How Not to Save the World

There’s a vanguardist streak in the environmental movement which I think does more harm than good. It can lead to an alienating kind of arrogance that we can’t afford. We desperately need more people on our side if we are to build up the critical mass of public opinion necessary for the scale of change we need. Not that we don’t need people to take the lead. But taking a lead is not an end in itself. It’s pointless if you don’t take people with you. The vanguard is not the movement; the vanguard is a possible catalyst for the movement.

There are many lessons to learn from the twin fiascos of Trump and Brexit: one is that people act on their feelings, not on rational analysis. Another thing to consider is that most of the damage inflicted on the environment is carried out by wealthy people and corporations. It’s important for the rest of us to be good, green consumers, but that’s nothing compared to the scale of change we need, which is radical and systemic. Basically, we need government action and, while protest and publicity stunts are fine for bringing issues to attention, large-scale change is only going to happen if enough people care. Most politicians will only do what gets votes. Put all these things together and, as I’ve been saying for a long time, the way to save the environment is for people to want it to be saved. They need to feel it’s their struggle, to choose to make the necessary sacrifices now so that future generations may live bearable lives. Continue reading “How Not to Save the World”

On the Loss of Citizenship

This is probably my last night here as a citizen. My family’s been coming here since my aunt worked in Italy in the 70s. It’s a modest, friendly ex-mining village in a beautiful corner of the Alps: lovely for walking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter. It has a downhill slope too, which is OK but not great. And good mountain-biking, if you like that kind of thing. It’s unpretentious. It’s not expensive, as these things go. Some crazy Brits and others come to risk their lives climbing frozen waterfalls but most the people who come here are Italian. It’s very white and I’d guess a fair few residents voted for the fascists of La Lega. There’s some poverty. People are generally kind, and go out their way to be helpful. There are things that drive me crazy and many things I love, the same as in the UK.

We have long-standing friends here. We always stay in the same apartment. My aunt knows most the village. I haven’t been coming here as long as her but when I go to the shops I meet people I know. My aunt comes here twice a year, and after she retired she spent 11 months here. She sometimes gives free English lessons. And when she’s been ill, or had a problem with the car, or had any other kind of trouble, there’s never been any shortage of help. We’re not locals, but we feel at home here. And of course we share citizenship. You see more regional than national flags here, and you also see plenty of EU ones. Continue reading “On the Loss of Citizenship”

What is Green Criticism?

The last time I was purposefully academic was probably when I sat my finals. Even then, we’d only been educated in the philosophical contexts of the writers we studied; not in the context in which we ourselves were operating. Since then, I’ve taught at half a dozen universities at least, but always as a practitioner. Academically cutting edge I am not. But I do want to understand how the work I and my colleagues do in the arts fits with the urgent need, in the face of imminent climate breakdown, to view society as part of an ecological system. The question ‘what is green criticism?’ is neither theoretical nor rhetorical. Green thought has provided us with a sophisticated analysis of society and its relationship to planet. How can we apply it to artistic practice?

Around the time I did my English degree, there were some books emerging that used ecology as way to approach literature: Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology springs to mind, and Kim Taplin’s Tongues in Trees; I probably should re-read them. The aim of these books seemed to be to understand how writers related to nature: how ‘green’ they were. But that approach is about ecology, not employing it as a critical tool. I wrote an extended essay in my third year. It was about depictions of landscape in literature and painting at the time of the first generation Romantics. I was interested in the sublime and the beautiful, not out of any kind of swooning romanticism but because they suggest two ways of modelling our desire for the external. Briefly, as I still haven’t got to the real point I want to make, I’d noticed how some writers saw nature as a force that transformed the tiny figures traversing its landscapes while some saw it as something that framed or provided a kind of extension to, or illustration of, heroic anthropocentrism. I was somewhat out on a limb, frankly. It probably wasn’t my best work. And it was also mainly ‘about’ the natural world. Yet it made me realise that there’s a deeper analysis which can – and probably should – be be applied to any kind of discourse.

So what might real green criticism be? Is anyone writing about how ecology could be a useful way to look at culture?  Continue reading “What is Green Criticism?”

Letter to a Brexit Voter

Dear friend,

I wasn’t a passionate supporter of the EU until the referendum made me stop and think. The thing I really valued highly was my European citizenship. The freedom to travel and to work in the EU. The sense of being part of of an expanding world. Of taking a small step towards that Star Trek dream of united Earth. But I could see that the Union’s democratic structures were as flawed as the UK’s, that the Euro was being torn between the very different economies of the richer and poorer nations, and that sometimes the bureaucracy could slide into absurdity. Plenty to criticise. Plenty to reform.

Then came the referendum. So I did my homework and it swiftly become evident that it was overwhelmingly in our best interests to remain. Not only because of the direct political and economic benefits to the UK but also the strategic benefits in the fight for social justice. Chief among these was that a Leave result would fuel the fanatics: not just the anti-European ones but the racists, antisemites and Islamophobes. Other forms of bigotry too, no doubt. As for the UK’s political and economic interests, the reasons have been given thousands of times in thousands of articles. The Guardian seems to be running several post-mortems a day in its opinion section. I’m not going to go over all that again.

Instead, I am going to talk about my personal experience. Why? Because I want you to know that we’re not enemies. And then I want to talk about how we can move on. Politicians and media alike have painted us as opposites in some kind of culture war. I disagree. I think we’ve fallen out over a big misunderstanding.  Continue reading “Letter to a Brexit Voter”

Why We Won’t Shut Up

I feel as though I should write something personal to explain why I’m so hurt and bewildered by what has just happened. Especially since plenty of people seem to think folks like me should shut up. In the lead-up to the vote I focused on facts; on the direct disadvantages of leaving and the possible political consequences. I didn’t make it personal; I’m involved with politics because I care about our country and the wider world. I would never normally make the kind of argument I’m about to make now. I’m even going to try, for once, to resist discussing the bigger implications. But these are exceptional times.

Firstly, however, let’s remind ourselves that this wasn’t an election for politicians who can do only limited damage over only a limited period; it was a decision with massive, long-term ramifications. These are not only political. Many of the consequences put severe limits on our personal freedoms; so for those of us who embraced those freedoms, the decision to leave the EU restricts the way we live our lives and, as I’m going to argue, is a kind of censoring of the way we see ourselves. Continue reading “Why We Won’t Shut Up”

I’m done with the economics, how about the revolution?

I’ve tended to be quite ambivalent about the EU in the past. But I now find myself pretty passionate about staying in. I wanted to articulate why.

One thing to get out of the way first. If conventional economics are your thing then the economic arguments for the UK staying in the UK are overwhelming. Even som’eone without much economic expertise – like our Chancellor, say –  can see that. Conventional economics is clearly a load of cobblers though. Look at what a complete mess it’s making of, well, everything; it’s a mix of ideology (the invisible hand of the market will work for the common good? Yeah, right!), guesswork (cos trickledown will definitely happen) and a ridiculously unscientific attitude to growth and the planet’s resources. So I’m moving on to the more serious stuff right away.   Continue reading “I’m done with the economics, how about the revolution?”

Dodgy Analogies, Dodgy Politics

The arts give society a space to think. Without them we are a golem: a figure of clay, subject to its master’s command, and deprived of the imaginative space necessary to relate meaningful to others and function in society.

OK. That’s an analogy with which you may or may not agree. It’s fairly useful as away to explain an idea that I personally find interesting. On the one hand, it’s way too reductive to be truthful in any philosophically helpful sense. It’s only of very limited use in explaining our need for the arts. Continue reading “Dodgy Analogies, Dodgy Politics”