Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mary Poppins explains capitalism

One of the benefits of having kids is that you get to watch all the old classics again.

Should your kids ever want you to explain how the global financial system operates all you need to do is show them Mary Poppins. Here is young Michael, who only wants to spend the tuppence he has saved up to feed the starving pigeons outside St Paul's Cathedral. His father, who works at the bank, won't let him and instead insists that he invest it ... which is overheard by the chairman of the bank ...

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Acid Factory Forest

Some Acid Factory rosehips

If you ever happen to find yourself flying to Copenhagen Airport you will no doubt take a metro train to the city centre shortly after landing. After you have been on the eerily driverless train for roughly three minutes you will notice that to your left you are passing a built up area of characterless blocks of flats, car parks and hotels. That’s where I live. In the other direction you’ll notice that you are passing close to the sea, with Sweden clearly visible across the Øresund, if the weather is good. In the foreground, just before the shoreline, you’ll notice huge mounds of dirt and tangled pieces of metal surrounded by earth moving equipment. Underneath it, although you could never tell, is the Acid Factory Forest.

Let me explain. I live on a road called Syrefabriksvej, which in English means Acid Factory Way. The reason for this is that quite a long time ago it used to lead to – you guessed it – an acid factory. Back in Denmark’s industrial heyday, if there ever was such a thing, the shoreline was covered with salt works, fish processing plants and factories. Then, by the 1970s or so, the fish had gone and production of goods was shifting overseas, meaning the factories shut down and the area became what is commonly called an urban wasteland.  

Having a miniature rust belt did nothing for the island’s reputation whatsoever. The island I live on, you see, has always been the target of snobbery. In medieval times the contents of Copenhagen’s chamber pots were brought here and spread on the land as fertilizer, and henceforth the island was known as lorteøen - or shit island. By most accounts, it was populated by a particularly coarse breed of pig farmers, and in 1521 King Christian II, who was a great fan of everything Dutch, gave the southern section of the island to some farmers from Holland. His reasoning was that they could supply the royal table with quality fruit and veg – something he believed Danish farmers to be incapable of. They didn’t have to pay taxes and perhaps because of it all of Denmark hated them. 

Amager (pronounced ‘Ama’ – the ger bit is silent - Danish is like that) continued to be unpopular. On the opening page of Søren Kierkegaard’s manifesto of existentialism Either/Or he declares that he’d rather live on Amager talking to the filthy pigs than live among the uncivilized philistines of contemporary Copenhagen society. I’m not sure if that was meant as a complement or not.

Anyway, today the pig farms are gone and covered in apartment blocks, 7-11s and pet grooming parlours. The shore line, where the old acid factory was, has been given an extreme makeover in the last six years, with a huge offshore island being built and fancy flats springing up here there and everywhere. You're more likely to see a fashion shoot or a skateboarding contest than a blue-overalled worker down there these days. But one bit that nobody ever seemed like getting around to doing anything to was where the old acid factory had been. It covered quite an area, and there were the remains of many other factories there too, although I don't know what they produced. Urban legend had it that the land was poisoned, which may well have been true.

Amager beach in 1950, when the area was a bustling industrial zone

Amager beach in 2012, now given over to leisure

Poisoned or not, nature had been allowed to take its course over the last 40 years and, until quite recently, a forest had grown up there. I used to go there regularly to recharge my psychic batteries. Denmark, you see, is a remarkably manicured country with barely a blade of grass out of place. Maybe it’s because the land was so flat and easy to tame that a culture grew up that could accurately be described as the cult of ‘neatness’. You know that picture of the American family with the picket fence? They were no doubt settlers from Denmark.You see it everywhere. Sometimes I think that the ideal home in these parts is a square Lego-type house on an immaculate lawn with not a single other living organism on the premises other than maybe a supermarket bought orchid artfully placed on the dining room table. Something a bit like this:

An idealised Danish house ... for some

But the Acid Factory Forest was different. Here, there was a profusion of life. Through the concrete factory floors and the tarmac carparks and roads an army of saplings had burst forth, soon burying what remained of decades of human endeavor beneath a blanket of leaves and twigs and earwigs. It was a place of tall silver birches, adolescent oak trees, apple trees (perhaps from people tossing apple cores out of passing car windows), elberberry bushes, hawthorns, rosehips and many more. The trees were alive with birds, and I saw birds there that I never saw anywhere else in Denmark. But mostly it was populated by a sizeable unkindness of ravens, who sat looking down philosophically from the posts that held the rusty razor wire fence to keep people out up. Every time I saw these ravens I made an effort to say hello to them. After a time they grew used to me and, although I never managed to get a response out of any of them, I’m pretty sure that they understood some rudimentary English phrases after a while.

I loved visiting my urban forest and seeing all the wildflowers there in Spring and the amazing bounty of fruits and berries in the Autumn. I didn’t dare eat any of them, of course, as the warnings about poisoned soils were all too clear in my mind. Once, after reading a book about wild food, I decided to harvest some snails. The snails there were unlike any others I have seen in Denmark – they were giants! And they were everywhere. I picked up about 20 and put them in a huge jar, feeding them lettuce and parsley (tutored by my Italian father in law who is an expert snail eater - he said it would remove any 'toxins'), and had big plans to fry them up in butter and garlic and invite a couple of friends around for a wine and escargot evening. I watched them slithering around for a week or two, and they watched me back with their slimy eyes on stalks. They looked so trusting. I grew to like them, and even had names for some of the more recognizable ones. Inevitably I couldn't bear to eat them. 

After a period of desperate rationalization, I rode back down to the Acid Factory Forest and gently placed them back where I had found them, bidding them a fond farewell as I left. The community of the forest had been reunited again. (Would the snails tell others of their adventures? Would the others believe them? Was I going crazy?)

But then, one day last year, something dreadful happened. An invasive species penetrated the nature zone - a predator so ruthless that it could only spell doom for all of the ravens and foxes and squirrels and hares that called the place home. Yes, an ape-like creature wearing a hard plastic hat and a fluorescent yellow jacket was seen surveying the site with a sextant and talking into a mobile phone. After only a few days more came, as if lured by this initial colonist. They worked methodically, and smoked cigarettes as they drove long white stakes into the ground at 100m intervals, dividing the land up in preparation for it being brought back into the orbit of human control. The ravens remained perched on the fence and watched all of this with their beady eyes, occasionally squawking something to one another in their indecipherable tongue. It was a bad omen to be sure.

