Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Looking for Some Answers



To buy the book that this post details, please click on one of the links on the right.

A few months back John Michael Greer, over at the Archdruid Report, wrote an essay about how we might begin to tackle the huge mental and emotional burden of dealing with collapse. It was noted that, for the most part, the majority of people simply don't want to think about or discuss the way in which we humans are accelerating towards an ecological brick wall and would instead prefer to either lose themselves in fantasy worlds of their own or others' making. Thus, many people like to lose themselves in video games, TV series and dreams of cornucopian splendour where we will all shortly be living the good life, just as British PM David Cameron announced yesterday (if we vote for him). Surrounding yourself with people who think just like you do and only exposing yourself to information sources that bolster your hoped-for belief that 'things are going okay' and 'the experts are in charge' adds some comforting texture to this fantasy.

Since I stopped playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was about 13 I've not been particularly interested in fantasy worlds. For me, reality is where it's at. But reality sometimes hurts, and so when reality does actually bite, there are two ways of dealing with it. The first is to anaesthetise yourself so that it doesn't hurt as much - either by way of the above-mentioned mental escape avenues, or by literally anaesthetising your brain and nervous system with alcohol and drugs. Unfortunately for society as a whole, most people end up choosing the latter option, and we see spiralling problems of addiction, domestic violence, depression and many other ills as a result.

There is, however, another way of dealing with the unpleasant feeling that things are getting worse, and this involves engaging with the problem at root. It's the least popular approach, and you won't make many friends in doing so, but at least it is an honest attempt at grappling with the mighty mess we have got ourselves into. Let's remind ourselves of some dimensions of that mess:

- A peak in conventional oil production that's now about nine years in the rearview mirror and retreating fast
- Growing climate instability that threatens to wipe out our coastal cities, kill off all vertebrate life, or somewhere between these two poles depending on who you believe
- Rampant corporatism and consumerism threatening to undermine whole societies and render the concept of being human as outdated
- A steadily loudening drumbeat for war being banged out by senile elites who need the ensuing chaos to earn their money and keep their power, and a ventriloquist's dummy of a press which simply parrots whatever propaganda is put on its lips
- Half of all vertebrate wildlife wiped out by humans in the last four decades
- Ecological catastrophe wherever you look, including oceans filled with plastic, rainforest destruction, fisheries collapse, ocean acidification, genetic pollution, mass die offs, mega droughts etc.

So, simply trying to ignore these problems and hoping they go away isn't going to achieve much. But then there's also a danger of NOT ignoring these problems - of focusing on them too much. The advent of social media has meant that everyone gets to see a stream of information that interests them the most, creating positive feedback loops. Thus, for some people it's amusing videos of kittens and gold/blue dresses that fill their screens and heads (with the distinction between the two becoming ever more blurred) while for others it's an endless stream of news about catastrophes, corruption, abuse, violence and despair. I'm guessing that most people reading this would identify themselves somewhat with the latter category - myself included. This kind of focus can eventually lead to a kind of soul rot. "Everything's ruined!" you might say. "So why bother?" might be your next statement.

This is a paradox, because if we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by gloomy feelings and thoughts then our ability to react in a meaningful way is impaired, thus reinforcing the problems that are depressing us. How are we to think and act? It's all very well for preppers and others contemplating collapse - be it sudden or slow - to fill their cupboards with canned food, live in a bunker in the woods and learn how to garrotte intruders with their shoelaces - but what effect does this have on the mind and soul? You might live to be 100, but if the last 50 years of your life are spent living in a state of perpetual fear and anguish then what's the point?

At the other end of the scale I've heard anecdotes and seen some evidence that those people who find themselves sliding out of the rear end of the industrial system and ending up permanently unemployed are generally not, as it might be hoped, planting up gardens and getting backyard chickens in an effort to better their lot. Instead they are buying increasingly large television screens to sit in front of as they slowly drink themselves into oblivion each day with the aid of a ready supply of Carlsberg's Special Brew and/or crystal meth made in their friends' garden shed.

To me at least, neither of the above options seems like a decent way to end ones days.

And so that's why last summer I set off on a journey in an attempt to find out some kind of answer to this conundrum. I myself was feeling tired and low from contemplating too much and not really having any way of addressing the innate despair that can sometimes feel like Chinese water torture. I was lucky in that a relative paid for me to fly over to Scandinavia on an errand, giving me a couple of weeks on my own to conduct my experiment.

The rules were simple:

1. I would set off from a point of 'civilisation' (in this case Copenhagen) and head towards a point of 'uncivilisation' in the non-human world.

2. I would live the life of a hobo as much as possible, sleeping in ditches and forests and on pieces of 'waste land'

3. I would not expose myself to any media from the human world in the form of iPhones, music, television, newspapers etc. All I allowed myself were two books, written by wise people

4. I would open up all of my senses to whatever I could perceive, even if it was uncomfortable or frightening

At the forefront of my mind during this experiment was Einstein's meaningful quote:

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." 

That, to me, seems like the real challenge of our age, and I'm not even sure we have the ability to change our thinking. Are we really to be trusted with coming up with new ways of thinking? Past evidence would seem to suggest that we are all too easily corrupted, although in this case our lives depend on it. What if we were offered new ways of thinking by something other than humans? I wanted to find out.

Also in my mind was the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi's observation that nothing will ever change for the better unless we throw away our reputations and seek the truth (whatever that might be). To be fair, I've already thrown away what little respectable reputation I might once have possessed during my former careers working in the energy industry and being a newspaper editor. Nevertheless, I vowed to:

“Run from what's comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. I have tried prudent planning long enough. From now on I'll be mad.”

And perhaps I was going mad. That's certainly what it felt like at times on my journey. For a start I got into trouble with the authorities in Denmark. I was thrown out of a shopping mall for looking like a non-conformist and I was accosted by a park ranger for camping illegally (who, bizarrely, insisted I needed to download a smartphone app to camp in the forest). When I made it over to Sweden I walked mile after mile in torrential rain as my journey coincided with some of the wettest weather in living memory, with areas f Sweden being hit by flooding, and ended up camping in a national park. 

The first of the two books I brought with me was Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. This Roman emperor had little time for pomp and circumstance and instead spent his days pondering what it meant to be alive. His musings, written down, are considered to be one of the core texts of the philosophical school of Stoicism (albeit a later one). I thought that he might have something to teach we who are alive today about how to deal with decline and death. I wasn't wrong. Because being a Stoic doesn't mean gritting your teeth and hanging on for dear life, it means dealing constructively with the certainty that we will all one day die - and living a full and meaningful life because of it.

The second of my 'guides' on this journey was the American author Bill Plotkin (still very much alive). I brought along a copy of his book Soulcraft, which had been recommended to me by a reader of this blog (hat tip to you - sorry, I forgot who it was). I more or less threw this book in my backpack as an afterthought, and yet it was Bill Plotkin's book that furnished most of the experiential aspects of my journey. With all his talk of initiations, vision quests and delving into the darkness I was able to experience a number of profound happenings.

Odd things began to happen to me. And when I say odd, I mean very odd. A series of startling coincidences had me thinking that fate was directing my journey. After a while it seemed as if everything was conspiring to pull me in the direction of a certain lake - known locally as Odin's Lake - in the forest, where it is said that magical things could happen. Let's not forget that the norse god Odin was seen as the god of wisdom, and he sacrificed one of his eyes to attain this.

I should, right here, say that I'm not a religious person. Not in the sense of going to church or believing in God or things like that. But the deeper I got into my journey the more it felt like I was being pulled into a vortex of strange and other-wordly forces that seemed to want to communicate with me. And communicate with me they did. I ended up doing some things which can't even be talked about in polite society (call the nurse!). Which is why I wrote it all down and made it into the book which you can see on the right side bar of this page. 

As for answers to our predicament, well, nothing came to me in a blinding flash of light. Sorry. But that's beside the point. The point is that the universe is a stunningly complex thing, and we are part of it. None of us created it - it created us and we are a part of it - and we shouldn't feel responsible for it. To waste our allotted time wringing our hands and thinking we can 'fix' things is, in one sense, a waste of time. We can certainly alter what is around us in our immediate sphere of influence, and we can be relaxed in knowing that we are doing what we can with what is available. We can 'upload' ourselves to this greater project, and rejoin nature as a prodigal species, if we so choose. We can keep loving ourselves and one-another, acting with compassion and being of service to all of our fellow organisms, or we can isolate ourselves and become bitter and drown in a lake of despair. The choice is ours at an individual level. 

No, that doesn't mean climate change isn't going to stop, that the biosphere will miraculously heal itself or that we'll be able to carry on living as consumers forever. It just means we have a choice of how we dance our dance as the phenomena that dictate our physical existences unfold.

Those, more or less, were the insights I had from my experience. There is no neat intellectual closure here and, of course, it's one thing to know this in an information sense, and quite another to know it in a deep way. That's why I would recommend undertaking a similar journey to anyone who wants some deeper meaning to the pulsating and flashing craziness around us which we call 'reality'. We are, after all, on the same path together, and the more of us who grapple with reality rather than isolating themselves ever more deeply in escapism and fantasy, the better our chances are of making it through this mess with some semblance of sanity intact.  










Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Busy as a B Movie



Well, it's been a while since I sat here tapping at the keys and wondering out loud what it's all leading to. My only excuse on this count is that I've been busy with other things. Now, personally, I can't stand it when people tell me that they are always busy. It seems to be the default answer there days to the enquiry "What have you been up to lately?" or even "How are you?". Busyness is a modern curse. If you are 'busy' then you have no time to think about all the choices you need to make to live a saner life. But even more sinister is the fact that for most people there is an implied element of virtue about being busy. It's as if they are saying "Yes, I've been busy like a bee, bringing honey to our collective hive for the advancement of all humankind - what have you been up to you sluggard?"

Or perhaps some people say that they are busy as a cover statement to conceal an inner malaise. If they were more truthful and said "My days have been taken up wasting the precious time given to me performing dull and meaningless tasks for a boss I detest at a company I don't respect just so that I can pay off the interest on the debt I have accrued by the purchase of inflated assets I was made to believe were necessary by a predatory advertising industry and compliant media - and by reflecting on this I am plunged into a state of existential despair."

Perhaps 'busy' is better.

So, anyway, I've been busy - but I don't mean to imply that this is a good thing or that I am more virtuous than the less busy (my long-term goal is to be so non-busy that I do nothing but read, write and garden) - merely that events have conspired to prevent me from leading a more leisurely life of late. By this, I mean that I have been working for money. You know politicians always like to boast about how many jobs they have created? Well, I've got at least five of them. For two days a week I clean holiday homes for the feckless and often spoiled monied classes. This involves changing bedding, washing floors, scrubbing the brown bits from the insides of toilets and making sure the welcome daffodils are artfully arranged. It's not too bad a job and pays above minimum wage, even if the guests sometimes leave notes saying things like "One of the glasses is chipped and I could have cut my lip on it - I shall NEVER book this place again." The properties are nice and have sea views, so I can at least pretend that it is me who is on holiday as I lounge on the sun deck looking out for dolphins and sharks, safe in the knowledge that no guests will arrive within the next few hours.

The second job, which is now over for the year, has involved working as a woodsman's assistant. My friend cuts the trees down and I sned the side branches, sort out the brash into different products (fencing stakes, charcoal wood, bean poles or even arrows). The work is really quite hard and pays very little but the company is good and I get to work in some really stunning locations. I've also learned a lot of useful skills, such as scything, and I'm a dab hand with a billhook now.

My third job is doing occasional writing and translating work that crops up. That includes writing my book, which is now finished BTW, edited and just waiting for me to do one last proof before publishing (next week).

My fourth 'job' is being educated. Yes, in this bizarre Kafkaesque world that we now live in, I am paid money to sit down and learn remedial maths and English, simply because I live in western Europe's second most impoverished area. The course providers get money for teaching me too and the guvmint gets to claim that they are providing training and assistance to those people living in Britain who don't happen to be Russian oligarchs or Saudi princes. Everybody's happy.

Which brings me onto my fifth job, and the reason for this post. Yes, I have made it onto the silver screen and will be appearing in a forthcoming movie. I can't tell you what it is at this point otherwise they'll sling me in irons and make sure I Never Work Again. Alas, I don't have any leading roles, I am merely a prop made of meat - yes, I'm an extra. My 'role', if you can call it that, is that of a thug. I have to wave my fist aggressively at one of Britain's best-loved comedians and shout 'bastard' at him over and over. I think he quite enjoyed it. The pay is quite good considering that 95% of the time you merely have to sit in a truck with other meat props and drink coffee. Meals are also rather good too, though you'd better not get in line in front of any 'talent' (as actors are known) or production staff. Amusingly, we meat props are given styrofoam plates to eat from, while talents get porcelain. It's all very hierarchical, and you'd better not get on the wrong side of the first assistant director.

But being at the absolute bottom of the pecking order has its benefits; for a start it allows one to observe the entire shebang from a relatively uninvested position. The first thing I noted was the sheer size of the production. Ultimately, in my opinion, the film - which is a subversive comedy - will probably go largely unnoticed by the masses when it is released. It will likely be on DVD within a month of it being in the cinemas, and it'll probably get a few stars among reviewers because there are some recognisable actors in it. It's not a big production by any means (most of my fellow meat props were gore fodder in the Brad Pitt zombie apocalypse film World War Z, which was also filmed in Cornwall, and they said that was a BIG production) and there are maybe twenty talents and fifty production bods. Yet for this relatively small production, the amount of energy and resources it gobbles up is truly phenomenal.

I counted about twenty huge trucks, which go from location to location like a ... flock of huge trucks. They get there very early in the morning and set up a kind of miniature town in time for the talents and production bods to roll up and eat their bacon sandwiches. These trucks have various functions. We meat props have one in which to sit and drink coffee and stare at our mobile phones in silence when we're not talking about what other films and TV programmes we've been in. Everyone seems to have been a Doctor Who monster, a Poldark peasant or a bandaged patient in Casualty. Talents get about a third of a truck each for their dressing rooms, and there are several other trucks for shared dressing rooms. Clothes get their own trucks, with at least two giant trucks being simply 'wardrobe'. Another truck is filled with washing machines and dryers that are spinning constantly because if the director, say, asks you to wear a tee shirt for one minute before a make up artist suddenly decides it's the wrong shade of green then it's whipped away, washed, dried, ironed and wrapped in plastic again. There's something depressing about seeing a single lonely scarf spinning in a huge washing machine powered by a caravan-sized diesel generator.

Two further trucks are mobile canteens, and the rest contain the inordinate amount of cameras, computers, lights and props. There is a fleet of minivans to ferry people around from one location to the next (walking is strictly forbidden, even if it's just a couple of hundred yards). Surly security guards stand around looking self-important, and they probably have their own truck too. And then there are the lights. Every scene seems to be lit, even if it's outside under bright sunshine. The lights each consume over 5000 watts and there are a number of gigantic mobile generators hitched to the back of Land Rovers which follow the lights around, as well as the washing machines and the vast collection of high tech paraphernalia. I saw boxes filled with lithium batteries to power small cameras, drones and laptops, with people grabbing and unwrapping them as if they were sweets.

Which all leads me to wonder how these productions will be able to pay for themselves in the future. Where will the cash come from? Where will all the energy come from?

One evening last summer I wandered down to the local park in Penzance - the lovely Penlee Park - and took a seat on a grass lawn with around a hundred other people. We were there to watch a production of Macbeth, performed by a small troupe of travelling actors. The actors, five of them in total, had earlier turned up in a small battered van. A single chest contained their props (a cauldron, a few different outfits, some daggers and a skull) - that was their whole setup. The production was great; intimate enough so that almost no lighting or amplification was required, skilfully and energetically acted and gleefully received. I'm sure that most people in the audience will remember the evening for years to come. At the end the actors bowed to the applause, took off their cloaks and stowed their daggers and then went off to the pub for a pint. The next day they would do the same thing somewhere else.

Which got me thinking about the performing arts and what might be considered 'sustainable' in the long term. It's pretty obvious that the cash and energy guzzling way of making movies these days cannot be sustained indefinitely. Perhaps if we return to a low-tech way of making entertainment on a human scale it will represent a general improvement in our lot. In the meantime, however, I'm happy to just keep working as a meat prop for cash, even if I have to eat the luncheon smoked salmon off a styrofoam plate. Just tell me where to stand.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Delicate Sound of Thunder

What I wrote on Twitter yesterday

This is what I wrote on Twitter yesterday. I never write things on Twitter (well, hardly ever) but I was puzzled as to what was going on. I was sat upstairs at home when a deep and loud throbbing noise became apparent. It got louder and louder for a couple of minutes until the floor and walls began to vibrate. It was cloudy, so I couldn't see what was flying overhead, but a few minutes later, through a gap in the clouds, I could see a large plane moving at quite a high altitude in an easterly direction (not westerly, as I accidentally stated on Twitter).

A few minutes later a couple of RAF jets were buzzing at low altitude around the area, followed by a military helicopter.

So, this may have been a Russian bomber, it turns out. It was almost certainly flying over the mainland when I saw it.

Anyway, no doubt western politicians will use this as a ploy to try and make us all more fearful of Putin. I note that the defence secretary is saying that Russia 'might target' the Baltic states next, and that this was announced just before the news broke of the yesterday's bomber. The propaganda machine is being cranked up for all it is worth. All media outlets are firing on all cylinders with the same stories.

