Collapse Cafe 10/4/2015: UK Special Edition

gc2When Does the Sun Set on Britain?

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Our discussion with Norman Pagett and Jason Heppenstall on issues focused on the UK as the collapse of industrial civilization progresses

Also, don't forget to take the Energy Survey!  We are going to hold it open an extra week because links to the survey were broken when  I launched the Survey.  They have since been fixed.

The Future of Energy Survey

Britain: Hope, Glory & Bollocks

broken-britain2gc2Off the keyboard of John Ward

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Published on The Slog on October 5, 2015


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The myth of 21st Century entrepreneurial Britain

Liam Halligan – one of the few hacks at the Torynaff I’m still prepared to read – offers a piece today in which he quite rightly argues that Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn is at his best deconstructing the Tory Party’s utterly mendacious version of how the British economy is faring. But in the midst of such wise thoughts, he drops a clanger like this: (my emphasis)

‘With the relatively moderate Hilary Benn having just been ousted, there’s now a pro-Corbyn majority on Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee. Corbynites are wresting control of the party machine from the more sensible centre-Left

Liam thinks the soft Left more sensible because it buys into the ‘reality’ of the Thatcher economic sea change; and he adds this bubble-dwelling nonsense: ‘the UK today is by no means a place where people “take what they’re given”. The British, on the contrary, tend to go to work each morning, earn their money, often start businesses and strive to improve the lot of themselves and their families. Enterprise and self-reliance are central to this country’s identity, hard-wired into us.’

That isn’t true of the British and it never was; it was only ever true of a tiny band of post-agrarian aristocrats nouveaux in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the independent shopkeeper about whom Napoleon Bonaparte was so hopelessly wrong. The central myth of Thatcherism is that Britain is choc-a-bloc with folks just gagging to be the next Alan Sugar. Today, all the famous entrepreneurial and innovative corporate names from our industrial revolution are gone forever – either sold to unpleasant multinationals or rendered sclerotic by third-rate, third-generation management. If you can see any new mega-groups emerging from a standing start in vehicles, technology, media, banking, energy and all the other controlling interests in 21st century UK life, then you have better eyesight and foresight than I.

The overwhelming majority of Britons today take what they are given because they have no choice, or – even worse – zero discernment about what really matters in life.

The statistics are there for anyone to see: those at the very bottom of society have made a 1.0-2.5% gain in funds, those from the old skilled working class have lost 13% in the last ten years alone, a minority of merchant and retail independents have found lucrative niches selling to the Daft Rich ( but most others have gone to the wall), the old have gone backwards on almost every real measure, and corporations have vastly increased their power. Those individuals ripping off the old public sector and milking the capital research base of former nationalised giants and contemporary multinationals have rocketed into the standard 3 – 5% who spend more on lunch each day than most of those at the bottom get in monthly salary.

Britain’s tiny top slither of 1% shovers and makers have accumulated as much wealth as the poorest 55% of the population. Household wealth in the south-east has risen five times as fast as the rest of the country. Five billionaire families control the same wealth as 20% of the population. The bottom 50% of the country’s citizens own just 9% of the wealth.

Above all, the blindingly obvious piece of history that gives the lie to Halligan’s silly assertions is that Britain was the first nation in the world whose mass workforce of employees (not Grant Shapps clones) organised to create democratically elected socialist administrations with genuine power. France and Australia may offer historians the first Commune and the first socialist Prime Minister, but by 1924 Britain had a minority Labour Government – and the work of Attlee’s 1946-51 team created a State welfare and health system that became the envy of the world.

What has given Britain its stability since Cromwellian and Restoration times is a unique feature: the ability to learn – via various Reform Acts and Rule of Law continuity – how to avoid the mistakes of both revolution and privilege. From 1640 until 1979, it worked to the citizens’ advantage better than in any previous Empire or Commonwealth. Since then we have lost this.

The reality of such loss is apparent in the myriad symptoms we see in today’s far from United Kingdom: wealth inequality, extreme views about gender and equality ‘correction’, acceptance of socially irresponsible profit, the rise and rise of the unapologetic greedy arsehole, alignment with a blatantly fascist EU, wholesale abandonment of the Rule of Law, flagrant perversions of equality before the Law, tabloid cruelty, and above all the headlong rush towards sociopathic corporatocracy.

The only defence the repressed in society can fall back upon now is media-distracted apathy and the revival of extreme Left ideology that failed before. It failed for the same reason that extreme Right ideology will fail in the immediate-term future: denialism about the realities of Man the social animal – his frailties, wiring, bigotries, fears and preference for family life over corporate and State denialism.

I confess to tiring of writing about this. And I absolutely despair when a Conservative Conference tweeter tries to tell us that Britain is Great because there are no French Rolling Stones or German Beatles.


gc2smOff the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

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Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on September 17, 2015

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I was having a cup of tea with a friend in his polytunnel the other day and he was telling me about how hard it was to live a simple life minding his own business. He's about ten years younger than me, is married and has a kid on the way, and they live on a three acre plot of land which they bought with their own money and manage using permaculture. They work every day of the week, have practically no money and their ecological footprint is probably so small it might even not register, and yet they are suffering from endless harassment to get them evicted and complaints from nearby wealthy residents who feel that people shouldn't be allowed to live as they please. My friend had a simple explanation for all this, he said that as a nation and a culture, we are basically nasty and intolerant.

This got me thinking. Britain, after all, was the first industrialised nation. We had the enclosures acts from the 17th century onwards which kicked people off the land and turned it over to the pseudo industrial practice of sheep farming (the rearing of 'woolly maggots' as George Monbiot describes them). Wealth has been concentrated at the top for so long and the society has been stratified by class that imagining normal people living and working in the countryside is practically impossible for most.

Our culture is a dominator one. Due to a geological accident regarding coal, combined with a military nature and a lust for foreign goods, we ended up being the world's largest empire. When colonisers arrived in Australia and encountered Aboriginal people, instead of making friends with them they buried their children up to their necks in the sand and played a game where you had to kick off their heads with a single powerful kick. In India we caused mass famines and when people complained we machine-gunned them down. We did the same in plenty of other countries too. We divided up vast expanses of Africa, Asia and the Middle East and drew lines on maps which caused huge upheavals and sectarian violence. Nelson razed Copenhagen with naval bombardment, just for fun, and we devised the world's first concentration camps during the Boer War, and enthusiastically firebombed cities during the Second World War. And then, even when we stopped being an empire, we spawned Margaret Thatcher whose enthusiasm for the ideas of neoliberalism was enthusiastically passed onto Ronald Reagan and forced upon the world.

People don't like to talk about any of these aspects of Britishness. They prefer to talk about the engineering marvels we brought to India and how we taught the world to speak English. We brought football, cricket and tennis to the natives, and helped them become civilised. They might concede that there was the odd 'dark chapter' but that overall the empire building was all good and proper.

I was in London a couple of weeks ago and took the opportunity to visit the City (i.e. the financial district) to do a bit of background research for my online book Seat of Mars. Leaving Liverpool Street station one passes by a bronze statue of some refugee children. I looked at the inscription and it was a dedication to the selfless efforts of local people who took in 10,000 Jewish children from Germany prior to the Second World War. Valiant stuff, but this is the statue that many of the 35,000 City workers walk past every morning as they head for their high rises to unleash further financial mayhem on the world. How many millions of people has the City of London killed in the last few decades? It's a valid question, but don't hold your breath for an answer. Yet these City workers, for the most part, see themselves as good people. They run marathons to raise funds for cancer research, they donate money on Children in Need night, and they buy kittens for their kids. I have some friends who are City bankers and they are not evil people (though we don't have much to talk about these days). Hell, I was once almost a banker myself, luckily fluffing my interview at Citi.



So maybe it's just the system that is evil.

But then I see evil everywhere. I see the attack dogs set onto Jeremy Corby for daring to suggest scrapping nuclear weapons. I see evil in the pages of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph as they attempt to character assassinate anyone who wants to stop global warming, or as they incite violence against refugees. I see evil in the countryside where farmers and rich people collude to kill the wildlife in the most painful and inhumane ways possible. Fracking is evil. Bombing by drones is evil. Hosting arms fairs is evil.



Of course, if you say these things to people they will call you a traitor and a 'Brit hater'. They will point out that it's not their fault, all those wars of conquest, and that they have no need to feel guilty – even though our way of life is funded by one-sided trade deals, easy access to energy and a ponzi system of finance that allows us to continue to rack up astronomical levels of debt and consume huge bites of the world's resource pie. I'm not a Brit-hater – there are far too many positive aspects of life in these isles – but that doesn't mean I have to be an apologist for the less-than-wholesome aspects.

Perhaps my friend had a point.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps it is a case that those in the top positions are psychopaths, willing to do anything and everything to consolidate their power and enslave the masses using mind control techniques. I know plenty of people who are not evil. As a matter of fact, I don't think I know anyone who is evil. Most people, it seems to me, are good at heart. They want to help. They want to love one another. They want to stop the destruction of the world. These are the people it is best to hang around with – they're better for for soul and your sanity.

So why do we collectively put up with all this evilness? Is it because badness has a natural advantage over goodness? Do evil plans always work out in the 'real' world and good ones are just 'idealistic dreaming'? Does the devil have all the best tunes?

I have a theory. Could it be that it is because Britain is an island that was once fabled for its gold and tin mines? That it has been invaded again and again since the end of the last ice age, and that the settler populations always selected for the most war-like? For me, you could forgive the Anglo Saxons and the Romans, but it was the Normans that did it. With their Scandinavian blood, their aristocratic French ways and their lust for conquering – the country changed dramatically after 1066. One of the first things they did was catalogue all the people, land and assets in the Domesday Book. Invasion, murder and cataloguing – the start of the dominator culture. It's been almost 1,000 years and still the top landowners in this country can trace their lineages back to the Normans. Or maybe there is some kind of supernatural explanation …

So, no, I don't think we are evil. Just some of us. The ones with the power. And the ability to project that power has been multiplied a thousand-fold since we discovered that you could burn coal and use it to power engines. So will we see a future where access to limited high-concentration energy also leads to a corresponding drop in the ability of bad men (yes, it's mostly men) to do bad things? One can only hope so.

Who knows, maybe in 500 years time it will be possible to live on a small piece of land and raise a family without having the collective wrath of a millennium of dominator culture threatening to fall down and crush you just for wanting not to be a part of that system.

Misrule Britannia

Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

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Pubished on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on June 1, 2015

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When I moved back to the UK two years ago after living abroad for a while, nobody could accuse me of not knowing what I was getting into. For quite some time pundits in the collapsosphere have been calling out the UK as one of the riskiest countries in which to live, right up there with Japan. Not only do we have a nation that is heavily over-populated with respect to its resource base, but one which hosts one of the world's major world financial viper pits. It's a nation where Arab playboys drive gold-plated Ferraris around the gentrified streets of London while snot-nosed urchins everywhere else go to school without eating breakfast. It's a nation where an unelected old lady in a £300 million hat recently sat on a throne and managed to keep a straight face while announcing her government's plans to slash money for the poor. Basically it's a nation engaged in a war of attrition between those with wealth and those without.
But something in the air has changed since the recent election in which David Cameron's Tories won a majority in the House of Commons. Within days – unshackled for their former collation with the moderating hand of the Liberal Democrats –  there were announcements of plans to walk away from human rights treaties, to impose a 'snoopers charter' of surveillance, to further slash welfare spending, push through the TTIP 'trade' agreement, ramp up fracking, bring back fox hunting with hounds. The Left have been howling in pain ever since.
Although all this was to be expected of the 'nasty party' the one thing that nobody seems to be talking about is how the nation itself will manage to survive as a modern state given the, ahem, challenges it faces. The three main immediate challenges, as I see it, come from the realms of finance, energy and politics. Failings in each one of them alone could prove disastrous, but it seems as if we will get to witness all three calamities occur simultaneously. 
Let's take finance first. 
I've been trying to get to the bottom of what the UK's debt/deficit position is. Mention 'the deficit' and most people emit a strangled howl of indignation. "Don't you know the deficit is a tissue of lies fabricated by the right wing who want to impose Dickensian conditions on the poor?" they ask. Granted, it doesn't seem fair to cut the benefits of society's most needy while simultaneously heaping more money up at the other end of the spectrum, but that wasn't the question. That's simply what failing states do – the more powerful grab what they can at the expense of the less powerful. It's all there in the history books. The next act usually involves pitchforks. 
But this time is different, they argue. Money can now be created by magic, and all we need to do is do whatever it is that those clever folks at the Bank of England (or Bitcoin) do to create more of it using their computers. And, bingo, then we can simply spend it on 'making things great again'. The country can continue to produce 'services' again, everybody will have a decent standard of living once more and we will be back on track to that future of driverless cars, space missions and living to 150.
Money might not seem important if you think it isn't important, but that doesn't alter the fact that throughout modern history there has not been a time when money is not considered important. Especially to creditors, of which the UK has a lot. So, in a kind of back of the envelope way, I decided to try and get a grip on how much debt the government owes. It seems that the total debt is about £1.5 trillion, and the annual deficit is running at about £107 billion – or over £2 billion a week. At that rate the proposed 'austerity' of £12 billion will thus be used up in six weeks. This doesn't matter, according to the economists in the mainstream media, because Britain's economy is doing so well that the annual deficit will be wiped out by rising tax receipts in a couple of years. 
Yet tax receipts from oil and gas have fallen by about 75% since 2008, and will probably drop to zero when North Sea oil and gas stops flowing completely in a couple of years' time (still no mention of this in the media…). And tax receipts are falling as a) more people are in lower-paid jobs and/or falsely counted as employed because they have been forced to declare themselves self-employed b) the larger companies have had their corporation taxes cut and can avoid paying tax entirely if they have savvy accountants.
VAT receipts are flat as most consumers have maxed out their credit cards and run out of spending power. The only way they can rise is if people take on EVEN MORE personal debt – which a lot have actually been doing (currently average personal debt is running at an all-time record of 172% of income, according to a PwC report). But personal debt needs to be repaid one day, and with falling real incomes and plenty of hidden stealth inflation (e.g. food items getting smaller, durable goods getting shoddier, hidden charges becoming more unavoidable etc.) that will become more difficult.
Moneyweek's take on the debt situation
Future projections of the debt/deficit all presuppose a 'healthy' and growing economy. This seems very unlikely IMO given that a financial 'accident' is likely to happen at any moment. And all the while the structural deficit grows larger as the population ages, annuities reach maturity and the bill for the NHS soars. In this context GDP figures don't really mean anything useful: the economy might be improving but it's not the economy that most people ordinarily live in. Plus, any downgrade of the economy by ratings agencies caused by – say – a fracture of the UK, or a severe credit event, will have a knock-on effect on the government's ability to borrow cheaply  and we will simply end up paying the interest on the national credit card, while the capital debts piles up. The interest on this debt alone already costs us £55 billion a year and that's with interest rates at near zero.
All in all, it's difficult not to conclude that the UK is insolvent. But, in any case, perhaps that doesn't matter because this brings me onto the political aspect of the crisis: perhaps there soon won't even be a UK (after all, what do you call a bunch of small countries that are not united?). Since Scotland got royally shafted in their Independence referendum they replied by booting out practically every MP from a Westminster party and instead elected Scottish National Party members to speak up for them. The upshot of this is that David Cameron wants to press ahead with swingeing austerity measures (which, looking at the dire financial figures will actually have to be FAR worse than most people imagine) – but the Scots say they won't accept it north of the border. It's difficult to imagine all of us in England and Wales living in Third World conditions while the Scots keep handing out brown envelopes of cash to their citizens, and people accepting that as fair.
So, sooner or later, Scotland may well get independence, which means that others might want to follow suit. All of a sudden everyone seems to be talking about breaking up. UKIP and most Tories want us to break away from the EU, Scotland, as previously mentioned, will probably go for a messy divorce (and take a large chunk of GDP with them as they leave), London may want to declare itself a 'city state', northern England might want to join Scotland in getting away from the southerners – even Cornwall is starting to get a bit itchy. 
Given that the UK's finances are one big Ponzi scheme (what does the country actually produce these days that has a physical presence?) any political rupture could bring down the house of cards. Parliament, in any case, is almost paralysed as the Tories actually only won by a slim majority and will have trouble passing any contentious legislation. Who knows, perhaps even faraway Greece could provide enough turmoil to shatter the status quo should its amputation from the EU cause death judders. There's a simmering tension and people are already angry enough … what happens when they get even angrier?
Finally, we have the energy conundrum. I've been saying now for at least two years that my guess is that we will see some kind of restriction on the sale of oil and/or petrol in the UK in 2016. I still have 18 months left to see if my prediction will come true, but at the rate things are going it seems like it has a good chance of doing so. As previously noted, North Sea oil is facing a precipitous decline. That decline is accelerating in step with the lower oil price, as new projects are not begun and old ones are mothballed due to high costs. Hundreds of oil workers have been laid off in Aberdeen (and the Scots think they can avoid austerity by using their oil money …).
Not to worry, old chap, says the media. Don't you know that we'll be getting LNG from America soon, and fracked gas from beneath our very own land?
That's the standard response, whenever energy shortages are mentioned, which is rarely. Of course, it's quite ludicrous that either of these schemes will ever happen in the real world. To unlock the British shale gas they would need to turn huge areas of the country into industrial wastelands – huge areas that currently have millions of people (many of them wealthy) living on them. This, in a country where planning and conservation laws are so tight it's a major achievement just to put up a sign lest it spoil the character of the area. And let's not forget that millions of people are implacably opposed to fracking – to the point where they would be willing to lay down their lives to halt the drillers. Heck, this must be the only country in the world to employ magical defence against frackers (it's working, so far). 
Let's add ISIS into the mix. At the rate things are going in the Middle East, if things carry on as they are in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, there could be a major conflagration. It's not hard to imagine oil installations set on fire and the price of crude heading up to $200. This, ironically, is one way the fracking industry and the North Sea could avoid immediate bankruptcy. Not that anyone would be able to afford to fill up their cars any more …
So where, exactly, will the UK get its energy from in the future? There are a lot of cars and trucks here. There are millions of shops and offices and ports and sports grounds and malls that all need lavish amounts of energy to keep functioning. It gets cold here in winter and old people are already dying from exposure inside their own homes – what will happen to them all as the inevitable energy crisis begins to bite?
So, as nice as it would be to get a bag of popcorn and watch this spectacle unfold from afar, I find myself up there on the stage. Still, not to worry, as we say …


Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

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Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on September 16, 2013

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No, the title of this post doesn’t refer to my recent lack of posting on this blog – the best I can plead in this regard is that I have been very busy driving around Europe collecting my scattered belongings from previous lives – no, in fact it refers to the Channel 4 docu-drama of the same name which aired recently.

I sat down to watch it on my laptop with a mug of hot coffee and an hour and a half later I was traumatised enough to start composing this blog post on the same device. Let me explain. Blackout deals with the ‘fictional’ scenario of an electricity blackout hitting the UK. We are not really told what caused it other than it was a cyber attack by a person/organisation/state with a grudge. It’s shot in the kind of Dogme panicky first-person Blair Witch Project perspective, and apt to give you nightmares because every scenario that is depicted is eerily plausible. The acted parts are intertwined with real footage, mostly filmed during the mass riots that broke out in London and across the country two years ago. You might almost say it is prescient, but we’ll have to wait and see with that.

We get to follow the misfortunes of several people caught up in the ensuing chaos, including a twenty something brother and sister involved in a traffic accident, a mother and her young daughter who try to make an emergency dash to Sheffield and end up being at the mercy of a tagged offender (untrackable now the system has run out of power), a couple of freeloading hooligans on a rampage of shoplifting, theft and arson, and a young middle-class family in London, the father of whom just happens to be a wannabe survivalist who has a video blog which he uploads to YouTube much to his wife’s annoyance.

The story starts with life as it is today. Everyone is shopping and travelling and social media posturing and is completely wrapped up in their own world. When the blackout strikes, there is an initial mood of hilarity – a great excuse for a party. The survivalist character is in his element, and his wife films him firing up his emergency generator and filling water bottles from the radiator system. “You look happy,” she says, to which he replies “I am.”

Alas, his happiness isn’t to last. On day two of the blackout, the smells of his preparedness barbeque attract unwanted attention from some dodgy young Asian men who invite themselves round and start asking questions about how they are coping. One of the children gives away the fact that the family owns a generator. Things get worse from then on.

Up north somewhere, the two hell raisers start their vodka-fuelled trail of destruction as they try to get back home, stealing cars and eventually causing a huge accident with a fuel tanker. By day three anarchy has started to engulf the cities, with wide scale rioting and pitched battles with the police. David Cameron (yes, it’s very realistic, even he’s in it as himself) launches an emergency plan and fuel is trucked into key strategic locations – most of which seem to be central government offices. The hospitals are overwhelmed and losing power having got through not just the emergency backup generator, but the backup backup generator, and have now run out of fuel. The ICU equipment, which is battery powered as a last backup, slowly goes flat and the docs and nurses have to make split decisions over who to save and who to abandon. It doesn’t help that people are pouring in through the doors with carbon monoxide poisoning and burns (house fires rage out of control from people using candles).

By what must be day five or six, total despair reigns. People are either trapped in the cities, or else can’t get into them due to police roadblocks. Nobody can contact one another and the only sound from ‘the authorities’ is an Orwellian sounding radio message read out by a pleasant-sounding woman saying “We apologise for any inconvenience and are trying to restore order as soon as we can” – while the masses starve, loot and generally freak out.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some genuinely warming moments where people look out for one another. I won’t give any more away than I have done already. But the real message of this film is as simple as it is scary. The message is that the security of our modern lives is a flimsy facade and that behind it lies a rotting haunted house full of demons that the bright lights of the 21st century keeps at bay. With the flick of a switch all of the things we take for granted are gone. In a moment a middle class family can be transformed into a besieged group fighting for their very survival in their own home. Cars cease to function, money is useless, and those who took the precaution of filling up their petrol tanks can expect to get robbed for their efforts. People get sick, families erupt into firefights of blame, there are no communications, no food and no drinking water. People descend, rapidly.

This is how the programme describes itself:

Feature-length ‘What-If’ drama exploring the effects of a devastating cyber-attack on Britain’s national electricity grid.
Based on expert advice and meticulous research, Blackout combines real user-generated footage, alongside fictional scenes, CCTV archive and news reports to build a terrifyingly realistic account of Britain being plunged into darkness.

The film plots the days following a nationwide power cut, as experienced by a cast of ordinary characters struggling to feed and protect themselves and their families. These eyewitness accounts reveal the disastrous impact of a prolonged blackout on hospitals, law and order, transport, and our food and water supplies.
The programme casts members of the public from user-generated footage, weaving real-life archive with scripted drama to tell the story of how Britain could descend into chaos and anarchy without power.

