The future’s not what it used to be

Back in the early 1970s, when I was quite young, I entered a competition to design the car of the future. I drew some sleek rocket-powered thing that hovered above the ground – very space-age. And it was the space-age. space-age-2We were still sending men to the moon. The future was going to be amazing. We would have colonies in space. Our homes would be filled with labour-saving gadgets and robots and our food would be swallowed as a pill (“Take your protein pill and put your helmet on” – David Bowie in 1969). We would be able to speak to each other via our wristbands or maybe a video-phone on the wall. In all sorts of ways, we imagined a future quite different from the present in which we were living.

In a blog post for Dark Mountain, John Michael Greer argues that over successive decades, our imaginations have narrowed and the futures now portrayed in our stories are not radically different from our real lives. He says a great deal more that is worth reading, not least about different understandings of time in the world’s great civilizations, and perhaps I’ll write about that soon. But this observation about the poverty of the modern imagination set me thinking.

Perhaps one reason why the future is much like the present these days is that we’re just pretty pleased with ourselves. We’ve done very well and our lives are pretty good and so as long as we can keep up-grading our phones, that’s as much future as we need. The sight of cathode-ray tubes and QWERTY keyboards in The Matrix or Blade Runner should give us pause for thought in our hubris: the future looks back and scoffs. But still, we have progressed nicely… as long as you don’t look too hard around the world; as long as you don’t see what it’s like when others pay the cost of the progress of the few.

Maybe that kind of denial is another possible reason for our lack of imagination. This is Greer’s argument. Our sense of progress has worn thin. We are tired of having to continually upgrade, when every upgrade costs us more and gains us less than the last one. It’s getting harder to close our eyes to the devastation brought to the earth by deforestation, by mining, by intensive farming and by just about every other feature of how we live today. The unspeakable things we’ve always feared were lurking underneath the shiny stone of progress are starting to creep out. (As Gustavo Gutierrez said in 2015, “The poor are beating on the gates of the rich in their thousands, demanding to be let in.”) The stone is getting hotter. We dare not think about climate change and rising seas and many of today’s coastal mega-cities being underwater within a generation or less. When the future is so damn scary, it is hard to look at it for long. The future won’t look back and scoff, it will scream. So we have to stop our ears and close our eyes and find some narrative fascination in a slightly improved phone and some robotic toys for the super-rich.

The future is going to be radically different from the present, whether we like it or not. Greer argues (more or less) that we have to pluck up the courage to lift our eyes from the lackluster screen of our present imagination and look the future in its unimaginable face.

To write like this feels like heresy. I am supposed to be telling people that if they make a few changes to their lifestyle (change the lightbulbs, eat less meat, fly and drive less, etc) they can help keep the world much as it is now. To say anything else feels like doom and gloom and giving up in despair. However, I wonder if the opposite is true. It may be that clinging to the idea that we can conserve the present is worse than despair, because it is a despair that denies the truth. Post-Paris and the pledges that didn’t add up (despite the laudable goodwill of COP21); post-the 2015 and 2016 elections that have driven climate change off the political agenda in UK and US; and the prospect of the south-east of England being turned into an oil-field (with the moral blessing of the Church of England, let alone the determination of the UK Government), I think the truth is that we are stuffed. At least, we are stuffed if the un-stuffed alternative is to keep things more or less as they are now.

I don’t think I want to keep things as they are now. There is so much pain and suffering in the world, not least amongst people, animals and plants that are bearing the cost of oil-and-debt-fuelled free-market capitalism. We need a different world and it looks like we’re going to get one anyway. Predictions of a climate-changed world are only predictions, because the change is unprecedented in human history and we have no experience to inform us. But we can start thinking about what will help make life possible for as many life-forms as possible. One of the obvious things is to work at re-building broad-based communities rather than the like-minded bubbles encouraged by social media. Such communities will really exist – real bodies in proximity learning how people can belong to each other with grace, generosity and care, and applying those lessons in the wider world and to include all life.

The task of conventional climate campaigning remains valid (and vital), because we need to keep the temperature rise as low as possible by removing as much carbon from the atmosphere as possible. What I’m suggesting here is that this cannot be at the expense of also addressing adaptation to a changed future in which as much life as possible can thrive.

It is going to take great courage to turn away from the re-assuring lies of our present culture. It is going to take renewed imagination and love to face a frightening and uncertain future and engage with it. But I think there is hope if we do it together.

