Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Learning to Live Fearlessly

RE, over at the Doomstead Diner, was asking the other day "Where have all the doomers gone?" He pointed out that some commentators have gone silent, others post far less often than they used to (guilty) and the doom-stars, Orlov, Kunstler et al., are mostly repeating over and over on a weekly basis what they have been saying for years.

So what's going on? It's not as if our predicament of looming financial collapse, ecological drawdown, resource wars etc. etc. has gone away. Perhaps, it's down to exhaustion and the realisation that the folks who want to hear about it are all now singing along in the choir and those that don't (but will find out anyway) all have their heads buried so deeply in the sand that only the tips of their toes remain poking up above the beach. On the other hand when you have the likes of our own prime minister jumping on the doom bandwagon and saying that 'Red lights are flashing on the dashboard' then maybe it's time to realise that maybe, just maybe, the message is becoming less ignorable.

And just to recap, here is that message in cut-out-and-keep form:

We live in a debt-fuelled, techno-narcissitic, ecologically unsustainable world and in an economic system that channels the remaining wealth upwards. The system, which worked well enough for most people in times of an expanding energy supply without too many competing claims is now shifting into reverse gear and causing itself to self-cannibalise. Economic and political injustice is growing ever sharper and more noticeable — despite all the happy talk of economic recovery. Growth is an illusion, contraction is a reality, and things are getting worse. Prepare yourself for the inevitable and try to gain some control over the essentials of your life. Grow stuff, tread lightly on the earth, appreciate what you have and try to enjoy the ride.

Here in the UK more families than ever are having to rely on food banks handing out packages of food just so they can make it through the week. Who'd ever even heard of a food bank five years ago? There's one near where I live, and in the news agents across the road from it the newspapers on display contain articles detailing which stores to head to on your weekend Christmas shopping splurge in New York, or which island in the Maldives is perfect for some winter sun. They might as well be talking about vacations on Venus. Some of their other pages contain stories about megacities being planned for the bottom of the sea, personal robots that can fly and deliver Amazon packages, cars that run on seawater and 3D printed houses on the Moon. It's all just around the corner.

But the propaganda gets less believable by the day. I can't personally recall talking with anyone in the last few years who says things are going well for them financially. In fact most people just seem to be grinding along from month to month with hardly any money, maybe getting into debt a bit more and shopping at the discount food stores which have swept the country. They are not thinking about buying flying robots. Others are stuck in the painful situation of having a head full of business ideas but no way to make them happen because they have no cash, no credit rating and no time. Each month that passes makes those hopes and dreams seem just that little bit more unrealistic and an understanding begins to form in their minds that a new kind of reality has descended and this new reality doesn't promise anything like what the old reality did.

But at least there is still a safety net to catch us when we fall, right? There's still a free health system which is one of the best in the world, right? I got to test this out recently when I developed a deep tooth ache that wouldn't go away. The only surgery in town that could see me was a nearby clinic that boasted 'German dentists', whatever that might imply. They examined me and noted an abscess below a wisdom tooth and advised that I have it removed asap. They made me fill out a medical questionnaire which seemed less interested with my dental health than how I 'felt about my smile', presumably to prey on hidden insecurities and lure me into spending a fortune in order to make me look like Donny Osmond (a full finance package was on offer).

But to fix my wisdom tooth they wanted several hundred pounds off me. I told them straight off that I couldn't afford it and wanted to know what my options were. They have to do this, by law, I'm told. I was (glumly) referred to an NHS specialist and, within a couple of months after a course of antibiotics and painkillers I found myself at the local hospital where a man called Mohammed wrenched out my bad wisdom tooth with some pliers. It was all very professional and pain-free and didn't cost me a penny. My respect for the foot soldiers of the NHS grows with each encounter.

But how long can we rely on these systems to function? With the total amount of debt owed by the UK now astronomically high (government, company and private) and not showing any sign of slowing down soon, when will the breaking point be? Already we are beginning to see warning signs of massive problems ahead, with some saying that the health service will run out of the cash needed to sustain itself either this year or next:

Millions to suffer as NHS is About to run out of Cash

"The King’s Fund’s report warns: “On its current trajectory, the health and social care system in England is rapidly heading towards a major crisis.” ... it is now a question of when, not if, the NHS runs out of money."

And then consider the immense problems faced by district and city councils, such as Newcastle. These behemoths are being bled dry by central government, with all the accusations of politics being thrown in (the ones gushing blood the fastest are the ones with populations least likely to vote Tory). It's worth reading this whole article to get an understanding of what is in store, not just in Newcastle, but everywhere:

Is saving Newcastle Mission Impossible?

"In fact, the city’s predicament already seemed impossible. The council cut £37m from its spending in 2013-14, and another £38m is set to follow this year. Then, according to current projections, there will be further annual cuts of £40m, £30m,and £20m. Over a third of the money the council once spent must go, so Newcastle is in the midst of a dire squeeze on funding for children’s centres, youth services, rubbish collection, parks, aid for homeless people, swimming pools, museums, and the arts. Back in 2011, Forbes said, when he and his colleagues had first confronted the depth and breadth of what they faced, a lot of them lapsed into silence. “People went white,” he told me. “They literally went white, at the prospect of it. There was a sense of disbelief about what it all meant, and the scale of cuts we would have to make.”"

It's probably important to note here that cuts will soon start to affect council's statutory requirements. All councils have a basic requirement to offer some kind of food and shelter, to protect children from violent parents and so on. These are the kind of programmes that are for the chopping board next and the effect on our society will be profound. It doesn't matter what the fake manipulated GDP number is if the streets are full of starving waifs rummaging through trash looking for something to eat. Of course, individuals and other organisations will step in and try to fill the gap by providing people with some basic level of subsistence. Churches will become popular again and 'giving to charity' will not mean texting a number to a giant bureaucracy during a telethon, but giving a bag of food to a hard-up neighbour. The majority will find themselves cut off, disenfranchised and with no safety net. The age of entitlement will be over for most, to be replaced by the age of broken promises.

I have a friend who works for the council in child care. She tells me that when the new system of universal credit kicks in then all hell will break loose. She warns of mass malnutrition, suicides and homelessness — and she's not even the excitable type. For now, this system is being held off by IT failures, but when it is rolled out across the country, maybe within the next year or two, it will be like a chainsaw through whatever safety net currently exists. It will be brutal, she says.

Everywhere I look, and in so many different places, I see the effect of service cuts and the new intermediaries stepping into the ever narrowing gaps between flows of money. Just off the top of my head I could say that the council in the town where I live (Penzance) has run out of money for killing the weeds that sprout up between paving stones — result being that the streets have now grown green beards; the school my children attend is forever asking for small amounts of money to cover trips and events and is now almost begging parents for cash; the county council has been ordered to find millions in savings from its planning department — result is anecdotes of planning officials levying 'unusual' charges and insisting on applications being resubmitted and for the application fee to be repaid in full.

The list goes on of penny-pinching savings leading to shoddier services, crappier jobs and a growing sense of unease.

My wife works for a private community care firm. Her job is to travel around to visit (mostly) lonely old people and make sure they are okay. She gets minimum wage and is on a zero hour contract. She was just awarded an annual pay increase of 0.6%, which is actually a pay cut in real terms, but that's standard practice in the sector. Her every move is now monitored by a smart phone she has to carry, and she is so overworked that there is barely enough time to make 'clients' (as they are known) a cup of tea. There are no benefits, and no holiday pay. You don't even want to know the sad stories I hear about the loneliness some of these old folks experience.

Here's a tip if you have kids: treat them nicely so that they may one day return the favour. And don't go and encourage them to go and live some place far away.

