We float above living Earth in a life supplied by fossilised life. Amoral monopolies controlled by careless elites, manipulate how we work, play and endorse those monopolies by their marketing arms – the political parties. Meanwhile, we levitate above laws of nature – and above the beauties of nature – one species apart from all the other species– aloof from touch, sight, scent, sound…
It is plain that laws of nature must bring the whole levitation down. Some are building ladders to descend before solid ground and culture collide at destructive speed.
Those flimsy ladders appear even flimsier beside the vast structures they are deigned to evacuate. In short they look ridiculous.
Here’s a thought. Those ladders seem ridiculous, because they seem human.
Here’s another – That vast monopolistic structure of political party, media, oil, pharmaceutical, chemical, construction corporations and so on, manifest in suburbia, retail park, cheap holiday flights, desolate town centres and deserted fields, –
should seem ridiculous because it seems inhuman.
Here’s yet another – Until humanity understands her flimsiness as a single part (and not necessarily an essential part) of all the species which together make the whole of singular, finite Earth, she’ll not find an enduring home.
It follows that flimsy ladders are the only ladders.
Those ladders are also a source-book of comedy and tragedy. Every plot a dramatist could find is embodied in the flimsiness of ladders. Each broken rung is a source for the design of better rungs.
Methods are revealed inside our mistakes. Without the mistakes we don’t find the methods.
It will be helpful to have some sort of a common vision of the cultural settlement we’ll begin at the foot of the ladder. Also, to achieve optimum success, our economy – our house-keeping – must sit nicely inside the ecology, which feeds it. In short, our study of economics is an adventure in moral philosophy. It asks, how can we achieve social happiness? That common vision will not be found in thin air. Cultures evolve from a deeper ancestry than visionaries of the perfect society can replicate.
But I propose that when we step flimsily and perhaps clumsily down to Earth, we’ll find something more potent than the massive fossil-powered structures we’ve left behind. We’ll find the resumption of history. We can pick up (for better and for worse) our inheritance and then consider firstly, how to maintain it and then how to pass it on. Resuming the ordinary course of cultural history may evoke a great social sigh of relief – a sigh of ordinary happiness.
The extra-ordinary photosynthetic power of those many millions of fossilised Summers had interrupted the ordinary course of history.
We’ll find ourselves in the relaxed position of asking, not what marvellous exploits can we achieve today, but what is ordinary? How can we be ordinary again?
After all, oil monopoly has also interrupted the course of eusocial human evolution. We are anxious. We are uprooted from simple ethics. Those ethics are an ancient inheritance – a common, which the new monopolies have enclosed. We don’t ask ourselves what is right or wrong in our economy, because its infrastructures are pre-packed – pre-provided.
Many today, who ridicule the flimsiness of ladders, ask the wrong question. They ask, where are the extra-ordinary green solutions to power extra-ordinary ways of life? To them it is ridiculous to ask otherwise – and also ridiculous to question the virtue of that “achieved” way of living. Yet their (our) way of life is only a couple of generations old and has not been powered by human ingenuity, but by wildly increasing consumption of coal, gas and oil. Remove the oil and we remove the way of life. In a sense, oil was procured from outside time in the form of fossilised years. So in that sense, oil ended both history and proper consideration of physical space. I know that most people applaud the end of history and ridicule what they’d call the whimsy of my driving by the rear view mirror. Most people believe (religiously) that they live by extra-ordinary technologies. They don’t. Our extra-ordinary lives are powered very simply and brutally by mining, felling and burning. We burn things. From coal, gas, oil, we are turning terribly and stupidly to burning biomass – the life of which we are a part.
Climate change (along with laws of ecology and physics) will shortly and ordinarily, end the oil adventure in ways too nasty for my pen – Pen? Key board? The faithful of today’s cargo cult of progress wait without action, believing that a messianic future will wash technological redemption on her tide. An ocean of future innovation laps at the shore of the present bearing a marvellous flotsam of consumer choices. The flotsam may be green flotsam – hydroponic cities of glass and the evolution of species edited to fit human needs in the ingenuity of a splice.
