The Social Experiment: Going Off-Grid

#alternative lifestyle, #living off-grid, adventure, boats, Canal, climate, conservation, Ecology, England, environment, ethics

Part II: Life Off-Grid

There can be fewer acts of homegrown radicalism quite like going from mains power hook-up to living off grid. But what is it to live off-grid? Everyone is familiar with the term, though few are familiar with the kind of life that entails. Think of it thus: if mains power is similar to taking antibiotics through an I.V. drip, then living off-grid corresponds to foraging for your own medicine from nature’s own root & herb garden. The contrast couldn’t be greater, the results more startling. Sometimes wondrous, oftentimes disturbing. One thing’s for sure, there’s never a dull moment in the pursuit of the dream of living off-mains.

Before I embarked on what i call life unplugged I had seen glimpses of how it’s done. Having trekked the Himalaya a good few times, I had seen how the teahouses that operate as hostelries from the foothills to alpine altitudes managed to run their entire operations without the aid of AC power, or mains gas and cable telephony, for that matter. Naturally, these mountain people had no choice in the matter. Geography dictated Nepal’s infrastructure perhaps more than most places on Earth. Being poor didn’t help things either.

I marvelled at how these resourceful Nepalis ran an entire trekking operation with only two bottles of propane gas, a couple of 12V leisure batteries, a diesel generator, and a simple 12V wire loom coming off the batteries and leading to the only plug in the whole teahouse establishment. How they transport them up there is a whole other story. You see it, plain as day, a mess of plug adapters clustered onto a head adapter leading out from the wall sockets. From this higgledy-piggledy mess of cables, every mobile phone belonging to every paying guest is drawing electron juice from the auxiliary power source (in the absence of solar panels, usually the genny). There they are: a brood of mobile phones pulling like octuplets on their suffering mother’s teats, in the corner of the mess room where everyone spends their evening relaxing by the pot-bellied stove at 10,000ft.

That was the limits of my understanding back then. About the most i could discern from off-grid living was that when too many appliances try to draw current from a 12V/24V/48V system – one far lower than an AC voltage of 110v (USA) or 220v (UK) – there what’s called a voltage drop. You know when the bare lightbulb suddenly and inexplicably dims before shining brighter again. This, I later learned, is attributable to a fall in electrical pressure, which is essentially what voltage is. The phenomenon of this can be best imagined in cosmology documentaries where a distant star becomes a supernova, suddenly dimming before emitting a brilliant light in the night sky. Anyway, point is I had no inkling at all into the practicalities of surviving off-grid until I actually decided to try it. And try i did.

Initially, the feeling was euphoric. No more utility bills. Atonement for all those ecological crimes i partook of in the Gulf. Rapid diminution of carbon footprint, from gargantuan to nearly invisible. When the experiment in living commenced, it was the height of summer. Solar panels on the boat’s roof trickle-charged batteries, creating a false sense of power security. So convinced was I of the limitless benefits of going off-line that for that entire summer of 2019 I lived like there was no tomorrow: effectively consuming similar joules of energy than i had in a house. Unfortunately for me, gauging the true depth of discharge of those batteries, to whom i owed so much, did not become apparent until the gloomy autumn set in. By this time, so late in the year, long-term damage had been done to the 880Ah of lead-acid batteries. Plus, the solar panels were about as much use through a sunless English autumn/winter as a propeller in sand.

Sometimes the most enduring lessons to learn are also the hardest. It just so happened that the winter of 2019 was among the wettest on record. Noah would have been able to profit handsomely from starting an ark-building business had he been alive in that year. From the first ominous spatter in late September, that rain did not abate until the middle of March 2020. Living under the miserable deluge infinitely complicated the process of surviving off-grid life with relative comfort. Instead, as the batteries began their slow descent into decrepitude and death, the boat’s voltage meter reported a sorry tale of exhaustion with every reading. Just to get through the long evenings with a modicum of lamp light, heat and hot food in my belly, the trade-off was either to run a droning 2kw suitcase generator for hours on end each and every day under the rain, burning unleaded fuel and ruining my chances of salvation, or else run the boat’s powerful diesel engine. Restrictions applied by both methods. Running the genny meant, lest it end up stolen from a public towpath, i had to be in residence while it was going. The noise was incessant, not altogether dissimilar to the thrum of a billion hornets all descending on me. Try keeping your concentration when that din is going all day, and while people parade past your window gawping in to admire the designer kitchen. While the other method for supplying raw power to increase voltage in order to run every on-board system from plugs to pumps to central heating – the boat’s engine – never really deep-cycled the batteries for the simple reason that every 12v battery responds to an input charge voltage of a certain capacity, which the engine could never reach (it needed 14.7v but only put out 14.4v).

Talk about the best-laid plans o mice and men going awry. 250kg of lead-acid battery dumped after one year of chronic abuse. A replacement set costing a small fortune. A tonne and a half of coal burnt to keep the chronic dampness and cold out. Hundreds and hundreds of litres of diesel burnt to run on-board central heating, as well as to partially recharge the batteries. Hundreds of litres of unleaded fuel used to keep the suitcase genny sweet. A sizeable investment in solar panels, panels which for the half of the year you truly need them are conspicuous by their absence to deliver any volts whatsoever. It’s not even the off-grid burning of so many hydrocarbons that bothered me the most: it was the almost permanent state of hyper-alertness, apprehension and even anxiety, just waiting for the red low voltage warning light to blink on. Moreover, that one’s life is now going to be totally dictated to by the whims of auxiliary power. You cannot stop thinking about it. Constantly monitoring the situation; always on edge, twitching to pay back the battery bank for every little withdrawal of amps you make on a daily basis. I mean, how is anyone supposed to relax when providing domestic power becomes an almost obsessional challenge equal to servicing personal loans and debts.

The 99% who turn to mains power as a solution for modern power-intensive living: how could they ever know how taxing it is to manage the off-grid life? I didn’t until I unplugged the cable from shore power. Once the brief honeymoon period ended, the reality hit hard. Now, I believe if you are blessed enough to live in a perennially sunny spot below Latitude 45 degrees, living off grid by means of a large solar array is definitely do-able. Equally, tapping geo-thermal hotspots in your Icelandic backyard would work nicely, too. However, the indulgence of trying such a modus vivendi in a kingdom of rains and dirty grey clouds, like this one, by my reckoning is a challenge too great for most mortals. It was for me. I don’t want to face these uphill struggles through the dark of autumn and winter any more. Not here. Not now.

Human effort is not measured, thankfully, in amps. All experience is good experience, save for murder, incest and animal cruelty. At least i tried. And no one can take that away from me.

To Save First We Have To Spend

biodiversity, civilisation, climate, conservation, developing world, development, ecological economism, Ecology, environment, ethics, future, international development, land ownership, rainforest

“You can take the title to your house to the bank and borrow money. Why? Because the market puts value on a house. We need to see rainforest at that same value level,” he says. “Conservation has to be market-driven. The long-term benefits of a healthy forest are more valuable than the short-term profits from logging or mining.”

Dane Gobin, Iwokrama Forest Management, Guyana (Bloomberg, 2019)

For decades methods have been applied about how best to arrest the process of deforestation in the world’s tropical regions. Everyone from international development agencies to Hollywood greenies have gone all out, doing everything from berating, and even ostracizing governments in affected regions, to incentivising them with the promise of aid, legitimacy and investment if only they would quit the logging.

The argument to conserve biodiversity over the argument to develop economically has traditionally come down to a binary ethical one. Western voices have persistently pleaded on the basis that deforestation – whether it be for lumber, squatting, mining, or slash-and-burn farming of cash crops – is an immoral act that not only deprives countless millions of species of a roof over their heads, but also degrades the quality of soil, air and of the lives of every man, woman, and child in the wider world. The value, therefore, of each hardwood tree, each prowling jaguar, and each creeping vine is in and of itself incalculable – or at least with a value exceeding the sum parts of the commodities that loggers, farmers and miners seek when despoiling the rainforest in the first place. Western thinking goes thus: stay in your sprawling shanty towns; let nature be; allow only indigenes the right to dwell in biodiversity hotspots. But in a world of nearly 8 billion ambitious souls, most of whom live in what’s called the Global South where most of the real biodiversity lies broken against a backdrop of poverty, squalor and deep structural inequality, what then?

Making Borneo into one great National Park, or keeping the Amazon as a primordial world, is all well and fine, but does it really chime with our contemporary mood? Making nature exempt from commodification and monetary value was part of a conservation mindset popular during the heyday of the National Park system in the early to mid twentieth century (think the USA under Teddy Roosevelt). Let’s ring fence the beautiful places in perpetuity, which worked beautifully in wild places such as Yosemite. But today, given the mess we’re in what with a toxic blend of population pressure, degraded environment, and a model of capitalism espousing the greatest consumption for the greatest number to produce the greatest happiness, how durable is the view that wilderness should remain untouched? Isn’t it time to take other, more radical, measures to safeguard the last remaining wild places?

