Essay # 1
It’s the second decade of the 21st century and something strange is happening to our society; strange and potentially threatening. Incidentally, don’t get hung up on that word “threatening”; we’ll end this essay on a comforting note. If I’m right to declare this then I want you, my children, to have some insight in to what’s going on, or at least an insight in to what I think is happening. How do I know what’s happening? Indeed, what on earth am I talking about?
Well, I’ve spent the past half-decade or so studying in some detail indicators of change; change in how our lives are likely to be in the future. I’ve been reading the runes – and the evidence suggests that the next quarter-century could be unlike any similar period before. Of course there has to be a ‘health warning’ here. Human beings are notoriously bad at predicting the future. I’m an atheist, but I’ve always liked Woody Allen’s observation “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” To which we might add, “If you want to make Him laugh louder, tell Him how much you know.” My point is that this letter to you, my daughters Victoria and Mary – which will be written to you in the form of a series of essays – can only be my understanding of how the world is and what potentially lies ahead. Nobody can be sure. However, human beings have always strived to understand the world around them, to make sense of it all and to develop purpose in the context of their knowledge.
Perhaps if I share my understanding of the world as it seems to me and how I think it might look in the future then you’ll be able to draw something from this as you consider the course of your own lives. Now, there’s an aphorism that I want to highlight at this stage from a Latin poem by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (or ‘Horace’ as he’s known in the English-speaking world) who coined the phrase carpe diem, which translates as ‘seize the day’. These are the opening words of the full (translated) sentence ‘seize the day, putting as little trust as possible in the next day’. Horace’s point was that the future is not really predictable and so we should scale back our hopes to a brief future, and drink our wine.
Of course, common sense suggests that the trick is to temper the obvious need to plan for your future with Horace’s philosophy of living for the moment. My own weakness is that I’m an inveterate planner and, truth be told, I probably spend far too much time peering in to the future. By writing these essays I am to some extent trying to turn one of my weaknesses (I have many more as you shall discover from subsequent essays) in to a strength, in to something helpful, something useful, hopefully.
I didn’t set out deliberately to write this letter to you. It’s come about as a result of a chance conversation in my office one day with an architect. We were discussing what type of heating system should be designed in to the home of one of our clients. The option of using an oil-fired Aga[i] came up – and the architect recoiled in horror. When I asked him why (after all, we have an oil-fired Aga in our rural home here in Scotland), he pulled a paperback book from his desk drawer and handed it to me. “You should read this” he said. I looked at the cover and it announced ‘The Long Emergency’ by James Kunstler[ii].
I read ‘The Long Emergency’ in no time; it was, as they say, “unputdownable”. Having read the book, the messages within it kept swirling around my head, day after day. I needed to know more. I needed to check and verify what Kunstler was saying. At one level I found Kunstler’s book hard to believe. I kept thinking “surely not; he’s exaggerating or he’s making mistakes”. However, when I started to cross-check Kunstler’s facts and analyses I found it increasingly difficult to refute his central argument.
So what was Kunstler’s thesis? Well, in ‘The Long Emergency’, James Kunstler pointed out that the last 200 years or so have seen the greatest explosion of progress and wealth that humanity has ever known. Now, just read that sentence again because it’s terribly important. Later, I’ll back up Kunstler’s statement with supporting evidence from many other sources; I’m just using Kunstler’s work as the platform for this investigation in to what the future might hold for you. Bear in mind too for a moment that I’m a physicist by university education and I like to deal in facts and figures rather than in vague assertions; I seek to adhere to the ‘scientific method’[iii]. In his book, Kunstler argues that that explosion of progress and wealth which started with the Industrial Revolution is about to turn, in the final analysis, to an implosion of civilisation. I know that if one condenses a book in to a single sentence like that it seems shocking, if not ridiculous. However, that in essence is Kunstler’s thesis. We – certainly those of us living in the ‘developed world’ – are at the leading edge a new epoch: a new era of de-industrialisation; of de-globalisation; of de-urbanisation; of a truly profound change to our complex societies.