At last, at the foot of my ladder, I step out from the strata of fossilised years, and back into the movement of life, time and history. There, I’ll find that the future cannot redeem the present. On the contrary, the future will be a consequence of the present. My descendants will inherit whatever it is that I’m about to do.
At the foot of my ladder, it seems to me that I must find the point where history was suspended by fossilised life – and then set my small shoulder to the wheel, in the hope that history will creak into motion again.
I reckon our economy (my house-keeping) must be powered by what I can find in exchange for what I can return – the cyclic contributions. Of course cyclic contributions are life cycles. Man is but a single species among the many which make the whole. Some things I can take, because they keep on giving – the linear contributions – such as sunlight, gravity, wind… Other things, such as metals can be taken only by leaving empty holes in the ground.
Then of course, I have history lessons. History lessons are just as suspect as those who write them. Nevertheless, they are variably useful and also an essential cultural connection to an ancestry from which we’ve received our lives.
Here’s my founding proposition. Of course I may adjust it as I learn this and that. Anyway, here goes…
Efforts to live within our means will fail unless we arrange to live in settlements, such as towns and villages in which work-places are just walking, or cycling distance from our doors.
Attempts to green current infrastructures of suburbia, distant work-places, centralised procurement/distribution and so on, will fail. No renewable energy can power those things.
Towns – gatherings of workshops – have evolved around market squares, market halls, or harbours, followed by inns, churches, mosques, temples, libraries, theatres, concert halls, parliament buildings…
There is no need in such a settlement to call on the family car. Transport to consider is the routine import of produce and materials from surrounding terrains and also the export of wastes and manufactured tools in return. Then we’ll have the sometimes pleasurable, sometimes expedient exchange of scarcity and surplus between neighbouring and sometimes more distant communities.
A town and its terrain are one. They are called an agriculture. A town and its terrain are a life cycle.
Considering larger cities, it is notable that until the arrival of the railway, all were settled by navigable river, estuary, or the sea. Such will be the case for us too…
It follows that we must populate such settlements and evacuate the impossible and energy demanding systems of suburbia, ring road, super market and retail/business park. We can re-centre suburbia into towns and villages. Coupled with that – in a movement which reverses the violent and depraved rural dispossession of land enclosure, very many people must migrate (return) to the countryside. That not only integrates economy (people) into ecology (land), but also steps towards social justice.
All this is a return to ordinary history. It is not at all an extra-ordinary thing. However, the scale of the evacuation of oil and coal systems must be massive. It will probably be the most epic of all human adventures. Every effort to improve, or green our current monopolies, by working within them, will make that adventure much more difficult.
An epic adventure – a mass social movement – on a flimsy ladder.
The stuff of legend.
For instance, an internet box scheme for well-produced organic produce means that the organic producer, who is part of town centre revival, has lost customers, and the town a valuable inter-connection. Similarly, organic produce in a super market, improves the super market, but leads shoppers away from what can, towards what cannot endure. It erodes the quality, colour, conviviality and possible future of the town.
All we do must be towards revitalising towns and villages, repopulating farming and woodland communities (perhaps ten-fold?) and re-centring suburbia into new towns, or villages. If work-places are a short walk from home, (as always in history) then living within energy means becomes suddenly possible. Such communities will have similarly short walks to shop, pub, theatre, library, temple…
No renewable energy can power the economy of the developed world. The following are impossible – suburbia, commercial aviation, the family car, large container shipping, super markets, industrial agriculture… Attempts to green those things delays adoption of what is truly possible. They will continue to deplete resources and to accelerate climate change.
My reader may keep this central proposition in mind – Those things are a brief perversity of human behaviour.
