Wednesday, July 25, 2012

She's Alive

On the day when this news story broke about the sudden and alarming melting of ice in Greenland, I just had to share this video before I head off. Watch it in full screen and with the sound up, if possible.

This is a non-commercial attempt from to highlight the fact that world leaders, irresponsible corporates and mindless 'consumers' are combining to destroy life on earth. It is dedicated to all who died fighting for the planet and those whose lives are on the line today. The cut was put together by Vivek Chauhan, a young film maker, together with naturalists working with the Sanctuary Asia network ( 

Content credit: The principal source for the footage was Yann Arthus-Bertrand's incredible film HOME The music was by Armand Amar. Thank you too Greenpeace and

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Lazy Sunbathers

Amager Strand beach in Copenhagen today

I’m not sure why but every summer, as soon as the sun comes out, I seem to get struck down by the flu. This year was no different and I spent the last few days sweating it out on the sofa rolling around and groaning and generally being a burden. Today I at least felt well enough to go on a stroll to the nearby beach in the afternoon. The weather, by Danish standards, was a scorching 26C (about 80 Fahrenheit) and the beach was busy with people. It occurred to me as I walked that Denmark has practically the perfect climate. Sure, people like to moan about it during the long dark winters, but spring, summer and autumn tend to offer all the seasonal joy that winter lacks. What’s more, summers are increasingly hot and and sunny peppered with bursts of rain, meaning that things grow remarkably well.

As I strolled along I was pondering Jim Kunstler’s latest post which concerned the financial crisis in Europe. I like reading his blog and books, and I recently finished World Made by Hand, which I thought was pretty good. He knows how to play to the gallery though and his blog posts are well-written tub thumpers. In the latest one he was praising the good things about Europe but generally making the point that we are about to be wiped off the map (‘we’ being some half a billion individuals from about 50 different and wildly diverse countries). 

He further made the point that nobody in Europe really seems to care about this fact – and on this point I’d have to agree. I have little idea about how people feel in most European countries about the looming crisis, but I do have a fair idea about how they feel in this little backwater and the fact is this: people don’t care one bit. I’ve lived here since 2008 (and I also lived here once before) i.e. when the crisis first broke, and I’m still waiting to meet the person who actually brings it up in conversation. It’s as if nothing is happening – this is the land of the anti crisis. Along the street where I live I can see that nearly every family has bought a new car within the last year, they still take holidays in far-flung destinations and are taking out new loans like there is no tomorrow.

I would even venture to say that people here say they’ve never had it so good. The newspapers, as ever, are full of ‘Denmark/Copenhagen is the best  in the world for X’ (X being gourmet restaurants, life satisfaction, standard of living, designer furniture, foxy chicks or any other measure of upper middle consumer class penis envy) and people lap it up and believe it and gush about it endlessly over their mojitos in swanky bars with silly names. Still, I’m not going to go down the road of talking about why all this gets my goat (I’ll be writing all night) but I am beginning to wonder whether anyone here actually realises there is an ill wind blowing out there beyond the horizon that will have a similar effect on people’s standard of living to that of a tornado on a Midwestern town made of rickety wooden buildings.

Let’s take a look at the country’s leading ‘serious’ broadsheet newspaper Politiken. Going by their website from top to bottom, and working on the assumption that more important news should be at the top, this is how the headlines currently stack up.

1.       (Celebrity) restaurateur in conflict with union over staff conditions
2.       Cultural inheritance of Syria under threat
3.       ‘The Sleepwalking Cannibal’ movie is a flop
4.       Harald Bluetooth caught up in political spin at Jelling Stones
5.       Boy fishes human skull out of lake
6.       Mother and daughter found living as hoarders
7.       ‘Short life’ dating can have you in handcuffs within an hour
8.       See the world’s best airport (not Copenhagen, for a change)
9.       Dreamteam boys open new cocktail bar
10.   Coalition politics story
11.   Cameron’s spin doctor in trouble
12.   Mourinho (football manager) could earn superstar wages
13.   Hackers target union website
14.   Debate: Danish men losing out in relationships
15.   Another football story
16.   New iPhone 5 could be the best yet
17.   Turn your GPS off to improve your memory
18.   The best plants to put in the garden at your summer home
19.   Is nail polish dangerous?
20.   Swede convicted of murders
21.   Danes head to Olympics
22.   USA’s first female astronaut dies
23.   Danish badminton players hope for medal
24.   Film reveals ‘bedroom coders’
25.   Readers: Denmark’s loveliest gardens
26.   Priests stress during Sunday sermons
27.   Boring Tour de France saw viewers turn off TVs (translation: Denmark didn’t win it)
28.   Another football story, this time about Milan
29.   Picture’s from Norway’s massacre memorial day
30.   Eurozone talks terms with Moody’s
31.   USA sends a man to save Europe (no I’m not making it up, here’s the link)
32.   Tourists not willing to stay in unfamiliar beds
33.   Perfume, booze and sweets are put in tax free bags
34.   Fried chocolate bars are a cult hit in the land of the kilt
35.   Danish coffee mogul surveys his kingdom

So there you have it. Of the top 35 news stories only two of them relate to the fact that the continent is bankrupt, and they don’t even get a mention until number 30. I don't think I'm being too unfair here - it usually pans out more or less the same way. It’s hardly surprising that people here don’t know what is going on ‘out there’. Or maybe they just don’t care? Denmark has a pretty healthy independent media and there is nothing even remotely like Fox News here. So why the lack of interest? Answers on a postcard please.

