Monday, March 26, 2012

Say a prayer for the Chicken McNugget

'Throw Away Society' by Sue Coe,
I have just finished reading the latest issue of Resurgence. I always look forward to receiving Resurgence - it is the one magazine that has never compromised its ethics as far as I am concerned, and it is always full of thoughtful articles and beautiful artwork. Each issue focuses on a particular theme and the latest one is all about the ethics of how we treat animals. As I read article after article of man's inhumanity to animal it occurred to me that much of the suffering we inflict on our fellow creatures is in part because our access to cheap energy has allowed the proliferation of systems that tend towards efficiency. Efficiency, of course, is all about minimising the unit production cost and 'externalising' (i.e. sweeping under the carpet) whatever cost that you can get away with. When it comes to efficiency there is no room for sentimentality or squeamishness, and the global meat production system is one of the most barbaric examples.

Dirt cheap energy has in effect compelled us to build vast slaughterhouses staffed with low paid workers who are practically forced to act in brutal manner in order to 'process' the animals into meat. Live animals are driven massive distances in cramped and cold (or hot) conditions because it is efficient to do so. There is no room for compassion in a system that is both profit driven and, at the same time, must deliver the cheapest possible meat to the supermarket shelf.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that we live in a Faustian society. Fossil fuels have allowed us to push whatever we find distasteful or uncomfortable away, allowing us to live with the illusion of everlasting power and prosperity ... but at what price? How many people would eat meat if slaughterhouses had glass walls? How many would buy products from transnational companies if the slave wage workers they employed in far away sweatshops were our friends and neighbours? Indeed, who would fill up their cars with petrol if it ran red with the blood of the endless victims of corruption and war that its acquisition entailed?

The answer, in each case, is probably - some, but not many. But otherwise good people are able to ignore all of these uncomfortable thoughts because the era of cheap energy enables us to make the ugliness disappear in a puff of lavender scented pixie dust. At the back of our minds, of course, uncomfortable thoughts lurk in the way that slugs lurk under rotting trees at the back of gardens. We know, deep down, that Bad Things are happening in our name, but we don't bother ourselves too much about it because hopefully it will be some future generation that will have to deal with the consequences and, in any case, everyone else is doing the same thing so it can't be that bad.

But peak oil could herald the age when that debt has to be repaid. When it is no longer simple or affordable to manufacture and ship goods such long distances, and the economies of scale that worked so well when energy was cheap become the Achilles heel of the industrial system, that's when we will get to learn about the true cost of the externalities we hadn't bothered to think too deeply about. It'll be as if all the debt collectors in the universe converge on our doorstep - with battering rams.

It is impossible to imagine that fear and anger will not get out of control when this happens. Nobody likes having things taken away from them - especially when they've been brought up to believe that these things are theirs by some kind of divine right. Recently somebody said to me that they looked forward to oil supplies being suddenly cut off because it would mean less traffic on the roads for when they wanted to go shopping. I'm afraid this kind of thinking is missing the point by several hundred miles.

My own vision is that we will, in relatively short order, find ourselves in the storm of an almighty crisis that will take many years, if not decades, to pass and will take down a good many people with it.  It's not a pleasant thought, but I consider it to be quite realistic. Just because we won the lottery once and got used to living off the winnings doesn't mean we can win it again.

It won't be the end of the world, however. After a few years of holding on to our hats we'll reach a certain equilibrium - probably a much lower energy intensive one. Demand destruction will have kicked in, as will good old-fashioned actual destruction, meaning there will be quite lot fewer of us. Note that we always assume it will be other people who don't make it through this stage - a cosy thought that can only be held if we don't look too closely at the facts of food production and distribution. All bets are off as to what happens in the political realm during this time but it's probably a safe bet to assume that if you don't fit in where you live now you're probably going to fit in a lot less when the chips are down and angry mobs are looking for someone to blame.

It will be during this time that we'll begin to pay the debt for all the things we've turned a blind eye to over the past few decades. The list is pretty long, and includes environmental destruction, resource over-extraction, arms proliferation, antibiotic abuse. The list goes on. So it will go.

The choices we make now, while the music is still playing, will likely dictate how well we will do in the future. Now is the time to make yourself an indispensable part of the community, learn about natural medicine, work on building mental strength and numerous other survival strategies. We'll soon be amazed at how little we know - and how useless the skills we spent so much money to learn are. Forget filling your cupboards with baked beans and torch batteries, what's going to be important is inner and outer strength - and where you live will probably play a big factor as well. Suburban America or inner city London, for example, are probably not where you want to be when supply chains collapse.

So how does this all relate to our treatment of animals, the point on which I started off? I'm probably not alone in thinking that the wholesale abuse of our fellow organisms can have had a brutalising effect on ourselves as well. If you treat life so cheaply that it is considered normal, as it is here where I live in Denmark, to have sprawling factory-like pig production centres (I can't quite write the word 'farm') in which the animals live in barred pens on concrete floors and die so frequently that metal container skips fill up with their dead bodies, it is not such a stretch of the imagination to assume that life itself is of little or no value?

I'm hoping that one thing we'll regain on our energy descent is a sense of proportion and a re-attuning to the real value of life. If you have to kill a chicken or a fish for your dinner there is a certain unavoidable bond that is created between the two of you. In those parts of the world where people now considered primitive live, it is usually unthinkable to kill an animal without giving thanks for the sustenance it provides, and kills are often accompanied by prayers for the spirit of the dead animal, wishing it a hasty journey to the afterlife.

I don't ever recall hearing anyone muttering a prayer of thanks in the cooked meat aisle of Tesco, or outside the local doner kebab shop at 2am on a Saturday morning. But, one day in the far future, when the historians - whose outlook on life will be so different to what we believe today that it will be incomprehensible - teach our descendants about our Faustian ways, perhaps someone, somewhere, will say a prayer for all those billions of chicken McNuggets we so mindlessly scoffed as we sat so cockily atop Hubbert's Peak with tomato ketchup and mayonnaise all over our sticky fingers.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Imagination breakdown - why has Sci Fi failed us?

