Diary of a Baby-Boomer Nobody

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My world is very small. I’ve not travelled much and not at all beyond Welsh, Scots, Irish and English shores. Yet, I think the parish of Llannefydd, where I’ve lived and worked since 1975, provides an accurate-enough microcosm of anywhere that has not been ravaged by war, invasion, empire, flood, drought and famine. Earlier, as a teenager in suburban Woking, I devoured books of all sorts, absorbing the knowledge and insights of revered authorities and resting in what I thought was their beauty and truth. I decided then, in the 1960s that oil and its ways of life were destructive and I also vowed never to fly – and I never have and never will. I suppose John Ruskin, William Morris, On Walden Pond and so on, led me to that conclusion. I was what is now called a school phobic. I have no education. That has been a valuable asset to finding my way. Everywhere, I see education’s distorted and blinkered perspective – particularly, of course in people of influence, because I must repel that influence. A friend has written that he and I are the Shakespeare-quoting outlanders of Huxley’s Brave New World. Would I still love Shakespeare and Chaucer, had I an education? – I doubt it.
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I hope this is not a narcissistic journey. I remain uneasily in the first person, because I’ve stumbled into a need to explore why I think and feel as I do. I focus on myself, because what I think and feel is mine (my fault) and not that of the “we” of family, friends and influences.
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Having escaped suburbia, I spent five years working on archaeological digs, until I fell into farming by accident. Now in my mid-twenties, I spent a winter at leisure (on accumulated wages) in a very beautiful place and when eventually I ran out of money, I found that I did not want to leave. Farm labouring was the only local work and I came to enjoy it. Soon, I began to rent some nearby fields. It was very much easier for me than it is for today’s young people. In 1976, a friend and neighbour, simply and trustingly, bought me fourty-six ewes – selected with the skilled advice of another friend and neighbour. With that first lamb crop, I repaid the money in the first year. That also, could not happen today. It could not have happened then, without the kindliness, trust, time, money and wisdom of neighbours – most of whom were born and hefted into that cynefin. They displayed the timeless common of such communities – hospitality to and curiosity for strangers. Meanwhile, because I continued to work for five days a week as a farm labourer and so needed no other maintenance, the ewes soon increased to three hundred. This is not a story of hard graft and steely determination rewarded – not at all – I enjoyed regular music nights in the local pub and partying generally. Tragically, for anyone today, it would have to be hard graft and steely determination and even then, it would probably end in failure.
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It was a world of unspoken commons, untouched by NGO, government, corporation, or bank. Although that world has almost gone, it does remain in us all, as a kind of folk memory and I speculate that there are few who’d not long for its revival if they just let the emotion to rise. Most commons have been enclosed – by consumer rights, consumer dependency and by monopolies of supply, information and the ballot. However, I think the common does survive in the ethics of the household; in filial codes and memories. Once upon a time, many aspects of the commons were preserved in church, chapel, mosque, temple… Even though the power of religious institutions led to the very human problems of all power structures, nevertheless those institutions often stood as foils to many forms of enclosure – latterly, at least of ethics.
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Of course, under the wing of Protestantism (not all protestants were guilty), older commons of both land-use and the trades were swept away – mutating into fabulous wealth for aristocrats and larger yeoman farmers and into new slums, starvation and prostitution for the migrating dispossessed. Power’s excuse was a conveniently-adopted cult religion. We can see a similarity today, as the powers put on a fervent green mantle, as a means to the coming new money-spinner – claiming both virtue (as in the Reformation) and a new source of enclosed and fabulous wealth. As the old sources (oil) slip away, the opportunistic see that “renewable” energy must be exploited and enclosed – Monopolies get used to monopoly. How marvellous that a new money-spinner can wear a cloak of green virtue, just as the vicious enclosures of the sixteenth century Reformation wore a cloak of religious virtue.
