Three films, three worlds

In January we went to the local cinema to watch three very different recent films, charting the struggles of three men trying to cope with the difficult circumstances imposed by the worlds in which they live. The films underline the power of the cinema in portraying the highs and lows of human behaviour in a range of settings: there are worlds of difference between Denmark in the 19th Century, mid-20th Century Poland and France and 21st Century Mexico and the USA. My notes on these films are in this chronological order.

Rural life in pre-industrial, semi-feudal Denmark is the theme of Before the Frost (Før Frosten), a film directed by Michael Noer. The well-known Scandinavian actor Jesper Christensen plays ”cowman Jens”, a smallholder farmer struggling to keep body and soul – and his family – together in the 1850s. Social hierarchies are rigorously enforced in the village church where the priest ranks the community according to wealth; beggars standing in the back row. Jens’ children’s hunger is almost palpable in the early scenes as the farmer realises the harvest is going to fail and there is nothing but crusts soaked in thin gruel to put on the dinner table. The frosts of winter will bring starvation. Neighbours offer escape routes, particularly as Jens has an attractive daughter Signe (Clara Rosager); having already sold his cows she is his main negotiable asset. His wife is long dead and the two boys in the household are his nephews, but neither is capable of bringing in much of value. Then, just as Jens is arranging to marry off his daughter to a rich Swedish landowner and his scheming mother, his farmhouse burns down under mysterious circumstances and the younger boy is killed in the blaze. There’s an insurance claim, a shocked and terse bride-to-be and some unpleasant fights in the cowshed. Other farmers in the village abandon their land and set off to go to America, labourers are mistreated and in a final twist the older boy is murdered and his body dumped in a swamp. Jens is silent in the closing sequences as he reckons up the costs of his survival.

Cold War is a magical journey around Europe from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. It is a black and white film directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and overflowing with carefully selected images and musical scores. Post-war Poland is slowly getting back to normal and some artists are setting up a music and dance school in the countryside. One of the teachers, a musical director and pianist called Victor (Tomasz Kot), falls in love with an aspiring student Zula (Joanna Kulig) who has a beautiful voice and a seductive style. Their passion seems to know no bounds. However, when the Stalinists assert their influence on the world of music and theatre, Victor decides to head to the west and escapes from a school excursion to Berlin where the students are supposed to fraternise with the East German socialist youth (their erstwhile enemies). Then ensues a lengthy on-off relationship between the two lovers, torn between desire for each other and efforts to make their living in the jazz clubs of poetic Paris and the ritualistic singing and dancing circles of communist Warsaw. The physical and mental borders between east and west gradually become more and more oppressive. When Victor decides to return to Poland he is sent to a labour camp where his fingers are damaged so that he can no longer play the piano. Meanwhile Zula has taken to the bottle and stumbles around off stage. Finally coming full circle and trapped in a cold war from which they can see no way out, the star-crossed lovers re-visit the village where they first met, down some pills and die in the cornfields. The film ends with the opening bars of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

There’s also a good deal of music in Clint Eastwood’s archetypal American road movie The Mule. It’s a film version of a story published in the New York Times about a 90 year-old man who became a drug courier for one of the biggest cartels in the business. Earl Stone has failed as a husband and father, but excelled at growing lilies, until his little business is undercut by internet-based flower companies. Forced to quit his home and his greenhouses, Earl is also rejected yet again by most of his family. But then he chances on the opportunity to earn easy money driving consignments of cocaine between shippers and dealers. Much of the film focuses on the old man at the wheel of his Ford pick-up, cruising the highways and listening to country music. With dollars in his pocket he re-connects with his veterans club and is able to help his granddaughter complete her studies. Unfortunately both the narcotics police (DEA) and assorted heavies in the Mexican gangs he is working for get on his trail, culminating in a prolonged chase as Earl “disappears” to be at his ex-wife’s side on her deathbed. In some ways a strangely low key film, with some scenes slipping across the boundaries of belief – the old man gets hooked up with two prostitutes in two separate scenes – the Mule combines the violence of lawlessness battling law enforcement with a simple message about the centrality of the family in the shifting sands of a brutal world. There’s also some well-tuned humour, notably about the difficulties for the older generation in adjusting to the world wide web and social media. In the closing scenes when captured and tried for drug smuggling, Earl pleads guilty to all charges, so he ends his days tending flowers in the prison gardens.

