Know Your Place
Monday, August 31
Edward Goldsmith, 1928 - 2009
Teddy Goldsmith was a curious paradox of a man. Very rich, very establishment, yet also fiercely anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-modern. A pioneer of environmental campaigning, Teddy was making the case against global capitalism before I was even born, and countering its global spread with a vision of his own: a romantic, conservative vision of small communities living 'stable' lives close to the soil. For a time Teddy tried to live this life himself, in Cornwall in the 1970s, where he would proudly boast that his stinking compost toilet turned away all but the hardiest visitor.
That tale was revealing, because if there was one thing Teddy enjoyed it was riling people. Part of him was desperate for his radical, well-researched and sometimes shocking ideas to be taken seriously. Another part of him was repulsed by the kind of people he also wanted to be taken seriously by. He was a perpetual outsider: eccentric, angry, brilliant, quixotic and sometimes frustrating. No-one ever worked with him without either shouting at him or wanting to, or without disagreeing, often very strongly, with some of his ideas. But no one ever worked with him, either, without developing a strong personal attachment to him, and a good deal of respect, for he was a kind, decent and humble human being.
Teddy's brand of conservative, even reactionary, environmentalism is out of fashion today, at a time when the green movement seems to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the political left. Many of today's young greens have probably never even heard of him. But without him there would be no Green Party in the UK, no Ecologist either, and the debates we are having would be very different ones.
Teddy's legacy will be his writings, which are collected here. I personally recommend the essay Development as Colonialism as essential reading for any modern green. His co-edited book The Case Against the Global Economy is excellent, and the Blueprint for Survival was pioneering and is still relevant today.
The Times has a nice obituary of Teddy here, and the Ecologist is republishing an interview I did with him a couple of years back. I don't think I've seen him since then, and I wish I had.
Wednesday, June 24
I'm not going to declare the end of this blog, but I think it's fair to say that it is currently in hibernation. I will doubtless still post things up here from time to time, but they will probably be irregular. One reason is that I currently have two other, much more active, blogs on which you can read my thoughts if you are that way inclined.
One is the Real England blog, which takes my latest book as its leaping-off point for explorations of the state of the nation. The other is the blog attached to my new initiative, the Dark Mountain Project, which I hope will turn out to be something quite special. Do keep an eye on those, and we will see what the future holds.
Thursday, April 16
Come: climb the Dark Mountain
Well, I've been thinking about it for what seems like years, working on it for many months and hinting at it on this blog for God knows how long. Now, finally, it's just about mature enough to be exposed to the world.
Today, myself and my co-conspirator Dougald Hine are announcing an attempt to coax into being a new literary and artistic movement for an age of massive global change. We are calling it the Dark Mountain Project.
We live in insecure and unprecedented times. A collapsing economy and a collapsing environment are turning all our assumptions on their heads. Nothing that we currently take for granted is likely to survive the 21st century unscathed. Civilisation as we have known it is coming apart at the seams.
And yet hardly anybody - not politicians, not economists, not environmentalists, not writers - is really facing up to the magnitude of this. We are all still wedded to the idea that the future will be an upgraded version of the present. It is in our cultural DNA. Perhaps this is why, as the warning signs flash out ever more urgently, we still go shopping, or plan for more economic growth, or campaign for new energy technologies, or write novels about the country house or the inner city.
A civilisation is built not on oil, steel or bullets, but on stories; on the myths that shore it up and the tales it tells itself about its origins and destiny. We believe that we have herded ourselves to the edge of a precipice with the stories we have told ourselves about who we are: the stories of 'progress', of the conquest of 'nature', of the centrality and supremacy of the human species.
I believe it is time for new stories, and it seems I am not the only one. The Dark Mountain project aims to foster a new movement of writers, artists and creative thinkers, a new school of writing and art for an age of massive global disruption. We are calling it Uncivilisation.
Here's the plan. Today, we announce our intentions to the world, and we hope to start attracting the interest of like-minded people. Then, within a month or so, we'll be launching the Dark Mountain Manifesto, as a hand-crafted pamphlet and on the web. At the same time, we will launch our full website, an online gathering-place for discussing and plotting and crafting a new way forward. If enough people seem interested, we then plan to begin publishing a journal of Uncivilised art and writing. Then ... who knows?
For the moment, though, we are looking for help, support, potential collaboration and expressions of interest. The Dark Mountain Project is not a prescriptive attempt to tell people how to write or think, but the raising of a flag around which we hope like-minded people will gather. So we are looking for people who might want to be involved: writers, artists, illustrators, designers, thinkers - anyone with whom this strikes a chord.
If you think you are one of them, or if you'd just like to be kept informed about what we're up to, visit our pre-launch website and register your interest. You can also, if you are so inclined, join our Facebook group.
Finally, we are working right now to raise money for the printing of our manifesto and for the construction of our website. We have set a target on this fundraising site, where we need to raise £1000 (well, $1500) in three weeks, through small donations. Every little will help, so if you feel you'd like to spend a bit on a good cause, please pop over there. If you spend more than $20 you get a signed, numbered copy of our manifesto, which I can promise you will be well worth the money!
Wednesday, April 8
Some thoughts about that G20 death
I've just watched the video of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests, which is, rightly, headlining the news at the moment. It's always hard to judge from a film, especially a grainy, shaky one, what exactly was going on. We have perhaps thirty seconds of footage here, with little context to it. We can't hear what anybody says, nor do we know what happened before or after. We can't tell whether this contributed to Tomlinson's later death; though it surely must have had an impact.
What we do know, though, because we can see it clearly, is that a police officer in riot gear attacked this man, from behind, and knocked him to the floor. Perhaps Tomlinson said something to him to provoke him; perhaps he didn't. It doesn't matter. What matters is that this is a deliberate physical attack, by a masked, armed agent of the state, on an unarmed man who is offering him no physical resistance at all - indeed, is actually walking away from him.
What will happen now is clear already. Some activists will try to make a martyr out of Ian Tomlinson, as they did Carlo Giuliani, the activist who was shot dead at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001. I was at Genoa, a few streets away when it happened. It was horrific. Nonetheless, I don't like the making of martyrs. Though Tomlinson (unlike Giuliani) was clearly not attacking anyone when he was assaulted, it does no-one any favours to create posthumous heroes to serve the political purposes of others.
It's also worth getting some perspective on policing at UK demos. There'll be a lot of talk of 'fascist' policing, but having been in Genoa and seen genuine fascists in riot gear - and we're talking open admirers of Mussolini here, with guns on their belts - and having seen what happens when they go ape, we have to admit that our police don't do demos as badly as many others around the world.
But what we also need to admit - and what ought to be heard loud and clear now as the Met and the cops who were there that day begin to lie, deny and cover up, and smear the dead man and the other protesters - is that our police are getting worse. When they police demos like this they do not do so to 'keep order' , protect citizens or see that the law is maintained. They do so to protect the interests of the state and the interests of property. They see protesters, demonstrators and dissenters as an enemy to be conquered. And increasingly they are giving up even pretending otherwise.
Tooled up in riot gear that looks more threatening every year, with their faces masked as they film those of other people, and armed with increasingly authoritarian powers from a government that seems determined to give them everything they need to prevent any dissent whatsoever, there is a real danger that the police in this country could get seriously out of control - particularly at big events like this. Watch that video and see if you can spot any evidence of the police protecting the people or preventing laws from being broken. What you see is a police officer blatantly assaulting a passerby, egged on or passively observed by his colleagues. It's clear whose side the cops are on here, and what they came out to do. This should probably not be a surprise, but I'll bet it's not a message the media will be putting out much.
Britain is not a police state. Yet. But we're not as far off as we think we are either.
Monday, April 6
All vote now ...
Now, I'm not sure whether I would be a worthy winner or not, but it's very nice to be recognised. What happens now is that all the nominees are put before the public's stern gaze, and the one who receives the most votes is named, on St George's Day, of course, as the winner. Oh, and the beer company Bombardier, whose idea this all is, hopes that it sells more pints as a result.
I think this is a great idea and, myself aside, there are some great unsung people being nominated. I'd strongly recommend that you go to the website and vote for your favourite, whether it be me or anybody else. Press the buttons on your keypads now.
Wednesday, April 1
Thursday, March 12
I am for the woods against the world
And so another day begins and the world turns and all of us do more or less what we did yesterday and meanwhile the world is ending but this is not really our business and what can we do anyway and if you think I'm going to make any sacrifices for you or for anyone else you don't understand human nature.
And so it goes on, so we go on, living in the most comfortable, the most wonderful, the most physically desirable state any human has ever lived in, pampered, warm, full of chocolate and wine, moving without moving, travelling across oceans in hours and believing it is all quite natural and that it will last forever and not only last forever but keep getting better because we believe it will be so and so it must be.
This morning we read, if we read, that the Amazon rainforest will soon die. More than a two degree rise in global temperature will kill off 85% of the world's greatest repository of life. And more than a two degree rise in temperature is now inevitable, two hundred years of burning fossilised carbon has seen to that. Yesterday we read, if we read, that the chemical composition of the oceans is changing for the same reason and that this will help push us, as if we needed pushing, up beyond the six degree threshold, which is the point beyond which even our all-knowing lab rats have declared all bets to be off, forever.
