This is an extract from Patrick Noble’s new book, Reclaiming Commons, which can be ordered online here.
What of fossil-powered speed – the borrowed muscular lives of fossilised years? Do we forget ourselves in consequence?
What of two people walking side by side? They are more or less equal until they step into what money can buy – a car; an aeroplane…
What happens when the energy required for cars and aeroplanes exceeds available energy – that is, exceeds what is possible? Is that a partial recipe for equality?
But does that speed lead to a forgetting, not only of human speed, but of all human qualities?
What of the time between destinations – both the space/time and the space? Does shrunken time, also shrink space and so the richness of a life?
What of the purchased fancy of traveling between places, without the revelatory truth of the places in between?
If the places in between are a nuisance to be transcended by those millions of purchased photosynthetic years, is our knowledge not impoverished and our imagination stunted? Certainly, our chosen purchases must crowd out what is unpredictable, sacramental, revelatory, beautiful and true.
Listen, as we slow to walking pace, so the great mass of life comes around us in the ways we’ve evolved to live – in obstacles, delights, gradients, weathers, sights, sounds, scent… As we slow, revelation accelerates. That is, as we slow, what is human accelerates and swells. Also, what is possible, accelerates and swells.
Here’s something else, as we speed by our purchasing power, so we impoverish the passage of time. That’s as old as the oldest philosopher.
So, is slower richer in rewards and faster poorer – even though slower is poorer in money and faster richer? Is unnatural speed, not a perfect parable for folly?
May that (if we have sufficiency) be a paradigm for everything? – the poor little rich kid and the convivial cottager? – or, our current ways of fossil-fuelled life relative to a life lived within human limits? I propose that a future moral, good life could be very much happier – and happier for all, than today’s lives of copious consumer-choices for some and debt and anxiety for the rest.
What of the speeds of a lifespan? A journey passed without event is impoverished and empty. Is a full passage of obstacles, physical efforts, surprises and unexpected delights really less full of travelling power than the sleeping traveller purchases from those ancient fossilised years? Unless we move at human speed, can we be fully human? Can we think straight?
The office worker who complains of the slow pace of rural life is truly confused by the delusions of her speed of purchasing and speed of supply. That rural life is far quicker (in both senses) with urgency of confronted obstacles and the celebration of delights.
In a recent Guardian article, George Monbiot provides this –
“Guy Debord argued that “the spectacle” (the domination of social relationships by images) is used to justify the “dictatorship of modern economic production”. It both disguises and supplants the realities of capitalism, changing our perceptions until we become “consumers of illusion”.”
Let’s think of reclaiming commons as reclaiming past and future – reclaiming the flow of time. Let’s consider re-synchronisation of motion, so that lost things and places become apparent as they re-enmesh. Let’s become the beat of a pulse; the inhalation of breath; the sound of a footstep; the delight and honour of walking side by side with other humans and all the species, which together both reveal and partake in the unfolding of Earth-time. The enclosures fly past along the white lines of a parallel world that has lost a dimension. It is fast and poor. It flies past what is – a common and marvellous gift, to chase what is not – the consumption of a private, purchased and enclosed illusion.
Climate change is the last great sorrow; the divorce from time; the last cause of the first cause for humanity at least. Did we come to think of space/time – of the time-full morphology of space? It seems not. We speed above space, but that space became the thickening layers of the greenhouse. The strata of fossilised years became a new, atmospheric strata, and in the same linear manner that we flew from place to place, it weighed down the beneficent living cycles of the Holocene. We thought in straight lines and received them back like a cruel reflection, or final knock-out. Poor Narcissus.
We moved by the speed of many millions of fossilised Summers, in what we thought was a new Summertime at the end of history. We thought ourselves transcendent, but Narcissus was not transcendent. He was deprived of the wonders of sense, just for the fanciful consumption of that self-illusion in the pool.
So, if we can ingeniously negotiate the coming casino crash and its real economic consequences – of collapsing businesses, unemployment, shrunken tax revenues and in turn, withered social and infrastructure spending – if we can negotiate that, while looking out for one another, leaning on each other’s skills and somehow trading each to each, having divested from the casino – if, if, if we can, then we may find a world far more rich in possibilities than the one we’ve just left behind. We’ll have lost non-human speed and regained what is human. And we’ll have the possibility to end our further contribution to that highly-personal stock-pile of atmospheric CO.2.
Just as money flow detached from its gold standard, raced away as fast as debt would carry it, so our economic reasoning detached itself from reality. Aviation, the family car and suburbia are all detached from reality. They flew at unreasonable speed. Now (we hope) they are beached at the end of history. We can walk away at Earth-speed as history resumes.