Here's another anecdote. Last week I even took our old leaky toilet to the local municipal dump — sorry, recycling centre — and was told that I would have to pay a £1.75 fee to dispose of it 'because we now charge for rubble'. I pointed out that it wasn't rubble, that it was a porcelain toilet bowl and the guy in the fluorescent jacket told me that 'it will be rubble when it gets smashed up.' Nice logic. My broken toilet could almost be a metaphor for modern life.

Perhaps that's why fly-tipping is now all the rage (with local councils being forced — for now — to clear up the mess at great public expense). This mess appeared overnight in Essex and is a mile long.

So that's modern Britain, writhing in the discomfort of a thousand cuts. But people around here at this end of Cornwall are long used to being squeezed. That's one of the reasons I moved here — people are less likely to freak out so much when things get tough, I reason. Some of them. Most of the large 'period' homes here are owned by outsiders, property investors and holiday home owners, and any attempt to tax these people or make them pay in any way for the damage they are causing to local communities is met with howls of protest about 'scaring away the tourists', 'biting the hand that feeds us' and so on. That leaves anyone who grew up here two options: either get out and move somewhere with careers, or stay here working in the service sector for minimum wages and living in a caravan or a euphemistically-named 'affordable home'.

There's a woman living nearby who sometimes busks with a cello. I've seen her a couple of times in the street. When I read an article on the Dark Mountain Project blog about a young woman who lives in a tin-roofed shed because 'all the houses have been hoovered up by the rich' it took me a while to connect the dots and realise it was indeed the same person. Catrina Davies, I then found out, has written a book entitled The Ribbons are for Fearlessness. I bought the book and read it. It took me only a day because it was a real page turner. In the book she details living with no money at the Youth Hostel near Land's End, and how the sudden death of her friend led her to set out for Norway, virtually penniless, in a battered old yellow van. She travels alone, with her grief, her fear and her cello as a way of making money busking the streets of Europe. It's a hell of an adventure, and she meets a girl at the Nordcap (Europe's most northerly cape) who teaches her a thing or two about the universe and gives her some ribbons 'for fearlessness'. She goes on to travel all the way down to Portugal, learning to surf and how to live a full and authentic life in a manner that we are conditioned by our society to believe is impossible.

And, in a sense, that's what we'll all have to learn to do: learn to live fearlessly. Because when I see news stories that state the average family of four needs to make £40,600 a year to live an okay lifestyle I think: what do they spend all of that money on? Most people I know make a lot less than that, and our family makes and lives off about a third of that amount. True, I don't have a mortgage or an evil landlord standing over me, because I've been through all that and I savour every moment of not being a debt slave. I try to impress this message onto my children because I know they'll likely never have what I had, namely a free university education, a couple of decades of rising incomes, a property ladder with an affordable first rung and a cushy office job where I got paid buckets of cash for fiddling with spreadsheets. They will likely get none of these things and society is going to be contorted into a lot of new and unfamiliar shapes as they come of age.

So, to go back to the beginning, why are less people talking about doom? Maybe it's a bit like someone at a garden party — let's call her Sally — who keeps telling everyone a rain storm is coming and they all just look up at the blue sky and say 'impossible' and get back to chatting about Top Gear by the pool. But she knows the storm is coming — she can tell by the clouds on the horizon, the rustling of the leaves in the trees and the way the neighbourhood cats have all disappeared. She remembers past storms. She tries to tell the other guests, but they are in no mood to listen — they're too busy applying sun cream and turning the pork chops on the barbie. "Didn't you hear to weather forecast?" they say. "There's no chance of rain." Eventually, somewhat shunned and a little hoarse, she decides not to go on about it too much. After a while she makes her excuses and goes home to bring her washing in so it won't get wet. In the meantime the sky has darkened and the first few drops of rain are hitting the hot metal grill and making sizzling noises. The guests look at each other nervously and one or two think to themselves "Maybe she was right about the rain, but it'll just be a passing shower." The party is in full swing by now and everyone thinks they will stay dry because everyone else is standing out there with them, and anyway it never rains at Steve's parties. They decide collectively not to notice the rain, laughing it off. The fat man turning the chops secretly believes he can control the weather by holding his mouth in a certain way. Meanwhile a deep rumble of thunder rolls across the horizon and Sally gazes out at her garden through the window from the comfort of her home, surrounded by cats.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

We'll know by Christmas

“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”
Douglas Adams

As I write this the WHO is saying that the number of cases of Ebola in West Africa is likely to ramp up to 10,000 new ones every week by December, with around seven out of ten people who contract it dying from it. “Don’t worry,” seems to be the message being purveyed down from on high “This will have little impact in the technologically advanced rich nations.”

I’m not so sure.

Straight away I’ll admit that, obviously, I’m not a doctor or a specialist in contagious diseases. A majority of people will read that last sentence and say “Therefore you have no right to talk about it.” If you’re one of them, then bye. However, I do have a firm grasp of the exponential function, and a keen sense of when people in high places are telling fibs to make themselves look like they are in control of events. Perhaps that’s all one needs at the moment. When I see the official message change in the space of a week from “There’s not a chance,” to “Only one or two people might get it,” to “A handful of people might get it,” then I naturally project forward a bit and think about expectation management and message creep.

Frankly, at this stage, it’s more or less irrelevant that we have the occasional case popping up in the West. We are able to deal with them without too much of a problem (the main threat comes later) - although it is concerning that the nurses in Spain and the U.S. who did contract the virus did so despite wearing full protective suits. We are repeatedly assured that this cannot happen, and the fact that it has happened has immediately been blamed on a ‘breach in protocol.’

But breaches in protocol are what we humans are good at. Every organisation that I’ve ever worked at has been full of people breaching protocol at every level. Usually, of course, doing so hasn’t led to them dying messily with blood gushing from their orifices and so mostly they get away with it. Are we to believe that the sprawling medical sector with its vast hordes of employees is less prone to this?

Yes, in the real world, shit happens.

Let’s face it, if you’re an official in some position of power and your job and status depends on making the right comments or being able to pass the blame for something onto someone else then you can be expected to act in such a manner. It’s what you are programmed to do in a non-holistic linear kind of way. So when, for example, a health official says it ‘impossible’ to catch Ebola from a mattress and then someone goes right ahead and does it anyway because they briefly touched a drip feed that had a viral load from some other patient who had sneezed a fleck of vomit on it as they wheeled the bed past him in a corridor, which then came into contact with said mattress and passed it onto someone else, then said official can claim that due to a clause in article 41.5b of the Code of Hospital Regulations about moving patients around then the porter had breached protocol and caused the infection. Problem solved, for you at least.

Here’s a hypothetical situation. Imagine that despite Ebola had somehow mysteriously appeared in your country and the government message had been racketed up to the point of saying “Don’t worry, only a quarter of you will get it,” but so far you had been lucky and avoided it. You’ve washed your hands all the time, avoided contact will all other human beings and animals, not touched a doorknob in six months … but despite all of this you started to come down with a fever and worried you had caught ‘it’. Several of your friends and family have already disappeared into hospital isolation wards and you have never heard from them again, and there are rumours swirling around that the hospital has run out of protective gear and that most of the staff have either died or fled, leaving it manned by untrained survivors with precious few medical supplies to work with. Would you a) Check yourself into said hospital and hope all the rumours were untrue or b) Lie in your own bed with your stash of medical supplies you had managed to amass, send out a farewell Facebook status update and hope for the best?

People who opine on healthcare programmes, just like economists, always assume that people act in a rational way — although it is they who decide what constitutes rational behaviour. They build models based on people acting in the way they are supposed to act, even though not many of them are psychologists.