Look around and what becomes apparent is not that the old paradigm is changing. Moreover, it’s that it has to. Under the pressure of realpolitik, of shrinking public spaces, of expansive corporate reach, and of burgeoning populations hell bent on getting a slice of that consumer pie, closing off vast swathes of so-called virgin territory is creating a rift between governments and their people, and more importantly between the reality of the situation and the perception of how to solve it. If not, then how come the more that developing countries (as well as a few developed ones) have tightened their environmental laws over the past generation, the more incursions we see made by various players and the greater the overall dismantling of the biosphere within the primary forest? Within this paradox, political populists hostile to established models of conservation can stand on ceremony with the promise of making pots of money for everyone from what they see as their own – and not the planet’s – natural patrimony.

Seen by populist governments in heavily-populated developing countries as symptomatic of the Western tendency toward paternalism towards the regions these great powers used to rule, in some unpopular cases, such as Brazil and Indonesia, the world has seen in recent years a worrying acceleration in the acreage of virgin forest felled for lumber, cash crops, and the riches that lie beneath the forest floor. And what is the motive that belies this degradation we see in spite of decades of lobbying and campaigning for an end to wilful and unsanctioned deforestation? Why are things, in some sense, worse than anyone could have imagined even twenty years ago? Well, in the words of Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian Environment minister under Jair Bolsonaro’s polemic presidency, the reality goes a bit like this:

“We need to recognise that there are real subjects living in the Amazon,” Mr Salles said, referring to the 20m people living in the Amazon. “So we need to give a concrete response to them, and not simply saying that they cannot do anything in the area of the Amazon. That is not reasonable, it is not even feasible.” (Financial Times, 2019)

By promulgating the moral argument for making the Amazon one gigantic exclusion zone for the millions of restless, economically-challenged people living in its vast surrounds, it seems that no lasting progress can be made. The old model, backed by rich, industrialised countries, many of whom have already laid waste to their own primary forests, is turning out to be a dud. Their appeal to goodness based on the ethical presumption that ‘just because we did it to get rich, to develop our nation state, you shouldn’t necessarily follow’, is now clearly falling on deaf ears. Populism has fostered defiance among the developing states in the equatorial belt. The rising power of China as an ideological counterweight to the traditional Western hegemony is emboldening states, such as Brazil, to let ecocide reign so long as the conditions for human inequality persist. Alongside this, the vast improvements in global supply-chain logistics has smoothed the way for biodiversity loss to become one big concerted effort. Salles’ justification for this lawlessness rife on the fringes of the great Amazonian basin is clearly viewable in these terms. He elaborates the point:

‘That is why people go over to the illegal activities… because they don’t have a space to do something within the law.’

Are we hearing the makings of policy based on the precepts of what is known as ecological economics? This idea is not exactly hot off the press, but it is beginning to demand attention. With the UN’s Millennium Development Goals teetering on the brink, something has to give. And that, unfortunately, is policy attachment to the notion of deep ecology. As outlined previously in this article, building policy goals around a shared ethic that one can never put a price on nature, has proved a bridge too far, and this failure is seen in terms of unsustainable losses to tropical biodiversity in this century alone. Purists might baulk at the idea, but monetising a forest and all that’s in it might just be the one compelling way to make business, and all the rogues that dwell on its fringes, sit up and listen. Speak their language. It’s called cash. Easy to learn; tough to forget.

So, what does monetisation of nature mean in principle? According to Barbara Unmüßig of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, that conservation efforts can be bolstered and public sympathy heightened by revealing an economic contribution of nature and the services it can provide. This translates as tradable prices for ecosystem services. We can encapsulate these wider definitions into what I would term ‘natural capital/equity’. Measuring nature with economic indicators over a tradition of measuring nature, sui generis, against other ethical considerations still has a touch of the abstract to it. So, in short, ecological economism really boils down to saying, look, if you want this patch of forest you’ll have to show you truly value it by paying a high tariff for it. Ergo, those who would place such high stakes on their own economic future, and that of their corporate interests, would therefore place an enormous value on natural capital, to the extent that it would be safer in private hands (acting as a trust) than at the mercy of prohibitive legislation that invariably ends up breached by corrupt officials and short-term prospectors anyway.

If the past fifty years have amply shown that the world doesn’t quite agree on an absolute value placed on nature, it has always contrastingly shown that free market capitalism has been instrumental in placing absolute value on something so long as it can be considered commodity. No one quibbles with the price the market sets, after all. And this is where the problem lies: is it right to commodify nature? Does doing so lead to privatisation by other means? Where governments have failed, can the private sector, including the world’s investment bankers, step into the fray and actually flick the switch on ecological damage and destruction? In short, is it better to harvest a tropical hardwood than to fell it? For the tree, the answer is an unqualified yes. But for the guy who wants a quick hit of capital from the lumber, or he who desires the empty space left once the tree goes, what then? Even this radical idea (well, radical for our modern age) has its limitations. Without applying what Unmüßig terms the precautionary principle – the principle that the higher the risk to the natural environment, the greater the justification must be for a stakeholder to take such action – monetization of the natural world can all too easily slide into the kind of excessive commodification that drives Man to desire ownership and control over every tangible thing. We all know where that leads. And this instinct of tearing down only to build up, or to destroy in order to prosper, can only be moderated at the levels of governance and legislation. Which brings us back to the old ways of trying to combat ecocide.

Perhaps, there is a way, though. A new modus operandi where some ecosystems can thrive while we survive. And all in a more symbiotic, a more mutually-beneficial way. The Selva Maya is an area of tropical jungle spanning three countries: Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. A 150,000 sq km biodiversity hotspot containing no less than five species of big cat, La Selva Maya has recently been acquired at cost by conservation groups with money to put into something other than publicity and administration (Guardian, 22/04/21) Thanks to direct purchasing from the national government of Belize (i believe), this splodge of megadiverse, pristine forest finds itself now perpetually protected. Barring a constitutional catastrophe in Belize, nothing large-scale will ever again encroach on the fragile makeup of the forest. By any measure, what has happened here is a great thing for nature. And by extension, for the whole world. In purchasing the forest, conservation groups have clearly come out in the open, admitting that a monetary value – whatever it is – has been agreed with the previous custodians of the land. However, the arrangement seeks not to commodify what has been purchased, ironically, as a commodity. The contents of the forest will not be up for negotiation, or fair game for the highest bidder. No, that would miss the point.

The best analogy i can come up with for the money paid is that of a ransom. The right people now have the title deeds in their name, and presumably their business model is to leave the place the hell alone to simply be. If enough consortiums can come together to purchase small, affordable patches of rich biota, mainly rainforest, along the entire equator, then we might just begin to witness a joining of the dots until one day every last hectare that was bought by conservationists will start to outweigh the great green spaces on the map occupied by the industrialists, the agronomists, and the settlers, all content with one thing: to bleed nature for all she’s worth. By that point, capitalization of all natural ‘assets’ will be so valuable as to be out of the price league of every sinister corporation or corrupted government.

There is a faint whiff of Thatcherism in all this. In the early 1980s, with Britain exhausted and failing miserably, she encouraged affordable home ownership, and what transpired? Newly privately-owned homes across the kingdom didn’t get trashed; many actually ended up beautified where everyone become a vested stakeholder. The nature wars are reminiscent of her era. Whether humanity continues with the short-term strategy of raid and pillage until no booty is left, or the long-term one of benign ownership at a dollar price – monetising nature without commodifying her – we are, it seems, at a critical juncture. The race is on. It’s all to play for.

Weathering the Purr-fect Storm

animals, Covid-19, dogs, ethics, humour, Life, Lifestyle, love, Travel

When Choosing Between a Kitten and Wintering in the Sun Is the Extent of Your Woes, You Know You’ve Got a First-World Problem at Hand.

The Time to Remedy it? Never. (Still, a solution exists, if you’ll let me explain)

The world has gone canine and feline-mad in the age of Covid. Whether you fall into the category of emotionally clinging to anything with a heartbeat, or else into that of possessing more money than sense, all you suckers out there from either category are being royally shafted for the privilege of sharing your life with four paws, a tail and a pair of irresistible eyes for company.

If you’re not paying a king’s ransom for a King Charles’ spaniel then it’s an ingot of gold bullion for a French bulldog. As for your regal highness of the High Street and all-round deity of detached houses everywhere – the not-so-humble cat, we’ve got Bengals going for anything but a bargain, and Ragdolls for the equivalent of a small finca in Spain. Yip, puppy prices and kitten costs have doubled, tripled, quadrupled. I would go beyond quintupled but I cannot find the word.

Breeders are having a field day while wannabe owners are prepared to part with pretty much their life savings just to snaffle whatever breed is in vogue recently. The law of Siamese supply and Dobermann demand is beginning to resemble the state of the housing market in SouthEast England where sums involved are so eye-watering you’d be forgiven for thinking the bricks are of gold. Same with our precious little quadrupeds where GBP3,000 for a KennelClub-registered fur ball is de rigueur nowadays. The nation’s housebound millions have put out an SOS for something that can bring a taste of Attenborough into their locked-down living rooms. Is there any surprise therefore that the Bengal Cat is presently so popular? They are, after all, not too many generations removed from a Asiatic Leopard Cat, normally found swiping their prickly paws at anything moving in the forests and grasslands of India. If you can’t go to India’s remaining wild places, then bring India into the comfort of one’s living room, where at this rate we’re all likely to live out our remaining days.

I digress slightly. My blogs wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t. So, we’ve quickly established that interest in acquiring a pet has jumped since half the world was grounded by our surrogate parents in government. In Western nations such as animal-mad Britain, an existing industry has just gone decidedly up-market. Not that the quality of kitten or puppy has improved. Far from it. The costs of acquiring the animal have, however. The trend is so blatantly obvious, judging by the number of daft-as-a-brush French Bulldogs that strut past wearing made-to-measure harnesses, that the nation’s thieves have even got in on the act. Thieves are pertinent to this discussion. We can’t simply ignore them, given that their normative habits of breaking into empty houses have been adversely impacted by commuters working from home. So yes, unsurprisingly, every tea leaf in the land (as pseudo-Cockneys like to call thief) worth his prison stripes has swapped the old cat burglary routine for just the cat part. Yes, literally they have taken to burglary of cats (and dogs who fetch more). Once they were a dogged bunch. Now, the criminal element are merely a bunch intent on decamping with their victims’ beloved (and very costly) dogs. Buy your Lhasa Apso pup for two grand from the auctioneer who calls themselves a breeder before it’s stolen from under your nose. Then have the little bundle of joy ransomed back to you for another two thousand. Times are strange.

I myself am no different insofar as i too crave love and affection. Without it, this man has become part-machine, part-Borg. In the continuing absence of that other feline, woman, in my life I too have longed for the ineffable charms of a four-month old puppy or kitten, as well as the dignified air of an older animal. Longed to say absolutely not, this dog is not sleeping with us on the bed, only to pat the mattress when the lights go out and whisper, come on boy. H’up. Naturally, I would baulk at the prospect of paying through the nose but, then again, I would rather adopt a rescue animal over a market-savvy breeder. More than anything, I’d love fate to intervene and have the animal find me. Wow! Now that would be kind of divine intervention. But whatever the source, the intention must be the same: to guarantee that with ownership you have signed an unbreakable moral contract with yourself to care for that animal from the litter tray to the pet cemetery, relinquishing loving ownership only in extreme circumstances, such as terminal cancer or a seat on the Mars Mission.

There’s no leeway for flaky types when it comes to adopting a fur-baby. Alas, they exist. In droves, I expect, though the majority of dependable types are incensed by these soi-disant owners who sell marvellous, sentient household animals as quickly and conscience-free as the day they bought them. Me, I detest this commodification (treating something as unique as a Siberian cat or a English Pointer a mere commodity) of pets in the strange age of Covid. To have one would be to retain it under all circumstances. No exceptions other than the two mentioned above. That’s the honourable thing. Getting a kitten or a pup is no small matter. It takes responsibility and devotion, as we know. So what does a guy do when he’s faced with the dilemma of desiring that wonderful feeling of bringing an animal into his life, his home, and 15-year plans, while also holding fast to that love for far flung, foreign travel? Twenty years with a Birman cat or a solitary winter travelling around Burma? The whole year round with a Russian Blue or that little getaway to the Russian hinterland you’ve always dreamed of but never had the freedom to? Full-time carer-in-chief for that lovely black Labrador, or a summer jaunt around the coast of Labrador in Canada?

The sickening thing is, it’s one or the other. The two – 1) extended bouts of travel and 2) pet – are mutually exclusive. I could have that kitten to cuddle up to a night, to watch with delight at how she starts becoming an existential part of the home and me, or I could spend eight months of the year lavishing affection on the dogs that pass by the boat, each evening poorer for not having a cat or dog to wile the hours away with in front of the fire. For what? For the escape? For the elan and incomparable adventure of travel? I need both but, wearing this crown of moral responsibility, i can have but one or the other.

Much of the world lives hand to mouth on a dollar a day. They are faced with dilemmas like having to leave their home and families for years on end to find work overseas. As for mine. When your biggest dilemma is to chose between raising a fur-baby or wintering each year in a sunny, mountainous Shangri-La, man you know your problem is quintessentially first-world.

Bearing in mind, there is solution for the uncompromising in me. Go and live in a sunny, mountainous place, taking the dog and the cat with me. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The Consolations of Fate

Arabia, Christianity, civilisation, ethics, europe, fate, free will, future, greek philosophy, Hinduism, human mind, Islam, Life, Lifestyle, Meaning, meditations, Middle East, Musings, Muslim, Natural Law, natural philosophy

Maktoob: that which is written. Ask any one of 1.6 billion people of the world who belong within the Umma (the global community of Muslims, whatever their sect), and most will confess that their entire life boils down to a narrative, a script already written by a divine hand long before each infant has entered the maternity wards of this physical world. That only two endings are conceivable, paradise or hell, is by the wayside. It is the story of life that counts.

Now anyone who has ever lived among the faithful will know that by and large they are a contented bunch. Muslims the world over smile ineffably. When they are not busy with their struggles or else bogged down in civil strife, Arabs and their muslim brethren everywhere from Indonesia to West Africa seem to spend considerably more time that we in the West in a state of laughter and outward expressions of happiness. There’s a lightness to being among them; a sense that, unlike the self-made man of the West, enormous burdens have been somehow lifted from each and every shoulder. Speak to them about how they imagine their lives are going to pan out and in return you will receive a beatific smile and a shrug. It is not for me to say, he will counter. To which, I will respond baffled and he will reply, why worry about the future. It is not ours to decide.

Oh, fate? I will reply. Well, yes and no, he will say. You see, fate is that collision of two moving bodies sprinting down adjacent streets until both reach the corner simultaneously and boom! two bodies collide. Fate, to the Western mind has the air of being something sudden and unplanned. Yet fate – maktoob, is really rather different. What maktoob implies is that those who ran down that road did so before they even knew it. They collided on the corner not because fate ‘intervened’, as we in the Greco-Roman tradition are want to say. Fate to the ancient Greeks, and by extension the latter-day Western World, rested with fickle Gods. They refereed you through every minor move you made, blowing the whistle on transgressions, on foul play. With fate, occidental-style, you could be up one minute; down the next. But maktoob wrote the book of life before you were even conceived. You keep to a life script without ever consciously reading it. The key thing is that to the believer in the Qur’an, each mere mortal was never tasked with writing their own life story. That onerous task was never laid down before them. Blank pages in the annals of God’s creation were just too precious to be delegated to a human fuck-up. The weight of responsibility too great an undertaking for the pages ever to be left blank.

So here we are, twixt a world of the divine and the secular where the growing legions of secularists are sold the belief that life is what we make of it. Fortune favours the bold. Who dares wins. You get out no more and no less than you put in. The proverbs supporting free will are woven into the very fabric of Western languages. Their fellow mortals, in stark contrast, who maintain a more monotheistic tone (and even spiritual when you consider predestination as a central tenet of most Hindus, Jains, Parsees, Buddhists, Baha’i, animists, et al) do not fundamentally accord with this notion that each one of us is a little God carving out the cosmos in his or her own image. These adherents to Islamic (and Judaeo-Christian to a lesser degree) doctrine (the hadiths of the Prophet and the surahs of the Book) are happy of course to be given a patina of choice in life: what car they choose to drive, what profession they choose to follow, what football team they choose to support, even where they’d like to spend their honeymoon. But to most who adhere to a divine book – that we shall call a operator’s manual for living – all notion that each of us is alone to decide everything short of dying at the age of forty of terminal cancer (and even cancer in the West is often attributed in terms of blame to a person’s unhygienic choices, such as smoking) is risible. Of course, when we visit these holy lands with our fanatical secular faith tripping off the tongue like the good little imperialists we profess not to be but are all the same, our religiously-minded hosts humour us and indulge us our fantasies of taking control of our destinies. We lecture them on planning and freedom to choose and freedom to be and even freedom to fuck up. They listen and nod serenely before heading off to the mosque for the fifth time that day, the thirty-fifth time that week, to radiate in the knowledge that the road for them is already laid. Life is a book whose pages were filled in not by the protagonist, but by the author, a long time in the past, so long ago that time is irrelevant.

In a sense this is logical that the book of life be not composed by the main character, for it is the author – a figure who never appears in the book – as creator. Which brings us back to the happiness factor. For all the student suicides in secular Seoul, Shanghai or Tokyo, how many self-confessed failures in life do we count from among the lands of the strictly faithful? For all my mediocre students in Arabia, did I once ever see one who was so overburdened by feelings of impending academic failure, so ridden with self-blame for poor performance that they sought the easy way out? Not once. Many underperformed in class only to walk out in high spirits. And what of my Asiatic students? Did they push themselves to the outer limits of academic achievement because of a culturally ingrained belief that the buck stops with them? Yes, frequently. Their academic performance is linked directly to the underlying secular notion that we build our house with our own hands.

I try to reconcile the two opposing philosophies of free-will and predestination and I cannot other than to bewail the amount of responsibility heaped on young individuals in Western Secular and East Asiatic Confucian societies to take the quill of creation and write their life story like each one needs to be on the Booker shortlist. The pressures are immense; the philosophical premise of free-will still unproven. Life is lonely on a planet of authors. Life, in contrast, is one big jovial gathering on a planet where one anonymous author wrote everything for everyone for all time. Maktoob. Who wants to be a driver on a mad road when you can be passenger on a country lane? Isn’t it enough to be the train driver? Or must we lay each rail as well while we go along?

This is by no means a rallying cry for mass religious conversion. The strictures of an observant life of answering the azan thirty-five times a week (and much more during the month of Ramadan) are prohibitive and constrictive to the postmodern mind made up of Post-Christians and Post-Confucianists. Whether a philosophical brainchild of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment we call free will is no more than a pleasant self-deception, or at worst, a mirage, most feel no abiding need to abdicate control of their lives, or the appearance of self-control. But with pressures mounting on an ecological world in peril, the millions of inchoate dreams existing in aspirational societies that are grounded in the cult of individualism (this is the very guiding light of the West) are becoming ever more unattainable. Blame heaped on oneself, as well as feelings of failure, will balloon in future. Individuals marooned on a desert island of their own making. And sadly, it will be the West – that vanguard of progressive ideas – that will need the anti-depressants while the Arabs will continue to find amusement in the smallest things, such as death.

The Year is 2020, So Where is the Vision?

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Humanity bumbling along, governing bodies staring longingly into their former selves à la Dorian Grey and his cloaked mirror, and so-called policies as ham-fisted as a fist full of, erm, ham. Yes, the list just rolls on and on in this the only year in history dedicated to a field of vision deemed as clear and perspicacious as you can get. Oh, the irony of it all! We might be languishing in the year of our landlord, 2020, but we as a race do not enjoy the accompanying 20/20 vision that makes a bleary-eyed rookie into a hawk-eyed fighter pilot.

Let’s start with the only thing that really matters, and no it’s not us. Dorian Grey’s older self would be disappointed to hear that admission. That thing I speak of is the world around us. Let’s face it, it’s the only world we’ll ever have and the only living one within about, let’s say for argument’s sake, ten light years, or 58 trillion 590 billion kilometres, if you’re claiming on mileage. Wilderness, as most of us are aware, is being co-opted for agronomy and industry to serve a human population that is beginning to resemble an infestation or worst still a bacterial culture gone rogue in a planet-sized petri dish. This is happening at a rate for which there is no excuse. We are eating ourselves out of house and home and the only ones not seeing that are those with their craw stuffed full of nature’s bounty, as well as unschooled ignoramuses, for which there are many even if the the doyens of political correctness admonish us for calling out all the provincial thinkers in our swelled ranks. We have known for much of my own lifetime about the concomitant risks in taming the wild places: what is lost cannot be recovered in a timeframe that humans understand. Every Tom, Dick and Harry, however hard of hearing, must know that extinction is forever. We’ve known the phrase slash and burn for decades and, encoded in it, all its barbaric implications. Even though the debate has taken on new and violent terms of reference, eco-vandalism is going on in spite of our knowledge of it and complicity in it. All the while it seems the more dire the prognostications, the more wanton our behaviour and the more debased our greed for the things that have kept the world hitherto in balance. I have lost track of the number of times I hear the term ‘sixth extinction’. Now if that were insufficient to jolt us into redefining the boundaries by which the human race exploits the natural world, i do not know therefore what is sufficient. The more the mainstream media reports on how we’re approaching a tipping point, a point of no return, the more the average family’s material needs appear to multiply. While global population ploughs upward to an 11-digit figure, our celebrity culture boasts of its procreative prowess by inviting the media to snapshot their opulent lives in rural Sussex with six children in tow. Why make the implicit link between many offspring and material success in the knowledge that this is a false correlation? I mean, throughout most of history large families have more often than not been synonymous with extreme poverty, and not opulence. A Prime Minister of Great Britain with six offspring (that we know of), chaired with the task of finding a common voice to bring down the human impact? Gimme a break. What kind of vision is that coming from the stuttering mouth of yet another high-flying free-market mercantilist libertarian who believes in the greatest markets for the greatest numbers?

While the correlation between modern industry and atmospheric-changing carbon emissions has been better made, we continue to miss the point. If you want to trace the problem back to its genesis, jump not onto the bandwagon of climate change. Look again, use that 20-20 vision and you’ll see that Attenborough has been whispering truth: it all comes back to global human population. It’s out of control and from it everything flows. Rampant human overpopulation is the taproot down which a pestilent tree of Man grows. Wild habitat is stolen to tend the needs of a burgeoning population (in Africa and Asia) who all aspire to live as postwar Americans have. Forest goes tree after tree, species after species. We know all this. We know that nothing hosts biodiversity better than a forest found 20 degrees either side of the equator. We know the secrets to finding cures for human ailments lies within their mind-blowing array of biota. We know that to have space to grow row after endless row of oil palm trees to produce better soap and all manner of packet food to feed ever-growing numbers of hungry mouths and to wash evermore grubby little faces, we first have to collapse an ecosystem perfectly evolved to provided a pyramidical shelter for every manner of creature, plant and fungus from here to kingdom come. We know that without canopy cover the thin, reedy soils of the tropics turn infertile, into dust under the blazing sun. So why do we, as a race, persist in laying the groundwork to seed our own miserable demise? Why clear-fell whole countries only to fatten cattle for their mass slaughter to give some Lazy Joe a nutrition-depleted, ready-made burger? Not content with turning the complex machinery of nature into a monocultural wasteland where even the public are forbidden to go, we’re even ramping up operations on livestock farms to expand the export market for meat into a China that’s seen the largest middle-class in history emerge within the past thirty years. Even their tastes are changing to embrace a completely cruel and unsustainable world. Bye bye Taoism. The only consolation we can draw is that 800 million Hindus refuse point blank to jump on the cattle train, not that Mother India is a shining beacon of environmental custodianship.

Living in 2020 without the corresponding vision is not totally unlike the proverbial overflowing bucket of liquified manure that spills out to all quarters. It’s not just the disappearance of tropical and sub-tropical forest, nor the disappearance of broadleaf temperate forest that we in Europe have mourned for a thousand years. It’s everything, everywhere. The human cancer has gone metastatic. Desert is growing everywhere between latitude 20 and 30 north and south, yet we turn a blind eye for most of us do not live in a desert, nor have so much as stepped in one. Grasslands have already been co-opted, but that’s old news now since Buffalo Bill Hickok shot six million bison on the Great Plains as a way of spitefully starving the Sioux. Ice is going, yet while we mourn its melting we overlook that if it were advancing – as it has dozens of times in the past two million years – we wouldn’t find it so brilliant white or cute. As for the oceans, well, not only have we gone from trawler to factory ship as if to underscore the intensification of the end for all who partake in the feast of misery, we continue to sully the waters around our coasts and then some more. We’ve created a floating mat of congealed plastics that swirl around in the North Pacific and is reckoned to be the size of big ol’ Texas. A remarkable feat of human ingenuity if you ask me. Only outdone by the crass stupidity of knowing that fish stocks (even the term ‘stocks’ implies monetary value and property for humans) are near exhausted, so how about we build trawlers the size of small passenger liners with hooked lines trailing off the stern, some long enough to reach the moon and back, which was in all fairness the last decent thing we ever did to get one over on nature. Scrape the seabed for a catch that justifies the distances the fleets (mainly Chinese) will go in order to bring home the ocean’s bacon. They know the damage wrought by this crude method, but do they care? They must know that hardwired into their rapacious business model is the reality that what they’re doing is finite and temporary and smacks of the kind of short-term strategic planning that is no planning at all. Rather, the dragnet of modern fishing fleets represents another instance of short-sightedness that can never equate to the far, crystal clear vision that 20-20 provides.

