Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Looking for a place to crash


No place like home. Is England a good place in which to plan a post industrial future?
Photo from  www.virtual-shropshire.co.uk


People keep asking me where they think the best place would be to hold out when the post industrial age gets into full swing. I've said before that I think Britain is as good a place as any, with some large provisos. There are a number of reasons I think this to be so, which I'll go through nearer the bottom Here's a sample from an email a reader in Japan sent me:

“I'm trying to cobble together reasons for cautious optimism, or, at least, avoiding outright despair, since, among other things, I have two small children. I'm wondering if there is still time for some sort of managed transition or if a managed transition will occur in some places, while outright and rapid collapse occurs in others. And, thus, like all of us in the peak-oil-aware community, I spend a fair bit of time trying to figure out places where a gradual descent is more likely than outright collapse.”

What people are really saying, of course, is that they're scared. And with good reason. Taking a look at human history through an ecological perspective one cannot help but conclude that we have so vastly overshot our resource base – and are in fact consuming energy that was harvested for us millions of years ago – that we are like those cartoon characters that go off a cliff and hang there momentarily in the air before realising their situation just before gravity kicks in.

What happens when gravity re-establishes itself and the finite ecosystem on which we have evolved to live within – i.e. Earth – refuses to yield more energy treasures, is not going to be pretty. The first signs of this are already upon us in the form of financial tremors, shaking the foundations of the mostly abstract world of finance. But far more traumatic than any financial storm (although those can wreak a fair bit of havoc) will be the sense of drowning we start to experience as our artificially built human world is dragged beneath the waves by the concrete wellies of EROEI.

It's at this point, when it no longer makes sense to extract or 'produce' new energy because it would cost more energy than you would get back to do so, that things are going to get serious. Demand might still be rocketing for certain things like oil, coal, steel, concrete etc, but the straitjacket of supply will ensure that the price rockets to such an extent that only the very richest individuals, companies and nations will be able to afford them. We'll all feel the pinch, to put it mildly.

But of course nowhere is 'best' to try and weather such a cataclysm – the whole point of recognising the knock on effects of severely curtailed access to cheap and abundant energy is that there will be no 'one size fits all'. Thus, for me, Britain – or more specifically England – would work best – that is where I am from, after all. For a Mongolian herdsman, Mongolia would probably work best. It's wherever you feel most comfortable and would be able to build a good network of reliable friends and acquaintances that is the best.

Saying that, even without the aid of a crystal ball, some areas are clearly going to do worse than others. Only the most ecologically myopic would choose to move to an area in which human existence is strictly dependent upon the ability to pump water or grow crops using cheap energy. Las Vegas springs to mind. As does much of Saharan Africa. But let's not forget that the vast majority of humankind has no choice over where they live and it is only a few privileged people from the currently wealthy nations that have such a luxury. The chance to figure out a good place to be and to move there and get on with the hard business of fitting in and making a safe living is a great privilege open to only a few. If you're one of them, appreciate it.

But the huge windfall of almost free energy over the last century or so has made us energy illiterate. Energy, many people assume, comes out of wall sockets. If there's a blackout then energy companies and politicians are to blame. Cheap energy is our universal right, we are led to believe, and most people have no idea how fragile the state of affairs is.

Furthermore, as our societies industrialised and we left the land our ecological literacy has similarly diminished. I got a sharp lesson in this when we moved to Spain and lived on a hillside farm for three years. If it didn't snow heavily at the top of the mountain during the winter, we had no water in the summer and the trees died. It's a simple enough concept, but it didn't concern many of the foreigners moving to the area. Neighbours with more cash than us paid for tankers of water to be driven up the hill to their properties once a week to fill up their swimming pools at great expense. In the future this kind of extravagance will not just be frowned upon, it will be impossible.

But there is another fear factor at play. Aside from knowing where to live, people, myself included, want to know how long they've got before the music stops. I like using the analogy of stopping music because that's how I envisage our long descent. As I see it it will be like one of those children's birthday parties where all the kids are playing a game of stop-dance. The music is playing and all the kids are dancing merrily, flinging their arms out in joy and throwing shapes; a parent (her finger hovering over the 'pause' button on the CD player like some mischievous Greek goddess) decides when the music stops, whereupon all the kids have to stand as still as possible. The first one to move will be out, and then the music starts up again, albeit with less participants.

