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food for thought - a recipe for disaster

Mario Petrucci makes a meal of the resistances to social change.

[This essay formed the basis for a more extended guest editorial appearing in
The Environmentalist: issue 22(4); Dec. 2002. See the official site for the full piece.]


Today, we shall be preparing 'Eco-lethargy' cookies...

Whenever we use that phrase 'It's a recipe for disaster' we're usually referring to some personal or public scenario with a definite and pungent ingredient. It might be the crazy guy in which our overly vulnerable friend is overly interested; or it could be the outrageous new policy proposed for a somewhat tight-laced department. But recipes have a context, and generally involve several ingredients requiring preparation and considerable subtlety in their manner of combination. Or, to put it another way, the same bag of flour can end up as cookies or as DIY wallpaper-paste. Isn't this also true of, say, Global Warming? True, in fact, of any pressing environmental concern? Over several years I've been exploring the chief ingredients in the apparent hotchpotch of attitudes towards social change. What, exactly, is that small sour-salt biscuit so many people seem to be nibbling at, at virtually every level of society? - that over-baked fortune cookie always with the same tight message scrolled inside: that things in our world seem to be headed the wrong way, but there appears to be very little we can do about it - except to keep ourselves informed, to observe and comment, or - at best - make some small contribution or gesture of solidarity. Pace all those activists and eco-optimists who are busy getting on with the job - I'm merely sharing a general impression not uncommon among the company employees, media reps and individuals I know. It's the eco-equivalent of that habit of assiduously devouring cookery programmes but actually doing very little cooking yourself.

You will find the recipe on page...

Ah yes - we must first consider Language. That is, the recipe book itself. Inspecting the disaster in my oven, I trace a finger (once again) down the words before me, brow furrowed, knowing something must be skew... but there it is in the recipe book, with its steaming illustration - there it is, in its three-colour confidence. I followed everything to the letter. What on earth went wrong? Well - there are devious yet delicate ways in which apparently clear and neutral language can misdirect our thoughts. The phrase 'Global Warming' gives a good example of how this can happen in the public domain. Notice how passive it is. 'Global warming.' No causality or responsibility indicated or suggested - just scope and outcome. It has a peculiar 'observed' and abstract ring to it, like 'Sunspot Activity'. It sounds like the result of a scientific experiment: i.e. Global Warming isn't something we do; it's something that just happens. A headline like "Famine in X" is likewise camouflaged. We might better say: "acute, institutionalised hunger among (named) communities in (named) regions of X, owing to a chronic lack of investment against possible failures in the cash-crop production that was introduced (and which supplanted traditional farming methods) in order to attract (named) overseas investors and to meet with the requirements of a Structural Adjustment Programme". Compare that again with "Famine in X". Which makes the front page? No contest. TV is a major culprit here. It is, after all, predominantly a vehicle for mass entertainment. John Pilger's documentaries are among the glowing - but rare - exceptions. And I've my worries even about those. I have a deep-seated conviction that all TV, however sensitive and worthy, is assimilated, ultimately, into its overall 'show'. In any case, social turns are increasingly reported, even in many newspapers, with that same brisk panache normally reserved for soccer results and weather forecasts. Or food shows.

Take a cup and a half of Denial...

Perhaps the most basic ingredient. It's Denial that keeps the whole coagulated mass stuck together. You're shaking your head? "It's not so much Denial" you answer, "as ignorance. What we need is more information. Better education." Oh come on. Have Joe and Joelle Bloggs ever been better informed regarding environmental problems? Who hasn't heard about Global Warming for goodness' sake, or has at least some vague notion of its destructive potential? As a society, we probably already know what to do - but most individuals and groups still refuse to act. Why? Denial. In all its modes. Denial erects immense psychic and motivational barriers. George Marshall's excellent article The Psychology of Denial (The Observer, 28th October 2001) itemises the chilling psychological arsenal ranged against personal action, even in cases where the need is clearly pressing. Many of us will recognise, first-hand, the basic forms of Denial. I sum these up as: Denial of knowledge or cognition ('I didn't know' or 'I didn't realise'), Denial of agency ('It wasn't me doing it'), Denial of power ('I didn't get a say in it') and Denial of responsibility ('It was the corporation'). Marshall adds Psychotic Denial (angry and outright) and Reaction Formation (such as the adoption of deliberately wasteful practices). There's no doubt, in my mind at least, that the North is actively enacting collective and individual variants of all the common psychological phenomena of projection, displacement, regression and suppression. In short, Denial is set to be the staple of 21st century collective psychology in the North. And perhaps the most insidious form of Denial is silence. Did you notice how the recent and precipitous collapse of an immense portion of the Antarctic ice-shelf slipped through the media with barely a ripple?

