Woolly minded hippies?

Rowena Macdonald went to Climate Camp fearing "woolly-minded hippydom" but found a serious and commi

Forget Southwold. This year’s Climate Camp protest against a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent is where Gordon Brown ought to be spending his summer holiday.

I went to the Climate Camp in the spirit of curiosity and nostalgia, having been taken to the protest camp at Greenham Common missile base as a child in the early eighties. I had intended to go to the camp on Monday with a borrowed tent but was put off by the rain. On Tuesday it also rained. By Wednesday it had stopped raining but it seemed far too much effort to carry a tent and a sleeping bag via public transport to Kingsnorth – I sensed I would be persona non grata if I turned up in my car – so I put on my rarely-worn wellies and just went for the day.

Although I am interested in green politics, as you may discern I am not a die-hard environmental campaigner. I am also suspicious of anything which smacks of woolly-minded hippydom. However, when I got to Strood, where a Climate Camp bus run on recycled vegetable oil was ferrying people between the railway station and the camp, I was pleasantly surprised to find my fellow passengers were not the grubby crusties I had feared. They included a sporty-looking guy who worked for the local council, a student from Bristol University and a smart, urbane photographer also down from London for the day.

We were warned on the bus that we would be searched by the police before entering the camp, and that they would ask for our details but we were not obliged to give them. From a distance the camp, which is on a hill overlooking the existing power station, looked like a mediaeval circus. We were dropped off at the top of a lane leading to the camp which was lined with an extraordinary number of police officers, some of whom had been drafted in from forces from afar as Wales and Yorkshire.

I was alarmed when the female police officer assigned to search me put on a pair of purple surgical gloves but she merely gave me a quick frisk and checked my bag to make sure it contained no weapons or drugs. A “full internal examination” wasn’t necessary, I was told. After refusing to give any details apart from the facts that I am 5ft 6 and white, I was given a pink slip to prove I had been searched and allowed to enter the camp.

Inside, there was a fair scattering of feral looking types and white people with dreadlocks, and overall the campers struck the barefoot, deliberately casual attitudes of seasoned environmental campaigners that I had expected. But, what offset the hippyish vibe and what impressed me most was the serious-minded efficiency of the camp.

As well as eleven large tents for each ‘neighbourhood’ of campaigners from around the country, where three communal meals were produced each day for the 200 or so people in each neighbourhood, there was a group of marquees in the middle where a large number of lectures and workshops about climate change issues were being held each day of the week-long camp. There was a media tent with laptops and internet access, an independent TV station, a cinema screen, showers, sinks and numerous compost toilets housed in temporary wooden huts. Electricity was provided by solar panels, wind turbines and people riding fixed bicyles. A mains water supply had been bought from Southern Water. In short, a fully functioning eco-village for more than a thousand people had been constructed from scratch in three days. All of this had been organised along non-hierarchical lines, with no central committee and people taking responsibility for tasks according to their expertise and inclination.

The level of debate and knowledge in the workshops was impressive too. I went to a talk about Tradable Energy Quotas, a scheme devised by academics in which all citizens are given a quota of energy and large energy users can buy extra energy from those who use less energy. Apparently DEFRA are currently conducting their own feasibility study into this idea. In another tent Dr David Fleming, a writer and academic, gave an inspirational lecture about how environmentally conscious enterprises should be developed in the outside world along the ‘inside out’, non-‘top down’ anarchist lines used to organise the Climate Camp itself. If more people came to this free camp to learn about practical ways of saving the planet rather than wasting money and frying their minds at the numerous corporate festivals that have sprung up, Britain would be a better place.

There were a few downsides. I was told that some of the locals who work at the existing Kingsnorth power station are against the protesters, since they fear their livelihoods will be at risk if the proposals for a new power station are stopped. Landlords in the local pubs won’t serve the protesters as a gesture of solidarity with the workers.

During another workshop when I pointed out some of the impracticalities of alleviating climate change through vegan farming, I had the definite sense that I had upset the workshop’s somewhat complacent groupthink.

However, the overwhelming impression of the camp was of energy, community spirit and open-mindedness and everybody I met was polite and welcoming. On the way back from the camp, as a storm was beginning to roll overhead, I was given a lift back to the station by a band that had played there the night before.

We stopped and stood on top of their van watching lightning fork through the violet sky. The power station, the camp and the police swarming around it was suddenly lit by natural electricity. The level of police presence seemed ludicrous as the camp felt incredibly peaceful, although this might change on Saturday when a mass action to shut down the existing power station is planned. Gordon Brown ought to be tapping into the intelligent and, in the main, practical ideas of these protesters. As was said in one of the workshops, a large problem like global warming does not necessarily need to be dealt with by a large solution; we can begin to tackle it with small solutions inside a large framework. The government is missing a trick by not engaging seriously with the Climate Camp.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood