God spaketh, but why? Part 3: Tough times

I encourage all of us, whatever our beliefs, to question the basic narratives of our world, to connect past developments with present concerns, and not to be afraid of controversial issues”.

So begins Sapiens: a brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari [1]. As mentioned in Part 1, Harari argues that some 70,000 years ago, modern humans (Homo sapiens) underwent a ‘cognitive revolution’, which enabled stories to be told, and without those stories no mass-scale human cooperation could have taken place. In the previous post, we went right back to the evolution of H. sapiens and then considered what it must have been like to survive as glaciations ebbed and flowed, and to witness the emergence of new ways of living on the land. In this post, we’ll consider the period between 300,000 years ago, when H. sapiens evolved, and 70,000 years ago, when Harari’s Cognitive Revolution took place. I am sure that Harari’s research was a lot more rigorous than Google and Wikipedia, but a helpful table of Homo species [2] suggests that 70,000 years ago, H. sapiens would have shared the world with H. erectus, H. neanderthalensis, H. tsaichangensis and H. floresiensis. Of course, these species may never have met and I reckon the details of this story will emerge in coming decades as technology advances and new discoveries are made. The main point is that today only H. sapiens remains.

It has not been easy to classify early humans [2] (hominins [3]), not least because bone fragments for some species can be few and far between, and they are found at various locations in time and space. From the aforementioned table of Homo species, it seems that H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis, H. naledi, H. hodesiensis and H. erectus were also present 300,000 years ago, when modern humans (H. sapiens) emerged. So what happened between the evolution of modern humans and Harari’s Cognitive Revolution?

As ever, Wikipedia had an entry on the timeline of human pre-history [4]. While I accept that academia would not consider Wikipedia an acceptable source, and rightly so, for the lay-person, like me, it’s a good starting point. That doesn’t mean it’s right. For a start, the Wikipedia page still refers to the first appearance of Homo sapiens in Africa 200,000 years ago; new research has pushed that back to 300,000 years ago [5]. And the figure will no doubt change again. That’s what science is all about. As Professor of Maths at Warwick University, Ian Stewart said in 2013 on BBC Radio 4’s Life Scientific [6], “science is the best defence against believing what we want to”. But that’s for a future post.

Let’s assume Wikipedia is rigorous enough for now. The Middle Paleolithic broadly spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago [7], so this is the period in which story telling eventually developed as a skill. The Eemian was the ‘last’ interglacial period, the most recent being the Holocene which extends to the present day. This Eemian warm period began about 130,000 years ago and ended about 115,000 years ago [8]. According to the “Out of Africa” theory [9], the first wave of migration of H. sapiens took place around the same time but they seem to have died out or retreated. A second dispersal took place after the Toba super-volcano eruption, which occurred about 75,000 years ago in present-day Sumatra, Indonesia.

Toba is one of the Earth’s largest known eruptions and the Toba catastrophe theory holds that this event caused a global volcanic winter of six to ten years and possibly a 1,000-year-long cooling episode. In 1993, science journalist Ann Gibbons posited that a population bottleneck occurred in human evolution about 70,000 years ago, and she suggested that this was caused by the Toba eruption [10]. Could language have been key to people surviving? Did this natural disaster catalyse the Cognitive Revolution, selecting for those with superior communication skills?

The astute reader may notice that a bottleneck also appeared in the last post: “from around 195,000 to 123,000 years ago, harsh climate conditions are thought to have reduced H. sapiens numbers from 10,000 to just a few hundred. One theory is that these early modern humans survived this Ice Age in caves along the southern coast of Africa [11]”. And I’m sure our early ancestors lived through many more periods of natural turmoil; they always seemed able to cling onto life, and the next post will look a bit more closely at where people survived when winter became the norm rather than a season.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal [12], amongst other things, and is merely dabbling with thoughts here. All comments and corrections gratefully received as, to answer Percy’s question, I am researching this as I go. Sadly, hyperlinks continue to be a thing of the past.