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What are commons? I say they are the long-evolved (and evolving) moral guidance of the similarly long experience of ancestors. Those morals survive, embodied in the living, at many levels from shallow to deep. They urge what must be done to conserve both the culture and the species – including species on which ours depend. They overrule ephemeral coercions of power. Often, they define the roles of power. At the deepest level they emerge in the intrinsic morals, which we think (or rather, feel) make us human. We have the muscular form of who we are, but also the moral form of what we do. Taboo belongs in that realm. I think enlightenment is wrong to sneer at taboo. Meanwhile, at the shallowest level (though tinged with the deep) commons emerge in rights to land and water responsibility, to pannage, estovers, pasture, piscary, flotsam and so on. All commons define rights to responsibility. They outline both rations of what we can have and a ration of what we can do. Don’t forget that the true home of economics is moral philosophy. It is also the household itself. If we understand household budgets and household rules of behaviour then we know all we need to know of economies generally. Casino “economists” will disagree.
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Commons define behaviour. Present cultural behaviour germinates the cultural future. The future cannot undo what the present has done. That is a potent thought. Enclosure – property – only concerns nouns. It is a fence line for irresponsible protection of time-freed nouns (the liberal economy) and for the exclusion of unruly verbs – that is, the effects of causes, including the guidance of moral philosophers and real economists.
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Because they’ve evolved to do so, children quickly learn the subtlety of commons. Often, commons involve rituals of initiation and coming of age, in which we put on the spirit of passed ancestors – to live in the same bequeathed and rationed space. We curate our inheritance as we can and then bequeath it in turn.
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Enclosure defines right to irresponsibility – to private property with which I can behave as I choose. All enclosures are the same – of land, money, ideas and status. They remove both lessons of history and needs of the future. That is the state we are in today – total enclosure of the last social commons, with no past and no future. Land-owners can pillage as they choose – money owners likewise. GP; solicitor; consultant; “professional” people, extract terrible rents (that is riches) from communities they once served and to maintain the ways of life, (the class system) to which they’ve grown accustomed. Their monopoly cannot be challenged by other than their own professional bodies – peer review has become a mutually supportive career ladder. In theory at least, peer review once provided useful insights to those with open minds, but today it serves only to increase the barbs of the fence-line, which excludes schismatic “peers” who’d rock an established and lucrative boat. And so it is, that my simple mind has no trust for scientific papers – even though it is curious for the science. To those who ask for a list of sources beneath my articles, I say Pshaw! The source is mine. If we cannot think for ourselves, why burden the world with more clutter? A paraded dignity of peers cannot increase the dignity of my words – they are what they are for themselves… Of course, I’d attribute quotations and influences.
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Anyway, it came to pass, as proper stories say, that I met a farmer’s daughter and married into a small farm. In 1987 we decided to register the farm with the Soil Association for organic conversion.
My rented hill land had been organic since 1978, but we now had the pleasure of arable crops and eventually an orchard and veg field. Eventually too, we managed to escape the commodity market and sell much of our produce over market stalls as food – not commodity – to real people, face to face – that is, all our vegetables, apples, apple juice, beef and lamb. We sold only what we grew on the farm. For the future, we must do the same for cereals and pulses.
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Here is this season’s picture of our small, organically-managed farm – 66 acres of marginal to good land (grade three) and a further 23 acres of rented hill land, which is unsuitable for cropping – The 66 acres breaks down as 10 acres of an oats/barley/pea mix and 7 acres of oats – all for combining, plus 2 acres of apples and 3 acres of vegetables. The bulk of the energy required for the 5 acres of apples and vegetables is manual. Whereas, the 17 acres for combining is almost entirely diesel powered. The remaining 44 acres provides minimal woodland, being mostly grassland. It is diesel powered for hay and silage, but mostly “dog and stick” for the rest. Is that sustainable? For the apples, vegetables and dog and stick – If very well managed, possibly. For the rest – No.
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The rented 23 acres of hill land, includes about an acre of grazed oak woodland. Our (entirely benign) landlord has retained about 4 acres of oak woodland which is a part of the whole – but our part is pasture and mostly by dog and stick. Is that sustainable? No. Such land would be more beneficial as woodland – economically, ecologically and photosynthetically.
