Thursday, December 19, 2013

Stabbing the Beast

I spent a while last night reading David Holmgren’s latest essay Crash on Demand (read the PDF here). Back in 2007 Holmgren, who is one of the initiators of the concept of Permaculture, wrote a series of possible future scenarios in which he posited a number of different scenarios that could play out with regard to civilisation and the environment. I won’t go into those scenarios here but suffice to say that this latest essay represents an additional one - and a new way of thinking.

The two civilisation destroying situations we face are peak oil and climate change. Holmgren goes into some detail about why his perception of these has changed, concluding that peak oil has not yet turned out to be as bad as expected (for various reasons, notably financial) and climate change is likely to now far exceed our worst expectations, with a 4-6C degree scenario now likely in a BAU scenario.

This change in thinking was the result of an observation of the way energy and economic issues are panning out, plus a deeper consideration of the role of finance courtesy of systems thinker Nicole Foss. The gist of it is this: we are rapidly losing the chance to persuade policy makers to take the risk of global warming seriously, and given that the course we are now on would likely wipe out nearly all of humanity and make life considerably worse for millions of other species over the coming millennia, then the only sensible option for us is to crash the system of global growth-based capitalism.

If that sounds radical that’s because it is. Holmgren points out that the last few decades of environmental protest have failed miserably. The dominant paradigm of ‘economic growth at any cost’ grinds ecocentrist concerns into the dust. A quick survey of the news headlines should convince anyone of the veracity of this. And although we are now living in an age of limits, where the quantity and quality of the fossil energy sources available to us begins to diminish, the system is perpetuated by the financial system which continues to magic credit out of thin air without any basis on a claim in the real world. Witness the shale oil boom in the US, a vastly inefficient and polluting operation that only makes economic sense due to the distorting wizardry of Wall Street financiers.

Furthermore, he rightly observes that the vast majority of people in the industrialised world could not care less about destroying the basis for life on planet Earth. As the global economic bubble deflates - something it has been doing since 2008 - most people in our overdeveloped economies are too busy trying to hold down a job or are too influenced by the growth-perpetuating mantra of politicians and the media to give much thought to the wider world. This is unfortunate, but at least it demonstrates the pointlessness of trying to gain political traction in a system that is rigged against anything other than limitless growth. Any concessions the system makes to preserving the biosphere tend to be largely symbolic, such as increasing bottle recycling rates, or charging a levy on plastic bags, while the real business of exploitation on a planetary scale continues apace.

Furthermore, the plateauing of oil production has not seen the rapid uptake of clean-tech that its proponents suggested would happen as soon as oil prices climbed. Instead it has seen a switch to dirtier and more dangerous to extract fuels, aided and abetted by the fossil fuel sector and its financial backers. So instead of moving into a ‘green tech’ future we are in practice moving into a ‘brown tech’ one. And although the financial instruments used to boost the production of shale oil and gas are by nature Ponzi schemes and cannot last, Holmgren argues that they may indeed last long enough to make a controlled powerdown situation impossible, as well as missing the window to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

However, given that the economic system is only being held together by an almost-hallucinatory perception of continued growth and stability which is held by the majority, perhaps this is also the key to seeing its Achilles heel. Holmgren says that a sudden whole scale implosion of the global financial system is really the only hope of curtailing our carbon emissions and cutting them to a level that would avoid runaway global warming. He estimates the chances of a global economic collapse happening ‘naturally’ at 50% over the next five years.

But then he goes on to advocate giving it a good shove in that direction.

An estimated billion people on the planet live middle class lifestyles and use up the lion’s share of energy and resources. Holmgren says that if a section - he reckons 10% - opt out of the growth at any cost paradigm and massively downscale their involvement with the global system of capitalism, then this might be enough to send it into a terminal decline faster than it is already in. This might be easier than it sounds, he says. A majority of people are now disillusioned to some extent with bankers and politicians, and this number can only grow as promises continue to be broken and the wealth gap continues to widen. Actions could be as simple as withdrawing all your money from the bank and storing it as cash - after all, take £100 out of the bank and you are starving the system of £1000 of credit that it would otherwise use as part of the fractional reserve system. He goes on to advocate turning ones back on corporations, shopping locally, growing your own veg and all of the other things that Permaculturists and Transitioners do as a matter of course. This, he insists, is a positive thing to do that offers the only real hope of making a difference.