1. http://www.ynharari.com/book/sapiens/
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo#Hominina
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hominini
4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_human_prehistory
5. https://phys.org/news/2017-09-modern-humans-emerged-years.html
6. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03b0wmj
7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Paleolithic
8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eemian
9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recent_African_origin_of_modern_humans
10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toba_catastrophe_theory
11. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-the-sea-saved-humanity-2012-12-07/
12. http://www.reforestingscotland.org/publications/journal/

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God spaketh, but why? Part 2: Days of ice

This blog is somewhere more reliable than my memory for me to collect my thoughts on why we live as we do today – in a world of gross inequality [1] and obscene overconsumption [2]. In part 1 of this new series [3], I asked a bunch of questions around how we define our place in the world. To come up with a credible new narrative, which is vital if we are to survive, it is important to consider how the old one arose.

So there we were, Homo sapiens, living in harmony with the life around us. Then something changed. In an effort to control nature, perhaps to generate more certainty, we cut back on hunting and foraging to provide for our community’s needs, and settled down to grow food locally and in amounts that provided a surplus – just in case. Perhaps, in some places, our hunting and gathering alone was enough to impoverish an area, making settled agriculture a necessity if starvation was to be avoided. This shift from hunter-gatherer to pastoralist and beyond took place all over the world and at different points in time. But here, we’re considering the first time.

Based on archaeological evidence, we believe that the first settled agricultural communities originated by the early 9th millennium BCE [4] in an area known as the Fertile Crescent (a region in the Middle East which curves, like a quarter-moon shape, from the Persian Gulf, through modern-day southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and northern Egypt) [5, 6]. It is worth remembering that the job of archaeologists and anthropologists is never easy when investigating those who lived with such a light ecological footprint that little remains of their societies and ways of life. But the ancient countries of the region, such as Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, and Phoenicia, are regarded as some of the world’s earliest complex societies and they did leave a footprint.

What must it have felt like to witness that change, to live in a world of connections and abundance, only for others to appear, with new ideas, who tried to tame, if not destroy, your gods? Like Daniel Quinn [7], I reckon the dawn of agriculture was the ‘fall of man’ referred to in religious writings from the Holy Lands. We stopped trusting the gods (of nature) to provide as even in a land of plenty, they were too fickle and unreliable, and we replaced them all with a single deity. A pattern that would repeat itself over and over again as domination, exploitation and hierarchy as a way of living spread across the continents.

The 9th millennium BCE spans the years 8001 to 9000 BCE or 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, if you prefer. But this is not the start of our story. Before civilisations arose, H. sapiens and other hominins [8] lived through glaciations or Ice Ages [9]. As I’ve pondered in the past [10], how did the memory of the ‘days of ice’ shape the stories told by humans? Was the seemingly relentless ebbing and flowing of ice sheets the reason why the environment became something to be conquered rather than revered? Perhaps a vicious streak was essential to survive in such a hostile world? People are usually more peaceable if their needs are met than if they are not, and I’d guess this is quite an ancient trait. But I don’t believe, despite all I see around me, that humans are inherently destructive. How we live is dictated by a story.

Research published on 28 September 2017 suggests that modern humans, H. sapiens, emerged 300,000 years ago [11]. From around 195,000 to 123,000 years ago, harsh climate conditions are thought to have reduced H. sapiens numbers from 10,000 to just a few hundred. One theory is that these early modern humans survived this Ice Age in caves along the southern coast of Africa [12].

As for the most recent Ice Age, which ‘ended’ some 11,700 years ago [13], DNA analysis suggests that Europe was occupied more or less continuously as, for 30,000 years, ice sheets came and went [14]. “Old cultures died and new ones emerged over thousands of years, and the hunter-gatherer populations ebbed and flowed”, according to Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr of Cambridge University. Farming culture apparently arrived in Europe from the Middle East about 8,000 years ago, and it was only then that the structure of European population began to change significantly.

