Thursday, 14 May 2020

York Festival of Ideas Online - Techs for the Future II: a response from the heart

Image credit: Drawing by Jess Wallace.

This year again, I am delighted to be taking part in the York Festival of Ideas, online on this occasion to talk about:

Technologies for the Future - a Response from the Heart.

In this talk, we take a hard look at some of the technologies we surround ourselves with, how they impact our lives, the environment, the lives of others, and ask: what would form a sound basis for ethical and responsible technological innovation? In a context where technologies are often imposed from the top down or by for-profit corporations without proper public scrutiny, I believe this question is relevant to everyone and should be reclaimed by the public sphere. At this time of extreme uncertainty and misinformation, I will argue that meaningful answers can only come from reconnecting with our hearts.

Please be aware that some of the content can be emotionally challenging as we address issues such as environmental justice, cultural and unconscious bias, and work to dismantle the Western narrative of linear progress.

Please use the comment section for Q&A.

Audio podcast 
I do apologise for the poor sound quality, you might need full volume, also please check the relevant cookie policy on SoundCloud.

Transcript & Notes:
With apologies for the delay!

Good afternoon, and a very warm welcome to this podcast on technologies for the future, which is part of the  York Festival of Ideas, online on this occasion.

I believe that we live in times of change, times when there are things we can no longer take for granted and I do believe that the decisions we are making now will matter for a long time to come. My aim is to look at the situation form the angle of technologies: and ask questions like which ones do we want to take with us into the future with us, which ones no longer serve and are ready to be let go of? 

And to begin with, I'd like to express gratitude because we're just coming out of this period of lock-down, not quite, there's still a lot of restrictions going on and I am grateful that I have a computer, that I have internet access, and that through these means I have been able to keep in touch with friends and family. And these are very sophisticated pieces of technology, they involve a lot of people in the supply chain to create the hardware, they involve a lot of places on Earth that have given some of their elements and coped with the pollution generated, and they involve the people who've made the computers, the people who have designed and built the software and so there are many people to thank just to be able to use this technology. And I think gratitude is important because it recenters us, and it helps us to to receive, rather than take or simply take for granted.

But the fact is that the technologies we have now, in this modern world, have a global impact that we can no longer ignore: there are plastic debris everywhere. Waters, oceans, rivers, streams are polluted. In York, we can't drink from the river and we think that's normal, and that's worrying. There is nuclear waste to look after,  mining tailing ponds that need maintaining in perpetuity, because they hold toxic product and radioactive waste; and in perpetuity really means forever. There are man-made electromagnetic frequencies that are criss-crossing the air that surrounds us, and we have used the Earth as supply house and sewer: All of the Earth's natural cycle are affected, not just the carbon cycle. Biodiversity is collapsing, and the planet is on the brink of not coping anymore. The fact is we can no longer ignore the large-scale consequences of what the dominant culture has unleashed.

And the question that underpins all that I am trying to say here and a lot of my work is this: what kind of a society do we want to build and live in? Can we make fully conscious choices?

Now this year, the theme for the Festival of Ideas has changed to 'Virtual Horizons', and I'm  going to mainly focus on ICT – information and communication technologies, and digital technologies, all of which involve increasingly sophisticated electronics because I believe it's time to dispell some myths that are pervasive in the mainstream media and in the way we tend to look at those technologies.

Now the first thing, which is very important to note is that digital technologies are not virtual. They require raw materials, in particular metals and the mining generates pollution, it used a lot of water, creates a lot of toxic waste, brings to the surface radioactive materials. In China, where the rare earths are mined – most of the rare earths – and there are places that Westerners have visited and called 'cancer villages'. There is pollution from lithium extraction in South America. There are conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo as armed groups are trying to control the profits from the mines. And the minerals are increasingly hard to extract because obviously we've extracted the easiest ones first. Now we need more, we need more diverse minerals and demand is continuously increasing, so we're in effect running out and this led the geologist Ugo Bardi, who write a book called Extracted to write: 
When it comes to mineral depletion it is not just a question of asking for how long can we keep plundering the planet, but whether the planet – and its ecosystems – can survive the wounds we are inflicting upon it. [1]
We can no longer shy away from these questions [2].

Then the digital technologies also require energy, at the production stage, when we discard the items, the hardware, although because recycling is limited, it's hard to put a figure on the cost of waste, an when we run them, you know, data centres, sending information on the network, all this requires energy. And there is a French Think Tank called The Shift Project who works to demystify the energy costs and mineral costs of those technologies and how sustainable they are and they give the example of video: 80% of global data flows in 2018 were made of videos. Now here are some figures:

  • 10 hours of high definition video comprises more data than all the English language article of Wikipedia in text format.
  • In 2018, online video viewing generated as much greenhouse gas emissions as a country such as Spain.
  • Then the greenhouse gas emissions of Video on Demand services, such as, you know, Netflix, Amazon, etc.. is equivalent to a country like Chile.

Now the paradox is that a digital transition is often considered key to efficient use of energy an the fight against climate change, however, those – the proponents of these technologies consistently underestimate the environmental impacts they might have and so we run the risk of making matters much worse. Currently, digital technologies emit 4% of greenhouse gas emissions – more than civil aviation, so, you know, if we're all in lock-down watching videos, it really doesn't help – and currently, the energy consumption of those technologies increases by 9% per year [3,4]. So estimates project that the telecommunication industry could use 25%  – a quarter – of the world's electricity in 2025 [5]. 

So there are questions that need to be asked, especially before we roll out any new ICT network. Are the energy costs of building and running the new networks, and the ones we already have – we need to maintain them – affordable and justifiable in the current climate? And that would include the energy used to extract the raw material, to transport it, to make the finished product and to manufacture the hardware, even if it doesn't happen in the UK. And I'd like to insist on the transport costs. I would certainly recommend – I'll put the link – if you have a look at the Fairphone website, they demystify their supply chain for a few key minerals and you realise that the amount of transport involved just beggars belief [6]. And there are supply chains for, you know, everything [7]. Transport criss-crossing the world is generating a pollution very rarely taken into account. Also once we have a network it costs energy to use and maintain it and it needs to be – we need to make sure we have enough energy to cope with any forecasted increase in activity. 

Now a question is, you know, there're climate change targets that we want to uphold and that we actually need to uphold, so will other sectors have to consume less energy so that some energy is diverted to the growing needs of digital technologies? That's a question that needs asking. But if so, which ones and who is making that decision? This matters. This is a political decision. Now from an inter-generational perspective: we might want to ask whether it's fair not to do our utmost now to limit energy consumption and avert catastrophic climate change. And also, are we prepared to take full responsibility for the e-waste that's going to be generated – the electronic waste?

So to help address those issues there are Codes of Ethics that engineers have to abide by, and it's a first step, but most of them do not go far enough. I'll give an example. The Royal Academy of Engineering Code of Ethics mentions respect for the environment in 3 out of 25 points, and what struck me is that the first one of them says: they need to respect or have respect 'for the built and natural environment' [8]. 'Built' comes first. However to survive on this planet we need clean air, we need clean water, we need clean food, we need obviously ways to provide shelter, but that doesn't come first. You can have a nice house and no air to breathe, you're not going to survive very long. 

So some things need to be tweaked. Some things need to change and Dominic Raab was made a lot of fun of when he suggested that he hadn't realised that we were very dependent on the Dover-Calais crossing, when you know Brexit was the frontline of the news, but we're all like this we do not really understand the link between the gadgets we hold in our hands and our landbase and this, this dangerous. We forget that to live, we need the land, and I'm trying to grow vegetables at the minute and it's really hard work. But I don't need a computer to survive, I need food to survive. So it's dangerous that we forget that we need the land and that those technologies are very well embodied.

Another thing which is dangerous, in a way, with the digital technologies is because we have these screens in front of us, it removes ourselves even more from the reality. You know, kids know more about tigers or dinosaurs than about the wildlife they might find in their neighbourhood, while there's still some. So it increases the disconnection with the land that allows us to live. So I think for us Westerners, it's time to learn also from the wisdom of indigenous people, who were very attached to the land.

But, even if our use of, you know, ICT technologies was sustainable, even if the planet was infinite, we had infinite supplies of minerals and energy, we might want to ask, you know, is it worth the destruction and the human costs? Because there are here clear issues of environmental justice – or rather injustice. You know we have exported the polluting industries, our kids are no longer working in the coal mines, but others kids are working in other mines all around the world for us to have computers and i-pads. So is it worth it? Well I can tell you that my Western schooled brain would try to convince me that this is necessary, this is like collateral damage on the road to better technologies for an increasing number of people, and that that's the way the world works anyway. But my heart shouts a resounding no, okay – but let me qualify that: I am not against technology, but surely there is a more graceful way to further technological development than what we are doing at the moment.

So I believe we need to open our hearts. And if we look at the situation, if we look at the truth of the situation, at the pollution, at the destruction, at the suffering of the people involved, it does hurt. So often we look away, we close our hearts because it's easier, because we don't want to feel that pain. But opening our hearts and actually feeling the pain is a first step on the road to change.And the person who really made me understand that was Joanna Macy – the writer, activist and scholar, Joanna Macy. She says that feeling the pain unblocks our response loop, and here is a quote from her:
This is a dark time, filled with suffering and uncertainty. Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, because these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your inter-connectedness with all beings. 
and she also adds that if the pain you feel when you open your heart is part of your own personal pain, your own personal trauma, this is also part of the suffering of the world. And once we accept to feel that, then we can choose our response, because the pain we feel is just a measure of the love we are capable of when our hearts open [9]. And then, we begin to see reality with new eyes, and regarding digital technologies, there are more things we should see.

Another point I want to make about them is that they're not neutral.

So you might have heard about a concept called 'inclusive design', which is the idea to design products that work for the widest possible range of people. But, in some cases, it just doesn't work like that. There was a story of a virtual reality video game developed, and it didn't work for black people because of how the light is reflected by their skin. And that was a complete mistake, the developer hadn't really thought of it. But sometimes, it can be more deliberate: for decades, the photographic film we were using was calibrated to better represent white skin tones. And also if we move away from digital technologies, there are a lot of tests that use, you know, a man's template, crash dummies for example, for car tests, are the size of men, not the size of pregnant women; drug trials are mainly based on adult men, so what about children? [10] So it's important and the remedy here is simple: have diverse teams of innovators, including women, people of colour, disabled people [I should have said people with disabilities, please accept my apologies], both right and left-handed people. You know, we might want to ask the questions: what would a world designed by women look like? what would a world designed by black people look like? By Native Americans? Everyone should have a voice in the design of technology, and at the minute, this is not the case.

