Peak Moment 175: Time's up! an uncivilized solution (with transcript)
What kind of life do you want, and what are you willing to do to get it? Keith Farnish, author of Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis, sees industrial civilization as the most destructive way of living yet devised by humans. And it’s over: environmental degradation and depletion tell us it can’t continue. The system has myriad ways to make us believe we can’t live without it. But Keith believes we can - there are countless ways to move forward into contented, happy, and full lives. We can “disengage” and reconnect with the natural world, ourselves, and others. (www.unsuitablog.com, www.theearthblog.org).
Download the audio for this episode here.
Keith Farnish, Peak Moment interview: transcript of http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhKYHgxZBfU (KF=Keith Farnish / JD=Janaia Donaldson)
KF: Is civilization really the peak of human endeavour, or is it a dead-ended highway that humanity should never have taken? Some say that we have to strive to dominate nature, prove ourselves to be advanced beyond our wildest dreams, and reach for the stars. Others think we should perhaps spend a bit more of our lives just being human.
The day we lost our connection with the natural world was the day we started killing our life-support system. Somehow we have to get that connection back, because it’s probably the only chance we have to save humanity from our own destructive behaviour.
[Peak Moment intro]
JD: Hi, welcome to Peak Moment. I’m Janaia Donaldson; my guest today is Keith Farnish, who’s talking to us from southern Scotland via Skype. Keith, thanks for joining me.
KF: It’s good to talk to you, Janaia.
JD: Keith is a writer, an activist, and is the father of two girls; he’s the author of the book “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis” and I want to find out, what do you mean by “Time’s Up”, Keith?
KF: Well, I see two meanings to the phrase “Time’s Up”: the first is the increasing amount of information we’re getting about the degradation of the natural environment, the global ecology, the deforestation we’re seeing, the sucking of protein out of our oceans and it’s increasing pollution...the change to the climate, the peaks that we’re seeing in energy and other minerals – all of these things are showing us that the way that we currently use what we’ve got and, as far as I’m concerned, only have stewardship over, are running out; so, the way of live that we have can’t continue under those terms.
The other meaning is that we are living a way of life – those of us in the civilised world – are living a way of life that I feel, and an increasing number of writers and speakers and activists feel, needs to end. And, we’re not talking about humanity ending here, we’re talking about Industrial Civilization, a way of life that is the most destructive way that humans have ever lived.
JD: You know, it seems to me that for those of us in the civilised world mostly, it is unimaginable to think of going back to pre-civilization; I mean, some of our viewers say, “I’m not gonna go back to the Stone Age!” We can’t imagine a way of living other than what we have, because this is normal for us. What do you say to people about that?
KF: I can understand that. First of all, I never consider it “going back”. If we talk about going back, then we can go back to all other types of life that we’ve had – some of them that were worse than we’re living now, such as the terrible working environments that people had in Victorian times in most of Europe; you can look back to times that were so close to nature and so connected, that there seemed no other way that we could possibly live. So, to speak of “going back” really simplifies things.
There are countless numbers of ways forward that we can become, and we can choose those ways forward. We don’t have to sacrifice what it means to be contented, to be happy, to live full lives, but there are an awful lot of things that we’ve become dependent on that we feel we can’t do without; and that is a big crux of my argument: it’s the way that we’ve been led to believe that we have to live our lives that we’re scared of losing, not the things that make life worth living.
JD: Actually, part of what you’re saying is, “we think we need certain things, or ways of living”, and what you’re pointing to is a way of living that we’re more connected to our roots, to nature, is that right?
KF: That’s absolutely right. Connection is a difficult thing to get your head round if you’re living in the heart of Industrial Civilization, particularly if you live in a city. Connection to most people, I think, has come down to the kind of thing we’re doing now, which is connecting over the Internet, or speaking on the telephone, texting people or perhaps even watching TV – which is a one-way connection. But real connection is something that we’re naturally attuned to, but the way that we live now tunes us out of. So I’m at the moment lucky to be surrounded by so much birdsong, something that I’ve never heard so much of before I moved here; I’m surrounded by greenery; it’s chilly here, but it’s not cold; I can feel a slight breeze – there’s the earth under my feet: these things are Connections, and I don’t think it takes a huge amount of imagination, or even a huge amount of change to people’s experiences, for them to appreciate that either.
