Wednesday, September 9, 2020

New Blog - Beyond the Wasteland

Greetings all!

I have started a new blog over at Beyond the Wasteland.

It's a bit like 22 Billion Energy Slaves but will be more wide ranging in its content. I'll probably archive this one at some point soon.

Check it out - hope to see you over there! 

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Ruminations on a Seven Year Glitch

It’s hard to believe – or so I tell myself – that it’s been seven years since my family and I upped sticks and moved from Denmark to Cornwall. We hopped across the North Sea with all of our belongings as well as three cats and two guinea pigs (of which only one feline remains) and bought an old house in a quirky old town in the extreme SW of the British Isles.

Anyone who has been following my on/off blog for that long will recall that we made the move because I was worried that some sort of unexpected shock could knock industrial civilisation onto its back in a single punch. I wanted us to be in a place that would be (hopefully) less hellish than other places whenever that black swan appeared, whatever form it took. Even if it wasn’t some big event but a series of smaller ones that became more irksome with each passing year, I thought it wise to be somewhere that would have its consolations and would be more resilient than where we were.

What was clear after 2008 was that the series of financial rackets that keep modern life going were not as robust as had been assumed. By about 2010 it was clear that nothing had been fixed following the ‘great hiccup’, and that despite all the media bluster about things getting better, in fact they were heading south at a speed of knots. The matrix had glitched, but people were content to pretend that all was well again. Yet while they were reburying their heads in the sand, those who refused to drink this Kool-Aid considered our options and began to look around for life rafts on which to escape this Ship of Fools (I think that’s enough metaphors for one sentence).

For a quick recap, the story goes that I quit my safe-but-boring office job as a copywriter for a tourism company in Copenhagen, loaded up a large trailer and drove to Cornwall. This coincided with my father dying, which meant a sum of money allowed me to buy a seven-acre piece of woodland. The plan was that I would learn to be a small-scale coppice forester, and make things such as charcoal, hurdles, bean poles and other woodland products. To hustle for money, I’d also have a side-line as a translator and my wife would do upholstery jobs for clients, which is what she is skilled at. This, I hoped, would allow me to have one foot in each world i.e. the world of earning money using what I considered to be fairly pointless skills (translating, writing) and the world of learning useful new crafts that would act as a sort of guarantee for the future.

As John Michael Greer advised around the time, “collapse now, and avoid the rush.” That was the plan, anyway. But how has it worked out?

Seven years can pass in the blink of an eye, and I thought maybe it was time for a moment’s reflection on what I did right and what I did that was not quite so right during this time. Overall, by the way, I’d give myself 7/10 for achievement. Fairly average with a ‘could do better’ written at the bottom. But then I’m often pretty hard on myself, so maybe I should award myself an extra half point for effort. I don’t have any major regrets about moving to Cornwall, even if it does rain far more than I anticipated (this winter it rained almost six months solidly: I hate too much rain as it makes me depressed). Anyway, here’s what I got right in the last seven years, in my opinion:

- The woodland. Absolutely no regrets about this, even though I sensed doubt in the minds of others that it was the right thing to do. Since I bought it, I have completely transformed it from being a barren field surrounded by a plantation of oak and chestnut trees. Now, it is akin to a wildlife reserve, bursting with flowers in the spring and filled with birds, frogs, newts, foxes, hedgehogs … and even deer. I chain sawed a section down and turned it into a forest garden (having done a course with Martin Crawford in Devon), dug out a large pond by hand (now visible on satellite maps of Cornwall), planted an orchard of 35 apple trees (including rare Cornish varieties for cider making) and started a coppice rotation to provide us with so much firewood there’s always a big surplus. This and a whole lot more.

- Wrote three books (so far). My first book, The Path to Odin’s Lake, remains the most popular. Before moving to Cornwall I didn’t think I could write a whole book, but being surrounded by people who are writers and artists and other creative types somehow makes the idea of being a writer seem about as unusual as being a plumber in, say, Birmingham. Cornwall is full of places that provide inspiration – I even started another blog about it which I hope to add to this year (another side line I hope to develop is as a walking guide) – so if I am stuck for ideas I just need to go for a walk along the cliffs or on an empty beach. I’m writing another one now.