I'm not saying the jagged descent from Hubbert's peak will be anything like as much fun as playing stop dance (and there will be no jelly and ice cream at the end), but I am definitely of the 'long slow collapse' camp rather than the sudden abrupt end. There's a lot of space between a Promethean future living on spaceships among the stars on one hand and a sudden violent apocalypse on the other. Let's call that middle ground 'reality,' for want of a better word.

What we'll likely see then is periods of crisis, that could last anything from a couple of years to a generation, followed by extended periods of calm – but, crucially, at a lower tempo and with fewer players. This is the way in which civilizations decomplexify themselves and our industrial civilization won't be markedly different. In the end, after probably 200 years or so, 99% of fossil fuels will be a distant memory and our descendants, when they are not cursing us for destabilizing the climate and wiping out many of the planet's life support systems, will at least be thankful that we managed to extract so much metal and leave it lying around for remodelling into simpler forms of technology.

In the meantime, for most of us we will feel like Winnie the Pooh in the opening lines of A.A.Milne's classic story:

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”

Each of the bumps will be a nasty shock but it won't finish us off. They'll likely take the form of bouts of hyperinflation, regional resource conflicts, a local nuclear meltdown or small nuclear war, a total national collapse of fish or pollinating insects, a famine or two.

Bump, bump, bump.

Each time it will be painful and protracted but eventually we will sort ourselves out again and either adapt to a different area or change our ways until we find ourselves at the bottom of the stairs, on level ground, which we may as well call a steady state economy in balance with nature.

This final stage (well, nothing is final …) is what John Michael Greer calls the Ecotechnic future – a future of far less technological complexity where we have in all likelihood returned to the kind of spiritual practices that resemble more closely those of the Kalahari Bushmen than the Vatican.

Which is a long winded way of getting to say why I think Britain would, for me and my family at least, be the right place to strap ourselves in for the roller coaster ride of a lifetime. First of all, as I see it, there are two major down sides when discussing Britain as a 'safe' place to be. The first elephant in the room is population. With around 60 million people it means that the challenge of feeding everyone is twice as great as it was the last time we were challenged to do so, during the Second World War. It was tough then, it'll be impossible then next time around.

The second big downside is that there is an awful lot of nuclear material lying around the place. When financial collapse is followed by serious resource constraint we will still need to devote huge resources to safeguarding the waste produced to generate today's cheap electricity. Only a blind optimist could imagine that nuclear waste dumps would not one day be abandoned to the elements and allowed to leak out into the air, seas and groundwater. Most nuclear power stations are currently built in areas that will be prone to raised sea levels. They are also mostly built in areas of low population density where, historically, the locals have not had much clout in Westminster.

Given these two facts you won't find me moving anywhere near a large city or a nuclear power station. Luckily the peninsula of south west England has neither of these and is far enough from London to make it not worth the effort. At least that's what I'm counting on – I'm sure people will insist otherwise.

There is also the problem of land ownership in Britain (specifically England) – but that's a problem I see resolving itself soon enough when the property bubble deflates and resources devoted to ensuring people are not allowed to live off the land are over stretched, forcing a change of policy in line with resilience and sustainability (as has been the case in Wales).

And now the good news. For all the complaining that people do about Britain it still has a lot going for it. One of the side effects of having, and losing, the world's most powerful empire is a culture of breast beating and teeth gnashing by those with less economic power. During the era of empire, to keep the elite at the centre of power they had to offer everyone else something. We natives were only restless when not being thrown a bone by the masters. And in those days, as Britain's imperial core extracted wealth from half the globe, there were plenty of bones to go around. But since the empire has shrunk in size to, as Adrian Mole memorably put it, some islands on the map that he couldn't locate because a cake crumb had fallen on them, the sense of entitlement hasn't shrunk correspondingly. I have been in enough bars in Spain to know that entire legions of people have left the UK, disgusted that it has 'gone to the dogs', and choosing to display their patriotism by moving to another, less economically fortunate, country.

