The tyranny of enlightenment

by Patrick Noble

Pursuit of further knowledge of the causes of climate change can grow a false sense of urgency – an urgency to become enlightened, which distracts from the true urgency – which is the moral question, – What should I do?

My way of life has become so destructive, that pleasurable distractions of the latest research papers are a waste of fast-diminishing time. The clock is approaching midnight.

Without further enlightenment, we know that we must stop burning both fossilised biomass and living biomass. Further accumulation of knowledge does not help with the question, what should I do? We know that our fossil fuelled way of life is impossible. We cannot improve, or green it. It must be abandoned.

Fossil-fuelled ways of life are wrong. Burning things is wrong and the ways of life which depend on burning things are wrong – that is suburbia (commuter culture), ring roads, retail parks, super markets, air-travel, fossil-powered agriculture, the family car…

Discovering which ways of life are right will be a matter of trial and error – both personal and communal – but we can begin by transition towards the pre-fossil-fuelled ways of life of communities which lived in the same terrain – within the same coastlines and with more or less the same cultural histories. Those ways of life are much like our own in every deeper sense. Many are nostalgic for them. They are a part of our inherited, intrinsic moral being. Fossil-fuelled ways of life have not yet evolved that moral commons. They are only a hundred, or sometimes two hundred years old and exist in our yet half-formed extrinsic (and rather coerced) being.

To live within ecological means also means asserting lost sovereignties – in reclaiming commons and denying enclosures. Consumer dependency on an amoral and unguided monopolistic supply (however green) will end in human chaos.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is to believe that the way we live today can be powered by renewable energy, by yet unthought ingenuities and by a more enlightened agriculture – what we might call the new green super market – entirely agroecological; entirely electric; entirely re-cycled… That is the future pursued by many environmental NGOs.

Earth does not provide that much energy.


We don’t need further knowledge, we need a moral awakening

The notion that economics (good or bad housekeeping) is a branch of moral philosophy has only become obscure in the last century. Previously, it had been an assumption.

Societies are held together by common beliefs. Good and bad behaviour – effective and ineffective tools are knit into those commons. Economics is the study of human causes and effects. Every action and every application of a tool has an effect and so also a moral. Let’s consider soil – a common to pass through generations – Are we succeeding or failing in our duty? – What of agricultural tools and their ecological effects? These are supremely moral questions. They cut us to the heart, and also ferment in the head.

What are the social effects of monetary systems and the manipulation of money systems? We learn techniques and tools by pragmatic trial and error – just as we do with the tool of money – but the effects of those tools always end with questions of justice, injustice, value, worth…. Of course, the words value and worth travel easily between aesthetics, scales of justice and weights and measures.

With regards to climate change, our primary questions are, what should I do, and what should my community do? We already know enough to act effectively. The questions are, what is right and what is wrong?

When we speak of right and wrong we engage with both the head and heart. We become included, or excluded from the good life. We hate to be excluded – the remedy for exclusion is better behaviour. The remedy for climate chaos – for ecocide – is better behaviour. Ecocide is not only foolish – it is wrong.

Yet, that exclusion from the good life will often mean inclusion in current ways of life – people side by side on a holiday flight. Most of us go with the flow…

How do we know good from bad behaviour? – by inherited commons, which have been traditionally bequeathed in religions; in songs and tales; parental guidance; in gossip. They’ve been expounded from soap boxes; inscribed on tablets of stone; in customs – in commons of soil-use, water-use and their just distribution in space (between neighbours) and in time (between generations).

What happens, when we’ve a diminished inheritance – fragmentary commons, or can see that custom is out of touch with changed times? We begin to create what can be bequeathed by pragmatic footsteps on our patch of ground. We become the myth. It is our responsibility to be mythic. Fail or not, in gaining such meaning, we can be happy.

For inhabitants of the so called developing world, change will be less dramatic. It will answer the question – Do we need to live as foolishly as our developed neighbours? Having answered correctly, people will more easily look about them to consider their energy use, soils and so on.


The problem is not lack of knowledge: it is the great forgetting of what we know.

This is not in praise of ignorance. Knowledge is a pleasure. Latest research papers are a pleasure. The mistake is to think they will be useful.

