2015, so far at least, has been a year characterised by me getting repeatedly distracted from banging on about the thing I need to be banging on about, which is the environment.
First there was the general election. And then there was Corbyn’s unexpected but delightful transition from pariah-status fringe parliamentarian to Labour leadership frontrunner. I sunk hours into writing about both.
Now Corbyn’s won, I can already feel myself being sucked in again – instinctively reaching for the keyboard to defend him with every new ludicrous slur or piece of borderline-criminal media impartiality. I’m at risk of becoming the political equivalent of one of those overcompensating macho boyfriends who hospitalises anyone who looks at their girlfriend a bit funny.Continue reading “Pretentious Ecological Doomsday Statement”→
From London and its most gentrified and fake, we go the city at its poorest and most raw.
Leaving gentrified Bermondsey, we went to visit another friend. We knew Compadre #2 from school days in Somerset, when she was a warm, caring, alternative type who wrote and sang her own songs. She still is warm, caring and alternative, thankfully, but has chucked in the guitar and the lashings of emo-standard black eyeliner for a job in a small music promotions company.
It’s laughable to look back on now – especially given where we’d just come from – but at school we called her ‘posh’. She lived in a slightly nicer part of town and her dad had a reasonably well-paid job. In truth, they were just about middle class, and probably didn’t bring in a whole lot more than the average household income.
Now she lives in Tower Hamlets, one of the most glaringly unequal parts of the country, let alone London. It’s hugely deprived – 42% of its children are impoverished, the highest proportion anywhere in Britain, and its richest inhabitants live about 11 years longer than its poorest ones. But it’s just a few minutes east of the oligarch’s den itself, the City, and the gleaming phalluses of the bank buildings dominate the horizon. A relatively small number of super-rich residents pull the borough’s average income up to £58,000 a year – the second-highest in the country – and its proximity to the biggest financial hub outside Wall Street gives it an economy worth £68bn. Its house prices have gone up a mind-bending 43% since last year.Continue reading “London Isn’t Very Equal (Part Two) – To Tower Hamlets”→
We’re more fixated with sex than ever, it seems, but still in a strange, repressed, unhealthy manner.
Soldier your way through the Political Compass survey, the internet’s go-to ‘what the hell am I politically’ test, and near the end you’re asked to pass judgement on the following statement: ‘These days openness about sex has gone too far’.
Presumably – I have neither the time nor the inclination to spend the necessary hours twiddling with the survey to find out for sure – if you agree, you’re nudged further to the authoritarian right, and if you disagree you join the teeming legions of people who’d be put in camps if the Daily Mail ever took over.Continue reading “A Nation Of Prudes Obsessed With Sex”→
In the beginning, there was ‘Bem’, and it didn’t really mean anything. A nonsensical outburst made halfway through a bleak A-level Politics lesson by a power metal enthusiast called Moe, it became a world-weary catchphrase for some left-wing cynics trundling their way through Further Education.
At college, instead of concentrating on my A Levels, I ended up in the middle of a strange, probably cult-like campus subculture we called Bem. I didn’t come up with the name – it was a random nonsense word I think my friend Joe invented one day in a boring Politics lesson, but I can’t really remember. Looking back, it was about not liking the state society was in, and trying to live out an alternative in everything you did.
We were all left-wing. We all hated consumerism, conformism and the slow strangulation of anything interesting and original in the cultural realm. And we all shared the same bleak, surreal sense of humour. Most of all, we were united by the belief that civilisation was terrible. Millions starved, died in droughts, died in childbirth, died of treatable diseases – and the richest, most technologically advanced societies in human history did nothing about it. Most people didn’t even notice, let alone care.
Our fellow students seemed to typify everything that was wrong – shallow, materialistic, self-obsessed. Clueless about the sheer horrifying extent of suffering in the world, and utterly absorbed by the mindless triviality of their own silly little lives. Here was a society where callousness and ignorance was the default setting. And we set about an inevitably doomed but passionately heartfelt attempt to undermine it all by refusing to take it seriously. We were like apocalyptic mini-Chomskys crossed with the Chuckle Brothers.
If I do say so myself, I think our critique of modern society was remarkably insightful for a bunch of grouchy teenagers fresh out of secondary education. But we were still very far from perfect.
For one, we were far too harsh on our fellow students. They weren’t all the feckless neoliberal drones we made them out to be – especially up against the kind of people I’d meet at Cambridge.
We were also distinctly rubbish when it came to actually doing anything about our politics. To be fair, we did a lot of anti-fascism campaigning when the BNP came to town. But most of the time, we were content to just lounge around feeling radical because we listened to Stevie Wonder, The Smiths and Berlin-era Bowie rather than Rihanna and Take That. We were lazy, we were extremely pessimistic, and we were all political mouth and no activist trousers.