I reckon there were many pockets of people, over the millennia, surviving various environmental calamities in safe places which, once the stories came, would be remembered fondly as paradise or Eden – gardens of God. Obviously climate differs around the globe at any one time. Great civilisations may have flourished in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, but northern latitudes would still be a bit chilly. One thing we know is that human beings were well and truly modern during the last Ice Age, and living all over the world. Then came a new era of climatic warming and stability, albeit with some noteworthy floods as ice sheets collapsed [15]. Imagine the stories!

In the next post, we’ll consider what happened between 300,000 years ago, when modern humans evolved, and 70,000 years ago, when Yuval Noah Harari’s Cognitive Revolution [16] took place.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal [17], amongst other things, and is well aware that many people have dedicated their lives to studying history and anthropology, while she is merely dabbling. All comments and corrections gratefully received. Hyperlinks and image will be added to this post when WordPress sorts itself out! In the meantime:

1. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/what-makes-a-fair-society/
2. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/ignoring-the-signs/
3. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2017/11/08/god-spaketh-but-why-part-1/
4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Era
5. https://www.britannica.com/place/Fertile-Crescent
6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertile_Crescent
7. http://www.ishmael.org/origins/DQ/
8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo#Hominina
9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_glaciation
10. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/when-worlds-collide/
11. https://phys.org/news/2017-09-modern-humans-emerged-years.html
12. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-the-sea-saved-humanity-2012-12-07/
13. https://www.livescience.com/40311-pleistocene-epoch.html
14. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/dna-evidence-proves-that-early-humans-survived-the-last-ice-age-9844877.html
15. https://www.livescience.com/19583-boelling-sea-level-rise.html
16. http://www.ynharari.com/book/sapiens/
17. http://www.reforestingscotland.org/publications/journal/

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God spaketh, but why? Part 1: Such differing values

The day after my last post, BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week was at the Hay Festival for a discussion about why Homo sapiens is so ‘successful’ (their word, not mine!). This programme introduced me to Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, his theory of the Cognitive Revolution, and his captivating book, Sapiens: a brief history of humankind (2011). I was enthralled by the idea that our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers required a brain that could create and believe in fiction, a skill thought to have appeared some 70,000 years ago. Harari argues that all mass-scale human cooperation is based in the belief of fictional entities such as gods, nations, human rights and money.

I liked the way Harari’s mind worked: nations, money, human rights and, yes, religions are all stories we create to make sense of the world around us, and to maintain social order – don’t forget that important part of the puzzle. Why do these stories dominate today? Why does our story no longer teach that the environment sustains each and every one of us? When did certain groups of humans decide that they were not just able to understand and anticipate nature but were above it, able to control it, that it was theirs to do what they liked with? In short, God spaketh, but why?

Homo sapiens, like all life on Earth, evolved to live sustainably and connected to nature. We did so for many thousands of years, and some still do. So why the change in mindset? I reckon we developed the ability to learn from past events, such as floods and famines, through storytelling, before we realised that we could invent a story too, a story of a different future. We had come to understand the world in a way long since forgotten. We created gods and these gods seemed to persist until the dominant culture of the west invaded indigenous lands and minds.

In his series, Living with the gods, historian Neil MacGregor considers gifts to the gods. He tells of the indigenous Muisca people, who lived high in the Andes, in what is now Colombia, and thrived between 600AD and European contact. Part of their belief system was to consign highly-wrought gold figurines to the waters of Lake Guatavita to appease their gods and restore balance. “The Muisca believed that human beings were an integral part of the environment and they all live in an ecology of different relationships”, says Jago Cooper, curator of the South American collection at the British Museum, in a way that made it sound unusual. Didn’t all indigenous peoples believe this? And, over the years, in true European style, once rumours spread that these daft natives were throwing gold away, the lake was plundered, including a final piece of genius – drain the lake and see what’s there! A world such as this, where gold was tossed into a lake, a world without money, was inconceivable to the Europeans. Such differing values; for the Muisca the ‘value’ of gold was “tied up with ensuring peaceful equilibrium in the landscape and the cosmos, which meant surrendering forever things so glimmeringly attractive”. This was indeed a sacrifice, to forego the pleasure of admiring a glittering thing of beauty. Yet the Muisca were trading people, living in a reasonably complex society. They kept their gods until the Europeans came.

