‘...and then, lo and behold, it turns out, surprise, surprise, one of the oil companies had been sitting on the patent the whole time, so just in the nick of time, the good old US of A comes through and saves the world...’
I’m holding forth somewhat again. She looks bored and pissed off. I’m not even sure what her point was. I asked her earlier if she would rather we just stop meeting, give up, move on. I’m sure she must have something better to do but she says no, it’s fine. So here we are.
‘That wasn’t actually proved – the thing about the patent’ she says.
‘It was leaked to Greenpeace.’
‘I know, but they’re not exactly the most reliable source...’
‘But it’s suspiciously convenient don’t you think?’
‘It was convenient I’ll grant you, but you should be happy. No more global warming, no more smog? I’d have thought you’d have been overjoyed.’
‘And I was. Really. It’s just... It just means we can go on with even more so called “development” – owning ever more pointless junk and having ever more meaningless “experiences”. I suppose I’d just like us to have been forced to take a bit of a look at ourselves, think about what life is really about.’
‘But we probably wouldn’t have.’
‘Wouldn’t have what?’
‘Looked at ourselves, thought about it.’
‘I don’t think that’s true’ I begin. ‘It was only the bloody USA as usual, dragging its feet, and they only released the technology because the oil was running out and they didn’t want to be dependant on the likes of Venezuela and Russia. They didn’t give a toss about the environment.’
‘That’s crap Gabriel. Mithras* made a hell of a difference to life in places like Nigeria and Brazil.’
‘Only because the USA wanted the cheap imports.’
‘I still think it probably did more good than bad’ she says but we both know it’s highly debatable. Despite the almost unlimited energy it could have provided for development in the places that needed it most, like northeast Africa where Andrea spent most of her time, the licences were mostly restricted to commercial developments in more secure locations. Plus ça change, plus la même bloody old chose, as I always say...
‘Ok, so here’s the question’ I say. ‘You were in Africa until the end. Did you really see any tangible improvement in people’s lives? Really?’
She takes a while to think about that. She looks quite upset. Suddenly I fear I’ve gone too far.
‘No’ she admits quietly. ‘Not really.’
She sits back, arms crossed, frowning, looking at the floor.
I look around at the room. I’m disappointed in myself to find that I still don’t seem to be able to control this urge to try to push someone else’s opinions to destruction. But, to be fair, she started it this time – telling me how much difference the multi-nationals had made to life in Sub-Saharan Africa while she was there. Needless to say I scoffed at that. I don’t think much of myself when I’m like this but I don’t seem to be able to stop it. I tell myself that I still have something important to say, something about there being more to development than consumerism but without much hope. We’ve been through all this before.
Actually I’m more disappointed in us. Something happened to us last session, something’s gone from us, from the way we are together. Now we’re just passing time until the end of the voyage and suddenly we don’t seem to have anything to talk about. So we have reverted to this.
I had one of those dream memories the other night, about a girl I’d known back in the nineties. I’d completely forgotten about her. It was one of those festival romances. Laura her name was. We were inseparable. We spent the entire four days together talking and strolling around. We did the sweat lodge together, and ‘danced the wave’, which I never would have normally. Every evening we were there together in the main yurt, me sat behind her with my arms around her. We kissed and nuzzled a little but that was all. It was enough. There was this electricity between us – anticipation of what was to come. We were so good together.
We saw each other a couple of times afterwards but she told me it was too complicated and could we just be friends? So we spent a couple of evenings at her place, sat at opposite ends of the sofa, and had absolutely nothing to say to each other. Actually, by the end of that second evening, by the time I left we really rather hated one another. This feels like that. I still don’t know what happened.
‘Do you really believe in all this stuff Gabriel?’ she says at last, giving me that cold appraising look she sometimes has. ‘All this stuff about capitalism and colonialism and all the rest of it? Or is it just some sort of game to you, a sort of competition?’ She’s hugging herself tightly now, hunching down, pushing her breasts up under her chin, like she’s dug herself in behind her sandbags.
‘Well, if you’d lived the life I did...’ I say, attempting flippancy.
‘That’s not it. Sorry. Millions of people get made homeless each year. Most of them are just preoccupied with their day-to-day struggle for survival. Hardly any try to work out a global geopolitical justification for it.’
‘I’m a philosopher. What can I say?’
She raises her eyebrows at me.
‘That and the fact that I couldn’t bear the idea that my parents might be right.’ It was meant to be a joke.