... then take another cup and a half of Denial.

Having said all this, the complete antidote to silence - or, for that matter, any other form of Denial - isn't just more information, more knowledge. Marshall suggests that our enduring faith in the power of knowledge is one of the great red-herrings of the Enlightenment era, one that is mouldering well past its sell-by date. This misplacement of faith is serious - in the extreme. Not, of course, because knowledge itself is harmful, or because there's anything to be gained by advocating a return to ignorance or naivety; but precisely because of the facile and knee-jerking way we so often grasp at 'Knowledge' or 'Education' as self-sufficient panaceas for our world's ills. Education, Information, Knowledge. Abused words that have become at best bland and tasteless, at worst dangerous. I sometimes feel they should be junked, along with all the other plastic 'packaging' words like 'Sustainability'. If you disagree, fine. But please remember one thing. They're precursors - not instruments. On their own they're like a well-equipped train - with no fuel. As Marshall points out, a fully-informed (or 'educated', or 'knowledgeable') individual "can express grave concern, and then just as quickly block it out, buy a new car, turn up the air conditioning".

Add any quantity of Indirect Democracy...

This is a kind of tasteless flour that makes up the bulk. Direct Democracy, as was practised in ancient Athens, occurs when all the local people participate directly in making local decisions. 'Indirect Democracy' is my term for any form of democracy where decisions about local environments and social priorities are removed from the local people - and the actual (or potential) consequences of those decisions are removed from those who made them. An example might be a company's decision to bury its toxic waste at a remote location. Many consequences of this type do eventually return to roost - in the form, say, of an increase in background contamination which everyone must suffer; but there's often a considerable time delay, or the consequences become 'diffuse' and difficult to pin down to original causes. Which makes them, of course, ripe for the melting-pot of Denial. Those who suffer the disbenefits of Indirect Democracy usually have their work cut out to prove who burnt the cookies. Or poisoned them.

Add salt.

Too much salt. So much salt, you can't taste anything else. This ingredient is what C.A. Hooker terms the Systematically Misposed Problem, and what I call the 'Framed Question. That is to say, the wording and context of a question often frames the set of possible answers. An example might be to ask in a poll whether people would rather see an investment in more nuclear power stations, or put up with continued depletion of fossil fuels. Clearly, a 'frame' has already been placed around the issues. There is no mention, for instance, of alternative energy sources, or of lifestyle changes in support of reduced power consumption. This is a common way in which 'open debates' and polls can perpetuate bias or support an existing ideology. Even referenda - supposedly a cardinal symbol of democracy - often already exercise much of their power before they get to the people. Most of the decision-making process is hidden in which alternatives are posed, how and when they are posed, and who poses them. Through a carefully Framed Question, radical points of view can be excluded. So, whatever the rest of us might try to pitch into the cookie-mix, that last handful of salt undoes all our work. The cookies always turn out - salty.

Gather the family for the feast.