Meanwhile, Neil MacGregor explains that back in Europe, records of the treasures stored in the Parthenon, Athens, dating from around 400BC, reveal numerous gifts for the goddess Athena – gifts with a double role. The Parthenon was also a kind of central bank, capable of operating as a lender of last resort, creating an intimate connection between the temple of a goddess and the finance of the state. Muisca gold offerings were gone forever, as far as the Muisca were concerned; Greek gold was a gift to the gods as long as they didn’t need it back! It is this change from respecting and appeasing the gods, on the understanding that they were the driving force behind the natural world, that seems to change how we view ourselves in the world. The original story of how we should live could not withstand the new story of domination, exploitation and hierarchy. Time for another new story.

As the astute reader may notice, it’s been two-and-half years since I last posted. That’s not because nothing noteworthy happened! Focus, that’s my problem. So, in an attempt to write shorter and more regular blogs, I shall consider how the dominant story of settled agriculture came to be and how we might change the story again, to one more likely to persist. In the next post, we’ll go back to the beginning in the Fertile Crescent.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and is Secretary of a local Community Trust. Mandy is well aware that many people have dedicated their lives to studying history and anthropology, while she is merely dabbling. All comments and corrections gratefully received.

Posted in Civilisation | Tagged , | 2 Comments

When Worlds Collide

In this blog, I consider Climate Justice and the task of reconciling indigenous beliefs with those of the dominant culture. It started life as part of a piece of work which I knew had become too ‘radical’ for its purpose but I couldn’t just delete it, so here I am, almost a year later, with another blog. For Percy.

The crux of climate justice, or indeed any aspect of environmental and social justice, is how one views humanity’s place within the global ecosystem (aka ‘the world’). Definitions of ‘climate justice’ and ideas for how it may be achieved fall either side of a fundamental schism; a split we’ve been aware of for centuries but are unable to accept, let alone repair. Regardless of their origin, the words attributed to Chief Seattle regarding the strange concept of buying land and the sacred nature of all life resonate with indigenous peoples the world over. But not with ‘us’.

From the wonderful Gary Larson

From the wonderful Gary Larson

In essence, does the earth belong to humanity, or humanity to the earth? Is the planet ‘private property’ or ‘global commons’. Did we evolve here on Earth over millions of years or were we created by ‘God’ a few thousand years ago to use all of nature’s bounty? We are in the realm of beliefs and perceptions, cultural biases and blindfolds but unless we can find some way to agree on these fundamental questions, all the activism in the world won’t stimulate ordered change.

Rate of change
It is generally agreed amongst the scientific community that our climate is changing and emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as how we use the land and the oceans, are contributing significantly to this change. There’s nothing new about life leading to global change; plants spewed out tonnes of poisonous oxygen and destroyed the anoxic world in which they came to be some two billion or more years ago. Some argue that humans are doing similar and this is just a new stage in Earth history – the so-called Anthropocene. Earth systems are dynamic but in balance. Change is always accommodated in one way or another, but beyond a certain rate of change ecosystems will collapse rather than adapt in a seamless transition. And I don’t think the plants ‘knew what they were doing’!

Civilisation as we know it has come about, in part, thanks to the relatively stable global climate experienced since the last Ice Age ‘ended’ some 12,000 years ago. With the retreat of the ice, forest cover extended north, as did people. As the climate remained relatively stable, and depending on how rich an environment one found oneself in, some people began to grow some foods while still hunting for and gathering others – all food for the community. Over time, from place to place, people settled down as they were able to grow their food close to where they lived, and use the time not spent migrating to improve their lives in some way; perhaps specialising in activities other than growing food but which still benefitted the community. Making pots and clothes, or healing the sick – definitely not helping with tax returns. Improving your life and the lives of those around you is a good thing. This could be called ‘progress’. But attempts to control nature in this way will, in some cases, have failed. If too many people have forgotten the outmoded hunter-gatherer ways, the community may no longer know what’s safe to eat nor have the skills to hunt.