As they stand, things don’t look good. With a doubling of new cases every 21 days that means every single person in the world will have or have had Ebola by September 2015. Of course, this won’t happen in such a neatly exponential way as there are many interrupting factors that will slow the disease’s spread. In any case, we probably have only a few weeks to stamp down on Ebola and eradicate it from West Africa, because as soon as it gets really out of hand there will be people fleeing to other parts of Africa and bringing the virus with them.


Over the last few days in the course of several discussions about Ebola a few truly inane points and suggestions have been raised. Here are some of the most prominent ones:

Ebola is not very contagious and it is only poor people in Africa that can get it. Well, the fact is that we don’t know an awful lot about this strain of the virus. We pretend we do, but we don’t. If we did then people wearing space suits would not be getting it. A past study has shown that it can be transmitted through the air between monkeys and pigs. The study has been attacked and defended thoroughly and, like most things on the internet, you end up not knowing what to believe. Nevertheless, if you ever come into contact with someone who has died from the disease, or if you end up caring for a family member with it, the chances are that you will get it too. Simple as. 

This is getting out of control, we should quarantine the affected African countries and shoot anyone who tries to escape. Ummm, interesting suggestion. Never mind the fact that the moment any such suggestion is raised there will be an exodus of people from those countries. Where would they likely flee to? Well, apart from fleeing to all corners of Africa they would also flee to the homes of their relatives in New York, London, Paris etc. They may try and do that anyway, as things progress. 

Our country can cope with an Ebola pandemic. Don’t make me laugh. When Britain’s health minister appeared on TV a few days ago proudly proclaiming that there were two specialist beds in isolation wards in London to cope with Ebola patients I did a double take. Did he say two? TWO? To be shared between the 20 million people living in the southeast? Will they be taking it in turns or what? At what point, after the epidemic becomes a pandemic, do we manically start trying to build more isolation wards over here rather than building hospitals in Africa? So many questions …
It’s just a media fabricated panic to distract us from war, global warming, financial meltdown etc. If anything the media is under reporting this. When the staid folks at the WHO say that “this is the most severe health emergency in modern times,” then it takes a peculiarly asinine person to pretend that it’s unimportant. 

This is nature’s revenge … bring it on. Fine, ecologically speaking that may be so, but you have to be willing to be one of the statistics rather than merely wishing it on other people who are less fortunate.
It’s all a global conspiracy by the Koch brothers/One World Government. Yes, whatever. If you believe that it’s a conspiracy that’s fine but it won’t do you any good. 

Nigeria has eradicated it, so can we. Hurrah! Nigeria has had a few isolated cases of wealthy individuals. Furthermore, there is a lot of oil wealth at stake in that country and the last thing they need is news of an Ebola outbreak. Do you really believe everything you read coming out of the world’s most corrupt nation? 


So, what do I think is likely to happen? Well, I think there are two likely outcomes, and we can only hope it is the former.

Outcome 1. We throw everything we’ve got to help states in West Africa get on top of Ebola and contain the disease. It won’t be easy and it will entail a lot of ethical dilemmas, such as choosing who gets priority treatment and who does not. Many of our best doctors and nurses will have to go there and a lot of them will not come back. It will cost a fortune, just when we can least afford it, but in the end it will be worth it. As a follow up, deforestation will have to be halted, the spirits of the fruit bats appeased and a huge Marshall Plan like effort to lift Western Africa out of poverty will have to be put into action to prevent Ebola taking off yet again.

Outcome 2. The cases in West Africa continue to multiply and the disease increases exponentially, really taking off at the start of 2015. Chaos ensues as people flee disease centres and bring the virus with them. Overworked and demoralised healthcare workers abandon their posts as they realise they are at the highest risk of contracting the virus, further complicating the situation. Instead they go back to their own families and do their best to make sure that least they will get the care they need. The diseased, and quite a few non-diseased, are rounded up and put in warehouses that double as isolation centres where they are kept at gunpoint. East Africa, with its crowded slums becomes a new hot zone, and from here it is a hop, skip and jump along the busy trade routes to the overcrowded virus-friendly conditions of India. As pharmaceutical companies frantically try to find a vaccine or a cure the disease spreads like wildfire across Asia and to the world beyond.

By February 2015 half of all air traffic has come to a stop. Airlines go bust and people who are stuck on the other side of the world suddenly find out how large it is. By May there is practically no international air travel apart from private jets and military aircraft. International supply chains are shattered and disorder and chaos break out everywhere as people struggle to get food, fuel and medicine. In some countries, national armies hand out food in the streets but there’s never enough.

By late summer a few island states have quarantined themselves to try to keep the disease out, but word spreads about these ‘healthy’ zones and people desperately try to reach them, bribing officials to gain entry and bringing the disease with them.

By now, the torrent of people pouring across borders by any means available has overwhelmed the tiny capacity the richer nations have to deal with an outbreak. People stop going to work and school, and avoid public transport and gatherings. People live and die in their own homes.

After a handful of years the disease has burned itself out, although distributed pockets remain in far away places. A huge chunk has been taken out of the global population — mostly in the poorer nations that lie in the tropics — with richer nations faring somewhat better due to more elaborate healthcare systems, less overcrowding and a greater access to experimental vaccines. Some of these worked and some of them did not. Everyone still alive will breathe a great sigh of relief and look back with sadness as they think of the loved ones they lost in the Great Ebola Pandemic of 2014-18. Economies are broken and people’s faith in science and progress lies in tatters — but at least they are alive. Life will go on, as ever, but everything will have changed.

There is, of course, a third scenario — Outcome 3 — the Hollywood one where we find a miracle cure just in time that can easily and quickly be mass-produced and distributed across the globe without any political interference. The likelihood of this happening in the timeframe that we have is pretty small though and it would not address the cause of the problem, meaning we’d likely get a new and even deadlier strain in a few years’ time.

So which of the above scenarios is the more likely and why? Do you have a survival strategy if Outcome 2 kicks in? If you do, pray tell.


We’ll likely know by Christmas which one we're going to get. In the meantime you might want to read up about natural antivirals, wise up on sanitation and basic medical procedures such as oral rehydration, make friends with your immune system and start building up a stock of things that will likely be gone in a flash if a full-blown panic does break out.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Things are going Horribly Wrong [No they're not!]

Just for the record, I'd like to point out that things are going horribly wrong. Yes, I know it's a point that has been laboured again and again over the past few years but this time it seems that, erm, 'normal people' are starting to agree with our merry band of doomsters.

[Oh no, here we go again. Pass me the anti-depressants.]

We now live in a world pumped up with extreme debt, and yet people can't see it. There isn't a single major economy that isn't bankrupt many times over when you take unpaid liabilities into account, and day by day the debt levels climb even higher just in order to preserve a way of life that is considered ours as if by some divine law.

[Okay I agree with you there, our debts have become way too big, but they'll think of something. As a matter of fact that hairy economist guy was on TV the other day saying that economic growth is getting better and soon we'll grow our way out of debt, or something. You worry too much!]

And we've used all of this debt to build up infrastructure and institutions that require abundant and cheap energy to function. The bad news is that abundant and cheap energy is getting less abundant and less affordable with every passing week. Soon it simply won't be there at all. People, just like medieval peasants, are illiterate in this respect. Our corporate media whoops and swoons when it presents news of new oil finds, such as the 'new Saudi Arabia of the north' announced yesterday in the Arctic. Never mind that the oil is virtually inaccessible (the Kara Sea is not the friendliest place), the infrastructure is not there, and even if we could get at it we wouldn't be able to afford it. These limiting considerations are given scant, if any, consideration.

[But soon we'll have thorium reactors and nuclear fusion ... just got to pump some more money into research and keep the faith.]

In any case, aren't we supposed to be weaning ourselves off oil instead of desperately trying to burn more of it?

[We won't need oil soon as everyone will have electric cars. Don't you read the news?]

And then there's ebola. As soon as this gets out of control it will make practically every other consideration irrelevant. An exponentially growing disease, this will likely kill millions over the next year, probably taking down a quarter of the world's population in the next decade (and then some).

[But it's not easily transmittable and it will only affect people in the Third World, which is sad but at least it won't get to us.]

Meanwhile, as we await ebola, the knife-wielding psychopaths known as ISIS/ISIL rampage across swathes of Iraq and Syria, making a mockery of the US led efforts to control the region. All those trillions of dollars and thousands of lives expended add up to what, exactly?

[We brought them freedom and democracy but they're just too barbaric to understand it. Why can't people just be reasonable like us?]

And so now we have young men, and some women, heading from Britain, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere to go and fight a holy war against, well, us. In Britain these people are not considered friends, but in Denmark they are being welcomed back and given state support to help them readjust to life, reports Channel 4 News. One of them, fresh from the killing fields of Syria, had just returned to Denmark to be with his newborn son whom, he said he "would not stop from fighting jihad when he grows up."

What a strange setup! Is this a merging of the welfare state and the doctrine of endless war?

[You're such a liberal - next you'll be quoting Orwell at us.]

And the world seems to have forgotten, in the main, about the other major crises in Ukraine, Libya, Palestine/Israel, Nigeria and a dozen other hotspots. Fukushima's disappeared down the memory hole, as has Boko Harem, the mysteriously-shot down airplane and all that melting ice. Even Vladimir 'Hitler' Putin has been temporarily forgotten about, but will no doubt be back in vogue as soon as winter starts to bite in Eastern Europe.

[Well, he is really a VERY bad man - you can see it in his eyes, he looks just like a Bond villain!]

Instead we are treated to column acres about an actor marrying a lawyer in Venice, and something about a new iPhone that is much like the other ones but a bit bigger and not bendy.

[Don't pretend that you're not worried about Bendgate.]

Those with any sense will realise that all of this is what the last act of the Age of No Consequences drawing to a close. History hadn't ended after all, it had merely fallen asleep on the sofa watching Strictly Come Dancing.

[Oh, you're such a cynic. Pass me the Kool Aid*.]

"Drinking the Kool-Aid" refers to the 1978 Jonestown Massacre; the phrase suggests that one has mindlessly adopted the dogma of a group or leader without fully understanding the ramifications or implications.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fred Branfman RIP

Sad to hear that Fred Branfman has recently passed away in Budapest after suffering from ALS. Fred was one of the few journalists who questioned the official narrative of war and progress and was responsible for uncovering the CIA's Secret War in Laos. As a whistle blower, he courageously challenged power and told the unpleasant truth in his book Voices From the Plain of Jars. He also guided me in writing the chapter 'Resilience in the Face of Genocide' in the book Communities That Abide.

Fred termed the phrase 'automatic war' to describe a new mode of warfare pioneered in Laos and Vietnam that used planes and drones to bomb foreign countries into submission without the risk of 'boots on the ground' being killed.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

