Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Spreading Darkness

Britain at night as viewed from space

As I write these words on a clear but chill evening in Copenhagen, a violent ‘superstorm’ is lashing much of the eastern half of North America. It’s not clear yet what destruction Sandy will leave in her wake but it’s being reported that around 8 million people are without power and that includes much of New York City.

But awe inspiring as that blackout is, the one that caught my eye the other day is the one that is going on in Britain – the one nobody has noticed. It was being reported on in the Daily Telegraph which, in line with its deep distaste of anything ‘environmental’ was spinning the fact that the country is turning off masses of lighting at night as further evidence of the evil do-gooding greenies under the headline ‘Streetlights turned off in their thousands to meet carbon emissions targets’. The bare facts of the matter are thus:

· 3,080 miles of motorways and trunk roads in England are now completely unlit;

· a further 47 miles of motorway now have no lights between midnight and 5am, including one of Britain’s busiest stretches of the M1, between Luton and Milton Keynes;

· out of 134 councils which responded to a survey, 73% said they had switched off or dimmed some lights or were planning to;

· all of England’s 27 county councils have turned off or dimmed street lamps in their areas.

In fairness, it was the Sunday Times that undertook the survey and the DT was just doing some churnalism, but given that the particular Murdoch organ crouches behind a paywall I doubt many people ever got to read it in the first place.

But far from this mass turn-off being the work of ‘hysterical warmists’ (as the paper insists on calling anyone who suggests that atmospheric chemistry can be altered by adding gargantuan amounts of carbon dioxide), it becomes clear that the real reason is money, or the lack of it due to rising energy costs and diminishing public budgets:

Local authorities say the moves helps reduce energy bills, at a time when energy prices are continuing to rise. Several of the big energy companies have unveiled price hikes in recent weeks, including British Gas, npower and EDF Energy - which this week said it was increasing its standard variable prices for gas and electricity customers by 10%.


The Highways Agency said the full-switch off had saved it £400,000 last year, while reducing carbon emissions, and said it planned further blackouts.

Meanwhile 98 councils said they have switched off or dimmed lights, or planned to in the future.

In Shropshire, 12,500 - 70 per cent of the area’s lights - are now switched off between midnight and 5.30am, while Derbyshire County Council plans to turn off 40,000 lights at night. In Lincolnshire, some are turned off from as early as 9pm.

Leicestershire County Council expects to save £800,000 a year in energy bills by adapting one third of the country’s 68,000 street lights so that they can be dimmed or turned off at night.

Caerphilly in Wales no longer lights industrial estates overnight and Bradford dims 1,800 of its 58,000 street lights between 9.30pm and 5.30am. 

People don’t like the dark – it arouses a primeval fear within us; a fear that modern life with its 24/7 strip lighting and permanently-on TV screens was supposed to have banished. 'Keeping the lights on' is the emotional hot button used by the proponents of nuclear power and fracking to induce fear in people and browbeat them into accepting dangerous forms of energy. It's a useful binary: either the lights are on OR we go back to the dark ages and live in caves. That's what they would like us to believe.

And safety bodies are up in arms about the lights being turned off, as are city dwellers who have bought second homes in rural areas. Here’s my favourite quote from the article:

Caroline Cooney, an actress who complained to Hertfordshire County Council when the lights near her home in Bishop’s Stortford were switched off after midnight, said she faced a “black hole” when she returned home from working in the West End of London.

"My street is completely canopied by large tress and I could not see my hand in front of my face,” she said.

Mrs Cooney, who appeared in Gregory’s Girl and who has also appeared in Casualty, said it was putting people in danger and the council was effectively imposing a “midnight curfew on residents who do not want to take the risk of walking home blind”.

“When I came out of the train station it was just like a black hole,” she said.

“I simply cannot risk walking home in what is effectively pitch blackness.”

However the council told her it could not “provide tailored street lighting for each individual’s particular needs”. 

You have to laugh and I bet the council spokesperson had a bit of a giggle preparing that response. Had it been me I might have gone further and suggested a pair of night vision goggles.

But I don’t think it’s such a bad thing.

In Spain, we used to live in the darkest place in Europe. We were high up in the mountains of AndalucĂ­a, on the southern flank of the Sierra Nevada. At night the stars were so clear that if you lay flat on your back it felt as if you were drifting through deep space, which – hey – you were. I had no idea, until then, that you could see tens of thousands of stars with the naked eye.

I had an astronomer friend living nearby who had a giant telescope on his farm house. As a matter of fact, it was so big it practically was his house. When he wasn’t identifying distant star clusters and taking pictures of them he was running a campaign to banish unnecessary light pollution. He had seen how the skies of Britain had been turned into warm orange fuzz, and didn’t want the same thing to happen to Spain.

Unfortunately Spain had other ideas. They positively loved installing 1000w sodium lights on the side of any building that was more important than, say, a dog kennel, making the night even brighter than the day. At least they did – I’m not sure many of them can afford so much powerful lighting any more.

In any case, my friend thought that when you blot out the stars then you lose something. Kids were growing up having only seen stars on cinema screens. That just wasn’t right, he thought. How can you love the universe you were born into if you can’t even see it?

Peak cheap energy may have its downsides, but being able to see the stars again sure isn’t one of them.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Hell is Other People

So said Jean Paul Sartre, and on occasions I’d be inclined to agree with him. For the purposes of this blog, however, I’m thinking that it especially applies to people in collapse scenarios. Well, not all people of course, but SOME people.

