Fossil Capital

My rhetorical pet hate is the use of ‘our ancestors’ to make a point. Modern human behavior explained on account of mammoths and cavemen, with no sources quoted.  

Myths justify the world we live in. To work, they need to pass as history. So, freedom and change depend on serious historians challenging dominant narratives.

My favourite read of 2020 was Fossil Capital by Robert Malm. The book questions our understanding of the industrial revolution – and therefore, our present economy, society, and environmental predicament.

The large-scale adoption of coal for industrial purposes is typically presented as a story of human ingenuity and scarcity overcome. Previous energy sources were used up. New technology made coal available for production. We discovered, harnessed, and triumphed. 

Yet coal had centuries of use for household heating. Wind and water resources were hardly deployed at capacity by the 1800s-1820s. The usual story doesn’t hold.

Malm offers a different explanation. Wind and water are wild forces. By contrast, ’steam promised both temporal and spatial protection from extreme weather events. Coal was utterly alien to seasons; factories could be placed at a safe distance from riverbanks liable to inundation. In short, the desire for independence from the vagaries of weather provided one motive to the transition.’ In short, the industrial revolution was about control, not scarcity.

Renewables demand that we master flows. We must adapt our action to forces greater than us, beyond human control. Coal and gas are stock, reliable and predictable.

Transitioning towards a low-carbon future means embracing flow, and accepting less control. Humans adapting to changing weather patterns: storms, floods, and droughts.

Which in turn will demand flexibility, risk-awareness, and humility. For which we need new myths, and a different history.

Values cards project – integrity

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I hear integrity, to me, it’s connected to consistency. It’s got to do with continuity over time. You’re the same independently of whatever happens outside.

B: There’s a very strong moral component to the word, but it doesn’t have to do with keeping a conformist kind of moral code. You can have integrity and be well integrated, but the idea is that you’re not quite in line with what’s usually done in the context around you. So, it has to do with a certain form of courage. You’re not in direct relation to the established order.

A: I would associate it with originality. It’s about respecting your own shape, and refusing to change so that you can fit in the box. And this has to do with real originality. I’m always remembering an essay by Pessoa that I read as a teenager, something with a Greek name, Epi-something, where he says that, when push comes to shove, the only thing about an artist with actual value is how original they are.

B: I see that as an individual form of value, integrity. It’s not about your relation to the group – like, you follow the norms of the group, as in a cult – but rather facing up to the group. There’s something antagonistic about it. It’s me against the world.

A: Then there’s a form of congruence with non-violent communication. And that would also mean that there’s a form of courage to non-violent communication. I state what I see, what I feel, what I need, and I make a proposal, based on a description of the world as it appears to me, rather than conforming to the madness of other people.

B: We might think it’s a form of power, or a strength, when you can adapt to another person. And it is. But this sense of integrity as a form of courage, it means it may be that it’s your capacity to clearly state your feelings or requests that is the biggest form of respect for another person, and ultimately the best way to influence them.

A: You can have integrity and be a psychopath, but you can’t have integrity and do things against your moral code. So, it’s about the capacity to judge what’s inside, from the outside.

B: Giving up on moral effort, then, that’s a lack of integrity. And that’s the distinction between the respectable bureaucrat and the opportunistic consultant.

A: Well, some of the people I despise the most for that are consultants, who just get in, do something and leave, in pure mercenary fashion, with no sense of continuity or mission.

B: But there’s a fine distinction between both. Maybe the consultant, because they’re independent, it allows them to have more integrity, because they see it and they say it like it is. It’s their job. Or it could be about all sorts of second-order things that the consultant wants to achieve. So, the question becomes about the end justifying the means.

A: So maybe, is it that Integrity can only appear retrospectively? And then, this would take us to a complex dialectic, something hard to figure out, including for yourself. Am I living in line with a principle that I wasn’t sure I had, or am I somehow losing my own shape? Because, we constantly have to give up on certain things so that we can hold on to others. And integrity then is about what we choose to hold on to.

B: It’s one of those things that asks for a lot of attention: do I have integrity?

