Archives for posts with tag: Nature

My lime and sea salt dark chocolate bar tasted more like mint. And with all its packaging and air miles, like guilt.

Last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle was lead with a talk by Prof. Herbert Giradet entitled ‘Eco-Philosophy – new parameters for thought and action’.

Giradet is well qualified on his subject. He’s a UN Global 500 award-winner for outstanding environmental achievement; a documentary filmmaker specialising in ecological and ethno-environmental concerns; has written books on these topics and acts as an international consultant on the issues; and finally he’s both a visiting professor of the University of the West of England and chair of the Schumacher Society.

In his talk he was careful not to present an argument, but rather he shared the evolution of environmental thinking as charted by the simultaneous destruction of it, which happens to run parallel with man’s spread across the globe and incessant rise in population.

But statements of even agreeable opinion can be received somewhat disappointingly for a pub-philosophy audience, even if his presentation was no less alarming and interesting because of it.

Nonetheless some good observations shone through. Man is unique in nature as the only bio-technological being. Nature creates no waste. Tourism means alienation from nature even if it means appreciation.

The case for re-habitation was also covered – something of a local touch-point with wild boar having been reintroduced into my local area (the  Forest of Dean) but with mixed opinion flying around in the local rags. For my part it made sense that anything that, as Herbie phrased it,  ‘reinstates the natural un-interfered environment’ is a logical position, but how far do we push that position? All the way until our eco-fundamentalism becomes dangerous? Let’s say it is about the reintroduction of wolves (which I recall is happening in parts of France), and there are a couple attacks on dogs or children, for example – is that too far? Or is that merely man’s penchant for species-ism as Peter Singer might have it? (Incidentally, Singer wasn’t even mentioned, which surprised me as I have heard many a commentator (from Einstein onwards) suggest that vegetarianism is one of the most effective means of mitigating some of the unravelling environmental disaster we’re idly witnessing).

Thoreau, however, was of course mentioned, but my memory has it that while his intentions and articulations were all well and good, even Henry David himself only spent two years at Walden. Out of this arose the disquieting thought: are we actually capable of the environmental breakthrough eco-philosophy strives for?

Then came the bread-and-butter of environmentalism: un-reflected use of natural resources, from the industrial age onwards. On the other side, ‘deep ecology’ proposed a world that sees the inherent worth of all livings things. But I didn’t have the gumption to ask our speaker whether he was a vegan or not.

Nonetheless, one quote Herbie cited that I particularly admired but hadn’t heard before was E. F. Schumacher’s…

“In our victory in the battle against nature, we will find ourselves on the losing side.”

Later, and another pint of ale, and as it hadn’t come up already, I asked about the correlation of class to environmental activism. Our speaker acknowledged that much of the resistance to ecocide had come from the middle classes, but didn’t elaborate on the fact that, IMO, that’s probably a significant contributor as to why we’re unable to procure the necessary change.

Then there’s the issue of who chooses the watershed of what is acceptable exploitation of nature? Is it the philosophers, scientists and ecologists; or is it the people; perhaps it is our government, or is it nature herself? The evening was beginning to sound a bit pedagogical: the ill-informed and self-serving ignorants needed to be taught a lesson, for their own good. Some believed that nature would do this herself, as she has with famine some have contended, but others saw this as the need to reflect and reconnect.

Most of all, as a Marxist, I was underwhelmed that the greatest iceberg in this Titanic dilemma was clearly capitalism. But Herbie argued that actually the problem was merely a certain type of affluence; unfettered materialism. Again, who chooses the watershed?

Most disappointing was an interesting aside as we stumbled into George Monbiot’s recent acceptance of nuclear power.

Prof. Giradet told us that he used to be good friends with George (someone who I admire much, though I have yet to be convinced of his support for nuclear power), but that the nuclear stance was just ‘too much’.

‘Why?’ We asked.

‘Well, George likes the sound of his own voice.  And his position is so far from where it was two or three years ago.’

Ouch.

