The Tale of Two Tales (that paralyse us)

Our civilisation has got itself stuck in a state of paralysis, with us all looking to the next to do something. It’s kind of hard to ignore the pending crises we all face, but we’re doing a pretty good job doing so. All of these articles are from just today alone; Beware the Global Finance Crises Part III, What Exxon Knew About Climate Change, Haiti Drought Cuts Harvests, Lifts Prices, Food Crisis Looms. I could’ve chosen plenty more.

Yet most of us go around pretending that everything is going to work out ok. Most of us think that all of this is beyond our control. Why?

Living in the UK I can only comment for what things are like here, and what I see is a lethargy and indifference that has developed over at least the last decade. Politicians have eroded public confidence in the political system. Perhaps people are so used to seeing stories such as those above in the news, that they just take it as normal, and no longer do they make an impression. As I see it, most people seem resigned to one of either two scenarios about the future:

Someone will save us and fix it all for us or we’re heading towards an apocalypse where it will become survival of the fittest.

Either way people get stuck in a paralysis of inaction and indifference. They feel powerless to act and prevent. In the meantime let’s have business as usual.

Our culture unfortunately gets stuck on these two extreme stories instead of considering the huge array of options that lie elsewhere on the sliding scale of scenarios. This can be thought of as ‘binary thinking’ – either this or that. We do it a lot in our extreme culture. However, it’s rarely an empowering or realistic/accurate way of looking at the world. The world has many more shades of grey (way more than fifty…), and is far more complex than these generally overly-simplistic options tend to suggest.

From my own reading it seems that most of the ancient, indigenous cultures understood this. This is why they have thousands of mythologies, that span many different, diverse meanings and outcomes. They understood the power of story, so they taught plenty of them. So when you face a challenge in life (or perhaps as a community), you had a range of options open to you. That’s very handy.

In our culture however our cultural narratives are often homogenous. We tell lots of stories yes, but most of them centre around the Hero’s Journey, and as important a story it is, it’s far from the only one. Essentially in our stories, we always eventually triumph over evil. It may be a long difficult battle, it may take some soul-searching, we may need to consult with someone wise, but we’ll eventually get there after our trials and tribulations. We’ll bring that knowledge/relic back to ourselves/our people and save them (I agree that’s a simplistic, brief overview of the hero’s journey, but there’s plenty of people writing about it out there). As a result of our bias, we have even moulded the old stories to fit the hero’s journey, but again that’s a topic for another blog.

And the stories we tell in our society are stuck. They’re stuck on solutions that probably won’t work this time.  We’re stuck on the transcendental view of the world.

Let’s start by looking at the idea that someone out there will save us. Doesn’t this look remarkably like many of the religious stories we’re all told? It doesn’t matter how bad the situation, we merely have to wait until we’re bailed out by The Big Guy Upstairs. Insert your religion of choice and you have the source of your saviour. Christian’s believe in the Second Coming of Christ, and on the other end of the scale scientists believe in the The Great Discovery (or if you believe in Neo-Liberal economics you believe in the redemptive power of The Free Market) . Each story follows the same set of rules, but has different characters. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Science as we know it was born out of a hugely religious era, by religious people. I’m not saying science itself is a religion. But I’m saying the stories that dominate the scientific veiw-point are shaped by the culture that bore it (sacrilegious as that is to say). So whether you’re a Christian or an Atheist, it seems that you both believe in the idea of someone bailing us all out – a Miracle. (Disclaimer: I have nothing against either Christianity or Science, they’re both tools to help us understand the world, and I like to have as many tools as possible). As a Scientist you may believe that you hold The Beacon of Truth, and as a Christian likewise, but both are just approaches to a ‘problem.’ Stories to help us on the road ahead. I am not negating or trivialising the power of either. Different tools for different times for different problems or predicaments.

I digress… the important point here is that many believe that someone will save us. And once they’ve saved us, we’ll go on to live in our own version of Utopia. Sounds great doesn’t it? It frees us of us any responsibility and we can be safe in the knowledge that we’ll all be ok in the end. That’s what Hollywood tells us right?