Adopting local currencies, bartering, avoiding paying tax and using the copious quantities of materials lying around as leftovers from the current waste-based economy would be ways of hastening the demise of the planet-destroying system, while simultaneously acting as a good model for late adopters, many of whom would want to ‘join up’ as the current system of industrial production begins to falter. This, he concedes, would also hasten the demise of a good many worthy and progressive projects, and would likely make enemies with those on the left of the political spectrum who rely just as much on the growth of the industrial system as those on the right. Nevertheless, he says, this is a bitter price that must be paid.

Would this be enough to starve the beast? Nobody knows, but it might represent a better expenditure of energy rather than waving a banner outside a climate conference. The system, he maintains, cannot be reformed. Instead it must die and be reborn. He is quite aware that advocating such a view would vilify him and others who could be accused of trying to collapse the economic system, but maintains that we have a duty to protect life on earth by any means necessary from a rapacious class of human being and a system that has got out of control. This is best done by building an alternative parallel economy - one that is not predicated on endless growth.

By a strange coincidence, after I had finished reading David Holmgren’s essay an email popped up in my browser. It was just telling me that Collette O’Neill - the Irish blogger who lives at Bealtaine Cottage - had a new post. I clicked on it and was greeted by a series of pictures and text that are a living example of everything David Holmgren was advocating. It summarised how she herself had turned away from ‘the machine’ and how this had allowed her to build her permaculture cottage and lead the kind of life that many dream could only be possible by, say, winning the lottery. See her example here.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Skilling up for the Future

Greg demonstrates how to turn a branch into a longbow

As the end of another year hovers into view and the long dark evenings invite reflection we naturally start to ask ourselves what the next year will bring. On the economic front, things don’t look as rosy as we are told they are. The global economy is still running on the fumes of smouldering credit notes and the only difference now is that political and financial elites are telling us via a compliant media that the economy is fixed. Yet debt levels in all sectors are continuing to rocket and the feeling remains that this fragile economy is like a huge and intricate sculpture made of glass and could shatter with the slightest tap. Where will the tap come from? Will it be a China/Japan war? Will the ascendent Islamic militarism spill over from Syria and Iraq and come home to haunt the perpetrating nations? Or could it be a relatively minor black duck event, such as Slovenia’s credit collapsing and causing a cascading failure?

Who knows, is the short answer, but things cannot keep on grinding along as they are now. I now find myself wishing that things would speed up a bit before it gets much worse. With the signing of the latest ‘free trade’ agreements last week we now have the spectre of trans-national corporations being able to sue national governments for ‘lost profits’ based on national policy. A few have been quick off the mark to launch legal suits against countries and just in the last few days we have seen a Canadian gold mining company sue the Costa Rican government for protecting its rain forests, Philip Morris  suing Australia for trying to stop teenagers from smoking and the nuclear power industry suing Germany for phasing out nuclear power. 

It will surely only be a matter of time before the likes of Monsanto sue European countries for protecting their citizens from the failed experimental poison that is GM food. Signs that they are getting ready to do so are evident if you look for them in op-ed articles in the press. So, to me this seems like the end game of out-of-control capitalism. People might be meek and compliant in the United States but in many corners of Europe, South America and Africa this is decidedly not the case. Might we soon see the whip back as people, indebted and impoverished, can take it no longer? Is a revolution on the cards? I’ve been reading about the history of Poland recently and that country would seem to be a contender for launching a revolution - the Poles don’t take much crap.

These are big questions and it’s interesting to speculate on the weighty matters of our age - yet it’s easy to get caught in the headlights, transfixed on ‘the news’. But from a personal point of view, being well informed about world events doesn’t amount to much of a survival strategy - we need to do other things too. Knowing the intricate details of how hedge fund managers are looting retirees’ pensions might be interesting on a cerebral level but it won’t feed you or keep you warm.

And so I find myself reflecting on what I have done and learned that is of practical value in 2013, and what I need to do next year.

Firstly, a big part of my year has been taken up with my piece of woodland. Having only owned it a year I’ve done what all good permaculture manuals tell you to do: I’ve observed it. This has been useful. I now know which bits get the sun at different times of the year, what kind of soil I have (good, with a ph of 7), where frost pockets form and what kind of animals and plants thrive there. This has all been very useful but I couldn’t just sit there looking - time is pressing! - so I was also doing and learning. I’ve learned an awful lot about trees and the art of coppicing, and I’ve learned about soil and how to enrich it on the one acre field that forms the centre of the woodland.

But what should I do with all that wood? It is mostly oak and chestnut, so it is far too valuable for firewood. Instead I have been learning to make things with it and thus add value to it as much as I can. I went on a bow making course last week with my friend Greg Humphries. He showed me how to use an axe to sculpt a piece of ash into a flexible bow. I also learned how to use a shave horse, a drawknife and a froe - and I’ve had a local blacksmith make me up a set of these tools that should last me a lifetime.

A longbow is potentially useful (and very dangerous!), although for the time being I’m sticking to my .22 air gun for the rabbits and squirrels which ruin everything I try to grow there (my descent from mild-mannered ex-vegetarian to ‘take no prisoners’ small mammal hunter was swift). As someone put it to me ‘You can either have squirrels, or you can have a woodland.’ And given that I am planting at least a hundred trees - mostly fruits, nuts and berries - next year, I can’t afford to share them with invasive rodents no matter how cute they look. Especially when they taste so good in stews. 

Next year I am planning to learn how to make charcoal with the offcuts. I’m also planning to make rustic garden furniture, fence posts and a set of trestles for my wife’s upholstery business. Furthermore, I’m inoculating some piles of logs with different types of fungus to sell to local fancy restaurants, attempting to plant mistletoe seeds into the boughs of some large oak trees to sell at Christmas, and about 20 other small money making ideas that I’ll detail later on.

I’ve learned to identify locally edible wild plants thanks to the delightful Rachel Lambert, who has taken me on a couple of coastal forays. She also showed me which seaweed is edible and I figured out for myself how to harvest and cook mussels and limpets, of which there are millions here. I haven’t been out mackerel fishing yet, but that’s something I plan to get up to speed with next year, along with learning to sail.

I’ve ramped up my home food and drink production this year, making several different wines for the first time (the dandelion was a great success, but the plum was a disaster). Next year I aim to make 100 bottles - not only are they good to drink but they make great barter items and presents. I’ve also made sauerkraut for the first time, and have been experimenting with different sprouting techniques for pulses and beans. I’ve also been experimenting with making cheap, nutritious food using as little energy as I can, and spend at least two hours a day cooking. Next year I’m making a straw box for slow-cooking (I have also picked up an old pressure cooker and a recipe book from the early 1980s). I've given up eating wheat after reading Wheat Belly - probably the best thing I have done in ages as it has cured all manner of ills at a stroke.

Community is probably more important than anything else when things start going wrong, so I’ve been trying to get to know as many interesting people as possible in the nine months I’ve been living in Cornwall. I’ve joined the local Transition group (Transition Penwith) and can count on meeting people who ‘get it’ through that. I have met some interesting people through our children’s school and have been a member of various other groups, such as a Tai Chi club. Furthermore I’m now working in a shop one day a week at the local organic farm - Bosavern Community Farm - and was even nominated to be a board member there (but decided to pull out - long story). This part of Cornwall is packed with people who are making their own - often unusual - way in the world, which is why we chose to live here in the first place.

Furthermore myself and the folks who own the woodland next door to ours have put together a network aimed at connecting woodland folk in west Cornwall who are interested in reviving coppicing and orchard arts. We were partly pushed into this by local NIMBYs, suspicious of what we ‘hippies’ are up to in the woods, but it has got off to a great start. At our first meeting we thought only a couple of people would turn up, but in the event there were 16 - and a further 50 expressing interest! It seems that there are a lot of people out there who are keen to see a revival of woodland work as part of a more sustainable future.

All of these networks, activities and groups eat a lot of time, meaning that I haven’t been able to devote much to another trans-national project that has kicked off - the SUN (Sustaining Universal Needs) Project - initiated by RE at the Doomstead Diner along with a few of this blog’s regular readers and commentators William Hunter Duncan and Lucid Dreams. This is another exciting JDI (just do it) project that isn’t encumbered by bureaucratic red tape or idealogical orthodoxy. 

