Sunday, May 27, 2012

Nature's Revenge

In need of a reminder about impermanence? Picture from Organic Green Roots

An article published this week in a British newspaper revealed that scientists say street lighting is having an accelerating effect on various species because the extra light is interfering with both insects and those who predate on them. This is hardly ground breaking news for anyone who has watched a gecko hunt moths around a wall-mounted external light – indeed when we run out of energy for unnecessary lighting it will be a dark day (and night) for geckodom. Inevitably, some of the people commenting on the article seemed to say that we shouldn't worry about the effects our infrastructure has on nature because nature will always evolve ways around it; natural selection, and all that.

Whether species can adapt to our more or less random behaviour seems pretty unlikely to me given the extent that we have changed the environment to suit our own ends and the speed with which we have done so. That's not to say that nature won't eventually adapt – that's what nature does – but given our insistence that we are somehow separate from the natural bio patterns of the planet we evolved to live on, Mother Nature might just agree with us and snuff us out entirely in the medium term. I say the medium term because in the long term we're all fried chicken, as Ugo Bardi pointed out in a marvellous essay this week. Life, it seems, has about another 1.5 billion years to enjoy on Earth before it ends. It won't be a sudden end – like when the Vogons destroyed the Earth to make way for an intergalactic highway at the beginning of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, but equally, we can't say we weren't warned. Just like Arthur Dent, most of us will still be in our dressing gowns, metaphorically speaking.

So, given that we are guaranteed not to last in the long term and are doing our damnedest to make it harder for us and all of our fellow earthlings in the medium term, the place to focus on would seem to be the short term. What do I mean by the short term? Well, the next 1000 years would be a good starting point. Let's imagine our actions today as seen from the point of view of revellers in the year 3000AD (or equivalent date, who knows what calendar system they will have?) There are still likely to be the crumbling ruins of some of our greatest cities and buildings there for examination by anyone interested in studying life and civilization before the second Dark Ages. By greatest buildings I don't mean things like skyscrapers, which will have been dismantled for their scrap value, but more longer lasting buildings made of materials that are difficult to recycle and use for other means. Some of the grander neoclassical imperial edifices may still be half-standing, such as the Bank of England, the scattered remains of which will be visible to fishermen peering into the shallow waters off the coast of a shrunken future England.

It's probably fair to say that most people these days don't think 1000 years into the future, and if they did they might picture flying cars and holidays on Mars and all the imaginary perks of an industrial era extended far beyond its shelf life. But as the chasm widens between that imagined future and the one we have assured, which involves a much lower level of accessible concentrated energy available for our use, I wonder how many people are prepared to abandon that dream, and all the hard psychological readjustment that this will take. I for one can certainly remember being about 16, kitted out in some new Adidas trainers and walking down the street listening to a tape of the Beastie Boys on my Sony Walkman (Adam Yauch RIP) on a sunny day in Solihull. I clearly remember the feeling that life, as I understood it, just didn't get any better than this and that all of history had climaxed to create the perfect moments like these. We had, I felt, drifted apart from the messy realities taught in history lessons at school and could henceforth just enjoy cool gadgets - like my Walkman.

In retrospect my outlook was as back to front as my baseball cap, but I wasn't the only one thinking such thoughts. Indeed I may have picked them up subconsciously from the ether (alas my baseball cap was not lined with tinfoil) and it was only a year or two later that Francis Fukuyama famously declared the End of History. Of course, he was about as wrong as it is possible to be, but the 16-year-old me could relate to where he was coming from. Who will write the book entitled History's Just Getting Started?


Other people

Last week I wrote about one of the skills that will be necessary to negotiate to turbulent waters ahead – that of learning to live without having to purchase so much stuff so that when the unwelcome reality of being forced to live with less material comfort is forced upon us it won't come as such a shock. This week I'd like to raise the novel idea of getting on with other people.

If you have had a peak oil epiphany in the last few years you will know that, unless you are living in Micheal Ruppert's Collapse HQ, you have to keep your mouth more or less closed in polite company. Normally, to suggest that things are not ticketyboo (and then some), you'll get that blank look in which the respondent is mentally removing you from the compartment labelled 'Normal Guy' and refiling you in the one that says 'Deluded Lunatic' - the same compartment in which David Icke and his Space Lizards are filed. Never mind that you have spent literally years fervidly reading about economics, history, ecology and psychology and every single one of them leads you inexorably to the same conclusion that seemed so obvious in retrospect – in the eyes of your interlocutor your opinion is less valid than the one he shares with that bloke in the pub.

At this point it would be tempting to give up and focus on getting something done that you have a reasonable chance of achieving. That's all well and fine, assuming you don't care about other people. But on the other hand, when a close family member or a valued friend seems about to commit the kind of terrible mistake you know could never end well, it becomes a bit more difficult to bite your lip and keep schtum. On the one hand you don't want them to pump their life savings into a shale gas bubble but on the other you're worried that by warning them they'll do it anyway and label you an interfering nutter to boot.

Given that evangelism rarely works the only way I can see around this problem is to effect changes in your own life and be a real-life example. That is, I'm afraid, all we can do, and if your brother is convinced that we'll all have mini thorium reactors in our backyards soon and that he is planning to retire on the income generated from his Facebook shares then I'm afraid you'll just have to let him learn the hard way.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of people out there by now who you could consider 'like minded'. They are scattered all over the place, in every country, and the one thing they share is a resolve not to let the scales be pulled over their eyes any longer. Hundreds more turn up every day, tired of being spoon-fed fairy tales by the mainstream media and driven perhaps by some inner sense that things are not going as well as they have been led to believe. Indeed, the number of peaksters is growing steadily and if they were a traded stock they would be worth investing in as they are one of the few things growing these days, apart from national debt that is.

The Transition movement comes in for a fair bit of criticism from some quarters, but to my mind it's one of the most hopeful things there is. Critics say that it tends to focus on drawing up plans for a transition away from fossil fuels and towards sustainability at the expense of real action. But from the yelps of protest I have heard in reply, this might once have been the case but it is no longer and in my opinion there are worse things you can do than join in with Transition.