The problem with this story is what happens if Jesus doesn’t return (in time?)? What happens if we don’t find a scientific answer to climate change or Peak Oil and we are not able to carry on as normal (‘we’ predominately being the 1 billion or so middle class of the world, the rest of the world is dealing with this every single day, see the article at the beginning about Haiti). Great as it may sound to the middle class masses, business as usual depends on a discovery. I’m going to suggest that discovery would have to be of a technological origin, but either way, someone, somewhere needs to bail us out.

And why shouldn’t we believe that you say? We’re on a straight line to Technological Progress. The Promised Land. Where we’ll have flying cars, robotic butlers, and unlimited cheap, free energy (feel free to add in your own clichéd vision of the future). What do you mean we won’t be able to reverse climate change and find new cheap sources of oil (or what do you mean that Zero Point Energy won’t work?!)?! Yesterday we only had bricks for mobile phones and today we have super smart computer phones… Someone will invest something somewhere. Or so the story goes.

That’s the story we’re being sold most of the time. We’re told that Technology carries on in a straight line into infinity and beyond. Soon we’ll all be living on the moon.

As fascinating as that story goes it’s unlikely to happen. This story stems from the arrogance of humanity. The ego in its most abstract self. Theoretically this may all sound plausible. Yet here on Earth, it’s unlikely. Like every other animal on this planet we’re subject to the same constrictions and limitations. We’ve all taken a flight into fantasy. And as fantastic as a flight into fantasy is, it’s just that, a fantasy. Reality meanwhile is trying its best to hammer us with the facts. The world’s getting considerably warmer. The sea levels are rising. Economies are struggling to recover. Easily accessible, cheap oil is running out. And so on.

And this leads us on to the other Great Vision of the Future. The equally transcendental view. The Apocalypse. You might believe that the biblical Four Horsemen are galloping towards us, or you may believe that Zombies will come hunting for your flesh. Either way you believe that an almighty bloodbath is bearing down on us. But so long as you’re a believer in Christ, or a Lone Survivor you’re going to be ok. Yes, you may lose a few of your brethren along the way, but in general Your Side will ‘win’. And after that, we’ve of course purged the Earth of all its wickedness and problems, and you’ll be free to live in… Utopia!

Does this sound slightly naive and simplistic to you? Does this once again, like the Miracle Saviour story, sound like a way of absolving ourselves of real responsibility for the situation, that we all caused? Does this once again sound like a Hollywood fiction and an escape into the realms of the abstract mind, tinged with Ego?

Both of these popular narratives stem from the same place of Ego distraction. They’re both ultimately the same story, just on opposite ends of the extreme. They both ultimately stem from the same religious stories that have been passed down for the last 2000 years. One is for the optimists, the other for the pessimists.

The problem is not these stories per se. It’s the fact that they are told as the only possible stories. Whereas in reality they just exhibit the extreme ends of the scale. In the middle are thousands of other potential outcomes (stories). Historically the world doesn’t take the extreme, simplistic route. It tends to take a far more complex path. We live in a complex system after all.

Personally, I’d love to buy into the technological miracle story. Personally, I used to buy into the technological miracle story. But fortunately/unfortunately, someone managed to force reality into my face. I now realise it’s extremely unlikely to happen. Why?

Because technological fixes to these problems are going to land us with more technological problems to fix. The fundamental problem here is technological in nature, thus, the same thinking that caused the problem can’t be used to solve it. Cue Einstein quotes. The problems are too multi-faceted for us to just fix. Indeed we don’t face a problem, or even problems, we face a predicament. It doesn’t take long to realise that the situation we all face is due to a lack of balance with the natural world. A balance that has become so out of control we have to accept that it has now gone beyond our control. (Ah, control, that’s another of modern humanity’s tricky topics, yet again another blog.)

I won’t go into all the details in this piece, as each topic in themselves is deserving of a blog each. But when you look at the proposed ‘fixes’ to our ‘problem’ most (all?) include either vast sums of money or vast sums of oil (or other rare, endangered raw material), or usually both. Neither of which we have great amounts of. The richest nations in the world are all saddled with huge amounts of debt. This article here highlights the issues of new oil exploration and debt.

