Foreword from Notes to Nowhere

Note: This is the foreword to Feasta member Patrick Noble’s newest book. In the past we have published excerpts from two of his previous books: A Potent Nostalgia and The Commons of Soil. You can read more about Patrick’s work on his website.

Government appoints a scientific advisor, specifically to place him in visible proximity, while utterly ignoring him.

It creates a department of Environment to be seen to have one and so that it can forget about environmental problems.

It creates future targets for reductions in CO2 emissions, so that for the present it can plan to emit a lot more CO2.

It makes many such overtures to the future, specifically to ignore the present: technological progress, educational targets, economic growth…. The illusion that progress will solve the problems of the future is presented to obscure the ancient truth that future-problems are created by the present.

Meanwhile citizens mimic their governments by subscribing to environmental and social NGOs – often, so that they can forget about living within environmental limits in socially-responsible ways.

It has become commonplace to assume that a personal moral balance can be achieved by purchasing what is ethically labelled. In doing so, we may defer personal responsibility to the provisions of others. Meanwhile, those purchases can swell the size of an amoral casino which has not the moral or perceptive functions to recognise either fairness or durability. Amorality cannot picture morality.

Similarly, environmental and social NGOs seek to make the super market a better place by encouraging markets for ethical labels. Consequently, shoppers are enticed from the conviviality of proper shops and market squares towards a morally-endorsed amorality. Placing moral labels in an amoral market does not bring morality to the market. On the contrary, turning morality into a brand kills the morality, but authenticates the brand.

In consequence, we have deferred responsibility to that which has no responsibility – both to our punts within a casino which we conveniently pretend is an economy and to abstract presentations of progress in which fictitious children solve their parents’ neglected problems.
Governments have done the same, not only by appeals to a deaf future, but by transferring government responsibility to an irresponsible market. (Privatisation)

In truth, the current programme of “austerity” is less about living within the ecological means of a society and more (as the economist, Susan George points out) about socialising losses and privatising profits.

This book proposes that we live in a uniquely perverse time – and that solutions to its uniquely- perverse problems will not be found in further extra-ordinary solutions. Remedies may be found in simply returning to normal. Moreover, living by ordinary ethics within ordinary laws of physics may reclaim the happiness that comes from living within ordinary human nature.

Extra-ordinary, technological solutions have acted as distractions. Wild weather will destroy more crops and livelihoods and energy-sources will diminish – as those four hundred parts per million of atmospheric CO2 increase. The two degree temperature rise, which now seems inevitable, will bring (by most optimistic models) a metre rise in sea level. That will overwhelm coastal and island communities and perhaps (the least of our problems) bring sea water lapping at the feet of Big Ben (my fantasy).

The central thesis of this book is that cultures are what their citizens do – not the state to which their citizens have grown accustomed. Cultures are methods, not states – and so answers to the times lie less in government legislation and more in the changed behaviour of citizens.

Part one of this book is my Notes from Nowhere – as possible as William Morris’s News, but idealised depictions of what could be if we behave well can to be set against what will become more likely, because we behave more or less badly. It is a moral mirror, although this one is set well outside Eden.

Part two is a Notes from Somewhere –a stirred cauldron of the morals and physics of human nature. I believe that economies can be supplied by their ecologies in the quantities needed, but that the supply will progressively diminish, if we take more from the moral and physical soil, than we return. If we continue to behave as we are – and as governments and corporations ask us to do, then we may as well stock up with cans and head for the bunkers – or join the dark mountaineers. Actually, post modern governments and corporations ask of us what we ask of them – consumerism is a blind, regressive, decadent, unresponsive, anachronistic, shrinking circle. Consensus party politics is a part of that shrinking circle. Political parties are marketed in exactly the same ways (and by the same agencies) as pot noodles. Climate will change and resources will diminish, while consumerism revolves unchanged around its centre – electorates asking of governments, what governments ask of electorates – all eyes turned inwards.

There is far too much hope in the world to abandon it to a foolish diminishing spiral. Even so, it is too late to expect any hope at all from “first world” governments, their corporate managers, their media promoters (alas, such as the BBC) – or from the NGOs we have created by subscription to oppose them all. Cultures are and always have been what their citizens get up to. So we change the wrong thing, if we seek to change governance. The way to break the circle is simple. We don’t negotiate within it. We step outside. We change ourselves.

Although governments and corporations can restrict, forbid, restrain and sometimes encourage what we do, nevertheless it remains true that none but ourselves can change ourselves. It is ridiculous to propose that a government can do it for us. Real people put excess CO2 in the atmosphere – not the abstractions that are corporations and nation states. Real people, and one by one, consume what should remain for their children. Real people emit more than their annual “allowance” of CO2 in a single holiday flight. We real people have created nightmares of asset- stripped economies and swelling casinos; of dormitory villages and decaying town centres. We are the heart (and vacant souls) of bustling ring roads and retail parks.

Somewhere, there is an evacuated, social shell, which has evolved to call its prodigals home – it is the inherited, primal shaping spirit of social systems – located East and well outside Eden – comprising ingenuity, dexterity, conviviality, probity…. Since it is outside Eden, it is bonded by a common comedy (tragedy shares the same spring), in which people lean inwards to discuss the source of all learning – commons of misadventure.