Anyway, such were my thoughts as I sat on a hill overlooking the beach and the narrow passage between here and Sweden this afternoon. Are we seeing the same kind of psychology which marked the Phoney War? This was the period following the declaration of war between Britain and Germany in 1939. Those who knew that war was coming had been shouting it from the rooftops for years while the everyday peoples of Britain and France simply yawned and carried on as normal. Nobody could seriously believe that anything was happening that would  effect them in any big way.

Over on this side of the North Sea (or the German Ocean depending on whose side you were on) a few months later the Germans invaded Denmark, much to everyone in Denmark’s surprise (Hitler was a popular figure here, as he was elsewhere, but he seemed to have overstepped the mark in this instance). Perhaps that’s how big events play out: the warning signs are there as clear as daylight but most people ignore them. Let’s face it, most people don’t have too much interest in complicated geopolitical events, especially ones that involve finance.  It then takes something big to crack and the sight of soldiers on the streets and empty shelves before people realise something’s up. By then it’s too late to do anything about it and it just becomes a case of letting the massive forces unleashed by the tectonic plates of empire and economics (and now, environment - corn harvest anyone?) to do their work.

But for now, people are just sizzling on the beach, talking about TV shows and dreaming about where their next holiday might be. Financial meltdown? Yawn - pass me another Carlsberg, Bent.

(And on that note I’m off into the Collapsolopolis of Athens and will report back in a couple of weeks. This time I really am going.)


Peak n’Oil Number #4


Okay, okay, how could I possibly bring Morrissey into this? He's more likely to wailing about his own angst and writing quirky Wildesque numbers about how vicious life can be in a hum-drum northern town than targeting the general human condition (although it's fair to say that I'm in the 'genius' camp when it comes to his song-writing ability). It’s a fair point but his one stand-out song that should be played as you read the above post is the Lazy Sunbathers.

A world war
Was announced
Days ago
But they didn't know
The lazy sunbathers
The lazy sunbathers
The sun burns through
To the planet's core
And it isn't enough
They want more

To be
Between the ears of
The lazy sunbathers
Too jaded
To question stagnation
The sun burns through
To the planet's core
And it isn't enough
They want more

Religions fall
Children shelled
(... children shelled? that's all very well,
but would you please keep the noise down low?
Because you're waking
the lazy sunbathers...)

Alright, seeing as we are on Morrissey and The Smiths I may as well include The Queen is Dead. This could be the soundtrack for any scene depicting urban decay and deindustrialisation.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Under the Greenwood Tree

I apologise for not posting anything last week but, as you might have guessed from my previous post, I have been in England making funeral arrangements for my father. It had occurred to my sister and I that the way most funerals are conducted these days leaves the mourners in something like a state of shock. Not only do they have to put up with a standard issue priest reassuring them that their dearly departed has gone to a heaven that they never believed in, but the final farewell is turned into a grisly moment marked by the sounds of an electric motor starting up as the coffin rolls off through a polyester curtain into the awaiting gas-fired inferno to the sound of a scratched Bach‘s classical organ works CD.

That wasn’t what we wanted for our father (who art not in heaven) so instead we arranged for a humanist ceremony in a small flint chapel conducted by an ecumenical hospitallier descended from an order of the chivalric knights of St John. Yes, I was surprised they still existed too.

On the plane flying over from Copenhagen to London Gatwick we passed over the Netherlands. Holland is instantly recognisable from the air because of the shape of its fields, which are neat geometrical patterns giving the country the appearance of a printed circuit board. The town and cities too were visible and I was reminded of (I think) W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn in which he noted that from a plane leaving Amsterdam Airport you can observe human civilization for what it is, being able to see the buildings and bridges but with all people and cars too small to make out. From that height you see us for what we are, how we have spread over the landscape, and you realize that nobody could ever be in charge of such a monstrously large and sprawling colony of organisms such as we are.

England was washed out. Flooded. Three months of near continuous rain had made rivers burst their banks and fields were under water. Nobody had ever experienced so much rain and all the shops were sold out of wellington boots. Festivals and garden parties were cancelled and a kind of fatalistic anguish had taken over everyone I spoke to. As my train trundled southwards, skirting the southern coast of England, I gazed out of the window and reflected on how sodden and wretched things looked. So this is what climate change looks like for England. So much for all those dreams of turning England into the new South of France which people had been happily going on about last decade; the grape harvest was wiped out and there won’t be a 2012 vintage. Sorry chaps, better blame the Met Office for this particular climate malfunction.

For a week I stayed at my sister’s Victorian house, living in a top attic room and listening at night as the heavy rain beat down on the roof. We wrote a eulogy, screwed it up and wrote another one. And then another. Father John asked us what poems he would have liked to be read out. I Googled ‘poems for funerals’ and read through dozens. Anything with any mention of God was out. As was anything over sentimental. Anything vaguely Wordsworthian was similarly out (we could just imagine Dad grimacing with displeasure at the ‘ponciness’ of it all). In the end we drew a blank; we just had to face it, he was not a poetic type. In any case he once told me that death, when it comes, is like a TV set being switched off. Afterwards you are just left staring at a black screen.

