At Play in the Comedy of Survival

Many of our imaginations have been captured by the seemingly unalterable and suicidal trajectory of contemporary civilisation. It feels like the story arc of one of the great tragic heroes: Oedipus, Macbeth, Faust — destined to rise to great heights, attempt unprecedented levels of power over matter and life, and then fall, leaving the world’s stage strewn with the dead. But the ‘tragic fall’ is not just an affective state of mind or a poetic myth. It is, in fact, what individual civilisations have tended to do since humans began to create them 7000 years ago (unless they were conquered and absorbed into other civilisations, which then fell).

And now, for the first time in human history a single civilisation has gone global, touching every member of an unprecedentedly large and still growing world population. And also for the first time, we have all the tools: scientific, cognitive, historical — to see the seeds of its fall in development. Even the wonks at NASA have confirmed that this pattern exists and we are replicating it. And we still can’t seem to change course. The posture advocated by some who understand this is a correspondingly tragic view, which to them means acceptance of the Faustian bargain, acceptance that the human story is inevitably a story of hubris, of overweening ambition, aggression, and final destruction. And that we are living now somewhere near the climax of hubris, and must brace ourselves for destruction.

The problem comes in what this posture represents: is it representative in any way of how other living systems work? Because if we really want to vindicate the ethic of living things, wild things, uncivilised things, and rediscover their resilience and their relevance to our human life, then the tragic story arc is not the rule.

This idea was first articulated by the US scientist and literary scholar Joseph Meeker, in a small book called The Comedy of Survival. It was published in 1974, when an ecological consciousness – meaning a science-based understanding of the world as a living system in which everything was connected and interdependent – finally seemed to be on the rise within the civilisation that had been marked by its utter contempt for earth-centred religions and societies.

Meeker was a uniquely interdisciplinary man: a postdoctoral comparatist in both world literature and in ethology (the study of animal behaviour). Before becoming a professor of comparative literature he had worked as a ranger in the US National Park Service in Alaska. He has remained a committed ecologist throughout his career. (He is now professor emeritus of Union Institute and University.) His work deserves a wider audience; it can stand with many of the better-known ecological thinkers of our time: Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams. But even so Meeker’s contribution is truly unique.

In The Comedy of Survival, he proposed the idea that two of the major modes of imaginative literature might be seen, from an evolutionary perspective, as representing different adaptive strategies. While ‘cultural evolution’ in a Darwinian sense is hotly debated and the whole idea is problematic, Meeker was about something different. He saw literature as mimetic (imitative), an attempt at metaphoric representation of fundamental aspects of human life. And since strategies for physical survival and adaptation to the environment are part of the reality of any species, including humans, there was no reason why literature shouldn’t in some way reflect them too.

The two modes were tragedy and comedy. In studying world literature, Meeker found some significant differences between them. Tragedy was almost exclusively the creation of Western civilisation, arising out of its heroic myths, while comedy was ‘very nearly universal, occurring wherever human culture exists.’ Tragedy focused on an individual hero who ‘suffers and dies for his ideals, while the comic hero survives without them.’ Comedy looked at all high ideals of individual triumph or transcendence with a jaded eye, and its successful conclusion was always one where life, continuance and community – generally represented by a wedding, or several – were celebrated. Meeker wrote:

Comedy demonstrates that man is durable even though he may be weak, stupid, and undignified […] At the end of the tale [the comic hero] manages to marry his girl, evade his enemies, slip by the oppressive authorities, avoid drastic punishment, and to stay alive. His victories are all small, but he lives in a world where only small victories are possible […] Comedy is careless of morality, goodness, truth, beauty, heroism, and all such abstract values men say they live by. Its only concern is to affirm [the human] capacity for survival and to celebrate the continuity of life itself, despite all moralities. Comedy is a celebration, a ritual renewal of biological welfare as it persists in spite of the reasons there may be for metaphysical despair […] Comedy muddles through, but seems to care little for such weighty matters as progress and perfection.

The Greek demigod who gave his name to the word, Comus, was according to Meeker ‘a god of fertility in a large but unpretentious sense. His concerns included the ordinary sexual fertility of plants, men and animals, and also the general success of family and community life insofar as these depend on biological processes.’

In taking the first steps toward the elaboration of an ‘ecological aesthetic’, Meeker declared that just as comedy could be thought of as ecological, successful ecological systems could equally be called comic: ‘Productive and stable ecosystems are those which minimise destructive aggression, encourage maximum diversity, and seek to establish equilibrium among their participants—which is essentially what happens in literary comedy.’ He viewed biological life and cultural life as reciprocal, invoking Oscar Wilde’s dictum that ‘life imitates art at least as much as art imitates life.’

Put concisely, Meeker’s ecological aesthetic (which, as he made clear, was also an ethics, another way in which his thinking was appropriately holistic and anti-disciplinary) was this: ‘Much that has been loved and admired by a humanistic culture is unfortunately incompatible with biological stability […] If cherished human traditions have led to the damage of the world, then those traditions must be revised.’

The Comedy of Survival looks at specific works containing some of the principles Meeker was trying to put forward. From Aristophanes’ proto-feminist anti-war play Lysistrata to Dante’s Divine Comedy to Spanish picaresque novels and the 20th century satirical masterwork Catch-22, Meeker showed comic heroes and comic stories embody many of the attributes of successful survival strategies in (non-human) animals. These ‘comic’ behaviours make it possible to co-exist with predators and prey, respond to threats by avoiding or redirecting unnecessary aggression, and survive and thrive in a complex, dynamic environment.

His look at the picaresque hero provides the most striking examples. Picaresque comedy is a genre not much studied, in comparison with tragedy, epic literature, and even other forms of comedy, but Meeker saw it as the chief mode in which the ‘minority report of Western civilisation’ makes its case. He presents several examples of picaresque behavior in literature: how lowborn Lazarillo de Tormes escapes the oppression of his social condition, how Thomas Mann’s confidence trickster Felix Krull ‘shapes himself to please’ society, all the while exposing its illusions, or how Catch-22’s Yossarian manages to evade the death machine of organised warfare. ‘Picaresque life,’ he concludes, ‘is animal existence augmented by the imaginative and adaptive powers of the human mind.’

Conversely, Meeker portrays tragedy and its heroic idealism not as a profound understanding of life, but rather a fatal misrepresentation. Tragedy was a product of Western anthropocentrism, which was coeval with a disastrous relationship to nature: ‘The assumption of human superiority to the processes of nature has justified human exploitation of nature without regard for the consequences[.] Humanistic individualism has encouraged people to ignore the multiple dependencies necessary to the sustenance of life.’ Meeker repeatedly emphasised that the genius of evolution is not in the perfection of the individual or even of the species, but the ecosystem, a dynamically stable condition of maximum diversity.

While he is more concerned with undermining the tragic paradigm, Meeker is also careful to distinguish picaresque behaviour from the misplaced nostalgia and idealisation that mark the pastoral mode. The picaro (or picara, who is less frequently represented in the men’s club of Western Lit) does not seek to withdraw from society to an idealised rural space. (Doomers and self-styled ‘survivalists’ take note.) Rather he or she is constantly seeking to find ways to survive and thrive in a complex and shifting environment which is created just as much by human activity as by non-human natural processes.

The picaresque metaphor for society is not the so-called simple life of the agrarian homestead, but the complex wilderness. Dangers can never be eliminated in the wild; they must be evaded or neutralised, by predators and prey alike. Meeker also wrote: ‘The way out of environmental crisis does not lead back to the supposed simplicity of the cave or the farm, but toward a more intricate form of living guided by a complex human mind seeking to find its appropriate place upon a complex earth.’

