Monday, February 11, 2019

Meaningful Coincidences

Okay, so I'm going to veer a little 'off topic' with this one. Mind you, who's to say what is on topic anyhow? One of the reasons I took such a long break from this blog was that I was searching around for new ideas and exploring new avenues. So, in this one, I'm talking about those strange coincidences that we can get from time to time. I've had my fair share of them, some of which I mention below, and other people are often keen to share theirs.
Just a work of warning; if you suffer an allergic reaction to woo stop reading now. My next post will be about something firmly cemented in the material plane, so please come back then.
It was the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung who first suggested the existence of ‘meaningful coincidences’. He was talking about coincidental experiences for which no causal relationship could be established. These, he wrote, may possess significance on some sort of deeper level, and he called these occurrences 'synchronicities'.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that synchronicities do occur, and that they occur for a reason rather than just ‘wishful thinking’. Often it will be in the form of a random piece of knowledge falling into place that leads to greater understanding, or a chance meeting with someone who you might just have been thinking about that day but hadn’t seen for a long time. Sometimes the song you woke up in your head with, but haven’t heard since the 1980s, comes on the radio.
The writer Colin Wilson found that when he was delving deep into some matter he was writing about, books would literally fall off shelves, often open at the page presenting some vital but previously unknown passage of knowledge that proved to be the key to understanding.
Such ‘book synchronicities’ seem to be common among people who have set out on a path to expand their understanding of the multi-layered reality we inhabit, and I have had several myself. For example, a few months ago I was eating some breakfast and reading an article posted online by the Irish writer Thomas Sheridan about the ancient Indo-European symbol known today as the swastika being carved into rocks across Britain. I’d never heard of this and wanted to find out more – but I didn’t have time to find out more as I had to go to work just then.
Shortly afterwards I was walking towards my office down the pedestrianised high street in the town where I live and found myself walking past a charity shop where someone had left a couple of bags of clothes, books and toys overnight. Clearly, someone had been rummaging in it and the contents were spilled out all over the step. A glossy coffee-table type book caught my eye and I went over to pick it up. It was called Celtic Britain and I opened it right on a page that featured – yep – stones carved with swastikas.
When it comes to book synchronicities it seems that some people are particularly adept at sparking synchronicities. (Greg Moffit is another one – on one of his podcast shows he once mentioned the different stages of spiritual development outlined in The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck – and I promptly found a copy of the same book fluttering in the breeze in a Tesco carpark later that same day – coincidence?)
And as for Anthony Peake’s The Daemon, which I read last summer in a town in Germany, that could only be described as a smorgasbord of synchronicities featuring Hermann Hesse, Goethe and even Joan of Arc!
These are just a few examples among numerous others, book related or otherwise. Generally speaking, I have only started to notice them in the last five years or so. In periods where my interest in the arcane has waned, or I have been too busy with other areas of my life, the synchronicities seem to have faded away, as if put on pause. When I rekindle my interest, they come back with a vengeance – to the point where I almost expect them, and almost regard them as standard operating procedure.
But what about coincidences that don’t seem to serve any particular purpose but are just so downright improbable that they make you question the basis of everything you have been led to believe about the ordering principles of the universe?
My friend, David Moore, who is himself a walking talking bag of synchronicities, thinks they may have some kind of evolutionary role in human consciousness. He thinks we should pay attention to them because they could be trying to teach us something. 
Again, I have some examples I would like to share, and for which I can offer no rational explanation. Get this: twice, when I have set foot on another continent for the first time, the first person I have randomly met who was not an immigration official, taxi driver or hotel clerk, was someone I knew.
The first time this happened to me was in Australia in 1995. I had got off a night flight from Malaysia to Perth and was walking bleary-eyed around the airport at about 1am looking for some clue about where I could spend the night. I had spent the last three weeks seriously ill with an undiagnosed malaria-like virus, including a stint in a hospital in Penang, and had lost around a quarter of my body weight.
Happy to be somewhere more westernised, I found a large illuminated board with about fifty or sixty adverts for places to stay and I picked one pretty much at random simply because the name appealed to me (“The Lone Star Saloon Inn”). Then, I jumped into a taxi, which took me into Perth and my chosen hostel. I walked in and the half-asleep clerk said they didn’t have any rooms left but there was a space on a bunk in someone else’s room that I could have. He implied that the occupant hadn’t paid his bill and so couldn’t complain when someone else was lumped in with him.
Being very tired and sick I said okay, and made my way to the room. It was a mess, with clothes and bottles everywhere, but the occupant was not in. I climbed into the top bunk and immediately fell asleep. Some hours later my roommate returned. He was pretty drunk and crashed around for a while with the light on (seemingly not noticing me in the top bunk) so I kept my eyes closed and pretended to be asleep. Eventually he turned off the light and began to snore.
In the morning, sunlight lit up the room. I peered over the side of the bunk to take a look at the drunken oath who had, by now, stopped snoring (I planned to check out almost immediately and didn’t even want to wake him). That’s when coincidence No.1 happened. I looked down on him and, to my great surprise, he was wide awake and staring up at me. We both did a double-take, because the face I was looking at was the barman from my local pub in Solihull. Neither of us knew what to say.
The same thing, more or less, happened when I first visited South America in 2000 with my wife. I arrived on a Sunday in Quito and found out I couldn’t get any dollars to pay for anything as all the bureaus de change were closed and ATMs didn’t accept foreign cards. I called the place I had booked and they told me to get in a taxi and they would pay the driver – I would pay them back the following day when the banks opened. I did this but when I got there they said there had been a mistake and I needed to pay up front.
The taxi driver took pity on us and said he knew of another place we could stay. He drove us to this new place and dropped us off. By this point it was getting dark and, Quito being a hilly city, lights of houses began to twinkle around us rising up to meet the horizon. We checked in and had a short nap to get over our travel weariness before going into the hotel lounge. In this room there was a large open fire that was roaring nicely (it is always chilly in the evenings in Quito) and we could look out of some large windows onto the twinkling fairy lights outside. There was only one other person in the lounge – a guy of about my own age – and he was sitting quietly in a large leather armchair and reading a book. He looked kind of familiar but I couldn’t place him. After a few minutes I sensed he was looking at me and he suddenly said “Jason?”
It was Louis, a friend from my sixth form college days – and someone I used to meet up with in the same pub I had seen the barman from. I hadn’t seen him in a decade and he had lost most of his hair in the intervening period, which was perhaps why I didn’t immediately recognise him. He said he was an artist and living in Paris but had decided to come to South America for inspiration. We both agreed how bizarre it was that we should meet in this way.
I’ve told this story to numerous people over the years, and the severely rational tell me it’s just a case of coincidence, constructing elaborate justifications of how our whole lives are just a series of probabilities that either do or do not come to pass.
In case anyone thinks this all sounds too bizarre and I have embellished it in some way, it is and I haven't. In the second instance I have my wife to back it up, although my purpose isn’t simply to tell a good tale but to figure out why these remarkable coincidences happened to me. Could it be that the subconscious mind (or daemon) is a trickster, and uses improbable coincidences and synchronicities to shake us out of our complacency?
I remain puzzled, but I do think that synchronicities seem to happen when you put yourself ‘out there’ rather than just sitting at home and not speaking to anyone. I have come to think that they may be psychic nudges, and that if we learn to recognise them for what they are we can gain new understandings of non-material reality and our place within it. 