The day came. I was exhausted and had been unable to sleep for most of the night. I had spent the last 20 years wanting to get along with my dad again, fully aware that I never would, and that now it was too late. We had wanted to bury him in woodland and plant a tree above him, but it turned out that he had expressly requested cremation in his will, so that option was out.

The country hotel was about a half hour drive away. As we approached the long cedar lined drive we saw the hearse pulling in just in front of us. There he was. We followed it, the rain splattering against the windscreen as we drove along in silence.

Three of my cousins were there waiting for us in the chapel. I hadn’t seen them for sixteen years, the last time being my aunt’s funeral, and now they were all greying and middle-aged and dressed in black. We were the new oldest generation; my father had been the last of the generation above us.That was it – twelve of us in all. After the service, which saw us sitting six a side around my father’s coffin to the strains of Debussy, we retired to the sixteenth century music room and poured cups of tea and nibbled on little sandwiches. It was all very English. The manager, a kilt-wearing Frenchman with multiple piercings kept popping in and out – it was like a missing scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Conversations with my relatives proceeded in the standard fashion. What car was I driving? Where did I live? What are property prices like there? It occurred to me, as I was addressing these queries, that I’m not much of a conversationalist. I mean to say, I enjoy conversation, but I rarely meet anyone with whom I can have the kind of conversation I would like to have - the kind of conversation that takes place on this blog and others like it. I used to try and converse but I'm not much good in an argument and it seems to me that there's little point trying to tell people what they don't want to hear if you want to remain on good terms with them. 

My cousins and brother in law, all pleasant people, are collectively a health and safety professional, a medical IT equipment salesperson, a medium sized construction company director and a respected nutritionist. All of them are materially successful and they are all older than me by at least ten years. So when I mentioned that I was interested in taking over a piece of woodland and learning all the skills to manage it and extract a meager income from it there was a polite silence. More tea anyone?

We got onto global warming. Unlike in the US, the majority of people in Britain accepted this as a reality a long time ago, albeit without realising the full implications of it (see reference to vineyards above). My brother in law, the construction business owning civil engineer, had become pessimistic. Not only had the office phone stopped ringing three months ago (meaning they would have to lay off half of their 200 strong work force and the business owners were facing ‘no’ pension (i.e. only a regular one, rather than the one they were expecting which would have kept them in French gîtes and Jags)) but he had come to the conclusion that large areas of the south would be swallowed up by rising seawaters. For all the talk of building dykes, he said, in his professional opinion as a civil engineer there was absolutely no way that enough resources could be mobilized to build an effective network of defenses against the sea. His grim prognostication was that, perhaps even in our own lifetimes, we would see property prices in the south take a hit. Believe me, that was radical talk for him.

The next day we took delivery of a smart-looking paper shopping bag with imitation Paul Smith stripes adorning it. Inside was a plastic tub containing a grayish powder that had once been my father. It sat there on the table in the dining room and nobody really wanted to go near it. It was strange to think that here was the man who had been irrepressible in life, reduced to occupying a plastic container with the name of crematorium printed on it. Later that morning I put it in the car boot and we drove out west to the New Forest. It was here that we had taken some of our holidays when I was a child – a vast forest covering 150 square miles and filled with wild ponies, pigs and cattle. It was also here that I had first learned to ride a bicycle during one of the many caravanning holidays that I had enjoyed so much. We were pretty sure our father wouldn’t mind ending up here rather than on some chemically-treated lawn in a municipal garden of remembrance.

We drove to the heart of the forest where a giant oak tree stood and was still going strong after six hundred years. A short path led to where it stood in a forest clearing and we were dismayed to find that a fence had been erected around it to prevent people from getting too close. We stood by the fence dithering. What were we to do? We wanted to scatter the ashes close to the huge 25 foot diameter trunk, but the fence prevented us from doing so. Holding the pot of ashes it was almost as if I heard my father’s voice speaking to me. What it said was “Stop standing there like Piffy on a rock cake and get the job done you big girl’s blouses!” Without further ado we vaulted over the fence and took it in turns to pour out his mortal remains on this site, which seemed in some way sacred to us, although neither of us actually said as much.

As I scattered them I felt a sense of grief – not just because he was dead but because we had butted heads so many times for so long. We had only done so, I now realise, because we were so similar but the different circumstances of our upbringing had given us different opinions, different personalities. I felt a sense of forgiveness through the sorrow, and also a sense of gratitude. The gratitude was there because I know that he made me (and my sister) individuals, unwilling to settle for the fake organ music and polyester curtains of life. Instead we were free to conduct things our own way, even if it meant breaking the rules placed in the way by petty officialdom (the tree had been fine for 600 years – why does it need a ‘keep out’ fence now?).

We stepped back over the fence – a group of tourists were approaching with their cameras – and walked back to where the car was parked. It was a hasty business, a guerilla interring, but I know that I will come back one quiet night when nobody else is around and when the nutrients from the ashes have leeched down into the soil and nourished the roots of that mighty oak, and perhaps I’ll have a conversation with him to make up for all the conversations that we didn’t have these last few years. Perhaps I’ll finally get to ask him who the hell Piffy is and why he stood on rock cakes.