That's the equivalent of more than $9 a gallon - but how long before even that seems cheap?
For all the talk of 'green shoots' and economic recovery over the past few weeks, there remains one inconvenient fact that simply won't behave itself. Petrol, gasoline, benzine – whatever you call it, the stuff you fill up your car is becoming more and more expensive. In Britain, for the first time, it now costs over £100 to fill up the tank of a family sized car. £100!! It took me the best part of ten years to save that sum up once to buy myself a BMX bike (okay, so I was ten).

Here in Denmark it's at a record high as well. The picture above was taken this morning outside the filling station near where I live. You can see that the regular fuel costs 13.54 kroner per litre – which is £1.52 a litre – or, for Americans, $9.17 a gallon.

There's a bit of grumbling about it here in Denmark, but nothing of note. It is not, for example, making headlines. This is definitely not the case in Britain where, as ever, many people are outraged to the point of apoplexy. The Daily Telegraph's libertarian readers can be relied upon to froth at the mouth at the mention of price rises of any kind (or wind farms, gay marriage or a number of other seemingly random issues) and they have been in fine form of late bewailing the price of petrol. The gist of the 632 responses (when I last looked) was simple and can be summed up in one word: blame.

Blame the government. Blame the oil companies. Blame the petrol stations. Blame the Arabs. Blame Iran. Blame wind farms. Blame the lefties. Blame the environmentalists. Blame blame blame!

To try and interject a sober note of reason into the, er, discussion is to invite a group mauling by angry motorists wielding cyber pitchforks. None of this is new, of course, and every time the price of petrol spikes thousands of voices cry out that it's not fair on them because they have small businesses, live in remote areas, are disabled and have to rely on large vehicles etc. That's tough for them but it is hardly the fault of oil, being finite and all that. No amount of complaining or blaming can ever make the oil to which we feel entitled come back.

What is actually quite amazing is the fact that anyone should be surprised that oil prices are going up, and with them the price of petrol and every part of the system that has been built on the assumption of abundant and cheap concentrated energy. It is a brave soul who stands up and says 'Actually, you yourselves might be the ones to blame.' The fact that we've had almost 40 years to retool our economies and societies to adapt to a much lower energy future but chose to put our heads in the sand and wish it would all go away is probably the biggest collective failure of imagination modern man has ever made (and when you stick your head in the sand a certain part of your anatomy is rather exposed). We could, if we had wanted, have spent the available time since the 1970s using our vast windfall of cheap energy to build a bridge to a future in which we really didn't have to use it much for fuel, but could still use it for useful things like pharmaceuticals and plastics. Instead we chose to pack as much of humanity as possible into millions of hollow cylinders and boxes and shunt ourselves all over the damned place.

But why should this be so? Why should so little attention be devoted to what happens when the black stuff starts to peak and then decline? True believers in the Illuminati will insist that there are plenty of forms of free energy available for our use, but that the powerful oil cartels, in league with governments, have suppressed all the research. There are any number of videos surging around the Internet that suggest technological breakthroughs which would give us all the energy we would ever want. Time and again these have proved to be hoaxes, or scams to raise capital or simply vehicles for self publicity.

In any case, I don't buy into large-scale conspiracy theories so, that being the case, what could have caused us to hit the snooze button? Well, of course vested interests have done their best to ensure funding flows their way, and the oil industry in particular is run by a bunch of planet-cooking crooks who will likely end up swinging from lamp posts before the party's over. But one area where there has been a clear failing is in the realm of speculative fiction.

Call it scifi if you like, but the genre of fiction grounded in what will happen in the future has been dominated by laser gun wielding, planet hopping fly-boys for too long. Okay, so the Space Race probably had a lot to do with it, but where are the natural successors to George Orwell's 1984 or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World - or even E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops? Could it be that this nascent genre was strangled at birth?

Anyway, these thoughts have been playing in my head a fair bit recently, so I was quite interested to hear that Sony had launched an intiative in which writers were asked to imagine the future in 2025 and write a short story about it. I listened to a few of the entries, and the standards were pretty high, but it was the story by Marcus Sedgwick that exercised me the most. Entitled, Life in 2025, the story involves a man who has invented an app that allows people to escape into their ultimate fantasies as they dream each night. Predictably enough, everyone in the rich world gets utterly hooked on it and becomes distant and dysfunctional, while everyone in the poor world just carries on dying of starvation and catastrophes brought on by climate change.

So far, in our X Factor world, so realistic. But travelling on a train on which every other passenger is programming their smart phones for that night's passionate dream, the inventor realises he has created a Frankenstein and sets out on a quest around the 'real' world. Of course, enlightenment ensues and the tale has a more or less happy ending. It's very well written, gripping, and most of all believable.

But … the form his enlightenment takes is the 'realisation' that nanotechnology and genetic modification can 'save' the 'developing' world. The hero then decides to devote his life to developing 'good' technology rather than the 'bad' technology that increases fecklessness, relationship dysfunction and loss of productivity. Haven't we been here before? The belief that technology is neutral but can be put to either a good use or a bad one is something that I'm finding it harder and harder to agree with. It seems to me that technology, which can roughly be equated with power, will always fall into the hands of those who will use it for destructive purposes. Therefore it follows that the creation of a new technology isn't exactly neutral at all. Sedgwick himself seems to acknowledge this in an interview where he states that he was slightly uncomfortable with receiving the commission.

Listening to the other stories a pattern emerges. All of the imagined futures focus on 'apps' and the greater integration of web technology. In one an adult son gets to know his dead father from all the social network information on his smart phone. There it is again: smart phones, apps, social networks. The message is clear: the future is like now but more so.

It's vaguely worrying, but hardly surprising, that companies like Sony are trying to colonise our minds with their visions of the future. It's a future which gives a nod towards things like climate change and overpopulation, but insists that these 'problems' can be solved by smart guys with smart phones. There's no mention of ecological constraints, the disappearance of groundwater, loss of top soil or lack of cars (a character in one of the stories drives around in an electric car that drives itself!). Instead, it's a future where everybody is so enmeshed with high technology that the best term to describe them is 'cyborgs'.

