Friday, June 26, 2015

New Blog - Seat of Mars

Please check out my new fiction story Seat of Mars. The story concerns a sudden breakdown of society and all the bedlam that ensues. A new chapter will be added every Sunday.

Think of this story as a bookend. This is one end, starting in the present day, and at the far end is my story Saga and the Bog People, which has just been published in the After Oil 3 anthology. This story, and subsequent ones, will fill in the interim 500 years between now, and that distant future society I envisaged set in Greenland.

I hope you enjoy this story - feel free to leave feedback and comments. When I have completed enough of the story I will publish it in paperback and ebook format.

To view the blog click here.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Three Little Vines

Death by the seaside. I didn't see the ambulance or, later, the hearse that came to take him away. The first sign something was amiss was the letting agent and the young woman, shaking hands on the street outside. No wake, no period of grace in a cut-throat lettings market. Speaking of throats, that's what got him in the end. Cancer of the oesophagus, said Myrtle. She'd lived in the house next door for sixty years and had seen it all. The old man, who'd had neither a phone nor much a voice (but for a chesty rasping sound) used to call on her for help. Help to call a doctor, or a taxi. There was nobody else - no family, no friends - he could have asked for help. "This used to be such a nice street," said Myrtle. "Everyone knew each other back in the day."

When they found him he was slumped at his desk, whisky tumbler half empty. A five bedroom house with five separate lives. Make that four. On the top floor the fat bald man who walks around in his underwear, who hasn't turned off either the loudly blaring TV set or the incandescent light bulb - even for a moment - in the two years since we've lived opposite. Then there is the shifty young bloke, whose hoodie friends, if that's what they are, come and go at all hours of the day and night. Just for balance, let me mention the clean-cut man with the steady job who leaves each morning wearing a high-vis jacket and sparks up a rollie on his way out the door. There must be one or two others living there too, including the one who likes to blast out rave music on a weekend, but none of them thought to check on the old man until a few days after his room had fallen silent.

I never spoke to him, didn't know his name or his story. Sometimes, whilst sitting at my computer, if I peered out the window and through the unruly rose bush with its nodding flower heads, I could just make out the ghost of his face behind the net curtains. He lived and died on the downstairs floor. Witnesses pieced together his last moves. Had he known that this was the day? What had caused him to tidy his few belongings together that evening? To put on his best clothes and to set off on a steady shuffling walk out of the house, through the day-warm streets past walls dripping in purple valerian, Mexican flea bane and Dalmatians, and down to the seafront where the gulls endlessly wheel and the dinghies sit lop-sided in the mud. How long did he contemplate the ocean, knowing that now, after such a long period of waiting, it was his time to embark. And then, when the sun set, to make the return trip, stopping at the off license to buy the bottle of cheap whisky to ease his passage.

On that evening, as he left, had we not yet pulled the curtains on our own lives? Would he have seen us in our illuminated living room, eating our dinner together, talking, laughing and enjoying our lives? Or had we already pulled the curtains and all he could see was a chink of light escaping from the shut-out world within?


Wasted. I knock on the door, a woman with orange skin answers. She is wearing a gold lamé top, has green lipochemicals smeared around her eyes and wants to know what the hell I want. I am here to clean the apartment, I inform her, and point out that checkout time is 10 even though it is now 11.  She gives a silly little giggle and tells me she isn't going anywhere soon in broad Estuary English. Her baby is sleeping - do I know how hard it is to get a baby to sleep? - and she's paid a lot of money to stay there and the last thing she needs is me telling her to leave. Who do I think I am? I tell her that someone else will shortly be arriving and I have only so long to get everything ready. "Your problem not mine," she says, and shuts the door on me.

Fine, I think. Make the best of this situation. I wander down to the beach and fill several plastic bags with seaweed that has washed up on the shore. These sea plants are marvellous - some have great rubbery bodies with octopus-like suckers, others are luminescent green fronds that look like they could grow on Venus, and I never get tired of the slithering bladdery perfection of kelp. I go back to the car and place my stash of alien sea treasures it in the boot next to the bags of clean laundry that smell of Ocean Breeze detergent. The seaweed is for my pollytunnel, I am turning it into food. I hope it understands and doesn't mind. Cornish people have done the exact same thing for millennia, but I recently discovered that most beaches, and all the seaweed lying on them, are owned by the Queen and that what I am doing is illegal without a license.  Oh well.

An hour has passed and I head back to the apartment. All the lights are on, the windows are open and the big flat-screen is blaring loudly. The BMW 3 series with the child seat has gone. I knock tentatively on the door. No answer. I put in the key and let myself in. Inside, it is trashed. For a moment I think there has been a violent break-in and that the woman and her child are tied up in a closet. But no.

Drawers are pulled out and thrown around haphazardly, the floor is covered in toys - dozens of cheap plastic toys with the price tags still on them - as well as supermarket carrier bags, half-full and empty bottles of Evian mineral water and used nappies that exude a sickly sweet smell. In the kitchen there is a week of washing up. Burned strips of bacon are stuck inside the oven - clearly the aborted aftermath of an attempt at 'cooking' - and the fridge is full of half-eaten steaks, baby food and more water bottles. Every surface is covered with bits of junk: more toys, gossip magazines, colouring crayons, used batteries. In the bathroom there are piles of discarded beauty products, feminine razors galore, and the stash of clean white fluffy towels I left in one of the closets are tossed around and smeared with baby excrement. The evidence of clothes shopping frenzy is there, with price tags, plastic hangers and Next bags all over the place.

Outside there are ten large bin bags filled with trash. I rip one of them open to see what's inside. It's mostly more empty water bottles, dirty clothes and used nappies. I ponder how can one person generate so much waste. Our family struggles to fill a single bag in a week, but this woman has filled one and a half a day. I sigh and get down to work. It takes me until the evening, but luckily the next guests don't arrive until late. They are coming from Germany, so I know that when they leave in a week's time the apartment will be spotless.

The next day and I am onto the next property. It's an idyllic old cottage overlooking the bay in a small photogenic village of the kind you see in lifestyle magazines. A young couple and their small child have stayed there for two weeks. The previous week they had locked themselves out and I had driven over to let them in again. The man had been genial and appreciative but said his wife was 'freaking out' over the matter. This is bad. Whenever I hear that female guests are freaking out over some small matter it usually means the place will be left in a kind of 'fuck you' mess. I wasn't too far wrong.

I hoover up all the sand, clean all the smears off the extensive glass windows and rummage through the bins for food. I always do this. Sometimes there is very little, but on this occasion the bins are liberally overflowing with fresh food. I find packets of organic baby tomatoes from Spain, mange touts from Zimbabwe, Waitrose carrots, packets of butter and bacon, entire unopened litre bottles of Innocent apple juice, chocolate puddings, the cream tea I had placed for them on their arrival. All in all I estimate there to be about £50 worth of unopened and uneaten food. There is more down near the bottom of a black bag but it's covered in a viscous liquid that looks like whale bile, but I leave it alone.

As I drive home I listen to the news on the radio. The man at the BBC says we are officially entering the sixth great extinction. It is the third thing he mentions, after something about David Cameron proposing something or other about reforming some institution, or something, and another item about corruption in the world of football. I slip in a CD. It's a new one I bought. Gravenhurst. There's a song called Black Holes in the Sand. I listen as I drive along the A394, heading back to Penzance.

in the small hours I realise what I have done 
in the small hours I realise what I have done 
I held the hand that threw the stone that killed the bird that woke the city 

in the small hours I realise what I have done
in the small hours I realise what I have done


Solstice. A still evening. The mist hovers around the shore, clearing every now and again to reveal St Michael's Mount out in the bay. Feeble waves are plopping on the sand a few feet away from the pile of wooden pallets stacked up as an offering for the goddess. The smells of roasting meat and roasting veggie burgers suffuse the still air, and although it is getting late children weave around the groups of adults sitting on the sand. Looking forwards, out to sea, very little in the way of human creation is evident. Turning 180 degrees, back to the land, it is all supermarkets, busy roads and car dealerships. The sodium lights from the rail marshalling yard light up a faint mizzle as we stand around on this patch of unloved strand (known locally as Dogshit Beach) waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon and the journey towards winter to begin.

There are maybe a hundred of us, ranging in age from the just-born right up to the about-to-be-born-again. There are probably more than the statistical average number of greybeards and women with flowers in their hair. One girl had realistic prosthetic pointed ears that I discreetly have to study quite closely to look for the join. A few tourists hold up iPhones to film it all.

Simon, holding bunches of flowers and a can of accelerant, is leaping around like a pyro, and Ned - who at other points on the calendar can be seen dressed as a giant crow or a tree - is walking around with a shiny new axe that looks suspiciously like the ones they sell in Jim's Discount Store for £3. "Who will be the first to bury the hatchet?" he cries out.

A largeish log had been placed on the sand as a receptacle of absorption. On this midsummer night one is urged to let go of any animosities and frustrations one holds, striking the log with the hatchet and expelling the negativity with a blood-curdling scream - or whimper, as the case may be. People step forwards and strike the log with the axe. One woman, clearly unused to handling the tool, misses and almost cuts off her toes instead. Simon steps forwards with the flowers, calling forth the females. Children, some excited and some bemused, are handed red roses, purple sea mallow and yellow St Johns wort, which they place atop the pile of shipping pallets ready for cremation.

Simon squirts the fuel and touches the bonfire with his flaming torch. Whoomph! The evil spirits of elf n' safety have not been invited tonight. All of a sudden the flames go up and everyone cheers. Fiddles and drums are pulled out and the celebrants begin to dance around the flames as black smoke pours into the sky. Ned comes forward with the hate-filled log and tosses it into the inferno. Another cheer. Cups of cider are refilled, some fire dancing happens and the mizzle comes on a bit stronger but fails to dampen the spirits.

And so another turning point of the year is marked in proper fashion, hatreds and animosities are  cleansed by fire and the days begin to grow shorter. It seems strange to consider that in only six months we will all be on the far side of the sun in our solar system - almost 200 million miles away - celebrating the lengthening of the days and the return to summer, and all that can and will happen in our little earthling lives between now and then.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

His Master's Voice

This is just a short rhetorical interlude about the tone of voice used on the various blogs, podcasts and sites that discuss issues surrounding collapse. Because, it occurred to me, that the tone of voice used represents a conundrum. The majority of the more widely-visited sites use an authoritative 'master's voice' i.e. "X is X because of Y, and don't you dare quibble with me." These are the guys who sell books and make a living by being collapse pundits.

