Sunday, January 18, 2009

Heroes for our time


If a thing’s worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

The world is in crisis, and most people are in denial. The obvious overpopulation as the numbers of humanity triples in one lifetime, to pass the limits of the earth, is ignored. The oil peak has come along at the forecast time, showing itself by a price rise and instability, which has pushed the world into depression. Hardly anyone cares for the natural world which has been stripped everywhere by human settlement, and as a massive species dieout is under way. At Kyoto, nations invented a new money-go-round before continuing with business as usual and ignoring even those promises. Growth remains the universal religion and drug.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Alphonse Karr

We feel the desperation of awareness as our corner of the world follows the lemming tide. We face a similar problem to others throughout history. For example, two of the voices from the past quoted below, Shakespeare and Donne, lived in turbulent times. Both came from Catholic backgrounds and in a time of Protestant domination plots both decided that those religious were not worth dying for. Would we be wiser to conform in silence? We have decided not; after all our lives are not threatened, the price to pay is to join the ranks of society’s nutters.

For our heroes we turn to literature to illustrate possible actions – some too extreme to contemplate, even while fitting well to the situation.

Forecasts suggest a massive population downturn as the world approaches the 9 billion mark. In the 14th century perhaps one-third of Europe died. With that scale of deaths there could be 3 billion people – more than the world’s whole population in 1960 – dying amidst social collapse. Some people see that as the normal working of evolution, which is full of population overshoot and decline; it is what happens when some specie gets too successful and overloads its environmental niche. Others, including us, look with dismay to such a level of (once preventable) misery.

The planet is in peril. One reaction described by James Tiptree Jnr (pseudonym of Alice Sheldon) in 1968 – at a time when the world was becoming aware - was the destruction of humanity. In The Last Flight of Doctor Ain (which can be downloaded off the web) Ain, who loves the world dearly, brings a deadly new disease to wipe people off the surface of the earth and to save it from destruction. This is writing of a high standard, facing, with the freedom of science fiction, the awful need to turn back the human plague – which was recognized clearly at that time, but which has been denied in the 40 years since, that now-gone window of opportunity.

Here is one heroism, to see the magnitude of the situation and to act at that same level by removing the cause of the problem.

Also in fiction, with its greater freedom, there is a ready way out when a character, hating her author and the world that has been created for them to inhabit, can take the choice of exit. Thus in Atlas shrugged (written by that nasty disciple of Nietzsche, Ayn Rand), shopgirl Cherryl Brooks has been taken from a working life to live as wife of wealthy James Rand amongst Rand’s group of power-hungry egotists. It has always seemed to me that this was a case of a character who was completely out of place, a decent person who did not belong in Rand’s monstrous world. She hated the life written for her and escaped, from the book and from the author, by running through the streets and jumping in the river. I felt her palpable life-force and determination as she sprinted offstage. Good for her.

This is my interpretation, my reading of the book. I emphasise with Cherryl as one working class person with another, and I feel the horror of her position amongst such devious characters. So I do not go with an easy reading of feminists who see only the controls of marriage wherever they look.

Cherryl realises what many feminists would later realize about the institute of traditional marriage, that marriage is a way to control and break a strong woman’s spirit, to ensure that she never rises above the domestic sphere to become a hero in the (male) world of action. Cherryl runs away I horror of her condition. Her status as the grateful, dutiful wife, in the traditional sort of marriage women have been expected to aspire to for centuries, a marriage that is even likened to a Cinderella fairy tale, is the tool that crushes her spirit.
From Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand by Mimi Reisel Gladstein, Chris Matthew Sciabarra

Here is a second heroism, to refuse to remain a part of a vile society and to act firmly, to get out.

The most glorious positive action, here under instructions from the author, comes from At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien. The book is a first-person story supposedly by an unnamed Irish student of literature. One part is about a young man named John Furriskey, who turns out to be a fictional character created by another of the student's creations, Dermot Trellis, a cynical writer of Westerns. The stories that the student is writing soon become intertwined with each other. John Furriskey meets and befriends two of Trellis's other characters, Antony Lamont and Paul Shanahan. They each become resentful of Trellis's control over their destinies, and manage to drug him so that he will spend more time asleep, giving them the freedom to lead quiet domestic lives rather than be ruled by the lurid plots of his novels. Once in control they get revenge on Trellis for the deadful life he composed for them by becoming themselves the authors of his story and making his life hell. It does get a bit complicated, and screemingly funny, but the main point is that these characters revolt against their fate and take charge.

