The Tyranny of Enlightenment (revised)

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 pleasurable distractions of the latest research papers are a waste of fast-diminishing time. The clock is approaching midnight.
Without further enlightenment, we know that we must stop burning both fossilised biomass and living biomass. Further accumulation of knowledge does not help with the question, what should I do? We know that our fossil fuelled way of life is impossible. We cannot improve, or green it. It must be abandoned.
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 transition towards the pre-fossil-fuelled ways of life of 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. Fossil-fuelled ways of life have not yet evolved that moral commons. They are only a hundred, or sometimes two hundred years old and exist in our yet half-formed extrinsic (and rather coerced) being.
To live within ecological means also means asserting lost sovereignties – in reclaiming commons and denying enclosures. Consumer dependency on an amoral and unguided monopolistic supply (however green) will end in human chaos.
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 ecological effects? These are supremely moral questions. They cut us to the heart, and also ferment in the head.
What are the social 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 foolish – it is wrong.
How do we know good from bad behaviour? – by inherited commons, which have been traditionally bequeathed in religions; in songs and tales; parental guidance; 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 no inheritance, or can see that custom is out of touch with changed times? We begin to create one by our pragmatic footsteps. We become the myth. It is our responsibility to be mythic. If we fail or not, in gaining such meaning, 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? Having answered correctly, people will more easily look about them to consider their energy use, soils and so on.


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 “information” – 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! Bad behaviour can remain unchanged because our gaze is fixed on a dispensatory future. Actually, though the future is always fictitious, it is most accurately, though always partially, predictable by present actions. The truest futurist vision is contained in the legacy we bequeath by present action – choosing a future by our behaviour. New generations must cope with our effects.
Good conversation re-enforces and binds community – it entertains and adds to the store of knowledge and conviviality – 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, anthropogenic climate change, 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 (possibly 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.
I say, it is a 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 also become convenient to forget the whole and to tinker with distractions of the particular.
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 changing only intervals between grazing!
Let’s consider land use – that is, let’s consider what we do to land – Is it right or wrong?
A community needs optimum acreages of woodland, grassland, cereals, fruit, vegetables… for its needs and for future needs.
Just about 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 UK’s case, unnatural grassland and will not produce the same biomass – or resilient biodiversity as 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 housebuilding 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. An economy which most happily 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 directions attached not to things – resources, such as soil, water and so on – but to our use of those things as capital. Some commons define purely social behaviours – and are maintained by tradition and sometimes (theft of capital, murder…) by law. Capital and common are conjoined – each exists, because of the other.
The thing is, 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, traders gain new capital costs to manipulate in the casino. What’s more, even true cost accountants (to remain credible to other accountants) have vastly underestimated those capital costs. The priceless is difficult to price.
Environmental pillage is wrong. Adam Smith’s capitalism would make it wrong. True cost accountants should promote proper capitalism – it is well documented. Instead, they endorse an amoral market without moral restraint, or cultural tradition.
Established commons can often become law – as in rotation of strip fields, or distribution of waterrights/irrigation controls. In recent times laws of property (land enclosure) have overwhelmed many such laws of commons.
That should be our battle ground – not in entering new capital values (private properties) into an amoral casino – but in returning morality to our actions – the return of commons – for our neighbours – for our descendants – Pillage may be defeated – sometimes perhaps by common justice/law, but most powerfully and always by shame.