However, it is not complexity per se but a fuller understanding of what real complexity means that would be the mark of a human society worthy of the complex web of life from which it emerged. Meeker gave us this guidepost, ‘If a “return to nature” were to be based upon the model of a climax ecosystem, civilisation would have to become far more complex than anything humanity has yet produced.’
Here is a summation of his ideas about civilised vs. wild complexity:

The truth may be that civilised human life is much simpler than most animal life. We seem to have used our enlarged brain in order to reduce the number of choices facing us, and we have sought the simple way of destroying or ignoring our competition rather than the more demanding task of accommodating ourselves to the forces that surround us. We establish artificial polarities like good and evil, truth and falsehood, pain and pleasure, and demand that a choice be made which will elevate one and destroy the other. We transform complicated wilderness environments into ecologically simple farmlands. We seek unity and we fear diversity. We demand that one species, our own, achieve unchallenged dominance where hundreds of species lived in complex equilibrium before our arrival. In the present environmental dilemma, humanity stands like a pioneer species facing heroically the consequences of its own tragic behavior, with a growing need to learn from the more stable comic heroes of nature, the animals [emphasis mine].

In the third edition of The Comedy of Survival (1997), Meeker added the idea of developing a ‘play ethic’ to counter the dour and biologically destructive productivity fetish of the Western work ethic. He compared the open-ended, non-purposive nature of play with evolutionary strategies:

‘[B]oth ecological succession and natural selection are aimless processes that work with whatever conditions and forms are present in opportunistic and inventive ways to create new forms […] They are like play in their purposelessness and spontaneity. The comic way may be inefficient and wasteful, as evolution and succession are, but these processes have created the beauty of biological diversity, including humans.

(I would only disagree with the use of the words ‘inefficient and wasteful’, as complexity theorists like Stuart Kauffman have shown that layers of redundancy and elaborate speciation actually work to minimise entropy in living systems and the web of life overall. But I think Meeker was being playfully provocative here.)

In his description of the play ethic, Meeker championed increasing our participation in activities that ‘are their own reward: music, gardening, conversation.’ (This lifted my spirits greatly, as all of them are ones I treasure in my own life.) Here comedy as both an ethics and an aesthetics returns in the form of activities that are actually common to human experience, not abstract theoretical formations. Meeker discourages abstraction and encourages praxis. After all biological systems are not abstractions. They are the largest scale embodiment of the idea that ‘truth is concrete.’

More than 40 crucial years have passed since The Comedy of Survival, and the modern environmental movement, appeared. The last 20 particularly have left little room for any faith that there will be large-scale eco-centric reform before a massive alteration in the basic conditions of planetary life – already underway — takes place. In today’s global civilisation, the Western tragic arc seems to be playing out, with human society replicating all the elements of its own earlier literary models: striving, unremitting aggression, hubris, defiance of limits. Ironically, in a reversal of what Meeker saw in literature, the tragic mode has become universal while more ‘comic’ types of human social formations: tribal societies, nomads, smallholders, bohemians — are increasingly marginalised and living on the edge of extinction. It’s looking unlikely that the fulfillment of the tragic arc will be forestalled from within this totalising system. (Why traditional Left strategies are failing to provide an alternative to ecocide, at least in part because of the extent to which they also reflect the tragic, anthropocentric paradigm needs to be the subject of a whole separate study.)

But if Meeker was correct, evolution’s comic strategy won’t disappear, unless the whole web of life disappears. And comic human behaviours may currently be the minority report, but they are not gone or irrelevant. Turning our eyes, hands, and thoughts to how we might practice etho-mimicry in the comic way is at very least something less psychopathic to do with our limited time and skills than remaining transfixed in dread or despair, enslaved bystanders to ineluctable tragedy, a Greek chorus of woe.

When we talk about resilience, we often forget that emotional resilience is as essential to human survival as physical. If those who feel global civilisation is irredeemable are really to represent a living alternative, perhaps we ought to embody a different emotional and imaginative paradigm: no longer the Faustian, or even the tragic sense of life, but something more like Meeker’s picaresque. Humble, smart, negentropic, playful – these are useful values with concrete behaviours we can adopt.

Even so, in the current context, it may not be possible to fully enact the comic mode in our own lives – after all, to be successful it requires reinforcement, other people we know to play along. But even as a thought experiment, the comic way offers pleasure and relief, as well as identifying exemplary capabilities humans will need, if we’re ever to be worthy of rejoining our fellow players on the evolutionary stage.

Selected Works by Joseph Meeker:

The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology (1st edition, 1974. Foreword by Konrad Lorenz)
Toward an Environmental Ethic (2nd edition, 1980. Preface by Paul Shepard)
Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic (3rd edition, 1997)
The Spheres of Life (1975)
Minding the Earth (1988)

 

Beyond the Single Baseline: Towards a Re-storyation of True Work

My hand fits perfectly through the neck of a two-litre mason jar. I’ve known people who couldn’t push their hand through, or those who, having forced the fit, got stuck for a few minutes. So I honour my particular luck by shoving my knuckles into strips of salt-brined cabbage and ginger-chilli paste at the bottom of the jar, ignoring the burning of spices in a cut on my finger, pushing down until the cabbage gives up its juice and packs down.

I am making kimchi, a traditional Korean ferment or ‘pickle’ similar to sauerkraut but, in my personal opinion, much more delicious because of the ginger-garlic-chilli-onion paste added to the salted vegetable strips and packed into a jar. I also add a bit of miso paste, a Japanese ferment that takes several years in its own right before it’s ready (I stole this twist from a friend who has higher confidence experimenting with food processing than I do). It already smells delicious, but if I wait a couple weeks for the microbial magic to ensue, it will be divine. I’ll add it to cheese toast, pop some arugula and a fried egg on top, and lose my mind for a little while in the sensory immediacy of flavour.

I’ve got sweet tea for a kombucha ferment brewing in a large bowl, sourdough starter proofing for bread in the morning, eight-month old mead (a honey ferment) ageing quietly in the back of a dark cupboard, a pillow I just sewed and stuffed with raw, burr-filled cotton waiting to have its last corner stitched, and hand-spun wool yarn drying on a hook after I simmered it with red cabbage and alum and it turned a pale silver lavender colour (surprisingly, since the dye bath turned the colour you’d get if you accidentally massacred a field of beets with a shovel).

EPSON MFP image

But throughout this flurry of homesteading, I am getting more and more frustrated with myself, thinking about how I really should be getting some work done.

I seem to have decided, stringently and without much questioning, what counts as ‘practical’ and ‘productive’, what counts as work and what does not, and my parameters seem to have little to do with effort or time expended. But I have found examples of this disregard for certain efforts, and reward for others, outside of my own kitchen, in interpersonal interactions and historical trends. Have I created this unilateral definition of what counts as productive, or have I inherited it?

More and more of us live in largely industrialised, centralised, capitalist societies. By definition these systems have certain inherent characteristics that we often don’t see or notice because they are deeply ingrained in the patterns of our days, entrenched in the structures of our culture, and widely accepted as unquestionable, given truths, rather than what they are: phenotypes of human-designed systems. And these systems are built on designated narratives that convey certain value to certain things, certain people, and certain behaviours, as any human system does.

In order to function, industrialisation depends on standardisation, mechanisation, and single baselines of productivity. There is usually one type of endeavour that counts as productive — are you able to do this one motion fast, get as many animals through the slaughterhouse as possible in a given time, etc. Centralisation tends to diminish as well the diversity of things and speeds that might be considered productive, because of a funneling or pyramid pattern — the definition of value is often created far away and far up the ladder. And capitalism is by definition attached to a particular single pattern of productivity: the exponential generation of more capital.

We could debate the merits and pitfalls and ills of our political and economic systems, and wherever we came out, however we feel about the systems we live in, create, benefit from, are oppressed by, and play outside of, those systems do affect not only our external patterns, but our internal cultural and personal systems of value as well. This makes sense — we’re immersed in them all the time. And they give us a certain definition of our own value. A certain definition of ‘work’, of productive contribution, of, when it comes down to it, having earned the right to deserve to matter in our communities and in the world.

