Friday, June 1, 2012

Home sweet home

A house at the Frilandsmuseet in Copenhagen, displaying an impressive utilisation of thermal mass 

Clicking around the peak oil blogosphere and reading about the Age of Limits meeting that took place in the US last week has left me with a curiously bewildered feeling. I'm not sure why, but it feels as if we have entered uncharted territory of late, as if there has been a ratcheting up of the general anxiety level and a tense atmosphere is hanging in the air. Perhaps it's because everyone is talking about religion and spirituality, rather than how many barrels are left in the ground. I'm all for that, but I need time to think and to digest.

I really feel that when we look back from the vantage point of the future we'll realise that 2012 really was the year when the latest stage of catabolic collapse began to get into full swing in the West. Here are just some randomish facts and headlines from the last week that float to the top of my mind as I sit here writing this late at night:

  • Petrol sales in the UK have dropped by 20% over the last five years. The newspapers say it is because we are all driving more efficient vehicles.
  • The Royal Bank of Scotland chairman told investors that share prices would not go up again 'in investors' lifetimes'.
  • 50,000 less students applied to UK universities this year compared to last.
  • Thomas Cook – the UK's biggest and oldest travel agency – announced a loss of £330m and its share price has dropped by 90%.
  • British Aerospace has cut hundreds more jobs.
  • Millions of people are facing a pensions shortfall.
  • Pay freezes and cuts are the 'new norm' according to a business survey.
  • Capital flows are charging around the world looking for 'safe havens'. 100 billion euros has been taken out of the Spanish economy recently.

Part of the normal business cycle? I think not.

Still, I'm glad of one thing, and that's the fact that I 'discovered' a new (to me) peak oil writer in Carolyn Baker. Sometimes, when I read peak oil writers, I feel very humbled by the amount of work they put into their writing and the depth of their understanding of the issues that confront us - especially the more technical aspects. I, by contrast, am no expert in anything and this blog is normally written at the kitchen table on a Sunday morning with the kids running around me and the washing up piled nearby. It's hardly ideal, but it brings me onto another subject that I have been thinking about of late, and that is about where we live.

Yes, I'm talking about our homes. In Denmark, where I live, things can seem a bit topsy turvey, to use a technical term. You can buy a splendid old stone farmhouse in the country with acres of fertile land for next to nothing – but a tiny flat in a city costs a fortune. And what do you get in your flat? You get a lounge, a small kitchen, a tiny bathroom and a couple of bedrooms. Of course, some apartments are bigger than others and may or may not have a balcony, but one thing that they all lack is space.

And I'm of the opinion that we need space. We need space to make things in and space to be alone in. What we actually get is a tiny amount of space to live our just-in-time lifestyles in where hardly anything can be stored. There is no space to run a small manufacturing/crafts business and children are cooped up all the time and don't have the freedom to run around and play boisterous and noisy games (if they attempt that within the confines of their apartment they are labelled as having ADHD and given Ritalin).

All of this makes perfect sense in an age when work is provided by an outside agency for a salary, nobody makes stuff and children are conditioned from an early age to watch TV and play computer games. It also makes sense from an energy perspective – cramming all those people together makes it easier to keep them warm for less energy.

But living in an apartment isolates you from nature, limits you from being productive and, quite often, isolates you from your neighbours (who you only speak to via the medium of complaining about something or other).

So it made a nice change for me to head over to a part of the city which demonstrates that this hasn't always been the case. There's an area of Copenhagen, hemmed in by blocks of flats and motorways, preserved as a kind of museum - called the Frilandsmuseet (meaning 'open air museum') in which all the houses are freely available to explore. I can spend hours wandering around the place, taking mental notes of the blacksmith's tools, the miller's stones and the fisherwife's loom and bobbins and all the other things that are these days regarded as quaint artefacts from another age.

In its day it would have been a small hamlet, more or less self sufficient in the basics and with perhaps 20 families living there. A circle of stones was the community meeting point, with the head of each family being sat on each stone in any discussion. The status of each family was apparent in the intricacy of design work on items of furniture and the quality of the house builds. The miller seemed to be the best off family, with plenty of pious pictures on the walls and the grandest house of them all. But then he was the one most able to exploit the available primary energy sources – in this case wind and water – and process the raw materials into a refined product.

Wandering around, I wondered just what it would have felt like to live there in, say, 1800. Life would undoubtedly have been hard by today's standards, but it would also have had its comforts. Also, I wondered how self-sufficient, to use a modern term, the place would have been and to what extent they would have traded with outsiders for some of the fancier goods. A few of the dwellings are fishermen's cottages, so I'd guess that a lot of their protein came from the sea. That option wouldn't work today, with the Baltic being more or less fished out as far as small-scale fishing from boats are concerned.

It's probably at this point that some people will think that I am advocating a return to a medieval village type of existence and that perhaps I'm a feudalist. I don't and I'm not, although I can't help admiring the rural beauty and the elegant functionality of the hamlet and its houses and all the tools that they left behind which hardly anyone alive today knows how to use. Below you can see a few snaps I took while I was there.

That's all I really have to say in this post. Sometimes the ink flows and sometimes it does not. It's a couple of days earlier than normal because I'm off for a wedding in Odense for the weekend. It's a half Danish half Irish affair, meaning that it's going to be rather a late evening.

On a positive note I can reveal that I have started talking with someone who is selling five acres of mixed broad-leaf woodland which even contains some old charcoal pits. I'm sorting out my future 'career' inch by inch …

The blacksmith's workshop

A hand cranked sewing machine

The smith's house at the Frilandsmuseet

The communal council stones. There were ten council members in the village - and presumably no tree  back then

Some chickens in a wagon shed belonging to the miller's family

The miller's water wheel. The work that this is capable of is quite impressive.

