Sunday, May 27, 2012

Nature's Revenge

In need of a reminder about impermanence? Picture from Organic Green Roots

An article published this week in a British newspaper revealed that scientists say street lighting is having an accelerating effect on various species because the extra light is interfering with both insects and those who predate on them. This is hardly ground breaking news for anyone who has watched a gecko hunt moths around a wall-mounted external light – indeed when we run out of energy for unnecessary lighting it will be a dark day (and night) for geckodom. Inevitably, some of the people commenting on the article seemed to say that we shouldn't worry about the effects our infrastructure has on nature because nature will always evolve ways around it; natural selection, and all that.

Whether species can adapt to our more or less random behaviour seems pretty unlikely to me given the extent that we have changed the environment to suit our own ends and the speed with which we have done so. That's not to say that nature won't eventually adapt – that's what nature does – but given our insistence that we are somehow separate from the natural bio patterns of the planet we evolved to live on, Mother Nature might just agree with us and snuff us out entirely in the medium term. I say the medium term because in the long term we're all fried chicken, as Ugo Bardi pointed out in a marvellous essay this week. Life, it seems, has about another 1.5 billion years to enjoy on Earth before it ends. It won't be a sudden end – like when the Vogons destroyed the Earth to make way for an intergalactic highway at the beginning of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, but equally, we can't say we weren't warned. Just like Arthur Dent, most of us will still be in our dressing gowns, metaphorically speaking.

So, given that we are guaranteed not to last in the long term and are doing our damnedest to make it harder for us and all of our fellow earthlings in the medium term, the place to focus on would seem to be the short term. What do I mean by the short term? Well, the next 1000 years would be a good starting point. Let's imagine our actions today as seen from the point of view of revellers in the year 3000AD (or equivalent date, who knows what calendar system they will have?) There are still likely to be the crumbling ruins of some of our greatest cities and buildings there for examination by anyone interested in studying life and civilization before the second Dark Ages. By greatest buildings I don't mean things like skyscrapers, which will have been dismantled for their scrap value, but more longer lasting buildings made of materials that are difficult to recycle and use for other means. Some of the grander neoclassical imperial edifices may still be half-standing, such as the Bank of England, the scattered remains of which will be visible to fishermen peering into the shallow waters off the coast of a shrunken future England.

It's probably fair to say that most people these days don't think 1000 years into the future, and if they did they might picture flying cars and holidays on Mars and all the imaginary perks of an industrial era extended far beyond its shelf life. But as the chasm widens between that imagined future and the one we have assured, which involves a much lower level of accessible concentrated energy available for our use, I wonder how many people are prepared to abandon that dream, and all the hard psychological readjustment that this will take. I for one can certainly remember being about 16, kitted out in some new Adidas trainers and walking down the street listening to a tape of the Beastie Boys on my Sony Walkman (Adam Yauch RIP) on a sunny day in Solihull. I clearly remember the feeling that life, as I understood it, just didn't get any better than this and that all of history had climaxed to create the perfect moments like these. We had, I felt, drifted apart from the messy realities taught in history lessons at school and could henceforth just enjoy cool gadgets - like my Walkman.

In retrospect my outlook was as back to front as my baseball cap, but I wasn't the only one thinking such thoughts. Indeed I may have picked them up subconsciously from the ether (alas my baseball cap was not lined with tinfoil) and it was only a year or two later that Francis Fukuyama famously declared the End of History. Of course, he was about as wrong as it is possible to be, but the 16-year-old me could relate to where he was coming from. Who will write the book entitled History's Just Getting Started?


Other people

Last week I wrote about one of the skills that will be necessary to negotiate to turbulent waters ahead – that of learning to live without having to purchase so much stuff so that when the unwelcome reality of being forced to live with less material comfort is forced upon us it won't come as such a shock. This week I'd like to raise the novel idea of getting on with other people.

If you have had a peak oil epiphany in the last few years you will know that, unless you are living in Micheal Ruppert's Collapse HQ, you have to keep your mouth more or less closed in polite company. Normally, to suggest that things are not ticketyboo (and then some), you'll get that blank look in which the respondent is mentally removing you from the compartment labelled 'Normal Guy' and refiling you in the one that says 'Deluded Lunatic' - the same compartment in which David Icke and his Space Lizards are filed. Never mind that you have spent literally years fervidly reading about economics, history, ecology and psychology and every single one of them leads you inexorably to the same conclusion that seemed so obvious in retrospect – in the eyes of your interlocutor your opinion is less valid than the one he shares with that bloke in the pub.

At this point it would be tempting to give up and focus on getting something done that you have a reasonable chance of achieving. That's all well and fine, assuming you don't care about other people. But on the other hand, when a close family member or a valued friend seems about to commit the kind of terrible mistake you know could never end well, it becomes a bit more difficult to bite your lip and keep schtum. On the one hand you don't want them to pump their life savings into a shale gas bubble but on the other you're worried that by warning them they'll do it anyway and label you an interfering nutter to boot.

Given that evangelism rarely works the only way I can see around this problem is to effect changes in your own life and be a real-life example. That is, I'm afraid, all we can do, and if your brother is convinced that we'll all have mini thorium reactors in our backyards soon and that he is planning to retire on the income generated from his Facebook shares then I'm afraid you'll just have to let him learn the hard way.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of people out there by now who you could consider 'like minded'. They are scattered all over the place, in every country, and the one thing they share is a resolve not to let the scales be pulled over their eyes any longer. Hundreds more turn up every day, tired of being spoon-fed fairy tales by the mainstream media and driven perhaps by some inner sense that things are not going as well as they have been led to believe. Indeed, the number of peaksters is growing steadily and if they were a traded stock they would be worth investing in as they are one of the few things growing these days, apart from national debt that is.

The Transition movement comes in for a fair bit of criticism from some quarters, but to my mind it's one of the most hopeful things there is. Critics say that it tends to focus on drawing up plans for a transition away from fossil fuels and towards sustainability at the expense of real action. But from the yelps of protest I have heard in reply, this might once have been the case but it is no longer and in my opinion there are worse things you can do than join in with Transition.

As I mentioned in a comment last week, I have seen a collapse happen up close. It wasn't any great shakes in the scale of things and could perhaps be considered a collapse-lite but it did involve lots of people losing their life savings, a few cases of problems putting food on the table and one or two suicides of people I didn't know personally. Yes, this was the time I lived in Spain and the property bubble burst in late 2007. Immediately put out of your minds any thoughts of me living on one of the costas, soaking up the sun every day on the beach and drinking sangria with a bunch of pink skinned expats. Instead I lived in a large valley between two mountain ranges near Granada called La Alpujarra. Considered one of the most backwards regions of Spain, the place didn't even have a supermarket – but what it did have was natural beauty and resilience. Most of the foreigners living there got on extremely well with the locals and it would be no exaggeration to say that the whole area was 'alternative'.

Like most people, we moved there so we could live a simple life. Property was cheap and we bought a small ruined farm, which we did up and lived in. I started a local community newspaper called The Olive Press, specifically to campaign against the growing menace of plastic greenhouses which were spreading across the landscape and threatening to turn this small corner of paradise into a desert. Life was sweet for three short years and we learned just how rewarding it is to live away from the toxic culture of modern life.

When the crash came most people couldn't believe it. Even the people living most simply suddenly found out how reliant they were on the property bubble and I did not escape the carnage either. People suddenly stopped being able to pay for advertising space in the newspaper and we had to get a sales professional in, who took one look at our operation and laughed. Out went the alternative therapy practicioners and yoga teachers and in came the big full page adverts: banks, airlines and estate agents. Similarly chucked out were any editorial ethics and, inevitably, myself. I sold the newspaper to a tabloid journalist and today, as one of the biggest foreign language publications in Spain, it's a celebrity news soaked rag that claims to be 'green' but in fact is nothing of the sort.

Anyway, getting back to the point, when the crash actually happened the most noticeable effect was that people who you thought were your friends swiftly turned out not to be. We all know the type of loose acquaintance I am talking about – the gossipy middle class types who socialise widely and profess charitable intentions at every opportunity. These, in my experience, were the ones to grow sharp talons very quickly and flee town, usually leaving a mess of dishonoured debts and broken promises in their wake.

