9 September 2021, West Cumbria, UK

Yesterday there were swallows – and the day before – someone I know and seen them and told us.

So, yesterday, as the sun was setting, I went to see if they were there again.

And they were – thousands, swirling over the maize field – zipping and chasing and jinking after and past each other.

In the distance they looked like swarms of midges – like the invisible things I guess they were feasting on – a fuel stop on their long migration, perhaps.*

I stood by a gate, gazing out and up – craning my neck like a tourist in Manhattan, straining my eyes to see the distant fleeting specks in the sinking light. Tuning my ears into layers of sound – high, sharp squeaks against a rustling hissing sea – more birds than I have ever heard or seen before.

And then the first of the night shift arrived – a solitary bat, flitting and twisting, up and back above the road between the high hedges. And Venus showing above the corn horizon, bright and big in the eastern sky.

Ceramic print: September

*PS Some research and revisits suggest that the birds are gathering not to feed but to roost in the maize – which is standing in for reed beds apparently. According to the RSPB: ‘Swallows migrate during daylight, flying quite low and covering about 320 km (200 miles) each day. At night they roost in huge flocks in reed-beds at traditional stopover spots.’ If you arrive at the right time you can watch them streaming in in increasing numbers, and then, if you stay long enough, only about 20 minutes, quite suddenly the sound fades and the sky empties, as if the birds have evaporated.

Deconsumption? Demonetisation?

I’m not sure ‘deconsumption’ is a word, but how about this:

Let’s stop talking about ‘sustainable [economic] growth’, stop worrying about looking after ‘the economy’ as if it is a counterweight to looking after ‘the environment’, and instead look for ways to live which respect the fact that we are just part of a living system, and acknowledge that we do not have to try and control it. Let’s find ways to re-wild ourselves – to let go of the colonial, extractivist, consumerist mind.

We have allowed the fantasy that money is the ‘bottom line’ to dominate our relations with each other and the world. People say things like ‘it’ll cost too much to make the changes you want to address the climate crisis – you have to be realistic!’ And we try to answer in their terms by pointing out it’ll cost more not to address the climate crisis. Or we call for putting a price on carbon, as if the only tool to change anything is money. But it’s only the fictional nature of money that enables the fantasy of endless ‘growth’. The fact is that however much money (=debt) the banks ‘create’, the world and its intricate systems are finite, and finely balanced. (Amusingly, the richest people in the world seem to think the answer is to colonise another dead world, using the money they have extracted from the rest of us to pay for it, and wreaking yet more destruction on our living planet in the process – infinite growth is their bottom line.)

The real bottom line is that complex human social systems (civilisations) developed during a period of climatic stability (the 11,700 years of the Holocene) and now we are quickly heading for (to us) unprecedented, probably catastrophic, change. Making a foil hat out of money won’t save us or our fellow inhabitants of Earth.

birdskull painting
Watercolour study of bird skull 2021

Some words and pictures

Ethics under neoliberalism:

Moral principles, ethical evaluation, are cast as a luxury we can’t afford, or the province of cranks and loony utopian thinking.

Why do I feel the need to apologise for imagining a better way of being? Why does systemic change feel impossible? The power of markets (i.e. the power of money) has become so naturalised that it’s barely possible to imagine overcoming it. Even the natural catastrophes predicted by climate science are somehow felt as less potent than the political and economic structures that have been built in my lifetime. ‘Individual freedom’, that cloaking device of neoliberalism, becomes a prison, whose bars are constructed by mega-corporations and increasing inequality. Freedom to put your money wherever you like, including in the hands of tame politicians, is no freedom for the unmoneyed majority, whose democratic voices are suppressed and whose social and natural environments are plundered, converted into additional income streams for the already rich.

Individualism is taken to imply that morality is a matter of personal choice, so there’s no space or need for ethical debate. Questions of what value is or what principles we as a society should live by are dismissed or swept under a rug of ‘cost-benefit analysis’. Only financial value is countable – what is unmonetised is invisible.

But counter-voices are being raised, arguing for different metrics of social value – replacing GDP with well-being and sustainability, infinite growth with circular economies (doughnut economics), challenging the assumption that self-interest and competition are the basic human condition, recognising the existence of altruism and community.

Faced with the present planetary emergencies, maybe those voices will come to prevail. Isolated individuals pursuing money in ‘free’, i.e. unregulated, competitive markets have not so far proved to be the best way to protect our ecosystem. And when catastrophes happen, it is mutuality and the gift economies of charity, sharing and collaboration, that leap to the fore.

Identifying value with monetary cost and letting economics do our moral thinking for us – these are the luxuries we can no longer afford.

