Sunday, April 29, 2012

Methane and nettle soup

Nettles: good you you, and free

There has been so much to think about in the past week that I have to admit my head is spinning and it is difficult to organise my thoughts in a constructive way. Taking up most of my contemplative moments has been the news that large areas of the Arctic have begun to bubble with methane gas, quite possibly meaning that it is game over for any attempt at trying to prevent runaway climate change.

Whilst I saw the story a couple of weeks ago, it wasn't really until I read this week's Archdruid Report that the penny really dropped. A bit more probing on the subject reveals something that is almost too scary to contemplate: a fast collapse of the Greenland ice shelf. Far from this being a slow process taking decades there is evidence to suggest that this has happened several times in the past, and in so doing it would raise the world's sea levels by several  metres.

As if that prospect were not terrifying enough, Mr Greer also posits that ice shelves breaking off into the northern Atlantic would likely unleash tsunamis so large that millions of people would be wiped out in an instant. Now, there are few people, if any, in whom I would put more trust in their penetrative analysis of various topics than Mr Greer - and it is somewhat ironic that he is an 'End of the World of the Week' with every post poking fun at former doom-sayers who have been proven wrong. So when he states calmly: 

'All that’s certain at this point is that something potentially very troubling is happening in Arctic waters, and the possibility that it might have destructive consequences on a local, regional, or continental scale can’t be ruled out. Panic is the least useful response I can think of, so I’ll say this very quietly: if the news from Arctic waters in the months and years to come suggests that things are moving in the wrong direction, and those of my readers who live close to the shores of the northern Atlantic basin happen to have the opportunity to move inland or to higher ground, it might not be unreasonable to do so.'

then, as someone typing this blog next to shoreline not too far from Greenland and only a metre or so above sea level, I sit up and take notice.


Staying with John Michael Greer, I have (finally, after numerous delays) taken delivery of his latest book 'Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth'. and am much engrossed in it at present. The book is an attempt to draw on the so-called mystery teachings that have run through human cultures for aeons as a means of addressing our twin environmental and spiritual crises - and this person who was raised as a scientific-materialist atheist is highly absorbed by it.

I'll do a full writeup on it later in the week but for now, in the spirit of using the resources around us which are provided by nature, I'll post my nettle soup recipe, which I wrote a while back when I was doing a series of articles on sustainable food. Apologies if you live in the southern hemisphere or somewhere tropical, but right now there are some lovely nettles springing around where I live. Please note that it was written for a Scandinavia based audience, but I have tried to translate or explain the bits that might prove mystifying. Hope you enjoy it.


Nettle Soup

Scandinavia, like practically everywhere else, has a rich heritage when it comes to food. However, certainly in Denmark, much of that heritage has been lost over the last century in the rush to produce factory farmed and standardised food.

Søren Kirkegaard, on the first page of his great work on existentialism Either/Or, wrote “I would rather be a swineherd out on Amager and be understood by the swine than be a poet and be misunderstood by the people.”

From that statement we can tell that a) Søren was struggling to find a publisher who would respect his artistic integrity and b) there were a lot of pigs in Denmark even in the 1840s.

But even the great philosopher could not have foreseen that a hundred and fifty years later there would be five pigs for every human in Denmark, and that much of the culinary variety had been swept away on a tsunami of hot dogs, meatballs, sliced ham, bacon, pate and anything else you can turn a pig into with a bit of machinery.

I’m writing this recipe from my kitchen, in a block of flats on Amager (an island that makes up part of Copenhagen - much of it is reclaimed from the sea), which was no doubt built on a piece of land used by the swineherds Søren considered joining the ranks of if nobody read his book. Nowadays one hears so much about Nordic food and its supposed health-giving properties. However, if one discounts rye bread, one does not actually see the average person eating the kind of thing served up at the ‘world’s best restaurant’. Why is that?

Incidentally a friend of mine went there and was served up with some soil in a glass, which he ate and proclaimed ‘not bad’. I won’t be ‘dishing up the dirt’ or recommending that you eat living Greenlandic prawns from cocktail glasses but will instead stick to what most of us regard as actual food that you would like to eat.

All the things you will see here are seasonal, and cheap (or even free), so it’s best not to hang around too long if you want to try them yourselves. Also, wherever possible, the ingredients will be locally available AND actually available in Danish shops. So, without further ado, let’s get onto my first recipe.

Nettles grow in abundance in Denmark and are actually very good for you if you cook them. Think of them as free spinach. I admit I was sceptical at first but after I tried this recipe I was converted. I tried it out on the rest of the family too and the conclusion was that it tasted very much like watercress soup, but a little tangier.

First of all you’ll need a bag and at least one rubber glove. Go out and pick some nettles from somewhere relatively unpolluted i.e. not next to a busy road. Just pick the top few leaves, say four, leaving any that are in flower. The tips of young nettles are the most tender and contain the most nutrients.

Here’s what you need for the soup:

250g nettles

1 medium onion

1.5 litres vegetable stock (from a cube is fine)

1 tbsp. rape seed oil (aka canola)

½ tsp. sea salt

2 pieces of rye bread for croutons

Take a large heavy saucepan, get it really hot and sauté the chopped onion in the oil for 2-3 minutes without allowing it to burn. If you only have thin pans, just make sure you stir the onion a bit more vigorously so it doesn’t stick.

Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. You can add a pinch of nutmeg for extra taste at this stage, but I don’t think it needs it. When it is boiling add the nettles and stir them in. Leave to simmer for 20 minutes. This gets rid of any stinging properties and breaks down the cell walls within the plant.

In the meantime make the croutons. Some recipe books go to great lengths to do this with an oven but there is a very simple way to do it. Take the rye bread and put it in the toaster. When it pops up, put it in again – the thick bread needs a heavy toasting. Allow it to cool for a couple of minutes in the toaster before chopping it into little squares with a sharp knife. Simple. If you don’t have a toaster (come on, who doesn’t have a toaster?) just chop the rye bread up and ‘stir fry’ it in a dry frying pan until all the moisture has left the bread.

