Monday, February 4, 2019

Staring at a Different Sea

Has it really been six years since my family and I uprooted ourselves from our lives in Copenhagen and moved lock, stock and barrel to Cornwall, down here at the far south western tip of the UK? How time flies.

Just before that move I wrote a post on this blog entitled Staring at the Sea in which I outlined my reasons for making it. Having re-read it the other day the thought naturally occurred to me to measure up the reality against the expectations, to see what I got right and what I got wrong.

In terms of a short summary: I’d been living in Copenhagen, Denmark, for about 12 years, with a three year gap in the middle where I tried my hand at running a newspaper and living off the grid in rural Spain. Having learned about the crisis of industrial civilisation in about 2009 I decided to try and do something to put my family and myself in a better place. And so we sold up and bought a fixer-upper house in a smallish market town in a rural area. I also bought a seven-acre woodland and taught myself permaculture and woodland management skills.

Generally speaking, it has to be said, I’m still pretty happy that the move was the right thing to do. Of course, industrial civilisation hasn’t hit the skids in the big cataclysmic fashion so many peak oilers were saying it would a decade ago … but few people could have predicted the extent to which governments and the financial system so willingly threw the future under a bus just to salvage a few more years of ‘normality’ – a normality with a short shelf life.

Anyway, in terms of moving back to the UK, which is where I’m from anyway, seemed like a reasonable move, all other things considered. After all, there’s no perfect ‘away’ in our globalised world, and if there were it’d soon be overrun with bunker-building billionaires and other dangerous mega-fauna.

So, revisiting my post, which by the way is my most-read post ever, how does it stack up six years down the road?

In terms of energy, six years ago I wrote:

The UK doesn’t really have a coherent energy policy. Sweeping pronouncements are periodically made by ministers but these usually run into problems before anything is implemented. With the windfall from oil and natural gas now winding down serious problems are now on the horizon and rolling blackouts are likely by 2015/16, according to no less an authority than the UK energy regulator Ofgem. The country has several ageing nuclear reactors and there is a strong nuclear lobby that favours building more, despite robust public opposition. 

Yep, nothing to add there other than the fact that Ofgem obviously got the rolling blackouts dead wrong, partially due to a massive increase in wind power capacity (literally the only thing keeping the lights on during one storm last winter). Oil and gas is still coming out of the ground, albeit in ever decreasing quantities, and almost nothing has been added in terms of nuclear energy. In fact, companies are pulling out of building new nuclear power stations in the UK, and there have been warnings of ‘the lights going out’ yet again just in the past few weeks.

One thing that has kept the lights on have been shipments of liquid natural gas from the US and Qatar. America’s fracking bonanza – financed by Wall Street despite its huge costs and inability to turn a profit – has benefitted the UK. This no doubt won’t last much longer, however, with all the sweet spots drilled out and an environment of rising interest rates it can only be a matter of time before the shale ‘revolution’ comes to a grinding halt.

LNG tanker leaving Qatar - heading to the UK where it will be used to make electricity so I can write 22BillionEnergySlaves

By contrast Britain’s own fracking ‘revolution’ was dead before it was even born – for a number of reasons that would be obvious even to a bright four-year-old.

Transportation. Neither the UK nor Denmark are particularly large countries with land masses of 94,060 and 16,562 square miles respectively. Both have excellent transport links, with numerous roads, functioning rail lines and seaports. Denmark, famously, has an excellent infrastructure for cycling owing to policy decisions made after the 1970s’ oil shocks, and its relatively flat topography. At the city level around half of all trips are made on two wheels. 

The UK is considerably less cycle friendly as the powerful motoring lobby has very effectively made sure that money is funnelled into road projects suited to cars rather than bicycles, and local councils have haphazardly implemented cycling infrastructure that in most cases doesn’t connect.

