Sunday, March 29, 2020

Living in the Long Emergency, and Other Things

The universe demonstrated its sense of ironic timing the other week when I was informed by Amazon that my copy of James Howard Kunstler's new book Living in the Long Emergency had been held up. Apparently it was deemed a non-essential item in these times of emergency. This sucked, as I'd had the book on order for some time and had been looking forward to getting hold of a copy. Luckily - and perhaps this was just another sign of crossed wires and systems overload - my copy arrived on time anyway.

I'll get onto my review of it further down, but first I wanted to say that my fictional 2016 novel This Seat of Mars has been re-released as an eBook. The story concerns a mysterious event that throws a spanner in the works of the modern world, and follows a series of protagonists as they attempt to navigate this new and unfamiliar landscape they find themselves tossed into. It's mostly set in the UK where a sweating, overweigh old-Etonian is notionally the Prime Minister (until he becomes sick and can no longer function), although he seems to be controlled by a sinister bald-headed man with a different agenda.

Chaos ensues as people are stranded in remote locations and unable to get home, the army puts people on lockdown and key workers are asked to report for duty by text message. Conspiracy theories abound. We follow the fortunes of an anarchic young prepper with a penchant for survival (and revenge), a teenage goth girl who finds herself flung into a web of deep state intrigue and a millennial city couple who - stranded on holiday in Cornwall - are forced to decamp to a makeshift commune far outside their comfort zone.

It's a breezy story, not without its lighter parts, and I'm planning to release a follow-up as soon as it's written. This Seat of Mars eBook is all yours for the dirt cheap price of £2.99 / $3.60.


Okay, now onto Living in the Long Emergency. For many, James Howard Kunstler needs no introduction. His reputation as one of the cadre of original writers who delivered the unwelcome message about peak industrial civilisation was cemented back in 2005 when he published The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Kunstler's contention is that we've over extended ourselves, plastering the landscape with an unserviceable suburbia that has destroyed small town America, while beholden to an over-financialised economy that delivers benefits unevenly and produces almost nothing of value except for those at the top of the pyramid. He followed this book up in 2012 with Too Much Magic, a critique of modern culture's obsessive focus on technological solutions - including renewable energy harvesting methods - to predicaments that demand radically different ways of thinking. To demonstrate his projections in narrative form Kunstler went on to write a well-imagined set of novels - the World Made by Hand series - which vividly described what life might look like after a cataclysmic sudden end to the unstable edifice of techno modernity.

This latest book completes a trilogy, with the author travelling across America to seek out people who took his original message seriously and have either radically altered their lifestyle accordingly, or simply adapted in place by making the best of what resources are available to them. It's more than that, though, with Part 1 providing a kind of recap of our predicament (the first chapter is titled: Hey, what happened to peak oil?), and Part 3 (entitled: Now what?) offering an explanation as to what has been happening in the realms of energy, economics, politics, society and the biosphere as a whole since he wrote The Long Emergency, and what happens next. Sandwiched between all of this is the real meat of the book, that is the characters who have set out to deal with this overarching set of challenges in a range of original ways.

We get to visit Mark Shepard, who jacked in his job in a research lab firing bullets at Kevlar helmets and moved to the wilds of Alaska, only to return to Wisconsin and set up a model of silviculture (that is, using fruit and nut trees in an agricultural manner) that he hopes can reverse the ruination exacted on the land by modern agribusiness. There's also the woman who set up an off-grid bakery against the odds, a man who battled bureaucracy to establish a low-impact whisky distillery, and an odd couple of musicians who set up a permaculture farm above Puget Sound.

It's not all rural escape however, with one chapter following the life of a black man in inner city Baltimore, who says: "We need a common "American" culture based NOT on what you look like, but how you act (behaviour)." Josh Wickett (not his real name), a musician living in the ghetto, had found meaning in and was structuring his life around the teachings of Neely Fuller, in particular a code of conduct that seeks to avoid the psychological mind games that serve to split and fragment peoples who should ordinarily band together. He sees social media especially as a way technology is being used to weaponise people against one another. Wickett lives in a kind of post apocalyptic ruined house with rubble in the hallway (to deter looters) in what he calls "the black undertow of ghetto dysfunction" and yet maintains a mostly positive personal outlook, despite his bleak forecast for our collective future.

Another chapter follows KMO (Kevin Michael O'Connor) - Gen Xer, sci-fi graphic artist, ayahuasca partaker, original Amazon employee, radio presenter and friend of Kunstler - who some readers will be familiar with for his podcast The C-Realm. KMO, a liberal who found himself voting for Trump, finds himself living in Bellows Falls, Vermont, eking out a living in the post financial crash American landscape and counting himself lucky to have got this far. He explains the delusional outlook held by many: "... if you're doing well in a system which is collapsing, it's in the interest of your own psychological comfort to imagine the collapse is a fairy tale, that it's really just lazy people who should get to work and stop complaining."

KMO was the person I related to most closely of the ones Kunstler chose to include. As a Gen Xer myself, I too have felt for some time I've had one foot in the 'old' materialist world created by the boomers, and one foot in the 'new' paradigm of straitened energy dynamics and lowered material horizons that we are moving into. Also, like KMO, I have found myself bouncing around from pillar to post, never quite being able to make jobs work out or to earn a living from my own piece of land, and instead being forced to inhabit a kind of liminal limbo land where radical ideas of 'escaping the system' are dreamed of but tend to evaporate due to the way our over centralised systems reward efficiency and penalise the smaller players.

Jim Kunstler was an editor at Rolling Stone back in the 1970s, as well as an op-ed writer and journalist for the New York Times and Washington Post, and as such his pedigree as an old-school journalist could be considered pretty solid. What's more he has a reputation for going places others don't dare, and it's perhaps for that reason he included a white nationalist as one of his character study vignettes. The man, known as Rob, lives in a flyover Massachusetts region which Kunstler observes as: "... factory villages where the elegant Victorian redbrick mills with their once-proud cupolas stand empty and abandoned, wistfully evoking a bygone America of people who had something to get up for in the morning. A striking sample of the folks I saw on the streets in these places looked dishevelled, pushing shopping carts along the sidewalk, far from wherever the shopping carts originated."

It's in these decrepit and forgotten places that unsavoury politics can grow like mushrooms, bursting forth from the damp leaf litter of cultural decay. The author - himself Jewish - meets with Rob, who amongst other conspiracies claims Hitler was a British agent, and delves into his past to discover why he holds such opinions. As with all his other subjects, we are treated to a sometimes lengthy back story that shows their path through life and attempts to make sense of the choices and actions that brought them to where they are today. In the case of Rob, an intelligent and thoughtful man with convoluted views on race, had had a rough childhood and an adolescence in which his friends had once tried to sacrifice him on a fire in a Satanic ritual. It would seem that Kunstler included him as an illustration that in a society where the centre cannot hold, more extreme points of view will become more normalised. For anyone who has followed Kunstler's blog Clusterfuck Nation, they will be well aware of his contention that one day we might see a "corn pone Hitler" voted into power by disenfranchised and forgotten voters willing to trade liberties for security.

For the most part, however, it was the stories of the back-to-the-land folks I found most instructive. Nobody should imagine that the type of skills we would need to learn in a post-fossil fuel abundance world will be easy to come by, although perhaps we can hope the bureaucratic hurdles to making a living in a sustainable manner will be lowered. Kunstler himself indicates this in the last chapter when he writes about his own journey from New York City to a small, economically battered upstate town, and his travails with growing his own food (spoiler: the wildlife had other ideas).

I enjoyed reading Living in the Long Emergency. It deals with the converging nature of the crises we have, for the greater part, sleepwalked into, but reminds us that not everyone was asleep. It's reassuring to know there are people out there who are 'practical intellectuals', and Kunstler defines the term intellectual to be someone willing to engage in an idea and take action on it. These are the people who are searching out new modes of living that don't rely on the hyper-complex yet fragile industrial model we have come to think of as normal. Furthermore, these pioneers have taken a long and hard look at the situation, realised that salvation is not going to come in the form of a government handout, an economic miracle or even Elon Musk's brand of techno-narcissism, and decided to take matters into their own hands.

I'll be honest, there were sections of the book that I found myself skipping over. There is a fairly lengthy section towards the end on the minutiae of recent American politics, focusing on the political dishonesties on both sides of the aisle that I, as a non-American, found a bit tedious. But this was only a minor point in an otherwise decently-constructed, timely and well-written book. And Kunstler's eloquent prose is a marvel to behold, keeping the story flowing from page to page and raising the occasional chuckle. For example, here he is describing the rise of Donald Trump:

"History is a prankster. You order a Gray Champion, and cosmic room service sends up a casino developer and New York real estate mogul with a laughable hairdo, a big mouth and no experience running a government. And yet here he is, a rococo crypto-monarchist in gilded plastic trappings, living in the White House, oddly representing the most hapless segment of the electorate, the dispossessed, flyover deplorables, who had been cruelly ejected from a secure and comfortable middle-class existence when so much US industry was loaded on that slow boat to China."

To wrap up, this latest book from one of the elder statesmen of collapse could be a template for others to follow. When the hysteria surrounding the current COVID-19 panic subsides, and people realise that the economy has fundamentally changed while they were looking away and will not be returning to normal again, they'll be looking around for inspiration about ways to inhabit this planet whilst earning an honest income and maintaining their sense of human decency. Surprisingly upbeat at the end, Living in the Long Emergency might be just the book to dispel and sense of complacency and open people up to the numerous possibilities that still remain available.

Living in the Long Emergency is available here (UK) and here (US)

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

New Book - The Olive Press: News From the Land of the Misfits

The Olive Press: News From the Land of the Misfits

For those of you who may have been wondering what I’ve been up to for the past few months I can reveal that I’ve been writing – and publishing – my latest book. The Olive Press – News From the Land of the Misfits is my third and most ambitious book yet, and it took over 10 years to surface.

The book is a kind of a memoir of the time when I lived in a small farmhouse with my family in the mountains of southern Spain. I soon discovered that the idea of trying to be completely self-sufficient by growing my own food and producing my own energy using solar panels was an unrealistic one. With a young family to feed I had to also find a way of making money, so I hit on the idea of starting a newspaper.

The Olive Press was a kitchen table effort, and I had no journalism or editing experience to fall back on. Luckily, I met someone who said he was a journalist and so the two of us put the gears into motion and began to produce a small newspaper for the local area. The name came to me when I was listening to one of my neighbours complain about the poor prices he was being paid at the local olive press. Aha – I thought – what a great name for a newspaper.

It was somewhat peculiar and very beautiful region of Spain we were living in; a land of mountains and rivers, and of bountiful orchards and chestnut forests – in other words, quite unlike what many people assume Spain to be like. It was also one of those places that seemed to attract square pegs who had not managed to fit into any round holes elsewhere – these are the misfits of the title. Incidentally, I considered myself a misfit too. La Alpujarra, as the region is called, is situated between the Mediterranean sea and the Sierra Nevada mountains, just south of the lovely city of Granada. It was here that the Moors held out against the Catholics after 1492, creating a kind of earthly paradise by using their advanced knowledge of irrigation. It's an ethereal region of whitewashed villages and clear light where old traditions linger on and the 21st century lies just out of sight behind the mountains. There are buddhists and sufi mystics and all sorts of other misfits living peacefully in the hills there.

La Alpujarra is a place of clear light and peace

I found myself moving there having read a book called Driving Over Lemons, by Chris Stewart, which detailed how the author ‘escaped Thatcher’s Britain’ and lived the life of a penniless hill shepherd. It was that kind of place where everything seemed possible. At the time, I was feeling like I needed to escape the treadmill of tedious jobs I’d found myself on, and I wanted to move somewhere our kids could roam around and be free instead of suburban Copenhagen.

We started off living in an old (haunted, we discovered) stone house village high up in the mountains, but after about a year we bought an old tumbledown farmhouse in the lower foothills and set about converting it into a liveable building and a smallholding. 

Our farmhouse in the lower foothills

Not long after setting up the newspaper we discovered just how difficult it was to make it pay. We employed a professional salesman, and he at least managed to save us from going bust inside the first year - although there was a cost to pay. I should probably have mentioned that The Olive Press was an unusual newspaper in that it exposed corruption and was all about protecting the local environment from the numerous businessmen who wanted to cover the entire region in plastic greenhouses, golf courses for the rich, and concrete 'urbanzations'. The anti corruption focus came from my journalist business partner, while the ‘green’ agenda came from yours truly. In retrospect, we were too idealistic to run a business, and it's a wonder we lasted as long as we did.

Our salesman brought in some big-paying advertisers, but the price that we had to pay was that we couldn’t be so controversial. We tried to behave but to be honest, we didn’t know what we were getting into. It wasn’t long before eyebrows were being raised and angry real estate agents were dumping our newspaper into bins and calling us ‘commies’ (we weren’t!). They said our focus on the wanton destruction of the environment by big agribusinesses was putting off investors in the region.

Another journalist came on board – this time a qualified one with a Fleet Street pedigree. He dragged our minnow of a newspaper into a much bigger pond, and it wasn’t long before we were involved in several high-profile spats – including one that could be reasonably identified as one of the first dominos that would topple Tony Blair’s government. All of a sudden we were in hot water and the pressure we were under led to internal conflict.

I bowed out after a couple of years, selling my share and doing whatever work I could find just to keep our heads above water. For the most part I earned money by working on building sites and delivering newspapers. We grew and ate what food we could but the financial crisis was beginning to bite and this had huge knock-on effects around the region.

Eventually, of course, the crisis of 2008-2009 engulfed almost everyone and we ended up almost losing our shirts. We found ourselves back in Denmark again (where my wife is from), sharing a single room and working jobs that we both hated. After a few months we were allocated a council flat and it was around this time – having experienced first-hand what an economic crisis looked like – I discovered the writings of Michael Ruppert, John Michael Greer, James Howard Kunstler and others, which led to the creation of this blog. Indeed, my brush with collapse had provided me with invaluable experience of what happens when the rug is pulled out from under you.

When life gives you lemons ...

I wrote most of the book soon after, but couldn’t find a publisher who would let me mention peak oil or the various environmental problems that spurred me on to produce the newspaper in the first place. Discouraged, and with other projects on the go, I saved the story on a memory stick, stuck it in a drawer and forgot about it.

I rediscovered it last year, and found myslef chuckling as I read the various chapters which had survived (many were corrupted – ironically by oil that had seeped into the chip from the surrounding casing - which was an advert for Hanover Airport with a floating toy airplane in it). Given that self-publishing had come a long way in the intervening decade I set up a small imprint and went about re-writing the book. This proved more arduous than I had thought, and there were legal implications for detailing real-life events. I had to re-write the entire thing at least twice, adding in extra chapters and cutting out large parts. At one point the manuscript was over 500 pages, so I had to slim it down quite a bit to make the story more readable. I even quit my job so I could focus on getting the book completed.

So anyway, The Olive Press – News From the Land of the Misfits is about that wild ride, but it’s not in any way a gloomy book. In fact there are parts of the story that are very funny. Oh, and it isn't just about my story; in the book I chronicle some of the inspiring and remarkable people I met who are working to regenerate the natural environment in Spain, as well as various other interesting people I got to hang out with, such as an on-the-run chef and a few famous and not-so famous personalities. Of the (so far few) people who have read it, they have all given it five stars and recommended it – I couldn’t ask for more.

Incidentally, the newspaper is still going strong and is now the largest foreign publication in Spain. It has four offices dotted around the country, including one in Gibraltar, although I can’t claim any credit for its success as it has changed quite a bit since I waved goodbye.