Suddenly we seemed to be missing a big chunk of wisdom. There was a massive hole in the room which we normally fill with philosophy. I left disappointed.

Perhaps Herbie is an eco-fundamentalist after all.

But this might just be one position that no matter how fundamental, is in our own interest.

Perhaps eco-fundamentalism is the only valid fundamentalism.

After all, you can’t get more fundamental than the all-omnipotent and all-ecompossassing nature of  nature herself. She is in the stars, and our neurons, our hearts and amoebas.

 

{the next meeting of the Tintern Philosophy Circle is on 15th may at 7.30pm. We are a pub philosophy circle group, and all are welcome for only £2. Prof. John Clarke will be leading the next session with a talk entitled “Philosophy AFTER post-modernism”}

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I am not a fan of sci-fi: never have been and probably never will be. Or so I thought.

Like every other boy of the 1970’s I loved love ‘Star Wars’ but it wasn’t until the early 80’s with the BBC’s adaptation of ‘The Day of theTriffids’, and then ‘Threads’ did a certain breed sci-fi come to affect my whole outlook on life. Frankly, at the time I thought we were doomed. Borne of these are the beginnings of a political awakening that took another decade to bear fruit.

Both were imaginings of terrible fictions. ‘Threads’ seemed all too real and hypothesized nuclear Armageddon, whereas the BBC’s updating of the John Wyndham’s novel presented a different side to social destruction –giant, man-killing plant aliens. The genre was known as post-apocalyptic, and is an awkward addendum to sci-fi genre. They were fictions based on supposedly scientific possibilities. Indeed, ‘Threads’ was the first mass understanding of the nuclear winter hypothesis which was a debate still raging at the time – making even surviving a nuclear holocaust so terrible as to warrant questioning the point of living.

But I was slightly too young to remember the silent killer at work in the BBC’s 1970’s post-apocalyptic series ‘Survivors’.

This time it was an invisible means of destruction: disease. Watching the 70’s series on DVD today, I can see now that had I been just a bit older when it aired, it would have marked me as indelibly as ‘Threads’ would later in the 80’s.

Written by TV sci-fi supremo Terry Nation (who also gave us Blake’s 7 and many a Dr. Who storyline) it supposes the very real threat of a deadly epidemic and the social decay and terrible anarchy that arises out of the entire destruction of the state. These are topics I have written about before in The Clarion with my review of ‘The Death of Grass’ (by John Christopher) and to a degree in my explorations of modern utopian writing (all share communes and different social codes among their defining features). Nation, however, was at pains to distance his new series from his sci-fi work stating that “Survivors has its roots in the future, as it were, but it’s not science-fiction. It’s not going into the realms of the impossible; it’s skating very close to the possible,” which I guess is why the series still holds my interest, despite Nation’s other portfolio.

Indeed, the Radio Times write-up for ‘Survivors’ (it was shown on BBC1 over 3 series from 1975) cites a line from the show which sums up perfectly its preoccupation: “Incredible, isn’t it? We are of the generation that landed a man on the moon and the best we can do is talk of making tools from stone.

‘Survivors’ is at its best when it questions our assumptions about how stable our society really is. How civil we might truly be under great duress, and what happens when we peel away the froth of our consumerist lives? It pokes around in moral dilemmas not usually broadcast in BBC dramas at 8pm on a Wednesday night. Today or in the 70’s.

Jenny, Abby & Greg (L to R). The face Jenny is pulling is because they've just found the body of a man hanged for looting a supermarket.

Lucy Fleming is the likeable constant, but where as heroine ofseries one (Carolyn Seymour as Abby Grant) is admirably driven she remains fairly impenetrable and one dimensional. What is to be commended, particularly for the age – as this still happens too infrequently today – is that the producers accepted a female as the lead character in what was on the face of it an adventure series. Granted, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was also around at the same time, but they were impeccably hair-sprayed icons drawn by men of what women heroes ought to be like (and with a male for their boss, no less). Even ‘Wonderwoman’ was busty and pouted silky lip-gloss. By contrast Abby Grant crops her hair as she sets out on the road into a post-apocalyptic British countryside, her dead husband sprayed across the lounge sofa.