Third – What we may call the new green supermarket
The new green super market is the greatest of the great forgetting. It marks the decision to remain on the Titanic and rearrange the deck chairs.
We’ll hit the iceberg even though by our petitions and purchase signals, every item in the aisles has become organic, fairly-traded and in re-cycled packaging. Greening the super market gives it credence and endorsement and at the same time, diminishes and impoverishes the smaller, more numerous vessels, which may still remain afloat – that is, if they hold a proper economic/ecologic course. Greening the impossible evokes a forgetfulness that it remains impossible. Some green NGOs perform that useful obscurity. The organic “movement” has been notoriously helpful with deck chairs. In endorsing the Titanic, it has helped to evacuate potentially resilient proper shops and market squares. Nice produce in unpleasant markets focuses on the nice and forgets the unpleasant – It’s nice to do so. (and positive, I’m told)
Let’s remember.
Living within ecological means dictates abandoning the fossil-fuelled Titanic. Life boats of transition can set a course towards the point where she first embarked. That is, a socially interconnected network of fields, villages and towns, which asks for some transport for goods, but not for people. Towns are congregations of houses, markets, workshops, proper shops, fairs and pleasures – all of which can be easily reached on foot and by the same pair of feet. Feet are perfectly designed for people. Feet can both work and holiday. They can walk side by side, happily form a crowd and – a civilization.
Having solved the problem of transport for people by such a happy – almost effortless solution, we can more easily wrestle with the remaining problems of transport for goods. Crops must somehow migrate from field to village, town, or city. I don’t think they can travel to suburbia. That’s why people congregate. Suburbia is fossil-fuelled. It is a deck chair.
Wastes must cycle back to fields – along with the products of those workshops.
The connection of field and town is a problem we’ve yet to solve. With current populations, the energy required outruns history and can be only partially solved in the Havana manner by urban market gardens, personal allotments and by peripheral rings of market gardens.
Oversized cities are deck chairs, but some cities may survive happily by harbour and navigable river, or by a network of canals. I think that sea trade will prove essential for resilience – for trading not only scarcity and surplus – but also cross-cultural pleasures. Without question, pragmatic laws of
physics show that sea trade must be sail trade. Currently derelict harbour towns – scattered along every mile of coastline, will regain their function and their people.
City and suburbia are our greatest problems – but ones which may (at least partially) be knit to our greatest solution. The wildest injustice of late and post medieval times has been the brutality of land enclosure, which led to famine, mass migration and swelling hopelessness of poverty, dependency, prostitution… – in short, slavery and city slums. Today, many in cities dream of escape from that same dependency, but cannot see a way.
There can be a mass migration of human ingenuity, dexterity and hopefully – happiness back to coast and countryside – fields can shrink from monopolistic fossil power to diverse, curious, ingenious and dextrous man-power – coastal community will revive with boat-builders, sail-traders… We can reverse the enclosures.
This is madness you say – You are nostalgically driving by the rear-view mirror. We have the knowledge to green our way of life – wind power is already cheaper than oil…
I say, consider the ice-berg.
Step into lifeboats (of transition) and head for shore. Those turbines will be useful for a more fitting way of life.
We’ve travelled too wildly, blindly and too far. Almost everyone already knows that truth. But we’ve communally agreed to forget it. The first evidence of solid ground will be found at the point where we embarked.
We may resume properly at that point – one which anyone can understand – morally, spiritually and analytically. Actually, transition towards that end can never end – the steps will continue, because truths of natural physics are perennially illusive. They escape the permaculture designer. They beckon us. After all, a central economic problem of the Titanic was one of too many architects (perma-preconception) and not enough builders (pragmatism). Every house-holder; every trade’s person is better qualified to seek better behaviour by their own curiosity, in their own illusive terrains, than all the expertise of IPCC and the Paris Accord.
It is ordinary. It is simple. It is universal. On passage, we may be surprised by a dove with a twig of olive. We may not. Tacking across head-winds in a steep swell, happiness remains (succeed or not) in what we do.
Complexity is the web of Titanic entanglement. How do we divest familiar, but decadent garments of oil – work, wages, lack of wages, irony, sarcasm, inveiglement, the latest “interesting” research…? Can we bear to be known as a wagging finger, which spoils the deck party?
But there’ a greater shame than that – and a greater joy.