All of this relates to another skill that has been more or less forgotten by most people in this day and age - democracy. For a democracy to work properly it has to be made up of informed and engaged participants. Yet most people today think that democracy is something clever and smart that we export to the oil-rich countries we have just invaded, a bit like Burger King and KFC. Indeed, it has become almost interchangeable with 'capitalism'. This idea of democracy has to be rooted up and thrown on the weed pile along with the other weeds such as ‘technological salvation’ and ‘ infinite economic growth’ and 'efficiency'. Being part of a group and/or participating in local political debates is therefore of prime importance if we want to have a better future. It should be something they teach at school.

So, there are lots of skills to learn, and the thing is that you can’t learn them all. Anyone who tries to become completely self sufficient will either have to be very very capable indeed (and still will have to live a very frugal life) or will learn the hard way that no woman is an island. 

So, those are my skills, tell me yours.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How to Avoid Being Eaten Alive

This last week I have had my eyes and ears assaulted every time I suffered accidental exposure to the mainstream media. It’s easy enough to ignore radio and television, but the internet is a different kettle of fish, and it was mostly via this that I learned about two major new consumer events that we are expected to partake in. The first is Black Friday. First came the emails telling me that certain bargains could be had on this auspicious date. Then came the overheard snatches of radio, and finally, last Friday, the internet went into fever pitch talking about this ‘Black Friday’.

But what is it? Neither I nor anyone else I spoke to had heard of it before. You probably already know. It’s when Americans, stuffed to the gills with undigested turkey and various chemical pseudo foods, fight one another to buy cheap Chinese junk on credit. People are often injured and sometimes killed in the melees that ensue - and now our political and media overlords would like us to get involved in the action too - cue a million and one ‘Black Friday’ adverts.

As if that weren’t enough, people barely had time to rip through the semi-impenetrable plastic packaging on their junk before Cyber Monday was upon us! Yesterday was the day when we were being urged not to even bother getting off our backsides to fight other consumers - we could do it all online! Cue a million and one Cyber Monday adverts.

Does this all sound just a little bit desperate? If it does then I’m afraid you’re in the minority because the UK is ‘booming’ don’t you know. Personal credit has now expanded to record levels, manufacturing is ‘on track’, the stock market is thrusting through the upper atmosphere and once again people are treating their houses like giant brick boxes that defecate bundles of cash. “Greed is good,” says the mayor of London and “Greens are evil,” says the “environment minister”. It’s like the 1980s all over again but without the shoulder pads.

What’s more, the season of uber Consumption is upon us. One recent newspaper op-ed I spotted opined “Chistmas is that exciting time when everyone gets to find out which new Apple product has been sitting under the tree for the last month.” It wasn’t even said in mirth - it was a serious article.


Perhaps it’s time for a dose of reality. Here are some random unscientific off-message things I noticed recently:

  • UK personal debt is now so high that if it were £10 notes stapled together end to end they would stretch to the Moon and back 26 times 
  • The Nobel winning economist Nouriel Roubini has noticed that big scary housing bubbles are popping up in all the usual places - two years later than practically everyone else whose blogs are listed down the right hand side of this page 
  • Our government is selling everything that is not nailed down. To the Chinese. Or anyone with cash, really. They just sold the 500 year-old Royal Mail postal service. Kerching! And the future of our energy supply. Kerching! Today they are selling 40% of their Eurotunnel holding. Kerching! The (amazingly good - for now) National Health Service will be next. Double kerching! They are even selling our pig semen to the Chinese. Kerching! 
  • Food poverty has reached a ‘public health emergency’ level. In my area alone a woman has set up a soup kitchen and the soup is made from the leftovers of perfectly good food that has been thrown out by supermarkets 
  • The Royal Bank of Scotland has become a predatory asset stripper and is forcing small companies to go bust so that it can liquidise them and sell the assets to prop up its own ailing balance sheets 
  • The once-proud Cooperative Bank, admired for its ethics, has been taken over by a couple of US hedge funds. They insist they will still be ‘ethical’ and anyone who believes this is welcome to send me £20 in the (privatised) mail which I promise I will donate to good causes 

Just one word floats to the top of my consciousness when I read and hear about these things on a daily basis: cannibalism. Although probably an early non-pc slur on the good character of the Carib people, cannibalism is defined as “The act or practice of other humans eating the flesh or internal organs of other humans.”

