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At play in the fields of the Lord: John Muir’s ecstatic naturalism

I was up in east Scotland on New Year’s Day, and found myself walking along a path called the John Muir Way. A few days later, a book I was reading mentioned a famous naturalist called John Muir, so I looked him up. It turns out John Muir was a father of modern conservationism, and the founder of many of California’s national parks. He is also a perfect specimen for my research into ecstatic experiences in nature.

Muir grew up in Dunbar, on the east coast of Scotland, under the baleful shadow of his father Daniel Muir, a hardline Presbyterian. John was forced to memorize the entire New Testament and much of the Old Testament too, and thrashed when he made a mistake. He was constantly warned of his sinfulness and the risk of damnation. If he rebelled, his father would shout ‘the Devil is in him!’ and thrash him again.

When he was eight, his father moved the family to Wisconsin, to join a Presbyterian sect called the Disciples of Christ. The family lived in a hut in a countryside teeming with life. John became more and more interested in the world around him, in poetry, philosophy, engineering, botany and geology, but Daniel Muir said the Bible was the only book he needed, and insisted the boy go straight to bed after his Bible studies at 8pm.

One of Muir’s inventions – an automatic desk that changes books every half-hour

Eventually, Daniel said that if John wanted to study anything other than the Bible, he’d have to wake up early to do it. So John woke himself up at 1am, went down to the basement of the hut, and spent joyous hours constructing ingenious machines out of wood and whatever metal he could find – miniature water mills, clocks, thermometers, milking machines. He then spent three years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working in the fields in the summer to pay his way, and becoming famous among the staff and students for his inventions, including a machine to wake him up in which the morning sun burnt through a thread, releasing a spring that hoisted Muir out of bed.

He yearned to go off adventuring, and left university to take a job as a shepherd in the High Sierra near Yosemite Park in California in 1869. He took only a blanket, a compass, the Bible, and the poetry of Milton and Robert Burns. The three months he spent there, following the herd with a St Bernard plodding by his side, sleeping rough and fending off the occasional bear, were among the happiest in his life. They were something like a conversion experience for the 30-year-old – he felt redeemed from the iron cage of his father’s Presbyterianism, and to find himself back in a sinless, God-soaked Eden, where he and every other creature were at ‘endless Godful play’.

He wrote in his journal: ‘I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in “creation’s dawn.” The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.’

The journal, which he published near the end of his life as My First Summer in the Sierra, is an ecstatic hymn to Nature:

From garden to garden, ridge to ridge, I drifted, enchanted, now on my knees gazing into the face of a daisy, now climbing again and again among the purple and azure flowers of the hemlocks, now down into the treasures of the snow, or gazing afar over domes and peaks, lakes and woods, and the billowy glaciated fields of the upper Tuolumne.

Tuolumne meadows

It’s a Nature-worship reminiscent of passages of Heraclitus or Marcus Aurelius, seeing Nature as a great animated web, resonating with consciousness, joy and love:

Warm, sunny day, thrilling plant and animals and rocks alike, making sap and blood flow fast, and making every particle of the crystal mountains throb and swirl and dance in glad accord like star dust.

The Sierra becomes his church, the stones give sermons, the mountain pines seem ‘definite symbols, divine hieroglyphics written with sunbeams’, and every creature seems to speak..not God’s purpose, but God’s joy.

The cricket is ‘a crisp, electric spark of joy enlivening the massy sublimity of the mountains like the laugh of a child’; the butterflies ‘numbered and known and loved only by the Lord, are waltzing together high over head, seemingly in pure play and hilarious enjoyment of their little sparks of life’; the calypso trees are ‘superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy’; the rocks are ‘dear friends, and have warm blood gushing through their granite flesh; and I love them with a love intensified by a long and close companionship’.

Even the frogs seem to sing God’s song: ‘Some of the smaller species have wonderfully clear, sharp voices, and told us their good Bible names in musical tones…Isaac, Isaac; Yacob, Yacob; Israel, Israel, shouted in sharp, ringing, far-reaching tones.’

He sees a nature brimming with consciousness, and this consciousness manifests as play:  ‘Surely all God’s people, however serious or savage, great or small, like to play. Whales and elephants, dancing, humming gnats, and invisibly small mischievous microbes – all are warm with divine radium and must have lots of fun in them.’

