Notes From Underground #7: I Only Have One Prediction for You

Notes From Underground is an ongoing series from Bella’s commissioning editor, Dougald Hine, reflecting on the deeper context of the new climate movements. The first six essays looked at what makes the current wave of climate activism different, how conversations about degrowth are reaching inside political institutions, and where we might look for hope – as well as the implications of ‘climate emergency’ declarations and the Green New Deal, and the common roots of Extinction Rebellion and the gilets jaunes. This week we move into Part II of this series: Knowing What We Know. These essays are also available as a podcast and on YouTube.

Image: The Fortune Teller, Albert Anker, 1880

The walk from the station cuts through the modern shopping streets, then across the channelled river, its banks lined with the painted fronts of older buildings. The afternoon sky is a flawless blue, but there’s an edge to the air that wouldn’t have been there a few weeks earlier. On the steep path that runs up past the castle, you have to stay alert for the cyclists who come flying the other way. It’s the first of September, the first day of a new academic year in this old university town.

The lecture theatre is a cave, down a wide flight of steps, in the basement of one of the newest buildings. There are no seasons underground, here in the bright fluorescent light and the conditioned air. The rows of seats fill up with students, notebooks at the ready, phones set to silent, poised on the threshold.

I have been asked to give the opening lecture of the year at the centre for environment and development studies. During their courses these students will hear from researchers who work at the front line of climate change: earth scientists, ecologists, ethicists, engineers, political economists and economic anthropologists; people with PhDs and academic publications behind them. I am none of these things, and through the weeks of late summer, I’ve been wondering what I could say that might be some help as they grapple with the knowledge that is coming their way.

‘I want to talk about the future,’ I say, ‘but I’m afraid I don’t have any charts or projections. There won’t be one of those quadrant diagrams with four scenarios for how the world might look in 2050. This isn’t going to be the kind of talk which ends with a list of eight things we can do that will make it all turn out OK. In fact, I only have one prediction for you, and I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it, and it’s this …’

Click the remote control, the first slide hits the supersized screens behind me, big letters spelling it out: ‘WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.’

A gentle pulse of laughter passes through the cave, and something eases. Any audience faced with an unfamiliar speaker starts with the fear that it may die of boredom: the sooner you can allay this fear and establish shared signs of life, the more chance there is of going somewhere together. There’s more, though, as we ease into each other’s company: a sense that parts of us are welcome on this journey – parts that might not ordinarily show up in a room like the one in which we meet.

*   *   *

We are all going to die. You, me, everyone who either of us ever loved, our closest families, everyone who might remember our faces or our names: all of us, we are all going to die.

This is not an apocalyptic prophecy, it is only to state the quiet fact of our mortality, the undramatic reality of personal extinction that waits for each of us, sooner or later, somewhere down the road. Yet many of those who study or work with death have come to the conclusion that there is something strange about modern Western society and the way it handles this reality. The Canadian author Stephen Jenkinson, who worked for decades with patients approaching death, suggests that North America has become a ‘death-phobic’ culture. Across the developed countries, there seems to be a difficulty in facing death that sets our current ways of living apart from the ways in which people have lived in other times and places.

I want to suggest that this difficulty is tangled up with the difficulty we have when it comes to knowing, coming to terms with, and acting on our knowledge of a thing like climate change. Way down in the roots of the mess in which we find ourselves, there is a subterranean connection, a shared thread that I want to follow.

For that matter, those among us who have done the most to sound the alarm are not free of this root tangle. Western environmentalism is surely haunted by the same ghosts as the death-phobic culture out of which it came. When we look at that famous image of the Earth from space, I can’t help thinking that our sense of its fragility is overlaid with projections of an unreconciled fear of our own deaths. When we talk about extinction, we call up the shadow of another ending – smaller, yet seemingly total, voiced aptly enough in the words attributed to Ayn Rand: ‘When I die, the world ends.’

I don’t mean to charge my friends in the environmental movement with Randian solipsism, only to own that we too come out of a culture whose attitude to death is skewed enough to make such a statement thinkable. To know a thing like climate change, with all that it implies, to see and speak clearly about it, I need to start with death: to come to terms with my own mortality, not as an inconvenient fact, a thing to try and avoid thinking about, nor as a world-ending event, but as an intimate knowledge, a mystery that makes me who and what I am. Knowing that the body in which these thoughts are cradled will someday be burned or buried, that the world will close quietly around my absence, that this is the ordinary course of events, releases me to be vulnerable and dependent as I always was, a part of processes whose time is vastly other than my own.

*   *   *

Almost a decade ago now, in a brightly lit office space one block from Trafalgar Square, I was introduced to a man who proudly produced a card which he carries in his wallet at all times. The card declared his Lifetime Membership in the Cryonics Institute. For around the cost of the flashy car another man might have bought to mark his midlife crisis, he had become one of the two thousand people worldwide signed up to have their bodies frozen cryogenically at the point of death so as to benefit from as-yet-uninvented medical innovations which will allow them to be restored to life.