I dunno, what’s with all the expert advice? It’s almost as if somebody wants us to consider that the fictional scenario depicted could be a distinct possibility. Did I say could be a possibility? Bear in mind that 50% of the film is actual footage of the country erupting in violence two years ago – and the trigger for that outburst is still being debated with much head-scratching. And I like to remind people here that the UK energy regulator has been forecasting semi-controlled power outages beginning in 2015/16 for at least two years now. Jeepers, I even came up with my own fictionalised account of how it could happen several years ago. The only factor the film missed out was what happens to the nuclear stations in the absence of an electricity grid to keep them stable.

A friend of mine was doing a long-haul road trip through Germany and Denmark with me last week and he was telling me about living in New York during the ‘great blackout’ of 2003. “The first night was fun, with everyone having impromptu parties,” he said. “But when the second night came and there was still no power then a sense of dread began to descend. Suddenly it wasn’t fun any more.” Quite.

I’m not one to get off on doomer porn but I do have a worrying intuition about how some people will behave if there is ever a serious interruption to the nation’s electricity supply . My gut instinct is that there would be widespread anarchy in some of our larger cities for a while, although I doubt this would last once all the (now useless) plasma televisions have been looted and the rioters run out of energy due to lack of food. And the supposedly lawless inner city areas are not lawless at all and there are any number of community elders to give their wayward youths a clip round the ear (or, in some cases, a dose of Sharia law). Once the initial surge of looting, chaos and pitched battles with the police/army has burned itself out an order of sorts will be restored, especially if the power comes on again.

I can only wonder about how the situation would be outside the large cities. Sure, there is likely to be some trouble, but there is only so much looting and arson you can get away with if everyone in the town knows who you are and where you live. Food might be a larger problem. And medical care.
Any such episode will be one of the ‘thunks’ on the downward steps of our peak energy curve, and the psychological impact of it will be long lasting. In its wake we can expect the authorities to consolidate their power, and for various political miscreants to appear out of the woodwork with ‘solutions’ to ensure that such a catastrophe doesn’t happen again. Normality will be restored, until the next time.

And a catastrophe such as a prolonged power outage would get people scared enough to agree meekly to a whole raft of measures imposed by the government to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again. We’ve gotta keep those lights on! It’s not hard, for example, to imagine people protesting against fracking being branded ‘traitors’ and arrested. First they came for the anti frackers, then they came for the anti nukes …

Interesting times.


On a side note, I had an interesting time driving around Spain during August. I would briefly like to report that Spain is in a weird and eerie state of limbo. The south of Spain, from appearances, has never had it so good. Business is booming in the village where I used to live and everywhere is now immaculate and clean. New shops are opening up, even if there aren’t that many customers. My former neighbour’s daughter, a newly university-qualified teacher, has now been unemployed for three years and breezily says she doesn’t ever expect to find a job in this life. She’s not bothered by this, although her father grumpily confided that it would have been better if she had learned to pick olives, like him. He’s doing great now the price of food has gone up, he says.

However, on the way back up north I found myself driving around the massive new periphery motorway that encircles Madrid. Madrid is now engulfed by huge yards the size of multiple football fields where one can pick up rusting construction equipment on the cheap. Imagine hundreds of bulldozers, diggers, cement trucks and the like all parked in long neat rows with scarcely a human in sight. I saw them in the daylight on the journey south – along with several horizon filling ‘urbanizations’ of roads laid out in the arid earth with streetlights, ragged developers’ flags and not much else.

Okay, so it was about midnight on the way back up north, but it is a bit eerie to not see another car for over twenty minutes on a brand new highway surrounding a major first world capital city. It was a toll motorway, but all the barriers were open. I later read that the volume of traffic is now so low on the new toll routes that they lose money if they have to pay people to man the toll booths. They might simply close them.
Further north still my GPS satnav led me to a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. Almost out of fuel at 2am I discovered the station, like so many roads, had a large sign on it saying ‘cerrado’. It looked permanent. I sighed and pulled in – I had almost run out of fuel and didn’t fancy doing so in the dark. I got out and lay on the weed-broken tarmac in my sleeping bag and watched shooting stars until I fell asleep. At about 4am I was awoken by the sounds of a pack of wild dogs which seemed to be coming ever closer. I shivered and got back in the car.

I made it to Santander on the north coast and spent most of a day there waiting for the Plymouth ferry. 99% of the vehicle traffic was British holiday makers with big SUVs and shiny new caravans with names like Ambassador and Elite. We had to wait in a large concrete compound under the hot sun, and a huge cinema-sized screen was placed at the front with Sky news on. It was a continuous loop of news all day – Let’s Bomb Syria and Michael Douglas splits from Wife – both given equal billing.
I escaped the compound and explored Santander on foot. I liked it, but it was like a city gasping for air. Every third or fourth shop seemed to be shutting down. Many of the remainders were ‘We Buy Gold’ shops, or tacky Chinese junk pop-ups. Later on we sailed away from it in the dark and it disappeared into the night on the horizon and that was that. Cocktails were served in the bar and a lousy cabaret singer from Newcastle came on and tried to be all Shirley Bassey. That’s it, my Spanish adventure over.

Melting Britain

Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on July 21, 2013

Melting Ice Cream Van

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This morning I awoke to the sound of a strange noise coming in through the open windows of the house. To my half-asleep ears it was a whooshing, rustling sound, as if thousands of people were stood around outside the house all screwing up balls of paper with their hands. A clap of thunder brought me to my senses and I leaped out of bed to close the windows, which have been permanently open for the last couple of weeks, just as the sheets of monsoon-like rain began to torrent down from a cotton wool sky.
Yes, Britain is experiencing something of a heatwave at present and has just had the hottest July weekend in years, and this sudden welcome gush of rain looks set to provide only a momentary respite. It only fell for about ten minutes, but it was long enough to wash the dust off the cars and give the local foliage a much-needed drink. However forecasters say that next week temperatures will be even hotter. So far they have touched the low 30s (around 90F), which is more than hot enough for most people here who are more used to damp and soggy weather.
If temperatures do rise to 35C (95F) next week, as is predicted, we can expect to hear many more warnings from the government about the dangers of extreme heat. Already, it is estimated, at least 760 people have died who would still be alive were it not for the heat. Yes, most of them were elderly or in poor health, and were unable to find somewhere to cool off (air conditioning is almost unheard of in Britain). Internet boards are full of scoffing Australians and Texans, saying that 30 odd degrees of heat is practically chilly to them – but then weather is all about what people are acclimatised to (I’ve seen people from hot countries practically die in Scandinavian winters in which I could get away with wearing a thin sweater). It’d be gallows humour to point out that some of the only remaining cold rooms to be found in the UK are within municipal morgues at present.
Particularly at risk are people who live in high rise tower blocks, which trap heat during the long days. This heat rises and builds on the upper floors, and the nights are too short to allow much of it to escape before the merciless sun is up yet again. It’s just one example of infrastructure that isn’t fit for purpose and was never designed to cope with conditions outside a narrow range of possibilities. Similarly, there are reports of melting roads in Cambridge, outbreaks of grass fires across London and low water pressure caused by people wasting it by keeping their lawn sprinklers on all night.
I am just old enough to remember the summer of 1976, which was the last really hot summer this country experienced. Below is a picture of the five-year-old me (dressed as a wizard) in the Banbury carnival. Minutes after this picture was taken I fainted in the heat and had to be carried away by paramedics (note to self: don’t wear a black wizard gown and hat in suffocating heat). Around the country at that time people were finding their water supplies cut off and lines developed at rapidly erected standpipes on street corners. It was hot alright.
So although extreme weather events are nothing new it is the increased frequency of their occurrences that is the obvious effect of global weirding we are now starting to experience. We’ve just been through the coldest spring in living memory, which followed hot on the heels of the wettest summer. A friend in southern France reports that a month ago it was only 10C there, when it should be more like 30C. Germany has just recovered from mass flooding, the Arctic ice is melting at record rates – one can go on and on about the weird climatic conditions that are now prevailing across the globe.
So what are we, in Britain at least, doing about this very obvious climate change? Here, unlike in the US, people at least say they take anthropogenic global warming seriously. Despite repeated attacks by various well-funded lobby groups through such organs as the Daily Telegraph, most people believe we are in deep trouble, albeit trouble that is far off enough not to have to worry about just yet.
But the government doesn’t seem concerned in the least. Not only are there efforts to stop climate change being taught in schools, but the chancellor just announced that fracking companies will face the historically lowest taxes on record for any fossil energy producer. This, we are told, is to kickstart the revolution in shale gas fracking – a revolution that IMO if it goes ahead is likely to lead to the closest we have come to all-out civil war in this country since the 17th century.
The reasoning behind this is simple enough; to drill enough well heads to produce even a modest flow of gas we would have to drill literally thousands of wells in the northwest alone. This would be in people’s back yards, on farming land and in areas that are naturally beautiful. The only feasible way that this could ever happen is if the government takes control of land and property on a grand scale, and it would need a very large security force to do that. In the process groundwater would be polluted by the fracking chemicals and much of the remaining North Sea energy would be wasted in trying to make this very low EROEI energy look attractive. It’s a recipe for disaster, but it’s also a price that many people seem willing to pay given the drum-beat of hype that is pouring forth from politicians and the media.
The only real hope in this scenario is that the American fracking sham comes visibly apart at the seams within the next couple of years. The resulting shock will strangle the UK’s nascent fracking industry at birth before it gets a chance to irreparably pollute the aquifers and cause much bloodshed. It’s a race against time.
And let’s not forget that the UK is running out of water. The intensely wasteful use of water in agriculture is estimated to only have a few years left in it and ‘peak water‘ is on the cards. Future warming, such as we are experiencing right now, is putting a huge strain on water resources and scientists reckon that we are only a few years off putting ourselves into a permanent drought situation that will see crops shrivelling in the fields beneath a super hot sun.
Of course, there are many ways to conserve water – the most obvious of which is to grow crops biodynamically and restore as much moisture retaining topsoil as possible, but I haven’t heard anyone in a position of importance talking about these measures. Indeed, this kind of overshoot is a blind spot for the growthaholics, and shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with business as usual. The solution – as ever – is to import more ‘stuff’ (food, water, oil) from the global marketplace, wherever that is, and that technological solutions will be found for the most pressing of problems. The assumption here is that the UK will continue to remain a wealthy country far into the future and that foreign markets will be able to provide all of the commodities and energy we desire – all at a favourable price – and that technology is the goose that keeps on laying the golden eggs whenever we need it to.
Alas, this kind of non-thinking is delusional and dangerous. We are being promised a future that we can’t afford and only a very small fraction of people realise the severity of the creeping problems which are now beginning to consume us. There is no way out of our predicament while this kind of blindness persists. We are fated to collide with overshoot like a car hitting a brick wall, and all we seem to be able to do is push our foot down further on the accelerator and scream ‘yee ha’ as we do it. It’s not a pleasant thought, but then 22 Billion Energy Slaves trades in unpleasant truths rather that comforting fantasies. If we want to get a taste of how the UK will be in 20 years then have a good look at Egypt.
The heat is on!


Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on July 9, 2013

Blackout Britain

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“Does Andy Murray winning Wimbledon mean that we are headed for the economic good times again?” asked pretty much every news outlet in Britain yesterday. We were even treated to an ebullient Jon Snow on Channel 4 News prancing around on London’s Primrose Hill in the summer evening sun asking bemused onlookers whether their consumer confidence had improved over the last 48 hours (to their credit they all looked baffled by the question, perhaps suggesting that those who live in the media-land bubble should get out more).
But the headlines keep coming thick and fast. Here in Britain we are told that a house price boom is on the way. But if that’s the case then who’s buying? It certainly isn’t the kind of people for which owning a house would be rather useful, say, young people starting up a family. Instead, demand seems to be driven by the increasingly ubiquitous buy-to-let landlords, keen to make a killing out of a desperate situation. Some of these ‘ordinary people’ have amassed hundreds – even thousands – of properties, which they let out to those unable to afford their own. One recently boasted that he ‘earned’ £35,000 a week, meaning he could go on and buy a few hundred more properties and become even wealthier.
Presumably some algorithm somewhere has decided that I might be a good BTL landlord as I keep receiving emails from companies wanting to make me rich. But given that so many people are now being forced into usually sub-standard accommodation, presided over by a rentier class indifferent to their plight I find myself wondering when the day will come when landlord killing becomes a fashionable sport again. Britain might be running out of money, but there are still plenty of lampposts and miles of rope.
Although, whenever I express sentiments like the one above I am inevitably accused of being gloomy, or depressive or, worst of all, boring. I have to say, it’s hardly a barrel of laughs pointing out repeatedly the emperor’s lack of clothing, and sometimes I’m tempted to just stop typing this stuff and get with the programme. You know, perhaps economics can be sentiment based – perhaps scientists will come up with that wonder fuel after all, and maybe those climate scientists who say it’s one minute to midnight really are just after a new research grant. Comforting thoughts indeed.
But then the fundamentals come screaming back at you and you can’t tie your tongue. Schadenfreude is a horrible word, and not just because it’s difficult to say (or spell). What makes it even worse is the fact that you can raise your voice as loud as you can, and even when you are proved repeatedly right, most people won’t accept the truth of what’s in front of their noses. That seemingly apparent truth is that the age of limits is upon us, not that you’d know it from the media and all the assorted ‘experts’ who are wheeled out of their ivory cubicles to pontificate on topics concerning the future.
We are apparently in an economic recovery. The US jobs market is booming, and Chinese people now all own at least one BMW.
Never mind the ‘fundamentals’, such as the velocity and supply of money – that is money in the ‘real’ economy away from QE. Here’s a chart put up by The Automatic Earth:
In this case it is looking at the US and that supposed ‘boom’ that they are having over there. Yes, there’s a boom going on alright as the chart shows – a boom in government credit creation that is being transferred more or less directly into the coffers of the biggest investment banks for them to sit on and do nothing with. This is money that current and future generations of Americans now owe the government. And the velocity of money – that is, the speed at which it travels around the economy from one hand to the next – is also experiencing a massive boom – if you turn the chart upside down.
But, hey, back in Britain again we will all soon be sitting in driverless cars designed by Google (never mind that the government is running out of money to fix the potholes in the roads). And the next big boom area is the fusion of biotech and robotics where ‘the line between human and robot will become blurred’. And by genetically engineering crops and handing over their ‘patents’ to corporations we ‘will cure world hunger’. Obama has vowed to ‘light up Africa’s darkness’ by electrifying the continent. Ten billion people on planet Earth is ‘not a problem’.
I don’t know about you but this maelstrom of voices is starting to make me dizzy. Perhaps I should just tune off and live in a cave, as an increasing number of people seem to be doing.
But what is really confounding is the sheer amount of misinformation out there that somehow possesses the almost magical ability to coalesce into ‘fact’. Perhaps it’s just a result of our over-complex society and will go away in due course. Thus, we are told that fracking gas in Britain will give us enough energy for 100 years. Fact. No argument. No dissent permitted.
Mention the very real limits which make this pipe dream unachievable and you are inevitably accused of being overly negative. But I can now see quite clearly how events are shaping up in Britain and how we will go down screaming and battling one another as the dead weight of entropy pulls us beneath the waves. The problem is, we are literally running out of the kind of energy flows we need to make a modern industrial economy tick over. North Sea oil and gas is dropping like a rock, wind and solar are frankly useless for anything other than small scale applications, nuclear is a giant sickly radioactive white elephant that is running out of current buns, and any other energy source that you care to think of is so riddled with problems that it beggars belief that people buy into it.
But, hey, seaweed will save the world, according to the Guardian.
But as the needle on Britain’s fuel gauge hovers ever closer to the orange area I wonder what the reaction from the population at large will be when the lights literally do go out – as we were warned would happen by 2015 by no less than the energy regulator Ofgem a couple of weeks ago. Will people say ‘Oh well, it was nice having fossil powered energy while it lasted but now I’ll just trade in my Ford Fiesta for a donkey, get a job as a day labourer on a farm and tell the kids that they’ll have an even harder time of it than me.” Or will they scream blue murder at the politicians and energy companies, march en masse through the streets and elect a wide-eyed militant loony who promises to ‘restore Britain’s glory’?
Predictably, the news about the increased risk of blackouts in 2015 was met with a barrage of denial by politicians and industrialists. “The lights will not be going out,” was the peeved response. There was a subtext to that response, of course, and the subtext was ‘Unless we let them go out by not fracking the life out of the country, letting the French and Chinese build a new generation of nuclear power station and opening up some of the coal mines that Maggie shut down because they were so hard to get the coal out of. Indeed all we have to do is try harder to keep the lights on – if we all join hands, scrunch up our eyes and shout at the top of our voices:
The lights are going to stay on! 
The lights are going to stay on!
We refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the laws of thermodynamics!
We are too clever to sit in the dark! 
Our way of life is not negotiable!
That should do the trick.

