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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

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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 …
 

Are you a Hobbit?

Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on October 13, 2012

Simon Dale's Hobbit style house in Wales

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I will begin this week’s post with a confession that few of you could have guessed from the limited information I reveal about myself in the global cyber commons aka The Matrix. Here are some clues: I grew up in the English Midlands, I’m of average height for a Brit (i.e. a dwarf by Scandinavian standards where I live), I have a fondness for real ale and my idea of pure unsurpassed bliss is sitting beside an open fire, smoking a pipe and listening to the slow monotonous tung of a grandfather clock.
Yes, that’s right; it’s something I have suspected for a while – I am a hobbit.
As if further proof were needed, I can rummage in my drawers and find scraps of paper with crude drawings of earth built ‘hobbit holes’ in the style of that made by Simon Dale (see main image), and what’s more, my toes are hairier than the average. I’m pluckier than the average person could guess, and although I have never outwitted a dragon, I did, alas, have a promising career as a burglar in my younger days (more on my reckless past in a future post).
But this post is not about me and my hairy toes – this post is about EVIL.
Speaking of toes, I once had a tattoo made in Guatemala by a man from Los Angeles who told me he had tattooed the name of Sean Penn’s dead dog onto his big toe (i.e. Sean Penn’s big toe, not his own). The fact that I just revealed that Sean Penn has his dead dog’s name inked onto his big toe makes me a celebrity news breaker and I fully expect to quadruple the visitor count to 22BillionEnergySlaves this week as a result, given that Sean Penn’s web presence is double that of all news relating to peak oil – I hope one or two of those visitors will stay.
Anyway, back to the plot. Draw a deep breath, because I’ve been contemplating evil all week, and the various forms it can take. But what is evil? I’m not sure. I’d define it as an action that causes gross suffering to sentient beings and/or wanton destruction of part of the biosphere for psychological satisfaction.
Here are my conclusions about evil if you are in a rush and don’t have time/can’t be bothered to read the rest of the post: evil does exist, and mostly it is dressed up as good. What’s more, technology can act as a catalyst of evil.
I realize that evil is a strong word. I believed in evil as a child – you know the kind of evil I mean – the kind personified by the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the kid-munching giants in the BFG. Then, as I got older, I started to think that evil didn’t really exist and it was more a case of stupidity, or senselessness, on the part of the people I had previously labelled evil. This belief was bolstered by a flirtation with Buddhism, and even the Dalai Lama has said something to the effect that people are not ‘evil’ they are just making mistakes that will negatively affect their karma.

The Childcatcher: probably quite evil in a conventional way

Well, whatever. Recently I’ve come around again to thinking that evil does exist, and we’re liberally marinated in the stuff. What’s more, there are three types of evil people – or people who employ evil means, more precisely. The most common-garden recognisable variety evil is committed by psychopaths. You know the type; they will capture you, lock you in a box and torture you for days before ending your life in a most unpleasant manner and then walk around wearing your genitals for kicks. Whether these people are simply insane or not, I don’t really care – evil is a good enough label for me.
The second type of evil doer is of the same breed as the above, but more refined and clever. Not wishing to get blood on their own hands these people rise to positions of power and then channel their evil ways through the power they have attained. Whether they are the president of a company or the president of a nation doesn’t really matter, they get their kicks from, as George Orwell put it, stamping on a human face forever.
Then there’s the third kind of evil. This is a far less visible type, but by sheer biomass is probably the weightiest of them all. The evil I talk of is evil dressed up as good. Everyone’s at it, it seems. From the countries who think their shit don’t stink because they have ‘progressive policies’ for their citizens (while quietly exploiting the Third World for their own benefit), to the various NGOs who act as virus carriers of ideology to the far corners of the globe, and rabid corporate backed scientists who are pushing all manner of destructive technologies into the biosphere in the name of humanitarianism.
We’re all complicit in this last scam. Indeed, living in the ‘developed’ world, it is all but impossible to not contribute in some way to the systems that enslave our fellow men and creatures. This applies to some more than others, of course, but I type these words on a laptop that was in all probability assembled by wage slaves (in the name of giving someone a job), manufactured and transported half way across the world by climate-damaging oil (in the name of economic growth), produced in a country where the environmental costs of its manufacture were borne by the ecosystem and the health of the human population (in the name of free trade), sold to me by some corporation who will probably be contributing money to whoever wins the next election in the US in order to keep their profitable racket going (in the name of free speech and democracy) and, finally, uploaded onto a blogging platform that is owned by a company which plans to turn the human race into cyborgs (see late week’s post).
What’s a blogger to do? Throw the computer into the garbage and retreat to a cave in the Himalayas? Chuck myself onto the nearest compost heap and await the end? Start watching the X Factor and try to become ‘adjusted’?
J.R.R Tolkien knew what evil was. His time in the Somme, during the First World War, showed him the depths that humans could plunge to. Would the German machine gunners who gunned down so many young men have considered themselves evil? I don’t think so.
Tolkien would never be drawn on the meaning of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, we can probably assume it was to do with nuclear weapons. Destructive technology was Tolkien’s bugbear. In one quote he hinted at the meaning, seemingly saying that once some kind of destructive power had been brought into being it began to live a life of its own:
“I should say that it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or lesser degree, out of one’s direct control.”
Which, to me, is the theme of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien drew on Scandinavian and Anglo Saxon mythology for his inspiration. He was all too aware that our native mythology had been utterly supplanted by Christianity, and what remained of it in Wales and Scotland, was mostly Celtic in origin. Instead, he was driven by a desire to create an English mythology – even if it was ‘made up’ – never anticipating the success he would encounter in such an endeavour.
As I mentioned above, I grew up in ‘Tolkien country’. My childhood was spent close to Oxford, where Tolkien lived and worked as a professor of linguistics at the university – I was probably lying in my cot, aged two, when he died. I hadn’t even had a chance to read The Hobbit at that point.
Turning back the clock, when young John lived in Warwickshire it was a very rural (and it still is, to a degree) but the hamlet he lived in, Sarehole Mill, near Hall Green, was some miles from the encroaching spread of Birmingham; England’s second city and the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. I spent most of my teenage years in this area, which is now well and truly part of the spread of the city and not a very pleasant place to be unless you are a connoisseur of suburban blight (sorry, Hall Greenians – okay, to be fair, it still has its nice parts). I lived for a year very close to Sarehole Mill, which is now embedded in a run-down urban zone where you are as likely to hear Urdu spoken as you are English. It’s almost impossible today to recognise this as a place that inspired Tolkien to invent the fictional Shire, surrounded as it is by busy dual-carriageways, Indian takeaways and dodgy car repair shops.
Here’s a picture of the pub where Tolkien used to chat to his friend C.S.Lewis (of Narnia fame) called the Eagle and Child (known by locals as the Bird and Baby).

