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 www.andrewbaines.com


  1. I love your idea with going to "Realandia". Looking forward to reading the whole thing.

  2. I would like to read that book. :o)

    1. Watch this space … (but don't hold your breath).

  3. Is this a draft? Consider cutting the paragraphs that start with "And Finally" and just get on with the book. I'm guessing that you wrote the introduction as a separate piece that could be posted standalone, so you tried to provide a finish to the introduction. In fact you can just stop the introduction and go to the central part. Otherwise you spend too much time essentially apologizing (that is what is coming across) for writing the book.

    The part before "And finally" is fine.

    1. Ed - you don't understand - I'm British so I have to apologise for everything ;-)

      Nah, point taken. It's just a draft intro that I hot-keyboarded yesterday. Thanks for the feedback.

  4. Jason,
    This is not directly related to the post, but I've been meaning to relay some information that seems like it may be in your wheelhouse.

    Judge appointed Special Masters to try expensive and difficult cases, i.e. mostly corporate cases, the special masters are paid for by parties in case, not the state.

    I am not sure you need a crystal ball to see what happens when corporations get to pay for their own judges.

    1. Thanks for the link Justin. I've always thought that the major downside to having a hyper complex techno-driven society is that it becomes easier to steal power by stealth. This would seem to be a good example of that.

  5. I thought you were writing a fictional book. JMG definitely advised the same thing, move to Realandia, with the "Green Wizard Project." Which I know you know.

    I didn't like the moniker "Realandia" at first...reminded me of a stupid teevee show called "Portlandia" which is about Portland and it's various stereotyped characters. However, the title is already growing on me. At first I was going to recommend you change it to something different, but already I like it.

    Can't wait to read the book, fiction or not.

    1. Yes - I have a fictional story charging around my in my brain but I wanted to get the non-fiction out of the way first!

  6. I like it :-) I do have two nits to pick: descendants are in the future, I think you meant ancestors or predecessors, in the past. Second, I hate when people confuse physically impossible with politically unworkable. You're on the right track, but the phrase "precisely zero" still implies physically impossible. Seeing what they did in Cuba in the early 1990s, I'd say there still are solutions possible if everyone were to suddenly see the light. I'll freely admit that the chances are less than winning the lottery, and I certainly understand not wanting to bother with them, but stranger things have happened.

    1. Thanks John. I agree that what I should have said is 'highly unlikely' as opposed to 'impossible'. You're right, stranger things have happened (but not many).

      And, yes, I meant ancestors. I'm always getting the two mixed up - I'll change it.

  7. I agree with Ed about the 'And finally...' and with John's second point, but I do see that it is your opinion that you are voicing. It is also a little contradictory that you follow the paragraph about '..precisely zero chance...' with '...not a book that predicts the future...'. Why not be honest - you have sussed out what the future looks like and the best advice you can give the reader is in this book. Most books after all are one persons opinion, based on their knowledge and experience. Just as JMG's book is his opinion based on the information he has gathered, his knowledge, experience and how he has interpreted that.

    I like reading your blog, I find your opinion interesting and valid. Get that across in your book and it will be a winner ;-)

    1. Okay, point taken. I suppose the thing with books is that one must assert one's authorial voice in a less casual manner than one would do on a blog.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  8. I'd like to see a table of contents if you have one. Without nitpicking about the size of the majority which is unacquainted with peak oil your audience is of two kinds. Those like myself who are long past the shock and awe of the depressing truth and newbies.

    The information should be presented in as positive a way as is possible which I admit is not going to be easy. People don't like bad news but once a person can be educated on the facts and they adjust to them they are then free to contribute to the solution.

    By solution I don't mean fix. We both know that's impossible but maximizing a mitigation strategy is a goal well worth a meaningful and satisfying life and that's something we all look for if we are well adjusted at all.

    Several months ago I heard Jim Kunstler being interviewed on my local public radio station (now government controlled) and was convinced that while his message was well presented and informative (I am after all a fan) I was convinced it was too dark and painful to be embraced by the general public. I wanted to reach into my radio and shake him by the shoulders. In a kind way of course.

    The fact is modern life in America has become pretty empty. We are now experiencing peak fantasy as real life becomes ever more dissatisfying. People are escaping and avoiding reality any way they can.

    The best mitigation strategy includes retooling lifestyles on a massive scale but this retooling can result in lives that are far more satisfying than the lifestyle lived by the lonely isolated urbu-consumer. The most should be made of this fact. Don't just inform but evangelize on how life will actually be better once there is a real community in which to participate and draw sustenance from. The cult of consumerism requires damaged people because undamaged people don't need to consume to feel good.

    Billions of dollars are spent every year on advertising to create the necessary damaged people on which modern society depends. Addiction to stuff as a cure for whatever ails one is actually a very unnatural and unsatisfying lifestyle. The amount of competition in modern life is unnatural and causes much neurotic behavior and consequent dependence on things with which to ease the pain.

    Well those are my thoughts. It was a unusual experience to come onto your blog and see we link to many of the same people. I'm delighted to make your acquaintance.

    My perspective is that I'm seeing the Seneca cliff unless proactive action is taken. I'm not inherently doom and gloom but base my supposition on what might happen as the huge amount of complexity now needed to support the current arrangement disintegrates. As feedback loops which support the current arrangement fall apart there may be hell to pay.

    1. All good points K-Dog. You've hit upon the central difficulty of writing such a book. The easiest option would be to write an entertaining rant a-la-Jim. It would probably be cathartic for me as well!

      At the other extreme is a sensible shoes approach - a-la-Richard Heinberg. I've just finished reading his latest (Snake OIl) and thought it was very good. But this is what he writes on the second to last page:

      "How can concepts like 'energy returned on energy invested' be explained to an audience that barely understands what energy is? How can millions of half-somnolent television addicts be guided in understanding 'fugitive methane emissions', 'energy density' and a dozen other essential terms and concepts?

