Positive energy

The terrifying prospect of a post-oil future: no more ready meals, traffic jams or lonely nights in

We held an ‘internal conference’ recently on the theme of climate change. These internal conferences give us an opportunity to meet together for three or four days a couple of times a year to consider matters of importance that face us.

During this most recent conference, it felt like the scale and urgency of the climate change crisis really landed within the community. In particular, a film of George Monbiot’s Schumacher Lecture based around his book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet Boiling, had an electrifying effect. True to the spirit of this place, the predominant mood was one of excitement at the scale of the challenge rather than depression.

Anyway, I was asked to give a presentation on the likely impacts of climate change for the work and operating methods of the community. I began by describing the various ways in which we as a society have developed structures – for the provision of food, clothing, building materials, in fact just about anything you can think of – that are entirely dependent on the availability of cheap energy. Fine, except that the age of cheap energy is ending before our eyes, caught between the rock of climate change and hard place of Peak Oil.

Then, keeping a straight face with some effort, I provided a stern introduction to the images I proposed to show to illustrate the world that I suggested we are about to move into. "Scramble for the remaining oil... resource wars... starvation... armed gangs purloining food at the barrel of a gun..."

Some of the images I would show, I suggested, were so disturbing that those of a nervous disposition might choose to avert their eyes. But I defiantly declared myself unapologetic about being the bearer of truths that might be hard to hear.

What followed was a slide-show of happy people working and playing together in community. "We will have no choice but to learn to live without chemically produced food shipped in from the other side of the world" – images of people working in our food gardens. "No more processed, ready-made meals" – pictures of community members happily working in our kitchens. "No more coal-fired power stations" – shots of our wind turbines and solar panels.

"I am sorry, but we are going to have to learn to survive without traffic jams" – photos of folk cycling and working in the myriad small-scale enterprises we have around the community. "No more pouring our shit out into the sea" – an image of our Living Machine biological waste treatment plant. "No more lonely nights in front of the television!" – shots of people here singing, dancing and creating theatre.

The talk had its desired effect as we opened to the possibility that a lower carbon lifestyle might just have its upsides.

Does this mean that the transition before us will be pain-free? Of course not. The point is that it is still very much within our hands whether that transition will be seeped in blood and suffering or will involve the restructuring of society along simpler, more decentralised, equitable and convivial lines.

There are now countless community initiatives around the country that are preparing themselves for life post-cheap energy. I am part of a team putting on an international conference to be held here next Easter that will showcase many of these. It is called: Positive Energy: Creative Community Responses to Peak Oil and Climate Change.

One of the presenters at that conference, Richard Heinberg, has this to say about the times that lie before us:

"Let us accept the current challenge – the next great energy transition – as an opportunity to re-imagine human culture from the ground up, using our intelligence and our passion for the welfare of coming generations and for the integrity of nature’s web as our primary guides."

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear