on the joy, necessity and ephemarility of optimism

From the archives, I wrote this over three years ago, February 2010, for a student magazine. It’s funny, I force -edited it into a style that is just slightly unnatural. I’ve developed my perspective on each of the things described and wouldn’t phrase everything the same if I wrote this now. I dug it up as I’ve been coming into contact with positive minded people, with more than a hippyish tinge to them recently, which is provoking some thoughts which link back to the thread in this article.

“ we are the ones we have been waiting for”

“Paradise is where I am” proclaimed a sign, as we came to a gateway shaped with contorted figures, where we were greeted by beautiful dusty women. ‘Going Nowhere’ had become a mantra over the past months, especially during my hitchhike from England, and finally I was there, in the ‘desert’ of Los Monegros, Spain. Nowhere is a festival inspired by the Burning Man festival- which has become a temporary city in the Nevada Desert shaped by principles including ‘no commerce’, ‘no spectators’ and radical self expression. These principles are given living meanings as diverse as its population-peaking 35, 664 in 2004.

“When it comes down to it, it’s just a big party in the desert” I was told. This ‘party in the desert’ is, however, the focal point for a passionately dedicated community of Nooners- it is where they live the community they imagine and maintain all year. To me the atmosphere at Nowhere was one of a tangible but ephemeral euphoria. Maybe Nowhere has no purpose beyond itself and so exists on a purely hedonistic basis. Daniel Pinchbeck thinks not:- “The essential point of Burning Man [this applies equally to Nowhere] is not what it is now but what it suggests for the future, which is not just a new cultural form but the possibility of a new way of being, a kind of radical openness toward experience that maintains responsibility for community.” A man, while being body painted, explained how he envisioned a future driven by creativity transcending the work/life divide, and how spaces like Nowhere were laboratories for future forms of society. I wanted to share his optimism.

One week later Nowhere was a deconstruction site, reverting to a barren dustbowl. Many people left early on Sunday, to return to work on Monday, putting away their dusty booty shorts for another year. The community dispersed, maintaining threads of shared experiences and dreams. I met other friends and continued on the road, exchanging labour for experience, facilitated by the internet based HelpX. Our first hosts were building a straw bale house, and were escaping soulless timetabled ‘modernity’ for a more integrated lifestyle. In another valley we stayed with an offshoot of Rainbow gatherings, people hoping to gain a permanent escape from ‘Babylon’, as they referred to capitalist society, through becoming a permanent nomadic egalitarian community. The atmosphere resonated with that of Nowhere- a focus on existing in the present, coupled with a hope that this rightness could spread in the world. My friend, meanwhile, was frustrated with the self-contained contentedness of the gathering. “But how will they actually change the world?” he demanded.

Four weeks later I was at the Camp for Climate Action- 1500 activists living in a temporarily autonomous zone on Blackheath, within sight of the Gherkin, united by the aim of demanding ‘social change, not climate change’. Here people were united, not just in living a vision of alterity, but in pushing to radically change society.

Climate Camp justifies itself in terms of its political purpose. Despite this, the driving emotion may be shared with that of Nowhere, Rainbow gatherings and seekers of alternative lifestyles elsewhere- a desire to declare otherness from the apathetic inertia of a flawed society. Some ways in which this optimistic yearning for change is realised may be more explicitly and effectively engaged with reality than others. It seems, though, that they all draw on the energy expressed in the grand narrative of a ‘Great Turning’ – a term used by David Korten to describe an awakening into a better era, placing us as “the ones we have been waiting for”.

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