And with the real economy imploding the drums of war beat ever louder. I fear they might get it if they keep on with their games.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Path to Odin's Lake - First Chapter


I've been working at finishing off my book before the sap starts to rise in the trees and the year's coppicing needs doing. It is more or less finished now and I'm just doing some small bits of rewriting, editing and fact-checking, and then it will be ready for proofing, getting an ISBN and publishing. I don't have a publisher, so will probably just publish it as an ebook and then make some printed copies on demand. I'm not entirely sure how long that will take, probably a few weeks. 

In the meantime I'm sharing with you the first chapter. To me this feels like jumping the gun a bit, but there you go. The book is about a journey I took at the end of last summer where I walked from Copenhagen and into Sweden. I ended up in an ancient forest and had a startling experience. Several unusual things happened to me and the book is an exploration of how we can adapt — mentally and spiritually — to the chaos that is now beginning to erupt around us. How does one face the world? was the question I had in mind as I walked. I wanted to get away from modern society and civilisation for a while and explore what other options we might have. I figured there must be some. I self-imposed a strict informational purdah, disconnecting myself from all gadgets apart from a camera, and took along two books of wisdom—one ancient and one modern: the stoic Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, and Bill Plotkins' Soulcraft — two entirely unrelated books that somehow ended up together in my backpack and shaped the narrative as I went along.

In the book I try to break free of the mind prisons of the modern world and find myself being pulled inexorably towards a sacred lake where the Norse god Odin — who gave his eyes for insight — was once worshipped. Hence the book's title The Path to Odin's Lake.

The story almost wrote itself. Perhaps it did. I had been working on a book about peak oil for some time but then the unusual things that are recounted in this story happened and the book seemingly morphed into this. It's not the kind of writing that you will usually encounter on this blog, but it is a story straight from the heart, so I hope you enjoy the first chapter. 

***

Chapter 1. Pathfinding

“It is not the path which is the difficulty. It is the difficulty which is the path.” –Søren Kierkegaard

And so, one Sunday morning in late summer, just as a fire seemed to be taking a hold of the world, I looked down and saw sea creatures. They swam, either individually or in shoals. Some pulsated while others slithered as they moved between the black-slimed outcrops of concrete. Strands of seaweed waved gently in the ocean current and clusters of shellfish — mussels, limpets and clams — crowded the fissures and coated the rigid headless human bodies that littered the seabed like broken plastic starfish. Through these watery ruins there wandered ghosts. Their shadowy figures drifted aimlessly over the sandy sea floor, faces fixed in masks of calm equanimity or perhaps boredom as they moved in pairs or alone, some pushing children in pushchairs while others gazed at small barnacle-encrusted rectangles held at belly-height.

Around me were the sounds of the sea—the cry of gulls on the wind and the slooping roll of the waves as they folded upon the shore. But mingled with these sounds of nature were other sounds; the tinkling of porcelain cups and saucers, and the faint echo of dreamy music which the seaweed seemed to be moving its frondy arms to as if at some concert from another world or another time. I raised the camera and focused it on the scene below, although I knew the lens and the memory chip would not capture it.

“What are you doing?” said a voice. It was male, with a hint of aggression. I shifted my gaze from the scene around me and brought the man into focus. A security guard. He stood at my side and looked at me accusingly.

 “I’m just taking some photographs,” I said, rather obviously. For, although it had crossed my mind that the simple act of capturing reflections of light on a microchip in this vast cathedral might be a tiny bit subversive, it had not stopped me from wandering around and doing so for the last half-hour.

“You’ll have to leave,” he said. “You’re not permitted.” I looked at him. Stocky. He was wearing a sand-coloured uniform with short sleeves that clung tightly to his inky biceps. His face was lined, but not with wisdom or age. A razor sharp line of beard cut down either side of his face and in one ear he wore a communications device which sprouted a spindly microphonic arm that reached towards his mouth like a spidery limb.

“Come with me,” he said.

I walked at his side, fiddling to put the lens cap back on my camera. “I’m sorry, I was just daydreaming,” I said, although this particular daydream had also been a night dream at other times. “I was about to leave.”

“Good,” said the guard. “One of the store managers called us about you.”

It was true. I had been wandering around this shopping mall—said to be the fattest in all of Scandinavia—taking pictures of the effigies. They were arranged behind the plate-glass windows, some with heads but many without, some with black glittery plastic skin, yet others with hard white faces lacking eyes, noses or mouths. In one store half a dozen headless children wore items from the autumn fashion collection as they hung from the ceiling on wires. Snap. There was astroturf in the window of the Body Shop on which a synthetic rabbit held up a sign saying Cruelty Free. Snap. Framed in another a plastic cow grazed on plastic grass beside a sign that ordered Get back to Nature! Snap. This place was like a hallucinatory dream.

“This way,” said my ejector.

As far as I could see the only living organisms in here were the shoppers themselves. Even potted tropical plants were absent. The bacteria and viruses hid behind their microscopic masks, invisible, but present all the same.

I stepped onto the sleek metal escalator which conveyed consumers from the food court on the top level down past the fashion level and onto the ground floor. Down here, in the first circle of the mall, it was mostly shops selling gadgets and computer games. Teenage boys and men clutched shiny polythene bags as they wandered out, their faces rapt and expressionless. Have you bought your Back to School iPad? asked a giant blue cartoon shark. In another window a muscular cardboard marine wearing a death skull mask pointed an automatic weapon at me and said Coming Soon.

“Why are you carrying that?” asked the guard.

“It’s a staff,” I replied. “To help me walk.”

He uttered a disapproving snort. In fact he didn’t seem comfortable with me holding a six-foot piece of wood—perhaps he had watched too many kung fu movies. I told him how I had cut it that morning, that it was a rowan ash sapling and that it would grow back in time.

As we approached the big revolving doors he seemed to ease up a little. In a few moments I would be gone from his realm, vanished from sight and transformed into an SEP (someone else’s problem). “Where are you walking to?”

“Sweden,” I replied. We had reached the large revolving doors—the type that you are not supposed to touch as they move around as it will make them stop, although many people do. “God tur,” he said in Danish, meaning ‘have a good journey’, and ejected me from the sterile cathedral of consumption into the dirty but real dimension of fresh air, trees and unstructured time where plastic cows don’t eat plastic grass and flesh and blood rabbits somehow live with the cruelty of the world.

I hitched my pack higher up on my back and set out on the path that led to the south of the island. The sun shone high in the August sky and glinted off the glass and steel of the newly-sprouted buildings as I trudged along, staff in hand. That morning, early, I had kissed my two daughters goodbye as they lay sleeping, and silently left the house. The suburban streets had been silent and empty as I walked to the metro station. It was only a twenty minute walk away but my rucksack had already seemed too heavy. Had I packed too much? In it was a small tent, some clothes, food to last a few days and two books. There were some cooking and eating utensils, maps and a small blow-up mattress. A sleeping bag dangled free from the back of my pack and I had another small bag strapped to my front with a camera, waterproof clothing, a Swiss army knife and a hand-forged Swedish Gränsfors axe. The axe was there for firewood, and maybe security.

That morning, by the time I had reached the station a sea mist had rolled in, muffling my footsteps and cloaking the flat landscape in an eerie fog. Around a dozen other people were waiting for the futuristic driverless train to turn up. All were plugged into and absorbed by their smartphones—all except one youth who was dressed anarchically as a punk in black leathers and with a spiky dog collar around his throat. He was shouting obscenities at the ether as he took swigs from a bottle of vodka. Everyone ignored him. I thought it unusual to spot a punk in Denmark and I didn’t recall seeing one before. Perhaps it was simply a new fashion. The train arrived and people looked up from their smartphones. We got on it. The punk sat down nearby slumped on a folding seat, growling incoherently. People continued to ignore him, creating an invisible bubble around his presence. We glided smoothly on high rails past the modern symphony hall as it rose up out of the mist and the punk swayed to the rhythm of the train, muttering curses at his boots. The bottle fell from his limp hand and started to roll around on the floor. Presently a pretty young woman went over to him, put an arm around him with sisterly tenderness and whispered something in his ear. This seemed to calm him and he sat there looking at the space between his feet for the rest of the journey. The young woman went back to her seat and I was left wondering what kind of magic she possessed.

We pulled into the underground station at Kongens Nytorv and I ascended the steps into the daylight. This elegant and open square held so many memories for me. They rushed up from within and I had to spend a few minutes simply standing and allowing the feelings that they evoked to run their course. There was Hviids Vinstue, where I had spent so many evenings drinking porter ale with my newspaper buddies, and there was the office we had worked in—the same office where some cartoons had been published which had poured some more petrol on the flames of an indignant world. And there was the old opera house where I had bluffed reviews of things I knew nothing about, the canal district of Nyhavn where I had eaten raw herrings and drunk snaps made from wild berries, the cafe where we would bitch about our office colleagues, the imposing Hotel D’Angleterre where I had shaken hands with the Dalai Lama and felt a charge of energy run up my arm. There were good memories and bad ones, bittersweet ones and sweet bitter ones. I gave myself a minute more and then set off down Strøget, the pedestrian street, as the tolling bells of the Church of the Holy Spirit cast their spell over the city and called its denizens to Sunday prayer.