But there is no app for peak oil. Luckily, there is John Michael Greer, who will be releasing an anthology of peak oil sci fi some point soon (not sure exactly when) written, for the most part, by commentators on his Archdruid Report blog. I, for my part, have written a couple of short stories imagining the kind of future that seems more likely than not. These will be added to my scant collection on Ether Books, just as soon as they fix the upload app (there's that word again).

In the meantime, if anyone thinks they could do a better job of writing a short story set in the future in which energy is severely curtailed just drop me an email at jasonhepp at gmail dot com and I'll consider putting an extra page on this blog as a kind of online anthology of stories (in case you're wondering if anyone would ever actually read it, this blog is getting around 1,300 unique visitors a month, and growing). If not, then just enjoy the warm spring weather and try not to drive too far.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Has Greece been hung out to dry?

'To hang someone out to dry: to get them into trouble, especially by making them take the blame for a bad situation' ( 
I've been thinking quite a lot about Greece recently. We are told every day that the country is facing a ‘meltdown’ or that it is in a death spiral that it can’t pull out of in time. The public health system is in crisis, HIV rates are skyrocketing, people haven’t been paid for months, malaria is returning to some areas and four skeletal looking men on black horses have been spotted gazing down on Athenians from atop the Acropolis.

Actually the last one isn’t true but it wouldn’t surprise me to see it in a news report some day soon.

It strikes me that the Greeks have got a bad deal in all this. Amidst all the doomer porn which is surging around the Internet these days, could it be that Greece is the inkblot nation onto which others project their own fantasies of collapse? The narrative is as familiar as it is blinkered and it goes something like: ‘Those crazy/lazy Greeks (or Spanish or Italians or Portuguese) borrowed far beyond their means and spent it all in an orgy of consumerism and now they are getting their comeuppance and threaten to bring us all down with their fecklessness.’

If you subscribe to this narrative it goes without saying that you will think the opposite of the sinful south is the virtuous north. While Stelios, the part time fisherman in Corfu, was spending his days lazing around drinking Ouzo and polishing his new Mercedes Benz (bought on credit, of course) Fritz in Stuttgart was busily actually making new Mercedes Benzes on a production line and dreaming about his upcoming family holiday in Corfu (paid for from his savings, of course).

This, in my opinion, is total rot, and is not borne out by the actual figures, which show that southern Europeans work longer than their northern counterparts. But apart from getting into a bind about who works hardest perhaps it would be more instructive to understand who is responsible for getting Greece into the situation it is in now – and in any discussion about that it is impossible not to mention the EU.

Now, I’ve always been a fan of European union. I liked the idea of all of us Europeans sharing a common identity and being able to go and live and work in one another’s countries with only minimal red tape. I was also a cheerleader of the euro currency – no longer did we need to stuff our money belts with wads of francs, drachmas, deutschmarks or whatever whenever we went abroad. I moaned out loud about the pound not being part of it, but was always secure in the opinion that it would just be a matter of time before it was.

I liked less the grey bureaucracy in Brussels, and hated the Common Agricultural Policy, which rode roughshod over the environment and probably caused starvation in other countries – but these could be reformed, I reasoned.

But if I had truly understood the economic situation as it unfolded from the early 1990s onwards I would certainly have changed my mind, for what was happening was a form of economic colonialism. Banks with too much capital, mostly from northern Europe, were permitted – nay encouraged – to push this liquidity onto southern Europe. It was a bit like offering a suitcase full of cash to the less well off people who lived down the end of the road – and it would have been a no-brainer not to take it.

The money, of course, was intended for infrastructure projects and came with strings attached – usually in the form of demanding ‘reforms’. What is a reform? A reform is where you lower the barriers to entry to your national industries, allow venture capitalists to run riot and then proclaim everything to be much more efficient and transparent than it used to be in the bad old days.

But something went wrong. Corruption and tax avoidance became endemic (that tends to happen when you pump a lot of money into a previously poor country but the suits in Brussels hadn’t factored that in) and the mind-warping advertising industry encouraged Greeks to spend way beyond their ability to pay back debt – something they took to with gusto just like, well, just like everywhere else in the world.

Crash! The tidal wave that formed as the Greek Colossus fell into the sea swept across the front pages of the world. Greece now ‘stared into the abyss’ or was facing ‘Armageddon’. Greece was doomed!

Or was it?

Iceland faced something very similar a couple of years earlier and, instead of being wiped off the face of the Earth by the wrath of the gods of finance, it is now doing remarkably well and getting back to normal. Argentina too, which basically told the IMF to ‘go swivel’ is now the place that most Spaniards want to emigrate to.  You don’t hear about this too much, of course – it’s the economic equivalent of believing in ghosts or the afterlife.

But enough of talking about countries as if they were monolithic abstractions of economic units – what about the, you know, people who live there? I’ve been following Jon Henley’s blog ‘Greece on the Breadline’ in the Guardian, which focuses on the effect on people’s everyday lives that the economic problems are causing. What shines though is the fact that people, as people will do when left to themselves, are muddling through as best as they can. Many are turning off the office lights and returning to their ancestral villages, forming cooperatives and living vastly improved lives outside of their cubicles. Others have set up small businesses that are doing well selling their wares locally and people have formed their own support groups despite having very few resources to do so. These, then, are the real Greek heroes.

In fact the last thing the Greeks want is to be labeled as victims by others. One teenager, Tetty, in Jon Henley’s latest dispatch says:

"As you can see, things are bad in our country and it won't be easy for us to get out of this crisis. However, sometimes people exaggerate and talk about Greece as if it is completely ruined and there's no way we can be saved. That is not true and unfair towards us. I'd like the rest of the world to know that we Greeks are proud of our nation. I'm sure that we will overcome this crisis since we are hard-working and persistent and we don't give up easily."

Max, who is 13 but more tuned in than most news editors, added:

"Have you ever thought about the big nations and the advice they gave Greece in the first place that led this country into the state it is now? And we are still taking advice from the 'Good advisers', for no other reason except we have nowhere else to turn. We have not got the choice to recede from the big international forces. So please, consider my advice, and choose not to demote my fellow citizens but help people understand the situation that really exists. Even though I am a 13-year-old I believe I know better about my fellow citizens than the media that change the real story into a tragedy."

