At the Pens of the Earth launch night, Nicholas Sebley from Extinction Rebellion talked about the possibilities and challenges of transforming Portsmouth into a new city by 2030.
The way I see it, there are two interwoven methods to avoid the collective ruin we now face: ‘material’ change and ‘internal’ change. Material change involves finding industrial, technological and structural alternatives to our carbon intensive society. What might this look like locally?
Well, as Portsmouth is entirely flat and approximately 3 miles wide by 3 miles long, promoting active travel would seem an obvious choice. Active travel means cycling and walking, and some of the ways to get the public to engage with it are through creating a network of segregated cycle paths that are truly safe, free cycle training in all schools, employee bike schemes, subsidised cargo bike hire, wider pavements and dedicated walking routes that are clearly marked and promoted.
At the same time, it would be necessary to disincentivise car use and offer instead an affordable (or free), reliable public transport system. That might involve workplace parking levies to fund better bus services and trams as Nottingham have done, congestion charges and vehicle scrappage schemes for the most polluting cars and grants to help drivers convert to electric vehicles. The benefits in public health would be significant and the reduced strain on the NHS would pay for these schemes over a decade or two. Extinction Rebellion have been accused of being extremists: but these proposals are the sober conclusions of the Parliamentary Select Committee for Transport.
The main barriers to these changes are implicatory denial about the peril we are in among the public and political class, and a lack of political leadership to puncture this denial. And this leads me to my next point: material changes need to facilitate internal change, and vice versa. What I mean by internal change is looking afresh at the way we relate to our bodies, our emotions, each other and the natural world.
All of us are born into a particular set of socio-economic conditions not of our choosing, and yet many of us accept these conditions as having some kind of immutable quality – ‘just the way things are’- even when they are harmful to us and the earth systems we need to flourish. We are of course encouraged by those who benefit from the status quo to accept and internalize its parameters and justifying myths: Margaret Thatcher, for example, explicitly said, ‘There is no alternative’. However, she gave the game away when she also said, ‘Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul’.
It would appear such attempts to fashion our collective psyche in a certain direction have had some success: the triumvirate of materialism, consumerism and individualism that politicians like Thatcher and Reagan encouraged, are now at the heart of Western life, and taking root across the world. However, they are also at the heart of the climate, ecological and I’d argue a psycho-spiritual or relational emergency. For in the same manner the ecological costs of consumer capitalism are externalised into climate change, biodiversity loss, air pollution, poisoned rivers and contaminated/denatured soil, the social/emotional costs are displaced into an epidemic of psychological suffering and loneliness, substance misuse, obesity, etc. We need to start joining the dots: climate change isn’t the problem, biodiversity loss isn’t the problem, loneliness isn’t the problem, mass opioid addiction isn’t the problem, inequality isn’t the problem. These are all symptoms of the same core problem – which is industrialized capitalism as it is currently constituted.
One of the paradoxes of capitalism is despite all the vast wealth it has created, it is still fundamentally powered by a sense of scarcity: fear of starvation, becoming destitute, having an unfulfilling job and poor housing etc. We often hear the argument that ecological costs are a necessary evil to lift people out of poverty. However even once we have escaped those fates, we don’t see consumption decrease: in fact, the richer and more financially secure someone is, the more they tend to consume and the more ecological damage they are implicated in… so what is going on? Thatcher was correct: the socio-economic circumstances we have been born into condition us to find meaning, status, safety and a feeling of aliveness and freedom in material wealth and consumption. And until we as a species find meaning, status, safety, aliveness and freedom in something else, it won’t matter how many bike lanes we have: we will be funding the same extractive and ecocidal way of relating to nature.
This is what is unique about Extinction Rebellion in terms of climate change movements: it wants to look at the belief and value systems underwriting this emergency, and the role of emotions in both maintaining those systems and changing them. It’s not just our fuels that are fossilised, it is dogmatic and rigid ways of thinking and relating that have us in their petrified grip.
So what would Portsmouth transformed look like? Yes, it would have shifted from a city based around private transport (cars) to one based around excellent public transport and EV car-pooling, alongside cycling, and walking. Yes, it would have much more tree cover and thriving green spaces, where local communities felt they had ownership over the land under their feet. Yes, fuel poverty would be a thing of the past as all houses had proper insulation and onsite clean energy generation. But it would also be a place where schools would have emotional and ecological literacy at the centre of their curriculum, with kids being guided to find the joy and satisfaction that comes with living in harmony with nature, rather than against it. It would be a city that had embarked on the conversation: how can we live well, and leave our fauna, flora, coasts, seas and rivers even more flourishing than how we found them? And it would be somewhere we could look our kids in the eye, and say: well whatever unfolds we genuinely did all we could to meet this historic unprecedented challenge.
Pens of the Earth is about environmental tales from a positive Portsmouth – encouraging writers to celebrate existing environmental initiatives, and to imagine what might be.
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