A quarter of an hour later I was standing in the city hall square before the imposing Rådhus. Literally the ‘advice house’ the Rådhus towered above us mortals below, resplendent in its Italianate grandeur. I paused to orient my mind to the task I was about to undertake. The early fog had lifted, leaving behind a blue sky and crisp clean air as small groups of camera-toting Asian tourists walked past and a woman struggled to set up her mobile hotdog stall. Traffic on the adjacent Hans Christian Andersens Boulevard was light, and the joyfully ebullient facade of Tivoli Gardens reflected the morning sun back at me. It had been some eighteen years since I had first set foot in this square, and ten of those had been spent living not far from it. On my first visit I remembered being hustled into the Rådhus by my excited future father-in-law who said “Look, you must come and see, you are inside!” He was, it turned out, referring to the statue of Jason of Argonaut fame, created by the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen in Denmark’s long-gone golden age. I had laughed at the time, realising how unusual my name sounded in this unusual land.

But today I didn’t feel at all heroic, all I felt was that I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing and why I was about to do it. All journeys must have a starting point and an end point, I had reasoned, and this starting point I had picked was to act as a mental anchor, a physical marker that I could definitively say I had set out from. I shouldered my pack, tightened the straps across my chest and clicked the plastic waist buckle into place. And then I set off.

I walked down the six lane boulevard. Cyclists wobbled lazily past me, some of them looking like they were on their way home from the night before. I had considered walking straight across the Langebro bridge which separates the main part of the city from the island of Amager, but now I chose to veer off to the south, keeping the narrow channel of seawater on my left. Had I not done so I would have been following the route I had taken to work on my bicycle over the years, but instead I chose to take the indirect route that would take me through the city’s red light district and eventually out into an area of wild scrubland on the far side of Islands Brygge (Iceland Quay). As the cyclists streamed past me I felt a pang. In all the time I had lived here I calculated that I had biked the city’s famed cycle lanes to an equivalent distance of pedalling all the way to Australia. In this city a bike was all you needed to get you from door to door for free, whether that door is your front door, an office door or a pub door. Perhaps I should be on two wheels now, I considered. It would certainly be easier than walking.

I carried on down the steps beside the channel and continued to the central train station, emerging out of the other side of its capacious hall into the seedier side of town. Drunks hung around on the steps and I walked up Istegade with its show windows crammed full of dildos and bondage gear. A few dispirited looking Nigerian prostitutes hung around and eyed me languidly. They didn’t approach me, or hiss ‘Good time mistah?’ as they had done sometimes when I was on my way to work wearing smart office clothes and carrying a laptop bag. A past life. I went by the ‘men’s home’ where there was always a posse of ragged-looking men outside drinking Carlsberg Special Brew and standing in a haze of street piss.

Further up Istegade, I took a left and swung past the meat-packing district where the office of the newspaper I had used to work had been relocated after the Mohammed cartoon furore. It had only been later that we discovered the former office had been targeted by truck bombers. I was lucky to be alive. We had relocated to an old slaughterhouse and it was this part of town that planners were desperate to turn into a post-industrial paradise for hipsters and moneyed young service sector workers. I didn’t have any desire to stop and hang around in Vesterbro—its junkies and its trafficked girls made me feel sad. And anyway I didn’t want to bump into anyone I knew as that would involve having to explain myself. Carrying on I walked to the waterfront shopping development at Fisketorv and crossed over the channel of a narrow bridge built for pedestrians and cyclists. On the other side I sat down and rested by the water.

It’s difficult to walk through the centre of Copenhagen and attempt to describe it without sounding like a travel guide. Everything, it seems, is for show and the bits that are not for show are rarely mentioned. Indeed, I had written pieces for in-flight airline magazines with remits such as ‘List ten reasons why Copenhagen is wonderful’. Everyone understood that this was an industry, an industry of creative illusions. But to me Copenhagen was more than its dull ‘wonderfulness’. It was a real place, and not just a city stuffed with PR flacks whose job it was to boost tourism and inward investment. It was here in this city that my two daughters were born, that I worked some of the worst jobs in my life, and also the best. I loved its cycling culture, its clean air and water, its beaches and its restaurants. But it always felt like a place to be passing through, a waiting zone where you dream of living life somewhere that is somehow more authentic.

Once, working as a taxi driver here, a maudlin German woman, stood up by her lover on what was supposed to have been a dirty weekend, asked me to take her to the ‘soul of the city’. I hadn’t a clue where to take her. Maybe there was some kind of soul to be found in the immigrant district of Nørrebro, where random shootings sometimes happened and riots would occasionally kick off, but probably not the kind of soul she had been searching for. If cities had faces, Copenhagen’s would wear a fixed grin. The real Copenhagen I had come to grow fond of was one of immigrants festering in tower blocks in bleak suburbs, gangland killings, dark secrets, and corporate malfeasance just as much as it was happy families at Tivoli Gardens, cutting edge design studios and the Little Mermaid. I had seen it all and yet I had grown tired of it. I had yearned to live in a place that didn’t need a continuous marketing campaign to validate its existence, and so we had said ‘farvel’ to Copenhagen, and to ‘the best city in the world’, and the ‘happiest people on earth’. We had bought a large trailer to put all our stuff in and drove and drove until we could not drive any further without falling into the Atlantic Ocean, and then we had stopped.

I gazed out over the blue water at the tapering brick towers and at the view of this low-rise city founded on a what was a piece of mosquito-infested swampland by a bishop. I hauled my pack up again onto my back and trudged onwards through new apartment developments towards the outer crust of the city. Soon I found myself in the hinterland of Amager Fælled, a large scrubby area of woods and fields criss-crossed with cycle lanes and footpaths. Sunday morning joggers overtook me as I traversed the tarmac surface threading itself between dense ranks of thorny bushes and small trees. Families were out walking with their dogs and their young children. It was like a commercial for life insurance.

I looked out of place in this environment. I confess that I didn’t cut a dapper figure, clad as I was in dirty cutoff jeans and old walking shoes, and with an unkempt beard, sunglasses and a filthy old baseball cap I had purchased from a market in Spain for one euro. To top it off I had a large open gash on my knee from falling off a granite wall in Cornwall a few days before, and this was surrounded by purple bruises and pinkish skin. When I thought about it I could probably have passed for one of the central station heroin addicts. An outcast in this tame wilderness. It was no wonder some of the parents were giving me suspicious glances.

After walking for another twenty minutes I dodged into a clearing between some bushes and put down my pack. What I needed, I thought, was a staff. A staff would not just help me to walk, it would indicate to others that I was a walker, rather than a hobo. I scanned the area and found a rowan ash sapling with a nice straight trunk. From my pack I took out the axe and cut the tree down a few inches from the ground. I apologised to the stump for this violation, but I knew it would grow back the next spring. I then proceeded to sned the side branches with the axe, which was more of a hatchet really, and before long I had a strong walking staff of about six feet.

I emerged from the clearing and carried on walking in an eastern direction. I knew that I would only be walking for an hour or so before I hit the outskirts of the new development of Ørestad. Indeed, I could already see the Field’s shopping mall in the distance, as well as the Daliesque double towers of the Bella Sky, which boasted that it was Scandinavia’s largest hotel. Before long the trees and bushes gave way to cement trucks and concrete bollards, and I was walking the immaculate and sparse streets of Ørestad and ascending the steps to Field’s shopping mall.

Half an hour later I was back on those same steps and the security guard was stood by the revolving door with his arms folded across his chest. I walked away and headed out across an area of wasteland where they were planning to build the new national football stadium. Out front was a large sign detailing the development, but despite there being several vans and trucks visible there didn’t seem to be anyone around. I wandered onto the construction site and sat down to make myself a cup of tea on what I figured would likely be the centre of the pitch. I made a fire from twigs and set my little sauce pan atop the metal stove ring I had brought with me. As the flames crackled and the water started to heat I lay back and looked around. It being late summer the wild plants and flowers had grown exuberantly and were tall enough to shield me from anyone looking. What’s more, they blotted out the various shopping centres, hotels and conference halls that had sprung up over recent years in the area. I picked a handful of sea buckthorn berries from a bush and popped them into my mouth. The tangy and sweet juice was beyond delicious and I picked more. As I ate them I looked around at the other plants. It was like being in a jungle on some alien planet. The sheer brightness and refulgence was dazzling, with multitudes of blues, purples, yellows and red vying for the attention of the bees which flew from flower to flower, their legs hung heavy with sticky yellow pollen. I drank my tea and marvelled at all this richness, considering that the only consolation of its impending destruction would be a future me watching some future international football match on television and knowing that I had drunk tea and communed with the bees somewhere within the circumference of the centre circle. With this thought in my head I packed up my things and began to walk south again. Before long I was at the gates of the Amager Fælled nature reserve, an area of fields, birch woods and reedy drainage ditches that had been reclaimed from the sea after the last world war. It would be a long plod going south over the next few hours as the sun beat down on me.

