As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...
- Name: Alistair Livingston
Saturday, July 31, 2010
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Impact of the future on the past
The impact of the future on the past
Even if another green world happened today and we cut our emissions of carbon dioxide close to zero, the world would still carry on warming. This will lead to an increasingly unstable climate which in turn will disrupt the global economy. If the global economy is disrupted our collective ability to engage in abstract thinking and other complex intellectual activities, especially science is also likely to be disrupted. From my reading of Vlatko Vedera's Decoding Reality (and brief contact via email) the growth of our scientific (and hence technological) understanding of reality depends on the continual processing of information into knowledge. Vedral proposes this process as acting in the opposite direction to the thermodynamic 'arrow of time' which moves from states of lower entropy to states of higher entropy. Vedral equates 'uncertainty' with higher levels of entropy , as an information rich environment with science/abstract thought acting like a Maxwell demon to simplify and reduce the complexity of the raw information into usable knowledge. [Which then generates more information so the cycle has to be repeated if knowledge is to advance.]
The thermodynamic theory which gave rise to the notion of 'entropy' developed from practical attempts to improve the thermal efficiency of heat engines ( e.g. Watt's steam engine). The same process of improvement made such engines more economically useful and so stimulated the industrial revolution which began the process of anthropogenic (human created) global warming. Vedral also points out ( in his discussion of Maxwell's demon) that information processing itself generates heat in the 'erase' part of the cycle.).
In the present (2010), global climate change has not impacted on the global economy and so has not had an impact on our collective ability to reason. The only signs of a future collapse of our collective ability to reason is the attack on science by climate change deniers.
But what will happen once the destructive impact of climate change becomes more apparent? Could this lead to a retreat from reason? Perhaps to a revival of religious/ irrational belief systems – from a 'tower of Babel' type analogy or an equivalent to Augustine of Hippo's 'City of God' metaphor derived from the fall of Rome to the 'barbarians' (Visigoths) in AD 410?
The critical problem is -how far does our ability to reason depend upon material circumstances? I am thinking here about Georg Hegel. Hegel developed his view of history as the struggle of human reason towards self-awareness in a pre-industrial revolution Germany. The enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century likewise developed their philosophies within a pre-industrial / emerging industrial society. They science they knew was also minimal in comparison to that of our age.
On the other hand the enlightenment anticipated the continuous expansion of knowledge, assuming that the world to be created by reason would be superior to a world mired in religious and other superstitions. But if that future turns out to be a nightmare in which we will struggle to survive, where does that leave Hegel's vision? Will reason be dismissed as a 'false god'? Are we about to enter a new dark age, like that which followed the collapse of the western Roman empire?
Perhaps, but what if the the process of industrialisation contained an irrational element? So that the age of enlightenment was thrown off course by the industrial revolution? Or rather, by the rise of industrial capitalism? What if Karl Marx followed Hegel as a continuation of enlightenment thought? What if industrial capitalism is irrational and so is not part of the historic development of human reason? Jumping too far ahead , need to backtrack...literally, to plateways.
Plateways were an early form of railway. They were built in the late eighteenth century using L-shaped cast iron rails [first made in 1787]so that wagons with ordinary wheels could use them. Altogether, 1500 miles of plateways were built. In the early nineteenth century they were superseded by 'edge- railways' with I- shaped rails over which wagons with flanged wheels ran. The change is usually taken to represent a technological advance, but Carolyn Dougherty has questioned this assumption. http://homepage.ntlworld.com/carolyn.dougherty/unlikelyachievement.pdf
Dougherty argues that
the plateway was not a failure but rather a rational improvement on the traditional wooden railways for the transport of coal and general freight. However, its design and operation were based on a model of the British economy that by the turn of the 19th century had ceased to apply; the change from the operational model of the plateway and the canal system with which it was associated to that of the edge railway and the coal mining system where it originated was both a cause and effect of the changing structure of the British economy in the early 19th century.
