On Wildness and Carbon

 

History has a habit of repeating itself, especially in the countryside. It sounds so familiar: people and groups in rural areas mobilising against a new wave of environmental destruction and private money-grabbing by the landed gentry. Such a story would normally stir feelings of solidarity amongst environmentalists – but this time the battle lines are drawn differently, and environmentalism finds itself strung across them.

The march of wind turbines across the land has been ongoing for some time, but a step change in their pace is being prepared. The government and the EU have laid down the expected percentage of renewable energy needed to paint the status-quo green, and wind is so far the most readily available paintbrush. With climate change ever gnashing at the heels of their consciences, many environmental groups have come out for the plans or challenge them to do more.

In the face of such a predicament, the argument goes, surely we must do whatever is needed to decarbonise energy and sail into a brighter, renewable energy future? Against this dream are the dreaded NIMBYs – those who block the golden path to the future with their selfish obsession with aesthetics and presumably only motivated for their house prices. Sure, we love the Hills, but with climate change round the corner surely we can sacrifice some of them to prevent a bigger and more important problem? We can even convince ourselves how great they look – ‘like monuments to optimism, common sense and human daring… in tune with the natural world’.

This narrative has taken root to varying degrees amongst environmentalists, from the well-we- have-to-do-something-ites through to the passionate prophets of ecofied-business-as-usual. But something’s not quite fitting well with this narrative any more: the NIMBYs are not playing their selfish and foolish part as expected – they’re behaving like old-time environmentalists instead.

Rural people in Wales and Scotland have also increasingly begun to point out how the remaining near-feudal landlords of the countryside are using wind power to rake it in in spite of the local people’s wishes, whilst escalating land prices beyond normal people’s reach. Lovers of the dwindling remnants of this island’s semi-wilderness are crying out at their slow industrialisation for their own protection, with the roads, pylons and concrete pads cutting through once lonely moors and hills. Alastair McIntosh has spoken of how ‘Landowners have woken up to the fact they can make a heck of lot of money at the expense of those who have lived there for generations. There is a world of difference between a wind farm controlled by a local community and one imposed from outside by a landowner and a multinational company. The people benefiting are the ones who have always worked the subsidy system’.

This doesn’t fit the usual narrative though; don’t we normally back David against Goliath?

But it’s not just local NIMBYs who are raising objections – national conservation groups and charities are getting involved too. The John Muir Trust, who are dedicated to fighting to preserve and restore wild areas in Scotland, recently opposed a site in view of the Cairngorms semi-wilderness in Scotland. The RSPB caution against sites near to bird routes and reserves which could cause chaos for wildlife, whilst the Campaign to Protect Rural England believe that ‘While wind energy can make an important contribution to tackling climate change, CPRE believes this should not come at the expense of the beauty, character and tranquillity of rural England’. Their president Bill Bryson only recently declared that “This countryside – ‘incredibly beautiful, dangerously finite and infinitely precious’ – will continue to change, as it always has. But the speed and scale of the change we are now seeing as a result of the proliferation of wind turbines is immense and threatens to damage the character of many landscapes for at least a generation.”More provocatively, the National Trust’s chairman recently described wind turbines as a ‘public menace’ which the Trust had begun to regard with ‘deep sceptic[ism]’. Whilst the Trust’s PR rapidly spun into gear and said this ‘didn’t chime’ with their actual policies, they still maintain official caution over where turbines are sited and their scale, emphasising how they should fit in with the landscape and not oppress it. As it’d take so many acres of this island’s dwindling semi- wilderness to be industrialised for wind power to hit its targets on land, it seems impossible that it won’t trigger yet more and intense protestations and actions from locals and conservationist groups.

Environmentalist arguments for wind farms often focus on how climate change could present more of a threat to these semi-wild lands than the turbines themselves, and so the turbines are the lesser of the two problems. However, this argument loses traction confronted with a scientific review which found that the greatest overstep of biospheric limits so far is not in fact climate change, but instead habitat and biodiversity loss (climate change is in third place of those so far quantified, one behind nitrate pollution). When moors and grasslands rich in life and diversity are dissected by roads and pylons for turbines seemingly in their own defence, one is moved to question just what are we trying to save (and as another example when projects like the Severn Barrage threaten so many bird reserves for minimal carbon cuts).

What’s striking is how the terms environmentalists use have shifted since the heyday of the sixties, when inspired by wilderness and preserving the beauty of nature against being swallowed up by hegemonic industrialism, modern ‘environmentalism’ was born. Now most environmentalists tend to talk in terms of government targets, megawatts and tons of carbon, whilst the conservationists and locals talk of beauty, tranquillity and nature. ‘They will industrialise the uplands with wind turbines and desecrate our valleys with hideous cables and pylons. The scale is almost impossible to comprehend’ – if we replaced wind turbines with some other industrial process, would this be more out of place in the mouth of an environmentalist or the Tory MP Glyn Davies? Indeed, traditionalist rural Tories have made the government increasingly uncomfortable over wind energy and have begun to make ground in their campaign against modernist “turbine toryism”.

It seems ironic that many of the conservation groups listed that are leading the defence of nature for its own sake were set up for implicitly anthropocentric reasons – preserving landscapes for people to enjoy – whilst environmentalist groups have drifted from the original ecocentrist inspiration of their project to exclusively consider environmental problems from a technocratic and decidedly human-bound standpoint.

Discussion of reducing fossil fuel emissions are still of course necessary, and the argument that climate change could impact some of this wild areas more than the turbines may hold water in some cases. But today the carbon-counting perspective is so dominant and all-pervading in environmental discussions that the original inspiration found in the sheer beauty and wonder of nature and life is forgotten amidst the statistics and policies. Do we have to sacrifice all wildness for every gram of carbon to be saved? Can beauty be sacred from carbon cuts?

Whether environmental NGOs can turn back from the narrow-minded focus on carbon they now exemplify so well is up for debate, but I suspect their ‘brand’ image is now too embedded within the simplified carbon techno-narrative and their budgets too dependent on the big money that focus brings them to be able to broaden their horizons again. Despite their far more anthropocentric roots it seems the best spokespeople for this island’s beautiful places is increasingly the traditional, member-supported conservationist charities like CPRE and the National Trust (rather than the corporate-supported greenwashing behemoths) who recently led the charge against the watered down planning reforms for an automatic yes to developments and whose support lies more in distinctly non-activist circles rather than with environmental activists.

If we are to bring beauty and wildness back on to the political stage these organisations deserve support from those who may traditionally have not gone to such seemingly conservative bodies – by keeping their traditions they have accidentally become the radicals as the progress narrative has become increasingly narrow and hegemonic. Is there still a space for grassroots “activism” as well as this? I think so, but not as practised by the seasoned modern-day environmentalist organisations or activists – perhaps small, local groups focused on defending and stewarding their surrounding landscape (the local watershed for example) and working without the suffocating bureaucracy of the institutionalised NGOs (or for that matter the activist sub-cultural gumph found in many campaign groups) could be a workable model. One thing’s for certain though – I don’t believe we can leave the job of protecting our beautiful island and its last semi-wild corners to the environmentalists any more.

PS: Before anyone points this out in the comments, I use ‘wild’ not in the untouched-by-humans-at-all sense – I’m fully aware of how this doesn’t and can’t exist in a pure way and that this is an important point – but in the sense of places where humans have a light impact and one which is not mostly for our own purposes (so the ‘unproductive’ moors for example).

Elegy

 

There was a dead badger on the road this morning, sprawled across the white lines in the middle, its innards smeared across the tarmac. I watched the line of traffic on each side as it passed, imagining the mixed responses to this scene of casual death: the concern, the indifference, the sadness, the disrespect. The colours of its pelt were different from those in my memory; not so much black-and-white, but a rich mixture of earth and grey, russet and charcoal. It seemed so large to be lying there between the passing wheels, so vulnerable.

It is a long time since I have seen a live badger, my habits less crepuscular than they were years ago, when I would startle them in the wood on my way out to a village pub on a summer’s evening. Now I see them only as ghosts of their living selves: as spoor and footprint in the damp mud, or flattened against the tarmac as roadkill, bulkier than they seem in life. They are one of the bigger casualties on roads these days; like the occasional fox I see in the early morning, they are significant enough to be steered around, they could still do some damage to a car, even in death. It is the smaller species that barely warrant a swerve or a look: rabbits and hedgehogs, pheasants, sometimes weasels.

It is not always the slower-moving species which are victims of speeding cars. Deer will often vault the hedges in the early morning into the path of a motorist. I saw one as I was cycling from the village a couple of weeks ago; the four-wheel drive turning and driving slowly back up the road, the flailing limbs on the carriageway in front of me, the rasping of its breath, the closed eyes, the thread of spittle hanging from its tightly clenched mouth. I dragged it from the tarmac to the soft grassy verge; a useless gesture, a poor attempt at atonement.

Afterwards, I found myself thinking of Barry Lopez’s short story Apologia, in which he describes a journey through the mid-west to visit friends, stopping to carry fresh roadkill from the asphalt, the sense of shame at the waste of animal life. He brings into focus the individual damage of each tragedy, the shocking breadth of species that come to an end on the highways of the great wilderness. It is, at one level, a deeply affecting piece; it makes the reader to look afresh at every death on the road. It just may not be enough to change our driving habits.