Now you’re ready to process it into soup. To do this use a hand blender (stick blender, say the Americans), or if you don’t have one of them, a normal blender (much messier).

Season the soup with the salt and, if you like, a bit of pepper, and serve in pre-heated bowls. Add the croutons. For an extra flourish swirl a little piskefløde (whipping cream) into the centre.

It’s optional to pretend that you’ve been stung after taking the first sip.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The circle of life

The coming of Spring reminds us that life is ongoing

I have just returned from a week in England on family business, which is why I'm a bit late posting this week. For anyone who wants to know how their native country is doing I'd recommend moving somewhere totally foreign and only returning once a year or less – it's a great way to get a snapshot of how things are going and enables you to see in relief some of the things that would be too incremental to otherwise notice.

A couple of posts back I put forth the opinion that the mass of rocks covered in fertile soils in the north Atlantic known as the British Isles might be one of the better places to live in the post industrial future. My post was republished on another website far more popular than this one, inviting all sorts of comments to the effect that I must be nuts to suggest such a thing and that the only safe course of action was to buy a cache of guns and move to South America/Canada/New Zealand (delete as applicable). The implicit assumption was that the stiff upper lip which we Brits supposedly possess will undoubtedly suffer a catastrophic and uncontrolled enflaccidation and the resulting blood-curdling yell we collectively emit as we unleash fifty years of post imperial angst will be audible on the Moon. Indeed, it won't just be yelling; there will be ethnic cleansing, famine and cannibalism as the zombie like hordes consume each other in an apocalyptic bloodbath befitting a 50s B-Movie.

All this seems very strange because this isn't how I envisage things panning out at all. I admit that it isn't all going to be a bed of roses, and whatever nuclear mistakes we make right now to provide cheap electricity at the expense of future generations will make life largely impossible in some areas. What I was merely suggesting was that right now there is a large enough minority with common sense to make an actual difference as things steadily tighten over the coming years. All of the enduring qualities of the everyday British folk are still present. Amongst them I would include modesty, common sense, charity, self-effacement, stoicism and wit. Of course, there are also plenty who display not a single one of these qualities, but there isn't a place on Earth where these people don't exist.

Yet as anyone who has had the unpleasant but potentially life-saving experience of becoming peak energy aware knows, as soon as you start seeing things in certain ways it becomes impossible to unsee them again. That's why, wherever I go, I tend to take make notes of 'good points' and 'bad points' when it comes to our pressing energy and societal predicaments. Here are my somewhat glib and off-the-cuff mental rough notes from my last week spent in one small corner of England:

Good points:

  • Many more houses fitted with solar panels. Not sure how many, but maybe 1 in 50
  • Farmers markets all over the place
  • Bookshops (yes there are still quite a few) full of books on self sufficiency – in fact it seems to have entered the mainstream. I bought a book of 700 ancient recipes and another one about keeping chickens. I considered buying another about bee keeping but the lady behind the till told me it 'wasn't very good'
  • The Olympic preparations are in full swing and every available advertising surface is trumpeting them – but here's the good bit – nobody seems to give a damn
  • There are now more different beers brewed by local breweries than it would be possible to drink in a lifetime
  • Foraging for wild food seems to be the national pastime now

Bad points:

  • Nearly everyone seems to have a smart phone and is glued to it constantly
  • Huge cars have yet to go out of fashion and the roads are jammed with wobbly-chinned women sitting behind the wheels of giant road-eating SUVs, staring impassively at their GPS traffic-jam-avoidance display units and listening to celebrity drivel on commercial radio channels
  • Supermarkets still maintain their Faustian grip on the nation's soul
  • Thousands of fields are planted up with rape (canola). It might look pretty and yellow but at the end of the day it's just an industrial cash crop used for biodiesel and just contributes to further ruining the soils
  • The national waistline shows no sign of stopping its relentless expansion

My daughter and I visited a farm when we were there. It was beautifully situated high up on the South Downs – an ancient landscape and one of the last areas to submit to the tide of Christianity (and holding onto its Wyrd animist religions long past other places in the British Isles). It is lambing season and my six-year-old daughter and I watched as one was born in a lambing shed. There was something remarkable about witnessing the birth of a struggling tiny creature and the quiet dignity of the ewe as she endured the labour. No less impressive was the devotion and care of the young shepherds who confessed that they had had no more than a few hours of undisturbed sleep for the past week.

It was great to visit a working farm and see the pride with which it was held by the farmer and his family. Equally as interesting to me was wandering around the land and unearthing various pieces of farm machinery from the days before efficiency drives rendered them obsolete – but which the farmer was loath to get rid of, possibly because of some nagging fear that they might one day be put into service again. Real farmers don't take anything for granted. I found a hand cranked butter churn, a corn thresher and something called an oil cake breaker (below left) which I have no idea of. 

I even found this old telephone box, which I'd probably volunteer to re-erect in a post mobile phone future.

From the vantage point of this family run farm high up on the Downs we were able to see for many miles right down to the English Channel, which glistened silver in the mid-afternoon sun. There we could just make out before the shoreline the spire of Chichester Cathedral, which rose like a tiny spike in the vast rolling landscape which seemed otherwise devoid of all human life.

But visiting a farm wasn't the real reason we were in England. Down below I knew, near the cathedral in the dull blur of grey which represented the furniture of humanity, my father lay in a hospital bed, having by now entered the last stage of his life. I had visited him some hours before with my sister and we had given him a photographic book of 1950s American cars. In his prime, at more or less the age I am now, he had lived in Canada and the US and owned at different times several Buicks and Plymouths and other huge gas-chugging automobiles fitted out with leather interiors, white wall tyres and chrome trimmings. Now, enfeebled and fogged by dementia and the drugs that the doctors keep pumping into him in an effort to prolong his life, it was all he could do to run his finger over the pictures and mutter unintelligibly, enchanted for an instant by the memories of all those years ago. His eyes became misty as he gazed at those defunct cars, driven by smart-looking carefree young men with neat hairdos and neat girls in the passenger seats. He was once one of those young men with my mother, herself long since gone, riding beside him.