If you have any strange examples of synchronicities you want to share then please do tell.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Staring at a Different Sea

Has it really been six years since my family and I uprooted ourselves from our lives in Copenhagen and moved lock, stock and barrel to Cornwall, down here at the far south western tip of the UK? How time flies.

Just before that move I wrote a post on this blog entitled Staring at the Sea in which I outlined my reasons for making it. Having re-read it the other day the thought naturally occurred to me to measure up the reality against the expectations, to see what I got right and what I got wrong.

In terms of a short summary: I’d been living in Copenhagen, Denmark, for about 12 years, with a three year gap in the middle where I tried my hand at running a newspaper and living off the grid in rural Spain. Having learned about the crisis of industrial civilisation in about 2009 I decided to try and do something to put my family and myself in a better place. And so we sold up and bought a fixer-upper house in a smallish market town in a rural area. I also bought a seven-acre woodland and taught myself permaculture and woodland management skills.

Generally speaking, it has to be said, I’m still pretty happy that the move was the right thing to do. Of course, industrial civilisation hasn’t hit the skids in the big cataclysmic fashion so many peak oilers were saying it would a decade ago … but few people could have predicted the extent to which governments and the financial system so willingly threw the future under a bus just to salvage a few more years of ‘normality’ – a normality with a short shelf life.

Anyway, in terms of moving back to the UK, which is where I’m from anyway, seemed like a reasonable move, all other things considered. After all, there’s no perfect ‘away’ in our globalised world, and if there were it’d soon be overrun with bunker-building billionaires and other dangerous mega-fauna.

