Thursday, September 30, 2004

after green politics - dark brown religion ?

september 2004

the first generation of all those who ever lived in ireland were the blow-ins. if you think about it the natives were only the second generation.

the first arrivals named the rivers at the point where where they encountered them, at their estuaries, and only in later generations were they mapped all the way to their sources. so the names of rivers travel against the flow, upstream. the source on the map is only one among a thousand sources, on the land, beneath the land, and in the clouds above.

the shannon river is said to be twenty million years old, but an ancient greek observed that you cannot step into the same river twice. in fact the shannon river does not exist. we could send someone from the back of the hall to get a bucket of water, and many of you would consider this last statement disproved. scientifically, the contents could be shown to be water, but would remain only a bucket of water. the shannon river, that old lady of twenty million years, does not exist in any scientific sense. her character and personality, integrity and unity and history, are part of the world of our culture and imagination.

and yet if you want to take a hired cruiser from portumna to carrick - the idea of the shannon river is a useful one, an essential one, even.

in a similar fashion, gods do not exist, in that they do not have a material existence. the bucket of water does not prove the existence of the river, or the existence of the river goddess, nor does the stream of people leaving a cathedral on an easter morning prove the existence of any god. neverthless there are journeys that you cannot easily make without the idea of a god, or gods, even if you employ some well camouflaged substitute.

our predecessors in this land evolved powerful ideas of who they were and where they belonged, and the old shannon river goddess was part of the picture.

now the test of the idea, i propose, is not 'does the goddess exist, or does the goddess not exist?' the test of the idea is - 'will this help to get us from portumna to carrick ?'

the messianic manifesto.

our society is said to be becoming increasingly secular, and yet we are all the time falling for what i want to call 'the messianic manifesto.'
the messianic manifesto has five parts. faced with any written or spoken presentation, if you can check off all five of these, you can be fairly certain that this is what you are dealing with.
they are as follows-

1 the danger that confronts us.

2 the way forward that is open to us.

3 the safe haven that awaits us.

4 the man who can lead us.

- and more often than not :

5 and now a word from our treasurer.

the manifesto is in fact a deal - and the deal is usually this : give me the power now, and i will lead you to the promised land, later on.

the messianic manifesto is sold to us time and time again, because we badly want to believe it, or believe in something, and we seldom cast aside a belief without taking up another in its place. that is not to say that the new belief will not have positive benefits - but often, when the promised land fails to materialise, those who made the promises blame some rival or enemy for frustrating us, and this leads to trouble.

the manifesto seeks to gather up power. power, like the shannon river, is best understood by picturing it not as the politicians, but as a personality in its own right. power learns to harness its allies and scapegoat its rivals. more than that, power quickly learns to pretend to be solving problems that it is in fact creating.

george bush takes a baseball bat to a hornets nest. when we all get stung, he says he is the only one resolute enough to defend us and we all club together to buy him a new bat. it is too easy. we are suckers for trusting in something.

these tricks generate a self perpetuating cycle. you need me, to protect you, from the enemies that i am creating by acting out moves to defend you.

religious methodone.

my own interest is in the religious characteristics of the worldview that are still retained when we cease to be hooked on the conventional dogma of church teaching. if you are one of those who have managed to retain the 'simple faith ' of your childhood, then i apologise, but even then there are whole areas of contemporary civilisation that you live in, that were built without reference to that background.

the religious nature of a worldview that claims to be agnostic, or just pragmatically neutral, is difficult to spot - especially in the case of your own. it is like the effort to hear and detect your own accent. your own is always the default setting. the reference point. the hardest one to detect.
it is easier to see the religious mindset of others, for example the dutiful soviets filing past lenin's tomb. surely these visitors are as devout as any mediaeval pilgrimage to a saint's relics ? religion is the opium of the people says karl marx - busily helping to found another one.

communism, socialism, and consumer capitalism - each lead to their respective promised land or utopia. each have their implied messianic manifesto, and sometimes the more understated this manifesto is - the more powerful is its pull.

my thesis is that the green movement also has its manifesto - which goes a step beyond the worldview of consumer capitalism - and that this is the next form that the religious worldview is going to take - but not the final one.

the green movement.

now what is green politics ? i want to take a cool look at the implied promises of green politics and the green movement - because i do not consider myself 'green.'
very crudely and briefly we can place green political aspirations on a
spectrum :

dictators and despots want to be masters of the world. so, in the privacy of their bedrooms, do many elected leaders and election candidates.

capitalists work to become the owners of the world.

socialists and communists and voluntary community activists may aspire to be members of committees that guide the world, in a rational and egalitarian manner.

green politicians see themselves as caretakers and stewards of the earth.

i would label myself as dark brown, further out on this spectrum than the greens. i do not aspire to be a steward of nature, but i see nature herself as our caretaker, and caretaker of the community of all species.

nature is always in balance. nature is always in charge. industrial civilisation is like a series of battles in a great war upon nature - but nature remains unbeaten. we cannot destroy nature because we are an integral part of nature. the biosphere is a lottery which nature wins, because she holds all of the tickets, all of the time.

this personalises ' nature.' it brings us back to the idea of personalising the river as a goddess. am i serious when i refer to nature as ' she ' ? i put the question back to you. are you serious when you refer to a bucket of dirty water as 'pollution of the natural environment'? does 'the environment' exist ? the choice of personal or impersonal language is not a statement about the water quality, or about the so called real world - it is a subjective statement about the way we relate to the bucket, the water, the river, the river goddess, or the earth.

poor james lovelock had to back off hastily when so many people gave an almost religious response to his naming of the biosphere 'gaia', that his scientific reputation was compromised. but he was wrong to do so. gaia is no less real than the so called 'environment', and the environment no more 'exists' than the goddess. but the language we choose clearly indicates the way thay we relate to nature - personally, as we might relate to our own natural mother, or impersonally - with measurement, legislation and bureaucracy. the more we take nature apart and picture her as just a convenience store of resources - the more exploitive and damaging will be our treatment of her.

so as a 'dark brown' i am advocating first of all that you do not refer to the earth as ' the environment ' and ' it ' - but refer to her as 'nature ' and 'she.'
that helps you to remember that she is complex and capricious and unforgiving, and always has the last word.

if green politics across the world began to wield real power, it is my fear that issues of the environment could become the new focus for political centralisation, regulation, and control. there would be unimaginable reams of legislation. there could be wheelie bins with embedded microchips that could radio penalty points and on the spot fines direct to your bank account in town.

environmental issues could become the medium of political control, similar to the role that sexual issues played in the heyday of the power of the catholic church.

this in turn would inevitably generate resistance and evasion.

compare the last corrupt days of the old soviet union. in theory first world capitalists operated free markets, while the soviet system had a centralised command economy, for the benefit of all. but the opposite to a free market in anything is not a controlled market. the opposite of a free market is a centrally controlled market - plus a black market.

we do well to remember that it was they - the soviets - who were the idealists in the world's last great round of punch and judy politics. as with a controlled economy, so with a controlled global environment. you would have controlled consumption and controlled emissions, plus an inevitable outlaw fringe that was beyond all control.

it may seem incredibly dated to be talking about the soviet union, but that is our most recent example of overall political control for the benefit of the people.

i can imagine a political climate in which freedom freaks like me became the subversives and rebels, burning plastic milk bottles in their back gardens by night, to escape the government waste disposal police.

the debate on the future centres on the coming exhaustion of fossil fuel reserves. we are coming to an oil peak, or at the very least an oil production plateau. we may turn out to have been in a production plateau for thirty years, that will last twenty more. how will we live without oil ? the reaction of many is to console themselves with the thought that ' something will turn up.'

right at this moment the local political waters are relatively calm. the ship of industrial growth sails on serenely, and it is human nature not to abandon a ship that is not sinking. come to think of it, it is human nature not to abandon a ship that i s sinking, if the alternative is to throw yourself into deep water. so we wait - to see what will turn up.

in the meantime we devise little economies with fuel. petrol and diesel engines are designed to be more economical. windmills replace oil fired electricity generation -

- or actually, they don't.

how many power stations closed, so far ?

what actually happens, is that the wind power takes a little of the pressure off the oil market and thus off the oil price, and this allows oil usage to expand slightly, elsewhere in the system. so we still hang in the end. the rope is a little longer that's all.