Yet if, like millions of British citizens, you develop your understanding of what’s happening in the world today from, say, BBC radio and TV and/or the rest of the mainstream media (predominantly the country’s best-selling newspapers) you would probably never conclude (still less be told explicitly) that we might be entering a new era; that our society and so our way of life was likely to change beyond recognition over the next 25 – 50 years, that is over your lifetime. Even now most of my friends and acquaintances – if they’re reading this and if they’ve read this far – will almost certainly be concluding that I’ve probably lost the plot. Well, all I ask is that you bear with me over the coming essays and then decide for yourself if life is likely to proceed much as it has done for the past century, or if we are indeed at a great turning point of history. If this is the case – if we are at the leading edge of a new age – then the question is “As a young person, in the spring of my life, how do I prepare to navigate uncharted territory?”
So, back to the title of this essay: why did I say that something strange is happening? Well, for me the strange thing is the apparent existence of a mixture of confusion and ignorance which pervades our society about the state we’re in. It’s strange that so few people seem to have grasped the enormity of our predicament even now, 5 years after the global financial crisis started to unfold in December 2007, and which really gripped the world from September 2008. For me, the wake-up call was in July 2008 when the price of oil hit $147 per barrel – and I realised then that James Kunstler’s ‘Long Emergency’ had good and truly begun. For 140 years before the summer of 2008, the long-term, inflation-adjusted price of a barrel of oil had been about $25. Then, in a very short period (the significant pricing signals started appearing about 3 years earlier in 2005) the price of one of the most vital, the most critical resources ever known to mankind suddenly increased almost 6-fold. It was clear to me then, and I’ve seen nothing since to alter my view, that the world was about to change completely.
In the following essays I intend to explain how I think the world will change over the next 25 years, how it will affect people’s lives day-to-day and what you could be doing in order to prepare for a way of life that will almost certainly be nothing like the life that I’ve led thus far.
That was a very sobering start to a father’s letter to his children. I guess my opening philosophy here is about being cruel to be kind. I want you to stand up and take notice of what’s happening here and now. So, let’s end on a happier note. If we get this right; in other words, if you organise your life in such a way as to fit the economic and social environment that I think will emerge and evolve over the next 25 – 50 years, then your life could be pleasant enough. How would I describe your prospects in a nutshell in this first essay? Well, relative to the lifestyles that those of us in the ‘developed world’ have lived for this past 50 – 75 years, you face a way of life that could be simpler, slower, more family-oriented, closer to home and more community-based (ie ‘localised’), more natural in terms of food husbandry, more attuned to the world around you, more reflective and generally less frenetic than life has been for many of us during the latter stages of the 20th century. I don’t want to get Panglossian here; the coming years and decades are going to be tough, but in writing this letter to you – a father’s letter to his children – I want you to benefit from the recent years that I’ve been studying the likely trajectory of our complex society. In the next essay we’ll look more closely at what’s really going on in the world today.
Stop Press. As if to make my point, I have just flicked over to the Daily Telegraph’s website where the headline reads. “UK Heads for Unprecedented Triple-Dip Recession as GDP Contracts to 0.3%”. The headline of another article immediately below reads, “Petrol Prices to Rise 4p per Litre in the Coming Days”. The mainstream media, the orthodox economists, the politicians and the like will all express “shock” and “surprise” at these “unexpected” economic developments. Some of us will shrug and think there’s nothing shocking, or suprising, or unexpected there at all. You know, that’s the strange thing: so much confusion and ignorance.
[i]. For those readers unfamiliar with the ‘Aga’, an Aga is a heat storage stove and cooker, which works on the principle that a heavy frame made from cast iron components can absorb heat from a relatively low-intensity but continuously-burning source, and the accumulated heat can then be used when needed for cooking. The Aga was invented by a physicist, Gustaf Dalen (1869 – 1937).
[ii]. ‘The Long Emergency’, James Kunstler, Atlantic Books, 2005.