But then, just as quickly as they had come, the men went away. For the entire winter and spring, nothing happened, and the denizens of the wasteland carried on living their lives in relative peace. But then, this summer, I went away for a week, and when I came back I noticed something odd. All of a sudden my flat had a sea view. Where before there had been the green froth of leaves there was now the icy blue of the Baltic Sea. I got on my bike and went down to investigate. When I got there it was a scene of utter destruction. A large machine was parked there which seemed to have some kind of giant double chain saw pincer attached to the front. It had evidently been over the whole area because nothing now rose more than a foot from the ground. The ‘debris’ was still there, and so were the ravens, who were all sat on the fence surveying the wreckage. Somewhere in it were all their nests, presumably with their young still in them.

I felt shocked, as if a family member or friend had been violently murdered. How could they do this? And to rub salt into the wound, they then sprayed the entire area in some kind of herbicide to ensure than no living thing would be left alive. It seems to succeed and after a few days the whole area was wilted and dead as if it had been sprayed with agent orange - which maybe it had.

I was depressed. The Acid Factory Forest had given me succour and strength throughout the times I had been depressed in the past, and now it was gone. There was nothing I could do. I mentioned it to a few local people but they were all unsympathetic. ‘Oh it was just an eyesore – a wasteland,’ they said in so many words. It attracted crime, it was being used to dump trash, teenage joyriders burned cars in it, somebody had been attacked there … it seemed like the place could do no good at all. There was nothing for it but to rehabilitate it and bring it back to a state of purity.

I wondered what had happened to all the resident wildlife. There was literally nowhere for it to go as the Acid Factory Forest had been surrounded variously by a beach (intersected by a busy road), Copenhagen Airport, a yachting marina and sterile suburbia. Only the ravens, I imagined, could get away – and they did. After a couple of weeks of staring at the devastation and cawing to one another they just left, en masse. I wonder how they made the decisions. When to go. Where to go. There is so much we don’t understand on this planet.

Over the coming weeks work went on at the site. The tree stumps were ripped up by another fearsome machine and bulldozed into great tangled piles before being loaded onto trucks and driven away. Then the ground was levelled and some kind of yellow plastic gauze was spread over the, perhaps, 40 acre area. After this hundreds – perhaps thousands – of truckloads of building debris was brought in and spread on the ground. Maybe it was the tower blocks they have been enthusiastically dynamiting around Denmark recently.  Then on top of the debris went about a metre of clay. Beneath that huge mass of concrete, plastic and clay was a substrate layer of dying matter that was once a 40 year old forest. And some snails that had once been on an adventure.

A sign was erected outside the new barbed wire fences, showing what was to be done there. The land, it said, was being turned into a nature reserve as part of the city's commitment to sustainable development. A CAD generated image showed what it would look like. It showed mostly immaculate grass with a few neat trees here and there with ‘contemplation benches’ for the computer generated Danes who were strolling around with shopping mall type contentment on their computer generated faces.

It was all too much and it caused me to think about all of the human follies to which we are susceptible. The greatest mistake of our age, it seems to me, is our inability to recognise that a linear accomplishment is trumped by a cyclical one. Every time we take a natural system and unleash a cataclysm upon it we are turning it from a very complex system with hundreds of different types of organisms (probably thousands if you go down to the micro level, which microbiologists tell us where it’s really at) into a very simple one of a handful of selected species which would never coexist in the natural world. To maintain the new equilibrium – in this case neat grass, a few selected trees and some water features – means a constant battle against the forces of nature which ‘want’ to turn it back into a ‘wasteland’ i.e. a piece of land that is useful to many species, but not us.

The wasteland of the Acid Factory Forest lives on on Google Earth, incidentally, which is yet to be updated.

This battle costs energy and money. It will take a few personnel with a variety of power-hungry machines to prevent the new ‘nature reserve’ from turning into a, well, nature reserve. And we know where the energy will come from to power those machines, and we know that using energy on hedge trimmers, leaf blowers and chainsaws for ornamental gardens will not be high up on the list of priorities during an energy crunch.

I have come to regard the whole Acid Factory Forest fiasco in a philosophical way. 40 years is but a blink of an eye in natural time, and one day this place, and plenty more besides it, will again be rich in life. I’ll be long gone by then.  Wastelands like this will become wilderness one day. And many of the cities and towns that we live in will be a part of it if we truly extend our temporal range of consciousness to the far future. Who knows, maybe in the rubble of this flat on ‘Shit Island’ where I am typing this will one day be snuffled over by packs of wild pigs, hunting for acorns from the oak trees I have been surreptitiously planting in municipal parks and on road verges around the area. Or, more likely, the rubble will be home to crabs and oysters and the bricks of the kitchen wall I now see before me will be covered with seaweed and barnacles – the island is, after all, only a couple of metres above sea level, with much of it actually below.

After the trees had been removed the site was covered in plastic gauze

An adjacent area was left standing
The end result, standing with my back to the sea looking towards my apartment block

Postscript: After I wrote this a couple of days ago it has emerged - according to my well-placed source - that the local council has found itself with no money for planting trees or further developing the site. Work, for now, has stopped. In the meantime, some interesting new pioneers are forcing themselves up through the lifeless clay and rubble … pictures to follow.


The world's first Holistic Real Estate Agent

Sustainable Properties for Sale

This is a shout out for my friend David Edge. I first met David in Spain when I interviewed him and his wife Aspen at their farm high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains for my very first newspaper article. They had bought a run down farm on a degraded piece of no-good desertifying land and through sheer hard work and determination turned it into a veritable green oasis in a parched yellow wilderness. David and Aspen used permaculture techniques and were heavily influenced by Allan Savory and his concept of 'Holistic Management' - and it was truly inspiring to see what they had achieved in the face of conventional wisdom.

Sadly, Aspen was struck down with cancer and died a couple of years ago and David was left with Semilla Besada, their farming project. He passed the project onto some new guardians and returned to his roots in Devon and he has now started a website with the aim of putting people in touch with one another who are seeking to buy or sell land or property that is suitable for living in in a sustainable manner. You could say that he is the first holistic real estate agent.

Anyway, please have a look at his new site and see if you can spare a minute to help him spread the word. As readers of this site will be aware, finding a place to live in which you can be a useful part of the ecosystem is one of the most important challenges we face. He is not doing it for money, although he does accept donations if it all works out for the buyer or seller.

You can see his site Sustainable Properties for Sale by clicking here and his Facebook site can be followed here. The site is fairly new but it covers properties worldwide - so it doesn't matter where you live.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Peak n'Oil No #1 - Faith No More

Faith No More - my Number 1 band to listen to as we circle the plughole

Well, it took me a while to get there but finally I can reveal the Number One band to listen to when contemplating the decline and fall of our industrial civilization.

Faith No More - yes, even the name of the band spells it out - the band from California who make the act of juxtaposing easy listening classics with death metal riffs seem like the most natural thing in the world. It's their later stuff, however, that saw them break away from the pack and mature into something that will still be eminently listenable as long as CD players continue to spin. The albums Angel Dust and King for a Day ... Fool for a Lifetime are regularly taken out of their cracked and scuffed CD cases in the Heppenstall household.

