(March ’21 update: With the powerful Jan/Feb ’21 run of the course discussed below now complete, enrolments are now open for June/July ’21 – details here) (Dec ’20 update: All 100 places are now taken, with our guest teachers this time confirmed...
December 2020 update: We have reached our cap of 100 participants for the second run of the course, starting Jan 4th 2021, and so have closed enrolments. You can sign up to be notified about our next course here. April 2020 update: Due to overwhelming interest,...
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,
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,
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.
Sometimes, like Kant, I'm moved to write by reading something I so profoundly disagree with. Tonight, curiously, I'm moved by a wish for a little less disagreement. Reading Jeremy Lent's excellent post What Will You Say To Your Grandchildren? and seeing it so passionately take issue with Jem Bendell's "dangerously flawed" calls for Deep Adaptation, I just felt deep solidarity with both. I left a comment on Jeremy's piece, then thought I'd expand it a little and post it here too, because, in truth, vigorously debating the question of whether it's all too late is not where I want to see these two outstanding gentlemen spend their potency. The more critical question - I believe they would both agree - is what to do in these times. And, counter-intuitively and doubtless controversially, I've come to believe that the answer to the first question isn't necessarily central to that. Wendell Berry's words bear repeating: “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.” For me, standing in resistance to the system driving mass extinction is not dependent on knowing - or even believing - we might succeed. I know Jem's a fan of this piece I wrote six years ago about my painful grappling with 'is it all too late?':
And yet there I was in Parliament Square on Hallowe'en when we declared rebellion against the UK government, and accordingly getting arrested for the first time in my life 14 days later. The next day I stood on Blackfriars Bridge and gave a speech to my fellow rebels about my experience in jail, but also about the fact that I believe it's all too late, and how I relate to that. Many have come to thank me since, for not being afraid to voice that dark truth, and for sharing a vitalising way forward for those who share that belief. The whole day was so profoundly nourishing, and while I don't intend or expect to have grandchildren - I have enough on my plate trying to ensure the safety of the children already on the Earth - it would be a rich pleasure to tell the tale to yours: https://vimeo.com/301399993 Of course, in the months since, just as Roger Hallam and others predicted, those 100+ arrests garnered headlines that helped launch a global movement in a world sick and terrified of the future we're creating. Does that change my belief that it's all too late? No. But does that belief in any way undermine the joy and delight I feel at telling a story with my life that I'm proud to tell? Not one bit! And I'll be proud, grateful and emboldened to know that when I take my stand this month, I'm shoulder-to-shoulder with authentic and impassioned folk like Jeremy and Jem.
Our film about David Fleming's potent legacy is starting to take shape. And here's the first taster - a beautiful five minute wander through Deep Time, with a shocking ending..! https://vimeo.com/236050600 I'm so proud of these tasters, and happy to see that they're currently going viral on Facebook, with over 1.5m 2.5m 4m views already. For more head over to the home of the film: https://www.flemingpolicycentre.org.uk/the-sequel/ We look forward to hearing your thoughts there, especially on what else should be included when the final film comes out next summer :)
In a couple of weeks (Feb 6-10) I'll be leading a week-long course at Schumacher College based on David Fleming's legacy: Community, Place and Play: A Post-Market Economics. It will be an exploration of what 'life well lived' looks like in a world of ecocide and collapsing civilisational structures, and a call for those present to ramp up their involvement in the informal economy of relationships and Nature. The key resources for a thriving future. Myself, Rob Hopkins and Mark Boyle have all been walking variants of this path for at least the past decade or so, and are much looking forward to discussing and debating the most delicious, enlivening ways forward in today's world. And all of us are deeply inspired by the work of David Fleming, the mentor I first met, along with Rob, when they taught me at Schumacher College ten short years ago. It feels a great honour to follow in his footsteps and continue his work. I'm also particularly delighted that we will be able to première the beautiful, challenging and yearning film We, The Uncivilised as part of the course. It fits perfectly with the themes we will be exploring and is, quite simply, the most memorable film I have seen in years. It will be a real highlight and catalyst. Here is a quick Q&A I did with Positive News on the course, and I believe one or two spaces are still available if you wish to join us. Can't wait! -- Edit - 14th Feb 2017 - I had intended to do a full blog post reflecting on the course, but in the aftermath I find myself exhausted, thrilled and satisfied, with a deep yearning for quiet and stillness. Suffice to say that the week was even more potent than I had hoped, and felt a transformational experience for most, if not all, of us there. Many powerful relationships were formed and ideas mooted, and I look forward to seeing what emerges as we all continue on our paths.