There are no happy endings: one old man bitterly surrenders to his superiors in order to survive, another commits suicide and the third is imprisoned. While the cowman and the mule are dark figures in hostile landscapes stalked by violence and death, the lovers in Cold War are unable to reconcile their passions for music and each other with compromises required to conform in a bleak, divided continent. The Danish and American films are solid and slightly plodding stories of old men struggling to make ends meet, while the Polish production soars high above them in an orgy of sights and sounds. There’s no doubt in my mind that the musical magic of Cold War captures the contradictions of the era in an extraordinary manner.

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Falling apart?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

To illustrate the famous poem I’ve selected a short list of stories in the news at the beginning of 2019. What are the links between the following happenings?

  • widespread “gilets jaunes” (yellow vest) protests in France, where roundabouts are the new symbol of anger and inequalities;
  • mass internment and saturation surveillance of the Muslim minority in the western provinces of China;
  • a complete collapse of trust in British politicians resulting from a hopelessly badly managed process to agree the conditions for leaving the European Union (Brexit);
  • the introduction of slave labour legislation on pay and working hours in Hungary, contested in street protests;
  • the resignation of a supreme court judge in Nicaragua, accusing the government of ruling by terror as the prisons fill up with protesters;
  • new Brazilian environmental legislation aiming to increase deforestation in the Amazon (by allowing expanded crop cultivation), undermining the rights of indigenous peoples;
  • a shutdown of government services in the USA in a standoff over the President’s desire to use millions of dollars to build a Mexican border wall;
  • a state of emergency declared in the northern regions of Burkina Faso bordering Mali and Niger after massacres of farmers and herders;
  • the ups and downs of the Kurdish struggle for self-determination or independence in Iraq, Syria and Turkey;
  • a fragile budget compromise between the five star and northern league populists governing Italy and the European Commission.

The answer of course is Bad Governance! The bottom line is the increasing “disconnect” between the aspirations of “the people” and the abilities of the ruling classes to deliver better lives. In some cases the rulers (politicians) don’t appear give a toss about the rights of the people concerned, in others the discontented and angry are flexing their muscles. Identity politics appears to have demolished other all causes, with a constant quest to define us as opposed to them. The outcomes of most of these struggles hang in the balance…

I’ll round off with few more lines from ”The Second Coming”, written by W.B. Yeats one hundred years ago (1919):

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; /Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world /The blood dimmed tide is loosed; and everywhere /The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

 

The destroyers of worlds

Almost every morning I await the news bulletins with a sense of foreboding: what have the world’s increasingly awful strongmen and their cronies destroyed over the past 24 hours? In America both the rule of law and respect for human rights seem to be disappearing in a wave of authoritarianism; where the thuggish new president of Brazil joins the ranks of angry old men who relish attacking minorities and encouraging extra-judicial murder, not to mention undermining decades of efforts to protect the natural world. Things don’t look much better on the other continents. It’s the old story of money and guns making the world go round…

Surveying the global scene in January 2019 reveals a considerable number of baddies in control of a large number of very large (populous) countries. The following list of 25 is incomplete, but gives an impression of what has been going on. The trends don’t look too good either, as few of these guys – all men of course – or their parties and movements look like transferring power in inclusive ways to freely elected citizens.

Algeria (pop. = 41 million), where an aging General Bouteflika struggles on in the wake of the nightmare legacy of a bloody independence struggle and a civil war (with over 100,000 dead).

Belarus or White Russia (population = 10 million), where the last European dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, has been in power since 1994!

