It’s hard to avoid engagement with the rights and wrongs, wisdom, or foolishness of those who live inside the wild consensus to cause mass extinctions and climate change. Otherwise, we remain silent whenever we meet a friend, colleague, or neighbour, since they’ll all start with the assumptions of that consensus. The assumption will be that super markets, family cars, the internet, suburbia and holiday flights are ordinary ways of life. Conversation must start there and then consider the green energies, which an enlightened and ingenious humanity will devise to replace oil, coal and gas. Listen to Radio Four, read the Independent, or Guardian newspapers and you’ll encounter the same consensus. Yet in even conversing inside that view, we at least partially endorse it. It is a deep sorrow. Easy gossip, commonly-accepted humours and also unspoken moral connection are essential to happiness. When I wake, I know that I’ll find only sorrow. I’ll have no conversation – even within my closest family. The only engagement with others can be as clown.
Yet, the notion that human ingenuity has created our way of life is deeply comic. The pomposity of the thought is outrageous. Our way of life has been simply and foolishly, created by excessively burning coal, oil, and gas. Now, the pomposity turns from burning fossil mass to burning what remains of the living mass. So, it gets worse. Of course, comedies and tragedies share the same plots – bloke walks along singing a list of human achievements as he heads for a high-powered job interview. He fails to note the deep puddle ahead and muddies his brand-new suit. He has not time to both change and still make the appointment. That is poignant – funny and sad together. It could be simply funny, or otherwise, simply sad. It could be funny to us and sad to the bloke, or on the other hand, a little bit sad to us and funny to the more well-adjusted, self-critical bloke. Here’s a world-weary, but probably accurate thought – “Important bloke falls in a hole” is the archetypal tragic plot, while “ordinary bloke falls in a hole” is the archetypal comic plot.
I feel my inability to communicate with friends and family as a deep sorrow, but of course, they see it as mildly comic. I cannot be serious to consider a life without family cars, air travel, high-speed rail, internet shopping, super markets and leafy suburbs. Yet those things are causing a change in Earth’s climate, which will eventually destroy the lot – another archetypal plot. The futility of powering that life with renewable energy is another bloke falls in a hole plot. Take way the coal, oil and gas and we create a hole in the ground – we take away the path the bloke is taking. The paths that remain will be much more gently held up by laws of physics and nature and will be much like the paths that ordinary humanity has taken for thousands of years.
We’ll have man-power, sail-power, horse and ox-power – and we’ll have just as much electricity as can be generated by wind, water (gravity), sunlight and tides. After domestic “essentials”, since we must stop burning biomass, we’ll have little surplus for the electric car. However, we’ll have the same acreage for crop production and if we are wise, an increase in its fertility. Organic techniques far out-yield what we presently call conventional agriculture, whose vast inputs are never subtracted from published yield figures. Henceforth input will be subtracted from output. The at least ten-fold and in arable regions fifty to a hundred-fold increase in agricultural labour will assist in the employment of dispossessed labour and in the re-centring of suburbia. Similarly, manufacturing and new infrastructure projects – house-building, turbine races, mill races for direct traction and so on will also demand a dramatic fifty-fold increase in labour. With the vast increase in labour comes an extraordinary increase in happiness, which will effervesce from a new curiosity, ingenuity and dexterity. We’ll need the skills of shipwrights and sail-traders. We’ll need foresters to grow the right timber. In short, we’ll need a community. If the community succeeds, we’ll have a renaissance. You’ll note that my figures are fancy of my imagination. You should also note that we have no better figures.
Meanwhile, all those things – organic techniques, renewable energy, revived street markets… create the illusion that we are on a path without a hole in it.
Beauty is truth and truth beauty, that is all you know on Earth and all you need to know. Many literary critics have misunderstood John Keats’s truth, because they seek aesthetics, rather than the moral guide to artistry which Keats proposes.
He says this – that which is beautiful, but not true is idle fancy (our critic would agree).
But he also says – that which seems true, but is not beautiful is a blindness of imagination (our critic would disagree, because she’d point out that there can be ugly truth)
Keats’s statement is moral admonition. Everything can be morally understood. If it is fully understood it can become beautiful. Our critic has not understood the meaning of tragedy. Keats does not say that every ugly truth (the holocaust) can be immediately understood as beautiful. He would say that the holocaust remained outside moral comprehension and that the fanatical heartlessness that lead to it was beyond artistic rendering. Because all proper works of art are both beautiful and true, he would say – I cannot compose a verse on the holocaust. His statement is perfect – probably infallible. That which is true, but ugly may or may not be beyond the human capacity for an artistry, which removes the mask of that ugliness to discover its beauty. Human fallibility is intrinsic – Keats applies the test to himself – Is what I have composed both beautiful and true? Sometimes it will be the one and sometimes the other. Occasionally I can marry the two – usually not. After all, it is a rare thing for anyone to marry beauty with truth.
I cannot marry the current consensus for self-destruction to a beautiful depiction of the gift of humanity. I cannot marry a young couple and their loved new child to their choice of a holiday flight to destruction – a nativity scene, in which the carless innocence of youth decides, on a balance of current pleasures, to remove the future happiness of their own child.
There is something else to explore – the nature of comedy and tragedy and where each is appropriate. Of course, a whole moral perception can fulfil both – cry with the heart and laugh with the head, because tragedy is a mishap noted with the heart, while comedy is the same mishap noted with the head. Both tragedy and comedy can bind a social group – the one with a binding empathy for pain and the other with a common view of the ridiculous.
To friends, my tragic vision of their consumerist trajectory is ridiculous. To say it is ridiculous, forgives me as a bloke and for them, allows me to remain a friend. It ruffles my foolish hair with an inclusive hand. My attempted verbal contribution is levelled and remembered as a forgiven pomposity tumbling in a linguistic hole.
So once a consensus is established and regularly agreed in gossip, newspapers, radio and television, it is very hard to break. Seriousness, (as we’ve explored in other articles) is a state in which we remove both thought and feeling, so that we can assert a superior view – looking down from an established plinth in the market square, or perhaps wishing to establish a new plinth and topple the old. Unfortunately, seriousness is not a vehicle to convey the complexity of truth. It uses simple polemic techniques which are confined to linguistic slogans and defensive ridicule in irony and sarcasm. People fear and respect both irony and sarcasm, much as we prudently both fear and respect violence.
Jeremy Corbyn has been insufficiently serious for Labour Party political opportunists. He has attempted some complexities, which cannot endure on a marble plinth. Yet he is extremely popular as a person amongst a large part of the electorate.
So, in speaking of species loss, impoverished ecologies, climate change, resource depletion and their economic implications, we cannot be serious ourselves – or we could not express it. Yet we cannot be taken seriously by others, because we are not serious. However, we may, like Jeremy Corbyn, find souls in common.
So, the climate change movement, and movements for social justice and so on, are coalitions of lost souls. In the past, priest, prophet and shaman could take the powers to task. They could reassert the beauty and truth of complexity. Complex thought and language was ritualised in festival and song and kings and chieftains were their subjects.
G K Chesterton reminded me of this from the Catechisms – There are but two sins – of presumption and of despair.
That more succinctly expresses what John Keats sang. Despair is truth without beauty, while presumption is beauty without truth. If we let John Keats and the Catechisms guide us, at least we may find tragic and comic fulfilment and then if we are lucky in our eloquence – finally speak some truth to power.
What’s else to do? Work well. Devise well. Look out for one another.