Fourth – A minor distraction – Bio Char
Of course, bio char is not a distraction for most people. It is of small significance. Nevertheless, it is illustrative of similar distractions, which can often lead to untruth – that is: apparent remedies for the particular, which can be pernicious to the whole – not seeing the wood for the trees. Cults of the liberty of the individual are prone to such distractions.
There is little doubt that bio char is useful for individuals – it helps maintain stable soil life for their particular plots.
Terra Preta soils of the Amazon Basin were maintained in extra-ordinary fertility by the use of charcoal. Communities generated similarly extra-ordinary quantities of waste biomass from hunting, fishing and gathering to supplement their agriculture. Their ingenious solution was to char it. Who knows? They may have used the generated heat. Had they simply fermented those wastes as we do today by compost, farm yard manure, or anaerobic digestion, then those surplus nutrients would have been lost to soil life.
Today we have no surplus. We’ve no peripheral lands for hunter-gathering. In fact, Titanic culture is creating a massive soil life deficit.
Charred biomass is much less than its original biomass – even if we propose that we’ve culturally integrated the generated heat. (unlikely)
Bio char, redistributed equably in let’s say, a town allotment, by charring all the gathered wastes of every allotment holder, will produce lower crop yields, than a system which had, as in European cultural tradition, fermented those wastes.
We can imagine a hierarchical kleptocracy (like today’s in UK, US and Russia) in which elites keep surpluses of biomass from city wastes for bio-charring their own lands, while fertility elsewhere withers. That is a classic (though futuristic!) tale of the enclosures.
In leaving the Titanic, we leave such monopolies and re-occupy commons – of soil, water, biomass, seed… Cults of the individual will not survive. We must depend on each other – look out for one another. Bio char is a small, but dangerous, individualist deck chair.
Cults of the individual cannot survive. Our predicament is of the tragedy of the enclosures. Private property, home as castle, consumer right granted in exchange for monopoly supply – have led to the sack of personal responsibility and so to the sack of the Earth. No-one remains on the bridge of the Titanic. Everyone is at the deck party – elites entertained at the captain’s table – others huddled in literary/scientific discussions – many others waiting tables and working the kitchens – the upwardly mobile (social mobility) in between – some even shattering glass ceilings…
Others, more earnestly send petitions to the bridge; to supermarket; to parliament – about climate change, inequality, icebergs…
But they speak to the void.
Truth is – climate change is caused by all of us, one by one. The solution is to stop causing it, one by one. There is nobody on the bridge, or in the super market/corporation/parliament to legislate for societal change. People one by one make a crowd. It is our duty to form one on solid ground and not on the deck of the Titanic. We, like most mammals exist as a flock of mutual dependencies.
The tragedy is that hurting the flock for personal gain is no longer a crime – many call it success – the success of the tragedy of enclosure; the sack of commons; the sack of Earth; the building of the Titanic.
The great forgetting of ancestors and descendants has us lost at sea in a kind of nagging unhappiness, which is actually suppressed, undefined shame. Our deepest being is the moral necessity to belong. We belong by doing the right things.
Speak for yourself, you say? I do. I am ashamed.
Shame and redemption are woven into our culture and survive from far older cultures – from long before agriculture. Those moral bindings are a part of eusocial evolution. It is no accident that the finest document we have on climate change is the Vatican’s encyclical on climate change. That is because it is unashamedly moral. Similarly, every great religious organisation has admirably followed suit – Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Protestant – Methodist, Calvinist, Quaker…
Children have rights – adults, responsibility.
For how much longer, can I remain a child?
Native American, Maori and Aboriginal voices have powerfully and movingly defended the sanctity of their soils. Movingly, because at heart – even from the deck of the Titanic, we fully understand.
We fully understand.

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6 Responses to The Tyranny of Enlightenment (revised)

  1. alexheffron says:

    Hi Patrick,

    Not entirely sure how I feel about this piece – conflicted perhaps. I wonder whether it falls for the trap of infighting that can plague so-called ‘progressive’ movements (I’m not a fan of the word progressive but it allows communication of who I mean at least). Reminds me of the quote that the left looks for traitors where the right looks for converts…

    I would agree that Green Industrialism/eco-modernism/neo-environmentalism are a huge threat, perhaps the biggest threat. Because they’re just a re-hash of neoliberalism, and well you know why they’re not good ideas, and they distract people as you highlight above.

    Change happens by progression and steps, until a critical mass is reached. I partly understand your grievances, but might it not be more constructive to suggest ideas and prime the imaginations of these landowners – and plant within them the importance of trees, than use divisive language? Silvopasture is not such a big step. You’ll find more people within the groups of permaculture and holistic management who are actually doing all the things required – ie. removing themselves from industrial society as best as possible, not flying round the globe continually, planting trees, protecting and building habitat and practising human-scale culture. You’ll always get those that idealise it as a grand solution, who use it as a distraction etc. but should that mar the whole group? I’ve heard these same arguments from someone else and it does grate on me. It becomes a puritanism and moral one-up-manship. These are the 1% who are doing something at least.

    On true cost accounting – I agree that’s a dead end. But then I’d probably say the same as above – your namesake Patrick is probably trying to find a way of protecting what he cherishes and knows to be important. I’m with you that it’s still too much within the domain of neoliberalism. But sometimes a temporary ‘band-aid’ helps in the grand scheme of things. I’m more inclined towards the deepest causes, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only necessary path.

