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The joy of ex

Yes, the ex I am talking about is ex-industrialism. As our world gazes down from the mist shrouded plateau of Hubbert’s Peak onto the unfamiliar terrain of a lower energy future it’s quite natural that we are experiencing a feeling of giddiness and fear. The way down is unknown and, as I mentioned last week, there may be some pretty steep cliffs that we somehow have to traverse. We don’t know what the journey down is going to be like, but we do know that at some point – perhaps after a couple of centuries, perhaps sooner – we’re going to reach the flat ground with which we have been familiar throughout most of our human history.

At that point in time we’ll find that the flat terrain on the far side of the foothills of Hubbert’s Peak isn’t half as nice as the forested green lands our ancestors set out from all those years ago. For a start it’ll be covered in the smouldering wrecks of industrial society and girded with concrete. Furthermore, there will be fewer species of animals and the climate will be chaotic. And just why is the ground covered in bones? Those with access to history books will probably wish we had never discovered how to use oil in the first place.

But the fact is that we did. Whether the planet was looking to evolve a burrowing species to release the buried carbon back into the atmosphere and bring on a huge epoch-defining change in its chemistry we will never know. Some could be forgiven for thinking just that, given the steady drumroll of scientific news that we’ve been hit with recently. Let's recap. The Arctic ice is at a record low. The oceans are turning into warm battery acid. The world is gripped by severe drought and severe flooding. Human numbers continue their relentless explosion. Microwave pulse transmissions from mobile phone masts and wi-fi devices are causing mutations and killing trees in ever greater areas. More nations are scrambling for nuclear technology.

I’m going to stop right there.

The reason I’m going to stop there is because I don’t want this blog to turn into a doomer blog. I’ve been reading a few doomer blogs recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing they achieve is to put a spell of paralysis on you. In my experience the only way to break this paralysing spell is to actually do something along the lines suggested by Gandhi i.e. be the change you want to see in the world. Doomers disempower both themselves and those who read what they have written. The world may be going through extreme flux right now but that doesn't mean it won’t be worth living in. It’s difficult to write that without sounding trite, because people are desperate and people are scared, but really, if you think about it, all the talk of sterilization and suicide pills isn’t exactly helpful is it?

I have three simple thoughts that I keep in mind to avoid despair (and God knows, I have also been there).

The first is that the scientists might be right about many observable phenomena but they are not all-knowing. They might have identified a few positive feedback loops which will likely cause us an immense amount of trouble, such as white ice giving way to blue water, methane release etc. but they can’t possibly predict any negative feedback loops which might limit the destruction. Nobody knows for sure what is really happening and the effect it will have on us (but just to be clear, yes, it is a silly and dangerous idea to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere).

The second point to bear in mind is that we have no idea what rippling effect our individual actions will cause. When Rosa Parks sat down on a bus seat in 1955 she could have had no idea that it might lead to a black man being elected president over half a century later. By following through on our thoughts with decisive actions we cross a boundary between the non-physical world of thought into the physical world. Humans, being social primates, copy behaviours, and there is no way of knowing when we are nearing tipping points in human behaviour. The so-called hundredth monkey effect is a case in point.

Thirdly, we have very little clue as to how the currents of human psychology, as influenced by religion, can change course. But change they do, and quite often it is very swiftly. At present, the religion of our industrial society is that of progress. Some people convince themselves they are atheists and progressives, but it’s impossible for our conscious minds not to latch onto some kind of meaning in the universe, so in fact they are just deluding themselves. They say that the universe is just a lot of balls whizzing around and banging into one another and that its creation, as well as the advent of life and consciousness, is just a normal phenomenon not worth dwelling upon. But it is far from unlikely that as the promises of the industrial age implode one by one this obsession with material progress will look more and more hollow and something far more profound will replace it. If and when it does, I’m hoping that it will be an Earth centred spirituality, which will (again) mean that we’ll just be getting back to normal.

Don’t believe it could take hold? Have a look at the picture below, which was taken in the world’s most advanced industrial nation a couple of days ago. In case you're wondering what's happening, tens of thousands of Americans are gathered around a giant wooden man which, at the culmination of of the festival, is set alight to joyous celebrations. Who is that man? He's The Man, that's who.

The Burning Man festival in Nevada (image from The Guardian)

So all of these things give me hope. Hope is a terribly saccharine word that is often used by lazy people who don’t do anything to bring it about. So I’m going for a Hope 2:0, which is like the old hope but you have to earn it. And being the father of two children I have to have hope – there can be no better way to invest in the future.

I have been here once before ten years ago. Despite the economic boom (or probably because of it) I decided that the sanest thing to do would be to move somewhere we could have a small farm. Given the huge disparity in property prices between northern and southern Europe it meant we could swap our small terraced house beside a main road in a dull part of Copenhagen for a large eight bedroom stone farmhouse with an acre of land in the foothills of Spain’s Sierra Nevada. It was a no-brainer, as far as I was concerned, but people told us we were ‘brave’. I didn't see anything brave about it – it just seemed like common sense.

Fast forward a couple of years and the house we had bought as a ruin (so many houses were abandoned in the rush to the cities after Franco had fallen) was more or less restored to habitability. Along the way I had received some very useful lessons about water supply, electricity, heating and sewage. Plus, I could also add ‘olive farmer’ to my CV.

We began to live the low-energy dream, and probably for the first time in my adult life, I actually really enjoyed life. Living with the seasons and the sun, and only having a small amount of electrical energy proved to be very liberating. I found out how bountiful nature could be, and in our garden alone we grew olives, figs, almonds, apples, pomegranates, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, grapes, cherries, chestnuts and quinces. A vegetable garden provided even more food, and if it was meat we were after we could always have asked our neighbour to shoot a jabali (wild boar) for us, although we never did.

No, we were not self-sufficient in any way, but we put a big dent in it. We became part of a network of friends and neighbours. Whatever your problem, you could usually find someone to help you out, just as you would have to be willing to help others out in need. That’s what it’s all about, in my opinion.

[Ah yes, I hear the naysayers say, but you had the money to achieve your dream. True, but I know plenty of people down in Spain who had next to nothing but still achieved something similar, getting hold of scruffy pieces of unwanted land and living in caravans and trucks etc. Embedded in the same ecosystem, they were also able to grow the same plants and trees as me - the sun and rain didn't discriminate. Life is a conundrum that only we can solve.]

Alas this dream wasn’t to last, but before it ended I did have one revelation. I used to get up each morning just as the sun appeared over the top of a distant mountain, bathing my Eden-like garden in light. I would walk around the land with a cup of tea, usually with our three mousers at my heels (who wait all night for this moment), just taking note of all the plants and how they were doing. Perhaps I would think that a bough on an old olive tree would need lopping off because it was getting too unbalanced, or maybe I would just note that a particular tomato plant was not doing so well on a particular patch of ground. I would dig in the soil with my fingers, assessing whether it needed irrigating and gauging how much organic matter it had within it. I gazed at the industrious ants and the bark-coloured cicadas (thankfully silent at this time of day) and stood still so as not to scare the myriad brightly coloured birds that came to drink in our irrigation pool. I listened to the deep throbbing hum of a bees’ nest within a eucalyptus tree, and of my neighbour’s goats bleating as sounds from the valley carried up on the cool breeze.

In this way I entered into a very intimate relationship with the land and, day by day, week by week, season by season, that relationship deepened. I realised I was filling my head with knowledge, and that filled me with a deep joy. But as this joy deepened, I was also filled with something like alarm at how much there was to know and learn, and how much junk my head was already filled with.

We rarely ventured out into what I termed the ‘real world’ i.e. outside our valley, which was backwards even by Andalucian Spanish standards, and even a trip to nearby Granada, which is by most accounts one of the world’s most beautiful old cities, started my head spinning. I became, in effect, a country bumpkin. When people came to visit it was impossible not to notice the look of alarm written all over their faces. My father in law, who is Italian, flatly failed to believe we were living there. It just didn’t compute in his head and he muttered ‘You can’t live here,’ over and over.

Unfortunately it turned out that he was right and so it was all the more of a shock when the long arm of fate took us by the scruff of our necks and dumped us back in the fashion and techno-progressive utopia of Copenhagen again. I then spent five hard years paying off debts and generally being made to feel that I should NEVER try to escape from the system again. Don’t even think about it!

All of this is to illustrate the point that as our fuel supplies dwindle and our world begins to look more chaotic and dishevelled we are going to need to learn a lot of things. But it’s not just necessity; whole worlds of knowledge and learning are there just for the taking. Here’s an exercise that I did a couple of weeks ago when considering what I would like to learn in this life before I die. I came up with the following, after some thought:

To sail a boat
To learn Greek
To learn thoroughly one area of history
Permaculture for my local environment
Wild pottery
Woodland management
A musical instrument
An oriental martial art form

By contrast, I know people who have either abandoned learning altogether and are just content to sit in front of the television and be drip fed reality programmes, or instead focus all of their brain power on learning new IT systems.

All of the subjects I have mentioned above can be done for little or no money and don’t consume much energy. True, it helps if you’re an autodidact, but that should only be considered a limiting factor. I have already started, having bought some CDs online, which I listen to as I am running, plus various books I have been reading over the past year. What’s more, I am learning something else too, although I don’t feel ready to talk about it here just yet. If you have read this far you’ll probably have a fair idea about what it is. This also ties in with my longer term plans, which I’ll also be revealing here in good time.

So, far from feeling a terrifying paralysis about the future, what I actually feel is that for many of us it will be like the opening of a lotus flower. Yes, there are huge unknowns and sharp cliffs, but there are also many opportunities for enlightenment and learning. What I think many people need to do is break away from the online incubators of despair – indulging in them is like drinking from a pool of poisoned water. It also doesn’t do any good to continually tune into the television news.

I could say that the future is going to bright and powered by windmills and solar panels. I’ve noticed that those kinds of blogs attract a lot of followers and positive ‘if only we wish hard enough/pump more money into Tesla then it will come true’ comments – but I’d be telling a lie. As far as I see it – and I’m no sage, just a regular bloke – the future’s going to be messy and hard, but not apocalyptic. Those of us who at least recognise this now will get the chance to engage it on something like our own terms, whereas those who don’t will likely end up shivering in cold and dying of boredom in hugely overcrowded housing complexes and wondering when that great Thorium powered future they had unknowingly mentally and spiritually invested in was going to turn up and save them.

Instead, what we should be doing is focusing on the positive, while still maintaining a clear understanding of the multiple and complex threats that face us. If you want to read something that more or less chimes with my outlook there can be no better publication than Resurgence. This plucky magazine has been going for around 40 years and is edited by Satish Kumar. People write in it for free and there are (almost) no adverts – just artwork and poems in their place. It’s heavily influenced by the thinking of Schumacher (Small is Beautiful) and great thinkers such as Tagore. It has just joined forces with The Ecologist, creating a synthesis between environmentalism, the arts and science. I know that every time I receive it through the mail and read through it it gives me plenty of inspiration – so I would heartily recommend anyone who doesn’t already do so to take out a subscription and see if it does the same thing for you!

Here endeth the commercial message.

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