Cambodia (pop. = 16 mill.), where Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power since 1985 and was foreign minister from 1979 when Pol Pot was overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion…

Cameroon (pop. = 24 million), where the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) led by President Paul Biya since 1982 (36 years in power) oversees a descent into civil strife.

China, People’s Republic of (population = 1,380,000,000), where the CP has ruled since 1949 and President Xi plans to rule forever…

Cuba (population = 12 mill.), where the CP rules – in the Castro family variety – since 1959…

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (population = 80 million), where President Joseph Kabila took over in 2001 from his assassinated father and has failed to stop civil unrest…

Egypt (pop. = 95 million), where in 2013 General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in a coup, has executed many dissenters and was elected President in 2014.

Eritrea (population = 5 million), where Isaias Afwerki became president in 1993 at independence from Ethiopia and has “over-militarised” the country ever since…

Hungary (population = 10 million), an EU member state which has become known as an “illiberal democracy”, returning Victor Orban as Prime Minister for a third term from 2018.

Iran (pop. = 81 million), where a bunch of priests are in control with a revolutionary guard keeping an eye on dissenters (since 1979 when the corrupt US backed Shah was ousted…)

Kazakhstan (population = 19 million), where President Nazarbayev has been in power since the end of the USSR in 1991…

Nicaragua (pop. = 6 million), where the ex-revolutionary leader of the Sandinistas, Daniel Ortega demonstrates how power corrupts and who seems to enjoy terrorising the citizens.

North Korea (pop. = 26 million), ruled by the Kim family dynasty, a nasty nuclear power…

The Philippines (population = 107 million), where President Rodrigo Duterte in power since 2016 takes pride in extra-judicial killings in his war (of terror?) on drugs…

Russia (population = 144 mill.), where Vladimar Putin wins elections again and again and in effect won the latest (2016) US election too, although the facts about this are still disputed!

Saudi Arabia (pop = 34 mill.), under feudal authoritarian control by the dynastic House of Saud (Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the King’s son, is strongman and Minister of Defence).

Sudan (pop = 42 million), where General Omar al-Bashir has been ruling the roost and fighting in Darfur, against South Sudanese independence, etc. since a coup d’état in 1989.

Syria (population = 18 million), where Bashar al-Assad, son of a dictator, is the greatest symbol of 21st century misery so far and has forced millions to flee as far as frontiers allow.

Thailand (population = 70 million), where generals currently led by Prayut Chan-o-cha have been in control since the latest in a series of coups d’état in 2014.

Togo (population = 8 million), where in 2005 Faure Gnassingbé won presidential elections and thus took over from his father who had been in power for 38 years!

Turkey (pop = 82 million), a groggy democracy under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan…

Uganda (pop = 45 mill.), where President Museveni has been in power since 1986, 32 years!

Venezuela (population = 32 million), a Latin American tragedy where thugs under President Nicolás Maduro suppress dissent and fix elections while the economy falls apart…

Viet Nam (population = 96 million), where the CP rules both north and south since 1975…

Thus, at least 2.5 billion people – around one third of the world’s population – suffer the trials and tribulations of ”unfreedom” (see, inter alia: www.amnesty.org). Even more strangely millions of people have voted for these despotic madmen in assorted rigged and biased elections!

But let me not be too pessimistic… There are some countries that seem to be beacons of light, with progressive and (moderately) enlightened politicians. Eight candidates for the “goodie” category might include: Canada, Costa Rica, Finland, Indonesia, Nepal, Portugal, Tunisia and Uruguay. I have been lucky enough to have visited all but the first and last on this little list and I’m keeping a close watch on the good guys in the hope that their ideas will defeat the destroyers of worlds!

PS An exception proves the rule? Elections were organized at the end of December in the DRC and after a lengthy count it would appear that an opposition candidate will take over from Kabila… So there’s good news from the Congo too!