For how long did the memory of the ‘days of ice’ remain in the stories told by early settled farmers? When did the environment become something to be feared rather than revered? It is impossible to know what happened to stimulate a shift in culture from living in balance with nature to not just controlling, but dominating nature. Once traditional skills are lost (or insufficient to produce what’s needed), communities become dependent on food grown by others. Food which must be purchased if it is not freely given. A hierarchy evolved, and wealth became attainable by those who owned the food, or controlled its production and distribution in some way. Life became easier, so we’re told; more comfortable in harsh climates, less reliant on the vageries of nature. Meanwhile, kings could build pyramids and collect non-edibles such as gems and gold. Gone were the days of the ‘leader’ having essentially the same things as the rest of his tribe; leadership no longer implied wisdom.

For the common good?
Inequity was the topic of my last post and I believe it was born when communities stopped being able to feed themselves and had to buy food from others. To buy, one needs money or some tradable good. Ways were found to store food, but grain piles now belonged to someone – they were no longer a common good grown by the community for the community. In a particularly Machiavellian twist, those adhering to this new (unjust) way of life attested that it is the ‘only’ way to live and set about destroying other cultures. There is no one way to live – the myth that there is and we’re it is the first major barrier to change.

Moving forward in time, the Bali Principles of Climate Justice (PDF here) were produced in 2002 and state, amongst other things, that “combating climate change must entail profound shifts from unsustainable production, consumption and lifestyles, with industrialized countries taking the lead” and “this unsustainable consumption exists primarily in the North, but also among elites within the South”. The Bali Principles come from representatives of indigenous people’s movements together with activist organisations working for social and environmental justice.

The first principle is, “Affirming the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, Climate Justice insists that communities have the right to be free from climate change, its related impacts and other forms of ecological destruction.” It is hardly surprising that little, if any, change has taken place in the industrialised countries to this effect because the culture of these countries does not see ‘Mother Earth’ as being ‘sacred’. Those who do not live intuitively with the land do not understand the interconnectedness of all species – it’s just ‘woo-woo’; not founded on good scientific evidence (which must really piss off the ecologists). The dominant narrative in the industrialised countries is that other species are ours to use as we see fit and our way of life is the only way. Yet those at the bottom of the (human) hierarchy are insisting that those at the top give up some of their wealth, their comforts, for reasons that make no sense to them. Never gonna happen! Unless we alter that narrative.

The Bali Principles also state that “Climate Justice requires that we, as individuals and communities, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources, conserve our need for energy; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles, re-thinking our ethics with relation to the environment and the Mother Earth; while utilizing clean, renewable, low-impact energy; and ensuring the health of the natural world for present and future generations.” How can this be reconciled with an economic system which fundamentally requires people to consume more and more of the Earth’s resources, which has to grow inexorably, and which has never had fairness at its heart? These are the questions NGOs usually fail to answer and politicians rarely think about, let alone discuss. Although Naomi Klein’s “This changes everything” might go some way to changing our blind acceptance that capitalism is the only way to live. Let’s face it, it’s not even working if you bother to look.

Back to the Stone Age
That’s the refrain we hear, those of us who even dare question endless population and economic growth. If we do not alter our behaviour and live in a more fair and sustainable way, our systems of industry, agriculture and finance will collapse. Maybe not this year, maybe not this century but they will fail. How long do you think would be long enough to transition away from this lifestyle which causes climate change to one which won’t? How long to alter global energy infrastructure to end fossil fuel reliance? All whilst keeping most people employed, of course.

