramophone records . . . oh you are probably too young to know that expression anyway [laughing]”
And what becomes ever clearer as you read is that he is by no means advocating turning away from the difficulties you describe and finding distraction in entertainment. Rather he argues convincingly that this rebuilding and enjoying of culture is the only viable basis of a non-ecocidal culture—the only human system that has ever worked. Play is, as he says, what really matters. Unfortunately, these days, the hiss has taken over our lives.


Fleming’s vision is of a culture built around what we love, and entries such as “Carnival” explain beautifully how essential such pleasures are to a healthy society, and how misguided the early stirrings of capitalism were in relentlessly crushing such indiscipline. His definition of wisdom is telling, I think: “Intelligence drenched in culture”. I will never forget his response when one earnest Transitioner asked what one thing he should do to improve the resilience of his local community: “join the choir”.

Q: David Fleming was, among other things, an economist—a very unorthodox one. And he pioneered a carbon trading system called TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas) that was taken seriously at the highest level of British government. Can you explain TEQs and where the idea stands now?

Sure, TEQs is basically carbon rationing. That’s an idea that many environmentalists talk about these days, but David was the one who first figured out the practicalities of how it would actually work. And it’s a system based on his great faith in the small-scale, in a diversity of local solutions. As he wrote, “Large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions—they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework.” So TEQs is the national-scale framework he devised to encourage and harness local-scale solutions like the Transition Towns, and join them up into a guaranteed cap on emissions and a strong sense of national common purpose. It is the missing link that allows the local to address a global challenge like climate change. And unfortunately it is still missing. As David wrote, “At present, we have a policy-response shaped by sophisticated climate science, brilliant technology and pop behaviourism, based on simple assumptions about carrot-and-stick incentives.”


David first published on TEQs back in 1996, as an alternative to carbon taxation, of which he was a strong critic. By 2004 a Private Member’s Bill was passed by eleven Members of Parliament expressing interest in the TEQs system. This led to extensive research and popular writing into the idea and in 2006 our then-Secretary of State for the Environment, David Miliband, announced a government-funded feasibility study. In 2008, this study reported that TEQs would be progressive, that there were no technical obstacles to implementation and that public acceptability was better than for alternatives such as carbon taxes. However, future Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Treasury stomped on the idea, in my opinion because they feared that an effective system to limit carbon emissions might also limit economic growth. Several high-profile MPs and other political figures continued to advocate for the idea— indeed an All-Party Parliamentary Group commissioned David and me to coauthor a report, which came out in early 2011 to international headlines, weeks after his death; and TEQs remains policy for the Green Party here—but in the absence of active government support it has been kicked into the long grass. Having seen the whole story first-hand, myself and two colleagues published an academic paper on TEQs last year, which is already the most-read paper in the history of the Carbon Management journal. But it seems that the rift between political reality and the physical reality of climate change remains too wide for any policy to bridge at this point.

Q: What would David Fleming’s reaction to Brexit have been?

Hm, a good question, and one I have been pondering myself. It isn’t an area we ever really discussed, but there are certainly clues in his writing; above all in Lean Logic’s entry “Nation”, where he writes that “there is a reduced chance—in a centralised setting such as that being developed by the European Union—of rebuilding a stabilised society from the bottom-up”. So while I voted to “remain”, just, I suspect David would have voted with the majority. And watching the stunned aftermath of Brexit, I’ve been reflecting on that a lot. Among green lefties there seems to have been a sense that anyone who voted for Brexit must have been either a deluded idiot or a racist, but I think David’s work articulates beautifully the far more positive, reasonable motives that many will have had for their vote—a desire for more accountable control, closer to home; recognition of the economic truth that unlimited movement of both people and capital does indeed drive down wages for the working class; and above all a desire to reclaim a clear identity—something that David describes as “the root condition for rational judgement”. If you don’t know who you are then how can you know what to do? A nation, after all, is a powerful root for identity, built through long association with a particular place and culture, which many generations have shaped and defended. As David writes, “if defeated, the nation often manages, eventually, to come back into being, with a sense of renewal and justice. It exists in the mind of its people.” And it gives an identifiable meaning to the sense of “we”, to a “national interest”. This, perhaps, is what the European Union was seen to be threatening—our sense of who we are—and why so many rejected it. Of course there are plenty in America who still feel the same way about the United States. But more than a route to understanding Brexit’s causes, I see Fleming’s work as a progressive, practical vision of what it could look like. If Brexit is the path we are taking, then we need to reclaim it from the xenophobes and racists who see the “Leave” vote as a vindication. Globalisation and neoliberalism are destroying our collective future, but they have also all-but-destroyed the present for many, as the neofeudalism termed ‘austerity’ continues to bite. The one common factor behind unexpected election results like Brexit, Trump and Corbyn may be desperate rejection of the establishment and the status quo—all the major parties supported “Remain” after all. It is important to remember that fascists like Mussolini and Hitler didn’t only consolidate power on the basis of lies and fear—they also raised wages, addressed unemployment and greatly improved working conditions. So if we are to avoid the slow drift into real fascism, we need to present an alternative politico-economic vision that can restore identity, pride and economic well-being. We need to tell a beautiful story of how we will make the future better for the desperate, rather than a fearful one.

