Ecological, intellectual and magical

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I went to a 40th birthday party last weekend. It was a celebration not of an individual but of a magazine – Resurgence, the ecological bimonthly. As Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the UK sustainable development commission, recalled in his opening address, when Resurgence was founded in 1966, Silent Spring had recently been published and the World Wildlife Fund had been going for five years. But there were no environment ministries, no Green party, no Greenpeace and no Friends of the Earth. The green movement was in its infancy.

Now political parties vie with each other to appear green. BP has greened its logo and claims to have gone beyond petroleum. Even The Economist magazine devoted an issue to climate change, beginning with the immortal words: “Global warming, it now seems, is for real.” (As Hamlet said: “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’.”) The greening of politics and business, however superficial, is an (inadequate) response to a world ecological crisis that, in the language of terror threats, has escalated from severe to critical.

Resurgence, especially for the past 30 years under the editorship of former Jain monk Satish Kumar, has nourished the aesthetic and spiritual values that some of the more scientistic and economistic elements of the green movement have ignored. (I should declare an interest as an occasional contributor.) Getting the beautifully produced magazine through the post every other month brings the prospect of pleasurable contemplation as much as of dire warning and statistics prophesying doom.

In keeping with the Resurgence ethos, the birthday event, held in Oxford University’s examination halls, began with an unaccompanied choir (mixing western polyphony with African polyrhythm) and ended with dancing (to the strains of the impeccably ecological band Seize the Day). There was an almost embarrassingly benevolent clown and an abundance of colourful shirts, linen trousers and spotted socks. A delicious vegetarian lunch was prepared by the pupils of the Small School at Hartland in Devon (founded by Kumar). There was a message of support from the Prince of Wales.

But not everything was sweetness and light. Two voices, one near the beginning and one near the end, disturbed what might have developed into a fiesta of complacency or self-congratulation.

George Monbiot, the polemical author (most recently of Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning), urged the assembled company of greenies to “be less nice”. He took issue with a certain strain of Buddhism, which holds that “it doesn’t matter what you do so long as you do it with love”. For Monbiot, that leads to “love-miles”, whereby environmentally damaging travel (especially by air) is justified on the grounds of affection.

Air travel is the ecological sin against the Holy Ghost – almost impossible to justify and almost impossible to give up. We all know the arguments – how air emissions are so much more damaging than ground level ones. Governments that build more runways, international treaties exempting aviation fuel from tax and cheap air fares (whose full cost will be borne by people in Bangladesh) all collude to drive unsustainable growth. But still we fly. I am a serial offender. The Aegean is more enticing than the North Sea, and clothes in New York are so much cheaper.

If we are going to embrace slowness, we need to fight the forces that are urging ever-increasing speed. According to Monbiot, we must be prepared to break the law in the interests of a higher law. Here if not in other matters (Monbiot believes we must act globally as well as locally) he concurs with Resurgence’s founder, John Papworth, an 85-year-old priest, activist and general trouble maker.

Papworth’s appearance at the feast was not exactly like that of Banquo but it sent a frisson through the company. “We have not yet achieved a green politics,” said the craggy, still handsome and fiery old man. “We cannot have politics without com- ­munity and we do not have community.”

Papworth, together with Resurgence co-founders E.F. Schumacher and Leopold Kohr, represents the “small is beautiful” strain in ecological thinking. He has a vision of small nations built from self-governing communities.

But everything he sees around him, from New Labour to the European Union to supermarket chains and multinationals, speaks of the opposite: ever-increasing centralism and monopoly, planning processes started at the centre and conducting more or less cosmetic exercises in consultation.

Two things stayed with me (apart from the voice of the fiery old man). The first was the presence and energy of so many young people working in diverse ways, organising networks of social entrepreneurship, conducting campaigns against apathy. And second the poetry of David Whyte, saying that the kingfisher never has a bad kingfisher day, that we are the only corner of creation that can refuse to be ourselves.

For all this it seemed worth hoping that Resurgence (now formed into a charitable trust under the chairmanship of James Sainsbury) might continue for another 40 years, into a world undoubtedly more threatened but perhaps also more awake and aware.

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