So did this ecstatic conversion leave Muir a Christian? Just about, though perhaps more of a pantheist in the Emersonian tradition – sometimes he sees Nature as the outpouring of God’s love, at other times it is Nature itself he seems to worship, in markedly erotic terms – the mountains woo him, the flowers send an electric tingle through his flesh. At such times he seems more of an erotic devotee of Demeter or Astarte than Christ (who he rarely mentions).

He certainly didn’t accept the fundamentalist theory that the Earth was 6,000 years old – he had a much deeper sense of time, and of God’s will shaping the landscape over the aeons (he was the first, I think, to suggest the movement of glaciers had created the mountains and valleys of Yosemite). He had a much slower and more contemplative sense of God’s plan for creation than your typical busy Protestant, ironically given his early genius for inventing clocks. He wrote one morning: ‘Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pushing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees or the stars.’

Muir seemed to accept a theory of evolution, but it’s an ecstatic, Heraclitean evolution, in which beings are ‘ever changing, never resting, all are speeding on with love’s enthusiasm, singing with the stars the eternal song of creation’. Rather than Dawkins’ sense of a constant brutal struggle for existence, Muir sees creation as a dance, in which ‘whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them’. And humans too might be merely one more glint of light in this ever-rippling sea: ‘After human beings have also played their part in Creation’s plan, they too may disappear without any general burning or extraordinary commotion whatever’. In that sense, Muir has moved beyond a Christian anthropocentrism (where man is the summit of creation) to a more radical ecstatic naturalism where all God’s creatures are equally loved. It’s not clear what role Christ’s death and resurrection plays in this creation. Nature, not Christ, is the redeemer.

Nature in Herzog’s work is usually indifferent to human suffering

What about sin? The great critics of Emersonian transcendentalism were his friends, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, both of whom saw the complacency and naivite in the belief that Nature was completely good, and one could become God-like simply by going off alone to commune with the forest. They suggested, as Dostoevsky did, that there is a pride and perversity in the human heart…and even that there is evil in nature too – think of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, in which the forest is the mysterious site of both good and evil spirits, or of Conrad and Herzog’s vision of nature as amoral, murderous, perverse and indifferent to human suffering.

Muir is too glad to see any evil in himself or nature. He looks on the fierce belligerence of ants and admits that ‘much remains to be done ere the world is brought under the rule of universal peace and love’, but even the excruciating agony of an ant-bite produces a sort of ecstasy in him: ‘A quick electric flame of pain flashes along the outraged nerves, and you discover for the first time how great is the capacity for sensation you are possessed of.’

If he sees evil anywhere, it is in industry, which rapes his beloved creation, and puts a price on every sacred tree and mountain-side. Muir became, at the end of his life, a reluctant prophet for the burgeoning conservation movement, and was a driving force in creating the national parks of Yosemite and Sequioa. He hoped that Americans would be converted from their materialism by visiting these parks and hearing their sermon.

Yet the great spiritual transformation did not take place, and Muir died disappointed, having failed to halt the construction of a dam in his beloved Hetch Hetchy valley. The New York Review of Books writes: ‘Once while traveling with a party of scientists in 1877, he overlooked an alpine vista and began dancing and shouting, “Look at the glory! Look at the glory!” His companions remained coldly reserved and apart. There is no more quintessential image of Muir than that.’

This year is the centenary of Muir’s death, and a chance for British people to get to know him better. Perhaps his ecstatic naturalism even points a way forward, to a new type of worship, steeped in science yet alive to the glory and shimmering joy of consciousness within nature. Why does a whale breach? They breach because consciousness loves to play.

Britannia Unchained: the Tories revert back to Thatcherism

There’s a cognitive bias which supposedly causes emotional disorders, whereby you minimize your own achievements while maximizing those of other people. I feel the authors of Britannia Unchained, a new book about how to save the UK from national decline, suffer from this bias. They are far too pessimistic about the UK’s achievements, while seeing other countries through rose-tinted spectacles.