Now if I move onto the software aspects of digital technologies, there is a very big growth in data science and algorithms. There are ads out there, that are mercilessly collecting data and targeting the most vulnerable among us to generate profits. There are algorithms making choices and trained using data so if there is a bias – conscious or not – in the data or in the programmers, for example more people of colour arrested because of a bias in the police force, then their will be a bias in the algorithm, which will for example flag up black people as more likely to commit a crime, and so it will reinforce and amplify a bias that is already there. So we need to be extremely careful with that [11].

And in addition, there are a lot of problems with algorithms, and sometimes it's impossible to say why you fall on one side of a boundary – it could be a trade secret from the company running the algorithm, the consultancy company, or simply the maths is so complex that no-one actually knows, because it relies on some random processes for the algorithm to learn. And an example close to home for that, you know mainly the question is how are border-line cases decided. And my partner was phoned by a lady from the NHS and invited to self-isolated completely for longer because she is more 'at risk' of covid-19. And the lady who phoned to let her know didn't know why the algorithm had flagged her up, she had merely become the spokesperson for a computer that supposedly knew the truth. And I I find this extremely scary and kafkaesque. There is a lack of transparency, which is pervasive in technologies and it's fuelled by patents, and it's fuelled by trade secrets, and also military involvement – and this is extremely worrying, especially when computers are thought to be bearers of impartial truths when in fact, they have been programmed by biased humans. But also, we might want to ask, with absolutely no disrespect for the NHS lady and bearing in mind this happens in many other areas: is it our ambition as human beings to become spokespersons for computers? We are losing our sense of agency here and we are stopping to trust ourselves, our judgements, our decisions because of this myth of impartiality. You know, objectivity in science was a tool, to be able to have a look at natural phenomena. Now it has become ontological: there is this idea that it is possible to be this objective observer and that there is a truth to be found [12]. We should know better since quantum mechanics was developed, but we're still stuck with these very, very old-fashioned ideas. So do we want to lose agency? This is a question that needs asking.

Now with softwares and things like Facebook and Twitter and news feeds, there is also the phenomenon of fake news and information bubbles. Can anyone say for sure that there isn't another Cambridge Analytica working in the background? [13]. And there is also censorship now, on Facebook: for example, posts questioning the roll-out of 5G are being removed, yet Facebook insist they're not a publisher but a utility company, so why such censorship? Who does it benefit? There are also deliberate slandering campaigns of people who simply ask questions [14]. We have to be aware that there are very powerful lobbies at work. The telecommunication industry is very powerful. 'The pharmaceutical industry is the largest private funder of R&D both in the UK and globally' [15]. So what comes out of universities is no longer that independent research anymore. It's led by private concerns, whether they're business concerns, whether they're military concerns and again this is worrying, this is worrying.

Now something that is not always mentioned in the non-neutrality of technology is this idea that some of them can reinforce a top-down control and I'm going to give examples from energy technologies. If you think about nuclear technologies for example, it's very complex and it requires a lot of technical expertise to be able to run those things, and there's a lot of danger involved, and there's also the link with armament and the military. So, there is a sociologist, philosopher, Langdon Winner, in the eighties, who argued that because of this, it requires a very hierarchical way of, you know, of being regulated [16]. But if we look at renewable energy technologies, for example wind turbines, then we have a choice. We could still have this top-down control, like an energy company running the show by building those big off-shore or on-shore wind farms – bearing in mind that, you know, you might have to think, we're running out of energy, we're running out of materials: how do you maintain that in a post-petrol society? Or we could have the other, completely opposite thing of having a community-owned wind turbine, where the skills to actually repair the tool is within the community and not within an external company. And there is a design called the Hugh Pigott design, by this, this person living in Scotland that has been used all around the world to provide electricity to companies, to, sorry to communities, and I'll put links in the notes [17]. 

So there's two aspects, you know, and a resilience aspect as well, but I think we need to think, you know, do we have – want to have the control over the technologies that are running our lives, even if that means it's being a bit less high-tech? I think it's a question worth asking. But another question Langdon Winner asks and said was really urgent to tackle was “a problem that has been brewing since the earliest days of the industrial revolution – whether our society can establish forms and limits for technological change, forms and limits that derive from a positively articulated idea of what society ought to be.” And I quoted here from his book The Whale and the Reactor. So this is a key question to me: how do we want to live? This should be the first question – what do we need for that, that should come second. It seems however nowadays that the first question an innovator is compelled to asks is: what will I be able to sell? And then we worry about the consequences later.

So the problem is, if we do not have a societal or a community project, there is a void – who or what will fill that void? Maybe people happy to control, people happy to provide their answers, people with unchecked biases, and so the technology might help alleviate their fears, and perhaps some of ours. Bias is a very important issue and I hope there was a talk on unconscious bias and you might have heard it as part of the Festival of Ideas [18]. We're not responsible in a way for those biases, but we're responsible for trying to debunk them. And we all have them, we all have beliefs, and beliefs masquerade as truths, so it's very difficult to challenge them but I would argue that this is the work we urgently need to do. If you believe something – check its source, cross-check it, and again. One thing most of us believe is that we can't have a say in a debate about technologies because we're not experts: so let me dispel that one, we all have a responsibility inform ourselves and to have a say. We might want to ask: why do we need so many weapons and nuclear submarines patrolling the seas? What are we so scared of? Other people? People who, as Sting might have said, love their children too? Why do we build so many virtual worlds? Can we no longer face what we've done with the real one? This is worrying. Are we trying to escape death? Some of us might be. We're always looking for the next cure, and the next cure, and might be creating new diseases in the process. What does it mean to live a good life? These are the questions we need to be asking.

I read a sermon from Martin Luther King, from the sixties, which has stayed with me for a very long time [19]. And it was about Jesus's last words on the cross, which was 'Father forgive them for they know not what they do'. And Dr King was saying we have a responsibility to know what we're doing and to make sure that science/ philosophy/ technology is not perverted for example to support the doctrine of white supremacy as happened and still is happening as the, you know, the sad news that is coming at the moment. So this is important: we need to know what we're doing.

So let's return to the heart. Let's return to the heart. It's really difficult because there is a lot of misinformation out there, a lot of opinions, a lot of bias, even in media I once thought I could trust. In addition, we live in a time of great uncertainty, and our brains will have a tendency to freak out – mine certainly does. Where do the answers lie? I believe in a return to the heart, there's too much information out there for the brain to deal with. We need to find it [the heart] and recenter, to return to our centre. What the brain won't know, the heart will. And I'd like to quote Van Morrison here [20]:
If my heart could do my thinkingand my head begin to feelI would look upon the world anew and know what is truly real. 
Now I cannot tell you how one gets there. I don't even know what it feels to be there, seeing the world from the heart, but I believe these times call for emotional healing and a spiritual practice – and on the blog I suggest links to what is helping me, but finding what works for you and what resonates with you, you know, it is a very personal path [21]. But what is important, what is very important at this time is that we give each other the space to acknowledge our biases, and move from there. It's OK to make mistakes. It's also very important to give each other the time, to pause, to think. Some of us had plenty of that during that lock-down – what did we fill that time with? Perhaps the internet can provide too much distraction too.

Now let me tell you a story. When I was a teenager I was receiving this science magazine and there was an essay competition once. And the story that won it was about a scientist, and that scientist – he was some kind of biologist as I recall – and he had found a cure for something, made a lot of people much happier, you know, that kind of thing, and he got very famous and rich as a result. But at some point he noticed that the monkeys had started to dye, the monkeys he's done the tests with, and so obviously he understood that there was a big side effect to the drug. And, well, what do you do, you know? All is reputation, all is career, all is wealth was based on this, but he couldn't let that pass. He had to warn people. He had to tell the truth, and he said so to his family. The next day, he was dead. It had been easy for the son, the son who had decided that it was more important to keep the wealth than to actually tell the truth.

So there's two things I want to say about this story. One is, as I was saying before, we need to give each other the space, to hold a space to acknowledge what is and to acknowledge that in some situations, yes, we might have made mistakes. And it's hard, our culture doesn't like this, it doesn't like mistakes. But also this relates to my last point about ICT technologies: they're not safe. Of course, the industry won't want you to know about this, so it's pictured as controversial, but independent studies show that the electromagnetic waves we're bathed in have cumulative effects on health, which means they might take a long time to appear those effects, but also we need to bear in mind that we have dramatically increased the levels of exposures. Any physiological process reliant on electric currents and electron exchange in the body is liable to be affected. And children, of course, with their growing bodies and thinner skulls are most at risk. So I'm not asking you to believe what I say, but I do encourage you to check the links I'm going to post on the web [22]. And now that we're threatened with 5G: which means more intense beams, more numerous antennae, some of them on schools, thousands of privately-owned satellites bathing the Earth with man-made electromagnetic radiations that no-one can escape. The industry had to admit at a hearing in the US senate that no safety tests had been performed, and no such studies were currently being financed [23]. And of course, you know, what I mentioned at the beginning of this talk: the hardware and energy consumption issues are still extremely relevant as far as 5G is concerned, because we're here, all of us, in that case, in our consumer incarnation waiting to download boxsets in seconds, that's how it's sold to us – but also remember what I said about the use of videos. So do we want 5G? Who will pay for it? Who will really benefit from it? Who is going to be harmed by it? Is that the only future that is available to us? Our hearts, which rely on electricity to function, I'm sorry to say, are in danger. They're in danger of being overrun by man-made frequencies. They're in danger of being overwhelmed by fear. Yet in the heart lies the courage and wisdom to act.

