The Social Experiment: Going Off-Grid

#alternative lifestyle, #living off-grid, adventure, boats, Canal, climate, conservation, Ecology, England, environment, ethics

Part II: Life Off-Grid

There can be fewer acts of homegrown radicalism quite like going from mains power hook-up to living off grid. But what is it to live off-grid? Everyone is familiar with the term, though few are familiar with the kind of life that entails. Think of it thus: if mains power is similar to taking antibiotics through an I.V. drip, then living off-grid corresponds to foraging for your own medicine from nature’s own root & herb garden. The contrast couldn’t be greater, the results more startling. Sometimes wondrous, oftentimes disturbing. One thing’s for sure, there’s never a dull moment in the pursuit of the dream of living off-mains.

Before I embarked on what i call life unplugged I had seen glimpses of how it’s done. Having trekked the Himalaya a good few times, I had seen how the teahouses that operate as hostelries from the foothills to alpine altitudes managed to run their entire operations without the aid of AC power, or mains gas and cable telephony, for that matter. Naturally, these mountain people had no choice in the matter. Geography dictated Nepal’s infrastructure perhaps more than most places on Earth. Being poor didn’t help things either.

I marvelled at how these resourceful Nepalis ran an entire trekking operation with only two bottles of propane gas, a couple of 12V leisure batteries, a diesel generator, and a simple 12V wire loom coming off the batteries and leading to the only plug in the whole teahouse establishment. How they transport them up there is a whole other story. You see it, plain as day, a mess of plug adapters clustered onto a head adapter leading out from the wall sockets. From this higgledy-piggledy mess of cables, every mobile phone belonging to every paying guest is drawing electron juice from the auxiliary power source (in the absence of solar panels, usually the genny). There they are: a brood of mobile phones pulling like octuplets on their suffering mother’s teats, in the corner of the mess room where everyone spends their evening relaxing by the pot-bellied stove at 10,000ft.

That was the limits of my understanding back then. About the most i could discern from off-grid living was that when too many appliances try to draw current from a 12V/24V/48V system – one far lower than an AC voltage of 110v (USA) or 220v (UK) – there what’s called a voltage drop. You know when the bare lightbulb suddenly and inexplicably dims before shining brighter again. This, I later learned, is attributable to a fall in electrical pressure, which is essentially what voltage is. The phenomenon of this can be best imagined in cosmology documentaries where a distant star becomes a supernova, suddenly dimming before emitting a brilliant light in the night sky. Anyway, point is I had no inkling at all into the practicalities of surviving off-grid until I actually decided to try it. And try i did.

Initially, the feeling was euphoric. No more utility bills. Atonement for all those ecological crimes i partook of in the Gulf. Rapid diminution of carbon footprint, from gargantuan to nearly invisible. When the experiment in living commenced, it was the height of summer. Solar panels on the boat’s roof trickle-charged batteries, creating a false sense of power security. So convinced was I of the limitless benefits of going off-line that for that entire summer of 2019 I lived like there was no tomorrow: effectively consuming similar joules of energy than i had in a house. Unfortunately for me, gauging the true depth of discharge of those batteries, to whom i owed so much, did not become apparent until the gloomy autumn set in. By this time, so late in the year, long-term damage had been done to the 880Ah of lead-acid batteries. Plus, the solar panels were about as much use through a sunless English autumn/winter as a propeller in sand.

Sometimes the most enduring lessons to learn are also the hardest. It just so happened that the winter of 2019 was among the wettest on record. Noah would have been able to profit handsomely from starting an ark-building business had he been alive in that year. From the first ominous spatter in late September, that rain did not abate until the middle of March 2020. Living under the miserable deluge infinitely complicated the process of surviving off-grid life with relative comfort. Instead, as the batteries began their slow descent into decrepitude and death, the boat’s voltage meter reported a sorry tale of exhaustion with every reading. Just to get through the long evenings with a modicum of lamp light, heat and hot food in my belly, the trade-off was either to run a droning 2kw suitcase generator for hours on end each and every day under the rain, burning unleaded fuel and ruining my chances of salvation, or else run the boat’s powerful diesel engine. Restrictions applied by both methods. Running the genny meant, lest it end up stolen from a public towpath, i had to be in residence while it was going. The noise was incessant, not altogether dissimilar to the thrum of a billion hornets all descending on me. Try keeping your concentration when that din is going all day, and while people parade past your window gawping in to admire the designer kitchen. While the other method for supplying raw power to increase voltage in order to run every on-board system from plugs to pumps to central heating – the boat’s engine – never really deep-cycled the batteries for the simple reason that every 12v battery responds to an input charge voltage of a certain capacity, which the engine could never reach (it needed 14.7v but only put out 14.4v).

Talk about the best-laid plans o mice and men going awry. 250kg of lead-acid battery dumped after one year of chronic abuse. A replacement set costing a small fortune. A tonne and a half of coal burnt to keep the chronic dampness and cold out. Hundreds and hundreds of litres of diesel burnt to run on-board central heating, as well as to partially recharge the batteries. Hundreds of litres of unleaded fuel used to keep the suitcase genny sweet. A sizeable investment in solar panels, panels which for the half of the year you truly need them are conspicuous by their absence to deliver any volts whatsoever. It’s not even the off-grid burning of so many hydrocarbons that bothered me the most: it was the almost permanent state of hyper-alertness, apprehension and even anxiety, just waiting for the red low voltage warning light to blink on. Moreover, that one’s life is now going to be totally dictated to by the whims of auxiliary power. You cannot stop thinking about it. Constantly monitoring the situation; always on edge, twitching to pay back the battery bank for every little withdrawal of amps you make on a daily basis. I mean, how is anyone supposed to relax when providing domestic power becomes an almost obsessional challenge equal to servicing personal loans and debts.