if we develop a vehicle that does eighty miles to the gallon, the affluent consumer goes out and gratefully buys a second one for the wife. if the right to a second vehicle is then withdrawn, the consumer punishes the government at the polls next time around. so we commit ourselves to accelerating towards the brick wall of some future crisis where we finally slam on the brakes, because we get scared of the alternatives.

accompanying this race to fossil fuel exhaustion is a tendency towards token green gestures. to caricature this - the wife now goes to the supermarket five miles away, in the family's second best s.u.v, taking a reusable green canvas shopping bag. she buys a large bottle of tipperary spring water - contents free, because they are constantly replenished by the spring, and very healthy. at least that is sustainable. - is it ?

so why is the water dearer than the diesel ?

like the windpower, it may be free at source, but the bottling, sampling, testing, labelling, advertising, distribution and retailing all depend upon a network of other systems that are in turn fossil fuel dependent - from the well water pump right down to the tesco check-out girl's spanish holiday. 'free at source' is not a solution. even crude oil is free at source, while stocks last.

in many ways the debate on the environment is over. it is the optimist who thinks that the american conservatives have yet to get the message about fossil fuel exhaustion. the pessimist suspects that they have got the message all too clearly, and are now embarking upon their own long term programme, consisting of bare faced confiscation, and a strengthening of the gap between the fuel rich of the world and the fuel poor. most of this they do without our approval, but ultimately on our behalf. don't excuse yourself because you don't own a car - even without a personal vehicle you are still living in a society that is built around fossil fuel transport.

we also burn oil in our stomachs. david pimentel, an expert on food and energy at cornell university in america, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the united states eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil fuel reserves in just over seven years. that is the extent to which we eat oil. some people accuse him of being out in his calculations by as much as 30 percent. so what ? that would extend it to ten years.

on the political left the prospect of shortages prompts renewed calls for a more even distribution. but in the mindset of the far right, threat of shortages gives rise to a compelling desire for greater security of their own supply.

that is the psychology of the rich little housewife in the big four by four. in the back of her mind she knows that oil is increasingly valuable, so she asserts her social status by burning more of it.

when serious austerities are no longer avoidable, the social and political waters will be no longer calm. many of us are in denial about this. how many sustainable house designs incorporate security features - steel doors, multiple bolts, bullet proof glass, narrow windows ? how many architects begin by blithely assuming the sustainability of the local social conditions, and take a future peaceful society for granted ? it is the same blind spot as used to affect the designers of family nuclear fall out shelters in 1950s america. the drinking water, the biscuits, the ventilation, - all material needs were catered for. but no shelter salesman ever explained what sort of society lay waiting, outside, when the priveleged families emerged.

the turn in the road has to come. there is simply not enough oil in the world to complete the industrialisation of china.

an unchecked global population committed to unchecked consumption of finite fossil resources spells first austerity, then poverty, then famine. war is optional.

so perhaps we have failed to imagine what a fully sustainable society would be like ? we have allowed ourselves to imagine a changeover without any loss of momentum - like converting your car to run on solar power en route to the saturday night disco, without arriving late for the party. greens call this 'sustainable growth.' the phrase is a political promise with implications of ongoing material prosperity. it is as though we had tried to imagine, in advance, iraq under the regime of the u.n. sanctions that lasted through most of the nineteen nineties. well ? was there an increase in composting, windmills, and self sufficiency ? or just an increase in power cuts, profiteering and banditry ?

the precise nature of a future crisis is not foreseeable, but when we do face up to the prospect of a sustained contraction, there will be intense social conflict over who is to bear the pain. we will dispute how much austerity is necessary, how soon, and for whom.

there will be rainbow wars between political and social factions of various hues. several different shades of green, for a start. it may be the less affluent people of the left, with less room for cutbacks in personal consumption, who then grow loudest in their demands that growth and pollution be allowed to continue for just a little longer. . .

green politics will then have begun to migrate on a well trodden path, that traverses the political stage in diagonal fashion, from radical lower left to conservative upper right.

perpetual motion.

the green movement's search for ' sustainable development ' is a diluted version of the mediaeval quest for a perpetual motion machine.

since as early as the 13th century people have come forward with claims to have invented a mechanical device that delivers more useful energy than you put into it.
there is no such thing.

