Mary-Jayne response…

Mark, you say:

“But when presented with a choice of hard work and sustainable simplicity, or resource-hungry luxury, I fear that human beings of all cultures and backgrounds are programmed to go, in their bulk, for the easier option. Whether Amazonian tribesman or newly-comfortable middle-class Chinese or Indian.”

Yes, most people make that choice, but it’s interesting what is wrapped up in your statement. When you describe it as you have, it paints a picture of humans being driven by greed, base desire and the easiest option. It makes all of us into ‘a bad lot’ and that we will inevitably decimate the planet because of the way we are ‘programmed’.

The time I spent with Helena Norberg-Hodge in Ladakh taught me a great deal about these issues. She set up ISEC (International Society for Ecology and Culture ) as a result of what she was witnessing in Ladakh, a Tibetan Buddhist community high up on the Tibetan plateau. Their borders had been closed due to their proximity to China. She was there when the first tourists came in late ‘70’s, and witnessed the radical change to their culture as a result of the influence of western ideals.

She also heard the same old phrase “Oh, well it’s inevitable that the place will get spoilt, it’s the same all over the world. It’s what the Ladakhi people want, and who are you, as a westerner, to try and stop them in their ‘progress? Which would you choose, after all?”

Helena was incensed by what she saw. This was a combination of at least two things:

· Ladakhi people who were seduced by the apparent ‘paradise’ of western lifestyles (based on tourists with apparently large quantities of money and time and fancy technology).

· Western companies who ‘pushed’ their products onto unsuspecting local people who simply didn’t have the info to know better (eg powdered milk is much better for your baby than breast milk; insecticides will help you grow veg….and so, on I’m sure you know the line)

She set up ISEC with the intention of introducing renewable technologies into the culture so they could ‘leap frog’ the industrial age, as well as consciousness raising about the ill effects of western culture – so that they could make a real choice. (and much more besides….)

One of the projects was to bring community leaders to the west to be shown our shadow side – I hosted a couple of women in the early 1990’s. They would then go back and tell the tales of anorexic women in hospital, people sleeping on the streets, sex shops, and so on. Not the paradise they imagined, (and of course not to deny that some of the great things we have)

The point of this is that it modernity would have us believe it has to be ‘either/or’ – either “hard work and sustainable simplicity, or resource-hungry luxury”. ISEC has shown that when people are presented with a more rounded picture of what happens when you take this path or that one, many of them make different choices – not about staying in the past, but about moving into more comfort without destroying their environment. It’s not that we are programmed for this or that.

Moving from hutongs to modern flats would seem like a very healthy choice when people don’t have the complete picture.

And onto your other point about what lies ahead. I agree – talk talk talk, build community, and prepare as best we know how. I think that the Transition Movement has all of that.

Hutongs and Lovelock – a response to MJ

My point on the Hutongs, Mary-Jayne (and see left for a 2007 view of the old simple-but-communal Beijing making way for the much-less-attractive new), was that most people in China and around the world would choose, rightly or wrongly, and whether to later regret or pleasure, to go for the neat, energy-consuming, marbled-floored suburban house rather than the hutong. 
I completely agree with you about the much higher quality of life and community, not to speak of sustainability, in the old ways. 
But when presented with a choice of hard work and sustainable simplicity, or resource-hungry luxury, I fear that human beings of all cultures and backgrounds are programmed to go, in their bulk, for the easier option. Whether Amazonian tribesman or newly-comfortable middle-class Chinese or Indian. 
So my blog question, what would YOU choose, isn’t really addressed to us white, middle class, Western greens, who now for the moment do have the luxury of choice (and how many of us, even green-minded us, have so far chosen to give up our unsustainable central heating, cars, travel, eating habits, lifestyle?).
It’s addressed rather to the primitive Ur-Mensch within us all which still craves the sugar, the fat, the salt, the warmth that would have ensured survival a million years ago on the African savannah. 
That why I believe that nine out of 10 would and for the moment will still – wrongly and regrettably, and in that you’re entirely right – choose the new build over the Hutong. Until we understand at a much more primitive level – and this is coming – that those choices will kill us. 
Now, science. I again suspect we’re much closer in our views than my sometimes black-and-white/desperate (not intentional, but a long-standing issue for therapeutic exploration after an early history of not being heard…) presentation of my own thoughts might suggest. 
It’s enormously worth reading Lovelock’s gently written but alarming new book, which I’ve got this week (“The Vanishing Face of Gaia“) where he challenges the reductionist scientific view of Earth systems (including much of the research that has driven the compromise conclusions of the IPCC) and urges instead something that hugely resonates with me, and I suspect with you, Mary-Jayne (although he doesn’t quite formulate it this way), which is an intuitive science based on a FELT understanding of the living world in and on which we live. 
And it’s that FELT knowledge that warns us – including in our dreams, where I have twice this week experienced being in an earthquake, once in a mud-built chapel, and once in a super-high-tech city) – that we are approaching massive and devastating change.
I greatly respect the spaces where our emphasis remains different, Mary-Jayne, and I’m very glad how much common ground there is between us, especially over the central piece of knowledge that very large numbers of people are going to die. 
That raises so many, for us green Westerners, uncomfortable issues, some addressed by Lovelock when he wonders how we on what he calls “Lifeboat Islands” such as Britain or New Zealand will decide who to allow on board and who not. The Titanic metaphor becomes ever more relevant, and it won’t be very pretty. 
Some quotes from Lovelock’s early pages, which (probably because I’ve learned so much from him) resonate with what I have come to understand.
Gaia, in Lovelock’s view, is now moving inexorably towards a stable new hot state, 5-6 degrees up on the present where she can regulate herself, and it is hubris in his view to think that humans know how to save the Earth. “The planet looks after itself. All we can do is try to save ourselves.” 
Lovelock makes for me the blinding obvious point, still very little discussed publicly, that “with our people, pets and livestock, we are already simply more than the earth can carry.” No voluntary human act, he continues, can reduce our numbers even to slow climate change, adding that we (and I think he means us collectively rather than individually) do not seem to have the slightest understanding of the seriousness of our plight. 
And what fascinates and possibly even terrifies me, Mary-Jayne (although curiously I don’t actually FEEL any terror, just increasingly quiet and deep acceptance/resignation), very few writers/speakers/thinkers in Western political or journalistic discourse (although Mark Lynas does of course in Six Degrees) so far seem to be addressing what this interim period, between present temperatures the new hot state, and especially between 7-9 billion people and a billion or less, will be actually like. And what that means for decisions that need to be made now.
If humankind goes down to one billion by the end of this century, as Lovelock predicts, how will we bury and mourn the extraordinary numbers who will die. A plague hugely more destructive than even the Black Death at its worse. 
And what will be left of our hugely complex and interlocking economic and social/political systems when 90 per cent of workers and leaders and farmers and doctors and builders are dead . Unimaginable. Or more accurately, too terrifying to imagine.
I’m aware I haven’t really answered your question, Mary-Jayne, asking what, if we ARE toast, we should now do? 
I suspect that as catastrophe begins to take hold – whether in 10 or 50 years, but it certainly won’t take as much as a 100 years – we will have less and less choice about what we actually do do.
We will find ourselves mourning not out of choice, but because people and Peoples we know and love will begin to die in large numbers, and that will unleash profound and predictable grief for those (I nearly wrote, “of us”, though that “us” is hardly a given) who survive. 
As centralised energy systems, transport and industry break down, we won’t have any choice but to refocus on renewable, local energy, (I’m at last ordering a solar hot water system for when we have neither gas nor electricity), on local food production, on organics and so on, and all the green things which are at the moment among many other choices we can make. 
The answer to what we CAN and MUST do, therefore, lies in my view less in the technical detail than in the emotional preparation. 
Which means talking, talking, talking. More important at this point than anything else. We need to be making connections, building communities and friendships. And being utterly, totally honest about the reality of where we now find ourselves. Even if we don’t all become Transition Towns or put solar panels on our roofs. 
As Lovelock says, “Our goal now is to survive and to live in a way that gives evolution beyond us the best chance.” A humbling responsibility.

