Having arrived on Earth and become subject to her laws, I find it very hard to communicate with my friends and neighbours. Though we stand together on the same soil, nevertheless, we are subjects of very different realms. Theirs is the vast, but very simple realm of millions of anonymous, fossilised Summers. Mine is the complex and almost infinite variety of connections between many thousands of species, which make the whole. Each of my footsteps ripples its consequence through the familiar, then out into complex obscurity and back again. There’s a lot I don’t know about my own footsteps.
My friends and neighbours’ footsteps do the same, but to them, those ripples are scenic effects. To be sure, they like scenery – rivers, lakes, mountains, bird song, starry skies. However, the ripples which return are insignificant to them. They are restricted only by their purchasing power of fossil power and fossil power is very simple. To my friends, the replacement of fossil power by green power is also very simple. Living by fossil physics, they suggest that soon they’ll live, in a similar way, by green physics. For instance, because of their purchasing demands for re-cycled packaging, organic and fair-trade produce and so on, their favoured super markets will soon stock nothing but those things. Similarly, governments will note their electorate’s life-style preferences – including renewable energy. Thinking of the ballot box, governments will also move in a green direction.
When I point out that renewable energy is incapable of powering our way of life and that we must learn to live as most of us did only a century ago, they say I am negative, pessimistic, Luddite…
When I reply that a return to an ordinary pre-oil way of life may also prove a route to happiness, they note my rose-tinted nostalgia for the nasty brutish and short… They reply that we must improve civilisation’s achievements – not abandon them.
You may be curious about my stumbling efforts towards some sort of earthly settlement. If you stand in the New Green Super Market, then probably, you won’t.
Standing in the New Green Super Market will continue the rate of climate change and to diminish both the biodiversity and biomass of the species on which humanity must depend. Standing there, we demand too much consumption with too little return. Diminish the mass of other species and we diminish the mass of dependent humanity.
Standing in the New Green Super Market continues dependency on its amoral monopoly and shrinks the extent to which our lives can be moral lives. Being subject to that monopoly, we buy with diminished responsibility, so that our lives cannot be happy. Our effects, which should have been ours to value, have lost meaning.
Consider the words value and worth. They travel easily between ethics and weights and measures. They pass between things and our love for things – between scales of justice and my potato sack scales. Those meanings have evolved from a deep ancestry.
We’ve explored, in part one of this article, how fossil fuels had (in a sense) suspended history, well, I reckon fossil-fuel monopoly had in the process, also suspended the meaning of ethics and weights and measures. Worth and value live on the common. They wither by enclosure. Here’s another thing – the pursuit of mass consumption has suspended the pursuit of mass happiness.
I step down to Earth at just the point where fossilised time had over-lain the last of living time. About a century of cultural evolution has slept, sequestered beneath the weight of millions of photosynthetic years.
Bear in mind that I’ll not find social justice there – nor any lack of economic pillage by monopoly interests. I’ll also find ecological pillaging.
I’ve come because I may find ways of living without fossil fuels. Readers may question my choice of date – after all the coal-powered railway was ubiquitous and the steam ship had begun to out-pace sail-power. Even the poorest found heat by coal. I’m searching for a period in which life looked very much like our own, but in which ways of life without fossil fuels were not at all extra-ordinary. For instance, in those days, though the tractor was in evidence, farms were largely horse and man-powered. The tractor was treated as a team of horses. That time also remains in the living memory of very many, My mother told me that…
After all, for a hundred years, history has been suspended. I have a duty to begin where she grew cold, and to witness her warming.
Otherwise, I’d have alighted for the best bits of agrarian Thirteenth Century, or in the Bronze Age pre – 1500BC, after which idiotic warrior elites began the process of disruption.
Here’s my central and most significant observation: Everyone, without exception had only a short walk to work-place, shop, church, and pub. By church, please accept that I imply mosque, temple, chapel, meeting house…
Isolated farms could make provision for that isolation, and for the most part a village would not be far away. An isolated village would have shop, church, pub and work-shops – joiner, blacksmith and so on. Such settlements follow manorial and more ancient topographies – land and resources bring people – the better the resource, the more people.
The largest city provided a similar short walk from red brick terrace to factory gate. I’ve no intention to emulate the swan song of the pillage of empire, the 1914 -18 war, or to search earlier for a Bounderby factory, or a Gradgrind school. Where’s the rose tinting?
So the hope in my picture is very great. We can live much as we do today and without providing fuel, materials and infrastructure for domestic and commuter transport, while also finding, if we can manage it, the considerable economic advantage of reclaiming commons and shoving off monopolies.
Current and past monopolies survive by idly charging rent to the same ingenuity and dexterity, which increases their value.
My route from here to there, or from now to then (bearing in mind that now is sequestered in fossil time) will be one of many trials and errors.
Even so, the Green Super Market route is impossible. We don’t, and never will, have the energy to power centralised distribution, suburbia and so on. Bearing in mind the rapidity of climate change, we have no more time to waste in lingering there.
My flimsy ladder provides the only route.
How do we – re-centre suburbia – find/devise useful contributory work a step from our doors – find ways for perhaps a million families (UK) to migrate to the countryside – plant and grow an abundance of trees for boat-building and housing and still have enough land in food production – develop co-operative infrastructures of market-places, energy-generation, finance, administration and law – find the skills and desire for these things – have the diplomacy, eloquence and perhaps last-resort-violence to shove off the suicidal influences of current political, media, and corporate powers?
It is impossible. If we accept that it is impossible, then we are content that our children’s lives and for most of us, our own lives, will soon become nasty, brutish and short. Few dispute that climate change has the brutish powers of flood, desert, famine, storm. Few dispute that governments are insufficiently bold to guide the right course.