We looked at the book together for some minutes, him holding it in his trembling hands, and the nurse sat nearby in case of any incident, making cheery noises about his progress and coming up with practical suggestions for how we could enliven his mind. But soon it was time to go and my father shuffled off clutching a trolley handle and supported by the nurse on one side. He said goodbye to me, but I'm not certain he knew who I was.

Now, as I looked at the verdant landscape around me, the newborn lambs and duckling and chicks, and indeed at my own young daughter, it seemed imperative not to be weighed down with heavy thoughts of decay and doom – thoughts that are so prevalent today. Life is a continuous circle, a never ending loop. We are born, we live, we fade and then we die. It is as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun, but it doesn't stop life being worth living. Yes, we may be at the end of the industrial age, but life will go on. Those shiny cars that my father experienced the good fortune to enjoy for a while won't be coming back, and indeed the memory of the things we take for granted today will fade until they too will be nothing but causes for reminiscing by old-timers. And then even the memories will be extinguished like a waning and flickering candle in the night, only to be replaced by new things that people value - who knows, they might even be less destructive things. We can only hope.

It's not an ending. It's just a new beginning that we can but barely imagine.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Resource availability: a view from the bottom

Finding inventive new ways to use today's consumer throwaways can be as challenging as it is rewarding.
Photo from

This week I have been thinking about big ocean-going ships. Yes, it's 100 years to the day since the Titanic experienced a black swan moment and had an unexpected early decommissioning after an encounter with an iceberg. As everyone knows, right up to the moment before it happened people said it was unsinkable, and the band famously continued playing even as she went down. But the Titanic wasn't the particular ship I was thinking about, instead my interest had been piqued by comments made by an analyst at (an organistaion which values VLCCs or Very Large Crude Carriers i.e. supertankers). The analyst, whose name appropriately enough is Adrian Ekonomakis, told the Daily Telegraph that falling levels of sea borne world trade combined with rising steel prices is drastically reducing the working lifespan of the average container ship.

Not to put too fine a point on it; container ships are worth little more than their scrap value.

China and other booming economies are hoovering up the world's metals and, in the economic scenario we are currently in – in which a considerable portion of the world's cargo vessels are moored in a kind of nautical graveyard off the coast of Singapore as these amazing pictures show – the laws of supply and demand are just doing their thing. Ships which would once have been expected to ply the world's trade routes for a quarter of a century or more are now only expected to last for only 15 years. Since those pictures of the ghost fleet were taken in 2009 the average amount a VLCC is worth in scrap has climbed from USD 12 million to around USD 20 million.

Is this what the move to salvage industrialism looks like? It's hard to think otherwise. The declining ability of the supply of scarce commodities to meet demand is resulting in the economic system to embark on a process of self-cannibalisation. In most instances, such as the sale of vehicles for scrap, the process is legitimate, but the most dynamic element of the economy, i.e. criminality, is leveraging these new high commodity prices against the cost of guarding them against theft. The result is soaring levels of metal theft. In the UK alone metal theft is the fastest growing crime, costing the economy an estimated £770 million in 2011, and what's more, it is a crime that affects everyone.

Copper, long valued for its conductivity and pliability, is being stripped out of rail signalling junctions, with obvious safety ramifications, while lead is being pilfered from church roofs across the country, leading to water damage and a huge clean up bill. Metal sculptures are being stolen at an increasing rate, and thieves who have been caught have admitted to using Google Earth to case out possible joints. Even the dead can't escape the scourge of metal thefts, with copper plates on tomb stones becoming the latest target for unscrupulous thieves.

As I sit here writing this at the kitchen table I can glance up and see huge cargo ships floating serenely across a small patch of the Baltic framed by a taxi rank headquarters and a kindergarten. I live on the edge of the narrow strait between Denmark and Sweden called the Øresund (i.e. 'ear sound' so called because sound made on one side can supposedly be heard on the other). It's a pretty busy trade route with dozens of container vessels moving through it each day bringing trade to and from Russia and the East. As I sit here and watch them it's entirely imaginable that those great floating hulks will one day have been melted down and turned into the skeletal supports for some Chinese skyscraper or other. It's a further leap of imagination to imagine then that the vast amount of steel used in skyscrapers, will one day be subjected to the same sort of fate and recycled into some more eminently usable form, such as pots and pans or bicyle frames.

As a card-carrying non-cornucopian I can only agree with those who suggest we may be entering the salvage stage of industrialism. It appears unlikely, to say the least, that materials scientists will simply conjure up some new kind of material that can replace metals overnight - as neoclassical economic theory says they should. But neither will a move to a salvage economy be a nice straight linear progression from abundance to scarcity – some regions will proceed at a greater pace than others – although the overall trend over the coming decades will be one which leads to a point where recycling won't just be something for those keen to show their green credentials. Instead it will become a matter of survival as resource accessibility becomes ever more difficult.

I have come to think recently that individual nations' future ability to access useful stuff, such as metals, is being decided at this present moment. Generally speaking, the more 'junk' left lying around for future remodelling, the better. At present, most of our useful junk ends up in China – after all they have to fill those empty container ships with something after they have disgorged their loads of cheap sportswear, flat-screen TVs and iGadgets on our shores. Perhaps it is a kind of sly revenge for the opium wars but China seems to have us in the West stitched up good and proper right now. Not only do they feed our addiction for cheap consumer goods (some of them made using factories they purchased lock stock and barrel from the US and shipped over to China), but they also are getting us into ever deeper debt bondage to them and, just to rub it in, taking back the useful materials after we have 'consumed' them.

Denmark, where I live at the moment, has an aversion to mess and clutter. People's houses are minimalist, with every wall painted white, and the countryside is green and pleasant and, some would say, sterile. This attitude is applied to waste as well, with virtually everything combustible being incinerated and the metals being shipped off somewhere out of sight. I have written before about my morbid distaste for the amount of discarded stuff here in Europe's most wasteful country (it was what inspired me to start this blog) although I have done quite well out of it personally as my entire flat is furnished with thrown away furniture and other 'trash' (although if you came here you'd probably think it was all new and from Ikea – and you'd be right!) My particular stand out horror moment was watching municipal workers feed several hundred perfectly good bicycles into a crusher last year – the bikes had been rounded up and condemned for being 'untidy'.