OK – so maybe there IS more to say. A response from Mary-Jayne

OK – I said I was going to take a break from blogging on climate change, but Mary-Jayne Rust has come back with some important comments which deserve an airing and a compassionate response. No pictures on this one, but I’ll think of something for the response above…

Mary-Jayne writes: You compare the two living spaces in Beijing and ask: Where honestly would you like to live?

I’m not sure it’s so straightforward for me. I suspect there was probably far more community in the Hutongs. So while much has been gained materially, I suspect much has been lost in human relations. 

I completely understand them choosing the modern option, but while this may seem a good swap right now, I wonder what they will feel when there is no more fuel to run the VW in the garage or to heat the new houses. Perhaps in many cases the old dwellings might then seem more desirable. In Mongolia people are moving out of the city back into a nomadic existence, living in yurts, precisely because they realise what has been lost in urban life.


My honest choice NOW would be “the third way”, not old-style Hutongs nor modern flats, but carbon-zero communities where we can survive the oncoming onslaught as best we can. 

It’s a great great shame that the Chinese who have the vision to build the new eco-cities were not also the planners of zero-carbon Hutongs in Beijing with roofs upon which they can grow vegetables….and so on. 

No, I would have no desire to live in those soulless modern flats. I do understand why people chose that, but it’s sad, even criminal, to have been so misled by western ideals.


Now, onto another strand of this discussion.

We agree on Lovelock’s prediction that human beings will be radically reduced in numbers. Are you still of the opinion that humankind is finished? I suspect so. 

As you know, I don’t agree that we can be so definite. I think our differences are probably based on our different attitudes to science. While it’s a fantastic tool, I don’t believe that science can see the whole picture. 

I don’t think (concludes Mary-Jayne) I’m in denial about the reality of what we are in – just that we have different perspectives on it. It would be good to respect our differences of opinion as I suspect we will not persuade each other out of them!


Going Quiet for a While

With James Lovelock warning us in his avuncular way at age 90 this week that mankind is going to be reduced to one billion or so souls by the end of THIS century (and I am, as you know, convinced he is right), it’s time, I think, to call a halt for a while to climate change comments on a blog of which I’m probably the only reader anyway. (Prove me wrong!!)

I’ve needed to write this, and I’m glad I have. It’s a record of the key things I have come to understand, too late like most of us, about where we stand as a species, and what that means for us existentially and emotionally.

I’ll use this space in the future for further occasional musings, especially when cycling is involved (after all, it’s got it in the blog name), which it will be the week before Easter when I cycle from Carlisle to Findhorn in Scotland, for a week at the community there.

But before I go, I do want to say a couple of important final climate-changey things in this interimly last blog.

First, the picture at the top is one illustration of why I, with Lovelock, just don’t believe that humans will be able to turn the clock towards a non-fossil-fuel-based sustainability in time to save most of us. The view is of a housing estate in Beijing where my translator when we were in Beijing in the 1980s, a short 25 years ago, now lives with his wife and 10-year-old boy. 

As you’ll see, it’s not very different from an estate in Germany, and Xiao Ding and Xiao Hong have a plasma screen, marble floors, and a VW in the garage. They’re not rich, but they’re now well off like we are in Europe.

