Bread and circuses?

A Mallow beside Whitesands Bay – but which Mallow? definitely a three pipe problem which, for a non smoker, is a bit tricky!

This post, which is a bit of a change from my usual more lyrical writing, came after spending a couple of very happy hours going through my photographs and doing a bit of ID searching and cataloguing while I went along. I know it sounds very nerdy, and I suppose it is, but it always gives me intense pleasure – especially when I discover that I have already photographed a plant which I’ve only just learned how to identify. My collection of thousands of photographs is more than a library catalogue because each one recaptures a plant, a time and a place; it lights up my memory of events and places that might have happened years ago.

It was the appalling thought that these irreplaceably beautiful reminders of our vulnerable earthiness might not be available to our grandchildren that made my hackles rise. Field botany; the finding and mapping of plants is overwhelmingly done by volunteers like me (in my very small way). The more data we gather the more it becomes obvious that the rate of extinctions is accelerating and that more and more of the plants described in literature will no longer be found in a ruined environment. This is not an act of some invisible and spiteful god but the inevitable consequence of the deranged relationship of the wealthy countries with the earth. I use the word deranged thoughtfully because it seems to me that it’s only what’s known as cognitive dissonance – our ability to obscure and tolerate the yawning chasm between our beliefs and our aspirations – that stops us from rising up in rage against this cruel extractive and exploitative regime.

… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

Juvenal 2nd Century Roman poet – in Satire 10; 77-81

When Juvenal wrote this he was not so much criticising the Roman elite as raging at the way the mass of people preferred free food and lots of violent and bloody spectacle rather than engage in their civic duty and responsibility; and – sadly – it’s not difficult to see a parallel between the declining Roman Empire and our own times. Our society is in terminal decay with corruption, greed and institutional lying, obscured by the salacious reporting of sexual scandals in the media.

So at what point does our capacity to believe Mother Julian, that “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”, break down? When will our hearts finally rebel in the face of the incontrovertible evidence of catastrophic climate change, economic collapse, and hunger? How much longer can the final demands pile up in the hallway before we – the people – demand better? The bread is becoming unaffordable and the circus is a seedy porn show so – something has to break soon.

But just when we need visionary leaders, we get lumbered with two main parties who seem to be neck and neck in a feeblest platitude competition; staring into the abyss with their political telescopes firmly planted on their blind eyes. Personally I wouldn’t vote for either of them if the only other candidate was a dead sheep. The present electoral system has been so rigged by the powerful that without urgent reform the lights will go out while they’re still organising the agenda for a preparatory discussion among five of their mates. But we need not (must not) resort to cudgels or any form of violence. Bernard Lonergan came up with a list of seven virtues which we should try to live out ourselves in order that we can demand them from our politicians. As I write them out I’m astonished at how naive they sound and yet … here they are from Wikipedia:

“be humble, be hospitable, be merciful, be faithful, reconcile, be vigilant, and be reliable”

Bernard Lonergan

Or to take a more traditional approach – and I’m sorry that both these examples come from Christian teaching:

Justice; Temperance; Prudence; Fortitude

Or to take a Buddhist view of the virtues:

loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity

I could go on but suffice it to say that almost all religious faiths, not to mention atheism and agnosticism will come up with a very similar group of virtues. This isn’t something that confines itself to the religious or those capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast; and here it might be wise to remember that there’s abundant scientific evidence that those who do easily believe those six impossible things are utterly immune to evidence – which only seems to strengthen their belief; as witnessed by those groups who withdraw to the desert to await the end of time who, when it fails to materialise, blame themselves for calculating it wrong: or indeed those brexiters who say the problem isn’t that it was a terrible idea but that it was badly implemented!

Politicians have one point of vulnerability which – even with the help of the largely supine media – they cannot conceal. If we refuse to vote for the charlatans, the delusional, the liars and half-wits and lend our votes to the most virtuous (people displaying the qualities I’ve listed above) then it’s sending a clear message to them all that we demand change and won’t tolerate backsliding on promises at the behest of paid lobbyists. Neither of the two main parties in the UK meet those criteria and so I’m happy to say I won’t vote for them but I will vote for the candidates who embrace earth-first policies and are prepared to change the electoral system so that it can deliver the policies we need to avoid catastrophe. He have to elect leaders who walk the walk and not merely talk the talk.

Maybe the Ragwort and the Cinnabar moth stand more chance of surviving than we do!

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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