The 99% who turn to mains power as a solution for modern power-intensive living: how could they ever know how taxing it is to manage the off-grid life? I didn’t until I unplugged the cable from shore power. Once the brief honeymoon period ended, the reality hit hard. Now, I believe if you are blessed enough to live in a perennially sunny spot below Latitude 45 degrees, living off grid by means of a large solar array is definitely do-able. Equally, tapping geo-thermal hotspots in your Icelandic backyard would work nicely, too. However, the indulgence of trying such a modus vivendi in a kingdom of rains and dirty grey clouds, like this one, by my reckoning is a challenge too great for most mortals. It was for me. I don’t want to face these uphill struggles through the dark of autumn and winter any more. Not here. Not now.

Human effort is not measured, thankfully, in amps. All experience is good experience, save for murder, incest and animal cruelty. At least i tried. And no one can take that away from me.

To Save First We Have To Spend

biodiversity, civilisation, climate, conservation, developing world, development, ecological economism, Ecology, environment, ethics, future, international development, land ownership, rainforest

“You can take the title to your house to the bank and borrow money. Why? Because the market puts value on a house. We need to see rainforest at that same value level,” he says. “Conservation has to be market-driven. The long-term benefits of a healthy forest are more valuable than the short-term profits from logging or mining.”

Dane Gobin, Iwokrama Forest Management, Guyana (Bloomberg, 2019)

For decades methods have been applied about how best to arrest the process of deforestation in the world’s tropical regions. Everyone from international development agencies to Hollywood greenies have gone all out, doing everything from berating, and even ostracizing governments in affected regions, to incentivising them with the promise of aid, legitimacy and investment if only they would quit the logging.

The argument to conserve biodiversity over the argument to develop economically has traditionally come down to a binary ethical one. Western voices have persistently pleaded on the basis that deforestation – whether it be for lumber, squatting, mining, or slash-and-burn farming of cash crops – is an immoral act that not only deprives countless millions of species of a roof over their heads, but also degrades the quality of soil, air and of the lives of every man, woman, and child in the wider world. The value, therefore, of each hardwood tree, each prowling jaguar, and each creeping vine is in and of itself incalculable – or at least with a value exceeding the sum parts of the commodities that loggers, farmers and miners seek when despoiling the rainforest in the first place. Western thinking goes thus: stay in your sprawling shanty towns; let nature be; allow only indigenes the right to dwell in biodiversity hotspots. But in a world of nearly 8 billion ambitious souls, most of whom live in what’s called the Global South where most of the real biodiversity lies broken against a backdrop of poverty, squalor and deep structural inequality, what then?

Making Borneo into one great National Park, or keeping the Amazon as a primordial world, is all well and fine, but does it really chime with our contemporary mood? Making nature exempt from commodification and monetary value was part of a conservation mindset popular during the heyday of the National Park system in the early to mid twentieth century (think the USA under Teddy Roosevelt). Let’s ring fence the beautiful places in perpetuity, which worked beautifully in wild places such as Yosemite. But today, given the mess we’re in what with a toxic blend of population pressure, degraded environment, and a model of capitalism espousing the greatest consumption for the greatest number to produce the greatest happiness, how durable is the view that wilderness should remain untouched? Isn’t it time to take other, more radical, measures to safeguard the last remaining wild places?

Look around and what becomes apparent is not that the old paradigm is changing. Moreover, it’s that it has to. Under the pressure of realpolitik, of shrinking public spaces, of expansive corporate reach, and of burgeoning populations hell bent on getting a slice of that consumer pie, closing off vast swathes of so-called virgin territory is creating a rift between governments and their people, and more importantly between the reality of the situation and the perception of how to solve it. If not, then how come the more that developing countries (as well as a few developed ones) have tightened their environmental laws over the past generation, the more incursions we see made by various players and the greater the overall dismantling of the biosphere within the primary forest? Within this paradox, political populists hostile to established models of conservation can stand on ceremony with the promise of making pots of money for everyone from what they see as their own – and not the planet’s – natural patrimony.

Seen by populist governments in heavily-populated developing countries as symptomatic of the Western tendency toward paternalism towards the regions these great powers used to rule, in some unpopular cases, such as Brazil and Indonesia, the world has seen in recent years a worrying acceleration in the acreage of virgin forest felled for lumber, cash crops, and the riches that lie beneath the forest floor. And what is the motive that belies this degradation we see in spite of decades of lobbying and campaigning for an end to wilful and unsanctioned deforestation? Why are things, in some sense, worse than anyone could have imagined even twenty years ago? Well, in the words of Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian Environment minister under Jair Bolsonaro’s polemic presidency, the reality goes a bit like this:

“We need to recognise that there are real subjects living in the Amazon,” Mr Salles said, referring to the 20m people living in the Amazon. “So we need to give a concrete response to them, and not simply saying that they cannot do anything in the area of the Amazon. That is not reasonable, it is not even feasible.” (Financial Times, 2019)

By promulgating the moral argument for making the Amazon one gigantic exclusion zone for the millions of restless, economically-challenged people living in its vast surrounds, it seems that no lasting progress can be made. The old model, backed by rich, industrialised countries, many of whom have already laid waste to their own primary forests, is turning out to be a dud. Their appeal to goodness based on the ethical presumption that ‘just because we did it to get rich, to develop our nation state, you shouldn’t necessarily follow’, is now clearly falling on deaf ears. Populism has fostered defiance among the developing states in the equatorial belt. The rising power of China as an ideological counterweight to the traditional Western hegemony is emboldening states, such as Brazil, to let ecocide reign so long as the conditions for human inequality persist. Alongside this, the vast improvements in global supply-chain logistics has smoothed the way for biodiversity loss to become one big concerted effort. Salles’ justification for this lawlessness rife on the fringes of the great Amazonian basin is clearly viewable in these terms. He elaborates the point:

‘That is why people go over to the illegal activities… because they don’t have a space to do something within the law.’

