Monday, December 31, 2012

Vorsprung Durch Ecotechnik

Houses in Germany with solar roofs. Image from here.

Well, it’s been a busy few days since Christmas, which has seen me in no less than six different countries. The reason for this was the fact that I had to go over to England to pick up a large trailer I got cheap on eBay, as well as a bargain basement 10 year-old-car to pull it. 

When I got to England, on Boxing Day I couldn’t help but notice the whole place looked like a giant space toddler had spilled a cosmic glass of water over the whole country. Roads were submerged and trees poked out of what appeared to be lakes but were in fact fields. I have never seen the country looking so bedraggled and wet and it is quite amazing to think that only about ten months ago I wrote a post about the fact that meteorologists were forecasting a drought that would dry up all the rivers and lead to a devastating loss of wildlife. Well, they were a bit wrong on that one, with 2012 forecast to be the wettest year on historical record for England. Welcome to the new normal.

On the way out of the country a couple of days later, indeed, a flooded road led me to miss my car-train through the Channel Tunnel and I didn’t arrive in France until fairly late into the evening. When I did get there, France was entirely dark, so I don’t have any observations to make about the place, other than that it gets dark there at night time. Ditto with Belgium, which I entered later in the evening.

I had to make it to Eindhoven in Holland, where my motel bed awaited me, and did so at about 11pm. Starving hungry I enquired about getting something to eat (this particular establishment being located close to the motorway for ease of parking/locating) and was told that I could either pick from the restaurant or order sushi in the bar. A quick look at the restaurant confirmed that it was outside of my price league, so I retired to the bar to nibble on some wallet-emptying raw fish and sink a fine Belgian beer. Not for the first time in my life I marveled at the fact the Dutch are the best English speakers in the world; far better, indeed, than the English.

The next morning I hit the road again with my frankly gigantic trailer. The rain had cleared and it was sunny, illuminating the green Dutch landscape and putting me in a dreamy frame of mind. I had been driving at a steady 80kmph (50mph) all the way, as this is considered the best speed at which to save fuel – and here in Holland I noticed a strange thing: everyone else seemed to be doing the same. There were no aggressive light-flashing BMWheads eyeballing me as they screamed past. I had heard it said that the Dutch had got into eco driving as part of their fossil fuel energy descent plan, and here was the proof of it.

All that changed when I got into Germany. I always feel a bit nervous in Germany because I don’t speak more than about 50 words of German – a language deficiency often reciprocated by the natives in my experience. It has been a couple of years since I was last there – but what a difference! It is obvious even to one passing through that Germany is going hell for leather to make itself run on renewable energy. Last time I was there you could see all the wind turbines that had sprouted across the landscape – this time the story was all solar.
I’m used to seeing the odd house here in Denmark or the UK with a few solar panels on it. But Germany seems to be ramping up this on an industrial scale. Many houses sported 10-40 panels, but it was common to see barns, factories and even car showrooms with roofs made entirely of panels. Usually, as far as I could tell (remember, I was driving past) there would be 100-200 panels per roof. The record was one which had eight clusters of 8*8 panels, meaning there must have been 480 panels on a single roof.

A warehouse roof in Germany

Of course, and readers of this blog and ones like it will be well aware, that doesn’t make Germany ‘green’ or sustainable. There are still the monster truck parks, the giant supermarkets, the sprawling highways full of brand new cars driving at 200kmph (124mph) – and let’s not forget that Germany is a manufacturing country with a huge demand for high concentration energy and raw materials. I’m also well aware that Germany benefits from trading electricity with nuclear France, using that country as a giant battery.

But still. It’s hard not to admire the direction the country is taking. Everyone seems to be on board with it, and you’d have to be a dyed-in-the-wool cynic to say that a huge overhaul of the energy system conducted by this nation of engineers is not a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Great Escape Part IX: Earthed

A sleeping Earth spirit at Cornwall's Lost Gardens of Heligan

“Everybody thinks of changing the world but nobody thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy.

When I first learned about our energy crisis and all the implications I asked myself the same question that everyone else must do who has been through a similar epiphany: ”What the hell am I going to do about it?” 

