This is a personal entry. Which is not to say that the previous posts here weren’t — it’s just that most of VIVID’s analytical pieces are still tinged with the affectations of my professional training as a journalist. In full force, these produce the high-minded style that’s employed in mainstream news formats to create the illusion of objective authority, but that in fact serves to cover up inadequate investigation, the regurgitation of state or corporate propaganda and the mindless reinforcement of destructive social behaviours in the name of advertising profit.
But anyway, that’s another story. Here on VIVID that style is, I hope, less apparent, diluted by time away from the publishing world and weakened by my contempt for the values of the corporate media. Nonetheless, old habits die hard, so it’s taken a while to summon the nerve to write simply as me, with no attempts to sound independent, well-informed or even intelligent.
So: some thoughts and opinions, worth nothing more than anyone else’s thoughts and opinions. Take them or leave them.
Over the last month or two I’ve been contemplating the virtues or otherwise of activism, community work, writing blogs, supporting charitable causes, trying to persuade other people of other ways to think and do things — and whether any of this is worthwhile.
One of the triggers for this reflective phase occurred in November last year, when I walked out of a regional ‘transition’ workshop. The meeting was held to link the environmental groups in the county in which I live, so that they might work together on mutually beneficial projects, share ideas and apply jointly for funding. It was a Saturday afternoon and the town hall was full of friendly, colourful, thoughtful and motivated people with clear views on some of the things that are wrong with our society (most of which I agreed with) and creative ideas about building alternatives.
Why, then, did I slink off before it was finished, disillusioned despite the commitment, demotivated despite the energy? Because at some point I became so overwhelmed by the sense that the entire event was little more than a charade of displacement activity that I couldn’t bear another moment of it.
This was (and is) a personal view, in no way meant as criticism of any of the people or initiatives involved: they had (and still have) my admiration. I appreciate that some good projects will likely come out of their work. But that doesn’t detract from the hunch that most of these projects will be undertaken by a minority of enthusiasts, will be selected because the enthusiasts think they are part of The Answer, will sometimes be foisted on communities whose members don’t care whether they happen or not (or, if they do, may not be in a position to support them) and, either way, will be largely immaterial to the long-term prospects for humanity and other life on the planet.
Movements, projects and initiatives like these, while they do little more than tamper at the edges, look increasingly (to me) like a form of guilt-offsetting. What use are ‘sustainability’ projects in a society that is overwhelmingly unsustainable? What use is a local cycle path network when most people drive to work to earn the money with which to buy food, much of which is driven or flown in from afar? When even the bikes they ride are shipped in from factories far away?
All green is greenwashing
The scale of the initiatives, even where they do improve things, is microscopically small and trivial compared with both the scale of the problems and the depth with which the assumptions leading to them are embedded within our psyches. Until or unless these scales start to match up, in scope and depth, we are deluding ourselves if we think that our eco-activities achieve anything other than a greenwash for our way of life.
I mulled over this pessimistic conclusion as I walked away that day through the throngs of brain-dead Christmas shoppers, despairing of both forms of Saturday afternoon entertainment and doubting that there was any meaningful direction worth devoting my energies to.
That sense prevailed through the coming weeks, and was augmented on a specific and local level, when the concept of projects-foisted-on-communities-that-don’t-care-enough-about-them-or-can’t-support-them came home to roost.
The reason for my presence at the transition network meeting was that two years ago I was instrumental in setting up a sort of eco-resilience group in my village. We had an exhilarating first eighteen months getting various wholesome projects off the ground and liberating as much of the latent energy for change that it’s possible to liberate — and surely find — in a small village. We ended up with a newsletter, a garden share scheme, domestic energy surveys, a revamped parish plan, reskilling courses, a summer festival and — the jewel in the crown — a cooperatively-owned, community shop specialising in fresh local food. Look, we thought: things can change.
Six months down the line and most of the projects are now either forgotten or have made such a negligible impact — improved community bonds notwithstanding — that there is barely any evidence of their effect on the primary activities of the majority of the community, with the exception of the shop, which has offered a valuable service, employment for local people and a focal point for the village. However, even the shop has since hit hard times. As the recession bit and many of its prices moved out of reach for an increasing number of customers, sales plummeted and, this month, two out of the three members of staff were made redundant.