Are we hearing the makings of policy based on the precepts of what is known as ecological economics? This idea is not exactly hot off the press, but it is beginning to demand attention. With the UN’s Millennium Development Goals teetering on the brink, something has to give. And that, unfortunately, is policy attachment to the notion of deep ecology. As outlined previously in this article, building policy goals around a shared ethic that one can never put a price on nature, has proved a bridge too far, and this failure is seen in terms of unsustainable losses to tropical biodiversity in this century alone. Purists might baulk at the idea, but monetising a forest and all that’s in it might just be the one compelling way to make business, and all the rogues that dwell on its fringes, sit up and listen. Speak their language. It’s called cash. Easy to learn; tough to forget.

So, what does monetisation of nature mean in principle? According to Barbara Unmüßig of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, that conservation efforts can be bolstered and public sympathy heightened by revealing an economic contribution of nature and the services it can provide. This translates as tradable prices for ecosystem services. We can encapsulate these wider definitions into what I would term ‘natural capital/equity’. Measuring nature with economic indicators over a tradition of measuring nature, sui generis, against other ethical considerations still has a touch of the abstract to it. So, in short, ecological economism really boils down to saying, look, if you want this patch of forest you’ll have to show you truly value it by paying a high tariff for it. Ergo, those who would place such high stakes on their own economic future, and that of their corporate interests, would therefore place an enormous value on natural capital, to the extent that it would be safer in private hands (acting as a trust) than at the mercy of prohibitive legislation that invariably ends up breached by corrupt officials and short-term prospectors anyway.

If the past fifty years have amply shown that the world doesn’t quite agree on an absolute value placed on nature, it has always contrastingly shown that free market capitalism has been instrumental in placing absolute value on something so long as it can be considered commodity. No one quibbles with the price the market sets, after all. And this is where the problem lies: is it right to commodify nature? Does doing so lead to privatisation by other means? Where governments have failed, can the private sector, including the world’s investment bankers, step into the fray and actually flick the switch on ecological damage and destruction? In short, is it better to harvest a tropical hardwood than to fell it? For the tree, the answer is an unqualified yes. But for the guy who wants a quick hit of capital from the lumber, or he who desires the empty space left once the tree goes, what then? Even this radical idea (well, radical for our modern age) has its limitations. Without applying what Unmüßig terms the precautionary principle – the principle that the higher the risk to the natural environment, the greater the justification must be for a stakeholder to take such action – monetization of the natural world can all too easily slide into the kind of excessive commodification that drives Man to desire ownership and control over every tangible thing. We all know where that leads. And this instinct of tearing down only to build up, or to destroy in order to prosper, can only be moderated at the levels of governance and legislation. Which brings us back to the old ways of trying to combat ecocide.

Perhaps, there is a way, though. A new modus operandi where some ecosystems can thrive while we survive. And all in a more symbiotic, a more mutually-beneficial way. The Selva Maya is an area of tropical jungle spanning three countries: Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. A 150,000 sq km biodiversity hotspot containing no less than five species of big cat, La Selva Maya has recently been acquired at cost by conservation groups with money to put into something other than publicity and administration (Guardian, 22/04/21) Thanks to direct purchasing from the national government of Belize (i believe), this splodge of megadiverse, pristine forest finds itself now perpetually protected. Barring a constitutional catastrophe in Belize, nothing large-scale will ever again encroach on the fragile makeup of the forest. By any measure, what has happened here is a great thing for nature. And by extension, for the whole world. In purchasing the forest, conservation groups have clearly come out in the open, admitting that a monetary value – whatever it is – has been agreed with the previous custodians of the land. However, the arrangement seeks not to commodify what has been purchased, ironically, as a commodity. The contents of the forest will not be up for negotiation, or fair game for the highest bidder. No, that would miss the point.

The best analogy i can come up with for the money paid is that of a ransom. The right people now have the title deeds in their name, and presumably their business model is to leave the place the hell alone to simply be. If enough consortiums can come together to purchase small, affordable patches of rich biota, mainly rainforest, along the entire equator, then we might just begin to witness a joining of the dots until one day every last hectare that was bought by conservationists will start to outweigh the great green spaces on the map occupied by the industrialists, the agronomists, and the settlers, all content with one thing: to bleed nature for all she’s worth. By that point, capitalization of all natural ‘assets’ will be so valuable as to be out of the price league of every sinister corporation or corrupted government.

There is a faint whiff of Thatcherism in all this. In the early 1980s, with Britain exhausted and failing miserably, she encouraged affordable home ownership, and what transpired? Newly privately-owned homes across the kingdom didn’t get trashed; many actually ended up beautified where everyone become a vested stakeholder. The nature wars are reminiscent of her era. Whether humanity continues with the short-term strategy of raid and pillage until no booty is left, or the long-term one of benign ownership at a dollar price – monetising nature without commodifying her – we are, it seems, at a critical juncture. The race is on. It’s all to play for.

Flying Over Planet Lockdown on a Magic Carpet Ride

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It’s 2030. Imagine you could select anything from home to power your low-level flight around the planet. It wouldn’t be the stressed planet we have come to know. It would still be a human planet, but one rather unashamedly changed from the one you knew and despaired of back in 2020.