I have done some cycling since moving here, but it’s a very dangerous pursuit and was even worse than I expected. I even sold the cargo bike I used to ride in Copenhagen – it would just be too dangerous. The main reason, I think, is a kind of culture war between cyclists and drivers. There is a very aggressive attitude displayed by many car drivers, with the assumption that cyclists are some kind of self-identifying tribe of eco warriors. This doesn’t make for safe conditions for cyclists and I generally have to drive a car everywhere as a result.

Still, on a wider level, the train network is still pretty good, despite under investment by private companies, and the trains themselves are amongst the best I’ve been on anywhere in the world. I probably wouldn’t have such positive thoughts about them if I had to commute to work every day, however – with the rail network not enjoying such a high level of government subsidies as roads and cars, ticket prices have risen astronomically for peak travel times and people are often crammed in like sardines.

Getting on one of the fancy new trains at Bristol

Food security. Neither Denmark nor the UK has much in the way of food security. At present both countries rely on very long supply chains and just-in-time delivery systems to get food into shops. If both countries had to rely solely on what was available to them from their own soils and seas then mass starvation would quickly ensue. The last time Britain was tested in this respect was during the Second World War, when a mass mobilisation of the population to grow food just about managed to feed the nation (although many were away fighting in other countries). Then, there were around 30 million residents, whereas today there are over 63 million (Denmark has about a tenth of that number). Furthermore, it must be assumed that 70 years of mechanised farming has considerably reduced the capacity of the soils to grow food, and relentless overfishing has reduced fish stocks drastically as well. In terms of wild game, there is not much that would survive more than a few short years if the population was in a state of extreme hunger and short term crisis management.

The one bright spot in this otherwise dismal picture is the rise of organic farming and local food networks. These have grown enormously in recent years as people put less trust in the corporately-controlled food web and opt instead to eat more local and more healthily. 

Denmark, similarly, has a food problem. Despite a much lower population, the relatively fertile soils cannot yield the heavily meat-based diet to which Danes have become used to. Technically, we are told, Denmark is a net food exporter, but in my local supermarket the only things I can find that are grown here are potatoes and apples, so I’m guessing that there is some statistical figure fiddling going on there. 

We’ll probably get to find out more about food security in the coming months as Britain is due to leave the EU next month and the news sites are falling over themselves to insist that we will be hit by everything from a scarcity of Mars Bars to all-out famine.

I doubt this will be so but it’s sensible to take precautions whatever the case and since moving here I’ve been getting a lot of food from a local organic farm, and have even done voluntary work for them. I’ve also been growing food and have planted up an orchard and a forest garden. I’ve taught myself to shoot and prepare small game and have learned to forage in the wild areas around the abundant shorelines here. I’ve also got a sea fishing kayak and a range of friends who produce things like honey and cider: in short, I don’t lose sleep over not having enough food, although I do worry about other people who are inadequately prepared.

Governance and society. There are clear differences between the UK and Denmark when it comes to governance. For historical and cultural reasons Denmark is governed fairly well and the UK is governed not quite so well atrociously. Both are [supposedly] democratic societies hung on the framework of a monarchy, with the royals enjoying almost universal adoration in Denmark, as opposed to ‘only’ 82% in the UK [2019 edit: these number have changed since then, with the royals enjoying considerably less support in 2018]. Both countries have coalition governments, although only Denmark has radical factions representing parties founded on both Marxism and ultra-nationalism enjoying power.  

Denmark is characterised by its homogenous native population and has sometimes been described as ‘more of a tribe than a nation’. There are few social strata within Denmark’s famously classless society (although I would question this assumption) and politicians must appease the entire nation, rather than one particular power group within it, and are held accountable as such. The social contract in Denmark is very strong and rigid and has been aptly described by the half-Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose as the ‘Jantelov’ – a set of unwritten codes of conservative behaviour by which Danish people unwittingly live out their lives. The codas are effectively anti-individualistic in nature, requiring that the common man or woman suppress their own personal desires and ego for the common good of the state. 