At the time it seemed like there were two options. The first of these was to do nothing and just hope that engineers and chemists will come up with a new form of energy that allows us all to continue living our normal lifestyles into the far future. This was the easy option because effectively I wouldn’t have to do anything myself; all of that would be taken care of by someone else. The risk of going down this path, however, was that ‘they’ wouldn’t find an alternative energy source that packed the punch of oil, and that we'd all be left in a dangerous blind alley with no escape route. This is the approach taken by the majority of people, in most cases unwittingly.

The other option would require more effort, and to most people it would seem like I was taking a giant gamble. To do so I would have to try and unhitch my life from the global carbon gravy train which, as anyone who has tried it knows, requires quite a large amount of effort. But to do so I would know that in fact I was really just creating an insurance policy for myself – a get out of jail card for me and my family. This sounded like the more sensible option.

Which is why I have bought a six acre wood in Cornwall, in the far west of England. It is situated a few miles inland from the sea, not far from the town of Penzance, an ancient market town and seaport famous for its pirates of yore. Tucked away in a small valley, the woodland is virtually impossible to find, even with a map, and it has a kind of ‘lost world’ feel about it. In the centre of the wood is a grassy clearing of about an acre, which is where I intend to build a house. 

It won’t be a normal house, of course, unless you are a hobbit. I’m going for the Simon Dale style of earth-sheltered building, and when it is completed you will hardly be able to see it. I have some fairly strict rules that I intend to stick to in its construction. Firstly the materials will be, wherever possible, natural. Wood, which will be a major element, will come from the forest, stone from a local quarry and straw bales from a local farm. Cornwall has plenty of sheep, so wool may also play a part in insulation.

Obviously, some materials don’t just grow on trees, such as glass, but for these I intend to look around salvage yards and take stuff off peoples’ hands that they no longer want. Instead of using regular cement, I intend to use lime, which biodegrades far more readily than concrete does, and absorbs CO2 as it hardens. It will, of course, be completely off grid and I’ve got my work cut out devising reliable systems for providing heat, power and clean water. 

As for the woodland itself, my plans there are to turn it into a working coppice wood, continuing to allow wildlife to flourish within it. The trees are a mixture of English woodland broadleaf species, so we’re talking mostly oak, beech and chestnut. There are a few other varieties too, such as lime and ash – although the latter may well be doomed as disease spreads through the British Isles. I intend to get hold of a charcoal furnace or two. Cornwall is a popular holiday destination and I can’t see demand for barbeque charcoal dropping off any time soon.

In the grassy bit I’m planning to turn some of it over to growing vegetable and most of the rest to growing a food forest. There will be fruit trees. There will be nut trees. There will be beehives and a pond with slug-eating ducks. 

The wood, if you like, is my pension. I don’t expect ever to get a pension from the government that will amount to more than a few pennies a month (or more than a few million pounds a month if hyperinflation hits), and it seems like my predictions are proving to be right as the age of retirement keeps moving up and the forecasts for pension values keep moving down.

Of course, I’m not deluded enough to think that selling hazel rods and bags of charcoal will earn me anything like enough money to provide for me and my family. I’ll still be doing some freelance writing and translation work for the foreseeable future, and my wife will be working restoring old furniture and reupholstering it, which is where her marketable skills lie. We also have a little business making and selling natural soap, which earns a bit of extra money. Publishing a local newspaper focused on transition is also something I would consider doing. From now on, diversification is the name of the game.

A batch of our natural soap, this one made with elderberries
Why England, why Cornwall?

Well, I’m from England, so for me, after 13 years as a castaway in foreign lands it’s a homecoming of sorts. Being a foreigner in other countries has taught me many things, but one thing that I always felt lacking was my ability to participate in democratic discourse. If you’re reading this then you probably already know that the ability of democracy to function on a human scale is imperilled by apathy and the inability of reasonable people to frame logical arguments that everyday people can relate to. It’s long been a frustration of mine that I was not able to fully participate in improving that, even on a small scale such as at my kids’ school. Going back to a place where the cultural norms are my cultural norms means I will be able to be much more engaged in making a difference on a local level.

As for the geographical placing, we picked Cornwall for a number of reasons. First and foremost among these was the fact that it’s an out-of-the way place, too far from the centres of power to be worth exploiting, and with little of commercial value there. As one of Europe’s poorest regions it has a resilient spirit, and the people are warm and have a no-nonsense attitude to live. You will not find many Cornishmen (or women) queuing up all night for the latest iPhone.

It’s a place already packed full of collapsees and transitioners and there is a strong network of small scale growers, and people experimenting with alternative ways of living. The palm tree friendly climate is warmer than the rest of the UK, meaning that things grow well there and, being a peninsula surrounded by the ocean, it’s not hard to go and catch your supper. It’s also an area full of artists, attracted by the ethereal beauty of the place, and is home to the wonderful Minack Theatre and the inspirational Eden Project and the mystifying Lost Gardens of Heligan

There's a great cafe there too.

There are no nuclear power stations in or near Cornwall, and the land, while not the most productive, has been farmed for some 5,000 years and is still more or less unconcreted. There are no known shale gas or oil deposits lying under the ground and, what’s more, it is the only place in the world (as far as I know) where Earth spirituality is taught in the schools as a regular subject, alongside maths, English and, er, surfing.

On this last point it has occurred to me more than once that to get through the looming crisis we would do well to develop some useful tools. One of those tools is cultivating a sense of our place in the universe. Our religion of materialism and ‘progress at all costs’ has turned out to be an empty one, with levels of dysfunction and stress at historical highs. Is this a world you want your children to grow up in?  The reason for this, I am convinced, is the fact that we have turned away from the bounty offered to us by nature, grabbing all our ‘rights’ but neglecting our responsibilities. 

I’m 41 years old now and if you have been following this ‘edited highlights’ autobio skit, you’ll have noticed that I’ve done a lot of travelling, worked in a lot of jobs and seen and done a lot of things. The reason I wrote it, however, wasn’t to stroke my own ego or find some cathartic form of self-therapy – no – the reason I wrote it was to explain the rationale behind the decision to move to Cornwall and throw in my lot. In my experience I have found that whatever work you choose to do in life, you will almost inevitably find yourself being sucked into the globalized profit-maximising paradigm that is firmly in place at present. Call it what you want – the Machine, the Matrix or even the System – it is the black hole at the centre of humankind that sucks us back in every time we attempt to get away from it and, God knows, I’ve tried once or twice.

But black holes can end up eating themselves and the one we have created is eating up the very planet we live on. It is a system that defines our economy, dominates our politics and dictates our lives. How do we escape its gravitational pull before it sucks us all in? Buddhists talk of ‘right livelihood’ as part of their Noble Eightfold Path. The premise is pretty simple: engage in a trade or occupation that does little or no harm to others. Would not doing something outside the orbit of The System constitute 'right livelihood'?

But how does one achieve such a step in the 21st century, dominated as it is by huge corporations and governments hell bent on increasing economic growth at any cost? Let’s say you wanted to cure people of sickness and decided to become a doctor, under our current system (in some countries more than others) you would find yourself being pressured to ‘do the wrong thing’, following the agenda set down by pharmaceutical companies, and prescribe your patients pills that would make the company profits but not necessarily cure the sick person. Indeed, in the end you might do more harm than good. It’s a conundrum.

I myself have been working in media now for a number of years, and have discovered that this analogy applies equally there. Media, like any business, has to make money to survive in our current paradigm. Most people, on the whole, do not like to read about uncomfortable and often complex issues, so if you publish a newspaper that focuses on uncomfortable and complex truths then you won’t have much of a readership. It is far simpler to focus on entertainment, which by and large makes people feel good about themselves, and garner a large readership at the expense of publishing  news and views about climate change and peak oil. This has the benefit also of not embarrassing the powerful corporations that own many publications, who rely on business as usual to keep the profits rolling in.

So, in that respect, media has to go mainstream if it is to survive, effectively relegating uncomfortable news to blogs, which are of interest only to a select niche readership.  Thus the media amplifies and gives exaggerated importance to the business as usual paradigm, while ignoring or side-lining many important issues, creating a self-reinforcing feedback loop that allows everyone to keep their heads in the sand a little longer. 

