Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Rock and the Spike

Agpalilik - it came from outer space ...

Last summer I came across quite a remarkable find. It happened on a day out in Copenhagen when I was taking my youngest daughter to the National Gallery to see what she would make of the paintings there. Not far from the gallery we happened to be walking down a busy street past the entrance to some grand old red brick building when something in its courtyard caught my eye. There was a large skip stacked up with abandoned office furniture and black bin bags, but it was something next to the skip that caught my eye. For, sitting there on some steel beams was what appeared to be a large red-brown meteorite.

There was nothing to stop us from going to have a closer look, so we did. Sure enough, it was a meteorite, and what's more it was heavily pockmarked and appeared to be made of iron.

A door swung open and a lady wearing a white lab coat came out into the courtyard. Having spotted us from inside the building (I now realised we were at the Geological Museum) she had been eager to tell us more about this large lump of iron sitting unceremoniously in the courtyard. The meteorite, it turned out, was part of the Cape York Meteorite, which smashed into the Earth some 1,000 years ago in Greenland. Named Agpalilik – aka 'the man' – the meteor weighs about 15 tonnes and had a section cut away, revealing the core.

It looked a bit sad and abandoned in the yard next to the skip but when it had been discovered it had caused great excitement. Inuit legend told of the arrival of this celestial gift and it took European explorers a number of years to locate the smashed fragments, the largest of which weighed 31 tonnes and required the construction of its own railroad to transport it to the coast and away to the United States. The fact that they had been pilfered must have caused the Inuit some distress because, historically speaking, these unassuming lumps of solid iron had a profound effect on the development of the local Greenlandic population.

It was the American explorer John Ross who stumbled upon the meteor, having discovered to his amazement that local Greenlanders had iron tips on their hunting weapons despite there being no mineral deposits in the area. At first the locals refused to show him the location of their stash of iron – a veritable gift from the gods that had allowed them to utilise iron age technology in a harsh environment. Eventually though Ross was able to bribe a guide by offering him a gun and was led to the impact zone. Three of the fragments were then shipped off to New York, where they remain, and it wasn't until the 1960s that 'the Man' was discovered and carted off to Copenhagen. By this point in time the Greenlanders had access to all sorts of modern conveniences and were less defensive of the meteor which had once brought them so much good fortune.

After we left I had time to reflect on our accidental discovery. The meteor, for the Greenlanders, had been not unlike our discovery of oil and other fossil fuels a couple of centuries ago. Both were gifts from out of time and space that had landed in our laps more or less randomly and radically changed the way we did business. In the case of crude oil, once we had learned a few good uses for it, nothing would ever be the same again. In that sense we are, as a species, opportunists, or less politely, scavengers. A Martian, viewing our activities over a long period of time, might reasonably conclude that as a species our job is simply to burrow into the planet's crust, bring various minerals to the surface that we find 'useful' and process them into forms that are at odds with the finely crafted balance of the biosphere i.e. 'pollution'.

And thinking in the long term is very useful when it comes to comprehending peak oil. Reading the various online arguments raging about whether we have reached peak extraction of this or that energy resource is a bit like not being able to see the wood for the trees. The point is not whether we have reached it in in 2006, or 2010 or even 2025 – it's that we are currently bumping along the plateau of a very tall and steep-sided mountain that, when viewed from a distance is a mere blip in human history.

Consider the diagram of the energy spike. We are, at present, right at the top of it. Most of us can't imagine that simple truth – we have been climbing to that summit since our grandfathers' grandfathers were babies. It takes no more than a couple of generations, three at the outside, for something to become normalised into human consciousness. In this case what we have come to believe is unassailable it is the idea that the planet we live on will continue to provide us with virtually limitless energy to power the lifestyles we feel we have become entitled to.

Our energy plateau. Image courtesy of Transition Towns

How do we safely get down from that spike? Alas, there are no easy options but one of the worst thing we can do is to go on believing that the energy mountain will keep getting higher and higher. Already our global energy system is showing signs of breakdown. The mega fields, such as those in Saudi Arabia, show no sign of being able to meet rising demand and the price of a barrel of oil is still hovering at around 100 dollars. Enthusiasts of shale gas come up with wild figures for its supposed productivity, although most operators report that the finds go flat after a year of operation (champagne bottles don't fizz for long) and in any case the other energy inputs and water requirements make the extraction difficult, expensive and environmentally destructive.

