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Anger Is Good

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Why wait?

It took me a long time to realise that what I thought was my own free will was actually a mercilessly manipulated and largely predetermined way of living my life: “free will” was whatever this civilization told me was the “right” way to live. It took me even longer to accept that I didn’t have to live this way – that there was a multitude of other paths that my life could take, if only I could shake off the devil that seemed to cling to my back, always urging me to follow the “right” way; the way of the machine, the way of economic growth and the way of the cosy disconnected existence.

Then I got angry.

A few years ago, anger wasn’t something I considered to be helpful. My five years as a Greenpeace activist contributed to perhaps one slight change: a number of timber merchants would no longer stock illegally harvested tropical hardwood. More significantly I learnt about Non Violent Direct Action, or NVDA, a concept first introduced by the religious Quaker group, and adopted by a number of protest organisations around the world during the 20th century. The essence of NVDA is to ensure that whatever you are doing does not result in violence of any sort. Of course definitions of violence vary widely, with many environmentalists and environmental groups claiming that violence can be committed against not only people and other animals, but also inanimate objects. This is the view that most Western governments also hold. On the other hand, destroying a piece of machinery in order to prevent the discharge of a toxic substance – is that violence? Agreement won’t be coming along any time soon; but my experience in carrying out NVDA was that neither violence (against both animate and inanimate targets) nor anger would be tolerated: the two seemed to be tied up together to such an extent that on numerous occasions, activists were implored to “calm down” by others carrying out the same action, lest they do something they might regret later. This mantra of non-violence and non-anger burrowed into my head and stuck there; it took something startling to shift it.

A Corporation is a company that has the same rights as a human being – more so, in fact. In most Western legal systems, corporations are given preferential legal treatment compared to individual members of the public, especially when it comes to the enforcement of environmental and human rights legislation. The key to this is something called “limited liability”, which all corporations are now subject to: it means that the shareholders of a corporation are only liable for the proportion of the corporation that they own; in effect, the responsibility for the actions of the corporation as a whole is split amongst, potentially, millions of individuals. On the other hand a corporation, as a whole, can act as an individual. Noam Chomsky explains that up to the 19th century:

Corporations, which previously had been considered artificial entities with no rights, were accorded all the rights of persons, and far more, since they are “immortal persons” and “persons” of extraordinary wealth and power. Furthermore, they were no longer bound to the specific purposes designated by State charter, but could act as they chose, with few constraints.
(Noam Chomsky, “Market Democracy in a Neoliberal Order: Doctrines and Reality”)

The upshot of this is clear to anyone who follows the activities of corporations around the world: environmental negligence, corruption, labour abuses and scant regard for the rights of individuals. It was while watching The Corporation, an astonishingly thought-provoking documentary that I came across some of the very worst examples of corporate excess: those activities that take absolutely no account of the rights of individuals. I was particularly struck by the way that the people of the city of Cochabamba in Bolivia had fought back against both the corrupt actions of the city authorities and the profit-hungry motives of the services multinational Bechtel. In 1999 the World Bank provided a loan to the Bolivian government in return for which the government had to privatise all municipal water supplies – the contract for Cochabamba went to a Bechtel-owned consortium called Aguas de Tunari, which immediately put into effect strict control measures. When a private company is granted such control over one of the most basic human needs that it becomes illegal even to store the water which collects on the roof of your house, and you have to spend 20-30 percent of your income just on water bills, something is bound to give. What did give was the patience of the residents who – by enacting two general strikes and complete stoppages of the transportation network, as well as countless minor acts of sabotage and refusal to cooperate with the authorities – reclaimed their rightful authority over the city’s water supply. In answer, “The government responded with police, tear gas, and bullets as well as the repeated detention of civil society leaders.”

Despite the predictable and heavy-handed response of the authorities, the people won out, and Bechtel were banished, leaving a city authority very much with its tail between its legs. The reason the people of Cochabamba were so successful in their concerted efforts, both in scale and execution, was because they got angry – something snapped inside a great many people and that anger was realised through the power of their actions. Had the people not got angry then Bechtel would still control the water supply, and the outcome in terms of public health could have been horrendous.

This pattern is repeated throughout the world, throughout history: the participants of the 1381 English Peasants Revolt were angry; the working class French revolutionaries of 1789 were angry; the Tree Huggers of Northern India were angry. Success is not guaranteed, but unless the people themselves realise the problem, and understand that they can fix it, then the problem will never go away. Conversely, if the people understand the problem, know there is a fix, and have enough of their own drive and spirit to counter the cynical and barbaric Tools of Disconnection applied on behalf of Industrial Civilization, then they can fix the problem.


What Is Anger?

Strip away any of the connotations freely and often ludicrously associated with anger, and what it left is something surprisingly sober: anger is a protective instinct.

When answering perhaps the most important question of all: “What matters to us?” there are few responses that could be considered truly universal. Our most fundamental biological urges lead us to value family, and particularly our immediate descendents above all else; and despite the Industrial Machine insisting that divisive material gain is a virtue, we still deeply value friends, and those other people we depend upon, and who depend upon us. We also value ourselves: a fist to the face is guaranteed to be parried by the object of that assault, and a lethal attack will be met with a similarly lethal response – all other things being equal. And we value our natural ecosystem: the beautifully complex set of interactions between its multifarious elements that keep us alive. Yes, we really do – even though we often act as though we don’t.

What makes us angry is when the things we value are threatened. This is human nature: it is survival, and without this response we are little more than machines.

*   *   *

There are two types of anger, Constructive and Destructive. By Constructive Anger, I don’t mean the kind that makes you build a sandcastle with a billowing flag on it saying, “Save Our Crumbling World!” On the other hand, by Destructive Anger I don’t mean going around with steam coming out of your ears breaking and hitting everything that gets in your way – although it could mean that; it depends on the context.

Destructive Anger doesn’t achieve anything useful, and can sometimes make things worse than they already are. Interestingly, this means that the vast majority of protest marches, rallies and other symbolic events, if fuelled by anger, are destructive. Constructive Anger, on the other hand, does achieve something useful – even if it may not be exactly what was originally intended. For instance, if all the evidence you have to hand suggests that removing a sea wall or a dam will have a net beneficial effect on the natural environment then, however you go about it – explosives, technical sabotage or manual destruction – the removal would be a constructive action. If this action was fuelled by anger then your use of explosives involved Constructive Anger.

Much is written about anger being a negative emotion. I was moved to publish this essay by the appearance ofa short piece equating reactionary rage and destructive violence with the deep-seated emotional anger response:

If you didn’t realize it after Nopenhagen and the tea party protests, and the incessant rage on AM radio, we’re definitely in the anger phase folks, and it’s only going to get worse. The battle lines of ideology have been drawn. Even people we used to think were on “our” side may turn out to have irreconcilable differences once they realize the only choices they have are to double-down on BAU or to powerdown.

And I’m sorry to say that the environmentalists are going to be in trouble if they just lower themselves to this sorry level of vitriol.

I’m afraid that this sort of crisis of confidence may indeed lead to violence. If the country practically tore itself to pieces over something as simple as healthcare, how can we stay unified and bring all hands on deck in the face of peak oil and ecological collapse?

Such confusion over what anger really is has been spattered over the pages of self-help books for many years, the “anger is bad” mantra more recently becoming a mainstay of the environmental blogosphere. When quotes like Senaca’s “The best cure for anger is delay” and Ben Franklin’s “Whatever is done in anger ends in shame” are seen as a way of reasoning against one of our most powerful instinctive urges, then we clearly have lost sense of what it means to be human.

These negative connotations of anger, in particular their relationship with violence, are predominantly cultural. At the beginning of the 20th century, many American psychologists decided that all human emotions – rather than being a complex mix of internal and external, subjective and objective, conscious and unconscious – were only relevant if they could be observed objectively. Although Behaviourism, as it was called, came under increasing attack in the late 20th century for neglecting not just consciousness, but feelings, it shaped much subsequent psychology, and thus shaped the way society observes and understands itself. The simplification of emotion suited the development of “advanced” Western society perfectly: intense emotions, rather than being a poorly understood, often very personal manifestation of the human condition, could now be palmed off as “reptilian” or “primitive”. Rather than treating uncontrollable emotions in a holistic way, they were “treated” using barbaric, physical techniques including enforced isolation, lobotomy and electro convulsive therapy. This fear of the primitive and the need to defeat it is reflected in the views of earlier Enlightenment thinkers, such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes, who held the kind of ideas that Industrial Civilization embraced and increasingly used against nature:

The Enlightenment period saw nature as a dead and mechanical world, a view that permits people to think of ecosystems and their inhabitants as mere resources for human use. The ultimate purpose of this mode of thinking is absolute control over both living beings and material nature.

Francis Bacon, for example, hoped to conquer and subdue nature and “to shake her to her foundations.” For Descartes, animals were “soulless automata” and their screams in death the mere clatter of gears and mechanisms. Indeed, in this view, nature is nothing but a machine.
(Franz J. Broswimmer, “Ecocide”)

These views would seem astonishing if they were not intrinsic components of our cultural way of thinking. The understanding that emotions, such as anger, are not simply rabid, “primitive” urges, but are in fact complex things that require a deeper sense of awareness to fully appreciate, brings us full circle. The notions of Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers, such as Isaac Newton, are indeed enlightening, but not in the intended sense: they reveal a deep distrust and fear of being part of nature, as though somehow being connected to it was a real temptation that they were scared of succumbing to. Industrial Civilization, as promoted by the views of the Enlightenment thinkers and enforced by countless players all becoming gradually addicted to the trappings of a certain way of life, demands that we remain separated and terminally disconnected from the very thing which we need to survive. Anger is a burning fuse that can either be extinguished or allowed to trigger something bigger.


Sublimating Change

When I watch a protest march on the news, and the organisers talk up the success of the protest, the word that immediately comes to mind is “sublimation”.

One will find hundreds, sometimes thousands, assembled in an orderly fashion, listening to selected speakers calling for an end to this or that aspect of lethal state activity, carrying signs “demanding” the same thing…and – typically – the whole thing is  quietly disbanded with exhortations to the assembled to “keep working” on the matter and to please sign a petition.

Throughout the whole charade it will be noticed that the state is represented by a uniformed police presence keeping a discreet distance and not interfering with the activities. And why should they? The organizers will have gone through “proper channels” to obtain permits. Surrounding the larger mass of demonstrators can be seen others…their function is to ensure the demonstrators remain “responsible,” not deviating from the state-sanctioned plan of protest.
(Ward Churchill, “Pacifism as Pathology”)

Ward Churchill’s brilliant portrayal of legal protest - particular the gaseous dissipation of the protestors at the end - demonstrates how symbolic actions (as opposed to those which achieve something) are merely a way of making people feel better; helping them bypass any useful emotions and instead, harmlessly drifting away. When you take part in a protest that does not directly threaten the thing you are protesting against, you are simply sublimating any anger you might have into whatever symbolic acts you have been led to believe will lead to change.

