What Bertrand Russell knew

“Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth – more than ruin, more than even death… It is fear that holds men back – fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect that they supposed themselves to be.” Bertrand Russell (Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916)

“Nothing sucks more than that moment during an argument when you realise you are wrong.” Anon

Adaptation is something we all aspire to. The sort of adaptation we mean here is simple the ability to absorb new information and act upon it – even if it means having to change your mind about a position you had taken earlier. We all have to be open minded to the idea that situations change. Most of us pride ourselves in being adaptable but the reality is that most of us are quite stubborn. This cuts both ways with such topics as Climate Change and Peak Oil. Cynics will have to face up to reality one day in this Century of declining resources. The Government is not going to handover a techno fix on a silver platter. There isn’t another five planet Earths out there for us to inhabit. Something has to “give”. On the flip side of the coin ‘peakists’ & ‘warmers’ have to accept that there is more than one way to skin a cat – and they may not even have the right cat. The more you learn the more you understand how complex the issues are. Human society is complex and chaotic. It isn’ easy to know what will happen next. We can only speculate. No one will believe you if you keep crying wolf. Credibility is the key.

On matters of Transition, thankfully, events reinforce its fundamental ‘rightness’. Transition is, itself, resilient and adaptable by its very nature. It does not need any faith, dogma or ideology to prop it up. The opportunity is real and inevitable. The changes that challenge us are around the finer details of the state of the world and the type of solutions we adopt. Transition is one of those immutable truths. An obvious answer to an obvious problem. It is hard to imagine what paradigm shift could occur that would undermine it. Even if we discovered interstellar travel or zero-point energy tomorrow, the opportunities for resilient communities remains unchanged.

Although resources are finite it is difficult to choose which is the bigger threat – although we have a rough idea. What will be the first wolf at the door? Oil? Climate? Top soil? Clean water? The first casualty of war is truth. Some live in such fear that they adopt extreme positions to make their point. They may then refuse to adapt, listen or understand for fear of knowing something that challenges their world model. Bertrand Russell identified this in the quote at the head of this blog. That was in 1916 but it is an ageless truth. No one wants to be proven wrong.

A recent letter write to the Bucks Free Press commented that Peak Oil was being used to bolster flagging Climate Change arguments. The letter writer was partially correct. Peak Oil does reinforce the Climate Change argument but not in the way he thought. It is not an ideological issue. We are not working our way down the shopping list of resource shortages until – bingo – we get lucky. Peak Oil robs us of the cheap energy we need to adapt to Climate Change. Climate Change makes adapting to a life after cheap oil far more difficult. The two dance a close-knit tango with no happy endings in today’s globalised economy. This letter-writer was assuming that Climate Change had been debunked so the discussion had moved on (in desperation) to the next item on the list. He is wrong… But…

There remains a genuine concern. In our last blog I commented that the beauty of Transition is that we will always be right – eventually. Ths is a double-edged sword…. We can end up looking a little too smug. Beware hubris! Just being right is not enough. “You can prove anything with facts!” once argued Homer Simpson. To mount a cohesive long-term argument we have to know why we are right. There can be no sacred cows. No over-simplifactions. We should be more than right – we need to be persuasive. We should focus on the positive opportunities of Transition & be flexible. We should not be too wed to any specific solutions. Evidence can always emerge to either strengthen or weaken a case. We have much to learn – always. The real world is more fluid. When information arrives that contradicts our deeply held belief we need to take a deep breath and think about it. The contradiction may be a load of baloney delivered for some ideological purpose… Or it might not be.. There could be a crumb of valuable truth buried there somewhere.

An example: It is perfectly valid to question the Kyoto agreement and discuss what kind of agreements need to replace it. It is reasonable to expect that there cannot be a like-for-like replacement for it. Voices calling for a rethink are not necessarily the hidden noises of a fossil fuel industry crying out for ‘business-as-usual’. A new Kyoto is not the holy-grail of Climate Change treaties or an end in itself. Getting angry at politicians, because reaching such an agreement is an utterly intractable problem, is probably a waste of breath. We may have to open a few windows in consider if there are other approaches. There is a lot of NGO and Political capital tied up in Kyoto and its successor. It is hard to let go. But let go we may have to.

Another example: peak oil as an immediate-end-of-the-world-threat. Aaargh! Run to the hills! Classic ‘Peak Oil curves’ are drawn up showing us plummetting off a cliff as if the crash of civilisation is just around the corner. In fact that is rather unlikely. More likely is a longer descent. An unwinding. Seasoned voices talk of a ‘descent pathway’ for that is what we are plotting. “Plateau oil” started a couple of years ago and could be around until 2020 or 2025. This is a marathon not a sprint. We should count ourselves lucky. Shortfalls in oil production will be only partly made up from substituting other fossil fuels. This guarantees a long plateau so we need not be too fearful. It will be a generational problem but we have to be ready and start the Transition now. Waiting until 2020 is too late if the Transition takes at least 20 years! However we torture our case with visions of plummeting rollercoaster rides to try and panic everyone into acting. That won’t work. Wish it did! But let’s face facts. Pumping up the fear factor makes people rigid with fear so they do nothing. Transition is simply a better way – not a terrifying vision of us jumping into life-rafts. Obviously though, this better way averts the danger. We only need fear the lack of change and adaptation. Cranking up the terror level is counter-productive.

The threats of climate change and peak oil are all too real. But (in the words of the old insurance advert) we shouldn’t make a drama out of a crisis. Extreme views provoke extreme opposite opinions. It becomes a battle rather than a dialogue. It is counter-productive. The shock doctrine will not awaken a sleeping population no more than the Blitz destroyed the will of Londoners. The kind of social and cultural change needed at the end of the age of oil, will take 20 to 50 years. It is a long and painful process which is why we are starting now. We must not scare ourselves silly every morning with the view that, if we don’t, we won’t be motivated into doing anything. Exhaltations of “only five years to save the planet” just don’t work unless ‘climate-porn’ floats your boat in a gratuitous way.

What we need is a rallying call for level heads and careful planning. Just look at the Transition Timelines and backcasting exercises that all seem to end in 2025. In reality 2050 is more realistic. Is 2025 chosen because it seems more close at hand than 2050 (hence more threatening)? Do we need to justify our own existence and reason-for-being with such rigour? What are we afraid of? We live in interesting times so lets us not blow it with over-enthusiasm. We should contemplate the real possibility that we have conjured up failed processes. People who don’t make mistakes don’t make anything. Move on. Build a better mouse-trap if the first one is clap-trap. We need to invent new solutions and continually modify perspectives based upon learning. Transition is the destination, the route may change during the journey.

The Transition Movement is a knowledge-based organisation in a prime place to reinvent the world – just as long as it remains adaptable & well briefed on the latest science, politics and economics. If we do not then we will stop thinking outside the box. You can fight climate change in your own backyard without having any dogmatic belief in either global warming or cooling. All you need to know is that we can change our climate, we are vulnerable to changes in climate, and that it is a risk we must not take. Likewise you can set your life up as a long-term battle to wean your community off fossil fuels without stocking up on tinned foord and shotguns. The world is already full of irrational fear. Let us be the voice of calm reason. Words of urgency need to be gentle and balanced by strong words of hope & opportunity. Let’s be the answer.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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