The other side of the bargain is that rulers (political and monarchical) must be trusted to ensure the stability and survival of the state. Any digression from this bond of trust is treated with public opprobrium. As a result, Denmark has a very progressive tax system and it is said that ‘nobody is poor and nobody is rich’. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the fact remains that allowing everyone to enjoy a comfortable middle class lifestyle, while enviable to liberals from less progressive countries, nevertheless rests on the assumption that there will be a continued abundance of cheap fossil fuels and favourable trade deals with poorer nations. In other words, it can’t last.

The UK, by contrast, has something of a vicious class war elite versus everyone else war going on. Although the old system of inherited caste privilege is dying out, a new breed of ultra-wealthy people sit at the top of the ladder and use the resources of the poor to further advance their wealth advantage, and in doing so hollow out the core of society and make it more prone to social upheavals. At the centre of this black hole is the hyper-power known as the City of London (not to be confused with the actual physical city of London), a vast Ponzi scheme that holds a large amount of power over the government. The City, which enjoys very little regulation, is said to be ‘too big to fail’ although its activities have caused the UK economy to be hugely unbalanced in favour of unproductive financial derivatives at the expense of the ‘real’ economy of goods and useful services.

I pasted this section almost in full. This has been the one area that has really been of concern over the past few years. In the UK we now have a government and media that openly lies about things and engages in endless propaganda. It seems, for example, that we are being ordered to hate Russia – and the lamentable Skripal affair – which has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese – is proof, if ever it were needed, that there is not a shred of honesty or decency left in the political class.

Incidentally, I’ve never met anyone who actually believes any of the stuff they put out, so it’s a bit like the situation in the last days of the Soviet Union where people listen to the news not to get the news, but to discover what the latest line is. ‘Nuff said.

George Orwell's Ingsoc from 1984: when it comes to the UK media, ignorance is strength

I then made a few points about housing, geopolitics and climate change, and don’t have much to add to them, before getting onto population. I wrote:

…’food’ both the UK and Denmark will eventually have to severely reduce numbers in order to live off the planet’s natural income as opposed to its energy inheritance. At present, people in both countries largely subsist on what William H. Catton calls ‘ghost acres’. These are invisible fields in far-off places where the food is artificially produced using oil – invisible to practically everyone who doesn’t want to contemplate them. As energy, the master resource, becomes less available, so will these ghost acres.

But before that happens we have to go through the next big financial shock, which could happen any month now. Nobody knows how long Europe’s politicians and bankers can keep shoving golden eggs down the goose’s throat, but when those same golden eggs stop appearing at the other end we can expect our standard of living to start resembling what ordinarily comes out of a goose’s backside. Many people will suddenly find themselves without the inclination to carry on and commit voluntary entropy, and some will achieve this semi-unwittingly with drink and drugs. 

More still will end up shivering/sweating in the cold /heat and a failing medical care infrastructure will suddenly reverse the increased longevity that we have been led to expect. With social care systems collapsing we can expect to see the elderly being abandoned (some would argue that is already happening) as it becomes unaffordable for the system as a whole to look after them. Disease management systems will similarly be hit by cutbacks and viruses will have a field day.

Hmm, perhaps a bit bleak but this still sounds about right to me (‘commit voluntary entropy’ – did I really write that?). Actually, population is the thing that I got the most pushback about, with many people rightly pointing out that the UK cannot feed itself anything like the amount of calories it needs just to keep people alive. Still, international trade isn’t going to dry up overnight and there will be patches of the country that are better fed than others. As for the elderly being abandoned, that is certainly happening, as my wife (who works in community care) can testify.

In the end, human ecology is all that counts, but I see plenty of potential for local food production using intensive organic/biodynamic systems. The UK still has an awful lot of fertile farmland, and rainfall isn’t a problem. For this to happen though there would need to be a mass movement back to the land, which can’t currently happen as regular people are not generally permitted to live on the land and, in any case, the current attitude is that working with your hands in the soil is only for idiots. This will change.