People living in the ‘Stone Age’, neolithic hunter-gatherers and farmers, grew up with all the skills they needed to make their livelihood. They knew how to feed and shelter themselves and how to make all the tools they needed for this task from what grew around them. How many readers could make a simple fork from scratch, let alone provide all their own food? The Stone Age would be a picnic compared to the chaos which would reign if the just-in-time delivery of monocrops and junk food failed to fill the supermarket shelves. Demanding fundamental social change such as is required to achieve climate justice will fall on deaf ears because industrial capitalism is treated as destiny, the one and only way to live.

In today’s conflict-ridden world, those with least power are feeling the effects of climate change already. Billions will be spent on trying to adapt but in whose interest will this adaptation be? The same authoritarian power structures that caused climate change are shaping the response to it – to protect themselves. Who will be locked out of the climate-proofed gated communities of the future?

On failure of COP
It is time that all people understand why the efforts to mitigate the climate crisis have failed to date, what needs to be done now and how the social transformation which will bring about the necessary changes works. Brian Tokar’s “Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change” aims to counter misinformation about climate change and ‘solutions’ such as carbon trading, biofuels and nuclear energy. Rather than being lured by ‘green capitalism’ and technological fixes, Tokar urges us to build a social movement that reaches to the roots of the crises. He urges us to completely transform society so that it is more about creating non-hierarchical communities based on interdependence in which everyone’s basic needs are met. Tokar (more here) provides clear insight into the failures of the United Nation’s COP process and the rise of the global climate justice movement led by those on the front lines of the climate crisis.

Some argue that the seeds of that new society are here, as witnessed in the Occupy movement (it may not be visible so much now but the people and their grievances remain) and the People’s Climate March on 21 September 2014. We are all needed in this move towards climate justice but unless we agree on humanity’s place in the world, and reconcile indigenous beliefs with those of the dominant culture, we’re on a hiding to nothing.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and is a climate justice researcher. She’s also read quite a bit of Daniel Quinn.

Posted in Civilisation, Climate Change, Food | Tagged , | 2 Comments

What Makes a Fair Society?

In early May, I received a notification from LinkedIn. What made this work-a-day event unusual is that it’s the first useful thing LinkedIn has come up with since I joined over 5 years ago. A chap called Simon Marriott, a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts, was soliciting opinion on the matter of growing socio-economic inequality across the world. The collection is to be published online by The Society for Curious Thought. Not sure when that might happen but given my inability to blog for months on end, I thought I’d pop what I wrote here. (It did happen but without the footnotes, which appear as links in this version). The project has links with Ragged, which seems interesting too.

In short, equity makes a fair society. Equity involves trying to understand and give people what they need (as opposed to want) to enjoy full, healthy lives. Equality, in contrast, aims to ensure that everyone gets the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives. Like equity, equality aims to promote fairness and justice, but equality can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same things, which is not the case.

A breakthrough might come when we see ourselves as all one species (as well as just one species), each member of which is as important as the next. We tend to care more about our contemporaries than about ‘others’ – in a fair society, there is no ‘other’. Take one of those ‘needs’ – food. Today, as many people are overweight as are malnourished, and in the ‘west’ you can be both at the same time. Go, progress! In 2013, food banks fed 913,138 people across Britain, over a third of whom were children. This is no fair society, and that’s in the so-called developed world.

Many cultures have lived and developed in ways that persisted for millennia – they were sustainable. Hierarchical behaviour was not known among hunter-gatherers, but once humans settled down and started accumulating property for agriculture, hierarchy became more the norm. This, I believe, was the dawn of inequality, when we left the Garden of Eden. Consider Christian texts in the context of the indigenous people of the day and ‘the fall of man’ makes a bit more sense.

So what drives the destruction of sustainable cultures in the name of progress? What dictates that indigenous people should become ‘civilised’? I am not being romantic about the joys of forest-dwelling and subsistence agriculture but we have to ask why it is that the only people left who truly understand how to live sustainably are being told that how they live is wrong, backwards – Stone Age. We have to ask why ‘progress’ is more important to us than their survival. Why is it that people are removed from their land so that ‘we’ can extract natural resources (unsustainably, of course), only to move on once that land has given up its treasures? Unless we can answer questions like these, then talking about what makes a fair society is just an academic exercise. As Chomsky might say, “who decides?”