I am sure there are limits to everyone’s compassion: the flies smeared on the glass on a hot summer’s day, their bodies mingling with the smell of screen wash; the frogs spilling onto the warm, wet tarmac after a spring rainstorm. To imagine every non-human victim of traffic would be an emotional overload, a tsunami of compassion. It is already too much to think of each individual human casualty, every family shattered by the event, every person whose life has reduced to the fading sodden bouquets which collect after a fatality. To add to that the beetles, the lizards, the butterflies, would be an unreasonable burden, wouldn’t it?

Perhaps it is easier to deal with the collateral damage of cars: the loss of species in the rainforest, the decline in crested newts as another bypass is cut through green belt, the erosion of coastline as the sea continues its incremental rise. Carbon emissions can so easily be cast as someone else’s fault: rainforest loggers, Chinese power stations, industrial plants. We can choose to look away, as though it was not us that hit the badger.

A mile from where I live is a limestone quarry. It produces roadstone and gravel for the construction industry. The freshly quarried walls and banks are rapidly colonised by nesting birds: peregrines and ravens share the same nest at different times in the spring; sand martins squeal through the echoing spaces. When the quarry is worked out, in perhaps ten or fifteen year’s time, it will be restored as a wildlife reserve. I have seen the neat lines coloured on large-scale plans, the perfection of a landscape architect’s vision. The fifty-seven species of birds currently found here will no doubt remain, unperturbed by this return to something that looks like countryside, but isn’t. It is one of the ironies of development that biodiversity flourishes in these places that are only periodically disturbed, like military testing ranges, like abandoned industrial sites. It is a reminder of the resilience of the natural world, of the impermanence of many of our creations. It is also a means of convincing ourselves that there is virtue in the destruction we leave behind, that the raw earth can be soon colonised by ever-resourceful species. And, by association, that these quarries, these mines and spoil heaps and munitions dumps, are barely an intrusion in the life of the planet.

I think of JA Baker, cycling along the tracks and lanes of Essex in search of the Peregrines that obsessed him for ten years, on foot through the wet clay soils of winter fields, shrinking from the taint of humans by which the birds were spiralling to extinction. ‘We stink of death,’ he wrote in The Peregrine. ‘We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost.’ By slipping free from the daily drive to work, the confined world of tarmac and concrete, Baker understood the curse we have placed on the animals and birds which flicker at the margins of our lives, like a warning whispered at the edge of hearing. The stink we carry is of petrol and limestone dust, of scorched rubber and hot tarmac, of carrion picked clean by scavenging birds on a country road.

Wilder Country

Looking back, the landscapes of my journey are reduced to pure colour. Austria was frozen white, Slovakia scorched ochre brown, the Hungarian Plain the yellow of rushes and the blue of a cloudless sky. Two weeks walk across the border, and Romania has flooded my mind as the green of unfolding leaves, the explosive white of blossom, and the dense, mysterious blue of the distant Carpathian Mountains. Water suddenly fills the land – in puddles, leaves and village wells, in swollen rivers, and falling from the sky. Following the Mureș River into Transylvania, through villages of red-tiled roofs and houses peeling to reveal walls of crumbling wattle and daub, filling my bottle with buckets from wells and my hip-flask with powerful homemade țuică, I feel like I’ve entered a land of enormous natural wealth. Away from the highways – made perilous by Turkish truck-drivers racing for the border – the smaller roads are practically deserted, the traffic slowed by potholes, dogs and clattering horse-drawn carts. Walking feels more natural here, and people express less surprise when I tell them that’s how I’m travelling. Camping, too, feels easier. It may be the illusion of a foreigner, but I get the impression that this sort of thing isn’t so much minded here. The rules are looser, the land less bound. It’s a wilder country.

A deep consciousness of this wildness exists in many of the Romanians I’ve met. They tell me happily that their country has the largest population of wolves and bears in Europe. (Deeper into the mountains, this might cause me to retract that comment about camping being easier here.) They are extremely proud of the fact that much food is produced in traditional ways, by people maintaining a peasant culture. Milk is often unpasteurised, and homemade cheese and butter are served in shapeless cloud-like lumps. Many families produce their own țuică from homegrown plums, apples and pears, as well as thick greenish wine that tastes different in every home. People from towns still drive to the countryside to fill carloads of bottles with mineral water from natural springs rising in the hills. Village households slaughter their own pigs, a winter tradition that provides the family with meat and fat for the long months of cold. Shepherds maintain the ancient practice of transhumanța, living with their flocks in the mountains and leading them down to the valleys for winter – something that people speak of almost as an ideology, of living with a deep understanding of nature, solitude and freedom, a tradition of pastoralism that goes back to the Dacians.

