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.
Why I’m Rebelling against Extinction (wait, should that really need explaining..?)

Why I’m Rebelling against Extinction (wait, should that really need explaining..?)

I got arrested for the first time in my life this week. And I'm proud of it. As long-time followers of this blog know, over the past 13 years I've tried everything I know to get our society to change its omnicidal course. I've written books, co-founded organisations, taught courses, worked in my community, lobbied governments, given talks, participated in grassroots discussion and action... I've failed. We've all failed. As a global society we are accelerating towards oblivion, and taking everyone else with us. And last week, someone said something that stuck with me. That if everyone around you is carrying on like everything's fine, then no matter how much one reads or understands intellectually about a situation, it's so difficult not to go along with that. Equally, if you're somewhere and everyone else starts screaming and running for the exit, then you probably start running for the exit, even if you have no idea what's going on. Maybe there's seemed to be a disconnect between the message we've been bringing - that this society is knowingly causing the harshest catastrophe in history - and the actions we've been taking? Maybe if the wider public see that hundreds feel the need to go to jail over this, they might start to seriously ask why? With these stakes, it's worth a shot. https://vimeo.com/301399993 That film was shot yesterday on Blackfriars Bridge, one of five bridges surrounding Parliament that we occupied as part of the Extinction Rebellion. The sheer mass of thousands of people meant that the police couldn't possibly arrest everyone, so the bridges were ours for all the family fun you can see. But when, at the hour we decided, we collectively moved on, many ordinary folk stayed behind and refused to leave in order to be arrested. If all we have left to amplify the message with is our liberty, then we offer it up. And paradoxically - as I said in my speech in the clip above (from 4m15) - in doing so we have discovered a new freedom. That following our conscience and refusing to be bound by laws that insist on inflicting death and misery is an act of liberty. Hundreds of thousands of humans are dying of climate change each year now. Most of the wild nature that existed fifty years ago is gone. What's a little time in jail, by comparison?
---
As I sat in my cell, I felt peace. I knew that I was doing all I could for our collective future, and am proud to have that recorded against my name for the rest of my life. Perhaps, as ever, Wendell Berry said it best, "Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success, namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence." Maybe we can't stop what's unfolding, but it would diminish us not to try. And yesterday was the first event I've attended that felt as though it might be a historic turning point. Equally, it might not. That's up to us. One child held a placard saying "When I grow up, I want to be alive". Yep. See you there next Saturday. (and there are plenty of crucial non-arrestable roles too) -- I'll leave you with the song that has been the soundtrack to my personal Extinction Rebellion. It makes me cry every time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTFFOr_G6ZM