On Being Misinformed

“If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed.” Mark Twain
When you consider the immense challenges and problems that lie ahead of us, which include climate change, peak energy and resources and ecological overshoot, you might begin to wonder why this isn’t front page news day after day. Indeed, after flicking through a few newspapers and surfing a few television news channels and finding not much beyond celebrity news, sports updates and political commentary, you might indeed begin to wonder whether the issues discussed in blogs like this one are not merely something for people with too much time on their hands to contemplate, or worse, a paranoid illusion. This naturally begs the very reasonable question: if our civilisation is indeed circling the drain then why isn’t it in the news very often?
This is a very interesting question and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no single easy answer to it. Some people might insist that there is a global conspiracy to keep ‘the real news’ out of the reach of ordinary people, but having worked in several news rooms I can easily discount this from first-hand experience that no such conspiracy exists.* Instead, the answer is far more complex and nuanced and has its basis in herd psychology, money and the religion of progress. 
Taking the first of these three, herd psychology is probably the most obvious driver of the content that appears before our eyes in the form of newspaper print and television images. News organisations copy one another, and there is safety in numbers. The news media is traditionally a system of information dispersal that is hierarchical in its structure and relies upon a network made up of nodes of information providers that includes government spokespeople, company PR departments, experts, politicians and a bewildering array of people who claim to have a piece of unique information. Near the top of the food chain are news agencies who gather this diffuse information and sell it on down the network to other news organisations, who either republish it without modification, or else shape it to fit the style and prejudices of their particular audience. Thus a bland piece of information which states that the economy grew by 0.1% in Q3, can be interpreted as either a disaster or a cause to pop open the champagne bottles depending on whether the ownership/readership of the news organ supports government policy or not. 
When twisting information in this way to create a narrative there is an inherent danger. Propaganda, defined as the act of deliberately and one-sidedly shaping communications in a way that changes the thoughts and opinions of the target, has probably been practiced ever since humans learned to communicate by speech. Originally defined in religious terms—it derives from the Latin verb to grow—its use has become far more widespread and covert in modern times, with various techniques employed to ensure its efficacy. Two of the main techniques used today include omitting relevant information, and repeating the message ad infinitum. A prime example of this is the well-funded oil industry which uses propaganda to try and influence public opinion towards a belief that climate change is not real. It pumps money into key nodes in the upper echelons of the information hierarchy, notably small but influential think tanks and columnists in the right-wing news media, who then focus obsessively on small contradictions and anomalies in published climate science articles, creating doubt in the mind of the news consumer. By repeating this message over and over, the reader or viewer comes to a conclusion along the lines of ‘Well, if there wasn’t some truth in it then why's it all over the news?’
Of course, we're right in the middle of such a spectacle right now, with virtually all of the western media focusing dutifully on the official narrative that Russia is poised to launch a war against the peace-loving west. This is proving to be highly successful from the point of view of policy wonks in Washington, but disastrous to anyone who cares for the truth and enjoys living in a peaceful world. 
This kind of mind manipulation is not always sinister in the Machiavellian sense, but it does go to prove that messages can be hammered home effectively if the power structure and money is there (the west spent some $5 billion funding the overthrow of Ukraine's democratically-elected government, although you don't often see this fact published in the everyday media). It also leads to the creation of journalistic narratives, which are the bane of objective journalism. A journalistic narrative is a lazy way of conveying information that relies upon the fact that human beings love a good story. Journalism text books state that every story must have a human angle, which is a way of saying that nothing outside the human world is relevant unless it impinges upon us, and this is drummed into the heads of young reporters as soon as they start their careers. What they don’t state is that these human angles can take on a life of their own and create narratives that, once unleashed, are harder to strap down again than Frankenstein’s monster Adam. 
Once you are aware of these narratives it is easy to recognise them and it pays to be wary whenever you spot one. Going with the earlier example of economic news again, economics and finance journalists are able to employ the narrative of the sick patient. Because the vast majority of people understand very little about economics but, one way or another, have a vested interest in the economy performing well for their own personal wellbeing it necessitates journalists to use this sick patient metaphor. Hence all the talk of ‘recovery’. A recovery following a long illness is something that everyone can relate to—after all, they might not understand all of the medical terminology but they can certainly see that the patient has recovered when the colour has returned to his face and he’s sitting up in bed. The journalistic narrative of the ‘recovery’ which has been splashed all over the news for the last nine months or so makes good copy and will provide some cheer: the patient has made a full recovery - hurrah! But is it the truth?
In this case, the recovery that is being spoken of is framed in terms of GDP growth. But a little closer analysis reveals less to be excited about. The banking system is teetering on the edge of systemic collapse, personal debt has reached unprecedented levels, the velocity of money has plunged to depression levels, job security is at all-time lows—indeed almost every vital sign of the immensely complex system we call ‘the economy’ seems to be in a state of crisis—except for the stock markets, of course, which are inflated to bursting point from frenziedly feeding on liquidity. 
So, from practically every angle we have an economic disaster for the majority of people, but every major news source we look at, from the BBC to the Sun, talks about ‘the recovery’ as if it were a done deal. If the economy were indeed a hospital patient it would be a very sickly one—akin to a doctor pointing at a terminal cancer patient in a coma and saying he is in recovery because his toenails are growing longer. But the journalistic narrative of ‘the recovery’, which was likely talked up by various ministers and think tanks has got out of control and is now unchallengeable because to challenge it is to try and prove a negative. Journalists can get away with writing about it without the need to fact check because it has entered into the realm of ‘received wisdom’, along with immigrants being ‘benefits tourists’, gas fracking being a ‘bonanza’ and any of the other narratives that have been hatched, incubated and let loose. The only way that such narratives can be brought back in line with reality is for some shock to the system powerful enough to make journalists snap out of their slumber.
So propaganda can create journalistic narratives which people then use as the building blocks for their thought patterns, creating further feedback loops which impede the flow of valuable ‘real’ information into the public realm. This in turn creates a ‘don’t rock the boat’ mentality among news media, because although news outlets are notionally in competition with one another, in reality they share similarities with a tribe mentality. There is safety in numbers and if one news outlet breaks from the pack a taboo has been broken and disastrous consequences could ensue. 
A further powerful driver of news content is - surprise, surprise - money. This should be obvious enough but I will illustrate it with an example from my own life. I once lived in a beautiful part of southern Spain among the mountains and not too far from the coast. Our small farmhouse was situated in an idyllic series of valleys, little touched by modern civilisation because the access was so difficult and the natural environment provided bounteous amounts of fresh food and spiritual balm. One day I decided to walk to the top of the highest mountain there and, upon reaching the summit, I saw a terrible sight. On the coast nearby there stretched an immense sea of white that went all the way to the horizon out to the east. I had heard about the alarming spread of plastic greenhouses that were eating up the land, but from my vantage point I could clearly see it was spreading our way and would soon engulf the entire area. Further research revealed that this was a huge get-rich-quick scheme in which thousands of illegal wells were being drilled into the aquifer to irrigate the greenhouses. The salad crops grown within were exported north to European supermarkets and in their wake they left a trashed landscape of fluttering plastic, depleted aquifers and poisoned wells. Furthermore, local politicians had decided to divert water from local rivers to supply this plastic salad industry, which would mean the life of the area where I lived would soon be gone.
I had to do something to try and stop this so I set up a small local newspaper with the aim of highlighting the threat. I called it the Olive Press, and it was run from a small office in the main provincial town of Orgiva. It attracted a lot of attention, and its green focus drew in lots of writers who were keen to voice their concern about the ongoing destruction of their local environment. It became a great success in all but one thing: money. Every month I found that costs seemed to go up, but income remained anaemic at best. Everyone, it seemed, said they loved it, but they also wanted it for free and were unwilling or unable to support it financially. Eventually myself and the other editor decided to employ a salesman, who in fact worked as an estate agent in the adjoining office block. The first thing he did was turf out all of the small advertisers who were having trouble keeping up with their payments, and instead focused on bigger advertisers. So it was out with all the crystal healers, dog groomers and men with strummers, and in with the larger real estate agents, private medical practices and dodgy-looking investment opportunities.
Soon the money began to roll in and we could relax a little. People further afield began to hear about the newspaper and we began to expand. The print run was racketed up to 20,000 copies a fortnight and we would drive all over the province delivering them in bundles. Most of the stories we covered focused on local corruption and abuses of the environment. 
But this greater coverage and exposure came at a price and soon the complaints started to come in. One estate agent said he was ‘embarassed’ to show a copy of the Olive Press to potential buyers. He said it might put them off investing property in the region. Another businessman cancelled his full-page advert because he said the news within was ‘too realistic’. The sales manager asked us if we could ‘tone it down’ and publish some more light-hearted pieces. Both of us resisted and, as a result, money became tight again. I wrote an editorial about how climate change would likely change the region to a dustbowl a few decades hence and was slightly shocked to see that it ended up being printed opposite a full page advert for a low-cost airline. A clear split had emerged between myself and the sales staff, of which there were now three. It all ended acrimoniously, of course. After a year more of dysfunction I was forced to leave the newspaper, selling my share to a former Daily Mail showbiz columnist, who abandoned its original remit and instead focused on the glitzy Costa del Sol, where there was much more money. These days it is the largest foreign newspaper in Spain, and is full of stories about celebrity sightings.
Afterwards I realised this experience had taught me a valuable lesson in how money warps and eventually overwhelms the messages that a supposedly unbiased media is meant to portray. And although this was just a small newspaper the same thing can be seen happening throughout the mainstream media as long as advertising pays for content. Thankfully, a proliferation of blogs has sprung up like weeds between paving stones, eager to supply information that ranges from the relatively objective to the downright opinionated - but without the corrupting influence of having to chase a dollar. 
Finally, although the above might shed at least some light onto why the news media is systemically incapable of being objective in assessing risk and communicating this to the wider public, there is another factor at play which is a lot less tangible. The simple fact is that some truths may be too unpalatable to recount. Delivering bad news on the state of industrial civilisation is a modern day taboo, and it should come as no surprise that news editors avoid it like the, ahem, plague. Although it might make a quirky opinion piece or two, the nebulous and often unquantifiable nature of the subject matter and the inevitably shrill reactions of those who object makes for nervous editors. Talking about ecological overshoot in polite company is like waving a red flag at a bull. Before you know it a sensible discussion about finite carrying capacities has sunk into a slanging match of hurled insults and vituperous abuse and any further discussion becomes impossible. Highlighting our own limitations as a species is always going to be controversial - it’s taking the human interest angle just a step too far. 

Thus we are left in the situation where people are able to pick and choose their media based on their prejudices. The wonders of the internet mean that one never has to be troubled by troubling news again and you can indeed configure it so that you are treated to a continuous stream of videos of celebrities pouring buckets of water over their heads. Alternatively you can set your feeds, blogrolls and social media likes to permit you to gorge yourself on stories of collapse, economic frights, pandemics, massacres, beheadings and ecocide until you fall down dead over your keyboard. And that's the magic of technology.
Was it ever thus? 

* On the other hand, I find it perfectly feasible that the editors and publishers of mainstream national press organisations are routinely called in for 'meetings' and asked 'politely' to avoid publishing material that is not in the national interest for reasons of security or to avoid economic panics.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Muscle over Mind

Daemon: benevolent or benign nature spirits, beings of the same nature as both mortals and gods, similar to ghosts,chthonic heroes, spirit guides.

Greetings folks! I'm still here but haven't written anything in a while or been doing much in the way of online connecting generally. In fact I've been busy doing other things, mainly digging.

My days at the moment tend to involve digging out about half a ton of soil from the basement of our house, carrying it by bucket to a trailer and then driving it to our woodland where I unload it to build up various earthworks on the land, including a terrace for a polytunnel, a retaining wall for a large pond and another terrace. I then spend a couple of hours hacking up clay and rocks with a pick axe to deepen said pond and then return home to pick children up from school, make dinner and make sure they do their homework.

