Resilience and Hope
Talk given at Resilient Future conference, Lincoln, 13 July 2013
I was asked to give this talk as a result of a piece of work that I undertook not long ago for British Quakers. I am aware that this is a very different audience and I hope to be able to address the diversity present here today
Every major system of thought – whether Christianity, Islam, Marxism, Humanism, or any other – contains within it, either explicitly or implicitly, a view of what a human being is, what human society is, and where humanity sits in relation to non-human nature. Karl Marx wrote in 1858:
For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility . . . whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.
He was ahead of his time and what he describes has come to pass in ways beyond anything he could have imagined. The crisis we face now – and I make no apologies for using the word ‘crisis’ – confronts us with a profound challenge to our beliefs about the nature of humanity and to our hopes for planned and deliberate change to the way we live. Whilst climate change is the urgent driver of our current emergency, the issues it raises are about our relationship to the natural world, about economic structures, about social justice and about peace between communities and nations. And similarly I make no apologies for invoking the idea of the ‘spiritual’ in the widest possible sense of that term: the crisis that we are facing is as much a crisis of the human spirit as it is of economics or the use of fossil fuels.
In modern times there have been, arguably, three major crises that have undermined our view of ourselves as rational beings. The first was the carnage of the World War I trenches; the second was the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in the spring 1945, revealing to the world the reality of what had gone on there; the third was the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, facing us with the knowledge of our capacity for terrible, potentially global, destruction. In each of these cases the ‘ordinary person’ could look at the political or military leaders, at what ‘they’ were doing or had done, and blame someone else.
The present situation, the fourth crisis, is different: there is no-one to point the finger at except ourselves. Those of us who live in the rich industrialised West are part of the problem: we who are WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic), just by living, just by getting up in the morning and going about our normal business, we are part of the problem. Even those of us who are working very hard at reducing our carbon emissions are still part of the problem. So we can campaign and protest and seek political change, and we surely need to do all of those things, but we also have to change our own lives in ways that most people have barely glimpsed yet. We cannot rely on technology to enable us to continue with business as usual by other means.
There’s a saying that we don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors but rather we borrow it from our children, and their children’s children. We’re currently borrowing more than can we can pay back, and it’s not only about our carbon emissions. ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ is the point in the year when we’ve used up as much of the Earth’s total resources as the Earth itself can regenerate in a year. Since the late 1980s we’ve been going into eco-deficit each year, progressively degrading the whole environment, with the overshoot day arriving a little earlier each year. The estimate for this year is 22 August; in other words we’re going to spend about 1½ planet’s worth of our environment’s ‘current account’ this year – this is what economists call the structural deficit. We’re spending our natural capital, progressively more year on year; we’re eating our seed-corn. And in the industrialised West we spend, of course, more than this average; we create way more than our numerical share of the deficit. In Britain we spend at the rate of about 3½ planets every year. The problems of financial debt that the global economy is currently struggling with are nothing compared to the ecological debt we are building up. We can’t refinance, default on, or write off ecological debt, and we can’t indulge in quantitative easing – there isn’t another planet we can borrow from, and we can’t create a new environment.
So where do we start with change? First, we can take some advice from the Italian Marxist
Antonio Gramsci. In his letters from prison he wrote: ‘I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.’ We need this combination: pessimism of the intellect, because without it we’re not facing reality; optimism of the will, because without that we are rendered powerless to effect change either in ourselves or in our communities. Optimism of the will is not a casual optimism easily born of a sunny temperament. It is the kind of hope that is born of a conscious choice to take a certain attitude to the future, to decide to act in a certain way, with a certain intent, because we believe that is the right thing to do. It is a bulwark against being blown about by transient emotions or passing enthusiasms. It is a kind of personal discipline, a word that has fallen out of favour but which I believe we need to re-engage with.
So let’s start with the intellectual pessimism. I’m assuming that if you’re here today you don’t need persuading that we face a serious situation but how serious? James Hansen was a senior scientist in NASA who has now retired from his post in order to be able to speak and campaign freely. He was the person who first warned that the ice caps would respond very quickly to global warming, and he was right. The stark message of his most recent book may be summed up as this: the situation is worse than we are being told, ‘your governments are lying through their teeth’, nothing is being done, you can’t ‘compromise’ with nature and the laws of physics; consequently civil resistance may soon be the only way forward – ‘it’s up to you’. This book was published just before the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit and the outcomes of that event, and of subsequent international summits, give us nothing with which to challenge his message.