We can add into that unholy mix the role of government which, in many cases, acts simply as an enabler for powerful interests and has no regard for the future beyond the end of its term in office. Take UK chancellor George Osborne’s backing of the fracking industry. Developing such an industry in Britain will be disastrous for many reasons, and it is guaranteed to fail, causing quite a lot of damage in the process. In fact, it has all the hallmarks of a panicky decision made by a government which knows the country is going to run out of cheap energy in the not-too-distant future.

This shows that The System is reaching the limits of its growth and the business as usual model, which has worked fine for decades, is rapidly becoming untenable. Like a cancer, it will grow until it kills the host, which in this case is our planet and all the species which live on it (including us). The cheap energy and materials necessary for the continued survival of the global economic system that provides a lavish lifestyle for Westerners and a few disparate global elites at the expense of most of the rest of the world have hit their natural limits, and all that remains now is to watch as it slowly comes apart, with disastrous consequences for those who rely on it for survival.

I’m not a great believer in any so-called fast collapse scenario, in fact I think John Michael Greer’s Long Descent is far more likely, but I do think we will now lurch from one crisis to the next for the rest of our lives. Some of them will be financial and economic, but we can’t rule out war and other man-made cataclysms. All of these will take place against a backdrop of a steadily worsening climate, acidifying seas and the disappearance of ground water, topsoil and biodiversity. We will also witness the slow decay of our creaking infrastructure and institutions, the rising anger of populations who have not realised that it is payback time for the Faustian pacts entered into, and the disastrous consequences of the overshoot of the global population. It will not be pretty.

So the only logical and reasonable thing to do in such circumstances is to detach ourselves from the tumour and attempt to build up some new, healthy, tissue. It won’t be easy, but then again, we don’t have any other choice. I’m not talking here about being a ‘prepper’, living a life of isolation and fear with a pile of guns and tins of beans; the only way we can hope to make any progress in transitioning to a more sustainable and less dangerous is at the community, village and regional level. The number of friends you have will be of far more importance to the number of guns you possess. 

That’s another reason I’m happy to be moving back to England; the fact that hardly anyone owns a gun. And for all its (many, rapidly getting much worse) problems – not least the fact that the carrying capacity of the country has been severely breached – thousands of people across the country have been working at building resilient systems for decades. Indeed, the Transition movement, which was born in nearby Devon, is vibrant and growing, and I’m very much intending to be a part of it when I get there.

In terms of resilience, if I were to compare England with Denmark, where I currently live, the contrast is sharp. In Denmark people rely on the government to sort out their every problem, and I have never encountered anyone here who has done anything other that ra-ra-ra on about smart grids and electric cars and other government subsidised white elephants that will supposedly deliver a future that looks much like the present. It’s true that there are a few resilient people in Copenhagen’s Christiania alternative enclave, but these are societal outcasts rather than the norm.

Finally, I’d like to point out that Cornwall is one of the most beautiful places in Britain. It has miles and miles of golden beaches, wild moorland dotted with ancient stone circles and tumuli and cosy organic villages nestling along the coast around natural harbours. It has its own flag, its own language and its own culture. I know some people will object to this observation and accuse me of idealism, rose-tinted glasses and all of that – and I am aware that Cornwall also has some pressing social problems due to poverty and under-investment – but really, where would you rather live? Who wouldn’t choose somewhere rich in nature and culture rather than a concreted patch of suburban wasteland on the edge of an increasingly dangerous city? On my various travels I have been to a lot of different cities across Asia, Latin America and Africa, and in my opinion the only thing worse than being dirt poor is being dirt poor in a giant city with millions of other dirt poor people. 

Of course, I realise that there is a big debate surrounding whether one should pack up and move somewhere ‘safer’ or just white-knuckle it where you are. The jury is out on that one, but for me at least, while the music is still playing, I’d like to make my move in the full knowledge that it will probably be my last one. How do I know it is going to work out? I don’t, is the simple answer. And it depends what you mean by ‘work out’. But uncertainly is a thing that we must all learn to embrace. Life has always been uncertain, it’s just that we have had the illusion of the uncertainty being taken away for a while. 