Only real people, and one by one can discuss those things, because only flesh and blood has senses to receive information from the physics of the world and then to understand and interpret it.

To those who shrug helplessly, “What can one person do?” my answer is, nothing is ever done but by one person at a time. Corporations such as Monsanto have been created by billions of small purchases. They can evaporate at a fashionable whim. A fashionable flood of billions is no small thing. Monsanto herself (should it be a macho himself?) is composed of one employee at a time – free to choose other employment – if it becomes possible and financed at the whim of punters (one by one) in a casino. Yet, Monsanto’s political and monetary decisions are made by a circle of very few – using, like consensus politics a manufactured, pre-conceived, unresponsive consensus. It has not the diversity of senses to make a sensible diversity of decisions.

I propose that we abandon dependency on abstractions – on the latest “scientific” evidence; on the coming government white paper and the accompanying NGO contra-reports. We have all we need to know – the ordinary ethics of ordinary lives on ordinary and finite Earth. The greatest corporations, their media promoters and tamed governments are fictions. Historically, “great companies” have disappeared in mergers and at the whim of stock market punts as though they had never been.

Meanwhile, everything we do has consequence and so has a moral. If we reclaim the moral with what we do, then we reclaim curiosity, identity, self-worth and happiness. Why should we defer to ethical brands and the latest scientific paper? That post-modern cultures have been “created” more by the amoral punts of a casino, and less by the conscious actions of citizens, gives citizens licence to re-assert a personal contribution to the common good. Even if we fail, doing the right thing remains the source of happiness.

Of course, wealth created in land-owning economies does not remain with its creators. The landless may create the wealth which drives up property values, but rents rise and wages fall as land-value commands further enclosures. In recent times, the wealth gap has widened further, because available money-flow has swollen to a flood by the power of fossil fuels. The very many poor compete for housing and work held in the monopoly of the rich. The statutory minimum wage is a quiet acknowledgement that markets are not self-regulating. (Bread and circuses)

So, although immediate solutions lie in evacuating super markets and occupying a real economics of proper shops and workshops – assisted by local currencies and local share or bond systems perhaps – we can still argue for just governance – such as a ground rent tax paid to the common good in the form of a citizens income, or dividend. Property law protects the right of proprietors to have no obligation to the common good. So an initially violent land enclosure has remained in both purchase and inheritance as a perennial violence, since the common good has been perennially denied. Wealth has become a monopoly. It cannot be obtained by good work. If wealth is restored to those who generate it, then economies and cultures can more-easily revive. These ideas have been commonplace since the eighteenth century and probably before. As Adam Smith suggests, in pursuing what makes “the wealth of nations”, we should consider (as he observed at the time) that nations with high wages and low profits, generated most wealth, whereas, those with high profits and low wages created the least. Tell that to the Adam Smith Institute.

Meanwhile, it is liberating to remember that remedies for extra-ordinary problems will not be found in extraordinary solutions, but by returning to normal – and by ordinary solutions – solutions which require no research institutes, or accredited authorities, but the common sense of Everyman (sexless term). Of course, since the extraordinary has been oil-made, rather than hand and heart-crafted, it has become flat, stale, wearisome and uninspired. Ordinary nature, on the other hand, will be unpredictable and enticingly illusive. I suggest that it could be the inspiration for a cultural renaissance. Even though we live on less and within ecological restraints, we may find increasing happiness in receiving back both our human nature and the fascinating complexity of an intertwining natural world.

Civilizations are not made by governments – still less by the defensive state of property ownership. They are made by the ingenuity, dexterity and most importantly: the probity of ordinary human nature. They emerge from the opportunities and restraints of a common soil. I should be able to own the fruits of my labour, but never the common ground.

The unjust enclosure of dynamic moral commons into the defensive (static) amorality of state and property – is a target, not for attack but avoidance. We can liberate ingenuity from its cage by quietly reclaiming commons from the imposed restraints of a variety of enclosed monopolies – land, technology, trade and trading places, genetic material….

Emergent technologies could prove a delight. The trial and error of techniques are precisely the methods of children at play. The common provides value through the conduit of responsible roles – by both probity and labour – which is more than money could buy.

In this I am supported by a study partially funded (you may be surprised) by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. Authors from every period of history, noting the collapse of civilizations would have endorsed this study, which re-enforces anciently-understood truths with computerised mathematical models. The following is from a Guardian article of 14th March 2014, by Dr Nafeez Ahmed. The quoted passages are his selections from the study.

“… accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”

The study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these challenges by increasing efficiency:

“Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that (….) the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”

Productivity increases in agriculture and industry over the last two centuries have come from “increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput,” despite dramatic efficiency gains over the same period.

Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharri and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today… we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.”

The authors go on to say “Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.”

This book is an exploration of techniques for economies to sit happily within their ecologies and also for citizens to sit happily in their roles as contributory parts to the whole.
A whole, peaceful revolution may be composed of millions of personally-determined moral decisions. If we cannot reverse Oliver Goldsmith’s phrase, in which wealth accumulates and men decay, we will be forced to join him in his despair. Writers from ancient times through to the more recent Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, Henry George – and yes, Winston Churchill saw how, when wealth accumulates, civilisations decay.

If we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late. If we act as individuals, it will be too little. But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.

– says Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement.

Featured image: Amarillo streets. Author: Aaron Williams. Source:

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