|A sleeping Earth spirit at Cornwall's Lost Gardens of Heligan
“Everybody thinks of changing the world but nobody thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy.
When I first learned about our energy crisis and all the implications I asked myself the same question that everyone else must do who has been through a similar epiphany: ”What the hell am I going to do about it?”
At the time it seemed like there were two options. The first of these was to do nothing and just hope that engineers and chemists will come up with a new form of energy that allows us all to continue living our normal lifestyles into the far future. This was the easy option because effectively I wouldn’t have to do anything myself; all of that would be taken care of by someone else. The risk of going down this path, however, was that ‘they’ wouldn’t find an alternative energy source that packed the punch of oil, and that we'd all be left in a dangerous blind alley with no escape route. This is the approach taken by the majority of people, in most cases unwittingly.
The other option would require more effort, and to most people it would seem like I was taking a giant gamble. To do so I would have to try and unhitch my life from the global carbon gravy train which, as anyone who has tried it knows, requires quite a large amount of effort. But to do so I would know that in fact I was really just creating an insurance policy for myself – a get out of jail card for me and my family. This sounded like the more sensible option.
Which is why I have bought a six acre wood in Cornwall, in the far west of England. It is situated a few miles inland from the sea, not far from the town of Penzance, an ancient market town and seaport famous for its pirates of yore. Tucked away in a small valley, the woodland is virtually impossible to find, even with a map, and it has a kind of ‘lost world’ feel about it. In the centre of the wood is a grassy clearing of about an acre, which is where I intend to build a house.
It won’t be a normal house, of course, unless you are a hobbit. I’m going for the Simon Dale style of earth-sheltered building, and when it is completed you will hardly be able to see it. I have some fairly strict rules that I intend to stick to in its construction. Firstly the materials will be, wherever possible, natural. Wood, which will be a major element, will come from the forest, stone from a local quarry and straw bales from a local farm. Cornwall has plenty of sheep, so wool may also play a part in insulation.
Obviously, some materials don’t just grow on trees, such as glass, but for these I intend to look around salvage yards and take stuff off peoples’ hands that they no longer want. Instead of using regular cement, I intend to use lime, which biodegrades far more readily than concrete does, and absorbs CO2 as it hardens. It will, of course, be completely off grid and I’ve got my work cut out devising reliable systems for providing heat, power and clean water.
As for the woodland itself, my plans there are to turn it into a working coppice wood, continuing to allow wildlife to flourish within it. The trees are a mixture of English woodland broadleaf species, so we’re talking mostly oak, beech and chestnut. There are a few other varieties too, such as lime and ash – although the latter may well be doomed as disease spreads through the British Isles. I intend to get hold of a charcoal furnace or two. Cornwall is a popular holiday destination and I can’t see demand for barbeque charcoal dropping off any time soon.
In the grassy bit I’m planning to turn some of it over to growing vegetable and most of the rest to growing a food forest. There will be fruit trees. There will be nut trees. There will be beehives and a pond with slug-eating ducks.
The wood, if you like, is my pension. I don’t expect ever to get a pension from the government that will amount to more than a few pennies a month (or more than a few million pounds a month if hyperinflation hits), and it seems like my predictions are proving to be right as the age of retirement keeps moving up and the forecasts for pension values keep moving down.
Of course, I’m not deluded enough to think that selling hazel rods and bags of charcoal will earn me anything like enough money to provide for me and my family. I’ll still be doing some freelance writing and translation work for the foreseeable future, and my wife will be working restoring old furniture and reupholstering it, which is where her marketable skills lie. We also have a little business making and selling natural soap, which earns a bit of extra money. Publishing a local newspaper focused on transition is also something I would consider doing. From now on, diversification is the name of the game.
|A batch of our natural soap, this one made with elderberries
Why England, why Cornwall?
Well, I’m from England, so for me, after 13 years as a castaway in foreign lands it’s a homecoming of sorts. Being a foreigner in other countries has taught me many things, but one thing that I always felt lacking was my ability to participate in democratic discourse. If you’re reading this then you probably already know that the ability of democracy to function on a human scale is imperilled by apathy and the inability of reasonable people to frame logical arguments that everyday people can relate to. It’s long been a frustration of mine that I was not able to fully participate in improving that, even on a small scale such as at my kids’ school. Going back to a place where the cultural norms are my cultural norms means I will be able to be much more engaged in making a difference on a local level.
As for the geographical placing, we picked Cornwall for a number of reasons. First and foremost among these was the fact that it’s an out-of-the way place, too far from the centres of power to be worth exploiting, and with little of commercial value there. As one of Europe’s poorest regions it has a resilient spirit, and the people are warm and have a no-nonsense attitude to live. You will not find many Cornishmen (or women) queuing up all night for the latest iPhone.
It’s a place already packed full of collapsees and transitioners and there is a strong network of small scale growers, and people experimenting with alternative ways of living. The palm tree friendly climate is warmer than the rest of the UK, meaning that things grow well there and, being a peninsula surrounded by the ocean, it’s not hard to go and catch your supper. It’s also an area full of artists, attracted by the ethereal beauty of the place, and is home to the wonderful Minack Theatre and the inspirational Eden Project and the mystifying Lost Gardens of Heligan.
There's a great cafe there too.
There are no nuclear power stations in or near Cornwall, and the land, while not the most productive, has been farmed for some 5,000 years and is still more or less unconcreted. There are no known shale gas or oil deposits lying under the ground and, what’s more, it is the only place in the world (as far as I know) where Earth spirituality is taught in the schools as a regular subject, alongside maths, English and, er, surfing.
On this last point it has occurred to me more than once that to get through the looming crisis we would do well to develop some useful tools. One of those tools is cultivating a sense of our place in the universe. Our religion of materialism and ‘progress at all costs’ has turned out to be an empty one, with levels of dysfunction and stress at historical highs. Is this a world you want your children to grow up in? The reason for this, I am convinced, is the fact that we have turned away from the bounty offered to us by nature, grabbing all our ‘rights’ but neglecting our responsibilities.
I’m 41 years old now and if you have been following this ‘edited highlights’ autobio skit, you’ll have noticed that I’ve done a lot of travelling, worked in a lot of jobs and seen and done a lot of things. The reason I wrote it, however, wasn’t to stroke my own ego or find some cathartic form of self-therapy – no – the reason I wrote it was to explain the rationale behind the decision to move to Cornwall and throw in my lot. In my experience I have found that whatever work you choose to do in life, you will almost inevitably find yourself being sucked into the globalized profit-maximising paradigm that is firmly in place at present. Call it what you want – the Machine, the Matrix or even the System – it is the black hole at the centre of humankind that sucks us back in every time we attempt to get away from it and, God knows, I’ve tried once or twice.
But black holes can end up eating themselves and the one we have created is eating up the very planet we live on. It is a system that defines our economy, dominates our politics and dictates our lives. How do we escape its gravitational pull before it sucks us all in? Buddhists talk of ‘right livelihood’ as part of their Noble Eightfold Path. The premise is pretty simple: engage in a trade or occupation that does little or no harm to others. Would not doing something outside the orbit of The System constitute 'right livelihood'?
But how does one achieve such a step in the 21st century, dominated as it is by huge corporations and governments hell bent on increasing economic growth at any cost? Let’s say you wanted to cure people of sickness and decided to become a doctor, under our current system (in some countries more than others) you would find yourself being pressured to ‘do the wrong thing’, following the agenda set down by pharmaceutical companies, and prescribe your patients pills that would make the company profits but not necessarily cure the sick person. Indeed, in the end you might do more harm than good. It’s a conundrum.
I myself have been working in media now for a number of years, and have discovered that this analogy applies equally there. Media, like any business, has to make money to survive in our current paradigm. Most people, on the whole, do not like to read about uncomfortable and often complex issues, so if you publish a newspaper that focuses on uncomfortable and complex truths then you won’t have much of a readership. It is far simpler to focus on entertainment, which by and large makes people feel good about themselves, and garner a large readership at the expense of publishing news and views about climate change and peak oil. This has the benefit also of not embarrassing the powerful corporations that own many publications, who rely on business as usual to keep the profits rolling in.
So, in that respect, media has to go mainstream if it is to survive, effectively relegating uncomfortable news to blogs, which are of interest only to a select niche readership. Thus the media amplifies and gives exaggerated importance to the business as usual paradigm, while ignoring or side-lining many important issues, creating a self-reinforcing feedback loop that allows everyone to keep their heads in the sand a little longer.
We can add into that unholy mix the role of government which, in many cases, acts simply as an enabler for powerful interests and has no regard for the future beyond the end of its term in office. Take UK chancellor George Osborne’s backing of the fracking industry. Developing such an industry in Britain will be disastrous for many reasons, and it is guaranteed to fail, causing quite a lot of damage in the process. In fact, it has all the hallmarks of a panicky decision made by a government which knows the country is going to run out of cheap energy in the not-too-distant future.
This shows that The System is reaching the limits of its growth and the business as usual model, which has worked fine for decades, is rapidly becoming untenable. Like a cancer, it will grow until it kills the host, which in this case is our planet and all the species which live on it (including us). The cheap energy and materials necessary for the continued survival of the global economic system that provides a lavish lifestyle for Westerners and a few disparate global elites at the expense of most of the rest of the world have hit their natural limits, and all that remains now is to watch as it slowly comes apart, with disastrous consequences for those who rely on it for survival.
