How will they look in hindsight, these strange times we are living through? Is this a midlife crisis on humanity's road to the Star Trek future – or the point at which that story of the future unravelled and we came to see how much it had left out? What if our current crises are neither an obstacle to be overcome, nor the end of the world, but a necessary humbling?
These are the kind of questions which we set out to explore in The Great Humbling. We hope you'll join us and let us know what you think.
Ed Gillespie & Dougald Hine
The Great Humbling S5E7: 'Founders Confessions'
In our latest episode, Ed and Dougald compare notes on the experience of being founders – or co-founders – of organisations. What did we learn along the way? And what do humble forms of leadership look like?
We were recording on Shrove Tuesday, so the episode kicks off with a discussion of seasonal customs, including the Swedish semla…
On a recent Danish tour, Dougald returned to teach at the Kaospilots school, reconnecting with one of the inspirations that set him on the path of kickstarting projects and organisations in his twenties. The last day of that tour was also the first anniversary of publication of At Work in the Ruins.
Meanwhile, Ed has been speaking at the annual conference of the UK’s Garden Centre Association, which got him thinking about quite what a significant proportion of the country’s land area is made up of domestic gardens. The association’s chairman turns out to be called William Blake – which takes us back to our earlier conversations about ’s brilliant book on Blake, which friend-of-this-podcast gave to Dougald on last year’s UK tour.
Talk of gardens also takes us to the importance of domestic gardens within ’s projections for how the UK could feed itself in A Small Farm Future, and also to ’s .
There’s another thread running through this episode about the deeper understanding of Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday and Lent as a season of reckoning with the places where we are aware of falling short – and a chance to make changes.
Dougald talks about taking up the invitation to a Communal Digital Fast made by and of the . He also confesses to having binged the final season of Game of Thrones, before cancelling the family’s streaming subscriptions, thereby completing a project that is all Tyson Yunkaporta’s fault… And this brings in John Lanchester’s essay on watching GoT where he compares the number of hours invested with the amount of time it would take to learn Spanish fluently.
One thing the two of us have in common is that we both co-founded organisations while we were in our twenties – in Ed’s case, Futerra, and in Dougald’s, School of Everything.
We talk about Peter Koenig’s concept of “the source”, which many people have met through the work of (who was the missing sixth co-founder of School of Everything!), and the question of whether the language of “co-founders” obscures the reality that a project always begins with one person as its source, and that the marker of the source is that they are the person who asks for help.
This definitely fits the origins of Dark Mountain, another of the organisations that Dougald co-founded, which started with a blog post from , announcing his resignation from journalism, but also floating an idea for a new publication, “something deeply, darkly unfashionable and defiant”. At the end of that post, he wrote:
What I really need are collaborators; fellow writers and artists… who would like to help make it happen. This is a long journey, I imagine, which begins here. I need people of integrity and ideas to help me shape it and make it happen.
We talk about the valorisation of the founder within the culture of Silicon Valley, but also the reality – especially in organisations that aren’t aiming at making anyone rich – that the founder is generally the person who can’t clock off at the end of the day. Ed remembers a year when he took no salary for his work with Futerra.
Ed talks about Sam Conniff’s The Uncertainty Experts and the relevance of a tolerance for uncertainty to the role of being a founder.
Dougald remembers something he told the Dark Mountain team in the last weeks of handing over to and colleagues who have taken the project forward:
If there are things that you’ve seen me do that I look good at doing, most of them I started off really bad at doing, and you’ve just benefitted from the mistakes I made earlier.
Thinking about a school called HOME, Dougald describes it as a vehicle f
The Great Humbling S5E6: 'The Low Agreements'
This is the episode where we finally left Skype, which we’ve for some reason been using to record these conversations for four and a half series. Switching off the lights as we go, Ed wonders about other examples of old systems and technologies that are still in use, such as Windows Submarine.
Dougald reports back on his trip to Gothenburg – and makes an appeal for help in locating a copy of Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpes Battered, the tenth and final instalment in her saga about the terrible (and hilarious) Bagthorpe family. If you have a copy gathering dust on your shelves or boxed away in the attic, a reward is offered, and you’d also make an eight-year-old boy and his dad very happy.
Picking up on last episode’s discussion of populism, Dougald brings in a PhD thesis by the Brazilian scholar Neto Leão, ‘Vernacular Forms of Living: Thinking After Ivan Illich’.