Well fine. But what I see in the UK is a much greater sense of cooperation and willingness to face up to facts by quite a large slice of the population. Losing an empire can either make you bitter or it can turn you into a stoic. 'Mustn't grumble' people say, or 'worse things happen at sea'. Getting by is what is important and in most places community spirit is alive and well.

One only has to look at the Transition movement, and all of the people who practice sustainability as a matter of course. Up and down the country countless thousands are engaged, each to their own extent, in growing food organically, reviving old crafts and generally living in a post-consumer way. What's more, this isn't even a new thing, it's been part of the national character for decades. Perhaps thousands of years of having to deal with despotic kings and nobles has taught us that the best way to live is modestly – whatever it is there is a great reservoir of resilience built into the culture and it does not manifest itself in remotely the same way as, say, the people who choose to buy several guns and a shack in rural Montana and live off bear meat.

I don't mean everyone, of course. But perhaps enough.

Furthermore Britain, being the first industrial nation, still has plenty of the infrastructure that allowed it to prosper in those heady newly-industrialised days. One of the main elements of this is the canal network, which reaches into most corners of the country and has survived largely intact thanks to the money and efforts of enthusiasts and the tourism industry over the years. Canal boats are still in manufacture and shifting freight from roads to horse-pulled canal barges will be one of the low energy possibilities of the future that will keep regional centres connected and ensure trade links.

Aside from the canals there is also an excellent (by most standards) train network. Margaret Thatcher did her bit to destroy the inefficient extremities of the network but as the economic calculus shifts there is no great reason why old branch lines cannot be brought back into service again. Furthermore, the UK is criss crossed (some would say covered) with good quality (for now) roads that, even if they are used less and less frequently by motor vehicles, will still be very usable by low-tech transport such as horses and bicycles. The smallish size of the country also makes it navigable by bicycle and it's entirely possible to cycle fully-laden from one extremity to the other on a bike in around 10 days (I know, I've done it).

Of course, there are monumental challenges facing Britain in getting it on track to becoming a sustainable set of islands – but show me a place where this isn't so. The only place I can think of that might even get close is Greenland – and even that might find itself at the centre of an oil war.

Lastly, but definitely not least, it's worth remembering that many of the ancient spiritual traditions that were so prevalent in Britain until the all-conquering Christianity arrived, are still very much practised, albeit often out of sight. Philip Carr-Gomm in his Book of English Magic reckons that in England you're never too far from a practising witch – even if she does look like just a regular person in a regular job. Druidism is booming and Pagan societies are enjoying a similar resurgence. What's more, being an 'eccentric' when it comes to displaying your fondness for Earth spirits is more-or-less acceptable in England, and I for one am looking forward to seeing the forthcoming film the Spirit of Albion.

What all these have in common is a worship of Earth magic i.e. a religion of being connected to the planet that supports you. In the decades and centuries ahead, with organised 'revealed' religions on the wane, these alternatives could be ready to step into the limelight. This has always been acknowledged: step into any old English church, lie down on one of the pews (assuming a service isn't going on) and focus on the celling. Up there, among all the angels and frescoes and what have you, more often than not, you'll likely see a cheeky leaf-fringed face looking back down at you. This is the Green Man – a little architectural anomaly in most churches but nevertheless an undeniable reminder that, behind all the pompous edifices of our constructed temples lies the inescapable fact that we are all, whether we like it or not, a part of the ecosystem.

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By the way, along with the RSS feed problem, which now seems to be fixed, some people were also finding it difficult to post comments. I have now removed all barriers, so you shouldn't have any more problems.

5 comments:

  1. Nice post as always.

    I've had similar discussions with myself about Canada. At least where I come from, Winnipeg (in the middle of the prairies, powered by hydro electricity, a major rail hub and enjoying a junction between two rivers - one coming up from the US too) would probably be one of the best places on the planet all things considered. Even with skyrocketing petroleum prices the rail network will continue to function and vast agriculture is readily visible just biking to the outskirts of the city. Cities like Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto might suddenly become uncomfortable, but even then with martial law and appropriation of agricultural commodities I imagine everyone -could- be fed (in theory).