Lean Logic & Surviving the Future Bundle

This is the story that Fleming’s books tell, and what inspired me to devote my past few years to bringing them to publication. His startling seven-point protocol for an economics based in trust, loyalty and local diversity is, quite simply, the only realistic, grounded alternative I have seen to a future I have no desire to live through.

Q: Although he was eager to see the end of the market economy as we know it, David Fleming also had considerable fondness for it. Can you explain why?

I’m not sure that fondness is quite the word, but yes, you’re right. Again David said it well himself in that interview with Henrik Dahle up a tree on Hampstead Heath:
“I am a capitalist and I am a bit of a right winger, to most people’s horror and shock, and I think in many ways the system we have got at the moment is really not a bad system. I think capitalism is a good thing. The only problem with capitalism is that it destroys the planet, and that it’s based on growth. I mean apart from those two little details it’s got a lot to be said in its favour. . . . It’s not necessarily against a system that it collapses, because most systems do collapse in the end. That’s a part of the wheel of life—systems do collapse. So I’m to some extent slightly inclined to forgive capitalism for being about to collapse. I mean there are lots of fine things, lots of love affairs and the like which have come to a sticky end. On the other hand, it is quite an accusation—quite hard for it to live down—that not only is it based on the ludicrous idea that growth can continue indefinitely, but it’s going to destroy the entire planet with it.”
So he could see both sides: addressing those actively eager to see the collapse of the growth-based economy and the comfort, simplicity and social order that it enables for many, he quoted “War is sweet to those who know it not.” Yet on the other hand he decried the devastation that the market economy has wrought on culture, community and cohesion, and the way that it “has infantilised a grown-up civilisation and is well on the way to destroying it”. For David there was no point in working to bring down the market economy—that will come quite soon enough, faster than we might wish—so the only approach that makes sense is to rebuild the cultural roots of the ‘informal economy’, the economy on which we will find ourselves utterly reliant again in the aftermath of the collapse.

Q: Fleming was so creative and whimsical and had a great command of English language. Can you give us a few examples of your favourite “Fleming-isms”?

Off the top of my head, one that everyone seems to remember is his succinct reminder to those quick to make accusations of hypocrisy: “If an argument is a good one, dissonant deeds do nothing to contradict it. In fact, the hypocrite may have something to be said for him; it would be worrying if his ideals were not better than the way he lives.” Then there’s the one that Rob Hopkins never tires of quoting: “Localisation stands, at best, at the limits of practical possibility. But it has the decisive argument in its favour that there will be no alternative.” And my own personal favourite, skewering the myth of perpetual economic growth: “Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it.” This was just the way he spoke though; the list goes on and on . . .

Q: What is the story of this bizarre hippopotamus woodcut on the cover of Lean Logic?

Well, it was engraved by Conrad Gesner back in 1551, so you’d have to ask him! But in Lean Logic the image’s very inexplicability is sort of the point—as David explains in the “Hippopotamus” entry such magnificent animals stand as an important reminder of the limits to the ability of logic to make sense of things, in the presence of the big facts of nature. A symbolic reminder, then, that our civilisation stands on the brink of some hard lessons in humility. In that entry he quotes David Hume: “Nature will always maintain her rights, and prevail in the end over any abstract reasoning whatsoever.” Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It -- Full details of Shaun's extensive tour in support of the books available here. Latest info on the books, reviews etc, including the audiobook/film versions, available here.