Blink Of An Eye

The Berlin Wall and other falling dominos

Upright Figure No 7, 1970, Berlin, by my uncle René Graetz

I grew up in a world in which East was East and West was West. People operated in separate realities that seemed absolute, even if they were only four decades old.

I had an aunt and uncle – both artists – and cousins living in East Berlin. When we visited them it felt like another world. In some ways it was.

This week we remember the fall of the Berlin wall. In space of two months between now and the New Year a world suddenly changed. The entire Eastern Bloc fell apart as the Eastern economy crumbled and the popular desire for change ripped the old accommodations to shreds.

Though both my uncle and aunt had been famous artists in the East, friends and collaborators of Brecht’s, the world they existed in was swept aside. Their considerable reputations vanished overnight as the communist East was absorbed into the free West. Not only was the cultural structure that supported their work suddenly swept aside, the work itself seemed suddenly old-fashioned and irrelevant in the new paradigm. The fundamentals changed within the blink of an eye.

We are living in a world of old assumptions that are about to be knocked apart. Today’sGuardian leads on the remarkable story that a whistleblower in the International Energy Agency claims that the IEA has been fudging its figures to keep oil prices low. The facts of the story aren’t what are remarkable. Scientists have been discussing peak oil for years; what is signficant is that the IEA, who for years have been producing figures which make little sense, is finally starting to show signs of cracking. Supplies, say the whistleblower, will struggle to meet a low target 90 – 95 million barrels of oil a day in the next few years. “We have already entered the ‘peak oil’ zone,” says the source.

The Transition Town movement has for years asked serious questions about how we will live in the post-peak oil world. It is an optimistic viewpoint, looking to the positives of what a new era can bring. Of course it has remained largely a fringe movement, its policies given a lukewarm welcome by the administration but almost entirely ignored. In Britain we still have no serious plan to make the most of the coming paradigm shift.

Rising oil prices will mean massive changes in our culture and society. We are used to imagining ourselves only as part of the triumphant West. We were, until recently at least, theend of history. What if right now we’re more like the old East whose fall was said to create history’s end? If oil prices rise as fast as may predict, like the fall of the Berlin wall, they will catch everyone by surprise and sweep much of what we know aside unless we start getting our heads round what’s about to happen.

We will look back, like the marooned men of the old regime and wonder how come we didn’t see that coming.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

Environmentalism: towards civilisation, or “uncivilisation”?

The environment movement is failing because it has only a negative vision of the future. Discuss.

That’s the nub of the argument suggested by Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club in her essaythat we published last week, and one echoed by Emma Ridgway’s recent article for theRETHINK exhibition catalogue. Environmentalism, the argument goes, is about limiting possibilities. It’s about what we shouldn’t do. Appleton believes that art has a visionary role in thinking beyond this drought of possiblity; humanity must instead accept its place as the species that transformed the earth – we must take on that leap of consciousness when we start to think of solutions and not start from the romantic baseline of earth as a wilderness, despoiled by man. We must move forwards, not back.

A radical idea. And the polar opposite to another radical idea proposed recently by poet/writer/activist Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. For them and their Dark Mountain Project, human civilisation itself is the toxic factor that has plunged the earth into crisis. In the blink of an eye – the five thousand years or so  in which  humanity has accelerated towards modern civilisation – we have so stamped over the intricacies of nature that the wheel is now flying off the machine. We must prepare our exit from civilisation, for “uncivilisation”. In the visual arts, this has echoes in the recent work of Heather and Ivan Morison, whose How to prosper in the coming bad years discussion takes place in The Black Cloud (see above) next weekend in Bristol.

Art, a place where the imagination can roam to extremes, is an excellent laboratory for ideas.  The Dark Mountain Project finds its inspiration in literature, particularly in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers – the Californian who shared a romantic vision of wilderness with environmentalist Edward Abbey, referred to below. It was Jeffers who had first suggested the idea of  “inhumanism” that  inspired the Dark Mountain Project. Human civilisation was, Jeffers suggested, always too self-centred to understand the complexity and beauty of the world around it. The Dark Mountain Project also plant their flag in the literature of Joseph Conrad and his “heart of darkness”.

There have been some interesting responses to the Dark Mountain provocation. In the New Statesman, John Gray responded to the Dark Mountain provocation by demonstrating that literature has in fact been much more successful at showing the catastrophic results of “uncivilisation” than eulolgising it. There is nothing romantic about the crumbling of civil society. Gray too cites Joseph Conrad, to make the point that Conrad, like J G Ballard – shows the genuine  horror of what a society in disintegration actually looks like. Both Conrad and Ballard were witness to the atrocities that happen when the crust of civilization is removed.

(On a sidenote, Paul Kingsnorth and I have disagreed elsewhere about whether Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road is a novel primarily about climate change. Gray’s line of argument  reminds you that MacCarthy’s book, in which baby-eating survivors scavage the land,  displays the awful consequence of uncivilisation.)

But as both suggest, it’s time to rexamine the givens. Environmentalism hasn’t produced the major shift in culture that the global warming era requires. Something radical has to shift.  Appleton’s idea is that to save civilisation we need more civilisation, not less:

The anthropocene is here, and there is no way back. To wish that we could retreat is the mythical fantasy of wishing that we never ate the apple or stole the fire. It is a wish that we were children again, back in a former stage of history. We cannot reverse out of the anthropocene but only go forward.

I doubt John Gray would quite see eye to eye with Appleton’s thesis either. Gray’s book Straw Dogs was a vigorous assault on the idea of that idea of human centrality in nature. Appleton’s argument is unashamedly anthropocentric; in fact the very notion of the anthropocene, by definition, is a human-centred concept. Gray follows James Lovelock: such assumptions of human supremacy over nature are fundamentally arrogant and hubristic.  Myself, I find the technological postivism of Appleton’s approach hard to embrace. Above all, I don’t believe, as she does, that, ” The climate moves slowly; we have time.”

The Black Cloud by Heather and Ivan Morison (Bristol, 2009)photographed by ac (y su camarófono)

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology