SOMETHING STRANGE IS HAPPENING – PART I


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.

[iii].                    According to the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ the scientific method is “a method or procedure that has characterised natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

12 comments

  1. Hysteria · ·

    A good first episode. My worry is that localism may be an answer for those of us fortunate enough to have a bit of land, in essentially rural small communities but I can’t see it working in our large cities (or even big towns)

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    1. moraymint · ·

      Thanks Hysteria. Yes, I shall address this issue of how communities might function in the future, and how rural and urban dwellers will be forced to respond differently to unfolding events. It could be as ‘simple’ as the future being about a mid- to long-term reversal of urbanisation. However, the problem is/will be food, of course. So much of how things will unfold over the next quarter-century will be about whether, in the end, Malthus was right … it’s just that he may have got his timing wrong – having failed to foresee the Industrial Revolution.

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  2. MacBandy · ·

    As ever you make some good points and write them well MM (Though don’t forget your remarkable ranting humour!). Without wishing to seem Pollyanna I would like to focus on comments such as those by Stuart; and indeed yourself when you say:

    . . . 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….

    I long for an end to the day when the peer group pressure to have the ‘latest’ kitchen tempts us to work too hard to have time to cook in it. When a meal with your adult family does not require them to travel from across the country to reach you. When the fruits of ones labour are not taxed and given to those who seem to have no incentive to work themselves and yet seem resentful of the support provided (a return to ‘welfare’ rather than ‘benefit’?).

    In terms of societal meltdown; I am also more comfortable with our adaptability as humans. We might be the frogs sitting in the slowly (or quickly) heating pot but we seem to be able to adapt to the heat remarkably well!

    Also, I feel that the earth’s natural resources, could they answer, might be tempted to quote Mark Twain’s ‘The report of my death was an exaggeration’. As we continue to find masses of ‘stuff’, recover more of that which we are already aware and find other uses for other ‘stuff’.

    I don’t question the inevitably of the initiating events you describe but am less fearful of the consequences. Perhaps the average Joe is just waking up to the way he has been manipulated and starting to think for himself?

    Whatever, keep up the good work and I will keep reading.

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    1. moraymint · ·

      Pleased to see you on board … and I have read and digested your comments!

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  3. Stuart Dunbar · ·

    Hello my friend. Change in the coming decades is clearly inevitable. The factors and potential consequences you discuss in your epistle to Victoria and Mary (my regards to them both by the way) will impact on their lives but perhaps, in my view and hopefully, not as dramatically as you suggest. Opinion varies but lets accept for the purposes of debate that (1) 30-50%of the food produced in the world goes uneaten and ends up in landfill and that the average American throws away 400lbs of food a year (2) Every day in many first world countries spotted, dribbling youth in £300 Ford Fiestas with £1000 beat boxes in the boot drive up and down our streets with engine reving for reasons I am unable to determine (3) That millions of Mummies drive their precious offspring the 300 yards from the garage to the front gates of their schooleach day in a Chelsea Tractor (4) That 6 year old children are given iPads (5) That we turn up the heating rather than put on a jumper………….and so on. I suggest that the changes we will see frrom diminution in availabilityof resources will be further increased cost (of course) with a resutlant reappraisal of individual priorities and perhaps a rationalisation of the range and quantity of goods that scarce means of production are used to produce. This may be no bad thing !!! If I am hopeless wrong in this my nearest and dearest all have your address and know where to go in the event of an apocolypse. Yours – Stuart

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    1. moraymint · ·

      Fear not, sir … this is not about to become a weblog devoted to charting the end of the world (as I know you’ll appreciate!). But all views are welcome and, of course, to a greater or lesser extent shape my own. Keep posting …

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  4. gregorious · ·

    Excellent thoughts, all.

    There are other elements of the unfolding “emergency”, such as crisis of conscience, crisis of imagination, and crisis of basic human identity.

    To rebuild communities will require a certain rebuilding of the self, as well — qualities of resilience and self-reliance, to be sure, but also qualities of compassion and self-sacrifice. Otherwise, I fear a rapid descent into either brutal tyranny from above or some sort of grassroots Darwinian war of all against all; or a toxic mix of the two.

    However the crisis unfolds, we can be sure that those who profit immensely from the present order of things will not simply fade away without a fight; and these are people with no conscience, and no scruples, I can assure you.

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    1. moraymint · ·

      Thanks gregorious and we’ve discussed these matters on occasions before … not least over a small libation! I intend to draw on the comments posted here to help shape the details of my own views over the coming year … that’s my timetable for having ‘completed’ my task. As much as one can ever complete such a task. And on that other matter of trolls that you raised elsewhere, I have adjusted the settings here to filter out the barnpots. I don’t intend to censor, as such, but trolls are/will be prohibited. Life’s too short to give those guys oxygen …

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  5. I’m sure I read on one of your other posts that you were a soldier once upon a time? I was also, which is probably why security is a concern of mine. Also, I still haven’t decided whether we will see a quick collapse at some point, or a slow collapse, which speeds up as resources become more scarce. Whatever happens, I agree with you that it’s also an opportunity to live a better and more wholesome life, although that depends in some respects to how the politicians react to crisis. Hopefully they won’t panic to much and will let people get on with there lives, rather than kick us while we are down.
    Regards security, I’m firmly in the camp that the worst thing anyone could do is try and go it alone or build a fortress. It difficult times, it’s strength in numbers that is needed. Dimitri Orlov wrote a little about security in his book, The 5 Stages of collapse.

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    1. moraymint · ·

      Yes, I have a soldiering background (my first career). Yes, I agree that the key to societies’ strengths in future will of course not be every-man-for-himself, but rather the cultivation of strong, inter-dependent communities. It sounds idealistic, because it is the ideal. It remains to be seen if/how we make such a transformation. That said, there’s a case for saying that even today society is, in fact, a collection of communities, even so in large cities. That’s the hopeful/optimistic side of me grinning through …

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  6. Well that was a pleasant surprise to have your mail pop into my inbox. Firstly, because I have been doing something very similar to you, that is, trying to prepare for my family and friends and anyone else who will listen, that great changes are coming our way and that unless we are prepared, it could be the difference between life and death, poverty or affluence.

    For me however, i’m 45 now, I have known since I was a little boy that something wasn’t right. I have always been a thoughtful and curious soul, and by observation alone, I realized that our present civilizations and ways of living couldn’t continue for much longer. I read peak oil, I read about the monetary system and I read about exploiting the worlds resources and all that that brings with it.

    So, I have been planning ahead for a while now. For the most part, I grow my own food, I’m off grid regards heating my home and hot water, and are some way towards generating my own electricity. My biggest concern is about security when the implosion really gets into full swing, but then that is something we will all have to face up to, and for me, forming organised local communities is the answer.

    Anyway, i’m looking forward to reading your essays, and hopefully, your children will heed a fathers warning and take action.

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    1. moraymint · ·

      Many thanks for your swift comment rob. I can see that we are probably like-minded souls and so I look forward to hearing (or rather seeing) your views here. I have only just emailed my children about this first post aimed directly at them so I suspect they won’t have seen it yet. This has been 5 years in the making, but I hope to complete my task within a year at the most. I agree with your concerns about the security side of this issue and I shall deal with that in one of my future essays. Stay in touch …

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