On death and rebirth

Nothing can dwindle to nothing, as Nature restores one thing from the stuff of another, nor does she allow a birth, without a corresponding death.

Titus Lucretius Carus, De Rerum Natura, Book I.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to write a post at each of the four quarters of the year concerning what each of them represents. It’s a useful exercise, if only because it reminds us of our physical connection to, and dependence on, the natural world. It actually does matter whether or not the sun shines, as solar-energy enthusiasts are now belatedly (re)discovering.

The particular turning-point we are approaching now – at least in the Northern Hemisphere – is the winter solstice. It’s the shortest day of the year, and the moment at which the long pendulum of the seasons begins to swing back around towards spring, even as winter is just getting going.

That’s a thought that many of us will need to cling onto this winter, at least in the UK and Europe. Times are already hard for many of us: short of money, short of energy, and short of ideas. There are so many strikes going on right now that I can’t even list them all. Teachers, rail workers, postal workers, even nurses for heaven’s sake. In a completely unsurprising development, UK house prices are dropping like a rock as most people are struggling to pay their existing mortgage/rent, let alone take on a new one. There’s a shortage of eggs. There’s a shortage of turkeys (just in time for Christmas). Some supermarkets are putting security tags on cheese in case those who can no longer afford it are tempted to nick the stuff.

I don’t know how bad it’s going to get over the course of this winter, but it will be pretty bad. I’m old enough to remember the grim times of the 1980s, when we had rioting in the streets, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it got worse than that. The safety-nets have been fraying for years, and I doubt if the welfare system will cope, not that it is even intended to cope these days.

The British people are notoriously phlegmatic; “Mustn’t grumble” is practically the national motto. But it’s as if the government is trying to see how far they can push it before people actually kick off. And they’ll have to kick off, because public protest is now illegal for all practical purposes, and I don’t think too many people believe that Sir Keir Starmer KCB KC, a.k.a. “The Worker’s Friend,” is the political messiah who will fix any of this, even though he will probably win the next general election on the anybody-but-these-idiots platform. (I almost said he would probably be our next Prime Minister, but the on current form the Conservatives could still get in a couple more changes of leadership before 2024 rolls around.)

I’m not especially reassured by the news that the German government has apparently just thwarted a plot for a coup d’ḗtat. Given how badly the last right-wing takeover worked out for them, there must be a significant measure of desperation amongst the people at large for this to have struck anyone as plausible. I’ve heard similar rumours about France, although it’s always hard to distinguish genuine revolutionary fervour from the normal background level of French rambunctiousness.

Not so long ago, Mrs Thatcher came to power in Britain on the back of the so-called “Winter of Discontent.” We can surely look forward to plenty of discontent this winter, and we’ll be lucky if nobody takes political advantage of it in the same way she did. If we ever get anything that calls itself a Government of National Unity we’ll be in deep, deep trouble.

But this, too, will pass. Let’s remember that our species has survived an entire Ice Age. It’s not always fun to live through a time of what the economist and Nosferatu look-alike Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” (the Thatcher years being but one example), but sometime it really is creative. We are, after all, going to have to find new ways in which to live – new to us, if not new under the sun. We will have to unlearn a lot of what we think we know, and learn a great deal that may seem strange, if not repugnant. That’s not going to be unalloyed fun, although it might not be as grim as you imagine.

And there’s something real to be gained at the end of all this. As the saying goes, you should never waste a good crisis. (This one has been attributed to everyone from Churchill to Machiavelli, so there’s probably some truth in it.) We may run short of eggs, but we aren’t going to run short of crises. Despite all the management-speak baloney about every crisis being an opportunity – these are the sort of people who, had they been captain of the Titanic, would have described striking the iceberg as “challenging” – when things fall apart, there is a genuine opportunity to put them back together in new and better ways.

Now is a good time to start imagining what some of those ways might be. What might a future world you want to live in actually look like? How are people’s basic needs met? How are the decisions that affect your life taken? What skills do you need to live, and how did you acquire them? How will your children acquire them?

We think we know the answers to those questions, but as events are proving, we really don’t. You can see that as terrifying or see it as exciting, and the reality is it’s probably going to be a bit of both. To answer them, we need to start having many conversations with one another that aren’t happening yet, or only happening in pockets. Join in one of those conversations if you can find one, or start your own.

Winter is here. Spring is coming.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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