This process of sublimation is repeated in all facets of Industrial Civilization, from the Government Consultation and the Parliamentary Process through to apparently useful tools as Judicial Review and industrial Whistleblowing; all chances of real change are prevented by an array of gaping holes, channelling our anger into “constructive” activities. Because we followed the recommended course of action – the peaceful alternative - we feel sated and content that right has been done, even when nothing has been achieved.

*   *   *

The First World War, or Great War, was terrible in more ways than it is possible for a sane person to imagine. Emotional expression was a necessary outlet, and many poets emerged from this futile and politically motivated war; among them Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Both were talented and, significantly, both experienced the horrors of war on the front line, profoundly affecting them. Of the two, it was Wilfred Owen, the less financially privileged, though eventually a great friend of Sassoon, who made the greatest impression on the public. Undoubtedly charged with anger, his poems are an attempt to expose war for what it is and allow others to understand it. Generally recognised as his finest poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est reflected his “shift in tone from personal questioning to righteous anger”; an inflammatory “How dare you subject others to this!” that changed peoples’ perception of war forever:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The words, “Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori” mean “it is sweet and right to die for your country.” Owen realised that no war was worth the kind of suffering that his colleagues had to endure. In the three short verses that comprise that poem, Wilfred Owen used his anger to change the future: no longer would people willingly and blindly accept bloody battle – war would no longer be the easy option.

There are hints that suggest the power of anger as a motivation for positive action, throughout the visual arts, films, theatre and literature – artistic outpourings that often short-circuit the cultural limitations in which we live the majority of our lives. You find them everywhere. Contained in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” - a monumental story of lost ideals and corporate power – is the following passage:

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves.

Who are the majority? They are the cold people; those that have accepted the way it has to be and got on with their lives, doing what the culture tells them to do. The kind people understand that there is a better way to act, and they treat others with respect; but they are not angry – they will not change anything. The kind people are like those who march, and petition, and hope that things will get better. The angry people understand that there is a better way to live. The angry people are different: they have the potential to change things because they do not meekly accept the circumstances that civilization has forced upon them.

The predefinition of anger I am proposing – returning the word to its rightful meaning – is as marked as the negative idea of civilization that many people reading this have already adopted, and which runs counter to the way we are taught to think from birth. Maybe we do need to find other words that can legitimately describe anger-type behaviour that is not constructive; but outside the realm of psychosis I believe there are situations where even the most profound forms of rage have a constructive application. We must not be afraid of anger: use it wisely by all means, but use it nonetheless.


A different version of this essay formed the chapter “Getting Angry” in the online version of Time’s Up! (called “A Matter of Scale”). It acts as a preface to the final section of the book.

Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in the USA, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Scotland with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.

The Tools of Disconnection: Part 4

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Connection: A state of empathy with, and understanding of our critical dependence on the natural world and other human beings. This is the natural state of human beings.

Disconnection: The inability to relate to, or understand the natural world and humans’ critical dependence on it. This is the normal state of civilized humans.

Tool of Disconnection: A device by which humans are disconnected from, and prevented from being reconnected to, the natural world and other human beings.


Tool of Disconnection 9: Abuse Us

Just another day in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest: the dank, humid air hangs like lianas, the moisture dripping from leaf to branch and down onto the shady litter-strewn soil; insects feed on plant matter, and themselves are preyed upon by birds – the tumult of the deep dense forest being heard for miles; chainsaws buzz and scream as they carve up massive trunks, leaving behind acid, infertile soil that may never again be fertilized by the tree canopy; Dorothy Stang, an American nun, defending the same area of forest she had defended for 20 years, is shot six times – murdered in cold blood by a hit man hired by a cattle rancher, determined to ensure that this swathe of forest can be cleared and grazed for a healthy profit.

The men directly responsible for Dorothy Stang’s murder in 2005 were eventually prosecuted and sentenced, but it took another two years for the cattle rancher who ‘owned’ (or rather, took from the native inhabitants) the land, to be prosecuted. In fact, despite nearly 800 people having been killed in the heavily forested Para region of Brazil in land disputes, only four people have ever been convicted: “Intimidation by loggers and land-grabbers, corrupt local authorities and a lack of law enforcement resources mean that many of these cases go uninvestigated and unsolved. Meanwhile, the decimation of the Amazon continues at alarmingly high rates.” What you will never see is the conviction of anyone higher up the ladder than the rancher – the chain of responsibility ends where it connects to those who have a significant part to play in the global economy: these people will never be held to account. The simple fact is that corporate leaders invest in wholesale human misery and, where required, they will initiate and then ignore the slaughter that is invariably the outcome of their activities – euphemistically known as ‘turning a blind eye’. This slaughter is not necessarily the pernicious, gradual type either – the roasting of the planet, or the toxification of the land and the oceans – some forms of corporate slaughter are very much in the open and visible to all. These most visible forms of corporate slaughter have almost always been state-sanctioned.

The British colonial slave trade, and the use of slaves as a form of cheap (free) labour, which persisted throughout the 18th and 19th century in order to provide a ready supply of exotic foods for the public and vast financial rewards for the companies involved, was readily sanctioned and overseen by the British government. The brutality of the West Indian plantations, which were the source of the British companies’ riches (and not just companies, for the Church of England were the landowners of one of the most notorious plantations, at Codrington in Barbados), led to a death toll that we would now call genocide:

When slavery ended in the United States, less than half a million slaves had grown to a population of four million. When it ended in the British West Indies, total slave imports of well over two million left a surviving slave population of only about 670,000. . . . The Caribbean was a slaughterhouse.

If you are under any illusions that such corporate and state-sanctioned atrocities are no more, think again. The mining companies’ destruction of the native West Papuans’ forest – their means of survival – was, as discussed in Chapter 11, ably assisted by the Suharto government of Indonesia. The continued, senseless slaughter of thousands of Sudanese in the oil-rich Darfur region is regarded by both the Sudanese government (who are gaining tremendous wealth from oil sales) and the Chinese government (who have an insatiable thirst for oil) as an unavoidable consequence of economic activity.35 Arms companies throughout the USA have benefited tremendously from the purchase of billions of dollars worth of weapons by the US military for the second Gulf War in Iraq – which, incidentally, tops up the GDP of the country in which the weapons are manufactured. The war has been responsible for at least 80,000 civilian deaths since 2003.

Such abuse of people and power may seem, on the surface, to be unrelated to the environmental disconnection that humanity has had foisted upon it; but this would be ignoring the subtext. The driver for this abuse is primarily to gain wealth for a privileged few. The unwritten reason for using abusive tactics, as with using fear, is to ease people into a state of denial. Denial of a situation, however terrifying, is the standard human response to prolonged abuse of all types; whether parent-child abuse, employer-employee abuse or state-civilian abuse. Riane Eisler, president of the Center for Partnership Studies in the USA, writes:

In a top-down, authoritarian family that relies on fear and force, children often learn to be in denial about their parents’ behaviour since they depend on them for survival. This makes it easy to later be in denial about ‘strong’ leaders who abuse power, and to identify with them. People’s willingness to countenance the erosion of democratic safeguards . . . and their support for the pre-emptive Iraq War, even though it was justified by false information, are also largely due to early habits of obedience to authority figures coupled with denial that ‘strong’ leaders can be wrong.

The various tools and methods used in order to disconnect us from the real world and accept the way that the world is being run on our behalf – the way that the planet is being trashed for economic gain – accumulate over time, from birth to death, to create an almost insurmountable personal barrier. We willingly disconnect because, eventually, we see it as the only option.

That said, there is one final method that I need to tell you about: one that almost everyone on Earth is a party to, and one that feels so natural to accept that it couldn’t possibly be to our disadvantage – or so you would think.

Tool of Disconnection 10: Give Us Hope

Not all hope is bad. There is the simple type; the benign wish or blessing, that shows you care: “I hope you have a good day”, “Hope to see you again soon”, “I hope you pass your exam.” In isolation, and as merely a gesture, then this kind of hope can make someone feel wanted and rather special. This kind of hope is nice – it is harmless.

There is a second kind of hope that is not harmless; it is the kind of hope that implies more than benign wishes. This kind of hope is, essentially, prayer – religious or otherwise. Religious prayer, we all know about and, as we saw in Chapter 10, a large proportion of the world’s population uses prayer of one sort or another. Even when not religious, ‘secular prayer’ bears all of the hallmarks of its religious namesake, and carries the same dangers that are faced when someone’s future is entrusted to it.

Like it or not, there appears to be no empirical evidence to show that prayer works. The Religious Tolerance website has carefully broken down the methods and results in, and reaction to, all of the recent major studies carried out on the effectiveness of prayer; and the conclusion you have to reach is that prayer alone simply does not have any recordable effect. The reactions that this kind of statement invokes are often furious, but also more specifically along the lines that God must not be tested. As one theologian put it: “You’re going to do your best to limit the prayer some people get so that you can measure the benefits for those who receive a lot of prayer? Do you think that’s how God intended prayer to be used?”

So that appears to be that. Except that when you look deeper into the research, you find something very interesting. A widely cited and carefully controlled study into the relative effects of prayer on post-operative coronary recovery found no significant difference in recovery rates between those who received prayer unknowingly and those who did not receive prayer at all. But here’s the interesting bit: the group of patients who knowingly received prayer had a 15% to 20% worse recovery rate than the other two groups. Some commentators suggested this was because of the increased pressure of knowing you were expected to respond to prayer, but I believe the cause to be down to something different.

Hope.

When you hope for something to happen – not the benign good wishes, but the deep, heartfelt hope that aches for an outcome of your choosing – then something happens to you: your motivation to work for the desired outcome actually decreases. Like the detached worker who can’t accept their responsibility for the destructive outcome of the process they are part of, by entrusting an outcome to the ethereal entity that is ‘hope’ then you are passing on responsibility to something that is out of your control. This is what you are doing when you pray: you pass on the responsibility for the outcome of your prayers, meditations and deepest wishes to an external force.

A positive state of mind is often a vital attribute in recovering from illness, whether mental or physical, and also other conditions such as addiction. Quite how this works is uncertain, but more studies than not show that maintaining positivity is beneficial. Knowing that someone cares about you enough to pray for you is one thing, though; thinking that the job of getting you better has passed from you to something you have no control over is another thing entirely.

* * *

Every day, in all sorts of ways, we hand over the responsibility of our actions to other parties. We entrust religious leaders to act as proxy supreme beings, to give us blessings and pray for the delivery of our souls and, as is becoming more common, the protection of the natural environment. We entrust politicians to justly run districts, states, countries, the whole planet, on our behalf, and deliver whatever is in their jurisdiction from whatever evils we have asked them to deal with. We ask the heads of corporations to use profits wisely, to provide fair wages, allow union representation and listen to their staff and respond appropriately – we ask them not to destroy the planet. We ask environmental organizations to look after the planet on our behalf, to lobby fiercely and petition prudently, to give us a world worth living in.

We are guilty of a mass dereliction of responsibility.

When we vote, we hope the politicians will do the right thing after they have been elected. When we buy a product from a company, we hope that company are acting in the best interests of everyone and everything they impact. When we sign a petition, go on a protest march or write a letter, we hope that it will change things for the better. But it is never that simple.

Voters vote for different things: your hope that a politician will increase pollution controls will be running counter to the hope of another voter that pollution controls will be weakened. Your entrustment of a company that they will act ethically runs contrary to the basic needs of a shareholder in that same company, who demands an increase in profits, which requires poorer labour standards, increased use of natural resources, corner-cutting and cost-slashing across the board. Your petition or protest march may give you hope that something will change, when in fact you have simply channelled your anger and concern into a symbolic action that threatens not a single media executive, company director or head of state. You innocently believed that right would out simply because you placed your demands on the wings of hope.

When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free – truly free – to honestly start working to thoroughly resolve it. When hope dies, action begins.


This is an extract from “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis” by Keith Farnish. The author considers the Tools of Disconnection to be so critical to the understanding of civilization’s destructive behaviour that all of the Tools will be detailed on the Chelsea Green Blog over the next few weeks.

The Tools of Disconnection: Part 3

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Connection: A state of empathy with, and understanding of our critical dependence on the natural world and other human beings. This is the natural state of human beings.

Disconnection: The inability to relate to, or understand the natural world and humans’ critical dependence on it. This is the normal state of civilized humans.

Tool of Disconnection: A device by which humans are disconnected from, and prevented from being reconnected to, the natural world and other human beings.


Tool of Disconnection 7: Lie To Us

It seems so obvious that in order to thrive as a species, humanity is dependent on a fully functioning, healthy and diverse global ecology. When you turn on the television news, listen to the radio or read a newspaper, the state of the global ecology is shown clearly as improving or deteriorating in quality overall, with x number of species having evolved or become extinct, and certain trophic levels becoming more or less dominant. Or rather, this is what we should be seeing and hearing: instead, we learn about the state of the global economy, whether the markets are rising or falling; how many jobs have been gained or lost; which companies are taking over others, and which sectors of the economy are thriving or failing. The economy is king; the ecology is a footnote.

It is impossible to create something out of nothing. National economies or, in microcosm, the finances of individual companies, cannot grow unless they take something from somewhere else: this can either be in the form of market share from other nations or companies, or by creating product from a resource like oil, metal ore, limestone (for cement) or the ecological complexity of a natural habitat, such as an ancient forest. The global economy cannot take market share from another planet; it can only grow by using additional resources taken from this planet.

Taken like that, it is obvious that economic growth is ultimately unsustainable – especially given the narrow, capital-based definition used to define the term ‘economy’ in the industrial world – yet, we continue to be fobbed off by the message that we must have economic growth in order to progress or develop as humans. Of course, if we judge development or progress in terms of the number of televisions, computers and cars we have, the size of home we have or the amount of energy we use, then economic growth most certainly does lead to a more ‘developed’ human race. If we judge development or progress on rather more esoteric (and, quite frankly, more important) measures such as clean water and air, physical and mental health, freedom of expression, and having a future that our descendants will be able to thrive in, then economic growth is failing on almost all of these counts. Humans in every place touched by the rank hand of industrialization are told that development based upon economic growth is good. When you think about it, though, the only true form of development is that which moves us into balance with our natural environment – in effect a reversal of what we are now doing. You do not have to be financially prosperous for your water to be clean – you just need a basic level of hygiene, sensible water management techniques and, most of all, a lack of toxic muck being poured into the water supply by industrial processes.

Economic growth as a necessity is the biggest lie that humanity has ever been sold; yet we are lapping it up because the lie is repeated day after day by every information source we are unfortunate enough to be subjected to.

* * *

In a rather wonderful chapter of his book Heat, George Monbiot describes how the vested interests of climate change – the corporations, agencies and individuals whose existence depends on producing greenhouse gases – have colluded for decades to ensure the public, you and me, are kept confused and ill-informed. The methods now used for denying that humans are changing the climate are the same methods used by the tobacco industry throughout the late decades of the 20th century: corporate funded articles and press releases that specialize in misinformation and pseudo-science; artificially created grassroots coalitions known as ‘Astroturfs’; a host of media representatives funded by industry; and an unhealthy dose of ‘greenwash’, specifically designed to make companies look environmentally sustainable when they are nothing of the sort. This is a pet hate of mine, so much so that, at the start of 2008, I set up an anti-greenwashing website called The Unsuitablog. In one article, regarding the mining company BHP Billiton, I wrote:

Like all destructive companies, BHP Billiton are engaging in some striking greenwash: in fact they have just agreed a new Climate Change Policy, which is not surprising considering their operations emit nearly 52 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere every year (that’s about the same as Denmark – yes, the entire country!) It’s a pity they have entirely failed to commit to any reductions in greenhouse gases at all. Exactly what kind of Climate Change Policy is this?

Corporations, in particular, take advantage of the innate trust we have in authority figures, often hiring scientists (in the spirit of Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments) to speak to the media, apparently on their own behalf, while in fact ensuring that the information put across is precisely the information the corporations want the public to hear. The damage that has been caused by the continuous stream of lies and denial is impossible to quantify: certainly it has put back public awareness of the climate situation by a decade, at least. When you consider that most environmental damage has been caused in countries whose governments support the biggest lie of all – the ‘need’ for economic growth – it is clear that the greenwashing corporations are in very good company indeed.

Tool of Disconnection 8: Scare Us

We live in times of fear: fear of the impact of terrorism on our ability to live in safety; fear of the effects of economic collapse on our future financial security; fear of what strangers and paedophiles might do to our children. Some of us are even afraid of the effects of climate change. Industrial Civilization instils us with a succession of fears not only because we may be genuinely afraid of a particular thing happening, but also because we live in a state of comparative ignorance. Few people have a good understanding of the nature of risk: for instance, a person might tell you that she drives her child to school in order to protect him or her from ‘stranger danger’, but in doing so she is exposing the child to the far greater risk of being the potential victim of a vehicle crash. This is simple ignorance: the type of fear I want to describe preys on our poor understanding of risk, and is propagated on purpose in order to keep us in check.

Anyone who grew up in the United States in the 1950s will be familiar with the fear of communism, and the many lists that Senator McCarthy threatened to release in order to expose those people who were threatening the stability of the USA with their left-leaning political ideals. What most people in the United States don’t realize, is that ‘McCarthyism’, as the specific attitude came to be known as, had as much to do with communism as the type of politics being espoused in the Soviet Union had to do with genuine communism. A certain suspension of belief is required when you consider that last sentence – especially if you grew up in either the USA or the USSR during the Cold War – because it completely denies two articles of faith that were in place at the time. Firstly, Senator McCarthy, along with the entire state hierarchy (with a couple of exceptions), helped to spin a web of fear in order to encourage patriotism amongst the American people, and ensure everyone was kept ‘on side’. The author Bill Bryson, who grew up in 1950s America, writes:

Thanks to our overweening preoccupation with Communism at home and abroad America became the first nation in modern history to build a war economy in peacetime. Defence spending in the Fifties ranged between $40 billion and $53 billion a year – or more than the total government spending on everything at the dawn of the decade.

History repeats itself, as always; so it was that 50 years later George Bush Jr., along with his cadre of high-ranking political colleagues (all of whom had financial interests in either the arms industry, the oil industry or both) used the threat of global terrorism on the USA to ease through military spending bills totalling more than $3 trillion dollars since September 2001. The 2008 Pentagon budget alone was a shade under $600 billion – nearly a thousand times the amount of money spent on diplomatic relations. It was the threat of terrorism that ensured Americans meekly accepted the Patriot Act, and its even more intrusive successor, Patriot Act II. It was the threat of terrorism that ensured that the torture of hundreds of innocent people in Guantanamo Bay, and thousands more in Iraq and Afghanistan was tolerated by the majority of people in Western Industrial Civilization. It was the threat of terrorism that ensured that, since 2001, every conference of the richest industrial nations had ‘national security’ at, or near, the top of its agenda – pushing climate-change prevention conveniently down the list. Since September 11, 2001, not a single American has died on US soil as a result of a terrorist attack; yet, in that same period at least 300,000 people in the USA have died as a result of motor vehicle incidents. How many times do you hear your political leaders urging you to be afraid of cars?

The second denial of an article of faith I make is that the USSR under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, was never a communist country. Communism implies ‘commune’ and ‘community’ – it does not imply centralized control of all assets with an elite minority benefiting greatly from the labours of the poor majority. But, just like in the USA and every other industrialized nation since the start of the Agricultural Revolution, the Soviet Union practised a deliberately bastardized form of communism designed to funnel economic wealth to a rich and powerful minority. As with the USA, the people of the Soviet Union were kept in a state of fear by their government. This excerpt from a 1941 Marxist document illustrates what had already happened to the Communist Dream:

The Soviet Union can be best understood as a great trade union fallen into the hands of corrupt and degenerate leaders. Our struggle against Stalinism is a struggle within the labor movement. The Soviet Union is a Workers’ State . . . degenerated because of Stalinist rule.

Essentially, two governments were creating a state of fear within their respective borders in order to control the people, and that state of fear was an almost total fabrication of the truth. The Cold War was simply two imperialist, hierarchical states trying to gain global power by force. If only the majority of people in those states had known that at the time.

* * *

However, fear doesn’t only have to be an extension of a real, if muted, threat. Cast your mind back to the Tree Huggers of northern India and the native West Papuans, who were prepared to challenge government and business in order to protect their ways of life. It is now standard practice amongst certain vested interests to refer to such people as ‘eco-terrorists’ or the ‘green mafia’: anything that creates a sense of fear is a vital weapon in ensuring that the public at large see environmental action as a negative thing. For many business-friendly politicians, the doyen of ‘green mafia’ writing is Michael Crichton, whose dramatic, but ultimately fictional book about eco-terrorism, State Of Fear, launched a thousand spin-offs and a great many newly converted climate sceptics. In fact, the eco-terrorism argument goes far deeper than the books of fiction writers – however much they manage to scare people. Senator James Inhofe, former chairman of the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is a selfconfessed climate-change sceptic who used the fear agenda in the most direct way possible – by comparing environmentalists to Nazis:

“It kind of reminds . . . I could use the Third Reich, the big lie,” Inhofe said.

“You say something over and over and over and over again, and people will believe it, and that’s their strategy.”

Which, of course, is exactly how governments all around the world advance the message that economic growth is necessary; along with the message that people of different colours, religions or political beliefs are a constant threat to the security of the people those governments rule over. In Brazil, such ideas flow freely from the keyboards of many journalists and politicians. A plan by WWF – one of the most conservative of the big environmental NGOs – to set up a large wildlife reserve in the Amazon rainforest was met with typical contempt:

“This is a new form of colonialism, an open conspiracy in which economic and financial interests act through nongovernmental organizations,” said Lorenzo Carrasco, editor and co-author of The Green Mafia, a widely circulated anti-environmentalist polemic. “It is evident these interests want to block the development of Brazil and the Amazon region by creating and controlling these reserves, which are full of minerals and other valuable natural resources.”

When you don’t have the fear of Communism or terrorism to fall back on, then it’s time to roll out those old staples, ‘preventing development’ and ‘blocking economic growth’. There is most certainly a pattern emerging here. Sadly, though, we have to now leave behind the mere threat of loss and move on to the reality – the execution, as it were – and we don’t even have to change countries to find the first example.


This is an extract from “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis” by Keith Farnish. The author considers the Tools of Disconnection to be so critical to the understanding of civilization’s destructive behaviour that all of the Tools will be detailed on the Chelsea Green Blog over the next few weeks.

The Tools of Disconnection: Part 2

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Connection: A state of empathy with, and understanding of our critical dependence on the natural world and other human beings. This is the natural state of human beings.

Disconnection: The inability to relate to, or understand the natural world and humans’ critical dependence on it. This is the normal state of civilized humans.

Tool of Disconnection: A device by which humans are disconnected from, and prevented from being reconnected to, the natural world and other human beings.


Tool of Disconnection 4: Pretend We Have a Choice

When you accept the label of ‘consumer’, you accept that you have become a financial object, willing to be manipulated by whatever marketing tricks abound. Consumer choice would be far better entitled ‘Conchoice’, a term describing the true level of choice that individuals are provided with, should they find themselves within the consumer culture. Benjamin R. Barber puts it like this: “The apparent widening of individual consumer choices actually shrinks the field of social choices. . . . For example, the American’s freedom to choose among scores of automobile brands was secured by sacrificing the liberty to choose between private and public transportation. This politics of commodity . . . offers the feel of freedom while diminishing the range of options and the power to affect the larger world.” The individual is being conned: there is no choice.

Step outside the business districts of most cities in the Western world, and your ability to move around is dramatically curtailed. I tried to advise an ecologist friend of mine how to travel the 1,300 miles to Boston from a town in Iowa without using car or aircraft – it was just about possible using a combination of suburban and cross-country buses, along with three different trains running on three different rail networks and a couple of taxi journeys along the way. Her journey would have taken around 31 hours, not including the waits between the various legs of her journey. Her ‘choice’, in reality, was no choice at all: a car to the airport, and a plane to Boston – about seven hours in all.

America is a very large country, but even in small countries the way people travel is limited by whatever economic policies the government of the time decide best serve the thinking of the time. The 1960s nearly dealt the railway system in Britain a fatal blow: had the recommendations of Dr Richard Beeching – a transport adviser working for the British government – been fully carried through, the UK would have been left with just 3,000 miles of trunk route rather than the 12,000 miles that exists today.

As it was, a third of the stations and a third of the track were shut down in the space of two years. It turns out that Doctor Beeching was only doing what he was told, for as Charles Loft writes: “[Transport Minister] Ernest Marples was a selfmade man who owned a road-construction company. He was required to sell his stake in the business on becoming Minister of Transport in October 1959, but was slow to do so. . . It was easy to attribute ulterior motives to the Minister’s apparent enthusiasm for closures, particularly as he also presided over a shift in investment from rail to road. . . . With both road freight and the motor-car industry now essential sectors of the British economy, with restrictions on motoring a political impossibility and congestion a growing problem, the case for more and better roads seemed clear.” There is little doubt that the British government, under severe pressure from the car industry, had tried – and partially succeeded – to kill off the railways, and entirely remove one genuine choice.

Look at the way you are currently living: you can ‘choose’ between plasma, LCD, cathode ray tube or Internet TV, but not having a television is inconceivable to most people in the consumer culture; you can ‘choose’ between shopping at Walmart, Aldi, Tesco, Carrefour or any other supermarket, but not using a supermarket is impossible for hundreds of millions of people who need to buy food and have no way of growing it themselves. Some ‘choices’ are even more blatantly false:

An off-camera interviewer asks a woman, “What would you rather have: a car or
a cleaner environment?”

The woman pauses, seemingly thoughtfully, before at last saying, “I can’t imagine me without my car. Of course I’d rather have a clean environment, but I think that that compromise is very hard to make where we are.”

The ad ends with a voiceover saying what BP is doing to make the world a better place.

How would the ad run if we changed the question to, “What would you rather have, a planet that is not being made filthy and in fact destroyed by automobiles and other effects of civilization, or your car?”

How much of your life was simply picked off the shelves of the Conchoice Mall, and how much of it came out of a conscious decision to live in that particular way?

Tool of Disconnection 5: Sell Us A Dream

On 1 April 2007, the Brazilian city of São Paulo officially became billboard-free. The tide of advertising that had swamped every physical dimension of the city had become intolerable, even to the local authorities; such was the scale of the problem. The law that demanded the removal of all billboards was – incredibly – passed by a huge majority, with the only ‘no’ voter being an advertising executive on the council. People are happy, except the advertisers, who made their position clear after the law was proposed:

Border, the Brazilian Association of Advertisers, was up in arms over the move. In a statement released on 2 October, the date on which law PL 379/06 was formally approved by the city council, Border called the new laws “unreal, ineffective and fascist”. It pointed to the tens of thousands of small businesses that would have to bear the burden of altering their shop fronts under regulations “unknown in their virulence in any other city in the world”.

We’re all smart enough to see through the rhetoric of these comments: “unreal, ineffective and fascist” are perfect descriptors for the synthetic, disconnected, material world that advertising has forced upon humanity – a world that is swamped with branding, corporate ‘messages’, sponsorship, flyers, free sheets, pop-ups and numerous other forms of corporate propaganda. São Paolo may have lost its billboards, but the advertisers can still feed their messages to the public through newspapers, magazines, television, radio; even schools, into which corporations don’t so much sneak advertising, as blatantly trumpet the goodness of their products and services. Almost every school in the UK collects Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s supermarket tokens, through which they can acquire computers and books. Every token handed over by every child is a graphic advertisement for competing brands that want their cut of the family shopping budget, and the future loyalty of the children who carry these little pieces of paper into the classroom. North America has it far worse: “It is never enough to tag the schools with a few logos. Having gained a foothold, the brand managers are now doing what they have done in music, sports and journalism outside the schools: trying to overwhelm their host. They are fighting for their brands to become not the add-on but the subject of education.” As you have seen, the individual is not offered real choice in this culture of consumption – simply ‘Conchoice’. The real choice has already been lost in favour of corporations that have sold entire populations down the commercial river: the individual’s ultimate dream is no longer a response to “what can I achieve in my life?” but “what can I buy?”

This goes back further than you can imagine. Long before mass advertising and competition between corporations, commerce was the prime motivator in the foreign policies of the imperial powers of Europe and, later on, the USA. The events in Haiti over the last 500 years reflect this perfectly. Like countless tribal peoples prior to European settlement, the Taíno people lived a connected life – connected with the land, the sea and the sky that drove much of their mythology. Then Christopher Columbus landed at Hispaniola in 1492 – the island that would become Haiti and the Dominican Republic – and irreversibly changed things:

It took no time at all for the [people] who first greeted Christopher Columbus to be all but erased from the face of the earth. . . . Less than 30 years after Columbus’ three ocean-crossing ships dropped anchor off the island of Hispaniola, the Taíno would be destroyed by Spanish weaponry, forced labour and European diseases.

Those that survived lived at the behest of the invaders, and somehow managed to hold on to a semblance of their ancestry. The commercial advantage such a fertile environment provided to invaders in terms of crops, slave labour (both local and imported) and trading routes made Haiti the subject of continued negotiation and conflict ever since; but it was the specific words that were used with reference to Haiti that reveal so much. In 1833, in relation to the Haitian people but, no doubt, a view that could be applied across the entire British Empire, a British parliamentarian observed: “To make them labour, and give them a taste for luxuries and comforts, they must be gradually taught to desire those objects which could be attained by human labour. There was a regular progress from the possession of necessaries to the desire of luxuries; and what once were luxuries, gradually came . . . to be necessaries. This was the sort of progress the negroes had to go through, and this was the sort of education to which they ought to be subject in their period of probation.” In a striking parallel to this, Arthur Millspaugh, an adviser to the occupying USA government wrote in 1929: “The peasants, living lives which to us seem indolent and shiftless, are envariably [sic] carefree and contented; but, if they are to be citizens of an independent self-governing nation, they must acquire . . . a new set of wants.” In other words: the commercial Americanization of a culture.

Quite what the people of Haiti did to deserve such a long period of turmoil, especially considering their ‘carefree and contented’ existence in the past, is difficult to understand at first glance. The more you look at the history of commerce, though – the ravenous British East India Company; the endemic slavery to feed the coffee, cotton and sugar industries; the limitless ambition of Coca- Cola and McDonalds – the more you realize that this is just par for the course. The reason you are surrounded by logos, adverts and brands, and the reason entire cultures are being cut up into bite-sized pieces and swallowed is because commerce needs to constantly sell a dream of a new reality in order to survive.

Tool of Disconnection 6: Exploit Our Trust

If I were to tell you to hit someone, just because I wanted them hurt, you would almost certainly refuse, and probably report me to the authorities for suggesting such a thing – and quite right, too. If I were to don a white coat, welcome you into a laboratory and explain that you were to take part in an experiment, and that the person on the other side of the screen who you were about to apply extremely painful electric shocks too was a willing volunteer, you would probably say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Or would you?

The groundbreaking experimental work of Stanley Milgram simply reinforced what he already knew – that individuals, when exposed to an authority figure in a pressure situation will obey the authority figure far more readily, and to a greater extent, than would have been possible in other circumstances. The reason Milgram already knew the power of authority – although he was, himself, surprised at the level of obedience in his experiments – was historical. In 1961, when the experiments were first conducted, World War II was fresh in the minds of every adult living in the parts of the world where the conflict had taken place.

The hierarchy of authority within the Axis Forces had been carefully designed to ensure maximum obedience: from Hitler, the master orator and ‘saviour’ of the German people; through to the SS guards and local enforcers operating on behalf of the Third Reich; the weight of power upon ordinary citizens and soldiers was irresistible. But, even given such a level of authority, it is still shocking to read of the ease in which people were coerced to carry out appalling acts:

Judicial interrogations of some 125 of the [reserve police battalion] men indicated that, while no one had to participate . . . the great majority stayed in ranks and later killed whoever was brought to them out of loyalty to those ranks, and to maintain their standing in their units. Thus the men chose to become murderers rather than look bad in the eyes of the other men.

Over time, as the battalion participated in more and more mass murders, it became far more relaxed and efficient in its deadly operations. These ordinary men got used to killing thousands of people at close range as part of their day’s work. By the time their part of the ‘Final Solution’ was completed in Poland, the battalion had shot at least 38,000 Jews to death.

You might think that you would behave differently to these ordinary people caught up in the rigors of war, and that you would refuse to obey the requests of those in authority. In fact, only about 20% of those ordered to kill Jewish prisoners, without fear of repercussions if they refused, did refuse.19 The chances are that if you were put in this same situation, you would not refuse and would, yourself, become a murderer. It is a chilling thought that the simple act of being in a controlled situation where there is a hierarchy of authority pushing down on them can turn people into something that would otherwise be unthinkable to them – but that is the power of authority. In effect, it is our good nature, our trust of other people that allows us to be manipulated in such a dramatic way; and not even the threat of certain death can change that.

The daily grind of work exposes billions of people to some form of authority, but only in a minority of cases do people ever think to question the tasks they are given. To be sure, many of the people carrying out their work are in a very difficult situation: however mundane and soul-destroying, the completion of these tasks is simply the only way they can envisage earning the money necessary to buy food to keep themselves alive. The sweatshops of south-east Asia and Central America starkly bear testament to that reality. There are people, though, who carry out work that is utterly destructive; yet because of the deep disconnection between what that person is doing and the impact of that work on the environment, and humanity in general, they continue to do it – and authority serves to deepen that disconnection.

The person operating the feller-buncher in Chapter 6 knows quite clearly that he is removing trees, destroying habitat and leaving behind bare earth which will be washed away in the next rainstorm. He also knows – despite the efforts of those who have tried to suppress this information – that the removal of trees contributes to the greenhouse effect, which is heating up the planet and threatening to bring on a catastrophic cycle of events at all scales of life. He knows all these things, and yet he continues to do his work.20 The CEO of the forestry company – say Georgia-Pacific, Kimberly-Clark or Asian Pulp and Paper – knows the impact of his company’s activities; as do the directors, upon whom the pressure to meet financial targets is imposed by their CEO; as do the managers, upon whom the pressure to improve output is imposed by their directors; as do the operators of the feller-bunchers, who have been clearly told that they are doing an important job, and they have to process a set tonnage of timber every day, otherwise the contract will be lost. The hierarchy imposes authority, and the destruction continues.

As you will see later, the threat of financial loss is most definitely a factor in the continuation of highly destructive activities; but, as Stanley Milgram demonstrated all those years ago, we don’t really need those threats: we just do what we are told.


This is an extract from “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis” by Keith Farnish. The author considers the Tools of Disconnection to be so critical to the understanding of civilization’s destructive behaviour that all of the Tools will be detailed on the Chelsea Green Blog over the next few weeks.

The Tools of Disconnection : Part 1

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Connection: A state of empathy with, and understanding of our critical dependence on the natural world and other human beings. This is the natural state of human beings.

Disconnection: The inability to relate to, or understand the natural world and humans’ critical dependence on it. This is the normal state of civilized humans.

Tool of Disconnection: A device by which humans are disconnected from, and prevented from being reconnected to, the natural world and other human beings.


Tool of Disconnection 1: Reward Us for Being Good Consumers

The rewards of life are manifold: love, a feeling of belonging, happiness and pleasure, a sense of well-being from having done good things – all of these arerewards in themselves, and ultimately, as I showed in Part Two, such rewards arethe reason we do things, for better or worse. Beyond the biological need toreproduce, our main aim, as a human being, is to gain rewards such as thosementioned above. It seems obvious, then, why people try to earn money or takepart in lotteries, or even carry out robberies – so that they can use this money tobuy things that give them a sense of well-being.

Which, of course is a complete fallacy.

The ‘happiness’ that comes from holding a new piece of technical wizardry in your hands is something created by the system that needs you to feel happy in buying that piece of technical wizardry; because if you didn’t feel happy then you wouldn’t want to buy it. The sad fact is that there are few real rewards to be had from following the consumer dream, apart from the initial flush of excitement that raises our endorphin levels – the same hormones that make childbirth more bearable – and thus leave you with a chemically-induced sense of happiness or well-being. This then leads you to associate buying things (or taking part in other artificial ‘experiences’ for that matter) with good times, so you do it again, and again, and again. If all this sounds like a circular argument, that is precisely the point I am making – you, the consumer, are stuck in a positive feedback loop which is growing increasingly urgent: “Buy now, while stocks last!” “Hurry, closing down sale!” “Limited edition!” “Special offer!” And all the while the economy keeps growing, and the amount of carbon dioxide being thrown into the atmosphere keeps going up.

Victor Lebow, a leading retail analyst, encapsulated the desires of the consumer economy – the economy that most of us are a part of – in a startlingly candid manner, and one that is so much more relevant today than it was back in 1955:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, or prestige, is now to be found in our consumption patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives is today expressed in consumption terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats . . . these commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only ‘forced draft’ consumption, but ‘expensive’ consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing pace.

Our reward for being good consumers is the ability to consume more, and feed the economy so it can keep growing. That’s it. And yet, we keep doing it because we continue to believe it makes us happier, more content, and better people.

Tool of Disconnection 2: Make Us Feel Good For Doing Trivial Things

Last year I reduced the amount of energy I consume in my home by around a quarter: that made me feel good because I knew that by doing this I had reduced the amount of carbon dioxide I put into the atmosphere. I had to do the ‘feeling good’ for myself because no one else was going to do it. No, what I would have had to have done in order to be told I was a good person was lots of recycling: certainly my local council like to tell residents that they are good people because they are recycling more than they were last year, but when I called them up to ask whether they would tell people to stop buying goods, so that the council would have to collect less rubbish overall, I was met with cold silence. The reason was simple: if you buy less stuff then you will stop the economy growing; whereas, you can recycle with abandon while still buying more and more things. In fact, the more you buy, the more you will be able to recycle – result!

‘Doing Your Bit’, is the clarion call for a new light-green generation. We can all do our bit and make a positive difference for the environment – apparently. Turn your thermostat down (for heating) or up (for air conditioning) a degree; change a conventional light-bulb for a compact fluorescent one; buy organic vegetables rather than non-organic . . . take a deep breath; I want you to read this list produced by the car manufacturer Lexus:

  • When remodelling, consider sustainable materials like bamboo flooring.
  • Instead of sending someone cut flowers, give them a plant.
  • When redecorating, use latex paint instead of one that’s oil-based.
  • Keep your tyres properly inflated. You’ll get better gas mileage.
  • Next time you have a dinner party, use cloth napkins.
  • Don’t toss out your old cellphone; donate it to a charity.
  • Keep a canvas bag in your car so you’ll have it handy when you go grocery shopping.

. . . and so on. None of these things is bad, as such, but they are trivial: nowhere in the list do Lexus suggest that you should get rid of your car, or even drive less, which is not surprising because the idea of the list is to make the Lexus owner feel good about their purchase. The internet abounds with lists like this; some produced by businesses, some by local authorities and governments, some by wellmeaning environmental organizations that are naively regurgitating the same ideas as the businesses and the politicians. The whole point of praising people for carrying out trivial activities, however worthy they may be, is so that those people carry on living in almost exactly the same manner as they did before: you have to expend only a little effort in order to feel better, while the businesses and politicians that depend on a vibrant economy for their existence can continue to carry on operating in almost exactly the same manner as they did before.

Tool of Disconnection 3: Give Us Selected Freedom

What is meant by freedom? The most obvious answer would seem to be, ‘the right to live your life in whatever way you choose, whilst not interfering with the right of anyone else to live in the way that they choose.’ This is fraught with problems, not least because – taken to extremes – you would have to account for the impact of all of your actions, however trivial, on everyone else.

In fact, freedom is one of those things that has to be taken in perspective.Earlier in the book, we saw the Greatest Good coming into play – the idea that we should strive towards something that benefits the greatest number of people in the most effective way – alongside a number of rights that no human should do without: clean air, fresh water, shelter, food and a basic level of mental and physical stimulation. No one can reasonably deny anyone those rights. The sum of the Greatest Good along with these basic human rights actually leads to a mutual respect and care for the natural environment. The millions of people breathing in the rancid, choking air of Mexico City, Beijing, and countless other towns and cities around the world have had their rights curtailed; as have those people who drink polluted, toxic water; as have those people who had their native food sources taken away from them by mining companies; as have those people whose homes were destroyed to clear space for agriculture and commercial expansion. This is not freedom.

What we are actually given are those ‘freedoms’ selected in order to ensure minimum disruption to the continued business of making money: voting is a perfect example. I am often struck by the sheer brilliance of the phrase, “If voting changed anything, it would be illegal.” This is often attributed to the social reformer and anarchist Emma Goldman, who may not have said these exact words, but most certainly railed against the pretence that voting was something worth doing; and in doing so made herself extremely unpopular amongst those who were fighting at the time for the right of women to vote. As I write, the Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe is still refusing to reveal the outcome of the presidential election after two weeks of waiting. The opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the election, which is why the result is being withheld, and there is nothing the voting public can do about it within the laws that Robert Mugabe put in place – they have cast their votes, they have expressed their democratic right, and a dictator remains. Think about your options in the country in which you live – how much change can you really make by casting a vote, while all the time the millions of people around you cast theirs?

Forget the politicians – they’re an irrelevance. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice.

The next Presidential election in the USA will be won by either a Democrat or a Republican, and nothing will change beyond a little tinkering around the edges and the type of rhetoric being spouted by the new President. It is sobering to note that before George W. Bush came to power, Al Gore – joint Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the poster boy for the new light-green generation – had already terminally weakened the Kyoto Protocol that Bush subsequently refused to sign. As Vice-President, Al Gore realized that not including poor countries in the Protocol would be a vote loser, and thus ensured – through his influence on the negotiating table – that rich countries would be able to, by trading their emissions with poor countries, buy their way out of any potential punishment when the emissions were added up. Funny, the difference a bit of power makes to people.

So, go and protest, make some noise, wave some banners, sign a petition: just make sure you stay within the law. I mean it – protest of some form or another is permitted in most nations, but the severity and the type of protest allowed depends on the legislation that is in place; both standing legislation and the widely used ‘state of emergency’ which, in fact is simply an extension of the existing laws. As the Zimbabweans ponder their electoral fate, the Mugabe regime has imposed ‘emergency’ laws to prevent any form of gathering that may threaten the government. What the Mugabe regime knows only too well is that in Zimbabwe, as with many other African, South American and Asian states, protest often takes an entirely different form from the kind that the people of the industrial West have become accustomed too. The Mugabe regime knows that real protest is capable of overthrowing governments; whereas in the USA, for instance, it almost goes without saying that protest will lead to nothing more than a warm feeling in the hearts of those taking part:

One will find hundreds, sometimes thousands, assembled in an orderly fashion, listening to selected speakers calling for an end to this or that aspect of lethal state activity, carrying signs ‘demanding’ the same thing . . . and – typically – the whole thing is quietly disbanded with exhortations to the assembled to ‘keep working’ on the matter and to please sign a petition.

Throughout the whole charade it will be noticed that the state is represented by a uniformed police presence keeping a discreet distance and not interfering with the activities. And why should they? The organizers will have gone through ‘proper channels’ to obtain permits. Surrounding the larger mass of demonstrators can be seen others . . . their function is to ensure the demonstrators remain ‘responsible,’ not deviating from the state-sanctioned plan of protest.

Laughable, isn’t it, that such a well-controlled event – and this is the way every official rally I have ever been on works – should be considered a ‘protest’ by the organizers? The laws in each country are tailored to suit the appetite of the population for change: a country full of people that want to fight for change needs to be kept tightly controlled; a country full of catatonic, drip-fed consumers can march all it likes, be given a well-controlled soapbox on TV – and the voltage on the tasers can be turned right down.

That is, unless someone decides to break the law.


This is an extract from “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis” by Keith Farnish. The author considers the Tools of Disconnection to be so critical to the understanding of civilization’s destructive behaviour that all of the Tools will be detailed on the Chelsea Green Blog over the next few weeks.

Now It’s Time For The Climate Deniers To Answer Some Questions

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Here’s a situation you might be familiar with: you are doing something at work that you are particularly good at, having gained those skills through study, experience, and learning from your mistakes. Along comes a person who you know of by reputation to be a bit of a seen-it-all, done-it-all, bought the t-shirt type; they always insist they can do everyone’s job better than the specialist can. Most of the time the specialists politely decline his “help”, after which he insists that he could have still done it better and brays whenever the specialist makes a mistake.

This person rudely interrupts you while you are in the middle of a particularly difficult piece of work and, true to form, tells you to let him have a go - he is bound to make a better fist of it than you can. Instead of politely declining you tell him to go ahead - take on the whole job - but on one condition: if they make a mistake then they have to take the blame; all of it.

What do you think they would do?

What would Viscount Monckton of Brenchley do? What about Timothy Ball, Ian Plimer or Fred Singer? How would Patrick Michaels or Stephen McIntyre deal with this situation?

If you recognise some of these names, then you will also know that they are currently some of the most vocal, yet also most ill-informed people involved in whatever climate debate remains, and they all revel in their playing the climate change denial circuit. So come on guys, put yourselves on the line and tell us what you will do as the climate keeps changing?

Hang on a minute! What do I mean the climate is still changing? It’s been a cold, cold winter where I live, and 2009 wasn’t the global heatwave some meteorological organisations were warning against - surely the warming has stopped. Now, this is where it gets complicated, because among the list of people above, and quite a few more besides, there is a mixture of those who say the climate is not changing, those that agree that the climate is changing but humanity is not responsible, and those that agree the climate is changing and humanity is responsible for a very small bit of it. Ignoring that the overwhelming body of scientific evidence shows civilized human activity to be responsible for at least 90% of the observed change, you have to wonder what motivates the deniers across such a range of opinions: is it money, fame, notoriety, ideology or perhaps just a bloody-minded desire to hang onto traditional views? Actually, it’s all of these and more; but again, this isn’t what really matters as far as this article is concerned.

What will they do?

Let’s accept that the climate is changing: there is even more certainty of this than the link with human activity, through the observations of a vast network of atmospheric physicists, meteorologists, botanists, marine chemists, naturalists and even people like you and me who notice the small but subtle and progressive changes taking place in our gardens, parks and countryside. This certainty is, to all intents and purposes, unequivocal - you would have to be an extremely deluded person to deny it is happening at all. Quite how much it will change and what effects it will have are still open to debate, which is why climate science lies at a critical point in guiding future policy and, more importantly, human behaviour in general. But it’s changing, and it’s fair to assume it will keep changing: the first decade of the twenty-first century was the warmest decade since empirical measurements began in the mid nineteenth century; 2009 was, surprisingly for many, the joint second warmest year in recorded history, and 2010 may be hotter than even 1998.

As the climate changes, then the natural biological and chemical processes that regulate all life on Earth will undergo changes, some of them will be damped by negative feedback, but a significant number - particularly those affected by rainfall, ground cover and ice - will be drawn into positive feedback loops, such as those I described in a recent article. These types of changes rarely settle down until a significant, new plateau has been reached: it might be no rainforest in the Amazon, no ice in the Arctic, or it might be a sixth great extinction of life. We honestly don’t know.

But the climate change deniers seem to have it sorted. They keep telling those that are prepared to listen that it’s not our fault, and we don’t have to do anything that might damage the economy, our consumer culture or their reputations. Keep denying and everything will be ok. Meanwhile, the climate is still changing, we remain in thrall of their comforting message and…

Sorry to be so bleak, but you can deny as much as you like that something is your fault; you can walk into the road, safe in the knowledge that when the car hits you it will not have been your fault; you can be carried to your grave, replete with the inscription, “It wasn’t your fault!”

But it still happened.

So come on Christopher, Tim, Ian, Fred, Phil and Steve; you think you know best. What are you going to do!


Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in the USA, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Essex, UK, with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.

Time’s Up! From The Inside: Chapter 7, “Beneath and Beyond”

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Once you have explored the range of scales from sub-microscopic (Viruses) to the largest living things on Earth (Trees) the temptation is to look in a bit more detail and wonder if you have missed anything really critical. Quite frankly, I could have written books and books about this stuff, and included such wonders as yeasts, ants, mosses and springtails which not only are vital to the makeup of the global ecosystem but which I would love to learn more about. Nevertheless, I had to stop somewhere, and so recommend Richard Dawkins’ peerless book “The Ancestor’s Tale” if you have a craving for discovering more about the interconnectedness of life.

Something was clearly missing at the end of Part One, though, which was to do with one of the biggest questions scientists face: what else is there? Followers of Gaia Theory, and other (often indigenous) approaches to life will be quick to point out that there is no such thing as an independent organism. As I stated in Chapter 2, we are mostly made up of organisms that are not, strictly speaking, part of us; but take such organisms away, like the bacteria in our guts, and we don’t function anything like as effectively as we do with them in place. Then you have to consider the question of whether a forest is just a lot of trees (or an ant colony is just a lot of ants), or if it is a self-sustaining organism in itself. Anyone who has recently watched the movie “Avatar” and not been emotionally involved in the symbiotic relationship demonstrated by the forest people and the environment they are part of will probably take the “just a lot of trees” option. That is, essentially, the option the faceless bodies that run Industrial Civilization would also prefer we take; after all, as demonstrated in the movie, if you can divide people from their landbase they are far weaker than they would be if they were to consider themselves part of a larger whole.

Despite the complex and often fragile nature of our relationships with other organisms, some humans want to rewrite life and break the evolutionary monotony they see as being a barrier to ‘progress’. Individual genes occupy a space beneath even that of the diminutive virus. What is so special about genes is not that they are life itself, but they allow life to happen. They are the magical molecular ingredients that define what an organism will become: its physical appearance; its thoughts; its potential as a survivor. Modifying them – moving genes from one organism to another – is like a complete, and possibly malevolent, stranger swapping an ingredient in your favourite cake recipe for something you would never expect to find in cake. The cake may taste better, but it may also poison you.

That, taken from Chapter 7, sums up my thoughts on Genetic Modification in a few short words. Books and articles abound going into the biology, the politics, the ethics and the commerce of genetic modification, but really it comes down to one thing: do you feel comfortable with the idea of humans putting the genes from one organism into another organism, regardless of the motivation?

Occupying a similar spatial scale, Synthetic Life may not grab as many headlines as GMOs, but its potential as a contentious technology — and, like John Zerzan, I do believe that there is no such thing as neutral technology — is massive. Create life from scratch, or reassemble genes to your exacting specifications in order to achieve some, almost certainly, commercial goal. What’s not to be worried about? So very small, and yet so very fundamental — playing with DNA is not something anyone should be doing lightly.

At the distant other end of the scale lies the aforementioned swarms, hives, colonies, forests and global ecosystems and then we whizz, in the style of Microcosmos, towards the stars…and we can’t even leave them alone:

On July 4, 2005 the space probe Deep Impact completed its mission successfully. Launched in January 2005 the spacecraft containing the sacrificial probe made a beeline for the comet Tempel 1, describing a curved trajectory, which placed it in the path of the comet orbiting the sun between Mars and Earth. On approach the larger ‘fly-by’ craft released Deep Impact, which plunged into the surface of Tempel 1, causing “a brilliant and rapid release of dust that momentarily saturated the cameras onboard the [larger] spacecraft.”9 The impact crater was the size of a house, and the strength of the collision was sufficient to allow the deeper layers of the comet to be released into space for analysis by the fly-by craft. The mission was hailed a tremendous success by NASA, and widely recognized as a great achievement in the annals of space exploration.

What right do we have to affect a stellar object in this way? Which celestial judge issued humanity with the warrant by which we would be allowed to take chunks out of unearthly bodies? And how can we know that there was no life form on this comet – a life form we could not have detected prior to impact, and certainly not one that we have the moral right to kill. Humans have barely unlocked the first set of gates on the path to discovering all that the Earth has to offer; yet ‘civilized’ humans are now taking the devil-may-care attitude that has damaged so much, to the stars, into a place where the ideas of sustainability and balance lose their comfortable meaning.