Perhaps controversially I finished off on the topic of resilience and national character. I wrote that, in my view, people in the UK were of a tougher and more resilient nature than people in Denmark. After all, in Britain, the common man has suffered 1,000 years of being pushed around, and is perhaps of a more stoic nature than people used to being mollycoddled by the government and programmed to be happily conformist from birth. I wrote:

It is my steadfast belief that people in the UK – or perhaps I should say some people in the UK – are better prepared mentally and physically than their Danish equivalents.  The Transition Towns movement grew from the UK, although in reality people have been practicing low impact sustainable living for decades, and despite the hollowing out of industry many small-scale artisans still remain below the radar. There is a growing web of food networks, local currencies and community energy projects and the assumption of many people in the UK is that they cannot trust the government to deliver vital services to them.  This, ironically, is a strength when compared with Denmark, where people are less empowered to take over their own livelihoods, and act timidly when it comes to going against the system. The assumption here is that the government always has their best interests at heart and that all solutions come down from the top.  Have you ever heard of Occupy Denmark? No, I thought not. 

In the UK there is strong grassroots opposition to the coalition government and its suicidal plans to build more roads, airports, nuclear power stations and fracking wells. Overcrowded Britain, for better or worse, is a country of NIMBYs, making any new capital project that is perceived to be dangerous or ugly (or both) difficult or downright impossible. 

Whenever disaster strikes we tend to stop grumbling about one another and pull together to get through it as best as we can. It takes practice to stiffen that upper lip. We have developed a warped sense of humour as a safety valve for life’s absurdities and horrors, and despite decades of media scare stories about the dangers of strangers the country is still packed to the gunwales with good Samaritans the charitable folk. Furthermore, there’s a growing sense of reverence for the natural world, a stirring of the spirit that urges us to protect the Earth in all of its diversity. Is this part of something bigger? We will have to wait and see on that one.

I still think this is true – especially the last part. What I didn’t/couldn’t foresee was the rise in identity politics and the psychic battleground of Brexit that has done so much to pit friends and neighbours against one another. It has spread like a wildfire throughout practically every local group, making it almost impossible for many of them to function. A terrifying ‘groupthink’ has taken hold where free thought is not allowed and divergent opinions are treated with intolerance.

The Transition Towns movement never really managed to escape the confines of its middle-class well-to-do background, even though it launched some good ideas and practical solutions for our predicament. Most of the people I know who used to be involved in it now spend their days screaming into echo chambers on Facebook about how much they dislike capitalism/Donald Trump/Brexit, while outside their gardens turn to weeds …

So, to conclude, I’m generally pretty satisfied that we made the move, albeit with some reservations. Society is fraying around us, and the streets are increasingly filled with drunks, druggies and the shambolic forms of the homeless. The government and media are unfixable messes, everyone and everything is in debt, and many people are driving themselves into a state of insanity with their rigidly fixed political beliefs. Yep, things are in a mess alright.

As I stated at the beginning, I don’t believe there is any ‘perfect’ place to be, and everywhere has its pros and cons. Perhaps it’s even a fool’s game to think we have any control over our future circumstances given the chaotic nature of the way things are unravelling as one institution after another is led into the slaughterhouse and the glue that used to hold our societies together becomes unstuck. Still, I’d be interested to hear any thoughts you might have on the topic and if you have moved somewhere, or are considering it, and why.

In the meantime...

Always look on the bright side of life


  1. Here in the US, "blue-state" America (mostly the coastal urban elite enclaves along with Chicago and the Twin Cities) and "red-state" America seem to be on the verge of Civil War 2.0. Our elite media two weeks ago brought that day a little bit closer by inciting a Twitter hate-mob against a teenage boy who supposedly smirked at a Native American activist. I couldn't help but regard the whole thing as a sign and symbol of our collective brain-rot over here.

