Green fixes seek to reconcile economy with ecology. But the harsh truth is that many don’t add up when ripped from their contexts of honest-to-God simplicity and forced to serve industrial frenzy.
Take the proposed high-speed UK railway line for shifting domestic travel away from air. Consultants now say it would take 60 years to repay its own carbon footprint, and cost more than the defence budget. But here I am, standing at Euston, shortly to give the final talk. Earlier speakers had brilliantly analysed the dilemmas – for if the science is right what really can we do to stop global warming hitting tipping points where nature takes over?
And in my mind this weirdo sculpture is starting to hiss and spit. It’s becoming more than just a surreal locomotive, for the top is like a high-rise cityscape, and it caps an island rising sharply from the sea. The towering cliffs are disconcertingly concave, as if the city is built from resources scooped from out of its own foundations. And I know it’s crazy, but I’m feeling like Paolozzi’s Piscator is coming alive inside me. Because that’s what prophetic art does: cuts through “this thick night of darkness”, as early Quakers put it; breaks loose the shell and frees the kernel, to let the spirit seed afresh. We Quakers call it “quaking”.
I cross back over Euston Road to rejoin the conference. Folks tell me that the terrible invincibility of it all is “doing their heads in”. The economy pounds on under life support while climate change creeps in – too slow to adequately stir most voters, but scooping out life’s very foundations.
And in the depths of my being there’s this crazy rhythm starting up. I almost want to dance! I quell it. It’s then that I notice one of the delegates, a little old Quaker woman. She’s sitting in the courtyard sun. Eyes shut, she makes no effort to hide the tears that runnel down her wrinkled face, lips moving visibly in praying for the world.
My sombre restraint cracks. A mighty lever pulls, and I feel the built-up head of superheated steam surge to the pistons of Piscator. Forcing down the brakes a moment longer, I climb to my place at the podium. Then my elbows start shuffling, alternately to and fro. And I whisper through the mike in rhythm: “Chuff, chuff, chuff.”
And in a ridiculous, shuffling dance I take off down the podium steps, gathering momentum through the astonished hall of 400 delegates, going, “Chuff, chuff, chuff, chuff, whooo-hooooo, chuff, chuff, chuff” until bang. I slam into the double doors, a crumpled heap. Slowly I return back to the mike, regaining decorum.
And so, this is how it is in today’s world. The slow train crash in outer life is a spiritual crisis within. The same locomotive that drove the credit crunch also drives climate change.
But politics, economics and technology on their own are not enough. We must also tackle the roots of consumerism, consumption in excess of sufficiency – the idolatrous addiction that masks our inner emptiness and poisons deeper transformation. And so we must rekindle community, put love back into public life, and thereby rescue hope from the caverns of despair. We must call back the soul.
Alastair McIntosh is a Quaker and the author of Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition