Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Why It Would Be Great To Be A Caveman In The 21st Century

This is a response to the e-book by my friend Jeff Rice "The Next Level - How Not To Be A Caveman In The 21st Century". You have bung old Jeff some money to read it, but I'll summarise: we should aspire to become gods.

Jeff is clearly more interested in the wood than the trees, and he starts by looking at life's most startling property - its capacity to manufacture complexity out of simplicity, seemingly flying in the face of entropy. Entropy, the tendency for all things to decay, the force that did for Tom Baker's Doctor Who and the scientific proof of Keynes quote that "In the long run we're all dead" is something to seriously worry about if we're planning on making a permanent mark on the cosmos, so Jeff's right to take an interest.

Next he looks at our psychological heritage from the days of banging stones together on the African plains. It wasn't a black monolith from space that saved our primitive bacon, it was our thumbs and our big brains. Jeff seems to ignore the thumbs bit, but he's very interested in the contents of those Pleistocene brains.

Inside those Cro-magnon skulls was all the hardware needed to live in the modern world. Although they wouldn't have know it, there would have been stone age men wandering around who, if properly trained, could have even done the really tricky stuff even I never actually figured out like flying a jet fighter, passing a Physics exam or separating the laundry into cold and warm wash.

But possibly more important than that was the psychology of the stone age brain. What kept you alive in a world when the next cave might contain a hungry bear wasn't IQ, but instinct. Cave man psychology contained healthy doses of fear and anger, a yearning for happiness and sex, a respect for hierarchy, conformity and status, and a tendency to stereotype others into groups usually labelled "one of us" and "not from round here" (a very strong trait in stone age Glossop). This software kept us alive at night on the dangerous African plain, but in the 21st century it is dooming the planet.

The solution, says Jeff, is to rise above our psychological heritage. We must take control of our evolution and actively promote that part of our ancient psychology that is still useful; our curiosity, our desire for co-operation and our awareness of our place in nature.

To the Ancients a god was an archetype, the best that a Man could be, but no better. Hercules could wrestle Apollo and Odysseus could mistake the words of his wise old councillor for those of Pallas Athene.

Jeff it seems to me, is suggesting we ditch Zeus and his hierarchies, Mars and his war like ways, and all the other useless gods. We should en devour instead to combine the cunning of Odysseus and the wisdom of Athene to move forward to true enlightenment. Entropy be damned!

But lets back pedal a bit. Jeff starts his book with a familiar hierarchy. Starting with subatomic particles he works his way up through organic chemistry to life itself. He then has "the evolution of plants and animals", "ecology", "psychology" and "technology". This is a hierarchy of increased complexity. It is similar to the old school biology books that had "the time of bacteria" followed by "the time of fish", "the time of reptiles" up until "the time of mammals".

But those school books were wrong. Mammals did not follow reptiles by divine decree. Had it not been due to an unfortunate encounter with a passing meteorite it would still be "the time of reptiles". And even when dinosaurs really did rule the earth the life in the seas was still more abundant than that on the land, and then and now it was actually the humble bacteria that made up the majority of the biomass of the earth.

Complexity is always interesting, but not always important, and we should think carefully before putting ourselves at the top of any sort of evolutionary tree. As Douglas Adams said "on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much -- the wheel, New York, wars and so on -- whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man -- for precisely the same reasons."

Whether you put us or flipper at the top of the complexity ladder, I would agree with Jeff that there is another rung above us. Whether you call it ecology, Earth Systems Science or Gaia, it seems clear that a group of organisms living in harmony is a system more sophisticated than even Fraser Crane.

But what of the next rung? Psychology? Hmm. Is this not just the study of the behaviour patterns or one part of this complex eco-system that we call the Earth? Why should human psychology be considered any more complex, any more interesting or any more relevant than the sex lives of amoeba?

As Popeye the Sailor said "I am what I am what I am". What if, like the famous spinach eater, we are no more able to rise above our psychological inheritance than a randy terrier? What if we are stuck as Cave Men?

Well, it could be worse. First there are the Cave Women (see Rachel Welch above) who speak for themselves - despite millennia of men trying to deny them this right.

Secondly , was the Cave Man life really all that bad? No bosses you couldn't look straight in the eye, gods that were bigger than them but smaller than the world, a paradise to wander around in and best of all three hours work a day.

It seems to me that, rather than make Man fit for the 21st century, we could do a lot worse than make the 21st century fit for Man.

As Earth First! used to say "Back to the Pleistocene"

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Political wipeout

They were once the leading left wing party of British politics, with a Prime Minister so popular that he could have been dictator for life if he's wanted to. But then came trouble. Firstly a war, which split the party and led to ministerial resignations, then there were the unfortunate compromises with the political right. Finally trouble in the Middle East and a cash-for-peerages scandal toppled the Prime Minister and then in the General Election that followed they finished a dismal third, with a hitherto minor party taking up the torch of progressive politics.

No, not my prediction for May 6th, but the result of the 1922 General Election.

There were a few differences between then and now. Lloyd George was a political genius and in the First World War he at least did all the right things. He also didn't just steal Tory policies, he governed in alliance with the party, and whilst he did sell peerages shamelessly, he did so because he considered such honours useless and any man willing to pay for them a fool who deserved to loose his money. The Middle East crisis was in Turkey and, although the country was terrified of getting entangled in another European war, everything worked out all right in the end.

However I suspect 1922 is a date that we could be hearing rather a lot about soon - the year the Labour Party overtook the Liberal Party as the progressive voice in British politics.

There were several reasons for this. The Liberals, formerly the aristocratic Whig Party, had been changing gradually over the last century as the franchise increased. When the rise of the Trade Unions and the formation of the Labour Party took the votes of the ordinary working class from them (the Independent Labour Party had the votes of the radical Middle Class) there was nowhere else left for them to recruit new supporters from

The First World War had also split the party, with Lloyd George, the ultimate political outsider, governing with the support of the Tories, non-conformist back-benchers and the popular support of the country as a whole. In opposition was virtually the whole of the pre-war Liberal government. Lloyd George was probably the best British politician of the Twentieth Century, but he was almost a man without a party which meant that when the chips were down he had no-one on his side.

And so the party that won the First World War, introduced National Insurance and laid the foundation of the Welfare State was ousted, and in it's place came the party that gave us the NHS, gave India its independence and introduced National Parks, state funded Care Homes and the greenbelt.

So is it the 1920s all over again? Should we look forward to a new Jazz Age of hedonism, fashion, music and fun? Art Deco, Dada, Cabaret, a General Strike and England winning the Ashes with some dodgy bowling? Possibly.

Or perhaps coalition government, Prohibition in the USA and the inevitable aftermath of economic (or maybe this time environmental) crash and the rise of fascism? Possibly rather more likely.

Endless articles in the press comparing then and now? Almost inevitable, but at least I got mine in first.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Silence in the Bollin Valley

"F*ck off"

This was the sum total of my conversation with a one of Britain's elite soldiers, who I had just caught sneaking around the perimeter of our protest camp on the site of Manchester Airport's Second Runway.

He was the advance guard of the forces of Babylon, come to remove us from our tree houses and tunnels at the end of the existing runway, and it meant the beginning of the end of my time in the noisiest campsite I have ever pitched up at.

Following on the from the SAS were police in riot vans, swarms of yellow coated security guards in Land Rovers, and watching them a dozen or so cars and vans of the assembled press corps - all being served tea by the mobile soup kitchen of the Salvation Army.

Last night I returned to the Bollin Valley and found a very different scene. The runway has covered our camps in thirty feet of aggregate and the Bollin now flows through a culvert, but the wild garlic still infuses the night air.

Venus as the Evening Star sank slowly into the West following a blood red sun. The new moon hung in the sky over the red eyes of the airport's radar dish. But apart from that the skies were empty.

There were no planes.