- Studying and learning. The house we bought had enough space for a study in the attic to house a lot of my two thousand or so books. Over the past seven years I’ve been up there most evenings, sitting in a comfy armchair that’s been passed down through my family, and reading an awful lot of books. I’m mostly hooked on metaphysical and esoteric material, but I still find time for a good horror novel or the latest from, say, Jim Kunstler or Dmitry Orlov. In terms of other studies, I’ve been doing a course in herbalism since last year, and have even produced my first tincture for sale (an antiviral based on elder leaf). I’ve also completed a sea kayak navigation course, done a night school class in wood carving, taught myself the basics of arc welding, figured out how to strip down a carburettor and mend a chainsaw, learned how to sharpen and use a traditional scythe, and am currently learning beekeeping, basic astronomy and how to play the mountain dulcimer. I’m really quite busy learning new things when I think about it, and hope to still be learning new things when I'm 80.

So far, so good, but what about the things that haven’t fared so well …?

- Community groups. When I arrived here, I was keen to throw myself into the Transition Towns scene. Knowing what I knew about industrial civilisation’s appointment with the grim reaper I really wanted to connect with like-minded people who felt the same way. This, to a great extent, turned out to be a mistake. Without going into too many details, what I found was that people tended to have deep-seated agendas, and that the ‘Transition’ thing was just the latest garb they were wearing in order to attain some sort of minor power over other people. After trying this out for a year or so I decided to create my own community group based around the simple concept of trees and woodlands and orchards. This was a great success … for a while. I met some nice people and we did a lot of skills swapping and had some great social events. But this too reached its apogee and began to die around the time of the Brexit vote – a reminder that the Culture Wars have so much power to destroy any sense of a coherent community. So it goes.

- This old house. Our house (here's a post I wrote about it at the time - it's barely recognisable now from the photos as we have done so much remodelling work on it), a stone-built Victorian terrace house close to the centre of town, has some good things going for it. It’s large, it’s convenient for schools, work and shopping, and it’s got a sunny back yard. It was quite cheap to buy and we’ve been working on it continuously since we bought it. Still, it doesn’t have a garden (it does has a sunny back yard, that was a carport, which we are certainly appreciating in this period of lockdown), it suffers from black mould during the winters, it’s poorly insulated, the cheap plastic framed windows all need replacing and it’s often hard to sleep with all the street noise (boy racers speeding past and drunks fighting outside the front door during the summer months). Still, it’s a home, and I’m thankful to have it, even if it does demand constant – often costly – maintenance. If I could do it again, I would go for something smaller and with a garden. Even my wife agrees with me on this point (now).

- Work life balance. I’ll admit that it’s been hard earning money since we arrived here, even though I feel like I'm working constantly. Although we live somewhat frugally, we still have had a few foreign holidays, and we run a car. Perhaps because of this we are almost always broke. We’ve even run up some consumer debt, which I said I would never do. My wife works as a carer in the local hospital (the upholstery business never worked out), while I have had a whole range of contracted employment since I moved here, including boutique hotel barman, coffee shop barista, film extra, building site labourer, financial services content editor, woodland worker, and holiday let cleaner (spot the odd job out in that list). Yes, I’ve had a whole range of jobs in Cornwall from literally scrubbing shit off rich people’s toilets to managing a team of journalists in a global FX corporation. At the same time I’ve been working freelance as a journalist/editor/copywriter/translator/proof-reader (basically, anything with words - a word whore), selling my authored books, making and selling herbal tinctures, chopping and selling firewood, making charcoal and growing woodland mushrooms and – on one memorable occasion – making a massive circuitous trip to Scandinavia in a van to buy vintage furniture with a dealer friend. Nobody said collapsing now to avoid the rush would easy … I’m probably just slightly ahead of the curve compared to many people I know who assumed their cosy office jobs would last forever (and are right now wondering if that is indeed the case).

So, all in all, I’ve no major regrets. Our kids are happy here, away from the overly materialistic culture they would have been surrounded by if we’d stayed in the city, and I’ve got great plans for the woodland (the latest one being bees). The skies are blue at the moment, the roads clear (for now) and there’s blossom on the apple trees – what more could one ask for?

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Living in the Long Emergency, and Other Things

The universe demonstrated its sense of ironic timing the other week when I was informed by Amazon that my copy of James Howard Kunstler's new book Living in the Long Emergency had been held up. Apparently it was deemed a non-essential item in these times of emergency. This sucked, as I'd had the book on order for some time and had been looking forward to getting hold of a copy. Luckily - and perhaps this was just another sign of crossed wires and systems overload - my copy arrived on time anyway.

I'll get onto my review of it further down, but first I wanted to say that my fictional 2016 novel This Seat of Mars has been re-released as an eBook. The story concerns a mysterious event that throws a spanner in the works of the modern world, and follows a series of protagonists as they attempt to navigate this new and unfamiliar landscape they find themselves tossed into. It's mostly set in the UK where a sweating, overweigh old-Etonian is notionally the Prime Minister (until he becomes sick and can no longer function), although he seems to be controlled by a sinister bald-headed man with a different agenda.

Chaos ensues as people are stranded in remote locations and unable to get home, the army puts people on lockdown and key workers are asked to report for duty by text message. Conspiracy theories abound. We follow the fortunes of an anarchic young prepper with a penchant for survival (and revenge), a teenage goth girl who finds herself flung into a web of deep state intrigue and a millennial city couple who - stranded on holiday in Cornwall - are forced to decamp to a makeshift commune far outside their comfort zone.

It's a breezy story, not without its lighter parts, and I'm planning to release a follow-up as soon as it's written. This Seat of Mars eBook is all yours for the dirt cheap price of £2.99 / $3.60.


Okay, now onto Living in the Long Emergency. For many, James Howard Kunstler needs no introduction. His reputation as one of the cadre of original writers who delivered the unwelcome message about peak industrial civilisation was cemented back in 2005 when he published The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Kunstler's contention is that we've over extended ourselves, plastering the landscape with an unserviceable suburbia that has destroyed small town America, while beholden to an over-financialised economy that delivers benefits unevenly and produces almost nothing of value except for those at the top of the pyramid. He followed this book up in 2012 with Too Much Magic, a critique of modern culture's obsessive focus on technological solutions - including renewable energy harvesting methods - to predicaments that demand radically different ways of thinking. To demonstrate his projections in narrative form Kunstler went on to write a well-imagined set of novels - the World Made by Hand series - which vividly described what life might look like after a cataclysmic sudden end to the unstable edifice of techno modernity.

This latest book completes a trilogy, with the author travelling across America to seek out people who took his original message seriously and have either radically altered their lifestyle accordingly, or simply adapted in place by making the best of what resources are available to them. It's more than that, though, with Part 1 providing a kind of recap of our predicament (the first chapter is titled: Hey, what happened to peak oil?), and Part 3 (entitled: Now what?) offering an explanation as to what has been happening in the realms of energy, economics, politics, society and the biosphere as a whole since he wrote The Long Emergency, and what happens next. Sandwiched between all of this is the real meat of the book, that is the characters who have set out to deal with this overarching set of challenges in a range of original ways.

We get to visit Mark Shepard, who jacked in his job in a research lab firing bullets at Kevlar helmets and moved to the wilds of Alaska, only to return to Wisconsin and set up a model of silviculture (that is, using fruit and nut trees in an agricultural manner) that he hopes can reverse the ruination exacted on the land by modern agribusiness. There's also the woman who set up an off-grid bakery against the odds, a man who battled bureaucracy to establish a low-impact whisky distillery, and an odd couple of musicians who set up a permaculture farm above Puget Sound.

It's not all rural escape however, with one chapter following the life of a black man in inner city Baltimore, who says: "We need a common "American" culture based NOT on what you look like, but how you act (behaviour)." Josh Wickett (not his real name), a musician living in the ghetto, had found meaning in and was structuring his life around the teachings of Neely Fuller, in particular a code of conduct that seeks to avoid the psychological mind games that serve to split and fragment peoples who should ordinarily band together. He sees social media especially as a way technology is being used to weaponise people against one another. Wickett lives in a kind of post apocalyptic ruined house with rubble in the hallway (to deter looters) in what he calls "the black undertow of ghetto dysfunction" and yet maintains a mostly positive personal outlook, despite his bleak forecast for our collective future.

Another chapter follows KMO (Kevin Michael O'Connor) - Gen Xer, sci-fi graphic artist, ayahuasca partaker, original Amazon employee, radio presenter and friend of Kunstler - who some readers will be familiar with for his podcast The C-Realm. KMO, a liberal who found himself voting for Trump, finds himself living in Bellows Falls, Vermont, eking out a living in the post financial crash American landscape and counting himself lucky to have got this far. He explains the delusional outlook held by many: "... if you're doing well in a system which is collapsing, it's in the interest of your own psychological comfort to imagine the collapse is a fairy tale, that it's really just lazy people who should get to work and stop complaining."

