Thursday, June 22, 2017

R is for Revolting Beasts



There's something afoot in Britain at the moment, and it's not entirely pleasant. Foul beasts are rising to the surface of the murky pond of the national psyche and sending out suckered tentacles to drag the unwary screaming from their beds. This disquieting scene could mark a step change in the narrative of who we think we are, and set an endpoint to the fairy story we have been telling ourselves for the last few decades. The dark mould stain of entropy is beginning to appear on the walls and no amount of fresh paint seems to get rid of it.

I've taken on a job as a bartender. What better way to earn a little cash at the end of the industrial age?  The place is a hotel: a kind of garden haven beside the sea where people come to spend a few days and get a break from their stressful lives. I pour gin, polish wine glasses and listen to what the customers have to say, offering sympathy where appropriate. Many of them are Germans, on holiday with their families, but there are also many Brits and Americans, and many of these love to talk.

There's a sense of something having gone badly wrong. One national tragedy is eclipsed by the next, seemingly in ever more rapid succession. My daughter came home from school and declared that she and her classmates were getting tired of all the one and two-minutes silences. If it isn't people being run down in the street or having their throats slit as they eat dinner, it's tower-block infernos and other man-made tragedies. Being down at the dog end of Cornwall, of course, our local tragedies tend to be small-scale. A man falling off a cliff here, a surfer drowning there, a dog chasing a rabbit into a disused mineshaft — all tragedies in their own way but also, perversely, all part of the natural order of things. But now the great summer invasion is upon us, as the local population is boosted tenfold by those from up country — and they bring their energies and bigger tragedies with them.

Road rage on the melting tarmac of yet another day of record breaking heat. Me on my bicycle, and the woman in her Audi screaming abuse and yelling about road tax. She's like a heavily made-up monkey, trapped in her metal cage on wheels and enraged at ... something. I almost feel sorry for her. And there are lines of traffic to the horizon on country roads that are so windy and narrow as to be more of a natural feature of the landscape rather than a carriageway filled to the brim with delivery trucks, holidaymakers' cars and white vans. On either side of the stream of vehicles the wildflowers sag in the heat and nod their heads in the light breeze. How can you have road rage when you are surrounded by a blaze of wildflowers?

And the car radios burble out a constant stream of politics. Meaningless, valueless, maddening, hypnotic, soul-deadening politics of who said what to whom and how a commission should be set up to investigate something and how so-and-so expressed outrage about a target not being met in some branch of a bureaucracy somewhere. And Brexit. Brexit, Brexit, Brexit — as if they repeat the silly word enough times they'll beat us into submission and we'll declare the whole thing a mistake and take it all back just so long as they stop talking about it. Perhaps this is adding to the road rage.

And, the people take the bait and battle it out on social media and in pubs and on the streets as if they were rehearsing for some kind of civil war where nobody knows who or what they are fighting for. Many have grown battle weary and simply keep their gobs shut, but there are those who still hold out, tapping away into the early hours of the morning engaged in the hand-to-hand of flame wars, and reporting on their battles to their own echo chambers. An insanity seems has gripped the nation and still the Americans in the bar talk about how civil we all appear and how civil our conduct is compared to 'back home'. And it probably is.

But there was nothing too civil about the declared 'day of rage' yesterday, called in the wake of the Grenfell Tower inferno in London, which killed God-knows how many and ignited a firestorm far larger than the one caused merely by cheapskate polystyrene cladding. Scores dead, killed in their own homes, while the multimillionaire company owner who thought it would be a good idea to beautify a 27-storey tower block filled with mostly immigrant poor people by cladding it with firelighters walks free.

The day of rage turned out to be a damp squib. People were too busy dealing with the kind of heat they'd expect to encounter in Greece to be bothered about getting publicly angry. Even the police were pleading with people to calm down, saying that they'd "had enough" due to the heat and could they please protest when it had cooled down a bit? Being British, whatever that even means anymore, people politely obliged. For now.

But all of a sudden the ship of state seems rudderless. There's a lame duck sitting in Number 10, and people scent blood in the water. Socialism is surging in popularity, after a long leave of absence, as the reality of the precariousness of things starts to become apparent. The body politic is foaming at the mouth and having convulsions right now, and there doesn't appear to be a doctor on hand.

How do we even begin to address these not-inconsiderable problems and tragedies? Well, a vacuous pop song has been released by a multimillionaire TV personality in response to the incineration of the families in the tower block. This comes hot on the heels of the pop concert in Manchester to 'honour' the children and teenagers blown to pieces by an Islamic fundamentalist, even before some of them had been buried. This is our national response to mass death now: gyrations and brave faces and emoting on social media. Celebrities run to be seen at the scene of the latest tragedies, and it's probably not too far fetched to assume that the next logical step is to have them singing and pouting live from the scene of the next terror attack — perhaps rushing them out there in the back of ambulances and police cars, along with the doctors and paramedics. It all smells a bit ... desperate.

People just wish all this nastiness would go away. They hope for it to crawl back into the swamp it came from, and are in no mood for examining the reasons as to why any of it might have appeared in the first place. There's no problem so great that it can't be solved by a hashtag and a declaration of 'One Love', whatever that means. Any deeper examination of cause and effect is shot down in fiery rhetoric. Maybe the great paradigm of our times has nothing to do with scientific enquiry or the Enlightenment — maybe it's to do with the refusal to examine the consequences of previous actions, be they governmental, societal or individual. Indeed, consequences, like elephants in living rooms, are not a popular topic of conversation right now. Which is a shame, but so it goes.

***

In other news, the Midsummer deadline for entries for my fiction writing challenge has now passed. Thank you to everyone who sent me stories, I will be announcing the results next week. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Q is for Quotidian Fluctuations in a Teacup



Here in the UK, things have been a little weird over the past week. People have red rings around their eyes and they get angry at the slightest provocation. You may have heard that there was an election, and that the result was somewhat unexpected and confusing. You may have seen some news about it and experienced a fleeting sense of bewilderment, wondering whether it was relevant in any way to your own life. And then, deciding that it wasn't, you will have instantly forgotten about it. But if you're even a wee bit curious as to what is afoot, here is an explainer of sorts. I will summarise the election twice. The first summary will be incredibly brief. In fact, it will be one sentence. Should your curiosity be piqued, the second summary will be a bit more in depth.

Summary 1

Nobody is in control and the politicians are running around like headless chickens emitting a strange gurgling squawk from their neck holes as they hold up banners saying 'Situation Normal - please carry on shopping'.

Summary 2

Okay, take a deep breath and get ready to shake your head slowly from side to side whilst quietly muttering "And these people once ran a whole empire?" For clarity and understanding I shall proceed in bullet point format.