The interesting thing about this recent, challenging episode with the shop (which is far from over) has been the way in which it has appeared to divide the community, rather than unite it. Of course, in reality it simply threw into relief divisions that were already there. People were overheard saying that the shop wasn’t for them anyway: “too posh”. Others complained that it was no longer stocking the smoked salmon mousse and had gone downhill. Yet others thought the committee — comprised entirely of volunteers — had done the paid staff a disservice by working them to the bone and then laying them off. It seemed that some of us were seen as middle-class do-gooders, our well-meaning intentions mistaken for meddling, our decision-making responsibilities mistaken for superiority, our calls to action mistaken for condescension.
Whatever the misapprehensions, there are lessons to be learned from the outcomes. If the village can’t sustain a shop that sells expensive local cheeses and home-cured bacon because they’re too expensive for most; if the shop can’t supply the village with bread, eggs and vegetables at supermarket prices because they don’t make enough profit; if the village can’t muster enough volunteers to work at the shop because everyone’s already working their arses off trying to earn a living, then perhaps the whole idea of that shop in that village was misplaced from the outset, socially as well as financially. It’s not the fault of the committee for trying, nor the fault of the villagers for being put off by pricey products (and I speak for both sides here, being both committee member and villager struggling to make a self-employed living). It’s that in terms of the wider context – i.e. our society, with its inequitable economic, social and working structures — the balance is tipped strongly against initiatives like this.
Of course, our shop may still pull through, thanks to the committed efforts of many dedicated people, and I hope it does. But the primary lesson to be taken from its struggles, which for me is all the more real because it is understood from experience not just hypothesis, is this: while local initiatives and eco-projects remain the business of those with the ‘spare’ resources and time to invest in them, they will only ever be bourgeois activities. As long as the broader context precludes any other way of working, such intitiatives, even if they survive, will make little or no contribution to wider change.
The reality is stark: either we find a way to build real communities — in which everyone is free to work together in the collective interest of everyone, without the divisive elements of perceived class difference, private property ownership or the draining distractions of pointless external work demands that many of us must meet to service our ever pressing debts — or we are pretending.
Making a living or making life?
And pretending I do believe we are. Not only do eco-projects smack of bourgeois patronage, it’s clear that any culture in which the means of making a living for most people is diametrically opposed to the needs of a healthy planet is a culture with a problem so enormous that it will not be solved by piecemeal project work. For the vast majority of us, day-to-day employment is, directly or indirectly, so destructive to the living world that we have to think of ways of compensating for that destruction, hiding it, off-setting it or correcting it.
While most people might not know or care to think about this, eco-activists both know and care, yet convince themselves that the issue can somehow be circumvented by myriad good intentions. This is the source of my disillusionment. I suspect we all might stand a better chance of making a difference if we dropped the projects and united in action on this issue alone, perhaps by trying to catalyse a workers’ revolution, not for more pay or sociable hours, but for work with a better purpose.
Without a radical approach such as this, all our attempts to prettify the edges of our society with eco-projects are, in my view, worse than just a self-deluding waste of time and energy: they play a part in allowing the destruction to continue. Why? Because every such initiative provides a comforting blanket of denial for its participants by creating the sense that they are fulfilling some worthwhile purpose in their spare time, which takes the edge off their carrying on with the work of destruction during their paid hours.
The reality is that all activists, protesters, hippie-style dressers, alternative types, wholefood eaters, part-time smallholders, festival goers, campaigners and eco-group convenors, as long as they are in this culture, also have no choice but to make their living, or live off others who make or have made their living, or run their finances, in ways that somewhere, somehow, interfere with land, air, water or other lives in an unsavoury way.
(There are some exceptions, including for example those working to liberate the land from private ownership and sustainably feed local wild and human communities from it.)
This means that those of us trying to make change happen in our spare time are effectively standing against what we do in our working time. Yet if it came to the crunch, we would protect our livelihoods with more urgency than our principles. We are lost.
Because of all of this and more I have, for now, abandoned group activities, eco-brainstorming, energy descent workshops and ethical campaigning. I intend, as much as possible, to disengage from these problem-solving activities because they come from the mentality of our culture. As long as we operate mentally from within this culture, it feels dishonest to think we can challenge it.
