We don’t need more renewable energy to power how we live, but to change how we live so we don’t need that power. The power of fossil fuel has been so great, that no regenerative source can replace it. Culture is what people do. What cultures did by fossil fuel is no longer possible. Regenerative sources will change what cultures can do.
We’ll not achieve that massive cultural change, without massive personal change. We are social creatures. In me, is the template for the whole – I am society. Only by changing me – that is you and me, can we, all-together, change the culture. I live in the ways of the culture and the culture lives in the ways of me.
A culture is a collective of households (or nomadic tent-holds) living in similar ways, and within agreed restraints and liberties. It shares pleasures and also necessary pains. It is fortunate that new, or rather renewed restraints to how we live have the same behavioural limits, which were managed, celebrated and recorded by our ancestors. And so, at the deepest level, we all understand those limits – they are scored into cultural memory.
It should be a natural relief to step back inside natural limits. Limits have forms, sounds and scents – we can touch them – taste them. They should feel like home. We’ll be prodigals shuffling homeward from a wild fossil-fuelled adventure to finally open the familiar garden gate. There, we return to the judgements of aunts and uncles and neighbours. There are delights and comforts, but also restrictions. The same may be said for evacuating the wild fossil-fuelled casino, which most contemporary “economists” (even green economists) call an economy. We leave it behind to open the ledger of the household – which always was, along with all the other households, the substance of the economy.
A house sits quietly in its landscape of neighbouring houses, workshops, fields, forests, wilds, roads, villages, towns, canals, rivers and so to the sea. Householders use inherited infrastructures by similarly inherited moral codes. After all, we are all born into such a landscape – first negotiating it by parental guidance and then by rites of passage to the probity of adulthood. Both infrastructure and its morals can evolve, or change – sometimes by economic necessity, sometimes by common inspiration and often at a shallower level by the manipulation and coercion of elites. Packs, flocks, and herds of other mammals are similar to human clans in that all have leaders. Benign human leaders have followed those courses of necessity and inspiration. That is, they are happy for the culture to be generated from the bottom up. The bottom is where dexterity and ingenuity live. A good leader protects that evolution. Only then can a culture thrive – sensually connected through thousands of senses, to a naturally changing landscape – of weathers, crop yields and the testing of ingenuities. It is plain that today’s leaders do not protect that essential evolution. They pace the borders of a variety of enclosures. An enclosure is no less than right to amorality, freed from the ancient obligations of the common. It follows that our task is to evacuate enclosures and reclaim the common.
We’ll not reclaim the common only by negotiation with the enclosures – which is the course advocated by those who say we must seek social change before we seek personal change.
Necessity to act – let’s say on climate change – is a moral necessity. There is no morality in an enclosure – that is its definition, and so to act, we must step onto the common. That is a personal step, and hopefully, one in concert with others. Much of our hand-wringing and anxious excuses are at the tangled barbs and fences of enclosure. We say, we cannot act because we are dependent on a variety of monopolies. And so, we struggle to negotiate improvements to monopolistic provision. We say, let’s improve society, so that I’ll be freed to improve my own life – or let’s lobby for a tax on carbon, so that I may burn a little less of it – or let businesses demonstrate true-cost accounting, so that the extra price restricts my purchasing – or let’s pay a little extra for a ticket, to buy a tree, every time I take a holiday flight.
I see it as an absolute truth that moral commons bind societies and that amoral enclosures disintegrate them. I don’t say it is easy to stoop under the fence and back to the wagging, social finger of the common. I say that it will an epic adventure of searing pain and trembling joy. Sitting carelessly in personal properties and by our personal consumer choices, we created the culture which shook life askew from the quiet courses of a mutual evolution. We are not the insignificant, or lowly pawns, which need social change before we can change personally. We are full of ravening power. The respirations of a balance – the breath of the Holocene – that is, the loveliest breath of nature, which rapt, we hear at dawn’s chorus, or see in hedge banks of wild flowers, or as a passing cuckoo calls, we descend a hill, inhaling its scented turf, is coughing blood and fading, species by species.
Behind the fence, my oil-lungs breathe easy for just awhile, but this is personal. It was always personal. The damage is personal and the solutions are personal. Enclosure doesn’t say otherwise, only that we’ve the right to both say and do otherwise and that our right to dissemble is protected by law. Property law is a daunting thing. It also says that I’ve lawful privacy – that behind my net curtains, tinted glass, castle moat, intellectual property patent… I’ve privacy to do whatever I choose.
On the common, we know that our landscape – the one that reacts to personal footsteps – cannot provide the energy that oil once provided. We have personal senses to gather that knowledge – it’s in plain view. We know from the trial and error of a garden fork, that our small patch of soil, plus that additional acreage which grows our food, plus also our share in that small wilderness we cherish for personal recreation, will not sequester the equivalent carbon to an internally-combusted and oil/gas/coal/wood-heated, lighted and transported way of life. Yet that is the claim from behind the enclosures for offsetting, for national carbon budgets, BECCS and so on.