On one side of the card was a set of phone numbers to be called immediately in the event of death, to summon the team that would collect his body; on the other side, instructions as to how the body should be handled in the meantime. This mostly involved ensuring that the head was surrounded with ice. I thought of the new layers of anxiety which this investment must introduce: what if no one finds the card? What if there is no ice on hand? What if the institute goes bankrupt and has the plug pulled on its freezers before the necessary technological progress can be made? I’d swear his hand was cold as I shook it, as though the process were creeping backwards and slowly freezing him alive.

Most of us have a gut-level reaction to this kind of scheme for cheating death. We feel that something is astray. There is some shared sense of the distinction, offered by John Michael Greer, between a problem and a predicament. A problem has a solution: you can fix it and it goes away, leaving the situation much as it was beforehand. A predicament has no solution; it is something you have to live with, and you can do a better or worse job of living with it, but you cannot make it go away. When we encounter someone who treats death as a problem rather than a predicament, we have a sense that he is making a category error.

Let Greer’s distinction sit with you for a while and you may come to suspect that we don’t have as many problems as we think we have, given that many things labelled as problems are more likely to be predicaments. In The Long Descent, Greer illustrates the difference with a thought experiment: suppose that you could go back in time to a prosperous agricultural village in the English Midlands, somewhere in the early years of the 18th century, equipped with the knowledge of the Industrial Revolution which lay around the corner; suppose you could convince the villagers of the scale and the speed of the changes ahead, the destruction that is coming:

Within a century, every building in the village will be torn down, its fields turned into pasture for sheep, and the farmers and cottagers driven off their land by enclosure acts passed by a distant Parliament to provide wool for England’s cloth industry and profits for a new class of industrial magnates. For the young men of the village, England’s transformation into a worldwide empire constantly warring with European rivals and indigenous peoples overseas prophesies a future of press gangs, military service, and death on battlefields around the globe. For a majority of the other residents, the future offers a forced choice between a life of factory labor at starvation wages in bleak urban slums and emigration to an uncertain fate in the American colonies. A lucky few will prosper spectacularly by betting on ways of making a living that nobody present on that autumn day has even imagined yet.

Suppose your listeners took all this on board and asked you what they ought to do. What would you tell them?

It is a question without an answer, Greer suggests, because what they are facing is a predicament. It’s not that there is no course of action worth taking, it’s that none of them resembles a solution. Many responses are possible, some wiser than others, none of them assured in its consequences, except for the assurance that they will not lead to the continuation of the way of living which these villagers have known.

The industrial society whose coming marked the end of that village world would prove more confident in its capacity for solving problems than any way of living that had gone before it. It would come to see the world as a puzzle, a set of problems to be solved; yet over time, more and more of the problems it encountered would be the consequences of its earlier solutions. Meanwhile, it seemed to lose the knack of recognising a predicament, or knowing what kinds of actions still make sense when faced with one. Even now, when its world faces forces of disruption quite as overwhelming as those which broke across that English village, the only responses it can imagine are solutions: innovations that would allow us to resume a pre-existing trajectory of progress, growth or development, only with solar cells and vat-grown meat.

Seen through the industrial lens, even death cannot be recognised as a predicament. We react to the category error of cryogenics, but a more diffuse version of the same logic has shadowed modern medicine, which starts by seeing death as failure and ends in drawing out the lives of its beneficiaries at all costs, hooked up to every kind of machine, in the earthly limbo of the dying. Meanwhile, the rest of us – the living – defer the encounter with the predicament of mortality as long as we can, keeping ourselves distracted, until it catches us unprepared, well along the journey of a life, in a phone call bringing terrible news, or among the magazines and posters of a hospital waiting room. It is this deferral of the encounter with death that marks us out, that makes our ways of living seem so strange.

*   *   *

The novelist Alan Garner was born in rural Cheshire in 1934. His memoir of a wartime childhood, Where Shall We Run To?, is a testimony to the lived experience of a world too easily romanticised. What struck me reading it was the unremarkable presence of death. A group of American GIs march past the front porch of the family cottage where Alan is playing with his toy gun, and their officer commands them to salute the delighted little boy. In a sentence, at the end of the chapter, we learn that their homebound ship was sunk and all those young men lost at sea. Yet it is not just the war that brings death to the village. Another chapter tells the story of one of the evacuees, urban children billeted with local families for the duration, a bright girl who becomes a favourite playmate. Again, almost in passing, we learn that she dies of a common childhood illness. In a world where penicillin had not yet reached mass production, this was the ordinary course of events, that at some point in childhood one of your friends would be off sick from school and not come back.

Any reckoning with the deferral of death, the distance we keep from the knowledge of mortality, must start with the remarkable achievements made in the prevention and treatment of common diseases as old as human civilisation. The greatest part of the changes in life expectancy over the 20th century came from public health rather than high-tech medicine. Any sane response to the predicament our societies face in this century surely includes the attempt to bring this knowledge and practice with us into whatever futures lie ahead.