A discussion about the absence of vision in the year where the two words best eclipse, cannot be foreclosed without mention of political will and leadership. It does not require radical insight to see that leadership around the world is characterized by a near collapse in the manner of vision needed to see the living Earth through the 21st century without any more bodily desecration than is strictly needed to lead a low-impact life. Leaders are followers. Whom they follow is up for argument, but you can bet that the pursuit of profit and unenlightened self-interest lies right behind them. Britain and the U.S. are grotesque examples of nations who have known visionary leadership in their illustrious pasts and who have now descended into a near-existential breakdown because the current crop of leaders are singularly lacking in the kind of millennial vision that sees a hundred years ahead, and not the next hundred days, fearing the imminence of their own destruction, which is the lot of the modern politician. Where are the leaders that the world in crisis demands? Where are the new wave of articulate young voices? Where is the unity of purpose in it all? Of course, worshipping the making of capital and looking to those early 21st century capitalists as pedigree for the type of leadership our damaged world needs is going to end badly. The credo of unlimited economic growth built upon the conquest of nature (as espoused by Adam Smith back in 1776) is a dangerous one, setting a course for yet more planetary destruction by a species whose boots have gotten too big for their feet, whose eyes have grown too large and covetous for their sockets, but whose vision has dimmed. Contrary to the saucer-sized eyes they think is needed for a bigger, bolder vision, they’re missing the whole point: its smaller, less covetous eyes we need, but eyes that penetrate the darkness we currently find ourselves lost in.

To Live With a Loss That Has No Purpose.

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So, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke.

We often use the verb ‘to stumble’ when employing metaphor in describing mishaps on the road to personal progress. For instance, ‘I was doing so well to make this dream happen until i stumbled into trouble.’ Thing is, we don’t often apply the term literally when describing the very moment that things took a definitive turn for the worse. Take this example: ‘He stumbled on the escarpment and fell to his death‘. Exceptions prevail, of course. Sometimes people stumble literally and the ensuing fall is even more consequential (and somewhat more inexplicable) than if the stumble had been figurative in a metaphorical sense. What happened the other night was not exactly a stumbling block on the road to Middle East Peace; being real and not abstract it was arguably more compelling than that.

Soon enough we’ll come back to this nice bloke for whom it happened to. It must be foretold that I’ve got this far in life without throwing the towel in by consoling myself that we inhabit an orderly, law-abiding universe. A chaotic, lawless universe is too hard to countenance. In this universe of mine watchful, seemingly benign forces act upon our individual conduct to pave our way with either help or hindrance. You might call this ‘the blind watchmaker’ syndrome. A classic call to monotheism’s central tenet that God is everywhere and judging. He maketh even that which He cannot possibly maketh. My take is more Tao of Physics, more Oriental holistic, more interconnected subatomic networks with inbuilt natural laws of justice than your run-of-the-mill divine, omnipotent Father-figure there to restore the cosmic balance of justice in favour of the kind and compassionate over the cruel and selfish among us. Intelligent design? Only in so far as subatomic matter is mystically connected to each other despite time and vast distance. Protons telekinetically agreeing that so-and-so is worthy, through honourable conduct, of synchronicity with benevolent time. On time’s elevator, the good don’t even need to punch in their desired floor. The lift knows where to take them. Whereas, the black of heart, for all their frantic prodding of buttons on the console, the elevator nevertheless spits them out precisely on a floor where only woe can find them. These we call the natural laws. You get what you give, no more, no less. Except my story betrays this as fanciful thinking dreamed up by those who need to know that behind every senseless action lurks a just reason. My story tells of how our foundations can be shaken by events that have no purpose other than to reaffirm the popular, secular belief that shit just happens. If everything happens for no other reason than to provide no other reason, then please stop the whirring cosmos for i want to get off.

My neighbour, for want of a better word, was coming home two nights ago. Now his home is rather unconventional. To get there he has to park his car by a canal bridge in a hushed little village full of fairytale thatched cottages, then walk a considerable distance through the quarter-lit gloaming along the black waters of the canal towpath. The towpath is narrow and the banks steep. On one side foliage arches over like a line of tall, bowing hunchbacks. On the other is the water, sullied and still like a river of weak tea with a dash of milk. This garden path of his is neither for the frail nor the faint of heart. Seeing that he answers to neither of these calls, he was walking home with his six month-old pup, Patsy, off the lead with shopping bags in each hand. The Irish terrier, still in that delicate stage of training, would ordinarily have been on the lead but for the fact that the shopping won’t carry itself. Learning to walk independently and by his side, she was beginning to make great strides toward obedience.

Emerging from under a small brick bridge, he put one foot in front of the other, feeling his way through the rapid darkening. As if from nowhere his toe stumbled hard against an exposed tree branch and the forward momentum of his body coupled with the weight of the bags sent him headlong into the canal. Head first he fell, scattering his shopping everywhere, disappearing under the stagnant water. When he emerged from the shallow water he panned his vision around but she was gone. The dog had hightailed it in fear. Now this ‘flight-mode’ is not unheard of in young dogs once spooked by something. Their calm demeanour snaps, leaving their primitive instinct in the driving seat.

All night he paraded up and down the towpath, calling her name, coaxing her to come back. The following morning I got wind of her disappearance and so, without hesitation, joined the hunt. We combed the coppiced fringes of the canal, straying into neighbouring fields, all the while calling her name gently. By now a proper search party had been raised. People being people, dog people being even more divided by canine opinion than non-dog people, theories starting flying thick and fast. She’s gone to ground, some said. The fear has triggered her amygdala into making her cower timorously in the undergrowth until such time as hunger snaps her out of this fugue state. Other theories centred on her terrier nature. She must have found a drain pipe. Others still wondered if she had run and run and run until, young and utterly bewildered, she could no longer find her way home to her master and their boat. I asked the owner what his instincts were telling him. She’s gone to ground, he averred. Agreed, we vowed to resume the search the following morning, though I knew his search would go on undaunted throughout the night.

The following day came and, well, nothing. So again we theorised as to where a panicked puppy might go. We covered a radius of maybe five kilometres in all directions. Meanwhile, other kindly souls had mounted a search and rescue effort. Word was out. Even a local drone pilot wanted in on the action. By the end of the second day I could see his facade of bravery start to crumble. It’s all in the downward sloping of the eyebrows, exposing these two vertical furrows leading up from the bridge of the nose. Again I asked him, what do your instincts tell you? She’s in warm room somewhere beside an old lady who’s picked her up. There and then, a crack appeared in his sixty-eight years of tough stolidness: English passion, I call it. I don’t want to entertain that thought, he said. I have to stay positive. Granted, in such a rural area, where could she have got to? No main road for miles. Only a mainline from Bristol to London, but she wouldn’t, she couldn’t, clamber through the thorny brambles, scramble up the track ballast and onto the lines. Too gnarly, too steep, too pointless for even a pup with no sense of anything other than love for every living soul.

He kept a vigil, returning precisely to the spot where the stumbling had taken place two nights previous. The owner even left a scent trail of his socks, his t-shirts, her basket, blanket, every last little clue he could muster to coax her back from her ‘safe’ place in the undergrowth to their safe place on the boat. I watched as his initial optimism turned in on itself. Two days cowering in a damp bush without food? This theory was beginning by now to sound wishful. By the end of the second day, my thoughts turned to the likelihood that a six month-old Irish terrier, a rare and desirable pedigree, had been snaffled by a lucky passerby. She had to have been sequestered by someone, being such a ditsy and trustful little thing. Question was: what manner of character would this passerby possess? Would they be honest and self-effacing enough to know that this was someone’s prized possession? Or would they be a finders-keepers-losers-weepers type who justifies their deceit on the grounds that property is nine-tenths of the law, whatever that means?

This morning i awoke late. Powering up my phone i received a ping. It was him. He wrote to thank me for my help, but that it wouldn’t be any longer needed. She was found late last night dead by the rail tracks right next to his boat on the other side of a thicket of oak trees. She must have found her way back to the boat but took a wrong turn and ended up trotting along the tracks alone in the dark, afraid. She could hear him calling her but was stricken and helpless to go to him. So light and frail, she was struck by either the London train or a freight train. Her – and his – only solace was that her death would have been instant.

I told my mum, who has loved and lost dogs. She answered, life can be cruel sometimes, son.

Why do terrible things happen to good people? Why must the most vulnerable have to live in fear? Why is love taken away from us only when we’ve found it? Where is the natural justice in all this? I refuse to believe we exist in a dimension where senselessness and meaninglessness is a defining feature. That said, today my eyes are welling up wondering if my grip on an orderly reality is slipping and that, in the end, it’s shit that happens and no one knows the f&ck why.

The Buddha implored us not to get too attached as it would only cause suffering when weaning occurred. He must have known, however, that as humans our attachment to objects – both animate and inanimate – can be both profound and wholly natural. Within this paradox we must make our last stand. This is our eternal condition.