Finally, I want to put something back into the community into which I am about to embed myself and my family into. I was able to purchase the woodland with money I inherited from my father who died earlier this year, and I’m sure he would have approved of my venture. Likewise, I have finally sold the house that I own in Spain that was like an albatross around my neck for so long, meaning we can live without getting into debt again. I recognise this good fortune for what it is, but don’t want to keep it all to myself like some kind of Scrooge. 

To that end I am planning on running courses at my woodland, primarily to teach people about ancient woodland skills (a local man has offered to teach the courses and I’ll be his first student) I also want to select a few of the local kids who show an interest, and offer apprenticeships; and a woman nearby is breeding shire horses, which she wants to use for hauling lumber out of forests and I’ve said that she can practice on mine. These are the kind of self-reinforcing links in the new network that we are going to have to build, instead of spending too much energy simply demanding that the government and corporations change their evil ways. 

As we continue on our long descent I suspect that my decision to own and work on a woodland won’t seem quite so strange to people in five to ten years’ time. I know that I am going to make plenty of mistakes along the way – that’s the best way to learn. There will be plenty of challenges, I’m sure, but also plenty of joy. Indeed, it seems to me that life is a conundrum that each one of us, with our own unique set of circumstances, must solve. So eventually, after a long and winding road and a few false starts, I feel like I’m just beginning to solve mine and can finally feel Earthed.

And so, at the end of February, it''ll be time to say Farvel to Denmark, and dydh da to Cornwall

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Great Escape Part VIII: Hopenhagen

It was a lot of work. We were going to make a newspaper every day for two weeks – normally we only made one a week. There were contributors to be found, photographers to be hired, media groups to be joined and accreditation issues to be resolved. It was going to be an unofficial publication, meaning that we wouldn’t be restricted by the UN’s straitjacket on reportage, and that I could decide the editorial direction.

This last point was a crucial one to me, but it didn’t seem to have crossed the minds of the publisher or the CEO, who were simply interested in its capacity for earning money through advertising. A further point was that, because we were not officially tied up with proceedings at the Bella Center (the conference centre where the talks were taking place over two weeks in December 2009) we could naturally switch focus to the so-called ‘people’s climate conference’ which was taking place in a leisure centre close to our office. This is where most of the interesting people would be coming to speak – the people who were not invited to the official one, which would be all suited politicians and photo ops.

As December grew closer our workload increased and the scale of what our small team had ahead of us became more daunting. The newspaper would be called the COP15 Post and we would print something like 30,000 copies a day, which would be handed out for free to delegates, protestors and anyone else who was interested in the talks. A small army of volunteers were recruited to do this, and we were given a fleet of cargo bikes and electric vehicles to make the job manageable.

Protestors began to arrive in Copenhagen. You could tell them from their slightly dishevelled and organic look, in contrast to the Danes, who tend to dress all in black and wear smart clothes. The city council tentatively renamed the city ‘Hopenhagen’ in the expectation that a ground-breaking climate deal would be reached. Most people remained oblivious to the coming storm, although news that Obama was coming – and perhaps more importantly, Arnold Schwarzenegger – warranted front page headlines.

The police began to arrive. Thousands of them came in buses from all over Denmark. Mostly they were young recruits who looked nervous and out of place as they set up barricades and checkpoints around the conference centre. The weather, which had been gorgeous and cold with blue skies, suddenly took a turn for the worse as the conference approached. Days of snow and sub-zero temperatures turned the city slushy and black and a heavy thick cloud blanketed the skies. ‘Ha, and they say there is global warming,’ scoffed the sceptics in their opinion pieces.

I began to go out and meet people so that I’d have a number of articles at the ready for those awkward gaps that appear in newspapers. I had a meeting with the head of Copenhagen’s environment department, who looked me in the eye and told me with all sincerity that if everyone in the world lived like Danes then there would be no environmental problems. I also met Connie Hedegaard, who was climate minister at the time and is now the European Commissioner for Climate Action. Her Wikipedia entry describes her as a ‘public intellectual’, but I was disappointed that she didn’t (and still doesn’t) seem to ‘get’ some fairly simple concepts. At the time she was touting waste incineration as the new ‘green’ fuel of the future, conveniently ignoring the fact that to have enough waste we would still need to have hyper-consumption to drive the economy.