Modernity has two faces, suggests the decolonial thinker Walter Mignolo, as inseparable as the faces of a coin. He calls them ‘the shine’ and ‘the shadow’. If the changes in the prospects for surviving childhood are among the brightest aspects of the way that death has changed in the era of industrial modernity, their shine is not the whole of the story. Seen from elsewhere, what defines this era may not be the triumph over death so much as its systematic outsourcing. The world system which made industrial society possible was founded on the destruction of worlds, not only in rural England, but more brutally across the globe. The conquest of the Americas involved the extinction of 80 to 90 per cent of the indigenous population, a multi-generational genocide in which the impact of introduced diseases was compounded by military, economic and biological warfare. The raw materials that fed the new industrial economy were grown and mined by victims of the new industrial slave trade, black bodies bought and sold and disposed of at will. This systematic savagery was not a side story to the main drama of industrialisation, still so often presented as a history of ingenious white men and the unforeseeable consequences of their inventions: it was a necessary condition for the viability of the industrial economy, and it is a process that persists, in varying forms, to this day.

Small wonder, then, if the discovery of the Anthropocene – the new geological epoch which names the dawning recognition of our predicament – appears from elsewhere as the return of the outsourced. As Mario Blaser and Marisol de la Cadena write in A World of Many Worlds:

The world of the powerful is now sensitive to the plausibility of its own destruction in a way that may compare, at least in some ways, with the threat imposed on worlds sentenced to disappearance in the name of the common goods of progress, civilization, development, and liberal inclusion.

As the Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Simpson told Naomi Klein, ‘It’s been the end of the world for somebody all along.’

There is a further sense in which industrial modernity stands outside the frame of all other ways of being human together, as a uniquely death-fuelled society. All life feeds on death. All enduring human cultures have been shaped by the need to be worthy of what we take. Much of the ritual and story by which humans have found their bearings in the world has at its heart the cultivation of awareness and gratitude for the deaths of the animals and plants that give us life. The need to be worthy is not just a moral aspiration, a desire for a sense of dignity or self-justification, but a practical necessity. Either we make our lives a part of a cycle of gift, or we become an engine of depletion, bringing about a desolation from which we will not escape. The tapestry of myth carries memories of the ways we have ruptured this cycle and the work that has gone into mending it, time after time.

The fossil economy breaks the possibility of such a cycle. How many million years of dying in the forests and seas of the ancient world goes into one generation of living the way we have been doing around here lately? How could our lives ever be worthy of so much death? What could we possibly give back? Committed to dependence on these vast underground reserves of death, the only response that remains to such questions is to silence them, to extinguish the ways of living which embody them, to make them unthinkable.

This is where the geological story of a death-fuelled economy converges with the outsourcing of death, the elimination of indigenous cultures and the reduction of black bodies into factors of production. The argument is powerfully made by Kathryn Yusoff in her book A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None:

The movement of energy between enslaved bodies in plantations, plants, long-dead fossilized plants, and industrialized labor is a geochemical equation of extraction in the conversion of surplus.

The story of our predicament cannot be told without recognising these violent connections and the economic drive that links them.

*   *   *

One evening in the first days of the year, between the news of Australia burning and an assassination in the Middle East, my partner sees a story about a meteor shower that’s due. Outside, the sky is clear and I catch sight of one straight away, a bright flash travelling across the sky, like a silent firework. So we pull out the sun-lounger from my in-laws’ conservatory and lie under blankets, staring up. While we wait, my son wants to be told the names of the constellations. He’s not yet five, but he knows there are two names for everything, Swedish and English, even when these are only two ways of pronouncing names older than the languages we speak: Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades. The last time I saw Alan Garner, he told me there’s new research on the resemblance between the Greek constellations and the figures seen in the sky by Aboriginal people in Australia, the similarities strong enough to hint at common threads of myth leading deep into prehistory, stories carried out of Africa.

‘How does it work when you wish on a falling star?’ my son wants to know. ‘Does the thing you wish for just pop up, out of the ground?’

His eyes are wide with recent memories of Father Christmas and the cartoons he’s been getting to watch on his grandparents’ TV. Suddenly I understand why he was so keen on this impromptu astronomic outing.

‘I’m going to wish for a Paw Patrol fire engine,’ he announces.

I don’t know how to disentangle myself or my family from this way of being, this web of extraction that surrounds us with objects that seem to pop up, magically, out of the ground. I don’t even know how to frame the question, how to name the work that’s called for. (It’s not a problem, I remind myself, it’s a predicament.)

One thing I know that helps – one piece of the work – is to gather and share the embers of other ways of being, blowing them gently into flame together, knowing how much unfinished history we carry with us. Listening to those who have more experience than I do of the ways life has been made to work in other times and places, one theme I hear is how much work goes into making a grown-up. It’s not just something you become by virtue of surviving childhood, or sitting out enough years in schoolrooms and lecture theatres. When the time comes, it takes a work of initiation on which much of the life of your community is focused. You have to be cooked in the flames, I’ve heard it said, and the frame of initiation which your culture builds is the vessel that gives you a chance of coming through the fire.