    I think the moral argument is a no-goer because morals are shaped by culture, and we have a cultural poverty. We don’t have a culture that values or respects nature for its own worth, for its sake, not ours. We have an anthropocentric culture that believes it exists for our use. Thus the moral argument won’t hold. People are acting within their moral system. Our culture puts ourselves first at the expense of others. We have to reshape culture, before morals can be a guiding compass again. The Catholic Church might write fine documents but its their mono-theistic, anthropocentric philosophy that got us into this mess in the first place, consumerism is just an atheistic concentration of their philosophy. Atheism is often catholicism inverted. Most people I sit with, have zero recognition of what’s about to come.

    I agree we don’t need more knowledge. I agree we have everything we need. And I agree we have all forgotten what it means to be human. But that’s where the battle will be won or lost. It’s to be fought on the mythic level not the scientific.

    Best wishes and with respect



  2. bryncocyn says:

    Dear Alex,
    This was an article about distractions to solutions – not the solutions.
    I’m afraid that I disagree deeply with most of what you say
    Very sorry,


  3. joshuamsikahutton says:

    I wouldn’t so easily dismiss bio-char. See Ed Revill’s wor:

    His work echoes yours and yet sees biochar as part of the solution, not a distraction.


  4. bryncocyn says:

    Thanks Joshua – Ed’s site looks very interesting. I’ll investigate further.


  5. alexheffron says:

    I’m sorry if my last comment was a bit grouchy. I don’t think we disagree much. I agree with you they’re distractions – but I don’t see them as unhealthy ones, we all need distractions and these are worthwhile and beneficial ones. I appreciate the point is not to discuss how many trees need to be planted or whatever. I reacted because I felt it was unfair to criticise good people. There are so many worse distractions out there – ecomodernism is full of them. The only technical detail
    I would argue til the cows come (literally) home is that we do need to care about soil carbon. It’s as big an issue as the burning of fossil fuels. Although I agree that burning must stop but then we’ll fall into the trap of renewables which will end up being as destructive as oil. We must get away from being dependent on so much energy… but there I am going on about details again 😉

    On the moral argument – help me understand this. To me it’s a clear moral issue but to most people it simply doesn’t come close. They simply do not believe their actions are destructive. Call it infanticide, ecocide whatever, they don’t get it. That’s the tragedy. And to me that shows a broken culture. We have a society that breeds disconnection. I don’t believe most people are ‘bad’ people. A rational argument is not going to persuade them either because we’re not particularly rational beings. It’s all about culture.


  6. bryncocyn says:

    Sorry to be so slow in response Alex – things are hectic.

    I think my piece was a bit grouchy too.

    Ideas and the people who adopt them are different things. I also think that most people are good people. Good people are often distracted by bad ideas. Good, but lazy people are usually distracted by bad ideas.

    For instance, at Bryn Cocyn, we’ve far too much grass and far too few trees. We also burn too much wood. By waving a copy of Allan Savory’s as grassland as justification, I could conjure an easy, morally-justified life. But instead, since I think that moral is wrongly drawn, I live uneasily and unhappily – I cannot be happy until I farm more properly – eventually justifying (to myself) my social contribution. What drives me to change is the moral.

    I feel that much of my life is immoral and though it is difficult to change my life without also changing in concert with others, nevertheless shame drives me towards change. It also drives me to grouchiness at the lazy justifications of others (such as Patrick Holden).

    All works of art – from nursery rhymes, folk tales, movies, novels (to remain within words) are bound together by a central moral idea. They explain good and bad behaviour and weave the threads of culture.

    Throughout history, everywhere, cultures tend to decadence and then collapse. They collapse because of the loss of a central binding common set of morals. People endorse each other’s bad behaviours. I think that in the UK we are very much in that decadent/collapse stage. I think that nearly everyone is aware of resource depletion, climate change and so on, but are re-assured that none of their peers is acting on that knowledge. After all, climate change activists jet to climate change conferences. Only morals change behaviour and people can see no moral action. They read the facts, but don’t change.

    Yet, I think the recent rush of support for Farage (and in truth, for ISIS), Trump and so on, is for many, a yearning for lost morals. Plainly in those cases, they’ve seized upon very shaky morals. More solid ground is the surge for Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

    Cultures are what we do in concert with others and we don’t know what to do without a moral narrative. Of course, all decadence ends in new beginnings. It helps (I think) to not flatter and so prolong the decadence, but rather to narrate a moral tale of romantic new adventures…

    Decadence makes me grouchy, because it reminds me of myself.


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