Far more clued up was Dr Jane Lubchenco, from America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She seemed pretty worried about climate change, but was equally concerned about ocean acidification (caused by burning fossil fuels), which she described as ‘global warming’s evil twin’ and was alarmed that its implications were not getting as much press coverage.

A few days before the conference kicked off a giant green globe appeared in the city hall square. It was illuminated internally and at night it was actually achingly beautiful. It looked, indeed, like our planet must look like, spinning slowly in space. But wait – what was that? Corporate logos suddenly appeared on the globe, as if entire continents belonged to all the brands we are bombarded with on a daily basis. Above the globe, viewed from a certain angle, was a neon sign for McDonald’s which proclaimed ‘I’m lovin’ it’. It was all quite surreal.

When the conference actually started Copenhagen began to look like a highly militarized zone. The constant drone of helicopters was something none of us were used to, and vans full of police seemed to be in a constant mad dash – sirens blaring – around the city. As for the actual Bella Center itself, security was so tight that even half the delegates couldn’t get in, causing many meetings to be missed and much anger vented. In short, chaos had broken out in a place with little experience of it.

Protestors soon found out how the police would deal with them; many of them were arrested simply for holding up innocuous signs. Marches went ahead anyway and the police insisted they were only targeting ‘trouble makers’, such as people taking part in provocative acts, like milling around and singing peace songs

When they’d arrested everyone they handcuffed them and made them sit in long chains on the street in freezing conditions for hours. Swinging truncheons and arresting people must have seemed like fun because in their enthusiasm they even managed to arrest some of the delegates at the conference centre, presumably because they didn’t look like they were dressed for the part.

Some people were even arrested by the Thought Police. One of them was riding her bike peacefully beside a lake when an undercover agent leaped out, pushed her off and arrested her. She was later jailed for shouting ‘push’, with the charge being ‘endangering the life of a police officer’.

For all the fun and games taking place at the official venue, however, the People’s Climate Conference, in the swimming pool hall, was far more interesting. I wandered down most days and went to a few of the meetings. This is where all the intellectuals gathered, and where you were as likely to see the president of the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, shivering in a thin polyester suit, as you were a band of Peruvian Indians looking bemused and lost. 

Many of the meetings here were chaired by George Monbiot who, whatever you think of his environmental views on nuclear power, proved himself to be a capable enabler of democratic discourse. I had a quick interview with him towards the end of the conference and he opined that the whole thing was more or less a sham and that the talks, as they had been formulated to favour the rich countries, would fail – an opinion I shared.

Our normally sleepy office became a hive of activity. Usually there were around eight people in it and it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Now, however, it was positively bustling, with packs of volunteers bustling in and out, and a group of 10 journalism students installed in the kitchen (the deal was, we gave them space and internet and they gave us stories). 

Half the time I didn’t even recognize the people in the office, having more or less invited anyone who needed a bit of desk space to drop by. One day I noticed a balding man sitting at the desk next to me, tapping away on a laptop and looking engrossed. After a while I asked him who he was, thinking he might have just wandered in off the street and was surfing online porn or something. He gave me a broad smile and introduced himself as one of the chief editors of the hard-hitting Washington-based news magazine Politico

“Don’t worry, I’ll be going pretty soon,” he added.

Our workload was quite tough. I’d get into the office at around 7am and leave again as soon as the final edition for the day had been sent to the printer which could sometimes be as late as midnight. Food and coffee tended to be a takeaway affair, and as the conference ground on I found myself more or less imprisoned in the office and never being exposed to natural light.

Sales, were going remarkably well and the CEO, who before had been so sceptical, was now overjoyed with the success. The sales staff were busy taking orders for adverts, mostly from ‘green’ technology firms for whom the conference was a huge boon. In fact, with Denmark having staked much of its economic future on ‘solving’ the climate problem through technological means, it wasn’t hard to see how they had successfully lobbied for the talks to take place here.

