Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Staying Afloat: Financial Capital



Last week I wrote about personal and family resilience and outlined ten different types of capital. I defined capital loosely as a useful resource that you have some control over in order to comfortably get you through increasingly uncertain times. The first one of those—which also happens to be the one that most people associate the term capital with—is financial capital. Yes, we're talking about money derived wealth. I'm not going to cover this in any great depth—it is, after all, a blog post—as it is such a huge topic. Instead, see this as a prod for further contemplation, or maybe just as a reminder.


Rich man, poor man

It is commonly accepted that if you have a large enough pile of cash, you'll not only be able to secure your future, but you'll be happy too. We are told that having a high income and stash of other easily converted quasi-financial assets, such as stocks, shares, Bitcoins and a gold-plated pension will make you deliriously happy. However, this is not so. The best way to disavow yourself of this illusion is to stand during rush hour at a commuter station in the heart of London's City district or Wall Street in New York, and observe your fellow human beings as they swarm past. Not only do they not look happy, many of them look downright stressed and angry as they scurry back to their multi million dollar apartments and country mansions. Frankly, some of these stuffed suits look like they are about to burst a blood vessel.

But these are merely the working wealthy. What about people who have already accrued wealth beyond their wildest dreams? To see how well these are doing one only has to open a newspaper or read a biography or two. The former are filled with lurid stories of celebrities, lottery winners and sports stars ruining their lives with cash-fuelled hedonistic behaviour, and in the latter, you will often read of egotistical self-sacrifice, power struggles, lifetime-long legal battles with detractors and an eventual sad and lonely death followed by a drawn-out family squabble as lawyers pick over the will like vultures on a carcass.

Personally this kind of fate doesn't appeal too much to me.

So, if having too much wealth can be a curse, does it follow that having very little wealth will make you happy? Well, of course not. Unless you are Mark Boyle (the 'Moneyless Man') you're going to need to have access to some cash in order to survive, and for most people that means having a job. Now, having a job, in itself, might not make you happy, but at least it allows you to access a flow of money which you will need to get through life. Periodically, however, you may find yourself without the means of making money flow into your pocket, meaning you will suddenly find yourself with no money at all.

Having no money, or not enough to live off, is neither pleasant nor resilience building. If you find yourself in the position where you do not have enough money to support yourself or your family then you will immediately find yourself cannibalising your other forms of capital. You may be forced to sell off valuable items, such as your car. If you sell your car then you may find your scope for travelling to and from work is diminished, making it harder still to find a replacement job. This is the kind of negative feedback loop that is put into effect by a personal financial crisis. Next, you may raid your savings if you have any, just to buy the basic necessities. Perhaps you will similarly turn to credit cards or other form of predatory lending simply to put food on the table and pay the bills.

As time goes by and your situation has not improved you will be increasingly stressed and worried. When you get stressed your body and mind put themselves into an elevated threat mode. And as they don't know the nature of the threat, they prepare for every eventuality, which is why being stressed is so draining. Because of this your health capital will suffer. You may lose your appetite, you won't be able to sleep properly, and any addictions you have may spiral out of control. You may even develop new addictions — such as sleeping pills or prescribed opiates — as you desperately try to stop the stress from draining your life force. Eventually, if this continues, you may end up falling out with your partner, getting thrown out of your home and end up staring into the abyss thinking "What happened?"

Once the financial rug has been pulled out from beneath your feet a system of negative feedback loops will rapidly assert itself and trying to get back on your feet can feel like attempting to haul yourself out onto dry land from the set of rapids you've just fallen into. It is really quite a terrifying situation to be in, and one that is best avoided at all costs (as I can personally testify).

Yet this, unfortunately, is the scenario that more and more people are facing as our economies become increasingly threadbare. Today's economic reality is that more and more wealth is concentrated at the top rather than distributed more equitably, and at the same time the apparatus and mighty institutions of health, social security and state-backed pension provision that were put into place during an era of great prosperity during the second half of the 20th century are staring at bankruptcy.

Given these realities, any rational person would not want to be placed at either end of the financial wealth spectrum, and would instead opt for a happy medium. And given that not too many of us are likely to find ourselves accidentally falling into the most wealthy 1%, we only have to worry about being relegated to the status of financial non-entity class. Once you are relegated to this economic sub-class, where the best job you can hope to find is a zero hours contract on minimum wage, and any downward adjustment in your government allocated wage support will have a cataclysmic effect of you and your family, you are going to find it almost impossible to pull yourself out of it again. And given that this sub-class is rapidly swelling in size across the industrialised world and gobbling up people as if Godzilla and his extended family were at an all-you-can-eat buffet, what can you really do to avoid being a victim?

Control

Chaos and stress occur when you are not in control. To get control of your financial capital you first need to do an appraisal. If you're familiar with using spreadsheets then great, but a piece of paper and a pencil will also suffice. Make a note of all your income and all your outgoings on a monthly basis. If you don't know some of the figures then make a realistic estimate but brutal honesty with oneself is required in this exercise. Do the calculations to account for a few months, or even a year.

What is revealed? Do you spend more than you earn, or do you have a nice sum left over each month? If it's the former then you are going to have to find ways to either cut your outgoings or increase your income. Obviously, some of your costs will be fixed, but perhaps they can be reduced? It pays to think carefully abut what you are paying for both your fixed costs and your variable ones, and make actionable changes accordingly. There are many, many ways in which you can reduce your variable costs—and there are many websites and books out there packed with tips—so I'll just mention a few to get the thought processes rolling although, of course, everyones' circumstances are different. You could, for example:

- Cancel any entertainment packages you are signed up to and do something less passive instead
- Buy ingredients in bulk and make large pots of food, freezing individual portions for later eating
- Search around for cheaper utility deals and try to cut your energy and water usage
- Swap your car for a bicycle, or at least go by bike more often
- Forego a vacation rental and instead do a house swap

On the income side of the scale you could, for example:

- Take on an extra part time job
- Make art or crafts and sell them online
- Make value added products from your garden, such as chutneys or marmalade, and sell them at farmers markets
- Get a higher paying job
- Rent out a room in your house

The object of the game is always to live below your means. If you are able to  live below your means you can use the excess money to invest in other forms of capital and increase your resilience. You could, for example, spend your spare money on buying fruit trees (bio capital), cooking a huge feast and inviting your neighbours round to eat it (social capital), picking up some quality hand tools from eBay (hard capital) — or you could store it as cash savings, thus increasing your emergency fund (keeping it in the realm of financial capital). Thus by becoming more frugal you can become richer in a more rounded sense.

Speaking of this, one of the first things you will need to do to build financial capital resilience once you have got your income and outgoings tuned, is to build up a savings fund. There are shocking figures circulating that almost 7 out of 10 adults in America cannot put their hands on $500 to cover an unexpected emergency. I'm sure the figures will be similar for Britain and other first world nations, especially if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by. The fact is that most people are living wage slip to wage slip, or from one government handout to the next. Your immediate aim should be to ensure you are not one of them. A good target to aim at would be to have enough cash saved up to cover six months of expenditures for you and your dependents. Of course, this is just a target—any money at all that you can put aside will make you just that bit more resilient in the financial stakes. If six months seems somewhat extreme and unattainable, start with one month.

And when I say cash, I mean actual notes that you can put in your pocket. Any money that you have stored in a bank account is not technically yours at all, but the bank's. As all banks operate on a fractional reserve basis (that is, they only have something like 1/10 of the money that is on their balance sheet at any one time, the rest being all manner of convoluted investments, derivatives and loans), they will not be able to give it back to you if sufficient numbers of other people also ask for theirs back at the same time. This is called a bank run, and legislation is already here in Europe to protect banks against this happening by limiting the amount of liability they have with regard to your savings.

