If the fossil fuel era has been about anything it has been about acting; doing. Whenever we have a problem, we do something. But when are we ever encouraged to reflect? When do we apply a filter to our thoughts that allows us to sort the good ideas from the bad? Rarely. Instead, we’ve papered over these cracks in our thinking with billions of years of concentrated solar energy. Fossil fuels have allowed us to be lazy, turbo-charging all our activity whether or not it is good or useful. But when activity is the sole measure of success, reflection isn’t valued. In political or activist circles, not ‘doing’ is likely to bring an accusation of failing to deal with a problem.
Yet I’d argue that our societal and environmental predicament is the result of too much doing: of billions of people acting unwisely and far too often. It is this fixation with activity for its own sake which has led to the squandering of our energy reserves and to the wrecking of a good proportion of the planet. Why this fixation with activity? In anticipation of something better, of course. If Western culture stands for anything it is doing to achieve; to get somewhere else; to move forward, to progress.
The cult of progress is, of course, based on an increasingly debatable assumption that the future is going to be ‘better’ than the present, and very much better than the past. The future discounts the present and the past; an idea that lies at the heart of economic theory and accounting practice. It’s as if any present or past good will never be as good as what will follow in an imagined future. In spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary, this is the assumption that our society is expected to place at the heart of its collective life’s work. Progress thus becomes the clarion call of those who would benefit from our ever-increasing activity and, with it, our ever-increasing dislocation from the rest of nature and the things that actually make us human.
In the unfolding era of scarcity, and with the real prospect of both economic and environmental collapse, I’d suggest that we will need to be much more careful in our thinking, and much less prone to simply acting. We need to be careful about how we respond to the challenges the future throws at us. It’s too simplistic, for example, to believe that a mass movement for this or a mass movement for that will be the catalyst for changes we might wish to see. Mass movements are simply another form of doing. They utilise the same reductionist thinking that has arguably created many of the problems we have to grapple with today. Mass movements, if they are to last, also require leadership. Call me a cynic, but arguably leadership, at least on this scale, always fails. We need human-scale responses.
In pondering all of this, and what an alternative might look like, I find myself increasingly drawn to the word refuge and the idea it embodies. The concept of the refuge – a place to reflect, collect our own thoughts, sift and hang on to the good whilst shedding the bad – could be a powerful antidote to the increasingly illusory idea of progress. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word derives from the Latin word refugium; re meaning ‘back’ and fugere meaning’flee’. In other words: walking away.
That’s walking away rather than giving up. The concept of refuge encourages walking away from a broken system and back to the things we enjoy and feel comfortable with. Things that do us good and things that make us human. Above all, fleeing from the things that make us unhappy and insecure. In a world that dances ever closer to the edge of the abyss, be it through financial meltdown, climate catastrophe or the implications of increasing resource scarcity, refuge potentially provides us with a unifying idea with which to abandon this thoughtless engagement in mindless activity, in the pursuit of limitless growth, dressed up as human progress.
Living without reflecting is like driving without looking. Refuge, on the other hand, encourages a collective dropping of the shoulders; breathing more slowly, counting our blessings, sifting carefully the good from the bad, doing things more thoughtfully, waking up and smelling the roses, or the coffee, depending on your preference.
In musing upon the word refuge, and thinking about how, practically speaking, such a concept might manifest itself in reality, I’m reminded of the role of monasteries in the ‘Dark Ages’ that followed the disintegration of the Roman Empire in Europe. After centuries of war, the increasing cost of maintaining the empire, infighting and civil unrest, as well as increasing corruption at the top of society, the Roman Empire slipped away into history. This is a history that resonates loudly with what we are increasingly experiencing today. Ask any Greek, ask any Spaniard, ask the countless hundreds of thousands of Americans living in trailers. Ask anyone in a queue at a food bank.
Barbarian armies swept in to territories previously held by the Romans, razing cities to the ground and squabbling over land and resources. Whilst cities lay in ruins, monasteries, often because they were remote, developed. Monks relentlessly copied Greek and Roman manuscripts, as well as holy books, thus keeping the nucleus of a future civilisation alive; sifting the good from the wreckage.
