Saturday, October 13, 2012

Are you a Hobbit?

Simon Dale's hobbit style house in Wales

I will begin this week’s post with a confession that few of you could have guessed from the limited information I reveal about myself in the global cyber commons aka The Matrix. Here are some clues: I grew up in the English Midlands, I’m of average height for a Brit (i.e. a dwarf by Scandinavian standards where I live), I have a fondness for real ale and my idea of pure unsurpassed bliss is sitting beside an open fire, smoking a pipe and listening to the slow monotonous tung of a grandfather clock.

Yes, that’s right; it’s something I have suspected for a while - I am a hobbit.

As if further proof were needed, I can rummage in my drawers and find scraps of paper with crude drawings of earth built ‘hobbit holes’ in the style of that made by Simon Dale (see main image), and what’s more, my toes are hairier than the average. I’m pluckier than the average person could guess, and although I have never outwitted a dragon, I did, alas, have a promising career as a burglar in my younger days (more on my reckless past in a future post).

But this post is not about me and my hairy toes – this post is about EVIL.

Speaking of toes, I once had a tattoo made in Guatemala by a man from Los Angeles who told me he had tattooed the name of Sean Penn’s dead dog onto his big toe (i.e. Sean Penn’s big toe, not his own). The fact that I just revealed that Sean Penn has his dead dog’s name inked onto his big toe makes me a celebrity news breaker and I fully expect to quadruple the visitor count to 22BillionEnergySlaves this week as a result, given that Sean Penn’s web presence is double that of all news relating to peak oil - I hope one or two of those visitors will stay.

Anyway, back to the plot. Draw a deep breath, because I’ve been contemplating evil all week, and the various forms it can take. But what is evil? I'm not sure. I'd define it as an action that causes gross suffering to sentient beings and/or wanton destruction of part of the biosphere for psychological satisfaction.

Here are my conclusions about evil if you are in a rush and don’t have time/can’t be bothered to read the rest of the post: evil does exist, and mostly it is dressed up as good. What’s more, technology can act as a catalyst of evil.

I realize that evil is a strong word. I believed in evil as a child – you know the kind of evil I mean – the kind personified by the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the kid-munching giants in the BFG. Then, as I got older, I started to think that evil didn’t really exist and it was more a case of stupidity, or senselessness, on the part of the people I had previously labelled evil. This belief was bolstered by a flirtation with Buddhism, and even the Dalai Lama has said something to the effect that people are not ‘evil’ they are just making mistakes that will negatively affect their karma.

The Childcatcher: probably quite evil in a conventional way

Well, whatever. Recently I’ve come around again to thinking that evil does exist, and we’re liberally marinated in the stuff. What’s more, there are three types of evil people – or people who employ evil means, more precisely. The most common-garden recognisable variety evil is committed by psychopaths. You know the type; they will capture you, lock you in a box and torture you for days before ending your life in a most unpleasant manner and then walk around wearing your genitals for kicks. Whether these people are simply insane or not, I don’t really care – evil is a good enough label for me.

The second type of evil doer is of the same breed as the above, but more refined and clever. Not wishing to get blood on their own hands these people rise to positions of power and then channel their evil ways through the power they have attained. Whether they are the president of a company or the president of a nation doesn’t really matter, they get their kicks from, as George Orwell put it, stamping on a human face forever.

Then there’s the third kind of evil. This is a far less visible type, but by sheer biomass is probably the weightiest of them all. The evil I talk of is evil dressed up as good. Everyone’s at it, it seems. From the countries who think their shit don’t stink because they have ‘progressive policies’ for their citizens (while quietly exploiting the Third World for their own benefit), to the various NGOs who act as virus carriers of ideology to the far corners of the globe, and rabid corporate backed scientists who are pushing all manner of destructive technologies into the biosphere in the name of humanitarianism.

We’re all complicit in this last scam. Indeed, living in the ‘developed’ world, it is all but impossible to not contribute in some way to the systems that enslave our fellow men and creatures. This applies to some more than others, of course, but I type these words on a laptop that was in all probability assembled by wage slaves (in the name of giving someone a job), manufactured and transported half way across the world by climate-damaging oil (in the name of economic growth), produced in a country where the environmental costs of its manufacture were borne by the ecosystem and the health of the human population (in the name of free trade), sold to me by some corporation who will probably be contributing money to whoever wins the next election in the US in order to keep their profitable racket going (in the name of free speech and democracy) and, finally, uploaded onto a blogging platform that is owned by a company which plans to turn the human race into cyborgs (see late week’s post).

