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


  1. I'm of the opinion that you are one of the few people in Denmark who is sane. Or at least, you are saner than most people. Flying to Thailand to play a round of golf? If that is not insane, then it is surely a fine example of gross indifference to the reality of most people on this earth, and every human to come.

    If the global economy collapses, then the people of Denmark, and people everywhere, are mostly going to have only what they know. I was visiting my sister and her family today. I saw a talk show crowd enthralled by a game of over-sized Jenga. Then I heard a local newscaster say, about news that black bears have been seen in the greater Twin Cities metro area, "If you are going to put seed out for birds, you may just get some real wildlife."


    1. Hi William - thanks for the vote of confidence! Yes, flying to Thailand to play golf was just one of perhaps hundreds of anecdotes I could have shared in a similar vein. I also had some friends who rented an entire Thai island for one night - and a plane - just for their office Christmas party!

      Bears in the backyard? Sounds exciting. The largest predator we have in Denmark is a fox. And I haven't even seen one of those for a few years.

  2. Wow. Denmark really sounds like a cold version of Greece.

    1. Well - that's one way to describe it! It's also an archipelago of islands with a rich (almost forgotten) mythology - so you could be onto something ...

  3. It is maybe worse here in Asia where people are enthusiastic about the future. Much of the middle classes from India to Taiwan have seen clear rises in their incomes and standards of living, with the expectation that this will only continue for the foreseeable future.

    In India and China some people are thinking their nations will rule the world in fifty years, maybe less. The ruling elites need to maintain this image otherwise the angry mobs of poor people might rise up and kill them (this is a real danger in India too).

    There is zero talk of peak oil. Even if the elites are aware of it they're quick to get nuclear reactors online to continue providing power for the new washing machines and microwaves that people are coming to possess.

    1. Don't I just know it ... I work in the travel business and the most demanding clients are now the Indians and Chinese - having taken over from the Americans.

      It's like an onslaught of newly wealthy people with very high expectations. The question is, how long can those expectations be met? It's one thing being cock of the rock, but when the rock itself is sinking into the sea perhaps it's not such a crowning achievement after all.

      On my visits to India I found it impossible to come away with the idea that everyone there is suddenly going to be middle class. The numbers and the problems are just too immense. Sure, a small fraction will 'make it' (I'd guess less than 5%) and the rest will be just as badly off as before or perhaps worse off.

      Have you read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga? Should be compulsory reading for anyone who wants to understand modern India.

  4. Jason,

    The biggest predator in Denmark is not the fox, it is the human, except the welfare, industrial, technological state is humming along nicely for the time being. That energy is currently lost in the mist of happy,consumptive obliviousness. The danger is, the one everybody probably senses unconsciously but few want to discuss, is such a people suddenly deprived of their accustomed means, en masse. Any familiarity with what happens to domesticated dogs, once they go wild? Typically, they either die shortly, or they go stark raving mad, killing for the enjoyment of it, in some cases.

    Best not to get lost in the mist in the first place. Or climb to higher ground, if one otherwise can't find one's way.

  5. Hi Jason, so why are the danes so happy? I get the feeling from your blog they are blissfully unaware of the damage they are doing. They have a high tech agriculture sector that has one of the most damaging regimes for farm animal welfare, they hoover up the basis of the food chain in the North Sea, to feed to those unfortunate animals. You've already pointed out in previous posts their attitude to heating thier homes and lack of recycling. They are massively exposed to sea level rise. Is their something in their psyche which means they don't give a f*** similar to the not giving a rats ass russian viewpoint related by Dimitry Orlov?

    A danish wildlife guide of my acquaintance tried to get me to go on a trip to Siberia. One of the sell points for him was to see the natives shooting up whales. Not top of my to see list and frankly unbelievable. I pointed this out to him and he didn't really get it. There is definitely a cultural different mindset there. You describe a media that may be a part of it, but is is their education system too? Do they have organisations like Greenpeace, CWF or RSPCA?

    I'm just interested in the differences, I guess every country makes its unique contribution to wrecking the planet.

    1. Hi Phil, I'm afraid you've hit on a nerve there and I'll have to restrain myself in my reply for fear of mightily offending my hosts.

      But I would say that you are probably correct in your assessment - in Denmark kids are taught from an early age that 'we' are above and separate to nature, which exists really just to be exploited to our hearts desire. My own daughter recently went on a school outing to nature centre where the instructor killed a young deer and then dissected it for the kids. When they were finished the body was simply put in the bin. That, for me, pretty much sums the attitude up.

      And right now, on prime time TV, there's a reality show all about sports hunting animals in Africa - the clip for it (shown throughout the day) shows one of the hosts putting a bullet through a young zebra and then yeehaaing with rock music blasting in the background. One of my daughters was very upset when she saw it (the ad was on in the middle of a kids programme) ... what can I say?

      Yes, of course there is Greenpeace and everything else here, and I'm encouraged that these organisations are all run by young people, mostly under 35 I would say, who have been out into the wider world and got a bit of perspective.

      As I said, don't get me started ... :)

    2. Hi Jason, that must be hard to live with and I understand the need for tact having read your very interesting link about Janteloven which I'd never heard of. Have you read the book Affluenza by Oliver James? It has some very interesting observations on the Danish nursery school system and what it does to kids.

    3. Yes, I did read Affluenza. After I had done so I revised my ideas about nursery schools (which were pretty hazy back then anyway). I don't think children of 6 months are mentally or emotionally able to go into an institution without damaging them in some way (i.e. making them more compliant, more easy to institutionalise and less empathic).I live almost next door to one such institution and it's horrible to see the parents scurrying off in their shiny new Audis as early as 7:30am each morning as the little kids watch them disappear at the window.

      Worryingly, I see the UK wants to copy this model in order that mothers can get back to work in the name of boosting GDP. I hope it doesn't happen.

  6. That's weird. You just don't get this sort of yeehaw attitude in the U.S., even in the deep red states. I wonder how much things are different in Schleswig-Holstein, the German land closest to Denmark, with a similar amount of people, that was even part of Denmark (technically ruled by the Danish royal family) until the 1860s.

    1. I wasn't suggesting that Danes per se are like that - just this particular TV programme. The point being that there's an 'anything goes' attitude here that many visitors (particularly from the US) find quite shocking.

      The whole mental outlook on life in Denmark is underpinned by something called the Janteloven - I wrote something about it here - but you can find far more scholarly analyses of it.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.