Too Good To Be True

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That ol’ devil called greed is back again. Many feared the worst while others dreamed of a new, kinder dawn. But oh no no, sir! No sooner is full lockdown eased, untimely death is no longer news. And why? Because that she-devil, the economy, is back. No sooner has its mouth been welded shut than its teeth are glistening at the prospect of new blood.

Turn on the news and talk of rekindling a lost love for nature, or for that matter stopping to reflect on human suffering and the slow torture of social isolation, has been superseded by dire prognostications of poor industrial output, negative deficits, and looming recession. Figures in the billions (£) are banded around where only last week the figures were reserved for the dead. Yes, I’m afraid it’s time to rally together in a final push over the top to be mown down not by the bullets of the Bosch but by debt, overconsumption and more reckless environmental despoliation.

vikings

However, this national obsession with wealth accumulation has substantial precedent when seen over the arc of history. The very name Britannia came into being as a nomenclature given by Roman imperial planners (Britanicus, I think, was one of the Julio-Claudean line of rulers). The island was finally absorbed into the Romanosphere in the mid-first century not for magnanimous reasons but because it was known since Phoenician times for its lucrative silver, tin, lead and gold mines. Then, following the departing legions, Jutes, Angles and Saxons came not for magnanimous reasons but because in that fertile soil lay wealth and prosperity. Following them, the dreaded Danes, who arrived in the 790s on raiding parties along the North Sea coast. Not for magnanimous reasons did they emerge on the flat horizon, but to plunder the treasures known to be held in the abbeys. Following them the Normans, who didn’t raise a psychotic militia for magnanimous reasons but to spill blood onto land they knew would bring a crop of splendiferous wealth. During the civil war in the 1640s, a genuine attempt was made at levelling the appalling inequalities of serfdom in the late middle ages. But again that was snuffed out again by the forces of avarice. The Bank of England would be established forty years after the failures of English republicanism just to underscore the direction the country was heading in. In that century too, The East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company consolidated their royally-sanctioned gains to become the Multi-Nationals of their day. Following the failures of political equality in England, the notion of republicanism as the only force for egalitarianism was then left to France and the inchoate United States. In the years following the Seven Years War with France, by the mid-1700s the British empire had become the most profitable venture in the history of the world. Its adherence to the doctrine of greed, masqueraded as mercantilism, became set in stone, an article of faith.

Top-questions-answers-East-India-Company

And so it is that the country, as it appears today, finds itself true to its atavistic self. In other words, its socio-cultural DNA had been inherited from a long lineage. Other than the blip following both world wars when some kind of radical redistribution of wealth had to be sought to avoid a civilisational collapse, Britain has proven herself more adept at pursuing riches by any means possible than it has for coming up with novel ways of how people can co-exist harmoniously with each other and with the ecology that still clings to the land’s surface. It wasn’t for want of clever men and women that naked economics trumped high ideals. Those big ideas the so-called deep state (the power behind the power) encouraged our philosophers to debate, providing their conclusions arrived at a natural law of supply and demand, and of how man is shaped by self-evolving and universal economic forces than – as was the case in revolutionary France – how economic forces could be shaped by man and altered to reflect a fairer society. Utilitarianism, a dominant thought system in the very acquisitive nineteenth century was a excellent case in point. The greatest happiness for the greatest number lent itself well as a doctrine to England earning the sobriquet of a nation of shopkeepers.

Industrial Revolution

In the southern parts of this island, we are still wedded to the idea that economics of unlimited growth in a world bound by physical limits determines levels of happiness. No doubt it is better to be a rich man in a cold country than a poor man in a warm one. However, the great mechanisms of how we interact with tradable commodities continue to dominate thinking in informing the consensus. Lockdown was a chance to redress that imbalance. It was a unique opportunity for the average Joe to hop off the spinning wheel for a while and to try seeing life – and what he/she values from it – from a wholly different perspective. This perfect convergence of variables (that is to say, unusually great weather, government providing a blanket of financial support to the majority, as well as the stillness in the air that permitted us to think long and hard) gave the millions upon millions of conscripts fighting as footsoldiers and corporals in the boom and bust economic war the chance to think again about what they wanted out of their country. Unfortunately, like the Christmas Day short truce of 1914 where British and German soldiers showed their mutual enmity by getting together for a game of football and a post-match drink, this too is a false dawn. Like those men who knew, through a simple game of football, they had more in common with one another than with the chiefs of staff who sent them to the front in the first place, this cosy little interregnum that some have been enjoying of late is too dangerous to continue. The unfair society harnessed by the economics of naked aggression and unlimited growth cannot survive the neglect and contempt it is being shown at present.

1914-christmas-truce

The second age of the robber barons is not over yet. But a few more pandemic lockdowns might just do the trick. And not unlike the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, a spring clean of the people (i.e. a serious trimming of human numbers leading to a radical restructuring of the socioeconomic order) may just give the downtrodden a glimmer of hope. And a chance to rise up alongside a damned and damaged natural world from the scorched earth of a long and unfruitful economic obsession.

 

 

(Nothing but) Flowers

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Does art imitate life, or life art?

In days of Covid-19, when the sight of Piccadilly Circus derelict at 3pm could easily be mistaken for 3am midsummer in Murmansk with the sun already up (or more’s the point, having never actually gone down, situated as it is above the Arctic Circle), you know the face of the planet is a strange and beautiful – if deeply troubled – place in need of accounting for. To do that, what better way than to trove through the annals of music to find lyrics that somehow chime with our topsy-turvy vision of Twenty-Twenty.  

How pop music anticipated the short upside of the long lockdown.

Two classic numbers spring to mind as expressions of a world both blighted by the giant bovver boot of human success, and lifted from the dark shadow of its crushing conquest. To know them, we first need to know their context (both allude strongly to making/unmaking the world in our own human image) plus the order in which they arrived on the scene. 

The first song imagines paradise lost to human development and is really an ironic take on how when somewhere magical is discovered by the few it is soon descended upon by the many until that magic melts away before the axe, the pick, the shovel and the steamroller. Let’s face up, before the current pandemic, paradise was being lost at a rate of knots. Virgin lands were being deflowered faster than their chastity could stand. But this trend had a precedent. This was all laid out with depressing familiarity in the imagery conjured up in Joni Mitchell’s 1970 masterpiece, Big Yellow Taxi. She saw the tide changing even back then. Joni must’ve read Rachel Carson’s 1962 groundbreaker, Silent Spring. She, among the enlightened few, flocked to Laurel Canyon, in the hills outside L.A., when it was relatively untouched. By 1970 her lyrics were prescient enough to foreshadow an era when the faraway magic tree was starting to get laden with nest builders. In short, when the visionary few woke up to us killing the goose that laid the golden egg. 

She sings,

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot.

This was 1970. By then California’s redwoods had taken about as much pummelling as they could without going extinct in their native habitat. Federal protection would soon ensue to safeguard the remaining 5% of coastal redwoods left in the wild. Things were by no means great, ecologically-speaking. But the world contained far fewer people than today, and far more biodiversity in still unchecked corners of the globe. Joni saw the writing on the wall. For her, it was going to be ugly, but not without the delicious tang of irony.

They took all the trees
Put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em.

The rapid human (& by extension commercial) development of Southern California, and in particular Laurel Canyon, was cause for concern, even then. It was in every sense yet another paradise in the process of being lost. You didn’t have to go back to Milton in the 1600’s to realise this. Nor even to the loss of Eden in the Old Testament. In fact, it was happening all around her and her hippie acolytes. So much so that she saw fit to pen the words to one of the great songs of popular music.

Hey, farmer, farmer
Put away the DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees.

The birds needed their trees, but the trees were being shipped to the museum. And the bees needed the flowers to pollinate, but the flowers were sprayed with deadly insecticide. And so, the modern narrative was written. The context was nature’s loss for human gain, albeit temporary. The story of us was bittersweet. Our rampaging success came at a cost to everything that was hitherto worth living for. The garden of Eden was once again imperilled, and didn’t Joni express it every bit as well as a biblical prophet.

The second classic number from 1988, Talking Heads’ (Nothing but) Flowers, also laments loss – yes, those buckled blades of grass under the giant bovver boot of human progress that Joni decries – but this time in a different way. Human development for Joni amounted to stealing the pristine from under her nose as Laurel Canyon fills up with infrastructure that follows in the wake of other dream-seekers like herself. Where she accuses her fellow pioneers of stripping away at the fabric of pure nature in their onrush to exist in a state untouched by civilisation (in other words, by radical actions involving having to degrade nature so they could live it, which defeats the whole point of conservation), (Nothing But) Flowers laments the loss of what we brought to the world by changing it from natural to synthetic. The lyrics deliver a shot from the bows that, contrary to the selfish act of taking from nature to become more natural, mother nature (triggered by events untold in the Talking Heads song) has now reclaimed all things natural from her wayward child. His message is clear: we didn’t gain anything in losing our hold on the world. Roads without cars might well feel like a pleasant dream when cars on roads are all that is. But when all the cars are gone and the road is uprooted? Is that not just as lamentable as a world sans les animaux? Beware what you wish for is a sentiment that rattles through each verse.  