Usually, by the time they are in bed, I'm too shattered to do anything other than read.

I lost my part-time Danish translation job a couple of months back, which was what was keeping us afloat financially. As a direct result of this I found myself considering the unwelcome prospect of having to rejoin the so-called 'real world' and applying for a job at a newspaper. After much rationalisation I decided to go for it. On the day of the interview, which was for a chief reporter position, I found myself unable to don the required suit. I haven't worn my suit for many a year (it only sees light at funerals) and so instead I wore a casual shirt and jeans. It felt more comfortable. At the interview, which took place in a fairly large office in Truro, I found myself putting on the old act and talking in the acronyms and codewords that must necessarily accompany any discussion of journalism/marketing in the internet age (PPC campaigns, click-through ratios, Adwords etc), how to make stories 'viral' and how to drive traffic to sites via 'social media marketing'. As I waffled on I saw my daemon rise above me and stand there with his arms crossed, shaking his head slowly in disapproval at the sad spectacle before him. When I got home I felt sick.

Later that day the editor called to say that I didn't get the job. Something about me not having the requisite legal training meaning I would be a liability to the business if they employed me (I had pleaded that 'common sense' had always worked in the past, but these days it is not a valid excuse). When I'd finished whooping for joy I came to the sober realisation that this was the real thing: I was unemployable. I had applied for a number of menial jobs too, but was turned down for being 'too educated'. So this was it: make or break with my wits alone.

And that's why I've decided to go 'all in' with being a mushroom-growing, wood coppicing, herb-producing, permaculture-practicing, charcoal-burning woodlander.

Luckily for us my wife had managed to get a job as a community care worker at about the same time as I lost my job. It's one of those touted new jobs where you have no rights and get screwed at every level (she has worked 19 hours out of the last 24 for minimum wage and she has to pay the company money if she quits within the first year).

So what it all means is that I'm now the house-husband/manual labourer and that I've given myself a couple of years working flat-out at the woodland to try and make a business of it. I do get some government support, so it's quite an easy deal really, and we still manage to live lives on the level of, say, a lesser Egyptian pharaoh—on about a third of the average national wage for the UK. We also have a lot of fruit and veg growing, so food is nutritious and fresh from the back yard.

So please forgive the silence for a while. I have had a number of writing ideas gestating in my mind as I've been working. I was lucky enough to bag John Michael Greer to myself for an evening when he was over visiting the UK last month and discussed a few ideas over pints of bitter in a Glastonbury beer garden. So, I have a number of science fiction stories ready for writing this winter, with the first 'taster' one being published in 'Beyond Oil 3' (which you can read a draught of here). Before then I'll be aiming to finish my 'peak oil' book which has been on the back burner for a while.

This last one is going to include a lot of stuff that I have been reading recently in terms of Gaian thinking and perceptions. It's what my daemon says I should be doing with my time instead of playing at being a hack-drone in a corporate war zone.

So, that's it for now. The weather is hot and sultry here and they say it will hail golf balls tomorrow. Happy days.

p.s. I apologise for not responding to comments on my last post.

p.p.s. That's not me in the picture at the top.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Communities that Abide Kindle Version

I received my author copies of Communities that Abide yesterday. A few people on this side of the pond have asked how they can get hold of a copy but unfortunately the physical book was only available in the US and has indeed sold out.

However, fear not, the Kindle version is now available for download and is very reasonably priced.

Communities that Abide is a collection of articles put together by Dmitry Orlov and deals with concrete examples of peoples and communities that have demonstrated resilience. It's an eclectic mix of subject matter, with various articles including one about the emergent phenomenon of 'Sea Gypsies', courtesy of Ray Jason, a memoir of a lifeboat community courtesy of Albert Bates and some very useful information on how to deal with medical emergencies and health in the absence of a 'real' doctor courtesy of practising professional James Truong. There's even a section on (small scale) communism and the Kindle edition has a bonus chapter by allopathic practitioner Peter Gray.

My chapter, entitled Resilience in the face of Genocide, illustrates the time I spent in the southeast Asian nation of Laos—the most bombed country in history—and looks at the way tribal and village communities are evading the Chinese investment juggernaut. It's written in a half-travelogue, half-polemic format, and I detail narrowly avoiding being blown up by a bomb and undergoing an exorcism.

If you are in the UK/Europe you can order your copy here.

US readers can get hold of their copy here.

If you buy it and read it, please feel free to leave a review so that it receives more prominence.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Shooting the Breeze

You can hear me talking with Ibrahim Nour from the Doomstead Diner by following the link below. In it we talk about our general state of malaise and my decision to move back to the UK.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Black and White Swan

A couple of years ago I found myself driving through the industrial wastelands that make up the nexus between Belgium, Holland and Germany. The flat landscape rolled by under a heavy grey sky as I towed a trailer filled with our furniture from one part of Europe to another. I had passed through this area on several occasions before, and it was always my least favourite part of the journey due to the sheer dispiriting glumness of the scenery. It’s a landscape of business parks, factories and factory farms, truck stops and power stations. Rivers are corseted by concrete and horizons are cluttered with the droopy spider webs of power lines. Just to the north lies Rotterdam, Europe’s largest container port and, until recently, the world’s busiest, and to the south is Maastricht, famed as the place where the EU was birthed but nowadays a place where they are developing synthetic meat grown in test tubes. We are, of course, within the magnetic range of Brussels itself and the motorways around it buzz with high powered people driving high powered cars. 

From space this region is lit up with a particular intensity. It’s one of the most densely populated and industrialised places on Earth, marking it out as an economic power house. But down at ground level, apart from the occasional bird in the sky, the only other life forms visible in this landscape were some peculiarly muscular cows that stood around dociley in fields besides the motorways. Until I saw the swan. I was queuing up with all the other cars and lorries to pay a tunnel toll when I glanced out of the window and saw it lying in a concrete drainage culvert. It was an adult, perfectly white and immaculate but for a black scorch mark on one of its wings. Above it were the high voltage cables that had ended its life. 

For some reason, whenever I think of the the EU I think of that electrocuted swan lying there on the concrete. No doubt, later on, a municipal sanitation operative would have come along with a machine and taken away the dead swan along with the fast food cartons, cigarette butts and bottles of urine that truckers routinely toss out of windows across Europe.

I have been thinking about that black and white swan again recently with all the brouhaha about the latest European elections. There’s been a lot of talk about shocks and landslides and earthquakes, not least here in the UK where the anti-EU UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) managed to get around a third of the vote from people who could be bothered to turn off their televisions for fifteen minutes, making them the clear winners. Elsewhere across Europe there were more ‘extremist’ wins, including the Front National (FN) in France and the Danish People’s Party (DPP) in Denmark—although to be fair they have been a force for a long time. Across the board, in country after country, voters elected to deliver a blow to the established parties. People, it seems, are pissed off.

And is it any wonder? Day after day we are told by a compliant media that the economy is in great shape—that we’ve never had it so good. And yet day after day more and more people find themselves unable to pay their rent, put food on the table or get a job that pays more than subsistence wages. Even if you manage to get a job, you’ll more than likely be put on a zero hours contract, meaning that you are officially employed but will be unable to claim benefits should your manager decide to put you on one hour a week. Many thousands, if not millions, have tried to escape this new form of slavery and have been forced to declare themselves as self-employed. But being self-employed offers even less of a safety net than a zero hours contract, even though it is good news for the politicians who can crow on about a ‘nation of entrepreneurs’ and falling unemployment statistics. 