Consider the recently-landless – those generations who don’t remember how they used to live, but nor have they found a way to live well in the degraded landscape they are now stuck with. Millions could be lifted from poverty by rural electrification using decentralised renewables, for example – but where’s the profit in that? Can a capitalist society be fair? Can industrialism be sustainable? And development for all? There’s no point wanting to ‘make poverty history’ without also addressing the other end of the spectrum. Why isn’t there a ‘make millionaires history’ campaign?Make Millionaires History small

This ‘fast-track to oblivion’ approach is not ‘just human nature’ for it is not a trait of all human beings. It is a trait of certain human beings who benefit from having the rest of us stuck on a treadmill of work (if it’s not been outsourced), debt and tabloid media. We fail to even notice the smoke and mirrors, let alone see through them. The fear of being rendered jobless or homeless – worthless – is essential for our complicity in this charade called civilisation. That and the ‘dream’ of joining the wealthy, whether via hard graft or the lottery.

Like Gail Tverberg, I used to think it was just the energy of fossil fuels which allowed our population to rise so dramatically over the last 200 years. However, Gail introduced me to another aspect: globalisation has effectively eliminated territorial boundaries. Yes, there are still wars – the economy needs wars, just like it needs fashion, luxury items and waste – but we no longer limit our population to what our environment can provide for sustainably. Without sustainability there can be no equity because this isn’t just about the here and now – future generations come into this too.

In a fair society, limits need to be the basis for every decision we make, business or otherwise. As economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen put it in 1975, “Will mankind listen to any program that implies a constriction of its addiction to exosomatic comfort? Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short but fiery, exciting, and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful, and vegetative existence…” Destiny aside, which is more fair?

Caption: Graffiti under a bridge near Kennington, Oxford on the Thames. If I knew who had created it, I would credit them. I first used the phrase years ago and Googled to see if there was a campaign. Sadly nothing but various images of the slogan. I’ve started #makemillionaireshistory as a hashtag on Twitter and made it my Twitter image. I’ve (early 2016) managed to get a paper published which raises and defends the phrase. Think about it – how else can we bring people out of poverty on a finite planet?

Posted in Civilisation, Growth | 3 Comments

Speaking the unspeakable

Monday 16 September (2013) was the deadline for submissions to the little-discussed draft Deregulation Bill, which threatens to put “a duty on persons exercising certain regulatory functions to ‘have regard’ to the desirability of ‘promoting economic growth’.” The Bill is intended to reduce the burden of regulation on business, civil society and individuals but is also a classic example of the entrenched economic narrative regarding growth. I’m not convinced the Committee will pay heed to my contribution focusing, as it does, on fundamentals like energy returns. But after hearing Tim Jenkins of nef give a great session on the urgent need for a new economic narrative two days later, I was glad I did.

After a 10-month absence, on Friday I finally posted to the excellent Social Reports’ site again, this time on the issue of involving the wider public and making a breakthrough. “A fundamental change took place in society because the ‘truth’ of the civil rights movement could no longer be ignored. What has to happen for the truth of the environmental and social justice movements to be heard?”, I mused. As Tim Jenkins said, we have to discredit the old narrative and repeat the new narrative confidently, over and over, at every opportunity. That’s the tricky bit: getting rid of the old narrative of perpetual economic growth and ever-accumulating wealth – even in this era of resource depletion and ecosystem loss. It’s difficult because it works for those in power today who are unlikely to give it up without a fight.

The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds
John Maynard Keynes (1935)

The best analogy I’ve heard for our current reality is that of Wile E. Coyote flapping his arms, hoping for flight, long after having run off the edge of the cliff. Fossil fuels are a vast, one-off bank of energy which we have drained in the pursuit of industrial capitalism. In just 15 decades, we’ve gone from an abundance of cheap and easy shallow onshore reserves of good quality oil to kiddding ourselves that tar sand oil and shale gas are just the same as conventional oil & gas. Flap!

