The happier I get, the older I feel

Quadranting was mildly cheered, over the weekend, to read this article on Naked Capitalism about the “mid-life low” phenomenon.

As a physically sprightly but otherwise pretty morose sixty something, it’s good to know my life has entered a phase of rising  self-satisfaction.

Look at this graph from the UK Office of National Statistics. It charts how happy 416,000 of my fellow civic elements are with their lives at various ages:



Seems I’ve made it through the Slough of Despond that is the average human’s mid-50s and am now roaring back to a state of happiness on par with my early twenties. Yes, those early 20s when I was beset by powerful feelings of insecurity and inferiority. The age when I really began to forge an early adulthood full of bad choices. Wrong jobs. Wrong partners. Wrong everything.

But hey, that peak of happiness is still to come for me … when or if I hit 73ish. Right now, my life satisfaction (assuming it follows the curve on the chart) is roughly back up to where it was in my mid-30s. Yay! Divorce. Redundancy. Formal depression diagnosis. Worse job choice ever. Who could want for more?

Yet I do feel better about life than I did six or seven years ago. The only way I got past that low point was to promise myself I wouldn’t force myself to stay alive past 65 unless I felt a whole lot better by then. Who knows: perhaps I will? Just like baked beans, 416,000 other people can’t all be wrong.

After all, not a lot of rationality goes into one’s assessment of how good one’s life is. Since my own ‘happy’ 20s, the world’s gone into population overshoot, passed peak oil, entered the structural crisis of capitalism and turned the climate knob to 11.

Who could be happy about that? Well, me of course. I can’t help it: I’m 61.

London’s (gonna be) burning

No, no, no listeners! I’m not calling for mayhem or trying to organise socially-networked insurrection.

I’m just paraphrasing today’s front page article in the Guardian.

Looming London transport crisis ‘risks sparking riots’, says TfL chief | The Guardian

London could see riots again unless more trains and buses are provided at affordable fares for the poorest communities as the population soars, the city’s transport commissioner has warned.

He said the city will face “overwhelming” overcrowding on its congested transport networks by 2030 without urgent progress on new rail lines.

“London’s poor don’t live in Harrow Road, they live in Enfield and Tolworth and if you can’t get them to jobs they want, your city’s going to be in a bad way: it’s not going to progress and contribute to national economic growth,” [head of Transport for London, Peter] Hendy said. “The stakes are pretty high. If you’re not able to increase transport capacity, and people find accessing work impossible, you risk social unrest. You can expect trouble.”

Read the whole thing. You rarely get to enjoy quite so rich a mix of unconscious irony and unusual candour, even in the dear old Grauniad.

Maybe its something to do with the fallout from the referendum but all of a sudden we’re dropping the euphemisms and talking about people in honest four-letter words. Not ‘socially and financially disadvantaged householders’ or whatever. Poor people. And that’s good because once you start calling the poor the poor you can also start calling the rich the rich. Then you can begin to have a proper debate about trying to spread the wealth around a little more evenly, rather than indulging in hand-waving about transit investment corridors and strategic regeneration plans.

Unfortunately that’s where this promising story goes off the rails. I mean, instead of threatening fire and brimstone unless the rest of the UK’s taxpayers stump up billions to buy the capital a load of new rail and tram networks, wouldn’t it be cheaper and quicker to move the jobs to where London’s poor people already are?

Yeah, but that wouldn’t work, would it? They’re not the kind of jobs you can relocate. They’re cooks, bar staff, cleaners, ticket collectors, doormen, domestics. The people who lived in or around and between the well-to-do classes in imperial Rome or Victorian London. Ugh …such a primitive arrangement. The modern way is so much better: we simply allow poor people to ‘find their own level’ geographically-speaking, by moving to where they can afford to buy or rent a place. Like Tolworth.

Of course the big downside to this approach is that it makes it harder and harder to get everyone into the centre to do their jobs and then get them all out again. Go down that tunnel and you’re going to get – and Mr Hendy does not flinch from using the word – ‘overcrowding.’ Lest we miss the point, he mentions Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro as the kind of hell-holes plagued by fare price riots that London is en route to becoming (unless the rest of the country subsidises ticket prices, infrastructure, etc, etc).

This story has ‘exercise in trying to sustain the unsustainable’ written all over it. As the global economy goes through the transition from fossil energy to renewables, we’re entering a long stretch where we won’t have the capital or the juice to keep on pushing people further and further from their jobs in the expectation that we’ll simply build costly and complex transportation systems to ship them back in again every morning.

Perhaps that is what Mr Hendy is really trying to get people to understand. After all ‘poor’ is a great dog whistle word for getting the attention of folk for whom these issues are usually, shall we say, ‘remote’. He does say:

“But if the poor are not living in Tower Hamlets, Stockwell, Hackney and Southwark any more and all the places where people on low incomes used to live, they are living a long way away and a future mayor is going to have to make sure they can afford to get to work.”

So, hey son-of-Boris. Like maybe stop allowing the developers to push them out, man? Could we, like, try that?

But if Mr Hendy is serious, it goes to show how hard-wired our leaders’ imaginations still are to the cheap energy paradigm. As the saying goes, to a hammer every problem looks like a nail. If London’s problem is that its poor people are increasingly in the wrong places, perhaps it’s a pretty dumb idea, in a world where transport is only going to get more and more expensive by historical standards, to ask a transport planner to provide the answer.

Masonic dodge

“He’s that most dangerous of animals, a clever sheep”

Still from Monty Python flying sheep sketch

That Paul Mason, eh? All those years on the BBC, spent stolidly parsing economics within Auntie’s default framework of ‘our leaders (“our mummies”) know best’.

Now he’s unleashed on a willing world courtesy of Channel Four and guest spots in the Guardian. Today he’s saying what a load of old cobblers the OECD has come out with in its projections for the world economy to 2060.

‘If born in 2014, then by 2060 you are either a 45-year-old barrister or a 45-year-old barista,’ is Mason’s condensation of the report for a Guardian comment piece.

Now that he’s sidestepped the stifling atmosphere of Beeb message management, Mason doesn’t have to find some wee timorous beastie of an economist to say the OECD is right, then quote another saying the opposite. He can come right out and question the elites’ fundamental assumptions.

He doesn’t think they will get away with withdrawing into heavily-armed enclaves, surrounded by slums populated by millions of immigrants: those migrants imported to hold down labour costs as the subsidy from cheap fossil fuels dries up.

The ultimate lesson from the report is that, sooner or later, an alternative programme to “more of the same” will emerge. Because populations armed with smartphones, and an increased sense of their human rights, will not accept a future of high inequality and low growth.

I take your point, Paul. But I tell you what. I’ll nip along to my nearest Norman castle and attack it with a smartphone and let you know how I get along.

High entropy farewell

Quadranting travelled to the coast yesterday to see his aunt turned into about 250kg of CO2.

Well, it would have been bit less than that. Auntie was pretty tiny and they cremated her in a lightweight bamboo coffin. Yet, for all its simplicity, this low-key funeral was still an exercise in high entropy living.

Mourners arrived from far and wide – all but one of them by car. Vans delivered wreaths. Gas from Norway or Russia roared through the burners at the crematorium. Coal and gas-powered internet connections brought everyone together.

Small event. Gargantuan system. That’s the nature of life in a developed country. Even the little things we do float on a roaring sea of pure heat. The fossil sources of that heat become less affordable every day. We don’t notice because the process runs at a glacial pace. Industrialised countries are also adept at displacing the bad effects on to poorer nations.

So yesterday the sun shone, birds sang and, amidst death, we scarcely noticed the real miracle we call modern life.

Born lucky

I was born lucky.

“What?”, people who know me could say. “You’re a diagnosed depressive. Your wife and daughter both have chronic illnesses. You hardly have any friends. You work on your own and you don’t really enjoy anything except getting out on a push bike by yourself.”

OK. So I have my fair share of #firstworldproblems. But I’m still lucky.

Lucky to have been born in the 1950s when standards of living, health and life expectancy were taking off like the exciting rockets that a merry band of ex-Nazi slave drivers were designing for the USA.

Lucky to have lived all my life under the umbrella of the National Health Service. Modern dentistry, eh? If we all have to go back to the simple life, I hope that comes along with us.

