Friday, December 19, 2008

Prescient programming : Last week, Thursday evening revolved around the television, to the exclusion of all else: not an admission you might expect on a permaculture blog? It was definitely culture though, the denouement of the BBC’s excellent serialised adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel, Little Dorrit. In brief, it's about reversals of fortune and how characters cope with both poverty and wealth. The episode began with the sudden collapse of Mr Merdle’s bank, leaving the thousands of people who invested in him facing financial ruin. It was set around 1855–57; in December 2008, we learn of the fall of another financial empire, not of the fictional Merdle but rather a very-much-real-life Madoff and his fraud of around $50 billion, leaving some rich clients penniless. A case symptomatic of the recent catastrophic near collapse of the global capitalist system.

I think it would be right to say that Gabrielle and I inhabit the middle classes. Normally, we read of bad news but don’t directly suffer: there exists a comfort zone between bad news and personal experience. On Wednesday, following days of a fair ski-slope of a decent in the value of the pound, I clicked on the website I habitually use to keep an eye on the £ / € rate to find it had tumbled a further 3% during the day. (Our revenues, including renting out our holiday cottage, come in £s.) So it is beginning to hurt. I’m not asking for any sympathy nor beating my breasts but I’ve found the experience rather sobering and instructive.

Cushioned from the stark realities, many middle class greenies—which includes us— are encouraged to believe that we can consume our way to a better world: Buy Fair Trade coffee. Buy organic bananas. Maybe even justify a long-haul flight on the basis that it’s eco-tourism. But, you know, that really isn’t the answer, whatever it is that we buy. You’ll be familiar with the eco-mantra “reduce, REUSE, RECYCLE” but, I suggest, we forget too easily the first and most important of these: REDUCE.

David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture concept, has it as “refuse, reduce, reuse, repair and recycle” (Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, p 112). Now I don’t profess to really understand how Capitalism functions but it does seem to be predicated on consumption and growth—implying accelerating consumption. To quote Holmgren further:
The industrial processes that support modern life can be characterised by an input–output model, in which the inputs are natural materials and energy while the outputs are useful things and services. However, when we step back from this process and take a long-term view, we can see all these useful things end up as wastes (mostly in rubbish tips) and that even the most ethereal of services required the degradation of energy and resources to wastes. This model might be better characterised as “consume–excrete”. The view of people as simply consumers and excreters might be biological, but it is not ecological.

So we now have an extra incentive to reconsider our consumption. While I’ve got my head in Holmgren’s book, Gabrielle is currently studying Rob Hoskins’ The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience”. She’s been shocked by what she’s read and has moved from someone who thought she was pretty aware about climate change and peak oil to someone who is in no doubt of the situation, the challenges that face us and the need to take action. We’ve agreed to swap books when we come to the end and I’ll write again on the subject when I’ve read it.

Next blog, I’ll tell you how Gabrielle is still putting fresh green leaves-either as salad or cooked—on the table, two days before the winter solstice.