On the plane back to Denmark that night I started to read The Dark Mountain Project’s first edition and the page fell open at a story by Paul Kingsnorth relating to his journey from child to adult and the love of the natural world his father had instilled in him. As I flew through the dark skies above Holland I read these words, written whilst remembering the long and arduous treks through the Lake District that he had taken with his father as a child:

I look out across the moonlit Lake District ranges and it’s as clear as the night air that what used to come in regular waves, pounding like the sea, comes now only in flashes, out of the corner of my eyes, like a lighthouse in a storm. Perhaps it’s the way the world has changed. There are more cars on the roads now, more satellites in the sky. The footpaths up the fells are like stone motorways, there are turbines on the moors and the farmers are being edged out by south country refugees like me, trying to escape but bringing with us the things we flee from. The new world is online and loving it, the virtual happily edging out the actual. The darkness is shut out and the night grows lighter and nobody is there to see it.

It could be all that, but it probably isn’t. It’s probably me. I am 37 now. The world is smaller, more tired, more fragile, more horribly complex and full of troubles. Or, rather: the world is the same as it ever was, but I am more aware of it and of the reality of my place within it. I have grown up, and there is nothing to be done about it. The worst part of it is that I can’t seem to look without thinking anymore. And now I know far more about what we are doing. We: the people. I know what we are doing, all over the world, to everything, all of the time. I know why the magic is dying. It’s me. It’s us.

And so it becomes more clear to me. The gifts my parents bestowed on me, and the gifts that many these days don’t know how to bestow on their own children. I am trying to move beyond fear and anger and grief and all the other things that are associated with the death of a parent or the death of your own civilization. I can see the way forward clearly now, and it doesn’t involve putting up with people prattling on about how many Apple devices they own, or how much their stocks are worth. I want to seek out more people I can have conversations with, and if I can’t find that many then I’ll just have to create some new conversations with people who don’t yet realize why they need to have these conversations. 

But more important than conversations are acts. My father was a doer. I’m a doer trapped in a situation where doing things is not looked kindly upon unless they are the kind of socially sanctioned acts demanded by an industrial civilization in terminal decline and terminal denial. What we make of our lives and whether we choose to make a go of this one life is up to us. The choice is ours alone and in the end the only physical presence we leave behind will be the carbon and a few trace elements that are stored within our bodies. 

So what exactly am I going to do? The first thing is that I’m going to do is nothing. More precisely I’ll be doing nothing on an organic farm on an island in Greece, guarding endangered turtle eggs on a beach with my family and spending my last few credits at the great carbon footprint bank. I’ll be turning off the computer and the phone and every other ‘indispensible’ device considered important by modern life and instead opening a few of those books that keep screaming at me from my bookshelf but which my full time job doesn’t allow me to delve into.

Below is a picture of my father at the moment when we returned his mortal remains to the Earth from which they came. So here's to my dad the jazz aficionado, beer brewer, tomato grower, blunt talking stick in the mud, professional penny pincher, fearless ommelette maker, barbequer in all weathers, class buster, occasional nudist, risk taker, anti-authoritarian, communist then capitalist, nature lover, old smoothie, property fixer-upper, practical joker, countryside walker and loving husband and father who only ever wanted the best for his family but sometimes didn't know the right way to go about it.  

When I return in late August I’ll  be replenished and will have plenty more to say on the matters that matter. In the meantime, I’ll wish everyone a pleasant summer and pray that the internet won't have melted down before I return in three weeks.


Peak’ n Oil Number # 5

The Beautiful South
After a lengthy break, we return to Peak n’Oil with number 5, which is The Beautiful South. Perhaps an unusual choice, but the song One God seems to sum up beautifully the artificial nature of contemporary life and the fake answers we are subjected to by popular culture and politicians. I’d even go so far as to nominate Paul Heaton for Poet Laureate for the wonderfully subversive lyrics in every song he writes.

Like a toupee on a fading fame,
Final whistle in a losing game,
Thick lipstick on a five year old girl,
Makes you think that’s it’s a plastic world.

Plastic world were all plastic too,
Just a couple of different faces in a dead-mans queue
The world is turning Disney and there’s nothing you can do,
You’re trying to walk like giants but your wearing Pluto’sshoes.

And the answers fall easier from the barrel of a gun,
Than it does from the lips of the beautiful and the dumb.
The world won’t end in darkness it’ll end in family fun,
With Coca-Cola clouds behind a Big-Mac sun.

Here’s a video of it (which for some reason doesn’t start for 22 seconds).

The second song is pre-Beautiful South and is actually the Housemartins, which was Paul Heaton and Norman Cook ( aka Fatboy Slim). It’s called Build and it’s about ... building developers. Or is it? You decide.

