Wednesday, October 30, 2013

India and its Incredible Problems

In the year 2000 I spent several months in India. I love India and it was my third visit to the subcontinent. Anyone who has spent time there either ends up loving it or hating it - the sheer in-your-facedness of the whole place, combined with the manic religious devotion that forms a part of everyday life force you to face up to who you believe yourself to be. Yes, India is life with the volume turned up to number 11.

I saw a lot of unsettling things in India. I saw a young woman being burned on a funeral pyre, and afterwards the dogs snuffling through the ashes and running off with morsels of meat. I met sadhus - holy men - who had forsaken the material life and devoted themselves to asceticism, I saw the bullet holes in buildings where British colonial soldiers had massacred Sikhs, and I went to a school high up in the Himalayas where the Dalai Lama was the acting headmaster. And I also met a thousand hucksters and conmen whose ingenious trickery knew no bounds.

I have a fantasy of one day going back to India and living there for good - if it survives the onslaught of pollution, nuclear madness and dam building. Perhaps this will be when I 'retire' (ha ha!). As far as I'm concerned, there is no place of Earth like India for sheer oppositeness to our western culture, although Sri Lanka and Nepal come a close joint second. I'd live in an adobe shack in a fishing community in the deep south. My small sailing boat would be moored nearby and I'd use it to 'commute' between the ancient world (India) and the old world (Europe) to collect my state pension cheque, which would be enough to survive off for another year (in India).

Beat that for a retirement plan - it's not exactly golf and cruises.

Anyway, for all the talk of India becoming an advanced industrial nation like the US or European countries I say: no way. That will never be. The limiting factors that describe the scale of the problems she faces are just too constrictive. It's not just economics that is not on their side (and far too often these days debates are just about economics and nothing else - don't people have any other idea of how to look at the world?) there are so many other factors to consider. This is what I wrote in my travel diary when I was there 13 years ago. I haven't been back since, but other than in tech-happy enclaves such as Hyderabad, I can't imagine it has changed all that much.


December 2000, Tamil Nadu state, India

People say that you can not merely 'see' India but are forced to experience it to a greater or lesser extent. This sore fact is now quite apparent to us and I hope to be able to give some impression of the confusing emotions that have been aroused.

The primary and most obvious facet of Indian life that is unavoidably obvious even to the most casual visitor is the level of abject poverty. Any romantic notions of the existence of some sort of genteel poverty are soon dismissed when one sees the desperate plight that many people face in this country. Beggars are commonplace even in so-called prosperous towns and much of the begging is done by ragged children and leprous adults. The pitiful sight of the man dressed in rags sat in the dust holding out an outstretched fingerless hand or the barely-alive young woman lying in the middle of the road whilst her child sits sullen-eyed beside her and monstrous Tata trucks thunder past only inches away are not uncommon sights. It is impossible to walk in the streets without attracting the attention of the more mobile beggars, mostly children, who will hold out their hands or else crowd around you and tug on your clothing. This kind of scene prevents a moral dilemma for the westerner who, by comparison with these people, is rich beyond imagination.

Even the most penny-pinching backpacker who eats only bread and uses the most dilapidated and cheap transport, though he may not readily admit it, has a kind of wealth beyond the dreams of these dusty figures for he can afford the elite luxury of foreign travel and does not have to devote every ounce of his energy to earning enough rupees just to keep himself alive. Assuming that the potential donor acknowledges this fact the dilemma that is presented is multi-faceted. Firstly, even if one were to choose to do so, one cannot give change to every beggar. On the streets of Old Delhi, for example, one would be forced to hand out money every few seconds. Secondly, the act of giving to beggars, conventional logic tells us, perpetuates the problem further. Although this argument is most commonly used by people who feel the need to justify their meanness in the face of overwhelming poverty there must be some truth in it.

Although it would be very difficult to gather 'proof' of such a theory (you simply can't go about asking beggars what made them decide to 'go into begging') it was clearly apparent in the hills of Nepal where children now routinely skip school to demand sweets and pens from passing trekkers, enough of whom oblige to keep the scourge alive. Thirdly, stories abound of adults mutilating their children (or the children of others) in order to arouse the sympathy of others and thus increase the takings. Whether these stories are true or not it is difficult to say but the image of the young boy sitting in the gutter minus a foot is far more likely to get people to dig into their pockets than the same boy with both feet attached. Whatever moral dilemmas westerners tangle themselves up in when it comes to giving their 'hard earned' money to beggars the fact remains that, by ignoring the problem and not giving them anything, they will not simply move into some other 'profession' or fall back on some non-existent charitable fund or government scheme. Most of them, one imagines, would simply die quietly to be replaced by others.

Another immediately obvious problem faced by India is the ruination of the natural environment. At times it can seem that entire towns and their outlying vicinities can be several inches deep in biodegradable and non-biodegradable rubbish. As is occurring elsewhere, the rush to become a consumer society has made no allowance for the correct disposal of the trash that it generates. In times past, one imagines, this problem would not have existed as all waste would be composed of such material as banana skins, crushed sugar cane, wood carvings and vegetable waste. This would be routinely tossed out into the streets where the famous holy cows would devour the majority of it (surely the real reason these beasts are allowed to roam freely). Whatever was left would be swept up by the untouchables, put into carts and dumped into the nearest river, pond or creek. This practice doesn't seem to have changed much and travelling through Uttar Pradesh and the Punjab, I don't recall seeing a single pond that wasn't stagnating with plastic trash or a single stream that wasn't oozing pollutants with more and more cartloads of waste being taken to their banks and tipped in. These squalid scenes are normally populated by scavenging dogs of such obvious ill health that it seems a wonder that they are alive at all. Neither does it help that any open space, whether in town or country, is used as an open toilet which , in some instances, creates a slick of evil-smelling slurry.

In addition to the despoilment of the land and the water there is the serious problem of air pollution. In Delhi, for example, the air around the old part of the city was so polluted a single trip through it in a rickshaw during the evening rush-hour had us coughing and blowing black soot out of our noses until the next day. Motor vehicles, of which there are many, are in the main not fitted with the slightest modification to prevent thick black plumes of smoke issuing forth from their exhaust pipes. As if pollution from vehicles were not enough there is a similar lack of control over the emissions of factories and power stations which can be seen belching thick smoke into the skies. Added to this is the habit of setting fire to piles of plastic and cardboard waste in the streets as a way of 'getting rid' of it. In fact, it is said that living in Delhi subjects one's health to the equivalent of twenty cigarettes per day. The rickshaw wallahs are the most likely casualties of this pollution as they are normally of the lowest caste and social status and therefore least likely to benefit from any healthcare system. It is they who have to sweat through the polluted air, day in day out, breathing the poison deep into their lungs.

Many of India's problems arise from the sheer number of people who live here. A billion people now live in this country and this number is rising at an alarming rate [about 200 million more now live there since I wrote those words 13 years ago]. A night-time satellite view of northern India shows a relative paucity of light pollution when compared with many other countries. The Netherlands and Japan, by way of example, are so built-up and industrialised that it is as though their entire countries are floodlit. Northern India, despite a population density that rates as almost the highest in the world, is dark by comparison. The reason for this, of course, is the relative unavailability of electricity to such an over-stretched region. In fact demand can be so great and the supply so temperamental that power outages are commonplace and industry is forced to shut down regularly as a result. Any business that needs to present itself as reliable and modern in these difficult circumstances is required to install some sort of backup power generation, usually in the form of a noisy diesel generator and a heap of car batteries. When the power comes back on these same batteries must recharge their cells which then create another excess demand for electricity which will in turn cause the whole system to become unstable and so on and so forth.

So far the picture I have painted of modern India is a bleak one. But for every man-made disaster that India faces there must surely be a man-made solution. Unfortunately though, for the common Indian, there seems to be little prospect of hope from the politicians. The incumbent ruling party, the Hindu nationalist BJP looks to be keener on spending resources fighting Pakistan over Kashmir and developing nuclear weapons than implementing far-reaching policies of poverty alleviation and education. What efforts they do serve up in the name social advancement appear to be white elephants, normally in the form of giant dams, which many claim merely serve self-edifying politicians and consolidate the power of water distribution into the hands of a few. The huge Narmada Valley dam project that is currently being constructed in Gujarat will irrigate a large region and provide a source of power at the cost of the displacement of a million marginalised Indians who do not posses a strong enough voice to block the decision to build it. It will also be costly in terms of the amount of land it will inundate. Gerald Durell, the late English naturalist and captive breeder, once challenged the Indian government over the decision to flood a large area of land for economic gain even though the area was considered to be of great importance for wildlife. The minister in charge of the project rounded on him saying ' we in India can not afford such ecological luxuries'. Indeed it was Nehru who, in the 1950s, delivered a speech saying that 'dams are the new temples of modern India'. Today, despite widespread condemnation from within and abroad, there appears to be no letup in the persual of this received wisdom.