Among the stories and skills acquired in such a process, among the experiences described by those who have gone through it, a common element is some form of ritual death. On the threshold of becoming a grown-up, you are taken through a staged encounter with your own mortality, an encounter which is taken with the utmost seriousness. I’m thinking about this, and about the clumsy, risk-filled encounters that bridged this gap as I stumbled into adulthood, and a thought comes: so that you do not meet your death for the first time, when it comes for real.

To be a grown-up, it seems to me, is to live alert to consequences; to know the cost of your living. It is hard to be a grown-up in the world that we have made. The cost is almost unbearable. No wonder our culture seems built to keep us distracted, to postpone the encounter with consequences until the last possible moment.

If I set a lot of store by the ways in which people have made life work in other times and places, this is not to romanticise the lives of others. There is no way back, nor would we want one. The lives of our ancestors were hard in ways we do not like to think about – and for this reason, they could not afford the kind of carelessness to which we have been accustomed. Cushioned on millions of years of fossil energy, veiled by the impersonal logic of commodity exchange and the Emerald City magic of the shop window display, the level of detachment from consequences which has been normal, even necessary, for participation in our death-fuelled societies of consumption was until quite recently the preserve of mad emperors. Our ancestors could not afford this carelessness – and nor, it turns out, can we.

Comments (19)

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  1. William Ross says:


    I must say that I enjoy reading your essays but there is an utter disconnect between my world and yours. Consider this paragraph which you penned:

    The fossil economy breaks the possibility of such a cycle. How many million years of dying in the forests and seas of the ancient world goes into one generation of living the way we have been doing around here lately? How could our lives ever be worthy of so much death? What could we possibly give back? Committed to dependence on these vast underground reserves of death, the only response that remains to such questions is to silence them, to extinguish the ways of living which embody them, to make them unthinkable.

    85% of all the world`s energy comes from fossil fuels. Are you saying that it is somehow immoral to use this energy to keep the World fed, warmed and powered? What is the relevance of the aeons of fossil fuel build-up? You have lost me. Would it be more respectful to the dead leaves and animals to leave their fossilized remains in the ground and ignore the children of today? And by the way, what lights and warms your comfortable house tonight? What actual answer do you have?

    Your last sentence makes no sense to me. What do you mean by ” make them unthinkable”?

    Sorry. I am just asking honest questions from my standpoint.


    1. Dougald Hine says:

      William –

      Thanks for reaching out so honestly across the gap between our worlds. We’d all be the better for it, if people did so more often in online spaces. Since this week’s post marked a change of gear from the first part of the series, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other readers who found it a stumbling block – so I’ll do my best to answer your questions.

      A few things to start with, then, before I come around to the paragraph you’ve homed in on. (Incidentally, it sometimes happens when writing that a new thought arrives in the middle of the process – and that paragraph was a case in point. If I’d carried the thought around for a while, it might have been expressed more clearly.)

      I hope it’s clear from the essay that I don’t claim to ‘have’ an ‘actual answer’. That’s one of the things I was getting at with Greer’s distinction between a ‘problem’ and a ‘predicament’: there’s no ‘answer’ – in the sense I think you’re looking for – when what we are dealing with is a predicament. As I say in the piece, my read on the situation of modern industrial society at this point is that it is analogous to that of Greer’s 18th century village, except that the dominant element within the forces against which our way of living is set to break itself are the ecological consequences of industrial activity, including the burning of all those fossil fuels. Next week, I’ll be writing about some things I’ve learned from spending time with climate scientists, but it’s not my purpose in this series to make the case for this read on our situation, because there are people better qualified than me to do so. Other reads are available, though for what it’s worth, many of them come from people I would not advise you to trust.

      And while I hear your exasperation, the gotcha question about how we light and heat our flat is hardly necessary. I’d say I’m pretty straight about the dependence of my own lifestyle on the processes I’m writing about: ‘I don’t know how to disentangle myself or my family from this way of being, this web of extraction that surrounds us with objects that seem to pop up, magically, out of the ground.’

      Still exasperated, you might say: well, if you don’t have an answer, and you admit your way of life is as dependent as anyone’s on fossil fuels, what besides self-indulgence makes you think we should read this stuff you write? What do you think you are trying to do? The best answer I can give is that I write to hold open a space – to contribute to a conversation through which it becomes possible to see things that were not marked on the maps we were given by the societies we grew up in – and (in the words used by Vanessa Andreotti and her co-conspirators in the Decolonial Futures collective) ‘to gesture towards the possibility of currently unimaginable futures’. As I suggested in the opening essay of the series, in the past eighteen months or so, a great number of people have been shaken by their encounter with what we know and what we have good grounds to fear about climate change. In Greer’s terms, they have hit up against the extent to which climate change is a predicament, rather than a problem. It happens that a good part of my work over the past fifteen years has involved exploring what that means, and while I don’t claim to be offering solutions, when I travel around and speak about these things, it seems that quite a few of those who come find what I have to say helpful in their own attempts to make sense of the mess in which we find ourselves. And so it seemed like time to put more of these thoughts in writing.