Skåne in autumn

NB Autumn slipped into winter before I could complete this little picture essay. Since then we’ve been to Malmö again, for the Christmas lights, the Konsthall (Art Gallery) and the shopping! The exchange rate for Swedish crowns has been very favourable recently…

Southern Sweden has been a favourite frequent destination; each trip brings new discoveries. It’s easy to get there, twenty minutes across the Øresund Bridge linking the island of Amager – where Copenhagen airport is – and the suburbs of Malmö. There are lots of container ships sailing under the bridge to and from the Baltic past slow spinning offshore wind turbines.

The landscape of gently rolling hills and flatlands in Skåne is probably the most fertile and farmed region of the huge country. There are settlements everywhere, isolated homesteads surrounded by fields. In the autumn when the harvest is over some of the fields are brown and bare, but winter crops have been planted too, so there are also shades of green.

By contrast the trees in the region are explosions of colour. A short autumn excursion turned out to be an exploration of rainbows, with the bright sun in the blue sky and the vegetation blazing yellow, red, light brown and gold. The pine forests are always green! It was a good time of year and an excellent coastal location for photographing sunsets and sunrise.

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The first stop is Ystad, a small port through which we’ve passed on a couple of trips to the island of Bornholm. The large harbour blocks the town from the sea. Behind there’s an interesting central district dominated by the tower of St. Maria’s and a monastery. It seems that the latter was established by the Franciscan order, spreading the word of Saint Francis northwards from Assisi in the 13th Century. But the monks were kicked out in the 16th Century when Luther’s reformation undermined the authority of the Catholics in Scandinavia.

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In addition to the church and monastery there are some market stalls on the central square in Ystad, but the biggest attraction for many visitors are locations used in the stories and films about Henning Mankell’s detective Kurt Wallander. The tourist office has produced a guide to Skåne, which focuses on the adventures of the depressive policeman as he tracks down all manner of criminals and deviants in the beautiful countryside and coastal resorts between Malmö and the Baltic. The tidy, pretty town seems an unlikely setting for such wild goings-on. However, it appears that under the well-kept surface lurk the forces of darkness!

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Further east along the coast in the region called Österlen we check into a very comfortable bed and breakfast and then proceed to the beach. Several nature reserves enclose mixed pine and oak forests planted to stabilise the sands blowing inland from the windy Baltic. The fine golden sand is quite easy to walk on. But the water is too cold for swimming even in the summer as we’ve discovered on previous trips. Tropical beaches are lined with palms and sometimes bougainvillea. Sandhammaren and the beaches of Österlen are fringed with dunes, heather, sharp grass and the wind bent pines.

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En route back to Ystad we stop at the coastal village called Kåseberga. There’s a tiny harbour and some old houses below low cliffs. The main attraction is on a hill above the village and is best described in an extract from the website of the National Heritage Board:

“Ales Stenar (Stones) is Sweden’s largest preserved “ship setting” – stones set in the layout of a ship. We do not know for certain what function the stones have had through the ages, or what the ship setting symbolised for the people who created it. 67 meters long and 19 meters wide, Ales Stenar is one of the largest ship settings in the Nordic region. It comprises 59 carefully selected stones weighing between 500 and 1800 kilos.

Ship settings date from two periods – the late Bronze Age (ca. 3,000 – 2,500 years ago) and the early Iron Age (ca. 1,600 – 1,000 years ago). Archaeological tests can be used to determine the age of Ales Stenar. The Carbon-14 dating system for organic remains provides seven results at the site. One dates the material at around 5,500 years old, whereas the remaining six indicate a date around 1,400 years ago, probably the most likely time that Ales Stenar was created.

Ship settings are generally regarded as burial monuments, and many of the settings found in Scandinavia do contain one or more graves. Yet no grave has ever been positively identified in the limited area that has been subject to archaeological research at Ales Stenar. If the site is not a grave, what function can the monument have had? One theory is that the ship setting was constructed to honour the crew of a ship who perished at sea. Another theory is that the ship was built to determine various times of the year. The alignment of the stones in relation to the sun is such that the sun sets over the north west tip of the monument at midsummer, and rises at the opposite tip at midwinter.”