This is all in stark contrast to Spain, where I used to live. There, people have the opposite attititude to items which have passed their usefulness stage. One of the things I enjoyed about living there in fact was visiting desguaces - or scrap yards – in which thousands of smashed up cars are piled up on top of one another, sometimes in quite an alarming manner. Here's you could find pretty much anything you were looking for if you needed to replace a part on your own car, and sometimes you were even allowed to remove it yourself. This was not for the faint-hearted however given that most of the cars had suffered head on collisions – and Spaniards' love of speed and overtaking on blind bends ensured that there was always a steady supply of new wrecks to pick over.

My final year living in Spain saw me living in a farm house in somewhat reduced circumstances. I worked as a labourer on a building site to earn cash, but that was at the start of the great recesssion in 2008 and building work was becoming more and more patchy. It was then that together with a few builder friends we decided to become salvage workers ourselves (or 'scavengers' to others). We drove down to the coastal city of Motril and cruised the industrial estates in a van, looking for likely materials. We weren't disappointed. Pretty soon we had dozens of pallets, sawn off pieces of construction metal and various other bits and pieces which were destined for land fill. One of my friends even salvaged a goat which was wandering around a factory carpark looking lost.

We then drove out to some of the vast construction projects which were very much in full swing back then but for which Spain is now paying the price. Road straightening programmes, in which dozens of new bridges were constructed across narrow valleys to make previously windy roads straighter and therefore more amenable to the large trucks which thundered nothwards with their loads of salad items destined for northern European supermarkets, were veritable treasure troves of materials. The workers on these projects tended to dispose of all the building detritus by simply flinging it down into the valleys. At each site we could thus scavenge large amounts of high quality construction steel, decent lengths of wood and other sundry materials. With some of this stuff we built a large chicken run, paying only for the chicken mesh. My friend made a round dining table out of a wooden cable drum, sanding the wood to a lovely finish and applying various oils (notably linseed) and polishing it to the point where it looked like a piece of designer furniture.

Combined with large rocks dragged out of river beds, dead olive tree wood (which was everywhere) and only a small amount of cement and plaster, we found we could construct almost everything. Necessity really does become the mother of invention and, after I had left Spain to take a job in Denmark, my friends carried on living at the farm house and building things out of stuff that was simply lying around and therefore free. 

So the lesson I took away from that episode was that, on an individual level, moving into a salvage situation can be a creative, engaging and ultimately liberating experience. Given the astonishing amount of waste that is produced these days, anyone who can refashion or remodel old items into something useful and new will be at a distict advantage. The possibilities are practically endless and I once stayed in a village in Laos where the people had put to great use the bomb casings which had been so liberally sprinkled over them during the Vietnam War. Some had been used in the construction of buildings, others had been cut in half lengthways and used as water troughs for cattle and yet more had been painted in bright colours and were being used as flower pots.

Luckily, we don't have to use bomb casings, and to end on a positive note for a change I'd like to direct everyone to this site (sorry, it's only on Facebook) which shows you how we can take today's junk and refashion it into inspiring and useful items. A few of my favourites are below.

Looking for a use for the old Barbie play house? Chickens aren't too fussy about where they roost.

A nice idea for what to do with that old mountain bike and the even older mover you found in Grandpa's shed 

Old pallets magically transformed into bookshelves

A great use for an old gas cylinder. You should probably check it is actually empty before digging into it with the angle grinder ...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Looking for a place to crash

No place like home. Is England a good place in which to plan a post industrial future?
Photo from

People keep asking me where they think the best place would be to hold out when the post industrial age gets into full swing. I've said before that I think Britain is as good a place as any, with some large provisos. There are a number of reasons I think this to be so, which I'll go through nearer the bottom Here's a sample from an email a reader in Japan sent me:

“I'm trying to cobble together reasons for cautious optimism, or, at least, avoiding outright despair, since, among other things, I have two small children. I'm wondering if there is still time for some sort of managed transition or if a managed transition will occur in some places, while outright and rapid collapse occurs in others. And, thus, like all of us in the peak-oil-aware community, I spend a fair bit of time trying to figure out places where a gradual descent is more likely than outright collapse.”

What people are really saying, of course, is that they're scared. And with good reason. Taking a look at human history through an ecological perspective one cannot help but conclude that we have so vastly overshot our resource base – and are in fact consuming energy that was harvested for us millions of years ago – that we are like those cartoon characters that go off a cliff and hang there momentarily in the air before realising their situation just before gravity kicks in.

What happens when gravity re-establishes itself and the finite ecosystem on which we have evolved to live within – i.e. Earth – refuses to yield more energy treasures, is not going to be pretty. The first signs of this are already upon us in the form of financial tremors, shaking the foundations of the mostly abstract world of finance. But far more traumatic than any financial storm (although those can wreak a fair bit of havoc) will be the sense of drowning we start to experience as our artificially built human world is dragged beneath the waves by the concrete wellies of EROEI.

It's at this point, when it no longer makes sense to extract or 'produce' new energy because it would cost more energy than you would get back to do so, that things are going to get serious. Demand might still be rocketing for certain things like oil, coal, steel, concrete etc, but the straitjacket of supply will ensure that the price rockets to such an extent that only the very richest individuals, companies and nations will be able to afford them. We'll all feel the pinch, to put it mildly.

But of course nowhere is 'best' to try and weather such a cataclysm – the whole point of recognising the knock on effects of severely curtailed access to cheap and abundant energy is that there will be no 'one size fits all'. Thus, for me, Britain – or more specifically England – would work best – that is where I am from, after all. For a Mongolian herdsman, Mongolia would probably work best. It's wherever you feel most comfortable and would be able to build a good network of reliable friends and acquaintances that is the best.

Saying that, even without the aid of a crystal ball, some areas are clearly going to do worse than others. Only the most ecologically myopic would choose to move to an area in which human existence is strictly dependent upon the ability to pump water or grow crops using cheap energy. Las Vegas springs to mind. As does much of Saharan Africa. But let's not forget that the vast majority of humankind has no choice over where they live and it is only a few privileged people from the currently wealthy nations that have such a luxury. The chance to figure out a good place to be and to move there and get on with the hard business of fitting in and making a safe living is a great privilege open to only a few. If you're one of them, appreciate it.

But the huge windfall of almost free energy over the last century or so has made us energy illiterate. Energy, many people assume, comes out of wall sockets. If there's a blackout then energy companies and politicians are to blame. Cheap energy is our universal right, we are led to believe, and most people have no idea how fragile the state of affairs is.

Furthermore, as our societies industrialised and we left the land our ecological literacy has similarly diminished. I got a sharp lesson in this when we moved to Spain and lived on a hillside farm for three years. If it didn't snow heavily at the top of the mountain during the winter, we had no water in the summer and the trees died. It's a simple enough concept, but it didn't concern many of the foreigners moving to the area. Neighbours with more cash than us paid for tankers of water to be driven up the hill to their properties once a week to fill up their swimming pools at great expense. In the future this kind of extravagance will not just be frowned upon, it will be impossible.

But there is another fear factor at play. Aside from knowing where to live, people, myself included, want to know how long they've got before the music stops. I like using the analogy of stopping music because that's how I envisage our long descent. As I see it it will be like one of those children's birthday parties where all the kids are playing a game of stop-dance. The music is playing and all the kids are dancing merrily, flinging their arms out in joy and throwing shapes; a parent (her finger hovering over the 'pause' button on the CD player like some mischievous Greek goddess) decides when the music stops, whereupon all the kids have to stand as still as possible. The first one to move will be out, and then the music starts up again, albeit with less participants.

I'm not saying the jagged descent from Hubbert's peak will be anything like as much fun as playing stop dance (and there will be no jelly and ice cream at the end), but I am definitely of the 'long slow collapse' camp rather than the sudden abrupt end. There's a lot of space between a Promethean future living on spaceships among the stars on one hand and a sudden violent apocalypse on the other. Let's call that middle ground 'reality,' for want of a better word.

What we'll likely see then is periods of crisis, that could last anything from a couple of years to a generation, followed by extended periods of calm – but, crucially, at a lower tempo and with fewer players. This is the way in which civilizations decomplexify themselves and our industrial civilization won't be markedly different. In the end, after probably 200 years or so, 99% of fossil fuels will be a distant memory and our descendants, when they are not cursing us for destabilizing the climate and wiping out many of the planet's life support systems, will at least be thankful that we managed to extract so much metal and leave it lying around for remodelling into simpler forms of technology.

In the meantime, for most of us we will feel like Winnie the Pooh in the opening lines of A.A.Milne's classic story:

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”

Each of the bumps will be a nasty shock but it won't finish us off. They'll likely take the form of bouts of hyperinflation, regional resource conflicts, a local nuclear meltdown or small nuclear war, a total national collapse of fish or pollinating insects, a famine or two.

Bump, bump, bump.

Each time it will be painful and protracted but eventually we will sort ourselves out again and either adapt to a different area or change our ways until we find ourselves at the bottom of the stairs, on level ground, which we may as well call a steady state economy in balance with nature.

This final stage (well, nothing is final …) is what John Michael Greer calls the Ecotechnic future – a future of far less technological complexity where we have in all likelihood returned to the kind of spiritual practices that resemble more closely those of the Kalahari Bushmen than the Vatican.

Which is a long winded way of getting to say why I think Britain would, for me and my family at least, be the right place to strap ourselves in for the roller coaster ride of a lifetime. First of all, as I see it, there are two major down sides when discussing Britain as a 'safe' place to be. The first elephant in the room is population. With around 60 million people it means that the challenge of feeding everyone is twice as great as it was the last time we were challenged to do so, during the Second World War. It was tough then, it'll be impossible then next time around.

The second big downside is that there is an awful lot of nuclear material lying around the place. When financial collapse is followed by serious resource constraint we will still need to devote huge resources to safeguarding the waste produced to generate today's cheap electricity. Only a blind optimist could imagine that nuclear waste dumps would not one day be abandoned to the elements and allowed to leak out into the air, seas and groundwater. Most nuclear power stations are currently built in areas that will be prone to raised sea levels. They are also mostly built in areas of low population density where, historically, the locals have not had much clout in Westminster.

Given these two facts you won't find me moving anywhere near a large city or a nuclear power station. Luckily the peninsula of south west England has neither of these and is far enough from London to make it not worth the effort. At least that's what I'm counting on – I'm sure people will insist otherwise.

There is also the problem of land ownership in Britain (specifically England) – but that's a problem I see resolving itself soon enough when the property bubble deflates and resources devoted to ensuring people are not allowed to live off the land are over stretched, forcing a change of policy in line with resilience and sustainability (as has been the case in Wales).

And now the good news. For all the complaining that people do about Britain it still has a lot going for it. One of the side effects of having, and losing, the world's most powerful empire is a culture of breast beating and teeth gnashing by those with less economic power. During the era of empire, to keep the elite at the centre of power they had to offer everyone else something. We natives were only restless when not being thrown a bone by the masters. And in those days, as Britain's imperial core extracted wealth from half the globe, there were plenty of bones to go around. But since the empire has shrunk in size to, as Adrian Mole memorably put it, some islands on the map that he couldn't locate because a cake crumb had fallen on them, the sense of entitlement hasn't shrunk correspondingly. I have been in enough bars in Spain to know that entire legions of people have left the UK, disgusted that it has 'gone to the dogs', and choosing to display their patriotism by moving to another, less economically fortunate, country.

Well fine. But what I see in the UK is a much greater sense of cooperation and willingness to face up to facts by quite a large slice of the population. Losing an empire can either make you bitter or it can turn you into a stoic. 'Mustn't grumble' people say, or 'worse things happen at sea'. Getting by is what is important and in most places community spirit is alive and well.