The overhyped pandemic of 2020, the one that had the world all in a panic to the point where it effectively closed human activity down, produced unexpected outcomes. No one quite knew it at the time, but the quarantining of humanity inadvertently gave breathing space to all terrestrial life that had been trampled in the poisoned dirt since the mid-20th century. Gone were the crisscross scars of vapour trails from planes all across the sky. Gone too were the ‘conjunctivitis domes’ that enclosed all but a few cities and towns in hazy, acrid pollution. More than anything, gone was the constant background noise of society consuming itself into an early grave. At first, even the most misanthropic kept tight-lipped about how the lockdown was having anything but a deleterious effect on them. They wanted to tell everyone about how delirious with happiness they were, that they were reconnecting with the world around, how the spring had never seemed so polarised with deep colours, and how the silence of everywhere had led to a great sonic peace across the entire sky. While patients with Coronavirus were gasping for their last breath, the guilty enjoyment of the majority who bore no symptoms seemed unutterable. But as the lockdown went on, more and more started to admit there was an upside to the downside of putting industrial society on ice for a while. While they cited different reasons for secretly enjoying the mass meditation retreat that the world had become, a common theme began to emerge. The average Joe and Joanne hadn’t been happy for a long time, but it was only through the Covid lockdown that it struck them exactly why.

I would select my cherished silk-on-silk rug from Kashmir as my means of transport, the one I bought for a princely sum from Kashmiris in a bazaar in old Kathmandu. The colour is light green with pink woven into the borders. When you brush your hand across it, the sweep turns it darker or lighter, not unlike suede. The pattern is distinctive: 32 geometric panels depicting the Islamic Garden of Paradise, including pomegranate trees, arbours, plant pots and rambling rose. Tradition tells that this is a design from the revered Iranian town of Qom, from where the finest silk rugs and carpets on Earth are spun by weavers with magic fingers. Hence, magic carpets. If not that precious (and surprisingly tough) silk rug, I have another I’d consider riding on over a changed world in 2021. This one is an Islamic prayer rug (although I do not profess to be a man of any faith, other than faith in myself). I bought it from a reliable dealer in the Emirates, but the thing itself was woven in Northern Afghanistan and is exceptionally beautiful. Not of silk, this short-pile rug is of the finest wool dyed with the madder root into a colour resembling the dark dried blood of many an Afghan who has spilled their veins throughout the long war. Yes, my choice of long-haul air transport would be either the Kashmir silk rug or the Afghan prayer rug. Then again, for spaciousness there’s also that large tribal kilim from Tabriz in my collection. I could spread out on that during my transcontinental flyover. I’ll need a flying jacket and goggles, as it might get chilly, breezy and bumpy riding up there on the thermals. Oh, and my Leica monocular, too, so I can peer into the lives of others, and to see how the wildlife is coming along.

The roots of popular unhappiness, more and more started to realise, were becoming evident in the pleasant results the lockdown had produced on the wider world. Where the pace of life had been pulling us at 5Gs in a centrifuge, instead of being forced outwards the lockdown had now turned the force inward, to where we were all falling forward together into an attractive centre, which I call a natural equilibrium. Where previously few had any time for anyone else, they now found themselves devoting newfound time to the human relations they once held at the fulcrum of their world. Where many were being sucked into deadly debt traps, they now saw another possibility for an economic model that extolled the simple, organic life. Where many couldn’t sleep for the din of a society that had turned into a screaming lunatic asylum, quiet lockdown nights brought quiescence to tortured minds. It also revealed what had always been there but droned out: birdsong, and other naturally-occurring sounds. Where tens of thousand of species teetered on the brink of extinction due to human unwillingness to share, humanity finally agreed that the wild places were too few and the tamed ones too many. Monoculture changed in the agri business. Farmers were now harvesting goodies from the broad-leafed forests they had let grow in the vacuum of brown fields whose soil was depleted to the point of exhaustion. Animals that had resisted extirpation by laying low during the worst of our planetary abuses, and generally driven to the edge by our selfish species, followed suit. Population policy aimed at natural reduction, allowing crops to be grown vertically in great agri-towers that ran on sunlight. Where our industrial-age fear of the dark had produced so much halogen light to power society through night after night, so the lights went off and the stars returned to twinkle over what were sulphurous megacities. Something else unexpected returned: the sun. The industrial age had whipped up a dynasty of stormy weather by seeding every cloud with effluents and contaminants into raining. Gone was the chromatic aberration caused by poor air quality. Now the portrait of the planet looked pin sharp and didn’t we know it.

A revolution in the mind happened soon after the lifting of the 2020 lockdown. People wanted it back. They may not have professed to wanting thousands dead of a pathogen, but what they did want was to mitigate the disastrous effects of the human project by blocking off one month in every year where systems ground practically to a halt; where only essential distribution services, such as food and medicine and so forth remained a mainstay priority. Of course, they were compensated financially, but this would decrease over time as we moved away from heavy borrowing and high expenditure market economics to an ecological model of sustainable productivity. So, there you are on the magic carpet, skirting over the planet.

Ten years have past since the lockdown revolution/revelation of 2020. The annual month of fallow is now enshrined in UN law. Every nation is a signatory. Even the U.S., that resisted for so long because it was a concept engineered through the myth of the American Dream to exist only by maximising capital gains in every overworked American, even they got on board. China remains the dark horse: tense on the issue because the Chinese are caught between their philosophical tradition of Taoism and their love of making money by ramping up industry to ridiculous levels. Europe, being the old man, was at the forefront of the new paradigm for living. The Continentals approved wholeheartedly of this nouvelle approach to tempering things down.