      He doesn't offer any solutions to this, but instead suggests that a PR agency would recommend going with a simple statement such as 'we are running out of oil' - which would obviously not be true ('We' will never run out of oil - but we will run out of economically/technically recoverable reserves - and in any case, the climate can't allow it).

      It's a bind.

      I'm not in favour of sugar coating truth to appeal to an audience - that seems to be storing up trouble for yourself. The best I can do is to try and make it a compulsive read. I would ideally like people to hand around my book and say 'This is a bit shocking but it is a good read if you can stomach it.'

      I think people in the UK have a greater tolerance for the truth. At least, they are ambivalent about our situation and haven't joined up the dots ("Yeah, we're running out of oil, big deal"). There are plenty of fantasists, too, but not so many as in the US.

      That, anyway, is the balancing act that I'm trying to figure out.

    2. Equate energy with money for the EROEI calculation.

      Imagine someone who cuts their living expenses to the bone so they can actually get by on a minimum wage. All they can find is work fifty miles from home. All their broke ass has is an old 1970 Cadillac Eldorado that gets 11 miles to the gallon with which to commute to and from work. There is no public transportation available.

      The round trip to work is 100 miles and at $3.50 a gallon they are spending $31.82 dollars a day to get to and from work. The minimum wage in WA state s $9.19 and hour but they only get $7 an hour because of taxes (taxes should actually be added to the $31,82).

      Seven bucks an hour for eight hours is $56.00 a day. The 'energy' returned is $56 and the 'energy' invested is $31.82. Taking the ratio of $56/$31.82 gives an EROEI of 1.76 but our poor sap needs an EROEI of 4.0 just to get by or he's out on the street at the end of the month. A separate calculation was performed when he added up the cost of his rent, food and other necessities to find his minimum EROEI of 4.

      This scenario needs work and you can turn it to pound notes litres and kilometres to make it realistic. I just whipped it out to give the idea. Everyone understands money.

      Define what energy is separately.

      You've make a good point that was not appreciated by me. People in general really don't understand what energy is, the ability to do work. The number of people who don't understand that a practical car say could never get more than seventy five miles per gallon by the laws of physics is upon reflection pretty big. My scenario here is arbitrary but probably close to the truth. The amount of energy needed to go faster simply isn't there because moving the air out of the way at faster speeds would require more energy than is available. Remember I'm talking about a practical car and not one built just to win a prize.

      Absolutely don't sugar coat anything. If I am writing decently at all it is because what I write is genuine and honest. The trick is to find out in which way one can be genuine that gets the point across in the best way from a myriad of possibilities.

      Good luck!

    3. The mathematics has errors which I thought I had all corrected. The correct version is very close to that which I published so I'll leave it as it is. I should have changed the eleven miles a gallon to ten in my original draft and not made other corrections and it would have all been good.


    4. I get your point. Most people understand money … and the concept of not having enough of it. Still, I always think it is dangerous to mention money and energy in the same breath because one of them is an abstract human concept and the other is something that occurs in nature.

  9. Hi Jason, one issue you haven't mentioned in your intro, and I'm specifically talking in relation to our crowded island paradise, is the lack of access to land and housing caused in part by too many people living here. I appreciate your book is a guidebook for individuals but these issues will need to be addressed at community level because it looks unlikely our politicians will ever seriously listen and respond to the needs of the ordinary British people. One of the problems is that we have lost all sense of who we are, and I mean that literally, who are the British people and what are our values? and more importantly who will be British people in 25 years time and how will our values change. I don't want to come across as racist or UKIPish, I'm a green and the population overshoot issue, which no one wants to discuss, is the elephant in the room that most concerns me as an ecologist. What does the population look like in Realandia?

    1. Population issues should be presented I definitely agree with that!

      One of the best books I've read recently is Poverty and Progress: An Ecological Model of Economic Development by Richard G. Wilkinson. It did a good job of relating population to the problem at least for me. You Phil as an ecologist are probably already familiar with it and Jason may be as well but your comment made me want to put it out there for all to see.

    2. Sorry for the tardy reply Phil. The population in Realandia probably looks a bit like the population at the end of WWII - thin and thinned out. I know that organic food production methods have come on in leaps and bounds recently (Mr Greer says that a patch of temperate land of about 100m2 can feed one person on a meagre subsistence diet if intensively worked) but there will likely be a time lag of between 10 and 20 years before we can even hope to get our food production levels up. As you know, topsoils aren't as productive as they used to be, and we have concreted over an area the size of Birmingham in the last 50 years.

      During that time lag I expect the negative feedback to kick in - people will starve and people will leave and people will stop having kids. Who knows, maybe we'll be able to blag some food from nearby.

      As for knowing who 'we' are - I agree. I'm a liberal-minded soul but decades of allowing PR flunkies to define who 'we' are is bound to cause a lot of confusion when the chips are down. I wonder how much strain social cohesion can take.

  10. ...this is not a doom and gloom book.
    ....there is no escape from our predicament

    Those two phrases kind of stand out for me....... in bold. I do tend to skim read so if I have missed the point please enlighten me. My life is just too busy - can't wait till I retire.

    Aren't those two phrases a contradiction? What is your book about them?

    Come on Doom and Gloomers - we are a pretty resourceful race and I don't think the numbers up just yet or indeed for a very, very long time. And if you believe the end is nigh - after global warming has destroyed our world and civilisation......... or we'll just get an adjustment - less people and so we adapt as Darwin tells us. And if you think the weather proves it and the questionable science then your a better judge than me.

    At the end of the day we are all doomed as Private Frazer will agree so you might as well just rave on....


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.