So, revisiting my post, which by the way is my most-read post ever, how does it stack up six years down the road?

In terms of energy, six years ago I wrote:

The UK doesn’t really have a coherent energy policy. Sweeping pronouncements are periodically made by ministers but these usually run into problems before anything is implemented. With the windfall from oil and natural gas now winding down serious problems are now on the horizon and rolling blackouts are likely by 2015/16, according to no less an authority than the UK energy regulator Ofgem. The country has several ageing nuclear reactors and there is a strong nuclear lobby that favours building more, despite robust public opposition. 

Yep, nothing to add there other than the fact that Ofgem obviously got the rolling blackouts dead wrong, partially due to a massive increase in wind power capacity (literally the only thing keeping the lights on during one storm last winter). Oil and gas is still coming out of the ground, albeit in ever decreasing quantities, and almost nothing has been added in terms of nuclear energy. In fact, companies are pulling out of building new nuclear power stations in the UK, and there have been warnings of ‘the lights going out’ yet again just in the past few weeks.

One thing that has kept the lights on have been shipments of liquid natural gas from the US and Qatar. America’s fracking bonanza – financed by Wall Street despite its huge costs and inability to turn a profit – has benefitted the UK. This no doubt won’t last much longer, however, with all the sweet spots drilled out and an environment of rising interest rates it can only be a matter of time before the shale ‘revolution’ comes to a grinding halt.

LNG tanker leaving Qatar - heading to the UK where it will be used to make electricity so I can write 22BillionEnergySlaves

By contrast Britain’s own fracking ‘revolution’ was dead before it was even born – for a number of reasons that would be obvious even to a bright four-year-old.

Transportation. Neither the UK nor Denmark are particularly large countries with land masses of 94,060 and 16,562 square miles respectively. Both have excellent transport links, with numerous roads, functioning rail lines and seaports. Denmark, famously, has an excellent infrastructure for cycling owing to policy decisions made after the 1970s’ oil shocks, and its relatively flat topography. At the city level around half of all trips are made on two wheels. 

The UK is considerably less cycle friendly as the powerful motoring lobby has very effectively made sure that money is funnelled into road projects suited to cars rather than bicycles, and local councils have haphazardly implemented cycling infrastructure that in most cases doesn’t connect.

I have done some cycling since moving here, but it’s a very dangerous pursuit and was even worse than I expected. I even sold the cargo bike I used to ride in Copenhagen – it would just be too dangerous. The main reason, I think, is a kind of culture war between cyclists and drivers. There is a very aggressive attitude displayed by many car drivers, with the assumption that cyclists are some kind of self-identifying tribe of eco warriors. This doesn’t make for safe conditions for cyclists and I generally have to drive a car everywhere as a result.

Still, on a wider level, the train network is still pretty good, despite under investment by private companies, and the trains themselves are amongst the best I’ve been on anywhere in the world. I probably wouldn’t have such positive thoughts about them if I had to commute to work every day, however – with the rail network not enjoying such a high level of government subsidies as roads and cars, ticket prices have risen astronomically for peak travel times and people are often crammed in like sardines.

Getting on one of the fancy new trains at Bristol

Food security. Neither Denmark nor the UK has much in the way of food security. At present both countries rely on very long supply chains and just-in-time delivery systems to get food into shops. If both countries had to rely solely on what was available to them from their own soils and seas then mass starvation would quickly ensue. The last time Britain was tested in this respect was during the Second World War, when a mass mobilisation of the population to grow food just about managed to feed the nation (although many were away fighting in other countries). Then, there were around 30 million residents, whereas today there are over 63 million (Denmark has about a tenth of that number). Furthermore, it must be assumed that 70 years of mechanised farming has considerably reduced the capacity of the soils to grow food, and relentless overfishing has reduced fish stocks drastically as well. In terms of wild game, there is not much that would survive more than a few short years if the population was in a state of extreme hunger and short term crisis management.

The one bright spot in this otherwise dismal picture is the rise of organic farming and local food networks. These have grown enormously in recent years as people put less trust in the corporately-controlled food web and opt instead to eat more local and more healthily. 

Denmark, similarly, has a food problem. Despite a much lower population, the relatively fertile soils cannot yield the heavily meat-based diet to which Danes have become used to. Technically, we are told, Denmark is a net food exporter, but in my local supermarket the only things I can find that are grown here are potatoes and apples, so I’m guessing that there is some statistical figure fiddling going on there. 

We’ll probably get to find out more about food security in the coming months as Britain is due to leave the EU next month and the news sites are falling over themselves to insist that we will be hit by everything from a scarcity of Mars Bars to all-out famine.

