Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Category: Green politics

The Pope, Morris, and the Environment

Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home

Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home

Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, has generated a massive amount of press coverage, commentary and controversy. I really appreciate a Pope who short-circuits the easy and predigested categories of “red” and “blue” politics: he is too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals (meaning, I guess, that he’s an orthodox Catholic). This has caused mass confusion bordering on hysteria among the culture warriors bent on “us vs. them” logic. “Laudato Si” is a plea for a rapid and holistic response to the environmental crisis, and the terms in which Pope Francis couches his argument are familiar to anyone interested in the Arts and Crafts movement. “The post-industrial period may well be remembered as the most irresponsible in history,” Pope Francis writes, decrying the evil effects of economic industrialization on the poor and the environment.  There is a suspicion of so-called “progress” and the way technology “tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic” and sacrifices the economically and ecologically vulnerable along the way. There is an aesthetic as well as moral and spiritual dimension to the Pope’s plea for urgent action: ““The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”

For William Morris, the beauty of the natural world was the source and summit of artistic expression. His socialism was in no small measure a response to how capitalism degraded and exploited the environment for profit.  An active member of early environmental and conservation organizations, Morris understood that a vital aspect of restoring joy and dignity to labor would be reintegrating workers with their environment. Labor should belong to the natural cycle of things, not to a system of exploitation and destruction for profit or gain. No one, he wrote, should be “allowed to cut down, for mere profit, trees whose loss would spoil a landscape: neither on any pretext should people be allowed to darken the daylight with smoke, to befoul rivers, or to degrade any spot of earth with squalid litter and brutal wasteful disorder.” Morris would have approved, I think, of Pope Francis’ simple assertion that “everything is connected,” and the implications that follow for how to “care for our common home.”

 

Capitalism & Socialism conference in New Harmony

New Harmony conferenceLast month I had the pleasure of delivering a paper at a conference sponsored by the Center for Communal Studies (University of Southern Indiana) at New Harmony: Capitalism & Socialism: Utopia, Globalization, and Revolution (Nov. 6-8). My paper—“Joy in Labor: William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Utopia”—explored a theme central to my work (and to this blog): the Arts & Crafts aspiration (“utopian”? that, indeed, is the question) of achieving a society based on joyful labor in a healthy relationship to the environment. I’ll be posting selections from the paper over the next few weeks, but I just wanted to offer some general comments about the conference itself, which was richly rewarding and stimulating.

Wright - Envisioning Real UtopiasAs a historically utopian community itself, New Harmony was an appropriate venue for thought experiments in alternative models of living: political, cultural, and social. “Utopia” as a theme threaded through the conference. Erik Olin Wright, a Marxist sociologist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, delivered a keynote lecture on “Real Utopias” derived from his book Envisioning Real Utopias (2010), which considered alternatives within and beyond capitalism.

Wright is a charismatic, thoughtful speaker (not relying on a prewritten text or even notes) and his talk explored intersections of the “real” and the “utopian” with some compelling (if not always totally convincing) examples: public libraries (yes!), Wikipedia (I get the idea – it’s a collective enterprise available for free, but Wikipedia has its problems), different forms of currency (currency measured in “labor time” as opposed to exchange value), workers co-operatives, urban agriculture (community gardens and farms), and the universal basic income. Wright’s website is a treasure trove of material made freely available, but visit only if you have plenty of free time and an insatiable intellectual appetite.

Other books by Erik Olin Wright:

American Society: How It Really Works (2011)

Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis (several editions)

 

And here’s a taste of Olin Wright’s smart but approachable speaking style:

 

 

William Morris and Climate Change

Modern EnvironmentalismThe United Nations just released its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the news is bad.

And about to get worse.

It’s hard not to feel apocalyptic about a report that states: “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” As The New York Times reported, the effects will likely include food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, and the mass extinction of plants and animals.

Beijing first hand

beijing pollution

“Selfie with Face Masks”

I was just in Beijing last week and it’s disconcerting, to say the least, to see people going about their daily lives wearing face masks because the air is simply not breathable. You have to pay to upgrade your hotel room to one that guarantees clean air. It’s disturbing what humans will adjust to, given our innate complacency and indifference when it comes to making radically necessary changes: cutting emissions, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, etc. The New York Times depressingly reported that the amount of money spent per year to cope with climate change is less than the revenue of one oil company.

William Morris, Proto-Environmentalist

Morris - Romantic to RevolutionaryWilliam Morris, as usual, was prophetic in his proto-environmentalism. An active member of early environmental and conservation organizations (such as the Commons Preservation Society and the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings), Morris understood that a vital aspect of restoring joy and dignity to labor would be reintegrating workers with their environment; in other words, making labor an extension of the natural world. Labor should belong to the natural cycle of things, not to exploit resources for profit or gain.

Morris also understood that capitalism depends on the exploitation-to-green politicsexhaustion of natural resources. Profit is indifferent to ecological devastation. If anything, corporations are going to start (naively assuming they haven’t already) treating resources like air and water as private, for-profit resources. We’ll have to pay for clean air like we pay for gas, and the money will fill the coffers of corporations.

Morris’s message is urgent and relevant: humans need to live in a healthy relationship with their surroundings. No one, he wrote, should be “allowed to cut down, for mere profit, trees whose loss would spoil a landscape: neither on any pretext should people be allowed to darken the daylight with smoke, to befoul rivers, or to degrade any spot of earth with squalid litter and brutal wasteful disorder.”

Heeding Morris’s words is no longer a matter of taste, sensibility, or aesthetic preference for the beauties of nature. It is a matter of survival.

Further reading:

Derek Wall – Green History: A Reader in Environmental Literature, Philosophy and Politics (1993)

Derek Wall – The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics (2010)

David Pepper – Modern Environmentalist: An Introduction

William Morris – Towards a Socialist Ecology (Workers Liberty)