Dealing with our own shit (Dark Mtn)

In December 2012, Nick Stewart and I travelled to Oaxaca where we spent two afternoons filming with the Mexican activist and intellectual Gustavo Esteva. Among the fruits of those afternoons was a dialogue published in the fourth issue of Dark Mountain. Starting from the extraordinary turns of Gustavo’s life, we follow a thread of conversation that leads through his friendship with Ivan Illich, the political possibility of friendship itself, the way in which even the attempt to speak about climate change brings us up against our own arrogance, and the question of whether we are ready to deal with our own shit, both physically and morally.

There were eagles riding the air overhead as we took the backroad out of San Pablo Etla to the Casa Esteva. The taxi driver had left us at the crossroads: at ease in the highspeed free-for-all of the highway, he had no desire to risk his exhaust on the unpaved road ahead, so a young man from one of the neighbouring households drove down to collect us. It was three months into the dry season. We bumped across the bed of an empty stream before climbing again towards the adobe house among the trees.

After days in downtown Oaxaca, its streets clogged with fumes, the air up here was a release. Twenty-five years earlier, when Gustavo Esteva and his partner left Mexico City to settle here, they must have felt that same contrast. For Gustavo, it was a return to his grandmother’s village: the grandmother who, in his childhood, was not allowed to enter his parents’ house by the front door, nor to speak to her grandson in Zapotec.

‘For my mother,’ he told me, ‘the best thing that she could do for her children was to uproot us from any connection with our indigenous ancestry, to avoid the discrimination she had suffered.’

Read the rest of this article as a PDF (15 pages).

Black elephants & skull jackets (Dark Mtn)

Vinay Gupta is one of those characters around whom stories collect and opinions divide. He has a bulldozer of a brain and a huge sense of mischief, he is often absurd and sometimes indefensible – and between 2009 and 2012, when we both lived in London, he was one of my closest collaborators.

In this piece for the first Dark Mountain book, originally published in May 2010, we talk about how growing up half-Indian shaped his thinking about disaster management and sustainability, what it takes to become an ‘old culture’, and the origins of the Institute for Collapsonomics.

Before I know who he is, Vinay Gupta has started telling me about his plan to start a small African country. The drug factory is the important part, apparently – that and the Gurkha mercenaries.

We’re sitting on the bare floorboards of a townhouse in Mayfair: five storeys of gilded mirrors, marble hallways, handpainted Chinese wallpaper and furniture that looks like it just came out of a skip. In one corner, a large bracket fungus is growing out of the wall, about two feet below the ceiling. It’s the kind of scene that makes you think the world as we know it already ended, you just weren’t paying attention.

It is January 2009. For months now, the world economy has been visibly in chaos, and even the politicians are starting to acknowledge that the consequences of this won’t be confined to the financial markets. Gupta seems like a man who relishes chaos.

You can download the rest of the article as a PDF – or order Dark Mountain: Issue 1 which also includes new writing from Jay Griffiths, Alastair McIntosh, Paul Kingsnorth and many others.


Image: Vinay Gupta by Mark Charmer

The fairly Big Society (Closer)

For those who don’t follow British politics, the ‘Big Society’ was supposed to be David Cameron’s vision for running the country. It started out as an attempt to distance the Conservatives from Margaret Thatcher’s infamous remark, ‘There’s no such thing as society.’ By 2013, when I wrote this, it had all but vanished from view. This piece was written for Closer, a one-off newspaper of ideas for an independent Scotland.

Whatever became of the Big Society? It still gets mentioned, sometimes, as a joke: its humourless punchline, the lengthening queues at volunteer-run food banks. At Westminster, the Tories forgot their flirtation with social capital, localism, community organising and got down to the business of cutting, privatising, outsourcing, fracking and inflating a new housing bubble. So David Cameron’s one-time big idea gets written off as a warm fuzzy makeover for the Thatcherite desire to shrink the state, the kind of neoliberalism from which an independent Scotland might hope to liberate itself. Yet this obituary misses what is worst about the mess that was the Big Society. The Tories did not simply invent a half-baked cover story, they took other people’s ideas for a joyride, then smashed them into the dead end of their own ideology. The challenge now is to salvage what is worth saving of those ideas from the wreckage.

Read the rest on Bella Caledonia.


Image: Front cover of Closer, designed by Kieran McCann.

Haunted by Shadows of the Future

On Sunday 30 March, I’ll be travelling through time and space to be part of HORIZONS at the Tensta Konsthall.