If mine is an ordinary household, then it can be diagnostic of the rest. If my household is unbalanced – that is, if it does not sit happily in its ecology – I can guess that the macro-economy will be similarly unbalanced. The larger economy – of parish, county, nation state, is always but a collection of households. Modern economists will tell you otherwise, because they think that the casino of land values, currency manipulation, money creation, share, bond, and futures trading, plus forms of rent, for status, for land and for money (interest is rent) is an economy. It is not. It is a casino.
In that confusion we find a simple truth – economies live on the common, while casinos are enclosed. That’s why there is no conversation between the two. The languages are incompatible. Morality and amorality cannot happily coexist. Of course, they do unhappily coexist – the model is myself. I am entangled in the wires, while the voices of the common – of the longue durée – of ancestors, descendants, neighbours… – call for me to behave properly. I am a twisting courtroom of denial, pleas, excuses, justification and guilt. It is not an easy thing to change a way of life that is bound in the familiar – family and friendship, wages, debts and duties.
Duties! – don’t duties live in the moral world of the common? Doesn’t family and friendship live there too? Of course! – We return to the household. Through the garden gate – as the gate swings-to behind us, we enter a world of families and friendships – of shared anecdotes, memories and future hopes – and of household accountancy – of the true economics of expenditure, rationing, capital and commons.
Have you not noticed that there is no conversation over the garden hedge between the sanctity of home and the wider world of the casino, which narrow casinoists, such as the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, have the affrontery to call an economy?
Climate change is the messenger that a whole economy must settle down, like a house in a landscape, within the budgets of its ecologic cycles. Otherwise, Earth’s auditors will come in to re-possess accumulated assets of fossilised years – not as gas and ashes – not as space, but as time – as the tenure’s end. That budget guides the true economic metabolism of use and return. Balancing household columns is the beginning. It ends in a similar, collective balancing of a social system and its collective economy. To unify our purpose, we live by inherited commons of justice and distribution. Commons attempt no less than fair shares of happiness within the restraints of tomorrow’s share. Time brings a ration, which commons define.
The common is maintained by singular commoners to the rhythms of days and seasons. Singular senses observe the changes and act on them in concert – in observed concert – sometimes rapid – at other times more slowly at a savoured pace. Just as a market square fills trader by trader at dawn, then continues to swell as town’s people stroll in, because it’s market day, or just as, one by one across a landscape, people gaze at the darkening sky, feel the first drops of rain and in sequence abandon harvest plans for a while.
Similarly, I must act to reduce my own use of fossil fuel, because I observe the climate changing. On the common, I act and trust in the actions of commoners. Together, we don’t petition an authority to somehow create a social system that has artificial incentives for us to act and deterrents to prevent us from not doing so. We don’t ask authority to tax fossil fuel, so that it becomes more difficult for us to afford it. We act because it is the right thing to do and because we are a part of what Victorians once called, the moral fabric of society.
Enclosure has no concept of time.
For most of us today, at least in Northern Europe, we are entangled in the wires of enclosure, while our hearts are tied to mistily perceived ancestral commons. Within the household, those commons are still brought out into the light and shared like those family treasures on the mantlepiece. Parental instruction, bed-time stories, old family adventures and holidays. It’s personal we say, work targets, rent and debt don’t intrude.
We don’t need more renewable energy to power how we live, but to change how we live so we don’t need that power.
Can we change a social system so that a whole society begins to do the right thing? How? – By military coup? -by clever use of the internet and thought police? – by fantastical dreams of the ballot, where we shout rather loudly at the hustings? Plainly, the answer is no.
To abandon fossil fuels and to re-learn what a living landscape can provide, we must step back onto the common. That is a solitary act. We do it, because it is the right thing to do. Others do the same. Gossip in the market square also says it’s the right thing to do.
That’s how I began this essay. The only energy will be renewable energy, and that can only support a far more modest way of life. That modesty will prove a source of happiness, because as our powers decrease, so the world expands – in all its forms and species in both time and space. Don’t forget that we’ll re-find a sense of time, which has recently been missing from our lives. But mostly, by personal footsteps we gain personal significance and worth.
My worthies, those synchronised steps can make the concert music of time, which oil enclosure once shattered to silence and ennui at the end of history – and they can make that old moral fabric sing with each contributory voice.
And listen, as the first dust rises from the enticing roads of Summer and you long to set out with that rock ‘n roll band, you don’t think of negotiating a rock ‘n roll system – you master your own instrument.
Featured image: Fence. Author: Julia Freeman-Woolpert. Source