Now a last myth that is very important to dispel here is that there will be a technological fix. There won't. There won't. We will not solve the problems we're in unless we have a clear look at ourselves. Of course technologies can help, but they can also make matters much worse if we remain within the resource-hungry, consumerist, industrial, for-profit paradigm. Let me quote you from Limits to Growth, The 30 year update, These were the people who first alerted the world to the fact that we were about to run over the physical limits of the planet, so they write
One reason technology and markets are unlikely to prevent overshoot and collapse is that technology and markets are merely tools to serve goals of society as a whole. If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short-term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it. [24]
This is really important. And might sound really familiar to a lot of us. Technologies are deeply embedded in the culture that produces them. And the western industrial world is a culture amongst others, there is no such thing as linear progress towards...? and that's the problem, towards what? We don't know where we're heading, and that's the problem. The quote says: 'if society's implicit goals' so they are not open, there is again this lack of transparency, this void, this possibility for bias to come. So I'm going to insist again, we all have to be part of the debate, we have to remember we're citizens – not just consumers or taxpayers as mainstream media portray us. Who calls us 'citizens'? But that's what we are. We all have to be part of that debate, a debate we have been excluded from, you know, we're not experts and some people have no interest in the public debating potentially profitable technologies; and that we've excluded ourselves from, out of disempowerment, or because it requires some hard work and we're just too busy, or too distracted. How do we want to live? How do you want to live? What makes you happy – not what adverts say should make you happy, but what does make you really happy? What resources you? What fills you with joy? Do we even know? Perhaps, it's time to find out and then, perhaps, we can work out technologies that might be for the best of everyone, not just a few.

Now a decade ago, or over a decade ago, I read a book that I found very scary. It was called Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, and it's been, you know, it's been reedited, with a very relevant  introduction by the author, and I would really encourage you to do [I meant read] it, but it was first published in 1976 [25]. And in this book, the main character is a Mexican-American woman with mental health issues, called Connie Ramos, and she ends up incarcerated in a mental hospital. And she's got this empathy and dreaming ability and she receives visits, or dreams, from a being from the future who ends up taking her to this Utopian, agrarian community, where she is introduced to an egalitarian, ecologically sound, and decentralised society. But in the drug induced nightmares, she has visions of another potential future and that future is hyper-capitalist, polluted, stratified society where a rich elite controls the rest of the population through technology, and the control extends to bodies, that of women for example is commodified, and control of mind. I no longer have the book, so I don't remember whether what I'm going to say now is actually true or not, but I recall is a description of a world of insulated people, locked in tiny cells and only able to access the outside via virtual communications. So Connie finds herself at a time nexus when her doctors (or torturers you might want to say) decide to test their fledgling mind-control technology on her. A nexus in time. And I think that's where we're at.

I think this book is very relevant and again, the question is: How do we want to live? What future do we want and what technologies are best going to serve that future? I found Charles Eisenstein's essay on the corona virus (I'll put the link) extremely helpful [26]. We might never have an answer as to what really is at the bottom of covid-19. As I said, there is a lot of misinformation, there is too much emotional baggage and there is a lot of polarisation of the debate that is discharged on the internet – either you're for something or you're against something. But we need to grow up. We need to be able to ask questions. Science is about asking questions, not just feeling secured in, you know, technologies that have been developed two hundred years ago. It's about asking questions, because we move on, we discover new things, we become aware of the consequences of what we've done. So we all need to reflect on this, and perhaps start a debate with those near us: how do we want to live? Do we want to live out of fear – which means not living at all? Or do we want to live out of love, and just enjoy what is given to us to enjoy?

Of course, if we go back to Woman on the Edge of Time, you will have guessed that my preference is for a sustainable, low-tech society living in harmony with Nature, but this doesn't preclude high-technologies for very specific applications. It doesn't preclude high-technologies if we find alternatives to develop them, not such a destructive way. I mean if we look at bio-technologies: does it even make sense to produce sterile seeds? Yet there might come one day we'll be able to and want to grow ourselves wings – but not now, we're not ready. We have to do a lot of work on ourselves first.

And in a way, what we chose doesn't matter so much, what is important is that the choice is fully conscious – not something born from fear, bias, unfulfilled desires, greed, a wish to control. These times call for an awakening: what motivates our technological choices? Our acceptance of them? We can no longer brush these questions aside or treat them superficially, the consequences for us, for future generations, for the continuation of life on this planet are too big. As my friend Carolyn Dougherty wrote in an essay that I encourage you to read: “we don't need to accept the technologies we have today, with the unconscious cultural baggage attached.” [27]

And of course, this will require some efforts: to remove cultural biases, we have to work on our own biases. The brain doesn't like this too much, because it make us vulnerable. It doesn't have to be pleasant, but it's crucial. The heart will help – this is work that requires huge levels of compassion, for ourselves, and others. It requires, again, a spiritual practice. It take great courage, but we are in times that require great courage of us. We need to take responsibilities for the times we live in. As Joanna Macy says, we're here, now so who else can do it?

Let me offer another story. For many reasons, I believed that 5G is madness and it should be opposed, yet I am no conspiracy theorist and last year, I was asked by the Young Producers at the Greenwich Museum to take part in the last evening of the Moon Festival and tell some stories there, and they asked whether I could mention conspiracy theories, and I was very puzzled by this. I know very little about moon landing conspiracy theory, but this is what I cam up with [28]. I reminded people of a short story published in 1951 by Arthur C. Clarke. And in this story there is a geologist, his assistant and their driver, who truck across the lunar landscape looking for minerals and collecting samples. One morning, as the geologist is frying the breakfast bacon, he happens to look out of the galley window and he notices a strange light shining from a peak that looks unnaturally flat, it looks as if as if light were reflected by a mirror-like surface. And so he manages to convince his team to investigate, and if anything, it would be a break from the routine and an opportunity for a hike. So the geologist and his assistant scale the mountain, and of course with the Moon's gravity it's nice and easy, and the top, they find this black smooth tetrahedron surrounded by a hemispherical force-field, so they can't get to it, so obviously it's an alien object from a much more technologically advanced civilisation. Now twenty years later, the structure still defies the scientific analysis of those people on the Moon and so they blow the object up with, you know, nuclear power. They could only destroy what they didn't understand. And of course the geologist remains haunted by this discovery and he believes the object to be a beacon, a sentinel left by another civilisation so it can be warned when the intelligent species likely to emerge on the promising blue planet nearby begins to develop space travel technology. 

OK so perhaps there is no sentinel on the Moon. Perhaps there is one, still waiting to be found. Perhaps there is one, it was noticed by the Astronauts, or by unmanned missions, and no-one told us about it. But if there is one (and even if there isn't), we might want to ask: what kind of truths are we showing about ourselves? About (hu)mankind? A culture with the technology to go to the Moon and back, yet who treats its home planet as supply house and sewer and is ready to let it die? A culture with the technology to send tourists to space, yet ready to let millions die in and of poverty? What would we tell the aliens and you might want to think – what will you tell your kids when they ask? Perhaps I'm here today because back then, I had no satisfactory answer. Now of course, I'd love to go to the Moon, but not like this.

The American went there in a spirit of conquest, on a collective, if not on an individual basis. But what the Astronauts rediscovered was the Earth, the Earth rising over the lunar horizon. That's what they rediscovered, the Earth. Our own, stunningly beautiful spacecraft.
And perhaps this is the lesson – not to forget the Earth, but to care for her. To heal the wounds we're inflicting to her fabric, the wounds we're inflicting to ourselves, because we are from this Earth, we're not dis-incarnated spirits out there, we have bodies then perhaps we can reach for the stars once more, a a child would, in a spirit of awe, wonder, curiosity, care and ultimately love.

So from all this, you will have gathered I'm not keen on the technologies currently on offer. Key questions are – what motivates them? What are we trying to achieve? Who benefits? Who controls the technology – and I'm all for repairability and local control. Are the technologies transparent? How will it affect the children down to the 7th generation? How can technologies be aligned with what is in the highest and best of all?

Yet still teenagers are lulled into engineering on the promise of high-tech feats. So we have to ask: what does it mean to be an engineer? And I have to go to the Moon again. I loved the film Apollo 13. I loved the story behind it. I loved the fact that at some point, well they had to bring these guys back on Earth, and they wanted to bring them safely, health and sound, back on Earth. And what the the engineers have to do? Well, they had to look at what was available on board and build something from that, and that, that's an amazing scene when all these things are put on that table and they have to use their skills, their ingenuity, all their knowledge to make up something that's going to bring these men from space back down to Earth. And this is what it means to be, to be an engineer: to work with what is there. Then more recently – and it doesn't need to be high-tech, that's the key – more recently I listened to a podcast where a French Spationaut was interviewed and he said they were very lucky, despite all this, despite the skills of the men on the spacecraft and the skills of the people in Houston, they were very lucky [29]. And this reminded me of a scene in the film with the Aborigenes, the Australian Aborigenes, and perhaps, you know, perhaps, if we look at what is (because the men had to look at their situation with unflinching eyes, at the risks), if we look at our resources, if we bring some ingenuity and work really hard, then we might get that extra little bit of help [correction see 30]. If we get back into balance within ourselves, then Earth, I'm sure will help us recover.

I'll finish with a quote from Joanna Macy:
The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world: we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as if from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.

Thank you very much for your attention. I realise I've been a bit longer than I said I would. But please look after yourselves in those times.


[1] Ugo Bardi, Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet, A report to the Club of Rome. 2014, Chelsea Green Publishing, USA. 

[2] I have written more extensive blogs on energy and mining issues, please see my three previous entries and the references therein.

[3] H. Ferreboeuf et al., “Lean ICT - towards digital sobriety”, a study by The Shift Project,, March 2019. Available: [accessed 21st April 2019]

[4] M. Efoui-Hess et al., “Climate crisis: the unsustainable use of online video”, a study by The Shift Project,, July 2019. Available: [accessed 23rd April 2019]

[5] “‘Tsunami of data’ could consume one fifth of global electricity by 2025”, by Climate Home News, part of the Guardian Environment Network, The Guardian, 11th December 2017. Available: [accessed 27th February 2019]

[6] See

[7] I recently listened to a podcast interview of Ryan Gellert, General Manager for Patagonia, in which he said:
If you're in the business of making things [...] the single, strongest piece of advice I'd give you is to really commit to deeply understanding your supply chain because I think almost in any business that manufactures anything that's where the dirty stuff happens.
See “Business for good – Ryan Gellert”, podcast interview, episode 43, available at:

[8] The RAE's Statement of Ethical Principles is available at:
This is just an example amongst many. The main point to here is that looking after the environment is not part of mainstream engineering culture because the costs of environmental damage are not yet factored into the economic models we work with. Change is needed on many levels.

