Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More

Friends, I have been struggling to understand why our governments are not responding adequately to the Climate Emergency that we are facing. It seems like madness!

And thinking about this failure put me in mind of other massive events to which governments failed to anticipate.

Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More

Friends, one of the most shocking world events to have occurred in my lifetime was the collapse of the USSR and the breakdown of the Iron Curtain.

  • Before it was built, the idea of building an Iron Curtain must have seemed unimaginable.
  • While it existed, it seemed unimaginable that it would ever fail.
  • And after it was swept away, it seemed unimaginable that it should ever have existed.

Clearly, a very prolonged failure of imagination. And not just on my part. As far as I can tell, no intelligence agency on Earth – inside or outside the Iron Curtain – saw it coming.

I have been curious about this for sometime, and last year I read “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More“: a fascinating anthropological insight into how – from the perspective of ‘ordinary people’ – the collapse of the Soviet Union was both a profound shock, but also not particularly surprising.

The book focuses on one particular aspect of soviet life – formal communications from the Communist Party.

In particular, the book referred to great announcements of policy changes. These were often trailed in advance, and anticipated with great excitement, but in fact they were either content-free, or are designed to hide the important aspects of the announcement. Sound familiar?

It is a difficult and highly academic text, but I persisted in reading it because the more I read the more I could see parallels between practices in the USSR and modern ‘communications’ in the UK, both corporate and governmental.

Here are some examples of the style of communication I am talking about.

USSR

Further to the policies of the 44th Meeting of the General Committee of the Communist Party, and enabled by the glorious achievements of the seventh 5-year plan, the General Secretary of the Moscow (North) Communist Party has put forward plans to the legislative council that will consolidate the strength of the revolution in our workplaces.”.

UK: Government

In our Manifesto, we promised the British People that, if elected, we would build a better Britain. And so, humbled by the trust placed in us by hard-working families from right across our great country, we have placed before her Majesty, a Bill to increase economic growth by freeing entrepreneurs from red tape.”.

UK: Corporate 

Our company was founded on principles of innovation, dynamism, and fairness. As Sir Charleston Hobnob himself said, ‘Our people are our greatest strength’. And since I was appointed I have seen how true that is across the business. And seeing this resilience first-hand has been humbling, and has convinced me of the need to build on Sir Charleston’s vision for the company.”.

Can you see the similarities? As adults, we recognise this as content-free ordure, as did people in USSR. But we put up with it – as Soviet citizens did – because that’s just ‘the way things are’.

But what this style of announcement fundamentally communicates is that ‘Nothing is changing: existing power structures based on historical precedent are secure‘.

And the reason I am mentioning this here is that as I look at the Climate Change to which we have already committed ourselves, I don’t see any genuine appreciation of the scale of the difficulties that we are facing.

And the very structures of government and their ‘communications’ teams seem to be incapable of acknowledging the reality of what we are facing.

I appreciate that it’s a tough message for politicians. They are happy to speak grandly of concern for global problems, but no one wants to explain to people that we in the UK need to urgently change the way we live: for example, by insulating our homes, flying and driving less, and eating differently.

Even Capitalist Institutions such as Deloitte acknowledge that change is required!

We have the technologies, business models, and policy approaches today to deliver rapid decarbonization and limit global warming to as close to 1.5°C by century’s end. 

We cannot afford to waste another year, another month, debating the merits of doing something versus doing nothing. As leaders, every choice, every day is a chance to speed the realization of that vision.

But the simple truth is, that our government is not acting urgently and it seems incapable of truly changing. It is still allowing new fossil fuel ventures and has no policy to insulate homes. It is completely failing to acknowledge the truly awful reality we face if we continue as we are.

And I am writing this now because I think the scale of the climate change we face will be such that political and economic structures in the UK or anywhere else will crumble.

And from the perspective of ‘ordinary people’ – just like in the Soviet Union – this collapse will be both a profound shock, but also not particularly surprising. We all know that something is deeply, deeply, wrong.

But if we don’t collectively acknowledge that the way we live needs to change – in some ways for the worse – then climate change will simply overwhelm us in the most basic of ways. And it will force us to change the way we live in ways which currently seem unimaginable.

Hadrian’s Wall

I remember visiting the remains of Hadrian’s Wall a few years ago and being impressed by its extent and complexity. Clearly it represented an immense amount of work and in its time it must have seemed utterly and absolutely permanent.

And yet there came a time when the last Roman garrison must have just walked away, leaving the locals to make of it what they will.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. As Jupiter has guided our actions, our armies have conquered the whole of the known world. And you legionnaires have fought well, defeating the Picts and earning your right to return and live peacefully in your homeland. And I, Caesar, will welcome you home earlier than we had planned.”.

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