Friday, March 22, 2013

It's the Energy, Stupid

Goodbye Denmark. Eight years is a long time to live somewhere.

And so begins my second attempt at becoming a free-range organic human being. We arrived in Cornwall last week after two grueling days of driving and one night spent on a ferry in the North Sea. On it we had a cabin with a porthole and I found myself waking in the middle of the night in one of those ‘where am I?’ panicky moments. I looked out at the dark sea beneath a mantle of stars and could see that we were sailing past some oil installations which were lit up like Christmas trees. It was strange to see them out there in the dark as they looked so peaceful and benign, but in my bleary-eyed state my mind began to play tricks and they morphed into aliens straight out of H.G.Wells, come down from the inky reaches of space to suck out the lifeblood of our planet.

‘What was I doing?’ I asked myself. ‘Was I crazy?’. Regular readers will remember that I quit my comfortable and well-paid job as a copywriter in Copenhagen and decided to buy a piece of woodland in the extreme southwest of Britain in a bid to distance myself and my family from the vagaries of the industrial system before it grinds to a halt and causes widespread mayhem and misery. I fell into a restless sleep and awoke in the grey dawn and lay there for some time thinking about what lay ahead.

It had been a pleasant drive the previous day across Denmark from Copenhagen to Esbjerg, on the west coast. The sun had been shining and everything was crisp with ice. The car struggled a bit with the huge trailer it was pulling, so I kept the speed low to try and conserve fuel. The port was like everything in Denmark; clean, efficient and quiet. We drove onto the ferry and parked up on the cargo deck next to a truck full of pigs bound for slaughter in England. My youngest daughter looked through the metal bars at the worried-looking creatures and has since refused to eat even the tiniest morsel of meat.

When we hit Essex the next day the contrast was stark. The weather was foul; wet and windy, and for almost the entire day we battled across England’s tired and overloaded road network, dodging potholes and managing to frustrate drivers who wanted to overtake us. On one section of motorway a number of signs had been erected asking ‘See anything suspicious? Ring this number …’. Motorcycle police were buzzing around and stop and searches were taking place. Was this kind of thing now routine in the UK? After 13 years of living abroad it would be interesting to find out what else had changed.

We drove around a section of the notorious M25 London orbital motorway, eager to get through the crushing over-developed southeast. The kids needed to use the toilet so I had to pull in at South Mimms service station – an unpleasant experience and a reminder of how commercialized and crass things had become. It used to be that when driving on a motorway – a public highway – that a sign would alert you to the presence of the next service stop. It would be a simple icon of a petrol pump, and if you could grab a bite to eat there it would also display a knife and fork icon. This has now been changed so that the name of the chain restaurant and oil company is displayed. So, if you really want a Burger King, you know you’ll have to drive an extra 30 miles to get to the next one. It avoids disappointments. If there is a hell, it will look a bit like South Mimms service station, with all its smiling ‘eager to help’ shop assistants, its constant announcement of ‘buy one get one free’ deals and its tables of porky human beings absent-mindedly pushing burgers into their mouths as they play computer games on their iPads. 

Driving on through the driving rain we eventually escaped the gravitational pull of London and began our trundle down to the southwest. By evening we had just made it past Bristol and then, a couple of hours later, Exeter. Regarded by many as the beginning of the back of beyond, it certainly felt like we were heading into another realm as we passed over the windy sleet-lashed high moors and drove ever onwards towards where the sky was dark and the signs of human life became increasingly scant. Powerful cars with private number plates – Audis, new model Range Rovers, sports cars – roared past us as we traversed those bleak moors in the night. Who were these people? No doubt they were second home owners, heading down from London for the weekend to stay in their idyllic cottages with sea views that locals can no longer afford.

It felt strange to return to this, the land of my birth. For all the deadweight of crass consumerist culture that had infested the land, all the ugly cheap housing estates, the soulless motorways, the bottomless banality of the national discourse, the wasteland of popular culture - I knew that beneath all of that the layers of history and the sacred hills and towers and places of great wildness and peace existed still. This is what I was looking for on my return. I also know that there are people here – many people – who have simply had enough of all this plastic culture and have said ‘stop’. Perhaps there aren’t quite a hundred monkeys yet, but we might be up in the mid-seventies in some places.

