Friday, December 21, 2012

The Great Escape Part VIII: Hopenhagen

It was a lot of work. We were going to make a newspaper every day for two weeks – normally we only made one a week. There were contributors to be found, photographers to be hired, media groups to be joined and accreditation issues to be resolved. It was going to be an unofficial publication, meaning that we wouldn’t be restricted by the UN’s straitjacket on reportage, and that I could decide the editorial direction.

This last point was a crucial one to me, but it didn’t seem to have crossed the minds of the publisher or the CEO, who were simply interested in its capacity for earning money through advertising. A further point was that, because we were not officially tied up with proceedings at the Bella Center (the conference centre where the talks were taking place over two weeks in December 2009) we could naturally switch focus to the so-called ‘people’s climate conference’ which was taking place in a leisure centre close to our office. This is where most of the interesting people would be coming to speak – the people who were not invited to the official one, which would be all suited politicians and photo ops.

As December grew closer our workload increased and the scale of what our small team had ahead of us became more daunting. The newspaper would be called the COP15 Post and we would print something like 30,000 copies a day, which would be handed out for free to delegates, protestors and anyone else who was interested in the talks. A small army of volunteers were recruited to do this, and we were given a fleet of cargo bikes and electric vehicles to make the job manageable.

Protestors began to arrive in Copenhagen. You could tell them from their slightly dishevelled and organic look, in contrast to the Danes, who tend to dress all in black and wear smart clothes. The city council tentatively renamed the city ‘Hopenhagen’ in the expectation that a ground-breaking climate deal would be reached. Most people remained oblivious to the coming storm, although news that Obama was coming – and perhaps more importantly, Arnold Schwarzenegger – warranted front page headlines.

The police began to arrive. Thousands of them came in buses from all over Denmark. Mostly they were young recruits who looked nervous and out of place as they set up barricades and checkpoints around the conference centre. The weather, which had been gorgeous and cold with blue skies, suddenly took a turn for the worse as the conference approached. Days of snow and sub-zero temperatures turned the city slushy and black and a heavy thick cloud blanketed the skies. ‘Ha, and they say there is global warming,’ scoffed the sceptics in their opinion pieces.

I began to go out and meet people so that I’d have a number of articles at the ready for those awkward gaps that appear in newspapers. I had a meeting with the head of Copenhagen’s environment department, who looked me in the eye and told me with all sincerity that if everyone in the world lived like Danes then there would be no environmental problems. I also met Connie Hedegaard, who was climate minister at the time and is now the European Commissioner for Climate Action. Her Wikipedia entry describes her as a ‘public intellectual’, but I was disappointed that she didn’t (and still doesn’t) seem to ‘get’ some fairly simple concepts. At the time she was touting waste incineration as the new ‘green’ fuel of the future, conveniently ignoring the fact that to have enough waste we would still need to have hyper-consumption to drive the economy.

Far more clued up was Dr Jane Lubchenco, from America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She seemed pretty worried about climate change, but was equally concerned about ocean acidification (caused by burning fossil fuels), which she described as ‘global warming’s evil twin’ and was alarmed that its implications were not getting as much press coverage.

A few days before the conference kicked off a giant green globe appeared in the city hall square. It was illuminated internally and at night it was actually achingly beautiful. It looked, indeed, like our planet must look like, spinning slowly in space. But wait – what was that? Corporate logos suddenly appeared on the globe, as if entire continents belonged to all the brands we are bombarded with on a daily basis. Above the globe, viewed from a certain angle, was a neon sign for McDonald’s which proclaimed ‘I’m lovin’ it’. It was all quite surreal.

When the conference actually started Copenhagen began to look like a highly militarized zone. The constant drone of helicopters was something none of us were used to, and vans full of police seemed to be in a constant mad dash – sirens blaring – around the city. As for the actual Bella Center itself, security was so tight that even half the delegates couldn’t get in, causing many meetings to be missed and much anger vented. In short, chaos had broken out in a place with little experience of it.

