Over the past two issues of Dark Mountain, we published extracts from Dr David Fleming’s Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It. It’s an extraordinary book, uncategorisable, a ‘community of essays’ – or, as John Thackara puts it, ‘half encyclopedia, half commonplace book, half a secular bible, half survival guide’. Fleming worked on it for thirty years, completing it shortly before his death in 2010.
I’m grateful to his friend Shaun Chamberlin (of Dark Optimism) who approached us about publishing the extracts. I’ve been rereading them in preparation for next month’s Futureperfect festival – and this afternoon I decided it was time to splash out on the full thing, all cloth-bound hardback 736 pages of it.
Fleming’s voice belongs to another generation – there are traces of a desire for an overarching model or plan, a desire which belongs to that generation – yet there is a great rolling intellectual curiosity and range of reference that is unsatisfied with the kinds of closed answers to which that desire often leads. Two passages in particular from among the extracts stuck with me for weeks, and I want to share them as food for the conversations I’m looking forward to on Grinda next month.
What we want and what we need has been confused…
In the first of these passages, Fleming argues that the green movement has got things back to front about the relationship between ‘Needs’ and ‘Wants’. The mess we’re in is not about a proliferation of needs-that-are-really-desires, but a proliferation of undesired needs:
The heaviest burden of the modern economy, by far, is that imposed by its own elaborations. Any large-scale economy requires massive infrastructures and material flows just to support itself and keep existing. Such sprawling industrial economies have massively multiplied our needs, our ‘regrettable necessities’. Regardless of whether we want them, we need the sewage systems, heavy-goods transport, police-forces… Given the substantial scale of the task of feeding, raising and schooling a suburban family, and the increasing challenge of such routine needs as finding a post office, many of us undoubtedly need cars. The collapse of local self-reliance was both the cause and the effect of the massive elaboration of transport, and when that need can no longer be met, its life-sustaining function will be bitterly recognised.
It is, then, the elaboration of needs by large-scale industrial life that causes the trouble. Our wants are squeezed out, much missed and light by comparison, not least because they often involve labour-intensive crafts and services…
This reminds me of a conversation with John Manoochehri, the founder of Futureperfect. He was recalling a train journey in India, watching his fellow travellers throw plastic litter from the window: his first reaction was anger, his next the realisation that a few decades earlier the litter would have been a mango skin and the action would have made sense. The point he drew from this was that environmentalism is often quick to ‘over-agentify’ – I think you could equally say quick to moralise – to emphasise how our bad behaviours and bad desires are screwing the planet.
It’s easy to say that ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed’, and it’s not without truth – but it’s also true that we’re locked in to a lot of needs that are both ‘artificial’ from the perspective of our ancestors, many of our contemporaries and almost certainly our descendants, yet also ‘real’ in some very practical senses in the actual times and places in which we find ourselves.
For me, that passage from Lean Logic connects Ivan Illich’s Towards a History of Needs (which I guess Fleming knew well) and the kind of infrastructure thinking going on right now around the #Stacktivism conversation and in some of Venkatesh Rao‘s writing (see, in particular, America’s Artificial Heartland).
Losing our religion
In The Crossing of Two Lines, I wrote that, in a secular society, ‘religion becomes countercultural [and] faith becomes a conscious foreground statement’. Another sense in which Fleming belongs to another generation is that he carries the memory of religion as part of the background fabric of western societies. However comfortable you may or may not be with the role of Christianity in his thinking, this passage has stuck with me as one of the most eloquent summaries of the role of religion in a not-yet-secular society that I’ve read in a long time:
The idea that every community, every village, no matter how small, should have, in the middle of it, a building of the greatest beauty they can manage, reaching up into the sky, a place of wonder and reflection, a seedbed of common purpose, made from gifts of money and labour, coming to terms with the riddles of life and death, and bringing private lives and the setting-up of families into the embrace of the community – well, you might think it a ridiculous utopia if it had not happened.
It doesn’t follow from the artificiality of our needs that we can moralise our way out of them – and likewise, even if you agree with this account of the role of religion at its best, that wouldn’t mean there was any way back to the world it depicts. But it’s interesting how often – as with the unMonastery project that Ben Vickers, another of our Futureperfect Faculty has been prototyping in Italy – those who are trying to make sense of the imperfect future into which we’re heading find themselves drawing on elements from among the supposedly obsolete history of religion. (As it happens, the other book I ordered today is Giorgio Agamben’s The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life.)
All of this is by way of some clues to the kinds of threads I’m hoping to weave together in a few weeks time at Futureperfect: four days of conversations about the future on an island in the Stockholm archipelago, taking place from 14-17 August 2014.
Order a copy of Dr David Fleming’s book through the Lean Logic website.