Speaking of green technology, we fielded an enquiry from a man who was trying to flog a system of electric cars that are charged by renewable power connected to a smart grid. The name of the man was Shimon Perez, the current president of Israel, and he wanted us to come over to his hotel and interview him. 

After I had picked myself up off the floor I turned to Katie and asked her what she was doing that afternoon.

‘Why?’ she asked.

"I need you to go and interview Shimon Peres,” I said. Katie was only just back from speaking to Arnold Szhwazernegger, so I figured she might still be in the mood for talking to power-crazed men. 

“What should I ask him?”

“I don’t know. Just ask him about how things are going in the Middle East,” I suggested.

She went off and came back later, looking a bit exhausted. “Jeez, those Israelis take their security seriously, don’t they?”

It turned out that Katie hadn’t really needed to ask many question. Peres simply dictated some pre thought-out sound bites about Israel’s grand ambition to run itself entirely on renewable energy, and all Katie was required to do was nod and take notes while an attache made sure she didn't ask any impudent questions.

Perhaps it was the lack of sleep but this new warped reality seemed to have become the new normal for us, and it hardly seemed surprising when Iranian president Ahmadinejad similarly requested an interview with us. 

He didn't want to speak to me, however, insisting instead to meet the Big Man i.e. a man called Philip Shepherd who was named in our newspaper as the Editor in Chief. Philip was hardly ever present, and was in actual fact a wealthy property developer who had made his name in the 1970s by directing a horror-porn film called The Sinful Dwarf under the pseudonym Vidal Raski – regarded as one of the most depraved movies ever made. 

And so Philip was tracked down to go and meet him. Afterwards I asked him what they had talked about.

 “Nothing much,” he said.

“Surely he must have said something,” I replied.

“Well, he was interested in buying some property.”

And that was that.

Towards the end of the conference I began to suffer from a feeling of exhaustion. Every day I tried to summarise the day’s developments in a main op-ed on the opinion page. Finding something new to say about talks which were effectively deadlocked with no real news coming out of the ring of steel encased concrete carbuncle known as the Bella Center was increasingly difficult. I asked one of Bill McKibben’s minions if the great man himself could write one, and he duly obliged, giving me some respite. It was a piece written from the heart, detailing his visit to the city cathedral the day before and witnessing some impoverished Amerindians who had brought samples of their withered harvest to show the politicians.

The next day the climate pain Bjørn Lomborg got in touch and demanded a bit of ‘balance’ in the paper, suggesting he should write an op-ed. I was powerless to say no because the CEO, who was something of a fan, got wind of it and considered it a great idea. Lomborg, the skate boarding statistician who had gone from denying climate change, to saying it might exist, to saying it was a big problem but a great way to make money for tech firms, was something of a hero in his native Denmark. And so he wrote a piece about his strange suggestions to geoengineer the world using solar-powered ships that belch steam into the atmosphere and reflect sunlight back into space.

Protestors were everywhere, but most of them came from the US, Australia and Britain. The way they protested was a mixture of high technology (Twitter, Facebook etc.) and good old fashioned marching. Copenhagen’s fancy dress shops ran out of polar bear suits and some protestors had to wear gorilla costumes, confusing matters somewhat. One Australian protestor I met (who was wearing one of said gorilla costumes) had made a sign saying ‘Unfuck the world’. It was a reasonable request, but slightly ironic given that she had flown all the way around the world to demand someone else unfuck it for her.

As a matter of fact, those in the conference bubble were entirely able to ignore the protestors outside, or maybe they even didn’t know there were any. Still, our newspaper reported on the various goings on in the wider climate world and copies of it were being handed to delegates as they went in, so there was hope that some of them may have read it.

Towards the end of things a huge amount of importance and expectation was heaped on the arrival of the American president. When he arrived on his big blue aeroplane, the Danish media pretty much judged the conference to have been a success based on his appearance alone. Popular media aside, there was still that pesky little thing called geopolitics to deal with. Inevitably no meaningful deal was reached, with the main players acting like kindergarten children, refusing to speak to one another and going off in a huff late into the night.

