• Zeitgeist

    Last Sunday I went up to St Paul’s, compelled by curiosity as much as the urgency that has been mounting these last few weeks and months. Part of the underground was closed for repairs so I made my way in over the Millenium Bridge, St Paul’s all soft old stone and grand in the burgeoning dusk and the bright white light of the floodlights playing on the colonnades. The camp itself was how you might expect it: tents all huddled up like barnacles or Islamic pilgrims at prayer before the monumental pillars and stairs, the atmosphere full of the old kinetic intensity of any protest, coupled with the lively sense of mixed stress and excitement of the capital itself.

    I took in the marquees and their mingling Sunday crowds and politicians or people from the press, being fielded and led around by mildly beleaguered or more sorted looking helpers, took at face value a large and scrawled instruction to first and foremost inform myself about what was taking place if I wanted to help. Overall I was struck by the feel of the place, a sense of charge that has been with me all week and which seemed to have more to it than simply the throng of the people or the hallowed ground of St Paul’s. It had at least as much to do with the conjunction of time and place and points in history and the hope that can hold in the face of the problems we’re faced with.

    For weeks I’d watched with great interest as this camp had ridden out a sometimes tumultuous narrative of threatened evictions and actual resignations and juxtaposition of protest and the workings of the Church and this strange potential for bringing the aims and the values of both towards something like a greater harmony. What is clear is that, whatever some in the press may have said, the camp has already achieved a great deal. The protest has struck a chord across the country with people concerned or angered or dismayed by the homogenous domination of a financial system that has privatised profits and socialized risks and a government that seems hell bent on pursuing a policy of libertarianism that is hard not to see as all too often cold and even calculating.

    There has been a great deal of talk about the sense that the aims of the protests seem vague or at least unclearly stated. But that seems in counterpoint to the very real list of demands released this last week. The protestors, in a group specifically set up to deal with issues relating to the City of London Corporation (and all the fiscal weight that that body personifies), called for a full breakdown of the City cash account, for the Corporation’s activities to be subject to a Freedom of Information Act and for details to be released of all lobbying undertaken on behalf of the bank and finance industries since the 2008 crash. Very specific demands then from what have been dismissed as a bunch of kids with a vague intent to raise the issues and do a spot of reading on the stairs.

    But it’s fair to say there is a call for wider clarity as to the future of our economic system, above and beyond the vital technicalities regarding the City of London, its hitherto largely unchallenged clout and its historic and perhaps anachronistic privileges. In the justified audacity of setting up a camp such as this there has been an expectation that the occupants should have some kind of ready-made blueprint set to be expounded from on high or simply from the street that shows a clear direction in which to move.

    That in itself is nothing if not a tall order when the greatest of minds are struggling to come to terms with a world where all the old certainties are being stripped away and daily events have so far outrun the attempts of policy makers to get one step ahead of them. But in a week where we have been warned by the IEA that we have five years to change the nature of our energy consumption if we are to retain any hope of warding off dangerous climate change, it might just be that what could be seen as fiscal hard knocks now could help see us clear of a wider climatic disaster. That may seem something of a forlorn hope when emissions are continuing to rise despite financial crisis but it is perhaps a measure of how urgently things must be turned around that emissions would very likely be worse were the global markets in full throttle.

    The salient point in all this is that constantly and exponentially growing economies are simply incompatible with an ecological framework that is explicitly finite. This is surely the greatest issue of our times and we could do worse than see the current financial interruption as an unprecedented opportunity to reconfigure our societies’ most fundamental modus operandi.

    What might such changes look like in practice? We could do worse than follow the advice of Tim Jackson in his iconic book ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ when he suggests we implement a transition to service rather than product based economies, that we channel investment into savings rather than consumption, invest these savings in ecological assets and adjust the working week to help bring our carbon consumption under control. For anyone serious about finding a realistic way forward, his book is well worth engaging with.

    Perhaps what is clearer than ever at such a time as this is that any amount of specific policies or suggestions or advice are secondary to what we face as a global culture. The old fluorescent dream of never ending growth in GDP is simply not tenable to continue if we are to deliver to the generations who will follow us a biosphere that remains both rich and pleasant to inhabit. Growth of some description may not be ruled out but must be accompanied by a drop in emissions sufficient enough to make that growth tenable. As Jackson says, that means we should be ruling out growth altogether until our emissions are under control.

    What follows then does not hold easy answers. In the short term at least it will probably not exactly make people want to sing from the rooftops in unbridled joy as all the sureties and comforts that we have grown used to are either reduced or made a little more hard-won. But somewhere down the line, be it years or even decades, if we can navigate the times ahead, we might have cause to be more grateful, we might find a perspective to look back at the times before us as full of challenges but also holding an undiminishable promise of how a life that balances economic needs and ecological limits could be both rich and rewarding.

    There are other riches in life beyond the dictats of the bond markets and we would do well to cultivate a greater sense of inner and cultural strength and celebrate these: even – and especially – when they come without the sometimes dubious brands of officially sanctioned authenticity, if such a thing means a mainstream media that has all too often grown debased or sometimes scattered in the hunt for any fresh news. It might just be that we can see in the times that lie ahead a greater clarity towards the things we already own and which nobody can take away: our spirit towards life and love for one another, our ability to foster and sustain a real community, the ever-present sense that strength comes from within and can be cultivated even when the times seem arduous.

    The protest here and the Occupy movement worldwide has reminded us all that we have an obligation to root our spirituality in how we live our lives, in how we act in the corporeal world. And that in itself touches on something profound, something perhaps that goes to the heart of the great environmental and financial crises with which we are faced: that it is in what is immediate and before our eyes, rather than some distant paradise or a revolution that begins next week, that holds the key to our salvation. Our problems are urgent and need acting upon now. Paradise, far from being something only more removed, exists in the world in its primal state, something we have imagined and then built our way out of. In that sense it is in our imaginations that the road back must begin.

    The revolution needed then is first and foremost one of consciousness and - if you go to St. Paul’s sometime soon - you may very well feel it; the sense of transformation in the air. The road to practical solutions then comes out of such a sense, out of the renewed belief of what is still within our hands, out of the sense of what is possible when we wake up to the potential that is with us everyday. Materially, the limitations that we face are as real as the earth that we stand on. But there is potentially great strength and liberation to be had within them. Indeed it may help wake us up to the fact that much of what truly matters can never be bought or exchanged – that that which lies within us and that which we find in the people around us has never been anything other than the true measure of our wealth.



The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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