Staring at the Sea

Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on January 21, 2013

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I announced recently on the pages of this blog that I would shortly be leaving Denmark with my family and moving back to the UK, where I am from. This decision was a long time in the making and the past couple of years of agonizing could be neatly summarized by The Clash song ‘Should I stay or should I go?
In the end, of course, we chose to go back to England, where at least one of us is from (my wife is from Denmark and our two young daughters were born here). Without wishing to be too reductionist about this decision, I took into consideration all the factors that I think will be defining in an era of depleting net energy and social unrest that I think we are now entering into. When all was said and done, however, I had to go with my heart and what common sense told me. It’s long been a hunch of mine that one of the most important things about positioning yourself in preparation for the great Stopping of the Music is to make sure you will be somewhere where your face fits in and the people who surround you share the same cultural values. So, no moving to Outer Mongolia or darkest Peru for this WASP.
Perhaps the most agonizing aspect of this decision was the fact that land and farmhouses in Denmark are dirt cheap compared with Britain. I had fallen in love with the island of Møn, an idyllic island in the south of Denmark, covered in ancient Neolithic tombs, and populated by small villages filled with the kind of chocolate box thatched cottages you see on postcards. Here one could buy a 200 year old farmhouse in excellent condition with six or seven bedrooms plus outhouses, a couple of acres of land and probably an orchard or two along with some woodland and still have change from £150,000 (or $235,000). The same property in the UK, where the bubble is still rampant, would set you back up to a million pounds – around six or seven times the price in Denmark.
But, tempting as this was, when we really considered all the factors, the UK seemed like the better option FOR US.
So, without further ado, these were the factors that were taken into consideration in deciding which side of the North Sea to live on. It goes without saying that these are not the ONLY factors – but these were the ones that stuck out in my mind the most.
1 – Energy. When it comes to comparing the UK and Denmark, neither comes out very well in terms of future energy supplies. Both largely rely on oil and gas from fields in the North Sea which have double digit annual depletion rates. Neither country has much of a manufacturing sector (and what remains of Denmark’s is becoming increasingly uncompetitive due to high labour and energy costs) with high energy requirements, so most energy is used for transportation, heating, agriculture and leisure.
Denmark’s energy policy, at least officially, is geared towards a high-tech ‘green’ future of wind turbines (of which there are already many) and solar panels to power a smart grid and a transportation system based on electrical energy stored in batteries. The country at present meets most of its energy requirements from burning coal, natural gas and post-consumer waste, with some imported power from Sweden, which produces nuclear power. Denmark has no nuclear power itself, although Sweden’s Barseback nuclear reactors are sited just across the Øresund Strait, easily visible from where I live. [Both reactors have now been decommissioned but still contain nuclear waste, and plans are afoot to make the site a short term nuclear waste storage facility as Sweden winds down its nuclear power programme.] Around a quarter of electricity currently comes from wind power, and the plan is to increase this to 50% by 2020. Denmark may be able to achieve this by trading power with Norway, which has the topography to allow for storage in the form of hydro power. Whether it does or not is a different matter. The country is aiming for 100% renewable power by 2050.
The UK doesn’t really have a coherent energy policy. Sweeping pronouncements are periodically made by ministers but these usually run into problems before anything is implemented. With the windfall from oil and natural gas now winding down serious problems are now on the horizon and rolling blackouts are likely by 2015/16, according to no less an authority than the UK energy regulator Ofgem. The country has several ageing nuclear reactors and there is a strong nuclear lobby that favours building more, despite robust public opposition.
Renewable energy, which is bountiful in the form of wind and wave power, was growing well due to a favourable investment climate and a generous FIT for home owners, but has stumbled of late due to widespread ideological opposition by the right-wing press, and cuts due to the implementation of austerity measures. Furthermore, politicians have jumped on the hydro-fracturing bandwagon, with breathless announcements of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas in the rock formations beneath Britain, which has further pulled out the rug from beneath the feet of the renewable industry. The fact that this fracked gas has a very low net energy level and lies beneath privately owned and heavily populated land (unlike in the US, the UK government does not have the right to extract minerals from beneath privately owned land) does not seem to deter the enthusiasm of the fracking advocates.
Given that nuclear plants won’t be ready in time and are probably unaffordable, oil and gas is running out, the renewable energy industry is being strangled by ideologues and fracking is a mirage, it does seem likely that the lights will indeed be going out in Britain sooner rather than later. There is some coal left in the ground, although much of the capital for its extraction was laid to waste during the Thatcher years, so the best that Britain can hope for is favourable terms with Russia, as it imports natural gas at the end of a very, very long pipeline.
2 – Transportation. Neither the UK nor Denmark are particularly large countries (and the UK is set to get a whole lot smaller if Scotland opts for independence, as seems likely), with land masses of 94,060 and 16,562 square miles respectively. Both have excellent transport links, with numerous roads, functioning rail lines and sea ports. Denmark, famously, has an excellent infrastructure for cycling owing to policy decisions made after the 1970s’ oil shocks, and its relatively flat topography. At the city level around half of all trips are made on two wheels.
The UK is considerably less cycle friendly as the powerful motoring lobby has very effectively made sure that money is funnelled into road projects suited to cars rather than bicycles, and local councils have haphazardly implemented cycling infrastructure that in most cases doesn’t connect.
Nevertheless, Britain is criss-crossed with canals from its manufacturing days, and there is no reason why these shouldn’t go into full time use again. Furthermore the tow paths alongside these canals in many cases already double as cycle lanes. There is a national bicycle network, and things can only improve for low speed forms of transport as the number of journeys made by car continues to diminish, as it has been doing for some time now.
3 – Food security. Neither Denmark nor the UK has much in the way of food security. At present both countries rely on very long supply chains and just-in-time delivery systems to get food into shops. If both countries had to rely solely on what was available to them from their own soils and seas then mass starvation would quickly ensue. The last time Britain was tested in this respect was during the Second World War, when a mass mobilisation of the population to grow food just about managed to feed the nation (although many were away fighting in other countries). Then, there were around 30 million residents, whereas today there are over 63 million (Denmark has about a tenth of that number). Furthermore, it must be assumed that 70 years of mechanised farming has considerably reduced the capacity of the soils to grow food, and relentless overfishing has reduced fish stocks drastically as well. In terms of wild game, there is not much that would survive more than a few short years if the population was in a state of extreme hunger and short term crisis management.
The one bright spot in this otherwise dismal picture is the rise of organic farming and local food networks. These have grown enormously in recent years as people put less trust in the corporately-controlled food web and opt instead to eat more local and more healthily.
Denmark, similarly, has a food problem. Despite a much lower population, the relatively fertile soils cannot yield the heavily meat-based diet to which Danes have become used to. Technically, we are told, Denmark is a net food exporter, but in my local supermarket the only things I can find that are grown here are potatoes and apples, so I’m guessing that there is some statistical figure fiddling going on there.
Farming in Denmark is in something of a crisis at present due to many farmers taking out large Swiss franc denominated loans on government advice with which to buy new machinery and other capital. Servicing these loans has now become unaffordable for many as the Swiss franc has appreciated due to its supposed safe haven status. Furthermore, food production is geared towards the production of 25 million intensively reared pigs a year and cash crops, especially rape seed, although much is also given over to wheat production. Local food coops do exist, but they are relatively few compared with the UK. Nevertheless, consumers do tend to opt for organic food, with even the cheap supermarkets stocking a good range of food grown without chemicals (although often it is imported).