Greece, for those who are unaware, is a very ancient country. I have to admit an interest here: I fell in love with Greece as a teenager, a love that endures to this day. Perhaps it’s because of my name, but I was enthralled by the story of Jason and the Argonauts from a very early age (the 1963 film version features a fight with realistic looking skeletons, which was right up my street). I read about the Greek myths and went on to study Classics at ‘A’ Level, which culminated in my first ever trip away from my parents with my girlfriend, whom I was very much in love with. We slept in a filthy hotel in Athens, revelling in the exotic sights and sounds of this strange country. The stultifying heat, the exotic food, the incomprehensible language, the astonishing ruins of the Parthenon (which I had drawn so many times in exercise books) – I felt as if I had landed on another planet. We sailed in ships across Homer’s ‘wine dark sea’ and when we came back to England via a very long train journey it was this taste of Greece that made me decide that I wanted to spend as much of my life as possible seeking out the richly exotic before it disappeared beneath a tide of concrete, fast food chains and Disney films.

Later, I read Herodotus’s Histories (something I’d recommend everyone to do if you’re interested in men with dog’s heads and giant ants that dig up nuggets of gold) – the first attempt at mapping out human history. I have returned to Greece several times since, including Crete, Corfu and Rhodes, and each time I am awestruck by the layers of history, the natural beauty and the civility of the people.

Beauty, civility and history, of course, don’t appear on accountants’ balance sheets, but they do at least form the basis for some optimism about the Greek ‘situation’. Because what the Greeks are learning now is that when the safety blanket of easy credit and consumer culture is taken away you are faced with a very different reality to the one presented on our television screens. The fact that despite the difficulties they face many people in Greece are adapting should be a cause for optimism. It should also be an opportunity for learning. I can quite easily imagine ‘education retreats’ run by ex civil servants and assorted office workers, where groups of us ‘descenders’ learn of ways to make our communities more resilient against economic shocks – taking place in some dreamy island destination of course.

The Greeks, in fact, are ideally placed because they have, at most, only one generation of experience of hyper capitalism, against northern Europe’s (or America’s) several. Enough old peasants are still knocking around who know how to yoke an ox or tease nourishment out of the soils, and the opportunities for re-learning these skills are immense.

‘We are all Greek now,’ goes the rallying cry of the anti-financial movement.Take comfort from the fact that Greece is rising to the challenge, and that we can too.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why bother?

Frederiksberg Have in Copenhagen. The trees were full of jackdaws cackling and wheeling when I took this picture on my phone.
Sometimes it’s hard being a Cassandra. Actually, it’s always hard being a Cassandra, but today felt like a real low. Cassandra, of course, was the daughter of King Priam in Greek mythology and she was granted the ability to hear prophesies from the future after some snakes ‘licked clean’ her ears. But when she refused the advances of Apollo he placed a curse on her meaning that nobody would ever believe her when she warned them about what the future held.

Now, anybody who claims they can tell you what is going to happen in the future is either mad or a liar, but saying that, anyone who wilfully ignores all of the current trends and doesn’t bother to read history is a fool. Today it’s not just one trend that is worrying, but a whole host of them all converging on one another in the not too distant future. It’s not just peak energy that is concerning, but the draining of groundwater, the massive loss of topsoil, the huge accelerating destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems and the colossal overpopulation of the planet. I could go on.

What’s more, individually any actions we take will have a minuscule effect on these looming crises. And so the question arises in my mind from time to time: why bother?

I was contemplating that thought this evening as I pushed a steamed bun around my bowl with a chopstick in a small backstreet Chinese restaurant in Copenhagen’s red light district. Beside me on the table was a copy of William Catton’s Overshoot, which I am reading at the moment, so perhaps that was a contributing factor to my melancholy. Outside, in the first warm spring evening of the year, whores strutted up and down and gangs of hooded men stood on street corners as police patrol cars occasionally crawled past. You can usually find me here on a Tuesday early evening filling the time between when I leave my office and when my Tai Chi class starts. It’s a kind of weekly treat that I look forward to.

But I was having difficulty enjoying it this evening. After a while I realised that I was dwelling on a spat I’d had with a troll earlier in the day. Of course, this being Scandinavia, you might assume I’m talking about the evil creatures which hide under bridges and attack people, but I am of course referring to the electronic variety who hide under pseudonyms and attack people. This particular one was clearly a paid shill of the nuclear industry of the kind that pop up in any online discussion about nuclear energy.

Normally I don’t let them bother me but there was something about the clinical nastiness of this one that got under my skin. As I said, having recently been reading Overshoot - which examines our predicament through an ecological paradigm - I was feeling a bit sensitised , and was contemplating Catton’s warning of the inevitable mass die-off of humankind. I’m not sure what the opposite of a lullaby is, but Overshoot would seem to be it.

But a mass die-off is most clearly what we are clearly heading towards and no amount of wishful thinking can prevent it. How does one live with the knowledge that in the next century or so the vast majority of our species will starve to death … and still manage to live a ‘normal’ life surrounded by people who think the most important news event of the month has been the release of the iPad 3? There’s no point taking your depression to a psychiatrist as they’ll only either put you on mind altering pills or else tell you to deal with the problem that is plaguing you. There is no way of ‘dealing with’ the mass die-off of people - depression is the only rational option open to the non-psychopathic.

In fact there was a recently conducted study which concluded that mildly depressed people were much more likely to be aware of the enormity of our ecological problems than the non-depressed. My immediate thought upon hearing this that it could well be the other way around.

So, it would seem, apart from depression the only bit of levity available to us is gallows humour. So here, we go, here’s a bit of gallows humour.

Finishing my meal I got up and paid. I was still way too early for my class so I decided to walk across the city to get there. As I pushed my bike past the prostitutes (some Eastern European, some Western African, all battered looking) the crack dealers and derelict Greenlanders I got that all too familiar sinking feeling. But perhaps worse than the so-called low-lifes were their polar opposites: all the shiny happy well-adjusted young urbanites sitting out in the sun and talking into their smart phones or pushing fashionable prams. I sometimes think that when I look at these people and pity them for having no sense of the future, they look right back at me and pity me for having no fashion sense.

