Decluttering has never felt so good. It really came into fashion in the last few years – getting rid of all that junk you accumulated and heading towards a life of simplicity.
Something always felt missing in that decluttering fad though. It can often be temporary and superficial, and not underpinned by deep value shifts driving healthier, more sustainable behaviour.
Well, decluttering has now been supercharged – you can get rid of your crap by loading it in your car and driving it off to Calais. You get a double dose of feelgood, plus the national service of boosting Britain back up the rankings of Countries Who Care.
I am not saying that the tide of efforts to help refugees in Calais is wrong in itself, or that it comes from a bad place, not at all. But there should be no congratulation handed out when we go back to our everyday lives.
Our everyday lives are what caused it to happen. We carry a chunk of the responsibility. To ignore these events would be like driving on after knocking someone over; at least many are stopping to attend to the victim. Can we ever accept this responsibility, or is goodhearted decluttering the furthest we are prepared to take it; just attend to the roadkill on our immediate doorstep while the SUV keeps squishing along its path?
Anyone who lives a western lifestyle is contributing to climate change which is increasingly understood to cause conflict in vulnerable, unstable areas. Normally this is far enough from our island to ignore, but dead babies on Mediterranean beaches make that strategy less and less easy to adhere to. I imagine most people hope that the crisis will pass, the refugees will find a happy place (not in my village though) or at least the newspapers will reduce coverage as Strictly Come Dancing resumes, and we can get back to normal, filling our cupboards again and jumping on planes.
Anyone who lives in a western state is involved in selling huge amounts of arms to vulnerable, unstable areas. Some of these refugees will be running from weapons manufactured in this country in a lucrative arms contract that really boosted our economy and brought us back from the brink of having to have one less holiday this year.
We vote in governments with mandates to defend and advance our way of life. Our way of life kills people. We don’t want that to happen but we also are not prepared to change. It is very difficult, and certainly inconvenient, to address an issue at that depth. It makes me feel powerless. I feel much more in control when I go the charity route, and attack symptoms rather than underlying causes.
This is perhaps our own parallel crisis playing out, alongside other people’s, like the Syrian refugees’. Surely in our hearts many are beginning to understand the connection we have with these suffering people, and notice how we are suffering too. The slow realisation that our cherished culture directly kills people is a tough one to swallow and will rightly, and necessarily, cause deep personal moral crisis if truly confronted; another crisis that won’t disappear overnight.
Charities do lots of work that saves lives, as well as make thousands of charity workers’ lives feel more meaningful. But it can also act as a salve, that makes it all feel OK, helps us still feel like good people when bad things happen.
But it is not OK. There is no sign that we will vote in a government that ideologically opposes the arms industry, or that we will change our behaviour that causes climate change (amongst many other things). There is every sign that climate change has already gone past the point where massive global unrest and chaos can be averted. But there is no sign that westerners like me will go beyond anything other than giving away our spare blankets with heartfelt condolences.
We can empty out our closets of our clutter, but the skeletons remain.
This year has strongly featured getting out-of-the-blue invitations from people, usually asking me to do something that makes me feel nervous, and quickly accepting.
None more surprising and uncomfortable than being asked to participate in the Clear Lines Festival, which runs from this Thursday 30 July to Sunday. Festivals aren’t only about celebration. They can be collections of events, talks and creative offerings around a particular issue, and for this one this issue is rape and sexual abuse.
I’ve been asked to join a panel discussion entitled “Where have all the good men gone?” The festival wishes to start a conversation about how men can get involved and become part of the solution to sexual violence.
Many men might not be involved in this conversation. In fact, many men might not be involved in many types of conversation at all. Often it’s the actual human interaction (pretty necessary for a conversation) which is totally avoided, and I have noticed this in particular around men and children. Perhaps this sort of disengagement, the fear or shame that causes it and the isolation or numbness that accompanies it, has worked its way so much into normality that it is barely noticed and rarely questioned. This would explain a lot to me…
Not talking about rape would be understandable if you consider that it might be rare for men in our culture to be provided with, or even better provide themselves with, the permission and the courage and the spaces to actually talk about ANYTHING of deep meaning.
Anyway, when I get the urge to wrestle with something, I often find it useful to try and make it rhyme, so here is a spoken word offering that explores what might be behind the question: Where Have All The Men Gone?
My landlords came round the other week to make sure that the house hasn’t been too trashed in the 2 years we’ve been living here. No big issues. Their only observation was that “the garden could do with a bit of attention.”
You know what? They are absolutely right, and I have taken immediate action.
My first step has been to get up every morning before the kids need to wake up and sit silently for half an hour in the garden while the sun rises. This is called by some a ‘sit spot’ and is a practice as important to budding naturalists as breathing, so it seems like a good move. And from here I can pay the garden a lot of attention.
Another step has been to cease mowing the lawn or pulling weeds. The lawn, in addition to tall buttercups, daisies and clover, already now has bugle and bacon-and-eggs and lots of interesting grasses (I assume these are what everyday lawn grass is always struggling to become in between lawnmower slaughterings. What a lovely discovery – grass isn’t just grass, just as people aren’t just people!).
There are rather a lot more butterflies. I am watching the development of blackberry flowers in 24-hour time lapse. I have begun to notice the difference between a blue tit call and a blue tit song, and what juvenile birds look like and what they do with their mums and dads.
And then the pondering starts…
What is the connection between the buttercup and the oak tree? I’m not in a rush to solve such mysteries, but I am very happy to be in the presence of them a bit more.
Where do all the sycamore leaves go when they fall? It certainly isn’t me clearing them up I can tell you. But after a couple of months there’s no trace, I managed to notice last year. I can’t wait until Autumn to start finding out. Whatever happens, I’m sure it’s better going back to the mud than into the brown bin. Perhaps this awful negligence explains why a pretty flower called bistort has sprung up under the sycamore…
The well-kept lawn is surely an aberration. It’s the perfect symbol of our times. Pride taken in the maintenance of a featureless monoculture, with machines and chemicals applied to stop anything daring to peep up its head. The pursuit of heart-shrivelling perfection. The cutting of connections and the banishment of diversity. All carried out with a bored, whingeing resignation, wrestling with a Qualcast when you ought to be (and would rather be) wrestling with the kids in the nodding meadow fescue.
There is such pleasure in allowing in a bit of wildness, especially if I turn up and join in.
I wish for the garden what I wish for my children – not only a chance to make a living but also a chance to express and develop a rich assortment of capabilities, both wild and tame. I want that for me too.
Thank you, my landlords, for some very good advice.
I call this the Freedom Blog, but that doesn’t mean that freedom is always a good thing.
For instance, I often find myself worrying about the crippling dangers of Free Markets. And the Charlie Hebdo thing brought attention to the shadow side of Free Speech.
A good dose of restrictive exclusivity can often be very wise when applied in the right places, and very stupid when not. And in our backwards culture, it should be expected that we get things dreadfully the wrong way round.
When I come across exclusivity, it is normally in the context of creating scarcity, in order to make something appear more valuable and be more demanded. It is linked to luxury and status. It is a important element of making and maintaining a culture of inequality, and selling stuff.
The wise form of exclusivity often means just leaving things alone. Like the gold that indigenous Americans used to leave undisturbed in the ground, until the Modern American turned up, ethnically cleansed the land, and proceeded to tear it up.
Wise exclusivity allows the human species to remain within safe cultural boundaries, to avoid causing destruction. It allows the existence of mystery, which is an essential ingredient for anyone interested in having either a soul or an adventure. And it keeps things held back until the correct time or maturity is reached to uncover it.
Manhood, womanhood, sex, and all the complex paradoxes of the human condition… these used to be carefully guarded by experienced elders and imparted to youngsters at the right time in the right way, so that they did not become lost or destroy themselves.
Because sex without mystery, initiation or guidance can be destructive. When the sacred is fed into the mass market and exclusivity disappears, you get an internet full of freely-available porn that people can use for their instruction and initiation – free of mystery and free of safety.
