Z is for… The Zeitgeist Movement

In a tiny room full to bursting point, I huddled together with a bunch of activists, some covered in tattoos and piercings, others suited up like bankers on their lunch breaks.

“Change will come – don’t be in any doubt about that”

Jim stared out intently, as if we were a group of pupils he had just chastised.

This is the first annual meeting of the London Zeitgeist Movement. It was set up to prepare for ‘Z-day’ later in the month, an internationally co-ordinated day of presentations, films, exhibitions and the coming together of like-minded advocates of radical social change.

The Zeitgeist Movement (TZM) is based on the idea that our current modus operandi – rampant consumerism and unquenchable thirst for ‘growth’ on a planet of finite resources – is unsustainable, and must be overturned.

The movement was the brainchild of Peter Joseph, creator of the Zeitgeist Movie series – a documentary-style art project that went viral and reached millions of viewers.

The first movie, released in 2007, focussed on the learned human tendency to obey authority and explored what happens when this is taken to extremes. It also posed the question of ‘who is really in control’ (hint: the banks).

Its follow-up, Zeitgeist Addendum, put forward the argument that sustainability and science – not money – should be the guiding forces of the society we live in, advocating a move from a ‘monetary based’ economy to a ‘resource based’ one. This, according to TZM, will create an abundance of goods to provide for all human need

Zeitgeist literally translated means “time ghost”, or “spirit of the age”; a constant loop of making, consuming and discarding in order to keep the economy chugging along, much to the detriment of our planet. But the economic status quo is not a given. There are viable alternatives, with businesses like Air B&B, SnapGoods and BorrowMyDoggy challenging the West’s obsession with ownership, proposing instead that we share more of what we already have.

During the copious TZM talks, meetings and film screenings I attended, I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of supporters of the movement were toward the bottom end of the financial system. Take Adam, for example, a committed TZM activist in his early 30’s who has had a series of “menial jobs” and lives in a sectioned-off part of his parents’ front room.

“If you were born into wealth, do you think you would you be as committed to this movement?” I asked him.

He was very honest in his reply. “Probably not. I would be comfortable so there would be no reason for me to seek an alternative”.

This seemed to make sense, so I was surprised when I met Tom Williams the following week, one of the first people to help Peter introduce the movement to the UK.

“My wife and I do great out of the system,” he tells me. “We own our house in London outright and we have no debt whatsoever. But you can’t be truly happy, not when you see what is going on around you. Ultimately, the question is where are we going on this planet? How are we gonna manage it properly? It all begins when we realise we are going to have to work together as a species”.

He takes a sip of his Guinness, leaving me with my thoughts for a moment. Is it true that no one can be truly happy so long as there is suffering in the world? I begin to feel guilty that this thought doesn’t plague my every waking hour. Am I a bad person? I wildly  ponder handing my car keys to the homeless guy sitting outside the pub.

Before I get the chance, Tom continues, “when you break it down to people it’s amazing how much they say ‘ah but they are different from us’. So, I say, let’s find the common ground and work up. We all eat, drink, go to the toilet, need shelter. That’s the important stuff. Everything else is just made up by humans”.

I nod. If this project has taught me anything, it’s that we are most certainly not as different as we think we are.

“I don’t wanna hear about the countries, the nations… It’s all gang culture gone mad. The Jews and the Muslims are no different than the Crips and the Bloods in LA. Everybody is just fighting for self-preservation. Kids don’t care about culture, about race, about ‘pride of a nation’ – they just want to be warm, fed and loved. All of that other stuff is just conditioning”.

I agree with a lot of what Tom is saying, but it all seems so radical, a complete overhaul of our value system – consigning tradition, order and stability to the bin like used tissues. What would this look like? And what would we risk losing?

I bring to mind the battle re-enactments, the pagan rituals at Stonehenge. I thought of the joy that can come from holding onto traditions, of being part of something ancient.

“But what about our culture, our identity? I mean, where does that leave Morris Dancing?”

“Well to me that’s just theatre”, he says, smiling at the thought. “It’s acting out a romanticised idea of the past. For me, all tradition is theatre, it’s harmless, but we need to accept it for what it is. When it comes to making the important decisions about how we should organise ourselves as human beings in the real world, they have to be based on the here and now; on science, not tradition”.

I squeeze in one last question; “Do you think the collapse of the monetary system is inevitable?”

“Oh, it’s happening” he nods, looking very pleased with himself. “We are moving closer to it everyday. People are so cynical and negative about the way humanity is going, but we have moved on so much. Only 40 years or so ago racism and homophobia were rampant. We are progressing all the time”.

I ponder this thought on my way home, wondering how and when the collapse will come. An exact date would be nice. Then I can start to plan an epic pre-financial-collapse blow-out … Las Vegas anybody?