16. The Beginning is Nigh
There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.
— Victor Hugo
We find ourselves at a fascinating point in human history. Terrible, sad, violent and confusing, without a doubt, but a place also in which the seeds of something beautiful have an unprecedented chance to grow. All around us our world is melting, both in the Arctic ice caps and in the stories of our minds. Economically as well, our structures are falling apart. The choices our forebears made are no longer working for us – even if we stopped all production today and lived off the wealth we’ve already created (such a scenario couldn’t be more unlikely to happen), we’d still be in the process of an ecological meltdown to some degree. The Doomsday criers desperately warning that civilisation is about to collapse could not be more wrong: civilisation is already collapsing. Once we remove our gaze from the glittering chintz of our shopping bags, our collective acknowledgement of this is only a matter of time.
For many, collapse is well under way. As Terence McKenna remarked, “the apocalypse is not something which is coming. The apocalypse has arrived in major portions of the planet and it’s only because we live within a bubble of incredible privilege and social insulation that we still have the luxury of anticipating the apocalypse.”
That said, I’m feeling pretty upbeat about it all. Never has possibility been more potent; never have our culture’s stories – so obviously not working – been more open to scrutiny. People everywhere are crawling out of the burning woodwork, gasping for air, demanding a change. And this is where our hope lies. But hope needs to put on a pair of overalls if it is to be turned into anything meaningful.
We are extraordinarily adaptable creatures. We can be any beings we want to be, if we want it badly enough. Out of the flames and smouldering embers of such a remarkable world as ours can rise a thousand phoenixes, a million transformations. Out of monetary economics can rise the gift economy; competitive relationships can transform into symbiotic ones, hoarding into sharing, stress into play, complexity into simplicity, the conditional into the unconditional, boredom into creativity and isolation into connection. We are faced with an incredibly exciting chance to create a new way of living, one that mixes the best of the old with the best of the new and undiscovered.
The way we live right now is a choice, one of many options available to us. As Graeber points out, “if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to arrange things in a different way”.(291) We can decide how it is we want to live, and as long as that respects the natural limits of our habitat, we can create whatever lives we want. How do you want to live yours?
I know how I want to. I want to live in freedom, in a manner that also affords the rest of life the same autonomy over their lives. I want to be intimately connected to the land and the people of my habitat. I want to nurture relationships that are based on sharing and unconditional giving, relationships that uplift and inspire and affirm that people are in fact loving and kind. I want to live as I see fit regardless of whether the melting of the ice caps – and civilisation with it – is inevitable or not. I want to live a life that is present in the moment, not regretting yesterday or worrying about tomorrow. I want to share the fruits of my labour as freely as Nature shares them with me, without a taint of the notions of credit or debt on my mind. I want to delve into the depths of life and experience aspects of both it and myself that I don’t even know exist yet. And when only my body remains, I want my closest friends to make things out of every spare part of my flesh and bones – shoes, belts, tools and drums. I want my beloved to then play a beautiful beat on my tanned skin that will echo across the valley, an eternal beat that every bird, every otter and every human recognises as the heartbeat of the land.
But if I want this, I have to choose it. And choice is not a passive beast, sitting in a coffee shop, drinking soya cappuccinos; choice is an active bastard, who gets off his arse and does something. If we want change, we’re going to have to change. If we want significant change, we’re going to have to change significantly. As David MacKay astutely pointed out, “if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little”.(292) Our children will not care about how good our intentions were in fifty years time; they’ll care about how effective our actions were and whether or not they have clean air to breathe, enough water to drink and healthy food to eat.