I decided to cut across town through a park I had never been through before. I felt in need of some greenery - perhaps that would cheer me up a bit. The park, Frederiksberg Have, was erupting with snowdrops and other spring flowers when I arrived. Why had I never been here before? It was beautiful. I immediately felt something righting itself within me as I walked through stands of spreading beech trees and past the ornamental lakes. The city, with its charging traffic and 7-Elevens, disappeared from view and beyond the trees the only buildings to be seen were the elegant apartment blocks built in the nineteenth century. I gazed at them beyond the trees as the light from the setting sun illuminated their facades. The grace displayed in their design comes from a time now past. Nothing of any such beauty has been built for a hundred years in this city, and yet it clings on to its charm in the way that European cities are wont to do.

But the buildings, and indeed the beautifully landscaped park, were the result of a kind of apocalypse that struck the city just over 200 years ago. It was the time of the Napoleonic Wars and Denmark, proclaiming neutrality, was about to receive a nasty shock. I’m not sure if any British admiral used the phrase ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ but it was decided in London that the best course of action to take against the untrustworthy Danes was to sail a fleet of British gunboats into Copenhagen harbour and bomb the living daylights out of the city. The bombardment went on for several nights and was the first example of a preemptive strike aimed at a civilian population. The British gunboats used Congreve rockets, which set fire to buildings on impact and, by the end of it, around 2,000 innocent citizens were dead and the city lay in ruins. To make matters worse for the Danes we stole their entire fleet of ships and set fire to the ones that we couldn’t navigate back to England. This last tactic was such a success that a new verb was coined,‘to Copenhagenize’, meaning to confiscate a country’s navy.

It’s amazing any Danes will even speak to me.

Painting by Christoffer Eckersberg of the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 by British gunboats

But from this cataclysm, like a phoenix from the ashes, something amazing occurred. A new Golden Age was ushered in! The city was built from the ground up, with wide boulevards and spacious parks (like Frederiksberg Have). The arts flourished, with painters and sculptors becoming household names, and writers, such as Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard, gave the world respectively heart breaking fairy tales and existentialism.

Returning to the present - could our pending catastrophe give rise to something similar? It doesn’t look likely. Europe in the nineteenth century could thank rampant industrialism, cheap energy and ever-concentrating power to bring in the resources to build on such a vast scale and find money to pay the Italian and French artisans who helped design such wonderful architecture. It was as if nineteenth century Europe, with its colonial possessions, was pushing against an open door - and that door has now swung well and truly shut in our faces.

I walked on through the park, savouring the warm air and the calm atmosphere. Above, in some very tall trees, hundreds of jackdaws were having a very loud meeting. I stood still and watched them, remembering the sage advice (of who …memory fails me) to not seek out wild nature but to observe the nature of where you are. I couldn’t fathom the behaviour of the birds. They would take off in small groups, wheel around the flock as a whole and then return to the branches, before letting another small group do its thing. All the while the sound was cacophonous, but every now and again a silence would come over them for some seconds, before the noise began again. What were they doing? I watched in wonder for about five minutes, noticing after a while that the park had emptied of joggers.

I walked away, happy to have been reminded that there are other worlds outside the narrow human one that we are so caught up in. As I walked away towards the park exit I saw two young girls in summer dresses kneeling down on the grass picking the snowdrops near a sign that said ‘Keep off the Grass’. There was nobody else around, just me, the flower collecting girls and several hundred jackdaws. I decided not to bother with Tai Chi after all. Instead I wanted to go home and tuck my own two girls up in bed and read them a bed time story. As I rode home through the darkening city streets I wondered if internet trolls ever pause to sniff the first scent of spring on the breeze, or allow themselves to be mesmerised by the murmurations of jackdaws or watch as children go wide-eyed with wonder as they hear a story written over a hundred years ago.

To me, at least, right now, those are the things worth bothering for.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

How the Internet will die

Unlike the Easter Island statues there won't be much trace of the Internet for future archaeologists to study

Okay, granted, that’s a mildly provocative title for a subject so close to so many people’s hearts these days. This week I got a reminder of how psychologically dependent many have become on computers and the Internet when something that many would regard as unthinkable actually happened: Facebook went down.

In the office where I work, people logging on on Wednesday morning expecting to find out what their selected bunch of loose acquaintances were listening to at the moment, were instead met with a frozen screen and the message ‘Last update 13 hours ago’. The disbelief was palpable and those just arriving for work were told of the cataclysm before they’d even had a chance to take their coats off.

Facebook’s half-sister Twitter still seemed to be working and a quick search with the hashtag #facebookdown revealed a torrent of people who were either puzzled, concerned or downright jubilant. “It was as if millions of voices cried out in terror and then there was silence,” wrote one Twit wit. “How will I tell people what I ate for breakfast?” asked another.

It seemed that the site had crashed across Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa (the parts where people know what Facebook is). Given that I work pretty closely with several people in Africa and am in more or less constant Skype connected with them, they expressed amazement that something as sturdy as Facebook could crash in the First World.

But by mid morning it was still not up and running and the man who sits near me who was recently employed as a Facebook consultant/developer began to look sweaty. Theories about hacking emerged, with one quite plausible one centring on the fact that the leader of a hacking collective had been outed as an FBI informer the previous day.

By lunchtime it had suddenly started to function again and most people breathed a sigh of relief, with only one of my work colleagues whispering to me “Damn, I thought I was going to get my life back.”

Outages such as this, while being entirely inconsequential, serve as a warning that the idea that the growth of the Internet is far from inevitable. I would go one step further and argue that they are the first nail in its coffin. I’m not ready to bury the Internet just yet (and no, the irony that I’m writing an online blog is not lost on me) but the undertakers must at least be thinking about putting on their white gloves and eyeing their shovels.

How will the Internet die? The answer to that is: death by a thousand cuts.

