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Fire and Brimstone
Image: Grant Hardeway

Going pear-shaped: The collapse of our complex society goes mainstream

For those readers outside the small and rapidly shrinking BBC Today Programme demographic, the 7.50am Thought for the Day is the broadcasting equivalent of a Novocaine injection designed to anaesthetise listeners ahead of the intellectual equivalent of having a wisdom tooth removed that is the 8.05am political propaganda slot.

Thought for the Day talks are presented by representatives of a range of religious belief systems, and generally consist of some vacuous line of reasoning that supposedly links the news of the day back to some text of whichever religion is proselytising.  With this in mind, and in my barely awake state this morning, I fully expected to be treated to someone from the Church of England  (it was their turn) explaining why having a British woman in the semi-finals of the Wimbledon tennis championship should remind us all of the Sermon on the Mount.

Instead, to my great surprise, we were treated to Bishop James Jones – former Bishop of Liverpool, of Hillsborough Independent Panel fame – talking about how modern civilisation is at real risk of collapse resulting from environmental destruction, resource and energy depletion, and economic unsustainability.  As Bishop Jones puts it (transcript here):

“With so many things ‘going pear-shaped’, like cyber-attacks on banks and hospitals, I’ve been considering the origin of the phrase. One of the best attested comes from the training of pilots to do loops in the sky. Failure to create a perfect circle is ‘going pear-shaped’. And I’ve begun wondering what we’d do if everything went pear-shaped at the same time. If computers crashed in a massive hack, if banks collapsed under a huge run for cash, if the energy supply failed and super markets folded. What then?”

What, indeed?  The Bishop goes on to reference one of the fire and brimstone passages from the Old Testament in which peoples are struck down and cities burned to ashes:

“It’s an apocalyptic scene straight out of a disaster movie. And it’s a story about the end of a social order. That’s a hard thought to bear in an era of unprecedented wealth and scientific optimism. But the complexity of our world is its blessing and its curse. Contemplating its future risks brings into sharper focus the potential and the limits of our own self-sufficiency.”

This was not the kind of anaesthetic wanted by listeners about to be treated to Elizabeth Campbell – new leader of Kensington and Chelsea council – explaining that she has absolutely no idea what it is like to live in a crowded tower block that, thanks to austerity cuts, may well burn like a Roman candle, and that despite that fate having already been visited upon the residents of Grenfell Tower, she was still clueless about how the survivors might be rehoused in their own community.

What it was, was evidence that an esteemed member of the British establishment (whose full title is, The Right Reverend James Jones KBE) is aware of the existential issues around complexity, energy, environment and economics that we desperately need to address.  More important is that Bishop Jones chose to take advantage of the religious platform afforded him by the BBC to raise these issues to an audience that, despite the rise of social media, continues to include most decision-making politicians and civil servants among its listeners.

That, at least, begins to move these issues out of the realm of paranoia and so-called “conspiracy theory” and into the political establishment mainstream where we desperately need them to be if we are to salvage something from the ashes of our current way of life.

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