It is important to consider financial capital first because, with the exception of every other form of capital (except perhaps health), a financial disaster has the ability to bring down your carefully constructed house of cards. To that end we should first consider ...

Debt

We are riding high on the biggest debt bubble in history. This should terrify most people, and yet it rarely gets a mention. In fact, many younger people—including some economists—who have grown up in this debt bubble simply see it as 'normal' and assume it will continue to inflate forever. History tells us otherwise.

The fastest growing form of debt in the UK is consumer debt. We are bombarded with enticements to buy new stuff, to upgrade cars and phones and to splash out on holidays and computer games and a million other things.

But debt, in actual fact, must be repaid, otherwise it would never be lent in the first place. And so you must ask yourself before you take on any debt whether it is likely to increase your resilience or not. Not all debt is bad, just as not all savings are good, but think very carefully about taking on debt and always try to avoid it if you can. Because taking on a debt means handing over a portion of your future security to a faceless entity that does not care about you or your wellbeing: all it cares about is getting its money back, with interest.

At the very least, you should never take on debt to purchase consumer products or services. I know it's easy to be tempted, and we all have our weaknesses, but consumer debt can be an Achilles heel for many. Whenever I forget this simple fact I sit down and watch one of the many popular debt-collection TV shows and imagine it's my front door that the dull-eyed jobsworth debt collectors are kicking down at dawn, and my family they are forcing out onto the street. Because being in debt and finding you are unable to make payments is a sure fire way to set you on the road to financial oblivion.

So, if you have much unsecured debt, make it a priority to reduce and eliminate it. If you have a large amount of "secure" debt (in quotes because no debt is secure, from your point of view), such as a mortgage, also consider how you might reduce that, perhaps by moving to a smaller or cheaper property, or making increased monthly payments. The less debt you have, the less you'll have to worry about if/when there is a prolonged economic seizure.

Stocks and bonds

Known as 'paper wealth' stocks and bonds are certificates that purport to represent the value of a company or government or other real-world entity. Their price is determined by both the yield that they pay out (i.e. a sum of money paid periodically to the owner of the certificate) and the market's take on its true value based on its riskiness. Shares, generally, tend to be riskier than bonds, as bonds are underwritten by the central banks of national governments and are therefore deemed "safe".

But remember, no form of investment is "safe". Like other forms of paper wealth (futures, derivatives, hedge funds etc), stocks, shares and bonds are only an abstract representation of an underlying reality in the physical world, and their value can plummet to zero overnight. In fact, with the advent of high-speed computer trading, their value can plummet to zero in nanoseconds.

At present, stock markets around the world seem to be rising inexorably. The main reason for this is the huge amounts of financial stimulus being pumped into financial markets in the wake of the last crisis ten years ago. We are long overdue for a massive correction in this regard.

Gold and precious metals

It's common to see articles about financial planning and resilience end up by recommending readers buy gold as a means of securing their wealth (with a handy link to the author's favourite bullion merchant). I'm not going to do that. I don't believe that buying gold will do you an awful lot of good, unless you are extremely wealthy and really cannot sleep at night without thinking your future security is stored in a lump of yellow metal in a Swiss vault. The reason I don't believe that buying gold bars is a good idea is several-fold.

Firstly, they are eminently worthless unless you are able to liquidate their value in a safe manner. Given that gold is a safe haven, it has a consistently high value. It's very stealable. Should a financial collapse occur and word gets out that you have some gold buried somewhere then it's just a matter of time before you and your family receive a night visit from a group of gentlemen carrying duct tape, cable wire and garden secateurs. This exact scenario was very common in Argentina following their financial crisis in 1998. And given that it's impossible to sell physical gold without telling someone that you own it, there's no way around this scenario. If you own it, you take this risk of someone else finding out you own it, and wanting it.

Secondly, gold is useless. Okay, so it has a few minor uses, such as tooth fillings and fountain pen nibs, but beyond that it has little immediate use. If you really must own some precious metal then silver might be a better bet as it has a host of industrial and non-industrial uses, meaning it will always likely retain some value based on this. And it is less likely to get you in trouble.

And thirdly, gold mining is one of the most environmentally damaging things mankind has ever devised. I'm amazed at the sheer number of articles out there which spend several paragraphs outlining why we need to look after Mamma Gaia, and then go onto recommend buying gold to hedge the future.

Are there any situations where it might be a good idea to hold gold? Sure. Buying a few coins, for example, or holding onto family jewellery or gold ornaments will give you a bit of psychological and financial security without making you such a target. Generally speaking, however, a far better investment would be in hard goods and land. These are the kinds of things that will keep you alive in a prolonged state of emergency in ways that a lump of metal cannot.

Cryptocurrencies

A recent alternative to holding gold or cash, and something that everyone is talking about at the moment, is cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. I'll be honest and say that I don't know enough about them to have a fully informed opinion here. When they first appeared my first instinct was "snake oil" — and this has been bolstered by all the overblown claims I have seen lately, usually made by baby-faced millennials who have very little conception of the wider systems in which they operate.

My second thought was that they will clearly be unviable as energy constraints assert themselves — after all, if you have no access to your "wallet" on a smartphone or computer, then you have no access to your money. And then theres the huge amount of energy used by computers to "mine" the data that allows each unit to claim its uniqueness ...

However, several clever people whom I trust and respect have said they see some potential in cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies as a form of decentralised cash, so I shall research more and develop a more informed view over time.

Anyway, that wraps up this short summary of financial capital as it relates to personal resilience. Next week I'll talk a little about a non-abstract form of capital — hard goods.

I'll end with what I consider to be the seven most important points to consider when building up your financial capital resilience:

1) Live within your means and invest any surplus in other forms of capital
2) Get out of debt as soon as you can — especially if it is non-productive debt
3) Build up an emergency cash fund to last you a good few months
4) Don't rely on paper wealth being a good store of value
5) Don't be a goldbug
6) Don't think you are going to receive a pension
7) Don't invest in cryptocurrencies unless you are 100% sure you understand them


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Holistic Resilience



I’ve been thinking about resilience lately, and what that word means to people. According to my Concise Oxford Dictionary, the word resilient is defined as:

1. (of an object) Able to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching or compressing 2. (of a person or animal) able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.

As our supply of cheap, concentrated fossil fuels stutters and dwindles, and the industrial age that has ridden on its back for so long enters its twilight years, it is a certainly that most of us will find ourselves experiencing great change. Despite all the bluster and inflated claims of a new ‘green’ era in which people will be able to continue their high consumption lifestyles and enjoy all the benefits accorded by globalised supply chains, the facts — as I’ve been researching and writing about for the past eight years — simply don’t stand up to any meaningful analysis of this possibility.

A minority of critically thinking people have accepted this and recognised the likelihood that their lives are going to take a turn for the materially poorer in the immediate future. A smaller minority still have decided to actually take action in preparation for this. These people have seen that all is not well in the three major ‘E’ realms of energy, environment and economy, and are concerned about what it means for them and their families. They may hold differing opinions on what the trigger point will be — ranging from economic collapse and global war, to rampant virus outbreaks and civil strife — but they share the same feeling that things are more delicate than the mainstream media would have them believe, and that the best way of ensuring one’s welfare is to prepare for an era of disruption and dramatic change.

These people can count themselves as among the lucky few, because preparation and proactive behaviour is always better than unpreparedness and reactive behaviour. Once they have got over the psychic shock that usually accompanies a realisation of an uncomfortable truth, and then proceeded through the standard stages of the Kübler-Ross Change Curve (also known as the Five Stages of Grief Model), they will find themselves at the ‘acceptance’ or ‘integration’ end of the process. This is the point where they decide to do something useful about the predicament they find themselves in.



Not everyone, however, makes it as far as the acceptance stage. Many get caught up in the ‘frustration’ and the ‘depression’ stage of the process, and find they cannot escape. These people see little or no point in continuing, and often they adopt a nihilistic outlook as a coping mechanism. It is as if they are being pulled into a black hole. And yet if they can pull themselves away from the gravitational well of despair and make a commitment to moving forwards to acceptance then they can be said to be demonstrating resilience. Resilience, in this case, is a dogged determination to make the best of the scenario you find yourself in, despite the fact that you have no control over the wider situation.  It is the conscious decision to take control and do something useful.

“Something useful” is often manifested in the form of stockpiling food and other items that will be valuable to have around if they are suddenly no longer available. This is a natural and worthy start, but it is only the beginning of a much wider transformation on the path to resilience. Now that the internal reality model you were brought up with has fractured and is no longer useful, you may begin to frantically hunt for new information and make connection with like-minded people who have been through the same transformative process as yourself.

Plenty has been written on the subject of resilience in the past, and the focus is usually on the preservation of one or more forms of capital. This may be because people are generally, and understandably, concerned with losing what they already have. This has led to a lot of talk about how to secure one’s financial capital (wealth) and property. Ranked higher still is how to preserve one’s corporeal presence on the planet i.e. how to stay alive if the food trucks stop turning up at your local supermarket. In other words, resilience has come to mean protecting and holding onto ones capital.

But capital is an oft-misunderstood word, usually meant only to mean material assets or the means with which to produce wealth — hence its association with capitalism. But the concept of capital goes far wider when considered in the personal sense. Everybody — no matter how materially poor they are — has various forms of personal capital. It could be considered the summation of the resources that we value and have some form of control over. Logic then tells us that if we want to be happy (and who doesn’t?) we should build up our capital.

Having personal capital that we can use to our benefit and control can be translated as empowerment. Being lost in the ‘depression’ stage of the Kübler-Ross Change Curve is a failure to recognise one’s personal capital twinned with a self-defeating outlook that says “there is no way out of here – I should give up now.” This is not a recipe for happiness and empowerment, so the first step to figuring out how to become resilient is identifying our capital in order to build upon it. These are the broad forms of personal capital to recognise and identify in your own life:

1. Financial capital. Let’s start off with the simplest and most easily recognisable one. Your wealth includes all the money you have in your bank account or stuffed in your mattress. It includes any assets that can be easily liquidated (i.e. sold off), such as a house or car, as well as share certificates, gold bars and antiques hidden in your attic. When considering wealth, you must deduct debts. In our modern world, many people look wealthy, but often they are very highly leveraged and have a negative net worth. As Mark Twain once quipped on becoming wealthy “I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two million dollars.”

2. Hard capital. This is the stuff that you own. It includes everything that is in some way useful. Books, lawnmowers, furniture, fishing rods, guitars and that drawer of old nails and bolts in the basement. It could also include articles that are beautiful, but otherwise useless — as long as it adds value to your life in some way it can be considered part of your capital. If it isn’t useful or beautiful and it has no monetary value you should probably get rid of it.

3. Mental capital. Your mental capital includes everything that you use your brain for. We’re talking knowledge and education (specifically, education that is useful in some way), language skills, other skills (cooking, fishing, sewing etc.), musical abilities, all the books you have stored in your head and a sense of humour. Yes – all of these are assets that are at your disposal to help ease your way through life and make it productive and enjoyable. Mental capital could also include mental health capital and — crucially — your outlook on life.

4. Social capital. No man is an island, they say, and your family and friends are of potentially immeasurable value to you. There are zero instances in history of successful societies comprised of individual loners, so it’s a good bet to build up your network of trustworthy and sympathetic people who will accompany you into whatever the future holds. Do you invest time in your relatives and children? Are you the kind of approachable person people turn to for help? Do others see value in having you around? This holds too for any groups you are a member of.

5. Health capital. Your body is the most important asset you own. Without it you are literally dead, and so it makes sense to look after it. Good nutrition, exercise and an avoidance of harmful addictions mean that your reliance on the failing industrial healthcare system will likely be minimised. What’s more, having a healthy body means you will enjoy life more and can undertake a wider range of types of work, which leads to …

6. Employment capital. What do you do for a living? Do you enjoy your job or are you merely doing it to keep afloat, even though you dislike it? How many marketable skills do you possess? Do you have more than one way of making money and multiple income streams, or are you so specialised that if your job vanished you would have no way of supporting yourself? Admittedly hard to quantify, these are some of the questions to ask when considering the kind of work you do, how it benefits you (and the wider community), and how resilient to shocks it is.

7. Bio-capital. This is the environment you live in. If you are a millionaire living in a polluted inner city with no trees or plants then your bio-capital will arguably be lower than a penniless hermit living in a wilderness zone in the mountains. Interactions with the living natural world are crucial for human wellbeing, and the fact that so many people now have very little contact with wild animals and plants is not just a sad reflection of modern life but also a threat to the sustainability of our ecosystems. As organisms, we humans depend entirely upon the natural capital provided for free by Mother Earth. Treating ecosystems recklessly and exploiting them for short-term gain is like sawing off the branch we are sitting on.

In terms of personal bio-capital, think about what you have access to or control over. Do you own a garden that could be planted up with insect friendly plants, fruit trees and organic vegetables? Maybe you don’t, and all you have are a couple of window boxes and some shelf space. This is still bio-capital — you can grow a few small plants such as tomatoes or chillies, and you can sprout beans and pulses on the shelves. Maybe you don’t even have that, and yet you can still be a guerrilla gardener or grafter (planting and grafting in communal spaces), or you could help out at a local nature reserve or organic farm, clean litter from the beach or canal you live next to … the possibilities are many.

8. Time capital. How much time do you have? A lot? A little? Many people these days are afflicted with a disease called busy-ness. They are always busy and have no time for anything! When you haven’t seen them for a while and you ask them what they have been doing they invariable respond that they have been “oh, you know, busy!” So consider how much time you have available to you. How can you make better use of the time given to you? Time, we know, is subjective: it can speed up or slow down depending on who is experiencing it and when. You can ‘time hack’ your life using methods such as meditation and contemplation, and you can strip things out of your life that are unnecessary and time-consuming.  Furthermore you can become efficient at planning and executing tasks so that you have time spare to do enjoyable things. Balance is key.

9. Emotional capital. How much control do you have over your emotions? Do they control you or is it the other way around? Do you live a fearful life full of angst and worry, or do you adopt a contemplative or Stoic approach to existence? To some extent we are not able to control the emotions we are born with, but we do have a choice in how we respond to external events. Gaining a solid bedrock of emotional security is a crucial form of capital that is often overlooked.

10. Spiritual capital. Finally, we have spiritual capital. By this we mean how we relate as individuals to the wider cosmos.  Since the Enlightenment, people brought up in the Western world have been taught that they are inconsequential cogs in a vast machine called the Universe. There is no meaning in life, they say, and the whole of existence is an interstellar game of billiard balls played with atoms. Needless to say, this bleak outlook represents a break not just with tradition, but also with every other human society that has ever existed. People, they say, are merely meat sacks of DNA, programmed like robots and only self-interested. Love is a chemical reaction that will one day be produced in a test tube, and consciousness is merely data on an organic chip stored in your head.

Thankfully, more people are beginning to question this view. At the same time they are turning away from the major religions — which have claimed hegemonic control over the spiritual dimension for millennia — and are awakening to the personal spark of potential within themselves. A good spiritual grounding is an empowering phenomenon, and therefore a very valuable form of capital.

Each of these ten forms of capital are present to a greater or lesser extent in everyone’s lives. They do not exist independently from one another, and they will usually grow in symbiosis with one another, as long as no single one becomes outsized compared to the others.