Watercolour experiments:

Living is easy with eyes closed, 2nd edn – postscript

Last Saturday, 19 June, was the final day of the exhibition at Egremont. During the exhibition I was lucky to have lots of volunteers to sit for new portraits, and to have good weather so that the drawings could mostly be done in the fresh air. I used pencil, charcoal and Florence Paintmakers’ pastels, which added a particular quality and a site-specific connection, as the haematite which is used to make the Egremont Red pigment came from Florence Mine, now Florence Arts Centre. Here’s a home-made video of the exhibition before any of the new portraits had been added.

Here is a selection of the new portraits, also featuring one of the new mixed media sculptures which I made for this exhibition, ‘Noah’s Boatyard’.

‘Noah’s Boatyard’ and portrait

The open eyes of these portraits (in contrast to the original exhibition in Carlisle) reflect the hope that, even since 2019, our general awareness of the climate crisis has dramatically increased and that communities, governments, businesses and individuals are all more prepared to make the changes necessary to address the challenges we face.

Living is easy with eyes closed 2nd edition

After a bit of a hiatus, while the world was turned upside down by the pandemic, I am very happy to report that my exhibition from 2019 is soon to be reincarnated at Florence Arts Centre, Egremont, Cumbria, 22 May–19 June 2021. I’ll also be exhibiting some new work made during 2020/21.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the exhibition will look in a very different space, and perhaps with some new resonances after a year of lockdowns and social isolation.

During the exhibition, I will be on site on Saturdays (or other days by arrangement), making some new portrait drawings which I intend to add to the exhibition. I’ll be taking advantage of Florence Paintmakers’ products (https://www.florenceartscentre.com/florence-paintmakers), experimenting with the pigments they make using Egremont haematite and other local minerals.

If you would like to be a sitter, come along on a Saturday or get in touch to arrange another day (the centre is open Wednesday–Sunday, 11am–4pm).

On the last two Saturdays (12 and 19 June, 2pm-3:30pm), we are planning to hold ‘Climate Conversations’ – an opportunity to share thoughts, feelings and hopes about the climate emergency and how we can respond to it. (Numbers are limited due to Covid regulations, so please contact Florence Arts to book a place if you would like to take part.)

For info about Florence Arts, see: https://www.florenceartscentre.com/ and for info about the history of Florence Mine, see: https://www.nmrs.org.uk/mines-map/iron-mining-in-the-british-isles/cumberland-furness-iron-mines/florence-mine/

And here’s an unrelated image to end with – a recent commission featuring a Pan-Yan pickle jar.

Still life with Pan-Yan jar
Still life with Pan-Yan jar

Dichotomous thinking

‘Planet or jobs’ – BBC headline on the reconsideration of the proposed West Cumbrian Coal Mine.

We seem to love thinking in terms of opposed pairs, either/or, them or us … taken to mean you can’t have both, or that there are no third, fourth, fifth, other options. As if ‘x or y’ is the same as ‘x or not x’, the law of the excluded middle. But x and y in the real world are usually not pure negations of each other. And the ‘or’ is rarely exclusive.

In formal logic, the definition of ‘or’ is that ‘a or b’ is true if ‘a’ is true or ‘b’ is true or both:

aba or b

Which is to say that the basic logical ‘or’ is an inclusive ‘or’.

Exclusive ‘or’ is rendered in formal logic as: ‘a or b, and not both’:

(a or b) & not (a and b)

aba or ba and bNot (a and b)(a or b) & not (a and b)

If you think your dilemma amounts to ‘a or not a’ it looks exclusive, and simply true, because the options reduce to:

anot aa or not a

 And it also looks necessarily true, because ‘a or not a’ is logically true by definition of ‘or’ and ‘not’, whatever the content of ‘a’ and regardless of whether it is true or false.

But many (most?) real-world dilemmas are not a matter of logical opposites (though perhaps a budgetary approach makes us think so – you can’t spend the same money twice, you can’t have your cake and eat it, as they say). Most decisions are substantive problems where the content of ‘a’ and ‘b’ does matter, and where alternative middle roads are not necessarily excluded. So, any assumption in a policy debate that there has to be a choice between ‘a or b’ always begs the questions ‘why not both?’ and ‘why not something else?’ There may be good answers to these questions, but they require exploration of the real world and of the reasons these choices look incompatible at first glance. Unfortunately, in this divisive era, the public debates and the vox pops rarely get much beyond asserting the either/or and picking a side.