The book is by five Tory MPs who joined the House of Commons in 2010: Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss.  It’s generated a fair amount of headlines, as its central message is a popular one for the right-wing press: “the British are among the worst idlers in the world”. We need, the authors say, to emulate the rising economies of China, Brazil, South Korea and Canada, by working harder, slashing taxes, embracing free enterprise, and no longer paying out such generous welfare benefits.

It all sounds like Mitt Romney speaking off the record and praising Chinese labour camps where the teenage workers sleep on bunk beds. But these young Tories are willing to say the same as Mitt while on the record – witness Kwasi Kwarteng, the intellectual leader of the group, telling the Guardian how impressed he was by a visit to a Chinese factory, where if a worker met their productivity target for the hour, they were allowed two whole minutes to rest.

I read the book because I wondered what it might mean for the politics of well-being. David Cameron has, to some extent, embraced the well-being agenda, and suggested we should not focus so relentlessly on wealth, status and GDP growth, but instead seek higher goals like well-being, fulfillment and the common good. Well, that all sounds incredibly wet to the authors of Britannia Unchained. To them, the well-being agenda is the sickness, not the cure. It’s an example of how the defeatist British have somehow come to think that “business is a dirty word”, economic growth is an illusion, and we should all work less. The new economics foundation, pioneer of the well-being agenda, is not their favourite think-tank, as you can imagine.


So what is the book like? Not good. It has a feeling of being dashed off by busy young people. Most of its sources are newspaper articles, as if they’ve just googled their ideas and used the first media source they find to support them. There are typos: on the third page, ‘if we are to prosper in the future, we have to much learn’.

The book’s central claim – that we’re the worst idlers in the world – is made on page two, where the authors insist that “5.7 million people receive some kinds of benefits, which is one of the highest proportions in the OECD”. Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, writes:

What’s wrong with this? Where do I start? What does “some kind of benefits” mean? Not pensions, child benefit or tax credits, I can deduce that, although the average reader won’t know. Does it include disability living allowance and housing benefit (both of which can be claimed by workers)? I think the former but not the latter. Grown since when? It certainly grew rapidly in the 1980s and early 1990s but the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits fell steadily from its peak in 1994 until the 2008 crisis and, despite the recession, is still well below the levels of the mid-1990s. So the drama is less than compelling. As for “one of the highest proportions in the OECD”, the last OECD study on this topic found nothing of the sort.

As the Economist points out in its cover story this week, the UK has the highest employment rate in the G7. Still, unemployment is at 8%, and there are thousands of Brits who were left behind by the bourgeoisification of the working class over the last 50 years. They became ‘chavs’ – an object of fear and hatred for the newly-expanded middle class.  But demonising the underclass is not the solution. I would suggest we need to create the same networks of public services and mutual support groups that helped the first working class to raise itself into the middle class in the 19th and 20th centuries. While Kwarteng slags off the poor, his school-mate and fellow young Tory, Danny Kruger, left politics and set up a charity to work with (and even live with) former prison inmates. That’s doing more good than simply shouting abuse from the ramparts.

The authors are right to worry about the size of the national debt, and to emphasise the need for us to balance the books, as families and as a country. If your debt gets too big, you lose control of your national policy, and are dictated to by foreign lenders. Imagine having Angela Merkel tell us how to live. That’s why we need to reduce our public and private debt over time.

But it’s a bit rich to blame that national indebtedness on the working class, while also claiming that the City is ‘a small pocket where the work ethic still exists’. That’s an obviously inaccurate and unfair description of what’s happened in the last five years. It wasn’t worker welfare that increased the national debt by £1 trillion in two years. It was corporate welfare – bailing out the banks, their shareholders, their private bond holders, their high net-worth investors. That corporate welfare is still going on, through the Bank of England’s cheap lending support for the banks.

The authors say blithely that financial crises are “a fact of life”. If you criticise the bank system for being under-regulated and for rewarding reckless incompetence, you’re giving in to “national defeatism”. Well, that’s just nonsense. The reason trade union militancy has increased in the last two years is not that British workers are idle. It’s that the trade unions, along with the rest of us, think it’s deeply unfair that our public services are being slashed while the private financial sector has received such incredible beneficence from the tax-payer. We want our money back, and we want protection against further crises (in fact, George Osbourne’s bank levy is a good step in this direction).