I don’t know about you, but when I was young – young as in pre-adult – we lived in fear of nuclear annihilation. Growing up almost next door to an American forward strike base near Oxford practically guaranteed that me, my family and my trusty bull terrier Brutus would go up in a puff of smoke if the Ruskies pressed the red button. At the time we were told that we’d have a four-minute warning, meaning we would have four minutes to prepare to be turned into shadows. What the hell are you supposed to do with that kind of information?

Naturally, my peers and I had our own plans for what we would do during those four minutes (it never occurred to us that we might not be stood next to a radio or TV set when the warning was issued and might never get the full 240 seconds). Sensible people might be expected to drop to their knees in silent prayer, or perhaps hug their nearest and dearest as they prepared for the next life. But we were not sensible people – we were schoolboys and we had different plans. These plans tended to involve freaking out – or more specifically, freaking out in a way that ensured none of us died a virgin (even if Madame Burke, the French teacher, was the only nearest available female).

So from this we can deduce that a sudden scare like, um, an imminent nuclear holocaust has the power to turn a group of angelic-looking choirboys into psychopathic wannabe rapists. Of course, had the unthinkable actually happened I’ve no doubt that the lot of us would have fainted dead on the spot, evacuating our bowels as we slumped gibbering to the floor.

So, it’s a moot point whether certain types of people will freak out when they realize the direction industrial civilization and all its benefits is heading – especially if a black swan event has just appeared on the event horizon. Images of ravaging mobs and flesh-eating zombies are not too hard to conjure, but those were not the kinds of people I was thinking about when I picked this week’s provocative title. No, the people I was thinking about are a lot closer to home: your family and friends.

I was spurred to think of this because I got an email from a reader who, having read up on peak oil and all that, is facing the familiar dilemma of where best to position himself to avoid the worst for when the airborne faecal matter impacts on the rotary ventilation device. I imagine plenty of people are thinking the same kind of things as Jim – I know I am. Anyway, here is what he wrote:

First off let me say I'm an avid reader of your blog. Ever since I stumbled across it while reading The Archdruid Report, I've checked it almost daily for updates. I made a comment on the Hobbit blog you wrote last week explaining that I'm a fairly recently reformed Orc. My discovery of the concept of decline, and a de-industrial future, happened this past spring. Right up to that point I'd been one of the most fervent believers in the faith of progress and science; no matter how bleak the future looked, technology would find a way to save us. Needless to say it was quite a shock when that belief was shattered, and it's left me a little bewildered and directionless. That's why I'm writing to you now.

I've lived a very stable life. My job as a web developer at a Canadian federal agency has lasted almost eight years now. I fell into it mostly out of convenience and because of the money and benefits. As time progressed I became less and less enamored by the job's "golden handcuffs" and I've been feeling the urge to expand my horizons. Maybe that's why I found the concepts of peak oil and the de-industrial future so compelling. In any case, this spring I went on a sabbatical to pursue my passion for drawing and illustration.

Things were going quite well until I stumbled upon JMG's blog and finally took notice of the serious predicaments our societies face. Now, all of a sudden, spending all that time becoming an artist didn't seem like the wisest choice. I spent my sabbatical instead learning gardening, volunteering with a local community co-operative, and reading about the topics that your blog and JMG's talks about. Since I was no longer studying art, I felt I had to return to my job and cut the break short. I've regretted that choice ever since.

To adjust to the reality of our situation, I sold my house that I built myself last year, moved to an apartment downtown that's within walking distance of my job, and sold my gas guzzling mustang. I've also started selling/donating all of my stuff that I don't use anymore that's been taking up space in a storage rental. The strange thing about all of this is that it felt so right doing it. I really do enjoy living simply, and I'm at a point now in my life where I have maximum flexibility to basically do whatever I want; that's where I'm stuck.

Everyday is a battle in my mind about where I want to live and what I want to learn as a vocation going forward. Currently I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba; it's the geographical center of North America. It's also one of the coldest places to live in the winter with -20C degree weather being typical for January to March. I have family here, and a lot of friends that I've made over the past 12 years or so. All that being said, I've always been in love with British Columbia. That's where my family is originally from, and some members of my family still live in various cities there.

Considering that I have nothing really tying me down here, I've been giving serious consideration to moving out there for the improved climate, and because my instinct says it's the right thing to do. Any time I stop to consider our declining future it scares me away from moving. It's safer to stay in a place with a large network of friends and family, right? I think that's the part of me that's driving me crazy: always wanting to play it safe instead of going for what my gut is telling me is the right thing to do for me.

You've moved a lot, often to very different places, and I can't help but feel I'm missing out on valuable life experience. Travel is going to become more difficult and expensive over time as well, so I can't hum and haw about it indefinitely. Maybe I'm subconsciously asking for permission, I don't know. What are your thoughts on moving away from what you know to align your life with your beliefs?

Finally, I've been trying to summon the courage to leave my federal job for a few years now. I'm stagnating there, growing neither professionally nor personally. I am certain that defined benefit pensions will be long gone by the time I retire (that would be 28 years or so from now). I still secretly hope that somehow I can make a living drawing and illustrating, but that seems to be a fading prospect as well.