This is the third heroism as they seize control of life and make it bend to their will.

That is possible in the world of fantasy, but in our world reality exists, and resists efforts of the imagination. Yet this is the common approach. For example, the aim of Anew New Zealand (Anew) found on their website says that:
By applying our great gift of our imagination, we can see a way forward that is better for everyone.

Anew has a goodly membership and provides a long list of Visions from “Inspirational New Zealanders”. Here is a selection
§ What matters in my vision of New Zealand 2020 is the spirit in which we do things. We feel that, in some sense, the future is ours
§ If we can grow strong collaborative servant leaders, strong communities will automatically follow
§ We can create a culture of peace by modelling the peace we want to achieve, based on "power with" rather than "power over".
§ To cope with the challenging and changing turbulence of our complex society we need to go beyond the technical fix of the knowledge society and recover the old fashioned virtues of caring and responsible altruism.

They don’t really say anything definite; such expressions of hope are nothing more than displacement activity, talking round a problem while denying its reality, magnitude and urgency. In a work of fiction such as from At Swim-Two-Birds characters can seize control and write their own destinies. But not in the real world where it is foolish to confuse dreams with reality.

For in the meantime what has been happening in the real world? Such pious hopes are the height of absurdity in current life, where the new year (2009) started with the usual bang as Jews slaughter Muslims while the Christians who provided the weapons watch on. Too many people (and many in New Zealand) fail to understand the need for a secular society and religious war is blossoming. Thus many big problems keep festering and this century is already repeating the horrors of past centuries. Despite the evidence, available in the media, displacement activity is ubiquitous.

The most common reaction is direct denial. Here economists are to the fore with the frequently-voiced, confident assertion that The Limits to Growth has been disproved. This is simply impossible, since the forecasts were for global crises around 2050; we are not there yet.

The Limits to Growth forecasts, and my own more dire forecasts, are coming true. For this success we owe thanks to the many whose efforts, and lack of action, have assured that global trends will not be interrupted by suitable action. These include many claiming an environmental and global concern, including the Green Party, the New Zealand Futures Trust and the Royal and the Forest and Bird Society. There is much meaningless chatter at the fringes.

The list could be much longer; it is all too easy to find a new contributor. Thus in a recent Dominion Post (December 30 2008, page A4) there is a list of resolutions from the New Zealand branch of the World Wildlife Fund. As the first, prime resolution we find:
Set up a composting system or worm farm at home.
That action, which is also central to the Transition Towns project, will make no difference whatsoever to the overpopulation catastrophe or the destruction of species; indeed such displacement activity assures the success of the doomsday forecasts.

We have also recently learned how the United Nations Fund for Population Affairs (UNFPA) ignores population numbers - and at the same time tramples on our culture (which demands secular public debate, free from the religious strife of past centuries) by forcing religious ceremony on us while talking loudly of cultural sensitivity.

The universal response to global crisis is one of denial, and a determination to be seen as reasonable, as belonging to the main stream, as conforming to conventional wisdom and political correctness. Recently a TV3 report included a comment that:
the Green Party's population policy warns the world's population is growing too fast and New Zealand's population should be capped at a maximum of 5.7 million.

This was met by a scream of denial from one Party activist.
When I saw the item on 3 news reporting on the launch of the Greens population and immigration policies I was shocked. As reported by TV3 the Greens position on immigration and population control are very much “extreme-fringe” thought, i.e. going against the hard work of many people to counter the marginalisation of the Greens and give them mainstream credibility; AKA political suicide. Before summoning an angry mob to demand someone's head on a stick I checked the policy online. I am now shocked at how TV3 is misreporting and spinning this story to portray the Greens to marginalise them as an “extreme-fringe”.

The reality is that the world is vastly overpopulated and that every country, as a world citizen, must urgently reduce its population. Yet here is an absolute denial of any action, since the aim is rather to counter the marginalisation of the Greens and give them mainstream credibility. This is the self-proclaimed environmental party, dodging the key issue.

The mainstream calls for growth - from economies to resource use, to more people and further human occupation of the environment. It is 40 years since the severity of the world situation, with the many interlinking problems, led to the formation of The Club of Rome with its focus on the global problematique. Their concern was reflected in the forecasts of the 1972 report to the Club, The Limits to Growth, with forecasts of collapse around 2050.

