One of the great advances of modern life is the separation of dwelling place from workplace. Until quite recently the farmer lived on his farm, the schoolmaster in the school house, and the miner in a terrace in the shadow of the slag heaps. Few workers nowadays live on the premises of their office or factory, and most, when they can, choose to get as far away as possible, physically and aesthetically. (I’ve taken this to extremes by living in the south of France for the past thirty years – in an end-of-terrace house on the edge of an industrial estate, if you want to know, not far from the airport, so handy for Stansted.)
For a century or so the ideal place of residence for most middle class people has been the village, close enough to the town to be practical of course, but not so close as to turn into a suburb. This ideal is no doubt based on a thousand cultural influences; for us Brits they would include Jane Austen TV serialisations, through Thomas Hardy novels back to Hobbiton and Rupert Annuals. And the way we live, or aspire to live, influences the way we imagine how the world is, or how it might be. Hence that strange phenomenon, middle class environmentalism.
I share this fantasy to some extent, and for a couple of weeks a year I indulge in it, swapping houses and sampling life in an English village a short bus ride from an ancient University town. The Guardian is delivered every morning by Rupert Bear on a bicycle, and most afternoons, Bilbo Baggins can be seen smoking a pipe on the bench by the duck pond. There’s five pubs, one of which has Thai cuisine, served by Rupert’s friends Pong Ping and Tiger Lily, and if it weren’t for the through commuter traffic and the Tesco’s you could believe yourself in a Green Arcadia. “Once you get there, there’s no there there,” said Gertrude Stein. But she was a city girl, and no doubt Paris didn’t seem a patch on Pittsburgh, except for the company; and Alice B. Toklas’s cooking.
Where was I?
And where and how you live influences the way you imagine the rest of the world. Hence the Oxfam executive’s vision of an Africa made up of self sufficient villages, with a solar panel on the roof of every mud hut. (I didn’t make that up. It’s in one of their brochures.) So if Africans are moving to mega-cities and aspiring to buy a fossil fuel powered vehicle, it must be someone’s fault.
Moving out of your work environment to somewhere nicer has its sociological equivalent in moving out of your social class into a superior, more comfortable one. Much post-war British culture was about getting out of the factory into the office, or even – wonder of wonders – into the university. (Americans, with a more fluid society, dropped out of the class system altogether, into one of their own making, in the beatnik and hippy culture.) And a modern society which abolished the old class barriers got a name, the Meritocracy, which was universally considered a Good Thing. Somehow, it got forgotten that the man who invented the concept intended it as a savage criticism of modern society, not a model for what it should be. From Wikipaedia:
The Rise of the Meritocracy is a book by British sociologist and politician Michael Young published 1958. It describes a dystopian society in a future United Kingdom in which intelligence and merit have become the central tenet of society, replacing previous divisions of social class and creating a society stratified between a merited power-holding elite and a disenfranchised underclass of the less merited...
The word was adopted into the English language with none of the negative connotations that Young intended it to have… Young expressed his disappointment in the embrace of this word and philosophy by the Labour Party under Tony Blair in the Guardian in an article in 2001, where he states:
“It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”
Well, you can always make room for others, of course, by simply abolishing the people at the bottom of the heap who make stuff, and employing more people to organise stuff. Out of the mines, into “The Office”. In an ideal world, we can all work at home sitting at a computer, while stuff is made by robots, or Chinamen, or Poles, or someone else, somewhere else. Just not in my village, thank you.
- Fortunately, social engineering is never 100% perfect, hence a phenomenon like the revolt of the Yellow Jackets. France has done as much as any country to form an educated workforce fit for the 22nd century, in a country with a sophisticated culture, crisscrossed with high speed trains and autoroutes. But there’s a lot of space between the cultural and industrial hubs, and someone’s got to live there. But not enough people to make it economical to keep open the school, the post office or the hospital.
- Back in the 19thcentury, when 90% of the population lived in villages, and socialism was just a mote (or a beam) in the eye of an exiled German professor, there arose the curious idea that a letter could be posted for the same price whatever the distance, that every child should have a school within walking distance, and that street lighting could be provided free for everyone. But those days are nearly gone, thank goodness.
Back to our model village, not too far from the hospital or post office, we hope. Not all of us educated office worker types are dyed-in-the-wool Greens, raising our own chickens and keeping bees, but it’s nice to think we could do so if we wanted to, and in the meantime we can at least buy organic and sign petitions against the use of pesticides. We have the time for the one and the money for the other.
Which is part of the problem, indirectly. The worm in the bud, that no organic pesticide can treat, is the nagging knowledge that our chosen way of life is not sustainable. Not for everyone. Hobbiton is fine as long as it’s inhabited mainly by hobbits, plus the odd wizard working from home, but you don’t want it being overrun by any old orc.
And this is where the fear sets in. The fear that there’s too many of us, that there won’t be enough space, or stuff to go round. And then the fear that one is being terribly selfish. Isn’t the whole point of having a nice job and living in a nice environment the fact that it demonstrates that one is a nice person? And then the fear mutates. The orcs don’t arrive, or not in unmanageable numbers, and the oil and other stuff doesn’t run out – indeed, there seems to be too much stuff, too many cars, which is partly because there are too many orc… sorry, I really must stop having such uncharitable thoughts. I really must find another source for my fears, one which doesn’t lay blame on anyone, or perhaps one that blames everyone, even and especially me. Yes, it’s Me that’s the problem, and therefore Me must be the solution.
I read this article in the Observer many years ago about the North Atlantic Ocean Oscillation. Apparently, the fact that the earth is warming means that the direction of the Gulf Stream might change, and Britain will find itself cooling – dangerously, catastrophically, even. The article was long and serious and very sciencey, and I found it interesting, partly because it sounded counter-intuitive, and partly because, well, it wasinteresting. The whole reason I read the Observer is to find out interesting things which I can repeat at dinner parties to people like me who find such things interesting, but perhaps haven’t read it because they take the Sunday Times. I mean, the whole point of my job, the reason for my existence you might say, is to exchange information – in the classroom, in the boardroom, in the outer reaches of the corridors of power. So a snippet like that, which has world-reaching significance but may also influence my own decisions concerning double glazing and wood-burning stoves and the like – well, it’s something that sticks. And it takes my mind off the orcs.
So I read some more. And so did all my friends. And the newspapers started having colour photography, and computer-generated graphs which told you everything you needed to know at a glance about things you’d never suspected happening in places few photographers had been to and no satellites had flown over before. And then there was the internet, and any idea that I might find the time to raise chickens or keep bees was finally abandoned. There were bigger things to worry about. Like Tuvalu, which is not actually that big, but you know what I mean.
By now, my uncharitable fear of the Other had mutated into a wholly charitable fear for the Other, including those who might invade my village, and especially those coming from elsewhere. And I couldn’t accuse them of coming to steal our jobs, or spoil our view with their horrible housing estates, because we had stolen their entire flooded or drought-ridden country. My fear was no longer for me, my family and my way of life, but for the entire planet. So naturally, I felt much better about it.
And my fear even included fear for the unborn, those who don’t exist yet. And this fear was particularly gratifying, because it helped to drive out a certain uncomfortable feeling that worms its way into your half-conscious as you get older. A feeling that the words “then” and “now,” “before” and “after” are subtly changing their meaning, that they are somehow not immutable concepts… Whenever that feeling starts to nag I like to get out a graph with a nice long time axis stretching far into the next century. With several pathways. The road not taken, and all that.
So all in all, I’m feeling much better in myself since I discovered Dangerous Global Warming, or Catastrophic Climate Change, as we initiates call it, (though I feel I may go over to calling it Global Weirding, if it catches on.) But now that the facts are all in and I’m settled in my mind, I find I’m reading less about it. I’m more interested in psychology now: the tricks memory plays; how unconscious bias can lead to false belief; how fake news spreads and why people believe in conspiracy theories. It’s very useful for explaining why some people don’t agree with you. I’ve read some interesting stuff about it. I’ll tell you more, the next time we have a dinner party.
[Dedicated to the dear friends with whom we swap houses. I’ve only met them a couple of times for a few hours, but having shared their bookshelves and benefited from their Guardian delivered daily, I feel I know them as well as I know myself. (Not very well, actually.) And also to Tom and Paul, for recent articles here which inspired these thoughts. It’s a small world, and I like it that way]