In truth, money has remained very shakily attached to an unspoken oil-standard – hovering above it on a lengthening, uncoiling, debt-created thread.
We’ve a massive monetary shrinkage to face, as we pass through circles of Hell to benign, Earthly ground. First, we must sink though acceleration due to debt-creation, then through acceleration due to fossil fuels. We’ll find on landing, just the acceleration due to gravity and to life in all its forms. Money will be directly related to just the power of what ingenuity and dexterity can do – that is acceleration due to people.
Acceleration due to people cannot maintain the casino. It will crash.
We can step onto the common and watch our own footsteps either collide with the world, or else gently slip into it. As we synchronise with the clocks of other species, so a world of wonders can expand. The natural world – its crop-producing soils and so on – the potential for the happiness of human societies – will remain immediately after the crash. Thereafter, it can increase by regained awareness – by renewing lost intelligence. Powered by oil, we’d forgotten to be intelligent to our surroundings.
Meanwhile, the national governments we elect (Let’s hope. Why not?) can nationalise private banking and let money flow at the speed of human action within the natural physics of a national terrain.
Let’s not forget that money is a means of exchanging what we do to contribute to society. The money standard of a society is the sum of what its citizens exchange. Much of what people do, is not related to money, or directly to exchange, because many of our behaviours are productive, but moneyless. Our reward is membership of common humanity. Don’t forget those riches, as we descend through the veils of oil and debt towards solid ground. Meanwhile, personally, each to each, we can devise local currencies, so that communities exchange their trades in ways which are apparent. If my local currency seeks, let’s say, a wind turbine blade, and then finds it must use the national currency to purchase it elsewhere, then a craftsman from within the community may see that she must learn the skills. Thus, the community can become more resilient, ingenious and complete. Money cycles can also serve as cycles of recognition, trust and respect. It is only recently, that communities became dependant on “the kindness of strangers”.
The corporate stranger will evaporate as we divest from both corporate wage and corporate spending. Corporations were only ever the sum of our corporate consents. Now we invest in each other – in collectives of households on a common soil. We also divest from the corporate media of the BBC and the corporate newspapers – Times, Guardian… We disconnect from those trashy sounds and those trashy prints may mulch that weedy garden bed. Catch the pages as they fly too fast, on the malign wind of oil power and bring them down to feed the bacteria and fungi of good earth at earthly speed. As we enmesh with Earth Time, so past and future may become apparent and reasonable. At fossil time neither exist.
The human stranger is an exotic stranger with knowledge to impart and new songs to sing. Small and secure communities have almost universally welcomed traveller’s tales and travellers. Localism, or parochialism are also useful in our transition from fossil fuels and as a guide to the ways of life a particular terrain can support. They are a useful spur to shared celebrations of the fruits of a particular ration of Earth. Happy communities also have an optimum size. As we increase that size, so we increase unhappiness. Optimum-sized communities will also have no hang-ups to trading – in both scarcity and surplus.
And while it is easy to imagine a complete and resilient rural community, it is more difficult to imagine a complete and resilient city, sat within its city walls – I’d say it is impossible.
Cities are communities of trade’s people and trade, whose connection to soil is direct, through gardens and allotments – and could be more so, in the Havana manner. But for the most part the connection is indirect, though shop-keepers and street markets, through cultural tales and through holidays. Of course, all city people are connected to a rural ancestry. So, farms and market gardens form an imaginative (not fanciful) part of those communities. So, the culture of a city must include the cultivation of fields and market gardens to make the story complete. As Wendell Berry says somewhere – If you eat, you are involved in agriculture.
So, a town and its terrain grow a more complex identity, but nevertheless, a true one. We can understand how it works as a whole. Thus, a city works rather like a nation state. Probably, the first “nations”, were in fact city states. Homer sings the violence of their late Bronze Age activities. He does not sing of what and how they were created and maintained. He sings the idiotic exploits of their “warrior culture” elites. In truth he tells us nothing, but does so beautifully. And likewise, with the entire telling of history, from then until very recently. In the end, history has been this – the praise poems of court bards. It tells us little but war, invasion and empire. It tells us nothing of how cultures were maintained and created. Of course, nationalism is usually a fruit of those rootless tales – a rootless fruit – a perversity – and often, as we bite into it, a juicy taste for war dribbles down the chin – leading to further tale-telling of competitive trades and “injustices” to be violently remedied.