We can be distracted from acting properly by an urgency to accumulate “information” – gathered from others and not from experience. We become exited by proposals for new technologies which may resolve our currently bad behaviour. Hoped futures (forward thinking!) will save the present! Bad behaviour can remain unchanged because our gaze is fixed on a dispensatory future. Actually, though the future is always fictitious, it is most accurately, though always partially, predictable by present actions. The truest futurist vision is contained in the legacy we bequeath by present action – choosing a future by our behaviour. New generations must cope with our effects.

Good conversation re-enforces and binds community – it entertains and adds to the store of knowledge and conviviality – like good food and wine. But the real question remains – What shall I do next? What is right and what is wrong?

Small wrongs; great wrongs are all wrongs. But some wrongs are different – those done with intent are different from those done without. All intentional wrongs have the same quality – theft, murder, tax avoidance, usury, anthropogenic climate change, ecocide… Nevertheless, custom gives many intentional wrongs permission to continue.

Choosing to remove a settled future from children, by boarding a jet aeroplane is a great wrong. Since few don’t understand anthropogenic climate change, it remains a great wrong, committed with intent (possibly infanticide). Custom agrees it is wrong. Yet, since most do it – custom also agrees to a communal forgetting.

So, our problem is not of insufficient knowledge, but of the customs of either forgetting or remembering. Our solution is to build a consensus to remember.

Nearly everyone agrees that ecocide and cultural causes of climate change are wrong. Yet nearly everyone has formed a consensus to forget that agreement.

So, educating the already educated (which is nearly everyone) will change nothing.

Al Gore’s inconvenient truths will remain half-sleeping, while climate change accelerates.

The solution is deeper – As Richard Heinberg has recently pointed out, the remedy is a moral awakening.

I say, it is a communal suffusion of shame.

The truth is that for economies such as Ireland’s and UK’s, everything – our whole way of living is wrong. So, it has also become convenient to forget the whole and to tinker with distractions of the particular.

Here are some distractions – aids to forgetfulness, which as a farmer, are close to home for me. Friends of mine embrace them as solutions. If they are so, and I am wrong (as I frequently am) then those friends may ruffle my foolish hair. On the other hand, if they are excuses – dispensations to continue life as before, then it’s vital (to me) to mention it.

First – Sequestration dispensation for grassland distracts from the economic, ecologic and atmospheric urgency for trees.

The enlightening ideas of Allan Savory distract many who control grasslands to find a new virtue in continuing as before – perhaps changing only intervals between grazing! There is no doubt, that change in grassland management will be beneficial – but should those fields be in grass at all?

Let’s consider land use – that is, let’s consider what we do to land – Is it right or wrong?

A community needs optimum acreages of woodland, grassland, cereals, fruit, vegetables… for its needs and for future needs.

Just about all of UK’s acreage, which is fit for agriculture, is (has been) natural woodland, with glades. If we were to consider greatest photosynthetic biomass and restoration of climatic balance, then we’d instantly replant the lot with trees. Allan Savory’s grassland is in UK’s case, unnatural grassland and will not produce the same biomass – or resilient biodiversity as woodland. If we consider relative economic (that is social) contribution, then woodland again provides what is essential and increasingly scarce, whereas grassland provides what is inessential and currently abundant.

I assume that our culture asks land for vegetables, fruit and cereals and that animals for milk, meat and eggs can be beneficially integrated both in rotations and under fruit trees and so on. Currently, we consume massive amounts of meat, while also having an acute and potentially catastrophic, shortage of timber. The Drax power stations alone annually consume three times the total (for all uses) annual production of UK timber. That illustrates our carelessness. Even though we must stop burning biomass, we remain with vastly insufficient forestry managed for timber – for house- building and so on.

It’s true that as we stop growing cereal and pulses for “feed-lot” farms, we will release land to grow staple cereals and pulses, and also hugely reduce meat production – but the question remains, what is the best use for my beef/sheep field? Three questions –

1 – Thriving ecology – meat or trees?
2 – Climate change – photosynthetic grass, or photosynthetic trees?
3 – Economy – meat or timber?

Which is right and which is wrong? Field by field, it’s a choice – there is no nuance.

As a community, field by field, we must somehow balance the needs of the whole. An economy which most happily fits its ecology will achieve optimum success.