Similarly, what use to the Borneo pygmy elephant is grandly philosophising about Oneness if we continue to destroy their only remaining habitat in order to feed our palm oil habit? What use is it to the salmon if we sit around sadly shaking our heads as those we elect build another dam? What use is it to the Amazon rainforest if we sign a petition to save it before joyfully tucking into our beef (or veggie) burger, made possible only by the destruction of the same habitat we would, conceptually, theoretically, wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-we-could, want to save? It is of no use whatsoever. The humans and non-humans whose lives we are devastatingly destroying do not care what we think or say about things – they care about what we do to stop it. What we do, not what we say we will try to do if we can find the time, will be all that matters in the end. It is our responsibility, because it is our choices that are informing and feeding this destruction; it is our responsibility because the culprit is our culture.
We need to act. And we need to act now. Of course, this is where it gets tricky. What the hell can we do, and what if it is already too late? Howard Thurman once said, “don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” There is no right or wrong way to act – do whatever it is your soul is calling you to do, and pursue it full of courage and with an unconditional love for the whole of which you are a part.
For some of you, that will mean spending your lives developing new cultural seeds for humanity, whether that be through writing or performance or by simply enacting a more inspiring story in your every day lives. If this is your calling, do it to the fullest of your ability, for the Western world desperately needs new stories to bring it into an absolutely sustainable, non-exploitative and symbiotic economy.
To others this will mean planting those cultural seeds for the new economy, whether that means creating the first Freeshop in your area, organising a clothes swap or Freeskilling evening, or simply being a couch-surfing host. If this is you, resolve to nourish and expand the richness of these experiences every day of your life from here onwards. To do so involves no sacrifice and they will feed the world you inhabit everyday with a spirit that will uplift, inspire and empower you and those around you.
For a number of you, in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, whose writings inspired the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, this may mean chopping down some big metaphorical trees, so as to let a little sunlight into the forest floor, allowing the new cultural seeds of the gift economy to germinate and flourish, bringing back diversity and health to the whole system; in other words, this may involve breaking the law. As Thoreau wrote, “it is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for [rightness]. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right … Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence … If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution.”(293)
To a few of you, this may translate as stink-bombing your nearest multinational supermarket’s fridges, or fast food chain’s toilets, every day until they leave town, or protecting the last fragments of the Wild by whatever means available to you, just as Seldom Seen Smith and George Hayduke once did in their own charming way.(294) Many laws are unjust, and to submit to an unjust law is unjust towards those whose lives are destroyed by them. Abide by your own laws, not those made for you by people who display care for little other than maximum financial profit and ‘economic’ growth, nor those who have made defending habitats illegal whilst they lawfully loot the entire planet. Ask yourself what is the most effective and loving action you can undertake, and then act in the most potent way, for “inaction is a weapon of mass destruction”.(295)
We all have a role to play, so let’s support each other in those roles, let’s unite under that which we have in common, instead of berating each other for the little differences that inevitably exist between us.
Moving beyond the concept of money is one part act of resistance and one part creation. It simultaneously erodes old ways of living and creates new ones – as one thing decays, it gives birth to another. To believe that either of these parts by themselves will be sufficient to preserve our diverse world, and the most admirable parts of ourselves, is delusional. By creating a new way of living for yourself, one which is focused on connection and relationship rather then the accumulation of meaningless notes and coins, you will inevitably discover and create new ways of being that will be witnessed by all who come into contact with you on a daily basis. Nothing, in this respect, is more powerful than example. And the relationships you form will nourish and support the social projects you co-create with others in your local community – the plants that grow from your new philosophical seeds.
It has become almost impossible for me to finish this book. Language, pages, ink, are such imperfect containers for the feelings, ideas and passions that surge in me that it’s tempting to spill over into eternal waterfalls of words in order to try and compensate. How to stop writing when the violence continues? How to stop urging when the apathy still abides? It has become almost impossible for me to shut up. So instead I will hand you over to a much wiser man than me, Patrick Whitefield (296), and end this book as he began his seminal work:
All we can do in life is to make sure that we play our own part in it the best we can. Much as we would like to, we can never do more than that. Everything we do is so complex, and relies for its ultimate completion on so many different people and natural forces, that we can never take responsibility for the final outcome of our actions. We can only take responsibility for the actions themselves.