Someone was describing the 50 Shades of Grey film to me recently. Even at the age of 40, I want to protect myself from seeing this film. It appears to deal with some very powerful symbols and concepts which the mass media, as a channel, cannot handle responsibly. In the absence of careful handling, I can sit there and watch passively, numbly viewing disasters of the modern pysche as normal. And instead of learning valuable lessons, as a consumer of a film I’ll probably just reaffirm dangerous stereotypes about myself and the world around me.
It is so easy to be inadvertently complicit in the real life tragedy of dreadfully confused men and women – simply by turning up or tuning in to the crap that prevails. Perhaps in a similar way with spoiling ballots, it is always worth seriously considering not turning up. Instead, creating some exclusivity. Exploring the underlying issues in a safer, more meaningful way, or waiting for a time when that can be done. And, for those of us who begin to care, creating situations and moments when those lessons, initiations or conversations can safely occur.
The idea of restriction is very unfashionable, and goes against the GDP-sponsored inalienable right to do whatever I goddamn want. But seeing the pain caused by clumsily and carelessly exposing sensitive young people (and uninitiated 40 year old men) to sacred issues through uncaring mass media, all in the name of freedom… surely this should provoke us to re-examine our values.
But where can we learn our values if not from telly and newspapers?
Elders, role models – wherever you are, if you are still alive – time for you to step back up. We need you badly.
Knowing what I now know about the disastrous destiny of the culture I live in, how can I possibly participate in it? Since I need money to survive and am reliant on this system, how can I possibly not participate in it?
Still wrestling with that one.
I am staggered by the number of people I am meeting who are also struggling with this impossible conundrum. There are so many people who want to work to serve and to heal, but find that this aspiration is simply not viable. The only things that are commercially valued are the things that can be priced and grown and produce a reliable return. This state of affairs, where there is utterly essential work to be done and people who want to do it, but an economic system that prevents it, is deeply upsetting, infuriating, insane.
It is a prison, with three formidable security systems: financial restraints which make it almost impossible in practice to escape the system, social restraints where any attempts to escape are met with an aggressive social moral logic deeply interested in everyone remaining incarcerated and competing, and psychological restraints where potential escapees flood themselves with anxious thoughts about how inadequate they are, and give up.
The industrial experiment we are part of is an elephantine failure that most cannot seem to acknowledge. To put the brakes on, to preserve the future instead of growth, would create deeply unstable conditions and much suffering, as many millions have experienced in the last decade (although billions had been suffering for decades already); an easily imaginable, shorter term disaster. To carry compounding the erosion, pollution, species destruction, inequality until something finally collapses is an unimaginable (although now scientifically-backed), longer term catastrophe.
Compound growth (the key ingredient to make our system function) in a finite system is clearly impossible – only a complete idiot would deny this; the idea is actually becoming stagnant with halfhearted overuse. But it’s still no wonder that the over-riding choice is to avoid the short term problem, and keep growing, keep living as usual. In practice, what else can you really do?
But what about those people who wish to find an alternative, a group I would like to include myself in…
I think I need to get clear on what I mean for myself by Work. Addressing it in the sense of jobs or earning a living offers no way out. Or maybe an important piece of work is to accept is that there is currently no visible way out…
A friend of mine described our culture as being in between two stories, an old one that doesn’t work any more, and a new one that we can’t yet see. This is a time of anxiety, uncertainty and confusing paradox. It is a time of struggle, to find way of living and of earning a living that is in line with our intrinsic values – values that are not enshrined in or rewarded by our social, economic, political systems.
Maybe the struggle itself, in its many forms and interpretations, is the Work. Maybe for all those people out there – those who know a toxic turd when they see it, and who yearn for beauty and human-ness, and try their best to avoid lapsing into collective blindness – for those people the challenge of weathering the anxiety and confusion without turning back to the tantalising arms of the sick but familiar old story is the vital work today. Perhaps our work is finding our own active response, finding each other, and finding the endurance to remain standing; this might be the most precious service possible to the new story, which must write itself.
A beautiful struggle through the messy first few chapters of the new story, or at least a dignified ending. In the midst of all the distress, I find this a comforting thought.
I have never cared more about the general election than this time round.