The problem here isn’t the simple fact that the narratives of our cultural systems give us our personal and interpersonal narratives of value — of course they do, because that’s what cultural systems do. And at first glance, it’s not even this particular version of value defined by these systems and their narratives that concerns me.

It’s that there’s only one.

There is one baseline for productivity, for value, for good work: how hard and fast and long can you work to produce more.

This is absurdly heartbreaking for many of us. It also makes no sense. Healthy ecosystems do not ever depend on ‘one’ anything — a single input or output, one organism, one fertility source, one speed or type of growth. Diversity is ecologically essential for systemic resilience. This is why a monoculture (single-crop) farming system requires so many external inputs of fertility and pest control substances in order to even survive, and, in contrast, why a diverse forest ecosystem can often tolerate fluctuations in weather or insect population rates without extra-system inputs, and while remaining largely intact and thriving.

EPSON MFP image

Such resilience is not optional, not a superfluous luxury, in either ecosystems or human communities. We need to have lots of different ways of contributing, of finding value in the true work others contribute, or we miss an incredible number of essential ‘inputs’ for our own health, happiness, resilience, thriving. Being resilient beings ourselves, we do find myriad ways to contribute. But often when we do, these methods of contributing go ignored or undervalued, unpaid (since they don’t fall into that single baseline of production), or are considered luxuries, hobbies, or extravagantly artisanal activities, unnecessary to ‘real’ production and survival. Humans usually create community and co-care outside of the narrow industrial definition of value, but because we’re doing so in the context of larger systems that don’t recognise these contributions strongly or at all, it depletes us. It’s untenable, a motion that cannot be sustained for long, like swimming upstream.

We live in a scarcity ecology. We use the relationship between perceived scarcity and perceived need (‘supply and demand’) to determine value — these days, ‘scarce’ connotes ‘valuable’ so automatically that we practically hear them as synonymous. When we learn about supply and demand as economic principles in school, they are taught to us as givens, as natural and inborn principals of life, rather than as chosen drivers of a human-designed system.

We’re so invested in scarcity as our driving force, in fact, that we’ve defined entire groups as less valuable, less deserving, when they do work, even if it’s the kind of quantifiable work our culture values. This can be seen in wage inequalities amongst demographics doing equivalent work, unlivable minimum wages across service industries, the relegation of certain work to the unpaid ‘home’ sphere, and beyond. We’ve decided there isn’t enough work to go around in this country (scarcity again). The single baseline should not be confused with an even playing field — our systems are set up so that privilege and profile carry immense leverage. We have defined certain genders, races, bodies, classes, ages, professions, regions, as doing work that is less valued or not valued, usually work that we at the same time depend heavily on. So there’s this single version of work’s value — do more faster — and we make more or less of that value available to certain groups, and to the work associated with those certain groups.

It shows, this single definition of value, like any single seed that goes wild in disturbed soil and becomes a weed, spiking the exponential growth curve and then crashing. It shows in our mental and emotional health, in our physical health, in our spiritual and community exhaustion.

The single baseline of ‘be as productive as possible at the same level all the time to earn value’ is not only physically and psychologically untenable, not only does it starve or cancerously overfeed our selves and our human and ecological communities, but it’s also deeply unjust. Because of this definition, we have lost our elders as a society (though this varies with background and many subcultures in the US defy this pattern with intergenerational households). Those deemed physically less productive are sidelined to the geographic and social margins. We don’t have an economics of wisdom; we don’t have an ecology of mutual support in our dominant models. Elders might have much to offer in terms of mentorship, storytelling, intergenerational thinking, community memory, cultural ethics, magic, stillness. Thriving human ecologies include these things. But those things don’t generally bring in income in the current context. If you can’t use your hands, brain, computer at a high speed, you can’t earn ‘value’. This is an extremely ableist model in general — certain bodies are ‘valuable’ only so long as they can perform in certain ways. Getting sick, in this story of value, is a sin, a failure, a discrepancy, rather than a natural state of flux, of the changing needs and offerings of any living body.

This core story of single-value baseline, and its concurrent injustices, percolate into communities and cultures even that define themselves in direct opposition to dominant cultural systems. Activist communities, organising groups, radical schools, garden education programs; the ‘what’ of what we work for in these communities pushes to change the larger systems. Meanwhile, the ‘how’ of how we do it, the containers and models we work and play within, can end up directly mimicking the systems we’d like to change. There are certain ways to show up as an activist that are often considered most valuable, most effective, most passionate. And these ways are often enabling to certain mental and physical health patterns and bodies and ages and ways of contributing, and intensely disabling and depleting to others. While fighting for just, thriving, abundant communities and systems in the larger world, we end up building unjust, starving, exhausting systems within our organisations, and ultimately within ourselves.

So this piece is in part an invitation for prefigurative politics in our communities and work — to let the ‘how’ begin more and more to be the ‘what’. To open up as wide a diversity of recognised contribution methods as possible, and to make space and value for modes of contribution to shift even within one individual over time.

There is never a time when we don’t have something to offer. While that statement may sound dreamy and cliché, it in truth stems from the very real, nitty gritty life and death cycles of ecological systems, which depend upon a vast array of interconnections, services, and yields for their functioning, and which do not appear to include our concepts of ‘uselessness’ or ‘waste’. The changes that are inherent to being an organism — to being made of matter on this planet of birth and death and breath, of constant transformation, union and then differentiation — these changes bring along with them a wide diversity in what we each offer at any given time. This variation is needed. It is socially and biologically necessary. We desperately need elders. After all, single-generation thinking has, to say the least, not done great things for our relationship with other organisms, our ecosystems, our selves or our planet. We need storytellers, homemakers, farmers, mothers, spiritual speakers, people who can cook chilli. We need slow movement and fast movement and stillness all.

EPSON MFP image

So there is never a time when we don’t have something to offer, even if we have no idea what it is or who it will impact. In the permaculture design ethos, a primary principle is faith in the ‘unknown good benefit’ of an action or element. Even when all I have to offer is a request for help, even when the gift I give is simply the act of being honest about my needs, this is an essential offering.

Articulating our needs constitutes a crucial offering because people are waiting for invitations to give their own offerings. They are waiting for ‘the ask’. Just as chronically unmet needs exhaust and starve us, chronically unexpressed gifts or offerings with nowhere to go stagnate in us. Energy and fertility misplaced or underutilised becomes pollution. Think of what happens when you dump human waste into a body of water — too much fertility in the wrong place overfeeds algae, they overgrow, block the sun, and end up starving out the ecosystem below. A request can be an opportunity for someone else’s offering, energy, to be fully expressed, fully utilised, given space, purpose, life.

So this is an invitation to widen, enrich, open up the range of what we consider offerings, what we consider contributions, what we consider valuable work.

But it is also a deeper invitation.

Because the single-mindedness, the one-dimensionality of our internalised industrial understanding of work and its value is not the sole question at play here. Deeper, down, into the subsoil, lurks the radical root, the original, underlying query: what is work? Under the ‘one way of contributing, one type of productivity’ narrative lurks not only the insidious idea that there is one way to ‘work’, with certain amounts of corresponding value available based on privilege, but also the deeply held belief that we only earn our value at all when and if we work.

This concept allows us to believe that people need to earn the ‘right’ to deserve shelter (many people without housing actually have one or more jobs which pretty much busts this myth wide open anyway). It allows us to structure our economy and our culture on the perceived necessity of working constantly in order to fight off scarcity, to earn the ‘right’ to eat, to drink clean water, to be safe from violence, to support and be supported by the people we love, to get healing when we are sick. No wonder addictive accumulation, rather than abundance, has expressed itself as the core modality of our current model: we are trying to build walls of safety, of ‘value’, of essentials, between ourselves and the threat of scarcity, of ‘not deserving’, of running out. This response to perceived danger is understandable.