Quite simply, a technological ‘fix’ is only going to land us deeper in trouble. We are futilely attempting to find a fix for our fossil fuel habit.

The internet, fossil fuels. Roads, fossil fuels. Solar panels, fossil fuels. Food, fossil fuels. The economy, fossil fuels. Our civilisation has become wholly dependent on fossil fuels for their function. So unless we bring ourselves back into balance with Nature then we have very little chance of transitioning into the future.

The abstract world of the wonderful human brain breaks through limitations and constraints. The physical laws of Nature bind us to reality. We are not exempt from these laws.

The cultures around the world that accepted these laws, and worked with them, survived for many thousands of years. The cultures that didn’t died out. History is littered with the remains and relics from defunct civilisations.

Just as the collective consciousness of our civilisation believes we’ll exist forever so did the civilisations who passed before us. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Mayans – they’re just the few stories I know about. They each ran up against constraints. Constraints that ultimately led to their demise.

An interesting parallel with the Mayans and our modern ‘Western’ civilisation, is that whilst we’re facing Peak Oil, the Mayans faced ‘Peak Corn’. Evidence shows that their civilisation got so big and populous that they just couldn’t feed themselves. Their ancient method of cultivating an area of jungle for some years for corn, before leaving it fallow for some years, became abandoned. They shortened the amount of time for fallow, and increased the amount of time for cultivation. Meanwhile depleting the soil that sustained them. You can’t grow anything without soil. A sober reminder to us in our times as we face the ‘extinction’ of topsoil in our own food system – read this article in Time magazine for an overview. Like the Mayans, bad farming practices are eradicating our soil.

So as the Mayans pushed and pushed to grow more food for more people they slowly consigned themselves to extinction. They could’ve swapped to something else more sustainable. They had options. But corn had a mythological importance to the Mayans. They simply refused to consider another way. As a result they walked down the long road of civilisational descent, that many believe lies ahead of us in The West.

The parallels are uncanny.

We like to think our civilisation will continue forever. But this based on the false notion that our civilisation has been a straight line ascent since Ancient Times. The reality is different however. It’s been filled with rises and falls. The (Western) Roman empire collapsed around the 5th century. After that Europe entered the long period of the Dark Ages. There are many theories as to why Rome fell, interestingly they too parallel the issues facing our civilisation. Deforestation, soil erosion, climate change, disease, population, greed and more all being implicated (this wikipedia article gives a good summary).

Whatever the reasons, history shows us that many civilisation believed they were going to live forever, yet fell. This should be a sobering reminder to us all.

Something else history shows us is that most (all???) falls from grace are slow, and themselves are a series of ups and downs. Once again our cultural narrative of absolute triumph or absolute collapse fail us. My belief now is that we will face a long, slow descent that will last two or three hundred years. We will face many challenges along the way. Our greatest challenge is to ensure we get through them as best as possible. And that means equipping ourselves now with the relevant tools and skills to help us. It means rebuilding communities and local networks. It means us all doing deep internal work to address our own fallibilities. It means learning once again how to grow food without chemicals, how to build houses from natural materials and how to build machines that don’t rely on fossil fuels. It means re-learning how to tell stories. It means re-discovering our cultural heritage and perhaps forging a new one. Ultimately it mean re-establishing our connection with the natural world.

We all have to take our fair share of the shared responsibility that’s been bestowed to us by our ancestors. If we all act now we can not only prepare ourselves for an uncertain future of transition but help to lessen the severity of that period. As dire as many of the situations are, if we all take positive action then we have a chance of lessening the scale of the learning curve that awaits us. Small changes however aren’t going to cut it. We’re now facing immediate crisis. Ultimately recycling and buying eco-products whilst better than the alternatives aren’t going to save us. We all have to embrace a life of voluntary simplicity. Something else I will discuss in more detail in a later blog. We need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuel. We need to increase our own self-reliance and re-lay the foundations of our communities that we all depend upon. Be clear, I’m not suggesting this will ‘save’ us. Be careful that the dominant narratives don’t hijack this. They’re about putting in place the systems we need in the future, now. It’s about mitigating as many of the crises as possible. The time for the miracle has already passed.