  • So, the prime minister, Theresa May — a vicar's daughter who was never elected to lead the country and only promoted to the position after David Cameron resigned following the Brexit vote — called a snap election a little over a month ago.
  • The prevailing logic was that her party, the Conservatives (Tories), would prevail in a landslide, thus cementing her authority and enabling her to follow through on some of her most favoured pledges, such as breaking up with the European Union (which, ironically, she was opposed to in the vote), bringing back grammar schools, taxing people with dementia so that their homes can be stolen, and re-legalising fox hunting for the 1-percenter chums of her investment banker husband.
  • Political analysts boldly stated the Tories would win a landslide because May's only viable opponent, Jeremy Corbyn (leader of the opposition Labour Party), was completely unelectable, despite being very popular with the non-elite.
  • Corbyn, it was said, was 'completely unelectable' because he was a bearded socialist who rode a bicycle to work and spent his down time growing organic vegetables rather than chasing foxes with dogs and selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. In short, he was 'crazy'.
  • Much was made of a statement he made when he said he wouldn't want to start a nuclear war and kill millions of people, which was seen as hopelessly idealistic and weak. What a loser!
  • And the fact that he once spoke with representatives of the IRA (remember them? The Irish Republican Army) to try and get a peace deal. Clearly a friend of terror!
  • A smear campaign was launched by the media, with just about every publication, including so-called progressive outlets, such as The Guardian and the BBC, saying he was not fit for office.
  • Pollsters predicted that the Labour Party would be wiped out — possibly for generations — and we would enjoy a prosperous future governed by the Tories, whose main objective was to privatise everything and share out the spoils among the top 1%.
  • But not everyone loved the Tories. In fact, anyone not under the spell of the media smear campaigns, or under 60, hated them. With bells on.
  • They hated them so much that some of the other progressive parties, such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, even bowed down and told their supporters to vote for Labour.
  • This made some of their supporters angry. They didn't like the idea of tactical voting. "It will end in tears," they opined.
  • But young people were quite keen on the idea of getting rid of the Tories and electing Jeremy Corbyn. He had promised them a long list of things, such as abolishing tuition fees for students,   halting austerity programmes and taxing the rich more to pay for public services. Oh, and he was not going to privatise the National Health Service, which the Tories wanted to do.
  • Fighting between the two sides was bitter and acrimonious. The media stooped low, very low.
  • And it began to work. People started to call Jeremy Corbyn 'the terrorists' friend', Jezbollah and Red Jezza.
  • As all this squabbling was going on a young Islamic fanatic walked into a pop concert in Manchester filled with teenage girls and children and detonated a suicide bomb, killing 22 innocents.
  • Everyone went quiet for a few days until Theresa May popped up again saying she was the only one who could be trusted to keep Britain safe from terrorists.
  • But then people with a memory longer than the average goldfish remembered that in her previous role she had axed 20,000 police officers as part of an austerity drive. The police themselves said that would probably have caught the terrorist if they hadn't been so underfunded and resourced.
  • Some of the right wing newspapers began to turn on Theresa May, although they made it clear that the still hated Jeremy Corbyn even more because he 'supports terrorism' and doesn't like war.
  • Theresa May, who enjoyed war and said she would be more than happy to nuke entire nations, tried to fight back. But there was a problem. All she could say was "I am strong and stable" over and over, like a robot that had been programmed by a 10-year-old using BASIC and was stuck in a recurring logic loop. People began to call her the 'Maybot'.
  • She came across very badly in media appearances and decided not to turn up to a televised debate for party leaders, which looked bad.
  • Then, for some reason known only to her and her team of advisors, she stated that she was going to confiscate everyone's houses when they got old and infirm. This didn't go down very well with a lot of people.
  • The gap between Labour and the Tories began to narrow as the election approached, sending several newspapers in paroxysms of terror. All the stops were pulled out in smearing Corbyn and his party. 
  • But none was more terrified than The Guardian, which had been knifing Jeremy Corbyn in the front for the past two years and suddenly realised he was in with a chance of winning. The editor decided to completely reverse position on Corbyn, ordering all leader writers to do a U-Turn on the man. Up until then the progressive organ had advocated a Blairite ideology of free market capitalism under the guise of 'socialism lite'. The spectacle of journalistic slithering and backsliding and was enough to upset a delicate stomach.
  • And then three Islamic fanatics attacked central London on a Saturday night, butchering people with kitchen knives and slitting a waitress's throat before they were killed in a hail of bullets by police.
  • Everyone went silent, again. It was only a week before the election. A few liberals could be heard bleating about extending the hand of love to Jihadis, but otherwise it was quiet.
  • In fact, things were pretty quiet right up to the day of the poll, other than a constant low level murmuring on social media about tactical voting.
  • Nobody mentioned the almost £2 trillion (and rising fast) national debt, or the precarious state of energy reserves. These were issues that are not considered important enough compared to, say, Jeremy Corbyn's fondness for growing his own vegetables, or the fact that he once rode around behind the Iron Curtain on a motorbike. 
  • On election day, every online British news site declared that the Tories would win by a substantial margin, meaning that Corbyn supporters might as well just stay at home. A suspicious person would almost think that there was a coordinat ... oh, never mind.
  • Polls closed at 10pm and then it was revealed that there was a SHOCK EXIT POLL which showed that Jeremy Corbyn could potentially WIN!
  • How could the opinion pollsters have got it so wrong, gasped the public. I mean, they never get it wrong, do they?
  • Corbyn supporters went wild with excitement for several hours as the results began to come in, most of which showed the Tories being savaged by the electorate, even in supposed 'safe seats'. For the second time in less than a year, it seemed people were lining up to plunge their daggers between the ribs of an out-of-touch government.
  • A Tory bloodbath ensued and by the next morning it looked like the government was DOOMED... 
  • BUT there was a major catch. Something which would take a while to sink in for Corbyn's supporters...
  • The Tories had still WON, albeit by a margin not large enough to mean they could be declared fit to form a government.
  • A HUNG PARLIAMENT was declared.
  • Which does not mean suits dangling on the end of lamp posts (yet) but simply means there was no overall winner and  a caretaker government would have to be put in place until another election could be scheduled (and we're getting pretty sick of elections, I can tell you).
  • But Labour supporters (and many others) STILL saw it as a victory and started drinking beer, even though it was a Friday morning, and they should have been drinking tea instead.
  • And then Theresa May, who should have been dead at this point, TOTALLY KILLED THE PARTY!
  • She went to see the Queen and told her she was forming a new government with the DUP. Queenie said "Okay, Mrs May."
  • "The DU what?" said everyone.
  • The DUP — Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party. They had enough elected Members of Parliament to form a viable majority with the Tories.
  • Everyone frantically Googled the DUP to see who they were and what they stood for. When they found out there was much gnashing of teeth and renting of hair.
  • The DUP, it turns out, are an Irish version of ISIS. As Presbyterian fundamentalists, they define themselves by what they hate, which is Catholics, gays, single mothers, sin, Catholics, modernity and gays. What's more, many of their supporters wear black balaclavas and paint murals on the sides of houses depicting them holding machine guns with words such as "Never Surrender" and lines of scripture.
  • These people were now potentially our government.
  • And Jeremy 'the terrorists' friend' Corbyn was still free to spend plenty of time down at the allotment watering his pumpkins.
  • Progressives fell into a profound pit of despair as something beyond their worst nightmares had come to pass. Their strategic voting hadn't worked, and the smaller parties, such as the Greens, having voluntarily acted as doormats, had lost credibility.
  • But it wasn't all bad news from their perspective, at least now EVERYONE hated Theresa May — including her own party. For she has taken a party that was telling itself to get ready to rule for several decades, if not forever, and brought it to the much reduced point where they had to cosy up to people who wore ski masks in the pub.
  • She'll probably be killed off for good shortly and replaced with Boris 'the buffoon' Johnson.
  • And she didn't even get to re-introduce her favourite blood sport, which must hurt.
  • To further confuse things Scotland voted FOR the Tories, rather than their beloved Scottish Nationalist Party — meaning the Scots wanted to be part of Britain and rejected the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon's desire to break away from England BUT surrender to the EU. Confused yet?
  • Meanwhile, the pound fell on all the uncertainty, and the whole process of Brexit has been thrown into confusion. And the EU just sits there, thrumming its fingers on the desk and saying "Well, are you leaving, or aren't you? Make your mind up."
  • But the DUP don't like the idea of Brexit (which must be sinful, in some way) — despite once stating that Europe was run by the Antichrist — and seeing as they have a very big bargaining chip they might insist on either staying in the EU or watering down the terms of leaving it — most probably in the form of keeping the borders open.
  • Meanwhile 'unelectable' Corbyn is down at his vegetable plot fertilising his brassicas, a wry smile on his weathered face. Not only does he now have a large army of fanatical supporters, but he has some major chunks of the media begging for forgiveness. And if another election were called in the next couple of years —which, let's face it, is looking very likely — he'd stand a good chance of winning.
  • So, to recap, the Tories won but they 'lost', Labour lost but they 'won', the Scottish Tories won for Britain but lost for Scotland, the Northern Irish Presbyterians, who could never have dreamed of winning, have won the whole UK, UKIP has disappeared but might appear with a vengeance if Brexit is threatened, the Green party got thrown on the compost heap and the Liberal Democrats simply annoyed everyone — all clear?
  • And still nobody mentions the debt or the energy entropy time bomb ...

