Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Learning to Live Fearlessly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is saving Newcastle Mission Impossible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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