a typical proposal was for a water mill which also turns a screw within a conduit. this screw acts to raise water from downstream of the mill back up into the mill pond - from where it is available to turn the mill wheel again !

the whole concept of perpetual motion has been a graveyard of hopes, disappointing the inventors, bankrupting the backers, and exasperating patents officials.

in the end the only lasting result of the search was the formulation in 1847 of the first law of thermodynamics: this states in effect that any mechanical process is like a bank account - you will not get out more energy than you put in.

in years to come, the notion of sustainable development by means of renewable resources - meaning machines running free of any non renewable resource expenditure - will be as discredited as the notion of perpetual motion is now. the energy source may be endlessly renewable but, as we have seen, the means of capturing and applying the energy, including the disposal of the associated waste products, will never be. free diesel is no use without a free vehicle.

there are no sustainable mechanical systems. we have to look elsewhere.

since the time of descartes and of newton we have tended to see ourselves in the context of a universe regulated by mechanical laws. the apple falling from the tree - and, ultimately, everything else - was to be explained by laws of mass, gravity, energy, and motion. since the emergence of that paradigm we have tended to ignore the far greater mystery : what brings the apples up the tree in the first place?

- the answer of course is life : counter-entropic life.

a stable earth community.

i am rubbishing certain current ideas of sustainable development, and sustainable growth.
in a finite and spherical world exponential growth in anything, living or mechanical, cannot last for ever. even if you can manage to halve the rate of resource use, it does not postpone the downturn for much longer.

personal austerity - making prudent and inventive personal economies in fossil fuel consumption - is praiseworthy and beneficial, as long as you do not overstate what you are achieving.
we are still locked into a lunatic enterprise of competing to expand consumption, while simultaneously maximising the global population. how do we proceed to a stable earth community and a stable global economy?

i do not know.

i can only give the kerryman's answer -

' i wouldn't start from here.'

technological advances make us able to live longer, and consume more. so how much more is there to consume? from the point of view of stability these advances are evils, not benefits. we practise seriously dishonest accounting.

we double output at bord na mona and we call it an increase in turf production. but it is only a doubling of consumption. the bog that would have lasted thirty years will now last fifteen.

the expansion of the human race amounts to human racism. the assumption that we are by right the dominant species, with an unquestioned right to any living space that we can manage to take over, and with the right to ethnic cleanse other species off the face of the earth. that's racism.

perhaps all civilisations in the galaxy fall into two categories - those that get this far and turn back, and those that leave it too late, and fall over the edge. perhaps fossil fuelled civilisations are only a detour, and a diversion. perhaps we are only an adolescent civilisation blowing a legacy before settling down to getting a real job . . .

the nature of a stable earth community.

these are the maxims of a stable earth community. they are not a prescription for green politics - but, if you like, the foundations of a dark brown religion. you are not obliged to accept them in this form, but if not, you, or your children after you, will have to devise a version of your own. they are neither true nor false - but attitudes that will serve to get us from portumna to carrick, from here to there.

1 nature is always in balance.

people fear that mankind might upset the balance of nature. the dark brown insight is that nature is always in dynamic balance.
the towns and farms pollute lough derg with sewage. nature multiplies the zebra mussel, a mollusc which feeds by filtering water. the lake gets cleaner. the sewage pipes become blocked with mussel colonies. the county councils are upset, but balance is restored. but if you attempt to define where exactly the proper balance lies, you are forced to the conclusion that nature was in a dynamic balance throughout.

wisdom about the earth is not a text - it is an endless series of equations. the essence of a stable earth community of all species, is balance - and the essence of conscious design within that community will be balance. every assembly manual will come with a companion guide to dismantling.

2 waste is the only inexhaustible resource.

picture the forest. none of the rotting material of the trunks, branches, or leaves is destined for landfill. why ? because by definition it is all recyclable. nothing but recycleable material was taken up by the trees in their growing in the first place. the wastes are the resources and the resources are the wastes.

3 soil is the only medium of renewal.

soil is the medium of renewal for living things. we are still picturing the growth of the primaeval wood. whereas there is a green tendency to want to economise on the use of resources, the dark brown ideal is the maximisation of resource use and throughput. it is the ecologist's concept of an ecological climax state. - maximising the take-up of recyclable resources, and equally, maximising the waste products of the same circular process. you should never break the circle. never sweep up and remove the leaves from the park.

does the renewal of nature cost money ? it does not have to. where will you find regenerating woodland? in the national parks? you will find it in the region of chernobyl, and in the north korea / south korea demilitarised zone - places where people do not go.