As I mentioned in a comment last week, I have seen a collapse happen up close. It wasn't any great shakes in the scale of things and could perhaps be considered a collapse-lite but it did involve lots of people losing their life savings, a few cases of problems putting food on the table and one or two suicides of people I didn't know personally. Yes, this was the time I lived in Spain and the property bubble burst in late 2007. Immediately put out of your minds any thoughts of me living on one of the costas, soaking up the sun every day on the beach and drinking sangria with a bunch of pink skinned expats. Instead I lived in a large valley between two mountain ranges near Granada called La Alpujarra. Considered one of the most backwards regions of Spain, the place didn't even have a supermarket – but what it did have was natural beauty and resilience. Most of the foreigners living there got on extremely well with the locals and it would be no exaggeration to say that the whole area was 'alternative'.

Like most people, we moved there so we could live a simple life. Property was cheap and we bought a small ruined farm, which we did up and lived in. I started a local community newspaper called The Olive Press, specifically to campaign against the growing menace of plastic greenhouses which were spreading across the landscape and threatening to turn this small corner of paradise into a desert. Life was sweet for three short years and we learned just how rewarding it is to live away from the toxic culture of modern life.

When the crash came most people couldn't believe it. Even the people living most simply suddenly found out how reliant they were on the property bubble and I did not escape the carnage either. People suddenly stopped being able to pay for advertising space in the newspaper and we had to get a sales professional in, who took one look at our operation and laughed. Out went the alternative therapy practicioners and yoga teachers and in came the big full page adverts: banks, airlines and estate agents. Similarly chucked out were any editorial ethics and, inevitably, myself. I sold the newspaper to a tabloid journalist and today, as one of the biggest foreign language publications in Spain, it's a celebrity news soaked rag that claims to be 'green' but in fact is nothing of the sort.

Anyway, getting back to the point, when the crash actually happened the most noticeable effect was that people who you thought were your friends swiftly turned out not to be. We all know the type of loose acquaintance I am talking about – the gossipy middle class types who socialise widely and profess charitable intentions at every opportunity. These, in my experience, were the ones to grow sharp talons very quickly and flee town, usually leaving a mess of dishonoured debts and broken promises in their wake.

By contrast, other people, the ones who really did help other people out when TSHTF, are the ones who remain living there. They were the ones with no money but plenty of empathy – and skills – to make things carry on working. By joining together in solidarity and helping each other out, each was able to bear the load a lot more lightly. A few eggs and vegetables donated here, a visit and a cup of coffee there and maybe even looking after someone else's kids for a few days so they could take a temporary job and bring in some cash – all of these actions, although small in their own way, prove to be useful when added up. As cash becomes unreachable the barter economy is right there waiting and every transaction becomes a reinforcing span in the web of the community.

Of course, a few morons exploited the system for their own ends, but the beauty of a system in which cash is no longer king is that people by and large stop doing business with morons. Said moron is then left being unable to meet his needs and no amount of threatening language can get him what he wants. That is why people are very friendly to one another in peasant societies, such as the one we had inserted ourselves into: rudeness becomes an unaffordable luxury when your life might depend on your next door neighbour who just happens to own the only winch capable of pulling you and your car out of a gulley. This is a lesson lots of people are going to have to relearn in the future.


Peak n'Oil band Number #7

Simon and Garfunkel

As correctly guessed by Russell last week and befitting of this week's post, Simon and Garfunkel are the band coming in at Number 7. The Boxer contains the unforgettable verse:

I have squandered my resistance 
For a pocket full of mumbles such are promises 
All lies and jests 
Still a man hears what he wants to hear 
And disregards the rest 

And then of course what finer expression of the dominant sentiment of our popular atomised individualism could there be than I am a Rock?

And finally, the duo's rendition of Silent Night - 7 o'clock news reminds us that the backdrop to the lullabies we hear is the constant babble of the world's problems, which most of us would rather filter out.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Living with less

Just some of the stuff thrown out by my neighbours in a single day 

We live in a throwaway consumer society, in case anyone hadn't noticed. It's often said that people these days are more materialistic than in the past, although that would seem to imply we had some kind of respect for materials, which we clearly don't. I often feel like I am at the epicentre of the throwaway consumer whirlwind, living, as I do, in Europe's most wasteful country.

The picture you can see above was taken this afternoon and represents just a quarter of the stuff that was put in the dump area today not forty paces from the front door of my flat. Tomorrow, lots more stuff will arrive and on Monday morning workmen will put all of it in a giant metal compactor and then it will be taken on a truck to the local incinerator and turned into what the politicians here call 'green energy'.

In theory all the TVs and bikes etc. will be sorted into different piles and processed according to what they are composed of. In practice though, most of it ends up in the same metal container along with everything else. Luckily the prevailing winds are Westerlies so the trickle of smoke that comes out of the incinerator will take it harmlessly away out over the Baltic towards, er, Sweden.

I've always been puzzled how anyone could throw a perfectly good thing away. Growing up, it was hammered into me that you just don't waste stuff. Thus my clothes were 'let out' (i.e. made bigger) by my mum as I grew and we had the same knackered kitchen table with one leg shorter than the other for decades. I also became an expert at scraping the mould off the top layer of marmalade to get at the 'perfectly good bit' underneath – and was taught to judge whether food was edible or not just by using my nose rather than looking at some 'best before' date. Talk about lost skills.

I clearly remember my first bike, which my parents gave me for my sixth birthday. It was a bright red affair with solid rubber tyres and home-made stabilisers salvaged from dead roller skates. My father had cobbled it together from bits of other bikes and painted the frame himself with some strong smelling oil paint. But if you think you can detect an accompaniment of weeping violins as you read that then you'd be wrong: we were a solidly lower middle class family with a detached house in niceish part of town. That's just the kind of bike you could expect to get in 1977, and I suspect some of my friends were even jealous of my new chick magnet.

