Ian McEwan on Sustainability

I’ve read a lot on the subject of sustainability over the years – some of it brilliant, some of it utter rubbish and a lot of noise in between. But as is often times the case, the best insights come from the periphery rather than the centre and hit you quite unexpectedly.

The following was just such for me and it comes from Ian McEwan’s 1998 novel, Amsterdam. I find myself drawn back to re read the piece every now and then. It’s a bleaker view than I normally take but there is always a joy in a new understanding.

In this scene, Clive takes a train from London to the Lake District and reflects on the state of things from the backstage view of life which one can often see from a train carriage. Hope you enjoy it too.

In his corner of West London and in his self-preoccupied daily round, it was easy for Clive to think of civilisation as the sum of all the arts, along with design, cuisine, good wine and the like. But now it appeared that this was what it really was – square miles of meagre modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions and, in dismal lots, lorries queuing up to distribute it; and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of traffic. It looked like a raucous dinner party the morning after. No one would have wished it this way, but on one had been asked. Nobody planned it, nobody wanted it but most people had to live in it. To watch it mile after mile, who would have guessed that kindness or the imagination, that Purcell or Britten, Shakespeare or Milton, had ever existed? Occasionally, as the train gathered speed and they swung further away from London, countryside appeared and with it the beginnings of beauty or the memory of it, until seconds later it dissolved into a river straightened to a concrete sluice or a sudden agricultural wilderness without hedges or trees, and roads, new roads probing endlessly, shamelessly as though all that mattered was to be elsewhere. As far as the welfare of every other living form on earth was concerned, the human project was not just a failure, it was a mistake from the very beginning. 


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