Anyway, for me, the fascinating thing about this latest election was the way the British media (mis)handled UKIP. The two mainstream media news sources that I read most regularly are the Guardian, which likes to see itself as progressive and attempts to squeeze most news stories through the prism of gender politics, and the Telegraph, which is properly right-wing nasty and sounds like a crazed and drunken homophobic uncle forced to attend a gay wedding on a wind farm. I sometimes read the amusingly-named Independent, if I haven’t anything better to do, and occasionally torment myself by looking at the BBC, whose main objective seems to be to bore you to death. If I watch TV news, it’ll be on Channel 4, which sometimes has some interesting documentaries.

And here’s the amusing thing, every single one of these MSM news sources tried to bring down UKIP, with disastrous results. Just look back at any of the stories published a week or two ago about UKIP or its leader Nigel Farage and you can get your UKIP bingo cards out. The cards feature the following words: racist, fruitcake, sham, anti-gay, xenophobic, fiasco, coward, gaffe, anti-immigrant and farce. It became quickly obvious that the MSM right across the spectrum (with the exception of the populist tabloids such as the Mail and the Sun) were out to get UKIP, which represented a threat to their respective constituencies, and had decided to work as a pack to bring this maverick down. No stone was left unturned to dig up dirt on Nigel Farage, UKIP or and of his merry band of followers, including a dotty Greek billionaire who believed that humankind would perish because women were allowed to wear trousers. Comments sections were flung wide open underneath online articles and much rabid hatred ensued, with ‘fascist’ being the most over-used word.

The thing was, every time such an attack took place, it looked more and more like our Fourth Estate was trying to protect the established powers that be, and the mask slipped just a little bit further. And every time it did so, a few more people concluded that if the media were so anti UKIP then UKIP might just be the party for them. Which begs the question, what is the point of having a media if all it does is amplify the status quo?

Now, at this point, some people might think that I’m a UKIP supporter. I’ll put your mind at rest and reveal that I voted for the Green Party—the only party that offers even an iota of a chance at making our predicament a little less painful. But the same media machine that accidentally propelled UKIP to a win was able to crush the Greens into the dust, as they always do, by never mentioning them. If they ever do get a mention we are effectively told that the Greens are not a serious party because they don’t embrace limitless capitalism. And they only have a single issue, which is, er, everything that's important.

And so the polite, sandal wearing, permaculture-practicing Greens were once again trounced (although not the one I voted for, who was elected to the European Parliament) and the beery, loud mouthed ‘normal blokes’ UKIP were propelled to victory.

There has been plenty of wailing, but I feel strangely reassured by the result. Democracy seems to be working, for once. I hope I don't lose any friends for saying this, but I have to say what I believe in. I don’t think it does any good screaming ‘fascist’ at people who voted for UKIP or accusing them of being ‘racists’ for wanting to limit the number of people coming into the UK. To do so is immensely disrespectful of people who have to put up with real fascists and dictators and who live in fear of being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night and disappearing without a sound—a fate that happens to thousands of people around the world every year.

So, I’m not for UKIP, but I am all in favour of calling in the EU and examining what exactly it is that we’re signing up for. I know why a lot of people hate UKIP, and it has more to do with hating the types of people who vote for them than the actual party. Comparisons with Hitler are not particularly useful as anyone with even a scant knowledge of history will know that fascism doesn’t flourish easily on British soil (it prefers continental Europe—one of the reasons I moved back here). The Greens should learn a thing from UKIP and be the ‘nice’ anti EU party, such as Italy’s 5 Star Movement has done.

I haven’t always been against the EU because, like most people, I bought the idea that it was all about peace and stability. More importantly, in the minds of most, it was all about not having to visit a bureau de change when you went on holiday. And I’ve always been utterly European. I’ve lived in five different European countries and speak several of its languages. My family spans three countries and I don’t think I could live on any other continent. 

When I was doing my gap year at university in 1992 I worked for the the Treasury in Westminster. I had to write my economics dissertation that year and my tutor suggested I write about monetary union in Europe. The Treasury library was more than happy to order me a load of books (at the taxpayer’s expense) detailing the ‘inevitability’ of full monetary union, and my tutor suggested that he’d give me a good mark no matter how badly I’d written it ‘As long as you conclude the inevitability of full monetary union,’. I did and he did.

Ever since then we’ve been swept along on a railroad of propaganda and fake ‘choices’. The EU does not want member states to hold referendums on important matters as was so clearly demonstrated early on with the Danish referendum where they voted ‘no’ (and the subsequent referendum where they were more or less ordered to vote ‘yes’) and the later enlargement treaties. In fact, it is acting more and more like a federal dictatorship. As far as I’m aware, nobody in the mainstream media has focussed on the fact that the EU effectively got rid of two democratically-elected heads of state (in Greece and Italy) and installed technocratic puppets to enact austerity. The patient and tolerant people in Spain, Portugal and Greece are putting up with the kind of grinding austerity without end that people in northern Europe probably wouldn’t be able to bear (although we’ll soon have to). And I’m still waiting for the media outrage over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between itself and the US which would effectively hand over control of democratic rights to transnational corporations.

That last one bears repeating. The EU and the US are currently trying to impose a trade deal on us in the name of growth that would take away our basic democratic rights. Monsanto will be able to sue your government if they decide to ban roundup. Big pharma will be able to take your country to court if it tries to protect children’s health by, say, reducing the availability of sugary drinks. 

Is that the kind of brave new world that we want? It makes my head spin that progressives and people on the left still see the EU as a benign entity that is somehow a force for good. It might have been once, but to think that it still is is to place blind faith in the idea that power does not somehow beget more power. And yet even when it was regarded as ‘benign’ by ‘pro-Europeans’ it was still enacting the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy—possibly two of the most environmentally destructive and famine-inducing policies in world history. We Europeans enjoyed swimming in milk lakes and climbing grain mountains while people in Africa starved as a result and the seas were emptied of marine life.

I, for one, enjoyed the early years of the EU. I remember the joy of getting my first red European passport, and the thrill of passing through an open border without having to show that passport. I also took great delight in seeing some of our home-grown predators have their wings clipped by the EU and seeing victims of power abuse find redemption in the European Court of Human Rights. I proudly called myself a European and fervently hoped that Britain would also adopt the euro currency. You could hop on a sleek train in London and get off in a short time later in Paris. It all seemed so modern and progressive. 

There were, of course, some people shouting ‘danger!’ from the rooftops—but I didn’t listen to them. These people got lumped in with the xenophobes, the Little Englanders and the crusty British cargo culters who wore navy blazers and swilled scotch in country golf clubs. 

But has the EU now ironically become a threat to Europeans themselves? An optimist would say that it brings people together, promotes growth and acts as a bulwark against other superpowers. But step outside the mainstream media for a moment and you might equally conclude that it has transformed into a morally bankrupt powerhouse of rapacious capitalism—an engine for keeping northern Europe economically afloat at the expense of the southern Europeans. Remember, Mario Draghi pledged to do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep the euro currency from imploding, even if that means toppling democratically elected leaders, pumping billions of euros into bankrupt financial institutions and selling voters to corporate interests for a fistful of dollars. Just what kind of democracy is this?

If Greece, for example, were allowed to leave the euro and bring back the drachma its problems would evaporate almost overnight. Its new (old) currency would be correctly valued by the markets, making its exports much more competitive. Tourists would flock there to get a good value holiday, people would buy Greek products again and, equally importantly, Greeks would feel like they were in charge of their own affairs once more and would not feel compelled to support parties like the Golden Dawn. But, of course, the ECB will not allow that to happen. The euro must not be compromised in any way, shape or form. And so the Greeks get poorer, are forced to sell their beaches and national treasures just to pay the interest on their unpayable loans, and the Germans retain their ability to earn money from China and the media says things like ‘the worst is over’ and ‘the crisis has been resolved’. And the anger and frustration spreads and grows like a cancer.

