Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Black and White Swan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How much is too much?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Calamity in the UK

A question arose in my mind earlier when I was reading the summary of a new report with the catchy title "Sustainability and place: How emerging mega-trends of the 21st century will affect humans and nature at the landscape level". This report basically takes a stab at where, and where is not, likely to be a good place to live ... in the US. It's an interesting read for doomsters, and it takes account of factors such as sea level rise, drought and social unrest.

I'd love to see a similar study done for Europe. As long-time readers will know, it's something of a hobby of mine to hazard guesses about which places are going to be hit harder than others. My own guess is that the UK—a country I have voluntarily chosen to move back to after 13 years away—is going to be hit pretty hard. This is, after all, the country where the news headlines on the eve of the biggest East-West confrontation of the century featured the shocking news that Prince Harry was seen twerking at a wedding in Memphis 'surrounded by southern belles'.

How are people going to react to news that could be said to have a more relevant bearing on them? Such as 'Britain to run out of petrol next Wednesday' or 'Fires and lynchings in City of London rage for a fourth night'.

I certainly don't want to be around any of the giant conurbations stuffed to the gunwales with disaffected, radicalised, unemployed youths when the food trucks stop rolling, the sewage systems back up and the taps run dry. I know that the current government is trying to avoid such a scenario by welcoming anyone with money into the country so that they can help inflate a number of bubbles for people to look at and pretend they are wealthy, but I'm not at all sure that such a strategy can last forever. Bear in mind that there are about 65 million people living here (in the early days of the British empire, that figure was five million, which explains all the stately homes), and the whole shebang is funded on exponentially growing debt—something that neither the right or the left will admit to. All this is going on while the political/financial elites are selling off everything that isn't nailed down and robbing future generations of a stable future.

What's more, it's hard not to notice that a lot of people hate each other. I mean REALLY hate. All you have to do is show a picture of UKIP leader Nigel Farage or Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson to an audience of liberals and you'll spark off a Two Minutes Hate. By the same token, show a picture of a wind turbine or a badger to an audience of right-wingers and you'd better get your umbrella out or face being drenched with bile. Have we always been like this?

And then there's the self-hate thing. Does any other nation hate itself as much as the English do? Just read the comments below any politics/finance/society article in the Guardian or Telegraph or any of the other usual suspects and you'll see what I mean. If 'we' are not wailing about how everything is being ruined, then we are wailing about everyone else ruining everything for us. Perhaps it just comes with the territory.

Luckily I live about as far away from all this as possible without falling into the sea, and all the fuss about the Prince Harries and Jeremy Clarksons seem a long, long way from here. I'm not a nationalist, a royalist, a jihadist or any other ist and I'm pretty comfortable being a white bloke, even though I have occasionally been told that this is something to be ashamed of. Furthermore, and happily for me, I live in Cornwall, whose people were only last week granted National Minority status, causing much jubilation among Cornish folk and much non-plussed 'so whats?' from resident emmets. This is seen by some as a first step towards a regional assembly, followed by autonomy and eventual nationhood (Cornwall being one of the Celtic nations, the others being Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Brittany).

"But that can't be so!" wailed a good many English, who look down on their Cornish cousins. "Don't you know that Cornwall is dirt poor and can only survive by having us buy up all their quaint cottages for holiday homes?" they say.

Yep, it's true. To an extent. Cornwall is officially one of the poorest places in the whole of Europe (ranking alongside Lithuania), with London being the wealthiest. But it hasn't always been that way—go back to the Bronze Age and this was one of the richest areas to be found anywhere. The source of those riches arose from tin, which was traded with the Greeks to make bronze for their weapons. Furthermore, the land was enriched by the application of seaweed something that is not in short supply here—making it quite a fertile bit of land. Could it be that way again? It's mild climate makes it the best place for growing things ... not least hemp, which was a prime product back in the days when it was legal. What about those mines that tunnel everywhere underneath the land? They are unprofitable in the age of oil, but what about after the age of oil? And the shipping possibilities? There is already one sail-powered cargo boat operating between Cornwall and the Caribbean - there may be more in years to come. It's intriguing to think of what could be.

Anyway, getting back to that report, one of the conclusions was that if you want to avoid the worst effects of the collapse into scarcity-industrialism the best thing you can do is move to somewhere that is already used to missing out on the technologically obsessed turbo charged capitalist euphoria that is so fashionable these days. These areas tend to have rich land that has yet to be concreted over, and the locals are already expert in getting by with whatever resources they have to hand because they've been led to fend for themselves. Indeed most of the people I count as friends these days have good honest dirt under their fingernails, brew their own cider and probably don't even know what a twerking prince looks like. So pick your area wisely.


On a positive note, I'm happy to say that I've spent the last three weeks wallowing in stories of genocide, viewing films of villages being bombed and seeing images of children with their limbs blown off—all so that you don't have to. The result is a chapter about the US Secret War In Laos for Dmitry Orlov's forthcoming book entitled Communities that Abide. The book will be released in June and is available for pre-order by following this link - and there is a limited print run so get your order in now before it sells out!