We must remember that humans have always relied on the strength of their local communities, writes Joyce McMillan
If we were thinking straight about the underlying reasons for Scotland’s current weather crisis – an unprecedented peak in February temperatures in the Arctic, which has forced a savage swirl of polar air south and westward across Europe – we would probably be too paralysed by fear to cope with it at all.
The Arctic climate is changing so rapidly, now, that all bets are off about the future of the ocean and weather systems that depend on a sharp temperature gradient between the higher latitudes and the rest of us, including, for example, the Gulf Stream, which ever since the last Ice Age has guaranteed that Britain and Ireland enjoy a much milder climate than most other countries at this latitude. And one scientific prediction that seems clearly vindicated by events is the forecast that as the percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaches levels unprecedented in human history, our climate will become much more unpredictable, and extreme events ever more common.
When it comes to the question of how we respond, though, it can be difficult to trace a constructive path through the torrent of claim and denial about climate change, from the “be very afraid” weather hysteria cultivated by some sections of the media – which nonetheless refuse to concede that climate change might be a scientific reality – to the legitimate panic of those who have read the numbers, and conclude that there is nothing to be done but to go to the pub, and wait for the end of days. Governments, of course, may choose either to disbelieve the scientific evidence (the Trump option), or to sign up to various well-intentioned but probably inadequate measures designed to reduce our dependence on carbon fuels, in the manner of Emmanuel Macron or Nicola Sturgeon.
For the rest of us, though, tracing a viable route between hope and despair is a daily task, and one made much sharper by the kind of weather event we now face. If nothing else, the havoc wrought over the last few days by less than a foot of snow in lowland Scotland, combined with a fierce wind chill, reminds us of the sheer fragility of the complex systems on which our comfortable way of life entirely depends, above all for food and energy supplies. More than a few days of paralysis on the roads and railways would bring serious food shortages; a week or two of continuing blizzards and transport problems could add constant power cuts to the food Armageddon, and make many of our cosy domestic bolt-holes all but uninhabitable.
We can, of course, hope to face no event on that scale in the near future. Yet it is worth thinking about how we can make ourselves more resilient, in a time of increasingly uncertain conditions; and about the absolute uselessness, in any heavily urbanised society, of the classic individualist response to such crises, which involves a crude survivalism, and a retreat to the woods with a gun and a supply of tinned food.
For just as it is the intense individualism of our society that increases the pressure we put on our environment – each little single-person or family home with its own heating system, entertainment centre, plastic-wrapped grocery deliveries and high food wastage rate – so it has to be in some revived form of conviviality and community that we find a new response to the moments when those resource-heavy systems come under pressure, and perhaps begin to fail.
At the simplest level, we can hear this from politicians every day during extreme weather; for once, they say, be less self-contained, check on your elderly or disabled neighbours, make sure they have everything they need. And it seems to me that the secret of greater resilience must lie in starting to expand that kind of community thinking beyond any particular emergency, and into a general movement to make our way of life less fragile by tapping into our mutual resources; and that applies whether we live in a small village where everyone already knows everyone, or in a city street like mine, where people barely know the names of their neighbours, and tend to like it that way.
To become less dependent on supermarket food supply chains, for instance, we need to grow more food locally, in cities as well as elsewhere, and to make good use of whatever land is available to us, not just as individuals, but as groups. To become less dependent on big, centralised sources of power supply, we need local energy schemes, and a push to bring Scotland’s urban communities into the renewable energy revolution; if some small towns in Caithness or Galloway can have solar panels on almost every roof, and a wind turbine nearby, we should now be thinking much harder about how to extend that revolution into our cities. And to make a break with an unsustainable consumer economy that tries to fill every emotional gap with a new online purchase, we also need to rediscover the truth that there are different kinds of wealth; and that any problem or fear is much more bearable if we can share it with friends and neighbours, gather round a table of an evening to share what we have, sing a few songs, and tell a few stories.
Our society has drunk deep of the joys and freedoms of individualism, of course; nor will we ever abandon them. Yet our ability to enjoy that freedom has always depended, at a level often just below everyday awareness, on the organised activity of thousands if not millions of other human beings, from food growers thousands of miles away to health service workers and fuel truck drivers.
And now, we may be approaching a time in history when we need to bring the truth of that dependence on others back into our everyday local lives, to celebrate it, and cultivate it; lest those big, overstretched systems on which we now rely begin to break under the new pressures they face, and leave us struggling for survival, bereft of all those infuriating and empowering networks of connection and community that have always been the lifeblood of humankind – and our greatest source of inspiration – in times of need.