I have another song to share.
I can now confirm that it is immensely good fun to sing hanging upside down from a tree. It is always nice when dreams come true.
This was done for the Wild Network addressing the issue of nature words being dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and its link with the wider problem of nature being less and less in childrens’ lives. The Wild Network are running a petition to try and get some of these words put back…
To watch it, click here…
England might get together and look down on France in the 6 Nations rugby. But Northerners in England rarely associate with lightweight southerners. But up north, Yorkshire and Lancashire have a long history of rivalry. West of the Pennines, Manchester might have a low opinion of Liverpool, but that’s nothing compared to what bubbles up when Man Utd and Man City meet. Altringham might look in disgust at Moss Side, but Park Road residents will often think the rest of Altringham is a bit common. Although Mrs Jones in number 5 thinks Mrs Smith next door is a bit ill-bred for Park Road.
Drawing boundaries is often abstract, and also seems to create difference and tension. But the thickest, most guarded boundaries tend to be the ones around nations. I wonder whether the concept of Nation has had its time and needs to take a back seat for the sake of a functioning future.
Aside from their role as culture containers and identity providers, nations are administrative units for management of people and resources. And it really doesn’t look like they are very good ones any more. They seem to get in the way of vital change, which leads me to question the legitimacy of the unit, its leaders and its apparatus.
There’s a lot of worrying stuff in the world today (need I even bother naming a handful?) that requires urgent attention. If anything meaningful is going to be achieved, the vast majority of this attention needs to addressed either at the community level, or at a global level. Or in most cases, both. At either end, nations tend to do more damage than good.
Nations, with slick administrators representing them, pursue the (somehow) morally acceptable “national interest” – abstract competitive dynamics similar to England vs. France in the rugby – which causes great harm. Identifying with a nation creates a highly fragmented view of the world, and a distortion and limitation of responsibility: it stops at this border here, the rest is their responsibility. So often, care for others seems to be eradicated in the pursuit of self / national interest (for example, the UK’s accelerating emissions from its economic expansion which will lead to many deaths in the southern hemisphere… but that is their problem).
And whose interest is the national interest exactly? I’ll leave the capable Russell Brand to lead that debate, but it’s another wobbly leg of my diminishing patriotism.
Nations are usually BIG. 60 million people. Communities don’t seem to work when they get too big. They aren’t communities any more. I even noticed this happen when an office I worked in grew above 10 people. Things get very complex and unmanageable, it turns into an organisation and human-ness evaporated. Trying to treat a nation like a community just invites confusion; they have different ends. So what seems to happen instead is a common identity gets manufactured, a British Brand, and promoted to a bunch of people who have little more in common than that their skin colour used to be the same 100 years ago, or that they live on the same island. Easier to control and administrate, I guess.
Worst of all, the bigger a community gets, the more damage it can do. A village community is limited in what havoc it can wreak. Forest Row lacks the resources (and desire) to develop drone bombers. A nation adopting a monoculture and directing its resources towards its political and economic interests causes catastrophe. 500 violent civilian deaths in Iraq so far this month.
Nature usually provides working examples of how to design things that don’t blow up (apart from volcanoes of course). Nations don’t feature in nature. Diversity does. In a mature rainforest, you can find yourself in a different ecosystem within 10 minutes of walking. It is almost pointless to give the Amazon Rainforest one name as if it’s a single area that can be designated.
The alternative to nations is not articulated or agreed on yet. But for me, a good first move is to withdraw as much support as possible from my nation and its agenda, and pour it into my community. With the aid of the internet, empowered self-reliant communities can cater for gaps in resource or skill, and can find effective ways to collaborate around global issues to address the hideous global damage that nations have achieved to date. And the rest of the time could be spent putting right the hideous local damage that has happened, restoring a better state of being – where humans have a true sense of belonging, and lives influenced by other people who actually care.
A lot of ecology-related words have become highly politically charged – sustainability, environment, climate change etc – to the point where they seem to have lost all power to engage. To restore the words’ meaning and help me understand again, I often find it useful to visit the woods, especially ancient woodland.
Mature ecosystems are mind-blowingly impressive and complex feats of design. Marvel, for example, at the perfect and endless cycle of life and death. One thing’s death provides life for another. Waste is food. Decay and growth rely on each other. There are no piles of rubbish pushed outside the wood, and the beetles have no means to ship it to China. It is healthy and whole. I suppose the ancient woodland achieves ancientness exactly because of this.