Protestors soon found out how the police would deal with them; many of them were arrested simply for holding up innocuous signs. Marches went ahead anyway and the police insisted they were only targeting ‘trouble makers’, such as people taking part in provocative acts, like milling around and singing peace songs

When they’d arrested everyone they handcuffed them and made them sit in long chains on the street in freezing conditions for hours. Swinging truncheons and arresting people must have seemed like fun because in their enthusiasm they even managed to arrest some of the delegates at the conference centre, presumably because they didn’t look like they were dressed for the part.

Some people were even arrested by the Thought Police. One of them was riding her bike peacefully beside a lake when an undercover agent leaped out, pushed her off and arrested her. She was later jailed for shouting ‘push’, with the charge being ‘endangering the life of a police officer’.

For all the fun and games taking place at the official venue, however, the People’s Climate Conference, in the swimming pool hall, was far more interesting. I wandered down most days and went to a few of the meetings. This is where all the intellectuals gathered, and where you were as likely to see the president of the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, shivering in a thin polyester suit, as you were a band of Peruvian Indians looking bemused and lost. 

Many of the meetings here were chaired by George Monbiot who, whatever you think of his environmental views on nuclear power, proved himself to be a capable enabler of democratic discourse. I had a quick interview with him towards the end of the conference and he opined that the whole thing was more or less a sham and that the talks, as they had been formulated to favour the rich countries, would fail – an opinion I shared.

Our normally sleepy office became a hive of activity. Usually there were around eight people in it and it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Now, however, it was positively bustling, with packs of volunteers bustling in and out, and a group of 10 journalism students installed in the kitchen (the deal was, we gave them space and internet and they gave us stories). 

Half the time I didn’t even recognize the people in the office, having more or less invited anyone who needed a bit of desk space to drop by. One day I noticed a balding man sitting at the desk next to me, tapping away on a laptop and looking engrossed. After a while I asked him who he was, thinking he might have just wandered in off the street and was surfing online porn or something. He gave me a broad smile and introduced himself as one of the chief editors of the hard-hitting Washington-based news magazine Politico

“Don’t worry, I’ll be going pretty soon,” he added.

Our workload was quite tough. I’d get into the office at around 7am and leave again as soon as the final edition for the day had been sent to the printer which could sometimes be as late as midnight. Food and coffee tended to be a takeaway affair, and as the conference ground on I found myself more or less imprisoned in the office and never being exposed to natural light.

Sales, were going remarkably well and the CEO, who before had been so sceptical, was now overjoyed with the success. The sales staff were busy taking orders for adverts, mostly from ‘green’ technology firms for whom the conference was a huge boon. In fact, with Denmark having staked much of its economic future on ‘solving’ the climate problem through technological means, it wasn’t hard to see how they had successfully lobbied for the talks to take place here.

Speaking of green technology, we fielded an enquiry from a man who was trying to flog a system of electric cars that are charged by renewable power connected to a smart grid. The name of the man was Shimon Perez, the current president of Israel, and he wanted us to come over to his hotel and interview him. 

After I had picked myself up off the floor I turned to Katie and asked her what she was doing that afternoon.

‘Why?’ she asked.

"I need you to go and interview Shimon Peres,” I said. Katie was only just back from speaking to Arnold Szhwazernegger, so I figured she might still be in the mood for talking to power-crazed men. 

“What should I ask him?”

“I don’t know. Just ask him about how things are going in the Middle East,” I suggested.

She went off and came back later, looking a bit exhausted. “Jeez, those Israelis take their security seriously, don’t they?”

It turned out that Katie hadn’t really needed to ask many question. Peres simply dictated some pre thought-out sound bites about Israel’s grand ambition to run itself entirely on renewable energy, and all Katie was required to do was nod and take notes while an attache made sure she didn't ask any impudent questions.

Perhaps it was the lack of sleep but this new warped reality seemed to have become the new normal for us, and it hardly seemed surprising when Iranian president Ahmadinejad similarly requested an interview with us. 

He didn't want to speak to me, however, insisting instead to meet the Big Man i.e. a man called Philip Shepherd who was named in our newspaper as the Editor in Chief. Philip was hardly ever present, and was in actual fact a wealthy property developer who had made his name in the 1970s by directing a horror-porn film called The Sinful Dwarf under the pseudonym Vidal Raski – regarded as one of the most depraved movies ever made. 

And so Philip was tracked down to go and meet him. Afterwards I asked him what they had talked about.

 “Nothing much,” he said.

“Surely he must have said something,” I replied.

“Well, he was interested in buying some property.”

And that was that.

Towards the end of the conference I began to suffer from a feeling of exhaustion. Every day I tried to summarise the day’s developments in a main op-ed on the opinion page. Finding something new to say about talks which were effectively deadlocked with no real news coming out of the ring of steel encased concrete carbuncle known as the Bella Center was increasingly difficult. I asked one of Bill McKibben’s minions if the great man himself could write one, and he duly obliged, giving me some respite. It was a piece written from the heart, detailing his visit to the city cathedral the day before and witnessing some impoverished Amerindians who had brought samples of their withered harvest to show the politicians.

The next day the climate pain Bjørn Lomborg got in touch and demanded a bit of ‘balance’ in the paper, suggesting he should write an op-ed. I was powerless to say no because the CEO, who was something of a fan, got wind of it and considered it a great idea. Lomborg, the skate boarding statistician who had gone from denying climate change, to saying it might exist, to saying it was a big problem but a great way to make money for tech firms, was something of a hero in his native Denmark. And so he wrote a piece about his strange suggestions to geoengineer the world using solar-powered ships that belch steam into the atmosphere and reflect sunlight back into space.

Protestors were everywhere, but most of them came from the US, Australia and Britain. The way they protested was a mixture of high technology (Twitter, Facebook etc.) and good old fashioned marching. Copenhagen’s fancy dress shops ran out of polar bear suits and some protestors had to wear gorilla costumes, confusing matters somewhat. One Australian protestor I met (who was wearing one of said gorilla costumes) had made a sign saying ‘Unfuck the world’. It was a reasonable request, but slightly ironic given that she had flown all the way around the world to demand someone else unfuck it for her.

As a matter of fact, those in the conference bubble were entirely able to ignore the protestors outside, or maybe they even didn’t know there were any. Still, our newspaper reported on the various goings on in the wider climate world and copies of it were being handed to delegates as they went in, so there was hope that some of them may have read it.

Towards the end of things a huge amount of importance and expectation was heaped on the arrival of the American president. When he arrived on his big blue aeroplane, the Danish media pretty much judged the conference to have been a success based on his appearance alone. Popular media aside, there was still that pesky little thing called geopolitics to deal with. Inevitably no meaningful deal was reached, with the main players acting like kindergarten children, refusing to speak to one another and going off in a huff late into the night.

The day before the end we got a leak saying that the Danish hosts had a plan to railroad through a deal which screwed the poorer countries and let the ‘developed’ ones off the hook. This was the ballyhooed replacement to the Kyoto Protocol, which has since been called the Copenhagen Accord. Some media cheered it as a victory but I, in my COP15 Post editorial, quoted George Orwell from 1984: 

“If you want a picture of the future – imagine a boot stamping on a human face -forever.” 

It wasn’t an optimistic summary of the conference but it was late at night and that’s all I could summon to mind at the time. Call me a pessimist.

When the conference was over and the protestors chucked all their signs into wheelie bins, the skies cleared of helicopters and the legions of police went home to dance around their Christmas trees with their families, an unearthly silence descended on the city. The streets were soon cleared of trash, the walls scrubbed clean of graffiti, the barricades dismantled, and people felt it was safe to come out again. Normality returned.