Now, on the right is an old picture of the Beijing Hutongs where Xiao Ding grew up and which I knew so well from my BBC time there.
Where, honestly, would you choose to live? 
And that’s a choice we as a species have been making for some 40,000 years since the invention of agriculture – as Lovelock convincingly argues, the point at which, probably, we put ourselves on an inevitable collision course with Gaia.
There’s much more that I could say, of course. But one final thought also, which certainly needs expanding and which I haven’t seen argued anywhere yet.
It’s a comment about the monumental failure of journalism on reporting climate change and the threat that we now face.
Journalists (along with pretty much everyone else, of course) failed to see and warn the world of the certainty of financial collapse during the absurd boom years since the end of the Cold War. They failed, as a whole and at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, in their duty to challenge the official line on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq – an issue where I am most certainly even more guilty than most, having believed Tony Blair and George Bush until well after the invasion.
Now, though, journalism continues to fail – although perhaps that might just be beginning to change, with dozens of climate change mentions on BBC Radio 4 alone this morning – to understand and articulate just how serious, joined-up and overarching the issue of sunstainability has become.
The coverage of Jade Goody’s sad impending death of cancer has been affectionate and kind, on the whole, and not at all out of place. But if only we were able to see how it fits a so much larger picture, that of our collective terminal diagnosis, and how little time we also have left. 
How it all fits together is an incredible story, the most powerful and important narrative since the dawn of mankind. And the media haven’t yet got it. Of course, once people start dying in really large numbers, not just a few hundred here and there in New Orleans or in Somali floods, they will. 
Death sells – and amidst the trauma and the collapse of entire groups of population, there will be some stunning reporting and images in the coming years.
So, signing off for the moment. These last few weeks of CC thoughts won’t, probably, have made a blind bit of difference. But I’ve got some stuff off my chest! 

Reflections on Tree’s Reflections

The hoar frost in this picture isn’t in fact from this last bout of cold weather, but from last autumn – a layer of beauty on the top, would you believe it, of a car outside our house in Cirencester, caught in the morning light. What magnificence there is in nature in the smallest things…

Tree, your musings have made me think further about how one does indeed engage in that pub conversation about climate change.

I remember talking on a plane to America (sorry!) a year ago or so to a very senior environmental official in the old Bush administration, returning from a Law of the Sea conference in London.

Now this was someone steeped in the science of climate change and man’s environmental impact, and with decades of senior administration experience in Washington. His tales were chilling of how, in the first years of the Bush presidency, he and his colleague at the Enviromental Agency were forbidden even to mention, let alone seriously discuss, the science of global warming.

In latter years of Bush, that radical position did soften. But I was quite taken aback by even this committed scientist’s reserved response to my own, admittedly intensely expressed, concern about what is likely to happen if there isn’t a very rapid shift in human consciousness and our willingness to make deep and painful change in how we live.

If even an environmental scientist like this avoids the emotion that comes with talking honestly about what IS coming our way if we don’t make that change, what hope is there of engaging the man or woman in the pub.

Perhaps, as you suggest, Tree, this will change when people start dreaming in the way you have dreamed. I have also had apocalyptic dreams, echoing the same sense of calm acceptance you describe. But thinking Carl Jung, these of course don’t necessarily relate to the end of the objective world out there, but also reflect work in the psychic Shadow. And so far, my own clients are not bringing their own globally-meaningful dreams.

So, putting it in neurological terms, we have to find a way of engaging people emotionally at an amygdala, limbic-brain level, as well as intellectually, without the alarm rising so high that the frontal cortex shuts down.

It’s clearly not something we can force. But like sitting with a client, as long as they’re willing to stay open to the engagement, the process will work its way through sooner or later. Let’s hope sooner.

Dreams and Reflections

In talking to non psychotherapists about climate change and what we may have to offer, I find myself thinking about the ‘one foot in one foot out’ dance well known to psychotherapists in practice. This building of a witness position averts the flip-flop from denial to apathy/despair.

But what we touched on in our talk Mark was how to talk about the subject of ‘we’re toast’ in a way that can be digested , that it can begin to be approached in some way that prepares people, emotionally to receive the facts…how do things become ‘popular psychology’?
Speaking to a colleague in the pub recently about the things that really bother me – how will I die if I DON’T know that the world will go on?…and what will happen if consciousness dies (in the sense of a narrative, witness, reflection). He had an overwhelming urge to run out of the pub when I got onto this.
In a recent dream, an apocalyptic scene- fire and eruption all around – I was with this family and the father was trying to find somewhere to lie down to die. I knew that this was IT. The End of the World. I was quite calm and accepting.
I wonder if it is entering the collective dream world. Do you Mark or you M-J hear of such dreams? Is this another way ‘in’?