Then we have the other flavour of collapse site which could be characterised as  being more open to discussion. The tool used to jemmy open the various complex topics and challenging subjects is one of enquiry, and there is a tacit acceptance that having a whole bunch of different educated opinions is more useful than having a single authoritative voice booming down from the impenetrable heights of Mount Collapse Blog.

I'm not saying that either is the correct approach. I'm more than grateful to those writers and thinkers out there who efficiently state their case with authority and clarity, and in fact I tend to lean towards them in helping clarify my own thinking. But it takes a kind of self-confidence that I am not in possession of to be able to talk that walk. One must have sound academic credentials, or have lived through a collapse, or be a professor of something in order to able to pull that one off.

And it's a puzzling thing too, because the more you learn, the more you realise how little you know about how the wider systems work and how they interact with one another. There's the irony. I've hobnobbed with a few of the grey-beards and privately they're a lot less sure of things than they sound when their words are printed on a page. Perhaps it's merely the charged atmosphere of the collapsosphere - the "my intellectual model of reality is bigger than your intellectual model of reality" mentality that is at play. I accept that. If one sounds uncertain of one's opinions then your enemies will seize upon this as a weakness.

Of course, there are some things we can all agree on - things where anything but an authoritative voice would be a cop out. Infinite growth cannot continue on a finite planet. Printing money is no substitute for creating economic value. Oil production will peak and fall over time. Pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will have a greenhouse effect. These are all indisputable facts that are often contorted and twisted in our age of illusions. We can agree on that, I hope.

I hope to be able to strike a middle ground. Not to be too wishy-washy, but I accept that there are many things out there that I don't understand or only have a limited understanding of how they interact with a wider reality. History is full of curve balls and sudden crashes. That's why I value the input and opinions of a variety of different voices, even if they sometimes conflict with one another.

Will human civilisation crash and burn in the next twenty years or will we simply evolve into new species and carry on for a few million years? Will this herd of short-sighted humans plunge en masse off Seneca's cliff or pass slowly into the twilight lowlands of simplified technology and minimal energy availability over the next few centuries? Who knows? Nobody really knows, but the fact that we cannot achieve intellectual closure on these issues doesn't make them any less interesting to consider. I have a friend who is into crop circles. He's been studying them for decades and, during that time, has seen people come and go from the field (no pun intended). These people have come onto the scene guns blazing, claiming to know what the circles are and what caused them - and inevitable they have left with their tails between their legs in a matter of months or years as their theories have been disproved.

My friend has maintained his position as an 'expert' merely by admitting that he doesn't know what they are. The more he studies them, the more he learns and - perhaps - the less he understands, but he has avoided taking the bait of intellectual closure. Instead he continues to research and learn, always with an open mind and wary of the fact that he is operating on the extreme intellectual margin. Ironically, in these times where reason trumps intuition, this makes him something of an expert.

So how much intellectual grasp do we need? And is this achieved through listening to some top-down authoritative voice, or by taking part in online bear pits where every opinion is equally as valid? What, in fact, are our objectives here?

Anyway, it's just something to ponder as you browse your favourite blogs.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Misrule Britannia

When I moved back to the UK two years ago after living abroad for a while, nobody could accuse me of not knowing what I was getting into. For quite some time pundits in the collapsosphere have been calling out the UK as one of the riskiest countries in which to live, right up there with Japan. Not only do we have a nation that is heavily over-populated with respect to its resource base, but one which hosts one of the world's major world financial viper pits. It's a nation where Arab playboys drive gold-plated Ferraris around the gentrified streets of London while snot-nosed urchins everywhere else go to school without eating breakfast. It's a nation where an unelected old lady in a £300 million hat recently sat on a throne and managed to keep a straight face while announcing her government's plans to slash money for the poor. Basically it's a nation engaged in a war of attrition between those with wealth and those without.

But something in the air has changed since the recent election in which David Cameron's Tories won a majority in the House of Commons. Within days - unshackled for their former collation with the moderating hand of the Liberal Democrats -  there were announcements of plans to walk away from human rights treaties, to impose a 'snoopers charter' of surveillance, to further slash welfare spending, push through the TTIP 'trade' agreement, ramp up fracking, bring back fox hunting with hounds. The Left have been howling in pain ever since.

Although all this was to be expected of the 'nasty party' the one thing that nobody seems to be talking about is how the nation itself will manage to survive as a modern state given the, ahem, challenges it faces. The three main immediate challenges, as I see it, come from the realms of finance, energy and politics. Failings in each one of them alone could prove disastrous, but it seems as if we will get to witness all three calamities occur simultaneously. 

Let's take finance first. 

I've been trying to get to the bottom of what the UK's debt/deficit position is. Mention 'the deficit' and most people emit a strangled howl of indignation. "Don't you know the deficit is a tissue of lies fabricated by the right wing who want to impose Dickensian conditions on the poor?" they ask. Granted, it doesn't seem fair to cut the benefits of society's most needy while simultaneously heaping more money up at the other end of the spectrum, but that wasn't the question. That's simply what failing states do - the more powerful grab what they can at the expense of the less powerful. It's all there in the history books. The next act usually involves pitchforks. 