What’s a blogger to do? Throw the computer into the garbage and retreat to a cave in the Himalayas? Chuck myself onto the nearest compost heap and await the end? Start watching the X Factor and try to become ‘adjusted’?

J.R.R Tolkien knew what evil was. His time in the Somme, during the First World War, showed him the depths that humans could plunge to. Would the German machine gunners who gunned down so many young men have considered themselves evil? I don’t think so.

Tolkien would never be drawn on the meaning of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, we can probably assume it was to do with nuclear weapons. Destructive technology was Tolkien’s bugbear. In one quote he hinted at the meaning, seemingly saying that once some kind of destructive power had been brought into being it began to live a life of its own:

"I should say that it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or lesser degree, out of one's direct control."

Which, to me, is the theme of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien drew on Scandinavian and Anglo Saxon mythology for his inspiration. He was all too aware that our native mythology had been utterly supplanted by Christianity, and what remained of it in Wales and Scotland, was mostly Celtic in origin. Instead, he was driven by a desire to create an English mythology – even if it was ‘made up’ – never anticipating the success he would encounter in such an endeavour.

As I mentioned above, I grew up in ‘Tolkien country’. My childhood was spent close to Oxford, where Tolkien lived and worked as a professor of linguistics at the university – I was probably lying in my cot, aged two, when he died. I hadn’t even had a chance to read The Hobbit at that point.

Turning back the clock, when young John lived in Warwickshire it was a very rural (and it still is, to a degree) but the hamlet he lived in, Sarehole Mill, near Hall Green, was some miles from the encroaching spread of Birmingham; England’s second city and the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. I spent most of my teenage years in this area, which is now well and truly part of the spread of the city and not a very pleasant place to be unless you are a connoisseur of suburban blight (sorry, Hall Greenians - okay, to be fair, it still has its nice parts). I lived for a year very close to Sarehole Mill, which is now embedded in a run-down urban zone where you are as likely to hear Urdu spoken as you are English. It’s almost impossible today to recognise this as a place that inspired Tolkien to invent the fictional Shire, surrounded as it is by busy dual-carriageways, Indian takeaways and dodgy car repair shops.

Here’s a picture of the pub where Tolkien used to chat to his friend C.S.Lewis (of Narnia fame) called the Eagle and Child (known by locals as the Bird and Baby).

The Eagle and Child in Oxford, where Tolkien would meet up with fellow writers

But the surrounding countryside, now some miles away, remains recognisably ‘Shire-esque’, and you can still visit the places where he was inspired to write about the Barrow Mounds and various other places that crop up in his books. There’s even a farm called Bag End and a road called Hobbs Moat Road. If you’ve ever wondered why the unusual chapter ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, in which various low-down characters are driven from the realm, was appended to the end of LOTR, then it’s my guess that it was Tolkien’s cathartic way of dealing with the destruction of his beloved rural idyll by way of fantasy.

So, back to evil. When I see articles like this one, about a new iPad for babies (sorry, it’s in Danish), I can’t help thinking that the kind of evil we should surely be worried about is the kind that we all-too-often take for granted as ‘normality’. How exactly did the marketers of this particular product manage to convince themselves they were adding to the sum total of human welfare? Or the development agencies who consider that they are doing Amazonian tribes a favour by rounding them up and building them somewhere to live that looks like this (but we must cut infant mortality!):

If a visiting alien economist (and I pray there are none ‘out there’) were to analyse our setup, he/she/it would quickly deduce that the ‘enlightened’ first world is a giant face-sucking vampire squid, to borrow a phrase, on the rest of the planet – just by looking at trade deals alone. For every one of us with our iPods and designer kettles and reality TV programmes, there are 10 people on the breadline packed like peas in a pod into a single room, heating dirty water from a beaten up kettle over some burning sticks and living with the reality of not having a TV or any other form of consumer electronics device. What kind of way is that to run a planet?

Anyway, my personal jury’s still out on whether there are truly ‘evil’ forces out there, or whether we are just suckers for unleashing forces that could be considered evil and setting up systems that promote evil. I suppose I should mention Rudolph Steiner, who had some pretty deep thoughts on this subject. He didn’t see the world in black and white terms, and for that we can be thankful. Instead, it is my understanding, he considered the whole progressive materialist fallacy as evil – or at least bad – through and through, with that evil coming in two different flavours which, together, can balance one another out.

These two concepts he named Luciferic and Ahrimanic, with the former being concerned mainly with spirit and cosmology and the latter being concerned with materialism, science and ‘hard facts’. Thus, we are living in Ahrimanic times, by his reckoning, with evil being channelled or justified in that way. There’s an awful lot more to it than that and it’s well worth reading up on his ideas.

So, getting back to hobbits, who are resolutely not evil because they are earthy creatures and not concerned with metaphysics or playing psychic power games, we can perhaps see that what this world needs right now is more hobbits and less evil wizards (marketers, politicians, thaumaturgic manipulators), orcs (mindless consumers, imperial soldiers) and gollums (tortured addicted souls).

Are you a hobbit? You don’t have to look like one. If you hunger for peace and quiet and the chance to feel the moist earth between your toes, to have a small place to call home where it is safe to raise a healthy family and grow a vegetable patch or an orchard, and if the word 'permaculture' is more attractive to you than 'monoculture' then chances are you have hobbit blood flowing through your veins. And of course, it’s not easy being a hobbit in a world full of orcs and dragons, but we can take heart that we are a resourceful and resilient breed, often at our best during the most testing of times (and often quite lazy at all other times).

So if you are a hobbit reading this then I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve, so please carry on reading and bear the following in mind:

“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.

But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now

mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.”

J.R.R Tolkien


  1. People aren't necessarily evil (if such a thing can exist in a neutral universe) but, as Plato said, they are selfish. This manifests in actions that look like evil.
    Of course, not everyone is selfish to the extent that your average CEOs is, but we all are to some extent, however tiny.
    Is there such a thing as true altruism? Even if all you get out of a good deed is a warm glow, then you are still getting something out of the deal.
    If you believe Dawkins then we have no free will and even the most altruistic act of laying down your life is simply our genes looking out for the 'greater good' of the tribe/family or whatever.
    Bleak indeed. Maybe the world is better off without us. Maybe not. But if there is no good or evil then what's the point? Why not just carry on and see what happens?
    Interesting times.

    1. I would say that all evil is subjective, as is altruism.

      I'm not at all keen on Dawkins. He's a great explainer of evolutionary theory and genetics, but to my mind he makes straw men arguments whenever he talks about anything outside the realm of scientific reasoning.

      Neither do I agree with his idea that we have no free will - which is why I avoid his books.

  2. Unfortunately in our realm I'm afraid Sauron will win. The ring of power as our collective passions and self-interests in the modern industrial age can't be unforged. It will just have to exhaust all its power (oil and fossil fuels).

    I recently read something from an Indian who said that India is absolutely not going to "go back to the dark ages" and how the power structures are largely revolving around access to energy and the ability to supply it. When gas and petrol prices rise there people get really irked at the state (and maybe get violent).

    Countries like India and China don't have the political will for degrowth or even voluntary economic slowdown. To suggest people might go back to living on a farm is tantamount to suggesting they lick boots (in much of Asia agriculture is looked down upon). Everyone expects the government to make up for lost time and to hell with the environmental consequences. That also means the people would support aggressive policies to secure resources which they feel quite strongly is their right to have. This is probably part of the reason why there is the political will in India to build a fleet of nuclear submarines despite most citizens not having access to toilets.

    The ongoing militarization of Asia is preparation for resource wars.

    1. Jeffrey, I still think that India and China have come to the game too late if they are planning on turning all of their citizens into affluent middle class consumers. From what I've seen, especially in India, there is a thin layer of affluence floating on a huge vat of poverty, ecological breakdown and resentment. The governments there must fear that their increasingly empty promises won't materialise.

      I have no doubt we'll soon see massive resource wars, famines and all the rest. What's more, the upper crust of Chindia will have to fight their own peoples. It won't be pleasant, that's for sure.

  3. A week ago, my wife and I returned from ten days camping in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada in California. The place is marvelous which of course is why it was turned into a national park. Here live trees over 2000 years old and thirty feet in diameter. To spend an afternoon walking among them is a transformative experience. Among other things, one realizes that these trees have been here since before the start of the Christian era and that while they are not necessarily aware that during their life, evil men like Ghengis Kahn, Stalin and Hitler have come and gone, their presence nevertheless is a lesson that on the time scale of nature, the acts of humans are by and large trivial. Yes, we have created the atom bomb and extermination camps, but in due course the human species will face the same fate as all other species, namely extinction. We will sooner or later arrive at a version of earth where there is no ecological niche for us and so we will leave the scene. Whatever evil we have wrought will quickly diminish in the rear view mirror, presuming that there is anyone there to look into that mirror. If there is evil, it is of our own making and we do have a choice whether to cooperate with it or not. And yes, I do believe that we can practice being in the world but not of it.
    Oh, and getting back to the phenomenon of the giant Sequoias, it is encouraging that they are so popular. On the day we visited one of the groves, five separate buses were disgorging French tourists into the parking lot. Yes, the sequoias are the world's most massive living things and as such, they inspire a kind of curiosity that used to draw people to freak shows, but there is also a feeling of reverence that the trees inspire in people, something that works as a counterweight to our fascination with evil. The fact that people cross oceans to see these trees gives me some hope that there is a bit of Hobbit alive in even the most craven materialists.