But we have bigger things to think about than this. We are producing fewer cars, our banks will no longer give us free money, our houses are less expensive, our child protection services are sometimes inadequate and our gods are clashing again and all of these things constitute a grave crisis. We have no time for the world or what we are doing to it because inside the bubble of our civilisation things are creaking and cracking and they must be mended because human things must be mended before all other things, forever. Once we have mended the human things we may choose to turn our attention to the other things, to the forests and the oceans and the great skuas and the high-sided islands and the wide orange deserts, and we may choose to mend them too, but only if it suits us and only if we can afford it.
And it may yet suit us, for our environmentalists, safe too inside the bubble, have convinced themselves, through the use of their rational minds and a judicious explication of the relevant numbers, that they believe that if we can only coat the orange deserts in mirrored panels and the wild mountains in giant white turbines and the coasts with wave machines and the estuaries with concrete barrages and if we can only do this fast enough, so fast that no-one has time to think about it, if we can only do this we can keep the bubble from bursting. We can keep the radiators on and the cars running and the offices full and nothing will really change for the voters or the shoppers or the charitable donors, and the skua and the orang utan and the mahogany and the coral may live a small while longer, at least until we decide they are in the way of a greatly-needed new oil shale deposit or a biofuel plantation or are inhabiting a forest which we may sustainably harvest in order to create sustainable toilet paper for our newly-sustainable lifestyles.
Yet in the back of our minds, those of us who use them, in the back of our minds is something we will not face. It is something which winks at us, ever so quietly. It is something which says it is too late. It is too late, the bubble will burst and you will be faced again with the wild from which you come for the wild is taking you back and all your self-delusions with it. Your windfarms will not save you now for nothing will save you now and for the orang utan and the skua and the coral and the mahogany this is news to gladden the heart. For you stopped understanding what you are and where you came from and what you had the right to do and you believed, all of you, even those who thought that you did not believe it, that all things human came before all things other, and you were wrong and now you will pay and maybe, perhaps, maybe you will even learn something.
For a Coming Extinction
W. S. Merwin
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing
I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day
The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And fore-ordaining as stars
Join your work to theirs
That it is we who are important
Tuesday, February 17
It's a problem that will be debated in ten days or so at the Convention on Modern Liberty, which brings together people and organisations from across the political spectrum to talk about - and who knows, maybe even do something about - the ongoing and ever-faster erosion of freedom in the UK.
I'll be speaking on a panel about the English tradition of liberty and the 'national question' (on which George Monbiot writes in today's Guardian, kindly mentioning yours truly), which may or may not be worth hearing. But I think that the day as a whole promises to be pretty useful.
Thursday, February 12
Why I am a planet-raping fascist
It's not often you get to provoke extreme reactions, especially from otherwise reasonable people. But these 800 words have led to me being dismissed as a 'romantic' and a 'nimby', called an anti-human snob, an elitist, a fascist and - surely worse even than fascism - a member of the middle class. I have been accused of putting humanity and the global environment at risk, helping fossil fuel companies in their quest to build more power stations and undermining the the global quest to Save the World from the terrors of climate change. Not bad for a day's work.
What could lead to such a torrent of extreme abuse - abuse which is all the more remarkable because, though some of it was from the kind of nutters who enjoy leaving abusive comments under articles on the web, much of it was from environmentalists like me? Had I come out in favour of mass species extinction? Was I advocating the enforced culling of the human population? Had I joined the Labour party?
Well, no. What I had done was written what I thought was a fairly measured piece, which made three main points:
1. Renewable energy technologies are not, despite some green claims to the contrary, always harmless. Some - those which are carried on on a massive scale - can actually be harmful. The harm is of a different measure to that caused by fossil-fuel burning; it's harm to the wild landscape. But it's harm nonetheless, and we should acknowledge that.
2. Wild places and the non-human world are important both for the biosphere as a whole and for human wellbeing. They should not be ravaged by human industrial intrusion. This goes both for motorways and inappropriately-sited windfarms.
3. Environmentalists should be able to talk about crucial but intangible things - like beauty, wildness, stillness, the soul-lifting power of mountains and forests - without feeling ashamed. They should talk less like economists and more like poets, because if they don't, the economists have won. And then we're really in trouble.
I won't be disingenous and say that I am surprised by some peoples' violent objections. I did write this piece to provoke a reaction, but I didn't do so for fun, or because I like being contrarian (actually, I quite like the quiet life). I did it because I felt, as an environmentalist, that some (though not all) strains of environmentalism were in danger of being almost entirely co-opted by the establishment.