The critical shift from the plateway open access system to monopolistic use of an exclusively steam powered rail route occurred with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester edge railway in 1830. This was also the first city to city railway. It was modelled on the coal railways of north east England, but with cotton as its key freight. The aim was to speed up and reduce the cost of the transport of raw cotton from Liverpool to Manchester and of finished cotton from Manchester to Liverpool. Unexpectedly, it quickly developed profitable passenger and general goods traffic. The Liverpool and Manchester railway became the model for the Victorian railway system. Such railways had a dual role in the industrial revolution. They acted as a national rapid transport system which displaced local production for local consumption. The civil engineering aspects of their construction drove demand for iron and other materials while their mechanical engineering aspects stimulated technological developments.
To use a climate change analogy, the Liverpool and Manchester railway fits into a 'hockey stick' type graph. The handle is the slow growth of railway development from their fifteenth century use in mines through to the 1500 miles of plateways and then, after 1830, a sharp upward turn towards the 22 000 miles of railways built in Britain by 1900. Graphs of coal and iron production and cotton imports and exports show a similar curve. In 1709, 2000 bales of cotton were imported to the UK, mainly through London. By 1797 this had risen to 17 000 bales, mainly imported through Liverpool. In 1831, 799 512 bales of cotton were imported via Liverpool. By 1841 this had risen to 1 642 259. In 1911, 5 230 000 bales of cotton were imported to the UK, 90% of which came through Liverpool.
From a future perspective, was it inevitable that the horse drawn plateway system was displaced? The plateway system worked as part of a dispersed economy, linking (more cheaply than canals) lots of relatively small scale industrial centres. What the canal network, theplateway system or turnpike roads could cope with was the concentration of industry which occurred in Manchester. The step change to a steam powered railway was necessary if the growth of Manchester was to continue. If the change had not occurred, the advantages of industrial concentration would have been limited and the viability of a more dispersed economy enhanced.
What am I fishing for here? I guess ways to counter the 'there is no alternative to business as usual' mind set as it applies to the climate change challenge. To the argument that says either we carry on burning fossil fuels or we go back to living in caves. But if the coal/ oil fired path leads to a dead end, then alternatives have to be found. At one level the alternatives have to be practical and concrete – the development of wind, water, solar and other sources of energy, but the development of alternatives also needs to be abstract and theoretical.
This leads me to Hegel since he developed his 'science' right at the same time that the upward tick of the hockey stick started – between 1790 and 1830 – in a pre-industrial revolution Germany, but with an awareness of the changes occurring in Britain. After Hegel came Marx, but Marx had to work within the reality created by the industrial revolution/ industrial capitalism. Marx anticipated the eventual end of industrial capitalism, but assumed it would fail as a consequences of its internal contradictions rather than the external agency of climate change....although climate change is itself a product of industrial capitalism with 'nature' as equivalent to 'proletariat'.
Of course Hegel might just be another dead end rather then leading on to a post-growth, steady state society, but I am still impressed by his work. By this I mean the movement of awareness (consciousness) from pure absence (which is also pure being) to rational (rather than mystical) self-awareness/ self- consciousness. Hegel then anticipated that, following the breakthrough of the French revolution, that there would be a rationalisation of social structure, that human society would become collectively self-aware/ self-conscious.
Although Hegel was beginning to realise that this was not going to happen – in his 1831 essay on the English Reform Bill for example- Hegel died in November 1831 and so was unable to explore the implications of the problem. It was Marx who extended Hegel's work to take into account the impact of the industrial revolution/ development of industrial capitalism. Hegel had assumed that the word was becoming more and more rational, that the sphere of reason was expanding. But, although the technological advances of the industrial revolution required the application of reason, the social/ economic system they were developed in – industrial/global capitalism- was not a rational system. The progress of reason was checked and thrown of course by a huge upsurge in unreason. It would only be after a long struggle that a rational/ reason based economic system and society finally emerge.
If the plateway economy was a 1790s alternative, then the 'radical technology' movement of the 1970s was a similar alternative. If there had been a shift to sustainable/ renewable technologies in the 1970s then the threat of climate change and peak oil would have been reduced. But it didn't happen. Instead there was an intensification of industrial capitalism globally and (in the UK) an extension of high-finance capitalism. The need for these was driven by [David Harvey's analysis] by capitalism's dependence on a 3% annual growth rate. Just as an aeroplane has to keep moving forward at a speed fast enough to stop it stalling – or it will crash to the ground- so capitalism has to keep being able to reinvest its profits 'profitably'. Capitalism cannot exist in a steady state/ no growth/ less than 3% growth economy. So far, that is for the past 250 or so years, this level of growth has been achieved and therefore the assumption is that it can be continued. But what if it can't?