But these walls cut us off from each other and our larger ecological communities, and this is in large part where our massive violence towards each other and the earth gets its fodder. We consider it ‘lazy’, within this paradigm, to believe ourselves inherently and unconditionally worthy of basic and essential things. We are really, really scared of scarcity. Our fear of scarcity fuels our belief in that scarcity’s existence, and our resulting actions, and creation of cultural structures, then result in scarcity. Instead of changing what ‘work’ means so that there are a myriad of recognised offerings and plenty of value to go around, we have kept to our commitment to scarcity by going so far as to define certain humans as not human, as not deserving of the right even to earn ‘value’, let alone to matter implicitly. So our culture defines work very specifically. Yes, we can widen that. But our culture still demands work in order to earn value at all.

What happens if we turn that ‘earned-value’ idea of work on its head? We might start with a belief that human beings, all beings, have intrinsic value. We have seen that what we have to offer can shift, but does not diminish, when we are ill, or disabled by our environment and circumstances. As we get older our offerings will shift. All those offerings are needed, but even they are not what make us deserve to be valued.

I am already valuable.

If I get rid of the old narrative, if I don’t have to earn my value, then why work? What even is work? First off, I want to work, I love to work, I need to offer, to connect, to express, engage, to gift and receive — I am not interested in avoiding work when work can have so many different ways of being defined. But my work, even when diversified, is not an act that ‘allows me’ to deserve or earn value.

My work is an expression of the value that is already there, that I already contain.

It is a range of expressions of what is already in me, or what is growing. It is an ecological and communal act of interdependence. It is connective and relational, it is iterative. Diverse in their manifestations, and rooted in expression rather than fear, work offerings generate abundance, rather than serving as a reaction to scarcity. Work weaves a dance of asking and offering, of curiosity and openness to the wild diversity of ways to meet needs. It is also about power, about moving from the internal self to action and change in the world, the capacity to walk that bridge and connect to others’ offerings, needs, to move into collaboration, from the act of self-expression into the larger self. It’s not easy. It’s often really hard. But it’s not, at its best, something that has to feel desperate. It’s the kind of difficult that generates strength, the kind of tired where you’ve run hard and your muscles are growing, not the kind where you’ve sprinted uphill against the wind and broken something in your ankle but you have to keep going so you don’t fall backwards into the chasm of scarcity.

I work in order to express and connect my value into, and in conversation with, the world.

So what does healing look like in this world of work? How do we shift our internal narratives, as well as those of our culture, towards value-expressing, abundance-generating work? I don’t have an instant answer, which is probably a good thing, since instant answers from single perspectives seem to be a symptom of the very ‘do-more-quick’ privilege-based model I’m asking that we let go. Mostly I have queries. Offering gifts and requests, putting what feels good, even if it’s a jar of fermented cabbage, into conversation (or co-eating) with others, playing with informal economies of abundance, reconsidering ‘need’ as a potentially connective trait rather than a label for a source of shame, hearing from others on these questions — these seem like some places to start. Want to come over for kimchi?

Green Bang

$54 trillion a year

— Estimated upper value of the world’s natural capital and ecosystem services, according to ecological economist Robert Costanza

It was a warm autumn day, and the ecosystem service providers were buzzing in the natural capital. The foliage was consuming the light. Anders was sitting in his usual chair. Sophie and Sasha were on their way, and this afternoon he would go with Sasha to an area of outstanding natural beauty to forge a closer familial connection while recreationally walking.

No, that was not correct. Anders rubbed his head with his thumb. It wasn’t an area of outstanding natural beauty, it was twelve hectares or thereabouts of medium to low quality indigenous fauna habitat, but Sasha need not be concerned about that. Sasha was nine years old. The place was pretty – yes, it was pretty – its cultural and recreational value was adequate for their purposes, and such qualitative definitions, he thought, were not of importance to children.

Such definitions were not of importance. Anders closed and reopened his eyes. He gazed at his trouser legs stretched across the patio, and then at the pebbles around the lawn and the trees beyond the garden. The trees were mostly rowans and oaks, and during a night of sleeplessness that had occurred some months ago he had calculated the value of each to about six hundred ecos a year – taking into account such factors as sequestration of atmospheric carbon, electricity conservation through shading and wind reduction, interception of particulate matter, and raising property values through leaf surface area. He looked at them now, doing their part. It was a ballpark estimate, and something about it bothered him now. The leaves were moving in the light. He rose from his usual chair and took a few paces, frowning.

He had woken up with that ache again, the one behind his collarbones. Every morning for the past few weeks – a dull, familiar bruising. He took a few paces and stopped, absently rubbing around his neck, and then checked his phone to see the time. They would be here any minute. He turned to go back into the house, wondering if he should change his jumper. He thought the last time had gone quite well. Sophie had cooked them all a meal, and then he had taken Sasha to the multiplex to watch a film. The film had been a good idea, because it had given them shared points of reference. Even if they hadn’t discussed it – her mother had wanted her home straight after – Anders hoped the experience might connect them still.

The film had been about cartoon animals fleeing the effects of a supervolcano, but his recollection of the plot was vague. Some had escaped and some had perished, but he couldn’t remember how, or why, or what situation the animals had been in when the film ended. He thought back to Sasha’s face, impassive in the light of the screen, the way he had strained to look at her without her knowing he was looking. He hadn’t really been able to tell whether or not she’d enjoyed it.

He found himself at the end of the garden, and suddenly realised he was crying. Well, perhaps he wasn’t crying – but water was coming from his eyes, and he didn’t know how he had got there. He’d thought he was going into the house. He was going to change his jumper. Wiping with the backs of both hands, he realised he didn’t feel sad, could think of nothing to be sad about. Confused, he retraced his steps, and by the time he had reached the back door the phenomenon had ceased. He looked back towards the trees, the rowans and oaks holding and slowly increasing their value year by year, converting energy from the sun into fungible units of worth, diligently running through their economic functions.

Ironically, it was an economy he was no longer useful to, practically no longer part of. After all he’d done, he was finished now, relegated to the role of consumer – and these days, hardly even that. His consumption levels were negligible. When she had first visited here, a sort of preparatory check ahead of Sasha’s visit today, Sophie had accused him of being a hermit. Actually it felt as if every word she spoke to him, since she’d started speaking to him, was an accusation of some kind, and he’d long since abdicated the right to defend himself. He was in the house now, moving through his possessions. Evidence of former worldly engagement was displayed haphazardly: dusty flatscreen monitors from the days when he still traded from home, a few framed photographs dating back to the early Bang, technology he no longer noticed but most of which was worth many times the value of the trees outside. His jumper was draped on the back of a chair. He pulled it over his head and walked through the room putting it on, bumping into furniture. They would be here any minute. He checked his phone again.

There wasn’t much to do inside, so he returned to the garden. There was something about those trees, something he hadn’t yet got right. It bothered him and he didn’t know why. His collarbones still ached. He went to where the trees began and laid his hand on the nearest trunk, feeling the coolness of the bark and thinking automatically of the process of evapotranspiration cooling the air around his home, the calculations that flowed from that – suddenly he felt tired. He pressed his forehead to the trunk. An ecosystem service provider was fumbling a path through the branches, colliding with the lower leaves, heading to its next pollination event. He watched it stagger drunkenly, and felt a small surge of affection. As a younger man he had made, and lost, a large amount of money on pollinators, buying forest habitat credits on behalf of tropical coffee plantations – until commodity prices had plunged, the coffee was replaced by pineapple groves to which pollination services were an active hindrance, the forest ceased to serve any purpose and the credits had depreciated in value by tens of thousands of ecos. But he was young then, starting out – he bounced back from things like that. Was it affection he felt, or nostalgia? Sometimes he missed who he had been. The service provider went on its way. The day was warm, but wet weather was coming. Soon it would be redundant.

He realised he had got distracted, and retreated to the middle of the lawn in order to look at the trees as a whole. Six hundred a year, a rough calculation. But the oaks were surely worth more than the rowans, both in terms of services rendered, due to their greater size, and their leaf surface area appeal – maybe even cultural appeal. How to quantify that? He took a few paces back. One and a half rowans, say, might equate to a single oak – was that a permissible starting point? The canopies were starting to brown. A couple of leaves detached themselves from the branch he was looking at and made their slow way down to earth, and that was when it jolted him: never mind the conversion rate between trees, what was the value of a leaf? He felt a tingling of nerves. The sensation was deeply familiar but had the effect of making him nervous. Rapidly, as if to get the whole thing over with, he selected a sample branch and estimated the number of leaves on that, multiplied that by the number of branches – an even wilder estimate that gave him one hundred and eighty thousand – then divided six hundred into that. Point zero zero three three ecos, or point three three cents, per leaf. Approximately three leaves to the cent. Three hundred leaves to the eco. He felt slightly sick in the warmth of the day. He might have to take off his jumper. Stooping around the lawn he began to sort them into a pile, counting under his breath as he went, fifty-eight, fifty-nine… one hundred and twenty-six, one hundred and twenty-seven… two ninety-eight, two ninety-nine, one unit of natural capital… then he straightened up, feeling ridiculous. He knew he should turn around.

‘Dad.’ She was in the garden, wearing wellies and a purple coat. Sophie was watching from the door, and Anders had the immediate impression that Sasha had been silently coaxed to utter the first word of greeting – he imagined a series of urgent mimes taking place between them, Sophie encouraging, Sasha refusing, until her mother’s will won out. Now she had accomplished her task the girl was staring at her feet, her face vaguely worried.

‘What are you doing?’ Sophie asked.

‘Tidying leaves,’ he said. There was a moment of silence, during which he dropped some leaves. ‘How did you get here?’

‘We drove,’ Sophie said.

‘No, in the garden.’

‘The door wasn’t locked. We rang the bell, but you didn’t come. Sorry to barge in.’

‘Hello, Sasha,’ he said to his daughter. He bent at the knee and hugged her awkwardly, conscious of Sophie’s critical eye.

‘Hi,’ said Sasha again. She created a small smile.

Sophie came out, but there was no hug. Instead she touched him on the arm. ‘Shall we go inside?’ she said. ‘I’ve got stuff to make sandwiches.’

‘I bought her a present.’

‘Tell her, not me.’

‘I bought you a present.’

‘Thank you,’ said Sasha. But once they were inside the house he forgot where it was – even what it was. He was feeling unpleasantly warm again, but didn’t want to remove his jumper for fear his shirt might smell of sweat. Sophie had gone into the kitchen and was slicing bread for sandwiches. Her apparent familiarity with his home seemed less personal than professional, like a social service provider doing a house call.

Sasha sat on the edge of the sofa, her wellies dangling over the floor. Anders liked seeing her there, but he didn’t know what to say to her.

‘How are you?’ he asked, hovering near.

‘I’m okay.’

‘How’s school?’

‘It’s okay. I like Mrs MacGregor.’ She thought for a while. ‘I don’t like games.’

‘We’re going for a walk.’

‘I know.’

‘Are you driving there?’ asked Sophie, bringing a carrier bag full of sandwiches and other things. She was facing him, but he knew that her eyes were peripherally focused on the room, evaluating the conditions of his life. He wished he’d remembered to clean up a bit.

‘No, it’s just along the road. An area of low quality indigenous… outstanding… natural habitat.’ The words were getting mixed up before they reached his mouth. Sophie was looking at him oddly. ‘A woodland, woods,’ he managed to say, but it came out strangled.

‘Are you alright?’ she asked at the door, when Sasha had gone on ahead. ‘You seem a bit… distracted, or something. If this isn’t a good time…’

‘I’m fine. It is a good time.’

‘We can do this another weekend.’

‘Really, I’m looking forward to it.’

‘Try to relax. She’s just a bit shy. She wants to like you, you know.’

They felt like the nicest words she had said to him for a long time, but immediately he wasn’t sure. What did that mean, exactly? Anyway, there were no more concessions, and when they parted at the car her eyes were distant and alert. She kissed the top of Sasha’s head, told her she’d be back at three, nodded to Anders in a manner that seemed exaggeratedly formal, and a moment later the car was gone and father and daughter were standing alone.

‘Right,’ said Anders, pointlessly. A helicopter rattled overhead. Brown leaves descended from the trees, economic units that had served their usefulness.

*

They walked together side by side, Anders holding the carrier bag, Sasha scuffing in her boots which were a little oversized, past the golf course, the ice hockey centre and a pre-developed development site, until they reached the start of the trees. Protected Natural Habitat Area was displayed on the entrance sign, and a system of green stars indicated its biological, cultural/recreational and sequestration values, none of them especially high – in fact, Anders thought some were lower than when he last came here. Beyond the car-park two square posts indicated the starting points of the Common Toad and Hedgehog Trails, each with its cartoon representation of the indigenous creature in question, along with statistics about the various services they provided. The common toad wore sunglasses, and the hedgehog had a little hat. Wood-chip pathways sliced through the trees in two different directions.

‘Which way shall we go?’ asked Anders.

Sasha shrugged.

‘Which one do you like the look of most?’

She pointed to the one in the hat. ‘Are there hedgehogs?’ she asked with hope.

‘Theoretically there could be,’ he said as they set off down the path. ‘That is, it’s a suitable habitat. But I don’t know much about their habits or current distribution. We might not actually see them.’ Sasha didn’t respond to this. He wished he was better at talking to children. The path was wide enough to walk abreast but she seemed to want to walk slightly behind him, and they progressed like this for a couple of minutes without saying anything more. He analysed the quietness, and didn’t think it felt so bad – it was better to walk in silence, at least, than sit in silence in a room. The ache beneath his collarbones seemed to have subsided.

They wouldn’t see hedgehogs here, he knew. There weren’t enough green stars. These woods were less than ten years old – some of the smaller trees still wore protective mesh cylinders, though what they were protection against he wasn’t entirely sure. These twelve hectares of medium to low quality habitat had been forested by a soft drinks company, offset against a single hectare of rare/endangered species habitat somewhere in Spain, he seemed to recall, which the company needed to develop – he couldn’t remember the species involved, but thought it was some kind of snail. He knew this because he’d taken an interest when the deal went through. He’d long been out of the game by then, but the existence value of a natural habitat area near his home had been higher than he’d anticipated – although of course there was no telling how long its existence might actually last. Like everything else in the world, it was only waiting its turn.

One hectare for twelve, he thought to himself. It seemed scarcely credible now. He couldn’t even begin to guess what the rate might be in today’s climate, the markets booming and crashing with increasing randomness, positive feedback mechanisms kicking in all over the place. He couldn’t keep up with it any more. It wasn’t like in the early days, when things had at least been predictably unstable. It was a different market now. It no longer made any sense.

The woods were quiet, apart from the sound of traffic rushing down the nearest road. Service providers of various kinds were active in the undergrowth, and intermittent birdsong added further bioacoustic appeal. He realised he had dimly imagined the little girl would be somehow running, jumping over water features, chasing fritillaries. He felt very anxious all of a sudden. He listened to her dutiful footsteps on the path behind, the rustle of her jacket as she moved her arms. What was she thinking?

‘Do you like it here?’ he asked.

‘It’s pretty,’ she said.