[9] I highly recommend any work by Joanna Macy. In particular:
J. Macy & C. Johnstone, Active Hope: How to face the mess we're in without going crazy, New World Library, Novato, California, 2012.
J. Macy & N. Gahbler, Pass it On: Five Stories that Can Change the World, Parallax Press, 2006.

[10] See for example the following articles:
Chella Ramanan, “The video game industry has a diversity problem, but it can be fixed”, The Guardian, 15th March 2017. Available: [accessed 7th June 2020]. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the original news story I refer to in the podcast.
Sarah Lewis, “The Racial Bias Built Into Photography”, The New York Times, 25th April 2019. Available: [accessed 7th June 2020].
Caroline Criado-Perez, “The deadly truth about a world built for me – from stab vests to car crashes”, The Guardian, 23rd February 2019. Available: [accessed 7th June 2020].

[11] For a plunge into the dark side of algorithms, I recommend reading: Weapons of Maths Destruction – how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy, Cathy O'Neil, Penguin Random House, 2016.

[12] E. Klein, Allons-nous liquider la science? Galilée et les Indiens, Champs sciences, Flammarion, 2013 (original edition: 2008).

[13] See e.g. 

[14] This is reported from personal experience of seeing videos, with no obvious offensive content (except to the dominant narrative), disappear from Facebook. An interesting documentary to watch is Adam Curtis's “Hypernormalisation” BBC documentary. Available: [accessed 7th June 2020].

[15] C. Langley & S. Parkinson, “Science and the Corporate Agenda – The detrimental effect of commercial influence on science and technology”, Scientists for Global Responsibility Report, October 2009. Available: [accessed 7th June 2020]. The quote is from the executive summary.
S. Parkinson & C. Wood, “Irresponsible Science? – How the fossil fuel and arms corporations finance professional engineering and science organisations”, Scientists for Global Responsibility Report, October 2019. Available: [accessed 7th June 2020].

[16] Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1986. The pages quotes refer to the paperback edition, 1989.

[17] See e.g. Hugh Pigott's blog:, and a sharing network for users of small wind turbines worldwide.

[18] Pragya Agarwal, Sway: Unravelling unconscious bias, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. See:, the talk has passed, but there's link to buying the book.

[19] M.L. King, Strength to Love, Collins, Fontana Books, London & Glasgow,1963.

[20] Van Morrison, “I forgot that love existed”, in Poetic Champions Composed, Mercury, 1987.

[21] As I said, anything spiritual is very personal. I can only share what is helping me, and also acknowledge that when I give a talk, I come with my whole self – not simply, for example, my scientific brain. Here are some reading/ listening suggestions:
Joanna Macy's Active Hope referenced above.
Chris Lüttichau, Calling us Home, Head of Zeus, 2017.
Lindsay Mack's Tarot for the Wild Soul podcast:
Matthieu Ricard, The Art of Meditation, Atlantic Books, 2010.  

[22] See for example the information on the following websites and articles:
The EM Radiation Research Trust: 
Physician's Health Initiative for Radiation and the Environment:
The International Appeal to Stop 5G on Earth and in Space:
The Astronomers' appeal: 
D. Davies, “5G: The Unreported Global Threat”, 18th May 2019, The Startup, a publication from Medium, Available: [accessed 7th June 2019].

[23] See e.g. the YouTube excerpt on the EM - Radiation Research website: 

[24] D. Meadows, J. Randers & D. Meadows, Limits to Growth, the 30-year update, Earthscan, London, 2005. The quote can be found in an online synopsis here:
Also I need to apologise here: the first people who tried to alert us of the dangers of disregarding our landbase were First Nations People.

[25] Marge Piercy, Woman On The Edge of Time, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. See e.g. [accessed 25 May 2020].
Marge Piercy, Woman On The Edge of Time, Fiction Del Rey, Penguin, 2019. See e.g. [the introduction is available in the preview; accessed 25 May 2020].

[26] Charles Eisenstein, “The Coronation”, March 2020. Available: [acccessed 7th June 2020].

[27]  Carolyn Dougherty, "On progress, On Airships" Steampunk Magazine, No.5, pp.27-29, 2005.  Accessible:

[28] I wrote a blog post on my experience at the Greenwich Museum. Available at:

[29] La vie intime des sous-marins nucléaire, La Conversation Scientifique avec E. Klein, Radio France Culture. Available (in French):

[30] Edit from 3rd September 2020. First, I should have said 'Aboriginal people of Australia' rather than 'Aborigines', my apologies for this. Then I got my films mixed up: the scene I was referring to is not in Appollo 13, but at the end of The Right Stuff, when John Glenn orbits the Earth and flies over Australia. He has problems with the heat shield of his capsule and there are worries he might not make it back safely

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Lifting the taboo: A discussion of societal collapse

Again, this is an unusually long post, even longer than the previous one for it is the synthesis of two talks, both given in May 2019 at the University of York: a contribution to a workshop on Failing organised by SATSU (the Science and Technology Studies Unit) entitled 'The ultimate failing: are we attending to our own extinction?' and an open lecture entitled 'Lifting the taboo: A discussion of unfolding societal collapse'.

A pandemic wasn't on the agenda last year and since this isn't my speciality, this possibility was left out of the discussion. I am highlighting here other things that can go wrong, yet I believe the underlying cause is the same: a complete disregard of the ways of Nature by 'civilised' man, and I trust that some of the remedies or crumb trails I share here still apply, perhaps even more so.

The conversation I would like to open is not an easy one. Often we shy away from it for we know that at some point, it will call in strong and unwelcome emotions – powerlessness being one of them. To be clear from the start, my premises are that 'business as usual' (e.g. in particular 'produce and consume as usual') is destroying our planet and that nothing short of a radical change to the way we live is necessary. As I argue below, the industrial civilisation is fast leading us towards a dead end. I can only stand by the youths from Extinction Rebellion who held their banner at Heathrow Airport in April 2019, surrounded by police. They asked: "Are we the last generation?" Some were in tears. Yet my main point is that despite the urgency, the pain, the grief, what is unfolding is a tremendous opportunity for deep change for the better. Each one of us individually and as a society, are forced to ask the question that underlies many of this blog's posts: what kind of civilisation (if any) do we want to build? 

A key aspect of the lecture I gave was that alongside factual content and personal reflections, I gave the audience the opportunity to express their feelings and thoughts using exercises inspired by Active Hope, a truly inspirational book co-authored by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone that I cannot recommend highly enough [1]. The exercises are included below to help you deal with the emotions that might arise as you read on and to help you discover what possibilities lie ahead. They follow the four steps of the spiral of the Work That Reconnects developed by Joanna Macy and co-authors: Coming from gratitude, Honouring our pain for the world, Seeing with new eyes, and Stepping forth [see e.g. 2]. Joanna writes:

The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world: we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as if from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.

This is the beginning of a great adventure we can all be part of. I am deeply honoured to have given my lecture on Joanna's 90th birthday.

If you can, I would encourage you to read this post alongside someone you know. The exercises are most helpfully done in pairs: one partner speaks for two to three minutes, while the other simply listens, then roles are exchanged. The emphasis is on hearing what the other person feels rather than on having a discussion (which can come afterwards). If you're on your own, I still recommend you engage with the exercises, perhaps using pen and paper to record your feelings and thoughts. It might seems a bit odd at first, and prior to giving the lecture, I had no idea whether it would 'work', yet the feedback I received from the small and courageous audience on the night was encouraging: the talk was described as "very stimulating and thought-provoking"; "really inspiring"; one participant wrote: "I loved the approach and how you get to (or at least towards) some of the truth as I have seen no-one else do, as yet", a student commented they had felt "lighter". Only you, the reader, can tell me if what follows is helpful too.

We begin with an exercise on gratitude. I invite you to complete the following sentence (or to take turns completing it if you work in pairs), with what comes to your mind in this moment:
"For supporting me to live, I give thanks to..."

Simply by expressing gratitude, you might feel more relaxed and more grounded. Gratitude, Joanna Macy insists, is our birthright, the shout of praise from every spiritual tradition for the sacred gift of life, something that should be natural, something that can be practised. The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote

Praise my dear one.Let us disappear into praising.Nothing belongs to us. [3]

Gratitude builds trust – psychology studies show that if we are grateful to someone, we’re more likely to help others. Gratitude is subversive and liberating: it contradicts the dominant message of our consumer society: "you're not enough", a message that breeds rampant dissatisfaction and incites us to buy yet more. Gratitude also helps us be present, here and now, so we can to look at the state of the world with unflinching eyes [1,2].

The picture isn't a pretty one, for I do believe (without putting any definite timescale on it) that we are on the verge of collapse. What do I mean by collapse? Here are two definitions, the first by Jared Diamond:

[Collapse is] a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/ economic/ social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.
and that of former French environment minister Yves Cochet:
[Collapse is a] process at the end of which the basic needs (water, food, clothing, energy supplies, etc...) are no longer accessible (at reasonable cost) to the majority of the population by services ruled by law.

Both are quoted in Comment tout peut s'effondrer by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, the book I have used as my main reference for the factual aspects of this post [4]. I have not found an English language equivalent (although there are commonalities with Jem Bendell's Deep Adaptation paper [5]). I am not a specialist in 'collapsology', as the French authors have termed this new, largely inter-disciplinary field of study and the overview I present is biased towards the topics that I am most familiar with.

Servigne and Stevens argue that Cochet's definition of collapse may be more useful to consider as it focusses on the process as it unfolds – so perhaps we can do something about it – rather than on the result, i.e. what future archaeologists might find should they study our period of history. A collapse is different from a crisis, from which a society can recover to return to some form of business as usual. A collapse opens the gate to something entirely different, which cannot be fully grasped by those living through the change. It can be gradual or abrupt – there are examples of both in the history of mankind, e.g. the collapse of the Roman Empire and that of the Soviet Union respectively.

What are the signs showing our industrial civilisation is heading for collapse? Servigne and Stevens offer a metaphor: if we compare our civilisation to a car, it is accelerating even though 

  • it is running out of fuel,
  • it has strayed off road into unchartered territory,
  • its direction is blocked,
  • it is becoming increasingly fragile.

Let us look at those in turns.


The consumer society is spreading around the globe: humanity as a whole consumes now more resources than has ever been done in the past. An often cited study is that of Steffen et al. [6], who produced the graphic below (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Great Acceleration from Steffen et al. (2015) [6]

    The vertical, black line indicates 1950. What we see on the left-hand graphs is exponential increase of many impactful socio-economic trends. The twentieth century saw energy consumption multiplied by 10 (and the development of renewable energies doesn't match the increase in demand, so we still extract more fossil fuel); the amount of minerals extracted for industry multiplied by 27; the amount of materials extracted for construction multiplied by 34. In addition, the pace of technological innovation and change is increasing (leaving a trail of waste in the process – think for example updating computers, associated equipment, phones, all kind of electrical and electronics); as is the speed of travel and communication. All this has exponentially growing damaging effects on the Earth systems, as illustrated by the right-hand graphs.

    The exponential function is extensively used in mathematical modelling. When introducing it to my students, an example I often used was the initial growth stages of a colony of bacteria in a Petri dish. Invariably, I asked: what is the limit of validity of this model? Students have no problem noticing that it breaks down in the long term (and 'long term' can be clearly defined) since growth (whether exponential or not) cannot be sustained when the bacteria run out of food or space. So now imagine we are the bacteria and the planet is the Petri dish, yet our global consciousness and decision makers are still to register (or pretend to ignore) that resources on this planet are finite and that nothing can keep growing in a sustainable way, especially exponentially. To hammer the point further, imagine a bacterial colony that doubles its size every day and say that by the end of day 20, it has filled up half the dish. Since it'll have doubled in size by the end of the next day, it'll have completely filled the dish after 21 days. Now let's assume that the bacteria have some kind of technology that allows them to find a second dish and colonise it – the equivalent for us of finding another planet. When will that second dish be full? by the end of the 22nd day. Then two more dishes, i.e. planets, need to be found to sustain the growth til the end of the 23rd day. How sustainable is that? (I am indebted to listening to D. Suzuki for this example [7]).

    Running out of fuel

    As a result of this mad consumption, we've been using the resources of more than one planet for nearly half a century already, as illustrated by Figure 2 below.

    Figure 2: World Ecological Footprint of consumption. The dotted line is the world biocapacity. [8]

    We're hitting a very physical limit: we're running out of resources – in the car metaphor we're running out of fuel. First, we're running out of non renewable resources – e.g. fossil fuel and metals [see e.g. 9, this post and this post]. Second, we have over-exploited renewable resources to the extent that they are no longer able to renew themselves – e.g. forests (they take much longer to grow than for a chainsaw to clearcut) or fish stocks are examples that spring to mind. Third, we have over-exploited ecosystems; completely destroyed ecosystems; and spread so much toxic waste that natural cycles have been perturbed beyond their readjustment capacity (think e.g. water, carbon, nitrogen or phosphorus cycles), and what lies beyond the tipping points is unknown. The industrial civilisation is using the Earth as its supply house and sewer at its own peril, and that of all life on this planet.

    Figure 3: Supply chain for electronics: from mining to e-waste © Fairphone CC BY-NC-SA

    The photographs in Figure 3 above are examples from the electronics industry [10,11]. They illustrate two of the many life-cycle issues:
    • Resources are used in an unsustainable way,
    • Pollution and waste are created at every stage from mining to disposal via manufacture and use.
    • Round the world, fossil fuel based transport is required for all raw materials; for example: the tantalum in a Fairphone handset is mined in Congo, smelted in Malaysia, used to manufacture capacitors in a Czech factory, then sent onwards to the assembly factory in China before eventually returning to European customer (and that's just tantalum).
    • There are instances of child labour, conflicts over resources and sexual violence,
    • Heaps of e-waste are growing with increasing use electronics (44.7 billion tons in 2017, half of which coming from the US and Europe, and half of which from personal devices; 40 billion tons went to landfill, burnt or illegally traded [12]).

    I believe that any supply chain of the industrial civilisation could illustrate the wastefulness and blatant social, inter-generational and environmental injustice of this system. I know, there is recycling, but that requires energy, produces different waste and is for the most part downcycling. The majority of supply chains remain linear, from resources to waste. This way of existing on the Earth is unsustainable and, to be blunt, plain stupid. Is this really the way we want to live? And even if we had an infinite planet, with infinite resources and infinite capacity for absorbing toxic waste – could we not imagine a more beautiful and creative way of existing on Earth? Now the good news is that despite what I am being told – it's 'progress' (without any clear definition of the term); there are economic imperatives; people won't change; that's the way the world works; it give people jobs, etc... we do have a choice. We have made the world as it is, it is the consequence of our individual and societal choices and there is nothing inevitable about it, we're just so used to it we can't imagine a different model. Yet we can change the world: we only need the political will and political courage. Sadly, there is a bad news too: we're running out of time. Incremental changes will no longer do, what is required is radical change, to the roots of the system (more on that below).

    Couldn't we have altered course earlier? 

    Of course there were people who tried to alert us. First Nations people, who are still standing strong to protect the land they have left against more corporate greed; First Nations people who tell us again and again what should be so obvious: that even we will not survive the destruction of our landbase. But we are not heeding their warnings. 

    Warnings also came from Western scientists and campaigners, but the inertia of the system, the laws of profit and corporate lobbies have kept the upper hand. One such warning was the 1972 report to the Club of Rome entitled Limits to growth and co-authored by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W. Behrens [13]. These MIT scientists developed a computer model of a society's evolution. One of their hypothesis was that the planet's resources are finite (common sense really, alien as it might seem to some economists). One of their questions was: what will happen once we reach the carrying capacity of the planet? For this type of systems, the theoretical outcomes are pictured on Figure 4.

    Figure 4: What happens when a system reaches carrying capacity [14].

    The smoothest transition happens when the system reaches an equilibrium, where the population stabilises to match what resources are available (see (a) in Fig 4). There is also the possibility of overshoot, when population growth increases beyond the carrying capacity of the system. If the overshoot isn't too important, an equilibrium can still be reached after some oscillations (see (b) in Fig 4). If the overshoot is too important, the system cannot recover and both population and available resources collapse – i.e. rapidly decrease in number for the population or in quantity for the resources (see (c) in Fig 4). Meadows et al. found that in their model, carrying on with 'business as usual' leads to collapse. They also tested a variety of policy scenarios, which showed that all suggested measures (such as e.g. to stabilise the population; to stabilise industrial production with regards to resources; to preserve soils and finance food production so all are nourished) should be implemented at the same time and beginning from the mid-1970s [13 scenario 46, pp. 163]. They warned:
    Every day of continued exponential growth brings the world system closer to the ultimate limits to that growth. A decision to do nothing is a decision to increase the risk of collapse. We cannot say with certainty how much longer mankind can postpone initiating deliberate control of his growth before he will have lost the chance for control. We suspect on the basis of present knowledge of the physical constraints of the planet that the growth phase cannot continue for another one hundred years. Again, because of the delays in the system, if the global society waits until those constraints are unmistakably apparent, it will have waited too long. [13 p. 183]
    Once more, the warning wasn't heeded. A comparison between the model's 'standard run', representing 'business as usual', and historical data from 1970 to 2010, shows that sadly, it is not a bad description of what is currently going on as illustrated on Figure 5 [15]. We could be on the cusp of very dramatic change. In a 2012 speech at the Smithsonian Institute, Dennis Meadows concluded that:
    Forty years ago, it might have been possible to slow things down and reach an equilibrium; now we are in overshoot mode and risk uncontrolled declined towards a new equilibrium whose features cannot be foreseen. [16]

    Figure 5: A comparison of Limits to growth's standard run (dotted lines) with historical data by Turner et al. (2008) [see 15].

    Heading off road

    What occupied the headlines in April 2019 when I was preparing my talks, and later in October as I began to edit this post was climate change, with many demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience all over the world spearheaded in the UK by Extinction Rebellion. Climate change is one of the consequences of how the industrial society is treating the planet, a pandemic is another - think for example, how we're treating animals.

    When I gave my presentations in May 2019, I mentioned that the previous February had been the hottest since records began in 1910, with wildfires in the UK countryside [see e.g. 17]. We'd just had a record breaking Easter, with fires on Ilkley Moor. Since then weather events have only gone more extreme – sticking to the UK, heatwaves and flooding; going further afield, fires in the Arctic and in the Amazon spring to mind. Anthropogenic climate change is happening – that is not up for discussion. We know it; we witness it; we’ve all heard news on the latest IPCC report and because it had to involve consensus, the more worrying facts have been left out. That doesn’t mean the dangers aren’t there, and things are evolving fast, faster than the pace of scientific analysis and publications – the rate at which ice is melting in the Arctic has increased 5 folds in the last 25 years; and in the Antarctic 3 folds [18]; the latest figures show we’re in a nonlinear regime, a landscape of tipping points, when even small changes can have dramatic irreversible consequences. As XR activists remind us: when you actually look at the figures, it's always worse than you think (Figure 6).

    Figure 6: Activists drawing during the April 2019 XR protests (photo XR)

    In terms of the car metaphor, we have left the road for unchartered territory, we have passed invisible frontiers that guaranteed the balance of our ecosystems and we do not know what’s on the other side. Climate change is one aspect of this. Another dramatic turn of event is a loss of biodiversity matching the scale of extinction periods on record. For example, we've all heard about and noticed the disappearance of bees and insects, which affects pollination and any food chain they're part of. In the Independent from 19 October 2017, we could read:
    Scientists warn of ‘ecological Armageddon’ after study shows flying insect numbers plummeting 75%. Destruction of wild areas for agriculture and use of pesticides considered likely factors [19].
    Over a decade ago already, in the foreword of the UN Global Diversity Outlook 2 report one reads:
    Biodiversity loss is rapid and ongoing. Over the last 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems faster and more extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history. Tropical forests, many wetlands and other natural habitats are shrinking in size. Species are going extinct at rates 1,000 times the background rates typical of Earth’s past. The direct causes of biodiversity loss – habitat change, overexploitation, the introduction of invasive alien species, nutrient loading and climate change – show no sign of abating [20 p.iv].
    And in the 2018 WWF Living Planet report:
    It is clear that human modifications are causing irreversible changes to the life-sustaining processes and resources that we depend upon [8].

