From a remote mountaintop in Borneo to the UK general election - I confront my need to fight for change in the face of forces we can't control
THE UNIVERSE IN A NUTSHELL
A couple of years back I reached the summit of a remote rainforest-clad mountain in the middle of Borneo. I’d paddled, swam, trekked and climbed for six days to get there, guided and accompanied by three men from an isolated Dayak village. I stood somewhere truly wild, on a spot that only a handful of indigenous people had ever been, looking out over a sea of primary rainforest that stretched out below us in great peaked waves. And here, on this mountain, I had something of an epiphany.
I was tired and thirsty and it was unusually hot under the midday tropical sun with no canopy to provide shade on the high, rocky peak. My camera batteries had died, ruining my film project (my own fault) and making the effort of struggling all this way with the 15kg of camera gear I had carried on top of my normal expedition kit totally pointless, clouding a moment that would normally have been full of joy. Once my last GoPro battery had spluttered it’s last image burst, I sat down to contemplate the view.
Man, that view. All I could see, as far as the horizon in every direction, was life at it’s most audacious and mysterious. Rainforests are crawling with an abundance and diversity of life that no other ecosystem on earth can match, and the rainforests of Borneo are among the oldest and most biodiverse of all the rainforests, and as I sat and stared at this scene I was slowly overcome by an understanding of the immensity of life, history, and everything, and of my own inexpressible smallness in comparison. That feeling will never leave me, and it touches me again now as I write.
I suppose I have felt it before, on a physical level. Out at sea surrounded by nothing by water, crossing desserts, or climbing mountains. I think anywhere with a good view to the horizon that offers no sign of the existence of humanity, save for yourself and your companions, can give you that sense of physical insignificance. It’s a powerful and humbling perspective to experience. What I felt this time was different. This time the scale of the view was combined with an understanding of the age of the forest and the land that it carpeted, its history and the future that lay ahead of it all, and I felt a sense of my own absolute, infinitesimal smallness in time, as well as in space.
I knew how old that rainforest was (about 140 million years if that means anything), and I knew something of the geology that created and shaped the island, and how the ice ages had influenced it and the species that form and inhabit it. And I knew how, even today with only a quarter of the islands original rainforest left untouched, the sum total of the history of humanity’s influence on the rainforest I was looking at was essentially nil.
I sat, thinking without thinking. It’s hard to describe but it was as though I felt this knowledge rather than thought it. Without my thoughts becoming language inside my head I knew of them and I knew their meaning and significance. Perhaps this how we experienced the world before we evolved language. I had a sort of bubble of knowledge expand and then pop inside my skull, and at that moment I knew my own nothingness in relation to the immensity of the history, and future, of the earth and the wider universe.
As I said this epiphany wasn’t spacial, it was temporal. For that moment I knew what it meant to be that 0.1 second blip at the end of the ‘history of the universe in a year’, a 30 year blip in a 13.8 billion year history that will perhaps continue on for infinity. A blip of consciousness within a speck of matter sitting on a lump of living rock that is both so big and so ancient as to render me as nothing, while being as nothing itself when compared to the vastness of space and the history of the universe. A blip within a blip within a blip.
The experience itself was exhilarating, but as I began to assimilate this new feeling into my own consciousness and give it meaning in relation to my own life I quickly began to feel depressed at the futility of everything I was spending my time on. What was I doing here, trying to protect this rainforest, especially in light of the many failings of this expedition. If I couldn’t even plan to bring enough spare batteries on an expedition what on earth was I hoping to achieve as a conservationist? Not only was I and every other conservationist up against the vastly more powerful human forces, but we were all up against the laws of physics. This, everything I was looking at, would be gone one way or another, through evolution, or a meteor strike, or a switch of the magnetic poles of the earth, or in the cooling and eventual death of the sun. What on earth was I hoping to achieve in the face of that? What was the point of any of it?
COMEDOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN
I think a lot of people have a moment, or perhaps many moments, like this. Youthful idealism gets kicked in the teeth time and time again by forces that appear so much stronger and more powerful that they begin to feel irresistible and then natural, so that in the end idealism turns to resignation, cynicism, apathy and bitterness. Perhaps this is why the very word idealism is spoken with a condescending, patronising air by those who consider themselves to have outgrown it. Idealism is ridiculed by those who are afraid of it or angry that it let them down, and is left undefended by those whose hearts still believe, but whose minds have convinced them that their dreams are impossible fantasies.
Were my dreams impossible fantasies? Were they simply irrelevant distractions driven by ego? I wasn’t sure, but that exhilarating feeling of oneness that had so quickly sunk into an earthly doom-ridden view of the pointlessness of effort in the face of the inevitable death of everything anyway stayed with me long after descending from the summit.
But another seed had been planted up on that mountain, and at some point it began to sprout and grow inside me into something that turned this source of depression and confusion into a source of liberation and empowerment.
After much drinking and moping and soul searching and more drinking, and endless thinking about whether or not I should be doing something else with my life, two things happened: I began to accept my tiny insignificance, and I found a rational argument to continue my conservation work, even in the face of inevitable change.
The first was more complex, because it has to do with ego and all of the uncertainties of how to best effect positive change in a complex world. I realised that I had been unconsciously carrying around a tiring and ultimately self-defeating saviour complex, pitting myself – in my mind at least – against some of the biggest global injustices and looming catastrophes of the day, with my goals and definitions of success being so grand that they could be considered delusional by any dispassionate assessment.
The weight of a world of responsibility and self-built expectation slid from my shoulders as soon as I grasped this most obvious fact: I can’t save the world. I suggest you check out your own glass house before you tell me that seems like a stupid thing to have to realise. I hate the language of ‘saving the world’ and of course I’d never actually thought that I could save the world, but I guess I thought that I could change it and was behaving as though it was my responsibility to change it drastically.
In short, I had been humbled by my experience. Well and truly brought down to earth after glimpsing what felt like the history of the universe.
From this new perspective, this lowly vantage point, I came to realise that while trying to protect a huge area of rainforest on the other side of the world, I wasn’t even holding myself responsible for my own every day actions and choices. Even if I could defend all of the flying I was doing as part of that conservation work, I started to see how much of day-to-day behaviour, from my eating and spending habits to my behaviour toward friends and family, while actually perfectly normal by today’s standards, were not in line with even the most basic of ethical standards: do no harm.
I began to see the power in annoyingly trite slogans like “Think Global, Act Local”, and I realised that first and foremost, I needed to get my own house in order, beginning with my own inner life of thoughts and emotions and expanding outward, dealing with my own direct interactions with the world (from what I eat and where that food comes from, to which banks I use and how I interact with people), and then consider how to engage with and improve my local community, my region, my country, and then the world.
SO WHAT’S THE POINT OF ANYTHING?
The second thing that happened might seem to be more academic but was actually really important to me, because I struggle to pursue anything difficult that I can’t see the purpose in. With that in mind, and given the pointlessness of everything, the most rational thing to do as a self-aware mammal in this modern world seems to be becoming some kind of ascetic, devoting life to the exploration of the greatest mystery of all, and the one that is most accessible to us and yet most elusive: our own consciousness. Whether this monastic life takes place in a Buddhist temple or in a hut in the Scottish highlands seems irrelevant. The point is to do no harm, and to attempt to understand something of the true nature of existence. Everything else is merely frivolous.
But I’m a massive wimp.
So it seems to me that, in failing to become an ascetic, the second best thing to do is to try to lead a good life in society. Begin by attempting to cause no harm through our actions, and then try to make a positive contribution in whatever way is most fitting to our situation. That’s what this blog is really about: my search for the good life.
It’s amazing to me that much of this stuff appears to be simply obvious to many people, but there are many things that are obvious to us that we don’t actually act on, and my point in writing this is to share what happened to me that made me stop and actually think through all this stuff more deeply, in the hope that some of you might experience something similar. In particular, I have in mind the anger and frustration that many of my friends expressed at the result of the 2015 general election here in the UK.
EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL
Like many people I become strangely passionate about the result, even though I have played almost no active part in politics or even in society in the UK except for the occasional ranty post on Facebook and the signing and sharing of e-petitions. The result was not was I was hoping for or expecting, and, again like many people, I was left feeling confused and despondent. I clearly want to participate in shaping the national political agenda, the way my taxes will be spent and the attitude that my government takes towards things like GDP-fetishisation, the environment, climate change, human rights and our national attitude toward the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalised.
But on the morning after election day I was left asking: what the fuck was the point?
And that reaction wasn’t just rage at the fact that 76% of registered voters didn’t vote for a party that now has a majority government, and that will act as though it has a democratic mandate to push through more of the deeply unfair and unsound changes and cuts, using the language of division and envy to create fear and mistrust between people who should be on the same side. No, it was about the stupidity and hypocrisy of the whole farce of engaging in politics once every five years by ticking a box, and then getting angry that things aren’t going in the way I’d like them to be.
Thankfully I’m kind of settled now for the first time in a long time, so I can start to ask myself, what can I do in my neighbourhood, in my community, and in my city to make a positive contribution? What are the issues here and how can I engage with them? Is there a food bank I can contribute to, or a shelter I can volunteer at? Is there a political party I think is worth joining and if so how could I give them some of my skills or time? How can I keep abreast of local protests and campaigns and how do I make sure that I make time to participate in those that I care about? How can I use my money, as a consumer, to positive ends, with choices about where I shop and what I buy?
In short, if I’m choosing to engage in society and not just live in a hut in the mountains, growing my own veg and reading Thoreau, then how can I engage in society in a positive and constructive way?
These are all things that I can do, and most of them will make a tangible, if small, difference. And if they don’t tip the scale in the way I’d like them too, that’s OK. I’m not a saviour, and neither are you, and the whole world is doomed anyway so find peace with that, wear a smile, take responsibility for your own power and find ways to act locally, and make life a bit better for those around you if you can.
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