Drought in China, and Understanding Timescales

In the background, with that response to Mary-Jayne now posted below, there have needless to say been some further interesting developments in recent days on the climate change front – with a view to the left of cooling steam I captured rising at dawn from a nuclear power station in Lyon, France.

First, this morning, we hear from one of the principle authors of the last IPCC report on climate change less than two years ago that the prospects for global warming and its consequences had been severely underestimated.

The severity of warming over the next century, said Professor Chris Field, will be much worse than previously believed, and future temperatures “beyond anything” predicted.

Interestingly, BBC Radio Four this morning placed this item second in the news after an account of planned employee bonuses to be paid by Lloyds Bank. Audiences and the wider global community still find it so hard to accept this narrative as overarching everything else – although I suspect that is very likely to change quite soon, as people begin to register the fear that is coming.

Second, one of the world’s leading NGOs dealing with humanitarian aid, the Feinstein International Centre in the US, has warned this past week that the cost of dealing with global warming-related disaster, already significantly on the rise, will increase in the coming years by between 32% and 1600%. And having attended a conference with these folk 18 months ago in the US, I know they think the outcomes are likely to be even worse.

Continuing, we learned this week that Northern China (where I was based for three years in the mid-80s) is currently experiencing its worst drought in 50 years. No-one has died, so in the nature of news, the story has had rather less attention than the Australian fires. But the underlying message is the same. Alarming shifts in climatic behaviour.

The picture here is part of one I took two years ago in that self-same Northern China, of a reservoir north of Beijing, the Miyun. Look closely, and you’ll see what’s left of the water that I used to windsurf on to the left.

In the 1960s, when the reservoir was built, the water reached up to the bottom of the second row of mountains in the blue background.

Today, even before the current drought, the water is almost gone. In a very few years, this and many other North Chinese reservoirs and rivers will be dry – and the region will be on the brink of desertification. I cannot see how Beijing can avoid becoming virtually uninhabitable within a few decades at most. It’s that bad.

Another thought. It isn’t just climate and rainfall changes that are going to render the wider planet uninhabitable. What has so far been largely left out of the public debate is the sheer pressure of human population – that algal bloom on Gaia’s surface. But could that be changing?

The BBC news website this week published an important comment, immediately denounced two-to-one as most intelligent reports seem to be by the usual blogger army of climate-change sceptics, naming what writer John Feeney called the elephant in the room of runaway population growth, and urging the environmental movement to stop running scared of this controversial topic. Well worth a read.

And in perhaps another indication that commentators, in the face of so much resistance, may just be starting to find courage to name the unnamable, you may have seen Channel 4 News on Friday night carrying a discussion on a new report by Britain’s Mechanical Institute of Engineers appealing to this country’s government not just to try to prevent the effects of climate change, but to focus on adapting to what the report called its inevitable impact, including flooding, volatile storms, droughts and heat waves.

The government should, the report says, take preparatory measures including building power plants at flood-proof locations, planning for rising sea levels and knocking down sections of inner cities to create ventilation areas to cope with the extreme heat. And if you think that the IPCC’s outside prediction of 6.2 degrees warming by the end of the century sounds severe, do read this Engineering report, which foresees rises in some parts of the inhabited globe, including coastal China, of up to 13 degrees and more.

Now that’s radical, fact-based and alarming writing. Yet, interesting, as with the BBC this morning, how Channel 4 needed to balance the determinedly serious comments of an Institute scientist with reassurances from Lord Smith of the Environment Agency, that the government was across this, and that, for example, the Thames Barrier would hold for another 80 years.

Ah, said the C4 News’ usually thoughtful presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy, so we don’t need to worry just yet?

And that’s the point which scientists, therapists, politicians, journalists, environmental activists, have to get across. That yes, we do really really need to worry, now. To the planet, and in the context of possible human survival as a species, 80 years is no different from eight. But how do we do this without putting people off.

If we don’t start to worry, quite badly, and name that worry, we truly are toast.