The energy bank is now struggling to pay out what we require to keep growth economics growing. Flap, flap! We refuse to reduce energy demand (for that’s what’s needed, not just reducing carbon emissions) and we carry on hoping for some technological breakthrough. But technology uses energy, it doesn’t create it. Uh-oh! All renewable devices have a fossil fuel input and it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to know that biofuels grown today can never release an amount of energy comparable to that contained within fossil fuels, which took millions of years to form. At this point, Coyote waves solemnly and plummits.

Society is in a kind of free-fall. We were just beginning to wonder if movements like the Transition Initiative might be onto something when out of nowhere, the mainstream decided that peak oil was a myth. I’ve no time to expand on that just now but you can read my thoughts on page 8 of Greenprint.

We have to understand what makes people tick and that is their perceptions of the world. For several generations now, the marketing machine has been manipulating our minds, our common sense, our perception of the world to the point that we now think a TV and diet Coke are human rights. This is what we have to counter – our whole cultural narrative, which still wants to ‘civilise’ those without industry and electricity. I’m not denying that bringing electric light to the developing world provides huge advances in education, health, women’s rights – of course it does. But what’s being talked about isn’t localised schemes, built from local materials by local people and potentially sustainable. It’s a continuation of the system which builds centralised coal-fired power stations and thinks they’re somehow clean if you toss a bunch of trees in there too.

Unlike Coyote, we can make the landing softer – IF we accept the laws of physics and work to change how we live. A shock can sometimes bring us to our senses but I fear we may hit the ground first.

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Protecting nature from ourselves

On Monday, I went to a training course on using WordPress. I was really looking forward to learning how to add images (nae laughing!) and what I did wrong when trying to add a Twitter button. Sadly, time did not allow for this but it did make me think I should dust off the Cheery Pessimist and at least say hello to the 2 people with an RSS feed!

My problem is time – I do not know how people find the time to write. Or to garden. Or to cook. Or to visit friends. Yeah, my problem is myself! Anyhoo, I found myself commenting on a blog so the least I can do is cut & paste it here. Then at least I’ve managed 2 posts this year.

Having a wee break from reviewing climate justice papers (so interesting yet so depressing!), I had a look at Twitter and came across a tweet on wilderness, which led the this blog. Which stimulated the following stream of thought…

This debate seems to be another example of disagreement stemming from perceptions – what we see people as being. Surely it’s not whether any people live on a piece of land, it’s what they do to that piece of land in order to live on it that matters. Do they destroy every obviously useful ecosystem and then move on, or do they live in ecological balance with it for generations – millennia, even?

Our problem is that we don’t seem able talk honestly and openly, rationally even, about what ‘civilisation’ and ‘progress’ are. We won’t accept that nature simply cannot keep giving what we think we need. Economies cannot keep growing – even under the false flag of making poverty history. How about making millionaires history too? Balance up the equation a bit.

I understand and sympathise with both sides of the wilderness argument because neither side gets this fundamental problem of how we live and of what we mean by ‘development’. It’s the same for energy. One side says we absolutely need renewables while the other says they cannot replace fossil fuels. Both are right but they rarely slap their foreheads and give each other a hug as they rush off to radically reduce their energy demand.

John Muir came from a time before oil, before huge opencast mines and mountain-top removal, before extinction rates and pollution were understood. Back in the days when our own bees could pollinate crops and most people knew how to feed themselves. When Muir was born, only a billion people walked the Earth & most of them lived ‘sustainably’ compared to what we do today. It does make you wonder what he’d think if he saw us today.

That’s another of these areas of disagreement – population. I have no idea if current systems of intensive, fossil-fuelled food production could, theoretically, feed everyone if only we wasted nothing and distribution was fair. I don’t know – reports vary. But I’d bet my arse that such systems cannot be sustained, even if population growth was falling.

It’s our mindset which has to change, our attitude to all people, rich and poor, and to ALL species, not just those we have a use for or which look cute. I long for the day when we don’t have to protect nature from ourselves.

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