The thermodynamic arrow of time says that such endless growth is physically impossible. Vlatko Vedral can be interpreted as suggesting that the end of such growth can be postponed so long as information can be processed/ compressed into knowledge. This process can be equated with Hegel's work, where the becoming of reason translates information into knowledge, thus creating history in its wake. However Hegel implies that the realisation of (collective) self- awareness/ self- consciousness marks the end of the struggle – the advent of a 'steady-state' of society/ economy/ politics.
Is there a position which can be imagined as existing beyond the present crisis - a future position- from which one can look back at the past and trace a path through the chaos of the present to that future? Or put in a different way – how can reason extricate itself from this mess? The theory is that reason managed to extricate itself (ourselves) from the subjectivity of religious belief systems and achieve rational consciousness via the enlightenment. Have we therefore had 250 years of the triumph of reason? Or did we simply swap one set of irrationalities for another? If we were rational, would we be in this mess? A mess which threatens to knock us back into a new dark age of bare survival?
The position I have been arguing here is that the breakthrough of reason described by Hegel was almost immediately swamped by the advent of industrial capitalism. This contained / was based on a fundamentally irrational notion of 'unlimited growth'- David Harvey's 3% problem. To achieve the 3% growth rate, we are locked into Marx's money>commodity> money mechanism, which acts like a self-replicating machine. [There is an analogy with John von Neumann's self-replicating device – see Vedral's Decoding Reality p. 44] For money to create more money, it has to pass through a commodity phase – has to be materialised, be physically present. To continue the growth cycle, then gradually everything has to be turned into a commodity. To go back to the John von Neumann analogy, it is as if the self- replicating devices continue to replicate until they have used up all the raw materials available.
That there might be a physical limit to growth has been proposed in the past, but has so far been dismissed as pessimism. The problem is that until an actual limit to growth has been reached, growth will continue and then it will stop abruptly. The difference with climate change as a limit to growth is that it has (unlike for example Thomas Malthus' predictions) the weight of science – or reason- behind it. This creates a tension between science and capitalism. It is difficult to see how, assuming Harvey's 3% growth rate is correct, capitalism can survive. If reason prevails and a minimal/ no growth future is the outcome, there will not be a large enough rate of return to keep capitalism going. If reason does not prevail, the social, economic and environmental stresses of climate change will be so disruptive that 3% growth will be impossible.
If reason does not prevail, then history will be swallowed up by myth and the past will cease to exist. Within a hundred years of the end of Roman rule in Britain, the writer Gildas' (a British Christian monk, born before AD 500) knowledge of Roman Britain was minuscule. Our actual knowledge of the immediate post-Roman period have been confused by layers of Arthurian mythology. [Michael Moorcock has parodied this process in his 'Hawkmoon' books – Giving 'Aral Vilsun' – Harold Wilson and , Blansacredid 'balance of credit '- as two of the gods of a future 'Granbretan'].
With the 'reason prevails' scenario, history is still possible. Future historians will be able to look back at the past and re-assign significance to events. Which is what I have tried to do here.
Monday, July 19, 2010
Geology of the UK
History as geology.
I don't often buy the Times, but today I did. It had a front page story on how Exxon have (despite their claims to the contrary) been funding climate change denialists, giving them £1 million last year. Such funding has helped cast doubt on the science of global warming/ climate change. This in turn has made it more difficult to create the political climate necessary if the economic changes required to limit the damage are to be put in place.
Although it is our economic dependency on oil that is the present problem, it was the rapid expansion of the use of coal in the late eighteenth century which first increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere. It was therefore the industrial revolution which began the destabilisation of the earth's climate. If nothing is done, the destabilisation of the earth's climate will set in motion a series of social, economic and political changes which will halt and then reverse the process of industrialisation. Humanity will be thrown back to subsistence level survival. Even this level of survival will be difficult if the stable climate of the Holocene era (the geological era since the last Ice Age ended 12 000 years ago) is lost. It has been the stability of the Holocene climate which allowed settled cultures and civilisations based on agriculture to emerge. This process began with the Natufian culture which emerged at the eastern end of the Mediterranean about 14 000 years ago. It took another 7000 years before the first historic civilisation ( meaning had a written language and was city based) emerged at Uruk in Iraq.