But whatever you may think of home-made bikes and knitted mittens that were attached by a length of string to one's duffel coat so that it was impossible to lose them (a feature that delighted school bullies everywhere) – not many people are actually willing to go back to the 1970s. Here in the more bohemian parts of Copenhagen one could be forgiven for thinking that we have returned to that era. In what could be termed austerity chic, it's virtually impossible to walk around Vesterbro without bumping into bearded, long-collared fashion victims looking like extras from Starsky and Hutch. Some bars are now decked out in the 'authentic' bad taste of the era replete with yellowing wallpaper and smoke stained furniture. Of course, all the clientèle are speaking on iPhones about their latest vinyl record acquisition and drinking fashionable lager, so the illusion doesn't hold up to much scrutiny.

Bang og Jensen - one of Copenhagen's most tragically hip bars has gone back to the 1970s

But I wonder how many people in our very pampered societies are really willing to go back to the 1970s – or beyond? As austerity begins to bite and graduates start to get used to the idea that they'll probably never get the job they assumed would be rightfully theirs at the end of their studies, more and more younger people are having to face up to the fact that their level of material wealth will never be as great as their parents'. And then some.

All this was a very circuitous and long-winded lead-in to what I promised to talk about this week, namely, how to prepare for the coming energy crunch and all the associated chaos. Here's a confession: I aim not just to get through this mess alive, I intend to live through every moment of it as best as I can. I hope to help any others who are prepared to listen. To that end, this advice will seem pretty damned radical to those who are new to the peak oil blogosphere, and grist to the mill for anyone who has been paying attention over the last few years.

I'm not a fan of 'How to' lists, and neither do I like so-called advice dished out by clueless experts or well-meaning amateur busybodies, so I'll start by saying that the next few posts will be a collection of very important pointers that I have arrived at after much consideration, and ongoing consultations with many other people in the peak energy scene. I personally try to live up to them all, and I'm fully aware that the term 'hypocrite' can kill a well-meaning suggestion faster than a silver bullet kills a vampire. To that end I'll be measuring each of my suggestions against actions I have taken in my own life, with the general aim being to communicate that if a lazy so-and-so like me can achieve it, so surely can you. I stand by all of the suggestions I make and, as you'll notice, I don't use a pseudonym and am hence quite happy to take all the opprobrium I encounter from others squarely on the chin. That's not to say that I think I have 'the' answer. There is no 'perfect' solution and I'm in favour of the idea of dissensus i.e. a collection of different approaches to solving the same problems as a more resilient and, to use a modern term, open source way of doing things.

How to live with less

One of the most important lessons for people to learn today is how to live with less material goods than they have been led to believe is theirs by birthright. In the West we gobble up resources at an alarming rate, and people in former Third World countries are now copying us. But for all sorts of reasons, the party's over. Here are some of the main reasons:

  • Conventional oil, which fuels our expedient lifestyles, has peaked. Forget dreams of shale gas and Alberta tar sands – these are just shadow plays concocted by investors and politicians and believed in by those who want to believe in them. From now on, as we tumble down the far side of the supply curve, we will see steadily climbing prices of everything from food and energy bills to healthcare and technology.
  • Population is continuing to climb, despite the fact that most people are reliant on cheap forms of energy, particularly oil and natural gas, to deliver calories to their bodies. This will not end well.
  • The West is broke. We have lived beyond our means for too long. No amount of money can compensate for a lack of cheap concentrated energy. The East might be playing catchup with us, but they face the same constraints on this small, finite planet, and will face the same future.
  • Technology will not save us. Everything from computing tablets to nuclear power stations depends of processes which are highly energy intensive and prone to supply disruptions, politics and financial bubbles. Some technology will cushion our fall, but in the long run the industrial civilization faces the same fate as every other former civilization: a rapid deceleration in speed and reduction in the level of complexity. Technology = complexity. Complexity = weakness. It's our major blind spot: see it.

Given all that, it's highly unlikely that we are going to see our standards of material living increasing again in the future. So if we assume that we have the choice between becoming poor voluntarily and being forced to become poor against our will, which one shall we choose?

Consumerism, despite what we are told on the adverts, doesn't really deliver. There is plenty of evidence now that a certain level of material wealth is optimal and when we get beyond this we start to become unhappy. We humans are social primates, and when once we acquired manufactured good to meet our material needs, we now seem to purchase them merely to boost our individual status and satisfy the false need that has been planted there by black magicians (aka marketers). The point at which we drifted away from this optimal level of consumption is beyond the memory of anyone under about 40.

The pursuit of stuff is now our be all and end all, and we work on consumer debt-powered treadmills to acquire bigger houses, better cars, more exotic holidays and more up-to-date gadgets. This has never occurred before in our evolutionary history, but so ingrained has the idea become that some people now faced with personal bankruptcy would rather choose suicide as a way out rather than shake the demon of consumerism off their back and lead a life that is actually worth living.

Does anyone remember the first time they heard the term 'retail therapy', meaning buying stuff you don't need as a way of halting depression? In any other society in the world (and there are mercifully quite a few left) this would simply be called 'insanity'. But these days it is something to chuckle about – a guilty little pleasure akin to eating a box of chocolates or watching your favourite film for the umpteenth time. Similarly, people giggle that they are 'shopaholics' in much the same way that people don't giggle that they are heroin addicts or crack-heads. 'I went to Dubai for a spot of retail therapy,' is a phrase I've unhappily heard uttered more than once.

In America, and increasingly here in Europe, you are no longer given the choice of becoming a consumer. If you want to 'get ahead' you're encouraged to attend university and, ahem, study a discipline which, increasingly, is some shade of marketing. Even if you don't study marketing you might end up doing an MBA, meaning that you'll have got yourself into debt right from the start of your adult life. A car follows, as does a modest starter home filled with furniture from Ikea - and before you know it you're trapped in career and saddled with debt. This is known as being snookered.

But there is another path you can take. It's not an easy one, but then nothing truly worth doing ever is easy. This is the path of consuming less and living within your means. It's not an attractive proposition these days, and you'll likely lose a few friends and relatives along the way. But you can take encouragement from the fact that plenty of people are already doing it and having a fine time of it. Here are some examples:

Mark Boyle lives in the UK with no money. He lives in a caravan, brushes his teeth with sticks and eats wild food and food that has been thrown out by others. Read more about him here.

If that sounds just a bit too hardcore, consider Jacob Lund Fisker, who 'retired' at around the age of 33 and lives off USD 7,000 a year despite living a very full life in Chicago. He has an excellent blog packed with advice on how you can do the same here.

And the idea seems to be catching on, with a film being made about a German granny who lives off no money at all after having become 'irritated with the greedy consumer society'. Read more about her here.

Finally, anyone can buy a starter home on a soulless estate, but it takes courage and vision – and not having a 9-5 job – to build something like this.

What the people above have in common is that they rejected consumerism as a path to happiness and instead chose to focus on their inner lives and the things that made them truly happy. Things like learning to play a musical instrument, building your own home, growing your own food and learning new skills cost little or no money, but the paybacks are huge and ongoing.

I myself regard those above as aspirational and inspirational and I'll be honest and say that because I have kids I probably can't get the numbers down as low as they can. Nevertheless, everything everywhere is a work in progress, and I'd like to work towards their example. In my own life I have achieved the following:

Food. At present, around half of the food my family consumes is leftovers from the staff canteen where I work. A prodigious amount of waste occurs here and I could probably feed myself and family quite well on that alone. Of the rest, around 70% is organic – there's not much point buying non-organic vegetables as they contain very little in the way of goodness. About 95% of meals are cooked from the raw ingredients, although we occasionally succumb to the supermarket pizza. I'm 'mostly' vegetarian (since the New Year), although I don't have a problem with eating meat – just factory-produced meat. I describe myself as a 'part-time carnivore'.

I used to grow a lot of our own food when we lived in Spain but now my options are severely limited. There is a small balcony to our flat which gets the sun from around 2pm, so there are some challenges. I grow tomatoes and peas and this year I have a few pumpkins growing. I also have a wormery there which handles most food waste and turns it into compost. There is normally too much compost so I have to smuggle it out of the apartment block at night time and dump it under bushes. We are the only flat with food growing, with all others displaying flowers, and I am frowned at for doing so. My next door neighbour, an old woman, recently described me as a 'foreign pig' for the untidy collection of food plants, which stand in stark contrast to her neat rows of marigolds.

We almost never eat out at restaurants or go to cafés or bars – it is simply too expensive here in Denmark. With the exception of a cheap and cheerful Chinese dim sum place I sometimes go to for a treat, the only restaurants I end up in are the very high end ones. Why? Because I carved out a niche for myself as a restaurant reviewer as a way to get to go to these places. My enthusiasm for it has dimmed in the last year or so, but in the past I have dined out at Michelin starred eateries with aplomb. One memorable meal would have set me back around USD 500 if I'd have paid for it – a fact I considered as I ate a packet of noodles the next evening, coming in at around 1/1000th of the price but with a not dissimilar calorific value.

Transport. I go practically everywhere by bike, averaging around 100km per week to work and back. We do possess a car, although I almost never drive it. My wife regards the car as necessary for ferrying the children around and most journeys it makes are less than 1km. Despite it being the most economical car on the market, getting around 58mpg, it's very expensive having a car in Denmark and, although I'm not against car use per se, we plan to swap it for a cargo bike later this year.

In terms of planes, I try and avoid them wherever possible. This hasn't been possible this year but I hope to make my final plane journey within the next year and stick to ground-based transport after that. I had never been on a plane until I was 21, so I aim to have had two decades of flying with them before quitting. Given that we plan not to go anywhere outside of Europe in the future, it should be a simple case of hopping on trains and buses.

Energy. We live in a flat that was allocated to us by the council when we were broke and as such have little control over the heating, which is set for the whole block (too high, as it happens, and in Winter I have to open the windows or else bake). We use about 5 kWh of electricity a day, and most of this is used by the fridge and on cooking. Wherever possible I use energy saving measures, such as slow cooking with the lid on, putting devices on timers, maintaining the fridge freezer etc. Clothes are washed at 40 degrees Centigrade and dry on racks around the flat. Our electricity consumption is around half the normal rate and we get a nice cheque back each year because our billing is based on the average rate.

Stuff. Nearly everything in our flat is taken from the dump I mentioned above and our whole apartment is decked out this way. Most of the stuff is nearly new (the microwave was still in its unopened box) and the things I have rescued so far include: a pine table at which I am now writing, an espresso maker, three TVs, numerous frying pans and dishes, chairs, two beds, several computers, bookshelves, plant pots (with plants), some expensive designer chairs, lots of artworks, a set of weights, two grandfather clocks, several bicycles, a wood-turning lathe, two seal skins, some giant wooden cats (that hold CDs), a set of Dickenses printed in 1907, numerous stereos and DVD players and a sewing machine. Many of the kids' toys are similarly from the dump and they often accompany me on my forays, regarding such outings as completely normal. I've even found a bag of silver cutlery there, and a plastic bag filled with coins, and a complete wine making set from the 1960s – there really is no end to the treasure one can pick up there.

Clothes. I wear my clothes until the literally fall to pieces. Some of my socks are 20 years old and still going strong. Part of my reason for this is that I hate clothes shopping. After about 10 minutes in a clothes shop I become dizzy and nauseous, so I try and limit the experience to around once or twice a year if I really need something for some reason.

Holidays. The last few years we have taken our holidays in other people's houses while they came to live in ours. House swapping is an excellent – and free – way to have a holiday and we've been lucky enough to have had several breaks in rural France, taking the overnight train to get there. This year we are going to stay on a farm in Greece - our first 'proper' (i.e. paid for) holiday in about six years.