There has been much further and more detailed research since, and many events have shown the accuracy of the many worrying forecasts. The general trend is ever more evident and global collapse can now be confidently expected to occur earlier, around 2020-2030. The drift is towards disaster. The alarm bells have been ringing and nothing has been done.


All the refusenicks share the responsibility for a dire global situation, for wasting these last 40 years in empty displacement activity and for failing to recognise that sustainability is not an option. The challenge of the twenty-first century is survival – survival of as much of the natural, non-human life as possible and survival of societies and cultures.

Finally we have set up our own small organisation, the Island Bay World Service, to speak clearly of the magnitude of the global crises and of the truly terrible world that this generation is handing to posterity.

We are seriously out of step with society here. But this is a troubled time.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
Albion in King Lear, William Shakespeare

Our problem is how to behave in today’s sad times. Should we speak what we feel? Others have faced similar questions in the past, such as John Donne who wrote in his Devotions:

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontory were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

But where is the message? Where does this ‘mankind’ begin and end? After all, Donne was a Catholic in a time of Protestant dominance, who decided to keep his religion out of sight. He trimmed his sails to suit the current society.

Do we then take the challenge of our times and decide that we are part of the world which is in trouble, and argue we must do something, something radically different?

Or do we recognise that we are part of the community (not an island) and must therefore conform?

We have chosen to take the lonely path of concern for all of mankind, for the whole of the continent. We do not act as Doctor Ain to destroy. We do not go away by committing suicide as Cherryl Brooks. Rather we follow John Furriskey, Antony Lamont and Paul Shanahan who seized control of their lives and refused to buckle under to the prevailing madness. With difference that we deal with concrete reality, not dreams. Not that we will accomplish anything, but what are the alternatives?

I would rather bang my head against a brick wall than not bang my head against a brick wall.
Ricky McLeod

As we go forth with our call for realism, we feel quite ridiculous, with much in common with Don Quixote as he tilted at those windmills, and with the youth with the banner.

Henry Longfellow

The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,

His brow was sad; his eye beneath,
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,

In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,

"Try not the Pass!" the old man said:
"Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!
And loud that clarion voice replied,

"Oh stay," the maiden said, "and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast!"
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,

"Beware the pine-tree's withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!"
This was the peasant's last Good-night,
A voice replied, far up the height,

At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,

A traveller, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,

There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell, like a falling star,

This at least gives us a feeling that at last we are our own men, no longer puppets on someone else’s string.

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
Henry David Thoreau

It is however not all doom and gloom. I have been heartened to find that my forecast of human behaviour has been so accurate. For the connoisseur of black humour there’s a lot of fun to be had. Those of us who saw it all coming and were thrown aside can now enjoy our glee, as so many forecasts prove right. After all, the future does come by sooner or later. Thus we have been heartened to observe:
· the oil peak came on time
· and forced the expected financial crash
· the dysfunctional world continues with war and butchery
· the call for eco-fuels takes cropland and forces up the cost of food to the poor
· water is an ever-more resource
· other species are going extinct.

I want to live on. Then on my deathbed some 20 years hence I can triumphantly chuckle

I told you so.

No one will be listening.

(John Robinson, 5 January 2009)

1 comment:

  1. I sense in your philosophy a strongly atomistic and disconnected lens on the world. I apologise that I have not yet intentionally joined in with your discussions, life is busy and it this has not been possible so far.

    If one wishes to herd lemmings, rather than laugh as they are taken by their own tide, one must work with them. A lemming herding operation may involve some fleet-footed fringe activity, but such activity alone can be easily resisted. The lemming tide is strong and needs to be steered from many interconnected points and levels.

    As you have clearly seen in your experience, knowledge of the problem and its parts is not enough, building compost bins is not enough, imagination is not enough, political positioning is not enough... I can see where a reductionist might get into a spin here, but what about an ecologist?

    In addition to this IWBS philosophy missing an interconnected world view, where it does attempt to make some links it does so, well... appalingly. The concern of a green party activist regarding political positioning, is interpreted as denial of the population policy, rather than the more obvious concern regarding the portrayal of this policy by the media. Somehow another link is then made to the Green Party "dodging the key issue." If this were they case, why would they be forwarding a population policy in the first place?

    Perhaps with a bit more attention to connections, and connecting, we can steer the lemming tide? You are right that the Forest and Birds, Anews, Greens and IWBS's will not be able to do it alone - and if they have a reductionist philosophy such as that expressed above then yes another 40 years of failure is guaranteed.