The Tyranny of Enlightenment

Pursuit of further knowledge of the causes of climate change can grow a false sense of urgency – an urgency to become enlightened, which distracts from the true urgency – which is the moral question, – What should I do?

My way of life has become so destructive, that the pleasurable distractions of latest research papers are a waste of fast-diminishing time. The clock is approaching midnight.

Further accumulation of knowledge does not help with the question, what should I do? Without further enlightenment, we know that we must stop burning both fossilised biomass and living biomass. Our fossil fuelled way of life is impossible.
Fossil-fuelled ways of life are wrong. Burning things is wrong and the ways of life which depend on burning things are wrong – that is suburbia (commuter culture), ring roads, retail parks, super markets, air-travel, fossil-powered agriculture, the family car…

Discovering which ways of life are right will be a matter of trial and error – both personal and communal – but we can begin by imitating the pre-fossil-fuelled ways of life of our historical communities – communities which lived in the same terrain – within the same coastlines and with more or less the same cultural histories. Those ways of life are much like our own in every deeper sense. Many are nostalgic for them. They are a part of our inherited, intrinsic moral being. Current ways of life, which we must abandon, have not yet evolved that moral commons. They are shallow, brash, only a hundred, or sometimes two hundred years old and exist in our yet half-formed extrinsic being.

For inhabitants of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the change must be dramatic. Firstly – a reversal of the enclosures, which lead to mass evacuation of the countryside and occupation of what often became city slums. Then we can re-centre suburbia with towns and villages. Factories and workshops must be in walking distance for those who work there. Town centres and villages can revive as a central gathering-place for both the trades and the pleasures – pubs, theatres, libraries, churches, temples, mosques, council/parliament buildings and so on.

That’s a tall order? – Cloud Cuckoo Land? It’s an order that we must face. It’s right. What’s more – It’s easily understood. Furthermore, many are already nostalgic for it. To say wearily, – It’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, is to say that it’s ridiculous to work for a civilised future.

To live within our ecological means also means asserting lost sovereignties – in reclaiming commons and denying enclosures. Consumer dependency on monopolistic supply (however green) will end in human chaos.

The true Cloud Cuckoo Land is to believe that the way we live today can be powered by renewable energy; by yet unthought ingenuities and by a more enlightened agriculture – what we might call the new green super market – entirely agroecological; entirely electric; entirely re-cycled… That is the future pursued by many environmental NGOs, such as the Soil Association, Sustainable Food Trust and so on.
Earth does not provide that much energy.


The notion that economics (good or bad housekeeping) is a branch of moral philosophy has only become obscure in the last century. Previously, it had been an assumption.
Societies are held together by common beliefs. Good and bad behaviour – effective and ineffective tools are knit into those commons. Economics is the study of human causes and effects. Every action and every application of a tool has an effect and so also a moral. Let’s consider soil – a common to pass through generations – Are we succeeding or failing in our duty? – What of agricultural tools and their effects? These are supremely moral questions. They cut us to the heart, and also ferment in the head.

What are the effects of monetary systems and the manipulation of money systems? We learn techniques and tools by pragmatic trial and error – just as we do with the tool of money – but the effects of those tools always end with questions of justice, injustice, value, worth…. Of course, the words value and worth travel easily between aesthetics, scales of justice and weights and measures.

With regards to climate change, our primary questions are, what should I do, and what should my community do? The search for knowledge is a pleasure, but we already know enough to act effectively. The questions are, what is right and what is wrong?
When we speak of right and wrong we engage with both the head and heart. We become included, or excluded from the good life. We hate to be excluded – the remedy for exclusion is better behaviour. The remedy for climate chaos – for ecocide – is better behaviour. Ecocide is not only economically foolish – it is wrong.

How do we discern good from bad behaviour? – by inherited laws of commons, which have been traditionally bequeathed in religions; in songs and tales; in gossip. They’ve been expounded from soap boxes; inscribed on tablets of stone; in customs – in commons of soil-use, water-use and their just distribution in space (between neighbours) and in time (between generations).

What happens, when we have a fragmentary inheritance? We can add to it and reconcile some fragments by our footsteps. We can become actors in the myth. It’s our responsibility to be mythic! If we fail or not, in gaining meaning by the intelligence of our senses, we become placed – if we belong in a landscape – in a social scape – we can be happy.

For inhabitants of the so called developing world, change will be less dramatic. It will answer the question – Do we need to live as foolishly as our developed neighbours?


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2 Responses to The Tyranny of Enlightenment

  1. joshuamsikahutton says:

    Sure, our inherited knowledge of good behaviour will be useful. But it was relevant in a much emptier world (emptier of humans, fuller of many other things). Will good behaviour in the 14th century (or the 14th century BC) also be good behaviour in the 21st on a changed planet? Humans haven’t changed much, but our planet is changing beyond recognition – no?