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I reckon a rule of thumb for crop rotation is one year of extractive crops to two years of regenerative green manure or pasture. (we practice 2 years cereal to 6 years grass/clover) I think there is little to choose between green manure, or grazing – both are effective. Yes, I do think we could have a vegan agriculture. However, grazing has two advantage – One – it removes the considerable energy required (human, or diesel) to cut and mulch. Two – it provides useful eggs, milk, butter, cheese and meat to the community. There is a plausible third advantage – a balance of plant to animal, could replicate the proportions of that balance in nature. Nature has evolved for optimum success. So! – introducing animals into a rotation may achieve optimum agricultural success. Of course, for the future, our meat ration will not stretch to every day, but only to weekends and special occasions. Cereals and pulses must feed people. We’ll have none to spare for batteries, broiler houses and feed-lots.
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So, at Bryn Cocyn, the 20 acres of arable and vegetable cropping, need 40 acres of green manure/pasture to maintain their fertility – leaving only 6 acres, of which 2 are woodland and 2 are apples. That means we must plant a further 2 acres with trees. We are about to do so. However, what of those 23 acres of hill land, which cannot support cropping? I think they should be returned to their natural state – that is woodland. We haven’t done so. I am guilty.  Because we easily sell all our lamb and beef by market stalls, providing a large part of our income, my economy has trumped my ecology, stepping beyond its sustainable ration. It is no dispensation that most UK farms are far, far worse. My excuse? – We are step-by-step in transition.
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In Wales, we export 80% of the lamb we produce, which makes for an obviously precarious future. If we thought of 80% of sheep-producing land, repurposed as new woodland, then we could also think of both a more stable economy and a more stable ecology. In addition, we’d add considerably to Welsh photosynthetic power. I don’t like the word, sequestration – it implies a still and quiet mass. It also leads to wrong thinking. The truth is that life in soil, bacteria, fungi, plant and animal is dynamic, fluid, inter-changeable and vivacious! Those who use the term to describe an accumulated mass of carbon (such as IPCC & most of the climate glitterati) are deluded. Climate glitterati? I borrow the term from Kevin Anderson.
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In short, I think we need cropping land to grow food and unless two thirds if it is dairy/meat-producing ley pasture, only a third of that area can actually produce food for people. I think all other land should grow trees. Readers must know that I don’t share the wild sequestration claims of the “pasture-fed” evangelists. Neither do I share the polemical yield statistics by those such as George Monbiot, who attribute to vegetable yield, three times its true yield – by ignoring the regenerative phases of rotation – and by similarly diminishing animal yield, by dismissing its integrated part in that rotation. Animals (as in nature) add to, rather than diminish the whole. George is polemical for the animal part of re-wilding. Why should he not be so for the increased biomass (yield) of vegetable/cereal/pulse production? I like George’s rewilding ideas (although we shall need timber for construction), but he is lazy and conveniently-selective when he comes to food production. Even so, I agree with George that fields dedicated purely to animal production are a waste of space (I am guilty). What’s more, those fields for the most part (unless Bronze/Iron Age field systems) are not “traditional”, they are a legacy of the brutal clearances of people from the land to allow for the golden fleece. Wool made aristocrats fabulously rich. As Thomas more accurately said, Sheep have devoured the people. Now, although it shouldn’t be, wool is worthless and sheep meat income is purely subsidy. We’ve an acute shortage of timber and forestry (per acre) provides far, far more employment than beef and sheep production.
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We let our hedges grow untrimmed – I’d say they are about fifteen feet tall on average – with blossom in the spring and nuts and berries in autumn. Most new agroforestry schemes in large-field arable land have no more “forest” than we have with small fields and wide traditional hedges. From Bryn Cocyn we can look East across the Vale of Clwyd to the Clwydian Range beyond and we can scan from Prestatyn and Rhyl in the North to Llangollen in the South. That vast area is a desert of neat and tightly trimmed hedges. No wonder it has become routine for our neighbours to spray for aphids. What if all those thousands of farms let hedges escape to the sky? It would provide the most rapid ecological and photosynthetic benefit I can imagine. We have an 8.5 acre and a 9.5 acre field, which I’d like to divide with new hedges, to make all the fields in Bryn Cocyn about 3 or 4 acres – good for organising arable and grazing rotations. But my family does not agree – I point out that tractor passes would remain the same if we divided longitudinally – I like the idea of the old strip fields – but no – those fields are similar to our neighbours’ fields – they fit; belong in the community. We are a family democracy.