To date, I have only actually voted once. Up until the last general election, I stayed at home, not feeling compelled to join in, but nothing deeper than that. Last elections I did cast a vote, a kind of “anything but those last bastards” kind of vote. I was surprised at the sense of betrayal I immediately felt – self-betrayal at first, like I had just participated in something unsavoury. Then as time progressed, a betrayal of the people and places and beings that suffer directly at the hands of the system I had validated. Staying at home feels too passive to me, so I’m exploring the option of deliberately spoiling my ballot.
“People fought and died so you can vote.” “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” These common comments are part of our conditioning, to heap ridicule and suppression on the disobedient. They serve to create the illusion that not only is the current system the only one that is right, it is the only one there ever can be. So the only question for such people can be how to participate inside the matrix – and so the only question is ‘who do I vote for?’
I saw a McDonalds billboard advert the other week when I went to London: a huge image of a Big Mac, entitled “The gherkin debate”. Mainstream culture does not wish to discuss animal welfare, habitat destruction or obesity. No, we shall focus on the gherkin instead.
In a similar way, the whole political debate is about the surface and never about the roots, about policies and parties rather than about regimes. Self-serving institutions would never allow their existence to be morally challenged – that would make no sense (such challengers would be labelled terrorists). Those in control are just fine with the way things are – accept this or you do not belong. So the debate sticks to the surface, between people who usually seem nice and usually are nice; they as individuals are not the problem.
WW2 soldiers most likely fought against the idea of oppression (unless they were forced by their country to fight and had no choice). I doubt anyone fought for a system (an enduring system, not a particular leader or government) that sells over £12bn in arms to known repressive states. Or one that knowingly accelerates towards known emissions limits. Or one that, by design, enriches its top 5% at the expense of the 95%. This is something to act against daily, regardless of whether a brainwashing voting ritual is entered into every 4 years. Why would I vote for that? Non-participation in something filthy is the most important first step, surely.
Fracking, TTIP, tax evasion, expenses, climate change denial… have you ever looked up for a moment from whatever unsustainable device you’re holding, grabbed a handful of your hair and shouted “Hang on a minute, what the FUCK is going on?” The official debate excludes the most critical conversations – the roots are left outside the realm of discussion, in the same way an organisation excludes “external costs” like pollution and social consequences from its accounting practices. In this way, all are free to believe the system actually works. This orthodoxy is morally outrageous – and increasingly, as the truth becomes more difficult to obscure, so is the act of legitimising the orthodoxy.
The Greens might express a similar outrage, but they are powerless to change it if they choose to act through a system that is deeply conflicted against making fundamental changes. But it’s great that they are giving it a go; each to their own, right? At least they’re trying to get past the gherkin layer.
You can’t vote for change anyway, as the change lies outside the borders of where voting operates. Change lies in the wilderness, on the margins, beyond the current viewpoint. As in stories like Parzival, Jesus, Theseus or Dorothy in Oz, to have any chance of finding the truth, every person must disengage from orthodoxy and the immediate issues of livelihood, acknowledge ignorance, surround oneself with possibility, and return to the community with a more whole vision.
Return to the community. The whole issue of voting-democracy is itself merely scratching the surface. A spoiled ballot is merely symbolic, not any real action. Real action lies away from national orthodoxy. Until recently, the only viable way for humans, and still for every other organism, to live was through subsistence (the way of Enough rather than Growth), and through resilient communities (as being subsistent and alone usually means death), and through the absence of superstructures, apart from the governing laws of nature.
Rather than a grounding, ancient, nature-based ethos, I instead have shopping and business and competitive self-advancement. And while my head is kept looking down, the system I am pressured to vote for and legitimise promotes the National Interest through business deals and arms deals under an insane growth agenda.
Baby steps can only be taken towards a sustainable, subsistence, community-led way of living – or whatever other system real democracy chooses, that does not eat the future. But the first step, surely, is to actively withdraw participation in a system that does.
Sometimes songs can be like snogs. Or buses. Straight on the back of last week’s musical offering I have another.
This one is made in service of and out of love for Forest Row. It is not a sequel to last year’s, simply another outburst. A bit of spoken word, a bit of string quartet, a smattering of drum and a pinch of opera… and admittedly an additional motive attached.
Anyway, you’ll either see the video embedded below, or CLICK HERE
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…
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.