It would be easy to lament the fall, but then that’s a tiring game and it doesn’t leave you a winner. Britain as a modern energy-rich nation, it seems certain, had peaked and was now on the downward trajectory and picking up pace. In Denmark there had been few signs of anything being out of order in the wake of the financial crisis, but in Britain the signs are everywhere and they are not possible to ignore. I’ve only been here a week, but a week is long enough to hear the shrill voices of alarm. High streets are shuttering up, companies are folding, people are worried about their savings and their retirements, poverty is getting worse. People shop in a place called Poundland - which is like Walmart but not as classy.

I sat through the Budget on Wednesday, watching it on television as I nursed one of the most savage episodes of flu I’ve ever come down with (‘High quality germs are the only thing we British still do well,’ quipped a friend). For those of you who don’t know, the government’s annual fiscal planning announcements are a spectator sport on a par with the American Superbowl in terms of press coverage and popular discussion. The chancellor, George Osborne, didn’t offer anything new. More giant infrastructure projects, tax breaks for gas fracking companies and, for the masses, a penny in the pound off pints of beer. The opposition jeered and heckled – so much so that the deputy speaker almost had to throw some of them out of the chamber – and then Ed Miliband gave quite a rousing counter speech attacking the government on its economic record. The expected GDP growth figures had been revised down again for the umpteenth time and now the Labour Party were enjoying their position as taunters.

It was enjoyable watching Miliband attack the assembled bunch of privileged millionaires on the opposite benches – the rough and tumble of British politics is in stark contrast to the staid and bland Danish version (even if it is merely a sideshow) - but the really funny thing was that if his party had been in power the economic growth figures would be more or less exactly the same. It should be clear by now that with persistently high oil prices, a Eurozone economy in recession, phase two of the financial crisis popping up in Cyprus, a host of massively over-leveraged large companies in the UK who are soon to face hiked interest rates, maxed-out consumers etc, etc, no amount of austerity easing or borrowing is going to continue to sustain the unsustainable.

Speaking of unsustainable, no sooner had I arrived here than the government gave permission for a massive nuclear power station to be built down the road from me. Okay, so Somerset isn’t quite ‘down the road’ but it would be the closest such large nuclear facility to where I live. It will cost £14 billion to build (and then some, probably) but the French utility EDF wants a guarantee on the price of the electricity that it will produce. It’s a safe bet that they want quite a high price for many decades, and if the government grants this then it will lock the country into paying a French company huge amounts of money into the far future, all the while endangering the surrounding land and seas. Local news stations have been giving it a positive spin, swallowing the hype about ‘5000’ jobs being created and interviewing a local dairy farmer who said he expected to sell ‘20% more milk to the thirsty power station workers.’ That’s if anyone will be buying his dairy products at all after the first inevitable leak occurs …

If Britain had an energy gauge you would now see the needle heading into the orange area. Nobody, well hardly anybody, is willing to face this uncomfortable fact. Indeed, it is being reported in the news today that Britain will run out of natural gas next week. Yes, you’d better re-read that. A cold front is coming in and covering the country with snow and quite simply, there ain’t enough gas in the system. Gas-fired power stations may also have to shut down, potentially leading to blackouts. But rest assured, the government has told us that we can just ‘go shopping’ for some extra gas in Russia. Hmmm, isn’t Russia currently blackmailing Cyprus over its gas reserves in exchange for bailing out its bloated and corrupt financial sector? How long before that big bear of a country has Britain in a similar head lock? I've written before about the coming energy crunch that is due to hit Britain, but I've barely unpacked my suitcase before the first wave seems due to strike.

But anyway. I’m not focusing on what’s dying, right now there’s just too much to point a stick at. Every end is a new beginning for something else. As I have mentioned in previous posts, Cornwall is an area rich in local producers, crafts people and artisans. Especially right down the end where I am now living, in Penwith. Tomorrow I’ll be attending my first Transition meeting at the town hall, which is but a five minute walk from the house we are renting, and I’ll be getting to meet some kindred spirits who gravitated here for similar reasons to me.

Then, if the weather clears up (it was sunny the first few days and has been raining non-stop since) I’m planning to plant a few fruit and nut trees over at our woodland. I have sent off for some replacement worms for my wormery after the last team were euthanized by the Danish biophobia police: it’s the first tiny step in helping to build up the soil on the pasture land I’m building up an edible forest on. I’ll let you know how it goes over at the Tales From Fox Wood blog.