(Btw, in the case of ‘planet or jobs’, it seems pretty clear the answer must be ‘both’! There’s an awful lot of work to do to increase our chances of leaving a liveable planet for our descendants…)

To conclude, here’s a drypoint print, as a reward for getting to the bottom of a rather dry post. 🙂

Bird skull: dry point print from an engraved drawing on a cd case

Pondering individualism

The Right (have been known to) claim ‘there’s no such thing as society’. They rail against ‘political correctness gone mad’, ‘big’ government, standing up for individual freedom against ‘the nanny state’. The Left, on the other hand, assert that there is such a thing as society and that social relations, defined in terms of various group characteristics, such as class, race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, underpin social injustices – injustices which should be addressed by social/governmental interventions into the status quo. This debate is framed by the Right as one of individual freedom versus (unfair, illegitimate) state control of individual choices, which is seen as a moral justification for ‘small government’, for allowing the (presumed benign or at least neutral) ‘invisible hand’ of the free market to play out. The assumption is that the outcome of many individual free choices will be fair and justified by the transactions and arrangements freely arrived at, without imposition of social constraints. People are encouraged to see state regulation, taxation etc. as unwarranted interference in their free (and blameless) lives, for the sake of some ideology of equality. In some cases, this argument is used to justify rejection of the most minimal interferences (e.g. wearing masks in a pandemic), because any state intervention is framed as absolutely unjustifiable – individual freedom trumps public health (including the health of the individual in question).

The progressive Left are accused of having an image of a utopian future for which they are willing to sacrifice present freedoms. When they emphasise the defence of oppressed groups against discrimination, when they focus on ‘identity politics’, they seem to make group categorisations matter more than individual liberties. Their proposals of ways to mitigate inequality and social injustices based on group identity are framed by their opponents as unfair to the individuals whose actions will be restricted or whose taxes will be levied and used to pay for such interventions. And again, this framing is made absolute, and used to demonise proposed government interventions intended to benefit everyone, like environmental protections, or universal healthcare.

However, the Right’s idea of free individuals interacting in a free market is itself a romantic myth, utopian to the extent that it imagines we all find ourselves equally free to make our choices in the first place. It assumes (pretends) that the only restrictions on individuals that matter are those imposed by ‘the state’, and that without them we are all free. But this is to ignore the ways in which ‘the market’ and other social forces can benefit some more than others, so that inequalities arise which restrict the available choices of some individuals and groups. Once such inequalities of power and privilege are established, the actions of the ‘invisible hand’ will be unlikely to lead to fairness or freedom for the individuals or groups on the unlucky side of the tracks. Inequalities in social or economic capital are just as restrictive of individual freedom as are state regulations, if not more so.

The libertarian image of the free individual in a free market is one of a self-sufficient individual, who can walk away from any deal if they don’t like it, the economist’s fantasy of the perfectly informed, perfectly rational agent, playing on a level playing field, paddling their own canoe. This image leaves out the mutual dependencies we all share, however privileged we are. And it omits the effects of luck and of ignorance on our choices and their unintended outcomes. Most of us cannot make our own canoes and certainly will not have planted the trees from which we carve them.

Paddling your own canoe? (watercolour)
Paddling your own canoe?

The idea that the outcomes of free actions in a free market will be justified and fair, whatever those outcomes are, suggests that those who end up worse off have only themselves to blame – they didn’t play the game as well as the winners. But the real conditions of society and the world are not a level playing field. Rather, they form a fluctuating and uneven network of forces and ties, in which we are all embedded. ‘Winners’ are rarely if ever purely ‘self-made’, nor are ‘losers’.

(It is no coincidence that the Right tend to be opposed to environmental legislation as well as other types of regulation – the self-sufficient individuals they imagine are like pioneers, staking a claim in the wilderness and exploiting it to their own ends, assuming that this imposes no restrictions on the freedom of others. The unregulated freedom they demand presumes an infinitely available resource, an endless ‘West’ into which we can expand (or the possibility of unlimited growth, as required by much economic theory).)

Against the Right’s image of this disconnected, self-made individual, taking whatever they can get from nature regardless of the consequences, perhaps there is a more realistic vision of freedom as that of individuals in societies, which means societies with structures of mutual support, cooperation and compromise, acknowledging our dependence on each other and on the ecosystems we are part of. (One small aspect of this might be the rejection of political institutions based on adversarial, winner-takes-all electoral systems, which undermine the possibility of nuanced compromise or recognition of the legitimacy of difference, and encourage a politics based on totalising illusions like ‘the will of the people’, ‘the national interest’, ‘the public’.)

Anti-mantra (to grease the wheels of consumer-capitalism)

Keep your head down

Just got to make it to the end of the month

just got to make it to the end of the week

just got to make it to the end of the day

Keep your head down

Don’t stop

Keep your head down

Don’t stop

Don’t look up

don’t look ahead

don’t look down

don’t look

don’t wonder why

you mustn’t stop

don’t wonder what

it’s all for

don’t wonder where

it all ends

Just got to make it to the end

Keep your eyes in the boat!