[The Booker Prize winning novelist Arundhati Roy (author of 'The God of Small Things') has written a nice polemical pamphlet on the social and environmental cost of the Narmada Dam Project entitled 'The Greater Common Good' for those interested]

In any picture of modern India it is impossible to leave out religion and the caste system of discrimination. The beliefs of Indians holds a huge sway over the population and their daily decisions which certainly can not be ignored. The government, whilst claiming to be modernist and therefore religiously neutral are clearly, as Hindu nationalists, not going to go to great lengths to improve the lives of Muslims, Sikhs, Jains or tribals. I am not able to relate to a starving beggar refusing food from me because, me being a non-Hindu, I would have spiritually polluted it. And the concept of holy animals (cows, monkeys, elephants) on the basis of some mythical association with the Hindu pantheon seems anomalous whilst at the same time the streets are full of starved-looking and badly-whipped horses and donkeys (who, when they die from exhaustion or are hit by a vehicle, are tossed into the nearest ditch to be torn apart by dogs and vultures) and the rivers are polluted to the extent that all life is eradicated. One thing is clear however and that is as personal wealth grows there is a diminishing of religious belief. The Indian television adverts almost universally feature light-skinned wealthy Brahmin types (I've yet to see a dark-skinned Indian advertising a Business Class plane seat) who live in Beverley Hills type surroundings and drive sports cars and wear expensive suits. These modern role models for the Indian elite and nouveau riche show no outward signs of religious belief other than in some cynical consumerist way ('Bring a new surround sound Philips flat screen home entertainment system this Diwali'). Basically speaking then, religion, the consoler, is for the suffering masses who have little control over their lives. Religion, after all, doesn't cost anything, financially speaking.

It seems that for India the solution to the great problems of today can not be expected to come from politicians or Big Business. India is a vast nation of a few big cities and thousands of villages and small-scale schemes seem to often be the most effective. Soon, the Indian Post Office will be training their postmen in the science and philosophy of effective contraception. In Indian society the postman does not just deliver the mail but quite often reads it out to illiterates and his advice may be sought on matters pertaining to it. He is therefore a trusted ally of the people and will be a useful weapon in the war against rampant population growth. One also reads of micro credit schemes where ordinary people are able to lift themselves out of abject poverty by receiving a small loan to start up some small-scale activity, such as making baskets, that they are able to do.

India, most marketing people seem to agree, is an overwhelming of the senses. The potential holidaymaker might be expected to imagine walking through a teeming bazaar full of smiling women in brightly-coloured sarees selling technicolor mounds of tikka powder in silver dishes whilst the whiff of sandalwood and incence drifts up into the clear evening sky as the giant orange ball of the sun sets over the Arab dhows on the Indian Ocean. The reality is a little less prosaic. India is certainly a land of smells, not all of them pleasant, and anyhow the 'magical pink light at dawn in Varanasi' is only a result of the industrial pollutants hanging over the Ganges. The coffee table book that contains glossy pictures of a colourful and spiritual India tells only half the story. Tales abound of people planning trips of several months or years in India only to find themselves travelling on the first plane back home after two illusion-shattering days in Delhi. India, for sure, demands a lot more of her visitors than most countries but, in turn, offers a lot more food for thought.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Who'd have thought ...?

That when the revolution came it would have the comedian Russell Brand as its spokesman?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ruled by Goons

Okay, so I don't normally dip my toe into the foul and fetid waters of politics, after all one Endless Growth party looks like the next to me and it's been hard to tell the difference most of my adult life. But times seem to be changing because it is becoming increasingly clear that here in the UK we are RULED BY GOONS!