One only has to look at the Transition movement, and all of the people who practice sustainability as a matter of course. Up and down the country countless thousands are engaged, each to their own extent, in growing food organically, reviving old crafts and generally living in a post-consumer way. What's more, this isn't even a new thing, it's been part of the national character for decades. Perhaps thousands of years of having to deal with despotic kings and nobles has taught us that the best way to live is modestly – whatever it is there is a great reservoir of resilience built into the culture and it does not manifest itself in remotely the same way as, say, the people who choose to buy several guns and a shack in rural Montana and live off bear meat.

I don't mean everyone, of course. But perhaps enough.

Furthermore Britain, being the first industrial nation, still has plenty of the infrastructure that allowed it to prosper in those heady newly-industrialised days. One of the main elements of this is the canal network, which reaches into most corners of the country and has survived largely intact thanks to the money and efforts of enthusiasts and the tourism industry over the years. Canal boats are still in manufacture and shifting freight from roads to horse-pulled canal barges will be one of the low energy possibilities of the future that will keep regional centres connected and ensure trade links.

Aside from the canals there is also an excellent (by most standards) train network. Margaret Thatcher did her bit to destroy the inefficient extremities of the network but as the economic calculus shifts there is no great reason why old branch lines cannot be brought back into service again. Furthermore, the UK is criss crossed (some would say covered) with good quality (for now) roads that, even if they are used less and less frequently by motor vehicles, will still be very usable by low-tech transport such as horses and bicycles. The smallish size of the country also makes it navigable by bicycle and it's entirely possible to cycle fully-laden from one extremity to the other on a bike in around 10 days (I know, I've done it).

Of course, there are monumental challenges facing Britain in getting it on track to becoming a sustainable set of islands – but show me a place where this isn't so. The only place I can think of that might even get close is Greenland – and even that might find itself at the centre of an oil war.

Lastly, but definitely not least, it's worth remembering that many of the ancient spiritual traditions that were so prevalent in Britain until the all-conquering Christianity arrived, are still very much practised, albeit often out of sight. Philip Carr-Gomm in his Book of English Magic reckons that in England you're never too far from a practising witch – even if she does look like just a regular person in a regular job. Druidism is booming and Pagan societies are enjoying a similar resurgence. What's more, being an 'eccentric' when it comes to displaying your fondness for Earth spirits is more-or-less acceptable in England, and I for one am looking forward to seeing the forthcoming film the Spirit of Albion.

What all these have in common is a worship of Earth magic i.e. a religion of being connected to the planet that supports you. In the decades and centuries ahead, with organised 'revealed' religions on the wane, these alternatives could be ready to step into the limelight. This has always been acknowledged: step into any old English church, lie down on one of the pews (assuming a service isn't going on) and focus on the celling. Up there, among all the angels and frescoes and what have you, more often than not, you'll likely see a cheeky leaf-fringed face looking back down at you. This is the Green Man – a little architectural anomaly in most churches but nevertheless an undeniable reminder that, behind all the pompous edifices of our constructed temples lies the inescapable fact that we are all, whether we like it or not, a part of the ecosystem.

By the way, along with the RSS feed problem, which now seems to be fixed, some people were also finding it difficult to post comments. I have now removed all barriers, so you shouldn't have any more problems.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Our Vacation from Reality

A family holiday to the hop fields of Kent. Below, a modern family holiday.

This last week a personal stroke of good fortune led me to book our first proper family holiday in five years. Yes, we finally seem to have sold the 'unsellable' farmhouse in Spain and I had promised the family that, should this ever occur, we would all go on a holiday somewhere.

Of couse, me being me, I couldn't let that just be an excuse to lie on a beach for a couple of weeks – that would just be cheating – so instead this summer we'll be staying on an organic farm on a Greek island and will help protect the eggs of endangered loggerhead turtles on a nearby beach. The farm is run by 'returnees' – who had previously had good jobs in offices, probably in Athens, before TSHTF, so it will at least be interesting to talk to them and get a little first hand reportage from Greece (two days in Athens at the start should allow for that).

I'm not sure if people who have knowledge of peak oil should be allowed to go on aeroplanes, and in my defence, I hardly ever do. My normal mode of transport is a bicycle or the feet that four billion years of evolution have given me. But still, please don't expect a grovelling apology as I fully intend to continue using some fossil fuels on the Long Descent, whilst at the same time using my time and energy learning and preparing to live with a lot less of them.

'You're going where?' asked a relative in horror when informed of said holiday. The implication being, of course, that Greece is some kind of warzone and that we'll likley be taken prisoner and sold into slavery for hard currency. I doubt that will happen, but if it does you can be sure that I'll be blogging about it.

Anyway, on a related note, I was flicking through an old copy of the literary magazine Granta the other day and I came across a series of pictures of the Kent hop pickers of yesteryear. Until about the 1950s it was common for thousands of people from the poorer districts of London to go on a family holiday every summer in the hop fields of Kent, south of the capital. Most of them walked there, spending up to two months at a time working quite hard every day beneath the summer sun. Kids joined in too and, for the men, it was a chance to escape the grim and dangerous conditions on the docks or in the factories where they worked.

The practice persisted for many years, and in many counties a similar thing still exists (the most notable example I can think of is the great walnut forests of Kazakhstan which fill with families every summer and which the late Roger Deakin wrote about so wonderfully in his book Wildwood:a Journey through Trees) but was killed off by the arrival of the welfare state which negated the need for those on low incomes to earn extra money to pay their rents. Of course, it wasn't all work. There was a great knees-up most evenings (they were, of course, involved in the production of beer) and the opportunity to live in the open countryside for a few weeks of each year with a bunch of friends and relatives must have been highly anticipated.

I remember my own grandparents telling me about their family holidays. They set off from Manchester, en famille, on bicycles, arriving at the coast some days later. This was considered normal back then when the aeroplane's main purpose was to drop bombs on your enemy and the only people who took to the skies in them often didn't come back again.