The camera follows Abby in what could easily have turned outto be classic Twilight Zone territory (“Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one.”) only to reveal to the audience the parallel story of Jenny Richards (Fleming) and then separately again the incredibly annoying Jackanory-esque tramp-comes-good storyline of Tom Price (played in a ridiculously Dickensian turn by Talfryn Thomas). But once modern viewers adjust their grins at the tragic fashion and 70’s BBC acting, the strength of the stories and other characters comes to the fore.

My favourite, for example is that of super-bitch Anne Tranter and Vic who she leaves for dead in a quarry once she realises he cannot supply her with riches now that he’s tragically crippled by an accident. Then there’s the poetic child-killer in series two and capital punishment episode in series one, both of which feel like Amnesty International had a hand in the writing.

Of course, one of the recurring themes is the nature of community and the role of leadership, be it within our ragtag group or across the other surviving communities and bandits the characters stumble across. Alongside this is the pressure that “Our civilisation had the technology to land a man on the moon, but as individuals we don’t even have the skill to makean iron spearhead”. The realisation that scavenging will only last so long comes to the fore and without a sign of a state forming any time soon, there’sa quick return to self-sufficient agriculture, with all its pitfalls and trials. This is not ‘The Good Life’.

Upon completing production of the pilot episode, contracts were drawn up in January 1974 and the show commissioned around the theme: ‘Bubonic plagues sweeps the world, killing all but a handful of people who escape to the country with absolutely nothing and who start civilisation again from scratch.’ But the response to Nation’s series was mixed.

The Times was expecting classic sci-fi in the Dr. Who mould from Nation and was therefore rightly disappointed. The Guardian for its part was just underwhelmed (‘a perfectly passable pastime’). The Daily Mail, however,got it on the nail when it compared its greatest strength to HG Wells’ War ofthe Worlds in which ‘extraordinary events are set in actual, small-scale landscapes’ – which is why the work reminded me of ‘The Death of Grass’ (and toa degree, John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’) – all of which seem set in a comfy version of the British countryside which we’ve come to love through thelikes of Betjemen, the Hovis ad or ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. And that is why so much of it is so simple yet effective.

Some of this is owed to the ‘feel’ of the work. While the opening title theme is infectious (ahem) and the titles sequence explains all we need to know about the origin and spread of the disease, it is interesting to note that it wasn’t a clever directorial instruction to omit incidental music, but a BBC strike, which lead to a very tight production schedule and hence no budget or time for music. This probably inadvertently adds much to the silence of dead Britain. It obviously works, because there’s still no incidental music by the end of the final third series.

It is also with some interest then that I discovered that much of the farm the group settles in during series two is not far from Monmouth. In fact, there’s quite a local link. Series one saw shoots in Evesham, the Pitville Circus in Cheltenham, various locations around Ross-on-Wye, Llanarth Court in Monmouth but was mostly shot in Herefordshire’s Hampton Court. By series two Callow Hill Farm near Monmouth came the setting for the fixed commune.

Alan W. Turner’s biography of Nation lays the departure of the shows’ creator to a split with co-writer Jack Ronder. The two had differences over the series’ direction and once Nation had also fallen out with the producer, Nation withdrew from his own project altogether. Besides, by this point Brian Clemens, who Nation had worked with on shows like ‘The Avengers’, filed court proceedings stipulating ‘Survivors’ was his idea in the first place’. The project seemed diseased on every level.

Somehow it survived. A second series was commissioned and Nation penned a novelisation of his version of the story – now a collectors’ item. For TV, Series two (1976) sees the departure of Abby Grant and a change of setting and I think it is all the better for it. It does suffer from the problem in TV series where one remarkable thing has to happen after another for fear of losing audience interest (but that could also be said of ‘The Archers’, albeit on a slightly smaller scale and perhaps less deadly). This sadly misses the point, of course, that ordinary post-apocalyptic life had itself WAS extraordinary to us viewers watching from the lap of technological luxury and leisure.

Series three took the show to its conclusion (1977). It still had the essence of what Turner commented was Nation’s premise, a “western, the struggle against nature and the attempt to establish a morality in a lawless land.” But now it was more about adventure than character and smaller domestic struggles. The search for engineer Greg Preston becomes more than annoying and dampens the effect of the ‘Survivors’ as a whole.

Of course ‘Survivors’ received the inevitable modern BBC remake. And like many updates it revels in sensation, where remarkable things have to so exciting and bombastic as to be inane. Zombie-apocalypse movie and video games are now ten a penny and with them, the danger of something as benign as a disease just doesn’t cut it anymore.

In many ways, however, the real world is more frightening. Remember BSE, driving past foot-and-mouths bonfires, bird-flu? And the impending influenza epidemic we’re due?

Yes, ‘Survivors’ is old-fashioned. But it is a unique piece of British TV history, trapped in time in this vast DVD box set.

SOURCES: ‘Survivors’ the complete series on DVD; ‘The ManWho Invented the Daleks: the strange worlds of Terry Nation’ by A. W. Turner(Aurum Press, 2011); http://survivors-mad-dog.org.uk/

Another month, another philosophy circle meet. This time it was Prof. Ray Billington on the ‘Philosophy of Ought’.

His evening of ale, anecdote and debate focused less on logic and meta-ethics and more on the moral implications of the word. He offered 3 differing definitions of ‘ought’.

Firstly, ‘ought’ as the expression of expectation based on experience (derived from probability and suitability).

Secondly there was what one ought to do in terms of conduct, that is, a qualitative instruction normally offered in one’s interest, probably with the expectation of a positive outcome. This last definitive runs into the third, with ‘ought’ being a moral obligation inherited from some authority.

The latter begs the question from where does this moral obligation arise? On what authority is ‘ought’ assigned?

As usual God came up a lot. I guess that’s omnipotence in action. But as an atheist/agnostic, I put that aside, rejecting the very idea of a supernatural moral authority as a premise worthy of pursuit. There was, however, an interesting segment on whether one could logically arise ‘ought’ out of an ‘is’. For example: Jesus IS perfect and we therefore ‘ought’ to follow his example. Why? Or, just because God is our creator does not necessarily mean we ‘ought’ to follow his bidding.

No, ought, to me and a few other Darwinians (we shall call them, heathens they shall call us) in the room saw ‘ought’ as a manufactured expression of compulsion. It is an idea of what the self feels compelled by or what we feel should compel others.

I offered the example that although we could not know, it is highly unlikely that animals have a concept of ‘ought’, even those that are comparatively complex and intelligent, such as apes.  This would therefore show that is probably only something that we exhibit out of our own creation. As highly sophisticated animals, we have created the idea of ‘ought’ but it does not mean that ‘ought’ exists, in terms of a moral obligation. I felt pretty much the same about ‘time’ last month.

I used the brain in the vat example. Dave – our brain in the vat – wakes up each morning and says ‘Blimey, I really ought to do 50 push-ups each morning.’ Here we see the idea of the compulsion, but the inability for Dave to actually achieve it. But this makes the idea of what Dave ought to do no less compelling.

Some offered that ‘ought’ requires a capability and goal. That’s fine, but it is still only the expression of a compulsion, and – like most expressions – once the context of a self among many selves is added, the expression of the desire and ability to achieve it will differ from person to person to end up so internalised in one’s own reality as to be virtually meaningless.