      Now, back to the place where I lost you…

      Once again, I’ll point to what I wrote – ‘Any sane response to the predicament our societies face in this century surely includes the attempt to bring this knowledge and practice with us into whatever futures lie ahead’ – to repeat that I am not arguing that we should ‘ignore the children of today’. I also alluded to how much of the change in infant mortality (and maternal mortality) is down to public health rather than high-tech medicine, which I take to be a positive sign for how far we can bring with us and build on these achievements in a world where I doubt we will be able to count on the kind of energy flows taken for granted for the past handful of generations.

      It wasn’t my intention to make an argument what we should have done differently before any of us now alive were born – because, as I wrote in the previous essay, in the absence of a time machine, what would be the point in such an argument? What I do see a point in is getting clearer about the shadow side of the history that brought us here, the ways in which it continues to shape the world system which you and I live in and benefit from, and also the possibilities that it may have hidden from view.

      The point I was trying to make in that paragraph – and the passage preceding it – is that, so far as I can tell, the history of human culture has been a history of learning, forgetting and painfully learning again the necessity of being part of a flow in which we take no more than we must and we work to give back. We take through the death of animals and plants that gives us life, we give back through our other forms of involvement in the lives of animals and plants. You could think of this as an equation of life and death. Years of listening to indigenous people, as well as reading everything from history and anthropology and mythography to the first-hand experiences of John Berger and Wendell Berry has made me confident that there’s truth in this read on what being a culture entails.

      The new thought that came as I was writing this essay was that what sets modern industrial society apart from all previous cultures is the vastly changed equation of life and death. In marginal ways, humans had made use of easily accessible excretions of fossil fuel for millennia, but never before had there been a way of living whose ‘taking’ drew on vast stretches of deep time, rather than on the seasons within which its people lived.

      I’m not trying to make a moral argument here about being ‘respectful to dead leaves and animals’. Again, as I say in the piece, the balance of giving and taking, the equation of life and death on which all previous cultures had depended, was a matter of ‘practical necessity’: a culture which ignored it wouldn’t last long. That didn’t stop being the case because we found the trick of unearthing all that coal and oil – but this new excess of death, stored up and ready for the taking, left us deranged, unable to find our bearings or to notice what our way of living was doing to the other forms of life on which we continued to depend. This is the ‘carelessness’ our ancestors couldn’t afford, in the closing lines of the essay.

      What follows, if this is true? Well, another twelve or fifteen essays, over next few months! In all seriousness, though, I think it’s worth at least exploring together the implications of this line of thinking, without reducing it to moral indignation about the idea of weighing the lives of today’s children against respect for the remains of dead leaves and sea creatures. And I accept that you were genuinely baffled by what I was getting at, rather than actively seeking to caricature what I had written. I hope that this rather long-winded response has left you a little less baffled – or at least that your willing to stick around as the series goes on, and maybe we’ll come to understand each other better along the way.

  2. Donald McGregor says:

    I enjoyed this thanks. Before pondering the content though I shall have to get over that you have met Alan Garner. Just mentioning his name makes all alternatives possible.
    Envy abounds. 🙂

    1. Dougald Hine says:

      Donald –

      I’ll be honest, I’m still getting over it myself! 😉

      And as a fellow admirer, let me say that if you haven’t come across the work that Alan and (above all) Griselda have done in creating the Blackden Trust, it is well worth checking out.

      1. Donald McGregor says:

        I didn’t know about Blackden – thanks for the heads up.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    Having occasionally worked in 2nd-tier technical support, it seems that people will commonly tell you what their problem is, yet their focus on something immediate and specific perhaps shows them oblivious to the real nature of their problem. Tech support’s role is often to expand the scope of their help call by common questions such as “what are you trying to do?” and “what do you need?”. Often, they may be using the wrong (digital) tool for the job, and/or are missing an easier way of achieving their goal, and/or misapplying some technique learnt elsewhere (and so on). Typically, they run into difficulties because they have an insufficient generalized understanding of how the systems of technologies available to them work.

    Something similar also applies in software development. Finding out user requirements is rarely straightforward, and users are often unskilled at conveying what they really need (and what problems they need solved).

    This is understandable to some extent, in our complex technological world. Yet we should be able to offer decision support on political issues too. So it is not just a case of problems and predicaments. Sometimes your problem is not your problem, so to speak. Yet I was reminded recently how negatively the neutral academic term ‘problematize’ can be received by some learners on an academic course.

    I remember an anecdote where some student asks for advice from a technical guru, starting their question with the words “I’m not technical…”. The guru cuts the student off: “Then get technical.” This is essentially the problem of an electorate that is not generally able to collectively decide on the problems we face. And for various reasons there seems to have been a partial breakdown in social mechanisms that tend towards stigmatizing ignorant and dangerous bluster (ridicule, shame, ostracism).