If you’d like to read The Olive Press you can buy it at all the various Amazon sites, as well as download the ebook, and - for those who want to avoid enriching Jeff Bezos even further - I believe it should also be available on sites such as Barnes & Noble in the next few weeks. 


Monday, July 1, 2019

Prodigies of Peace

I’m not sure what to write about. I’ve been stuck in a kind of mental turmoil, my thoughts frozen on the event horizon of a black hole of catastrophe. Logic and reason can only take you so far and then you end up being snarled up by your own inconsistencies. For example, it’s pretty clear that civilisation is killing the planet – and by civilisation I mean our own one – the one that decimates ecosystems, poisons our mind and bodies, and hates nature.

So do I want this civilisation to crash and burn? You bet! But then that would likely mean the death of many of the people I know and love (including, probably, me) – and isn’t it a bit hypocritical to write such a thing on a computer and share it over the internet instead of scrawling it in charcoal on a piece of dried bark and parading around town with it on a stick?

So then, I think, maybe civilisation can be reformed. Perhaps we can all re-learn how to live in harmony with nature, stop fighting wars and filling the oceans with plastic. We could all listen to Greta Thunberg or AOC and demand a Green New Deal and everything would be all right again – capitalism with a nice shiny layer of green paint on it.

Or maybe not.

For some reason, and I’m not sure why this is, but for the last year or two I have been waking up in the mornings with music playing in my head. No, I haven’t fallen asleep with my headphones on, the music seems to be coming from somewhere inside. Perhaps it is because I have spent the last 18 months sitting in an office watching the hours and days tick by and my subconscious mind has been screaming at me to escape (which I did, last week, BTW). 

It’s a different track every morning, and it could be anything. Two days ago it was a pop song from the 1980s – Into the Groove by Madonna – whereas yesterday it was the theme music to the sci-fi series Westworld by Ramin Djawadi.

This morning, when I woke up, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were performing a concert between my ears. They were playing Righteous and the Wicked, which includes the lyrics:

The righteous and the wicked
War and peace
The killing fist of the human beast
P.O.P., prodigies of peace
Hear me when I'm calling you
From my knees

I am playing for a better day
Playing for a better day, anyway
Oh yeah, I'm playing for a better day
Holy Mother Earth
Crying into space
Tears on her pretty face
I thought she had been raped

Killing your future blood
Fill her with disease
Global abortion pleas
That is what she needs

Perhaps my subconscious has got fed up with being too subtle, eh?

So what can we – I mean I, or each of us individually – do about this everlasting shit show?

Well, I suppose we can fight it.

But how does one fight against this nebulous, all-encompassing beast that we all live in the belly of? It seems pretty obvious by now that it’ll fight to the bitter end – it would rather kill every last man, woman, reindeer, tree and stag beetle than give up even an inch of ground. That’s the nature of, what my friend Thomas Sheridan calls the Psychopathic Control Grid (PCG) and Dmitry Orlov calls the Technosphere, that is effectively what our civ has become. It will take down the planet rather than relinquish control.

And just who is ‘us’. I seem to know a lot of people who are all of a sudden proclaiming themselves to be environmentalists. Lit with the fire of fervour, these people are demanding that the guvmint reduce carbon emissions to zero, practically overnight. Their strategy seems to involve wearing facepaint and glitter, stomping around in the streets holding up placards and drawing chalk outlines around children whilst shouting ‘Extinction!’

Are these privileged people? Sure. Do they demonstrate their commitment to their cause by curtailing their own impact on the environment? Maybe some of them do, but not that I’ve seen. Have any of them done a bit of research into how feasible their demands are if they were to be turned into public policy and what that would mean to society? Ummm …

Here’s another question: do I feel bad for mocking them? And the answer is: yes, I probably do. I mean, from my point of view they are likely being exploited by ‘green’ capitalist corporations who are trying to inflate a bubble of ‘renewable’ energy (not that such a thing exists, of course, unless you are talking wooden windmills and passive solar energy to heat your house) so that one last big money bubble can be blown up before everything comes crashing down.

But from the protestors' point of view they are fighting an evil tyranny of fossil fuel companies who are dead-set on being dastardly and evil because they are … dastardly and evil. Never mind that their form of protest – publicly having fun and dressing up – is a media-friendly gift to governments and corporations who can now claim to ‘have listened to the people’ and will gladly cut off the energy supply to the bottom 90% of said people (preserving, of course, their own privileges) and will then proclaim in truly Orwellian fashion that all CO2 emitters are bad, but some CO2 emitters are less bad than others.

The PCG is endlessly tormenting, that's just how it rolls. 

So what to do about the killing fist of the human beast, as the Chili Peppers put it? How exactly do we fight back?

Well, here’s a thought that I’ve been having, and it starts with three premises:

Premise 1: Like a virus, ‘civilisation’ (aka the PCG) attempts to colonise all life forms, including, and perhaps especially, humans.

Premise 2: When it does so it undermines an organism’s ability to live its life in a manner to which it has naturally evolved – leading to fields of GMO plants growing in chemically saturated substrate (‘soil’), animals reared and killed in giant factories, and humans confined to perfunctory roles in office cubicles and retail outlets, while being harvested for their profit potential.

Premise 3: The PCG is addicted to expansion and control and will not voluntarily stop this expansion until it has turned the planet into an unliveable wasteland.

Premise 4: Its expansion is enabled by abundant and cheap fossil fuels, which as everyone who has studied peak oil will know, are now becoming less abundant and less cheap.

Premise 5: As it senses its expansion and therefore its survival is under threat, the PCG will attempt to consolidate its power at the centre, sacrificing all extraneous and ‘unproductive’ sectors, such as me and you and the oceans and the remaining forests.

Let’s be clear, the PCG is what most natural non-industrialised cultures would recognise as a ‘demon’. In the observable world it manifests as a huge interconnected mass of corporate, military, pharmaceutical hardware, that isn’t under the control of any particular human being, but just exists to sow mayhem and death seemingly with an emergent intelligence of its own.

But given Premise 2, that it colonises organisms and that it needs space to do so, one small way that it can be fought is to get to work on the one thing that you have control over (for the time being) i.e. yourself.

Decolonising your own mind and body would seem to be the beginning of fighting back against the PCG. If you refuse to play along to whatever extent that you are able, then you become a useless cell in the bloated body of the PCG.

It's intuitive that all organisms have the right to live their within their own gods-given biophysical limitations and to the extent that their free will allows, without having to be dominated by others. This is necessary for full-systems integrity, so you could say it it a type of natural law rather than a human-invented 'right'. 

But how can we decolonise ourselves? I’ll be honest and say that I don’t know. I don’t think there is a book somewhere entitled “Decolonisation from the Psychopathic Control Grid for Dummies” and even if there was it’d be printed by a company owned by another company, that's owned by a media conglomerate that is part of the PCG, and it would contain dud information that'd get you killed. As I said, that's the way the PCG rolls: everything is coopted for its own advantage. 

So for the most part we’re going to have to use the one thing that the PCG cannot ever commoditise: our innate intuition.

My innate intuition tells me, for example, that people in industrialised societies like the one I live in used to live close to the land. They hunted, fished, gathered berries and herbs, were reverent to the sun and the seasons, respected the limitations of the soils and knew that when it was all over their own bodies would nourish the plants and therefore the animals that they had borrowed from during their own life span.

And so one way I am going to fight back against the PCG is to get to know intimately the land where I live. This will involve a lot of learning; about plant lore, human (and animal) history, sleeping under the stars, walking through it, nurturing it and writing about it. 

Really, at this stage in the ongoing train wreck of our civilisation it’s one of the few options left open to us.  Sure, we can all eat vegan diets, protest to career politicians, drive less, fly less, consume less … and that’s all well and good, but from the perspective of the PCG it couldn’t care less about our small individual actions as it simply allocates the resources we don’t consume to somewhere else on planet earth where they can be consumed more efficiently. 

It does this by getting the recently colonised (in ‘developing’ countries) to pick up the slack by offering them cheap credit and enslaving them that way. Let’s remember that every single government in the world is committed to infinite economic growth within our delicate planetary ecosystem, and that any serous challenge to this ethos is met by tanks and bombs and prison sentences.

But we don’t have to be slaves. If we each took a bit of control back and related to the patch of planet earth in our immediate vicinity new pathways of being could – and I reckon will – emerge. 

So, to go back to the Chili Peppers, we can but try and opt out of helping the Killing Fist of the Human Beast, instead be Prodigies of Peace.

I will have more information soon on my efforts in another blog. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

Meaningful Coincidences

Okay, so I'm going to veer a little 'off topic' with this one. Mind you, who's to say what is on topic anyhow? One of the reasons I took such a long break from this blog was that I was searching around for new ideas and exploring new avenues. So, in this one, I'm talking about those strange coincidences that we can get from time to time. I've had my fair share of them, some of which I mention below, and other people are often keen to share theirs.
Just a work of warning; if you suffer an allergic reaction to woo stop reading now. My next post will be about something firmly cemented in the material plane, so please come back then.
It was the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung who first suggested the existence of ‘meaningful coincidences’. He was talking about coincidental experiences for which no causal relationship could be established. These, he wrote, may possess significance on some sort of deeper level, and he called these occurrences 'synchronicities'.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that synchronicities do occur, and that they occur for a reason rather than just ‘wishful thinking’. Often it will be in the form of a random piece of knowledge falling into place that leads to greater understanding, or a chance meeting with someone who you might just have been thinking about that day but hadn’t seen for a long time. Sometimes the song you woke up in your head with, but haven’t heard since the 1980s, comes on the radio.
The writer Colin Wilson found that when he was delving deep into some matter he was writing about, books would literally fall off shelves, often open at the page presenting some vital but previously unknown passage of knowledge that proved to be the key to understanding.
Such ‘book synchronicities’ seem to be common among people who have set out on a path to expand their understanding of the multi-layered reality we inhabit, and I have had several myself. For example, a few months ago I was eating some breakfast and reading an article posted online by the Irish writer Thomas Sheridan about the ancient Indo-European symbol known today as the swastika being carved into rocks across Britain. I’d never heard of this and wanted to find out more – but I didn’t have time to find out more as I had to go to work just then.
Shortly afterwards I was walking towards my office down the pedestrianised high street in the town where I live and found myself walking past a charity shop where someone had left a couple of bags of clothes, books and toys overnight. Clearly, someone had been rummaging in it and the contents were spilled out all over the step. A glossy coffee-table type book caught my eye and I went over to pick it up. It was called Celtic Britain and I opened it right on a page that featured – yep – stones carved with swastikas.
When it comes to book synchronicities it seems that some people are particularly adept at sparking synchronicities. (Greg Moffit is another one – on one of his podcast shows he once mentioned the different stages of spiritual development outlined in The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck – and I promptly found a copy of the same book fluttering in the breeze in a Tesco carpark later that same day – coincidence?)
And as for Anthony Peake’s The Daemon, which I read last summer in a town in Germany, that could only be described as a smorgasbord of synchronicities featuring Hermann Hesse, Goethe and even Joan of Arc!
These are just a few examples among numerous others, book related or otherwise. Generally speaking, I have only started to notice them in the last five years or so. In periods where my interest in the arcane has waned, or I have been too busy with other areas of my life, the synchronicities seem to have faded away, as if put on pause. When I rekindle my interest, they come back with a vengeance – to the point where I almost expect them, and almost regard them as standard operating procedure.
But what about coincidences that don’t seem to serve any particular purpose but are just so downright improbable that they make you question the basis of everything you have been led to believe about the ordering principles of the universe?
My friend, David Moore, who is himself a walking talking bag of synchronicities, thinks they may have some kind of evolutionary role in human consciousness. He thinks we should pay attention to them because they could be trying to teach us something. 