Faith No More were the band to see in the early 1990's and, yes, I was there whenever they came to the Brixton Academy in London, stage diving with the rest of them. They are a band who fire on all four cylinders, and there are no duff members. The band was always driven by bassist Billy Gould and keyboardist Roddy Bottum (not forgetting the drummer/founder Mike Bordin) but really came into itself when the very strange Jim Martin was brought in on guitars and, later, the youthful Mike Patton was employed as frontman and lyricist.

When surveying their back catalogue there are simply too many tracks to choose from, but I've narrowed it down to the following.

Starting at the beginning back in the mists of time in 1985 We Care a Lot revealed FNM to be more than just directionless mutoid waste rockers - they could be snarky social commentators too. It's pretty anarchic stuff and  vocalist Chuck Mosley does a good job of sounding like a sneering cynic. The words are great and, just like writing a blog about peak everything and the end of industrialism - it's a dirty job but someone's gotta do it.

Moving on, Everything's Ruined sees the welcome introduction of Mike Patton, and speaks for itself.

Off the same album we have Caffeine (this is a live version from 2009). My look how they've aged ...

Moving onto their next great album King for a Day ... Fool for a Lifetime we get such greats as The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (seemingly a peon to business executives) ...

Cuckoo for Caca - surely the best song about nuclear waste that was ever penned delivered in a suitably, er, urgent way and featuring the verse ... Shit Lives Forever ... you can't kill it ...

And let's not forget FNM's gentle side with such tracks as the Icarus mentioning Just a Man. To me, this track is pure poetic beauty. Check out the lyric:

"Man was born to love- 
Though often he has sought 
Like Icarus, to fly too high- 
And far too lonely than he ought 
To kiss the sun of east and west 
And hold the world at his behest- 
To hold the terrible power 
To whom only gods are blessed- 
But me, I am just a man" 

And let's not forget the Bee Gee's cover I Started a Joke. Patton can't take credit for the lyrics, but it's hard to listen to this track without thinking that it is being some by some tragic personification of industrial capitalism ...

The album Album of the Year also yields a few nuggets, such as the ethereal Stripsearch which says quite a bit about contemporary life and our increasingly authoritarian governments.

And finally, from Angel Dust, FNM's Midnight Cowboy is a suitable track to end this Peak n'Oil Top 10 on. Pour yourself a glass of something strong, turn up the speakers, put your feet up and imagine our whole way of life go riding off into the sunset.

In case you're wondering what Mike Patton does these days (or in case you're not) he has become an Italian and now sings classic Italian pop hits (in Italian) with his own symphonic orchestra ... and he also sings opera.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen

Today I joined a gym. Yes, I know. I haven’t set foot in one for 15 years but the time had come to do so again. I apologise to regular readers who might be expecting something along the lines of some subject matter that is at least tangential to peak oil, global hegemony or environmental meltdown – that will all have to wait until next week. I should probably say now that if you’re of a sensitive disposition you might not want to read certain parts of this post, because today’s post is about … (drumroll) … violence!

But first, let me explain a little something. When I say I haven’t set foot inside a gym for 15 years, that’s not because I am some kind of couch potato who can’t walk up a flight of stairs. In fact, I run around 20km a week, bike about 100km and I’m even training for a half-marathon. Don’t forget, part of preparing for a future of limited medical care and inaccessible or ineffective drugs is the ability to keep fit and try and heal your own body. And just like sex, poetry and friendship, exercise is one of those things that you shouldn’t have to pay for. In any case, I have to exercise because if I don’t then the chronic pain I live with gets worse.

I’m not sure how it happened or what it is, but I live with an endless pain in my chest. It could have been when I had a snowboarding accident, or maybe it was the time I was infested with a tropical parasite that gnawed away at my insides unchecked for two years, but it’s been with me for this past decade, and sometimes it is debilitating, but usually it is just a low level ache in the upper left side of my chest. I’ve been to doctors and hospitals aplenty and they’ve run numerous tests on me and the conclusion is always the same: there’s nothing detectably wrong with me. Except there is. At times the pain spreads right up through my neck into my head and leaves me finding it painful to breathe and sleep. It isn’t fun.

I don’t know how it started or how to fix it. People have suggested acupuncture, visiting a chiropractor or various homeopathic treatments. Alcohol and coffee make it worse, whereas rubbing a pressure point under my left eye makes it go away temporarily, as if by magic. Very intense exercise also makes it go away for a few hours, as do strong pain killers. It’s a pain, but apparently not a fatal one.

So that’s why I go running. The only thing is that it seems to be getting more and more dangerous to go running where I live. Some people might think that it doesn’t get much safer and cleaner than Copenhagen – that is how the city likes to present itself to an international audience. That’s probably what the unfortunate American tourist thought last week who met a grisly end after an automated street cleaning machine suddenly developed artificial intelligence and went amok, sucking him up and ramming his head against the wall of a bank, thus killing him in a most unexpectedly unpleasant way. But anyone who has ever lived here or watched the superb TV series Forbrydelsen (renamed ‘The Killing’ in English) won’t be entirely surprised by what I am about to say. This has been my experiences in the past ten days or so:

-         A man was murdered with a single shot to the head outside the office I work in. The attack was thought to be a revenge attack for a hit on some people walking out of a mosque a year ago (also next to my office) which I heard. At the time I had thought somebody was throwing heavy things into a skip – that’s what it sounded like.

-         A couple of days later I went running at night. On a particularly dark street near the beach a car pulled up next to me and a man yelled something obscene at me. I ignored him and he drove off. Ten minutes later the whole place was full of police cars and it was on the news later that a man on that street had been randomly cruising around and stabbing passers-by. One victim was stabbed in the chest but managed to walk to hospital.

-         I also went running the next night and surprised two men doing something suspicious at a deserted building site – they didn’t take it well and I had to put a sprint on.

-        Three nights later I encountered a gang of youths, one wielding a metal pole outside a grim local shopping precinct. They were dressed in the American ‘gangster’ style of pants hanging down and covered in bling. They were also smashing the place up and again I had to sprint to get away from them as they shouted after me.

-         Then last night – the final night I went out. Half the police force of Copenhagen descended on the island of Amager where I live after violence flared up between the two main Hells Angels gangs who are Denmark’s de facto mafia. One man was thrown out of a moving car, and another was found kneecapped in the back seat of another. Just another night in Copenhagen.