The path was straight and narrow. Cyclists zoomed past on carbon-fibre bikes. These weren’t the meandering, lazy city cyclists with their rusty bikes with wonky wheels. No, they were lycra-clad storm troopers with fixed faces, alien helmets and shaved muscular legs. I kept to the side of the path to avoid them. Sometimes the cyclists were interspersed with roller-bladders, skateboarders and several people on wheeled wind-surfing boards that flew past at a tremendous speed. I was the slowest moving human being on the circuit, it seemed.

When I emerged at the southern end of the reserve I stood beside a small lake and considered my options. It was late afternoon and although the landscape was lit up with strong yellow light from the western sun, the eastern sky was dark and broody. Perhaps there would be a storm. Ahead of me the path rose up to meet the curving seawall that had been built by unemployed men who had nothing better to do at the end of the war. In this way the lower western part of the island had been reclaimed from the sea and now, over 70 years later, it was mostly salty marshes and birch forests. Local legend has it that the woods were full of land mines, and ‘Keep Out - Danger of Unexploded Bombs’ notices certainly put from my mind any idea of camping there.

The cyclists, wind surfers and roller bladers were still whizzing by every other minute or so and I felt that if I stood around much longer I might end up entangled with one of them in a messy heap on the ground. Should I head south and camp on the beach or should I veer off and put my tent up in an old oak forest? Turning around I could just make out the distant towers of Copenhagen to the north. I was far enough away from the city now to feel that I was escaping its gravitational pull, yet at the same time I had an uneasy feeling about my situation. It’s precisely these half-wild buffer areas around major cities where some of the darkest happenings occur, and this part of the island was no exception. For years, in the late 1980s when my wife was a teenager, a serial killer had roamed here. This, and many other evil deeds, linger on in the minds of Copenhageners and indeed, the lake by which I was now stood would be familiar to fans of the Danish noir TV series The Killing as the location where a car was dredged up. What’s more, Kongelunden, where I was considering pitching my tent, was the setting for the opening scene in which a young girl is brutally murdered.

All things considered I opted to head to the beach. It was only about a quarter of an hour’s walk away and I knew it to be a more or less deserted strand of crispy black seaweed. Somewhat flyblown, at least it would be peaceful. Or so I thought. I could see the kite surfers from some distance as I trudged towards the beach, aching to put down my heavy pack. When I reached the shore there must have been a hundred of them. I sat down by my pack and watched them. They stood on boards that sliced across the surface of the flat sea, propelled by the force of the wind in the sails to which they were attached. It seemed amazing to me that so many of them could be in action together without getting their strings entangled. Yet they moved with sublime grace, using nothing more than the energy freely provided by the elements to execute their spins, grabs and loops. Like human pendulums they moved hypnotically, swinging back and forth across the choppy grey waters beneath the darkening sky. One might have thought that such acrobatics would be enacted with playful yelps of joy, but in fact silence reined over the scene. Only the slight plop of the boards hitting the water could be heard and I was reminded of one of those ‘silent raves’ I had seen, where people dance wearing wireless headphones that deliver the same music synchronically to all. The faces of the surfers—men and women—were fixed in the same expressions as the cyclists: deadpan and serious.  Maybe the business of extreme sports was a serious one—something to be ‘into’ to fill in the gaps between bouts of work, or as part of one’s keep fit regime. As such it seemed like an enactment of something sad, like a piece if performance art that was supposed to represent collective tragedy and alienation.

I got out my notebook and wrote down a few words. I had decided that this trip would be as low-tech as possible. Like many people, I had become far more used to typing words on a keyboard than writing them on a page, and my hand felt slightly clumsy as I wrote the words with a ballpoint pen.

Walked out across a Amager Fælled with the sun slanting down out of the west and dark thunderous clouds moving in from the east. Colours of the wildflowers and hedgerows illuminated nicely. So much to forage along the way! I have already eaten handfuls of sea buckthorn berries, a few hazel nuts and some damsons. I have my ‘tree eyes’ in now. Before they were just ‘trees’ — a kind of green background fuzz — but now they are hawthorn, birch, alder, elder, hazel, dog rose, sea blackthorn, willow and mountain ash. Knowing their names makes the world more interesting, somehow.

Feeling a bit anxious, like I'm doing something subversive. I stick out like a sore thumb with my sleeping bag and my staff. Perhaps I should have trimmed the beard a bit before I left and covered the gash on my leg. Nobody yet has smiled or said ‘hello’ to me—but then I remember this is the way here. Will I last out? My pack is very heavy—I must have brought too much food. I'm looking forward to tonight and for the rain. I wonder if I will be left in peace here. Yesterday, I went for a beer at Cafe Bizarro with Wes and Anna with their baby. Wes said ‘Watch out for the wild animals.’ But it’s not the four-legged animals I’m worried about, it’s the two-legged ones.

Headlines as I left: “And so it begins: Ukraine destroys Russia Convoy”. That and Robin Williams hanging himself.



***


Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Kayak of Sanity



Well, now that the last firework has fizzled out, the hangovers have dissipated and the new year's resolutions have already begun to crumble for most people, we find ourselves looking down the long cold barrel of 2015. Let it be said, 2014 wasn't the best of years, unless you were a hedge fund manager, a member of ISIS or a Satanist, but on the whole it wasn't markedly different from 2013 or 2012. We still find ourselves desperately trying to stay afloat in the kayak of sanity on the white water rapids of media misinformation, bare-faced propaganda and other forms of cultural hysteria.

I mention kayaks because I've got them on the mind at present having recently picked up a bargain sea kayak from someone who bought it, tried it and didn't like it. It has holders for fishing rods in the back so I can head out into the bay and line-catch mackerel and, if I'm lucky, sea bass. This is just one manifestation of why, for me, 2014 was actually quite a good year. Because despite spending most of the year in a state of penury and having to endure calls from well-meaning but misguided relatives to 'get off my backside and find a job' I find that I actually achieved rather a lot — far more than I would have done had I been sitting next to a potted plant in an office and fiddling with a spreadsheet. A quick rundown of the highlights would include:

- Planting some 300 trees in my woodland and making some good inroads in turning a compacted and barren field into the early stages of a forest garden. I completed digging the pond by hand (it only took a year) and it is now lined and filled and ready to start receiving organisms.

- Digging out the basement of our house (also by hand). About 100 trailer-loads of soil was removed and transported to the woodland where I used it to build a level base for the poly tunnel that will be going up in the spring, gods willing.

- A plethora of small-scale experiments with growing, catching and preserving food was carried out. Cabbage was fermented, wine was brewed, cider was put in oak barrels, mushrooms were grown in coffee grounds, squirrels were shot and cooked in red wine, chestnuts were foraged and medicinal herbs were learned about and planted. Furthermore, we now get a weekly box of vegetables delivered from the local community organic farm, allowing us to move one step further away from the big box supermarkets.

- Chickens were hatched out of eggs in our incubator and are now roaming around in the basement. A coop has been purchased and will be put up in the back yard as soon as the chicks are big enough to live outdoors. Having adopted a more-or-less paleo diet for health reasons, we get through a lot of eggs so having a few chooks roaming around in the back yard is just what we need.

- I wangled a free trip to Denmark and Sweden courtesy of the MIL and spent two weeks roaming around in the wild by myself in Thoreauesque contemplation.

- As a direct result of said trip I have almost finished writing a book which uses that journey as a narrative framework to explore ideas surrounding the psychology of the long descent, with a special emphasis on experiential nature knowledge and the ideas of the Stoics. I ate hallucinogenics, got thrown out of a shopping mall, met a caterpillar and swam in a sacred lake. I've shown it to a couple of people and they have said positive things about it such as "It's completely uncategorisable". Expect to see it soon in ebook format and then in other formats soon after if I can raise enough funds.

- Also in writing, I saw my article on genocide in Laos published by Dmitry Orlov in his book Communities that Abide, and had a work of speculative fiction selected by John Michael Greer for the forthcoming book After Oil 3: The Years of Rebirth (in fact After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis has just hit the shelves).

- I attended the first meeting of the nascent Cornish Coppice Federation (the CCF — yes, I know. The organiser conceded "Every time a new acronym is coined in the field of forestry, somewhere, a wood elf dies.") The aim of this group is to create a network of small scale coppice workers across Cornwall to help revive this old and sustainable craft. As a result I have learned to make charcoal and have an order for 100 bags of it in 2015. It's a start.

- I discovered an ancient bronze age settlement partly straddling my land. Archaeologists came and looked at it and congratulated me on my discovery.