Mechanisms were put in place to ensure that the other eleven months are not abused by the rush to over-productivity, as this habit came to be scoffed at for its backward greed motive. As a burned-out race we started mellowing. Our eyes were evermore open to the great clockwork of nature and how we – contrary to the proud fools that modernity and progress had made us – had broadly accepted our fixed role as a cog in that natural machinery, and not – contrary to the arrogance of our predecessors – as its clockmaker. Delegates even took to doling out liberal sprinklings of Gandhi’s wisdom that we live simply so that we may simply live.

What do you see, future me, when you look down from way up high on that Afghan rug in the new blue sky?

Springtime Of Our Lockdown

Britain, climate, conservation, Coronavirus, counter-culture, Covid-19, crisis, death, earth, environment, fate, free will, future, Hinduism, human mind, Liberalism, Life, Lifestyle, meditations, natural world, nature, neglect, pandemic, People, philosophy, Planet Earth, Political Culture, Politics, Reflections, thoughts

While we wither indoors, out there something profound is happening. Nature is back with a bloom. Can anyone remember it being so resplendent? So full of seasonal promise?

I’m asking myself how an annual event can seem to take on another dimension. Yet spring is springing with a wicked spring in its tail. Animals have returned to wander down paths long blocked to them. Goats window shopping in abandoned Welsh seaside towns; boars doing the passeggiata down silent streets in Bergamo; dolphins nosing around now crystal-clear canals in Venice in the absence of gondoliers sticking their bloody oars in everywhere. Hell! Even the tender shoots of first budding look that bit more sharp-suited, greener than usual. The sky, not so anaemic. The signs, far from being ominous to any life form other than us, are encouraging. If this is what the world’s end looks like, I’m signing up to it. The whole thing is beginning to feel like a massive teleological event: a reckoning that pits us against each other, and ourselves. What did Churchill once say? “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Can it be that Humanity pulls off a civilisational coup, foreclosing on the disastrous Age of Kali (see William Dalrymple’s 1998 travelogue for explanation, or else anyone of eight hundred million Hindus) for a gentler, more enlightened epoch? Could the pandemic be the hidden catalyst for it? Probably not, but the thought is a fitting one given the wonder show that nature puts on while we succumb to fear of personal extinction in our homes under the curfew of self-isolation. While a wholesale regeneration of purity in nature at the expense of human resource rape-&-pillage might be a bit much to hope for, certainly the lockdown can generate a paradigm shift in how people work, and in how we spend our few precious days on this Earth.

Yesterday I stopped by a glade of glistening wild garlic by the roadside. Ordinarily, cars would be humming past with such regularity that no one in their right mind would have pulled over on their bicycles to pick a bunch of nature’s own – a little crop of green goodness that went into the making of wild garlic pesto. In the absence of pandemic, would i have so much as done this? No. Am I better for having done so? Categorically, yes.

This reckoning, by which one refers to a near cessation of frenzied (and highly destructive) activity, which has come to characterise the Human Project over the past forty years, enables a beleaguered and frankly overwhelmed world a chance to hit reset. That great ferris wheel of civilisation that turns ever faster, drawing in and spitting out hapless human victims all the time, has ground to a halt for (shall we say) a spot of maintenance. While it lays motionless, finally we get the chance to stop being mesmerised by its whirring circulation, and start taking in the 360 degree view that was perilously neglected all the while.

Now is the springtime of our being (unless you live in the southern hemisphere in which case you’re on for a revolutionary autumn). Those who are in the gutter looking up at stars over cities that are not only shining but coruscating for the first time in the modern age, will they necessarily want a straight return to an orange-sodium sky above their heads, planes roaring overhead? Those realising that the job they are doing from home unexpectedly through lockdown can be done from home post-lockdown, will they desire an immediate return to crammed commuter lines full of sleepy, barely-approachable worker drones? All of us who may take our one hour of daily exercise (which in reality morphs into about four as the conditions are so favourable, and as time has taken on a more elastic property), we who can stroll down lanes untrammelled by the impatient thud of footsteps, do we want necessarily to cash in the quietude for a ride on the capitalist wheel of fortune again?

The spectre of death clears the field. If there were ever a moment to stop and smell the roses, it is now. If there were ever a moment to ask ourselves: what do each of us want from this fleeting life, and what are we prepared to leave behind when the fire goes out? Now is the time. A gift has been offered to us in the form of mass global quarantining. From this renewal nature may stand a fighting chance while for our part we may gain absolution from mass collective sin. Now I don’t quite know what kind of force is behind these weird developments, but whatever orchestrated them is giving Humanity an open window for opportunity to refashion ourselves into a life force that goes with the seasons, instead of one that signifies such damage and ecological destruction that the seasons themselves cease to be what they were. That window will all but certainly blow shut with the first shunt of summer wind against the pane. While we’re all locked down, let’s make room for the other tenants that call Earth their home, too. When the time comes to fling open our doors again, let goodness flow out and everywhere.

Get Covid Done!

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He didn’t see this one coming. To be fair, no one did, but other nations saw it before it was too late and were able to act. Now that roughly 20% of humanity is officially in lockdown, there are few things either The Boris or The Donald want more than for Covid-19 to disappear up its own spiky protein. But not necessarily for compassionate reasons. Rather, British and American decision makers, laden down by their unique political histories involving liberty and personal freedom, plus economic histories involving conquest and greed, are desperate to get back to the business of business as usual. Discomfort shows in their every contradictory pronouncement. For Trump, Covid-19 threatens to undermine his masterplan to Make America Great Again. Extrapolations on the data are already making for disturbing reading in the Oval Office. Be gone! Or we’ll find a way to switch back on the Christmas lights, with or without you – that’s the underlying message. By forcing Covid-19 into a hasty exit from the world stage, the Twenty-First Century’s first pandemic becomes an artefact of the past, an irritant, allowing the engine of Industrial Capitalism to crank up again.