Okay, so outside the occasional gruesome story about real-life cannibalism, usually involving mild-mannered basement-owning Belgians, there probably isn’t much actual munching of human flesh going on as we speak. But elements of this human society and economy that we have constructed seem to be doing a very good impression of it. As the ability to make an honest profit out of anything recedes into the rearview mirror, how else can a profit be made? The material limits to growth have been reached and we have done our damnedest to pretend this isn’t so. We have predated upon other continents in the form of invasions and colonisations, predated upon the biosphere of the planet by way of industrialism and consumer culture and various other isms and we have predated upon the next several dozen generations by building up huge financial and ecological debts. Who else is there to predate upon?

Yes, there are still a few resources to plunder that haven’t been converted to cash and toxic waste yet. Just by raising my head I can look out over the bay and see the occasional beam trawler coming back into port after several days at sea catching and killing every life form that happens to have ended up in its nets. And there are still large portions of the rain forests not yet monetised - just as there are still oil wells to exploit and people who have yet to be enslaved by free trade deals.

But the fact of the matter remains, as the tide goes out not all boats fall equally. Those in power - let us call them the core - quite like the position they are in and have no desire to relinquish it. Nothing surprising there given our genetic lineage, you try grabbing a chunk of recently killed meat out of the hands of a wild chimp and see how he reacts. To keep our elite in the manner that they are used to means that, just like the slave traders of yore, they need to figuratively sell us down the river. Which is why the prime minister David Cameron and a bunch of his favourite corporate lobbyists are in China (again).

I don’t know about you but the sight of a bunch of grinning semi-elected toffs, who claim to represent the interests of the British people, shaking hands with Chinese billionaires and gibbering on about nuclear waste and pig spunk has put me right off my breakfast (hold the bacon). And you’d at least think the Chinese would be happy with all this free money and pork juice; maybe they are, but this is what they really think of us, according to the China Global Times:

"The UK is highly replaceable in China's Europe diplomacy. The UK is no longer any so-called 'big country'; it is an old European country suitable for travel and study abroad with a few good football teams.”

Ouch! The truth hurts, doesn’t it? I'm not even sure they are right about the football teams either, because they run on foreign money.

So, selling as much as we can for short term gain but very long-term misery to the currently cash-rich Chinese for a fistful of remninbi is now government policy. But the real pot boiling comes in the form of what they are doing on the three fronts that matter most: energy, food and health. This can be summarised as follows:

Backing the wrong energy horses and hobbling the right ones. The guvmint will only consider energy projects if large sums of money can be made out of them by corporations. The more technical, complex and centralised the better. Hence our ‘new nuclear century’. We will apparently need 30 new nuclear power stations in the next seven years if we are to avoid the lights going off. Of course, this is never going to happen, and given that the prime minister has said he wants to ‘get rid of the green crap’ it’s unlikely that renewable energy is going to be anything other than a punch bag.

Meanwhile, healthcare is being gutted. The NHS is a remarkable system and whenever I encounter it I am always impressed by the dedication of the doctors and nurses - but it’s also a product of the oil age. It’s already creaking and groaning like a geriatric lady who has fallen out of her hospital bed and the last thing it needs is a bunch of idealogical bovver boys putting the boot in as it writhes on the ward floor. What’s more, the NHS is infected with superbugs who suck off the system in the form of huge consultancy fees like some kind of blood sucking parasite. Given a bit more time we might indeed be returning to an earlier form of blood-sucking medicinal practice: leeches.

And food. The conquest of the supermarkets is complete and they have managed to obliterate every last high street (the few shops that survive only do so because of the diehard group of prescient people who refuse to shop in supermarkets) and given everyone the impression that the only way food can be delivered to your plate is in a vast truck that has travelled hundreds if not thousand of miles. The supermarkets are now thankfully cannibalising one another - my local (smallish) town of Penzance now has nine of the beasts. Something’s gotta give.

So what do you do if your government is selling off the state’s assets, building a future famine machine and placing explosive nuclear detonators around your homeland? One option is just to give in. Abandon modern life as a bad idea, take off all your clothes and walk back into the sea like Reginald Perrin (see picture above which Blogger refuses to place in the correct narrative spot).