The day before the end we got a leak saying that the Danish hosts had a plan to railroad through a deal which screwed the poorer countries and let the ‘developed’ ones off the hook. This was the ballyhooed replacement to the Kyoto Protocol, which has since been called the Copenhagen Accord. Some media cheered it as a victory but I, in my COP15 Post editorial, quoted George Orwell from 1984: 

“If you want a picture of the future – imagine a boot stamping on a human face -forever.” 

It wasn’t an optimistic summary of the conference but it was late at night and that’s all I could summon to mind at the time. Call me a pessimist.

When the conference was over and the protestors chucked all their signs into wheelie bins, the skies cleared of helicopters and the legions of police went home to dance around their Christmas trees with their families, an unearthly silence descended on the city. The streets were soon cleared of trash, the walls scrubbed clean of graffiti, the barricades dismantled, and people felt it was safe to come out again. Normality returned.

I was mentally exhausted by the whole ordeal and took a week off work. When I came back the CEO slapped me on the back and told me that he had always believed it would be a success. As a result of the bumper profits the newspaper had not only avoided making a loss but was actually nicely in the black.

But it was all too good to be true, of course. Over the next few months I had to raise questions about the integrity of the organization I was working for. It was very stressful. Eventually, on my 39th birthday in April, I walked away from the office and never went back. A fair number of the staff followed me, including Katie, who had been particularly badly shafted. 

I felt like I had turned a corner. In a way, I was happy to have been able to use the newspaper as a vehicle for my own project of making a newspaper for the climate conference, but the whole affair had eroded destroyed my faith in the idea that any ‘deal’ would ever be reached that would avert catastrophic climate disaster. One thing was clear to me: when it comes to protecting the future of planet Earth, governments are the enemy. I was sick of it all. I had had enough and I’d rather go hungry than work for them a day longer.

And then I discovered peak oil and everything changed for me.


I spent the next year and a quarter unemployed. Luckily for me this time I was able to take advantage of Denmark's generous safety net, receiving in unemployment money almost what I had earned in employment.

I spent the time productively. I worked as a freelance translator from Danish to English, started my own online newspaper (called Red Herring - a pun on the fact that red is the colour of Denmark's flag and herrings are the national fish), and picked up a job working as the Denmark correspondent for The Guardian newspaper in London.

I also read a lot about peak oil. It started with Thomas Homer Dixon's book The Upside of Down and then, because I have to buy English books online from Amazon, I had a suggestion that I might like The Long Descent by John Michael Greer. When I read this book I was blown away. It led me onto many other peak oil writers, notably Dmitry Orlov, Richard Heinberg, James Kunstler and Michael Ruppert. 

Whole new worlds opened up to me. It was as if understanding our energy system led me to understand many other things too. It led me to read up on everything from ecology to sacred geology, with history, geopolitics and compost making in between. It was a mind blower - I would never be the same again, but in a good way. It was as if I had been handed a magic prism to look through, which made many things in the world suddenly make sense.

I started this blog. I just had to share all the thoughts that were surging through my mind. Others report similar urges once they have learned about the implications of peak energy.

But having a more advanced view of reality didn't pay the mortgage which we still had in Spain, and so I continued to apply for jobs. I was sent on courses by the job centre and had to sit through motivational classes and learn what a CV was. Once, a perky man wearing Lycra, made us jump around in a room saying 'I believe in myself'.

I began to think I was never going to get a full time job, but then, out of nowhere, I was invited to an interview at a travel company in Copenhagen. Later I learned that there were several hundred applicants, so I assumed I had no chance. I was, after all, getting on a bit.

But then, to my amazement, I was offered the job. That's where I have been for the past 18 months. I get paid pretty well to fiddle about with Google Adwords, write itineraries for safaris in Africa and cruises around the Arctic. Sometimes I even get to go on these trips, like last month when I went to Kenya for two weeks.

The benefits are great, my colleagues easy to get on with, my prospects excellent and the company is expanding like crazy and can barely employ enough sales staff to keep up with the demand for expensive foreign holidays.

So why did I just hand in my notice?

I'll tell you on Christmas Day.

Happy Solstice everyone ;-)

It's not over yet.