Leisure. Many people buy expensive gear to be able to pursue some kind of leisure activity such as kite surfing or boating or scuba diving. My leisure activities tend to consist of reading and going for walks. It might sound corny, but I can get far more pleasure from watching a beautiful sunrise on the beach, than I would by doing something that required me to buy a load of gear or, gods forbid, join a group of like-minded enthusiasts. That said, I do love photography, and building things. And cooking, and lots more.

Personal grooming. My wife cuts my hair for me and we make all our own soap. I made a pot of shaving soap two years ago and it is still only half finished. I'm also working on making shampoo, which is getting increasingly expensive.

Conclusion. Many people would read the above and no doubt find fault with some of my choices, but for me I am quite happy to be continuously reducing my consumption footprint. Many others will no doubt think that this is too severe and that I should 'live a little'. The thing is, I live more than a little, I actually consider that I live a lot without attending expensive concerts or sporting events or going on costly trips to holiday resorts. Instead of spending money unnecessarily we spend it on things that we consider of much greater value - including holidays.

The amount of money we actually spend every month is far below what is considered the poverty level in Denmark (you are officially 'poor' if you have less than 8,450kr in your pocket every month after tax – that's about USD 1,450) and yet we count ourselves as amongst the richest 1% on a global scale – something to bear in mind when assessing how 'monastic' one might consider oneself to be.

*** Update - in response to several comments people have posted about the above on other websites I should probably clarify that I DON'T regard scavenging as a way of living in a post industrial future. I should probably have stated that it can only be useful when there is a surfeit of 'waste' generated by a consumer system in overdrive and that by taking what's there for free out of the waste stream you can spend your hard earned on more useful things like books and tools and insulation. Neither do I dress in rags and feed my children swill from a bucket. Sometimes things can get exaggerated a little ...***

Peak n'Oil Band Number #8

Led Zeppelin

An easy choice for this week. In the realm of rock anthems about consumerism as a substitute for something more meaningful Stairway to Heaven can't be beaten. There are probably plenty of other Zeppelin tracks that address meaningful peak oil realted subjects too, but the only one can think of right now is When the Levee Breaks.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Are you scared yet?

Perhaps it's just me, but over the last couple of weeks I thought I could distinctly hear the sound of pennies dropping as an ever growing tiny minority of people began to realise just how godawful our situation has become. It could have begun last week Sir Mervyn King, the chief economist at the Bank of England, – a staid economist not given to wild statements – casually said that our economic situation outlook was likely to be worse than the Great Depression.

He was, of course, immediately rounded on for being alarmist, not least by the Guardian's chief economic fantasist Will Hutton who, yet again, insisted that financial mismanagement was the cause of all crises and if only everyone just followed his prescriptions for caring capitalism we'd be all be fine. In another post Mr Hutton claimed that the future lies with Japan because they have more caring electronic gizmos than anyone else - including heated toilet seats. Quick, somebody call a nurse!

And there's no point looking for answers with any of the Left's other supposed gurus either. Nobel Prize winning Paul Krugman doesn't get it either, and insists that some mix of Keynesian stimulation is all that's needed to get those consumers consuming again so that we can rejoin the path to a lightweight knowledge economy … or something.

What else can the Left offer (I'm not even going to bother considering what the Right consider as solutions - from their point of view there's little wrong with the system in the first place)? Oh yes, the 99% and all that. Kill the bankers and redistribute the wealth. Occupy. Revolution. I'm sorry chaps, I don't think that's going to work - no matter how evil you think the '1%' are  (there's the clicking sound of me losing another dozen Twitter followers). 

Keynes once famously prescribed paying a man to dig a hole and paying another man to fill it in again. I'm all for that if there are holes that need digging and filling (or more useful tasks, such as insulating homes), and much as I like Keynes the person, I think this time we should sling him into the hole too before it is filled in. Back in his day the stated macroeconomic policy goal was full employment – and when was the last time you heard that term used? A more apt question today might be 'who is going to pay those hole diggers?'

Anyway, back to the fear. Does anyone know what a permanent economic contraction feels like in a system that has no reverse gear? It means there is no point saving for a pension because whatever money you put aside now won't be worth much in the future. It means that governments can't borrow money at anything like the rate they have become used to which means they won't have much money for things like schools and hospitals. Who would lend a government money in the knowledge that it can't pay it back? The same thing goes for banks. Of course, the current madness sees the endless recycling of unpayable debts between governments and banks, and until someone devises a new kind of financial tool whereby banks can lend money and then be happy with only getting half of it back again then I'm afraid we are heading towards total paralysis.

Furthermore, the countries that have racked up massive debts are now drowning in them. Greece could well be the first to sink beneath the waves, but there are plenty of others that could follow it. They can't all, as some have suggested, just do an Iceland and refuse to pay, although eventually many might be forced to do just that. Remember: in capitalism failure is not a option. And in case anyone hasn't noticed, here in the West we are printing money like it is going out of fashion (although the euphemism employed is 'Quantitative Easing'). Printing money, as anyone with a history textbook knows, is a short cut to economic ruination. Yes - ruination.

Yet, so far, even QE has had no effect, with the Bank of England even giving up on the idea – not because we are out of the economic straits, but because it just doesn't do anything useful other than inflate the balance sheets of a few financial institutions who, in turn, refuse to recycle it into the real economy of goods and services in which actual humans live.

Of course, the financial press can't ignore all of these problems, but they are not exactly being given the prominence they demand, preferring instead to focus on (i.e. cheerlead) the latest pump and dump operations – be it Facebook, Apple or shale gas. A lot of reporting focuses on the individual actors involved, rather than the forces driving the dysfunction. Bad idea.

And that's just the economic news, which is the most fixated-upon, but all-told probably the least scary.

The very few people I know in person who actually read this blog might chuckle a bit and think that I'm being a little eccentric or alarmist in my tone. The fact is that this blog is not nearly alarmist enough. By rights it should be written in a bold 72 font with a flashing red background and a continuous air raid siren noise playing in the background. After reading it you would want to hurriedly gather a few belongings and family members, bundle them into a car with the boot filled with dry food items and head immediately for the largest gathering of like-minded people you could find in some place far from history's flashpoint areas.