We look at the shadows behind the stones, at the sun in a clear blue sky and wonder about the mysteries of pre-history while taking some photos.

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Our trip concludes in Ystad. We have booked to stay at a huge resort hotel with a thermal spa. In the afternoon and evening and again the following morning we lounge in hot tubs, sweat in the sauna, splash in the pool and generally do as much as we can to get ultra-squeaky clean. Close to the hotel is another beautiful beach with colourful bathing huts and more woodland.

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Many sporty locals are out and about biking and jogging or walking with their kids in the unusually warm sunshine. The great outdoors form an important backdrop for Swedish healthy lifestyles. From trekking and skiing in the mountainous central and northern regions, to canoeing on the lakes and sailing amongst the thousands of islands along the coasts, not to mention the more leisurely pursuit of country rambling, Sweden has vast spaces and varied landscapes to suit all tastes.

In the distance we can see the ferries crossing the Baltic. Downtown we find a stylish restaurant in a little park and wind up with a tasty lunch special of cod and pumpkin sauce with salad and freshly pressed apple juice. Then it is time to drive the caravan home.

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Three novels read in 2018 and highly recommended!

Not sure what subject to tackle in an end of the year scribble, I’ve settled for briefly reviewing three books I read in 2018. They were all published in 2016 and written by: i) an American man; ii) a British woman with roots in Jamaica; and, iii) a Turk who has been a visiting scholar and professor in the USA. There’s a common thread in the three tales of children growing up, maturing and along their very different ways discovering that the world is often hostile and incomprehensible. Is there hope in these stories too? I’m not sure.

I’ll start with The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Little Brown), which won several prizes including the 2017 Pulitzer for best fiction. The story is fairly straightforward: Cora is a young woman enslaved on a southern plantation in the mid-19th Century, who is approached by another rebellious slave and persuaded to escape using the underground railway – a network of hidden “connections – to go northwards and find a better life. But the narration of her adventures is rich with images that are truly horrible reminders of the horrors of slavery in America. At times the writing seems to be screaming about the evil, violence and perversion that have shaped race relations in the USA since the white colonialists decided to profit from the abundant supply of cheap African labour. From the perspective of a 21st Century European living close to the top of the global pecking order, the painful underground journey is marked in particular by awareness of the risks taken by those brave people who rise up against currents of hatred at times when mass hysteria and fear are haunting the land… No doubt there are lessons to be learned. There is also extreme sadness in the story when the fate of Cora’s mother is finally revealed towards the end.

Zadie Smith also highlights the fate of mothers in her magical novel Swing Time (Penguin). The tale of two daughters who become friends at a childhood dancing club and then grow through diverging paths with the ups and downs of success and failure, this is an engrossing cross-cultural, modern novel. All the social and political tensions of the early 21st century are on display around London’s housing estates, in West African villages and amongst the celebs and jet setters of New York. These worlds are contrasted through the stories of the two girls and their relationships with their mothers as well as with a couple of somewhat hopeless, more or less absent, fathers. How do we manage our unrealistic dreams, family tensions, the disappointments of love affairs and the inequalities and injustices of our societies? Zadie Smith has been a Granta best young British novelist and won the Orange Prize for Fiction.

I’ve read other books and essays by Orhan Pamuk in the past and was very pleased to be given The Red Haired Woman (Faber and Faber) as a gift. Turkey has loomed large in my life and I often wish that I could spend more time getting to know ”the timeless bridge” between Europe and Asia. The novel begins in Istanbul in the shadow of the 1980 coup d’état, which was when I visited the country for the first time. It tells the story of a boy losing his father and becoming apprenticed to a well-digger, of teenage lust, of a young man growing up to become a successful entrepreneur in the booming construction industry of a booming metropolis, of a childless marriage and then… the surprise in part three. The twists and turns of the Oedipus adventure underpin the story and readers learn that there was also an equivalent ancient Persian version, with a protagonist called Sohrab. The strange dynamics of fathers and sons are subtly analysed by Pamuk, who is the only Turk to have won the Nobel prize for literature.