Lucky to have ridden the Internet wave for 20 odd years. 90% of online activity is as banal as human life gets. But what an enjoyable way to waste time. The remaining 10% is more than enough to keep all the commerce, education, war and spying we do or don’t need ticking over nicely. And it keeps me solvent too.

Talking of being solvent… Materially, I’m unimaginably comfortably off compared with 95% of the world’s existing inhabitants. Admittedly, if I’d been born 15 or 20 years earlier I’d be even better off. Why? Because I’d have retired at the very peak of the pension Ponzi.

It’ll be all downhill for retirees in a few years’ time (i.e. when I should be winding down at work). The looting of the funds is just getting started.

But I’m not terribly annoyed about that. Some you win, some you lose. On balance I’ve won hands down in the lottery of the forces of history. After all, my good fortune has everything to do with the forces that have driven up the world’s human population from 2.5 billion to over 7 billion in my lifetime.

That was a kind of luck too. Humans broke into 500 million years worth of fossilised sunlight and burned through it in a massive 300-year industrial jamboree. The party’s beginning to roll over now. The rich energy deposits are getting depleted. We can no longer ignore the waste side of the equation.

The oceans are heating and dying. Unless we keep industrial infrastructure constantly fed with high intensity energy, huge chunks of it will quickly cease being an asset and turn to waste (at best) or a millstones round the neck of any society trying to rewind to something that can be supported by renewable energy.

How a system as complex as ours is will unravel is anyone’s guess. The Roman empire was a cake stall compared to our 21st century global civilisation. Some of it went up in flames. Other bits still trucked along in their own sweet way 600 years after the empire is popularly reckoned to have collapsed.

So who knows? Assuming my luck holds out, I could go on enjoying the fruits of our unsustainable system many more years. Although it’s getting more touch and go all the time.

Faster than you think

Immanuel Wallerstein’s concise reflections on geopolitics, sent straight to one’s inbox, make for an illuminating start to each month. (Sign up by emailing

His November essay, “Consequences of U.S. Decline”, reviews the speed with which the very idea of US decline has gone, in barely 10 years, from being laughable to a subject of serious debate within the US itself.

More to the point, Wallerstein believes that the next stages of decline will not only be unexpectedly punishing for the majority of US citizens but also that they will take place sooner than most people anticipate – that is, in this decade.

He concludes:

Finally, there are two real consequences of which we can be fairly sure in the decade to come. The first is the end of the U.S. dollar as the currency of last resort. When this happens, the United States will have lost a major protection for its national budget and for the cost of its economic operations. The second is the decline, probably a serious decline, in the relative standard of living of U.S. citizens and residents. The political consequences of this latter development are hard to predict in detail but will not be insubstantial.

Did I mention he’s also a master of understatement?

Draining Scotland’s capital

Predictably, the Grangemouth affair was resolved yesterday with the unions agreeing to a number of concessions deemed necessary to a “survival plan” for the plant.

Never mind the question of why the owners have been planning a £300 million investment into a business that is apparently so vulnerable that even longstanding agreements with workers are a threat to its survival.

As we wrote yesterday, there were plenty of signs that the management had engineered a “heads we win, tails the unions get the blame” situation. And it does look as though one of the targets of the game was to maximise the public’s input into the solution.

Yesterday we learnt that:

According to Ineos, the Scottish government has indicated it would support its application for a £9m grant to help finance its gas terminal plans, while the UK government has given “pre-qualification approval” for a £125m loan guarantee facility.

Many, including me, would say that a relatively small public subsidy is small price to pay for preserving thousands of jobs in and around the plant.

On the other hand, this public investment is being sucked into propping up a sunset industry when it would clearly be better employed in developing the post-oil economy that Scotland badly needs to build, and quickly, before North Sea oil and gas are a distant memory.

Having tasted milk, who is to say that Ineos won’t be back for more? Especially if, as reported, the oil refinery is losing money faster than the petrochemical plant.

I am glad for the Grangemouth workforce but, as energy policy, the rescue is only a sticking plaster. Scotland’s leaders need a plan to ensure that future public subsidies aimed at mitigating the decline of the oil and gas industry are matched by support for energy technologies that are not dependent on fossil fuels.

Otherwise Grangemouth will turn out to be the first step on the road to draining Scotland’s capital in a futile pursuit of what James Howard Kunstler christened the “fallacy of previous investment”.