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

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Romanes Eunt Domus

(From Lammas 2010 issue of Pentacle)

History rarely repeats itself, but some themes seem universal.

In 43CE our little island was invaded by the western world’s only superpower.

Claudius, an obscure non-entity had been elevated to Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful army by fluke of history and accident of birth. Political weakness and the chance of plunder were Claudius’s main reasons for invasion, but fears of British based religious extremists plotting terrorism in occupied Gaul provided the excuse.

Roman shock and awe led to quick victory and Claudius was shipped over for a mock battle near Colchester where amongst his war elephants he declared “Mission Accomplished”. The tribes of Britain were now Britannia. Civilisation had arrived.

Then in 410CE it all came to an end.

Duel on a Dark Mountain

1600 years later I am in Wales and, yes, it is raining.

Romanisation has become Globalisation, and we are part of a new Empire that straddles the entire globe. It is seemingly as universal and unassailable as Rome at its height, but here in Wales I found people planning for what happens after it has gone.

The event I’m at is called Uncivilisation, a cultural event that describes itself as a "training camp for the unknown world ahead". Set amongst the hills of Llangollen you can tell it’s an environmentalists convention by the scent of wood smoke and curried lentils. There are tents, camper vans and a strange space age contraption that is apparently called a hexayurt.

The usual suspects seem to be lurking around, and those not reading The Guardian appear to work for the paper. All very cosy and comforting to someone like me, but there are some worrying signs stuck up: “There is no Plan B”, “Myth of Progress”, “Age of Ecocide”, “Time to Look Down” and “A Fall is Coming”. They’re an optimistic lot I see.

Uncivilisation is part of the Dark Mountain project, started a year ago by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. Kingsnorth, a writer for The Ecologist and The Guardian describes himself as a “recovering environmentalist”. What he claims to be recovering from is the delusion that our way of life is sustainable, that wind farms, solar power and tidal barrages will be enough to make a future that is cleaner, greener and more just, but otherwise identical to the present.

However Kingnorth wasn’t the only Guardian scribbler there. George Monbiot, fearless columnist, was along too. Monbiot and Kingsnorth had sparred before and Monbiot was there to make a robust defence of “Social Democracy 2.0” and to tell us why he wasn’t climbing any dark mountains yet.

Kingsnorth opted out personal combat with the mighty Monbiot and instead sent poor old Dougald up in his place. Monbiot had clearly arrived in pugilistic form, perhaps expecting he was being set up as the ritual sacrifice to the Dark Mountain faithful. Using the polemic tactics with which he has dispatched numerous Climate Change deniers he put Hine firmly on the spot for some of the things written in the Dark Mountain prospectus and book.

George has no time for a post-Apocalyptic world where all a man needs to make his way is some stubble, a mullet and a sawn off shotgun even if the women are beautiful and deadly and clad entirely in fitted leather. If he did he would spend more Saturday nights in Basingstoke.

The system we are fighting, he told the festival, is more robust than we give it credit for. Oil may peak, but it won't run out, and coal seems to be going to last almost forever. Though the biosphere may wither and the climate boil, industrial capitalism will blunder on - unless we do something to stop it, and nihilism and taking to the hills to live solitary and frugal lives in hexayurts will not do that.

So don’t give up progress, he said. Don’t expect an ecological apocalypse to do the hard work for you. We either campaign for a better world, or get a worse one.


I’m not sure they’re planning on inviting him back next year.

What the Romans Really Did For Us

If Hine felt Monbiot had been a touch ungrateful after they’d kindly invited him along, it was as nothing to how the Romans felt towards the Iceni in 60CE.

The Romans had expected to be welcomed with open arms by the tribe, after wiping out the Catuvellauni, their chief rivals. But revelations of the torture and ill treatment of a captive Queen and her daughters led to a revolt which nearly swept the Romans into the sea.

But they recovered, and eventually occupied Britain for more than three and a half centuries - a longer period of time than that which separates us from Oliver Cromwell.

