The second great ecological collapse in Britain saw an end to the stone circle culture
Humanity has already had four major ecological collapses: how can we avoid a fifth?
27th February, 2012
Theologian Martin Palmer tells Tom Levitt how we can learn from previous man-made ecological collapses in Britain and create a 'new narrative' that challenges our dominant consumer culture
In your book you talk quite a lot about the devastating impact humans have on the natural world. Do you think that humans can live sustainably?
Throughout most of recorded history we have actually managed to have a balanced relationship with nature. What happens though is that we become more and more grandiose, for example building vast complexes like Stonehenge and destroying every other stone circle for 150 miles around it. We centralise our power and push ourselves and we push nature beyond a sustainable model. In other words, we exhaust the soil, we cut down most of the forests, we put pollute much of the air and the water and we become dependent on such extended trade routes that even the most minor ecological change actually destroys our ability to function because we become dependent on a lifestyle that is supported by grandioseness and no longer a simple relationship with nature.
The third collapse was the end of the Roman Empire. During the height of the Roman Empire, in the second century AD to the fifth century AD, we were pumping out as much air pollution as we were in the mid Victorian periods. This was a monumentally industrial culture. By the 4th century AD, there were just three major agricultural organisations throughout the Roman Empire. They owned basically 98 per cent of the farmland and they ran it as ruthlessly as any multinational today. And they exploited the land, they exhausted the land. The Roman Empire collapsed because it could no longer feed the troops, and if you can't feed the troops, you can't protect the cities, and if you can't protect the cities, then everything falls apart. So that was very much a man made disaster: bad agricultural policy, industrialisation, the demolition of most of the forests, and soil erosion.
One of the trends that most alarms me about contemporary thinking, say within the United Nations, is this drive to speed up the movement of people from the countryside into the cities so that you can industrialise the countryside. If you've got the people in the cities, the theory goes that it's much easier to supply them with food, warmth and energy, and you industrialise nature.
But cities live off the countryside, not the other way round. Think of all the great disaster movies: they're right. What will happen in a crisis is everybody will try and escape to the countryside. We are almost wired to relate survival and sustainability with not being in cities. Building the mega-cities where you rely upon transport to get you 30 miles from your suburb into the middle of Shanghai, or where you rely on airplanes bringing you orange juice from Kenya into central London, nice, but not sustainable. It's so fragile, we saw that with the Volcanic ash incident two years ago, in one week we had people in complete panic.
If you get a collapse in nature, and the only communities you've got are huge and entirely reliant upon a tiny group of workers to provide food, clean water and energy, if those groups are affected, if there is a collapse, if you can no longer transport food, no longer grow the food, if the soil is eroded, if the Sun's gone because of volcanic ash or even our own activities and disasters, then those communities have no ability to actually eat anything on the land. And if you look at all the great collapses of civilisations, it's the cities that go first. There was a very famous statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Second World War, William Temple, and I think it sums it up, 'we are only 3 meals away from anarchy.' if you're heading towards your third missed meal and there's nothing in the local Tesco express, what do you do?
I think we've got to start shifting the discussion away from 'what can we do to survive?' to 'what can we do to ensure that nature survives, and therefore, we survive?' I think we have to remember we are a wondering species, we are the ones that gaze the stars and wonder who the hell we are, we are the ones who sit by the sea and look at the infinity of the sea disappearing into the horizon and see that as a metaphor for our own lives. And at the moment we purely become concerned with nature as something that sustains us, rather than feeds us spiritually, psychologically and emotionally, I think we've lost the plot.
What have we lost as humans from our dwindling access to green space and nature?
I also think that sense of understanding the process by which food is produced, the issues that are involved, the cost, the struggle, the uncertainties, I think that's pretty important. Because otherwise we can live in this bubble where we do expect to be able to go to the corner shop or Sainsbury's or wherever it is, and find and buy whatever we want. If we understood how fragile that chain from the field or the forest or the sea to our dishes is, I think we would demand a lot more of our political leaders and economic leaders and we would demand a great deal more of ourselves in respect to our food and our resources.
How long do you give humans on earth? And also Earth itself, if you don't consider those two things separate?
Well, I mean, one of the things that I believe as a Christian is that the world has not been created for human beings. And that, frankly, if we as a species die out, I don't think that God is going to be, 'Well that was a complete waste of time, wasn't it?', because we've seen species come and go. I always think about the trilobite, one of the most successful species on the planet, went on living something like 240 million years and then dies out. And it was immensely successful, it evolved into all kinds of shapes, it covered the planet and then it disappears from the fossil record about 140 million years ago.
So do you think human existence is actually already collapsing?
I think we are very close to it. But in every single community I see people who are re-building what has been destroyed. And one of the wonderful things about nature is it's immense powers for recovery. I've just been to Detroit, a third of the city is now agricultural, well is now wasteland, or agricultural land. That land is growing perfectly good food and the houses have gone because of the collapse of the motor industry, nature is quite capable of restoring itself, but I think we are very close to intellectually and conceptually collapsing. I suppose my point has always been that each of the stories that we have lived in, whenever we lost, whenever we were unable to change the story in time to stop the collapse or respond, we went into a period of intellectual and conceptual chaos. I think the challenge is, can we think our way out of this?
We are a narrative species. And when our collapses happen, they happen because we no longer believe the story we used to live in. It can take us up to 2 or 3 hundred years to come up with a new story. The challenge now, is can we create a new narrative? Because we're not going to be narrated out of this by facts and figures, I have no idea what 350 degrees or whatever it is is in climate change, I have no idea. I can't see it, I can't measure it, I can't conceive it, and yet the environmental movement support millions into trying to persuade people to sign up to the 350 movement or whatever it is. Tell a story, for God's sake! Tell a story about a community that's actually dying out because they can no longer farm the land because there's no water. Tell stories, narrate our way out of this. And not just by telling us about the disasters, but by reminding us about being part of nature, not masters of the universe, that's the story that has to die. So we've got to narrate our way out of this, not financially manage our way out of this. That will come if we can tell a better story.
Do you think consumer capitalism is a story?
Yes, I think consumer capitalism is entirely a story. All you've got to think about is, 'when the going gets tough...' You know, that is probably one of the best known aphorisms whereas 100 years ago we would have had Biblical statements, you know, 'do not put your trust in princes.'
I think there are three ways. One is a huge disaster; churches, mosques, temples are always overflowing when there's a disaster. Secondly, where actually you realise that you need to abandon one narrative because it's destroying you, it's making you not the person you want to be, and becoming another story. And I have friends who have been converted to Marxism, who have been converted to Buddhism, friends who have been converted to Christianity, their lives have been transformed. And communities can actually go through that as well. And the third one, is actually to be offered the possibility of recognising you already live in a story. And therefore, to ask of you, 'Is this really the story you want to live in?' and if it is, what about the consequences?
Until we're actually able to be honest to ourselves that the environmental movement has basically been sucked into a consumerist world view, and therefore is not terribly exciting to most people, we're going to get stuck. And that's where the Dark Mountain Project is superb. They have a superb critique of the story the environmental world is trapped in at the moment. What they lack, is that confidence, to say 'Let's tell a different overarching narrative.' And that's the next step.
Martin Palmer is co-founder of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC). His book 'Sacred Land' is published by Piatkus and available from March 1st
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