 

Notes on Brexit as an ex-Brit (November 2018)

Observing the tangles of Brexit over the last couple of years – which might have been better staged as a theatrical farce – has been intriguing and often exasperating. I’ll start with a confession: when I left the United Kingdom (UK) 38 years ago it was the Irish question and the final contortions of British colonialism combined with the arrogance of the Eton and Oxford educated ruling classes in dismissing and/or repressing struggles for civil rights which drove me to seek my livelihood in other pastures. In addition I was involved in a peace organisation and the ugliness of military operations in Northern Ireland disgusted me. These ghosts – the division of Ireland and the behaviour of the English elite – have been haunting the negotiating sessions as the British, Irish and other Europeans (the French, Germans, etc., etc.) seek to determine how these nations (tribes?) will collaborate in the future.

I’m an ex-Brit because 20 years ago I thought that as a citizen of the European Union (EU), it wouldn’t matter much if I changed my nationality and became Danish. At that time I had lived in Denmark for around 15 years, I was paying taxes and seeking a permanent employment contract as an adviser in the foreign services, so the change made sense. As it turned out, the regulations at that time required that I renounce my British citizenship and the right of abode in the UK. But from the vantage point of the Brexit charade, I’m glad that I opted to become Danish and that I’m not faced with the hassles associated with carrying a British passport while living in an another EU member state in the post-2016 referendum, transitional limbo. That the Danish anti-EU movement might force a vote in parliament and try to take the Danes down the same hazardous pathway is another story…

In addition to having lived in an ethnically diverse West African country (Burkina Faso), I have resided in several divided European nations (including Belgium and Switzerland) during my lifetime and have often speculated on what brings people together in these imagined communities and what drives us apart. State building and national unification seem to be fractious and somehow “open ended” processes. I also spent three years living in Managua in Central America where the complexities of ”us and them” took on other dimensions, in particular in the – also topical – question of the relations between Nicaraguans, their neighbours and the “gringos en el norte” (North America)… but that’s another story too![1]

A key observation about Brexit is the rather unhelpful conclusion that the referendum in June 2016 was a colossal mistake and for a host of reasons the Tories under David Cameron ought to have known better than to ask whether “the people” wanted to remain in the EU.[2] A glance at post-war socio-political trends in the UK instantly reveals that the easiest cause around which white Englishmen can be united is restricting immigration based on the fear of Johnny foreigner. Since a pillar of European cooperation has been the free movement of labour, it was not the least surprising that the reactionary rebels on the Tory right together with the ranting crazies in UKIP would do their utmost to play on the myth that migration undermines the purity of the nation and that they (assorted foreigners) are seeking to ”steal from” or ”destroy” or ”pollute” us (true Brits…). Back in 1968 an arch anti-EU Conservative member of the UK parliament called Enoch Powell got the immigration bogeyman firmly in the public consciousness when he made a speech about the rivers of blood that would flow as darkies engulfed the islands in reggae and curries and voodoo and all manner of un-English things.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the popular ranting about the downsides of British EU membership would have had much less impact if the European integration process had been successful and could be sold as a great leap forward. But as the debt crisis in Greece, the undermining of civil rights in Poland and Hungary, the rejection of joint defence forces in favour of a “North Atlantic” (NATO) model and so on all illustrate, building our common European house over the last 70 years or so has been a very difficult process. Is that surprising? Not at all, inter-governmental cooperation, exchange of goods and services and other forms of “civilised” (non-violent) interaction require patience, good negotiating skills and a shared desire to seek compromises for the common good. But many politicians and large chunks of the mass media in all European countries have always been on the lookout for scapegoats when economic policies go wrong, when unemployment rises, when currencies lose their value, etc., such that blaming ”Brussels” for an assortment of ills has always been an attractive option. The economic constraints (austerity policies) associated with the euro – which neither the British nor the Danes amongst others have adopted – have also undermined the European “project”, while the construction of pan-European institutions and cross-border political movements has faced numerous obstacles (including language barriers…).

Of course there are loud-mouthed groups in all countries who denounce international agreements and believe that governments should restrict their operations purely to defence and security to protect “the people” against foreign threats. The British have been subjected to this rhetoric on a large scale ever since the Germans became Nazis and the heroic images of rising up to fight on the beaches suffused the mass media. I remember how odd it was to explore the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1970s and discover that contrary to popular myths in Britain there was an efficient modern state, all the trappings of wealth and welfare and few signs of any desire to return to the horrors of the first half of the 20th Century. In other words, I found out that the incessant, almost obsessive recourse to stories of the war and how the Germans couldn’t be trusted, the French were unreliable and backward, etc., etc. were simply distortions, trapping the English in a time warp.

It was amazing that the 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the EU was won by the remain movement, except that the decisive game changer for making the membership case was the likelihood of better standards of living in a common market. Hence Margaret Thatcher became an enthusiastic European free trader, based on the logic that as long as the main reason for collaboration was to allow the ruling classes to become wealthier, then the EU was a good thing. But better conditions for workers or surrendering to the Germans, no way!

That a minority of raging nationalists have been able to subvert political processes and dominate the media in their portrayal of a European super-state nightmare says much about the failure of enlightened progressives (including social democrats) to campaign effectively around the necessity of building trans-national institutions that are capable of tackling trans-national problems with trans-national solutions. It reminds me of the polarisation paralysing international negotiations on climate change: first movers in terms of measures to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are constantly on the look out for free riders, who will expand their polluting activities while others agree to cuts. The upshot is that nothing is agreed and the planet continues to warm up.[3] The failure to transcend narrowly defined interests and to intervene for the common good is a failure with an inbuilt boomerang effect. Which appears to be what the Brexiteers will have to learn the hard way, as the government prepares emergency measures to cope with disruption of trade following a “no deal” exit…

The bottom line in my observations may be to concede the truth in recent remarks by Tony Blair – not a politician I admire, but he did at least negotiate the Good Friday agreement before he decided to make his miserable mark on the history of the Middle East and join a neo-conservative invasion of Iraq – who said that Brexit is going to be either pointless or painful. What’s the solution? If British politicians can bring themselves to act as responsible Europeans (!), then compromises will be sought through a carefully worded, well prepared new referendum – which would be the third time that Brits have been asked to pronounce en masse about “Europe” – with arbitrators avoiding simplistic slogans and focusing on informed debate. At least it would make sense to vote on an exit plan, not pie in the sky!

There are Danish, Irish and Norwegian precedents for asking the people to vote a second time on the scope and depth of European integration. Unfortunately, given the accumulated anger and bitterness associated with European affairs, in the UK it is more likely that another form of distorted reality will take over. The English ruling class is not bound by rules I understand!

In the end there may be no better explanations for the Brexit fiasco and the trials and tribulations of the EU than founding mythologies, such as Genesis chapter 11, verses 1-9:

1 Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. 3 Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. 4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. 9 Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

 

[1] A couple of key references for my reflections over the years are ”Imagined Communities” by Benedict Anderson (Verso, 1983) and ”Acts of Union and Disunion” by Linda Colley (Profile, 2014). As the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War is celebrated this month, it is also appropriate to quote Wilfred Owen’s famous reminder of “… the old lie, Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.” Probably the best analyses of the self-inflicted Brexit morass that I have discovered so far are by Fintan O’Toole, an Irish writer and journalist (in particular an hour long interview on the US World Affairs TV programme which can be found on YouTube).

[2] 53.4 per cent of the 28 million voters in England voted to leave as did 52.5 per cent of the 1.6 million Welsh voters. But 62 per cent of the 2.7 million Scottish voters voted to stay in the EU, as did 55.8 per cent of almost 800,000 voters in Northern Ireland. Around 72 per cent of the electorate (registered voters) cast their votes, i.e. about 33 million people. The total UK population in 2016 was about 66 million.

[3] The 2015 Paris agreement at the UNFCCC did not include any binding regulations that would require signatories to introduce measures to reduce GHG emissions, rather it relies on so-called ”nationally determined contributions”, which it is hoped will be enough to keep global warming within a 1.5 (or 2) degree Celsius increase compared with the pre-industrial (1850) average temperature. We’ll see…

Dreaming sustainability

When I was a teenager and woke up to the state of the world, I was often very apprehensive about the future. Indeed I didn’t think the planet would survive the cold war, the “population bomb” and the acceleration of environmental collapse. I got involved in the organisation called ”friends of the earth” and tried to overcome my nightmares by joining recycling campaigns and assorted demonstrations, by ”working weekends on organic farms”, by learning about alternative energy and so on. In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were lots of dreamers – hippies, rock n rollers, communards, levellers and others – whose awareness of the limits to growth gradually filled more and more space. In particular I remember being astonished by the whole earth catalogue published with the famous photograph on the cover of the earth as seen by astronauts orbiting the moon.[1]

800px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise

Almost 50 years later the analysis of economic growth on a finite planet by the Club of Rome seems to have been a major milestone on the road to understanding the human predicament.[2] The latest twist in the story has been provided recently by a research team at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (of Stockholm University) in a new report to the same Club of Rome called: ”transformation is possible – how to achieve the sustainable development goals within planetary boundaries.” There are seventeen goals (SDGs) – ranging from reducing poverty and inequality to improving health and education, from ensuring greater justice to ensuring life on land and in the oceans – and the nine planetary boundaries are:

  • global warming (temperature rise above the level in 1850);
  • ozone depletion;
  • ocean acidification (pH level);
  • forest degradation;
  • nutrient overloading (tonnes of ”bioactive N and P”);
  • freshwater overuse;
  • biodiversity loss;
  • air pollution;
  • toxics contamination (e.g. tonnes of lead released).

The research team has found that business as usual – a scenario which entails more or less the same rates of economic growth as different regions of the world are currently experiencing – will mean that in 2050 most of the above boundaries will be exceeded (moving from ”safe space” into the “high risk” zone). In other words, growth may result in fewer destitute people and better standards of health, etc. But without tackling the environmental problems – notably biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions – overall the planet will be in a poor state.

Five transformational actions are proposed in order to shift onto a sustainable pathway, which keeps within the planetary boundaries:

  • accelerated renewable energy growth (to halve carbon emissions every decade from 2020);
  • accelerated productivity in food chains;
  • new development models in poorer countries;
  • active reduction in inequality (ensuring the richest 10 per cent take no more than 40 per cent of income…);
  • investment in education for all, gender equality and family planning.

However, as the authors of the report emphasise, the problem is that most politicians and powerful (rich) minorities appear to be unwilling to take the limits to growth and the transformational agenda seriously. Much lip service is paid to ”green growth.” But the policies and measures to transform our economies in the comprehensive manner that is necessary seem to be mostly off limits. Nonetheless, the latest generation of dreamers is more than welcome![3]

[1] Of course as we have reached 2018 there’s a catalogue website: http://www.wholeearth.com/index.php

[2] The report was published in 1972, see: https://www.clubofrome.org/report/the-limits-to-growth/

[3] Go to https://www.stockholmresilience.org/publications/artiklar/2018-10-17-transformation-is-feasible—how-to-achieve-the-sustainable–development-goals-within-planetary-boundaries.html The dual adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) together with the Paris Climate Agreement, both in 2015, represents a global turning point. We have never before had such a universal development plan for people and planet. For the first time in human history the world has agreed on a democratically adopted roadmap for humanity’s future, which aims at attaining socially inclusive and highly aspirational socio-economic development goals, within globally defined environmental targets. Humanity’s grand ambition is surely to aim at an inclusive and prosperous world development within a stable and resilient Earth system. This human quest is to attain as many of the SDGs as possible by 2030, and then continue following a sustainable global trajectory well beyond the next 12 years. This report has identified one such possible, smarter pathway to success through five transformative and synergistic actions.