Posted by: Jon | 28/01/2010

Letter to the ones I love

Many of my close family and friends seem so discomforted by my concerns for our future on this planet that they mostly dismiss or ignore what I have to say. At least that’s what I assume because, in the main, they do not respond to me about it. It’s possible they worry that I’ve gone crazy. 

And as I watch normal life going on around me, I can still sometimes doubt myself whether my anxieties are real or the product of an overactive imagination. So I seek virtual reassurance from people I’ve never met who are unlikely ever to form part of my daily social networks.  

For instance, since writing my last post on community, I have been reading Sharon Astyk, Rob Hopkins and Dmitri Orlov who have each responded to an article by John Michael Greer on a similar theme. And it occurs to me that there are certain characteristics – apart from their willingness to face up to global catastrophe – that these and other commentators I refer to on this blog share in common.

Firstly, they tend to be articulate, informed communicators who have built up sizeable followings to digest and respond to their views – sometimes with dissent but usually providing encouragement and validation. Secondly, they are all actively preparing themselves and their ‘significant others’ for the future catastrophes that they anticipate. And thirdly, they all challenge the existing status quo whilst apparently occupying positions of relative physical and psychological security within it.

These commonalities of reciprocity, active engagement and protection from immediate threat seem to empower them with the required agency and equilibrium of mind that enables constructive engagement with the traumatic issues they bring to our attention.

The impression I gain is that, in their present life circumstances, they are all positioned fairly high up on Maslow’s pyramid of human needs. I may be presuming too much here because, apart from Sharon Astyk and Rob Hopkins (who both sometimes provide insights into their domestic and social  circumstances), they mostly expound on their themes without reference to their personal lives and abstractions. It may be that they do struggle with familial or financial or work related anxieties, but if they have expressed these, then I have missed their disclosures. 

This is not to suppose that they live their lives blissfully free of domestic worry and concern. But broadly speaking, they and their families appear not to lack in their basic needs for shelter, sustenance and security, nor to be deficient in nurturing love and affection. The confident assurance of their writings suggests a healthy sense of belonging and self-worth and their lives plainly have purpose, providing them with opportunities to ‘self-actualise’ and realise their potential.

In short, they come across as balanced, well-adjusted individuals who have developed stable work and home lives and supportive social networks. They have successfully created the conditions that enable them to address with calm positivity the truly terrifying scale and urgency of converging crises. And this seems to me to be vital because the prospect of a slow, lurching but remorseless descent into economic and social collapse is not the sort of eventuality one best prepares for on one’s own.

An exception to this apparent norm of domestic stability is environmental activist and philosopher, Derrick Jensen, who reflects on his upbringing in an abusive home to shed light on the dysfunctions of civilisation and why as a species we humans may be beyond redemption. If, as Milton wrote, “childhood shews the man, as morning shews the day” then the legacy of his upbringing has surely influenced his deeply pessimistic world view. Although it has not prevented him from forcefully confronting the issues and, judging by the popularity of his writing, his words have struck a chord with many.

But I am led to wonder how much the security (or lack of it) that we experience in our formative years affects our adult dispositions towards blind optimism or constructive realism or avoidance or negativity – or any of the variety of shades in between – and thus how well equipped we might be to face up to the ‘long emergency’ scenarios I refer to in this blog. When I think of my own family and long-term friends, it dismays me to see how many are overstretched in their lives. A disproportionate number seem to suffer from stress related societal dis-eases such as chronic fatigue or bi-polar disorder or other conditions that have resulted in psychiatric or psychological intervention.

Although it seems my social group is far from unique because a reported 1 in 4 in the UK are treated annually for mental health disorders. How many more do not seek help or self-medicate with illicit drugs and alcohol is anybody’s guess, but statistics for binge-drinking and children growing up in poverty and the growing divide between rich and poor suggest that many millions might be barely coping as things stand, let alone able to countenance any as yet imperceptible additional stresses.

I grew up in the shadow of alcohol addiction and I recognise how this early insecurity has shaped my worldview.  It has influenced my own and my siblings’ life decisions and left more than a few of my family with psychological scars that have not healed well with time. And I have observed how the fall out from a dysfunctional upbringing has affected younger generations also.  