Anders felt a wave of relief quite out of proportion to her words – he felt almost dizzy with it. ‘It is,’ he said. ‘I’m glad we agree. Pretty places are very important. They have high recreational value, some might even say spiritual value. The world would be a worse place without them.’

There was silence again after that. He wished she would start a conversation for once, so it wasn’t always down to him. But that was ridiculous, she was only nine years old. He tried to picture himself through her eyes: an awkward stranger who was attempting, for reasons she probably didn’t understand, to fit himself inside her life where he hadn’t fitted before. Uncomfortably dressed, unapproachably tall, seemingly incomprehensible. She wanted to like him, Sophie had said. And he wanted her to like him too. If both of them wanted the same thing, then surely it couldn’t be so hard. What had Sophie said about him? Did she know the mistakes he’d made?

He was pretty sure she knew nothing about him – about who he was, or who he had been. How could she be expected to know? Her rubber boots scrunched on the path. There was a pigeon somewhere. The trees were spindler round here, the foliage less mature – through the regular spacing of trunks, the ice hockey centre was visible metallically looming past the woods. He had walked this path dozens of times, and never noticed it before. How many visits, he wondered, to a medium to low quality habitat might equate to a single visit to a pristine boreal forest? Was there a qualitative rate of exchange – the way that, in a bygone age, two pilgrimages to certain shrines had been worth one pilgrimage to Rome? It was the kind of thing he’d once have discussed in the bar after work, a half-forgotten lifetime ago.

Twenty years ago, even ten. He found it almost impossible reaching his mind back to those times. His daughter might see him as shabby and odd, but he’d been part of something great. Someday, when she was older, he’d explain it all to her – how his generation had opened the world, how they’d changed everything.

Seized with sudden urgency, he opened his mouth to tell her this – but could find no starting point. He cleared his throat instead, squeezed shut his eyes. The problem was, his head got so full – he had to make a conscious effort to simplify the complexity. He found that his breath was short. The ache had returned.

Presently they came to a stream, not much more than two foot wide, with a sign that detailed its provisioning, regulating and recreational services scored by the usual green stars, which he didn’t look at. The water was spanned by a little bridge, and as they stepped onto the bridge Anders, in a kind of desperate inspiration, reached down and took his daughter’s hand. He amazed himself with this action – he had done it without thinking. Sasha’s fingers stiffened in shock. She didn’t pull away, at least. He realised his heart was beating fast, pounding beneath his shirt – this is ridiculous, he thought. But he felt very pleased.

‘It’s nice to see you,’ he said. ‘It’s nice to go for a walk with you. I know you don’t always… understand me. I mean, I try to make myself clear. But you’ll get to know me, and I’ll get to know you. Our relationship will progress. It will get better and better…’

Silence. Of course there was silence – what possible answer could she give? Her shyness and embarrassment were like a cloud keeping pace with her, as his own kept pace with him, moving at the speed of travel. But she didn’t pull away. They walked on for a while like this as the trail looped through the planted woods, and, not wanting to say any more, he silently counted the steps they took. It averaged at one and a half of hers to every one of his.

*

They ate their designated picnic in the designated picnic area, where wooden tables and benches were set alongside recycling bins shaped like hedgehogs and common toads. They were near the edge of the woods again, within proximity of the road, but the trees were rustling with wind energy so the traffic was less audible than it had been before. Anders sat on one side of the table, and Sasha on the other. The picnic was comprised of cheese and pickle sandwiches, trail mix, chocolate bars, banana yoghurts and carton drinks. Anders wasn’t remotely hungry, but Sasha consumed her share with quiet diligence. He offered her his chocolate bar, but she shook her head and averted her eyes in a manner that seemed almost chaste.

‘It’s meant to be for you,’ she said.

He put it in his top pocket.

Despite the fact he had held her hand, which made him glow when he thought of it, he still didn’t know what to say to her, how to keep a conversation running beyond the initial sentences. He had no practice with her at all. She looked so much like her mother, so little like him – although perhaps he didn’t have the ability to judge. He hadn’t known her for the greater proportion of her life. He had sent cards, of course, birthday and suitable seasonal presents, and he had paid the appropriate legal share towards her upbringing. But until very recently, when Sophie’s force of will had impelled them back into contact, he had accepted the fact of his daughter’s existence only in the abstract. Part of him had assumed he deserved this – part of him had been happy to escape. Now the gratitude he felt was rather startling.

It was already too late, he supposed, for his presence to ever seem normal to her. She understood the world through his absence – this condition was fixed in her now, and probably could not be changed, no matter how many recreational walks they might engage in. Shifting baseline syndrome was what they called it once. What you consider normal as a child is what you consider normal as an adult, whether your background habitat is severely degraded or anything else. Certainly his own baseline had shifted more than once in his lifetime – for two decades he’d managed to keep pace with it, the peak and plateau of his career, before that grand systemic wobble that had ended everything. He could hardly claim to be keeping up now, keeping up with any of it – a hermit, Sophie had said. Was that a joke? He supposed it was funny, considering the intricate involvement of his life before. But the system had grown too complicated. His course over the last few years was less a retreat than a simplification.

He watched his daughter as she ate, secretly, as if looking for clues. She was a self-contained unit, an existence entirely separate from his. She was wearing a purple coat. She had banana yoghurt at the corner of her mouth. The merest fact of her sitting there was astonishing to him. He felt a small pulse of despair: surely he would never understand her life, as she would never understand his. Today he might be obsolete, a historical irrelevance in the Green Bang’s fading afterglow – but, once upon a time, he had added value to the world. That was the worth of his life, no matter what her mother might say.

It was the last great liberalisation, deregulation’s final frontier. He had started off in carbon credits, like most of his contemporaries, buying and selling the right to emit sanctioned units of pollution. It was hardly groundbreaking work, but the theoretical sleight of hand that such an industry involved – transforming a negative externality into a tradable asset – had put him in a good position to expand into the other derivative markets taking shape at the time: pollination service provision, biodiversity offsetting, riparian and wetland banking, endangered species credits. He had been in the right place at the right time. All he had done, along with perhaps a thousand other bright young things in no more than half a dozen fortuitously placed companies, was to take the next logical step. The dominant global trend was comprehensive deregulation – the climate was highly favourable. He made good money. He travelled a lot. It was around this time he’d met Sophie. There was a sense that the world was changing, that he was a part of that change. How many people could say that, looking back on their lives? Once natural units were quantified, once they were fully fungible, it became possible to trade across different markets – to exchange endangered species credits, say, for carbon equivalent or peat bog futures, depending on the market rate. As more and more assets of natural capital were absorbed and integrated, there was exponential expansion. A critical mass was achieved: the green economy exploded. He and Sophie were living together. His office overlooked the Thames – itself transformed, in the new paradigm, from a greasy tidal river to a super-prime provisioning and regulating water service provider. He was one of the Men Who Sold the World, as the media unimaginatively had it. He and Sophie argued a lot. The market grew to include streams and mountains, icecaps, wetlands and high chaparrals, every conceivable biotic unit from apex predators to bottom-feeders. Speculation had even begun on complex systems such as ocean currents, forest biomes, mycelium networks, wholesale ecosystems – there was no upper limit. He was a high-net-worth individual. Of course, there were warning signs. Was Sophie pregnant around then? It was all a little disordered.

When things had gone wrong, they had gone wrong fast. Anders couldn’t actually recall… he felt very tired all of a sudden. The day was warm, and leaves were falling. Sasha still had banana yoghurt at the corner of her mouth.

‘Dad?’ She was glancing down into her hand at what he realised was a mobile phone. ‘Mum wants to know what time we’ll be back.’

‘Oh.’ It was an effort to think. ‘What… what time is it now?’

‘It’s twenty to three. She’s coming at three.’