‘To hell with sustainability!’ Neto declares, echoing Illich's pronouncement, ‘To hell with good intentions!’
Among the framings that Neto draws from Illich is his emphasis on the necessity of setting social limits: before we even get to ecological limits, our capacity to live well together requires us to make collective choices that include saying no to certain possibilities, technologies and forms of ownership. ‘Natural thresholds are generally crossed after social limits are breached,’ he writes.
It’s interesting to set this alongside Kate Raworth’s influential Doughnut Economics, which maps ‘planetary boundaries’ together with ‘social boundaries’.
The difference is that, in Raworth’s mapping, the social boundaries are presented in terms of a minimum of basic needs, rather than a limit that it is unwise to exceed.
Neto also draws attention to ‘Peace vs Development’, a talk which Illich gave in Japan in 1980, where he distinguishes the pax populi (people’s peace) from the pax economicum, the enforced peace from above that results from a ‘balance of powers’, as represented by globalisation. Illich presents the pax economicum as the successor to the pax romana of the Roman Empire.
There are clues here for the search for good forms of ‘populism’ that we spoke about in the previous episode – while Neto develops Illich’s thoughts by suggesting that the pax ecologica is now offered as the successor to the pax economicum.
The contrast between the pax ecologica and the pax populi is reflected in the contrast between what Neto calls the ‘high agreements’ (the kind made at COP meetings and similar summits) and the ‘low agreements’, made at scales much closer to the ground. The low agreements may look too small to be worth taking seriously, yet it is at these scales that choices about social limits become possible, whereas these are unthinkable from the perspective of high-level sustainability discussions.
Neto fleshes out his picture of the ‘low agreements’ with fieldwork from an island in Sao Paulo province, Brazil, where the villagers have made collective decisions about limiting the amount of electricity and the uses to which they are willing to put it within their community.
Thinking about other examples of ‘low agreements’, Dougald remembers ’s recent post about ‘Unscreening’, the 6.30pm power-down ritual that he and his wife have created, where they put their phones away in a box, beautifully made for the purpose. (There’s a connection here, too, to the larger conversation about ‘Sowing Anachronism’ that and have been hosting over at the .)
The story of the community in Brazil reminds Ed of his experiences visiting the Isle of Eigg and the journey of community-owned electricity that the residents have been on.
Ed talks about some work he’s been doing with the Forward Institute and a discussion around what humility in leadership looks like, where they found themselves talking about the terrible counter-example of the Post Office Horizon scandal in the UK and the horrif
The Great Humbling S5E5: 'Make Populism Good Again?'
Here's a rundown of references from this episode...
Leah Rampy, Earth & Soul: Reconnecting Amid Climate Chaos
Bill Drummond, 45
David Mitchell, Unruly
David Graeber & David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything
Jay LeSoleil, 'Green' Elites vs Green Left Populism
Avtryck/Imprint – a documentary from the Swedish Transition Towns movement
Chris Smaje (from 2016), 'Why I'm still a populist despite Donald Trump: elements of a left agrarian populism'
'Desert' – an anonymous anarchist text, quoted in Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World
Debbie Kasper, 'Microcosm of Transition' – about the day the cow came home
This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit thegreathumbling.substack.com
The Great Humbling S5E4: 'The Forever Project'
Our final episode of 2023 finds Dougald already in his Christmas jumper, as the tiredness of a busy year catches up with the pair of us.
Ed opens a window on Sophie Howarth’s Lighting the Dark: An Advent Calendar.
We share the Benjamin Zephaniah poems that have been going round in our heads, since the news of his death was announced, ‘To Do Wid Me’ and ‘Rong Radio Station’ and ‘Luv Song’.
Ed’s been reading a doorstop of a novel, The Deluge by Stephen Markley.
Dougald has been revisiting the work of Pam Warhurst and Incredible Edible Todmorden, including something he heard her say about finding ‘a forever project’, something that you’ll be working on for the rest of your life.
We pick up the story from last episode about the KLF, inspired by John Higgs’s book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic & the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds.
Uncannily, it turns out that the KLF released a new single the day before we recorded our previous episode – here is KLF KARE & Harry Nilsson ft. Ricardo Da Force, Everybody’s Talking At Me. Possibly not going to make Christmas Number One.