When college ended, we all shot off in different directions to get on with being adults. I see some of them regularly, others nowhere near as regularly as I’d like – but however much they’ve changed in the years since, I’d say pretty much all of them have hung on to something of that original outlook.
Partly thanks to the experience of going from a single parent household in the land neoliberalism forgot to Oxbridge and back, I went on to become more political than ever. To the extent that, shockingly, I now sometimes even get out and do some actual activism.
These days, I’m a shambolic mish-mash of far-left atheist vicar and lentil-munching free love hippy. I’m far less cynical about people, and particularly my own generation, which has turned out to be more left-wing and switched on than I ever would’ve imagined in the old days. And yet I dislike the state modern society’s in as much as ever. Most of all, I’m focused on the horrifying scale of preventable humanitarian suffering in the world, and the catastrophic damage humanity is doing to its environment.
In other words, there have been tweaks along the way, but it’s still essentially Bem. I still see politics, music, personal conduct, even having a certain type of sense of humour, as all part of the same thing – a wholesale rejection of a way of life that’s well on the way to being cataclysmic. And when I started a blog in 2011, just about the same time ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ jazz-rapper Gil Scot Heron died, the thing named itself.
Four and a bit years down the line, I’m finally getting round to some of the things I wanted to do with this site when I first started it – talk about an accessible, environmentally-focused modern manifestation of radical socialism. Explain economics in a way that laypeople can understand, and that isn’t skewed in favour of the status quo. Ramble inanely about my own vision of socially engaged atheism-as-a-religion. And I can now officially say that sometimes, occasionally, someone even reads it.
There isn’t one, obviously. In a globalised world as maddeningly complex as the one we find ourselves floundering in, secularised, individualised and increasingly insular, there could never be some kind of universally accepted reason for being. In pockets, people seem to be returning to religion as a sort of reassuring bulwark against the uncertainties and instabilities of the modern age, but this looks unlikely to stop the general crawl towards secularism. God isn’t dead, but if he isn’t on the way out he’s certainly taken a step back out of the spotlight.
Even if they aren’t properly taken up by a lot of people who’d call themselves atheist, the implications of rejecting God are huge. ‘Meaning’, in the grand(iose) sense of the word at least, ceases to exist – the word implies that life was set up, somehow knocked together in the beginning, by someone or something with a specific purpose in mind. Which it wasn’t.
Everything alive, ever, wasn’t built or purposely shaped by anything, but just happened to happen in the way it did. Humans don’t have souls, which, plucked from the nether and briefly stuffed in a fleshy wrapper, eventually swan off to the afterlife to hang loose with the great Creator. All life is just the product of an unutterably miraculous biological accident that’s proved a runaway success. Even calling it Evolution seems to give it a pseudo-religious grandeur it doesn’t warrant – it’s something that has mindlessly unravelled, forwarded by generation after generation of organisms that have minutely adjusted to the environment around them, with billions of years-worth of tiny adaptations turning microscopic sea-bacteria into things with arms and legs and, eventually, mortgages and inflated senses of self-importance.Continue reading “Something Like Bemolutionary Ethics, But Not As Pretentious”→
There are plenty of reasons for not taking yourself or the garbled output of your own mind overly seriously.
Prominent among these is the inescapable fact that a single human life, the existence of one lone gangly-ape descendent singled out from a shambling mass of 6,800,000,000, is tiny, skull-rattlingly, eye-poppingly tiny. And insignificant.
The last hundred years’ worth of scientific endeavour and cosmological revelations have affirmed, among other things, that we are laughably insignificant. Grasping this is hard. The numbers involved are formidably huge. The universe as we know it spasmed arbitrarily into existence approximately 13,700,000,000 years ago. Within a million million million million millionths of a second, Everything had gone from being infinitesimally tiny to being infinitely huge, or had at very least swelled to encompass the million million million million mile expanse of space visible from Earth.
From earthbound telescopes, or satellites, astronomers can see about 200 billion (200,000,000,000) other galaxies. Galaxies commonly contain between 100 billion and a trillion stars – our Milky Way is about average, with between 200 and 400 billion. Current estimates place the number of stars in the universe as being over a quintillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000, or roughly equivalent to the number of grains of sand on Earth). The Earth is just a tiny 5.97 billion trillion-tonne speck in the abyss, looping round the sun at 18.5 miles per second. Our species is a biological accident on one planet, going around one star, in one galaxy, hanging at the edge of this crushing cosmological immensity.Continue reading “Cosmic Perspective: radical change and not taking yourself too seriously”→