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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Friday, September 07, 2012

Rehearsing the Apocalypse-Counterculture and Climate Change

One day in 1974 I was on the back-road [Castle Douglas to Kirkcudbright Academy via Gelston and Whinnieligget] bus to school when I heard a lot of giggling and guffawing. The source turned out to be a copy of the infamous ‘School Kids’ issue of OZ magazine, published in 1970 and condemned as obscene after a trial at the Old Bailey in 1971. I bought the magazine for 50 pence. About 15 years later I loaned it to Tom Vague, who probably still has it. Over time, my memory of most of the mag has faded, but the image/ text of  ‘Rehearsing the Apocalypse’ has endured. Nowadays the complete run of OZ is online

Two years later, the summer of 1976 was scorching, blazing hot. Every bit of moisture was sucked out of the soil by the sun and heath fires burned uncontrollably. I spent a few days in London and came back with some underground magazines. There was a Frendz with a piece about Hawkwind in it, a few more issues of OZ, a recent  issue of the still surviving International Times and a copy of Undercurrents.

While the other magazines  were products of the sixties counterculture, Undercurrents had begun in 1972. Its focus was on how to build a new world amongst the (OZ anticipated) ruins of the old. So alongside articles on ley-lines and similar themes, it also featured articles on co-operatives and worker control of industry next to practical advice on  how to build your own wind generator. It lasted until 1981, when it merged with the more ‘new age’ Resurgence magazine. By then I was a part of the punk underground, busily involved with the Kill Your Pet Puppy collective, helping to write, illustrate  and produce our own version of Frendz, OZ, International Times and Undercurrents.

Kill Your Pet Puppy (1979-1983) had been preceded by Ripped and Torn (1976-1979), both being edited by Tony D. The environment was not a big issue for punks- the apocalypse we expected was nuclear war- but Ripped and Torn 17 (March 1979) did include a plea for zero population growth

and Kill Your Pet Puppy 5 (1982) sampled an Ecology Party (which became the Green Party in 1985) leaflet ‘Where the Wasteland Ends’

And now? An increase in the extent of the summer melting of Arctic sea ice is happening faster than predicted by climate change models. [ 24 August 2012] This is very bad news, since it means the damaging impact of climate change (eg on food production) could happen more quickly than previously thought. On the other hand, the stronger the climate change signal, the harder it becomes to deny its reality. But, by the time it has become undeniable, it will be too late to halt further changes. This is due to the time lag between the release of carbon dioxide and its warming impact. The loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic is down to greenhouse gases emitted in the seventies and eighties of the twentieth century.

Shrinking Arctic sea ice- summer 2012

In 1976, Undercurrents [in their book ‘Radical Technology‘, p 8] summarised their theory and practice-

A theory of technology and society which insists that we can control technology, but if we don’t it will control us.
Recognition of physical and biological constraints on human activity.
Social  structure emphasising  group autonomy and control from the bottom up.
A bias towards simplicity and frugality in life and technology where ever possible.
Preference for direct gratification in production rather than through the medium of consumption.
Willingness to learn from unlikely sources such as ‘primitive’ cultures and technologies, ‘mystical’ experiences or abilities and even liberal social theory. 

Amongst the ideas  they were working towards was-:Planning for transition to a low-energy society…

I have looked through ‘Radical Technology’ for any references to global warming/climate change. There are none. But the direction of travel advocated by Undercurrents and  the proto-Green counterculture would have seen a reduction in fossil fuel consumption and a reduction in the production of greenhouse gases.  If the ‘revolution’ advocated by the counterculture had been carried through, it would have been a social revolution as profound as the industrial revolution. So what went wrong?

That is a hard question to answer.  There are too many variables to take into account. The simplest  explanation is set out in Radical Technology [page 8, see quote below]  -because the counterculture was part of the ‘anarcho-utopian tradition’, it was opposed not just by the dominant structure of capitalism, but also by the mainstream of Marxism.

[Marx and Engels] understood that the expansion of  the productive forces brought about by capitalism was  a necessary condition for the ultimate goal of human emancipation because without it  there will be neither  a working class to seize power  from the capitalists nor a sufficient level of material resources to feed, clothe, house or educate the world’s population. It was also an insufficient  condition, because unless the working class was conscious and organized it would not success in achieving its revolutionary potential.  But the objective situation (the existence of capitalism) precedes the subjective (the conscious mobilization of the social classes that capitalism has brought into being ) and the former required the bourgeois revolution. [Neil Davidson ‘How Revolutionary Were  the Bourgeois Revolutions?’ Chicago, 2012 p.180]

The tension between Marxist-realism and anarchist utopianism was already recognised in 1976.