A return to ordinary behaviour may be evoke a communal sigh of relief – a convivial relaxation – a lifted anxiety – opportunity, not for amoral leaders of great monopolies, but for the moral probity of us all…
Villages, towns and cities are emergent properties of fields. Together, they form an agriculture. We have lived in that way for four thousand years. The techniques of today’s farmers are now impossible, as are the emergent properties of their farms. From the compass of oil-power, we shrink to the compass of man, horse and electric power. Fields will shrink to a human-scale. Machinery will also shrink to a size that can be manufactured by the ingenuity of people we know by name in village and market town workshops.
Even today, horticulture demands a large labour force, relative to its mechanisation and so horticultural and orchardist transformation will be easy. Fruit and veg are a large part of our diet. However, cereals are central to enduring settlements, because they can be stored from good years into bad years and being very light (85% dry-matter) can be exchanged between regions more easily than any other food. (They travel well in both space and time!) Of course, only a hundred years ago cereals were produced by horse, ox and man-power. We can do so again. (Tractor use was then a novelty). But there may be a case (climate change) for a specially-reserved, judiciously-used internal combustion engine – a museum piece from the Oil Age. Bear in mind that this writer considers biofuels to be more pernicious than oil-fuels. However anaerobic digestion is a case aside, since “digestate” is returned to the soil to maintain fertility. Such gas will have many, but limited (specially reserved) uses – domestic and industrial. One use may be the gas-powered combine harvester.
Modern technologies can be maintained only if they settle within ordinary laws of natural physics and society.
Again this writer is at odds with most, because he proposes that international trade will prove to be the least of our problems. People have traded over long distances since the Neolithic. Sea trade was ubiquitous by the Bronze Age. Sail technology has been refined over thousands of years. Again, as with towns and villages, we simply resume at the point where coal, or oil began. Nothing fits laws of physics better than sail-trade.
Similarly, nothing answers inland transport needs better than canal and navigable river – the placement of many inland towns is evidence of that knowledge.
However, boat-building faces the same problems it faced in the Nineteenth Century – an acute shortage of timber. Livestock will integrate well in arable crop rotations, but much pasture currently exclusively dedicated to livestock would be far more productive in its natural state – that is as forest. Moreover, much woodland which has been recently planted using environmental grant money, has not been managed for timber. There is no reason that biodiversity cannot be maintained, while also considering trees for house and boat-building. There is currently a rather unpleasant fashion among land-owners to boast of the carbon sequestered beneath their extensive pastures. They are wrong about both the carbon and the contribution of pasture to enduring economies. Grazing animals turn inedible grass into milk, butter, cheese, meat, wool, hides… That is a wonderful contribution to both our culture and its economy, but the currently vast acres of grass are excessive. Much of that pasture is natural woodland. We must find the acreage that integrates best in the whole – the whole of both economy and ecology.
Trees grow very slowly. That is more reason to act quickly. They are central to our new, but ordinary (old as the hills) economy.
That brings me to the word “organic”. Here’s my usage of the term: Organic – to describe a method, or tool which replicates the cyclic behaviour of organisms.
The term has no meaning when describing a pack of food on a shelf. It can describe only a method of production.
Plainly, if it is to sit within the ecology which sustains it, our new economy must use organic methods.
Because they are designed to fit within natural physics, organic methods will always produce the highest crop yield.
Plainly in anyone’s book, crop yield will be output minus input? Yet today’s agricultural journals and ag department do not subtract input from output in their yield calculations. Do they consider vast inputs of oil, fertiliser, pesticide, fungicide, herbicide and so on to have no real biology or physics – no mass for measurement? Is the Green Revolution such a sacred idea that it transcends a sublunary measure? That must be so. In truth, the vast oil-powered levitation above natural physics, (The transubstantiation, from which we descend by our flimsy ladders) is a wild and unreasonable cult, with which there is no reasoning…
There is an unequal split and I think, a tragic split, in the green movement – the larger part of which seeks to engage with that cult, in hope of making it a little greener. The much smaller part (perhaps ridiculously small) is my part – the flimsy ladder part. We may converse with the cult as we pass, but ours is a step by step transition to physical ground.
Much of the green movement swells the crowd of earthly pillage by hoping to reduce the pillage a bit. For instance, it says that by licensing more organic produce in a super market, we achieve “the good” of more organically-farmed fields. They propose that since the super market is a vast market, hopes of vast organic acreages lie in that super market. In consequence it provides the dispensation of an “organic good” to those who may question the virtue of the super market.
The organic logo (the sign of the Monks Pardoner) sells organic virtue for the sin of the loss of the organically-evolved town and village centres, which my flimsy ladder is attempting to reach.
The tale of the Soil Association is the salutary tale of those who seek, through commercial/political marketing to extend their influence, while neglecting whatever it was is they were formed to represent. The same process, led by Tony Blair, destroyed the purpose of the Labour Party
Meanwhile, it is largely unnoticed that organic systems produce the highest, sustainable yields and remain the best guide to settle economies nicely within their terrains. Agroecology, a clumsier term, has been seized by academics to distance themselves from the New Organic commerce.
Anyway a variety of social movements and fashions may begin the flimsy descent very much together – social justice movements, commons movements, transition town movements, permaculture movements, land reform movements, agroecology and biodynamic movements, climate change activists… and a smattering of my rag-tag part of the old organic movement.
New Organic, like New Labour is working against every one of those movements.
Similarly, let’s leave those air-freighted, jet-fuelled, climate-changing, climate change evangelists to their podiums and book signings. No-one who boards a commercial aeroplane can be serious about the climate change. Those people present their eloquence – their self-importance – as dispensation for the very great harm they cause by flying. Flaunted hubris cancels its own nemesis! Bear in mind the attitude we seek must be one of diffidence, humility, fragility, contrition… as we ferret out ways to understand the natural physics in which our organic house-keeping must settle.
This writer keeps a restorative mantra for repetition. He could place it as a refrain beneath every paragraph.
Governments and corporations are abstractions. Only people exist. No one can change the balance of the atmosphere with a thought. Governments and corporations have not caused climate change. People are the physics and people are specifically physical – one by one. People are the application which causes climate change. One by one we cause climate change. Only one by one can we restore some sort of balance.
Cultures are not states to be protected. They are methods – and those methods are also applied one by one.
It is true, we are coerced, enticed and often forced to cause climate change, but nevertheless we have caused it. Of course, those coercive forces in media, corporation, government, think tank, university and so on are also applied one by one by people employed in those monopolies.
Personal ingenuity, dexterity and most importantly, moral probity have been enclosed. Personal behaviour is enclosed.
In reclaiming the consequence of our actions, we reclaim commons and shove off enclosure. The utter futility of attempts to change an amoral monopoly by a morally persuasive thought must be apparent from the above. No one there is listening.
Reclaiming consequence reveals a fascinating world of natural physics and social interaction.
Fascinated is the thing. From fascination we turn to love – belonging – affection. Consequence travels forever through complexity of space around us and through time into the future. Those ripples are ours. Our place; our time for our place; our particular devotion may uncover a seemingly infinite variety of connections with specific influences in fungi, bacteria, plant, invertebrate, animal, mineral… all in the compass of a single workshop or a few fields. Reclaiming consequence not only reclaims our place on Earth, but is a road to happiness. We prodigals of the Oil Age may return to an ancient familiarity, passing buried memories on the road – a loved hollowed oak of childhood, familiar birds singing across buzzing of Summer flies and finally, the creak of the garden gate falling to.
Wendell Berry has a lovely essay currently on the resilience.org web site. He takes his title from E M Forster’s Howards End – It All Turns on Affection. Read that. He probably says it better than I can. I share his love for E M Forster. Read him. His short story, The Machine Stops (1909), perfectly describes 2016.
Meanwhile it all turns on what we do and we don’t know what to do without affection. As oil-power shrinks to the compass of man power, so the world expands. Only connect. Flimsy ain’t nothing. Flimsiness is all.