What do we actually think is going to happen? Our governments are tied to the very short-term electoral cycle and won’t do anything that will harm their prospects of re-election. But the time-scale on which we need to think about sustainability is 100 years and counting. When our global systems are unable to deal with financial debt are they going to tackle ecological debt? When there is money to be made by extracting gas and oil, at whatever environmental cost, is there a realistic chance of deciding to leave it in the ground? Our elected politicians give lip-service to carbon reduction but fail to act decisively. Meanwhile the arm of the state that really believes in the dire consequences of climate change is the military and the secret intelligence services. They believe it, and they believe it’s a serious threat to security. They turn up at all the big climate conferences, both the political summits and the less publicised academic gatherings.
However there is much we can do before we reach Hansen’s scenario of civil resistance, although we may not be able to rule that out. To start with, we need to take personal responsibility for our own behaviour with no get-outs, no excuses. This is optimism of the will in action. It’s all those things we already know about but may not yet have fully implemented in our own lives: insulate our houses; use less gas and electricity; reduce our travelling and change our means of travel; eat less meat (or none at all); reduce all consumption and waste; re-use, repair and recycle everything we can; shop less, shop local; reduce food miles; grow your own; compost food waste; buy without packaging; cook fresh food from scratch instead of buying processed food . . . and so on, and so on, and so on. We know about these things, there’s no excuse. Many of us are already doing some of this, some of the time. We all need to do all of it all of the time, consistently and reliably, forever. I repeat: forever – this isn’t like going on a diet and then having a binge. It boils down to consume less, consume less of everything, consume much less of everything.
These are all decisions we can make individually or by household. Beyond that things start to get a bit more difficult. Beyond our private lives how about tackling the carbon emissions of the places where we work? This might involve us in difficult conversations with management. If we are ‘the management’ then it might involve us in difficult conversations with governors, trustees or shareholders. If we are the governors, trustees or shareholders then it’s time we faced the fact that increased costs or reduced profits in the short term are not an argument for doing nothing.
And then there’s our local area, the place where we live and the local government structures there. Have we got Transition activity already happening? If so, are we involved? If not, can we help to start it? Do we know what our local councillors are doing or not doing about sustainability? Might a few more of us be called to take our values into the public, political arena and stand for election? What about our constituency MPs? We can start holding public figures to account – we all need to be active citizens.
As the effects of climate change and peak oil start to impact significantly on our own, local, lives we’ll need to rely much more on our immediate community. And indeed starting to do that now, before we’re forced to, is one of the ways of reducing carbon emissions caused by the transportation of both goods and people. It also gets us used to new ways of doing things – it’s good practice, in both senses of practice: both habit and rehearsal.
We’ve become accustomed to thinking about ‘peak oil’ and our ‘carbon footprints’ but these are only a beginning. Our next focus should be on ‘peak water’ and our ‘water footprints’. Beyond water, ‘peak wood’, ‘peak food’, ‘peak phosphate’ and ‘peak soil’ all require our attention. Reduced availability and increased price of fossil fuels, water and good land all impact on food production, and ‘food insecurity’ is something we’ll be hearing about with ever greater frequency and urgency.
The concept of eco-justice hasn’t yet made its way into the mainstream public conversation about the environment, but every reduction or saving of resources that we undertake here is an act of solidarity with the poorest people in the developing world, whose lives are already being significantly worsened by climate impacts.
The changes required of all of us, the demands that will be made on humanity, over the next 30 to 50 years, in the lifetimes of ourselves and of our children and grandchildren, are enormous. A few individuals and communities have started to grasp the magnitude of this, but collectively, as nations, as political entities, we haven’t even taken the first step. Beyond recycling, beyond changing our light, bulbs beyond ‘doing our bit’, lies the biggest challenge of humanity’s entire history. This isn’t about guilt and isn’t a matter for self-laceration. It requires intelligence, imagination and cooperation from everyone. These are practical expressions of hope. And one of the things we urgently need to do is to build resilience into our local communities. On the Transition Network website they have what they call their ‘Cheerful disclaimer’. It says:
We truly don’t know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale. What we are convinced of is this: if we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late; if we act as individuals, it’ll be too little; but if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.
