The celebrity novelist Jonathan Franzen got it in the neck recently for a piece in The New Yorker which some read as advocating surrender to impending environmental and civilizational collapse. For me, the criticism – see here and here for example – isn’t constructive or relevant. Franzen simply offers an account of one person’s journey towards begrudging acceptance of the way things are heading, and it resonates. Continue reading “Candide’s garden”
Earth Day is a opportunity to think big, as big as a planet, to let our thoughts unfurl into the still lovely expanses of this earth. It is a chance to remember our kinship, all our relations, to this extended family of ours, Life on Earth. It is an opportunity to remember that the most essential thing about us is that we are alive, as animals among animals, connected to plants, winds and rain. And to contemplate what an astonishing blessing and mystery it is to be alive on a living planet. Continue reading “Life on Earth Day”
Fine-mesh netting to stop birds nesting in trees and hedgerows has recently become a thing in the UK. Apparently it’s been going on for a few years in the leafy margins where town merges into countryside. But it seems to have particularly taken off this spring, and photos have been pinging around social media.
Why would anyone stop birds nesting? Well, if you’re a property developer with a planning application pending, you need to make sure any trees and hedgerows you might later want to uproot aren’t home to feathery families. If they are, it’ll be illegal to displace them and that’s going to cost you time and money. So there you go. A sound business rationale for something quite appalling.
This wouldn’t be the foulest trick in the annals of human mistreatment of other creatures, but it seems to have struck a chord with many people. One of those ‘what have we come to?’ moments signalling unease in the collective psyche. Something which draws back the veil on the price that nature pays for society’s glorification of profit. Something which reveals how we distance ourselves not only from the rest of nature but also from our own true nature.
Tangentially related in my mind was a news story from London a few weeks ago. A housing estate south of the river featured a notionally communal play area divided by a hedge and wall. On one side, a spacious garden and grounds accessible only to tenants of the estate’s privately owned flats. On the other a narrow strip of playground serving the handful of social housing flats. The development project had been required to include a proportion of social housing units, and communal play provision for small children had been part of the original specification. But now the ‘private’ and ‘social’ children, who wanted to play together, were segregated. So there was a bit of an outcry.
The estate management company embarrassed itself for a few days in the media, defending the indefensible with proprietor’s logic packaged in pathetic PR guff. After all, they asserted, only the private tenants paid the service fees which maintained their children’s VIP play facilities. Yeah but no but. Instinctively we all know that toddlers are exempt from social hierarchy. And in this case, the walls came down. But as it is for toddlers so it should be for the rest of us. Human hierarchies are a social construct, abominable and completely artificial, but like detachment from nature they serve the profit principle well, so we’re stuck with them. Until people suddenly see right through them.
These two stories are linked for me in that they help delineate what it is we’re up against and show me where to direct my energies. I can’t ‘fight’ climate chaos but I will go out of my way to defy the maladaptive hallucinations (to borrow Richard Reese‘s phrase) that have created and are still driving it. And I can do so in the faith that deep down all of us are on the same side. We’re not supreme over nature, we’re not supreme over each other, and we won’t be blinded by the phoney laws of profit. So there.
Found this treatise nailed to the door yesterday without an identified author or return address. Someone has been thinking hard and working hard on where to go from here. I leave it without comment.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to address climate change in terms of policy at the local level, at the smallest organized unit of government for my area, which is the County of Hawaii, encompassing the island of Hawaii. I am not an expert on climate change or climate change policy in any way, shape, or form, but this may well be the mother of all situations where we will need to learn by doing, rather than waiting on expertise that does not yet exist. Continue reading “Climate Change: Do Politics or Do Nothing?”
The drama that unfolded during the last few weeks over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court took many of us on a journey that no one could have predicted, and that became a drama about something much bigger than the Supreme Court. Bigger than party politics, or even right versus left. It became about being heard.
It became, for some of us, about memory, history, and the way we understood our own lives. Continue reading “Not Being Heard”
There is a long struggle ahead of us and the outlines of that struggle just got a little more clear this week, when Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Massachusetts, introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, which is about nothing much less than changing the game. Her legislation calls for corporations that make over $1 billion a year to be formally responsible not just to their shareholders but also to their workers, customers, and communities – which last concept hopefully extends to the environment. This is important because at present the board of directors and the management of corporations are legally bound to maximize economic return. That is the only criteria – other than not breaking the law – with which they are allowed to make decisions. This dictate is the backbone of capitalism as we know it, which is to say a most predatory, ruthless, and myopic kind of capitalism which sooner or later is going to get us all killed.