Second – True cost accounting of bad economic behaviour by enclosing priceless commons as valued capital.

This fallacy proposes that the market can provide a solution to environmental pillage. Well, Adam Smith’s market could have done so, but of course, his capitalism has not yet been applied and as far as I can tell, has never existed anywhere in the world. Capitalism cannot function without common rules of behaviour – that is without a robust, culturally-evolved commons. Those commons are designed to maintain sources of capital to pass between people in both time and space – that is, fairly distributed both between neighbours and between generations.

Capital is enclosed common and is amoral – it bears no behavioural directions. Commons are moral directions attached not to things – resources, such as soil, water and so on – but to our use of those things as capital. Some commons define purely social behaviours – and are maintained by tradition and sometimes (theft of capital, murder…) by law. Capital and common are conjoined – each exists, because of the other.

The thing is, commons define what is right and what is wrong. Environmental pillage by an amoral market is wrong. It will not be made right by bringing new capital values into that market, such as the future cost of that pillage. On the contrary, in the process, traders gain new capital costs to manipulate in the casino. What’s more, even true cost accountants (to remain credible to other accountants) have vastly underestimated those capital costs. The priceless is difficult to price.

Environmental pillage is wrong. Adam Smith’s capitalism would make it wrong. True cost accountants should promote proper capitalism – it is well documented. Instead, they endorse an amoral market without moral restraint, or cultural tradition.

Established commons can often become law – as in rotation of strip fields, or distribution of water- rights/irrigation controls. In recent times laws of property (land enclosure) have overwhelmed many such laws of commons.

That should be our battle ground – not in entering new capital values (private properties) into an amoral casino – but in returning morality to our actions – the return of commons – for our neighbours – for our descendants –

Pillage may be defeated – sometimes perhaps by common justice/law, but most powerfully and always by shame.


Third – What we may call the new green supermarket

The new green super market is the greatest of the great forgetting. It marks the decision to remain on the Titanic and rearrange the deck chairs.

We’ll hit the iceberg even though by our petitions and purchase signals, every item in the aisles has become organic, fairly-traded and in re-cycled packaging. Greening the super market gives it credence and endorsement and at the same time, diminishes and impoverishes the smaller, more numerous vessels, which may still remain afloat – that is, if they hold a proper economic/ecologic course. Greening the impossible evokes a forgetfulness that it remains impossible. Some green NGOs perform that useful obscurity. The organic “movement” has been notoriously helpful with deck chairs. In endorsing the Titanic, it has helped to evacuate potentially resilient proper shops and market squares. Nice produce in unpleasant markets focuses on the nice and forgets the unpleasant – It’s nice to do so (and positive, I’m told).

Let’s remember.

Living within ecological means dictates abandoning the fossil-fuelled Titanic. Life boats of transition can set a course towards the point where she first embarked. That is, a socially interconnected network of fields, villages and towns, which asks for some transport for goods, but not for people. Towns are congregations of houses, markets, workshops, proper shops, fairs and pleasures – all of which can be easily reached on foot and by the same pair of feet. Feet are perfectly designed for people. Feet can both work and holiday. They can walk side by side, happily form a crowd and – a civilization.

Having solved the problem of transport for people by such a happy – almost effortless solution, we can more easily wrestle with the remaining problems of transport for goods. Crops must somehow migrate from field to village, town, or city. I don’t think they can travel to suburbia. That’s why people congregate. Suburbia is fossil-fuelled. It is a deck chair.

Wastes must cycle back to fields – along with the products of those workshops.

The connection of field and town is a problem we’ve yet to solve. With current populations, the energy required outruns history and can be only partially solved in the Havana manner by urban market gardens, personal allotments and by peripheral rings of market gardens.

Oversized cities are deck chairs, but some cities may survive happily by harbour and navigable river, or by a network of canals. I think that sea trade will prove essential for resilience – for trading not only scarcity and surplus – but also cross-cultural pleasures. Without question, pragmatic laws of physics show that sea trade must be sail trade. Currently derelict harbour towns – scattered along every mile of coastline, will regain their function and their people.

City and suburbia are our greatest problems – but ones which may (at least partially) be knit to our greatest solution. The wildest injustice of late and post medieval times has been the brutality of land enclosure, which led to famine, mass migration and swelling hopelessness of poverty, dependency, prostitution… – in short, slavery and city slums. Today, many in cities dream of escape from that same dependency, but cannot see a way.

