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The Great Reset? No Thanks

These are disconcerting times we are living in, and prior assumptions about the way the world works are being blasted out of the sky like so many fairground ducks. Since the virus panic took hold early in 2020, governments, corporations and their media accomplices have fallen over themselves in an attempt to force the notion on us that there will be no going back to what was considered normal in 2019. Radical change, they tell us, is on the way and we had better get used to it. There is no alternative.

Nowhere is this more clearly laid out than in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) so-called Great Reset. This radical manifesto, written by the Bond villainesque Chairman Schwab, lays out a future in which an authoritarian commissariat uses an array of high-tech systems to micromanage our everyday lives, with everything from the widespread adoption of DNA altering vaccines, universal basic incomes replacing wages, digital currencies replacing cash, and the ownership of personal property being replaced by a system of sharing and on-demand services. It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it isn’t.

Just as our work will be done by robots, neither will we need to bother thinking too much, as much of this will be performed on our behalf by computer algorithms which already know us better than we do. Leisure, learning and socialising will increasingly take place in a virtual world powered by artificial intelligence, negating the need for us to be together in the flesh.

If you want to get a glimpse into how this planned utopia will be, look no further than this fictional sci-fi piece by the Danish politician Ida Auken, which features on the WEF’s main website. In it, she envisages ‘her city’ (which, from the accompanying images, is clearly Copenhagen), where “ … we don’t pay any rent, because someone else is using our free space whenever we do not need it. My living room is used for business meetings when I am not there.

In Ida’s city, everything is free, including herself. She is free to take a bike ride in the fresh air (pollution and cars have been done away with), cook herself a nice meal using a borrowed pasta machine dropped off by a drone, and dress up in any number of outfits she chooses, which are also not hers. The only cost she has to contend with in this carefree life is the cost of her own personal autonomy and privacy, as government surveillance pervades every aspect of her life. But, hey, she’s got nothing to hide, so it’s a small price to pay in her view, as she says:

Once in awhile I get annoyed about the fact that I have no real privacy. No where I can go and not be registered. I know that, somewhere, everything I do, think and dream of is recorded. I just hope that nobody will use it against me.” Nevertheless, after this brief spell of reflection she concludes, “All in all, it is a good life. Much better than the path we were on …

It isn’t all love and light in Ida’s world, however. Sadly, she tells us she worries for the unwashed deplorables and misfits who had chosen to live outside the city in the hinterlands. With great concern, she tells us about “those we lost on the way” who – for incomprehensible reasons – “live different kind of lives outside of the city. Some have formed little self-supplying communities. Others just stayed in the empty and abandoned houses in small 19th century villages.”

I don’t know about you, but the idea of living in a ‘self-supplying’ (?) community of quaint old houses in the countryside, instead of living in a sterile rented box within a re-enacted movie set of Logan’s Run is rather appealing, and I bet the social scene is a whole lot funkier. As a matter of coincidence, I re-watched Logan’s Run (1976) recently for the first time in decades – and this time not just so I could see Jenny Agutter disrobing in an ice chamber. For those who don’t know, the story is of a future Utopian society within a vast dome where every want and need is provided for and decisions are made by a computer. The citizens are hedonists, and can pretty much do as they please, within the narrow bounds decided by the Computer.

The only downside to Logan’s synthetic world is that, to prevent overpopulation, the happy citizens get ‘recycled’ in a specially observed ceremony when they hit 30, with a crystal on their palms indicating how much time they have left. When it flashes red, it’s time to start deciding what music you want played at your recycling ceremony. Naturally, our hero Logan has a suspicion that it’s all a sham and manages to escape into the outside world which turns out to be a ruin-filled forest where once stood Washington DC. And yes, while the acting may be hammy, the interactions of the main characters a bit outmoded, and the special effects – well – special, the story strikes a deep enough chord to keep you glued to the screen. 

Logan’s Run, the bit when they find themselves in the White House wondering what the hell ‘democracy’ was

On the other hand, the first thing that strikes you about Ida Auken’s fabulous vision of the future is how unimaginative it is. She claims that it is a just a bit of harmless fun, a kind of thought experiment, but the fact that it’s being touted by the WEF is telling. Haven’t we been having this kind of green techno-utopian hallucination for several decades already? Heck, it’s 2020 and most of us don’t live in shiny, wealthy enclaves of prosperity, we instead bide our time working badly paid jobs in insalubrious towns and suburbs that are often covered in litter and graffiti and dog mess; the kinds of places where you don’t have to look too far to find gnawing poverty, mental breakdown and spiritual despair. John Michael Greer puts this succinctly in his latest post on his Ecosophia blog, titled The Great Leap Backward:

It’s not just that life in the year 2020 doesn’t feature the domed cities and space colonies it was supposed to, or in particular that it lacks the limitless material abundance that was promised so freely not so many years ago. It’s that life in the year 2020 is looking decidedly shabby even by comparison with life in the recent past.  The grand march of progress from the caves to the stars wasn’t supposed to result in a future of grubby, violent, and dysfunctional cities, entrenched rural poverty, crumbling infrastructure, failing public health, and the pervasive crapification of everyday life—and yet that’s where we are.”

Indeed. The second noteworthy thing about Auken’s fantasy is that it seems not to be much more than a tired old set of bullet points dressed up as first-person prose. This shouldn’t be surprising, I’ve done enough editing work for corporate executives in the past few years to know that the bullet point list is considered the pinnacle of artistic expression. Often it is sanctified and enshrined by the silver screen of the PowerPoint presentation, or suspended in space beside a glowing globe as a backdrop to a TEDx talk. 

There are other questions one could ask about the sci-fi 2030 Utopia envisaged by Auken, such as where do all the high-tech resources come from that enable the functioning of society? Who mines the cobalt and lithium for them? Who decides what is permissible and what is not permissible in the absence of democracy? Where does the energy come from given that every honest assessment of ‘green’ energy indicates it can only provide a small fraction of the amount we currently get from (albeit rapidly depleting) fossil fuels? Why are no positive human qualities, such as genuine empathy, integrity, courage, self-awareness and love mentioned, while mindless consumption and a craven need for unaccountable authority is? And who exactly does one protest to if one receives a letter a week before your 30thbirthday telling you to report to your local recycling centre? 

Funnily enough, I’ve encountered the mindset of the Great Resetters before when I lived in Copenhagen and worked as a newspaper editor, which I wrote about here. During the 2009 Climate Conference I spoke to the then environmental chief at the city council who told me, without any trace of irony, that if everyone on the planet lived like Copenhageners then there would be ‘no environmental problems’. And yet, when I looked around, Copenhagen was like any other rich world city: filled with cars, covered in concrete, and with a level of consumption and material privilege that was one of the highest anywhere in the world. The level of disconnect was clear. 

Are these really the geniuses we are up against? Most senior members of the WEF, such as Chairman Schwab, are just that: seniors. Nearing the ends of their lives and having lived for so long in a luxurious bubble, these doddering has-beens are little more than corporate aristocrats, surrounded by sycophants, yes men and private security details. Could it be that these geriatric dreamers, facing corporeal collapse, are merely projecting their desperate narrative of control onto the world at large? They push out fresh faced and naive politicians like Ida Auken to be their spokespeople, confidant that their message will be lapped up. The young and/or impressionable, who stripped of their own indigenous cultural narratives or befuddled by the techno smog of war, then blast out these scripted solutions via their Twitter accounts and through opinion pieces in their captured media platforms as if it were the Word of God. 

Unable to see people as anything more than unimportant meat robots who can be pushed around, organised, injected, and got rid of at will, the wannabe masters of the universe have become blind to the idea that those outside their bubble might have the basic intelligence to see that their Great Reset won’t actually be all that great for them. In fact, if they want to know what the unintended consequences of their revolutionary wet dream might look like, they should just ask a Cambodian older than 45, or anyone who has read up on the Russian revolution or Mao’s Great Leap Forward. When it comes to the odds of the Great Reset succeeding, history is firmly against them.

But, in the absence of a knowledge of history, these senile elites should perhaps be careful about the forces they unleash as they circle the plughole of their own irrelevance, for as Yeats warned in his poem The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

And yet, there are plenty of other ways to live in the world other than as a lab rat in a technocratic experiment brought into reality by the fevered minds of a senile elite. The challenge is to create a totally different narrative that is at odds with the one being forced upon us, a kind of parallel society that allows for the ongoing development of our potential. What this might look like is anyone’s guess at this stage, but imagination is boundless, as is creativity, and the less centrally controlled it is, the more likely will be its success. In fact, the more alternative realities that are created, the more chance there is that one of them will be useful to the human project. Ecology loves diversity.

So, no, I don’t think I’d like to be part of the Great Reset thanks very much, and neither should you.

Sensemaking Beyond the Robot

A couple of new expressions entered my lexicon this week after I watched some videos by Daniel Schmachtenberger on the site Rebel Wisdom. Schmactenberger’s (let’s just call him Daniel) series of films that come under the title The War on Sensemaking, should be essential viewing for anyone who wants to make sense of why everyone either seems so certain of their views these days, or otherwise are completely bamboozled by events. 

Daniel possesses a very rare combination of qualities: a deeply thoughtful and analytical mind combined unfettered by ideology, combined with the ability to patiently explain his insights to a wide audience. Usually, people with this depth of analytical capability work in think tanks for corporations or governments and can expect to be remunerated according to their worth i.e. megabucks. Daniel’s area of expertise is what might be called the ‘information ecosystem’ – the multi-directional system of information distribution that we all rely on to make sense of the world around us – and how it has been hijacked by those who seek to control our thought processes. 

