Saturday, December 31, 2011

On the cusp of a New Year

Will we be sucking our Spanish lemons in 2012?
Well, I'm sat here at the kitchen table with a cold beer in front of me, Wagner playing faintly on the stereo and a chicken roasting in the oven. The rest of the family are in the lounge watching something unspeakable on the telly and, outside, darkness has fallen and the impatient are already letting off their fireworks.

So that was 2011 - I wonder what 2012 will bring. There are many worrying signs that a lot of the things most people take for granted will evaporate in a puff of pixie dust in the next few months and we all have our own pet worries about what will happen. My personal worry demon is that a euro (currency) crash will freeze up the banks and I won't be able to sell our house in Spain. If that happens it might mean that we need to move back into it - which would be no bad thing as it's a fantastically sited smallholding in a beautiful valley. But we're not finished paying off debts yet and, in my view, Spain isn't the most stable place to be when things go pear-shaped. To do so would mean that we may still be at the mercy of the increasingly merciless Spanish banks.

No, ideally we'd like to sell up and move on, 'investing' in some woodland and a another ramshackle ruin to do up in a place that's more aligned with our own culture i.e. England.

But a worse scenario would be that we do sell the house just before a bout of hyperinflation or a currency crash and end up holding a few peanuts rather than a piece of land with a house on it. One thing's for sure, Denmark isn't as immune to economic problems as it likes to think it is. With a new socialist government now in control of the country with the largest public sector (as a share of the economy) in the world it will certainly be worth keeping an eye on the next bond auction to see if the markets decide to inflict some punishment. Watch this space.

Nevertheless, I'm thankful that we have it as a bolt hole down in Spain in case things do turn nasty. We have a good network of friends and neighbours down there and people have been practising living on next to nothing for the past few years. At present our house is cared for by José, a Mexican immigrant, who is the ideal house sitter.

What's more, I'm more than grateful that we own a property somewhere and have a bit of land attached. To many, if not most, these kind of things are now beyond their reach. If only the UK property bubble would finally pop and planning restrictions would be relaxed to allow people who want to work the land the chance to actually live on it that would be a great step towards securing some tentative measure of self-sufficiency in that overcrowded island.

I will not, of course, be entertaining any fantasies of Mayan prophesies or any such thing in the coming year. Not that many people over here in Europe pay heed to such things, but the slight worry is that people who do believe the world will end in December next year will have a hard time adjusting to the fact that it hasn't - and if they are armed and dangerous then so much the worse. It will be 'interesting' to see how that one pans out.

This being New Year I do have a few resolutions to make. I'm not about to share all of them but the main gist is that I'll be giving up a couple of things that frankly I should have given up quite a while ago. The chicken that is in the oven is a farewell parting to a regular meat diet, and there will certainly be far fewer cold beers in front of me during the coming year as well. Another resolution is to publish the book I've been writing for two years - yes, publish.

It's about my time living in Spain, running an enviro newspaper and trying to live sustainably. I found a publisher (no easy task these days) but the more down the line we got the more they wanted me to make it more light-hearted and remove any mention of peak oil or any other 'conspiracy theories'. Well, the book is light-hearted enough but I've decided not to grace the publisher and will explore other options, including self-publishing. It's been more or less finished for about 9 months, living on a flash memory stick that is an advert for Hamburg Airport (complete with a plastic airplane in a liquid bubble). It's high time it came off the memory stick and into the real world.

My final resolution is to live more by the precepts that I've always felt drawn to - and that means being a bit more formally spiritual. As a first step I'm starting Tai Chi classes in January and want to get going with a daily meditation session. Aside from that I've been reading John Michael Greer's Druid Handbook, as well as downloading course material from a British druid order. I'm not sure it's for me - I come from a solidly atheist background - but my mother was a spiritualist and I'm pretty sure I've inherited her genes. I'll give it a try and see if it feels right.

Anyway, the chicken is starting to look crispy and the beer bottle is now empty so I'll bid any readers I have a Happy 2012 and hope that you have a peaceful New Year.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Rock and the Spike

Agpalilik - it came from outer space ...

Last summer I came across quite a remarkable find. It happened on a day out in Copenhagen when I was taking my youngest daughter to the National Gallery to see what she would make of the paintings there. Not far from the gallery we happened to be walking down a busy street past the entrance to some grand old red brick building when something in its courtyard caught my eye. There was a large skip stacked up with abandoned office furniture and black bin bags, but it was something next to the skip that caught my eye. For, sitting there on some steel beams was what appeared to be a large red-brown meteorite.

There was nothing to stop us from going to have a closer look, so we did. Sure enough, it was a meteorite, and what's more it was heavily pockmarked and appeared to be made of iron.

A door swung open and a lady wearing a white lab coat came out into the courtyard. Having spotted us from inside the building (I now realised we were at the Geological Museum) she had been eager to tell us more about this large lump of iron sitting unceremoniously in the courtyard. The meteorite, it turned out, was part of the Cape York Meteorite, which smashed into the Earth some 1,000 years ago in Greenland. Named Agpalilik – aka 'the man' – the meteor weighs about 15 tonnes and had a section cut away, revealing the core.

It looked a bit sad and abandoned in the yard next to the skip but when it had been discovered it had caused great excitement. Inuit legend told of the arrival of this celestial gift and it took European explorers a number of years to locate the smashed fragments, the largest of which weighed 31 tonnes and required the construction of its own railroad to transport it to the coast and away to the United States. The fact that they had been pilfered must have caused the Inuit some distress because, historically speaking, these unassuming lumps of solid iron had a profound effect on the development of the local Greenlandic population.

It was the American explorer John Ross who stumbled upon the meteor, having discovered to his amazement that local Greenlanders had iron tips on their hunting weapons despite there being no mineral deposits in the area. At first the locals refused to show him the location of their stash of iron – a veritable gift from the gods that had allowed them to utilise iron age technology in a harsh environment. Eventually though Ross was able to bribe a guide by offering him a gun and was led to the impact zone. Three of the fragments were then shipped off to New York, where they remain, and it wasn't until the 1960s that 'the Man' was discovered and carted off to Copenhagen. By this point in time the Greenlanders had access to all sorts of modern conveniences and were less defensive of the meteor which had once brought them so much good fortune.

After we left I had time to reflect on our accidental discovery. The meteor, for the Greenlanders, had been not unlike our discovery of oil and other fossil fuels a couple of centuries ago. Both were gifts from out of time and space that had landed in our laps more or less randomly and radically changed the way we did business. In the case of crude oil, once we had learned a few good uses for it, nothing would ever be the same again. In that sense we are, as a species, opportunists, or less politely, scavengers. A Martian, viewing our activities over a long period of time, might reasonably conclude that as a species our job is simply to burrow into the planet's crust, bring various minerals to the surface that we find 'useful' and process them into forms that are at odds with the finely crafted balance of the biosphere i.e. 'pollution'.

And thinking in the long term is very useful when it comes to comprehending peak oil. Reading the various online arguments raging about whether we have reached peak extraction of this or that energy resource is a bit like not being able to see the wood for the trees. The point is not whether we have reached it in in 2006, or 2010 or even 2025 – it's that we are currently bumping along the plateau of a very tall and steep-sided mountain that, when viewed from a distance is a mere blip in human history.

Consider the diagram of the energy spike. We are, at present, right at the top of it. Most of us can't imagine that simple truth – we have been climbing to that summit since our grandfathers' grandfathers were babies. It takes no more than a couple of generations, three at the outside, for something to become normalised into human consciousness. In this case what we have come to believe is unassailable it is the idea that the planet we live on will continue to provide us with virtually limitless energy to power the lifestyles we feel we have become entitled to.

Our energy plateau. Image courtesy of Transition Towns

How do we safely get down from that spike? Alas, there are no easy options but one of the worst thing we can do is to go on believing that the energy mountain will keep getting higher and higher. Already our global energy system is showing signs of breakdown. The mega fields, such as those in Saudi Arabia, show no sign of being able to meet rising demand and the price of a barrel of oil is still hovering at around 100 dollars. Enthusiasts of shale gas come up with wild figures for its supposed productivity, although most operators report that the finds go flat after a year of operation (champagne bottles don't fizz for long) and in any case the other energy inputs and water requirements make the extraction difficult, expensive and environmentally destructive.

Those of us who are expecting some kind of collapse need look no further than the news headlines. As John Michael Greer posited in this week's Archdruid Report – this is what collapse looks like. It's going to be a long and rocky road down from that spike, and we'll find ourselves lurching from one crisis to the next, punctuated by periods of stability and calm, and we should ask ourselves how exactly are we going to prepare for it?

After all, it is one thing theorising and conducting online debates about catabolic collapse, but quite another to actually do something useful about it. My own steps have been modest but at least I hope they are a step in the right direction. We have started making and selling our own soap as a means of making some money from a product that people will still find useful for years to come (we can hope). I have also amassed a collection of practical books on everything from house building to home wine making that I spend evenings reading. My wife, luckily, already has a set of useful skills in that she is a qualified upholsterer and seamstress. She can take old unwanted furniture and restore it – and she is good at knitting.

