Where is the common ground?
Updated: Jun 15, 2020
I started writing this blog at the very beginning of the summer... It was one of the first properly hot days in May when I sat on Hampstead Heath under the triumphant golden rays, making my skin tingle with the burst of long-awaited warmth after winter. The fresh bed of grass cushioned me and perfumed the air, along with the first leaves on the trees that house the heath, as the humming buzz of insects announced the arrival of the longer, brighter days with their tiny trumpets.
The months that followed were the hottest ever in many parts of Europe (1) including, globally, the hottest June recorded in the 200 years of existing weather records (2). Extinction Rebellion shut down bridges, train stations and roads, a global school strike coincided with the European elections in 1600 towns across 125 countries (3), and, finally, a 'climate emergency' was declared.
Confronted by the limits of what this planet can sustain if we want to continue living on it comfortably, we're faced with the challenge of managing our demands to meet supply - means must have bounds and we're realising that wealth means more than just stuff, and stuff doesn't mean security. This is a threat to greed and individualism which challenges the profiteers, using nationalist defences to guard the free market and, paradoxically, avoid paying taxes in their own countries.
The premise of the meritocracy underlying the current form of consumer capitalism, is a drive to compete, regardless of inherited head-starts or the toll on relationships and the planet. A culture that prizes material gain above all else, by which only those with the means and desire for this definition of success are rewarded, assumes a failure of the personality of those without (12). Pitted against each other, putting up walls and screens so we only talk to people like us, the age of the individual leaves little space for people to gather together.
A socially fragmented environment in which many are isolated, their communities perhaps replaced with unfamiliar new and exclusive ones, alienated from a mainstream that's made of values they can't afford or don't understand, creates the perfect hunting ground for growing extremism. A study of Leave-voters found ‘people who see themselves as embodying an ethos of hard work and public service... these groups are nostalgic… less for empire than for the place they once held at the centre of national life’ (14).
The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed the extent to which political ambition can exploit our desire to share, using a platform designed for connection to spread division, harvesting data to reveal personality types and target a demographic of seemingly unsure people with Vote Leave and Trump campaigns (7).
'When people are lost, they need people to join, but beware of the three-sided coin. And when people are hurt, they need people to blame, but beware of the fear you can't name', Kate Tempest warns. The longing to belong is an empty hand in which to place a flag to fly, a lonely heart seeking acceptance, a sense of identity, a community and a cause. 'If you can weaponise vulnerability... exacerbate peoples' fears and uncertainty, then deliver an enemy that they can blame for their pain', you can create an army, because 'unless pain is transformed, it's transmitted' (5).
So where is the middle ground between the individual and the collective to be found?
Any relationship will fail if it becomes a battle between you and me; it needs space for both, so each can be a whole and part of a team. In a liberal society we think we won't be told what to do, but we have a rule of law and we have to be. We don't always know whats good for us, often we like what's not. It's not about being told what to think or say, but what we do can't be allowed to harm others, or ourselves, therefore our planet. And anyway, limits are good, otherwise the choice and potential of stuff is endless, which makes us anxious - the first world condition.
The common ground is under our feet, the one we all share. That's why a 15-year old Swedish girl is the biggest threat to the far-right, why Trump, Bolsenaro, the AFD and Farage vehemently deny climate change, because they can't divide and rule if we're united by the actual cause of saving the world.
28 years ago, the 1991 Worldwatch Institute reported: "With an annual output of $20 trillion, the global economy now produces in 17 days what it took an entire year to generate in 1900. Already, economic activity has breached numerous local, regional, and global thresholds, resulting in the spread of deserts, acidification of lakes and forests, and the buildup of greenhouse gasses. If growth proceeds along the lines of recent decades, it is only a matter of time before global systems collapse under the pressure" (6).
This year the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco named human-caused climate change as 'one of three major factors affecting the economy' and threatening the 'financial system as a whole', with research showing hotter weather is already slowing the U.S. economy (2). Economic growth can no longer be the sole goal; it will eat itself, and us, which would surely defeat the point.
The billionaire Bernard Aurnault might find Greta Thurnberg 'demoralising' and prefer the idea of 'integrating environmental concerns into business plans' (11), but really they need to be entirely based on those concerns. Sorry mate, that doesn't mean there won't be economic growth, it just can't be the priority.
When the company Patagonia grew too fast and faced a recession, it's founder, Yvon Chouinard, looked to the Native American Iroquois, who include a person representing the 7th generation in the future as part of their decision-making process (6). The business now exists to save the planet it was made to enjoy (8). He made decisions that some people might not consider smart for business but were based on his ethics, and rather than feeding a culture of things you want, he created things that would serve (9), and still generates $750 million of revenue doing so. He donates 1% to environmental groups and encourages other businesses to give '1% For The Planet' (10).
We vote with our wallets everyday, but how we vote in elections is no longer about party lines, it's about people and their personal politics reflecting our best interests, not just as individuals, but as communities and a species. And we need to tell them loudly what we need, because they want votes. Done are the days of majority governments; MPs will have to work together across parties, as they have to stop Boris and his Brexit sabotaging the country, setting an example of how people can work together, locally, nationally, globally.
The domination of the human species has relied on the ability to communicate stories that inform the way we live, values we share and morals we uphold - our ethos (4). Religion still plays this part for many individuals and less secular societies around the world, though perhaps, when institutionalised, isn't desirable, but the meaning and purpose that a philosophical framework gives people, whatever the ism, can help create an understanding of and feeling of belonging in this world.
So rather than building a bloody massive boat and gathering the animals up 2 by 2, let's hope that we can come together in time, that the voice of reason is loud and clear enough to transcend the divides of class, nationality and gender, and nature's call rings through borders, languages and currencies. It's up to us to raise the alarm; it's our houses on fire, our common ground. "Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not."
(1) Henley, J. (2019) Climate crisis blamed as temperature records broken in three nations, The Guardian
(2) Ivanova, I. & Beer, J. (2019), Summer's record-high temperatures threaten to scorch the economy, CBS
(3) Gerretsen, I. (2019) Global Climate Strike: Record number of students walk out CNN
(4) Horari, Y.N. (2014), Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harvill Secker
(5) Brown, B. (2019), Under The Skin with Russell Brand #85 Vulnerability and Power, podcast
(6) Chouinard, Y. (2016), Let My People Go Surfing, Penguin
(7) Amer, K. & Noujaim, J. (2019), The Great Hack, Netflix (trailer)
(9) Sirtori-Cortina, D. (2017), From Climber To Billionaire: How Yvon Chouinard Built Patagonia Into A Powerhouse His Own Way, Forbes
(10) 1% For The Planet
(11) Williams, R. (2019), French Billionaire Arnault Calls Greta Thunberg ‘Demoralizing’, Bloomberg
(12) De Botton, A. (2005), Status Anxiety, Penguin
(13) Thunberg, G. cited in Flanagan, R. (2019), Greta Thunberg's 495-word UN speech points us to a future of hope – or despair, The Guardian
(14) Denham. J (2019), Nationalism in England is not just a rightwing nostalgia trip, The Guardian