Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why bother?

Frederiksberg Have in Copenhagen. The trees were full of jackdaws cackling and wheeling when I took this picture on my phone.
Sometimes it’s hard being a Cassandra. Actually, it’s always hard being a Cassandra, but today felt like a real low. Cassandra, of course, was the daughter of King Priam in Greek mythology and she was granted the ability to hear prophesies from the future after some snakes ‘licked clean’ her ears. But when she refused the advances of Apollo he placed a curse on her meaning that nobody would ever believe her when she warned them about what the future held.

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.


  1. Jason, I first read Overshoot almost two years ago. My impressions are recorded here, following up on the theme here and here. I might need to repost them on the new blog.

    How'd you like to form a Cassandra Society? Has kind of a nice ring to it!


    1. BTW, yes, Jim, a Cassandra society sounds like a good idea! In twenty years or so we could rename it the 'told you so' society ;-)

  2. Jason-

    You paint a beautiful picture of Copenhagen. Makes me want to visit Denmark someday. It sounds strangely similar to my city, on another continent, but populated by the same mix of people.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Jason!

    I like your blog!
    I live nearby the red light district in Copenhagen myself (Engahave Plads) and I really recognizance the setting and sense of place in your writing.

    Keep up the writing :) It is nice to hear from others with similar thoughts.


  4. Jason, thanks for the dispatch from Copenhagen, I was not aware of the 1807 attack by the British. Plus ca change, plus cést la meme chose, imperial powers will behave as such,(pardon the lack of punctuation). I enjoyed the sketch of the park, a touch of the natural world can be such a balm to the soul. Regards, Robert

  5. Interesting read. Thank you.

    Yesterday I descended from the mountain monastery I currently reside in here in Taiwan down to the beach and came to feel a similar sense of unease.

    It looked like the ocean had heaved up all the unwanted trash circulating in it. The beach was covered with heaps of plastic. Not just complete items like baskets, soap dishes and household rubbish, but fragments and fine particles of blue, green and red bits which made themselves quite visible in the yellow sand.

    It wasn't just that, but the thousands of dead puffer fish washed ashore. A few weeks ago I noticed a number of them, but today there were hundreds, if not thousands of them in my estimation, littered all over the beach from one end to the other. So, I got to see all these dead spiky fish rotting in the sun (the birds don't eat them) and unending heaps of plastic refuse washed up all over the place. Meanwhile, a few surfers were out and on the weekend a lot more will show up I imagine, all careful not to step on the dead thorny fish.

    I feel sorrow when I think of how there is this clear degeneration of life in the marine ecosystem coupled with unsightly plastic washing up on an otherwise nice beach, yet (human) life just carries on and the surfers go about their thing, good times as usual (I don't surf, I just like walking along the beach and meditating there sometimes).

    What really gets to me is that we can expect this to get worse. More mass deaths of species, more toxifying of the ocean (and everything else), more token gestures to solve the problems at hand, and just general degeneration on all fronts.

    As a Buddhist I try to recognize the inevitability of suffering, but the speed at which our civilization is driving itself and much of the animal world into the pits of toxic hell is mind-blowing. I can't really do anything about it either. Buddhists here in Taiwan might be "environmentalist" and recycle everything they can, but they still build giant structures and depend heavily on fossil fuels (and nuclear energy).

    There is a kind of poetic helplessness and unease that people like you and me are stuck in. You can't leave the planet, nor can you prevent the horrors awaiting humanity in the coming decades. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. You can only just mentally prepare yourself.

  6. Hi Jim. Nice observations on Overshoot. I think that book lays out in very precise (and sometimes even poetic) language the sum of all our fears. A lot of it is simple common sense (i.e. you can't go expanding the human population forever on a finite planet), but it should be the boom on everyone's lips. Instead, I actually had problems getting hold of it.

  7. Hi Jeff. Yes, Copenhagen is a beautiful city (well, large parts of it are). For sheer liveability I don't think I've ever been anywhere better. Saying that, it's very expensive, so if you do come and visit bring plenty of spare cash!

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  9. Hej Mads - og tak. Well, you live a stone's throw from my office, which is just around the corner from Enghave Plads. Small world!

  10. Hi Robert. I think I'd go mad without access to the natural world. I can't understand how people can live in synthetic environments, hanging out in shopping malls etc.

    The film 'The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill' is definitely worth watching if you want a bit of inspiration.

  11. Hi Jeffrey ... I know what you mean.

    I once stayed in a simple hut on a fairly remote island in Thailand and the beach was literally covered in plastic junk. The thing was, nobody else really seemed to notice it. One day I got so fed up with looking at it I made a huge bonfire of it all and set fire to it - sparking a debate about whether this was the right thing to do, ecologically speaking.

