LONDON — Al Gore has been visiting Hay-on Wye. Who is Al Gore and where is Hay-on-Wye?
The first question is easier to answer than the second. Al Gore is, of course, the politician who just failed to beat George W. Bush in the 2000 election after feverish re-counting of the votes in Florida. Although defeated he now seems on the way to resurrection as a mighty advocate of measures to check global warming and climate change. He may even displace the somewhat mechanical New York Sen. Hillary Clinton as the Democrats’ candidate, although he has yet to declare.
Hay-on-Wye is a tiny town on the borders of England and Wales and nestling on the banks of the beautiful River Wye, which forms the frontier in these parts. A thousand years ago it was a Norman stronghold for keeping the rebellious Welsh in, or out, and long before that it may have been a Roman fortress when the extremities of the vast Roman empire reached the remote Welsh region.
So for centuries Hay sat quiet and undisturbed, a simple and relatively poor market town, huddled round its crumbling castle. But then in the late 20th century a remarkable transformation began.
Inspired by a local genius, Richard Booth, the town turned to books, millions of secondhand and antique volumes that poured out of closed-down public libraries and great country houses that their owners could no longer afford to maintain.
Booth filled a warehouse with these books, and then another one. Other booksellers began to move in, since the economics of book-selling favors bookshops clustering together rather than confining each area to a single supplier. Almost every other shop became a bookshop.
As the fame of Hay grew as a world center for old books, tourists poured in from America, Japan and everywhere else, hotels and restaurants sprang up and ancillary and related industries, like leather-working, furniture and wood-carving flourished. Sensing that big interests might move in on this lucrative and dynamic scene, Booth and others declared Hay to be an independent kingdom and struck up treaties with African tribal monarchs. It seemed a frivolous approach but the idea behind it was serious — that Hay had lifted itself up by its own internal efforts and did not want to be taken over by official planners and giant supermarkets that would destroy the local shops and crafts.
The idea flopped but the spirit of independence lived on. Now came the masterstroke — again inspired by another local genius. This time a brilliant young organizer, Peter Florence, decided to start holding an annual literary festival at which the cream of the literary, journalistic and political worlds would meet.
Beginning in 1988, this had grown within a decade to such fame that it attracted world figures as its star performers — admittedly sometimes for big fees. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was a visitor two years ago and now Gore, his vice president, has been attending. Hay began to feel the problems of success, with cars and people jamming the streets, new car parks having to be built and property prices soaring.
The Gore message is an apocalyptic one. In books and now through a specially made film he has raised the alarm about global warming and carbon-dioxide emissions as never before, depicting the flooding of great cities like Manhattan, droughts, epidemics, horrific storms, not to mention a new ice age in Europe as the warming Gulf Stream moves away.
To meet this hell on earth, Gore and the environmental crusaders who think like him want all kinds of grand strategies ands global plans to counter climate change and save the planet, building on the Kyoto protocol, which is seen as just a small start, and shifting the world’s energy patterns away from fossil fuels.
And there is no doubt that he is striking a fashionable and increasingly popular note with much public resonance. As growing numbers of public figures round the world are finding, global warming has now come to the top of the political agenda. They dare not show anything less than the most serious engagement with the subject. This is despite the fact that some of the most authoritative scientific voices believe it is too late to affect the climate in this century — too late to stop more Hurricane Katrinas, more tsunami and more horrific earthquakes like the latest one that has killed thousands in Java.
Yet at little Hay-on-Wye Gore may pick up a different message — not necessarily contradicting his loud warnings but coming at things from a different angle.
The message from Hay is that local people, operating very much at the grass roots, can always adapt, shape their own community and build on novel ideas and insights so as to survive and prosper in ways that global strategists may overlook. Hay has survived through wars, revolutions, border raids, plagues, depressions, invasions and countless other shocks and challenges over hundreds of years. Now, entirely by local efforts it has made itself a world famous and highly prosperous place.
That story may be in a way more realistic and useful than Gore’s chilling sermon. For what it says, quietly and reassuringly, is that human communities can always adapt and change to outside forces and phenomena, that new ways of living can be found and that the biggest changes in our societies can begin at the smallest levels.
As world leaders thunder round the planet in their carbon-belching jets to attend their great global gatherings and make their demands that the weather be somehow controlled, they might be wise to remember also this humbler and less ambitious message from the little Welsh border town.
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