‘Many people are just awakening to the inexorable destruction which present production trends imply for the environment.’ If it sounds like an editorial from last week’s Guardian, think again. It was in fact written by one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century, Ivan Illich. And he wrote it in 1970, in his book Deschooling Society. That’s 37 years ago.
Reading Illich’s words makes me feel uneasy. It seems people have been issuing warnings about pollution, over-consumption of oil, impending environmental catastrophe and all the rest of it for decades. I reflect: if Illich and other forward-thinkers like E. F. Schumacher, like self-sufficiency guru John Seymour and indeed the organic gardener Lawrence D. Hills were all saying this stuff in the 1970s, what hope is there for us today? Surely things have grown much worse since then? On Sunday, for example, I very nearly found myself in our local Tesco – horror! – as we were trying to find a copy of The Beano for my son. We took one look at the traffic jams in the car park and mercifully turned around. There were also giant queues at the Tesco’s petrol station. Everywhere – on a Sunday – cars were dutifully streaming into the supermarket, like ants towards the nest.
If you go back further, you will find that similar sorts of warnings were being issued by William Cobbett in the 1820s, William Morris in the 1890s and D. H. Lawrence in the 1920s, among many, many others. But still the machine keeps turning and we suckers slurp its poisonous and debilitating milk. It seems that we are shopping and spending more than ever. People hurl themselves at the temples of consumerism; they undergo absurd discomforts in order to unload money they've not yet earned into the pockets of supermarket shareholders. Sheer insanity!
We know what the answer is: simply, it is to stop. Stop consuming. Stop bustling around with our silly self-importance. Stop moaning. Stop interfering. Stop working. Stop believing. We need to recreate our lives and become dynamic participants and creators, rather than passive consumers. That’s obvious. The ‘Thing’, however, as William Cobbett called it, seems to grow more powerful by the day. It seems the warnings of the great thinkers of the past and of today are going unheeded.
I think one problem is that people in the so-called ecological movement make a big mistake when they try to deal with governments and big business. I wince when I read of a Green campaigner still recommending an absurd technique such as writing to your MP, or talking about how new laws need to be introduced to save the planet. And sweet Jamie Oliver seems to believe he can make Sainsbury’s change its ways. But government and big business by their very nature – government likes doing things; big business likes making more money – are unecological and anti-life. Their very structures are wasteful and environmentally damaging. So by talking to big business and government you feed the system and nourish it; you give it air. Therefore instead of petitioning big business and government to change their ways, they are best ignored. Instead you have to set up new ways of doing things alongside the existing ones.
Some people I meet in the ecological movement could just as easily be in orthodox politics. They think they are right and want to impose their ideas on other people. They are terribly busy and rushed. As philosopher Raoul Vaneigem warns, however: ‘All ideologies are totalitarian’. Pigs turn into men. Today’s saviour is tomorrow’s Lenin or Cromwell. Some days, things look gloomy. Despite the warnings of the prophets, millions of us are still shopping hard. Of the few who resist, many appear to be working with the enemy. On other days, though, you read about a community orchard or can be strangely cheered by the success of Jamie Oliver’s new book on the good life. Finally, whether or not things change on a wider scale, you know you are living your own life well, and that is surely the first step.
Tom Hodgkinson is the Editor of The Idler and the author of the book How to be Free (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99).
This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2007