Any condition other than zero waste is what “unsustainable” means. That is why spiders do not make loom bands and woodpeckers don’t use power tools. This is why they still exist. Humans, however, have begun taking things like chlorine and hydrocarbons, and mixing them together to make toxic compounds that the earth has never had to deal with before, and we spray it over the ground which is where food comes from. We make rather a lot of nasty waste that no-one can have a use for. We make cars and batteries and convince ourselves this can last.
I ponder this as I drag my overflowing wheelie bin to the edge of my domain for someone else to take it I don’t know where. My wheelie bin violates that basic Law of Waste that disqualifies me from being part of a mature, healthy system; disqualifies my existence past a certain (approaching) deadline. It doesn’t feel this way from my armchair, but Progress has been steadily transforming a highly sophisticated ancient ecosystem into an immature, malfunctioning one.
It feels like we are coming to the end of a degenerative phase of evolution. There’s no exact date at which this phase started – the invention of writing perhaps, or farming, or electricity. Anything that dramatically boosts human productivity and fills wheelie bins, anything that produces waste rather than food, is broken and doomed. Our civilisation has become huge and destructive enough, in an enclosed and finite space, to threaten its own existence. And, belatedly, is provoking increasing numbers of participants to sense its demise.
Sadly, we are not also on the cusp of a regenerative phase, just because climate change is reaching the top of the agenda. Not as long as we think that switching to a hybrid car is the solution, or throwing our batteries into special Hazardous Household Waste bins. If a person achieves the factual insight into what havoc is involved (read this maybe) in manufacturing and then disposing of any type of car – regardless of the driving part – combined with an equally factual but also spiritual insight (which can’t be got from Upworthy I’m afraid) into how the soil, water and air that’s getting filled with waste is the stuff that nurtures all living things, an extension of ourselves, then behaviour in that person would surely change. It is the only thing that can happen when a healthy human has such an insight…
But I do not seem to be healthy – must be all that physical, mental and spiritual waste everywhere – so there is little or no behaviour change… and out rolls my wheelie bin filled with another fortnight’s Progress.
None of this truth is a pretty picture, and maybe that’s why it is so staggeringly ignored. It is natural that this should be the source of huge underlying anxiety for those who seek to deny it, a source of deep despair for those who have just begun to confront it, and a source of profound inspiration and motivation for those who have accepted the truth and are moved to action.
So what can I do, as despair starts to seize me? Funnily enough, despair is a rather important thing, which can be invited in. It reflects a deep forgotten love for life. Once digested, it leads to gratitude and positive action. There is always a scary guardian at the gate…
If I spare the time to stand in the woods and have a real look, or to stand by my wheelie bin a few moments longer and gaze at what I am contributing to my own ecosystem, I might begin to make a few simple connections and actually begin to give a shit. Or at least acknowledge that I am too lost in fear, comfort and powerlessness to do anything, but allow the productive forces of despair to commence their good work on me. Anything will do, anything except numbness and indifference. Anything but a wasted life.
I think I might have just accepted my last call from charities I used to support.
Back when I was earning enough money to pay tax, I also gave quite a lot to charity (not “a lot” in comparison to what I was spending on myself, but enough to make me feel like it was a lot). So I still get calls from these charities. But I found myself asking to be removed from their contact list last week, and I’m trying to properly work out why (besides not having a job).
Perhaps my main concern is my old mistake of seeing financial donations as being enough, and as a justification to carry on doing what I’m doing the rest of the time. Giving money in place of direct action is efficient and organised, but only momentarily thoughtful, and also disconnected from the underlying problem which is kept at a safe distance by automatic electronic monthly standing orders. I guess I no longer want that insulation.
Often it left me disconnected because I was supporting causes on the other side of the world. Often I would neglect smaller actions on my doorstep; small actions can easily be dismissed or left unattempted because they are not large-scale and directly life-saving (they also involve a bit more effort). But increasingly I get the feeling that troubles abroad are caused by a sickness in my own culture at home, a culture which maybe requires the exploitation of poorer cultures in order to thrive. So it’s more comfortable to focus on the distant cultures.
I see much salesmanship in the charity sector these days, and it concerns me and puts me off – charities smell increasingly like corporations to me, so I worry about what might have happened to the underlying principles. The lines between corporate and charity get increasingly blurred… can charities address a problem at its root when the root is also the hand that feeds them? Fundraising specialists call me up and market the terrible things happening and the wonderful work being done. It is not that I don’t think good work is being done on the ground in many cases, or that the fundraiser herself doesn’t care. It just all feels a bit impressively presented and conveniently packaged, like a little blue pill with a smiley face on it, and too many steps removed from reality to allow true compassion to get a look in. Just sympathy and good intentions. Which are good, but not enough. Doesn’t matter! – all I’m being asked for is money.
I can pay NSPCC to stop cruelty to children, and a cleaner to clean my house, a school to educate my kids and an au-pair to play with them, and Amazon or Tesco to deliver my shopping. It’s part of a clever outsourcing model, of institutional solutions. While the elements of my life are carried out by paid representatives, I can focus on getting paid to provide some other specialisation for someone else, like turning wilderness into holiday homes or persuading people to consume more sugar. If all goes well, I need never get paid a visit by my own responsibilities, or give further thought, care or time to the outside world.
But along the way, I contribute towards the creation of long-distance problems… which large charities can get their teeth into… funded by donations I earned causing the problem. From a human perspective, this sounds insane – it’s a model of dependence and therefore lack of freedom, and a fragmented, harmful life. From a business perspective, on the other hand, it sounds like a Healthy Economy. And anything that boosts the economy feels justifiable. But the truth obscured by this disastrous mindset is that I cannot outsource my own responsibility and detachment has no honest justification.
I’m not saying that I think giving money to charity is wrong; that would be stupid. But it’s part of an overall system design that is clever and convenient, but deeply wrong.
So I’d rather practise doing some of the thinking and caring myself, rather than pay an organisation. As an individual, I won’t be saving any lives, I expect. But it feels closer to an alternative that tries not to exploit, poison or impoverish in the first place.
Beyond the narrow definitions of the legal system, what makes a criminal, in reality? And might many good criminals have no choice from the start?
There is a reasonably widely-held concern that Western civilisation is based on well-meaning people blindly inflicting increasing amounts of death on vital, precious living systems. If properly confronted and explored it is a tough one to swallow, although once the thin veil is pulled back it can look worryingly obvious.
For example. Coca-Cola is bad for us. We know this. The sugar is terrible for our health; obesity and diabetes are huge problems now. The manufacturing process is extractive and energy-intensive. It gets driven many miles and stored in refrigerators which is also energy-intensive and polluting. And it produces tonnes of toxic landfill. All this to have fizzy drinks. Coca-Cola might sometimes worthily partner up with and fund Greenpeace, the WWF and the Human Rights Campaign to find ways to reduce the damage its consumption causes, but the root of the problem with Coca-Cola is simply that it exists (not something that the company is likely to address).
There’s the other side of it of course, that the enterprise provides jobs and economic growth and pleasure and some of its profits can be used for nice CSR stuff. This is the ideology of market economics that makes everything OK, allows us to puff away the bad stuff. But like Coca-Cola, the problem with market economics – at this stage now in our history – is that it exists.
So where does that leave me? I already know I could never work for Coca-Cola, or P&G, or anyone like that. But I also couldn’t set up my own little company to sell ‘nice’ fizzy drinks or nice soap, because another problem lies in the need to convert ancient resources into momentary and pointless fizzy drinks and soap, when (addictions aside) I simply don’t; certainly not as much as I need biodiversity and a functioning atmosphere. It strikes me that we can’t have one and have the other as well.
I would like Coca-Cola to stop selling Coca-Cola. The whole idea is fucking insane. Many would disagree with me on that, which is fine. Equally, I would like drug dealers to stop selling drugs, as cocaine seems a really bad idea. Perhaps more people would agree with me on that one; drug dealers probably would not. From the perspective of my own values, which increasingly seem to differ from the values of my civilisation, dealing in Coca-Cola or cocaine seem equally disturbing (which is funny actually, since they have a bit of a shared history).
But what was even more disturbing was when I started seeing more and more in common with me and a drug dealer. I was not born wanting to collude in pollution, inequality and species extinction, but I seem to have no choice but to participate in a crazed cycle of producing and consuming things, which causes just that.
I don’t imagine any drug dealer on a council estate was born wanting to sell drugs. But with the opportunities available in the violent environment they grew up in, perhaps many had little choice… and grew to see it as the best option available anyway. We both need to make money to survive, and that process hurts living things in different ways – the drug dealer’s way is more direct and obvious, and is considered illegal, while mine is several steps removed (but still pretty obvious really), and is currently actively encouraged.
