Famous Artists

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.

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