This takes us back to the zenith of the original KLF era, the video to Justified & Ancient ft. Tammy Wynette. And then there’s KLF vs Extreme Noise Terror at the Brit Awards.
One of the striking thoughts from Higgs’s book is about the timing of the KLF moment, coming in the early 1990s, after the events that marked the end of what historian Eric Hobsbawm called ‘The Short Twentieth Century’ (1914-91). Higgs writes about the ‘liminal’ moment of 1991-94 – apparently these are the only years in Wikipedia where the list of things that ‘happened in this year’ gets shorter rather than longer over time.
Anyone writing about the cultural history of the early 1990s tends to reference Douglas Coupland’s Generation X – and Dougald points out that the novel ends with three pages of statistics about a generation growing up poorer than their parents. So in its origins, this wasn’t just about a cultural moment or a ‘slacker’ trend, but the beginning of a reckoning with the unravelling of the rising and broadly shared prosperity of post-war America – which then got swept under the carpet in the second half of the 1990s by the take off of the internet. (Coupland himself shifted focus, writing Microserfs – about tech employees – and jPod, which ‘updates Microserfs for the age of Google’.)
As Higgs says in his book, it’s one thing to start burning a million quid, it’s another thing to finish it – it takes a long time and it’s pretty tedious – and if you don’t believe this, then you too can Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid.
Dougald remembers something that Slavoj Zizek writes about in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, the Lacanian idea of ‘ritual value’ and sacrifice as what tears the net of the total logic of ‘use’ and ‘exchange’ value.
Meanwhile, Tammy Wynette singing ‘They’re justified and their ancient and they’ve still no masterplan’ prompts a connection to the anonymous Substack, Philosophy in Hell, and a post (brought to our attention by Liz Slade of the Unitarians) called ‘Instead of Your Life’s Purpose’, where the author advocates for a ‘non-linear approach to meaning’:
Instead of imagining yourself as the hero of a Hollywood movie, imagine yourself as a particularly hearty ancestor that you might brag about when drunk: the one who rode bareback, founded a town, fought a grizzly bear, raised 10 kids, saved her son’s life by drinking the governor under the table, and went to the frontier to stay one step ahead of the hangman and her gambling debtors.
Ed brings us into land with Higgs’s theory about the ultimate significance of the K Foundation burning a million quid – what if this is an intervention in idea-space that makes it thinkable that money can be stopped? Did they plant a seed for the economic chaos of the decades that followed, bu
The Great Humbling S5E3: 'We Used to Have Fun'
We take a different route into our conversation this time around, in what turns out to be the first in a two-parter woven around John Higgs’s book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic & the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds, which Ed has been reading. It’s the kind of book that detonates in the mind, sparking a million connections.
First, though, we start out talking about humbling moments, great and small, prompted by Dougald’s experience of stumbling upon a conversation between two listeners who had very different responses to our previous episode.
The KLF conversation takes in George Orwell’s near-death experience off the coast of the Isle of Jura, where he wrote 1984. Also Alan Moore’s From Hell and his understanding of ‘ideaspace’. We learn about the dream of a yellow wave that haunted Carl Jung in the years before the First World War – and Ed shares his poem, Foxtime, written in January 2020, which came to feel like a premonition of the pandemic.
All of this brings Dougald back to something from the last episode, where he briefly quoted from John Berger’s essay, ‘The Hour of Poetry’, something he expanded on in a subsequent Substack post. According to Berger, the purpose of poetry is to connect the separated, and our friend Dan commented that this couldn’t mean ‘the poet/author/artist being imagined as a professional, solitary figure producing a commodity for a living’, it has to be the opposite of this.
And as Dougald was sitting with this comment, an email arrived from Ben Eaton of Invisible Flock with a story about how some words from At Work in the Ruins had come to be used in an extraordinary installation in their current exhibition in Leeds, This is a Forest. (Strangely enough, Dougald has also been part of an exhibition this autumn in Västerås, Sweden called Säg att du är en skog, ‘Say You Are a Forest’.)
Meanwhile, the follow-up post about ‘The Hour of Poetry’ triggered a fascinating conversation between Roselle Angwin and Richard Kurth, a glimpse of way that words can call us into relation and away from the traps of becoming (in the title of Stewart Lee’s stand-up show) a ‘Content Provider’ in a self-commodifying machine.