I doubt this will be so but it’s sensible to take precautions whatever the case and since moving here I’ve been getting a lot of food from a local organic farm, and have even done voluntary work for them. I’ve also been growing food and have planted up an orchard and a forest garden. I’ve taught myself to shoot and prepare small game and have learned to forage in the wild areas around the abundant shorelines here. I’ve also got a sea fishing kayak and a range of friends who produce things like honey and cider: in short, I don’t lose sleep over not having enough food, although I do worry about other people who are inadequately prepared.

Governance and society. There are clear differences between the UK and Denmark when it comes to governance. For historical and cultural reasons Denmark is governed fairly well and the UK is governed not quite so well atrociously. Both are [supposedly] democratic societies hung on the framework of a monarchy, with the royals enjoying almost universal adoration in Denmark, as opposed to ‘only’ 82% in the UK [2019 edit: these number have changed since then, with the royals enjoying considerably less support in 2018]. Both countries have coalition governments, although only Denmark has radical factions representing parties founded on both Marxism and ultra-nationalism enjoying power.  

Denmark is characterised by its homogenous native population and has sometimes been described as ‘more of a tribe than a nation’. There are few social strata within Denmark’s famously classless society (although I would question this assumption) and politicians must appease the entire nation, rather than one particular power group within it, and are held accountable as such. The social contract in Denmark is very strong and rigid and has been aptly described by the half-Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose as the ‘Jantelov’ – a set of unwritten codes of conservative behaviour by which Danish people unwittingly live out their lives. The codas are effectively anti-individualistic in nature, requiring that the common man or woman suppress their own personal desires and ego for the common good of the state. 

The other side of the bargain is that rulers (political and monarchical) must be trusted to ensure the stability and survival of the state. Any digression from this bond of trust is treated with public opprobrium. As a result, Denmark has a very progressive tax system and it is said that ‘nobody is poor and nobody is rich’. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the fact remains that allowing everyone to enjoy a comfortable middle class lifestyle, while enviable to liberals from less progressive countries, nevertheless rests on the assumption that there will be a continued abundance of cheap fossil fuels and favourable trade deals with poorer nations. In other words, it can’t last.

The UK, by contrast, has something of a vicious class war elite versus everyone else war going on. Although the old system of inherited caste privilege is dying out, a new breed of ultra-wealthy people sit at the top of the ladder and use the resources of the poor to further advance their wealth advantage, and in doing so hollow out the core of society and make it more prone to social upheavals. At the centre of this black hole is the hyper-power known as the City of London (not to be confused with the actual physical city of London), a vast Ponzi scheme that holds a large amount of power over the government. The City, which enjoys very little regulation, is said to be ‘too big to fail’ although its activities have caused the UK economy to be hugely unbalanced in favour of unproductive financial derivatives at the expense of the ‘real’ economy of goods and useful services.

I pasted this section almost in full. This has been the one area that has really been of concern over the past few years. In the UK we now have a government and media that openly lies about things and engages in endless propaganda. It seems, for example, that we are being ordered to hate Russia – and the lamentable Skripal affair – which has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese – is proof, if ever it were needed, that there is not a shred of honesty or decency left in the political class.

Incidentally, I’ve never met anyone who actually believes any of the stuff they put out, so it’s a bit like the situation in the last days of the Soviet Union where people listen to the news not to get the news, but to discover what the latest line is. ‘Nuff said.

George Orwell's Ingsoc from 1984: when it comes to the UK media, ignorance is strength

I then made a few points about housing, geopolitics and climate change, and don’t have much to add to them, before getting onto population. I wrote:

…’food’ both the UK and Denmark will eventually have to severely reduce numbers in order to live off the planet’s natural income as opposed to its energy inheritance. At present, people in both countries largely subsist on what William H. Catton calls ‘ghost acres’. These are invisible fields in far-off places where the food is artificially produced using oil – invisible to practically everyone who doesn’t want to contemplate them. As energy, the master resource, becomes less available, so will these ghost acres.

But before that happens we have to go through the next big financial shock, which could happen any month now. Nobody knows how long Europe’s politicians and bankers can keep shoving golden eggs down the goose’s throat, but when those same golden eggs stop appearing at the other end we can expect our standard of living to start resembling what ordinarily comes out of a goose’s backside. Many people will suddenly find themselves without the inclination to carry on and commit voluntary entropy, and some will achieve this semi-unwittingly with drink and drugs. 

