Passing for normal On the ethics of (not) planting onions
Arts & Culture, New in Ceasefire, Passing for Normal - Posted on Tuesday, November 9, 2010 0:00 - 4 Comments
By Dave Prescott
Last Saturday I had the choice of planting onions or representing the progressive wing of the extractive industry at an international summit. I say I had the choice, well, it’s true that no one else did, but was it a choice?
If the mind is like a parliament (thanks Ian McEwan) then the loud pragmatists on my inner front bench, with the weight of history on their side, easily shouted down the people behind them, filled with the hope of the future, though one minor MP continued waving his ballot paper (bearing a child’s crayon-based approximation of an onion) and squeaking about the ‘long-term’ for several hours after the decision had been taken, indeed he was still there when the cleaners came in, still standing there, arm aching by that point, when the cleaners finished their job, turned the lights off and set the alarm.
The poor guy, with his absurd bowtie and arm-mounted wind turbine, he had worked so hard to become an MP, pounding the streets, printing out leaflets – not born to be a politician either, but a man of principle, driven to the devious game through desperation at what he thought was an appalling status quo – and thought his big chance had come up when he scraped victory by 16 votes at a marginal seat of unknown name in the north-east of the country.
Now here he was, at the end of his term, about to be voted out again thanks to his forgettable period of elected membership characterised by equivocation and doubt, waving his crudely-decorated ballot paper at no one in the dark. No doubt he was a hero to his mother and maybe even one or more of his children too and he would be remembered for a generation at least as the guy in the family who became an MP and stuck to his guns for a while.
Anyway, like everyone else I easily ignored this conscientious but ineffective tosser and chose to pass on the allium-planting and, instead, represent the progressive wing of the extractive industry at an international summit. Well I could pretend this was a conscious choice to be working for change from inside the system rather than trying to set up something new in the hope of bringing about a new system, but really what swung it for me was the very predictable fact that I would be paid to represent the progressive wing of the extractive industry at an international summit, and I wouldn’t be paid to plant onions, and if I wasn’t paid, I wouldn’t be able to feed my family (except very indirectly and only after several months and only via onion-based meals).
My choice made me feel spineless and compromised, and in order to demonstrate that I had a spine after all, at least on some level, I told my client I had given up flying and I would need to take the train to the summit which was on the other side of Europe. My client asked if my flight ban was for medical reasons. I said it was for environmental reasons. She offered to pay the plane fare and said I would be welcome to make up the difference in cost for the train fare myself.
As the unplanted onions accusingly eyed my mind’s eye, I opted to take the plane, remembering my reason for going, which was to earn money, which would have been undermined had I paid to go, and also wondering if my client’s response would have been different had I said that my flight ban was for medical reasons, which very indirectly it was.
Meanwhile, back in my inner house of commons, the lonely man in the bowtie was lying face-down, appalled and tired, on the floor of the chamber, his arm-mounted wind turbine no good to anyone any more, the hopes of the future dashed and scattered. Vaguely he could hear the self-confident pragmatists down the road, enjoying a fine meal.
While he recovered in hospital, I spent two days at the summit explaining that the widespread revulsion in which the extractive industry was held had forced them to behave properly, and if there were interesting things to learn about participatory community engagement then surely it shouldn’t matter if the lessons came from one of the planet’s most energy-intensive industries? Lessons were still lessons.
I said all this, conveniently and ironically forgetting that no one learns anything from even their own mistakes, let alone other people’s mistakes. Oh but how we laughed and joked during those magic days. An international summit is nothing if not a celebration of human warmth, simple spiritual pleasures and lasting friendship.
Everyone should go to an international summit. To have real conversations about real things. To share our deepest fears, to unburden ourselves in safe hands in a community based on – yes, I’ll say it – a community based on love. This was what absolutely everyone was talking about non-stop the whole time.
Actually I should only be 95% sarcastic. One woman told me she had lost her heart in Bhutan and was only working for this particular labyrinthine intergovernmental organisation because she was saving money to go back to Bhutan full-time, and that having travelled all over the world she had found no other culture that was such a celebration of human warmth, simple spiritual pleasures and friendship.
On the return flight – a journey whose carbon footprint comfortably wiped out an entire year’s composting, recycling, car avoidance and wearing four jumpers at my desk – I ate a cheese sandwich and noticed that on the wrapper it said: ‘Feel at home’.
I laughed at the absurdity of this (though not out loud) until I remembered my house was in fact located several miles in the air, zooming through the clouds, and I mentally catalogued all the difficulties we’d faced with planning permission.
Dave Prescott is a writer and consultant. He lives in the countryside.