I’m not a great believer in any so-called fast collapse scenario, in fact I think John Michael Greer’s Long Descent is far more likely, but I do think we will now lurch from one crisis to the next for the rest of our lives. Some of them will be financial and economic, but we can’t rule out war and other man-made cataclysms. All of these will take place against a backdrop of a steadily worsening climate, acidifying seas and the disappearance of ground water, topsoil and biodiversity. We will also witness the slow decay of our creaking infrastructure and institutions, the rising anger of populations who have not realised that it is payback time for the Faustian pacts entered into, and the disastrous consequences of the overshoot of the global population. It will not be pretty.
So the only logical and reasonable thing to do in such circumstances is to detach ourselves from the tumour and attempt to build up some new, healthy, tissue. It won’t be easy, but then again, we don’t have any other choice. I’m not talking here about being a ‘prepper’, living a life of isolation and fear with a pile of guns and tins of beans; the only way we can hope to make any progress in transitioning to a more sustainable and less dangerous is at the community, village and regional level. The number of friends you have will be of far more importance to the number of guns you possess.
That’s another reason I’m happy to be moving back to England; the fact that hardly anyone owns a gun. And for all its (many, rapidly getting much worse) problems – not least the fact that the carrying capacity of the country has been severely breached – thousands of people across the country have been working at building resilient systems for decades. Indeed, the Transition movement, which was born in nearby Devon, is vibrant and growing, and I’m very much intending to be a part of it when I get there.
In terms of resilience, if I were to compare England with Denmark, where I currently live, the contrast is sharp. In Denmark people rely on the government to sort out their every problem, and I have never encountered anyone here who has done anything other that ra-ra-ra on about smart grids and electric cars and other government subsidised white elephants that will supposedly deliver a future that looks much like the present. It’s true that there are a few resilient people in Copenhagen’s Christiania alternative enclave, but these are societal outcasts rather than the norm.
Finally, I’d like to point out that Cornwall is one of the most beautiful places in Britain. It has miles and miles of golden beaches, wild moorland dotted with ancient stone circles and tumuli and cosy organic villages nestling along the coast around natural harbours. It has its own flag, its own language and its own culture. I know some people will object to this observation and accuse me of idealism, rose-tinted glasses and all of that – and I am aware that Cornwall also has some pressing social problems due to poverty and under-investment – but really, where would you rather live? Who wouldn’t choose somewhere rich in nature and culture rather than a concreted patch of suburban wasteland on the edge of an increasingly dangerous city? On my various travels I have been to a lot of different cities across Asia, Latin America and Africa, and in my opinion the only thing worse than being dirt poor is being dirt poor in a giant city with millions of other dirt poor people.
Of course, I realise that there is a big debate surrounding whether one should pack up and move somewhere ‘safer’ or just white-knuckle it where you are. The jury is out on that one, but for me at least, while the music is still playing, I’d like to make my move in the full knowledge that it will probably be my last one. How do I know it is going to work out? I don’t, is the simple answer. And it depends what you mean by ‘work out’. But uncertainly is a thing that we must all learn to embrace. Life has always been uncertain, it’s just that we have had the illusion of the uncertainty being taken away for a while.
Finally, I want to put something back into the community into which I am about to embed myself and my family into. I was able to purchase the woodland with money I inherited from my father who died earlier this year, and I’m sure he would have approved of my venture. Likewise, I have finally sold the house that I own in Spain that was like an albatross around my neck for so long, meaning we can live without getting into debt again. I recognise this good fortune for what it is, but don’t want to keep it all to myself like some kind of Scrooge.
To that end I am planning on running courses at my woodland, primarily to teach people about ancient woodland skills (a local man has offered to teach the courses and I’ll be his first student) I also want to select a few of the local kids who show an interest, and offer apprenticeships; and a woman nearby is breeding shire horses, which she wants to use for hauling lumber out of forests and I’ve said that she can practice on mine. These are the kind of self-reinforcing links in the new network that we are going to have to build, instead of spending too much energy simply demanding that the government and corporations change their evil ways.
As we continue on our long descent I suspect that my decision to own and work on a woodland won’t seem quite so strange to people in five to ten years’ time. I know that I am going to make plenty of mistakes along the way – that’s the best way to learn. There will be plenty of challenges, I’m sure, but also plenty of joy. Indeed, it seems to me that life is a conundrum that each one of us, with our own unique set of circumstances, must solve. So eventually, after a long and winding road and a few false starts, I feel like I’m just beginning to solve mine and can finally feel Earthed.
And so, at the end of February, it''ll be time to say Farvel to Denmark, and dydh da to Cornwall