I won’t go in any great depth into what he thinks, and what his methodologies are – I recommend you watch the series of videos for that (links at the bottom). Instead, it’s probably enough to say that he considers the combined power of big tech corporations, using AI (artificial intelligence) and social media, are waging a war against us for our minds. If you use the internet, and in particular social media, there will be algorithms that probably know you better than you yourself do. These algorithms are being weaponised against us, displaying news that is designed to rile us up, targeting us with ads and predicting (with increasingly uncanny accuracy) what our next move will be.

One of the tools being used in this battle is the technique of ‘limbic hijacking’. This is a technique that is used to get your emotional centre to react before your logical mind can get to it. Of course, this has been used as a propaganda tool going back a long way, but never before has it been so easy to use it in such a targeted manner. The technique was first used in a modern way in America at the onset of the First World War. Psychologists on Madison Avenue used the services of Edward Bernays – nephew of Sigmund Freud – to make sure the average American felt sufficiently hostile towards Germans that they would enter into a world war (and thus secure Wall Street investments). 

The only problem was that Germans were well-liked in the US, and were considered model immigrants. All that changed when cleverly designed cartoons of a German soldiers bayoneting Belgian babies began to circulate (a trick borrowed from the British, who drew cartoons of Irish soldiers bayoneting babies during the Rebellion of 1641). Within months, the average American was willing to go to war with Germany. 

Techniques such as this are target the processes of the human brain. The way it works is that the ability of the rational brain to perform a careful and logical analysis of any new information it is presented with is ‘hijacked’ by a flood of emotional stimulus, usually in the form of fear. The amygdala part of the brain, which is sometimes called the ‘irrational mind’, is evolutionarily hard wired to act fast when it perceives a threat so as to preserve the organism in the face of extreme danger. If it wasn’t for this crucial function, neither you nor I would be sitting here as our ancestors would have been pulled apart by cave bears. But in the case of propaganda, the threat isn’t a predator lurking in a bush, it’s in the form of an emotive trigger that causes something called the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis to forcefully grab the controls from the neocortex (the ‘rational mind’). The fact that this only takes milliseconds to achieve is ideally suited to digital computers, which also work in milliseconds. One could almost say that we are being programmed, like robots. 

If you are motivated by a hunger for power, profits and control, and if you are able to get people to think in a way that maximises your advantage in the world, it stands to reason that you will do so given half a chance. Furthermore, should you have access to an almost limitless supply of money through various central bank money printing exercises and company valuation scams, and you possess the network and infrastructure to implement your plan, well, there’s nothing really standing in your way. 

This type of ‘narrative warfare’ can be thought of as an asymmetrical battle for our minds, and the side with the biggest narrative weapons are the ones with the most money, or which owns the means of information dispersal (i.e. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter), comes out on top. Not only will you be able to get some people to think exactly what you want them to think by exploiting and amplifying their innate biases until they become weaponised, you’ll be able to get people wasting time and energy fighting one another on social media platforms and news site comments sections, and perhaps even fighting in the streets if that helps further your aims. 

As a digital general in the narrative war, the possibilities are endless with your new robot army. By using the fear trigger, as well as other traditional tools of propaganda, you can get your targets to think and do just as you please. What’s more, most of the combatants don’t even realise they are in a warzone and will call out anyone who says so as a ‘conspiracy nut’. A key tactic they use is to create a narrative smog in which many different versions of reality are available, and it becomes almost impossible to parse the truth in any particular situation. This state of confusion disorients people in the information jungle, making it easy to lead them into traps. The method works particularly well for threats that can’t be independently verified by people because they are invisible: it works equally well for invisible gases, invisible germs and invisible ideologies. 

Observers with memories longer than goldfish will recall one of the first instances of a viral internet based operation in 2012 when a California based organisation used internet technology to create a huge panic over an obscure Ugandan warlord called Joseph Kony. Like every other warlord in Africa, Kony – if he even existed – used child soldiers, and this was the liminal hijacking trigger that enabled the campaign to be so successful in ‘raising awareness’. The sheer level of frenzied we-have-to-do-somethingness led to it being debated in the UK parliament and made headlines around the world. I recall a not inconsiderate number of my social media connections urging me to sign petitions and demand action against the evil Kony. And then, all of a sudden, Kony vanished from the internet and became a non-issue. 

Since the success of ‘Kony 2012’ numerous other highly emotive flash-in-the-pan internet campaigns have rolled out, enabling the narrative engineers to hone their skills. A whole host of nefarious astroturf organisations have been launched off the back of these campaigns, financed and controlled by, well, whoever has enough money and resources to finance and control them. This is impressive, however they have not yet perfected their dark art. 

For example, the UK government recently scored an own goal in this respect when it put out a digital poster urging young people involved in the arts and creative endeavours to give up on their dreams and get office jobs. The poster featured a ballerina named ‘Fatima’ with the line “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet).” While the government might have hoped its condescending message to the proles would be gladly received, most people interpreted it as: abandon all sense of your innate individuality and conform to our soulless machine (or else). Thankfully, the backlash against the poster was so intense, and the memes so cutting, the government was forced to admit it was an ‘error’, thus allowing many more people to see it for what it really was: a crude attempt at manipulation. Presumably, some mid-ranking narrative control flak is now wondering what their next career will be in.

Someone who spent a lifetime developing a practical theory about breaking free from the mind’s tendency to act in an automatic manner was a young English writer from a working-class background, whose first book took the world by storm. Colin Wilson was born and grew up in the English Midlands city of Leicester and moved to London as a young man. As a teenager he found himself working long days in various factories and came to the conclusion that life was so flat, dull and unendurable that it was not even worth living. He had taken to heart T.S. Eliot’s poems The Waste Land and Hollow Men and took the logical decision to opt out of life before it got any more brutal, or, as he put it “give God back his entrance ticket.”

The resolve to kill himself wasn’t a snap decision. Wilson had managed to leave his factory job and get a position in a laboratory, which due to a passion for science appealed to him greatly. But even that proved to be a disappointment, and soon he found himself losing interest in science as well. He escaped into reading literature and found that if he put pen to paper and wrote about his own life it somehow distanced himself from it and provided a greater perspective. Nevertheless, the heavy sense of gloom and meaningless wouldn’t go away, and so he decided to poison himself with hydrocyanic acid. The acid, he knew, would kill him in around 30 seconds, and so he raised the bottle to his lips and prepared to exit his seemingly meaningless existence on Earth. As he did so, a curious thing happened: he split into two Colin Wilsons. One of these Colins appeared to be a teenage idiot with a bottle in his hand, while the other one, standing beside him, was saying “Kill him and you kill me as well – think of how much you’d be losing!” He put the bottle down in shock.

As Wilson writes in his autobiography Dreaming to Some Purpose, “and in that moment I glimpsed the marvellous, immense richness of reality, extending to the distant horizons.” The accompanying feeling of release lasted for several days and set him on a course to write around 150 books over the course of his lifetime, many of which were devoted to understanding how to unlock these experiences at will and set the mind free from its limitations.

Despite his enlightening experience and his new resolve to become an important writer, Wilson remained financially poor. What’s more, he found he had to work continuously in hard jobs just to be able to pay his rent and bills, and this was so exhausting he rarely had the time or energy to write. This was very frustrating to him, as he felt his higher purpose was being held back by mindless work and demanding landladies. Then he hit upon an idea: he would become voluntarily homeless, meaning there would be no rent to pay. And so he got a sleeping bag, told his landlady where to stick it, and went to live like a tramp on Hampstead Heath in north London. He would spend each day writing up his book manuscript in the reading room at the British Museum and then bed down for the night on the Heath in his sleeping bag. 

In this unconventional way he managed to finish The Outsider, a study of alienation and genius told through the stories of key thinkers such as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Gurdjieff, Hesse and Van Gogh. Wilson’s outsiders were all loners who laboured away on the difficult question of what it meant to be truly alive in a Western culture that had lost its sense of wonder. They worked largely in isolation and often without appreciation. 

The book was an instant success, catapulting the penniless 24-year-old into the limelight. Fame and fortune followed as interest grew in the young philosopher and what would be termed his ‘new existentialism’. Unfortunately for Wilson, as an outsider himself, he fell prey to the British gutter press and its incessant attempt to ‘bring down’ anyone whom they considered to have got above the station. He was categorised as an ‘Angry Young Man’ (a group of working-class writers that included Kingsley Amis and John Osborne) and after a few short years in the media’s spotlight he was hounded out of London, thus waving the respectable but fickle literary scene goodbye. Using some of the money from the phenomenal success of The Outsider, he settled with his wife Joy in a cottage in Cornwall, where he lived out the rest of his life.

One of the main contentions that Wilson made in his numerous books was that most people are ruled by an inner ‘robot’. Here, he is referring to the part of the psyche that performs tasks for us in an automatic manner, meaning we don’t have to think about them. An example would be when we are learning to drive a car; at first it is tricky because we have to consciously think about where to put the gearstick or which pedal to press, but then when we become more proficient we don’t have to think about it at all and it becomes second nature. Wilson realised that this ‘inner robot’, whilst useful, also stopped people living meaningful lives if it was given free rein. In fact, there was a danger it would take over our whole lives, leaving us on a kind of permanent autopilot as we drift through life. Because of this, steps were needed to ‘deprogram’ ourselves from relying on the services of our robot all the time. But how?

Based on his own first-hand knowledge, Wilson began to focus on so-called ‘peak experiences’ as a tool for disengaging our autopilot. Theis was a term coined by his friend the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, characterised as experiences where one temporarily goes beyond the normal range of perceptions and sees the world ‘as it is’ – rather than how we are ‘supposed’ to see it – something Wilson had experienced himself when he was about to kill himself. Other writers had reported similar things, including the Russian dissident Fyodor Dostoevsky as he was standing before a firing squad, and English novelist Graham Greene, who used to play Russian roulette in his shed whenever he needed a ‘jolt’ to make him feel alive again.