Sporadic random cases? Maybe.  But I used to regularly attend crime scenes in my capacity as a reporter here a couple of years ago, so I know very well that there’s a very dark underbelly in this city. Here are a few of the scenes I attended during that time:

  •          A cold blooded murder of a Somali man who was leaving his flat for work and was gunned down from a passing car in front of his children.
  •           A local bar (very close to my flat) invaded at night by a machine gun wielding gang hunting for junior members of a Hells Angels club. After shooting up the bar they dragged one unfortunate punter outside, pulled his trousers down and put the gun up where the sun don’t shine. I photographed the blood spattered plants pots and gore covered latex gloves of the paramedics.
  •          The assassination of a powerful Chinese businessman in a restaurant outside the office.
  •          The aftermath of a drugs turf war related grenade attack on some people enjoying a quiet beer in the alternative commune of Christiania. The grenade landed on the table and blew a young man’s jaw off.
  •          The attempted assassination of a biker leader as he sat in a Joe and the Juice café drinking a milkshake. The bullet went through the window into his back, where he was sitting, although he didn't die.

Apart from those there have been dozens, perhaps hundreds of others. Just across the water from where I live, in the Swedish city of Malmø, they also had to contend with a serial killer who was shooting dark skinned people at random. Luckily he was caught, but the fact remains that these kinds of people just seem to pop up over here with unnerving regularity. How long before we get Denmark’s answer to Anders Breivik?

But now the police fear a new biker war. Forget Islamic terrorists, Scandinavia is plagued with home grown ones with blonde hair and blue eyes.  It brings me back to the happy days on the mid-nineties, when I first visited Denmark. In those days the various biker gangs, who ride around on shiny $80,000 Harley Davidsons and control the lucrative drug trade in these parts, were taking part in some pretty spectacular public battles. Who could forget the machine gun battle at Copenhagen Airport, for instance, or the RPG attack in central Copenhagen which launched a victim through a plate glass window as shoppers stood by gawking?

I should probably say that the leader of the Hells Angels, convicted killer Jørn Jønker Nielsen, is particularly web-savvy and on occasion phoned the office I used to work in to politely point out factual errors in our stories. So, if you’re reading Jørn, er, hello.

This is all very puzzling. The statistics don't bear out my observations - Denmark has, on average, 0.9 homicides for every 100,000 people, making it the 21st safest country in the world (the US rate is about five times higher). It could be that victims are treated well in state of the art hospitals and usually recover, combined with the observation that most attacks tend to leave people half-dead rather than fully. And, of course, most violent crime tends to occur in the capital city, and most of them are premeditated attempts on the lives of various gang members and religious minorities.

So I have no particular desire to get caught up in all that again – hence my decision to join a gym in an international hotel near where I live. It’s a peculiar place to be. Everyone is so focussed on themselves and whatever is playing on their headphones, and they hardly seem to notice one another. It’s a kind of anti-community, where the lycra clad denizens drink only from plastic water bottles and nobody says a word but instead focuses on the numerous flat screen TVs affixed to the walls spewing out their 24 hour news and MTV feeds. Paper towel dispensers are much in use as every drop of sweat is quickly dealt with, and occasionally one of the gym employees will come round and empty the bins which quickly fill up with these and the plastic bottles. Various tattooed meatheads lift the free weights and flex their muscles in the mirrors, and afterwards there is a pool to cool off in, or a sauna to heat up in if you prefer. I quite like it.

It’s all very artificial and contrived, but for the time being it’s where I’ll be spending several evenings a week. What exactly am I doing as I run my standard 10km like a rat on a treadmill, dripping sweat onto the iPhone docking station? I’m writing my new sci-fi novel in my head, if you must know.  And not getting shot up the backside or stabbed or having my jaw blown off by a grenade.

Normal service will resume next week. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Peak n'Oil Band #2

The lyrics of which foot-tapping song capture the zeitgeist of these times better than any other? I can’t think of a better one than R.E.M.’s It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine). Apart from the chorus I’ve got no idea what the other lines mean, although it sounds pseudo-apocalyptic, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s not the end of the world but the end of the world as we know it. Whether you feel fine or not is up to you.

Given that we’re down to second place (and the number 1 will be revealed next week) I’m running out of time and space to mention more bands. Nevertheless, World Party should get an honorable mention for Ship of Fools. The lyrics are pretty self explanatory.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Restoring Balance

Solon: His 'throwing off of burdens' liberated the people

In this week Arctic sea ice retreated to the lowest extent ever recorded, meaning that the world, as seen from space, now looks significantly different to the world we inherited. The last time ice melted on this scale was 10,000 years ago and it left us with a nice balmy climate in which to develop our civilization. This time it’s a little different though, and climate scientists, who are generally alarmed by this sudden loss, reckon that the effect will be a 20 year hit of the effects of global warming all in one go.

Not that you would know it from reading the papers. Sea ice retreat? Yawn. That’s so 2010. More important is the shocking revelation that one of the more attractive member of Britain’s royal family is in possession of a pair of nipples. Oh my God! Said the breathless headline – cue hordes of slavering moralists who just want to have a peek so that they can assure themselves how abominable the whole thing is. Luckily, according to the Daily Telegraph, the royal couple are ‘bearing up well’, although it goes on to warn us that ‘nobody is safe’ any more in this day and age of long lens photography and the internet. Scary stuff.

But if you’re not reading The Guardian, who sent their veteran environmental reporter John Vidal to the Arctic with Greenpeace to report on the melting ice cap, you’d be lucky finding anything about major planetary boundaries being crossed buried beneath this week's pornfest (I don't mean Kate’s tits, I'm talking about the latest iPhone). Instead you are likely to be confronted with the seemingly endless analysis of the election in the US, with acres of newsprint about why such and such an occurrence is beneficial to the Romney campaign, while such and such an economic indicator is beneficial to the Obama one.

Now, I’m no expert on American politics – my general reaction is about the same as a Daily Mail reader confronted with an article on how we have kicked off the latest great extinction; I yawn and turn the page. As an outsider it always seems amazing that so much effort, money and coverage can be expended on something that will effectively lead to no change in anything of any import whatsoever. The two parties (and you’ll have to forgive me a small snigger whenever I hear the idea that there can only be two parties) trade electoral constituencies to ensure that every vote will be almost dead on 50/50 and are in hock to campaign money, political donations and lobbyist pressure to such an extent that the only way the whole system can be called democratic is only in that it isn’t a dictatorship and that, in theory, some wildcard could step out of the woodwork and win an election on a political platform of honesty. In theory, I said.

Well, that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon, and I suspect there will have to be some severe breakdown of business as usual before anything like that becomes possible. But given the gowing calamitous nature of our audacious attempt to sweep ecological damage and financial debt underneath an increasingly lumpy carpet, perhaps something new is needed.

