Friday, February 22, 2013

Here is the News

Sometimes I wonder if we are living in a hallucinogenic dream state, or that perhaps this is all some ghastly Truman Show style experiment complete with hidden cameras and false scenery. It certainly feels that way looking at the media. I’m not talking about the ‘bonkers and proud of it’ type of media epitomised by the likes of Fox News, the British tabloids or the Times, but the kind of ‘should know better’ media.

I have to admit it, I’m hopelessly addicted to following the news. Call me a nerd but I just can’t help wanting to know what is going on in the wider world, even if that ‘reality’ is distorted through a million media kaleidoscopes. I realise it’s a bad habit and that my addiction is enabled by having to sit behind a computer for the best part of each day, but there you have it.

But it turns out that it’s getting harder and harder to look into this distorted fractal and actually discern anything important. Take this past week, for example. Every major news outlet in the world has been breathlessly following the case of a man I’ve never heard of who shot his girlfriend, who similarly I’d never heard of.  When I asked a friend who he was she was incredulous and asked me if I was prejudiced against disabled people. “Why should I be?” I asked. “Because he’s got no legs,” was her reply. “And what does he do?” I asked. “He’s a runner.” Oh.

I turned on the BBC world news and was told by the stern anchor that the case had ‘shocked the world’. Really? Of course, it’s sad when someone dies, but we can pick any number of senseless massacres that have happened in recent weeks – have they too ‘shocked the world’? I doubt it.

Perhaps I’m just stating the obvious. In any case, as if to prove my point further, The Guardian (which likes to think of itself as a paragon of the fourth estate) asked us ‘Why are we obsessed with red carpet fashion?’ We are? Nobody told me. To be fair The Guardian does more reporting of so-called serious issues than most other outlets, but these are often relegated to their own little free speech zones in the back pages or down the bottom of webpages.

And then take the Daily Telegraph – a bastion of so-called conservatism and idealistic bombast.  Reading the DT is like passing a car crash on a motorway: you know you shouldn’t look but you just can’t help it. It has long been threatening, like the Times, to go behind a paywall – and I wish it would hurry up and do so. In the meantime I can’t help looking at it because the business analysis seems to be more penetrating than The Guardian’s measly effort – even if it is dripping in nastiness. 

But what is really amusing, if you take The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph and compare them, you can get a glimpse of the dynamics of how modern printed or online news media works. Between the two they divide up the market share of middle class educated news consumers. Select prejudices are pandered to, political parties are catered for and divisive ideologies are indulged. Various middle-ground issues are either traded across platforms or shared in a kind of journalism no-mans-land, and given that the readerships of both have a lot more in common than they care to admit, there are plenty of these. But apart from these common shared themes (latest adoring Apple editorial anyone?) the meat and bones of the publication makes sure that readership knows what to expect when they pick up a copy of their preferred organ. 

It’s always fun to make lists, and here is one I made of what the Daily Telegraph HATES (and when it hates it really hates …). No article that mentions any of the following can ever be published without lashings of dripping invective, mockery and proxy gunshots across the bows of the ‘liberals’ i.e. Guardian readers.

Telegraph Hates
Climate change ‘alarmists’ (i.e scientists)
Wind turbines
The French
Wild animals (especially foxes)
Benefits ‘scroungers’
The BBC 

Of course, when I had made that list, I just had to make some more ...

Telegraph Loves
The royal family
Luxury cars
People who live in the countryside
Horses (for racing or eating)
Nuclear power and oil
Austerity measures

Guardian Hates
Religious bigots
The Daily Mail
The Pope
The Archbishop of Canterbury
Austerity measures
George Bush
People who live in the countryside

Guardian Loves
Barrack Obama
Steve Jobs
Government spending
Green technology

Daily Mail Hates
The world

Daily Mail Loves
Naked breasts
Fried eggs and bacon

As you can see, the Daily Telegraph has a longer hate list than the Guardian, which primarily defines itself by what it likes (the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner would probably have defined them as variously Luciferic and Ahrimanic, but that's for a different post). It goes without saying that there is a huge amount of common ground between the two that might include the following: expensive holidays, gourmet restaurants, fashion, sport, how to make lots of money without doing anything, cars, designer goods, property investment etc. Let’s not forget, after all, that the two cater for the middle classes, who tend to have high disposable incomes whatever their prejudices. 

Anyway, here’s some little titbits of news you may have missed in the last week buried under all those column miles about the rich man with no legs who allegedly shot a blonde TV ‘reality’ star.