But this time is different, they argue. Money can now be created by magic, and all we need to do is do whatever it is that those clever folks at the Bank of England (or Bitcoin) do to create more of it using their computers. And, bingo, then we can simply spend it on 'making things great again'. The country can continue to produce 'services' again, everybody will have a decent standard of living once more and we will be back on track to that future of driverless cars, space missions and living to 150.

Money might not seem important if you think it isn't important, but that doesn't alter the fact that throughout modern history there has not been a time when money is not considered important. Especially to creditors, of which the UK has a lot. So, in a kind of back of the envelope way, I decided to try and get a grip on how much debt the government owes. It seems that the total debt is about £1.5 trillion, and the annual deficit is running at about £107 billion - or over £2 billion a week. At that rate the proposed 'austerity' of £12 billion will thus be used up in six weeks. This doesn't matter, according to the economists in the mainstream media, because Britain's economy is doing so well that the annual deficit will be wiped out by rising tax receipts in a couple of years. 
Yet tax receipts from oil and gas have fallen by about 75% since 2008, and will probably drop to zero when North Sea oil and gas stops flowing completely in a couple of years' time (still no mention of this in the media...). And tax receipts are falling as a) more people are in lower-paid jobs and/or falsely counted as employed because they have been forced to declare themselves self-employed b) the larger companies have had their corporation taxes cut and can avoid paying tax entirely if they have savvy accountants.

VAT receipts are flat as most consumers have maxed out their credit cards and run out of spending power. The only way they can rise is if people take on EVEN MORE personal debt - which a lot have actually been doing (currently average personal debt is running at an all-time record of 172% of income, according to a PwC report). But personal debt needs to be repaid one day, and with falling real incomes and plenty of hidden stealth inflation (e.g. food items getting smaller, durable goods getting shoddier, hidden charges becoming more unavoidable etc.) that will become more difficult.

Moneyweek's take on the debt situation

Future projections of the debt/deficit all presuppose a 'healthy' and growing economy. This seems very unlikely IMO given that a financial 'accident' is likely to happen at any moment. And all the while the structural deficit grows larger as the population ages, annuities reach maturity and the bill for the NHS soars. In this context GDP figures don't really mean anything useful: the economy might be improving but it's not the economy that most people ordinarily live in. Plus, any downgrade of the economy by ratings agencies caused by - say - a fracture of the UK, or a severe credit event, will have a knock-on effect on the government's ability to borrow cheaply  and we will simply end up paying the interest on the national credit card, while the capital debts piles up. The interest on this debt alone already costs us £55 billion a year and that's with interest rates at near zero.

All in all, it's difficult not to conclude that the UK is insolvent. But, in any case, perhaps that doesn't matter because this brings me onto the political aspect of the crisis: perhaps there soon won't even be a UK (after all, what do you call a bunch of small countries that are not united?). Since Scotland got royally shafted in their Independence referendum they replied by booting out practically every MP from a Westminster party and instead elected Scottish National Party members to speak up for them. The upshot of this is that David Cameron wants to press ahead with swingeing austerity measures (which, looking at the dire financial figures will actually have to be FAR worse than most people imagine) - but the Scots say they won't accept it north of the border. It's difficult to imagine all of us in England and Wales living in Third World conditions while the Scots keep handing out brown envelopes of cash to their citizens, and people accepting that as fair.

So, sooner or later, Scotland may well get independence, which means that others might want to follow suit. All of a sudden everyone seems to be talking about breaking up. UKIP and most Tories want us to break away from the EU, Scotland, as previously mentioned, will probably go for a messy divorce (and take a large chunk of GDP with them as they leave), London may want to declare itself a 'city state', northern England might want to join Scotland in getting away from the southerners - even Cornwall is starting to get a bit itchy. 

Given that the UK's finances are one big Ponzi scheme (what does the country actually produce these days that has a physical presence?) any political rupture could bring down the house of cards. Parliament, in any case, is almost paralysed as the Tories actually only won by a slim majority and will have trouble passing any contentious legislation. Who knows, perhaps even faraway Greece could provide enough turmoil to shatter the status quo should its amputation from the EU cause death judders. There's a simmering tension and people are already angry enough ... what happens when they get even angrier?

Finally, we have the energy conundrum. I've been saying now for at least two years that my guess is that we will see some kind of restriction on the sale of oil and/or petrol in the UK in 2016. I still have 18 months left to see if my prediction will come true, but at the rate things are going it seems like it has a good chance of doing so. As previously noted, North Sea oil is facing a precipitous decline. That decline is accelerating in step with the lower oil price, as new projects are not begun and old ones are mothballed due to high costs. Hundreds of oil workers have been laid off in Aberdeen (and the Scots think they can avoid austerity by using their oil money ...).

Not to worry, old chap, says the media. Don't you know that we'll be getting LNG from America soon, and fracked gas from beneath our very own land?

That's the standard response, whenever energy shortages are mentioned, which is rarely. Of course, it's quite ludicrous that either of these schemes will ever happen in the real world. To unlock the British shale gas they would need to turn huge areas of the country into industrial wastelands - huge areas that currently have millions of people (many of them wealthy) living on them. This, in a country where planning and conservation laws are so tight it's a major achievement just to put up a sign lest it spoil the character of the area. And let's not forget that millions of people are implacably opposed to fracking - to the point where they would be willing to lay down their lives to halt the drillers. Heck, this must be the only country in the world to employ magical defence against frackers (it's working, so far). 

Let's add ISIS into the mix. At the rate things are going in the Middle East, if things carry on as they are in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, there could be a major conflagration. It's not hard to imagine oil installations set on fire and the price of crude heading up to $200. This, ironically, is one way the fracking industry and the North Sea could avoid immediate bankruptcy. Not that anyone would be able to afford to fill up their cars any more ...

So where, exactly, will the UK get its energy from in the future? There are a lot of cars and trucks here. There are millions of shops and offices and ports and sports grounds and malls that all need lavish amounts of energy to keep functioning. It gets cold here in winter and old people are already dying from exposure inside their own homes - what will happen to them all as the inevitable energy crisis begins to bite?

So, as nice as it would be to get a bag of popcorn and watch this spectacle unfold from afar, I find myself up there on the stage. Still, not to worry, as we say ...

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Path to Odin's Lake - ebook offer

I am happy to report that my new book The Path to Odin's Lake is now available on Amazon as an ebook for Kindles, as well as in paperback format. For both of them I have created a second edition, having ironed out the remaining bugs in the formatting and text - so this is the version I am most proud of. Furthermore, my book will be featured in the Dark Mountain Project this summer, and several other publications have expressed an interest in reviewing it.

So, to celebrate this I'm dropping the price of the ebook until the end of May. For only $4.99 or  £3.99 you can get instant access and be reading it in moments.

Download a Kindle version from here

Download a Kindle version from here

Download Kindle and other popular ebook formats here from Smashwords

(Author's note: if you would like to help me out and it doesn't cause you any extra pain, the royalties I get from Smashwords are x4 what Amazon gives)

It has taken me nine months to write The Path to Odin's Lake and, as such, I have found the hardest thing to write being a description of what to expect from the book. Usually I describe it as a 'Peak oil, spiritual travelogue' in the same vein as, say, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or The Rings of Saturn. Luckily for me some early readers have left reviews and five-star recommendations on Amazon, and I think the first one below sums up best for me how I would put it:

 Great book, strongly recommended 
By Mark Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I loved this book. There seem to be three stories woven into one: Heppenstall’s account of a late-summer backpacking trip through Scandanavia; his immersion back into nature and the surprises and synchronicities that arose along the way; and a wider meditation on the great challenges of our age and how we can respond to them as individuals. The main challenges the author sees are climate change, the increasing stresses and strains in the global economy, our addiction to gadgets and consumerism and our unrealistic expectations for never-ending economic growth on a finite planet. Serious stuff, and for those with ears to hear the book will grab the attention.

But instead of another doomer diatribe, or bunch of earnest policy proposals and to-do lists, the author gently points us back to a simple truth: we don’t really need to save the earth, since the earth will save itself (although it will take a bit of time for nature to clear up some of our messes). What we need to do is save ourselves from the consequences of our, often unconscious, behavior on this planet. And the best paths along which we can stumble towards some sort of salvation are those that take us back into a much closer relationship with nature.

For those who are aware of these great challenges, the book offers inspiration, humor and encouragement. For those who are new to them, the book offers an accessible and uplifting introduction to some heavy topics. Heppenstall also shares some of his own experiences as one who has clearly been walking this walk in his own life. And underneath it all is great travelogue.

Here's another one:

 Jason Heppenstall goes camping in the rain and contemplates the rebirth of his soul 
By nativewater Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The narrative portion of this book might be subtitled Jason Heppenstall goes camping in the rain. But the account of his camping trip is not all you get. The author took along two books of philosophy in his backpack, Marcus Aurelius's Meditation and Bill Plotkin's Soulcraft and quotes them widely throughout the book to give a philosophic foundation to his camping trip. Camping is not merely camping, but also a way to recover your soul which has been shriveled by too much civilization. The third part of the book consists of musings by the author on the fate of industrial civilization which he believes to be entering into decline and what our response to this decline should be. For people who have not read blogs of writers like Jim Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, and John Michael Greer, this might be as good an introduction to the notion that our civilization is in decline as any. Though not the main focus of the book, the question of how to live in the face of industrial civilization's decline is central to the author's thesis that what needs fixing is not the earth but our own souls to allow the natural world to heal. I think I got that right.
Being familiar with the author's blog on matters related to industrial civilization's decline, the philosophical parts of the book were not as interesting to me as his account of his solo camping trip to National Park in Sweden which had Odin's lake at its center. Having done a considerable amount of solo camping in North America, some of it in the rain, I was of course curious how the author fared at the same sort of adventure in Sweden. The author's campsite offered a communal kitchen, coffee, showers and a sauna, probably necessities in a place with much rain. How very sensible of the Swedes. I imagine that if you didn't offer some shelter in a place that gets a lot of rain you wouldn't have a whole lot of people using the campgrounds. Tents after all do tend to leak if rained on long enough and it doesn't take more than a day of that to send you packing.
So buy the book. If you never heard of global warming before or peak oil or the concept that all civilizations have an ascending and a descending phase and that we might be in the descending phase of our own civilization and that that might not be such a bad thing, given that industrial civilization inadvertently seemed to be ruining the planet we live on in order to make our extravagant lifestyle possible while at the same time killing our souls this book might be an eye opener. If you already heard of all this stuff, and reading the author's version might sound like preaching to the choir, then perhaps you can just shout out Amen and stuff ten dollars into the donation box. Or maybe you might just want to find out what camping in Sweden is like.

