I recently came across this short unpublished article I wrote towards the end of 1996, reflecting on The Knutsford Lectures 1993-1996 on Visions of a New Renaissance, previously described in this post. It was an ambitious attempt to capture the spirit and outline of the needed New Renaissance, inspired by what the 19 individual speakers had said. The limitations of my perspective and the lack of suitable outlets meant the article was never published.
Discovering this piece led me to consider, what has changed in nearly 25 years. Was the outlined vision valid? Are we any nearer to it? Here’s my brief assessment, against the categories in the Emerging Vision section of the above paper i.e.:
Ethical behaviour and social responsibility
Local economy and community
Appropriate scale and human scale
Soul and spirit
Love, compassion, nonviolence
Imagination, inspiration, arts
I have to say that, despite some encouraging features, it seems as if we are further away from a New Renaissance than we were 25 years ago. Consider just three points:
Dominating everything else, the failure to effectively act on environmental sustainability and climate change for 25 years has led us into an increasingly perilous situation. We, particularly governments and moneymakers, have failed the test of ‘acting as if future generations matter’. On the other hand, far more individual people are acting as if they do; the pendulum is moving.
Behind this is the dead weight of materialism, mechanism and reductionism, continuing to dominate science, governance and economics, stifling the emergence of soul, spirit, love, compassion, true values.
The conflict between large scale and human scale is still heavily over-balanced in favour of the mega-projects, big government, industrial-scale farming and against human communities, particularly indigenous, and local solutions. Human inequalities increase as a result of an economic/governmental system that systematically increases them.
It does not have to be thus. We are creating the new world day by day, in our thoughts and resulting actions. The New Renaissance is a spur to our forward thinking. Take at look at SciMed‘s current New Renaissance initiative!
And I have to be encouraged by the direction taken by international organisations, and particularly the forthcoming Davos Agenda, plus this year’s schedule of global conferences. Covid-19 appears to have catalysed the understanding that the current ‘system’ no longer works, and a new direction is necessary for the whole of humanity, based on working with nature, inclusion and social justice, and trust between nations. A reason for hope!
I am standing on the steps of Knutsford’s new civic centre. It is ten minutes to eight in the evening, in the mid 1990s. I peer anxiously at the traffic coming from the south, the direction of the railway station at Crewe. Where is he? His lecture was due to begin at half past seven. There is a full house of nearly 200 people waiting. Each of our organising committee for these ‘Knutsford Lectures’ on ‘Visions of a New Renaissance’ is quietly panicking. How long should we wait?
A taxi appears. Thank God, it appears to contain well known environmentalist and former Green Party Leader Jonathon Porritt. He sweeps into the building without a concern; the train was delayed. He’s ready to go on immediately. Panic over!
I don’t recall much of what Jonathon said that evening, but I do recall that it was well received, and he made a major theme of people ‘dancing in the streets’, with a social healing as well as an environmental healing as part of his New Renaissance vision.
All this was very much brought to mind as I recently tuned in to catch up on a Zoom talk recently given by Jonathon in a series organised by the Scientific & Medical Network, chaired by the indefatigable David Lorimer. Unsurprisingly looking somewhat older, Jonathon was speaking on the ideas in his latest book Hope in Hell.
It was interesting to hear Jonathon’s reflections on events over his lifetime and the current world situation. I picked out just a few key points, many of which have appeared in various guises on this blog over the years:
At one time UK was a leader in addressing climate change, not now.
It is good that UK was the first country to commit to net zero emissions by 2050, but current actions do not match this ambition, e.g. far more spent on HS2 than on a green revolution. This is a sort of institutional mendacity.
There is a huge gap between what the science says on climate and the institutional response (c.f. covid situation where the gap is relatively small), despite its being an existential threat to humanity. The current incrementalism is not an adequate response.
The dominant ideology of indefinite economic growth prevents effective action on climate. Only the Green Party has challenged this dogma over the last 50 years.
The other key driver of climate change is population. Because of historic situations it is impossible to have a sensible conversation on this subject.
There have been decades of visionaries and good works that have not fundamentally changed the direction of travel. The problem is political and the answers will only come by telling the truth about climate and effectively challenging politicians to do better – active political engagement for those who can. The establishment may not like it, but Extinction Rebellion did achieve political change.
At heart, what is needed is a change from self-based thinking to humanitarian-based thinking, from head only to head and heart. [Rather contradicts the previous point – the problem is not just political, but lies in all of us.]
Jonathon is substantially right, and was right in the 1990s.
This and many other issues related to a New Renaissance are covered by the wide ranging activities of SciMed, which has embraced the Zoom age with impressive energy. It is well worth joining if you want to become more informed. They even now publish a regular newletter entitled Towards a New Renaissance.
In their recent report East Cheshire council was pleased to report that 55% of garbage is now recycled. That means it went into the recycling bins. How much was really recycled is anyone’s guess.
This reminds me of the first Knutsford Lectures in 1994, the days of the single black rubbish bin. We had subsidiary short talks on matters of local interest and one was given by a man from the then Macclesfield Borough Council. He had the good news that recycling was to begin soon, which indeed it did a few years later. So this was progress of a sort, and people are now furiously engaged in playing a part in recycling. Of course this led to the plague of wheelie bins that now disfigures streets and alleyways across the world. [One day we will get back to a single bin which is automatically recycled, like the mostly manual French dechetterie we toured round many years ago, but that’s not my main focus here.]
It feels that we actually generate more rubbish than we did 25 years ago. Now why is that? Packaging – both plastic packaging from supermarket products and the endless excessively large cardboard boxes and internal wadding from ever more internet purchases. Amazon and product producers are actually filling up the recycling bins and thereby increasing that recycling statistic. It seems like two steps forward and one step back.
And of course Amazon avoid paying the tax that would pay for the extra cost of all this recycling. Politicians seem so slow to grasp these nettles!
Featured image shows bins in Christchurch, New Zealand by gobeirne via Wikimedia Commons
I was sorry to hear that Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski (1930-2018) died in April this year, but happy with the memories of his fruitful life. I first came across Henryk via his books, including Living Philosophy, in the early 1990s, and made the effort to attend one of his seminars in London around 1994. At that time we were running The Knutsford Lectures on the theme of Visions of a New Renaissance, and Henryk’s visionary work seemed be moving in a similar direction. I plucked up courage to invite him to give one of our lectures. Henryk accepted with alacrity. After some correspondence with him in Warsaw we eventually agreed a date. It turned out that Henryk gave the very last Knutsford Lecture, in Knutsford’s oldest building, the Unitarian Church, in May 1996.
The theme of his lecture was The Participatory Mind, corresponding to the title of his book published in 1994. I don’t now recall much of the lecture itself, save that the content was somewhat intellectually challenging. The back cover of the book of that title gives an idea of its scope:
“In a Grand Theory of participatory mind that builds on the insights of such thinkers as Teilhard de Chardin and Bergson as well as contemporaries Dobzhansky and Bateson, Skolimowski points to a new order, one brought about by a Western mind returning to, then reintegrating, the spiritual…”
I do very much recall the essence of this charming, gentle, wise and spiritual gentleman, who we were delighted to host overnight. As we discussed our Lectures venture he wisely pointed out that I had established them in order to educate myself, as well as others.
Henryk was kind enough to sign a copy of his book EcoYoga: Practice and meditations for walking in beauty on the Earth, with the following beautiful inscription: