Sunday, June 24, 2012

Spain: The End of the Affair

It's funny how journalistic narratives are supposed to play out. I have just spent the last week in Spain, finally divesting myself of the small farm that was to have been my life's work but instead turned into an albatross around my neck. In theory I should be writing about how everything is broken down there, how gangs of unemployed youths roam the streets in large packs and how lampposts are amply hung with the swaying corpses of those who could take it no longer.

But if I wrote that I'd be lying. Superficially at least, Spain appears to be utterly normal, if a little quiet. In fact I don't think I have ever seen it so well presented. There is the appearance of calm, at least. The new airport in Malaga is open for business and where, before, passengers could choose between coffee and orange juice at a single fly-blown cafe run by a friendly old man, they can now choose between about a dozen or more chain cafes, and blow their euros at numerous fashion and electronics stores.

Driving from the airport in Malaga to the small town in the mountains near Granada where I was staying, one is reminded though that all is not well. The country, for a while, was running on mega-projects and one of the grandest was to build a concrete ribbon of motorway so that one could travel all the way from Cadiz on the westward Atlantic coast to Barcelona on the northern Mediterranean coast. This was no easy job as Spain is mostly mountains and the road had to carve its way through terrain that just isn't very motorway-friendly. It was one of the projects that was supposed to bring the country into the 21st, no, 20th century but the only problem is that it remains incomplete. You get to La Herradura and a sign says 'End of Motorway' and spits you back onto the winding coastal road that was such an embarrassment for the regional government. The hills have been blasted ready to make way for the new road but judging by the layers of dust on all the machinery arrayed there, combined with the lack of workmen, it doesn't look like that road is going to be finished any time soon.

Along the same route I drove past a hill covered in the kind of poorly-built and ugly little apartments that the country now has several million of, and looming over them was a large sign declaring '€39.000 bank liquidación'. These would probably have sold for around €100,000 only a couple of years back.

I carried on driving, arriving late at night in the village in the mountains where I used to live. The last hour of the drive I had only passed one or two cars. I was able to keep the full-beams on practically the whole time without having to dim them for approaching cars. Was I imagining it, or had it always been this quiet?

In the daylight things seemed like they were back to normal. More beautification projects had been completed and the local town of Órgiva no longer looked like the shabby one I remembered. There was a new supermarket – the first 'proper' supermarket in the whole region – along with a new municipal swimming pool, football pitch, basketball court and a fancy new open air courtyard cafe where the patrons have misted water sprayed on them to keep them cool as they sip their Alhambra lagers. Crisis – what crisis?

It was only when I began to speak to people that I got the feeling the local economy was running on fumes. A friend had taken a job at a local cafe, working for peanuts she explained, as her builder husband stayed at home. He wasn't idle though, he was doing what he was good at – building – although now he was doing it for his family so that they would have somewhere to live on a piece of land that someone had lent them. Others were joining in, and soon they would have a small community of a handful of families living on a piece of land remote enough to make it unsellable, but fertile enough to make it livable.

I did my business with the lawyer and notary and spent a couple of days catching up with old friends and listening to their stories. One morning I went to buy distilled water for the batteries in my solar system, as the levels were beginning to get a bit low and the Mexican man who looks after my house in my absence has no transport and can't carry heavy loads. As I was purchasing some 5 litre containers in the small hardware store the next customer, stood behind me, was launching a spirited complaint against the store owner about a consignment of chicken feed he'd ordered but which hadn't turned up. The owner was saying something about supply problems and the disgruntled customer in the rough local dialect retorted 'Hombre, my chickens will have died of hunger by the time it eventually arrives.'

There was something familiar about the voice and I turned around and found myself looking at the English writer Chris Stewart. 'Problems?' I asked. He did a double take and stared at me. 'What are you doing here?' he asked 'I thought you lived in Denmark.' I explained all that had occurred to me. Chris Stewart, you see, was one of the original emigrees who, as he says, fled Thatcher's Britain and moved to Spain to become a shepherd, living a life of poverty in these here hills. He later wrote a book about it called Driving Over Lemons, which became immensely popular and persuaded thousands to follow in his footsteps. Like me. He was also the founding member of Genesis, along with Peter Gabriel, but he doesn't like to talk about that.

'Things are woeful here,' he said. 'There's no work – I've never seen it so bad.'

We chatted for a few minutes. I told him my theory that this was one of the better places to be. Several centuries of grinding poverty, famines and civil war had made this part of Andalucia resilient, I argued. Most country people over 50 still knew all about growing food and on top of that there had been a mass immigration of downsizers, such as himself, who treated the land and the water with respect. 

'Hmm,' he said, not quite convinced. 'I suppose we'll see.'

Over the rest of my stay I had ample time to think about what was going wrong in Spain. It seems rather unfair that the Spanish people should be made to suffer. They are, after all, some of the most pleasant, helpful and down to earth folks on the planet. Cast aside, for a moment, all those stereotyped images of hot-blooded bullfighting macho types; in my experience the vast majority are family-centred, hard working and full of grace. Neither are they particularly materialistic above a certain minimum level of comfort.

It seems to me that Spain, as part of the EU, has had development rammed down its throat, whether they wanted it or not. The TV commercial for Spain used to be 'Spain – it's a little different' – and it was (and then some!). The task of the politicians was to make it the same as anywhere else. But all that infrastructure that was built seemed to be constructed primarily for the benefit of the hordes of northern Europeans who saw the country as one big golf course and luxury hotel development. Corruption oiled the wheels of illegal land development and speculators piled money into a 'housing' boom (they were not really houses, more like flimsy clinker shells) which was fuelled by the banks. It's a sad tale of environmental despoilation in one of the most beautiful places in Europe and now the local people are left with a toxic legacy of ruined coasts, damaged aquifers and unpayable debt.