I've considered and tried blacksmithing, which I enjoy, but the question remains whether that will be a viable career during my lifetime. I noticed your work experience varies quite a lot, and perhaps you'd have some insights to share about what pursuing jobs or careers will be like in the near future. Sometimes I feel like I put too much weight on the particulars of what I want to do for a living, rather than focus on staying flexible.

I really appreciate you taking the time to read my ramblings. It's been difficult finding others to connect with who share a similar outlook as I do. As close as I am to my family and friends, I feel there's a divide now because I've moved away from the faith of progress. I can never go back to that again because it would be tantamount to willful ignorance. I'm rambling again. Any insights or thoughts or opinions would be wonderful.



Naturally, it’s nice and flattering to think that someone would seek my advice on something of such life changing importance, but as to whether I’d be the right person to ask, well … my experience of Canada is limited to spending a couple of weeks paddling around Algonquin Park in a kayak, trying to avoid bears and moose. So instead of offering sage advice on where or indeed if to relocate, I thought I’d proffer the one thing I did learn when I experienced my warm-up collapse lite in Spain five years ago. And that involved people.

Yes, people freaking out when the chips are down is something we are going to have to learn to live with. Because, in my experience, when things go wrong, the immediately noticeable human reaction is not to try and fix it but instead to start pointing fingers and jumping up and down on the spot shouting ‘It’s YOUR fault!’ over and over again.

And if they are not blaming you they are quietly trying to screw you over and make sure the same fate doesn’t await them. I know this sounds pessimistic, and I’m not a pessimistic person, so I shall balance it by saying that we’ll also get to see the best of people too. There will be people who will be willing to help you out, listen to your woes, offer a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on, and fix your car when you can’t afford a mechanic.

The trick is to figure out in ADVANCE which type of person will be good in a crisis and which will not, and start being nice to the former right now. It’s not really that hard to figure out. I’ve identified four basic types, based on my own experience:
  1. People who are vain, shallow and financially successful, will tend to be looking out for numero uno when TSHTF. That’s what they are good at. These are the kind of people who will take snide pleasure in seeing you failing because it boosts their own sense of being better than you. They might even take you for a ride, lending you money at inflated interest rates and pretending to be concerned about your welfare. Steer clear of these types – let’s call them predators. They are recognisable right now because they will collect interiors magazines, send their children to expensive music academies and possess spotless shiny cars. The men will have partings and firm opinions on sound investments and the housing market. Avoid.
  2. The second type is the flake. They are probably lovable and witty in normal circumstances, but when circumstances stop being normal they go to pieces. Suddenly, their knowledge of computer games, iPhone apps and the plotlines and actors in every boxed TV series and Hollywood movie released in the last 25 years will be of no use to them and they don’t know what to do. Given that they’re generally quite harmless, you might want to stay friends with flakes, as long as they are not eating all your food and begging for favours all the time without giving anything back. If you can, try and train your flakes to be something useful.
  3. The third type is the robot. These are the oil age people who have been programmed to expect no deviation from business as usual. Having never spent more than 30 seconds contemplating their own existence they just assume that business as usual is the only modus operandi of the entire human race. Their religion, although they don’t know it, is scientific progressive materialism, and their cemented minds are incapable of accepting any alternate reality* [see footnote]. If the mythic narrative instilled in them by society and TV is interrupted for some reason, then it must be somebody’s fault and somebody had better punish somebody else so that business as usual can resume. These are the kind of people whom Dmitry Orlov memorably said would sit in their darkened houses wearing dirty clothes waiting for the lights to come on again - until they shiver to death. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Cargo (Bike) Cult

In days of yore cargo bike racing was a big thing in Copenhagen, something that is being resurrected by Harry vs Larry, whom I pinched this image from 

It’s an interesting experience living in a country as it slowly but surely wakes up to the fact that it is not immune from the economic storm clouds that are building. Here in Denmark politicians have finally realized that the country cannot support such a cumbersome public sector in such straitened times, and that something’s gotta give.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Scandinavian model of ordering society, it can basically be summarized thus: high taxes, high benefits, high standard of living. I’ve written about it extensively in my old blog (which I may provide some archive files of, if anyone’s interested) – so much so that it makes me exhausted even contemplating it. It’s the kind of society that makes liberals swoon with envy and free market conservatives boil with righteous anger.

I used to get my daily dose of right-wing trollery from – sorry to say it – resident Americans who had fallen into the Danish honey trap but were now living out their tortured ‘prison sentence’ existences in this socialist utopia. How dare they have a well-ordered society where nobody is stinking rich and nobody is poor? It flies in the face of all logical reason!! It’s communism, I tell you!!

At the other end of the scale are the dreamy liberals who came to this land of social mobility, sexual equality, eco consciousness and tasteful shabby chic design, convinced that they have entered the Holy Land – and their faith is similarly unshakeable.

In the middle, of course, are the Danes. For them, this is just normality.

But now, it turns out, that normality which once seemed so unshakeable is increasingly unaffordable. It’s a basic tenet of politics in Denmark that socialism rules the roost. Even the Conservative Party would be considered pinko commies by American standards – and the far-right Danish People’s Party could be aptly described as, ahem, national socialists – although they don’t appreciate the nomenclature.

Thus an unholy row has broken out about something called dagpenge. Now dagpenge (pronounce dow-peng) means literally ‘day money’ – that’s unemployment benefit to me and you. If you lose your job, or quit it, you are liberally showered in the stuff. I did just that two years ago and was entitled to about $2,000 a month – and practically all I had to do to earn it was click a button on a website once a month to say ‘I want some more please’. This was great and I could have carried on for five years, if I had wanted.

