The Alternative Future?

I watched a programme recently on BBC4 about Glastonbury “after hours” by Julien Temple, looking at the fringe areas of the festival, areas with names like Shangri-La, Arcadia, Block 9, the Unfair Ground, Lost Vagueness etc. All this alternative self-expression, borne out of the likes of Archaos and the traveller movement; dreads and drugs writ large. Or really, just an inevitable extension of these things. I haven’t been to Glastonbury since the mid 80’s, but probably like many, I watched with fascination and bemusement, but I was paying attention to the claims of purpose behind it all, of the founding of new societies and ways of living in an age of coming societal breakdown. It’s the same story behind the hippy movement, permaculture and transition towns, and there are elements of truth to such claims, but big misunderstandings of how things will really be.

Let’s pause and think about this festival; how does it come to be? We could say it’s because of the vision of a single farmer who has the space and inclination to organise such a thing. I would say it came about (as many things do) because we live in a society of surplus wealth, which allows us to indulge in self expression and exploration and which supports this, even if mainstream attitudes seem to be against it. How else do these people lead ”alternative” lives? They are supported, either directly, by benefits, or indirectly, by the availability of fossil fuels; how else are the welding machines they use to create their sculptural expressions powered? Not by sunlight (directly), nor by lentils. How else are their mad max-like machines powered? Recycled chip fat? Sorry that was grown with fossil fuels.

The rather sad fact is that if they had the societal breakdown they want (they’ll get it sooner or later), they’d all be out in the fields toiling, or excavating by hand old rubbish dumps, looking for resources we now call waste. There would be precious little time for parties or festivals. There will be the freedom and lack of central government control we now have, but with such demise comes lawlessness and insecurity. The hand they bite feeds us pretty well right now, with little oppression or control – hence the existence of the festival.

I love the expressions of freedom witnessed, I love the human spirit being free and I hate the mundanity of life that our (seemingly) secure society brings. I just don’t think that the “alternative” scene is actually that alternative, nor does it have any clear vision of future life as we will all come to know it in the coming decades. It’s simple: self-indulgence, alternative or otherwise (and what’s the difference, if you own a fleet of Ferraris you are indulging in the same sense), is the product of energy surplus, and that’s what’s coming to an end. All that depends on it will fall by the wayside, starting with the things that are superfluous, like festivals. Never mind; the timeless bits, like camp fires and singing, will continue and likely increase as we have less alternatives for warmth and entertainment. And a future life will be very different from now, once we’ve been through the pain bit (y’know, the next 50 years or so). There will come a day when our grandchildren don’t know what this society was like, so won’t miss it. The only question is, will they merely survive or thrive? That’s the difference we can make now, for them, by facing where we’re at and planning forward. Less self-indulgence please, more forethought. Our alternative future is just around the corner…

August 17th, 2012 by