As I left to return to Denmark I felt a wave of sadness. People kept telling me how lucky I was to be living in 'safe' Denmark. Soon I will have no further ties to Spain or La Alpujarra. It really does feel like the end of the affair.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

At the Business End of Progress

Greetings from Spain. I am here sorting out some business, which one day I'll get around to writing about, and watching as the country starts to realise that the tidal wave of money that swept over the nation has not only subsided, but that the back current is sweeping away most of what it was meant to improve in the first place.

I'll give you a full update next week but seeing as I'm currently in the middle of a surreal desert and surrounded by the detritus of the transplanted Hollywood film industry, a computer connection is not the easiest thing to come by. Yes, I'm in the Badlands of Spain, Almería to be precise, where many Spaghetti Westerns were filmed and Clint Eastwood was almost a local. It's an unnerving place because nothing is what it seems. Old Western towns in which the buildings are just dusty façades are dotted here and there and the desert is filled with cast off detritus, such as ancient American cars and a billion beer cans. Speaking of Americans, the military accidentally dropped an atom bomb here in the 1960s, but locals are too polite to mention it. Luckily that atom bomb didn't go off, and if it had done history would look a whole lot different now.

I've been thinking quite a bit about progress recently, and the general difficulty in accepting that what has appeared as a simple linear progression for most of us, is about to be rudely interrupted. I remember the first time I realised that the whole doctrine of  benign western capitalism was a sham. It happened on a trip to Laos, in south-east Asia, in the year 2000. I narrowly escaped being blown to dog meat by a bomb on that trip, planted at a border post by Hmong agitators who wanted to get rid of the communist government.

Luckily for me, I paused to buy a Pepsi Cola from a street vendor, thus delaying me for thirty seconds and a minute or so before the bomb went off at the immigration desk, which I was walking towards with my visa in hand, killing several members of staff and turning all the computers into blobs of warm plastic and metal. I'm probably one of the few people alive who can claim that Pepsi saved my life. But before that happened I had just spent a month in that amazing country, witnessing first hand the west's attempt to turn it into just another sweat shop, using the tool of aid. This, for me at least, was when the penny dropped about how our system of economics had got out of control like some giant wild beast ans beginning to consume whole nations.

At the time I wrote down my thoughts in a diary. Here is what I wrote:


New Year's Eve 2000, Vang Vieng, Laos

We have been in Laos for ten days now and this is the first time I have been able to sort my thoughts into some sort of intelligible order. When we first entered Laos we found ourselves among extraodinarily friendly and warm people (even compared with the legendary friendliness of the Thais) - which is almost contrary to what I had expected given their abominable treatment at the hands of foreign powers. I had read the modern history of Laos and been depressed by the seeming wickedness and insensitivity of mankind: the 'overspill' of the Vietnam war and the widescale bombings.But at least I had thought it was in the past. Over the last ten days I feel as though I've had my eyes opened to another kind of assault on Laos and its peoples - by outside appearances a much less harmful one as the abominable Secret War, but potentially one with the capacity to do a whole different kind of damage.

After the first few days here, my head was spinning when I contemplated writing about our experiences. This was, after all, supposed to be a travel journal, I reasoned. But I felt wretched about being here: a sunburned foreigner surfing into their country on a tsunami of hard currency. Looking around, it seemed obvious what I represented: westernism, consumerism and the burgeoning tourism industry. I felt too strongly to give some facile travel account about us 'on holiday' in Laos. I decided to axe the travel journal and just take photographs. Then, some days later, I realised that's just the kind of 'head in the sand' thing that us westerners excel at. I reasoned that if I carry on with the journal then no matter how limited its scope and how restricted it is in expression, it will at least serve as a record of the people we met and the feelings we felt at the time, if only as a personal one. Maybe one or two people would read it and would make them think twice about endorsing 'development', as I have. That would at least be something.

Normally when going to countries and researchingt their histories it is, to a greater or lesser extent, difficult to relate to much of it; usually history happened well before we were born. But in Laos there was a Secret War (from our point of view) that was fought partly during my own lifetime. From 1964 to 1973 Laos had the misfortune to be geographically located next to Vietnam, China and Thailand. Although a neutral country in the Second Indochina War (what we would term the 'Vietnam' War) the ruling Pathet Lao were sympathetic to communist North Vietnam (the Vietcong) which incurred American fury. The Americans, frustrated by the rules of the Geneva Accord (1962) which stipulate that foreign troops may not be deployed in a declared neutral country, acted to side-step this inconvenience. 

CIA agents were placed in Laos and, with the leadership of an individual called Vang Pao, trained up an army of Lao civilians, Hmong hilltribesmen (particularly useful as they felt little allegiance to the nation of Laos, were brave fighters and in need of money) and Thais. By this stage eastern Laos was overrun with Vietcong, some of whom were being hidden in villages by sympathetic, but in all likelihood ignorant, villagers. So began America's Secret War, which was so secret that the very term 'Laos' was to be replaced by the sinister term 'The Other Theatre'. The facts and figures of this conflict are staggering - even more so when you think that Americans (nor, in the main, the Western media) didn't know about it, and still don't. If ever there was a prime test case for Noam Chomsky's Propaganda Model, which states that Big Media tends to ignore the plight of those 'hostile' or irrelevant to US foreign policy, this is it.