Combining these ten form of personal capital are what I am going to be writing about over the coming months. It’s a process I’m calling holistic resilience i.e. considering ways in which to withstand or recover from difficult situations using a synthesis of personal capital. I’m looking forward to expanding on each of these ten forms, as well as delving deeper into the meaning of resilience and why people should be developing it. Along the way I hope to include many examples and introduce new concepts from different areas of thought.

Three key assumptions throughout will be that:

1 – The industrial age is coming to a messy end due to diminishing energy returns

2 – We have free will and are willing to use it


3 – There are no guaranteed outcomes in life

Monday, October 16, 2017

Still Here



Well, here I am. I didn't mean to go silent for so long but I've simply been overwhelmed with various jobs and the whole blog-writing thing has been pushed to near the back of the pile in terms of priorities.

First off, I apologise but the anthology of stories will not be going ahead. I've contacted some of you directly about this, but not all of you. The reason it isn't going ahead is because there was not enough material. I thought I had enough but then a couple of the authors have proved uncontactable and others were unreceptive to feedback about their stories. So, what I was left with would have filled a very slender volume. It's a pity, but there we are. If you would still like to see your story published then contact Joel Carris at Into the Ruins, who will I'm sure consider it.

Anyway, I'm currently sat here in a very blustery (but, so far, sunny) west Cornwall, awaiting ex-huricane Ophelia. It's not expected to strike Cornwall in any big way, but there will likely be a lot of rain and wind damage, so I'm half expecting the lights to go out at some point later today. Ireland will likely receive the full brunt of it, so if you're in Ireland and reading this, please take care.

I hope to be back to blogging shortly, and am reconsidering the best way to breathe life back into it. Since I started this blog a few years back, my personal interests have shifted somewhat. Yammering on about collapse has proved to be mostly ineffective in terms of shifting the issue into any kind of media spotlight, and so now it appears that we are going to be hitting the brick wall of reality headfirst anyway. I hope you are all wearing crash helmets.

To that end, I'm thinking about focusing my writings mainly on resilience. What can we do to make the best of our situations? How can we help one another by building networks and making our individual nodes more resilient? I've been working on future-proofing myself (as much as is reasonably possible) for these last few years, and so I'd like to share my thoughts on this and open up the conversation a little. Becoming personally resilient, I have discovered, is an iterative process and can only be part-learned from books and blogs. What's more there are many aspects to it and many weak links in the chain that can trip you up.

Bye for now. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

S is for Short Story Update



Phew - apologies for the delay but I have now selected which pieces will appear in the forthcoming short story anthology of post-industrial fiction I have been putting together. This took a bit longer than anticipated as the entries were slow to come in at first, and then I have been extremely busy over the last month working a new job which usually has me finishing at midnight most nights.

I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to write stories and submit them to me. I have, I think, selected the ones for publication on the basis of the criteria I laid down in the original post, as well as how they fit in with the general feel of the anthology. If you sent me a story and you are not listed below then please don't feel too bad as all the entries were great and it was probably just a stylistic thing.

The following authors will be contacted shortly and sent a publishing contract. I have also written a story that will be included.

Angela Corbet - Inside Out
Damian Macrae - The Last Farang
Catherine McGuire - Shifting Gears
Charles Tolver - A New World
Matthew Griffiths - The Island
Faze Al - After the Pause
Genna Rae - The Gift
Didier Pasqual - Soul Traveller
Jason Heppenstall - The Amnesiac

The book will provisionally be titled "The Spreading Silence: a collection of tales from the world after oil" and I'm looking around for cover artwork at present. I'm hoping to get it edited, proofread and typeset as soon as I can, but I'll continue to be busy for the next month and am then heading off to Germany, so please bear with me.

Once again, many thanks to all those who entered the competition - if you are on the list above I'll be in touch via email.






Thursday, June 22, 2017

R is for Revolting Beasts



There's something afoot in Britain at the moment, and it's not entirely pleasant. Foul beasts are rising to the surface of the murky pond of the national psyche and sending out suckered tentacles to drag the unwary screaming from their beds. This disquieting scene could mark a step change in the narrative of who we think we are, and set an endpoint to the fairy story we have been telling ourselves for the last few decades. The dark mould stain of entropy is beginning to appear on the walls and no amount of fresh paint seems to get rid of it.

I've taken on a job as a bartender. What better way to earn a little cash at the end of the industrial age?  The place is a hotel: a kind of garden haven beside the sea where people come to spend a few days and get a break from their stressful lives. I pour gin, polish wine glasses and listen to what the customers have to say, offering sympathy where appropriate. Many of them are Germans, on holiday with their families, but there are also many Brits and Americans, and many of these love to talk.

There's a sense of something having gone badly wrong. One national tragedy is eclipsed by the next, seemingly in ever more rapid succession. My daughter came home from school and declared that she and her classmates were getting tired of all the one and two-minutes silences. If it isn't people being run down in the street or having their throats slit as they eat dinner, it's tower-block infernos and other man-made tragedies. Being down at the dog end of Cornwall, of course, our local tragedies tend to be small-scale. A man falling off a cliff here, a surfer drowning there, a dog chasing a rabbit into a disused mineshaft — all tragedies in their own way but also, perversely, all part of the natural order of things. But now the great summer invasion is upon us, as the local population is boosted tenfold by those from up country — and they bring their energies and bigger tragedies with them.

Road rage on the melting tarmac of yet another day of record breaking heat. Me on my bicycle, and the woman in her Audi screaming abuse and yelling about road tax. She's like a heavily made-up monkey, trapped in her metal cage on wheels and enraged at ... something. I almost feel sorry for her. And there are lines of traffic to the horizon on country roads that are so windy and narrow as to be more of a natural feature of the landscape rather than a carriageway filled to the brim with delivery trucks, holidaymakers' cars and white vans. On either side of the stream of vehicles the wildflowers sag in the heat and nod their heads in the light breeze. How can you have road rage when you are surrounded by a blaze of wildflowers?

And the car radios burble out a constant stream of politics. Meaningless, valueless, maddening, hypnotic, soul-deadening politics of who said what to whom and how a commission should be set up to investigate something and how so-and-so expressed outrage about a target not being met in some branch of a bureaucracy somewhere. And Brexit. Brexit, Brexit, Brexit — as if they repeat the silly word enough times they'll beat us into submission and we'll declare the whole thing a mistake and take it all back just so long as they stop talking about it. Perhaps this is adding to the road rage.

And, the people take the bait and battle it out on social media and in pubs and on the streets as if they were rehearsing for some kind of civil war where nobody knows who or what they are fighting for. Many have grown battle weary and simply keep their gobs shut, but there are those who still hold out, tapping away into the early hours of the morning engaged in the hand-to-hand of flame wars, and reporting on their battles to their own echo chambers. An insanity seems has gripped the nation and still the Americans in the bar talk about how civil we all appear and how civil our conduct is compared to 'back home'. And it probably is.

But there was nothing too civil about the declared 'day of rage' yesterday, called in the wake of the Grenfell Tower inferno in London, which killed God-knows how many and ignited a firestorm far larger than the one caused merely by cheapskate polystyrene cladding. Scores dead, killed in their own homes, while the multimillionaire company owner who thought it would be a good idea to beautify a 27-storey tower block filled with mostly immigrant poor people by cladding it with firelighters walks free.

The day of rage turned out to be a damp squib. People were too busy dealing with the kind of heat they'd expect to encounter in Greece to be bothered about getting publicly angry. Even the police were pleading with people to calm down, saying that they'd "had enough" due to the heat and could they please protest when it had cooled down a bit? Being British, whatever that even means anymore, people politely obliged. For now.

But all of a sudden the ship of state seems rudderless. There's a lame duck sitting in Number 10, and people scent blood in the water. Socialism is surging in popularity, after a long leave of absence, as the reality of the precariousness of things starts to become apparent. The body politic is foaming at the mouth and having convulsions right now, and there doesn't appear to be a doctor on hand.

