Where to stand?

I heard some unexpected news from a friend in Ireland recently. She told me that Jem Bendell, formally Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria and co-author of Deep Adaption, has now decamped to Bali. For anyone who doesn’t know, Bendell is the man who promoted the notion that “our” society, the one founded on colonialism and the “growth” economy of extractive capitalism was in real danger of immanent collapse. It’s a claim that struck me as a bit myopic. For a great many people (as Bendell himself would later admit), not least the chronically poor, the long-term sick, etc. here in the UK, the notion that such a “collapse” was a future event made no sense. It was something they have been living through for much, if not all, their lives. It’s the same “social collapse”, after all, that the political elite under Margaret Thatcher and her kind worked so hard to accelerate as they started to dismantle the societal values that led to the creation of Britain’s Welfare State.

If what my friend tells me is true, I have to wonder what Bendell intends to do in his new home. Will he adopt a subsistence life-style and grow rice? Or will he collect his UK pension and write blog posts and more books? Whatever the case, if what my friend says is true, I find it hard to know what to make of his departure.

What first came to mind when I hear this news was a story told by Sister Anna, a roving nun with one wall eye, who was the daughter of an old neighbour of my parents when I was a child. It went something like this.

One morning a young novice is working in the monastery garden when he has a terrifying and overwhelming vision of the immanent end of the world, something that he understands will happen that very night. Distort, he runs and starts to look for the Father Abbot. Eventually, and rather to his surprise, he finds the Father down on his knees washing the refectory floor. The young man pours out all the details of his vision. He then crys out in the upmost distress: “Father, father, what must we do now that the end of all things is at hand”? To which the old Abbot replies: “Well, my son, I need to finish washing this floor”.

I suspect that, for most of us, going off to Bali is something we can’t do – either because it’s economically impossible or, far more significantly, because of our commitments to the individuals and communities into which our own lives are inextricably woven. For those of us who feel that way moving to Bali or to New Zealand (apparently the location of choice for the likes of Silicon Valley billionaires who don’t have the wealth to try to escape the Earth’s ruination in our very own space vehicle) would not only be practically impossible but, in every sense, soul-destroying. Instead we will have to accept our individual equivalent of “finishing washing the floor”, regardless of the consequences to getting on with those aspects of our psychosocial and environmental engagements that come to hand. That being the case, we can very properly hope to make the best possible job of these while we can, regardless of the eventual outcome.