Indigenous humans look to the stars and gaze in awe, wondering what might be out there, creating myths about what they can never know fully, and because they manage to retain a sense of humility, live in such away that can last into the distant future.

Civilized humans look to the stars and gaze hungrily, wondering what might be out there for them, decrying myth in favour of demanding to know absolutely and without limits. Because civilization does not have any humility, the future is now terribly uncertain.



Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in North America, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Essex, UK, with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.

Time’s Up! from the Inside : Chapter 6

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

As many of us move through what the Christian world regards as Advent, the time before Christmas, it’s worth reflecting on the season’s origins. The discomfort that the Christian world feels, each time it is mentioned that holding this festival on 25th December is merely a way of distracting from the Pagan Yule (or Midwinter) celebrations, is probably nothing to the discomfort that Pagans feel every year that the natural Solstice period is ignored in the rush to assemble a car trunk full of unnecessary gifts in celebration of an event that — if it did take place — certainly wasn’t any time around December.

The particular significance of this time of year for the contents of Chapter 6 in “Time’s Up!” is the use of trees. In the Pagan celebrations, the Yule Log is usually a chunk of temperate hardwood; oak, elm or ash are all eminently suitable. The origins of the Christmas Tree are, like the Yule Log, probably Germanic and certainly not integral to Christian celebrations; however, their omnipresence in the front rooms of Western homes at Christmas time means that between 80 and 100 million conifers are felled to provide for this habit. Not a huge amount, but it does start to make you think about large numbers…

The Taiga [Boreal Forest] stretches across the northern hemisphere in a vast swathe of spruce, pine, larch and fir, enveloping much of northern Canada, Lapland and the entire length of the Russian nation, often taking great excursions southwards where the dry continental heart is a savage environment for lush grasslands. The Eastern Siberian Taiga alone is a continuous forest 3.9 million square kilometres (1.5 million square miles) in area that is as large as India and Pakistan combined. This is worth repeating: the Eastern Siberian Taiga alone is as large as India and Pakistan combined.

And where such a vast expanse of natural plenty exists, you can be sure that civilization is not far behind, eager to exploit this thing that has magically become a “resource”:

Armed with mechanical harvesters, feller-bunchers and bulldozers for that tricky undergrowth, and backed by friendly governments, he spends his time punching great holes in the forest and stripping down habitat leaving piles of broken scrub and huge geometric areas of infertile, acid soil in his wake. You can find him all over the globe, wherever money can be made from wood. Because of Europe’s centuries- old appetite for vast amounts of timber and paper – an appetite unfortunately not matched by any desire to preserve nature – only 5% of Scandinavia’s forest remains in its native state, the rest being little more than plantation. The ‘timber frontier’ is now encroaching on the Siberian Taiga: in the ten years up to 2006, the timber production of the Russian Federation rose by 41%.

Where such lucrative “resources” are commandeered, and hence such large amounts of money are involved, shady tactics are the norm: from the formal pseudo-certification schemes invented by multinationals to the subtle, but so effective practice of claiming something is sustainable just because it is claimed the forest is “carefully managed”, nothing is too underhand for the corporate world; so it might come as a bit of a surprise to find that an entire nation is openly lying about it’s deforestation figures in order to prevent any attempts to stop one of its largest industries:

The natural Canadian Boreal forest may not have the deeply rich ecological diversity of the rainforest, but nor is it a monoculture plantation of identical trees marching across the landscape in some grotesque military spectacle. The ‘owners’ of plantations in these forests proudly claim the planting of two trees for every one removed – look at the back of a birthday card, or a pad of paper – and they are not lying; yet they fail to explain that those two trees are part of a cash crop, substituting a complex interweaving of dependent species for a desert of quickgrowing sawmill fodder.

The Canadian Government reports to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization every five years on the state of its forests, yet miraculously has stated identical figures in each of the previous three reports: an outstandingly precise 310,134,000 hectares. This has been eagerly seized upon by the Forest Products Association of Canada who state: “If all countries of the world could eliminate or virtually eliminate deforestation as Canada has done, this would have an impact comparable to eliminating fossil fuel emissions in the United States in terms of advancing GHG mitigation efforts”, which would be wonderful if it were true. The FAO, in fact, refers to “the absence of information about forest plantations in Canada” and goes on to state:

“Wood removals are declining in Mexico and the United States of America, while they continue to increase in Canada. This trend is reflected in economic data, with modest growth in several economic indicators in Canada and a slight decline in the other two.”

Something else in the FAO report caught my eye, too. It is in a section called ‘Forest Health and Vitality’. British Columbia, it seems, is undergoing its own logging frenzy, not for economic gain, but to protect against potential economic loss. “The Government of British Columbia has dramatically increased logging in an attempt to slow the spread of the beetle by removing recently infested trees and to recover value from trees already killed.” If BC is indeed logging to protect its future, then somewhere else trees are having to be planted at a rate sufficient to keep up with this; which means that the age and diversity of the Boreal is taking a direct hit, and the Canadian Government are making bare-faced lies about the state of this mighty ecosystem.

In the same chapter, based on my work for The Unsuitablog, I also showed how the Province of Alberta had been using similar statistical tricks (and these are proper underhand tricks, unlike those mentioned in the hacked CRU emails) to make a case for its continued production of oil from tar sands, which are already contributing a significant amount of carbon dioxide to the already overloaded atmosphere. The juxtoposition of these two sets of lies is important because in both cases — the tar sands and the deforestation of temperate areas — this is feeding back into a rapid Arctic warming, that is beginning to blanket the icy north with vegetation, reducing the reflectivity of the land surface and further intensifying global warming.

To add to that, as if it were not bad enough already, the ubiquitous presence of bark beetles is taking advantage of high-stress conditions caused by climate change:

Bark beetles are very picky about what they eat, but in large areas of forest that contain a limited number of tree species that is not a problem for them. The 2006 outbreak of Mountain Pine Beetle – another type of bark beetle – in Colorado, USA, only affected lodgepole pines of a particular age, and no other trees; nevertheless 4.8 million of these trees were killed in that year, and expectations were that the entire 1,000 square mile (2,590 square kilometre) area of lodgepole pines in Colorado would be destroyed, with another 36,000 square miles further north and west in similar peril.

There are a number of factors that affect the likelihood of bark beetle attack. The age of the tree is quite important: the thick bark of older trees provides some resistance, but thick bark also tends to be more fractured, allowing the beetles easier access; older trees also provide much more scope for mass breeding, given the volume of wood available. Another effect of age appears to be the amount of resin a tree is capable of producing: younger trees tend to be more adept at producing resin. Copious production of resin upon attack has been shown to be a tree’s best defence against bark beetles. Overall, old, large trees are more vulnerable to attack than young ones, which makes the impact of the bark beetle particularly significant in terms of scale. Resin production is something also affected by the health of a tree: the Colorado attack followed a long-term drought, leaving the trees unable to produce sufficient sap. There is also a situation where we can once again use the concept of Degree Days.

Remember that in Chapter 3 [of "Time's Up!"] we found that the amount of time the temperature stayed above a certain threshold allowed the calculation of the speed at which a nematode could grow and reproduce. The same applies to bark beetles. According to a report from 2004: “The spruce bark beetle is strongly affected by the ambient temperature. A higher frequency of storm damage events and a higher temperature can increase the risk for a build-up of a large population.” High temperatures can bring out the worst in bark beetles. Storm damage is an important factor too, for a dead tree is not able to produce sap, making itself a perfect habitat for bark beetles.

It all sounds pretty bleak, which is one reason why climate change denial is such a tempting option — it’s much easier to pretend something isn’t happening than to fully account for the potential impact of change that is, at least partly, your fault. Inevitably, the effects of climate change will continue to be felt for many years, even if emissions can be brought down to well below 350 parts per million: but unsustainable deforestation can be stopped by refusing to buy the products of the companies and governments involved; tar sands extraction can be stopped by massively reducing oil consumption; and even anthropogenic global warming can be eventually stopped, if we are prepared to stop being party to a global system that sees trees, fish, soil, water and air as nothing more than “resources”.


Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in the USA, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Essex, UK, with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.

Time’s Up from the Inside : Chapter 5

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Cod. Good Cod. Good Cod Almighty. It is possible that there is nothing more symbolic of the English seaside than this once ubiquitous fish. “Cod and chips twice” has been heard across the land for decades, and it even caused a war of sorts between two fishing nations! But who would have guessed that this animal, more than any other, would also provide the loudest shout of evidence for the unsustainable manner in which civilized humans were pillaging the oceans in search of cheap and plentiful protein? With a length of a metre of more, for the North Atlantic species, it was obvious which organism would have to be the subject of Chapter 5 of “Time’s Up!”, not only for its cultural importance, but also the route it would provide into the archane world of feedback loops.

Before making any bold statements about the nature of the fishing industry, I had to get the facts. A handy piece of software called Fishstats was used, and the results that appeared on my screen were dreadful: there was a crisis, entirely of civilization’s making, and yet we were still pulling fish out of the sea like we owned the oceans.

Looking back to the beginnings of the mass fishing industry, one is filled with a sense that something was bound to go wrong. Tales of being able to drop buckets into the sea off Newfoundland, the edge of the now defunct Grand Banks fishery, and bring them back up full to the brim with fish may not have been far off of the mark during the spawning season – although the explorer John Cabot, who pondered whether he could have walked from one side of the Atlantic to the other on the backs of the cod, would almost certainly have come to grief. The point is, though, that the fishermen (and they were all men up to only a few years ago) really thought that there was an endless marine bounty. Fishing has always had an air of sentimentality, courage and permanence to it: men were made and broken, in dreadful conditions of isolation, wild storms, tiredness and constant pressure, only partly eased by songs, whisky and the thoughts of the family back home. Yet it most certainly was, and is a way of life: “Some guys couldn’t wait ’til the last day of school so they could join the boat,” says Michael Coe, a former trawler skipper at Peterhead in the north-east of Scotland, with genuine excitement. A way of life, but nevertheless an industry, partaken of by thousands of boats across the great fishing grounds of the North Atlantic, Southern Ocean, Arabian Sea, Mediterranean and wherever a mass of marine life is there for the taking.

But business and especially the search for profit now take precedence in almost all formerly traditional and self-sustaining occupations. Whereas the shops and restaurants would in the past have paid the going rate for fish and kept the industry alive for another season, it is now the supermarkets and fish-processors who call the shots – culling prices and progressively smaller fish until the skippers have no choice but to search deeper, further and with more technology; in the sad knowledge that their search for a high-volume, low-price resource is destroying the very thing that kept them going for countless generations.

In the last 35 years…the volume of Atlantic Cod retrieved from the water has plummeted from a high (for that period) of two million tonnes, to less than half that. The type of fish now being caught disguises the real volume – the smaller, immature fish may keep the industry ticking over for a few years, but the future looks barren. Fish colonies are in jeopardy around the world, with over half of all ‘stocks’ (a term used by governments to imply humans own these natural habitats!) fished to full capacity, and a quarter in decline or endangered. There is such a fine line between ‘near’ capacity and ‘over’ capacity that it is fair to say that three-quarters of the world’s major fish colonies are in an unsustainable state: they are not self-regulating – their numbers are being regulated by humans.

Talk about the thin end of the wedge! Once I went exploring the oceans, I found that even more than nematodes (see Chapter 4), the plunder of marine ecosystems was an analogue for the unsustainable civilized culture — cheap energy leads to “development”, leads to efficiency improvements, leads to even greater plunder…and this cheap energy (in the form of fish protein) gets used for a wider and wider range of things including, most notoriously, feeding animals for meat. How absurd is that: catching fish with which to fatten animals to eat!

It was also while writing about the oceans that I had to introduce the concept of Albedo; the amount of electromagnetic energy that something reflects, and something that is critical to the future of the planet. If something absorbs more energy than it emits then it will get hotter, and although the vast oceans will take a long time to get significantly warmer, once they start warming up then they take an awful long time to stop. Furthermore, if a body of water changes its function from being a reflector of energy (in the form of ice) to an absorber of energy (open water), then the way that it interacts with the rest of the atmospheric-oceanic system changes fundamentally.

Feedback loops are fascinating, vital and utterly terrifying when combined with albedo.

I often make the mistake of wearing a particular t-shirt I like on sunny days; it is grey, but with thousands of flecks of black, and those black flecks absorb solar energy (solar radiation) very effectively, leaving me hot and bothered. The difference between black and white is simply that black absorbs every wavelength of visible light (if it is truly black it also absorbs infra-red radiation, which makes things particularly hot) and white reflects every wavelength. Blue-coloured objects only reflect blue light and absorb everything else, green objects reflect green light, and so on. The more solar radiation absorbed by an object, the more energy is being forced into it, causing it to heat up. Albedo is a measure of how much radiation is reflected by something: the higher the number, the more reflective it is.

Fresh snow has an albedo of 0.8 to 0.9 – it reflects 80% to 90% of the radiation. Green grass has an albedo of 0.25, and soil has an albedo of about 0.2. In other words, the melting of snow increases the amount of energy taken into the ground by a factor of four. Now, compare this to what is happening in the Arctic Ocean. Bare ice, which is typically what floats on water, reflects 60% to 70% of the solar radiation falling on it, whereas open sea may reflect almost nothing, depending on the angle of the sun. This huge difference in absorption can make the difference between the temperature of the sea being below freezing – so the ice doesn’t melt – or above freezing. Once the sea gets above freezing-point, that heat energy spreads out with the movement of the ocean currents, melting more and more ice, which in turn causes the sea to heat up. This is a dramatic positive feedback loop and it is happening right now.

While writing this chapter I kept in mind the work being carried out by David Wasdell, among others, into the nature of feedback loops, and the dreadful truth is that we might have been ok without the myriad positive feedback loops that are operating, and still emerging, in the natural systems we depend upon for our survival. Included in these are the melting permafrosts which are starting to exude methane from the northern wildernesses of Siberia and Canada and the movement of the boreal forests northwards into former bare landscapes — both of which I discuss at some length in Chapter 6.

As for the cod, and the rest of the marine ecosystem, it turns out that as the ocean warms up then the ability of water to absorb oxygen goes down; this has a direct effect on all animal life from the smallest zooplankton to the largest gill-breathing sharks. Yet, and tragically, the warming effect may be the equivalent of feeding a child while enclosing it in a straight-jacket:

Cod grow tremendously fast at higher temperatures. At 14°C the growth of cod larvae is up to five times quicker than at 4°C. The problem with any fast-growing animal is that it requires lots of food, and a baby growing five times as fast as normal requires at least five times the normal amount of food. In a sea with unlimited food then that isn’t much of a problem, but in a sea where the amount of food is also being affected by the increase in temperature that is a huge problem; especially when that baby is near the top of the food chain. If a baby’s metabolism is fast but it can’t get the food it needs, then it will die.

Another part of the picture…is that oxygen can cause a ‘squeeze’ if there is not enough to match the metabolism of an animal. The amount of oxygen required by an animal relates directly to the speed and efficiency of its natural processes – breathing, digestion, growth etc. – so if the amount of oxygen available is not sufficient for that animal’s metabolism then its metabolism will have to slow down or the animal cannot survive. Just like when you reach the top of a steep hill and you have to stop for air, if you keep running or walking without a break then you will eventually collapse. Recent NASA data shows at least a 4°C increase in the temperature of some Arctic waters compared to the 20th-century average. If we use the figures from a couple of pages back, this means that the amount of oxygen the ocean can dissolve has dropped by 10% across significant parts of the ocean.

The final part of the picture is that the amount of phytoplankton, the primary source of food for the oceans, is being badly affected by oceanic heating. This is nothing to do with the increased ‘acidity’ of the oceans caused by growing levels of carbon dioxide being drawn into the sea, which in turn causes the shells of zooplankton (tiny floating animals) to dissolve; instead, the warming of the ocean surface means that cold water is not descending as rapidly as it needs to in order to refresh the levels of nutrients close to the surface. Cold water is heavier than warm water, so warm water will always reach the surface eventually; but if the air above the water is warmer than the water itself, then the surface of the water is not cooled down, mixing cannot take place, and nutrients essential to the survival of phytoplankton stay where they are – out of the reach of the plankton. The impact of this is far-reaching, and is bound to affect both the amount of prey available to cod, and the ability of the cod to catch their prey in the first place.

To say we have a poor understanding of the oceans is an understatement, to say the least, yet Industrial Civilization seems to use that lack of understanding as a reason to continue its assault on the greatest climate control mechanism on Earth, and one of the most important sources of food. There are none so blind as those who will not see.


Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in the USA, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Essex, UK, with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.

Time’s Up from the Inside : Chapter 4

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz. At this point I want to say to all the people who have jumped on the “Honey Bees are disappearing, we’re all doomed!” bandwagon: “Please read the literature.” I also want to urge them to read my book, not to sell copies (order it through your library) but simply so the panic writers can find out the nature of the real crisis. Honey bees are important — and if you happen to be a honey bee (unlikely, but you never know) then obviously honey bees are the most important things on Earth — but if they were to reduce in numbers to just a few indigenous colonies, then humanity would be fine.

Agriculture, on the other hand would start having a pretty hard time of it:

If you happen to be a viewer of the PBS television network in the USA, which is watched by 73 million people a week and provides “high-quality documentary and dramatic entertainment”,8 then you may have come across a documentary called ‘Silence of the Bees,’ which showed the potential impact of Colony Collapse Disorder. I hesitate to quote from the trailer, but here goes:

“Life as we know it, I don’t think will exist.”
“You won’t get any fruits, and you won’t get any vegetables.”
“We’re scared to death!”


I hope those people were quoted out of context because they really looked like they were gearing up for global collapse. Actually, that may not be such a stupid idea, but it probably won’t have anything to do with bees. The sober truth is that if the world’s bees disappeared, we would be faced with a disaster of sorts, but that disaster would be far more economic than ecological.

Despite our claim to be omnivores, humans eat a surprisingly small number of different food items. This was certainly not the case before industrial agriculture became the norm, leading to a focus on the easiest to grow, the most disease- and pest-tolerant, and the most profitable crops – in fact ease of growing along with disease- and pest-tolerance are just different ways of ensuring a steady, reliable stream of income in the modern age.

Writing Chapter 4 of “Time’s Up!” was interesting in two particular ways: first, the aforementioned “non disaster” came to light after reading various papers and articles, and realising very quickly that honey bees are exploited (although I don’t make this too explicit in the text - perhaps I should have done) in order to increase crop yield and thus boost the power of the industrial machine. Intensive farming is how people in the industrial world get the vast majority of their food; but it is no safety net, and as you will discover later on in the book, it is this very intensity and complexity that makes the industrial food system so vulnerable. That said, honey bees are very useful to have around — they are excellent pollinators, and need to be encouraged in natural ways, rather than sticking them into rows and rows of boxes next to cash crops, then shipping them off to the next farm when they have done their duty.

The second thing I found interesting was the analogue between Colony Collapse Disorder and the collapse of civilizations. Colony Collapse Disorder (or CCD) has been baffling agriculturalists, scientists and politicians for a few years now, and no one has really come to an agreement as to what causes it (I have my own ideas), except that it is happening and it’s probably down to a variety of causes. The key point is, though, that this phenomenon is repeated in all sorts of different situations where a number of pressures are brought to bear upon a system. Being of a slightly geeky nature, it was a delight to be able to use a simple Cusp Diagram, which is a mainstay of Chaos Theory, and tragically underused in climate science, given that it’s actually quite easy to understand — an explanation is given in the book. Linking CCD to the collapse of civilizations is not that huge a jump to make:

The power of the cusp diagram is such that it can be applied to subjects as diverse as a chalk cliff, a bee colony or even human civilization. Change the horizontal axis to indicate the normal impacts of endemic disease, food availability, quality of healthcare and sanitation, and even government or cultural attitudes, on population, and you can follow the upper path quite happily up and down to show how these affect the human population of a country or a region. Change the depth axis to include unpredictable factors like the incidence of catastrophic flooding and storms, the outbreak of war or civil unrest, the sudden unavailability of energy supplies that feed every system in Industrial Civilization, or any other factor that can increase the sensitivity of a population, and you can be hurtling straight into the drop zone quicker than you can say, “I want to get off ”. And this is certainly not idle mathematical speculation: human civilizations have undergone collapse after collapse, in almost all cases with the post-collapse society left as a shadow of its previous might. The Ottoman Empire, the Mayan civilization and the Roman Empire all collapsed for different reasons, but all of the collapses were sudden and uncontrollable.

This is important because it signals the presence of a thread that runs through the entire book: the inevitability of social collapse under stress; and particularly the catastrophic collapse of complex systems, like civilizations, because they are simply unsustainable. Personally I think the bees will be fine in their natural habitats; it’s just a shame that the way the civilized world produces food is taking away so much of that habitat that would otherwise be able to help us produce lots of food in a truly sustainable way.


Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in the USA, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Essex, UK, with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.