A: Or if integrity is some form of incorruptible probity, maybe it’s a proof of flexibility then that you can identify it a posteriori? Like, it’s only retrospectively that you can figure out what remained incorrupted in someone.

B: Maybe integrity aligns with moral invention then. It’s about the quest for a new moral code, or a superior moral code, or a more truthful one. Which will only manifest in retrospect. It’s connected, yes, to the creation of a new moral code, that derives from an older one, or differs from it, and can manifest in new situations. It’s a form of anti-puritanism, or even moral entrepreneurship.

A: So, that’s interesting, is integrity about respect for a relatively closed and defined moral code, independently of context? Or is it the continuous and constant invention of a moral code, in relation to the changing context?

B: The more distance between established moral and your own code of ethics, the more opposition there is, and the more integrity you display when you continue pushing your own code of ethics forward. The danger is, you might feel like pure opposition is a way to ‘gain points’, and you might fall into some sort of addition to refusal or rejection. An ‘I’m pure, they’re dirty’ kind of thing. That’s something I feel sometimes with American liberals, and that seems like a kind of dangerous integrity.

A: Maybe then, there’s a creative integrity, which is like an embodiment of the spirit, where the spirit respects its own shape, even as it comes in contact with the resistance of the real. And that’s in opposition the form of integrity which simply refuses any contact with the dirty concrete.

B: Well, morals is the set of rules you’re imposing on yourself for the good of others, and that only comes in the first person. There’s something moralizing about puritanism, but that’s not integrity. Integrity is something that only exists in the first person, and is not something you can demand of others, or even properly judge.

The knowledge hero

There is a particular type of hero out there. Let’s call them the knowledge hero. You’ve come across them if you’ve ever watched a feature documentary. It’s the voice of the narrator telling you ‘I was on a Welsh River, and I caught an enormous salmon that year. I was immensely proud. But I think it’s the last anyone’s ever caught around there. I kept going back, but nobody caught anything. And that’s what got me thinking: what was happening to the fish in the sea? That’s what I decided to find out.’

It’s a simple proposition: a single person – a man preferably – identifies a pattern in the world that they think is not right. It’s a change they dislike, or it’s a phenomenon they’re concerned about. Or maybe they’re just curious about something. It’s motivating enough, somehow, for them to go on a large, concerted and coordinated series of efforts to find out what the truth is.

That same character, is the common protagonist of detective novels: about a third of the books sold out there. Many romance and adventure books also contain an element of truth discovery. It’s about finding out what really happens, who the real problem is. See, we like to paint ourselves as adventurous pleasure seekers, or cynical money-makers, but we seem to be, first and foremost, a truth-driven species. And a man on a mission to figure out the real cause for something, and share it with the world, is a definite hero to us, in America, France, or Japan. Why is that? Because knowledge is power, knowledge allows you to make informed decisions on future behaviour, change the way that you behave, and from there, change the world around you.

On truth


The question remained since, haunting me. “I don’t believe in a single truth,” my father repeated, “but individual perspectives.” The sophistic position, hiding under a veil of humility. My cousin – a criminal barrister – put it more bluntly: “I can’t imagine how anybody would be presumptuous enough to become a judge.” Especially when defending people pays so well.

My ongoing commitment to writing has to do with a yearning after truth. But again, this is a blurry concept. There are truths about the past – historical explanations. These are notoriously difficult to reach. Sources are unreliable, memories change, we don’t have any foolproof model of causality, and our conclusions are likely to be incomplete. Yet we have a fascination for heroes of past truths, detectives or adventurers, Miss Marple and Indiana Jones.

Another type of truth is predictive. The voice of the prophets, Cassandra, retrospectively vindicated, or not. How much of it is self-fulfilling, and how to gain trust in time, here lies the debate.

Finally, there is effort at articulating truth about the present, clumsily trying to describe the world around us, uncover its patterns of causality, and – yes – make a judgement about the relative relevance of its various elements. Then, clumsily, try to cristallise it in words. Does that qualify as truth? And does this kind of truth have a history?