Anyone with eyes or ears is aware of the plight of the rainforests and the oran-utans, and the rise of soil erosion and rape, even though we might not like to talk about it. It is so easy to plead powerlessness or hypocrisy and escape into the legalised haven of consumerism. After all, where else is there to go; an established alternative does not yet exist.
So first I let the despair wash through; this seems quite a normal emotion, something important to allow to come and then go. Then comes the hope and excitement – an adventure into a vastly more enriching way of living. No endeavour is quite so daunting once it’s actually been started. And the more people who consider their own involvement in big problems, and question the system at its roots, and who subsequently form and honour their own values, the more an alternative begins to emerge to replace this broken one.
Whoever’s out there already, and I’ve met a decent bunch of you – I’M WITH YOU!!
Good health, time with family, the love of a good woman, or man, or golden retriever. I wish these for everyone. But I begin to doubt whether even these get deep enough when it comes to happiness.
I read an article over the holidays written by an expert in the Economics of Happiness. His point was that happiness cannot come from Things, no matter how much we keep trying and buying. He says that happiness can only come from Experiences, and that’s where we should spend our energy or money: a holiday with the family, a cycle ride with friends, a glass of wine with the wife.
Sounds like the description of a Butlins brochure. As I often find with economics, something important seems to be missing; it seems to fall a bit flat, just scrape the surface of things.
I think I’d describe my most happy memories last year as when I was vividly experiencing what Living truly entails. Confusingly at first, these occasions tended to involve not just joy and ecstasy, but also feelings of scarlet anger, moral outrage, or deep grief. Truly living seems to mean experiencing these emotions fully, without shutting away reality through denial, numbness or alcohol or the sweet distraction of an economist’s recipe for happiness.
What is particularly notable is that these emotions rarely surface when the situation only has to do with me and my situation.
Maybe the quest for happiness is too often mistaken for the individual’s happiness, a kind of isolated, separated idea of happiness. What I have noticed of people when they are at their most human, is that the happiness of others matters every bit as much as their own. When I really think about it, other people’s happiness is probably the biggest determinant of my own happiness, when I’m not in tunnel-vision economics mode.
And they don’t have to be people I know. I can’t tell you how upset I get these days when I deeply acknowledge the underprivileged, those millions or more who are the direct result of (or the prime ingredient for) the excess, comfort and convenience that I enjoy.
And they don’t even have to be people for that matter. I can barely describe how outraged the reality of mass species extinction makes me; the injustice of one species thinking it can exterminate all others in its normal course of business. And the pain of how endangered our own future might already be as a result.
These are not Happy Thoughts, for sure, so the logical response would be to turn away and quickly scurry back towards optimistic Happy Thoughts. But again and again I find the truth lies in the paradox. Relentless positivity, and other popular forms of denial, leads to things like inequality and species extinction, and a deep sense of anxiety. Never happiness.
I think I am at my most happy when I have a vision, a quest. Not a project, or a strategy, or a motivating corporate mission. A progressive uncovering of what my most deeply-held convictions are, and living them, breathing them, weaving them into my fabric… with all the unpleasant surprises and contradiction and stunning inspiration that entails. And then going forth to serve in some way. Reaching deeply inwards and then projecting widely outwards.
This kind of purpose is what it seems that cultures (unfortunately excluding mine) across the world for hundreds of thousands of years have agreed on; the definition of what it means to be human, and every person’s challenge. Look what happens when a culture loses that.
Living for values that I would die for… the idea immediately puts a lump in my throat. It makes me shudder and it makes me wildly excited. Maybe these are some of the indicators that real happiness might be nearby.
“What do you do?”
I can’t describe how much I have struggled with this question, even when I thought I’d let it go.
I like to imagine a place many generations ago, where there were less people and they were a little more connected and aware of each other, and if I were asked that question my only response would need be “I am Chris.” And that would explain everything.
Today, identity gets blurred by expectations and media images and career plans and elevator pitches. There is an anxiety woven into our culture warning that whoever we are or whatever we’re doing at any given point isn’t enough in and of itself. We categorise and legitimise ourselves with words ending in -er: writer, doodler, whittler, philosopher. If we truly are what we do, then we might also more honestly call ourselves tellywatcher, toothbrusher, money worrier, imaginer of people naked (just throwing out random examples). But it doesn’t sound as impressive.
Young people, when they are struggling to get grips with who they are, get bombarded with questions about what they want to be. Some might even have an answer to this aspired identity question; unlucky them if it isn’t a good enough answer, if it isn’t the identity that was intended for them in the first place. Watch that dream get squished (for their own good of course). The superficial messaging that we receive in the hundreds of brand stories pointed at us every day soothes us, saying how free and individual we are. But everything points to conformity, just with bells on. Quests are not tolerated. Secretly, our culture wants everyone to be the same as everyone else – easier to manage and sell to, I suppose.
“I don’t know what I want to do” – adults say this as much as children these days. If I say it, it can be translated as “I have lost myself.” A painful loss, and you can see it in my eyes when I say it. In those moments, maybe what I most need to do is to experience that pain for a while. This is a secret story playing out up and down the shopping centre escalators that brands would never talk about.
I am Chris. I am a collection of values – possibly even my own heartfelt ones that I have spent much time tracking, observing and courting, and might strive to test and honour above all else. I am a puff of changing emotions that I can’t put my finger on, but which seem intimately linked to those values. I am nothing that ends in -er, apart from when that’s what I happen to be doing at the time.
This gives rise to endless possibility, and in the reflection of these possibilities I see the dreams of an interconnected individual, and I taste freedom.
But to answer “I am Chris”, and all that this complex concept contains, is taken as facetious and frivolous in the world of I.D. Dreams seem to invite concerns over sanity, pity for job prospects or even outright hostility. Dreams and values and emotions are not what make the modern world go round, and perhaps the reminder of this tragedy is profoundly upsetting to a human being. So the dreams get ridiculed and called names as if the playground has never been left, except clever adult words are used: naive, extreme, irresponsible, self-indulgent, idealistic.
As if the deepest expression of the essence of someone’s very core is somehow selfish and unrealistic.
Imagine a world of visionless people divorced from their souls, where the only response to that yawning emptiness is to run off and do things. What kind of a world would that be?
I am Chris.
I have another year of books to share with you.
Here is my 2014 book list (CLICK HERE), with reflections on what each of them gave me.
(Here also is my 2013 book list and
Here is my 2012 book list).
On many occasions I have made a long list of things to do: urgent things, important things, really important things, and admin stuff. Then I go about doing all the easy things – all the admin, the urgent emails and none of the important stuff that demands wholehearted and uncomfortable commitment.
I need to careful about how my attention is focused. Too much attention in the wrong places does not lead to good places: this is the danger of Small Victories. Small victories are comforting but dangerous distractions from deeper issues.
Most recently, I was reminded about this by the fracking debate. I was a at gathering in my village last month, attended by the local MP and ex-Energy Minister, to discuss questions around fracking. Fracking sounds like a ludicrous idea. So ludicrous that it won’t take off, surely. If it does, I’m sure I’ll turn up waving angry placards. It does need attention because ludicrous ideas have been known to take hold in the past (burning billions of tonnes of coal to make disposable novelty plastic toys for instance, or buying a house bigger than you need with a mortgage you can’t pay).
But too much attention on fighting the ludicrous idea can divert the attention away from the fact that my own unsustainable lifestyle is the real problem. So maybe we need to talk a bit less about fracking for a while. The real problem around fracking and renewables is not how we generate our energy, but that we consume vastly too much energy – for things that we generally do not need, and need to learn to do without. Water supplies and democracy are already threatened, fracking is only another example highlighting this; beating fracking won’t do anything about the fix we’re in.
Small victories tend to justify and prolong the wider status quo. They do not challenge the real problem, they are worthwhile causes that make me feel I am doing something, when I’m not really. As long as I concentrate on small victories, I can just keep on consuming, and voting for governments that encourage the nation to consume more and grow.
Buying green products, signing petitions, doing sponsored runs, attending charity galas – these are all good things to do but the mistake is to think that it is enough; that’s when small victories become a threat. They become an escape from the uncomfortable deeper truths, a dreadfully scaled-up version of spending the day reading Upworthy articles shared on Facebook rather than doing my overdue homework.
What does appear to be necessary – something along the lines of radical, government-led behaviour change – unfortunately lies a long way outside my comfort zone. In many ways my comfort zone is the problem – there is a heavy toll that has arisen and accumulated from the attempted elimination of hardship in western lifestyles, through short term convenience and happy-gadgets and other things powered by coal and shale gas and solar panels. This erosion of fortitude leaves me poorly placed to do the important things required of me.
Once I’ve done my admin and my emails I have little time and energy left for anything else – a few small victories and I’m already exhausted, or even worse I feel righteously satisfied, full up on little goals like a feast on white processed bread. The energy debate is about far more than electricity, it’s about how and where I direct my own power.