When I say ‘new’ what I’m really thinking about is ‘old’. Our situation at present bears some remarkable similarities to the situation in Athens over two and a half thousand years ago.  It was a period, known as the Archaic, in which the aristocracy had all the money, and the common people had all the misery and suffering.  The latter just kept getting worse while the former just kept getting richer. Farmers everywehere were so in debt to the idle rich that the only thing they could do was mortgage their own bodies, and those of their families, in the hope that things would improve and they could pay off the debts. Things generally didn’t, meaning that the average corn growing farmer could look forward to his family being sold into slavery and himself being left to starve or live the life of a beggar.

But then, ominous noises were heard from abroad. ‘Abroad’, to the Athenians more often than not meant the other Greek states, most of which were in turmoil. Tyrants had taken over, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not, liberating a great mass of the state’s productive capital and improving the lot of the average person. Tyrants weren’t despots – the word just means someone who came to power in an unconstitutional manner. For most people, having a tyrant as a leader was far preferable to not having one. Tyrants redistributed the wealth, created grand monuments and public works (partly to give something to the unemployed to do and prevent them becoming agitators) and, usually, acted in the public interest.

The nobility of Athens cast worried glances at other states, fearing that the same could happen to them. They were already embroiled in civil war because the great mass of people, most of whom were farmers, had almost nothing to lose. Most of them were in debt so much that bankers had the legal right to sell the farmers’ families into slavery abroad, and most of them did. What’s more, the so-called hoplite middle classes, who were also warriors, probably only needed an injection of arms from some foreign tyrant and they could have stormed the citadel.

So instead of submitting to their own destruction the aristocrats did something far cleverer. They took a wise man named Solon and gave him sweeping powers to enact reforms, the like of which the ancient world had never seen.

One of the first things that Solon did was invent the radical concept of democracy. It wasn’t democracy as we would understand it today, and indeed only the rich were permitted to hold office, but for the first time having blue blood didn’t mean you would automatically assume power – and being born in a goat shed didn’t mean that one day you would not rule the state. 

But democracy, for all its value, was not even one of his more radical measures. Far more jarring to the rich – which Solon makes clear in his poetry (yes, he was a poet!) were a scourge who would destroy the state if left unchecked – was the enactment of seisachtheia. This word translates as something like ‘the casting off of bonds’ and it meant that all of the debt which the nobility had been using to keep the everyday people in bondage and sell their families was forgiven. Furthermore, it became illegal to secure debt by using people's bodies as collateral. Understandably, this was hugely popular with the 99% and hugely unpopular with the 1% (to use a modern analogy).

But it wasn’t just a free ticket for the poor. Solon recognized that the huge socio-economic problems were not just caused by the greed of the rich. He understood that, fundamentally, Attica (the Athenian state) had overshot its resource base and could not feed itself. The thin soils only provided so much corn, meaning that famine was a constant threat (this was before the time when the role of soil fertilization was known). So along with seisachtheia, Solon insisted that farmers plant a new-fangled agricultural cash crop known as the olive tree. These basically look after themselves, do fine in the worst conditions imaginable and you can still plant grain around them, should you so desire. It would take half a century or more to see the fruits of this policy (and there were plenty who would not go along with it) but the export of olive oil from Attica proved to be a remarkably successful industry and is still going on today.

Along with this, Solon saw that idleness, unproductiveness and a lack of people looking after their parents in old age could all solved with the same solution: he made it compulsory for parents to ensure their children were educated in a trade. The trade had to be a useful one, such as tool making, carpentry or food production, and if you failed to comply then your children had every right to abandon you to your fate when you became old. This, like his other solutions, involved long term planning, but at a stroke many of the social problems which had beset Athenians were solved.

Finally, Solon repealed some of the draconian laws which had been put in place by, well, Draco only a few years earlier. The Draconian punishment for a transgression of the law was death. It didn’t matter if you had murdered a whole family or stolen a fig off someone else’s tree: death was still the punishment. Solon saw that such harsh punishments didn’t do Athenian society any good at all as many of the young men who should be contributing to the economy had been put to death for some minor infraction. 

Although the reforms were radical, or perhaps because of it, some people continued to be a plague on society which it would be better off without. A system was devised to do so whereby a large clay pot, known as an ostrakon, was smashed to pieces in front of a local crowd. The crowd then rushed forward and each person grabbed a shard, on which they scratched the name of the person they thought society would be better off without. It could be a loan shark, a dishonest tradesman or a particularly annoying celebrity - nobody was safe. The shards were then collected up and if anyone’s name stood out and appeared rather too often then that person was banished from the state. It’s where the word ostracised comes from, and it’s a particular fantasy of mine to imagine a modern version of it [But where would we banish social parasites to in this modern day? I’m thinking of an island somewhere, preferably with plenty of charismatic mega fauna remaining. It would have to be quite a large island to accommodate the numerous new arrivals …].

It took a while, but Athens thrived in the wake of Solon’s reforms, becoming the strongest economy of the Classical period and a centre for philosophy and art. At the time though, most of the reforms were unpopular, but Solon didn’t mind. In the short term most people were indeed worse off under his reforms. The nobles complained that they couldn't sell the farmers as slaves; the farmers complained that they had to plant olive trees, and everyone complained that they had to train their idle kids or be kicked out onto the streets. Solon, who said that with the power he had been given he could simply have become a tyrant and ruled Athens that way, knew that you had to break a few eggs to make an omelette, and he was wise enough to recognise that his measures would not make him any friends. He remained content though because, as he said, he saw himself as a mediator, trying to find a third way between the different competing strata of society that would lead to a betterment of Athenian society as a whole.

Crucially though, he realised that the system of exploitation and greed was unsustainable, and that if he didn’t change things the whole system would collapse. It’s tempting to draw a modern analogy. Could it be that in the debt-ridden US, where both parties want to protect ‘wealth creators’ while the productive capital of the entire system trickles away would be better off joining forces and pushing a wise poet to the fore?

Don’t bet on it. We’re likely to see hell freeze over before that happens. Or perhaps even the Arctic.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bad Language

It’s been another interesting week in the realm of peak oil, with news that Saudi Arabia may not have anything like as much oil as it was claimed (although this hardly counts as news for anyone who has been paying attention). The Daily Telegraph’s champion business writer, Ambrose Evans Pritchard, has even started talking about peak oil in alarming tones – although he puts a safe distance between himself and the regular old peak oil writers by renaming it ‘peak cheap oil’. Cue hundreds of angry comment trolls attacking his failure of wishful thinking.

Oil may have dropped in price recently, going down to less than a hundred dollars a barrel (which is still 1,000% up on only 14 years ago, as Kurt Cobb reminds us), but there hasn’t been a corresponding decrease in petrol prices. Here in Denmark it’s pushing 14 crowns a litre – which is just over 9 dollars a gallon. There are the usual and predictable ‘Pain at the Pumps’ headlines, and in Britain the government is trying to deflect criticism by launching an official enquiry into the high prices, presumably in the hope that it can be seen to be doing something and that they will have dropped again by the time the enquiry winds up.

The high petrol prices, combined with high food prices, are having all sorts of interesting effects. One has been a rise in stealth inflation of the food variety, with many products in my local supermarket seemingly afflicted by a terrible shrinking phenomenon. A jar of peanut butter used to cost 30kr ($5.20) for 400g. Then, seemingly overnight, the price dropped to 25kr and the jars were marked ‘Special Offer’. But even the most myopic person could see that the jars themselves had suddenly got a lot smaller, and you now only got 250g. That (he says, fiddling with his calculator) is actually a price rise of 33% disguised as a discount.

But apart from the price rises we might actually be seeing some demand destruction taking place. In the UK, overall traffic levels dropped by 1% this spring, which is nothing spectacular, but that figure hides the fact that heavy goods traffic fell by the much more significant figure of 4.4% as businesses seized up and people went shopping less. And did anyone mention North Sea oil production? This has continued its relentless decline and fell a whopping 18% in 2011.

18% !!!

This is great news for planet Earth but apocalyptic news for the rabid scrum of psychotic maniacs who are currently controlling the levers of power in Britain. Psychotic in Chief George Osborne, whose job it is to push forward any economic policy he can dream up as long as it is the wrong one, has reacted with predictable abandon and announced a massive infrastructure building plan to invoke the sacred gods of Growth. Yes, against a background of steadily falling oil availability, we are to embark on a programme of road and airport expansion because, as everyone knows, if you build enough roads and airports then those stubborn oil fields will miraculously start weeping out record amounts of oil again.

Nobody in MSM land is seriously questioning this rush for growth at any cost, although some of the more liberal newspapers are tying themselves in knots arguing for green growth i.e. further ways to sustain the unsustainable. Which gets me onto the business of language.

I happen to like the English language. I love its mixed pedigree and the fact that it contains hundreds of thousands of words that are just there for the usage. It’s my job to use words and phrases in pleasing configurations, and I enjoy doing so. So it’s all the more maddening to hear people day in and day out using words for their own vile purposes and unquestioned agendas. It was George Orwell who said that politicians used words the way that squids use ink i.e. they squirt out clouds to blind and confuse us. Well, they’re still at it, but in my opinion it’s the media who are the worse perpetrators.

These are my top abuses of language which can be found in any newspaper on a daily basis.

This can simply be substituted for the word ‘oil’. Riches are what lie user the rapidly melting Greenland ice and in the seas around the Falkland Islands. Riches, it is assumed, can be extracted and sold thus bringing ‘prosperity’ (another hate word) to all who are lucky enough to live in a country which has the government mandated right to extract these riches. Riches are there for the taking – just like the world’s fish are called ‘stocks’ that you can reach out and grab – and are therefore ours by default. We might squabble about who has the right to these riches, but we all agree that whoever wins the scramble to extract them ends up very, er, rich.

Developing Countries
There used to be three types of country, labelled helpfully as First, Second and Third World. Now we only have two: developing countries and developed ones. Developing countries, you see, all strive to be just like our countries. Take India, for example. Never mind the fact that is has several thousands of years of history, 1,652 different languages and a multitude of religions and cultures – what every citizen in India wants is to be just like an American. They want to have big houses, drive big cars and eat in McDonald’s (okay, a small concession – we’ll let them keep their vegetarianism). When they are finished developing they will have achieved the highest level of evolutionary attainment i.e. us. Until that time, of course, they’re great for cheap labour and merciless resource extraction, which is just the price they have to pay if they want to be great.

Everything today can be sustainable. Even airlines have their own sustainability reports. The key to achieving sustainability is to get big enough so that you can afford a CSR department. As soon as you have some staff versed in deflecting criticism, producing glossy brochures with a picture of a child holding a seedling on the cover, and enacting small but highly visible ‘eco’ steps, such as photographing the CEO driving an electric car – then you’re sustainable and can go on polluting and vandalising the planet as before.

This is what happens to species and places when they interact with humans. As a journalist you have to tread with fear when mentioning anything to do with rampant corporate destruction, and therefore your language has to be timid as well. It’s not even weak and passive enough to just say ‘threatened’ - one must say that someone else claims it is threatened. I once wrote a story for a newspaper about an Australian company which was dropping napalm bombs from helicopters onto an old growth forest in Tasmania. It was 100% destruction, with every living thing razed off the face of the planet in that area. I wrote a headline that went something like “Forestry Company Napalms Ancient Forest”. Within 15 minutes there was an aggressive corporate lawyer on the phone from the other side of the world saying that unless the story was substantially changed he was going to do the legal equivalent of drop napalm on our office. 

The newspaper publisher stepped in and explained to me that Australians have every right to napalm their own forests and that I should tone it down. Before the hour was out the story had been changed to “Forest Threatened by Logging Company, claim Conservationists” with a lengthy explanation from the CSR department of the napalm bombing company about how the aerial bombardment technique actually benefits the environment. We didn't print a picture of a smiling kangaroo, but almost.

Growth is a holy cow and therefore not often subject to criticism. But anyone who has been to India and seen holy cows wandering around in the streets knows that they live on a diet of mouldy cardboard, plastic packaging and other detritus that can be found lying around. Garbage in garbage out. Growth is what we are all after and growth, as any cancer cell will tell you, is the be all and end of existence. If something economic is not experiencing growth, on no account must the arch-enemy of growth  –  the evil shrinkage – be mentioned. Instead we have a ‘period of negative growth’ which just means that hard-working growth is taking a well-earned break and will get back to (sustainable) growth as soon as we sacrifice a few more species and ancient forests at its altar.

Bad news/Good news

Turn on any news programme – any – and watch the business section and you’ll likely be told whether each item is bad news or good news. Examples might be “There’s bad news for the construction industry, which saw profits fall by 0.03% in March, while there is good news for the shareholders of airlines following merger speculation.” I’m not sure why they do this – they don’t do it with the other news - but it’s probably because nobody actually understands the business news and therefore it has to be spoon-fed to viewers as if they were toddlers sitting in their highchairs in front of the TV and wearing bibs. The general rule is that if someone somewhere (it doesn't matter who) has made some money from something it is ‘good news’. If the converse is true it is ‘bad’.  Thus we get “There’s great news for shareholders of the insulin maker Novo Nordisk today as the WHO reveals the world is in the grip of an obesity epidemic.” This is exactly the kind of easily digested news in a jar that today’s busy CEO likes and doesn’t have difficulty swallowing. My favourite business news reader/kindergarten teacher is BBC World’s Sally Bundock, who delivers bad news as if she’s telling children that the sweetie drawer is empty and she’s run out of lollipops.

The BBC's Sally Bundock - helping us to understand difficult things

Tune in next week for more vituperative hogwash.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pink n'Oil #3

So, we’re down to the Top 3 of my Peak n’Oil series of music to listen to as you contemplate how screwed up things have become. I originally only had about three bands in mind, so we’re now down to those three. 