    1. Wolfgang - it's funny you should say that as tow of my work colleagues have just returned from seeing those giant trees (one of them even made a film about them). You might not realise it, but they are right up there as the top things people want to see over that side of the US (along with the Grand Canyon and, er, Las Vegas).

      I'd love to see them too one day, but will in the meantime just have to satisfy my tree love with local (much smaller) specimens!

  4. Excellent post, mostly because I'm a huge fan of Tolkien's work. I check your blog on a regular basis as it's one of my favourites. According to your criteria, I am a hobbit, and I'm rather happy and proud to be counted among them! I was an orc not too long ago, but I woke up, and think with a clearer mind now.

    1. Thanks Tim! Much learning about life could probably be relabelled as an 'orc rehabilitation course'.

  5. Hi Jason,

    Wow, you sure opened a can of worms with this one. The question of evil has occupied people's minds for almost as long as there have been people. Just in the Christian tradition alone, millions, if not billions of words have been written on the subject. For them, the crucial question is: If God created the world and God is good, why then is there evil (or, for some, does evil truly exist)? This occupied the Scholastics. Other traditions pose the question differently but they usually confront it in some way or other. It is inevitable that someone would chime in to this thread with the usual Scientistic trope about there being no such thing as evil, just genes working to insure their survival in a neutral universe. Any truly neutral reader of that statement can see at least two assumptions of metaphysical import there (meaning, two statements of faith from a person who imagines himself to have bravely progressed beyond such superstitions of faith). But, we'll leave the Dawkins group aside for now.

    My feeling is that you're right: Evil does indeed exist. The better questions would be: What is it? And: Why does it exist? To address the first one: Is it personified (a la the devil), or is it some sort of force (a la chaos or "the dark side")? As for why it exists, well, there have been so many attempts to answer this question just in the Western tradition alone that it would be absurd to wade in, but I'll state my own suspicion: It is not so much something as the absence of something. I'll go no further than that.

    Bringing this down to more mundane matters, I think it's worth pointing out that matters may not be so black and white or cut and dried as they appear on the world economic scheme. I'm not entirely sure that it's a matter of the evil first world just sucking wealth and blood out of the good developing world. I dare say it's a lot more complicated than that. Also, it's very common to blame evil leaders for corrupting and taking over otherwise decent societies, but we should remember that guys like Dick Cheney do not come to power unless they are born into a society of selfish people who really want to drive big cars and don't give a damn about the costs to the environment. What I'm saying is, both within individual nations and on the world stage, we're all part of this vast human hoard. Sure, some may have comfortable seats high on the upper decks while others sweat at the oars, but we're all part of this big gang of locust that is quickly devouring this big round field of grass.

    That said, I am with you on this: if all people were hobbits, the earth would be a lot better off for it. I think the simplest definition of a hobbit is this: a creature (maybe a man) who lives in harmony with his environment. That is, in a sustainable way. This naturally involves loving the feeling of soil between your toes and loving your particular shire. Needless to say, you cannot be a hobbit and spend your time lost in cyberspace. A hobbit by definition prefers the real world to the digital world.

    In closing, I have to say that I love the turn your blog is taking. This post and the one you did a while back about choosing optimism is totally the way to go. As I commented on that thread, even if we are doomed, I'd rather go all the way to my last breathe holding onto hope than merely give in to despair.

    The words with which you closed your post may well become my new motto as I also try to find a way for a man who loves the earth and loves his children to walk into the future and build a future for his children.

    1. Opening cans of worms is a speciality of mine!

      Of course, there's only so much I can write in a short blog post.

      Totally agree with your last sentence.

  6. "Evil" exists, as does "Good": Yin and Yang - spinning together with a bit of each in each.

    The trick lies in bringing it all into balance.

    Which, it seems, we collectively are not.

    1. I think everything balances out in the long term. It's an ineffable facet of the universe.

  7. Simply do good. I live in a big tourist area that has a sweet shop that sells ice cream. I have paid forward hundreds of dollars for ice cream cones for total strangers. Then stood on the sidelines and watched their faces when told that someone bought them an ice cream cone. Simply do good. Be kind, even when every cell is screaming otherwise. Care as much as your brain can handle. Touch kindly. Smile alot. Give. And fer petes sake, don't watch TV.

