The tales of history are a dead-end road

Culture is what people do. It decays when people stop culturing. Changing a culture means changing what we do. Often, that will need a step by step transition as we negotiate obstacles. Even though we follow some backward meanders, the river may flow on.

But there are some transitionary illusions – convenient untruths, which are not obstacles to be overcome, but dead-end roads to be avoided. In those cases, we must turn back and begin again.

Dead-end roads (or stagnant backwaters) can be paved (or punted) with the best intentions – often because we are focused on singularly-important things, such as energy-use, pesticides, human rights… We applaud solar panels on the buildings of a retail park, or the rising quantity of organic and fairly-traded produce in the super market swamp. But retail parks and super markets were created by and are maintained by fossil fuel. Greening such infrastructures gives them an illusory credence. It satisfies complacent images of social justices, green energy and regenerative farming. But what came with oil must go with oil. However green we strive to make them the retail park and super market remain vast and stagnant backwaters.

We lazily mined those millions of years of sequestered photosynthesis. Now we must live by singular seasons as they pass. The thing about natural limits, is that they have shape – taste, scent, sound, mass, energy, volume, chronology… We can give them meaning, and if we know them truly, they can gain beauty.

Buying organic produce (for instance) in a super market defers a large part of cultural creation to infrastructures, which we cannot see, or taste. Those green market signals are not signs to a better future but delusive advertisements to the virtues of a dead-end road.
Just as the flow of money directly relates to the flow of energy, so does the flow of cultural effects. As the flow of fossil energy diminishes, so we must return to human sized spending power with human-size imprints.

Returning to just human size brings culture round us like a shawl. We can wear it – a durable vestment died with both personal and community colours. We can divest from identity levelling, but powerful provisions of oil. They are, in any case much too large to fit. Of course, much of what we do is not measured by GDP, needs no fossil fuel and has no monetary value.

Nevertheless, it may be vital to the functioning of any measurable economic activity. As we leave oil in the ground and as oil infrastructures evaporate those unpaid activities of parenthood, home-making, cooking, gardening, story-telling, singing, dancing… will remain untouched and can swell as the consumption of piped entertainment recedes.

The culture we created by fossil fuel is no longer possible. Most of our choices have become dead-end roads. A 2% increase in GDP is more or less, a 2% increase in green-house gas emissions. GDP could be just as accurately named GDCC – Gross Domestic Climate Change.
If culture is what we do, what do we do next?

Some difficulties emerge, because we are social partners to existing infrastructures. There will be some backward meanders (infrastructures don’t exist until we find or make them) and many dead-end roads.

We exist as a social species. Our identities are parts of the whole. When cultures break, they break identity. To heal ourselves, we’d heal the culture. But cultures evolve from deeper commons and may resist time-bound manipulation. Alienated, we seek artificial, or imagined fraternity. Fraternity? – Where is the sexless alternative? I cannot find a word – so it is with wider culture – its evolution and revolutions. Revolutions are usually temporal and unsatisfactory. Yet we do need a powerful, all-embracing, sexless equivalent to fraternity. If cultures place evenly-sexed roots in the soil which feeds them, then a more balanced and so durable ethics can evolve. That is how new commons emerge. In removing our dependency on the strata of fossilised years we become intensely dependent on local resources and on each other. Since we need an utter revolution in the ways we live and think today, those commons must evolve quickly… How most of us lived and thought in, let’s say, 1914 is a good start.

Breaking connections to dead-end roads may mean both breaking and healing hearts. Broken cultures break hearts, but then healing hearts heal cultures. And with regards to quickly evolved commons, inherited commons lie neglected and dormant – awaiting resuscitation – somewhere very like the some-when of 1914.

Nostalgia is an answer – what has been could be. Within the nostalgic vision, deeper and essential commons survive, which could not be manufactured by reason and thin air. And they are familiar. The once and future life comes ready-made with poets, musicians, painters, familiar voices… Once the nostalgic vision is adopted, circumstance will force pragmatic change and new artistry may sing for what newly surrounds it. The nostalgic vision provides a landing ground for the first footstep (the last flight!) – and one which can be communally understood. Time, and the contrary physics of 2018 will change it – but we can embark with genuine ancestry.