Creeping normalcy is the key to understanding the likely trajectory of the Internet. It refers to a situation where a system changes radically but only in small, barely noticed increments. Connoisseurs of collapse look for creeping normalcy in everyday life and it all too easy to see it when looking at the Internet. Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed said that such a phenomenon occurs with cyclical regularity and applied it to several past civilizations who underwent a collapse. In the case of the Easter Islanders, for example, we know that they brought about their own demise by cutting down every last tree, thus denuding the landscape and undermining their ability to gather food, both from the landscape and from the seas as their fishing boats were made from wood. With our advantage of hindsight it is easy to ask why some Easter Islanders didn’t put a stop to the tree cutting, but that would be to ignore the idea of creeping normalcy - or landscape amnesia, as Diamond calls it. Successive generations thus unfamiliar with the richly forested landscapes of their forebears saw it as increasingly okay to hack down the trees - until it was too late and a tipping point was reached from which they could not return.

The Internet, just like the Easter Island societies, is a system that is vulnerable to collapse. Unlike the Easter Island societies, however, it is complex to the point of abstraction. I’m not sure how many people realise just how astonishingly complex the system is, relying on everything from advanced communication protocols and encryption programs to giant trans-nationally interconnected industries spawning increasingly hard to manufacture hardware and the armies of trained technicians (aka geeks) needed to keep the whole thing growing. And, of course, you can’t talk about the Internet without also mentioning the inconvenient fact that it consumes more electricity than many entire countries (in the US alone it uses more energy than the auto industry).

Let’s face it: the Internet is a monster that is getting out of control.

When some environmentalists, such as Bill McKibben, imagine a future where we will all be small scale farmers, living in egalitarian eco-communities powered by biomass - but still have full Internet access so that we can all teleconference instead of hopping on a plane - they are missing a huge point. In any rational analysis there is simply no room for the kind of Internet we are used to today to exist on anything like the level other than which it was intended: for military use.

The US military, as we all know, has plenty of resources. But in the 1960s even its resources were being stretched to the limit by the need to do complex research involving several number-crunching computers at different locations. To get around this problem and pool computer power the Pentagon developed an ‘internetworking’ programme based on an untested system of data packet switching developed by Donald Davies, a valleys Welshman whose father worked in the coal industry.

The system proved to be pretty reliable, making it far easier and cheaper to process data. Email soon followed (which has just celebrated its 30th birthday) and the magic of investment capital, media hype and cheap energy has brought us forward to the point where, now, people get a spooky ‘end of the world feeling’ if Facebook doesn’t work.

This is all well and good but the Internet, like any system, needs to pay its way. It’s one of the prevalent myths (and I use the word in the common sense to mean ‘untruth’) that the Internet is free. That is, the energy needed to sustain it must be equal to or greater than the worth that it produces. I mentioned above how much energy and how many resources the World Wide Web gobbles up, but what does it give us in return? Well, it gives us a lot of more or less useful things (think education, news, Wikipedia - i.e. useful information) and a lot of not so useful things, such as porn (which accounts for about 10-15% of web use) and a whole lot of dubious brain rotting tripe (I won’t mention any examples as there are far too many).

But what about the death by a thousand cuts I mentioned above? Yes, I was getting to that. It occurs to me that the creeping normalcy has become more pronounced of late. Here are some of the indications of it that have occurred relatively recently.

1. Succession. When the Internet first bloomed it was as if someone had liberated all of the seeds from a bio bank and scattered them at random over a large piece of fertile and recently ploughed land. Seemingly overnight a million weird and wonderful plants sprouted forth and began to colonise the earth. Seemingly overnight again many of them died off, some did well and others spread like wildfire, only to overshoot themselves and die back. When winter came (the dotcom bust) many more died off but those that survived had a natural advantage over the new arrivals of spring: they were stronger, taller and able to reap more of the sunlight.

This is what ecologists call succession: an untidy race for colonisation in which there are a few winners and a lot of losers. At the moment we are in one of the middle stages of succession, with some of the tiny seedlings now having grown into rather large trees which dominate the landscape. There remains an illusion that we are still at the riotous spring flower stage of the first period of succession, but this is only maintained because the amount of new land being given over to it keeps on increasing.

In the early stages of succession the plants are busy trying to out-compete other species and perhaps the ones with the brightest flowers attract the most bees. Survival is the name of the game here. But in the later stages, when they have come to out-compete their rivals, they are able to set the terms for their own existence. Be they newspapers, anti virus programs or iPhone apps, what they once gave away for free they are now able to charge for and, we, the users, are usually the target.

2. Invasion. The Internet is a tool. Like all tools the moment we finish designing them, they in turn begin to design us. Nowhere is this more true than the Internet. How many of us are addicted to checking our email, looking at news websites and finding out what our friends have been saying in some social media forum or other? An obsessive compulsion like this is commonly known as an addiction. And where there is an addiction, be it coffee, heroin or Twitter, there is always a ready supply of people willing to supply that addiction - for a price.

So, in addition to the prices being levied on users for what was once a free service (how long before Blogger starts to charge me for writing these words?) there is also an invasion of what we once quaintly thought of as private. As of only a couple of weeks ago Google changed its privacy code meaning that it now overtly gathers data on our browsing habits, which can then be sold on to the highest bidder. Thus if I decide to mention the fact that one of my friends recently went on holiday to the Canary islands I can expect targeted adverts to pop up in my browser as shadowy computers around the world work 24/7 to build up profiles of every Internet user on the planet: what websites we visit, what we talk about in emails, blog about etc, it all goes into the mix. It may well be in contravention of our human rights, but, what the hell - Google just seems to be able to do what it likes. Unsurprisingly, some people don’t take kindly to this, and a few more people drop out of using the web.

3. Saturation. It may be a combination of the above two reasons, plus a case of social media fatigue, but we are staring at Peak Facebook. Using the analogy from point 1. Facebook is the fast-growing tropical tree that burst up through the bushy undergrowth and shot skywards, thus depriving its rivals of sun and nutrients. Despite being valued at some colossal sum, the Facebook giant doesn’t seem to be able to capitalise on its position of dominance and there are clear signs that its exponential growth has halted. Just look at the chart linked to below, created using Google Insights.