- I got to meet some inspirational people. Most of them were just regular folks doing their thing but being amazing about it. Ones you might have heard of are John Michael Greer, whom I cornered for a couple  of beers in Glastonbury one evening after a Druid celebration. And just a couple of weeks ago I was invited to a lunch with Natalie Bennet, the leader of the UK Green Party, who turns out to be very down-to-earth and not like a politician at all. Of nuclear power station she said "Let's just forget about whether people are for or against them, the truth is we simply can't afford them." Refreshing honesty.

So, purely from a creative and resilience perspective, 2014 was not a bad year for me. I continued to build my library of useful books, purchased a few more quality tools for maintaining my land and developing my crafts, and also gained greater depth of insight into what we might call the spiritual matters which I see as increasingly important to facing up to the present and future as the narrative of eternal scientific progress picks up speed in its unravelling.

And what applies to me applies to other too. One notices — and I'm generalising here — looking at the threads below articles in the collapse sphere, that reflections on 2014 tend to be maudlin and gloomy with the exception of people who have actually broken out of the mind prison, hot-tailed it out of Dodge and are building things up for themselves in the teeth of the prevailing system. For it has come to pass that even the simple act of growing a chilli pepper plant on your kitchen window is an act of defiance and a step in the right direction towards the kind of freedom that has been expunged from the over-developed, over-regulated and over-manipulated countries of the world.

I have to sadly contrast such acts of defiance with what is continuing to unfold here in Britain, where food banks are becoming commonplace, children are going to school with empty stomachs (or stomachs full of Red Bull because parents seem to be under the impression that it is nutritional) and a general feeling of bitterness has seeped into the public discourse. The mainstream media doesn't get it — all they can do is harp on about how great the growth is, not realising that it's a growth in debt as the real economy shrivels up like a banana skin left on a sunny windowsill. No doubt about it, there's plenty to be angry about. Fracking, underground coal gasification, the politico-banker vampire squid class, TTIP, a warmongering EU, road building, people getting their heads sawn off ... the list goes on.

And there's a rising anger too. Perhaps it's all the debt or all the crass media screaming about immigrants. Or maybe it's the creepy feeling that the good times are over which crawls around in the fetid basement of the collective psyche like a greasy rat gnawing on the electrical cables that light up the house. Maybe it's all the war propaganda, the empty promises of the scientific progressive narrative and the unspoken fear that everything could be taken away in an instant. I see and hear the anger everywhere. It's in the people bawling obscenities at each other in the alley that runs beside my house, it's in the white-knuckle drivers who overtake me on blind corners because I'm sticking to the speed limit and it's in the fingertips of the bedroom trolls who prowl the internet seeking to pour invective and hatred on anyone who stands out.

All in all it's not a pretty situation when one looks at the broader view. 2015 looks set to see the thermostat cranked up a few more degrees in the Dante's inferno of modern rage. I'm not a great one for predictions but knowledgeable people I know have said that various planets are aligned and the tealeaves don't look good. The plunge in the price of oil signals something momentous stirring. Whether or not the rickety financial structure on which the US fracking boom has been built can continue to support both the weight of a loss-making industry and the dreams and delusions of a nation remains to be seen. But if and when it comes crashing down it'll be one for the history books. The situation isn't that much different here in the UK where it has been revealed that 70% of North Sea oil projects are unprofitable and in danger of collapse. I made a prediction three years back that we would see some form of energy rationing in the UK before the end of 2016 and I am still happy to stick to that. Meanwhile the delusion-making spin machine churns faster and faster, spitting out dreams of colonies on Mars, bubble cities at the bottom of the ocean, fusion reactors in our iPhones. Otherwise intelligent people still send me links to articles that say we can have sleek cars that run off nothing but air, and that a global conspiracy is stopping us from harvesting the infinite energy the exists, er, somewhere just behind our left ear.

So, in 2015, gods willing, I'm hoping to build on 2014. My new year resolutions include taking up smoking and experimenting with drugs. Yes, I've bought a nicely-carved briar root wood pipe which, when packed with rich cherry tobacco, provides moments of relaxed contemplation as I'm working in the woods. As for the drugs, I am experimenting with growing a range of medicinal mushrooms in felled logs. Having read the work of fungal pioneer Paul Stamets I've become a believer in the idea that there is a lot of knowledge and wisdom that's been lost in this world and that we have our work cut out to try and rediscover it — and that mushrooms can help us on that quest. Thus I'll be quite scientific about it, making notes and observations.

This slacker shall continue to work every day in 2015. For me, my life has become entwined with and inseparable from my work. In a good way. I hope to get bees this year, and I'm sure there will be a lot of learning to do. What with writing, producing charcoal, cultivating mushrooms, nurturing Fox Wood and growing food, I have to remember to leave time for the other good things in life, such as walking on the beach, cooking, swimming, reading, listening to music, and now, kayaking. I do all of these enjoyable things with my kids too. I don't see why they shouldn't grow up learning that the more enjoyable things in life are usually free.

So, to anyone reading this, I hope 2015 will be a good year for you, that you will grow wiser and more resilient, that you will continue to move in the right direction away from the unfolding train wreck of our modern world, that good health keeps your cheeks rosy, that you don't take yourself too seriously and that you continue to keep your balance as you navigate your kayak down the creek of chaos and avoid ending up it without a paddle.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Learning to Live Fearlessly



RE, over at the Doomstead Diner, was asking the other day "Where have all the doomers gone?" He pointed out that some commentators have gone silent, others post far less often than they used to (guilty) and the doom-stars, Orlov, Kunstler et al., are mostly repeating over and over on a weekly basis what they have been saying for years.

So what's going on? It's not as if our predicament of looming financial collapse, ecological drawdown, resource wars etc. etc. has gone away. Perhaps, it's down to exhaustion and the realisation that the folks who want to hear about it are all now singing along in the choir and those that don't (but will find out anyway) all have their heads buried so deeply in the sand that only the tips of their toes remain poking up above the beach. On the other hand when you have the likes of our own prime minister jumping on the doom bandwagon and saying that 'Red lights are flashing on the dashboard' then maybe it's time to realise that maybe, just maybe, the message is becoming less ignorable.

And just to recap, here is that message in cut-out-and-keep form:


We live in a debt-fuelled, techno-narcissitic, ecologically unsustainable world and in an economic system that channels the remaining wealth upwards. The system, which worked well enough for most people in times of an expanding energy supply without too many competing claims is now shifting into reverse gear and causing itself to self-cannibalise. Economic and political injustice is growing ever sharper and more noticeable — despite all the happy talk of economic recovery. Growth is an illusion, contraction is a reality, and things are getting worse. Prepare yourself for the inevitable and try to gain some control over the essentials of your life. Grow stuff, tread lightly on the earth, appreciate what you have and try to enjoy the ride.


Here in the UK more families than ever are having to rely on food banks handing out packages of food just so they can make it through the week. Who'd ever even heard of a food bank five years ago? There's one near where I live, and in the news agents across the road from it the newspapers on display contain articles detailing which stores to head to on your weekend Christmas shopping splurge in New York, or which island in the Maldives is perfect for some winter sun. They might as well be talking about vacations on Venus. Some of their other pages contain stories about megacities being planned for the bottom of the sea, personal robots that can fly and deliver Amazon packages, cars that run on seawater and 3D printed houses on the Moon. It's all just around the corner.

But the propaganda gets less believable by the day. I can't personally recall talking with anyone in the last few years who says things are going well for them financially. In fact most people just seem to be grinding along from month to month with hardly any money, maybe getting into debt a bit more and shopping at the discount food stores which have swept the country. They are not thinking about buying flying robots. Others are stuck in the painful situation of having a head full of business ideas but no way to make them happen because they have no cash, no credit rating and no time. Each month that passes makes those hopes and dreams seem just that little bit more unrealistic and an understanding begins to form in their minds that a new kind of reality has descended and this new reality doesn't promise anything like what the old reality did.

But at least there is still a safety net to catch us when we fall, right? There's still a free health system which is one of the best in the world, right? I got to test this out recently when I developed a deep tooth ache that wouldn't go away. The only surgery in town that could see me was a nearby clinic that boasted 'German dentists', whatever that might imply. They examined me and noted an abscess below a wisdom tooth and advised that I have it removed asap. They made me fill out a medical questionnaire which seemed less interested with my dental health than how I 'felt about my smile', presumably to prey on hidden insecurities and lure me into spending a fortune in order to make me look like Donny Osmond (a full finance package was on offer).



But to fix my wisdom tooth they wanted several hundred pounds off me. I told them straight off that I couldn't afford it and wanted to know what my options were. They have to do this, by law, I'm told. I was (glumly) referred to an NHS specialist and, within a couple of months after a course of antibiotics and painkillers I found myself at the local hospital where a man called Mohammed wrenched out my bad wisdom tooth with some pliers. It was all very professional and pain-free and didn't cost me a penny. My respect for the foot soldiers of the NHS grows with each encounter.