Again, I have some examples I would like to share, and for which I can offer no rational explanation. Get this: twice, when I have set foot on another continent for the first time, the first person I have randomly met who was not an immigration official, taxi driver or hotel clerk, was someone I knew.
The first time this happened to me was in Australia in 1995. I had got off a night flight from Malaysia to Perth and was walking bleary-eyed around the airport at about 1am looking for some clue about where I could spend the night. I had spent the last three weeks seriously ill with an undiagnosed malaria-like virus, including a stint in a hospital in Penang, and had lost around a quarter of my body weight.
Happy to be somewhere more westernised, I found a large illuminated board with about fifty or sixty adverts for places to stay and I picked one pretty much at random simply because the name appealed to me (“The Lone Star Saloon Inn”). Then, I jumped into a taxi, which took me into Perth and my chosen hostel. I walked in and the half-asleep clerk said they didn’t have any rooms left but there was a space on a bunk in someone else’s room that I could have. He implied that the occupant hadn’t paid his bill and so couldn’t complain when someone else was lumped in with him.
Being very tired and sick I said okay, and made my way to the room. It was a mess, with clothes and bottles everywhere, but the occupant was not in. I climbed into the top bunk and immediately fell asleep. Some hours later my roommate returned. He was pretty drunk and crashed around for a while with the light on (seemingly not noticing me in the top bunk) so I kept my eyes closed and pretended to be asleep. Eventually he turned off the light and began to snore.
In the morning, sunlight lit up the room. I peered over the side of the bunk to take a look at the drunken oath who had, by now, stopped snoring (I planned to check out almost immediately and didn’t even want to wake him). That’s when coincidence No.1 happened. I looked down on him and, to my great surprise, he was wide awake and staring up at me. We both did a double-take, because the face I was looking at was the barman from my local pub in Solihull. Neither of us knew what to say.
The same thing, more or less, happened when I first visited South America in 2000 with my wife. I arrived on a Sunday in Quito and found out I couldn’t get any dollars to pay for anything as all the bureaus de change were closed and ATMs didn’t accept foreign cards. I called the place I had booked and they told me to get in a taxi and they would pay the driver – I would pay them back the following day when the banks opened. I did this but when I got there they said there had been a mistake and I needed to pay up front.
The taxi driver took pity on us and said he knew of another place we could stay. He drove us to this new place and dropped us off. By this point it was getting dark and, Quito being a hilly city, lights of houses began to twinkle around us rising up to meet the horizon. We checked in and had a short nap to get over our travel weariness before going into the hotel lounge. In this room there was a large open fire that was roaring nicely (it is always chilly in the evenings in Quito) and we could look out of some large windows onto the twinkling fairy lights outside. There was only one other person in the lounge – a guy of about my own age – and he was sitting quietly in a large leather armchair and reading a book. He looked kind of familiar but I couldn’t place him. After a few minutes I sensed he was looking at me and he suddenly said “Jason?”
It was Louis, a friend from my sixth form college days – and someone I used to meet up with in the same pub I had seen the barman from. I hadn’t seen him in a decade and he had lost most of his hair in the intervening period, which was perhaps why I didn’t immediately recognise him. He said he was an artist and living in Paris but had decided to come to South America for inspiration. We both agreed how bizarre it was that we should meet in this way.
I’ve told this story to numerous people over the years, and the severely rational tell me it’s just a case of coincidence, constructing elaborate justifications of how our whole lives are just a series of probabilities that either do or do not come to pass.
In case anyone thinks this all sounds too bizarre and I have embellished it in some way, it is and I haven't. In the second instance I have my wife to back it up, although my purpose isn’t simply to tell a good tale but to figure out why these remarkable coincidences happened to me. Could it be that the subconscious mind (or daemon) is a trickster, and uses improbable coincidences and synchronicities to shake us out of our complacency?
I remain puzzled, but I do think that synchronicities seem to happen when you put yourself ‘out there’ rather than just sitting at home and not speaking to anyone. I have come to think that they may be psychic nudges, and that if we learn to recognise them for what they are we can gain new understandings of non-material reality and our place within it. 

If you have any strange examples of synchronicities you want to share then please do tell.

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