The BRICs want quality of life too, not just economic growth

Perhaps the most glaring mistake of the book is the way it holds up the rising economic powers as paragons of “individual initiative and free enterprise”. This betrays a serious ignorance about what is driving economic growth in China, Brazil, Turkey, South Korea, Russia, India and elsewhere. These economies are far more state-dominated than ours, and growth has been driven by enormous state companies like Gazprom, Petrobras and Bank of China, or chaebols like Samsung. These are not economies full of plucky individual entrepreneurs. And much of their economic growth comes not because they’re innovating incredible new technology. They’re simply catching up with the West, rolling out pre-existing technology like modern banking, cars, mobile phones, TVs and so on to their large populations.

Once their material quality of life has caught up with ours, much of the new middle class in BRIC economies are asking the same post-materialist questions as we are: what’s the point of working incredibly hard if you make yourself ill, harm your family and damage your environment in the process? Is it worth ruining your mental health for bling and credit card debt? See, for example, this article on South Korea’s existential crisis:

Chief among their concerns is the stress and expense of putting their children through “exam hell”, even in the knowledge that there are too many graduates chasing too few well-paid jobs. No wonder Korea’s birth rate has plummeted — to 1.23, well below the 2.2 replacement rate and lower even than Japan at 1.4.

South Korea is questioning its own obsession with bling

South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD because of pressures at work and in education. It also has very high levels of personal credit card debt (35% of GDP). And Koreans are now asking the same questions about quality of life as we are. The global hit ‘Gangnam Style’ is a satire on South Korea’s obsession with bling, and you see the same sort of anti-bling satires appearing in other BRIC countries. Koreans are looking to ancient sources of wisdom for stress cures, like philosophy: a local publisher paid around $200,000 for the School of Life’s self-help series, my book’s doing well there too, and Seoul recently hosted the 11th International Conference on Philosophical Practice. In the words of Dr Oh Kyung-Ja, professor of clinical psychology at Yonsei University, Koreans are “desperately searching for things to do to divert themselves from stress. They just don’t have a good model.”

Likewise, China may have an unquenchable appetite for bling, but many of the new middle class are also asking questions about what it means to live well: witness the national fondness for the ideas of Confucius and Marcus Aurelius and the government’s interest in the politics of well-being. We also read, in the FT, that the Chinese rich are “starting to spend more on wellness as opposed to luxury goods”.

So I suspect that the new rising powers are moving very rapidly from bling to post-bling. They are rising rapidly up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and arriving at the same quality of life questions we’re asking in the West.

Truss is right that we need to improve science education

Elizabeth Truss: pro-science

The best chapter in the book is Elizabeth Truss’ chapter on the importance of improving science education to help us compete in the global knowledge economy. I agree that too many young people choose arts or social science subjects as cushy options. We may have too many students taking psychology A-Level and psychology degrees, and are in danger of turning into a nation of life coaches (I count myself among the growing ranks of well-being obsessives so mean no offence to life coaches, just…there’s a lot of you!) Some of these psychology grads have a remarkable lack of respect for scientific evidence.

But Truss doesn’t offer radical ideas about how to improve the level of scientific education in this country. I’d suggest, for example, that we reform the undergraduate degree system, so that students don’t study just one subject for three years – that degree of specialisation is harmful to their intellectual growth and to the country’s culture. If you study a humanities subject, you should be expected to take science subjects as well, and vice versa. We have too many arts graduates who leave university like me: desperate to write a novel and with an ingrained prejudice against scientific evidence. I’d also like to see the Baccaulaureate replace A-Levels, which demand too much specialisation too early. And the debate on education shouldn’t be framed as well-being or academic results: critical thinking, reasoning skills and creative thinking are good for both.

The British are good at arts and culture

We should also acknowledge what’s good about our arts culture – how it fosters excellent journalism, writing, theatre, film, art and fashion. Our culture sector is one of the best in the world, so it’s bizarre that it should be so uncelebrated in a book on reclaiming national pride. It’s also a good example of combining creative and technical expertise, as in our flourishing computer games industry, or music production, or film special effects. It may be that the authors ignore our creative economy because it doesn’t fit their Thatcherite model of self-reliant entrepreneurs – instead, it flourishes through a mixture of public and private funding, and through state-sponsored schools like RADA. Or it may be that they are simply deaf to culture, like many old Thatcherites. Hopefully Boris Johnson is less so.

