Phones and Weevils
A &B are travelling together on the tube or bus. B is twiddling awkwardly with phone. They may get on and off trains, talking continually, animatedly, perhaps pacing platforms or escalators.
A: Posh phone. Is it new?
B: Yeah, it’s fancy isn’t it? I kind of like it and hate it at the same time. I don’t understand half of what it does. It was really confusing in the shop – so many handsets, I went in there just wanting something really simple and basic, and then I started thinking: Actually maybe I need a camera built in, oh and a touch screen would be lovely… but at the same time I was feeling how ugly it all was, ugly and banal, all the packaging, all the offers, all the gadgets, all the screens, all the insincere sales talk, to be honest it was making me feel all sweaty and sick. I had a flash of insight in the shop, I thought: Maybe I’ll just walk out of here without a phone, I’ll just give up the habit right now… but then I thought, I’ll be paying the bastards my tariff anyway for the next six months, and this is a nice thing, and I want it. So I got it.
A: And you need one really, don’t you? Wouldn’t it be sabotaging your life to try to get by without one?
B: I don’t know. I’m too scared to try. I wish I were more like those American Bolt Weevil activists in the 1970s. They were farmers whose land was being compulsorily bought by power companies to build a massive new power line across the States. They systematically sabotaged new pylons and power equipment and delayed the construction process for years. I read an activist book that said we should all be dismantling phone masts to save bees and migratory birds from electromagnetic pollution. The idea is that you would just go around with a spanner in your pocket waiting for the right moment to unscrew a few strategic bolts and wait for a strong breeze to bring the tower down. But I got a new phone instead. I’m pathetic.
A: To be fair, things have moved on since the 70s. We all want mobile phones…. I just watched a trailer for a new film made by a tribe from the Colombian rainforest. They’ve made this film to warn us about how we’re killing the Earth – they want to show us that it is possible to live in harmony with the rest of nature. They’ve just been in England to promote it. They’ll probably get chickenpox now or something.
B: Don’t be horrible! Wouldn’t it be great to go out there and learn to live sustainably like them? I really fancy that. But that would mean flying there, which would kind of negate any benefits.
A: And it’s warm in the rainforest, isn’t it? I mean, the sheer effort involved in keeping warm through a winter in northern Europe would be a full time job without fossil fuels.
B: Yes, I wonder what it would be like if the power stations ran out of power in the winter and we had to get by without heating and cookers. It would re-shape society.
A: We wouldn’t have time to go the office anymore.
B: We’d all be fighting over firewood –
A: – Farmers with shotguns would be fending people off their woodland.
B: It would change the way you look at things – you would gather sticks, you’d go out of the town more. It would be a much more effective way of changing lifestyles than any environmental protest. Adapt or freeze.
A: People would start chain-sawing down the trees in the parks. Imagine Hyde Park post-peak oil: just loads of stumps of ancient oaks. Yes, fuck the ancient oaks when it comes to them versus us, we’d burn every twig.
B: Or would armed police surround them with tanks and razor wire and protect them with machine guns?
A: …Machine-gun us down as we set out snares for squirrels and birdlime to catch pigeons.
…But what would happen to our values if we couldn’t rely on oil anymore? It’s amazing how much energy is locked up in a drop of oil, compared with any form of renewable energy. We’ve grown completely used to basing all our expectations and habits on the availability of this unbelievably rich substance. Imagine future archaeologists in 31st century digging through landfill and finding disposable nappies, wondering what kind of a society would take babies’ poo and wrap it up in plastic and toxic chemicals and bury it. I think they would consider it an insane culture. I hope they would.
B: I think it would be great, people would adapt, they’d find creative ways of surviving. Right now most of us live in fear of these perceived horrors – what if there was no more food on the supermarket shelves? What if the tubes stopped running? What if the phones went dead? We have this learned dependency, this terror of the lights going out. I wonder which survival instincts are hard-wired into our animal brains, and which would take longer to learn.
A: By burning fossil fuels we are unleashing all these terrifying changes that threaten everything familiar to us. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I think about how we won’t collectively stop using fossil fuels until we are absolutely forced to . Part of me can’t wait for the oil to run out. I don’t think we can give up the addiction until we have no choice at all.
B: I read recently that all the UN intergovernmental climate convention process over the last two decades has achieved nothing at all in terms of reduced carbon dioxide emissions.
A: Just look at my own life as an example: I have a little girl and I work miles from home so I have to drive, even though I hate it. When I think deeply about it I feel bad feelings – threatening, frightening feelings like despair and panic, like futility and self-loathing… I freak out and tremble and shout at the grotesque inadequacy of all our political responses, and of my own compromised position and weakness. It makes me want to curl up into a ball. And then – and then – I find myself walking down the high street looking in shop windows at pretty things and wanting to make myself feel better by buying something…
B: Like this phone. I feel really bad about this phone.
A: Well maybe you could use it to promote radical political protests or something. What’s it called – tweeting? Like the pro-democracy activists did in Iran last year. Come on, we can do better than despair. I love the sound of those Bolt Weevils. I love people who tie themselves to trees and whaling ships. I wish I could do that. If I didn’t have a child I would like to go out there and do some crazy stunts. Maybe I should take her with me and do them anyway, as an antidote to despair.
B: Despair can never be the endpoint… Isn’t there a theory that there are five stages of grief? Denial, anger, bargaining, despair and acceptance. Then what? What does acceptance mean for an activist?
A: I guess it would mean… accepting that the planet is being killed.
B: But then how would you carry on, if you have accepted that the planet is being killed? Isn’t that like accepting that someone is in the process of being murdered? It would make you completely sick.
A: You’re right – you could never morally accept that. It’s a process, not a fait accompli. Fuck acceptance. Bring on the Bolt Weevils, and the climate suffragettes.
B: Yes. There is something about direct action that inspires hope. Not hope that international processes will work, or that governments will do the right thing ecologically. But hope in people’s resilience and creativity, and their ability to learn and take risks.
A: Yet we lower our eyes, and get on with the business of surviving in this society-
B: – Buying the phones, sending the texts – accepting the cognitive dissonance that you have to endure when you are enduring incompatible versions of reality.
A: Is this actually primarily a moral problem? After all, who, really, wants to kill the planet? Look at America – we bang on about them, and yet as individuals they are all tied into this system of exaggerated oil dependency by living in a country with virtually no public transport. And China, we moan about them building coal power stations, but they use that power to run factories that export the products we demand to see in our shops. If I lived in America or China I would be moulded – and constrained – by the imperatives of my culture, just as I am here –
B: – Just as you would be if you lived in the Maldives –
A: – Yes…These giant economic and cultural machines seem to pit me caring for my family against me caring for families far away. Maybe we should try to empathise with each other more and be less judgemental.
B: I love the idea of empathy. Empathy and gratitude. My theory is that wherever we are, we all depend on the land, and we should be more grateful. When did we stop being grateful? We should say thank you to the trees, and the animals, and the weather, and the soil. We should go outside and thank them, and listen to what they say in reply.
A: Try making that a policy proposal for the UNFCCC or the Prime Minister. [They laugh again.]
B [referring to phone]: I think I’m going to take this back, and get a reconditioned one.
A: Go on, I dare you. I’ll get you a spanner for Christmas.
B: Get one for your little girl!
Persephone Pearl October 2010