(I was planning to include some biblical reflection in this post, but I think it’s long enough already! The bible, especially in the prophetic literature, contains a lot of courageous analysis and critique of dysfunctional and unjust (and complacent) societies, alongside far-seeing imagination of how things could be different. See my article on Isaiah 11 in the ‘Bible studies’ section if you’re interested.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Multiplication

Light-bulbs are boring. Carbon emissions are boring. Reducing your footprint is a worthy aspiration, but it’s reductive, it closes down and diminishes. It’s putting the cart before the horse.

Carts are boring. You can jazz them up, but it’s still a cart. The interesting bit is the horse at the front – that living being who can look you in the eye, who needs feeding and grooming and who might return a pat on the neck with a friendly nuzzle. Life is interesting. Tools are tools.

In the bible, in Genesis 1, there are two charges from God to creation. The first is in verse 22, at the end of the fifth day, when God blesses the fish and the birds and tells them to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” The second is verse 28, spoken to humans: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it …” OK, the charge to subdue and have dominion is problematic, although some argue it depends how you interpret it. What I want to reflect on is the charge to humans, birds and fish to “Be fruitful and multiply.”

There is a similar two-fold charge after the flood. In Genesis 8.17, Noah is told to bring out of the ark every living thing – “birds and animals and every creeping thing” – “so that they may abound on the earth and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” A few verses later, (9.1) the same blessing is given to Noah and his family – to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”

What do you think? Have these verses been over-fulfilled by humans and it’s time to stop multiplying and scale back? Could be. Certainly, we cannot continue with a way of life that would require more than three planet Earths when we only have one. The danger of multiplication is that it leads to more and there is an urgent need for us to stop at ‘enough’.

But I want to go back to my horse and the thought that life is good. Just as environmentally-concerned Christians have morphed Genesis 1’s fearsome concept of ‘dominion’ into the gentler ‘stewardship’, I think we may be able to find a way of being fruitful and multiplying that will lead to life that is flourishing, abundant and life-giving – for all.

Here I am going to borrow from Naomi Klein (in This Changes Everything) and her contrast of two mindsets – extractive versus regenerative. An extractive mindset is what’s been governing human behaviour for centuries. We take for ourselves what we want – coal, oil, timber, ore, food, water, whatever. Our focus is on what we want, and we apply our ingenuity to solving the problem of extracting as much stuff as we want. We are just starting to realize that we need to apply some ingenuity to the problem of what we do with the waste, because there’s too much of it. To an extractive world-view, multiplication is simply about having more. We will grow the economy, multiply the value of our property, have more stuff.

An extractive approach to the problem of excessive waste (including pollution) is to find ways of extracting less, mainly through becoming more efficient. We expect to maintain our way of life – keep the lights on, for example – while using less energy and other resources. It sounds worthy but it remains, at its core, extractive. It takes. Taking less is reductive and it’s still taking. And it’s like a boring cart. May as well make it a car (but a very efficient one), then there’s no need for that horse – because at the end of the day, there’s no need for life in an extractive world.

A regenerative approach would be more immersed and participative. It would be very mindful of what is put back into the natural system. We have to take – we have to eat and heat and so on. The question is, how do we give back and replenish, so that regeneration – new life – can happen? In a regenerative society, multiplication would mean putting more in than was taken out. A guiding principle would be that if you can’t add more back in, you can’t take anything out. We would live in order to multiply life.

In a regenerative world, we would pay attention to the relationships within systems. People more interested in giving than taking would naturally build strong and joyful communities. They would apply their ingenuity to inventing ways of growing food, travelling, acquiring and using energy, and so on, that multiplied life rather than diminished it. As more is put in than taken out, carbon emissions would go into reverse. But the focus would be on life, not on stuff. The focus would be on life that is abundant and flourishing, for all, including horses.

 

 

Why don’t I get out into the countryside more often?

On Monday, it was my day off.  My older son (just back from university for Easter) and I set out on our bikes.  We went down to the sea-front, along the eastern arm of Shoreham Harbour and crossed at the lock gates.  At Shoreham, we turned up the old railway line, now a trackway, and cycled along the river bank to Bramber.  Then through Upper Beeding, Edburton, Fulking and Poynings, where we had lunch at Rushfields Garden Centre and stocked up on supplies at their farm shop. Then we toiled up Devil’s Dyke and then coasted down back into Hove, barely having to pedal.

It was a dull day but mostly dry.  These little Sussex villages are so pretty and the countryside is just super, breath-takingly beautiful.  We really enjoyed our ride.   One of the things I love about cycling is that if you want to stop and look at something, you can.  You don’t have to find a parking space.  The freedom is half the exhilaration.  Physical achievement and going fast down a long hill combines for the other half.

Most of Sussex is covered by licences to explore for oil and gas through fracking.  I know that the landscape is already post-industrial (it used to be covered by trees – hence “Weald” from the Saxon for wood – which were cut down for ship-building, construction, iron-smelting and cleared for agriculture).  However, I think that it would be a crime and a sin to turn this beautiful countryside into a gas field – not to mention the harm that would do to the environment at large by burning all that gas and by the extra road traffic on the little winding lanes.  It seems a bit simplistic, maybe even sentimental, but is the beauty of the earth the best reason to look after it?

Talking of sentimental, I took some pictures and put them into a film.  It’s a bit rough and ready, but I enjoyed putting it together and I hope you’ll enjoy watching and listening.  One day I might part with some money to upgrade this blog so that I can embed video.  For now, you’ll have to click this link.

 

Time to re-think energy

Yesterday’s referral of the U.K.’s six biggest energy companies to the Competition and Markets Authority gives us a choice between a bad situation and a good situation.  The enquiry could take as long as two years. Already, investment in our energy supply is behind where it should be if we are (to use the over-worn phrase) to keep the lights on.  These six companies, who combine generation, distribution and both wholesale and retail sales, control 95% of the UK market. A two-year delay, during which these companies will be reluctant to invest in new generating plant, could be catastrophic. Investors may also be reluctant to keep investing in the Big Six companies.  That could damage the companies’ ability to build new plant even if they wished to.  We could find ourselves with a very precarious electricity supply very soon.

That bad scenario assumes that we all stick with an attitude that expects to switch a switch and the lights come on. The electricity is always available. We’re not really bothered about where it comes from (American coal? Turkmeni gas? Uranium? A dam at the head of a flooded valley? A wind farm in the countryside?) and we’re not really bothered about the cost of that generation – except the cost shown in pounds and pence on our bills.

There is an alternative. This is an opportunity to re-think how we use energy, how we generate it and how we distribute it. The probable reluctance of the Big Six to invest in new infrastructure for a couple of years opens up the picture to alternatives.  Why do we need big energy companies?  Why do we need big, remote generating plants that are a blight on the local environment and that lose a substantial amount of the power generated over long transmission lines and in step-down transformers?  Why can’t we start being more aware of the electricity and gas we need to use and be clever about using it efficiently and appropriately?

This is the time for smaller, independent energy companies to step into the breach and start breaking up the energy oligopoly.  They’re not going to build a massive power station, but they are well-placed to invest in smaller scale, more localized generation and distribution projects.

This is the time for communities to get together and put up solar panels, including thermal panels to heat water, put up wind turbines on houses, invest in heat pumps, and so forth. We can bring the whole expectation of energy supply down to the local level (where, of course, it began in the first place).  There are lots of community energy groups out there, already part way down this road, who can share their expertise and enthusiasm with others.

This is also the time for investors to pull out of the dodgy Big Six and invest in less risky small-scale schemes. This makes sense just from a financial point of view – e.g. Brighton Energy Co-op is currently giving a good rate of return.  But it also makes sense in the bigger, longer picture.  Whatever happens with this competition enquiry, the future of large-scale, fossil-fuel power generation is short, for all sorts of reasons.  This is the time to start thinking again – thinking small, local and sustainable.

Burn, baby, burn

The second biggest energy company in the UK, SSE, has announced a price freeze on domestic gas and electricity until 2016.  Good news for customers for the next two years, then.

That’s the limit of the good news in this announcement.  Because of the expectation that this will hit the firm’s profits, they have also announced cost savings – 500 job losses (not good news for them) and the withdrawal of much investment in biomass and offshore wind generation.

Presumably, SSE’s plan is to focus on burning fossil fuels.  That makes sense given the prevarication of successive UK governments over energy policy, which has discouraged investment and left the nation with little alternative. The present government is putting most of their energy into promoting fracking, with tax breaks for corporations, and financial incentives (I think we used to call them bribes) for local communities.

The only way in which fracking makes sense is if the alternative is burning coal.  It’s a very short-term solution.  A shale gas well will only be productive for a couple of years, if that.  We will need many thousands of them in our densely populated country in order to meet our needs. I’m not sure what we’re going to do about water supply and road safety and so on, but then joined-up thinking doesn’t seem to be our strong point.

What we need to do is to invest in technologies that help us to use much less energy. We need to invest in renewable generation.  We need to re-think how we generate, distribute and use electricity. (We need to move away from using gas altogether – there is no climate-friendly gas).

But while the government (and opposition parties) fail to think beyond their big idea of winning the next election, and corporations fail to think beyond the next AGM and dividend pay-out, and citizens fail to think beyond this month’s bills, we will remain addicted to ways of living that will kill us all.

There is a bigger, longer picture, that involves us all living and thriving.  But who has the courage to imagine it, let alone seek to make it reality?