With the ongoing collapse of bee colonies across the world the RSBP is pushing for the ban of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to bee colony decimation. Without the bees, not to put too fine a point on it, we are even further up shit creek without a paddle than we are at the moment.

Hugh Fearnley Wittingstall is organising a march on Parliament with thousands of others to protest the government’s refusal to protect the seas around Britain. Scientists have singled out 127 areas that urgently need to be turned into marine conservation zones where the wholesale destruction by dredgers is not allowed. The government says only a handful are needed, preferring instead to allow a few fishing companies to trash the sea beds indiscriminately. His campaign is being slammed as ‘unrealistic’ and ‘an insult to hard-working fishermen’. Most marine life forms disagree.

Britain is facing blackouts within a couple of years as old generating plant comes offline before new facilities are built.  Various howls of anguish are starting to rise above the white noise of celebrity gossip, with ‘conservatives’ demanding a free for all of nuclear and fracking, greens demanding a massive rollout of wind turbines and solar panels, and liberals not really giving a damn as long as their espresso machines still work. All very predictable.

Speaking of dirty energy, thousands of climate campaigners in the US marched to the White House to demand a stoppage to the proposed Keystone pipeline, which would transport dirty tarry oil southwards to oil refineries. Their reasoning was that, given that many serious scientists now predict that we may be facing an existential threat to civilization and perhaps even of all human life within several decades it is time to stop building new oil infrastructure. Was Mr Obama there to receive them? No, he was busy playing golf with oil executives in Florida.

That concludes the news. You may now go back to your dream-like state of consuming celebrity titillation and televised sports to ward off any feelings of tooth-gnashing angst you may have about the future.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Our Bonzo Economies

Sometimes, it seems to me, the disconnect with the reality that is being reported in the media and the other reality that isn’t getting much attention can make you question your own sanity. I’m talking in particular about the state of the global economy. Not a day goes by at the moment where we don’t hear self-flagellating reports of the state of the economies of Europe, followed up swiftly by news that the US economy is ‘on track’ and ‘growing’. 

Why is the US economy ‘growing’ (apologies for the quotation marks, which I find I have to use to denote verbal irony on an increasingly regular basis)? Is it because of the digital mint at the Fed relentlessly churning out computerized funny money? Or perhaps because the Americans have ‘grasped hard realities’ and are ‘taking things in hand’? Who knows? The subtext to all this reporting seems to be that we Europeans are a bunch of idle debt-junkie slackers and the hard-working Americans – led by the charismatic Mr Obama and his nice wife – somehow have chanced upon a magic formula for success.

This is of course all pig-stinking flapdoodle.

Nowhere recently have I heard any mention of energy, except in reference to the fantasy that the US is undergoing a shale revolution and will soon become a net exporter of oil. Of course, these claims don’t stand up to much analysis. The hype surrounding shale gas has brought in so much capital that it was inevitable that there would be a crash in the price of gas, thus rendering any further production uneconomic. As for the claim that the US will become self-sufficient in energy, well, that one might actually be true if demand destruction (called 'energy efficiency' by the media) in the home market continues – as it will.

And what portion of this fabled GDP growth in the US can be put down to QE? Injecting digital money into a pool of ‘money’ that is made up of 99% credit is like pouring a glass of clean water into an atrophied fishing lake choked with algae and expecting all the fish to start breathing again. They won’t. The ever clever Nicole Foss put it nicely last week on her podcast interview with Jim Kunstler (listen here) when she compared the whole credit vs assets thing to a game of musical chairs, with one chair for every hundred people. As the music plays, people don’t notice there is only one chair per hundred – they are too busy dancing to the music and having a good time. It is only when the music stops that we realise, and by then it is too late to adopt a policy of loitering next to the only chair as the others dance around you.

QE, it seems, is simply window dressing and it is being used to inflate another stock market bubble. How else to explain the rising stock market despite the falling economic activity (yes, the US experienced shrinkage in the last quarter, although this was immediately explained away by an army of analysts who said it was due to decreased spending on defence – nothing to see here). If the US economy is doing so well, why are asset managers in top Wall Street firms publicly buying shares and proclaiming their faith in recovery, but privately cashing in around seven times that amount and squirreling the money away to somewhere safe? What do they know that the media echo chamber isn’t willing to tell us? It just doesn’t add up.