Here are the facts and figures. During the Secret War the Ravens, the codename for US pilots in Laos, who flew in civilian clothing and allegedly carried suicide pills, flew one and a half times the number of air sorties flown over Vietnam (over 580,000 in total). This meant an average of one planeload of bombs dropped on Laos every eight minutes, twenty four hours a day, for nine years. The cost of this, at least in monetary terms, was $2 million per day. In 1970 Richard Nixon authorised massive B-52 carpet-bombing strikes on this genteel nation in order to obliterate large tracts of the countryside. Laos being an overwhelmingly rural nation, this naturally included civilain areas. By the time the Americans pulled out they had dropped 1.9 million metric tonnes of explosives on Laos - which works out at about ten tonnes per square kilometre or over half a tonne of high explosives for every man, woman and child. This statistic makes Laos, on a per capita basis, the most heavily bombed country in the history of war. So much for being 'neutral'.

There is far too much history to be able to go into in any depth - and I'm not even going to try. It is very instructive and depressing to read up on this era in history.

One of the main legacies of this war in Laos is the sheer number of unexploded bombs (called UXO or unexploded ordinance) left lying around. It is thought that 130 Lao civilians are killed each year by UXO, mostly in the eastern provinces. Forty percent of these people are children, who find the bombs and play with them, but a larger proportion are people ploughing fields or trying to defuse them and sell them as scrap. The most common UXO is the cluster bomb (called the 'bombi' in Lao) of which up to thirty percent dropped remained undetonated. The manufacturers, still in business, of these evil devices are said to be refusing to cooperate with demining efforts and won't say what proportion didn't explode citing 'commercially sensitive information'. This high level of non-detonation was later explained by the fact that these 'products' were being tested in Laos for later use in Afghanistan, Cambodia and more recently Iraq and Serbia.

This UXO has put large sections of land off limits to peasants returning to their land after the war. Laos has a small population (four and a half million, growing at 3.5%) so the pressures on land have not been too great - until now. Since the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, Laos, was, and supposedly still is, communist in a most pragmatic manner. Now that the era of communism is over Laos has been cut loose from its Soviet master and is entering the 'liberal' world of capitalism and 'democracy' (one could argue that they are much the same thing nowadays). The 'International Community' (i.e an undefined club of powerful industrial nations and blocs operating under the Washington Concensus) is pouring vast sums of money into Laos to help it to 'develop'. The net effect of this is to transform it from a self-sufficient nation to one that relies on imported consumer goods. Hard currency will be needed to pay for these goods and this can only be gained, according to the priciple of competitive advantage by selling what you are best placed to, which in the case of Laos will be cheap labour and strip-mined raw materials.

Unless you count the nationl brewery, Laos has no manufacturing base; something that must be corrected immediately and at any cost, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Thus, it is said, a large expanse of secondary and primary forest is now being cleared in central Laos to build an industrial base. It is hoped that subsistence farmers and tribal villagers can be retrained and relocated to this area to form a new class of worker that will be 'economically mobile'. Tax hikes are being used as economic cattle-prods to ensure the peasantry get the message and jump to it. Funny to think that forest floors will soon be sweatshop floors and that rice farmers will be Nike-stitching McWorkers.

Aid arrives in the form of giant projects. Tarmac roads are being constructed throughout the length of the country, huge dams are being proposed. The Mekong is no longer a river to provide fish or a wellspring of inspiration and folklore but an under-utilized energy resource. Its placid and languid waters will soon be put to work irrigating cash crops in the dry season and providing cheap electricity to fuel the industrial revolution and sell to energy-hungry Thailand for a roaring profit. Large areas of primary forest are being felled (despite them being cynically designated National Biodiversity Conservation Areas to keep outside critics happy), often by Chinese and Vietnamese logging concerns, in order to earn foreign exchange to pay for the expected influx of consumer goods and the huge fees demanded by foreign development consultants. The thousands of villagers displaced by these dams, highways and forest clearances are expected to become dutiful members of the New Economy (the whole project is called the New Economic Mechanism or NEM) and will be relocated to specialist built worker suburbs where they will all have TVs and will enjoy a much higher standard of living. Like I said, McWorkers.

The stakes are now high in Laos. Predatory transnational corporations (TNCs), those eager agents of 'free trade', are circling like vultures. The politicians, secretive and sinister, are ready to sell the non-replaceable natural resources of Laos for a fistful of dollars. Everywhere there is talk of development and the NEM. Huge mansions have mushroomed up in Vientiane where imported 'specialists' and 'experts' live behind high fences in this almost crime-free country. The urban people are excited about the influx of luxury goods and some look longingly over the Mekong to Thailand where the American Dream can now be lived out much more cheaply than it ever was in America. Dollars continue to pour in in the form of donations by countries, world organisations and companies and always the message is 'You are poor, we will alleviate your poverty'. Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese businessmen are hammering on the doors - eager to get to work in a newly liberalised country where things such as workers' rights and environmental protection are almost unheard of. Given the lack of free press, they are likely to remain so.

Many of the backpackers we had met on our travels in Asia had urged us to go to Laos 'Before it's too late', whatever that means. Now I know. They mean go now while it still has a distinctive culture. Go now while the forests are still intact and the air isn't choked by fumes. Go before they've heard of air-conditioning and laptop computers. Go now while the people still regard you with respect and not just the latest coloniser.