    I'm not sure it was, and the next day, of course, more junk washed up.

    Speaking of Buddhism, didn't the Dalai Lama once write something along the lines of 'Imagine if everyone held all life in reverence - right down to the smallest organism that lived in the sea.'?

    Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be a likely scenario any time soon, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to set an example.

  12. The Dalai Lama definitely advocates environmentalism and concern for all life. He even has said in private that the political concerns of Tibet should be set aside to address the environmental problems on the Tibetan plateau (see Wikileaks' cables).

    Buddhists in general, unfortunately, only make token gestures to sacrifice and environmentalism. They'll build massive new monuments which are as practical as the Giza Pyramids (and they're built on top of bulldozed land). They might not throw their plastic rubbish into the river, but they still might drive a car (even though it might not be necessary given that public transport is available).

    When it comes to peak oil and ecological payback, I think Buddhism will offer a kind of mental crutch to a lot of people in the coming decades when really hard suffering becomes inescapable and material comforts become scarce. However, I imagine the institutions will take a hit when their earlier utopianistic visions fail to come to fruition. Right now in Taiwanese and Chinese diaspora Buddhist communities outside the PRC there is a lot of enthusiasm and positivity when it comes to the future, given that in the last few decades they went from rags to riches, so the expectation is the good times will keep on rolling. This has encouraged visions of a utopian future, which forms the central driving ideology for a lot of institutions, though not all.

    As you can expect, they're setting themselves up for a huge disappointment.

  13. Jeffery, that's sad to hear about your experiences with Buddhists. I guess that money corrupts, but nevertheless I think that anyone who spends their life in contemplation of the cyclical nature of our corner of the universe is a lot closer to 'getting it' than the vast majority of those who take comfort in the revealed religions, who seem more open to the idea of the primacy of mankind.

    I've read many of the Dalai Lama's books and have had the privilege of meeting him on one occasion and I'm certain that his views on ecology have helped to shape my own. Speaking of bulldozed land to build monasteries, didn't the Dalai Lama once insist that all the earthworms were rescued with hand sieves before a palace was built in Lhasa once?


  14. I think you're thinking of Heinrich Harrer, the Dalai Lama's tutor and friend, who built a small cinema in the Potala Palace, the construction of which required earthworms to be liberated from the soil beforehand.

    The Dalai Lama is an environmentalist, and incidentally so is the Karmapa and most leading Buddhist figures in the world to my knowledge, but there is a vast amount of difference between what they suggest we do and what actually gets done.

    The problem is that teaching people the virtue of sacrifice and simple living is at odds with mainstream consumer-industrial values which have people spend, buy, consume, purchase, discard, acquire and seek convenience, all of which is bad for the environment and in many cases one's mind as well. So, you have rich Buddhists in Taiwan and Singapore spending heaps on Buddhist institutions, yet living unsustainable lifestyles. In Taiwan you walk past the parking lot of a big monastery and you'll see a number of big SUVs. What's more is that religion gets commodified and you see handbags being sold with select eminent figures printed on the side. There is money to be made from people's religious sentiments after all.

    So, religiously and environmentally, at least from my perspective, we're in a downward spiral. This, however, is all part of the cycles of history and civilization. This won't be the end, but unthinkable suffering definitely awaits all of us.

  15. Hi Jason, I just found your blog and I have been enjoying various posts - you are an excellent writer. It is very hard being a Cassandra. It will no doubt depress you further to hear that not only are the oceans and climate ruined, not only are we in resource overshoot and beyond peak oil, but the trees you so admired are being suffocated by air pollution. Most people have no idea that the persistent background levels of tropospheric ozone are constantly rising, and now reach even the most remote areas. Even fewer know that ozone is even more toxic to plants that absorb it through their foliage than it is to human health from inhaling it through our lungs. It's no secret to the USDA that air pollution is greatly reducing crop yield and quality, in the billions of dollars annually. But they don't advertise that, even to farmers.

    Especially for trees that are exposed season after season, their root systems shrivel as they have to devote energy to repairing damage to leaves and needles, and they lose natural immunity to insects, disease and fungus. Most of the time, those opportunistic attacks are blamed for declining forests but really, it is more like trees have AIDS. I keep hoping that this equation which is as simple as smoking causes cancer will become obvious, so that people will become inspired to conserve energy instead of perpetually squandering it. In fact I wrote a little book about this topic should you be interested - http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/p/pillage-plunder-pollute-llc.html

    Meanwhile, I try my hardest to look at possessing this foreknowledge of doom as a gift and not a curse. At least I know to cherish every minute and every shred of nature that remains. It's quite difficult as a parent, however.

    It's always good to find another voice of sanity. I hope you keep up the great blogging.


    Gail Zawacki


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