From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.

Whereas Joni’s brand new parking lot paved paradise, Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne sings,

Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis.

His parking lot has become overgrown in the absence of cars by the creeping dominion of natural regrowth. We have, in essence, gone full circle. However, this oasis is not all it is cracked up to be. Byrne soon tires of this state of nature, dreaming instead of,

 …cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies.  

One would be forgiven for thinking that where

…There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers…

can only be good. But no. Byrne proves to be no such primitivist. He wants his Dairy Queen, Honky Tonk and 7-Eleven back. Joni saw real estate supplanting the wild fields and trees, a town sprung up where once there were flowers. Byrne envisions the opposite.

This used to be real estate
Now it’s only fields and trees
Where, where is the town?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.

Disabusing us of this idyllic state of post-civilisation, catching rattlesnakes for dinner is not a tempting prospect once civilisation has collapsed. In a nod to the 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, David Byrne sees savagery as the state of nature. Thus, sovereignty has to be restored lest we descend into the the very thing we’ve tried to get way from throughout our painful history. For Joni Mitchell, the romanticism is straight out of a Gaugin painting of Tahitian women. Noble savagery, all swished with colour. For David Byrne, this post-apocalyptic bloom might as well be algal. For Joni, the optimal state of existence is what you might term prelapsarian, that is to say, straight from the Garden of Eden before the flood. Humans are the harbingers of apocalypse for her. Everything they do to commodify their world ends up being worse than the purity of what it replaced.

As Byrne sings toward the end verses:

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries.

Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle

Both these splendid tunes are musical museum pieces for good reason. You or I couldn’t sit down and write them in an afternoon. But in spite of their substantive differences, both numbers are really just two sides of the same coin. Both deal with before and after. Both lament loss. Both pivot around this idea of the aftermath of a profound transition felt by everyone. In this regard, one can thread them to the current state of lockdown being experienced around the world. As has become all too apparent that everyone is feeling a different vibe to the recent halting of practically all human activity in the face of a deadly virus, we may well ask: is it time for a prequel to these songs? This time, in lieu of loss, the unnamed songwriter can wax lyrical about how we unpaved paradise, took down a parking lot. Of how we took all the museums, put them in a massive tree. Or, this was going to be real estate, but it was decided the best buildings are trees. Or, please leave me stranded here, I could get used to this lockdown. 

Leave something for the birds and the bees. Leave something for us and those of us to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Flying Over Planet Lockdown on a Magic Carpet Ride

adventure, agriculture, Cities, climate, conservation, Coronavirus, counter-culture, developing world, environment, ethics, EU, future, futurology, Imagination, Life, Lifestyle, natural philosophy, natural world, philosophy, Reflections, revolution, Society, Socioeconomics, thoughts, Travel

It’s 2030. Imagine you could select anything from home to power your low-level flight around the planet. It wouldn’t be the stressed planet we have come to know. It would still be a human planet, but one rather unashamedly changed from the one you knew and despaired of back in 2020.

The overhyped pandemic of 2020, the one that had the world all in a panic to the point where it effectively closed human activity down, produced unexpected outcomes. No one quite knew it at the time, but the quarantining of humanity inadvertently gave breathing space to all terrestrial life that had been trampled in the poisoned dirt since the mid-20th century. Gone were the crisscross scars of vapour trails from planes all across the sky. Gone too were the ‘conjunctivitis domes’ that enclosed all but a few cities and towns in hazy, acrid pollution. More than anything, gone was the constant background noise of society consuming itself into an early grave. At first, even the most misanthropic kept tight-lipped about how the lockdown was having anything but a deleterious effect on them. They wanted to tell everyone about how delirious with happiness they were, that they were reconnecting with the world around, how the spring had never seemed so polarised with deep colours, and how the silence of everywhere had led to a great sonic peace across the entire sky. While patients with Coronavirus were gasping for their last breath, the guilty enjoyment of the majority who bore no symptoms seemed unutterable. But as the lockdown went on, more and more started to admit there was an upside to the downside of putting industrial society on ice for a while. While they cited different reasons for secretly enjoying the mass meditation retreat that the world had become, a common theme began to emerge. The average Joe and Joanne hadn’t been happy for a long time, but it was only through the Covid lockdown that it struck them exactly why.

I would select my cherished silk-on-silk rug from Kashmir as my means of transport, the one I bought for a princely sum from Kashmiris in a bazaar in old Kathmandu. The colour is light green with pink woven into the borders. When you brush your hand across it, the sweep turns it darker or lighter, not unlike suede. The pattern is distinctive: 32 geometric panels depicting the Islamic Garden of Paradise, including pomegranate trees, arbours, plant pots and rambling rose. Tradition tells that this is a design from the revered Iranian town of Qom, from where the finest silk rugs and carpets on Earth are spun by weavers with magic fingers. Hence, magic carpets. If not that precious (and surprisingly tough) silk rug, I have another I’d consider riding on over a changed world in 2021. This one is an Islamic prayer rug (although I do not profess to be a man of any faith, other than faith in myself). I bought it from a reliable dealer in the Emirates, but the thing itself was woven in Northern Afghanistan and is exceptionally beautiful. Not of silk, this short-pile rug is of the finest wool dyed with the madder root into a colour resembling the dark dried blood of many an Afghan who has spilled their veins throughout the long war. Yes, my choice of long-haul air transport would be either the Kashmir silk rug or the Afghan prayer rug. Then again, for spaciousness there’s also that large tribal kilim from Tabriz in my collection. I could spread out on that during my transcontinental flyover. I’ll need a flying jacket and goggles, as it might get chilly, breezy and bumpy riding up there on the thermals. Oh, and my Leica monocular, too, so I can peer into the lives of others, and to see how the wildlife is coming along.

The roots of popular unhappiness, more and more started to realise, were becoming evident in the pleasant results the lockdown had produced on the wider world. Where the pace of life had been pulling us at 5Gs in a centrifuge, instead of being forced outwards the lockdown had now turned the force inward, to where we were all falling forward together into an attractive centre, which I call a natural equilibrium. Where previously few had any time for anyone else, they now found themselves devoting newfound time to the human relations they once held at the fulcrum of their world. Where many were being sucked into deadly debt traps, they now saw another possibility for an economic model that extolled the simple, organic life. Where many couldn’t sleep for the din of a society that had turned into a screaming lunatic asylum, quiet lockdown nights brought quiescence to tortured minds. It also revealed what had always been there but droned out: birdsong, and other naturally-occurring sounds. Where tens of thousand of species teetered on the brink of extinction due to human unwillingness to share, humanity finally agreed that the wild places were too few and the tamed ones too many. Monoculture changed in the agri business. Farmers were now harvesting goodies from the broad-leafed forests they had let grow in the vacuum of brown fields whose soil was depleted to the point of exhaustion. Animals that had resisted extirpation by laying low during the worst of our planetary abuses, and generally driven to the edge by our selfish species, followed suit. Population policy aimed at natural reduction, allowing crops to be grown vertically in great agri-towers that ran on sunlight. Where our industrial-age fear of the dark had produced so much halogen light to power society through night after night, so the lights went off and the stars returned to twinkle over what were sulphurous megacities. Something else unexpected returned: the sun. The industrial age had whipped up a dynasty of stormy weather by seeding every cloud with effluents and contaminants into raining. Gone was the chromatic aberration caused by poor air quality. Now the portrait of the planet looked pin sharp and didn’t we know it.

A revolution in the mind happened soon after the lifting of the 2020 lockdown. People wanted it back. They may not have professed to wanting thousands dead of a pathogen, but what they did want was to mitigate the disastrous effects of the human project by blocking off one month in every year where systems ground practically to a halt; where only essential distribution services, such as food and medicine and so forth remained a mainstay priority. Of course, they were compensated financially, but this would decrease over time as we moved away from heavy borrowing and high expenditure market economics to an ecological model of sustainable productivity. So, there you are on the magic carpet, skirting over the planet.

Ten years have past since the lockdown revolution/revelation of 2020. The annual month of fallow is now enshrined in UN law. Every nation is a signatory. Even the U.S., that resisted for so long because it was a concept engineered through the myth of the American Dream to exist only by maximising capital gains in every overworked American, even they got on board. China remains the dark horse: tense on the issue because the Chinese are caught between their philosophical tradition of Taoism and their love of making money by ramping up industry to ridiculous levels. Europe, being the old man, was at the forefront of the new paradigm for living. The Continentals approved wholeheartedly of this nouvelle approach to tempering things down.