They managed this because Rome wasn’t so much an Empire as a franchise. As Tacitus puts it, they were adept at “employing even kings to make others slaves”. The Romans didn’t import the elite who ruled Britannia, they found it amongst the gentry of the conquered Celts. Given a title and a nice villa, the local aristocrats “were gradually led into the demoralising vices of porticoes, baths and grand dinner parties. The naïve Britons described these things as ‘civilisation‘, when in fact they were simply part of their enslavement”.

It couldn’t last forever though. By the start of the fifth century the barbarians were at the gate. In 407CE the Legions departed. In 410CE the Emperor rejected a plea for help. The porticoes crumbled, the baths silted up and dinner parties came to an end.

Britannia had become a failed state.

The Unknown World Ahead

Compared to that our Credit Crunch has been rather mild. The instruments of our enslavement to the consumer culture are still there and most people are hopeful of a return to the good times.

But maybe also cultures don’t need to actually be destroyed to collapse. The historian Arnold Toynbee believed that Rome was doomed the moment they stopped expanding and built Hadrian’s wall. Their economy had been built on plunder and their self respect on a belief in a mission to Romanise the whole world. Once there were no more conquests, once it was apparent that there were barbarians who would never be Roman, it was the beginning of the end.

Our economy is based on the presumption of infinite growth, and even if we don’t voluntarily put the brakes on to save the biosphere, Peak Oil, the time when oil production falls and demand continues to rise, may do the job instead.

How will we feel when progress comes to an end? When each generation is little worse off than the one before? We may not have long to wait to find out.

Citizen Arthur

So what actually happens when civilisations do collapse?

The end of the Roman era is shrouded in darkness, but there are clues.

The cities were mostly abandoned and life moved to the countryside. Roman life evidently carried on in some places, but it was a mean and miserable existence compared with the glory of the Empire’s height. The archaeology shows decline, entrenchment and insecurity. But what where they afraid of?

Barbarians certainly, but possibly ones closer to home than many suppose. In Gaul there was a peasants revolt which was suppressed by Imperial troops. Could it be that in Britain there was a similar uprising only, with no Legions coming to help, here the peasants won?

A People’s Republic of Britannia, what would that look like? lt could have been a wild a lawless place of ruined cities and roving gang, a fifth century Bosnia or Iraq. Or it could be that country life continued as it had only freed of the Roman yoke and a parasitic elite.

A surviving Roman comedy called Querolus, tentatively dated to this time and set in Gaul, gives us a clue. In it the peasants sit in court under an oak tree dispensing “woodland law”. It is a land where, by prudish Roman standards, “anything goes”.

Might these newly free and licentious peasants perhaps also now have woodland gods along with their woodland law?

At the start of their occupation the Romans had felled the sacred groves of the druids, and by the end they had imposed a centralised form of Christianity. But with the legions gone, the Roman Church left behind didn‘t seem to be in great shape.. According to the monk Gildas “Britain has priests, but they are fools.” Was this fifth century Liberation Theology?

Into all this at some point drift the Anglo-Saxons. A vigorous and independently minded people who rejuvenated a tired land, according to the traditional view. Violent invaders who ethnically cleaned the local Celts through a system of apartheid according to a more modern take.

And amongst these shadows there rides the figure of Arthur. Defender of Christianity against the pagans? Champion of the native Celts opposing German aggressors? Or maybe first amongst equals fighting the return of tyranny and privilege?

The truth is obscure, but what we do know is the stories that were told of this time and perhaps in a way this is more important, for it is by the stories we tell that we really reveal who we are.

To The Foothills!

Faced with the collapse of civilisation as we know it, stories may seem a strange weapon to arm oneself with, but Dark Mountain believes they will ultimately prove more useful than a shotgun and cellar full of baked beans.