The key to inducing a powerful peak experience, Wilson surmised, was a sudden threat to one’s comfortable existence. At these moments it is almost as if one splits into two personalities, as he had done, and you are able to see yourself from the outside in the context of the wider world. Such experiences can, of course, be brought on by hallucinogenic drugs, and this is what the Romantic poets had attempted. But this seemed to Wilson to be an unsustainable method as the practitioners had to rely on an external stimulus, and in any case they usually ended up dead before they got old. Instead, Wilson decided to develop methods of attaining peak experiences simply by using the power of the mind, and wondered whether it was possible to induce them more or less continually enabling us to live in a kind of permanent state of nirvana. Even if this were not attainable, one could at least dispel chronic depression and feelings of nihilistic hopelessness if one learned how to, he felt. This search turned out to be the central thrust of his life’s work.

Most of us have had peak experiences, to some extent. Once you have had one, you’re changed permanently, and it becomes possible to spur new experiences simply by recalling past ones. I remember having my first one on a beach in Australia in 1995. I had just recovered from a serious tropical illness which had caused me to lose a third of my bodyweight. I had lain alone in bed for several weeks in a cheap and dirty hotel room in Malaysia. As I lay there, convinced I was going to die, I even wrote self-pitying letters to several people along the lines of ‘this is the last you’ll hear from me’. Luckily, I was rescued by a heavily pregnant Australian woman who busted into my room and sorted me out with a plane ticket to her country so that I could recover. I spent the next month recuperating in Perth and had recovered back to full strength when I took a Greyhound bus to the small town of Exmouth in the northern part of Western Australia. 

One evening at sunset, soon after I arrived, I went jogging on the long, sandy and all-but deserted beach. As I paused for breath a surreal scene unfolded before my eyes. By the water’s edge stood a lone Scotsman in full kilted regalia. He was playing a mournful lament on his bagpipes, as if to the sea. I stood there transfixed. The sun touched the horizon as it sank into the Indian Ocean, and the expanse of land and air around me was bathed in a soft yellow light. At the same moment several kangaroos bounded towards me, including a couple of young ones, and – perhaps the oddest part – a small spotty looking shark unaccountably wriggled out of the water onto the wet sand and began to flap around as if it wanted to play a game. As I took in this bizarre scene unfolding around me, I had the sudden sense of everything being connected in the whole cosmos. All the hardship and stress I’d endured over the previous couple of months instantly vanished and it felt almost as if the universe, through the medium of nature, was saying ‘Welcome Back!’.

This incredibly strange experience probably only lasted a few seconds, but just thinking about it now – a quarter of a century later – brings back a faint echo of the feelings I experienced at the time. I feel somehow expanded and there’s a warm feeling that everything is right with the cosmos, despite the day-to-day worries of life. Since then I’ve had several more peak experiences, one of which I detailed in my book The Path to Odin’s Lake.

Colin Wilson described several more peak experiences of his own, some of them seemingly very mundane to the outside observer. One occurred while he was travelling on a train during a wet and gloomy day in southern England, his head full of worries about deadlines and other niggling anxieties. He had a bit of a hangover and hadn’t slept well. Suddenly, and without warning, the world lit up with some kind of invisible radiant light and he was flooded with a feeling of everything being in balance. It felt like a kind of cosmic message of reassurance, he noted, proclaiming “all is well”. He later went on to note, at these times everything is exposed for what it really is: the inner robot shuts down and you become ‘fully awake’. If we are fully awake it becomes harder for propagandists and narrative controllers to gain a purchase on our minds. 

It’s because of clues like that that I feel that Wilson’s writings have a lot more to offer us as we struggle to find new meaning in turbulent times. His fictional book The Mind Parasites is a story of psychic entities attaching themselves to the human inner consciousness, sowing chaos in the world as they take control. It is probably more relevant today than it was when he wrote it in 1967. The ‘mind parasites’ cannot be fought with conventional weapons; instead, new ways of expunging them need to be developed. Could the power of peak experience make us more resilient against the propagandists, manipulators and deceivers of this world? It’s an idea worth pursuing.

If you’re interested in knowing more about Colin Wilson’s life and philosophy, I can highly recommend Gary Lachman’s book Beyond the Robot.

Daniel Schmachtenberger’s video series The War on Sensemaking can be seen here

And lastly, a film is currently in the works about Colin Wilson’s life and work. If you’d like to support it you can do so here. Here’s a short clip.  

The Mystic and the Missing Key

A lot of people today will tell you that humanity in general reached its apex some time ago and is now coasting towards some equivalent of a cosmic compost heap. If they’re being particularly harsh, they might even say that we deserve it, citing all the damage we have done to the biosphere and our seeming inability to break away from bad habits such as war, mass murder and ecocide. Kids are effectively taught this in schools these days, and you only need to turn to your social media site of choice these days to see this view being repeated.

And while there may be a lot of validity in it, what if it was only true from a certain perspective, and that whatever seemingly suicidal traits our species has developed could be overcome?

Those who consider themselves open minded from a spiritual point of view, point out that we are in the process of moving from one zodiacal Age into another. That is we are going from the Piscean Age into the Age of Aquarius (an Age usually lasting between 2,000 – 2,600 years). This is measured in the time it takes the vernal equinox on our planet to move from one zodiacal constellation to the next, although due to different ways of calculating it there is some disagreement about whether we are in the Aquarian Age yet, or whether it will happen in a few years. Astrologers say this Age will be characterised by humanity shaking off its unthinking ‘sheeplike’ ways and taking control of its own destiny again. Whether one chooses to believe in this as a literal truth or more as a metaphor, one can hardly deny that we are going through some sort of rapid transformation from one way of seeing the world to another.

If this were to be taken as a literal truth, what might such a transformation look like? Would it be a hard-fought battle, accompanied by great wars and upheavals, or would we all simply wake up one day and experience epiphany over our cornflakes? Going from past evidence, it would seem that the latter is more probable. If we look at the laws of nature, we don’t see any sudden transformations taking place overnight, especially something that could be considered an evolutionary jump (in consciousness, not physicality), so it seems like any transformation would be gradual and presenting in only a portion of the population at any one time.

Someone who had a great deal to say about the potential of humankind was an oddball mystic who wrote and taught about this topic over a century ago. Looking like something between a stage magician and a Turkish carpet seller (in fact, he was both), George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was a man who almost defied classification. So slippery was he to pin down in terms of concrete facts that we are not even sure when he was born – it was either 1866 or 1872. Even his nationality is unclear. He was likely Armenian, and possessing Greek heritage, although for the most part he lived in Russia and France, spoke several languages and was particularly fond of Persian poetry and dancing. With his bald head, his handlebar moustache and his piercing eyes, his was not a face that people soon forgot. 

Not an awful lot is known about Gurdjieff’s early life, although he did later write a book in which he detailed numerous travels to the East seeking out ancient religions and lost knowledge, in particular the Sufis. By the time he was in his thirties he travelled and lectured widely on the subject of ‘becoming human’. Because Gurdjieff, you see, claimed that only very few people are ‘truly human’, while the vast majority are simply flesh robots. By this, he meant that only a few truly possess free will and are in control of themselves, while all the rest are subject to great waves of external influence that they aren’t even aware of, like corks bobbing around on the surface of the sea. What’s more, they live their entire lives in a state of sleep, unaware of the outside forces that manipulate and control them. Gurdjieff maintained that it was eminently possible for people to ‘wake up’, but to do so involved a lot of hard work and the majority would rather exist in a state of ignorant bliss. This message, unsurprisingly, was a turnoff to most.

As a matter of fact, his teachings were hardly popular even at the start of the 20th century, although he did have a number of loyal followers who attended his talks and tried to use his methods of ‘waking up’. One of them was a Russian journalist called Pyotr D. Ouspensky, and we can be thankful to him for setting down in writing many of Gurdjieff’s most challenging ideas. Gurdjieff himself originally did not approve of his ideas being written down for a common readership, and it was only in later life and had almost died in a car crash when he decided to do so. 

This led him to write the strange sci-fiesque epic Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, which stretches to over 1,200 pages and has its own lexicon. The story concerns an alien called Beelzebub aboard a spaceship heading to his home planet and recounting tales of ‘strange three-brained aliens’ (humans) to his wide-eyed grandson. Gurdjieff went out of his way to make the prose challenging so that only those possessed with super endurance could finish – or even understand – it. Some sentences stretch to half a page and have so many meandering subclauses that by the end of the sentence you’ve almost forgotten what the original point was. 

The reason Gurdjieff made his work so inaccessible and difficult was because he believed only those who truly hungered with all their being to develop themselves to their true potential deserved to be given access to the methods involved for achieving it. Just as we hear stories of street urchins in the slums of Nairobi studying schoolbooks under streetlights because of a burning ambition to escape poverty, Gurdjieff only wanted to teach those with a similar drive to escape an automatic and reflexive life. 

But what did he mean by an automatic life? Ouspensky got a flash of insight into what he meant when, in the build-up to the First World War, he saw a number of trucks pass in the street piled high with wooden limbs for wounded soldiers. The fighting had not yet started, and the future amputees still had their limbs, but governments and society as a whole were marching towards mass carnage like moths drawn to a flame. There was something zombie-like in their conviction that war was the only solution, even if hardly anybody could convincingly say why they thought such a war was necessary. Nothing could be done to shake the mass of people out of this lethal sleepwalk that would end up with 20 million dead.

Bodies of fallen soldiers in WW1

Having studied Eastern religious practices, Gurdjieff noted that there were three traditional ways of breaking free from this hypnotic state, and thus attaining true free will. He broke them down as follows: the way of the fakir i.e. using feats of strength and endurance to overcome of the physical limitations of the body; the way of the monk i.e. using feats of prayer and fasting etc. to break free of limiting emotional bondage; and finally, the way of the yogi i.e. using meditation and altered states of consciousness to overcome mental limitations.