Join us next time, when Dougald will have read John Higg’s KLF book and we’ll see what we learn from Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s inability to explain why they burned a million quid.
This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit thegreathumbling.substack.com
The Great Humbling S5E2: 'Words in Wartime'
We recorded this episode on Dougald’s birthday – and Ed starts with the image of him wearing Anna’s family’s Coyote coat, triggering unsettling flashbacks to the QAnon shaman, who is apparently now running for Congress. Welcome to the dark weirdness of 2023.
Ed quotes from Paul Mason’s ‘Gaza: Time for Restraint’, a story brought to our attention by listener Richard Brophy, about a conversation between George Orwell and Stephen Spender during the Second World War.
Before we head further into the core themes of this episode, Ed talks about a recent visit to the Time & Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth and the stories he found in Sarah E Doig’s The A-Z of Curious Norfolk. Among these is the story of the first bomb dropped on British soil, from a Zeppelin over Sheringham on 18th January 1915.
Moving to the present, Dougald reads from ‘Two Feather Sunday’, a recent post by Andrew at Bog-down and Aster. ‘I have been in a quiet lately,’ Andrew writes. ‘I think a fair few of us have.’ What lifts him from this quiet and sets the theme for our conversation is another Substack post, from Caroline Ross, ‘Writing a Chalice’, and her image words used ‘freely, generously,/as though you were passing/the simple birchwood cup you carved/among friends.’
Responding to a reader, Andrew also describes a realisation that the potency of his work doesn’t lie in seeking ‘more likes, more readers, more subscriptions’, but in finding ‘a handful of close readers’ and ‘a small circle of others writing around the same ideas’, where ideas and images start ‘cross-pollinating’.
This takes Ed back to Yancey Strickler’s ‘Dark Forest’ theory of the internet, which we spoke about in S3E8 – and he describes a recent encounter with Yancey and learning about Metalabel, a project supporting ‘creativity in multiplayer mode’.
Dougald brings in Adam Wilson’s recent post at The Peasantry School, ‘A warning to readers: this story can’t be told in prose’, about how we write about what we only glimpse from the corner of the eye. Two observations from this resonate with the wider discussion: ‘We are invited to generate opinions about how to live while others shoulder the consequences of our opinions,’ Adam writes – and: ‘We see ourselves as powerless even as we wield unprecedented power. Privilege seems to beget a felt sense of victimhood, which in turn breeds a nearly insatiable hunger for more privilege.’
This brings Ed to a recent post from Tom Hirons, ‘a quick reminder that we all live in the varying shades of a dystopian nightmare set in paradise’.
Dougald talks about Ivan Illich’s troubling words about the refusal to ‘care’, when care is reduced to a feeling rather than an action. (There’s more in this post.) And from there we come to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words about the contrast between ‘cheap grace’ and ‘costly grace’.
Still wondering about what it means to ‘care’, Dougald brings in a poem by Dylan Thomas (brought to his attention by Andrew Curry’s Just Two Things), ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’.
Ed reflects on the 70th anniversary of Thomas’s death, how ‘Under Milkwood’ drew inspiration from the name of a road in Herne Hill, his own reworking of it as ‘Beyond Coldharbour’, and what happened when someone played Martin Shaw the Dubwood Allstars’ recording of the poem, ‘Under Dubwood’.
Ed brings in a post from Liz Slade on Remembrance Sunday and the poem ‘Making Peace’ by Denise Levertov.
Dougald talks about rereading John Berger’s essay, ‘The Hour of Poetry’ from 1982 (in The White Bird).
Ed describes reading Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Everyone Sang’ at Sandhurst – and the reminder that this is not a poem about the end of the Great War, but about a moment of extraordinary beauty experienced in the middle of the horror of the trenches.
This brings us to Sacii Lloyd’s
My favorite podcast in a long time
This is one of the most thoughtful and quietly entertaining podcasts I’ve ever listened to. I always learn so much and end each episode feeling indirectly encouraged and nourished by the discussion. Nice banter between the hosts and very accessible content. Look forward to having a cup of tea and a ‘chat’ with them each week. Thanks guys!
I love these two: personal, intimate, thoughtful, smart and, yes, erudite, and of course humble. I’ve learned so much and caught glimpses of possible futures good and not so good. Thanks fellas