Anyway, to assist our step-by-step transition, five years ago, I cashed in my small pension and bought a 6kw wind turbine. We also have 4kw of older solar panels and 3kw for my son’s new house. We don’t borrow money and we’ve never accumulated enough for electric vehicles.
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Because my world is small, small influences to the wider world can remain large to me and also serve as a paradigm for the far larger influences which they have reflected.
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The following is very close to me and my small world. I believe it to be a shrunken replica of most citizens, large NGOs and the larger world. Around 1990 or so, a charismatic, ambitious and rather narcissistic group rose to steer the course of the Soil Association. They saw their task as pushing “organic” into the mainstream. They wanted organic products in super markets, large restaurant chains and in “mainstream” thinking. They focused on this alone – the larger the organic market, so the greater the beneficial organic acreage to supply it. They adopted the necessary code phrases – such as paradigm shift, green-sky thinking…- while also creating the necessary human-sized imagery – community supported agriculture, box schemes… Neither of those had power to dilute their vision (as they should have done) rather, they lent the Soil Association false credence.
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The annual Soil Association conference, became not a place where delegates from the shires assembled and shared news, knowledge and concerns, but an outright political rally, in which those charismatic leaders and panels of invited “celebrities” took (pre-submitted) questions from the floor. Those celebrities would know nothing of organic techniques, but would convey the illusion to attendees that they had entered a world of serious “movers and shakers”. At one conference, Vandana Shiva spoke eloquently of lost commons and the fight to reclaim them. Like Greta Thunberg, she is a powerful speaker and I, most of the floor and the charismatic leaders were left with tears in our eyes. Yet one by one, having listened to Vandana, each charismatic leader, addressed the rest of us with the same message – that the world is as it is – that super markets are here to stay – that we’d better get real about enclosures – that we’d better goddam get on the Titanic, because the rest of the world was going nowhere.
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Of course, that was my last conference. I failed utterly to influence that NGO and yet I remain a member – hoping against hope to revive its original commons.
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Those who’d electrify the Titanic, can’t see that the problem is the Titanic. Those who’d green their wealth can’t see that the problem is wealth. Those who’d green the super market can’t see that the problem is the super market. Those who’d green the enclosures (by a green new deal perhaps), can’t see that the problem is the enclosures…. They can’t see that to be effective, a green new deal must enter the common.
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For renewable energy to stand inside terrestrial limits, it can only service the rationed limits of good behaviour. It has not capacity to service bad behaviour. Wind turbines and solar panels face terrestrial rations of mass, acceleration – space and time. I speculate that we can gratefully accept their energy for domestic heat, light, refrigeration and cookery, but no more. For transport, we must return to the world we had before fossil fuels. We must abandon suburbia, centralised procurement/distribution, all aviation, the family car… Why not? We can have sail trade, vivid and vivacious villages and towns, canals and navigable rivers. We can have a re-centred suburbia, interspersed with market gardens and dairies … We can have lively coastal towns and villages – their harbours re-built along every mile of coastline, for small-boat fishing and both shore-hopping and open-sea trades. We can have full employment. We’ll have plenty of now-idle metal work and so on for re-purposing. We will have acceleration due to people and not acceleration due to oil. What’s more two people working side by side are more or less equal, until one gains an oil engine, car, aeroplane ticket, large high-consumption house… Money flow must shrink from acceleration due to fossil fuels to acceleration due to people – the energy of people – the power of what people can do. Why does no-one speak of acceleration? Why in carbon calculations does no-one enter the energy in living biomass – that is the power, not merely the mass of life? They (IPCC and most others) enter nouns, but not verbs. Anyway, GDP (spending) must shrink to at least a tenth (probably more) of what it is today (UK). It must shrink from fossil mass to biomass. That fossil mass was expendable, being converted into both energy and a mass of atmospheric CO.2 and other gases. However, biomass must remain as biomass to live breathe, photosynthesise, die and recycle. – only its intrinsic energy, including human energy (converted from food-mass) can be thought of as energy. Our lives cannot transcend the cycles of all the other lives. We must learn (or re-learn) to join those cycles to find optimum cultural success.