And another:

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase

This book is enjoyable. For me, the several layers present will make it worth reading more than once and the early signs are that it will become something of a way marker.


So, if you want to find out what it was they found so enjoyable and noteworthy then take up my offer and download your copy. If you don't like ebooks (and many don't!) then you can order a paperback version by clicking on the icon in the top right side of this screen.

Thank you for reading - here ends this commercial message ;-)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Vote for the POP

Lloyds of London after its refit following a POP victory

I normally avoid talking about politics, but seeing as there is an election here in two days and everyone else is talking about nothing else, well ...

All indications are that there won't be an overall winner after voting takes place on May 7th. The Conservatives seem to have managed to convince voters that the jerry-rigged GDP figures are real and that an economic recovery is underway (it is, if you're in the top echelons) and are hammering home the message that Labour would ruin everything if they got into power. The Labour Party are being forced to dance to the same tune, having sold themselves out under Blair and Brown, and are a sad caricature what they once stood for i.e. a fair deal for the working classes.

In the middle we have the probable king-makers the Liberal Democrats - who are also a sad parody of what they once stood for - making all three main parties more or less the same in their untrammelled pursuit of economic growth, jobs, opportunities yadda yadda yadda.

Then we have the other potential king-makers the Scottish National Party, who are not just popular in Scotland but also south of the border. Now that the penny has dropped that they were suckered by Westminster during the recent referendum to quit the UK, most Scots have dropped the Labour party quicker than a flaming caber.

Next up is UKIP - the United Kingdom Independence Party - lead by the charismatic rogue Nigel Farage - the mere mention of whose name can have most liberals frothing at the mouth and screaming 'fascist'. UKIP seem to be getting a lot of support from the disenfranchised who have been manipulated by the right wing media into thinking that waves of immigrants are bleeding the country dry. UKIPpers tend to be ruddy faced, beer-loving folks who 'aren't afraid to speak the truth'.

And finally, traditionally in last place (if mentioned at all), is the Green Party. In a blind survey of policies people picked the Green's policies as being best. If the election was decided purely on policy then the Green's would win it. Alas, we have an unfair system, which means they will only get a seat or two in parliament, even if they do get up to 10% of the vote. I've always voted Green - I even have an election poster up in my window (along with lots of other Green posters in the centre of Penzance where I live) - as all the other parties have psychopathic policies, in my humble opinion. For some reason I was picked to attend a lunch with the leader Natalie Bennett, a couple of months back. I can report that she is entirely unlike most other politicians, and actually seems to have her head screwed on.

Still, the Greens are probably only enjoying their modest current success because they have become by default the only left wing party there is. They have many good policies, but it's somewhat dismaying to see them pledge to build half a million new houses in a country that's already way over-built. Last week, I noticed, Natalie Bennett put a link on social media to an article pointing out that up to a fifth of all species on Earth faces imminent extinction. She immediately faced angry and hostile comments from Green supporters telling her to 'get a grip' and 'talk about real issues such as jobs'. So it goes, a paler shade of green.

At least they are the only party that has mentioned environmental issues in this election.

Incidentally, the local Liberal Democrat MP rang my doorbell last week and harangued me for displaying said Green Party poster. "They're all hypocrites who take skiing holidays in Canada," was what he said. He went on to portray himself as a true guardian of all that is green and good. "Why," I asked him "did he vote in favour of fracking in the House of Commons?" He was a bit stumped by this but hastily explained that fracking is "kind of like geothermal" which somehow makes it 'green'.

So, the bottom line is that there probably won't be an overall winner as such. Coalition horse trading will probably go on for a while. The bottom bottom line is that we are entering into a period of political paralysis symptomatic of the peaking of energy supplies and the ongoing deflation of the (real) economy. Cheap oil gave everyone a few decades to be happy. Elaborate political structures could be created and everyone seemed to get their share of the cake. Sure, there was a bit of moaning about this or that government or party, but generally everyone got to chow down on the benefits of a techno consumer economy awash in credit and fiat money.

But that model is now broken. Anyone with any wealth in this country now knows that the only way they can hold onto it is by throwing those less well off under the bus. That's why, when I drive around some of the nearby villages here, all the tacky and ugly houses have Conservative placards stuck in the lawns next to their fake Chinese lions. These people see a massive and bloated welfare state (in Cornwall, the second poorest region in western Europe, four out of five families are on benefits) that needs to be cut back down to size. They see the cash-sucking National Health System as a threat that needs to be neutralised and they want the 'scroungers' to be taught a lesson and forced to work.

On the other team, Labour supporters want a continuation of welfare provision - even if, confusingly, their party also seems intent on austerity policies and clamping down on immigration.

So, we have gridlock. We'll be the new Greece before too long. Won't that be fun? To that end I've decided to form my own political party - the Peak Oil Party (tongue firmly in cheek).

The POP's slogan will be:

'Vote for us for a slightly less worse future than the others will give you'.