Much of Transition activity, while being stimulated by the challenges of peak oil, climate change, and energy descent, is actually directed to the re-creation of local community, in terms of both practical activities together and enhanced relationships. Similarly one of the founders of Incredible Edible Todmorden says: this looks as though it’s about food and about self-sufficiency, but actually it’s about community. And, of course, it is often the case that undertaking a real task together is a deeply effective way of building community relationships.
But what do we mean by ‘community’? Any real sense of community and belonging has to be based on reserves of trust, mutuality and unselfishness: trust that one is not alone, trust that there are others who will help to make life possible. In our individualised, materialistic (‘WEIRD’) Western lives those are qualities fast fading from the norms of everyday life. One thing we do know is that creating and living in community isn’t easy. Most importantly, community isn’t something that other people create so that, I, you, we can then become parasitical on it and reap the benefits. Community only happens when everyone takes part in creating it. If we want our local communities to be more vibrant places then none of us can be a passenger. ‘There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth’, said Marshall McLuhan, ‘We are all crew.’
So what changes passengers into crew? There’s a large field of social research under the heading of ‘bystander apathy’ or ‘bystander intervention’. One of the common factors found among the bystanders who intervened – who assumed responsibility in the situation they happened to find themselves in – was a strong belief that what you do or fail to do does actually make a difference. Our governments will only act when they perceive an electoral benefit in so doing. That will only happen with a widespread change of understanding. Everything we do, everything, to undertake and model a different way of living, is part of the build-up to that. And at the same time those changes we make are part of building a world more resilient to what we will inevitably face if our governments fail utterly. The same trajectory serves both ends simultaneously.
There are many, many reasons for not doing something whereas the one valid reason for doing something is that it’s the right thing to do. It matters what choices we make. Doing a small thing is not doing nothing: if all of us do it, we are powerful. This is an understanding that lies in our cultural heritage, in the original rise of the labour movement in the nineteenth century. It’s an understanding and way of acting, collectively, that we need to breathe life into again in the face of atomised individualism that tells us that we have to stand on our own two feet, alone and unaided, in the face of crushing economic forces.
The critical stage in the process of becoming a ‘bystander who intervenes’ (turning ‘passenger’ into ‘crew’) is the step of choosing to take responsibility. What can help and enable that? I have three pointers to suggest.
First, the rediscovery of the importance of personal discipline (or maybe discovery for the first time). This is vital preparation for the times ahead of us. The point of a discipline lies in what the Buddhists call it: practice. Given that our governments aren’t taking sufficient action, sufficiently quickly, on climate change, and given a worsening global economic environment, we’re all going to face failures of our infrastructure and interruptions to our normal supplies of energy, food, goods and services. So, when temporary glitches cause this to happen now, treat it as practice: that’s in the usual sense of a rehearsal (get used to the idea, get used to handling it and being resourceful), and as a personal mental discipline, leading to equanimity in the face of irritations or worse. Treat everything as practice. We can’t start to create this necessary resilience when things are already difficult, any more than we could run a marathon tomorrow morning if we only started training this afternoon. We have to start now – we all need to be well prepared.
Which brings me to my second pointer: are we, and in what ways, willing to ‘be community’ with and for each other? Being community means being willing to be accountable to each other. Being community, being accountable, means relinquishing some of our individual freedoms, and the benefits to be gained from that can’t become apparent to us until after we’ve taken that first step.
And so to my third pointer: action. ‘Only a demanding common task builds community’, says George Mcleod, founder of the Iona Community. The ‘demanding task’ facing the whole of humanity is quite clear even though our political leaders have repeatedly ducked it. We are the people alive now, we are the people who know about the problem: who else do we imagine is going to do what needs to be done? History has presented us with a choice: we have a planetary emergency and we therefore need the generations who are alive now to have a lively and powerful sense of destiny about this. Earlier generations worked against slavery, for instance, or for democracy; this matter is our work to do. We have the knowledge and we have the technology, and after us it is too late. We know what we have to do and we know how to do it – what lies in the way are human psychology and political inertia. Can we find joy and gratitude for the challenge that faces us? Action is the best antidote there is against hopelessness. The particular action appropriate for each of us will vary with our circumstances, of course, and one of the significant circumstances for any of us is our life-stage.