Just to recap, the bands/artists so far – all of them picked from the shallow pool of my own CD collection - are as follows:

10 – Julian Cope
9 –   Fleetwood Mac
8 –   Led Zeppelin
4 –   Morrissey

So, without further ado …

Peak n’Oil #3 – Pink Floyd

In my last post I mentioned what I thought were the important things we should bear in mind when confronted with our low energy future. One of the most crucial of these is that we have to develop different ways of relating to the universe and relating to one another. The track ‘Echoes’ by Pink Floyd, I think, says this point beautifully.

It’s a long track; almost half an hour all in all. When we listen to it it takes us back to the beginning of time, reminding us of the primeval chaos from which we emerged and to which we will one day return. It is, in a word, heavy. It then takes us on a surreal trip in time back from the point of humankind to those beginnings to hear ‘the echo of a distant time comes willowing across the sand’.

The instrumentals continue, and we pass through a very bleak phase with what sounds like howling alien voices crying out on the face of a scarred, desolate planet. That's us, now.

[Note how things undergo a 'rebirth' after this point. That's the future I talked about in my last post.]

The key lyric for me is something that one of the members of Pink Floyd (I forget which one, probably Dave Gilmour) once revealed that this single lyric underpinned everything the group was ‘about’. That verse is:

Strangers passing in the street
By chance two separate glances meet
And I am you and what I see is me.
And do I take you by the hand and lead you through the land
And help me understand the best I can?

And that, to me, is what our whole predicament is about right now.

The rest of the lyrics go as follows:

Almost every day you fall
Upon my waking eyes,
Inviting and inciting me
To rise.
And through the window in the wall
Come streaming in on sunlight wings
A million bright ambassadors of morning.

And no one sings me lullabyes
And no one makes me close my eyes
So I throw the windows wide
And call to you across the sky....

And that's what I'm trying to do with this blog - throw the windows wide and call to you across the skies!

Turn the lights down low and the volume up high, get your pouch of 'shrooms out and let the Floyd take you away …

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Joy of Ex

The newly-revealed Naked Lady of Northumberland, etched into a post industrial landscape scarred by the coal pits of northern England (Photo BBC)

Yes, the ex I am talking about is ex-industrialism. As our world gazes down from the mist shrouded plateau of Hubbert’s Peak onto the unfamiliar terrain of a lower energy future it’s quite natural that we are experiencing a feeling of giddiness and fear. The way down is unknown and, as I mentioned last week, there may be some pretty steep cliffs that we somehow have to traverse. We don’t know what the journey down is going to be like, but we do know that at some point – perhaps after a couple of centuries, perhaps sooner – we’re going to reach the flat ground with which we have been familiar throughout most of our human history.

At that point in time we’ll find that the flat terrain on the far side of the foothills of Hubbert’s Peak isn’t half as nice as the forested green lands our ancestors set out from all those years ago. For a start it’ll be covered in the smouldering wrecks of industrial society and girded with concrete. Furthermore, there will be fewer species of animals and the climate will be chaotic. And just why is the ground covered in bones? Those with access to history books will probably wish we had never discovered how to use oil in the first place.

But the fact is that we did. Whether the planet was looking to evolve a burrowing species to release the buried carbon back into the atmosphere and bring on a huge epoch-defining change in its chemistry we will never know. Some could be forgiven for thinking just that, given the steady drumroll of scientific news that we’ve been hit with recently. Let's recap. The Arctic ice is at a record low. The oceans are turning into warm battery acid. The world is gripped by severe drought and severe flooding. Human numbers continue their relentless explosion. Microwave pulse transmissions from mobile phone masts and wi-fi devices are causing mutations and killing trees in ever greater areas. More nations are scrambling for nuclear technology.

I’m going to stop right there.

The reason I’m going to stop there is because I don’t want this blog to turn into a doomer blog. I’ve been reading a few doomer blogs recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing they achieve is to put a spell of paralysis on you. In my experience the only way to break this paralysing spell is to actually do something along the lines suggested by Gandhi i.e. be the change you want to see in the world. Doomers disempower both themselves and those who read what they have written. The world may be going through extreme flux right now but that doesn't mean it won’t be worth living in. It’s difficult to write that without sounding trite, because people are desperate and people are scared, but really, if you think about it, all the talk of sterilization and suicide pills isn’t exactly helpful is it?

I have three simple thoughts that I keep in mind to avoid despair (and God knows, I have also been there).

The first is that the scientists might be right about many observable phenomena but they are not all-knowing. They might have identified a few positive feedback loops which will likely cause us an immense amount of trouble, such as white ice giving way to blue water, methane release etc. but they can’t possibly predict any negative feedback loops which might limit the destruction. Nobody knows for sure what is really happening and the effect it will have on us (but just to be clear, yes, it is a silly and dangerous idea to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere).

The second point to bear in mind is that we have no idea what rippling effect our individual actions will cause. When Rosa Parks sat down on a bus seat in 1955 she could have had no idea that it might lead to a black man being elected president over half a century later. By following through on our thoughts with decisive actions we cross a boundary between the non-physical world of thought into the physical world. Humans, being social primates, copy behaviours, and there is no way of knowing when we are nearing tipping points in human behaviour. The so-called hundredth monkey effect is a case in point.

Thirdly, we have very little clue as to how the currents of human psychology, as influenced by religion, can change course. But change they do, and quite often it is very swiftly. At present, the religion of our industrial society is that of progress. Some people convince themselves they are atheists and progressives, but it’s impossible for our conscious minds not to latch onto some kind of meaning in the universe, so in fact they are just deluding themselves. They say that the universe is just a lot of balls whizzing around and banging into one another and that its creation, as well as the advent of life and consciousness, is just a normal phenomenon not worth dwelling upon. But it is far from unlikely that as the promises of the industrial age implode one by one this obsession with material progress will look more and more hollow and something far more profound will replace it. If and when it does, I’m hoping that it will be an Earth centred spirituality, which will (again) mean that we’ll just be getting back to normal. 

Don’t believe it could take hold? Have a look at the picture below, which was taken in the world’s most advanced industrial nation a couple of days ago. In case you're wondering what's happening, tens of thousands of Americans are gathered around a giant wooden man which, at the culmination of of the festival, is set alight to joyous celebrations. Who is that man? He's The Man, that's who.

The Burning Man festival in Nevada (image from The Guardian)

So all of these things give me hope. Hope is a terribly saccharine word that is often used by lazy people who don’t do anything to bring it about. So I’m going for a Hope 2:0, which is like the old hope but you have to earn it. And being the father of two children I have to have hope – there can be no better way to invest in the future.

