Tom Sutcliffe: Time to have confidence in the future

Tuesday 02 February 2010 01:00

The great aphorist Ambrose Bierce defined an aphorism as "pre-digested wisdom" in his Devil's Dictionary – a blankly unaphoristic definition which contains more than a hint of self-criticism. He was right to be suspicious, with the memorability and neatness of aphorisms so often seducing us into forgetting everything that contradicts them. But sometimes you encounter an aphoristic phrasing of an idea that requires you to do all the digesting, so neatly does it encapsulate a much larger thought.

It happened to me while reading Stewart Brand's new book Whole Earth Discipline, which he describes as an "ecopragmatist manifesto". The line was this one: "Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilisation, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilisation from a natural system – climate dynamics." That is the scale of the problem that climate change represents.

Once, we had the luxury of feeling guilty about encroaching on nature, but very soon, if it hasn't started already, nature is going to start encroaching on us – and it isn't going to give a damn about it. And that, Brand argues, is going to require an entirely new approach to the problem, one which abandons the romantic idealism that achieved so much for the Green movement and substitutes for it an engineer's practicality. You use what works, not what matches your prejudices.

His book is thoroughly exhilarating, which is a slightly odd thing to say about a text that doesn't for a moment diminish the threat of global warming and which actually argues that we've already left things too late. A book that describes us being like "ants on a burning log" might, you think, be a touch depressing. But it isn't. It's one of those books that you want to press on people and insist they read, partly because it exemplifies in action what it urges on its readers.

Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue in the Sixties and a Moses for the low-impact, commune lifestyle, used to think that cities were the problem. Now he realises (having done the sums and read the research) that urbanisation may be the best thing that can happen to the planet, creating efficiencies which are impossible in small, rural communities. He used to fear nuclear power. Now he argues that we live in thrall to a largely imaginary terror of its potential dangers, oblivious to the continuing catastrophe caused by fossil fuels. He deplores the simplistic demonisation of GM crops which has retarded research into improved strains of food plants and ignores the ecological benefits of the no-till agriculture which they make possible. On every page, it seems, received opinion is up-ended and dogmas examined at their foundations – which are frequently found to be worm-eaten.

What he's calling for, in short, is for everyone to come out of their trenches and stop fighting an embedded war from fixed positions. The recipe is not for a set of values which are ideologically unimpeachable, but for a way of addressing the issues which might generate genuine solutions. And at the heart of that is an essential confidence in the future – that we are in for good surprises as well as bad.

Nobody would have predicted, for example, that mobile phones would prove a boon to developing Africa, and yet they've had an extraordinary effect in many societies there. Since we're going to end up in the future whether we like it or not, it makes sense to get there by the best routes available. Whole Earth Discipline doesn't present itself as the only road map, but I doubt you'll encounter a more entertaining or thought-provoking one.

Full of glee over Beyoncé's Grammy win

I don't usually lose a lot of sleep over the Grammy Awards but I was pleased to see that the award for best song of the year had gone to Beyoncé for Single Ladies – a catchy hymn to the deep satisfaction of having a lover who's dumped you show signs of renewed interest as soon as a rival pitches up. For one thing the decision spared us another stage invasion by Kanye West – whose indignation that it had been passed over for an earlier award led to him seizing the microphone from the actual winner to denounce the result. For another thing the song is terrific – occupying that interesting but hazardous space between outright ludicrous and knowingly larger than life.

This quality was underlined by the recent episode of the excellent American series Glee, in which a failing high school football team discovered that they could astound their opponents and recover their own mojo by performing Single Ladies before a critical set play – complete with every saucy hip-grind and booty-smack. It was fabulous – that word to be uttered with as much camp top-spin as you can muster. If you have reached this point without hearing Single Ladies or seeing Glee I strongly recommend that you put the omission right.

Is this a sign of disorder or devotion?

I was startled to read the following headline in a newspaper the other day: "Pope John Paul II regularly whipped himself, book says", and then, underneath in smaller print, "Claim of self-flagellation boosts case for elevating late pontiff to status of saint".

The startlement came in two parts. First, there was the surprise that an apparently sane individual would do such a thing to himself on a regular basis, outside of the S&M scene. That faded relatively quickly. It was always known, after all, that the late pope was a fan of Opus Dei, whose devotions include self-mortification, and there's always been a strain of hysterical identification with torment in some Christian churches.

The second surprise hasn't yet gone though. This is the fact that this revelation could be greeted by Catholics as anything but profoundly embarrassing.

If a teenager did such a thing we would immediately recognise it for what it is – a literal form of self-abuse (accompanied, one might add, by a disturbing kind of spiritual masturbation).

Because it's the Pope it's supposedly evidence of sanctity. One wonders how far he would have had to go to actually shock the faithful. Pushing nails into the palms of his hands? Jamming a crown of thorns on to his head?All more proof of holiness? Or might that actually alert them to the fact that this may have been a disorder, not devotion.

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