Dark Mountain wants stories. Stories that recapture the vitality of a movement that has grown used to compromise and disappointment. Stories that capture the excitement of a protest camp on the eve of eviction, the simplicity of life in a bender under the stars. Stories that put nature centre stage and say that there is more to ecology than technological fixes.

Old gods are rearing their heads” it says in the Dark Mountain Manifesto, and so they are, but the Goddess was only noticeable in Llangollen by her absence (although Katherine Jenkins was booked for the following month).

So why don’t we help them out with our stories?

I share most, if not all, of Monbiot’s concerns, but I like the sound of Dark Mountain. There are stories that need to be told, and Pagans are good at telling stories.

If anyone wants to join these strange dreamers I’m sure they’d be more than welcome.


The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain (Neil Faulkner)
Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain (John Peddie)
A Study of History (Arnold Toynbee)
Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England (Mark G Thomas, Michael P.H Stumpf, and Heinrich Härke)

For more on Dark Mountain

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Toxic Fuel

(Since writing this for the Beltane issue of Pentacle I've met the Chief of the Beaver Lake Cree who told me I had the wrong totem animal for his tribe. The rest of it's still valid though. Unfortunately.)

In the forest of northern Canada, in the tales of the Woodland Cree, the Trickster often takes the form of a Raven. In one tale, common to many tribes, he banishes the primordial darkness by stealing the Moon. Finding a cabin in the woods in which the Moon is imprisoned, he transforms into a pine needle and is drunk by the lady of the house whilst she is collecting water. Reborn as a baby he demands to play with the Moon. Then, seizing his opportunity, he escapes through the smoke hole. Breaking up the Moon he forms the Sun and the Stars. The darkness is banished but the Moon has left its mark on the Raven, and his feathers, formerly as white as the snow, are now burnt black like the night.

Our local Co-op is traditional supermarket shopping. The checkout staff chat away happily to themselves whilst firing your shopping down the conveyer belt. They appear to know every customer in the queue except you and discuss in intimate details their numerous relatives and mutual friends whilst you are waiting to pay. Then when that’s done there is none of this “would you like any help with your packing” nonsense. Instead the lever is pulled and your groceries are squashed into a corner so they can serve the next person.

However over the last few years there have been subtle changes in the store. First it was the Fairtrade chocolate, then Fairtrade wine, then Fairtrade and organic coffee, then reusable shopping bags, then cucumber without any plastic wrapping and so on. Even the café, previously a place that served chips and beans only, reopened as the Fairtrade Espresso Bar. Gradually I started to wonder if by any chance the Co-op, cheap place to do your shopping, might actually be the same as the Co-op, ethical place to stick your money.

They are indeed one and the same and as well as selling you stuff and taking your money, they’ll also bury you when you’ve shuffled off to the Summerlands. They also turn their hand to campaigning every now and again, and whilst it may seem a long way from the baked bean aisle to the woodlands of the Cree, the Co-op is now helping a First Nation people in a fight to save their environment and ours.

In one corner we have a medley of international oil companies including Shell, Exxon, Total and BP, whilst up against them we have a tribe of about 900 people up in Alberta, Canada. Not so much David taking on Goliath so much as a Smart car taking on a 400 ton dumper truck.

The issue in hand is the exploitation of tar sands, a dirty form of oil that Canada hopes to exploit and sell to its southern rival to help fuel their addiction to oversized cars.

Tar sands contain bitumen, the sticky black stuff that is used to make asphalt. If you dig them out of the ground in industrial quantities and boil them for long enough you can get oil, the sticky black stuff that is used to make money.

The effect on the wildlife can be imagined. Trees are clear cut, the soil is stripped away and vast machines carve our great scars in the ground. Roads carved through the virgin forest stop the caribou from migrating. Tailing ponds of toxic sludge trap migrating birds, and like the raven in the tale above, turn them black - more than 1600 ducks in one tank alone.