Its main policies include:

- All remaining North Sea oil reserves will be dedicated to building a national renewable energy sector
- Car journeys to be rationed to one day a week per driver
- All chemical pesticides and herbicides to be phased out over a ten year period
- All immigration controls will be lifted - people will be free to come or leave as they please (many will choose to leave)
- All able-bodied unemployed people to be recruited to a Land Army or face starvation
- All people working in the finance industry to be recruited to the Land Army. The City of London to be converted into a large-scale vertical agriculture experimentation zone
- All workers will be given two minutes to describe their job to selected panels of six-year-olds. If, after that, a majority on the panel do not understand the function of your job it will be liquidated and you will be placed in the Land Army. Bribery with sweets/toys will be punishable by permanent job allocation of Gong Farmer
- Defence budget to be cut by 90%, including a phase out of nuclear weapons
- All gold bullion held by the Bank of England to be sold to China or swapped for solar panels and bicycles
- The Royal Family and all their possessions to be sold to America or exchanged for cattle feed and LNG
- All corporate farms, grouse shooting moors, golf courses and stately homes to be nationalised with 50% given over to intensive organic agriculture and 50% allowed to revert back to wilderness
- All airports to be shut down after the last corporate jet has fled the country
- Everyone who successfully completes three years in the Land Army having amassed a variety of agricultural skills to be freely given an acre of arable land, a bicycle, a cow and a sum of money with which to build a dwelling of their own design
- After a stabilisation period of ten years all forms of national politics to be liquidated. Great Britain to be renamed The Britlands and broken up into small autonomous bio-regions not worth invading

Who knows, if I can raise a deposit in the next two days POP might be in with a chance. On the other hand ...

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Looking for Some Answers

To buy the book that this post details, please click on one of the links on the right.

A few months back John Michael Greer, over at the Archdruid Report, wrote an essay about how we might begin to tackle the huge mental and emotional burden of dealing with collapse. It was noted that, for the most part, the majority of people simply don't want to think about or discuss the way in which we humans are accelerating towards an ecological brick wall and would instead prefer to either lose themselves in fantasy worlds of their own or others' making. Thus, many people like to lose themselves in video games, TV series and dreams of cornucopian splendour where we will all shortly be living the good life, just as British PM David Cameron announced yesterday (if we vote for him). Surrounding yourself with people who think just like you do and only exposing yourself to information sources that bolster your hoped-for belief that 'things are going okay' and 'the experts are in charge' adds some comforting texture to this fantasy.

Since I stopped playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was about 13 I've not been particularly interested in fantasy worlds. For me, reality is where it's at. But reality sometimes hurts, and so when reality does actually bite, there are two ways of dealing with it. The first is to anaesthetise yourself so that it doesn't hurt as much - either by way of the above-mentioned mental escape avenues, or by literally anaesthetising your brain and nervous system with alcohol and drugs. Unfortunately for society as a whole, most people end up choosing the latter option, and we see spiralling problems of addiction, domestic violence, depression and many other ills as a result.

There is, however, another way of dealing with the unpleasant feeling that things are getting worse, and this involves engaging with the problem at root. It's the least popular approach, and you won't make many friends in doing so, but at least it is an honest attempt at grappling with the mighty mess we have got ourselves into. Let's remind ourselves of some dimensions of that mess:

- A peak in conventional oil production that's now about nine years in the rearview mirror and retreating fast
- Growing climate instability that threatens to wipe out our coastal cities, kill off all vertebrate life, or somewhere between these two poles depending on who you believe
- Rampant corporatism and consumerism threatening to undermine whole societies and render the concept of being human as outdated
- A steadily loudening drumbeat for war being banged out by senile elites who need the ensuing chaos to earn their money and keep their power, and a ventriloquist's dummy of a press which simply parrots whatever propaganda is put on its lips
- Half of all vertebrate wildlife wiped out by humans in the last four decades
- Ecological catastrophe wherever you look, including oceans filled with plastic, rainforest destruction, fisheries collapse, ocean acidification, genetic pollution, mass die offs, mega droughts etc.

So, simply trying to ignore these problems and hoping they go away isn't going to achieve much. But then there's also a danger of NOT ignoring these problems - of focusing on them too much. The advent of social media has meant that everyone gets to see a stream of information that interests them the most, creating positive feedback loops. Thus, for some people it's amusing videos of kittens and gold/blue dresses that fill their screens and heads (with the distinction between the two becoming ever more blurred) while for others it's an endless stream of news about catastrophes, corruption, abuse, violence and despair. I'm guessing that most people reading this would identify themselves somewhat with the latter category - myself included. This kind of focus can eventually lead to a kind of soul rot. "Everything's ruined!" you might say. "So why bother?" might be your next statement.

This is a paradox, because if we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by gloomy feelings and thoughts then our ability to react in a meaningful way is impaired, thus reinforcing the problems that are depressing us. How are we to think and act? It's all very well for preppers and others contemplating collapse - be it sudden or slow - to fill their cupboards with canned food, live in a bunker in the woods and learn how to garrotte intruders with their shoelaces - but what effect does this have on the mind and soul? You might live to be 100, but if the last 50 years of your life are spent living in a state of perpetual fear and anguish then what's the point?

At the other end of the scale I've heard anecdotes and seen some evidence that those people who find themselves sliding out of the rear end of the industrial system and ending up permanently unemployed are generally not, as it might be hoped, planting up gardens and getting backyard chickens in an effort to better their lot. Instead they are buying increasingly large television screens to sit in front of as they slowly drink themselves into oblivion each day with the aid of a ready supply of Carlsberg's Special Brew and/or crystal meth made in their friends' garden shed.