In contrast to these thousands of years of human history/prehistory, it is only 300 years or so since the first practical fossil fuel powered steam engine (used as a pump) was developed by Thomas Savery in 1698. It took another 100 years for coal powered steam engines to become thermally and mechanically efficient enough to create an industrial revolution. This breakthrough occurred in Manchester in the 1790s when James Watt's improved (more thermally efficient) steam engine was geared up to power cotton spinning machinery. This advance was facilitated by an existing by a network of canals which conveyed coal to Manchester and linked Manchester with the port of Liverpool through which raw cotton was imported and processed cotton exported. If the local geology had been different – if there had been no local sources of coal or if ridges of rock had obstructed navigation along rivers and the construction of canals – these developments would have been checked. Building a railway between Manchester and Liverpool would also have been more difficult – and without access to coal, the development of Manchester which provided the economic justification for the railway would have been absent.
But would the industrial revolution have happened anyway? Would it just have occurred elsewhere?Possibly. On the other hand from my researches into the history of south west Scotland, I know that the development of Liverpool and Manchester was facilitated by a group of young men men who moved to the two cities from south west Scotland. Thanks to its geology, south west Scotland had a much smaller population than north west England and also lacked reserves of coal. Although attempts to industrialise (including the building of water powered cotton mills) south west Scotland were made, the attempts failed. The region remained (as it still is) an agricultural region.
To move from the local to the global, at the same time that the industrial revolution was taking off in Manchester, there was a revolution in France. Quite which of these two revolutions – the industrial and the French- had the greater impact is hard to judge. But if global warming becomes the defining problem of the twenty first century, then it is the industrial revolution which becomes the most significant. If so, then the lives of hitherto obscure individuals like John Kennedy from farm in the Glenkens of south west Scotland become more significant. Kennedy founded a cotton spinning firm which became the largest in Manchester by a combination of mechanical improvements and business skills. Kennedy also played a key role in the Liverpool and Manchester railway project. By his actions, and those of his contemporaries, John Kennedy helped set in motion global climate change.
Monday, July 12, 2010
Looking at the publishing history of Dune Messiah, it was first published in 1969 and the first UK (NEL) paperback edition came out in September 1972. I bought it when the family were on a 'curling holiday' at Aviemore in October 1972. I hadn't read the original Dune so reading Dune Messiah first was slightly disorientating. According to this
the Dune books came about when Herbert combined his interest in the dangers of messianic religious belief with his experience of practical ecology – planting hardy grasses to control shifting sand dunes in Oregon. Wikipedia says 'The Oregon Dunes are a unique area of windswept sand that is the result of millions of years of wind, sun, and rain erosion on the Oregon Coast. These are the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America. Some dunes tower up to 150 meters above sea level.'
As the sequence of Dune books unfolded, the 'actual' sand dunes of the desert planet Arrakis become less and less important and the series theme of the 'on-rolling devouring force of messianic myth' becomes central over the 5000 years of history the books document. [Timescale has been extended by books written by Herbert's son Brian]. Dune Messiah shows the hero figure (Paul Atreides/ Maud'dib becoming trapped and destroyed by the cycle of messianic myth he originally manipulated.
I have now re-read most of the sequence and... I found myself skipping over the philosophical/ psychological chunks where characters waffle on about the nature of reality and of humanity. For all that the setting is meant to be the distant future, it seems closer to an alternative past – one in which a belief system closer to Islam rather than Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire – an empire which then survived (as the eastern / Byzantine empire did) as form of Machiavellian feudalism and which did not then give rise to enlightenment/ industrialisation/ capitalism.... Since my current area of interest is the late eighteenth/ pre-Victorian nineteenth century – where the Age of Reason smashed into the Mechanical Age giving birth (via the exploitation of India, Africa and the Americas) to global Capitalism most of the Dune sequence is just noise.
On the other hand (suggestion made by my son), if global warming creates a desert planet, will it also create giant spice worms? That would be fun, but maybe the Dune sequence can be interpreted / read as a science fiction which anticipates a post global warming world? I am thinking here of the irrationality of global warming deniers. Could it be that the irrationality and rejection / refusal of science shown by deniers is itself a cultural product of global warming?
