35: Book Launch (and speech transcript)

6 August 2011

The weekend following the start of my sabbatical, I began to rearrange my chess pieces and prepare for the book launch. Just as I was getting to grips with things, my colleagues in arms, Martin and Catherine Stone, whisked me out of London for some R&R at The Secret Garden Party festival.

It didn’t disappoint. In attendance were the cream of Britain’s youth. Everyone was beautiful, friendly, polite, well balanced and mad for it. What joy. We retreating to camp every night, only to charge off again at 1 a.m. for yet another four-hour party session. The experience reminded me how much I love living on this planet.

Back in London: seriously running out of time. Seventy-two relentless, seat-of-the-pants hours followed before the launch (sort the: booze, food, visuals, invites, speech, outfit and get a blooming haircut). Some tasks fell through the cracks, but we hit Thursday 28th with an appropriate balance of nerves, adrenaline and compound stress. Then this wonderful community swung into action around me, and it turned out that I was surrounded by angels.

On that note, I would like to thank the following people.

  • Si Peace – for being master of ceremonies, coordinating everything, project managing the day and bullying me to order.
  • Kirsty Wood – for acting as quartermaster, whizzing around town on emergency errands, organising the catering and – critically and beautifully – giving two electrifying readings.
  • Dominic Perez-Silva – for playing host, sorting the audiovisuals and being a dynamo of can-do, get-shit-done, enthusiastic party management.
  • Katie Stockton-Roberts – for adding a bit to video 10 telling the world I was ‘obsessive compulsive’, supplying the computer hardware and marching me off suit shopping: a fashion undertaking that would have seen me floundering for weeks, if left undirected.
  • Karen Swinden – for publishing The Jolly Pilgrim, saying such kind words and giving me the first plaque I will actually put on a wall (and keep there) for the rest of my life. (A-level certificates? Pah.)
  • Louise Claire-Pardoe – my new spiritual-seeker sister and PR wingwoman, for managing the book-selling desk and working them journalists.
  • Charlene Murray – for being my sassy, meet-and-greet, tiger-blood, front-of-house recruitment wife.
  • Pete Raistrick – for turning up mid-afternoon, taking control, designing the entrance, calling in reinforcements and charming the pub next door into gifting us three bags of ice.
  • Sam Wells – for acting as said reinforcements, propping up the catering, getting on with it and never, ever complaining (we particularly adore this last feature).
  • Nick Raistrick – for heroically rocking the after party with his DJ skills, despite having no working headphones and one vinyl deck breaking halfway through the set.
  • Claire Russell – for giving me a 90-minute, speech-writing and voice-coaching consultation session that afternoon (and, what’s more, being practically perfect).
  • Vijay – for printing out all the posters, super-posters and banners at very short notice
  • Migle and Marek – for working the bar, looking after my friends and associates, and giving me loads of free booze at the end.
  • Neena Eden Peace [special guest star] – for making her first public appearance at The Jolly Pilgrim book launch, at the age of 46 days. Not her last claim to fame, we suspect.

That evening, my gigantic six-year journey finally came to its end. It was the most nervy I’d felt in years. Martin Stone took me aside ‘If you’re nervous, you’ll make everyone else nervous. So don’t be nervous’ Alright then, I thought, I’ll be cocky.

I can’t tell you what I actually said, as I was winging it. Recording the speech is one of the things which fell through the cracks. That’s OK, it’s more romantic and personal this way. To quote Tony Benn, a speech ‘connects the speaker, the audience, the time and the place.’

This is what I think I said …


The Jolly Pilgrim Launch Speech

I’m a happy person. Whatever reasons of nature or nurture incline some people towards optimism, and others pessimism, predisposed me to having a sunny disposition.

In addition, I’m an optimist about the trajectory of human affairs. I genuinely feel, deep in my heart, that our collective future will ultimately be bright and that there is something wonderful going on, right here right now, on this planet.