Of course, we have QE over on this side of the Atlantic as well; indeed it is one of the Bank of England’s favourite policy tools at the moment. Like a doctor in a white suit, the Governor administers doses of QE to the ailing patient and then stands back to watch the result. The media pounce on any sign of improvement in the condition: More Land Rovers sold to the Chinese! Tesco had an exceptional Christmas! The alcohol and gambling industries are booming! [Hey, wait a minute on that last one, says the doctor.]

Unfortunately for the Bank’s surgeons, there is also Doctor Death, standing there in the shadows with his vial of hemlock which he drips into the patient’s ear muttering ‘Don’t worry, this will only hurt for a little while …’ in his sinister voice. Yes, the chancellor, George Osborne is busy making sure the patient never gets out of bed again with his relentless thumb-screw turning austerity measures, designed to placate the sleeping dragon that is the City of London.

Because if and when this dragon awakes, turns a cold eye over the economic landscape and decides to flap lazily into the sky and find another mountain in another country on which to roost, the true shambles of the UK economy will be revealed to all. Having off-shored a lot of the productive economy back in the 70s and 80s and de-skilled the work force to such an extent that most people can now only operate computerised systems to service the debt-strangled consumers of the fabled ‘service economy’ the only things keeping the economy afloat are a massive property bubble and North Sea oil.

But property bubbles aren’t exactly a sensible way to conduct business and North Sea oil and gas, as we all know, are running out fast. How many years left? Not many, that’s for sure. Economic policy makers are tying themselves in knots trying to find a solution to this unsolvable predicament. Interest rates are already so low they just can’t lower them further, boosting manufacturing won’t work because it tends to involve using energy that increasingly isn’t available – and anyway nobody can afford the capital - and so boosting the money supply with QE and tampering with the exchange rate are the only feeble instruments left in the tool shed. What they are praying for, of course, is that the magic Knight of Growth will ride in to save the day on his horse like a Findus ready-made lasagne in a just-in-time delivery system.

But, and here’s the downer, growth of the type we have been led to expect just can’t happen in a world economy where oil hovers at around $100 a barrel. With our entire way of life predicated to run off abundant and cheap oil, we are like flies gazing longingly at a glowing light bulb but finding our feet well and truly stuck to a strip of fly paper. Alas, this is the situation we find ourselves in, and there will be a lot of angry buzzing around us for the foreseeable future.

Of course, there’s a lot of talk about switching to new forms of energy, from wind power to thorium reactors to shale gas, in order to maintain the wasteful energy-intensive lifestyles we think of as normal. Each one of these energy plans is fatally flawed for various reasons, and in any case, switching an economy from a highly concentrated form of energy to a lower one a) Has never been done before b) Is prohibitively expensive in terms of money, energy and capital and c) Would take a minimum of several decades – or maybe up to a century if you go for a long-shot gamble with an unproved technology like thorium reactors. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to salvage some form of electrical energy, but we should have started the transition thirty or so years ago, and there is still no serious talk of doing so, so we can reliably expect the lights to be going out over the next handful of years.

In fact, the policy measures pronounced by finance ministers and presidents day in, day out, remind me so much of a toy dog I had as a child. He was made of plastic, with clockwork innards, and had rough polyester fur glued onto his injection moulded body. His name was Bonzo, and if you turned a key in his belly he would emit a mechanical yapping noise and his little plastic legs would make him scamper forwards until he reached a wall or other immutable obstacle, where he would invariably fall over, the yapping noises growing ever weaker as he spent his mechanical energy on the useless task of spinning around on his side and barking.  

The UK chancellor George Osborne is almost exactly the same age as me, with only a couple of weeks separating us. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder whether out mothers shopped at the same toy shops, and whether Mr Osborne also had a Bonzo dog like mine. If so, perhaps the young George (or Gideon, as he was called in those days) sat in his cot staring at the spinning, yapping mechanical dog and somehow the image became ingrained in his world view and manifested itself decades later as economic policy.

It’s the only logical reason I can think of for the endless slew of ‘stimulative’ measures he is coming up with in the face of the sitting room wall of declining net energy. Expect more of the same until the key stops turning.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Tales From Fox Wood

Okay, I have started a new blog in addition to 22 Billion Energy Slaves. Check it out at Tales From Fox Wood.

As you'll immediately see if you have a look at it, it is nothing like this blog. For a start, it's mainly image based. The idea is for it to act as an inspiration for other people and to communicate a message to a wider audience.

But don't worry, this blog will still be getting updated regularly, so regular peakheads please don't go anywhere!