Let me introduce you to Radical Inertia. If you like, think of Radical Inertia as a runaway train hurtling along at terrific speed with no driver. It's hard to stop it, physically - that's the 'Inertia' part. But the passengers may have no idea the train is actually out of control; or if they do, they may not know there's an emergency brake somewhere. That's the 'Radical' part. Inertia can always be overcome; but it becomes 'Radical' (see Ivan Illich) when it's so widespread and deep-rooted that alternatives (even when available or viable) are simply not perceived or made permissible. Radical Inertia is, in a sense, a kind of meta-economic capital - a type of 'capital' beyond conventional economics - because it reflects the massive human investments already made (in terms of training, procedures, processes, hardware, prevalent attitudes) to ensure the transfer and manipulation of resources according to certain templates and patterns. One example might be the long-term policies of a major corporation, agreed by the Board and made accountable to the expectations of shareholders. Another instance would be the deeply-held belief among ministers and public alike that governments should deliver continuing economic growth; or the fact that the on-going death toll on our roads (which includes many children) stirs up virtually no societal disgust against the motor car at all, or at least not anything like the kind of concern and uproar engendered by a chemical spill or medical error involving far fewer fatalities. If we're to stop that train, or steer it in a new direction, Radical Inertia must be dealt with. This will need - I suspect - an immense, concerted and on-going investment of mental and physical energy. Unfortunately, most of the North is otherwise occupied in the buffet car. Or, put another way, Radical Inertia is rampant in the kitchen - the cakes are in the oven, the gas full on, the whole family is seated at table expecting Eco-lethargy for tea.

Now serve...

By now, you may have the impression I'm saying: 'We've no choice but to eat those blasted cookies'. Not at all. Even in an Eco-lethargic world, things do change. They adapt to service the shifting interests of powerful élites, or they mutate in the powerful reproductive cycles of global capitalism. Even where Radical Inertia reigns supreme and we continue to hurtle down that same stretch of track, gobbling it up - even so, before the inevitable crash - there will at least be new terrain. Look closely and you'll see that everything is altering, through a smorgasbord of means: advertising, lobbying, cash-for-questions, new charters, fresh breaches of land rights, and so on. The question here isn't the fact of change, but its direction. Do those changes accelerate and expand the global free-market? Do we try something else? If we're serious about cooking up some Eco-vitality, we must be prepared to take a long hard look at all the above ingredients and their contexts. I know it's more easily said than done. How, for instance, do I help myself, and others like me, to become empowered? And is that something I - and they - really want? Shortening the long chains of deferred responsibility in economic and political activity (that is, creating Direct Democracy) is unlikely to occur without resistance - from without and within. How can more people across the planet find the will, and the skill - or at least be allowed the chance - to write their own recipe books? Will they do so in shared celebration or in the service of personal gluttony? One of the deepest challenges in this new century may well be how society can facilitate and nurture itself in adopting appropriate means (both traditional and cutting-edge) towards a more wholesome outcome. I'm hoping we still have time. That our collective fortune is not yet scripted. Although I'm wary of visions, I do have one. A world where everyone - in their own way - rolls up their sleeves and shares the washing up. Generosity around table and sink is the sure-fire way to judge the health of any community, global or local. Whatever goodies there might be, need to be secured more appropriately and divided more fairly. Which is kind of obvious - so why doesn't it happen? That's a question all nations, groups and individuals need to chew on. Just go easy with the salt.

August 2002


Hooker, C.A. (1983) On deep versus shallow theories of environmental pollution. In: R. Elliot and A. Gare (eds), Environmental philosophy. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Illich, I. (1974) Tools for conviviality. New York: Harper and Row.

Marshall, G. (2001) The psychology of denial. The Observer, 28th October 2001.

Petrucci, M. (1997) Television environments and the fourth scopic epoch. Social Alternatives 16 (1), 47-51.

Petrucci, M. (2002a) Sustainability - long view or long word? Social Justice 29 (1/2), 103-115.

Petrucci, M. (2002b) Radical inertia. Resurgence 211, 57.

Potter, J.F. (2002) But how do we get the message home? The Environmentalist 22, 5-8.


Dr Mario Petrucci is a physicist, ecologist, educationalist and creative writer. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Oxford Brookes University and is widely respected as a commentator who seeks to present cultural arguments in creative ways. This article is offered in the spirit of 'light reading with a serious intent'.


copyright mario petrucci 2001