“I am writing to inform you that as of the end of 2020, I am resigning my position with the environmental movement”
“And hereupon, The Earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury of relief for all, both Beasts and Men) was hedged in to In-closures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves” – from The True Levellers Standard Advanced, by Gerrard Winstanley, 1649
It’s two years since I went blind, had surgery, but more importantly had to spend eight weeks with my left cheek pinned flat to the bed all day. After a hectic decade1, for the first time I had a chance, without distraction, to reflect on what was, what is, and what may be. This is what I have taken time to discern – and many of you may not like it:
To begin, this has been a long-time coming2. It’s important to take time to think and reflect; to act with clarity rather than ill-judged urgency. Many’s the time when out on a walk3 I’ve stood and thought, “now?”; only to put it off to another day because I could not freely speak what was in my mind.
Now it is that day.
What I talk about here has grown over a decade4 or two5; though it has become more pressing over the last five or six6 years, and extremely so over the last two. There are two main drivers for that:
It’s important to note that I’ve been ‘doing this’ for a long time: My first ‘environmental action’, aged 9, was a response I wrote at school to a 1977 consultation on the local plan for Banbury; by 14, I was active in local peace and environmental groups; by 17, I was leading direct action protests17.
In 1992, that ‘amateur’ interest turned into a full-time job18 – which I have been doing ever since. That has taken me all across Britain, working with all kinds of communities and individuals – and occasionally way beyond19. It’s been an absolute pleasure and honour to work on20 all those campaigns; but now is the time to change the focus of that work.
That inevitably means risking the loss of many of the ‘friends’ I have now (hence my delay in writing this); but I have to take that risk now because I can’t in all honesty continue in this role otherwise.
After six weeks of near darkness and awesome visual hallucinations – as my brain tried to make sense of my slowly healing eyesight – my vision began to return in late January 2019. During that time my mind ‘went for a walk’; or rather, it revisited many of the places I have walked21 and camped over the last forty years. As I’ve managed to tie-in walking and camping with working around the country, inevitably, as I revisited those places, I also relived the work I had undertaken while there – and the reasons for doing it.
People have said since, “weren’t you afraid”. I think the honest answer is, “no”. What many might see as a horrific event, I ‘viewed’ from the beginning as an opportunity to do some serious thinking.
Of course, ‘thinking’ can be very dangerous. In February 2019, when I began using a computer again, I opened a new folder called, ‘Resignation’. Since then I have been collecting notes and references that illustrate what it is I have felt for a long time. This has provided the embedded links to this paper – which I strongly urge you to read.
What is it that makes it difficult for me to call myself, or identify as, an ‘environmentalist’? In short: What today is called ‘environmentalism’ has become a self-serving consumer philosophy that strives to preserve affluence rather than protecting all life on the planet.
That is not what led me to adopt this attitude22 to the world in my youth; that is not why I’ve spent almost 40 years actively working to ‘change things’.
Bill Hicks25 had a wonderful line: “Cease your internal dialogue, you’re wrong”. That sums up the feeling I’ve had for a while now. Even when I can substantiate ideas with research, I’ve been forced to tone down those thoughts to work with others.
As I can no longer downplay that critique, I cannot in all honesty identify as ‘an environmentalist’.
More than anything else though, as environmentalism becomes a dialogue on the vicissitudes of affluence, and takes on a purpose that is essentially to preserve that lifestyle, environmentalism has isolated itself42 from the ‘average’ person43 – precisely because the ‘average’ person44, both in Britain and the world, cannot realistically aspire to having such a lifestyle – so why work45 to preserve those values?46
This is my ‘resignation’: That the environment movement is unwilling, and unable to change; because it cannot perceive the errors that arise60 from its disconnection between goals and means; and those who ‘lead’ will not veer61 from that course before a large-scale ecological collapse62 takes place.
If I then respond with peer reviewed research or technical explanations as to why the change they seek is impossible, the result is usually silence69 – as if, as is generally the case with denial70, failing to engage with the criticism will make it go away.
I do not ‘blame’ people for that position though. Those responses are not really that person speaking; they are neoliberal tropes74, being repeated because that is what the public are told these critical arguments represent. Unfortunately, ever since such fallacies75 were promoted by Plato76 twenty-four centuries ago, just because these statements have authority doesn’t make them true.
Technology is incapable of solving the ecological crisis89 because the increase in system efficiency, or the cut to emissions involved, is beyond the ability of technology to deliver – unless we have significant change to affluent lifestyles26 at the same time.
Technology is not neutral. Technology reinforces90 the economic and political culture of the present-day, by allowing the economic system to operate in the way it does. From modern slavery to climate change, campaigns focus on the ‘bad’ results of the global technocratic economy; ignorant of91 how the ‘positive’ reinforcements of consumerism, and especially the screen-based digital realm92, reinforce an identity based upon materialism92 to perpetuate itself.
OK… turn it off and do what? Let’s say I turn-off all the gadgets in my life; now what? In today’s society how would you work, or buy and cook food?
The idea of ‘dropping out’ of technologically-enabled society represents a ‘double-bind’94; you can’t exclude yourself from that society because the way it functions prevents you from doing so. Rather like closed religious sects, turning off the technology confers a kind of automatic ‘social death’, that cuts you off from everything else in your life.
For that same reason the opponents of Deep Ecology use this argument as an attack95; that ‘turning-back progress’ is impossible, and so continuing with ever-more technology96 is the only viable option for all humanity. And yet, if that ubiquitous technology were to suddenly fail or be disrupted, that’s an arguably a worse97 situation to be in.
What environmentalism increasingly does, instead of advocating lifestyle change, is use technology as a proxy98 for discussions about the impacts99 of the affluent lifestyle; but in a way which does not challenge the values of that lifestyle – and which shifts its ‘externalities’100 away to distant101 economies.
Twenty-five years later where is that ecological critique? It was passed over by mainstream environmental organisations, keen to curry favour with governments: First for an abortive diatribe108 over biofuels, until biofuels were shown to be worse109; and more recently, a discussion about 'green' cars110.
Today, that twenty-five year-old critique of transport policy would be called, ‘anti-car’111.
Early on during my time face-down in bed I listened to a backlog of podcasts and audiobooks. I gave up that monotonous activity very quickly, and remember few of them – with the exception of one.
As I lay, face taped with eye-shield, I listened to a short biography of John Muir118. In 1866, an industrial accident119 cut open Muir’s right eye; then his left eye sympathetically failed. It resonated with my own predicament – albeit my ‘industrial accident’ was likely the result of 30 years of intensive research.
Laid in bed for six weeks, Muir realised that he missed not his modern life, but his simple travels.
I too realised that things needed to change. Around 2017, I had stopped calling myself an ‘ecological futurologist’120, and instead used the label ‘planetary hospice worker’121. If the research you review keeps telling you that technological society has no future, how can you call yourself a ‘futurologist’?
To preserve any measure of freedom and autonomy in their existence, humanity must let go122 of affluence and consumption – which, for many, is not unlike a ‘death of the self’123. These are two very distinct kinds of discussion: You don’t help people come to terms with that by explaining environmental destruction; you help people, as hospice workers do, to accept the end of their existence as ‘consumers’.
Just before my eyes failed, I had been in a protracted debate with some of those setting up Extinction Rebellion. I tried to explain that their approach was wrong, for reasons others would later echo124.
Fundamentally Extinction Rebellion are a bunch of good-hearted, upstanding people125 who are being led by ‘wannabe agitators’126. Explaining that is a blog post in itself, and frankly I’ve no interest in doing that – or I would have written that already.
Their latest antic, ‘money rebellion’127, is so ignorant of the economics of fiat currencies128 and the debt-finance system129, it deserves ridicule. It proves that their outlook on the world is one of a trapped consumer, unable to think beyond those systems of consumption in order to find a new pattern for living.
They can’t see those alternatives130 because their affluent outlook lacks an ecological critique of modernity131; and if you broach that with them most reject it as ‘extreme’ – such has been the victory of neoliberal economics over common sense, embodied in the creation of the “extreme centre”132.
Extinction Rebellion is not helping people adapt to the inevitable curtailment of mass consumption. They are not arguing for something better than consumerism, but for options that – like the Green New Deal – avoid any troublesome discussions82 over consumption and lifestyle133 altogether.
Just like the “turn it off” argument, Extinction Rebellion offer no alternative vision. But if all those grand green schemes are to be believed, the future looks relatively so like today, why would an ‘average’ person believe it offers anything better?
If Covid should have taught the public anything, it is that – irrespective of any claims to the contrary – politicians and technocrats are not in control. Just as, a decade or so ago, the financial crash demonstrated economists are not in control either.
The reality then?; no one is in control of technological society. Those ‘at the top’ are as effectively trapped134 in that same ‘double-bind’ of technology as the ordinary consumer I talked of earlier. Those ‘in charge’ are in it for whatever they can get, because that’s what the system requires them to do.
I need a new job: With my eyes as they are now, I cannot maintain the effort required to do what I have been doing for the last thirty years.
There’s a witty maxim: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach, teach PE”.
Given my present condition, I need to find the ecological equivalent of teaching PE!
Growing up, I never had ‘affluence’. The life-skills that were taught to me as a child – from growing and cooking food to foraging – were an inheritance from generations of my poor ancestors; who used simple, practical, communal skills to survive Britain’s historic exploitation of the semi-rural poor.
By adulthood I made those skills into a deliberate lifestyle. There is no way I could have enjoyed the life I’ve had if it were based on a ‘modern’ lifestyle.
At one low point, I earned money teaching people those skills138 because they were considered ‘green’. There’s an idea: Finding new ways to teach those skills. That’s the best I can offer the world right now, given what is likely to happen in the next few years.
If I had to pick a label for that – a simple slogan to encapsulate what it is people need to do – what would that be?: