A Potent Nostalgia: Chapter 1

by Patrick Noble

Once upon a time we nomads settled down and created agriculture. The efficiencies of that agriculture released labour for both trade and the trades which in turn evolved centres of production and consumption which we know as rural villages, harbour towns and market towns.

I’ll leave aside the influences (usually malign) of power in the simultaneous creation of walled cities, fortresses, trade blocs, dukedoms, ring roads, cloned towns, retail parks, gated communities and distorted and perverse social systems.

I leave them aside not as a perversity of my own, (they are evidently a part of human nature) but practically, because I wish to explore best usage of the resources we have, rather than the erosion of them. I look historically for the best, since we must surely look for the best present solutions. We will in any case fail to our own unexpected extents, rather than to those of history. Lessons from violence, greed and so on are and always have been self-evident. A citizen of the Neolithic would consider deeper moral relationships in ways identical to our own, but the complexities of Neolithic settlement required pragmatic tools and techniques similar, but not identical to our own!

I can also leave those perverse influences aside, because they have had no influence (other than malign) on the construction of modern social systems in farming techniques, the food trades, service trades, architecture, engineering, boat building and so on.

By modern I mean the familiar modernity, which recedes back through the Seventeenth Century and in which all our important trades and social structures were already in-place. Power has imposed various distortions on those who built, repaired, farmed, traded and enjoyed their parts of modern culture. But power has, for the most part destructed what I would explore, which is the construction. Modern culture is not the same thing as the cult of modernism.

Bear in mind that civilisation is a technique rather than an achieved state. It is the many methods of settlement. Power, which feeds on the techniques of the trades often disagrees and believes it has control of a state. I hope to explore the methods & not the state. I can have no influence on power and power can have no worthwhile contribution to my trade. Power’s business is with rival powers and with the maintenance of power. I suggest that the problems we face (resource depletion and the avoidance of, or perhaps adaption to climate change) cannot be solved by the powers, their brokered agreements, protocols, targets and so on.

Solutions lie in practices devised through trial and error and in the self-determined behaviour of citizens. I maintain that this has always been so and that power has not had the smallest hand in the creation of cultures. True – power has patronised the arts and sciences and has paid for tradesmen of all kinds. It has financed the building of churches. But until its enclosure of fossil fuelled technologies it has had no part in the methods. Indeed uneven distribution of wealth has restricted the freedoms of the most to be ingenious, or dextrous. Trickle down finances a similarly small trickle up!

Of course, administration of law with regards to protection of the vulnerable is a function of power. That power may be mandated by both/either ballot and/or historical precedent, or by subjection to force of money/arms. But such protections are a part of an evolved complexity which will arise in new forms from new or renewed systems. Our precise future is obscure. Taxation in kind, in money or/and in time is a part of my modernity.

Anyway, I hope you understand my use of modernity (civility), because though it remains familiar, it has also been diminished to what I hope to show may be a potent nostalgia. Coal and the steam engine began its subjection. Then the power of oil almost wholly contained it. The tools of settlement have become almost exclusively powered by fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have needed no observant senses, or ingenuities to monitor them, because they are (we imagine) disconnected from natural law. Those tools have been controlled by very few hands, so that Power has at last come to perversely control the culture – a culture so transcendent of laws of both physics and time that some chroniclers have come to believe in the End of History! A state stands static & fights (vainly) to maintain stability and “achievement”. Of course, fossil physics eventually becomes subject to physical laws, as will become apparent as Earth warms beyond the tipping point of her living balances.

We see power’s tools in ring roads, retail parks, cloned towns (bread) and in “Reality” Television programmes and cheap holiday flights (circuses).

I shall call those things Post Modernity. Because they have come to control nearly every aspect of domestic life, they are as destructive as the familiar fortresses, armies and trade blocks of power. Fortunately they are more ephemeral. Much additional destruction is unnoticed by our retail therapist, being more apparent (for a while) in sweat shops and agricultural dispossessions a continent away.

