“A Philosophy of Walking” by Frédéric Gros

When you walk, the basso continuo of joy comes from feeling the extent to which the body is made for this movement, the way it finds each pace the resource for the next.

Anyone who loves long, tiring walks probably already has any instinctive appreciation of why the process is so satisfying. It’s something to do with the rhythm; the physical endeavour; the distance from telephones and schedules. I’d always enjoyed being outside, and exercise, but over the past few years I’ve found that long walks are the only way I ever really get close to shedding the burden of work. Walking has become something of a necessity. I wrote about this back in the summer, when Neil and I had just finished Hadrian’s Way; as I said then, for a few days everything slips away in the rhythm of the trail, and the modern demand for distraction is replaced by attention to maps and stiles and aching feet.

In A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros interrogates that sensation, and isolates the pleasures to be found in a long walk. Interwoven in his gentle philosophizing are histories of some of the most famous walkers and the impact it had on their lives, art and politics: Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Thoreau and Gandhi. None of them are figures I know a great deal about, but I enjoyed Gros’ exploration of their lives through the prism of their walking. I can only imagine that the book would be even more pleasurable if you had an existing interest in any of these men. (It would have been interesting to include a woman’s story here, too – someone like Robyn Davidson, perhaps.)

For me, the book struck an ideal balance between ratifying feelings I was already half-aware of, and introducing me to entirely new people and ideas. He begins, for example, by explaining the tantalizing anonymity of walking. By walking you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it’s all very well for the psychologists’ consulting rooms. But isn’t being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake – for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait – a stupid and burdensome fiction? That expresses it perfectly – it isn’t that walking is a kind of self-abnegation, more that the “selves” you require day to day become surplus to requirement, like the extra jumper you thought you ought to pack for the journey. It’s a relief to shed job-titles and status-updates, and by extension the labels people may use to define you at home. In Wild Cheryl Strayed doesn’t travel as a griever, a daughter or a divorcee – she is a walker, and the process of leaving those identities by the side of the trail is her salvation. When you encounter fellow-walkers, they don’t care what you do, what your circumstances are, or even if you’re happy. They just want to know how far you’ve come, if there’s a camp-site ahead, or somewhere to get food.

There is a playful, rebellious political undercurrent here, too. In a consumer-driven world, one of the most shocking things an individual can do is to strip their life back to the essentials. Like Patrick Leigh Fermor striding across Europe with nothing but some books, a walking stick and a limited supply of clothes, walking necessitates simplicity. Just below the useful, there is necessary, as Gros says. In one chapter, Gros explains just how subversive a figure the urban flâneur can be: because in the world of crowds and merchandise, he does nothing other than look – he subverts solitude, speed, dubious business politics and consumerism. A walk may last a few hours, a few days, a few weeks – but in that time, you are doing nothing other than move, sleep, and eat. You can step away from the grindstone, your wallet, and your status, and rediscover the wild.

If walking is subversive for the flâneur, it was also the ideal means of protest for Gandhi. In 1930, at the age of sixty and after years of failing to overthrow the rule of Empire through his entirely peaceful methods, he decided to march to the coast to collect salt. For years, Gros says, the British had held a monopoly over salt. There was even recourse to destruction of deposits when natural salt was found close to populations who might take it for their own use. Salt: a free gift from the sea, a humble but indispensable foodstuff. It was an obvious injustice, and Gandhi decided to use it as a symbolic destination for a long journey. This is a particularly beautiful, and timely chapter; ahead of the launch of COP21 this week, hundreds of thousands of people around the world took to the streets to demonstrate how important an issue climate change is to them. The legacy of Gandhi’s peaceful march lives on in moments like this, where walking takes on a particular significance.

Gros’ book put something I enjoy very much into a fascinating new context. The best way I can think to describe it is to say that it reminded me of the way in which the Greeks have different words for love – and in that way, the most simple of things can acquire a myriad of different meanings.

In the run-up to COP21…

In his latest article, False Promise, George Monbiot has again explained something unnerving about climate change politics, shepherding the latest revelation from the world of scientific journals to a wider audience.

Essentially he unpacks the great fiction of western consumerism: the idea that we can, as he puts it, live like monarchs without compromising the Earth’s capacity to sustain us. Economists, he says, explain sustainable growth by using the phrases “relative” and “absolute” decoupling. The theory of decoupling – which has the ring of the celebrity divorce court about it – is that an economy can indeed grow without putting natural resources under increasing pressure; as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development puts it, the idea is to separate “environmental bads” from “economic goods.” It works by enabling capitalist expansion to continue whilst relying on greener methods – the bottom line being the fact that the exploitation must be slower than growth.