What do I mean by this? I am not quite sure. I suppose that, when viewed over the long term, most human societies have been ordered / organised around a mythic-religious or mythic-magical understanding of the world [Which is Frank Herbert's central theme]. The rational/ scientific/ technological/ industrial (capitalist/ economic?) understanding of the world is very recent, little more than 200 years old in practice- although the theory can be traced back 2500 years or so to the speculations of Greek philosophers. One path led from Aristotle via Judaisim and Islam to the disputations of medieval theologians and the work of Thomas Aquinas. Science as natural philosophy, grew from this path.
Another, more immediately practical, came from Roman Law. This was the law of the eastern Roman empire, codified under Justinian in the sixth century and which was rediscovered in Italy (esp. Bologna) in the late eleventh century.This was more practical since as the economy of medieval Europe began to become more complex. It needed more complex laws. Thus within a deeply religious society, the seeds of reason began to take root. Reasoning involved a necessary questioning and doubting of arguments from authority, or perhaps more a challenging of one authority by another. This happened with the Reformation when the authority of the Roman church was challenged/ tested against the authority of scripture, of the bible.
In Britain in the seventeenth century the Reformation led to a political struggle against the Stuart kings who claimed to be above the law, to have a divine right to rule. This struggle ended at Culloden in 1746.The Scottish enlightenment which followed gave rise to Adam Smith's economic theories and also allowed James Watt to improve the efficiency of the steam engine. But Watt was only able to turn his theoretical engine into a functional one with the help of English industrialists and himself joined the Birmingham based Lunar Society which was an enlightenment club.
In France and Germany(which was then divided into many small states), the eighteenth century enlightenment was more 'philosophical' and abstractly political, more concerned with ideas. It was not entangled with trade and industry as it was in Britain. It did not (from my reading of the background) lead directly to the French Revolution, but provided theories which fed into the revolution as it developed. During the struggle which followed , which led on to the Napoleonic wars, the French economy was damaged, as were the economies of other parts of Europe. In Britain, however, the pace of economic growth accelerated. Watt's steam engines were applied to industrial manufacturing including the cotton industry and the war economy also stimulated the iron and coal industries. For example, the price of fodder for horses rose which stimulated the development of steam traction and early railways. Political reaction to the French revolution made it more difficult for workers to organise, weakening resistance to the early growth of industrial capitalism.
The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 was followed by political reaction across Europe. The idealism of French and German enlightenment thought was seen as dangerous. Hegel and then Marx come in here, but so also do Henri de Saint Simon and Jean- Baptiste Say. It was J-B Say who first used the phrase 'industrial revolution'... what these two thinkers argued for was a scientific and industrial 'revolution' which would transform the world. Through their influence, the industrialisation of Europe was a more organised affair than that of Britain – railways for example were planned and key industries were protected from competition. Eventually, the necessities of two world wars and the intervening economic crisis encouraged Britain to adopt such industrial planning and organisation. Since 1980, a more market-led/ free – enterprise approach has been adopted which has partially de-industrialised the UK
Wandered away from Frank Herbert a bit there, but his big themes are in there – how to plan and shape the ecology of entire planets, the power of ideas and ideologies acting over many generations, the idea of the enlightened but absolute ruler, the conflict between order and chaos... between the reasoning of Herbert's 'mentats' (human computers) and the prescient (future anticipating) visions induced by the spice called melange..
What is going to happen as the global temperature keeps rising? Can we dramatically reduce our use of fossil fuels but still remain 'civilised'? Or will humanity return to barbarism? Put another way – what is a 'civilised society'? Was the society of the enlightenment – on the cusp of the industrial revolution- 'civilised'? It was a society which practised slavery -as did the Roman and Greek civilisations – and had only a fraction of our scientific and technological knowledge. And the knowledge it did have was restricted to a very few. How many of the millions of Europeans of the time were actively part of the 'Age of Reason'?
The jewel in our present-day civilisation's crown is meant to be our science, our 'scientific method'. Yet – as the problem of global climate change shows, many people, perhaps even a majority – struggle to grasp how the scientific method works.