Most people these days might think that a goon is a kind of thug - and that would probably work here as well - but the definition I had in mind comes from the old radio comedy classic The Goon Show. So, according to the Urban Dictionary a goon can be a 'stupid or oafish person'.

Yep, we're being ruled by stupid or oafish people. You might think there are stupid and oafish people in Washington right now, but they are mere amateurs alongside our group of unintentional comedians. Seriously, slapstick would be a high art form in comparison to the high jinks our London lot get up to. Here's a list of things they have got up to in the LAST WEEK. Yes, in just a week (or maybe slightly longer in some cases, but no more than two weeks), they have been hard at work putting on their cabaret show with the following list of performances:


1 - Top of any Goonshow list has to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Yes, this former Oxford graduate, former member of the riotous male-only dining clique the Bullingdon Club (the entry requirements of which include burning a £50 note in the face of a homeless person) is still telling us that the British economy is growing and that the worst is behind us.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne before he grew up (left) and now

This week George was on a trip to China, trying to woo them. He met lots of Chinese students and businessmen and then told British people that we were to stop treating them like factory drones and show some respect. Oh, then he offered to waive the visa rules for ultra-rich Chinese businessmen and furthermore offered the Chinese the chance to run 100% of Britain's future nuclear power stations.

As if the prospect of this was not scary enough, we were also told that we could soon be policed by foreign police forces - our own presumably being too expensive. So, we can imagine, when some Chinese tycoon decides to build a nuke down the end of my road, I can expect ex Red Army policemen to clobber me and any attempt to protest.

Other Osborne moments this week include the demolishing of his housing bubble inflator policy instrument 'Help to Buy' by the newly minted Nobel economist Robert Shiller. Read all about it via the Automatic Earth here.

2 - Second in the Goonshow hit parade is Envrionment Secretary Owen Paterson - the man charged with looking after the environment - saying that climate change was 'not all bad'. Yes, there are bright spots, according to him. It will be warmer, chuckle, and we won't have to fly to Spain for holidays. What's more, he said, not so many people will die of cold in the winter (see below) which, for some reason, he seems to think is the 'leading cause of death for humans' (?). He also revealed that some people take it all too seriously and should just try and relax a bit and have some fun.

3 - And Owen Paterson is in third place as well. The long protested-against badger cull has been proceeding now for some weeks, with many of the furry mammals beloved of Beatrix Potter and Queen's Brian May having been forced to eat hot lead in order to appease the Tory-voting farming unions. Alas, when marksmen failed to notch up enough black and white corpses the 'scientific cull' was deemed a failure.

Who is to blame for this debacle?

The badgers themselves, of course. Mr Paterson says the creatures 'moved the goalposts' - presumably by resisting being genocided. Scientists all along had said that the cull was pointless and unscientific, but farmers wanted 'something' done about the spread of TB into their herds of cattle.

4 - In fourth place - although he usually deserves to be a lot higher up - is our leader and fellow Bullingdon Club goon Mr David Cameron. Mr 'C3PO made out of Spam' rattles off any number of jaw-droppers every time he opens his mouth, but what clangers has he come up with recently? Well, there's that picture of him asleep on a bed with his secret red box that was posted on Instagram by his sister in law as she was getting dressed (!).

The man asleep in the background runs the UK. Or thinks he does.

Then there was the repeated claim that shale gas drilling is beneficial for the UK following the 'amazing' success story in the US.

And then there was the woeful privatisation of the Royal Mail overseen by his government this week - reminiscent of the lowest 'greed is good' days of the Thatcher era. The Royal Mail, which is approaching its 500th birthday, was sold off dirt cheap, with the lion's share going to big City firms. Little investors were also eager to grab some shares and cash them in, and the Daily Goonagraph - sorry Telegraph - even had a moving share ticker as its headline, showing how much dosh 'the little man' was making minute by minute.

Today, fearing for their jobs (and rightly so), workers at the newly privatised organisation voted to go on strike.

Finally, still with Cameron, following today's announcement by British Gas that it will raise its prices another 10% or so - even though many people now cannot afford to eat and heat their home - announced that people should ditch the company. Never mind that the, er, competitors will all follow suit and that his own government revealed that it is cutting money set aside to insulate poor people's homes.

Let them eat snow flakes!

This fuel poverty message in Manchester gets the point across about energy firms in the UK

Oh, and one last thing, Mr C using his most threatening growly voice has said the Guardian newspaper should be 'investigated' for publishing NSA revelations. This follows on from the new press charter that is being put into place that will severely restrict what newspapers are allowed to say about our illustrious rulers. Here's Private Eye's (ever welcome) take on it all.

5 - In fifth place is the entire Foreign Office, who with perfect timing, announced that the UK is to become the 'hub' for drilling the bejesus out of the Arctic to get at all the oil and gas there. Yes, just days after 30 mostly British members of Greenpeace were arrested and slung into the Gulag by Russia for protesting against Arctic drilling, and only weeks after the IPCC reconfirmed that we are going to hell in a hand basket unless we stop burning fossil fuels the FO deems it a good time to make this bold claim to getting a 'piece of the action' up north. It's great to know that the government is concerned about the climate.

6 - In sixth place is our favourite parliamentary clown Owen Paterson again. This time he really pushed the boat out by saying that opponents of all that nice genetically modified food stuff that his big business pals want to force upon the world are 'wicked'. Yes, that would make people who oppose GM food evil. They are apparently guilty of 'killing millions of innocent children'! Well I never.

Owen Paterson conducting some experiments on genes in his home lab

7 - No list of Tory goons would be complete without London's 'Lord' mayor Boris Johnson aka BoJo. He doesn't have to do anything other than just continuing to exist to be included on any goon list, but here he is, saying that all English school children must now learn Mandarin rather than French. To force home this point, he flew over Hong Kong in a helicopter earlier today having being voted 'England's most patriotic politician' - thus the Churchillain repose.

'BoJo' - apparently 'England's most patriotic politician'

Boris Johnson on fracking:

"The extraction process alone would generate tens of thousands of jobs in parts of the country that desperately need them. And above all, the burning of gas to generate electricity is much, much cleaner – and produces less CO2 – than burning coal. What, as they say, is not to like?

In their mad denunciations of fracking, the Greens and the eco-warriors betray the mindset of people who cannot bear a piece of unadulterated good news. Beware this new technology, they wail. Do not tamper with the corsets of Gaia! Don’t probe her loamy undergarments with so much as a finger — or else the goddess of the earth will erupt with seismic revenge. Dig out this shale gas, they warn, and our water will be poisoned and our children will be stunted and our cattle will be victims of terrible intestinal explosions."

8 - In eighth place a joint award goes to 80% of the UK population who failed to notice any of the above because they have become obsessed with a) A TV programme about baking cakes, b) A TV programme about celebrities doing ballroom dancing and c) A TV programme which features a couple having sex in a box in front of an audience which is then analysed by a panel of 'sexperts'.

Oh, and the football was on (England won).

Sex Box: takes voyeurism to a whole new level
Ever feel like the kids are in charge at the kindergarten?


As George points out in his comment below, I forgot to include the Education Secretary Michael Gove.  No gallery of goons would be complete without the man who is pushing through such draconian - and frankly pointless - education reforms that teachers refer to him as the 'school bully' and even went on strike against him yesterday.

And finally …

Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who publicly told a woman who had been historically abused to "Adjust your medication," after he refused to help her out.

Pickles: Adjust your medication

Okay … that's enough (I know, I should have mentioned William Hague)!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Welcome to Realandia

Below is the tentative introduction to the book I am writing When the Lights go Out. All comments or suggestions are welcome. Ive written a couple of other chapters as well, but this gives the gist of it.


Living in a world of Change

Although many people do not yet recognise it, we are living through one of the great turnings in human history. Many of the cherished assumptions about our way of life are becoming increasingly difficult to justify, and other things that we take for granted are slipping away quietly like a dying patient in a hospital bed. Since the time of our grandfathers’ grandfathers ever cheaper forms of energy have enabled us to prosper like never before. This prosperity has taken many forms and has allowed us to boost our numbers phenomenally At the same time we have reaped the benefits of science allowing us to invent new technologies which, to our descendants, would have seemed like magic. In the western world we can expect to live eighty years or more, to have access to powerful medecine, to have plenty of food and even to have a surplus of time to spend pursuing leisure activities, the arts or staring vacantly at Facebook updates on a computer screen.

All that is about to change. That’s what this book is about. Consider the following five points. 