If you want to read more about my exploits in Laos, India, Mexico and whole load of other places you can continue here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Free Science Fiction Stories

You may remember a while back that I was lamenting the lack of credible speculative fiction that has made it through to the mainstream in recent years. Of course, one or two people set me right on that one, pointing out a great wealth of excellent sci-fi that didn't feature some future in which we had made it to the stars and were battling alien foes that bore a striking similarity to our enemy du jour here on our own planet. Still, most of the new sci-fi short stories coming out today seem to be set here on Earth and feature a lot of gadgets and high technology - i.e. a situation that I regard as unrealistic.

Anyway, cutting to the chase, I decided to publish my own short story on Ether Books and this is now in a competition for 'Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Short Story'. It's about a cloned man living in the not too distant future in a chaotic world that has turned its back on the technological mistakes of the past. His companions keep dying in mysterious circumstances and he gets a message that he must escape - or die himself. It's set on the Spanish island of Ibiza and is a very condensed 6,000 words - cut down from the original 20,000 word novella.

If you want to read it - and I'd like you to - you need to have either an iPhone or an iPad (sorry, no Androids here) and download the app for Ether Books (yes, the irony, I know ...). It is totally free and won't cost you a penny, what's more it only takes a minute to download the app, and a few seconds to download the story. Plus, there are 49 other sci-fi stories in the same competition that you can also read for free. The story that gets the most downloads wins.

Obviously, being the nice chap that I am, if anyone doesn't own one of these iDevices (and if you're sensible enough to be reading a blog like this then maybe you don't) but wants to read it anyway, just send me an email and I'll send you a copy.

Here are the instructions for reading it:

- Download the app for Ether Books - you can find it on their website
- Open the app and go to the genre 'Sci-fi and Fantasy Comp' and look for 'The Amnesiac'. There's a scary-looking picture of me next to it to help you identify it.
- Click download and then read it. When you are finished you can rate it with stars.
- That's all.

I hope you like it and thanks for reading!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

What the Heck is Peak Oil?

An abandoned shopping mall in the US. If you want to know how this could happen then just follow the energy.
Photo by Brian Ulrich from his Dark Stores series

I have to say, I'm quite astonished by how many visitors I've been getting on this blog lately. When I look at the stats, back in October last year I had 18 visitors. Of course, I was thrilled to have 18 people looking at it, but ideally I wanted a few more. Well, by December that had shot up to about 800, so I was whooping aloud and punching the air. But it didn't stop there – last month I was up near 6,000 page views, and this month I'm on course to double that. Many of the hits this site is getting come by way of a link placed on somebody else's site – so if you're one of those people – thanks.

That's all very well, you might say, but so what? Well, my point is quite straightforward – at the top of this blog I have written a subtitle which says The end of the age of abundance and our response to it. My aim is quite simply to add another voice to the growing chorus of people who are concerned about peak oil and, hopefully, foster some useful discussions about what to do about it. It's not to earn me money or glory (I will never have syndicated ads on this site) but simply to be another voice in the wilderness. About half of the people dropping by here are from the US (howdy!) with most of the rest coming from the UK and Europe i.e. the places where peak oil has traditionally fallen under the radar.

But it occurs to me that, in my experience, only about one person in every hundred has any idea what peak oil is about and they may well have ended up on this page by accident (perhaps lured here by my nettle soup recipe) so – apologies to those who took their Peak Oil 101 module years back and know how to tell their ASPOs from their EROEIs – but this post is dedicated to the newbies.

So (deep breath), what exactly is peak oil?

Well, it's two things. Firstly - and this is the dull but necessary technical definition - it's the point on the supply curve where precisely half of the accessible oil in the Earth's crust has been extracted. It's widely thought that we've either reached that point or are at that point right now or are about to hit that point – you can take your pick depending on who you listen to. The point is that from now on there will be less and less oil available to us. This is called peak oil i.e. we are at the peak of oil extraction and it can only go downhill from here.

Okay, that was the dull bit. Now for the Earth-shattering part.

You might think that this sounds slightly boring, vaguely problematic and the kind of thing that someone somewhere should probably sort out. Wrong: it is the most important thing that has happened in our lifetimes and quite possibly the greatest challenge modern civilization has known. Peak oil means your life will change dramatically in the near future, probably for the worse.

Okay, so that sounded a bit dramatic. You might be thinking that I am probably some kind of conspiracy theorist and that I spend my time watching videos about shadowy elites spraying mind controlling poisons on civilian populations from air planes and dynamiting the World Trade Center. I don't. Neither do I believe we are being controlled by David Icke's Lizards or the Space Brothers or the Illuminati, or that supernaturally gifted Mayan astronomers were able to predict the apocalypse from hundreds of years in the past. If you're one of the many people who does then fine, there are lots of other websites you can go and look at because what I propose is that we are not being controlled by anyone at all. That's right - nobody is in charge at all - and that's even more scary when you think about it isn't it?

So now I have got that out of the way, what exactly is peak oil and why should it concern you? Well, you see, another uncomfortable thing is that we are pretty much all addicted to oil. We swim in it, we breathe it and we eat it. None of us alive knows what a life without oil is like – it's like trying to explain the concept of wetness to a fish. Our whole civilization is built on it and all of us, directly or indirectly, profit hugely from its cheapness and its availability.

When we first discovered oil we didn't think much of it. It came out of the ground in globules and got stuck to the soles of Romans' sandals. It wasn't until the industrial revolution that we found a use for fossil fuels - and then its extraction and use really got going. If we say that this took off in around 1800, we have had just over 200 years of use from it. That's not to say that we have 200 years left of use though. Our lifestyles assume that oil is practically limitless and our numbers are swelling and swelling, so the rate at which we are using it up is growing all the time.