More still will end up shivering/sweating in the cold /heat and a failing medical care infrastructure will suddenly reverse the increased longevity that we have been led to expect. With social care systems collapsing we can expect to see the elderly being abandoned (some would argue that is already happening) as it becomes unaffordable for the system as a whole to look after them. Disease management systems will similarly be hit by cutbacks and viruses will have a field day.

Hmm, perhaps a bit bleak but this still sounds about right to me (‘commit voluntary entropy’ – did I really write that?). Actually, population is the thing that I got the most pushback about, with many people rightly pointing out that the UK cannot feed itself anything like the amount of calories it needs just to keep people alive. Still, international trade isn’t going to dry up overnight and there will be patches of the country that are better fed than others. As for the elderly being abandoned, that is certainly happening, as my wife (who works in community care) can testify.

In the end, human ecology is all that counts, but I see plenty of potential for local food production using intensive organic/biodynamic systems. The UK still has an awful lot of fertile farmland, and rainfall isn’t a problem. For this to happen though there would need to be a mass movement back to the land, which can’t currently happen as regular people are not generally permitted to live on the land and, in any case, the current attitude is that working with your hands in the soil is only for idiots. This will change.

Perhaps controversially I finished off on the topic of resilience and national character. I wrote that, in my view, people in the UK were of a tougher and more resilient nature than people in Denmark. After all, in Britain, the common man has suffered 1,000 years of being pushed around, and is perhaps of a more stoic nature than people used to being mollycoddled by the government and programmed to be happily conformist from birth. I wrote:

It is my steadfast belief that people in the UK – or perhaps I should say some people in the UK – are better prepared mentally and physically than their Danish equivalents.  The Transition Towns movement grew from the UK, although in reality people have been practicing low impact sustainable living for decades, and despite the hollowing out of industry many small-scale artisans still remain below the radar. There is a growing web of food networks, local currencies and community energy projects and the assumption of many people in the UK is that they cannot trust the government to deliver vital services to them.  This, ironically, is a strength when compared with Denmark, where people are less empowered to take over their own livelihoods, and act timidly when it comes to going against the system. The assumption here is that the government always has their best interests at heart and that all solutions come down from the top.  Have you ever heard of Occupy Denmark? No, I thought not. 

In the UK there is strong grassroots opposition to the coalition government and its suicidal plans to build more roads, airports, nuclear power stations and fracking wells. Overcrowded Britain, for better or worse, is a country of NIMBYs, making any new capital project that is perceived to be dangerous or ugly (or both) difficult or downright impossible. 

Whenever disaster strikes we tend to stop grumbling about one another and pull together to get through it as best as we can. It takes practice to stiffen that upper lip. We have developed a warped sense of humour as a safety valve for life’s absurdities and horrors, and despite decades of media scare stories about the dangers of strangers the country is still packed to the gunwales with good Samaritans the charitable folk. Furthermore, there’s a growing sense of reverence for the natural world, a stirring of the spirit that urges us to protect the Earth in all of its diversity. Is this part of something bigger? We will have to wait and see on that one.

I still think this is true – especially the last part. What I didn’t/couldn’t foresee was the rise in identity politics and the psychic battleground of Brexit that has done so much to pit friends and neighbours against one another. It has spread like a wildfire throughout practically every local group, making it almost impossible for many of them to function. A terrifying ‘groupthink’ has taken hold where free thought is not allowed and divergent opinions are treated with intolerance.

The Transition Towns movement never really managed to escape the confines of its middle-class well-to-do background, even though it launched some good ideas and practical solutions for our predicament. Most of the people I know who used to be involved in it now spend their days screaming into echo chambers on Facebook about how much they dislike capitalism/Donald Trump/Brexit, while outside their gardens turn to weeds …

So, to conclude, I’m generally pretty satisfied that we made the move, albeit with some reservations. Society is fraying around us, and the streets are increasingly filled with drunks, druggies and the shambolic forms of the homeless. The government and media are unfixable messes, everyone and everything is in debt, and many people are driving themselves into a state of insanity with their rigidly fixed political beliefs. Yep, things are in a mess alright.

As I stated at the beginning, I don’t believe there is any ‘perfect’ place to be, and everywhere has its pros and cons. Perhaps it’s even a fool’s game to think we have any control over our future circumstances given the chaotic nature of the way things are unravelling as one institution after another is led into the slaughterhouse and the glue that used to hold our societies together becomes unstuck. Still, I’d be interested to hear any thoughts you might have on the topic and if you have moved somewhere, or are considering it, and why.

In the meantime...

Always look on the bright side of life