Admittedly this does hold some appeal, but a far more practical action would be to stop allowing negativity to overwhelm you and get on with creating an alternative reality. I’m a believer that actions speak louder than words. Words, of course, speak louder than thoughts, and thoughts have their uses too - so an ideal approach would involve all three: actions, words and thought.

Angels and Demons

All of us have some control over our lives. Sometimes it may not feel like it, but it is, in fact, true. Here’s an exercise. Turn off the TV, radio, computer and the microchip implanted in your brain by Google and get a piece of paper and a pencil. At the centre of the piece of paper draw a circle that represents yourself (or a square, if you’re a technologist). Down one side of the page write up a list of Demons. These are the things that want to put you in their cannibal pot, broil the flesh off your bones and eat you up with a helping of barbecue sauce. They are the negative things in your life and the things that hold you back from the goal of having a positive effect on the world (a goal which also tends to make you a happy, balanced person too). You can be inventive here and your list might look something like this - although it can be as long as you like:

  • The Job Centre staff are always insulting my intelligence
  • I can’t stop smoking
  • I get migraines
  • I have negative thoughts that keep me awake at night
  • The government is trying to destroy everything and it depresses me
  • My unscrupulous landlord is like a toad squatting on my life - he stores broken down washing machines in the bathroom because he can’t be bothered to move them

When you have made a list of Demons, make a list of Angels i.e. things that you are grateful for. This can go down the other side of the page and might include:

  • I love walking in the local woods
  • I’m fascinated by taking things to bits to see how they work
  • My parents are very supportive of me
  • The memory of watching the sunset in Spain with my ex-girlfriend, drinking a glass of delicious red wine eating some amazing smoked ham still inspires me
Now the crucial bit. List the things that you have control over in your life - the things that you can use to better your position and achieve the goal of happiness by integrating the patterns with your life with the natural rhythms of nature. Why integrate with the natural rhythms of nature? - because that's all you can rely on in this life, and it's also hugely satisfying and won't contribute to destroying the ecosystem that surrounds you. You can voluntarily limit the parameters of your physical life to tie in with the solar energy budget that is provided free of charge to every organism on this planet. The cost is very little but the rewards are potentially unlimited.

To start with you might not have a very long list, but write down the factors and objects you have control over and draw a line from the circle at the middle of the page to each one. Here are some examples of things you might have control over:


  • Your health
  • Plenty of free time (you are unemployed because your degree turned out to be worthless)
  • A battered 1986 Ford Fiesta
  • Your desire to lead a better life
  • A box of tools someone is giving away on Freecycle
  • A rented flat in a poor part of Birmingham
  • An Amazon gift voucher from your aunt 
One could look upon this as a pretty sorry state of affairs, no?

Or, viewed another way, perhaps it is a chance to buy a book on washing machine mechanics, learn how to gut them of electronics and re-tool them to run on lower tech for a salvage industrial future and in the process create a niche career (with great prospects) that will no doubt launch you on a path that may well end up in 20 years’ time with you owning a piece of forest land with a straw bale-built workshop on it where you and your two grateful apprentices, who happen to be your own teenage children, fix up broken consumer era products as large spotted pigs roam around outside (quality, acorn fed smoked ham, produced in mini-smoke houses bodged from some scrap office filing cabinets is one of your several other lines of income) and a small hand-carved wind turbine sits on the roof trickle feeding a battery that you and your lovely wife (who was attracted to you because of your positive attitude to life) use for lights and music in the evenings as you both enjoy a glass of home-brewed elderberry wine and a morsel of your choicest smoked ham.

Which situation would you prefer?

The point of exercises like these are to focus the mind on what, realistically, we are able to control, and what we can do with that to achieve a better life. Anyone who begins to think in this manner stands a much better chance of weathering the substantial chaos heading our way as the financial and ecological screws tighten more and more. At its essence is the recognition that the industrial system that delivers shiny new products to us as if by magic every Black Friday is not going to continue forever. And when it winds down completely the majority of people are going to realise that they have a very long list of Demons down one side of their page, scant few Angels (except, perhaps, fond memories of Cyber Monday 2013) and very few things that they can realistically claim to have control over.

Translate thoughts into actions and take back the control before it is too late. Don’t put it off - the clock is ticking!