The Dacian culture, which ruled this land before the first century AD, is another source of pride. The ruins of their cities reveal an advanced civilisation, with temples, highly-skilled metalwork and even running water. (Unfortunately they also had vast amounts of gold, prompting a massive Roman invasion that annihilated the culture. This resource curse is still evident today – the inhabitants of Roșia Montană are struggling to fight off a Canadian mining corporation that plans to dynamite the mountain and extract its gold with a devastating process that uses forty tonnes of cyanide a day.) The Dacians rode into battle under the standard of a snarling wolf’s-head, trailing a tube-shaped length of fabric that produced an unearthly howling as they charged. Contemporary myths said that their warriors underwent the ritual of lycanthropy – transforming themselves into wolves – which may explain local werewolf legends. I wonder if it could also explain the enormous number of stray dogs that are a part of everyday life here, existing as some collective consciousness of Dacian wolf-culture. Probably not, but as a walker I’m completely exposed to these things, and negotiating through mangy packs staking a territorial claim to rubbish dumps or abandoned buildings – as well as the enormous woolly sheepdogs that look like canine incarnations of sheep, sheep-demons protecting their flocks – it’s more fun to think so.

Modern enthusiasm for Dacian culture is rooted in nationalism, especially in Transylvania, where Romanians and Hungarians both claim precedence. The Romanian national narrative depends upon an unbroken lineage stretching back to pre-Roman times – the Hungarian version basically argues that the Dacians and Romanians are unrelated, and that the Magyars got here first. History resonates in everyday life. It’s hard to escape it here. Stoned around a campfire by the Mureș, melting lumps of white pig fat on green branches over the flames, the people I was staying with – a young, modern-minded crowd into eco-friendly living and drum ‘n’ bass – enthused about ancient Dacia for hours. ‘The Dacians were strong, free, independent people with everything they wanted… mountains, rivers, a beautiful country, salt, gold, natural wealth. Then the Romans came and stole it all…’ It was an uncanny echo of the wild-eyed man I met four months ago on a rainy day by the Rhine, who spoke of the freedom of Germanic tribes before Roman oppression. It’s a kind of hippy nationalism, a mythologised affinity with suppressed ancient cultures. Both visions of history are undoubtedly simplified and romanticised, but they speak of a similar longing for a long-lost age of greater freedoms, unbound by rules.

In Romania, this hippy nationalism dovetails with deep suspicion of the EU. People mutter darkly about legislation to ban homemade alcohol, restrict the use of traditional medicines, crack down on cottage industries producing local cheese and milk. There is particular scorn for new rules requiring pigs to be sent for slaughter in approved abattoirs, to be killed with electricity, rather than as a once-yearly celebration that involves the whole community. Many seem to regard the EU almost as a new Rome – an interfering, regulating force bent on suppressing traditional culture, stifling the folk knowledge and resilience that makes life here so rich.

The Barcode Moment: Part III

 

There have been a lot of very interesting reactions, thoughts and questions bubbling up around this conversation about the virtual future. Originally I wrote two posts attempting to explore some of these issues, but a third instalment began to seem necessary as the conversation developed, and questions proliferated on all sides. So here it is. Like the other posts in this series, it is part of a developing conversation and an ever-shifting pattern of thought.

One of the interventions which came in as a response to all this, and which made me examine my background thinking, came from the thinker and artist Pat Kane. ‘Isn’t it deeply natural’, he asked, ‘for symbolic apes to overlay reality with abstractions/images?’ Isn’t this, he asked, what poetry does? It was a good point. It is easy to imagine that our current acceleration into narcissistic virtual reality is new. It looks new, after all: the shiny screens, the goggles, the apps. But these, really, are only an acceleration of the trend that has existed since humanity could write. What is writing, after all? It is an abstract representation of experienced reality. You look at these marks on the screen, and they communicate meaning to you. They are symbols. The word ‘tree’ represents an object in the external world which we can both relate to, but the word itself is a collection of lines on a page or screen.

I read recently – and I can’t remember where I read it, or even whether it was apocryphal or factual – of an encounter between Western culture and a man from a tribal society. Instead of being the usual story, in which Western culture comes crashing into his world, this was the other way round: it was the story of a man from an indigenous community who had come or been brought to the West. He walked into a room and was shocked to see a man standing stock still, staring down at something in his hand. This man was not responding in any way to his external environment; to the room or to the man who had just walked into it or to anything outside the window. He was motionless but for his eyes, which were moving rapidly. He seemed, to the newcomer, to be dead or comatose even though he was standing up. The object in his hand was a book.

‘Symbolic apes’, then, might be as good a general description of our species as any. When we talk about trans-humanism, or post-humanism, we need to understand that we are talking about a spectrum rather than an event. I think it is likely that in 500 years time there will be no human beings as we currently understand them in existence, for one of two possible reasons. The first possibility is that we will have destroyed the Earth, and with it ourselves. The second possibility is that we will have somehow avoided doing this and will instead have uploaded ourselves into something else: merged with our technology and become more – or less – than human. This is the ultimate progressive fantasy, and this progressive culture has been trying to access it for over a century.