Peak Facebook

4. Energy greed. This is the Internet’s real Achilles heel. Peak oil and a steady upward pressure on energy prices will make data farms seem like an anomaly of the age of abundance. At present there is still a huge demand for new data centres and many of these are being constructed around the Arctic Circle to take advantage of the cold air and reduce the costs of cooling. But when energy becomes scarce and it comes down to deciding whether to keep a hospital running or a data farm, which one do you think authorities will choose to keep running?

5. Malicious attacks and censorship. The Internet is a threat to those who would seek to concentrate power. These days it is very hard to commit an atrocity without someone uploading mobile phone footage of it onto YouTube. Authoritarian strongmen, of which there are still quite a few, don’t take kindly to this and tend to do their best, usually clumsily, to suppress the system which seeks to expose their crimes. Thus the Internet, which most regard as a benevolent medium to expose wrongdoing, becomes a battleground for proxy wars fought between competing power blocks. Witness the wrath that was poured down on the head of Wikileaks following the release of thousands of confidential documents belonging to the US military. Paypal duly helped out by banning donations to Wikileaks, which in turn caused hacking collectives to attack its site and bring it to its knees. With ever more frequent attacks by both shadowy groups and shadowy government angencies, is it any wonder the Internet is beginning to resemble a John le Carre novel? Another cut.

6. Brain drain. As societies around the world wrestle with budget cuts and austerity, there simply won’t be as much money around to pump into the tech industry’s hidden subsidies. And that includes the huge technical departments of universities in which human beings are processed into system technicians at public expense. In the super fast world of modern technology their skills are rapidly redundant necessitating further rounds of training, all done at either public or private expense. Cost is the keyword here.

7. Hardware redundancy. High technology and hyper-capitalism go hand in hand like two evil twins, and it is doubtful that one could exist without the other. Computer equipment is not built to last very long and greater software demands make it artificially obsolete long before the circuit boards stop working. In a world of constrained resources where getting parts is likely to become ever more difficult, hardware redundancy must be seen as a brake on the continued expansion of the Internet.

8. Systemic complexity. As previously mentioned, the Internet is the most complex of beasts. It is likely to represent the high point of human technical endeavour - never again will be create a system so awe-inspiringly complex. But complexity in a system is a weakness, requiring ever greater resources to maintain it and provide security against those who wish to attack it or subvert it for their own ends. When the costs of maintenance and security exceed the returns on the system as a whole the entire thing begins to create feedback loops that lead to either a sudden or gradual collapse.

So, for the above reasons, and no doubt many more will crop up in the years to come, I believe that the Internet’s glory years are well and truly over. That’s not to say that it won’t be around for some time yet, and whether you think this is a good or a bad thing, it’s certainly something worth contemplating. When it finally does topple, unlike the Easter Island statues, there will be precious little of it lying around for future archaeologists to study.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Rise and Fall of the Cult of Economics

I fell into economics the way a drunk man falls into an open manhole on a dark street. Growing up I had zero interest at all in business or making money, instead taking A Levels in English literature, classics, French and, er, computer science. It was only when I began to falter in the latter that a careers adviser suggested to my father that I had no chance in hell of getting a job with my chosen subjects (this was the late 1980s) and I should study something a bit more ‘solid’.

I agreed because I had been in quite a bit of trouble with my parents at that time and decided I should try and do something conciliatory to please them. And so, at 16, I found myself trying to catch up in A Level economics.

Two years later disaster struck. My shift in subjects had caused me to drop back a year and, when the time came for all my friends to go off to university, I found myself staring at another year in a provincial town on the outskirts of Birmingham. By this point the urge to flee had become so powerful that I would consider practically anything to get me on the next National Express bus out of there. Someone suggested that a few of the universities had a number of ‘bottom of the barrel’ courses that they couldn’t fill because nobody wanted to study them. The next day I got on the phone and rang around almost every university in England, practically begging for a place to study ... anything.

And that’s how I ended up reading economics at Middlesex University. While my friends ended up in more salubrious universities, I found myself contemplating the squalid tower blocks and rising damp of north London.  

Economics, thankfully, did not start out as I expected. Both my father and the careers advisor had made the error of equating economics with business studies. It was nothing like it. The first year could more aptly be described as philosophy, and I found myself reading everything from Rousseau and Locke to Marx, Smith and even Schumacher. This wasn’t so bad, I chuckled to myself. I began to wear glasses, grew my hair long and hung around the student union drinking ridiculously cheap subsidised beer.

My fellow students were not so happy. They had thought economics was all about how to get rich. They didn’t want to know about poncey dead French intellectuals. This was 1989 and a short Tube journey away Margaret Thatcher sat in Downing Street and Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’ was on the TV. What’s more, the Berlin Wall had just fallen and, although I didn’t realise it at the time, the very meaning of economics was about to change.

According to the text books economics (which derives from household management in ancient Greek) was all about making choices for how best to distribute scarce goods and services in the most efficient manner. By this very definition there was an implicit assumption that there may be more than one way of achieving this distribution.  But the lifting of the Iron Curtain put an end to all that. The Soviet Union had, by buckling and collapsing, revealed that there was only one prize-fighter in the ring worth backing: GDP growth driven capitalism.

My second year at university proceeded uneventfully, although the more interesting topics of the first year were now in the rear view mirror and I now had to study macro and micro economics, and other unsavoury subjects, including statistics.

And then something very unexpected happened. We were to spend our third year in the ‘real world’, at the end of which we had to write a thesis on some topical economics related matter or other. One day I went to my pigeon hole to check my mail only to discover an expensive looking manila envelope with my name printed on it in a classy looking font. I opened it, wondering what it could be, and discovered it was an invitation to spend my year working in the heart of the British government at Her Majesty’s Treasury on Whitehall.

When I’d recovered from the shock I had a haircut, went for an interview and, before I knew it, was working as an intern in the Economic Analysis division of the Treasury. It was an unusual experience, to say the least – the kind of thing for which people reserve the work Kafkaesque. There were about ten of us interns (back then we didn’t use the American word ‘intern’ we were simply ‘students’) and our job was simply to gather up huge piles of printed paper, punch the numbers into very basic green-screen computers (remember them?) and print out charts showing projected economic growth, and other things. At the end of each day we saved the data onto huge hard drives and then locked these in very sturdy safes.