I’ve heard it said that this mass quarantining, with all the supply-chain grogginess accompanying it, will contain a hidden bounce. We’ll learn through it to curtail our insatiability for goods, we’ll slow down, start taking in our immediate surrounds, take stock of what it’s all about. Nature, hating vacuums, will step in again, guiding us onto the right track.

But the cynic in me thinks the opposite will happen. The bounce we’ll see will represent another existential threat to life on earth because the global capitalist system will go into overdrive to compensate for lost productivity we see right now. As happened in the decade following the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu, the world made strides of unimaginable distance (even to the point of pioneering the very cure that nailed infection: antibiotics). In 1929, the world economy overheated and Wall St. imploded, just to underline the Capitalist frenzy that was the 1920s, which was supposed to have been an era stopped in its pre-1914 tracks. I thought the whole point of the industrial and microbial mass killing of the 1910s was that in the 20s the world would to be cowed by the horror of what they had experienced: sent homewards to think again. Logic determines that the high-rev 1920’s that did eventuate should never have been. We should have been slowed into digesting the shock of living through an aftermath of 100 million dead by Influenza, on top of the 20 million killed in the Great War. Instead the opposite happened. Where the late 1910s whimpered, the 1920s roared. That was the lesson humanity learned: not to eat humble pie, but to throw it back in the world’s face.

The 1918-19 influenza preyed on mainly the young (unlike this one): killing upwards of 100 million of them when world population was about one quarter of what it is today. On an interesting note, to match Spanish Flu’s global death rate, this one would have to claim upwards of 400 million lives. Irrespective of however many lives this virus will ultimately take relative to 1918-1919, one thing’s for sure: players of influence in world affairs will ensure the 2020s will roar like the 1920s. The same industries that devise global networks of fantastic intricacy and infectious energy are ready and primed for action. As soon as it can, the global supply chain will. Though flummoxed by this global pandemonium, industry is spring-loaded, and when this virus runs its course, production will go into interstellar overdrive.

In short, we’ll be picking off natural resources at a rate that’ll equate to where we’d be had this so-called ‘Chinese Virus’ never broken out in the first place, in that sinister live market in Wuhan. The Government here in the UK tarried more than most, not wanting to disrupt civic and, more importantly, commercial life. Laying down curfews while turning off the mercantile-financial tap, is not how affairs are conducted on these stubborn and defiant isles. Britain, above all other nations, is historically bound to the idea of a liberty that each person supposedly wears under their soul. Liberal democracy rests upon consent between ruler and ruled. Lack of consent is taken to be authoritarianism, a next step to despotism with the bloody curfews and martial law that denotes. This notion of multi-party consent runs strongly along an historical arc that reaches back even further than the Magna Carta and into the mists of our Celtic and Anglo-Saxon past. Telling people unconditionally that they must remain indoors is even more anathema to the governing class than it is to a broad swathe of the population who don’t much appreciate being told what to do.

Boris Johnson is a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian. He is an arch advocate of liberty in conduct, providing that conduct does not impinge negatively on others. And therein lies the rub. His dilemma is knowing that liberty of conduct very obviously involves impinging negatively on others by the mere act of standing within six feet of them. Johnson must have delivered his emergency measures with heavy heart. And his moral conflict reveals itself in the mixed reaction of the people he governs who are right now getting out and enjoying the sunshine of early spring. They’ll take their chances, thank you very much. Even if that means a brush with Coronavirus.

On the first day of national lockdown – possibly the first mass quarantine in modern history – I personally witnessed a populace so unmoved by the spectre of mass infection, so determined to get out to feel washed by the warmth of a sun that seemed to abandon us last September, as to render the whole seriousness a joke. From my home on the water by the canal towpath leading out of Bath, England, hundreds came my way. A near unbroken stream of cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, lovers, couples, and nature lovers went past all contented to be engaged in the very thing they most wanted to do. And as the day progressed the crowds grew in number until quite breezily potential hosts eclipsed one another going in opposite directions. You’d have thought it was a bank holiday.

We”re now on day two, and the crowds have yet to abate while the sun clings on.

Those who pass by in their multitudes are a stolid and resilient people, although not daft enough to risk compromising their health, well not knowingly. Except they’ve seen the gathering storm, so why do they risk making a mockery out of the famous tea towel mantra of Carry On and Keep Calm? Selfishness is undoubtedly an aspect of this because who is out there reminding the Great British Public that it’s not themselves they risk harming by turning their one daily allowance of exercise into a three-hour stroll with picnic on the side? But there lurks something beneath the brittle mantle of selfish inconsideration. It’s the liberty, stupid!

The tradition of English and American liberalism in so imbued in our respective political cultures that suffocating the virus by the act of imposing belated curfews, and even drafting in the army to enforce a national lockdown, will be a tough sell to a begrudging population (in American election year) who are all for stamping out sickness for a return to normal but without compromising their right to free will and consumer choice too much. When governments in London and Washington start doing the modern equivalent of posting decrees on town halls and church doors across the land, a liberty-spoilt people will want to see that their personal sacrifices were worth the effort of not going outdoors on sunny days. You can’t always see that with disease, pestilence and plague. Furthermore, if life-threatening illness has never factored into your life, why give up a good, long stroll along the canal on a fine spring day when the songbirds are trilling happily for the sake of a vulnerable stranger whose contraction of Covid-19 cannot be scientifically traced back to you, you who might carry it without symptoms?