  2. bryncocyn says:

    I almost didn’t post this article. I don’t think it is well expressed. In fact I deleted the most of it, which I now include below. I’m distracted by farming! But the truth remains that we know enough, not to defer time to seeking knowledge – time is short & we should be out & about in a pragmatic world of personal trial & error. Ancestral, pre-fossil fuelled ways of life show that the same will be possible again. Anyway here below – needs revision – clumsily-expressed –

    Enlightenment’s distractions from acting properly –
    This is not in praise of ignorance. Knowledge is a pleasure. Latest research papers are a pleasure. The mistake is to think they will be useful.
    We can be distracted from acting properly by an urgency to accumulate “knowledge” – gathered from others and not from experience. We become exited by proposals for new technologies which may resolve our currently bad behaviour. Hoped futures (forward thinking!) will save the present! Actually, the future is always fictitious. It is most accurately, though always partially, predictable by present actions. The truest futurist vision is the legacy we bequeath by present action. New generations must cope with our effects.
    Good conversation re-enforces and binds community – it entertains and adds to the store of knowledge and pleasure – like good food and wine. But the real question remains – What shall I do next? What is right and what is wrong?
    Small wrongs; great wrongs are all wrongs. But some wrongs are different – those done with intent are different from those done without. All intentional wrongs have the same quality – theft, murder, tax avoidance, usury, enclosure of commons, ecocide… Nevertheless, custom gives many intentional wrongs permission to continue.
    Choosing to remove a settled future from children, by boarding a jet aeroplane is a great wrong. Since few don’t understand anthropogenic climate change, it remains a great wrong, committed with intent (infanticide). Custom agrees it is wrong. Yet, since most do it – custom also agrees to a communal forgetting.
    So, our problem is not of insufficient knowledge, but of the customs of either forgetting or remembering. Our solution is to build a consensus to remember.
    Nearly everyone agrees that ecocide and cultural causes of climate change are wrong. Yet nearly everyone has formed a consensus to forget that agreement.
    So, educating the already educated (which is nearly everyone) will prove fruitless. It will change nothing.
    Al Gore’s inconvenient truths will remain half-sleeping, while climate change accelerates.
    The solution is deeper – As Richard Heinberg has recently pointed out, the remedy is a moral awakening. It is a great communal suffusion of shame.
    The truth is that for economies such as Ireland’s and UK’s, everything – our whole way of living – is wrong. So, it has become convenient to forget.
    Here are some distractions – aids to forgetfulness, which as a farmer, are close to home for me.
    First – Sequestration dispensation for grassland distracts from the economic, ecologic and atmospheric urgency for trees.
    The enlightening ideas of Allan Savory distract many who control grasslands to find a new virtue in continuing as before – perhaps their only change may be greater intervals between grazing!
    Let’s consider land use – that is, let’s consider what we do to land – Is it right or wrong?
    As a community, we need optimum acreages of woodland, grassland, cereals, fruit, vegetables… for our needs and for future needs.
    All of UK’s acreage, which is fit for agriculture, is (has been) natural woodland, with glades. If we were to consider greatest photosynthetic biomass and restoration of climatic balance, then we’d instantly replant the lot with trees. Allan Savory’s grassland is in our case, unnatural grassland and will not produce the same biomass – or resilient biodiversity as does woodland. If we consider relative economic (that is social) contribution, then woodland again provides what is essential and increasingly scarce, whereas grassland provides what is inessential and currently abundant.
    I assume that our culture asks land for vegetables, fruit and cereals and that animals for milk, meat and eggs can be beneficially integrated both in rotations and under fruit trees and so on. Currently, we consume massive amounts of meat, while also having an acute and potentially catastrophic, shortage of timber. The Drax power stations alone annually consume three times the total (for all uses) annual production of UK timber. That illustrates our carelessness. Even though we must stop burning biomass, we remain with vastly insufficient forestry managed for timber – for house-building and so on.
    It’s true that as we stop growing cereal and pulses for “feed-lot” farms, we will release land to grow staple cereals and pulses, and also hugely reduce meat production – but the question remains, what is the best use for my beef/sheep field? Three questions –
    1 – Thriving ecology – meat or trees?
    2 – Climate change – photosynthetic grass, or photosynthetic trees?
    3 – Economy – meat or timber?
    Which is right and which is wrong? Field by field, it’s a choice – there is no nuance.
    As a community, field by field, we must somehow balance the needs of the whole. Ultimately, an economy which most closely fits its ecology will achieve optimum success.
    Second – True cost accounting of bad economic behaviour by enclosing priceless commons as valued capital.
    This fallacy proposes that the market can provide a solution to environmental pillage. Well, Adam Smith’s market could have done so, but of course, his capitalism has not yet been applied and as far as I can tell, has never existed anywhere in the world. Capitalism cannot function without common rules of behaviour – that is without a robust, culturally-evolved commons. Those commons are designed to maintain sources of capital to pass between people in both time and space – that is, fairly distributed both between neighbours and between generations.
    Capital is enclosed common and is amoral – it bears no behavioural directions. Commons are moral directives attached not to things – resources, such as soil, water and so on – but to our use of those things. Some commons define purely social behaviours – and are maintained by tradition and sometimes (theft, murder…) by law.
    The thing is, all commons define what is right and what is wrong. Environmental pillage by an amoral market is wrong. It will not be made right by bringing new capital values into that market, such as the future cost of that pillage. On the contrary, in the process, marketeers gain new capital costs to manipulate in the casino.
    Environmental pillage is wrong. Adam Smith’s capitalism would make it wrong. Why did true cost accountants not promote proper capitalism? Instead they endorse an amoral market without moral restraint, or cultural tradition.
    Established cultural commons can often become law – as in rotation of strip fields, or distribution of water-rights/irrigation controls. In recent times laws of property have overwhelmed such laws of commons.
    That should be our battle ground – not in entering new capital values (properties) into an amoral casino – but in returning morality to our actions – the return of the commons – for our neighbours – for our descendants – Pillage may be defeated, perhaps by common justice/law, but most powerfully by shame.
    Third – What we may call the new green supermarket
    I’m still rambling on Joshua!…


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