Where do we find a coherent model for a life without fossil fuels? For most of us in the developed world, it is not a case of greening how we live, but of abandoning it. Many of our infrastructures cannot be greened. They must be evacuated. We shall be refugees and foragers making the best of what we find. Why not pick up what is deeply familiar? Why not revive how our grand, or great grandparents lived – untouched by subliminal advertisers, or shadily-financed political punditry – sequestered from time, yet beside the same spring of deepest commons, which flow between all generations?

Are you ashamed to step backwards? Why? – The paths we’ve communally taken have been misdirected. It is natural to retrace those bad steps to the first solid ground and then begin again – first-footing into new times – not with last year’s embers, but with the last durable; the last possible embers to ignite a future without fossil fuels.

Look – here’s where we traded, once upon a time – from ports on every mile of coastline – the last cutters, schooners, brigs… – pinnacle of thousands of years of evolutionary marine architecture. Coal evoked new designs, which have been short-lived – scarcely-tried – just a hundred and a score years old, because they embarked to a backwater of no return. If we retrace our steps to 1914, when the last schooner was built in Porthmadog, we shall know where to begin with sea trade. Those futuristic-looking aerofoils on today’s (ill-fated) oil designs are futile – a reluctance to change how we live – just like solar panels in a retail park, or organic produce in a super market. To be sure, we have new knowledge of aerofoils and hull design from amateur racing dinghies and keel boats. But still, we begin in 1914 when there remained a fragmented, but still working sail-trade. Then we can adapt what we’ve found with the advantages of that new knowledge.

In 1914, living canal and river networks flowed to the sea. Coastal communities were also connected to each other by sea. That shore-hopping trade has vanished today. What’s more boats of fifty to two hundred tons, had recently been built in small ports and on beaches all around Britain by the communities which financed, sailed and traded with them – without advice from corporation, government or bank. Yes, by 1914 we find sail’s twilight years. That’s why I alight there, in a time still depicted by remembered anecdotes within modern families and communities, yet when the total domination of fossil fuel had not yet been completed.

It seems to me, that our schooner may be a paradigm for everything. Let’s keep 1914 as a destination, (conveniently forgetting the contemporary idiocies of the powers). The same acreage of arable land was easily farmed without either coal or oil. We had the steam plough at some headlands and a few small towing tractors, but their influence was insignificant. Traction was largely man, horse, ox and wind powered (though for machinery – milling and so on – steam and oil engines were already replacing wind, water and horse power). Major cities were ringed with market gardens…

Let’s consider crop yield – in 1914 average UK wheat yield was 1.01 tons per acre and in 2017, 3.36 tons per acre (Defra). It is a mistake to think that massive increase is derived from a similar increase in artificial fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and growth regulators. Since modern organic farmers often achieve 3 tons per acre (we have done so ourselves on an upland farm), we can see that the greatest contribution to yield has been selective, in-line, plant breeding – an advantage I propose to keep as I step forwards from 1914.

In any case, true yield is output, minus input – so that when we subtract the massive inputs of today, (their finite material, mass, manufacture, and distribution) we end with a yield which is probably much like that of 1914. When was peak phosphate? Of course, organic yield depends on a proper rotation – so reducing it, if we add that increased acreage. However, organic methods must maintain an optimum mass of soil fauna (biomass), while continuous cropping continually reduces it. We must add the negative of lost soil fauna to those inputs – or we can say, lost soil fauna is equivalent to lost acreage. So, as we retrace our arable steps to 1914, using modern seed varieties, we begin with the considerable advantage of a possible 3 tons per acre in rotated fields, which can continue growing that same yield from that same fertility. Small birds will continue their songs and Summer air will be loud with flies, bugs and bees. Of course, those regenerative courses in arable rotation will provide other good things – if we like eggs, milk, butter, cream, meat… However, in the UK much of today’s and 1914’s permanent pasturelands will prove more beneficial, to both economy and ecology (and photosynthesis) as forest.