But what would a hunter-gatherer from the Mesolithic think if she were somehow able to travel here and examine a 21st-century human? If she were to look at me, with a plastic and steel contraption on my eyes to enhance my vision, and metal in my teeth and an old scar inside my throat where my tonsils were surgically removed and, who knows, in 25 years time a silicon artificial hip and a couple of new heart valves made out of parts of a pig? Would she not think that she had seen the post-human future? Jeppe Graugaard has pointed me towards an interview with futurist Steve Fuller, author of the predictably-titled Humanity 2.0. Fuller, who is a fan of this direction of travel, says: ‘people are voting with their feet to enter Humanity 2.0 with the time they spend in front of computers, as opposed to having direct contact with physical human beings. In all this, it’s not so much that we’ve been losing our humanity but that it’s becoming projected or distributed across things that lack a human body. In any case, Humanity 2.0 is less about the power of new technologies than a state of mind in which we see our lives fulfilled in such things.’

I think he’s right, and I think that most people, given the opportunity, will want this to go further. But for those of us who don’t – those of us who think we can identify a point beyond which we are not personally prepared to plunge into this – what then? What do we do? How do we live?

This question is not new either. Samuel Butler’s novel Erewhon is about a future society which has chosen to destroy all technology created after a particular date precisely because they have realised that the endpoint of technological progress would be the end of humanity as they knew it. I’ve already mentioned Orwell, who speculates at length in the Road to Wigan Pier on ‘the tendency of the machine to make a fully human life impossible’, and how the inevitable endpoint of this vision of progress is the human being reduced to ‘a brain in a bottle.’ If and when we choose to revolt personally against this, we are revolting not against something new in itself, but simply to the next logical step on a very old journey away from wild Nature and towards an internal world in which we get to create our own version of reality. And, most likely, we will be in the minority. Like the old man outside the dome in Logan’s Run, we may end up entirely shut out, if not extinct: a possibility that both Rosie and Rade touch on underneath part one of this series.

But what if that is not the point? If you treat this not as a ‘global issue’ which requires some kind of organised political response but instead as a personal experience you have to live through, things start to look rather different. I usually find that the small picture is the most important one. You can think about ‘global issues’ until your head hurts and you want to die of despair: it is another form of abstraction. We live by the small things: the things we can control or experience personally. There are fewer and fewer things, in a consumer economy, that we are encouraged or permitted to control, as this fascinating essay explains. But if we want to, we are still free to make different lives for ourselves to whatever degree we can manage it. We are as free (for now) to say no to the Google goggles as we are to say no to credit cards or cars or supermarket shopping. That doesn’t mean escaping from the machine – that’s impossible – but it means negotiating a relationship with it which gives us as much autonomy as we need or can get or can cope with. In these times, this is probably the best we’re ever going to do.

Personally, I have always been with Orwell and with Lawrence: the machine dehumanises us, sucks out of us some animal essence which it is impossible perhaps to explain but can be clearly intuited by those who are paying attention. We can’t react to this by trying to globalise these feelings. We don’t have to be activists, campaigning to try and make our particular view of virtual technology the dominant one. This kind of approach is doomed to fail and will lead to despair, just as the attempt to prevent climate change and environmental crisis in this way is leading to despair. There are tides in the affairs of men, and standing on the beach ordering the waves back does not make you brave or forward-thinking.

This is a personal view, and one I have been developing for a long time, but it seems to me that retreat is both the best way to ensure personal sanity and to keep the flame of a particular, pre-machine vision of humanity alive. We all choose our own personal visions. I have talked about retreating and withdrawing before, and it often brings down upon my head accusations of ‘defeatism‘ and the like from the activist-minded. To this, I would borrow the retort of the Scottish poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, to a friend who criticised him for moving away from Edinburgh to a remote farm, where he spent much of his time creating a beautiful, and provocative, garden. Why was he running away from urban reality and from engagement with it, asked his friend. Finlay replied: ‘Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.’

Retreat-as-attack; tending a monastery through the coming dark ages; being a poppy in the face of the machine. What more is there? It feels like enough, to me. It feels like a lifetime’s work in itself.

The Barcode Moment: Part II

 

You are currently interacting with a machine. On the other side of another machine, miles away from you, connected by wires and satellite signals in a way that, probably, neither of us understands or can control, is me, currently sitting on my bed in my dressing gown, typing these words into a laptop computer which, in a few short years, will seem primitive and old fashioned. As I write these words, and you read them, we are both playing our part in the rolling ecocide which is currently enfolding the Earth. The thought is a depressing one, but it is also a slightly unreal one. Most of us can’t see any ‘ecocide’ going on; we hear of it, ‘know’ of it, see it as an abstraction, real but unexperienced. And so we go on, enjoying what these machines bring us even as we worry, sometimes, about where they might be taking us or what is at the other end of the wires.

You have probably never met me, and I have no idea who you are. We think we are ‘interacting’ with each other, but we are not. I am interacting with a machine, and you are doing the same. You can read my words, and if you like you can respond to them with your own words, but – as Dougald pointed out here some time ago – this is far from being a genuine human interaction. We are not responding to each others’ body language, or smiles or frowns. There is no chit-chat, no animal relationship at work, no drawing on the ancient intuitions of our species which allow us to converse person-to-person, with all that this entails. There is just a monologue, cast in pixels. We may stimulate each others’ brains, as we sit hunched over these glowing machines, but the rest of us sits inert, gazing in on an abstraction.

How quickly did we get used to this? For most of my life, it has not been possible. I remember when I was at school, in the sixth form, and one of my upwardly-mobile mates got himself an early mobile phone, the size of a brick, and everyone laughed at him for being a wannabe yuppie. Twenty years on, many people seem unable to live without virtual mobile communications, which have changed our relationship with each other and our environments in short order. Downloading the web into your head via your Google Goggles might seem absurd or frightening now but soon, very soon, it will seem workaday.

Have a look at this fascinating report, from last week’s Observer, from the new ‘Singularity University’ in California, set up and bankrolled by the Silicon Valley dweebs I talked about in my last post. Absurd, some of it, and terrifying – especially the future of warfare, which is where much of this comes from. And look at what drives it – that old, Western terror of ego-death. Look, too, at that vision of the future stripped of anything but humanity: our raging ape-narcissim projected onto the world through our robotic and computerised alter egos.

And yet this – the self-driving cars, the search for immortality, the meteor-mining, the silly space fantasies, the silicon transcendence that all of it represents – this is where we’re going, and though we are going there frighteningly fast, we are doing so in stages, each of which we seem to absorb and welcome with no worries. Cars that drive themselves? Bring it on! Don’t ask questions – questions are for Luddites! Each stage causes a tremor but not a full earthquake. At the end of the process, if there ever is one, you are no longer human and Earth is no longer Earth. We – a species that has lived through abstractions sicne we first drew pictures on the walls of caves – will have reached the inevitable endpoint of this process of living internally rather than extrenally: we will have remade the world in our own image. But there may never be, for most of us, a barcode moment; there may never be a line-crossing, doubt-quashing step that makes everything clear. Instead, there will be a climb down an endless series of small but manageable steps into another world.

As the great Bruce Springsteen once put it, ‘you get used to anything / sooner or later it just becomes your life.’ This, I think, is what is walking us rapidly towards that Singularity. We are a hugely adaptable species and also, paradoxically, a conservative one. If you grow up in Bladerunner world, Bladerunner world seems to be Just The Way Things Are.

Luckily, I didn’t grow up in Bladerunner world. I grew up in Middlesex; or rather, that part of greater London which was once Middlesex. My Middlesex was an endless suburb. The local park and the drain under the tube line we played in, the always-closed cricket pavilion, the junior school with the asphalt playground and the blackberries in the hedges. The old toyshop on the bridge, the garages behind the council estate, the thin strips of back garden, the fake-beamed Ind Coope pub from which emanated the exciting and glamorous smell of stale bitter. This was the Middlesex of my childhood. These are my blue remembered hills.

But there was once another Middlesex, one that I am much too young to have seen. This place had been, before the arrival of the Romans, a great forest of oak, elm and beech, inhabited by elk, wolf and deer. Later, the home of the Middle-Saxons became the second-smallest county in England, a retreat for merchants from the noise and grime of London. It developed into an agricultural ‘home county’ with a distinct character – small, hidden, human-scale – which made its loss the harder to take for those who knew it. These days, Middlesex barely exists. It has all been swallowed up by London, and even those who live there don’t use the county’s name anymore. There is only a memory where a place used to be.

I discovered John Betjeman, the chronicler of the death of Middlesex, in my early twenties. I discovered old-fashioned poems about places I knew – Harrow, Greenford, Rayner’s Lane, Ruislip – in guises that meant nothing to me. It was like seeing a picture of your mother at 18, young and free and with no idea you will ever be born. Here was a county of whispering pines, enormous hayfields, elm trees, meadowlands, low, laburnum leaned-on railings. The evocation of its loss was strong and clean and managed to raise a nostalgia in me for something I had never been part of.

For it wasn’t the world I knew. I knew pavements and park railings and cul-de-sacs and council estates and concrete street lamps and white dog shit and the remains of old air raid sirens. Compared to its past richness, my Middlesex was a drab monoculture. It was, in Betjeman’s words, ‘silent under soot and stone’. But I liked it, because it was where I came from.