Ayer says this kind of ‘ought’ all comes down to personal interest. And this is where the assertion of ‘ought’ might be, we Darwinians felt, a hang-over from our compulsion to merely survive. As usual, there was a rumble of discontent amongst our number and crass remarks about Richard Dawkins’ ‘Selfish Gene’, which he himself declared dissatisfaction with (as a title) in his Introduction to Robert Axelrod’s ‘The Evolution of Co-Operation’, which I still haven’t read – I guess I really ought to…

Anyway, IMO the issue came down to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Again. This is an expression of what drives man. The base needs are those required of survival: food, water, shelter etc. and as society becomes more advanced and affluent, we have the liberty of time and actualisation of self to start considering.  Historically, ‘ought’ may well have been tied up first with obligation to the group or clan, a higher need that pure self-survival, but this can still be interpreted as part of the wider survival mechanism.

Then, as man becomes more complex and starts on this thing we call civilisation we move up the needs chart to actualise abstract ideas based on our reflection of self and wider (society). Or, in social systems, the conduct inherited through the system itself.

With a nod to Ockham, this explains the misinterpreting of the compulsion quite well without having to magic-up a supernatural (or otherwise) higher authority on whose bidding we ought to follow. Don’t over-complicate things – the simplest answer is probably the most likely. If unpalatable as the Richard Dawkins’-bashers misunderstood.

My question to Ray was: ‘Who do we betray most if we ignore what we ought to do – the idea of ought or our free will?’

I never got a satisfactory answer (why would I possibly expect one from a Professor of Philosophy?) and as soon as we had thrown free will into the mix there was no discerning whether ‘ought’ fed into free will or arises in spite of it. At one point, however, someone from the floor reminded us that it was Kant who said (something like) ‘because we have a sense of ought, we have free will’. I am not sure I have enough understanding of his intensions here, but it does suggest that ‘ought’ feeds into free will and that Kant accepts ‘ought’ as an idea.

Trying to understand a moral meaning of ‘ought’ was, to me, as futile an exercise as asking ‘what is good?’ No wonder utilitarianism came into discussion at one point.  And the question of whether ought can arise from an IS, presupposes that ‘ought’ is itself a valid moral construct, which I cannot see it is. As Mark pointed out it is probably nothing more than a neurotic dilemma.

Oh, and just to be clear, I accept but am not entirely satisfied with the clumsy use of ought which can be used to express an expectation of the outcome of some test, as witnessed by some earlier evidence. But this is just a fuzzy version of IF / THEN logic. With morality being amongst the most fuzzy things in philosophy and, indeed, life – ‘ought’ of that kind belongs, IMO, in the dustbin marked ‘words surplus to requirement’.

Debate over. Now we really ought to move on to something else…

The next meet is our annual garden party, with the next regular meeting at 27th September with Prof. John Clarke talking on Bertrand Russell and Francis Bacon, both of whom have a link with Tintern (with Russell being born just up the road) and thus the talk/meet will form part of the Tintern Festival. Meetings kick off at 7.30pm and normally take place in the Rose & Crown pub, in Tintern.

by Magnus Mills

This remarkable novel deals with the love of labour. And it does so uniquely. Imagine William Morris writing Emmerdale, all wrapped up in with a Wickerman touch of paranoia.

All Quiet on the Orient Express takes as its main theme the efforts of one man seeking to employ himself creatively in spite his newly borne freedom. In this sense it is an existential work but in an incredibly banal yet paradoxically readable way. Apparently on his way to travel to India, our protagonist is diverted by one and then another job for Mr. Parker, owner of the campsite he happened to be staying on come end of season. The endlessness of the chores recall Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, but this is a thoroughly English book and it is as interested in the value of work as it is in the absurdist, Kafkaesque situation.

In some senses the novel is a frank piece of rather old-fashioned social realism – imagine kitchen sink transposed to the twisty lanes and farmyard fronts of the Lake District a la Postman Pat or Whistle Down the Wind. But there’s a twist to this texture where on the surface of things nothing much happens at all. For example, one of the most dramatic moments is when our quiet antihero is painting a gate and a visiting milkman accidently knocks it over spilling its contents all over the roadway. He makes the best he can of a bad job by turning the splodge spillage into a green square and that’s just what this book is about: the struggle to be creative in one’s work despite the attempts (deliberate or otherwise) to disrupt the quiet peace of crafting an end-product. And, from a narrative perspective, the incident is an important one.