So there you have it. I imagine it looks like a storm in a teacup from an international perspective — but it sure feels uncomfortable when you live in the teacup.

And the winner is ...





Wednesday, June 7, 2017

P is for Patience

Image: Sarolta Bán


Patience is something I got a lesson in recently when I almost sliced my hand in half with an angle grinder. Minutes before my little accident I'd been sitting at the dining room table with my wife, discussing the jobs that needed doing before summer. Spring was in the air and I felt full of pent-up energy after the winter. I wrote a list of all the various renovation projects that needed doing on our old house, the tasks that needed to be completed in our woodland to ensure a supply of firewood, charcoal, mushrooms and fruit for the coming year, and the last-push that needed to happen to get our polytunnel producing food during the main growing season. Yes, there was a lot that needed doing, but I felt equal to the task and was impatient to get on with all the jobs.

Twenty minutes later I was walking to my local hospital - which, luckily, is only five minutes from home - a blood-soaked pillow case wrapped around my hand and arm. "I'll be alright," I was telling my wife. "It's just a cut — we'll stick a plaster on it and it'll heal." Luckily, she disagreed with my prognosis and prodded me along to the hospital emergency centre.

An operation under general anaesthetic was performed that saw surgeons digging chunks of abrasive disk out of my metacarpi and sewing severed tendons back together. When I came round and saw a plaster cast from my elbow to the fingertips I began to realise that my list of jobs might just have to wait. The hand doctor gave me the bad news. "You won't be able to use the hand at all for a month, and it'll be three months before you can do any manual work with it."

And so that was that. A right-handed person losing the use of their right hand, albeit temporarily, is severely limiting, to put it mildly. There was no chance I could complete any of the jobs I had set down on my list. I couldn't drive, I couldn't cook, I couldn't open bottles or jars, get my clothes on or off, or eat food that wasn't already cut into small pieces. I managed as best as I could with my left hand, but I'm not ambidextrous and it's pretty hard to do things such as type or brush your teeth with the hand you're not used to using. I became like a big baby — almost totally helpless when it came to doing simple tasks.

Now, three months on, it has completely healed. I have an interesting scar that I can show to people at parties, and I can't make a 'thumbs up' with my right hand, but otherwise there is no sign of my injury. I got off pretty lightly, having heard some rather gruesome stories from others (walking around with a power tool injury seems to attract a certain type of man who is keen to show off his own power tool injury scars.)

But apart from teaching me that angle grinders are dangerous (something I had known on a theoretical level but now know on a visceral one) my mishap did teach me about patience. Sitting around for a month with nothing much to do apart from read books and reflect made me realise that in the seven years or so since I first learned about the fate of the industrial world, how delicate is its mode of operation and how dependent we all are upon it, I have been engaged in constant hurried preparation for its demise. I'd downsized from my job, moved the family out of a city and country to somewhere less risky, bought a piece of land, learned a few skills that might be useful for when the current economic model has a seizure, and spent countless hundreds of hours filling my questing mind with books, blogs and media trying to figure out what the hell was going on with the world and what an appropriate mode of living might look like in response to it.

And over those seven years I've seen the majority of collapse pundits repeatedly get their predictions wrong for when 'the big one' is coming. Well, so far, 'the big one' hasn't hit us in our cosy first world bubble, but there are plenty of signs of carnage and chaos if one cares to look. We have various failed state countries, including Libya, Syria, Venezuela and Egypt. Each one of these countries was relatively prosperous and stable a decade ago, and yet now, life for many people living there has become a mad scramble for survival amidst political turmoil, hunger, rioting and civil war. Mainstream news media doesn't often report on what is going on within these countries, so it falls to independent observers to go out and look at what is happening on the ground and spread their info using social media.

On the finance and economics front we have basically seen the death of economic growth, in any meaningful sense. Sure, there are lots of figures and factoids flying around about 'full employment' and 'economic recovery' and the like, but scratch the surface and you'll find a dispiriting reality of millions of unemployed but uncounted people, people working minimum wage jobs on zero hours contracts and GDP figures that are almost entirely comprised of central bank generated debt. The debt bubble has ballooned to epic proportions, but again, the media doesn't seem interested. Debt allows countries, institutions and people to look good in the short term, while at the same time sacrificing the longer term.

On the energy front there is a sustained and continued fall in the density of the supplies available to us as a species. We consume something like five times as much oil as we discover, and whatever new stuff we do discover tends to be so challenging to extract and process that we have to expend huge amounts of our remaining energy just to do so: translated, this means that we might as well not bother. It's as if we have been at a rambunctious frat party and the parental liquor cupboard has been smashed open and drained. All that remains are a few empty bottles lying on their sides and some really horrible sticky orange-flavoured aperetifs. The party looks like it's about to fizzle out when someone discovers several crates of booze in the basement. Party on! But wait, it's just shandy, but who cares, it looks like beer and it comes in bottles that look like beer bottles. And all the time new guests keep arriving and demanding booze...