By contrast, other people, the ones who really did help other people out when TSHTF, are the ones who remain living there. They were the ones with no money but plenty of empathy – and skills – to make things carry on working. By joining together in solidarity and helping each other out, each was able to bear the load a lot more lightly. A few eggs and vegetables donated here, a visit and a cup of coffee there and maybe even looking after someone else's kids for a few days so they could take a temporary job and bring in some cash – all of these actions, although small in their own way, prove to be useful when added up. As cash becomes unreachable the barter economy is right there waiting and every transaction becomes a reinforcing span in the web of the community.

Of course, a few morons exploited the system for their own ends, but the beauty of a system in which cash is no longer king is that people by and large stop doing business with morons. Said moron is then left being unable to meet his needs and no amount of threatening language can get him what he wants. That is why people are very friendly to one another in peasant societies, such as the one we had inserted ourselves into: rudeness becomes an unaffordable luxury when your life might depend on your next door neighbour who just happens to own the only winch capable of pulling you and your car out of a gulley. This is a lesson lots of people are going to have to relearn in the future.


Peak n'Oil band Number #7

Simon and Garfunkel

As correctly guessed by Russell last week and befitting of this week's post, Simon and Garfunkel are the band coming in at Number 7. The Boxer contains the unforgettable verse:

I have squandered my resistance 
For a pocket full of mumbles such are promises 
All lies and jests 
Still a man hears what he wants to hear 
And disregards the rest 

And then of course what finer expression of the dominant sentiment of our popular atomised individualism could there be than I am a Rock?

And finally, the duo's rendition of Silent Night - 7 o'clock news reminds us that the backdrop to the lullabies we hear is the constant babble of the world's problems, which most of us would rather filter out.


  1. The middle part of the essay is excellent.

    I clicked on the link to Udo Bardi's talk. Unfortunately, the gist of it is that due to purely natural processes, the Earth will become uninhabitable in just under a billion years. I was taught this in school, but I've filed it under useless information. Civilization has existed by most accounts for about six thousand years. Bardi is saying that at the most we can have about 150,000 civilizations, and I doubt we will get that.

    A commentator on his site links to this Scientific American piece, which is a good summary of envirodoom (but skip the comments): However, even that piece makes the common environmental mistake of confusing the welfare of humans with the welfare of Earth. Earth is really not at danger from increased greenhouse classes and other environmental horrors, it is filled with natural equilibriums to adjust from these. One of these equilibriums is to get rid of the humans that are causing the environmental damage! As for non-human species, they would benefit from the Earth becoming uninhabitable from humans. I suspect the effects of industrial induced environmental degrading will be to first make the industrial civilization that cause the degrading unsustainable, and if that doesn't stop the damage, then civilization in general (remember civilization consisting of farms and smallish settlements and cities existed for thousands of years before the industrial revolution), then humans etc. until the environmental damage does stop. It will probably stop before all the other species become extinct! Really environmentalists are trying to salvage something of industrial civilization before the halt but they keep being thwarted.

    1. Ed, not sure why, but your comment ended up in the spam and I only just discovered it.

      I agree that the earth will always return to an equilibrium state - it's just that we at the moment are the fat kid on the see saw. Bardi's piece to me was more of a meditation on the fact that ALL life will be extinguished in the far future, and the chemical reactions that will (or will not) take place to guarantee that.

      I think 150,000 civilizations is a bit on the optimistic side to say the least. But then a part of me wonders that if - and that's a big if - we do manage to learn to live within the natural constraints of whatever ravished earth our descendants will inherit, then what exactly will it be that finishes us off?

      My money's on a big meteorite or perhaps a mega volcano or something of that magnitude.

  2. Jason, You are so right about the difficulties of communicating with people who don't understand overshoot. I came to it gradually or I probably wouldn't have shared so many of my evolving concerns with my children. But the time I really figured it out, they were quite fed up with the topic.

    I tend to think, based on recent research such as this:

    that tipping points will determine the speed of change. Two of the tipping points in that article involve forests, which personally I believe we are on the brink of losing due to air pollution. So that would accelerate heating and weather destabilization quite a bit.

    The most wonderful Professor Bardi by the way wrote on wit's end almost a year ago:

    I just discovered your blog, Gail. I agree with you; it is time to stop worrying about sounding "overly alarmist". It is time to be as alarmist as possible, and even more, if possible. I am going to cite this post and others in my blog. Thanks for what you are doing!