Of course, these are first steps. We are looking at buying a piece of woodland and learning charcoal making skills. Woodland at present is very cheap on account of it being there 'only' for recreational purposes. I'm learning all about coppicing and other woodland crafts and, thankfully, several years as a conservation volunteer in my 20s means that these things are not alien to me and I can swing a bill-hook with confidence.

But there's a lot to do and learn and intuitions says that time is getting somewhat short. I'd be interested to hear from anyone else about what steps they are taking.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

King Cnut and the Rising Tide

Storm surges have left parts of Denmark under water this week

I know it no longer gets as much media attention as it used to but global warming has been back in the news again lately with the COP17 meeting in Durban. Of course, you could be forgiven for not noticing it as it hasn't received as much press coverage partly because of lowered expectations that anything can be achieved by world leaders but also because the anti global warming talking heads have convinced enough people that it's a non-issue cooked up by greedy scientists and megalomaniac one world order socialists.

So it's all the more ironic that almost two years to the day after the Copenhagen talks ended Mother Nature has served a reminder of just who runs the show. A few days ago a powerful storm swept down from the North Atlantic, passing over Denmark as it continued south. The resultant storm surge saw sea levels rise quite dramatically around the coastlines and a number of areas were flooded, including Copenhagen's picturesque Nyhavn tourist area. Not since King Cnut has anybody seen anything quite like it before and, strangely, even though the storm was over several days ago sea levels remain high. I took the picture at the top of this post on a walk to my nearby beach this morning and you can see the rocks that act as sea defences are still, well, defenceless (and yes, that's an oil fired power station and incineration plant in the background).

Rising sea levels are of particular concern here because it is a pretty flat low country. Where I live is one metre above sea level, so even if the more modest predictions come true then where I am currently typing this blog will be part of the Baltic Sea before too long. Of course, readers of the Spectator would rubbish this claim, if they'd taken any notice of this week's cover story which claimed sea rises are, yes, a scam.

And there lies the dark irony because it was at the COP15 talks here two years ago that the world learned that political leaders are particularly useless when it comes to acting for the common good of securing (and acting upon) a deal to phase out hydrocarbons. A powerful binary has been created that says we can either save the planet or save the economy. Of course, even my six-year-old daughter could point out that the economy is part of the planet and not the other way around, but politicians and business leaders insist that this isn't so and we need to 'fix the economy' before we can 'fix the environment'. We are told this relentlessly. Just in the last week, by way of example, we have had in the news:

  • UK chancellor George Osborne telling us that protecting the environment places a 'ridiculous' cost on businesses.
  • A plan to apply a small tax on airplane departures will apparently damage the economy.
  • US Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich mocking President Obama for delaying the Canada to Texas oil pipeline, implying he was a flake for heeding environmental concerns above economic ones.

So, if you believe all this, we can either have an economy with jobs or we can have a habitable planet. Relatively few question the assumption that we can have a third option - an economy without growth that could provide for us reasonably well without distorting the biosphere. But that's not up for discussion at present because all politicians can talk about is this magic thing called 'growth'.

We all know what growth is, of course, but most people don't realise that it has only been the aim of economic policy-makers since the end of the last world war. Before then we were quite happily going along without any explicit attempt to fuel it. But with the de-hitching of the money supply from anything of value (e.g. gold) and letting financiers write their own rules, we've seen an explosion of fractional reserve banking and consumers being led by the nose into unsustainable high-debt lifestyles. Why has this happened?

Italian Peak Oil writer Ugo Bardi has a pretty good answer. In his recent essay 'Why is Economic Growth so Popular?' he points out that with a ready abundance of cheap energy at hand the path of least resistance is always to exploit non-renewable resources in the short term at the expense of the long term. If the economy hits a sticky patch on its upward trajectory the political pressure is there to offer stimulus packages to the most exploitative and short-termist industrialists in order to get the ball rolling again, whatever environmental damage it causes.

And that's part of the reason any top-down conferences on what to do about the predicament of global warming will always end in failure. National governments, who for the most part are elected by individual voters, can only ever retain their power by maintaining their unholy pact with the voters, who by and large demand a higher standard of living. I can't personally think of any election won on the promise of 'less jobs and a lower income for all!'