Another point which the book could have made more strongly is the importance of attracting skilled immigrants into our country, including into our universities. The Home Office is doing its best to repel such immigrants from our borders through its heavy-handed treatment of London Met University. And there’s no discussion about the importance of adult education and community learning to a knowledge economy. Nor do the authors consider the one policy that would really improve our education sector: take away public schools’ charity status. That would encourage more middle class people to send their children to academies, and open up social networks of privilege and excellence. If that’s too un-Conservative, then at least insist public schools do more to support academies.

The book does express something in the British national mood. The latest British Social Attitudes survey found that only 28% think governments should spend more on benefits, down from 58% in 1991. More than half think people would “stand on their own two feet” if benefits were less generous, compared to 20% believing that in 1993. But I don’t recognise the book’s claim that Britain is weighed down by defeatism and pessimism. The authors clearly wrote that before the Olympics, which were a resounding affirmation of our country’s strengths – our belief in individual excellence and our belief in fairness, volunteerism,technology, creativity and fun. You can believe in Britain’s greatness without wanting it to turn into a Chinese labour camp.

In other news:

Here is a great piece from Intelligent Life on the ‘mass intelligent’ – we’re not dumbing down, it argues, we’re wising up. Here is an online debate The Economist did on the subject. And the CEO of the Economist Group referenced it in a recent presentation on the ‘mega-trend of the mass intelligent’ (here’s a slide from it, below).

The young Spanish boy who was chosen as the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama talks of why he left the monastery and abandoned his monastic vows.

Here’s a review of a new book on the Quantified Self movement and the digitization of medicine.

Here’s a good Re-Think pamphlet on recovering from mental illness:

Jimmy Soni, managing editor of the Huffington Post and the author of a new book on Cato, gives five reasons why Stoicism matters today.

More Stoicism: here’s a piece by Ian Hislop on the history of the British stiff upper lip (based on a program which will be on BBC 2 on Tuesday October 2)

Here is a piece on how technology is about to disrupt and transform academia, and here, by way of counterblast, is a good piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education challenging the hype around MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

Finally, here on the left is an ad from the 1970s offering nude psychotherapy. ‘Be the first on your block to get nude psychotherapy!’ Ah, those were the days.

See you next week,


PS I have a brief segment about self-help on the Culture Show on Wednesday, BBC 2, 10pm. It’s somewhat ridiculous and may be the last thing I get asked to do on TV, so check it out. And also some American publishers have finally made offers for the book. Hooray! Thanks for your positive thoughts and kind reviews on Amazon (I didn’t write any of them, in case you’re wondering…)

PoW: Gardner, Pennebaker, Hadot, Collapsonomics

Well, I finished my book yesterday and sent in the manuscript. I’m off on holiday in a few days, but seeing as I’m kicking around at a loose end…here are some interesting things I’ve come across in the last few days.

Howard Gardner, the Harvard psychologist who came up with the theory of multiple intelligences, which was a big influence on the idea of teaching emotional intelligence in schools, has brought out a new book, called Truth,%20Beauty,%20and%20Goodness%20Reframed:%20Educating%20for%20the%20Virtues%20in%20the%20Twenty-first%20Century” title=”” target=”_blank”>Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the 21st Century . He explores the relationship between ancient virtue ethics and modern psychology – and what this synthesis can say in response to the challenge of post-modernism, moral relativism, and biological and economic determinism.

He says: “Plato and Socrates had a lot to say on the topic, also Confucius and Rousseau among others. But we can’t simply repeat the traditional answers mindlessly. We can’t just go back to the trivium and quadrivium because they seemed to work in the Middle Ages. We do know a lot about human beings that we didn’t know before, and we know something about the shape of the world, which is very different than it has been in the past. I am pondering the constraints of education as well as the things that are changing; I am thinking about what we’ve learned about the mind and the brain and different cultures. I want to lay out something which at least I’d want to have for my kids, and at best what I’d want to have for kids everywhere.”