Because the real problems we face are several fold and no matter how deeply we bury our heads in the sand they're not going to go away. The problems are so big they're not even problems at all, they're predicaments i.e. something that we'd better learn to adapt to asap rather than solve. The biggest one of them all is overshoot. As a species we have overshot our resource base by a factor of about seven, meaning that if you took away the oil then the Earth's life support systems would quickly turn six billion of us into compost. Oil, by the way, has plateaued and can only go down from here. 

And people, by and large, can normally be relied upon to resist being turned into compost, preferring instead that some others take on that honour. There, did that sound alarmist?

So if we can't eat oil what else can we eat? Well, the oceans are being denuded of fish at an ever increasing rate, so fish is increasingly off the menu. I once harvested and barbecued a jellyfish, just to see if it was edible, and the result was a little bit like tough burned rubber. After all, there is no shortage of jellyfish and they have plenty of protein – but not many people were willing to give it a try at the time (despite some nice barbecue sauce and chilli dressing). I wrote about it in a newspaper and the only response was from a vegan who said that jellyfish were sentient beings too. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

Topsoil is being turned into chemical, salty dust at a breakneck speed too, and aquifer levels in many regions are sinking fast so there isn't even enough water to keep alive the nutritionally deficient monocultures we have become so fond of. How are we going to cope with these challenges? GMOs will just make things worse. And, no, as far as we know crops cannot be grown on the seabed or, on giant floating sky islands or the Moon.

And just when that sounded like enough challenges, we have the added bonus of the fact that we are moving into an age of climate instability, which is likely to see much of the world's fertile land and coastal cities swamped by rising waters.

Of course, if you are from China or India or any of the other supposed 'booming' countries you'll a) Not be reading this in the first place despite me putting a translation widget at the top or b) Will have covered your eyes and ears by this point as you fumble for the mouse and tune into some other blog which breathlessly discusses the amazing diamond-encrusted future that awaits as you assume your position as heir to the industrial throne. Good luck with that!

But, of course, fear is not a useful response to our predicament. It can be a useful reaction when, say, a wild animal jumps out from behind a tree to attack you – the adrenaline rush allows us to move more quickly and make better snap judgements. But as far as the long, slow arc of the end of the industrial age and the twilight of the West is concerned, fear is practically useless. Instead it is far better to understand the challenges we face, and mentally and physically prepare yourself for it. That's what I aim to start talking about in next week's post.


Peak n'Oil – Band Number #9

Fleetwood Mac

Tell a man something he doesn't want to hear and he'll ignore you – but tell him something he does and he's all ears. Every time you hear a politician promise to get [insert country here] working again, or you see a shale gas commercial saying the stuff can provide our energy needs for decades, or someone insists that we invaded [insert oil soaked country here] to liberate them – just imagine Fleetwood Mac's Little Lies playing in the background - it's a useful meditation in an otherwise depressing situation.

And given that this week's post is about fear, there can be few better track about it than I'm So Afraid. Remember, fear is never a good option, but if you're feeling somewhat down as you scan the news on EnergyBulletin you could do worse than to play this track and turn the volume up to Number 11.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Introducing Peak n'Oil

Am I living in LaLa Land? That's a question I ask myself every day when I awake because whatever crises that are unfolding in the world at large they are rarely mentioned here in Denmark. You can have both financial and nuclear meltdowns and all the time it all seems like some faraway dream, only mentioned in passing on the news because they had some spare airtime to fill after all the slots about teachers wanting slightly more pay, and kindergartens looking at a staff shortfall of 0.3% by 2020, possibly.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself. Is it me dreaming or is it everyone else? Denmarkland, you see, is populated with the world's happiest people, and everything here is the Best In The World - it must be because we are told that on the news practically every day. Or occasionally second best (after arch-rivals Sweden). Nothing is ever allowed to disturb the flow of good news here, which is kind of ironic in the country where an awkward man who felt like he didn't fit in wrote a story called The Emperor's New Clothes.

In this country nobody is poor. Nobody is rich either (in theory, at least). Everybody has a high standard of living. Many families have second homes - usually here in Denmark but often in far-flung places like Thailand. A woman I know played a round of golf there last weekend and said it is best to go for a whole week but that it was not too far for a weekend break. Thailand! I once saved up for a whole year to go there and 'find myself'.

Here, your life is mapped out for you from the cradle to the grave and is done so by means of welfare. When you are six months old you go to nursery school. You then go to primary school, followed by proper school which, confusingly, is called gymnasium. Then, usually, you go to university (remember, most are middle class), which lasts for up to about 12 years and is normally rounded off with a PhD in something obscure but usually related to Denmark's big money earners: pharmaceuticals, IT, engineering and design. Then you have a stint known as your 'working life' which brings you up to 60ish, upon which you retire to a golden nest egg.

If, at any point during your working life you have the misfortune to find yourself unemployed, you don't really need to worry. Despite having no job you can still look forward to about 12,000 kroner a month courtesy of the government (that's about $2,100 after tax).

Some people retire early- like when they are 30. This is called 'before-time-pension' and is usually awarded to people who have had something traumatic happen to them, like a car accident, or if they are stressed at work. There are currently about 245,000 people on this - or about 7% of the working population.

All this adds up to make Denmark one of the happiest places in the world. People walk around with wide grins and proclaim that they could never live anywhere else because nowhere else matches up. To suggest otherwise is taboo, as I have once found out. And there are some good historical and cultural reasons for this which I am not going to argue with at all.

In fact, it's not my intention to rant about the country where my daughters were born, or where my life was saved when I suffered acute peritonitis or indeed where I took advantage of the generous welfare scheme as I worked my way through most of the books on my shelf that I had put off reading. No, that's not my intention at all (although gods know I've done so in the past).

Instead I just have one question: who is paying for all this?

It's a simple enough question: who pays for a lifetime of welfare and one of the highest standards of living in the world in a country that, basically speaking, has almost no natural resources, a smattering of light industry and the highest taxes in the known universe?