There is also the tension between what the science says we need to do and what the convolutions of the global economy will let us do. The global economy depends on growth but the growth (at present) depends upon the flow of oil. [like the flow of the spice melange in Herbert's fictions]. Without oil, the global economy will grind to a halt. If the global economy starts to seize up, how much social unrest will there be? Food riots. Fuel riots. Power cuts. If peak oil is a reality, then these problems will arise anyway.
Is there a non-apocalyptic future? Is there an enlightened solution? Is it possible to rationally plan and organise a low carbon future? But then we have the challenge of the dominant ideology which says it is impossible to plan in this way without ending up in a totalitarian prison. It is the belief that the Age of Reason led to the Terror of the French revolution... Rather we should be led by Adam Smith's 'invisible hand'. But Smith's invisible hand is very close to [divine] 'Pprovidence'
“The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition.”
The ideology has it that the market has its own rationality which cannot be directed, that economies cannot be planned or organised. The market, like God, moves in mysterious ways and is beyond the reach of science.
Marx disagreed and took Hegel's notion of reason achieving its realisation through history a stage further with his critique of political economy. Perhaps, if the French revolution had not intervened, the process of enlightenment would have continued on and overcome the myth of the autonomous economy. Perhaps Marx (almost) achieved this?
Perhaps global ecology = global economy? So that the real struggle is not to manage the destructive impact of climate change, but rather to manage the destructive impact of the globalised economy?
Sunday, July 11, 2010
The image above is a poster 'The temple of Hex' by Barney Bubbles (Colin Fulcher 1942 -1983). I bought a copy via the Hawkwind fan club circa 1973. Barney designed several Hawkwind albums and worked with the group on their Space Ritual stage sets. Later he did design work for Stiff records for releases by Ian Dury, the Damned and Elvis Costello.
Although I lost the poster many years ago, the image had etched itself in my memory. The stepped pyramid, the flying saucers and the dinosaurs have a mythic, haunting quality. They connect with the science fiction/ fantasy scenario adopted by Hawkwind 1971-1973 and set out in the Barney Bubble's designed Hawkwind Log which came with their 1971 album 'In Search of Space'. This explains that the group and its music/ performances are really the manifest dreams of the crew of a spaceship, surviving in suspended animation as they travel through space and time.
In this rich mix, which included input from Michael Moorcock and Bob Calvert , the psychedelic utopianism of the sixties counterculture was blended with the strange tales of 1950s UFO contactees, the pseudo-history of 'gods as ancient astronauts' authors like Erich von Daniken, the occult speculations of Theosophists and the Golden Dawn and an occasional dash of William Burroughs. Plus Whilhelm Reich's Orgone Accumulator...
For myself at least, what added an element of realism to this fantasy when I encountered it in 1972 was the overlap with the Apollo moon landings, the last of which took place in December of that year. On 20 July 1969 I was on holiday with my family in a beach hut on the Solway Firth with no running water or mains electricity. I stayed awake all night listening to the first moon landing on a radio. Watching the landing the next day on black and white tv at my grandparents house, the triumph of space age technology seemed assured. It seemed very likely that by the time I grew up, space travel would be quite normal. The BBC series, 'Tomorrow's World' (which reported on technological developments) was already one of my favourite tv programmes.
It was soon after I had been swept up in the technological and scientific triumphalism of the 1969 moon landing that I read Erich von Daniken's 'Chariots of the Gods'. At the time it did not seem like fantasy, it seemed like a reasonable technological interpretation of the past. Only now that we had landed on the moon, had achieved space flight level technology, could we recognise the presence of similar technology in our past. And if we could now plan to visit other planets in the future, why shouldn't people from other planets have visited earth in the past?
From von Daniken I moved on to science fiction. Again, rather than reading it as fantasy, I read sf as predictions of the future. The starships and space operas of mainstream science fiction, were, like Star Trek (first shown by the BBC in the UK in 1969) continuations of the trajectory of the present. It seems strange to me now, but back then, in the late sixties/ early seventies, what now seem like dreams and fantasies I took to be a reality, or at least assumed were close to becoming reality.
And if the soon to come future was to be one of space stations and starships, why couldn't ancient civilisations have built them too – as in the Barney Bubble's poster?
But then the world changed.. The Arab- Israel war of October 1973 led to an oil crisis. In the UK this, combined with a coal miners work to rule (and threatened strike), created power cuts and a 'three day week' from January to March 1974. In February 1974, Conservative prime minister Ted Heath called a general election, asking 'Who governs Britain?'. The result was a hung parliament and a minority Labour government. A second election was held in October 1974 but this did not give a clear result either, forcing Labour to rely on Liberal and Scottish National party votes. In the USA there was also a political crisis which led to the resignation of president Nixon in August 1974 and the Vietnam war came to end. The last USA troops left in 1973 and Saigon fell to the Vietcong in April 1975.
These events certainly made an impression on me. Checking the history, I see that the seven week miners strike of early 1972 also led to power cuts, a three day week and the declaration of a 'state of emergency' in February 1972 so my memories of power cuts are from 1972 and 1974- and are also mixed up with memories of an experiment with time. Between 1968 and 1971, the UK kept British Summer Time through the winter. Even though I lived in the extreme south of Scotland, this still meant walking to school in the dark and watching the sunrise through classroom windows. (We were also all given little fluorescent orange armbands to wear as a safety measure...). The elections of 1974 I remember well since my French teacher at Kirkcudbright Academy was George Thompson, the SNP candidate for Galloway. I was an enthusiastic support of the SNP then and spent by lunch hours stuffing election material into envelopes and then helping deliver them around Kirkcudbright. In the February election, George was beaten by the incumbent Tory by 4008 votes. In The October election George won...by 30 votes. These were the first elections when I stayed up all night listening to the radio (or watching tv?) to hear the results.
Events in the USA were less personally political, but the fall of president Nixon and the Vietnam war were well reported in the UK. I saw the film 'The Green Berets' in 1968/9, but somehow its pro-war theme escaped me and I took the commies side. More esoteric was the economic impact of the Vietnam war. In 1971, the USA cut the link between the dollar and the price of gold. This 'gold standard' had been set up as part of the Bretton Woods agreements in 1944. The aim of Bretton Woods was to create a more stable (post-war) world economy. The argument was that it was the economic chaos which followed the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the great depression of the 1930s which helped Hitler into power and sowed the seeds of the war. But by 1971 the cost of the Vietnam war was damaging the US economy and so the dollar/gold link was broken.
This all seems a long way from Barney Bubbles and his poster. But what if it and the counterculture of which it was part can be seen as existing at the optimistic and utopian edge of an era (the post-war consensus) of economic, scientific and technological progress? So that rather than being in opposition to it, the sixties counterculture was part of the post-war consensus, a movement pushing towards an even better and brighter future? It was in 1973 that science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke suggested that 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' Clarke's statement can also be read as support for a von Daniken or (more English) John Michell interpretation of the past in which 'what we now call magic will in the future be recognised as science/ technology'. That in the future the impossible will be realised. If the seemingly impossible (men landing on the moon) could be realised in the present, what wonders might the future hold? And if the future could hold such wonders, why not the past? What if the 'magic' of the past was based on technologies now lost? Perhaps flying saucers really had once been launched from stepped pyramids to hover over grazing dinosaurs?
Instead of the fulfilment of these science fiction/ technological dreams, the later seventies saw their decay and collapse into the reactionary politics and economic theories of the past. The post-war consensus died and scarcity returned with the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in the USA in 1980. Although the underlying motive of the conservative reaction was to demolish the power of organised labour, the reaction was also directed against the counterculture's 'moral degeneracy' – against advances in human rights which had benefited ethnic communities, women, lesbians, gays and other 'minorities'.
And now? To be concise, from my perspective, there were two countercultural responses to the break down of the post-war consensus. One was punk. The other was represented by Undercurrents magazine which was launched in January 1974 and advocated radical/ green technology.
Punk was fun and took the social/ musical aspect of the counterculture on into the eighties and (through overlap with acid house/raves) into the nighties. But now that the reality of global climate change/warming combined with peak oil and the current crisis of capitalism/banking marks a break with the past thirty years equivalent to (or even beyond) the breakdown of the post-war consensus, the green thread which runs from Undercurrents seems the more essential.
Rather than utopian, the aim was survival – not at the individualist level of 'survivalists' but at the collective level of a historically conscious/ aware human society. Thirty six years on, that is the challenge we still face.