Cultural Vertigo

London at night from the air

London at night from the air. The roads look the veins and arteries of a living being.

ver·ti·go (Noun): A sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height, or caused by disease…

I have known for some time that I suffer from two forms of vertigo. The first is the normal form, induced by looking down over the edges of cliffs or tall buildings: I have to believe that this perfectly normal.

The second is age vertigo which involves similar dizziness, nausea and panic, but is induced by meeting adults who are much younger than me. My head spins as I focus on the vastness of the gap separating me from them – a gap across which we can converse, but not traverse. I cannot travel back to meet them, and by the time they reach my place on the cliff-face of life, I will have moved on. Or fallen off.  To the best of my knowledge I am the originator of this description of this sensation which must be surely be commonplace amongst those who are 52-ish.

Last night, as I flew back from a work visit to the European Space Agency in the Netherlands, I was visited by a third incarnation of vertigo – cultural vertigo.

The night was clear and I could see lights in towns from Holland to Belgium. On arriving above London the plane circled over the eastern edge of the M25. The view was astonishing: the roads resembled the arteries and veins of a living being – a being of unimaginable size and with an unimaginable appetite.

My sense of dizziness at the grandness and precariousness of our city was added to by the fact that I was observing this from a plane – and there was a queue of half a dozen similar observatories visible in the air behind us.

In addition to my flight, almost everything I could see below me involved burning carbon: for heating on this chilly night: for electricity to keep the lights on: and for fuel for the cars and lorries. The vastness of the city and the intensity and voracity of its need to burn carbon induced dizziness and panic. Will we ever give up our dependence on carbon? I realised I needed to add ‘despair’ to the list of characteristic symptoms of cultural vertigo.

My only relief came from remembering that we had just flown over the London Array – an offshore wind farm – visible as a regular array of red lights against the blackness of the North Sea. Surely if our culture could create and sustain this vast city – and yet realise it needed to change and create offshore wind farms – then surely we can change our ways.

In the same way that nobody envisaged London growing as large and as energy intensive as it has grown – surely we could imagine a world in which our renewable energy infrastructure grew until it met our needs. Surely we could imagine that?

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