1 - We have exhausted all of the easy-to-get-at energy sources on which our modern way of life depends. All that is left are the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel.
2 - As a result, the material standard of living we have grown used to will plummet as governments shut down and higher prices put basic goods such as food, energy and housing out of the reach of many people.
3 - Our governing elites, whether they be politicians, businessmen or the media, are functionally incapable of doing anything about this and are indeed making the situation far worse than it needs to be.
4 - Most people alive today rely on cheap oil to feed them. As cheap oil goes away, so will they.
5 - Scientists and technology will not come to our rescue and there is no suitable alternative energy that will pack anything like the same punch as oil. 

For most people, the reaction to those five statements is to put their hands over their ears, shut their eyes and sing ‘la-la-la’. If that is your reaction that’s fine. These days the shelves of bookshops are straining under the weight of books which feature a much more cheerful outlook. These books might involve nuclear fusion, thorium reactors or shiny happy people living in bio-engineered ecotopias on the planet Mars. My only request, if that is the case, is that you pass on this book to someone else who might read it instead of tossing it in the recycling bin. I’m sure you have a pale and thoughtful nephew, or a dotty aunt somewhere who would appreciate it. If not you could always leave it lying around at you local laundrette.

Okay, if you’re still reading, make yourself a cup of tea (or something a bit stronger) and get ready to enter the real world. The real world is a place inhabited by remarkably few people these days. There’s plenty of place to stretch out and have a picnic, to sniff the breeze and listen to the birdsong. The real world looks much like the fantasy world with which most of us are familiar but with several key differences - let’s call it Realandia. In Realandia money doesn’t grow on trees. In Realandia one cannot go on dumping all manner of synthetic waste into the biophysical systems that support life without there being consequences. Furthermore, in Realandia, people have to live according to the resources that are available to them and consequently don’t have expectations that they will grow fat and weathy simply by owning a particular class of asset, by exploiting other people in far-off countries, or by possessing little bits of paper inscibed with arcane runes and possessed of magical power. In Realandia there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Nevertheless, it’s quite pleasant in Realandia. There are no economists, no politicians and no rolling news channels on TV (if you can even find a TV). There are no strident talking heads insisting that we have to destroy ourselves in order to save ourselves. Advertisers don’t inject lust seeds into our brains, goggle-eyed priests don’t offer us salvation and we don’t need to work ourselves to death just to keep up with the Joneses. We’ll be fitter and happier as a result. The pace of life is a lot slower and there is ample time for doing the good things in life and being with our friends and family, creating music and making jam. Indeed, why would anyone not want to live in Realandia?

That’s a bit of a rhetorical question because nearly all of us will be moving to Realandia in the not-too-distant future. The thing is, for the time being at least, emigration to this mythical land is free and, what's more, you don’t need a passport or visa to enter. The first ones to park their wagons there get the best spots to build a homestead upon. Once settled they can look forward to a life free from the chains that previously bound them back in the place that other people insist is the ‘real world’. Okay, so life there isn’t always a bucket of roses. Life is, after all, life. Bad things will happen, as well as good. The grass might not be greener, but, hey, at least it’s not Astroturf.

But the only real downside to emigrating to Realandia is the knowledge that you’ll have a lot of new neighbours soon - an awful lot. And unlike you, these new arrivals don’t actually want to be there. It’s hard to blame them though because if you wind up in Realandia without a plan or a purpose you can look forward to the following:

  • A lack of jobs
  • A lack of modern medicine
  • A lack of electricity and petrol
  • A lack of services
  • A lack of money and no pensions
  • A loss of the sense of control

So what better time to buy a guidebook and start packing your suitcase? Where might you get a guidebook, you might ask. You are already holding it in your hands, I would answer. Hopefully I can convince you to go there and beat the rush. Like another famous guidebook to a place of the imagination this one shares the same immortal words as The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t Panic. That’s right. There’s no need to panic because the tools and skills that you need to settle in Realandia are right there within your grasp already.

But before we proceed any further I would like to make the following points clear.