In our volatile family set-up, I was the child who kept an eye out for the warning signs of irrational mood swings and took too early a responsibility for the welfare of my three brothers. And I was disconcerted that this needed to be concealed from the outside world. I suspect that I am repeating these same behaviours now in wanting to confront ecological ‘apocalypse’ (Greek: apokalypsis – lifting of the veil) instead of skirt around it. So whilst my childhood experiences have left me understanding of people’s need to pretend and confabulate, awareness of the urgency of our environmental predicament has made me increasingly intolerant of these displacement strategies.  The fact is, I am much less disturbed by the overwhelming and seemingly intractable nature of our problems than by other people’s avoidance of them. For me this is worse even than denial that the problems exist.

So I am not much troubled by the derisive attitudes of the over-publicised ‘sceptics’ or by those who leave vitriolic messages under George Monbiot’s latest column. Whilst I know that their mischief-making serves to prolong wider public disbelief, they don’t concern me because they do not impinge on my decisions for my life and, when I encounter them for real, I can challenge or ignore them as I choose. It isn’t difficult to establish their motives or to counter their arguments because they at least speak them out loud.

But I am dismayed that, since my ‘peak everything’ awakening, my intense engagement with the issues has resulted largely in an uneasy silence from my family and friends. My own awareness of our human situation has become all-consuming and I cannot help but be reminded of it dozens of times each day. I can no longer do anything as simple as travel on a London bus without gazing down at the incessant traffic and the seething crowds and wondering what it is that we think we are all so busy with in our lives.

As philosophy lecturer John Foster put it in a letter to the Guardian: “And what are we hazarding the biosphere for, exactly? For work widely devoid of meaning, for electronic entertainment consisting of endless repetitive chatter, for recreation which moves us restlessly around the world, and for a chance to shop in order to escape the pointlessness of shopping.”

Once having internalised this life-changing reality  – and committed to acting upon it – then it is primarily the reactions (or lack of them) amongst the people I relate to daily that have become the main cause of my consternation. Alistair McIntosh writes of the feeling of “spoiling…dinner parties and putting friendships on edge” and “poisoning debates” whilst researching his book on climate change and the human condition. Similarly, Donnachadh McCarthy refers in his excellent eco-auditing  guide to the discouragement of having his early awareness-raising efforts disparaged. And I remember reading the plaintive on-line comments of someone who, having sold his car, forsworn flying, and made other major sacrifices to deep-green his life, concluded “…and, boy, is it lonely!” Because, when formerly easy conversations with friends and associates about their next foreign holiday plans become suddenly so loaded with significance, we have a more-than-usual need to feel supported and validated by those who matter to us.

Of course, prophets of doom have never been easy to relate to and are usually sidelined as the wierdos on the margins of society. But then again there has never been much call for prophets who are in synch with societal norms. Though I don’t regard myself as a prophet but only as a messenger who has found the true prophets of our age – many of whom I reference on this site – to be convincingly balanced and rational people. Perhaps my friends and family disagree with this assessment. Perhaps they do worry that I’ve become deranged. The thing is I don’t know because we don’t communicate about it.

Family and close friends form the base social unit of our species and once upon a long ago were the means by which we aspired to meet the physical and psychological needs that Maslow proposed as essential for our well-being. In ideal circumstances, we construct our lives on firm foundations of kinship and affection – what my father calls ‘love and loyalty’ – and we trust to be able to fall back on these in hard times.

But in our fast-moving age these connections are all too commonly severed as we become separated by geographical distance, our individualistic preoccupations, and the need to move around to secure a livelihood. We try to keep up with each other only inadequately on the telephone  – which for me is anyway an unsatisfactory and interruptive form of communication – and perhaps at Christmas, and our familial relationships can sometimes morph into burdensome duties that seem only to add to the daily grind. How can we hope to form resilient and nurturing communities when the ‘flywheel momentum of society‘ so relentlessly forces us apart? How might we support each other in the even harder pressed future lives that I anticipate if we are unable even to talk about such a prospect?