To me at least, neither of the above options seems like a decent way to end ones days.

And so that's why last summer I set off on a journey in an attempt to find out some kind of answer to this conundrum. I myself was feeling tired and low from contemplating too much and not really having any way of addressing the innate despair that can sometimes feel like Chinese water torture. I was lucky in that a relative paid for me to fly over to Scandinavia on an errand, giving me a couple of weeks on my own to conduct my experiment.

The rules were simple:

1. I would set off from a point of 'civilisation' (in this case Copenhagen) and head towards a point of 'uncivilisation' in the non-human world.

2. I would live the life of a hobo as much as possible, sleeping in ditches and forests and on pieces of 'waste land'

3. I would not expose myself to any media from the human world in the form of iPhones, music, television, newspapers etc. All I allowed myself were two books, written by wise people

4. I would open up all of my senses to whatever I could perceive, even if it was uncomfortable or frightening

At the forefront of my mind during this experiment was Einstein's meaningful quote:

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." 

That, to me, seems like the real challenge of our age, and I'm not even sure we have the ability to change our thinking. Are we really to be trusted with coming up with new ways of thinking? Past evidence would seem to suggest that we are all too easily corrupted, although in this case our lives depend on it. What if we were offered new ways of thinking by something other than humans? I wanted to find out.

Also in my mind was the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi's observation that nothing will ever change for the better unless we throw away our reputations and seek the truth (whatever that might be). To be fair, I've already thrown away what little respectable reputation I might once have possessed during my former careers working in the energy industry and being a newspaper editor. Nevertheless, I vowed to:

“Run from what's comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. I have tried prudent planning long enough. From now on I'll be mad.”

And perhaps I was going mad. That's certainly what it felt like at times on my journey. For a start I got into trouble with the authorities in Denmark. I was thrown out of a shopping mall for looking like a non-conformist and I was accosted by a park ranger for camping illegally (who, bizarrely, insisted I needed to download a smartphone app to camp in the forest). When I made it over to Sweden I walked mile after mile in torrential rain as my journey coincided with some of the wettest weather in living memory, with areas f Sweden being hit by flooding, and ended up camping in a national park. 

The first of the two books I brought with me was Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. This Roman emperor had little time for pomp and circumstance and instead spent his days pondering what it meant to be alive. His musings, written down, are considered to be one of the core texts of the philosophical school of Stoicism (albeit a later one). I thought that he might have something to teach we who are alive today about how to deal with decline and death. I wasn't wrong. Because being a Stoic doesn't mean gritting your teeth and hanging on for dear life, it means dealing constructively with the certainty that we will all one day die - and living a full and meaningful life because of it.

The second of my 'guides' on this journey was the American author Bill Plotkin (still very much alive). I brought along a copy of his book Soulcraft, which had been recommended to me by a reader of this blog (hat tip to you - sorry, I forgot who it was). I more or less threw this book in my backpack as an afterthought, and yet it was Bill Plotkin's book that furnished most of the experiential aspects of my journey. With all his talk of initiations, vision quests and delving into the darkness I was able to experience a number of profound happenings.

Odd things began to happen to me. And when I say odd, I mean very odd. A series of startling coincidences had me thinking that fate was directing my journey. After a while it seemed as if everything was conspiring to pull me in the direction of a certain lake - known locally as Odin's Lake - in the forest, where it is said that magical things could happen. Let's not forget that the norse god Odin was seen as the god of wisdom, and he sacrificed one of his eyes to attain this.

I should, right here, say that I'm not a religious person. Not in the sense of going to church or believing in God or things like that. But the deeper I got into my journey the more it felt like I was being pulled into a vortex of strange and other-wordly forces that seemed to want to communicate with me. And communicate with me they did. I ended up doing some things which can't even be talked about in polite society (call the nurse!). Which is why I wrote it all down and made it into the book which you can see on the right side bar of this page. 

As for answers to our predicament, well, nothing came to me in a blinding flash of light. Sorry. But that's beside the point. The point is that the universe is a stunningly complex thing, and we are part of it. None of us created it - it created us and we are a part of it - and we shouldn't feel responsible for it. To waste our allotted time wringing our hands and thinking we can 'fix' things is, in one sense, a waste of time. We can certainly alter what is around us in our immediate sphere of influence, and we can be relaxed in knowing that we are doing what we can with what is available. We can 'upload' ourselves to this greater project, and rejoin nature as a prodigal species, if we so choose. We can keep loving ourselves and one-another, acting with compassion and being of service to all of our fellow organisms, or we can isolate ourselves and become bitter and drown in a lake of despair. The choice is ours at an individual level. 

No, that doesn't mean climate change isn't going to stop, that the biosphere will miraculously heal itself or that we'll be able to carry on living as consumers forever. It just means we have a choice of how we dance our dance as the phenomena that dictate our physical existences unfold.

Those, more or less, were the insights I had from my experience. There is no neat intellectual closure here and, of course, it's one thing to know this in an information sense, and quite another to know it in a deep way. That's why I would recommend undertaking a similar journey to anyone who wants some deeper meaning to the pulsating and flashing craziness around us which we call 'reality'. We are, after all, on the same path together, and the more of us who grapple with reality rather than isolating themselves ever more deeply in escapism and fantasy, the better our chances are of making it through this mess with some semblance of sanity intact.