There can be a mass migration of human ingenuity, dexterity and hopefully – happiness back to coast and countryside – fields can shrink from monopolistic fossil power to diverse, curious, ingenious and dextrous man-power – coastal community will revive with boat-builders, sail-traders… We can reverse the enclosures.
This is madness you say – You are nostalgically driving by the rear-view mirror. We have the knowledge to green our way of life – wind power is already cheaper than oil…

I say, consider the ice-berg.

Step into lifeboats (of transition) and head for shore. Those turbines will be useful for a more fitting way of life.

We’ve travelled too wildly, blindly and too far. Almost everyone already knows that truth. But we’ve communally agreed to forget it. The first evidence of solid ground will be found at the point where we embarked.
We may resume properly at that point – one which anyone can understand – morally, spiritually and analytically.

Actually, transition towards that end can never end – the steps will continue, because truths of natural physics are perennially illusive. They escape the permaculture designer. They beckon us. After all, a central economic problem of the Titanic was one of too many architects (perma-preconception) and not enough builders (pragmatism). Every house-holder; every trade’s person is better qualified to seek better behaviour by their own curiosity, in their own illusive terrains, than all the expertise of IPCC and the Paris Accord.

It is ordinary. It is universal. On passage, we may be surprised by a dove with a twig of olive. We may not. Tacking across head-winds in a steep swell, happiness remains (succeed or not) in what we do.

Complexity is the web of Titanic entanglement. How do we divest familiar, but decadent garments of oil – work, wages, lack of wages, irony, sarcasm, inveiglement, the latest “interesting” research…? Can we bear to be known as a wagging finger, which spoils the deck party?

But there’ a greater shame than that – and a greater joy.

Fourth – A minor distraction – Bio Char

Of course, bio char is not a distraction for most people. It is of small significance. Nevertheless, it is illustrative of similar distractions, which can often lead to untruth – that is: apparent remedies for the particular, which can be pernicious to the whole – not seeing the wood for the trees. Cults of the liberty of the individual are prone to such distractions.

There is little doubt that bio char is useful for individuals – it helps maintain stable soil life for their particular plots.

Terra Preta soils of the Amazon Basin were maintained in extra-ordinary fertility by the use of charcoal. Communities generated similarly extra-ordinary quantities of waste biomass from hunting, fishing and gathering to supplement their agriculture. Their ingenious solution was to char it. Who knows? They may have used the generated heat. Had they simply fermented those wastes as we do today by compost, farm yard manure, or anaerobic digestion, then those surplus nutrients would have been lost to soil life – as gas to air – as effluent to water…

Today we have no surplus. We’ve no peripheral lands for hunter-gathering. Titanic culture is creating a massive soil life deficit.

Charred biomass is much less than its original biomass – even if we propose that we’ve culturally integrated the generated heat. (unlikely)

I propose that bio char, redistributed equably in let’s say, a town allotment, by charring all the gathered wastes of every allotment holder, will produce lower crop yields, than a system which had, as in European cultural tradition, fermented those wastes.

We can imagine a hierarchical kleptocracy (such as today’s in UK, US and Russia) in which elites keep surpluses of biomass from city wastes for bio-charring their own lands, while fertility elsewhere withers. That is a classic (though futuristic!) tale of the enclosures.

In leaving the Titanic, I hope that we abandon such monopolies and re-occupy commons – of soil, water, biomass, seed… Cults of the individual will not survive. We must depend on each other – look out for one another. Bio char is a small, but dangerous, individualist deck chair.


Cults of the individual cannot survive. Our predicament is of the tragedy of the enclosures. Private property, home as castle, consumer right granted in exchange for monopoly supply – have led to the sack of personal responsibility and so to the sack of the Earth. No-one remains on the bridge of the Titanic. Everyone is at the deck party – elites entertained at the captain’s table – others huddled in literary/scientific discussions – many others waiting tables and working the kitchens – the upwardly mobile (social mobility) in between – some even shattering glass ceilings…

Others, more earnestly send petitions to the bridge; to supermarket; to parliament – about climate change, inequality, icebergs…

But they speak to the void.