There’s more to it though: I have an intellectual conviction that those things are true. The more I’ve learned about planet Earth, how it works and the story which brought us to where we are, the more I feel that we – as a species – are basically on the right track.

In this book, I’m going to explain why I think that.

Six years ago, I set off for what I hoped would be a character-building adventure. When I did so, I decided to keep a diary. The main reason for this was that, at the time, I had two elderly parents. I was aware how difficult it is to keep in touch when you’re in foreign lands for long periods, and the diary was a mechanical way of doing this. The second reason was that, in this age where everyone travels and has email addresses, communiqués from distant lands are a common occurrence.

But I felt the medium had untapped potential.

The first phase of my character-building adventure (or Part 1, as we refer to it in the book) consisted of a five-month cycle ride from London to Istanbul. During that time, I had two epiphanies.

The first epiphany took place at Chartres. Chartres is 90 kilometres west of Paris and its cathedral is one of the crowning architectural achievements of human civilisation. But that’s not important right now. What’s important is that I spent the afternoon of my I visit in the town’s campsite, drinking Bordeaux out of a white plastic cup and reading a piece of prose by H. G. Wells.

The prose is called ‘The Discovery of the Future’. In it, Wells sets out a vision of humanity stripped of the illusion of individuality, which sees us all as part of a greater whole. It affected me deeply. Here it is.

[At this point Kirsty Wood stepped forward to read.  I asked if she needed a microphone. She (a professional actress) gave me a look that implied I was a moron, then read the piece].

We look back through countless millions of years
and see the great will to live struggling out of the inter-tidal slime,
struggling from shape to shape and from power to power,
crawling and then walking confidently upon the land,
struggling generation after generation to master the air,
creeping down into the darkness of the deep.

We see it turn upon itself in rage and hunger and reshape itself anew,
we watch as it draws nearer and more akin to us,
expanding, elaborating itself, pursuing its reckless inconceivable purpose,
until at last it reaches us and its being beats within our brains and arteries,
throbs and thunders in our battleships, roars through our cities,
sings in our music and flowers in our art.

It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of the beginning,
and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.
It is possible to believe all that the human mind has accomplished
is but the dream before the awakening.

Out of our lineage minds will spring
that will reach back to us in our littleness
to know us better than we know ourselves,
and reach fearlessly forward
to comprehend a future that defeats our eyes.

This world is heavy with the promise of greater things.
A day will come, one day in the unending succession of days, when beings,
beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins,
shall stand upon this earth as one stands upon a footstool,
and shall laugh and reach out their hands amidst the stars.

[Back to me]

The second epiphany took place in Istanbul.

It was in a hotel room, on my first night in Turkey, after I’d spent 6,500 kilometres cycling there, in the company of three backpackers called Heinrich, Wolfgang and Giselle. They spent that evening giving me their thoughts on the world. And, Ladies and Gentlemen, Heinrich, Wolfgang and Giselle were pissed off.

They were pissed off about politics, politicians, the environment, globalisation, capitalism and modernity. They were pissed off about everything. Their analysis of the world consisted of listing its problems.

As I travelled around the globe, I witnessed quite a lot of this negativity in the global zeitgeist; a widely held belief that because so many people act it way we deem irrational or evil, we are doomed; and because the human race has so many problems, the world is in decline. That assessment simply does not fit with my understanding of what is happening on this planet.

The reason I think people hold this negative view is because they fail to think in terms of the big picture.  If people were to think in terms of that big picture, they’d be happier, more positive, more rational, find even more meaning in the world around them and generally be more harmonious about the experience of being alive.

So – thinking big – here is my main point. And, if you take one thing away from tonight, make it this …

Fundamentally, we are a species of evolved ape who have been thrown up by the ecosphere of planet Earth, like millions of species before us, and are now attempting to do something completely without precedent. That is: build a technological, global civilisation on a planet, from scratch, with no outside guidance and no rule book. That’s basically what’s going on.

What I do in The Jolly Pilgrim is reinterpret our world from that first-principles point of view.

Because I’ve been told by the journalistic mafia (and yes, Nick Raistrick, I’m talking about you) to keep this short, tonight I’ll limit my comments to two points. First, human welfare. Second, humanity’s relationship with the environment.

Human welfare. There’s a narrative of human welfare which emphasises the fact that, in the world today, there is lots of famine, war, disease and social problems.

That’s true. But bear in mind that there was never – ever – a period of human history where there wasn’t famine, war, disease and social problems. These things are, and have always been, the status quo.

At the moment, Oxfam is running a poster campaign in London featuring an African lady, who doesn’t have enough food to feed her family, above a tag line ‘the system is bust’.  To me, that a tag line overlooks, or is ignorant of, the past 12,000-year narrative of human history.

If you go back just a little bit into that narrative, say 1,000 years, the average income, per head, in today’s money, across the whole world, was about $400 – $450 per year. That’s about the wealth of modern Ethiopia or Tanzania. We might read in the history books about the kings and generals, but that small elite composed only a tiny proportion of the overall population: less than five per cent. Everybody else was living at something close to subsistence.

If you go back 200 years ago (a point at which the world was far wealthier than it was 1,000 years ago), the average income per person, across the whole world, in today’s money, was about $650 – $700 per year – about the wealth of contemporary Haiti or Burma. The fact is that the whole world was, until very recently, what we would now regard as being extremely poor. Then some parts of it started to get rich.

Next example.

Last weekend I was at The Secret Garden Party festival. Naturally, I went to hang out at the tent where the hippies talk to each other.  During one talk, someone in the audience stood up and talked about ‘the proliferation of violence that spread around the world in the twentieth century’.

That is a historical statement with any basis in fact or real-world data, whatsoever.

Hunter-gatherer groups – the baseline context in which human societies exist – live in a state of almost constant war with the other hunter gatherer groups around them. The homicide rate in those societies – that is: your chances of being deliberately killed by another human, be that through domestic violence, war, a fight at the pub or whatever – is, as a male, about 25 per cent. That’s higher than modern homicide rates by well over an order of magnitude. I do not mean to cast moral judgement on those hunter-gatherer societies – that is just the stable, default state for human groups. That is how we’re evolved to be.

But in recent history, violence and homicide has reduced to an unprecedented degree. Right now, your chances of dying through homicide is the lowest it has ever been during all of history, ever.

When you look at the terrible famine in East Africa, the chaos in the Congo or the war in Afghanistan, what you are seeing is the past. That’s what beginning alive was like in the thirteenth century.

So here is my point about human welfare: right now we are living in the greatest golden age the human race has ever seen, during its entire historical and prehistoric experience, by every paradigm of human welfare that it is possible to measure.

The world is not getting worse. It is getting better. It’s getting better very quickly, and it’s going to keep getting better.

The second thing I want to talk about is humanity’s relationship with the environment. Here my point is that our current environmental challenges represent an historical inevitability that was laid down thousands – and arguably millions – of years ago, but there is every reason to believe we can meet those challenges.

I’m going to divide my comments on the environment into three sections. First, the fundamental situation. Second, dealing with the problem. Third, the big picture.

First: the fundamental situation. The underlying issue is that you have a bewilderingly complex set of biological and meteorological systems (the ecosphere of planet Earth) interfacing with a bewilderingly complex emergent system (human civilisation) in thousands of seen and unseen ways. As the latter system grew in scope and intensity over the last 10,000 years (humans have been disrupting ecosystems since they invented spears and language), it inevitably destabilised the former.

CO2-induced climate change – the flagship environmental issue of the day – is one expression of that instability. This is a period of environmental instability we’ve been moving towards for thousands of years, even if we’ve only recently realised it. What is unknown is how deep and traumatic this period of instability is going to be.