JD: It seems to me that, to do that we both have to begin to value and find ways to connect, or reconnect, what you’re saying, to the natural world and maybe to each other, because we’re animals after all – social animals...
KF: Yeah, definitely.
JD: ...and certainly I can imagine that our social networks are sort of a way to fill in for that longing for connection that we don’t have, but we need to live.
KF: Yes, social networks are playing an interesting part: they are a surrogate to community, I think. These social networks are, for most people, pretty global; certainly I’m a member of Facebook, I connect to people over Facebook, but that connection is, as I’ve said, it is artificial. It’s a surrogate for real connection. And I think one reason we crave the use of social networks is because we don’t have Community any more, or a lot of us don’t have Community any more – that physical connection to people that, certainly until very recently, was available to the vast majority of people. Maybe it’s because of social networks to a certain extent that we are scared, perhaps, of real connections; but I think there is an element of enforcement, that’s pushed us away from each other...that benefits the economy in general, or benefits the industrial system in general.
JD: When you speak of enforcement you actually land at what I think is one of the real gems in your book; you’ve got a goodly long section on the Tools of Disconnection – you start with ten, and I bet you’ve got more by now. The ways that, what, the system? I don’t know who, but a lot of “who’s”, work to keep us disconnected. I’ll read a few and I want to ask you about a couple, I mean you point out how the system rewards us for being Consumers, rather than community; and make us feel really good for really trivial things that aren’t essential in our lives - like our friendships with other people; and the illusion that we have a choice, you know, that you can choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee at the polls, but we really aren’t getting change – and we certainly see this, this year with Obama promising change but we’re not really receiving true change here.
And you also talk about how they lie to us, and scare us – we in America certainly saw that after 9/11 and the whole Terrorist Act. You have another one, “Selected Freedom”, what does that mean?
KF: Selected Freedom - if we think about what freedom really is - freedom is essentially the ability to do what you want but without affecting other peoples’ freedoms – I think that’s probably the best definition I can give. The kind of “freedom” that we are given in the civilised world, it goes as far as the point at which it threatens the industrial economy, to narrow it down to a particular thing. So, freedom to choose for instance, how you communicate with people: really, if you’re living in the way most of us are living, communication...we are denied just going out and talking to people, to being part of a community.
I’ll give you one example: so many people in the town that I came from commuted, and they went to work in the morning, they came home at night, they watched TV, they went to bed. We didn’t talk to each other. The reason they all commuted was because they had to earn lots of money to pay for mortgages, to support a lifestyle that they thought they needed; and so community didn’t exist. The only way you could communication with people was virtually and, to be honest, communication was severely curtailed at all – calling over fences was something that very rarely happened. So, freedom is something that we only get a very tiny taste of, even though the governments of the world still shout about giving other countries freedom, giving people around the world freedom – well, they’re providing a sort of “freedom” that’s going to improve the global economy, and I think that’s about it.
JD: Well, that’s a good point; I’m thinking about how, in America, people who are producing their own food, their own milk, their own eggs, the regulations are just closing in and closing in if you’re not part of the industrial agricultural system.
JD: You also talk about how they “Exploit Our Trust”, you know we trust, say, and I see that being eroded, but what do you mean by that?
KF: Well, trust is essentially about authority. The studies of scientists such as Stanley Milgram...psychologist Stanley Milgram, back in the 1950s were based on what he saw in the Second World War. This slavish obeyance of authority [to] figures that were in a position of authority – most people would think to themselves, “Well, I wouldn’t shoot someone if someone told me to shoot someone,” but people did. Ordinary people murdered other people just because they were told that was the right thing to do.
Now I wouldn’t go so far as to say that authority directly makes us do that all the time, but if you do a job – for instance if you’re part of a corporation, say you’re part of Data Processing within a corporation that strips the tops off mountains in order to mine coal: if you process the data for that company, you are really doing the willing of that company, the bidding of that company. People at the top have indirectly said to you: “It’s ok, it’s a job, you’re doing a good job, it’s important that you do it, so just let us get on with it,” and you doing your job is destroying those mountains, and trashing that environment, and you’ve obeyed that authority. So, you’ve done it as a matter of trust. And we’re trusting people; humans want to trust each other because humans are social animals. But that trust has been exploited.
