I’m suddenly without hope. Until now, I’ve kept a flame. Time slides past towards the end of settled human cultures. It seems as we sit by the river, that it flows through seasons properly, but nevertheless chaos accelerates and normal life recedes. That chaos accelerates is accepted by most – some stand on soap boxes to warn of it – but no-one does a thing. It seems as though life and the telly screen have merged. Sometimes we sit and watch the telly and sometimes we watch the river pass.
I know of only two climate change authorities, who will not fly (there must be an additional handful) – most jet the globe to exulted podiums high on esoteric celebrity – and jet fuel. We watch them on the telly screen, or read them in our cult (status-giving) journals.
Meanwhile, the decline of both mass and diversity of life accelerates. The thin layer of top soil degrades. Poverty and extreme wealth (the twins) accelerate. Atmospheric carbon dioxide accelerates. Sea levels rise as an unprecedented warming of our only Earth accelerates a flood of melting ice.
I’ve kept the flame until now, because – since we can only do what we can do, the small successes feed it and keep it alive. The many failures have not mattered – a small flame for a small person. Why should one contributor expect more than a one-person share of influence in the larger social world?
But now I can see only total failure. Moreover it seems to me, that I have no companions. My green friends are busy greening an economic and social system, which cannot survive and which is daily accelerating its own Nemesis. I’m using the word accelerate a lot. 32ft per second sq has been a reassuring presence – along with simple laws of soil and of nature (and human nature). Well, gravity has not kept our metaphorical feet on the ground and laws of nature have been almost universally forgotten. The power of many millions of years of fossilised nature in the forms of coal, oil and gas has swept all that away. “Keep fossil fuels in the ground.” is reiterated from podiums, “We’ll find green ways to power the best of our ways of life.” – But those ways of life are unique to fossil fuels and no power on Earth can replace those millions of photosynthetic years.
Ring roads, retail parks, air travel, commuter lifestyles, internet shopping, foreign holidays, industrial agriculture, cheap food… all are unique to fossil fuels (or historically, to wealthy elites).
Desolate town centres, dormitory villages, extreme unemployment, boarded shops, deserted fields… all are also unique to fossil fuels (or historically to violent elites, land enclosure and rentier economies)
Once upon a time, violent elites pillaged space. Today, fossil fuel monopolies pillage time.
Question any of those things, which are unique to fossil fuels and we will not be taken seriously.
For instance, try mentioning that people have traded over long distances since the Bronze Age and even the Neolithic by sail and oar and that we can easily revert to trading by sail. In doing so we’d revive boatyards and boat-building skills; we’d enliven decayed harbour towns all around our coastline; we’d hand the management of scarcity and surplus back to ingenious and dextrous communities; we’d revive ancient cross-cultural discourse – and also inland connections by canal and navigable river.
Try mentioning that super markets are a brief anachronism that cannot survive – that getting them to stock nothing but fair-traded, re-cycled and organic produce, in delaying the hands on the clock may accelerate both ecological destruction and increasing poverty.
The beauty in my hope (now dashed) is that repopulating deserted villages, towns, harbours, workshops and fields would be a source of happiness. People would replace the corporate (and stupid) machine. Fossil fuels have increased unhappiness. They will soon increase unhappiness beyond the bounds of literature in the wild lands of uncharted desert, famine, storm and flood.
Let’s look to early history and also the evidence of pre-history. Let’s look beneath the histories (vain fantasies) that we’ve been given by the powerful and their tamed chroniclers.
Archaeology (and good sense) is beginning to show that there was never a mass invasion of the Celts, or Beaker People; that likewise the Saxons did not arrive family by family, felling and ploughing in the American manner, as they drove the native Celts into the West Country and Wales.
No-one, considers that Romans arrived en-masse, or that fossil-fuelled, corporate power brought floods and waves of invaders to the beaches. Why should we think that Saxon and Celt did otherwise? Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Norman and Corporate “invasions” were not by mass migrations of people, though there may have been some small imposition by elites. They were migrations of tools, fashions & ideas. There may have been occasional invasions of imposed ideas (such as Rome), but for the most part, they were peaceful adoptions of cultural methods.
The evidence is that the residents of Eastern, Northern and Western England, Wales and Scotland are descendents of the same people who found themselves at home from at least the flooding of Doggerland.
The chronicles of power have stitched up a fantasy that nearly all history books (and even some archaeologists) continue to relate.
The truth is something closer to this – From ancient times and until the brief episode of fossil fuels – the sea has most influenced the artificial leanings and trades of cultures. Eastern Britain looked to the Channel and North Sea and was familiar with those overseas neighbours. Western Britain looked to the Irish Sea, the Atlantic and Mediterranean. East and West slowly grew apart, because they became culturally separated by their sea trades. They looked outwards to where trade was most useful most easy and also most interesting. Even local trade was easier by sea – shore hopping from harbour to harbour – linked by estuary and navigable river. Elites would inter-marry with their trading (and sometimes, military) partners, and the rest of us with each other. However the rest of us, being skilled and curious farmers and trade’s people would be fascinated by the exotic skills and trades of others. West and East became culturally different – even by language and religion – through useful overseas conversation. Saxon and Celt as races are fictions. East and West are genetically the same. Britons are a Mesolithic people who as the Doggerlands flooded, eventually settled down in their Neolithic and Bronze Age geographies. It was the geography of East and West, which pulled them apart. Saxon and British cultures were not repelled by each other, but were drawn apart by opposite attractions. The process had begun in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages and continued throughout the Roman occupation. I don’t think there was a subsequent interruption of a Dark Age – only the same flow of cultural history.