Mechanisms were put in place to ensure that the other eleven months are not abused by the rush to over-productivity, as this habit came to be scoffed at for its backward greed motive. As a burned-out race we started mellowing. Our eyes were evermore open to the great clockwork of nature and how we – contrary to the proud fools that modernity and progress had made us – had broadly accepted our fixed role as a cog in that natural machinery, and not – contrary to the arrogance of our predecessors – as its clockmaker. Delegates even took to doling out liberal sprinklings of Gandhi’s wisdom that we live simply so that we may simply live.

What do you see, future me, when you look down from way up high on that Afghan rug in the new blue sky?

Surviving a Wilderness of Weirdness with Philosophy as the Weapon of Choice

ethics, fate, free will, future, greek philosophy, human mind, Life, marcus aurelius, meditations, natural philosophy, natural world, philosophy, Spiritualism, stoicism, thoughts

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The media report much fear and trepidation in the wider world, although judging by the look of contentment on the face of passersby, you’d be hard pressed to think so.

(and I swear even the dogs grin, or is that the outward appearance of having a stick lodged in one’s mouth?)

There’s also the unintended consequence of having a lot of people who find themselves with oodles of time on their hands while Covid-19 does the rounds. So how do they while away the hours until the spectre of death subsides, and we can get back to servicing the toothed machine of human progress? Some trek to Everest Basecamp in the confines of their home by scaling the staircase until the carpet goes bald and they follow suit. Others turn their hand to a spot of home teaching the kids until, realising that the transmission of knowledge through didactic discipline is harder than it looks, they dismiss their tiny class early. Others, like me, write obscure blogs that few dare to read, worse still understand. Still others take up new housebound hobbies with aplomb: such as taking 360˚ virtual trips to the Great Namib Desert courtesy of their much-abused smart phones, or else the wise few keep reciting ‘No wild animals in my delicious hotpot, please’ in Mandarin until the phrase sticks.

With this golden opportunity not to go nuts inside a tiny flat in Basingstoke, how many out there have given over their enquiring mind to the acquisition of a philosophy? Ancients, who weren’t busy warring in a sackcloth and sandals, were rather adept at offering sound advice based on the principle that once a man had found a philosophy to suit his ontological needs, he had succeeded in finding the map that would guide a clear path through this impenetrable life. The bold and the beautiful in the Greco-Roman universe swore by this dictum, going so far as to stitch their new ethos into their imperator tunics while on campaign against troublesome Germanic tribes.

The last of the five ‘good emperors’, Marcus Aurelius, was a man revered for being an enlightened and compassionate allrounder with a mind given over to self-examination in ways inconceivable to other emperors, for whom pleasures of the flesh all too often outweighed the pain of asking what does it all mean and what is my true place in the grand scheme? Given the unenviable task of leading the decades-long charge against tribes terrifying the fragile borderlands of the Roman Empire, the good emperor still managed to fit in a famous philosophical treatise before he died. Known as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, it was in essence a late second century A.D. reinterpretation of an ethical code dating back to a school of philosophy which had flourished ever since Zeno inscribed it in the minds of 4th century B.C.E. Athenians fed up with Cynicism.

Known as Stoicism, this branch of philosophy sought to strip away the bark of long-established wisdom to reveal the true sap oozing out of life: that is to say something vaguely along the lines of a cosmos working in cycles that start and end in fire. All matter that makes up the physical and, by extension, metaphysical questions that Man struggles to intepret works on a rational and logical basis (or ought to). Hence we humans do best when we are exercising reason over hot-headed emotion; hence we attain more understanding of how things are when explaining that phenomena using language built upon the rational rules of grammar instead of, say, an abstract picture or an incoherent grunt.

Sandwiched between the grand cosmological cycles is something we know as nature. Hence. stoicism is arguably the most influential of natural philosophies in its insistence that you and me are very small and limited in the grand scheme of things. By accepting each our minor yet vital role, the pressure is off and therefore happiness through simplicity becomes viable. Nature has a grand design, and if you let it into your heart you’ll soon realise both you are very insignificant and that, in spite of our own individual position far from centre, the universe nevertheless has your best interests at stake. All things occur for a reason. Fate doesn’t have to explain why it behaves in seemingly random ways. If it did, we’d know there’s nothing random about it. Even if an event seems uniquely cruel or inexplicable, natural forces will use the injustice to take corrective measures later on that symmetrically redress the balance, leading to the ‘Ah!’ epiphany that ‘it all makes sense now’. The interconnectivity of events is so blindingly intricate, not even a genius could spot it (shit! Did I just spot it where better people failed?)

Zeno, the father of stoicism himself, is reputed to have said that fate is an endless chain of causation whereby things are: the reason or formula by which the world goes on. In spite of this complex pattern, nature’s inner workings are, obversely, not mystical and esoteric at all; they are beautiful because true beauty lies in simplicity. That nature is beneficent – an unstoppable force that looks out for each of us if only we’d realise it – is contingent on you, the stoic, playing life as a game involving a basic blueprint of virtues to carry through life’s interactions into every little thing. Seek the four cardinal virtues – 1) justice/fairness/decency 2) wisdom/prudence/deliberation 3) courage/fortitude/endurance, and 4) temperance/self-discipline/modesty – and ye shall find yourself on course for a good death. That’s the idea, as I see it. The moment of death is all that your life ultimately amounts to, so life had better be conducted virtuously if death is to be faced head on, without anguish. There is such an aspiration as a good death, but it must be preluded by a life of self-discipline, fairness, examination, and strength of heart and mind. By the way, a good stoic would urge you not to be virtuous only to for the reward of a least hideous death. Be good, in and of itself, not for what it may give you back. Life is not a financial investment. Do the right thing because that is the natural order of things and to speak the language of life eloquently, we must first understand its grammar and morphology.
For stoics, like Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, life exists to be lived, literally like there is no tomorrow. William Faulkener wrote, The past is never dead. It’s not even past. How I do admire that wordplay. That said, Faulkener was no devotee of Seneca the Stoic. To stoics like Seneca, the past is a foreign country. Events that created the mosaic of that life have moved away forever, never to be relived with the veracity of how they were first meted out. Memories are not to be trusted, nor to be dwelt on. And death is not a loss of a whole life but rather just a loss of a moment at the close of that life. The ideal life, according to Seneca, was to be lived in the now, without dwelling on what’s gone, nor the irrelevance of what’s to come. It was to find contentedness in the simple here and now, and to want for nothing. How else to understand what golden threads of alchemy the cosmic fabric is made of other than to look closely at what is all around you NOW?

What the world needs now is love, sweet love, so goes the song. The world also needs Stoicism, meant not as the character-building prototype of the rugged Victorian imperialist (sword in one hand, dove in the other, pen between the toes, and pipe contemplatively in the mouth). Rather, the stoicism that emanated from ancient Athens and Rome was one that understood its demoted place in the natural order. We face a twenty-first century reckoning because we took stoicism to mean putting up with any old shit that life throws at us. Overwhelmingly, that shit was of our own making because we got way, way ahead of ourselves, thinking that two thousand years of Christianity and Islam had transformed each of us into little gods and sinners to be forgiven through atonement and religious devotion. So it was okay to break the ancient covenant with the natural order and go forth and multiply exponentially while scorching the Earth to conquer all before us because it was sanctioned first by the scriptures, and secondly by the arrogance bestowed on us by virtue of having reached a state of civilisation that was deemed far removed from lowly animals (this civilisation, it should be post-scripted, built its sandcastle empire not always on virtue alone).

In an age of uncertainty, rocked by the unvoiced realisation that there are too many of us vying for limited resources in a world wrecked in the search for these valuables, what needs resurrecting from the ashes of a self-deceptive human race is the idea that there are greater forces out there writing the book of life. That we are not gods but men and women who are fallible may seem self-evident, but any visitor from Andromeda would think we had promoted ourselves to that elevated rank. Every one of us might be just a mote of dust in the wind, but life affords us one chance to show our mettle: that if each of us face our remaining days in the pursuit of justice and courage and wisdom and self-restraint we shall once again feel humbled by the enormity of all that surrounds us. While no one gets out here alive, use this present lockdown to fashion your own system of practical ethics. As well as dying with a smile on your face, you might just make a small difference to your own and to the innumerable small lives that together construct the rich tapestry of everything we see and, more importantly, everything we don’t.

Everybody has an answer, but few a philosophy. Everyone wants a life, but not everyone holds the ethical guidebook to embark upon one worth living. Millions likes posting big pictures on Instagram, but how many consider the bigger picture and their own role as but one pixel within it? Why go in search of happiness as if it be a commodity to be acquired when, with the right tools at your disposal, you may reach inside and find it there? Thousands are dying out there (of malaria more than of Covid-19). So why stay at home wondering how you’re going to avoid it when you can stay at home and work out a formula for how to pursue a good life befitting of an equally good death.