    ...your blog has been a real discovery, you know, an epiphany as they say. I had been noticing that trees are not well all around me, but I couldn't connect the dots. Now that you did that for me, I can see what's happening. Two days ago, I took a trip of about 300 km from Florence to a place near the Alps, in Norther Italy. And I kept looking at the trees flanking the highway (I was driving, yes, I know I shouldn't have been - but all trains were full). It was shocking. There are so many dead and dying trees. Maybe the trees near the highway are a special case, but it is bad enough that it makes one wonder.

    Another effect of climate change, I guess. If, as you say, ocean acidification is the bastard twin of global warming, then dying trees is another forgotten brother - this one a deformed creature that has been kept locked in a damp basement for many years but now he escaped and is coming back....

  3. Gail, thanks for the link to your blog. I'll admit that I find the idea of trees dying off a scary but all too plausible possibility. Right here in Denmark - like elsewhere - the weather is acting more and more weird. Two weeks ago I had to get my gloves out to cycle to work, and now today is hotter than many parts of Africa. Forecasters now assure us that summer will end tomorrow and that we are in for weeks of violent thunderstorms.

    Nobody seems in the least worried though. 'Move along now, nothing to see here' attitude.

  4. Nice post, as usual. You can't spend much time on the doomer end of the spectrum and not be somewhat appalled by the extreme selfishness of many of its main proponents. What ever happened to belonging to a people, a tribe, or - dare I say it? - the human race? It's all "I'm gonna bug out and build me a doomstead as far as I can get from the filthy masses who are no doubt going to become hoards of zombies in short order." Perhaps this is the result of successful "divide and conquer" tactics of the elites. Make no mistake, our only hope for survival is to band together, work together and live together. Lone individuals or very small groups don't survive long. We know that by instinct. I guess the biggest question is what group to join? And, will your group be safe against the most likely enemy they will face as things collapse: not bands of marauding zombies, but rapacious police and military forces doing the bidding of the elites who are desperate to maintain their way of living.

    Nice shout out to MCA by the way. The Beasties' "You Gotta Fight for the Right to Party" could be an ironic theme song for the United States of America these days. Think of Bush announcing the "American way of life is non-negotiable" and then sending the boys to die in Iraq. Of course, I don't think any of the Beasties would approve of one of their songs being used to illustrated the evil thinking of the Bushies and their supporters. I mean, check it out:

    1. You're right. I had never heard of a 'doomstead' - what a concept! Seems some people world rather spend the rest of their lives in a self-imposed prison, armed to the teeth, rather than help out and be helped by others as part of a living community.

      And what is it with all this fear of zombies? I'm starting to hear about it everywhere - even from supposedly educated people. Have the brains of so many Americans been reduced to slush by watching too many movies? Actually, don't answer that ...

      And all of these people I hear on internet forums bragging about finding some promised land or other (usually Brazil or Agentina) ... yegads, just give me a small community with nothing worth stealing, plenty of skilled people and away from any valuable resources or nuclear power stations and that'll do me nicely thank you.

  5. So, hi Jason, nicely done, as usual. I've found that plenty of people are concerned about our uncertain future, even if anti-peak oil/climate change/environmental destruction reality talk. I've found that talking about gardening and food is a good way to ascertain people's points of view and also to begin to communicate in a meaningful way about said future.

    And I have caught myself walking around singing "The Boxer" from time to time, out of the blue, so do agree with your assessment.

    Will you find your way back to your simple life?

    1. Hi Adrian - thanks.

      That's an excellent way of 'finding a way in'. You are right, most people, at some level, know that things aren't going too well. By talking about food and gardening you can engage them. I'd also recommend giving them home made beer/wine and ask them what they are going to do when it becomes too expensive to import wine from Chile and California.

      As for the simple life: watch this space.

  6. Quel suono lieve sinistro
    non è d’etichetta uno strappo
    non è topo che gratta la granapadana
    non è grillo che plettro riaccorda
    non è sveglia che trilla in errore d'orario
    è petrolio che termina anzi che inizia
    a fluire come fontana che sgocciola
    ascoltalo con udito d'artificiere
    è bomba innescata da orde di Attila
    e ticchetta spensierato ed ottuso
    in asilo chiassoso gremito d'Eve e Adami
    se non vuoi questo rimbombi di vuota rovina
    finchè sei in tempo spegni la miccia.

    Marco Sclarandis


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