I was there at the COP15 two years ago and witnessed the wheels coming off first hand. I had convinced the publisher of the newspaper where I worked that we should print a daily newspaper covering the conference. He refused at first, but when it got closer and he became aware of what a big deal it was he smelled money in the air and agreed to let me go ahead with it – provided I was 'neutral' in my editorial tone (of course I wasn't, but his English skills were not too hot and so …). We were just a small newspaper normally, run from an office in an ex-slaughterhouse in the red light district area of the city. Our audience was normally comprised of disgruntled expats, multinational employees on hardship postings out in the wilds of Jutland and the pampered diplomatic classes, whose functions we were expected to attend and photograph. All in all it was not dissimilar to the fictional Rome newspaper in Tom Rachman's excellent book The Imperfectionists. So it was quite a change to suddenly find ourselves at the centre of the then biggest media event on the planet.

It was a surreal couple of weeks. The city suddenly became more multicultural than it had ever been, with huge numbers of protesters from all over the world, including in their numbers plenty of indigenous folks from far mountain kingdoms and perpetually shivering tropical islanders in their thin polyester suits. Our normally placid office became a round the clock hive of activity with swarms of journalists and distributors traipsing in and out. We worked feverishly, sending the final proofs to the printers close to midnight and picking up 20,000 copies way before dawn broke so that the army of distributors on bikes could get them out to every corner of the city.

We interviewed everyone from Nobel Laureates and landless Amazonians to film makers and film stars (yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger was there, advising us that the only way out of the impasse was to give more power to big business). I got to meet and talk to some of my then environmental heroes, such as Bill McKibben and a pre-nuclear George Monbiot, and I'll never forget the phone call from the Israeli Embassy saying that Shimon Peres wanted to talk to us about his new electric car scheme. One day, introducing myself to a tired-looking man hunched over a laptop at the next desk whom I assumed to be a streetwalker feeding off our WiFi connection, I found out I was talking to the editor of Politico. “Are you always this busy?” he asked.

But all this is not just to walk down memory lane and air a few choice anecdotes. I remember the distinct mounting excitement among invited delegates that Obama was going to fly in at the end and strike a historic deal that would save us all from damnation. I wasn't so sure. The news leaking out of the conference centre was not good and the over zealous Danish police had spent two weeks cracking down hard on peaceful protesters, leading to a frustrated feeling of betrayal in the air. The night before the end of the conference we received a leaked email detailing a plan to railroad a deal through that favoured the big industrialised nations at the expense of the smaller ones. So, predictably enough, when Obama did finally arrive on his big blue plane there was simply no way the US and the Chinese were going to sign anything that remotely committed them to a binding deal. Obama was shunned by the Chinese, and the only thing that prevented him from looking a total fool was the Danish hosts' fig leaf of a treaty aka the Copenhagen Accord.

The conference had ended with a whimper and the clean up crews got straight to work erasing every trace of the fact that the city had been occupied by an unruly army of people whose cause for optimism had been crushed. Polar bear suits were retuned to rental shops to be dry cleaned and a wheelie bin outside our office was full of signs that said 'Stop Global Warming!'.

The two years since Copenhagen have lead many campaigners to despair. What is the point of protesting if you just end up in a 'free speech zone' kettled in by the police and ignored by the media? What hope, they ask, do we have if neither individuals nor government are prepared to act?

It's a good question and I'm not claiming to know the answer. Maybe we can hope that consumerism dies and is replaced by something more connected to the natural cycles of the Earth. Stranger things have happened in history – but even so, consumerism is a relatively recent phenomenon and, malevolent as it is, an end to consumerism won't mean an end to resource over-exploitation. Some believe that a return to a monastic way of life could be our saving grace, but my pessimistic side tells me that's not likely to happen any time soon.

But perhaps there's a silver lining in the dark cloud that is Peak Oil. The direst predictions of environmentalists such as James Hansen all assume that we will be accelerating our extraction and use of fossil fuels far into the future. Peak Oil tells us that we can't and won't. Indeed, the more one looks into the idea of the decline or collapse of industrial civilisation the more one can see that the forces which power our most rapacious technologies are running out of steam and running out of supporting resources. Furthermore, given that many energy sources, such as coal, have a high level of fossil fuel subsidy in the form of oil, could we soon see these becoming unproductive? Is that why China is importing so much coal right now?

Whatever, given what we know of the likely climate and energy situations we know that we will be hit hard. The question is, do we as individuals let ourselves be knocked down by it, or do we try to roll with the punch? The choice, unlike the fate of global climate deals, is up to us.