This is not a question most people would be willing to have a go at answering. But I'm just wondering about the gap between reality and the perception of reality here. Denmark, after all, was one of the few - perhaps the only - country to take oil shortages seriously in the 1970s. Could it be that in the intervening years a culture of schadenfreude has developed - a kind of ingrained 'resting-on-ones-laurels' attitude?

I suspect, after a decade of observation, that the true answer is much more complex and murky than that. For now at least, investors are pumping money into the country as it is seen as a safe haven. But how long can this last? I'm just wondering.

But in the meantime I have to try and convince myself that I am not going insane. Please, somebody tell me that there are actual problems out there in the real world and that all the smiley happy faces I see everywhere, and all the TV talk of Denmark avoiding 'the crisis' as they call it, and the suggestion that the most salient news event of the year so far was that cruise ship turning over off the Italian coast - please somebody say that it's not me that is going insane!


Peak n'Oil

In each post from now on, in a countdown from 10, I will be introducing a Peak Oil rock band.

Have you ever listened to a piece of music and thought: 'Wow, that perfectly expresses how I feel about peak resource production and some aspect of the likely ramifications on our wider society that are likely to ensue'? I thought as much. This, then, is my Top Ten of rock bands spanning the last 40 years or so who tell it like it is regarding mankind's follies when it comes to energy expedience, rampant consumerism and our vapid, empty and entitled way of life.

Why rock music? Because, just like science fiction, rock music has a way of getting to the core of important matters. It vents our fears and anguishes and gives voice to the power of the soul in its indignant howling rage. As such, it is probably the only modern form of music that is unafraid to challenge the status quo, albeit in a safe 'free speech' type of zone.

[Don't worry, there will be no actual Status Quo in in the Top Ten]

Please note that all these selections are taken from the shallow pool of my own CD collection, which effectively mirrors my own lifespan of the last 40 years (plus a few extra - I was 'retro' before the term was even invented) - if you'd like to add your own choices feel free in the comment section.

So, without further ado:

No 10. Julian Cope of the Teardrop Explodes

As a once legendary imbiber of consciousness altering drugs, Mr Cope makes it into the Top Ten by virtue of the fact that he wrote the song World Shut Your Mouth, which contained the lyrics 'put your head back in the sand and shut your mouth'. Clearly Cope, who went on to become one of the foremost modern-day scholars on Megalithic remains in Europe, was thinking of the blanket refusal of the modern world to take serious matters, er, seriously when he wrote those lyrics.

Despite being a pagan, a blogger and a scholar of the antiquities, Cope still found time to go solo and release several albums, including Autogeddon - an album about the fate that awaits us if cars are allowed to dominate our lives. It includes, seemingly, a reference to killing an SUV driver with a rock and is clearly the stuff that more people should have listened to while they were growing up in the 1980s.

If you like Julian Cope's music, you'll possibly like his history documentaries about ancient Britain.

Next week: No. 9

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Of black ducks and mystery teachings

A small dolmen in a park in Copenhagen. 

In this week we have seen two events that might in the future be seen as small way markers along the path in the direction we are heading. The first one, close to home, was the sudden bankruptcy and cessation of Denmark's de facto national airline Cimber Sterling. The news, when it appeared on Thursday morning, came like a small black swan (let's call it a black duck) and shocked passengers at the airport were duly interviewed, with most of them standing forlornly beside their luggage with 'what am I supposed to do now?' attitudes.

The second event was on the other side of the world in Japan where it has been reported that the last of the country's 50 nuclear reactors has now been taken offline, with no realistic prospect of being reconnected in a country still dealing with the legacy of the meltdown at Fukushima. Plan B, as far as the Japanese are concerned, involves importing huge amounts of oil and gas to make up for the electricity shortfall. This can hardly be seen as a long term strategy for any number of reasons and is a timely reminder that our menu of energy options boils down to no more than a few dishes of the day.

If, like me, you regard events such as these as ever-mounting evidence of a growing crisis in the industrial world for which we are wholly unprepared, then the next logical step would seemingly be to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. Using the analogy of a large ship that is sailing towards an iceberg, we can either don our life jackets and stand ready by the lifeboats (having failed to convince the captain of the danger), or else pretend not to see the clearly visible icebergs looming in our path and instead carry on knocking back tequilas at the bar six decks below. Such measures, in the real world, might involve building as many useful skills as possible in order that we are not totally caught short when delicate supply chains shatter, or building greater community bonds so that you can take advantage of the division of labour when the energy slaves suddenly perish. There are certain practical things that you can do as well to ensure a relative degree of comfort for yourself and your family, such as planting a garden and insulating your house.

All of the above could be considered wise moves for those who, as Dmitry Orlov puts is, are not interested in sitting in the dark wearing dirty clothes wondering what went wrong. But taking the whole thing a stage further than the merely practical we could do ourselves a favour and build some resilience into our attitudes and the way we think about things and relate to the world. This makes sense from several perspectives. A problem, unless it is life threatening, is accorded a severity based on our perception of how serious it is. And in an age when problems are rushing towards us like an army of orcs in a Lord of the Rings movie, it would seem only prudent to adopt as many forms of defence against them as it is possible to muster.

It was with this in mind that I recently read a copy of John Michael Greer's latest book Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. Now, I'm not going to say that this is a book review because a) I'm not at all qualified to review such a book and b) It could never be because to review a book you must at least maintain a façade of detached objectivity and anyone who has read this blog would simply not believe me if claimed that to be so. Furthermore, the book is primarily concerned with the mystery teachings, which have been studied and practised by mankind down the ages, and as such they can't be 'analysed' as such in a purely intellectual manner. So, instead, 'll just say what the book is about and what I got from it.

My background is about as non-spiritual as the next average Joe. I wasn't raised as a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. I wasn't even raised as an atheist, and can probably count on the fingers of both feet the number of times I have ever been in a church that wasn't a school trip, a funeral or a wedding. In fact, like the overwhelming majority of people in the UK, I was raised as a kind religion-less materialist and the only kind of salvation or goal worthy of pursuing that was ever suggested to me was to 'make it' in the City or somewhere.