Problems have arisen, however, because it turns out that when too many people click that button, the few people left in full time employment have trouble paying for it. It’s pretty obvious stuff, really, but it could only work in the same manner as a Ponzi scheme in an ever expanding economy. Thus the (socialist) government has now declared that the maximum length of time you will be allowed to claim this money is two years. In reality this means that a large hole has suddenly appeared in the safety net that a country used to womb to tomb entitlement could never have dreamed of until recently.

As a result political scalps aplenty are being eviscerated. Most of the main parties (and, oh, there are many parties here) realise that such a bloated system of welfare cannot continue in its present form, but just can’t bring themselves to do anything about it. The left wingers and communists, however, want the period to be extended and for things to carry on as normal, printing money if need be. It’s a very familiarly depressing scenario and there’s nary a news bulletin without some mention of it.

But the country’s underlying economic woes have serious structural problems. We can also add into the cauldron of troubles the fact that many of the country’s biggest employers are packing up and moving overseas where employees come cheaper and there aren’t so many regulations. This is further inflating the jobless figures (which, by the way, are semi fantasy because they don’t include all of those who are put on educational schemes or the ‘before time’ pensioners, some of whom are in their 20s) and reducing the tax base like a snake eating its tail.

As if that were not embarrassing enough, unfortunate Denmark is surrounded by economic over-achievers! To the south is smoke-belching Germany, where Chinese millionaires are standing in line to buy luxury cars, and to the north are Sweden, with its huge natural resources, and Norway, ditto but with lots of oil as well. 

Okay, so Denmark has some large factory fur farms, is big on biotechnology, pig ‘production’ and Lego – but it remains to be seen which of these industries can stay the course as they all rely on low oil prices, a stable trading environment and generous government subsidies.

Oh, and it also has Vestas – the wind power company – but even that has lost 95% of their value since 2008. That just leaves Bang & Olufsen, Carlsberg, Maersk, Lurpak, Aragorn and The Barbie Song.

Anyway, given the guaranteed fact of our low energy future in which most of those energy slaves we enjoy the services of today will die off, I thought I would simultaneously do my bit for the environment, secure my transport future and provide a tiny boost to one small area of Denmark’s manufacturing industry in one fell swoop. Yes, I bought myself a cargo bike.

I have been considering buying one for quite a while. They are very common on the streets of Copenhagen, and are used to carry everything from children and shopping, to pets and, er, expanded polystyrene. 

But with so many models available now I was having trouble figuring out which one to go for. Ignoring the cheap-looking Chinese made ones that have appeared of late (look closely at the welding and components and you’d want to ignore them too), I narrowed it down to the most popular four different brands I regularly see around me. These were as follows:

A Christiania Bike at work. Image courtesy of Copenhagenize
Christiania Bikes. This is the original three wheeler cargo bike. Constructed with a sturdy frame in a workshop within the sprawling commune of Christiania in Copenhagen, these are the original road warriors and have been trundling the bike lanes of the city for around 40 years. They are no-nonsense affairs, with internal gears (which is the standard on Danish bikes – meaning you have to exert backwards pressure on the pedals backwards to brake, and you don’t get the gears gunged up with crud)  and come in any colour as long as it is black. Actually, that’s not quite true any more, and you can get them in various pastel colours, if you are that way inclined. They can carry loads of up to 100kg.

The Sorte Jernhest. Image courtesy of this blog
Sorte Jernhest. This means Black Iron Horse in Danish, and is a cargo bike that means business. Like the Christiania Bike, it is solid and looks like it is built to last. It’s a bit more stylish than the former, with a nice looking horizontal tube frame and an industrial looking finish on the front metal box. I have never actually tried one of these out but I was tempted to go it for this because of its mix of durability and cool name. Just like the others on the market, they are not cheap, but they cost practically nothing to run and are unlikely to seriously break down in the short or medium term.

The Nihola Bike. Image from this blog
Nihola Bike. This is ostensibly another copy of the Christiania Bike and is manufactured in a workshop in Copenhagen. In my journalist days I went down and met the owner and he lent a few of the bikes to the newspaper for delivery purposes during the COP15 climate conference.  The design is modern and the gears work well, but to my mind the ride felt a bit ‘tinny’ and it felt like I was going to fall off when I went around a corner. Still, nice design and quite practical. I’d say they would be fine for city use and light loads, but they are not really designed for heavy, dirty work.

The Bullitt Bike - image from here
Bullitt Bike. This was the last of the cargo bikes I considered. Unlike the other three this is a low-slung , long-based two-wheeler, and the cargo section is in the middle. Like the name says, these go like a bullet, and are by far the fastest of the lot. What’s more, the gearing is set up with speed in mind. They come in a variety of colours and models and are seriously slick. I was very tempted by the Bullitt, but what put me off in the end was the price tag, combined with the fact that a bike this flashy is bound to get stolen.