Today, in 2018 futile inputs are destroying the ecosystems on which all cultures depend. They are also shrinking soil biomass – that is the capacity to grow future crops. If we shrink soil biomass, we shrink all the connections of a web in which Man is one very small part. For instance, soil fauna and atmospheric CO.2 are intimately connected…

Starting from 1914 and stepping into the future, we’ll find an abundance of market gardens and orchards close to cities and towns. Their labour requirement can be almost entirely human, with horse and cart to auction and street market – or in the case of London – barge along Thames, or Lea – along which the night soils are discretely returned. The market garden model is a better one than the field-scale vegetables and seasonal slave-labour of today. Our eco-modernist is polemical with population. I also – egalitarian, involved, ingenious (oil has no ingenuity) people will re-populate the land!

The horse will need her share of acreage but (along with forestation) will happily replace a part of that surfeit of sheep and cattle.

My nostalgia is circumspect. By 1914, enclosure and dispossession were complete. The dispossessed had migrated to the factory gate, or to the New World, or had been starved and evaporated from the map of Earth. Sheep had replaced people in marginal lands and uplands, the mass slaughter of innocent young men was about to begin and only wealthy men held right to the ballot. Women over thirty would have to wait until 1918 to hold voting rights along with men over twenty-one who had paid less than £10 annual rent. Six out of seven males, and all women, held no voting rights in UK (then called Great Britain) until 1918.

I bequeath no virtues to our journey’s beginning but suggest that from 1914 a road to the future is possible – cyclic infrastructures, though decayed, are in place for revival.
Coal-fired suburbia was already spreading along rail routes from major cities. Yet for all but the suburban office worker, both work and pleasure were within easy walking distance. The trades congregated in town and village centres. Local produce appeared in season, mostly by horse and cart, in grocers, green grocers and butchers’ shops and in street markets and fairs. The majority of those businesses were family run and many of them descended though generations of skill and cultural tradition. Those businesses and those cultural traditions and the network of connections between them, were the economy. Neither government, nor corporation had much part in it – only to fill the tea caddy, collect taxes (for war) and deny the vote to most. Church and chapel, meeting house, theatre, concert hall, pub and tea-room made other connections. Though on occasion, authority passed by on his high, dark horse, to the prudent doffing of caps, while land agent and factor swept in for the gathering of rent, they played no part in production. Their business was violence and consumption.

The rural poor had it harder, because they were more isolated and conspicuous to that violence. To keep a roof, one had to be deferential to the gentry. My partner’s great uncle was spotted taking a pheasant. He hid in a muck heap and with family help, made the passage from Liverpool to America – to escape the “justice” of an Australian penal colony. That was a story of many.
There’s a problem with the telling of history… and so also with how we’d like to make history. Still today, books are written, documentaries made, and classrooms taught – how kings, politicians, treaties, wars, generals and strategic marriages steered the passages of time.
We talk of fake news, but what if all our history lessons are fake? What if to attain that B.A. we must propagate nonsense? What if our whole modern narrative is fake and if people everywhere come to see the deception?

What is true news? – events in the making of culture and with that news, the possibility of an exited renaissance. Culture is what people do in spite of the powers. Kings, lords, lairds, squires (for UK) and corporate executives do nothing but extract various forms of rent and non-distributive taxes. Culture is what people do who make things, grow things, maintain things, share and gossip about things – that is people who both physically and spiritually are the culture. Culture is a living, pulsing, evolving thing. Yet how food was grown; how houses, bridges, roads, canals, harbours, ships, cathedrals… were built – how scarcity and surplus were exchanged – is invisible to historians, but for footnotes. History has been the accumulated praise recitations of court bards. The cattle raid of Troy was made an epic adventure, in which even the gods participated. The shining walls of Ilium are celebrated as a symbol for a great, though soon to be fallen power. But they were not – they were made by the dexterity, ingenuity and complex social fabric of unrecorded generations of busy people. Hector and Achilles, like Napoleon and Wellington, could scarcely tie their shoe laces, let alone contribute to a culture. Ah – you say, but we all have roles and one role – one small part of the whole – is that of leader. Right, I concede (a little) – but where is the record of the larger part whose lives have been coerced and parasitized by our celebrated elites and then hidden from posterity’s view by their academic, journalistic, or bardic sycophants?