I know quite a lot about my ancestors from the last few centuries because my sister is a genealogist and has traced them quite far back (although not all the way to the Viking settlers who named a Yorkshire village Hybden's Dale (which meant Rosehip Valley in Old Norse, as it still does in modern Danish) which was later anglicised to Heptonstall, and then misspelled Heppenstall). I know, for instance, that most of them lived in and around Sheffield and one of the most common professions, if you could call it that, was 'stone picker'. These people went around literally picking up stones from fields and transported them to wherever railway lines were being built where they would be used as bedding for the tracks. It's a bit of stretch to say that my family built the world's first railway system, but we certainly did our bit.

This gave me pause for thought about how things have changed – and the likely direction they will take again in the future if and when cheap fossil fuel powered transportation reverts to its default position of unobtainable. Will my great-grandchildren one starry night in the future be sitting around a camp fire in a Scottish vineyard and telling stories about how their ancestors once flew around the world in giant ships with wings?

When this thought seized me I couldn't resist the idea of making a little photo series at the top of this blog post showing a past family holiday (the hop pickers), a current family holiday (a consumer class family in a concrete resort staffed by resentful underpaid locals on a tropical island) and then a future one ... But try as I might I couldn't find an image for the last one as all available images relating to families of the future have us decked out in skin tight costumes and hopping onto spaceships for a few days on Mars.

So I'm afraid we'll just have to imagine how a family holiday will look like – if such a thing exists – 50 years from now when we all tumble chaotically down the rough side of Hubbert's Peak.

Here's a thought for the week that fits in with my Greek holiday theme but which I couldn't be bothered to insert into the prose in a convincing manner: Like Icarus, we are certainly flying too close to the sun and the wax holding the feathers in place is melting quickly, if only we had the eyes to see it.

In the same edition of Granta I read a story by Doris Lessing entitled Death of a Chair. This tells the tale of an old chair bought at auction for pennies in the 1960s and its eventual destruction by Lessing with a saw some 40 years later. It's as poignant a story as you're likely to find about the loss of craftmanship over the years and its replacement with cheap mass-produced junk. Only at the end, when she strips back the layers of fabric and the saw bites into the wooden frame does she realise what an act of vandalism she is involved in, although by that point the chair has been ruined.

When I'd finished reading it I quickly showed it to my wife, in the hope thet she would become inspired to return to what she is trained to do. She is a qualified old-style upholsterer who can take an ancient smashed up sofa, strip it down to the frame and build it up again into a top quality restored piece of furniture that should be good for another century of use.

She learned these skills in England, completing a City and Guilds course in upholstery and furniture restoration, despite being the youngest in the class by forty years or so. Since she finished it ten years ago she has been told repeatedly that there is 'no use' for her skills and she eventually conceded that 99% of people would rather shop in Ikea than pay for craftmaship. So now we have a huge amount of tools and materials in storage – everything from wooden trestles and different kinds of tack hammers, to huge bags of horse hair, webbing and resuscitated fabric – just waiting for the day when the logic will turn and people will once again want to pay a flesh and blood person a reasonable sum to do a decent job. In the meantime she is working as a cleaner for the local council, cleaning up after old people in care homes and listening to their stories of how things have changed over the years.

I'm not sure how long we will be waiting ...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Marmite Madness and the Muffled Media

If only we could drill for Marmite ... a tanker delivering some of the controversial savoury spread

In this last week, which has seen people panic-buying petrol across the UK, we have been reminded of two unpleasant facts which are likely to be rearing their ugly heads much more frequently in the future. For those who don't know, a mooted strike by a union which counts petrol tanker drivers as its members quickly led to mile-long queues at filling stations, leading to one woman accidentally setting herself alight as she tried to decant fuel which in turn led to calls for rolling heads at the ministerial level.

All of this was sparked by some union reps saying they might consider calling a strike over safety conditions.

The first ugly fact that I mentioned was the reminder that any threat to the fuel supply causes mass hysteria. In this instance there has been (so far) no actual supply interruption, but that didn't stop people overreacting.

The second reminder was that in these situations the mass media amply fulfils its role of hysteria amplifier, quickly weighing up the situation, coming to hasty conculsion about who or what is to blame and then shouting PANIC at the top of its lungs while jumping up and down and getting all red in the face. In this case they decided to blame Francis Maude, the Conservative Party chairman, who suggested that if there was to be a strike it might be a good idea to fill up a jerry can with fuel just in case. Normally this would be considered stirling advice, after all, doesn't it pay to be prepared?

Now, I'm not exactly a fan of the Conservatives and I'm sure that Francis Maude has done many questionable things in his life to get to the position where he is now – but advising people to fill up jerry cans with petrol can hardly be counted as one of them. But the blame for the woman who accidentally burned herself is being laid firmly at his door, and a quick Google search of 'Francis Maude blame' reveals 631 news articles featuring those exact words. Yes, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, the media has gone stark raving mad.

I should know. I was at the centre of some media madness about a year ago. I'd been working as a freelance contributor at The Guardain, acting as a kind of 'our man in Copenhagen'. The Guardian, it should be understood, has a kind of strange fetish for Denmark that stops just short of the country warranting its own pull-out section every week. To the average Guardian reader the country represents a kind of liberal utopia free of crooked politicians, inequality and obese people. It's wrong on all three counts but having spent almost 10 years living here, two as editor of a Copenhagen based newspaper, I'm quite familiar with the phenomenon and have come to accept that I live in an inkblot country onto which outsiders project their own fervid imaginings, whatever they may be.

So there I was, trying to feed them stories which I thought would fit in with their readers' preconceived notions and I came across a small story that I thought might be of some interest. It concerned a tiny shop in Copenhagen which sold foreign foods to homesick expats, who had been told some months before that they were no longer allowed to stock the savoury spread Marmite on their shelves. The reason given by the man from the Food and Veterinary Administration was that the dark sticky spread was fortified with vitamins, meaning that it had to have special permission to be sold. The Danes love banning things that are foreign, and Marmite was just the latest product, along with a whole raft of others from Horlicks to Birds Eye custard. To get permission to sell Marmite would have involved a lot of red tape and cost, and the shop owner was angry because it was a best selling product.