3 – Governance and society. There are clear differences between the UK and Denmark when it comes to governance. For historical and cultural reasons Denmark is governed well and the UK is governed not quite so well. Both are democratic societies hung on the framework of a monarchy, with the royals enjoying almost universal adoration in Denmark, as opposed to ‘only’ 82% in the UK. Both countries have coalition governments, although only Denmark has radical factions representing parties founded on both Marxism and ultra-nationalism enjoying any power.
Denmark is characterised by its homogenous native population and has sometimes been described as ‘more of a tribe than a nation’. There are few social strata within Denmark’s famously classless society (although I would question this assumption) and politicians must appease the entire nation, rather than one particular power group within it, and are held accountable as such. The social contract in Denmark is very strong and rigid and has been aptly described by the half-Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose as the ‘Jantelov’ – a set of unwritten codes of conservative behaviour by which Danish people unwittingly live out their lives. The codas are effectively anti-individualistic in nature, requiring that the common man or woman suppress their own personal desires and ego for the common good of the state.
The other side of the bargain is that rulers (political and monarchical) must be trusted to ensure the stability and survival of the state. Any digression from this bond of trust is treated with public opprobrium. As a result, Denmark has a very progressive tax system and it is said that ‘nobody is poor and nobody is rich’. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the fact remains that allowing everyone to enjoy a comfortable middle class lifestyle, while enviable to liberals from less progressive countries, nevertheless rests on the assumption that there will be a continued abundance of cheap fossil fuels and favourable trade deals with poorer nations. In other words, it can’t last.
The UK, by contrast, has something of a class war going on. Although the old system of inherited caste privilege is dying out, a new breed of ultra-wealthy people sit at the top of the ladder and use the resources of the poor to further advance their wealth advantage, and in doing so hollow out the core of society and make it more prone to social upheavals. At the centre of this black hole is the hyper-power known as the City of London (not to be confused with the actual physical city of London), a vast Ponzi scheme that holds a large amount of power over the government. The City, which enjoys very little regulation, is said to be ‘too big to fail’ although its activities have caused the UK economy to be hugely unbalanced in favour of unproductive financial derivatives at the expense of the ‘real’ economy of goods and useful services. Unfortunately, when it does inevitably fail, the likely results will be catastrophic, which brings me onto the subject of …
4 – Finance and economics. Denmark and the UK are similar in that they both hold ‘world records’ in the debt stakes. Denmark has the unenviable position as the country with the highest household debt. At something like 400% of annual income – and growing at an alarming rate – Denmark’s consumers have been spending money over the past few years like drunken sailors who just washed up on the mythical shores of Consumerlandia and found the streets to be paved with gold VISA cards.
Maybe it is the widely-held belief that nothing bad can happen to them and that the government will ride to rescue that has caused all of this, but it is was certainly also the case that this cheap credit was pushed onto those least able to afford to pay it back as well. As ever, it takes two to tango. Cultural factors may also play a part. Danish people like to think of themselves as ‘virtuous’ and ‘deserving’ and the Lutheran religious values of purity which are buried like undead zombies under the floorboards of the nation’s psyche, have crawled up to manifest themselves as people who live in flats where everything is painted white and decked out with expensive designer furniture. A weekend in New York to pretend to be one of the characters from Sex and the City, or a quick holiday to Thailand in the deep of winter to top up your tan is considered normal behaviour in this virtuous zombie culture. Is it any wonder that Denmark is routinely quoted as ‘the happiest country on Earth’?
Many people took out 100% mortgages in the last decade, and opted to pay only the interest rather than any of the capital. Now, with several small and medium sized banks having already crashed, lenders are forcing borrowers to pay back some of the capital – and many of them are suddenly finding they cannot afford it. A popular prime-time TV programme in Denmark is Luksusfælden – or ‘fall from luxury’ – in which insolvent families are visited by some hard-nosed financial advisors and put on a tough economic diet, which sometimes they cannot stomach. Notable episodes have included a woman who thought that denying her children designer clothes was tantamount to abuse and broke down in tears when confronted with some perfectly good second hand clothes, which was all she could afford.
Denmark may well be a nation of superlatives. Not only does it have the world’s highest household debt, but it also has one of the world’s largest public sector (for a ‘free’ nation, continually vying with Sweden for first place) and the world’s highest tax rate. It is calculated that the marginal tax rate is as high as 70% – meaning that by the time you have earned and spent your wages, some 70% of it has gone back into the public coffers in the form of income tax, VAT and various other taxes and charges. Not that Danes seem to mind – on the contrary, opinion polls repeatedly show that given the choice between lower taxes with fewer public services and higher taxes with a greater safety net, people will always opt for the latter. It drives foreigners living here nuts, especially the Americans.
The UK, similarly, is a nation of debt junkies. Although personal debt is nothing like as high as Denmark’s, the national debt is stratospheric. The country as a whole owes about a trillion pounds, split between government debt, financial debt, private debt and business debt. The government debt is growing at a rate that makes it impossible to ever repay, no matter how much ‘austerity’ the government imposes on the bankrupt populace. This is, of course, the same situation that every European nation finds itself in after three decades of monetary expansion based on cheap credit and fairy money, but more so. With diminishing tax revenues from North Sea oil, a growing budget deficit, an elderly and retiring work force and huge financial and property bubbles there is simply no way that the UK can avoid going spectacularly bust. When it happens it won’t be pleasant.
5 – Climate change. This is already having an impact on the UK, where it has been raining heavily for half a decade now. Gone are the dreams of many who, some years back, forecast that we would have a climate similar to the south of France and that most of England would be good for growing grapes. Instead, we have a cold wet slap in the face, persistent flooding, and wild swings in temperature. Of course, this could change again as ocean currents shift, and the country (and northern Europe as a whole) will rapidly turn into an ice block if the Gulf Stream shifts to the south or peters out entirely. In this respect Denmark and the UK are in the same boat.
In terms of rising sea levels, the UK has a clear advantage over low-lying Denmark, whose highest point is Himmelbjerget (‘Sky Mountain’) which rises to a majestic 147m (482 feet). Indeed, sea levels will not need to rise by more than a few metres for much of Denmark to simply disappear into a kind of Atlantis with stylish furniture. An added worry is that as polar ice melts in the Arctic this could trigger tsunami-producing earthquakes in a process known as isostatic rebound, which would have the potential to sweep over Denmark with devastating consequences. You think it couldn’t happen?
The UK at least has topography on its side, although certain areas such as East Anglia and the Thames Valley (where London is situated) will cease to be land. Having the resources and money to build huge defensive walls against sea rise in the future seem about as unlikely as the assumption we will be able to build floating cities or, indeed, live on the bottom of the sea like crabs.
6 – Housing. It seems odd to mention housing as a key consideration in deciding which country to live in, although in this case Denmark emerges as the clear winner. Due to the aforementioned good governance, housing in Denmark is generally of a high standard. Insulation is at standards that Britons can only dream about, which is just as well as it gets mighty cold in Denmark (it is minus 15 degrees centigrade outside right now as I type this in my super-insulated flat).