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GDP may be a useful measure of money exchange, but it is a ridiculous measure of an economy. Ebbs and flows of the market are the concerns of a casino. Casinos wreck economies. My readers will know that the economic destruction of war, natural disasters and so on, increases GDP, even though, in the process, cultural assets have been considerably shrunk. Of course, for much that maintains economies, no money passes hands – the activities of households, parenthood, fairs and festivals – we can list many things. Economies are maintained by agreed commons of good behaviour – the good life as it learns to fit its rations of space and time.
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Have Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion been manufactured, just as the organic movement has been manufactured?
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1 – Yes. I’ve no doubt that Cory Morningstar’s research is largely accurate.
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2 – No. I’ve no doubt that Greta is Greta – flesh and blood and heart and soul. I’ve no doubt that most who swell the Extinction Rebellion are so likewise. I’ve also no doubt that there are some members of the Soil Association, who still dream of lost organic commons – vivacious towns and villages, re-centred suburbia and a renaissance of the skills of the trades – accompanied of course by the decay of oil-powered super market, large food manufacturers, restaurant chains and out of, or edge of town retail/industrial parks.
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3 – Yes. How else could the school strikes and the extinction gatherings have reached all forms of media so fast without shady manipulation? How else could Greta, so swiftly address the UN, parliaments various, assembled Hollywood super-stars, or be photographed with jet-setting Naomi Klein, Al Gore and so on…?
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4 – No. The imaginations of many have been fired by both movements – not by the manipulators, but by the movements themselves.
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So, we could put the problem like this – Have the movements been enclosed? I’d say both yes and no. Both are sufficiently on the common to entirely reclaim their commons. Yet both are sufficiently in an enclosure to be in very real danger of total manufacture and manipulation.
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I say, Viva school and extinction rebellions! But I also say, where are you going and what do you mean? I say, governments and corporations have not caused species extinction, or climatic instability. Governments and corporations have assisted we little people to behave badly, but because governments and corporations are merely ideas, the physical causes are entirely ours. Our rebellion should be against ourselves. We can step out of enclosure and onto a personal moral common. Government manipulation has assisted the rich to become richer and so the poor to become poorer – so is that where the true government-against-people battleground lies? – an inequity emergency? We can say that ecological destruction and climatic imbalance are largely caused by the rich – that the poor have not the spending power. That’s true, but even if justice was done and we were re-empowered, we’d still need a clear picture of where we were going and of right and wrong behaviour.
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It’s plain from the above that my own life has some small successes, but also a large portion of failure. I know this – I cause climate change. I contribute to ecological catastrophe. How much? Forget that. All I know is that I must contribute less to destruction and more to a durable way of living. Collectively, we are at a point, where every road we choose will be through a variety of differing tragedies. We cannot avoid tragedy. Nemesis was our consumer-choice. Listen – literature, theatre, music, painting… can make tragedy both beautiful and true – so can a good life. For any future at all, the casino (which most call an economy) must collapse, or be collapsed about our ears. It will be highly unpleasant. I leave that to your imagination. Our task is to begin to construct an economy and a culture which is disconnected from the casino – one that can emerge more or less alive – tragic and comic – conversing and loving – laughing and crying – beautiful and true – from beneath the rubble. Greening our current way of life will be suicide.
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The common is a realm of rationing, maintenance, knowledge and celebration. Scattered here and there, some cultures still practice those things – people call them indigenous cultures – I’ve not fathomed why.
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All cultures are indigenous. It’s urgent to discover both how and why. Then we must come to see that cultures are not what we have, or have achieved. They are what we do.
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1 Response to Diary of a Baby-Boomer Nobody

  1. Christopher Shaw says:

    Nice, thanks for taking the time to share.

    Like

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