The book made me think about the awkward dance we’ve seen conducted between virtue ethics and modern psychology in the last few years. On the one hand, psychology presents a challenge to virtue ethics and the idea of building character, as Julian Baggini discussed in the Demos report, Building Character, here. Social psychologists like Philip Zimbardo have shown the extent to which the situation affects our moral choices (‘it’s not my fault, I just got caught up in the riot’), while social intuitonists like John Bargh have shown how many of our moral decisions are automatic and unconscious responses to stimuli.

On the other hand, psychologists are increasingly coming round to the ancient Greeks’ idea that we can develop character through training and habit. CBT has shown how we can examine our unconscious beliefs and challenge them, and create new ways of responding to the world. Positive Psychology has gone further, suggesting psychology can help us build up our ‘character strengths’ to achieve ‘the good life’. Self-control theorists like Roy Baumeister have explored how we can develop our self-control through training. Even Philip Zimbardo now talks of training young people to be ‘heroes’.

Yet psychologists are often wary of talking about ‘virtues’. CBT takes the personality-training methods of Stoicism, but ditches any mention of virtue, preferring to talk about ‘skills’ or ‘techniques’ (I discussed that absence of virtue in CBT in this talk). Positive Psychology seems to talk about the virtues (or ‘character strengths’) while also insisting it is not a theory of ethics, it does not tell people what they should do.

The reason for this hesitancy, perhaps, is that presenting oneself as an objective science means you’re much more likely to get public funding for your projects – western governments are wary of putting public funds into any public projects that put forward a particular moral view (God forbid a spirituality) because it would go against the pluralist idea that governments should leave people to decide the good life for themselves. So psychologists talk about the good life while quietly dropping any mention of virtue, values or goodness. But I think you can’t talk about the good life without talking about goodness and the virtues, so I welcome Gardner having the courage to face this head on.


Here’s another interesting-looking new book, by University of Texas social psychologist James Pennebaker, with the wonderful title, The%20Secret%20Life%20of%20Pronouns:%20What%20Our%20Words%20Say%20About%20Us” title=”” target=”_blank”>The Secret Life of Pronouns . Pennebaker used computer analysis of blogs, speeches, poems and other texts, and discovered who we are and how we feel has a lot to do with the pronouns we use. He’s famous for his research into the self-writing exercise, whereby people write about something significant that happened to them, for 10 minutes, three days in a row. The exercise has been shown to have significant health benefits.

Why? One thing Pennebaker noticed was that the participants who got the most benefit wrote about a traumatic event, and as they wrote, they moved from using mainly first person pronouns (I, me, my) to multiple pronouns (I, you, it, they, our, your etc) and causal connecting words (therefore, that’s why). They achieved a pronoun flexibility, or the ability to see their situation from multiple perspectives, and to come to terms with it. For example, Pennebaker analysed the work of poets who committed suicide, and found they used first person pronouns much more often than poets who didn’t! This is why it’s healthier to be a novelist or playwright – they train themselves, and us, to see things from multiple perspectives. Unless you’re TS Eliot, of course. What is The Wasteland, but an exercise in multiple perspectives?


Many of you will have heard of Pierre Hadot, the French classicist who sadly died last year. He wrote the wonderful book, Philosophy%20as%20a%20Way%20of%20Life:%20Spiritual%20Exercises%20from%20Socrates%20to%20Foucault” title=”” target=”_blank”>Philosophy as a Way of Life , which has been a big inspiration for me and many other people interested in practical philosophy. If you like him, you’ll enjoy the website of this philosophical counsellor, Andrew Taggart, who says he was inspired by Hadot. Taggart’s blog brought my attention to this interesting article from the Washington Post on the philosophical counselling movement in the US.

Hadot-fans might also enjoy this collection of essays edited by Clare Carlisle of the University of Liverpool, who teaches an MA there in philosophy as a way of life. I wonder if one can study it purely as an academic subject…or is that self-defeating?


Finally, I was sad not to be able to go to Uncivilization, a festival set up by Dougald Hine, who’s a really interesting guy. He co-edited the Dark Mountain anthology, exploring the poetics and philosophy of the collapse of civilization (yes, the perfect Christmas present for your Gran!). The second volume has just come out. One of the speakers at Uncivilization was Vinay Gupta, who set up the Institute of Collapsonomics with Hine. He also designed something called the Hexayurt, a pop-up structure for people to live in when states collapse. He’s advised the Pentagon on how to cope with dirty bombs in large urban areas, and other cheery scenarios. Anyway, here’s Vinay’s latest 4am thoughts-on-the-world-and-how-to-save-it. I really like the way he draws on Stoic ideas of resilience – he and the Dark Mountain crew are bringing together the world of philosophy and environmentalism in an interesting way.