To make up for the inconvenient truth that we are running out of the highly-concentrated fuels our industrial civilisation needs to run, we have a loud cacophony of techno-optimists who insist that business as usual can continue if we just build enough wind turbines, or solar panels or propagate algae in the sea that we can turn into diesel. All of these schemes look great on a computer screen and it is easy to get uninformed people to believe that they are indeed feasible, but none of them ever consider the mechanisms — financial, political, economic — that would be needed to scale them up to a level where they would make much of a difference to offset the diminishing conventional fuels. We seem to be lost in a dreamlike state of demented unreality, like blindfolded people wandering around in a maze shouting hail Mary through gritted teeth. The sad truth is that the smartest people among us are those who capitalise on this madness, amassing huge personal fortunes by promising the moon (or Mars), just so long as the government subsidies continue rolling in.

Aside from all this we have ten different shades of crazy running through our societies. Some mischievous demon somewhere decided to lob a bomb into our carefully ordered political consensus of what constitutes left and right, good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate. This has given the chattering classes, who thought they had it all sorted out, a bad case of the vapours, and turned many of them into little more than drooling basket cases who become psychotic when presented with images and words that go against their programming. Thus we have people who identify as 'liberal'  throwing their allegiance behind billionaire financiers and politicians promising endless war, and those who identify as 'conservative' being generally in favour of conserving nothing except for their own privileges at the expense of everyone else.

On top of the above factors, we've also got a few new wars, environmental problems that are getting steadily worse, the drumbeat of Islamic terrorism that is getting closer to home, and there are now half a billion more people in the world than when I first started writing this blog, some of whom are refugees heading this way.

So, when you look at the past seven years, a lot has changed. Even if it doesn't feel like it on a day-by-day basis, the world is going through a profound readjustment. Sure, at some point, something will probably snap. Maybe it'll be a financial crisis that pops the debt bubble and ends up bankrupting entire countries as bonds get slaughtered. Maybe it'll be a war confected by the deep state and the western military industrial complex — that uber parasite on mankind — and we'll all be lying flat on our backs not knowing what hit us. This time next week/month/year we could all be dead or starving, or eating each other's brains for breakfast.

But here's my simple take on things: to give in to such depressing thoughts is to deny ourselves the ability to lives our lives in the best way that we can. Surrender to the fact that there's nothing you can do to 'fix' things, other than making yourself and your loved ones as secure as you can, and try to make the best of the hand you've been dealt. Create stuff, love people and life, try and make things a bit better for others and keep laughing at the absurdity of it all. The universe doesn't owe you a safe passage — there is no other way.





Friday, April 7, 2017

O is for Ouch!



Hello everyone, just to say that I'm not writing much at the moment as I've had a little ... accident. As you can see from the picture, my right hand is not fully functional, and given that it's my writing hand I'm forced to type with one finger on my left hand.

Yes, two weeks ago I was cutting through a steel pipe with an angle grinder when the tool caught an edge, banged against a wall and rebounded onto the back of my hand. Luckily, I was at home when it happened, which is a five minute walk away from the nearest hospital. Once there they ascertained that it was serious enough to be sent to the regional hospital, and I emerged two days later having had an operation to sew together a severed tendon and dig some fragmented disk out of the bone.

Although I've been using power tools for 25 years, this was my first experience of anything going wrong. It was a silly mistake that could have been avoided, and I've learned my lesson. I also got to learn a few things about the health system here, and got a free mini-break in a nice hospital with nice doctors and nurses. So, much humbled, I'm back home and recuperating.

Anyway, I'm pretty much handicapped for three months while it heals, which has torpedoed most of my work projects. At least I can catch up on a lot of reading - it could have been a lot worse.

***

In other news, I'm sad to report that heretical polymath and fellow peak oiler Liam Scheff passed away earlier today aged 45, having written this note. I wouldn't claim to have been a friend of Liam, having only become aware of his work six months ago, but I interacted with him quite a few times on social media and appreciated his rapier wit and sharp thinking. The tale of his demise is a sad one, but he bowed out lucid to the end and with true spirit. He was definitely one of the good guys - I've got his book Official Stories on order.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Not Sci-Fi but Pi-Fi



Right now, it seems like people's faith in the idea of endless progress is being shaken. Whether it's the UK leaving the EU, Donald Trump's ascension to the American presidential throne or simply a gnawing feeling that something 'big' has gone wrong somewhere, more and more people are expressing anxiety about the direction in which we are heading. If one wants to see proof of this phenomenon one need look no further than the mainstream media, traditionally the gatekeepers of human consciousness in terms of the day-to-day business of sorting out what is important from what is not. Even a brief glance at an online news site will show a slew of articles that are more biased opinion pieces than factual news items, and the reader comments below — if they are permitted at all — will more often than not display a remarkable level of hostility towards anyone who disagrees with them. Is it any wonder that trust in these mainstream publications has fallen to historic lows across a broad range of demographic groups, with only the over sixties still possessing much faith in them at all?

At the same time, faith in science and technology is facing a similar crisis. Casting an eye back over the last few decades, to give a couple of examples, it would seem that new inventions have been supplanted by mere innovations and 'upgrades', whilst actual space travel has been replaced by theoretical space travel (or low Earth orbit space stations). If one wants to see them there are plenty of artistic impressions of what faraway planets 'might' look like, presumably to make up for the occasional blurry pixel we are told is the actual, and the public at large is ambivalent at best about the latest discoveries made by particle physicists with research grants the size of small countries. Once again, is it any wonder why faith in science is being tested when there are so many things we were told were scientific proofs are now discredited, such as the idea that a low-fat diet makes you slimmer and that you must drink eight glasses of water and five (now increased to 10) portions of fruit and veg a day to maintain health? No, those men and women in white coats are having to fight harder and harder to win over an increasingly sceptical public.

Of course, this cannot be permitted. The reaction by the guardians of the media and the scientific technologists to this loss of faith by their subjects is to double down on their claims and amp up the rhetoric. Thus information that emerges from a non-mainstream conduit is decried as 'fake news' or 'propaganda' and science that emerges through a non-approved channel is debunked as 'pseudo science'. No quarter is given in this battle of consciousness, and no dissent is permitted.

And yet people do dissent. Finding themselves caught in an ever-tightening vice of economic policies which make them materially poorer with each passing year, and faced with an indifferent class of media-savvy personalities who insist that things are getting better all the time, they are wont to ponder whether, in the realm of hopes and dreams, they've been sold a dud. Most people, no matter where in the world they live, yearn for practically the same thing. They want peace and security, a decent low-crime area in which to raise a family where they might have a little place of their own with maybe a space to grow some food, and a few good friends with whom they can share a meal or a drink while feeling happy within their own cultural boundaries. That's basically it: a modest, happy life with peace and a degree of autonomy. Is this too much to ask?