I asked The Guardian if they might be interested in this and immediatley was told that 'Yes,' they were. I said I'd write it up within four or five days, just as soon as I'd been and interviewed the owner and taken some pictures. They got back and said that they needed it the next day. 'Okay,' I said (a little huffily because I had other things to do).

The next day they were onto me again. 'When is it it ready?' I was asked. But I could not get it finished until I had a quote from the Food and Veterinary Administration, and every time I rang them they seemed totally uninterested and claimed they'd look into this mar-mme-tay product I was talking about. When I rang them for about the fifth time the spokesman, clearly annoyed, went and interrupted the relevant minister in a meeting (after I told them who I was writing it for). She didn't think it was important either – she was probably busy with other things, like plans to protect against the country against Monsanto - and so I had to warn them that I'd have to say they had 'no comment'.

Then my phone rang and it was one of the Guardian editors who told me 'At the moment we have Obama meeting the Queen on the front page and we want to replace that with your story-' I gulped. 'Okay, I'll file it now,' I said.

Needless to say, the story sparked a storm out of all proportion to its merit. Within hours it became the biggest story in the UK, with every major news outlet clamouring to get their own version of it and, briefly, it was the most Tweeted topic in the entire world. People in Britain, who will tolerate practically anything apart from fuel price rises and someone messing with Marmite, went predictably insane, throwing Danish bacon and furniture into skips and promising to stop their children playing with Lego and turning down the volume when Sandy Toksvig was on the radio. My inbox began to fill with angry emails asking me what the hell I thought I was doing and, when a Danish journalist got through to me on my mobile and started shrieking 'Are you trying to start a trade war?' at me I decided it was time to turn it off and bury it in a draw in the kitchen. It's probably fair to say that I went into hiding.

It should be remembered that Denmark is particularly sensitive to boycotts having had most of its products boycotted across large parts of the Muslim world following the Mohammed Cartoon debacle (which I inadvertently almost became a victim of, but that's a story for another day).

After several days, during which the Sun newspaper made the Danish ambassador in London come out and make an apology, Marmite was debated in the Danish parliament and angry groups of geographically challenged Britons called for the picketing of Ikea, the story slowly began to fade away and I began to peek out from beneath my rock. The stampeding herd had passed me by and all that was left to show was the trampled earth and a faint savoury yeast smell hanging in the air.

So what did I learn from this experience? Many people congratulated me for getting a story on the front page of The Guardian as if I'd uncovered some kind of major corruption scandal, but in truth I was a bit ashamed of the whole affair. I'd been badgering The Guardian for a while to take some of my peak oil articles seriously but had been met with a polite rebuff. They weren't sure which section to file them under and, in any case, wasn't the whole peak oil thing just speculation? No, the only black viscous liquid they wanted me to write about came in little jars rather than 42 gallon barrels. So in the end I just came away with a small sum of money and a great after dinner anecdote.

So the question remains: just why is the mainsteam media so poor at addressing peak oil issues and all the worrying depletion issues which surround it and instead fixate on trivial matters?

Who knows – perhaps it is not 'human interest enough' or maybe it defies categorisation so effectively, if one considers the wider issues associated with peak oil. Or maybe it is just a little too uncomfortable and close to the bone, after all, even The Guardian is driven by a 'cash engine' of dealing in cars. Could it be that its just too … boring?

Perhaps it is just a simple case of not wanting to rock the boat, but whatever it is the end effect is that we're not being informed of the really important stuff. Whatever your idealogically-driven choice in newpsaper it's a bit like being given the choice of voting for the Democrats or Republicans in the US which was memorably described by Noam Chomsky as being offered the chance to vote for one of two wings of the Business Party - and newspapers of all stripes are more or less the echo chambers of the big parties and know where their allegiences lie.

Of course that's not to say that the big newspapers never address these important issues. It's quite common for, say, The Independent or even The Telegraph to have a self-flagellating front page splash about an approaching doomsday scenario. But these are flash-in-the-pan affairs and you only have to turn a few pages in to get to the travel section in which readers are encouraged to burn aviation fuel like it's going out of fashion, or the business section which advises readers on which commodities or stocks are worth pouring your money into for the purposes of getting richer.

And perhaps that is just it. We live in a commercial world and facing up to an energy depleted future just doesn't sell adverts. To be consistently the bearer of the kind of sobering reality that peak oil represents sits uneasily with the fashion and shopping supplements – heck, even the environment sections are more often than not just cheerleaders for the biotech and nuclear industries. Any newspaper editor who gave serious column inches to peak oil and all the kind of things that people in their thousands read voraciously on blogs written by the likes of Dmitry Orlov and John Michael Greer, might soon find herself shuffling uncomfortably before the withering gaze of the sales director who wants to know why BMW have just pulled out of their seriously lucrative full page advertising campaign. 'Are you trying to lose everyone their job?' they might ask.

There's a bitter irony in all of this as well because for all the theorising surrounding peak oil and societal collapse, the moment it actually starts to bite people hard, instead of a sudden surge in interest people will be too busy just trying to survive and the time for pointy-headed postulating will be past. At this time anyone brave enough to say 'told you so' will likely be blamed for not 'telling us so' enough as people will be looking for scapegoats – in the way that environmentalists were perveresely blamed by oil companies who finally accepted the reality of anthropogenic global warming for 'not being effective communicators'.

So if people don't want to think about these issues – probably the most important that humankind has ever faced – then I doubt any amount of exposure in the MSM will have any effect. It may even have the opposite desired effect if powerful business-as-usual interests direct their firepower on peak oilers and publicly manage to 'out' us in the way they have done with climate scientists.

So maybe it's time to stop looking to the mainstream media and instead focus on the small community of bloggers – and when the plug is pulled out of its wall socket and the internet goes dark or is unaffordable we'll turn back to paper and ink and printing presses. At least you can insulate a wall with an old newsletter – something you can't do with an old blog.