Anyway, towns and their surrounding terrains have an optimum size for conviviality. Of course, suburbia came with coal and must now evaporate. It is impossible. It needs energy which no longer exists. What’s the difference between my inter-changed terms – town and city? I’d say, a city is a town, which has claimed the status of state!
Does nationalism exist on the common? I think not. How can we say, I belong just as far as that negotiated, or violently-claimed border? How can we say that our national character has claimed it? Nationalism hovers over its border’s thin lines – with the substance-less mind of enclosure. It rarely celebrates the ration of earth, which is held inside. It is no surprise that nationalism often follows the dispossessed, who have a very small ration of earth. Equal societies relax a bit.
So, a quiet parochialism is about as far from nationalism as we can go. Parochialism is substantial.
But then, what of language; the breadth of its use and the richness of story-telling within it? That is substantial too – until we regard it as property – that is of property-holders against the bar, bar, bar of the barbarian. Regional accents lead to the same problem – they are culturally rich – permeated with the wealth of a region’s cultural gifts, but, once threatened, they can also gather at the thin line of a regional border – defensive – impoverished – meaningless.
We need to belong and I’d say a parochial identity is the most rewarding. It is fulsome. It is these things and the naming of them – a pub sing-song, gossip in our corner shop, familiar streets and buildings, fields of corn, meadows, woods, hills, rivers and the skills of the trades that are knit into the fabric of the whole – the warp of place and the weft of people. It is curious and welcomes the exoticism of strangers and traveller’s tales. If it is to survive, then it must live on the common and shrug off the imposition of monopolies, fence-lines and warrior elites, who still dwell in Homer’s fictitious Late Bronze Age, which has been maintained ever since, by bards, historians and the modern journalistic sycophants of enclosure – the BBC, the Guardian & etc. If it is to face a life within the coming and inevitable change in climate, it must focus entirely on what it does to maintain its patch of parish soils – that is: its cultural tools and their effects. It can emit no more CO.2 than is returned through its own, particular, parochial photosynthesis. That is a recipe for a busy and rewarding culture that can live through generations, and within its means.
CO.2 emissions are not a scientific problem, with a consequent, scientific elite to guide our behaviour. They are pragmatic. Solutions are revealed as we observe reactions to our actions. Scientists have not the depth, or complexity of knowledge that the craftsman has as she applies her tools. Science is useful – it adds to the breadth of a culture – but that is proper, detached and sceptical science. Today, we have a dangerous imposter – technology in the mask of science. It is dangerous, because scepticism is necessarily amoral. Once science acts, it must become moral, because actions have consequence. The imposter proposes that she can remain amoral, because she is Sceptical Science. She is not. She is unleashed and amoral Technology. True science is innocent and without application.
The finest technologies – the most fitting – will always be parochial, because we find what is fitting in a particular time and place and for specific needs, within a specific cultural tradition. Such tools may spread from parish to parish, because such needs are universal to the same changing times – and as we began, small and secure communities have almost universally welcomed traveller’s tales and travellers.
Some sweet day, we shall gather at the river and be renewed… The crooked ways will be made straight and the last fears unbound. We’ll reflect beneath the shade of ancient trees, that generations will rest there too – the common flow of humanity – passing in spirit from departing generations to the curiosity, ingenuity and dexterity of the next.
That’s what commons are – an inherited guide to proper behaviour. Because we also inherit the earth, commons teach maintenance of that gift, so that it remains as complete as we found it. Commons are a kind of artificial, moral genetic code for the anciently-learnt best behaviour of the species. As we accept the legacy, so our personal learning may contribute to it – that matching of appropriate social behaviour with the settlement of a community amongst the soils, minerals, bacteria, fungi, plants, fish, insects, invertebrates, birds and animals of which it is a part.
With the eyes of ancestors and descendants upon us, we also take up both honour and obligation as we embody their imagined footsteps…
Except that we can no longer conjure that day. The common – that is, the methods of convivial society, has been betrayed – the legacy cut short, by the most narcissistic and vicious generation ever to receive the gift. Without gratitude; without grief, we took the most copious gifts and squandered them. We betrayed each other and severed the essential curiosity for our settlement – our causes and effects… We took our rights – consumer rights, sovereignties and properties – and treated the common as an old and inappropriate thing to be enclosed and trampled by a right to carelessness. We call that sovereignty of carelessness, our liberal values.
Gratitude and grief – here is Andrew Cliburn –
“We cannot seem to grieve anymore in rich and latticed ways (in public, loudly, for long enough, or deeply enough) and we cannot seem to know that in gratitude comes the kind of responsibility that engenders the act of return. Thinking of gratitude and grief as twins and as totally necessary ways of being maturely alive as a human is no longer a given and probably can’t be until there is a reckoning.”