I'm not going to repeat the arguments I made in the piece, but I do want to clear some things up. Some people have reacted to what I wrote by sending me angry emails asking why I have come out against renewable energy or wind turbines. I reply by telling them to go and read it again, and this time to pay attention to what I actually wrote rather than what they think I wrote. I am not against renewable energy. I like it. I think it's the way of the future. I run my house on it, and I would like, in the future, to be entirely off-grid; sun- and wind- and maybe even ground-powered.
What I am against is the raping of wild places with massive energy mega-projects like the Severn Barrage. And what I am intensely, grindingly, frustrated by, is that people who call themselves environmentalists are simply, in many cases, unable to engage in discussions about the actual, physical, real environment - and our personal relationship with it.
Here is the excellent Robert MacFarlane, writing a few years ago about the now thankfully rejected Lewis windfarm, a vast mega-project which would have destroyed the peat wilderness of Lewis in the Hebrides:
The Lewis project is a salutary case study. It reveals that an American-Puritan error - that wild land is waste land, there to be put to industrial use - is rearing its head. Wild places, it has come to be understood, are the "uplands" of civilisation: landscapes that can renew, console, and lift us in unique ways.
Lewis's situation also reminds us of the spiritual, aesthetic, historical and ecological values that are put at risk when extraordinary landscapes are industrially menaced. These values are harder to measure, and harder to articulate than the hard numerical wattage of the turbines. But they are, unlike the wattage, non-transferable.
The green movement today is in danger of committing that 'American-Puritan error' on a large scale. Greens as a whole now have one focus and one alone: stopping climate change. This is entirely understandable. There is nothing wrong with it. Getting rid of coal and oil is urgent and important. Renewable energy is a much better idea. But if a single-minded focus on 'emissions' overwhelms every other urge that made us green to begin with, we are in troubled waters, and when we find ourselves pushing to destroy nature in order to save nature, then we need to stop, step back and take a deep breath. When we, as greens, find ourselves attacking our opponents as 'nimbies', dismissing arguments about landscape value and the non-human wilderness and smearing those who disagree with us as 'fascists' or 'deniers', then we need to ask ourselves some hard questions: how did we get here? Where are we going? And what are we for?
The new windfarm on the once-desolate moors at Rochdale, near Manchester,
is being touted by the Green Party as a triumph. Laugh or cry? You decide.
Well. I have written here before about my problems with the current climate change narrative. If we really have 100 months to save the world, then the world is already doomed. But we don't: in reality, the narrative is not about the planet; it's about human civilisation. Start this discussion with anyone and this soon becomes clear. What we are really talking about when we talk about rapidly creating a carbon-free economy is the desire to maintain human civilisation at its current level of comfort. If that requires us to carpet wild landscapes with industrial superstructures, then that is, apparently, a price worth paying.
I am all in favour of moving rapidly away from fossil fuels, and towards renewables. But we need to get real. The frantic scrabble to save our current lifestyles from the eco-crunch is like the scrabble to save the banks from the credit crunch: pointless, and too late. The crunch is already here. Now we have to learn to live with it. There is no technology, or group of technologies that can keep us in the fossil-fuelled style to which we have become accustomed. The best way to at least ameliorate the worst effects of climate change - it's too late to stop it now - is for society to scale back, scale down, get back into contact with real, actual, everyday nature, and rethink its values. Environmentalists ought to be thinking about ways to do this, not working on ever more intricate ways to help capitalism rejuvenate itself once again, only to begin anew the ravaging of the Earth.
I'm not suggesting this is easy. Hell, maybe it's not even realistic - in the climate change debate, very little is. But it is right. We are overstretching ourselves, and it seems to me that we are still in some denial about to what extent things are going to change. Nature is calling in a debt and the landing is going to be hard.
The root cause, in my view, of the environmental crisis is not technological or economic: it is imaginative. We imagine that we are separate from something called 'nature' - an optional accessory which we may like or not like, but do not really need. When environmentalists dismiss reactions like mine or MacFarlane's, they are as complicit in that error as any banker or oil company boss. They are missing the point, because they want to miss the point, because the alternative seems so much harder to contemplate. But contemplate it we must. It's something that has to be faced.
Civilisation as we know it is over. The question now is what comes next.
Wednesday, January 28
Back in time
Those were the days: the first stirrings of environmental direct action in this country, when I was still young enough to take part unironically. Those who were there too, or those who weren't but would have liked to have been, or those too young to remember - including those whippersnappers currently clogging up the airports with their climate change protests - should buy this new book by photographer Adrian Arbib, which documents everything that happened at Solsbury. It's brilliant, as is the accompanying website, a historical document in itself.