Second: dealing with the problem. Back in the 1980s, CO2-induced climate change was an obscure environmentalist concern. The first major head-of-state speech about it was made to the UN in 1989, by Margaret Thatcher (ironically). Twenty years later, climate change is a central topic of global discourse and every major governmental and trans-national organisation accepts that there needs to be a policy response to it. Historically, that’s the blink of an eye.

Venture capital spend on renewable energy was $60 billion in 2006. I use that number in the book. In 2009 it had reached $90 billion. Making civilisation environmentally sustainable isn’t impossible, it’s just a very big problem. It’s a problem on which the ingenuity and creative energy of seven billion humans is gradually beginning to be focussed.

Finally: the big picture. One of the most interesting pieces of data I’ve ever read is that the brain size of the biggest-brained animals on Earth has doubled roughly every 34 million years, since the first appearance of big, complex animals, 600 million years ago. It is the blend of tool use, social minds and language Earth has selected for us which are the real genesis of the environmental conundrum we now face. But in an ecosphere where brain size doubles every 34 million years, it was a question of when, not if, such a tool-using, civilisation-building species came along.

Well, here we are.

Right now, ladies and gentlemen, we’re 12,000 years into an extraordinary and unprecedented journey. The world you see around you is the tiny, narrow, slice of history, following the invention of agriculture, where we learn the basic political, economic and social structures required to build a sustainable, long-term civilisation.

We’ve got a lot of problems. Some of them are quite frightening. But we live a world where it can be done. So let’s take the long view, because that long view leads us to the stars, through ever more glorious ages of collective self-actualisation and enlightenment. And we get to have this adventure in an infinitely interesting and beautiful universe. And everybody alive gets to be part of it.

So please: love it, embrace it, and for God’s sake, just make the most of it.

Thank you very much.


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5 Responses to “35: Book Launch (and speech transcript)”

  1. Sainty Says:

    Was a fantastic night, fella. You should feel rightly proud. As am I of you.

  2. Ash Says:

    Hi Nero,

    Good effort. As your ally, I have to ask how you would feel trying to explain to that African woman with starving kids that she’s just a broken egg in a very tasty omelette. As always, I also have a ‘bigger picture’ to talk about. Sure, every index of human development has been increasing in the long term – while every index of ecological health has been dropping in inverse correlation – and these things are linked. Still, we’re human, so that’s ok, right? You have spent plenty of time at parties befriending humans but not enough standing on a razed patch of ex-rainforest. Perhaps that is why you are so cheerful. Great book, though ;)

  3. Peter Baker Says:

    In reply to Ash

    If you have a wand that will make the African lady’s life easy – please wave it. If you wave a wand that will make civilisation environmental sustainable – why don’t you describe it to me, so I can wave it for you?

    As regards: “every index of ecological health has been dropping in inverse correlation” I trust you have some sound data you can point me to, which is consistent with that statement? You know so well how annoyed I get with fluffy, hand-wavy nonsense.

    We are bunch of monkeys on the surface of a planet. Sorry if that’s a bit challenging. Sorry if it is inconsistent with the hypothetical world that you’ve made up in your head. Sorry if that is outside the bourgeios norms you were lucky enough to grow up with and now project onto world around you, finding it inadequate in your eyes. But I’m afraid that, despite all those things, we are still a bunch of monkey’s on the surface of a planet. So we can either kill ourselves because life is so difficult, or we can …

    deal with it.

    Can’t tarry further. Just packed the thick gloves and some bin bags. Got some cleaning to help with.


  4. Mark Snare Says:

    cleaner air, better water, sustainable rainforests, electric cars, renewable energy, all massive ticks in the boxes concerning this brave species tackling the problems it has as best it can. So many good things going on, so many more to do.

    action, always my favourite.

  5. Mitzi Danziger Says:

    Valuable information. I discovered your website by accident, and I’m surprised why this coincidence had not happened earlier!

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