Truth is – climate change is caused by all of us, one by one. The solution is to stop causing it, one by one. There is nobody on the bridge, or in the super market/corporation/parliament to legislate for societal change. People one by one make a crowd. It is our duty to form one on solid ground and not on the deck of the Titanic. We, like most mammals exist as a flock of mutual dependencies.

The tragedy is that hurting the flock for personal gain is no longer a crime – many call it success – the success of the tragedy of enclosure; the sack of commons; the sack of Earth; the building of the Titanic.


The great forgetting of ancestors and descendants has us lost at sea in a kind of nagging unhappiness, which is actually suppressed, undefined shame. Our deepest longing is a moral necessity to belong. We belong by doing the right things.

Speak for yourself, you say? I do. I am ashamed and disconnected.

Shame and redemption are woven into our culture and survive from far older cultures – from long before agriculture. Those moral bindings are a part of eusocial evolution. It is no accident that the finest document we have on climate change is the Vatican’s encyclical on climate change. That is because it is unashamedly moral. Similarly, every great religious organisation has admirably followed suit – Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Protestant – Methodist, Calvinist, Quaker…

Children have rights – adults, responsibility.

For how much longer, can I remain a child?

Native American, Maori and Aboriginal voices have powerfully and movingly defended the sanctity of their soils. Movingly, because at heart – even from the deck of the Titanic, we fully understand.

We fully understand.



What have we forgotten? – our children’s futures? – ecologies cascading by our forgotten effects? – our very own, somehow mislaid, but still fast accumulating atmospheric CO.2?

How have we suspended such guilts to walk out (even promenade) in a consensual world of a great and communal forgetting?

Sleep has fallen over the eyes of the culture… Briar roses entwine and seal up the windows to the non-human world, but they are fictitious imaginings – but less formed than that. They are opiate consumer fancies of high and internet streets. Within the twining, history has ended in sleep.

Beyond the twining thorns, history continues – causes have effects – pillaged ecologies; accelerating atmospheric CO.2; diminishing and increasingly-unstable economic resources; the sharp pain of thorns.

Let’s change the fairy tale – Let’s embark to the mythic future of the good ship Titanic. We bought a ticket named consumer right with a currency named personal responsibility. In yet another tale, Dr Faustus did the same with a similar currency – his soul.

Anyway, we paid in various ways for various tickets and embarked. We chose to wreck future human cultures. We chose to steal the good lives of children. We chose to pillage the ecology on which all economies depend and we chose to cause climate change.

Everyone else did and so we followed suit.

I cause climate change. The only way to stop causing climate change is for me to stop causing it.

Consumer, corporate-supplied culture has no clothes. Everyone knows it, but we pretend. Once the child speaks, then the pretence is over. We either lie, or act on the truth.

One by one, we form a crowd. One by one, we diminish it.
My new tale to call us back (and then forward) is no less than a journey to reclaim the soul – that is personally and communally as a culture. It is not how to steer clear of the iceberg, but how to return our tickets and disembark. How do we break our contract with the devilish captains and happily survive –a heroic rescuer and a waking kiss? – No, a personal awakening to break through the briars. We are each the central character in a new heroic tale.

Here’s a tale.

We escape the prison ship Titanic by make-shift raft – and in an Odyssey, or Aeneid of transition, somehow wash like flotsam to the new land of Albion. Flotsam is directed by wind and tide. All plans must keep a pragmatic weather eye.

One advantage of reclaiming our souls is the considerable advantage of reclaiming happiness.

That we can see around us, so little of the Land of Albion and so much of motorway and retail park, does not make the one more real than the other.

Consider this – the retail park has no future attached – it marks the end of human cultures. The barely-realised Land of Albion is a vision of future generations.

Also consider this – the central, primal and most fierce part of our currently living being is the protection of our children – it’s an immediate impulse. Current action creates the future. In that case, unrealised Albion is real, while consumer and commuter cultures are annoying and malignant ephemera.


You can read more of Patrick’s writing at

Featured image: deck chair. Author: Ed Saxby. Source:

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One Reply to “The tyranny of enlightenment”

  1. So, according to this author, we are all co-equally responsible for ecological crisis? Seems like a little more knowledge of sociology and political science might be in order here, despite this verbose call to abandon enlightenment.

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