I was brought up to be critical of authority, to make my own judgements of people, organisations and systems before respecting or deferring to them. I was inclined therefore to be socialist, pacifist, environmentalist and atheist. I was a ‘joiner’ from an early age, but it was many years before I realised that the groups one could join tended to be ‘reformist’: directed at fixing problems within the systems of society rather than changing society in any radical way.
My first thirty years were spent in an uneasy limbo between living conventionally but with a feeling that all was far from well with the world.
Recently I have been sorting through boxes of ‘stuff’ which had been stowed in our garage temporarily three years ago while the loft space in our house was being made usable. Looking back over the material I’d kept, I was surprised – as one often is – by how much I had been doing and writing over the past thirty years, i.e. since I’d become radicalised. There were three phases, each a decade long, though overlapping to some extent: the first was socialist, the second permaculturist and the third Tagorean. But seeing them together, though somewhat jumbled up in those boxes of ‘stuff’, I realised that relocalisation was a thread running right through. Permacultural and Tagorean world change are obviously about relocalisation. The surprise was to find that in my socialist activism, which came first, I had already been advocating relocalisation. My career had been in information technology, and when I joined a Marxist socialist political party I became interested in what a future socialist society might be like. The party line was that we should not ‘draw up a blueprint for socialism’, but some of us felt that the party case was more persuasive if we could talk about how such a system might be organised. I was not keen on the prospect of centralised planning, with laborious committee hierarchies to bring about democratic decision making. So I saw information technology providing a utility, similar to water and electricity, which would allow people’s needs and desires and capabilities to be met and employed ‘bottom up’, as locally as possible. Such a utility is available and taken for granted nowadays, but it was not obvious that such a thing was possible in 1981, when I was writing articles and giving talks on how information systems would facilitate sharing skills and goods in a future socialist society. Would I advocate this global utility now, as part of localisation in a permaculturist or Tagorean future? I think not, partly because of the sheer scale of the thing, so one doubts if it will be sustainable. (‘Technology firms to spend $150bn on building new data centres’: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/aug/23/spending-on-data-centres-reaches-150-billion-dollars. ‘Tech giants may be huge, but nothing matches big data’: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/aug/23/tech-giants-data [27/8/13]. I even wrote a dystopian sci-fi novel based partly on a version of technical interconnectedness: Christine Marsh, The Completion (Woking: Backwater, 1995))
As I see it, the key to both the permaculture movement and Tagorean world change, which makes them different from revolutionary socialism, is the notion of transition. Transition is not the same as gradualism or reformism because the goal is radical world change. In time so-called ‘natural resources’ which we depend on now will be given up entirely. These materials, such as fossil fuels and mineral ores, are not renewable. Their use has been destructive, causing land to be degraded and people and other species to suffer. Their use is not sustainable. They will be used during the transition to prepare for a sustainable future and then left in the ground.
It concerns me that even those people and groups who are working for radical world change towards ecological and social sustainability are becoming more and more dependent on the internet, in all its guises. Yes, this utility enables us to communicate and network very easily at seemingly little cost, but this technology is not sustainable, and probably cannot be made to be sustainable. It should therefore be seen as a means to an end. One day we will give it up – perhaps last of all?