Nevertheless, I wasn't entirely without the feeling that there must be more to life than two flat dimensions and I do remember at an early age having a strong feeling that purpose of life must be to gaze in awe at the wonders of the universe. If that sound pretentious, I'm sorry, but it's the only way I can describe it. I'm not sure where that feeling came from, but it could have had something to do with my mother, who was a quiet spiritualist with a firm conviction of there being 'something more' based on an out-of-body experience she had had a small girl when she had 'died' from middle ear disease and was able to watch her sobbing parents and the frantic doctor from somewhere up near the ceiling. This must have struck a chord with me and a latent spirituality manifested itself in me around the age of 30 when, having read practically everything Alan Watts had ever written, I found myself drifting towards Buddhism. But any progress on my path to Nirvana was halted when I met a visiting lama in Copenhagen and was revolted by the sycophancy of his acolytes and their 'holier than thou' attitude. Buddhism, it suddenly seemed, was all about amassing karma by giving silk scarves to important people and elbowing others out of your way to do so.

Nevertheless, there were many good and useful things in Buddhism that have stayed with me and one of them is the idea that true transformation comes from within – and that this requires a lot of work. This, it turns out, is one of the core messages of the mystery teachings, and John Michael Greer explains their Seven Laws using the language of the science of ecology. By doing so he is repeating a tradition of presenting their teachings in a language that people in the modern age can understand. In ancient Greece, Plato taught them using the language of geometry, which was the hip science of the age back then, so Greer is translating them to language that we can readily understand.

Greer is also interested in correcting what he sees as a gaudy over-commercialised and watered down version of the mystery teachings and spiritualism in general that has mushroomed in recent decades, taking particular issue with the idea that positive thinking can make you financially rich and/or have any other effect in the material world of our everyday lives. Similarly, he is not impressed by any New Age 'airy fairy' insistence that we are all heading into a new Age of Aquarius via some form of apocalypse or rapture or mass rebirth of consciousness. The kind of transformation he has in mind requires a lot of practice and is hard work but ultimately much more rewarding.

The book is split into two sections with the first being an explanation of the Seven Laws of the mystery teachings explained through the language of ecology and the second being about how to use these teachings in your everyday life as a kind of psychic defence against the kinds of predicaments I mentioned above and a way of making sense of the universe on a level deeper than a purely intellectually rationalising basis. At the end of each section is a meditation exercise, an affirmation and a theme for reflection.

The Seven Laws are explained at some length, each with the analogy of a meadow with its various populations of field mice, snakes, birds of prey and plant species. They are set out as follows – with the explanation of each being taken directly from the book:

1 – The Law of Wholeness. Everything that exists is part of a whole system and depends on the health of the whole system for its own existence. It thrives only if the whole system thrives and it cannot harm the whole system without harming itself.

2 – The Law of Flow. Everything that exists is created and sustained by flows of matter, energy and information that come from the whole system to which it belongs and that return to the whole system. Participating in these flows, without interfering with them, brings health and wholeness; blocking them, in an attempt to turn flows into accumulations, causes suffering and disruption to the whole system and all its parts.

3 – The Law of Balance. Everything that exists can continue to exist only by being in balance with itself, with other things, and with the whole system of which it is a part. That balance is not found by going to one extreme or the other way by remaining fixed at a static point; it is created by self-correcting movements to either side of a midpoint.

4 – The Law of Limits. Everything that exists is subject to limits arising from its own nature, the nature of the whole system of which it is a part, and the nature of existence itself. Those limits are as necessary as they are inescapable, and they provide the foundation for all the beauty and power each existing thing is capable of manifesting.

5 – The Law of Cause and Effect. Everything that exists is the effect of causes at work in the whole system of which each thing is a part, and everything becomes, in turn, the cause of effects elsewhere in the whole system. In these workings of cause and effect, there must always be a similarity of kind between an effect and at least one of its causes, just as there must be a similarity of scale between an effect and the sum total of its causes.

6 – The Law of the Planes. Everything in existence exists and functions on one of several planes of being or is composed of things from more than one plane acting together as a whole system. These planes are discrete, not continuous, and the passage of influences from one plane to another can take place only under conditions defined by the relationship of the planes involved.

7 – The Law of Evolution. Everything that exists comes into being by a process of evolution. That process starts with adaption to changing conditions and ends with the establishment of a steady state of balance with its surroundings, following a threefold rhythm of challenge, response and reintegration. Evolution is gradual rather than sudden, and it works by increasing diversity and accumulating possibilities, rather than following a predetermined line of development.

Most of the above laws are easy enough to understand on a purely rational level for someone versed with popular science, with only the Law of Planes requiring some deep reflection to get grasp of. But the one perhaps of most interest unlocking the key of how to thrive (and I use that word cautiously …) in an age of industrial crises is the Law of Limits. This asserts that beauty and creativity can only flow when some concrete limit is placed on something. Given that everything has a concrete limit placed on it – but that modern though insists that this is otherwise – recognition of this fact allows for a blossoming of possibilities. Music is better when performed within the conventional limits of keys and scales placed on it, as is art. The implication is that life lived with the recognition of hard limits is in fact the opposite of restricting, and an acknowledgement of that fact opens up numerous possibilities.

The latter sections of the book deal with how to use the teachings in your own life and Greer admits that the book is not a definitive look at the mystery schools, but is more like a tempting morsel of bait that might attract those who are predisposed to study the teachings in greater depth to seek out their own mystery school teacher. As such it provided me with a great deal of insight into the nature of the disastrous ways in which industrial civilization has backed us into our current predicament and, more importantly, ways in which we can align ourselves better for a future more harmoniously in line with the natural systems that birthed us and of which we are a part of. I'd highly recommend the book to anyone with an even half-open mind to the idea that there might be something more to the universe than a great cosmic atomic game of billiards. What's more it is also an important addition to arsenal of anyone who considers that ecology matters in the ongoing fight to convince others that what we do to the environment we do to ourselves.