I have been here once before ten years ago. Despite the economic boom (or probably because of it) I decided that the sanest thing to do would be to move somewhere we could have a small farm. Given the huge disparity in property prices between northern and southern Europe it meant we could swap our small terraced house beside a main road in a dull part of Copenhagen for a large eight bedroom stone farmhouse with an acre of land in the foothills of Spain’s Sierra Nevada. It was a no-brainer, as far as I was concerned, but people told us we were ‘brave’. I didn't see anything brave about it – it just seemed like common sense.

Fast forward a couple of years and the house we had bought as a ruin (so many houses were abandoned in the rush to the cities after Franco had fallen) was more or less restored to habitability. Along the way I had received some very useful lessons about water supply, electricity, heating and sewage. Plus, I could also add ‘olive farmer’ to my CV. 

We began to live the low-energy dream, and probably for the first time in my adult life, I actually really enjoyed life. Living with the seasons and the sun, and only having a small amount of electrical energy proved to be very liberating. I found out how bountiful nature could be, and in our garden alone we grew olives, figs, almonds, apples, pomegranates, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, grapes, cherries, chestnuts and quinces. A vegetable garden provided even more food, and if it was meat we were after we could always have asked our neighbour to shoot a jabali (wild boar) for us, although we never did.

No, we were not self-sufficient in any way, but we put a big dent in it. We became part of a network of friends and neighbours. Whatever your problem, you could usually find someone to help you out, just as you would have to be willing to help others out in need.  That’s what it’s all about, in my opinion.

[Ah yes, I hear the naysayers say, but you had the money to achieve your dream. True, but I know plenty of people down in Spain who had next to nothing but still achieved something similar, getting hold of scruffy pieces of unwanted land and living in self-built caravans and trucks etc. Embedded in the same ecosystem, they were also able to grow the same plants and trees as me - the sun and rain didn't discriminate. Life is a conundrum that only we can solve.]

Alas this dream wasn’t to last, but before it ended I did have one revelation. I used to get up each morning just as the sun appeared over the top of a distant mountain, bathing my Eden-like garden in light. I would walk around the land with a cup of tea, usually with our three mousers at my heels (who wait all night for this moment), just taking note of all the plants and how they were doing. Perhaps I would think that a bough on an old olive tree would need lopping off because it was getting too unbalanced, or maybe I would just note that a particular tomato plant was not doing so well on a particular patch of ground. I would dig in the soil with my fingers, assessing whether it needed irrigating and gauging how much organic matter it had within it. I gazed at the industrious ants and the bark-coloured cicadas (thankfully silent at this time of day) and stood still so as not to scare the myriad brightly coloured birds that came to drink in our irrigation pool. I listened to the deep throbbing hum of a bees’ nest within a eucalyptus tree, and of my neighbour’s goats bleating as sounds from the valley carried up on the cool breeze.

The cats would eagerly await me getting up each morning. 

In this way I entered into a very intimate relationship with the land and, day by day, week by week, season by season, that relationship deepened. I realised I was filling my head with knowledge, and that filled me with a deep joy. But as this joy deepened, I was also filled with something like alarm at how much there was to know and learn, and how much junk my head was already filled with.

We rarely ventured out into what I termed the ‘real world’ i.e. outside our valley, which was backwards even by Andalucian Spanish standards, and even a trip to nearby Granada, which is by most accounts one of the world’s most beautiful old cities, started my head spinning. I became, in effect, a country bumpkin. When people came to visit it was impossible not to notice the look of alarm written all over their faces. My father in law, who is Italian, flatly failed to believe we were living there. It just didn’t compute in his head and he muttered ‘You can’t live here,’ over and over.

Unfortunately it turned out that he was right and so it was all the more of a shock when the long arm of fate took us by the scruff of our necks and dumped us back in the fashion and techno-progressive utopia of Copenhagen again.  I then spent five hard years paying off debts and generally being made to feel that I should NEVER try to escape from the system again. Don’t even think about it!

All of this is to illustrate the point that as our fuel supplies dwindle and our world begins to look more chaotic and dishevelled we are going to need to learn a lot of things. But it’s not just necessity; whole worlds of knowledge and learning are there just for the taking. Here’s an exercise that I did a couple of weeks ago when considering what I would like to learn in this life before I die. I came up with the following, after some thought:

To sail a boat
To learn Greek
To learn thoroughly one area of history
Permaculture for my local environment
Woodland management
A musical instrument
An oriental martial art form

By contrast, I know people who have either abandoned learning altogether and are just content to sit in front of the television and be drip fed reality programmes, or instead focus all of their brain power on learning new IT systems.

All of the subjects I have mentioned above can be done for little or no money and don’t consume much energy. True, it helps if you’re an autodidact, but that should only be considered a limiting factor. I have already started, having bought some CDs online, which I listen to as I am running, plus various books I have been reading over the past year. What’s more, I am learning something else too, although I don’t feel ready to talk about it here just yet. If you have read this far you’ll probably have a fair idea about what it is. This also ties in with my longer term plans, which I’ll also be revealing here in good time.

So, far from feeling a terrifying paralysis about the future, what I actually feel is that for many of us it will be like the opening of a lotus flower. Yes, there are huge unknowns and sharp cliffs, but there are also many opportunities for enlightenment and learning. What I think many people need to do is break away from the online incubators of despair – indulging in them is like drinking from a pool of poisoned water. It also doesn’t do any good to continually tune into the television news.

I could say that the future is going to bright and powered by windmills and solar panels. I’ve noticed that those kinds of blogs attract a lot of followers and positive ‘if only we wish hard enough/pump more money into Tesla then it will come true’ comments – but I’d be telling a lie. As far as I see it – and I’m no sage, just a regular bloke – the future’s going to be messy and hard, but not apocalyptic. Those of us who at least recognise this now will get the chance to engage it on something like our own terms, whereas those who don’t will likely end up shivering in cold and dying of boredom in hugely overcrowded housing complexes and wondering when that great Thorium powered future they had unknowingly mentally and spiritually invested in was going to turn up and save them.

Instead, what we should be doing is focusing on the positive, while still maintaining a clear understanding of the multiple and complex threats that face us. If you want to read something that more or less chimes with my outlook there can be no better publication than Resurgence. This plucky magazine has been going for around 40 years and is edited by Satish Kumar. People write in it for free and there are (almost) no adverts – just artwork and poems in their place. It’s heavily influenced by the thinking of Schumacher (Small is Beautiful) and great thinkers such as Tagore. It has just joined forces with The Ecologist, creating a synthesis between environmentalism, the arts and science. I know that every time I receive it through the mail and read through it it gives me plenty of inspiration – so I would heartily recommend anyone who doesn’t already do so to take out a subscription and see if it does the same thing for you!

Here endeth the commercial message.