I recently attended an event with History and Policy and Friends of the Earth in which a number of historians were invited to offer their comments on the FoE policy review process Big Ideas Change the World. After the event the participants were invited to contribute their own ideas and responses in the form of blog posts. The following is the text of my own reflection. The views expressed are, of course, mine alone.
For the historian and critic, the Friends of the Earth paper, Big Ideas Change the World: Mapping a Route from a Planet in Peril to a World of Well-Being, makes fascinating reading. The title sets up an opposition between historical failure and future possibility. As Mark Levene has written, in the anthropocene, it is exactly this gap between history and the future which is a potentially productive point of ethical intervention for the historian.
‘Smart optimism’ is the watchword of this document. But a more compelling vision might be that of pragmatic utopianism. In the face of astonishing environmental crises, the authors dare to think in extraordinarily hopeful terms about the future. In so doing they draw upon the resources of hope to be found in history, not least the knowledge that sudden and radical change is not only possible but is, if anything, likely. It is a powerful practical account of why history remains crucial in thinking about the future.
Consider the quiet, but remarkable, radicalism of the claim that global ‘well-being’ should offer the founding principle of social life in the future. This is not simply a claim about fulfilling needs. This is a potentially open-ended, promise. Well-being is, rightly, not delimited to a set of objective economic criteria; it is opened up to being a subjectively open set of social and cultural desires. This is a call for a politics of care that flies in the face of the politics of what Molly Scott Cato has called Austeria.
One is reminded throughout this document of News from Nowhere, William Morris’s compelling vision of a communist England. Framing this document is a vision of how the world will be in 2050. This world of well-being has no material poverty, environmental destruction has been reversed, population stabilised, the fruits of modern production are distributed more equably, and there is good health and health-care for all. Society is still globalised, interconnected and cosmopolitan, but this is no longer the imposed cosmopolitanism of the capitalist market, but a voluntary collaborative cosmopolitanism.
But why is this the world of 2050? How are we to get there? The wonder of News from Nowhere is that Morris brings his utopia into present reality through the dream of his narrator. But in FoE’s route map this utopia remains distant. Perhaps this is one of the profounder weaknesses of time, our timidity in dreaming. Whereas nineteenth-century utopians would unashamedly dare to dream of their tomorrow as already present in their today, we see this as too risky. Our fear of disappointment is palpable.
For most of us 2050 is so far away as to be unimaginable. Ironically, to really radicalise this vision one has to cut out the complex historical process of actually getting there. One must demand this world not for 2050, but for 2014, for tomorrow, for today. One can imagine here a fantastic arts project based around envisioning this world of well-being as the world of today. Not something absent, but something present. That is what political hope is.
And to whom would such a project speak? Who can enact this world of tomorrow today? To whom should this route map be addressed? One must doubt whether it should be ‘policy-makers’. Twenty years of all the policy-making in the world in the field of climate change has enacted one of the most complete failures of politics in the history of modern democracy, perhaps only surpassed by appeasement. The Mauna Loa index of atmospheric carbon dioxide it the historical record of this failure. To ask policy-makers to carry out a revolutionary transformation of our common social life is to suggest they are about to utterly reverse this story of failure.
No! This routemap needs to speak to everyday life. As Alex Loftus argues, it is everyday life which must ultimately be transformed. It is everyday well-being that is at stake. It is to the opponents of incinerators and fracking, the recycling and anti-bin tax campaigners, the wind-farmers and opponents of wind-farms that a political strategy focussed on well-being must address itself. It is in this realm of everyday experience that modern democracy might yet be revolutionised and modern life transformed into a world of well-being.
We are all aware of living with the consequences of the past two-hundred years of capitalist history. We already live in a world living with the effects of climate change. We have a permanent oil crisis that confronts every opponent of fracking or parent on the daily school run. The limits of parliamentary democracy in tacking such existential issues is abundantly clear as politicians dump green levies to subsidise energy monopolists.
If history tells us anything, it is that the change to come is not an issue for 2050, it is here already. The historical moment of transformation is already upon is. It is what we do today, and how people in their real lives are mobilised for change now that is building the future world of well-being. FoE’s future strategy must be a strategy for the transformation of everyday life, or it will be nothing.