The department in which I worked was where economic forecasts were formulated. Imagine a constant gnawing silence, punctuated only by the bonging of Big Ben right outside our window, with bald-headed clerks poring over charts and uttering occasional passive-aggressive curses. Occasionally a minister, or even the chancellor, would pop by and there would be a flurry of activity and much thumping of the piles of paper. My charts were produced and pored over and occasionally bits were added to them with black felt tip pens and the stressed-looking economists would get back to work again. That was what working at the Treasury was like.

To punctuate the boredom a few of us began to explore the cellars beneath the huge building, finding room upon room of dusty detritus from the days of empire. These were also Churchill’s war offices, and as such, piled up with maps and old furniture and rubber stamps. It was an eerie place but we managed to get a pool table put in one of the rooms and played sneaky games by candle light at every opportunity. The building was a huge labyrinth and nobody ever asked you what you were doing as long as you had a pen behind your ear and were holding a piece of paper.

At the time the Chancellor of the Exchequer was Norman Lamont. Our only contact with him was at lunch, and he would sometimes share tables with us. John Major had only just left the building, taking up the reins of government following Thatcher’s ousting.  At one point we were even invited round to Number 11 for a glass of wine – and I stood there wondering how the hell this had happened.

I didn’t learn anything useful about economics during my time there, although I did write a thesis about the inevitability of economic and monetary union was in Europe (a title suggested by my tutor). At least I got to see what an economist looked like (usually tired looking, bald, and prematurely aged with a wrinkled brow) and decided I didn’t want to be one. I also discovered that, as George Orwell had said of politicians, economists used language in the way that squids use ink – to obscure and confuse. Anyone who has sat through a Treasury surgery can testify to that.

At the end of my year I left to spend the autumn travelling on trains around the US, flying out the day before Black Wednesday – in which my erstwhile boss squandered billions of pounds to keep the pound from being annihilated on the currency markets as it crashed out of the exchange rate mechanism. (As an aside, I had just turned 21 and, like most of my friends, had never been on a plane before – which is quite amazing to think of today when people jump on planes as if they were buses.)

I finished up with an average degree and an aversion to economics as it was being taught. This was at the beginning of the Great Boom and in the years that followed everyone seemed to be losing their minds. Credit became widely available, house prices soared (which people treated as equity to borrow ever spirally amounts) and the BBC began to copy its rival CNN and dedicate masses of air time to analysing the minute movements of economic indicators. People, it seemed, no longer wanted to study history or philosophy at university –instead they all wanted to study marketing. Marketing, marketing, marketing. That’s all we heard! The dark art of making somebody want something they didn’t realise they wanted.

We were told, repeatedly, that we had never had it so good. Boom and bust had gone, history was at an end and all would be well if we just let the economists continue to steer the country, the scientists get on with their inevitable work of finding cures for the remaining killer diseases and the marketers get on with dreaming up new products on which to spend our plastic money which the boys in the City somehow created for us.
Economics had morphed into ‘growth’ and growth was the only way to keep the economy going.

But it was all an illusion, of course. All we had really been doing was sawing away at the branch we were sitting on. The huge range of food that we suddenly had in our shops was being grown in far flung invisible places, the cheap consumer electronics seemed to magically appear and the money we all thought we had turned out to be a mass hallucination. Ghost money, created out of thin air, possessed in turn the bodies of dotcom companies and real estate, only to be exorcised periodically.  And all the while the hidden engine of all this economic activity – oil – began to display tentative signs that it was nearing the summit of its production.

Natural gas was ballyhooed as a saviour for both the climate and the energy balance out of all proportion to reality and perhaps it was my economics degree that saw me getting a job actually trading the stuff on a computer screen, which I would describe as a bit like playing a slow moving computer strategy game against a bunch of ruthless opponents.

Could it be now, with economic growth in the west being anaemic at best and the streets filled with protestors, that we might see the crown of economics slipping? With growth figures grossly inflated by government spending and the euphemistically called quantitive easing, the system that promised so much appears to be breaking down. This could be a Wizard of Oz moment – we have already seen the grand wizard of the economic boom, Alan Greenspan, exposed for what he really is: an old man with old fashioned ideas of cornucopian invincibility.

But old habits die hard. Newspapers, obsessed with figures spoon fed to them industry cheerleaders, are having a particularly hard time adjusting to the cognitive dissonance of our age. For every article warning about the overshooting of fish stocks, topsoil, the climate, population ad infinitum, there are at least three promoting a ‘return to growth’.  It’s a bit like gravely warning an alcoholic friend that he is about to die of liver cirrhosis before handing him a bottle of whisky and saying  here’s something to make your recovery a little easier.  Note that every time there is the slightest upwards blip of a random economic indicator the television screens are filled with tame economists talking about how it is the start of a long delayed recovery (from the slump which they failed to foresee).  All they have to do is look very serious as they are saying it and when they are inevitably proved wrong they will explain in equally serious tones that a leftfield event had occurred which nobody could have reasonably predicted, safe in the knowledge that they will never be called to book for their misjudgement.

How economists have gained this aura of invincibility is simple: they told us what we wanted to hear for thirty years. In a rising tide they told us the boats were going to rise. They had their computer models to back them up, and they had oil so cheap it wasn’t seriously considered as a part of the equation worth bothering about much. All of it was couched in the kind of confusingly geekish economic shibboleths that the average Joe couldn’t care less about – just so long as his shares were going up and he could continue to live the frivolous lifestyle he had come to expect as a birthright.

But for all the advantages of being a messenger bearing good news in good times it can be a dangerous business when the news isn’t so good. The times of guaranteed economic expansion are drawing to an end, and it will be interesting to see how many economists’ heads end up on poles in the ensuing chaos. I, for one, am glad I didn’t continue down that path, even if it meant tossing away all the privileges that came with it. As such, I don’t dwell too heavily on economic news –and to do so has become an addiction for many.

This is just one of the many ways we are going to have to re-imagine our connections with the real world, and something I'll focus on next week.