Britain, by contrast, seemed to give up building proper houses after the last war. Cheap and cheerful became the driving ideology and ever since we have constructed millions of cheaply-built identikit houses, created suburban sprawl and blighted the landscape. What’s more, these cheaply constructed houses are almost unaffordable to the average person who wants to avoid wage slavery. In fact, if one wants to buy a house in the UK that will keep you warm, won’t break the bank and won’t have bits flying off it in a gale you have to look at properties that were built over a hundred years ago. Many of these, however, have preservation orders put on them, meaning that owners are not permitted to make improvements on aesthetic grounds.
7 – Trade Links. Internal trade links are likely to prove robust in both countries due to the aforementioned good quality transportation networks. Trade with other countries, when things settle down, is likely to be with regional partners. I expect the UK (or whatever the country is called in the future) to have good trade links with France and other places in Europe, as it had in the past.
Denmark, as with many other factors, is likely to look more and more to Norway and Sweden for trade and protection. With their shared cultural and linguistic heritage, I envisage Scandinavia’s northern countries being some of the ‘better’ places to live – at least if you are a Scandinavian or can pretend to be one. I can imagine energy and fuel (in the form of wood and hydro power) being exported to Denmark from Norway, which has plenty of space and resources, perhaps in exchange for grain and other agricultural products. Denmark itself has little in the way of exploitable natural resources so it’ll be back to the land for the majority of the populace.
8 – Geopolitics. If resource wars kick off in Europe, and we can’t rule this out, then Denmark could well find itself in the firing line. This is not an enviable position to be in but the fact remains that Denmark to some extent still ‘owns’ Greenland. With various world powers eyeing Arctic oil and minerals, and even claiming ownership of the North Pole, it is unlikely that things will end up being agreed amiably over sherry. Should Denmark lay claim to Greenlandic oil, as it was suggested by Danish MPs on the morning news today, it would set itself up for a fight with Russia and perhaps China too. Hell, even Britain might claim a share. Yet it goes without saying that Russia could eat Denmark for breakfast, so without backing from, say, the United States (of which Denmark, like the UK, remains a client state) the country would have no chance of holding onto its prized possession. It can hardly be a coincidence that the ex-Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, quit his role to take up the top post at NATO.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s self-commissioned portrait. What message is he trying to send out I wonder?
China, it might be added, has been having high level meetings with Denmark about Greenland and all the goodies that exist there. It has offered Denmark some pretty choice morsels in terms of trade pacts, with one of the most significant being the sale of fur coats to cater to China’s exploding requirement for bling. Incidentally, Denmark is one of the world’s leading producers of mink, fox and chinchilla fur.
The UK, by comparison, having lost all of its huge mineral-rich overseas landmasses, will continue to struggle to make itself relevant – which is a good thing in my opinion. It has been a century since the British Empire began to collapse – more than enough time to get over it – and the country will likely revert back to what it once was, i.e. a group of soggy islands off the coast of northern Eurasia well suited to sheep farming. Of course, it will likely take a few centuries to get to that point, by which time I and everyone reading this will be long gone and some of my distant descendents may well be sheep herders.
9 – Population and carrying capacity. As mentioned above in ‘food’ both the UK and Denmark will eventually have to severely reduce numbers in order to live off the planet’s natural income as opposed to its energy inheritance. At present, people in both countries largely subsist on what William H. Catton calls ‘ghost acres’. These are invisible fields in far-off places where the food is artificially produced using oil – invisible to practically everyone who doesn’t want to contemplate them. As energy, the master resource, becomes less available, so will these ghost acres.
But before that happens we have to go through the next big financial shock, which could happen any month now. Nobody knows how long Europe’s politicians and bankers can keep shoving golden eggs down the goose’s throat, but when those same golden eggs stop appearing at the other end we can expect our standard of living to start resembling what ordinarily comes out of a goose’s backside. Many people will suddenly find themselves without the inclination to carry on and commit voluntary entropy, and some will achieve this semi-unwittingly with drink and drugs. More still will end up shivering/sweating in the cold /heat and a failing medical care infrastructure will suddenly reverse the increased longevity that we have been led to expect by the media. With social care systems collapsing we can expect to see the elderly being abandoned (some would argue that is already happening) as it becomes unaffordable for the system as a whole to look after them. Disease management systems will similarly be hit by cutbacks and viruses will have a field day.
But when the rubble has stopped bouncing after a few years we might find ourselves in a position of falling population as couples avoid conception, which commonly happens in collapsed societies. Unwittingly, we may already have entered this, as fertility rates have been falling for a long time and only expensive procedures, which will likely be unavailable in the future, currently allow infertile couples to have children.
10 – Preparedness/resilience. If all of what I have written above make you wonder why I’d want to stay in either country and put myself and my family through that risk, then this last point is the remaining element – hope – to emerge from Pandora’s box after all the other forces of chaos had been let loose.
It is my steadfast belief that people in the UK – or perhaps I should say some people in the UK – are better prepared mentally and physically than their Danish equivalents. The Transition Town movement grew from the UK, although in reality people have been practicing low impact sustainable living for decades, and despite the hollowing out of industry many small scale artisans still remain below the radar. There is a growing web of food networks, local currencies and community energy projects and the assumption of many people in the UK is that they cannot trust the government to deliver vital services to them. This, ironically, is a strength when compared with Denmark, where people are less empowered to take over their own livelihoods, and act timidly when it comes to going against the system. The assumption here is that the government always has their best interests at heart and that all solutions come down from the top. Have you ever heard of Occupy Denmark? No, I thought not. In this respect, the conservative janteloven, which is supposed to protect society from radicals, may in fact be its Achilles heel.
In the UK there is strong grassroots opposition to the coalition government and its suicidal plans to build more roads, airports, nuclear power stations and fracking wells. Overcrowded Britain, for better or worse, is a country of NIMBYs, making any new capital project that is perceived to be dangerous or ugly (or both) difficult or downright impossible. I certainly want to be there to play my part in helping to stop any suicidal growth projects that might be in the pipeline for my local area. Call me a de-growther, if you like.
Finally, and although it might sound like a bit of cliché, I really believe that the concept of fairness and sharing is etched into the public conscience. Whenever disaster strikes we tend to stop grumbling about one another and pull together to get through it as best as we can. It takes practice to stiffen that upper lip. We have developed a warped sense of humour as a safety valve for life’s absurdities and horrors, and despite decades of media scare stories about the dangers of strangers the country is still packed to the gunwales with good Samaritans the charitable folk. Furthermore, there’s a growing sense of reverence for the natural world, a stirring of the spirit that urges us to protect the Earth in all of its diversity. Is this part of something bigger? We will have to wait and see on that one.
All of the above might look like a reductionist attempt to convince myself that buying a small forest in one of the outermost appendages of the country and learning the skills of a woodsman is a good idea. If it seems that way then it wasn’t supposed to be. Reductionism and rationalisation can both be dangerous pursuits and none of us can predict how the future will be and what our place within it will look like. All of us have to learn to embrace uncertainty and proceed with caution but retain good spirits and a sense of wonder at the world in all its complexity and all its awesome beauty. That, at least, is what I intend to do

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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