4 death is nature's cure.

this is perhaps the darkest of the dark brown maxims. if this was the last generation to inhabit the earth, all out fossil fuel consumption would be understandable. so do we want to be the last generation? a stable earth community has to last for more than one generation, and the death of the individual is fundamental to the life of the tribe. a future scientist who overcame ageing, cancer, heart disease, and all the rest, would earn the gratitude of individuals, but bring disaster to the species, bankrupt the pension funds, and bring evolution grinding to a halt.

5 poverty is a surplus of people, not a shortfall of resources.

this is in similar vein. just as individuals can become unhealthily obese - so the entire human race is currently obese. what is a healthy size for the global population ? before the industrial revolution took off there were about half a billion people on earth. that was all. five hundred million - until we began to eat fossil fuel resources.

oil is the potatoes of the next great famine.

wherever oil has been the means of expanding population, there will the population decline be when the oil harvest fails.

after the oil has gone, a global population of a half billion would again be enough. that would correspond to an ireland of five hundred thousand people. after the great famine population control was effected by not marrying until you inherited the farm - a purely cultural constraint - but it worked.

6 earth is our only stable home.

we are adapted to the earth upon which we have evolved. the concept of colonising mars is a delusion. it does not enclose any new productive land - it places a further burden on land here on earth currently in production. the further we stray from our natural habitat - if only to the polar regions, out to sea, or in the sahara desert - the more we become dependent upon supply lines of life supporting products from the fertile areas of the earth. the drive to maximise our tribal numbers is a hangover from violent territorial competition among early agricultural societies, when farmers began to control land. a hunter gatherer does not own land. he sees the land as owning him.

7 life is the only sustainable system.

this is the core understanding of a dark brown world view. the word 'sustainability ' has begun to convey an implied promise of ongoing security, comfort and prosperity. we need to strip that out. we should use 'sustainability' to mean simply 'potential for survival'.

it is the pattern of life itself, rather than the individual lives, which holds the potential for survival. our culture places too great emphasis upon the individual, and thus upon survival of the individual. as selfish consumers we have sacrificed the long term stability of our tribe for a short term binge of change and excess. we have devised mechanical systems - meaning non living technologies which consume fossil capital - to feed our needs, and to invent new needs and new products, all destined to be the landfill of the future.

industrial civilisation is no more than a three hundred year hiccup in the four billion year history of life on earth.

nature herself will teach us, the hard way if we insist, that the systems which survive are cyclical living systems. the next best systems will be those which are designed to mimic living systems ever more closely, in their thriftiness, in their diversity, in their biodegradability, in their reuse of all their wastes and by-products, in their harmony with nature's own ecological patterns.

new forms of computer programmes will be algorithms of living systems, and evolve their answers, rather than calculate them. systems are now being envisaged which will be self improving, self repairing, and self replicating. - in some respects they will resemble the worms and viruses of today.

we cannot predict the future. we cannot live in the future, we have to live in today. but we can cultivate a vision of a stable earth community. a vision the earth as mother and caretaker - rather than the conceit of ourselves as masters of the world, or stewards issuing rations from a monster storehouse of global resources.

green politics is busy making compromises with the industrial system. green politics will prolong industrial growth by gently modifying the worst side effects of industrial growth.

change has to come, not just at a technical level, but at a deeply religious level.

after green politics - dark brown religion.

life - is the only sustainable system.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful essay. All boxes ticked. Necessity of the Shannon as a metaphor is precise summary of reasons for believing in anything.
Overpopulation: I can trace my father's line back to 1789 in Laois - 8 generations. When I look at the number of human beings resultant from the loins of one barrel-maker in 1789 - I alone have 9 granchildren - I know the planet can't take it.
I burn my rubbish and look up at the vapour trails in the blue sky so as to feel justified. When Ryanair stops flying I'll stop burning. That won't happen. Ergo: disaster.
They used frighten us into being good with the vision of Hell. No difference between that and threats of unsustainability.

9:21 AM  

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