The miller's windmill - cutting edge Dutch technology in its day

The village hall. There are also small rooms for travellers inside.

A fisherman's house - transplanted from elsewhere in Denmark and re-erected

A scullery inside one of the houses - the original Scandinavian designed kitchen

A contemporary block of flats in Denmark 


  1. LOL! I'd send that last pic to JHKunstler. He would love these pictures, and would probably post that last pic on his site for his, um, fav examples of modern architecture.

    1. Ah yes - funny thing is I'm reading his World Made by Hand, which put me in the mind of putting those pictures up - so there a kind of self-referencing circular symmetry to this!

      It's a pretty good read. The difficulty with writing peak oil fiction is that you have to present a plausible future reality in very close detail. Get one detail wrong and people will pick the whole thing apart. I haven't encountered any problems yet - but then I'm only about 60 pages in.

      BTW nice post about the nightshade. It's got me looking at plants in a totally different way ...

  2. Please don't doubt for a second that your contributions are very valuable. Your northern European perspective is to my knowledge unique in the Peak Oil blogosphere, and I learn a great deal here that I do not see anywhere else.

    1. Thanks John. There aren't too many blogging about PO over this side of the Pond. I'm not sure why - perhaps it's because the US sees itself strongly as an oil producer.

      Over here in Europe it's written into our cultural DNA that most of our important resources come from elsewhere and that, at a pinch, we can always steal some more from someone. We're also much more used to the idea of decline, although I'm sure most don't give much thought to it.

  3. "latest stage of catabolic collapse began to get into full swing in the West..."

    I think it is starting to be seen in Asia, too, for example in India there was a petrol price hike with predictable consequences:

    Here in Taiwan they are moving to substantially up the price of electricity, much to the voiced disagreement of everyone. Taiwan is about 10% nuclear and the rest comes from oil. They've been spoiled for many years with cheap electricity, which is why shops will have their doors wide open and the AC running full blast. That will stop soon.

    In Korea youth are having difficulty finding employment, leading to another surge in emigration. In China they're pumping money into factories to keep them running despite substantial decrease in demand from overseas markets (if the millions of factory workers suddenly become unemployed, there will be blood in the streets). China is also using their juggernaut navy to lay claim to the entire South China Sea (oil and natural gas down there).

    The grounded middle class and higher echelons are not terribly affected by all this just yet, but then it starts with the working classes and then creeps up. This is why "new money" in Asia is optimistic for the moment.

    Still, it honestly seems both east and west our leaders are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Makes me want to go settle in some remote Himalayan village that has never had electricity and never will.

    1. Nice one Jeffery. I'd like to nominate you as our 'Eyes in the East'.

      Ever thought about writing your own peak oil blog? Your other blogs are immensely interesting!

      I heard a BBC news person say yesterday that if China has below 8% growth in any one year it will have serious problems. That's actually quite a scary prospect. Headless chickens indeed.

      One of my colleagues was in China last week making a video for the travel industry. Wandering around Beijing she kept being prevented from filming the charming older buildings in some of the residential quarters by some cultural policemen, who followed her around. Apparently they only want you to film the modern carbuncles like the Birds Nest stadium etc.

      What's Cantonese for yegads?

      Good luck finding that Himalayn village!

  4. Jaon:

    No need to apologize for the ink not flowing. It flowed. You made a good point, whether you realize it or not. You compared the dwellings of present-day Denmark with those of the past. This can be done to good effect with most other areas of the world as well. One might just as easily compare the small, efficient homes of early New England with the absurd poorly constructed monstrosities known as "McMansions" that predominate in much of New England today. When you see one of these being built, you think: Who would pay for that crap? I mean, they're composed mostly of shoddy particle board and they're thrown up in weeks. And, there's something funny about the pricing of these things: It seems that price varies in inverse proportion to quality. The crappier the construction, the more the monstrosity costs.

    I think people are going to radically reassess value in coming times. What once fetched huge sums of money, will soon be almost worthless (or, in fact, less than worthless, and you won't even be able to pay someone to move into a hard-to-heat McMansion). In fact, many underwater homeowners are starting to discover this right now in the States. Meanwhile, things that people shun as old fashioned or worthless now, will soon start to fetch decent prices.

    This is an old story. I can recall being in Japan during the days of their Bubble Economy. Businessmen used to pay around two grand to keep an average bottle of whiskey on the shelf in their local hostess bar. Do you think any of them are doing that these days as the country is in the midst of whiplash-inducing contraction?

    It all comes down to the ability to determine real quality and real value. Whether the economy is good or bad, a smart man will take a look at a bottle of booze selling for two grand or a pile of crappy particle board selling for one million and he'll say: no thanks! And, keeping oneself smart is often merely the happy result of avoiding paying any attention to the media, which is suffused with ads whose main purpose is to convince you that crap is gold. The best example of which would be, of course, anything made by Lou Vuiton. And, I dare say, the greatest gift we can give our children is the ability to determine things of real value.

    It's instructive that the houses in the open-air museum are still standing. I wonder how many McMansions will be standing in a hundred years. The only thing they have going for them is this: they're so poorly built that there's little in them worth scavenging!

    1. Yes, there's a US tv programme on here - I can't remmeber what it's called - but in it they visit 'needy' people and basically demolish their homes when they aren't looking an rebuild them in a day or two - usually to twice the size. It doesn't take a genius to see that all the materials they use are crappy.

      Apart from all the extra energy needed to heat a too-large house - don't people realise that in the future (and maybe even already) they'll be expected to house hanger-on relatives and down-on-their-luck friends in all that extra space?

      So too much space is a liability rather than an asset.


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