The mystery of local folk, especially Bryan in his cardboard crown and the various sidelines of Mr. Parker are both captivating, and the characterisation excellent.

The feel of its setting – the Lake District and, most notably its pubs – and of local, rural Britain is pervasive and, I’m sure for any British socialist, the book is contagious in its depiction of the leisure found in creative labour or being at rest while at work, as well as being at true rest (boat-rowing on the lakes or evenings at a warm pub playing darts with plenty of Topham’s Ex on tap).

On the other hand, the noise of interpersonal relationships and common misunderstandings disrupt this pleasure. Indeed, the coy politeness of our protagonist is the reason why he takes on so many tasks of which hold scant personal gain and it is this that often sees him exploited. These are things that spoil the beauty of the realm of physical, creative work. It is the labour itself that rewards the worker with a reduction of his world, personality and anxieties, no its capital value. It’s like gardening – the people’s art; a love of life through labour.

Interestingly, it wasn’t Marx, Morris nor Engels but a Cistercian Abbot (Andre Louf) who once wrote ‘We must work with some material substance that resists us, and against which we have to pit ourselves to reshape it.’ [1] Just as Magnus Mills has crafted a book of deceptively simple words and slender paragraphs, our protagonist labours before us fashioning a work of brilliant social realism, deadpan humour and life-enriching fiction. Indeed, I immediately sought out more Mills, which is as a reader has to be the best kind of recommendation.

[1 cited in Tobias Jones’ ‘Utopian Dreams’ (Faber & Faber, 2007)]

There is an argument that faith teaches us to be virtuous. But this presupposes that faith is the only means capable of us acquiring virtue. I don’t think that is at all true.

But does true virtue transcend motive? Can we be virtuous without some kind of motivation, or gain?

For example, without the motivation of organized religion, would those same people be able to be as virtuous without that motivation? In fact, would it be more virtuous entirely because it is divorced of the motivation of organized faith? Could we have stopped on this discourse with Socrates and his proposition that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’?

And then, can non-sentient beings be virtuous?

Is being virtuous a unique part of the civilization of man? Perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps wild animals know not of immoral cruelty, for example, but exist in natural virtuousness. That perhaps it is civilization, in fact, which has given some men the motive and means not to be innately virtuous: we have un-learned natural virtuosity.

Of course, nature can be naturally cruel, natural selection demonstrates this well, but it does so outside the context of virtuosity. Is being virtuous a man-made construct, then? The likelihood looks compelling.


One of the challenges to a moral existence – that is, to live ethically, truthfully and contentedly – is to civilise the natural brute that lies within us.

But does this mean quashing all original thought (the first thought, gut reaction) with reason?

If so, this suggests that early man was never capable of loving wisdom, just as animals are not.


This, then, puts philosophy as an unnatural phenomenon. Which is probably the basis for early belief systems, as a means of comprehending the world without reason.

But to be unnatural is not, in itself, inherently a negative thing. This begs the questions where did this ranking come from? Why does the natural tend to be considered better than the unnatural?

By extension if, having not adapted their nature – either for or against nature – are amoral monkeys actually more moral than man?

Although John Christopher is popularly known as the man who brought us ‘The Tripods’, this seminal 1956 work in the cannon of apocalyptic fiction needs to be disassociated with the authors sci-fi credentials, deserving a much wider audience. Just as the William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ offered a grotesque analysis of the potential of cruelty of humanity, so ‘The Death of Grass’ offer us a taste of how civilisation can quickly crumble. And with it, all that makes up society.

The premise of the book is one now familiar with anyone who considered the possibilities of swine flu, BSE, foot and mouth, aids or avian bird flu. In fact, in 1999, a form of stem rust appeared in African crops which quickly became an epidemic spreading from Africa to Asia and the Middle East and destroying a large amount of cereal crop with it.

