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
‘The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?’  March 16th launch

‘The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?’ March 16th launch

The above image is a screenshot from my latest newsletter. Tickets are now on sale (and going fast!) for the launch of our film The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?, with guests Caroline Lucas MP, Kate Raworth and Rob Hopkins joining me and the film's director Peter Armstrong for an event livestreamed globally by Extinction Rebellion. Read the update in full, including the link for tickets, or subscribe to receive future newsletters direct to your inbox.
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.
‘The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?’

‘The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?’

This post was originally written by me for the film's own blog, but I have kindly given myself permission to reproduce it here ;) You can watch the above taster in full here. As executive producer of The Sequel, I'm proud of what we've created, and can't wait to see the impact it has in the hands of the wonderful Bullfrog Films! Emerging from a few months of frantic editorial work, we have two exciting pieces of news:
  1. the film is finished! We are absolutely delighted with the final, hour-long creation, and much look forward to hearing what you all think.
  2. ...and, happily, it's not just us who rates it. The ever-impressive Bullfrog Films have had a sneak preview and immediately signed up as our global distributor. Fantastic news!
We are also exploring the possibility of taking on a separate distribution partner for the UK/Europe (contacts welcome!), but utterly thrilled to have such distinguished partners helping bring our work to a wider audience worldwide. Without doubt this early success owes a huge debt to all of you, both for your input to the finished film and for the enthusiastic sharing that has led to over 4.5 million views for our tasters, like the one above. Thank you. Once we have news from Bullfrog about the final release date we will of course let you all know; we know that Stacy Canterbury is not alone in saying that "all these 'tasters' have made me hungry for the full meal!" That's coming soon, and for now we can begin by revealing the official blurb for the film (note the new, hopefully intriguing, title...) - let us know what you think!


The Sequel: what will follow our troubled civilisation?

Opening with a powerful ‘deep time’ perspective, from the beginning of the Earth to our present moment, this film recognises the fundamental unsustainability of today’s society and dares to ask the big question: What will follow?

Around the world, fresh shoots are already emerging as people develop the skills, will and resources necessary to recapture the initiative and re-imagine civilisation, often in the ruins of collapsed mainstream economies.

We encounter extraordinary projects and people from four continents, from the likes of renegade economist Kate Raworth, conservative philosopher Roger Scruton and Gaian ecologist Stephan Harding to localisation revolutionary Helena Norberg-Hodge, inspirational practivist Rob Hopkins, eco-pioneer Jonathon Porritt and philanthropist composer Peter Buffett, among many others.

They are cultivating a resilience not reliant on the impossible promise of eternal economic growth; developing diverse, satisfying, convivial contexts for lives well lived. And lives that could leave a legacy to be proud of - a future worth the name.

As we discover, all were inspired by a work of rare depth that is rekindling optimism in the creativity and intelligence of humans to nurse our communities and ecology back to health – Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It - the posthumously published lifework of the late David Fleming. In his words:

“We know what we need to do. We need to build the sequel, to draw on inspiration which has lain dormant, like the seed beneath the snow."