Twenty minutes ride on the Blue Line from downtown Stockholm, Tensta is one of the ‘million programme’ suburbs, concrete estates thrown up at an alarming speed in the late 1960s. Over the past six months, the Konsthall has been hosting exhibitions, conversations and events under the banner of Tensta Museum: Reports from New Sweden.

As part of this, STEALTH.unlimited are bringing together what they describe as ‘a jam session on future scenarios for Tensta’:

HORIZONS is an attempt to
 re-set Tensta into probable, speculative, or perhaps rather unseemly futures in the year 2030. Will this, yet unknown Tensta be an autonomous zone, where the residents of this disregarded part of Stockholm have successfully taken their destiny into their own hands? Or 
will its multi-faceted society prove so vital that this ‘new Sweden’ comes to dominate the entire country by 2030? Or will Tensta’s original but unfulfilled mission – of creating an environment that acknowledges and gives space to a fully liberated and democratic model citizen – ultimately be re-created? And what would such a citizens’ liberation and equality mean if we could live it today?

When Ana and Marc from STEALTH invited me to be one of the four contributors creating scenarios for the event, I asked if they were sure they had the right person.

But while I don’t know Tensta as a place, I do have some sense of the new Sweden, because I’ve spent much of the past year surrounded by fellow immigrants, learning the language and working out how to make a life in this country. Without giving too much away, my scenario for 2030 is about the difference that the New Swedes – my classmates included – could make to this country’s ability to adapt to a future in which the age of mass prosperity has become a distant memory.

Having checked out the other contributors, it promises to be an exciting event:

Adam Tensta (hip-hop artist, challenger of vested cultural norms and laborious creator of one’s own realities, born and based in Tensta)

Gunilla Lundahl (cultural journalist, writer and editor with a long-standing commitment to urban culture and discourse since her start at newspaper The Worker in 1955)

Tor Lindstrand (architect, assistant professor at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH-A), and a cross-disciplinary performer, editor and thinker).

HORIZONS is free and open to all. It’s happening at 14.00 on Sunday 30 March, 2014. You can read all about it on the Tensta Konsthall site – and there’s also a Facebook event.

What good is information? (Aeon)

An essay about the journey from information to meaning, how LSD helped create the story of the internet, and why we’re still bored when we have Google.

On my morning bus into town, every teenager and every grown-up sits there staring into their little infinity machine: a pocket-sized window onto more words than any of us could ever read, more music than we could ever listen to, more pictures of people getting naked than we could ever get off to. Until a few years ago, it was unthinkable, this cornucopia of information. Those of us who were already more or less adults when it arrived wonder at how different it must be to be young now. ‘How can any kid be bored when they have Google?’ I remember hearing someone ask.

The question came back to me recently when I read about a 23-year-old British woman sent to prison for sending rape threats to a feminist campaigner over Twitter. Her explanation for her actions was that she was ‘off her face’ and ‘bored’.

Read the full version at Aeon magazine.

Commoning in the City (STIR Magazine)

The starting point for this article was the Commoning the City conference held at the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design in April 2013. It ran as the cover story for the summer issue of STIR magazine – and the full text is now available on their site.

Of everything I hear during these two days, the answer that most impresses me comes from Stavros Stavrides: ‘commons’ has become useful, he argues, because of a change in attitude to the state, a disillusionment with the ‘public’ and a need for another term to takes its place. The public sphere, public values, the public sector: all of these things might once have promised some counterweight to the destructive force of the market, but this no longer seems to be the case.

We are not witnessing a turn towards anarchism, exactly, but something more pragmatic: a shift in the general mood, reflecting the reality of people’s experience after five years of this unending crisis, itself coming after decades of neoliberalism. It is the attitude that underlies the Squares Movement, from Tahrir to Syntagma, the Puerta del Sol and Zuccotti Park. If those camping out in cities across three continents were reluctant to distill their discontent into a set of demands on government, this was not simply a utopian refusal to engage with the compromises of political reality; it was also a conviction that to put hope in government is now the most utopian position of all. This is also the attitude that has driven the rise of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, and it has all the uncomfortable ambiguities such an example suggests.

Into this vacuum, the commons enters as an alternative to both public and private. I find myself wanting to push this further, to suggest that it indicates a significant historical rupture, in at least two senses: a breaking of the frame of politics as a tug of war between the forces of state and market; and the failure of the project of the public, the promise of liberal modernity to construct a neutral space in which we could meet each other as individuals with certain universal rights. This latter point is particularly uncomfortable, we discover during our conversations in Stockholm, since many of our ideas of social justice are founded on that framework. Yet if it is true that the rise of the commons reflects the failure of the public, it is not clear that we can simply expect to borrow its assumptions…

Read the rest of the article here.


Image: German Gullon