So, in the end I went with my gut feeling and opted for the solid traditional hippiemobile – the Christiania Bike. The reasons for this are manifest. I shall list them as bullet points:
  •            It’s a tried and tested technology. If you can still see 40 year old Christiania Bikes rumbling around the streets you know that this is a bike that is built to last.
  •            It can carry a load of up to 100kg (probably more) with no problems. I will need to be able to move this amount of weight up to 20 miles every day, and it would seem ideal for it. Plus, with a single big handlebar, getting off and pushing is always an option.
  •            I want the option of being able to fit an assisting electric motor on it in the future, and the large exposed back wheel provides plenty of space to do so. The bike is fine in flat areas like Copenhagen, but it would be seriously hard to ride it up a steep hill, fully laden, without some kind of power assist.
  •            I like its black no-nonsense design and the fact that you could easily sell things out of the front box area as it is a deep box with sides that slope forwards, making presentation of the goods easy.
  •            I love Christiania. It’s a truly inspiring place to be that shows what people can achieve against all the odds (expect a long post about Christiania soon) and I want to help support its survival.

And so I found myself down in Christiania a couple of weeks ago hopping over puddles and sniffing the tang of marijuana on the crisp October air as I searched the flowery back streets for the Christiania Bike workshop. I entered a large brick building where overalled women were busy twisting lengths of metal and scrap objects and turning them into works of art to go on sale. I asked one lady where the bike workshop was and she pointed me to a glass door at the back and told me to just go on through. Once I’d found my way in, Jens, the manager, showed me to my new steed, which was stacked up with a consignment of others (see below).

Selling like hot cakes at the Christiania Bike workshop in Copenhagen.  That's my bike, ready to go, in the foreground.

There was a bit of paperwork to go through (like paying for it) and I asked Jens how business was. He said it was pretty brisk, all things considered, and they were flat out busy with new orders (the bikes used to be made here but nowadays they are made ‘offshore’, meaning on the quaint Danish island of Bornholm, and then shipped to the mainland for assembly in Christiania). It was good to hear that they are still doing well despite all of the competition out there nowadays – five years ago these were practically the only cargo bikes you ever saw.

As I rode out of Christiania and joined the rush hour commuter traffic (mostly other bikes) on one of the main arteries of the city I felt like I was riding on a wave of euphoria. The steering took a bit of getting used to, and I learned that you have to lean back a little as you turn to avoid overbalancing the bike and falling off. But apart from that it felt fine to ride, and very light. Having ridden (driven?) much larger bikes during one summer spent as a rickshaw driver in Copenhagen, I was used to being a bike lane hog, although the Christiania Bike is narrow enough to allow others to pass, so this isn't a problem.

Okay, so it’s just a black bike with a box on the front – but no, it’s a bit more than that – it’s a pretty low-risk security for the future. Just think: no fossil fuels to power it, no insurance, no parking fees, hardly any maintenance costs and no tax. And just riding it keeps you fit and your leg muscles bulging.

Okay, transport: tick. Done that, now onto the next thing …

Here's my bike on its first ever job, earlier today - a 20km round trip to pick up a 19th century chair for my wife to restore.  It was an easy job but I can't count on such light loads in the future.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Are you a Hobbit?

Simon Dale's hobbit style house in Wales

I will begin this week’s post with a confession that few of you could have guessed from the limited information I reveal about myself in the global cyber commons aka The Matrix. Here are some clues: I grew up in the English Midlands, I’m of average height for a Brit (i.e. a dwarf by Scandinavian standards where I live), I have a fondness for real ale and my idea of pure unsurpassed bliss is sitting beside an open fire, smoking a pipe and listening to the slow monotonous tung of a grandfather clock.

Yes, that’s right; it’s something I have suspected for a while - I am a hobbit.

As if further proof were needed, I can rummage in my drawers and find scraps of paper with crude drawings of earth built ‘hobbit holes’ in the style of that made by Simon Dale (see main image), and what’s more, my toes are hairier than the average. I’m pluckier than the average person could guess, and although I have never outwitted a dragon, I did, alas, have a promising career as a burglar in my younger days (more on my reckless past in a future post).

But this post is not about me and my hairy toes – this post is about EVIL.

Speaking of toes, I once had a tattoo made in Guatemala by a man from Los Angeles who told me he had tattooed the name of Sean Penn’s dead dog onto his big toe (i.e. Sean Penn’s big toe, not his own). The fact that I just revealed that Sean Penn has his dead dog’s name inked onto his big toe makes me a celebrity news breaker and I fully expect to quadruple the visitor count to 22BillionEnergySlaves this week as a result, given that Sean Penn’s web presence is double that of all news relating to peak oil - I hope one or two of those visitors will stay.

Anyway, back to the plot. Draw a deep breath, because I’ve been contemplating evil all week, and the various forms it can take. But what is evil? I'm not sure. I'd define it as an action that causes gross suffering to sentient beings and/or wanton destruction of part of the biosphere for psychological satisfaction.

Here are my conclusions about evil if you are in a rush and don’t have time/can’t be bothered to read the rest of the post: evil does exist, and mostly it is dressed up as good. What’s more, technology can act as a catalyst of evil.

I realize that evil is a strong word. I believed in evil as a child – you know the kind of evil I mean – the kind personified by the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the kid-munching giants in the BFG. Then, as I got older, I started to think that evil didn’t really exist and it was more a case of stupidity, or senselessness, on the part of the people I had previously labelled evil. This belief was bolstered by a flirtation with Buddhism, and even the Dalai Lama has said something to the effect that people are not ‘evil’ they are just making mistakes that will negatively affect their karma.