That’s all for this week. I’m fairly confident I will be on holiday next week, so see you on September the 9th.


Shag Camp

I went to the Climate Camp last weekend, on Blackheath, next to Greenwich Park, a brick’s throw from the Royal Observatory. The camp is maybe a 150m-diamater circle, with a metal fence around it, filled with tents. You have to enter through a steel gate, over which hangs a sign saying ‘Capitalism is crisis’, and under which crusties sit on straw bales, perusing the new entrants like monkeys outside a Hindu temple.

They are on ‘gate watch’, to make sure the police don’t enter. The Camp for Climate Action handbook, which you pick up as you enter, tells you: ‘Whatever you have to offer, from vegan cakes to tripods, do come to the defence centre and be a part of making our vision of a community free from authoritarianism a reality.’

You then enter a welcome tent on the left, where a lady in her late 40s gives you a brief induction. She tells the new recruits about the various ways you can join in. First, pitch your tent in the neighbourhood you’re from – there’s a London area, a Midlands area, a West Country area, a Scotland area, and one guy on his own next to the fence who I think is from the Isle of Man. You camp with people from your own area so you can network and start an ‘affinity group’ for local direct action.

You can also be on food duty , washing up duty, (’but not if you’re ill, we don’t want everyone to get diarreah’), wellbeing duty (’going round, checking out the tranquility centres, checking on the welfare of the camp’), dismantling duty (the tents, not the state, sadly), and so on. She also took pains to point out you have to pee in one place and poo in another. Bladder control is key to the revolution.’Any questions?’

‘So what are you trying to achieve?’ I asked, like the snotty little journalist I am.

‘Well, it’s not ‘you’. Hopefully it’s ‘we’, she replied. ‘We’re here in London, the centre of the financial system, because we’re opposed to the financial system. We think it sucks. We don’t want to reform it, because as soon as we start to debate that, we get into arguments, and it hurts my head.’ She banged her head to illustrate this. ‘But we agree that we would rather the present system…’ collapsed? ‘…went away’.

She was a veteran of direct action. She’d helped set up – and dismantle – the Kingsnorth camp, protesting against E.on’s plans for a new coal-fired power station there. ‘My personal favourite’, she confided, ‘is superglue. I like gluing myself to things’, she said, as if confessing a fetish. ‘I’ve always wondered about that’, said a well-spoken lady on her right. ‘How do you come unstuck?’ ‘Turn that video camera off and I’ll tell you’, said the woman. A young black man videoing the induction dutifully turned his camera off. ‘You use soap and water’, said the woman.

Next to me, John, a young revolutionary from Northampton, shook his hands. I looked at him. ‘Just practicing my hand signals’, he explained. He pointed to a page in the handbook – Hand Signals for Group Discussions. Waving both your hands expressed consent. Imagine a whole revolutionary group doing it. Mass jazz hands. Trostsky, Lenin, Stalin. Jazz hands.That old revolutionary rag.

A T shape meant you wanted to make a technical point. The largest moon of Jupiter is Ganymede. That sort of thing. Your two index fingers raised meant a direct response. Two fingers up the nose meant a blocked sinus.

‘We used these in Manchester Uni’, John told me, ‘when we occupied a lecture room to protest against the occuption of Gaza. Took us six hours to draft a letter. But we won.’ You won? ‘We got the university to agree to send all their spare stationary to the university of Gaza, which had been reduced to…rubble, I believe is the appropriate word.’ Jazz hands.

I wandered around the camp with John.We looked out at Canary Wharf in the distance. ‘Beautiful’, said John. ‘I know it’s the centre of capitalism, but it’s still beautiful.’ A plane flew overhead. ‘Amazing. I love planes. I know they cause climate change, but I still love them. I mean, that plane should not be in the sky. It’s a miracle.’