My modernity includes cities, towns and villages comprised of pubs, restaurants, theatres, libraries, concert halls, proper shops such as green grocers, grocers, butchers, fish-mongers, hard-ware shops, book and music shops, work shops (various: from artisan to factory) and markets, – surrounded by market gardens, orchards, dairy farms and then wider pastures, woodland, arable fields and of course the sea. Towns and villages vary with the resources of terrains (and their evolved cultures), which surround them – harbour towns, mill/manufacturing towns by rivers and so on. How much economic activity is artisan and how much from the “factory” will be an outcome of a mix of social needs, desires and of the physics of trial and error.

Nothing of that modernity has been conceived by the powerful. It has been both conceived and executed by the ingenuity, skill, dexterity and conviviality of the powerless trades.

It follows that our post-modern predicament of economic collapse, diminished resources and teetering climate cannot be solved by the Powers, but only by the powerless. This means that environmental and social NGOs busily attempting to change the powers from within are diverting energy fruitlessly in the wrong direction. This is most apparent in organisations such as the Soil Association which endorses what it once opposed by verifying super market produce. People, who may otherwise have avoided super markets, are encouraged inside, because an organic dispensation can be bought there. Similarly those who promote social mobility must approve the hierarchical structure they profess to oppose.

An archaeological, historical, intensely humane, both physical and spiritual strata lies potently beneath ring roads, retail parks and the desolation wrought by the very few powerful hands which have controlled post-modernity’s energy supply. It is now plain that the post-modernity we know as “scientific” progress and economic growth is fading (with a whimper?) as the life-blood of oil is withdrawn from it. I’m afraid that individuals, nation states and corporations may react with a variety of bangs. The economic stimulation (actually fantasy stimulation) currently practiced in re- stimulating banking systems, reducing taxation and so on will result in still larger bangs.

Money is directly related to energy supply (solar, human, animal, wind, water, coal, oil, gas….) and as fossil energy diminishes, so money must also diminish. In consequence economies can inflate to the optimum level in which labour and energy are valued at the rate of the money flow. Debt created capital was stabilised by the increased use of fossil fuels. The withdrawal of fossil fuels coupled with rising unemployment increase the distance between money supply and energy supply and the more the distance expands the greater the eventual crash will become. If European and American governments continue money stimulation (which is not economic stimulation) as they have done, then the American Great Depression will be nothing in comparison to what we are to face.

I lead to the proposition that argument with power is (and always has been) futile. As oil departs, the trades can take back the means of production in spite of all that power will do. Breugal’s Icarus fell (mythically) from the Sun unnoticed by the ploughman, concerned with his furrows. Without ploughmen, Icarus and his barbaric, jet-setting friends (Tony Blair, David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch, Caesars (various) & Company) are neither here nor there, since they have power over nothing.

Powerful politicians having neither common sense nor skill have the messianic belief that scientific progress will discover a replacement for fossil fuels. But ideas cannot replace resources any more than the Idea of a Messiah could turn physical water into physical wine. Spiritual wine and spiritual bread are other matters.

We shall be returning to normal. The powers were always gated, scatter-brained and apart. We shall retreat from the very silly ideas of economic growth from finite resources and of fossil physics transcending living physics. Incidentally, we shall also retreat from the similarly silly delusion created by obsession with Carbon: Life, which both breathes for us and feeds us (and is us) is variable – not finite. Its parts, in minerals and salts may re-appear as lifelessness (not death). The Carbon cycle is insufficient to analyse the much more complex and variable cycles of living and dying proteins. Power’s carbon caps, targets and quotas are obfuscations manufactured to excuse profligacy. Our retail therapy can continue (says Power) by following the carbon labels.

We shall be returning quietly to normal: that’s a good refrain. With a sigh of recognition we’ll fall to the deeply familiar – from the delusive aisles of power’s cloned towns and also from that wildest of economic schisms: economic growth.

Featured image: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Bruegel, circa 1558

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