|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?
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
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.