The end of fossil fuels will return the cultural influence of the sea. East and West will again look East and West and out to sea. What does that make of nation state UK? It says it is an unnatural enclosure by anachronistic, land-owning rentiers and little more. More natural may be something like four culturally-separate regions – Scotland, Northern England, Southern and Eastern England and West Country and Wales…. Parts of Hereford, Shropshire & Cheshire would be more naturally parts of Wales and West Country.
Another lesson from this is in the influence of elites. We’ve, perhaps prudently, accepted their nonsensical histories, just as we’ve prudently accept their nonsense about much else. It is not wise to argue with Hector or Achilles. From at least about 1500BC (late Bronze Age) it has not been wise to argue with the warriors – even though the warriors have not a clue how to build a house, build boats, weave clothing, bake bread, grow wheat, fashion gold torques, or even recount their own prowess in proper Homeric lines.
My history lesson goes on to recount how following from the above, those elites have had no influence on the perennial flow of culture. Moreover and extraordinarily it follows that we have almost no written history. We have ridiculous stories of ignorant and helpless heroes – Arthur, Alfred… and now of David Cameron, Boris Johnson… Why should Arthur not be as incompetent and self-serving and I’d add, ridiculous as they are?
Now here’s a tragedy – that perennial flow of undocumented but vital culture suddenly ended, just as once universal laws of history ended with the imposition of fossil-fuelled tools. Unskilled and careless elites wielded those tools by instruction through descending hierarchies from distant offices and country estates. Uniquely to our times, technological development became top down rather than as history had always shown – bottom up.
1500BC and adoption of coal and oil-powered tools have both been crucial turning points in the human story. Nothing in between has matched them. However the flow of culture has been far more seriously interrupted by top down fossil fuels, than by demigod Achilles, who understood that he must live by the provision of bottom up. After all, Bronze Age craftspeople continued undisputed masters of their crafts. Achilles had just enough wisdom to know his dependency.
Today, cultural tools have been removed from the skilled and are held like chariot and sword by an irresponsible and unskilled elite. Once, bards retold Bronze Age cattle raids as epic adventures. Now the retelling is through Central Bardic BBC and others. God-like powers of oil proved irresistible to accustomed thieves. After all, once land enclosure had been more or less parcelled up, new monopolies beckoned. Oil was not enclosed in the way that Prometheus had stolen fire for the benefit of Man. What beckoned was Power’s age-old perversity – desire to turn man into god.
Here’s a strange thing – Man in her power to utterly strip the Earth of resources, drive species of bacteria, fungi, plant and animal to extinction and to change the balance of the atmosphere has become the dark side of god – the devil. Yet the modern (or rather post-modern) Achilles will deny her own power rather than exult it – she denies climate change. I go too far – we all do the same, who enjoy trips in a family car, centralised super market shopping and an annual holiday flight. Achilles has arranged both bread and circus and few of us know how it’s been done and from where or to where it’s going.
Technology is out of control. The farmer farms by instruction on the sides of pesticide drums and machinery brochures. She’s no idea, what’s in those drums, or why. She could not concoct the brew herself. Nor is she curious to find out. In any case, the intellectual property is impenetrably enclosed.
Farming is the primogeniture of all modern technologies. It has created towns; villages; cities. Modern cultures are agricultures, yet the modern farmer has no idea how, or why she farms. Culture is not something that we inherit as done and then maintain. Culture is what we continue to do ourselves, from an inherited (for better or worse) shaping of others. That doing or shaping is currently arranged by Achilles and we little people acquiesce. We agree to the coercion, because our lives, by the marvellous power of fossil fuels have become extra-ordinary.
However, such ways of life have never been before and can never be again. That the way we live is extra-ordinary – truly a marvel – does not mean that it has made us happy. It has made us unhappy. Happiness is in what we do – in the fruits of our labour – in curiosity for and delight in the ecologies that feed our economies.
We can put Achilles back on a throne and flatter him with a song or two – that’s the bargain – and then we can remove those crazy tools from his blind and stupid hands. We can resume the ordinary courses of history to which each of us is a small spring and each community a tributary. As I sow my field, I must know why.
Even now, each of us, one by one (almost without exception) is contributing to the destruction of both ecosystems and economies. Our children will inherit chaos. It follows that each of us, one by one is no small thing.
Culture is what we do, one by one. How does that make us powerless? Currently in the UK, we do as we’re told by energy, chemical and agricultural commodity corporations – Cargil; Monsanto and so on. We receive that instruction from Cargil-owned information distributors such as the BBC, most national newspapers and most political parties.
We’ve lived a marvel for a generation or two, by tacitly accepting the bargain that we hand misery to our children. A concerted denial – or forgetting of that personal consequence has left us powerless. Even that latest purchase, for which we’d saved our wages, mysteriously cannot make us happy. Suppressed at the back of our minds is the truth that we are behaving very badly.
Let’s choose mortality and happiness. End the guilt and look children directly and joyfully in the eye. Only ordinary flows of history can have a future. We’ll grow the food and we’ll bake the bread. Achilles has been around from about 1500BC. We’ll build a house to keep him sweet. I don’t think we can remove Achilles – depose him and we become him. He must be flattered, fed, tamed and with regards to culture and cultural methods, utterly ignored.