And I wonder now whether we could Middlesex the whole world. I wonder if we could replace the rainforests with plantations, fish out the seas until only a couple of commercial species are left, carpet the moors in turbines and dam all the rivers and build endless suburbs over what remains of the haymeadows which are now used to grow maize for silage. I wonder if we could busy ourselves with our microchips and machines, turning the world into a planetary farm to support our digital appetites and sinking deeper into our machine narcissism as we do. I wonder if we could deplete the diversity and richness of this wild world by eighty or ninety percent – and within a few generations see it all forgotten, even by those who noticed its going. I wonder if, raised in this culture, with all the new toys to play with, wearing our Google Goggles, sitting in our self-driving cars, we would even notice, or care?

Our current plunge into ecological overshoot could lead to global economic collapse. Our pushing up against ecological limits could lead to the unplanned scaling-back of the human machine. It could push Gaia into what James Lovelock calls ‘ a fever’, in which all bets are off, the planet’s ecosystems shift wildly into new states and it’s game over for human hubris, if not for humanity itself. That’s the fear – or the hope, depending on your point of view.

But what if the fear is wrong? What if we somehow manage to get ourselves out of this fix? What if the Silicon Valley cornutopians are right, and technology or ingenuity or blind luck save us? Or what if Earth reacts differently: what if it can, after all, tolerate the elimination of 80% of terrestrial life? What if a planet of rats, cockroaches, pigeons, GM crops, synthetic livestock and post-human immortals is possible after all?

In other words, what if all our talk of ‘collapse’ is a narrative designed to quell a worse fear: that things might not collapse, but continue like this? That the Earth’s final wild frontiers may be tamed and diluted, ravaged and destroyed, and that we would not care much because we were too busy following the logic of our narrative to its endpoint, becoming our machines – our little creations, made in our own image, sent out to rule the world with our culture’s poison in their silicon veins.

In the next and final post in this series I’m going to try and address this stuff at a far more local, human level. If this rush towards the virtual can’t be escaped from – if nothing will rescue us but collapse – what might be the best way to live through it, on a practical, day-to-day level? All thoughts on that question are very welcome.

The Barcode Moment: Part I

It was in religious education classes at school (classes which always seemed to be headed by evangelical Christians, in my school at least) that I was first introduced to Satanic Barcode Theory. If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, it works like this. First, take a quote from the Book of Revelation:

‘And he [‘the Beast’] causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six.’

That’s the Christian Bible, informing you that a time will come when no-one will be able to ‘buy or sell’ without the ‘mark of the Beast’, apparently tattooed on his or her head or hand. That number is 666.

Next, take a look at this (borrowed from here):

barc666

This is a barcode. Every barcode, as you can see above, has three ‘guard bars’ on it, and each of these guard bars is the equivalent of the number 6 on the barcode, thus:

barcode2a

Every barcode, in other words, has the number 666 running through it like words through a stick of rock. So, the barcode, without which it is pretty tough these days to ‘buy or sell’ anything, is the mark of the Beast, according to the Bible and my old RE teacher. Satan is capitalism. Or trade, or digitisation of commerce, or supermarkets or multinationals, or something. There are a few flaws in this theory, of course, not least of which is that no-one has barcodes tattooed on their head or hand. But this, apparently, was a detail; my teacher was pretty convinced that, within a few decades, some version of the barcode would end up embedded in or imprinted on human bodies, to allow us all to transact our lives away with minimal fuss.

When I was 15, this conspiracy theory was exciting. I wasn’t religious, and wasn’t in the habit of listening much to RE teachers, but this lesson grabbed me. It satisfied the Manichean part of my nature. The world was, in this telling, black and white: a straight battle between good and evil. And once people started tattooing barcodes on their skin it was going to be damn clear which was which. At that point, those of us who were good would be able to see what was coming, and we would have to cut loose: run to the hills, form communes, get guns, prepare. It would be frightening, but also thrilling – and, most importantly of all, morally simple. There was no complexity here. You had the mark, or you didn’t. And when the moment came, I’d never let them mark me.

You’re quite susceptible to this kind of worldview when you’re fifteen, you’ve read The Lord of The Rings twice and you watch Star Wars every Christmas. Then you grow up and you realise, with some regret, that life is more morally complex than this. You realise that the barcode moment – the moment when the grey areas fall away and you are forced to choose, and you can take a stand with clarity – will never come.

And then you see this.

This is Project Glass, pioneered by the increasingly evil Google. Project Glass aims to – well, you can see for yourself what it aims to do. It will allow you to stream the internet directly into your eyes, providing you, literally, with a new lens through which to see the world: one manufactured by a big corporation. One which defines and explains that world to you, according to your own consumer criteria, and which will doubtless make every effort to sell bits of it to you as well. As a breathless review of this infant technology by a geek magazine explains:

The Google goggles can give weather information when you look out the window, show you a text message and allow you to reply with voice dictation and more. One section of the video shows the glasses informing the user that the underground system is suspended before they enter the station and goes on to give turn by turn walking directions to the destination … We don’t know how far away from getting hold of a pair of these we are but we hope it’s sooner rather than later.

