|Frederiksberg Have in Copenhagen. The trees were full of jackdaws cackling and wheeling when I took this picture on my phone.|
Now, anybody who claims they can tell you what is going to happen in the future is either mad or a liar, but saying that, anyone who wilfully ignores all of the current trends and doesn’t bother to read history is a fool. Today it’s not just one trend that is worrying, but a whole host of them all converging on one another in the not too distant future. It’s not just peak energy that is concerning, but the draining of groundwater, the massive loss of topsoil, the huge accelerating destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems and the colossal overpopulation of the planet. I could go on.
What’s more, individually any actions we take will have a minuscule effect on these looming crises. And so the question arises in my mind from time to time: why bother?
I was contemplating that thought this evening as I pushed a steamed bun around my bowl with a chopstick in a small backstreet Chinese restaurant in Copenhagen’s red light district. Beside me on the table was a copy of William Catton’s Overshoot, which I am reading at the moment, so perhaps that was a contributing factor to my melancholy. Outside, in the first warm spring evening of the year, whores strutted up and down and gangs of hooded men stood on street corners as police patrol cars occasionally crawled past. You can usually find me here on a Tuesday early evening filling the time between when I leave my office and when my Tai Chi class starts. It’s a kind of weekly treat that I look forward to.
But I was having difficulty enjoying it this evening. After a while I realised that I was dwelling on a spat I’d had with a troll earlier in the day. Of course, this being Scandinavia, you might assume I’m talking about the evil creatures which hide under bridges and attack people, but I am of course referring to the electronic variety who hide under pseudonyms and attack people. This particular one was clearly a paid shill of the nuclear industry of the kind that pop up in any online discussion about nuclear energy.
Normally I don’t let them bother me but there was something about the clinical nastiness of this one that got under my skin. As I said, having recently been reading Overshoot - which examines our predicament through an ecological paradigm - I was feeling a bit sensitised , and was contemplating Catton’s warning of the inevitable mass die-off of humankind. I’m not sure what the opposite of a lullaby is, but Overshoot would seem to be it.
But a mass die-off is most clearly what we are clearly heading towards and no amount of wishful thinking can prevent it. How does one live with the knowledge that in the next century or so the vast majority of our species will starve to death … and still manage to live a ‘normal’ life surrounded by people who think the most important news event of the month has been the release of the iPad 3? There’s no point taking your depression to a psychiatrist as they’ll only either put you on mind altering pills or else tell you to deal with the problem that is plaguing you. There is no way of ‘dealing with’ the mass die-off of people - depression is the only rational option open to the non-psychopathic.
In fact there was a recently conducted study which concluded that mildly depressed people were much more likely to be aware of the enormity of our ecological problems than the non-depressed. My immediate thought upon hearing this that it could well be the other way around.
So, it would seem, apart from depression the only bit of levity available to us is gallows humour. So here, we go, here’s a bit of gallows humour.
Finishing my meal I got up and paid. I was still way too early for my class so I decided to walk across the city to get there. As I pushed my bike past the prostitutes (some Eastern European, some Western African, all battered looking) the crack dealers and derelict Greenlanders I got that all too familiar sinking feeling. But perhaps worse than the so-called low-lifes were their polar opposites: all the shiny happy well-adjusted young urbanites sitting out in the sun and talking into their smart phones or pushing fashionable prams. I sometimes think that when I look at these people and pity them for having no sense of the future, they look right back at me and pity me for having no fashion sense.
I decided to cut across town through a park I had never been through before. I felt in need of some greenery - perhaps that would cheer me up a bit. The park, Frederiksberg Have, was erupting with snowdrops and other spring flowers when I arrived. Why had I never been here before? It was beautiful. I immediately felt something righting itself within me as I walked through stands of spreading beech trees and past the ornamental lakes. The city, with its charging traffic and 7-Elevens, disappeared from view and beyond the trees the only buildings to be seen were the elegant apartment blocks built in the nineteenth century. I gazed at them beyond the trees as the light from the setting sun illuminated their facades. The grace displayed in their design comes from a time now past. Nothing of any such beauty has been built for a hundred years in this city, and yet it clings on to its charm in the way that European cities are wont to do.
But the buildings, and indeed the beautifully landscaped park, were the result of a kind of apocalypse that struck the city just over 200 years ago. It was the time of the Napoleonic Wars and Denmark, proclaiming neutrality, was about to receive a nasty shock. I’m not sure if any British admiral used the phrase ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ but it was decided in London that the best course of action to take against the untrustworthy Danes was to sail a fleet of British gunboats into Copenhagen harbour and bomb the living daylights out of the city. The bombardment went on for several nights and was the first example of a preemptive strike aimed at a civilian population. The British gunboats used Congreve rockets, which set fire to buildings on impact and, by the end of it, around 2,000 innocent citizens were dead and the city lay in ruins. To make matters worse for the Danes we stole their entire fleet of ships and set fire to the ones that we couldn’t navigate back to England. This last tactic was such a success that a new verb was coined,‘to Copenhagenize’, meaning to confiscate a country’s navy.
It’s amazing any Danes will even speak to me.
|Painting by Christoffer Eckersberg of the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 by British gunboats|
But from this cataclysm, like a phoenix from the ashes, something amazing occurred. A new Golden Age was ushered in! The city was built from the ground up, with wide boulevards and spacious parks (like Frederiksberg Have). The arts flourished, with painters and sculptors becoming household names, and writers, such as Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard, gave the world respectively heart breaking fairy tales and existentialism.
Returning to the present - could our pending catastrophe give rise to something similar? It doesn’t look likely. Europe in the nineteenth century could thank rampant industrialism, cheap energy and ever-concentrating power to bring in the resources to build on such a vast scale and find money to pay the Italian and French artisans who helped design such wonderful architecture. It was as if nineteenth century Europe, with its colonial possessions, was pushing against an open door - and that door has now swung well and truly shut in our faces.
I walked on through the park, savouring the warm air and the calm atmosphere. Above, in some very tall trees, hundreds of jackdaws were having a very loud meeting. I stood still and watched them, remembering the sage advice (of who …memory fails me) to not seek out wild nature but to observe the nature of where you are. I couldn’t fathom the behaviour of the birds. They would take off in small groups, wheel around the flock as a whole and then return to the branches, before letting another small group do its thing. All the while the sound was cacophonous, but every now and again a silence would come over them for some seconds, before the noise began again. What were they doing? I watched in wonder for about five minutes, noticing after a while that the park had emptied of joggers.
I walked away, happy to have been reminded that there are other worlds outside the narrow human one that we are so caught up in. As I walked away towards the park exit I saw two young girls in summer dresses kneeling down on the grass picking the snowdrops near a sign that said ‘Keep off the Grass’. There was nobody else around, just me, the flower collecting girls and several hundred jackdaws. I decided not to bother with Tai Chi after all. Instead I wanted to go home and tuck my own two girls up in bed and read them a bed time story. As I rode home through the darkening city streets I wondered if internet trolls ever pause to sniff the first scent of spring on the breeze, or allow themselves to be mesmerised by the murmurations of jackdaws or watch as children go wide-eyed with wonder as they hear a story written over a hundred years ago.
To me, at least, right now, those are the things worth bothering for.