It is possible. Governments do not make a culture. People do, one by one. Had we simply looked for a route to happiness, then we may easily have chosen this one. It was partially visible in many places a hundred years ago. There are more enduring stories about such a life, than all the mass-produced pulp fictions of recent times and meanwhile all the great religions would endorse and applaud it. Moreover, it is ordinary and easily understood.
It is possible. If it becomes deeply fashionable, then it could happen faster than we think possible. Fashion enables social animals to turn on a five-pence. Fashion has made strange things plausible – such as ridiculously impractical high-heeled shoes.
My own journey towards the revival of sleeping history is one of many compromises. Some are a part of the journey – meandering backwards may make forward motion eventually possible. Each choice on my road is a moral choice. If I’ve no choice, then my morality remains uncompromised.
I travel towards an economy in which work and pleasure are a walk, or cycle ride from my door. I travel with my farm’s produce by diesel power towards a farmers’ market, more distant than my local market town. In the past, for many years, I’d attempted to sell my produce in the local town – but as the town decayed, so my takings dwindled to near-enough nothing. To keep my farm afloat, I’d no choice but to stop trading there. My moral says that our farm’s produce enlivens that more-distant town and contributes to seeding the idea of farmers’ markets. In time, my plan must be to return to my local town, while producers more local to my more lucrative market, will take my place there. That is a sad, but necessary backwards meander.
Even though super market distribution systems can be more fuel-efficient than my ageing white van, they preserve a perennial anachronism, while my white van is intent on a destination, where I scrap the van (& diesel) altogether.
Likewise, another farmer intent on the same, may be forced to allow his surplus into the super market. His morality is intact if his intent is to enliven busy market towns, proper shops and market squares – self-determined by the ingenuity and dexterity of people who live there – and to eventually withdraw his produce from the super market.
Similarly, a shopper with small means, who has nothing but super markets nearby, may be forced inside – in a backwards meander that waits for proper shops to appear.
On the other hand, a shopper, with means, who diminishes his local town/village/corner shop by shopping in a super market, has no moral leg to stand on. A farmer, who is deliberately-geared to the commodity/super market is similarly legless.
Readers must forgive me for returning to the Soil Association, which deliberately (with intent) certifies super-marketed produce as organic. As I mentioned in part one of this article, she provides dispensation for the “bad” of the super market by providing the “good” of organic produce. She encourages a migration from what can endure towards what cannot.
A proper moral meandering course – one in step with the association’s founders – would have the organic logo as a kind of way-mark towards organic systems. We would find it in proper shops, market squares and so on. To continue the monk pardoner analogy, we’d wear it as a pilgrim’s cockle shell for our hats. Where it was not evident, we’d ask why? And then – How can we rectify that? We’d take the least-worst road (the meander) until a better one appeared.
The use of a local currency asks the same. If a community is missing a necessary trade’s person, then my ineffective local currency will provoke me to ask – How can I encourage that trade inside my currency community? The opportunity may even suggest that I learn the trade myself…
My use of the word organic applies to all economic activity and allows all the meanders and wrong turnings that I describe. Organic – Method or system, designed to replicate the cyclic behaviour of organisms. Since we will never understand every complexity of organic cycles, organic methods must adapt as we learn from mistakes. Don’t forget – Cultures are methods of settlement – not states to be preserved. If economies are to sit within the ecologies which must sustain them, then they must be organic economies.
Pursuit of a greening of contemporary super market masses is a pursuit of rapidly diminishing returns. If it succeeds, then climate change will very soon undo that success. If it fails… Of course it must fail. That super market mass is made up of people. One by one they may prefer the conviviality of citizenship.
Even though work and pleasure are just a step from the door, a lot of energy must to be found for other things. Produce must be imported to village, town and city and wastes must be exported back to the fields again. Urban market gardens are convivial, colourful and practical, but most produce will still be drawn from a larger terrain. Scarcity and surplus must sometimes be traded between communities to mutual advantage. Then materials for construction and so on will need transport. All these things need energy.
We need sufficient energy for that transport, for some machinery and for domestic light and heat. Few will have the convenience of a passivhaus and the trees we’ll need for housing and boat-building will not yet have grown.
Make-do and mend brings people together – particularly when the road to a better future is commonly accepted and visibly in place.
Plainly electricity generated by sun, wind and water is our central hope, combined with anaerobic digestion of food, crop, animal and human wastes. AD uses natural fermentation to produce methane. All those wastes must eventually ferment, aerobically or anaerobically – in the soil, or otherwise. We gather the gas. Burnt methane releases the less harmful CO.2 while the material is returned to feed soil life for subsequent crops.
Burning biomass will not be possible. A soil diet of gas and ashes will produce annually reducing crop yields. Burning biomass replicates the pillage of once fertile Rome, or the blowing fields of Oklahoma…
There is a major contribution to my dreamed economy, which we currently neglect – Direct traction by wind and water – We gain the advantage of wind for transport (sail trade) and for machinery (wind pumps and mills). Larger machinery has long been powered by the mill race. Electricity may not always prove the best option. What’s more, local ingenuity can provide all those things.
All I describe are organic methods – those which sit within natural cycles or natural physics.
Many of those technologies provide an advantage which is missing from today’s economies.
I have not explored the complexities, or histories of social systems, that is for another tale – in which we reclaim commons, shove off enclosures and gain the liberty to do what’s right. Though that tale is old as the hills and what’s more – though people in every age have dreamed it and no one has achieved it yet – tumbling oil monopolies may just allow the liberty for something like it to happen – and to allow a future story teller to narrate – Once upon a time, there was a great city, nestled by the shore and connected to its surrounding fields by…