The Childcatcher: probably quite evil in a conventional way

Well, whatever. Recently I’ve come around again to thinking that evil does exist, and we’re liberally marinated in the stuff. What’s more, there are three types of evil people – or people who employ evil means, more precisely. The most common-garden recognisable variety evil is committed by psychopaths. You know the type; they will capture you, lock you in a box and torture you for days before ending your life in a most unpleasant manner and then walk around wearing your genitals for kicks. Whether these people are simply insane or not, I don’t really care – evil is a good enough label for me.

The second type of evil doer is of the same breed as the above, but more refined and clever. Not wishing to get blood on their own hands these people rise to positions of power and then channel their evil ways through the power they have attained. Whether they are the president of a company or the president of a nation doesn’t really matter, they get their kicks from, as George Orwell put it, stamping on a human face forever.

Then there’s the third kind of evil. This is a far less visible type, but by sheer biomass is probably the weightiest of them all. The evil I talk of is evil dressed up as good. Everyone’s at it, it seems. From the countries who think their shit don’t stink because they have ‘progressive policies’ for their citizens (while quietly exploiting the Third World for their own benefit), to the various NGOs who act as virus carriers of ideology to the far corners of the globe, and rabid corporate backed scientists who are pushing all manner of destructive technologies into the biosphere in the name of humanitarianism.

We’re all complicit in this last scam. Indeed, living in the ‘developed’ world, it is all but impossible to not contribute in some way to the systems that enslave our fellow men and creatures. This applies to some more than others, of course, but I type these words on a laptop that was in all probability assembled by wage slaves (in the name of giving someone a job), manufactured and transported half way across the world by climate-damaging oil (in the name of economic growth), produced in a country where the environmental costs of its manufacture were borne by the ecosystem and the health of the human population (in the name of free trade), sold to me by some corporation who will probably be contributing money to whoever wins the next election in the US in order to keep their profitable racket going (in the name of free speech and democracy) and, finally, uploaded onto a blogging platform that is owned by a company which plans to turn the human race into cyborgs (see late week’s post).

What’s a blogger to do? Throw the computer into the garbage and retreat to a cave in the Himalayas? Chuck myself onto the nearest compost heap and await the end? Start watching the X Factor and try to become ‘adjusted’?

J.R.R Tolkien knew what evil was. His time in the Somme, during the First World War, showed him the depths that humans could plunge to. Would the German machine gunners who gunned down so many young men have considered themselves evil? I don’t think so.

Tolkien would never be drawn on the meaning of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, we can probably assume it was to do with nuclear weapons. Destructive technology was Tolkien’s bugbear. In one quote he hinted at the meaning, seemingly saying that once some kind of destructive power had been brought into being it began to live a life of its own:

"I should say that it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or lesser degree, out of one's direct control."

Which, to me, is the theme of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien drew on Scandinavian and Anglo Saxon mythology for his inspiration. He was all too aware that our native mythology had been utterly supplanted by Christianity, and what remained of it in Wales and Scotland, was mostly Celtic in origin. Instead, he was driven by a desire to create an English mythology – even if it was ‘made up’ – never anticipating the success he would encounter in such an endeavour.

As I mentioned above, I grew up in ‘Tolkien country’. My childhood was spent close to Oxford, where Tolkien lived and worked as a professor of linguistics at the university – I was probably lying in my cot, aged two, when he died. I hadn’t even had a chance to read The Hobbit at that point.

Turning back the clock, when young John lived in Warwickshire it was a very rural (and it still is, to a degree) but the hamlet he lived in, Sarehole Mill, near Hall Green, was some miles from the encroaching spread of Birmingham; England’s second city and the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. I spent most of my teenage years in this area, which is now well and truly part of the spread of the city and not a very pleasant place to be unless you are a connoisseur of suburban blight (sorry, Hall Greenians - okay, to be fair, it still has its nice parts). I lived for a year very close to Sarehole Mill, which is now embedded in a run-down urban zone where you are as likely to hear Urdu spoken as you are English. It’s almost impossible today to recognise this as a place that inspired Tolkien to invent the fictional Shire, surrounded as it is by busy dual-carriageways, Indian takeaways and dodgy car repair shops.

Here’s a picture of the pub where Tolkien used to chat to his friend C.S.Lewis (of Narnia fame) called the Eagle and Child (known by locals as the Bird and Baby).

The Eagle and Child in Oxford, where Tolkien would meet up with fellow writers

But the surrounding countryside, now some miles away, remains recognisably ‘Shire-esque’, and you can still visit the places where he was inspired to write about the Barrow Mounds and various other places that crop up in his books. There’s even a farm called Bag End and a road called Hobbs Moat Road. If you’ve ever wondered why the unusual chapter ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, in which various low-down characters are driven from the realm, was appended to the end of LOTR, then it’s my guess that it was Tolkien’s cathartic way of dealing with the destruction of his beloved rural idyll by way of fantasy.

So, back to evil. When I see articles like this one, about a new iPad for babies (sorry, it’s in Danish), I can’t help thinking that the kind of evil we should surely be worried about is the kind that we all-too-often take for granted as ‘normality’. How exactly did the marketers of this particular product manage to convince themselves they were adding to the sum total of human welfare? Or the development agencies who consider that they are doing Amazonian tribes a favour by rounding them up and building them somewhere to live that looks like this (but we must cut infant mortality!):

If a visiting alien economist (and I pray there are none ‘out there’) were to analyse our setup, he/she/it would quickly deduce that the ‘enlightened’ first world is a giant face-sucking vampire squid, to borrow a phrase, on the rest of the planet – just by looking at trade deals alone. For every one of us with our iPods and designer kettles and reality TV programmes, there are 10 people on the breadline packed like peas in a pod into a single room, heating dirty water from a beaten up kettle over some burning sticks and living with the reality of not having a TV or any other form of consumer electronics device. What kind of way is that to run a planet?

Anyway, my personal jury’s still out on whether there are truly ‘evil’ forces out there, or whether we are just suckers for unleashing forces that could be considered evil and setting up systems that promote evil. I suppose I should mention Rudolph Steiner, who had some pretty deep thoughts on this subject. He didn’t see the world in black and white terms, and for that we can be thankful. Instead, it is my understanding, he considered the whole progressive materialist fallacy as evil – or at least bad – through and through, with that evil coming in two different flavours which, together, can balance one another out.

These two concepts he named Luciferic and Ahrimanic, with the former being concerned mainly with spirit and cosmology and the latter being concerned with materialism, science and ‘hard facts’. Thus, we are living in Ahrimanic times, by his reckoning, with evil being channelled or justified in that way. There’s an awful lot more to it than that and it’s well worth reading up on his ideas.

So, getting back to hobbits, who are resolutely not evil because they are earthy creatures and not concerned with metaphysics or playing psychic power games, we can perhaps see that what this world needs right now is more hobbits and less evil wizards (marketers, politicians, thaumaturgic manipulators), orcs (mindless consumers, imperial soldiers) and gollums (tortured addicted souls).

Are you a hobbit? You don’t have to look like one. If you hunger for peace and quiet and the chance to feel the moist earth between your toes, to have a small place to call home where it is safe to raise a healthy family and grow a vegetable patch or an orchard, and if the word 'permaculture' is more attractive to you than 'monoculture' then chances are you have hobbit blood flowing through your veins. And of course, it’s not easy being a hobbit in a world full of orcs and dragons, but we can take heart that we are a resourceful and resilient breed, often at our best during the most testing of times (and often quite lazy at all other times).

So if you are a hobbit reading this then I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve, so please carry on reading and bear the following in mind:

“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.

But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now

mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.”

J.R.R Tolkien

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Googling the Googlers

And so it happens that I have spent half of the past week in Dublin, that fair city by the Liffey which spawned the likes of James Joyce, W.B.Yeats and Oscar Wilde, and thus birthed modern literature. But I wasn't on a literary pilgrimage – quite the opposite – I was there as a corporate client paying a visit to the largest internet company in the world.

It is God’s own sweet practical joke that, having been employed as a copywriter I should find myself being sucked down the plughole into the shady realms of SEM (search engine marketing). The logic is impeccable. Copywriters working in the travel business are supposed to go to places and write about them. But it becomes too expensive to send copywriters to places just so they can write about things which, in all honesty, can be legally gleaned from the internet from the comfort of an office chair. The next logical step is to do away with the writing bit altogether (apart from some skeleton text to accompany the rich media content) and focus instead on targeted searches – in any case the average attention span of a browsing customer has fallen to something like a matter of seconds. Google can help.

If you’re wondering how a guy who normally writes about scavenging dumps, eating leftover food and guerilla composting could also live a dual life embedded at the cutting edge end of the ultra high tech new vaporwear religion I’d have to reply: with some difficulty.  Having a foot in both boats as we sail down the river to a lower net energy future is a trick that many of us need to master in these difficult times, and warrants a future post.

I should probably say right from the outset that I'm not allowed to mention anything that went on inside their offices. If I did I’d quickly find myself without a job and, furthermore, I’d be hauled up before a magistrate for breaching the confidentiality agreement that all people who have set foot in a Google office have to sign (electronically, of course). Nevertheless, take it from me that it was a head swivelling experience, and I felt like I’d stepped into some kind of alternate universe. More on that towards the end of this post.

Dublin is a city undergoing collapse. It’s quite clear from all the boarded up shops, the acres of empty office space and the pitiful beggars one can see roaming the streets asking for change. Our taxi driver said that it was relatively easy to get around the city these days because traffic levels had been cut in half from only a few years ago. “Economic collapse has its bright side, you know,” he told us cheerily.

As we rolled along in the drizzle through the morning traffic the radio was announcing a big international jobs fair that was shortly to take place in the city. There would be 160 exhibitors, it intoned, offering a new life in places such as New Zealand, Canada and Brazil. The taxi driver, on hearing it said that young people wanted to get out of the country while they could. Two centuries of emigration he said, had been followed by two decades of immigration. “Now we've gone back to the emigration thing again.”

Google’s European headquarters are set in a part of the city that could probably be described as ‘arrested development’. Huge gleaming new office blocks stand shoulder to shoulder, empty and dusty and forlorn looking. In this setting, Google’s tower blocks (there are two) stand out like gleaming beacons of light. Inside them some three and half thousand employees, or Googlers as they are known. Each zone within the office has its own unique environment, with everything from a 1970s zone (complete with pinball machines and horrible wallpaper), a blue sky thinking zone (where everything is white), a rural zone (where people sit on artificial grass bales that come with all kinds of connectors for laptops and screen projectors) and much, much more. There’s even an authentic Irish pub for the Googlers to hang out in, although I doubt it would have been the kind of haunt that James Joyce would have approved of since it doesn't serve alcohol.