    One fault though in all this is that the country is maybe too rich. China is buying up a lot of resources in Canada and will claim their rights to it in the future even if things go sour between the two nations. Without the umbrella of the US protection Canada is a big fat sow without any teeth.

    In any case, the real tradegy will be that the world will return to pre-industrial population levels which means six to seven billion humans (or more) will be wiped away and it won't happen painlessly. It is already perhaps starting in many places where inflation and petroleum prices are making food prohibitively expensive for many people. People can't afford to eat and international relief is insufficient. I just see it getting worse.

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    1. Hi Jeffrey,

      I would also worry about Canada being too rich (I love your analogy of the toothless sow!). It looks mighty tempting to resource hungry giants like the US and China, so I could see a kind of proxy struggle developing there. Saying that, it could be quite regionalised, your guess is probably better than mine.

      Yes, the real tragedy will be in the whiitling down of our numbers - not just the old and infirm, but the young and the healthy. Take a look at much of north Africa and the Middle East. Much of the food there is imported and paid for with petro dollars. Ironically, as the price of oil goes up, so too does the cost of their food. With skyrocketing population growth and falling aquifer (and oil field) levels, it's not going to end well ...

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  2. Hi Jason

    I share your view about England and there are lots of regions that are survivable for a few hundred years yet. With the risk that climate change really takes off it would be a good idea to buy nothing below 50 feet above current sea level. Its true that the population has along way to go down. Orlov seems to think that a lot of the deaths will be middle aged men who lose their jobs and the will to live, take up alcholism and quietly fade away. Thats what happened in post Soviet Russia. He points out the soviet healthcare system was great but it didn't treat old people or cancer. Makes you wonder how the NHS will cope when the cash is turned off.

    On the food front, organic techniques have developed alot since WW2 and much of our population could be fed, albeit a more boring and less carnivorous diet, off the cultivatable land we have. Either way it makes no sense to encourage our population upwards through either breeding or immigration. Making do with what we've got applies to people too! Anything we can do to wean ourselves off consumerism and career dependence and increase self community reliance has to be a good thing.

    Despite the impression fostered by last years riots the pockets of potential anarchy are relatively small and one issue that msm didn't cover in any detail was the way communities turned out to defend themselves and clear up.

    I am optimistic that even with diminished resources, it is still possible for us to make a happier future for our childrens children.

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    1. Hi Phil, you're right about property on low ground - I'd never even consider buying a house in a danger area. Here's a link to an online tool you can use to check.

      I also agree that systems collapse would herald a pretty quick corrective to our numbers. I'm sure we've read the same Orlov book - it looks like males are the ones who basically commit suicide (through alcohol and car accidents, fighting, actual suicide etc) because we can't cope with systems that are in freefall. Women, by and large, just get on with it. Did you see that David Dimbleby doc last year ('Russia') in which he travelled through Russia and visited a village where every single man was in the graveyard and it was only the women remaining? Fascinating stuff.

      And, yes, how on earth is the health system going to cope? Every time I see a headline saying we're all living longer and longer I think 'no we're not'. We're on a kind of life support provided by cheap energy and money. My own father, in any other system, would have been dead ten years, but instead he is kept alive with little quality of life because his health insurance pays out every month for his care (he has severe dementia and has had a triple heart bypass). The monthly cost of this is almost double what me and my wife earn - so, in the future, how would that cost be met?

      Anyway, it's heartening to hear that organic techniques have progressed so much. I'm personally quite interested in forest gardening, and can't wait to get planting. I'm quite happy to live off a less carniverous diet and have cut my meat consumption by about 90% this year. People can't quite understand why (at least, here in the carnivore's paradise that is Denmark) so I find it easier just to say I'm a 'part time carnivore'.

      As for the riots. Well, the media love a good riot don't they? It's not half as much fun reporting on all the communities that cleared up the wreckage and started to rebuild anew.

      So yes, like you, and despite all the evidence, I'm cautiously optimistic. There are worse places to be, that's for sure.

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  3. Wow - great post - glad I found this blog :)
    greenJamie

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