But still, you might think: so what? You might think that we still have 100 years or so of good usage left (whatever the ramifications of burning up all that oil has on the climate). You might, indeed, think that it's a problem for your grand kids, rather than yourself. You'd be wrong. Here's why.

Economics teaches us that a market will always find the correct price for a commodity when supply and demand meet. Up until now, supply has always been able to meet demand as new oil wells are drilled and new technology has enabled us to exploit those wells more efficiently. This has led to a stable and low price – so low in fact that economists have hardly bothered factoring the price into their equations when they calculate how much economies will grow. In short, it has been assumed that supply will always be able to keep up with demand. In the unlikely event that it couldn't they assumed that substitution would occur, i.e. the market would find some other replacement for oil to take its place – like hydrogen or cheap nuclear power.

The only problem is, it hasn't.

So we have a situation now where for the first time ever, demand, driven not just by the traditional energy gobblers of the west but also by booming countries like China and India, is starting to outpace supply. Just as economists predicted, when such a situation occurs, the price of the commodity will rocket. At least they predicted something right, and in case you hadn't noticed, the price of oil has remained around ten times what it used to be for some time now.

And that's a big problem because, basically, our economies are geared for growth and they can't grow when oil prices are at these levels. Years ago some of the original peak oil thinkers saw what was likely to happen when demand outpaced supply. They used oil production charts from hundreds of oil wells with known reserves, and estimated the production curves of the others. There has been some debate about the accuracy of their timing i.e. exactly when they said things would occur, but that could be put down to a couple of major finds and some extra technological innovation that has helped to squeeze out a few more barrels. But what they predicted was an inevitable end to economic growth and a jump in the prices of basic commodities which would lead to depression in the economies geared to run on cheap energy and revolutions across the Middle East as the knock-on price of foodstuffs rose.

Sound familiar?

A few people listened to their warnings in the 1970s (a couple of oil shocks cleared people's minds for a while) but by the 1980s people decided to turn off en masse and elect the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and a host of other politicians who promised sudden growth in the short term while neglecting to mention that it was at the expense of our long term welfare. Looking back, it was an all-too-human thing to do; after all, nobody likes living in a state of depression.

We could, instead, have pumped all of our resources into renewable energy and conservation programmes that would have at least cushioned our energy descent. Jimmy Carter famously installed solar panels on the White House to make a statement about doing just that, and one of the first things Ronald Reagan did when he was elected to office was to take them down again. Americans, it seemed, didn't like a visual reminder that they live in a world of energy limits, especially one so prominently placed.

Jimmy Carter with his new White House solar panels in 1979.
They were taken off again by this man shortly afterwards.

By contrast Denmark, where I live, was one of the few places that chose to do something even approaching the correct course of action. Politicians here are kept on a short leash due to cultural reasons and are forced to do things in the country's long-term interest. Houses were super-insulated, car driving was banned on Sundays and the population took to their bikes in order to save fuel. But Denmark, with its five or six million people, was too small to be noticed and almost every other country hit the snooze button and went back to sleep.

It was a missed opportunity and now there is practically nothing we can do about it, which is too bad.

In the interim 30 years we have not just been snoozing though, we've been busy eliminating every last trace of the idea that we live in a world of finite resources and that all we have to do is elect the right politicians, print enough money or create the right business conditions for 'enterprise' to flourish and we'll be on the never-ending upward slope of economic prosperity. So ingrained became this idea that we lost all sense of perspective. Indeed it's probably not too much to say that for most people, the idea of economic growth and progress has become a religion. It's how they interpret the world and the prism through which they see everything. Ergo, no economic growth equals no point in living; end of story.

But it is a bad religion. One aspect of it is that the money economy in this world has grown like a vast tumour, feeding off the physical economy of goods and services. If economic growth could last forever, then banks could lend ever more money and charge interest forever and governments and individuals could keep increasing their borrowing because there would never come a time to pay the piper. The money economy could continue to grow by feeding off the secondary economy of goods and services which could grow by feeding off the primary economy of raw materials, such as water and land and air, all powered by that magic yet invisible ingredient called oil. If energy was assumed to be infinite, then our ambitions could also be infinite in size and scope.

The fly in the ointment of this unrealisable dream, of course, is that energy, for all practical purposes, is not infinitely available for our exclusive use. Rising energy prices have a knock-on effect on the cost of every other commodity that requires energy to extract, process and transport. I can't think of any commodities that don't fall into that category, unless you count wishful thinking as one. So it might be helpful to imagine the spike in oil prices as a gigantic needle pointing skywards to prick the immense balloon of inflated 'wealth' that is hovering over the world like a Zeppelin. The result, as evidenced by the Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the current round of financial shocks hitting European banks and American cities and states, is nothing short of a Hindenburg Disaster.

That means we are on the cusp of what the Chinese euphemistically call 'interesting times'. The less polite way of putting it would be 'cursed times'. The spike of peak oil popping the bubble of inflated wealth and ideologically driven economic theory is the most disastrous event of our times. Remember, this is not a conspiracy because nobody is in charge. I don't know if anyone reading this has heard of the Peter Principle, but it states that in any hierarchy people rise to the position of incompetence. Given that we live in hierarchical societies it's very hard to look back at the last 30 years of history and conclude that the people making the tough decisions about energy policy were anything but incompetent.

So the changes we are experiencing are systemic and not controlled by any one or bunch of individuals. It's comforting to think that there are some arch-villains out there and it would just be a case of finding them and hanging them from a lamppost – and indeed there are plenty who might fit this description – but it would be a mistake to think that this would have any real effect beyond the cathartic. Indeed, it would be impossible for a handful of individuals to control such a large and complex system as industrial civilization, although a few have tried and failed dramatically. We were all in this together, to some extent. And just like a rising tide floats all boats, the falling tide will lower all of us.

You might ask, why isn't this all over the media? That's a very good question and I addressed it here. The simple answer is probably that nobody wants to rock the boat. The mainstream media is also heavily invested in the head-in-the-sand growth model and is no more likely to start shouting about peak oil than the tablet scribes of the Roman Empire at the end of the third century AD were likely to start shouting about Christianity. To them it represented the end of an order and a growing threat that was not spoken of in polite company.

That's not to say it isn't in the media – it's all over it, hidden in plain view. You can take your pick from the headlines, with anything from crashed pension funds and share price plunges to Arctic exploration deals and riots in the streets of Cairo – you don't have to trace any of it back much before arriving at peak oil. In fact the phrase 'follow the money' [if you want to get a true explanation of why a particular thing occurred] might be more aptly replaced with 'follow the energy'.

So what happens next, might be your next question.

Lots, is the short answer.

In the short term we are likely to see a lot of politicians promising to restore the growth that we are used to and regard as 'normality'. Growth, growth, growth; it's on the lips of every politician and they'll do anything to restore it in the form of stimulus packages, quantitative easing or allowing banks to lend money to themselves. In actual fact, historically speaking, growth has not been the norm and in the past we have opted for 'stability'. Nevertheless history is assumed to be just that and growth will be the thing that everyone who is used to a middle class lifestyle will be expecting. Of course, electing politicians will not be able to deliver that growth any more than floating an old lady down a river on a golden boat will restore a lost empire (to use a recent example that springs to mind …), but that won't stop people trying, because at this point we will be beyond the rational and will be engaging in cargo cult behaviour.

A cargo cult, for those who do not know, is the observed actions of cultures obsessively enacting the rituals of some past age of prosperity in the hope that it will magically appear again. It was named as such after some Pacific island tribes, having observed the technologically superior Americans during WWII, attempted to bring them back again after the war had ended, by wearing sunglasses made from coconut shells and carrying sticks to represent guns, amongst other things. Every day they spoke into walkie talkies made of bricks and sat in tall bamboo towers that were meant to resemble the ATC towers they had seen the Americans build. But none of it did any good and the cargo that the American soldiers had brought with them had a stubborn habit of not turning up again as expected.

As far as we are concerned though, with prosperity not appearing, plenty of other things will similarly disappear. There's no point even making a list – you can just think of a thing that is part of modern day life and sooner or later it won't be there any more. Other forms of energy, be they high tech vaporwear projects like nuclear Thorium reactors, or mid tech things like windmills and solar panels can only ever make up a fraction of the slack that will be left when coal, oil and gas tail off. The reason for this is that oil has absolutely masses of energy in it compared to other energy sources and we have no realistic Plan B for replacing it. Some people say coal can and will replace oil, but they neglect the fact that coal receives a massive fossil fuel subsidy from oil, that is you need plenty of cheap oil in order to extract and transport coal, making it not such a viable proposition (and damn the climate … again).

This is seriously worrying because all of the things we have become used to will disappear from our lives. Modern medicine is one of those things. Cheap food is another. As is fossil fuel powered transport and anything that requires a highly energy intensive production process that relies of a tightly operating supply chain of hundreds or thousands of suppliers – like, say, the computer on which I am typing these words.

In the mid term we're likely to revert to scarcity capitalism, that is, a permanent state of depression with many of the structures of a functioning modern state spiralling into a state of dysfunction. This will be followed by and combined with a stage of self-cannibalising salvage in which we recycle the materials that were produced during the age of abundance. I doubt anyone alive now will outlive the salvage economy stage as it will take many decades to play out. At the end of it, when some degree of order returns, we'll be looking at much simpler forms of society with few people and fewer resources. Rinse and repeat this cycle several times and you'll get an idea of the long slow arc of collapse that James Kunstler calls 'the long emergency'.

Resource wars will loom as nation states try to grab whatever they can to stop their populaces rioting. Six out of the seven billion people alive on the planet today will discover sooner or later that their food is based on oil and gas production. You might even be one of them.

The modern religions of scientific materialism, economic growth and unlimited human progress will shatter to be replaced by … who knows? All bets are off because the world will revert again to something most of us would rather not think about – a dark and dangerous place where anything can happen to you. Of course, it's like that anyway for 80% of people currently alive, but the fact is that if you're reading this you're probably one of the 20% who are wealthy enough to be highly concerned about losing it. It's a certainty that the way people think 100 years from now will be 100% different to the way we think now.

And what's more, there is no escaping this brave new world. A handful of nations are turning up at the wild teenage party of fossil fuelled economic growth just as it is winding down. After causing a racket all night and acting as if there is no tomorrow the original guests are staggering out onto the front lawn to vomit over the marigolds just as the harsh light of a new day dawns. The parental booze cabinet has been well and truly raided and all that is left to do now is sleep off the hangover.

So how long have we got before a collapse? And what is a collapse anyway? Not surprisingly, people disagree on the first point. Everyone might agree that a huge collapse – defined as a massive loss of complexity within a society – is inevitable but they can't agree on the speed of it. John Michael Greer, for example, argues persuasively that industrial civilization has about 200 years before it passes into mythology, although there will be sudden downward lurches along the route, such as the one we are now starting to feel. Others, like Dmitry Orlov (there are many others, but these two spring to mind) think we may be about to plunge of Seneca's Cliff – and he uses his experience of witnessing the Soviet collapse to argue his point of view.