That makes sense to me. Whether or not capitalism itself is compatible with a sustainable future is a separate argument (and I am about to read a book about that very thing, called Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations), but I understand the theory.

The problem though, as George Monbiot explains it, is that we are measuring decoupling in the wrong way. At present, countries add together the raw materials they extract and the goods they import, and then subtract the goods they export – which gives them “domestic material consumption.” What this  formula ignores, though, is the fact that the imported goods are not in and of themselves truly representative of the resources which were expended to make them. In other words, we are outsourcing production of our goods, and forgetting to account for the raw materials and manufacturing process which went into creating them – rather than decoupling, we are passing the buck. It’s the environmental equivalent of saying that eating a chip from someone else’s plate doesn’t count.

Naomi Klein talks about something similar in This Changes Everything. International trade deals, based on fast-and-dirty, export led development, have underpinned our obsession with endless economic growth for decades. As a result, When China became the “workshop of the world” it also became the coal-spewing “chimney of the world.” By 2007, China was responsible for two thirds of the annual increase in global emissions. Some of that was the result of China’s own internal development…But a lot was directly tied to foreign trade: according to one study, between 2002 and 2008, 48 percent of China’s total emissions was related to producing goods for export.

The West can’t claim that it’s improving its practices if its simply retaining the same scale of the same kind of consumption, and simply outsourcing production to the East. Neither should it convince itself that the same rate of growth can be maintained sustainably if decoupling is based on a miscalculation. There is a doctrine in English law which says that you cannot seek to rely on an equitable defence unless you come to the court with “clean hands.” The same applies to sustainability. Our politicians cannot go to Paris with half-promises of improvement, if they consistently fail to address the underlying problem. It is not enough just to pass the pollution and extractivism around the world – we all need to come to the table with clean hands.

Works cited:

False Promise

This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein (Penguin Books 2015)

 

 

People’s March: 28 and 29 November 2015

The climate change conversation has taken on almost cartoonish proportions this week. In the red corner, we have Volkswagen – the car manufacturing behemoth which has admitted to cheating on US emissions tests, thereby producing engines which, according to the BBC, emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US. They have totally screwed up admitted their US boss, but that doesn’t come close to addressing the outrage which has greeted the “diesel dupe”. It now looks as though this may be an endemic issue internationally, that diesel fuel isn’t the good-news story it has been disingenuously offered up as, and that – perhaps unsurprisingly – big business has been fiddling the system in order to avoid awkward environmental regulations. As George Monbiot put it so excellently:

Volkswagen’s rigging of its pollution tests is an assault on our lungs, our hearts, our brains. It is a classic example of externalisation: the dumping of costs that businesses should carry onto other people. The air that should have been filtered by its engines is filtered by our lungs instead. We have become the scrubbing devices it failed to install.

In the blue corner we have the Pope, who has just delivered an unusually political, wholly unambiguous message of support for environmentalists. In a speech given on the White House South Lawn, he talked about an environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature; he quoted Rev Martin Luther King; he told his audience this could no longer be left as a problem for future generations. It was inspiring, timely and brilliant. An allegedly corrupt multinational v. a Pope who has placed the environment very high on his agenda; it’s like a surreal spaghetti western out there – and it really isn’t difficult to pick a team.

This flurry of activity is happening just a few short weeks before the COP21 Paris climate change talks in early December. As Pope Francis intimated in his speech yesterday, we really cannot underestimate the importance of that Conference – it will set the green political agenda for the coming years, and determine how we respond en mass to an urgent global threat.

It will, of course, be the politicians sitting around the table in December, arguing over targets, actions, and global commitments. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t all have our say. Whatever you think of the Conservative Party’s approach to environmentalism – which, for my money, languishes in the “woeful” category – we need to make sure that those delegates have the voices of their countrymen and women ringing in their ears when they make these decisions. They need to know how much we care, and that that they cannot fudge an outcome with something non-binding like the Copenhagen Accord. As Naomi Klein puts it in her extraordinary book, This Changes Everything:

Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one.

Climate change is already a crisis – now we need to demand that our politicians do something about it.

In Edinburgh and Cardiff on 28 November, and London and Belfast on 29 November, thousands of people will be turning out for the People’s March, to draw attention to the importance of achieving a strong international climate deal in anticipation of December’s Conference. The Woodland Trust will be there to march for woods and trees, along with the Climate Coalition. They are asking people to join them for what’s sure to be a brilliant day; let’s demonstrate how important this is, and prove that we will be holding our politicians accountable.

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Articles and blogs referred to:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34324772

Smoke and Mirrors

http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/2015/09/march-with-us/