    On the one hand, a reduction in deference and an increase in dissent might be welcome. On the other hand, the Dunning–Kruger effect and a lack of systems thinking, general knowledge and critical reasoning ability. And perhaps a lot of us have lost or never gained the environmental literacy needed for human cultures to thrive.

    1. Dougald Hine says:

      SleepingDog –

      I remember writing ‘What if the climate isn’t the problem?’ on a poster on the wall, mid-way through a day-long event in Stockholm in spring 2018. Reading your comment, it occurs to me that I may have been doing tech support!

      (I’ll come back to what I was actually getting at, when we reach part three of this series.)

  4. William Ross says:

    Dear Dougald

    Let me first of all apologise for mis-spelling your name in my post.

    Thanks for your lengthy response. I will respond over the weekend.


  5. Wayne Brown says:

    I note that you pick the unsavoury Ms Rand as the expresser of the unthinkable ‘when I die, the world will end’. Surely, ‘I think therefore I am’ amounts to much the same thing – but then M Descartes may not have been to everybody’s taste either. Then theirs our very own Davit who, with a touch of practicality, said something like ‘ while I may believe there is no ‘reality’ other than my own thoughts, when I walk out the front door I have to obey the rules just like everybody else’.

    I have proved the latter to my own satisfaction (?) when I once, in my late teens, turned back from greeting a friend across the road, and walked into a bus stop. It really hurt. In fact, I blame that, and drinking water transported through lead pipes for the first five tears of my life, for the fact that I am not the genius I feel entitled to be.

    Sometimes I think I must be the most unlucky person in my world.

  6. The Stroller says:

    Thanks for the heads up about death, Dougald…as if there had been a single day on this strange planet in which I haven’t remembered my own personal date with oblivion sometime in the very near future…

    Probably, like many people, what I would like to know about the climate planet emergency is what I can actually do? And for that, I need some basic information like:

    a) Is it better for the environment to take the train, the car or the bus? Don’t mention bikes to me please…
    b) I know that becoming a vegetarian is something you can do to go green, or if not that, eating less meat in general. So, if faced with no choice but to eat meat, which is better for the environment a) the beef, b) the lamb or c) the pork or d) the fish? And what about salami?
    c) Ok, the fish, but which fish? Salmon, haddock, cod, tuna? I guess it probably depends on so many factors.
    d) I hear that soya beans are bad for the environment ALSO.
    e) What about supermarkets? Are they not just temples of consumerist waste? Do they not encourage you to buy food you don’t need with their never ending two for one offers and all that useless and unnecessary packaging? I hate supermarkets, and always have, that nasty lighting.
    But where is the alternative? The local grocer is almost a rarity these days, and the ones that exist, are as often as not yuppie up-market and expensive, run by people called Clive.
    f) What else do I do that burns carbon I ask myself? Really not much. Maybe four flights a year. Maybe 10 or 20 train journeys. Not even that. No car. No exotic holidays skiing or scuba diving with the dolphins. Meat maybe once a week, maybe twice at the most…

    Those would be my kind of questions. Like most people probably, I would like to do more. But I don-t really know how to go about it.. and surely this is something government should invest heavily in, educating the population so that those who want to do something, can do so…

    Ultimately, it’s hard not to be bleak and pessimistic. Free market capitalism, as Adam Smith was the first to observe, leads to the proliferation of needs. Not just desires, but needs…(desires soon become needs)… the whole thing is based on people acquiring things they really don’t need. 80% or maybe even 90% of what we buy.

    In any case, although we can only be pessimistic, that doesn’t mean we should be depressed and despondent. We can be upbeat and cheerful and pessimistic too. If climate breakdown is going to cause the mother of all crises in human civilization, then we should greet it with a joke and smile….

    1. The Stroller says:

      PS: I forgot to mention clothes. I saw something on C4 News about the carbon footprint of even just a white t shirt. Frightening. But if we have calorie labels now, surely we could have carbon footprint labels too? Instead of fretting about weight, we could give ourselves a total carbon number for each week in food and aim to reduce it. Likewise with clothes and rail tickets, air miles etc. Govt and industry have to do more.

      PPS: I know what will happen in Britain. Reducing your carbon footprint will become a moral crusade. And it can’t become that, because that will fuel a right wing denialist backlash. That is what Trump is – a backlash against the politically correct noughties, among other things…

    2. Alistair Taylor says:

      The Stroller,

      (lovely name, by the way. Something so fantastic about going for a stroll.)

      Aye, great post. I agree, we can go cheerfully to the end of our days, with a joke and a smile.
      It’ll all be over, soon enough. This thing that we call “life”.

      ps; supermarkets… I don’t like them either.

      away for a walk in the woods, with the snowshoes, Cheery bye the noo.

      1. The Stroller says:

        Thanks, Alistair.