How do we even begin to address these not-inconsiderable problems and tragedies? Well, a vacuous pop song has been released by a multimillionaire TV personality in response to the incineration of the families in the tower block. This comes hot on the heels of the pop concert in Manchester to 'honour' the children and teenagers blown to pieces by an Islamic fundamentalist, even before some of them had been buried. This is our national response to mass death now: gyrations and brave faces and emoting on social media. Celebrities run to be seen at the scene of the latest tragedies, and it's probably not too far fetched to assume that the next logical step is to have them singing and pouting live from the scene of the next terror attack — perhaps rushing them out there in the back of ambulances and police cars, along with the doctors and paramedics. It all smells a bit ... desperate.

People just wish all this nastiness would go away. They hope for it to crawl back into the swamp it came from, and are in no mood for examining the reasons as to why any of it might have appeared in the first place. There's no problem so great that it can't be solved by a hashtag and a declaration of 'One Love', whatever that means. Any deeper examination of cause and effect is shot down in fiery rhetoric. Maybe the great paradigm of our times has nothing to do with scientific enquiry or the Enlightenment — maybe it's to do with the refusal to examine the consequences of previous actions, be they governmental, societal or individual. Indeed, consequences, like elephants in living rooms, are not a popular topic of conversation right now. Which is a shame, but so it goes.

***

In other news, the Midsummer deadline for entries for my fiction writing challenge has now passed. Thank you to everyone who sent me stories, I will be announcing the results next week. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Q is for Quotidian Fluctuations in a Teacup



Here in the UK, things have been a little weird over the past week. People have red rings around their eyes and they get angry at the slightest provocation. You may have heard that there was an election, and that the result was somewhat unexpected and confusing. You may have seen some news about it and experienced a fleeting sense of bewilderment, wondering whether it was relevant in any way to your own life. And then, deciding that it wasn't, you will have instantly forgotten about it. But if you're even a wee bit curious as to what is afoot, here is an explainer of sorts. I will summarise the election twice. The first summary will be incredibly brief. In fact, it will be one sentence. Should your curiosity be piqued, the second summary will be a bit more in depth.

Summary 1

Nobody is in control and the politicians are running around like headless chickens emitting a strange gurgling squawk from their neck holes as they hold up banners saying 'Situation Normal - please carry on shopping'.

Summary 2

Okay, take a deep breath and get ready to shake your head slowly from side to side whilst quietly muttering "And these people once ran a whole empire?" For clarity and understanding I shall proceed in bullet point format.


  • So, the prime minister, Theresa May — a vicar's daughter who was never elected to lead the country and only promoted to the position after David Cameron resigned following the Brexit vote — called a snap election a little over a month ago.
  • The prevailing logic was that her party, the Conservatives (Tories), would prevail in a landslide, thus cementing her authority and enabling her to follow through on some of her most favoured pledges, such as breaking up with the European Union (which, ironically, she was opposed to in the vote), bringing back grammar schools, taxing people with dementia so that their homes can be stolen, and re-legalising fox hunting for the 1-percenter chums of her investment banker husband.
  • Political analysts boldly stated the Tories would win a landslide because May's only viable opponent, Jeremy Corbyn (leader of the opposition Labour Party), was completely unelectable, despite being very popular with the non-elite.
  • Corbyn, it was said, was 'completely unelectable' because he was a bearded socialist who rode a bicycle to work and spent his down time growing organic vegetables rather than chasing foxes with dogs and selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. In short, he was 'crazy'.
  • Much was made of a statement he made when he said he wouldn't want to start a nuclear war and kill millions of people, which was seen as hopelessly idealistic and weak. What a loser!
  • And the fact that he once spoke with representatives of the IRA (remember them? The Irish Republican Army) to try and get a peace deal. Clearly a friend of terror!
  • A smear campaign was launched by the media, with just about every publication, including so-called progressive outlets, such as The Guardian and the BBC, saying he was not fit for office.
  • Pollsters predicted that the Labour Party would be wiped out — possibly for generations — and we would enjoy a prosperous future governed by the Tories, whose main objective was to privatise everything and share out the spoils among the top 1%.
  • But not everyone loved the Tories. In fact, anyone not under the spell of the media smear campaigns, or under 60, hated them. With bells on.
  • They hated them so much that some of the other progressive parties, such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, even bowed down and told their supporters to vote for Labour.
  • This made some of their supporters angry. They didn't like the idea of tactical voting. "It will end in tears," they opined.
  • But young people were quite keen on the idea of getting rid of the Tories and electing Jeremy Corbyn. He had promised them a long list of things, such as abolishing tuition fees for students,   halting austerity programmes and taxing the rich more to pay for public services. Oh, and he was not going to privatise the National Health Service, which the Tories wanted to do.
  • Fighting between the two sides was bitter and acrimonious. The media stooped low, very low.
  • And it began to work. People started to call Jeremy Corbyn 'the terrorists' friend', Jezbollah and Red Jezza.
  • As all this squabbling was going on a young Islamic fanatic walked into a pop concert in Manchester filled with teenage girls and children and detonated a suicide bomb, killing 22 innocents.
  • Everyone went quiet for a few days until Theresa May popped up again saying she was the only one who could be trusted to keep Britain safe from terrorists.
  • But then people with a memory longer than the average goldfish remembered that in her previous role she had axed 20,000 police officers as part of an austerity drive. The police themselves said that would probably have caught the terrorist if they hadn't been so underfunded and resourced.
  • Some of the right wing newspapers began to turn on Theresa May, although they made it clear that the still hated Jeremy Corbyn even more because he 'supports terrorism' and doesn't like war.
  • Theresa May, who enjoyed war and said she would be more than happy to nuke entire nations, tried to fight back. But there was a problem. All she could say was "I am strong and stable" over and over, like a robot that had been programmed by a 10-year-old using BASIC and was stuck in a recurring logic loop. People began to call her the 'Maybot'.
  • She came across very badly in media appearances and decided not to turn up to a televised debate for party leaders, which looked bad.
  • Then, for some reason known only to her and her team of advisors, she stated that she was going to confiscate everyone's houses when they got old and infirm. This didn't go down very well with a lot of people.
  • The gap between Labour and the Tories began to narrow as the election approached, sending several newspapers in paroxysms of terror. All the stops were pulled out in smearing Corbyn and his party. 
  • But none was more terrified than The Guardian, which had been knifing Jeremy Corbyn in the front for the past two years and suddenly realised he was in with a chance of winning. The editor decided to completely reverse position on Corbyn, ordering all leader writers to do a U-Turn on the man. Up until then the progressive organ had advocated a Blairite ideology of free market capitalism under the guise of 'socialism lite'. The spectacle of journalistic slithering and backsliding and was enough to upset a delicate stomach.
  • And then three Islamic fanatics attacked central London on a Saturday night, butchering people with kitchen knives and slitting a waitress's throat before they were killed in a hail of bullets by police.
  • Everyone went silent, again. It was only a week before the election. A few liberals could be heard bleating about extending the hand of love to Jihadis, but otherwise it was quiet.
  • In fact, things were pretty quiet right up to the day of the poll, other than a constant low level murmuring on social media about tactical voting.
  • Nobody mentioned the almost £2 trillion (and rising fast) national debt, or the precarious state of energy reserves. These were issues that are not considered important enough compared to, say, Jeremy Corbyn's fondness for growing his own vegetables, or the fact that he once rode around behind the Iron Curtain on a motorbike. 
  • On election day, every online British news site declared that the Tories would win by a substantial margin, meaning that Corbyn supporters might as well just stay at home. A suspicious person would almost think that there was a coordinat ... oh, never mind.
  • Polls closed at 10pm and then it was revealed that there was a SHOCK EXIT POLL which showed that Jeremy Corbyn could potentially WIN!
  • How could the opinion pollsters have got it so wrong, gasped the public. I mean, they never get it wrong, do they?
  • Corbyn supporters went wild with excitement for several hours as the results began to come in, most of which showed the Tories being savaged by the electorate, even in supposed 'safe seats'. For the second time in less than a year, it seemed people were lining up to plunge their daggers between the ribs of an out-of-touch government.
  • A Tory bloodbath ensued and by the next morning it looked like the government was DOOMED... 
  • BUT there was a major catch. Something which would take a while to sink in for Corbyn's supporters...
  • The Tories had still WON, albeit by a margin not large enough to mean they could be declared fit to form a government.
  • A HUNG PARLIAMENT was declared.
  • Which does not mean suits dangling on the end of lamp posts (yet) but simply means there was no overall winner and  a caretaker government would have to be put in place until another election could be scheduled (and we're getting pretty sick of elections, I can tell you).
  • But Labour supporters (and many others) STILL saw it as a victory and started drinking beer, even though it was a Friday morning, and they should have been drinking tea instead.
  • And then Theresa May, who should have been dead at this point, TOTALLY KILLED THE PARTY!
  • She went to see the Queen and told her she was forming a new government with the DUP. Queenie said "Okay, Mrs May."
  • "The DU what?" said everyone.
  • The DUP — Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party. They had enough elected Members of Parliament to form a viable majority with the Tories.
  • Everyone frantically Googled the DUP to see who they were and what they stood for. When they found out there was much gnashing of teeth and renting of hair.
  • The DUP, it turns out, are an Irish version of ISIS. As Presbyterian fundamentalists, they define themselves by what they hate, which is Catholics, gays, single mothers, sin, Catholics, modernity and gays. What's more, many of their supporters wear black balaclavas and paint murals on the sides of houses depicting them holding machine guns with words such as "Never Surrender" and lines of scripture.
  • These people were now potentially our government.
  • And Jeremy 'the terrorists' friend' Corbyn was still free to spend plenty of time down at the allotment watering his pumpkins.
  • Progressives fell into a profound pit of despair as something beyond their worst nightmares had come to pass. Their strategic voting hadn't worked, and the smaller parties, such as the Greens, having voluntarily acted as doormats, had lost credibility.
  • But it wasn't all bad news from their perspective, at least now EVERYONE hated Theresa May — including her own party. For she has taken a party that was telling itself to get ready to rule for several decades, if not forever, and brought it to the much reduced point where they had to cosy up to people who wore ski masks in the pub.
  • She'll probably be killed off for good shortly and replaced with Boris 'the buffoon' Johnson.
  • And she didn't even get to re-introduce her favourite blood sport, which must hurt.
  • To further confuse things Scotland voted FOR the Tories, rather than their beloved Scottish Nationalist Party — meaning the Scots wanted to be part of Britain and rejected the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon's desire to break away from England BUT surrender to the EU. Confused yet?
  • Meanwhile, the pound fell on all the uncertainty, and the whole process of Brexit has been thrown into confusion. And the EU just sits there, thrumming its fingers on the desk and saying "Well, are you leaving, or aren't you? Make your mind up."
  • But the DUP don't like the idea of Brexit (which must be sinful, in some way) — despite once stating that Europe was run by the Antichrist — and seeing as they have a very big bargaining chip they might insist on either staying in the EU or watering down the terms of leaving it — most probably in the form of keeping the borders open.
  • Meanwhile 'unelectable' Corbyn is down at his vegetable plot fertilising his brassicas, a wry smile on his weathered face. Not only does he now have a large army of fanatical supporters, but he has some major chunks of the media begging for forgiveness. And if another election were called in the next couple of years —which, let's face it, is looking very likely — he'd stand a good chance of winning.
  • So, to recap, the Tories won but they 'lost', Labour lost but they 'won', the Scottish Tories won for Britain but lost for Scotland, the Northern Irish Presbyterians, who could never have dreamed of winning, have won the whole UK, UKIP has disappeared but might appear with a vengeance if Brexit is threatened, the Green party got thrown on the compost heap and the Liberal Democrats simply annoyed everyone — all clear?
  • And still nobody mentions the debt or the energy entropy time bomb ...

So there you have it. I imagine it looks like a storm in a teacup from an international perspective — but it sure feels uncomfortable when you live in the teacup.

And the winner is ...





Wednesday, June 7, 2017

P is for Patience

Image: Sarolta Bán


Patience is something I got a lesson in recently when I almost sliced my hand in half with an angle grinder. Minutes before my little accident I'd been sitting at the dining room table with my wife, discussing the jobs that needed doing before summer. Spring was in the air and I felt full of pent-up energy after the winter. I wrote a list of all the various renovation projects that needed doing on our old house, the tasks that needed to be completed in our woodland to ensure a supply of firewood, charcoal, mushrooms and fruit for the coming year, and the last-push that needed to happen to get our polytunnel producing food during the main growing season. Yes, there was a lot that needed doing, but I felt equal to the task and was impatient to get on with all the jobs.

Twenty minutes later I was walking to my local hospital - which, luckily, is only five minutes from home - a blood-soaked pillow case wrapped around my hand and arm. "I'll be alright," I was telling my wife. "It's just a cut — we'll stick a plaster on it and it'll heal." Luckily, she disagreed with my prognosis and prodded me along to the hospital emergency centre.

An operation under general anaesthetic was performed that saw surgeons digging chunks of abrasive disk out of my metacarpi and sewing severed tendons back together. When I came round and saw a plaster cast from my elbow to the fingertips I began to realise that my list of jobs might just have to wait. The hand doctor gave me the bad news. "You won't be able to use the hand at all for a month, and it'll be three months before you can do any manual work with it."

And so that was that. A right-handed person losing the use of their right hand, albeit temporarily, is severely limiting, to put it mildly. There was no chance I could complete any of the jobs I had set down on my list. I couldn't drive, I couldn't cook, I couldn't open bottles or jars, get my clothes on or off, or eat food that wasn't already cut into small pieces. I managed as best as I could with my left hand, but I'm not ambidextrous and it's pretty hard to do things such as type or brush your teeth with the hand you're not used to using. I became like a big baby — almost totally helpless when it came to doing simple tasks.

Now, three months on, it has completely healed. I have an interesting scar that I can show to people at parties, and I can't make a 'thumbs up' with my right hand, but otherwise there is no sign of my injury. I got off pretty lightly, having heard some rather gruesome stories from others (walking around with a power tool injury seems to attract a certain type of man who is keen to show off his own power tool injury scars.)

But apart from teaching me that angle grinders are dangerous (something I had known on a theoretical level but now know on a visceral one) my mishap did teach me about patience. Sitting around for a month with nothing much to do apart from read books and reflect made me realise that in the seven years or so since I first learned about the fate of the industrial world, how delicate is its mode of operation and how dependent we all are upon it, I have been engaged in constant hurried preparation for its demise. I'd downsized from my job, moved the family out of a city and country to somewhere less risky, bought a piece of land, learned a few skills that might be useful for when the current economic model has a seizure, and spent countless hundreds of hours filling my questing mind with books, blogs and media trying to figure out what the hell was going on with the world and what an appropriate mode of living might look like in response to it.

And over those seven years I've seen the majority of collapse pundits repeatedly get their predictions wrong for when 'the big one' is coming. Well, so far, 'the big one' hasn't hit us in our cosy first world bubble, but there are plenty of signs of carnage and chaos if one cares to look. We have various failed state countries, including Libya, Syria, Venezuela and Egypt. Each one of these countries was relatively prosperous and stable a decade ago, and yet now, life for many people living there has become a mad scramble for survival amidst political turmoil, hunger, rioting and civil war. Mainstream news media doesn't often report on what is going on within these countries, so it falls to independent observers to go out and look at what is happening on the ground and spread their info using social media.