    I suspect this next Civil War will break out during the next economic/financial implosion. Blue-state America would almost certainly lose badly as Red-state America has a lot more heavily armed people, many more folks in the military and police forces who would be absolutely on their side, and Blue-state America lives in such a pampered bubble with such a huge tendency to kid itself. Blue-state America is also, not coincidentally, where PC identity politics and its consequent voluntary enstupidation is flourishing.

    Even though the central banks choked off the flow of printed money to the financial markets last year, things are calm for now after a period of disruption probably because all that printed money sloshing around the system still has some juice left in it. But of course, that won't last. And when things start getting bad here in the States, we won't be ready for it at all. I expect things to get quite dreadful very quickly once the process starts.

    1. Yes, it's been increasingly disturbing watching what's going on between the Two Tribes. It's also spilling over into other countries, lubricated and enhanced by social media. With the whole MAGA hat kid kerfuffle I've seen people demand that others "publicly denounce white supremacy or I'll assume you are one" - it's all getting a bit like the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

    2. Yeah, the official left and their social-media supporters really went full-on "George Orwell" on this one.

  2. Hmm, a six years on retrospective. On the larger scale, I'll see your Brexit, and raise you a Trump bizzaro world. America somehow keeps the circus going, as we are similar in our trajectory to the U.K. The Trump added volatility and unpredictability, especially in foreign policy, makes for a bit higher risk rating than your situation?

    National character- You've got us beat there. America, of all nations has softened the most through the convenience and luxury of our millions of fossil slaves. Memories of the great depression, with its learned frugality and stoicism, are only faint echos. We are a spoiled, polarized, distracted people, and have the furthest to fall. ( I recognize that there are already many poor here, living rough, as the future is here but unevenly distributed, but it will get even worse for them as well).

    Who knows. At the end of the day, Sharon Astyk's sage and pragmatic advice to build personal resilience and collapse in place is what most folks will need to do.

    personally- Six years ago, we had purchased this homestead and farm, but had not yet moved here. ( Had to stay on the treadmill and earn enough to pay it off first!) We have added a lot to its food growing capacity, and set infrastructure in place, but are always adding more skills and function each year. This coming summer, I'll report on the wheat experiment. Our actual move was four years ago, and was absolutely the right move.

    Yes, so much is beyond our control, but we can still shift the odds a bit in our own particular situation. Thanks for taking up the blogging again.

    1. Hi Steve - yes, Sharon's advice is good advice IMO, unless you really live somewhere terrible. Similar to you, I've found that life and plans don't move in a straight line and, although I've invested heavily in land and skills, I'm still hopping back on the treadmill to earn some more cash and buy some more stuff to make me more resilient. I feel, at this point, it's something of a race against time.

  3. Thanks for the recap. Has it really been six years? Time flies.
    My wife and I have left California and are renting a place in a small town in Mexico. The move was quite accidental. We just wanted to do some traveling but lucked into this apartment owned by the sister of a friend back on California. We're working on our Spanish here. Making some progress.
    Mexico has been a surprise. Being a poor country relative to the USA anyway, it has never invested much money in infrastructure. Come collapse, there is not much to fall down. The people around here are only about one generation past a subsistence farming and ranching lifestyle. The landscape is mountainous. Roads are few and in poor condition. Horse and mule are still the only means by which to get to some of these places.
    Some people still plow with a mule.
    We really did not come here to await collapse, but it seems like the locals would not be too put out by it, should it come.
    We are learning some of the local skills like how to take corn (maize) and treat it with calcium hydroxide to turn it into hominy (nixtamal) which can then be used to make tortillas, tamales and pozole.
    On the shelter front there's a guy down the road who makes bricks. No machinery. Kneads the clay with his bare feet and then uses a form to shape the clay into bricks. Air dries them, then fires them with a wood fire. Local houses need neither heat nor air conditioning.
    And so on and so forth. Not much has changed since the Aztecs were in charge here. My neighbor who has a field up the hill showed me a pile of old stuff next to a tree. Grind stones. Mortars and pestels. Stone axes. Could be the future here. Never was that far removed.