Instead, what they get, is an increasingly degraded living situation where, if they live in a poor country, they either have to work long hours in a factory producing gadgets and other consumer items, or else they get a subsistence wage working in dangerous conditions mining minerals or producing chemically poisoned cash crops for the commodities market. And if they are fortunate enough to live in a rich country, the majority will have to work long hours in an office doing unfulfilling work to pay off the huge loans they have taken out to finance buying the gadgets made by the poor people. Here they are forced to dine in the staff canteen on chemically poisoned food from abroad while their bosses wax lyrical about replacing them all with robots made from the commodities mined by the even poorer people abroad.

Weren't we supposed to be living in Utopia by now?



And so people need some kind of new plausible vision. In the past, in the industrialised nations at least, we were offered salvation in the form of Sci-Fi fantasies about living in space and travelling around the universe meeting interesting new aliens. Now, unless the aliens come to us, these dreams appear unlikely. The dwindling of oil supplies, and the technical inability of renewables or anything else to replace it, means that the industrial basis of our civilisation has a very short shelf life. Indeed, due to the immutable and non-negotiable laws of thermodynamics, the party really will be over sooner rather than later. Mention this to most people of course and they'll airily dismiss it as an apocalyptic delusion, and that "they'll" think of something before then. But given that an ever growing groundswell of people are losing their faith in "them" — what's a narrative-driven sapient mammal with an above average sized brain to do?

That's where the PI-FI writers step forward. PI stands for Post Industrial and Fi for Fiction, because that's what is needed right now. So what's the difference between a sic-fic writer and a Pi-fi one? Well, instead of dreaming up yet another variation of the tired old trope of muscular space-heroes travelling around the galaxy in spaceships and saving virgins/peoples/planets from annihilation*, the PI-Fi writer recognises that the limits imposed on the human race by geology, thermodynamics and the biosphere mean that we're not looking to the stars for salvation, but under our own feet on the nice blue magic ball we call planet Earth.

PI-fi, it could be said, is a maturation of a form. Remember when you were a kid and you wanted to be a rock star? You played the music on volume 11 and stood in front of a mirror with a hairbrush and imagined thousands of adoring fans swooning, of lighting cigars with wads of money and seeing pictures of yourself in magazines (I know I did)? And then you get older and you realise it will never happen, and you learn to take life's tragedies and victories in your stride and you see on the news that another pop star has taken a drug overdose or died at a relatively young age and you think, "Thank God my teenage dreams never came true!" It's the same thing with fiction and all those ideas of conquering the universe and dominating other planets.

What does Pi-Fi look like? Thankfully we already have plenty of examples, probably the most well-known of which is James Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand series. John Michael Greer's After Oil: SF Visions of a Post Petroleum World burst onto the scene in late 2012, cementing the establishments of a new genre, and in the meantime we have had the launch of the quarterly magazine Into the Ruins, showcasing further talent. Another new magazine, Mythic, explores post industrial fiction, as well as more traditional Sci-Fi, and I'm sure there will be more as we move forwards and old narratives continue to disintegrate.

Obviously Pi-Fi has more constraints placed on it than Sci-Fi in terms of possible story lines — or so it would seem. But, wait a minute, doesn't true creativity flourish best when it is constrained by form and must follow agreed-upon conventions? Don't the boundaries of the field of play focus the attention of what's happening in the centre? A case in point: which piece of music sounds better to your ears, Bedřich Smetana's Vltava, with its sinuously flowing phonics that evoke a force of nature, or a piece of avant garde 'noise music' that adheres to no rules or form whatsoever? As ever, the choice between the two is subjective and depends on the listener, and admittedly the latter is evocative of a certain technological dysfunction in its experimental nature: it has its place in the auditory sound ecosystem, but which piece would you rather listen to on your deathbed?

What qualifies as Pi-Fi? At its heart, any narrative that is written with this genre in mind must be set in a post-industrial future. This is our most likely future, and therefore the one that the tool of fiction is the most powerful and useful. This raises the question, what does 'post-industrial' mean? After all, we are often told that we live in a post-industrial society, since most manufacturing moved to China. No, Pi-Fi is different. We are considering a future in which industrial civilisation is either ending or has ended. To that end the following assumptions would have to apply:

1 - Humankind's access to highly concentrated forms of energy will be severely curtailed in the near to medium term
2 - There will be a corresponding collapse in the complexity of civilisation and the population it can support
3 - The future will be haunted by the mistakes of the past, especially in the form of inappropriate technologies

Sound a bit gloomy, or merely realistic? It's been pointed out by others that we have a binary obsession with either/or visions of the future, namely that either we will head off on a grand space adventure in the stars, or else face apocalyptic annihilation at home. But there's a huge amount of ground between those two poles — ground that Pi-Fi is more than happy to occupy. Neither of the two extremes is particularly useful to us, except as a means of escapism, and what if neither of our standard assumptions takes place? What if — gulp — the human story continues for another few thousand years, with different types of technology, different ways of organising our societies and different ways of relating to our planet? True, those skeletal horsemen are certain to be busy — just as they have been throughout nearly all human history — but the folks sticking around will likely have a lot of good stories to tell about their experiences.

Can you imagine telling some of them?

If you think you could then you might be interested to hear that I'm moving forwards with a small publishing venture, with the aim of publishing a handful of Pi-Fi books every year. At present there is not much going on in this genre over on this side of the Atlantic (Europe, that is), or indeed the world outside of America — so I'm particularly interested in, but not limited to, stories taking place in the wider world. I'm going to kick this off with a call for submissions for an initial anthology of stories up to 8,000 words in length, but 2,000 at a minimum.

For this anthology, writers will need to follow these seven rules for their story:

1 - Stories must be set in the future at some point within the next 100 years

2 - The laws of physics as currently understand them must be abided by

3 - Due consideration must be given to the natural limits placed on humans, as well as the damage done to Earth's ecological systems by industrialism

4 - No deus-ex-machina technology that rescues industrial civilisation at the last moment

5 - Stories must be stories, with believable characters, plots, narrators etc., and not just thinly-disguised technical propositions, sociological commentaries or screeds

6 - Metaphysics is permitted and even encouraged as a story device so far as it relates to popularly understood concepts (metaphysics doesn't run on oil, so there's no danger of us running out)

7 - Stories must not simply be "horses and hearses" i.e. a re-hash of pre-industrial Europe, supposedly set in the future

I'm really hoping that readers will respond to this and rise to the challenge with vision, imagination and plausible realism. Unleash your mind and see what happens. I will be cross-posting this blog on a number of different social media pages, channels and groups, and the closing date for entries will be May 1st 2017 — Beltaine — which is seven weeks away. To enter, ideally publish your story on a blog site or other web page and post a link to it in the comments below this post — making sure there's a way of contacting you in the form of an email address somewhere — but if you can't do that then send it to me as an email at the address found in the 'About' section on my site. The stories must be original and they must be by you. I'll pick the winners shortly afterwards and they will share an equal proportion of 70% of the proceeds of the resultant book after the costs of production have been discounted (which is simply the price of designing a cover and printing a few review copies). The book, after I've edited, typeset and printed it, will then be available through print-on-demand and published by Belenos Press (I'm working on making a website so it's just a Facebook page at the moment) — and I'll send all the published authors a copy.