The Eagle and Child in Oxford, where Tolkien would meet up with fellow writers

But the surrounding countryside, now some miles away, remains recognisably ‘Shire-esque’, and you can still visit the places where he was inspired to write about the Barrow Mounds and various other places that crop up in his books. There’s even a farm called Bag End and a road called Hobbs Moat Road. If you’ve ever wondered why the unusual chapter ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, in which various low-down characters are driven from the realm, was appended to the end of LOTR, then it’s my guess that it was Tolkien’s cathartic way of dealing with the destruction of his beloved rural idyll by way of fantasy.
So, back to evil. When I see articles like this one, about a new iPad for babies (sorry, it’s in Danish), I can’t help thinking that the kind of evil we should surely be worried about is the kind that we all-too-often take for granted as ‘normality’. How exactly did the marketers of this particular product manage to convince themselves they were adding to the sum total of human welfare? Or the development agencies who consider that they are doing Amazonian tribes a favour by rounding them up and building them somewhere to live that looks like this (but we must cut infant mortality!):

If a visiting alien economist (and I pray there are none ‘out there’) were to analyse our setup, he/she/it would quickly deduce that the ‘enlightened’ first world is a giant face-sucking vampire squid, to borrow a phrase, on the rest of the planet – just by looking at trade deals alone. For every one of us with our iPods and designer kettles and reality TV programmes, there are 10 people on the breadline packed like peas in a pod into a single room, heating dirty water from a beaten up kettle over some burning sticks and living with the reality of not having a TV or any other form of consumer electronics device. What kind of way is that to run a planet?
Anyway, my personal jury’s still out on whether there are truly ‘evil’ forces out there, or whether we are just suckers for unleashing forces that could be considered evil and setting up systems that promote evil. I suppose I should mention Rudolph Steiner, who had some pretty deep thoughts on this subject. He didn’t see the world in black and white terms, and for that we can be thankful. Instead, it is my understanding, he considered the whole progressive materialist fallacy as evil – or at least bad – through and through, with that evil coming in two different flavours which, together, can balance one another out.
These two concepts he named Luciferic and Ahrimanic, with the former being concerned mainly with spirit and cosmology and the latter being concerned with materialism, science and ‘hard facts’. Thus, we are living in Ahrimanic times, by his reckoning, with evil being channelled or justified in that way. There’s an awful lot more to it than that and it’s well worth reading up on his ideas.
So, getting back to hobbits, who are resolutely not evil because they are earthy creatures and not concerned with metaphysics or playing psychic power games, we can perhaps see that what this world needs right now is more hobbits and less evil wizards (marketers, politicians, thaumaturgic manipulators), orcs (mindless consumers, imperial soldiers) and gollums (tortured addicted souls).
Are you a hobbit? You don’t have to look like one. If you hunger for peace and quiet and the chance to feel the moist earth between your toes, to have a small place to call home where it is safe to raise a healthy family and grow a vegetable patch or an orchard, and if the word ‘permaculture’ is more attractive to you than ‘monoculture’ then chances are you have hobbit blood flowing through your veins. And of course, it’s not easy being a hobbit in a world full of orcs and dragons, but we can take heart that we are a resourceful and resilient breed, often at our best during the most testing of times (and often quite lazy at all other times).
So if you are a hobbit reading this then I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve, so please carry on reading and bear the following in mind:

“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now
mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.”
J.R.R Tolkien

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