Right from the beginning we were all socialists of one kind or another. We didn’t need any persuading that capitalism had to go. And yet, many of the things we felt were most wrong in capitalist society were heartily approved of by many others who called themselves socialists. We began to realise that there are two great streams of socialist thought.
One, represented by Marxists and social democrats, however deep its disagreement with capitalism, at least shared its rational, materialist values of Progress, Science, Efficiency, Specialisation, Growth, Centralised Power, and fascination with the numbing achievements of smart-ass technology like Apollo and Concorde. And this was not all. They seemed to have a model of social development similar in many respects to the ideology of corporate liberalism.: that society should be organised for maximum production, with the products themselves being the principle rewards, offered as a compensation for the inevitable alienations of life and work in an industrial economy. 
Of course under these tough-and-realistic forms of socialism, distribution would be fairer, work safer, products more rational, and public services much  better. This was not in question. But the basic separation of production and consumption, the assumption of alienation-with-compensation, and technocratic criteria for social-priorities, was broadly the same as liberal capitalism. Provided we all worked hard and behaved ourselves, eventually a state would arrive (’post-industrial society’, ’communism’ ) in which machines would take over most of the work and we could all go out and play.
But the other great stream of socialist thought, represented by the anarchists and the utopians, looked at things quite differently. At first one could hardly take them seriously. They seemed to believe that subtle human satisfactions should be given priority over production requirements; that life should be satisfying in all its aspects; that power should flow from below; that the action is not all in the city; that production and consumption need not be segregated in the factory and the home, but could be fused in the community; that revolutions are born of hope not despair.
It is probably true that in the nineteenth century  all this was hopelessly impractical- premature  as they say-  but later examples of local or regional economies run by anarchist collectives although short-lived for external reasons, encouraged us a great deal. It became obvious that there were no technical or economic reasons why decentralised, participatory producer- and consumer- controlled production systems  could not be set up which would be  quite ‘efficient’ enough to provide all the necessities and a good deal more.  
The main obstacle to realising it maybe that people hardly dare believe it could be true. It became clear that part of our task was to persuade them that it was. What to do while waiting for the revolution? We let our imaginations off the leash and  get on with building parts of the post-revolutionary society where ever and whenever we can. [Radical Technology, 1976 p.8]

Although attempts have been made to construct a Marxist theory of ecology [ eg John Bellamy Foster ‘Marx‘s Ecology - materialism and nature‘, New York, 2000], suggestions that there may be limits to growth and environmental constraints on development are alien to mainstream Marxism. As a result, while the right attacked the  counterculture’s radical utopianism on moral grounds as a threat to ‘civilised values’, the attack from left focused on it as a form of counter-revolutionary self-indulgence, as a distraction from the real struggle.

Now that, to borrow Hegel’s phrase,  Minerva’s owl takes flight as night falls on industrial civilisation, a re-assessment is required. For all its failings, the counterculture’s objectives of a transition to a low-energy economy with a bias towards simplicity and frugality in life and technology and preference for direct gratification in production rather than through the medium of consumption were the right objectives.

Hell this is difficult. The melting of Artic sea ice is deeply troubling, since it suggest that climate change may be proceeding faster than anticipated. This should be creating  a wave of change leading to rapid reduction of  carbon dioxide emissions. But the inertia of industrial civilization is such that very little is being done. The trajectory remains towards a twenty first century ‘collapse’ as anticipated by ‘Limits to Growth’ in 1972.

Still struggling to work out what it is I am trying to say and how best to say it. An image which comes to mind is of spaceship earth approaching a black hole. The black hole represents irreversible climate change. Soon (but how soon?) on our present trajectory the gravitational pull of the black hole will become too strong  and it will become impossible to change course to avoid it. But that image is probably too apocalyptic. It is possible that as climate change increases, leading to greater extremes of floods and droughts, the complex economic networks which sustain industrial civilisation will become disrupted, drastically/ dramatically reducing outputs of greenhouse gases. This would be an externally imposed change of course.

Such an  externally imposed change of course would be apocalyptic/ catastrophic.  As an optimistic anarcho-utopian, my hope is that as it becomes clearer that climate change is a reality, more and more people will begin to question the ‘we must continue business as usual’ mind-set. I am thinking here about the threat of nuclear war. One of the big fears of the UK and other states in the Cold War was that in the run-up to a nuclear war, the people would start calling for peace (‘surrender’) rather than risk being vapourised. Looking back at the early eighties, when the threat of nuclear war grew, there was a huge upsurge in popular support for CND and the peace camps, of which Greenham was on only one of many.

A present day equivalent would be the rise of a popular movement in support of a low-energy economy- a revival of the radical technology aspect of the counterculture. This analogy has  historical  parallels. CND grew (from its origins in the fifties)  in the early sixties in response to the Cuban missile crisis, then declined to grow again twenty years later as the threat of nuclear war increased, only to fade away again as the threat  receded following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The destructive potential of nuclear war remained constant, but support for CND ebbed and flowed depending on popular perceptions of its likelihood. Climate is not weather, but an increase in extreme weather events resulting from climate change is a strong prediction of the  science- as is the loss of Artic sea ice in the summer. Correlation may not be causation, but if the loss of Arctic sea ice this summer is matched by an increase in extreme weather events this could become the equivalent to the role Cruise missiles played in dramatising the reality of nuclear war.