JD: Well, we’re seeing that right now, out in the Gulf, and many other places all over the planet actually, is that exploitation of our trust. How do we...I mean we can see it, we can despair and throw our hands and give up about how do we ever find a way to live differently; but you’ve got some ideas. How do we get the kind of change you are talking about?
KF: Well, the first thing we need to do is recognise the position we’re in. The reason I specifically outline these Tools of Disconnection is to give open dialogue to people, to allow people to recognise that they are being disconnected; they are being exploited; they are being abused; they are being told, “there is only one right way to live.” To recognise those things is part of the battle, I would say. There are many, many important things we can do and...we can’t necessarily address each of these individual Tools one at a time, but what we can do is give people the freedom to understand; give people the freedom to at least acknowledge that these things are being done to them so that they can do something about it.
A very important way of dealing with this is by turning off the information flows that keep us tied to this system – that keep us in this position of trust; that keep us believing that we must be Consumers; that keep us believing that there is this terrible global threat called Terrorism out there. And these information flows come in the form of advertising, they come in the form of politicians talking to you, in the form of news, billboards...and these things can be disrupted. Now, in many cases these things [acts of disruption] are illegal depending on the country you’re in: the reason they’re illegal is because they are very important ways that people are controlled.
So, if you stop an advertising broadcast, somehow, then you have probably broken various telecommunications laws; however, you have liberated people – you could have liberated a huge number of people, for however short a period of time. If you can interrupt someone, a politician being interviewed, and lampoon them, then...you keep doing this, well in some cases it’s perfectly alright to do that: that’s freedom of speech. And if that politician can be made to look stupid then you’ve undermined their authority, and that’s an important way of breaking one of the Tools of Disconnection.
I could go on; I’ve written...I’ve outlined dozens of different ways, but there are many, many more. I’ve written articles about it: every month I put something on a particular blog of mine called The Unsuitablog, and people can join in; they can do things right up to very high risk things, but for the majority of people they’ll just want to do low risk things. But there are plenty of things people can do.
JD: What I’ve heard here is that you, what you’re doing is sort of drawing attention at the safest way...drawing attention to the lies or the hypocrisy or the, you know, just little moments of “Wake up!” What I recall in your book, and I’m guessing on The Unsuitablog, is you’ve got a whole range of things that are more or less risky; I’d love to hear a couple more that are sort of your...the ones you want to encourage people to do that aren’t terribly risky; that aren’t going to put us in jail.
KF: I mean, I’ve never condoned harming another human being; that’s for the corporate world to do, that’s for the military to do – it’s not something that I support. I don’t believe that “violence” can be committed against an inert object, on the other hand, and that may well be something that’s a Tool of Disconnection, such as a television.
But there are more subtle things that people might not have thought of: one of them is debt, and even in the last couple of days I was alerted to something - that was in, I believe it’s come up in the New York Times in discussion – about people that are defaulting on their mortgages. In some cases it’s the only option for people, but it’s a tough way out of the situation they’re in. But debt itself is a very powerful way of tying people to the System: it’s a way of really containing people into a way of living that they really can’t afford. Advertising loans to people is utterly immoral because it makes people think that they can live a way of life that they can’t afford to do. Now, you can counteract those ideas; you can make...you can talk to people about debt; you can refuse to take out loans yourself; you can pretend you’re a company that offers loans and then come out and say: “Well, actually, I think debt’s a terrible thing.” I know people who have used letter headed paper, and sent them off to radio stations pretending they are companies, just like the Yes Men do.
A lot of people may be aware of the Yes Men, who are very clever people, who pretend to be company representatives; and they set up fake press releases, and say what the companies don’t want people to hear. But they’re speaking with the voice of the company. So, these are examples of things people can do which really are...they’re not what you would conventionally call “destructive”; they’re not particularly dangerous, but they can be very effective indeed.