        This thing called Life is indeed a daily wonder and source of bewilderment… and it has its simple joys. What a beautiful day it was today in Edinburgh. Worth being born and living just one day, in fact just one hour, to see Edinburgh in the winter light, as it was today. What is the meaning of it all? We die as we live: in ignorance.

        I think we have to keep positive and really go and make the change. We can’t be doom and gloom mongers – the Scots carry the world around on their shoulders as it is.

        Some things have improved remarkably in my own lifespan. Homophobia for example was written into Scots Law when I was growing up. The C4 news bulletin just ran a story just now about how as recently as 1987 the army ran a military nurse out of town for being a lesbian. Poor lassie. That’s much improved. Racism was in every second joke at school. Again, that has got much better too, though homophobia and racism still exist, for sure. But when I was growing up, there was still golly wogs on your jam jar and half naked women on your can of cooking lager… which seems incredible now. So, things can and do change.

        What can we do about climate change? We need some govt infrastructure, don’t we? We need the information and we need a really clear plan of action… it’s a mighty challenge, but I don’t think the answer lies in wringing our hands and tearing our hair out about what has happened in the past. We must look to the future.

        Or as Sual Bellow put it, “the past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real: seize the day…”

        1. The Stroller says:

          That Saul Bellow quote doesn’t sound right to me.

          I remember the quote as follows: ” the past will always elude us, the future is full of uncertainties, only the present is real – the here and now: seize the day…”

          But I doubted my own memory and googled it and on Goodreads it came up as expressed above ” the past is no good to us” etc which doesn’t sound like the kind of thing a writer like Bellow would ever have written. Also uncertainty is a much more accurate description than anxiety for the future. How can the future be full of anxiety? It doesn’t make sense. It’s been eating away at me this let hour that Bellow quote, a writer I used to like a lot, but not so much these days…

          I would lay money on that Bellow quote on Goodreads being wrong, like so many others I bet…

          1. Alistair Taylor says:

            Dig deeper…
            Find the book, find the sentence, see it with your own eyes.
            Well, i don’t know. Sometimes i doubt my own memory and sanity too.
            As for the answer to climate change?
            “blowing in the wind” perhaps?
            Bob Dylan, i think.

  7. William Ross says:


    I admire your ability to work many ideas into your text. I cannot address everything you write, but here are some points.

    1. It is important that you concede that you have no answer. Indeed, that position was obvious from an earlier article in which you highlighted that merely switching the UK to electric cars would require the World`s entire supply of cobalt. I can see your “predicament” rather than “problem” argument. However, you refer a few times to our current “mess”. While the World is not heaven, and is filled with much pain, sadness and danger, I perceive that the World is actually massively improving. The evidence is overwhelming. Just since 1980, 800 million Chinese have been raised up out of poverty. Why not read Matt Ridley`s “The Rational Optimist” of Epstein`s ” The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” for countless examples.

    2. You refer to a notional 18th Century English village cited by Greer which would be essentially eliminated by enclosures, industrialisation etc. To help ourselves, let us call it ” Milton”. I am very interested in history and I would love to jump in a tardis and check out Milton. But at night I would want to return to my warm secure house in Aberdeenshire with a 24 hour NHS and constant communications. The people of Milton may have lived very nobly, and may have enjoyed their lives and community greatly. However, their average lifspan would have been little more than 30. Their houses would have been damp and cold. Most ( we are talking England) would have had no schooling. Infant mortality would have been crushing. Disease would have been rampant. The great majority would have been physical labourers. Sore teeth would have been ripped out with pliars. Aristocrats would have been bowed and scraped to. Greer seems to forget that the industrial revolution, though brutal in the 19th century actually massively raised living standards. And rising living standards continue to this day. For hundreds of years before 1800 the indicia of well-being remained stagnant. The key to change was fossil fuels.

    3. You are clearly impressed by the wisdom of archaic societies. Consider this paragraph in your post

    The point I was trying to make in that paragraph – and the passage preceding it – is that, so far as I can tell, the history of human culture has been a history of learning, forgetting and painfully learning again the necessity of being part of a flow in which we take no more than we must and we work to give back. We take through the death of animals and plants that gives us life, we give back through our other forms of involvement in the lives of animals and plants. You could think of this as an equation of life and death. Years of listening to indigenous people, as well as reading everything from history and anthropology and mythography to the first-hand experiences of John Berger and Wendell Berry has made me confident that there’s truth in this read on what being a culture entails.

    While I am very interested in anthroplogy, I do not have great respect for the philosophy of indigenous peoples. After all, the Aztecs were even bloodier than the Conquistadors. I look back on history and do not see any restraint on the part of ancient peoples. Cavemen, after all, wiped out the mammoths.
    I agree that in order to live we must all “kill” animals and/or plants. But I don`t take the analogy further. You appear to be advocating a “Gaia” thesis in which the World has some kind of personality. It is rejecting us now but was not bothered by Hitler or Stalin.