But how long can we rely on these systems to function? With the total amount of debt owed by the UK now astronomically high (government, company and private) and not showing any sign of slowing down soon, when will the breaking point be? Already we are beginning to see warning signs of massive problems ahead, with some saying that the health service will run out of the cash needed to sustain itself either this year or next:

Millions to suffer as NHS is About to run out of Cash

"The King’s Fund’s report warns: “On its current trajectory, the health and social care system in England is rapidly heading towards a major crisis.” ... it is now a question of when, not if, the NHS runs out of money."

And then consider the immense problems faced by district and city councils, such as Newcastle. These behemoths are being bled dry by central government, with all the accusations of politics being thrown in (the ones gushing blood the fastest are the ones with populations least likely to vote Tory). It's worth reading this whole article to get an understanding of what is in store, not just in Newcastle, but everywhere:

Is saving Newcastle Mission Impossible?

"In fact, the city’s predicament already seemed impossible. The council cut £37m from its spending in 2013-14, and another £38m is set to follow this year. Then, according to current projections, there will be further annual cuts of £40m, £30m,and £20m. Over a third of the money the council once spent must go, so Newcastle is in the midst of a dire squeeze on funding for children’s centres, youth services, rubbish collection, parks, aid for homeless people, swimming pools, museums, and the arts. Back in 2011, Forbes said, when he and his colleagues had first confronted the depth and breadth of what they faced, a lot of them lapsed into silence. “People went white,” he told me. “They literally went white, at the prospect of it. There was a sense of disbelief about what it all meant, and the scale of cuts we would have to make.”"

It's probably important to note here that cuts will soon start to affect council's statutory requirements. All councils have a basic requirement to offer some kind of food and shelter, to protect children from violent parents and so on. These are the kind of programmes that are for the chopping board next and the effect on our society will be profound. It doesn't matter what the fake manipulated GDP number is if the streets are full of starving waifs rummaging through trash looking for something to eat. Of course, individuals and other organisations will step in and try to fill the gap by providing people with some basic level of subsistence. Churches will become popular again and 'giving to charity' will not mean texting a number to a giant bureaucracy during a telethon, but giving a bag of food to a hard-up neighbour. The majority will find themselves cut off, disenfranchised and with no safety net. The age of entitlement will be over for most, to be replaced by the age of broken promises.

I have a friend who works for the council in child care. She tells me that when the new system of universal credit kicks in then all hell will break loose. She warns of mass malnutrition, suicides and homelessness — and she's not even the excitable type. For now, this system is being held off by IT failures, but when it is rolled out across the country, maybe within the next year or two, it will be like a chainsaw through whatever safety net currently exists. It will be brutal, she says.

Everywhere I look, and in so many different places, I see the effect of service cuts and the new intermediaries stepping into the ever narrowing gaps between flows of money. Just off the top of my head I could say that the council in the town where I live (Penzance) has run out of money for killing the weeds that sprout up between paving stones — result being that the streets have now grown green beards; the school my children attend is forever asking for small amounts of money to cover trips and events and is now almost begging parents for cash; the county council has been ordered to find millions in savings from its planning department — result is anecdotes of planning officials levying 'unusual' charges and insisting on applications being resubmitted and for the application fee to be repaid in full.

The list goes on of penny-pinching savings leading to shoddier services, crappier jobs and a growing sense of unease.

My wife works for a private community care firm. Her job is to travel around to visit (mostly) lonely old people and make sure they are okay. She gets minimum wage and is on a zero hour contract. She was just awarded an annual pay increase of 0.6%, which is actually a pay cut in real terms, but that's standard practice in the sector. Her every move is now monitored by a smart phone she has to carry, and she is so overworked that there is barely enough time to make 'clients' (as they are known) a cup of tea. There are no benefits, and no holiday pay. You don't even want to know the sad stories I hear about the loneliness some of these old folks experience.

Here's a tip if you have kids: treat them nicely so that they may one day return the favour. And don't go and encourage them to go and live some place far away.

Here's another anecdote. Last week I even took our old leaky toilet to the local municipal dump — sorry, recycling centre — and was told that I would have to pay a £1.75 fee to dispose of it 'because we now charge for rubble'. I pointed out that it wasn't rubble, that it was a porcelain toilet bowl and the guy in the fluorescent jacket told me that 'it will be rubble when it gets smashed up.' Nice logic. My broken toilet could almost be a metaphor for modern life.

Perhaps that's why fly-tipping is now all the rage (with local councils being forced — for now — to clear up the mess at great public expense). This mess appeared overnight in Essex and is a mile long.



So that's modern Britain, writhing in the discomfort of a thousand cuts. But people around here at this end of Cornwall are long used to being squeezed. That's one of the reasons I moved here — people are less likely to freak out so much when things get tough, I reason. Some of them. Most of the large 'period' homes here are owned by outsiders, property investors and holiday home owners, and any attempt to tax these people or make them pay in any way for the damage they are causing to local communities is met with howls of protest about 'scaring away the tourists', 'biting the hand that feeds us' and so on. That leaves anyone who grew up here two options: either get out and move somewhere with careers, or stay here working in the service sector for minimum wages and living in a caravan or a euphemistically-named 'affordable home'.

There's a woman living nearby who sometimes busks with a cello. I've seen her a couple of times in the street. When I read an article on the Dark Mountain Project blog about a young woman who lives in a tin-roofed shed because 'all the houses have been hoovered up by the rich' it took me a while to connect the dots and realise it was indeed the same person. Catrina Davies, I then found out, has written a book entitled The Ribbons are for Fearlessness. I bought the book and read it. It took me only a day because it was a real page turner. In the book she details living with no money at the Youth Hostel near Land's End, and how the sudden death of her friend led her to set out for Norway, virtually penniless, in a battered old yellow van. She travels alone, with her grief, her fear and her cello as a way of making money busking the streets of Europe. It's a hell of an adventure, and she meets a girl at the Nordcap (Europe's most northerly cape) who teaches her a thing or two about the universe and gives her some ribbons 'for fearlessness'. She goes on to travel all the way down to Portugal, learning to surf and how to live a full and authentic life in a manner that we are conditioned by our society to believe is impossible.



And, in a sense, that's what we'll all have to learn to do: learn to live fearlessly. Because when I see news stories that state the average family of four needs to make £40,600 a year to live an okay lifestyle I think: what do they spend all of that money on? Most people I know make a lot less than that, and our family makes and lives off about a third of that amount. True, I don't have a mortgage or an evil landlord standing over me, because I've been through all that and I savour every moment of not being a debt slave. I try to impress this message onto my children because I know they'll likely never have what I had, namely a free university education, a couple of decades of rising incomes, a property ladder with an affordable first rung and a cushy office job where I got paid buckets of cash for fiddling with spreadsheets. They will likely get none of these things and society is going to be contorted into a lot of new and unfamiliar shapes as they come of age.

So, to go back to the beginning, why are less people talking about doom? Maybe it's a bit like someone at a garden party — let's call her Sally — who keeps telling everyone a rain storm is coming and they all just look up at the blue sky and say 'impossible' and get back to chatting about Top Gear by the pool. But she knows the storm is coming — she can tell by the clouds on the horizon, the rustling of the leaves in the trees and the way the neighbourhood cats have all disappeared. She remembers past storms. She tries to tell the other guests, but they are in no mood to listen — they're too busy applying sun cream and turning the pork chops on the barbie. "Didn't you hear to weather forecast?" they say. "There's no chance of rain." Eventually, somewhat shunned and a little hoarse, she decides not to go on about it too much. After a while she makes her excuses and goes home to bring her washing in so it won't get wet. In the meantime the sky has darkened and the first few drops of rain are hitting the hot metal grill and making sizzling noises. The guests look at each other nervously and one or two think to themselves "Maybe she was right about the rain, but it'll just be a passing shower." The party is in full swing by now and everyone thinks they will stay dry because everyone else is standing out there with them, and anyway it never rains at Steve's parties. They decide collectively not to notice the rain, laughing it off. The fat man turning the chops secretly believes he can control the weather by holding his mouth in a certain way. Meanwhile a deep rumble of thunder rolls across the horizon and Sally gazes out at her garden through the window from the comfort of her home, surrounded by cats.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

We'll know by Christmas



“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”
Douglas Adams

As I write this the WHO is saying that the number of cases of Ebola in West Africa is likely to ramp up to 10,000 new ones every week by December, with around seven out of ten people who contract it dying from it. “Don’t worry,” seems to be the message being purveyed down from on high “This will have little impact in the technologically advanced rich nations.”

I’m not so sure.

Straight away I’ll admit that, obviously, I’m not a doctor or a specialist in contagious diseases. A majority of people will read that last sentence and say “Therefore you have no right to talk about it.” If you’re one of them, then bye. However, I do have a firm grasp of the exponential function, and a keen sense of when people in high places are telling fibs to make themselves look like they are in control of events. Perhaps that’s all one needs at the moment. When I see the official message change in the space of a week from “There’s not a chance,” to “Only one or two people might get it,” to “A handful of people might get it,” then I naturally project forward a bit and think about expectation management and message creep.