Clambering men in big bad boots
Dug up my den, dug up my roots
Treated us like plasticine town
They built us up and knocked us down

From Meccano to Legoland
Here they come with a brick in their hand
Men with heads filled up with sand
It's build

It's build a house where we can stay
Add a new bit everyday
It's build a road for us to cross
Build us lots and lots and lots and lots and lots

Whistling men in yellow vans
They can and drew us diagrams
Showed us how it all worked it out
And wrote it down in case of doubt

Slow, slow, quick, quick, quick
It's wall to wall and brick to brick
They work so fast it makes you sick
It's build

It's build a house where we can stay
Add a new bit everyday
It's build a road for us to cross
Build us lots and lots and lots and lots and lots

It's build

Down with sticks and up with bricks
In with boots and up with roots
It's in with suits and new recruits
It's build

Sunday, July 8, 2012


It's been a bit of a tough week. I wanted to write about the book I'm reading at the moment which is called Navigating the Coming Chaos: a Handbook for Inner Transition and is written by peak oil writer Carolyn Baker. There's been a bit of talk about synchronicity recently on other peak oil sites and for me this was mine because, like others, I am feeling a particularly strong level of fear lapping around my knees. It's a kind of fear of a greater fear, if you like, that only a Cassandra could feel. The best quote I saw this week that could approximate the cause of this came from Noam Chomsky … here it is:

The general population doesn't know what is happening, and it doesn't even know that it doesn't know.”

So I felt fortunate indeed when I opened Carolyn Baker's book and began to read. In it she posits that humankind is about to have a near-death experience. There's nothing we can do about this, it's as if we are walking in front of a bus, oblivious because we are listening to our iPods. We have no comprehension of the three e's: energy, environment and economics, and the interplay between them that has led us into our dazed predicament. We are not prepared for it, either materially, mentally or spiritually. It's as if we are going to be forced to march into a battle wearing our bathing costumes rather than body armour. The only thing that can come from this is disaster on a scale that is scarcely imaginable to the modern mind and we can expect to see mass social breakdown and suicides as the myth of our exceptionalism disappears in a puff of smoke.

Anyway, that's the bad news. The good news, if you could call it that, comes in the form of inner transition, and that's what she talks about in the book. She talks about becoming a new kind of human being, and one that can live with a continuous conscious connection with the living universe. And cultivating your own inner bunker. There is plenty of Jungianism in it and I just know that it is going to be one of those books that opens up new paths for me.

But I haven't finished the book yet, so I'll wait until I do so before offering up more.

The second thing I thought I might right about was a follow on from last week's post about George Monbiot. Having accused him last week of not really understanding peak oil it was only 48 hours later that he published a hot button article claiming that peak oil was irrelevant. Could it be that GM reads my humble blog? Ha, I doubt it, but still he put the cat among the pigeons and there was plenty of roiling debate about whether he has a point or not. The unofficial consensus seems to say that he had a couple of good points (namely that peak oil won't stop us being fried by burning fossil fuels – something we knew anyway) but that overall he was still wrong, primarily because he was basing his arguments on dubious data supplied by cornucopians.

John Michael Greer commented to the effect that climate change activists such as George Monbiot are labouring under delusions of grandeur because they see mankind as omnipotent whereas peakers recognise the limits of our power and are therefore somehow more realistic. There might be something in this but I for one am growing a bit tired of this dualism – it's like a football match with the environmentalists (in the green shirts) on the one side and the peakers on the other (in the black shirts) with the Earth as the ball. I became an environmentalist as a teenager because my local forest was cut down to make way for a new housing estate, and because I couldn't stand seeing whales being harpooned or seals being clubbed to death: does that sound delusional?

The third thing I thought I might talk about is how fast things are unravelling. I read an article yesterday about numerous cities in the US going bankrupt and how feedback loops effectively bring about fast collapse scenarios far more rapidly than it took to build up the city in the first place. It goes something like this: city gets into financial difficulty because it has borrowed too much based on the value of its assets (i.e. real estate in most cases); city suddenly finds it can't pay the debt due to sinking asset prices and a stalling local economy; city cuts back on essential services and cuts pensions and welfare payments; crime sky-rockets as a result but there is not enough money to pay the police so certain areas (usually the poorer ones) become unpoliced; which causes even more crime which in turn further lowers house prices which in turn further makes the gap between asset values and debt wider. People are trapped because they can't sell up and move somewhere else. The tax base falls and another step towards third world status is complete.

What I'm interested to know is what the limiting factors of these negative feedback loops might be. I can imagine vigilante citizens patrolling the streets perhaps, and maybe local food coops and trading arrangements springing up. Whether people are ready for this kind of sudden shift in lifestyles is the 64 million dollar question.

I was going to write about all of these things but this week's blog post is overshadowed by the death of my father in England. Now before anyone thinks that I'm sobbing into my keyboard I'd better point out that my father and I had a somewhat strained relationship and I have barely seen him for the last 18 years. The last seven years he has been slowly degenerating into a second infancy as dementia ate away at his brain, and the last year has been particularly bad for him. It was, as they say, a merciful release.

I'll try not to make this into a pity party but I would just like to say that there won't be many people attending his funeral. In life he seemed to think that people were eggs, because one of his favourite sayings was 'You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.' He broke quite a few eggs during his life and prided himself on being feared by his employees when he was a company director of GEC. He used to stroll around the train factory where he worked summarily firing workers for things such as wearing earrings. He boasted about workers dying from asbestosis and prided himself in never having read a book in his life.