I think John suspected I was an evil undercover capitalist and so was trying to ingratiate himself by appreciating every visible manifestation of capitalism. ‘What…political persuasion are you?’ John asked furtively. ‘Centre left’, I said. ‘That’s a good place to be’, he nodded. Phew!

Reggae played from a bicycle-powered sound system. The various neighbourhoods were gathering to have lunch: plates of brown rice with vegetables. Others were assembling to put up the main tent, in which bands would play, ideas would foment, and discussions would be held on such topics as ’seedbomb making’, ’sing and dance for change’, and ‘Greenwich Common: Rape, policing and prostitution’.

There was a legal advice tent, a police monitoring tent, a bicycle-powered smoothie-maker. ‘Amazing’, said John. It was like a mini-festival. But where was the beer tent, the burger van? No burger van. That’s capitalism. Capitalism is crisis.

‘Yeah, but, you say capitalism is crisis’, a press photographer asked his media chaperone (a boy who could be no more than 22, but already had a beard and a fiery Daniel Cohn-Bendit-esque demeanour), ‘but when your parents die and leave you a nice house, what are you going to do, give it away?’

‘I think you’ve got a false impression of the people here’ said Cohn-Bendit junior. ‘Most people here aren’t rich.’

‘Yeah, I can’t relate to that at all’, said a girl media chaperone.

‘I mean, my father’s a counsellor and my mother’s a nurse’, said Cohn-Bendit. ‘And if I was rich, I’d rather be rich and against coal-fired power stations than rich and not.’

‘Yeah, but this must have all cost something’, said the photographer.

‘It cost about £40,000′, said Daniel coolly.

‘So that’s capitalism.’

‘Capitalism is about more than money.’

‘Well, what is it?’

‘Capitalism is the complete exploitation and subjugation of every living thing on this planet’, said Daniel with terrifying certainty.

Hmmm…problem with taking on ‘capitalism’ is you need a serious alternative. And the campers don’t have one, not since the collapse of Marxism. You can take on lots of specific things – the bail-out of the banks, the destruction of the environment – but to blame all of these things on ‘capitalism’, without having a systematic alternative to ‘capitalism’, seems to be tilting at windmills. The USSR wasn’t a capitalist system, China is not a free market system, but these systems give (or gave) just as much of a f*ck for the environment or human rights as the West. Probably less of a f*ck.

If the protestors really wanted to smash the system, I pondered, why didn’t they smash up the Royal Observatory nearby. What more oppressive imperalist symbol could there be than the Greenwich Meridian? Who were we to enforce our own rigid sense of ‘Universal Time’ on the assorted tribes and tribulations of the world? Smash the observatory, end time.Capitalism would be thrown into disarray. Job done.

Still, the camp looked fun. There were some radical cuties there. John pointed me out one pretty girl, bright eyes, heart full of hope, jumper full of cleavage. ‘She showed me how to work the bicycle-smoothie maker’, he said.’Amazing’ I said.

And for a second, I was jealous of John spending the next few nights in the camp. I bet he meets some really hot women, I thought. A bit of cider, a bit of Antonio Negri, who knows what could happen. Indeed, the camp has already got the nickname ’shag camp’ from some NGO workers. How many people, I wondered to myself, join sects, cults, and radical cells not out of a serious belief they will radically alter society, but just because they want to get a bit of lovin’.

Remember wine from Spain, Italy and France?

Well, it’s on the way out. Say hello to Chateau Du Edinburgh.

According to a new report from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, written up in the New Scientist:

A century from now, Spain and Italy will be enduring baking, parched summers while residents of central and north-west Europe will be experiencing what we now think of as Mediterranean warmth.

Reindert Haarsma and his team from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute in De Bilt used existing computer models to study changes in weather patterns resulting from the expected global warming. These indicated that summer temperatures in southern Europe would rise by 2 to 3 °C compared with today’s, and that lack of rain would dry up the soils. The hot, dry air above these arid soils would then rise and expand, creating a low-pressure zone over the region. Winds circulating anticlockwise around this zone would feed continental air to more northerly
areas, raising temperatures there too.

The same issue of the magazine also discussed the expansion of the tropics, also caused by global warming, which is set to lead to “the most serious water crisis in the history” of California, according to governor Arnie. Snow levels in the mountains of California are currently only 61% what they have been in previous years, according to the article.