‘Aha’ she says, triumphantly. She smiles at me and shakes her head knowingly. ‘So actually (since you wanted to talk more about what happened with your parents and your work and the rest of it) all you’ve actually been doing for the last (what is it?) forty odd years, is sticking two fingers up at your mum and dad. It’s just all been one long adolescent strop. You’re just forever pissed off that the world won’t do things your way. You think the world is crap but there’s no point in actually trying to do anything about it. You were just a miserable old sod, sitting on his allotment, bitching about it. All your “politics” is just about blaming someone else. And meanwhile I was... Oh Gabriel... Grow up!’
I sit and gather myself. I wasn’t quite expecting this tirade. Strange how, although I always expect people to despise me sooner or later, the actual moment it comes, and the form it comes in always take me by surprise. I’d like to say she’s beautiful when she’s angry but she’s not. Argument is really overrated as an aphrodisiac.
‘That’s not it’ I say, genuinely hurt. ‘I don’t think everything’s crap. And I’m not just blaming society or whatever.’ She just looks more exasperated with me than ever. ‘No, actually’ I say ‘come to think of it I take that back. I am blaming society. I don’t see why I should take all the responsibility. I didn’t fit into their plans. Yes, actually I do blame society.’
She observes me. I half expect her to say ‘life’s not fair’ as my mum would have and I’ll have to restrain myself from going over and slapping her.
‘The world’s not going to change just to suit you Gabriel.’
‘Not just me’ I say quietly.
‘So what’s your answer Gabriel?’ she says huffily. ‘What’s the solution?’
I take a deep breathe. ‘I don’t know’ I say.
‘I don’t have a simple answer. I don’t believe there is just this one monolithic solution to everything. Sorry.’ She looks disappointed, not, I suspect, because she was hoping I had a solution, but because I’ve deprived her of the opportunity to sneer at my simple-mindedness.
‘What I do know’ I continue, ‘is that nothing changes until it is widely acknowledged that something is seriously wrong and that things need to change. Once that happens, solutions begin to become more obvious.’
‘But you have to be practical.’
‘No I don’t. People used to think it was impossible to run a civilisation without slaves. If the anti-slavery lobby had got bogged down in the economics they’d never have got anywhere.’
I can see she’s thinking about it. That’s good.
‘But there’s still slavery’ she says quietly. ‘I saw it for myself.’
‘I know. But that doesn’t means it can’t change. Everybody knows it’s wrong... And anyway, even if it’s not practical... We still have to try. It’s like child abuse. Nobody seriously thinks it’s possible to simply put an end to it for all time but nobody’s saying we shouldn’t bother trying. That’s all I want – people to agree there’s a problem and that something should be done.’
‘For a start. Look, maybe you don’t agree with me. Maybe you don’t think there’s a problem. Fair enough. End of conversation, but if you do agree... which I think most people do... everything else follows from that. You can’t just shrug and say “It’s terrible but there’s nothing we can do about it.” Do you see what I’m getting at? You can’t know what’s possible until you try. I believe the reason the world is not a better place is not because people think it’s ok as it is, or because change is not possible, but because people who stand to lose money and power really don’t want us to try.’
She nods wearily but it’s not because I’ve convinced her. It’s because she’s had enough, and so have I. Suddenly I feel very weary too. I don’t want to fight any more, but I also want her to understand something about me – that it wasn’t just a tantrum. I really did believe things could change, even if I had no idea how. I want her to understand that people don’t get angry if they think there’s nothing they can do. That just leads to apathy and self-indulgence. Anger comes from knowing things could be better. Anger comes from hope, not from despair. I need her to see this. I wasn’t a miserable old sod. That’s not fair.
* Mithraic cells (Mithras™) was a photovoltaic system developed to be installed as easily and cheaply as ordinary roof tiles or other roofing material. It made most new buildings, even in temperate climes more or less self-sufficient in electricity and created a vast surplus of energy in the tropics and subtropics. Hydrogen became cheaply available by electrolysis of water (HydroGen™) and quickly replaced petrol and kerosene as the fuel of choice. This led to unprecedented development in some of what had been the poorest countries, the end of conflict in what had been the main oil producing areas, the dropping of plans for more nuclear power plants and the almost complete cessation of carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. There were suspicions at the time that one of the larger oil companies had been sitting on the patent for over thirty years when it’s existence was leaked to an environmental pressure group.