For us, separated from our pagan ancestors by hundreds of years and living in a post-industrial landscape that few of them would recognise, a few acres of struggling trees is a forest. For the Woodland Cree, a forest is boreal woodland stretching from coast to coast across a continent broken only by wild rivers. This is the same forest in which their ancestors first told the tales of the Raven and in which the Trickster, in his many guises, still roams.

It’s no surprise then that the Cree aren’t planning to taking this lying down. One nation whose ancestral lands are threatened has led the way. In May 2008 the Beaver Lake Cree Nation released their Kétuskéno Declaration, putting down a line in the oily sand.

The declaration begins “Let it be known that we, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, are the keepers of the lands”. It continues “We keep this land in honour of our ancestors and on behalf of our future generations, so that as long as the sun shines, the rivers flow and the grass grows, we can continue our traditional way of life. This is the land where we and our future generations will practise our spiritual ways and exercise our rational rights”. You don’t have to have grown up watching cheap westerns to know that that’s fighting talk.

However it‘s not just the Cree Nations who should be worrying about tar sands. Climate Change threatens us all and we need less oil, not more. The extraction of oil from tar sands is one of the most energy intensive industries around. To extract two units of energy from the ground you need to use one unit of energy to boil out the bitumen. This is three times as much as you use to drill for oil the conventional way. It’s probably better for the environment to drive a Land Rover on ordinary petrol than a Mondeo on fuel made from tar sands.

Such is the energy demands of tar sands extraction that there has even been talk of building nuclear reactors up there just to boil the oil out. That’s probably not going to happen, but what is happening is that natural gas, one of the cleanest of fossil fuels, is being piped in to be used to extract one of the dirtiest. If extraction gets into full swing the amount of gas they’ll need would be enough to heat all of Canada’s 12 million homes.

I could go on, but you’ve probably had enough doom and gloom. Hopefully though what separates readers of Pentacle from readers of Fairy and Fetish or other pagan publications is that you want to actually do something about it.

There’s plenty of reasons to support this campaign. Preservation of a real wilderness is one. Helping to fight Climate Change by stopping one of the dirtiest of dirty fuels is certainly another. Then there’s solidarity with a pagan people who genuinely want to be caretakers of the earth. But there is another reason to back this campaign, one that I think trumps all those.

We can win this one.

Tar sands are not having a good year. In January Shell announced it would slow development after a shareholder revolt. Then California, home to more gas guzzlers than any other state and a key market for the oil, announced a series of measures aimed at promoting low carbon fuels. In February BP shareholders launched their own revolt and shortly afterwards Whole Foods, a major US organic food chain, announced it would be boycotting any fuel associated with tar sands.

The campaign against tar sands reads like a gazetteer of environmental groups. Greenpeace Canada have been digger diving at the extraction site, which must be really good fun when the diggers are bigger than your house. Friends of the Earth in this country have been campaigning too. WWF (the panda people, not the wrestlers) have produced a feature length film called Dirty Oil dishing the dirt. And so on. If you want to help, you’re in good company.

Those shareholder resolutions for the BP and Shell Annual General Meetings will be being voted on pretty much as this magazine comes out. If you’re in a pension fund, and you’re quick, you can ask your pension fund manager to vote against tar sands. Money talks, and the £40 billion invested in these companies gives the pension fund managers loud voices.

The Beaver Lake Cree meanwhile are putting their trust in something with the dull sounding name of Treaty Number Six. It was signed in 1876 by someone with the anything-but-dull name of Chief Ko-Pah-A-Wa-Ke-Mum. In return for giving away vast tracts of their land to good old Queen Victoria, the Cree kept the rights to hunt, fish and gather plants and medicines, undisturbed by the Crown.

This is where the Co-op comes in. A fighting fund called The Raven Trust has been set up and the Co-op has dropped a fair chunk of its money into the kitty. This has allowed the Beaver Lake Cree to hire a hot shot lawyer specialising in First Nation cases to fight their case.

Lets wish him all the best and hope he has the cunning of the Raven.