    It should be sobering to see what the dominant culture is doing to the planet. To heal, we need to swap arrogance for humility: none of our technologies matches the resilience of natural systems when given the chance to heal. We will not survive if we keep destroying ecosystem after ecosystem, if we do not allow the Earth space to breathe. Whether we survive or not is not what matters most – what matters most (to me anyway) is the amount of suffering being inflicted to non-humans and humans alike; the amounts of species and human cultures destroyed; the amount of trees felled every day; the amount of rivers poisoned by man-made chemicals; the toxic fumes spreading into the atmosphere. That needs to stop. Now.

    The direction is blocked

    Change is needed, sooner than ASAP. The industrial civilisation is destroying the planet: we know it; we witness it; yet it seems we can't help it: our direction is blocked. Our imagination of how different things could be is blocked. Our education, tainted by the idea of linear progress based on ever improving science and technology, has taught us to fit into the dominant system, not to question it nor be creative. Sociologists working in science and technology studies (STS) have developed the concepts of 'lock-in' and 'path dependency': once a technology begins to take hold, it eliminates its competitors, not because it’s the best one (though it might be), but because of the investments, infrastructures, corporate control, or consumer habits that go with it. The lock-in can also come from a failure of the imagination.

    Let's return to the example of road transport. We are still intent on expanding the infrastructure – tarmac, roads, motorways, service stations and garages, bridges, tunnels, car parks on arable land, car factories, scrap yards – while struggling to keep some of it up to standard due to costs. In parallel, public transport is degrading all round, becoming more expensive and less reliable. In addition, we are often reminded of all the people employed by the car industry and related ventures. Following the Brexit referendum, there have been regular features in the UK news on car facilities closing (or not) and the consequences on jobs as business try to adapt to the unkown of life outside the EU. 

    Yet we have to face the facts: petrol-based road transport does the planet no good (CO2 emissions is one thing, particulates another, not to mention incredibly wasteful use of land). Still we seem unable to imagine something different: another use for roads, other means of transport a completely different approach to mobility. There is a psychological lock-in for clearly the current mainstream discourse finds picturing a life without cars hardly possible. The buzz about electric cars follows the same deepening ruts – and remember: perhaps we'd breathe better in London or Paris, but this has a dramatic consequences for other parts of the world where resources are mined. As I wrote previously, there is nothing green about 'green' techs.

    In spite of this we still find it easier to picture flying cars and 3D traffic, rather than attempt to free our imagination in order to fully rethink travel. Motorists, happily relayed by the media, are often the first to complain when anything gets in the way of their perceived freedom of movement, e.g. in France when a new 80 km/h speed limit was introduced on roads where people usually drove at 90 km/h or when a new tax on fuel was proposed, which sparked the Gillets Jaunes movement. My point here is not to criticise, but to highlight how touchy motorists can be and how car driven our culture is and after all, I am borrowing here a car metaphor. Perhaps cars still give the illusion of freedom advertisers play with. Cars are sold with the promise of escape, in adverts they are filmed driving through empty landscapes, when in reality most journeys are about going to work and getting stuck in traffic, when the reality is that we have to drive further and further away to escape to some semblance of wilderness – too often driving isn't enough, so we fly. 

    The change that is needed requires courage, vision and crucially, a free imagination. Ours is still enslaved by habit to what the system and its logic of tell us is the way forward. However more of the same feeds our acceleration: increase in fuel efficiency means we don't save fuel, but build bigger, more expensive cars; new roads don't mean less traffic jams, it means inviting more cars in; increase in technological efficiency means we can access more remote resources and plan for stocks, yet what happens is that resources are extracted faster, in higher volumes with short-term gains in sight.

    Part of the psychological lock-in is the die-hard belief (which I touched on here) that there will be a technological fix to our self-inflicted predicament. There won't be, at least certainly not within the current paradigm. Solutions that have been envisaged, like for example the carbon capture mechanisms that are being developed for example in Iceland by Swiss company Climeworks will not be ready in time, as Bendell writes based on figures from Waldhams 2018 [21]: "Unfortunately, the current technology needs to be scaled by a factor of 2 million within 2 years, all powered by renewables, alongside massive emission cuts, to reduce the amount of heating already locked into the system [22]".

    In addition, I am always keen to point out that any large-scale technological development requires material and energy resources etc... which are coming now in short supply. We have to become aware that if we stay within the current logic, any new technology will only displace the problem, not resolve it – let's mine for lithium rather than coal; let's use vast amount of good food growing land to produce biofuels rather than use petrol; let's use this miracle, compostable, plant-based material to replace plastic. I am not saying these have no parts to play, I am saying they are not the full answer to the wasteful linear ways of Western civilisation. We simply need to consume less material goods and that needn't be a hardship. In his 2012 speech mentioned earlier Dennis Meadows said: "we act as if technological change can substitute for social change". When will we ask the question (at individual and societal levels): 'what do we really need to live fulfilling lives?' and give ourselves enough time to hear the answers? Perhaps the enforced quarantine many of us find ourselves in is a perfect opportunity for this.

    I would also like to mention here that a large part of our predicament is the lock-in of the financial system, which is based on debt and requires growth to reimburse the debts. Our institutions are not designed to manage a world without growth [3 p. 104]. These statements need further development (and research on my part), but what should be obvious is that we need the freedom to imagine something radically different rather than rely on the powers that benefit from the current system to design solutions for us.


    In my talk on Failing, I argued that a society could fail in two ways: 

    • when its modes of existence exceed the capacity of its life support system – and I have argued extensively above that industrial civilisation is on a fast track road to failure in this respect;
    • when it fails to guarantee air, water, food, shelter as well as the means of existence to all within it – i.e. even if we inhabited a planet with infinite resources and infinite toxic waste absorption capacity, we still have to ask: do we want to live in a world where many starve when a few have plenty? Where habitats are destroyed on large-scales? Where people and other beings are deprived of what is their birthrights: water, food, shelters and the means to make a living?

    Let me insist on this. Sticking to humans, the World Food Programmes reports that "there are 821 million people – more than one in nine of the world population – who do not get enough to eat [24]". In addition, many more people suffer from some form of malnutrition. In the UK only there is a sixfold difference between the income of the top 20% of households and those of the bottom 20%. Wealth inequality is much worse, with 44% of the UK’s wealth owned by just 10% of the population, five times the total wealth held by the poorest half. The UN reporter Prof. Philip Alston wrote just two years ago that 

    for almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one. [25]

    In France, Gilets Jaunes movement began in reaction to a fuel tax which would have fallen hard on people already struggling at the end of the month. The French government's response to what are legitimate demands for social justice was repressive, with disproportionate use of violence and people losing hands and eyes to the police's rubber bullets. There is no need to look very far to see that industrial civilisation is failing on this count too – and no, it's not going to get better. 

    This 'way' of failing is about inequalities, about those in power taking the resources and labour of those at the bottom of the scale, with the complicity of those who still benefit from the system. When I first thought about it, I had in mind a failing on ethical or moral grounds, for prosperity isn't shared. (For example, even if it didn't threaten the life of the planet and life on the planet, I do not want to live in a world were I need to own a smartphone whose manufacture involves the destruction of ecosystems, the pollution of land, air and water, child labour or conflict-related sexual violence – and please do not tell me that's the way things work: it's not, that's the way the industrial civilisation is making things work, we can chose to get along with it, or not. That is a choice). What I hadn't realised until more recently is that this second type of failure is as unsustainable as the first, and can also lead to collapse, with the elites overworking the 'commoners' who in turn can no longer support the system. Here, I need to introduce HANDY (Human And Nature DYnamics), a minimal mathematical model designed to study human-nature interactions, in particular, the factors promoting the sustainability of societies. Features were included that had led to the collapse of societies in the past: (1) resource depletion beyond the carrying capacity of their supporting ecosystem and (2) economic stratification of society between elites and commoners, which echo the 'ways of failing' suggested above [26]. This model, like that developed by the authors of Limits to Growth, is not about making predictions; rather is it about exploring potential scenarios and identifying levers of action. What their results show is that both factors – overexploitation of natural resources and economic stratification – can lead independently to collapse and that in strongly stratified societies, collapse is difficult to avoid and requires major policy changes such as drastic reductions in inequalities and in population growth rates. 

    With increasing resource depletion and increasing inequalities, our industrial civilisation is not in good shape. Unfortunately our elites are benefiting from the system, they hold money and power, they do not yet feel the consequences of the destruction of the planet, so why would they promote change? Rather, they are keen to oppose change, or perhaps I should say, any change that doesn't serve their interests, and are another reason the direction of our accelerating car is blocked.

    The car is increasingly fragile

    Cars are just an example (I know, I use it a lot), but they are very germane to the dangerous 'lock-in’ issue, which stems from our over-reliance on carbon-based energy sources. Think: how do you keep a nuclear power plant running (and safe) without petrol? How do you extract resources, manufacture and upkeep solar panels without petrol? How do you build and maintain large-scale offshore wind-farms without petrol? How do you transport food to the extent currently required (think city population) without petrol? How do you even produce the food without petrol in our current agricultural setup? At the moment, quite simply, you don't. Our industrial civilisation is dependent on a single technological system, as such, it lacks the diversity that is the basis for resilience. Here is example to bring it closer home: petrol shortages threatens the very taught supply chains we depend on. As the Guardian reported on September, 14th 2000, following 5 days of fuel blockades by lorry drivers in response to a rise in fuel prices: "[the] NHS [is] put on emergency footing; Army ambulances [are] deployed; Post, bank, buses, food [are] threatened : Britain grinds to a halt as Blair's pleas are ignored. [27]". Five days. Another example: I lived on the Malagasy highlands during a political crisis in 2001/2002, as a result of blockades on the roads, petrol no longer reached us. This meant increasingly long periods of black out for the town's electricity could no longer be generated and explosion in the price of road transport, which never returned to their pre-crisis levels. Of course, the poorest citizens were the most affected.