While all three methods had their uses, each was limited by what it didn’t pursue, Gurdjieff thought. So, in fact, you ended up with Indian strongmen who could sleep on beds of nails and lift huge rocks above their heads but were mentally feeble, or else you had highly spiritual gurus who could meditate for days at a time but couldn’t open a jar of pickles. This, he thought, was both impractical and unnecessary. Awakened people should not be so unbalanced, he reasoned, and a more practical method was needed to assemble the various parts of the human being into an integrated whole.  

As a result, Gurdjieff taught a method he called the ‘Fourth Way’. This was a set of techniques for breaking free from the bonds of limited consciousness that relied on a balance of mental, physical and emotional techniques, and it could be practiced by anyone with the will to do so.  His courses were notoriously difficult, with students made to do all manner of demanding physical feats under an atmosphere of rigid discipline. Sometimes they would be made to fast for days on end, or march on the spot for hours, or chop wood and dig holes. Occasionally Gurdjieff would shout ‘stop!’ and everyone had to remain immobile and in a state of intense contemplation until he said ‘go’ again – no matter what they were doing. One man was holding a hot cup at the time and badly scalded his hand, but no movement was be allowed except for breathing. 

The demands placed on them lasted from dawn to dusk, and when someone once compared the experience to a army boot camp Gurdjieff replied that, no, his was far more difficult because the boot camp involved repeating difficult tasks over and over, while with his you never knew what you were going to be made to do from one moment to the next.

The effect on his students was to break them down mentally and physically until they reached a point where the possibilities opened up for them to be deconditioned from all the ‘bad’ habits they had picked up since infancy. A key idea was that humans had two separate parts: the ‘personality’ and the ‘essence’. The essence was your inner ‘true’ self, while the personality was the rickety egoic structure you had built up for yourself since childhood. 

What’s more, the latter was composed of many ‘I’s. It’s a natural assumption that there is only one ‘I’ inside you, but Gurdjieff said there were many, all competing for control of the real you. For example, the ‘I’ that so effusively and enthusiastically embarks on a weight loss diet is not the same ‘I’ who craves a bar of chocolate – and it’s usually the latter ‘I’ that wins the battle, much to our frustration. Gurdjieff’s methods were designed to rein in the various lesser ‘I’s and focus on building up one true ‘I’. This was the only way of hoping to achieve true will, he said. 

A major part of his teachings had to do with self-observation, and something he called ‘self-remembering’. Self-observation is the act of watching yourself from moment to moment, noting how the various ‘I’s are acting upon you. This practice has gained in popularity in recent years with the rise of mindfulness, but Gurdjieff’s methods went further and deeper and involved techniques such as transferring your consciousness to different parts of the body, or even outside the body altogether.  

Related to this is the concept of self-remembrance. Gurdjieff claimed that most of us couldn’t ‘remember ourselves’ from one moment to the next. He used the example of feelings of extreme pain or extreme ecstasy – try as we might, we cannot truly remember how they felt once the sensation was over. The only way to develop a true free will was to develop the ability to self-remember and to observe the inner workings of our being from one moment to the next, not just from your own point of view, but in an objective sense as well. This, he claimed, was a crucial step in overcoming outside forces.

But what, you might ask, does all this have to do with living in the 21st century and dealing with all the fallout from the cultural, political and economic chaos that’s heating up around us? What relevance could a strange Greek/Armenian mystic from a previous era possibly have for us today in this hi-tech era of smartphones and nanotechnology? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. The foundations laid down by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (who went on to teach the ‘Fourth Way’ across the world) laid the ground for a new set of thinkers and writers who asked themselves ‘what is the point of being alive?’ and ‘how can we use the power of our minds to improve our lot in life?’. Could considering such basic but vital questions hold the missing key that will enable us to proceed in this new era?

Those questions seem just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago, if not more so. After all, so many appear right now to be in unquestioning thrall to politicians and the media that it may now be more urgent than ever. Fundamentally, perhaps we can’t hope to change things for the better unless we are willing to overthrow outdated modes of thinking and improve ourselves first, and to do that we have to stop being so easily manipulated by external forces who are so easily able to keep the mass of humanity in a state of perpetual fear. I’ll be talking about one such writer who rose to this challenge next week. 

An Unknown World

Perhaps my psychic defences were worn down a little by the almost incessant barrage of fear coming out of the popular media. Or maybe it was the result of the aforementioned leg injury, which ended up turning septic before a match-sized thorn was eventually noticed and extracted. Or maybe it was Mars being retrograde, or the lousy weather at the moment or … well whatever it was, I’ve been feeling a bit worn down and jaded this past week. 

In the UK, we now seem to have a government that rules by diktat, with edicts about wearing facemasks or ‘social distancing’ rules being enthusiastically enforced by a police force that is supposed to enforce laws ratified in Parliament. These same police most recently put a stop to a peaceful rally in Trafalgar Square being held by those who don’t consent to the power grab. In the process they arrested a German doctor who was about to give a speech, and punched an old woman in the stomach. Habeas corpus, the lawful recourse of people who feel they have been wrongfully imprisoned is now openly flouted.

Things certainly felt gloomy for a little while there until I picked up a book poking out of my shelf that suddenly seemed to catch my eye. The book in question was Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun – a memoir of the late Polish journalist’s years of living in Africa and reporting from some of the most blighted places in the world.  I’d bought it at Nairobi Airport on a trip to Kenya a few years ago, and it had been sitting there unread ever since. Pretty soon I found myself engrossed in Kapuscinski’s (RK for short) account of post-civil war Liberia.

“We drove through the streets of Monrovia. On both sides jutted forth the black, charred stumps of burned demolished houses. Not much remains here of such destroyed buildings because everything – bricks tin and surviving beams included – will be instantly dismantled and plundered. There are tens of thousands of people in the city who have fled the bush, have no roof over their heads, and just waiting for a bomb or a grenade to strike a house. When it does they descend upon it at once. With the materials they are able to carry away they will erect a hut, a shack or simply a roof to protect them from the sun and the rain. The city which was probably built initially of simple low buildings is now cluttered with these haphazardly not together structures and looks even more stunted having assumed the appearance of something makeshift, impermanent, recalling more than anything an encampment of nomads.” 

There follows an account of the history behind why Liberia got into this state. He writes in a similar way in the same book about the genocide in Rwanda, the chaos of Zimbabwe, the dictator Idi Amin and the conflicts over diamonds in Angola. His stories are full of thugs, warlords, child soldiers, sleazy gem dealers, roadblock bullies, torturers and villains. The most common item to appear on the pages is the AK-47 assault rifle, but – amazingly – RK is never morbid or exaggerating. If anything, through all the tragedy (and some less-than tragic tales, it must be said) the thing that shines through the most is the amazing resilience of the people who have to live through all this trauma and yet still, somehow, keep smiling.

All of a sudden, my concerns seemed rather petty. Embarrassing even. The heavy mood lifted, and I felt an upwelling of gratitude. It was a reminder to me that there’s a whole world out there, a world where people think differently, act differently and where the values they hold might be incomprehensible unless you take the time to understand where they’re coming from. And it’s through writers like RK that we get to see glimpses of that world and broaden our own outlook. 

Anyway, because I had a lot of other work on this week I didn’t have much time to write a longer blog piece, so I’m going to share with you a few pages of my diary from when I was backpacking around Laos, in southeast Asia, at the turn of the century. We’d been staying in a small remote village for a couple of weeks among people who were only just being exposed to the consumer culture. If nothing else, I hope it acts as a reminder that there’s a whole different world out there. 

This particular entry recalls the time when me and a couple of friends found ourselves in need of an exorcism.  

***

That time I underwent an exorcism in rural Laos. 

January 30, 2001

We spent a further week in the little riverside village of Muang Ngoi and got to know many people there, if only by sight. Mamma (the old lady whose house we were staying in – her real name was unpronounceable, we were told) and Auhern continued to look after us although Auhern had to go away to Vientiane to visit a nephew who had had a serious motorbike accident and who may or may not have lost a leg.

Days would be spent sitting on a pleasant sandy beach beside the clear flowing river. Swimming in the river provided a great opportunity to exercise and get clean at the same time. Normally there were plenty of children playing or working down on the beach and we got to know a few of them. 

This being the dry season, the river level was low and vegetable gardens had been planted on the sandy slopes of the bank. In these gardens were technicolor lettuces, tomatoes, sweet peas and a host of other more exotic edibles. I offered to lend a hand to a family with the watering of their garden. The two young girls, Aun and Olid, thought this was very funny. Who’d have thought that a falang could do something useful? But watering the garden simply involved filling up a pewter watering can in the river and climbing the bank to the garden where the pure water could be administered to the dry sand. In this way I became known to Aun and Olid as ‘nam falang’ (‘water foreigner’).

The market came and went. This was a twice monthly event and one that was much anticipated by the villagers. The traders, a mix of different ethnicities, came the day before in a multitude of vessels and set up stalls in the market area at the centre of the village – some of the stalls being made of old bomb casings the Americans had dropped on them. We had excitedly been told that the market sold ‘everything’. We later realised that the average Muang Ngoian concept of ‘everything’ innocently stretched not much further than tools, pans, clothes and string. 

On market day a buffalo was slaughtered and the residents filed back from the execution spot with plastic bags of flesh, gibbets and blood. It took two strong women to carry the head along the street on a pole. The eyes of the dead beast looked placid, philosophical even. Later on two other women struggled along with the poor beast’s heavy skin, which looked like a saggy pantomime costume complete with legs and udders. All the villagers ate buffalo that day, including us. We were invited to sit around with Mamma and Auhern, dipping balls of sticky rice into soup and munching the flesh wrapped up with raw chilli in lettuce leaves.

And we were invited to another village wedding. It seemed that having foreigners present was auspicious, and we were glad to join in. The festivities were lasting a full week and as such an unscheduled holiday at the village school had been called. 

Michelle, Jon, Paula and I went along to the festivities, which were taking place under a bamboo framed tent over the road from Mamma’s house. A young village couple were getting married and, predictably enough, lau-lau (home distilled rice spirit) was being liberally proffered. It wasn’t long before I found myself solemnly dancing around in a circle – as was customary – with the various embarrassed-looking female villagers. Alas, the nature of too much lau-lau consumption is quite self-destructive and I eventually stumbled out of a villager’s hut sometime in the middle of the night, not remembering that it was on stilts off the ground. I was lucky not to break a leg. 

Although I didn’t hear it at the time, the lau-lau had had a similarly bad effect on Jon and Paula and they found themselves simultaneously throwing up out of their window into the darkened street. This made quite a racket, and later on one of the villagers said he thought they were a pair of buffaloes that needed milking. 

The next morning I wasn’t allowed to indulge in a hangover. Even before breakfast we were dragged back to the wedding festivities, which were continuing apace, to drink more lau-lau

The pace inside the hut was frenetic and I found myself surrounded by manically grinning men who were holding clear bottles and pewter cups and repeating a word that could only mean one thing: drink! They’d been up all night and one could only guess how much lau-lau they’d consumed. After a few cups of this someone decided I should eat something and I was spoon-fed some cold, greasy fried eggs and a lump of buffalo fat with the hairs still on one side. As it went down, I realised the friendly young buffalo who’d been tied outside the hut the day before – the one I’d been stroking and feeding cabbage leaves – was no longer there. 

This was too much for me and it was a good job that Jon suddenly appeared and took me away from the crowd before I began retching. I spent the rest of the day on the beach being looked after by the others and acting as bait for the sand flies. Later in the day Mamma came to see me and gave me stern look. Deciding that I was in need of help she performed a blessing, which involved tying bits of string around my wrists and tutting at me in Laotian (she didn’t speak a word of English, so it’s amazing how well we all got along with her).

The next day, despite my bracelets, I felt truly awful. What’s more, I was covered in sand fly bites and the itchiness was intense. I flinched away from the male villagers, worried that they may have more lau-lau hidden on them somewhere. Finally, the wedding celebrations had paused. 

Unfortunately for all concerned this is when someone mentioned showing Mamma the horoscopes that we had found written on little scraps of paper in the Pak Ou caves. Michelle was first. 

Mamma read it, cooing all the time and emitting high pitched squeals of delight. By the end of it Mamma’s face was aglow with delight. Clearly she had a good horoscope. American Mitch, with his various dictionaries, managed to translate some of it which had something to do with Michelle’s ‘voice rising vertically’, a quality which is considered to be very auspicious in Laos.

Jon was next. Mamma read his scrap of paper and her brow furrowed ever deeper with each line she read. She sucked air in between her teeth, like a plumber about to give you a quote, and shook her head sadly. By the time she reached the end there was no question about it: Jon was doomed.

Paula and I came last. By coincidence we had similar horoscopes and the results, as interpreted by Mamma, did not bode well either. Again there was much shaking of the head and little sharp inhalations as though she were being jabbed by pins as she read. Mamma began to look truly worried about us. Suddenly it wasn’t really much fun anymore. The news of our bad omens seemed to spread and before long I sensed that people were keeping away from us like we had some sort of contagious illness. One woman, having learned about my horoscope, came and looked me deep in the eyes (keeping her distance from me at the same time) as though I were about to be hung. Later on that day, on the beach, some children came up to Jon and pointed at his throat making slitting actions and laughing. We really didn’t need all that.

Mamma’s jolliness disappeared and she became offish towards us. We would have to be blessed by priests, she indicated, otherwise our fate was sealed. That night someone stood outside our window until dawn and I could hear mutterings and the sound of pouring water. In the odd scraps of sleep I managed, I had horrific nightmares and woke up yelling and shaking with fear. An irrational part of me thought some of the village men might take it upon themselves to get rid of whatever demons they thought we had brought into the village. Given the earlier throat-slitting warning Jon had received, I spent most of the night in a cold sweat, ready to escape out of the window the moment our door opened. Paula, in the next room, said she experienced the same fear and had not managed a wink of sleep.

Early in the grey dawn I went downstairs and discovered Mamma’s diminutive figure crouched over an oil candle and surrounded by burning incense. She was putting biscuits into little plastic bags and sealing them with the flame. She did not seem to be in a very good mood. I asked her about my exorcism and she sternly told me to come to the temple with her. I went upstairs and roused Jon and Paula. They too had to be exorcised.

They came downstairs and we solemnly waited for Mamma to finish her preparations. We had been wrong. She had not wanted us to go to the temple but to give alms to the monks on their daily rounds. Suddenly, along the damp earth road outside the hut, a procession of young monks being led by an orange robed elder appeared. I recognised one or two of the young novices who’d been pestering us for cigarettes. Mamma shoved pewter offering dishes into our hands, ordered me to kick off my sandals and hustled us out to the street. Jon and I had biscuits, while Paula and Mamma had sticky rice. We crouched barefoot on the road and placed the food into the monks’ bowls as they filed past. Mamma said something to the elder and the procession halted. 

On an order from Mamma we got down on our knees in supplication and, with the bowls on the floor and our hands pressed together as in prayer, incantations were made over us. The whole village, so it seemed, had come out to witness this spectacle. After a few long minutes the incantations ceased and the monks moved off to receive alms from more of the villagers. But it wasn’t over yet. Mamma rushed into the house and came out with some bowls of holy water. She may have been up all night preparing this. The four of us squatted in front of her house and slowly poured the water over the earth while Mamma uttered prayers. After this she moved around the house splashing holy water, rice and salt around our rooms and in the dining area – places that we must have spiritually polluted.

And thus we were saved from whatever entity it was that had caused so much worry for the villagers. Paula said that she felt an immediate sense of relief. We celebrated with a cup of coffee and a condensed milk pancake.

But it was time to say goodbye to Muang Ngoi. Paula and Jon were staying on; she was going to teach at the school (when it finally reopened after the wedding festivities). To help her and the children we had donated our National Geographic world map. We said goodbye to Mamma, who was now back to her happy self again, and trooped down to the beach where a longtail boat was waiting to sweep us downstream to Nong Khiaw.

Blackberry Mead and a Bloody Knee

This week’s post was going to be about E.F. Schumacher and the concepts he wrote about in relation to getting back to a ‘human sized’ economic system. But fate intervened and things did not go according to plan …

If you read my post last week you may also recall that I said I was going to share a recipe for blackberry mead. Now that the autumnal equinox has passed (for those of us in the northern hemisphere), meaning the nights are drawing in and the balance between darkness and light has tipped in favour of the former, thoughts turn to the winter ahead and what needs to be done in advance of the cold months. It’s a naturally reflective time of year, and a personal favourite season of mine. What’s more, I love going out and gathering some of the bounty nature has been busy growing over the summer. And what could be more autumnal than the humble blackberry?

It’s been a pretty good year for blackberries here in west Cornwall, and there are some very juicy specimens adorning the hedgerows. Astrologically minded people might tell you the reason for this is that the bramble is a plant ruled by Mars, which also signals blood and destruction. Mars is pretty powerful right now and can be seen moving backwards in the sky at present, causing all sorts of havoc here on Earth until mid-November, so they say. But personally, I think the berries might be so big just because of the long hot summer we’ve had. Anyway, bearing in mind my promise to make blackberry mead, I set out foraging for the necessary ingredients one late afternoon.

I found a promising bank of overgrown brambles and blackthorn down near the beach and was happily picking away when I spotted a cluster of absolutely huge specimens. When I say huge, I mean they were yuge – like glittering plump gems shimmering in the mellow light of the sunset! The only trouble was they were towards the centre of the bushes and slightly out of reach. No trouble, I thought, and boldly blundered into said bush. I should probably add at this point that it was a hot day and I was wearing shorts. As I reached for the juicy prize there was a sharp pain on my shin, just below my right knee, and when I’d extracted myself from the bush I took a look at it. It was nothing to worry about, just a minor scratch, and with very little blood. 

About half an hour later and I decided to take an impromptu dip in the sea; after all, I knew that saltwater was good for scratches and small wounds. I forgot all about the scratch until later that night, when it began to sting. At this point I rubbed it with disinfectant and went to bed. By the morning it had begun to feel painful and had become red and inflamed. It seemed like the ‘little scratch’ was going to cause trouble …

You can probably guess the rest of the story, which saw me confined to bed, hardly able to walk, and ended with a visit to the Urgent Care unit at my local hospital a couple of days ago where they cleaned out what had become a festering open wound and put me on antibiotics. I’m sitting here writing this with my throbbing swollen leg up on the desk, vowing never again to allow even the tiniest blackthorn to scratch my skin. 

I’m lucky to have antibiotics to treat my infected limb. While the various poultices of yarrow and plantain I’ve previously used successfully on other injuries are useful treatments, I’m happy that these are not the only choices available to me. This would have been very different in the past. As recently as the seventeenth century in Britain, most people lived in rural locations and had to rely on the immediate services offered by their ecosystems in order to be able to survive. This all changed with the enclosures acts, which forced the majority of folks off the land to seek work in the cities. Deprived of their land, people who for centuries had lived modest lives in the countryside now found themselves crammed into slums and forced to work in often appalling factory conditions. 

Disease and exploitation was rife, but it was the psychic break with the land that has possibly had a longer lasting and more profound effect. Nowadays, it’s only the upper middle classes and higher who can afford to live in splendid rural isolation, and even a basic smallholding is out of the reach of most people due to the cost. Rural land itself is still reasonably affordable, but strict planning laws make it almost impossible for people of average means to actually live on the land they own. Furthermore, the mindset of the enclosures is still firmly entrenched in the national psyche, it seems, and planning reform moves at a glacial pace.

Nevertheless, the land is still there, and we remain occupiers of it, however modest our footprint. Look at a satellite image of the British Isles, for instance, and it would still look pretty much the same as it did a thousand years ago. The mountains are still there, just as the main river arteries, beaches and watersheds are. Mankind may have rearranged things at ground level to his own advantage, but the wider planetary functions and natural impetuses remain. Whatever the planners, civil engineers, agriculturalists and construction industry have managed to disrupt, nature is ceaselessly working to undo again. Flowers still grow on wasteland, trees sprout up in disused parking lots, streams still seek rivers, the sea still nibbles at the land and the Sun and Moon still look down in the same way they always have done. The land is still full of marvellous creatures – and one of them is you!

But how rooted to the land are you? These days it is common to move from one part of the country to another following a career change or to study. Modern life has made us rootless, and we are all rolling stones gathering no moss, as the saying goes. But this rootless way of life comes at a cost and it is difficult for us to truly be a part of the environment that we live in. For a start, we simply don’t spend enough time in one place experiencing the seasons and getting to know the different species of plants and animals that thrive there. Yet the land around us – however degraded it looks – still offers us plenty in the way of sustenance if only we knew where to look for it. Luckily, there’s the beginnings of a solution to that and it can be boiled down to one command: observe.

Here’s a challenge: get a map of your local area and use a pair of compasses to mark out a circle in a one- or two-mile radius from your dwelling. Make it your business to try and walk every street, road, back alley or public footpath in the zone you have demarcated. There’s no hurry – in fact, the longer you take over this the better because all you need to do is observe. You can take a camera and a notebook with you whenever you go for a wander in order to make notes. If there’s a common plant you see growing everywhere and you’ve no idea what it is, look it up when you get home. Somehow, when you can put a name to a plant it becomes more relatable in your mind. 

If you are new to the area it may take a year or two just to get to know what grows there. I have lived in my town for about seven years now, and my ecological knowledge of it grows every time I step outside. I know where to find wild garlic in the spring, where the nearest source of fresh water is from my front door, how the salt winds from the sea cause the berries on certain bushes to grow smaller than others, where abandoned apple trees shed unwanted fruit free for the picking, where the pollock like to linger over reefs in the, and many other things beside.

Deepening your knowledge of the area you live in has other benefits. Buy any popular foraging book and you’ll learn what food you can get for free. It’s surprising how much is just there for the picking, and yet it remains invisible to nearly all. In April, at the height of the (seemingly first) coronavirus panic, I went to the supermarket only to find most of the shelves stripped bare. In the salad aisle there was not a single piece of lettuce or kale to be had. People looked annoyed and frustrated that the products they took for granted had suddenly stopped appearing on the shelves. 

On my way out I glanced across the parking lot at the adjacent field. Right across the field there was masses of frothy green foliage appearing. Alexanders! Wild and aromatic, this is one of the tastiest spring greens you can find, especially when steamed and sprinkled with butter and salt. The plant was introduced by the Romans, who went wild for its subtle flavour, and here it was, probably enough for a thousand people right there next to the supermarket, and free for the picking. 

I went over and picked a couple of bags before heading home.

***

Blackberry mead, Cornish style

Mead is a honey wine with an ancient pedigree. It has been brewed right across Europe, Asia and Africa, although it’s perhaps best known as the favourite tipple of the Vikings. The brewing process uses honey rather than sugar, although you can substitute with the latter if you can’t get hold of decent honey or want to keep the cost down. It’s important that you use decent wildflower honey rather than the cheap sugary mass-produced stuff you find in supermarkets. The reason for this is that industrially produced honey has very few of the properties and complex organics of wild harvested honey. So, if you can, use only clear honey produced by small batch local beekeepers – the more natural they keep their bees the better. 

In Norse mythology the mead served in the great feasting halls of Valhalla flows freely from the udders of the cosmic goat Heidrun, who grazes eternally on the leaves of the sacred tree Laeraor, but for rest of us we’ll need the following equipment and ingredients:

Ingredients

4.5 lb (2kg) fresh blackberries

4.5 lb (2kg) wildflower honey

A small handful of juniper berries

Juice of ¼ lemon

1 tsp/packet Yeast

1tsp pectolase powder

A handful of wild rose leaves or oak bark (see below)

Equipment

1 very large saucepan – not aluminium (stainless steel is fine)

1-gallon (5L) fermentation bucket with airlock

1 long plastic or stainless steel spoon 

1-gallon (5L) demijohn (aka carboy) with airlock

1 muslin cloth or similar for straining

Sterilise all your brewing equipment before you get started using tablets or a few drops of dilute bleach. You can also just stick it in a dishwasher cycle. 

Put the washed berries and rose leaves/oak bark in a large pan with 2L of filtered water and bring to the boil. Some traditional recipes call for a few juniper berries to be added for botanical flavour, but I’m using sloes because I can’t find any juniper growing around here. The rose leaves or oak bark are to add tannin, which is a natural compound that binds the flavour and adds body. 

Partially cover and simmer for about half an hour, occasionally stirring, then take off the heat and allow to cool to around 160 Fahrenheit (70 Celsius). This should take around an hour, and if you don’t have a thermometer you can gauge the temperature by putting your hand on the pot: if you can keep it there for a few seconds then it has cooled enough. Add the honey, lemon juice and the black tea (if you are using it) and stir it up until the honey has dissolved. 

Many recipes say you should boil the honey, but if you do that, you’ll lose its unique curative and preservative properties, as well as its delicate volatile oils. Decent honey needs to be treated with care, which is why I never boil it.

Next, wait for it to cool to room temperature and carefully pour it into your fermentation bucket. I use a plastic ladle for this purpose so that it doesn’t splash everywhere. Then add the yeast and the pectolase (this enzyme ensures you get the best yield out of the fruit, but it isn’t 100% essential). 

Traditionally, wild yeasts would be used by simply leaving the brew out in the open for a few hours. You can try this, but it can be a bit hit and miss, so I recommend adding manufactured yeast. I use white wine yeast, but you could just use standard baker’s yeast and get pretty much the same result. 

Activate the yeast by letting it sit on the surface for around 10 minutes before mixing it in. Top up the bucket with room temperature filtered water, if it needs it, but not so high that it will interfere with the airlock when it is fermenting, so leave at least an inch to allow for bubbling. Put the lid on the bucket, fit the airlock and put it somewhere out of the way. Fermentation should start within 24 hours.

A week later, strain the fermenting mixture through a piece of muslin and pour it into a sterilised 1-gallon demijohn. Fit an airlock and wait for fermentation to complete – which could be a week or three. When all fermentation has finished, rack off the mead into sterilised bottles and store them somewhere away from heat and light. I often pilfer fancy spirit bottles from local recycling bins and then soak off the labels – the fancier the better.

The mead will be ready to drink as soon as all fermentation has ceased but will improve with age. Perhaps the ideal intermediate date to aim for would be around winter solstice, by which time it should be a thick, sweet botanical mead that will warm the cockles of your heart.

For this recipe the strength should be around 14 percent alcohol, or 28 proof. Whether you drink it from a horn or from the skulls of your vanquished enemies is purely optional. Skål!

Paganomics 101: Economics as if Gaia Mattered

Picture, if you will, a grim concrete tower block in a grotty and depressing area of north London. The year is 1989 and the tower block, which bears a plaque stating it was opened by a certain Margaret Thatcher, contains a host of nervous looking freshers seated on plastic chairs in a draughty hall. It’s their first day at polytechnic and they are undergoing orienteering and being told what to expect over the next few years of their lives. 

Before them, an energetic Afghan man in a crushed velvet jacket that has seen better days is pacing around on a low stage, barking advice at the young neophytes. He looks slightly wild, as if he’s been up all night arguing about critical theory and smoking weed, and he has long unkempt grey hair which sprouts from a bony cranium above a pair of fiercely intelligent brown eyes. But his manner is more drill sergeant than hippy. “I need you to criticise everything!” he shouts, pointing a Kitcheneresque finger at his half-stunned audience. “If it moves, criticise it. I’m moving, so criticise me!”

At least one of those new students would recall these words over three decades later. They seemed rather profound to me, the idea that everything should be scrutinised and examined for authenticity rather than just taken at face value. It was probably the most valuable take away from my time there, but unfortunately for me I still had four long years of studying economics to get through. 

At the campus bookshop we picked up the requisite texts for study. I’m not sure why they make economics textbooks so thick, but it was a struggle to carry them all back to my lodgings, which for me was my parents’ touring caravan in a cold and soggy field near the M25 (there had been no time to find a proper rental and my father was aghast that I had chosen to move to ‘sin city’). The core text outlined the basics of what is called neoliberal economics, and the very first sentence in the 800 or so page tome stated, “Economics is the study of the production and consumption of scarce goods, services and resources across society.” 

I took a deep breath and asked myself why I hadn’t enrolled to do something more interesting instead …

In the spirit of those rousing words delivered by my Afghan tutor on that gloomy September day back when Cher was at the top of the charts hoping to ‘turn back time’, and cracks were appearing in the Berlin Wall as the Soviet Union tottered, I’m going to ask: what is economics? 

This might sound like a silly question, or even a dull one, but it’s worth asking because economics has an enormous impact on all of our lives. For most people ‘economics’ is something that clever people in suits do, and its main purpose is to deliver money and jobs to the masses. The popular view is that the economy is a complex machine which only a select few know how to handle. If they pull the wrong lever or push the wrong knob then bad things happen, such as recessions and unemployment. On the other hand, if they are sufficiently skilful, they will steer the great juggernaut known as ‘the economy’ into the sunlit uplands of prosperity, and all of us will ride along on top of it.

There’s only one problem with this view, and that’s the inconvenient fact that it ignores reality in several fatal ways. 