Firstly this is not a doom and gloom book. Having spent several years interacting with some very sharp brains in the peak oil scene I can put my hand on my heart and say that everything within these pages has been written with careful consideration and is not designed to induce some kind of knee-jerk reaction. If you become interested enough in our predicament as a society and as a species, you soon find yourself being drawn down curious alleys of enquiry that branch out to include everything from finance and economics to ecology and religion. This, of course, is anathema to our modern society, which revels in specialisation. I subscribe to John Michael Greer’s concept of catabolic collapse, meaning a slow unravelling of the industrial world characterised by gradual decay rather than a sudden apocalyptic ending. Whilst less exciting than most Hollywood-style apocalyptic dramas, the catabolic collapse scenario would seem to be borne out by a study of history, not to mention common sense. That doesn’t mean there will not be prolonged episodes of unpleasantness where sudden step-changes will occur, as well as some new challenges, but I’ll get onto that later.

Furthermore, a key assumption of this book is that there is no escape from our predicament. If we had the chance to turn back the clock by 50 years or so we could make a difference. But the fact is, as a civilization we have made our bed and we now have no choice but to lie on it. The bold decisions needed to drastically cut our use of fossil fuels, to take but one example, should have been taken and acted upon decades ago. They were not, and we now have no choice but to crash into a wall of collapse at full speed. This much, as they say, is baked into the cake. For this reason I will not be offering any suggestions along the lines of ‘if only we do this’ or ‘humanity can avoid disaster if we’. We can’t. We won’t. For a whole host of human reasons, geopolitics, media capture and psychology being but three, there is precisely zero chance of our entire species acting as one in order to rid the world of an abstract threat within a useful time frame. The only meaningful thing I can offer is at the individual, family or local community level. If a single person becomes enlightened enough to become resilient after reading this book then I will have considered it a success.

Thirdly, what follows can only be a short primer to further learning. This is unavoidable given the nebulous nature of trying to figure out where our civilzation is heading. An important point to note is that this is not a book that predicts the future. That might sound like a contradiction given the book’s title, so I’ll clarify. What this book deals with is recognising a number of worrying and converging trends. These trends in energy use, resouce scarcity, population growth and climate change, mixed together in a witch’s cauldron with philosophical blindness, political ineptitude, and rampant and accelerating exploitation of nature can only produce one thing: disaster. Recognising this is not the same as predicting in any detail what will happen in 10 years, 100 years or next week. Watching a hedgehog walk slowly across a busy eight lane motorway, one doesn’t need a crystal ball to foretell what will happen next.

And finally, most of what appears in this book is necessarily subjective. I’m not insisting that readers should agree with everything I say, and am the first to admit that I am not an expert in any particular academic field.  But then perhaps that is actually a strength rather than a weakness. I have worked throughout my adult life in a variety of different industries and fields and have seen some things ‘from the inside’. I have worked within central government at Her Majesty’s Treasury, have been an energy trader with a large power company, and have worked as a journalist and newspaper editor for several years. Furthermore, I have travelled around the world for extended periods of time, have lived in Scandinavia for a decade and Spain for three years, the latter of which I set up and ran that country’s only ‘green’ newspaper and lived on an organic smallholding. I have worked in the Guatemalan jungle looking after confiscated rare animals, been an English teacher in the Czech Republic and a taxi driver in Copenhagen. I’ve worked as a journalist for numerous publications including The Guardian, as well as working as a cleaner in a detention block for asylum seekers in Denmark. I have a degree in economics and another one in development theory and environmental policy. I also have a masters degree in Information Technology for which I had to learn to program robots to build cars. I’m a father, a woodlander and a real ale drinker.

And I would like to think that all of this is grist to my mill. That’s why this book is not full of references and citations to lofty academic studies, of which I admit I have read very few but prefer to digest second hand via the work of other writers I trust. For that I make no apologies. We are all going through life, learning along the way and doing the best we can with the information we trust to be sound. What it boils down to is our belief about what is true and what is not. Real knowledge is like shining a torch into a dark space, but none of us has a torch powerful enough to light up the night skies. Nearly all of the concepts and ideas in this book sprung from the minds of other people, and there’s a bibliography at the end for further reading. 

And yes, knowledge might be the power to see, but knowledge without action leads nowhere. So, if there’s only one thing you take away from this book I would hope that it is a resolution to do something that will take you at least one step closer to Realandia before everyone else gets there. Who knows, you might enjoy the journey. 

Note: photo (top) by Andrew Baines