Money will become practically worthless in short order, and office jobs will disappear along with it. True value will be measured in access to productive land and skills. Viewed as such, our 200 year oil binge could be seen as a curse. It has been just long enough to de-skill us of everything that we truly need to know in order to survive. Before oil hit the scene we were becoming quite good at harnessing the Earth's natural cycles to live meaningful lives with at least some comforts. Now, our addiction to oil has taken away most of our abilities that we spent generations learning. It's safe to say that we'll make quite a few mistakes as we try to relearn those skills.

So how can we solve this problem?

Okay, the first step is to stop seeing it as a problem. It's bigger than that. Problems have solutions, and peak oil doesn't. It's more helpful to recognise our limitations and admit that we are dealing with a predicament. It's a predicament that one day the Earth will be consumed by the Sun, but you don't hear many people asking what can be done to prevent that. A more apt question, in that case, might be 'how do we make the most of the time we have left before our planet is consumed by the sun?' Now we're talking.

So how do we make the best of the energy predicament that we are staring at? Well, I could write a million words on that, but luckily I don't have to because others have. In any case, if I said 'This is the plan that we have to follow to get us out of this mess' I'd be talking out of my trousers. Nobody has a 'solution' to this, although there are plenty who have some very good ideas about what you can do make the ride less bumpy. You probably already know what they say is necessary, it includes things like:

  • Learning to grow some of your own food
  • Learning to make things that are not manufactured by oil dependent machines
  • Learning to be a part of the community
  • Learning to tune out from popular culture and develop your own sense of what is right and wrong
  • Learning to live without borrowing money
  • Learning to become energy literate
  • Learning to be more spiritual
  • Learning to take responsibility for your health

As you can see, the above involves a lot of learning and learning takes time. So the best piece of advice is to try and get away from all these things that eat up your valuable time and get learning and practising all of the things that you will need to know if you want to ride out the rest of years in some comfort. I'd also recommend reading up on what others are saying too. Stay away from the people who write about peak oil as an investment opportunity or discuss it in purely technological terms – there are the siren voices of the unstated religion of scientific materialism. Of course, read all about money and science – these are super important subjects to get to grips with – but at then end of the day it is not abstract concepts that will put food on your table.

Luckily for us in this stage of collapse (there's a clause with a limited shelf life) we are in a stage of hyper-connectivity in the form of computer communications. That means all the best peak oil writers have their own blogs and you can see the ones that I follow on the right hand side of this page. Read them week in and week out and learn what they are saying. They all have their own focus so you'll get a rounded picture from multiple viewpoints. One of the benefits of becoming learned in peak oil lore is that your understanding of the world will greatly increase. I can't even count the number of subjects I have begun to explore as a result of the peak oil key unlocking their mystique.

But reading and learning is one thing, doing something useful with it is crucial. That's what I talk about on this blog so, if you're new here and your interest has been pricked, please do continue to read and join in with any comments you might have. As I stated above, to borrow the UK Conservative Party's motif du jour 'We're all in this together' – although the difference is that I don't mean it in an ironic way.

Peak n'Oil band number #6

Neil Young and Crazy Horse

There are plenty of Neil Young tracks that I could pick from that represent in some form or another the long arc of descent that peak oil is a conceptual marker of. Some of his older tracks, such as Harvest Moon and Old Man evoke the kind of wistful feelings of weary wisdom that comes with considering our civilization's trajectory, but it's one of his newer albums that, for me, says the most.

I speak of Living With War, released in 2006 when the US and its allies were up to their eyeballs fighting wars of 'liberation' in Iraq and Afghanistan and the conception that it was 'all about oil' was a fringe one. Pretty much all the tracks on it resonate and can be listened to again and again (with the one black point on the album being in Lookin' for a Leader and predicting Obama as the one who could stand tall 'with great spirit on his side')

The first track, After the Garden, asks when we will do after we have destroyed our Garden of Eden.

The Flags of Freedom must be a particularly hard track for many Americans to acknowledge, with its Youngesque plaintive 'Do you think that you believe in yours more than they do theirs somehow?'.

And finally, Shock and Awe, for which I'll just display the entire lyric below, followed by the video:

Back in the days of shock and awe
We came to liberate them all
History was the cruel judge of overconfidence
Back in the days of shock and awe

Back in the days of "mission accomplished"
Our chief was landing on the deck
The sun was setting on a golden photo op
Back in the days of "mission accomplished"

Thousands of bodies in the ground
Brought home in boxes to a trumpet's sound
No one sees them coming home that way
Thousands buried in the ground

Thousands of children scarred for life
Millions of tears for a soldier's wife
Both sides are losing now
Heaven takes them in

Thousands of children scarred for life
We had a chance to change our mind
But somehow wisdom was hard to find

We went with what we knew and now we can't go back
But we had a chance to change our mind.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Home sweet home

A house at the Frilandsmuseet in Copenhagen, displaying an impressive utilisation of thermal mass 

Clicking around the peak oil blogosphere and reading about the Age of Limits meeting that took place in the US last week has left me with a curiously bewildered feeling. I'm not sure why, but it feels as if we have entered uncharted territory of late, as if there has been a ratcheting up of the general anxiety level and a tense atmosphere is hanging in the air. Perhaps it's because everyone is talking about religion and spirituality, rather than how many barrels are left in the ground. I'm all for that, but I need time to think and to digest.