Trump and Johnson, perhaps more than other world leaders, desire a speedy and tidy end to this drawn-out mess. They see the collapse of the global free-trade mercantilist system as the worst kind of pandemic. Investors are losing money; distribution centres lie stocked and undelivered. The wheels are coming off the bus one by one. It doesn’t matter that the passengers aboard the bus are catching something nasty, for the point is that it’s the bus that counts, and not the passengers it carries. Where there’s money to be made, unnamed figures of policy influence don’t fancy Covid-19 to turn into another Brexit paralysis, even if that means the cities like London and New York feel the sting in the tail of the Covid-19 scorpion: a disproportionate outbreak due to deep ambivalence about making NYC into the city that sleeps all the time. Libertarianism will take a hit. A beautiful idea rendered pointless by the need to be ordered where to go and when. Johnson and Trump are deeply wedded to the principles of libertarianism and will be loathe to rule without it.

When all is said and done, Johnson and Trump just want to get Covid done!

Whatever Happened to the Sunshine after the Rain?

Britain, British Isles, climate, conservation, developing world, earth, environment, extreme weather events, natural history, natural world, nature, Ocean, Oddities, People, philosophy, Planet Earth, thoughts, weather, Wildlife

Life, so they say, can be stranger than fiction. This fact, or rather this fiction, can be evident in everything from the unexpected to the plainly weird. We see it when we view the world as a stage full of actors, props, scripts, and backdrops. You only have to cast an eye back to Macbeth (life…the poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage) to know that even the Bard agreed with me on this score. Life as theatre; landscape as backdrop; weather as atmosphere. It’s hard sometimes to frame even the most staid human life without the injection of a little dramatic licence. The actor’s role may be minor, his input stuttering at best, but life being theatre the director can always throw in a little squall of wind and rain from the rafters to enliven the backdrop, as well as to defy Shakespeare by making life signify something instead of nothing.

The unnamed stage director – the identity of who or what is behind all this is a question for the ages – has seen fit to sprinkle onto his now dreary play that pixie dust that might help pick up the pace. With the play in a lull, and with not a great deal to stir the protagonist into something approaching life, attention turns to props that fill the backdrop so as to crank up the drama. In a near-perfect mirror image of one man’s life and its fictional mise-en-scène, the backdrop outside my window more than compensates for a dearth in action on stage. Outside an ill wind throttles trees, horizons are blighted by the murk of an uncertain present time, and what falls as rain falls always. In the theatre of fiction, even there they’d struggle to keep up with the scene out there.

The same rain that hath come, goes not. Like a burrowed cancer it refuses to yield. I thought the apocalypse was the sole bringer of incessant rain. In the Blade Runner an ecocide caused by meddling Man has bruised the sky such it bleeds rain unceasingly. In Apocalypse Now, Marlow’s painted face is washed unclean by a tropical downpour as he creeps upon Colonel Kurtz to deliver the bloody coup-de-grace. In the Old Testament, God sends the almighty heavens to wash away the sins of Man, but not before Noah can construct an Ark of salvation for the innocents. How wrong can a man be? This is no apocalypse now. This is an island but not unto itself. Rather, it sits on the edge of a vast, churning ocean of grey. That ocean has a big old surface area and on that surface the water temperature is creeping up such that the water cycle is heating up. More prone to evaporation in the warmer winter months, more driven by a stronger Jet Stream, the quantities of rain are becoming prodigious. The frequency of this natural event has gone from what is sublime – a thing of beauty when rain comes only when rain needs to fall for plants to regenerate and for rivers to replenish themselves – to what is absolutely ridiculous.

Here in this region of England’s SouthWest, it has rained practically every day since the end of September. I thought these meteorological conditions were the preserve of film noir, graphic novels, and dark, sinister fictions. But no. Life, as we know it here, has emerged stranger than fiction. And like the strangers no longer welcome to Brexit Britain 2.0, the strangeness of seeing rain every day for months on end, well, let’s just say the wet has outstayed its welcome, too.

How has it come to this? Speaking personally, not eighteen months ago and I was positioned at the edge of a vast empty quarter where life was also stranger than fiction. There, the rain fell so infrequently we assumed it had been engineered to make its annual appearance on National Day. Some said the Air Force existed purely to seed constipated clouds that refused to precipitate. When it fell, it took more airborne dust than water with it. Touching earth, the drops fizzled before withered roots had the chance to prosper, though now and again flash flooding would send cascades down parched valleys, turning the deadened mountainsides green with a Lazarus resuscitation. Fast forward eighteen months, the inverse has become the new norm. Different place, same old shit. An Age of Extremes is where we are at. Over here, we’ll soon need the Red Arrows to disperse the clouds just to reassure a benighted people that there is a sun somewhere in the sky.

These are funny times indeed. How rare that you can travel the world in search of extremes only to come back ‘home’ and find conditions you’d struggle to find even in India during the monsoon. All of October, all of November, December, January, and now well into the third week of February. When will it end? Can the clouds deliver so much without respite that the land can take no more? Once rivers have burst their banks and storm drains froth and bubble like the blood-soaked mouth of an Ebola victim, where can all this water go? It seeps underground into vast subterranean chambers and hidden river systems until all the caverns are drowned and the soil beneath our feet starts spouting little springs in the oddest of places. And still the developers buy up the last remaining acres of cheap land on floodplains where they lay their flimsy foundations to sell onward those dream homes that would be better-suited built with a hull, a prow and a stern ready for the inevitable. And still we refuse to advocate the slow and humane replacement of burgeoning human populations with tree saplings that nature anoints into magnificent sponges whose roots drink their fill and much more. Life is indeed stranger than fiction.