Born in Cheadle in 1932, Jack grew up, as he said, as a dirty-kneed urchin in a solidly working class household. As a teenager it seemed he was destined to be a footballer and played for Manchester City in their junior team. Furthermore he built up his strength lifting scrap metal round the back of the factory he worked in, becoming an anatomist's model in the process. He must have got bored with this because he met my mother, got married at 21 and hopped on next trans-oceanic liner to America. Stepping off onto American soil, the first thing he did was to come down with acute appendicitis. He was rushed to hospital only to be left in the corridor for hours while my mother, only 19 and in a state of frenzy, rushed to find a good Samaritan who would pay a bond for my father to have the operation. If she hadn't found one such man I wouldn't be writing these words.

They spend the next 16 or so years living on and off in Canada. My father, a member of the Communist Party, was finding life in the US too difficult (so he said). Canada took him in and he made the swift conversion from Communism to Capitalism, once he had made enough dough as a property owner there.

Back in England I arrived in 1971 (my sister is ten years older than me and grew up with a Canadian accent) and my father climbed the greasy pole of a manufacturing industry in terminal decline, working his way up as others slid down. As a ruthless cost cutter who was not afraid of making omelettes he had found his niche and was rewarded correspondingly. Thatcherism was on the rise and my father was one of her acolytes. If anything, she was too soft for his liking, and he advocated paying lower taxes and instituting the death penalty for petty offences such as smoking dope. I was packed off to private school and the intention was to turn me into a mini prodigy which, of course, I never became.

The scene was set for one conflict after another and, despite my caving in to his insistence that I study economics at university (I was all set to study classics) he never really saw me as much more than an expensive failure. A few attempts at reconciliation proved fruitless and in the years after my mother died (some 20 years ago) he devoted himself obsessively to researching ways to avoid paying tax; something which, in the end, I think contributed to his decline.

Still, it doesn't do to speak ill of the recently dead, so I'm going to present another side of my father as well because he had sides that not many people realised. He was great nature lover and he took us on walks most weekends around some of the most beautiful parts of the English countryside. If it wasn't for this early exposure to nature, where I was allowed to play to my heart's content, I'm not sure how I would have grown up.

Furthermore, he abhorred waste of any kind. Every scrap of food had to be eaten, no matter how bad it tasted, and he would state again and again that we are spoiled in the west and that people were starving in other countries. He saw military expenditure as morally wrong too, saying that for every minute an F1-11 was in the air it could stop a child dying from malnutrition. Lights left on in the house were punishable with having my pocket money docked (from the 10p it stood at!) and nearly all technology, which in those days meant colour televisions and VCRs was profligacy that would turn your brain to mush.

”People,” he would say to me time and again ”are really quite stupid and will do anything and buy anything you tell them to. The trick in life is to do what you think is right and not be bothered by what others think of you.” I didn't agree with him at the time (I just wished my father would be like everyone else's!) - but I now realise that this was one of the lessons I really took to heart. While all my friends were going on holiday each year to Florida and on cruises, we stayed in a leaky caravan in a field in Cornwall, where it normally rained continuously.

His toughness extended to central heating, which he was almost ideologically opposed to. Every winter he would construct his own storm windows and generally weatherise the house. One room (the lounge) was kept warm, while the rest of the place was as cold as the crypt. Sleeping with a thick jumper on was the norm and it was unusual if you couldn't see your breath indoors between December and March.

Again, this is something I now thank him for. I am able to weather a far greater range of temperatures than most people I know, although it does mean that I suffer in offices when the thermostat is set way too high.

Similarly, my father taught me a lot about tools and gardening. Almost everything was 'home made' in our house, from the car which he had salvaged from a scrap heap and put together one cold winter (with me standing there handing him tools for many a long Saturday when I'd rather be out with my friends), to the beer which he drank rather too much of at weekends and many of the clothes I wore. Some of our food came from the garden too, and every autumn he would take us out into the 'wild' (i.e. on National Trust land) to pick masses of elderberries, which he would make into wine with his own printed labels 'Château Heppenstall'. Unless it was work related he never went in restaurants, flew on planes or bought furniture.

In his later years, hit by the grief of losing my mother at the relatively young age of 58, he softened a lot in his stance on things. With old age he partially gave in to the insistence of everyone who kept saying he should 'enjoy his money' and splashed out on a few of the consumer items that most other people take for granted. He tried to reconcile with me but couldn't help but get caught up again in his emotions, with the result that I stayed away from him whenever possible.

When I analyse the core cause of the conflict between us I think it can be boiled down to our world views. I have an innate sense of what I call optimistic pessimism – all I can remember feeling since I was very young was that we were destroying the world and that by the time I was an adult much of it would have been wrecked. My father, like everyone else of his time who had lived through the Second World War, was the opposite and took the view that scientific progress was marvellous and cost-free. Everything from giant dams, to nuclear power stations and our town's first McDonald's restaurant was 'marvellous' and he claimed his only wish was to be young again so that he could see these fantastic developments take shape. This unacknowledged worship of progress was his true religion and was probably what drove a wedge between us.

In the end he spent the last year of his life at a string of nursing homes and hospitals. He was kicked out of the first one for 'inappropriate behaviour' and ended up under heavy sedation in hospital while doctors experimented on him with different cocktails of drugs. It's a sad way to end up and he died alone, with even the nurses at the nursing home (who only spoke Polish and could not even communicate with him) failing to notice he had died. My sister discovered him in his room on Tuesday evening, having come down with a cough that morning which had quickly overwhelmed his immune system. It occurs to me in writing this that I don't even possess a picture of him.

We are now arranging a funeral. As a devout atheist he had made it clear that he didn't want to be anywhere near a church, even in death. So we are arranging for a burial in a woodland setting, something I think he would have approved of. We're getting a humanist speaker to conduct a ceremony and I'm writing a eulogy, which will probably end up being a more saccharine version of what is above. I realise now deep down that I loved my dad, despite all of the conflict. I hope that when I die my children will possess a picture of me. How does that Neil Young song go … ?

Old man take a look at my life I'm a lot like you
I need someone to love me the whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes and you can tell that's true.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

How Not to Eat a Planet

What does it mean to be an environmentalist these days? That's a a question that's being asked with increasing frequency. It used to be so simple. If you wanted to protect a part of the biosphere that you considered precious but which was under threat all you had to do was write letters of complaint to your MP and the local paper. If that didn't have the desired effect (and usually it didn't) you might make up some placards with a plain message painted onto it (such as Save Bluebell Wood!) and join a group of like-minded people and stand around on the High Street on a Saturday morning. When that tactic failed then more often than not it was time to take direct action and set up camp in the local wood that they were planning to cut down to make way for a new supermarket. This involved some personal risk of injury and you might have to lie down in front of a bulldozer, but at least it attracted attention and the chances of your success increased notably.

A good example of this type of protest, and one that I wrote my dissertation on when I was studying for a master's in environmental philosophy, was Twyford Down. This, for those who have never heard of it, represented a watershed moment in the history of environmental protest in Britain, and even twenty years on it arouses strong feelings. Twyford Down was an area of water meadows on chalklands, rich in biodiversity and full of historical significance with at least two ancient monuments. Unfortunately it also stood in the way of a planned link up with the M3 motorway and the Department of Transport (DoT) was determined right from the outset that no amount of protest would deter it from completing the motorway network in that area.

The process that eventually led to pitched battles as police cleared the way for the heavy earth moving equipment to wreck the fragile ecosystem turned into a textbook example of the limitations of doing things 'by the book'. Most of the people who wanted the project stopped had played by the rules and even the DoT went through all the motions of appearing to be democratic and holding public consultations. When all was said and done, what had previously been officially designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AOB) and the site of two Sceduled Ancient Monuments – in theory one of the most heavily protected areas of Britain – became just another stretch of tarmac so that goods could get to and from London a little quicker. Yet another piece of the biosphere had been sacrificed on the alter to the gods of progress and nature's rich tapestry suffered another small snip.

Twyford Down: Once a protected natural site but today a stretch of tarmac 

It was a crushing defeat for Britain's environmental movement, but nevertheless it didn't crush their resolve and the whole fiasco meant that ministers would at least think twice about planning something similar again. That can't be said of the Rio+20 Earth Summit that recently took place. At least I think it took place, I couldn't find much mention of it in the news. In fact, if anyone needed a reminder that concerns about the environment have officially been downgraded over concerns about the economy then this was it. You couldn't even call it a damp squib, because at least you expect a squib to go bang when you light the fuse. World leaders stayed away in droves and it was only the professional activists who ended up attending. If there was ever a clear signal that what some people call the global elite don't care about our planet then this was it.

Which gets me onto George Monbiot. Soon after the end of the non-summit he wrote that, not to put too finer point on it, he had given up. The whole political sphere of environmentalism had been coopted by big business interests he concluded, with the end result being an official text that talks not of sutainability but of sustainable growth. What, he asked, is the point any longer if this is the best we can acheive? In his own words:

"Giving up on global agreements or, more accurately, on the prospect that they will substantially alter our relationship with the natural world, is almost a relief. It means walking away from decades of anger and frustration. It means turning away from a place in which we have no agency to one in which we have, at least, a chance of being heard. But it also invokes a great sadness, as it means giving up on so much else."

Now, despite Monbiot's controversial support of nuclear power, I still happen to like him. I like his articulacy and his committment to unfashionable causes and willingness to act as a lightning conductor for the more vicious Telegraph troggers, who call him Mr Moonbat (note: the term trogger is something I just thought up i.e. a contraction of troll and blogger - which is what the poison pens employed by the Telegraph effectively are, and has nothing to do with what the urban dictionary defines it as!). I also like the fact that he's a father of two young kids and the moving piece he wrote to his newly born daughter about the world she will grow up – which resonates with my own experience. I met him once, getting a very short interview in Copenhagen, and he comes across as a slightly eccentric geography teacher at a boys' grammar school. He's endearing in that, up until now, he seriously seemed to believe that the powers that be would listed to his reasoned arguments and act upon them in good faith. He was a reasonable voice in an unreasonable world.

But this endearingness is also what makes him somewhat dangerous. There's nothing that a powerfully funded lobby such as the nuclear industry likes better than to display the scalp of a former enemy and George Monbiot, in claiming that Fukushima has convinced him that nuclear energy is safe, handed over his own scalp on a sliver platter. Those of us who gasped in horror at his announcement reacted at first with disbelief and then anger. His conversion seemed so utterly blinkered and naive that it was all some of us could do to open and close our mouths in disbelief like fish out of water. There are many things about nuclear power that are abhorrent but the one statistic that suffices is that there is, on average, one serious accident for every 3,000 years of reactor use. Thus, with the approximately 11,000 extra reactors that would be needed to phase out coal, we could expect around four Chernobyls or Fukushimas per year and also lack the money or resources needed to deal with these disasters.