‘Oh. Yes. We’ll be home by then.’ He watched as her thumbs tapped out a message. It made her look unexpectedly older. He noticed, for the first time, that she had earrings in her ears, and wondered if they had been there before. ‘You have yoghurt…’ She raised her head. ‘Yoghurt, just beside your mouth.’

She wiped it away with a solemn expression, which made her look like a child again. She put the phone in her pocket. Anders slowly put the rubbish in the bag. A yoghurt pot. A small plastic spoon. It felt too soon to leave.

‘Sasha?’

‘Yes?’ Her solemnity grew, as if she sensed they were nearing that time – one of those adult conversations she’d probably learned to dread already. A siren whooped once, far away. She sat there very still.

‘There was a time, before you were born, when a tree was just a tree… that’s all it was, just that. And it was the same for other things. A mountain, a waterfall and a blade of grass were once just a mountain, a waterfall and a blade of grass. A bee was once just a bee. There was no reason for them.’

She gazed at him with worried eyes. He knotted his hands on the picnic table and concentrated on the words, on simplifying the complexity.

‘And even longer before you were born – before there were any bees, or dinosaurs, or single-celled organisms, or anything else you might have heard about – the world itself, the planet we live on, that had no reason either. It was only a ball of minerals waiting for something to happen to it, for something to give it meaning.

‘Then people came along, and for a long time they had no meaning either – they just happened to exist, like all the other things. But eventually, people gained reason. They learned how to value each other. Then they learned how to value the things around them – the trees, the waterfalls, the bees, the very world they lived on. Everything was given a purpose that it didn’t have before. Now, nothing exists for no reason, everything is working together – it’s a functioning part of a system that makes people happier. Of course, things go up and down, that’s part of the natural cycle – you’ll understand this some day. But the world has gained… a kind of reason, just like people once did. They used to call this Gaia. Well, we gave Gaia currency. Sasha, do you know what value is?’

It wasn’t a question, and she didn’t answer.

‘It’s another word for meaning. The higher the value, the higher the meaning. The meaning of the world is the total value of the world, all its units added up – all its leaves, its blades of grass, its reserves and its carbon sinks, its networks, systems, processes… everything together.’ Anders took a steadying breath. His hands felt rather far away, and something was happening to his eyes – a familiar throbbing. Sasha hadn’t spoken, hadn’t moved. Wind energy was stirring the trees, rustling the natural capital. Everything would be alright. ‘Sasha, value is the same as love. How can we love what has no value? That is to say… what I mean…’ The phenomenon was occurring again. Water was coming from his eyes, turning the world into rainbow prisms, yet once again he did not feel sad – instead, he felt quite elated. He wiped and snorted, and managed to say, ‘I value you very much,’ before covering up his face and breathing wetly into his hands. He stayed that way for a while.

When he had taken his hands away, Sasha was no longer at the table. But she hadn’t gone very far. Blearily he made her out, over by the recycling bins. He rose a little unsteadily and made his way to join her.

Hey. It’s alright,’ he said.

‘I know.’

‘Everything will be fine.’

She shrugged unhappily. She looked even more like a child.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Clearing up. It’s ten to three. Mum’s coming at three.’

‘Yes, we should be getting back.’ He watched as she separated the rubbish and fed it through the appropriate mouths, paper and cardboard in the hedgehog, plastic in the common toad. The colours stood out bright and strong. The hedgehog looked very brown, and the toad looked very green. Even after this natural habitat area had been exchanged, its services transposed to another sector of the world, Anders knew this was one of those moments that he would always remember.

*

Sophie’s car was in the drive, and she was sitting by the door. She gave Anders a funny look, but didn’t say anything. They went inside, and Anders made tea. They drank the tea in the living room. Sasha had a fizzy drink instead. Sophie asked Sasha if she’d enjoyed the walk, and she said that she had. The woods were pretty, she said again. They talked about this and that.

‘I’ll ring you,’ Sophie said as they left. ‘Look after yourself.’

‘Thanks for having me,’ said Sasha. They hugged on the step.

Two minutes after they’d gone, Anders remembered the present he’d bought. But by the time he’d located it, in a bag hanging on the kitchen door, the car had disappeared from the drive. It was a woolly hat and gloves, with animals knitted in – bobbly penguins and polar bears, grey things that were likely seals. It would have to wait until next time. Anyway, it was too warm.

He went upstairs and had a shower, then dressed again in the same set of clothes. There was mud on the trouser legs. He made his way back downstairs. He felt something against his chest and discovered the chocolate bar in his pocket, not melted yet, but on its way. He unwrapped it standing up, gazing around the familiar room. Dark, heavy furniture, expensive but a little worn. On the shelf, a squeezy rubber globe he’d once had on an office desk. He wandered to the garden again and took a seat in his usual chair. The rowans and oaks bordered the lawn. He slowly consumed the chocolate bar, watching the trees and the light.

He hadn’t finished the story, of course. Sophie would probably do it for him, one of these days when Sasha was grown – when their relationship involved more than watching cartoon films and going on recreational walks. She would tell the other side, if Sasha didn’t know it already. But at least he had attempted to give her the bigger picture.

It was all a little disordered. When things had gone wrong, they had gone wrong fast – or perhaps they’d been going wrong for a while. He’d already moved out by then. A temporary thing, as he recalled – they couldn’t be in the same house together. The baby was due in several months, and he couldn’t think of that. There was a downturn in floodplain banking that was concerning, but manageable. A few analysts were warning that rainforest credit ratings in certain sectors of the market were unrealistically high, that low quality assets had been parcelled up with higher ones, but these concerns were ignored. There had been warning signs, but he hadn’t paid attention.

It was commonly said that no-one saw it coming, but that wasn’t entirely true. Some people had seen it coming, as some people always did. Some people made outrageous fortunes, as some people always did. A few canny hedge funds made a killing – humans were an infinitely adaptive species, after all. He just hadn’t been one of them when positive feedback mechanisms turned millions of square miles of rainforest into tinder in an astoundingly short space of time, wiping billions of ecos off the market – sequestration, species, services, existence, the whole portfolio. The Amazon Basin Credit Crash, as it was later to be known, precipitated the other collapses: icecap reserves, coral reef futures, a whole raft of obscure derivatives like Sahel desertification mitigation credits, some of which he’d never even heard of – everything was interlinked. He hadn’t moved fast enough. He had been wiped out.

Of course it wasn’t the end of the world. A rush immediately began on remaining forest credits, in what was left of Indonesia and Congo, while the released option value of the desiccated Amazon created entirely different bubbles for a new generation of bright young things to make their fortunes on. That was part of the rise and fall, the natural rhythm of capital. Even then, with everything gone, Anders could have got back in the game. But something fundamental had changed. The Amazon crash spelled the end of that phase of multiplying possibilities that seemed to have no limitation, and expansion had been replaced by horse-trading over what was left. It was a new financial climate, one he did not understand. Once-dependable carbon stocks disappeared in a puff of smoke, species banks of least concern suddenly plunged into negative value, speculation grew ever more wild – things were not predictable. The baseline had skewed too far, and he had not adapted.

Anders removed his shoes and his socks, spread his long toes on the lawn. The blades of grass tickled his feet. His generation had opened the world. No-one could take that away from him. He stared at the lawn, his vision drifting from the nearest blades of grass to the grass that spread beyond his feet, softening and widening, speckled with lurid dandelions, until his focus slipped and all he could see was green. The effect was a bit like going blind, or what he imagined might be the first second of the realisation of blindness occurring. The greenness was entirely abstract, not a colour but a sensation – stripped of meaning, stripped of value. It was the outermost edge of panic. He held it as long as he could.

The garden came into focus again, dazzlingly sharp and defined. Nothing had changed. There was no going back. He watched the trees. He watched the light. He finished the last of the chocolate bar. The ache was behind his collarbones, and the leaves were falling.