There was a time before us when Gaia (the living, breathing skin of the Earth) posed the greatest challenges to life on Earth while providing the greatest answers to them all. It threw everything at itself and then brushed it off. Every action had a reaction, which was beautifully synergised. Mother Nature led a three billion-year dynasty of dynamic equilibrium. I don’t know if we are capable of such balancing acts. We stand on the high wire but only to teeter on the brink. This weird weather would indicate she is growing ever impatient. Sensing our human shortcomings, will natural forces wrest back control? Will she return to lavish the sunlight on these dark, soddened corners? When again will fiction take back its claim to be stranger than life? I’ll tell you when. Only when Man goes back to what he does best, writing strange fiction, will nature go back to what she does best, writing the beautiful story of life.

In a Kingdom of Rains, How to Depose the Monarch?

climate, desert, England, Landscapes, Life, Lifestyle, meditations, nature, oman, philosophy, Travel, Uncategorized

There’s nothing quite like a hard landing. For anyone in the business of staying sane, perhaps a misguided strategy is to go, without the alleviating effect of a transition, from one extreme of climate to another. The worst delusion of all is to think the chances of acclimatising successfully in such contrasting conditions of sun and rain as being favourable.

To put you in the frame, outside my window the rain rolls down the pane all triumphant. Now this feature has become somewhat of a stock-in-trade as far as this wet, SouthWest English climate is concerned. For what seems like time immemorial (the statistical truth is that the rain has fallen prodigiously on an already damp-prone region over the past two months, and if anything the nearby North Atlantic has gone a bit more bonkers around the annual Hurricane season than usual) outdoor pursuits have been notably curtailed. Living on a boat, at least I’ve got hatches to literally batten down, so i’m true to the old adage. Cold comfort there. That feeling of being imprisoned within four dry walls under a roof where the rain hasn’t yet found a means of ingress feels like an addition to that custodial sentence. In fact, i’d go as far as to aver that the time-added-on to the sentence is taking on an air of the old Gulag justice, not knowing when or indeed if you’ll ever see daylight again.

The damp air of despondency wouldn’t rankle so much if, say, what came before I strayed into this realm of rains was something akin. That would entail, for instance, preceding this by living somewhere in Northern Europe where it doesn’t rain quite as exaggeratedly, but rains healthily nonetheless between fairly sustained bouts of strong sunlight. Let’s face it, you could even use Spain as a transitory point to reacclimatise to the England’s SouthWest. Contrary to popular belief, the rain in Spain does not fall mainly on the plain; it falls everywhere, too. Here in cider country (i knew where they got the apples, and now i know where they get the water to make the brew) man cannot live on puddles alone, but these men and women find that they do, coping quite stolidly along the way. Anyhoo, in my case, I started this climate odyssey from the borderlands of Oman. I spent years by the Indian Ocean under the blazing eye of the Arabian sun, where rain, when it occasioned to visit, brought gasps of astonishment from local Arabs who saw its presence as proof positive that God had not forsaken them. For the many Indians there I think the sight of black clouds reminded them of the relief of the monsoon. The rain there took with it all the microscopic motes of dust that hung suspended for months in the lower atmosphere, so when eventually a freak raincloud did pass over, it fell with all the dust contained within its droplets. It turned rusted, deadened mountains green overnight. Dusty but overdue, That is rain most would agree is very welcome for a short, intense stay.

Cut to Somerset. Now, i don’t doubt that these are exceptional times. Extreme human rapacity and a striking lack of care and sensitive handling with respect to our natural world, have, some say, pushed Gaia into reacting violently at her manhandling (who can blame Her?). For every (bastard human) action, there is an equal and opposite (natural) reaction. I get it. We take the axe to forests (nature’s proud crewcut), and the jet stream slinks over the benighted Britons like an anaconda trying to evade capture. We burn fifty million years of the Carboniferous period in the short space of a century, building up so much heat that the Atlantic gets whipped into a frenzy just to dissipate that heat. This all falls as the rain of our own selfish doing. And, it seems, most of it falls right on my head.

It’s not the rain that’s driving me mad, it’s the incessant nature of it. Hold on, it’s not the incessant nature of it that’s driving me mad; it’s that i had practically none of it for years and, oftentimes, didn’t miss it. I’ve gone from one dust-laden droplet every six months to a veritable deluge in a short space of time. It’s these extremes – like those that make for our current political discourse or for those that come in the form of wild, angered, weather – that bring a feeling of woe.

The rain is off. A brief window of time has emerged before the next soaking. I never thought the climate would come to resemble a drive-through car wash, but there you go. All we need are the big blue spinning brushes whipping down from the grey sky. But i suppose that in a world of smoking vehicles and drive-in fast food joints selling substandard beef from bemused cattle slaughtered for grazing on pasture once boasting tropical hardwood trees and megadiversity, a drive-thru carwash climate was always on the cards. Be that as it may, the ultimate moral of this story: avoid extremes if you are of a gentle disposition (or if you hate damp, sun-starved climates as vengefully as me). Find the middle ground if all you have known is either a kingdom of sands or one of rains. I suppose not everyone is averse to these wild fluctuations in lifestyle. My old boss went directly from the Canadian Artic to Saudi Arabia, and he doesn’t seem to care. There’s no pleasing some.