And Monbiot isn't the only scalp, of course. In Britain alone we can add James Lovelock, Mark Lynas and former Greenpeace man Stephen Tindale to the pro-nuclear shills. There's nothing pleasant about seeing them on bended knee before Big Nuke, repeating the same press release rhetoric about 'meeting future energy needs without boosting CO2 output.' It's still more unpleasant to realise that these few greying men have come to think of themselves as the official mouthpieces of the environmental movement, and that everything they say is somehow more insightful than anyone else. Their message and tone is increasingly brittle and closed for discussion. Thus I once found myself in an on-line discussion with Mark Lynas that was supposed to be about his new book in which he expouses virtually everything he once opposed, such as a massive roll-out of GM crops across the Third World and a wholesale switch to nuclear energy. During the open discussion I raised some of the issues I have learned in the past few years from peak oil and Lynas had an iHissyfit, saying my reality-based reasoning in which I mentioned Liebig's Law of limiting factors was 'evil'.

So it's actually refreshing to see Monbiot's breakdown of faith in the sytem. He's a bit behind the curve but it's pleasant to see that finally he's 'getting it'. After all, in his own words he says:

"I do not believe that the planet-eating machine, maintained by an army of mechanics, oiled by constant injections of public money, will collapse before the living systems on which it feeds. But I might be wrong."


Yes, that's where I store what's left of my hope. For all the doom and apocalypic predictions surrounding the peak oil scene, the rather substantial silver lining is that the 'planet eating machine' is running out of power before our very eyes. Nearly every mainstream environmental organisation, from Greenpeace to WWF, trots out the same old figures about CO2 emissions rising into the distant future, taking no account of catabolic collapse due to declining net energy. Relatively soon, it will no longer be possible to ravage the world on such an industrial scale. George Monbiot, and his ilk, want to replace the oil powered planet eating machine with a nuclear powered planet eating machine. It's hardly environmentalism, is it?

But not all environmentalists have gone over to the dark side. Paul Kingsnorth, for example, whose articles I used to read in The Ecologist, 'gave up' years ago and started the Dark Mountain Project. The Dark Mountain Project is a kind of half-way house for recovering environmentalists. It's for those who have confronted their despair but refuse to give in to it, instead turning it into something more useful. Paul Kingsnorth says why he walked away from conventional hope-based environmentalism:

"It was the despair of an environmentalist who could see that environmentalism was failing and who had to work out how to deal with that. It was the despair of someone who felt he had no-one to talk to about his despair because, though many other people were feeling it too – oh, you could see it in their eyes however hard they tried to conceal it – it was never talked about. Activists do not talk about despair. No-one talks about despair. Despair, in a progressive society, is taboo. We do not want despair. We want hope. Hope, all the time. Hope, like a drug. Do not look down – look away."

And it seems to me that being a modern day environmental activist is all about cheating despair. Sign up for any newsletter from groups such as and you'll likely be bombarded with chirpy upbeat messages about how well their campaign is going. All we have to do is click away and someone somewhere will deliver a petition to someone important who will in all probably ignore it. It's an efficient system for limiting the effectiveness of protest and at the same time making the would-be protesters feel as if they are doing something useful. I even saw one group recently saying that if every protester were 'armed' with a quad-core laptop and linked in to Twitter, Facebook and various other networks they could out-process the evil global elite and effect a revolution that would usher in a new age of global peace based on an equitable distribution of ... yadder yadder yadder. You get the point.

But maybe it's time to confront the depair, work through it and get on with something useful? I'm not saying that there is no point in protesting on a global level or being a clicktivist – just that we should realise that by doing so we are getting involved with ritualism and our 'actions' may never be more than symbolic. As such, in an age dominated by the dark forces of progress-at-all-costs, placing too much faith in the effectiveness of altering consciousness with symbolic gestures can end in obessive denial and even psychosis.

For his own part I read that George Monbiot had moved to a remotish part of Wales to raise his kids, catches his own fish every morning from a kayak and is now focusing his efforts on projects that restore the wild in areas degraded by man's destructive habits. All that's needed now is a strongly worded renunciation of nuclear power and I suspect that 99% of UK environmentalists would forgive him.

By fighting to protect places and species instead of focusing obsessively on the impossible task of getting nations to reduce their CO2 emissions we can throw a lifeline to our planet. Or at least to bits of it. Have a look for example at Miranda Gibson, who is currently living up a tree in Tasmania and trying to stop logging concerns from trashing the forests. She's as good an example as there is of someone willing to forego personal comfort and safety to protect something of immeasurable beauty and natural worth.

Some people just shrug and say 'what's the point?'. This is both a defeatist and nihilist attitude. None of us should think that their individual efforts will 'Save the Planet' (or some other nonsense) but neither should we think they have no effect at all. We just have to accept that there will be consequences of our individual actions, some of which are noticeable and most of which are not. The actions we take today set the scene for what happens in the future.

To me at least, that's something worth fighting for.