And the common is not a thing. It is a vision, honed, as Ivan Illich says by labour, craft, dwelling and suffering – that is, by time’s mutation of the nature of settlement. As we adopt the role of commoner and adapt to it – we find that the role has an obligation to observe – to be intelligent to change. The commoner is the species, in a particular time, in a particular place and with particular skills on which a particular community depends. The advantageous mutation of a community (and in macrocosm, of the species) is always a response to one pair of eyes and then another and so on. One pair of eyes, along with all the rest, connect humanity to her earth. Think of that. Without commons, we have a crazy casino, which most call an economy, we have cascading ecologies on which we all depend and so must join the cascade and we have catastrophic climate change.
As we sit amongst our consumer rights, corporate dependencies, intellectual, status and property rights, the likelihood of poverty for most and of riches for a very few, we have a suppressed yearning for what we cannot express. We cannot express it because the language has fallen from accustomed use. Nineteenth Century poets (following Coleridge) pursued the difference between narcissistic fancy and physically-inspired imagination. Ordinary people, like me, also know it – standing on the common – in the physics of reactions to our actions – those destructive, or creative actions, which draw a frown, half-smile, or nod from the ancestors.
The common is imaginative – it guides human settlement in the physics of changing landscapes and seasons. By physics, I mean all that can be sensed. By commons, I mean an intrinsic moral guide to negotiating that often unpredictable physics.
The common has kings, queens, corporations, journalists, politicians and bishops as its subjects. That is why we had the enclosures – so that the common could become subject to corporations, newspapers, television news rooms, gangsters, politicians…
Now, the common remains, only in billions of tiny (most say insignificant), scattered enclaves – in the “sanctity of the home”, in family anecdotes, parental guidance, celebrations and holidays. By that, I mean everywhere. It is plain to me, that those enclaves, or household-scatterings are the very places (I also suggest, the only places) where remedies to our currently-crazy ways of living can germinate, ferment and finally overwhelm the fences of today’s utterly-destructive powers. Or we could say that beneath the enclosures a white lacework of cultural mycelia can send fruiting bodies in the form of households across what were always, somehow beneath the fences, innocent fields. A contrary power, or new network of fences, will not achieve it. The enclosures are blind and unresponsive. The commons are the opposite. This is old as the hills.
I’m told, I’m away with the fairies – well, that’s also not a bad analogy. I’ll say this – there is no other way. What I mean is simple – not esoteric, or deeply philosophic – if I don’t change how I live, to accord with my intrinsic morality, and with – not my idle fancy, but my active imagination – then there is not a hope in hell for the success of my campaign to change society in the same direction. If I campaign for action on climate change by wildly jetting from podium to podium, there will not be a hope in hell of combating climate change. To use the methods and languages of enclosure to fight enclosure, only spawns new enclosures. We see that everywhere – New Labour politics destroys labour movements, “eco-system services” destroy eco-systems, “true-cost-accounting” destroys priceless commons, organic regulation of super markets destroys organic systems…
I think it is probably true that the established religions have all, once upon a time, been the formalised voices of the commons. Of course, that formality has led to dangers, as political hierarchies within religious organisations have come to “enclose” their status. Then (to use these islands) instead of church and state, we come to have a state church – followed by rapid enclosure of the last commons.
If we are to mitigate catastrophic climate change and also reverse the catastrophically increasing chasm between rich and poor, first, we must reclaim the common.
In our billions of house-holds (world-wide) we have deeply-intrinsic rules – these are heart-felt. We also have pragmatic and conveniently-changeable rules. We have a household economy (actually a tautology) – in which we fairly distribute rations of time (chores and pleasures) alongside rations of things (food, clothing, toys…) We have forgotten that this is also how a society can be run and that this is what happens on the common.
It follows that to fight resource depletion, inequality of distribution and climate change, we need look no further than ourselves. If we shut our eyes and then remember the voices of parents and the voices of children, we may find that we already know what to do. It is helpful to think, less of limits, and more of rations – rations of both space and time. We can love our ration – our lot – it has qualities that we can smell, touch, listen to, see, celebrate and share. As the physics of the world (which we can see, touch & etc…) reacts unpleasantly to our unpleasant actions, by all that’s holy, we can set out to behave properly at last, after all those wasted years of misbehaviour.
This is an extract from Patrick Noble’s new book, Reclaiming Commons, which can be ordered online here.
Featured image: Mycellium. Source