On the finance and economics front we have basically seen the death of economic growth, in any meaningful sense. Sure, there are lots of figures and factoids flying around about 'full employment' and 'economic recovery' and the like, but scratch the surface and you'll find a dispiriting reality of millions of unemployed but uncounted people, people working minimum wage jobs on zero hours contracts and GDP figures that are almost entirely comprised of central bank generated debt. The debt bubble has ballooned to epic proportions, but again, the media doesn't seem interested. Debt allows countries, institutions and people to look good in the short term, while at the same time sacrificing the longer term.

On the energy front there is a sustained and continued fall in the density of the supplies available to us as a species. We consume something like five times as much oil as we discover, and whatever new stuff we do discover tends to be so challenging to extract and process that we have to expend huge amounts of our remaining energy just to do so: translated, this means that we might as well not bother. It's as if we have been at a rambunctious frat party and the parental liquor cupboard has been smashed open and drained. All that remains are a few empty bottles lying on their sides and some really horrible sticky orange-flavoured aperetifs. The party looks like it's about to fizzle out when someone discovers several crates of booze in the basement. Party on! But wait, it's just shandy, but who cares, it looks like beer and it comes in bottles that look like beer bottles. And all the time new guests keep arriving and demanding booze...

To make up for the inconvenient truth that we are running out of the highly-concentrated fuels our industrial civilisation needs to run, we have a loud cacophony of techno-optimists who insist that business as usual can continue if we just build enough wind turbines, or solar panels or propagate algae in the sea that we can turn into diesel. All of these schemes look great on a computer screen and it is easy to get uninformed people to believe that they are indeed feasible, but none of them ever consider the mechanisms — financial, political, economic — that would be needed to scale them up to a level where they would make much of a difference to offset the diminishing conventional fuels. We seem to be lost in a dreamlike state of demented unreality, like blindfolded people wandering around in a maze shouting hail Mary through gritted teeth. The sad truth is that the smartest people among us are those who capitalise on this madness, amassing huge personal fortunes by promising the moon (or Mars), just so long as the government subsidies continue rolling in.

Aside from all this we have ten different shades of crazy running through our societies. Some mischievous demon somewhere decided to lob a bomb into our carefully ordered political consensus of what constitutes left and right, good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate. This has given the chattering classes, who thought they had it all sorted out, a bad case of the vapours, and turned many of them into little more than drooling basket cases who become psychotic when presented with images and words that go against their programming. Thus we have people who identify as 'liberal'  throwing their allegiance behind billionaire financiers and politicians promising endless war, and those who identify as 'conservative' being generally in favour of conserving nothing except for their own privileges at the expense of everyone else.

On top of the above factors, we've also got a few new wars, environmental problems that are getting steadily worse, the drumbeat of Islamic terrorism that is getting closer to home, and there are now half a billion more people in the world than when I first started writing this blog, some of whom are refugees heading this way.

So, when you look at the past seven years, a lot has changed. Even if it doesn't feel like it on a day-by-day basis, the world is going through a profound readjustment. Sure, at some point, something will probably snap. Maybe it'll be a financial crisis that pops the debt bubble and ends up bankrupting entire countries as bonds get slaughtered. Maybe it'll be a war confected by the deep state and the western military industrial complex — that uber parasite on mankind — and we'll all be lying flat on our backs not knowing what hit us. This time next week/month/year we could all be dead or starving, or eating each other's brains for breakfast.

But here's my simple take on things: to give in to such depressing thoughts is to deny ourselves the ability to lives our lives in the best way that we can. Surrender to the fact that there's nothing you can do to 'fix' things, other than making yourself and your loved ones as secure as you can, and try to make the best of the hand you've been dealt. Create stuff, love people and life, try and make things a bit better for others and keep laughing at the absurdity of it all. The universe doesn't owe you a safe passage — there is no other way.





Friday, April 7, 2017

O is for Ouch!



Hello everyone, just to say that I'm not writing much at the moment as I've had a little ... accident. As you can see from the picture, my right hand is not fully functional, and given that it's my writing hand I'm forced to type with one finger on my left hand.

Yes, two weeks ago I was cutting through a steel pipe with an angle grinder when the tool caught an edge, banged against a wall and rebounded onto the back of my hand. Luckily, I was at home when it happened, which is a five minute walk away from the nearest hospital. Once there they ascertained that it was serious enough to be sent to the regional hospital, and I emerged two days later having had an operation to sew together a severed tendon and dig some fragmented disk out of the bone.

Although I've been using power tools for 25 years, this was my first experience of anything going wrong. It was a silly mistake that could have been avoided, and I've learned my lesson. I also got to learn a few things about the health system here, and got a free mini-break in a nice hospital with nice doctors and nurses. So, much humbled, I'm back home and recuperating.

Anyway, I'm pretty much handicapped for three months while it heals, which has torpedoed most of my work projects. At least I can catch up on a lot of reading - it could have been a lot worse.

***

In other news, I'm sad to report that heretical polymath and fellow peak oiler Liam Scheff passed away earlier today aged 45, having written this note. I wouldn't claim to have been a friend of Liam, having only become aware of his work six months ago, but I interacted with him quite a few times on social media and appreciated his rapier wit and sharp thinking. The tale of his demise is a sad one, but he bowed out lucid to the end and with true spirit. He was definitely one of the good guys - I've got his book Official Stories on order.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Not Sci-Fi but Pi-Fi



Right now, it seems like people's faith in the idea of endless progress is being shaken. Whether it's the UK leaving the EU, Donald Trump's ascension to the American presidential throne or simply a gnawing feeling that something 'big' has gone wrong somewhere, more and more people are expressing anxiety about the direction in which we are heading. If one wants to see proof of this phenomenon one need look no further than the mainstream media, traditionally the gatekeepers of human consciousness in terms of the day-to-day business of sorting out what is important from what is not. Even a brief glance at an online news site will show a slew of articles that are more biased opinion pieces than factual news items, and the reader comments below — if they are permitted at all — will more often than not display a remarkable level of hostility towards anyone who disagrees with them. Is it any wonder that trust in these mainstream publications has fallen to historic lows across a broad range of demographic groups, with only the over sixties still possessing much faith in them at all?

At the same time, faith in science and technology is facing a similar crisis. Casting an eye back over the last few decades, to give a couple of examples, it would seem that new inventions have been supplanted by mere innovations and 'upgrades', whilst actual space travel has been replaced by theoretical space travel (or low Earth orbit space stations). If one wants to see them there are plenty of artistic impressions of what faraway planets 'might' look like, presumably to make up for the occasional blurry pixel we are told is the actual, and the public at large is ambivalent at best about the latest discoveries made by particle physicists with research grants the size of small countries. Once again, is it any wonder why faith in science is being tested when there are so many things we were told were scientific proofs are now discredited, such as the idea that a low-fat diet makes you slimmer and that you must drink eight glasses of water and five (now increased to 10) portions of fruit and veg a day to maintain health? No, those men and women in white coats are having to fight harder and harder to win over an increasingly sceptical public.

Of course, this cannot be permitted. The reaction by the guardians of the media and the scientific technologists to this loss of faith by their subjects is to double down on their claims and amp up the rhetoric. Thus information that emerges from a non-mainstream conduit is decried as 'fake news' or 'propaganda' and science that emerges through a non-approved channel is debunked as 'pseudo science'. No quarter is given in this battle of consciousness, and no dissent is permitted.

And yet people do dissent. Finding themselves caught in an ever-tightening vice of economic policies which make them materially poorer with each passing year, and faced with an indifferent class of media-savvy personalities who insist that things are getting better all the time, they are wont to ponder whether, in the realm of hopes and dreams, they've been sold a dud. Most people, no matter where in the world they live, yearn for practically the same thing. They want peace and security, a decent low-crime area in which to raise a family where they might have a little place of their own with maybe a space to grow some food, and a few good friends with whom they can share a meal or a drink while feeling happy within their own cultural boundaries. That's basically it: a modest, happy life with peace and a degree of autonomy. Is this too much to ask?

Instead, what they get, is an increasingly degraded living situation where, if they live in a poor country, they either have to work long hours in a factory producing gadgets and other consumer items, or else they get a subsistence wage working in dangerous conditions mining minerals or producing chemically poisoned cash crops for the commodities market. And if they are fortunate enough to live in a rich country, the majority will have to work long hours in an office doing unfulfilling work to pay off the huge loans they have taken out to finance buying the gadgets made by the poor people. Here they are forced to dine in the staff canteen on chemically poisoned food from abroad while their bosses wax lyrical about replacing them all with robots made from the commodities mined by the even poorer people abroad.

Weren't we supposed to be living in Utopia by now?



And so people need some kind of new plausible vision. In the past, in the industrialised nations at least, we were offered salvation in the form of Sci-Fi fantasies about living in space and travelling around the universe meeting interesting new aliens. Now, unless the aliens come to us, these dreams appear unlikely. The dwindling of oil supplies, and the technical inability of renewables or anything else to replace it, means that the industrial basis of our civilisation has a very short shelf life. Indeed, due to the immutable and non-negotiable laws of thermodynamics, the party really will be over sooner rather than later. Mention this to most people of course and they'll airily dismiss it as an apocalyptic delusion, and that "they'll" think of something before then. But given that an ever growing groundswell of people are losing their faith in "them" — what's a narrative-driven sapient mammal with an above average sized brain to do?

That's where the PI-FI writers step forward. PI stands for Post Industrial and Fi for Fiction, because that's what is needed right now. So what's the difference between a sic-fic writer and a Pi-fi one? Well, instead of dreaming up yet another variation of the tired old trope of muscular space-heroes travelling around the galaxy in spaceships and saving virgins/peoples/planets from annihilation*, the PI-Fi writer recognises that the limits imposed on the human race by geology, thermodynamics and the biosphere mean that we're not looking to the stars for salvation, but under our own feet on the nice blue magic ball we call planet Earth.

PI-fi, it could be said, is a maturation of a form. Remember when you were a kid and you wanted to be a rock star? You played the music on volume 11 and stood in front of a mirror with a hairbrush and imagined thousands of adoring fans swooning, of lighting cigars with wads of money and seeing pictures of yourself in magazines (I know I did)? And then you get older and you realise it will never happen, and you learn to take life's tragedies and victories in your stride and you see on the news that another pop star has taken a drug overdose or died at a relatively young age and you think, "Thank God my teenage dreams never came true!" It's the same thing with fiction and all those ideas of conquering the universe and dominating other planets.

What does Pi-Fi look like? Thankfully we already have plenty of examples, probably the most well-known of which is James Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand series. John Michael Greer's After Oil: SF Visions of a Post Petroleum World burst onto the scene in late 2012, cementing the establishments of a new genre, and in the meantime we have had the launch of the quarterly magazine Into the Ruins, showcasing further talent. Another new magazine, Mythic, explores post industrial fiction, as well as more traditional Sci-Fi, and I'm sure there will be more as we move forwards and old narratives continue to disintegrate.

Obviously Pi-Fi has more constraints placed on it than Sci-Fi in terms of possible story lines — or so it would seem. But, wait a minute, doesn't true creativity flourish best when it is constrained by form and must follow agreed-upon conventions? Don't the boundaries of the field of play focus the attention of what's happening in the centre? A case in point: which piece of music sounds better to your ears, Bedřich Smetana's Vltava, with its sinuously flowing phonics that evoke a force of nature, or a piece of avant garde 'noise music' that adheres to no rules or form whatsoever? As ever, the choice between the two is subjective and depends on the listener, and admittedly the latter is evocative of a certain technological dysfunction in its experimental nature: it has its place in the auditory sound ecosystem, but which piece would you rather listen to on your deathbed?

What qualifies as Pi-Fi? At its heart, any narrative that is written with this genre in mind must be set in a post-industrial future. This is our most likely future, and therefore the one that the tool of fiction is the most powerful and useful. This raises the question, what does 'post-industrial' mean? After all, we are often told that we live in a post-industrial society, since most manufacturing moved to China. No, Pi-Fi is different. We are considering a future in which industrial civilisation is either ending or has ended. To that end the following assumptions would have to apply:

1 - Humankind's access to highly concentrated forms of energy will be severely curtailed in the near to medium term
2 - There will be a corresponding collapse in the complexity of civilisation and the population it can support
3 - The future will be haunted by the mistakes of the past, especially in the form of inappropriate technologies

Sound a bit gloomy, or merely realistic? It's been pointed out by others that we have a binary obsession with either/or visions of the future, namely that either we will head off on a grand space adventure in the stars, or else face apocalyptic annihilation at home. But there's a huge amount of ground between those two poles — ground that Pi-Fi is more than happy to occupy. Neither of the two extremes is particularly useful to us, except as a means of escapism, and what if neither of our standard assumptions takes place? What if — gulp — the human story continues for another few thousand years, with different types of technology, different ways of organising our societies and different ways of relating to our planet? True, those skeletal horsemen are certain to be busy — just as they have been throughout nearly all human history — but the folks sticking around will likely have a lot of good stories to tell about their experiences.

Can you imagine telling some of them?

If you think you could then you might be interested to hear that I'm moving forwards with a small publishing venture, with the aim of publishing a handful of Pi-Fi books every year. At present there is not much going on in this genre over on this side of the Atlantic (Europe, that is), or indeed the world outside of America — so I'm particularly interested in, but not limited to, stories taking place in the wider world. I'm going to kick this off with a call for submissions for an initial anthology of stories up to 8,000 words in length, but 2,000 at a minimum.

For this anthology, writers will need to follow these seven rules for their story:

1 - Stories must be set in the future at some point within the next 100 years

2 - The laws of physics as currently understand them must be abided by

3 - Due consideration must be given to the natural limits placed on humans, as well as the damage done to Earth's ecological systems by industrialism

4 - No deus-ex-machina technology that rescues industrial civilisation at the last moment

5 - Stories must be stories, with believable characters, plots, narrators etc., and not just thinly-disguised technical propositions, sociological commentaries or screeds

6 - Metaphysics is permitted and even encouraged as a story device so far as it relates to popularly understood concepts (metaphysics doesn't run on oil, so there's no danger of us running out)

7 - Stories must not simply be "horses and hearses" i.e. a re-hash of pre-industrial Europe, supposedly set in the future

I'm really hoping that readers will respond to this and rise to the challenge with vision, imagination and plausible realism. Unleash your mind and see what happens. I will be cross-posting this blog on a number of different social media pages, channels and groups, and the closing date for entries will be May 1st 2017 — Beltaine — which is seven weeks away. To enter, ideally publish your story on a blog site or other web page and post a link to it in the comments below this post — making sure there's a way of contacting you in the form of an email address somewhere — but if you can't do that then send it to me as an email at the address found in the 'About' section on my site. The stories must be original and they must be by you. I'll pick the winners shortly afterwards and they will share an equal proportion of 70% of the proceeds of the resultant book after the costs of production have been discounted (which is simply the price of designing a cover and printing a few review copies). The book, after I've edited, typeset and printed it, will then be available through print-on-demand and published by Belenos Press (I'm working on making a website so it's just a Facebook page at the moment) — and I'll send all the published authors a copy.

Best of luck for the challenge and I look forward to reading your stories.





* I do realise that not all Sci-Fi is so two-dimensional, although much of it has been in the past, and some of it still is — and I'm as much a fan of it as you are.