JD: What I hear you saying is...what you’re encouraging people to do is to disengage from civilization in as many ways as they can. So, for example, if you grow your own food or you don’t have to commute, or you’re not in debt and you build your own little house or share with other people, you’re just need needing civilization less. Is that, sort of a...?
KF: Yes, I think that’s a very important point; there are a number of ideas that float around this, one that is mentioned an awful lot is Connection – the idea of Connection that I mentioned. Ultimately, we’re trying to get to a point where people are more connected with the natural world, with the thing that really matters most to them. For if the natural world did not exist, then we would not exist and, surely the most important thing to us, is us. So, the act of Connecting is a purely natural thing. If there’s one thing that we can do that’s good it’s to help other people to connect; so, ultimately, I think that should be the focus of the work that people do.
Some of the things you mention, like growing your own food – they can just be an individual choice, they can be an individual thing that people do that helps themselves; but, of course, in a small way that does undercut the industrial market economy. If you can turn that into some kind of food co-operative then we’re starting to get things moving here. In the village I live in I have ideas about sharing food from peoples’ gardens, because everyone’s going to have some kind of surplus of something during different seasons. People grow different things, so if I’ve got a glut of tomatoes then I will offer them around, and people in return may give me some corn, or they may give me some courgettes – or zucchini – this is starting to get bigger.
And then you’ve got movements, like the Freeconomy Movement, which really does try and take apart the market economy and says: “Well now, I’ve got these skills; I’ve got these things that I can give for free – you have them.” And, if there’s something you can give in return then, great – let’s barter, let’s do it face-to-face. It’s not...you don’t need money in between; you don’t need interest; you don’t need corporations gaining profit: that’s not what life’s about. This is just real life and there’s way to get it that are pretty simple.
JD: What you’re doing, of course, in that movement, is not only stepping aside from the market economy – you are building community, and connections with each other.
KF: Yes, that’s right. It’s all...as I said, there’s lots of ideas that float around but they do come together; and that undercutting the market economy, while at the same time creating connections with each other – it’s a very powerful force. I gave a talk this weekend at a festival called Uncivilisation; a couple of people commented afterwards, on their blogs: “Oh, it was rubbish; you didn’t give anything that was really hard-hitting. What does he mean by Undermining?” I don’t think they got it: there is this idea that somehow, as you mentioned blowing up dams – yeah! Blowing up dams, if they’re destroying watercourses then in some cases it may be the only option; but it’s a very dangerous option, and it’s not something anyone could ever do lightly.
Whereas something as simple as creating a food community – it seems weak to someone who only recognises activism as being “breaking things”; well, you can break things without actually physically attacking them. You can damage the market economy simply by doing things that come perfectly natural to communities.
JD: In a way, what you’re saying is: “I’m going to take my toys and not play with you”, to the industrial masters. “I’m going to take my toys and go play with my neighbours, family and the natural world that supports me.” Because it’s not going to tolerate the kind of toxicity and pollution and the destruction we’re making for all the other creatures, either – for long.
KF: Yeah, I’m not saying it’s something that everyone can do easily, particularly if you do live in a city; particularly if you are in heavy debt. Of course there are outlets for everyone, as I’ve mentioned, but talking like this it does seem very easy to think: “Oh, let’s just move out of it – just go somewhere else.” Well, sometimes...leaps of faith may be necessary; sometime’s you’ll need to do something that will feel like a genuine loss at first and I’m not going to say to anyone what I’m saying is immediately the best thing for you.
However, it’s really important to think: in the longer term, what is the best thing for you? Is it continuing the way of life that we are doing – and I’m not just talking about the destructive global massacre that’s taking place; I’m talking about the way of life that means spending fifty, sixty, seventy hours working in wage slavery and coming home and all you’ve got is a television set that’s beaming adverts in your face. And I don’t think that’s any kind of life. So really it’s worth asking yourself: “What kind of life do you want and what will you do to try and get a real life back?”
JD: That’s wonderful; that’s beautiful: “What’s a real life to you?” [Turns to camera] What’s a real life to you, and how do you get it back. I like that question. Keith, thank you, this has been a wonderful conversation and thank you for your book, your Unsuitablog as well as your Earth Blog. We’ll look forward to hearing more from you as you do that yourself in your new location in Scotland. Thank you for joining me.