    4. While you have no answer, I do suggest one. Let us continue to use fossil fuels as cheap, scalable, abundant energy which will allow us to spend prodigious money on research into new economic energy forms and let us mitigate any clear effects of the gently warming climate. The only “answer”, frequently argued for on this site, is to launch into a “green deal” which is entirely unsupported by science or economics and in my view will not get any traction because people will not agree to economic and societal suicide. The gilets jaunes are speaking to us.

    5. Do you ever wonder whether you might, just might, be making a big mistake in your underlying climate assumptions. In one of your earlier essays you wrote about working on peak oil theory in ( I think )2009. Peak oil was a certainty then, but is now a laughing stock. You must be aware of the multitude of embarrassing green end -of -the -World predictions which cause great hilarity.

    6. I will certainly continue with you on your journey of essay writing. You are an engaging writer, but, in my humble opinion, you meander too much!

    Kind Regards


    1. john learmonth says:

      Perfectly valid points but you’ll just be dismissed as a ‘denier’. The left hate capitalism even though they choose to live in capitalist societies whilst perfectly free to emmigrate to.such socialist paradises as Venezuala or N.Korea.
      The problem for the left is their still waiting for the ‘collapse of capitalism’ as foretold by their secular god Marx. Unfortunately (for them) it’s never happened and so they cling to any ‘end of the world scenario’which they can try and blame on the capitalist system.
      The current ‘climate crisis’ (its not) is just the latest ‘end of the world scenario’but as you correctly point out the vast majority of the people on the planet today have never lived longer, healthier, richer lives than ever before in human history and thats what the left hate whilst been more than happy to live in such societies rather than going to survive with their beloved ‘indigenous communities’.
      Its called bourgeois guilt.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @William Ross, taking only one point from your … cloud (3). I am not going to defend any empire or religion. Still, the Aztecs (in common with other central and southern American cultures) employed advanced agricultural techniques to achieve efficient, effective and sustainable agriculture, in particular (I gather) chinampas.
      On the other hand, the Conquistadors were extractors, particularly concerned with extracting gold, although the Jesuits and Spanish Inquisition were interested in spreading their own kinds of terror. Considering that their invasion may have killed around 23 million people (leaving 2 million indigenous survivors), mostly by disease, it seems odd that you would make a specific point about them being less bloody than the Aztecs. Considering the burning and torture of heretics and witches in Europe, along with extremely bloody criminal codes where petty thieves could be hanged, along with the endless wars of dynastic succession etc., I am not sure where you are coming from.

      I suppose the modern equivalent of Conquistadors are the fossil fuel corporations, with their invasion-for-extraction under state patronage, their convenient racisms, access to superior firepower, crusader jingoism. I suppose it was similarly less bloody to kill a million Iraqis (including half a million children) with sanctions, than the million killed in the Iraq-Iran War, then seize Iraqi oil.

      Like Conquistador gold, fossil fuels poison the planet (although on a vastly greater scale), and leave little in the way of tangible improvements. Gold may have fostered its own kinds of criminality from state-sponsored piracy onwards, but oil has been the prize in many mechanized resource wars in the last century. Worse than gold, fossil fuels lead us into a technology trap (that we would have avoided/escaped from but for the devious-corrupt mechanisms of rich backers intent on crushing cleaner alternatives from the start). Encouraging inefficiency, waste, pollution, squalor, the burn-ever-more mantras of fossil fuel pushers support societal substance abuse on an epic scale.

      Prior to the industrial revolution (look up Poor-Law Bastilles and read Jack London’s People of the Abyss if you want to know how it ‘benefited’ ordinary people in the UK), the life-abundant Earth was largely powered by the radiant Sun, with tide-giving Moon and some geothermal heat. True, the UK’s extreme nature-depletion started centuries earlier (the Tudor War on Nature, for example) but once industrial burning of fossil fuels took off, the Natural world began to suffer, its riches, ecosystems and biodiversity despoiled and toxified by the Conquistador-Fossil-Fuel extractive-with-extreme-prejudice philosophy.

      The Fossil-Fuel Corporate-State Conquistadors have opened a door into hell. If we are wise, and good, we will now slam that door behind them.

  8. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

    While I had some difficulty in following the argument of your essay, Dougald, I fully agree that we are in this predicament. I also believe that we have recourse to some strategies to address the predicament we find ourselves in, thro’, you can say, no fault of our own.

    We are members, one with another, of the people, the generation of humanity which has wrought so much damage, unthinkingly, but, we now realise, unfairly, greedily, and destructively.

    The ethical demand we now face, as we stand with our children and (in my case) grandchildren, and hope to look them in the eye, is to change course. All of us have to do this, to give the possibility of life to those we have birthed.

    It’s the challenge of our lives. It must be ethical, political, philosophical, religious; it’s a rebellion, a revolution, or it’s nothing. Not just you and me, tho’ it is that. But all of us, as a collective. Against overwhelming odds, just at present.

    But not to act, now that we have the awareness, would constitute the gravest crime against humanity of them all.

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