Frankly, at this stage, it’s more or less irrelevant that we have the occasional case popping up in the West. We are able to deal with them without too much of a problem (the main threat comes later) - although it is concerning that the nurses in Spain and the U.S. who did contract the virus did so despite wearing full protective suits. We are repeatedly assured that this cannot happen, and the fact that it has happened has immediately been blamed on a ‘breach in protocol.’

But breaches in protocol are what we humans are good at. Every organisation that I’ve ever worked at has been full of people breaching protocol at every level. Usually, of course, doing so hasn’t led to them dying messily with blood gushing from their orifices and so mostly they get away with it. Are we to believe that the sprawling medical sector with its vast hordes of employees is less prone to this?

Yes, in the real world, shit happens.

Let’s face it, if you’re an official in some position of power and your job and status depends on making the right comments or being able to pass the blame for something onto someone else then you can be expected to act in such a manner. It’s what you are programmed to do in a non-holistic linear kind of way. So when, for example, a health official says it ‘impossible’ to catch Ebola from a mattress and then someone goes right ahead and does it anyway because they briefly touched a drip feed that had a viral load from some other patient who had sneezed a fleck of vomit on it as they wheeled the bed past him in a corridor, which then came into contact with said mattress and passed it onto someone else, then said official can claim that due to a clause in article 41.5b of the Code of Hospital Regulations about moving patients around then the porter had breached protocol and caused the infection. Problem solved, for you at least.

Here’s a hypothetical situation. Imagine that despite Ebola had somehow mysteriously appeared in your country and the government message had been racketed up to the point of saying “Don’t worry, only a quarter of you will get it,” but so far you had been lucky and avoided it. You’ve washed your hands all the time, avoided contact will all other human beings and animals, not touched a doorknob in six months … but despite all of this you started to come down with a fever and worried you had caught ‘it’. Several of your friends and family have already disappeared into hospital isolation wards and you have never heard from them again, and there are rumours swirling around that the hospital has run out of protective gear and that most of the staff have either died or fled, leaving it manned by untrained survivors with precious few medical supplies to work with. Would you a) Check yourself into said hospital and hope all the rumours were untrue or b) Lie in your own bed with your stash of medical supplies you had managed to amass, send out a farewell Facebook status update and hope for the best?

People who opine on healthcare programmes, just like economists, always assume that people act in a rational way — although it is they who decide what constitutes rational behaviour. They build models based on people acting in the way they are supposed to act, even though not many of them are psychologists.

As they stand, things don’t look good. With a doubling of new cases every 21 days that means every single person in the world will have or have had Ebola by September 2015. Of course, this won’t happen in such a neatly exponential way as there are many interrupting factors that will slow the disease’s spread. In any case, we probably have only a few weeks to stamp down on Ebola and eradicate it from West Africa, because as soon as it gets really out of hand there will be people fleeing to other parts of Africa and bringing the virus with them.

***

Over the last few days in the course of several discussions about Ebola a few truly inane points and suggestions have been raised. Here are some of the most prominent ones:

Ebola is not very contagious and it is only poor people in Africa that can get it. Well, the fact is that we don’t know an awful lot about this strain of the virus. We pretend we do, but we don’t. If we did then people wearing space suits would not be getting it. A past study has shown that it can be transmitted through the air between monkeys and pigs. The study has been attacked and defended thoroughly and, like most things on the internet, you end up not knowing what to believe. Nevertheless, if you ever come into contact with someone who has died from the disease, or if you end up caring for a family member with it, the chances are that you will get it too. Simple as. 

This is getting out of control, we should quarantine the affected African countries and shoot anyone who tries to escape. Ummm, interesting suggestion. Never mind the fact that the moment any such suggestion is raised there will be an exodus of people from those countries. Where would they likely flee to? Well, apart from fleeing to all corners of Africa they would also flee to the homes of their relatives in New York, London, Paris etc. They may try and do that anyway, as things progress. 

Our country can cope with an Ebola pandemic. Don’t make me laugh. When Britain’s health minister appeared on TV a few days ago proudly proclaiming that there were two specialist beds in isolation wards in London to cope with Ebola patients I did a double take. Did he say two? TWO? To be shared between the 20 million people living in the southeast? Will they be taking it in turns or what? At what point, after the epidemic becomes a pandemic, do we manically start trying to build more isolation wards over here rather than building hospitals in Africa? So many questions …
 
It’s just a media fabricated panic to distract us from war, global warming, financial meltdown etc. If anything the media is under reporting this. When the staid folks at the WHO say that “this is the most severe health emergency in modern times,” then it takes a peculiarly asinine person to pretend that it’s unimportant. 

This is nature’s revenge … bring it on. Fine, ecologically speaking that may be so, but you have to be willing to be one of the statistics rather than merely wishing it on other people who are less fortunate.
It’s all a global conspiracy by the Koch brothers/One World Government. Yes, whatever. If you believe that it’s a conspiracy that’s fine but it won’t do you any good. 

Nigeria has eradicated it, so can we. Hurrah! Nigeria has had a few isolated cases of wealthy individuals. Furthermore, there is a lot of oil wealth at stake in that country and the last thing they need is news of an Ebola outbreak. Do you really believe everything you read coming out of the world’s most corrupt nation? 

***

So, what do I think is likely to happen? Well, I think there are two likely outcomes, and we can only hope it is the former.

Outcome 1. We throw everything we’ve got to help states in West Africa get on top of Ebola and contain the disease. It won’t be easy and it will entail a lot of ethical dilemmas, such as choosing who gets priority treatment and who does not. Many of our best doctors and nurses will have to go there and a lot of them will not come back. It will cost a fortune, just when we can least afford it, but in the end it will be worth it. As a follow up, deforestation will have to be halted, the spirits of the fruit bats appeased and a huge Marshall Plan like effort to lift Western Africa out of poverty will have to be put into action to prevent Ebola taking off yet again.

Outcome 2. The cases in West Africa continue to multiply and the disease increases exponentially, really taking off at the start of 2015. Chaos ensues as people flee disease centres and bring the virus with them. Overworked and demoralised healthcare workers abandon their posts as they realise they are at the highest risk of contracting the virus, further complicating the situation. Instead they go back to their own families and do their best to make sure that least they will get the care they need. The diseased, and quite a few non-diseased, are rounded up and put in warehouses that double as isolation centres where they are kept at gunpoint. East Africa, with its crowded slums becomes a new hot zone, and from here it is a hop, skip and jump along the busy trade routes to the overcrowded virus-friendly conditions of India. As pharmaceutical companies frantically try to find a vaccine or a cure the disease spreads like wildfire across Asia and to the world beyond.

By February 2015 half of all air traffic has come to a stop. Airlines go bust and people who are stuck on the other side of the world suddenly find out how large it is. By May there is practically no international air travel apart from private jets and military aircraft. International supply chains are shattered and disorder and chaos break out everywhere as people struggle to get food, fuel and medicine. In some countries, national armies hand out food in the streets but there’s never enough.

By late summer a few island states have quarantined themselves to try to keep the disease out, but word spreads about these ‘healthy’ zones and people desperately try to reach them, bribing officials to gain entry and bringing the disease with them.

By now, the torrent of people pouring across borders by any means available has overwhelmed the tiny capacity the richer nations have to deal with an outbreak. People stop going to work and school, and avoid public transport and gatherings. People live and die in their own homes.

After a handful of years the disease has burned itself out, although distributed pockets remain in far away places. A huge chunk has been taken out of the global population — mostly in the poorer nations that lie in the tropics — with richer nations faring somewhat better due to more elaborate healthcare systems, less overcrowding and a greater access to experimental vaccines. Some of these worked and some of them did not. Everyone still alive will breathe a great sigh of relief and look back with sadness as they think of the loved ones they lost in the Great Ebola Pandemic of 2014-18. Economies are broken and people’s faith in science and progress lies in tatters — but at least they are alive. Life will go on, as ever, but everything will have changed.

There is, of course, a third scenario — Outcome 3 — the Hollywood one where we find a miracle cure just in time that can easily and quickly be mass-produced and distributed across the globe without any political interference. The likelihood of this happening in the timeframe that we have is pretty small though and it would not address the cause of the problem, meaning we’d likely get a new and even deadlier strain in a few years’ time.

So which of the above scenarios is the more likely and why? Do you have a survival strategy if Outcome 2 kicks in? If you do, pray tell.

***

We’ll likely know by Christmas which one we're going to get. In the meantime you might want to read up about natural antivirals, wise up on sanitation and basic medical procedures such as oral rehydration, make friends with your immune system and start building up a stock of things that will likely be gone in a flash if a full-blown panic does break out.