KMO was the person I related to most closely of the ones Kunstler chose to include. As a Gen Xer myself, I too have felt for some time I've had one foot in the 'old' materialist world created by the boomers, and one foot in the 'new' paradigm of straitened energy dynamics and lowered material horizons that we are moving into. Also, like KMO, I have found myself bouncing around from pillar to post, never quite being able to make jobs work out or to earn a living from my own piece of land, and instead being forced to inhabit a kind of liminal limbo land where radical ideas of 'escaping the system' are dreamed of but tend to evaporate due to the way our over centralised systems reward efficiency and penalise the smaller players.

Jim Kunstler was an editor at Rolling Stone back in the 1970s, as well as an op-ed writer and journalist for the New York Times and Washington Post, and as such his pedigree as an old-school journalist could be considered pretty solid. What's more he has a reputation for going places others don't dare, and it's perhaps for that reason he included a white nationalist as one of his character study vignettes. The man, known as Rob, lives in a flyover Massachusetts region which Kunstler observes as: "... factory villages where the elegant Victorian redbrick mills with their once-proud cupolas stand empty and abandoned, wistfully evoking a bygone America of people who had something to get up for in the morning. A striking sample of the folks I saw on the streets in these places looked dishevelled, pushing shopping carts along the sidewalk, far from wherever the shopping carts originated."

It's in these decrepit and forgotten places that unsavoury politics can grow like mushrooms, bursting forth from the damp leaf litter of cultural decay. The author - himself Jewish - meets with Rob, who amongst other conspiracies claims Hitler was a British agent, and delves into his past to discover why he holds such opinions. As with all his other subjects, we are treated to a sometimes lengthy back story that shows their path through life and attempts to make sense of the choices and actions that brought them to where they are today. In the case of Rob, an intelligent and thoughtful man with convoluted views on race, had had a rough childhood and an adolescence in which his friends had once tried to sacrifice him on a fire in a Satanic ritual. It would seem that Kunstler included him as an illustration that in a society where the centre cannot hold, more extreme points of view will become more normalised. For anyone who has followed Kunstler's blog Clusterfuck Nation, they will be well aware of his contention that one day we might see a "corn pone Hitler" voted into power by disenfranchised and forgotten voters willing to trade liberties for security.

For the most part, however, it was the stories of the back-to-the-land folks I found most instructive. Nobody should imagine that the type of skills we would need to learn in a post-fossil fuel abundance world will be easy to come by, although perhaps we can hope the bureaucratic hurdles to making a living in a sustainable manner will be lowered. Kunstler himself indicates this in the last chapter when he writes about his own journey from New York City to a small, economically battered upstate town, and his travails with growing his own food (spoiler: the wildlife had other ideas).

I enjoyed reading Living in the Long Emergency. It deals with the converging nature of the crises we have, for the greater part, sleepwalked into, but reminds us that not everyone was asleep. It's reassuring to know there are people out there who are 'practical intellectuals', and Kunstler defines the term intellectual to be someone willing to engage in an idea and take action on it. These are the people who are searching out new modes of living that don't rely on the hyper-complex yet fragile industrial model we have come to think of as normal. Furthermore, these pioneers have taken a long and hard look at the situation, realised that salvation is not going to come in the form of a government handout, an economic miracle or even Elon Musk's brand of techno-narcissism, and decided to take matters into their own hands.

I'll be honest, there were sections of the book that I found myself skipping over. There is a fairly lengthy section towards the end on the minutiae of recent American politics, focusing on the political dishonesties on both sides of the aisle that I, as a non-American, found a bit tedious. But this was only a minor point in an otherwise decently-constructed, timely and well-written book. And Kunstler's eloquent prose is a marvel to behold, keeping the story flowing from page to page and raising the occasional chuckle. For example, here he is describing the rise of Donald Trump:

"History is a prankster. You order a Gray Champion, and cosmic room service sends up a casino developer and New York real estate mogul with a laughable hairdo, a big mouth and no experience running a government. And yet here he is, a rococo crypto-monarchist in gilded plastic trappings, living in the White House, oddly representing the most hapless segment of the electorate, the dispossessed, flyover deplorables, who had been cruelly ejected from a secure and comfortable middle-class existence when so much US industry was loaded on that slow boat to China."

To wrap up, this latest book from one of the elder statesmen of collapse could be a template for others to follow. When the hysteria surrounding the current COVID-19 panic subsides, and people realise that the economy has fundamentally changed while they were looking away and will not be returning to normal again, they'll be looking around for inspiration about ways to inhabit this planet whilst earning an honest income and maintaining their sense of human decency. Surprisingly upbeat at the end, Living in the Long Emergency might be just the book to dispel and sense of complacency and open people up to the numerous possibilities that still remain available.

Living in the Long Emergency is available here (UK) and here (US)