Anyway, take bird or swine flu – here is a direct correlation to Christopher’s terrible prognosis just as ‘Threads’ posed the interconnectedness of things – Christopher sees a rampant disease among grasses as the first domino which sets the path to the destruction of modern civilisation.

Things start as a distant rumble, in China. But soon the BBC news reports that the rioting for food (rice and wheat or barley make up the genus that is in the family of grasses) begins to spread Westwards through India and then into Eastern Europe. The Western world begins charitably – sending supplies, but soon the mass begin to question this policy as scientists fail to find a way to stop the virus from spreading.

John Custance – our protagonist – and his family make an early break for his farmer-brothers Lake District valley farm, where he too has been watching the virus intently and switched to planting only root vegetables. They escape just as London is sealed off by the Army. However, things turn quickly nasty at roadblocks or the roads to villages, now arming themselves defensively against the masses rioting in the cities. I guess this does sound far-fetched but Christopher reads like John Wyndham: characteristically British and reserved – both in content and style. And it is that British reservation which increases the terrible frankness of murder, rape, looting – the juxtaposition of the English countryside with its dead grass but profoundly ordinary provincial setting that makes it such haunting reading.

Although I found the opening annoying (there’s a poorly written segment where he said / she said / he said / someone said comes over as rather amateurish – it’s as if Christopher struggles with openings), once the pace quickens, so does the fluidity of the writing and I’m certain most readers will become compelled by the protagonists struggle for survival in a speedily crumbling world. Penguin reissued the novel under its Modern Classics banner – so it’s claims on our time as readers comes with good recommendation.

The Death of Grass’ does the social decay and lawlessness of an holocaust at least as well as the leading examples of apocalyptic film – ‘Threads’ or ‘The War Game’. As such it is chilling warning of how fragile our world might actually be.

{book review}: It is easy to regard as cheats authors who justify their observations and arguments by serially quoting those of other great thinkers in their work.

Certainly, Tobias Jones’ own observations fail to compare with the likes of, for example, Mill or Milton of whom he quotes more than once. Indeed, for his part Jones remains little more than a journalistic observer, although to be fair he doesn’t set himself up as anything more even if he does promise to fully embed himself within the communities he and his fledgling family temporarily immerse. Putting aside my doubt over Jones’ own calibre as an original thinker there is, nonetheless, still some net gain to be had from his choice of quotations and concepts. What does it matter that we didn’t obtain such learning directly? Isn’t that the purpose of non-fiction: to observe remarkable things – not necessarily new things – and communicate these to us clearly within the context of a coherent theme? So, I chose to forgive Jones these initial misgivings.

Unfortunately, considering Jones the writer I was more than occasionally bored by his text. Even more so by his rather formulaic structure. Each chapter of ‘Utopian Dreams’ considers a different community and then as one progresses, quickly we see chapter upon chapter taking a familiar pattern: i) introduce a community through its idiosyncrasies, ii) delve a little into its past, its attitudes and aims, and then iii) deconstruct it through concepts like freedom, the value of work, or the very nature of what a community is or can be. Then finally, iv) move on to the next community in vain hope of addressing this new-found lacking, and in doing so regard the former community with a slight yet condescending derision.

Nonetheless the notion itself is highly compelling and fortunately each chapter doesn’t linger and nor does Jones.  For our attention we get to see and learn a little about an Italian new-age retreat which even has its own recognised currency (Damanhur); a Quaker retirement Community (Hartrigg Oaks) and its proximity to the Rowntree Trust; a monastery in the Nomadelfia and a place for social rehabilitation in Pilsdon.

Regrettably – as a secularist and socialist – I found little hope in the communities on offer inasmuch most appeared based on faith of one kind or another. Even with my respect for Quakerism and each community’s liberal attitudes towards education and communalism per se, Jones presents the case that all were founded on some form of supernatural core (and that includes the New Age). This is a disappointing but unconvincing conclusion: I simply don’t believe it to be true that a successful community needs faith at its core. It may be a characteristic of those communities Jones visits, but I don’t believe communalism as a concept and way of living has this as an absolute requirement.