    We are building our lives around an extremely fragile, highly complex, deeply unjust, global system, that is prone to systemic failures. A tiny spark somewhere can have dramatic consequences, but where and when it might light is impossible to tell. In a Guardian article entitled "The financial sector must be at the heart of tackling climate change", the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, and colleagues, wrote:

    We recognise that the challenges we face are unprecedented, urgent and analytically difficult. The stakes are undoubtedly high, but the commitment of all actors in the financial system to act on these recommendations will help avoid a climate-driven “Minsky moment” – the term we use to refer to a sudden collapse in asset prices. [28]

    There are aspects of the system I am not so familiar with, yet it's obvious alarm bells are being rung all round. Infrastructures are ageing; industrial agriculture and farming practices are destroying soils, ecosystems and natural cycles; bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics. Of course it's possible to point out with much drama at the impacts we're having on the planet – from large scale floods to wild fire and heat waves; from famine-ridden and war torn countries to floods of refugees. More worrying is that we no longer see some of the impacts we have: we think it's normal that the water from the river Ouse, running through York, is unsafe to drink; that there are homeless people on the street; that the increasing death toll from air pollution shouldn't prevent us from driving our cars. We no longer see a pollution and destruction that has become banal, and that is a slippery slope.

    So where do we stand?

    As Prof. Jem Bendell writes in his Deep Adaptation paper

    Nothing is certain. But it is sobering that humanity has arrived at a situation of our own making where we now debate the strength of analyses of our near-term extinction. [5]
    Below is a summary of the main points I have made:
    • The industrial growth society is reaching the limits of the carrying capacity of the planet, which it has used as supply house and sewer.
    • In doing so, it is causing irreversible damage to ecosystems that further threatens the availability of vital resources such as air, water, food, energy.
    • It is increasingly likely that we have passed tipping points and that some form of collapse will happen in the near future.
    • The various crises are systemic and global: they cannot be addressed in isolation.
    • Solutions will not come from the current system: it is at the heart of the problem and the inequalities it generates are deepening the problem.

    As Dennis Meadows stated: “it is too late for sustainable development, we have to prepare for shocks and urgently build small-scale resilient systems.” [16] Once we acknowledge this, we can begin to move on, with open-minded and open-hearted conversations. However it's not easy to accept the predicament we're in. For many of us, it goes against what we've been taught all along, against this notion of linear progress we've been told was the only way forward because things are going to be ok in the end. I am, after all, writing about the end of our civilisation, a topic most people are reluctant to engage with. Yet even without reading my words, you might already be strongly emotionally affected by some of those issues or others that are happening in our world, or in your personal life today.

    Take a moment to breathe. What I invite you to engage in now is another ‘open sentences’ exercise, based on the second step of the Work That Reconnect: ‘Honouring our pain for the world’. The aim is to give each other (or oneself) a safe space where to witness what we might feel, without trying to find a fix for our emotions, just letting them flow and be witnessed. 
    The sentence begins with: “When I consider the condition of our world, what breaks my heart is…”
    Please note that if what comes out is a personal issue, that is not a problem for it is also part of the suffering of our world.

    It is very important to be able to express what we feel and be heard, without drama. A member of XR York who attended the gatherings and protests in London in April 2019 commented that it was a great relief just to be able to talk and share one’s concerns with people who were ready to engage in the discussion and I could only agree. We have to accept there is no quick fix for the feelings of pain, grief, fear, anger, or emptiness we might feel. These feelings are healthy and natural and need acknowledging. This can be a very challenging practice for Westerners used to having a pill available to treat any condition. Many of us are not reacting to what we know for various reasons – denial; the fear of standing out; not wanting to start discussions that no-one really wants to have; distractions and busy-ness; feeling unable to cope or powerless. I have, personally, at various times, experienced all of these. All can lead to apathy – and apathy, from the Greek a-patheia, means the absence of pathos, of suffering. This, Joanna Macy argues, is the greatest danger: not the upending collapse I describe above, but apathy, and the deadening of our response that follows. 'Honouring our pain for the world' is an essential step. She writes

    This is a dark time, filled with suffering and uncertainty. Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, because these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings. [29]

    The Work That Reconnects has a strong theoretical grounding in two main bodies of teachings: systems theory and the Buddha Dharma, and acknowledging our pain is relevant to both. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh said that "what we most need to do [to save our world] is to hear within ourselves the sounds of the Earth crying" [quoted in 1]. The pain opens our hearts to compassion, literally 'suffering with'. It awakens us to our interconnectedness with all beings and encourages us to act on their behalf; for if we feel grief, we have love; if we feel anger, we have passion; if we feel fear, we can call forth courage; if we feel empty, there is space for something new to emerge.

    In terms of systems theory, human beings are part of the larger body of the Earth, a fact recognised by many indigenous traditions. Pain is telling us there's a problem, it warns us that remedial action is required, it unblocks the feedback loop and we are prompted to act. Yet we are human beings and as with everything in life, we can chose our response: we can keep burying our heads in the sand, refuse to see the truth of what is, wait for miracles from external agencies, wait for the ultimate technology, wait for a better future or even a better afterlife, or, simply, we can roll up our sleeves and "[become] active participants in bringing about what we hope for". This is the essence of Active Hope, which is a practice that does not depend on how achievable the goal is. We have a responsibility, not because we have done anything wrong but because we're here, now, on this planet, with the capability to rise up to what the occasion demands of us: we can take part in the Great Turning.

    The Great Turning

    If we look away from the drama fostered by mainstream and social media and towards what is actually going on, perhaps more locally, perhaps on the margins, we begin notice that a lot is happening that we can already be part of. Joanna Macy identifies three aspects to the Great Turning, which I list below with examples from York, with links (of course the list is not exhaustive, of course some examples could fit more than one section)

    • Holding actions to prevent further damage, for example: Frack Free York & Villages, currently the campaign to save Askham Bog.
    • Developing life-sustaining practices, for example: The Bishy Weight, CIC, Friends of Leeman Park, Friends of Westbank Park, St Nick's, TCV, Fairer World.
    • Working towards a change in consciousness, for example: XR, Interfaith groups. 
    So now I invite you to engage in another listening/ writing exercise, without an open sentence this time. Please take 2 minutes to share an experience of the Great Turning you know of, or are part of.

    The Great Turning in York

    Noticing how much is already going on was life changing for it empowered me to also take part in this great effort. Now, it doesn't mean I knew straight away what to do. It doesn't mean I still know exactly what to do. It simply means I've consciously set foot on a new path. What this path looks like is different for everyone, we all have gifts to contribute. It can take time to figure out what one's calling is and it's important to go slowly, remain flexible, and look after oneself in the process.

    Why are we failing?

    In my talk on 'Failing', I tried to describe elements at the root of the failure of industrial civilisation and issued words of warning about tools we use: rationality and technology – for this is what they are: tools – please remember that: just tools. 

    Technology is a tool, so what we need to look at are the goals for what it is being used. In the 30 years update synopsis to Limits to Growth, the authors write:

    One reason technology and markets are unlikely to prevent overshoot and collapse is that technology and markets are merely tools to serve goals of society as a whole. If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimise for short-term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it. [23]

    It is time to ask: what would technologies and economic systems look like that would promote working with nature, sharing the benefits of human work with all beings, and making decisions based on their effects on the seventh generation of human children, animal children, plant children from now? I heard Rob Hopkins talk about the need to let our imagination flourish and make the difference between innovation, which remains within the ruts of a system that doesn't work, and imagination with the power to carry us beyond [30]. Yet many still believe that an answer will come from the current system, and in particular, that a technological fix will somehow emerge, but this is simply a form of denial or some kind of irrational faith.

    In an earlier post I wrote about the biases embedded in our technologies, whether personal or cultural, whether conscious or not. If these are not acknowledged, we will keep falling into the same traps; we will keep recreating the same patterns. What enabled the development of Western science and technology - rationality - is only a tool, not a deity requiring sacrifices (Reason has been deified during the French Revolution). Reason is a very powerful tool, yet when subjected to our prejudices (I believe the PC word is unconscious bias), it has been used to justify the most abject acts. In a powerful sermon on Jesus's last words on the cross, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do", Dr Martin Luther King Jr recalls that "men conveniently twisted the insights of religion, science, and philosophy to give sanction to the doctrine of white supremacy" and argues that "we have a mandate to conquer sin and also to conquer ignorance" (my emphasis) [31]. Unfortunately, it is often easier to look for evidence justifying our own beliefs rather to remain truly open-minded and accept that sometimes we get it wrong and that's OK. More worryingly, rather than question our beliefs, we teach them to the next generation as facts and in doing so, we deepen the problem. The questions we are urgently invited to ask is this: what are my unexamined beliefs? Am I at risk of passing them on? Once again, this is a journey – a journey in which we must be ready to make mistakes and acknowledge them, as well as be given the supportive space to do so, so that there is no shame attached. This is not common in Western culture [32]. 

    As stated above, one of the beliefs that upholds Western industrial society is that science and technology flow naturally in the direction of 'progress' and that, as promised by Hollywood, it'll all come out fine in the end. To which I oppose the examined premises on which this text is based (for I am, after all using my capacity to reason to type these lines):
    1- The industrial growth society is destroying the planet,
    2- We need no less than a paradigm shift if we are to stop causing damage and possibly survive.

    However, and this is important, stalking one's belief is a lifelong process (we have a tendency to pick up beliefs very easily) and I would be misleading you, the reader or listener, if I didn't keep a lookout for my own unexamined beliefs. It is challenging, often uncomfortable, requires flexibility, yet I think that this is part of what we are called to do at an individual and collective level at this moment in time and with some urgency. In what follows, I share ideas that I have come across and which have helped me move beyond some deeply ingrained societal beliefs.

    Seeing with new eyes

    'Seeing with new eyes' is part of the spiral of the Work That Reconnects. It is about seeing our complete interconnectedness with the living world. Our interconnectedness in space with other people around the globe as well as across species and kingdoms on this planet right now. Our interconectedness in time, across human generations, further back to the beginnings of life on Earth, and beyond, for we are made of stardust. 'Seeing with new eyes' allows us to acknowledge and know beyond the intellectual level that we are so much more than separate egos and that we can choose to contribute to the dance of life. Crucially and urgently at this moment in time, 'seeing with new eyes' is also about going beyond the narrative of the industrial growth society. On this latter topic I would like to challenge three assumptions we're making: that people act out of self-interest; that life is about competition for survival; that the Western model is the only route towards 'progress'. Let's take each of these in turn, but before, please note that this is work in progress as when you begin to look, you start noticing that the world is rife with enticing alternatives to the mainstream discourse. In what follows, I aims to share pointers – books or websites – that I have found extremely helpful, and hopeful. By no means is the list exhaustive and I bet you'd have some to share too.

    According to Investopedia, 'economic man', an 'assumption of many economic models', 'refers to an idealised human being who acts rationally and with complete knowledge, who seeks to maximise personal utility or satisfaction' [33]. That we all behave by default according to this description is a false, yet unquestioned axiom of a global economic system that insists that consuming makes us happy. If this is true then why must huge sums be spent on designing adverts that will foster want and unhappiness (and waste so much energy doing so) so that we end up buying the goods or service? This description of 'economic man' is so ingrained that it is very hard to shake indeed, as York-based archaeologist Penny Spikins found out. In How compassion made us human she writes:

    Self-interested rational logic was seen as the truth which had to be proved wrong beyond any doubt before anyone could consider early humans were capable of feelings. […] simply raising the issue of compassion and kindness in our early ancestors […], was considered by many to be deeply subversive. [34]

    Her carefully articulated book gives a very different, refreshing perspective: that of communities of people ready to care for the sick and disabled who would have been unable to hunt or gather food, or even travel with ease. There are societies who value compassion, we only need to look beyond the Western standard to more traditional hunting-gathering or indigenous societies. Further examples to those quoted by P. Spikins could be the Ladakhi society described by Helena Norbert-Hodge in her book Ancient Futures and which was destroyed by the introduction of Western-style consumerism in the 1970s [35]; or the Tibetan Buddhists Joanna Macy worked with and learned so much from [36]. A more surprising example perhaps, but one that gave me tremendous hope, is the Kesh culture imagined by Ursula K. Le Guin in Always coming home [37]. A book like this frees us to imagine that things can be very different, that beautiful cultures will be able to rise again from our damaged planet. Neither of the cultures mentioned here I should say rely on fancy high-technologies. 

    A related stifling belief is that evolution is solely based on competition, survival of the fittest, etc... and so we are taught to compete with each other and get the best grade from a very young age. Fortunately, there is much more to the story. I heard Pablo Servigne discuss cooperation as a force for adaptation and evolution, a subject he develops in a book co-authored with Gauthier Chapelle: Coopération, l'autre loi de la Jungle [38]. In his talk, he explained that individualism is a luxury only possible in times of plenty. Those who survive harsh conditions are those that help each other more, not automatically the strongest. An example that struck me was a study of trees that would be competing in the shelter of the valley, yet share resources when higher up in the mountains. For humans too, cooperation is natural and the default position, as shown by the help people offer each other spontaneously at times of disaster. It's only when we take time to think that cultural beliefs do kick in – and in a culture that believes everyone needs to fend for themselves, this is what ends up happening. Then, in a capitalist society, competition leads to inequalities. A key text here is The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, which highlights the "pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption". It also convincingly backs the somewhat counter-intuitive statement that more equality would benefit everyone – yes, that includes the rich and super rich [39]. Also, remember HANDY, as discussed above: inequalities are likely to lead to collapse, so it is time we re-evaluated what matters. It is time to think of better measures of success than GDP and to value the common good and cooperation over profit and competition, for example as advocated by the movement Economy for the Common Good [40]. It is time to revisit what should be punished by law and indeed to examine who the current legal system really benefits. The term 'ecocide' was coined by the late Earth lawyer Polly Higgins as meaning the 'loss, damage or destruction of ecosystem(s) of a given territory(ies)... such that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants has been or will be severely diminished'. Following her lead, lawyers are working to make it a crime recognised by the International Criminal Court [41].

    Finally Westerners have to accept that our vision of linear progress is a dead-end, that as described above the industrial-growth society has failed. It is time to learn, with humility and apologies, from those we have historically exploited, and that includes Nature. We need to stop promoting our way of 'development' as the only way forward, for we have lost our way. We say of any new technology that it is 'progress' when in fact we have no idea of where we're going. We need to stop interrupting in order to listen to the wisdom of indigenous people, to Nature herself, to our own indigenous traditions, which need to be rediscovered and revitalised for our times – see e.g. the work of mythologist Sharon Blackie [42]. We need to relearn what it means to live a beautiful life on planet Earth. This doesn't mean that we should reject all the knowledge that has been gained. An example that brings me tremendous hope is that of the Bec Hellouin Farm in Normandy, France. Its owners, Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyère have recently published Vivre avec la Terre, an exactingly researched manual on how to manage a small-scale farm, without petrol and following permaculture and oganic principles [43]. They have used the latest scientific research, documented their work with precision, and proved that it is possible to live happily and well from manually managing densely cultivated plots. Contrary to large-scale agricultral practices which require a lot of pesticides and fertilisers and reduce the fertility of soils over time, their human-scale methods do not require artificial intrants and have been shown to improve the soil. Human-scale is the key word here. To me, a key step forward would be to evolve towards local, small-scale practices adapted to the local landscapes, ecosystems and cultures. I cannot put any trust in top-down, large-scale blanket solutions that do not take local specificities into account and give all powers to a minority. Energy production can be small-scale and community controlled too, even if global level governance will be required to deal with such things as nuclear facilities (in my opinion, these should be dismantled, but that takes us beyond the current discussion).

    As I mentioned earlier, the Great Turning is happening, and many people at grassroot level are already taking part. For the most part, these people are on the margins, but they are the ones I would fund were I given the purse strings. I would encourage community artists, art therapists, actors, musicians and storytellers who can help us express our grief; reconnect to the natural world (for example, the beautiful animal bronzes of sculptor Jess Wallace [44]); and free our imagination to invent new futures away from Hollywoodian doomsday scenarios. I would fund small-scale initiatives, those people and projects that are already healing our relationship to nature and to ourselves: nurses, carers, mental health workers, community projects, nature restoration projects, small-scale local shops and organic farms where animals are decently treated. I believe that in order to foster the resilience needed for the times to come, we need to increase diversity and locality. I strongly believe that the best thing you can do at this moment in time is learn to grow food with your own communities – something that will hopefully be possible again when this lock down ends, something that can be done in cities too.

    Finally, I also believe that a strong spiritual practice is essential to heal our connection with the Mystery of life and reconnect with its sacredness; to reconnect with our souls; to find that solid compassionate centre from which the right decision emerges with the correct timing.

    Final words

    Acknowledging the coming collapse of our civilisation is not easy. There is much to mourn, our future, the future we would have hoped for our children. It might be necessary to enter a grieving process – and this takes time, there is no quick fix. Yet I am not giving this talk to make anyone depressed, far from it. Unless we face the truth of the situation, we will not be able to act accordingly. Then when we face that truth we can see that as potential futures close, others open that we may never have imagined and are worth striving towards. This is an opportunity to set a better course. But we need to make a choice, and that choice belongs to us all.

    In her book about climate change, Canadian journalist Naomi Klein argues that a "war effort is needed" [45]. The BBC recently labelled David Attenborough’s show on climate change a ‘Call to Arms’. Perhaps this is true, but I find it extremely sad that the only main metaphor we can think has to do with war and the military. Scientist for Global Responsibility remind us that the military's "carbon bootprint" is huge, and that stopping wars (just like shedding our anger) would save vast amounts of energy [46]. So I would like to offer another metaphor: we need to become cathedral builders: we need to build the foundations of something beautiful that will not be constructed in our lifetimes. It will require community work in an atmosphere where the skills of all of us are valued. It will require, at last, a full acknowledgement of the sacredness of life for the cathedral we need to rebuild isn’t a man-made one, but the one we were born into in the first place.

    Of course, as I type those words, we're in the middle of a pandemic. Some things have changed, for a time at least: planes are grounded; few cars are running, noise pollution has dropped and the sky is blue again; dolphins have been spotted in the canals of Venice. Others haven't changed and are taking an even more worrying directions: the British government still funds the HS2 project, ancient woodlands are being destroyed and the new covid-19 law is used to evict tree protectors [47]. We are truly on the cusp of big changes, a time to be awake and to genuinely reflect on what kind of a society we would like to build. Charles Eisenstein's words in clarifying options that are open to us are illuminating and I found extremely helpful in that respect and I cannot recommend his essay strongly enough [48].

    Stepping forth

    Here again, I invite you to talk, or write for a few minutes answering the following questions: what would you like to manifest in the world? What first step are you going to take? The first question is about your vision, your big dream; the second is about making it real.

    Beyond those few minutes, it can take time to answer that question – it certainly wasn't an overnight process for me, and I am still searching even as I have begun to act. During that process, please take care of yourself. It certainly feels like time is pressing, but rushing will not help. Time is needed to process emotions and decide how to move forward. Do give yourself that time, then act decisively.

    To finish, I will share what my decision has been. I've moved to Wales where my partner owns a bit of land that is partly rewilding itself. Together, we will learn how to care for the land, how to protect it, reconnect with it; how to look after our water and how to find and grow food to satisfy our needs and that of members of our community. Then we will share what we have learned. We are not trying to build a utopia removed from the reality of the world. As Naomi Klein suggests in This Changes Everything, it is too late for that [45]. I only wish to learn what school failed to teach me: how to be an earthling connected to the life around me. 

    Note: I make use of the pronoun 'we' in this post. By it, I mean people promoting or benefiting in any way from the industrial growth society – mainly Western nations and westerners, capitalist nations, colonising nations in any shape or form. As a European, the industrial growth society is my inheritance, that doesn't mean I should be consumed with guilt or that any reader of these lines with a similar background should feel accused. It means simply that since we are alive now, it is our responsibility to question what we have been handed down and, if we see fit (as I do), to acknowledge that we now know, and can do, much better.



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    [39] See the Equality Trust website:
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    [41] See the Ecocide Law website:
    [42] See Sharon Blackie's website:
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    [44] See Jess Wallace's website:
    [45] N. Klein, This changes everything, capitalism vs the climate, Oenguin Books, 2015.
    [46] J. Rawnsley & P. Barkham, "Chris Packham begins legal case to halt HS2 amid coronavirus crisis", The Guardian, 27th March 2020. Available: [accessed 11th April 2020].
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