So people have voted UKIP, FN and DPP out of frustration at not being listened to. These things happen with predicable regularity when the economic conditions turn sour. Charismatic leaders attempt to scapegoat minorities and make all sorts of promises, even if they aren’t able to deliver on them. People are fed up with the usual bunch of clowns harping on about economic recovery and change, egged on by their media lapdogs, and promising nothing more than business as usual while enriching their pals at their expense. And now, in the European Parliament, we have an unholy rabble of people who want to expand the EU standing next to people who want to destroy the EU as well as the usual environmentalists, conservatives, communists and socialists. Talk about an odd mix. 

So what do all these ‘political earthquakes’ add up to? Could it be the first faint rumble of the beginning of the end for the grand European project? Was the EU just a freak expansion of power straddling the pinnacle of the age of cheap oil? Will people rise up and claim back their democratic sovereignty before it is too late to do so? We can only hope so because if the EU carries on much longer in its present configuration it can only end in one thing, and that was the very thing its creation was supposed to prevent. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How much is too much?

I've been doing rather a lot of manual labour recently—digging out a basement, digging out a pond and using the spoil from both to build a foundation for the poly tunnel on a sloping field. As I'm sure most of you know, doing work such as this is a great way to ponder things over: the body is occupied so the mind is free to roam. As such there are often thoughts drifting through my head that I try to file away mentally under the category 'Possible blog topics'. Often, however, they are merely questions for which I have no answer.

One such thought occurred to me last week as I attempted to dig over a patch of turf and turn it into a small area for planting vegetables. Labouring away with a mattock, I first had to break the sod, then turn it over and break it up some more with a few more vigorous hacks. Then I had to bend over and pull out the various bits of grass and weeds before moving onto the next bit. When it was all done I had to break up the large clumps of soil and dig little trenches for the seedlings to sit in, and finally I had to put rabbit-proof fence around it and lay a slug trap (a plastic milk bottle, half full of beer, set into the soil). It was quite an effort, but by the end of six or so hours I had a nice patch of turned earth in which to plant some sweetcorn, peas, beans and turnips.

While I was doing this, in the next field over, a man turned up with a tractor. It wasn't a quaint old-style tractor that you might see on a picture of an old farm—no, this was one of those giant modern ones that looks like an SUV on steroids. Indeed, it was so large that it was wider than the country lane leading to the field—which was only ever meant to be wide enough for two horses to pass—and I later saw that it had driven there with one wheel on the verge, leaving a trail of crushed wildflowers in the process. In a quarter of the time it took me to dig my little patch by hand, the tractor went over the entire 10 or so acres in the neighbouring field, turning and tilling the soil until it was a fine crumbly mixture, and then planting many thousands of potatoes in it.

Which got me thinking: how much energy is too much energy? From the perspective of the agribusiness that owns the land adjacent to mine, their method is obviously seen as the most efficient. After all, they no doubt have fleets of tractors, easy-flowing credit and lakes of pesticides to throw at the 'problem' of getting the land to yield a saleable commodity. My method, by contrast, is highly inefficient. For all the physical energy I put in, I'll probably get back about the same amount in terms of calories—assuming the birds, rabbits and slugs don't jump into the middle of my equation and eat my produce first.  In energy return terms, my method probably comes in at 1:1 or slightly less (although it would be higher if I were planting potatoes or other starchy crops).

But that wouldn't be taking into account all the other factors that, in my opinion, make the low-tech human-powered method the more sustainable. Here are some of the things that I count as benefits, but which would not show up on the balance sheet of the agribusiness 'farming' the next field:

- I am not disturbing the soil too much. More and more research is showing that deep ploughing by machinery is ruining the structure and the content of soil. It takes years—decades even—for soil to find a healthy balance, and by violently disturbing it every few months we destroy the immensely complex communities of organisms that make soil soil rather than dirt. [Taking this further, when my poly tunnel is up I'll be experimenting with no-dig gardening, in which the soil is hardly disturbed at all.]

- I am not killing too many earth worms. Worms are our soily allies. They turn decaying matter into worm casts, which is highly enriching for soil and plants. There are inevitably a few casualties even when digging by hand, but this is nothing in comparison to the millions that must be sliced in half by the tractor blades next door. And no, cutting a worm in half does not make two worms - it makes two halves of a dead one.

- I am getting exercise. No need to join a gym when you spend the day digging!

- It costs me almost nothing (I already own the land, the tools and the seeds) - which is very helpful as I have recently lost the only means of paid employment I had and every penny counts.

- I am fostering a deeper sense of my place in this particular ecosystem. Instead of seeing the land as something I can bludgeon into submission with chemicals and machines, I get to see it as it really is: a community of organisms working together to create the whole. I am but one organism within that rich community, and by working slowly and deliberately my mind has time to adjust to this reality rather than be shielded from it.

- The food will nourish me and my family far more than the chemically-raised mono crop being grown in the field next to me. My food is grown from organic heritage seeds, will be eaten fresh and won't be packaged. The distance it will travel before it is eaten will be negligible.

- I am being part of the human community in the area. By working the land and growing food and fuel I will be able to swap it with others, or even give them some if they need it. By contrast, the agribusiness does nothing but take. None of the local people even know who is driving the tractors, who owns the business or where the money goes to. It certainly doesn't end up in the local area.

I'm sure we could all think of other benefits, but the point is that 'efficiency' is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to growing food. In essence, I managed to dig enough ground to grow some healthy and nutritious food for me and my family, and during the same time the man driving the tractor—probably earning minimum wage—earned enough to buy a few Big Macs (and the company he was working for probably earned a few thousand pounds to pay in dividends to shareholders or purchase some more distressed land from yet another broke farmer). I could summarise as:

Agribusiness: How many costs can we externalise so that the land earns the business maximum profits?
Me: How much money can the land save me, and how many other intangibles can it earn both for me and it?

In a nutshell, the agri-business is exploiting what remains of any integrity the land has at the expense of its longer term viability. By wrecking the soil structure, dousing it with chemicals and growing four crops per year (one crop of daffodils, two crops of potatoes and one crop of cabbages last year) the soil has been reduced to little more than a medium for absorbing chemicals and keeping plants upright in. What's more, the field is being ploughed in the wrong direction, with the tractor driving up and down the contours rather than across them, meaning that every time there is a heavy burst of rain the local roads and streams are turned bright red with soil being washed away. This soon finds its way into the sea, and I saw a large bloom of red in the sea back in March as the soil was washed away.

But, in any case, why should the tractor driver care if the soil is washed away? He is probably a migrant worker and is being paid by the job, so the quicker he can get it done the better. He will move onto a new job in a different area the next day and there is no obvious reason for him to care about the damage being done to the land. He's just doing his job, right? Who can we locals complain to about the soil that is being washed away if it is not 'our' soil and we don't know which companies are responsible for this act of vandalism?

Yet all of this damage is possible because of cheap fossil fuels. Oil to turn into pesticides, gas to turn into fertiliser, oil to build and fuel the tractors, oil to transport and process the produce far and wide and oil to keep the economic model ticking over and provide a basis for leveraged debt-based growth to occur in order that giant agribusiness conglomerations can claim that this is the only efficient way of growing food.

So, the question remains, how much energy is too much energy and at what point does too much cheap energy begin to kill us?