As with the massive road building programme of the early nineties, the response to the Cruise missile threat breathed new life into the alternative value system of the anarcho-utopian counterculture. Significantly, as George McKay noted in ‘Senseless Acts of Beauty’  [1996, p.183]  the youthful participants in the nineties road-protests lacked historical awareness of the counterculture  and so imagined they had invented (for example) direct action. Sixteen years on from McKay’s book and who, other than the participants, remembers the road-protest movement?

Claremont Road, east London road protest 1994

The strength of the counterculture has been its powerful immediacy. Its weakness has been its lack of historical consciousness. Could this be about to change? It all depends…if (see above) within a year or two the Arctic ocean is ice free in the summer it will be much harder to sustain the denial of climate change. If the denial of climate change cannot be sustained, the pressure to take action to limit further climate change will grow. This will involve/ require a major cultural shift towards the value system of the radical counterculture which will be re-discovered/ re-invented. What was once dismissed as impossible will become common-place and taken for granted - for example a ‘preference for direct gratification in production rather than through the medium of consumption’. Alternatively, the survival skills gained through squatting, travelling and protest camps will come in handy.

A cultural revolution could have other effects. Fifteen years ago I enthusiastically supported a railway revival project. The idea was to re-use sections of the former Great Central railway as a freight railway, carrying road trucks on trains between north-west England and the Channel tunnel and on into Europe. I suggested that the scheme could be extended to Scotland. My hope was that a branch could then be extended to Stranraer to carry road trucks from Ireland.  By removing thousands of lorries from the roads  the project would have been very environmentally friendly, reducing congestion and carbon dioxide emissions. At the same time there was a plan to rebuild a railway ( which had been closed in 1969)  between Edinburgh and Carlisle.  The only project which has gone ahead is the partial re-opening of  the Edinburgh- Carlisle railway. Even here, work has only just begun.

A cultural shift towards a low-energy economy should prioritise rail over road transport. Unfortunately large chunks of the UK rail network have been lost and been replaced by motorways and other  improved roads. In urban areas, once extensive networks of tramways have also been lost. This means we are locked into road transport- unless a truly radical structural decision is made to stop spending money on building, improving and maintaining roads and spend the money on new railways and tramlines instead. But it will take an economic/political/social earthquake to cause such a shift. This leads on to my final point.

Alternative rationalities.

Making a rational choice between two or more possibilities  involves trying to weigh-up and take into account likely outcomes. This can mean trying to select the best outcome or the least worst. This in turn involves an initial selection of which are the relevant factors to be weighed-up/taken into account. At present, ‘avoiding apocalyptic climate change’ is not usually considered as a relevant factor in rational decision making. If it has been considered at all, it has been given a low-weighting as long-term and/ or low probability threat. Only if it becomes a near-future and/or high probability threat will it be factored in to rational decision making.

What this means is that what may once have seemed  quite ‘rational’ decisions - for example to cut back the rail network and expand the road network - can, from a future perspective, seem to be less rational/ irrational. At the same time, the radical counterculture’s fear of a future  eco-apocalypse, which may have seemed less rational/ irrational 40 years ago, becomes (with hindsight) more rational. This leads to what can be called ‘retroactive rationality’.


The future apocalypse which  the 1970 School Kids OZ  expected to kick in by 1980 has not yet happened. However the radical counterculture did take the logical impossibility of unlimited growth on a finite planet seriously and responded by proposing a mix of  alternative technological, economic and socio-political strategies. If these strategies had been widely adopted in the seventies, the threat of climate change would have been diminished. Unfortunately, rather than being adopted, the strategies were dismissed as ‘utopian’ and/or ‘subversive’. The counterculture was sidelined n favour of an intensification of ‘business as usual’. As a result, outputs of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases have increased leading to global warming and climate change. It now appears, as shown by the rapid de-icing of the Arctic, that the timescale for significant climate change may have been underestimated. An eco-apocalypse is now a possibility.

At the same time, a complex economic crisis of the form predicted by Karl Marx is unfolding and shows no signs of ending. If the crisis continues, it could lead to a Marxist style revolution. However, Marx did not develop an ecological theory to match his economic critique of capitalism. Marx anticipated that after the revolution the factories would continue to produce, but under new ownership. That even the post-revolutionary process of production itself might still be environmentally damaging was not considered.. Marx was also scathing about anarcho-utopians….

What will happen next? No-one knows. But amongst the possibilities is that  there will be a re-discovery  and re-assessment of the radical counterculture which  began arguing  40 years ago for the transition to a low-energy economy, with a matching set of ecologically friendly social and political values. The arguments are now even more valid then they were then -and will become even more so in the near future.


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