The thing is, those history books lead us on another dead-end road. Because of them, we lobby governments, petition corporations and strike imitative, pugilistic attitudes. NGOs propose that to make history, we must behave like the history books and engage with the powers. But look at their shoe laces! Why seek to change what has, and can have, no creative power in the hope that it will mysteriously gain creativity by our instruction? We neglect our own parts in the evolution of culture by asking the powerful, who have not the means, (or attention span) to create a culture for us.

The culture which created climate change was not created by leaders. It was created by ordinary people, who did not pay attention to how they were led. Corporations and governments have not the skill to create climate change – to find and extract those sedimentary layers of fossilised lives – to devise pistons, cylinders, cranks and wheels – to understand compression and ignition – even to understand how money can be either put to work, or put to destruction… The powers have no thought of farming techniques, or of building ships to trade scarcity with surplus. They watch, preen and extract. Of course, there is fluidity – ordinary creative people can become extractive and powerful people can become creative – but nevertheless the pattern remains.
If we make a community in the woods, it will evolve leadership. Perhaps leadership is an essential part of human cultures – part of an inherited pattern of social behaviour. We have benign and malign leadership, so when we lobby the powers, we lobby for the benignity. But lobbying for social change is futile, since we, the lobbyists are the physics of the society that must change. Governance is abstract, people are real.

Climate change, trashed resources and cascading ecosystems are real and have been caused by real, ordinary people. Only ordinary people can pull back from that destruction. Ordinary people can achieve what no government can achieve – the evaporation of the super market, the end of aviation and the death of the family car. Perhaps a pied piper (leader) can call us away, but unless we do walk away, nothing will happen.

I say we recede into familiar community histories to the first sight of solid ground and then set out again from that original wrong turning to a dead-end road – which is where we stand now. We stand in super markets, jet the globe and polish our cars. Only we can stop doing so. We prevaricate to suggest that we must first ask the powers to ask (or compel) us to stop. We cut out personal guilt and paste it on the powers. But we (principally we) are guilty. It is comic to propose that governments should impose a carbon tax before we can stop burning it ourselves. It is tragic that we remain loyal to an entirely oil-powered super market to change it for the better by market signals, when our own town centre decays because of our absence. It is both tragic and comic to petition against that third runway, as we simultaneously book a business, or holiday flight.

We created the super market, the airline and the family car – we built, maintained and paid for them – and we populate them – thronging a dead-end road. What can a leader do? She can do nothing.

We must do everything, because we did everything. I own some shares in those four hundred and twelve parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide.


Featured image: Landscape, 1914. Author: Ilya Mashov. Source:

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

2 Replies to “The tales of history are a dead-end road”

  1. Kia ora from Aotearoa New Zealand, Patrick.
    Great article, thank you. The non-sexist alternative word for fraternity is solidarity. I found an inspiring example of what a new solidarity culture based on care for the Earth and people might look like here –
    It draws on indigenous traditions which have not yet – despite the best efforts of the colonisers – been destroyed, but it is also global in its perspective of what needs to be done, everywhere, to get off the destructive capitalist growth path.
    It took hundreds of years of ‘negative effort’ to get into the mess the world is in today, and I am afraid it may take as many hundreds of ‘positive effort’ to get to ways of living lightly on the earth and kindly with each other, and those alive today and tilling the garden of good change will not get to see it. But we know what we need to be doing now by way of good work towards that goal, and working in solidarity with others who share our vision is good in itself, and will get good results.

  2. Thanks very much Christine. I agree entirely.Yes, solidarity! I shall use it. I love the ecosocialist strategy & action plan – only skim read so far, but I’ve saved the document to read more deeply at a proper pace.

Comments are closed.