    1. Hola Wolfgang - good to hear from you. Mexico? That sounds interesting. I've travelled around Baja a bit, and also in the south. Baja in increadible.

      I'm guessing that what you are experiencing there is similar to what I saw when I lived in the mountains of southern Spain. If industrial civ collapsed there, it wouldn't bother a lot of people. In fact, it would actually be pretty good for them as the water demands on the region would probably lessen as the industrial ag concerns went bust.

      Learning how to make tortillas sounds like fun. As a matter of fact, I saw it done once when I stayed in Guatemala for a few months. Every morning this old lady would put maize through a grinder and then roll it flat and cook it on a little fire. Add some beans and that was about 90% of the local diet.

      I've also seen bricks being made from mud (in Asia). These are great skills to learn for the future!

  4. We moved from London to Bath in 2013 having assessed locations in an arc from Dorset to Shropshire. Bath (well, Bristol city region) though expensive (prices pushed us up somewhere with good air quality, no flood risk but windstorm risk) won on its economic prosperity which would help stay in work to pay down a mortgage/finance equipment and provide opportunities for us and younger ones. With hindsight i have viewed 'economy' as one of the 'Three Es' likely to fall furthest, fastest. I tend to think that in Cornwall you are better positioned for the more severe/faster collapse scenarios but would note you opted for an urban home location too. Consensus dictated an urban choice for us so with large garden, allotment and foraging etc self-reliance in food apart from calories is the goal. I sometimes imagine (fantasise?) what a smallholding would be like but the dye is cast and we must 'adapt in place'. To that end i am for example working through Holmgren's 'Retrosuburbia' seeing how it relates to our neck of the woods...I am glad you are blogging again btw. Guy.

    1. Hi Guy. I agree - 'economy' these days seems to mean the financial system, which is itself an abstraction. Abstractions can go up in a puff of smoke (if history has taught us anything), while the physical has built-in inertia to prevent rapid change.

      I am a fan of retrofitting suburbia! I don't see why it can't be done, with a bit of imagination.

  5. I tend to feel more anxious about drivers when I'm driving my mother's car, than when cycling. I seem to find lately that there are often drivers following me closely, and a relatively high number of people driving big cars, such as SUVs or campervans. The next fuel price spike can't come soon enough to deflate the SUV craze again - though of course it would have to spike very high to price the Range Rover drivers out as well as their wannabes and that would have all sorts of nasty knock-on effects...

    As a pedestrian, I get irritated that a lot of drivers treat the pavement as free parking, or drive so close to the edge of the road that a pedestrian walking along the pavement can be whacked with wing mirrors. I don't like driving at night these days as a lot of cars these days have headlights that dazzle even when dipped.
    Unfortunately the age of populism means that if an increase in fuel duty is even mooted, the tabloids would start saying that the government is 'declaring war' on the motorist...

    1. Tailgating drives me crazy! I think some drivers just feel like it is 'the thing to do' - the same kind of people that drive at 50mph in supermarket car parks.

      Is pavement parking a Cornish thing? It also drive me up the wall but I don't see it elsewhere. I'm looking forward to the real 'war on the motorist' - perhaps I can get my bike out again then.

  6. During the nuclear war threat in 1983 I bought a piece of property, 90 miles north of the twin cities, MN. I lived north of the twin cities and raise my kids in a trailer on the property, with the garden, during the crash I bought a steel building in 2007 and in 2009, added a 20 x 20 cabin with a loft, well and septic system, although I have electricity I have solar panels, PEX tubing throughout with it along the well run, I have the apple trees, tapped the maple trees, nothing like the smell of maple syrup at 28°degrees, with the moon setting, Dawn coming
    , Studying bees, mushrooms, herbs, and buying every CB I can get my hands on, silver, and cheap coins, extra tools and batteries, hopefully the metal building will be EMP proof! Getting older and maybe not giving a shit, but the kids know where to go.


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