Those of us who are expecting some kind of collapse need look no further than the news headlines. As John Michael Greer posited in this week's Archdruid Report – this is what collapse looks like. It's going to be a long and rocky road down from that spike, and we'll find ourselves lurching from one crisis to the next, punctuated by periods of stability and calm, and we should ask ourselves how exactly are we going to prepare for it?

After all, it is one thing theorising and conducting online debates about catabolic collapse, but quite another to actually do something useful about it. My own steps have been modest but at least I hope they are a step in the right direction. We have started making and selling our own soap as a means of making some money from a product that people will still find useful for years to come (we can hope). I have also amassed a collection of practical books on everything from house building to home wine making that I spend evenings reading. My wife, luckily, already has a set of useful skills in that she is a qualified upholsterer and seamstress. She can take old unwanted furniture and restore it – and she is good at knitting.

Of course, these are first steps. We are looking at buying a piece of woodland and learning charcoal making skills. Woodland at present is very cheap on account of it being there 'only' for recreational purposes. I'm learning all about coppicing and other woodland crafts and, thankfully, several years as a conservation volunteer in my 20s means that these things are not alien to me and I can swing a bill-hook with confidence.

But there's a lot to do and learn and intuitions says that time is getting somewhat short. I'd be interested to hear from anyone else about what steps they are taking.


  1. Hi Jason, I also follow the Archdruid - his blog, fiction, and spiritual practice. You ask about the preparations of others. Before I had ever heard about of Peak Oil or JMG, I was aware that energy and utility costs were rising much faster than inflation. You may recall that in January 1998, a freak freezing rain storm knocked out power in Eastern Canada, and some rural areas remained without electricity for weeks. This was a foretaste, we see of the climate disruptions to come. Many were forced to evacuate, as few houses here remain liveable without power for furnace fans and sump pumps, refridgeration, etc.
    I determined, by about 2005, to use what resources I had to build a passive house that was off-grid and more physically and financially resilient. It's an ongoing project. Like you, we have a bit of woodland, and also some overgrown pasture for future gardening, plus resourceful friends as neighbours. For a glimpse, and more description, go to Happy New Year! PS, Great blog!

    1. People living in the Aleutian Islands on the border of the North Pacific and the Bering sea used to build partially underground sod houses called barabaras by the Russians. Barabaras were not heated although their construction probably assured a fairly stable temperature, trapping heat from the inhabitants and cooking fires. People wore warm clothing indoors and out. This type of construction was suited to the climate and easily withstood the fierce storms that often come to the area.
      The Russians sold Alaska to the Americans and at some point the Aleutians came under the control of a government official who decided on a campaign to modernize the dwellings of the Aleuts and put them in frame houses of the type used elsewhere in America. The lumber for these houses had to be imported and the dwellings, lacking proper insulation had to be heated with coal or oil, also imported. And the story has an ironic twist to it. Health statistics showed that lung disease of various kinds increased once people were moved to modern housing because people could not afford to adequately heat these modern houses.
      The trend continues. There now is a migration away from remote villages to metropolitan Anchorage because heating oil is becoming so expensive. Early ice preventing the fuel barge from reaching remote locations will require oil to be flown in or as happened to Nome this past winter, require ice breakers to cut a path to the village so fuel could be delivered.

  2. Hi Source Dweller! I do remember reading about that storm and seeing pictures of pylons covered in thick ice - looked like a nasty one. I'm at a similar kind of latitude and I often wonder what would happen to people in Denmark if heating was suddenly cut off. In the cities most people live in apartments and heating comes in the form of hot water piped directly from fossil fuel power stations and 'waste reclamation' plants.

    What's more, people are so used to balmy indoor temperatures that the average person goes blue at any temperature less than about 18C.

    Great to hear about the steps you have taken - I will check out your blog right now! Happy New Year and thanks!


I welcome comments that are relevant to the post and add to the debate about our current and future predicament. I'll try to reply to them all as time permits. You can post anonymously but I'm less likely to reply.