It would be interesting if all campaigners did this: stopped, went home, and considered what we are really doing with our time and our ideas. Striving to be true to ourselves would seem to be a sensible first goal; halting the pretence of organising against something ‘other’ when we were all along organising against ourselves might offer a sign that this goal was being approached.
Disband the charities
And while we’re at it, why not disband all the charities campaigning for environmental causes. Let’s just stop our subscriptions and convince them no longer to take part in the thankless, pointless business of going head-to-head with the culture that they (we) all embody and create. Then the other half of this same culture, the so-called ‘evil, resource-sucking’ corporate world, the part that keeps the environmentalists housed, fed, supplied with paper for their brochures and computers for their online petitions, the other half of us, in other words: that half will have to view the world by itself, without being able to outsource the job of caring for the planet, without that critical parent breathing down its neck, providing it with something to kick back against, a reason to remain childish.
If it wants to, if we want to, we will go ahead and destroy the living world anyway. My thought for today is: at least let’s do it without pretending we’re trying not to. At least let’s be honest.
Is there a chance that such a shedding of illusions could inspire enough of us to actively not want to destroy the living world after all? Turning around this juggernaut of our culture would be a tall order: it would require millions to be mobilised in a revolt against their livelihoods. To stand any hope, every charity and campaign group would have to be marshalled to the cause, itself too much to expect, since they too would be protesting themselves out of existence.
So if it won’t happen voluntarily, and if the work of protesters, eco-activists and campaigning organisations is immaterial beyond small, temporary victories, it seems we are left with only one possible trigger for a cultural inversion: the coming economic and ecological collapse.
In which case, what to do with our energies and good intentions in the meantime, assuming we have any left over after the processes required to stay alive and well?
This is the point at which I have arrived. I don’t know the answer. My thinking today, muddled though it is, has settled on the need to identify my own values, to accept that they evolve, and to be as true to them in real time as possible. What that means is not yet clear. I’d rather do one thing wholeheartedly than lots of things half-heartedly. I’d rather aim for a life in which none of my activities contradicts any other than accept a life in which one part of me is always compromised. I suspect that, ultimately, I’ll need to step outside this culture, geographically, psychologically, economically, or all three, to achieve this.
On a more mundane note, I’m also considering what useful things we could leave future generations lucky enough to survive the collapse. At the moment — other than a healthy biosphere since we’ve gone way beyond that — my inclination is to leave for my children and theirs (if they survive) a description of my take on the factors that led us here, in the hope that it helps them avoid the mistakes of their forbears. It need be no more than an account of how and why we trashed the place, including why we lost our marbles, which of us lost the most marbles and why those same people (men, mainly, hooked on power and violence) ended up running the show, how we got high on consumerism, which social structures and cultural beliefs enabled us to duck responsibility for our actions and lose self-respect, and what we wished we’d done instead.
It would also be good if we could leave behind examples of other ways of being, especially communities, both new and old, that know how to orientate their means of making a living so that they revere and support rather than dismiss and destroy the natural cycles of life. (I find it hard to know how to work towards this bit without tribal campaigning charities and eco-villages though, so at this point I struggle with my line that such activities are pointless. And yet, I don’t think they will work as long as they originate from the culture of empire. What will? Again, I don’t know.)
I have one more idea. It’s off-the-wall, but perhaps it could help with the job of leaving a legacy for future generations and at the same time — of particular interest to me at the moment — provide a mechanism for temporarily transporting the conscious mind out of this culture.
The mechanism would be a radical, new decision-making framework that would offer an alternative to the so-called rational processes that currently determine our actions. The idea is to provide a guide for anyone (like me) fumbling towards a more meaningful way forward yet struggling to throw off the occluding morés of civilised thinking. The purpose of the framework would be to throw out common assumptions and goals, to redefine wealth, winning and progress, to ensure that love, life, wisdom and beauty were prioritised in all decisions, and to help anyone who uses it to liberate themselves from the artificial, perceived conditions that constrain their decisions, instead catapulting them into an exciting new cosmic adventure – their lives without the shackles.
It’s another tall order, since it likely cannot be created by someone (for example, me) within the culture. Perhaps I can find someone outside it to help.
And yes, it’s mad. So I might have a go at it, just for fun. If I get anywhere, the results may be the subject of a future post here. If there is one.