So in the absence of discussion of these matters with the people who are most significant to me, I started up this blog as a kind of virtual correspondence, often with them in mind. Posting articles here is, in part, a cathartic exercise – an outlet for the observations and opinions I’ve become wary of discussing openly for fear of being overly intense. But realisation of our planetary crisis is intense, especially if experienced in isolation from those whom we are close to. And this intensity can only reduce if it translates into collective awareness and a willingness to address the issues with collective resolve.        

I remain conscious then that this blog is a one-sided virtual conversation and that the fundamental basis for any meaningful communication is reciprocity. I make no such claims for my own scribblings, but it seems unlikely we would have benefited, for instance, from the profundity of T.S. Elliot’s correspondence had Ezra Pound always been too busy to reply. And, more mundanely, we all prefer to have our carefully chosen birthday gift acknowledged or to elicit a response to the postcard or email we dispatch that lets the recipient know we think of them fondly from time to time. But it’s clear to me that my blog offerings have not succeeded in opening up the discourse for which I’ve been striving.

So here’s a letter I’ve been meaning to write…

Dear loved ones,

I expect that your reluctance to discuss the profound issues that concern me is because many of us are already overstretched . Your lives, like mine, are vulnerable in so many ways. We are most of us impecunious; some of us never having sought to accrue money and others, once having made it, losing it again. We all live separately in far-flung locations, either in rented accommodation or in precariously mortgaged or equity-released homes. Some of us have heavy debts and few of us have adequate resources to secure our old-age futures, even those of us in most imminent need. We have little of material value to pass down to our youngest generations. So given our mutual interests in supporting each other, why is it we do not talk about these matters?

Even if you differ from my broader predictions for converging crises, I am sure we can agree on how, in our exposed circumstances, this coming decade will anyway be tough. With astronomic public debt, we know to expect swingeing cuts in public services, rising taxes and costs of living, long-term and wide-spread unemployment, increasingly uncertain temporary and part-time contracts, and ever more pressure and instability in our lives. We are few of us well-placed to ride the storm. And by my reckoning, as the end of cheap energy increasingly makes itself felt, much worse than this could happen in the span of ten years. So why do we not discuss our concerns and pool our ideas and perhaps even our resources towards finding solutions? For this is what we all must do to become resilient not just as families but as communities and societies as well.

Maybe we don’t want to. Maybe our ties have become shackles instead of the supportive relationships we might hope someday to depend on. Perhaps you regard my concerns as unwarranted interference in your lives, the result of a misplaced and over-developed sense of responsibility. Perhaps the legacy of family dysfunction is such that we must all continue ploughing our arduous and separated furrows with our backs turned from each other. I’d like to know how you feel about this but you haven’t told me. But then again, until now, perhaps I haven’t really asked you.

Louise and I are at a crossroads in our decision-making for the future in which it would help us to know where you stand. We want to settle in one place and establish roots and forge strong communal ties but what has thus far prevented us has been responding to wider family uncertainties and needs. Where and how and who we might prepare for our future with depends in no small part upon your own interest and support for our ideas. All that Louise and I can say for certain is that we want to commit ourselves to developing resilience to the issues I write about on this blog. Our resources are limited and we know that any isolated attempt to establish new beginnings is predisposed to fail. So we want to collaborate with like-minded souls.  It might be that these are you. And we are ever mindful that, regardless of how we proceed, there are other family needs to be considered too.

With deep love  – and in the hope that we might be able to converse on these matters soon.

Your son, brother, father, cousin and friend

 

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Responses

  1. Dear Jon
    I found your website more than half a year ago, but just yesterday I came to read this post.

    I have to say that usually I found myself in the same situation, the family that tends to ignore environmentalist comments and friends that go whispering “there you go again” .. haha I think the important thing is don’t let that resistance to take you down.

    And as some facilitator in a course told me, eventually you find people with who you can get support and realize you’re not alone in this path. While I was reading I realized that again. And it feels good too.

    Thank you for writing about these matters. I’ll write again too. Even if it’s a one-sided conversation.


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