Jones himself alludes to secular leanings, but I think he’s got doubts and is himself searching for a belonging of one kind or another. While he explores the role of faith to his somewhat unconvincing degree, he can’t deny his choice of communities speaks volumes in itself. At one point he even misunderstands or misrepresents the concern of Richard Dawkins on the subject of devoutly religious communities (p.203), as opposed to communities per se and that is either just too sloppy or suspiciously convenient for me.

Mr. Jones is at his best when considering existential issues like freedom. It might seem a logical place to start being such a fundamental principle for breakaway communities looking to escape the clutches of the state and big business, and as such one might expect it to be the theme of Chapter One, but actually it only appears in chapter 4 (of 6).

Freedom is the paradox of communalism. It offers freedom from the established norms of post modern society – a breakaway of the strangle-hold of modernity and social decay writ large, but at the same time communalism requires that we deny ourselves some personal freedoms in order to live amongst and with one another (to varying degrees depending on the nature and structure of the community). Indeed, it is building communities that we set out to purposely challenge, to the benefit of mutual cooperation, unfettered freedom and its modern byword: choice.

Here is Jones on this individual freedom versus community paradox: “Logically, they are opposites. Community is a place…where you take chunks out of your individuality in return for a place where you fit in. You sacrifice personality but get belonging. But a true community, they said echoing Weber, would be an iron cage. The cost of company, said everyone from the Stoics onward, is a reduction of freedom.” But if that freedom is the freedom for others to feed a shallow form of attainment through this new world of fake choices, then our current affluence is a rather depressing one.

Indeed, Jones rightly observes that creating a struggle between the two forces may itself be a fallacy; “I still thought the two could be complimentary. The trouble is that nothing is currently allowed to complement freedom. Freedom has become akin to a flag, raced up the pole to test our loyalty to it. Freedom has become one of those words which is hoisted to end all debate.” citing the US military operation entitled ‘Enduring Freedom’ as a poignantly trite example. The point is further qualified by his quoting Chesterton: “Most modern freedom is at root fear…It’s not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.”

Jones admits his work is a journal-like foray into shared communities which takes accident and reactive pondering as its guide rather than any structured approach. I’m not entirely convinced this is of benefit to the work and would even have preferred a more academic text. Indeed, I suggested to the popular philosopher and author Alain de Botton that he instead take up the challenge, recommending ‘Utopian Dreams’ as a signpost: de Botton, I’m sure, would really get underneath the rock Jones alludes to – but only de Botton would eloquently examine the grubs and shoots that really lie beneath. Alain replied saying he’d ordered the book off Amazon, so we’ll see.  Alain’s already published on work (‘The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work’) and what’s now called affluenza (‘Status Anxiety’) so the idea of communalism could offer a solution to both those anxieties.

Certainly, it is my opinion that utopian views of the world are welcome in a time lacking ideology. And what is a utopia other than an idea or a set of visualised hopes shared and brought to life through living in a certain shape of society? A statement that ‘we can do better than this – and here’s how’. Jones’s most consistent and attractive offering for a Utopian dream is, aside from those theistic allusions, to live more simply and to do so alongside one another instead of in spite of each other.

Jones – rightly in my mind – is repulsed by our post-modern consumerist society; it’s his reason’ d’être for the entire project…

‘Our society now bears all the scars of decades of failure to teach those gentle virtues of gratitude and obligation. In an ideal community, the onus for you to take responsibility for other people is borne out of a thankfulness that someone, here, has taken responsibility for you. It’s symbiotic, joyous almost, because your relationship is based on love. In contemporary Western society, however, the instinctive mood is vindictiveness born out of years of being told one is a victim. Complaint becomes knee-jerk, litigation second nature. We can be spiteful to people because we’ll probably never see them again.’

And yet this is the very world to which he returns at the end of his ‘search for a good life’. How thoroughly depressing.

A zillion trees;
some of them dead
and some of them touching one another
looking at the dead.

by Karlos the Unhappy Jackyl