Of course the spokespersons for the titans of industry and finance say not only is Elizabeth Warren “batty” but also that she is a Communist who must be shut up or all the businesses in America will move to Switzerland ( I kid you not.) Because heaven knows American Capitalism Will Not Survive being responsible for anything but making as much money as possible! Such a fragile flower cannot be asked to clean up its own room or do the dishes.
As the incomparable Charles Pierce puts it:
This is one of the first complete frontal assaults on the economic theories that have ruled American politics in one form or another for the past four decades. It is one of the first substantial efforts to treat the ascendancy of conservative economic ideas as a thoroughgoing blight that must be reversed, and it does so by turning the achievements of which conservative economic ideologues are proudest back on them. Corporate personhood? OK, then we’re going to have corporate jail, too. A rising tide lifts all boats? We’re going to be sure everyone has a seat.
Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act is significant – perhaps even world-historically significant – but her legislation is just one point in a change in the air, in the mood, in a growing awareness. She has brought up into the bright light of the national political debate a simmering knowledge that what we do in pursuit of business success has complex consequences and those consequences are not adequately weighed and measured in the quarterly accounting of profit and loss, of Return On Investment, and Asset Liquidity. The long struggle will be to make this point over and over again – that we all must be responsible to a greater conception of the good and profitable – until it becomes common knowledge and the way we do things.
I tell you what…I’m signing on to her team.
We don’t need more renewable energy to power how we live, but to change how we live so we don’t need that power. – Patrick Noble, https://convivialeconomy.com
There are some writers on the internet that get thousands of clicks and hundreds of comments every week. Generally these writers work hard to build their online community of readers. Their art is that of building a common language.
There are others who don’t have the knack or interest in building their readership. I suspect they are the kind of artist that is fascinated by something on the horizon, something that is not readily visible, and even less readily conveyable. Their art is that of illumination and discovery. Continue reading “Against Complacency: the fierce voice of Patrick Noble”
The community in which Jedek is spoken is more gender-equal than Western societies, there is almost no interpersonal violence, they consciously encourage their children not to compete, and there are no laws or courts. There are no professions either, rather everyone has the skills that are required in a hunter-gatherer community. This way of life is reflected in the language. There are no indigenous words for occupations or for courts of law, and no indigenous verbs to denote ownership such as borrow, steal, buy or sell, but there is a rich vocabulary of words to describe exchanging and sharing.
This is not a fable from a galaxy far, far away. It’s from a study by researchers at Lund University in Sweden. Jedek is spoken by a small community of people in the Malaysian highlands, and the language features described above are not uncommon among cultures not yet swept aside in the civilizational deluge. They are part of our human heritage.
It’s been known since forever that words both reflect and determine how we perceive the world, and what’s more, that it is possible to instrumentalise that tendency of language to determine perceptions. The relevant techniques are routinely learned and applied by advertisers, demagogues, preachers, storytellers and cognitive therapists, to name a few. What is less widely known, though, is the invisible way that a language’s deep-down warrants — what it does and doesn’t permit, what it privileges and what it plays down, what it values and what it disdains — shapes its speakers’ understanding and expectations of other people and themselves.
Now, contemplate for a moment what it means to live within the confines of a language-culture which values ownership and transactional self-interest to the extent that ours does…and wonder what that might do for our capacity to recognise and share our common interests. Our capacity to play, not compete. Our capacity to love.
I’m sure a healthy culture fills minds with a rich vocabulary for sharing, supporting, exchanging, listening and understanding, and offers only a meagre selection of words for those other things, best forgotten. A healthy culture wouldn’t even have words to express esteem for a “great deal”, or for obscene wealth, or for the act of blasting a junk automobile into orbit to attract “likes”, because those would be beyond all possibility of being esteemed.
But back to the speakers of Jedek. Their world is not a utopia and it’s not a new-age fantasy. They’re real people leading normal lives, albeit normal in a way that people from our culture would typically dismiss as less than cultured. But that reflects a deficit in our language and values, rather than in theirs.
As one of the Lund University researchers writes:
There are so many ways to be human, but all too often our own modern and mainly urban societies are used as the yardstick for what is universally human. We have so much to learn, not least about ourselves, from the largely undocumented and endangered linguistic and cultural riches that are out there.
The photo above is William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
“The Second Coming”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
the falcon cannot hear the falconer;
things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
the best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity. Continue reading “Will the Center Hold?”