This story was originally commissioned by TippingPoint Weatherfronts: Climate change and the stories we tell, supported by the Free Word Centre. You can download the full PDF of the Weatherfronts commissions here

 

Sheds and Stars: Another Sideways Look at the Housing Crisis

Life is exactly the way I want it. I get up early and sit on my own all day scratching with a pencil and typing and running and reading and not answering the telephone. Thanks to a grant from the Society of Authors worth six months of gardening, I am donating the next portion of my life to writing about my shed and other shed-related issues. Like ecological obliteration, the housing crisis and stars.

I haven’t actually seen the shed in months. I have no way of knowing for sure if it exists. I am holed up animal-sitting on a small farm in Wales, being so existential I sometimes wonder if I exist. The geese seem to think I do, and the chickens, and the peacocks. They queue up outside the kitchen door every morning and honk at me until I get to my feet and chuck stale bread at them. Sometimes I accidentally hit them with it. They jump and squawk in shock. I seem to be trying to kill them. On the other hand I have bread. Life is risk. Even at breakfast.

The animals belong to a pair of doctors who are volunteering in Africa. As well as animals, they keep books. There are several whole rooms full of them, arranged by subject. There are books on philosophy, religion, chess, Marx, self-sufficiency, stars. I accidentally picked up a book on stars. It began with the following sentence:

Every atom in our bodies was once part of a star.

Another once, when I lived in a tent and was nursing a broken heart, I had temporary ownership of a rusting bucket somebody had found on the beach. Every night I put it in the doorway of the tent and lit a candle in it. The shadows of the light through the holes in the bucket made stars on the canvas above me. I loved that rusting bucket. I couldn’t sleep without it.

While I was living in the tent and crying my way through time somebody tried to comfort me. They said life was nothing more or less than a long process of letting go. I was in my early twenties and wanted to punch them. Then the person who had found the bucket came home and took it back and lost it.

These days I can’t sleep for the ache of time passing.

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I get up and go outside. From inside, outside seems scary, like the black darkness on the edge of the ring of light made by a torch. But if you turn the torch off you can look at the stars. Or the stars can look at you. They can beam their light into your eyeballs from outer space until you can’t stand it anymore and go back inside.

From a certain angle starlight is the ache of time passing. Some of the stars that are watching me are actually dead. Burnt-out wrecks, like cars at the bottom of a gully. The past arriving through infinite space and parking in my eyes while I’m trying to keep my balance on the icy surface of a ball of fire as it hurtles the cutting edge of nothingness at 67,000 miles per hour. Nobody said this was going to be easy. Nobody said anything. Here we are.

Inside it’s tomorrow.

My mind can go great distances while my body is sitting quietly at a table. The table itself is a whirling constellation of atoms. In their electromagnetic way atoms resemble miniature solar systems, the nucleus lording it like the sun in the centre. Atoms cannot be cut, but they are easy to draw. Drawing atoms is one of the few things I remember from school science lessons. It’s been very helpful.

I can draw stars too. I am terrible at drawing. But I can draw how space and time and death and the endless conservation of energy look on the inside of my own eyelids, in a way that you will recognise. But you’ve been there. We’ve all been there.

Every atom in our bodies was once part of a star.

This is a matter of fact. A fact of matter.

I have no idea what to do about my new-found stardom. I have animals to feed. The stars are glowing above me in the sky. Beneath me, packed into the ice, are more stars. Stars trapped inside bubbles. Bubbles trapped inside ice. The bubbles reflect the starlight back to the stars. I’m stuck in the middle with you.

I go to try to shut the geese in so the fox doesn’t eat them. All three of us fall over and slide comically down the hill towards the frozen pond. They have wings, which helps, but not much.

This afternoon I went skating on a frozen puddle in the mountains. I’ve never tried skating before. I could only do it when I didn’t think about it. If I thought about it I tensed up and fell down. On our way back there was a magnificent burning sunset. We stopped the truck and got out and stared at it for a while, helplessly.

The sun is our nearest star. We would fry if the sun was a fraction closer and we would freeze if it was a fraction further away. The ecology of the sun is very delicate. A weirdly precise gravity/temperature/pressure love triangle that somehow stops it collapsing in on itself. The sun has been burning for four and a half billion years. We’re not exactly sure how, and we have absolutely no idea why.

But it was a fun afternoon trying to walk on ice, balanced on the edges of knives.

The horses can’t walk on ice any better than I can, or they won’t, unless I grab them by the hair and pull them. Then they come easily, metal-shod feet sliding outwards like a cartoon. They think I know what I’m doing. I try not to fall over where they can see me. I don’t want them to feel unsafe.

I have never touched a star. I hear they shine even when there are clouds and I can’t see them, or when I’m facing the wrong way. I hear they’re still up there, shining. Friends tell me my shed is still there, too. Still standing. This is good to know.

Back at the table in the house of books I keep scratching pictures of stars. It’s easier than trying to make sense of anything. Easier than trying to unravel the socio-political context of living in a shed. Easier than the long process of letting go. Easier than Life on Earth.

Earth is inhospitable in places. She floods and storms and shakes herself like a wet dog and trees fall down and crush lorries. She pukes magma and cracks open in awkward places and buildings fall into the cracks. She’s wild and beautiful and economically outmoded, insisting that decay is worth as much as growth. She’s a dream and a trip and a cold-blooded killer. She proliferates disease, grows cacti and laughs in the face of Health and Safety.

My shed is inhospitable at times. It blows like a treehouse and clatters like a horse. Rats chew their way through the thin walls when they think I’m not looking. It rots and leaks and forces me to keep a cordless drill and a broken air rifle, which is not safe for anybody. You can’t lock it in summer and the door won’t open in winter. But none of that matters very much. What matters is that I have a home, and that I can see the stars from it.

My shed-home is part of my love triangle of freedom/security/growth. One of the forces that stops me collapsing in on myself while I’m hitch-hiking round the galaxy on a pair of imaginary wings and a bucketload of prayers, hoping not to be chucked off until I’m old enough to deal with my own disintegration.

Confusing home with money represents a lack of intelligence. The housing crisis is just another manifestation of our massive collective blind spot; a loss of ability to read what is written in the stars. ‘An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth – in short, materialism– does not fit into this world’ wrote Schumacher, who also noticed that ‘The stillness following liberation – even if only momentary – produces the insights of wisdom which are obtainable in no other way.’

My shed shines with stillness.

Into the stillness comes the first star I see tonight. I wish upon that star that you too may have a shed. To write your books and bring up your children. To store your rusty buckets and pin up your star drawings. To feel the ache of time passing and be humbled by the setting of the sun. To rest your weary dreams and wash your dusty feet.

This is not, as a matter of actual fact, too much to wish for. As a matter of actual fact, this isn’t a housing crisis. It’s a hoarding crisis. A crisis of trust and power and politics, not supply. Like all our man-made crises. Earth may be volatile, but she’s generous to a fault. There are more than enough houses to go around. According to a recent article in The Guardian, there are about 700,000 ‘long-term empty’ homes in the UK, calculated from local authority council tax data. Overall, and not counting sheds, there are roughly 66 million bedrooms to be shared between 55 million people, and you’d hope that at least some of them would be having sex.

And so, when I later see a shooting star, I wish that those who have taken too many sheds may be granted the wisdom to understand that no amount of extra sheds will ever make them safe. In fact it’s the exact opposite. The more the gulf widens, the more the social fabric cracks apart and the ecological carpet is worried to threads, the more time we spend gazing at bank statements instead of stars, the more likely it is that we will break our cosmic love triangle and collapse into the black hole of obliteration.

And that would be a shame.

Because it’s quite fun trying to walk on ice.

Until it melts away.