Best of luck for the challenge and I look forward to reading your stories.





* I do realise that not all Sci-Fi is so two-dimensional, although much of it has been in the past, and some of it still is — and I'm as much a fan of it as you are. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

M is for Madness in our Time

Image by Tavis Leaf Glover


Have you noticed how many people are losing their minds recently? Ever since people here in the UK democratically voted to leave the European Union and, more recently, voters in the USA decided they'd rather have a businessman as the president instead of a career politician, people have been, to put it politely, going batshit crazy. People who, before these votes took place, appeared to be well balanced and generally happy in life, might now spend their every waking moment hammering away on keyboards with the caps lock on, spitting out an endless slew of invective against people they don't  know. The slightest thing can trigger them off into an epic meltdown and one can only imagine their red rheumy eyes scanning their computer screens as they scroll continuously looking for another perceived slight that can be blown up into a full-on fight to the death.

If this were the Middle Ages these people would be called "possessed".

Here's an interesting thought experiment, imagine if we wound back the clock by a couple of years and approached these keyboard warriors with a simple question. If they were British we might ask them "On a scale of 1 - 10 how interested are you in the political and trading arrangements between the UK and the European Union?" Most people, I suspect, would reply that they were either rather uninterested or utterly uninterested. Many would just grunt and look puzzled and say "Eh?" They would then ask you what you thought of the latest series of Game of Thrones.

Now, these same people might say that the arrangements between the UK and the EU are practically the most important thing in the history of things. They might then claim they have always thought that way — that all those years when they ventured no comment on politics or economics or anything serious at all were merely an act — and that anyone who even dares to question the importance of such a thing is a closet fascist and an ignorant sub-human who deserves to be put out of his misery with a cricket bat.

The same goes for America. Ask a person in 2014 whether the country should be run efficiently and like a business and most people would probably agree that it sounds like a good idea. Roll forward to 2017 and there's a president who's a businessman who's trying to run the country like a business and half the population are claiming that he's a satanic Hitler who uses kitten heads as golf balls and lets Vladimir Putin urinate on him as he's wrapped in the American flag.

What's going on?

Clearly, social media and digital legacy media have played a part in the great insanitising of the West.  People have retreated inside their own echo chamber silos where the only views they get to hear accord 100% with their own views, meaning the moment they encounter someone with a slightly different viewpoint (which, to them, will also appear 100% logical and correct) they react as if they just opened their wardrobe to find a tentacled Chthonic abomination trying on their shoes as it lazily devours their firstborn child.*

But anyway, what is it exactly that is causing so many people to go crackers over what, to many of the people who read this kind of blog regard as of the lesser order of magnitude of the Bad Things That Can Happen scale? For a long time we've been saying that our civilisation depends on cheap and abundant energy, and that the supply of our most accessible form of that energy — oil — is faltering and that there's nothing out there to replace it, in any meaningful sense. And that as it falters we'll follow the time-honoured trajectory of civilisations in decline which will feature the more powerful actors attempting to secure energy and materials (as represented by monetary wealth), an inevitable kickback by the left-behind majority whose survival instinct will lead them to choose leaders and reject the ideology foisted upon them by the establishment, who will in turn then fight back etc. — in a rinse and repeat cycle that continues until a new equilibrium is established, albeit at much lower levels of available energy, materials and — yes — population.

We entered into this part of our dance of death some decades ago and it's testament to the power of politics and marketing that the illusion of things getting better (How? For whom? At what cost?) has persisted for so long. When this mass illusion began to fracture in the early part of the 21st century most people doubled down on the denial presented to them by the corporate media. We had somehow convinced ourselves that we were a 'special case' and that the normal rules of entropy and dissolution did not apply to us. Boy, was that a bad mistake, but surely someone must be to blame?

Have you ever heard of the term 'gaslighting'? I encountered it for the first time when I read Thomas Sheridan's book on psychopaths and mind control Puzzling People: The Labyrinth of the Psychopath  — but have heard it used increasingly ever since.

The 1940 British film Gaslight is about a married couple who move into a vacant house in a fashionably wealthy London square. An old woman had been murdered in the house some years before and the property had stood vacant ever since. At first everything seems normal and the couple are happy. But then something odd happens; the woman keeps mislaying things around the house and forgetting where they are, and the husband begins to accuse her of stealing them. He disappears for long periods of time to the top floor of the house—somewhere his wife never ventures—and every time he does so the lights in the house dim. His wife notes this but he dismisses it, implies that she is losing her marbles.

Gaslight — which you can watch for free on YouTube — is a classic illustration of a how a psychopath controls their unsuspecting victim. The person being controlled does not realise they are being manipulated in such a way as they see every 'failing' as a personal one and they will do anything to protect the person who has captured their mind and soul. This is the precise manner in which cults are able to convince people to commit suicide en masse, and anyone who manages to escape from the cult will be able to tell you how terrifying it is for someone to have such complete control over you without you even realising it. They will sink to any depth to defend against anyone who is attacking their beloved leader, to whom they have unconditionally surrendered their mental and emotional faculties.

Which begs the question: have millions of people in the West fallen victim to mind control and gaslighting? In my view the answer is almost certainly yes. Are they irrational and impervious to any argument that doesn't conform with the one they have drilled into their own head? Are they united against some kind of common enemy or demon who is so evil as to justify any form of protest or violence against them? Are they willing to lay down their lives for their dear leader — just like the members of the Heaven's Gate cult, whom Marshall Applewhite managed to convince to commit suicide in order to hitch a ride on a passing alien space craft? When Hillary Clinton released a video yesterday calling for 'resistance' to Donald Trump, the hive mind of social media immediately responded with the following image:



Generations of cultural and social programming has resulted in a mass of people who are mentally vulnerable and easily manipulated. Some of it has been deliberate and some of it may not have been. In Dmitry Orlov's recent book Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a grip on Technologies that Limit our Autonomy, Self Sufficiency and Freedom (New Society Publishers), he makes a convincing case for the existence of a "Technosphere", which is an emergent system that has evolved the characteristic of intelligence and now seeks to dominate the human mind and spirit. It takes human beings with rich histories and cultures, as well as great intrinsic worth, and processes them into almost homogenous units of consumption and production as a means of expanding its own power. People, willingly and unwillingly, submit to being fed into its gaping maw and one of the software programs this Technosphere machine runs on is neoliberal economic orthodoxy, as personified by Hillary Clinton or any other globalist politician.

The Irish writer and artist Thomas Sheridan, likewise, identifies the same phenomenon but from a different angle. Working on Wall Street he once handled a report for a large bank financing a dam being built in Central America. He asked a senior staff member what the miscellaneous costs item was at the bottom of a row of figures and was told off-handedly that this is the money put aside to pay the local mafia to murder all the people opposed to the project. That was an epiphanic moment for Sheridan and he went on to investigate how such seemingly evil machinations can be passed off as merely the cost of doing business, coining the term "Psychopathic Control Grid", which to all intents and purposes is the same as Orlov's Technosphere in that it assigns value to humans and nature only in as much as it can use them for its own ends. In this regard we have somehow created the ultimate death machine, and its modus operandi is neoliberal corporate capitalism.

For people to willingly submit to having their cultures assimilated, their economies ground into the dust, their sense of sexual identity made incoherent and to endure a lifetime of debt servitude in hock to a priestly class of bankers, academics and pseudo mystics (Zuckerberg, Bezos, Musk et al.) they must be offered something as recompense. And that something is no less than a vision of perfect enlightenment or Nirvana. The true believers, who usually identify themselves as atheists, are even willing to be sacrificed to the gods of progress — just look at how many applied for a one way ticket to Mars and the reasons they gave for willingly giving up their (usually young) lives. This Nirvana, of course, won't be attained by the faithful any time soon, but remains far off in a fuzzy Star Trek future i.e. after they are dead. In effect, 'progressive' neoliberalism is a death cult.

On the other end of what appears to many to be a spectrum, we have Donald Trump, Brexit, nationalism and conservatism all lumped uneasily together. For neoliberal progressives this can also appear cult-like. Who knows, perhaps there are people out there who worship Donald Trump as a living messiah and hang his tweets on their bedroom walls in gilt frames, and certainly there are those who maintain that concepts such as the "free market" (a mythic entity with no earthly presence) are worthy of unquestioning worshipful obedience — but in reality they are a different kettle of fish. Most people who chose to vote for Brexit or Donald Trump didn't do so on idealogical terms, they did so on down-to-earth practical ones. Unable to see the greater glory of a neoliberal progressive future they turned instead to look at their own run-down communities, their empty wallets and their ever-dimishing freedoms and they decided to vote against the assorted lawyer-politicos and unelected bureaucrats who they identified as the cause of their malaise.

So, if you got caught up in this and lost your mind, then I'm afraid to say you may have fallen at the first hurdle of our increasingly challenging future. If you spend hours of every day sitting on Facebook writing snarky passive-aggressive comments to your "friends" and trying to debunk them by posting links to your own favoured highly-manipulated information source, then you've been bitten just as bad. Claiming that anyone who doesn't agree with you is "Hitler" is not the way to regain your mental balance, and neither is calling anyone who doesn't agree with you a "Snowflake Pussy" from the other team. Bear in mind that, as Frank Zappa once said, politics is merely the entertainment arm of the military industrial complex, so try to concentrate on the things that are more immediately relevant to your life, such as your friends and family.

To that end, i you value your sanity and think it wiser to direct your energy towards making your little bit of the world a better place during your limited time here then it's probably best to steer clear of political death cults altogether, and instead take a more Stoical view of life. If you've got the time and inclination, take off for a hike alone in a region not too infested by the Technosphere. Pick somewhere you won't encounter many people (or, better still, any) and pack a copy of the meditations of Marcus Aurelius (as I did in the account of my Swedish forest journey The Path to Odin's Lake) and something by Carl Jung. To ensure you are out of the reach of the Psychopathic Control Grid, leave your phone at home and say 'Hi' to your shadow side as you contemplate your own inevitable demise and the demise of everyone and everything you hold dear — because plumbing the depths of your psyche builds perspective and makes you a more balanced individual. Spend time in nature, notice the animals and the trees and the way rain drips off leaves and how sun light is dappled on the ground, and then meditate on deep time and what it means to be a human being alive at this point in the turning of the Earth. If you do this you'll find it to be a useful first step in building up some protection against gaslighting and mind control and you'll feel a greater sense of autonomy and personal resilience. When you get back, if you've truly embraced the challenge you'll be quite unable to hate anyone on the basis of their ideology, cultural or religious identity or whatever — and that will be a useful mental state to be in as we continue on our hike down the far side of Hubbert's curve.

Of course, if this is too difficult and, like a moth circling a candle you simply must throw yourself into the flames, then by all means be my guest. You won't lack for company as you self-immolate and after you've been reborn you can visit a past life regression hypnotist who'll inform you that you died a martyr to some cause that will seem completely incomprehensible to the future you. But there will be more food and stuff to go round for the rest of us, so take your pick.

* [You will either have laughed at my flippant comments above or you will have stared at the screen shaking your head and closing the tab because you've no time for people who joke around when things are so serious. But please take note: gallows humour is another way of avoiding insanity.]

Monday, February 20, 2017

L is for Learning new Stuff



One of the benefits of knowing that the demise of the oil industry is at hand—and thus the modern way of life—is that it now makes sense to learn new skills. Under the standard educational model for most people in the industrial world, most learning takes place in the early years, perhaps stretching into early adulthood for a few. It is during this time, we are told, that the necessary skills are acquired to enable us to become obedient worker/consumers in the economy (or "upstanding citizens in society" in old money). For most people, any learning beyond this age tends to be merely a tweaking of what they already know. For example, they may already be able to operate a computer in an office environment, but they may need to be sent on a course to learn how to use the latest versions of a software package. This kind of learning is called training and one is expected to go through it in order to get a pay rise or avoid being sacked—at least until the day your job is handed to a computer algorithm or a robot.

Of course, this isn't real learning, it's merely learning how to tinker with an unstable and unsustainable system. On the other hand, many adults take it upon themselves to voluntarily expand their minds and pick up new skills. They attend night school classes and go on courses, learning a dizzying array of new subjects that could include anything from conversational French, stained glass window making or calligraphy, through to quilt making, taxidermy or astrophysics. Many more simply buy books and instructional DVDs and learn all about the foxtrot, Faberge egg painting or ritual magic that way—but usually the reason for learning this new information is motivated by a desire to practice a hobby in the leisure time outside of one's productive, money-earning life.

If you want to switch professions, say from being a teacher to a lawyer, you'll likely have to gain a professionally recognised qualification, awarded after a lengthy period of burning the midnight oil and at great personal expense. This is another kind of learning, often referred to as re-training, and although it might give you the ability to make more money in the short term it still likely does not address the problem of systemic instability in the longer term—you might be re-training for a job or profession that doesn't exist in five years.

Economic logic in our over-complex world currently dictates that it is very hard, if not impossible, to earn a living making useful things that can be made far more cheaply elsewhere due to mechanisation, cheap fossil fuels and globalisation. Only people in the continually-shrinking upper middle classes can afford to pay the real costs of production for items made by people who do not work under conditions of slave-labour. For example, I have a friend who is a highly skilled woodworker. He can take a piece of freshly-cut wood and transform it into a beautiful and practical object, such as a chair, a set of spoons and bowls, or a canoe paddle. The amount of work and attention to detail he puts into his creations is both impressive and admirable. But even he admits that he'd rather buy a cheap chair from Ikea than pay the full cost of one of his beautiful hand-made chairs — and he's realistic enough in his outlook that he doesn't blame others for doing so.