I was mentally exhausted by the whole ordeal and took a week off work. When I came back the CEO slapped me on the back and told me that he had always believed it would be a success. As a result of the bumper profits the newspaper had not only avoided making a loss but was actually nicely in the black.

But it was all too good to be true, of course. Over the next few months I had to raise questions about the integrity of the organization I was working for. It was very stressful. Eventually, on my 39th birthday in April, I walked away from the office and never went back. A fair number of the staff followed me, including Katie, who had been particularly badly shafted. 

I felt like I had turned a corner. In a way, I was happy to have been able to use the newspaper as a vehicle for my own project of making a newspaper for the climate conference, but the whole affair had eroded destroyed my faith in the idea that any ‘deal’ would ever be reached that would avert catastrophic climate disaster. One thing was clear to me: when it comes to protecting the future of planet Earth, governments are the enemy. I was sick of it all. I had had enough and I’d rather go hungry than work for them a day longer.

And then I discovered peak oil and everything changed for me.


I spent the next year and a quarter unemployed. Luckily for me this time I was able to take advantage of Denmark's generous safety net, receiving in unemployment money almost what I had earned in employment.

I spent the time productively. I worked as a freelance translator from Danish to English, started my own online newspaper (called Red Herring - a pun on the fact that red is the colour of Denmark's flag and herrings are the national fish), and picked up a job working as the Denmark correspondent for The Guardian newspaper in London.

I also read a lot about peak oil. It started with Thomas Homer Dixon's book The Upside of Down and then, because I have to buy English books online from Amazon, I had a suggestion that I might like The Long Descent by John Michael Greer. When I read this book I was blown away. It led me onto many other peak oil writers, notably Dmitry Orlov, Richard Heinberg, James Kunstler and Michael Ruppert. 

Whole new worlds opened up to me. It was as if understanding our energy system led me to understand many other things too. It led me to read up on everything from ecology to sacred geology, with history, geopolitics and compost making in between. It was a mind blower - I would never be the same again, but in a good way. It was as if I had been handed a magic prism to look through, which made many things in the world suddenly make sense.

I started this blog. I just had to share all the thoughts that were surging through my mind. Others report similar urges once they have learned about the implications of peak energy.

But having a more advanced view of reality didn't pay the mortgage which we still had in Spain, and so I continued to apply for jobs. I was sent on courses by the job centre and had to sit through motivational classes and learn what a CV was. Once, a perky man wearing Lycra, made us jump around in a room saying 'I believe in myself'.

I began to think I was never going to get a full time job, but then, out of nowhere, I was invited to an interview at a travel company in Copenhagen. Later I learned that there were several hundred applicants, so I assumed I had no chance. I was, after all, getting on a bit.

But then, to my amazement, I was offered the job. That's where I have been for the past 18 months. I get paid pretty well to fiddle about with Google Adwords, write itineraries for safaris in Africa and cruises around the Arctic. Sometimes I even get to go on these trips, like last month when I went to Kenya for two weeks.

The benefits are great, my colleagues easy to get on with, my prospects excellent and the company is expanding like crazy and can barely employ enough sales staff to keep up with the demand for expensive foreign holidays.

So why did I just hand in my notice?

I'll tell you on Christmas Day.

Happy Solstice everyone ;-)

It's not over yet.


  1. damn WHD got shit canned and you quit. Nice. Can't want to hear what your plan is.

    I got a plan, it's a "swiss fuckin' watch" as the dude said. It's probably gonna end about the same as walter jumpin' out of the movin' car. I don't know why I think I can go back to health care, but there it is.

    I watched the movie "Swimming With Sharks" today and there was a pretty profound line. I'll paraphrase:

    "If your not a rebel in your 20's you've got no heart. If by your 30's you aren't pro establishment you've got no brains."

    1. My father always told me "If you're not a communist in your 20s then there's something wrong with your heart - if you're still a communist in your 30s then there's something wrong with you head."

      I guess he meant the same thing.

      (although he was an ex-communist)

  2. Are you moving to Union Grove, New York?


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