New office space lies empty in the Docklands area of Dublin
The average age of a Googler, I would say, is probably late-twenties. As a 41 year-old I felt like a ‘grey head’, in the parlance. All of them are extremely, extremely clever, and God only knows how many tests they have had to sit through to get them into their positions. Also, because this was the European HQ, there was a constant babble of different languages in use, like some kind of mini United Nations for under-thirties.

On the day I arrived it was on the front page of the Financial Times that Google had finally overtaken Microsoft in terms of value. This is in line with Google’s mantra, which is basically that there are no limits, and there are motivational slogans written on the office walls to that end. These are heady times for the company that started out as a search engine but is now in a position to challenge governments. Indeed, the only thing that can challenge Google’s meteoric growth, it seems, is the power of national governments. Especially China.

Google, increasingly, controls everything we do on the internet. It’s a sweet irony that I'm writing this using Google Docs and will then upload it onto Blogger, which is also owned by the company. YouTube, which is the world’s second largest search engine, now shows around 4 billion videos a day, and every second an hour of new material is uploaded to it. Google+ is growing exponentially as a challenger to Facebook (and with current share price projections Google could buy up Facebook in a year or two for peanuts) and a database is being developed to profile every internet user who uses one of its services. None of this is a secret – you are given open access to your own profile.

So what next for Google? Well, I've been in a state of some indecision about whether to write about the next thing or not, but I've done a bit of, yes, Googling and I can see that it is already out there in the public domain, so I'm going to go ahead and write about it in broad terms.

Augmented Humanity sounds like something out of a science fiction movie – but it’s already out there and is being developed right now. It was two years ago when Googler-in-chief Eric Schmidt first mentioned the term at a tech conference in Berlin. What he predicted was that we are now entering into an era when processing power, combined with artificial intelligence, could be further combined with the near omnipresence of mobile smart devices and ultra fast broadband, meaning that the tools are in place to ‘augment’ the human race.

Smart phones have now become so powerful that they can process everything they 'see' in real time, recognizing physical objects, as well as faces. If the user is wearing goggles, it’s possible to make a screen overlay that looks something like this:

A crude augmented reality shot
It’s not just objects and faces that can be decoded, however, but voices and other data streams. These things already exist, and are often used in things like apps for city tours (don’t forget that mobile devices are also able to track you to within a foot or two via GPS) and this is commonly called augmented reality. But their next stage of development – the shift from augmented reality to augmented humanity - will be a quantum leap, we are told.

Based on the profile being built up of its users, augmented humanity means that you will be plugged into the network 24/7. Look at the face of your friend and Google will remind you that it’s their birthday in a week and make gift suggestions based on their browsing history, and even order the gift for you with a blink of your eye. Tweets will hover mid-air in front of you and apartment blocks will be shaded pink to indicate a party, advertised on social media, is being planned by a friend of a friend of a friend. Google, in effect, will know what we are thinking before we have thought it, based on the digital profile model that it holds on us. In effect we will never need to think about anything again.

The person delivering this hopeful vision to us was clearly convinced of its benefits. To him the future was bright – very bright indeed – although I deemed it impolite to ask him what he thought about any technical limitations of achieving his dream might be like, say, running out of oil and rare earth minerals. I knew what his answer would be in any case. Somebody else raised the ethical dimension issue, saying it might be okay for some people but she wouldn't be happy about her own daughter’s reality being augmented. The reply was that, like it or not, we live in a capitalist world and basically we should be thankful that a benign company like Google is driving these developments rather than someone else. Furthermore, we should embrace change rather than being afraid of it, otherwise we’ll be left behind.

This, we are told, is an augmented version of what it means to be a human. Plenty of people have ethical concerns about this kind of thing, but Google insists that regulations will be in place to prevent abuses. What is interesting, however, is not the technical possibilities, but the metaphysical. It can only be a coincidence that I am currently reading the sci-fi epic Dune at the moment, which is set in the far future and warns – in the book’s most quoted line - that the fall of humanity occurred because:

“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”

There is a further irony that the word augment, which when applied to psychiatry is the term that doctors use when they are talking about using more than one type of psychoactive drug to achieve a desired effect.

So is Google becoming a religion? If it is moving beyond simply engineering the internet to suit human minds and onto engineering human minds to suit the internet then that suggests to me that some kind of paradigm shift is occurring. It can’t be called a cult, like Apple, because Google has no central personality to latch onto – although that doesn't mean that one won’t appear in the near future.

But augmented humanity, with its sole concern of pumping individual egos with products and experiences and information, couldn't really be considered a very effective religion. It’s somewhat different from Joyce’s ideas about what it means to be a human, as expressed through the daily humdrum wanderings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. But then I doubt anyone from the Google generation has any time to struggle through one of his books, which do actually require an attention span of considerably more than thirty seconds. In any case traditional media, as it is disparagingly called, is so 20th century. I mean, who reads books these days?

Stepping outside the Google office and back into the chilly post industrial decrepicity of modern Dublin we were reminded of the dangers of being in an unaugmented state of reality. A binman had accidentally fallen into the back of his truck and a passer-by heard his strangled screams as the hydraulic equipment reduced his thickness to the approximate dimensions of a MacBook Air.

“I’d say there’s a fair few of us thinking about following him in there,” quipped the taxi driver as we drove past the cordoned off truck. “It’s a great way to provide new jobs,” he added, proving that gallows humour, indeed, is probably the only resource that really isn't in short supply.

And we’re going to need plenty of that on the road ahead.

There's more on Augmented Humanity, digital souls and eVangelism here.