    1. That's nice to know Judy! Let's hope that what goes around comes around :-)

  8. To my mind, hobbits are Tolkein's idealised country folk of middle england and I for one am with you sitting by an open fire with a pint of real ale and chatting to friends and family against a gentle background murmuring of like minded folk trying to get closer to the fire.

    Sorry I didn't make it to Copenhagen to share a couple of beers though I suspect they wouldn't have been as good as a decent pint of bitter.

    We got to Tallin where I was informed the child catcher scene in chitty chitty bang bang was filmed. Also to St Petersburg which was a real eye opener. Two days was enough to see why the russians had a revolution. An understandable reaction to the selfish ? evil greed of a kleptocracy. But all that murder.

    The trouble is everyone wants their share and who should deny them it? Enough is not a concept hard wired into the human race but it's something we all have to learn. I'm still trying. It will be a harder lesson when mother nature imposes her own limits on us.

    1. Hi Phil. Pity you couldn't make it - if it's any consolation, the weather was foul here at the time.

      I've never been to Tallin, but it sounds like an interesting kind of place.

  9. I am definitely a Hobbit!
    Thanks as always for the fantastic blog!
    all the best to you,

  10. This is a fabulous post. You've asked about the emperor's clothes in a time when even acknowledging the possibility of a question about their reality has become gauche, and at worst a crime on the level of jaywalking. On many levels, to the great Potemkin facade promulgated by the media machine and ostensibly the "common people", the question whether our runaway economic and social machine is evil or not just doesn't make any sense.

    I'm 42 (the Douglas Adams number), born 1970. As a little kid I remember what seemed like serious discussion about what's right and wrong, where we were going as a society, and what this meant for children. There was a real sort of worry in the air, for us and the world, but beneath it an earnest substrate. Big Bird and all those other hippie psychedelic shows on PBS really did deal with good and evil on kid's terms, in a solidly humanist way. What were we going to do to save the trees? It's okay. We can cooperate and you can help.

    From 1978 until the early 90s I lived in Texas, where my father found the job he retired from. Even now, I am unable to believe the state that invented Progressivism and that led the little guy revolt against the Gilded Age's excesses could ever start in Texas. Religious psychosis--both in that creepy, unctuous species of Christian fundamentalism particular to America (and I can't just say 'The South' dismissively any more), and the bizarre belief in the free market as our ultimate material savior--was inviolable and total. As Wal-Mart came and crushed wages and removed benefits, people just asked for more. A aggressive sort of learned helplessness has made so many people double down into what doesn't work, and it's taken over the country's mind.

    In my suburban, white, middle class high school in the mid 1980s, nobody knew about central American dirty wars or the runaway arms race. It was all football and getting a car, and it was clear what program you were supposed to be with. The churchgoing students patrolled the halls looking for converts. At night, bombers and fighters from Carswell Air Force base could keep me up. How could people not see this was insane, be so focused on the wrong things?

    Evil is many things, but key components are a willful blindness, learned helplessness, and banality. Hannah Arendt said it best about the banality. But that banality comes from the desire for safety and permanence. People just want safety over everything, repeated bumper stickers with quotes from Franklin or Jefferson aside. They will allow anything to be done to them or to anyone else so long as they are safe.

    You say the most prevalent sort of evil is that dressed up as good. I agree, and this is certainly why evil is so prevalent and successful. But thinking about it has made me conclude it's only possible for evil to be so prevalent and confused with good because of these other properties. This is what those evil people exploit.

    I'm glad your blog is among those more wide-thinking ones that sees evil as something to observe and not so much a problem to solve. (At least, that's what I get. I apologize if I missed the point.) Fossil fuel and the technology to exploit them allowed those who wield evil to have an outsized sway--for a while. Tolkien's books are popular, I think, because he took the question of evil head-on, showed the valiant fight, and was honest enough to have evil defeated ultimately not by heroism (whatever that is), but by the simple fluke that Gollum, only slightly more depraved than Frodo by then, fought dirty to get what he wanted. Gravity did the rest, and I don't think gravity has a moral dimension.

    As I've struggled in what to do and how to live knowing something about the future that's coming, I think that's been a key to staying upbeat: don't blame gravity.


    1. Derek - I think you have hit the nail on the head. Some people always have been and always will do inherently evil things (although it is hard to define exactly what this means). Cheap and widely available energy has simply amplified this ability - just as it has amplified things at the other end of the good vs evil spectrum.

      I've never thought of the gravity thing with Gollum - thanks for pointing that out!


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.