Yet this unfair-seeming scenario will not—cannot—last forever.

As the availability of high-density energy sources falters and dwindles, and the political technostructures that make globalisation possible grind to a juddering halt, the calculus of this setup will turn on its head. Many, if not most, of the items we currently take for granted will become very expensive. In other cases they will simply become unavailable at any price. When this happens, the laws of supply and demand will assert themselves and anyone able to provide necessary products and services will find themselves in an enviable position.

Learning new skills and how to make things, however, takes time. There's an assumption these days that anything can be learned quickly and easily, and that once one has learned it one can instantly become a teacher of it. The wife of my chair-making friend—who herself makes baskets, lamps and even coffins from willow—told me last week that she has fielded several separate phone calls in the last two weeks from people wanting to learn how to do exactly what she does. All of them, she said, wanted to quit their careers immediately and move down here to west Cornwall—which for many people is really the back of beyond—and instantly become basket weaving teachers, despite their never having touched a piece of fresh willow in their lives. When gently prodded as to why they felt so moved they each gave some answer that indicated Donald Trump or Brexit as the cause of their unease. An impending sense of Armageddon seemed to be the driver behind their sudden desire to learn how to make picnic baskets.

My friend patiently explained to them that it took her many years of practice to get where she is today. There were the years of experimenting with different designs, and of growing different species of willow, discerning which ones were appropriate for the local climate and soils. Aside from the ongoing learning of the skill of basket-making there were the years of plodding around the region's craft fairs—leaving home at 4:30am in order to get there in time to set up her stall, only to come home late in the day having hardly made the petrol money. There were the years of research into these lost skills (including hunting down old retired fishermen in their 80's and 90's, and learning how they once sat on the harbour walls weaving the extremely specialised lobster and crab pots before the era of mass industrial production) and the years of building up the strength in her hands and fingers. And then there were the numerous setbacks, such as rabbits destroying her willow crop, and all the other various slings and arrows that life chucks at you. Only, she then says, only after a decade and a half of dedication has she been finally able to call herself an artisan who is able to make a modest living from her craft—and she still refuses to call herself a master (you can see what she makes and judge for yourself).

But the people who contacted her were not interested in all of this—they wanted to learn how to make baskets next week and be teaching it the week after.

The point I'm trying to make here is that learning useful skills takes TIME. And the moment one begins to learn something new one begins to realise that there's a lot more to it than you previously thought. Growing food, for example, is another skill that many people assume you can just pick up more or less overnight. It's true that you might be able to quickly grow some food without any prior experience, but growing enough for a balanced diet that will keep you and your family alive is a whole different ball game: man cannot live by beans and potatoes alone.

From a personal perspective, since I first encountered the seriousness of our predicament some six or seven years ago, once I had worked through all the Kübler-Ross stages of grief "No, it can't be happening!", "I'll be alright if I just pack a bug-out bag and buy some gold," etc.) I have picked up quite a few new skills and been led down many an interesting intellectual avenue.  Having gone from a situation of relative complacency with a comfortable, if unfulfilling, office job, I have now learned the value of what it means to be a producer of things rather than just a consumer of them. Among the things that I can now produce are charcoal, wood products, fruit, biochar, natural soap, wine, cider, herbs and vegetables, and books. I'm working on producing many more things, including mushrooms, coppice products (fences, hurdles etc), herbal beers and honey. I've planted a forest garden, I've learned permaculture and coppice woodland management, I can strip a chainsaw down and I can field dress a squirrel. All of these things take skills that I have learned, to some degree.

Am I an expert at making and doing these things? NO! (I might be able to make some charcoal in an oil drum but I'll never be like the Japanese masters who had 2,000 different grades of charcoal, which apprentices had to learn to recognise merely by sniffing the smoke it gave off during production.) Could I live self-sufficiently using these skills? Don't make me laugh! In fact, I consider myself a rank amateur in terms of my practical skills, although to an outsider it might superficially appear that I know what I'm doing. This, I have learned, is the case for many people who nevertheless pass themselves off as experts (I recently heard of a young newly-qualified permaculture teacher who had never seen a carrot grow and was unsure how to get it out of the ground - and he was 'teaching' a group of middle aged people who had been expert gardeners since before he was born).

That's where the community aspect comes into play. Nobody can know everything. I would go further and say that hardly anyone can even know a lot of things. There are very few people in the world who  can do everything from rebuild a car engine, solder electronic circuit boards, grow (and know how to use) their own medicine, and defend themselves in a court of law. For the most part it is far better to specialise and organise into small, manageable groups. The ideal size for an autonomous group of differently skilled individuals is around 150 people (see Rob O'Grady's book, 150 Strong). This was the size of group I chose to use as an example of 'good practice' in my fictional novel Seat of Mars. In my story the 'clan leader' Art Gwavas, takes over a farm and only allows people with a variety of useful skills to live there. In this way they manage to make life a lot more bearable than it is for the hapless individuals hit by the same national calamity.

People learn in different ways. Many are autodidactic to some extent (can teach themselves), but many also prefer to be taught as part of a class. Some things have to be taught one-on-one. A good method for learning that I have heard works well is to be part of a skills swapping group. The concept is simple; you meet up once a week or month and someone teaches their particular skill to the rest. The next meeting it is someone else's turn. The ones I have heard about tend to involve skills such as sewing, soap making, fermenting and household item repair—but it could be anything really. What I have found with learning is that you should only try and learn things in which you have a natural interest. If you're unsure whether it is for you, you can always dip you toe in and give it a go to see if it appeals to you. I have something of a butterfly nature and tend to flit from one thing to next, so there have been many things I have thought would be interesting to me but turned out not to be. I've been learning my whole life and I plan to only stop learning new things when I'm dead.

It's scientifically proven that learning new things keeps your brain ticking over as you get older. My grandfather decided to learn Italian as an old man. Having never been outside of England in his life, he simply got on a ferry and a train and lived in Rome for a while. His method of learning was to sit on public benches and strike up a conversation with similarly-aged Italian men. They no doubt chatted about the war and the how things had been. When he was happy he could speak Italian he returned home.

So if you decide to learn a new skill for the future, make sure it's something that will likely survive the future. Learning how to race cars is probably not such a good skill for the future (nor is anything that would involve wasting fossil fuels). Also check out the competition. For example, when I lived in Denmark I taught myself how to make natural cold-pressed soaps. Everyone was amazed that I could do this ("What, you mean you actually make it? With your own hands?") and was happy to part with a tidy sum of money for a simple bar of soap. Then I moved to Britain and soap-makers are two-a-penny, and so my soap-making venture no longer makes sense*.

The main thing it's important to consider is the lead time involved in acquiring new skills. The best time to start learning them, ideally, is ten years ago. The second best time is today.


* Oh, and don't become a yoga teacher either. The world is already full of yoga teachers and doesn't need any more.