I really feel that when we look back from the vantage point of the future we'll realise that 2012 really was the year when the latest stage of catabolic collapse began to get into full swing in the West. Here are just some randomish facts and headlines from the last week that float to the top of my mind as I sit here writing this late at night:

  • Petrol sales in the UK have dropped by 20% over the last five years. The newspapers say it is because we are all driving more efficient vehicles.
  • The Royal Bank of Scotland chairman told investors that share prices would not go up again 'in investors' lifetimes'.
  • 50,000 less students applied to UK universities this year compared to last.
  • Thomas Cook – the UK's biggest and oldest travel agency – announced a loss of £330m and its share price has dropped by 90%.
  • British Aerospace has cut hundreds more jobs.
  • Millions of people are facing a pensions shortfall.
  • Pay freezes and cuts are the 'new norm' according to a business survey.
  • Capital flows are charging around the world looking for 'safe havens'. 100 billion euros has been taken out of the Spanish economy recently.

Part of the normal business cycle? I think not.

Still, I'm glad of one thing, and that's the fact that I 'discovered' a new (to me) peak oil writer in Carolyn Baker. Sometimes, when I read peak oil writers, I feel very humbled by the amount of work they put into their writing and the depth of their understanding of the issues that confront us - especially the more technical aspects. I, by contrast, am no expert in anything and this blog is normally written at the kitchen table on a Sunday morning with the kids running around me and the washing up piled nearby. It's hardly ideal, but it brings me onto another subject that I have been thinking about of late, and that is about where we live.

Yes, I'm talking about our homes. In Denmark, where I live, things can seem a bit topsy turvey, to use a technical term. You can buy a splendid old stone farmhouse in the country with acres of fertile land for next to nothing – but a tiny flat in a city costs a fortune. And what do you get in your flat? You get a lounge, a small kitchen, a tiny bathroom and a couple of bedrooms. Of course, some apartments are bigger than others and may or may not have a balcony, but one thing that they all lack is space.

And I'm of the opinion that we need space. We need space to make things in and space to be alone in. What we actually get is a tiny amount of space to live our just-in-time lifestyles in where hardly anything can be stored. There is no space to run a small manufacturing/crafts business and children are cooped up all the time and don't have the freedom to run around and play boisterous and noisy games (if they attempt that within the confines of their apartment they are labelled as having ADHD and given Ritalin).

All of this makes perfect sense in an age when work is provided by an outside agency for a salary, nobody makes stuff and children are conditioned from an early age to watch TV and play computer games. It also makes sense from an energy perspective – cramming all those people together makes it easier to keep them warm for less energy.

But living in an apartment isolates you from nature, limits you from being productive and, quite often, isolates you from your neighbours (who you only speak to via the medium of complaining about something or other).

So it made a nice change for me to head over to a part of the city which demonstrates that this hasn't always been the case. There's an area of Copenhagen, hemmed in by blocks of flats and motorways, preserved as a kind of museum - called the Frilandsmuseet (meaning 'open air museum') in which all the houses are freely available to explore. I can spend hours wandering around the place, taking mental notes of the blacksmith's tools, the miller's stones and the fisherwife's loom and bobbins and all the other things that are these days regarded as quaint artefacts from another age.

In its day it would have been a small hamlet, more or less self sufficient in the basics and with perhaps 20 families living there. A circle of stones was the community meeting point, with the head of each family being sat on each stone in any discussion. The status of each family was apparent in the intricacy of design work on items of furniture and the quality of the house builds. The miller seemed to be the best off family, with plenty of pious pictures on the walls and the grandest house of them all. But then he was the one most able to exploit the available primary energy sources – in this case wind and water – and process the raw materials into a refined product.

Wandering around, I wondered just what it would have felt like to live there in, say, 1800. Life would undoubtedly have been hard by today's standards, but it would also have had its comforts. Also, I wondered how self-sufficient, to use a modern term, the place would have been and to what extent they would have traded with outsiders for some of the fancier goods. A few of the dwellings are fishermen's cottages, so I'd guess that a lot of their protein came from the sea. That option wouldn't work today, with the Baltic being more or less fished out as far as small-scale fishing from boats are concerned.

It's probably at this point that some people will think that I am advocating a return to a medieval village type of existence and that perhaps I'm a feudalist. I don't and I'm not, although I can't help admiring the rural beauty and the elegant functionality of the hamlet and its houses and all the tools that they left behind which hardly anyone alive today knows how to use. Below you can see a few snaps I took while I was there.

That's all I really have to say in this post. Sometimes the ink flows and sometimes it does not. It's a couple of days earlier than normal because I'm off for a wedding in Odense for the weekend. It's a half Danish half Irish affair, meaning that it's going to be rather a late evening.

On a positive note I can reveal that I have started talking with someone who is selling five acres of mixed broad-leaf woodland which even contains some old charcoal pits. I'm sorting out my future 'career' inch by inch …

The blacksmith's workshop

A hand cranked sewing machine

The smith's house at the Frilandsmuseet

The communal council stones. There were ten council members in the village - and presumably no tree  back then

Some chickens in a wagon shed belonging to the miller's family

The miller's water wheel. The work that this is capable of is quite impressive.

The miller's windmill - cutting edge Dutch technology in its day

The village hall. There are also small rooms for travellers inside.

A fisherman's house - transplanted from elsewhere in Denmark and re-erected

A scullery inside one of the houses - the original Scandinavian designed kitchen

A contemporary block of flats in Denmark