Thirteen years ago our camp was rattled every few minutes by the engines of a jet taking off. In my tunnel the high pitch wine of intake was masked but the bass roar of the exhaust magnified. The overladen Air Pakistan jumbo that clipped the top of Zion Tree in the early hours of Sunday morning was so loud it made your teeth rattle.

All changed thanks to Icelandic Volcano.

The protesters produced a tape of songs recorded in the camps. It is a unique musical record, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that most of the songs are interrupted by a plane taking off. Sarah's contribution was called "Silence". Then it was ironic, now it seems prophetic.

In due course the ash clouds will pass and the planes will resume. Newly washed chives flown in from Ethiopia will reappear on our supermarket shelves, and travellers will return from far flung destinations, but for a few days at least it's possible to dream of another world.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Democracy: It’s a Pagan Thing

I don’t suppose politics is something that bothers Pagans too much.

Too individualistic to be Labour, too weird to be Tory, I doubt there are many paid up party members amongst us. We might show some interest at the possibility of telling the boss you’re taking Samhain as a religious holiday, or worry about the ban on carrying athames, but generally I suspect we are fairly agnostic about the machinations of Westminister.

Perhaps though it’s about time we reclaimed parliamentary democracy as our own as it’s a pagan idea through and through. The democracy bit came from those pagan Greeks. Then there was the tradition of the pagan Irish electing their kings, and the pagan Anglo-Saxons had something similar with their Witan as well as their moots for local politics.

The parliament bit though was added in 930AD when those still unashamedly pagan Icelanders had their first thing. It possibly wasn’t the romantic scene imagined by W.G. Collingwood, but it was the origins of modern democracy. Whilst the Christians preferred the ‘Divine Right of Kings’, the Icelanders, and their fellow followers of the Northern Tradition, sent their representatives to meet as equals and to thrash things out according to the law.

The Danes brought their thing to Britain and this is remembered in place names such as Thingwall in the Wirral. These things were no idle talking shop either. In 1018, for example, the King of Sweden was told in no uncertain terms by his thing that they were in charge and not him. In Britain it took another 600 years and a civil war before we reached the same happy situation.

For the Icelanders though, colonists of one of the most fragile eco-systems on the planet, the thing was also a vital survival tool. Life on Iceland’s thin soils meant living within the limits nature set and it was at the thing that the vital decisions that ensured the colony’s survival were made.

Yes, Minister

Like the Icelandic colonists, we too live in a fragile eco-system that we have the power to destroy, most immediately by Climate Change. However we are a millennium behind the Icelanders. You’re more likely to hear a debate about global warming down the pub than in Westminster. But there are some hopeful indications that things are changing.

A sign of this new mood is that job of Environment Minister is now actually of some importance. Previously the job was given to ageing politicians who had become an embarrassment to their parties. John Gummer was given the job by John Major after he failed to persuade his daughter to eat a BSE beef burger, and Tony Blair gave the job to Michael Meacher, a veteran who was too unreformably Old Labour to be given a better job. To be fair to both men they gave it a good go. John Gummer, a very devout Christian, even seems to have had a sort of ‘road to Damascus’ conversion whilst in the post, and continued turn up at green conferences after the Tories had been booted out of office, sometimes having to sit with the Greenpeace delegation because his old department wouldn’t speak to him.

The last two environment ministers, by contrast, have been of the ‘up and coming’ variety. As luck would have it I’ve met them both - a perk of living in a marginal constituency.

First we had David Miliband, one of Labour’s bright young things who was earlier in the year being tipped as a rival to Gordon Brown for the job of PM. He resisted the temptation and was ‘rewarded’ by being made Foreign Minister, where he‘ll have to go round being nice to foreigners, which is never popular with the voters and so should permanently scupper his plans for the top job.

His brief sojourn as Environment Minister though was enlightening. By his own admission he’d not taken a detailed interest in the Climate Change debate. When he got to see the reports from the scientists he was apparently genuinely shocked. His personal bugbear appeared to be the number of green energy schemes currently stuck in the planning system - enough to meet a quarter of the UK’s base load. In particular he appeared to have little time for ‘Nimby’ anti-wind farm protests.