The first fatal way in which it ignores reality is that economics has a built-in flaw in that it only has a forward gear and not a reverse one. It assumes that the economy can grow without limit, overlooking the fact that we live on a planet that is anything but limitless. It is linear. Economics promises to continually increase the prosperity of human beings, but as we live within a closed system this must always be done at the expense of non-human beings. 

Alas, in the same way that rapidly multiplying yeast cells never think they’ll run out of sugar in the demijohn, we seem to think we’ll never run out of fresh planetary resources to plunder and turn into products. Suggesting otherwise is taboo, and the idea of limitless economic growth is paramount. This tendency can be observed any time it is reported that economic growth (measured in GDP numbers over a certain timespan) has fallen below a certain arbitrary threshold, causing business reporters and news anchors to gnash their teeth and implore the gods for better figures next time.

Some have argued that it is possible to de-fang economics and shift the focus from economic growth onto human wellbeing, ecosystems health and other hard-to-measure and likely intangible indices. Doing so would no doubt be a good idea, but unfortunately the advocates of such a move possess little to no political power and, in any case, benevolent and well-meaning ideas such as ‘degrowth’ and ‘doughnut economics’ tend to go out the window the moment people sense real and tangible threats, such as hunger and conflict. 

The second fatal error of economics is that it is tied up with money, the value of which is decided by people who have no business to decide anything. Of course, money is very useful, and it makes the system of exchange a lot easier. After all, who wants to go around bartering chickens and eels in return for a new TV? What’s more, money allows us to store wealth, so we can hang onto what we have earned without fear of losing it, assuming it is properly stored. But there are plenty of problems with money, and they stem primarily from the way it is created, and the way it has a growth imperative programmed into it.

No doubt I could write several posts about it and still not cover all the bases. But the BIG intractable problem with money is that it demands to be fed. More to the point, the financial system that creates money demands a return on it. It doesn’t care where that return comes from, only that it gets it. There’s a reason why every major religion puts money lending so high up on its list of deadly sins – Jesus himself pushed over the tables of the money lenders in a fit of pique, while interest on loans is haram to Islam and the Jewish Torah states that money may only be lent as a charitable act.      

Why did Jesus get so annoyed? Perhaps because money, when lent out for no other reason than profit, attains a force of its own that is more or less impossible to contain. It’s like letting the genie out of the bottle or opening Pandora’s box: stated plainly, the major religions believed that finance unleashes a force that is downright demonic in nature. 

The Irish writer and filmmaker Thomas Sheridan discovered this when he was working as a graphic designer for some of the major banks on Wall Street. Preparing some charts one day that related to the financing of a dam in the Amazon rainforest he noticed what appeared to be an anomaly – the numbers didn’t quite add up. He asked the client about this and was told the ‘sundries’ section was left deliberately vague because it related to funds allocated to securing the project. When he enquired further, he was told matter-of-factly that things such as bribing corrupt local officials, bulldozing villages and hiring mercenaries to eliminate local anti-dam activists were considered merely a cost of doing business. 

Thomas Sheridan

Horrified at this blasé attitude, Sheridan investigated deeper and found this practice and attitude to be standard operating procedure in the world of corporate banking. Moreover, it seemed to attract the type of people to the top who got a kick out of it. This led him to research psychopathology and publish the book Puzzling People: The Labyrinth of the Psychopath, part of which is about how human-created systems can manifest characteristics that earlier cultures would have called ‘demonic’. 

Yet this aspect of money creation, as disturbing as it is, isn’t a bug but a feature. The financial apparatus that enables our economic systems to function is amoral in nature: just like mobsters everywhere, it doesn’t care where you got the money, just so long as you got it. Incidentally, most of the people working in high finance are perfectly nice people with families and hobbies and are no more guilty of feeding Moloch than anyone who has a private pension or a bank account. 

A third and final fatal flaw of neoliberal – that is to say modern – economics, is the assumption that it is infallible. Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, was credited with first writing about something called the ‘invisible hand’ back in the 18th century. Far from being a demon, this disembodied hand is more of a Casper the Friendly Ghost. Its job, which it does uncomplainingly, is to deliver whatever you want, whenever you want it. 

The invisible hand pulls off this remarkable feat through something called the law of substitution, and it is motivated through market forces. So, if something runs out or becomes too scarce for people to get hold of, the invisible hand will find alternatives. For example, let’s say we cut down every last tree to make toilet paper. Rather than have to put up with no TP, the IH conjures up TP made from bamboo. Everybody is happy, especially the entrepreneurs who responded to the profit motive and have made a killing selling bamboo TP for £10 a roll. In time more entrants will be attracted by the high profits and make their own bamboo TP, causing the price to crash to affordable levels again. Thanks, Invisible Hand! 

However, there’s a problem with this laissez faire (that is, ‘leave capitalism to just sort itself out’) attitude, and that’s because the invisible hand might have fingers, but it doesn’t have a brain. 

So, in our TP example, everyone is now happy again, but another problem has arisen: people are struggling for breath due to a lack of atmospheric oxygen. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to cut down all the trees in the belief something else would replace the service they offered. People wait for the invisible hand to deliver an alternative to breathing oxygen … but alas, it’s too late and we learn the hard way that not everything can be substituted for something else when we need it! [Addendum: future archaeologists, descended from giant intelligent cockroaches, discovered the fossil remains of billions of strange monkey-like creatures clutching small cylinders made of organic matter. The discovery launched numerous fiercely debated theories about what these strange monkeys were, why they worshipped a floating hand, and why they all died gasping like landed fish.]

Jokey example aside, where does this leave us? Some readers at this point may be thinking that all this is a thinly veiled attack on capitalism: it’s not. From the point of view of the Earth, capitalism only does more efficiently what communism (or the control economy) does badly. If your starting point is a view that nature is simply a storehouse that we can raid at will and damn the consequences, then it makes little difference what ism is your favourite. Related to this, there’s a potential fourth fatal flaw of economics, and that is that it rarely considers the cost of energy in moving goods from one place to another. That’s probably because most economic theory was devised in times when there was plenty of low hanging energy fruit, and so it was not considered important enough to include as a cost.

E.F. Scumacher, author of Small is Beautiful

One of the key thinkers to recognise the dysfunctionality of modern economics was the German-British theorist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, whose 1973 book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, outlined these flaws and offered an alternative vision that was more in tune with nature. Schumacher saw that the age of machines, combined with an ideology of exploitation, had been a disaster. He advocated for a return to doing things on a smaller scale ‘as if people mattered’. The popularity of his books (his philosophical work A Guide for the Perplexed is an excellent short read) coincided with the so-called appropriate tech movement, which sought to move towards simpler and less energy hungry forms of technology and economic systems in our day-to-day lives. Unfortunately, as promising as it seemed at the time, their efforts were mostly snuffed out during the Reagan-Thatcher years I touched upon in my last post. The modern ‘green tech’ approach advocated by the likes of pressure groups such as Extinction Rebellion bears almost no resemblance to that earlier, more innocent, attempt to live less energy extravagant lives. 

Politics aside, one of the reasons the appropriate tech movement failed was because of the doctrine of infinite substitutability. At the time, there was enough demand from people for adopting less damaging ways of harvesting and using energy, but by deploying simple hardware such as home-made wind turbines and hot water tanks made from old radiators the appropriate tech pioneers had thumbed their nose at the concept of a profit motive as demanded by modern economic theory. Stated plainly, you can’t make a pile of money from people who disconnect themselves from the grid and start producing things for themselves. 

Governments, of course, recognised this, and saw it as a potential threat to tax revenues. After all, it’s remarkably easy to stick a tax on electricity you buy from a utility company, but far harder to collect revenue on electricity you generate yourself using a couple of solar panels on the chicken shed roof. And so big government subsidies continued to flow to large scale centralised forms of energy generation (the owners of which, of course, had the money to grease political wheels), while smaller ‘human scale’ efforts were left to rot on the vine or were smothered under the weight of local ordinances and regulations.  

So, what’s to be done? How can we break free of this seemingly suicidal way of doing business? There’s an irony at the heart of all this in that, while the main religions forbade the creation of the ‘demon’ of usury, it was the scriptures laid down in their holy books which may have created the idea that the Earth was created for humans to dominate. After all, Genesis tells us: “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”

If this dominator mindset was an inbuilt assumption in the development of modern economics, how different would the world be if a religion that lacked these characteristics had been at the heart of our assumptions about our place within it?  What if, instead of the prevalent linear mode of thinking (that is, getting from Point A to Point B – poor to rich – unenlightened to enlightened etc.) we had adopted a model that recognised things moving in a circular fashion? Such a system, incorporating cause and effect, would recognise that cutting down every last tree to produce TP would not be such a great idea because there would be a heavy price to pay for such short sightedness. 

Moreover, the system would not be strictly material, as it would see the Earth and all the beings and ecosystems that comprise it as possessing unique worth in the web of life, and that we are but a strand in the overall tapestry. After all, it would be impossible to strip mine a mountain or empty a sea of fish if your outlook meant that this was an attack on yourself. The ‘externalities’ of modern economics would be turned into ‘internalities’ – it would be like punching yourself in the nose.

Strange as it may seem, such a system has already been in place for many thousands of years, and it was only when it was usurped by modern theories of economics that the ecological crisis we are living with today really got going. The people who adhered to its tenets were known as Pagans – that is, people who lived close to nature and whose religion was inextricably entwined with it. 

Perhaps we could sketch out what a new version of Pagan economics would look like – we could call it Paganomics … economics as if Gaia mattered. 

Next week I’ll look at some of the solutions offered by Schumacher and others along these lines, and I’ll share my recipe for blackberry mead.  

***

For anyone who partakes in social media I’ve set up a couple of pages for Beyond the Wasteland on different platforms. There’s one on Facebook here, or fans of free speech can connect with me on Parler here.

A Whisper on the Wind

Starting a new writing project about the decay of our way of life and what we can do about it might seem like an odd thing to do right now. After all, change seems to have been thrust upon us in a manner that almost nobody could have foreseen just a year ago, and this has sparked all manner of bewilderment and anger that shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.  Nevertheless, I think we could all do with a break from all the digital babble being flung around at present and focus our minds on something a little more useful. 

Digital babble? Right now, it seems like almost everyone is carrying a machine gun magazine loaded with pre-formed bulletproof opinions about some matter or other, and they’re busy firing them across the no-man’s land of the internet. Occasionally a helmeted head will pop up from a muddy trench, drawing strings of tracer fire while bodies thud to the ground all around. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload. The battle rages on, but who is giving the orders?

I propose that we take our chances and try and get out of this firefight. 

We’ll need to crawl on our bellies through muddy fields as rhetorical bullets whizz through the air just inches above us. But if we’re lucky we’ll make it to the blazing field of poppies on the horizon, just beyond all the twisted wreckage of tanks and artillery and the bullet riddled bodies of fallen keyboard warriors and mercenaries.

It’s a long crawl, but we’ll get there if we try …

***

It’s been almost exactly ten years since I picked up a book entitled The Long Descent by John Michael Greer and stepped through a portal into a deeper understanding of the predicament we face.

The message was not a pleasant one to digest because what Greer seemed to be saying was that the lives we’ve been accustomed to think of as ‘normal’ might only be a brief respite in an otherwise long history of hardship. In fact, our cushy way of life had been granted to us by a once-in-a-lifetime lottery win in the form of fossilised sunlight energy, also known as fossil fuels.

Like any awakening worth its salt, the security-craving part of me initially recoiled from the thought that it might be facing an existential threat. Surely, I reasoned, it would be less psychologically risky to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. And yet an honest appraisal of the matter made it clear that a period of great turbulence lay in the immediate future. 

Of chief concern was the plateauing and peaking of the extraction of conventional oil, which has acted as the lifeblood of the modern world for so long and which – I was to discover – was ebbing away without any real substitute to replace it. The former me – that would be the me who wanted to ‘save the world’, whatever that means – would have thought this was a good thing. After all, doesn’t oil cause pollution and global warming? Surely, the end of the oil age should be a cause for celebration that would see us smoothly switching over to using solar panels and wind turbines instead of nasty, polluting oil? That was the way I saw it, and it seems embarrassingly simplistic now.

What I had now come to understand was that the end of the oil age promised to be an exceedingly messy affair due to the simple fact that we’re addicted to the stuff. We’re willing to fight wars over it, destabilise the climate through its use, and muck up entire ecosystems due to our lust for it. A deeper look at the dynamics of decline revealed it was likely to be an era of explosive political reckonings, wars to control the mainstream narrative, dysfunctional institutions, broken down systems and broken promises. 

To make matters even worse, because we now live in an age of electronic media which makes it easy for disinformation to spread like wildfire while useful information is drowned out by noise, we are left with no clear roadmap to explain what is going on other than the increasingly demented rabbiting of mainstream pundits. Indeed, as dysfunction increases, the average person becomes more and more bamboozled as their previously secure world disintegrates around them. Does this already sound familiar? That may be because, with conventional oil having peaked in 2005, that age is upon us right now.

I did what I could do, making changes in my own life, and communicated with others. For the greater part this took the form of writing a blog and a couple of books, as well as talking to people online and in everyday life. I thought, perhaps, that if the message resonated with enough people then we could do something about it.

However, it became apparent that people, for the most part, have some kind of psychological firewall that prevents unwelcome ideas from permeating into their minds. What’s more, it was difficult to shift the mindset that we are either facing an all-out zombie apocalypse, or else would soon be living happy lives somewhere in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri and worshipping the deity Elon Musk – I didn’t think either of those extremes were likely. I gradually let go and moved onto other things. 

Fast forward a decade and the evidence of the ongoing destruction all around us is getting harder to ignore. The grand narratives that have undergirded our lives for so long are starting to look flimsy, and once-great institutions are visibly crumbling around us. At the same time political deadlock, divisive rhetoric and cultural breakdown blight our intellectual world, making it harder to get a grip on the overarching nature of our challenge. Is it any surprise that rates of mental illness are soaring, or that it is getting increasingly difficult to hold a civil conversation with someone who has a different point of view? That’s not to mention the crumbling infrastructure and ageing trains, pipelines and buildings made from reinforced concrete. Rust never sleeps, they say.

The endgame of our way of life – which was kickstarted by the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century – was foreseen a long time ago. What began as a whisper on the wind so far back in time, picked up only by the keen ears of mystical poets and other oddball visionaries, has today become a howling gale that is impossible to ignore.

Thoedore Roszak

I have on the shelf beside me a copy of Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends. Written in 1973 the book is concerned with “politics and transcendence in a post-industrial society”. Roszak, an American academic connected with the counterculture of the 1960s, wrote it because he was concerned about the gaping hole of meaning at the centre of modern life. This black hole has yawned ever wider since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. It’s a philosophical reflection on the inner state of humankind, and the wasteland of the title is the same dark and ruined landscape that the war poet T.S. Eliot wrote of in his poem The Waste Land after he had seen first-hand the effects of industrialised warfare.

Roszak’s work centres on a radical critique of the modes of thinking that got us into an age of “environmental collapse, world poverty, technocratic elitism, psychic alienation [and], the death of the soul.” He pulls no punches in his assault on the worship of science and progress as modern day religions, responsible for the polluted seas, the razed forests, the factory farms and the diminished sense of wonder at the cosmos. Roszak, who died in 2011, argued that we need to find our inner compass once again so that we may re-enchant the world (to use a borrowed phrase). He cites visionary artist and poet William Blake as among the first to realise that the advance of scientific reductionism and machine thinking would inevitably lead to a terrifying assault on the human spirit and would eventually lead to the ruination of the Earth if left unchecked.

It’s interesting to note that Where the Wasteland Ends gained some popular traction back when it was released almost half a century ago. For the first time, many people in industrialised societies entertained the notion that material prosperity at the expense of ecological sustainability might not be such a great idea after all. Add in the oil shocks of the 1970s and it wasn’t long before people seriously started to think about alternatives to burning up the world’s irreplaceable fossil fuel reserves.

In fact, not long after, US President Jimmy Carter erected solar panels on the White House. This sent a clear message about priorities, and for a while it seemed like another world might just be possible after all. It wasn’t to last however, and one of the first things that Ronald Reagan did when he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was rip out the solar panels and ramp up oil production in Alaska. With the declaration that it was “Morning in America”, Reagan spun the fossil fuel wheel of fortune one last time, putting an end to the notion that humanity should adapt to the hard and unforgiving limits imposed by nature. 

Had Reagan (and Margaret Thatcher, who opened up the North Sea spigots in tandem with her American counterpart) chosen a different path, we’d likely be living in a very different world now. Unfortunately for us, all Reagan and Thatcher did was delay the inevitable reckoning with the forces of thermodynamics that control the movement of energy through a system, and therefore the growth patterns of civilisations. The end result was that the problems we now face are an order of magnitude more difficult than they would otherwise have been if we’d bitten the bullet in the early 1970s. 

And so that’s my starting point for this new blog. I’d like to sketch out what got us into this mess, and what solutions might exist for managing our decline from a state of energy affluence to one of energy poverty. I should probably make it clear at the outset that I don’t believe there is any one-size-fits-all solution that can be wheeled out and applied across the world. Instead, I propose that there are a multiplicity of ways of dealing with our situation which can be applied at different levels – from the individual to the national – and that in many situations there are no solutions at all and we’ll just have to live with the consequences of previous generations’ disastrous mistakes.

My contention, which is shared by others, can be boiled down to the following:

  1. Humanity faces a powerdown situation which will manifest in all sorts of ways that may not be immediately obvious. The process will take decades or even centuries, but we are already well on the path.
  2. No amount of ‘renewable’ energy harvesting techniques or techno fixes will allow us to live with anything like the current state of comfort provided by the rapidly diminishing fossil fuels we take for granted.
  3. We urgently need to change our outlook about what is meaningful in life and our attitude towards the Earth. Until we fix our thinking, we will just carry on making the same mistakes but in ever more interesting ways.

By pointing out what has gone wrong and taking a frank look at what we can do about it we’ll be playing our part in laying down the foundations for a saner mode of human existence in the future. 

I don’t believe that focusing in on one area of human endeavour will be of any use for getting a grip on understanding and dealing with the challenges I’ve outlined above, so to that end I’ll be talking about a broad range of topics that’ll likely include at the very least:

Ecology: Our place in the web of life 

Economics: The human-created systems for allocating planetary resources

Spirituality and religion: How we relate to the cosmos

Herbal medicine and health: Thinking holistically about ourselves

Permaculture: Adopting systems to sustain us that work in partnership with nature

Philosophy: What does it all mean …?

Fiction writing: Using narrative tools to convey useful patterns of thinking

You might notice that I haven’t mentioned politics above. Of course, a certain amount of politics is inevitable and although there will be mentions in passing it will only be in the context of the seven main topics and not in terms of party lines, or this or that ideology. 

To that end I’d like to invite you to follow along. Please subscribe or set up an alert so that you know when I’ve posted a new article – something I’ll be doing every Wednesday, and possibly more often. There will be a mix of posts – some of them will be thinking posts and some of them will be practical posts. After all, what’s the point of understanding something if you don’t put it into action? I like to think that I’m quite a down-to-earth kind of bloke (well, I am an Earth sign), and I’m always up for a bit of humour to enliven the topic. 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and getting involved in the discussion as we attempt to transcend the usual limited set of talking points and move … beyond the wasteland.