I bet you do, you ridiculous nerds. Google has been regaling us with possibilities. Wearing these, you’ll be able to look at a tree and be informed what species it is; look at a cloud and get a flashing message in the sky giving you its meteorological name; look at a product and get a price. The whole world will be explained. You’ll be an excited, well-informed robot-person, all day every day, and there’ll be no need at all for even minimal interaction with your surroundings or with other living creatures.

I’m not qualified to say whether Google is in actual fact the Antichrist, though nothing would surprise me anymore. Perhaps my old RE teacher would know. But I think that, if this technology ever becomes a reality – and it will – this could be my barcode moment. This could be the moment at which I run for the hills. Because this crosses some ill-defined but strongly-felt internal line. This is the moment at which technologies which up to now have merely been irritating and sometimes a bit worrying – smart phones, mobile Twitter feeds, handheld web devices and the like – become actually sinister. This is the moment at which our dive headfirst into narcissism – our declaration that we will not interact anymore with anything but ourselves and our machines – becomes stark and impossible to deny.

But what would I be running from, and how could I escape it? This is the future. It is the direction this culture is headed in. It is the ultimate endpoint of the progressive narrative, which sees us escaping from Nature and merging with – becoming – machines. It is the remaking of everything in the image of the hive mind of the consumer West.

I have seen this future already, as it happens, in human form. Last year I had a debate with a man called Kevin Warwick. Kevin, a mild-mannered academic from the University of Reading, sells himself as the ‘world’s first cyborg.’ He’s a computer scientist who a few years back inserted several microchips into his arms to allow him to communicate with computers outside his body, and control objects he wasn’t touching. He thinks this is the first step towards the Singularity – the event long anticipated by Silicon Valley nerds (not to mention HG Wells) in which humanity merges with its technology and gives rise to a new and better species. You can watch that debate online if you have an empty half hour or so.

I thought Kevin did a pretty bad job of selling what he was trying to present as a Utopian future, particularly when he happily agreed that it might lead to a Terminator-style war against the machines, as the computers realise they don’t need us after all. He didn’t seem too bothered by this possibility; perhaps it was just supposed to be natural selection in action. Perhaps carbon-based lifeforms are the past, and silicon-based lifeforms the future; I’ve heard it said.

But presentation aside, two things really grabbed me about the cyborg’s take on the ‘post-human’ future. The first was that he was being a lot more honest about things than a lot of techno-progressives are prepared to be. It seems to me that post-humanism, or transhumanism, or whatever you prefer to call it, is indeed the inevitable endpoint of the particular model of progress which Western industrial culture is currently chasing. The Ray Kurzweils of this world are currently laughed at as fringe geeks, but then that’s what they said about the guys pioneering the internet in the 1980s, and who’s laughing now? It seems to me, anyway, that we are already merging with our technologies. I have sat in pubs with people who play with their iPhones rather than talk to me (perhaps it’s just me) and walked down country lanes with people who are too busy Tweeting to notice the tweeting. Ten years ago this stuff would have been unthinkable. In ten years time it will look primitive.

‘Give a Western man a job of work to do’, wrote George Orwell eighty years ago, ‘and he will immediately set about inventing a machine to do it for him.’ Today perhaps we could update this rule for the digital age: give a Western man a choice between engaging with his internal world through a machine or engaging with the external world via his body and its immediate environment, and he’ll increasingly choose the former. Perhaps it’s only a small step from the chip in your iphone to the chip in your arm (or in your head or hand …). I’m not sure I’d count anything out – and neither would some people who have been at the sharp end and are frightened by what’s in the pipeline.

But there was something else about what Kevin Warwick said which grabbed me too, and it was the total absence of non-human life from his vision of the future. Again, this is simply a distillation of our wider cultural attitudes and assumptions. Kevin blithely dismissed my talk about climate change, mass extinction, our culture’s divorce from nature. None of this was happening, he said – or if it was, it could be solved more quickly by charging towards post-humanism. If the climate is changing, he said, and we’re incapable of solving it now, perhaps it will be solved better by post-human technologies. Perhaps. Anyway: onwards!

The endpoint of a culture which focuses on human desire above all things, rejects all previous ways of living, worships machines, sneers at the spiritual and sees the world as a collection of components to be taken apart and analysed in the service of utility, is a world in which humanity disappears further and further into narcissistic virtuality, ‘improving’ its own capabilities with its technology while the world burns around it. And here we are. Could it have been any other way?

There are plenty of reasons, of course, to suggest that the Singularity will never be reached. Even if you don’t believe that humanity will get its act together and reject it (and why would we? We’re lovin’ it!) it seems likely that nature will rebel – that the resource crunch and the collapse of the Earth’s systems which we are busy engineering will pull the rug out from under the progressive narrative before Skynet really gets going. But it’s worth asking a question: what if it doesn’t?

In the next part of this post, by way of a slight digression, I’ll have a stab at an answer.