He was in my neck of the woods in 2007 to celebrate 75 years since the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, an event compared by folky comedian Mike Harding. I may have happened to mention to Mr Miliband that Mr Harding had said some harsh words about wind farms recently, and indeed his speech featured a little ad lib directed at his host about the need for more renewable energy in the countryside.

When Miliband left shortly afterwards for the FO his place was taken by Hilary Benn, the International Development secretary who was so desperate for votes in the Labour Party Deputy Leadership election that he even canvassed me, clearly mistaking me for someone who cared. In the past he has expressed support for Contraction and Convergence, a mechanism for both reducing global CO2 emissions and levelling out the inequality between first world and developing world. Whether or not he remembers he said this now he’s a minister though is uncertain at present.

The person who tells him what to remember is our new Prime Minister. His record on green issues is somewhat patchy; some token green taxes but a steady rise in private car and aeroplane use. The government has set a target of a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, by which time the Prime Minister will then be pushing a 100. Until the recession lent a hand the country was nowhere near meeting its short term targets on CO2 emissions, so perhaps Brown is hoping his successor will sort the problem out.

The other lot

And who might that successor be? Well the man who hopes to get the job is the Old Etonian sat on the benches opposite, a place where there have been some strange things going on recently. The party that in the early 1990s promised ‘the biggest road building program since the Romans’ is now led by a man who cycles to work. Okay, so a car follows behind with his shoes, but it‘s still a big change for the party of the Iron Lady who used to boast she‘s never been on a bus.

Whilst there was no doubt about Mrs Thatcher’s scepticism of all things green, David Cameron has so far left everyone confused about which way he’s really leaning. The various policy reviews he’s commissioned haven’t helped much.

On the one hand there’s the Quality of Life Group which is chaired by John Gummer (him again) and Zac Goldsmith, heir to James Goldsmith‘s billions and former editor of The Ecologist magazine. Anti-European, pro-foxhunting and until recently an non-dom tax dodger, Zac’s politics are more Countryside Alliance than Socialist Alliance and he seems to have found a spiritual home within the strand of the Conservative party that regards the Industrial Revolution as the time when it went wrong. The Quality of Life Group had some intersting ideas and called for an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, which is more ambitious than Labour’s target, but you'll be hard pressed today to meet a Tory who admits it even exists.

In the way of balance we also had the report from John Redwood’s economic competitiveness group which called for more roads, more nuclear power and bigger airports. When discussing the Tories these days it’s hard to believe we’re talking about one party.

As for the other political parties, apart from the loony right wing fringe they’re all a lot greener than either Labour or Conservatives. Unfortunately our electoral system doesn’t give them a chance of forming a government. The Green Party hasn’t even got an MP, although they do get a bit closer every time in Brighton.

Political theatre

However the purpose of writing this wasn’t to tell you how to vote, but how to influence those who we elect. What would it take to push Climate Change in particular, an the environment in general, up the political agenda?

David Miliband’s answer was that it would take something like the Make Poverty History campaign that accompanied the G8 conference in Gleneagles five years ago. I’ve no reason to believe he wasn’t being honest, after all a quarter of a million people marching through the streets isn’t something any politician can ignore. However it may also be that Make Poverty History was the sort of fluffy campaign, with fairly vague objectives, that politicians don’t really mind being targeted by.

However the anniversary that Mr Miliband was in Derbyshire to celebrate showed that this isn’t the only way to get things done. The original 1932 trespassers probably had more in common with the G20 protestors than the Make Poverty History brigade. There were only a few hundred of them, and whilst the moderate, aristocratically patronised rambling groups patiently negotiated rights of voluntary access to the hills, these mainly communist ramblers decided to take direct action to get things done. Some were beaten up by gamekeepers and several were imprisoned, but the public rallied behind the ramblers. That did the trick. Once the small matter of the Second World War was out of the way, parliament passed the legislation that brought in our National Parks.

So vote away please, it’s a pagan thing, but once the formality of the election is over lets get back to some serious protesting.