To my own cohort, often tagged the ‘post-war baby-boom generation’, I want to say this: by accident of birth our generation has in many ways been given the best of what the modern world had to offer, and subsequent generations won’t have many of those benefits. As we stand at perhaps the summit of our working lives, we stand simultaneously at the summit of industrialised society as we’ve known it. We benefited hugely from the massive industrial and economic expansion that characterised the second half of the twentieth century, and now we’re beginning to know what that has cost the planet. Even if we escape the worst effects ourselves, our children and our grandchildren will not. So what are we going to do with our active years beyond paid employment? There are a lot of us, we changed the face of politics when we were young and we could do so again. I believe that we owe a debt of gratitude and have a responsibility to do what we can, not only as individuals but also collectively.
To young people, just embarking on the steps into adult life, I want to say this: as you look at the options ahead of you, in terms of education, life skills and future work, consider what will be the truly essential skills for the future that you’ll need in the changed world that’s coming. Again harking back to the early Labour movement, it’s what they called Really Useful Knowledge, as distinct from the knowledge that the employers required them to learn. If you plan to go to university, consider studying something practical such as engineering, hydrology, medicine or agriculture. Or, if you want to study for pleasure, enrichment and interest, start preparing now to acquire the additional skills that will be the ones you’ll actually need to support yourself and contribute to the life of your community, whatever that is.
I believe we are facing something similar to the collapse of empire, but on a vastly bigger scale. There was a period not long ago when historians were rushing to compare the fate of the USA to the fall of the Roman Empire, but I think it’s bigger than that. The collapse facing us is a slow-motion but relentless collapse of the whole of globalised, western-inspired capitalism: it is unsustainable. An historian of the last period of the Roman Empire writes this:
Sophistication and specialization, characteristic of most of the Roman world, were fine, as long as they worked: Romans bought their pots from professional potters, and bought their defence from professional soldiers. From both they got a quality product – much better than if they had had to do their soldiering and potting themselves.
However, when disaster struck and there were no more trained soldiers and no more expert potters around, the general population lacked the skills and structures needed to create alternative military and economic systems. In these circumstances, it was in fact better to be a little ‘backward’.
Everyone needs to learn how to grow food how make, mend and fix things. Between us, as extended families, networks of friends, and local groups and communities, we need to take back the hand-skills that the modern world has ‘outsourced’ to mass production on the other side of the world. Also take care to develop your ‘soft skills’ – facilitation, leadership, conflict-handling, and learning how to build community around you, wherever you are in your life.
To older people, perhaps feeling that you’re starting to move beyond an exterior active life, remember that you have skills and knowledge that urgently need to be passed on to subsequent generations. Consider how you may be able to ensure that your experience does not die with you.
And to everyone else, the large adult group that sits between these ‘bookend’ life stages, start now to acquire these new skills and attitudes for yourselves, and help ensure that your children and grandchildren realise how essential and significant they are.
This applies equally, of course, to those of us who don’t have our own biological children and grandchildren. Just as we’re all ‘crew’, we’re all the ‘parents’ and ‘grandparents’ of humanity’s next generations. We’re all the ancestors of tomorrow. We know that one-planet living isn’t just a nice campaigning slogan. We either achieve one-planet living or we all perish.
I’ll end with something I take from my Quaker background. A Canadian Quaker, very active in peace, environmental and justice issues, says: it’s quite simple really we just have to get informed, get involved, and get in the way.
Marcello Musto (ed.), Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the critique of political economy 150 years later (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 101.
Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison Vol. 1, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p.16.
James Hansen, Storms of my grandchildren: The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), pp. 184, 277.
Statement in 1965, in reference to Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1963) by Buckminster Fuller, as quoted Paradigms Lost: Learning from Environmental Mistakes, Mishaps and Misdeeds (2005) by Daniel A. Vallero, p. 367.
Bryan Ward-Perkins, The fall of Rome and the end of civilization (Oxford: OUP, 2005), p.49.
Science-fiction author Robert Heinlein once said, ‘A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.’