Coda to the Differing Forms of Tragedy

Nemesis was our consumer-choice. The bargain was struck. We paid for her and she is ours. We bought the present by selling the future. Our purchase cannot be passed back – please read the small print in Nemesis’s Little Earthly Book of Rules. What we’ve done cannot be undone. Those thickening layers of debauchery are not like the deeds themselves – careless, narcissistic, hedonistic, ephemeral, shallow, easily-forgotten – instead and in terms of human life-spans, they carpet the atmosphere immutably. Let’s be dramatic – the die is cast. We bought storm, flood, drought and a new precarious way of life. We chose it. We knew that we chose it, but said that the natural ingenuity of children (born and unborn) would sort it out. We said that marvellous technologies, such as commercial flight, the internet and so on had been devised and applied so quickly that remedies to the causes of climate change, which lie heaped in the colourful labels of our shopping basket, would come just as swiftly.
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Still, most of my friends – seeking remedies to resource depletion, green-house gas emissions, and the terrible cascade of vanishing species, say they’d improve the same technologies and ways of living, which caused those things in the first place. They say, we’ll have electric aviation, electric family cars, improved insulation of our homes, solar panels on the roofs of every super market and a mass roll-out of new renewable electricity sources. They say that we need enlightenment, education and forward-thinking. In short, they say that our ways of life need not change at all. Enlightened progress will save us, in the same way that endarkened progress led us to this cliff edge.
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Here’s some sober truth – gaze at Nemesis for a while, and you’ll also see its potential beauty. Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold… A terrible beauty is unleashed upon the world.
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1 The present creates the future. The future cannot refuse the legacy. Only the present has the power to choose, because only the present has physics. The future cannot choose. Likewise, the present cannot refuse the legacy of past causes. It must work within its inheritance and generate new causes.
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2 Ingenuity can never replace shrinking resources – it can only change perception of that shrinkage. Only physical mass, or energy can change physics.
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3 The magnitude of tools enabled by coal, oil and gas cannot be matched by man-power, or by wind, sun, tide and gravity. No earthly sources – even though combined – can ever replace the power of those many millions of years of sequestered photosynthesis.
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4 We must devise new ways of life whose tools are powered by wind, sun, tide, gravity, animal, or man and whose behaviour is organised to fit inside the organic cycles of life. It is dangerous to think of biomass as a source of energy, since we must do all we can to allow an optimum biomass (a durable maximum) to regenerate, photosynthesise, while also providing food and building material. Since fermentation is an essential part of seasonal regeneration, some fermentation gases can be usefully captured without harm, or disbalance (anaerobic digestion).
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5 We cannot build new infrastructures (houses, canals, harbours, streets…) with anything like the speed and power we had when using fossil fuels. Acceleration due to fossil fuels will dramatically shrink to just the acceleration due to man.
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6 If our demands are small enough, we can step gracefully beneath the lintels that Nemesis has provided. Only a tiny period of human tool-making has been powered by fossil fuels. We have a deep cultural memory of pre-fossil-fuelled ways of life. Our deepest moral commons evolved without fossil fuels and we possess a pre-fossil fuelled legacy of beautiful field systems, houses, streets, harbours, bridges, market squares, work-shops, mill and manufacture wheels, sailing boats, pubs, churches, temples, mosques… which await re-occupation. Of course, fossil resources also fuelled our massive populations. Well, we shall do the best we can. Fossil fuels spawned a massive increase in inequality. Well, again, we shall do the best we can and as the monopolies crumble… Current inequalities, once remedied, provide the economic solutions to apportioning fair rations for all. I’m not denying the rapacious nature of many pre-fossil fuelled cultures – and particularly of empires. Nor am I denying that we seldom learn from history. Our task is to learn that lesson. Of course, we may not learn and the odds against us are very high. Nevertheless, remember – we are living a tragedy. We can resolve the final pages beautifully – and all our yesterdays… Then the new book opens.
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Nemesis was our consumer-choice and our new task is to make her tragic form both beautiful and true. Let’s celebrate that. She has form, mass and energy. She embodies our new spirit of place, in which we can live according to our ration. Some have called her Gaia.
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The bargain was struck to the degree of our spending.
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However, we can make other choices, while yesterday’s choices howl about our ears, lifting roofs off houses, uprooting trees, breaking flood defences and withering crops where they stand. Of course, since Nemesis reflects the magnitude of past spending power, she belongs to the rich, far more than to the poor. That goes for both the physics of citizens and the coercive ideas of nation states. Now, tragically, she belongs to us all. Nevertheless, if we are to remove the causes of species extinction and climate change that means removing the ways of life of the rich. That includes a majority of people in UK, Europe, USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand… A large part of the greenhouse gases emitted from the new manufacturing regions, India, China… can be apportioned to the purchases of UK, Europe, USA and so on. Those purchases are first requested and then owned by the rich and appropriate greenhouse gases should be apportioned to them. Nemesis says so. She also points to the inequality inherent in the contract – between high-wage and low-wage economies – between the “professional” class and the “working” class. She says that equity and social justice are inherent to all solutions to slowing and hopefully (against massive odds) pausing the rate of climate change.
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The rain falls on the Just and the Unjust fella, but mostly on the Just, because Unjust has just pinched the Just’s umbrella.
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That’s also true, which is why my passions rise at reports of the enlightened middle class, marching through London to protect rents, enclosures, monopolies, and low-wage purchases – that is, to maintain property rights to previously-stolen umbrellas. Inexplicably (to me) the UK Green Party marches alongside, shouting, Enlightenment! – and also, Viva middle class entitlement to a corporate-supplied, but carefully and incrementally negotiated, pastel green shopping basket!
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Pshaw!
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