When a monastery was founded, many people gravitated towards it to enjoy both its spiritual and material benefits. In many cases the monasteries created the nucleus of new towns and cities. Monasteries became stopping-off points for travellers, fortresses during conflict, centres for distributing food in times of famine, hospitals during epidemics and neutral grounds for opposing parties to discuss grievances and make agreements. All of this was in addition to their primary role as bastions of knowledge and skills, and custodians of faith.
As well as preserving knowledge, the monasteries also became the catalysts for new ways of living. They were the inventors of rudimentary machinery, they developed alcoholic drinks and a wonderful diversity of cuisines, they researched basic science, they encouraged new patterns and methods of agriculture and land development, and they established networks of connections with one another. All of this laid the groundwork for a new European culture which emerged from the rubble of the collapse of Rome.
Today, the idea of the refuge encourages us to look back before we look forward. We have countless centuries of collected knowledge. It’s a library. It’s worthy of investigation. It has value. Like the monks that pored over manuscripts for days, weeks and years on end, the time we put into (re) learning from the past will sow the seeds of how we might live in the future. We need to be creating communities that look to the past and then to themselves for solutions.
The whole point of beginning to develop human-scale ideas is that no one person has all the answers. I certainly don’t. All I have is a belief that if we turn away and turn inwards we’ll start to address what we actually need. Of course I have some views about what might constitute ‘refuge’. Some are ideas already in use to some extent. Allotments, community-supported agriculture, urban agriculture, small local breweries, artisan bakers, farmhouse cheese making, artisan butchers, small scale bicycle makers, localised energy production, craft woodworkers, cob builders, timber framed house builders, small scale clothing makers, local currencies, and very many more. Each one addressing real human needs. Each one a result of reflecting upon the weaknesses of the prevailing system, the strength of more traditional methods and the necessity to put human fulfilment and, in many cases, some connection to nature back at the centre of how we spend our time living and working.
It would be easy to dismiss, for example, the growth in interest in allotment gardening here in Britain, or the re-igniting of interest in craft manufactured bicycles, as quaint anomalies. They aren’t. They point to a growing disquiet with what industrial society has endowed us with. The idea of working in, or on, such a refuge gives us the opportunity to develop a unifying narrative in response to this growing disquiet.
So where might we start? If you like, we start with our own personal monastery; the ‘space’ to reflect upon what we actually think refuge might look like. It could be a metaphorical space. It could be a physical space. We might pose questions such as: What do we actually need? What fulfils us? What skills do we have to offer? What do we think is worthy of investigation? How do we go about reimagining some aspect of the best of the past? Do we do it on our own or with others? We need to be honest with ourselves; this is partly about seeking out truths and dispelling the fictions we have had sold to us. We, all of us, have an inkling of what is wrong. We need to go about this with confidence. Arguably no one else is going to do it for us; no political leader, no mass movement.
Before you ask, I do have my own ‘refuge’. I’m using my near decade and a half of environmental doom-gathering to formulate an idea. I’m spending a lot of time reflecting on the writing of thinkers like John Ruskin. I’m pondering what human fulfilment actually means. I’m wondering if our environmental predicament isn’t simply a result of a bigger human predicament. I find myself asking what place there is for truth or even beauty in what we do today? I’m trying to connect this idea of refuge to the way I spend most of my time.
My work life is spent with bicycles. I’m grateful to be able to work with something that generally brings pleasure and is a blessing rather than a curse when we consider the many other ways in which we transport ourselves. I’m not blind to the shortcomings and impacts of an industry which is in general large and globalised. But I carry with me handed-down stories of the way in which my trade operated in the past and what place the bicycle occupied in society. There’s a historical perspective which is worthy of investigation. I’m reflecting upon what role the bicycle might actually play in our unfolding future. It’s currently a work in progress, but the idea of refuge – of walking away to some extent – encourages a very different approach to how we go about interpreting the future.