And neither is this a one size fits all story for the future. There’ll be all sorts of stories unfolding, and in different parts of the world, and indeed in different regions there will be different scenarios. Simultaneously we’ll have many situations developing. Ultimately no-one knows how the future is going to unfold. But by embracing the more chaotic nature of reality, we will be better prepared to deal with that lies ahead. We empower ourselves, instead of paralysing ourselves.

This may all sound ominous. Indeed it is. But once we overcome that initial sense of foreboding, we might come to realise that what lies ahead may not be so bad (whilst not falling into the trap of naivety). It will mean The West bearing its ‘fair share’ of the suffering that we have currently externalised. That will be painful. But it may also mean that we once again come to live back in harmony with the land and eco-system, with each other and of course ourselves.

Our diversion into global civilisation hasn’t been all bad, it’s yielded some advancements, but now it’s time for us all to embrace a new future and a new way of living. With all of the challenges and benefits that entails.

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Spending is voting

We’re all taught that in order to be good citizens we must turn up every 4/5 years and place our vote. We’re doing our bit for democracy, ensuring we respect the memory of our ancestors who faught for our right to vote. Cue Land of Hope and Glory and Churchill’s “We’ll fight them on the beaches” speech. Feels very patriotic doesn’t it? Very British. Very democratic.

Now let’s cut the nostalgia and get back to reality. 21st century reality that is. It might have been that once upon a time that’s what it meant to be democratic. To be a good citizen. But nowadays it’s not enough.

We now live in a society run by banks and corporations. Ergo, if we live in a country ruled by the banking and corporation elite then is turning up at the voting booth really the most effective way we can ensure the society we wish to live in? Unlike Russell Brand, I’m not suggesting we don’t vote. I actually do believe we should vote (topic for another blog). But voting alone isn’t enough.

In my opinion the true voting of the 21st century takes place at the checkout. Every time we spend money we vote for the world we want to live in. Want more supermarkets and less independent local shops? Shop in Tesco. Want less small independent bookshops? Shop on Amazon. You want the banks to invest in oil and war? Leave your money in the ‘trusted’ hands of the high street banks. You get the picture.

It’s a relatively simple political action we can all take. Every time we decide to spend our money elsewhere we withdraw our consent for the current corrupt, destructive system and support a healthier alternative. Either way it’s a spiral. Either a spiral of erosion or a spiral of creation. We can blame the system as much as we like, and I agree it’s flawed and manipulative, but one of the main reasons we have so many supermarkets, and so few local independent shops anymore is because we have chosen to spend our money there.  We have removed the alternative because they can’t afford to exist. Of course, the head of the retail association will tell us this is a great idea, telling us that we get a greater choice of products and a lower price. But the reality is that the true cost of the items we purchase is externalised onto others (again, the subject of another blog). For evidence of this look to the current situation for dairy farmers. We may get access to cheap milk, but they are taking the brunt of that action; struggling to get by and feed their family.

It’s not always easy to find the alternative shopping options, because we have conspired in destroying the alternative, but they usually do exist. And where they don’t we can look to create the alternative ourselves.

Options include buying clothes secondhand, shopping at local bookshops, visiting your local butcher, or buying food from your local co-op (in Wales you can visit this site, unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a similar site for the rest of the UK, please let me know if you do though).

If you want to remove your money from the big high street banks (and therefore their destructive funding of war, oil and other nasties) why not consider the local credit union? Most parts of the country have one. And if not, Nationwide or Metro Bank are more ethical than the big ones – according to the Ethical Consumer.

Some people may baulk and say that these are small changes, and I agree, they are relatively small, but they’re ones that we can all relatively easily make, and will make a real difference. In the transition from our current globalised society to the more local economy that will exist in the future, these changes will help to create the infrastructure that we will all need. It’s a small, simple way of helping to re-build local communities.

Please don’t read my comments above to say that I completely blame ‘consumers’ (shudder at that word) for the current situation, but when we shop in places we know support destruction, and place our money in banks we know support the continued degradation of our eco-systems, we are complicit in the consequences of those actions. It’s time for us to take our share of the responsibility. After all, if we don’t take responsibility for the future who will? Through responsibility comes power.  That’s required of us to be a ‘good citizen’ in the 21st Century.

About this blog

I don’t know why exactly, but until recently the reality of the climate changes that lie ahead, coupled with the rapid decrease of fossil fuels and economic instability, had bypassed my brain. Don’t get me wrong I knew about these impending situations but the neurones hadn’t linked them together. Reality, however, recently caught up with me, and smacked me in the face. Woh! That’s been a rude awakening!

Like so many in our modern culture I was just getting on with my life, stashing those unwelcome predicaments to the back of my mind, secretly hoping that someone else would sort them for me, so that I could continue doing what wanted to do. And with the tendencies I had to be a ‘champagne socialist’ I would debate and discuss these topics, yet in reality made very little change in my life to help deal with them.

I don’t think that’s an uncommon scenario in the 21st Century. Our culture has primed us to be complacent and ignorant of the realities of our world. We externalise the inconvenient truths of our everyday existence onto others in the world to deal with it for us. After all, we live in the West. The Great Promised Land. The hypocrisy of my previous actions aren’t lost on me. So hopefully when you read this blog you don’t feel the finger pointed at you. This is a blog that aims to mirror back to myself what I did, and am doing in my life, whilst exploring alternatives to the future.

So back to the future. We face incredibly unstable times ahead. We have climate catastrophes, not only waiting for us in the not-so-distant future, but are already a current reality. We have an economic system in complete tatters, locked in an uncontrollable boom and bust cycle, that has gone out of control like a runaway roller-coaster carriage. Sooner or later, there’ll just be bust, without the boom. We have already passed peak oil, and are soon to pass peak coal, peak gas and peak everything else when it comes to fossil fuels. Our energy orgy finally catching up with us, meaning that many of the ‘conveniences’ of living in Western society will become a thing of the past. We have widespread loss of confidence in the political system. People are just fed up of the increasing inequality, and lies that get spun by the people who are supposed to serve us, yet instead serve the corporate and banking elite, literally extracting wealth from the poorest to the richest. I could go on. Population, the food system, eco-system destruction, species extinction, rising sea levels, increasing levels of chronic health conditions, mass migration, the list of the challenges we all face are staggering.

This blog stems from my own thoughts which have been slowly taking shape over the last 6 months. I am no expert. No authority. It’s up to you whether you think my words are any good or not. I am writing more as a reflection for myself than anything else. If you find these words beneficial in any way then I am genuinely honoured and am grateful that you have taken your time to read them. I’m open to discussion and debate, though not abuse and ignorance. It’s my blog, so be nice and act with manners 🙂

Nothing I write will be exhaustive, and will always be biased, after all, I can only write from my own perspective. I will get things wrong, I will change my mind, this writing is far from perfection.

It won’t all be doom and gloom, though I will be highlighting the problems as I see them. I don’t believe we can start envisioning the future or discussing potential solutions without first discussing what isn’t right, right now. Observation and analysis should come first and plenty of it. But of course, I won’t just be saying what (I think) is wrong. There’s too much of that too. It’s important that we also come up with potential alternatives and solutions. We all need a future to believe and hope for. Otherwise why are we going to act? And I don’t believe that future should be one of austerity. I’m not doing all this to ‘save humanity’, I’m doing this because I believe it’s the right thing to do but also because I want to live a better, happier life. I think many of us feel a sense of disillusionment and lack of fulfilment living in this modern, industrialised society.

If any of this interests you then please do read on! Welcome!

If you’re wondering about what and who has influenced my thinking, then google the following; Permaculture, David Holmgren, Stephen Jenkinson, Robert Bly and John Michael Greer. There are many others too, particularly when it comes to the specifics, but these people (and permaculture) have influenced my overall thinking more than most. They tapped into that part of me that knew something wasn’t right, but still wasn’t realising it.