I'll be updating TFFW with new pictures as often as something interesting happens, be it man made or natural.

Hope you like it!

Monday, February 4, 2013

In the year 2038

So today I sat in an empty room with white walls across the desk from a man in a grey suit. The only things between those four walls were a desk, a laptop computer with a small flashing light on the side of it, a miniature printer and two men sitting on plastic office chairs, one of which was me.

The man was visiting from one of Denmark's largest banks and he was trying to get me to increase the amount of money I put into the private pension fund I am compelled to have by law. Lying between us on the desk was a piece of paper with my details on. At the top, just under my name, it said Retirement due date: October 2038.

The man began to warm up his sales pitch, saying that these were 'uncertain times' and that I needed to 'secure my future'. There were insurance products he could offer me, as well as golden nest eggs and money trees that needed planting right away. I held up one hand for him to stop.

"Wait a minite," I said, "before you go any further you should know that I'm leaving your country in less than a month and never coming back."

He looked at me, one eyebrow slightly arched. Leaving the country? Why would anyone want to do that?

"So you have a new job then - a new career?"

"Kind of," I said. "It's a bit complicated. I doubt you'd understand."

"Try me," he said.

I told him about the forest. About coppicing and making things, and about growing a forest garden and practicing permaculture and making charcoal. I said my wife would be restoring furniture, upholstering things, sewing clothes and looking after needy old people.

"I'll also be a doing a bit of writing," I added, superfluously.

My words hung in the air like a stale smell at a vicar's tea party. It didn't sound like much of a business plan in that white office with only a desk in it.

But he had heard of charcoal. "So you will be doing a lot of barbequing?"

"Maybe," I said. "Mostly squirrels and fish, I imagine." It was supposed to be a joke, but it died the moment it left my lips. The man in the suit didn't know it was supposed to be a joke.

It wasn't really a joke.

There was quite a pause. "But you will still need to contribute to your pension for when you retire."

"I'm retiring now," I said. "This is my retirement."

Did that sound pompous? Maybe a bit arrogant? If so, I didn't mean it to.

"What, did you win the lottery or something?" he asked. His expression looked somewhat eager, like he was onto something.

"Nope." I said

I tried to explain further but he had a wait till I tell this to the other guys smirk on his face so I didn't press on. He asked how I would pay the bills, the mortgage, put the kids through university, pay off the car and all the other things that are deemed necessary for a modern fulfilling life.

I told him I wanted to reduce my expenditures first and that the kids would be okay and he shouldn't worry about them not going to university. "They'll survive," I said.

Not convinced, he went on to explain that his company's pension plan was expected to grow at a rate of around 4.7% per year into perpetuity - or at least until 2050, which was where his graph went up to.

I had expected this. "I don't think it is going to do as well as you say it will," I ventured, a little weakly for my liking. I had a whole load of words in my arsenal if need be; words like catastrophic deleveraging, financial supply chain contagion, ponzi scheme and equity meltdown - but I was only going to get them out if I was backed into a corner.

"It's guaranteed to grow," he said. "Here, read this," he said, pushing forward a suave brochure with a picture of two young-looking old people walking barefoot along a beach and wearing white clothes and smiling. 

 "But what would I do if I waited until 2038 to retire?" I asked. "I might die in the meantime. I'm not really into gambling."

"What would you do?" he asked in mock astonishment. "You could do whatever you wanted. Play golf. Go on a cruise. Spend time with your grand kids. Your call."

"But I'm retiring next month," I said. "And I don't like golf. Or cruises."

He cracked his knuckles, sighed and then leaned a bit closer. "What you're saying you want to do isn't retiring," he said, "it's a recipe for having to work hard until you drop dead."

"I know," I said. 

"Perhaps," he added "you should consider continuing your pension plan for a few more years until you can be sure that your, er, business plan is working out." 

"I don't think so," I said.

He frowned at me. His frown said I am a realist and you are not a realist. I looked at him. I guessed he was about five or six years younger than me, although he was going a bit bald around the edges whereas all I have is a grey streak.

"I know," I said. "But at least I'll be doing something I like."

He leaned back in his chair, sighed and looked at the ceiling.

"Is it possible to just get the cash payout now?" I asked.

He thrummed his fingers. "If you want," he said, resigned to the fact that I was a no-hoper. "It's your right to do so - but you know you have to pay a 60% punishment tax."

"I know," I said. "I looked into it when I was first made to take the policy out."

The printer took at least five minutes to chug out all the forms I had to sign. We both pretended to look at different spots on the white wall as we waited for it.

"What about a mortgage?" he said. "You can't buy a house without a steady income."

"I know," I said. "In the long term I'm planning to build a house in my forest."

"A house in a forest." he repeated distractedly.

"Yes. More of a hobbit hole actually, like in Lord of the Rings. I've already designed it on paper, I reckon it will take less than a year to build."

The financial adviser looked at me soberly. He didn't seem to have heard what I'd said. Perhaps he chose not to hear it. Perhaps he thought I had gone too far. I signed the papers and pushed them across the desk.

"Thank you Mr Heppenstall."

We both stood up and shook hands.

"Good luck," he said, handing me a business card. "Email me if you change your mind and I can get it all reinstated. Talk it over with your wife."

"Thanks," I replied.

Outside the office the next employee was waiting in line to be processed. I went for a walk in the park and looked at the icicles hanging from the trees.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Wheels of Destiny

The cosmos. You are it. It is you.

When you think about it, it's astonishing that you're alive. That I'm alive; that any of us is alive. The fact that only one of six million or so sperms just happened to reach the egg, which was formed in your grandmother's belly, making you you is astonishing enough, but when you take all the other factors into consideration too it simply becomes mind-blowing that you personally are alive. 

I mean, according to Neil Shubin, in his book The Universe Within, the very molecules in our bodies contain traces of the Big Bang and are encoded with the shadow of the creation of the cosmos. Various astronomical events that took place billions of years ago led to the creation of humankind: it's a fact.

Indeed the molecules that compose our bodies, according to Shubin "arose in stellar events in the distant origins of the solar system." Written inside humans, Shubin argues, "is the birth of the stars, the movement of heavenly bodies across the sky, even the origin of days themselves."

And he means all of us BTW, not just a select few middle class types with the right post codes.

But stellar origins aside, it's not often that you get to find out something about your more recent ancestors a little closer to home. That's exactly what happened to me today when my sister contacted me with some interesting news. As an enthusiastic genealogist, she has uncovered all sorts of amazing things about our family. For example, it seems we're descended from the vikings who established the village of Heptonstall (meaning Rosehip Valley in old Scandinavian) in Yorkshire, and that in the intervening millennium most of us have had hard-scrabble jobs, such as picking up stones from fields. Most of us died in our forties from the sheer exhaustion of having terribly hard jobs, bad nutrition, plenty of alcohol and awful, cold, housing. 

But recently my sister, let's call her Joanne because, frankly, that's her name, has been trawling a whole lot of digital archives from local newspapers and what she has sent me is mildly horrific. My great great great great grandfather, one Francis Gretton, was a vet in Burton on Trent, in the English Midlands. Just what exactly was he doing at 7:30pm one evening in early October 1872, loitering by the railway tracks? The only witness said he was a 'little fresh' which I presume is a euphemism du jour for 'totally trashed' and the only thing the engine driver of the London express heard was a thud. At the next stop the stoker got out and had a look, finding my G-G-G-G-grandhather's sliced-off foot lodged behind the wheel. Later, they found the rest of him scattered liberally along the track near the place of impact.

But the question remains; what was he doing on the track for an hour between when he was last seen and when he was hit by the express train? Nobody will ever know.

Another of my relatives, this time a little further back in history, came to a similarly gruesome end beneath the wheels of a cart in Sussex on 15th October 1846. Porter Peskett, slipped as he was getting off his wagon on a road that, through some spooky coincidence of history my sister would live on some 150 years into the future, and was run over by two wheels. The gruesome report can be seen below. 

The fact is that had either one of these men failed to reproduce before their fatal date with mankind's greatest invention I would clearly not be here typing these words on a cold Saturday night in Copenhagen two centuries hence.

And finally, here's an obituary of my GGGG grandmother - Nannie Phillips - who got to be 97 on a diet of milk, cheese and bacon - and who didn't fall beneath any wheels.

All of this makes one think that it's worth bearing in mind that even if it doesn't feel like it now, the actions that we take today will have an unmeasurable effect in the future. Yes, one day we'll all just be dust and bones, although it's doubtful that any of us will be lucky to have any hard-copy records of our demises stored in databases for our descendents to peruse. Just a thought to bear in mind as we hurtle headlong towards our digital non-future.

None of this is particularly relevant, but I would just like to say that if you are alive and reading this - congratulations.